In the Aftermath of the Liberal Dream
And how, given that Richard Cummings interviews as if De Soto’d actually found life’s spume, is the writer feeling these days?
"Exhausted," he offers, reaching for the Pelligrino on a shady back porch not far from his Bridgehampton home. "I’d like to get my mind, body, and soul back."
Grizzled, his gray hair unruly, Cummings has a lot on his plate these days. His biography of liberal reformer Allard Lowenstein, The Pied Piper, has been reissued by InPrint.com. He has a couple of racy novels out, one by Dandelion Books under the pseudonym Gower Leconfield. Cummings lectures on international relations and his thriller The Prince Must Die could rile both MI5 and the British royals. The title of his play, Soccer Moms from Hell, in development at The Lark on 56th Street with a mainstage production planned by Theater Studio Inc., also gives ample warning of the play as a caustic lark.
His essays on LewRockwell.com, the libertarian website, fix Cummings’s grasp, and sometimes his teeth, on the throat of the current administration. Fiercely anti-imperialist, with titles like "Wolfowitz of Arabia" and "War, Lies and WMD," his pieces deploy a rigorous skill at assembling information, an unflagging commitment to outing Bush administration power ploys, and a feisty and irrepressible wit.
Some are cast as theatrical spoofs (i.e. "Oedipus Tex" with "W, L, & WMD" ending in a Coriolanus quote), while "Wolfowitz" opens by sketching Iraq’s compromised founding. The American Conservative contacted Cummings to review Niall Ferguson’s Empire— they wouldn’t take "W, L & WMD" (Zeit-Fragen in Zurich and Common Concern have) but Pat Buchanan’s mag did take the essay "When Terrorism Works."
Shocked that Cummings writes for the far right? "A lot of liberals and people in New York should familiarize themselves with them, because what we need is a conservative/liberal coalition behind someone like Howard Dean, on a grassroots level. It’s the only way you can combat the financial resources Bush will have at his disposal. Let’s have a regime change here; we really, really need it."
Cumminngs brings a broad background to his work. "I was educated as a lawyer, I went to Princeton, to Columbia Law School then off to Cambridge for my PhD. I became an international lawyer, I was with a Wall Street firm, then USAID, and then I was a professor in Ethiopia. After all that, I just wanted to write."
The Pied Piper originally appeared on Barney Rosset’s Grove Press in 1985. Cummings and Rosset played tennis together; in a bar one afternoon, Cummings brought up Lowenstein, and Rosset gave him a contract.
The book’s subtitle, Allard K. Lowenstein and the Liberal Dream, signals a chilling relevance (the "death-of-the" part remains unstated) in today’s climate of political subservience. Cummings separates three overlapping currents through the Democratic reformer and one-term congressman’s frenetic life, which ended when a former aide who’d come under his thrall during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer in 1964 shot him in his office in 1980 with seven bullets. Lowenstein died at 51. Eulogies came from associates and friends from Ted Kennedy to William F. Buckley, Jr.
A major player in the National Students Association, Lowenstein’s first crusade was in South Africa, where his tools were a compelling personality, a burgeoning contact network, and documented CIA backing. His insistences helped keep Mandela alive, and Cummings credits Lowenstein’s as the only voice "in the wilderness who told everyone that Robert Mugabe should never be dealt with, that he would do terrible damage to what was once a wonderful country." Next came activism in Mississippi to help force the federal government to establish the Civil Rights Act. For his third big thrust, he organized the Dump Johnson movement to protest Vietnam.
Cummings finds the unacknowledged CIA link a root cause in the Democratic Party’s current shambles. "The failure of liberalism led to the ability of right wing demagogues to take over what was a progressive country. Liberalism failed in the United States because it was hypocritical. And one of the earmarks of its hypocrisy is its refusal to acknowledge the role it played in the Cold War. Many liberals served in the CIA. The Paris Review, as I wrote on LewRockwell ("Puttin’ On the Ritz"), was a CIA front. Everyone knows it, so why don’t we just say this? Liberals need to regain their credibility."
Barney Rosset remembers both the care that went into shaping The Pied Piper’s honorable and scandalous story (the book reveals both Lowenstein’s CIA involvements and his sexual ambivalence), and the furor that erupted on publication. "We were really stepping on somebody’s toes," says Rosset. "Marty Garbus, my attorney, went to Harvard to consult with lawyers there who had this extreme protectiveness for Lowenstein. He got them to say OK about the manuscript. We really checked like nothing else I remember, not wanting to be nailed for having published something that was not accurate."
"It didn’t work," Rosset continues. "Allard Lowenstein was a hero of American liberalism, and that book did not enhance him. It was attacked in The New York Review of Books on the basis that people were named as being CIA people. I wrote to them saying ‘What’s wrong with that? Those were good people, weren’t they?’"
The Pied Piper would take on another tough distinction. Around the time of its publication, Rosset sold Grove Press to British publisher Lord Wiedenfeld and his backer Ann Getty. Their agreement retained Rosset as head of his firm, but he was ousted quickly. Rosset believes that Richard Leland, Getty’s financial director, "got rid of me." One day, in a chance encounter on Fifth Avenue, Leland asked Rosset about just one book on Grove’s daring list: The Pied Piper. "At that moment," Rosset recalls, "I had a sinking feeling that I was finished."
Rosset knew from Cummings of Leland’s close ties to Frank Carlucci, one of Lowenstein’s many ranking friends, who’d gone on from the Foreign Service in South Africa to being Carter’s Deputy Director of the CIA, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, then head of the Carlyle Group. Carlucci was, in Rosset’s words, "enraged by Cummings." In the book, Cummings quotes Carlucci saying that Lowenstein "had no association with the CIA other than knowing me or knowing people in the CIA." Carlucci then adds tellingly that "those of us who have been associated with the CIA neither confirm nor deny any kind of association with it. Even if he [Lowenstein] had been in the CIA, there’s nothing wrong with it."
Victor Marchetti, ex-CIA man and co-author of The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, also speaks in The Pied Piper, advising Cummings that, as regards Lowenstein, "there are so many ways he could have been connected. It’s difficult to pin down. Is he a contact or a contract agent?" Marchetti recommends that Cummings "stick with the circumstantial evidence. What matters is the close association and cooperation." And "this is what reveals a person’s role with the CIA," Cummings concludes in his book. That little remains of a paper trail (the reissue includes extensive documentation of Cummings’ sources) means much can be deflected and denied. It becomes less a matter of connecting the dots than of judging the eventual consequences. Lowenstein’s full legacy is this double-edged sword.
Cummings’s two recent novels kick start with irreverent verve, taking themselves no more seriously than their topics: eternal mortality in The Immortalists (InPrint.com), and in The Prince Must Die (dandelionbooks.net), an assassination plot to alter the English royal family. Rife with intrigue, splashed with bravado, both books feature hilariously loathsome characters and effortless sexual shenanigans.
Murders are as offhand as the swap of sex and gender identities. Hamptons millionaire Joe Forcione, paying on a blue streak for cryogenics and computer "replication," spends a few pages surgically revised into "beautiful and lithe" Jo Forcione, assured by Dr. Kleist that "she" will never age or die (Cummings pokes at Goethe’s Eternal Feminine). Von Oberman in The Prince Must Die goes through bewildering changes to facilitate his/her work as a multiple agent. Von O. is also a prince… Chucking in a discourse on polo horse leg fractures, Cummings pins tails on a couple of remade art world luminaries, critic Clement Greenberg, who once sold ties, and gallerist Larry Gagosian, whose start came pushing concert posters.
The play Soccer Moms is a rousing farce of manners, a sort of All’s Well spiced with Gombrowicz’s absurd Ivana and DeLillo’s acerbic Valparaiso. Interchangeable white males in Darien and Greenwich, one a lawyer and the other an ad exec ("the bottom line is the bottom line"), end losing their wives— the soccer moms— the former to an Ethiopian lawyer, the latter to a Guatemalan gardener. One man’s hippie alter-ego wields a revelatory joint— no one sees him ’til they smoke. And puff they all do, before forming new pairs to exit in a mock-Shakespearean resolution.
"George Bush is a catastrophe," Cummings affirms, "but the political process is a catastrophe, too. I think it was Thucydides who said that Athens in the days of Pericles was a democracy in name only. American in the days of Bush is a democracy in name only. You still hear people say, ‘Well, I’m not political.’ Listen, I hate politics. But Pericles said, ‘Even though you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean that politics won’t take an interest in you.’"
His attention to both class and party politics seems more accurate than appreciated. "It has earned me a lot of ill will and no money," Cummings says. "I can’t get published by mainstream publishers. I’ve been run out of American academia for being politically incorrect. My best teaching experiences were at the Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the University of the West Indies in Barbados. Both were far more open and tolerant than any of the American universities with which I have been associated. But this is par for the course, it’s not just me. There’s a lot of conformity and a lot of fear of confronting issues here."
Yet he won’t stop sounding the call for awareness. "What writing is about, what literature should be about, is changing peoples’ perspective. You don’t change reality; you can change peoples’ perspective of reality. One of the biggest problems is that Americans don’t read— which is the only way to achieve radical self-knowledge. When you avoid it, you are easily manipulated."
"Live theater’s another way," Cummings muses. "But it’s so expensive!"