P.S. 165 is a New York City elementary school with classes ranging from kindergarten to the sixth grade. The two…
P.S. 1651 is a New York City elementary school with classes ranging from kindergarten to the sixth grade. A five-story, gray stone building surmounted by a stubby Gothic tower in the late Victorian mode, it stands in the middle of the block between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenues on Manhattan’s upper West Side. Short wings enclose and protect a small playground. Built in 1898, its exterior is grimly institutional—though no more so than the sterile facades of its more modern sisters. The building’s first four floors were renovated in 1952 and shortly thereafter twelve additional classrooms were carved out of the fifth floor to accommodate P.S. 165’s share of the population explosion.
The interior of the school is also uninspiring at first glance. The narrow corridors are dim and deeply scarred and exude the unmistakable odor of that disinfectant that seems to be used in American public schools and nowhere else. Nevertheless, the halls are clean and brightened at the major intersections by student bulletin boards which display drawings, accompanied by laboriously lettered captions of eminent figures—both contemporary (L. Gordon Cooper) and historical (Amelia Earhart). The classrooms to which these corridors lead are well-lighted and determinedly cheerful, despite the Board of Education’s inordinate fondness for a particularly nasty shade of green paint. One gets the impression of an old building, but a building that is constantly being fussed over.
Besides being a “K-6” (Kindergarten to the sixth grade), P.S. 165 is also a “special service” school, which means that it is called upon to perform a whole range of functions over and above those assigned to public elementary schools in other neighborhoods. P.S. 165’s district covers an area that runs north and south from 106th to 116th Street and east and west from the Hudson River to Central Park. Almost all of the white middle-class children who are to be found here are drawn from the district’s outer boundaries—from the roomy old apartment buildings of Riverside Drive and Central Park West and from the Columbia University area to the north. These children account for somewhat less than a quarter of P.S. 165’s population of 1600 to 1700; a similar percentage is Negro, and there are about one hundred Oriental children. One-half of the school population is Puerto Rican, inhabitants of that continuous slum that runs virtually the entire length of the upper West Side. It is mainly for these children that the “special services” of P.S. 165 were created.
Most of the services are related to the teaching of language. The bulk of the Puerto Rican children come from homes where no English is spoken and a sizable number have spent a considerable portion of their young lives shuttling back and forth between Puerto Rico and the mainland, picking up a smattering of both English and Spanish. To cope with this problem, the faculty of P.S. 165 includes a “corrective reading” teacher, a “reading improvement” teacher, a “coordinator of programs for non-English speaking children,” and an auxiliary teacher “for social guidance” to Spanish-speaking children and their parents—all of whom try to carry out the basic policy of the school system, which is to integrate the Spanish-speaking pupils into the rest of the student body as quickly as possible. There is an orientation class lasting from one to ten weeks for new sudents who are transferred out as quickly as individual reading skill permits. Still another class is taught entirely in Spanish, for children who are poor readers of their native tongue, the theory being that reading deficiencies are usually psychological in origin, and that the children will therefore be better able to cope with English when they can read Spanish more easily. But most of the Puerto Rican “language learners” are scattered through the school’s regular classes, where they receive individual help.
In addition to these services, P.S. 165 has specialized classes for other kinds of children. There are two classes for intellectually gifted students, two “health” classes for those with physical problems, and several “opportunity” classes for slow learners. The term “opportunity” is not altogether a euphemism, for the more relaxed and patient atmosphere of these classes does enable at least a small number of the children to develop sufficiently to return-after a semester or two—to regular classes. Finally, the school acquired last year its first full-time guidance counselor, who deals with all manner of emotional disturbances. While the counselor has still not fully appraised the situation, she believes—and most teachers at the school agree—that in recent years there has been a definite rise in the number of children with emotional problems. She also cites federal statistics indicating that one out of twelve children in the U.S. is measurably disturbed. Applied to P.S. 165, this percentage would mean that theoretically something like one-hundred-and-fifty children attending the school (and, almost inevitably, their parents) are in need of her help.
This list of “special services” does not convey the special spirit of P.S. 165, whose staff is forever called upon to deal with matters that no one ever wrote about in education textbooks. It is a common practice for individual teachers to dig into their own pockets to provide treats for the children. The guidance teacher collects outgrown clothing still in good condition and distributes it to kids who feel put down by their own shabby clothes. Last year a number of teachers, tracing a certain mid-morning restlessness among their pupils to the fact that they had had nothing to eat before coming to school, organized a daily “breakfast club.” Another of the teachers, aware that fresh meat and vegetables are scarce, expensive, and low-grade in Puerto Rico and that this has encouraged a dependence on canned goods, has introduced a mid-afternoon snack of vegetables and fruit, word of which she hopes the children will carry home.
It is clear that P.S. 165’s pragmatic approach to the special problems it faces, and its atmosphere of bustling concern for children as individuals, originate with its principal, Dr. Edward Gottlieb, a short, broad-faced man of undaunted energy and curiosity. Unlike the chill, orderly office that one associates with school principals, Gottlieb’s is cluttered with books, pamphlets, reports, and the paper detritus of a creative man involved, whether he likes it or not, in a bureaucracy. During our interview I learned that along with running this large and complicated school, he was also taking a course in the new mathematics at Columbia, serving on a committee attempting to establish a Summerhill School in New York City, drafting reports for various educational study groups, and serving as unofficial adviser to a number of conscientious objectors. Last fall, his picture appeared in Life, manning a sound truck at a rally of the teachers’ union, which at the time was contemplating a school strike.
Gottlieb has, to be sure, a tendency to discourse in a somewhat eccentric fashion on educational philosophy (“I think it was Shaw who said that schools and prisons were invented by society at the same time—they’ll probably disappear at the same time, too,” or, “Kids have a problem—they want to be nice and happy and we lock them up in a school all day”). But any doubts his theories might raise about Gottlieb’s competence as an administrator of a real school with real problems are quickly dispelled when one accompanies him on his morning rounds. Stopping to chat with an assistant about teacher assignments for the next semester, he evidences a gift for quick, shrewd, humane judgments of the talents and weaknesses of his faculty. Encountering a second-grader who has been banished to the corridor for disciplinary action (“What happened to you?” “I laughed too funny”), Gottlieb suppresses a grin, hands out a quick man-to-man lecture devoid of the usual moral uplift, and moves along. Passing through the gym on the fifth floor, he pauses to chin himself a few times, much to the amusement of teachers and children alike.
The last stop is a large room equipped with a conference table, where Gottlieb joins an assistant principal and the guidance counselor to administer tests in reading ability to half a dozen sixth-graders who failed on a previous try. It is a crucial business, for placement of pupils in slow, average, or bright sections in the New York City schools—as in those of many other cities—is based almost exclusively on reading ability, and so too is promotion of sixth-graders to junior high. Having failed the first test the children are aware that this is their last chance. “You try to disguise how important this is,” Gottlieb says, “but the kids can’t help but know.”
One by one they come up to the table, and are given a multiple-choice vocabulary test. Following that, Gottlieb distributes seventh-grade-level readers and asks each pupil to read a paragraph aloud. “You’ve got to be cool when you take the test,” he advises Angel, a Puerto Rican boy who hadn’t done well on the vocabulary test. To another, struggling through a description of a basketball game, he finally says: “Would you cheer if you saw that play?” “I don’t know,” the boy answers sadly. No one at the table betrays any emotion, but everyone present is obviously trying to will the kids to pass. A girl, reading a story about a cat, reads “pounce” as “bounce” and all the adults chime in with an explanation of the difference. “These kids nearly always score higher on general comprehension than vocabulary,” Gottlieb explains after she has returned to her seat. “They’ve got nobody at home to ask what a word means.” Reading problems frequently have nothing to do with I.Q. One boy, obviously overfed and overprotected, tells the teachers that he wants to be a doctor, but Gottlieb has no doubt that the ambition stems from his mother and that undue pressure at home is what causes the boy to do poorly in reading. Another boy rejects Gottlieb’s suggestion that he take more books out of the library. “I have my own books at home,” he lies proudly.
In the end, five of the six children are passed. As Gottlieb put it, “These kids are defeated too much of the time. Give one of them a defeat like not letting him go to junior high and you literally mar him for the rest of his life.”
The two great themes in the very mixed world of P.S. 165 are brotherhood and community. They are punched home at every conceivable opportunity, and are staple features of Gottlieb’s twice-a-week talk which is piped into every classroom over the P.A. system. One that I heard began with speculations on the reasons for the defeat of the teacher’s team in a recent field-day tug-of-war against a team made up of sixth-graders (“Maybe we lost to the sixth-grade boys and girls because they were a team and worked together while the teachers each pulled separately”), and concluded, after some routine announcements, with an excerpt from that morning’s Herald Tribune—a statement by Dean Rusk. Emphasizing that Rusk “has the third highest position in the United States and represents us in talks and dealings with other countries,” Gottlieb informed his school that Rusk “solemnly warned congressional leaders that racial strife was gravely crippling the United States in its dealings with other countries. Our voice is crippled and we are running this race with one leg in a cast.”
Following this talk, I attended a play put on by third-graders in the school auditorium. It was about a Princess “who has no feeling,” and is spirited away by a group of elves to the kingdom of “Musicland,” where she is sung back to health: “There’s feelings, yes there’s feelings in that land called Musicland . . . work together, for each other, onward we go.” At the climax of the play, thanks to her exposure to Musicland’s citizens and their indestructible good will, the Princess learns to have emotions. “Oh, I feel like shouting in my heart, I have so many feelings in my heart,” she trills, while her elfin friends, in costumes made mostly out of old bedsheets, cavort around her.
The message of the play as well as all the other messages about brotherhood and teamwork which bombard the pupils of P.S. 165, are not so different from the rhetoric to which millions of other American kids are subjected daily. The difference is that interracial harmony is a live issue at P.S. 165. The teachers are not aimlessly reiterating our conventional social wisdom; there is an intensity in their voices and manners that stems from the reality of the immediate situation. And this is communicated to the kids.
The pedagogical emphasis at P.S. 165, as in most grade schools, is on reading and writing. In an interview with Mrs. Joan Abrams, assistant principal in charge of the reading curriculum, I learned that there is a wide range of teaching choices within the curriculum outlined by the Board of Education. At the present time, she says, the general trend in elementary school education seems to be away from strict reliance on the traditional “basal reader,” and toward more individualized books, in the hope that this emphasis will lead to more reading outside the classroom. There is, however, a good deal of controversy on this matter in educational circles. Mrs. Abrams has come to believe that the slower students need the structure which the basal reader provides. On the other hand, she recognizes that the bright children and even a sizable percentage of the average students can hardly wait to pass on to more stimulating books, and she is currently experimenting with a program that takes the second-graders off the basal reader entirely.
All of which comes to seem typical of the pragmatic, flexible approach of P.S. 165 and of its grounding in the one educational tenet that Gottlieb repeatedly affirms—the importance, especially in a school of this kind, of enhancing the “self-image” of the child. Similarly, Mrs. Abrams has chosen to teach reading on an individualized basis and to be eclectic in her methods, believing as she does that reading is “the key to everything” and, further, that no one really knows exactly what will best awaken the desire and ability to read in a child. Thus, P.S. 165 does not take a dogmatic position on the current controversy between the “look-say” method of teaching reading and the phonetic or “sound-it-out” style which is advocated by the radical revisionists. Some children, she explains patiently, are more visual in the way they learn, while others tend to hear a word better than they see it, and in practice most teachers at the school usually combine the two methods.
Once in a classroom, however, these problems become concrete and one soon realizes that the flexible and individual orientation toward learning is nothing to take for granted in a public school. In a typical first-grade class, the kids were struggling through a basal reader recounting the adventures of Benjamin B., Mary, a baby named Susan Jane, and a kitten named Smarty Cat. No one called upon during this period was really a poor reader and many were quite proficient. The teacher was doing a perfectly sound job of relating the use of words in the story to the ways in which the children will use them in writing or talking; moreover, she was scrupulous in taking time out to discuss such pitifully few overtones of meaning as the story contained (“How old is the baby? What color is his hair? What’s the baby doing to poor Smarty Cat?”). Yet the whole enterprise was, somehow, a disaster. The teacher’s pleasant face was firmly set, as though she were determined not to let the kids have any unprogrammed fun or to allow them, even for a moment, to drag her in undignified fashion down to their level. The result was that rebellion seethed relentlessly in the class, and almost half her time was spent on the wrong side of the barricades: “I think we’re just going to have to march table one right out of here.” “Rodney, I hear you without even turning around.” “Now everyone in group one is sitting up verrry tall.” “Is your reader open, Willy? Your mouth is open.” In short, the traditional dispiriting litany.
It would be impossible to determine to what degree the pain present in this room was caused by a querulous teacher, how much by the methods and materials she was using, and how much by the fact that the pupils were afflicted by the minute attention-spans of the very young. Still, that the absence of imaginative teaching did account for some of the problems in the first-grade room is suggested by the contrasting atmosphere in two of the “special” classes—“the opportunity class” for slow students, the IGC [Intellectually Gifted Children] class for bright ones. Both offer challenges (of vastly different kinds) to their teachers, and both seem to have attracted exceptionally competent teachers who work at the top of their bent.
The “op class” inhabits the most battered room in the school. Even the students’ art work seems more somber in tone than that displayed in the other classrooms. And though the orderly rows of desks, standard in the classrooms of our childhood, have been abandoned throughout P.S. 165 in favor of furniture that can be easily rearranged, no classroom presents quite the shambles at the end of the day that is found in Room 503. As long as the rearrangement is not overly noisy, the teacher, Donald Jackson, will probably not say anything, not even when a student undertakes to drag a chair or desk to the opposite corner of the room in the middle of the lesson. A slender, quiet-spoken Negro who in his spare time has an interest in a Greenwich Village art gallery, Jackson presides over a class of about a dozen eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-old children working at the fourth-grade level. Their manner ranges from the elaborately bored to the excruciatingly restless. They have all been over and over it, but they still have not learned to master the intricacies of subjects like long division.
Throughout P.S. 165 a teacher who has asked a question can count on a number of eagerly waving hands, or on triumphant cries mixed with dubious, but at least interested, murmurs. Jackson, however, can’t count on anything. His questions may elicit startling irrelevancies, sullen silences, elaborate hoaxes, or overt hostility. Yet Jackson altogether avoids the disciplinary approach of the first-grade classroom. He chooses to keep the noise down to a dull roar, and to single out each child in his turn for intensive work. If a few of the others, for want of something better to do, also attend, well and good; if not, their turn, as they well know, will come. Once it arrives, Jackson is implacable. He does not lose his temper, but he will not be distracted from his pursuit of the answer, and he seems never to give up. The only way off the hook is to think and think until you give the right answer.
Atypical encounter during arithmetic period: Ruby, a large, dull-eyed Negro girl wearing an enormous bow in her hair, is called to the blackboard and faced with the problem of dividing 124 by 9. She stares lengthily at the offending digits. “What’s the first step, Ruby?” Jackson asks. “Estimate?” she asks doubtfully. “Right. How many 9’s do you think there are in 124?” A long silence ensues before she dubiously guesses: “Fifteen?”
“Try it,” says Jackson. Another period of agony. It develops that Ruby has forgotten how to check her estimate. Jackson relents to the point of advising her to multiply.
“What’s multiplying, Mr. Jackson?”
It is a concept to which she has undoubtedly been exposed for at least three years. She knows it if she knows anything, but Jackson’s expression does not change. “What’s two 4’s?” he asks. “Eight,” she replies with surprising quickness. “You just multiplied to get that answer,” Jackson informs her. “That’s adding,” she shoots back, thinking she’s topped him. “Multiplication is a form of adding,” he replies calmly.
But, for the moment at least, Ruby is completely blocked on multiplication, and at last Jackson allows her to add. Very slowly she writes fifteen 9’s on the blackboard and begins to add them up. Whatever interest her performance had for the audience is by this time dissipated. A boy gets up and turns the alarm clock on Jackson’s desk around so that it faces him. There are at least thirty minutes of the school-day left, but he is prepared to watch each of them tick by. In the back of the room another boy flips a paper airplane uncertainly through the air. A bright-looking, freckle-faced kid, Hughie, who has been quietly reading a bubble-gum cartoon in the opposite corner, now rises and starts wandering aimlessly around the room. Finally he darts into the hall. Jackson lets him go.
Ruby has by now discovered that fifteen 9’s add up to 135, and reports sadly: “It’s too much. What do I do now?” “Try a smaller number,” Jackson advises. Without much hesitation Ruby picks thirteen as the correct number of 9’s in 124. Has she known all along? Has it all been just a way of holding Jackson’s attention?
Suddenly the wandering boy returns to class, an event which Jackson ignores. It is too much for Hughie. “You want to hit me,” he charges. Jackson quietly denies it. But the incident has obviously distracted him from Ruby who has, in the meantime, erased all fifteen of her previous 9’s and carefully replaced them with thirteen new ones. She turns on Hughie and starts chasing him, whereupon Jackson must actively intervene. He seats Hughie firmly in a chair, and orders Ruby back to the blackboard, where she begins printing her name. Since she has forgotten the problem by this time, it is necessary to begin at the beginning. “What’s the first step?” “Estimate,” she replies, tacking on a diversionary request for the word’s spelling. No one in the class responds to Jackson’s bid for assistance, so he writes “yes” on the board, erases the y, and proceeds from there. Now the whole class helps him sound out the word and a full seven minutes are devoted to this cooperative spelling effort.
“Now,” says Ruby as the word gradually appears in full on the blackboard, “I can tell my mother the teacher said to estimate.” Jackson tells her to start adding up her column of 9’s. She sets to work. But in the meantime Hughie is once more on the loose. Stopping long enough to pick up his jacket, he starts out of the room again. Jackson tells him to come back. Hughie hesitates, then disappears. Jackson shouts a warning which is met with silence. But in a minute or two Hughie is back, just as Ruby miraculously gets a total of 117 from her thirteen 9’s, and perceives that it is easy coasting from there on in. In two or three more minutes Jackson has gotten the answer from her in proper form. She has been at the black-board for something like half-an-hour, but she has solved the problem.
Jackson retires, unruffled, to his desk. He can hardly praise Ruby’s performance, but he doesn’t condemn it either. He reads out a four-problem homework assignment in long division and allows the class the last fifteen minutes of the day to get a running start on it. Ruby spends the time singing tunelessly to herself. The rest of the class relieve their boredom by kicking, poking, and punching one another.
I cannot remember a more agonizing half-hour than this one with Ruby and Hughie and Mr. Donald Jackson. But I was also forcefully reminded of Gottlieb’s words: “These kids are defeated too much of the time.” The opportunity class houses the most defeated of the defeated, but I left it feeling I had witnessed a kind of victory. I do not wish to attach any illusions to it. Ruby’s ordeal at the blackboard will not be the beginning of some magical transformation, and it is difficult to imagine that she will ever be anything but one of society’s most luckless members. Yet her school has refused to be part of the general gang-up on her. True, she will never belong to that more fortunate one-quarter of his group that Jackson manages to return to the general school population each year, but it is conceivable that she is at least learning from him the value of endurance; perhaps in future she will not give up on a problem—or on life—quite so easily as she might have otherwise. Does this mean that her self-image is being “enhanced”? There is no way of knowing, of course, but one cannot escape the feeling that Donald Jackson daily adds a tiny measure to the possibility that it will happen. One hopes—and in the meantime so does Jackson, who refuses to deal in finalities. “Listen,” he says, “you came at the end of the day when the kids are restless. You should have seen them this morning. They spent an hour concentrating on their reading—there wasn’t a bit of fooling around. They can do it when they want to.”
The second-grade class for gifted children offers, of course, the greatest possible contrast to the “Op class.” But the more significant contrast is with the first-graders described earlier. The teacher is far less experienced than her first-grade colleague and still occasionally betrays awkwardness and insecurity. But what she lacks in technique is more than compensated for by her enthusiasm, by her willingness to try anything, and by the obvious pleasure she derives from her students which she in turn communicates back to them. Though many younger teachers are frightened at the thought of departing from the security of the curriculum outline, or of the basal reader, this girl seems genuinely exhilarated by the possibilities of freedom.
She is not a forceful disciplinarian and wields her authority as if she were amazed by it. Nevertheless, hers is the quietest room in P.S. 165. When I came in she was busy with some paper work at her desk, while the pupils were occupied with all sorts of projects of their own. Four girls were off in a corner planning a dramatic adaptation of a book they had read; three were busy looking up new words in the dictionary and copying down their meanings; still others were engaged in writing what I believe used to be called “compositions,” while the remainder sat quietly reading books of their own choosing, ranging from fairy tales to a study of astronomy written at least at the sixth-grade level, which was being studied by a little Korean boy with the utmost concentration. Those whose projects required talking were murmuring together, those who were reading and writing wriggled not, neither did they squirm. I commented on this remarkable concentration. “I try to get the children to realize that they’re not working for me, but for themselves,” the teacher replied; “I tell them that their main job is to please themselves.” It sounded like a fairly routine remark—except that I cannot recall anyone, at any point in an educational career spent entirely in public schools, ever saying it to me.
During the work period I was given a guided tour of the class bulletin board, sectioned-off to correspond to the children’s diverse interests—science, art, and writing. Back at her desk the teacher showed me excerpts from some ten pages of a work in progress entitled Summer in Alaska with John Bobby Reilly, a complex narrative to which the following hasty plot summary can scarcely do justice. It begins with the hero’s concoction of an explosive “out of dynamite, sulfuric acid, firecrackers, cherry bombs, two quarts of Ajax, some turpentine, and a dash of Ivory Snow.” In storage the stuff unexpectedly begins to turn bad, becoming transformed in the process into a “hepto-poison.” Whereupon the author deftly shifts the scene to the suite of rooms occupied by John Bobby Reilly’s girlfriend, Alice, at the Pyjama Hotel. Alice telephones down to room service for some caviar, which is in due course followed by a mound of lemon sherbert “72 inches high.” “She told the maid,” writes the author, “that she was very happy with the service she was getting.” But Alice pays her bill with counterfeit money and moreover gives the maid only a fifteen-cent tip. At this point the scene shifts back again to John Bobby Reilly in his laboratory.
The teacher’s response to the story is model. Unlike a number of well-intentioned adults, she does not inform the author that his story is “unrealistic,” nor does she take issue with his invention of words. Her obvious delight in the tale is unmanufactured and uncondescending, and her interest in how it is going to come out, the eagerness with which she presses the creations of her pupils on the observer, all bespeak a genuine enthusiasm, unspoiled by the usual gush about “creativity.”
This same enthusiasm animates the discussion period, where each child contributes words he has recently acquired to a kind of community vocabulary fund: cherub, fond, investigate, disposition, presentable were the new words on the day of my visit, while nebulae and algae (contributed by the young Korean scientist) were postponed for consideration at some future time. The new words were then used in a sentence by various members of the class, defined, conjugated, grammatically identified. For this group, language and its usage has ceased to be a private agony; words are handled with easy familiarity. (“I’m fond of cake” draws a laugh during the session of practice usage; “I’m fond of school” elicits the expected groan.)
Does this mean that only the exceptionally bright and the exceptionally slow students get the best teaching P.S. 165 has to offer? A visit to a “typical” sixth-grade class composed of what could be called average students, testified to the contrary. Led by a teacher whose manner was brisk but never forbidding, the class moved easily from subject to subject. Following a talk of a few minutes about art criticism—which she also used as an occasion for praising some abstract paintings the kids had done—the teacher, in an apparent non sequitur, asked the class to list for her those things which could be seen, heard, or felt in Central Park in the springtime, but could not be found there in winter. The column headed “See” on the blackboard was the fastest to be filled. In this column they noted flowers and grass, new leaves on the trees, and “animals coming out of their holes.” “What kind of animals?” the teacher asked, and a girl named Carmel was the first to reply: “Foxes.” The class laughed. The teacher did not. “Carmel comes from Haiti,” she reminded the others, “they may have different names for animals there, they may even have different animals.” After carefully questioning Carmel about the fox under discussion, then drawing a picture on the blackboard and comparing it with a similar likeness in a picturebook, it was established that what Carmel had seen in the park was a squirrel. The atmosphere was one of triumphant communication.
Since the “See” list was by then amply filled, the children were asked what they could expect either to feel or hear in the park. “Fresh air,” “the sounds of birds,” “the breeze and the bees,” were some of the replies. This led naturally into a discussion of insect life and a dispute about the number of eyes insects have, adjudicated in the traditional manner: “When we’re not sure of a fact, where do we look it up?” The most persistent questioner was dispatched to the bookshelf, and the teacher then asked how many of the children had encyclopedias at home and where they had got them.
“This man, he come to my house,” one boy volunteers.
“This man came to my house,” she corrects.
Another boy suddenly remarks: “My father wouldn’t buy encyclopedias when the man came. He wasn’t working.” He pauses, embarrassed at the admission.
The teacher says quickly: “But your father is working now, isn’t he?”
He is, the awkward moment is forgotten, some information on sight among the lower phila is imparted, and the teacher resumes the pursuit of items for the “Feel” column, but with a shift in emphasis. She now wants not a discussion of physical sensations, but of emotional ones. “How does going to the park make you feel different than if you were walking down Broadway?” she asks.
Garry says that when you go to the park you feel as if you want to do everything. Cynthia says it makes her feel bigger and that it also makes her “feel like thinking about the future.” “It’s peaceful,” another girl adds, “because of the birds and the flowers blooming.” Carlos begins to free associate: “When you sit next to the ocean . . .” He gestures vaguely and is unable to finish. Jose says the park makes him feel free. Another child, a large, rather rawboned girl contributes a sober coda: “If you have a big decision to make it’s easier to do it in the park—you don’t have to stay in the house.”
The teacher presses forward, and now it becomes clear why the discussion began with the pictures the children had drawn. She points out that there are pictures other than those you draw; there are also “word pictures.” That, she informs them, is what they have just been drawing as they talked about the park.
“What makes Charlotte’s Web such an interesting story?” she asks. “Because when you read it you feel like you’re there,” Garry volunteers.
“Yes. Now what did he write with?”
“A pencil,” someone says. It is not a smart-alecky remark—but merely an example of the concreteness of a child’s viewpoint. “But what did the pencil write?” the teacher persists. “Words,” comes the chorus.
“Now, those are what we’ve been using to describe the park. We could write them down instead of just saying them, and then we might have a word picture”—the creation of which then comprises the homework assignment.
The intention behind the discussion is clear. In the course of it, the class has been gently encouraged to speculate upon all manner of things: life in a different culture, nature lore, the research process, the process of communication, and, most important, the immediate world in which they live and their experience of it. Not once have they betrayed the slightest boredom or restlessness. One senses that, for the majority, the performing of that night’s homework assignment will be more than an irrelevant chore. If so, the teacher will have accomplished something quite rare in our society: the realization by her students that writing is not some exotic or tedious undertaking, but rather another form of an activity in which they are constantly engaged—the definition of the world around them.
Later, I remarked to Gottlieb about the skill of this teacher. “She’s always telling me that teaching is just a temporary job,” he replied. “I don’t worry. She’s one of those people who will never find anything more rewarding. Once you’re good, there’s no job that’s better.” Ironically enough, the skill and spirit of such teachers point up how much more P.S. 165 could do, given really good conditions instead of merely passable ones. Gottlieb, with his almost obsessive emphasis upon “raising the aspirations” of the children in his charge, cannot put enough stress on the magnitude of what is yet to be done in broadening the educational experiences of these kids—and, more specifically, in enriching the school curriculum. “We need more science,” he says, “more physical education, more art—we don’t have a trained, full-time art instructor in the school. We don’t have enough good literature for the children to read. We don’t even have readers that show Negro and white kids living together in the world.”
Enrichment is the key problem not only in a school like P.S. 165 but also throughout the public school system. Gottlieb and a large number of his teachers, perhaps a majority of them, are keenly aware of it, and one cannot fault their efforts—they are, after all, far above and beyond the call of duty. The pupil at P.S. 165, if he is handicapped or if he is especially bright, will receive special aid as good as he can obtain anywhere. If he is an average student, his chance of encountering a brilliant, mind-quickening teacher is also as good as it is anywhere. And if, through the luck of the draw, he misses all of them, he will at least be taught by reasonably competent teachers using pedagogical techniques that meet generally accepted standards.
Given the patent inadequacies of our society’s attitudes toward education, this seems to me the best that one can realistically hope for from a school, be it public or private. And I have no doubt that P.S. 165 provides at least as good an education as I received in a suburban system on which a great deal of money, concern, and pride were lavished.
Why is it, then, that white middle-class parents are withdrawing their children from the public schools in such numbers that, in New York City at least, thoughtful educators believe that the whole concept of free, universal education may be threatened? The excuse for these removals is generally that parents are seeking a better education for their children, and indeed, it is entirely possible that there are poor elementary schools on the West Side of New York, and more than possible that there are some highly undesirable junior and senior high schools. But the business of an elementary school is, after all, elementary. The teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic to small children is not a task requiring rare genius. Instead, it calls for patience, perseverence, practicality, and, most of all, an open mind. These qualities abound at P.S. 165 and, by the admittedly fuzzy standards a layman applies to elementary pedagogy, it is hard to imagine that the best private school or the most favored public school would have a higher level of competence or a lower level of incompetence on its faculty. Given the quirky, chancy ways in which parents, when they have the opportunity, go about selecting a school for their children, it is hard to see how they could come up with a place markedly superior to P.S. 165. Yet in spite of this clearly observable reality, a fiercely biased set of attitudes toward Manhattan’s public schools has reached such a generality of acceptance that in recent years we have begun to witness a natural reaction on the part of Negro organizations, who suggest that racial imbalance in schools like P.S. 165 be corrected either by the enforced transfer of more white students from other districts, or by the transfer of Negro and Puerto Rican students to predominantly white districts. The reason for this campaign is clear enough: spokesmen for the Negro community have become convinced that schools with predominantly white populations offer a better level of education and service than do those with predominantly Negro or Puerto Rican populations. Considering the way the middle-class whites have been carrying on, their assumption is understandable.
But both the Negroes and the white middle class might well heed the finding of Joseph P. Lyford of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, who has made an exhaustive study of schools on Manhattan’s West Side. Lyford points out that the “totally exclusive preoccupation of some civil rights groups with the question of racial percentages . . . is going to have damaging effects on some of the good schools.” Reshuffling, he points out, is likely to damage the morale of everyone, from the principals to the students, and make it difficult to justify those special services which, as we have seen, are the chief glory and inspiration of these schools.
The answer, both to the complaints of the Negro leaders and to the white middle-class parents who are withdrawing their children in increasing numbers from the public schools, might be precisely the cultural enrichment for which Dr. Gottlieb pleads. In general, the kids who least need such enrichment at P.S. 165 are from the white middle-class homes. Yet it is their parents who are most conscious of the school’s cultural failures and most likely to withdraw them when they find that cultural enrichment is not one of the special services offered by a special-service school. The draining away of the white middle classes from the public schools could probably be slowed down by the addition of more cultural opportunities to the curriculum. This, in turn, would still the fears of Negro leaders about racial imbalance. Indeed, it may well be that, in order to preserve their role of educating children for a pluralist society, the overburdened public schools of New York City will at last have to add the art and music teachers, the expanded libraries, and the foreign-language programs that advanced educators like Gottlieb would like. In the meantime schools like P.S. 165 require the faith of the educated white middle class if they are to continue to provide the excellent basic education that I witnessed there.
1 This is its real name; all other names used here are real too.
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An immigrant from Italy, Morais had taught himself English utilizing the King James Bible. Few Americans spoke in this manner, including Abraham Lincoln. Three days later, the president himself reflected before an audience: “How long ago is it?—eighty-odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.’” Only several months later, at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, would Lincoln refer to the birth of our nation in Morais’s manner, making “four score and seven years ago” one of the most famous phrases in the English language and thereby endowing his address with a prophetic tenor and scriptural quality.
This has led historians, including Jonathan Sarna and Marc Saperstein, to suggest that Lincoln may have read Morais’s sermon, which had been widely circulated. Whether or not this was so, the Gettysburg address parallels Morais’s remarks in that it, too, joins mourning for the fallen with a recognition of American independence, allowing those who had died to define our appreciation for the day that our “forefathers brought forth a new nation conceived in liberty.” Lincoln’s words stressed that a nation must always link civic celebration of its independence with the lives given on its behalf. Visiting the cemetery at Gettysburg, he argued, requires us to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work that “they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” He went on: “From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,” thereby ensuring that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”
The literary link between Morais’s recalling of Jerusalem and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address makes it all the more striking that it is the Jews of today’s Judea who make manifest the lessons of Lincoln’s words. Just as the battle of Gettysburg concluded on July 3, Israelis hold their Memorial Day commemorations on the day before their Independence Day celebrations. On the morning of the Fourth of Iyar, a siren sounds throughout the land, with all pausing their everyday activities in reverent memory of those who had died. There are few more stunning images of Israel today than those of highways on which thousands of cars grind to a halt, all travelers standing at the roadside, and all heads bowing in commemoration. Throughout the day, cemeteries are visited by the family members of those lost. Only in the evening does the somber Yom Hazikaron give way to the joy of the Fifth of Iyar’s Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day. For anyone who has experienced it, the two days define each other. Those assembled in Israel’s cemeteries facing the unbearable loss of loved ones do so in the knowledge that it is the sacrifice of their beloved family members that make the next day’s celebration of independence possible. And the celebration of independence is begun with the acknowledgement by millions of citizens that those who lie in those cemeteries, who gave “their last full measure of devotion,” obligate the living to ensure that the dead did not die in vain.
The American version of Memorial Day, like the Gettysburg Address itself, began as a means of decorating and honoring the graves of Civil War dead. It is unconnected to the Fourth of July, which takes place five weeks later. Both holidays are observed by many (though not all) Americans as escapes from work, and too few ponder the link between the sacrifice of American dead and the freedom that we the living enjoy. There is thus no denying that the Israelis’ insistence on linking their Independence Day celebration with their Memorial Day is not only more appropriate; it is more American, a truer fulfillment of Lincoln’s message at Gettysburg.
In studying the Hebrew calendar of 1776, I was struck by the fact that the original Fourth of July, like that of 1863, fell on the 17th of Tammuz. It is, perhaps, another reminder that Gettysburg and America’s birth must always be joined in our minds, and linked in our civic observance. It is, of course, beyond unlikely that Memorial Day will be moved to adjoin the fourth of July. Yet that should not prevent us from learning from the Israeli example. Imagine if the third of July were dedicated to remembering the battle that concluded on that date. Imagine if “Gettysburg Day” involved a brief moment of commemoration by “us, the living” for those who gave the last full measure of devotion. Imagine if tens—perhaps hundreds—of millions of Americans paused in unison from their leisure activities for a minute or two to reflect on the sacrifice of generations past. Surely our observance of the Independence Day that followed could not fail to be affected; surely the Fourth of July would be marked in a manner more worthy of a great nation.
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The enduring legacy of an underpraised man
No one questions Hammerstein’s historical significance, nor does the popularity of these six musicals show any sign of diminishing. But there is a gap between that popularity and the esteem in which he is held by many critics. Kenneth Tynan summed up the conventional wisdom about the alleged sentimentality and naiveté of Hammerstein’s work when he dismissed The Sound of Music as “a show for children of all ages, from six to about eleven and a half.” Stephen Sondheim, Hammerstein’s protégé, put it more forgivingly when he described him as “easy to make fun of because he is so earnest.”
Hammerstein affected to be unfazed by such criticisms. “In my book,” he told Mike Wallace in a 1958 TV interview, “there’s nothing wrong with sentiment because the things we’re sentimental about are the fundamental things in life, the birth of a child, the death of a child or of anybody, falling in love.” Yet they continue to be made, if less often today than in the past, and Todd S. Purdum engages directly with them in Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, an introduction to the lives and work of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Its first chapter is actually titled “The Sentimentalist.”* But Purdum is a political journalist, not a student of theater, and his book neither breaks new biographical ground nor offers fresh insights into the interior lives of its subjects. It is hard to see for whom Something Wonderful was written other than readers who know nothing whatsoever about either man, nor does it seem likely that its publication will have any discernible effect on their reputations, critical or otherwise.
About Rodgers’s reputation, of course, there is no doubt. Long before he ended his partnership with Lorenz Hart and started writing with Hammerstein, he was universally regarded as having (in the words of Leonard Bernstein) “established new levels of taste, distinction, simplicity in the best sense, and inventiveness” in popular song. But what about his second collaborator? Will Oscar Hammerstein be remembered merely as a shrewd craftsman who knew what the public wanted and gave it to them? Or will he be seen as a giant in his own right?Hammerstein called himself “a strange man,” and while that is an exaggeration, his personality was far from simple. Born in New York in 1895, he was the oldest son of a mixed marriage (his father was a fully assimilated second-generation German Jew, his mother a Presbyterian Scot) and carefully steered clear throughout his career of subject matter indicative in any way of his Jewish background, though he made no attempt to conceal it. He broke up his first marriage after falling in love at first sight with another man’s wife, leading to a union that was not merely successful but all-consumingly so: He reserved his emotions for Dorothy, his second wife, treating his children in a distant, often aggressively competitive manner and running his professional life in much the same way. Adored by his friends, he was seen by his colleagues as a canny and ruthless businessman who could be, as the director Joshua Logan put it, “tough as nails.”
It was Hammerstein’s own theatrical family—his father was a vaudeville producer, his paternal grandfather an opera impresario—that determined his destiny. He started writing for the stage in college, teaming up with the composers Rudolf Friml, Otto Harbach, and Sigmund Romberg to create European-style operettas. Even then, he sought to create shows whose songs were firmly rooted in their dramatic action, and he also longed to junk the fluffy plots that dominated the genre. But Hammerstein had no knack for coming up with original storylines, and it was not until he started adapting preexisting source material that he found himself as an artist.
Seven years after Hammerstein’s first Broadway show opened, he and Jerome Kern wrote Show Boat, a stage version of Edna Ferber’s bestselling 1926 novel and the first musical in which serious subjects (among them murder and miscegenation) were treated on stage. But the success of its original production, which ran for a year and a half, failed to persuade other producers that theatergoers were eager to embrace similar fare, and while several of the later songs that Hammerstein wrote with Kern, including “All the Things You Are” and “The Song Is You,” became standards, he wrote no hit shows between 1932 and 1943.
Hammerstein then teamed up with Rodgers, whose long-standing collaboration with Lorenz Hart had been derailed by Hart’s alcoholism. It had already run its course in any case, for Hart was incapable of writing the books for his own shows, and he and Rodgers, both of whom longed to do more challenging work on Broadway, found it impossible as a result to realize their shared ambitions. When Rodgers invited Hammerstein to work on a musical version of Green Grow the Lilacs, a 1930 play by Lynn Riggs about pioneer life in what would become the state of Oklahoma, Hammerstein accepted with alacrity.
By then he had long since perfected his lyric-writing style, turning out songs that were noteworthy for their seemingly effortless combination of frank emotionalism and directness of utterance (“Why was I born? / Why am I living?”). To this he now added an increased determination to do again what he and Kern had already done so well in Show Boat, writing an entire show in which the emotional stakes are involvingly high and every musical number is painstakingly integrated into the show’s dramatic arc, propelling it forward instead of standing apart from it.
To this end, Rodgers and Hammerstein broke with Broadway tradition by reversing the order in which they wrote their songs. Instead of setting his lyrics to Rodgers’s preexisting tunes, Hammerstein usually wrote them first, after which Rodgers set them to music. This made it easier for them to break free from the rigid formal strictures of repeating-chorus “golden age” popular song, and it also allowed Hammerstein to plunge further into his own deep well of feeling, thereby encouraging Rodgers to write music more expansive than the brilliant show tunes to which Hart had previously set his lyrics. In addition, Hammerstein shunned his predecessor’s elaborate wordplay, opting for straightforwardness (“I can see the stars gittin’ blurry / When we ride back home in the surrey”) over Hart’s self-conscious virtuosity (“I’m wild again! / Beguiled again! / A simpering, whimpering child again”).
Hammerstein looked to his source material not just for song cues but for actual inspiration as well. Consider Riggs’s opening stage direction of Green Grow the Lilacs:
It is a radiant summer morning several years ago, the kind of morning which, enveloping the shapes of earth—men, cattle in the meadow, blades of the young corn, streams—makes them seem to exist now for the first time, their images giving off a visible golden emanation.
In addition to yielding up the lyrics of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” which describe “a bright, golden haze on the meadow” and corn that “looks like it’s climbin’ clear up to the sky,” this passage gave Hammerstein the idea to start Oklahoma! not with the customary rousing full-ensemble chorus but with the plainest of stage pictures, a lone woman churning butter while a cowboy is heard singing offstage. Here as elsewhere, he shook off the tired conventions of the musicals of the ’20s and ’30s, preferring emotional force to fizzy frivolity (Oklahoma! hinges on the sexual awakening of one character and the killing of another) and designing a tightly knit structural template in which each successive song pushes the show inexorably closer to its climax.
Aside from the shows themselves, it is this formal template that is Hammerstein’s chief contribution to the American musical. Virtually every Broadway musical to have held the stage since 1943 has been structured in a way similar to that of Oklahoma!* Shortly before Oklahoma! opened, Hammerstein told his son that it was “different [from] and higher in its intent” than other musicals. The same was true of Carousel, an Americanized version of Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom that contains what Sondheim calls “the single most important moment in the revolution of contemporary musicals.” Sondheim is referring to the “bench scene,” a 12-minute-long near-operatic scena during which the show’s two principal characters discover and reveal their love for each other in an exquisitely sustained melding of speech and song: “If I loved you, / Words wouldn’t come in an easy way— / Round in circles I’d go!”**
Except for George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), which was conceived as a full-scale grand opera, no previous Broadway show had contained so ambitious and completely realized a piece of music drama. It has to be said that the flawless first act of Carousel is followed by a finale in which Hammerstein comes perilously close to letting genuine sentiment spill over into sticky sentimentality, above all in “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which is invariably cited by those who dislike his work (“At the end of the storm is a golden sky, / And the sweet silver song of a lark”). Even so, it still brings Carousel to a dramatically convincing close when sung and staged with disciplined understatement.
The hallmark of Carousel and Oklahoma! is their untragic idealism, which is central to their mass appeal. They embody a quintessentially American vision of life, one in which the inescapable pain and suffering of human existence—not excluding violent death—can be ameliorated by the power of love. Nor was this vision insincere, at least in Hammerstein’s case (Rodgers’s personality was more opaque). He described himself as “one-third realist and two-thirds mystic,” and every word he wrote came straight from the heart. When he urged Sondheim not to imitate him, he said, “Don’t write what I feel. I really believe all this stuff. You don’t.” Had he not believed it, he could never have written “If I Loved You,” which Rodgers set to a melody (it is no mere tune) of Tschaikovskian amplitude that is worthy of his partner’s wholly felt words.
Having charted the future course of the American musical, Hammerstein longed to try something new. But his desire to keep on innovating exceeded his ability to do so, as he and Rodgers proved with Allegro (1947), in which they threw out their rulebook and wrote an experimental musical that uses a quasi-Greek chorus to tell the story of an Everyman-like small-town doctor. Hammerstein’s book, ingenious though it is, borders on the faux-naïf (“Gosh! Is everybody in this town going to have their babies today?”), while Rodgers’s music is pleasant but largely unmemorable.
The two men then returned to form with South Pacific and The King and I, whose scores are resplendently beautiful, though both shows, South Pacific in particular, are marred by Hammerstein’s obtrusive liberal didacticism: “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late / Before you are six or seven or eight / To hate all the people your relatives hate.” (Rodgers himself admitted in 1968 that Hammerstein’s “one fault” was that he was “too preachy.”) Nevertheless, they continue to be revived, not merely because of the quality of their songs but also because of the sureness of Hammerstein’s dramatic carpentry.
The duo’s first four hits seem to have exhausted their powers of creative renewal, for they were followed by two forgotten flops, Me and Juliet (1953) and Pipe Dream (1955), and the commercially successful but now irretrievably dated Flower Drum Song (1958). By then, their energies were being diverted into the production of overblown widescreen film versions of their stage shows.
While they scored two more successes with The Sound of Music and a TV version of Cinderella (1957), neither is comparable in artistic quality to its predecessors, in part because Hammerstein, who was already suffering from the stomach cancer that killed him in 1960, turned over the task of writing the book of the former show to Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. These old pros yielded to the temptation to indulge in the florid sentimentality of which Hammerstein had mostly steered clear and to which he now succumbed in some of his own lyrics, the last he ever wrote. The colossal success of The Sound of Music (and its 1965 film version) cemented his posthumous reputation as a merchant of kitsch, and it was taken for granted decades after his death that all his musicals had become period pieces.
Yet Hammerstein’s songs and shows continued to be sung and staged, and a dark-hued 1992 Royal National Theatre revival of Carousel brought about a critical reevaluation of his work whose effects have proved to be lasting. Today he is generally acknowledged as a major figure, and only blinkered snobs now feel the need to apologize for appreciating his best work with both Rodgers and Kern, much less for admiring the dramaturgical innovations that, in Stephen Sondheim’s words, “changed the texture of the American musical theater forever.” He is, in fact, one of America’s greatest and most characteristic artists, a genius whose open-eyed optimism is a reflection of our national character as it once was and may yet be.
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There are good reasons to be wary of impeachment talk,” wrote the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt earlier this year. The sentence was his way of introducing 800 words of impeachment talk, an entire column’s worth of the stuff. He couldn’t help himself.
Many people in Washington these days pretend to be wary of the subject of Donald Trump’s possible impeachment before they call for it. We all agree the odds of the House of Representatives impeaching the president are, at the moment, negligible. This makes impeachment talk fanciful at best. Among Democrats, views range from a Beach Boys–like “maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray, it might come true” to “we have to wait till next year.” As for Republicans, they have repackaged a phrase from an earlier era: You can have our president when you pry him from our cold dead fingers….
Impeachment talk flames up whenever news from the chattering class’s number-one topic—the legal difficulties of the president, from Stormy Daniels to Russian conspirators—briefly runs dry. The thought of impeachment is much more stimulating to a Washingtonian than trying to figure out why Obamacare premiums are rising or whether the preliminary revenue projections from tax reform are likely to prove accurate. Scandal junkies construct timelines of obscure, unrelated events of unknown importance involving marginal figures (Did George Papadopoulus meet with Joseph Misfud in London before or after Sam Clovis recruited Carter Page for the Trump campaign???). The convoluted narratives compensate for the fact that none of us has so far uncovered anything that might carry a hint of a whisper of an offense that could incriminate Trump—none of us, that is, but Robert Mueller and his band of Javerts. And maybe not even them.
Leonhardt, like his colleagues at the Times, is impatient with this uncertain state of affairs. His column was meant to demonstrate that even our meager collection of undisputed facts is enough to put the president in the dock. The particular crime or misdemeanor he has in mind is obstruction of justice—the very same charge used to impeach Bill Clinton. In his bill of particulars, Leonhardt notes that Trump had asked the FBI director, James Comey, to lighten up in his pursuit of Trump’s former adviser Michael Flynn. He asked two other advisers to make the same request. After Trump fired Comey, he tweeted about it triumphantly and a few days later told an interviewer on television that he’d fired Comey because of “the Russia thing.” Several times he publicly berated his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for letting the investigation proceed. Then, again taking to twitter, Trump angrily denounced Andrew McCabe, another G-man involved in the investigation.
“Obstruction of justice involves intent,” Leonhardt instructed his readers. And plainly these actions reveal Trump’s intent.
You can say that again, David! (Just wait—I bet he does.) How can anyone doubt Trump’s intent? He wants the investigation to end, says so repeatedly, and will do anything to make this happen, short of shutting it down himself. During the hyperbolic Trump era, I have grown leery of intensifiers, from both the president and his critics, but even I must admit that if Trump’s behavior constitutes obstruction of justice, it is surely the most ostentatious display of obstruction in the history of…okay, the universe.
Even the behind-scenes actions Leonhardt includes in his indictment, such as Trump’s telling the White House counsel to fire Mueller, would in effect have been carried out in the full light of day. At least Richard Nixon tried to keep his obstruction on the QT. A man who brags publicly about what he’s doing as he’s doing it, and then loudly complains when it doesn’t have the desired effect, probably isn’t intending to commit a crime. Such a man may be a sociopath—but not necessarily a criminal.
The thinness of the case against Trump, as it stands now, is really beside the point. Impeachment fever has become a permanent condition in the body politic. Nearly every president in the last half century has faced calls for impeachment, and not just from lunatics. When Ronald Reagan appeared (incorrectly) to be deeply involved in the Iran Contra affair, many of his opponents called for impeachment. Bill Clinton, as we know, was well and truly impeached. The idea of impeaching George W. Bush was catnip for left-wing Democrats from the moment the Iraq adventure went sour. Even the usually level-headed legal commentator Andrew McCarthy wrote a book with the subtitle “Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.”
At least McCarthy’s effort was best viewed as a thought experiment: Can a legal case for impeachment, even one that’s airtight, survive without popular support? The latter is as crucial as the former. Recall that Nixon’s public reason for stepping down was that his political base on Capitol Hill had eroded to the point where the president would be essentially powerless for the rest of his term. (Of course, the loss of his political power also made his impeachment inevitable.) In the laws of political thermodynamics, any bold action can create an opposite and equal reaction, and it doesn’t get much bolder than presidential impeachment.
To cite a small example: Once Republicans raised the possibility of impeachment, Obama’s defenders leapt into action. They were building fundraising campaigns around McCarthy’s book a month before the publication date. A more consequential example: The legally impeccable but widely unpopular impeachment of Clinton killed Republicans’ hoped-for gains in the 1998 midterm elections.
These lessons are not lost on professional Democrats and soberer activists. When six Democratic congressmen formally introduced articles of impeachment late last year, party leaders, including Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, treated them like overenthusiastic children tracking mud all over the nice new carpet. Even Adam Schiff, the president’s most vocal congressional critic, took to the New York Times op-ed page to stifle impeachment talk.
It’s the smart move. Party leaders had much the same reaction when Democrats last succumbed to impeachment fever, in the election year 2006, under President Bush. Not coincidentally, 2006 was also the year of a Democratic landslide in congressional races—the same result Democrats hope for this fall. A serious bid for impeachment that year would likely have rallied the Republicans and stemmed the Democratic tide.
But that was a long time ago, and between then and now a different Democratic Party has emerged beneath the feet of leaders like Pelosi and Hoyer, whose establishmentarian realism annoys their base just as Paul Ryan’s relative moderation rankled Trump voters. Schiff may have been right to call impeachment talk “bait,” a trap waiting to be sprung by cunning Republicans. Ordinary Democrats are eager to chomp. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 71 percent of Democrats favor impeachment proceedings if their party takes the House of Representatives in November. Over the last six months the Democratic activist/billionaire Tom Steyer has collected 5.2 million signatures for his impeachment petition.
Republicans react with mock horror, begging the Democrats not to throw them in the impeachment briar patch. Trump has even made it a riff in the frequent “campaign style” speeches he can’t resist making to Republicans out in cow country. He singles out Pelosi, of course, but also Maxine Waters, who has been calling for Trump’s removal since his inauguration. “She’s a low-IQ individual,” the president says, gallantly, as his audiences cheer.
For Democrats like Leonhardt, the case for impeachment has already been made; for Democrats like Waters, the case doesn’t need to be made. Together they constitute a large majority of their party. Schiff may caution them to wait for the special counsel to finish his investigation, but why? Impeachment is the only solution to a problem more fundamental than Russian collusion or Trump’s obstruction. For them the problem is Trump himself, the mere fact of his presidency. If the House falls into Pelosi’s lap this fall, she will have their fervor to thank for it, and suddenly all this fanciful impeachment talk won’t seem so fanciful after all.