Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984
xiv + 380 pp., $17.95
By The Editors
Strobe Talbott's Deadly Gambits is putatively a definitive account of the Reagan Administration's arms control record for the first term. The book has been praised as "brilliant" and "authoritative" and as a "masterly account of the Reagan record" by such prominent men as McGeorge Bundy and George Ball. Walter Mondale referred to Talbott during the televised Kansas City debate with President Reagan on foreign policy as "perhaps the nation's most respected author" in the field of arms control. The Mondale campaign even let it be known that much of their critique of the Reagan arms control record came from the pages of Deadly Gambits. For these reasons alone this is an important book to read. And yet they are probably the only reasons for doing so. Deadly Gambits is more notable for what it fails to address than for what it does address.
But first, a word about the author. Talbott is a diplomatic correspondent for Time magazine and an experienced observer of the arms control process. In 1980, he published a book on the recently concluded U.S.-Soviet strategic nuclear talks, Endgame: The Inside Story of SALT II. This year he has written The Russians and Reagan under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations. Earlier in his career he translated and edited two volumes of memoirs by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In short, the reader has every reason to expect Talbott to be a competent chronicler of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (INF) and Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) negotiations.
But what the reader must also know is that Talbott is himself an advocate, not an objective observer, and that Deadly Gambits has a clear political purpose. Talbott is a member in good standing of what Henry Rowen (in a controversial Wall Street Journal review of the book) calls "the old SALT gang"-the community of moderate and liberal officials (former and current), academics, and analysts that supports the type of arms control which dominated U.S. foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s. As for the book's purpose, it is no accident (as the Russians would say) that the book was published during the heat of the 1984 presidential campaign. One may agree or disagree with Mr. Talbott's opinions and purposes, but it is essential to understand them before reading Deadly Gambits-especially since the author rather carefully avoids exposing his specific views on particular substantive issues.
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 represented a defeat for "the old SALT gang," although many moderates did support his candidacy against Jimmy Carter. The intellectual vitality of Mr. Reagan's campaign, in at least its national security component, came from critics of the SALT II Treaty who also attacked the general policy of detente (whether the Nixon, Ford, or Carter variety) that was the foundation of arms control. The center of the resistance was the Committee on the Present Danger, many of whose prominent members besides Ronald Reagan subsequently became key policy-makers in the new Reagan Administration-e.g., Eugene Rostow, Richard Pipes, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Richard Perle. But other administration officials-e.g., Alexander Haig, Lawrence Eagleburger, George Shultz, and Richard Burt-who were not charter members of the "anti-SALT fraternity" and who did not play a major role in the 1980 campaign, believed that arms control of some sort was both possible and necessary.
Talbott, quite rightly, portrays the Reagan administration as being divided between these two camps. Unfortunately, the author never seriously attempts to come to grips with the substantive merits of either group, to probe their fundamental assumptions, or to explore how these circumstances relate to the larger political divisions over the conduct of American foreign policy. Talbott is keenly aware of the importance of this debate, but he chooses to portray the conflict largely in terms of "bureaucratic infighting" and "personal antagonisms." This is the stuff of prime-time soap operas and movies, of the nasty J. R. Ewing fighting his nice brother Bobby for control of the oil company, of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker battling with the fate of the universe at stake. One learns very quickly from the content who the good guys and bad guys are, and, from that, one presumably learns to associate the good (or bad} guys with good (or bad) policies.
The chief bad guy in this melodrama is one Richard Perle, Assistant Secretary of Defense for international Security Policy, who as a former assistant to Senator Henry Jackson, was one of the most effective critics of SALT II. Talbott very helpfully informs us in the Prologue (p. 15) that "Perle's many enemies called him the Prince of Darkness," a man who "sometimes saw himself as a lonely, beleaguered warrior in a righteous but losing cause."
Perle's principal mission was to stop things from happening. . . . To the dismay of his critics, he turned out to be a masterful bureaucrat. As a rule, naysayers have an advantage in a struggle over policy. It is relatively easy to block progress by raising objections and diverting debate. Also, the government as a whole is usually looking for a consensus, and that often means accommodating the more recalcitrant if not obstructionist elements of the bureaucracy. But in addition to these natural advantages, Perle had the benefit of intelligence, ingenuity, determination, and an unswerving, passionate conviction that he was right. (p. 16)
In the other corner was Richard Burt, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs and former national security correspondent for the New York Times:
Burt was a man of exceptional intelligence. . . . He was also one of the few people in a high position in the new order who respected the need not to tear down the old order. He was genuinely devoted to achieving progress in arms control and not just for the sake of his own career. . . . [He was regarded as] talented, tenacious, and fundamentally a moderate, a pragmatist, and an Atlanticist. That orientation, along with his grasp of arms control issues and his rough-and-tumble instinct for bureaucratic machinations, made him the State Department's best weapon against more extreme elements in the Administration. (p.13)
Such disputes exist at the third or fourth echelon of government in any administration, but Talbott argues that the lack of leadership by President Reagan has made the bureaucratic infighting absolutely disastrous for any possible progress in arms control. Reagan is portrayed as a man completely removed from reality, without any knowledge of or interest in the goals or tactics of arms control, the befuddled patriarch being manipulated by one or the other Richard. To make this point, Talbott places us inside the head of Henry Kissinger, who occasionally met with Reagan on arms control matters.
. . . [O]n a number of those occasions, Kissinger noticed something unsettling about the President: Reagan seemed strangely uninterested in international relations as such. . . . Kissinger found that, when he advised Reagan on what the government ought to be doing, the goals it should set and the methods it should employ, Reagan seemed to tune out. The best way to get Reagan's attention was to suggest to him what he personally should say publicly about a foreign problem or policy. Then the President would sit up and his eyes would come back into focus. What he cared about was speeches - particularly his own speeches. . . . If the speech worked as a speech, then the policy must be a good one. If the speech came off, the policy could be sustained. (p. 76)
Deadly Gambits, then, attempts to explain the alleged failure of the Administration's arms control policy on these grounds: a bureaucratic deadlock caused by obstructionist hardliners committed to a policy of unremitting opposition to the Soviet Union, a deadlock that the passive Chief Executive was unwilling or unable to break. Talbott makes a persuasive case that the Administration had no coherent arms control policy; and who one chooses to blame for that fact depends on which side one believes to be the most sound. There are few neutral arms control experts in Washington, and Talbott is certainly not one of the uncommitted. Indeed, Talbott writes in the language of the Washington insider-the dialect of the bureaucrat, the well-connected academic or policymaker-in-exile-to drive home his points. Judging from the enthusiasm with which Deadly Gambits was greeted by the Mondale campaign, the defeat of President Reagan might well have been one of those points. But even with the President's reelection, the Talbott book will (to use an unseemly Washington expression) impact upon the Great Arms Control debate, Part II.
Already, the Administration has proposed a vague "umbrella" under which various arms control negotiations can resume or be initiated. The State Department is even now cheerfully thinking about various approaches to place in Secretary of State George Shultz's pocket for his upcoming meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Richard Perle and his allies are no doubt looking for ways to influence that process. And the Committee on the Present Danger has recently issued a major report, "Can America Catch Up?", the conclusions of which will hardly be welcomed by those in the Administration who see arms control as a method to justify a ceiling on or a moderation of defense spending.
In an October, 26 article published in the Los Angeles Times, Talbott gave his prescription for what ails the Administration on arms control:
Reagan has said on numerous occasions that he wants to break out of the stalemate and have an agreement and summit in his second term. But two things have to happen: Either he has to have a dramatic conversion into an extremely knowledgeable, activist decision-maker in these matters, or he has got to get himself a team of advisers who will close ranks around realistic policies and proposals.
Talbott does not seem inclined to think that Reagan will be struck off his horse by a blinding light on the road to Damascus. The President, we are told in Deadly Gambits, is not exactly standing tall in the arms control saddle to begin with: "It was common for the President to doodle during long meetings on subjects about which he was less than passionate, and horses and cowboys were two of his favorite subjects" (p. 250). Mr. Reagan, according to Talbott's sources (perhaps the White House garbage man) outdid Frederic Remington during all those NSC meetings devoted to arms control.
The answer for Talbott, then, lies rather in "a team of advisers" advocating "realistic policies and proposals." Recalling his earlier, carefully worded portrayal of Perle ("naysayer," "obstructionist") and Burt ("moderate," "pragmatist," "Atlanticist"), there can be little doubt whose side Talbott would take-although it should be noted that Talbott has his reservations about Richard the Pragmatist, perhaps related to Burt's inability to fend off Richard the Ideologue. In any event, if one can believe the Washington Post, the moderates ("tough-minded pragmatists," if you will) clustered primarily around Shultz and National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane are currently making their move to dominate the arms control policy-making process. Whether they read Deadly Gambits or not, they have accepted its premise that the Administration's approach to arms control has failed, and a new one is needed.
But what about these "realistic policies and proposals"? Here Talbott is silent, although he repeatedly if indirectly chides the "hard-line ideologues" for advocating arms control proposals that lack "negotiability." Talbott does not tell the reader that there are serious doubts among arms control specialists-including some of the moderates that he favors-whether the search for significant negotiated agreements will ever be anything but political theater.
Talbott says little about what arms control should be, of what it should (or can) do to promote U.S. national security. Early on we are told that arms control is a "critical enterprise" and that inevitably an administration would be "judged" by the nation, legislators, and the world by its arms control record. The only reference to what arms control is supposed to do is in the Prologue when Talbott states that:
. . . arms control cannot work wonders at all, least of all by itself. It can only be useful as a component of a larger strategy for Soviet-American relations. Arms control is not a substitute for defense. It is defense conducted by other means. (p. 6)
But we are not told what that larger strategy is or ought to be, or how arms control should relate to it.
Arms control is treated throughout the book, the above quotation notwithstanding, as a valuable commodity, like gold, that has intrinsic worth. There is rarely a mention of what the objectives of arms control should be (except getting an agreement) or what would constitute a good or bad agreement. Deadly Gambits contains little discussion of the strategic requirements of the U.S., the overall objectives of arms control, or how the various proposals the U.S. put forward in Geneva were designed to promote those objectives. Although he alludes to both previous SALT agreements, he never tells us how the alleged benefits of those agreements stack up against history. Without such a framework one cannot be expected to judge intelligently whether Richard Perle is a hero or a knave, whether Richard Burt is a wise man or a fool. The protagonists in Deadly Gambits are serious men, in a deadly serious business, and surely they-and the reader-deserve better.
For example, Talbott virtually ignores a central element in the arms control equation: the Soviet Union. Indeed, he all but confirms the standard criticism of arms control that the real negotiations and concessions take place within the American bureaucracy. But there is no Soviet equivalent to Talbott writing from Moscow to inform us about the infighting within the Soviet bureaucracy (if any) so that we might judge the seriousness and intent of Soviet policy. The Reagan Administration is (and the reader of Deadly Gambits should be) concerned with the spectacle of an apparently divided and weak Soviet leadership at a time when the Soviet military buildup and modernization-conventional as well as nuclear-continues apace. Is the Soviet hierarchy at present even capable of negotiating seriously (by anyone's standards)? When a relative youngster such as Gorbachev or Romanov consolidates his position in the Politburo, what will he do with his many new toys? We are given little if any guidance on this point by Talbott.
Nowhere are the shortcomings of this book more obvious than in the discussion of "throw-weight." Simply put, throw-weight is the weight a missile can "throw" to its target, the warhead(s) plus the attached guidance devices. It is important because it is a true index of the destructive potential of each side's missile force and is far more relevant than the number of launchers deployed.
Talbott's view throughout is that throw-weight, which was not used as a measurement of strategic power in SALT, was a device employed by those opposed to arms control to prevent an agreement from being reached. Throw-weight was "non-negotiable" in Talbott's view; that is, there was no way the U.S. could get the Soviets to accept it as a unit of account in arms control.
Talbott criticizes the Reagan Administration's attempt to make throw-weight a central part of its negotiating position in START. He does so by trying to downplay the importance of the Soviet throw-weight advantage, by playing back to the reader Soviet interpretations of why they built ICBMs capable of delivering so much payload, and, most of all, by claiming that, since throw-weight was a "non-starter" from the Soviet perspective, the Administration was being disingenuous by attempting to limit it.
Talbott prefers the SALT framework of counting launchers (while not defining them). For an ICBM, the SALT framework assumed that a launcher was the silo in which the missile was placed and fired from. For a submarine-launched missile, it was a tube in a submarine capable of firing a ballistic missile. Critics of this approach point out that SALT did not limit the number of total missiles on both sides. (The Soviets supposedly have in excess of 1,000 extra ICBMs that are not counted by SALT because they are not in silos.) Even if one were to assume that each silo has only one missile, there is a greater problem with this approach. It assumes that the missiles on each side are of equal capability. In truth, U.S. and Soviet missile forces look almost nothing alike.
The Soviets have built a force of large ICBMs capable of delivering a much greater payload than U.S. ICBMs. This high throw-weight allows the Soviets to place many accurate and large-yield warheads on one rocket booster. The strategic significance of doing this is that the Soviets can use a small percentage of their ICBM force to destroy most or all of the U.S.; land-based missiles and other strategic forces in a disarming first strike. Talbott does not see fit to examine this problem seriously.
At first, Talbott tries to suggest that the Soviets built these high throw-weight missiles to compensate for their inferior technology and to satisfy the traditional Russian penchant for artillery (ICBMs being the modern equivalent). The Soviet SS-19, for instance, is characterized as "an outgrowth of the Soviet affection for large missiles . . ." (p. 214). But this is not his primary case against throw-weight. He then tries to persuade us that the debate over the significance of throw-weight is nothing new and that it was dealt and dispensed with by a previous, and presumably wiser, administration.
Talbott describes how Henry Kissinger became "impatient" with Nixon's Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, for having "such a narrow-minded concern" with Soviet throw-weight. Kissinger, we are told, was a believer in the concept of "offsetting asymmetries" (p. 217). Offsetting asymmetries is arms control jargon for the idea that U.S. and Soviet advantages in different aspects of strategic power balance one another. Talbott uses it here to justify a Soviet five-to-one advantage in ICBM throw-weight. Although it is conceptually feasible that asymmetries in the U.S. and Soviet force structure could cancel each other out, in reality the Soviet Union holds a lead, and often a substantial one, in most relevant indicators of strategic power. An asymmetry that allows the Soviet Union to possess a potentially disarming first strike capability cannot be characterized as being offset by minor U.S. advantages.
Talbott then states the real reason Kissinger objected to: Schlesinger's interest in Soviet ICBM throw-weight: "Kissinger questioned whether throw-weight was a problem that was amenable to solution in arms-control negotiations" (p. 217). Talbott seems to believe, like Kissinger, that it is too much to ask of American negotiators to get an agreement that measures "stability" in terms of throw-weight. This argument is specious. It is not a matter of achieving "stability as measured by throw-weight" but of achieving stability, period. The Soviet throw-weight advantage is a prominent measure of the current instability. It is a unit of account that accurately reflects the imbalance in U.S. and Soviet force capability in a way that limitations on launchers (as in SALT) never can. If the SALT experience demonstrates one thing, it is that equality in strategic offensive launchers does not necessarily beget stability. Proponents of the use of throw-weight limitations are not wedded to its use per se; they understand that it (along with warhead limitations) is a better measure for achieving stability through arms control.
Talbott asserts that, "Of all the many ways to measure strategic power, missile throw-weight represents the single largest advantage that the Soviet Union has over the United States" (p. 215). This statement reveals Talbott's true motive. Despite its relevance to the strategic balance, despite the fact that limiting launchers makes less strategic sense than limiting throw-weight and warheads, the real reason Talbott objects to throw-weight is he knows that maintaining such a superiority is a fundamental Soviet goal. Limiting throw-weight to equal levels would make possible a stable strategic balance and hence meaningful arms control. The leading advocate of limiting throw-weight is, of course, Richard Perle, who believes that it "ought to be the principal unit of account in strategic arms control" (p. 234). As Perle saw it, the Soviet threat to U.S. strategic forces was a function of "too many warheads that were too large atop too many missiles with too much cumulative throw-weight" (p. 234).
Richard Burt and other State Department colleagues opposed using throw-weight as a unit of account in START. According to Talbott, "Underlying all of Burt's arguments was the contention that, because of the great improvements in the accuracy of Soviet missiles, throw-weight as such was a 'military indicator of declining relevance'" (p. 237). According to this view, accuracy had become the key determinant of strategic power, not throw-weight. Talbott also explains that nuclear weapon yields (the size of the explosion) are also not a function of throw-weight and that recent technological success in miniaturization now made it possible to get the "maximum bang out of small amounts of explosive materials" (p. 238). These developments supposedly contributed to the declining relevance of throw-weight.
Both of these arguments represent half-truths. It is exactly because Soviet accuracies have improved that throw-weight is of increasing relevance. With their improved accuracies, the Soviets can reliably destroy a hardened missile silo using one or two warheads. By building their behemoth missiles with great throw-weight, they can destroy a large percentage of U.S. strategic force assets with a relatively small percentage of their force. This is what creates instability. Miniaturization works the same way. Each missile can hold more warheads, and thus fewer missiles are needed to destroy the opponent's force. The improvements Talbott mentions have taken place, but they enhance rather than diminish the importance of throw-weight.
As if this were not enough, Talbott then chastises Perle because "neither of these factors, increased accuracy or improved yield, figured in Perle's proposed units of account for START" (p. 238). What is shocking is that Talbott does not take Richard Burt to task for the same thing. Burt's proposed limitations on launchers and warheads, which appeal to Talbott's sympathies, do not take into account improved accuracy or yield. Talbott wishes to have it both ways. He scolds Perle and others for proposing to limit throw-weight because it is not negotiable and then again for not including the equally stringent (and presumably just as non-negotiable) measures of accuracy and yield which he claims are increasingly relevant indicators of strategic power.
This is the heart of the matter: Limitations on launchers and missiles have not been able to eliminate the current instability engendered by a Soviet first strike capability. Limiting throw-weight to equal levels would go far in correcting this problem. The real reason Talbott objects to throw-weight limitations is obvious. It can be summed up through his quotation from Soviet officials: "'Throw-weight,' they kept saying over and over again, 'is not an acceptable unit of account'" (p. 311).
Another important set of issues that Talbott fails to come to grips with is verification and compliance. Verification is a judgmental process based on the evidence of whether each party is living up to its arms control commitments. The Reagan Administration has taken unprecedented steps, both in demanding more intrusive measures for verification (through on-site inspection) and by producing two major reports critical of Soviet compliance with arms control agreements. Talbott pays little attention to this issue, and, when he does, it is always in the context of the bureaucratic wars over arms control policies.
On the verification issue, Talbott states: "Verification does not become a central issue in arms control until there is some possibility of an agreement to be verified" (p. 293). But verification would seem to be a first-order issue in arms control because one has to decide what can be verified before one determines what to limit. If none of the relevant indicators of a particular weapon system can be verified, there is little reason to seek limits on them. Previously the scope of U.S. arms control proposals has exceeded both the U.S.'s ability to verify them and the Soviets' willingness to accept cooperative measures of verification. This has put the U.S. in the position of not being able to verify treaties which we ourselves have proposed. Also, verification takes on added importance when one considers the Soviet compliance record, which Talbott neither reviews nor seems to have much interest in.
Talbott treats the raising of the issue of Soviet compliance as a thoroughly partisan concern. Those worried about compliance are said to be interested only in using it to hamper future arms control progress. As Talbott states, "If it could be established that the Soviets had already systematically cheated on arms control agreements, hardliners would more easily be able to question the wisdom of any future agreements and if, or political reasons, the U.S. had to keep up the appearance of seeking agreements, it would be all the more justified in insisting on the most intrusive, comprehensive inspection of facilities in the U.S.S.R." (p. 227). Talbott apparently either does not believe that the Soviets have "systematically cheated" on arms control agreements or, if he does, he sees no connection between that cheating and the value of the arms control process to U.S. national security.
For the purposes of strategic arms control, one of the most significant violations concerns the ABM Treaty. The Soviets are building an early-warning radar which the Administration has concluded is almost certainly a violation of this treaty limiting both sides to very small anti-missile capabilities. Talbott brushes this off by stating: "While the incident was generally recognized as the most serious case to date of a possible Soviet violation, there were still ambiguities in the language of the treaty that might be used to excuse it" (p. 321). Those who think differently are only trying to use the issue to scuttle the arms control process. Thus in a recent Time magazine article on the compliance issue that was sparked by the imminent release of the Administration's second compliance report, Talbott said that if the "[Reagan] Administration officially renders a guilty verdict against the U.S.S.R. on the issue of compliance, the prospects for the Shultz-Gromyko meeting and future negotiations and agreements may be bleaker than ever. The Soviets will take the accusations as proof that the U.S. is looking for a pretext to scuttle arms control once and for all, while making the Soviets take the blame." This is an amazing statement. Talbott is impervious to the notion that the Soviets are "scuttling" the arms control process by cheating. Moreover, he has turned on its head the traditional arms control argument that nations will comply with agreements because the consequences of non-compliance might bring an end to the process which both sides supposedly want to maintain. If Talbott is correct, the pressure is not on the offender but on the injured party, which will refrain from going public with violations for fear of damaging the future of arms control. This seems to be the American approach to the problem of Soviet noncompliance.
But by far the most serious flaw is Talbott's thesis that nuclear weapons have rendered the relationship between military power and political objectives meaningless. Talbott states,
Nuclear missiles and bombs are symbols of power. The way in which their custodians . . . manipulate these symbols is a key factor in how successful their other policies will be. In that respect, nuclear weapons exist to be talked about, not to be used. Largely for that reason, it is another central and, again, paradoxical part of their nature that they exist to be controlled. (p. 5)
He asserts this as though it were patent truth. No doubt many people in the U.S. believe this to be true, but U.S. policy for over thirty years has been based on the idea that nuclear weapons have military as well as political utility; that, in fact, the two cannot be separated.
Since as far back as the Eisenhower Administration, U.S. policy has been predicated on balancing traditional Russian conventional superiority with nuclear weapons. While one can argue the question, "How much is enough?" the link between military utility and basic U.S. political objectives is clear. By ignoring this and asserting his own view, how ever widespread, Talbott begs the most fundamental question of American national security policy today: "What role nuclear weapons?"
LINCOLN AS NIHILIST
Lincoln: A novel
New York: Random House, 1984
659 pp., $19.95
By John Alvis
First Citizen: You have deserved nobly of your country and you have not deserved nobly.
So trivial are the projects today's novelists set themselves that producing a noble failure in any large-scale political conception would raise the stakes of current American literature. To say Gore Vidal's recent novel fails nobly may go too far. But, if admirable is not the word, there is surely something wondrous in the audacity of the creator of Myra Breckenridge taking on the job of depicting the two presidencies of Lincoln. Whatever its cause, Vidal's new daring is welcome, and his abilities in most of the technical prerequisites of fiction writing are not negligible. One is tempted to judge the effort by the standard Dr. Johnson stipulated for dogs who walk on their hind legs and women who preach, not to require the thing be done well but applaud that it is done at all. In the last resort, however, both the strength and the weakness of Vidal's performance resides at the heart of his conception of the man, who, with Churchill, deserves the title of foremost statesman of the modern era. The treatment that shapes the novel is ample, strenuous, vivid, and at times moving. And hence the more disappointing for being at bottom inadequate.
Vidal's canvas is large. In over 600 pages the book takes in Lincoln's career as President beginning with his arrival in disguise on the eve of the First Inaugural and concluding with an epilogue set about a year after his assassination. The ambitious scope of the novel allows for two remarkable developments. It enables us to witness the slow growth of Lincoln's awareness of the enormous burdens of the effort he had undertaken to preserve the Union as he wears out a succession of unsatisfactory commanding generals. Lincoln learns the lessons of war-making and exhibits an endurance that can best be rendered by providing the reader with a sense of the strength required to pull oneself up by the bootstraps after numerous falls. The expansive dimensions also allow for portraying the gradual awakening of Lincoln's cabinet members, notably Chase and Seward, to the tremendous reserves of energy, determination, and dissimulated intelligence concealed beneath Lincoln's cracker-barrel speech and appearance. It requires time to show an accumulation of parliamentary ambushes, outflankings of Congress, and backstairs maneuvering sufficient to bring shrewd men such as Seward, Chase, Thaddeus Stevens, and Stanton to the recognition of Lincoln's consummate sophistication as a politician and wielder of a party. Vidal obviously worked himself hard to learn the historical detail needed to make the long story convincing. At a time when successful American writers have not felt it worthwhile to put themselves to any pains re-imagining the nation's history, one can be grateful that Vidal acknowledged the necessity of working up to the level of his subject. The result is something more like food for grown men than the thin whimsies from which much of contemporary fiction and drama are whipped up and eked out.
One can also be grateful for writing that contains spasms of moral vigor. You count on some degree of moral discernment from a writer who has Lincoln explain to his son "a libertine is a man who loves liberty only a little, not a lot like us" (p. 218). You credit a writer with some political prudence who can have the President explain to his Attorney General his suspensions of habeas corpus by observing, "I think we should, first, persuade Mr. Taney that though it might've looked like I was swearing an oath to him because he happened to be holding the Bible that morning, I was really swearing an oath to the whole country to defend the whole Constitution" (p. 183). Vidal, moreover, persuades one of his alertness to the interplay of a great man's spiritedness with his sense of purpose. Lincoln's fondness for outlandish downhome anecdotes comes across as shrewd rhetorical jamming employed to disarm his listeners. We perceive the humor also as a necessity of Lincoln's soul, his means of restoring himself to equanimity in moments of discouragement. Vidal can discriminate between interesting men of no character (Secretary of War Cameron), men possessed of character but of no great self-understanding (Salmon Chase), and figures whose essential goodness combine with damaging yet understandable weaknesses (Mary Todd Lincoln). At a time when we find American literature afflicted with characters who scarcely ever convincingly represent the mixed human moral condition, discrimination even within a narrow range of the middling, the worse, and the still worse has to be welcomed. And two or three of Vidal's subordinate characters are better than middling. That achievement allows a creditable moral field within which to view the principal character. Lincoln's wife Mary Todd resembles Dostoyevsky's Katerina Ivanovna, a woman weakened by vanity but capable of pride. Vidal builds a moving scene out of Mrs. Lincoln's painful conversation with her sister whose husband has chosen to fight for the South. At the close of this scene it is possible to say of Mary with no sense of melodrama, "and so her youth came to an end, once and for all" (p. 167). For the sake of successes in characterization such as the large-spirited Mrs. Lincoln, a cold-blooded Kate Chase (daughter of Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury) and the urbane Seward, one is willing not to complain too much against Vidal's two most obtrusive impositions, Lincoln's personal secretary, John Hay, and the young rebel spy, David Herold. For both of these characters Vidal has created a low life that allows him to depict the interiors of bordellos. Similarly in Burr a young connoisseur of prostitutes had carried a subplot running parallel with the political doings of the principal character. Evidently Vidal invokes scenes of bawdry as older authors once routinely displayed paragraphs of pious reflections, to establish credit with a certain chosen audience, in this case cognoscenti who deem themselves street-wise. Beyond their usefulness as certificates of worldly wisdom, the two characters seem to hold little interest for Vidal despite his having given over a sizeable portion of the narrative to their doings.
A second form of perfunctory sensationalism proves more damaging to the unity of the novel. A busy narrator provides us with clinical dossiers on Lincoln's family sorrows. Robert Lincoln confides to Hay that he has always felt himself neglected in his father's eyes. He resents the political ambition that has caused his father to be preoccupied and distant. This kind of psychological point-making, however trite, is relatively innocent. Less innocuous because more pretentious is Vidal's planting William Herndon about half-way through the novel chiefly for the sake of recording an insinuation that the illness which deranges Mary and causes the death of one son and disfigurement of another results from Lincoln's having once contracted syphillis.1 This entire business is a distraction, a sorry little bribe thrown out to the dark gods.
Two of Vidal's earlier historical novels, Julian (the Apostate) and Burr, undertake to rehabilitate figures whom history has not treated kindly. Burr, 1876, and now Lincoln launch a reinterpretation of America's past. The lines of this reinterpretation are uncertain, but it appears that Vidal has taken his guidance from the revisionists in his interpretation of Lincoln's career. If Julian and Burr revise the received historical estimate upward, Lincoln follows the more familiar path of downscaling. Obviously Vidal wants at all costs to avoid the sentimentalization of an "Honest Abe" hagiography descending from Whitman to Sandburg to the popular media. Hence he loses no opportunity to present the hard, relentlessly intriguing, party boss. Since this is part of a neglected truth about Lincoln, the novel, by emphasizing the Republican leader's obliquity and savvy, restores part of the whole truth. Vidal's anxiety to distance himself from sentimentalists leads him, however, to exploit a version of modern demonology. The most telling deficiency of the book is just here at its center.
In his determination to be subtle, Vidal misses the noble simplicity of principle that nerved Lincoln's will. As an exercise in historical imagination the novel fails on three counts. First, it misrepresents the constitutional issues raised by Lincoln's vigorous application of presidential war-making powers. Second, Vidal succumbs to melodrama and reliance on improbabilities when, ignoring or rejecting Lincoln's own account of his purposes, he attempts to explain Lincoln's ambition as dark titanism, Caesarian megalomania. Third, because he looks too low in search of the real, Vidal neglects the obvious: the moral conception of human equality that for Lincoln gave meaning to the cause of the Union.
Much of the novel's development depends upon a Copperhead view of Lincoln's exploitation of the presidential war powers. A succession of witnesses combine admiration for the strong man's daring with disapproval of what we are asked to believe amounts to rough-shod treatment of the Constitution. When Lincoln holds Maryland for the Union by jailing Baltimore secessionists without indictments, Vidal has his Seward comment that "two millenia of law had been casually erased," and Vidal as narrator asserts that an order executed by Winfield Scott to arrest dissidents on vague charges attested a willingness "to overthrow the first rule of law, habeas corpus." A few pages later appears a little speech by Chase extolling habeas corpus as the foundation of due process and immediately thereafter follows accounts of Taney's indignation over Lincoln's handling of seditionists. On several subsequent occasions various characters make reference to Lincoln's high-handedness as though disregard of the Constitution had become daily business for the Commander-in-Chief. When Lincoln tells a complaining New York Senator that he has no intention of postponing action until the Supreme Court should have had opportunity to rule on the constitutionality of his Conscription Act, Vidal has Seward suddenly perceive Lincoln as "a single-minded dictator . . . a Lord Protector of the Union" whom he compares to "a Cromwell . . . a despot" (p. 459). As justification of his boldness, Lincoln has invoked nothing more than "the most ancient of all our human characteristics . . . survival" (p. 153).
We are supposed to share Seward's "involuntary shudder" as we witness an elemental titanism not to be bound by any law. Yet there is nothing unconstitutional in refusing to stay executive action until the Supreme Court has passed on a statute. Moreoever, in regard to suspension of habeas corpus, Article I, Section 9 expressly provides that "in cases of rebellion" the public safety may require suspending the writ. No character in the novel appears to be aware of the existence of the pertinent clause of Article I, Section 9. Vidal in fact manages to show no action on the part of Lincoln that deserves to be called unconstitutional. Yet his conception of Lincoln as expressing a political potency beyond law obliges him to convey the impression that Lincoln must have over-reached the constitutional limits of the executive authority. Vidal's imagination thus fails to grasp the true genius of a statesman who augmented his power by respecting the Constitution, and not by abrogating it.
Yet Vidal's mirage of an unconstitutional Cromwellian Lincoln consists perfectly with his misperception of the course taken by Lincoln's ambition from early on in his career. From Hay we have the conjecture that "From the beginning, he knew that he was the first man in the country, and that he was bound to get his way, if he lived" (emphasis Vidal's, p. 654). Billy Herndon drops into the novel for no other reason than to establish the point that back in Illinois Lincoln always got his way (unless the syphilis be counted as a setback). But the most emphatic testimony to the will of Lincoln comes from his old opponent, Stephen Douglas. When Lincoln has a private conversation with the Little Giant soon after the First Inaugural, Douglas reveals that he has been thinking about the January 27, 1838, Springfield Lyceum Speech in which Lincoln had warned against demagogues arising from "the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle." Douglas now charges "you are the eagle, you are the lion" (p. 112). Vidal would have us think that Douglas knows his man. With Douglas we are supposed to see through Lincoln. He resents the Founders having preempted the glory of making an enduring republic. He will not help raise Washington's monument (now just half erected and visible from the windows of the White House). Instead, he will pay any cost in blood to refound the nation on principles distinctly his own-only new creations bring the overawing glory Lincoln requires. It appears that Vidal's Douglas has also been reading twentieth-century revisionist historians, current psychoanalytic therapists, and a recent school of literary theory which holds that poetic creation proceeds by strong writers' rebelling resentfully against the prestige of strong predecessors. Vidal's disclosure of the subliminal Lincoln might have been concocted by Harold Bloom in delirium.
Post-Freudian novelists and dramatists tend to equate profound revelation of character with moments of unwitting self-disclosure. The classical instance of the technique of exposure is Eugene O'Neill's Lavinia Mannon at the climax of Mourning Becomes Electra letting slip the name of a man she had helped to kill when she intends to proclaim her love for the suitor who stands at her side. The edges of suppressed reprehensible instincts peeking out from the incompletely fastened corners of a concealing blanket of consciousness are considered more definitive than expressions of character in rational deeds. Accordingly, modern writers build their stories around moments when the darker angels of our nature speak through our stammers, slips, blushes, and lame silences.
Lincoln endures several such moments here with Douglas, Vidal records all the signs of his giving away the show as under Douglas's accusations he allows himself to be observed "frozen in an attitude of attention," then, "shook his head as if he had been dreaming," and at the last as Douglas continues to probe falls silent (pp. 111-12). So that we cannot fail to take the point, there is a reprise on the Lyceum speech toward the end when Seward permits himself the irreverence of doubting Lincoln meant anything at Gettysburg by extolling government of the people, "since no government can be anything else but of them unless the lions and the tigers take over." To this Vidal has Lincoln murmur to himself, "or the race of eagles" (p. 570). By the time the war has run its course Lincoln is prepared to acknowledge, to himself at least, that he has practiced Caesarism in order to stand out from the shadow of Washington.
But Vidal does not stop at making his Lincoln a Caesar cum Cromwell cum Macbeth. He must also have him expiate his crimes of ambition. As the war grinds on, therefore, we witness a growing morbidity, fatalism, and regret in the Commander-in-Chief who at one point comments on Grant's victories in the West, "'we should be able to close most swiftly the circle of death . . . of victory I mean . . . Lincoln's voice trailed off" (p. 309), and who comes to confess he prefers over Hamlet's soliloquies Claudius's "O! my offense is rank" (p. 527). For the premise of the novel to hold, Lincoln must be given not only a death-scene but a death-wish. Lincoln ceases to eat, grows thinner as the Union forces grow stronger, and yearns as much for release from life as for victory. This is no ordinary war weariness but rather we are asked to believe that Lincoln's melancholy reveals his consciousness of having wronged the dead, "the dead would not vote for me, ever, in this-or any other-world" (p. 589). Vidal's insistence upon staging a guilt-ridden victor leads him to his last and most extravagant improbability. In the closing words of the novel his mouthpiece, Hay, is said to have reached the conclusion that "Lincoln, in some mysterious fashion, had willed his own murder as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing that he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation" (p. 657). That "some mysterious fashion" is well-fished for.
Lincoln might have had sufficient reason to will his own assassination if he had indeed pursued the purpose Vidal imagines for him. But the far-fetched character of Hay's supposition throws doubt back on the premise on which it has been mounted. We wonder if Vidal has not missed the most essential thing about Lincoln.
The heart of Lincoln's mystery for Vidal is, in the first instance, the idea of Union. We might think that Union was important to Lincoln because he believed that the people of America ought to be united in the affirmation of some truth, ought to be dedicated to some proposition. Not so. For the Lincoln of the novel, the Union stands on nothing and looks toward nothing. The Union is to be revered for itself, not by reference to anything beyond itself. If one insists on some declaration of the essence of this entity, the unity of which must at every cost be preserved, the only definition offered is the idea of the modern nation-state. The popular mind compares Lincoln with Jefferson or with Washington, but the more discerning student of comparative politics prefers to find Lincoln's counterpart in Bismarck. Hay's last words, "Bismarck would also give the vote to people who never had it before," carry the assent of the sophisticated observers of the world assembled at the Empress Eugenie's diplomatic reception, "we have here a subject-Lincoln and Bismarck, and new countries for old" (p. 656). The notion that Lincoln was guided all along by his determination to refashion America into a homogeneous nation-state supposedly casts light back upon the hitherto shaded stages of his career. He had worked as attorney for the Illinois Central because he had always understood the connection between the technology of centralization and the political purposes such technology subserves. Because he places priority upon union conceived as centralization of a national will, this Lincoln resents any suggestion that the issue of slavery is paramount. Vidal has him complain against Fremont's liberation of slaves in the border states, "This is a war for a great national idea, the Union, and now Fremont has tried to drag the Negro into it!" (p. 240) And of course Lincoln's reputed "racism," evident in his designs to establish Negro colonies abroad, becomes intelligible in view of his Bismarckian nationalism. He seeks racial homogeneity if he can get it, and when he sees he cannot, he gives the vote to Negroes because that too would move the nation toward homogeneity by diluting the Southern sectionalism bloc.
And what stands behind the determination to remake America so as to make the nation homogeneous in character and centralized in its organization? Nothing. Yet, one must add, a definite form of nothing. It is the sort of nothing that can be characteristically rendered in Shakespeare's Caesar accounting for his refusal to attend the Senate by saying, "The cause is in my will." The more perfect union bought with so much blood is at once the product of Lincoln's will and the proof, the attestation, the bodily form, of that will. This is so because the only indisputable proof of the individuality of any particular will is the evidence of its having created, something. "Of the people, by the people, for the people," the phrase that puzzles the usually knowing Seward, makes the best of sense to this nihilist Lincoln. America can be henceforth what it never has been before: the pure creation of the popular will as that popular will at any moment chooses to be. Hitherto the rule of law embedded in common law and in a persistent tradition of natural right teaching had confined the scope and tempered the operation of creative will. Now with its new birth of freedom accomplished in blood and terror, America can create itself. Still, America can create itself only because first Lincoln has created the new America.
Not only in the circumstance of its conception but in its continuing execution, the new America Lincoln has forged exalts the will of its creator. The modern nation-state is preferable to the older association of several states within a federation because it better answers to guidance by one will, that of a dictatorial executive. It has just the sort of unity one might find in a work of art-a union between the material elements composing the creation and the creative intent of the artist. Thus the meaning of the Union for this autarchic Lincoln and hence, also, his ambivalence between elation and discouragement as the war closes. Victory in the war means the completion of his creation, or nearly so, but the completion of his creation means that he has nothing more to live for. The creation exhausts the content of the creator since he has nothing more to show forth. Life after such a definitive demonstration of will must necessarily be anticlimactic. And thus in the weariness that follows an unrepeatable success, guilt overtakes Lincoln. The guilt is nothing other than Lincoln's way of explaining to himself the emptiness that must ensue upon a crowning act of nihilist self-definition.
Vidal can create a nihilistic Lincoln only by suppressing everything that kept the historical Lincoln from becoming a nihilist. What these principles were, anyone can know from reading any of the several excellent accounts of Lincoln's thought and leadership by Harry Jaffa. Or merely paying attention to the words he has left should cause one to doubt Vidal's interpretation. That Lincoln conceived the Union to stand upon a foundation of moral right which alone could suffice to make the Union worth venerating should be evident to anyone who takes seriously Lincoln's own writings and speeches. To offer the Springfield Lyceum speech as a revelation of a secret program of Caesarian ambition, Vidal must not permit his reader to hear very much of it, for when it is taken whole the speech develops one of the two or three most powerful defenses of constitutionalism and rule of law produced by the Western mind. Similarly, if Vidal had conveyed the substance of the Cooper Institute Address of 1860, instead of merely its occasion and its usefulness in propelling Lincoln into the Republican nomination, or if he had conveyed anything at all of the address to the Washington Temperance Society, February 22, 1842, his imagination of an antinomian innovator disdainful of constitutional impediments would have lost every claim to plausibility. Lincoln's first stay against moral confusion was his fidelity to the Constitution. Not surprisingly, Lincoln's deeds as president fail to support the charges of unconstitutional policy spoken by Vidal's assorted chorus, not surprisingly because those deeds were the work of a mind that sought to inculcate law abidingness, especially adherence to America's supreme law. Lincoln's principled fidelity to the Constitution is unmistakable in the great speeches delivered before 1860 and in his utterances during the war. One can dismiss these tributes to the founding law only if, ignoring the plain purport of plain words, one presumes to know the speaker better than he knew himself.
It is true that not even the Constitution was for Lincoln the ultimate reference for proper political conduct. But it is only true in a qualified sense that the Union was his ultimate reference and altogether untrue that beyond the idea of Union he acknowledged no ground other than his will. No statesman of modern times possessed a stronger will than Lincoln, and a measure of his strength he owed to ambition. He did indeed have the ambition of "thirty Caesars." But the strength of his will derived from the single-mindedness of his dedication to a moral principle. That principle was the self-evident truth proposed in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Not union upon any terms and certainly not union upon the terms of a Bismarckian nation-state, but union as the common dedication of Americans to upholding the obligations bound up with the central idea of human equality is the end for the sake of which Lincoln fought, taught, sacrificed himself and his family, and employed his outsized resources of ambition, tenacity, rhetoric, and guile.
Lincoln stated his understanding of equality as a moral principle clearly and consistently throughout his career. In the midst of the war he sought at Gettysburg to rededicate the nation to its Founding idea. Vidal narrates the address at Gettysburg but then arranges an obfuscation of its clear theme. The same kind of blurring of moral focus troubles his portrayal of Lincoln's politics before the presidency. We are given only just enough of Douglas remembering now in 1861 the debates of the Illinois Senate race to permit an account of Lincoln's entrapment of his opponent at Freeport in the summer of 1858. Otherwise, nothing of the debates, of the issues of free soil, slavery, popular sovereignty or of the principles of the American regime, none of these themes of the debates comes through. Consequently, a reader who doesn't know better cannot, from Vidal's account, conceive the combination of principled thought and prudent application of principle to circumstance which stands out as the real drama of the debates as well as the most convincing proof of Lincoln's moral, rhetorical, and political intelligence. Stated bluntly, the reader has been subjected to a bait-and-switch.
Those persuaded by modern artists' arguments on behalf of creative autonomy will object that the novelist is entitled to select or suppress historical detail in accord with "artistic necessity." The standard reply to criticism directed to matters of fact is "But surely you must know that I was writing a novel." The truth that imaginative works are not constructed altogether from incidents historically verifiable is invoked to cover the falsehood that a novel can be true as the account of an historical figure without establishing its substantial fidelity to important known facts-in this case, the recorded speeches of Lincoln. When Vidal seeks to avail himself of the advantages of basing his fiction upon a famous historical figure he incurs as the cost of those advantages the responsibility of preserving the essential truth about his subject. One might suppose that the business of the imaginative writer is to enable his readers to see that essential truth more searchingly than they would apprehend it without the artist's guidance. One takes up a novel bearing a title such as Myra Breckinridge for who knows what reason, but one comes to a novel with the title Lincoln because one hopes by the book to know better something one already knows, although imperfectly. So it is not unreasonable to require of Vidal that he not leave his subject murkier than he found it.
A student of poetry who also studies America must wonder if this country has ever produced poets up to the task of capturing the spirit of the regime. It seems tolerably clear, in any event, that twentieth-century American writers have failed to make memorable literature depicting the nation's distinct contribution to the unfolding of the Western spirit. Not a single serious novel or play by an American author has portrayed an episode in the drama of self-government. The stakes of this drama are well known from the classical statement of Hamilton, "It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice" (Federalist No. 1). The public life of this country offers a crucible for trying conclusions regarding a hope of Western civilization tied to the development of representative assemblies, a development begun perhaps 600 years ago. The hope is of rule of law or of its equivalent formulation, republican liberty-good government of equal laws arrived at by public reflection and choice. Such a suspenseful, doubtful endeavor would seem to offer attractive material for the dramatic tastes of writers. If we then ask why it is that American writers of this century have not been alive to this drama-in-progress at their feet, the answer seems to lie in the content of the higher education which forms writers today and sets the expectations they share with their audiences. The predominant features of that education are positivism, Marxism and its historicist derivatives, and a psychologism that discounts human deeds of rational choice in deference to explanations of conduct that suppose a nonrational determination in subconscious motives of sexuality or will to power. Such an education produces few minds disposed to take an interest in the question whether good government can be produced by reflection and choice. Twentieth-century higher education has decided the question negatively and, so to speak, on principle: Human beings produce nothing by reflection and choice. Rather their experience of deliberating and choosing is an illusion superimposed upon the real springs of action, imperatives of class-consciousness, of libido, or of self-love incapable of knowing itself. A late version of this opaque perspective upon things human and political impairs Vidal's portrayal of the great crisis of the American regime. For those who persist in taking seriously the experiment in political deliberation that Hamilton called "the most interesting in the world" and Lincoln "the last best hope," there is nonetheless something encouraging in the bare fact that an established contemporary novelist undertakes to treat political material of some complexity and consequence. The first condition for a more adequate American literary art is that audiences should be prepared to attend to important political subjects. Changes in American universities may yet produce writers adequate to the effort of reimagining their country's past. Meanwhile one can learn from the few historians who have discerned the poetry of America's history.2
1Herndon waited until January 1891 to tell his collaborator, Jesse Weik, that Lincoln contracted syphilis "when a mere boy." Cited in David Donald, Lincoln's Herndon (New York: Alfred Knopf, reprinted 1948), p. 360.
2The following works serve to correct the view of Lincoln as nihilist: Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Inc.), 1959; Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., The Leadership of Abraham Lincoln (New York, John Wiley & Sons), 1959; Leo Paul S. De Alvarez, ed., Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, and American Constitutionalism (Irving, Texas: University of Dallas Press), 1976; Glen E. Thurow, Abraham Lincoln and American Political Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press), 1976; George Anastaplo, "American Constitutionalism and the Virtue of Prudence: Philadelphia, Paris, Washington, Gettysburg," in De Alvirei, ed., Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, pp. 77-170.
VISIONS OF LIBERTY
Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790's
Joyce O. Appleby
New York: New York University Press, 1984
105 pp., $17.50 (cloth), $10.00 (paper)
By Kevin G. Long
Political parties, observed Tocqueville in Democracy in America, "are a necessary evil in free government. But they have not at all times the same character and the same propensities." For the most part, they lack any lofty or noble aspirations, and instead promote narrow interests. They usually employ the most violent language and the most base methods to advance their influence and power.
Yet, in isolated periods of great social and political upheaval, parties of principle do emerge in the midst of misery and confusion: "These parties are usually distinguished by nobler features, more generous passions, more genuine convictions and a more bold and open conduct than the others."
When Tocqueville wrote these words in 1831, the era of great parties had long passed. Yet he could look back to the period following the War of Independence when the Federalists and the Republicans vied for the political soul of the new republic. "The Nation was divided between two opinions-two opinions which were as old as the world and which are perpetually to be met with, under different forms and various names, in all free communities, the one tending to limit, the other to extend indefinitely, the power of the people."
This great contest, which shaped in large measure the destiny of the regime, lasted until 1800, when Jefferson, champion of the Republican cause, captured the Presidency. From then on, the Republicans maintained the allegiance of an overwhelming majority of the citizens, and the Federalists vanished from the political scene.
Given this background, Professor Joyce Appleby seems to have chosen one of the most dramatic and colorful periods of American political history for her study, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790's. Yet, as her own description of the study reveals, her perspective on the matter is rather different from Tocqueville's: "In this volume, I shall look at the demise of the venerable political tradition which the Federalists defended or, to put it more positively, I shall examine the elements that went into the triumph of the first truly American political movement, that of Jeffersonian Republicans" (p. 4, emphasis mine).
Appleby's thesis, in other words, is that the Federalists upheld principles which were wholly alien to the American Founding. Their position was, in fact, a distillation of two distinct-and distinctly English-concepts of liberty; i.e., "classical republicanism" and the "historic rights" tradition.
Both of these traditions arose among the English gentry in opposition to absolute monarchy. Classical republicanism championed constitutional rule, or the rule of law, against the arbitrary will of kings. It sought rather a mixed regime which balanced the legitimate claims of the one, the few, and the many, and eventually created a new kind of sovereign-the King in Parliament. As a theory of government, classical republicanism took its bearings from the Politics of Aristotle:
To be a free man was to participate in the life of the polis or community. . . . Liberty in the classical republican tradition pertained to the public realm and not the private. Indeed it was the capacity of men to rise above personal interest that made republics and therefore liberty possible. Virtue and liberty were indissolubly linked in classical republican theory. (p. 16)
A rival and "potentially contradictory" notion of liberty was the secure enjoyment of private life and especially of property. This was not a theory about the best regime, but a demand that government be limited, no matter what form it took. Liberty was identified with the body of rights and privileges protected by custom and the common law. These "rights of Englishmen" were compatible in practice with classical republicanism to the extent that the private enjoyment of one's own possessions did not interfere with virtue or the common good. Together, they shaped and preserved the more or less aristocratic institutions of traditional English society and government. However, a third, more radical notion arose out of the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke. Appleby calls this the "liberal" concept of liberty:
Nothing turned out to be more subversive than the analytical spirit that the liberal approach encouraged. Instrumental, utilitarian, individualistic, egalitarian, abstract and rational, the liberal concept of liberty was everything that the classical republican concept was not. (p. 21)
Until the American Revolution, notes Appleby, these three notions of liberty blended together in the minds and public discourses of the colonists. Since the Declaration of Independence, however, the appeal to historic rights of Englishmen was abandoned in favor of more universal claims. For a decade, classical republicanism and the Lockean natural rights theory were "like elements suspended in a solution, awaiting the catalyst that would crystalize them" (p. 22). The French Revolution provided that catalyst.
The Declaration of Independence itself had been ambiguous even though it had been drafted by Jefferson. It insisted that the purpose of government was to secure individual rights, but at the same time, it recognized the laws of nature and of nature's God. It defended the right of revolution, but at the same time, it called for political prudence. It was, in short, a compromise.
The French Revolution gave the Republicans the opportunity to rally behind the rights of man in their purest form. The Federalists, fearful of the violent passions which the cry for "liberty, equality, and fraternity" had unleashed, retreated to classical republicanism. But by their typically un-American appeals to virtue, authority, and the common good, concludes Appleby, the Federalists doomed themselves to extinction.
There is much to be said for Appleby's perceptive analysis of the three notions of liberty in the Anglo-American political tradition. In fact, the affinity between the contractual and essentially private character of the historic rights tradition and the social contract theory of Hobbes and Locke bears further development.
Yet, in applying these distinctions to the political "visions" of the Federalists and Republicans, she seems to have overstated her case. Perhaps because her research focuses on partisan rhetoric of the period rather than the principles that animated it, she gives the impression that they were opposing armies in an ideological crusade, rather than rival parties in a fledgling government.
By so closely identifying the Republican vision with "true Americanism," progress, and the birth of free enterprise, Appleby comes to regard the Federalists as impediments and obstacles. Because of their "elitist" interference, the real American Founding was postponed until 1800. Tocqueville's account of the Federalist contribution seems to be more generous, and given the personalities involved, more plausible:
The accession of the Federalists to power was, in my opinion, one of the most fortunate incidents that accompanied the formation of the great American Union. . . . [They] gave the new republic time to acquire a certain stability. . . . A considerable number of their policies, moreover, were embodied at last in the political creed of their opponents: and the Federal Constitution, which subsists at the present day, is a lasting monument of their patriotism and their wisdom.
Appleby's low estimation of the Federalists, however, is a mere peccadillo compared to her unintentional slur against the Republicans. By interpreting their rhetoric exclusively in terms of individual, private rights, she sets them in opposition to the very idea of a common good. Statesmanship comes to mean presiding over a congeries of vested interests in order to maintain "the widespread enjoyment of comforts" (p. 90). What is worse, Appleby, in one particularly candid passage, denies that the Republicans' appeal to natural rights had any basis in truth:
If would be a mistake, however, to conclude with the]effersonians that in . . . invoking the rights of all men they were in fact dealing with universal truths. In fact their conception of an unvarying, uniform human nature was an intellectual construction of the modernizing notions of the West. It was no less a cultural artifact than the ancient view of the human essence lodged in the four humors or the Puritan description of men and women as the erring children of Adam and Eve. (p. 101)
From this passage, one begins to see why Appleby, and indeed the bulk of contemporary scholarship from which she draws so heavily, are often frustrated in their attempt to interpret the American Founding, for in denying the reality of the common good, of virtue, and of human nature itself, these scholars place themselves outside of that tradition and can judge it only as outsiders and strangers.
In fact, the great thinkers and statesmen that Appleby intends to interpret-Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Burke, Hamilton, and Jefferson-have more in common with one another than any of them do with her, for they understood themselves to be disputing those serious questions which are "as old as the world," and not to be engaged in "the intellectual construction of the modernizing notions of the West."
. . . . AND THROW AWAY THE KEY
Crime and Public Policy
Edited by James Q. Wilson
San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1983
334 pp., $8.95 (paper)
Criminal Justice Reform: A Blueprint
Edited by Patrick B. McGuigan and Randall R. Rader
Washington, D.C.: Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, 1983
273 pp., $14.00 (paper)
By Ralph A. Rossum
Crime in the United States has become a pervasive and troubling problem. Data published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Justice Department, reveal the enormity and seriousness of the problem. In 1982, almost a third of all American households (nearly 25 million) were victimized by at least one crime of violence or theft. Many households were touched by more than one crime, and thus the total number of victimizations for that year exceeded 39 million.
Americans fear crime, and for good reason. The chances of being the victim of a violent crime are one and a half times greater than the chances of being injured in a motor vehicle accident. This fear is clearly reflected in public opinion polls. A February 1984 Field poll reveals, that the public is more concerned about crime than any other issue; 73 percent of those interviewed indicated that "crime and law enforcement" is a matter about which they are "extremely concerned."
Nonetheless, the public can take some encouragement, for crime rates are likely to fall for at least the next decade. One reason is demography; that part of the population most likely to engage in criminal activity (i.e., the male population from the age of puberty to about age 25) will steadily shrink throughout the remainder of the 1980s and well into the 1990s. A second reason that crime rates are likely to decline is that we have learned a great deal during the past two decades about crime and how to respond to it.
What we have learned is thoughtfully and lucidly presented in James Q. Wilson's Crime and Public Policy. In what is sure to become a standard source for criminal justice policy makers as well as for citizens, Wilson has brought together leading scholars from a variety of fields to reflect on the latest research being conducted on the problem of crime and on failed and promising efforts to address it.
Wilson's volume complements Patrick B. McGuigan and Randall R. Rader's Criminal Justice Reform, which proceeds on the basis not of academic research but of practical experience and which directly presents the policy prescriptions of a cross-section of leaders. These two volumes are very similar in both their premises and recommendations and therefore demonstrate how completely the "adversarial relationship" between scholars and practitioners-for so long the hallmark of criminal justice policy debates-has disappeared.
For example, both volumes reject the view that crime is the product of social injustice, and both advocate reforms that presuppose individual responsibility and that seek to restructure incentives so everyone's objectives can be achieved. Further, they both recognize that no panacea exists to solve our nation's crime problem. Speaking for all his contributors, Wilson remarks in his concluding essay: "We offer no 'magic bullet' that will produce safe streets, or decent people. But neither do we think that nothing can be done. What needs to be done is difficult, complex and costly, and the gains will be deferred and moderate. But they may be all the more lasting because they have been achieved by linking scientific knowledge and practical wisdom to the interests of both citizens and public officials. Though we cannot find a magic bullet, neither do we counsel despair or mere cosmetic surgery."
What have we learned from this scholarly research, and what policy implications does it have? First, we have learned that much of the conventional wisdom concerning the causes of crime is baseless. For example, it is commonly asserted that unemployment causes crime. Yet, in his essay for Wilson's volume, Richard B. Freeman reviews scores of quantitative studies bearing on this issue and finds the connection to be weak at best.
Recent findings from the National Crime Survey bear him out. From 1981 to 1982, total victimizations in the United States dropped from 41.5 million to 39.8 million, a decline of 4.1 percent. Yet 1982 was also the year in which the United States experienced record-high postwar levels of unemployment. In 1983, unemployment rates dropped dramatically, but both property and violent crime rates for the same reporting period have dropped even more sharply (10 percent).
We have also learned that, besides unemployment, all simply environmental explanations for crime are suspect, for evidence is mounting that a predisposition to crime can be inherited. In Crime and Public Policy, Richard J. Herrnstein points to three kinds of inheritable characteristics that correlate closely with crime and delinquency. First, criminals are more likely than the public generally to have a mesomorphic (squarish and muscular) physique. Second, criminals have IQs that are typically around ten points lower than the average among the population as a whole. Third, they tend consistently to have personalities characterized by impulsiveness, extroversion, and hyperactivity. As Herrnstein points out, there is very little dispute that these characteristics are inheritable-this is the case even for personality, because adopted children are far more likely to have the personality traits of their natural parents than of those who raise them.
Herrnstein is, however, quick to point out that "neither the data nor any theory built around them justifies the Lombrosian conception of the born criminal, if that means an inevitable descent into a life of crime." Rather, what is at issue is a "susceptibility" that may or may not lead to crime.
Part of the susceptibility to crime has to do with the family. Its role, contends Travis Hirshi (in Crime and Public Policy), has been slighted by policy makers. Typically, they present the family's role in teaching acceptable behavior in a wholly nonproblematic manner. According to the Oregon Social Learning Center, all that parents must do is "1) monitor the child's behavior; 2) recognize deviant behavior when it occurs; 3) punish such behavior." As Hirshi points out, however, this is not as simple as it may seem. If parents cannot monitor or recognize or punish behavior, the process of inculcating standards will be interrupted.
For Hirshi, the policy implications are clear: So important is the family to successful child-rearing that "when we consider the potential effects of any governmental action on crime and delinquency, we should specifically consider its impact on the ability of parents to monitor, recognize, and punish the misbehavior of children. When we conclude that the action would have an adverse impact on the family, we should be extremely reluctant to endorse it as a crime-prevention measure."
In addition to presenting what we have learned about the social milieu of crime and what policies we ought to adopt to respond to it, Wilson's book also presents research findings concerning the criminal justice system's response to crime. To begin with, we learn from Brian Forst that for every 100 people arrested on felony charges, only 65 are brought to a district attorney; of these only 40 are prosecuted; of these only 34 are brought to trial; of these only 32 are convicted; and of these only 9 are sentenced to prison. The deterrent effect of the criminal justice system is inconsequential.
Forst seeks to reform our prosecution and sentencing systems to increase the deterrent effect of the criminal justice system. He advocates greater use of sound management principles and statistical information now available to prosecutors and judges. In addition, he proposes various sentencing reforms and outlines the development of a "crime-control oriented prosecution system" designed to generate "data indicative of defendant dangerousness." Daniel Popeo, in Criminal Justice Reform, goes further and advocates the use of "Court Watch" projects designed to promote public scrutiny of prosecutors, judges, and parole boards who may be too lenient with criminals.
"Defendant dangerousness" is not only important at prosecutorial screening but should also be a factor in determining prisoners' bail. Steven R. Schlesinger reports in the Wilson volume that somewhere between 7 and 20 percent of persons under pretrial release commit crimes, and for some crimes the figure is as high as 60 percent. Since the data likewise make it clear that the ranges are highest for the most dangerous crimes, Schlesinger advocates a policy of preventive detention. This proposal is repeated by a number of the contributors to the McGuigan and Rader volume.
Schlesinger's proposals for bail reform are not limited to preventive detention. He also advocates much wider use of release of defendants on their own recognizance. This reform, he argues, would end one of the social costs of the present bail system by eliminating discrimination against the poor.
Schlesinger further proposes major reforms of the exclusionary rule. This rule renders evidence obtained in violation of legal or constitutional requirements inadmissible in a criminal proceeding. As Schlesinger skillfully argues, the rule benefits only the guilty, promotes police perjury, drains the limited resources of the courts, and undermines public respect for the legal and judicial systems. It also frees large numbers of criminals.
In place of the exclusionary rule, Schlesinger favors the admission of all probative evidence, regardless of the means used to obtain it, and the use of disciplinary proceedings against offending police officers. This will deter illegal seizures and provide a means for awarding compensatory damages to innocent victims of illegal searches and seizures. Schlesinger, who is the only person to contribute essays to both volumes, expands upon this argument in Criminal Justice Reform.
The reforms recommended in both books will put increased pressure on our prison systems. This pressure will be further intensified by demographic shifts. The same demographic shift that bodes so well for a reduction in crime rates bodes ill for prison crowding. As Alfred Blumstein observes in Crime and Public Policy, this is so because of the difference between the peak crime ages (16 to 18) and the peak imprisonment age (the mid-twenties). Blumstein identifies various strategies to deal with this dramatic increase in the prison population.
One promising strategy that Blumstein considers but rules out because of its many technical, legal, and ethical problems is selective incapacitation. This strategy would have law enforcement personnel and prosecutors focus the criminal justice system's scarce resources on the small percentage of offenders responsible for disproportionate numbers of crimes. Identification and imprisonment of these high-rate or "career" criminals would, its adherents believe, help reduce overall crime rates.
Given the prodigious amount of crime that high-rate offenders commit, Jan and Marcia Chaiken rightly observe that every effort should be made to "interrupt" and "terminate" these criminal careers. Herein, however, lies the difficulty, for the task of identifying the high-rate offender is difficult and controversial. Arrest records are often not helpful in distinguishing "careerists" from others. Because of the large number of "false positives" (i.e., individuals who share traits with high-rate offenders but who are, in fact, not active criminals), many individuals who do not need to be imprisoned to have their criminal activity "interrupted" or "terminated" may, in fact, be incarcerated, and scarce prison space will be consumed with no decrease in crime or increase in public safety.
Even with an improved prediction model, proposed by Peter Greenwood, the problem of "false positives" remains, as Greenwood himself concedes, as well as the technical difficulty of finding the "right" sentence. Furthermore, the legal, constitutional, and ethical questions arising from sentencing policies that rest on statistical forecasts of future behavior rather than on particular punishments for particular crimes likewise remain unresolved.
It is unfortunate that none of the essays in Criminal Justice Reform directly addresses this issue. In this debate, the voices of policy makers must join those of the research community. Since selective incapacitation is identified as a "hard-liner" issue, it is important to hear from hard-liners of the kind represented in the McGuigan and Rader volume and to learn from them whether they generally embrace this policy. What intelligent and articulate hard-liners on crime questions think, needs to be known, and Criminal justice Reform can be faulted for failing to instruct us on these matters.
The McGuigan-Rader book deserves high praise, on the other hand, for its extensive treatment of the victims' assistance issue. Articles by Senator Paul Laxalt and by Frank Carrington and Linda Duggan remind the reader that it is, of course, because of what happens to the victim that the criminal justice system is brought into play. Far too often, however, the victim is all but forgotten and is subjected to such callous and insensitive treatment by the criminal justice system that he undergoes a "second victimization."
Both of these essays not only review what recently has been done at the federal and state levels to improve the plight of victims but also identify what reforms remain to be made. These measures include the preparation of victim impact statements to be considered by the judge at sentencing, penalties for victim and witness intimidation, programs to insure victim and witness notification as the case proceeds through the system, requirements that victims be afforded the opportunity to be heard at sentencing and parole hearings, initiation of restitution and victim compensation programs, and the provision of greater civil remedies for victims.
It is important to recognize that those who will benefit principally from victims' assistance legislation are young male blacks. Statistics reveal that they experience much higher rates of victimization than any other segment of society. Their victimization rates for crimes of violence are almost four times that of the U.S. population as a whole, and their victimization rates for crimes of property are about twice as high. Accordingly, they will be the principal beneficiaries of the victims' assistance movement and, hence, of the law-and-order spirit that animates this movement. Research and statistics can thus show that a concern for victims and for law and order need not be a cover for racism but, in fact, can be an expression of American society's deep-seated commitment to civil rights and to full enjoyment of these rights by all, without fear of crime and violence. Regrettably, the Wilson volume is deficient in this respect, as it offers no research findings on this timely issue.
Wilson remarks in his introduction to Crime and Public Policy that the book could not have been written 15 years ago. This could be said of the McGuigan and Rader volume as well. Not only do we now know more about crime and how to respond to it, but (and this is central) we have also regained our confidence in the United States as a fundamentally just regime. In 1970, Ramsey Clark could write in Crime in America that crime was caused by society and that criminals were really victims-victims of poverty, prejudice, and unjust political and social institutions. It is a measure of the extent to which moral order has been restored that Crime in America is today the volume that could not be published. Today, solicitude is extended to the victim, not the criminal. The offender is understood to be responsible for his actions, and society is understood to have an obligation to protect innocent members of the public from victimization and to assist them when they are victimized. Scholarly research now supports policies that will strengthen and improve criminal justice agencies so that they can better deter crime and more efficiently and justly punish the criminal they cannot deter. This represents a third reason (and perhaps the most important) the public should be encouraged about American society's ability to deal with the crime problem. Not only does it have demography and greater knowledge on its side, but it has leading researchers, policy makers, and practitioners-of whom the contributors to these books are representative-who believe that American society is just and worthy of a strong law-and-order defense.
A CONJUNTION OF GRAMMARIANS
Have a Word on Me: A Celebration of Language
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981
256 pp., $6.95 (paperback)
The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed
Karen Elizabeth Gordon
New York: Times Books, 1984
x + 150 pp., $3.95 (paperback)
The Writer's Art
James J. Kilpatrick
Kansas City and New York: Andrews, McMeel & Parker, 1984
254 pp., $14.95
Richard A. Lanham
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979
xii + 126 pp., $6.95 (paperback)
The State of the Language
Edited by Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980
xiv + 609 pp., $14.95 (cloth), $9.95 (paperback)
The Graves of Academe
Boston: Little, Brown, 1981
ix + 229 pp., $11.95
Less Than Words Can Say
Boston: Little, Brown, 1979
224 pp., $5.95 (paperback)
A Civil Tongue
New York: Warner Books, 1977
303 pp., $3.95 (paperback)
New York: Avon, 1981
xv + 331 pp., $5.95 (paperback)
What's the Good Word?
New York: Avon, 1983
viii + 325 pp., $5.95 (paperback)
Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline
New York: Penguin Books, 1981
xviii + 222 pp., $6.95 (paperback)
The Elements of Style
William Strunk and E.B. White
New York: Macmillan, third ed., 1979
Xvii + 92 pp., $2.95 (paperback)
On Writing Well
New York: Harper & Row, second ed., 1980
ix + 187 pp. (paperback)
Writing with a Word Processor
New York: Harper & Row, 1983
viii + 117 pp., $12.95
By G. B. Tennyson
Basically, basically has become the hopefully of the Eighties. "How did you win your Olympic medal, Miss Speedylegs?" "Well, basically I ran my fastest." Or perhaps it's totally. "How did you feel after the race?" "Basically, I was totally up." When the burden of confronting such utterances becomes basically and totally unbearable, we can turn to treatises on usage by William Safire, or Edwin Newman, or any of a half-dozen or so guardians of the language. There these matters are set right, so it seems. For deeper problems, such as how to teach Johnny to write, we turn to the manuals on writing-or, as it is now more often called as a kind of genteelism, composition. As for why Jane can't teach Johnny to write, we need the critiques of the educational process itself. But sometimes it is difficult to tell these different types of books apart. Usage manuals, ideally concerned with fine points, such as the difference between disinterested and uninterested, increasingly deal with fundamental problems of grammar; writing manuals, ideally concerned with how to write effective argument and persuasion, increasingly advert to problems of writing instruction that were once the province of the elementary grades; and critiques of education more and more turn out to be critiques of society itself. What's in a phrase is, ultimately or even basically, what's in our world view.
That there are so many manuals on usage and abusage, handbooks to good writing, books on composition, and critiques of education would be said by the optimist to be signs that we are more than ever a literate society; by the pessimist these same signs would be proof of growing illiteracy and of the crisis in composition. I doubt that in this case we can really strike a compromise between these two views, but in a spirit of truth, unity, and concord I will offer: we are increasingly interested in how to write well, but largely because the ability to do so is vanishing rapidly, not only among students but among those charged with imparting writing skills in the first place. Quis custodiet custodies? cries a John Simon, receiving no answer but an echo. What follows are some soundings from the echo chamber of contemporary books about writing. Ye who enter here need not abandon all hope, but neither should your hopes be too high.
Although the urgencies of our larger concern with the state of the language would seem to dictate solely an encounter with books on usage, writing, and education, we can profitably pause first in an inviting anteroom before the great echo chamber, a room filled with books that celebrate language for its own sake. These books are accessible, numerous, and not uninstructive. Here we find books about odd and curious words and expressions, strange etymologies and stranger names, books on puns and wordplay, catalogues of linguistic inventiveness and variety-in short, books that remind us that there is much joy in language. These are books to give the optimist encouragement in the view that there are hordes of literate people out there who respect and delight in the works and ways of language.
The reigning dean of authors who write about the joy of words is Willard Espy. (The post was held a generation ago by Bergen Evans.) Espy has written such works as Almanac Of Words at Play, followed by Another Almanac . . ., O Thou Improper,
Thou Uncommon Noun, The Game of Words, Say It My Way, Espygrams, and, most recently, Have a Word on Me, this latter appropriately subtitled "A Celebration of Language." In the Introduction to Have a Word on Me, Espy writes that the book offers "some speculations and opinions about where language came from and where it is going," but he quickly undercuts such a high-sounding statement by pointing out that any information that may emerge from reading his book is there "by accident, a by-product of my pleasure in the oddities of word origins and usage" (p. 9). Such sentiments capture the dominant concern of books on words, which is to give pleasure, but they hint, however reluctantly, at the fact that there is also information in the study of words and wordplay.
More than information, however, books like Espy's refine a reader's feeling for the language. This may be their greatest value. Dull of heart surely is he who looks with dispassion upon works like John Train's two collections of odd but real personal names (Remarkable Names of Real People, and Even More Remarkable Names . . . etc.), containing such convulsing examples as that of the hapless Le Grunt E. Crapper, or the Philippine cleric Cardinal Sin, or the Oregon banking firm of Cheatham and Steele. Likewise, our delight in language cannot fail to be enhanced by a ramble through James Lipton's altogether droll updating of the terms of venery in An Exaltation of Larks. (The title of this essay is borrowed from Lipton's inventive catalogue, though I was also sorely tempted by his "a shrivel of critics.") To sharpen our wit and our wordpower, we can profitably look into Nancy McPhee's two splendid volumes, The Book of Insults and the Second Book of Insults. There we learn that a good insult requires a high degree of verbal skill. Even some of the cruder and more obviously commercial ventures among books on words, such as the currently popular gatherings of the world's best, or worst, puns (which this year seem to have supplanted last year's collections of "truly gross and vile jokes," thank God) can have the beneficial effect of keeping the reader alive to the possibilities of language in ways not unlike those of British crossword puzzles. The same service is rendered by the hilarious Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim, a gathering of inadvertently comic newspaper headlines that includes, in addition to its title, such other gems as "Bishop Defrocks Gay Priest," "Greeks Fine Hookers," and "Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case." The joys of language live, even if by accident.
The very existence of the many books on the wayward ways of words-albeit that they are shelved in the humor section of the bookstore-is evidence of some continuing linguistic vitality in the commonwealth, even as the remaining books to be surveyed seem to confirm the darkest convictions of the Prayer Book that there is no health in us. For those interested in the things users of the language have done that they ought not to have done, there is no more instructive, and frequently no more entertaining, reading than that provided by books on usage. As a stay in time of trial, no single authority on usage commands the respect of the grammatically pious more than H. W. Fowler. Who can resist the authority of a dismissal like this: "There are certain American verbs that remind Englishmen of the barbaric taste illustrated by such town names as Memphis"? Among such barbaric verbs, Fowler cites placate, transpire, and antagonize, which have by now moved smoothly into the mainstream of even English English. That, of course, was the Fowler of The King's English (first published 1906), a handbook for the mother tongue in the mother country, but the tone is that of Fowler in the better-known Modern English Usage (first published 1926), still the grand monarch among usage books, treasured despite its many dated pronouncements, to say nothing of its quirks. Its Americanized version by Margaret Nicholson, American English Usage (first published, 1957), has never enjoyed the prestige of the original; slightly more esteemed is the English update (1965) by Sir Ernest Cowers. But the core of all versions and the form and pattern for all imitations is Fowler himself.
If Fowler did not pioneer the method of treating problems of usage-and pronunciation, punctuation, and all the rest-by the system of alphabetical entries, he certainly fixed the pattern for most of the books on usage that would follow. And a useful pattern it is. Dip into Fowler where you will and you will find a succinct and informative disposition of your problem. For example: "Literally. We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth would require us to insert with a strong expression 'not literally, of course, but in a manner of speaking,' we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate. . . . Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible." Fowler is thinking of such enormities as "he literally jumped out of his skin," when we mean he "figuratively" did so. The substitution of literally for figuratively is a case of language inflation, which has if anything grown worse since Fowler's time.
Of course, Fowler has no entries for basically and totally, for these are recent American irritations. And some of Fowler's prejudices have been rendered quaint by time. Thus Fowler stigmatizes stomach as a genteelism for the "normal word" belly, and chiropodist as a genteelism for the "normal word" corn cutter. Yet these quondam genteelisms have simply overtaken the "normal words." It would ring comic or crude to read today something like "Never visit the corn cutter on a full belly," whereas one could say (never mind that one would probably not say), "Never visit the chiropodist on a full stomach." In the Nicholson American version the chiropodist/corn cutter opposition has been dropped, but the stomach/belly one has been, oddly, retained. In the Cowers update both pairs have been dropped. Of course, the fashionable American term today in any case is podiatrist, proving not so much that sometimes even good Fowler nods as that vocabulary is peculiarly subject to change and to fashion. Fowler's principle is sound, but we need principled Fowlers in every generation.
It is precisely because of curiosities like the corn cutter-chiropodist-podiatrist sequence that some supposed specialists in language (see the case of Geoffrey Nunberg, below) will tell the public that there is no such thing as "correct" usage, that change is all we know and all we need to know when it comes to the study of language and usage. This is a specious argument. If we knew only change in language, communication would be impossible, and reading an author of even a generation ago would be as difficult as reading Anglo Saxon. Of course there is change, but change is not all that there is. Nor is the mere existence of change grounds for applauding every and all change. Permissive linguists come close to sounding like the former New York television weatherman who gave, on the air, the classic advice about what to do when rape was inevitable, which is how he became a former weatherman. For the moment, we need to know that the usage authorities like Safire, Newman, and Simon reject the argument that all change is good, though each may phrase his rejection in varying degrees of severity, for in the nature of things a specialist in usage cannot be other than a conservator of usage. To arbitrate on such a matter is to undertake to try to hold the line on at least some words and expressions. Otherwise one becomes a mere recorder of what is said and written, a stance adopted by many linguists and too many modern lexicographers, though not one adopted by that prince of lexicographers Dr. Johnson.
The best known of the popular, as opposed to academic, contemporary American authorities on usage include the previously mentioned Safire, Newman, and Simon, and also Thomas Middleton, Joseph Epstein, Jacques Barzun, Richard Mitchell, and, most recently, James Jackson Kilpatrick. Of this group the two with the most in common are Safire and Newman. They belong to the dominant Avuncular School of American writers on usage, that is, genial but firm. They do not doubt that in the main there are rules of good, clear, effective expression that all users of the language could and should master. Their role is to serve as watchdogs of public expression. Generally, like Thomas Arnold in the retrospective assessment by his son, they "move through the ranks, recall / The stragglers, refresh the outworn, / Praise, re-inspire the brave!" which means that most of the time they are preaching to the choir, but such is usually the preacher's lot.
William Safire performs his Arnoldian services as the presiding genius of language at the New York Times, which is not to say that he is responsible for the many lapses from good usage of which the Times is guilty, but only that he writes a regular column on language for the Sunday Times Magazine. As far as the Times itself goes, Safire will cheerfully take on his parent paper, as a recent exchange on the proper form of reference to Geraldine Ferraro indicated. (The battle ended in a kind of a draw, Safire opting for Ms. Ferraro, the Times holding fast to Mrs. Ferraro; my solution: Mrs. Zaccaro.) Safire's best known work is On Language; it was recently followed by a similar volume, What's the Good Word? Both are examples of the modern usage manual deriving loosely from Fowler; but unlike Fowler, Safire does not take the whole world of grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and usage for his province, at least not head on. Safire's volumes are miscellaneous collections, consisting for the most part of current words and phrases that have come to his attention. Sometimes an entry is offered solely as a matter of linguistic interest, but usually an entry provides the occasion for a judgment, and usually the judgment is at least cautionary, if not negative, simply because most entries are for current slang or jargon words or phrases. However, Safire has capitulated on hopefully, so purists will want to regard him with caution. Totally has so far escaped his eye, and basically, though noted, has escaped his ire-he likens it to the meaningless British actually. Still, most of the time Safire does a good job of keeping stragglers in line.
Edwin Newman in A Civil Tongue, sequel to his Strictly Speaking, hacks his way through the usage thickets more discursively than Safire. He eschews the system of entries in favor of a book-long discussion of what Fowler would have called barbarisms, genteelisms, neologisms, solecisms, and all the other isms that language is heir to. Newman pounces upon those who favor such expressions as "between you and I," inflated locutions ("word processing unit" for "typing pool"), invented, cutesy expressions ("The Maitre d'Tel Hot Line"), the -izing and -wiseing of words ("prioritize," "environmentalwise"), and above all the substitution of the large but vague word or phrase for the small but clear one, as in: "Finalization of the implementation of the program which, it has been decided by the faculty, would facilitate forward movement toward goal achievement was made operational in the penultimate semester." Newman does not translate that one, but I would hazard something like: "The program the faculty thought would be effective began the semester before last." What Newman does in this as in so many cases is to make a punning witticism after quoting the offending passage. It makes his book lively, but it also tends to trivialize (ouch! an -ize word) his legitimate exasperation. The punning putdown seems to be an occupational hazard with writers on usage. Even John Simon is far from immune. To deal in the same coin, one could put it this way: the punning putdown is the only way of putting up with the vast amount of junk writing that usage experts find so offputting.
The Avuncular School that Newman and Safire lead includes almost all the commentators on usage active today. The one exception is the critic John Simon. Of course, Simon shares the concerns of the Avuncular School-admiration for precision and clarity in expression, respect for grammatical correctness and for the mot juste, disdain for jargon, inflated language, and circumlocution, and a frequently indulged love of paronomasia. But whereas Newman and Safire verge on being the Erma Bombecks of usage, Simon is the Torquemada. Where they chide, bemoan, or pull long faces, Simon strikes with sword and rapier, and if need be with machine gun and canon. One suspects that nuclear weapons lie in ready reserve. The reason is that Simon has larger targets in view than the individual lapse or error. The tale is told in the title and subtitle of Simon's disquisition on language. His title is Paradigms Lost, suggesting of course Milton but echoing, without crediting, also the title of one of Newman's chapters in A Civil Tongue, "Paradigm Lost," published four years before Simon's book. A rueful title, that; but Simon's subtitle is more straightforward-"Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline," and that is what his book is really about.
Simon sees the current chaotic state of the language as it is spoken and written as symptom of a yet deeper infection. His concerns link him as much with those who consider the state of the educational enterprise as with the arbiters of usage. In his role as critic of education and society, Simon says or implies much the same as Richard Mitchell, whom we will consider below. In his role as arbiter of usage Simon goes beyond the boundaries of the Avuncular School. Simon does not merely respect the rules, he venerates them. And he knows that the rules are set in concrete. No error is too trifling for Simon, no lapse forgivable. Moreover, there are for Simon absolutely no gray areas in language usage. All statements are either grammatically correct or they are not. And Simon knows which are and which aren't. All this infuriates Simon's critics, who are also sometimes the objects of Simon's scornful reproofs, but it all makes for stimulating reading.
Simon's style lies somewhere between coruscating and corrosive. Gore Vidal described it as "a proud if somewhat incoherent Serbian style." (He also called Simon an "Illyrian gangster," which, however false, has a nice ring.) Incoherent Simon's style certainly is not. Proud and at times slightly strange it is. But his style is well suited to Simon's purposes, one of which was to return Vidal's heavyhanded insult with a much subtler one of his own by writing that there were pieces in a Vidal collection of essays "as weighty as anything in Oscar Wilde and easily as witty as the best of Matthew Arnold." Book of Insults, nota bene. But that is understated Simon. More characteristic is a Simon denunciation like this:
But there is greater illiteracy at work here [in a book by Barbara Walters] - an illiteracy of the soul. It is illiterate and vulgar the way the understatedly overdressed Walters sidles up, physically and verbally, to a celebrity, fixes her distended eyes on him or her and, after telling us in her book not "to probe the sensitive areas right after the introduction," proceeds to probe the sensitive areas right after the introduction. (p. 94)
Most usage experts like to find their horrible examples among government memos, unsigned newspaper reports, and instances sent in from the field by the sizable army of voluntary correspondents that columnists writing on usage seem to father (not to parent). About half of Satire's What's the Good Word, for example, is made up of letters he has received from amateur grammarians, a state of affairs that moves Safire himself to call his books a "ripoff," and then to go on to defend his acceptance of that neologism. Simon, however, will take on anyone, from Gore Vidal up or down. He reviews Newman's A Civil Tongue and notes two errors in it; he skewers Tennessee Williams (who actually said "between he and I"!); he lacerates Rex Reed for virtually every word Reed writes; and he splashes a thorough and deserved acid wash on the National Council of Teachers of English.
Simon also departs from modern usage convention by taking a stand in favor of sesquipedalianism, which is among other writers on usage a predictable no-no, even when they admit to being themselves often drawn to the obscure word. Simon defends the use of the most abstruse word if it does the job, and he practices what he preaches: his pages are graced with such words as caducity, aleatory, misocapnic, gnoseological. Perhaps the average freshman should not, as most experts agree, seek out such words; but Simon argues that the right word is the right word, and one should not be barred from using it just because it is not widely known.
Although Simon sometimes lavishes too much attention on trifles, his rigor is refreshing and reminds us of Fowler's uncompromising tone. Americans are accustomed to the easy way, so Simon's Old World verities are bound to strike many as hidebound, but in the present permissive climate on matters of language Simon may be just what we need.
Dr. Johnson said that on moral questions most men need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed. Reminding, on questions of grammar and style, is what the usage experts do. Theirs is the field of applied grammar. Those fortunate enough to have had the tutelage of the unjustly derided schoolmarms of yesteryear read writers on usage with the thrill of recognition and the agony of personal dereliction, and we come away resolved to sin no more. Only by indirection or in piecemeal do the usage experts write on how to attain a clear and effective style. Direct instruction in those matters is left to the writers of books on writing and composition itself. The number of these is beyond counting. Most are intended for the college and university writing market, but a few are intended for a more general audience. All such books constitute a family and resemble one another more than they resemble anything else. They can therefore be considered together.
The most recent and notable of books on how to write well is James Jackson Kilpatrick's The Writer's Art. In his regular newspaper column Kilpatrick frequently takes up some matter of usage or style, so it was to be expected that one day he would turn his hand to a general book on writing. What he has produced is sound and commendable in its way-one part usage lamentation, one part a set of instructions, and one part an alphabetical listing of Kilpatrick's likes and dislikes in writing. The title promises too much, of course. It should have been The Writer's Craft. Art is beyond Kilpatrick's or anyone's powers of instruction; it comes unbidden or at least only after earnest invocation of the Muses. But craft can be conveyed to the able, and Kilpatrick conveys it moderately well.
After an overlong section of Newman-Safire style discussion of contemporary stylistic horrors, Kilpatrick gets down to his real business, which is to list, by the numbers, "The Things We Ought Not to Do" and "The Things We Ought to be Doing." These are unexceptionable and bear a strong family resemblance to all such listings, which in turn seem to be the heart of all books on how to write: do these things; don't do these things. In other words, they are the Rules. Violations of the rules are in fact what the usage experts are on the lookout for and what they build their remonstrances or diatribes on. Whether we take Kilpatrick or William Zinsser (On Writing Well and, to a much lesser degree because it is more personal and more narrowly applied, Writing with a Word Processor), or Richard Lanham (Revising Prose), or Graves and Hodge (The Reader over Your Shoulder, recently reissued but not updated), what we are taking up is a set of rules or guidelines for effective writing. These have changed far less than has vocabulary, so among the rules we encounter far less of the sort of thing that renders Fowler occasionally old-fashioned. And in any case we all know these rules and guidelines: be direct, use active verbs, maintain tense, avoid jargon, be clear, be precise, and so on.
It is welcome to find the rules restated in so many and such various ways in virtually all the books on writing well. What is not so welcome is to find how often modern authorities try to avoid admitting that it is the Rules they are talking about. Some, like Graves and Hodge, will tell you that English is too flexible to be codified and then codify it. Others, like Lanham, set up straw men. His is "The Official Style"-a term silently borrowed, it would seem, from Graves and Hodge-which is supposed to be the cause of all our writing woes. But whatever they say in prefaces and however often they pose as pioneers in writing instruction, they all come back to do's and don't's that more or less echo one another (as they should). It becomes clear in reading even a smattering of the books on good writing that the Open Secret of composition in our time is-There are Rules. The Open Secret Formula for a book on composition is-preface decrying or waffling on the question of the Rules-listing of the Rules with examples-injunctions to obey the Rules. All this being said, there is little reason to pause over any of these books, though ample reason to call for greater honesty in the writing of most of them.
Since the Rules are indeed the Rules, it will save time all around if one turns for instruction in clear and effective writing to what is still the best book on the subject, The Elements of Style. Just as all usage books pale before Fowler, so all books on good writing should bend the knee to Strunk and White. The Elements of Style by Strunk and Tenney first appeared in 1935. Revised and with an introduction by E. B. White, it first appeared in its generally known form in 1959. It is now in its third edition. Yet unlike so many of the other books on composition, The Elements of Style has its say in 92 small pages (Kilpatrick, by contrast, runs 254).
Strunk and White tell the reader all that the other writers of books on good writing tell him, and they do it more economically. Since brevity and directness are always cited among the six-ten-twelve (the numbers vary) principles of good composition that good-writing writers list as essential, these qualities should presumably be prized in the teachers of good writing themselves. Strunk and White get the only A in the class. Not for them some nonce term like Lanham's "Paramedic Method" to explain their simple rules: they just list them. Not for them an endearing chapter title like Kilpatrick's "My Crotchets and Your Crotchets": they just offer "Some Words and Expressions Commonly Misused." Not for them Graves and Hodge's interminable list of bad examples: They just cite good ones. In their scant 92 pages (including index) we find a listing of elementary rules of usage, a list of misused words, and a section called "Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders)," showing that they know what Dr. Johnson knew. I think Dr. Johnson would approve.
Neither The Elements of Style nor any other manual on writing will make literary artists out of even the most promising students. That is not, and should not be, the aim of books on composition. Their aim is to make reasonably clear, precise, intelligible writers out of average students. Why, then, we may ask, has there been so little success in such an endeavor? Why, with all these books setting forth the rules and how to follow them, do we have a crisis in composition? The answer to that is yet another Open Secret.
From John Simon and from Richard Mitchell directly, and from many of the other writing experts indirectly, we learn that the real problem with making decent writers out of college students lies in the educational system that brought the students, or let them get, as far as college in the first place. Once there, unequipped with the rudimentary knowledge of grammar necessary to profit from the many available textbooks, students in the more conscientious institutions are given "remediation" (the vogue word for remedial instruction) and in the diploma mills are simply passed along. Worse, they are constantly assured and reassured that in fact they do write well, that expressing one's feelings is the chief aim of writing anyway, and that they needn't trouble their already oversize heads with niggling details of grammar, spelling, and usage. Some of their supposed intellectual betters even campaign for the acceptance of substandard forms of expression and substandard dialects like "Black English."
If all this sounds all too familiar and also overwrought, consider the meaning of Karen Elizabeth Gordon's unusual book, The Transitive Vampire. Here we have a richly illustrated little volume, full of black-and-white sketches reproduced from old advertisements, Victorian illustrations, and medieval-renaissance block prints, each supplied with a snappy cartoon-style caption. It looks at first encounter like one of those cosmetics catalogues done up by a sophisticated ad agency, with legends like "Ooh, I love your loofah!" Some of Gordon's captions read as follows: "The girl who was stroking the gargoyles is in love"; "The famous courtesan, Mog Cinders, was an accomplished lepidopterist, too"; "Orpheus, who showed up in a zoot suit, wailed on a saxophone." What, you may ask, is the point of all this? The point is to make a handbook of grammar lively, different, interesting-all those things that grammar is presumed not to be but must be made to be, somehow, anyhow, if we are to get students to pay the slightest heed to it. Gordon's book is just what its subtitle says it is: a handbook of grammar. It marches dutifully with precept and example through all parts of speech, boldly calling them by their right names-nouns, adjectives, adverbs. It sets forth yet again the Rules. Nothing is wrong with that, but to adopt this method of doing it tells us something about education today.
Gordon's book is a sign of the times that education is in a bad way. To be sure, transitiveness in verbs can be illustrated by a vampire, if you like, and nonrestrictive clauses can, if need be, put Orpheus in a zoot suit. This may be the closest we can come to getting the attention of the jackass, two-by-fours not being permitted in the classroom. But Gordon is aiming for the college market; her examples and illustrations are far too sophisticated for the levels where grammar ought to be taught. One cannot imagine primary students getting much kick out of a fey sentence like, "They danced the waltz Lisztlessly." For that matter, there are precious few college students who will warm to a sentence such as, "There is a faun in the forest who looks like Blaise Cendrars." Come to think of it, Gordon's book may be suitable only for usage experts and amateur grammarians. William Safire is quoted on the dustjacket with a predictable witticism-"A Book to sink your fangs into." Ho, ho, ho.
Meantime, back in the world of mass education, what are we to do about the state of the language? We can read with some pleasure and some profit the miscellaneous collection of essays The State of the Language and find in it authority to do almost anything or nothing. The essays include John Simon taking a hard line and Robert Burchfield (current editor of the Oxford English Dictionary) taking a soft one. Some of the essays are purely academic, some thoughtful and wise, some merely silly. But it is not a work, despite the implications of its title, that will really set us straight.
More to the point may be the recent essay in The Atlantic by Geoffrey Nunberg, "The Decline of Grammar" (December 1983). Nunberg is what Safire would call a "libertarian language activist" and what Simon would say was an authority attacking language from above. Nunberg's way of setting us straight is to dismiss all traditionalists on usage (like the "czarist emigré" John Simon) as mere laudatores temporis acti. Nunberg embraces in theory all new usage and in practice writes in the same standard English as the usage experts. He explains his practice away on the grounds of habit and an insufficiently extirpated snobbism. A Simon would say that it is simply because Nunberg wants to be understood by the literate. It is worth noting that, while language activists will defend the most outlandish usage (Simon cites the example of "Mary daddy home," defended as perfectly clear by a professional group of English teachers!), these same activists write, or try to, in the kind of English that will be acceptable to The Atlantic. Snobbism indeed.
Moreover, language activists and usage traditionalists are often talking about different things, even when they appear to be treating the same issue. Should we or shouldn't we accept hopefully into the academy of good usage? The activists say, "Certainly we should; many English words have been formed the same way." (See Safire's On Language, pp. 134-36, for a definitive, reader-contributed example of adverbs run riot.) Traditionalists say, "Certainly we should not accept hopefully: it is vague, imprecise, and usually unattached to anything, as in 'Hopefully, it will rain tomorrow.'" While it appears that the two sides are talking about the same thing, often they are not. Activists are saying that the language is vital and ever-changing and that it cannot be finally fixed. Traditionalists are concerned with the hopefullys and basicallys of speech as iceberg tips of confused and imprecise thought lying below the surface. One-group is talking about the dynamics of language change, which are real; and always with us; the other group is talking about symptoms of illiteracy, which are equally real and with us more and more.
One commentator who goes to the heart of the matter is the Underground Grammarian, Richard Mitchell. Mitchell is the editor of a monthly publication called The Underground Grammarian that flays the follies and pretensions of contemporary writing, often as not writing from the academic and educational establishments. Out of his concern with the state of the language, Mitchell has written two books that confront the monster head on. Less Than Words Can Say begins with the characteristic concerns of the usage experts, but it goes beyond them to consider the main source of the widespread abuse of language. That source is the educational system itself. In The Cranes of Academe Mitchell deals with the system as such. Neither book offers much hope for the future.
Mitchell believes that the culprits of most linguistic crime are the educationists. Note, not any and all teachers, but the educationists among them, the group of professional educators who know the nonsubject of education but do not know any intellectual subject of instruction. In Graves of Academe Mitchell traces the origins of educationism back into the nineteenth century and back to the "humanistic" educators of the 1913 National Education Association Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. Mitchell knows that there is an inescapable connection between thought and language, not a merely accidental or casual one, and that once language teaching had been more or less abandoned by the schools, thought also evaporated. Mitchell's indictment is searing. It should be read in its fullness, but here is a brief sample of how Mitchell links language to thought and to education:
The supposed American commitment to universal public education is, in fact, nothing more than a congregational recitation of unexamined slogans. We do not know what we mean by an education, because we have not examined the language in which we describe it. We have not examined that language because we are not in the habit of examining language. We are not in that habit because we have been corporately educated in a system in which the critical examination of language and the skills required for that examination are less and less taught. They are less and less taught because they are less and less to be found among those who teach and those who direct the course of education. They are less and less to be found because people who do have the skills of critical thought and clear language are not likely to waste them by going to work in an institution founded on the recitation of unexamined slogans. (Less Than Words Can Say, pp. 217-18).
A magnificent education, as countless examples attest, can come from nothing more than reading and writing. In the one we behold the work of the solitary mind, in the other we do it, but we do it in such a way that we can behold again, and understand, and judge, the work of a solitary mind - our own. (The Graves of Academe, p. 226)
It may seem strange to come all this way to learn that the essence of a good education is reading and writing, but sometimes the simplest truths are the hardest to come at. In any case, we all need most to be reminded. A generation ago when Rudolf Flesch first raised the cry that Johnny couldn't read, we might have predicted that, if true, it would soon follow that Johnny couldn't write. And so it has. Good instruction in reading and writing is the one thing needful in modern education, and the one thing we seem to have the most difficulty in getting. Yet good instruction in reading and writing would not only ease the burdens on the usage experts, it would not diminish the vitality of the language. On the contrary, it should reinvigorate the language. Instead of transitive vampires we could have the joy of lex (sorry, that title has already been taken by a celebrator of language and followed by, yes, More Joy of Lex). Activists and traditionalists and celebrators of language should all be on the side of reading and writing. In activist terms, hopefully, they basically, totally are. In traditionalist terms, we need to be more than hopefully, basically, and totally on the side of reading and writing; as a society we need a change of educational heart. If the collective heart ever changes, and if the forgotten skills of reading and writing are ever restored to the classroom, we can then invite the Underground Grammarian to come up again and with Alexander Pope be
Content to breathe his native air
In his own ground.