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Ernest H. Gruening


By David I. Bruck

ERNEST GRUENING was defeated for reelection to the Senate last year by a 38-year-old moderate who claimed to stand "more in the main-stream" of American opinion on Vietnam. The claim had at least the virtue of being true: at 82, Ernest Gruening has yet to join anyone's mainstream.

Gruening was the first Senator to attack the war in Vietnam, and to this day remains the only member of the Senate to have demanded a U.S. withdrawal. His speeches against the war have a clear-sighted moral vigor that we have learned not to expect from our politicians.

Gruening does not even look like a Senator. He is a small man with large red ears and heavy jowls, and long feet which stick out at odd angles when he walks. His head, covered in the back with long white hair, rests heavily on his shoulders, and when he sits, his limbs seem to fold into his body in the way that the limbs of old men do. At a dinner in his honor in Boston last week, Gruening stood almost unnoticed at the edge of the crowd; most of the 500 guests didn't recognize him, and so as they gathered in the hotel ballroom, Gruening lingered in a corner, chatting occasionally with old friends.

His voice is still firm, though; and when he begins to talk about the war and the draft, his boundless energy comes through. Gruening first denounced the war on the Senate floor in April, 1964, and has been attacking in tirelessly ever since. In all his conversation, he constantly comes back to the war, explaining his ideas over and over again to anyone who will listen. The words flow out easily, in an even, forceful voice. A disaster, he says continually. The worst disaster in the country's history. We are the aggressors in Vietnam, he says. The spectre of the draft, forcing young men to choose between Vietnam and prison, seems to haunt him as intensely as any college senior. One feels, in talking to him, that Gruening has not yet been able to assimilate the existential horror of the draft for Vietnam: it torments him, and he has fought it endlessly. Currently he is planning for new regulations that would permit draftees to refuse service in Vietnam. The idea's appeal is simple decency; one expects that it will not get far.

ERNEST H. GRUENING was born in New York City in 1887, the son of a wealthy doctor. Attracted to Harvard by a talk given at his high school by a president of the Harvard Crimson named Franklin Roosevelt, Gruening enrolled here in the class of 1907, and later entered the Harvard Medical School.

Just before receiving his medical degree in 1912, Gruening decided to go into journalism. He joined the Boston American as a reporter, and later moved to the Evening Herald and then the Traveler. In 1917 he became managing editor of the New York Tribune, and, after a hitch with the Field Artillery Corps in Europe, he went to Washington to manage the Nation.

It was a good time for American journalism, he feels. "Most of the papers were completely corrupt: their policies were dictated by their advertisers. . . . But there were a great many papers in those days--New York had sixteen dailies--and papers thrive on competition. Nowadays each city has only one or two daily papers, and no new ones are being started--that's not the way it should be."

Gruening's years with the Nation in the early twenties came at an exciting time. The magazine under Gruening battled against the power monopolies and gunboat diplomacy in Latin America, and for Irish Independence and American recognition of the revolutionary regime in Mexico. Those years are still very much alive in Gruening's memory, and his descriptions of the Nation's crusades of that era come rapid and flowing.

After leaving the Nation in 1923, Gruening continued to write, producing two major books on the power industry and on Mexico. He returned to journalism briefly with the New York Post in 1932 and 1933, but with the election of Roosevelt, Gruening entered public service. He was appointed advisor to the U.S. delegation to the Seventh Inter-American Conference in 1933, and the following year became Director of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions of the Department of the Interior. During the next five years Gruening was in charge of the American aid and development program in Puerto Rico, and also served on the Alaska Highway Commission.

In 1939, following the death of the Governor of Alaska, President Roosevelt appointed Gruening to the governorship. He would continue in that position until 1953, at which time he became Alaska's principal lobbyist for statehood.

THIS CIRCUITOUS route to local prominence helps explain how so unconventional a man as Gruening got to the Senate. He came to Alaska as a New Dealer from Washington, and as a Federal appointee, he had fourteen years of secure power during which to establish himself for the future. During the negotiations leading to Alaskan statehood, Gruening was tentatively appointed Senator; and on January 3, 1959, he became the new state's first representative in Washington.

By this time he was already in his seventies, and although he won re-election in 1962, his age was a growing liability in a nation that values youth for its own sake. During Gruening's losing campaigns of 1968, he went to the extreme of taking a swim in the freezing Arctic waters to demonstrate his physical vigor. His age nevertheless appears to have brought on his narrow defeat in the Democratic primary last year.

Gruening still spends most of his time in Washington, doing whatever lobbying he can against the war, the draft and the arms race, speaking to peace groups, and writing his autobiography. His papers fill eleven filing cabinets, and he has just begun the task of sorting out the accumulation of his long life.

Throughout it all, Gruening has remained a liberal. His analysis of the causes of the Vietnam war goes no deeper than the personality of President Johnson: he sees the war and all the other disasters of American foreign policy as errors that could have been avoided by wiser leaders. His approach to politics is largely unanalytical and moralistic: his radicalism, if it can be called that, is of a traditionally American sort. What distinguishes Gruening from his liberal colleagues in the Senate is not his ideology, but his extraordinary courage and vigor. He spoke out against the war in the strongest terms long before the other liberals were willing to do so, and he voted till the end against the war appropriations, even though the most prominent Senate doves have still not been able to bring themselves to this.

It has become commonplace to note that the Senate could not afford to lose a man like Gruening. In reality, it probably won't make that much difference. The Senate long ago learned to ignore his simple, earnest pleas. His condemnation of the war was too unreasonable: he denounced not only the policy employed, but the very goals that the policy sought to achieve. You can deal with a man so long as he's willing to state his position within the terms that you lay out for him; but if he refuses to do that, there's nothing left but to ignore him. So Ernest Gruening was, for all his insight and suffering, someone to be tolerated and ignored. Maybe his problem is that, like the New York dailies, his uncompromising morality has simply become obsolete.

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