Report of the County Chairman by James A. Michener

  2014 Dial Press Trade Paperback Edition

  Copyright © 1961 by James A. Michener

  Excerpt from Poland copyright © 1983 by James A. Michener

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

  DIAL PRESS and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

  Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Random House LLC, in 1961.

  eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-5924-1




  Title Page


  1. In a Small Room

  2. Marking Time

  3. My County

  4. The Flood

  5. The Turning Point

  6. Suburbia

  7. The Campaign

  8. Barnstormers

  9. What Happened


  Other Books by This Author

  About the Author

  Excerpt from Poland

  Since it seems likely that the 1960 Presidential election will long remain a matter of speculation for historians, I think it might be of interest to have a factual record of the reflections of a citizen who found himself involved in the campaign at the precinct level. The comments that follow are as honest as I can make them and they provide a chart of the alternate hopes and fears with which I followed the course of John F. Kennedy to the Presidency.

  The second time I met Kennedy was in Hawaii in the early summer of 1959 during the islands’ first political campaign under statehood. At that time I was arguing with myself as to whether or not I should become involved in that highly emotional Hawaiian election, and in a mood of both uncertainty and apprehension I accepted an invitation to a Democratic dinner at which the main speaker was to be the visiting senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy.

  All I can remember of his address was that he quoted most aptly from some of the major documents of American history, and also from some extremely obscure ones, and I recall thinking casually, “It would be nice to have in the White House someone who knows books.” Later, in the reception line, I slipped past the young senator unnoticed, but someone whispered in his ear, “That’s Michener, the writer,” and quickly he stepped forward to catch my disappearing arm, and said most engagingly, “I hoped you would be here. I’ve always liked your Fires of Spring.”

  I am sure that the wise whisperer at the senator’s elbow had forewarned him that I might be passing through the line, and that I might just possibly prove helpful in lining up Hawaii’s delegates to the Democratic convention, then less than a year away. But I doubt if the whisperer could have prompted him to recall so obscure a book as The Fires of Spring. As graciously as an author can, when one of his older children is remembered affectionately, I nodded and the senator said, “Some of us are getting together later on. Care to join us?” I replied that unfortunately I had already arranged a date to talk over the forthcoming island election, and I did not see him again.

  It was true that I had a minor political meeting that night, but it was one that I could easily have missed, for my presence was not necessary. The real reason I absented myself from the midnight caucus at which Kennedy made a favorable impression upon my Hawaiian friends was a most specific and conscious one, and I remember verbalizing it to myself with more than customary clarity: “This man Kennedy is unusually appealing. He knows what to say to people. And I’m not sure I want to support him for President. Not yet.”

  For two reasons it was fortunate that I stayed away from that Kennedy caucus to go instead to the meeting where Hawaiian politics were discussed, for the latter turned out to be one of the finest political discussions I was to attend in the islands. It was held at the home of Vincent Esposito on a hillside overlooking Honolulu’s mysterious night lights, and there, as we dissected the imminent election—which everyone expected the Democrats to win easily, since they had swept the primaries, but which I felt sure the Republicans would win, because I knew how badly the Democrats were split—I engaged myself to work whole-heartedly for the Democrats, even though I was convinced their cause was hopeless.

  In the turbulent weeks that followed I received my initiation into the grief of local politics. The Democrats lost, as I knew they must, but they lost by only two thousand votes, and they might have won had I been able to get the two Democratic factions together a week sooner. Even so, as a result of last-minute efforts which took us to all the islands for speeches and meetings that lasted around the clock, we almost salvaged the victory.

  But it eluded us, and in the days that followed I experienced the penalties of losing. Some months earlier in a moment of weakness I had accepted the chairmanship of a public drive for charity funds. Now I was advised that my having championed the Democrats had ruined whatever chances I might have had to collect money from the community, “since everyone with money is a Republican,” and it was politely suggested that it might be wiser, and fairer to the charity, if I resigned my chairmanship, which I did.

  Friends who had once been rather close, now avoided me. At one dreadful party more than half the guests preferred not to talk with me, and those who did said ugly things. One commented, “Don’t you feel a little sick at your stomach when you think that your television speeches could have won the election for the Democrats?” I replied that that’s why I had made them, and my questioner looked stunned. “Don’t you understand what the Democrats would do to people like you and me?” he asked, and to this I made no reply.

  One of my most honest friends, a devoted Republican lady, came to report, “It’s widely believed, Jim, that you were temporarily deranged because of change of life. Everybody felt that if you were in complete control you wouldn’t have done what you did.” I replied that I was in fine health, so my interrogator asked, “Then you really knew what you were doing?” I replied that I had thought things out carefully and had decided that the Democrats would do better for Hawaii than the Republicans. My friend confided, in a burst of the honesty for which I esteemed her, “Well, I’ll tell you what I did, Jim Michener. On the night before election I prayed for half an hour that your side would lose so that you would never have to face up to the terrible mistake you came so close to making. And God protected you from yourself and saw to it that the Democrats lost.”

  More unpleasant were the other friends who explained to the community that I had supported the Democrats only because my wife happened to be a Japanese-American, for in Hawaii many of the younger Japanese were Democrats. “If Michener had been left to himself, he’d never have done this terrible thing,” these logicians explained, “but his Japanese wife put fierce pressure on him and he had to knuckle under.”

  What I learned from losing this Hawaiian election in late July of 1959 was the tension that still ran through American life whenever economics, or social values, or racial problems were concerned. Since both the Republican candidate for governor and his Democratic opponent were Catholics, I fell into the error of assuming that religion no longer played a major role in American politics. Later, when the Republican administration took control, I found that in actual politics the Republicans really did tend to vote against liberal measures and to work for a balanced budget, whereas the Democrats were inclined to support acts which would help the society to move forward, even though such acts might temporarily postpone a balanced budget. And I found that without exception my intellect and my heart and my patriotism and my sense of history inclined me toward the Democratic view. So in
foregoing that midnight caucus with Senator Kennedy, I took the first step along the path that was to end in my supporting him most vigorously.

  The second reason why I was fortunate in not having met with Kennedy that night was that the Hawaiian election, and the subsequent ostracism I experienced, gave me time to consider exactly what I wanted to do in the 1960 Presidential campaign and to reach an intellectual decision without being unduly influenced by the personality of one of the major contenders. If later I were to support Kennedy, it would be because I had decided intellectually that this was the right thing to do.

  Consequently, when the Hawaiian election ended, I shipped aboard a sailboat which was beating its way back from Honolulu to Los Angeles, following its participation in the biennial trans-Pacific yacht race. It was a splendid craft, owned by a congenial sportsman with the unlikely name of Baldwin T. Baldwin. One of the reasons why I undertook this arduous trip was obvious: “You’ve written so much about the Pacific,” I reasoned with myself, “that the least you can do is cross it in a small boat to see what it’s really like.” The other reason was simple: “I want time to think.”

  For our skeleton crew back to the mainland we had an extraordinary group of six tough men, professionals most of them, none of whom smoked, drank, took coffee or swore. One was a Mormon lay minister, one a Marine colonel, one a Dutch carpenter who could cook like a Frenchman; two were students from the University of Nebraska. And everyone loved classical music, so that the long night watches when we could get California good-music stations on the radio were the most sought after.

  It takes only eleven days to race from California to Honolulu with the wind at one’s back. It takes twenty-two days to beat the other way with the wind in one’s teeth almost all the journey. Boats scurry north to the latitude of Seattle in hopes of catching a wind blowing down from Alaska, and the rail is under water most of the way. It was a long, tedious, wet trip home and even the professionals were seasick.

  It was while I stood at the wheel as our boat headed into the storm that I reached several conclusions. I was about to publish a novel which dealt with Hawaii, and all who had read the galleys had warned me that after it appeared I would no longer be welcome in the islands. “If you think you suffered retaliation because you voted Democratic, wait till this novel hits the fan,” they said. Since men understandably prefer to escape animosity, and since I was already paying taxes on a hillside home in one of the loveliest Pennsylvania counties, I concluded that it would be unwarranted to press the issue in Hawaii. There was also a second consideration, more imperative perhaps than the first. In the novel that I was about to release, the main theme was the enviable manner in which Hawaii had been able to assimilate men and women from many different races, and what I wrote was true: these islands today represent a beacon light of hope for all communities who are striving for racial harmony and they are of extraordinary value to the United States because they prove that our nation can attain this harmony. But on the day-to-day operating level at which my wife and I had to live, we met with more racial discrimination in Hawaii than we did in eastern Pennsylvania, and my wife understandably preferred to live permanently in the latter place. For example, when we thought seriously about buying a home in Hawaii we had the bad luck to settle upon one in Kahala, where restricted covenants prevent any Japanese from moving in. The three finest clubs in Honolulu admit no Orientals to membership, and other trivial, but irritating, folk customs prevail which a man in his middle years prefers not to bother about. So, aboard the yacht heading away from Hawaii, a land I had grown to love as the spiritual capital of the world about which I wrote, I decided that my home would henceforth be in Pennsylvania.

  I also decided that in the 1960 elections I would work diligently on the local level, but who my candidate would be in the primaries I did not know. I was somewhat in the position of the Kentucky senator who replied, when asked by a reporter what stand he was going to take in a forthcoming election, “I haven’t made up my mind, son, but when I do I’m going to be damned bitter about it.”

  If I felt no bitterness, I did feel a deep commitment. This stemmed, I believe, from a profound love of country that I had developed over the years. I suppose that accidental circumstances have accounted for much of this: I have served my country in two wars; in peacetime I have been involved in many dangerous pursuits relevant to our position in the world; during the Hungarian revolution I was often behind Russian lines; I have undergone three other major revolutions, disaster at sea, and danger in half a dozen different foreign lands. An appalling share of the money I have been able to earn has been handed over to the government. And I have had to learn the operation of the American system in order to teach it at both the high-school and the college level.

  But most of all, my strong affection for my country stems from the fact that America has been overly generous to me. As a boy I lived in extreme poverty with a mother who did the cruelest kind of sweatshop work to educate a horde of abandoned children whom she picked up off the streets. But because ours was a generous country, I later on received scholarships and fellowships and traveling funds and good jobs. I was given, at no expense to myself, an excellent education and when I started to write, my countrymen supported me rather better than my native talents might have warranted. I was in truth what I remain today, a very fortunate son of America and as such I was much concerned in my country’s politics and was determined to do something about them.

  “If I were asked,” I said to myself one night as our boat plowed northward to the strains of Beethoven’s Seventh, “why I want to become involved in the forthcoming election I’d have to say that it was because in my work overseas I’ve seen at first hand how sadly our reputation has slipped.” I recalled the riots in which I had at one time or other been engaged where Asian students calumniated the United States as a fat, weary, selfish, illiterate, perverse warmonger, determined to destroy all the world’s revolutionary movements. I recalled how ineffective I had been when I tried to argue with these students, assuring them that the United States was not like that. They would not listen to me because they were convinced that we were a tired and timid nation.

  I recalled the disasters our people overseas had led us into by always supporting the reactionary side. It was what one might call the Buick syndrome. I saw it at its best once in Korea when we were about to capture a minor city, and our general said to his staff, “As soon as we take the city, you fellows set up a civil government, and be sure to use for mayor a Korean who is sympathetic to us.” When one of his underlings asked how they were to select a mayor he replied, “Pick out one of the men who has a Buick or some other big car.” I often reflected upon this rule-of-thumb, and I concluded to my surprise that this Buick syndrome was not a bad way for selecting quickly a temporary mayor who was likely to be inclined toward our side, but it did seem somewhat inadequate as a criterion for selecting a permanent mayor. I suspect that most of our errors abroad have arisen from the fact that in laziness we have allowed temporary arrangements to crystallize into permanent agreements, for to differentiate between the two requires both courage and insight, and these two virtues have often been absent in our foreign representatives.

  I recalled also how fragile our international alliances seemed to have become. In England I had read newspapers which frankly suggested that Great Britain enter into anti-American rearrangements. In Pakistan I had seen one of our most trustworthy allies, one that had risked its very existence on our friendship, turning conspicuously away from us. In Hungary I had seen the misery our vacillations had in part occasioned. And in Japan I had watched the growth of a strong intellectual movement against America. Yet our administration and our press seemed indifferent to these shifts, if, indeed, they knew of them.

  Finally, I had watched for ten years the often subtle, sometimes brutal manner in which our national image had been debased by ourselves and our enemies. From a distance we did often seem to be a fat and foolish nation. We seemed to be again
st the great changes that were sweeping the world. During the McCarthy period we were outspokenly contemptuous of the intellect; in the Little Rock period, antagonistic to anyone who was not white; and in the whole decade, paralyzed by a fear of natural revolution. From abroad we seemed to be a faltering nation, insecure even in those great principles upon which we were founded, and I felt that something had to be done to rectify this national image.

  Another decision I reached during the night watches was that I would henceforth, insofar as I was able to determine my own actions, never again make even the slightest concession where race, religion or a man’s type of work was concerned. I found myself willing to accept a man whether he was a Negro or not, whether he was a Catholic or not, and whether he belonged to a union or not. In fact, I suppose I was dangerously close to making the error of believing that merely because a man was a Negro, or a Catholic, or a union member he must be a good man; but I felt that if I were to be guilty of error, such an error had this to commend it: on it social progress has often been built and can be built in the future. If one elects to act on the contrary principle, no progress is likely.

  If I had been required then to state one short reason why I was about to plunge into national politics I would have said in summary, “Because there is a nation to be won.” In those intense days on the bosom of the stormy Pacific I visualized the United States as a rich and lumbering galleon adrift without crew or purpose, and I knew that she could be won by men of vision and determination. In the forthcoming election on many lonely nights I would remind myself stubbornly, “There is a nation to be won,” and I knew that I was engaged permanently in the battle to win it. But if I had been asked why I wanted to capture a nation I would have been forced to reply, “Because I want my ideas of justice and accomplishment to prevail.” Later I was to discover that many of the men with whom I was to work had exactly the same idea.

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