It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 9

Those who have never been on the inside in the Councils of State can never realize that with really high-class Statesmen, their chief quality is not political canniness, but a big, rich, overflowing Love for all sorts and conditions of people and for the whole land. That Love and that Patriotism have been my sole guiding principles in Politics. My one ambition is to get all Americans to realize that they are, and must continue to be, the greatest Race on the face of this old Earth, and second, to realize that whatever apparent Differences there may be among us, in wealth, knowledge, skill, ancestry or strength — though, of course, all this does not apply to people who are RACIALLY different from us — we are all brothers, bound together in the great and wonderful bond of National Unity, for which we should all be very glad. And I think we ought to for this be willing to sacrifice any individual gains at all.

Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip.

Berzelius Windrip, of whom in late summer and early autumn of 1936 there were so many published photographs — showing him popping into cars and out of aeroplanes, dedicating bridges, eating corn pone and side-meat with Southerners and clam chowder and bran with Northerners, addressing the American Legion, the Liberty League, the Y.M.H.A., the Young People’s Socialist League, the Elks, the Bartenders’ and Waiters’ Union, the Anti–Saloon League, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Afghanistan — showing him kissing lady centenarians and shaking hands with ladies called Madame, but never the opposite — showing him in Savile Row riding-clothes on Long Island and in overalls and a khaki shirt in the Ozarks — this Buzz Windrip was almost a dwarf, yet with an enormous head, a bloodhound head, of huge ears, pendulous cheeks, mournful eyes. He had a luminous, ungrudging smile which (declared the Washington correspondents) he turned on and off deliberately, like an electric light, but which could make his ugliness more attractive than the simpers of any pretty man.

His hair was so coarse and black and straight, and worn so long in the back, that it hinted of Indian blood. In the Senate he preferred clothes that suggested the competent insurance salesman, but when farmer constituents were in Washington he appeared in an historic ten-gallon hat with a mussy gray “cutaway” which somehow you erroneously remembered as a black “Prince Albert.”

In that costume, he looked like a sawed-off museum model of a medicine-show “doctor,” and indeed it was rumored that during one law-school vacation Buzz Windrip had played the banjo and done card tricks and handed down medicine bottles and managed the shell game for no less scientific an expedition than Old Dr. Alagash’s Traveling Laboratory, which specialized in the Choctaw Cancer Cure, the Chinook Consumption Soother, and the Oriental Remedy for Piles and Rheumatism Prepared from a World-old Secret Formula by the Gipsy Princess, Queen Peshawara. The company, ardently assisted by Buzz, killed off quite a number of persons who, but for their confidence in Dr. Alagash’s bottles of water, coloring matter, tobacco juice, and raw corn whisky, might have gone early enough to doctors. But since then, Windrip had redeemed himself, no doubt, by ascending from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing on an indoor platform under mercury-vapor lights in front of a microphone.

He was in stature but a small man, yet remember that so were Napoleon, Lord Beaverbrook, Stephen A. Douglas, Frederick the Great, and the Dr. Goebbels who is privily known throughout Germany as “Wotan’s Mickey Mouse.”

Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill. Seven years before his present credo — derived from Lee Sarason, Hitler, Gottfried Feder, Rocco, and probably the revue Of Thee I Sing — little Buzz, back home, had advocated nothing more revolutionary than better beef stew in the county poor-farms, and plenty of graft for loyal machine politicians, with jobs for their brothers-inlaw, nephews, law partners, and creditors.

Doremus had never heard Windrip during one of his orgasms of oratory, but he had been told by political reporters that under the spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but that on the way home you could not remember anything he had said.

There were two things, they told Doremus, that distinguished this prairie Demosthenes. He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts — figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.

But below this surface stagecraft was his uncommon natural ability to be authentically excited by and with his audience, and they by and with him. He could dramatize his assertion that he was neither a Nazi nor a Fascist but a Democrat — a homespun Jeffersonian–Lincolnian-Clevelandian–Wilsonian Democrat — and (sans scenery and costume) make you see him veritably defending the Capitol against barbarian hordes, the while he innocently presented as his own warm-hearted Democratic inventions, every anti-libertarian, anti-Semitic madness of Europe.

Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man.

Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup, in rubber trays for the ice cubes in his electric refrigerator, in the especial nobility of dogs, all dogs, in the oracles of S. Parkes Cadman, in being chummy with all waitresses at all junction lunch rooms, and in Henry Ford (when he became President, he exulted, maybe he could get Mr. Ford to come to supper at the White House), and the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars. He regarded spats, walking sticks, caviar, titles, tea-drinking, poetry not daily syndicated in newspapers and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.

But he was the Common Man twenty-times-magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering among them, and they raised hands to him in worship.

In the greatest of all native American arts (next to the talkies, and those Spirituals in which Negroes express their desire to go to heaven, to St. Louis, or almost any place distant from the romantic old plantations), namely, in the art of Publicity, Lee Sarason was in no way inferior even to such acknowledged masters as Edward Bernays, the late Theodore Roosevelt, Jack Dempsey, and Upton Sinclair.

Sarason had, as it was scientifically called, been “building up” Senator Windrip for seven years before his nomination as President. Where other Senators were encouraged by their secretaries and wives (no potential dictator ought ever to have a visible wife, and none ever has had, except Napoleon) to expand from village back-slapping to noble, rotund, Ciceronian gestures, Sarason had encouraged Windrip to keep up in the Great World all of the clownishness which (along with considerable legal shrewdness and the endurance to make ten speeches a day) had endeared him to his simple-hearted constituents in his native state.

Windrip danced a hornpipe before an alarmed academic audience when he got his first honorary degree; he kissed Miss Flandreau at the South Dakota beauty contest; he entertained the Senate, or at least the Senate galleries, with detailed accounts of how to catch catfish — from the bait-digging to the ultimate effects of the jug of corn whisky; he challenged the venerable Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to a duel with sling-shots.

Though she was not visible, Windrip did have a wife — Sarason had none, nor was likely to; and Walt Trowbridge was a widower. Buzz’s lady stayed back home, raising spinach and chickens and telling the neighbors that she expected to go to Washington NEXT year, the while Windrip was informing the press that his “Frau” was so edifyingly devoted to their two small children and to Bible study that she simply could not be coaxed to come East.

But when it came to assembling a political machine, Windrip had no need of counsel from Lee Sarason.

Where Buzz was, there were the vultures also. His hotel suite, in the capital city of his home state, in Washington, in New York, or in Kansas City, was like — well, Frank Sullivan once suggested that it resembled the office of a tabloid newspaper upon the impossible occasion of Bishop Cannon’s setting fire to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, kidnaping the Dionne quintuplets, and eloping with Greta Garbo in a stolen tank.

In the “parlor” of any of these suites, Buzz Windrip sat in the middle of the room, a telephone on the floor beside him, and for hours he shrieked at the instrument, “Hello — yuh — speaking,” or at the door, “Come in-come in!” and “Sit down ‘n’ take a load off your feet!” All day, all night till dawn, he would be bellowing, “Tell him he can take his bill and go climb a tree,” or “Why certainly, old man — tickled to death to support it — utility corporations cer’nly been getting a raw deal,” and “You tell the Governor I want Kippy elected sheriff and I want the indictment against him quashed and I want it damn quick!” Usually, squatted there cross-legged, he would be wearing a smart belted camel’s-hair coat with an atrocious checked cap.

In a fury, as he was at least every quarter hour, he would leap up, peel off the overcoat (showing either a white boiled shirt and clerical black bow, or a canary-yellow silk shirt with a scarlet tie), fling it on the floor, and put it on again with slow dignity, while he bellowed his anger like Jeremiah cursing Jerusalem, or like a sick cow mourning its kidnaped young.

There came to him stockbrokers, labor leaders, distillers, anti-vivisectionists, vegetarians, disbarred shyster lawyers, missionaries to China, lobbyists for oil and electricity, advocates of war and of war against war. “Gaw! Every guy in the country with a bad case of the gimmes comes to see me!” he growled to Sarason. He promised to further their causes, to get an appointment to West Point for the nephew who had just lost his job in the creamery. He promised fellow politicians to support their bills if they would support his. He gave interviews upon subsistence farming, backless bathing suits, and the secret strategy of the Ethiopian army. He grinned and knee-patted and back-slapped; and few of his visitors, once they had talked with him, failed to look upon him as their Little Father and to support him forever. . . . The few who did fail, most of them newspapermen, disliked the smell of him more than before they had met him. . . . Even they, by the unusual spiritedness and color of their attacks upon him, kept his name alive in every column. . . . By the time he had been a Senator for one year, his machine was as complete and smooth-running — and as hidden away from ordinary passengers — as the engines of a liner.

On the beds in any of his suites there would, at the same time, repose three top-hats, two clerical hats, a green object with a feather, a brown derby, a taxi-driver’s cap, and nine ordinary, Christian brown felts.

Once, within twenty-seven minutes, he talked on the telephone from Chicago to Palo Alto, Washington, Buenos Aires, Wilmette, and Oklahoma City. Once, in half a day, he received sixteen calls from clergymen asking him to condemn the dirty burlesque show, and seven from theatrical promoters and real-estate owners asking him to praise it. He called the clergymen “Doctor” or “Brother” or both; he called the promoters “Buddy” and “Pal”; he gave equally ringing promises to both; and for both he loyally did nothing whatever.

Normally, he would not have thought of cultivating foreign alliances, though he never doubted that some day, as President, he would be leader of the world orchestra. Lee Sarason insisted that Buzz look into a few international fundamentals, such as the relationship of sterling to the lira, the proper way in which to address a baronet, the chances of the Archduke Otto, the London oyster bars and the brothels near the Boulevard de Sebastopol best to recommend to junketing Representatives.

But the actual cultivation of foreign diplomats resident in Washington he left to Sarason, who entertained them on terrapin and canvasback duck with black-currant jelly, in his apartment that was considerably more tapestried than Buzz’s own ostentatiously simple Washington quarters. . . . However, in Sarason’s place, a room with a large silk-hung Empire double bed was reserved for Buzz.

It was Sarason who had persuaded Windrip to let him write Zero Hour, based on Windrip’s own dictated notes, and who had beguiled millions into reading — and even thousands into buying — that Bible of Economic Justice; Sarason who had perceived there was now such a spate of private political weeklies and monthlies that it was a distinction not to publish one; Sarason who had the inspiration for Buzz’s emergency radio address at 3 A.M. upon the occasion of the Supreme Court’s throttling the N.R.A., in May, 1935. . . . Though not many adherents, including Buzz himself, were quite certain as to whether he was pleased or disappointed; though not many actually heard the broadcast itself, everyone in the country except sheep-herders and Professor Albert Einstein heard about it and was impressed.

Yet it was Buzz who all by himself thought of first offending the Duke of York by refusing to appear at the Embassy dinner for him in December, 1935, thus gaining, in all farm kitchens and parsonages and barrooms, a splendid reputation for Homespun Democracy; and of later mollifying His Highness by calling on him with a touching little home bouquet of geraniums (from the hothouse of the Japanese ambassador), which endeared him, if not necessarily to Royalty yet certainly to the D.A.R., the English–Speaking Union, and all motherly hearts who thought the pudgy little bunch of geraniums too sweet for anything.

By the newspapermen Buzz was credited with having insisted on the nomination of Perley Beecroft for vice-president at the Democratic convention, after Doremus Jessup had frenetically ceased listening. Beecroft was a Southern tobacco-planter and storekeeper, an ex-Governor of his state, married to an ex-schoolteacher from Maine who was sufficiently scented with salt spray and potato blossoms to win any Yankee. But it was not his geographical superiority which made Mr. Beecroft the perfect running mate for Buzz Windrip but that he was malaria-yellowed and laxly mustached, where Buzz’s horsey face was ruddy and smooth; while Beecroft’s oratory had a vacuity, a profundity of slowly enunciated nonsense, which beguiled such solemn deacons as were irritated by Buzz’s cataract of slang.

Nor could Sarason ever have convinced the wealthy that the more Buzz denounced them and promised to distribute their millions to the poor, the more they could trust his “common sense” and finance his campaign. But with a hint, a grin, a wink, a handshake, Buzz could convince them, and their contributions came in by the hundred thousand, often disguised as assessments on imaginary business partnerships.

It had been the peculiar genius of Berzelius Windrip not to wait until he should be nominated for this office or that to begin shanghaiing his band of buccaneers. He had been coaxing in supporters ever since the day when, at the age of four, he had captivated a neighborhood comrade by giving him an ammonia pistol which later he thriftily stole back from the comrade’s pocket. Buzz might not have learned, perhaps could not have learned, much from sociologists Charles Beard and John Dewey, but they could have learned a great deal from Buzz.

And it was Buzz’s, not Sarason’s, master stroke that, as warmly as he advocated everyone’s getting rich by just voting to be rich, he denounced all “Fascism” and “Nazi-ism,” so that most of the Republicans who were afraid of Democratic Fascism, and all the Democrats who were afraid of Republican Fascism, were ready to vote for him.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57