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Our pols, ourselves (continued)


The art of politics

Excerpts from Pols:

It wasnít the bully amateurís world any more. Nobody knew that on armistice day, Theodore Roosevelt, happy amateur warrior with the grinning teeth, the shaking forefinger, naturalist, explorer, magazine-writer, Sunday school teacher, cowpuncher, moralist, politician, righteous orator with a short memory, fond of denouncing liars (the Ananias Club) and having pillowfights with his children, was taken to the Roosevelt hospital gravely ill with inflammatory rheumatism.

Things werenít bully any more;

T.R. had grit;

he bore the pain, the obscurity, the sense of being forgotten as he had borne the grilling portages when he was exploring the River of Doubt, the heat, the fetid jungle mud, the infected abscess in his leg,

and died quietly in his sleep

at Sagamore Hill on January 6, 1919,

and left on the shoulders of his sons

the white manís burden.

ó John Dos Passos on Theodore Roosevelt

During the hours in which Congress was in session, of course, he was surrounded by people wanting to talk to him, clamoring for his attention, hanging on his every word.

But Congress wasnít always in session. It wasnít in session in the evenings, or on weekends. And when Congress wasnít in session, Sam Rayburn was often alone.

He had wanted so desperately not to be alone.

ó Robert A. Caro on Sam Rayburn

From this fiasco emerged the dictator, vindictive and intent upon a domination that could not again be challenged. No holds had been barred by either side in the impeachment fight. For now on there were to be no holds except those in which Huey was master. The impeachment fight technique would be improved upon later, but never radically altered. Frighten the wavering legislator by appealing over his head to the voters. Woo him with certain gratuities to be arranged on the side. What was the legislature, anyway? Just a hodgepodge of ward heelers from New Orleans, a scattering of lawyers, a couple of wagonfuls of simple-minded and simpleton farmers, most of them alike in that they had a price. Own them. Fashion them into a ready blade with which to carve empire.

ó Hodding Carter on Huey Long

As mayor of Boston, Curley had broad powers to regulate public entertainment. No reader who has gotten this far will be surprised to learn that he was not shy about exercising them. He had pronounced views about cultural matters: cross those of Cotton Mather with those of Cardinal OíConnell and you have them. Reinforcing his views was the politics of his views. He knew where the votes lay, and in Catholic Boston they were not on the side of those favoring free artistic expression.

ó Jack Beatty on James Michael Curley

Kennedy had a dozen faces. Although they were not at all similar as people, the quality was reminiscent of someone like Brando whose expression rarely changes, but whose appearance seems to shift from one person into another as the minutes go by, and one bothers with this comparison because, like Brando, Kennedyís most characteristic quality is the remote and private air of a man who has traversed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death, which leaves him isolated from the mass of others.

ó Norman Mailer on John F. Kennedy

The council meetings seldom last beyond the lunch hour. Aldermen have much to do. Many are lawyers and have thriving practices, because Chicagoans know that a dumb lawyer who is an alderman can often perform greater legal miracles than a smart lawyer who isnít.

ó Mike Royko on Richard Daley

What was surprising about Jacksonís debating was his ability to explain himself without falling into the usual oversimplifications. While Richard Gephardt was Japan-bashing, Jackson criticized American firms for seeking cheap labor abroad. He argued that tax incentives as well as penalties should keep those jobs home. Jacksonís populism did not feed on the hatreds that are populismís ordinary and disheartening fuel. His plea that all the outsiders should unite to confront their problems went counter to the claim that Jackson was acting only for black interests. He said that corporate barracudas "swim very deep, where itís very dark; they canít even tell whether they are swallowing white fish or black fish."

ó Garry Wills on the Reverend Jesse Jackson

"I have a statement on the Social Security," OíNeill said at his May 13 press conference, reading from a typed page. "A lot of people approaching that age have either already retired on pensions or have made irreversible plans to retire very soon. These people have been promised substantial Social Security benefits at age sixty-two. I consider it a breach of faith to renege on that promise. For the first time since 1935 people would suffer because they trusted in the Social Security system."

"Are you saying that is a serious political mistake?" a reporter asked.

"Iím not talking about politics. Iím talking about decency. It is a rotten thing to do," OíNeill said. "It is a despicable thing."

ó John Aloysius Farrell on Tip OíNeill

To Atwater, this did not require a lot of thought: Bush, Inc., had a candidate who was fifteen points behind ó and falling. George Bush had "negative ratings" of forty percent with the voters. Dukakisís "negatives" were only twenty percent. There were two choices: they could work on building a more positive Bush-image . . . or they could stick so much shit on Dukakisís head that his "negatives" would shoot through the roof.

Theyíd tried for three years to show what a sterling fellow was George Bush.

To Atwater, there was only one choice now.

ó Richard Ben Cramer on George H.W. Bush

Q: H.L. Mencken is hilarious in lampooning Warren Hardingís speaking style. What do you think Mencken would make of Kerry and Bush?

A: Oh, man, he would just be merciless. I think maybe he would harder on Kerry, because thereís more of the sort of wind in Kerry, the Harding-esque wind, than in Bush, who just talks like a boob. And probably a very calculated boob. In fact, people donít speak that poorly. Even uneducated people speak grammatically. He may have reading difficulties, but I think a lot of itís put on.

And Mencken would have great fun with pontifical journalists, talking heads. Just the clichés, and how rampant they are in political speech. "Hearts and minds," "the working family," all these. He would have just unpacked that. Oh, man. He would have had a delicious time with that. He also was merciless to Woodrow Wilson, to that high-flown stuff. It wasnít just the emptiness of Harding. It was also the lofty sentiments.

Q: Richard Hofstadter writes about Herbert Hooverís "curiously stubborn" insistence that his program to end the Great Depression was working, despite all evidence to the contrary. Were you thinking of George W. Bush?

A: Absolutely. Because Hofstadter is writing about an ideologized president. Thatís a president who could not recognize reality, because it was so threatening to his basic world-view. I donít know that Bush is in touch with reality. He combines the worst of the incredibly petty and spoiled son of wealth who doesnít have to be right about anything. Heís never really achieved anything; heís been an upward failure. "Hereís the way the world ought to be. And by God, Iím going to stick with my story. Iím not going to acknowledge that reality is just contradicting me in economic matters, itís confuting me in foreign policy." No!

Do you notice how he also combines the worst of the í60s kind of thing? "I appeal to my sincerity. I feel it in my heart. This is something I deeply feel. I believe." Bush refers reality to himself ó in other words, heís the authority, rather than the world. To call it solipsistic is kind. Iím not going to call it psychotic, but itís sort of what psychotics do. You know, they refer to the reality thatís in here [he points to his head]. They know theyíre right. They know somebodyís after them.

I think, probably, the main job in the White House is to prop him up, to make him consistent with himself, so he can feel heís a leader. A leader isnít somebody who adjusts to reality. He masters it! In fact, thatís pretty much what one of those aides said in that piece in the Times by Ron Suskind, "The Faith-Based Presidency." He said, while you out in the reality-based community are talking about reality, weíre changing it.

Q: Weíre making our own reality and everybody else has to adjust to that.

A: Tell that to the insurgents. Tell that to the parents.

Q: Conrad Blackís essay on Franklin Roosevelt isnít much stylistically, but he pulled all of FDRís achievements together and showed that he was a dominant figure right into the 1960s. For conservatives, at least, Ronald Reagan was the same type of figure. Are we still living with Reagan today, for better or worse?

A: I think the parallel is very strong. Reagan didnít make the institutional alterations, but he certainly made the political. He forged a coalition that came through again in this election. And you could see Bill Clinton, a conservative Democrat, playing in the Reagan Revolution the role that Eisenhower played to Roosevelt. Which was, "Iím not going to challenge this stuff. The era of big government is over."

Reagan cut things, but as the late Kirk OíDonnell said, he never touched the programs. For example, it was Clinton who eliminated AFDC. Reagan would never have been able to get away with that. So he couldnít get rid of Medicare, he couldnít get rid of Social Security; the programs were there. Now Bush is working on the programs. This year. So it may be that Bush will cast a longer shadow.

Q: In Blanche Wiesen Cookís piece on Eleanor Roosevelt, you could see how she struggled with how independent she dared to be. How much has that changed for women politicians? Will the model be Hillary Clinton, or will it be someone who is more self-made?

A: I think that if we ó when we ó get a woman president, there will be a self-made aspect to it. I have a candidate: Stephanie Herseth, a congresswoman. She is the female Barack Obama. Sheís a 33-year-old South Dakotan who, while Tom Daschle was losing statewide, was winning by six or seven points, and Bush was pulling the state out by 25 points. Iíve watched her on C-SPAN. She is a political talent. You know how John Edwards just seems to have it? Sheís got it.

Q: You include an excerpt from David McCulloughís adulatory biography of Harry Truman. Truman revisionism has actually been going on for a long time now. I remember Merle Millerís book, Plain Speaking, which started the process of reviving Trumanís reputation. Is it time to revise Truman revisionism?

A: He was my fatherís political hero. I think Truman vindicates the American ideal of republican citizenship, a man of the people. And just his whole way, his persona, is just so appealing. But I do think that the personal has overcast the political. I remember Robert Donovanís book, Tumultuous Years. Much more critical than McCullough. And then Donovan wrote a book called Nemesis: Truman and Johnson in the Coils of War in Asia, a comparison of Korea and Vietnam, and how this really destroyed Truman, and Johnson, too. And letís hope it will destroy the reputation of Bush. I remember reading a piece by Garry Wills a long time ago. It was called "Not So Wild About Harry." He just kind of backed up and he said, you know, look at all this ó the scandals, Korea, the bomb. But once you commit yourself to "this is a great character," youíre going to write a spectacular biography.

I love the anecdote where heís at Potsdam. Heís tired from a day of negotiating with Stalin, and a soldier was driving him back to where he was staying. And he says, "You look pretty tired, Mr. President." "Yeah, Iím tired, son." "Well, can I get you ó do you need anything?" "No, no." "Well, I mean, I know where thereís some, you know, pretty good bourbon." "No, Iíve got plenty." "Well, Iíve got some real, well, some lady friends." "Lady friends!" He said, "Son, I married my high-school sweetheart. You want me to start stepping out on her now? Boy, youíd better be careful." That was such an anti-Clinton moment. "I married my high-school sweetheart!"

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Issue Date: December 17 - 23, 2004
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