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The Politics Before Us

The importance of George Wallace in 1968 was not so much what we thought it was and what I thought it was, that he might throw the election into the House of Representatives or hold the balance of power in the Electoral College or something of that sort. The importance of George Wallace was the influence he had on Richard Nixon, on Richard Nixon’s campaign and on his administration. It behooves not so much the Democratic party as all those who would seek faith in the Democratic party to learn that lesson. The Democratic party is not going to be moved by anything less than the same amount of power that George Wallace wields on the Republican party.

I’m not opposed to Senator Muskie. But whether it’s Senator Muskie or anyone else, I don’t think that a moderate, centrist candidate, nominated by the Democratic party in 1972, even though he may defeat the present incumbent in the White House, is going to make one damn bit of difference.

The question is how do we make a difference? And I confess I don’t know how. But the best that I can say is that George Wallace made a difference in the Republican party, and a difference that we all deplore.

When the Democratic party goes into convention—no doubt in Chicago again in 1972, because of course that blot must be wiped from the escutcheon of our leading Democrat—unless it is confronted with a monumental threat that has behind it more than words, a threat that has behind it people who have said and have made their intention plain, that if necessary they’re going to be on the ballot, and they’re going to be on the ballot in fifty states, and they’re going to advocate certain things, I make the prediction here today that the Democratic party will nominate someone who will, as they say, “pull us together.” And who will then be elected—and who will not make any difference.

Questions and Answers

Blair Clark: I’d like to ask Tom Wicker what he thinks the importance of the primary is going to be. As I understand it there are going to be twenty-three state primaries in 1972, as against about fourteen in 1968. And I’ve just learned that in the three weeks after Oregon there will be, if Illinois passes the law, primaries in Illinois, California, and New York, which is about a third of the convention. And all these primaries will take place during a three-week period.

So, do you think the ball game is going to be decided in the primary?

Wicker: Well, I don’t know, but that fact alone is of interest because after the early upsurge of primaries in the first part of this century, primaries declined to the point where President Truman referred to them as eyewash, right after he’d lost one. And now obviously they’re coming back in many ways. There’ll be a primary in New Mexico, for instance, which I would suppose is an opening for the Spanish-speaking vote, and the same vote will come into play in New York, too.

I wouldn’t want to say yet that in 1972 the primaries will decide the Democratic nominee. In the first place I would think the chances are reasonably good that the primaries will split up—they won’t show one man sweeping them all.

I would just make a rough guess at this point, and it’s very rough indeed. I would doubt very seriously for instance whether Senator Humphrey or Senator Kennedy would officially enter any primaries. It wouldn’t seem to me the right thing for either of them to do. Hence you might have two rather symbolic figures in the party, waiting for all the other men to burn themselves out in the primaries, in which case you might have a convention decision between those two rather symbolic figures.

That’s one possibility. Certainly it’s very difficult for me to see how someone might establish a sweeping dominance of those primaries. Apart from that, I would doubt very seriously that primaries would be the final word. What I also doubt is that the Democratic party could again just nominate someone in total contempt of what the primary results had shown. But that’s not quite the same thing as saying a primary winner would be the nominee.

Wilfrid Sheed: The question of bad workmanship that you raise reminded me of the way Tories talked about the Labour government, in England, just after the war: you couldn’t get a job of work done. And I’m wondering if this idea of a sort of disciplined working class can really fit with any kind of Reichian future.

Wicker: Well, as a dedicated “Con II,” I’m not sure whether I can conjure up a Reichian future. But I am inclined to think that in the age of technology and mass production and so forth, we’re not going to have very much Sheraton furniture produced again. But, at the same time isn’t it true that those things that we have wished to do and to which we have really devoted ourselves in some pointed fashion—the moon shot being the classic example—have been done with meticulous efficiency and, I think, craftsmanship?

Soulless, perhaps, but meticulous. And so, I don’t know that the two things are mutually exclusive. In the long view of history, which isn’t terribly long any more, I can’t conceive of the United States being a great society over any long period of time if it’s a society that has no respect for itself.

And if you don’t do your work right, if you don’t try to do the best job you can, if you’re not interested in the craftsmanship of what it is that you’re up to, then I think you have no respect for yourself. And I think that one of the things that’s really bothering the American people today is that too many of us in effect, in whatever field of work we’re in, are setting bogus type.

I mean, we’re making our living not doing anything that matters. You drive down the streets of Los Angeles or Phoenix or any of the new automobile cities and look at the business establishments on either side, look at them with the single criterion of how many are absolutely essential to the sustenance of life in Phoenix or Los Angeles. And they’re damn few. And there are people in there who are manufacturing soft ice cream and running bowling alleys, whose livelihood is not necessary to the maintenance of the community. Now some of these things are marginal. Sometimes you can say, well, I’m advantageous to the community even if I’m not necessary to the community. But there are a hell of a lot of people who exist there, and they make relatively good livings in a material sense only because they are able to con people into thinking they need whatever it is that they’re selling.

I hesitate to say what the problems of young people and black people are because I obviously don’t know, in either case. But it seems to me that one of the major problems for younger people in the country today is that they don’t have anything useful to do. When I grew up, not too many years ago, in the South, I had lots of useful things to do. If I didn’t bring in the wood and coal at night, my family didn’t keep warm. That was a useful thing to do. My children don’t have anything useful to do.

And as they go into life and beyond the schools and are trying to spend their lives as citizens, people want to have something useful to do; they don’t want to sell soft ice cream. The man who is convicted like a criminal to setting bogus type for the rest of his life—they may be paying him three dollars an hour but his life is as empty as a basket with all the eggs taken out of it.

Raymond Rubinow: Mr. Wicker, would it be a correct inference from what you’ve been saying to us that you’ve seen no overwhelming demand for either party, that the mechanism of American life seems to have broken down; that four major institutions are fairly well dug in, and that no centrist candidate who will unite the party will make much of a difference? Is it a correct inference from what you’ve said that maybe none of the present known candidates will make the kind of difference you’re talking about?

Wicker: You always have to put up the caveat against that: nobody thought that Roosevelt was going to make much difference, either, in 1932. But of course he was running with the country lying there in tatters, you know, which it may be today but not quite so visibly and not so demonstrably.

So I don’t know, but my instinct (which as a hack journalist over the years I’ve found is better than my sources) tells me that what you said is right. But on the other hand that leaves such a bleak panorama out in front of us, I hesitate to say that, and you see, I want to believe in all of those people.

I want to believe that American political life, more or less as we know it, without really sweeping change, that it will suffice. So I’m willing to go against the evidence for a while. But no, I really think I have to say, if I’m going to be honest with you, that I don’t see the man I’m talking about. It bothers me because I think that we could almost as easily have someone of a malignant nature who might capture our imagination.

I said that to Adam Walinsky and he made the significant point that he thought one bit of evidence against that was the fact that Agnew has signally failed to arouse a tremendous movement. I think that’s right. Nonetheless I think it’s a danger. And what does a President do, when you come down to it? Particularly if you accept what I’ve said, that conventional politics and policy are not necessarily the answer, what does a President do?

In the first place I think that in a very mystical way a President makes a real connection with the American people. Of course, once you say something is mystical you are avoiding defining it further; but you feel somehow that the President, he’s of you and a part of you.

I honestly believe President Kennedy made that connection—strange as it may seem for a rich man, and so on. I don’t think either President since has made it.

That’s the first thing. The President can make a connection somehow and you feel, you trust, you believe, you know that that man’s a part of you. And after he’s made that connection, what else does he do? He sets a tone. Or perhaps he gives you a vision. Or he makes you believe somehow that you really are better than you have been. Or he makes you believe that if you aren’t better you could have been. And he gives you something to aim for. And I believe that what we need more than anything else today is a leader of that kind.

I take issue with those who say that we’ve got to be “issues-oriented.” What the hell, we’ve been issues-oriented in this country, and now we’ve got to go beyond issues. We’ve got to go somewhere into the American soul. And we need a President today that we can believe in, who will set a tone in this country, and there’s only one tone that’s going to work: We’ve got to have a President who will set a tone of generosity to the weak and justice for the disadvantaged, and of magnanimity. All this meanness and this toughness we’ve been hearing about—all these hard-nosed types, these people who are really going to audit the books and all that—that’s not going to do it.

Seymour Melman: From 1946 until now, the Pentagon has used up eleven hundred billion dollars of the nation’s capital, and that’s the value of all the structures in place in the United States. And if you allow for the implied loss of productive services for the parasitic use therein, the cost to the country has been two thousand, two hundred billions, or the total national wealth. Disallowing only the value of the land.

How in the world can you talk about saving America, improving the quality of life, materially and otherwise, in better style, without posting right up in front the proposition that to save America you must put down the Pentagon. And I didn’t hear a line of reference about the Pentagon in your remarks or in any of the comments…and its absence is the checkmate on dealing with every one of those issues as it will be on dealing with every attempt to redo the quality of life in this society.

Or do you think that’s wrong?

Wicker: I think you may be right.


After seeing these effusions in cold print, I am conscious of what might appear to be a contradiction. First, I called for a form of organized political action to bring certain pressures on the Democratic party. But in answering a question, I said that what we most needed was a leader to give the nation a new vision of itself. I place far more reliance on personality than on political organization and therefore I believe that if the kind of leader I talked about were available, or should make himself known, there would be little need for the organized pressure movement I described; because I think the country is literally crying out for such a man. But we do not have that leader, in my judgment, or if we do, we don’t yet know it. It is that sad circumstance that leads me to believe that the most hopeful alternative lies in political organization and pressure from the outside on the Democratic party. I am well aware that this is a second choice and a poor second at that.

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