The Richard A. C. Greene Campaign for
Washington State Land Commissioner
For most of us, politics is an impossible toy that bears neither logic nor reason. I always felt that one of the virtues of democracy is that the fools and charlatans will be elected to public office - - - and, because they can be bought or sold like fish, will leave the rest of us alone. The only times our country is in danger - - - true danger - - - is when some idealist finds himself in a position of power. Because they nurse beautiful ideals to their ambitious breasts - - - they will sacrifice you and me to those ideals without a qualm. More wars sprouted in this country during times of saints than fools - - - Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt (the younger), and Kennedy managed to spill more blood, between them, than any Eisenhower of Harding or Tyler.
The virtue of American democracy is that it fosters healthy mediocrity - - - and when a saint comes along to upset the balance, then we are in trouble. Since Grant got in power by fudging, indecision, and thievery - - - his administration was marked by those characteristics - - - and we weren't called to unite under some foolish banner (marked "Excelsior") and fight for his ideals.
My only chance to experiment with people's democracy came during the summer of 1968. My boarding house - - - the Jean-Paul Sartre Memorial No Exit Rooming House - - - was losing a bucket of money. I figured it was the manager's fault. He figured it was my fault. I figured that the best way out was to get him a job somewhere else - - - a job in which he wouldn't have to work, would draw a comfortable salary, and we could get together once a year and tell old drinking-stories about his ruinous regime as head of the rooming house.
We signed him up to run in the primary for Washington State Land Commissioner. The Apocrypha (probably made up by me) was that when we were driving down to Olympia during sign-up week, I asked Richard what he wanted to run for, he said "State Coroner." I pointed out that there was no State Coroner - - - so we settled on Land Commissioner.
That was it. Richard A.C. Greene appeared on the ballot on the 11th of September and - - - against a field of four other hapless candidates, and with no campaigning at all - - - won by 15,000 votes. I figured it had something to do with his name. He figured that the word of his gracious personality had gotten around through some mystical underground. Neither of us knew what to do next. He was in Hawaii at the time (he had got an appointment in Classics at the University of Hawaii on the 1st of September). What does a Land Commissioner do, anyway?
I called Richard to tell him that he had won the Republican nomination. There was a long pause. He said that he was flattered, but in order to avoid injective "personalities" into the campaign, he would stay in Hawaii. I agreed to form a campaign committee to do the dirty work for him. I thought of the best talent to utilize for a man who - - - after all - - - is to take care of the dirt problem in the state, and called on Jon Gallant, a geneticist at the University of Washington, Gene Johnston, an old newspaper writer and commentator on KRAB, and Herb Hannum, the only mystical architect I've ever met or heard of. Between the four of us, we fabricated a campaign.
We had seven weeks in which to get our candidate's name in front of the public. Since we weren't about to spend the $100,000 necessary to win public office, we decided on press releases - - - some whiff of freshness, as compared to all the gunk sent out by other uh . . . real candidates.
Our first press release went as follows:
Richard A.C. Greene, Republican candidate for Land Commissioner, fired his opening salvo in what promises to be a ferocious campaign, demanding that the state of Idaho annex a large part of Eastern Washington, especially Spokane.
"The so-called Inland Empire is a trackless waste contributing nothing to the Evergreen State but rattlesnakes and nitwits," Greene thundered from his headquarters in Honolulu. "I'd offer that sandpile to Idaho and if they didn't accept it, I'd invade. It's high time Washington had a foreign policy anyway."
Greene, who knocked off four opponents in the G.O.P. primary with the ingenious strategy of leaving the country, levels no criticism at Democrat incumbent Bert Cole, who has no noticeable foreign policy. "Cole is simply too good a man for this job," opined Greene. "I'd like to see him move on to something more challenging."
I took this release to a print shop, had two hundred copies made up, and sent them to every major radio station, television station, newspaper, and press service in the state - - - with a couple of extras to some national magazines. Not only was it printed entire in most newspapers, but the AP picked it up, and I had the funny experience of trailing across the radio band at noontime hearing almost every radio station intoning the exact words of the release.
One of the things we figured out at this time was that the media - - - rather, the reporters and writers who work in what we call the media - - - are so bored by the usual election trash that litters their desks that they are willing to open, read, and write about any campaign that shows some life. For that reason, we figured that we could, in each of the six weeks remaining in the campaign, issue one release, or create some diversion - - - which should get Greene's name around the state, and perhaps around the country.
Our next challenge was the voters' pamphlet. Like most states in the West, Washington issues a booklet which lists the platforms of every candidate for every office - - - at minimal cost to the candidate. The circulation of this booklet is 1,200,000. I think it cost us $200 to put the platform into the pamphlet. this is what we used (Jon Gallant's handiwork):
LAND USE: Land should be used gently but firmly.
WHIDBEY ISLAND: Whidbey island must be replaced.
PUGET SOUND BRIDGE: If it becomes necessary to build a bridge across Puget Sound, it should be a covered bridge because of the rain.
STATE PARKS: There should be an expanded system to place park lands within easy reach of every citizen. For the citizens of King County, I envision a wilderness area on the site of The Boeing Company.
QUILCENE OYSTERS: Baked at high heat with a little chive, parsley, garlic, and wine.
LITTERING: A litterbag at Bert Cole's private hunting lodge.
EMPLOYMENT PRACTICES: Elimination of all catchpolls and tipstaffs.
INDIAN FISHING RIGHTS: Individual catches will be limited to four Indians. All those under five feet two inches must be thrown back.
GEODUCKS: A Republican Land Commissioner to back up Governor Evans.
IF ELECTED: I shall be the sort of Land Commissioner who will go out fearlessly and commission the land.
§ § §
We tried to get the Voters' Pamphlet people to let us use a picture of Francis X. Bushman, posing as Richard Coeur de Lion, but the stodgy committee assured us that a picture taken within the last two years was necessary. This also eliminated our other idea of using a baby picture: Greene from twenty-five years ago, stretched out barebottom on a bear rug, or something like that.
No campaign is complete without a press conference and a rally. We determined to hold our press conference - - - not at the Olympic Hotel or at some fancy restaurant - - - but rather at the Blue Moon Tavern, which has been the hang-out for all the University of Washington radicals and dissidents for the last forty years. Gallant, Johnston, Hannum and I appeared promptly at two o'clock and found three television stations, four or five newspapers, and a national press service in attendance, plus about thirty bleary-eyed regulars.
Johnston answered the first question about Greene's political roots by pointing out that his Republican leanings "go back to Millard Fillmore by way of Rutherford B. Hayes." Gallant said that Greene was with us in spirit if not in body, and indeed, insisted on being Captain of the team. "In fact," he said, "he insists on being addressed as Captain Greene at all times. He's his own man," he concluded, " unless anyone else will have him."
Johnston said that Greene was challenging incumbent Bert Cole to a wrestling match over Eastern Washington - - - and went on to state that Greene would welcome Cole in television debate - - - in Hawaii. Hannum gave an extemporaneous speech on "Can the grass roots be greener, can the forests ever be truly virgin?" He contended that there was no end of misunderstanding about Greene's form of Republicanism which was not "temperate Republicanism" and most especially not "tempered Republicanism" - - - but rather "temporary Republicanism."
"How would the candidate win," asked one reporter. "On his record," said Gallant. "What's that?" asked another reporter. "Two arrests, no convictions," said Johnston.
Between this monumental press conference, and the giant rally - - - Greene extruded himself into the campaign. Spiro Agnew, then running for Vice President, appeared in Hawaii for a brief round, and somehow, Greene wrangled a picture-taking session with him. What we got in the mail was an extremely fuzzy picture of Greene in his mustache shaking hands with what looked to be Spiro. The only clear image in the photograph was a smiling oriental-looking gentleman in the background.
I called Richard and asked him why the hell he sent us such a lousy picture. He explained that the photographer was an amateur from the University who was nervous enough anyway, but was rendered damn near paroxysmic by the secret service. Seems the SS didn't trust amateur photographers to be merely that, and while the camera was trained on Agnew, one of them held a pistol (cocked, loaded) at the poor photographer's head.
In any event, we had a picture - - - and Gene wrote up the following caption to go with it:
NICE TO MEET YOU, MR. UH
One of these jolly men is Washington's Republican candidate for Land Commissioner, Richard A. C. Greene. The other is Spiro Agnew, GOP Vice-Presidential hopeful. Greene is probably the one behind the moustache, though Agnew - - - fresh from his "fat Jap" mot - - - may have borrowed it for the nonce.* The setting is Honolulu, Greene's fall campaign headquarters. The others in the picture are not identified - - - although the gentleman smiling in the rear may or may not be a secret serviceman from Tokyo.
§ § §
Sometime in the 1920's, The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle was given a bandstand. Forty-five years later, it looks garish and bleak. This was the setting for our grand rally. Johnston, when he began his speech, said "Welcome to the Warren G. Harding Memorial Bandstand and storage area," for indeed, in the base of it, chairs tables, and presumably old animals are kept out of the way.
Apparently Harding, when he was still in form, made an appearance in Seattle sometime in 1925. Boy Scouts all over the country contributed pennies for this structure, so besides steps, platform, and plaques of Harding, there are two shiny statues of Boy Scouts, dressed in the 1925 Boy Scout style.
Once again the press was in full attendance. As well, there was the Great Excelsior Jazz Band (Dixieland) which played songs made up for the occasion including "What Does a Land Commissioner Do?" and "When Richard Greene Walks Down The Street (You know there's a man, can't be beat.)"
Each of us gave a speech, of sorts. Gary Maragason gave a speech on Greene's character. Byron Coney gave one on Richard Greene's mother ("she made all this possible"). Johnston explicated at length on comparisons between Harding, the Harding cabinet of thieves, Greene, and the rest of us. I think he billed me as Andrew Mellon. I gave one on the boys downstate who were fighting against Greene's own personal initiative ("You'll have to write it in on the ballot: it calls for the amalgamation of Forks, Washington and Pysht, Washington - - - into the single great city of Pysht-Forks").
Jon gallant gave a long speech on Richard Greene's genes - - - concluding that they were superior to the incumbent's. And Herb Hannum gave an indescribable speech which rendered him hoarse for a week. I'm going to put out a record of the whole affair, so you can hear it for yourself.
The nicest thing about the Greene rally was that it was the final sequence in a truly silly campaign. I think they call it "peaking" among the professionals. It gave us a chance to watch the media - - - to see ourselves on television, watch the distortion process of news. Time magazine came and did an article on the campaign which reassured me, once again, that they can get the facts wrong and - - - with little effort - - - kill the humor in any humorous enterprise. One of the local newspapers came out editorially against the candidate, suggesting that the joke was going too far. On the plus side, the Wall Street Journal did a front page article written by one of their reporters, Thomas B. Carter. It was a superb reporting job: as funny as the campaign itself: intelligent, witty, and (as with all the Wall Street Journal articles) extraordinarily well researched. Look it up.
A lot of other things happened, but I can't remember them all now. I wish I could. Jon and I both tried to write up a story for a national magazine shortly after it was over - - - but, as he said, "It's like trying to eat a good meal twice." It simply wouldn't come. I kept all the clippings - - - but like all clippings, they begin to yellow and moulder, and soon enough the whole thing will be so distorted in our minds that we'll be arguing over the flimsy details of who said what, wrote what, and did what.
There are a couple of things I can't forget, though - - - that's why I'm writing them down now. One is election night. We took a room in the Olympic Hotel just down the hall from the suite of Governor Dan Evans. When one of his aides confidentially told us that the Governor had given his vote to Greene we thought for one terrible minute that our man might win. God, we thought: what will we do then?
But even the joke, the laugh, was a little weak when Greene lost by 800,000 votes. We had thought that the voters would be as amused as we were. That's what we thought.
Alas, no: they take their votes seriously. Sometimes, I guess, too seriously.
Most of all, I remember one other speech. A local clean-government group had called me up a week before election day, and had asked me (cum Greene) to write up a talk for them.
I must have had some inklings of the defeat that was coming up. After all, the campaign (on which we spent about $5,000) was more of a victory over the media than anything else. We had gotten the reporters, the press people - - - both nationally and locally - - - to take the joke, and carry it as far as they could.
They did: they enjoyed it as much as we did; saw it as a mockery of the usual bullshit that comes out of political campaigns, and - - - for that reason - - - may even be a healthy thing.
But in the speech I wrote for CHECC, I was able to go somewhere that I couldn't during the whole campaign: that is, to say something serious about something that had been so silly for so long. Perhaps that is why it remains as my favorite memento mori of this whole mess.
DEAR FRIENDS AT CHECC
Richard A. C. Greene here - - - speaking to you from fall campaign headquarters in Honolulu. On the eve of my success at the polls, I salute you. Though I may be sunburned and windswept, though the constant sunshine of my days may tend to distract me from the hard work of running for public office - - - still, I often think of you there in Seattle: clouds gathered overhead, skins pasty and mole-like, the grey winds of the north leaning down to chill the bone and darken the soul. I think that: and my soft political heart goes out to you.
Three days from now, the voters of Washington State will go into the sanctified hole we call the voting booth to decide on the many grave candidates and issues. There's not only Nixon and Muskie and O'Connell and Pelly and Greene. As well, there are all those intellectual decisions: the voters will be asked to be international economists on Initiative 32; they will be asked to be credit experts on Initiative 245; they will be asked to be scientific toxologists on Initiative 242.
In Washington State - - - unlike many states on the east coast - - - we show profound belief in the judgement of the voter: a belief which I am delighted to confirm.
After all, they chose me from among four candidates - - - sensing, somehow, my ability and intelligence even though I waged what might be called a Sitz-Kampaign. As I stated after the primary election: "My faith in the integrity and wisdom of Mr. and Mrs. Average Washington Voter has been confirmed forever." And I thought to myself - - - as Pyrrhus did in 280 B.C. - - - "Another victory like this, and we are done for."
You at CHECC have your own crises, your own Czech crises - - - and it has nothing to do with the Russians. It has to do with that sometimes sad, sometimes laughable, sometimes whimsical phenomena we call the American Voter.
I claim the problem with the American Voter today is that he feels that he is being turned into a whore. He knows that he is bought and sold in huge blocks on television. he knows that candidates for public office get enormous quantities of money from some mysterious money-bag to buy - - - -not radio time or television time - - - but people. He knows that he, the voter, is being traded in what (I think) they call it cost-per-thousand. He has been bought like a prostitute: and, worst of all, doesn't even know who's buying him.
I once propounded the notion that not only is it dangerous to buy and sell voters - - - but it is even more dangerous to spend our time trying to get them into the voting booth. You know what I'm talking about: this: "Vote as you please, but please vote." Somehow we have the misguided idea that quantity is important to democracy.
I disagree - - - I have always preferred quality. And I think the voters who have to be dragged from the offices, pulled from their beds, yanked from their TV sets to get them to vote: those are the wrong ones to be in the booth. If their motivation is so lousy, their knowledge of the candidates and issues must be equally lousy: I'd just as soon see them stay in bed on election day.
Sometimes I think about that 15,000 vote plurality I received in the primary campaign for state land commissioner. This plurality, mind you, came not from King Country, where I was living, where I lost; no, this surge of voter interest came from every county except King County.
Since my primary campaigning consisted of me sitting in the Jean-Paul Sartre Memorial No Exit Rooming House, or teaching classes at the University of Washington - - - we can hardly say that the voters outside King County had some special insight into my wit and ability.
Listen to what I tell you: Richard A. C. Greene became Republican nominee for the office of Washington State Land Commissioner not because of his pretty smile, or because of his knowledge of Greek and Latin - - - but because all these people thought it their duty to vote. They didn't give a damn, really: I know, because that's why they got in the booth and fumbled around with all those unfamiliar names and finally said: "Land Commissioner. Hm. Greene. That sounds nice." They had been brainwashed by the thought of green lands, rolling on forever.
Tricky business - - - these campaigns.
Well: I'm too far away for that now. Let's leave all these sophist questions about The Issues and The Voters to some boorish graduate student at the University. That's what they are paid for - - - isn't it: those meaningless, tedious examinations for Truth. As if it really existed.
For me, Truth lies on warm beaches. Like the good Existentialist candidate that I am, I shall repair to the waters of the Pacific on my new air-mattress which is a friendly companion indeed. Filled with a lot of hot air, perhaps, but the kind of hot air I value and enjoy.
As for you, there at CHECC: I send you my love. From Hawaii I greet you. Long may we wave.
--- From The Myrkin Papers
*Spiro Agnew's 'Fat Jap' Flap: Shortly after characterizing Polish-Americans as "Polacks," Spiro T. Agnew, the Greek-American Republican candidate for vice president on Richard Nixon's ticket, referred to Gene Oishi, a Japanese-American campaign reporter from the Baltimore Sun, as "the fat Jap." Agnew, governor of Maryland at the time, had known the journalist for years and claimed the remark was in jest, but others saw the quip as more evidence of Agnew's ethnic insensitivity.- - - The Washington Post