The Case Against Congress
Behind the Lines: The World of Drew Pearson
JFK and LBJ
In our nation’s capital, home of the jealously guarded secret and the official lie, uncommon numbers of talented men make their living and reputation as professional insiders. They range from lobbyists and court gossipers to the most widely read journalists. Theirs is an honorable, indeed an ancient, calling, as essential to plutocracies and dictatorships as to democracies. By bringing the human element into the power equation, they play a vital role in every social system.
Only democracies, however, depend upon that special kind of insider whose job it is to pass on the official secret even before the officials are willing to give it up. They are concerned with the public’s “right to know,” which is invariably wider than any government thinks it has a right to be. Without these insiders we would be even more mystified about what is being done to us in our name and, ostensibly, with our own best interests at heart. We would know even less than we do about who decides which causes we shall die for, what interest groups are the real masters of our public servants, and who lines their pockets with funds meant for the common weal. In a corporate democracy, the most noble service can sometimes be reporting the highest gossip.
For four decades and through six administrations Drew Pearson has been reporting the highest, and sometimes the lowest, gossip to the readers of his syndicated column. In Herman Klurfeld’s adoring, but absorbing and informative, biography of this enfant terrible of American journalism, we find a portrait of a man who has been braver and more stubborn than most, unafraid of enemies in high places or friends in low ones, tenacious to the point of tedium, and irrepressible in his zest for making an unsavory revelation. For Pearson the well-timed exposé is a kind of carnal delight, to be anticipated, savored, prolonged, and lovingly recollected.
This is the source of his strength and one of his most admirable qualities, for without this attitude he could never have survived all those decades in Washington and done daily battle with the powers of darkness and concealment. An indefatigable and, more importantly, a courageous reporter, Pearson has cast himself in the role of St. George of the typewriter. If he ever has any doubts about the evil of the forces he combats or the virtues of the causes he champions, there is no sign of it in the breathless columns he has turned out with such staggering regularity over the years.
At his best Pearson displays a stern Quaker passion and courage. At his worst, he can be vindictive, narrow-minded, and less than honorable. His vendetta against the late James Forrestal is legendary, a recent exposé of Reagan descended to the level of attacking the California governor for harboring homosexuals on his staff, and over the years Pearson has not objected to serving as a henchman for various public figures he admires—such as Lyndon B. Johnson. On the Vietnam war he has been equivocal (where the conservative Arthur Krock has been bitterly opposed), and has little use for disorderly students, black militants, or radicals. Politically he is a New Deal Democrat of the Humphrey-Johnson variety, and his ideals are sometimes as tarnished as his highly questionable methods.
Pearson’s book, written with his colleague Jack Anderson, is a straightforward, documented story of corruption on Capitol Hill. It is a depressing account of Congressmen taking bribes under the table, padding their payrolls with relatives, awarding government contracts to the clients of their law firms, and selling their services to the highest bidder. We learn how many of the most incorruptible Congressmen keep in the good graces of the oil and gas interests, how pressure is put on the regulatory agencies, and the way that lobbyists perform their work. The Case Against Congress is replete with tales of lawmakers who have abused the public trust and enriched themselves both within and outside the law.
Yet for all their indignation, Pearson and Anderson remain curiously myopic about the nature of the corruption they deplore and the means of combatting it. Their “ten modest proposals” for reform, however desirable and long overdue, are modest indeed and do not even begin to deal with the real corruption of the legislative process. It would be admirable if Congressmen had to divulge all their sources of income, resign from the law firms whose clients they continue to represent on Capitol Hill, refrain from employment with any corporation doing business with the government, and in general behave as though they were repositories of a public trust rather than servants of special interest groups such as the gun lobby, the gas and oil industry, or the insurance companies.
But the real problem is not the malfeasance of a few Congressmen. Rather it is the unresponsiveness, paralysis, and negativism of a legislative system that cannot cope with, or even comprehend, the needs of those it is supposed to represent. The case against Congress is not its veniality, for we expect and can live with that. It is its essential triviality and even its irrelevance. Congress has shown itself to be incapable of dealing with the great problems that torment this nation: a war that no one remembers having ever consciously started or knows how to end, a maldistribution of income that aggravates social and political inequality, a breakdown of public confidence in the institutions of society, a corrupting racism that infuses nearly every social institution, and an invisible but unbridgeable chasm between those who wield economic power and those who are manipulated by it.
Congress cannot deal with these problems because it can scarcely admit that they exist without throwing into question the beliefs held by individual Congressmen. There can be no challenge where there is no doubt or disbelief. The balance of power in Congress is held (largely because of the seniority system) by people whose primary interest lies in preserving what is congenial and, in many cases, profitable. Incapable of leading the process of social reform, unwilling to offer a responsible challenge to the arbitrary power of the executive branch, responsive to the demands of economic interest groups at the expense of the public welfare, Congress has fallen into disrepute without even realizing that anything is wrong. This is the real case against Congress, which Pearson and Anderson do not seem to perceive.
To turn from the world of Drew Pearson to that of Arthur Krock is like leaving the stable for the club house. Krock’s world is elevated, chummy, and serene, a place where everyone is on a first-name basis and the stench of politics is sweetened by good manners. “In one way or another,” the former Washington correspondent of The New York Times writes in his Memoirs, “I have known eleven Presidents, ten during their incumbency.”
It is a phrase that sets the tone of this rambling recollection of bygone personalities, and perhaps explains the reason for its remarkable commercial success. Krock is the ultimate insider, the man who knew eleven Presidents, had lunch with the members of the Cabinet, and played poker with generals and Congressmen. He was privy to military secrets long before they could be revealed, solicited for his opinions on matters of state, and a confidant to the mighty. A Kentuckian of German-Jewish descent, he quickly was assimilated, identifying with the values of Wasp society and maneuvering very well within it. In 1909 he came to Washington as correspondent for the Louisville Times, covered the Paris peace conference in 1918-19, became Ralph Pulitzer’s assistant on the New York World in 1923, and four years later joined The New York Times, where he remained until his retirement in 1966.
During a career that spanned six decades, Krock formed strong opinions on the personalities he encountered and the policies they favored. He is fulsome in his praise for Wilson, Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower, but had a running feud with Franklin Roosevelt and is harshly critical of Lyndon Johnson, the latter for his expansion of the Vietnam war and his pursuit of “a neosocialist welfare state.” In this book of reminiscences and opinions we are treated to a revealing portrait of the journalist as Establishment insider.
Krock not only reported on official Washington, he identified with it and saw his role as “The Washington Correspondent” of the Times as conferring special responsibilities and advantages. Unlike Pearson, who is a gut fighter, Krock is Olympian, and the difference is not simply one of style. Pearson, for example, fought McCarthyism from the beginning, while Krock was more disturbed by the “infiltration of Communists and crypto-Communists within the official [government] structure,” than by the “wild exaggerations” of the late Senator from Wisconsin. Pearson’s weakness is his inaccuracy and the not infrequent pettiness of his exposés. Buried just beneath the crusading muckraker lies the malicious gossip columnist. Krock’s strength is his detachment and his integrity, but for all his distinction as a reporter, he remains an isolated and dated figure—basically a decent and urbane man who has stood fast as history went rushing by, rather like Herbert Hoover, whom he admired.
The Jewish boy from the South who made good in the East and got to know eleven Presidents, Krock chose to identify with the rich and the powerful. He epitomized what made the Times a great, and an often intolerably smug, newspaper, and in the age of mass democracy he remained a pillar of the dying class system. His memoirs are full of shrewd observations and revealing portraits. But for anyone who does not share the conservative values of Arthur Krock, they are marred by bad temper, narrowness of vision, and a crippling nostalgia for the past. Unlike Walter Lippmann, a contemporary who has remained perpetually young by continually showing the courage to re-examine his assumptions, Krock seems mired in an earlier age.
Not only is he alienated from what he refers to as the “spoiled generations” of younger people and those corrupted by Federal handouts, but he is unsympathetic, perhaps even hostile, to the black American’s struggle for equality. He speaks of President Johnson’s “radical compulsory racial integration measures that would have infringed the ‘civil rights’ of the American people as a whole,” excoriates the Department of Justice as having “spinelessly established the fact of being a Negro as a grant of immunity for most notorious flagrant violators of both the civil and criminal laws,” criticizes “the ethnic groups containing a large percentage of criminals [that] brings constant pressure on Congress to legislate Johnson’s Great Society programs,” and bemoans the fate of the “Federal judiciary that is constantly defied by the population groups that make a career of violating the law.”
What makes Krock’s book seem so dated is not that many of the stories he relates happened long ago, but that the personality which infuses these memoirs seems to have stopped its development somewhere in the early 1950s, if not before. From the Age of Eisenhower (which he views as “one of the most notable” in American history), Arthur Krock seems to have found little to rouse his passion other than a condemnation of the young and the dispossessed. One feels in this book that the club house door has been left open too long, that the smell of the stables is seeping into the cozily paneled rooms, and no one knows quite what to do about it except to complain a little louder.
The difference between Arthur Krock and Tom Wicker, the current Washington bureau chief of the Times, is dramatized in JFK and LBJ, the latter’s account of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Where Krock is patrician and backward-looking, Wicker, who also happens to be a Southerner, is ironic, serious, and impassioned. His column, since the semi-retirement of Lippmann, is easily the best coming out of Washington, and he is well aware that there is more to reporting than having lunch with Cabinet members and golfing with generals. It is Wicker, and sometimes Wicker alone, who breathes life into the moribund editorial page of the Times, and who has that rare ability to put the news into perspective without becoming rarified and abstract.
JFK and LBJ, whose subtitle is “the influence of personality upon politics,” seeks to explain why Kennedy could not achieve his legislative goals and why Johnson allowed the Great Society to become a victim of the Vietnam war. It is an entertaining book that is not really up to Wicker’s capabilities. The section on Kennedy is rather pedestrian and occasionally descends to bad journalese, but the analysis of Johnson’s character is perceptive and fascinating. The book, incidentally, is dedicated to his two predecessors as Washington bureau chief, James Reston and Arthur Krock.
All three of these men—Pearson, Krock, and Wicker—would normally be considered Washington insiders par excellence. That, after all, is their job and they do it well. But behind their success remains the nagging question of whether these famous insiders, through their influence upon their readers, really affect policy at all. We are supposed to live under a government responsive to public will and public needs. But is this in fact the case, and are these insiders, for all their familiarity with the mighty and their ways, any less outsiders than the rest of us? It would be instructive to know the real influence of the press upon politics. There is a topic for Tom Wicker’s talents before he retires to write his memoirs.