This poem was inspired not directly, but indirectly, by my few days in Philadelphia observing the Republican National Convention. The words attributed to Lyndon Johnson are my paraphrase of an account I heard from someone fairly close to LBJ. Richard Nixon was an exceptional poker player. It is said that on the ship home from his wartime service he played almost constantly, winning a lot of money, which he stowed in a footlocker with a false bottom. This money is said to have financed Nixon's first campaign for office.
Three kinds of motive muscle people up
The ladder of power, Lyndon Johnson said:
"Some want the power because it makes them rich,
And that's Dick Nixon. Others like the glory,
Hot eyes of women, envious eyes of men -
That was Jack Kennedy. But some like power
For its own sake, for what it lets them do.
And that's who I am," said Johnson, dealing out
The best hand to himself, to prove his point.
But is it all that simple? Some seem to rise,
Like James Garfield after thirty-six ballots,
Largely by chance. Or sheer, free American
Blundering around. In my time as a voter,
The Navy begat Poker, and Poker begat
Nixon, and Nixon begat Agnew, and Agnew
Begat the Little Paper Bags of Cash,
And the Paper Bags of Cash begat Ford.
Ford begat Carter and Carter begat the Little
Imaginary Cakes he made with his hands
When he addressed the nation on television.
The Little Cakes begat Mondale, and Mondale
Begat Dukakis and Dukakis begat
Bush the First and Bush the First begat Clinton.
All fallible and capable and needy,
Thriving and withering on the trellis ladder:
All of our motives, all of the above.
Robert Pinsky, who recently completed
three years as US poet laureate, is a professor of
English and creative writing at Boston University.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society