In the 1960s and '70s of the last unlamented century, there was a New York television producer named David Susskind. He was commercially successful; he was also, surprisingly, a man of strong political views which he knew how to present so tactfully that networks were often unaware of just what he was getting away with on their–our–air. Politically, he liked to get strong-minded guests to sit with him at a round table in a ratty building at the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street. Sooner or later, just about everyone of interest appeared on his program. Needless to say, he also had time for Vivien Leigh to discuss her recent divorce from Laurence Olivier, which summoned forth the mysterious cry from the former Scarlett O'Hara, "I am deeply sorry for any woman who was not married to Larry Olivier." Since this took in several billion ladies (not to mention those gentlemen who might have offered to fill, as it were, the breach), Leigh caused a proper stir, as did the ballerina Alicia Markova, who gently assured us that "a Markova comes only once every hundred years or so."
I suspect it was the dim lighting on the set that invited such naked truths. David watched his pennies. I don't recall how, or when, we began our "States of the Union" programs. But we did them year after year. I would follow whoever happened to be President, and I'd correct his "real" state of the union with one of my own, improvising from questions that David would prepare. I was a political pundit because in a 1960 race for the House of Representatives (upstate New York), I got more votes than the head of the ticket, JFK; in 1962, I turned down the Democratic nomination for US Senate on the sensible ground that it was not winnable; I also had a pretty good memory in those days, now a-jangle with warning bells as I try to recall the national debt or, more poignantly, where I last saw my glasses.
I've just come across my "State of the Union" as of 1972. Apparently, I gave it fifteen times across the country, ending with Susskind's program. Questions and answers from the audience were the most interesting part of these excursions. As I look back over the texts of what we talked about, I'm surprised at how to the point we often were on subjects seldom mentioned in freedom's land today.
In 1972, I begin: "According to the polls, our second principal concern today is the breakdown of law and order." (What, I wonder, was the first? Let's hope it was the pointless, seven-year–at that point–war in Southeast Asia.) I noted that to those die-hard conservatives, "law and order" is usually a code phrase meaning "get the blacks." While, to what anorexic, vacant-eyed blonde women on TV now describe as the "liberal elite," we were pushing the careful–that is, slow–elimination of poverty. Anything more substantive would have been regarded as communism, put forward by dupes. But then, I say very mildly, we have only one political party in the United States, the Property Party, with two right wings, Republican and Democrat. Since I tended to speak to conservative audiences in such civilized places as Medford, Oregon; Parkersburg,West Virginia; and Longview, Washington, there are, predictably, a few gasps at this rejection of so much received opinion. There are also quite a few nods from interested citizens who find it difficult at election time to tell the parties apart. Was it in pristine Medford that I actually saw the nodding Ralph Nader whom I was, to his horror, to run for President that year in Esquire? Inspired by the nods, I start to geld the lily, as the late Sam Goldwyn used to say. The Republicans are often more doctrinaire than the Democrats, who are willing to make small–very small–adjustments where the poor and black are concerned while giving aid and comfort to the anti-imperialists. Yes, I was already characterizing our crazed adventure in Vietnam as imperial, instead of yet another proof of our irrepressible, invincible altruism, ever eager to bring light to those who dwell in darkness.