Nicholas von Hoffman died yesterday. He was 88 years old and he wasn't that famous anymore, but he used to be all over the media: He had a Washington Post column that was syndicated across the country, he recorded radio commentaries for the CBS show Spectrum, and he had a recurring gig doing point/counterpoint segments for 60 Minutes, speaking for the left while James Kilpatrick represented the right. He was fired from that last job after the night he compared Richard Nixon to a dead mouse on a kitchen floor. "The question," he said of the president, "is who is going to pick it up by the tail and drop it in the trash. At this point it makes no difference whether he resigns, thereby depositing himself in a sanitary container, or whether Congress scoops him up in the dustpan of impeachment. But as an urgent national health measure, we've got to get that decomposing political corpse out of the White House."
I'm trying to think of the last time von Hoffman had a big moment of public notoriety. It was probably in 2001, when Andrew Sullivan started handing out a sarcastic "Von Hoffman Award" for "stunningly wrong political, social and cultural predictions." The columnist had earned the honor by writing skeptically about the then-young war in Afghanistan—he had said the U.S. was "fighting blind" and "distracted by gusts of wishful thinking." What a nut, right? After a few years, an abashed Sullivan confessed that von Hoffman had had a point, and he renamed the prize for Dick Morris.
Von Hoffman got his start as an activist, not a journalist, and in the '50s he was a lieutenant of sorts to the Chicago-based organizer Saul Alinsky. (My review of Radical, von Hoffman's memoir of his Alinsky days, is here.) From there he drifted into reporting, filing lively dispatches for the Chicago Daily News and then The Washington Post. He wrote sympathetically about the counterculture and the civil rights movement, unsympathetically about Nixon and the Vietnam War; he developed a reputation as the Post's in-house New Leftist. And that he was, more or less. But like the more anarchistic New Left types—and like his old boss Alinsky—von Hoffman didn't have much faith in big government.
By the early 1970s, when he had his newspaper column and his 60 Minutes job, that distrust sometimes led him to unexpected positions. Take the time he devoted a column to the notion that the John Birch Society offers a useful "corrective to our thinking." (When they denounce Nixon or the Fed, he wrote, they start "talking about the uses of power, money and politics in ways we can learn from.") He still kept the Birchers at arm's length, naturally. But he didn't add any caveats in 1971 when he wrote a piece praising the foreign policy views of the isolationist Ohio senator Robert Taft. After quoting extensively from a speech the late Republican had given two decades earlier, von Hoffman announced that Taft was "right on every question all the way from inflation to the terrible demoralization of troops."
Von Hoffman also wrote several '70s articles applauding the ideas of Louis Kelso, an apostle of employee ownership. That might sound more like what you'd expect from a New Left writer—worker power!—except that both Kelso and von Hoffman presented the proposal not as an alternative to capitalism but as a more radical form of it. When Henry Fairlie read some of those dispatches, he threw up his hands and complained that von Hoffman "parades himself as a radical" but wants "to make everyone a capitalist."
And then there was his column about the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard. It didn't endorse the full ancap program, but it did embrace the most radical part of it. "One of Rothbard's best, new ideas is to shut down the police departments of America," he enthused. As von Hoffman expounded on this notion, he started to sound like an anarchist Mike Royko: "As almost anybody who's tried to call a cop knows, they are next to useless. About the only way you can get one is to tell the operator at headquarters a cop is being murdered. Then they'll come. If you tell her that you're the one being murdered, you'd best hope your killer is a slow sadist who'll take three-quarters of an hour to polish you off." If you didn't have to pay taxes or bribes to the police, he continued, you could spend that money on private guards or start your own citizens' patrol; and if you couldn't afford to do that, well, at least you'd have the cops off your back.
When Reason interviewed von Hoffman in 1976, he denied that he held any sort of well-developed political philosophy. ("Saul never made any attempts at internal consistency," he said of Alinsky. "I followed that brilliant intellectual tradition.") He certainly didn't claim to be a libertarian: While he knew big business uses the regulatory agencies to create cartels, for example, he told Reason that he still thought regulation could be a check on corporate power. But he was happy to write the occasional kindly column about the Libertarian Party and to have the Cato Institute publish his articles in Inquiry and air his commentaries on its radio show Byline. Toward the end of his life, von Hoffman contributed gladly to both The Nation and The American Conservative. He was an eclectic skeptic; a journalist, not a philosopher. He liked libertarians because they seemed idealistic and anti-authoritarian. Libertarians liked him because he cast a jaundiced eye at anyone in power, and because he skewered those powerful people entertainingly.
And that brings us to my favorite von Hoffman book, Make-Believe Presidents, which roasts everyone from Herbert Hoover to the Kennedys. I recommend reading it in conjunction with Gene Healy's The Cult of the Presidency. They're an odd couple—Healy's book, published in 2008, posits that the presidency is too powerful, while von Hoffman's, published 30 years earlier, argues that presidents aren't nearly as powerful as we think. But the books complement each other rather well. Make-Believe Presidents catalogs countless ways we've been abused by executive power: wars, repression, foolish regulatory schemes. It just doesn't give the presidents enough respect to trust their assurances that they're in charge. The "growth and elaboration of the mega-institution," it argues, "pushed, drove, controlled, and guided presidents as much as it did lesser people." Executive power was larger than the executive.
The two videos below show von Hoffman promoting Make-Believe Presidents on a Chicago TV show. (The end of the interview is missing, alas.) They're fun to watch, and though it's 40 years later they still sometimes feel resonant. Presidents "all come in the first day in the Oval Office, they look at this wonderful desk, they see all these buttons, they start hitting them," the writer says. "Nothing happens. And finally they look under the desk and they see all the wires have been cut." Then he grins.
(For the full text of Make-Believe Presidents, go here. For Reason's review of the book, written by Karl Hess, go here. For Reason's review of another von Hoffman book, go here. For an hour's worth of von Hoffman's CBS radio commentaries, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)
CORRECTION: This post originally stated that von Hoffman worked for The Chicago Sun-Times before he joined the Post; in fact, it was the Chicago Daily News.