Obituaries

Farewell to Nicholas von Hoffman, the Newsman Who Got Fired for Comparing Nixon to a Dead Mouse

Friday A/V Club: Columnist, broadcaster, and critic of concentrated power

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Pantheon

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.

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  1. NVH wrote for Cato’s splendid magazine, Inquiry.

    1. & was a regular on their radio commentaries, “Byline”.

      He’s one of those people I’d forgotten was still alive.

      1. Both of which are mentioned in the blog, but it was TL;DRSE.

  2. Oooh, such language to describe President Nixon. It is well that language such as that sort is not tolerated in today’s political climate.

  3. He liked libertarians because they seemed idealistic and anti-authoritarian.

    Some of us still are!

  4. 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.

    This Andrew Sullivan story is like every other Andrew Sullivan story.

    I don’t think I was aware of von Hoffman, he sounds like another interesting character from the 60s/70s, New Left era. Thanks for the extensive obit, Walker.

    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.

    Love it.

  5. What an interesting guy. The world could use more outspoken people spreading awareness that “right” and “left” are overemphasized, unhelpful, and almost meaningless descriptors.

    1. That’s what you leftists want us to think, in your effort to hide among respectable people and ideas. We’re not fooled.

  6. Andrew Sullivan started handing out a sarcastic “Von Hoffman Award” for “stunningly wrong political, social and cultural predictions.”

    Dammit, Jesse, I just got my irony meter calibrated yesterday!

  7. like his old boss Alinsky?von Hoffman didn’t have much faith in big government.

    Bullshit. Alinsky was about never about reducing big government. He was about infiltrating it and eventually taking control of it through stealth and deception.

    Basically, he created the template that the con artists now controlling the editorial content at Reason used to turn this once great institution into the total piece of crap that it is now.

    1. You should definitely log out of this website, clear your cache and delete your bookmarks, and never come back.

      1. After you?

        1. Since you and Simple Mikey are best friends now, i’d think you would be concerned that every single article sends him into such paroxysms of poorly-worded rage that he’s likely to have a stroke. And we all know he can’t afford another one.

        2. You would think this fucking loser would realize by now I’m not going anywhere.

          The good news is that it’s almost the weekend so he’ll be clocking out pretty soon. Sometimes I suspect he’s one of the asshole lefty writers who gets paid who gets paid to worship Obama and Alinsky, while telling us that left and right don’t really mean anything.

          1. Nowhere else would take you, Simple Mikey.

            I sort of like how you think of having a life after 5pm on Friday as some sort of weakness. It really rounds out the completely unlovable persona you’ve created for yourself here.

    2. Alinsky was about never about reducing big government.

      Sometimes he was and sometimes he wasn’t, but this seems immaterial to the question of whether he had “much faith in” the institution.

      He was about infiltrating it and eventually taking control of it through stealth and deception.

      In fact, he warned organizers not to get entangled with government, because he was worried about the exact opposite happening. To quote von Hoffman, Alinsky “felt that when the government, via one or another of its poverty programs, put the smartest and most energetic on its payroll it made an independent civic life next to impossible. He would point out that it opened up avenues of social and political control that could be used by the government to stifle independent action. In the worst case thousands of government-paid organizers could be turned into police spies.”

      Basically, he created the template that the con artists now controlling the editorial content at Reason used to turn this once great institution into the total piece of crap that it is now.

      I’m sorry that our libertarian outlook displeases you. But there’s a great big internet out there, and I’ll bet you could find a site more in line with your worldview. Trying Googling “fascist garbage.”

      1. Go jerk off to your Shepherd Fairy poster and wipe the mess up with your copy of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.

        You guys now openly apologize for the Obama administration’s repeated use of the surveillance state against his political enemies because you like him and don’t like the targets.

        You’re total absolute scum, and it’s about time someone told you so, so I’m doing it here and now.

        1. Is Simple Mikey about to attain that rarest of dishonors, a ban from reason.com? Stay tuned!

        2. You guys now openly apologize for the Obama administration’s repeated use of the surveillance state against his political enemies because you like him and don’t like the targets.

          Translation: “Since I can’t defend the wild inaccuracies in my last comment, I’ll just make up some more shit instead.”

          You’re total absolute scum, and it’s about time someone told you so, so I’m doing it here and now.

          Good for you, DD. Enjoy your weekend.

        3. Triggered Ku-Klux Christianofascist alert!

      2. Aww snap. I was reading through Jesse’s comment in preparation for reminding him that he’s responding to an overflowing colostomy bag of a human being, and then i got to the end.

  8. Saul Alinsky. Funny, under both his wikipedia page and link to his book Rules for Radicals does it mention that he was a socialist.

    In 1969, Hillary Rodham wrote a 92-page senior thesis for Wellesley College about community organizer Saul Alinsky entitled “There Is Only the Fight . . . : An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.”

  9. I remember NVH well. That was a great era. NVH vs Kilpatrick was often the highlight of the week. Great guy, never took himself too seriously, and he affected many a 60’s/70’s political neophyte.

  10. “Shuttle Jokes” by Nicholas was the only entertaining article the New Republic ever published.

  11. I often enjoyed Hoffman’s articles and appearances on TV. He was not afraid to be out of step with the consensus. I remember an article he wrote not long after Nixon was forced out arguing that Nixon’s ouster was less about politicians suddenly becoming worried about presidents abusing power and more about those in what people now call the deep state being out to get him because he had crossed them. He was no fan of Nixon’s, but that was what he concluded, and that was what he wrote. Whether he was right or not, you have to admire that sort of willingness to think independently and go against the herd.

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