THEY--TRB, that is -arrive punctually every week at their post on the inside cover of The New Republic. Alert for injustice and foolishness, Richard L. Strout of the Christian Science Monitor, the pseudonymous TRB, has wielded the "royal we" for more than 35 years now. TRB: Views and Perspectives on the Presidency provides the first anthologized look at this sometimes prescient, often witty and always rational sage of the Washington scene.
No scoops are to be found here; no lids get ripped off anything. Strout watches the men--scarcely a woman makes it into the text--who are running things and wonders about them and about what they will do next. The columns are breezy and interesting, 800 weekly words offering a glance at an issue or a man. It is a measure of Strout's talent that he can use that most pretentious of devices--first person plural--and still display a friendly and approachable, yet always impressive intellect.
But in the brevity of his thoughts lies the collection's most serious problem. Sometimes attacking two or more subjects in one piece, Strout has little chance to develop his thoughts from week to week. He states a set of principles, then ignores them time and again. In Carroll Kilpatrick's introduction, in Strout's concluding address to the National Press Club, and in several key essays between, a preference emerges for a parliamentary system like Canada's and for a diminished role for our overworked and usually underqualified presidents.
The columns themselves present a different message. His laments begin under Roosevelt, the first of the eight presidents he observes: Why won't Congress let anything happen? Why is it so stodgy? The necessity for two-thirds of the senators to approve any treaty bothers him when he worries about the United Nations settlement; he still grumbles today about the ability of a retrograde fringe to hold up a Panama Canal or SALT agreement.
As for his presidents--he complains about the constraints on them more than their abuse of power. In May 1963, Strout writes, "Somehow we thought Mr. Kennedy would do more....Political leaders, we believe, must create a certain commotion and tension; they must show passion."
And that is where Strout is at his best, right there with the politicians, describing what goes on in their heads and evaluating the quality thereof. Strout is a remarkably acute judge of character. On Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R.-Wisc.), in early 1950 before most knew him well and before McCarthyism was a word: "It would seem easy to pin down the preposterous utterances, but no; McCarthy is as hard to catch as a mist--a mist that carries lethal contagion." On Vice President Richard Nixon: "In politics this quiet young man is a killer....He is out for the kill and the scalp at any cost." On 1968 presidential candidate George Wallace: "the hillbilly Hitler." On Rep. Gerald Ford (R.-Mich) in 1966: "not overbright."
Not only do the personalities fascinate him, but the practice of politics evokes some of his best writing and worst predictions. Strout makes no attempt to hide his choice in each contest, yet he still seems to revel in a good dogfight. The election between Kennedy, whom he loved, and Nixon, whom he loathed, was "wonderfully close." Never afraid to put his head on the chopping block of prognostication, Strout writes on November 1, 1948, "In a hopeless battle, (Truman) stayed game to the end, and is going down fighting." And on November 16, 1968: Nixon "will probably wind up Vietnam pretty quickly." Occasionally, however, Strout springs some real clairvoyance. In January 1968, he not only says the GOP will select Nixon, but predicts he will offer a secret plan to end the war inexpensively. Right on the money.
AT MORE THAN 500 pages, the collection could stand some selective paring. First on the list to go would be several columns where Strout simply tries to do too much. An emotional protest against the use of the atom bomb somehow winds up as a plea to pay American diplomats salaries commensurate with what foreign envoys in the U.S. receive. Especially when he treats several topics in one column, Strout tends either to make bold assumptions with no justification at all, or to give only sketchy proof. For example, he dismisses Eisenhower's refusal to grant clemency to the Rosenbergs in a single paragraph that begins, "The Rosenbergs got a fair trial; they were rightfully condemned; the president rejected their appeal for clemency and they must die." The didactic thought reads nicely--and might be 100 per cent wrong.
The insensitive analysis of the Rosenberg case is atypical. Strout believes in the promise of America and seems personally offended when it goes unfulfilled. Never maudlin or saccharine, he grafts the mentality of the Rugged Individualist onto a compassionate New Deal liberal. After Robert Kennedy's assassination, he says, "Think of all the fat little editorial writers sitting down at their typewriters, putting themselves in a properly melancholy mood and then dashing off an inspired article on "the shame of America." He then talks about the real shame of America: the failure of the cowards in Congress to approve gun control.
Long ago, a New Republic editor, seeking a name for a new column, glanced up from his paper while riding a New York subway and saw the words "Brooklyn Rapid Transit." He reversed the initials; thus TRB. The BRT has vanished; Strout, far from it. While his collected essays do not form a cohesive whole, they shine individually with the glimmer of a cynical idealist. He returns every week, brandishing only his intelligence and wit. But with those tools TRB has earned his royal "we."