Open the book to the first page of the preface, and of course George Washington is sitting there on horseback, dreaming of his young nation and its glorious future. He’s there on the last page, too, looking down from a hillside at “this swamp along the Potomac,” boldly imagining the day when the muddy wasteland will become “the seat of a great new Republic.” But oh, reader, wouldn’t the great man’s bright and glowing eyes cloud over if he could see what we’ve become? Politicians aren’t pals anymore, and they aren’t behaving themselves. “Today we have government by tantrum,” and the District of Columbia is sullied.
Chris Matthews is so heroically gifted at pumping out raw bilge that you would think the rest of the D.C. press corps could just retire and let the one roaring apparatus fill up all the cable TV shows and all the op-ed pages and all the clickbaitable lists on all the politics websites you look at every day but wish you didn’t. Identify the most obvious political idea in any given context, and then imagine the most obvious image you could use to illustra—nope, too late, Chris Matthews already got there.
In his latest secretion, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Matthews describes a world in which we’ve lost the traditional decency and friendliness of American politics. Take a moment and read that sentence a few more times.
As the title suggests, Matthews regards the Reagan administration as a high point, an age in which a pair of gifted leaders sat down together and agreed to make the world a better place. President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill were both Irish Americans, so they told jokes and stories to one another, so government happened, and it was all more or less wonderful. Really:
The outsider and the insider: these two moved together in a remarkable, if sometimes rough, tandem. They argued mightily, each man belting out his separate, deeply cherished political philosophy—but then they would, both together, bow to the country’s judgment. Decisions were made, action taken, outcomes achieved. They honored the voters, respected the other’s role. Each guy liked to beat the other guy, not sabotage him. . . . Why, we wonder, can’t it be that way again?
By the time the book gets to its thin recitation of the Iran-Contra scandal, the scent of nostalgia has mostly been subsumed by the odor of bile—or, more to the point, by the odor of the Nicaraguan dead. But this is the effect only for readers; Matthews himself chugs along, telling chipper stories about the days when leaders made nice and American politics worked. By golly, we used to illegally ship weapons to Central American death squads—where did it all go wrong?
If only we could get back to the start. As Matthews concludes,
The worse things get in Washington—the more threats of shutdown weaken the country’s confidence in government; the more eleventh-hour stopgap deals come along to demoralize us; the more personal attacks are performed on cue for the cameras; the more nasty tweets—the more people who care about our republic look back to an idea of when the world worked the way it’s supposed to.
Days of Rage
But let’s bring George Washington down from the high horse Matthews puts him on: American politics never worked that way, and no one ever thought it did.
Joanne Freeman, a history professor at Yale, has written the best book of the last twenty years about the political elites of the early American republic.[*] It’s about the ways they managed their hate and rage, the ways that they got through their days without too badly losing control of the feelings of disgust they had for one another. The rules were distinctly personal in this “maelstrom of discontent,” but they weren’t rules about being nice: they were rules about not getting shot. With their behavior regulated by the real possibility of violence, national political figures were expected to channel their interpersonal loathing down a few narrow paths; the code of honor meant that men could go only so far before they risked physical peril.
“On the unstructured national political stage,” Freeman writes, “this code assumed great importance, for politicking was about conflict and competition above all else. Whether they were debating legislation or campaigning for election, politicians were competing for limited rewards. This was no great surprise to the first national officeholders. What did surprise them was the intensity of the political game. Regional distrust, personal animosity, accusation, suspicion, implication, and denouncement—this was the tenor of national politics from the outset.”
Chris Matthews is so heroically gifted at pumping out raw bilge that you would think the rest of the D.C. press corps could just retire.
In 1800, with a presidential election approaching, John Adams exploded in disgust at the poor character of Alexander Hamilton, the “bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar” and an “insolent coxcomb.” Oh, and “the greatest intriguant in the world—a man devoid of every moral principle.” Adams had appointed Hamilton a major general, and the former Treasury secretary had set to work building his political empire inside another man’s administration.[**] Finding his cabinet more obedient to Hamilton than to their president, Adams “dismissed or forced the resignation of most of the members in a rage.”
This being the olden days when everyone got along, “Hamilton lashed back.” He printed and distributed a pamphlet, Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States, attacking the president for his vanity and his absence of manly “self command.”
Freeman’s discussion on the conflict between Hamilton and Adams appears in a chapter titled “The Art of Paper War”—a whole piece of the book dedicated to the ways early American politicians tore each other to pieces in print. So, yes: Once upon a time, politicians didn’t constantly send out nasty tweets about their rivals. They printed entire pamphlets and broadsides instead.
“Most personal of all were defense pamphlets,” Freeman writes. “Signed, structured character defenses brimming with hard evidence, they were legal briefs argued before a tribunal of one’s peers, the writer personally vouching for their veracity. . . . Of course, personal as they were, defense pamphlets were political publications aimed at attacking foes as much as defending friends, but their defensive tone masked their intentions; like gossip and dinner-table politicking, pamphlets justified and channeled aggression by framing it as something else.”
Attacked, Adams began maneuvering against Hamilton behind the scenes, answering the assault quietly and indirectly. His “page-by-page refutation of Hamilton’s pamphlet” went into his private papers, unpublished, for posterity to eventually discover. But he couldn’t keep himself quiet forever, and the former president finally began to assail Hamilton in the pages of the Boston Patriot—five years after the other man’s death. Look closely for the familiar word Freeman uses to describe the published diatribes from one of the most prominent political figures of the early republic:
Raging against Hamilton in the public press, he seemed cruel, hysterical, and unbalanced—just as Hamilton had pronounced him to be. Such excess would have been damaging enough in a pamphlet circulating among Adams’s peers. But broadcast from a newspaper, it became a tantrum on paper.
The ex-president’s private letters from the same period were even nastier, and wished physical violence on, for example, former secretary of state Timothy Pickering—“till the blood come.” Pickering felt about the same sentiment for his old boss and expressed a similar desire to see Adams bleed.
“Such blood-lust reveals the rage beneath the surface of paper war,” writes Freeman. Today we have government by tantrum, though. What a shame.
John Adams and Alexander Hamilton represent the normal condition of American politics, not the exception. Our past teems with instances of full-throated abuse, not all of them falling just shy of violence. Andrew Jackson’s first term ended in brickbats, after a sex scandal in which secretary of war John Eaton married the widow of a navy purser (whom he had known quite well while her late husband was at sea). When congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat abolitionist senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts within an inch of his life in 1856, he did it on the Senate floor. The conservative Texas Democrat John Nance Garner earnestly despised Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he served as vice president; Roosevelt returned the favor by running for a third term—after Garner had already declared his candidacy for the same office.
Still, the best example hails from the age when our sage, tirelessly civil leaders were diligently building a consensus behind the urgent business of bringing the republic back together after the trauma of the Civil War. In the summer of 1866, president Andrew Johnson embarked on his “Swing Around the Circle” trip, a three-week speaking tour that took him to St. Louis and back. A Tennessee Democrat enmeshed in growing conflict with congressional Republicans, the president wanted to influence the upcoming midterm elections; to ensure the survival of his white-supremacy-friendly, pro-planter-class plan for Reconstruction, he hoped to engineer the defeat of some members of the radical Republican caucus who were up for election that year.
Politics is taking stuff, the means by which people wrestle control of resources from other people.
But he fucked it up, and the trip mostly left people wondering if the president was an alcoholic. In Cleveland, someone in the crowd shouted that the president should hang Jefferson Davis; Johnson responded with the infamously dumb, “Why don’t you hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips?” The president of the United States, speaking in public, spontaneously started shouting about tossing a noose around the neck of a congressman.
In short: Politicians are not, and have never been, united by their love of country, or by their ability to tell jokes, or by their friendship at the tavern. They seek power, and embrace or assault others as needed in pursuit of that power.
Nevertheless, we somehow remain in the grip of the pleasing fiction that there was, once upon a time, a heroic group of selfless lawmakers who managed to just get along. The index for Tip and the Gipper includes this set of entries under “O’Neill, Thomas P., Jr. ‘Tip’”:
personal civility toward Reagan by, xvi, 35–38, 44–45, 49, 74, 124–25, 143, 160, 161, 203, 207, 222, 251, 274, 293, 299, 307, 331, 341, 345, 365–66.
For all the bearing that O’Neill’s undeniably winsome way with a ribald anecdote or a heartily proffered drink has on the actual work he did as Speaker of the House, Matthews might have just as well included twenty-one index entries on the man’s shirt size. Personal civility is pretty much irrelevant when it comes to the main business of government, which is making, you know, the laws that compel the rest of us to obey the will of our leaders. That’s why, in Matthew’s sepia-toned reminiscence, Reagan’s practical response to the Boland amendments—the 1982–84 acts of Congress expressly prohibiting any material support for the Nicaraguan Contras—gets comparatively few mentions. Civility is wholly personal and performative; you can do whatever you want, but slap some backs on your way to visit Oliver North in the basement.
City on the Take
In his spectacular banality, Matthews is merely the apotheosis of his breed. He’s relentlessly devoted to stripping the politics out of politics because that’s the way the narrative gets made by the narrative engine. Disagreement is ideological rather than interested, because nothing is a conflict of interests, and political decisions don’t represent the use of power to take from one group and give to another. It’s possible to “bow to the country’s judgment,” because, in Matthews’s gaseous fancy, such a thing actually exists: single, coherent, identifiable, unconflicted. There must have been a way for Andrew Johnson to satisfy defeated Confederates, manage the losses inflicted on slaveholders by emancipation, and make freed slaves happy, productive, and safe. And if the country didn’t find that set of answers—well, my goodness, maybe we could send Reagan back in a time machine to tell some knee-slappers and get everybody into the mood.[***] Politics used to work when everybody was friends.
It didn’t, and they weren’t. Politics is taking stuff, the means by which people wrestle control of resources from other people; it’s an extractive process, business by the means of power. And the business works well for the affiliated status groups that run the enterprise.
Just look at our nation’s power center. “A Washington Post analysis of the latest census data shows that more than a third of Zip codes in the D.C. metro area rank in the top 5 percent nationally for income and education,” reads a November 9 story on that newspaper’s website. “But what makes the region truly unusual is that so many of the high-end Zip codes are contiguous. They form a vast land mass that bounds across 717 square miles. It stretches 60 miles from its northern tip in Woodstock, Md., to the southern end in Fairfax Station, and runs 30 miles wide from Haymarket in Prince William County to the heart of the District up to Rock Creek Parkway.”
In other words, a ridiculous, heaping pile of wealth surrounds the District of Columbia, as the great armies of political influence take fees for access to the $4 trillion container of capital that sits in the capital. In the quaint fantasy of contemporary America, the government protects us from corporate power; here on earth, government is corporate power itself, the corporation at the center of the corporate solar system. The great progressive advance engineered by the current administration is that you have to buy a product from private corporations, marketed and perhaps subsidized by a transfer of public funds to support the purchase. Kathleen Sebelius works for WellPoint—as does her recently installed successor, Sylvia Mathews Burwell.
Chris Matthews never slows down long enough to notice that wealth and power are at stake; he never sees the heart of the thing he wants to describe. But then, Matthews doesn’t appear to see or notice anything at all, any physical manifestation whatsoever of the earth he inhabits. Take Tip and the Gipper off the shelf at the bookstore—you remember the <em”>bookstore, right?—and just read the first page of the preface. Washington, D.C., is distinguished by its “quiet grandeur”; tourists are “respectful rather than boisterous.”
“Even the bureaucracy, busy along its daytime corridors, fails to shatter the stillness,” Matthews writes.
Has this person been to this city? I had been under the impression that he lived and worked there.
But then we reach the very next paragraph, on the very same page, and the still, silent city is distinguished by “its jamboree of human voices engaged in discourse, debates, discussion, argument, compromise, leaks, gossip, criticism, and commentary, not to mention speechmaking.”
That’s every kind of talking but lobbying, offering soft money, and manipulating the regulatory machinery with battalions of lawyers, but never mind—those things aren’t important. In the city that’s quiet as a church, marked by serenity and stillness, a great jamboree of voices fills up all the spaces and never stops. You can picture it all so clearly, can’t you? Yeah, he can’t either.
In a book published last year, Those Angry Days, the miraculously non-insane political journalist Lynne Olson describes the tenor of American debate in the early years of World War II. In the summer of 1940, arguing over conscription in anticipation of American involvement in the war, Congress seethed with deeply personal anger. That rage showed up outside the building, too, as an isolationist group hanged interventionist senator Claude Pepper in effigy on the lawn outside the Capitol.
“In the House,” Olson writes, “the fight turned physical; once again, it involved two Democrats. After Rep. Martin Sweeney of Ohio delivered a scathing attack on the Roosevelt administration for allegedly using conscription as a way to get the United States into the war, Rep. Beverly Vincent of Kentucky, who was next to Sweeney, loudly muttered that he ‘refused to sit by a traitor.’ Sweeney swung at Vincent, who responded with a sharp right to the jaw that sent Sweeney staggering. It was, said the House doorkeeper, the best punch thrown by a member of Congress in fifty years.”
On the back of Olson’s book? An enthusiastic blurb from a fellow journalist, a writer and television host who would soon release a book about how American politicians all used to get along.
His name, of course, is Chris Matthews. And he’s no friend of yours.
[*] Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (Yale University Press, 2001).
[**] Adams was being too kind: Alexander Hamilton was generally an asshole. Cf. Paul Douglas Newman, Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), and Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802 (Free Press, 1975).
[***] This, come to think of it, was largely the point of Steven Spielberg’s reanimation of the Great Emancipator in Lincoln, a wholesome, joyful, and hijinks-filled cinematic chronicle of the Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification having much more to do with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s schoolmarmish yearning for consensus at all costs than with the actual conduct of the people’s business in Washington, then or now.