From the monthly archives: "October 2012"

This Sunday my good friends at the New York Times Sunday Book Review will be printing my letter about John Steinbeck’s efforts to spread some psychological dirt about Tricky Dick Nixon in the spring of 1960 that might have changed history.

Letter

Steinbeck vs. Nixon

Published: October 25, 2012

To the Editor:

John Steinbeck rejected the suggestion by Adlai Stevenson’s camp in 1958 that he write a novel intended to hurt Vice President Richard Nixon’s chances to become president, as described in Jim Arndorfer’s essay (“Nixon Protagonistes,” Oct. 14). But when it came to stopping Nixon, Steinbeck was willing to engage in some dirty tricks himself.

In the spring of 1960, Steinbeck sent a letter to Stevenson’s right-hand man, William McCormick Blair Jr., saying he knew of a talkative, snobbish “psychoanalyst” in New York who traveled three times a week to Washington to “put Dickie on the couch.” Steinbeck said this political bombshell, which could have prevented Nixon from getting the Republican nomination, “should be leaked and if you don’t leak it, I will.” Steinbeck added that it was “pleasant to know that Poor Richard is not happy. But this should be used.”

Steinbeck’s letter, now with Stevenson’s papers at Princeton, didn’t name a name. But Nixon’s secret shrink was Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, who had been consulting with Nixon since the early 1950s. John F. Kennedy’s campaign didn’t discover Dr. Hutschnecker’s relationship with Nixon until early September, but — remarkably, given the dirtiness of the 1960 campaign — never used it.

BILL STEIGERWALD
Pittsburgh
The author has written a book, “Dogging Steinbeck,” about inaccuracies in Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley.”

 

My pal Peter Leo remarked that you don’t see too many stories where the intended victim was Nixon.

 

 

Watching the second Obama-Romney debate last week was like taking a trip back in political time.

Obama calling for more government jobs and cheaper education loans to lift us out of the recession.

Romney threatening to use tariffs against the Chinese if they don’t jack up their currency’s value so America can regain the manufacturing prowess we really haven’t lost.

Was I back in the recession of ’49 or ’53? What’s a “tariff” anyway?

And haven’t we heard that tough talk from Republicans about smaller government, fiscal responsibility, lower and simpler taxes and less regulations before? Like for the last five decades? Like $16 trillion ago?

Foreign policy sounded just as familiar.

The two men out-neo-conned each other on our interventionist Middle East policy, which has been a tragic and bloody bipartisan failure for 60 years. The final debate is going to be more of the same bi-stupidity.

Instead of questioning our aggressive presence in that backward region, they wasted their time arguing over whose fault it was our Libyan ambassador didn’t have the protection he needed, or who said the stupidest thing in the wake of that fiasco.

Their boasting and strutting and interrupting about who was going to do more to assure America’s energy independence sounded familiar too, only this time I think I heard one of them call it “energy security.”

Total energy independence for America — like bringing peace and civilized behavior to the Middle East — is an impossible and foolish promise that only the politicians who say it every four years think is not impossible and foolish.

In a global marketplace, worrying about energy independence is about as silly as saying we’ve got to achieve steel independence or chocolate independence. If the federal government got out of the business of limiting oil and gas production on the land it owns (which it shouldn’t own anyway), we’d have all the energy we need.

The longer the “debate” went on, the weirder it got. Obamney and Romma were dancing around on the stage so much I lost track of who was the Big Government guy and who was the Bigger Government guy.

Both swore allegiance to the Second Amendment. But neither said a peep about actually shrinking the welfare/warfare beast in Washington. They just tried to come up with cleverer ways to tax people they don’t like so they can keep spending more on their pet expenditures — college loans and more union teachers for Obama, more aircraft carriers for Romney.

There was no talk from either man about slashing federal spending. No talk about making income taxes flatter or fairer or nonexistent. No talk about getting the federal government totally out of education, health care, energy and 99 percent of all the other things it does to make our lives less free, more expensive and more annoying.

And how about those questions Candy Crowley chose from our fellow citizens, whose participation in the democratic process is so vital to our choosing the president who’s going to mess up the next four years? One word comes to mind — pathetic.

Of course they’re undecided voters. Not one had a clue about what’s wrong or right about the country or what role government should or should not play in the lives of an allegedly free people.

Didn’t one Long Islander wonder what Romney or Obama thinks about the horrible damage done to America by the bipartisan drug war? Or domestic drones? Or the TSA? Their questions could have come from a bunch of third graders — or the White House press pool.

After enduring Wednesday night’s duet in big-government bipartisanship, the average Ron Paul libertarian was, as usual, left somewhere between depressed and suicidal.

There was no choice, not even a lesser evil. Obama’s been a disaster with his warmed up New Deal ideas. Romney sounds like Nelson Rockefeller with better family values. Either way, unless an alien spaceship arrives in time to install Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party in the Oval Office, it’s four more years of the same crapola.

People wonder why libertarians say they can’t tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats. It’s because there really isn’t any.

Big Government George

George McGovern was still a Big Government liberal — and still proud of it – when I got him on the phone in the 2004.

Then 82, he was still anti-war, still trying to dethrone a Republican president and still pushing retro-New Deal programs such as “free” Medicare for all ages.

The 2004 election was only months away and the Democrats were preparing to nominate John Kerry in Boston. I talked to him about the coming election, the war in Iraq, the role of government and his new book, “The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition.”

Thirty-two years after being obliterated by Richard Nixon, 49 states to 1, the World War II war hero, ex-college professor and former U.S. senator of South Dakota had not moved one moderate inch off his spot on the left end of the political spectrum.

There was only one time when McGovern didn’t sound like a textbook George McGovern liberal.

When he complained about the difficulties he had had dealing with government regulations when he tried to run his own hotel business, he sounded more like Steve Forbes — or me.

Here’s a shortened version of my Q&A with McGovern, who talked to me from his summer house near Missoula.

Q: What’s your new book, “The Essential America,” about?
A: It’s a plea for us to revisit the Founding Fathers and look at their wisdom, both on domestic government and foreign policy. I’m saying that Jefferson, Washington, Madison and Hamilton all have much to give us in guiding us today, just as they did 225 years ago.

Q: What is your definition of the liberal tradition that the Founders gave us?
A: They didn’t use words like “liberal” and “conservative.” That came in much later. But they believed that government should be dedicated to the public interest, to the ordinary citizen. One of the things they feared was government dominated by special interests, especially by the rich and powerful. And that’s what liberalism seeks to do: It seeks to put the government at the service of ordinary people.

Q: How does your definition square with the Founders’ belief in a small, limited government?
A: Whether government is small or big is not the key question. The key question is, “Who does that government serve? Does it serve the rank-and-file citizenry or does it serve only the most powerful and wealthy?” The actual size of the government is secondary, in my opinion.

Q: You are very critical of the Bush administration in your book. What is its most grievous sin?
A: From the beginning until today, it has placed the power of the United States government at the service of the people who least need favors from the government without moving ahead on health insurance for (those) who don’t have it, without doing anything significant to provide jobs for the unemployed, without a strong environmental or energy policy.

In short, it neglects those things that would help the greatest number of Americans, and it pushes hard for those things that would favor the people at the top of the income scale. I’m not against people being rich. I’m not even against the government helping them. But when that becomes the exclusive concern of the government and these other problems are neglected, that’s when I go into action.

Q: How have your personal politics shifted or changed since 1972?
A: I suppose that I haven’t changed in a fundamental way since ’72, but I do have greater tolerance for honest-to-goodness conservatives than I might have had at an earlier time in my life. For example, Bob Dole and I have become very good friends since both of us left politics. I’m not sure that would have been as easy to happen 35 years ago as it is today.
Q: Someone mentioned to me that you tried to open up a bed-and-breakfast, and you ran into a lot of rules and regulations that made being a small businessman difficult. Can you talk about that?
A: I had a 140-room hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, for about three years, and it just didn’t work. You know, the hotel business may be the most difficult place in the world to make a living unless you happen to own the Waldorf-Astoria. It was not a success.

I got sued a couple times by people who had accidents, one out in the parking lot of the hotel and one leaving the restaurant. I saw all the difficulties — record-keeping, keeping track of the tax applications, paying the help. It gave me a new appreciation for the problems of small businesses.
Q: Someone like me would argue that many of those problems are a result of too many government rules, regulations, mandates.
A: It’s possible that small business should be exempted from some of those things. Who can be against anything called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration? But maybe some of the requirements should be eased off a little bit.

From the Oct. 14 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, here is the latest news in my quest to bring John Steinbeck’s iconic fraud of a road book to justice. Penguin Group, the book’s publisher has confessed. “Travels With Charley” is not fact but fiction — laced with lies and other distortions of reality.

 

“Travels With Charley”: Now officially mostly fiction

By Bill Steigerwald

There were no puffy press releases from John Steinbeck’s publisher. No stories in The New York Times culture pages or news flashes on feisty book industry blogs such as GalleyCat.

But after half a century of masquerading as a work of nonfiction, and after almost 1.5 million copies sold, John Steinbeck’s iconic road book “Travels With Charley” has quietly come clean with its readers.

Penguin Group, which owns the rights to Steinbeck’s works, didn’t quite come out and call “Travels With Charley” a literary fraud, as I did first in the Post-Gazette in December 2010 and five months later in Reason magazine.

But the company has been forced to admit that the beloved book about a great American writer traveling


“TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY”
By John Steinbeck
Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition ($16, paperback).

around the country in a camper with his poodle is so heavily fictionalized it should not be taken literally.

Before I detail Penguin’s confession, some background is in order. For the past two years I’ve caused trouble for a lot of the “Travels With Charley” fans, scholars and publishers who live on Steinbeck World.

It started innocently. In the fall 2010, as part of a book project to show how much America has changed in the past 50 years, I wanted to retrace faithfully Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile road trip. The Post-Gazette granted me a blog, “Travels Without Charley,” to chronicle the journey, and published a series of my pieces in the Sunday Magazine.

While doing research in libraries and reading the original manuscript of the book, however, I stumbled onto a 50-year-old literary “scoop.”

As I revealed in my Dec. 5, 2010, PG article “The Fabulism of ‘Travels With Charley,’ ” there were major discrepancies between Steinbeck’s actual road trip and what he wrote in the book.

Though it had always been marketed, sold, reviewed and taught as the true account of Steinbeck’s circumnavigation of the USA in the fall of 1960, “Charley” was not very true or accurate or honest at all.

It was not nonfiction. It was mostly fiction — plus a few lies and deliberate distortions thrown in by Steinbeck and his sly editors at the Viking Press to create the myth that he traveled alone, roughed it and spent a lot of time studying and thinking about America and its people.

It took a while for my charges against Steinbeck to escape the gravitational field of Pittsburgh. But in April 2011, five months after my article for the PG, The New York Times “discovered” me and made my accusations globally famous — for the usual 15 minutes.

Most of my fellow journalists praised me for my discovery. But I was cursed by Steinbeck groupies around the world for spoiling their fun with my fierce fetish for facts. It was hard to persuade them I didn’t hate Steinbeck or “Charley,” which, despite its lapses in the truth department, flashes with his great nature writing, wisdom and humor.

And some college English professors who believe the use of creative fictional techniques in nonfiction is a good and common thing dismissed me for wasting so much energy proving what they claimed was irrelevant or always obvious.

Penguin’s recent admission of the fictional genetic makeup of “Charley” was subtle — so subtle no one noticed it but professional-Steinbeck-watchdog me. It had been quietly slipped into the introduction of a new edition of “Charley,” which was released on Oct. 2 to co-celebrate the book’s 50th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

The lengthy introduction was first written for a 1997 paperback edition by esteemed Middlebury College English professor, author and Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini.

In his original introduction, Mr. Parini had pointed out Steinbeck’s heavy use of fictional elements, especially dialogue. Otherwise he treated “Charley” just as 2.5 generations of Steinbeck scholars had always treated it — as if it was the true and honest account of the author’s road trip and what he thought about America and Americans.

Into the latest edition, however, Mr. Parini inserted the cold truth:

“Indeed, it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist, and he added countless touches — changing the sequence of events, elaborating on scenes, inventing dialogue — that one associates more with fiction than nonfiction. (A mild controversy erupted, in the spring of 2011, when a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did some fact-checking and noticed that Steinbeck’s itinerary didn’t exactly fit that described in the book, and that some of the people he supposedly interviewed, such as an actor at a campsite in North Dakota, never existed.)

“It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative.”

Naturally I was pleased to see that the truth had come out because of my efforts. Naturally I was not pleased to see that my name was not mentioned.

I sent a sarcastic email to Mr. Parini for making a mistake no rookie journalist would have made. Ignoring my serial insults, Mr. Parini took the classy, professorial road. He apologized profusely, near abjectly. I forgave him, though I really don’t know why.

It took half a century, and it cost me a lot of time and work and money, but at least the truth had triumphed. At least from now on anyone who buys a new copy of “Travels With Charley” will not be fooled.