A reader asked the other day if it was stressful for me to write about politics.
There are a lot of ways to take this question. I could have interpreted it as a dig at my column about Ray Fosse and Pete Rose; an insinuation I was writing about trivial things when I should be taking on the big issues of the day. (As though performative swagger and bluster is not among our time’s most real and pressing problems.)
But I don’t think he meant it like that, so I answered him as well as I could.
To paraphrase myself: Aside from heavy deadline pressure, nothing about this job is all that stressful. I don’t worry about people disagreeing with me and saying mean things on Twitter. I do often worry that what I have to say about politics is not terribly original or insightful. I’m not terrifically interested in politics; I’m interested in writing compelling nonfiction.
If journalism is, as Carl Bernstein says, a quest for the “best obtainable version of the truth,” we might define politics in similarly shiny terms. How about the process through which we try to perfect our (admittedly imperfectible) society? We need politics and politicians, and they have their own ways of going about their business.
We can be disappointed in them, but for them to be effective they must play the game in a more or less conventional way. Which means they cannot tell us the truth. Because, as Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan R. Jessup once observed, we can’t handle it.
Hanna Arendt beat Jessup to that conclusion.
You will remember the Pentagon Papers, the secret 47-volume Department of Defense history of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 commissioned by Robert McNamara that, even though the consensus opinion was that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable folly, at least three American presidents had secretly expanded the scope of U.S. actions in Vietnam. Both Congress and the American people had been deceived in the name of political expediency.
A defense analyst specializing in nuclear weapons strategy and counter-insurgency theory named Daniel Ellsberg was among those privy to these documents, and he was shocked and horrified by their implications. So, in 1969, he began photocopying the report; it took him 18 months to secure a full set.
He then offered the report to several members of Congress–including Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas–in the hopes that they would enter the documents into the Congressional Record. After they all declined to do so, Ellsberg–probably at the suggestion of Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota–provided them to The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The release of the Pentagon Papers could have redounded to Richard Nixon’s advantage, in that the report focused on the mistakes and deceptions of his Democratic predecessors. But Nixon was a paranoid beast, more concerned about ferreting out leaks and prosecuting leakers than actually stopping publication of the classified documents.
So his goonish plumbers ransacked the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to try to find something embarrassing about Ellsberg, a ham-handed ploy that only succeeded in a judge dismissing the government’s Espionage Act case against Ellsberg.
So Americans learned “the truth” about Vietnam, and the lengths our government was willing to go to promulgate a wishful fantasy about American power. Arendt, a decade removed from covering Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker, was moved to write an essay, “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers,” in which she observes “[t]ruthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.”
(Serendipity alert: The day after my friend asked about writing about politics, “On Lying and Politics,” a new Library of America publication that bundles Arendt’s New Yorker essay with her earlier essay “Truth in Politics” arrived in the mail. It will be published in September.)
Politics, Arendt argues, is a creative pursuit, and a “characteristic of human action is that it always begins something new … In order to make room for one’s own action, something that was there before must be removed or destroyed, and things as they were before are changed. Such change would be impossible if we could not mentally remove ourselves from where we physically are located and imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are. In other words, the deliberate denial of factual truth–the ability to lie–and the capacity to change facts– the ability to act–are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination …
“We are free to change the world and to start something new in it. Without the mental freedom to deny or affirm existence, to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’–not just to statements or propositions in order to express agreement or disagreement, but to things as they are given, beyond agreement or disagreement, to our organs of perception and cognition–no action would be possible; and action is of course the very stuff politics are made of.
“Hence, when we talk about lying … let us remember that the lie did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness. Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is not likely to make it disappear.”
My point is not that politics is an ignoble pursuit–or that journalism is a noble one–only that human beings crave stories, and both politics and journalism cater to that desire. What I’m not interested in is convincing anyone to vote one way or the other; I have a strong disbelief in the ability for us to make things much better for much longer. This is a fallen world which will eventually fail, as all living things must. What we can hope for are incremental and temporary improvements. (So, yes, you should vote, early and often if you can manage it.)
The truth is politics will not save us, and journalists over-emphasize its importance in part because it is very easy to cover politics. Politicians want attention. Some of us develop symbiotic relationships with them; there is a semi-permeable membrane between politics through which some of us go back and forth fairly easily.
I’ve never had the knack. I bought Tucker Carlson lunch a couple of times, I’ve had plenty of friends who’ve written speeches and drafted bills, but I’ve never much been tempted. Or maybe nobody ever met my price.
But I’m no Menckenite determined to look down on all the hustlers and damn-glad-to-meetcha boys and girls. They have their stories to tell, and I have mine.
I’m not interested in telling theirs.