POLITICS / THE NATION : Powell: Did We Need Another Anti-Politician?
Colin L. Powell has done his countrymen a favor by mercifully bringing to a close another episode in the recurrent saga of America’s presidential amateur hour. Given the national let-down in the wake of the general’s withdrawal from the race, that statement requires some explaining.
We Americans are a strange lot. We all but invented the modern practice of political democracy, yet we remain deeply suspicious of professional practitioners of the political craft. With the possible exception of lawyers, we hold no other professionals in such contempt--surely not surgeons or scientists or big-league athletes. But who among us can utter the word politician without a sneer?
Our hatred for politicians fed our love for Powell. He was the unsullied vessel into which countless citizens poured their hopes for something other than politics as usual. And he was expected to accomplish the feat of cleansing the national political stables precisely because he was an “outsider,” a non-politician, even an anti-politician, uncontaminated by previous mucking about in the manure of Washington. Yet, a glance at earlier amateurs cast into the role many hoped Powell would play reveals the naivete of that expectation.
The Republican Party, in particular, has had a peculiar propensity for recruiting non-political figures as its presidential standard-bearers. Powell was but the latest in a long line of such persons.
This tradition of shunning leaders trained in the electoral system in favor of an outsider--often a military man--who could pacify intraparty warfare and win at the polls goes back to the second GOP President, Ulysses S. Grant, first elected in 1868. A brilliant but bloody general, Grant was a national hero thought to be above “mere” politics and thus in an ideal position to bind up the nation’s wounds after the Civil War. But as every schoolchild knows, the results were disastrous.
Grant, the political neophyte, had no discernible political vision pertinent to the problems of the post-Civil War era. He proved utterly unable to control the congressional Republicans. They fastened onto the South a regime of Reconstruction that managed at once to let down the freed blacks and bitterly alienate Southern whites, obliterating the GOP in the South for nearly a century. Grant’s innocence of the ways of political Washington also helped to produce a carnival of corruption, including job-mongering, influence-peddling and old-fashioned embezzlement--a mess that even the proud Grant apologized for in his memoirs.
Burned badly, the GOP did not again turn to an outsider as their presidential candidate for another half-century. They stuck to leaders drawn from within their own ranks, persons who had followed conventional political careers--men like James Garfield, James G. Blaine, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
Then, in 1928, they again embraced an outsider, Herbert Hoover. To be sure, Hoover had been seasoned by nearly eight years as secretary of commerce, but his mystique owed to his reputation as the “Great Engineer,” the non-politician who would bring to the presidency the objective, analytical skills of the dispassionate expert. The parallels between Hoover and Powell are striking. Hoover had never run for public office at any level before 1928; prior to 1920, his party affiliation was unknown; he had lived largely outside the United States; his Washington service in the Harding and Coolidge administrations had been legendarily successful, establishing him both as a loyal steward to his presidents and a man of incorruptibly independent judgment.
Yet again, as no one needs reminding, Hoover’s record in office was calamitous--for his country and his party. Indeed, his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, owed much of his own and his party’s contrasting political fate to the fact that Roosevelt was as thoroughly professional a politician as ever rose to the presidency. In the White House, Roosevelt flamboyantly displayed his mature command of all the political arts--and even invented some new ones, such as his cunning manipulation of the press and shameless exploitation of the new-fangled medium of radio. He mastered, at least for a season, his own congressional party, and rightly goes down in the history books as one of the tiny band of individuals who have made a difference in our national history.
Bamboozled by Roosevelt, the GOP in 1940 again went outside their ranks to find a challenger--the quixotic Wendell L. Willkie, a corporate lawyer with no experience as legislator, candidate, jurist or any of the other usual political roles. Willkie’s chief support in the party came from its beleaguered Eastern Establishment faction, deeply dedicated to internationalism and concerned as World War II loomed to stave off the virulent isolationism of the party’s Midwestern wing. Willkie, of course, after an amateurish campaign, went down to inglorious defeat and passed into the special oblivion history reserves for losers who strut such a brief hour on the national stage.
Desperate once again to contain the surging isolationist forces in GOP ranks, most notoriously represented by the destructive antics of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, the same Eastern Establishment in 1952 recruited another outsider, Dwight D. Eisenhower, as the GOP candidate.
Eisenhower is the person most often held up as a precedent for Powell, since both were military heroes of previously uncertain political affiliation whose freedom from political taint constituted the core of their popular appeal. (Never mind that Eisenhower made his military record in a real war, and on the ground, not in a 100-hour bit of military theater conducted from the air-conditioned offices of the Pentagon.) Yet while Eisenhower conspicuously improved on Grant’s record in office, he assuredly fell short of permanently institutionalizing the “Modern Republicanism” his handlers touted.
As it turned out, he was the last Republican President successfully promoted by the GOP’s internationalist Eastern wing, for the center of Republican gravity shifted inexorably to the newly prosperous and politically powerful West and South--regions that resonated to McCarthy and harbored deep suspicions of the old Eastern elites. Perhaps because of the very weakness of his core constituency within the party, Eisenhower as President dragged his feet in confronting McCarthy, and effectively gave hostages to his party’s isolationist wing in his diplomatic and military policies.
Perhaps owing as well to the rising importance of the South in the GOP’s political calculations, Eisenhower infamously shied away from grappling with the most urgent moral and social issue of his day--the movement to secure civil rights for black Americans in the South who had been abandoned by Grant’s Reconstruction-era GOP. Only when his hand was forced at Little Rock in 1957, did he deploy federal power on behalf of civil rights. For any who hoped that a new political day dawned in Washington with Eisenhower’s arrival in 1953, a day when the petty maneuverings of politicians would be banished to the shadows and urgent national issues would move to the fore, disappointment was acute.
So Powell is gone, for the moment, from the political scene. But, for better or worse, his absence is not likely to be strongly felt. As the examples of those who have gone before him suggest--both those who have gone into office and those who have gone into the political night--the power of presidents to make deep marks on the political tenor of their time is limited. And it appears most limited when their strongest claim to office is the ignorance of the politicians’ craft.
Whether we like it or not, politics is the medium in which we continuously arbitrate our differences and grope for common purpose--and politicians are the people who do that indispensable work for us. Those are formidable tasks in any setting, in any time. They are especially challenging now. They are best not left in the hands of amateurs.*