Commentary Magazine


The Ordeal of Power, by Emmet J. Hughes

Crusading with Eisenhower

The Ordeal of Power.
by Emmet J. Hughes.
Atheneum. 372 pp. $5.95.

This little book is of no interest for what it says about Eisenhower and his administration or for what it adds to the common knowledge of recent American politics. Its generalizations are perfunctory; its gossip trivial and predictable. But as an exercise of a different sort, The Ordeal of Power is somewhat special, for while it tells us nothing new, it presents a self-portrait of more than passing interest.

The chief character in this book is its author, formerly a writer for Time and Life who describes himself as a Democrat by temper but who turns out to have been a Republican by profession; first as a speech writer for Eisenhower, later as adviser to Nelson Rockefeller, but now, not surprisingly, a writer for Newsweek, where his political preferences will, presumably, reveal themselves as the occasion demands. Despite his Democratic temper, he agreed to write speeches for Eisenhower in 1952 because, as he says, the Democrats had gone stale in power, the Republicans were restive in opposition, and it was clearly time to drain the swamps where McCarthy and other primitive (but not necessarily Democratic) specimens flourished. Of course the tactic failed. Under Eisenhower, McCarthy got worse and the country had to wait for bourbon and television to work where principle and patience failed. Knowland and Mundt became more obstructive than ever, and the cold war, under Dulles, became something like an end in itself. The Cabinet, Hughes informs us, was terrible, and Eisenhower himself did nothing on principle. Facing a crisis or even the daily business of the presidency, he behaved, to judge by Hughes’s description, like an anarchist deeply mistrustful of government or like a Marxist saint for whom the state had long since withered away. Thus the process of government on its highest level became purely and dully ceremonial. And this is all that Hughes, who had a chance to observe Eisenhower’s first four years at close range, has to tell us. As if we didn’t know.

Nevertheless, when Eisenhower said to Hughes in 1956 that “he might be calling for ‘a little help and advice’ in the campaign ahead,” Hughes, “with deep but silent reservations,” agreed. Hughes’s reasons for this decision—which seems on the face of it to have been an act of self-betrayal—are fairly complicated and a little disingenuous. They may be found on page 171 for those who are interested, but they hardly disguise the fact that Hughes was boyishly and innocently glamorized by the White House no matter how idiotic he may have found Charles Wilson, or how feckless he thought George Humphrey was, or how pompous and shifty he considered Dulles. A more vigorous character with a surer sense of himself would probably have said, “To hell with it. I’ve had enough.” Such a person would perhaps even have written his Ordeal of Power then, in 1956, when it might conceivably have made a difference. But if Hughes’s conscience troubled him in 1956, it couldn’t have troubled him much. He slipped its traces as easily as an advertising man moving from Ipana to Crest; in fact more easily than that, because in this case the package, though it was more or less empty, was absolutely certain to sell.

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Of course, it made no difference. The country seems to have survived the second four years as it survived the first, and Eisenhower’s main contribution to American politics may turn out to have been his demonstration that the country really doesn’t need a President at all; that in some sense the nation really has withered away, leaving us all to deal with the local police and the federal bureaucracy as well as we can. If there had been a point for Hughes to make in this book, this might have been it. But he refuses to make it or is incapable, despite his own testimony, of seeing it. When Eisenhower is being clearly dilatory on the question of civil rights, saying that “it is just not good business” to commit himself, Hughes describes this behavior as “impassive and imperturbable,” and, oddly, attributes to it a spirit of stoic determination. On the questions of foreign trade and the reorganization of the Defense Department, which, according to Hughes, concerned the President greatly, Eisenhower commented, “My personal convictions, no matter how strong, cannot be the final answer.” So nothing happened. It is as if Lincoln, having issued The Emancipation Proclamation, had said, “Here’s my plan, but let it go.”

Eisenhower’s inadequacy as a man of action is self-evident. There is no need to dwell on it. What is to the point is Emmet Hughes’s attempt to write a book without a hero; in fact without a subject. The result, predictably, is not really a book at all, but pages of intonation and padding. Because Hughes has nothing to say in this book, and because he refuses to face the real meaning of his participation in the pseudo-government of 1952—60, he relies instead on his widely-acclaimed prose style. For page after page, he shamelessly writes and writes:

In a realistic sense, the high drama of Election Night is always contrived; the great national act of decision is over before the witnessed drama begins, the polls (almost everywhere) have closed, the levers have been pulled, the verdict written beyond recall. All that is left is an exercise in arithmetic. Yet none of this dulls the tension of the long, slow process of piecing together all the fragments of the decision, scattered from ocean to ocean—on Texas plains and along Oregon shores, in the hills of West Virginia and the valleys of Southern California, along the flat, blank-looking plains of the wheat-lands, and in the jagged, congested canyons of the great cities. . . .

This sort of organ music goes on and on—leaving one, at last, with the feeling, alternately sickening and exhilarating, that not only had the federal government vanished in those years but so had the nation itself; that we were simply here on the land, like first settlers, in a wilderness without a name or a plan or even a sensible language. Insofar as The Ordeal of Power transmits this atmosphere, it reminds us of how it is when language and character collapse at the very center of a country, when public men and their speech writers have neither the sense of action nor the capacity for thought. A nation is, among other things, and perhaps essentially, an intellectual proposition. Otherwise it is just a piece of land, a true wilderness with neither heart nor mind. This is how the country seemed, much of the time, under Eisenhower, and Emmet Hughes’s own inadequacies of heart and mind suggest how it came to be that way.

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