Friday, November 26, 2021

Nicholas Goldberg: What History Says About Writers Like Nicholas Christophe Running for Office

There are many imitators running for office these days with no political experience.

Matthew McConaughey – yes, an actor – is considering campaigning for governor of Texas. Former decathlete and Whitis spokesman Caitlin Jenner just participated in the recall of California’s governors. Andrew Giuliani, a former professional golfer whose only obvious political confirmation is that he is Rudy’s son, has entered the race for the governor of New York.

These candidates are clearly unqualified for public office and, for the most part, are not taken seriously by the media. Thank God.

Public Opinion Observer

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg worked for 11 years as an editorial page editor, and was also a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.

But there are two newcomers to politics who are currently running for high office and who are treated with much more respect, perhaps because they are not actors, athletes, or reality TV stars. They serious people. They writers

I mean Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance, who is running for the U.S. Senate from Ohio as a Republican, and columnist Nicholas Christophe, who just quit his job at the New York Times to run for governor as a Democrat. … home state of Oregon.

Both are candidates for the first time. Both have their share of celebrities. Both have a lot of ink.

But history suggests that while they are making a splash, they may want to temper their expectations. Not because they have nothing to offer. But because writers who run for offices usually fail.

There are several exceptions to this rule. One – if you go back almost a century and a half and cross the ocean – is British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. He published nine novels and nearly as many popular science books before being elected to the House of Commons in 1837. He kept churning them out, “climbing the fat pole” of politics, as he put it.

Draw in chalk for the scribes.

But after Disraeli, it became difficult to find success stories.

William Randolph Hirst served twice in Congress in the early 1900s, but he was a press baron and billionaire, not a writer. (He also lost the race for mayor, governor, and president.)

Three decades later, leftist writer and revelatory journalist Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California in 1934. “You’ve written enough,” he remembered as he told himself. “What the world needs is business.”

He led the Capraesque campaign to rebuild the state’s depressed economy and put hundreds of thousands of unemployed Californians back on the job. Its Ending Poverty California platform promised cooperative farms and factories, senior citizens’ pensions and the first state income tax.

In the end, Sinclair was defeated by two things: his writing skills and right-wing business interests that hated him, including the Los Angeles Times. This newspaper attacked Sinclair every day in a box on the front page, calling him the “apostle of hatred,” accusing his supporters of “grubs” and “termites,” and turning his own words against him. Given the many powerful forces he attacked over the years, it wasn’t that hard.

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Then there was the writer Norman Mailer, who ran for mayor of New York on a ticket with newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin running for city council president.

It was 1969, the year of Woodstock, and two prominent writers proposed making the city the 51st state, banning cars and building a monorail that would straddle Manhattan. They needed free bicycles in city parks and police officers who lived in the areas they patrolled.

They were defeated in the primaries. Senior officials admitted that the campaign was hampered by its “insecurity, insanity and lack of discipline,” including at least one drunken speech by Mailer outside of the message.

Patrician writer and essayist Gore Vidal once ran for Congress in 1960 and then ran 22 years later in the Democratic Senate primary against Jerry Brown in California. But Vidal, author of the bestselling Myra Breckinridge and historical novels such as Burr and 1876, was neither humble nor self-deprecating, which undoubtedly alienated some voters.

“There is not a single human problem that could not be solved if people just did what I advise,” he said.

People begged to disagree.

Conservative writer and editor William F. Buckley, like Mailer, ran for mayor of New York in the mid-1960s.

When asked what he would do in case of victory, he replied: “Demand recount.”

Buckley had serious political arguments to disregard the derogatory traditions of the retail campaign.

“I won’t go to Irish centers and dance,” he said at his first press conference. “I will not go to Jewish centers and I will not eat pancakes, nor will I go to Italian centers and I will not pretend to speak Italian.”

Unsurprisingly, he lost too.

The list goes on. Los Angeles journalist Mickey Cowes tried unsuccessfully to snatch the Democratic nomination from Senator Barbara Boxer in 2010. Pat Buchanan, former editor of St. Louis Globe-Democrat, lost three presidential elections.

Over the past decades, two writers have risen to the top, but not in the United States: two-time Czech president, velvet revolutionary and playwright Vaclav Havel, and former journalist and now British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

What can we learn from all this? That some writers take politics seriously and some don’t. Some are just provocateurs. Or they may be too arrogant to campaign, or just very bad at it. Voters are also skeptical of writers.

Vance and Christophe seem serious enough. Vance argues that his rocky past gives him special empathy for Trump’s “lagging” working class voters. Many liberals respect Christoph for his promotion of social justice from around the world.

The data show that in recent years, voters have become more willing to risk candidates with no previous political experience, so perhaps these authors have a chance.

Of course, now that they are running, they may have doubts. They may find retail campaigns demeaning, as Buckley did, and fundraising tiresome.

And if they really won, they might find that satisfaction the work is exaggerated, especially when compared to safe kibitzing from the outside.


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