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Grub Street: Washington

He is imaginary, not meant to be a true person. As a young man he showed an interest in public affairs, showed it early, but, of course, he was too bookish, too arrogant, too much disliked to think of real politics, of the state legislature, the Senate. And yet his earliest moral frustration came from his sense of history and biography, his living through today and yet imagining how it would all appear in a book tomorrow. He had only to read the newspapers to be seized by the agony of lost opportunities, the refusal of Presidents and leaders to greet the true moment, utter the simple eloquence, jump into the open pit of possibility for memorable behavior, note the instance with a ready witticism. He had always wanted to help them. For he knew that few Americans slice their own bread: much that an American leader does and thinks is done for him. The President is a vessel into which suitable waters are daily poured. But at the same time he is a difficult man and it is only a sort of hollow arm he will allow to be filled up by expert waters. For the rest, he keeps himself dismayingly dry. All of our recent history shows the inability or refusal of our leaders to be other than themselves, as they were born. They will not undergo for us that dramatic metamorphosis the imagination and the spirit long for. Accents from babyhood stutter down through history, forever recorded on a thousand tapes. A President needs only to be, not to become. And our imaginary helper, the writer who would somehow live and write history simultaneously, suffers pitifully. Having successfully attained an elective office seems to freeze the personality in its winning shape. Only an idiot would tamper with success. An elected official does not fear the knowledge of professors or heed the vexations of aesthetes.

Our writer, our economist, our thinker, this person who would bring to Washington and to national affairs some of the order that goes into the making of books or even into the reading of them did at last enter the city with Kennedy, a few to them entered at least. What he was to do there we do not quite know, since government is not a book. We may think of him as wanting to please and yet himself hardened to criticism. A certain ambitiousness makes one forgiving—the sort of ambition that yearns for effectiveness rather than perfection. But if power and the opportunity to observe power were simply a lofty form of office work, no one would want it. It is also tall women in splendid dresses, black limousines at the door, and the lust for the ultimate historical gossip satisfied at last. To know, truly, what the people in power are like: is that not some of the charm, the interest, as well as legislation passed, policy defined?

Our young man—no, our youngish man—a father, long resident of some simpler community than Washington, has a pleasant enough vanity based on his past accomplishments. The little cavities of self-doubt have been filled with the cement of a quick psycho-analysis, the determination of wives, and, with power and fame, women other than wives. Even the poor legislator, and certainly the Washington intellectual personage, find that men at the center of things appear to women in the most affirmative light, creating a climate of assent, of romantic and personal prosperity that sweeten the long work day. (All our Presidents, according to the press, rise early.) He finds that she who wishes to buy will not be deterred by small defects. The poor bookworm, the faithful teacher, the economist at his desk had not realized that political power, or even the nearness to it, will make of one the hero of a novel, and there will inevitably be subplots.

History starves many, but fattens a few. All the tortured ambivalence Voltaire felt for Frederick (Macaulay says it was “compounded of all sentiments, from enmity to friendship, from scorn to admiration…”) might have been in a more usual country felt by our man. But here where the occasion to serve in the Capitol is so rare, gratitude and opportunity will naturally incline one to an unduly full acceptance, and even to considerable suppression or denial of the observing faculties. The real person, the elected man, is, so far as we can learn, nearly always a person of the most rigid contrariness. In the present world he is likely to be exactly the opposite of all the public imagines. Behind the ruddy, folksy downrightness insiders know conceit, anger, vindictiveness. Family men, pictured a million times with their First Ladies, die in the arms of their second ladies. Every exalted hill is a loathsome valley. Perhaps this, the final falseness or fraud, is the ultimate reward of our greed for publicity. Because we want to know everything we are told nothing but lies. The President appears like one of those television commercials run over and over again. He is always type-cast, wearing his make-up. The opposition always chooses the wrong vices to whisper about. If a man is a drunkard they will tell the voters that he has syphilis. The lie is the only thing we can count on in our image of the President.

But all this is merely “social” and trivial. Serious men do important work—they must whether they wish to or not. They must “save the free world,” save it again and again. Work, crises, trips; our man floats through space with everything petty done for him by a gigantic bureaucracy; the hard work of government is also impersonal. He is a tenor in a chorale that may or may not receive good reviews, but at least he is not always personally accountable. Few people ever quit the movies or political life. These callings, therefore, must not be as “exhausting” as we are told, since so many notoriously lazy persons refuse to abandon them unless met with irrevocable rejection. Speeches, conferences, and confrontations, the satisfaction of ceremonial interludes: to these the dullest and the cleverest creatures assent, grateful, “prayerful,” going forth to them with the help of God. Our writer, our intellectual will be thought by many not to be a “real” writer. It is felt that to the real writer or thinker no harm can come from history; only the private catastrophe, the individual suffering, can give pause to an authentic inspiration. But how are we to judge the melancholy, how to estimate the strain on the heart muscles in the effort to go back once more, to live again with elected American essence, how to know the ulcerative struggle to bring the word to the wordless?

The black limousine draws up in Georgetown, but now it picks up a mortified man with a cramped smile. He who is pursuing his intellectual work in Washington is back again in the little ranch house of political America. All would be disposed to pity. And yet even the true poet, the fiction writer—how will he flee the merciless strength of the American spirit, the cactus that lives without water?

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