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D.C. Machismo

Off the Town


NEWSPAPER COLUMNISTS LIKE to think that they are important. So do corporation executives, government officials, college professors and students, and most everyone else. But unlike most people, columnists have to convince thousands of readers whom they have never met and over whom they exert no real power, that they are worth listening to. Maintaining this posture of authority and importance is often quite a strain, and produces such unusual prose as Jack Anderson's political lexicon of tzars, bosses, hitmen, and the like.

Occasionally, columnists graduate from the simple absurdity of their self-important prose and enter the realm of transcendent absurdity. Such a columnist is Joseph Alsop, prophet of the Imminent American Victory in Vietnam, and a man who has devoted his mature life to the pursuit of chimerical creatures. Nothing in American letters is so tragically commonplace as such a columnist--from whom the oracular grace has so obviously been withdrawn, who has been wrong so many times that no serious person talks or listens to him anymore, but who continues to bowl on in abject public humiliation. The fallen columnist, in his world of transcendent absurdity, can simply invent news; witness Alsop's recent smear of Harvard professor Martin Peretz.

It has been observed (by columnists of course) that this has been a bad year for columnists. Their great dilemma has been George McGovern, and acres of print have been ploughed as the columnists tried to turn up the correct on his candidacy.

The early consensus was that candidate McGovern was a persistent but nevertheless hapless loser. Although the columnists have in recent days triumphantly resurrected this early line, they were given a scare in the spring and summer.

LATE IN THE PRIMARIES there was rumination on the columnists' collective inability to assess McGovern's strengths and the dedication of his constituency; the dawning sense that the political tour guides had themselves missed the boat led to hasty attempts to clamber aboard during convention time, with excessive praise for the sharp young technocrats of the McGovern staff. Then, having at last paid their dues to McGovern, the columnists could sound objective as they announced a coming Nixon landslide and scolded the post-Eagleton McGovern for not living up to the conventiontime notices on his efficient and pragmatic organization. The columnists wrote with contempt--each of them seeming to say. "My God, I could run a presidential campaign better than this guy."

In fact, after watching some of them this summer in Washington. I am convinced that columnists invariably measure the candidates against themselves. "Is this politician," they ask themselves, "smarter and tougher than I am?" If they decide yes, then everything that they subsequently write is conditioned by respect and deference. Judgment is deferred on the superior candidate's most obvious blunders, on the chance that they are not blunders at all, but strokes of genius that will become apparent by noon the day of the column's release.

Doping out the "real news" becomes a complex intrigue, if the superior candidate is acting on information not publicly available, a summary of the merely public facts will serve notice to the insiders that the columnist is an outsider. Being an outsider in Washington is the kiss of death. The phone stops ringing. Lunch dates are cancelled. The columnist's voice takes on a tremulous uncertainty, and is no longer the gravel-pitched. "Don't shit me buddy" that opens doors in Washington.

BUT SUPPOSE THE COLUMNIST decides that he is tougher and smarter than the candidate; that the candidate himself is an outsider, whose sources of information and standing on the machismo ladder are inferior to the journalist's. Then the columnist becomes a suffering and occasionally furious papa, lecturing the candidate as if he were a twelve year old.

Until his China trip. Richard Nixon was generally treated by the columnists--confident that they were smarter and tougher than the President--as a malevolent and silly child. Now, somehow, he's a political genius. George McGovern has become the class served up some bacon, and set to work each morning with a knife and fork. Why this cruelty? Because McGovern had shown weakness: he had shown himself to be politically salve.

In addition to their viciousness, the columnists also have a predilection for foolishness as in their daily discoveries this summer that McGovern is not after all a hair-shirted secetic, but a Democratic Party politician not too different from the rest. Feasting on such obvious and worthless information, we roll along toward October, with the columnists still yapping their way through assessments and re-assessments of candidate McGovern: like dogs, snapping at the air as they pursue their own tails.

PERHAPS THE MOST charitable thing that can be said about the columnists is that they have been ill-equipped to deal with McGovern. Living in Washington, solicitously hovering around the inside sources that are their tickets to fame and prosperity, they see very little of the real world. We see more even in book-laden Cambridge. Since all the people the columnists know are centrists, they counsel McGovern to move toward the center, ignoring the fact that it was a disastrous position for his Democratic rivals. Since all the people the columnists know seem to think that "issues" are a waste of time, they counsel McGovern to stop talking about the issues.

Like many people sympathetic to his campaign. I have criticism of McGovern. Chief among them is that lately he seems to be listening to the columnists, who--unable to understand the roots of his campaign--have offered him consistently bad advice. McGovern would do better to listen to the coalition that made him a viable candidate won him his primaries, and insured his victory at Miami Beach: the antiwar left and the minorities For as David Kolodney noted in a recent Ram parts article McGovern has not been delivered to this coalition as a consolation prize; he is instead the first mainstream emblem of its growing political power. This coalition now has the political muscle to nominate the Democratic Party candidate. Whether it has the muscle to elect a President remains an open question.

BY REALIZING THAT McGovern is important largely because he represents an important political coalition we can discount one of the liberal truisms of this campaign--that this is the great watershed election, whose results will determine the political course of the next thirty years. Such dire prognosis is wrong, insofar as it assumes that the political developments that gave birth to the McGovern candidacy will roll over and play dead if Nixon wins by a landslide. It's not that the left isn't subject to fits of moribund depression that would follow a Nixon victory. It has already proved that it is. It is rather that party politics, the nation, and the world are in a period of profound transition, not likely to be frozen by any one political event.

This election is, nevertheless, critical, but for much simpler and more basic reasons. We all know what they are, but they bear repeating. The people of Indochina are being systematically exterminated by the present campaign of American terror, waged to prove a point that is already lost--that the United States can crush popular revolutionary insurrection in the Third World. We have not crushed the Vietnamese and we will not. George McGovern, at the very least, understands that basic political reality. And that is reason enough, in 1972, to elect him President of the United States.

There are other reasons as well. He is, by all accounts, a moral man. And it is perhaps for this reason that he has proved so inept a politician recently. Only a moral man could tell such halfhearted and graceless lies, or be so club-footed in political maneuvering. By comparison, the professional liars of the Nixon administration seem like politicians of great sophistication and subtlety, which of course, they are not. No administration in recent memory has, for example, so bungled its relations with Congress as the Nixon crew.

YET BECAUSE WE LIVE in such a time of dispirited confusion. Nixon has already gained the ultimate goal of the professional liar: complete and profound mystification of his audience. Like the magician, Nixon's posture of solemn, unblinking deception convinces us to suspend our critical faculties and to accept his illusion for reality. In political terms. Nixon's accomplishment has been simply this: he has convinced many of us that politics is a dirty lying business rather than that he and his friends are a dirty lying bunch. Or, put in language close to home for us here at a university. Nixon is convincing Americans that they live in a Hobbesian world of fearful manipulation, and that they ought to be manipulated by someone who is adept.

This is the most sorry and potentially dangerous outcome of the Nixon years--that they have so baldly devalued political discourse that no one will ever be believed again. But political lying is not peculiar to Nixon and it would not be vanquished through a Nixon defeat it is an historical cancer brought to acute malignancy by the heroic lying of Lyndon Johnson who truly was the politician that Nixon pretends to be.

Despite the universality of political lying, there is among some McGovern supporters a kind of desperate McGovern supporters a kind of desperate Messianism; they seem to believe that McGovern is so fine and decent a man that his election in November would save the world from oblivion. Columinists and others rightly find this attitude amusing. So should we all for in abstracting the image of the saintly McGovern from the realities of politics, it undercuts his only chance of winning; that is, organizing a grass roots constituency whose members are not in the least interested in political saints or martyrs. McGovern might still capture such a grass roots constituency, for one of his greatest strengths is precisely that he is not a particularly noble or unusual man. His decency and his self-effacing manner are typical American virtues albert atypical in the world of D.C. machismo.

Columnists generally invoke commonsense sociology as they close off their spouts. Everyone knows by now the sociological law that emerged from the ghetto riots of the sixties people get angry and fight for their rights when their expectations of what is possible begin to rise. McGovern promises something better than what we now have, and whether he is able as President to deliver it is irrelevant to the fact that in making the promise, he raises our hopes and makes it more likely that we will take our complaints with the social order more seriously.

A corollary to this pop law of the sixties is another, which the left has been slow to learn both in our time and in times past. When deceit and social neglect become cushrined as principles of government, they do not breed revolt. A decaying social order is not the fertile breeding ground of social change. It is a barrea wasteland in which visible movement disappears. This wasteland is the home ground of Nixonian politics Nixonian politics must be defeated if not this time then soon

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