Commentary Magazine


To Be a Politician, by Stimson Bullitt

Politics as a Profession
To Be a Politician.
By Stimson Bullitt, with an introduction by David Riesman.
Doubleday. 190 pp. $3.50.

 

As Mr. Riesman points out, this book is one of a kind rare enough in American political literature. Mr. Bullitt has never held high office, didn’t get elected, and is still a young man. This is politics seen not from the apologist’s podium, explaining great achievements or explaining away undeniable failures. It is politics seen as a craft, as a profession (though not in the pejorative sense of the term “professional politician”). Mr. Bullitt was not on the make when he entered politics—indeed, some of the most interesting passages in his fascinating book deal with the material, pecuniary, and professional sacrifices involved in his decision. But he wanted to enter Congress for good reasons, with no exaggerated ideas of what he could accomplish but with no false modesty about his suitability for his chosen career. Congress didn’t get him, which was so much the worse for Congress; but as a result of what might have been a merely frustrating experience, Mr. Bullitt has acquired interesting views of that still arcane area of American life: politics in the sense of the purusit of elective office.

What Mr. Bullitt has done brilliantly could have been done usefully but in a pedestrian fashion. Political science professors or active political operators could have given us some of the information on what may be called the “door bell” side of running for office, tips on how to meet the voters in the street or at the plant gate, reflections on the necessarily high threshold of tolerance of repetitive and increasingly boring rituals, reflections on the ambiguities of “public opinion” and on the trade risks of sex and booze. Mr. Bullitt has done all that. He has provided the would-be candidate with a useful set of ground rules and possibly a warning against entering on the political way of life on the only terms it can normally be entered in America, terms that frustrate and irritate and breed moral and intellectual delusions of superiority in the average egg-head. But he has also done much more, for he has applied a high degree of intellectual curiosity and sophistication to his reporting. Plutarch is as much a relevant authority for him as a modern sociologist or psychologist. Cleon and Coriolanus are types we have always with us. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars has its relevance for today. Thus the most sophisticated and sated student of politics in America or of democratic politics anywhere will learn, profit, and be amused by this brilliant report from the field.

The book that is most like Mr. Bullitt’s is Sir Henry Taylor’s The Statesman, and in its aphoristic style and firm rejection of easy moralizing Mr. Bullitt’s approach is like that of Taylor. But it is more concrete; it recounts the author’s endeavors as well as giving us his reflections on the general laws of electoral science. Mr. Bullitt is less above or beside the battle than Taylor was—and that is an advantage, since there is here a feeling of immediacy that is missing in the too sententious pages of The Statesman. As a coiner of phrases and creator of metaphors, Mr. Bullitt is fully Taylor’s equal. The politician who has no alternative way of life lacks the “acrobat’s net.” Once politics were the chief public amusement of the populace; now “in some ways people have acquired more of the attitude of the guest or customer, whose function is not to act and to decide but to receive, consume, and be entertained.”

One could go on citing precise and effective statements of the present political folkways, but it would be unjust to Mr. Bullitt to reduce him to a maker of epigrams. He has pondered deeply on many of the problems that afflict the reflective democrat today in America—and elsewhere. Is the decline in partisanship, in robustness of word and action, an unmitigated gain? Mr. Bullitt doubts it; togetherness has its price, which may be high. What will be the effect of the social promotion that will make the “upper class” not a vulnerable minority but one half of the whole, while the other half will be far less formidable than “the populace” was fifty years ago? These changes are producing what has been called in England a “meritocracy”—in which, incidentally, Jews will play a numerically disproportionate part.

The picture that Mr. Bullitt paints has its depressing side; so much of the noisy and conspicuous movement of American politics is waste motion. And I am forced to reflect how much easier the English candidate has it. He has to fight much less hard for the nomination, he has to fight much less hard for election and can justify a certain amount of protective laziness by citing the experts who declare that the efforts of the candidate as such don’t change more than 500 votes. Then Mr. Bullitt, for all his talents and industry, is pinned to his Seattle district by the locality rule. His party chiefs cannot reward and use him by finding him a safe seat, say, in the Los Angeles area. Some of the weaknesses of the House of Representatives are implicit in this account of the stamina required of candidates for entrance to that body.

On the other hand, a candidate for the House of Representatives is and must be much more of an individual, must carry more guns than the run-of-the-mill nominee of the oligarchical English system. Once elected, he need not be such a dumb sheep as is the average MP. If American politics could do with more Bullitts, so could English; and the paralyzing grip of the two English party machines discourages vigorous young men from entering politics at least as much as the long obstacle race here described with such penetration.

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