Vol. 34 No. 1 1967 - page 59

Diana Trilling
Before addressing myself to the substance of your questionnaire
I should like to pause over the formulation of your first question. You
ask whether or not it matters who is in the White House. In general your
questions have the virtue of directing this symposium to political ac–
tualities. But not this question.
you are speaking of the actual conduct
of affairs, how can it conceivably
matter who is in the White House?
Would you seriously suggest that there is no basis for choice among Presi–
dents, that Harding and Franklin Roosevelt were for all practical pur–
poses interchangeable; that Kennedy's handling of the Cuban confronta–
tion was so natural and inevitable, given our system, that we must sup–
pose that Eisenhower or Johnson would have performed no differently?
In the phrasing of such a question you express, I think, the special hope–
lessness to which intellectuals seem to have fallen prey precisely because
Johnson is the kind of President he is. But you also reveal the present–
day intellectual's taste for ultimates, by extension his insufficiently recog–
nized taste for absolutes. One understands, of course, that the purpose
of your question is to bring under examination the democratic process
itself, to inquire whether there are forces in American life, inherent either
in capitalism or in the complex democratic organization, which are so
powerful and so remote from our control as individual citizens that they
are inescapably determining, a negation of the democratic possibility. But
the extravagance with which you open this pertinent inquiry surely
derives from the continuing wish of intellectuals, ever since the ideological
thirties, to reconstitute a "scientific"- that is, an entirely coherent, ration–
alized and invulnerable--structure for political life and thought such as
Marxism was once thought to be; only the state as it is conceived by
Marxism proposes the idea that it makes no difference who its officers
are: the system is all. But in addition your disregard for political ac–
tuality points to the reliance of present-day intellectuals upon sensibility
as a mode of political comprehension. The formulation, "Does it matter
who is in the White House?" pertains not to an intellectual life in which
define ourselves by our manifest responsibility to reason and to the
consequences of our thought, but to a world in which we define our
sensibility by our apocalypticism.
The most primitive expression of our current politics of sensibility is
the application of criteria of personal style to the making of political judg-
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