Commentary Magazine


The Candidates and I

I have been reading a book called Candidates 1960 edited by Eric Sevareid and published by Basic Books, and it has activated two old prejudices, the one against newspaper journalism and the one against voting. (Actually they aren’t prejudices at all but reasoned conclusions based on experience.)

To take the more important one first: I have long been puzzled by the mystique that surrounds newspaper writing. People—especially newspapermen or, even more especially, ex-newspapermen—talk as if it were a craft practiced by a glamorous few who happen to be endowed with arcane skills. But in fact, anyone of normal intelligence can write a news story—I often wonder what they teach in those journalism schools, must be like learning to tie one’s shoelaces. No special literary or mental qualities are required, since the point is not in the writing but in the mere presentation of brute facts which, since they are new, are of interest in themselves. The citizens of Athens probably didn’t worry much about the diction or the profundity of thought of the messenger who brought them news of Marathon.

Speaking as a magazine journalist, I find the by-line stories in our leading dailies full of clichés, badly organized, wordy, superficial, and, in general, child’s play compared to the simplest task I undertake. I have never been on a newspaper, but for a few weeks during my first year on Fortune I got some sense of what it is like. The editor of Time’s Business & Finance department was sick and I was put into his place. It was a delightful vacation; compared to the labor of organizing and writing even a short (3,000 words) Fortune piece, knocking out a half dozen little news stories a week was nothing; and yet Time must be harder to write for than a daily newspaper, since each Time story is the distillation of many news clips, which takes some thought and some writing skill. I concluded that the labor and talent involved in writing a magazine article is to that of writing a newspaper story as playing a Brahms sonata is to playing chopsticks.

Candidates 1960 has not changed my mind. The book consists of nine articles on Nixon, Kennedy, Symington and other leading presidential “hopefuls,” as we newspapermen say. They were written by “top-flight Washington correspondents” (for such papers as the Baltimore Sun, the New York Herald-Tribune, and the Louisville Courier-Journal). But except for a sensitive sketch of Stevenson by Mary Mc-Grory of the Washington Star, they are all badly written and even worse organized, slinging a great many Facts at the reader with only the most primitive effort to put them into a coherent pattern. (Mr. Sevareid’s introduction, “The Ideal Candidate,” is thoughtful and well written, but he doesn’t count since he is a CBS news analyst rather than a newspaperman.) The first article begins: “Two slabs of honeydew melon, one patently green, the other lusciously ripe, were among the many odd links in the chain that pulled Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller to his smashing victory in New York’s gubernatorial election.” Leaving aside the awkwardness of melons being links in a chain, one feels that this sort of writing cannot get at the truth. Another begins: “Just before midnight on December 1, 1958, an American traveler burst into his room in Moscow’s National Hotel and startled his dozing wife with an excited account of an interview he had conducted a few minutes earlier.” A third: “On a gray January day in 1952, after an excellent lunch with a group of important Democrats at the St. Louis Noonday Club. . . .” One can hear the instructor at the Columbia School of Journalism: Be Specific (“gray January day,” “just before midnight on December 1, 1958”), The Lead Must Arouse Interest (those two slices of melon, now what could they possibly have to do with Rockefeller’s career?), Get Color Into Your Copy (that “dozing wife”). Now these are all professional writers, at least newspaper writers, and this is the degraded language they have become habituated to using. The lack of thought or elementary organization cannot be demonstrated without tedium; the reader may take my word for it or, better, see for himself. Apparently when a newspaperman tries to write anything over a thousand words that is not a simple reprise of yesterday’s Facts, his higher faculties, long disused, are stunned and Chaos and Old Night are come again.

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As for my prejudice against voting—reading Candidates 1960, or trying to read it, has set me again to wondering why one is always considered irresponsible, at the very least, if one shows no interest in elections. I recall voting in four presidential ones: for Al Smith in 1928, for Roosevelt in 1932, for either Roosevelt or Thomas in 1936 (can’t recall which), and for Stevenson in 1952. The first three may be set down to youthful inexperience, but the last needs some explaining. My excuse is that Stevenson appealed to me personally. He got me with his televised speeches on the night of his nomination: that moving, spontaneous, wonderfully real let-this-cup-pass-from-me talk on the lawn when he first got the news; and his formal acceptance speech a few hours later at the convention, which struck me as intellectually clear and morally serious, in short as noble. How hollow, fat-headed and “official” his predecessors sounded that night, even Harry Truman! The quality of the man came through even more positively than Roosevelt’s in his “fireside talks,” for Roosevelt was instinctively a demagogue, a gentlemanly demagogue, a decent and sensible demagogue, but still a demagogue, craftily keeping himself on the level of his hearers. But Stevenson in 1952 was an actual person. I liked his campaign; he was decisive and courageous; I liked especially his humor, which the Republicans claimed showed he was not serious, but which I thought showed just the opposite. Well. We know what happened that time. By 1956 Stevenson was behaving like a politician or even, God help us, a statesman. He was avoiding “the tough ones,” was generalizing as much as possible, and was severely repressing his alleged frivolity. So I didn’t vote.

Nor do I expect to vote for any of the Candidates 1960. My chief objection to them is, I’m afraid, personal. Each of them seems to me to have allowed his handlers to “build him up” into a candidate by rubbing off all the rough edges that make a Somebody out of Anybody. As E. E. Cummings writes: a politician is an arse upon / which everyone has sat except a man. It might be called building up by tearing down. The trouble is they’ve all been built up (or torn down) to the same level, so that there’s not enough to choose between them, to justify standing in line and making the muscular effort to pull down this or that lever. And what’s it to me, really?

If I were threatened with a gun (or a fine of, say, over $100), I should probably vote again for Stevenson, who still remains, after eight years, not only the most distinguished, honest, and intelligent candidate on either side but also the only distinguished, etc.

There are several possible criticisms of the above position from the Good Citizenship standpoint. One is that it is frivolous to vote for a candidate merely because he appeals to one as a person. Another is that it is immoral to put a price on one’s vote, even a negative price of minus $100. A third is that the victory of one or the other candidate “makes a difference” and so it is one’s duty to pull down that lever. All assume (a) that there are important issues before the country and (b) that one has at least some vague idea as to which candidate, or at least which party, will do best, from one’s point of view, on these issues.

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What are the issues this time? The only important domestic one is racial equality, that is, it is the only issue on which there is any serious disagreement as to the need for a change in the status quo. We are not threatened with the loss of our traditional freedoms; McCarthyism is quiescent and no major candidate is on record against civil liberties. Quite the contrary—civil liberties are definitely chic. Nor are there any important economic issues, as there were in 1932 and 1936. Since 1940, the country is rich beyond the dreams of Midas (or Karl Marx); the rich are richer, as is their disgusting habit, but the poor are doing far better than they ever have before. It is true there still are disgracefully many millions of them. It is also true that the classic proletariat of Marx—the miners, the steel and auto workers, the truck drivers, etc.—have made disproportionate gains while the white-collar workers, the clerks and librarians and teachers, are being paid much less than the social value of their work. But the proletarians are organized into powerful unions—the farmers aren’t doing badly either—and I see no candidate or party that is dedicated to redressing this balance.

So we are left with the race “question”—though why it is a Question, or a Problem, I don’t see since the Negroes have all the right on their side—and even this is not a political issue except in the South. Both parties are for desegregation. Perhaps the Republicans are more reliable here, for obvious reasons. (And we shouldn’t forget that the present splendid attack on the ancient mores of the South was initiated and has been kept in being largely by the U.S. Supreme Court under the leadership of Eisenhower’s appointee, Chief Justice Earl Warren.) But even the Democratic floor leader in the Senate, Johnson of Texas, a most accomplished politician by all reports, felt it wise to push through 24-hour sessions to defeat a Southern filibuster on the latest civil rights bill. One might also note, as explaining perhaps Senator Johnson’s concern for Negro voting rights, the curious behavior of certain Southern police forces when race riots threatened to develop as a result of the equally curious insistence of Negro students on being served sitting down at lunch counters. (It was OK for them to get their food standing up, it seems, one of those fine distinctions which will always baffle us Northerners, who don’t understand the real, the existential nature of the nigras.) The cops actually upheld law & order, turning fire hoses on the rioters and arresting both races. This history-making advance in civilization, like Senator Johnson’s behavior, was of course due only partly to the Supreme Court. It was primarily a recognition of the political and social strength which the Negroes have built up since 1945. They have done it themselves to a large extent, but they have been able to do it only because of a swing of the political balance in their direction which is the most hopeful postwar development in these states.

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Foreign policy is the other area where it might theoretically make a difference which candidate or which party one voted for. The crucial area, in fact, since it involves the survival of humanity. But it is just here that (a) the amateur voter cannot be expected to have any sensible opinion, and (b) there is no detectable difference between the parties.

  1. I assume that everyone except perhaps James Burnham and William Buckley, Jr., who have other fish to fry, are (1) worried about the effects of radiation on the human species and are therefore (2) anxious to avoid a war with the Soviet Union. (1) involves the matter of bomb tests, but I have personally been unable to decide what dangers exactly may be expected from continuing such tests; one eminent scientist issues an alarmist statement and another claims it is no worse than a bad cold; how in the world is an amateur to decide? Obviously it would be best to run no risks and stop all the tests, but then the political issue arises—if We stop and They don’t, then will We lag so far behind Them that We become an inviting target? (There is a moratorium on tests at the moment, but God knows how or why it was arrived at.) (2) involves our general policy toward the Soviet bloc—should it be tough, soft, or in between? Containment or Coexistence? Is a tough policy more likely to avoid war than a soft one? I would say so, but this is merely because of my intensive study of the Soviet phenomenon when I was a Trotskyist twenty years ago, and I really wouldn’t want our government to commit itself on this basis; also, Khrushchev is quite a different proposition from Stalin. And what is “tough” and what is “soft”? Can an electorate, most of whom are probably even less equipped than I to judge these matters (at least I read the New York Times), be expected to have a sensible judgment?
  2. Even if some of the electorate do have such a judgment, what is the difference between the parties? One would expect the Democrats to be “softer” but they don’t seem to be. They are the ones who press for bigger “defense” appropriations—I put the word in quotes because in this age of push-button wars the concept of Attack or Defense seems to be either casuistic or accidental—while the Republicans, for budget-balancing reasons unconnected with foreign policy, are on the other side. One would also expect the Democrats to be more sensitive to (a), but, except for Stevenson, they aren’t. I’m not aware of any ringing statements by Humphrey, Kennedy, Johnson, or Symington on the horrors of atomic radiation (or is it, by now, hydrogenic?—that I don’t know shows how specialized the whole subject has become). But I do remember that Truman came out against stopping bomb tests several years ago. And I also recall, when I was a Hoyt Fellow for a week at Yale two years ago, sitting in on a class conducted by Dean Acheson, another temporary Fellow, and discovering that he was not only of the opinion of Truman (who was also a Fellow that week—the groves of Academe are right on the main line these days) but had apparently not even heard there was any other. Stevenson had come out against the tests—maybe one should, really, write him in this time—but Acheson, the Republicans’ bête noire, the non-back-turner on Alger Hiss, was blandly, genuinely perplexed when I raised the point. Finally, the Republicans used to be sincere isolationists; one could depend on them to be wrong on principle. But now their leading contender, Mr. Nixon, has for years been throwing his weight on the side of foreign aid, worrying about underdeveloped countries, and in general behaving in this area like Henry Luce or Max Lerner. It’s all very confusing. For example, which candidate would such serious students of foreign policy as Walter Lippmann and George Kennan choose? One really doesn’t know.

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I suggest that our national elections—local ones sometimes present issues on which, since they are circumscribed, the voter may theoretically have some sensible opinion as to which side will advance his interests—I suggest they are perhaps elaborate techniques for avoiding, rather than resolving, political issues. In a country of almost two hundred million inhabitants, the scale is so large that nobody really knows what will be the effect of any political action.1 All this excitement about presidential elections, this enormous expenditure of space in the press, these ridiculous conventions so thoroughly “covered” by highly paid technicians, all this is mere escapism, since whoever is elected will do roughly what he must and in any case cannot do very much, as compared to the changes that a newly elected mayor of a smallish city can, if he will, make. The bigger the job, the slighter the chances of effective action. I see national politics as mere busy-work to divert the civic-minded from the real political questions, which are local, practical matters that (a) make a real difference in the lives of the voters, and (b) can be decided one way or the other.

Granted that in certain historical turning points it does make a difference—Roosevelt’s victory over Hoover in 1932 is an example, also Churchill’s replacing Chamberlain in 1940—my opinion is that Armageddon happens rarely and that most times, this year for instance, the effect of one as against another built-up-torn-down candidate is in the realm of metaphysics and so of little interest to sensible people.

I realize this view is not universally shared. One of my fellow citizens has given a touching picture of his reactions to a presidential campaign:

So that day in 1952 somebody said: “But you can’t have a heart attack now. You’ve got to vote tomorrow if we have to take you there on a stretcher.” As I walked away from the polling-place in that same autumn sunlight, I was struck down. . . . Later, I clawed my way through drugs and made out foggily a small bare room and a little nurse, sitting in one corner. When I stirred, she jumped up and asked if there was anything she could do for me. I said: “Tell me how the election turned out.” She hesitated, disappeared, reappeared almost at once and said: “A landslide for Eisenhower.” I stopped fighting the sedative and fell almost peacefully asleep.

This is Whittaker Chambers writing in the National Review. But it might have been Murray Kempton, also a master of politically emotive prose, who works the other side of the street. For in general the liberals get more hopped up about elections than the reactionaries do. For them, Armageddon is a quadrennial festival—already I’m being exhorted to use my vote to Keep Nixon out of the White House.

But the odd thing is that, while one is made to feel like a lonely pariah if one says one is not going to vote, almost half the qualified voters in even the most hotly contested presidential election are in the same boat. That is, they simply don’t bother to vote. Since the process takes only an hour or two, about as much as to see a movie or to drink a few beers in congenial company, one must conclude that almost half the electorate of this country couldn’t care less who is to be the next president. I salute them. They have the root of the matter in them, they are politically mature, even if most of them don’t know why they don’t vote. They probably think they are just too lazy or ignorant or selfish or drunk to do so, but these excuses, adequate for a social worker, don’t go down with me. They don’t vote because they don’t want to vote, of their own free will, and they don’t want to because they feel it won’t make any difference and that none of the candidates represents them and their interests. (It’s also discouraging, in a country this size, to think that one’s vote is only about 1/70,000,000 of the total.) One may be sure almost none of the 45 per cent of the electorate that never votes—the dark side of the political moon, so to speak—are abstaining because of anarchist principle. They would probably be shocked to read Proudhon’s famous indictment of elections, written a century ago but still to the point:

What do all these elections matter to me? . . .

It is said that it is necessary to do something, but I do not see the necessity of doing anything at such a price. Neither election nor voting, even if unanimous, solves anything. . . . I understand that one may submit to an arbitrary decision upon questions that are of no personal importance to one. . . . But upon principles, upon civil liberties and social tendencies, upon my labor, my subsistence, my life, upon this very question of Government—on all these vital matters, I reject all presumptive authority, all indirect solutions. Here I see universal suffrage as simply a lottery. . . .

On the tenth of December, 1848, the People were consulted upon the choice of their first magistrate and they named Louis Napoleon by 5½ million out of 7 million voters. . . . From the standpoint of universal suffrage, I ought to accept his policy as the policy of the People. . . .

Do you still talk of the People? I mean the People as it shows itself in mass meetings and at the ballot box, the People which they did not dare consult about the Republic in February, the People which during the June Days overwhelmingly declared itself against socialism, the People which elected Louis Bonaparte because it adored Napoleon Bonaparte, the People which did not rise on June 13 and did not protest on May 31. Is this the People which will be enlightened from above when it comes to choosing capable and virtuous representatives and deciding upon the organization of Labor, Credit, Property and Power itself? . . .

Enough! Let us be frank. Universal suffrage, the popular mandate, the whole elective system is but child’s play. I will not trust them with my labor, my peace of mind, my fortune. I will not risk a hair of my head to defend them.

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Anarchist theory is almost as forgotten today as Gnosticism was after the 3rd century, when Christianity had exterminated it as heretical. Yet anarchism has more to tell us today, I think, than does Marxism both about what’s wrong with our over-centralized and over-organized society and about what steps might be taken to improve matters. “Bakunin has a peculiar theory,” Engels wrote in 1872. “The chief point is that he does not regard capital . . . as the main evil to be abolished. Instead, he thinks it is above all the State which must be done away with, and then capitalism will go to hell of itself. We, on the contrary, say: Do away with capital, the appropriation of the whole means of production in the hands of the few, and the State will fall away of itself. The difference is an essential one.” It is, indeed, and much in Bakunin’s favor. Capitalism was abolished in Russia, but the more industry and agriculture were collectivized the more powerful grew the State. It is anarchism that shows a way out from the central problem of our time, the submerging of the individual in mass industrial society and in the centralized super-State. Marxism is revolutionary about private property, but this is no longer a central issue, and it is reactionary on the State, which it glorifies so long as it is that contradiction in terms, a “Workers’ Socialist State.” The only hope is some kind of anarchist decentralization which will break up mass society into communities small enough so that the individual can make himself felt, can express and defend his own special interests. The horrors of collectivization in China, which recently disturbed even Khrushchev, show what happens when the revolution goes according to Marx. Anarchism leads back to the individual and the community. It substitutes for coercion voluntary cooperation and it dares to think that people can help themselves better than Robert Moses, the U.S. Senate, and the cops can help them. This approach to politics is revolutionary, that is, it is both impractical and necessary.

There is quite a lot of anarchism going on now in this country. The bourgeois free market, insofar as it still exists, is an admirably anarchist device for distributing goods—even the Russians have been forced to edge back toward it lately, the effects of planning and state control on the economy being what they are. Our national talent for voluntary groups—from taxpayers’ leagues to parent-teacher associations, garden clubs, farm cooperatives, charity organizations, and alumni associations—is in the anarchist tradition of free cooperation. The lunch counter sit-downs in the South have anarchist features: they were started spontaneously by Negro student groups, and they have been using a Gandhian technique of nonviolent resistance that has been worked out by one of my favorite cause groups, CORE, or the Congress of Racial Equality.2 What I like, as an anarchist, about CORE is that its members use non-violent direct action on small, local, immediate problems, going in groups to segregated restaurants, soda fountains, swimming pools, barber shops (they got a non-segregated barber shop in State College, Pa., by offering an initial stake of $1800 to a Philadelphia barber to open a shop there), parks, beaches, and lunch counters.

Local issues these, but really much more important than whether Nixon or Kennedy gets that job. The Montgomery bus strike was also a small, local action, but the capacity for spontaneous organization and self-restraint shown by its participants was inspiriting to all of us and must have enormously raised the morale of the participants. They were doing something for themselves, which is the first quality of a good citizen. Compare the mess that Eisenhower made of the Little Rock situation by rushing in the troops; it is only the Supreme Court’s tenacity in insisting that the Fourteenth Amendment means what it says, plus the equally cool tenacity of the colored population of the South in fighting for its rights, that has prevented Little Rock from being a national disaster.

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Last summer John Bowles, the president of Rexall Drugstores, during a visit to Moscow was bothered when a Soviet girl guide asked him why, if the United States was so democratic and the Soviet Union so not so, only 60 per cent of the former’s electorate voted in the 1956 elections, while 98 per cent of the latter’s turned out for every election. Mr. Bowles was all the more irritated because her figures were right: “This burned me up, but I also came back as something of a dedicated man.” His dedication, according to the New York Times of February 24, took the form of a great get-out-the-vote campaign which now involves not only the 10,000 Rexall drugstores but also the American Legion, the League of Women Voters, the American Heritage Foundation, the Coca-Cola company, and, more or less ex officio, the chairman of the Democratic and the Republican parties. (Politically active types always seem to prefer that one vote against their party rather than not vote at all. Non-voting tends to throw doubt on the whole business, like not bothering to answer back in an argument.) It sounds like very big stuff, but when one gets down to reading the fine print, one finds that the combined political imaginations of Mr. Bowles, the American Legion, and the rest of his colleagues, including Coca-Cola, have, after their patriotic labors, come up with a very small mouse indeed: those 10,000 drugstores will be used “as centers of information on where, when and how citizens may register to vote and [in the stately prose of the Times] subsequently may cast their ballots.” Coca-Cola will cooperate by “providing display boards, posters and signs to be erected in the drugstores,” perhaps with a Norman Rockwell painting of coke-drinkers lining up before some sleeve-gartered, bespectacled, kindly old Vermont registrar—The Pause That Refreshes. In some of the more wacky states like California, it will be legally possible to deputize the drug clerks as registration officers. And that’s about all there is to Operation Rexall.

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So many things don’t seem to have occurred to him. For instance, that the 98 per cent turnout in Soviet elections is a symptom not of democracy but of totalitarianism : Hitler also got 90 per cent plus in his “elections.” And that it really isn’t because people can’t find the polls that they don’t vote; it is not a matter of information but rather of interest. We Americans tend to think that if somebody is given All The Facts, he will draw the proper conclusions—one recalls Nixon’s desperate, incredulous cry to the students of Lima (who were throwing rocks at him), “Don’t you want to hear facts?” That a free-born American citizen, even after being completely informed as to “where, when and how” he could vote (not to mention those convenient drug clerks—let’s hope an order for a cherry phosphate doesn’t get converted into a Republican registration); that he even then might choose not to vote, this is beyond the imagination of Mr. Bowles and the American Heritage Foundation.

One more thing that didn’t occur to Mr. Bowles (a native of Monroe, North Carolina) is that the only part of America where such a get-out-the-vote campaign is necessary is the South. He was asked “what his Southern retail outlets would do when Negroes sought information in areas where registration of Negroes was discouraged if not prevented.” (The “if not” phrase may be recommended to all journalism-school students who want to get a job on the Times.) His reply was forthright and definite: “Our clerks will offer no advice. They’ll simply point to the blackboard containing all the information.” One looks forward to a massive Negro registration in the South.

Mr. Bowles and his impressive supporters are typical of the sober, serious, and civic-minded citizens who have had a good education and have a stake in the country. But their stake and their education have perhaps made them obtuse as to what elections really mean to the actual living breathing individual American citizen. It is this individual interest which is the only serious political point; I agree with the young Marx when he insisted, against Hegel, that the State is made for Man and not the other way round. The State, our euphemism for free democratic elections, has become a fetish with our educated classes, especially in contrast to the horrors, and they are horrors, of Soviet totalitarianism. Certainly it is good for citizens, all other things being equal, to have a chance to vote freely on Candidates 1960. But this is a minor good compared to the real political issues, which, except in some local elections, are not touched at all; I mean issues like sitting down at lunch counters or, in New York, the successful efforts of that great planner and public servant, Robert Moses, to destroy such slight remnants of community life as remain in this anonymous urban wasteland. The trouble is also that all other things are not usually equal in historical crises, where it counts. The majority may be swayed, against their own interests, by some demagogue like Louis Napoleon, or they may be euchred, in a semi-legal way, as they were by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and by Hitler in 1933. Do you still talk of The People? Let us rather talk about ourselves.

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Footnotes

1 Tolstoy's lengthy remarks in War and Peace on the absurdity of even a genius like Napoleon—and I see no genius among the Candidates 1960—pretending to foresee or control events involving millions of people each of whom, for such is the marvelous unpredictability of the human condition, may act in a way which throws out the larger calculation; I say Tolstoy's observations, while an artistic blemish on his great work, seem to me in themselves quite sensible.

2 One of the most sensible and inspiring documents on race relations today is the illustrated history of its activities that CORE has just put out, Cracking the Color Line, which may be obtained for $1 from its office at 38 Park Row, New York City.

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