The Magazine

The Happy Curmudgeon

James J. Kilpatrick, 1920-2010.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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In Wild Turkey veritas, the ancients told us, and the phrase has no richer testament than a forgotten book called A Political Bestiary, by the former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy and his friend James J. Kilpatrick, the columnist and TV commentator who died last week at 89. Kilpatrick’s obituaries scarcely mentioned the book. For sound reasons, they lingered instead on his early career in the 1950s, when as editorial page editor of the Richmond (Virginia) News-Leader he launched a relentless, learned, eloquent, and obnoxious defense of Jim Crow against the Yankee antinomians who were then swarming southward, waving Supreme Court decisions and federal civil rights laws. 

The Happy Curmudgeon

Like Sam Ervin and Robert Byrd, Kilpatrick emerged from his segregationist past to become a cuddly mascot of establishment Washington, I’m not sure how. The evolution of Ervin and Byrd is easy to explain. Both were loyal functionaries of the Democratic party: Ervin’s hatred of Richard Nixon compensated for his hatred of black Americans, and the former Klansman Byrd exchanged his bedsheet for a role that fit him just as snugly, as a dependable anti-Republican crank. As an unrepentant right-winger, by contrast, Kilpatrick should have been beyond redemption. Yet there he was, from the 1960s on, appearing three times a week in the Washington Post and, for most of the 1970s, every Sunday night as a commentator on 60 Minutes. From “massive resistance” and “interposition” to CBS and the bosom of the Graham family in little more than a decade—a neat trick.

But how? Part of the answer may be that Kilpatrick, having made the move from Richmond to Washington, wore his opinions lightly. Watching him sputter at some new instance of liberal idiocy and shake his angry jowls, you got the idea it was mostly for show. The diffidence was thinly concealed, a symptom of PTSD. He had spent a dozen years or more furiously promoting dearly held convictions that every reasonable or sensitive person came to regard as despicable. After bus boycotts and lunch-counter sit-ins, the back-and-forth of Washington argument must have seemed a flimsy thing—the way a bumper pool table might look to Minnesota Fats. It wasn’t worth sinking your heart into. He’d tried that already. 

So he became a curmudgeon. Curmudgeon is one of those labels that signifies its opposite. “Humorists” are seldom funny, “peace advocates” are bellicose, “humanitarians” hate people, and “curmudgeons” are never curmudgeonly, not really. No man infused with the misanthropic qualities of a genuine curmudgeon is tolerated long enough to earn the affectionate pat on the head the title implies. Tamed and declawed, Kilpatrick the old seg was nobody that anybody had to worry about. He was a pussycat. 

He was also one of the best writers ever to appear regularly in American newspapers, a master of the music of words, and it would be nice, if dubious, to think that official Washington let him hang around because it was wowed by his gifts as a prose artist. He was a better writer the further away he moved from policy and the machinery of government, the disputes of everyday politics. Lucky for him and his admirers, in the late sixties he bought a house on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge and began writing about what he saw and felt, as real writers will until someone makes them stop. 

This was a move fraught with peril—soupy accounts of the city-boy-moved-to-the-country have drowned hundreds of writers and thousands of readers. “I trust you will spare the reading public your little adventures in contentment,” a friend warned E.B. White when he left Manhattan for Maine. White didn’t, of course, being moved instead to produce One Man’s Meat, which survives as a small classic. Kilpatrick didn’t spare us either, and while the book he produced, The Foxes’ Union, is less famous than White’s, it is just as good, just as manly, funny, and humane, just as defiant of the precious and the twee. The Blue Ridge was the making of him as a writer. “Nothing much happens up here in the Blue Ridge mountains—only life, birth, death, law, philosophy, the harvest of a summer, the etched impression of a snowy night.”

It was on just such a night that Gene McCarthy appeared at Kilpatrick’s cabin door with a bottle of bourbon, thereby setting in motion the cogitations that led to A Political Bestiary. By the time Kilpatrick and McCarthy had both pegged out, they must have produced 30 books between them, but this, their only collaboration, is the one that best serves as a model for how to think and write about politics. 

The Bestiary is the product of a writer’s perfectly pitched ear—the application, I mean, of a writerly way of thinking about language to the language of American politics. It doesn’t run to more than 20,000 words. One page each is devoted to a cliché beloved of the political class—The Impressive Mandate, The Budgetary Shortfall, The Tight Budget, The Leaping Quantum, the Broad-based Constituency, 40 in all. And each is illustrated, on the facing page, as a strange impossible beast, in an invariably flawless sketch by the great cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. The Bestiary appeared in 1978, yet it’s amazing how many of these clichés are still fresh—I guess I should say current. We haven’t shaken them, in any case. 

Consider “parameter,” a high-toned nonsense word that has proved irresistible to policy intellectuals since the Kennedy administration; deprived of its use, the entire Brookings Institution would collapse in rubble onto Massachusetts Avenue. The Bestiary introduces us to The Parameter, which MacNelly renders as a miserable squid-like creature, tentacles dangling limp in the water.

“To persons of limited horizons—those lacking the world view of, say, the editors of Foreign Affairs—a Parameter may look like a perimeter. It is not.  .  .  .  In the world of politics, Parameters live to be defined. Their arms embrace the illimitable and the unknowable, but usually they embrace the expendable. ‘Within the Parameters of our budget,’ people say. Then the Parameter, like the squid, emits an inky cloud and disappears.”

Amused and high-spirited, tracing the line between skeptic and cynic, the whole Bestiary is borne aloft on the fumes from that bottle of bourbon. There’s an air of resignation in it too: an acid critique of cant offered in the knowledge that the cant will outlive the critique. But the resignation isn’t meant to be discouraging. The Bestiary is an enduring inspiration. McCarthy, a genuine misanthrope, somehow persuaded the pussycat to put the claws back in, just this once.  

 

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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