Sinclair and Bowers

Friday, May 18, 2007

9:20 a.m. Mr. Sinclair, how did you deal with fakers and self deceivers?

It never came up. Not someone’s reputation but the material itself is the touchstone. You don’t cast pearls before swine, but sometimes you can pick them up from the bed of a pigsty.

Did you and Claude Bowers know each other?

We were acquainted but not exactly close friends. Our temperaments were somewhat different

Here I am feeling all sorts of resistance, perhaps because this is one of those “factual” questions that can be checked, hence my anxiety level is way up.

Well, so what? You can’t guarantee success and you can’t guarantee that you will always be on the beam, as you say. You can only try — or fail to try.

Yes, I know. Well, I’ll proceed as if I believe all this, and we’ll see what happens. 

I don’t know how else you could proceed. The main difference between investigators is that some go forward knowing that they may be fooling themselves, and some go forward not knowing that they may be fooling themselves.

The analogy that comes to mind is painting or writing — or any art, I suppose — where they say that you are only as good as your last production, and the blank canvas or blank sheet of paper is just as blank as ever. You may know that you have done good work before, but you can’t know what you’re going to come up with this time.

The only alternative to that is to stay with the tried and true — not the tried and true method, but the tried and true result. And this is not exploration but hackwork, or, to be gentler, is the routine filling-in that is as necessary as exploration, but is a far different thing.

So — your relationship with Bowers?

I was a socialist. He was a Democrat. Regardless what Republicans may have thought, there was all the difference in the world between the two! But he and I had similar backgrounds in a way. We were self educated, willful, passionate, and we made our own way. That still didn’t mean that we saw eye to eye.

I only knew him in the 20s, before Roosevelt and before so many things that tended to move us closer. He wasn’t a muckraker, but he cared about the truth.

I have a bright idea, why don’t we let the two of you converse?

Mr. Bowers?


Your relationship, then?

Sinclair was an atheist to all extents and purposes. I suppose I was too, and for the same reason: we could see the corruption and the vacuity at the heart of every religion we knew of. But he couldn’t stand that, so he went searching among the spirits.

My experience led me there, and as you know I didn’t go willingly.

That you went at all says “willingly” to me.

You will admit now that I was right.

It would be very ungracious not to do so — and a bit ridiculous, given our circumstances.

At any rate that was a point of contention between you?

Hardly the only one, but yes, of course. There were damned few socialists who could stand to hear of spiritualism, and few enough old Democrats. Claude wasn’t one.

No, I wasn’t. It looked like escapism to me. We had serious problems to deal with.

Social problems, you mean.

If you don’t believe in a personal God and you don’t know of any religion that has heart in it — that isn’t a more or less corrupt or complicit organization that would never dream of attacking the status quo — if you wish to save your soul, so to speak, you are moved to do something against injustice in the only world you know.

And you and Mr. Sinclair chose to attack different evils.

There were plenty of heads to the Hydra. Bowers went after the Republican plutocrats, I went after the deeper causes that allowed them to thrive.

So you were allies.

That would be difficult to say.

Bowers means I wasn’t respectable enough, between my socialism and my spirit-chasing, not to mention my feminism. If I had been a vegetarian that would have completed the picture for him and I could have been safely put on the shelf as a curiosity.

Associating with socialists — politically, I mean, not socially — would have been the kiss of death to a reformer, and then what use would I have been to anybody?

But then came Franklin Roosevelt.

Yes, and thank God for him. And Sinclair fell under his spell at once.

I don’t want you to think that I was fooled, though. It was Lanny Budd that fell for the Roosevelt charm, not me. I was a good deal older than Lanny, and I could see Roosevelt clearly. Yes, he was charming, and it was flattering to have the attention of the charismatic young (so he seemed to be) president of the United States. But do you suppose that I was the only person in the United States who didn’t realize that it was FDR who let my gubernatorial campaign fail? One campaign appearance with me would have made the difference — but he didn’t dare to make it. He didn’t oppose me, but he didn’t support me, and so we failed by the slimmest of margins in a year when he won an overwhelming victory in the congressional elections.

He told you why, in that two-hour conference you had?

He was never that candid. If he was in discrete, it was a calculated indiscretion, and that isn’t what happened. But I knew, of course. He didn’t dare get too close to someone who was called a red and a crackpot, for fear that it would rub off. And maybe it would have. Maybe he would have gotten a conservative Congress in 1934, and then where would he have been? Where would any of us have been?

You see? Sinclair can be as practical as anybody else. We settled for what we could get, unlike your generation that loses itself in abstract considerations of the ultimate good, and the theoretically perfect.

But anyway, there came Roosevelt.

Franklin Roosevelt was Woodrow Wilson with a different background, a different temperament, a different mind, and with the experience of Woodrow Wilson firmly in mind. Where Wilson was a southern intellectual, Roosevelt was a New York politician. Where Wilson was a Presbyterian moralist, Roosevelt was an Episcopalian democrat. Where Wilson was incisive and cutting Roosevelt was expansive and genial. Wilson was always sincere and often forbidding. Roosevelt was devious, hidden, and full of bonhomie. All the difference in the world in their makeup.

But Roosevelt loved Wilson, admired his goals, shared his values, and set out to resurrect the New Freedom and extend it. When war came, he kept in mind Wilson’s failures and tried to provide against repeating any of them.

Roosevelt, you must understand, had vastly different circumstances to face. Wilson came to office in March 1913 expecting to enact domestic reform to correct some of the abuses of a generation of industrial dominance of government. I pointed out to you his understanding of the links between Reconstruction and systemic corruption of the federal government. Wilson in short inherited a functioning system that was nevertheless deeply flawed, in a world matrix that was assumed to be stable.

Roosevelt, by contrast, 20 years later, inherited a system in convulsion, in a world in convulsion. He couldn’t concern himself with political reform alone even if he wanted to. He had to deal at one and the same time with political, economic, social, technological, financial collapse —


Go ahead.

Well, you can see that all of the externals of this situation were different. Roosevelt had tremendous freedom of action for a while, and he made maximum use of it. Wilson had to wedge his way into a stable system, though what he was able to accomplish was remarkable. But they both wanted reform, not revolution. They both wanted to fix, not to destroy.

And that is one difference between them and me. Not so much that I wanted to destroy as that I could see that reform could never do what only revolution could do — go to the heart of the problems. What is the use of patching something that is already all patches? Yet it quickly became evident that Roosevelt meant to give America as much of a revolution as it would stand still for, and half a loaf is always better than none.

Which is why EPIC supported the New Deal.

Who were we to support? William Randolph Hearst? Patterson? J.P. Morgan & Co.?

Well this has ranged pretty far. But I’m tired now — about an hour into this. I thank you gentlemen and we’ll do it again when convenient.


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