An Honorable Profession


By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette


"I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men."


                                                                                                               —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, named for a famous but distant relative, is high on my list of favorite authors. Joe and Rose Kennedy chose to give the middle name “Fitzgerald” not to their first son Joseph but rather to their second, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose namesake was John Francis Fitzgerald (1863 – 1950), his maternal grandfather, but no relation to Scott.

Of John Fitzgerald, JFK’s biographer Robert Dallek wrote “He was a natural politician—a charming, impish, affable lover of people... His warmth of character earned him the nickname, ‘Honey Fitz,’ and he gained a reputation as the only politician who could sing ‘Sweet Adeline’ sober and get away with it. A pixielike character with florid face, bright eyes, and sandy hair, he was a showman who could have had a career in vaudeville…A verse of the day ran: 'Honey Fitz can talk you blind / on any subject you can find / Fish and fishing, motor boats / Railroads, streetcars, getting votes.' "

Memory is so fallible. Before a fruitless search, I could have sworn that Robert Kennedy wrote a book called “An Honorable Profession.” But although Bobby may have been the first to apply the phrase to politics, it was actually the title of Pierre Salinger’s collection of 1993 essays commemorating the 25th anniversary of RFK’s assassination.

When I fed the quoted words “An Honorable Profession” to Google, it gave me 271 hits. Not bad. But then I tried “Politics is Dirty Business,” and that yielded 1,160. There are far more cynics than there are non-cynics, a somewhat lame sentence for the lack of a precise synonym for “cynic.” Conventional dictionaries say that a cynic is a person who believes that all people are motivated by selfishness. But I far prefer the definition of another of my favorite authors, Ambrose Bierce, whose “Devil’s Dictionary” defines the term as “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.”

I consider it quite it quite interesting that Bierce’s words here closely track those of George Bernard Shaw as so often paraphrased by Bobby Kennedy: “Some see things as they are and ask 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?' "

We are quite used to referring to elected officeholders as “The Honorable” so and so. But by long-standing English and American custom, the title can properly be applied or used by anyone who even runs for office; winning one is not a requirement.

The two best political biographies I have ever read are those of Huey Long by T. Harry Williams, who won a Pulitzer Prize for it in 1970, and of Robert Moses by Robert A. Caro in 1975. David Halberstam called the latter “Surely the greatest book ever written about a city” (New York, of course), but I consider it the greatest ever written about a politician, albeit never an elected one.

There is a new movie about a lightly fictionalized version of Huey Long, “All the King’s Men,” based on Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel of the same name. I just read Dan DiNicola’s review in the Gazette and promptly ordered the 1949 version from Netflix. But the story as told by Harry Williams is the definitive treatment. I’ve never tried Huey’s autobiography, “Every Man a King,” but I bet it’s a page turner.

Neither of the politicians discussed was a perfect exemplar of humankind, because there are none. Nor is this or any present time ever ripe to search for saintly politicians. History will not canonize anyone either, though time is certainly needed for perspective. Abraham Lincoln was not widely popular in his lifetime, though it soared microseconds after John Wilkes Booth’s dastardly deed. And what can I make of the Wall Street Journal writer of just a few days ago who considers George W. Bush to be the greatest president we’ve ever had, whereas an Atlantic writer says that it will take decades to undue the harm he has done? For now, we can only consider the sources of those opinions, neither worthy of Fox’s claim to be fair and balanced.

There is a great book out now that is a close third to the two biographies I mentioned, that of Doris Kearns Goodwin. But her book, “Team of Rivals,” is about not one man but several—Lincoln and the men he appointed to his cabinet despite their having competed with him for the Republican nomination for president in 1860. Kearns makes each into a paragon of virtue that only the perspective of a hundred or more years can bestow on politicians.

By now you can tell that I tend to like politicians. I know from experience how hard the job is. Please be kind to them. Imagine how you would conduct yourself in your own position if, every two to four years, a cast of thousands had to vote to decide whether you could keep it.

Ambrose Bierce held the same view as mine that it takes time to mold a statesman as good as those of the Kearns book. He defined politician as “An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive."

Sadly, Bierce disappeared in Mexico at age 72 in 1914. He’s only 164 now, so I suppose he’s hiding away somewhere playing bridge with Judge Crater, Jimmy Hoffa, and D.B Cooper. I haven’t seen him lately. Nor Elvis. Nor bin Laden.


Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday opinion section.