Everybody has been reading about the latest episode of fisticuffs -- toga-tugging, really -- between our lawgivers on Capitol Hill, this time involving Republican Rep. Bob Dornan and Democratic Rep. Tom Downey. The former had called the latter a wimp. We know of no fight between legislators of this century in which any knockdown or even any clean blow to the jaw was recorded by spectators, and this fight was no exception. At worst, Downey was temporarily hoist by his own foulard.
Before sociologists and pop psychologists labor to explain the root cause of these outbreaks of violence among our leaders, I would like to offer my own theory.
The moment I read about the Dornan-Downey encounter, a small voice said, "General MacArthur -- he must be around somewhere!" And of course, it was right at that time that television was bringing the general back bigger-than-life in the series based on William Manchester's book about the great commander. These fights have repeatedly coincided with the general's doings, or his un-doing or his hovering spirit.
Go back in memory to April 9, 1942, if you can. I can. It was the day of the terrible headlines announcing the surrender of our men on Bataan in the Philippines, from which the general had departed on orders of President Roosevelt. Everybody in Washington, as elsewhere, felt awful, and something had to give. Sure enough, that evening two imposing figures -- not just congressmen, but genuine moguls -- arrived for the annual dinner of the Alfalfa Club in the Willard Hotel. One was Eugene Meyer, publisher of The Washington Post. The other was Jesse Jones, Texan, secretary of commerce, vast in construction but as out of shape as Meyer. It had been a rotten day for Jones. He had just issued a challenge to Sen. Bunker of Nevada to come out from behind his congressional immunity (exactly what Dornan said to Downey) and repeat his allegations about the commerce department and that magnesium plant in Las Vegas. And who does Jones run into but Meyer, who had just published an editorial attacking Jones' testimony before the Truman committee on rubber production for "the war effort."
Jones grabbed Meyer by the shirt-front and shook him, causing the latter's eyeglasses (pince- nez) to fall to the floor where they shattered, plastic not being in use in those days. Meyer swung at Jones, or Jones' general, blurry direction, but there is no testimony that the blow landed. Nevertheless, it was the secretary who abandoned the field of honor and the publisher who stayed around for the evening of good fellowship.
The years passed. The big war ended and another started, in Korea. The general remained in Asia, which enhanced his image and his mystic powers over others, including congressmen, to whom he wrote letters that were published and that were read by President Truman.
(On the day the radio told us of the last letter by the general, that passionate and talented journalist, Vincent Sheean, was staying at my house near Alexandria. He had just been in Tokyo. Now he grabbed my telephone and dictated a cable to MacArthur, saying, as I imperfectly recall, "Alas, my friend, it is all over." He knew what Truman would do.)
The morning after Truman did it, I walked into the radio correspondents' studio, just off the Senate gallery. The Republican, Sen. Wherry of Nebraska -- known to the press as the Merry Mortician -- was there, acting like a man fighting bees, and shouting curses upon the head of Harry Truman. Like an ass, I spoke up and said the president was, after all, the commander in chief and we could have only one of those. Wherry shook his finger under my nose, and, I believe, frothed. Possibly because I was young and large, he suddenly whirled and banged out through the swinging doors. Someone in the group said something, and bang -- Wherry reentered, rushed up to me, hand again uplifted. "Wha'd you say, wha'd you say?" he said.
Then spoke that great man, Elmer Davis, who said very quietly, "I said something. I said the senator seems excited." Whereupon Wherry yelled repeatedly, "Who's excited! I'm not excited!" But Elmer was too eminent, gentle and white-haired for anybody to attack, so once again, no blows, no knockdowns. But the story spread immediately that Wherry and I had pummeled one another. The winner, in each version, seemed to depend on the storyteller's personal stand on MacArthur vs. Truman.
Of course, reporters don't count, as Gertrude Stein said, though I wish she hadn't, after I found her in her Alpine hideout in World War II, more or less simultaneously with soldiers of the 45th Division. But senators should count, and you wouldn't believe, unless you were there, what happened with the most august of them on the day the general, in the flesh, his very self, arrived on Capitol Hill to tell a wet-eyed America that he was about to fade away. All gravitas evaporated.
This time the setting was a different radio studio in the Capitol where senators recorded their words for the enlightenment of their constituents. The cast consisted of Sens. Taft of Ohio, Humphrey of Minnesota, Moody of Michigan, Capehart of Indiana and Lehman of New York with one innocent bystander, a young Minnesota lawyer-judge, now the older Washington lawyer, Lee Loevinger. It started between Capehart and Humphrey and became a brief gang fight after Taft ceased his efforts as mediator or referee and departed. Later, Capehart said that Humphrey had called him a bad name which Humphrey fiercely denied. Rather, said Humphry, Capehart had accused him and Lehman of being "communist sympathizers with China." Mr. Loevinger, though a close friend of Humphrey, retained his judicious spirit and said that actually Capehart had called Humphrey and Lehman "sympathizers with communist China," something very different. Loevinger deposed further that "Moody grabbed one of them, I'm not sure whom."
Humphrey said later that he just walked away from Capehart, though the Hoosier senator said he threw Humphrey out of the studio. This seemed improbable, given their respective ages and conditions. Capehart also said he shoved Lehman only after Lehman "tried to jump me from behind." It occurred to me that what really happened was that, given the general construction of both these men, they realized the only way they could get within arm's reach of each other was to go back to back.
You can see the perpetual problem with these affairs. There is never an official record of precisely what did happen. We're never sure who won. tory remains deprived.
The Senate might remedy this situation by having the Rules Committee write a rule. This could stipulate that a senator would be declared the winner and his victory entered into the record when he says to the senator whose shirtfront he is grasping, "Will the distinguished Senator from X yield to me?" And when the graspee says, "I yield to the able Senator from Y."
Something like that could do it, for Senate or House, but they should get about it soon, before the MacArthur re-runs commence on TV.