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 …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.