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!"page 1 page 2 page 3
Issue Date: December 17 - 23, 2004
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