Bill grew up in suburban Cincinnati. His father was a chemist, his mother a schoolteacher. He was a graduate of Princeton.
You learn these things from someone’s obituary. You probably wouldn’t have learned them from Bill. He did not have much to say about himself. His mind was too full of questions about the world and the country, and about how things worked, how they got that way, and what it would take to make them better.
The Princeton thing came as a bit of a shock to me. I had Bill pegged as the product of a mining or milling family. For me he was an exemplar of what journalism was like in the days before you had to have a college degree to practice it, back when reporters were too busy reporting to think about becoming TV celebrities or hanging out in the Hamptons.
I worked with Bill at the Washington Post for a while; years later I saw him fitfully in Vermont, a state he would get away to when he was willing to risk leaving his beat untended. His beat was America’s messy democracy and the wide territory between its theoretical and actual workings. That is the stuff you could learn from Bill.
I count myself one of the many journalists who loved him and welcomed the chance to hang out with him when he was smoking a pipe and in a mood to unwind. Knowing I would not again have the pleasure of his physical company, I spent an hour yesterday mucking around in his terrific book Who Will Tell the People, which came out in 1992 and abounds with enduring truths about the workings of government and commerce. Here, for example, is a passage from the chapter presciently entitled “Rancid Populism”:
The contemporary Republican Party seems brilliantly suited to the modern age, for it has perfected the art of maintaining political power in the midst of democratic decay. The party of Lincoln has become the party of mass marketing, applying marketing’s elaborate technologies to the task winning elections. From this, it has fashioned a most improbable marriage of power — a hegemony of moneyed interests based on the alienation of powerless citizens.
As men of commerce Republicans naturally understood marketing better than Democrats, and they applied what they knew about selling products to politics with none of the awkward hesitation that inhibited old-style politicians. As a result, voters are now viewed as a passive assembly of “consumers,” a mass audience of potential buyers. Research discovers through scientific sampling what it is these consumers know or think and, more important, what they feel, even when they do not know their own feelings. A campaign strategy is then designed to connect the candidate with these consumer attitudes. Advertising images are created that will elicit positive responses and make the sale…
Much of what currently passes for strategic planning within the Democratic party is actually a forlorn discussion about how to emulate the Republican party’s mass-marketing skills. The conduct of contemporary electoral politics is like what would happen if an automobile company decided to fire its engineers and let the advertising guys design the new model…”
Another aptly-titled chapter, “Hollow Laws,” explains its core concept thusly:
Symbolic legislation is passed with fanfare, self-congratulation and the knowledge that the real political fight has only just begun. The participants will decide later, elsewhere, what will actually happen. Citizens at large cannot usually see the details of these evasions, but they observe, in time, that nothing much seems to have happened…
While the news media focus on the conventional political drama of enacting new laws, another less obvious question preoccupies Washington: Will the government enforce the law? Does the new law enacted by Congress really have to mean what the public thinks it means? Or is there a way to change its terms and dilute its impact on private interests? Lawyers inquire whether exceptions can be arranged for important clients. Major corporations warn of dire economic consequences if the legal deadlines are not postponed for a few more years. Senators badger federal agencies to make sure the law is treating their clients and constituents with due regard.
Washington, in other words, engages in another realm of continuing politics that the public rarely sees – a governing contest where it is even more difficult and expensive to participate, where the supposedly agreed upon public objectives are regularly subverted, stalled or ignored, where the law is literally diverted to different purposes, where citizens’ victories are regularly rendered moot.
These words may sound gloomy. Bill was not. He was a radiant soul and a fount of warmth and inspiration — not exactly an optimist but always prepared to be pleasantly surprised by the course events took. He was a passionate believer in following a story where it led, experience having taught him that initial assumptions rarely came through the process intact. He felt the same way about our country: you could never be quite sure where it would go next.