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Friday, August 27, 2010

Paying Tribute to an Elephant-seeing Statesman of Yesteryear, William Saxbe

William Bart Saxbe died this week at his home in Mechanicsburg, Ohio, age 94. A politician and statesman for many years, his biggest claim to fame was serving as U.S. attorney general under Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. But we can forgive him that transgression in part because he was an unlikely pick for the post (a one-term Republican senator, he had frequently criticized Nixon) — but in large part because he displayed three qualities the Seen the Elephant blog associates with a fearless leader.

1) Saxbe was an American politician to the core, but he was proud of having expanded his horizons beyond American shores. He was familiar with the "seeing the elephant" metaphor and used it for the title of his autobiography, I've Seen the Elephant, published in 2000 (with Peter D. Franklin). Saxbe narrates his life's journey from his youth in a small Ohio town, to his military career during WWII and Korea, to his career as a public servant in Ohio, Washington, and overseas (he served as ambassador to India under President Ford). Saxbe's eldest son contributed the book's introduction. He lauds his father's "sense of adventure, love of travel and receptivity to new people and ideas," adding: "He's the kind of man you don't meet every day" (my emphasis). You can say that again! When is the last time this nation has encountered a politician who feels comfortable trumpeting the alter ego of an elephant seeker? That's if they have one, of course. President Bush famously had not traveled outside the continental United States before he became president. The same is true for most congresspeople and senators. Bill Clinton spent two years at Oxford at a Rhodes scholar but played down this detail of his biography during his campaign for fear it would alienate voters. Perhaps Barack Obama has seen more of the elephant than any previous president, having lived as a youth in Indonesia; but this portion of his life continues to raked over the coals by those who are on a mission to prove he's not an American citizen, to the point where he probably wishes he'd never set foot in Jakarta.

2) Whether consciously or not, Saxbe channeled the 19th-century adventurer who went off to see an "elephant." He was said by his peers to resemble the redoubtable Will Rogers. Born in 1879 on a ranch in Oologah, Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma), Rogers just about qualifies for membership in what I've labeled "elephant seekers of old." He traveled around the world three times, achieving acclaim as much for his ability to deliver zingers ("Our foreign policy is an open book — a checkbook") as for his trick roping. Likewise, Saxbe, while he may not have been a lasso spinner, was a tobacco-chewing cattle rancher who traveled the world as part and parcel of his career in public service. He became known for such homespun "Saxbeisms" as:
  • "That's a ticket on the Titanic." [a disastrous cause]
  • "There'll be blood and hair on every stump." [a good political fight]
  • "He couldn't carry cold guts to a bear." [a weak advocate]
Notably, Saxbe once said that Nixon, in claiming to know nothing of the Watergate coverup, was like "the man who plays piano at a bawdy house for 20 years and says he doesn't know what's going on upstairs."

3) Saxbe brought home some especially quirky mementos from his travels, a practice this blog wholeheartedly endorses. His treasured white elephants from India included the tiger skin rugs that grace his home in Mechanicsburg (these, it should be noted, are no longer environmentally correct, if they ever were) and, more unusually, a supply of betel nut, which he'd grown fond of mixing with his chewing tobacco. (Although Saxbe was a nonagenarian, tobacco chewing, it should likewise be noted, is not a habit to be recommended: bad for health and teeth.)

Questions: Do you agree that William Saxbe merits the label "fearless leader"? Can you think of any other 20th-century statesmen who might qualify for this status?


Kate said...

Churchill. Man of the century.

ML Awanohara said...

Indeed. Isn't it interesting that if you look in the earlier half of last century, political elites, who also came from elite families (FDR is another example), prided themselves on being cosmopolitan. What's more, you couldn't be considered educated unless you'd done your grand tour (initially of Europe, later of the world). It was an educational rite of passage... And of course the men were often called up to serve in wars, which is seeing the elephant in a different sense...

Kate said...

It's a pity that certain political elites of the first half of this century didn't have the same philosophy and rite of passage.

susumu said...

This post and discussion remind me of the highly-organized (often by the state) tours the Japanese conducted in the 19th century, after the Opium War and the arrival of Commodore Perry's black ships, with the single-minded purpose of catching up with the West (by then, the West had become Japan's "elephant").

The most famous of these tours was the Iwakura Mission, involving more than a hundred travellers including ministers and senior officials, and lasting nearly two years. The Mission left Japanese students behind in key countries. The idea was that they would complete their studies under foreign tutelage and then return to Japan to contribute to nation-building.

Though the deliberateness and collective nature of the Japanese tours are in stark contrast to the more spontaneous and individualistic elephant tours described in this blog, they seem to spring from a similar source: that of nation building. European aristocrats would do their grand tour of Europe when their nations were on the ascendant; likewise for the Saxbes of America, a few centuries later. Recall that America led the creation of a new world order after World War II, with the formation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system.

Fast-forward to today: Japanese internationalists and Western Japan watchers are concerned that Japanese youth have lost interest in actively learning from other cultures, though they certainly do plenty of overseas travel for kicks. I'm not sure that this waning of purpose is all bad (there is probably more genuine interest in other cultures for what they are, not what Japan can use), but I have to notice that it comes at a time when Japan is ceding its position as the world's second biggest economy to China.

ML Awanohara said...

@Susumu: I have to wonder if the same is also true of the United States. The fact that we are turning inward and rejecting the knowledge that can be obtained from international travel (aka elephant-seeking) may be just another indicator that our power is on the wane. I get the impression that today's American youth are not so different from their Japanese counterparts: traveling for a lark (to see how many countries they can brag about visiting) rather than in the spirit of receptivity to new people and ideas, as Saxbe's son remarked of his father...

William 'Bo' Saxbe said...

I just discovered your wonderful tribute to my grandfather, William Saxbe, and wanted to say thank you for the kind evaluation of his character. He was a real adventure-seeker, and combined an odd mix of rough-spun Ohio sensibilities with the open mindedness gained in travel to exotic places. My grandfather was born with very agrarian roots, in a tiny town of about 900 people in rural Ohio. His father, a cattle-trader, frequently traveled east and west on the rail system to buy and sell cattle from the Midwestern states to points east. For him, the adaptation to urban environments and the very literal bridging between east and west was business, but my grandfather incorporated that into his personality. Travel abroad increased that trait and turned it into a real gift. He was just as comfortable chatting with the old salt-of-the-earth farmers congregating for their 5AM coffee in Mechanicsburg Ohio, as with a full dress Sikh at a tea-house in Chandigarh, or an upper-crust political socialite from Boston.

I’d also like to think my Dad, who was quoted in your article, realized the value of travel and exposure to non-American sensibilities. We were lucky to spend quite a lot of time overseas as children, living in India for a time as well as other points east. I am frustrated by my peers, and by our current politicians who don’t know what the world is really like when you get a few hundred miles away from a Wal-mart, a television, or just a hot water tap. I think Americans who have been fortunate to experience living in dramatically different cultures return as truly stronger, often more patriotic, and genuinely effective citizens. The current trend to distrust the ‘other’ or the ‘immigrant’ in our body politic is deeply un-American.

On a sad note, the tiger rug which made its way back to Ohio via diplomatic pouch, and was terrifying to us grandchildren (it had glass eyes and real teeth in its head!), was lost in an fire a few years ago. Fortunately (or unfortunately), my grandfather was very Victorian in his approach to ‘trophies’. We still have little bits and pieces of probably very endangered critters all over the place, which is pretty neat, but also horribly embarrassing to us (liberal and environmentally minded) grandkids. In my Grandfathers defense, it was a different time.

Thanks again for the great blog – I’m delighted that there are other Seekers of the Elephant still out there.

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