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The Politics Before Us

The following is based on the transcript of an extemporaneous speech given by Tom Wicker to a meeting sponsored by the New Democratic Coalition in New York on January 12.

I was asked to talk today about the results of the 1970 elections and where they may have left us. I’m going to pass over the numbers game that we’ve played in Washington since those elections. I’m going to pass over the question of whether or not there is an ideological majority of one kind or another in the Senate. I’m going to get right down to the literal fact and say that it seems to me that the only thing you can say about the 1970 elections is that the Democrats picked up nine seats in the House and the Republicans one and a half senators. If you wonder how there can be a half-senator, you haven’t met some of those fellows.

Getting beyond the numbers game to some results of the 1970 elections that may mean something, I would say first that there was no further swing to the Republicans in the South. After at least a decade and a half of a steady Republican trend in the South, the Republicans did not make any further gains.

In fact, they lost two governorships they had held, and two more they had hoped very much to win. They won only one seat in Congress and that was from the valley of Virginia. So I would suggest that Nixon may be in a good deal more trouble in 1972 in achieving even as many electoral votes in the South as he did in ‘68, particularly since Governor Wallace now appears to be ready to run entirely as a Southern candidate, trying to consolidate the Southern vote as best he can. And after his four years in office, it will not be as easy for Southern voters to delude themselves that somehow the election of Richard Nixon will turn back the tide of the civil rights movement.

There are some other consequences. There is no real evidence, it seems to me, of the kind of conservative trend that had been predicted. I’m not talking necessarily about conservatism as against the old New Deal or conservatism in economics or anything of that sort. I have in mind a sort of law-and-order conservatism, a crackdown on the dissidents. I saw no evidence of any such trend in the 1970 elections, despite the assiduous efforts of the Administration and most of the press to convince us that there was such a trend.

Another thing I didn’t see in the 1970 elections was a vast, overwhelming demand for the Democratic party. People like to cite all the governorships the party won. They should look at the governorship in Nebraska, for instance, in which the man who was elected there was about as far to the right, particularly in economic matters, as you could get, even though he ran in the Democratic party. In fact, he displaced a relatively moderate, progressive Republican governor who committed the sin of raising taxes in order to try to provide services for the people. So I saw no overwhelming trend to the Democrats, particularly since so many of their victories were won out of a rather sterile dependence on the economic dislocations that the Democratic party itself had managed to produce in the 1960s.

Another result of those elections is that there seemed to me to be no vast demand for the Republican party either. As I’ve said, they lost nine seats in the House, despite the fact that they hadn’t carried the House in ‘68, which meant that there was no reservoir of weak Republican seats there, ready to be taken back by the Democrats. They failed to gain much in the Senate despite the fact that in the two previous elections for this class of senators—1958 and 1964—there had been a Democratic landslide.

And finally, it seemed to me that there was no evidence that the leadership of the Republican party, the President and the Vice President—in their strategy, their personal performances, or their actual appearances in the various states—had any overwhelming effect on the electorate, except negative.

I saw no vast demand for either party in those elections and therefore the only real conclusion that I’d venture about 1970 is that President Nixon did not improve himself. He did not, as the quarterbacks say, get good field position for 1972 or for his party, except in one sense. Politics being what they are, I would suggest that his willingness to expose himself to every lost cause from Ralph Smith to George Murphy and to work as hard as he could for the party probably cemented his intraparty leadership. At the same time, the failure of Reagan to reach the majority predicted for him by such experts as Evans and Novak seems to me to have lessened the possibility of a right-wing challenge to Nixon. Now a recent column by Kevin Phillips has raised the possibility of a left-wing challenge to Nixon, if indeed there are those who can regard a challenge from Governor Rockefeller as a left-wing challenge. But I would think that President Nixon’s party leadership and hold on the party probably are now a little bit stronger than one might have expected.

Another more obvious conclusion is that Senator Muskie is now the front runner for the Democratic party, and the polls seem to confirm this. But I think that that’s a mixed benefit. I can recall when Governor Romney was the front runner at just about this same time in 1967. I wouldn’t want to compare the two but, generally speaking, I would say that a front runner at this stage does have a number of problems to contend with.

He’s everyone’s target in both parties. Every time that some issue arises he’s expected to comment on it. And in this case, there’s another doubly difficult problem for Senator Muskie: he is in danger of becoming identified suddenly and right away as the candidate of the LBJ-Mayor Daley-John Connally wing of the Democratic party. And I don’t think there’s any doubt at the moment that this wing of the party, with certain reservations, is indeed in favor of Muskie because he appears to be a man who might reconcile it with other wings of the party. Finally, I think Muskie’s position as front runner is endangered by the fact that he still must face what I expect to be vigorous opposition in the Democratic primaries in 1972.

A final conclusion that I would draw from the election, after these two, is that American politics are still unsettled and not moving in any clear direction. I see no evidence, for example, that there’s some huge rightwing swing in the Atlantic community, heralded by the election of Edward Heath, and that Nixon and the Republicans are simply following suit along that line.

Nor is there evidence of a great left-wing swing. I think it is useful here to compare the Presidential elections of 1960 and 1968. The election of 1964 was exceptional because it followed so closely after the death of President Kennedy. In retrospect there was never any doubt that the Democratic nominee was going to be elected to complete that period as best people thought it could be. People didn’t want three Presidents in the space of a little over a year. But if you look at the elections of 1960 and 1968, they were both, as we say in the South, as tight as Dick’s hatband: very close elections in which very few votes either way could have changed the outcome. In fact, if you look at all the Presidential elections, excluding 1964, since 1948, and if you add up all the votes cast for Republicans and all the votes cast for Democrats they come to just about the same numerical total.

During this entire period, there hasn’t been a clear trend in American politics, except toward the ultimate bankruptcy of the New Deal. Certainly there has not been a clear ideological trend and I don’t think there is one now, nor that the 1970 elections suggested anything of the kind.

I would think then that this means, as we look ahead to 1972 and beyond, that we are in for a continuation of the rather turbulent and embittered politics that we have become accustomed to in recent years, a politics with a very strident base of moral enthusiasm, of ideological sentiment, of zeal on the part of partisans of both sides—a politics in sharp contrast to that of only ten or fifteen years ago, which was much more nearly compromise, coalition politics.

A more turbulent and embittered politics will mean that people like the New Democratic Coalition in New York and the ethnic groups and the blacks and the young are going to demand, or try to find, forms to make ends mean something. They will demand participation in politics, that their views be taken into account. So I think turbulence and a demand for participation can be expected to continue for many years and are not something peculiar to a particular generation in America.

I also suggest that we’ve probably entered an era of one-term Presidencies. This has nothing particularly to do with Mr. Nixon. President Johnson, I suggest, is the first victim of that circumstance.

Until now in the twentieth century we have, by and large, expected that our Presidents would win two terms. The only Presidents who have sought re-election in the twentieth century and failed to win it were Taft, who went down in the Bull Moose split, and Hoover, who went down in the Depression. Just this week in a column advocating a six-year Presidency, William S. White stated the assumption that, generally speaking, American Presidents win two terms. I think that that assumption now ought to be changed. The assumption now ought to be, in my judgment, that a President seeking re-election probably is going to be in deep trouble. That doesn’t mean that he can’t get elected—the opposition party might help elect him, as could happen in ‘72. But he’s going to be in deep trouble, rather than having an easy time.

The most obvious reason for this is that communications are beginning to work for the outs too, as we saw on election eve last year, when the President’s speech was seen by Democratic politicians as helpful. While the White House is a “bully pulpit,” as Theodore Roosevelt said, when the man in the White House goes on television, he’s not necessarily a bully preacher.

Communications can work for the outs and after our twenty-odd years of experience with television, I am beginning to believe that television burns out politicians about the same way it does comedians. (This seems a possible explanation for the decline and fall of Spiro T. Agnew.)

The man in office appears very often on television in turbulent surroundings. He seems to be the man who is struggling with difficulties, with controversies. Whereas the fellow who is seeking his office, like Senator Muskie coming out of his den on the banks of the Allagash River in Maine, speaks very pleasantly about how things could be.

Perhaps this danger of politicians being burned out has something to do with the nature of the Presidency itself. Many profound things happened in the American soul in 1960. But in particular, I think that the monarchical sense that we once had of the Presidency—the willingness to rally ‘round the Presidency, no matter who the occupant was—has been diminished by the revelations that this institution too has feet of clay, that we cannot necessarily trust what it tells us, that its wisdom is not necessarily far-reaching.

Incidentally, I think the very office itself has lost something of the magical aura that it once had. In Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation, for instance, that particular aura infuses every page. In Acheson’s book, which is pre-eminently a book of a man of the Forties and Fifties, there is a sense that the President, no matter who he is or what he’s been, somehow is all of a sudden set apart from the rest of us.

I think there are not many of us who believe that any more. And I think this has diminished the power of the politician President to use the institutional office to protect himself.

But the major reason why we may be coming into an era of one-term Presidencies is that the problems are becoming too difficult. We expect the President today to be everything from the mayor of Hoboken to the leader of the free world. We expect him to wear a Green Beret and a hard hat and to throw out the first ball for the Washington Senators.

At the same time we have had a shift in American politics from the old, relatively simplistic issue of improving the standard of living to a great many more complicated, difficult issues that don’t necessarily yield to legislation. Many of us have been disillusioned since the late Fifties, when we expected the civil rights legislation to have a tremendous impact on racial amity in this country. It hasn’t. If anything, this legislation had the opposite effect.

So we begin to see that passing bills and proclaiming policies don’t really have the impact that we once thought they did. Presidents, therefore, it seems to me, are victims of the pace of change. I think it’s a fair assessment of Mr. Nixon’s first two years that he came to office having spent the preceding four years not noticing what was happening in the country while he ran for office: you can’t notice what’s happening in the country if you’re running. So in his first two years in office he attempted to be an Eisenhower President, and also, in a way, a Kennedy President, someone who could deal with the chessboard problems of the world—a checkmate here, a gambit to be pulled on Nasser there—without realizing that the house was coming down around his ears.

And if anything is encouraging in Washington today it is that the pundits say that Mr. Nixon, in preparing to get himself re-elected in 1972, is turning to domestic affairs. It’s encouraging because I think the word may have gotten through to him that his view, expressed to Theodore White before the election, that you don’t really need a President for domestic affairs, you just need a Cabinet, isn’t good enough any more. It isn’t the era of Eisenhower.

The problems in the country are intractable. They don’t necessarily respond to politics or to policy but they all have the effect of reacting against the man who’s in the White House. That’s why I think Presidents are going to come up every four years from now on and find themselves in deep trouble because they will not have been able to deal with the matters that people see as their real problems.

The real problem in America today, and the gut issue of our politics, does not, as I’ve said, have very much to do with the standard of living. We’re glutted in this country with the standard of living. Nor do I think we are undergoing some kind of psychological breakdown because all of a sudden, as some have argued, we’ve been projected into history. We were projected into history a half-century ago. And a half-century, the way time moves nowadays, is five centuries. Nor do I think we’re entering Professor Reich’s Consciousness III either. I might myself welcome it if we were, but I don’t think it’s happening.

What has really got us in its grip today in my judgment is the general concern, a lament from the farthest right to the farthest left, and from the poorest to the richest, with the breakdown of American life, because American life doesn’t work any more. You can’t get your garbage picked up and you can’t get a quick and easy ride to work on the subway. Or if you get on the freeway with your car, the traffic doesn’t move. Or if you walk you get hit over the head and somebody takes your wallet. As George Wallace says, the crook will be out of court before you’re out of the hospital and that is a fact, even if George Wallace did say it.

Because every time that the publisher of The New York Times gives you a handsome raise, well deserved for the work that you’ve done so beautifully the past year, prices go up faster, and taxes go up, and in the long run your check shows you have less net money at the end of the month.

Because you can’t stand to breathe the air, and if you live in Washington the Potomac River will make you sick when you drink it. And because of the lack of quality from top to bottom in American life. Because when you turn on the television you don’t see anything but junk. And when you go down to the store and buy something you don’t get anything but junk.

Last year at Christmas we bought my daughter a radio record player. And by God we had to take it back because it didn’t work. And then the second one they gave us, we had to take that back because it didn’t work. And finally we had to take the third one we got to a shop and get them to adjust the speed of the turntable.

At the same time we bought for our son one of those little mini-bikes and we had to take that back because it didn’t work, and that tells you something about materialism in American life as well as the lack of quality. It sometimes seems there’s not any damn thing you can buy that’s worth a damn. And we all know that.

What’s bothering the people today is that life has broken down in this country. In the midst of wealth, in the midst of plenty, above all, in the midst of pretensions, life has broken down. We can’t hear ourselves think for the noise in the streets and most of the noise in the streets comes from where we are tearing down our heritage and everything that’s worthwhile in this country, and putting up plastic and pressed concrete that twenty years from now we’ll have to tear down and put up all over again.

It’s not just the war in Vietnam and it’s not just that we’re shipping all those arms abroad. It’s that we’re concealing from ourselves the fact that we’re doing those things, as the recent Senate hearings have just revealed.

It’s the persistence of racial strife in this country, despite all the legislation that we’ve passed, and all that we’ve tried to do. What does that mean?

The persistence of racial strife in this country means that there’s something wrong with us, not something wrong with the laws, and we know that. Welfare—it doesn’t matter how liberal you are or how conservative you are, you know that the way we give out welfare is wrong. It’s a bad system. There’s something wrong with it and yet we can’t change it.

So I think the general concern from the poorest black to the richest white and everybody in between is that American life has broken down; it doesn’t work; in the midst of pretensions and wealth it doesn’t work.

Why doesn’t it work?

I don’t know all the reasons why, but perhaps I can try to suggest some of them. One reason is that the pace of change has moved like a bullet. In the twenty-five years since World War II, technology has made this country move, as none of Detroit’s automobiles will move. And while this has happened, all of our institutions have grown old, their arteries have hardened and they’ve dug in their heels and they’re entrenched.

And I would say that there are really four of these institutions that matter, in the broadest sense:

There is the bureaucracy, federal, state, and local.

There are the labor unions.

There are the corporations.

And there are the political parties.

All of them are overaged and entrenched and dug in and refuse to change, and all of them are holding us back. That’s what we’ve got to go for.

Here I get to the weakest part of my thesis, because now you say, all right, how are we going to do it? I don’t know. But I know this: If we’re going to do it in any way, we’re not going to do it by moderation.

I want to say that, in the interests of saving America, moderation is no virtue and extremism is no vice. And I stand behind that.

We’ve got to have a political movement in America, a political movement that will be at least of the courage and foresightedness of the consumer movement under Ralph Nader. We’ve got to have something that goes beyond the embryonic lobby movement headed by John Gardner. We’ve got to incorporate the various environmental movements that have shown what can be done here. The SST has been beaten in the Senate. Or if it hasn’t been beaten it may at least be whipped into some kind of shape that the human race can live with.

Something else we’ve got to do, if we’re going to have a political movement that comes anywhere close to matching these other movements, and I say this with some regional pride, we’ve got to go back and study the George Wallace example. George Wallace is a man who stands on a side of the spectrum which I don’t share, but I come from people who do share it; and those people who do share it are good people. The mere fact that they vote for George Wallace doesn’t mean that they’re bad people; it means that they’re upset like the rest of us about things that affect their lives. George Wallace showed that you don’t have to take it.

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.

Postscript

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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