12 AUGUST 1972, Page 4

The American scene


Denis Brogan

I have been contemplating the current American presidential election with a very mixed kind of interest. I first began to study this great quadrennial contest when I was eight: I remember the election of William Howard Taft, the second fattest man ever to be President of the United States. Since the end of the First War I have been present in America during most presidential elections, and could have been present this time since I was in the United States until a few weeks ago, if I had not been suffering from various physical complaints. This is certainly the first presidential election in which the nomination of a vicepresidential candidate has been so important. The frivolity with which the American political system has chosen vice-presidents has been one of the great grievances of political scientists like myself. In order to balance the ' ticket ', politicians who hated each other have been nominated to run for the presidency and the vice-presidency, and sometimes, owing to the high mortality rate of Presidents, both have found themselves in the White House. There was the famous case of the nomination for the vice-presidency of Black Jack Logan along with that ambiguous Irish-American politician, James Gillespie Blaine, 'the Plumed Knight', as presidential candidate. This nomination produced a great deal of ribald comment, including a poem attributed to Black Jack, "We never speak when we pass by, me to Jim Blaine or he to I." However, as the Republican ticket was defeated, the spectacle of President and Vice-President not on speaking terms was avoided.

And there have been a great many very dim vice-presidential candidates almost from the beginning. The first Vice-President John Adams was not in the least dim, but he had the lowest opinion of the office to which he had been elected. There was a vice-president who is commemorated in the name of a New York county, Daniel D. Tompkins, one of the most serious drinkers ever to be near the White House. There have been others, like Richard Mentor Johnson who was an unserious type with at least one black mistress and a very ambiguous financial career.

Then we have to consider the number of people who became President because of the death of the incumbent. Some of these were remarkable Presidents, for example Theodore Roosevelt. Some were disastrous Presidents, like Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor. Some were remarkably idle — John Calvin Coolidge proved the laziest President the United States has ever had. He was, however, a man of interesting eccentricity, being the only future President of the United States who took Dante's Inferno in Italian with him on his honeymoon. He was a remarkably unattractive looking man, but he had a very beautiful wife, and one of the numerous improvements in the White House which Mrs Kennedy carried out was bringing up into one of the great public rooms Sargent's brilliant portrait of Grace Coolidge. This enabled me to score one of my few social triumphs in Washington, for I was asked, had I seen the Sargent portrait which Mrs Kennedy has displayed in one of the public rooms? I said I had. I was asked, did Mrs Kennedy show it to you? I answered, "No, her husband did."

The vice-presidency has put into the White House at least one almost first class Presid.ent, Teddy Roosevelt, and some others, like Chester Arthur, who were almost certainly more suited for the job than the President they succeeded. Idle as he was, Coolidge was superior to the much better looking Warren Gamaliel Harding, if Lyndon Johnson was not superior to Kennedy.

However, the recent imbroglio into which the folly of the Eagleton nomination had plunged the Democratic ticket has been givtn an interesting solution. It reveals, for example, the dynastic character of American politics. Mr Sargent Shriver is a brother-in-law of the Kennedy family, and had the honour of being made manager of the vast Kennedy business in Chicago, the Merchandise Mart. Mr Shriver has been head of the Peace Corps and he has also been ambassador to France. He has the added advantage of being a Catholic, replacing another Catholic, Mr Eagleton. The United States, we must remember, is a much more snobbish country than England, and it is no light matter that Mr Shriver belongs to an old Maryland Catholic family. Maryland Catholics are particularly snooty. They are a fairly small and exclusive group, not taking the Rockefellers, Goulds or Kennedys very seriously. I can remember in Rome being highly entertained by the bland superiority which a Maryland Monsignore displayed to wealthy American Protestant pilgrims to the Vatican: it pleased me, as a Proustian.

Nevertheless, it must be said that Mr McGovern didn't show much political sagacity in his choice of his first running mate — or was too much of a gentleman to make adequate investigations of Mr Eagleton's weaknesses. There is, of course, the danger of British smugness about this. How many good Liberals realised that John Bright was once — possibly twice — off his rocker? Other British statesmen have been on or over the edge of insanity. One President of the French Republic, M.

Deschanel, who defeated Clemenceau for the presidency of the Republic, was mad to a quite startling degree. But American politics are very tough, and the unfortunate Mr Eagleton, who seems to have been badly treated by everybody, was a victim of a kind of psychiatric test which would have deprived Britain of some important statesmen, e.g. William Pitt, first Earl of Chatham.

What effect will this have on the election of November 1972? We should remem ber that the Democrats are the majority party. The most recent Gallup poll suggests they are still the majority party, and all that Mr Nixon brings to his party is the fact that he is in office. Normally that is a great advantage. On the other hand, it gives both him and his Pere Joseph, Dr Kissinger, a chance of making some disastrous errors. Of course, the issues in November may not be issues of foreign policy or of Vietnam; they may be almost entirely economic. For although the economy of the United States is recovering, it is not recovering fast enough for the very large number of unemployed, some of whom had been used to living very high on the hog before the roof fell in. There are Democrats who are frightened that the weakness, as they see it, of the McGovern-Shriver ticket may result in losing control of Congress. I am inclined to doubt this. Many leading Democrats in Congress could well be dispensed with, e.g. Senator Eastland. I don't think even the loss of Senator Ellender is really a terrible blow to the Democratic Party. But the election promises to be more interesting than I had foreseen, and if I had foreseen the peripeteia of this election, I might have risked my health and stayed behind to see what happens on the first Tuesday in November of this year.

At least I will be a better prophet than many English experts were who were fascinated by that not very competent politician, the late Adlai Stevenson. On the other hand, like most people I did not foresee the triumph of Harry S. Truman, although remember well his triumphal arrival in Washington waving overhead a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the great headline, Dewey Wins.' It would not totally surprise me to see some of the papers that have been so snooty about Senat'or McGovern being caught as the Tribune was.