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A Writer for President?

December 06, 1987|RICHARD EDER

It is a little early for a literary poll on the dozen men who tell us that they are running for the Democratic or the Republican nomination.

By literary poll, I am not referring to the electoral preferences of our country's writers. Except for such matters as tax rebates on chewed-up pencils, or a penny royalty for borrowing library books, I don't suppose there is such a thing as a writer's political position. Literature is not a single-issue constituency.

This may be why candidates will address gatherings of doctors, bankers, grandparents and parsons but have yet to be heard in front of a hall full of novelists. You couldn't fill a hall with novelists anyway, except at P.E.N.-International meetings; and they go there to talk, not to listen.

When I speak of a literary poll, I mean a rating of the candidates as writers. It is not a choice that bristles with possibilities. Gary Hart might have been a contender, for the novel he wrote along with Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine. He is no longer a candidate, of course.

For quality, the winner would probably be Mario Cuomo. His notebook of reflections, published several years ago, may not have been a work of art, but it carried some authentic and curiously persuasive musings. Cuomo, of course, would have to be described as still not yet running.

As long as we are on technical non-qualifiers, there is always Gorbachev's "Perestroika," which has just come out to skeptical early reviews. Gorbachev may well be more popular than several of the candidates--I don't think a poll has been run on it--but even if he is visiting here he is not, strictly speaking, running; unless it is for confirmation in Moscow.

Among the active candidates it is plain that the winner would have to be Paul Simon, author of 11 books ranging from one on his Protestant-Catholic marriage to others that seem to fall in the general category of self-improvement.

Simon: author-candidate. It could be argued that one good reason not to vote for him is to make it unnecessary to reissue his collected works. Just conceivably, though, one reason to vote for him might be that, in the normal course of events, nobody would think of reissuing them.

I say "just conceivably" because I am not arguing that literary talent disqualifies for political leadership, or even for political governance. In the United States, true, they have hardly ever gone together. Once you have mentioned Thomas Jefferson; Alexander Hamilton's and James Madison's work on the Federalist Papers; and Lincoln's great speeches, you have about exhausted the possibilities.

Abroad, there are stronger examples. In Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, you can find not only two superb writing styles and an extraordinary ability to portray events and characters but also the solitary passion--exercised out of office--of authorship. The same is true, to a considerable extent, of France's current president, Francois Mitterrand.

Of Mitterand, in fact, it could be argued that he is an artist whose imagination gained him the presidency and that this same artistry may have hampered him in exercising it. Certainly, the solitary figure who, through decades of frustration, never lost his faith in the triumph of his principles, was presented to the voters in 1981 as a literary creation as much as a political one. It can still be debated whether they voted for him because they liked the politician or the fabulist.

There is, certainly, a profound difference between governance and art; even literary art which, because it also uses words, might seem to have the most in common with it.

I knew a man who was regarded both as one of the most talented journalists of his generation and as an editor whose flaws came to undermine his achievements. Before he became an editor, he was a brilliant reporter and writer. He brought the brilliance along when he began to run his newspaper and, in part, it worked. He was an artist, in a way. His standards were a stimulus and a goad; and the result was a noticeable improvement in the paper's energy and style.

Over a long period of time, though, the goad wore out the stimulus. A creative authoritarianism became less creative and more authoritarian. Some of the talented people the editor had hired or promoted left; others remained, working under inhibition. Power, if it did not corrupt, demoralized.

The point, I think, is that an artist or writer uses his power in a way that can become disastrous if it is applied to the affairs of an institution or a society. A writer becomes his power; while he is writing he is indistinguishable from the lives or images he is creating. This is totalitarian, if you like, but only for the moment of creation. After that, the writer loses control. He does not direct the encounters of his readers; they make of his work what they will. Sometimes, when the work has great stature and great fortune, the characters take on a life among generations of readers that the original creator never dreamed of.

A leader of an enterprise or a political ruler who would try to exercise authority over men with the absoluteness that the artist uses with his creations is bound to fail; and sooner rather than later. Governance means the talent to let talent flourish over time. A ruler who becomes, or imagines he becomes, the power he uses smothers the talent around him. It is one of the defects of our presidency that so many of the messages that penetrate the Oval Office tell its occupant that he is the power he has been entrusted with and that so few of the messages tell him anything else.

Which may or may not persuade us that if we do choose an author as our next president, it could be just as well if he or she isn't a very good one.

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