Management & Labor

Lives of the Politicians

Early in the Nixon administration, when supporters of civil rights worried that the new president was about to follow up on the racially divisive rhetoric of his 1968 campaign, Attorney General John Mitchell sought to reassure them with a few simple words: "Don't watch what we say--watch what we do."
by | March 2004

Early in the Nixon administration, when supporters of civil rights worried that the new president was about to follow up on the racially divisive rhetoric of his 1968 campaign, Attorney General John Mitchell sought to reassure them with a few simple words: "Don't watch what we say--watch what we do."

Although it struck many at the time as a crass--if candid--admission of duplicity in the executive office, in fact it was remarkably good advice, not just to the activists of that particular era but also to journalists in any situation whose interest is unwrapping truth rather than filling up column inches.

For a reporter covering a governmental beat, filing long stories every day crammed with charges, rebuttals, policy statements and declarations of conscience from senior officials is a good way to land on the front page. But it's usually a bad way to explain the underlying forces that shape pivotal events and decisions.

A more useful strategy for anyone trying to understand politics or political history is to watch the people, the process and the relationships--and take the rhetoric with a grain of salt. A brief excursion into British history will serve, I hope, to make that point clear.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of a book that changed the writing of history, and the ways in which historians and political scientists in many parts of the world think about their jobs. The book was The Structure of Politics, by Lewis Namier, and while its microcosmic detail about the House of Commons in the 18th century might make it a poor choice for bedtime reading, it was an intellectual grenade lobbed into the conventional wisdom of the historical profession.

Namier's path was circuitous. He set out to write about the American Revolution, then decided instead to study British politics during the same period. He assumed, like most historians of his time, that the political system was based on a conflict of ideas and principles between two parties, Whigs and Tories. But the more research he did, the harder it was to sustain this idea.

Whigs and Tories made eloquent ideological orations, that was true, but it was impossible to find much connection between what they said and the decisions they went on to make. Whigs made alliances with Tories and ignored their own leaders. Tories divided into personal factions that had more cohesiveness than the ideologies they were supposed to reflect. The whole place, Namier wrote, resembled "an ant- heap, with the human ants hurrying in long files all along their various paths." When studying an ant-heap, philosophy is of little use. A microscope is the appropriate tool.

In order to understand the institution, Namier concluded, the first thing to do was to realize that high-flown speeches and even public documents were largely window dressing. The crucial factors were the personal histories of the players--the families they came from, the deals they had made to get elected, the goals they held for their own careers and later lives. Focusing on the rhetoric was essentially a waste of time. Beneath the surface, Parliament was a hothouse of personal and family ambition. "Men went there," Namier wrote in his typically caustic way, "to make a figure, and no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others may eat it."

If Namier had done nothing more than rewrite the political history of one century in his nation's life, that would have been more than enough to earn him the knighthood he received and the posture of statesmanship he assumed during the remaining years of his long life. But he went further: He implied that his ideas and methods didn't apply solely to Parliament in the 18th century; they could explain almost any legislative body in any period, anywhere in the world. Members make speeches, pledge themselves to programs and offer ringing declarations of principle, largely because it is considered inappropriate not to. But politics in any legislative body is rooted in the lives and personal relationships of the members. Appreciate this, and you can grasp what's happening in front of you. And you can go out for tea when the speeches begin.

Namier's arrogance and polemical style earned him a slew of critics, especially after his death in 1960. Some insisted that he had demeaned the profession of history by suggesting that ideas played no important role in it. One dismissed him as a "gigantic, myopic caterpillar." And this reaction limited the number of full-fledged attempts to test the claims he made about the universality of his ideas.

The field of ancient history did take Namierism seriously, leading to a book called The Roman Revolution, by Sir Ronald Syme, which many consider a more impressive demonstration of the Namierite method than anything Namier himself ever produced. Disciples even coined a term for the method: "prosopography"--the study of a historical period through the life stories of its important players.

Namier's admirers have never been shy when it comes to citing his influence on their profession. "Sir Lewis turned from what politicians said to what they did and who they were," one of them, Hugh Trevor- Roper, summed up. "Political history has been permanently reshaped."

But that was on Namier's side of the Atlantic. In the United States, neither historians nor political scientists have ever given his methods much of a trial. There's at least one plausible reason why: The United States, unlike virtually every other country, was founded on ideas, on the doctrines of liberty and social order proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and in the other writings of the Founding Fathers. Namierism--an attempt to write about government with ideas relegated to a minor role--didn't just sound radical over here. It sounded un-American.

There was one major exception to the lack of interest in Namier among American writers. Richard Hofstadter's classic 1948 work, The American Political Tradition, is an exhaustive exploration of two centuries of public life that makes use of the many Namierite techniques. It is a sort of prosopography: a collection of biographical sketches of the nation's most important political figures--from Thomas Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt, stressing their early lives, friendships and family connections, and treating with extreme skepticism much that they said in public.

Hofstadter died in 1970; whether he believed Namierism held the key to understanding political life is hard to tell. But Hofstadter ended one of his most influential books, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, with a quote from Namier: "The crowning attainment of historical study is to achieve an intuitive sense of how things do not happen."

The issue of who was or wasn't a Namierite is of no consequence at this point. The only reason I've taken this detour into historical study is to suggest that we could use a little Namierism right now, among those who write about governments and legislative institutions.

For all the veneer of cynicism that present-day journalists maintain toward political figures and their utterances, the fact is that political journalism remains burdened by a set of longstanding practices that elevate the spoken word and public statement over the more significant details of the politician's life experience.

In the heat of a presidential campaign such as the current one, reporters still devote endless time and energy to evaluating debate performance, comparing the details of health care proposals and listening to foreign policy speeches to grasp the nuances of disagreement.

If Lewis Namier were around, he would tell them they were wasting their time. He would tell them that George W. Bush's "anti-nation building" posture in the 2000 campaign was less consequential in his evolution on foreign policy than his family's multi-generational involvement in the oil business and Middle East diplomacy. He would find John Edwards an interesting character, but instead of quizzing him on trade issues, he would try to find out how Edwards became a trial lawyer, why he was so good at it and who his pals were back in Raleigh.

And if Sir Lewis were a reporter in today's Capitol Hill press corps, it's safe to say he wouldn't spend much time listening to debate. He might be in the library studying up on the doctrinal distinctions among fundamentalist Protestants as a way of understanding the dynamics of the Southern Republican delegations. If he were sitting in the House gallery, more than likely he'd be watching the social scene, keeping track of who sat next to whom, reminding himself that he was looking after all at the scurrying of ants in a legislative ant-heap, subject to the same vagaries of human nature as the one that met at Westminster three centuries ago.

I'm not suggesting that undiluted Namierism would translate very well to modern times. Namier had an obsessive interest in genealogical minutiae. That may have made sense in studying the 18th century; it wouldn't be much help these days covering the Michigan legislature or the Chicago city council. And when he had trouble explaining a politician's conduct, Namier lapsed into a rather simplistic Freudianism, attributing an officeholder's political behavior to the relationship he had with his father, or even his nurse. Those speculations aren't very persuasive anymore.

It's not the details of Namierism that deserve a fresh hearing in the 21st century. Rather, it's his overarching insight: that listening to what public figures say is not a very good way to understand the things they do. Or, in Namier's own words: "What matters most about political ideas is the underlying emotions, the music--to which the ideas are a mere libretto, often of very inferior quality."

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