The Man in the Arena: The Life and Times of U.S. Senator Gale McGee
by Rodger McDaniel
Potomac Books, 2018
At long last, Wyoming Senator Gale McGee has a sterling biography of his own, written by Rodger McDaniel, a former Wyoming state senator who served with McGee and has previously written a biography of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt. The Man in the Arena: The Life and Times of U.S. Senator Gale McGee arrives from Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press; McGee was born in Nebraska in 1915, and after he received his Ph. D from the University of Chicago, he accepted a position as a professor of American history at the University of Wyoming, where he served for years as one of the most popular and engaging professors on campus.
It was a settled and satisfying position, a berth where another person might have been perfectly comfortable remaining for the rest of their life. But McGee decided to enter public service, and in 1958 his candidacy received one of the most resplendent cascade of blessings then imaginable in US politics. Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Harry Truman all stumped for him; Eleanor Roosevelt helped with his fundraising; he beat the incumbent by a sliver and went to Washington, where shortly he returned the favor, tipping Wyoming’s delegation in favor of Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic Convention. McCree went on to serve five presidents during three terms and a tour as ambassador to the Organization of American States under President Carter.
As his book’s title suggests, McDaniel follows McGee into the arena of his long public service, vividly dramatizing the debates, alliances, compromises, and an amount of humor and fellowship that McCree knows full well will strike 21st century readers as almost unrecognizably bizarre:
McGee and his colleagues did their jobs well, conducting the public’s business during some of the most turbulent times in U.S. history. Today many Americans wish for a more civil dialogue in the public square. They long for respectful and honest debates over difficult issues. They say they are tired of negative campaigns and television and radio news shows where the hosts and guests talk past one another in echo chambers.
Reflecting on the “hyperpartisanship” that currently afflicts Washington politics, McDaniel writes that if his hero were to return for a visit, “he would encounter a sizeable number of senators who believe their job is not to legislate but to slow or stop the wheels of government from turning.”
The Man in the Arena is, by contrast, a portrait of the functional politics of push and compromise. McDaniel takes readers through McGee’s service on various governmental committees, through his controversial role as a vocal advocate for President Johnson’s war in Vietnam, through his decisive defeat when seeking a fourth term in 1976, and through his term as ambassador. Through it all, McDaniel writes with tough sympathy about not only McGee but also all the other members of the book’s enormous cast of characters, always showing an almost aphoristic ability to sketch complicated people and situations with a concision that loses no accuracy. This is particularly difficult to do when it comes to President Johnson, but McDaniel also manages it with even stranger figures:
Since his early days developing the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer was routinely scrutinized because of the nature of that work. His FBI file was more than four feet thick. They tapped his phones, followed his footsteps, opened his mail, skimmed his trash, and quizzed acquaintances. He accepted it as part of his job. As he put it, “The government paid far more to tap my telephone than they ever paid me at Los Alamos.”
Gale McGee was an upbeat, upright, dedicated public servant of a type today’s news pundits assure their listeners on a daily basis no longer exists, and as a long-time teacher of history, he would have politely scorned a work of mere hagiography. His biographer knows this and wisely avoids producing such a book. The results are appealing enough without the halo in any case.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.