John Steinbeck’s Searing Critique of American Politics, and His Refusal to Take a Public Part

“I have never been a front man…” for a politician

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“The candidates are howling about the issues, and I am not sure they know there are no issues, at least the issues are all the same. The only issue is getting elected. And now we are cursed with the image – a thing that works in cigarette advertising and has taken over...

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John Steinbeck’s Searing Critique of American Politics, and His Refusal to Take a Public Part

“I have never been a front man…” for a politician

“The candidates are howling about the issues, and I am not sure they know there are no issues, at least the issues are all the same. The only issue is getting elected. And now we are cursed with the image – a thing that works in cigarette advertising and has taken over our national elections. But they aren’t images, they are cartoons and mostly they are caricatures. The image is a very dangerous thing…I try to sign nothing I haven’t written myself.”

On the thirst for political power: “Power corrupts, but loss of power also corrupts.”

Eugene Istomin was a renowned pianist and friend of Hubert Humphrey who tried to get others in the arts to support Humphrey’s 1968 campaign for president. In May of that year Humphrey was embroiled in a fight for the Democratic nomination with Robert Kennedy, a formidable adversary that seems poised to win. One of those he contacted to join the effort was novelist John Steinbeck, who had been a friend of Adlai Stevenson and intended to vote for Humphrey, but who refused in this letter to lend his name to the circus of American politics.

Typed letter signed, on his personal letterhead, Sag Harbor, NY, 20 May 1968, to Istomin, taking apart American political campaigns. “I intended to write to you before this, but then my lettuces were shrieking to be transplanted, and I afraid I imitated the old emperor who heeded the call of his cabbages.

“I’m afraid there has been some misunderstanding about my support of Mr. Humphrey, not about its vehemence but about its method .

“First, I have never been a front man. I don’t want to be in any pictures! I’m not running for anything and personal publicity is the last thing I want. But every one wants to use names without thinking that they can very quickly use up a name through over-exposure – either that or have it enter the subliminal zone where it has no meaning at all except recognition and familiarity. The trend now is to get one hell of a slough of names which are vaguely recognizable and have them listed in a full page ad in the New York Times. It has got so bad that there are professional signers of things. I try to sign nothing i haven’t written myself. Isaac Stern bulldozed me into this Artists for Humphrey thing, so we use our artists against their artists and they cancel each other out. No, names have come to mean practically nothing. If i have been able to help before it has been with ideas, techniques, phrases without my name on them. And that’s the way I want to keep it.

“I don’t want to write a life of Hubert Humphrey to order, because it would sound exactly like that. I find the lean and hungry group disgusting. Dean Rusk said it clearly. Power corrupts, but loss of power also corrupts.

“The candidates are howling about the issues, and I am not sure they know there are no issues, at least the issues are all the same. The only issue is getting elected. And now we are cursed with the image – a thing that works in cigarette advertising and has taken over our national elections. But they aren’t images, they are cartoons and mostly they are caricatures. The image is a very dangerous thing. Push it a tiny bit sideways and it becomes destructive. One of the most
famous men of all time is not known at all. Juvenal wrote a poem about him. Byron translated it. His name was Dr. Fell. I listen around quite a bit and I think we have a new potential Dr. Fell. Presently I have transposed it and it says what I hear a great deal. In Byronic meter it goes like this:

“I do not like thee Bobby K.
The reason why i cannot say,
But in a deep instinctive way
I do not trust thee Bobby K.

“Put that on a button, on a sticker, set it to jingle music. The feeling is there in very many people and I will bet that those four lines can neutralize ten millions of Kennedy dollars.

“Finally ask H.H. for a private address, the kind I had for Adlai. He will understand. Yours, John Steinbeck.”

This may well be the best political letter Steinbeck ever wrote, and it is beautifully and evocatively written in his inimitable style. And the heart of his concern, that American politics had become just a form of advertising, is as relevant today as when he wrote it.

Just 17 days after Steinbeck wrote this letter, Robert Kennedy (Bobby K as he is called here) was assassinated, and Humphrey was nominated at a fractious convention in Chicago that further divided the party. Many Democrats stayed home in November, and Richard Nixon was elected president.

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