Commentary Magazine


House Out of Order, by Richard Bolling

The Honest Broker

House Out of Order.
by Richard Bolling.
Dutton. 253 pp. $4.95.

House Out of Order was written to stimulate opinion-makers to “inform the American people about the wretched condition of their national legislature.” Considering the source, it is a startling book—something like an event in American politics.

Richard Bolling has represented a district from Kansas City in the House of Representatives for more than fifteen years; and eight terms is a serious matter in the House. Even more significant, Representative Bolling was for a number of years a prime protégé of the late Speaker Sam Rayburn, so he is informed as to the inner workings of the House as few members are ever privileged to be. He is, moreover, an important liberal leader—strong enough, a few years ago after the death of Rayburn, to buck for the position of Majority Leader (unsuccessfully). But apart from the credentials of the author, the argument of the book is right. It concludes as follows: “The failure of the House is the failure of the Democratic party of which I am a member. Its responsibility cannot be evaded much longer without reducing the national assembly to impotence, which would mean a vital failure in the democratic process itself.”

Again considering the source, the book is at times nearly brutal. A politician still very much in business, Bolling indulges in both honest and sharp remarks that one imagines his friends would have advised him against; and it would take a serious enemy—either of Bolling personally or of politicians generally—to fault him for not indulging the further honesty of which he is probably capable. As might be expected, the edge of Bolling’s blade cuts most frequently into reactionary Southerners: he characterizes his notorious colleague on the Rules Committee, William M. Colmer of Mississippi, for example, as inhabiting a poltical position “perhaps slightly to the left of Ivan the Terrible.” But reactionary Southerners aren’t his exclusive target. Adam Clayton Powell of New York, for instance, gets this one: “His attention span has been variously estimated as ranging between forty seconds to two minutes.” And concerning the recently defeated fifteen-term boss of the Bronx, he quotes a veteran reporter as saying “he wished ‘Charlie Buckley had stayed around a few more years; I would have liked to have met him.’”

(It should be mentioned that wisecracks like these are probably the work of Bolling’s writer-collaborator, an ex-newspaperman by the name of Wes Barthelmes who has earned honest knowledge of the House on his own as an assistant to Congresswoman Edith Green of Oregon, and who is now PR man for Senator Robert Kennedy. I would also guess that the shrewd and nasty chapter on the press, which is excellent, owes much to the same source. This chapter delineates the “client” or buddy system wherein a big public figure and a newspaperman collaborate regularly, so to speak. In Washington a reporter is about equal to his sources, and the latter naturally feel entitled to some consideration for serving as such.)

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As I thumb through the book trying to decide what must be mentioned in a review, and what may be left out, I am convinced, even more than I was before, of the importance of Bolling’s “act.” This level of incisive candor, in an ambitious American politician, is nearly unheard of—it is culturally revolutionary.

Politicians have many more substantial reasons than the rest of us for not being honest in public. We demand that they tell us either that everything is all right, or that only the other guy is doing dirty. Meanwhile, we place this creature of ours in the kitchen where social policy is being cooked: no matter what his personal nature or predilection, his immediate circumstance continuously confronts him with the responsibility for applying power to the solution of problems—that is, concocting policy. This gives us two kinds of politicians—those who try very hard, and those who don’t try so hard, to meet the responsibility; or, to put it another way, those who begin sooner and more strenuously to protect themselves from the kitchen-heat, as against those who defend less and later. The difference is not between the noble battler and the crooked bum; the difference is not a matter of purity and honesty (politics, like most important activities, is impossible without a reasonable amount of corner-cutting and lying). The difference concerns that underlying goodness and seriousness of soul (difficult or impossible to judge) whereby one does not “give up” until one has run out of the strength to keep “giving.” No more can ever be asked of any man in any situation.

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Bolling has told a story that many politicians could have told. The reason he did and others have not, is that he is a fallen golden-boy who has not yet run out of strengdi. He is too big to quit quietly (also, he is probably—and justifiably—angry, although the book is written without rancor). During the 50′s, he was the bridge between Rayburn and the liberals—just as Humphrey, on the other side of the Hill, was the bridge between Johnson and the liberals. But when Rayburn died and Bolling could no longer “deliver” him, the liberals decided in their august purity that Bolling had cut too many corners and defied too many pieties in his previous brokerage. So another Parnell was dumped.

His response has been to seek the last refuge of the politician, to tell the simple truth—the simple truth about power. But tins is impossible: power is so intimately compounded of deception and vague threat, that to state the truth about a power situation within the hearing of its inhabitants is to change the object being described—incalculably. Unless, by chance, one of those rare moments is at-the-ready when nothing less than the simple truth can any longer resolve an intolerable situation.1 As to this and Bolling’s book, we shall see.

There is much structural detail of interest in the book. As Bolling goes over the now-familiar facts concerning the committee system, seniority, the delicate cohesion of the Democratic party, and so on, we become more and more aware that we are hearing the especially authoritative voice of Rayburn’s representative for many years on the Rules Committee, the man who moved sensitively between the Democratic Study Group and the hierarchy—and the hierarchy means the Great Broker, Rayburn himself, who trained our current President in the realities of American politics. For obvious reasons, therefore, most interesting of all is what Bolling has to say about Rayburn and his relation to the liberals, at this special point in Bolling’s career where he is reduced to the final ploy of honesty.

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The key to his view of Rayburn, as set forth in this book, is stated on page 69: “As Speaker, Rayburn used his strength sparingly. He subscribed to the belief that oftentimes withheld power is preferable to committed power that may not carry the day” (my italics). Later, he says of Rayburn’s relation to Howard Smith of the Rules Committee—before the 1961 battle which, involving nothing but the clash of giants, will be appreciated mostly by historians—“on many occasions Rayburn virtually had to beg Smith to release important bills.” For this frail giant who died, Bolling played “politics” with the liberals. And what of them?

He coins a phrase to describe the worst of them: “One species of House liberal is totalitarian in temperament and occasionally seized with fits of voodooism. He sees the liberal program as a holy tablet to which liberals all must give unswerving allegiance—or else risk being read out of the liberal ranks.” There are, thereafter, regular references to the “voodoo liberal” in Bolling’s description of who did what, and why, and then what happened. He offers many additional characterizations of the “voodoo liberal,” but this is the one (for me) that sticks: “He distrusts power; indeed, he treats it as some sort of dirty weapon.” Bolling’s problem is that—out of whatever type of front-line ambition—he volunteered as a reconnaissance-gunner. Then the troops he expected to fall in behind him went to church on court-martial Sunday.

When he says the House is “a lobby for arrogant brokers of special privilege,” he not only knows what he is talking about, but he knows whom he is telling it to. How often does this happen, in public, in American political life? Representative Bolling is—in a rather modern, agonized way-trying to tell the “voodoo liberals” in the House that they live in a kitchen in which “pure” thought has no more and just about as much relevance as a timely pinch of oregano.

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Purity will not bring us through; and after we get through anyway, it will not lead us anywhere. I hope that the other important congressional reformers like Senator Joseph Clark and Representative Henry Reuss will find the courage to support the clear, simple, practical, efficient, and revolutionary prescription which Richard Bolling has presented with a superb economy of phrasing: “Basic flaws in party organization are reflected in the power structure of the House. They are entirely the responsibility of House Democrats, and the Democrats alone have the means at hand to correct them.” His prescription is to lodge congressional power (control over committee chairmanships and presumably the disciplinary effect of the distribution of all the factors that help in re-election) in the Democratic caucus, using the Speaker as the organizing instrument of the caucus (so that, for instance, the same caucus contests would not recur daily). With these power adjustments accomplished, the party and its program—whether in control or in opposition—would be decently related.

This is the sole reform Bolling proposes. It is all that is necessary; and nothing else will really help.

It is the only way to overcome the elaborate system of absurd and corrupt brokerage which is all that most of us understand the House to be, as if it were some kind of fatal American inevitability. It is not. Given a reasonable understanding of the nature of power on the part of American liberals generally, it is so little inevitable that it probably need never have happened. However that may be, it can persist only as that particular lack of understanding persists. And how it can persist while the same American liberals support President Johnson as if he were a congressional magician, whereas in fact he merely understands our power system better than they do, is a spiritual problem I will not deal with here. Liberals are supposed to fail for lack of money, not for lack of intelligence.


Footnotes

1 Not every otherwise-all-right observer agrees with this interpretation. Representative Bolling has a rather strange and beclouded “reputation” in Washington. He is characterized variously as an unemployed errand-boy, a no-work specialist, a playboy, and an ineffective operator with only one foot in the Democratic Study Group. But outside of Washington, he was known as the coming liberal leader; and I personally like his general public appearance, in this book and elsewhere. The difficulty in evaluating his past role and failure is that it is so intimately bound up with the much larger matter of liberal disorganization in the House.

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