“President and Mrs. Johnson are planning the most extensive arts festival ever held in the White House,” reported the New York Times on May 27th. It would last thirteen hours, there would be exhibitions of current American painting, sculpture, and photography; programs of American plays, movies, ballet, and music; and readings by two novelists, Saul Bellow and John Hersey, two poets. Robert Lowell and Phyllis McGinley, and one popular biographer, Catherine Drinker Bowen. The Johnsonian consensus: Bellow and Lowell balanced against Hersey and McGinley, with Miss Bowen added to the democratic, or kitschy, side of the scale to make it all the more consensual. As the drunk said about the books in Jay Gatsby’s library: “Absolutely real—have pages and everything…. See! It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter…. This fella’s a regular Belasco! What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?” Our President, too, is a regular Belasco for realistic stage settings and, like Gatsby, he knows when, and where, to stop: just beyond Miss Bowen. He doesn’t cut the pages. But what do you want, what do you expect? A consensus is a consensus.
A week later, the consensus was broken by Robert Lowell, who wrote a letter to the President that appeared on the front page of the June 3rd Times:
…. Although I am very enthusiastic about most of your domestic legislation and intentions, I nevertheless can only follow our present foreign policy with the greatest dismay and distrust…. We are in danger of imperceptibly becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation, and we may even be drifting on our way to the last nuclear ruin.
I know it is hard for the responsible man to act; it is also painful for the private and irresolute man to dare criticism. At this anguished, delicate and perhaps determining moment, I feel I am serving you and our country best by not taking part in the White House Festival of the Arts.
In the same issue of the Times, statements appeared by Bellow and Hersey explaining why they had decided not to join Lowell. Neither expressed disagreement with his “dismay and distrust” (though Bellow seemed to accept Vietnam, criticizing only the Dominican occupation; I’m told he had first written a much stronger letter but then, like his Herzog, didn’t send it; there was to be plenty of Herzogian behavior by others at the Festival). Bellow reasoned—logically enough if one doesn’t accept Lowell’s premise that our recent foreign policy is so shameful and disastrous as to make it an overriding consideration even in lending support to a Presidential arts festival—that it was not “a political occasion which demands agreement with Mr. Johnson on all the policies of his administration.” “Moreover,” he concluded, “Mr. Johnson is not simply this country’s principal policy-maker. He is an institution. When he invited me to Washington, I accepted in order to show my respect for his intentions and to honor his high office.” This makes no sense to me. President Harding had “intentions” and he was also “an institution” to whose “high office” honor was, on this reasoning, due. But I don’t think Bellow, had he been anachronistically invited to the White House then, would have accepted, any more than Emerson and Thoreau would have agreed to read from their works if President Polk had staged an arts festival during the Mexican War.
Mr. Hersey said he was “deeply troubled by the drift toward reliance on military solutions in our foreign policy” but that he felt he could “make a stronger point by standing in the White House, I would hope in the presence of the President, and reading from a work of mine entitled Hiroshima.”
The day Lowell’s letter appeared in the Times I was asked to sign a telegram to the President supporting his position, which I gladly did because I agreed with its content and admired its personal, unrhetorical style. The statement appeared in the next morning’s Times (June 4) and the same morning I received a telegram: “THE PRESIDENT AND MRS. JOHNSON INVITE YOU TO THE WHITE HOUSE FESTIVAL OF THE ARTS TO BEGIN AT 10 AM ON JUNE 14TH AND CONTINUE THROUGH THE EVENING…” After some thought, and consultation, I decided that while the most consistent course, morally and intellectually, would be to refuse—also, if I may say so, the easiest—it might be more fruitful to accept, so that at least one critical observer would be there to report on what happened. So I wired my acceptance to the Festival’s impresario, Dr. Eric Goldman—Professor of History at Princeton and President Johnson’s chief cultural adviser—stating that, as he probably knew by then, I supported Lowell’s stand and should feel free to comment publicly on the Festival. On these terms I sacrificed, not for the first time, consistency, and possibly even good taste, in the interest of a larger objective.
It turned out to be worth it. For one thing, I secured a copy of a document of primary importance, whose significance none of the newspaper reports, including Howard Taubman’s copious account in the Times, seem to have grasped: the guest list.1 I’ve seen no mention, for instance, that there were two guest lists, one for the first sitting, from 10 AM on, and the other for the second, from 7 PM on. Each contained roughly 175 persons, but the first group was invited for the major part of the Festival while the second came in only for a cocktail party on the lawn followed by the President’s speech of welcome, a buffet supper, and two hours of ballet and jazz. The most enjoyable part of the day in fact, but still they were placed below the salt. The only rationale of this discrimination I can detect is that all the artists without exception—all the painters, sculptors and photographers—were relegated to the second sitting. A mistake, if one purpose of the Festival was, as a White House “source” suggested, to bring together the patron and the artist. But further examination of the guest list shows the aims to have been different. “Does anyone know exactly why this particular group of people is here or why this Festival is being held in the first place?” Mildred Dunnock asked. (She was there to give two soliloquies from Death of a Salesman—but, still, why?) Asked the same question later, Jack Valenti, a Presidential assistant, answered: “This is a wonderful thing to show the White House’s great interest in the arts. It doesn’t matter why, just that it was.” Theirs not to reason why…So one purpose was to give the Johnson administration a cultural image, a consensus of artists and writers reciprocating “the White House’s great interest in the arts” by turning out for the Festival.
But the main purpose was to impress not the actual producers of art or thought with the “White House’s great interest” but rather our cultural fuglemen (“a trained soldier stationed in front of a military company as a guide for the others in their exercises”), that is, directors and patrons of art museums, presidents of symphony orchestras (i.e., the money holders or raisers—no directors or composers of any note were present, not Stravinsky or Copland or Thomson or Carter or Stokowski or Barber or Harris or Bernstein or Menotti), organizers of local “arts councils,” and various pundits from TV, newspapers, and big-circulation magazines. Whether this purpose was achieved or not I don’t know, but that it was paramount an examination of the guest list shows.
Excluding the ex officio invitees who were asked because they were reading or acting or dancing or playing music or because their pictures or sculptures or movies or plays were on view—eighty would be a generous estimate, most of them in the below-the-salt 7 PM sitting—there were present at either 10 AM or 7 PM the following who might be considered to have some direct connection with arts and letters: Alfred H. Barr, James Johnson Sweeney, Ralph Ellison, Reed Whittemore (this year’s poet in residence at the Library of Congress), Thomas Hess (editor of Art News), José Limon, Russell Lynes, Paul Horgan, Pauline Kael (movie critic), Harold Taylor, Henry Geldzahler (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Frank Getlein (art critic), and myself. Adding, to be generous, ten or so newspaper critics (if there can be such a creature) and the art editor of Time, this comes to twenty-five participants who were some kind of artist or writer (and who were invited as part of the audience). Add five Senators and Congressmen (who seem to have been selected for political rather than cultural reasons—Javits, Lindsay, Morse, Robert Kennedy, Paul Douglas, and Fulbright are not on the list while Congressmen Brademas, Farnsley, and Thompson are, also Senators Cooper and Yarborough) and another five names I’ve at least heard of: Earl Warren, Sol Hurok, Abe Fortas, Irv Kupcinet (a Chicago columnist and TV impresario—“Kup’s show”—whose iridescent jacket livened things up) and the Hon. William Walton, chairman of the Washington Commission of Fine Arts and one of the few Kennedy intimates who were present.2 Adding these ten to the artists and intellectuals mentioned above, we get 113 names or about one-third of the participants, active or passive, in the Festival. What of the other two-thirds? A good number, perhaps thirty, are not identified nor do their names wake any resonance in my ear. No doubt Fred Lazarus and Mrs. Irma Lazarus, both of Cincinnati, Mrs. R. Max Brooks of Austin, Texas, and Dr. Abdul Hamid, the Rector of the University of Kabul, all had some reason for being there. Likewise the large New York City contingent of names unknown to me, such as Paul Leaf, Mr. and Mrs. Wright Rumbough, Jr., Lansdell K. Christie, and Orrin Christy, Jr.
There is no doubt, however, as to the identity of the great majority of participants. They were patrons, bureaucrats or entrepreneurs of culture: Dempster Christenson, Pres., Sioux Falls-Augustana Sym. Orch., S. Dak.; R. Phillips Hanes, Jr., Pres., Arts Council of America, Winston-Salem, N. C.; John D. Rockefeller III, Chr. Bd. Trustees, Lincoln Center, NYC; Mrs. Hugh Bullock, Pres., the Academy of American Poets, NYC; Hon. Roger Stevens, Chr., National Council on the Arts, Washington, D. C.; Col. Eben Henson, Pres., Kentucky Council of the Performing Arts, Danville, Ky.; and J. Paul Hewitt, Chr., Louisiana Commission on Culture and the Performing Arts, which seems to take care of everything.
I entered the White House on the dot of ten and was greeted cordially by an attractive young matron who gave me a smile, and a luxurious program with the President’s seal embossed on its laid-paper cover, and a large card with my name (misspelled “McDonald”) inscribed in bold calligraphy over a pale blue vignette of the White House. She pressed the gummy back side to my chest—rather like being decorated—and it stuck there all through that long day’s journey into night. I was then briefed on my next move (“Straight up the stairs, sir, then sharp right“) by one of the pleasant young officers who chivvied us about all day like respectful sheepdogs. Their crisp, incredibly clean white uniforms were accented only by brass buttons, silver shoulder-bars and one of those military shoulder corsages of gold cords and tassels looped over the left shoulder.
The first familiar face I saw, on emerging from the labyrinthine corridors, was Saul Bellow’s. He didn’t look happy. We greeted each other in a Stanley- Livingston mood, two exiles meeting amid all those strange natives. Nor was the mood dissipated for me, when we instantly began to argue, violently, about The Lowell Problem. Arguments are part of the New York ambience I’m used to and, for a few moments, I felt at home at The White House Festival of Arts. Our argument—can’t really call it a “dialogue,” not even a “discussion”—was cut short by one of the military sheepdogs who began to arrange us in line to be presented to the first lady. (“You must be pleased to see so many able-bodied young men not fighting in Vietnam,” a museum director observed to me.) We filed past Mrs. Johnson, murmuring our names to an officer-footman who repeated them to her, whereupon she smiled and shook hands with every appearance of delight. Since the President didn’t appear until eight o’clock that evening when he gave a brief speech of welcome, after which he disappeared without any handshakes or, from where I sat, smiles, I cannot report on him as a host. But his wife was a charming hostess, agreeable and indefatigible.
“10:25-10:30 AM. East Room. Mrs. Johnson opens the Festival with brief remarks” stated the program and so it came to pass. Logistically, the Festival was a great success. “A festival is a time for feasting and there is a rich feast indeed before us,” she began, optimistically. “The arts will be presented in many forms, all of which are warmly welcome in this house. For as Aristotle told us long ago, in part the arts imitate nature but in part they also ‘complete what nature cannot elaborate.”‘ She omitted the last sentence—I quote from the text given to the press—perhaps feeling, as a sensible woman, that, her ghost-writer had overestimated the capacity of her audience for a willing suspension of disbelief. But she did include the next three sentences, which perfectly sum up the consensual approach to culture: “There is something here for the taste of everyone. Each of us will like or dislike particular things. All contribute to the enormous vigor and diversity of the creative life in America.” Well, maybe, but only an omniverous Walt Whitman could have swallowed what was served up to us at Festival. My difficulty is that I like or dislike particular things; intensely; and regardless of the enormous vigor and diversity of the creative life. She concluded, as per script: “You have earned the gratitude of every American for the beauty, the meaning and the zest you are contributing to our lives.” That “you” was disturbing, surrounded as I was by patrons of symphony orchestras, the president of the American Watercolor Society, and John D. Rockefeller III. I was reminded, proportions gardées, of Henry Wallace’s post-war tour of Siberia in which he innocently saluted his audiences, composed of guards and officials in charge of forced-labor camps, as free-spirited pioneers taming the wild frontier in the best American tradition. “Men born in wide free spaces will not brook injustice and will not even temporarily live in slavery,” Mr. Wallace declaimed to the stupefied prison-wardens of Irkutsk.
Mark Van Doren, the compère of the literary session, now rose, looking very solemn, and began by noting with regret “the absence of Lowell”:
…I have been troubled as to whether I should speak of it at all; I do so now, after several previous attempts, merely as honoring the scruple of a fine poet who, in his own terms, was “conscience-bound” to stay away.
Originally, Mr. Van Doren had planned to say a great deal more—his “merely” above is accurate—and a typescript had been given out to the press. Some of it may be of interest:
…Surely it is no secret that many share his concern—I do, for one—and perhaps it is true that all of us, without exception, are somewhat uneasy. But the main point I wish to make is that Mr. Lowell, by acting and speaking as he did, honored an ancient tradition in the arts…. He spoke out of his deepest conviction…. Nothing prevents a poet from being a citizen, too; and if Mr. Lowell thought that his duty as a citizen was to be absent from this place, it is not for us who are present to doubt that he was as serious as he was sensitive, or that it was difficult for him to stay away. History will show whether his dismay and distrust were justified; meanwhile, however, he himself has made history, and it seems fitting to record, that simple fact.
Why did Van Doren omit, when he came to give the talk, all the politics and most of the praise for Lowell? Howard Taubman quotes Van Doren as saying he “had decided to shorten his comments after a talk with Bellow and Hersey,” while Drew Pearson writes that “Eric Goldman diplomatically persuaded Van Doren to eliminate most of the criticism.”
After Catherine Drinker Bowen had read, with spirit, an amusing extract from her biography of the late Justice Holmes, Saul Bellow, looking even more solemn than Mr. Van Doren, read, with less spirit, an extract from Herzog which was more amusing than Miss Bowen’s passage and, in every way, much the best writing we heard that morning.
Next came Phyllis McGinley, a pleasant-looking matron in a flowered hat who was introduced by Mr. Van Doren with the admonition that light verse can be fine poetry, too, and in Miss McGinley’s case, was: “She is nothing less than a poet.” The warning was wasted on me, since I am fond of light verse. The trouble was that Miss McGinley’s seemed on the heavy side. After “Apologia,” a soggy pastiche of Housman and Millay, she swung into her big number, lasting eight or nine minutes, “In Praise of Diversity,” an updated “Essay on Man”:
Counting no blessing but the flaw
That difference is the moral law.
(Could I have got that down right?) I don’t think Pope would have rhymed “sexes” with “Texas” or “beginning” with “original sinning” or “knee” with “courtesy.” Pop Pope, you might say. That this work was originally composed for recitation at a Columbia commencement is something to think about. Ever the obliging poetaster, Miss McGinley inserted, for the occasion, six new lines which take a firm, positive stand in favor of both and indeed all sides:
Applaud both dream and commonsense,
Born equal; then with all our power,
Let us, for once, praise Presidents
Providing Dream its festival hour.
And while the pot of culture’s bubblesome,
Praise poets, even when they’re troublesome.
John Hersey next rose to read passages from Hiroshima, not in the presence of the President, but with Mrs. Johnson in the first row. He prefaced them, speaking slowly and emphatically.
I read these passages on behalf of the great number of citizens who have become alarmed in recent weeks by the sight of fire begetting fire.
Let these words be a reminder. The step from one degree of violence to the next is imperceptibly taken and cannot easily be taken back. The end point of these little steps is horror and oblivion.
We cannot for a moment forget the truly terminal dangers, in these times, of miscalculation, of arrogance, of accident, of reliance not on moral strength but on mere military power. Wars have a way of getting out of hand.
Mr. Hersey is a reserved, gentlemanly fellow—also the newly appointed master of a Yale college—and it must have pained him to make such ungracious comments about her husband’s policies in the presence of his hostess. But he evidently shared Lowell’s “dismay and distrust” to such an extent that he insisted on making a statement that was impolite, irrelevant, and necessary.
From 11:20 to 12:10 the program advised “viewing of the works of art.” There was a lot of viewing of the works of art: again from 5 to 7 and, at the very end: “10:30 PM: Mrs. Johnson closes the Festival and guests will view the art.” Fortunately, the art proved to be, with the exception of Duke Ellington’s band, the best thing at the Festival: a broad representation of every kind of contemporary American painting and sculpture that was selected with sophisticated taste, all the more remarkable because it was assembled in three weeks from thirty museums. The photographic exhibition, however, was disappointing: poor examples of such masters as Stieglitz, Evans, and Abbott and too many chestnuts like Capa’s “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman.”
Luncheon was, as the card said, “hosted” by the National Art Gallery, to which we were transported in special buses, landing at the “rarely used Presidential entrance,” also called “the VIP entrance.” After lunch, George F. Kennan. former Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, now of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, and also President of the National Institute of Arts and Studies, addressed on the subject of “The Arts and American Society.” Fair enough. Mr. Kennan is an admirable man, an original and independent political thinker who writes well and has—or so I thought—a cultural background more common in the past among establishment figures than today. Like Adlai Stevenson. And like Stevenson, he was disappointing. What I could hear of his speech—the echoes in the stone-walled Garden Court were deafening—was not promising: “Beauty is open-ended…The artist is an odd ball…the helping hand of the Maecenas…he [the artist] must do what he can to shield the public from artistic frivolity and charlatanism.” (But frivolity I think an essential trait of any artist, and Baudelaire, writing of Poe, said truly: “A little charlatanism is permitted to genius.”)
Reading the text confirmed my suspicions. The central theme is that the artist must be tolerant of the public, and vice versa, because each needs the other. An American Civil Liberties Union approach: “These rules of mutual forbearance are the prerequisites, then, as I see them, for a successful relationship between American society and the arts.” I don’t think many practicing artists would feel elated by this solution, but luckily none were present.
There was also the curious matter, especially for such a stiffnecked character as Mr. Kennan, of a page and a half of additional remarks that was given out to the press just before lunch, but which he failed to deliver. They were addressed to what by that time had become The Lowell-Hersey-Van Doren Problem:
I do not wish to aggravate feelings that are already tense [he began, or rather had intended to begin] …The worker in the vineyard of the arts has, God knows, no obligation to agree with the government in matters of political policy, or to conceal his disagreement… [BUT] government is made up, in overwhelming majority, of honorable and well-meaning people charged with preserving the intactness of our national life, without which it is hard to picture any national culture at all… [BUT] People in government…will have to bear in mind…first of all, that in the moral spirit of this country, of which the arts are one of the great interpreters and custodians, we have a very special and precious thing—the very soul of the nation…Secondly, that artists and writers feel themselves today—more, I think, than ever before—a responsible part of the public conscience of the nation, and are recognized in this capacity by many others, particularly among the youth, and finally, this being so, and for their own sake as well, that there is reason to view with concern the anguish many of them feel over these problems, and to respect their need and their longing to be permitted to identify with the methods and the tone of American diplomacy no less than with its objectives.
Why Mr. Kennan decided at the last minute not to pronounce in public words he had already given to the press I do not know. The Washington Evening Star (which quotes most of the above) suggests that Kennan himself was of two minds even after he had non-said his additional remarks: “He told at least one reporter he had no objection to their being quoted anyhow, even though undelivered, and told another reporter he didn’t want them quoted at all. Then he went off to catch a plane for Yugoslavia, where he is to make a speech today, leaving behind with White House cultural adviser Eric Goldman a brief ‘clarifying’ statement that didn’t seem to clarify anything.”
Back to the White House for an hour of music, which I don’t pretend to judge, but I’m told the Louisville Symphony Orchestra played well and Roberta Peters was in good voice when she sang Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Then to the East Room again (3:45-4:15 PM) where Helen Hayes introduced gracefully (all too) ten-minute excerpts from two “classics” (The Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman) and two recent plays by young writers: Frank Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses and Millard Lampell’s Hard Travelin‘. The last was the only one that came off: written with style and pace, and well played by Moses Gunn and Tom Ligon. Miss Hayes was fluttery and exalted. The First Lady of the American Stage. She wondered why plays had become so “grimly realistic” since “the joy and fun of my salad days.” But she soon cheered up: the new playwrights “sometimes draw the picture a little too dark” but “Oh what power they put into their words!” There was also some Kennanesque talk about the role of art in “helping people to understand themselves.”
Back to the dining room to view a half-hour of “The Motion Picture,” very brief film clips from movies by Hitchcock, Wyler, Kazan, Stevens, and Zinneman which, except for the famous taxicab scene between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger from On the Waterfront, were mediocre or worse. They consulted six film critics—but not me, possibly because they suspected I would have recommended giving the whole thirty minutes to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. The chief interest was provided by Charlton Heston, the “narrator,” a fine figure of a man bursting with health and ideas. “The salt shaker is essential to cinema, especially to the American movie,” he began. I’m not sure just what he meant; not cum grano salis as I’d hoped, but probably the literal object since he went on “Bogart with a toothpick, Chaplin with a cane, these are hard to beat…Film has been described as the most uniquely American of all the arts.” From this seed Mr Heston nurtured a healthy growth of chauvinism until finally all the grea directors abroad were getting their stuff, really, by copying the ungreat directors in Hollywood. His introductions to the film clips were also memorable: “We know what Hitchcock can do with Janet Leigh and a bathtub.…His style is subjective because his ideas don’t exist as persuasion but as experience.” (That’s what my notes say.) “To define Stevens’s style is to trace the melodic line of Mozart.”
After a two-hour recess, we assembled at seven for the home stretch: a cocktail party in the garden with Mrs. Johnson circulating amiably and unweariedly, the President’s speech from the stage that had been erected to be used later, after an al fresco supper on the lawn, for a ballet performance “hosted” by Gene Kelly and then an hour of Duke Ellington’s band.
The President’s speech had its Hestonesque moments. But the passage which scared me was:
Every President has known that our people look to this city, and this House, not only to follow but to lead, not only to listen but to teach, not only to obey their will but to help design their purpose. The Presidency is…a wellspring of moral leadership. [I think he left out “moral” but let’s hope my ear was wrong.] We are using this great power to help move toward justice for all our people, not simply because American freedom depends on it. And we are trying to stimulate creation, not because of our personal tastes or desires but because American greatness will rest on it. This is the true meaning of this occasion.
I don’t like that “leadership,” moral or not, nor do I want my purpose to be designed by anybody else, not even McGeorge Bundy. And I’d be much easier in mind if the President’s attempt to “stimulate creation” grew from his own “personal tastes or desires,” however unsympathetic I might find them, and not from his hope to use our arts and letters as underpinning for “American greatness,” for which I don’t give a damn.
The President didn’t look any happier than Saul Bellow did. Perhaps both realized they’d somehow gotten into a false position. “Some of them insult me by staying away and some of them insult me by coming,” the President grumbled to a reporter. There was a bad moment when he departed from the text to growl briefly but ominously at his guests. Also at Dr. Eric Goldman (who looked most unfestive throughout his festival—the only really happy-looking people, in fact, were Duke Ellington and his bandsmen). The text reads: “You have been asked to come not because you are the greatest artists of the land, although some of you may be [but] because you have distinguished yourselves in the world of American art.” In delivering the speech, the President gave a twist to this tepid encomium: “You have been asked to come not because you are the greatest artists of the land, although in the judgment of those who made up this guest list, you may have been.” Tom Donnelly, who writes a sophisticated column in the Washington Daily News, interpreted this: “The President was thus indicating his displeasure with certain of his guests and certain of his list-makers.” Other indications were his failure to receive his guests formally or talk to them informally (or at all) and his quick exit from the party as soon as he’d got through his speech. Poor Dr. Goldman, caught like Polonius (“wretched, rash, intruding fool!”) between the fell and incensed points of mighty antagonists. He had to invite a few artists and intellectuals to leaven the dough, no pun intended, of all those patrons and kultur-apparatchiks, but it turned out badly and his boss is a man who doesn’t easily accept opposition, or defeat.
The President’s “forward” policies in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic have not only, in a few months, alarmed and disgusted the intelligentsia (the academic community, writers and artists, and the better-educated part of the professional classes) so much as to split them off from him, but they have also produced another split, between the intelligentsia and the rest of the country, which is getting as marked as it was during the McCarthy era. Johnson’s popularity, according to the pollsters, is greater today than it ever was. But not among the kind of people who were invited to the White House Festival of the Arts—or, more accurately, among perhaps a third of them, the artists, writers, and intellectuals that Dr. Goldman simply had to include. For example, I circulated a two-sentence “Statement to the Press” while I was there: “We wish to make it clear that, in accepting the President’s kind invitation, we do not mean to repudiate the courageous stand taken by Robert Lowell nor to endorse the Administration’s foreign policy. We quite share Mr. Lowell’s dismay at our country’s recent action in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic.” Tom Hess and I showed this to perhaps forty of our fellow-guests. We got only nine signatures—among them Willem DeKooning, Herbert Ferber, Isamu Noguchi, and Reed Whittemore—but it was significant that nobody refused to sign because he favored the President’s foreign policy. “I’m an artist, I don’t know anything about politics,” they said; or “Okay—but this isn’t the time or place”; or, most frequent, “We’re here as guests, it’s rude, in bad taste.” Charlton Heston, with whom I had an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in the rose garden—he’s really tall—told me, in the nicest possible way, that it was “arrogant” for mere intellectuals to question our President’s decisions since he “must” know far more than we do. Mary McGrory, in the New York Post, reported that Ralph Ellison “turned him [me] down cold,” complaining to her: “It’s adolescent, he’s boring from within at the White House.” His objections, however, although delivered fortissimo, were tactical rather than political: he felt that circulating such a “stupid” document might frivolously imperil the rapprochement between the White House and Culture, or us, that was symbolized by the Festival. But the symbol was obsolete before any of us checked in at the East Gate on June 14th, as the extraordinary effect of Robert Lowell’s letter showed. Rarely has one person’s statement of his moral unease about his government’s behavior had such public resonance. I think it was because the letter was so personal, so unexpected and yet so expressive of a widespread mood of “dismay and distrust.” Herzen writes, in his memoirs, of the effect on the Russian intelligentsia, stifled under Nicholas I, who had his own methods of getting a national consensus, of the publication of Tchaadayev’s Philosophical Letters to a Lady, another individualistic and unexpected protest: “It was a shot that rang out in the dark night…It forced us all to awake.”
July 15, 1965
How many others beside Lowell declined, and for what reasons. I don’t of course know. Two refusals because of our present foreign policy have been made public: those of the photographer, Paul Strand, and the sculptor. Alexander Calder. And two have not: those of Jack Levine, the painter, and Robert Brustein, the drama critic—both have authorized me to state the fact. As for the rest of the absentees, who include practically the entire literary establishment, from Edmund Wilson to Thornton Wilder, all that can be said is that they were not there. ↩
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for instance, was not invited, although he had ridiculed Lowell’s letter and described Lewis Mumford’s speech, as President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, criticizing our current foreign policy, as “an anxious blast of a somewhat inchoate sort.” Schlesinger, who was once a professor of history, added that the reactions of the audience reminded him of the “wild, unleashed emotionalism” of Hitler’s Nüremberg rallies. What more could one ask? But Lyndon Johnson is a hard man; no invitation. ↩