Jazz, Politics, Edward Kennedy and the Ghosts of Richard Nixon: Our American Dialogue and the Hatfields and McCoys

Carl L. Hager By

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Brilliant writer and wit though she was, she really did need to get out more. Just like Nixon, who was pacing around the West Wing a couple hundred miles south of her, as he considered who among his detractors and pursuers needed to be assigned to his famous enemies list, she seems to have been living her life in a small, closed-in world that had far more in common with Nixon's than the one her many devoted readers lived in. While the esteemed pioneer of film criticism huddled in her darkened movie theater, hypersensitively detecting the presence of a Republican voter in the audience, Nixon roamed the dim hallways of the White House confiding his growing paranoia to the presidential portraits on the walls. Both were seeing ghosts. Neither seemed to know any real flesh-and-blood people.

Think of the world problems that Richard Nixon and Pauline Kael might have solved by having tea together in the Rose Garden one June afternoon. Just to chat. Not for bitter arguments or venomous debates, but just for a chance to talk to someone outside their closely controlled inner circle of sycophants and power brokers, someone who could disagree with them, without being disagreeable. They might have come out of their oddly calcified shells a little. Like two agoraphobics, they could have taken just a few small steps outside, and sat down at an umbrella-covered table in the shadow of the big white Georgian house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I've inadvertently engaged in a handful of political arguments in my life, been witness to hundreds more, and all but two or three occasions have been an utter waste of time. Commiserating with a partisan who shares your views can feel good sometimes, help let off a little steam, but done excessively just entrenches one's position without much examination or evaluation. If it isn't too depressing a conversation, it may occasionally help establish some solidarity and get the person to vote—or to stop whining and register to vote—but it has little long-term value. The really intense discussions, the emotionally enflamed arguments, have either been in defense of a position, or were an attempt to persuade someone to change his or her mind, which is just as big a waste of time. The point of a real conversation between civilized people isn't to change anyone's mind, or to change your own—it's an opportunity to shut up and hear what someone else has to say. Someone with a different viewpoint than your own, someone who will let you walk a mile in their shoes. If there is any merit in someone else's views, anything of use to you, you'll recognize it—now, or later when you've had a chance to think about it. But you have to stop talking and let the other speak before you can hear it. Once you have digested the other person's viewpoint—uncensored, uninterrupted, uncontested—you often learn something.

So if Pauline had accepted Richard's invitation, he could have had her picked up in a nice limo and flown by Marine helicopter to the South Lawn, then regaled her with jasmine tea and biscuits served on White House china. He would likely have made the first overture by going on and on rapturously about his new favorite film, Patton. She would have gasped for air and said she thought it was a long, boring tableau of a story about a comic-book hero whose only reason to live was to wage war. He'd have said, "I'm winding things down in Viet Nam, you know." She'd say, "Sure you are. That's what you said last year." And he'd say, "No, really, Henry's working on it." It would have taken a few minutes for her to make up her mind, but they'd have had a second cuppa, and he would have invited her to come back for tea again next month to screen a John Wayne picture over a big bowl of popcorn, freshly popped by the White House Executive Chef. She'd have responded with something brittle but not too insulting.


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