Editor’s Note: In the November 27 issue of National Review, we had a review by Jay Nordlinger of Arthur Vandenberg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century, by Hendrik Meijer. This week, Mr. Nordlinger expands that review in his Impromptus.
When you grow up in Michigan, as I did, you know the name Meijer — as in the superstore chain. (The stores were once called “Meijer’s Thrifty Acres.” Now they’re just “Meijer.”) The Meijer family is from Grand Rapids, which is in West Michigan, which is Dutch country. They have a slogan there: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”
Hendrik Meijer is the executive chairman of Meijer, Inc. After college, he spent about six years in journalism, then joined the company. In 1984, he wrote a biography of his grandfather, the founder, also named Hendrik Meijer: Thrifty Years. Now he has written another biography of another Dutchman from Grand Rapids, Arthur Vandenberg.
Vandenberg was one of the most important U.S. senators in the first half of the 20th century. He served from 1928 until his death in 1951. A Republican, he was the leader of the isolationists — until the war, when he saw the world differently and helped forge a bipartisan foreign policy in the United States.
At the risk of offending Hank Meijer (as the author is called), I will make a confession: I thought this book might be a fond look by a multibillionaire with a taste for history at a half-forgotten figure from his hometown. No. It is a first-class political biography, enthralling, a page-turner. It ought to win prizes. Meijer ought to quit business and do this full-time.
His book is about Vandenberg, sure. It is also about the New Deal, World War II, and the immediate aftermath. Furthermore, it’s about an era, or eras. There was a time when people in Michigan towns heard Caruso sing and saw Pavlova dance. (My grandparents were such people.) On a humid summer day, you dipped into Lake Michigan, below the dunes. (We still do that.)
In 1922, a book went off like a stink bomb in the Midwest: Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. It mocked the values that Arthur Vandenberg embodied and championed. In a strange turn of events, he and Lewis became friends, or at least friendly acquaintances.
On top of everything else, this biography is “relevant,” as people like to say. Indeed, it is “ripped from the headlines.” It discusses, among other issues, nationalism, populism, immigration, “America First,” the United Nations, NATO — even the Civil War and the nature of the Confederacy.
Senator Vandenberg is obviously at the center of the book, and a biographer is tempted to treat his subject as the center of the world. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a biographer, everything looks like his subject. But Vandenberg was at the center of a lot, and Meijer exploits this, while recognizing that Vandenberg was just a senator, however important.
Arthur Hendrick Vandenberg was born in 1884. (How did that “c” sneak into “Hendrick”?) His parents had come to Grand Rapids from upstate New York. One of his grandfathers was a delegate for Lincoln at the 1860 convention. This man also provided a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Here is the author, Hendrik Meijer, on the Grand Rapids of his subject’s early years: “On the Fourth of July father and son watched veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic march up Fulton Street — a vivid reminder of how the Republicans had rescued the nation in the Civil War.”
(Would any Republican talk that way now?)
Arthur Vandenberg’s father, Aaron, was in the harness business. “Vandenberg the Harness Man,” they called him. He was ruined by the Panic of 1893. This left a deep mark on his son. “I had no youth,” Arthur would say. (This was typical of the man’s hyperbole, according to Meijer.) “I had one passion — to be certain that when I grew up I would not be in the position my father was.”
He was a little political junkie, Arthur was. As a high-schooler, he ate, slept, and breathed politics. He started reading the Congressional Record at 15 (or so he would claim, later on). His classmates said that he would never stop talking. He was editor of everything in sight. He gave formal addresses, including on the Hague Peace Conference of 1899. In a mock election, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate.
His idol was Alexander Hamilton. He would write two books about Hamilton, one of which was titled “The Greatest American.” He also admired the governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt.
TR was the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 1900. One of his campaign stops was Grand Rapids. Arthur, 16, had graduated from high school and was working as a billing clerk in a biscuit factory. He was warned not to leave his desk — but he couldn’t resist. He dashed out to see his hero, the Rough Rider. When he got back to his desk, he was fired.
Arthur saw him again in 1911. TR was again in Grand Rapids, this time as the ex-president (looking to run again). He gripped young Vandenberg’s hand and said, “By George, it does me good to meet a good Dutchman.” (That was Dutchman to Dutchman.)
Vandenberg went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, leaving after his second semester because he had run out of money. Not to worry: With his talents and drive, he became a journalist, and a successful one. More than that, an excellent one. He worked at the Grand Rapids Herald, a herald of Republicanism. Ambitious, he set out for New York, working for Collier’s magazine.
He didn’t like New York much. “Have you ever known the loneliness of a great city?” he would write. “There is no misery like it.”
He returned to his hometown, and to the Herald. At 21, he was made editor — editor of the whole paper. I love what the proprietor said. After giving Vandenberg the news, he nodded toward the editor’s office and said, “Go over and kick your feet under the mahogany.”
Vandenberg “recoiled at the fervor of the populists,” writes Meijer, “recalling in a rather personal way that in the Panic of 1893, ‘Bryanism’ was ‘injurious to retail trade,’ its policies leading to ‘nearly five years of the hardest times back in the ’90s.’”
TR gave Vandenberg a jolt, too. Vandenberg certainly felt this jolt when the great man spoke about President Taft:
Roosevelt launched into a tirade against the status quo — and, by implication, the incumbent in the White House. “Those who shudder are Whigs,” he declared, suggesting that Taft backers represented entrenched interests, fearful of change. But many of those who shuddered were GOP regulars like Vandenberg, who caught a whiff of populism and feared for the future of the party.
Shortly before the election of 1912, Aaron Vandenberg, stricken, spoke final words to Arthur: “Son, promise me you’ll always be a Republican.” What he meant was: Vote to reelect Taft, not for TR (who was running on the Progressive ticket). In any event, Wilson won.
Like TR, Vandenberg was furious at Wilson for staying out of the war — World War I, as it would be known. “We can no longer rely on our isolation in world affairs,” he wrote, “for that no longer exists.” He likened Wilson to an ostrich, “thinking he is safe because his head is buried in the sand.”
Many Americans opposed the expansion of the military, believing it would be a first step toward war. Vandenberg asked, “Do our theoretical peace friends realize that the new athletic stadium at Yale could contain the entire regular army of the United States as now constituted, without crowding?”
Meijer relates a story about Roosevelt, speaking in Detroit in May 1916. (Vandenberg was there.) His theme was preparedness: military preparedness. A woman in the balcony called out, “I have two sons who will respond” (meaning enlist). There was silence in the auditorium. Then Roosevelt said, “Madam, if every mother talked that way, there would be no need for any of our sons to fight, because the power of our national defense would save us from all trouble.”
Roosevelt was an ardent believer in deterrence (and one of the most interesting Nobel peace laureates in history).
Of course, Wilson finally entered the war in April 1917. And Vandenberg would have a major change of mind: He adopted the view that greedy, blood-stained Big Business had connived America into war. This was a common view among Midwest conservatives. I know this, in part, from talking to the grandparents of my friends, long ago.
Well, I think that’s enough Vandenberging for one day. I’ll continue and conclude tomorrow. Thanks for joining me.
A word to the wise: National Review has started a new podcast, Jaywalking, in which Jay Nordlinger presents what is essentially an audio version of Impromptus. Go here. Also, to get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.