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Book Review

Political Observer With an Unjaded View of the Process

MATTERS OF STATE: A Political Excursion By Philip Hamburger; Counterpoint; $24, 240 pages

February 01, 2001|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Cynicism does not stain a page of this collection of 60 years of Philip Hamburger's writing about people and events in American government for the New Yorker. Hamburger is a most rare observer of politics who loves his country and its politicians (mostly); as well as its elections, conventions and campaigns.

Ten of the essays in "Matters of State" are about presidential inaugurations, of which he has attended 14. The tone of these can only be described as sweet. Hamburger loves the pomp of these majestic occasions. He loves being among the expectant and excited crowds. He even endures the crush of inaugural balls as one waits for a glimpse of the president, usually toward midnight, and the fatigue that comes at such moments. And Hamburger loves election day. His descriptions of going to vote near his home in New York City are full of affection for the city and his fellow voters, not to mention for the system.

Above all, what Hamburger displays in this book is a deep love for the American system of government and its ideals. His passion is clearest in his story about the great federal judge, Learned Hand, who sat on the federal appeals court for the 2nd Circuit in the middle of the last century. Hand's learning was as legendary as his formidable appearance, that of a benign John L. Lewis. Hamburger describes how he had an important role in extending Hand's reputation from the circles of bench and bar to a national audience. On May 21, 1944, just three weeks before the Allied invasion of Normandy, Hamburger was listening to Hand swear in 150,000 new citizens in Central Park. Hand began to speak on "The Spirit of Liberty."

"I was transfixed," Hamburger writes. "The words had such clarity, beauty and meaning that I had the curious sensation that I was at Gettysburg, listening to Lincoln."

But the next morning not a single New York newspaper printed a word of the speech. Hamburger went to see Hand and wrote a piece about him and his speech in the magazine's "Talk of the Town." The speech became, as Hamburger says, "a sensation" and "has entered into the canon of great American utterances."

Hand said, in part: "The only America you can love is one whose citizens have learned the self-discipline of compliance in the face of truth; the only country which any man has a right to love is one where there is a balanced judgment, justice founded on wisdom, a free spirit and a temperate mind." That speech meant a lot to a country then throwing everything it had into a worldwide fight for freedom. Copies were posted in schoolrooms and offices. Its principles, a few years later embellished by Hand, were a source of strength in the dark years of the onset of the Cold War and its foul offspring, McCarthyism.

The longest piece in this collection was published in the beginning of those difficult years, in November 1949. It is a profile of President Harry S. Truman's secretary of state, Dean Acheson. The essay appeared as the right wing was beginning to vilify Acheson, ridiculing his bristling mustaches, his upper-class background (his father was Episcopal bishop of Connecticut and he had attended Groton and Yale). And he was presiding over Truman's policy of trying to contain the Soviet Union from spreading communism, which the right wing took to calling "Acheson's Cowardly College of Communist Containment."

In such a nasty political environment Hamburger's profile came as a humane, wise tonic, a picture of a man who was a devoted public servant of his president and his country. It reads as well now as it did then, and it is as reassuring: America can and does produce public servants of the first rank. Hamburger writes that he is by nature an optimist but says that by the time of President Nixon's second inaugural, in the days of the Vietnam War, "my optimism was shattered." He wrote a moving piece about that inauguration, ending with an account of the performance at the National (Episcopal) Cathedral in Washington of Haydn's "Mass in Time of War."

But it was never published in the New Yorker. A friend there told him that "outside forces have somehow objected to this piece."

We are fortunate to have it here in this collection, as we are to have the rest of Hamburger's writing as presented here. By the end of "Matters of State," the reader understands that what gives Hamburger's pieces their uplifting tone is not sentimentality but a deep and resolute belief in this country and its noble ideals.

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