For decades, Ted Van Dyk has parlayed with presidents and politicians, hobnobbed with noble visionaries, and witnessed shenanigans of venal egomaniacs. Now 73, he remains an inveterate politico, an engaging raconteur with intriguing stories and brutally honest observations of the contemporary political scene. His feisty memoir Heroes, Hacks, and Fools
has been published by University of Washington Press.
Van Dyk recalls the camaraderie after a long day on Capitol Hill or on the campaign trail: "I could feel in those moments 'the spirit of public happiness' that President John Adams described as flowing from knowledge that one was engaged in the service of the people."
Recently, I cornered Van Dyk at Kells Irish Pub and pumped him for revelations.
What about the current political climate?
We need a fresh start. I'm pleased there is no presidential incumbent. For too long we've had either a Clinton or a Bush in the White House. I personally like Obama. He represents a break with the past and reaches across racial, ethnic, and ideological lines. He's an idealist who generates trust among people who hear him. We're tired of petty politics and mudslinging. Obama can get us back to a positive agenda.
For mudslinging, Republicans have outdone everyone.
It's come from all sides. The old liberal credo was: "tough on issues, soft on people." You disagreed on the basis of policy. You didn't smear your opponent. One campaigned on the issues. It was an agenda-driven politics rather than a politics-driven agenda.
It was once understood that nothing significant is going to happen unless you mobilized 50.1 percent of the electorate, get a majority in the Senate or the House. You made policy and reached across to moderates in the other party. Now people would rather scream at each other. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "They'd rather curse the darkness than light a candle."
Sum up the last eight years.
I witnessed how we staggered into Vietnam stupidly and unnecessarily. I saw fools - Bundy, McNamara, Rostow - drag Kennedy and Johnson into war. I see it again with Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz. Arrogant fools are in both parties. A president must have sufficient knowledge to know the right questions to ask. Bush didn't even know what an options memo is. Anybody with any sense of history would have questioned the idea that a "tidal wave of democracy" would sweep the Middle East. It was nonsense. The mistake of Iraq was a big one. Johnson at least had the Great Society to counterbalance Vietnam.
What are the big issues?
Health care, jobs, housing, and the domestic well-being of our citizenry. War and peace. Go back to the excitement around the issues of the Great Society, there's an unfinished agenda: the right to a decent job, job training, housing: the crucial things we tend to lose sight of.
Homelessness is a scandal. People without homes, food, or clothing need care. We can't just leave them on the streets. For his Great Society, Johnson set a specific agenda: tell the American people, press forward in Congress. Keep at it, mobilize support. You don't put your finger in the air and see what is popular day to day.
Labor must find itself. When I came into politics the labor movement was the center of social change. Civil rights legislation, the war on poverty, the Civil Rights March, the Poor Peoples' March