Behind the Mirrors - Clinton W. Gilbert - ebook

"A book like the Mirrors of Downing Street is well enough. It is the fashion to be interested in English notables. But that sort of thing won't do here. The American public gets in the newspapers all it wants about our national politicians. That isn't book material."An editor said that just a year ago when we told him of the plan for the Mirrors of Washington. And, frankly, it seemed doubtful whether readers generally cared enough about our national political personalities to buy a book exclusively concerned with them.

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Behind the Mirrors


Clinton W. Gilbert


















"A book like the Mirrors of Downing Street is well enough. It is the fashion to be interested in English notables. But that sort of thing won't do here. The American public gets in the newspapers all it wants about our national politicians. That isn't book material."

An editor said that just a year ago when we told him of the plan for the Mirrors of Washington. And, frankly, it seemed doubtful whether readers generally cared enough about our national political personalities to buy a book exclusively concerned with them.

But they did. The Mirrors of Washington became an instantaneous success. It commanded almost unprecedented attention. It was heartily damned and vociferously welcomed. By the averagely curious citizen, eager for insight behind the gilded curtains of press-agentry and partisanship, it was hailed as a shaft of common-sense sunlight thrown into a clay-footed wilderness of political pap. And close to one hundred thousand copies were absorbed by a public evidently genuinely interested in an uncensored analysis of the people who are running us, or ruining us, as individual viewpoint may determine.

The Mirrors of Washington was by way of being a pioneer, at least for America. Overseas, it is habitual enough to exhibit beneath the literary microscope the politically great and near-great, and even to dissect them—often enough without anæsthesia. To our mind, such critical examination is healthily desirable. Here in America, we are case-hardened to the newspapers, whose appraisal of political personages is, after all, pretty well confined to the periods of pre-election campaigning. And we are precious little influenced by this sort of thing; the pro papers are so pro, and the anti papers so anti, that few try to determine how much to believe and how much to dismiss as routine partisan prevarication.

But a book! Political criticism, and personality analyses, frozen into the so-permanently-appearing dignity of a printed volume—that is something else again! Even a politician who dismisses with a smile or a shrug recurrent discompliments in the news columns or the anonymous editorial pages of the press, is tempted to burst into angry protest when far less bitter, far more balanced criticism of himself is voiced in a book. A phenomenon, that, doubtless revisable as time goes on and the reflections of more book-bound Mirrors brighten the eyes of those who read and jangle the nerves of those who run—for office.

Behind the Mirrors is another such book. It delves into the fundamentals at Washington. It is concerned with political tendencies as well as political personalities. It presents what impresses us as a genuinely useful and brilliant picture of present-day governmental psychology and functioning. It is a cross section of things as they are.

The picture behind the mirrors is not as pretty as it might be. Probably the way to make it prettier is to let ample light in upon it so that the blemishes, discerned, may be rectified; and to impress those responsible for its rehabilitation with the necessity of taking advantage of the opportunities that are theirs.

When President Eliot of Harvard presented to a certain Senator an honorary degree, he described with inimitable charm and considerable detail that Senator's literary achievements; and then he mentioned his political activities, ending with substantially these words: "A man with great opportunities for public service still inviting him."

The invitation yet holds good. Acceptances are still in order.

G. P. P.

New York,

June, 1922.



President Harding had recently to decide the momentous question whether we should have daylight saving in Washington. He decided it in a perfectly characteristic way, perfectly characteristic of himself and of our present political division and unsureness. He ruled that the city should go to work and quit work an hour earlier, but that it should not turn back the hands of the clock, should not lay an impious finger upon God's Time.

That this straddle is typical of our President needs no argument—he "has to be so careful," as he once pathetically said—but that it is symptomatic of the present American political consciousness perhaps needs elucidation.

The clock is one of the problems left to us by the Great War, one of the innumerable problems thus left to us; it involves our whole attitude toward men and things.

It represents, rather literally, Mechanism. In the war we adopted perforce the creed that man was sufficiently master of his own destiny to adapt Mechanism to his own ends; he could lay a presumptuous hand upon God's Time. But in peace shall he go on thus boldly? Or shall he revert to the good old days, the days of McKinley, when the clock was sacred? Think of all the happiness, all the prosperity, that was ours, all the duty done and all the destiny abundantly realized, before man thought to lay a hand upon the clock!

The question what the limits to human government are is involved. What may man attempt for himself and what should he leave to the great Mechanism which has, upon the whole, run the world so well, to the Sun in its courses, to progress, to inevitability? After all the clock was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be—unless we meddle with it—and before its cheerful face America was built from a wilderness into a vast nation, creating wealth, so as to be the third historic wonder of the ages—the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome, the dollars that are America.

And not only are we divided as to the limits of government, but where shall Mr. Harding look for authority to guide him with respect to clocks? To his party? This is a party government, you remember. But his party speaks with no clear voice about clocks or about anything else. To business? Business has only one rule—more clocks in government and less government in clocks. But business bows to the public. To public opinion then? The public is divided about clocks; we tend to grow class conscious about clocks. And clamorously amid all these authorities is heard the voice of the Farm Bloc exclaiming: "Don't touch God's Time."

So it is decided that Washington may save daylight and save the clock too, a double saving, a most happy compromise. If all questions touching Mechanism could only be solved in the direction of such splendid economies!

I listened a year ago to a most unusual Fourth of July oration. The speaker, like most of us in this period of breakup following the Great War, was rather bewildered. He had, moreover, his private reasons for feeling that life was not easily construed. An illness, perhaps mortal, afflicted him. Existence had been unclouded until this last cloud came; why was it to end suddenly and without reason? He had gone through the Great War a follower of Mr. Wilson's, to see the world scoffing at the passionate faith it had professed a few months before and sneering at the leaders it had then exalted. He had echoing in his mind the fine war phrases, "Brotherhood of Man," "Warto End War," "We must be just even to those to whom we do not wish to be just." Then some monstrous hand had turned the page and there was Harding, just as in his own life all success at the bar and in politics, and the joy of being lord of a vast country estate that had been patented in his family since colonial times, had suddenly come to an end; the page had turned.

So this is what he said, in a voice that rose not much above a whisper, "I have told them where to dig a hole and put me, out here on my pleasant place. I don't know what it means. I don't believe it has any meaning. The only thing to do is to laugh. You have trouble laughing? Look about you and you will find plenty to laugh at. Look at your President and laugh. Look at your Supreme Court and laugh. Not one of them knows whether he is coming or going. Everything for the moment has lost its meaning for everyone. If you can't laugh at anything else, just think how many angels there are who are blank blanks and how many blank blanks there are who are angels ... and laugh."

The Comic Spirit looking down from some cool distance sees something like what this lawyer saw. It sees President Harding and the Ku Klux Klan. The connection between President Harding and the Ku Klux Klan? The Comic Spirit, perceiving everything, perceives that too. For it Mr. Harding is but the pious manifestation of a sentiment of which the Ku Klux Klan is the unconscious and serviceable parody, that instinctive rush of a people with the world breaking up about it, to seek safety in the past. Men always shrink thus backward when facing an uncertain future, just as in moments of great peril they become children again, call "Mother!" and revert to early practices at her knee. It is one of the most intelligent things the human race ever does. It is looking before you leap: the race has no choice but to leap; it draws back to solid ground in the past for a better take-off into the future. Mr. Harding represents solid ground, McKinley and the blessed nineties, the days before men raised a presumptuous hand against the clock.

If utterly in earnest and determined to revive that happy period, you clothe yourself in that garment which evokes the assured past, the blessed nineties, the long white night shirt; the long white night shirt supplemented by the black mask and the tar brush shall surely save you.

The Comic Spirit looking about largely, like our Fourth of July orator, sees in Mr. Harding a wise shrinking into the safety of the past and in Mr. William H. Taft, our new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, at once a regard for the past and an eye for the future. Can anyone tell whether Mr. Justice Taft is coming or going, as this Fourth of July speaker asked? He comes and he goes, and like the wind man knows not whence he cometh or whither he goeth. He is forward looking—when he is not backward looking. Like Zekle,

"He stands a while on one foot fust,

Then stands a while on t'other;

And on which one he feels the wust,

He can not tell you nuther."

Glance at his public career. He stood upon his future foot with Roosevelt, the chosen executor of "My Policies." A little later he stands upon his past foot, alongside of Aldrich and Cannon, doing the works of perdition and bringing on the battle of Armageddon. Again you find him standing on his future foot beside Mr. Frank P. Walsh in the War Labor Board, ranging himself with Mr. Walsh in practically all the close decisions. Again you see him when all the fine forward looking of the war was over, scurrying from the Russian revolution as fast as President Wilson or all the rest of us. And once more on his future foot with Mr. Wilson for the League of Nations and on his past foot with President Harding against the League of Nations.

Let us be Freudian and say that the unconscious political self of the whole nation is responsible for the selection of Mr. Harding and Mr. Taft. As we shrink back into the past we are aware that it is for the take-off into the future, and so we have Mr. Taft. We both eat our cake and have it in the new Chief Justice.

The United States, like Zekle, is "standing a while on one foot fust, then standing a while on t'other," moving forward or backward. But not for long, too large and secure to be permanently cautious, with too much well-being to be permanently bold, thinking, but with a certain restraining contempt for thought, instinctive rather than intellectual. Vast, eupeptic, assimilative, generous, adaptable, the Chief Justice typifies the American people in its more permanent characteristics.

Mr. Harding as President, Mr. Taft as Chief Justice, the agricultural bloc, the enfeebled Congress, the one million or so Democratic majority which becomes in four years a seven-million Republican majority, are only manifestations. The reality is the man, many millions strong, whose mental state produces the symptoms at Washington. It will be profitable to examine the content of his mind as it was in those days before momentous decisions had to be made about daylight saving, and as it is today when he hesitates between saving daylight and saving the clock, and perhaps decides to save both.

I can not better describe his political consciousness as it was than by saying that it contained three governments—the government of the clock, the government of the clock-winders, and the government of those who lived by the clock as religiously minded by the clock-winders. It was an orderly age, beautifully sure of itself, and the area of these three governments was nicely delimited. There was only a small place for the third of these governments.

For the purposes of more common understanding I shall sometimes refer to the government of the clock as the government of Progress, and the government of the clock-winders as the government of business, and to the third government as the government at Washington.

Before the war the American was sure that with each tick of the clock the world grew richer and better, especially richer. Progress went inevitably on and on. It never turned backward or rested. Its mechanical process relieved man of many responsibilities. No one would think of touching the mechanism; turning back the hands of the clock might rob us of some boon that was intended in the beginning whose moment of arrival might be lost by interfering with God's Time.

Born on a continent which only a few years before was a wilderness but which now was the richest and one of the finest civilizations on the earth, the American could not fail to believe in progress. The visible evidences of it were on every hand. His father had been a poor immigrant seeking the mere chance to live; he was a farmer possessed of many acres, a business man who had an increasing income already in five figures, a rising young attorney, or physician. Even from generation to generation everything got better.

The past had had its unhappy moments. The American looked back at the past mainly to measure how far he had come and to guess how far moving forward at a geometrical ratio of increased speed he would go in the not distant future. History flattered him.

Before his eyes went on the steady conquest over Nature, or perhaps it is better to say, the steady surrender of Nature. Always there were new discoveries of science. Always there were new inventions. Forces which a little while ago were beyond control, whose existence even was unsuspected, were harnessed to everyday uses. He saw progress in statistics. Things which were reckoned in millions began to be reckoned in hundreds of millions, began to be reckoned in billions. We loved to read the long figures where, in the pleasing extension of ciphers, wealth grew, debts grew—even debts were a source of pride before they called for income taxes to meet the annual payments upon them.

Progress would never stop. Tomorrow we should set the sun's rays to some more practical use than making the earth green and pleasant to look at and its fruits good to eat. We should employ them like the waters of Niagara Falls, to turn the wheels of machinery by day and to light soap and automobile signs on Broadway by night. We should split atoms apart and release the mighty forces that had held them together since the beginning, for the production of commodities in greater and greater quantities at less and less cost.

"We should," I say, but I do our inmost thought a vast injustice. Rather, Progress would, scientists and inventors being only the instruments of a Fate which went steadily forward to the accomplishment of its beneficent purposes. At the right moment, at the appointed hour, the man would appear. Progress kept the prompter's book and gave him the cue.

To a people with all these evidences of an irresistible forward movement in Nature before its eyes, came a prophet who gave it its law, the law of evolution, the law by which once the monocellular organism had acquired the mysterious gift of life out of combination and recombination inevitably came man. It was all the unfolding of the inevitable, the unrolling of time; the working out of a law.

Now, law has a quite extraordinary effect upon men's minds. The more Law there is the less Man there is. The more man spells Law with a capital letter the more he spells himself with a small letter. Man was no longer the special creation of God. God, instead of making Adam and Eve his wife, fashioned a grain of star dust and gave it a grain of star dust to wife, leaving the rest to Progress. Man who had been a little lower than the angels became, by an immense act of faith, a little higher than the earthworm. The old doctrine of the Fall of Man took on a reverse twist. Man had not fallen but he had risen from such debased beginnings that he had not got far. He was in about the same place where he would have been if he had fallen.

It was easy to turn upside down our belief in the Fall of Man. We always knew there was something wrong with him, but we did not know what it was until evolution explained his unregenerate character so satisfactorily. Still the thought that Man did not move forward as fast as things, was less the special ward of Progress than automobiles, elevators and bathtubs, was vaguely disturbing.

The Greeks had left us records which showed that the human mind was as good three thousand years ago as it is today, or better. We shut our eyes to this bit of evidence by abandoning the study of the classics and excluding all allusion to them in the oratory of our Congress. And Mr. Wells in his History has since justified us by proving that the Greeks were after all only the common run of small-town folk—over-press-agented, perhaps, by some fellows in the Middle Ages who had got tired of the Church and who therefore pretended that there was something bigger and better in the world than it was.

So we pinned our hopes on the Martians and spent our time frantically signalling to the nearby planet, asking whether, when the earth grew as cold as King David when his physicians "prescribed by way of poultice a young belle," and responded only weakly to the caress of the Sun, when its oceans dried up and only a trickle of water came down through its valleys from the melting ice at its poles, we should not, like the fancied inhabitants of the nearest celestial body, have evolved at last into super-beings. We wanted some evidence from our neighbors that, in spite of the Greeks, by merely watching the clock we should arrive at a higher estate.

The point I am trying to make is that we have been conducting the most interesting of Time's experiments in the government of men at a period when Man has been at a greater discount than usual in his own mind, when self-government faced too much competition from government by the clock.

When I speak of government by the clock, I should, perhaps, use capital letters to indicate that I have in mind that timepiece on which is recorded God's Time; whose ticking is the forward march of progress. Clocks as they touch our lives require human intervention. The winders of these clocks perform something that may be described as an office.

You recall the place the clock filled in our households a generation ago. Father wound it once a week, at a stated time, as regularly as he went to church. The winding of it was a function. No other hand but father's touched the key; if one had, the whole institution of family life would have been imperiled. Father is a symbol for the government of the clock-winders, those sacred persons who translated Progress into terms of common utility.

When we descended from the regions of theocratic power to those of human institutions, we found ourselves in America to be workers in one vast countrywide workshop. The workshop touches us more directly and more importantly than does the nation. Out of the workshop comes our bread and butter. When the workshop closes down we suffer and form on line at the soup kitchens.

Three meals a day concern us more than do post-offices and federal buildings, of however white marble or however noble façades. What we have to eat and to wear, what we may put in the bank, what real freedom we enjoy, our position in the eyes of men, our happiness and unhappiness, depend on our relations to the national workshop, not on our relations to the national government.

We conceived of it vaguely as a thing which produced prosperity, not prosperity in its larger and more permanent aspects—that was ours through the beneficence of Progress and the immortal luck of our country—but prosperity in its more immediate details.

A lot of confused thinking in which survived political ideas as old as the race, converted into modern forms, entered into our conception of it. It was a thing of gods and demigods, with legends of golden fleeces and of Hercules holding up the skies. It was feudal in its privileges and immunities. It enjoyed the divine right of kings. Yet it operated under laws not made by man.

When it failed to effect prosperity, it was because of a certain law that at the end of ever so many years of fatness it must produce a famine. At such times men, demigods, stepped out of banks with sacks of gold on their shoulders and mitigated the rigors of its failure.

And these splendid personages might set going again that which law stopped. We bowed patiently and unquestioningly to its periodic eccentricity as part of the Fate that fell upon the original sinner, and watched hopefully the powerful men who might in their pleasure or their wisdom end our sufferings.

We were taught to regard it as a thing distinct from political authority, so that the less governors and lawmakers interfered with it the better for the general welfare. Back in our past is a thorough contempt for human intelligence which relates somehow to the religious precept against questioning the wisdom of God. Whatever ordinary men did in the field of economics was sure to be wrong and to check the flow of goods upon which the well-being of society depended. We were all, except the familiars of the great forces, impotent pieces of the game economic law played upon this checker-board of nights and days.

I have said that this government of the national workshop in which we were all laborers or foremen or superintendents or masters sometimes seemed to our consciousness a government of laws and sometimes a government of men. In any primitive faith priests played a large part, and probably the primitive worshippers before them much of the time did not think beyond the priests, while sometimes they did—when it was convenient for the priests that they should.

When famines or plagues came it was because the gods were angry. When they are averted it is the priests who have averted them. When economic panics came it was because we had sinned against economic law; when they were averted it was because men had averted them, men who lived on intimate terms with economic law and understood its mysterious ways, and enjoyed its favor, as their great possessions testified.

Naturally, we are immensely more directly and more constantly concerned with this government than with the government at Washington. Besides, we were mostly business men, or hoped to be. It was our government more truly than was the government at Washington.

Only a limited area in the political consciousness was left for self-government. You descended from the heights to the broad flat plain of man's contempt for man. It was there, rooted firmly in the constitution, that the government at Washington reared its head. Self-government is a new thing; no myth has gathered about it. It was established among men who believed in the doctrine of the original sin, and it had been carried by their successors, who had abandoned the sinner Adam as the progenitor of their kind for the sinless but inglorious earthworm. The inferiority complex which is the race's most persistent heritage from the past was written all over it.

I suppose it was Adam Smith who made self-government possible by discovering that the things really essential to our welfare would take care of themselves if we only let them alone and that the more we let them alone the better they would take care of themselves, under eternal and immutable laws. Ah, the happy thought occurred, if the really essential things are thus beneficially regulated why shouldn't we have the fun of managing the non-essentials ourselves?

Progress ruled the world kindly and well. It might be trusted to see that all went for the best. The government of business functioned effectively for the general weal. The future was in the hands of a force that made the world richer and better. The present, in all that concerned man most vitally with regards food and shelter, was directed by enlightened self-interest represented by men who personified success.

It was impossible not to be optimistic when existence was so well ordered. There was no sorry scheme of things to be seized entire. Life was a sort of tropics without tropical discomforts. The tropics do not produce men. They produce things.

The Mechanism worked, as it seemed to us, in those happy days. We were satisfied with the clock and the clock-winders. We were not divided in our minds as to whether we should turn back its hands. The less men meddled the better. There was little work for human government to do. There was no call for men.

The picture in our heads, to use Mr. Graham Wallas's phrase, was of a world well ruled by a will from the beginning, whose purpose was increase; of some superior men having semi-sacred relations with the will who acted as intermediaries between the will and the rest of us; and of the rest of us as being rewarded by the will, through its intermediaries, according to our timidity and submissiveness.

It was, the world, over the great age of the racial inferiority complex, for which Science had furnished a new and convincing basis. I might maintain that the Great War was modern society's effort to compensate for the evolution complex; man wanted to show what he could do, in spite of his slimy origin. Anyway, it broke the picture in our heads. Being economical, like Mr. Harding, we are trying both to save the pieces of the picture and put them together again, and to form, out of them unfortunately, a new picture; which accounts for our confusion.

But the picture in our heads before the war, such as it was, is the reason for our present inadequacy. You could not form much of a self-government or develop men for one, with that complex in your soul.



How many of us believe in Progress with the unquestioning faith we had before that day in July, 1914, when Austria's declaration of war upon Serbia started the ruin of all that centuries had built up in Europe? Most of us have not stopped to analyze what has happened since to our belief that the world ever moved by an irresistible primal impulse forward to more and better things, that the song which the morning stars sang together was "It shall be multiplied unto you," that increment is inevitable and blessed. But how many of us really believe that in the unqualified way we once did?

The world had many pleasant illusions about Progress before the great catastrophe of 1914 came to shatter them. And nowhere were these illusions more cheerfully accepted than in this country of ours, where a wilderness had become a great civilization in the space of a century and where the evidences of rapid, continuous advancement were naturally strong.

The first pleasant illusion was that modern progress had made war impossible, at least war between the great nations of the earth, which, profiting by the examples we had set them, enjoyed more or less free governments, where production mounted from year to year, where wealth was ever increasing. Destiny plainly meant more and more iron dug from the ground and turned into steel machinery, larger, more powerful automobiles, taller and taller buildings, swifter and swifter elevators, more and more capacious freight cars, and destiny would not tolerate stopping all this for the insanity of destruction.

Moreover—how good were the ways of Progress—the ever increasing mastery over the forces of nature which had been fate's latest and best gift to humanity, approaching a sort of millennium of machinery, while creating vaster engines of industry had brought into being more and monstrous weapons of warfare.

Life with benignant irony was making man peaceful in spite of himself. His bigger and bigger cannon, his more and more lethal explosives were destroying his capacity for destruction. War was being hoist by its own petard. The bigger the armies, the more annihilating the shells piled up in the arsenals, the less the chance of their ever being used.

Progress, infinitely good toward man, had found a way out of war, the plague that had blighted the earth since the beginning. What religion could not do, the steel foundries and the chemical laboratories had done. They had made war too deadly to be endured. In effect they had abolished it. Peace was a by-product of the Bessemer oven and the dye vat. Man's conquest of himself was an unconsidered incident of his conquest of nature.

Then there were the costs of war. Progress had done something more than make fighting intolerably destructive of men and cities; it had made it intolerably destructive of money. Even if we would go to war, we could not since no nation could face the vast expenditures.

Two little wars of brief duration, the Boer War and the Balkan War, had left great debts to be paid and had brought in their train financial disturbances affecting the entire world. A European war would destroy immensely more capital and involve vastly greater burdens. No nation with such a load on its shoulders could meet the competition of its peace keeping rivals for the world's trade. No government in its senses would provoke such consequences, and governments were, of course, always in their senses.

You did not have to accept this as an act of faith; you could prove it. Shells, thanks to Progress, cost so many hundreds of dollars each. Cannon to fire them cost so many thousands of dollars each and could only be used a very few times. Armies such as the nations of Europe trained, cost so much a day to feed and to move. The demonstration was perfect. Progress had rendered war virtually impossible.

If in spite of all a war between great modern nations did start, it could last only a few weeks. No people could stand the strain. Bankruptcy lay at the end of a short campaign. A month would disclose the folly of it, and bring the contestants to their senses; if it did not, exhaustion would. Credit would quickly disappear. Nations could not borrow on the scale necessary to prolong the struggle.