Adlai and Ike
Rachel felt herself crowded in tightly by taller people. Even though she was near the front of the crowd, she could hardly see the speakers whose voices bounced over her from raspy loudspeakers. However, the 1956 presidential election campaign was under way, and her housemates had said that it was her civic duty to come to the Adlai Stevenson rally.
Before the main event, there were warm-up speakers who were supposed to do for politics what punch-drunk old fighters did for a championship boxing match. They mostly sounded pretty stupid, and Rachel was getting tired of hearing about 'the American people', 'the communist threat', 'special interests', and 'a living wage'.
It sounded as if these phrases were being put together in random order, and she came up with, "A living wage for the communist threat to lead the American people to special interests." Tiring of this exercise, she began a whispering conversation with Barbara, next to her. Barbara said,
"I don't know why they worry about things like the minimum wage when we may all be wiped out in a nuclear attack."
Barbara sounded as calm as ever, just making a point of logic. Rachel reacted, "I can't imagine everything, including us, being wiped out, just like that. Can it really happen?"
"Sure. There's been a string of pretty serious incidents. Planes being shot down, the Berlin blockade, the Korean War, and other stuff. In the past, strings of incidents have led to wars, and this war would be nuclear."
"I know the comedian, Mort Sahl, called the Korean semi-war World War two point six."
"Two point seven should be happening pretty soon."
"You don't sound very upset."
"I'm a little scared all the time, but I forget when I'm involved in something."
After another bit of boring bombastic stuff, the crowd rose in a frenzy as Stevenson himself mounted the stage. The only national politician since Woodrow Wilson who sounded like an intellectual, he was the overwhelming choice of the Harvard-Radcliffe community. He did, in fact, sound rather like a professor as he started speaking. Rachel wondered idly if the preliminary speakers had been specially chosen buffoons in order to produce a contrast.
Stevenson gave a brief analysis of President Eisenhower's reactions to recent Soviet moves, and he did make his case that American policy rested on no guiding principle. He then summed up with the question,
"Does anyone in this administration really understand what's going on?"
That produced a big cheer, which was hardly surprising for an outdoor rally on Cambridge Common, almost next door to Harvard. Stevenson then proceeded to the next item on his agenda. Everything that followed was elegant, precise, and at least moderately persuasive. When it ended, after only some fifteen minutes, Barbara said, underneath the wild applause,
"This man is never going to get elected."
Rachel agreed. He had lost to Eisenhower the last time, and he was now behind in the polls. Indeed, it was surprising that such an intelligent well-educated man could get even ten per cent of the vote. When she expressed this view to Barbara, the other replied,
"As a Democrat, he automatically gets most of the union vote and much of the Catholic vote. That's all that keeps him in contention."
"Everyone around us seems to expect a Stevenson landslide."
"Yes. I think it's because of the crowd. Optimism bounces around and eventually produces euphoria."
A little while later they came upon Luda. She didn't even want Stevenson to be elected, saying, "For all his faults, Eisenhower has the confidence of a victorious general. Stevenson just isn't strong enough to cope with the men in the Kremlin."
Barbara demurred, "Stalin's dead, after all."
"He was the big ogre, but there are still middle-sized ogres with nuclear weapons."
Back in the dormitory room with Barbara, Rachel arranged a few books so that they stood at right angles to one another on the table and asked, "What did you think of Luda's view?"
Brushing by the table and nudging one of the books out of position, Barbara replied, "I'm still for Adlai, even though he's going to lose. I really don't think anyone can know whether either of them can avoid war."
"Of course, Luda judges politicians by who she thinks hates the Soviets the most."
"Incidentally, Luda thinks that you're also a Russian, only one generation removed from Odessa."
Rachel laughed, "I know. It's true that my parents were born there, but they came as young children, and they're totally Americanized in the worst way. My grandparents are better. They do seem foreign, but more Jewish than Russian."
"You don't seem to have much Russian mystique about you."
"Certainly not in the way Luda does. For one thing, I don't know the language."
"It's funny, everyone wants you to be whatever they are. Jane, down the hall, wants you to be a glamour girl. Elsie wants you to be a Catholic, and there's that girl, what's her name, who wants you to run for the house committee and be a student politician."
"I'm not tempted in any of those directions."
"Are you thinking what you might major in?"
"Really? There aren't many girls in math."
"What really interests me are these seemingly very simple problems that've never been solved."
“Could I understand them?"
"Sure. Like the four-color problem. Would you ever need more than four colors to make a map?"
"That sounds like geography."
"Not the proof."
Rachel drew a circle on the back of an election poster, and said,
"Let this be the red country. I'm surrounding it with three countries, blue, green, and yellow."
"Okay, there are your four."
"Now, suppose that the greens on the border with blue revolt. They no longer want to be green, but there are ancient hatreds between them and both the blues and the reds."
"A rambunctious bunch."
"They'll be wiped out, but, in the meantime, they need a color. You could make them purple, but you don't need to. They share no boundary with yellow, so they can be yellow."
"What if they don't like the yellows either?"
"It may cause them angst to be yellow, but it won't create geographical confusion."
"So you only need four colors."
"This is just a single example, and a simple one at that. The problem is to construct a proof that no fifth color would ever be needed. That's the mathematical part."
"So you really don't care who's elected president, but you do care about things like this."
"Yeah, politics and most other things are hopelessly messy. Mathematical problems like this are pure and beautiful."
"Probably too pure and beautiful for me. The course I like best is this general education one that's mostly philosophy. It's taught by a man who has his Ph. D. in philosophy, but who isn't a member of the department. Does that mean he's some sort of outcast."
"Probably so. Useful for teaching us freshman, but not to be admitted to the inner circle."
"He's always extremely clear, and I understand pretty much everything he says. I bet the people in the inner circle aren't so clear."
"I'm auditing a philosophy course by someone who must be an inner circler. He's a sort of joker, but he's fun."
"That sounds okay. I may poke my nose a little further into the department to see if I want to major in it. If there are bed smells, I could try something else. Chemistry labs also have bad smells, but you know what's causing them."
"The philosophy people may well be deeply weird."
Barbara nodded in agreement, and asked, "Is it possible to be happy at Harvard and not be deeply weird?"
"Practically everyone in my old neighborhood did think you had to be weird to want to come here."
"Wasn't there admiration for that in a Jewish community?"
"In a middle class one, certainly. But, in my group, girls grew up to be housewives. There might have been admiration if you married a rich man, but not for being an intellectual."
"Well, that's part of what's going to defeat Adlai."
"Barbara, my idea is to entrench myself in a community that's completely cut off from people like my parents."
"Will it is also be cut off from people who vote for Eisenhower?"
Rachel laughed, "That does sound extreme, doesn't it?"
"Intellectuals do seem to have a problem. They have contempt for the beliefs and the values of the masses, but they don't want to be snobby or elitist."
Rachel considered briefly and asked, "Are we sufficiently intellectual to have that problem?"
"Most people would think that anyone here is an int."
"There are some girls in this very dorm who're profoundly non-int."
"Yeah, but people outside don't know that."
"So, what do we do, Barbara?"
"I pretend not to be an int when I'm not with ints."
"A little awkward."
"My mother's a smart woman, but I've caught her playing dumb a couple of times."
"You never do that, do you, Barbara?"
"Not consciously, at any rate. I do hope it's possible to pretend not to be an int without also pretending to be dumb."
"Maybe we should be like hospital nurses. They aren't ints, but they don't take any crap from difficult male patients."
"Yes. It does seem that you either have to learn to manage people or be managed yourself."
Such a thought had never occurred to Rachel. Her implicit ideal, so far as she had one, was that of neither giving nor taking orders. But that probably wouldn't work out in practice.