October 17, 2016
MONTPELIER – If we were to name the years, much as the Chinese do, we might well call 2016 The Year of the Happy Pundits. Rarely, if ever before, have so many commentators had so many ways to pick and distribute so much low-hanging fruit to the masses. Stuck for a topic? Just turn on the radio or television, click on the Internet, or stop at the coffee shop, and you can choose from a dozen. The citizens of this fair country are in a turmoil over recent and current developments in politics, culture, economics, education, religion – you name it – and they have more avenues open to them to express themselves than most of us old folks are used to.
“Pundit” (Webster’s) is a Hindi word used originally to describe (1) “a Brahman who is learned in Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy, law, and religion,” and (2) “a person who has or professes to have great learning; actual or self-professed authority.” During the current excitement, we’re awash in pundits. You can tell a lot about a city or a region by the columnists its local papers run: Do they favor Charles Krauthammer and Cal Thomas, or Paul Krugman and Robert Reich?
For some (probably perverse) reason, I’ve read the editorial page ever since I first started reading. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate the nuances of what I was into at the time, but still devoured them. Westbrook Pegler was a favorite, with his virulent dislike of Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, “Moosejaw.” Hillary Clinton should be thanking her lucky stars he’s not around to discuss her today. He frequently came up with interesting points, as in a description of college football players as (I’m quoting as nearly as I can remember it about 65 years later) “nameless, faceless brutes pretending to represent an institution they happen to attend.” But he was a hater, with liberals firmly in his sights. He wrote in 1965 of Robert F. Kennedy: “Some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies.”
Drew Pearson was another favorite, with his column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” An inveterate muckraker and critic of powerful politicians and generals, he’d already been called “a chronic liar” by President Roosevelt when he became the first to report the previously suppressed story of General Patton’s slapping of two soldiers suffering from what was then called “battle fatigue” or “shell shock.” When the story “went viral,” as we say today, he was sidelined by General Eisenhower for the rest of the war. His former partner, fellow columnist Jack Anderson, said once of him, “When forced to choose between a story's accuracy and [his] desire to pursue a person whose views he disliked, [he] had no qualms about publishing the story anyway.” Because of his controversial opinions, he was fired from more jobs than most of us will ever have, but I really enjoyed him.
Earl Wilson was another. He wrote a daily Broadway gossip column, “It Happened Last Night,” for which he collected the material while at a table with his wife, Rosemary (whom he called by the objectionable sobriquet “BW – Beautiful Wife) in Toots Shor’s or some similar watering hole. I never cared for the column – it described a world utterly alien to a clueless fundamentalist Dutch Reformed kid 150 miles north in Albany – but I read it faithfully for the lively writing.
Between those days and now bloomed the careers of two men I consider giants of cultural commentary: William F. Buckley, Jr., and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Writing and speaking from opposite ends of the political spectrum, they infused their controversy with the intense, but genteel atmosphere of a championship tennis match, much unlike the bomb-throwing debates of today. Moynihan I remember best for his insightful mots – “No one is innocent after the experience of governing. But not everyone is guilty.” – “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.” That last one is especially relevant to today’s vituperation on Facebook pages. And then there was his unforgettable, heartbreaking farewell to Bobby Kennedy: “ I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. I guess that we thought we had a little more time.”
Both Moynihan and Buckley, children of New York City, affected delightful transatlantic accents, Buckley’s so broad you always pictured him at the helm of a yacht (where he often was) togged in white topsiders, cranberry trousers, and a Yale blue sweater. He and I disagreed on almost everything (I can’t tell that he ever noticed), but his suave hosting of his television show, “Firing Line,” and the cogency of his arguments marked him as a formidable opponent in a debate.
Interestingly, in the year 2000, eight years before his death, he issued this prescient warning about a future presidential candidate: Look for the narcissist. The most obvious target in today’s lineup is, of course, Donald Trump. When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America. But whatever the depths of self-enchantment, the demagogue has to say something. So what does Trump say? That he is a successful businessman and that that is what America needs in the Oval Office. There is some plausibility in this, though not much. The greatest deeds of American Presidents — midwifing the new republic; freeing the slaves; harnessing the energies and vision needed to win the Cold War — had little to do with a bottom line.
It would be easy to lament that they are no longer with us; but, thanks to their writing and recordings, they still are. They had an expansive view of America’s possibilities that seems to be lacking in the current invective-laden scramble for the Oval Office. If we can eschew the bumper stickers and low-life T-shirts, and use our brains as much as our mouths, there is a better way.