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One for the books

Can tales of the Democratic party’s glory days help Obama and Clinton?
By STEVEN STARK  |  February 27, 2008


It’s hard to believe that we just had a week without a primary. It gives all us political addicts a little time to breathe, to answer e-mails that have been piling up, and yes, even to read a little bit of political history. To aid your literary effort, I’ve reviewed the fascinating Heroes, Hacks & Fools: Memoirs from the Political Inside, which, due to this crazy electoral season, didn’t get as much coverage as it should have when it was published this past November. The book helps us remember that surprising twists and turns in elections have always been with us, and that bitter inter-party contests — many even worse than our current Democratic one — are hardly new. Ted Van Dyk, the author, is an old friend with whom I recently caught up to ask his take on this season’s primaries.

Of course, books by political pros are a dime a dozen, and usually worth even less. Self-serving to a fault and often as dishonest as the spin enveloping contemporary campaigns, they tend to provide little more than a recapitulation of events, clouded by partisanship. Van Dyk’s recent work is the exception, and it’s well worth the attention of political junkies, students of American history, or anyone else who wants to know how politics really worked in the glory days of the Democratic Party.

In a year when the Democrats hope to retake the White House and reinstitute a new age of lofty idealism, it’s especially worth heeding the words and experience of someone who lived through the last such age and knows the perils of what may lie ahead.

Van Dyk has spent a lifetime on the inside as a key campaign and close governmental advisor to Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Paul Tsongas, among others. What’s striking about his memoir is that it’s as disarmingly honest and straightforward as his political counsel has always been — which is why many sensible Democrats have sought his advice. (Sadly, that list is not as long as it should be, much to the detriment of the Party and the nation.)

If Hubert Humphrey had followed his advice, for example, he would have come out against the Vietnam War sooner, and probably would have been elected president in 1968. And certainly Bill Clinton could have used an experienced insider to help him in his first years in office, as he attempted (unfortunately unsuccessfully) to enact a health-care plan.

Learning from the past, predicting the future
Although I consider myself the junkie of junkies when it comes to politics, Heroes, Hacks & Fools reveals dozens of incidents I had never heard of, many of which made the recent history of Democratic politics come alive. How petty was Lyndon Johnson, for instance? According to Van Dyk, when Robert Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles in June 1968, Vice-President Humphrey immediately offered to fly a neurosurgeon to the West Coast on a military plane to assist the medical efforts. The White House refused the request (though Johnson later proclaimed a national day of mourning for the fallen senator).

Who secretly funded the Humphrey campaign in the last days of the 1968 election, when it needed money to mount a final charge against Richard Nixon? None other than Nelson Rockefeller and his wife, Happy. “Nelson and I think Nixon is a real shit,” she told Van Dyk.

I don’t agree with everything Van Dyk writes. He is positively brutal in his criticism of my old boss Jimmy Carter. Carter could be petty, and he was inexperienced in the ways of Washington. But the kindness and empathy I often saw from him were obviously not often displayed in Van Dyk’s presence. Still, the fact that Van Dyk had his reservations about Carter as a candidate and potential president even in 1976 should have told us something about Carter’s weaknesses — which would have enabled those around him to anticipate many of the problems that later plagued the campaign and administration. It helps sometimes to have a supportive critic on the inside — a fact Barack Obama would do well to remember.

Not surprising since Van Dyk has displayed such prescience in the past, Heroes, Hacks & Fools is full of relevant and timely opinions about this year’s race — despite the fact it was published several months ago, when the odds were largely in Hillary Clinton’s favor. Van Dyk has never cared for the Clintons, and Hillary is no exception: he characterizes her as driven by “power and ambition rather than . . . a selfless desire for public service.” Yet he admires Obama, who, he writes, has “a quality shared by few politicians: those who see and hear him instinctively trust him.”

Too often our histories of politics are colored by political biases and attempts to shade the truth. To invoke an old cliché, Van Dyk tells it like it is. His memoir is a great read, a wonderful primer for those who might seek to enter politics themselves, and a terrific walk down memory lane. His idealism and honesty are reminders of what once made the Democratic Party great — and could again.

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One for the books
Good column! We Democrats have been "down" so long, we forgot what "up" looks like. It certainly is a good idea to look at the past, so that if we get back "up", we might avoid screwing it up.
By Vic in Chicago on 02/28/2008 at 12:11:58
One for the books
Mr Stark--I didn't realize you were a Washington insider. Obama partisanship notwithstanding, you write with such disinterest.
By gordon on 02/29/2008 at 3:43:59
One for the books
Like Carter, Clinton is an easy target: Carter for being too nice, Clinton for being too vindictive. But she also, like Carter, has a superior intellect that may well tell her, if we're lucky, that it is as much in her own best interest as in that of the country that she bark up another tree--perhaps seeking senate leadership, as some have suggested. She'd be great at that, with her command of the issues. A woman I study with pegged Obama as the politician of poetry. Clinton has characterized his campaign as a campaign of words; and in her Janus-faced way, I am certain that she inwardly admires him for it and recognizes that it is a daring and noble approach to politics as usual. In other words, she knows herself what rhetoric really is, but she still parses it in public in its popular, pejorative sense of empty words...Clinton accuses Obama of casting out demons by the prince of demons. Obama is indeed a prince of demons, like Robert Johnson or Jimi Hendrix; but Clinton should get behind him, along with the superdelegates, to keep the democratic house from being divided.
By gordon on 03/04/2008 at 3:51:40
One for the books
I've been watching the primary results and I have to say that I was impressed by Clinton's victory speech in Ohio. She really came across as on the up and up, undercutting her unprincipled reputation. I like to say that I am a recovering Christian, but it seems to me that Obama has been appealing to the wise and understanding, while Clinton has been appealing to the babes, and the latter approach, though it rubbed me the wrong way for a long time, was the one that reached the people in a language they could understand. Obama is an intellectual and a truly great man. Clinton is a lesser lumiere, but she plays her cards right and she knows her stuff. I'm starting to get the impression that she is ready to take on McCain in a way that Obama is not. That said, I do not think I am overstating the case that it will be a momentous occasion in the history of mankind when Obama wins the presidency eight years from now.
By gordon on 03/05/2008 at 12:12:54
One for the books
That said, Hillary is still very annoying, shaky as a diplomat, unbalanced as a commander--and Obama is still my man, if he doesn't run out of steam.
By gordon on 03/05/2008 at 11:47:42

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