Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


Ham and Eggs and Heinlein

by Thomas Perry


    Well into the nineteen fifties -- long after that thick dark hair had thinned -- science-fiction readers encountered a photograph of Robert Heinlein showing him as a theatrically handsome young man. It appeared on the back covers of his paperback books, on the back flaps of his hardcovers, and occasionally alongside a thumbnail biography of the kind that used to be common in SF magazines. You can see the same photo on the back of the dustcover of Grumbles from the Grave or the back jacket flap of the uncut version of Stranger in a Strange Land. Near the photo usually appeared a recital of the occupations Heinlein had tried before becoming a writer. One of the fields that was typically mentioned was politics.

    Just politics. It never said Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal or radical, New Deal or Normalcy or No Third Term -- let alone hint at the wilder slogans of offbeat parties and movements, like Share the Wealth, Every Man a King, Production for Use, Thirty Dollars Every Thursday, One World or None, that once excited rallies and made headlines.

    "He tried his hand at silver mining, politics, real estate, without conspicuous success," was the way Damon Knight put it in his introduction to Heinlein's Future History collection The Past Through Tomorrow (Putnam, 1967). It was generic politics, you see, as bland as cornflakes. No content, no controversy.

    This became all the stranger as Heinlein's career progressed and he did not shy away from controversy. He took a public stand against restrictions on nuclear testing in 1956 (see the ad that he wrote for full-page publication in his local Colorado Springs newspapers, later reprinted in Expanded Universe under the title "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?"), and spoke in favor of bomb shelters and unregistered guns in his guest-of-honor speech at the 1961 World SF Convention (reprinted in Requiem). He let his name be published in an ad supporting the Vietnam war when it was a hotly debated issue. Later Heinlein had a public falling-out with his old friend Arthur C. Clarke over the Reagan administration's controversial Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), as documented in Requiem.

    But no specifics were forthcoming on his early political involvement. When Alexei Panshin tried to gather some biographical material for a chapter in his critical work Heinlein in Dimension (Advent, 1968), Heinlein and his friends rebuffed him.1

    And Sam Moskowitz has revealed that Heinlein responded to an early request for information on his background with a six-thousand-word letter and then forbade Moskowitz to publish the information it contained until after Heinlein's death.2 Subsequently it is reported that Heinlein's widow, Virginia, demanded the letter back from Moskowitz, nullifying the permission it contained from Heinlein to use it after he had died.3

    Of the four new books of Heinlein's that have come out since his death -- Grumbles From the Grave, a volume of heavily edited letters; Requiem, a potpourri consisting mainly of unpublished speeches and unreprinted stories, along with some reminiscences by others; Tramp Royale, a travel book from the fifties that found no publisher then; and, most recently, Take Back Your Government! which Heinlein wrote in 1946 as a practical guide to politicking and never sold -- none elucidates the mystery of his prewar political activity.

    I first saw Take Back Your Government! in the Heinlein archives at the University of California at Santa Cruz; it took the form of a finished, professionally typed manuscript, with the title How to Be a Politician. I had no time to read it on my one-day visit, but I recall glancing through it, thinking it might resolve everyone's questions about the author's early political affiliations and activities.

    It was finally published in a great hurry during the election year of 1992 with an American flag on the front and Ross Perot's name in a quotation on the back. "I would hope that every Perot supporter would read this book prior to the fall campaign," Jerry Pournelle is quoted as saying -- though it's not clear where the quotation is drawn from, since the closest formulation inside reads: "If you look to H. Ross Perot to lead the nation to salvation, you particularly need this book."

    You could read Dr. Pournelle as favoring Perot or expecting that Heinlein's how-to manual will help you see through him. That ambiguity reflects Heinlein's own equivocal stance throughout the book. He argues strongly -- and persuasively -- in favor of being "party regular," binding oneself to a caucus, and voting a straight ticket whenever it is morally possible; but he doesn't say which party. He takes no stand for or against either of America's mainline parties. He poses "important" questions which he says are ultimately answered by elections (schools, roads, fair-employment laws, foreign policy, etc.) -- but he provides no answers. The text is replete with phrases like "the South Side (Republican) (Democratic) Club" (p. 56) and "the Oak Center State Republodem Club" (p. 93).

    This neutral stance might seem less odd in a successful book, one that had sold when written. But the Heinlein how-to book on politics is notable in that it did not sell in 1946. It clearly represented strongly held ideas and a great deal of disciplined work; nevertheless it was allowed to sit in the files for almost half a century. Heinlein surely knew that it could be made more salable by identifying figures like the one mentioned on page 188, of whom he says: "He is nationally known but I shall not name him"; it's hard to imagine that none of the editors to whom he submitted it made such a suggestion. Yet well-known figures remain anonymous, and even the state where his political activity took place is not identified.

    The only specifics about Heinlein's political career in this book occur in Dr. Pournelle's introduction to his notes. Unfortunately, these specifics are, as we shall see, wrong.

    And so we still know from his published writings almost nothing of Heinlein's early political activity. In the travel book, of all places, he states that he has engaged in politics that were "well to the left" of McCarthy's (p.62) -- but since it is Joe McCarthy of whom he speaks, not Mary or Eugene, he has not told us very much.

    What we find in his work are hints, tantalizing and mysterious. In a foreword to his story "A Bathroom of Her Own" on its appearance in Expanded Universe (Grosset & Dunlap, 1980), Heinlein wrote: "Any old pol will recognize the politics in this story as the Real McCoy. Should be. Autobiographical in many details. Which details? Show me a warrant and I'll take the Fifth." One of these details shows up as early in the story as the third paragraph. Unfortunately, you won't recognize it as such without first knowing more; let me point it out later.

There were hints elsewhere, too. In Anthony Boucher's 1942 whodunit clef, Rocket to the Morgue, a Heinleinlike writer chats with the detective:

    "Now for instance in this story: I'm writing about a world in which Upton Sinclair won the EPIC campaign here in California, but Landon beat Roosevelt in '36. As a result California drifts more to the left and the nation to the extreme right until there is civil war, ending in the establishment on the west coast of the first English-speaking socialist republic. [...]"
    "What's its name?"
    "EPIC. [...] Only it won't be under my name; it'll be by Robert Hadley.
    "Because all the Austin Carter stories have to fit that chart over there. [...]"
    The chart in the story was the fictional version of the Future History chart, into which all the early stories published under the name Heinlein fitted; in Boucher's murder mystery, set in the science-fiction community of prewar Los Angeles, Austin Carter was a character modeled closely on Robert Heinlein.4

     The quoted dialog may mean that the foray into politics that Heinlein mentions so fleetingly involved support for or association with Upton Sinclair. Sinclair was a socialist who won the Democratic Party nomination for Governor of California in 1934 on a platform to "End Poverty In California."

    The EPIC plan was a radical one, in the sense of seeking the roots of the problems of the dormant economy; it involved the state government renting idle factories and fallow land in exchange for tax credits, and having the unemployed and the homeless use the rented property to farm, build living quarters, manufacture products, and then barter their goods with others. The plan, whose slogan was "Production for Use," was described as socialist by Sinclair's opponents, and the national Democratic leaders supported neither it nor Sinclair.

    Of course, Boucher's dialog might mean nothing. After all, it is just two fictional characters discussing a fictional work of fiction.

    It was to hints like these that one used to have to turn for illumination of Heinlein's early involvement in politics. He said in various places that he started writing as a way of paying off a mortgage after a failed political campaign, but he did not reveal what he had been running for, on what platform, or -- except that it somehow ended in defeat -- what happened to his candidacy.

    When I heard that the political how-to manual that I had seen in manuscript at UCSC was being edited and rushed into print in 1992 to ride on the surge of political books coming out that year, I feared that it would be watered down to nothing, as apparently happened to the book of correspondence.5 But as far as I can tell, this did not happen; I had time during my visit to UCSC only to scan through the book and make notes from its extensive table of contents, but I see no sign of anything missing and the book as published has the same flavor as the manuscript I saw. The preface, in particular, with its summary of Heinlein's roles in unidentified political campaigns concluding with the statement that he has had his telephone tapped, reads the same. Perhaps we can thank the editor's devotion for preserving the text, or perhaps the rush to get it into print meant that there was just not time for the Heinlein estate to insist on changes. (Poumelle explains on p. 288 that he had to work at "blinding speed" and therefore could not offer more extensive notes.)

    Unfortunately, it turns out that there wasn't much information about Heinlein's political career there to start with. Heinlein himself had taken care of that.

    But the book does contain a number of personal anecdotes, some of them revealing to those who know details of his life. For instance, on page 101, Heinlein describes a speaking engagement at what was undoubtedly the Third World Science Fiction Convention in Denver in 1941 -- the Denvention at which he was the guest of honor. He doesn't identify it as an SF worldcon; he leads into it by saying, "[...] shortly before the war, [...] I was invited to be a keynote speaker at a convention held in another state." The general reader is left to suppose that it was a political convention.

    And he goes on to describe the circumstances: "The speech was electrically recorded; it is terrifying to think of that disc going around and around, recording inexorably your pauses, your errors in grammar, your word blunders. I prepared a written manuscript [...] I found I did not need it. I spoke for one hour and forty-five minutes, extemporaneously, and kept the crowd with me. The recording was transcribed, printed, and bound, and the speech was sold (not by me) as a pamphlet which ran through two editions."

    This is exactly what happened with his Denvention speech; Walt Daugherty made the recording on phonograph discs and Forrest J Ackerman published the transcribed speech in a small mimeographed pamphlet. (The speech also appears in Requiem, just as transcribed by Ackerman except for the removal of some flubs by the speaker and all exchanges with the audience, including his first wife's one-word contribution -- "sacred" -- which Heinlein asked her to supply.)6

    Heinlein finishes this account by saying of the published speech, "I still get occasional fan mail about it." He must have had a twinkle in his eye writing that sentence.

    (The speech, both as published by Ackerman and in its appearance in Requiem, starts with a reference to Upton Sinclair's style of public speaking. The only other reference to Sinclair that I have been able to find in Heinlein's work occurs in the early story "Lost Legacy," first published in 1941 under a pen name. This story, by the way, written in 1939, includes many of the themes later explored in Stranger in a Strange Land; even that book's title can be found there.)

    On page 183, he tells an anecdote of how his wife affected the outcome of a gubernatorial campaign with a cookie cutter. (This was his first wife, Leslyn MacDonald Heinlein, by the way; Pournelle's note on page 277 identifies his wife as Virginia Heinlein, neglecting to point out that his widow was his second wife, and raising the possibility of confusion over which wife Heinlein mentions in the book.

    (At the time of writing, Heinlein was still married to Leslyn Heinlein. It has been reported that Heinlein, like many divorced men, did not like hearing references to his first wife; but if he meant what he said in decrying the Communists' rewriting of history to eliminate "unpersons" -- see Requiem, p.185 -- then it's hard to believe that he would have allowed this ambiguity if he had lived to see the book published.)

    But the cookie-cutter anecdote is dry as sawdust. As elsewhere in the book, the details that would have fired interest are omitted; the names of the politicians between whom his wife helped make peace are not given, and neither the issue that separated them nor the campaign that was helped thereby is identified. The book would make much better reading if Heinlein had not taken this purposely vague stance throughout; perhaps it might have interested a publisher enough to get into print. Surely Heinlein knew this -- in 1946 he was an experienced writer. There must have been some reason Heinlein did not care to get specific.

    On page 126 appears his only comment on his own campaign. "You are hardly ever licked by the opposition; you are licked by your own friends who did not vote," he says, and goes on to tell how he lost an election by "less than 400 votes" -- an election he believes he could have won if he had had forty more workers to get out all the votes pledged to him.

    That's all he says about his election race. It is left for Jerry Pournelle to pass along something that he says Heinlein told him years later, when Pournelle was working for Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty. In his introduction to his notes (p.269), Dr. Pournelle describes the young Heinlein as "beginning his political career as a moderate Democrat" whose "attempts at electoral office ended when he was defeated for the Democratic nomination to the California State Assembly by an up and coming Irish Los Angeles politician named Sam Yorty, who went on to win the Assembly seat, and later to become mayor of the City of Angels."

    Unlike the reference to Virginia Heinlein as Heinlein's wife, this isn't merely potentially misleading; it's just not so. Oddly, the one specific that Virginia Heinlein supplies about the same election -- that Heinlein lost "by one vote per precinct" (Requiem, p. 205) -- also turns out to be false.

    Heinlein ran for the Democratic nomination for the state assembly seat for the 59th Assembly District in 1938. No Democrat opposed him. His opposition was the longtime Republican incumbent in the Assembly seat, Charles W. Lyon, a fifty-year-old lawyer who had first been elected to the legislature in 1914.

    But even unopposed by any Democrat in the primary, Heinlein did not make it to the general election. At that time California allowed a form of cross-filing by which a candidate of one party could run in another party's primary as well as in the primary of his or her own party. If a candidate won both primaries in a two-party race, that candidate won the election right there, without having to face anyone in the general election.7

    This is what Lyon did. He entered the race against Heinlein in the Democratic primary, while opposing three other Republicans in his own party's primary. Despite the fact that the Los Angeles Times endorsed one of the other Republicans -- the incumbent wasn't conservative enough for the Times of that day -- Lyon beat all the members of his own party, while amassing more votes among registered Democrats than Heinlein got.8

Just before the primary, Lyon announced that if re-elected, he would introduce a bill to provide a break on real-estate taxes and one to help finance old-age pensions.9

    Several of the Los Angeles daily papers ran news stories on this promise. Did this affect the outcome of the election? At this remove it is hard to tell -- any more than one can tell what the effect if any was of the similarity between Heinlein's name and that of the Nazi Sudetenland dictator Konrad Henlein, which as Heinlein comments on page 244 of Take Back Your Government! was frequently in the news that year -- but it seems certain that it was intended to.

    The primary was held Tuesday, August 30th, 1938, and the results are reported in the Los Angeles Times for Thursday, September lst. Lyon beat Heinlein by 5,251 to 4,791 (with 175 of 189 precincts reporting). The additional 14 precincts presumably cut the margin down to the heartbreaking difference of fewer than 400 that Heinlein mentions. (Note that since there were 189 precincts in the 59th Assembly District, "less than 400" is more than one vote per precinct; surely Heinlein in 1946 would have referred to a difference of 189 votes as less than 200.) Because Lyon had won both the Republican and Democratic nominations and there were no candidates of other parties in the race, the 59th District seat did not even appear on the ballot for the November election.10

    As for Yorty, he ran in another district -- the 64th, where he was already the incumbent, having first been elected in 1936.

    When Heinlein told Pournelle that Yorty beat him, he may have meant Yorty got more votes in the 64th district than Heinlein did in the 59th.11 Or maybe he simply meant that Yorty won his primary, while Heinlein lost his.

    Or Heinlein might have forgotten the complicated details over the years. This would square with Virginia Heinlein's misinformation about the race being lost by one vote per precinct; she presumably was told this by her husband, and the change from the "less than 400 votes" he remembered when he wrote the 1946 book and the "one vote per precinct" that he mentioned to his second wife later could have resulted from a memory growing increasingly vague as the events receded in time.

    Against that theory, however, stands the clear memory of earlier events he reveals in Expanded Universe, where he relates an involved incident from 1931 when he was in the Navy (pp. 452-457), and recalls details from his college years (p. 355).

    So it may be that Heinlein preferred at some level not to mention the facts of his political race, even to a close friend, and to substitute a version that made a better story. Heinlein was a storyteller, after all, and we have seen with his use of the Denvention appearance that he did not find it beneath him to create a false impression if his words were literally true.

    After all, it must have been especially frustrating to have to explain how, in a Democratic year when the gubernatorial and Senate candidates both won, he was defeated by a Republican in a Democratic primary.

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This essay originally appeared in Monad, Number Three, September 1993.  Copyright 1993 by Thomas Perry.

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