Raise Your Right Hand
My friend, the poet laureate of inaugurals
By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (firstname.lastname@example.org), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
"ALL THROUGH THE INTENSE Presidential campaign," wrote the reporter Philip Hamburger, "two lines from 'Waiting for Godot' kept running through my mind: Estragon says, 'I can't go on like this,' and Vladimir replies, 'That's what you think.' "
My friend Phil was talking about the election of 1992, but I thought the sentiment all too apt when I came across it recently in the middle of the Post-Election from Hell. Samuel Beckett, where are you when we really need you?
The absurdity of the past weeks notwithstanding, it appears that on January 20 George W. Bush will be sworn in as president. Fortunately, the oath is mostly one- and two-syllable words.
Phil Hamburger's first inaugural was also Franklin Roosevelt's, in 1933. It found the ticketless young student from Johns Hopkins literally up a tree, having clambered out onto an icy limb to get a glimpse of the man America desperately hoped would liberate it from the Depression. It was an apt metaphor, Phil would tell me, considering that the entire nation was up a tree at the time. And so began a heady, lifelong love affair between Phil and Washington.
In 1939 he went to work as a reporter for The New Yorker, and on assignment for the magazine he would get back to the federal city for FDR's final inaugural, in 1945, and for most of those that have occurred since. He's seen more raised right hands than a court bailiff. Many of these inaugural pieces, as well as a sampler of other politics-related writing, can be found in a charming book titled "Matters of State: A Political Excursion," published recently by Counterpoint Press.
I make no pretense to objectivity in discussing Philip Hamburger. He is not only a dear friend but one of my heroes in journalism. A contemporary of Joe Mitchell and A.J. Liebling and Janet Flanner and St. Clair McKelway, Phil was one of those New Yorker reporters who demonstrated that, at its best, nonfiction writing can be laced with as much style, internal drama, humor and humanity as great fiction. They perfected techniques that we still teach today. Having outlived most all of his legendary counterparts, Phil still comes to the office and writes the occasional piece for The New Yorker. While I hold many of the current New Yorker writers in the highest regard, Phil is, to my way of thinking, the last of the best.
Crack open the volume at any point and you'll see why I say this. He is a reporter of surpassing perception and nuance. Consider one of the longer and more remarkable entries, "Mass in Time of War." Back in Washington in January of '73 for the second inaugural of Richard Nixon, Phil couldn't have known how the yet-to-unfold Watergate scandal was about to lay the city low. Yet he found the place unsettled and mean. His dispatch has such portent that it almost suggests Berlin in the '30s. This was the scene outside a reception for Vice President Spiro Agnew:
"Police were everywhere around the Smithsonian, blowing their whistles. They blew and blew. The whistles were shrill, high, and piercing. Occasionally they were blown in one long terrifying sound. More often, the pattern was three or four rapid, tense blows. Washington was filled with the sound of them.... The ladies, many of whom seemed to me to be overly done up, waited patiently in the buses for the doors to open, while what I took to be elderly drill sergeants, replete with medals, made an attempt to direct traffic. 'No one leaves these buses until I give the direct command order,' a short, muscular, uniformed man barked at a covey of women who were about to step down from a bus. Somewhat terrified, they fell back."
This sinister sense becomes all the more acute when we learn that William Shawn, as courageous an editor who ever wielded a blue pencil, bought "Mass" but never published it--and never told Phil why. The only hint he got was from a friend, one of The New Yorker's lawyers, who pulled him aside and said, "Outside forces somehow have objected to this piece. Don't ask me any questions because I can't give you any answers."
Other pieces included here--excerpts of magisterial profiles of Judge Learned Hand and Dean Acheson, for example, or a long conversation over a steak dinner with New York Mayor William O'Dwyer--are much more hopeful. Over and over we encounter Phil's unshakable confidence that the people, armed with the Constitution, will outlast the scoundrels every time.
So will he be back in Washington for the first inaugural of the new millennium? When I ask, he surprises me. "God, no!" he says. "I'm sick to death of the things."
I'm not altogether sure I believe him.