Much of the first ten years of my life was spent on a hill above Broad Branch Road—the branch being Rock Creek itself, a clear, pure stream that rushed shallowly over rocks between wooded hills, a haven for salamanders and all sorts of fresh water life. Senator Gore owned three acres of woods above the creek where, shortly before my birth, he had built a gray stone mansion. Because of T.P. Gore’s anti-war and anti–League of Nations positions, the good people of Oklahoma had denied him a fourth term in the US Senate and so, from 1920 to 1930, he practiced law in Washington, DC, and built his house, now the residence of the Malaysian ambassador.
In the crash of 1929, Gore lost most of his money; in 1930 he returned to the Senate. Predictably, he fell foul of the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By then, Gore was a populist turned conservative. He and the President quarrelled over whether or not the dollar should go off the Gold Standard. “If you do take it off,” said Gore, “you will have stolen the money of those who had faith in our currency.” Carter Glass, a senator present at the meeting, later told the blind Gore that the President had gone gray in the face. But Roosevelt took the currency off gold; then, of the half dozen senators that Roosevelt tried to purge in 1936, T. P. Gore was the only one to lose his seat for good.
I was ten when he was defeated in the Democratic primary. He was melancholy, to say the least, and somewhat bored during the last thirteen years of his life, practicing law in Washington as attorney for the Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa tribes whose lands had been stolen by the federal government. In 1984, thirty-five years after his death, he won a great posthumous victory when the tribes got a good chunk of the money owed them.
Rock Creek Park was very much my territory. The house itself was gray-yellow Baltimore stone. On one side, there was a steep lawn that over-looked Broad Branch Road and the winding creek while on the other side, there was the front door, approached by a circular drive at whose center was a small fountain. In those days, from the house, one saw only green woods, a rose garden, rows of flags, as we called irises, and a small vineyard of purple grapes. At the edge of the woods was a slave cabin, falling to pieces.
The main hall always smells of fried bacon, floor wax, irises, books—thousands of dusty books. There is a large dining room on the left, with a fire-place and a niche on either side in which there are two tall gaudy pink and gold Sèvres vases. Back of a screen, there is the door to the large white kitchen where the large dark Gertrude Jackson presides.
To the right of the hall, a living room with a large bay window framed by bookcases. I recall a set of Mark Twain; and a set of Voltaire in a red binding; also, the works of Brann “The Iconoclast.” A large sofa, covered in pumpkin-yellow and salad-green. Beside the fireplace, the Senator’s chair, and a smaller one where I sat when I read to him, drinking Coca-Cola and trying not to let the ice tinkle. He forbade Coca-Cola in the house because it contained cocaine.
Perversely, the Senator, who had done his best to put his rural origins behind him, insisted on keeping chickens—to impress visiting constituents?—but since there was too much shade, they moped in the woods. I found them a bit dull but I did my best to keep them amused.
One day at table I was told, “Eat your chicken.” A terrible knowledge of Edenic magnitude filled me with horror. This? On the plate? The same? The same. I would not eat chicken for many years despite my grandmother’s cunning ways to trick me into what I took to be a form of cannibalism.
The Senator called his wife Tot, which I rendered as Dot. To her, he was Dad, which I rendered as Dah, an Irish locution, I am told. Her first name was Nina. I never heard her call the Senator by his first name except once when they were in the small sitting room off their bedroom; he wore a long night shirt and she was in her usual uniform, a pale pink wrapper over a lace night dress—since he could not see her she never bothered with her appearance unless there was company. While reading to him, she noticed that his night shirt had ridden up to his knees. “Put your dress down, Tom,” she said. Otherwise he was Dad or Mr. Gore.
No one that I know of ever called him Tom or Thomas. President Roosevelt, in his squire of the manor way, addressed him once, and once only, as Tom. The Senator ignored him until he was addressed properly. As a boy in Mississippi, he had been called Guv, short for Governor, tribute to an ambition that was noticeable even then. There seems never to have been a time that he was not in demand as an eloquent and witty speaker, particularly at those political picnics which were one of the few communal pleasures during harsh Reconstruction days.
The Gores belonged to the Party of the People; hence, populists. T. P. Gore’s father was clerk of Walthall County, an elected post of peculiar power in that state, a sort of regional chancellor. Since there were few blacks in north central Mississippi, Gores had never been slaveholders, unlike Dot’s father’s family, the Kays of South Carolina, or her mother’s family, the McLaughlins of Meridian, Mississippi.
Dot and Dah complemented each other. She was dark with large eyes and high-arched brows; she was also small—hence, Tot. She had a beautiful low speaking voice. When Dah first heard it at a political picnic in Palestine, Texas, where her family had moved after the War, he said, “I’m going to marry you.” He was a twenty-five-year-old blind lawyer, practicing law with his father and two brothers. After losing an election to the Mississippi legislature, he had left the state. The campaign had been unusually dirty. Also, rather more to the point, he was already bound for the United States Senate; this meant that he must leave Mississippi, where one had to wait for an incumbent to die, which could be decades; much too long a time for a man in a hurry. First, he headed west to Texas; then on to the Indian territories, where he helped organize the state of Oklahoma. In 1907, he was sent to Washington as the state’s first senator.
Thomas Pryor Gore. He is seated in his heavy wood Mission rocking chair, now in my bedroom at Ravello. He listens as the secretary reads to him; the straight but rather small chin is held high while the head is slightly tilted to one side. The blind eyes are tight shut with concentration. He has a full head of cowlicked white hair, a rosy unlined face, and a large straight Anglo-Irish nose with the curious flaring Gore nostrils that most of us have inherited, including our young cousin who currently lives in vice-presidential obscurity, a sort of family ghost flickering dimly on prime-time television.
Dah is about five foot nine or ten; he stands very straight. He is well-proportioned except for an astonishing stomach. A parabola begins at his rib cage and extends half a foot out in front of him before it abruptly rejoins the lower body. The stomach is hard as a rock. Dot would often touch it with wonder. “When you’re dead, I’m going to have this opened up. I’ve got to see what’s in there. It’s like iron, that stomach.” Now I am getting the same stomach, but much later in life, and thanks only to alcohol. Dah himself never drank until old age, when doctors prescribed two shots before dinner. Both of his brothers were alcoholic, in the best Confederate tradition. This meant that they functioned as lawyers all day; then, work done, they drank a great deal. So, too, I fear, did Dot, to Dah’s distress. At dinner, she would begin to ramble in a story or slur her words, ending the meal by sneezing exactly five times and blowing her nose in the Irish linen napkin, to my mother’s fury. She lived to be the oldest of my four grandparents, dying in her eighties.
I have a newsreel of Dah from 1931, the year that he came back to the Senate. He is standing in front of the Capitol with another senator, also blind. Clearly, an unpolitical human interest story was on the producer’s mind. Gore’s voice is measured, precise, more Southern than Southwestern in accent, with an actor’s phrasing. Lyndon Johnson used to imitate him unsuccessfully. The Gore style influenced at least two generations of regional politicians. Much of his effect depended on a sharp sudden wit that could surprise a crowd into laughter, very like his friend and fellow Chautauqua speaker, Mark Twain. It is said that Will Rogers, in performance, most resembled Gore. But I wouldn’t know. Although I often led Dah from his office onto the Senate floor and even into the holy of holies, the Senate cloak room, I never heard him make a speech. It was a family complaint that when he was due to make a major speech in the Senate, he would tell none of us in advance. We would only know about it from the newspapers the next day. Dah ends the 1931 newsreel with an offhand, “Nice to see you,” straight to camera. Early in his career, he liked to hold notes in his hand that he would pretend to consult in order to disguise the little known, at the time, fact that he was totally blind.
We are seated on the porch—a sort of open loggia—at one end of the Rock Creek Park house. It is summer. The irises, in full bloom, have a heavy lemon smell. I am eating grapes that I’ve just picked in the arbor that separates porch from dilapidated slave cabin. Dah sits in his rocker. A woman journalist rattles away: How did he become blind? We have all told this particular story so many times that we can recite it without thinking. Eight years old. Throwing nails at a cow. Another boy’s nail misses. Hits Guv’s eye. Still has one good eye, and partial, if fading, vision in the damaged eye. Age ten, appointed page to the Mississippi State Senate at Jackson. Boards in a state senator’s house. Son of house has a birthday. Guv brings him a gun. When you pull the trigger, a spike comes out. Doesn’t work. Guv holds it to his good eye to see what’s wrong. “Now I’m blind,” were his first words after the spike found its target. The family wanted to put him in a school for the handicapped. No. I’m going to study law. How? Send someone to school with me, to read to me. A relative named Pittman went with him to the Lebanon School of Law in Tennessee. Gore learned to memorize what was read to him, including endless statistics. Learned to recognize people by their voices. Was not surprised when radar was developed in World War II. “All blind people know about radar. You can feel the sound waves bounce off a wall up ahead of you. Gives you warning.”
Woman journalist has a tinkling laugh. Dah winces, “Is there any sound more dreadful than that of a woman’s laugh?” he would say. A mild misogynist, he was a true misanthrope, which the public never guessed as they gazed on his serene, kindly face with its crooked thin-lipped smile, and the blind gray eyes—one was glass—that had a surprising amount of life to them, particularly when he was about to launch a devastating line.
“You must admit,” said the journalist, “that when you lose your sight your other faculties develop. So there have to be compensations.”
“There are no compensations,” Dah said, grimly; particularly for someone whose greatest pleasure in life was reading. He was read to almost every minute of the day. Once Senate or legal work was out of the way, he turned to history, poetry, economics. He disliked novels. Dot, two secretaries, and, later, I were the principal readers. As our spirits would sometimes start to fail, he would observe, blithely, “Both of Milton’s daughters went blind reading to him.”
Dah had a curious position in the country, not unlike that of Helen Keller, a woman born deaf, mute, and blind. The response of each to calamity was a subject of great interest to the general public, and we children and grandchildren were treated not so much as descendants of just another politician but as the privileged heirs to an Inspirational Personage.
Politically, Gore always thought of himself as a member of the Party of the People even after he had been coopted by the Democrats, whose more or less populist tribune, William Jennings Bryan, would three times be a losing candidate for president. Although not unalike politically, Gore and Bryan got on uneasily. At Denver in 1908, when Gore seconded the nomination of Bryan for president, he started the longest demonstration in the history of American conventions. Gore made, as they used to say, the eagle scream. I suppose the magic was entirely in his performance, because the text…. Well, as he himself said, a successful speech must reflect the people’s mood at the time. He liked alliteration. “I prefer the strenuosity of Roosevelt to the sinuosity of Taft,” he would observe in 1912.
The Gores were constantly struck by fate. Dot thought that Dah had been born under a maleficent star. After all, the odds are very much against losing an eye in an accident, but to lose two eyes in two separate accidents is positively Lloydsian. But fate had many more freakish misadventures in store for him.
According to family tradition, while practicing law in Corsicana, Texas, Gore boarded in a house where also lived a blind girl. She became pregnant, and the blind boarder was accused of seduction by the blind girl’s guardian. A shotgun was produced in the best tradition of Cavalleria Rusticana. Gore walked away. “Shoot,” he said, his back to the guardian, “but I’m not marrying her.” Thanks to the scandal, he lost an election to Congress but won Dot; and together they moved on to the Indian Territories, and glory.
In 1960, I wrote a television play about this episode. I played myself as the narrator. William Shatner and Inger Stevens played Gore and Nina Kay. The Indestructible Mr. Gore was shown on NBC’s Sunday Showcase. Dot was ecstatic. The entire Oklahoma delegation to Congress was at her bedside to congratulate her. Then Dah’s brother, the sardonic Ellis, sent me word that I had got it all wrong. Guv had indeed knocked up the blind girl and their mother, Carrie Wingo Gore, had taken her in.
Years later, Gore was tried for the attempted rape of one Mrs. Minnie E. Bond. Dot thought that this bit of melodrama was far and away fate’s masterpiece. Because, as Dot said grimly, “All our lives, just as things start going well for us, something awful happens and we have to begin all over again.”
Although in writing my memoirs I have pretty much kept to the system of recording only what a faulty memory recalls (and the written—equally faulty?—memories and biographies of others), I did send away to the University of Oklahoma at Norman for the various accounts of T. P. Gore’s alleged “indecent assault” on Mrs. Minnie E. Bond in the Winston Hotel at Washington City during an afternoon of March 1913. Minnie wanted $50,000 damages for the agony that she had undergone. Gore said he would not “treat or retreat,” and opted to stand trial in Oklahoma City.
On February 19, 1914, the jury took ten minutes to exonerate the Senator. The family’s version of events was, more or less, that of the press of the day. Minnie had come to Washington to ask Senator Gore to appoint her husband internal revenue collector for the state. On three occasions he said no. She asked to see him yet again; he told her to come to his office but she said that she would prefer that he come to her hotel. He did, with his secretary-escort, one of Dot’s Kay brothers.
Since the downstairs parlors were full, Minnie led the Senator upstairs to what proved to be the bedroom of a Mr. Jacobs; she then tore her clothes and gave what the newspapers said was a loud “squawk.” Jacobs and two other “witnesses,” conveniently stationed nearby, rushed in. Gore had been framed.
But reading the press accounts (I think I shall avoid the actual transcripts of the trial if they exist), I wonder why Harry Kay didn’t go upstairs with him. But then I always wondered how on earth Dah managed sex. A blind man can’t go into a bar and, with a glance, find a partner. In the course of the trial the prosecution came up with a number of instances where Dah had allegedly made advances to women but none of the women ever stepped forward. The fact that he always had a brother-in-law or a man secretary as escort meant that he would have to rely on them for any arrangements that he might have made with women, not to mention guiding him to the men’s room in a strange city.
The jury simply said there was “insufficient evidence” to condemn Gore, and no one took seriously the stories of the three politically interested witnesses. It would seem that the actual reason for the frame-up involved an attorney named J.F. McMurray who had involved himself in the transfer of some Indian lands and then sued the tribes for $3 million in fees. Gore took the side of the Indians. McMurray did not get his money; hence, revenge in the generous form of Mrs. Minnie E. Bond.
All this was par for the course in the frontier politics of the day. But, more disturbing to me, was the plaintiff’s investigation of the blind girl and Gore in Corsicana, Texas, some twenty years earlier. The family story was that, in 1895, the twenty-five-year-old Gore was practicing law with his father and brothers in Corsicana. Gore was also the Party of the People’s candidate for the House of Representatives. He took music lessons from a young blind girl, the ward of a local couple. The “music lessons” sound truly far-fetched. Gore was tone deaf. Every time the national anthem was played, he invariably said, “Now there’s a catchy tune.”
I cannot tell what is true and what is not true in the deposition of one S. P. Render. But the story is hair-raising. In 1914, Render found the blind girl in Galveston, Texas, where she was still giving music lessons, and living in genteel poverty. The Gores had, she told Render, thrown her out years earlier. As for the pregnancy, Gore was responsible. “I was engaged to [him] and I loved him as well as a child—for I was at that time, in heart, a child, in mind a child…but I did not submit to him of my own free will. He overpowered me and I could do nothing.” When she told him she was pregnant, he plied her with medicines, saying that “the fever” must break. When this failed to make her abort, “some little instrument” was used.
Mr. Render says that Gore was put on trial—who was the plaintiff?—for seduction and abortion, criminal offenses in Texas. Just before the trial, the blind girl told Render that Gore came to her and begged her to answer no questions at the trial on the ground that not only would she destroy his career but also his “aged” parents who had never harmed anyone. Finally, she concedes, “‘The little one is gone—you could not shield him and you have done all you can against me’ and I said, ‘If you promise me you will be a better man…. I will accede to your wishes, I don’t see any good that could come in me doing otherwise’; and then I was almost immediately conducted into the court room. I followed out his wishes as far as I could.” Render adds that Gore, as a lawyer, knew that no court in Texas would send to prison a blind girl who refused to answer questions of the court.
In the Bond case the judge ruled that any previous adventures of either plaintiff or defendant could not be admitted as evidence. Was Gore guilty? In the Bond case, most unlikely: it was too obvious a political trap. In the blind girl case, he was indeed guilty, and according to his brother, Ellis, Guv got their parents to take the girl in as part of a deal made with her. I now understand why Dah resisted all biographers as well as publishers interested in memoirs. “My life,” he said to me, “was such a dull one and there is so much that I cannot tell.”
During the influenza epidemic of 1918, Gore nearly died, and never entirely recovered his strength. He was also about to die of diabetes when Fate saved him—for more torments? Insulin was invented and so, more or less in the normal course, he died of a stroke from high blood pressure in 1949, aged seventy-eight, while joking with Dot at breakfast.
Gore’s personal triumph over blindness had become so powerful a myth in his own time that his actual political career was somewhat occluded, while his intellectual powers and wit, though duly acknowledged, were hardly treasured by the folk he represented, much less by Americans at large. There is no first-rate biography of him, thanks largely to Dot’s carelessness with papers. In the attic at Rock Creek his archives were strewn over the floor or stacked in trunks and broken boxes. Unable to see this mess, he probably didn’t realize that his history was being erased through sloth.
In the absence of primary texts, the Woodrow Wilson biographers seem not to have got much out of him. A. S. Link regards him as a political manipulator and not much more. But biographers of prophets tend to be proprietary of their great men, and Gore was always there to say no to ambitious transgression whether in the name of the republic, the common man, or the Almighty.
Bryan’s nomination in 1908 had, predictably, ensured a Republican victory. But as a leading populist-Democrat in the Senate Gore was now ready for a winner. He began to engineer an alliance between the populists of the South and Southwest and the big city bosses of the East. The result was the nomination of Woodrow Wilson, a one-term New Jersey governor who had sworn faithfully to serve the local bosses; then, more in sorrow than in anger, he double-crossed them. Wilson’s subsequent alliance with Bryan and Gore was a necessity for him and a convenience for them. The tribunes of South and West, of farm and factory, had their permanent base in Congress; the White House was simply a pleasant extra.
Gore ran Wilson’s campaign out of Chicago. When the Republican vote was split between Taft and Roosevelt, the truly eloquent, if not entirely sound of mind, Wilson was elected president. Bryan was made secretary of state. Later, when it became clear that Wilson was maneuvering the United States into the First World War, Bryan honorably resigned. I’ve always thought him of far more consequence than historians now do. They remember his ignominious end at the “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, not to mention the three defeats for president. But I think of him—like Gore in the early days—as a literally popular voice raised against the bold crude ownership of the nation, and a resolute enemy to the end, like Gore, of those wars that the ownership never ceases to wage against what it takes to be enemies of its financial system.
In the Senate, Gore was expected to forward Wilson’s ambitious domestic program, which he did, enthusiastically, even though the two had personally fallen out after the election when the Senate was in the process of “organizing” itself—that is, selecting various officers and setting up legislative procedures. The all-important post of secretary to the Senate had not yet been chosen. Urgently, Wilson sent for Gore. “I would like,” said the new president, “for the Senate to appoint my brother, Joseph, secretary. He is highly qualified and…”
Gore listened, astonished. Finally, he said that he never thought that he would have to remind so eminent an historian as the author of Constitutional Government in the United States that the legislative and executive branches of the government were forever equal and forever separate and that for the executive to have his own brother, as an executive spy, in the councils of the legislature would make a perfect hash of the separation of powers.
“Wilson never forgave me for that.” Dah is in his rocking chair, cracking peanuts, lap covered with their shells; the bushy white hair is in an interesting tangle. “Of course, he was the sort of man who got uneasy if you ever raised your eyes higher than the third button on his waistcoat. As for me,” the crooked smile, “well, whenever there’s a Republican president, I’m a Democrat and when there’s a Democratic one, I’m out of step.” He sounded more amused than sad. As a politician, he was a lone wolf. I suppose, at heart, he was more Whig than populist and no conservative at all, at least in the current sense of the word: one who serves unquestioningly the wealthy interests that control American life while parroting official cant of the “better dead than red” sort. He particularly loathed Franklin Roosevelt’s phrase, “age of the common man.”
“There was never such an age and never will be and it goes beyond the limits of necessary demagoguery to pretend that there could even be such a thing.” He also disliked Lincoln’s rhetoric. “Was there ever a fraud greater than this government of, by, and for the people?” He threw back his head, the voice rose: “What people, which people? When he made that speech, almost half the American people had said that the government of the North was not of, by, or for them. So then Lincoln, after making a bloody war against the South, has the effrontery to say that this precious principle, which he would not extend to the Southern people, was the one for which the war had been fought. Well, he did say this at a graveyard for Northern soldiers. I suppose that was appropriate.” If I got anything from Dah, it was the ability to detect the false notes in those arias that our shepherds lull their sheep with.
I always found him noblest when he put his career at risk for some overriding principle. He thought that no foreign war was worth the life of any American. Neither do I. When the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce ordered him to vote for war in 1917, he wired them, “How many of your members are of draft age?” He was defeated in 1920. But he was re-elected in 1930, on the same principles, he liked to say, that had defeated him a decade earlier. The comeback was a dim affair. “I remember asking a political friend, just before I entered the race, what was the mood of the people nowadays, and he said, ‘They’re a lot harder to tickle now.”‘
Courage was Gore’s most notable trait. But then his great-grandfather had been a Methodist preacher of such somber fire and will that he was known as “Rock” Gore. On the demerit side, Dah did not think that government money should go to anybody if he could help it. “When I first came to the Senate there were still pensioned widows from the war of 1812. Give someone a pension and you create a Methuselah.” Coldly, he refused the request of a delegation of the blind for government aid. He had been able to make his way, he told them, and so could they. This was disingenuous. “When I was young, cheese and crackers was one word to me,” he used to say, emphasizing his poverty. Bored with this repetition, I am said to have responded, at the age of six or so, “Well, ice cream and cake are one word to me.”
Actually, the Gores were well-to-do for their time and place. He was born in 1870, among the ruins of Walthall, Mississippi. Yet even then, when the university degree was the principal dividing line between lawyers, teachers, divines, and the redneck peasantry, most of the Gore clan was educated.
Ironically, after the Gores had become prosperous in northern Mississippi during the 1840s by taking over what had been Chickasaw land, T.P. Gore went west to the territories to which the Chickasaws had been removed and, in effect, by creating Oklahoma, he helped rob them of their land a second time. Also ironically—guiltily?—he tended to take the side of the Indians in their losing disputes with the government over the stolen lands. Then, out of office he became their attorney.
The spirit of Harry of the West, as Henry Clay was known, was the spirit of the border people from Clay to Lincoln to Gore. “Internal improvements” was what interested these rustic paladins. When imperialist President Polk gave us the Mexican War, which, in turn, gave us what is now one third of the United States, including California, Congressman Lincoln denounced him. Lieutenant U. S. Grant did, too, on the ground that we were behaving like a predatory European power. We were supposed to create our unique Arcadia without border raids on other countries. We certainly needed no more land. Wasn’t the Monroe Doctrine our holy text—along with the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed as a universal human given the right not only to pursue happiness but the implicit right to separate from an onerous foreign master?
Gore came out of the border world. He represented the ruined farmers of the Civil War, who would later be victimized by eastern financiers, playing casino with the price of cotton. “Seven-cent-cotton” was one of the first phrases I remember hearing.
In due course, Bryan and Gore and the other liberals—today called conservatives or nativists or worse—reached out to labor, organized or not. The Civil War that had brought ruin to the South had also awakened all sorts of energies that led to new alliances. In effect, the Party of the People took over the Democratic party and, despite the presence of the big city bosses who at least represented the working man, unionized or not, the party was for the working people at large in a way that the Republicans could not be since they tended to agree with Alexander Hamilton that the rich were wiser and better than the poor and so ought to be allowed to rule the country and do business without popular interference. For Gore and the other populists, the imperialism of the two Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson—Polk, too, earlier—was a terrible distraction from our destiny, which was the perfection of our own unusual if not, in the end, particularly “exceptional” society.
I sit with Gore in the living room of his flat in Crescent Place, just across the street from the stately house of Agnes and Eugene Meyer, owners of The Washington Post, that official voice of empire. The Rock Creek Park house was sold in the war: impossible to heat. I am still in uniform, a Warrant Officer back from the Aleutians. Dah rocks in his Mission chair. Discusses my political career and what he calls “the New Mexico option” because “Oklahoma is too volatile.” He always looked grim at the thought of his Bible-loving constituency. “Of course, you were born in New York. Why not take advantage of that? Why not get yourself a district in the city? You pay Tammany Hall your first year’s salary and, except for city matters, they leave you alone.” I thought this a dead end.
Then we talked of the past. He had got into the habit of answering my long questioning letters with long ones of his own. I thought that his to me were lost in the war when my mother threw out all my clothes, books, and papers, on the sensible ground that I’d not be coming back. But apparently Dah kept not only my letters but carbons of his own to me. Excerpts have been published in World Literature Today by one Marvin J. La Hood, who found the collection at a university library.
It is nice to hear Dah’s voice again; disconcerting to hear my own, a sort of schoolboy Machiavelli with, alas, a non-Machiavellian fury to be in the right like my politically martyred grandfather.
I always thought Dah somewhat invidious whenever he discussed the ever-more imperial trappings of the presidency and the blaze of world publicity which, from Wilson’s triumph at Versailles to Bush’s vomiting in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister, was the outward and visible sign of our imperium’s military glory and economic primacy. But all that is now quickly fading away and one can see how quaintly prescient we were fifty-five years ago.
The correspondence begins March 9, 1940. I am at the Los Alamos Ranch School at Otowi, New Mexico. Apparently, I’ve been reading about the First World War and Gore’s ambivalent maneuverings in the Senate.
Gore explains his “resolution [that] warned American citizens not to exercise the right to travel on the armed ships of a belligerent…. I introduced that resolution two or three days after the celebrated Sunrise Conference which is now ‘historic’…. I thought then that we were speeding headlong into war—as we were.” For someone brought up in the wreckage of the Civil War, any foreign war seemed like perfect folly. For someone who detested the country’s ruling class, the idea of a war that would be profitable only to the Rockefellers and to the Morgans was insupportable. Certainly those who actually fought the war would not do well out of it. But then they never do.
Dah’s socialist impulses eroded with time. He had wanted to nationalize the railroads at the time he helped write the constitution of the state of Oklahoma, and I believe that this virtuous proposal is still in the text. But despite his expertise on banking and currency in the Senate, he detested Maynard Keynes without quite understanding him. He grasped, reluctantly, tax and spend in bad economic times but he never took in the other side to Keynesianism: try to make money in good times and in the classic marketplace.
In the letters, Dah deeply dislikes Roosevelt both personally and politically. “He worships at the shrine of Power and Popularity.” There is now, he notes, almost $50 billion of national debt, hardly a Star Wars price tag for what was meant to be a New Deal for those millions of people undone by a vast depression. The worst hit, as Dah had prophesied, were the veterans of that war for Wilson’s greater personal glory. I had always thought Gore’s concentration on one man’s vanity too petty a motivation for the American role in the events of 1914–1917. But when I came to study Wilson at Versailles, blithely carving up the Austro-Hungarian empire, I could understand why this ignorant would-be Metternich drove Dr. Freud so mad that he felt obliged to publish a libelous “psychoanalysis” of Wilson, without having met him, of course. Although Freud’s analysis is nearly as demented as Wilson’s imperial—even messianic—behavior, he does echo Gore’s original analysis of a prim American school teacher whose ignorant self-esteem never faltered. As I write, Wilson’s handiwork is now exploding in what proved to be his dottiest invention, Yugoslavia.
Senator Gore was obliged to observe three American Caesars in action. In his youth, there was Theodore Roosevelt’s Spanish–American War, followed by the bloody conquest and subjugation of the Philippines. When Gore came to the Senate at thirty-seven, Roosevelt was still president, and an anathema to a tribune of the farmers and workers. Then, twice, Gore helped elect Wilson president. From the start, there had been a vague understanding between them that the egregious Thomas Riley Marshall be replaced as vice-president in the second term by Gore, but, as of 1916, relations were so bad between Wilson and Gore that the senator decided to sit out the election. When it became obvious that Wilson was going to lose, Gore got a desperate call from the White House. The election would be determined by California. Gore was popular in California. Would he stump the state? Gore made one condition: The slogan must be, “He kept us out of war” and, presumably, “he” would do the same in the second term. Gore barn-stormed California. Then he wired the White House the exact margin by which Wilson would carry the state. That night Wilson’s opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, went to bed as president of the United States. But the next morning California was heard from and Gore’s predicted plurality reversed the election. Wilson was president; and the war came.
Dah turns on the radio news. He mostly listens to right-wing commentators like Fulton Lewis, Jr. He did not live long enough to realize just how conservative a president Roosevelt was at home, or how much a radical imperialist he was abroad, breaking up the colonial empires of our allies as well as those of our enemies and, like metal filings to a magnet, attracting their fragments to us. But in the Forties all that Gore can see is the vast amount of debt—so puny compared to what the truly radical Reagan was to give us.
“These debts,” Dah writes me, “constitute a first lien, a first mortgage on every dollar’s worth of private property…. However, all this is not the most fatal defect in the New Deal: it has spoiled the character and the morals, spoiled the souls of millions of our people. I have always thought that self-respect is the sheer anchor of human character. As long as it holds, there is hope. When it breaks there is no hope, there is nothing left.” Thus speaks the Protestant conscience, not to mention, alas, Herbert Hoover.
I have always regarded Roosevelt’s improvisations in a kindlier light. It was the Depression brought on by the higher capitalism that denied people work, and Roosevelt was there, no matter how opportunistically, to get the people, as well as the capitalists, through bad times. But there is indeed a terrible truth in Gore’s observations on the necessity of self-respect—of individual autonomy. In order to exclude the black minority from American society, the white majority decided to pay them off with welfare, thus seeing to it that there would be no “anchor” for many black families for many generations. No wonder so many are now choosing the fire this time as the ultimate in “self-respect.”
“Those crowds,” he begins, turning off Fulton Lewis, Jr.—Amos and Andy would soon be on, his favorite comedy, swarming with politically incorrect “Negro” stereotypes. “Those crowds that Wilson saw in Europe.” He shakes his head; the white hair is now all on end as two cowlicks meet and Dot will soon have to start unsnarling and combing them straight. “I suppose any man’s head would be turned by them. Now Roosevelt has gone to Yalta. At least there won’t be any crowds. But he’ll be just like Wilson. He won the war, and he’ll make the peace or so he thinks. But Churchill and Stalin will be too smart for him. Just as Lloyd George and Clemenceau were too smart for Wilson. Then there’s the fact he’s dying, which doesn’t help matters….”
From Dah’s letter to me on my fifteenth birthday: “I compare or contrast your opportunities now with mine when I was your age and I all but envy you. I lived thirty miles from the railroad and attended a school which ran about four or five months a year—in a building 30 by 50 there was no fifth dimension.” Nevertheless, by then, he had freed himself of that religion which was—and still is—a terrible blight in that part of the world. At nine or ten, told that if he had faith he could fly, he attached corn stalks to his arms and climbed out on to the roof of a barn and took off, to fly around the world. He broke his collarbone. Later, when his father decided to abandon the family Methodism for the Campbellite variant of Fundamentalism, the family was ordered to choose its brand. The mother stayed as she was. Two children became Campbellites, for father’s sake. Gore turned atheist, a daring thing to do then—and now—in Christ-cursed Mississippi. On the other hand, he did not let it be generally known that he was a non-believer; if he had, he could not have had a political career. A conundrum that he liked: “Can God, the all-powerful, do anything?”
“No, He can’t.”
“What can’t He do?”
“Can’t make a year-old heifer in a minute.”
“Course He can. Why, in just a minute, there it is.”
“Yes, but no matter how big that heifer is, it’s still only a minute old and not a year.”
From Antigua, I write Dah about my new friend, the president of the Guatemalan Congress: “They respect men of learning here and don’t try to reduce them to the lowest possible common denominator.”
Dah is amused: “I particularly enjoyed the last paragraph where you mentioned the fact that in certain localities you have to appear genial and a little half-witted in order to woo the omnipotent public.”
But he was not without considerable political cunning. “The worst thing an intelligent man must endure in politics is to keep a straight face while a man thinks he’s making a fool of you.” Of enemies: “I always turn the other cheek, bide my time, and wait for him to lay his head on the block.” Then he’d clap his hands sharply, like an ax severing a head, and smile his saintly smile.
November 2, 1995