Walter Karp, 1934-1989


But when you suggest to ordinary political writers that the American people have more virtue than they normally are given credit for, and when you point out that the powers that be are trying to nullify those virtues, they get very upset. They’ve been hanging around the rulers all the time. A book like mine is a red flag to people who think like that. This was particularly the case with the New York Times review. I got lucky with the Washington Post . I got a reviewer who takes me extremely seriously and probably praised the book more than it deserved.

How would you typify your enemies?

In one form or another, my enemies believe that the few should rule the many and that the many should shut their traps.

You would say that power, and not money, is the driving force behind politicians?

Absolutely. The idea that people are interested in nothing but money is the great contemporary principle of understanding. This is a principle dearly beloved by the radicals on the left; it’s dearly beloved by conservatives on the right; it is dearly beloved by centrists; it is dearly beloved by everyone that matters in this country. It is the belief that political power is of no interest to those in power. And yet the hardest way to make a million dollars is to become a senator. There are an endless number of better ways for a vicious, impudent, brazen, shrewd, gifted person to become rich than to become a crooked politician. People don’t become politicians to make money. If you want to make money, you go to where the money is, in the stock market.

Has your career been difficult?

It hasn’t been difficult, but it hasn’t been easy. Not easy means that when you do something, people don’t call you up and ask you to do more of the same. People don’t give you money. People don’t invite you to attend seminars.

At your age, Jane, you don’t realize that a tremendous amount of the good things in the world—fame, wealth, consequence—are all part of a vast machine; I call it a “preferment machine.” If you stand outside the realm of powerful and privileged people, that machine doesn’t work for you. It doesn’t produce goodies for you.

It doesn’t have to do with virtue or merit at all. It has to do with the fact that you are not saying the same things that a great many important people want to have said. The principle is very simple. The thing that is so shocking to discover when you become middle-aged is that there is such a thing as a machine of preferment. A nineteenthcentury English writer named Walter Bagehot said, “The world is given to those who the world can trust.” And believe me, in America, if you stand up for democracy, the world (that is, the powerful) doesn’t trust you.

Why do you persevere?

Because it’s fun. It’s fun to stand up and speak your mind. It’s fun to feel yourself independent. It’s a joy to cleave to the principles of a great country. I confess, there is a certain sweet martyrdom to feel that you are standing with the truly great men of the country and that the people who ignore and despise you are the people who are diminishing the country. It can make you very conceited. The great danger of being an outsider is of becoming self-satisfied. As for persevering, nothing could be easier. I don’t know anything else to do!

If you could not write about politics, would you write at all?

That would be difficult. If I no longer had an outlet for writing about politics, I would find that devastating. I’ve had a year or so here and there when I felt that that black cloud was over my head—of being condemned to write about everything but what I cared about most. But so far, every time the black cloud gathered, it always managed to break up. America is not as free as it should be, by far; but it is not so unfree that a voice like mine can’t be heard.