With impeccable timing, I interviewed Eisenhower biographer and Colin Powell booster Stephen E. Ambrose just days before Powell’s Noble Renunciation of Ambition. But before our chat disappears into that void (de?)populated by Milton Shapp’s Inaugural Address and the Oscar acceptance speech of Pauly Shore, I retrieve this exchange:
Me: One way to look at Eisenhower is as the Establishment’s alternative to [Senator Robert] Taft, who as a classical liberal and antiwar isolationist was a potentially radical President. In a way, wouldn’t Powell be playing Eisenhower to, say, Pat Buchanan’s Taft?
Ambrose: Yes. precisely.
Professor Ambrose is an honest partisan, and I suppose his man Powell would be no worse than Clinton or Dole or Cramm or the other replicants who would be President. The Free Soilers used to scoff at the “Whig and Democratic wings of the great Compromise party of the Nation,” but the difference between Henry Clay and the party of Lamar Alexander and Richard Lugar is that Clay was a patriot and an American.
Buchanan has flaws—his Clayite advocacy of a protectionism that amounts to a blank check for the most powerful industries and most cunning lobbyists; his embrace of the truly rebarbative letterhead Christians with their Washington suites and suctorial feats toward Caesar—but he is saying enough unsayable things to make this the most interesting (and, in the end, glumly predictable) Republican race since 1952. If he catches fire in New Hampshire or South Carolina he’ll be in for the Jerry Brown treatment. Recall that after Brown stunned Bill Clinton in the Connecticut primary, ABC’s Nightline ran a heavily promoted story charging that—gasp!—marijuana may have been smoked in Governor Brown’s house (while Jerry was away, no less). This was a classic “who cares?” revelation—Brown should have used it as an excuse to call for repeal of our police-state drug laws—but it threw his campaign off track long enough to ensure a clear path to the nomination for Clinton. (About whom I heard, in 1983, far more substantial rumors of cocaine use. This was not roorback but a plausible story told by a staffer from Clinton’s first Arkansas administration—a woman who had nothing to gain by telling me, her coworker, lies about an obscure Southern governor. As the immortal Clash once sang of the illegal coke, “It’s the pause that refreshes in the corridors of power.”)
Wall Street was always pulling a servant out of its hat at the last minute to deny the GOP nomination to Taft. If the party holds to its wretched form, the Republicans will nominate Powell for VP to deflate the rising black nationalism and run him with Dole or, even better, Richard Lugar—”the thinking man’s candidate,” as he will no doubt be hailed as he lectures Nashua on the glories and duties of empire.
Mischief and sedition are afoot across the land of the free. Audacious tribunes, beware. When the sentimental Terre Haute socialist Eugene Debs spoke certain truths he wound up in jail (pardoned by the kindly Warren Harding, the least bad President of our century, after the intercession of his former Marion Star paperboy, Norman Thomas); and as for Huey Long and Malcolm X and George Wallace . . . well, you know. It’s a wonderful time to be alive, though every now and then one catches glints and whispers of the clampdown that is sure to come and—if this is still America—fail.