Washington: The Big Tent

The New Republic

You have read:

0 / 8

free articles in the past 30 days.

Already a subscriber?

Log in here

sign up for unlimited access for just $34.97Sign me up

MARCH 13, 1934

Washington: The Big Tent

 

After all, where else can a citizen see such a show free, gratis? On every street a colonnade capped by a pediment, the rhetorical grandeur that was eighteenth-century Greece and Rome; at the end of every vista, on this wintry day above a haze of bare branches of trees, the white dome that stands for certain hopes held long ago, and for Congress, the delicately involved legal arcana of the Supreme Court, Republican and Democratic oratory. When you have seen one of the President’s secretaries politely kidding a delegation from the Unemployed Convention in the vestibule of the White House, you can go up to the hill, where those pesky starlings have established themselves in the pediments and in the dome itself and fly around in a black chuckling cloud, endangering the hats and the dignity of the representatives of the people and even of the august Supreme Court Justices. Up on the hill you can examine the vast new building of the Supreme Court, you can climb the long flight of steps into the rotunda under the dome that houses, you are puzzled to find, exactly nothing. You can look up at the strangely flatulent effigies in the Hall of Statuary (their number is now limited by the fact that the floor threatens to cave in if any more great men are added), or you can hurry up the great stairway of the House of Representatives, past the great picture full of furry pioneers and smoke and mountain peaks, that depicts I believe, the Westward Course of Empire, into the galleries of the House. This year, however, nothing much goes on there. The representatives are so intimidated by the thought of what the Radio Voice from the Blue Room may do to them next fall that few of them dare to speak above a whisper: in fact, many of them seem to have stopped attending sessions at all. Better stroll over through the warm gilded light of the corridors, passing purse-mouthed legislators who walk with self-importance draped about them like a toga, into the Senate wing.

The Senate looks younger than it used to, or maybe the old warhorses aren’t in their seats. The walls are hung with maps illustrating the forlorn St. Lawrence Waterway treaty. Norris of Nebraska is on his feet explaining one phase of his long, often solitary, fight against the power monopolies. Even after all these years in Washington there is something square and unpretentious about him; he has the untired ease of a man who has found his job and settled down into it happily. If his job has been to fight a losing fight for the farmer and small business managainst the monopolies of finance and power, he can’thelp it; he’s put the case as well as he could and hewill continue to represent his clients as long as thereis breath in him. Nye and La Follette seem to be the only Senators listening to him. Huey Long is asleep in his seat; he looks, with his puffy face and the blue sags under his eyes, like an overgrown small boy with very bad habits indeed. White-haired Senator Gore’s calm blind face gives an old-time rustic dignity to things as he wanders in and out restlessly, led by a page, or feeling his way with his stick.

You leave the gallery to smoke a cigarette, or to look at “The Storming of Chapultepec” or that childhood favorite “Commodore Perry Transferring His Flag During the Battle of Lake Erie,” and, when you go back, a pantagruelically paunched Senator from Kentucky is telling a rambling tale, vaguely on the side of the power interests, about a taxi-stand in front of the Louisville and Nashville depot at Bowling Green. Better take a look at the side-shows.

In the basement the little monorail trolley takes you to the Senate Office Building. Another rotunda, more marmoreal corridors. In a large room full of cigarette smoke Mr. Pecora is carrying on his investigation of the bankers; witnesses, lawyers, newspapermen sit at long tables covered with green baize. Over each table is a loudspeaker. The loudspeakers are controlled by a worried-looking thin-faced man at a keyboard. It takes you some time to make out who is speaking. The voices come from the ceiling. You have to watch their lips. First Pecora’s lips move, then the lips of a pale and apologetic-looking Detroit banker in the witness chair. You try to listen, but it takes a long time to shake off the sense of unreality. Is this really Mr. Pecora, are these really Detroit bankers caught with the goods, is something really going to be done about it, or is it all a not entirely skillful marionette show arranged by that worried-looking man at the keyboard?

Down the hall there’s another inquisition going on that has drawn a bigger crowd: Air-mail contracts. This room looks more like a courtroom. The inquisitors sit on a raised dais round three sides of one end of the long room. Below them and in the middle of them sits on a solitary chair with his back to the press and the public, a certain Mr. Boeing. This gentleman used to have a small machine shop somewhere out in Washington State; he took up the manufacture of airplane motors, he became connected with certain genial gentlemen who had many friends in Washington; a grand began to grow where a dollar had grown before, a warm rain of subsidies refreshed Mr. Boeing’s enterprises and they prospered. Mr. Boeing, on being asked to explain all this, looks as if he’d sat on a tack. He’s squirming on his chair, he’s perspiring freely, he seems to have ants under his collar, he looks wildly for help to the right and left. He keeps remembering things he’s just forgotten, he makes damaging admissions, he stammers and squirms. Senator Black happily tightens the thumbscrew another notch and looks around smiling at the other members of the committee, at the press, at the private citizens looking on. The trouble with the witness seems to be that he hasn’t been a millionaire long enough not to feel guilty about it.

To go over to the House side-shows you have to walk across the park. A couple of small gray squirrels are scampering across the snowy paths. From the trees comes an occasional derisive whistle from a starling.

The room where the Military Affairs Committee of the House meets has armchairs as comfortable as the armchairs at Radio City. At either end of the raised dais where the committee sits is the bronze model of an airplane. General Mitchell is appearing to testify, dressed in tweeds as befits a country gentleman. He is surrounded by photographers. The silver crinkle in the flashlight bulbs flares and goes out to a milky white. The photographers are chased away. General Mitchell begs to state that from Langley to this day the high staff officers of the army have fought the progress of aviation. During the War, in spite of flying coffins and the Liberty motor, we made great strides, then the merchants got hold of it. “When the merchants get hold of our government, we might as well stop work.” A funny look goes round the ring of pursed-up politicians’ faces. “What do you mean by merchants, General?” somebody asked nervously. “People who have something to sell. Hoover was a merchant… The merchants have got all the honest aviation officers scared so that they don’t dare call their souls their own…even army officers have to eat, you know.” A look of relief comes over the small-time merchants’ faces of the politicians on the committee when the chairman asks the General to take up the specific reforms he has to suggest. No more talk about merchants.

Back at the Capitol you look into the Senate Chamber again. You don’t know how to explain the fact that the paunchy Senator from Kentucky is telling the story about the taxicabs all over again. Or maybe he’s still telling it. You hurry out and discover that the Supreme Court is in session. A sepulchral doorkeeper politely pulls the door open for you by a thick crimson cord. You slide in and sit on the elegant cushioned bench provided for the public. It’s a different world. What magnificent staging. What fine lighting. What handsome make-ups. Two elegantly trimmed chryselephantine beards, one in the center and one slightly to one side. Brandeis’ mop of steely hair and his lean thespian face, Cardozo’s carefully cut good-looking lawyer’s profile. Behind them, against the crimson hangings, a row of pages stands ready to fetch and carry. From the shadowy pit below the Justices Comes a halting voice reading a brief. You can only catch some of the words, “Therefore…therein…acquisition in a competitive situation…under such circumstances…parallel lines following parallel routes…therein…cause to appear… from the situation in other industries…a railroad is held by its rails.” And suddenly it’s all over. The Justices are on their feet in their long robes. The clerk of the court is droning out something. Closing time.

As we came out of the Capitol we almost tripped over a mike on a stand. An N.B.C. truck was standing by, and a group of N.B.C. young men. We asked them what it was for. Mr. Something, the presidential announcer, was coming to broadcast the shooting of the starlings by the War Department at six o’clock sharp. We began to get indignant. Are they really, really going to shoot the starlings? “Naw, they’re shootin’ ‘em with blanks.” And, sure enough, at six o’clock several parties in uniform began blazing away in the direction of the dome of the nation’s Capitol. The blanks made a great racket. The starlings flew round and round the dome against the darkening lavender sky. They made a black chiding, chuckling cloud in the last light. When the blanks were all gone, they settled back into their places again.

 

Any Hotel Ballroom.—As there is no room for them in any government building, the code hearings take place in the ballrooms of the Washington hotels. In some of them the management has put up flags and patriotic bunting in their honor. At a long table at the end of the room sits the board, with the administrator or deputy administrator in the middle and his advisers and the representatives’ of the industry grouped about him like the apostles in da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” In front of that there is a press table, chairs for counsel and for people desiring to make remarks. The rest of the room is filled with rows of little gilt caterers’ chairs for the public. At one end of the table glitter the shivering magic circles of the mike. Loudspeakers make it as easy (or as hard) to hear what is going on in the front cloakroom as in the front row. The proceedings have that faintly holiday air, felt dimly through a dense mist of boredom, of a high-school commencement. The boredom is the unconscious reaction of actors and spectators to the endless trail of bewildering and uncoordinated detail that flows from the typewritten sheets of a great variety of spokesmen for special interests who pour their “remarks” all day into the mike. It’s like trying to take an inventory of somebody else’s house. Attention sags under the infinite complexity of industrial life. You find yourself following the seasonal difficulties of the sardine canners of Eastport, Maine, of the Virginia and Carolina shrimp industry, of the producers of snapbeans in the Ozarks; you hear that the women who pit maraschino cherries are overworked and underpaid; you hear the San Jose fruit growers put forward their side of the case; you discover that the producers of pipe organs are in desperate straits; if a man could be found with the patience and application to listen, the whole pageant of American life would unroll for him in the pros and cons of the thousands of codes being unraveled in such gentlemanly style in these tastefully decorated Washington ballrooms.

It’s only when representatives of the workers appear that things lose their cozy tone of Washington leisure. Then a certain bitterness enters into the discussion. The administrator sits up vigilant instead of leaning back drowsily in his chair. When the delegates of the automobile workers’ unions appeared at the hearing of the body manufacturers’ code in the sun-parlor of the Washington Hotel, there was a cop in the end of the room, possibly to protect the dozen representatives of the manufacturers and the ten dignitaries at the table from violence at the hands of the three union spokesmen. These men spoke grimly about the rise in the price of living outstripping the rise in wages, said that they were skilled workers at a trade that required long and difficult apprenticeship and that the code allowed them only the wages of unskilled workers. Women and Negroes were paid less for doing the same work. It was time a halt was called on the manufacturers’ attack on the American standard of living. The administrator pounded on the table and said, “I will not have you people making speeches here…We are willing to listen to a statement of your views as to the facts, nothing more.” “You’d better listen to us here than listen to us outside…You read about the riots in Paris? Well, the automobile workers’ll have to do something like that if they can’t get listened to any other way.”

 

The Brass Hat.—General Johnson is the drum major of this vast parade. He is meeting the press in his handsome office in the vast new white Commerce Building which stands as a bulky monument to the departed Herbert Hoover. Bright snowy sunlight pours in under the green Venetian blinds, between the heavily draped curtains, onto the big desk, and reflects on the big knobby rambunctious face of the General. The photographers’ flashlights keep bringing everything into sudden sharp relief, and shine bright on the thin head bald as an ostrich-egg of a photographer who has climbed on the radiator in the corner. Among the crowd of correspondents there moves a little man who has one of Dr. Solomon’s buttonhole cameras hung round his neck. He is gleefully snapping everybody; the General, the secretaries, the reporters, even the solemn-looking eagle in basketwork that stands in the back of the room. The General talks, leaning across a desk piled high with codes in blue covers. He is amused, cheerful, resentful, tired, enthusiastic. Questions and answers come on and off like flashlight bulbs. One remark hangs a moment in the air. Manufacturers are going to be told they can’t pile up stocks ahead; an industry’s got to make what it sells and sell what it makes.

An indiscreet reporter elicits the information that the General only reads digests of the codes; his secretary puts a digest on top of each code. The General doesn’t read the code unless something catches his interest.

After all, how could he?

 

The Line of Talk.—Inthe lobby of the hotel a white-haired old lady with a manner of speech from far south of the Mason and Dixon line is saying to another white-haired old lady: “My dear, the Senator has been so kind…he remembered dear Fred perfectly…he’s going to take the matter up this mornin’ at eleven-thirty… He invited me to come to his office.”

In the waiting room at the Union Station a colored man in a frayed overcoat is saying to another colored man in a frayed overcoat: “Jobs . . . man there ain’t no use to think about it… I doan know where you come from, but you better tun roun’ an go back there while the goin’s good. A man of color ain’t got no more chance to git a job wid de Democrats than to—to—to git to be President.”

In the newspapermen’s club they are eating spaghetti and talking about the association of reporters and editorial writers that is being formed, no, of course it’s not a labor union, it’s a guild. But at another table they are talking about a real union the N.R.A. employees have formed. They discovered in one office girls being worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.

At the Metropolitan Club a tall man is talking over a plate of Chesapeake oysters: “But what government that has started on inflation has ever been able to resist the temptation to continue?”

At a Swedish restaurant bright young men from the economics departments of Middle Western colleges are arguing late over a long table from which the meal has been cleared away. “But can you see anything but brilliant improvisation and a juggler’s skill in holding his audience?” “Well, I’ve seen Moscow and I’ve seen Germany, and I’m watching this Washington show as intently as I can, but for the life of me I can’t tell the direction things are going.” “You mean the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand doeth?” “Neither does anybody else.”

At a press conference an administrator is telling the reporters: “If the Republicans publish any more pamphlets like the last one, I’ll believe Farley is subsidizing the Republican National Committee… I mean their stuff is so dumb it’s a great help.”

A Western Senator getting out of a taxicab where he’s been talking about the French Revolution, being driven down the snowy avenue through the zero-cold night: “Well it’s a great and terrible time to be alive. Something is going to happen in this great country and we are going to see it… I couldn’t say just what.”

Out of an armchair overlooking Lafayette Square: “Yes, people actually seem to walk faster than they did in Washington. Even in the Cosmos Club you see new youthful faces.”

A tall thin young farmer-laborite in lumberman’s boots addressing the Unemployed Convention: “In Northern Minnesota we are slaves under the Steel Trust. The Steel Trust owns everything, runs everything. We know that Roosevelt says he is for the ordinary man; we try to believe in Roosevelt, but what we see is the Steel Trust.”

 

Delano the Magician.—The ladies and gentlemen of the press stand round waiting or lounge on the leather settees in the cream-colored vestibule of the White House with its columns and police inspectors with brightly polished badges and its green carpets and its peculiarly Washington air of space and quiet. Just before the time they form up in two lines on either side of the door into the executive office. A secretary appears. The people in the lines get in first, the rest straggle after. In the executive office it’s very light. There are electric lights in the octagonal glass and chromium chandelier overhead. Light pours in through the two tall windows behind the President’s desk. You can’t see him, you can only see the two flagstaffs with gold eagles on them that stand on either side of the desk. Then somebody moves his head. Through a canyon of cheeks, collars, ears, serge shoulders, you can see the desk. When the secretary into whose ear he has been whispering lifts his head, you can see beyond three pink carnations and a slight crinkle of cigarette smoke, Mr. Roosevelt’s face. The glare of the snow on the lawn outside beats through the tracery of shrubs and tree branches and the oblong panes of the tall windows, and glows on the broad carefully shaved cheeks, and outlines the small nose as delicately cut as Andrew Jackson’s. There are heavy shadows under the eyes. The face has a soft, powdered look, like an actor’s face. His voice is fatherly-friendly, without strain, like the voice of the principal of a first-rate boy’s school. He is talking. He is releasing a piece of news that will slap headlines on all the front pages in the country. He is setting off a bombshell. The ladies and gentlemen of the press lean forward happily. There’s the headline for them, the front-page spread. Dazzled they watch the exciting red, white and blue streamers come out of the hat. Every pupil has a piece of candy to take home. When the President has briefly and concisely explained his piece of news, he leans back in his chair, takes a deep breath, puffs out his cheeks and lets the air out with the sudden puff of a man who’s finished blowing up a toy balloon. The great headline hovers over the heads of the ladies and gentlemen of the press as they perfunctorily ask a few questions. Mr. Roosevelt answers them simply and unhurriedly as if he were sitting at a table talking to an old friend. He has the light, unworried smile of a man who’s working hard and enjoying his work. There’s a pause. Somebody looks at his watch. “Thank you, Mr. President,” say the ladies and gentlemen of the press as they file out. Faces hide the desk between the drooping silk flags. As you go out, you get a glimpse of a set of early-nineteenth-century American prints round the walls of the tall spacious well lighted colonial office.

share this article on facebook or twitter

print this article

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.

Back to Top

SHARE HIGHLIGHT

0 CHARACTERS SELECTED

TWEET THIS

POST TO TUMBLR

SHARE ON FACEBOOK