The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert

A story by Ward Just

The deputation was there: twelve men in his outer office and he would have to see them. His own fault, if “fault" was the word. They’d called every day for a week, trying to arrange an appointment. Finally his assistant, Annette, put it to him: Please see them. Do it for me. Wein is an old friend, she’d said. It meant a lot to Wein to get his group before a congressman whose name was known, whose words had weight. LaRuth stood and stretched; his long arms reached for the ceiling. He was his statuesque best that day: dark suit, dark tie. white shirt, black beard neatly trimmed. No jewelry of any kind. He rang his secretary and told her to show them in, to give them thirty minutes and then ring again; the committee meeting was at eleven.

“What do they look like?”

“Scientists,”she said. “They look just as you’d expect scientists to look. They’re all thin. And none of them are smoking.”LaRuth laughed. “They’re pretty intense, Lou.”

“Well, let’s get on with it.”

He met them at the door, as they shyly filed in. Wein and his committee were scientists against imperealism. They were physicists, biologists, linguists, and philosophers. They introduced themselves, and LaRuth wondered again what it was that a philosopher did in these times. It had to be a grim year for philosophy. The introductions done. LaRuth leaned back, a long leg hooked over the arm of his chair, and told them to go ahead.

They had prepared a congressional resolution, a sense-of-the-Congress resolution, which they wanted LaRuth to introduce. It was a message denouncing imperialism, and as LaRuth read it he was impressed by its eloquence. They had assembled hard facts: so many tons of bombs dropped in Indochina, so many “facilities” built in Africa, so many American soldiers based in Europe, so many billions in corporate investment in Latin America. It was an excellent statement, not windy as so many of them are. He finished reading it, and turned to Wein.

“Congressman, we believe this is a matter of simple morality. Decency, if you will. There are parallels elsewhere, the most compelling being the extermination of American Indians. Try not to look on the war and the bombing from the perspective of a Westerner looking East but of an Easterner facing West.”LaRuth nodded. He recognized that it was the war that truly interested them. “The only place the analogy breaks down is that the Communists in Asia appear to be a good deal more resourceful and resilient than the Indians in America. Perhaps that is because there are so many more of them.” Wein paused to smile. “But it is genocide either way. It is a stain on the American Congress not to raise a specific voice of protest, not only in Asia but in the other places where American policy is doing violence . . .”

LaRuth wondered if they knew the mechanics of moving a congressional resolution. They probably did; there was no need for a civics lecture. Wein was looking at him, waiting for a response. An intervention. “It’s a very fine statement,” LaRuth said.

“Everybody says that. And then they tell us to get the signatures and come back. We think this ought to be undertaken from the inside. In that way, when and if the resolution is passed, it will have more force. We think that a member of Congress should get out front on it.”

An admirable toughness there, LaRuth thought. If he were Wein, that would be just about the way he’d put it.

“We’ve all the people you’d expect us to have.” Very rapidly, Wein ticked off two dozen names, the regular antiwar contingent on the Democratic left. “What we need to move with this is not the traditional dove, but a more moderate man. A moderate man with a conscience.” Wein smiled.

“Yes,” LaRuth said.

“Someone like you.”

LaRuth was silent a moment, then spoke rapidly. “My position is this. I’m not a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee or the Appropriations Committee or Armed Services or any of the others where . . . war legislation or defense matters are considered. I’m not involved in foreign relations, I’m in education. It’s the Education and Labor Committee. No particular reason why those two subjects should be linked, but they are.” LaRuth smiled. “That’s Congress for you.”

“It seems to us, Congressman, that the war—the leading edge of imperialism and violence—is tied to everything. Education is a mess because of the war. So is labor. And so forth. It’s all part of the war. Avoid the war and you avoid all the other problems. The damn thing is like the Spanish Inquisition, if you lived in Torquemada’s time, fifteenth-century Spain. If you did try to avoid it you were either a coward or a fool. That is meant respectfully.”

“Well, it is nicely put. Respectfully.”

“But you won’t do it.”

LaRuth shook his head. “You get more names, and I’ll think about cosponsoring. But I won’t front for it. I’m trying to pass an education bill right now. I can’t get out front on the war, too. Important as it is. Eloquent as you are. There are other men in this House who can do the job better than I can.”

“We’re disappointed,” Wein said.

“I could make you a long impressive speech.” His eyes took in the others, sitting in chilly silence. “I could list all the reasons. But you know what they are, and it wouldn’t do either of us any good. I wish you success.”

“Spare us any more successes,” Wein said. “Everyone wishes us success, but no one helps. We’re like the troops in the trenches. The Administration tells them to go out and win the war. You five hundred thousand American boys, you teach the dirty Commies a lesson. Storm the hill, the Administration says. But the Administration is far away from the shooting. We’re right behind you, they say. Safe in Washington.”

“I don’t deny it,” LaRuth said mildly.

“I think there are special places in hell reserved for those who see the truth but will not act.” LaRuth stiffened, but stayed silent. “These people are worse than the ones who love the war. You are more dangerous than the generals in the Pentagon, who at least are doing what they believe in. It is because of people like you that we are where we are.”

Never justify, never explain, LaRuth thought; it was pointless anyway. They were pleased to think of him as a war criminal. A picture of a lurching tumbrel in Pennsylvania Avenue flashed through his mind, and was gone, an oddly comical image. LaRuth touched his beard and sat upright. “I’m sorry you feel that way. It isn’t true, you know.” One more number like that one, he thought suddenly, and he’d throw the lot of them out of his office.

But Wein would not let go. “We’re beyond subtle distinctions, Mr. LaRuth. That is one of the delightful perceptions that the war has brought us. We can mumble all day. You can tell me about your responsibilities and your effectiveness, and how you don’t want to damage it. You can talk politics and I can talk morals. But I took moral philosophy in college. An interesting academic exercise.” LaRuth nodded; Wein was no fool. “Is it true you wrote your Ph.D. thesis on Flaubert?”

“I wrote it at the Sorbonne,” LaRuth replied. “But that was almost twenty years ago. Before polities.” LaRuth wanted to give them something to hang on to. They would appreciate the irony, and then they could see him as a fallen angel, a victim of the process; it was more interesting than seeing him as a war criminal.

“Well, it figures.”

LaRuth was surprised. He turned to Wein. “How does it figure?”

“Flaubert was just as pessimistic and cynical as you are.”

LaRuth had thirty minutes to review his presentation to the committee. This was the most important vote in his twelve years in Congress, a measure which, if they could steer it through the House, would release a billion dollars over three years’ time to elementary schools throughout the country. The measure was based on a hellishly complicated formula which several legal experts regarded as unconstitutional; but one expert is always opposed by another when a billion dollars is involved. LaRuth had to nurse along the chairman, a volatile personality, a natural skeptic. Today he had to put his presentation in exquisite balance, giving here, taking there, assuring the committee that the Constitution would be observed, and that all regions would share equally.

It was not something that could be understood in a university, but LaRuth’s twelve years in the House of Representatives would be justified if he could pass this bill. Twelve years, through three Presidents. He’d avoided philosophy and concentrated on detail, his own time in a third-rate grade school in a Southern mill town never far from his mind: that was the reference point. Not often that a man was privileged to witness the methodical destruction of children before the age of thirteen, before they had encountered genuinely soulless and terrible events: the war, for one. His bill would begin the process of revivifying education. It was one billion dollars’ worth of life, and he’d see to it that some of the money leaked down to his own school. LaRuth was lucky, an escapee on scholarships, first to Tulane and then to Paris, his world widened beyond measure; Flaubert gave him a taste for politics. Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education were political novels, or so he’d argued at the Sorbonne; politics was nothing more or less than an understanding of ambition, and the moral and social conditions that produced it in its various forms. The House of Representatives: un stade des arrivistes. And now the press talked him up as a Southern liberal, and the Northern Democrats came to him for help. Sometimes he gave it, sometimes he didn’t. They could not understand the refusals—Lou, you won with 65 percent of the vote the last time out. What do you want, a coronation? They were critical that he would not get out front on the war, and would not vote against bills vital to Southern interests. (Whatever they were, now that the entire region was dominated by industrial combines whose headquarters were in New York or Chicago— and how’s that for imperialism. Herr Wein?) They didn’t, or couldn’t, grasp the paper-thin depth of his support. The Birchers and the segs were everywhere, and each time he voted with the liberals in the House he’d hear from a few of them. You are being watched. He preferred a low silhouette. All those big liberals didn’t understand that a man with enough money could still buy an election in his district; he told them that LaRuth compromised was better than no LaRuth at all. That line had worked well the first four or five years he’d been in Washington; it worked no longer. In these times, caution and realism were the refuge of a scoundrel.

The war, so remote in its details, poisoned everything. He read about it every day, and through a friend on the Foreign Affairs Committee saw some classified material. But he could not truly engage himself in it, because he hadn’t seen it firsthand. He did not know it intimately. It was clear enough that it was a bad war, everyone knew that; but knowing it and feeling it were two different things. The year before he’d worked to promote a junket, a special subcommittee to investigate expenditures for education. There was plenty of scandalous rumor to justify the investigation. He tried to promote it in order to get a look at the place firsthand, on the ground. He wanted to look at the faces and the villages, to see the countryside which had been destroyed by the war, to observe the actual manner in which the war was being fought. But the chairman refused, he wanted no part of it; scandal or no scandal, it was not part of the committee’s business. So the trip never happened. What the congressman knew about the war he read in newspapers and magazines and saw on television. But that did not help. LaRuth had done time as an infantryman in Korea, and knew what killing was about; the box did not make it as horrible as it was. The box romanticized it, cleansed it of pain; one more false detail. Even the blood deceived, coming up pink and pretty on the television set. One night he spent half of Cronkite fiddling with the color knob to get a perfect red, to insist the blood look like blood.

More; early in his congressional career. LaRuth took pains to explain his positions. He wanted his constituents to know what he was doing and why, and two newsletters went out before the leader of his state’s delegation took him aside one day in the hall. Huge arms around his shoulders, a whispered conference. Christ, you are going to get killed, the man said. Don’t do that. Don’t get yourself down on paper on every raggedy-ass bill that comes before Congress. it makes you a few friends, who don’t remember, and a lot of enemies, who do. Particularly in your district; you are way ahead of those people in a lot of areas, but don’t advertise it. You’ve a fine future here; don’t ruin it before you’ve begun. LaRuth thought the advice was captious and irresponsible and disregarded it. And very nearly lost reelection, after some indiscretions to a newspaperman. That son of a bitch, who violated every rule of confidence held sacred in the House of Representatives.

His telephone rang. The secretary said it was Annette.

“How did it go?” Her voice was low, cautious.

“Like a dream,” he said. “And thanks lots. I’m up there with the generals as a war criminal. They think I make lampshades in my spare time.”

Coolly: “I take it you refused to help them.”

“You take it right.”

“They’re very good people. Bill Wein is one of the most distinguished botanists in the country.”

“Yes, he speaks very well. A sincere, intelligent, dedicated provocateur. Got off some very nice lines, at least one reference to Dante. A special place in hell is reserved for people like me, who are worse than army generals.”

“Well, that’s one point of view.”

“You know, I’m tired of arguing about the war. If Wein is so goddamned concerned about the war and the corruption of the American system, then why doesn’t he give up the fat government contracts at that think tank he works for . . .”

“That’s unfair, Lou!”

“. . . why do they think that anyone who deals in the real world is an automatic sellout? Creep. A resolution like that one, even if passed, would have no effect. Zero effect. It would not be binding, the thing’s too vague. They’d sit up there and everyone would have a good gooey warm feeling, and nothing would happen. It’s meaningless, except of course for the virtue. Virtue everywhere. Virtue triumphant. So I am supposed to put my neck on the line for something that’s meaningless. . .” LaRuth realized he was near shouting, so he lowered his voice. “Meaningless,” he said.

“You’re so hostile.” she said angrily. “Filled with hate. Contempt. Why do you hate everybody? You should’ve done what Wein wanted you to do.”

He counted to five and was calm now, reasonable. His congressional baritone: “It’s always helpful to have your political advice, Annette. Very helpful. I value it. Too bad you’re not a politician yourself.” She said nothing, he could hear her breathing. “I’ll see you later,” he said, and hung up.

LaRuth left his office, bound for the committee room. He’d gone off the handle, and was not sorry. But sometimes he indulged in just a bit much introspection and self-justification, endemic diseases in politicians. There were certain basic facts: his constituency supported the war, at the same time permitting him to oppose it so long as he did it quietly and in such a way that “the boys” were supported. Oppose the war, support the troops. A high-wire act—very Flaubertian, that situation; it put him in the absurd position of voting for military appropriations and speaking out against the war. Sorry, Annette; that’s the way we think on Capitol Hill. It’s a question of what you vote for. Forget the fancy words and phrases, it’s a question of votes. Up, down, or “present.” Vote against the appropriations and sly opponents at home would accuse him of “tying the hands” of American troops and thereby comforting the enemy. Blood on his fingers.

2.

LaRuth was forty; he had been in the House since the age of twenty-eight. Some of his colleagues had been there before he was born, moving now around the halls and the committee rooms as if they were extensions of antebellum county courthouses. They smelled of tobacco and whiskey and old wool, their faces dry as parchment. LaRuth was amused to watch them on the floor; they behaved as they would at a board meeting of a family business, attentive if they felt like it, disruptive if their mood was playful. They were forgiven; it was a question of age. The House was filled with old men, and its atmosphere was one of very great age. Deference was a way of life. LaRuth recalled a friend who aspired to a position of leadership. They put him through his paces, and for some reason he did not measure up; the friend was told he’d have to wait, it was not yet time. He’d been there eighteen years, and was only fifty-two. Fifty-two! Jack Kennedy was President at forty-three, and Thomas Jefferson had written the preamble when under thirtyfive. But then, as one of the senior men put it, this particular fifty-two-year-old man had none of the durable qualities of Kennedy or Jefferson. That is, he did not have Kennedy’s money or Jefferson’s brains. Not that money counted for very much in the House of Representatives; plutocrats belonged in the other body.

It was not a place for lost causes. There were too many conflicting interests, too much confusion, too many turns to the labyrinth. Too many people: four hundred and thirty-five representatives and about a quarter of them quite bright. Quite bright enough and knowledgeable enough to strangle embarrassing proposals, and take revenge as well. Everyone was threatened if the eccentrics got out of hand. The political coloration of the eccentric didn’t matter. This was one reason why it was so difficult to build an ideological record in the House. A man with ideology was wise to leave it before reaching a position of influence, because by then he’d mastered the art of compromise, which had nothing to do with dogma or public acts of conscience. It had to do with simple effectiveness, the tact and strength with which a man dealt with legislation, inside committees, behind closed doors. That was where the work got done, and the credit passed around.

LaRuth, at forty, was on a knife’s edge. Another two years and he’d be a man of influence, and therefore ineligible for any politics outside the House— or not ineligible, but shopworn, no longer new. no longer fresh. He would be ill-suited, and there were other practical considerations as well, because who wanted to be a servant for twelve or fourteen years and then surrender an opportunity to be master? Not LaRuth. So the time for temporizing was nearly past. If he was going to forsake the House and reach for the Senate (a glamorous possibility), he had to do it soon.

LaRuth’s closest friend in Congress was a man about his own age from a neighboring state. They’d come to the Hill in the same year, and for a time enjoyed publicity in the national press, where they could least afford it. Two Young Liberals from the South, that sort of thing. Winston was then a bachelor, too, and for the first few years they shared a house in Cleveland Park. But it was awkward, there were too many women in and out of the place, and one groggy morning Winston had come upon LaRuth and a friend taking a shower together and that had torn it. They flipped for the house and LaRuth won, and Winston moved to grander quarters in Georgetown. They saw each other frequently, and laughed together about the curiosities of the American political system; Winston, a gentleman farmer from the plantation South, was a ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The friendship was complicated because they were occasional rivals: who would represent the New South? They took to kidding each other’s press notices: LaRuth was the “attractive liberal.”Winston the “wealthy liberal.”Thus, LaRuth became Liberal Lou and Winston was Wealthy Warren. To the extent that either of them had a national reputation, they were in the same category: they voted their consciences, but were not incautious.

It was natural for Wein and his committee of scientists to go directly to Winston after leaving LaRuth. The inevitable telephone call came the next day, Winston inviting LaRuth by for a drink around six; “small problem to discuss.” Since leaving Cleveland Park, Warren Winston’s life had become plump and graceful. Politically secure now, he had sold his big house back home and bought a small jewel of a place on Dumbarton Avenue, three bedrooms and a patio in back, a mirrored bar, and a sauna in the basement. Winston was drinking a gin and tonic by the pool when LaRuth walked in. The place was more elegant than he’d remembered; the patio was now decorated with tiny boxbushes and a magnolia tree was in full cry.

They joked a bit, laughing over the new Southern manifesto floating around the floor of the House. They were trying to find a way to spike it without seeming to spike it. Winston mentioned the “small problem" after about thirty minutes of small talk.

“Lou, do you know a guy named Wein?”

“He’s a friend of Annette’s.”

“He was in to see you, then.”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“We didn’t see eye to eye.”

“You’re being tight-lipped, Liberal Lou.”

“I told him to piss off,” LaRuth said. “He called me a war criminal, and then he called me a cynic. A pessimist, a cynic, and a war criminal. All this for some cream-puff resolution that will keep them damp in Cambridge and won’t change a goddamned thing.”

“You think it’s that bad.”

“Worse, maybe.”

“I’m not sure. Not sure at all.”

“Warren, Christ."'

“Look, doesn’t it make any sense at all to get the position of the House on record? That can’t fail to have some effect downtown, and it can’t fail to have an effect in the country. It probably doesn’t stand a chance of being passed, but the effort will cause some commotion. The coon’ll be treed. Some attention paid. It’s a good thing to get on the record, and I can see some points being made.”

“What points? Where?”

“The newspapers, the box. Other places. It’d show that at least some of us are not content with things as they are. That we want to change . . .”

LaRuth listened carefully. It was obvious to him that Winston was trying out a speech; like a new suit of clothes, he took it out and tried it on, asking his friend about the color, the fit, the cut of it.

“. . . the idea that change can come from within the system . . .”

“Aaaaaoh,” LaRuth groaned.

“No?” Innocently.

“How about, and so, my fellow Americans, ask not what you can do for Wein, hut what Wein can do for you. That thing is loose as a hound dog’s tongue. Now tell me the true gen.”

“Bettger’s retiring.”

“You don’t say.” LaRuth was surprised. Bettger was the state’s senior senator, a living Southern legend.

“Cancer. No one knows about it. He’ll announce retirement at the end of the month. It’s my only chance for the next four years, maybe ever. There’ll be half a dozen guys in the primary, but my chances are good. If I’m going to go for the Senate, it’s got to be now. This thing of Wein’s is a possible vehicle. I say possible. One way in. People want a national politician as a senator. it’s not enough to’ve been a good congressman, or even a good governor. You need something more: when people see your face on the box they want to think senatorial, somehow. You don’t agree?”

LaRuth was careful now. Winston was saying many of the things he himself had said. Of course he was right, a senator needed a national gloss. The old bulls didn’t need it, but they were operating from a different tradition, pushing different buttons. But if you were a young man running statewide for the first time, you needed a different base. Out there in television land were all those followers without leaders. People were pulled by different strings now. The point was to identify which strings pulled strongest.

“I think Wein’s crowd is a mistake. That resolution is a mistake. They’ll kill you at home if you put your name to that thing.”

“No, Lou. You do it a different way. With a little rewording, that resolution becomes a whole lot less scary; it becomes something straight out of Robert A. Taft. You eliminate the fancy words and phrases. You steer clear of words like corrupt or genocide or violence. You and I, Lou, we know: our people like violence, it’s part of our way of life. So you don’t talk about violence, you talk about American traditions, like ‘the American tradition of independence and individuality. Noninterference!’ Now you are saying a couple of other things, when you’re saying that, Lou. You dig? That’s the way you get at imperialism. You don’t call it imperialism because that word’s got a bad sound. A foreign sound.”

LaRuth laughed. Winston had it figured out. He had to get Wein to agree to the changes, but that should present no problem. Wealthy Warren was a persuasive man.

“Point is. I’ve got to look to people down there like I can make a difference . . .”

“I think you’ve just said the magic words.”

“Like it?’'

“I think so. Yeah, I think I do.”

“To make the difference. Winston for Senator. A double line on the billboards, like this.” Winston described two lines with his finger, and mulled the slogan again. “To make the difference, Winston for Senator. See, it doesn’t matter what kind of difference. All people know is that they’re fed to the teeth. Fed up and mad at the way things are. And they’ve got to believe that if they vote for you, in some unspecified way things will get better. Now I think the line about interference can do double duty. People are tired of being hassled, in all ways. Indochina, down home.” Winston was a gifted mimic, and now he adopted a toothless expression, and hooked his thumbs into imaginary galluses. “Ah think I’ll vote for that-there Winston. Prob’ly won’t do any harm. Mot do some good. Mot mek a dififrence.”

“Shit, Warren.”

“You give me a little help?”

“Sure.”

“Sign the Wein thing?”

LaRuth thought a moment. “No,” he said.

“What the hell, Lou? Why not? If it’s rearranged the way I said. Look, Wein will be out of it. It’ll be strictly a congressional thing.”

“it doesn’t mean anything.”

“Means a whole lot to me.”

“Well, that’s different. That’s political.”

“If you went in too, it’d look a safer bet.”

“All there’d be out of that is more gold-dust-twins copy. You don’t want that.”

“No, it’d be made clear that I’m managing it. I’m out front. I make all the statements, you’re back in the woodwork. Far from harm’s way, Lou.” Winston took his glass and refilled it with gin and tonic. He carefully cut a lime and squeezed it into the glass. Winston looked the part, no doubt about that. Athlete’s build, big, with sandy hair beginning to thin; he could pass for an astronaut.

“You’ve got to find some new names for the statement.”

“Right on, brother. Too many Jews, too many foreigners. Why are there no scientists named Robert E. Lee or Thomas Jefferson? Talmadge, Bilbo.” Winston sighed, and answered his own question. “The decline of the WASP. Look, Lou. The statement will be forgotten in six weeks, and that’s fine with me. I just need it for a little national coverage at the beginning. Hell, it’s not decisive. But it could make a difference.”

“You’re going to open the campaign with the statement?”

“You bet. Considerably revised. It’d be a help, Lou, if you’d go along. It would give them a chance to crank out some updated New South pieces. The networks would be giving that a run just as I announce for the Senate and my campaign begins. See, it’s a natural. Bettger is Old South. I’m New. But we’re friends and neighbors, and that’s a fact. It gives them a dozen pegs to hang it on, and those bastards love you, with the black suits and the beard and that cracker accent. It’s a natural, and it would mean a hell of a lot, a couple of minutes on national right at the beginning. I wouldn’t forget it. I’d owe you a favor.”

LaRuth was always startled by Winston’s extensive knowledge of the press. He spoke of “pieces” and “pegs,” A.M. and P.M, cycles, facts “cranked out” or “folded in,” who was up and who was down at CBS, who was analyzing Congress for the editorial board of the Washington Post. Warren Winston was always accessible, good for a quote, day or night; and he was visible in Georgetown.

“Can you think about it by the end of the week?”

“Sure,” LaRuth said.

He returned to the Hill, knowing that he thought better in his office. When there w is any serious thinking to be done, he did it there, and often stayed late, after midnight. He’d mix a drink at the small bar in his office, and work. Sometimes Annette stayed with him, sometimes not. When LaRuth walked into his office she was still there, catching up, she said; but she knew he’d been with Winston.

“He’s going to run for the Senate,” LaRuth said.

“Warren?”

“That’s what he says. He’s going to front for Wein as well. That statement of Wein’s—Warren’s going to sign it. Wants me to sign it, too.”

“Why you?”

“United front. It would help him out. No doubt about that. But it’s a bad statement. Something tells me not to do it.”

“Are you as mad as you look?”

He glanced at her and laughed. “Does it show?”

“To me it shows.”

It was true; there was no way to avoid competition in politics. Politics was a matter of measurements, luck, and ambition, and he and Warren had run as an entry for so long that it disconcerted him to think of Senator Winston; Winston up one rung on the ladder. He was irritated that Winston had made the first move and made it effortlessly. It had nothing to do with his own career, but suddenly he felt a shadow on the future. Winston had seized the day all right, and the fact of it depressed him. His friend was clever and self-assured in his movements; he took risks; he relished the public part of politics. Winston was expert at delivering memorable speeches on the floor of the House; they were evidence of passion. For Winston, there was no confusion between the private and the public; it was all one. LaRuth thought that he had broadened and deepened in twelve years in the House, a man of realism, but not really a part of the apparatus. Now Winston had stolen the march, he was a decisive step ahead.

LaRuth may have made a mistake. He liked and understood the legislative process, transactions which were only briefly political. That is, they were not public. If a man kept himself straight at home, he could do what he liked in the House. So LaRuth had become a fixture in his district, announcing election plans every two years from the front porch of his family’s small farmhouse, where he was born, where his mother lived still. The house was filled with political memorabilia; the parlor walls resembled huge bulletin boards, with framed photographs, testimonials, parchments, diplomas. His mother was so proud. His life seemed to vindicate her own, his successes hers; she’d told him so. His position in the U.S. Congress was precious, and not lightly discarded. The cold age of the place had given him a distrust of anything spectacular or . . . capricious. The House: no place for lost causes.

Annette was looking at him, hands on hips, smiling sardonically. He’d taken off his coat, and was now in shirt-sleeves. She told him lightly that he shouldn’t feel badly, that if he ran for the Senate he’d have to shave off his beard. Buy new clothes. Become prolix, and professionally optimistic. But, as a purchase on the future, his signature . . .

“Might. Might not,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I’ve never done that here.”

“Are you refusing to sign because you don’t want to, or because you’re piqued at Warren? I mean, Senator Winston.”

He looked at her. “A little of both.”

“Well, that’s foolish. You ought to sort out your motives.”

“That can come later. That’s my business.”

“No. Warren’s going to want to know why you’re not down the line with him. You’re pretty good friends. He’s going to want to know why.”

“It’s taken me twelve years to build what credit I’ve got in this place. I’m trusted. The speaker trusts me. The chairman trusts me.”

“. . . little children see you on the street. Gloryosky! There goes trustworthy Lou LaRuth . . .”

“Attractive, liberal,” he said, laughing. “Well, it’s true. This resolution, if it ever gets that far, is a ballbuster. It could distract the House for a month and revive the whole issue. Because it’s been quiet we’ve been able to get on with our work, I mean the serious business. Not to get pompous about it.”

“War’s pretty important,” she said.

“Well, is it now? You tell me how important it is.” He put his drink on the desk blotter, and loomed over her. “Better yet, you tell me how this resolution will solve the problem. God forbid there should be any solutions, though. Moral commitments. Statements. Resolutions. They’re the great things, aren’t they? Fuck solutions.” Thoroughly angry now, he turned away and filled the glasses. He put some ice and whiskey in hers, and a premixed martini in his own.

“What harm would it do?”

“Divert a lot of energy. Big play to the galleries for a week or two. Until everyone got tired. The statement itself? No harm at all. Good statement, well done. No harm, unless you consider perpetuating an illusion some kind of harm.”

“A lot of people live by illusions, and what’s wrong with getting this House on record?”

“But it won’t be gotten on record. That’s the point. The thing will be killed. It’ll just make everybody nervous and divide the place more than it’s divided already.”

“I’d think about it,” she said.

“Yeah, I will. I’ll tell you something. I’ll probably end up signing the goddamned thing. It’ll do Warren some good. Then I’ll do what I can to see that it’s buried, although God knows we won’t lack for gravediggers. And then go back to my own work on the school bill.”

“I think that’s better.” She smiled. “One call, by the way. The chairman. He wants you to call first thing in the morning.”

“What did he say it’s about?”

“The school bill, dear.”

Oh shit. LaRuth thought.

“There’s a snag,” she said.

“Did he say what it was?”

“I don’t think he wants to vote for it anymore.”

3.

Winston was after him, trying to force a commitment, but LaRuth was preoccupied with the school bill, which was becoming unstuck. It was one of the unpredictable things that happen; there was no explanation for it. But the atmosphere had subtly changed and support was evaporating, The members wavered, the chairman was suddenly morose and uncertain; he thought it might be better to delay. LaRuth convinced him that was an unwise course, and had set about repairing damage. This was plumbing, pure and simple; talking with members, speaking to their fears. LaRuth called it negative advocacy, but it often worked. Between conferences the next day, LaRuth found time to see a high-school history class, students from his alma mater. They were touring Washington and wanted to talk to him about Congress. The teacher, sloe-eyed, stringy-haired, twenty-five, wanted to talk about the war; the students were indifferent. They crowded into his outer office, thirty of them; the secretaries stood aside, amused, as the teacher opened the conversation with a long preface on the role of the House, most of it inaccurate. Then she asked LaRuth about the war. What was the congressional role in the war?

“Not enough,” LaRuth replied, and went on in some detail, addressing the students.

“Why not a congressional resolution demanding an end to this terrible immoral war?” the teacher demanded. “Congressman, why can’t the House of Representatives take matters into its own hands?”

“Because”—LaRuth was icy, at once angry, tired, and bored—“because a majority of the members of this House do not want to lose Asia to the Communists. Irrelevant, perhaps. You may think it is a bad argument. I think it is a bad argument. But it is the way the members feel.”

“But why can’t that be tested? In votes.”

The students came reluctantly awake, and were listening with little fickers of interest. The teacher was obviously a favorite, their mod pedagogue. LaRuth was watching a girl in the back of the room. She resembled the girls he’d known at home, short-haired, light summer dress, full-bodied; it was a body that would soon go heavy. He abruptly steered the conversation to his school bill, winding into it, giving them a stump speech, some flavor of home. He felt the students with him for a minute or two, then they drifted away. In five minutes they were somewhere else altogether. He said good-bye to them then, and shook their hands on the way out. The short-haired girl lingered a minute; she was the last one to go.

“It would be good if you could do something about the war.” she said.

“Well, I’ve explained.”

“My brother was killed there.”

LaRuth closed his eyes for a second, and stood without speaking.

“Any gesture at all,” she said.

“Gestures.” He shook his head sadly. “They never do any good.”

“Well,” she said. “Thank you for your time.” LaRuth thought her very grown-up, a well-spoken girl. She stood in the doorway, very pretty. The others had moved off down the hall; he could hear the teacher’s high whine.

“How old was he?”

“Nineteen,” she said. “Would’ve been twenty next birthday.”

“Where?”

“They said it was an airplane.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You wrote us a letter, don’t you remember?”

“I don’t know your name,” LaRuth said gently.

“Ecker,” she said. “My brother’s name was Howard.”

“I remember.” he said. “It was . . . some time ago.”

“Late last year,” she said, looking at him.

“Yes, that would be just about it. I’m very sorry.”

“So am I,” she said, smiling brightly. Then she walked off to join the rest of her class. LaRuth stood in the doorway a moment, feeling the eyes of his secretary on his back. It had happened before; the South seemed to bear the brunt of the war. He’d written more than two hundred letters, to the families of poor boys, black and white. The deaths were disproportionate, poor to rich, black to white, South to North. Oh well, he thought. Oh hell. He walked back into his office and called Winston and told him he’d go along. In a limited way. For a limited period.

Later:

“It’s rolling,” Winston said.

“Have you talked to Wein?”

“I’ve talked to Wein.”

“And what did Wein say?”

“Wein agrees to the revisions.”

“Complaining?”

“The contrary. Wein sees himself as the spearhead of a great national movement. He sees scientists moving into political positions, cockpits of influence. His conscience is as clear as rainwater. He is very damp.”

LaRuth laughed; it was a private joke.

“Wein is damp in Cambridge, then.”

“I think that is a fair statement. Uncle Lou.”

“How wonderful for him.”

“He was pleased that you are with us. He said he misjudged you. He offers apologies. He fears he was a speck . . . harsh.”

“Bully for Wein.”

“I told everyone that you would be on board. I knew that when the chips were down you would not fail. I knew that you would examine your conscience and your heart and determine where the truth lay. I knew you would not be cynical or pessimistic. I know you want to see your old friend in the Senate.”

They were laughing together. Winston was in one of his drv, mordant moods. He was very salty. He rattled off a dozen names, and cited the sources of each member’s conscience: money and influence. “But to be fair—always be fair, Liberal Lou—there are a dozen more who are doing it because they want to do it. They think it’s right.

“Faute de mieux.

“I am not schooled in the French language, Louis. You are always flinging French at me.”

“It means, ‘in the absence of anything better.’ ”

Winston grinned, then shrugged. LaRuth was depressed, the shadow lengthened, became darker.

“I’ve set up a press conference, a half dozen of us. All moderate men. Men of science, men of government. I’ll be out front, doing all the talking. OK?”

“Sure.” LaRuth was thinking about his school bill.

“It’s going to be jim-dandy.”

“Swell. But I want to see the statement beforehand, music man.”

Winston smiled broadly, and spread his hands wide. Your friendly neighborhood legislator, concealing nothing; merely your average, open, honest fellow trying to do the right thing, trying to do his level best. “But of course,” Winston said.

Some politicians have it; most don’t. Winston has it, a fabulous sense of timing. Everything in politics is timing.For a fortnight, the resolution dominates congressional reportage, “An idea whose time has come.” coinciding with a coup in Latin America and a surge of lighting in Indochina. The leadership is agitated, but forced to adopt a conciliatory line; the doves are in war paint. Winston appears regularly on the television evening news. There are hearings before the Foreign Affairs Committee, and these produce pictures and newsprint. Winston, a sober legislator, intones feet to the fire. There are flattering articles in the newsmagazines, and editorial support from the major newspapers, including the most influential paper in Winston’s state. He and LaRuth are to appear on the cover of Life, but the cover is scrapped at the last minute. Amazing to LaRuth, the mail from his district runs about even. An old woman, a woman his mother has known for years, writes to tell him that he should run for President. Incredible, really: the Junior Chamber of Commerce composes a certificate of appreciation, commending his enterprise and spirit, “an example of the indestructible moral fiber of America.” When the networks and the newspapers cannot find Winston, they fasten on LaRuth. He becomes something of a celebrity, and wary as a man entering darkness from daylight. He tailors his remarks in such a way as to force questions about his school bill. He finds his words have effect, although this is measurable in no definite way. His older colleagues are amused; they needle him gently about his new blue shirts.

He projects well on television, his appearance is striking; the black suits, the beard. So low-voiced, modest, diffident; no hysteria or hyperbole (an intuitive reporter would grasp that he has contempt for “the Winston Resolution,” but intuition is in short supply). When an interviewer mentions his reticent manner, LaRuth smiles and says that he is not modest or diffident, he is pessimistic. But his mother is ecstatic. His secretary looks on him with new respect. Annette thinks he is one in a million.

No harm done. The resolution is redrafted into harmless form and is permitted to languish. The language incomprehensible, at the end it becomes an umbrella under which anyone could huddle. Wein is disillusioned, the media looks elsewhere for its news, and LaRuth returns to the House Education and Labor Committee. The work is backed up; the school bill has lost its momentum. One month of work lost, and now LaRuth is forced to redouble his energies. He speaks often of challenge and commitment. At length the bill is cleared from committee, and forwarded to the floor of the House, where it is passed; many members vote aye as a favor, either to LaRuth or to the chairman. The chairman is quite good about it, burying his reservations, grumbling a little, but going along. The bill has been, in the climactic phrase of the newspapers, watered down. The three years are now five. The billion is reduced to five hundred million. Amendments are written, and they are mostly restrictive. But the bill is better than nothing. The President signs it in formal ceremony, LaRuth at his elbow. The thing is now law.

The congressman, contemplating all of it, is both angry and sad. He has been a legislator too long to draw obvious morals, even if they were there to be drawn. He thinks that everything in his life is meant to end in irony and contradiction. LaRuth. at forty, has no secret answers. Nor any illusions. The House of Representatives is no simple place, neither innocent nor straightforward. Appearances there are as appearances elsewhere: deceptive. One is entitled to remain fastidious as to detail, realistic in approach.

Congratulations followed. In his hour of maximum triumph, the author of a law, LaRuth resolved to stay inside the belly of the whale, to become neither distracted nor moved. Of the world outside, he was weary and finally unconvinced. He knew who he was. He’d stick with what he had, and take comfort from a favorite line, a passage toward the end of Madame Bovary. It was a description of a minor character, and the line had stuck with him, lodged in the back of his head. Seductive and attractive, in a pessimistic way. He grew thin, his figure became taller, his face took on a saddened look that made it nearly interesting.