by Elizabeth Drew.
Simon & Schuster. 191 pp. $8.95.
The campaign biography is a familiar variety of literature in this country. It usually lacks literary pretensions, and does not customarily appear, prior to publication, in magazines of general circulation with large and influential readerships. Elizabeth Drew’s Senator, a panegyric on the Honorable John C. Culver (D., Iowa), is an extraordinary specimen of the genre, for Mrs. Drew is several cuts above the hacks usually employed to compose such works, and her book originally appeared in the New Yorker.
Why Culver? He is in some ways a fairly typical member of the upper house, if there is such a thing, but he seems to me intrinsically much less interesting than, say, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.) or S.I. Hayakawa (R., Cal.), both of whom, right or wrong, are far more than garden-variety politicians. His principal qualification for apotheosis in America’s glossiest periodical is, so far as I can see, that he is a protypical Left-Liberal. (Indeed, I admit, without much embarrassment, that I never heard of Senator Culver until Mrs. Drew unveiled her portrait.) He qualifies on almost every count. He thinks the Great Society programs failed because we didn’t spend enough money on them. He seems still to believe that what the Third World needs to cure its ills is more dollars from this “isolated island of affluence.” He was one of five Senators who voted against a prohibition of American aid to Cambodia, Vietnam, Uganda, and Cuba. (If he has any views on what is going on in Indochina, Mrs. Drew doesn’t mention them.) His explanation, presumably for the benefit of voters who can see no reason why their tax money should be given to such dirty little despotisms (as distinct from their wretched victims), is that “it’s another example of denying the President flexibility in international matters. . . .” I detect a certain disingenuousness in this one, for I doubt that the Senator favors an “imperial Presidency,” except possibly for Edward M. Kennedy. He seems quite willing to have Congress make major decisions in the closely related area of defense. He led the fights against large nuclear aircraft carriers and the B-l bomber. He “followed his instincts” by blocking the construction of a naval base on Diego Garcia atoll in the Indian Ocean, where the Russian Fleet has lately been very active. He opposes a draft.
I do not mean that Culver is wrong on all these debatable issues, but his anti-Pentagon attitude is too consistent to be wholly the result of objective consideration of the merits of each case. “It seems to me,” he says, “that the propensity for hawkishness is in direct proportion to how remote a person is from any military experience.” The plain implication of this observation is that Culver, who is, Mrs. Drew tells us, proud of his 39 months in the Marine Corps, is opposed to “international confrontations and large-scale increases in expenditures for arms” because he knows the horrors of war from personal experience. There are in fact many combat veterans and a few authentic heroes in Congress—e.g., Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D., Hawaii) who is not, as it happens, opposed to defense spending. But a check of Culver’s Who’s Who entry shows that he is not one of them. His Marine service did not begin until after his graduation from Harvard in 1954, about a year after the end of hostilities in Korea, and ended in 1957 or 1958. By the time serious fighting erupted in Vietnam, he was snugly ensconced in the House of Representatives.
Still more important, Culver is one of the doughtiest housecarls of Edward M. Kennedy, the Porphy-rogenitus. He began his political career in 1962, while he was still in Harvard Law School, by helping his college classmate’s first run for the Senate, and thereafter served as his legislative assistant. Busts of John and Robert Kennedy stand on the mantel in Culver’s office, and the near presence of Ted is felt throughout the book. The intimacy between the two men is constantly stressed. A couple of pointless pages are devoted, for example, to their prowess in a softball game between Kennedy’s staff and those of Culver and his Iowa colleague, Dick Clark.
Mrs. Drew describes Culver in terms which would require qualification if she were writing about Abraham Lincoln. We are told flatly and in so many words that he is brainy, careful, considerate, courageous, honest, humorous, principled, shrewd, skillful, tenacious, thorough, and thoughtful, and if a copy of the Boy Scout Handbook had been available, another dozen adjectives would probably have been added (trustworthy, loyal, etc.). I was taught long ago in English composition that it is better to develop a character through his actions than by using strings of adjectives. But Mrs. Drew’s occasional illustrations of the astounding virtues she attributes to her hero are less than convincing. We are frequently told, for example, that his humor is superlative, that it dominates convivial sessions with his friends, that “one is swept along by the force as well as the substance.” But I can recall but one example of his mirthmaking. Ted Kennedy comes in for lunch. “Culver . . . , trying to look very serious, says, ‘I was hoping I could have lunch with you, Ted, but I’m busy.’ [Fair, but not uproarious.]
“Kennedy laughs, and says to Culver, ‘You still stiff from the [softball] game?’
“Culver answers, ‘I was never stiff.’
“Kennedy laughs again.”
Sometimes, perhaps unjustly, one suspects Mrs. Drew of doctoring the transcript a bit. She often quotes at some length the Senator’s expositions of his political philosophy, apparently tape-recorded. One of them includes a 47-word extract from Edmund Burke, including three dots to show that a part has been omitted. Somehow it seems unlikely that the Senator delivered the sermon just that way.
Mrs. Drew’s adulation does not totally spoil her prose. She writes fluent and correct New Yorkerese. It is a literate, rather bland, style, intended to clothe its message, which is often highly propagandistic (as in this case), in the appearance of moderation and reasonableness. Its chief drawback is that it grows tedious after a while.
And despite her worshipful tone (oddly reminiscent of Parson Weems on George Washington), she has managed to produce a moderately interesting account of ten days of the daily grind of a moderately important politician. It may well do him some good. The New Yorker has long since abandoned its old motto, “not for the old lady from Dubuque,” and some Iowa voters may believe what the book has to say. Senator Culver is up for reelection next year, and if the fate of his equally liberal colleague, Dick Clark, in 1978 is any guide, he can use a good campaign biography. But I wonder what A.J. Liebling, who wrote for the New Yorker in the days when reporters shunned ideology like poison ivy, and never developed crushes on practicing politicians, would have thought if he had lived to see such a thing published in its pages.