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Politics and the taste of pickles

The passing of Alice Roosevelt Longworth from the Washington scene has been taken to mark the "end of an era," in the inevitable phrase of more than one eulogist. Such are the habits of journalists -- always looking for the convenient time signal.

But as every journalist knows, we are living in an era when an era lasts about six months -- if it happens to be really durable. And Mrs. Longworth lasted nearly a hundred years. Exactly which era ended with her departure? Certainly the answer would be difficult to specify in the case of a daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who sat in a box with Mark Twain, watching her father become President when this century was just a little over a year old.

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In the spring of 1902 the 18-year-old Alice Roosevelt was already a sufficiently controversial presence on the Washington scene to drive the historian Henry Adams to write a letter about the "derisive howls" that followed her when she wore a rather too flashy diamond bracelet, a gift of the brother of the Kaiser. Most of the derisive howls of the next three-quarters of a century would come from, instead of toward, Alice.

"I can do one of two things," her father is supposed to have said. "I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both."

President Taft was Alice's first major target. She assaulted his large, surprised person with "a roar of protest and ironic mirth" -- right there in the White House -- when she disapproved of a policy he was outlining to her father.

Daddy seems to have been the last President Alice thoroughly approved of. She not only roared at President Taft, she mimicked Mrs. Taft, beginning a long career in parody of presidential wives that reached a climax with Eleanor Roosevelt. In her memoirs she declared: "Harding was not a bad man. He was just a slob." She was credited with saying that Coolidge looked as if he had been weaned on a pickle, though she denied it.

She did not deny -- indeed she boasted -- that she gazed on Washington through "a scoffing eye." She confessed freely." As the daughter of a President and the wife of a Speaker of the House, Mrs. Longworth was very much inside -- and looking down. She received wedding presents from King Edward of England and the Empress Dowager of China, and all her life she assumed that her proper level was that of royalty. "Princess Alice" her father called her.

In assuming her mantle of family authority Alice Roosevelt Longworth was not unlike Henry Adams, himself the grandson of a President, John Quincy Adams. Henry too regarded Washington as his inherited fiefdom, running down badly, alas , since grandfather had retired. Instead of an Adams in the White House there was "fat-headed" McKinley, "poor Taft," and the "wretched Woodrow Wilson." To this latter-day Adams, even Alice's father had "the naivete of a schoolboy." Washington politics had become "the biggest kind of a joke." He concluded: "I can laugh at all my friends who are running what they call a government."

Like Henry Adams, Alice Roosevelt Longworth was the last of the patricians of American democracy. If she must symbolize the end of anything, it might be the tradition of the ruling family in national politics. Teddy Kennedy on his most confident day will never know what it means to be heir to a dynasty, as Henry and his brother Brooks Adams and Alice Roosevelt Longworth presumed themselves to be.

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They spoke as to the manor born, and their manor was the White House. It simply belonged in the family, and they could not help regarding as Johnnies-come- lately, as intruders, all those outsiders who came to inhabit it afterwards.

Their contempt was that of the aristocrat -- a private cynicism that hurt only themselves. And, in fact, between jibes they were close and serious observers. But what of our contempt? For have we all not tended to become Sour-Ball Alices and Terrible-Tongued Henrys in our prevailing attitude toward politicians?

A touch or two of tartness cuts the sugar. It can be an amusing notion for a spunky eccentric to sew her motto onto the pillow of her sitting-room chair, as Alice did: "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me." But the slogan does not translate well from the exclusive drawing-room to the town meeting, the convention hall, or the polling booth -- the workrooms of democracy.

Surely the heart-felt wish of an Alice Roosevelt Longworth or a Henry Adams would have been that one should not be mass-produced. The rest of us ought to respect that wish and go on acting, at least, as if some of our leaders are not trying to fool all of us, all of the time. A greater President than Alice's father, or even Henry's grandfather, promised us that.


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