Thursday, 17 April 2014

Nixon V Humphrey : Notes on the Election (NYRB 1968)

Notes on the Election

What is new about this election is the number of people who tell you they are not going to vote. People from all walks of life—high corporation executives, SDS youths, my dentist and his technician, a Negro cleaning-woman. The refusal to vote is conceived as a protest, an expression of total disgust, and not just on the part of liberals who, like me, used to vote for Norman Thomas to register disaffection, but on the part of “normal” Republicans and “normal” Democrats: “Count me out this time.” Far from being a sign of apathy, it points to an aroused nation, resentful of the insult offered to the intelligence by the Humphrey-Nixon alternative handed to the public like a stacked deck of cards. The Wallace vote too is a protest against the regular party candidates and the lack of choice between them; it is not all white backlash. Many of those who say, grumbling, that they will probably vote for Wallace in the end (if they consent to vote at all) are planning to do so on the assumption that he cannot be elected. If he were taken seriously as a candidate, he would lose some of his protest-support. So it is not so amazing that some of Bobby Kennedy’s crowds are turning to Wallace; they do not expect him to be president, any more than we expected Norman Thomas to be president. The question of his fitness for the office is irrelevant for them. They are simply angry and have found an obscene word, Wallace, with which to shout No.
When Bobby Kennedy was murdered, the Kennedy people experienced not only a sense of personal loss but the feeling, peculiar to these years, of having lost their suffrage. There was nobody left to vote for, nobody represented them. Hence the fury with which they refused to be reconciled to the very idea of McCarthy as a substitute for Kennedy. The idea that McCarthy politically might be a reasonable facsimile of Kennedy, that they stood more or less for the same things, was utterly unacceptable, and this was not only part of the ordinary psychology of mourning (which repels the blasphemous thought that anyone can fill the place of the departed) but an objection to being returned to the state of choicelessness from which the Kennedy candidacy had temporarily rescued them. Yet if Bobby had never entered the race, Gene McCarthy would have been seen as a genuine alternative to Johnson and Humphrey.

Yet in just this situation, where a decision between Nixon and Humphrey is as significant as a decision between Mr. Clean and old reliable Soilax, there is an attempt to introduce into the campaign an element of compulsion—moral compulsion exerted mainly on the liberal voter. He is forced to vote for Humphrey, he is told; he has no other choice, given the fact of Nixon. This worked in ‘64, when the liberal voter, fearful of an escalation of the war in Vietnam, felt forced to vote for Johnson. This was largely due to Goldwater himself, who frightened the public by his honesty—a mistake Nixon is not repeating. This year the honest candidate is Wallace; at least you know where he stands while the two regular candidates seem to have reached an accord to take all “stands” out of the campaign and to talk in a sort of code than can be diciphered according to taste. You can read anything you want into Humphrey’s recent remark about stopping the bombing if elected; it is like a big Rorschach blot.
THIS IS A CAMPAIGN of personalities, not of issues, Senator Muskie, rather candidly, said the other day. In ‘64, the element of compulsion derived from the personality of Goldwater (“Could you trust that man with an atom bomb?”), and the hope this year of the Humphrey camp is based on creating a fearsome image of Nixon, in comparison with which the Johnson we know would be an angel. If Nixon should win, we will all be in jail, and so on, and far from being able to trust tricky Dick with an atom bomb, we cannot even trust him, one hears, with Supreme Court appointments, although in reality the Eisenhower court appointments (which are all we have to compare) were superior to Truman’s and Johnson’s and some of “us” are in jail right now or under indictment or out on bail. If the personality of Nixon is not shivery enough, there is always the specter of Spiro Agnew, one heart-beat away from the presidency. This is not the first whispering campaign in American politics, but it is the first campaign that is all whispers and suggestions.
The blackmailing suggestion that the voter with an ounce of decent feeling left in him is not free not to vote for Humphrey is based on purely negative suppositions presented as certainties about his opponent. Nothing positive is advanced in Humphrey’s favor, except his yellowing record on civil rights and social legislation and the promise that once elected he will be his own man again—something he could have become at any time in the last four years without the aid of the electorate. All he had to do was resign. Party loyalty is an insufficient excuse for his ebullient backing of Johnson’s war policy, and in any case, if that is a real factor in his conduct, it ought to continue to operate. He owes Johnson, Governor Connally, George Meany, Mayor Daley, all the state party machines that imposed him on the convention a debt of gratitude. Besides, his record on civil liberties, as shown by I.F. Stone in these pages, is just as disturbing as Nixon’s, and it is civil liberties that people who insist on the necessity of voting for him are chiefly worrying about.
As for Vietnam, the record shows him to have been a fervid anti-Communist long before he became Johnson’s traveling salesman. On this there is nothing to choose between him and Nixon, though it seems likely that Nixon, if willing, will be able to withdraw from Vietnam with greater ease than Humphrey, since the Democrats as the opposition party will hardly be in a position to accuse him of surrendering to Communism. Whether Nixon is willing is another question, but for that matter we do not know whether Humphrey is willing, let alone able. According to The New York Times, South Vietnamese politicians are satisfied with the nominations; they feel that the election of either candidate will guarantee the continuance of the war. In fairness I should add that they express slightly more faith in Nixon.
It is true that Nixon is a more stable personality. Weakness, vacillation, and uncontrolled garrulity seem to be Humphrey’s leading traits, so much so as to induce a feeling of pity. The politics of pity may actually swing some voters to him, red-faced, emotional, hitching up his pants, scratching his stomach, eyes watering in the bright sunlight.
On Vietnam, in my view, neither candidate is predictable, though for different reasons, Nixon because he is cannily concealing his intentions and Humphrey because probably he has no intentions or keeps changing them from day to day. Looking behind the candidates, we can see that Wall Street is against the war and that organized labor is for it, which gives hope that the victory of Nixon may contain a consolation prize for those who, more than anything else, want the war to stop. On domestic issues, Nixon is not so promising; obviously, the ending of the war will release funds for government spending on the poverty program and the cities, but Nixon says he is opposed to government spending for such projects and would turn them over to private capital. If Humphrey cannot end the war, he will not have the money, and Nixon, who may have it, will not spend it, though in fact he may have no other choice when the ending of the war brings about a business recession and returns the low-income whites and blacks who have been fighting in Vietnam to the labor pool.
But both Nixon, with his “responsible” free-enterprise posture, and Humphrey, with his New Dealish and civil-rights style, appear grotesquely out of date in the light of what is happening in the country. Civil rights, welfare payments, “bussing in,” low-cost housing legislation of the familiar kind are just as unfitted to cope with the radical breakdown of the system, evident in every branch of life, as corporate investment in slum areas. In a sense, the Republican rhetoric of returning power to the people is closer to reality than the official Democratic rhetoric, except that the Republicans are talking about different people.
The Wallace phenomenon, a rebellion chiefly of the uneducated right, parallels the rebellion of the left, of Yippies, Hippies, SDS. Both are outside the system and conscious of their neverfail ability to shock respectable citizens, especially liberals. “I gave my last ride a hard time,” a taxi-driver told me with a jeering laugh. “Let her know I was going to vote for Wallace.” “Are you?” He hedged. He had not made up his mind: all the candidates were terrible. Since I had kept my cool, he was keeping his own counsel. When Humphrey reminded his hecklers in Seattle that the mark of an educated man was “good manners” and pleaded with them to be “ladies and gentlemen,” he showed a characteristically weak grasp of the contemporary scene. The power, disproportionate to their numbers, of the Yippies and of the SDS militants rests precisely on a contempt for “education,” and on a willingness, or rather resolute determination, to do violence to the feelings of “ladies and gentlemen.” For many of his adherents, outside the South, Wallace is Pigasus. That is what they see in him, uncharitable, grunting, piggishness unashamed, the natural racist man. They do not admire Wallace; they envy him.
IN THE COURSE of this election, everything hidden in American life is coming to the surface, which is possibly a good thing. It may be that the McCarthy candidacy was really a shortlived illusion, flattering not merely to his supporters but to the country as a whole, in that it indicated that there were still forces within the established order capable of presenting an alternative, not just a different packaging. It was surprising how little antagonism McCarthy excited except among the Kennedy people. Nobody glared at McCarthy buttons and stickers. The whole McCarthy campaign was a dream-like, dreamy episode of magical transformations, in which beards were shaved, hair cut, coats and ties put on. “Keep Clean for Gene.” More a wish-fulfillment fantasy, perhaps, than a political movement, this socalled children’s crusade in reality was a parent’s crusade. Working for McCarthy was an approved summer activity, like going to camp. It ended as a nightmare, under the nightsticks, kicks, and tear gas of Mayor Daley’s police, but in fact politically it had ended long before, with the California primary or Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. Only in the early days of New Hampshire and Wisconsin did it seem real, though amazing, to those engaged in it and to Johnson, whom it drove out of the presidency. At that point McCarthy himself, that saturnine man, may have believed in his own chances of being nominated, but not long after it became clear that he didn’t and that he had no great desire for the office. Yet nobody gave up or “dropped out”; just as a sleeper who is having an agreeable dream resists being wakened, though he knows it is “only a dream,” we all continued to work for McCarthy, and even when it was over, there were still groups who wished to “do something” and waited for a word from the candidate.
Whether he might have had a majority of the country or even a majority of his own party, nobody will ever know now, for the Johnson machine acted in such a way as to prevent any democratic testing of its power. Not only acted, overreacted, like Daley’s police. They were stupidly afraid of any untoward happening in a convention they already controlled, afraid in fact of the “miracle” that the McCarthy forces still hoped for, sadly aware that nothing but a miracle would produce his nomination. Nevertheless, there wasa sort of miracle, manifest in the fact that Johnson and Daley showed their hand so plainly. This was simply a godsend to those who were convinced that the democratic process had broken down in this country but had been unable to prove it by argument to the ordinary well-meaning man. In Chicago, he saw it on television. If the McCarthy dream had to die, it was a good way, as they say, to go.
It is clear that political decorum, which was partly only a fa├žade, is finished for the time being in this country. Soon the candidates, bedeviled by hecklers, will no longer be able to appear in public and will become mere voices and sickly shadows on radio and television—perhaps poetic justice. Since I believe in freedom, I personally am against heckling when carried to the point that it prevents a man from talking, but the current alternative—police violence—is just as bad. Something new is happening in America, and whoever is elected cannot count on a return to tranquillity. Groups who have felt themselves powerless have suddenly tasted power, and this includes the McCarthy people. If nothing else, they have the power to defeat Humphrey in November, whether by staying home or writing in or voting the bottom half of the ticket, and it would be apolitical not to use it.