Cosmic Minutia

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November 2000


Cosmic Minutia

By Christina Larson


Matters of State:
A Political Excursion


By Philip Hamburger
Counterpoint Press

Click on the title to buy the book
Back in 1939, when Philip Hamburger was 25, he accepted a reporting job at The New Yorker---and for the past 61 years, he has made a distinguished living as a correspondent covering presidential inaugurations and banquets, national party conventions, and other ceremonies of state. The end product is Matters of State: A Political Excursion, 26 selections profiling such political giants as Dean Acheson, Fiorella LaGuardia, Joseph McCarthy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton.

But don't let the title of this book fool you: Hamburger never sets forth to espouse political ideals or pass editorial judgments on the events he describes. In the foreword, he recounts the advice of Harold Ross, The New Yorker's first editor, "Never go cosmic on me, Hamburger"---advice which Hamburger evidently still holds onto six decades later, for better or for worse.

At times, Hamburger's book can feel so uncosmic that it's a little like travel writing in a political landscape, with long catalogues of details about the weather of Washington and the pageantry of presidential inaugurations. But assuming you aren't reading for new insights into the mechanisms of the electoral process, you will appreciate what Hamburger's writing can give---that rare glimpse into the personal and idiosyncratic nature of the great leaders (and losers) of modern American politics.

He describes Dewey on the morning after the disappointing election results have come in, and McCarthy weeping over a bit of sentimental poetry at dinner. He captures FDR's proud determination on the day of his first inauguration and LaGuardia's enthusiasm preparing for his live weekly radio broadcast. Hamburger writes with a sense of humor, describing the first Eisenhower inaugural ball as having "more hoop skirts than 'Gone With the Wind.'"

But, unfortunately, Hamburger rarely tackles contemporary (or controversial) political issues. Though he lends rhetoric in support of such grand ideological concepts as civic responsibility and free speech, these essays studiously avoid trumpeting specific policy changes or political alignments. The chapter on Nixon's second inaugural is the one piece in which Hamburger does take a clear editorial position. Incidentally, the 1973 manuscript was passed over at The New Yorker and collected dust in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library, unpublished for 27 years.

That chapter opens with the weary proclamation that "the ceaseless war in Vietnam has not yet ceased." The specter of the war (and the author's nearly explicit opposition to it) resonates throughout the piece, from the meeting with Jerry Gordon, coordinator of the National Peace Action Coalition, to the description of Hamburger's stroll through Arlington Cemetery pondering a guide's prediction that "Arlington will be completely filled up by 1980."

If Hamburger was able to write such eloquent editorial commentary, why wasn't he encouraged to do it more often by his editors at The New Yorker? This reluctance---perhaps on the part of the magazine, perhaps on the part of the writer himself---to take stands on substantive current affairs is something which should give the serious reader pause.

More often than not, Hamburger handles potentially controversial subjects in an astoundingly noncontroversial manner. He steers clear away from political commentary, turning instead to descriptions of character or decorum. For example, Hamburger manages to describe how Supreme Court Justices Brandeis and Holmes each came to decisions without mentioning the decisions that they came to.

In a chapter about Dean Acheson, Hamburger observes, "Acheson's convictions are numerous and deep, but for the most part he naturally confines his official remarks as Secretary of State to clear expositions of established public policy." We get much the same impression of Hamburger the writer, confining his published remarks to accepted public opinion or New Yorker status quo.

That being said, Hamburger's writing amuses, surprises, delights, and like an elegant tabloid, depicts in bright colors the personalities that more cosmic writers treat only in black and white.

Christina Larson is the associate publisher of The Washington Monthly.

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