Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Politics of Cool

I've been thinking more about the role of passion in American politics. Although it's encouraged now, passion isn't the word that comes to mind when I think of Carey McWilliams. Committed? Absolutely. Unflinching? Yep. But especially as he matured, his style was cool, smart, and pulled together. He could be sharp when he felt like it; he described a young Richard Nixon as "a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice," and Governor Earl Warren as "the personification of Smart Reaction." But in general, he didn't rely on polemics, name-calling, or appeals to passion.

The same can't be said for his adversaries, who called him lots of names over the years: liar, ass, dupe, pinko, Agricultural Pest Number One, and dough-faced Typhoid Mary of the left (my personal favorite). But instead of responding in kind, he returned his readers again and again to the key issues. Dry? Not at all. He could slice and dice with the best of them. But his respect for the facts--and his audience's ability to grasp them--helps explain why his writing holds up so well half a century later.

Is there a place for the politics of cool today? Are its assumptions, especially about audience, realistic?

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