It doesn’t matter who he is. He is a member of the Cabinet, but he doesn’t look the part. He looks like a working man, with big shoulders and alert eyes, without the soft hands of a Cabinet member. He is often called controversial.
Of course, he believed in things, as we all do, but the problem was every time he said something his words had meaning and cut to the chase, he didn’t speak vaguely, softly, and on and on like most pols do. This forced the men around him to respond with words that had meaning and had been thought through. In this way disagreement was crystallized and division defined.
It was assumed by those around him that he didn’t understand that maneuverability comes from vague words, that one had to speak softly and ambiguously to give himself and the other man some room for mistakes. Which is what people in Washington want because it’s how you survive.
You don’t get backed into a corner, you don’t go out on a limb for policy at your own stake, you don’t act like an idea or philosophy or theory was more important than your career or your colleague.
He didn’t speak quietly at Cabinet meetings; he leant forward, spoke bluntly and pointedly, got his thoughts out and point across and then he was done. Said those controversial sentences. You get a chance, you oughtta take it.
Nice, good people who meant well and who’d been around a long while—older Cabinet members who liked him and thought he could rise far—young people who considered themselves more knowledgeable—tried to teach him and show him how to get along.
-No need to be controversial- they’d say
-No need to provoke people-
Later, much later, he would say that they thought him unintelligent or naïve, or that he didn’t understand. But the thing was, he was there, and wanted to have candor, and talk about big problems and big ideas because that’s how things get done and see if we couldn’t move things forward. Why not? That’s what he was there for, that’s why we were there.
Of course he was unusual. He was saying, throwing light, saying that most people in power do like ideas, they like policy, but they like their careers more. Popularity, more. Most pay first attention to protecting reputations, and putting themselves out on the front lines on various dangerous problems can destabilize their careers.
But: For what? It would make someone’s time here pointless, so he tried to do what was right while also trying to protect his career, because he liked his job and this is a great office and it’s nice to be a Cabinet undersecretary.
Once he was invited to a big dinner, full of glamorous people and gold cufflinks and cherry lipstick. In a glorious mansion with red curtains and dark wood dining chairs and food prepared by someone else’s hired chef. The other guests were the grand old pols, the good, well-meaning ones, the unchanging inside; they live in a world of tacit understandings, a world in which it is de riguer to talk about left-wing fanatics and right-wing fanatics, a world in which you call to RSVP and invite even the people you don’t like. The people whose answers always somehow make you feel like… a total yahoo.
Disinterested hellos and weak excuses to move out of the conversation—polite talk, disinterested talk about party interests and that war over in Belgrade.
He wanted to be liked. You could tell—well, they all do. Those young writers, the thin ones in dark suits in the corner, the pale-haired speechwriters who write good words and want to be noticed and rise far. They look so hungry. They look so lonely. They’re mostly boys.
Dinner was served. Candlelight, black wood tables, soup, a crisp white wine. Stuffed sole, salad, raspberries and cream. Coffee, cognac, laughter. Cuff links catch the candle’s glow, laughter turns languid, -Ya know, I think I will- follows -Have some more brandy- and little stories and ditties are less precise and articulate, and funnier.
The talk at dinner and then after dinner with coffee was of the day’s events. Someone in a coral dress and a gold bracelet mentioned the large demonstration downtown that had held up traffic for what seemed like hours but was actually about half of one. And a woman with dark greasy hair and bright red lipstick exclaimed, waving her cigarette about, -Oh those anti-abortion people, they’re so awful!-
And the young man who was controversial said, -Yeah well abortion’s pretty awful too, don’t you think, the ending of a life, and so violently?-
As he finished that sentence he looked at her, and her blue-rimmed eyes went mmmmmmmmm-nice-to-see-you, and she looked away and they changed the subject. He wasn’t invited back.
He was at an art museum opening or to-do—“One more corporation spending one more million on bad art” said someone once—where he was seated with two patronesses and one patron. The women had champagne-colored hair and quiet voices and the man had a light blue suit and a thick throat.
The man who was controversial spoke. He made conversation. It was light. Then—
-Too bad we couldn’t give this money to hardworking English teachers instead of this goofy stuff, bananas taped to walls-
I admired him. It’s always hard, when you’re young and earnest and brought up to tell what’s true, not to betray the inner convictions and beliefs that carried you this far. If you’ve been at it your whole life, learned to speak softly and carry a big stick (or the President’s approval) you learn. You get better at speaking vaguely for a long time and keeping your beliefs, if they’re still strong, to yourself.
No. It’s more human than that.
Most people don’t want the friction and discord all around them all the time, they want things calm and nice, and it can be hard to strike the right balance between the correct impulse, the polite one, and the correct impulse, the moral one. Sometimes a person comes along, a fresh fish in a sea of limp ones, trying hard to choose the right choice and then move on and shake away the name-calling. Because the name-callers only admire you, and if they don’t admire you, then they fear you.
He was trying. A lot of people don’t—or don’t for long.
I talked about him, mentioned my admiration to a friend who worked in radio. News department, or so she called it. She worked the graveyard shift, the lobster shift as they called it.
-Yes- she said -I understand, he’s great, we oughtta have him on here, he’d be fantastic-
-Yeah, he’d be great, what story?-
-Oh, I don’t know, anything. He’s so controversial-