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Spoiled Child Of American Politics
Henry Cabot Lodge was a public man in the old sense—one who was often wrong but never evil
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
When Henry Cabot Lodge was a lad of sixteen, his mother took him to the studio of a famous American sculptor named William Story. Alter examining a number of Story’s works, she decided to purchase one entitled: “Lybian Sybil.” She asked young Cabot what he thought of it. He replied that the statue was perfectly lovely, but the inscription was all wrong. “It ought to be ‘Libyan’ and ‘Sibyl’,” he announced tartly. “The letters in Greek are Upsilons.”
This tale had a happy ending, for Mrs. Lodge bought the statue anyway (with the inscription altered). But the outcome of other incidents in which Lodge displayed the aggravating, smug, and generally unlovely side of his personality was often disastrous. For Lodge was without an equal among American statesmen at the art of arousing people’s ire. Few politicians have been so cordially hated; certainly none who held office continually for more than 35 years, as he did.
In part his bad reputation today steins from the dim view most people take of his Machiavellian conduct during the fight over the League of Nations in the Senate. But his behavior on that occasion was not as evil as it has been depicted, and, in any case, he was widely disliked long before the League was ever thought of. Yet he was a man of great charm. He seldom harbored a grudge; and if he tended to be somewhat cynical, and often stubborn, these qualities were balanced by many good characteristics. Those who think him completely villainous should remember that among his intimates his nickname was Pinky. The intricacies of his complex character ought to be understood if his public career is to be fairly judged.
Much of Lodge’s trouble derived from his early environment. He was born, in 1850, into a society of privilege and distinction. His was the world of Emerson, Longfellow, and Charles Sumner, an age ripe with the fruits of two centuries of New England endeavor. But by the time he reached maturity that society had passed its peak. Its titans were no more; in the crass, lusty materialism of the post-Civil War decades its values were out of place. Like his teacher and friend, Henry Adams, Lodge discovered that he had been trained for a role in a play whose run was over; but unlike Adams, who settled into a comfortable seat in the audience, whence he could comment sourly upon the passing scenes, Lodge tried to respond to the new cues, to win for himself a part in the drama of life.
Lodge chose to make his place in politics. Fate decreed that he should do so at a time when American politics was approaching moral bankruptcy. To attain success, he had, early in his career, to sacrifice principle to expediency in a way that offended his own society in and around Boston.
In 1884, when he had his first chance to run for Congress, the Republicans nominated James G. Blaine of Maine for the Presidency. Blaine, a good enough man by the standards of the Grant era, had stained his fingers with railroad money while in Congress. Boston respectables were outraged by his nomination. Idealizing somewhat the political heroes of their golden age (as declining civilizations are wont to do), these “mugwumps” thought Blaine a disgrace to the fair name of New England. Lodge agreed that Blaine was “obnoxious,” but his own career depended upon his standing up for the party nominee. So he did.
Boston never forgave him. Friends cut him dead, acquaintances crossed the street to avoid his glance, doors that once had swung open at his approach were slammed in his face. Lodge was a proud man and naturally reserved. The fact that he himself shared in the general contempt of Blaine did not make his ostracism easier to take. But he gave no outward sign of his hurt.
Lodge’s decision changed his whole life and profoundly altered his nature. Bereft of many of his old friends, he found new ones among the politicians who colored his thinking with their own. What is more, to justify his decision to himself he had to make a fetish of party regularity. He became an uncompromising partisan; the only good Democrat, in his clouded vision, became a (politically) dead one.
In addition, the experience hardened and toughened his whole character. He had always had the aristocrat’s disdain for coarseness and ignorance and the intellectual’s horror of third-rate thinking. He was by nature and training a stickler for accuracy and precision. Now he developed an icy contempt for all kinds of inferiority. He became a master of the cutting retort, the sneer, irony, and sarcasm. In debate he infuriated opponents by his cool, devastating insults.
Another side of Lodge that irritated many people was his selfishness and vanity. His father died when he was only twelve; thereafter his mother lavished every imaginable luxury on him. She was completely convinced that he had exceptional talents, and there was enough truth in her estimate for him to accept it as sound. He became accustomed to getting what he wanted early in life, and it never occurred to him that he was not deserving.