Heed the Words of E.B. White and Tone Down the Invective

By JIM CURLEY | Aug 07, 2019

At a convention in California about 20 years ago, I found myself with some free time. The sessions were over, and the cocktail party wouldn’t take place for another two hours. I turned on the TV in my hotel room.

A local channel was focused on a slow-speed car chase in the City of Angels. The suspect traversed freeways and local roads, weaving in and out of lanes, being pursued at a distance by several police cars moving slowly. Every now and then, as the chase moved from one town to another, some chase cars would drop off, and new ones would join the pursuit. A helicopter hovered above.

After five minutes standing, I took off my sport jacket and sat on the edge of the bed. This was mesmerizing – a Clint Eastwood chase in slo-mo. I was hooked. Cocktails and crudités could wait.

This slow car chase, two decades ago, came to mind recently as I thought about the coverage of national politics. The 2020 elections are still nearly 15 months away, yet the chase is already on. Fifteen months. Four hundred fifty days. A lot of time for establishing and framing a message to voters, yet too much time if we want to be free of negative campaigning.

Already, the drumbeat of attacks, counter-attacks, hand grenades lobbed over bunkers, etc. has been constant as candidates scratch for votes and dollars. The bickering seems to have no end, and the political channels on cable are covering it all.

I am exhausted, yet can’t turn off this slow-motion car chase. I am hooked.

One candidate, the Republican incumbent, is assured renomination by his party. Nevertheless, his finger is itchy and poised to strike a button. Not the one that opens a silo in North Dakota, thank God, but one that sends a tweet to all his loyalists. Many of those tweets stick his nose in the other party’s business.

The other major candidate will come from the Democrats. Of course, Democrats being Democrats, there are a lot of wannabes and not a whole lot of what-we-do-now folks. A lot of yipping about other Dems. Will Rogers had it right almost a hundred years ago when he said, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Almost two dozen individuals in this drove of donkeys have the highest office in the land in their sights.

It was this way, but reversed, three years ago when a dozen or so Republicans vied for their party’s nomination. They snapped at each other, just like Democrats are doing now, only worse. When a dark horse emerged in the Grand Old Party from outside of the mainstream, he was the object of strong attacks by other contenders. One leading Republican, now a golfing buddy of the same man who is now the president, called him a “kook,” “crazy” and “unfit for office.”

What happened to Gaylord Parkinson’s 11th Commandment for Republicans: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican”? Did Moses drop that tablet coming down Mount Sinai?

With early primaries and caucuses barely six months away, is there no way to mute the din of campaigns and to tone down the invective? Or will the “Road to the White House” be filled with slow-speed, but mean, car chases?

I think I may have found an alternative.

Recently, I picked up a just-released book titled On Democracy by E.B. White. White, who died almost 35 years ago, is perhaps known best for children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, but he also wrote for decades on current affairs for The New Yorker magazine. On Democracy, edited by granddaughter Martha White, features an introduction by presidential historian Jon Meacham.

Most of the articles in the book come from The New Yorker and cover the crucial years after World War II. Democracies were struggling with issues such as international governance, the expansion of totalitarian influences throughout the world, and free speech in a democratic society.

Meacham noted the special “gift” White possessed in these writings. “His work touched on politics but was not, in the popular sense, political, and the writings here underscore the role of the quiet observer in the great dramas of history,” Meacham said. No tweets for White, only well-reasoned essays.

White’s words create an emotional distance from burning issues that set the tongues of others aflame. These issues are seen not from proximity, but from a cooler place. Take for example E.B. White’s definition of democracy.

His “democracy” sounds like something formulated by people sitting on cracker barrels at a general store in White’s beloved Maine. In a New Yorker article published in July 1943, he defined democracy as “the line that forms on the right. It is the ‘don’t’ in ‘don’t shove.’ It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.”

Democracy, White added, “is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the … coffee.”

When FDR read this, he said, “Thems my sentiments exactly.”

Not that the 32nd president was immune from White’s criticism. When Roosevelt proposed mandatory retirement of federal judges upon reaching 70 years, a bid to “pack” federal benches, White wrote, “… we decline to follow a leader, however high minded, who proposes to take charge of affairs because he thinks he knows all the answers. Mr. Roosevelt is not ambitious personally, but he has turned into an Eagle Scout whose passion for doing the country a good turn every day had at last got out of hand.”

When President Truman complained about his treatment by the press in 1948, White replied, “I tend to think there is a large dollop of pure irascibility in Mr. Truman’s gloomy report. … Millions of studious, worried Americans heard what he said; then they checked it against the editorials; then they walked silently into the voting booths and returned (Truman) to office.”

President Eisenhower did not escape White’s opprobrium when he supported prayer as part of democracy. White wrote, “A President should pray whenever and wherever he feels like it … but I don’t think a President should advertise prayer. If there were only half a dozen unbelievers in America, their well-being would be a test of our democracy, their tranquility would be its proof.”

Generally, White spoke softly and carried an equally soft stick. The stick, however, was pointed. White’s criticism of both loyalty oaths and attacks on freedom of the press during the McCarthy era sounds as fresh today as they did when they were written nearly seven decades ago.

In 1970, White sent a letter to the editor of the Bangor Free Press about its use of the phrase “‘radical liberal’ to describe certain citizens who endanger the Republic.” The phrase was suggested by then-Vice President Spiro Agnew. White’s response to the newspaper’s decision was direct. “There’s only one kind of press that’s any good – a press free from any taint of government control. So if you are looking for a radical thinker these days, I suggest that you take a good look at the Vice President.”

In a letter to another editor, White wrote, “The press in our free country is reliable and useful not because of its good character but because of its great diversity. … The multiplicity of ownership is crucial. It’s only when there are few owners, or, as in a government-controlled press, one owner, that the truth becomes elusive and the light fails.”

White died before the rise of the internet. Circulation of printed newspapers is in decline, and many news publications have been folded into large conglomerates. However, the digital marketplace has provided us with new voices and new outlets for fact gathering and opinion. Whom can we trust? Let’s start with ourselves, and our responsibility as citizens to stay informed.

Let’s step away from the window ledge and turn our eyes away from the slow-motion car chase. Let’s approach the future with faith, if not confidence, and get to work.

On July 4, 1976, as our nation marked its bicentennial, E.B. White wrote, “We might even for a day assume the role of patriot with neither apology or shame. … If the land does not unfold fair and serene before our eyes, neither is this a bad place to be. It is unquestionably a busy one. Bang the bell!! Touch off the fuse! Send up the rocket! On to the next hundred years of melancholy scenes, splendid deeds, and urgent business!”

Jim Curley, a retired business publications editor, lives in Ship Bottom. He advises that E.B. White’s On Democracy is available from the Ocean County Library System.


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