« Assimilation | Main | Home Truths »

Gentlemen of Principle, Priests of Presumption

By Benjamin DeMott

The following piece—originally written in the early 70s for a UK anthology (Approaches to Popular Culture) culminates with a celebration of Philip Levine's "They Feed They Lion." Levine mused (a few years ago) that the essay was "so moving and so relevant": "It should be reprinted somewhere..."

This chapter is offered as a survey of problems in political writing that surfaced in ways direct or oblique during the Watergate crisis

One further prefatory note—of acknowledgement. The prompting to literary reflection on Watergate came in part as a result of the appearance during the Erwin Committee sessions of a figure absent for decades from the American political scene—the politician as embryonic novelist. Again and again Mr. Baker of Tennessee foreswore standard-form fact-finding in favour of the pursuit of inner configurations of response. I am probing into your inner state of mind,” he declared to one or another witness. “How do you feel now?” Intent on probing the textures of response, ingratiatingly patient but persistent, shaking off distractions of dates and names and deeds, concerned for the quality of a qualm, Mr. Baker invited witnesses to speculate on their own emotions as recollected, to make him privy to events as known from inside. Now and then he was rewarded with some halting word about how it all felt—“I kind of drifted along,” said Mr. Herbert Porter—whereupon the senator leaned forward eagerly, catching what Lawrence would have called the momentaneous on the wing: “Now,” Baker was heard to say, now you have reached that point I would like to examine…The Senator’s interest in motive and condition of temperament did not please every observer (Mr. I.F. Stone complained that some of Baker’s questions were “fuzzy and pretentious.”) But on the whole the Tennessean’s notices were good. And if his performance can’t be thought to improve the prospect for rapprochement between novelistic art and politics, it did as I admit launch the train we ride…


Let us begin with the simplest and most obvious problem—the poverty of journalistic means. Upwards of a hundred lawyers are now engaged in research and allied adventures, under the direction of Special Investigator Cox. They were led to this task not by a hundred or so members of the White House Correspondents’ Association working in concert but rather, as everyone knows, by two young men—Messrs Bernstein and Woodward of the Washington Post. The story of these reporters’ labours has recently been told with agility and style by Mr. Timothy Crouse, late of Harvard Crimson, now a contributing editor of Rolling Stone, in a handy press critique called The Boys on the Bus (published by Random House in 1973). Mr. Crouse points out what the reporters themselves have emphasized in conversation—that the conventional beat system on their paper, as on all others, would have prohibited any newspaperman on national assignment from probing as they probed. Bernstein and Woodward were city side men, small potatoes, as it were, inexpensive and free from the obligation to “cover” pseudo-events contrived by ingenious “spokesmen for the President.” They were also—a less trivial matter than might be apparent—men passing through divorces, hence free of an evening, as they themselves remark, deprived of home lives, eager for distraction, able to work round the clock on interviews in private houses, away from inhibiting official settings. There was no backup team, no corps of investigative journalists bent on disclosing the Whole Story. Two men on an assignment that from the first clearly demanded dozens; proof not of the vitality of American journalistic institutions but of the serious underfunding of independent investigative enterprise.

Lack of means is but one side of the journalistic coin, the other reads, lack of impact. The participants in a recent BBC roundtable on the press and Watergate—they included Mr. Ben Bradlee, editor of the Post—ran on boastfully about the “power and integrity of American newspapers” and “their sleepless vigilance” and the like. Yet, as Mr. Ian Hamilton remarked, if this power was real, should not the Watergate story have had at least some effect on the Nixon landslide? (The story was fully ventilated in the papers by 10 October, weeks before the national election.) It is surely also relevant that the Post reporters, in their interview with Crouse, spoke bitterly about their own inability, despite repeated efforts, to interest other reporters and Washington bureau chiefs in the story they were uncovering. (Bradlee himself has acknowledged that for months the story could not get beyond the Post’s “own circulation area.”) What is more, much more, Watergate is in fact a rerun: the first time through, owing to the failure of the press, the story simply did not take. The record of press impact in disclosing an earlier and related scandal—that involving International Telephone and Telegraph, the San Diego Democratic Convention, Dita Beard, et alia—testifies that damaging facts spread large in the American newspapers are, under ordinary circumstances, no threat whatever to the directors of conglomerates and the Cabinet officials disposed to serve them. The particulars of the ITT intrigue, involving contributions to underwrite a West Coast Democratic National Convention (desired by the President) by ITT, in exchange for a negotiated settlement of a Justice Department action required the conglomerate to divest itself from a major insurance company—those were spelled out in a series of newspaper columns, and in testimony before a Senate committee. (The cast included Senators Gurney and Ervin, and it was during these hearings that Erving developed his helpful destestation of the doctrine of executive privilege.) The investigating journalist was Mr. Jack Anderson. The evidence he produced was never undermined or countered: to reread his ITT articles—they are now available in a little book called The Anderson Papers—is to grasp anew the absurdity of boasts about the power of the American press. An absolutely damning report on corruption in the highest places, fully documented, in printed in over a hundred newspapers; the key Justice Department anti-trust official is posted comfortably off to a Chicago judgeship; the Attorney General has no comment; headlines for a few days but no public outcry; the matter slides quietly out of sight. The moral is that, except in absolutely extraordinary circumstances, the power the press is nihil, and subliterary foundations for a penetrating literature of politics cannot truly be said to exist.


When we advance a step to middling rungs we are, as I said, face to face with zombie epic. Far the most successful pre-Watergate work in zombie epic was Mr. David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. An effective indictment of that book was in print long before the Ervin Committee sat to is labors—the words of Miss Mary McCarthy. Miss McCarthy insisted that Halberstam’s picture of an “anguished President locked in combat with his conscience” required “some comparison with reality.” Her comment deserves fuller representation.

A man divided in his mind between dispatching combat troops, increasing Special Forces, and trying out one of three bombing scenarios is hardly a figure of Greek tragedy…Yet Halberstam’s design necessitates…the incessant manufacture of suspense. Rubicons being crossed, traps closing, doors shutting forever, I do not know how many “turning points” are reached in the narrative or how many crossroads. His determination to view Vietnam as an American tragedy means that the outcome is ineluctable, foreordained (cf. the “woulds” and “were to bes”), and that all those Rubicons should be invisible to the participants…Since, like the spectators of a Greek tragedy, the reader knows anyway what the end is going to be, suspense must be created artistically, and inner conflict heightened where little may have existed in real life.

But this skepticism deterred few midcult Watergate watchers. Time and again the thumb went on the scale and the eye read heroic weights. For such behavior met in the gentlemen of principle sitting on the Watergate committee isn’t surprising. Encountering purposes and values contrary to his own, a gentleman of principle holding office is bound to remark of the person opposite him, “What a liar!” When, on the other hand, he meets clarities concerning the Just and the Good precisely paralleling his own, he cries out with the proverb that “an honest man is the noblest work of God.”

Bad as it was with the elected men of principle, so it became with commentators granted space enough to lay out their fantasies in the morning paper. Two younger American novelists were invited by a key organ of contemporary opinion, the opinion-editorial page of the New York Times, to deliver their views concerning the chairman of the special Senate subcommittee…Mr. Willie Morris set up an opposition between Senator Ervin and Messrs Haldeman and Erlichman on the basis of a regional difference, contrasting the grace and dignity of the Old South, with the rawness and amorality of the West Coast, finding for “Senator Sam” partly on the basis of qualities Morris claimed to remember from his boyhood days when he dated the Senator’s “charming granddaughters.” Mr. Lelchuk, a shade more beamish was roused by Mr. Ervin’s Shakespeariana to an “affection approaching family feeling.” “My dear Senator,” he wrote:

It’s been a long, long time in our national life since we’ve had someone to look up to, to respect, laugh with, and finally even, love. Someone whom we’d want to sit down to dinner with as well as lead us…You help us redefine the meaning of the heroic, the joining of the ordinary (downhome stories) with the extraordinary (your knowledge of the Constitution and the laws); the opportunity to meet a great challenge and take on a monstrous opponent, the acknowledgment of vulnerability while getting the job done…In the midst of dealing with lies, cover-ups, crimes, mechanical hacks and conscienceless bureaucrats, cheats, extortionists, perjurers, burglars, bagmen and blackmailers, while dealing with the low sordid crimes of the Tyrant (the higher ones, of Indochina, as you well know, need another courtroom), you have remained just, cultured, intelligent, graceful, learned.

No impulse here to breathe along the nerves of a leader, to know his innerness, to suffer the full power of his vanities and frustrations and blindness as one’s own afflictions. Those who remember Mr. Ervin in the 1960s as firmly dedicated to the proposition that the poor and the powerless should continue to be punished for being poor and powerless, because the Constitution so recommended, could not fully share this perception.

The absence of keenness was no less marked in midcult journalistic accounts of witnesses than in encomia bestowed on the interrogators. A portion of the blame for this may perhaps be laid to the need to objectify and characterize what is properly described as trade association mentality.

We may return to Mr. Baker’s questioning of Mr. Herbert Porter who disbursed large sums unquestioningly for the Committee to Reelect the President and, like virtually all the others, never blew the whistle—we might return specifically to the question, “What was your state of mind, how did you feel?” Mr. Porter’s face betrayed a touch of surprise at these questions, as well it might, for these are not queries of the kind familiar to trade association persons, and Porter and the rest—Dean, Magruder, Mitchell, Erlichman, Halderman, others—seem to have been genuine trade association men. Of what mentality do we speak when we use this phrase? Suppose yourself an employee of the Independent Grocers Association lobby in Washington: how exactly do you deal with events or experiences or questions from without? As follows, by referring them to the welfare of the Independent Grocers. An oil shortage, a riot in Detroit, the conviction of a Congressman for taking bribes from contractors, a decision about Federal control of advertising rates on cable TV channels, a new food stamps program, a drought in East Africa—about each of these issues, about all matters, a trade association man is never confused. The essential question before him cannot be moral, philosophical, professional. There is but one question, unvarying, superbly comforting. “How will this affect us?” Whatever and whenever an event occurs, the grid for its reception is prepared, the filter is fixed: “Where is our interest?” and as for one’s insides: well, the sense of personal justification and responsibility is firm. To ask the question, “How will this affect us?”, is to be doing one’s job, faithful to one’s charge, loyal, principled, dutiful…To be asked how one felt at a time when one was only doing a good trade association man’s job…It is a little like waiting in your car as a traffic violator for a cop, who when he finishes writing a summons, hands it to you accompanied by a bit of a Verdi opera. Mr. Porter is jostled. He falls back on the old worn Nixon organizational words—team player, member of the group. The media seizes on the words, we are once again off on the weary culture critique of the 1950s, conformity, etc. But the life of this instant of questioning, as of many others, lay elsewhere in the patch of moral surprise, and this life could have been touched by an alert journalist.

One can, to be sure, press too hard. I do not claim to have “the explanation,” nor do I say that I know that crowd to their bottom—the prevalence of trade association mentality explains all. America, lacking institutions, lacking a clergy, army, aristocracy, lacking professions knit tightly enough to enforce standards, has in their place trade associations, and the problem is that they are inevitably heedless of any and all larger goods. I believe such talk, laid on too heavily, isn’t sound reporting, it is editorializing, culturology. What one is after is the instant of penetration, the answer to the question, “Why did he look surprised?”—the interpreter catching and explaining a bit of feeling on the wing. And of this there is very little.


It may readily be granted that Watergate turned a searchlight on sub- and middle-literary assumptions, with a bearing on the alteration of politics, but only a solemn head would propose that the searchlight reached as far as high literary culture. Still the hearings were oddly helpful—obliquely helpful—in calling to mind features of the currently dominant aesthetic that are at least tangentially connected with problems of imagination in political inquiry. Gleefully non-referential, this aesthetic takes as the highest good the exploration through parody of the postures of literary truthseeking. At its best it produces a Mary McCarthy responsive to the genius of Nabokov and supremely hostile to the mythy kitsch of Halberstam. At its less good—well, the implicit epistemology may be characterized—unkindly—as schoolboy positivist. It announces in tones of revelation that all talk, all writing, “all expressed forms of life, reality and history [are] fiction…,” that “life, reality and history only exist as discourse…” and that no form of discourse “can be life, reality or history.” From here it advances to a chuckle at the lunacy of believers in historical or political understanding. “What is the Civil War and how do we know it”, asks Professor Poirier in 1968. “Where is Lyndon Johnson and how does anyone know him? Is he a history book, an epic poem or a cartoon by David Levine? Who invents Lyndon Johnson, when and for what immediate purpose? And what about Richard Nixon, the living schmoo? Where does fiction end and the historical figure begin?...How do we know…the Vietnam war…any more than we know Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon?”

It would be pointless to abuse partisans of these views in the name of one or another naïve realism—or other epistemological simplism. What matters is not in this instance acts of assessment but an act of recognition—awareness that the influence of the anti-referentialists has tended to elevate truths of the labyrinth, of frustration and enclosure, to sacramental status, while dismissing as delusory truths of the clearing, of satisfaction and release. The latter truths are, to be sure—R. E. Collingwood once explained this—individual and local, hinged to transitory states of feeling—but no more so than the truths of the labyrinth. And valuing the one immensely above the other has the effect, among others, of inhibiting imaginative inquiry into political experience. Where is Robert Halderman and how does one know him? One knew an instant of him—something not be confused with words—as Mr. Weicher read back his marginalia. Good! Great! One saw a person knowing in a discrete instant that he was being perceived as caught out, feeling within himself that he had been deceived, hating his deceiver, half-shamed yet not by what it was held he should be ashamed—a complex of experience, in short, different for Halderman than for Weicher, or for the viewer. Pondering all this in the present context one is less comfortable with the contemporary passion for the inaudible, the inexpressible, the unknowable; less tolerant of the ceaseless crying down of theories of literary reference that actually haven’t had standing for two centuries or longer. Well and good to mock, in fine “litry” style, the Watergate cliché: “at this moment in time.” Dangerous, though, ever to forget that authenticity about “this moment in time” is among the strongest literary suits. Lawrence himself—I note this in passing, and in embarrassment, and yet am persuaded of its relevance—repeated these words often in his discourse, as for example on the explosive truth of the relation between Van Gogh and sunflowers, a truth “at that quick moment in time,” “at that living moment.” He was no voice of simple minded mimesis like those the politicians of self-parody conjure as their enemy—yet there is surely nothing in his aesthetic to deny the possibility of a vibrant imaginative work in political settings.

A counterpart to the belief in salvation by parody is the conviction that public voices, which by definition speak seriously and attempt to imagine or incarnate national energies in a “mere” literary tone, are tastelessly presumptuous. “I am the only President you have,” said Mr. Johnson, later Mr. Nixon agrees. Perhaps partly in response, aspirants to a national voice regularly perceive themselves as hilarious clowns—challengers afflicted with loony presidential aspiration (“My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic,” says Allen Ginsberg in “America.”)—or as spokesmen on the margin, voices of special interest or local hate. Even when deformed, the ambition of such aspirants can be exhilarating (or at least funny). The democratic nerve trills when Norman Mailer gazes at Henry Cabot Lodge striding across the Saigon airport, and invents a Mr. Ambassador who feels himself to be "necessarily superb.” The intensity and rhetorical blaze of LeRoi Jones’s “Black Art” raises that poem to levels higher than those of ordinary Black Power tracts.

Yet the presumption I refer isn’t finally a mere spirit of impudence, like that which speaks loudest on Mailer’s political page, and it is invariably more inclusive than any attitude framed in the poems of LeRoi Jones. The sound is that of a summons, a demanding address to the energies of a potentially national best self. The capacity to produce this sound depends on belief in an alternative continent of power, a reservoir of sanity or of proper protest basely ignored by the authorities.

I do not imply—in order to achieve a rising tone—that the episode we are passing through is creating such a power, an audience “beyond.” I would note that there have been hints in recent months of the formation of a popular risk-all, daretaking, deeply contrary moral judgment—that which alone can enable modest men and women to contemplate with terror total change, disruption, impeachment. But it is one thing to note this phenomenon and another to dream of imminent cultural reconciliation—between the newly alienated judgmental middle classes and the permanently alienated literateurs. The country’s two best-regarded literary creators have been committed for years to a “Hegelian suspicion,” as one critic puts it, “that the world itself is governed by self-generating political plots and conspiracies more intricate than any [that writers] could devise,” and utterly beyond the comprehension of the public at large. Watergate intensifies this belief, not weakens it.

Still the mind turns and turns. Our literary culture possesses, to this day, as England does not, a poetry of political incantation. Among our gifted younger writers are some who can image astounding solidarity with the outs, the bottom dogs, who can live into a snippet of near speech—a poor black father to son, at the zoo, pack it with furious force, becoming in the process priests of presumption, touching resonances of Whitman and Blake.

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.

Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,
They Lion grow.

Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
"Come home, Come home!" From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.

From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.

From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

I am imagining here a link between the spirit of this poem, the power of its assumed alliance and compassion, and the curious and moving national willingness—how it has awed Europe!—to consider taking our leaders out to their own and our own edge. I am imagining this and holding it forth, upward from the tangle of problems and obstacles, claiming it as our growing point. For the nurture of a literature of democratic politics, suitable for this nation as conceived, who knows better soil?

From March, 2015

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Gentlemen of Principle, Priests of Presumption:

» refinance mortgage vs home equity loan underwriter from refinance mortgage vs home equity loan underwriter
http://2635.refinancemortgage.science/ [Read More]

Tracked on July 13, 2015 04:29 AM