ROBERT PRATT SAT AT the typewriter and tried to ignore the call of the August sun outside his window. The air-conditioner kept this second floor study cool, but just beyond the glass summer beckoned, a sunny August Sunday that wanted no one indoors. His one concession to the season was the bottle of beer beside the typewriter on his battered desk, but the bottle too kept distracting him from the paper he was writing.
He re-read, for the tenth time, the last sentence on this page: “America is moving inexorably toward a Fuehrer, possibly by the end of this decade, certainly by the end of the century.” Did he actually believe that? Not as surely as he’d made it sound, though he did think the erosion toward an omnipotent leader was well under way and would only with great difficulty be stopped in time. Still, in any case, it would be best to copper his bets a little; he changed the period at the end of the sentence to a comma, and added, “Unless unforeseeable changes take place.”
She said, “I read his article today. The one about the Fuehrer. I hadn’t known people were thinking that way at all.”
“From the highest to the lowest,” Bradford said. “I think perhaps that’s the advantage of retirement, one can step outside the action and see it from a different perspective, not get caught by the received truths that everybody else absorbs without noticing.”
“I’d never known that was possible, to have a whole shift in the way people think, without anybody noticing.”
“Look at a ten-year-old fashion magazine,” Bradford said, “and you’ll see the same thing operating on a different level. The clothes will look foolish to you, you’d be embarrassed to be seen wearing any of them. Try to remember how much you admired clothing like that at the time, and you can’t do it. The memory is gone. You know you must have liked that clothing, you can remember owning things very much like it, but to remember your attitude then is impossible.”
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 12th, 1933, and I couldn’t digest milk. Not mother’s milk, nor cow’s milk, nor goat’s milk, not anybody’s milk. Nor could I digest any of the baby formulas then available. Everything they fed me at the hospital ran right through me, leaving mere traces of nutrients behind. On the fourth day, the doctors told my parents to prepare for the worst: “He’ll be dead by his eighth day.” Just another squirming little bundle of muscle and heat that didn’t make it.
Then, on the fifth day, the doctors learned about an experimental baby formula, based on soybeans, nearing the end of its trials in a hospital in Manhattan. There was nothing else to try, so phone calls were made, the formula was shipped from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and for the first time in my young life I found something I could tolerate.
If I’d been born three months earlier, I was dead in eight days. If I’d been born in Baltimore, or Boston, much less some small town somewhere, or anywhere else in the world, I was dead in eight days. Only a surprise ending saved my life.
From the unpublished memoirs of Donald E. Westlake, excerpted in The Getaway Car.
July 12, 1933 (Wednesday)
The Vienna newspaper Oesterreichische Abendblatt published a three-page story claiming proof that Adolf Hitler was “directly descended on his mother’s side” from a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, and that there were at least ten Jewish persons named Hitler in the city of Polná. Alexander Basch, the recently deceased city registrar, had identified a sister of Hitler’s grandmother as having been a Jew who moved from Polna to Vienna when both places were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Born: Donald E. Westlake,75, American mystery author with 65 novels under 16 pseudonyms; (d. 2008)
From Wikipedia Timeline (both entries for this date contain questionable assertions).
Imagine you grew up knowing two things about yourself:
1)If you’d been born a bit earlier, or in a different place, you’d have starved to death in eight days.
2)While you were being kept alive by capricious arbitrary events, threadbare plot contrivances that would cause any self-respecting editor to throw his/her hands up in despair, a WWI corporal with a dysfunctional personality and some problematic ideas claimed absolute power over a major western nation.
The NSDAP became the only legal party in Germany on July 14th, 1933–same date they created the first modern eugenics law–basically, full-on Nazification took place during Westlake’s gestation and early infancy.
(I don’t write any of this stuff, you know. Don’t look at me.)
Now of course, you can’t be born at all in this world without barging in on some catastrophe or other, since the thing about history is it never stops, even if you ask it nicely. But this is, you must admit, a higher order of coincidence than usual. All the more since Westlake spent much of his life writing about the never-ending battle between the independents and the organization men–as good a term as any for Nazi, though not all organization men are Nazis. It’s a large category.
And that may not be coincidence at all. Westlake’s attitude towards authority probably gelled quite early in life. Plausible it was formed, in part, by his growing awareness of what was going on in the world when he first entered it. We look for patterns, and they’re always there. Maybe we just imagine them. I’m sure that’s it.
As I said when I first reviewed Ex Officio, his only novel centered around a politician, Westlake will not be remembered as a political writer. He nonetheless approached the subject on a regular basis, most often by circuitous pathways. If he’d taken a different path in life…..
His own politics can be something of a puzzlement–a strong liberal on most social issues, such as equal rights for black people, immigrants, gays, everybody. His understanding of the way Hitler and many others used fear and distrust of outsider groups to make people act against their interests is exceptionally strong. You take away anyone else’s freedom, you imperil your own. And nothing undermines your identity more than attacking someone else’s.
More conservative on economics, as you’d expect from someone who made his living a book at a time. He’s distrustful of government interference in private life, to the point where he wrote an early short story that seems to indicate he thought Medicare was an infringement of American liberty. He belonged to at least one writer’s union (probably several), but some of his later work could be interpreted as supporting ‘right to work’ laws, at least when it comes to outfits like the Teamsters. Straddles the fence there.
He wrote an article for The Weekly Standard (RIP) that seems to be an endorsement of the way George W. Bush addressed 9/11, but this was before the Iraq War started, it was more insult than encomium, and I doubt it got him on the shortlist for any White House galas. He seems to have mainly written it because William Kristol was a fan. (Nobody’s all bad. And Bill’s one of the last Never-Trumpers standing. Welcome to the struggle, comrade.)
He may even have had some doubts about Social Security (see The Jugger), but those were expressed early in his career, when he was young and healthy (another durable pattern–even Ayn Rand accepted Social Security and Medicare–for herself–when she got old and sick and broke.)
But you’d be dead wrong to slot him as a Libertarian. His science fiction novel, Anarchaos, which he wrote very early in his career (then went out of his way to get published at basically no profit to himself), evinces a corrosive skepticism towards Anarchist/Libertarian ideas, verging on outright derision. You need a social structure to keep order, a strong central authority chosen by the people–if only to rebel against. And to provide a check against perhaps the most insidious organization men of all–the CEOs. My best summation of his standpoint towards the plague of bureaucracy (as opposed to autocracy) is that the true individualist will learn how to get around it, and the rest won’t know what to do without it. From each according to his means….
Distrustful of the Left, disgusted by the Right, he could be disdainful towards both. The far Left and Right he disowned without qualification–as Orwell told us, pigs is pigs, and it doesn’t matter which side of the table they sit on.
One book might be about how Corporate America quietly plotted to institute a new form of feudalism, install a sort of figurehead Democracy, while they did whatever they pleased behind the scenes; only they hadn’t reckoned on a star crossed pack of small time crooks stumbling into the path of their juggernaut, gumming up the works, buying the rest of us some time.
Another might be about how 60’s radicals who decided to work outside the system (with guns and bombs) were mainly doing it for themselves, not the people. Acting out poorly understood identity crises, making other people die for their ideas, drawing out the bloody farce a few years too long. A comedy that never really finishes, since there’s always a new cast warming up in the wings.
A mixed bag politically was Mr. Westlake. Not reliably in the corner of anyone with power, because he assumed no one in power, no matter how pure their intentions, would ever be reliably in our corner. Power over others corrupts your intentions, your ideas, your ethics, your very sense of self. Lord Acton would concur. As would Karl Popper, who said the question of Democracy isn’t who should have the power, but how to prevent anyone from getting too much. Negative Liberty, which then allows Positive Liberty its greatest practical range for the greatest number and variety of individuals. (In theory.) If the individual has no rights, nobody does, since the ‘masses’ are just a collection of individuals.
But for all of these potential threats to liberty that Mr. Westlake wrote about (around, really), he avoided dealing with the one threat he most feared–the one whose shadow he was born in. Suppose people just handed over their liberty to the least trustworthy trustee imaginable, because they were tired of it–weary of the sordid scrum of politics, the clamor of short-sighted interest groups, looking for what comes after politics–enforced unanimity. Which we somehow always think will favor us.
Well, he wrote mainly crime fiction, set mainly in the present day, mainly in America. There wasn’t much opportunity to write about dictatorship. We’ve never had one. Not yet. Anyway, Sinclair Lewis did that already. (And Philip Roth, later on.)
Why did Westlake, when the story was pitched to him out of the blue, instantly agree to write a train heist story set in Idi Amin’s Uganda, start out to make it comic, then turn it into a somber rumination on the atrocities of that regime, set against the flawed humanity and basic decency of the people who set out to steal from it? Because the notion that one man could have so much power over so many both fascinated and revolted him, and his heroes were always individualists–individualism being the bane of autarchs everywhere. (He goes out of his way to mention that the assault that ultimately toppled Amin came through a place in Tanzania called West Lake.)
Tinpot foreign dictators appear throughout his work, but are not covered in any depth, because the form he’s writing in doesn’t allow for it–and he’s got other points to get across. Still, you can hear him thinking–“If there was a Hitler in America, or a Stalin, or an Amin, or a Castro, or a Pinochet?–where would Parker be then? Where would Dortmunder be? Where would I be?” Squarely behind the eight ball, that’s where.
Under an absolutist state, he’d probably have to switch over to westerns or science fiction–something based in settings too abstracted from daily life to be taken as a commentary on it. Hitler loved those Karl May adventures with Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, which have somehow never caught on in the English speaking world. No evidence the worst criminal in history ever liked crime fiction, which actually had a pretty good run in Weimar Germany, Fritz Lang and such. Degenerate art! Into the flames with it!
Just to show that all historical analogies have their limits, I must now concede that Herr Trump’s tastes are different (can you imagine him sitting through an entire Wagnerian opera, or any opera?) He loves crime fiction. Not in print form, since that would entail reading, but movies. The Godfather and Goodfellas in particular. Stories that emphasize honor among thieves, a central authority figure overseeing their efforts, a code of omerta, and of course these stories deal a lot with traitors and stoolpigeons, and their various unpleasant fates. And lots of willing wayward women, we should not forget.
These are stories written from the perspective of gangsters, and on some level sympathizing with them, though one suspects Mr. Trump has focused more on the seamy glamor of the milieu than the morals behind the stories–which isn’t that uncommon.
I’ve mentioned before Westlake’s attitude towards criminal syndicates–just another system designed to undermine individuality. How often he writes stories where the lone wolves of crime take on the organization men, take them out. He never romanticizes the mob. A mob is the thing he most devoutly wishes not to be a part of. But he would still have found it interesting that America’s first potential Fuehrer so self-consciously modeled himself after Mafiosi, real and fictive. That’s a distinctly American approach to autocracy.
See, we all know what foreign dictators look like, their speech patterns, how they comport themselves in public, because we’ve seen the movies, the newsreel footage, and whatever the hell it was Leni Riefenstahl was doing. The part they never show is how the dictator got all that power to begin with. Westlake’s dictators, fictive or real, don’t address that point. There isn’t time, and there isn’t a market (he couldn’t even find many takers for Kahawa, which is a bloody good book).
Closest any major movie ever came to showing Hitler’s origins was Max, where John Cusack’s Jewish art dealer tries to defang young Adolph by making a successful artist of him. (Might have worked–and it’s not as if bad art never sells). Hardly anyone has seen that film. We prefer stories about his downfall–better meme fodder.
So in Mr. Westlake’s body of work, we see either aspiring despots, or fully realized ones–never do we see that transitional moment that links the two. Because he writes stories set in the present, mainly in America, and It Can’t Happen Here–Sinclair Lewis’ title was closer to reality than the book itself, which imagined some populist demagogue like Huey Long defeating FDR, then installing a corrupt racist anti-democratic regime, that starts to crumble when its promises all turn out to be lies. Oddly familiar now, but still overstated, off-balance. Like one of those novels where the Axis won WWII or the South won the Civil War. Could it happen? Sure. Would it? Probably not.
Truth is, Democracy was too well-rooted here by Lewis’ time to be undone in a single stroke. Still is, thankfully. But nobody runs forever. How might our run come to an end?
In one novel, Westlake imagined precisely that–without showing it. And he, like Lewis, was reacting to recent events. Extrapolating from them. Less dramatically, and I would argue, more presciently.
His argument, in brief, is that Left and Right are collaborators in the downfall of Democracy. That each is dissatisfied with the compromises inherent to that system of government, looking for an end run around it. When enough people stop believing in incremental change, you get dictatorship and revolutionary change, which ends up not working out as advertised.
And this is a fair summation of what happened in Germany, under Hitler. The Far Right took power with the unwitting help of the Far Left, which then took power when the Far Right was done in by an alliance dominated by centrists, only to collapse under its own weight 46 years later. And now the former command center of the Far Left is helping the Far Right in America take power. (I swear I don’t write any of this.)
But see, this is me talking, much more than Westlake. Trying to understand what’s going on around me, find the pattern, rationalize the irrational, which is comforting, if also disquieting. This isn’t the Fred Fitch Review. What was it Westlake was trying to say with an odd cul de sac subplot in a political thriller few people read then, and even fewer now (though it is evailable)? A subplot I gave extremely short shrift to in my review of that thriller, it should be noted–because at the time I thought it was a bit of a red herring. Now I’m not so sure.
In Ex Officio, Robert Pratt, football player turned history professor, love interest for the heroine, has stumbled on a new idea, inspired by the Presidential election of 1968 (still fresh in the memory when Westlake wrote this 1970 novel). Eugene McCarthy, appealing strongly to young anti-war voters and the left wing of the Democratic Party, sabotaged the reelection hopes of Lyndon Johnson (who Westlake didn’t like), only to fail to win the nomination.
Humphrey seemed too complicit after McCarthy and the murdered RFK, the Democrats had held the White House two terms, the once staunchly Democrat south never forgave LBJ the Civil Rights Act, and the country generally seemed to be coming apart at the seams, both generational and racial.
And thus Richard Nixon eked out a narrow win with a bit of chicanery involving secret negotiations with a hostile foreign power. Only to crush another left-wing Democrat in 1972, then be forced into resignation over still more chicanery, but Westlake didn’t know all that then. (If we’re being honest, most Americans probably don’t know all that now.)
The characters in Ex Officio, all part of a sprawling extended family with a former President at its center, like to talk about the politics of their day, and just like us, the discussion disturbs and dismays even while it stirs and stimulates. The occasion for the first conversation is, of all things, an attempt to fix up ex-President Bradford Lockridge’s lonely widowed granddaughter, Evelyn Canby, with a nice fella, namely Robert.
The President of the college Robert works for, wouldn’t you know, is Sterling Lockridge, Bradford’s brother. He is married to a kvetchy old liberal (she’d say progressive now) named Elizabeth, who likes Robert (he roomed with a nephew of hers, which is how he got the teaching job, and why she’s trying to fix him up with Evelyn), but loses patience with his stick-in-the-mud centrism sometimes. Their latest joust begins as they’re making the long drive to Bradford’s estate.
THE TRIP, ALL IN all, took an hour and a half. Their route skirted every town along the way, so that once out of Lancashire they didn’t see another populated area until they arrived at Eustace, which turned out to be a surprisingly sleepy little town that obviously hadn’t allowed the international fame of one of its citizens to alter its style and pace.
Robert sat forward as they drove through town, his elbows on the seat back, and said, “Take away the automobiles and you could make a movie here and call it 1925.” Sterling, at the wheel, chuckled and nodded, but Elizabeth said, “That’s better than calling it 1984.”
At sixty-two, five years younger than her husband, Elizabeth was a tall and straight and slender woman, her face very little lined, her hair gray but well-cared-for, her mental faculties and political impatiences intact.
Robert looked at her grim profile in some surprise. “Do you really think that’s a possibility?”
“More and more every day,” she said, and turned to glance at him; he saw her eyes take in his crewcut.
“I’ll grant you we’re on a swing away from liberalism,” Robert said, “but it’s only a swing. The country is heading for conservatism again, but sooner or later the pendulum will start back. It always does. America has always had its Know Nothing party, and it’s always had its Abolitionists.”
Elizabeth’s expression was cynical. “The right-wingers want to stop the clock entirely, you know, and one of these times they’ll make it. Then the pendulum won’t come back at all. That’s what Orwell was talking about.”
“I don’t see it happening,” Robert said. “I know the political history of this country, and the whole story is summed up in the pendulum swinging between left and right.”
“The reason I worked for Eugene McCarthy,” Elizabeth said, “is because he was the only man in public life to stand up and say that kind of thinking was fuzzy-headed and dangerous. Complacency will do more harm to this country than a full-scale atomic attack.”
Sterling, humor in his voice, said, “Robert, for God’s sake don’t get her started now. She gives poor Brad enough hell every time they meet as it is, for not bringing peace on Earth during his administration.”
“If any one man on the planet could do it,” Elizabeth said fiercely, “it’s the President of the United States. He’s the only one with anything approaching the power, the public attention and the prestige. I’ve told Brad that before, and I’ll tell him again. The hour is too late for politics as usual.”
“See what you’ve done,” Sterling said, looking at Robert in the rearview mirror. “On your head be it.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be good,” Elizabeth said. “It’s too late for him now, he’s missed his opportunity. I’ve told him that, too, more than once. Besides, this is Robert’s day. I promise I won’t hog the conversation.”
At Bradford’s house, Elizabeth doesn’t hog the conversation so much as guide it, to subjects like NATO (should we junk it?) and Hitler (could it happen again?)
Robert argues the former is mainly a belated reaction to the former, which is true, but of course none of them know the Soviet Union will be gone in a handful of years, replaced by a right-wing capitalist dictatorship with odd religious underpinnings, ruled by a former KGB agent, who will then start looking for ways to reconstitute the old Red Empire under a new name, and may help bring about Elizabeth’s worst nightmare. The thing about political discussions from an earlier era is that they can seem at once timely and dated. It will be no different for our era.
Bradford smiled, but he said, “Is that merely a funny joke, or do you mean it?”
“I mean it,” Robert said. “At the beginning of the Cold War, the government knew it had to reassure the people that they were safe, so they—” But at that point he suddenly became aware again of who he was talking to, and faltered. “That is, the way it worked out—”
“That’s all right,” Bradford said gently. “That was before my administration.”
Robert gave him a grateful smile and said, “Thank you, sir. The point was, there was no defense against the Third World War, but the people were going to lose confidence in a government that didn’t promise to defend them, so what they were given was a perfectly adequate defense against the war we’d just won. The whole object of NATO, besides coordinating European military policy, was to give people the comfortable feeling that something was being done.”
Mrs. Canby, who until now hadn’t said a word throughout the meal, suddenly said, “Isn’t that awfully cynical, Mr. Pratt? The people I’ve met in government have tended to be more honest than that.”
Robert turned to her, both in surprise at hearing her speak up and in relief at the opportunity to get out from under Bradford Lockridge’s scrutiny for a few seconds. “I hope it isn’t cynical,” he said. “I don’t really believe that someone sat down in the White House or somewhere and cynically worked out this whole complex global con game to delude the masses. I believe the people generally were scared and worried, and their attitude communicated itself to the decision-makers—”
Bradford interposed, “Who were possibly themselves also scared and worried.”
“Of course,” Robert said, turning back to him for an instant. “People in government I’m sure have the same doubts and the same need for reassurance as people outside. More, even, because they know more about the near misses.” He turned back to Mrs. Canby, saying, “The people in charge did the best they could, but the problem was insoluble because there really isn’t any defense against the kind of weapons that now exist.” He turned to Bradford again, saying, “We aren’t too far from Pittsburgh, are we, sir?”
“About a hundred miles,” Bradford said. “Perhaps a little more.”
“Thank you.” To Mrs. Canby again he said, “Pittsburgh would be a prime target if an all-out war started. Hit Pittsburgh with one of today’s bombs, and everybody in this house would die, and no one would be able to live in this neighborhood for the next seven years.”
Howard said, “There are clean bombs.”
Robert said, “If someone were anxious enough to destroy the United States to launch a nuclear war, I really doubt they would use clean bombs. In fact, the dirtier the better. The people you don’t burn to death you radiate to death.”
Mrs. Canby said, “This is really terrible lunchtime conversation.”
“Exactly my point,” Robert told her. “You would rather believe that our World War Two defenses are adequate, because the alternative is to understand that there isn’t any defense at all.”
Elizabeth said, “But that doesn’t seem to matter, does it? You said a little while ago that there wouldn’t be any Third World War anyway.”
“I was too hasty when I said that,” Robert admitted. “Then I was reminded of Hitler.”
Howard said, “But a Hitler isn’t very likely at this point in history. Not in Russia, anyway. What Bradford said before about fiscal policy is what does it. Russia isn’t poor enough. You have to have an advanced industrial nation that happens to be very poor before you have a people who’ll produce a Hitler, and that just isn’t a description of today’s Russia.”
“I’ll tell you what it is a description of,” Robert said. “China.”
China (before Nixon went there) is the villain of this thriller, not Russia, and nobody in this story knows about the internet (though ARPANET was just starting up when Westlake was writing), or understands asymmetric warfare terribly well, which is why we lost the Vietnam War. Frankly, a lot of the ideas presented here were out of date within a few years of the novel’s publication, if not before Westlake started writing them down.
It’s hard to know how seriously Westlake, writing as Timothy J. Culver (a pseudonym he came to despise) took any of what he wrote here, but I feel it’s a safe bet some of his disdain for his Culver persona was based around the way Culver kept committing himself to concepts that were almost certainly going to have a brief shelf life, because of the way the world keeps convulsing around us. Timely fiction isn’t often timeless.
He knew better than to think himself an expert on geopolitics, but had some conflicting perceptions he needed an outlet for, and this was it. He takes all of the opinions expressed here seriously, because he himself has entertained all of them–just as when you see a Shaw play performed, you have a hard time knowing which character the playwright most identifies with, because he identifies with all of them, and none. And both men knew nobody ever has all of the truth, that no mind can ever contain it all–making it more utilitarian (and dramatic) to give everyone in the conversation one slice of the philosophic pie.
In this story, he probably does give Mr. Pratt the edge, since Robert is, after all, the virile square-jawed hero required for this form, who wins (then saves) the girl. But also because as a student of history (one of his creator’s passions), he is best-suited to get across the ideas Westlake is turning around in his head. (And yet, he’s given him a last name that isn’t exactly a synomym for genius.)
So even though the first meeting with Evelyn didn’t turn out so well, Elizabeth still got Robert’s juices flowing, with her belief in the imminent demise of liberal Democracy– but old football player that he is, he’s not just taking the ball but running with it.
Yes. Now to the subject of the piece: “Eugene McCarthy was probably our only chance for a Fuehrer from the left. With his apparently irreversible defeat, the political left has reverted to its usual rudderless structureless condition, and left the field open for a Fuehrer from the right. The dangers in, say, a successful George Wallace are self-evident, but what are the dangers in a takeover by a Fuehrer from the left?”
Robert took a swig of beer and studied the typewriter moodily. What are the dangers? For that matter, what are the dangers in speculation built on speculation built on speculation? If it were really possible to guess what sort of President a man would be, who would have voted for Lyndon Johnson? The concept of Eugene McCarthy as a Fuehrer from the left rested on such an array of interlocked suppositions that Robert felt himself afraid to take a deep breath, for fear the whole conceit would collapse like a vampire in the sun.
It was Elizabeth Lockridge who should be writing this article in the first place, most of the ideas in it having been generated by her, starting with that ride down to meet Bradford Lockridge three months ago, when Robert’s complacent pendulum theory had decided her his political education urgently needed to be brought up to date. The number of dinners he’d shared with Sterling and Elizabeth since then were uncountable, but at all of them the scene was the same; gentle Sterling watching in quiet amusement while Elizabeth and Robert argued their way through the last decade of American politics.
And slowly she had convinced him of the truth of most of what she believed, though he had ultimately taken her beliefs one step farther, adding his own twist of interpretation and coming up with the idea of the Fuehrer from the left. She it was who had convinced him that the American people were weary of freedom, made nervous by it, ready and anxious to give over their liberties to a man strong enough to demand them, but it was he who pointed out that the same weariness and nervousness were evident on the increasingly radicalized left, which had in 1968 turned to McCarthy not so much as a political alternative as a messiah. “And a messiah,” he’d said, “is simply a Fuehrer we agree with.”
Elizabeth had not agreed, had argued that McCarthy was not a man to allow himself to be used that way, and Robert had replied that he doubted McCarthy would have been given the choice. The whole concept of a Fuehrer from the left remained too contradictory for Elizabeth, however, and at that point they had bogged down, perhaps permanently.
But out of it all had come this article. Although his position as Sterling Lockridge’s nephew’s chum made the teaching profession’s dictum of ‘publish or perish’ not very compelling in Robert’s case, he did try to produce at least two articles a year for the historical journals, one written during the summer and the other during the Christmas recess. This one, relating to material less than a decade old, would probably be more controversial than his previous pieces, essays that he himself had termed “marching in place,” but some journal somewhere would surely make room for an article that raised the concept of a Fuehrer from the left.
The dangers. “Had McCarthy been nominated and elected in 1968,” Robert wrote, “his most vital first move would have had to be to determine his successor, since it seems inescapable that McCarthy himself would not have survived his first term of office. His death—his martyrdom, as it would with justice have been called—would undoubtedly have caused the death of the American electoral process as well, as his increasingly radicalized and isolated governmental apparatus would have been forced to a widening abrogation of liberties for the sake of public order.
“But who would be able to follow McCarthy, aside from another McCarthy, to be gunned down in his turn and followed by another doppelganger, and another, indefinitely? To make one of the obvious choices, to hand the reins to a Weimar Bolshevik like Allard Loewenstein, would simply be to form a caretaker government to await the truly strong man who would of necessity then emerge from the far right.”
Robert stopped again, drank some more beer, and studied that last paragraph. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like the specific references to Loewenstein, who was a living human being, not a chess piece, and therefore more complicated and in many ways more politically valuable than his two-word summation suggested. That was why Robert preferred to work with happenings remote enough for all the participants to be long since dead; with a living man, it was too possible to see oneself in his place, reading this essay.
He made the change in pen, so that the clause in question was altered to read, “to hand the reins to one of the Weimar Bolsheviks surrounding him.” He also disliked that sort of vague phraseology—Paul O’Dwyer, for instance, now became by implication lumped under a definition that Robert didn’t believe applied to him at all—but of the two evils vagueness was lesser to nastiness.
Unless you’re a follower of New York politics like Westlake (and myself, to a lesser extent), you’ll miss the significance of this. The Annotated Ex Officio is no doubt many years in the future, so let me catch you up.
Paul O’Dwyer, born in the County Mayo, kid brother of New York City mayor William O’Dwyer, whose short-lived well-liked mayoralty was plagued by police scandals and allegations of mob connections, was a mover and shaker in Gotham politics for many years. I saw the younger O’Dwyer in person a few times before he passed, in all his silver-maned splendor. Universally respected and largely irrelevant by then. But for a time, he had real clout.
He endorsed Eugene McCarthy for President, and was in turn endorsed by him for the Senate. (They both lost, but at least O’Dwyer got nominated.)
Like Robert (and Westlake, trying to see all sides), I don’t think “Weimar Bolshevik” is a fair appellation for O’Dwyer Óg, but it would be fair to say he was well left of center, while somehow remaining at the heart of city politics, and New York being New York, nobody thought this was so terribly strange, at least not from somebody who talked with a brogue. (The Irish fight on both sides of every war.)
What’s flat-out ridiculous is to say that if McCarthy had somehow gotten elected President, and then got shot for his pains, that anybody like O’Dwyer would have succeeded him (let alone Lowenstein, who almost nobody remembers now, was good friends with William F. Buckley, and I just realized Westlake misspelled his last name).
He’d have been succeeded by his Vice President, and I see no reason to believe that would have been O’Dwyer, Lowenstein, or any ‘Weimar Bolshevik.’ It would have been whoever McCarthy felt could help get him the Presidency, that he sought again in 1976, and then endorsed Reagan in 1980, because he hated Jimmy Carter so damn much. Probably someone significantly more mainstream than McCarthy, who could net him a swing state or three.
McCarthy’s left-wing creds were never all that bonafide, you ask me, but he seemed radical at the time Westlake was writing. Politics is a multi-dimensional interactive continuum with currents that constantly mingle and diverge. It’s not a straight line running from left to right. That model didn’t even work during the French Revolution.
And the center is impossible to define, always. We each make our own. What’s interesting is how some of us place ourselves not at the center of the political continuum (while still remaining the center of the physical universe), but somewhere at its periphery–because to perceive yourself at the center of politics is to accept responsibility for the mess it’s invariably in.
Those who define themselves as the political center tend to be those who are most interested in the power implied by that position, as opposed to the responsibility–the unmoved movers and shakers. Those such as The Fuehrers (Westlake’s preferred spelling, since he didn’t use the umlaut, because you can’t make one with a Smith Corona Silent Super).
What is Westlake really trying to say with this idea he presents to us in various forms in a book that is really about an ex-President having a small undetected stroke and consequently losing his ability to critically assess his own ideas, and the potential consequences of his actions? Bradford Lockridge was never a dictator, nor aspired to be, and even in his altered post-stroke persona, he is little more than a brilliant monomaniac, desperately looking for some way to regain his influence in the world, unable to accept his own obsolescence.
He wants to run for congress, and is told that isn’t done anymore. His younger brother has allowed himself to be used in an unscrupulous land development scheme, and Bradford pressures him to find a water source in the mountains to make it viable, which would bankrupt everyone involved (this leads to a suicide).
Then, intrigued by Robert’s new Fuehrer idea, and upset by a seemingly false overture from the Chinese government (that helped bring on his stroke), he decides to defect to China because he thinks that will bring about world peace. He loathes totalitarianism, yet acts as if only his decisions are valid. Partly because the stroke killed off his superego (call it a conscience if you like), and also because having had so much power, he can’t shake the habit of using it, even after it’s gone.
When you have a job you like, you want to go on doing it, forever, because what you do is who you are. If that job is taken from you, you will never be whole again until you’ve regained it, or found something to replace it. Bradford believes his motives to be disinterested, altruistic, but at heart they are self-centered. Westlake understands all too well. He later wrote a much better novel on a similar subject, but that was about a guy laid off from a management job in a paper mill, not a President who lost a reelection bid. And in many ways, it’s the same thing. With one major difference–power.
Power corrupts, and what it corrupts is identity. Your ability to perceive yourself accurately, with a proper sense of proportion, and of your own limitations. Good or evil, straight or crooked–doesn’t matter. It requires enormous strength of character to resist the temptations of power, and no one ever resists it completely.
It is a frightening but ever-present reality that sometimes people whose sense of their limits was poor to begin with acquire enormous power–their boundless narcissism appeals to many who are themselves chafing against the strictures of reality, filled with insecurities and social resentments they themselves can barely express. Such individuals exert a sort of gravitational pull over others who don’t know themselves very well, instinctively seeking a mouthpiece to vent their frustrations. And then you have a Fuehrer. Or at least the potential for one. It all depends on how many answer the call.
And while the term Fuehrer will always be associated with the right, some of the most dangerous and enduring manifestations have come from the left. Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot. But where Robert’s thesis seemingly falls short is that these were all military leaders, professional revolutionaries; men who gained power through armed struggle and intra-party machinations. Not elections. I guess there could always be a first time.
I put an early cover for Trollope’s The Way We Live Now up top because Westlake referenced it in another of his obliquely political works (now available for kindle), and that was no mere whim on his part. He saw a kindred spirit there, a parallel consciousness. Trollope had likewise seen a trend that bothered him, the deification of the conspicuously wealthy, the so-called ‘self-made’ man. Such a man climbs high and fast up the greasy pole of British politics in that book, only to slide back down to his doom, leaving chaos and confusion (and financial ruin) in his wake.
Something about that scenario bothered Mr. Westlake. In Trust Me On This, he spent much time analyzing the inner workings of an oddly influential supermarket tabloid, with conservative political leanings, and an overweening obsession with celebrity–and funny how things arrange themselves in this world, isn’t it? Funny how patterns repeat themselves. Funny how Life imitates Art imitates Life and back again.
So what is Westlake reacting to, here and elsewhere in his writing? The chaos of the late 60’s. The sense that everything was falling apart–and then it didn’t. But what did happen? The Left surged in significance–and the Right got stronger in response. We were going to elect McCarthy or RFK, and then it turned out to be Nixon. Then, after the brief Ford/Carter interregnum, Reagan. Then Bush. And another Bush. Republicans have dominated Presidential politics for decades since the leftward shift of the 60’s. We haven’t had a Fuehrer yet. But one new President after another is accused of aspiring to that, and of late, the accusations seem less off-base.
What Westlake fears is imbalance. The Left and Right no longer being able to communicate, each mistrusting each other to the point where a Fuehrer is preferable to the unpredictability and instability of mere Democracy (assuming it’s a Fuehrer you agree with). Vacillating from one extreme to the next, and extremes in politics encourage each other, to the point where the worst name you can call anyone is ‘centrist.’
He saw it happen in the 60’s, he saw the rights and wrongs of the Rights and Lefts, and he began to despair that there was any longterm answer to the dilemmas of Democracy. Democracy would end, if only because people were tired of the uncertainty, yearning for stasis, permanent answers, even if those answers would, by definition, have to be lies, since nothing is permanent, and Life is a state of never-ending flux, as Darwin bleakly informed us. People would surrender their sacred individuality, their very souls, to politics, from fear of change, fear of The Other–and that, for someone like Westlake, is the ultimate dystopian nightmare. A world where self-knowledge is thought crime.
And we’re getting close to it, aren’t we? Grouping each other more and more by how we vote. I do it myself. I find it hard not to. And none of this is me saying it doesn’t matter. It matters more than ever. But not more than everything else in life. Not more than yourself. If you don’t know yourself, your vote will always be wrong, because it won’t be you.
Maybe it was just a passing black Irish mood he was in when he wrote this, but I see it now, happening around me, just as he did then, though in a different form than he imagined (and that would always be the case, no matter who was imagining it). Aspiring Fuehrers of the Right, of the Left. Promising what they can never deliver, if only we will follow them blindly–and suckers ready and eager to believe them, begging to be led down the proverbial garden path. And I don’t know anymore than he did where the path ends. Or if.
And that’s quite enough of that. Anyway, I’m going to review some Brian Garfield novels next time. About crime. You know the ones. Unless I do something else first. Amazing I do anything at all. And yes, I am still alive, aren’t I? Happy New Year. Thanks for listening.