Bedfellows, Canine and Political

E. B. White’s purports to have penned his February 1956 essay “Bedfellows” from his “sick bay” at home in New York. The sickbed is a clever conceit that gives him license to muse somewhat feverishly on the political and canine bedfellows, comparing Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Adlai Stevenson and President Eisenhower to his late dachshund Fred.

He sets the stage with grudgingly fond memories of Fred, whom he calls “the Cecil B. deMille of dogs,” “a zealot” and “an opportunist.”

The word “faithful” is an adjective I simply never thought of in connection with Fred. He differed from most dogs in that he tended to knock down, rather than build up, the master’s ego….Fred devoted his life to deflating me and succeeded admirably.

Recalling Fred, who died in Truman’s era seven years prior, as the household’s self-appointed prosecutor-general (“Fred saw in every bird, every squirrel, every housefly, every rat, every skunk, every porcupine, a security risk and a present danger to his republic.”), EBW segues into discussing the national security versus free speech tensions of the McCarthy era.

He chides the Democratic party for “bellyaching” about the then Republican-controlled press’s perceived bias in covering the 1948 election, which Democrat Truman won, the slanted coverage by “special interests” notwithstanding. EBW sides with Adlai Stevenson (running again against Eisenhower in ’56), who wisely perceived a greater danger in conformity than dissent. He also agrees with Dean Acheson (Truman’s Secretary of State) that “security declines as security machinery expands.” Tongue firmly in cheek, EBW compares his dog’s “unshakable convictions” to Truman’s, but commends Fred for the ferocity of his opposition to the ruling party (him):

He [Fred] was absolutely sure that he was in possession of the truth…His views were largely of a dissenting nature. Yet in tearing us apart he somehow held us together. In obstructing, he strengthened us. In criticizing, he informed. In his rich, aromatic heresy, he nourished our faith. He was also a plain damned nuisance, I must not forget that.

On the subject of faith, EBW respectfully rejects President Eisenhower’s effort to make “religious faith a precondition of the American way of life.” EBW found Eisenhower’s unprecedented public prayer at the 1953 inauguration “disturbing,” not because it went against his own beliefs, but because “the concern of a democracy is that no honest man shall feel uncomfortable.”

Again, the diminutive Fred is held up as the standard by which democracy is measured:

Fred was an unbeliever. He worshiped no personal God, no Supreme Being. He certainly did not worship me. If he had suddenly taken to worshiping me, I think I would have felt as queer as God must have felt the other day when a minister in California, pronouncing the invocation for a meeting of Democrats, said, ‘We believe Adlai Stevenson to be Thy choice for President of the United States. Amen’

Amen, indeed, for those of us recovering from the myriad abuses of the Bush era, with the Justice Department and the Religious Right waging a pinchers assault on our civil liberties, and the liberal (now Democratic) press criticized from both fronts for being a lax watchdog or a disloyal pet. As with most of EBW’s essays, “Bedfellows” remains relevant to readers today.

Personal Reflections

Bedfellows at home. Teddy (dog) threw his back out and is snoozing under a heating pad next to Alley (cat).

Bedfellows at home. Teddy (dog) threw his back out and is snoozing under a heating pad next to Alley (cat).

This afternoon I saw “Frost/Nixon” (the oddest of bedfellows!) and wondered if we will ever see W. break down in a Barbara Walters special or mop his brow on Oprah’s couch; more likely the closest to an apology we’ll get is more of the passive voiced, “mistakes were made” variety. Nixon accepted the interview with Frost thinking he’d be a lapdog, a lightweight in Italian loafers, but was undone by his own hubris and found himself admitting criminal wrongdoing and apologizing (“I let the American people down.”) in an interview seen by the largest television audience in history (45 million people).

There is an poignant moment at the end, when a humbled Nixon leaves the final taping session and pauses to awkwardly pat a dachshund held by a woman on the sidewalk (by the way he tugs at the dog’s ear, you can tell he is not a dog-person!). I half-expected the creature to nip the president’s hand, but it may have felt the same sympathy for a broken man that the audience does by this point. I suspect EBW’s Fred would have at least bared his teeth.

In the film’s final scene, Frost visits San Clemente to say good-bye to Nixon, and Tricky Dick has recovered enough to call the press “whores,” though the slur seems mostly reflexive. Envious of Frost’s outgoing personality, Nixon observes that he never had the charisma to seek elected office and might have made a better journalist. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.


1 Response to “Bedfellows, Canine and Political”

  1. 1 ERD January 4, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Enjoyed the film, ‘Frost and Nixon,” as much as your review. And EB’s political perspective are such a find. Did he write Talk of the Towns along with his other contributions to the NYer?

    If “the concern of a democracy is that no honest man shall feel uncomfortable,” why can’t someone impress this on Republican pols? I’d so much rather see politics start from a common value like that, rather than from the notion that all voters want is someone to ‘represent’ them (eg. get us we want or need, never mind some notion of the common good or ‘comfort’ of others).

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