Make-Believe Presidents, by Nicholas von Hoffman, New York: Pantheon, 1978, 260 pp., $8.95.
For reasons perhaps having to do with his employment as a syndicated newspaper columnist, Nicholas von Hoffman prefers not to speak openly from a libertarian or anarchist position. But he keeps hinting that that is where he stands. The result probably is confusion for some readers and undoubtedly vast frustration for others.
In this book as in many of his writings, von Hoffman keeps jabbing at dark forces just off stage which, rather than the central figures under the proscenium arch, seem to him to be calling the shots and shooting down our hopes for liberty. The result is a sort of highly charged, metaphor-heavy writing, elliptical, often even orotund, that engages your sense of humor, your sense of outrage, and also your good common sense.
But statist readers surely cannot pierce his veiled writing. With von Hoffman sneering at most political heroes and laughing at most popular villains, where is the proper statist, reared on obedience to obvious authority and sure that every system works if only cranked properly—where does the proper statist look for salvation or accusation?
The libertarian has a different problem reading this lively yet sardonic man. Why, they must groan constantly, doesn't he just come right out and say what he must mean: that the State (or the involuntary servitude that it stands for) is the Enemy, that liberty is the way to sanity, salvation, and the general welfare. Von Hoffman just doesn't write that way. The barbed hint is his heavy-duty weapon, and he is not about to abandon it, apparently, for anything so clear-cut as a yes or no position.
Make-Believe Presidents is a grand case in point. Its main thesis is said to be (by its title and promotion) that presidents, far from being out-of-control imperial figures in our political palace, are actually hemmed in and even hamstrung by forces far greater than they—including forces of sheer bureaucratic inertia. A good point, of course. To ascribe the silliness of the times simply to the silliness of a single person is an affront to accumulated evidence. The trends of the times are simply the extended trends of the past. The so-called Imperial Presidency is not the triumph of an office, at all. It is the triumph of a great, corporate endeavor, of an American collectivism that has been foisting itself on us for generations.
Von Hoffman singles out, as chief architects of this collectivism, two of the presidents whose "make-believe" power wasn't so damn make-believe after all: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Both, at least, had the power to epitomize, if not create, important phases of the development of American collectivism. For both, the rhetoric and powers of war, that most collectivizing work, were important tools.
Wilson, beyond his internationalist dreaming, had a more powerful vision for his fellow countrymen than just making the world safe for democracy. The war provided a state-subsidized infrastructure for his older dream: a lumped-together, melted-in-the-pot, collectivized America. Writing in 1880, he put it this way as he extolled the new power of nationwide communications media: "Invisible shuttles of suggestion weave the thoughts and purposes of separate communities together, and a nation which will someday know itself as a single community is making the warp and the woof of the fabric. The extraordinary way in which the powers of the federal government have been suffered to grow in recent years is evidence enough to the process." And that was almost a century ago!
No mistaking von Hoffman's revisionist perception of the collaboration that was bringing it all about. He does not for a minute succumb to the conservative thumb-suck about there being a struggle in America between heroic businessmen and vicious bureaucrats. "By the early 1930's," he writes, "major groups in American capitalism had long been convinced the free market was too risky for large investors. FDR and the National Recovery Administration must be seen as but one of a series of attempts by business primarily, but by others as well, to rectify the misfires and misdirections of the free-enterprise system without damaging or impinging on the property and wealth of the system's largest stockholders." He is fairly careful, after that, to identify the system as State capitalism.
The bellicose Theodore Roosevelt, beloved by as many conservatives as Wilson is by liberals, put his imprimatur on the process by calling it the New Nationalism, introduced a good deal of regulatory authority (to protect the general welfare, of course), and also perfected some early models of the sort of small-scale interventionism that could extend the empire at what seemed low cost. Roosevelt I, as was Roosevelt II, was also a master of the rhetoric of reform—that is, changes that secure but do not change.
Although most of the von Hoffman arguments about the development of the Empire will seem familiar to libertarian readers, his greatly entertaining imagery makes it all well worth reading again. (The book is a fine, popularized introduction for anyone not familiar with the arguments.) Here, for instance, is an absolutely vintage, but not rare, von Hoffman description: "After the United States had swallowed the Spanish Empire and was lying about belching like a boa constrictor digesting a two-hundred-pound boar, the Hoover administration raised a rumpus when the Japanese slurped up Manchukuo."
Also familiar will be his notion that the reason Nixon was deposed was not that he had nasty habits and a saurian personality but that he acted impractically, trying to bypass the organs of collectivist polity for his own idiosyncratic purposes. To use the CIA, for instance, for any purpose less "social" than protecting ITT is the sort of thing that did him in.
Von Hoffman's view of such supposedly radical notions as consumer protection are consistent with his view that not just an Imperial President but an entire collectivity of powerful interests ranging from big unions and big business, mediated through big government, are involved in the American Empire.
Having looked at the Empire and the Emperor, however, von Hoffman has trouble telling us where he really stands in regard to it all or in making any suggestions about what can be done to change it—except for two quite contradictory statements, one harshly explicit, the other dishearteningly vague. First, the vague. To "build true and forever" (both artifacts and society) "we must replace management with politics. We must understand we can be manipulated by false harmonies, as we can injure ourselves with the love of discord. Politicize, polarize, ignite the rancors of politics, disunite, crack open the one-party state; no change, no democracy is possible without friction." Hope that some sort of libertarian notion is embedded in that typically elliptical von Hoffman prescription is sustained by his own background of statements at least suggesting a disposition toward liberty and by an earlier statement in this very book that the sort of change he sees as desirable would, at least, be decentralist in direction.
The not-so-vague suggestion is, simply, that violence is the only effective engine of change. His first reference to it is in regard to the interests of black Americans. None of the laws passed to help them, he says, "were carried out until blacks took first nonviolent and then violent action." He does not explore the possibility that the events were either coincidental or causatively reverse. Later on, he states it more baldly: "To effect change you have to threaten a slave rebellion, start a riot, set off a mini-revolution, induce a galvanic event outside the marble-pillared buildings with concussion waves severe enough to disturb the eternally mortuarial tranquility within."
Those are deeply important thoughts to be dropped with so little analytical undergirding. Either that, or they are too deeply personal to be discussed at all except in a poem.
Having had such a readable run at supportable revisionist history throughout the body of this book, it is a shame and probably a waste that von Hoffman didn't go ahead and have a better run at what can be done so as not to mindlessly repeat it all. Certainly he could have focused his sharp eyes on the amazing, nonviolent act of revolution whereby an "underground" economy estimated to be as great as $150 billion a year operates in this country. Or he could have snapped with those grandly sarcastic flourishes at the nit-wits now occupying so many corporate boardrooms and doing their level best to make sure that no entrepreneurs get in. Whenever he does look at stumblebums in high places, he can evoke gales of laughter. Good, so far as it goes. What we badly need to know, after the laughs, is whether that's all there is—or is there some serious purpose, statement, and way of living from which the laughter proceeds and which keeps it from becoming merely nihilism and, eventually, mumbling madness.
Karl Hess is the author of Dear America, which recounts his journey from conservatism to libertarian anarchism.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Make-Believe Presidents".