June 10, 2016.
I love this story from Hillary Clinton’s memoir Living History for a number of reasons, among them the historical irony of three future Democratic nominees for president meeting when only one of them was realistically looking at a chance that would happen, one of them was only beginning to dream and scheme, and the third apparently and likely had no clue as to what her own future would bring. But what really makes me smile is remembering Jimmy Carter’s smile back when he was still full of hope and promise and had reason to smile like that and when that smile brightened the mood of the whole country in those first years after Vietnam and Watergate. Hard to remember that it wasn’t Ronald Reagan who first made people feel that it might really be morning in America again. Hard to remember that Reagan’s failed campaign to take the nomination away from Ford in ‘76 was a mean-spirited one. But as Mom Mannion observed, Carter’s fate was sealed when he stopped smiling like that. Like this:
Bill Clinton’s first election victory as Attorney General of Arkansas in 1976 was anticlimactic. He had won the primary in May and had no Republican opponent. The big show that yea was the presidential contest between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.
Bill and I had met Carter the year before when he gave a speech at the University of Arkansas. He had sent two of his top lieutenants, Jody Powell and Frank Moore, to Fayetteville to help in bill’s 1974 campaign., a sure sign he was surveying the political landscape with an eye toward a national run.
Carter introduced himself to by by saying, “Hi, I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m going to be President.” That caught my attention, so I watched and listened closely. He understood the mood of the country and bet that post-Watergate politics would create an opening for a newcomer from outside Washington who could appeal to Southern voters. Carter correctly concluded he had as good a chance as any, and as his introduction implied, he certainly had the confidence necessary to undertake the ego-mangling of a presidential campaign…
At the end of meeting, Carter asked me if I had any advice for him.
“Well, Governor,” I said, “I wouldn’t go around telling people you’re going to be President. That could be a little off-putting to some.”
“But,” he replied with that trademark smile, “I am going to be.”
Tuesday. New York Primary Day. April 19, 2016.
Keep this scene in mind if Joni Ernst---remember her?---becomes relevant again and you’re recalling what a laugh we liberals had over her boasts on the campaign trail that she knew how to castrate hogs:
Crucially, his liveliness and sociability served him well in politics. Campaigning again for the state legislature in 1834, he went out to a field where a group of about thirty men were working the harvest. A friend of Lincoln’s, J.R. Herndon, introduced him. The men said that they couldn’t vote for a man who didn’t know how to do field work. “Boys,” Lincoln said, “if that is all I am sure of your votes.” He picked up a scythe and went to work. “I don’t think he Lost a vote in the Croud,” Herndon wrote.
Lincoln won the election easily…
---from Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Lincoln certainly didn’t win that election because he could swing a scythe. At best he picked up a handful of votes that day, and it’s a good bet that at least a few of those men didn’t vote for him despite the demonstration of his handiness. Shenk doesn’t tell the story to make that point.
Only a fool would have been persuaded Lincoln was a competent state legislator, never mind a future president, because he knew which end of a scythe to grab hold of. That he didn’t slice his own leg off that day wasn’t predictive of his ability to craft a piece of labor legislation or, when it came time, lead the country through a civil war and save the Union. It’s just an anecdote---one of many---that illustrate Lincoln’s character and temperament and his ability to work a crowd on the campaign trail. He was a natural politician because he liked people and was at ease in all manner of company, and people were drawn to him and liked him back.
It marked him as a born leader and made him electable. It didn’t make him great, although the heart and soul and intelligence that were at the root of his likability may have done the trick. Come to think of it, his likability was probably a terrific asset when he became President since it kept certain doubters of his capability and intelligence---like Seward and Stanton---from dismissing him out of hand and had them paying attention long enough and close enough to realize what a remarkable man they were working for.
Still, it is, like I said, just one story among many illustrating his character.
But it’s the kind of campaign stunt voters have always gotten a kick out of and political reporters have always loved to jump on for a story, mainly because it’s easy to write up and because it’s human interest and human interest sells, and have always made too much of. They like to tell it as if it shows something they think is important about the candidate in question---his authenticity.
As many a more astute observer than I have noted, the word authenticity when used by a political journalist has no fixed meaning. It’s simply a multi-purpose tool of a word pundits and analysts who prefer writing drama criticism to writing about policy reach for when they want to add a note of, well, authenticity to another canned review of a candidate’s performance before an audience of “regular Americans.” Candidates gets raves or a pan depending on the the critic-reporters’ judgment of how well their act plays with the groundlings.
Candidates earn or lose stars based on how naturally they act like they’re just regular folks at heart.
Authentic acts of authenticity are usually performed at state fairs and factory gates and in small town diners and neighborhood bars, although from time to time you can catch a show at stops off the regular campaign trail, like subway turnstiles.
If the word has any...authenticity...it’s in how it describes how well in acting their natural selves candidates connect with voters acting their natural selves. The object of a candidate’s acting authentic is to say to voters, “I’m one of you. I know what your lives are like. I know what you’re going through” and have them believe it.
I don’t believe voters are all that concerned with the “I’m one of you part.” Not as much as journalists seem to think. People looking at a possible president don’t want a friend, as such. They’re not looking for someone to have a beer with. Their looking for someone who, if they were to have a beer with her, will listen with real understanding when they tell her the stories of their problems and pain. They’re looking for someone who will represent their interests knowledgeably and sympathetically. She doesn’t necessarily have to share those interests.
The most authentic candidate in that way this election campaign has been Donald Trump.
Yeah, you and I know he’s a fraud and a con artist. So do, at some level, many of his supporters. But they believe that even if he doesn’t really share them, he understands their problems and concerns, their fears, angers, and resentments, and their aspirations and, especially, their dreams of the golden mountains. And of course he does understand them. That's how con artists work. That’s why they're so good at manipulating and exploiting people. They understand them. Trump understands his voters. Will he represent them if he’s elected president? That’s a question they’ll worry about later. Right now, he speaks for them and to them in language they use themselves with apparently the same passion they feel, and that’s all the authenticity they need.
No need to bother judging the other Republicans who’ve gotten the hook. Cruz, though, is authentically Right Wing to the Rightest Wingers and authentically pietistic to plenty of Right Wing Evangelicals and authentically a weasel to weasels.
As for the Democrats, I find Berne authentically irritable, self-righteous, and scolding, but that’s me. Bernie’s supporters believe him to be authentically revolutionary and that’s all the authenticity they need. I think his authenticity is assumed by the media by virtue of his being not-a Clinton and that’s about the extent to which they’ve been at all interested him---as an authentic problem for her.
Meanwhile, Hillary can’t say her own name without its being judged politically calculated and too obviously scripted by a committee of pollsters. And she’s a poor actress. When she does say her own name she invariably puts the emphasis on the wrong syllables.
Apparently even her taste in condiments is inauthentic.
How’s she pandering by claiming she likes hot sauce? What’s the matter with her liking hot sauce? I like hot sauce. I don’t carry my own supply when I go out and I don’t put it on everything. But I will ask for it at diners if there’s not a bottle on the table and we always have some at the ready here at home. I like to slather it on scrambled eggs especially, even though it gives me the hiccups. I didn’t know it had political implications. I sure didn’t know Beyonce had pointedly mentioned black people’s supposed love of hot sauce in a song. As Mrs M gleefully and I thought a tad superciliously pointed out when I mentioned this, I’m not a member of the BeyHive. Considering how far out of things I generally am, it’s amazing I even know who Beyonce is.
But I believe Hillary’s love for hot sauce is authentic.. Explains the whole basis of her marriage to Bill, I think
“You put hot sauce on everything?”
“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?”
“Marry me, darlin’!”
As I mentioned, the point of “authenticity”, to the extent there is a point beyond giving lazy and bored journalists something easy and amusing to write about, is that an authentic politician is one who shows how well she’s at home in the company of regular folks, that she is to some “authentic” degree herself just like regular folks. Hillary’s reviews on this score are generally poor. The critics regularly find her performances lacking in that kind of authenticity.
But there are millions of women and girls not just in the United States but around the world who believe she’s been authentic in her commitment since she was in college to making their lives better, that she has worked authentically and with passion and success on their behalf, and they love her for it and will vote for her with the enthusiasm the reviewers agree she doesn’t inspire. Millions of men will too. Many of them white working class men. Hard to believe, I know. But it’s true. There are working class white men who love and admire her and going by what the pundits and analysts seem to think working class white men are the most regular folks of all the regular folks.
But that doesn’t make her regular folks. She’s not regular folks. None of them are. They didn’t get where they are and achieve what they’ve achieved by being regular folks. In fact, a good deal of their success is due to their having determined early in life to distinguish themselves from regular folk. They didn’t think of themselves as regular folk. They hoped and worked for a life for themselves better than that.
Of course Lincoln knew how to work a field and handle a scythe. He grew up on a farm. But:
It is a mark of Lincoln’s soaring ambition that, four years from the fields, he sought to [become a lawyer and join the ranks “of the growing number of urban and industrial professionals] at a time when all but five percent of the men in the area did manual work for a living. It was a sign of his pluck that he did it virtually all on his own. While other young men learned the law at universities---or, more commonly, under the tutelage of an established attorney---Lincoln, as he noted in his memoir, “studied with nobody.” This was hardly the only mark of his ambition. A lawyer named Lynn McNulty Greene remembered Lincoln telling him that “all his folks seemed to have good sense but none of them had become distinguished, and he believed it was for him to become so.” This language suggests that Lincoln had, more than a personal desire, a sense of calling. “Mr Lincoln,” explained his friend O.H. Browning, “believed that there was a predestined work for him in the world...Even in his early days he had a strong conviction that he was born for better things than then seemed likely or possible...While I think he was a man of very strong ambition, I think it had its origin in that sentiment, that he was destined for something nobler than he was for the time engaged in.”
Lincoln was good-natured, sociable, easy-going, comfortable among all sorts and conditions of men and women. He liked people and they liked him back. He was popular. But he was different.
It wasn’t just that he was smarter and more driven than most regular folks. He was dreamy, artistically minded, literary, and intellectual. He read a lot. Hardly news there. And while plenty of people, particularly older, established, and successful professional men, including politicians and party leaders who promoted his career, admired him for it, liked him for it, and even voted for him because of it.---He had a way with words. Also not news. It was thanks to all that book-learning regular folks are often said to have no use for.---there were many people who didn’t like any of that about him and even looked down on him for it.
To men who had been born and expected to die on farms, book learning had limited value, a man ought to be able to read the Bible (for his moral life) and legal documents (for his work life). Writing could help too, as could basic arithmetic. Anything more was a luxury, and for working folks seemed frivolous. For generations, Lincoln men had cleared land, raised crops, and worked a trade. So when this boy slipped away from feeding livestock and splitting logs to write poetry and read stories, people thought him lazy. “Lincoln was lazy---a very lazy man,” remembered his cousin Dennis Hanks. “He was always reading---scribbling---writing---ciphering---writing poetry &c. &c.”
Later, Lincoln’s self-education would become the stuff of legend. Many parents have cited Lincoln’s long walks to school and ferocious self-discipline to their children. But Lincoln pursued his interests in defiance of established norms. Far from being praised, he was consistently admonished.
And he wasn’t always politic enough or “authentic” enough to keep his more profound differences to himself:
As decisively as Lincoln left the rural life, he left the Baptist church as well. In New Salem he became widely known as an infidel. He rejected eternal damnation, innate sin, the divinity of Jesus, and the infallibility of the Bible. For a time it seemed there was nothing sacred that Lincoln didn’t reject. He recited the poetry of Robert Burns, the notorious Scottish freethinker. He carried around a Bible, reading passages and arguing against them. It reached a point where it hurt Lincoln politically, with people loudly refusing to vote for a man with such “shocking” views. When Lincoln put his ideas about the Bible and Christ on paper, even one of his fellow skeptics thought he’d gone too far, and threw the manuscript into the fire.
I wonder what kind of reviews that much authenticity in a presidential candidate would get today.
Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk is available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.
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January 12, 2016.
Roosevelt, people often said, learned to sympathize with the poor because he himself had suffered. In the summer of 1921 he crawled into bed and emerged, long painful months later, able to walk only by a great effort of will, and with help. The struggle, his friends and biographers have alike suggested, left him simultaneously hardened and sensitive: so guarded as to be unreadable, yet with a great ability to understand the sorrows of his fellows, whose company he genuinely seemed to enjoy. His long convalescence also gave him time to read and reflect on matters of importance. He emerged an enemy of his nation’s great complacency.
Indeed, the president’s economic literacy had been clear from the beginning. While watching the president agree to sign the March 6 proposition that it inaugurated his currency policy, Wyatt the Federal Reserve lawyer, who did not trust or particularly admire the president, nevertheless thought Roosevelt “seemed to understand the thing thoroughly.” He should have: contrary to his critics’ beliefs, the president had long been a student of economics.
It has proven possible to disregard the lessons of Roosevelt’s policies for at least two reasons. First, decades of histories have emphasized his luck rather than his ability…
Second, we have forgotten how, or even that, Roosevelt’s policies actually worked.
A second class intellect but a first class temperament.
----Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on Theodore Roosevelt.
Started reading Eric Rauchway's The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace and my first thought was that Justice Holmes got it only half-right about FDR.
My second thought was: Oh yeah. Wrong Roosevelt.
Holmes was describing Theodore not Franklin Roosevelt.
But leaving aside how the Great Dissenter got it only half-right about TR instead---Not surprising. A Supreme Court justice’s assessment of anyone else’s intellect is suspect because of his likely bias. Supreme Court justices tend to believe there are only a few first class intellects in the world and they all belong to Supreme Court justices. In fact, certain Supreme Court justices have been known to regard their fellow justices as a pack of blockheads and jackasses. It’s hard to imagine Holmes rating highly the intellect of any U.S. President, except, perhaps, Jefferson’s, and that would have been with some condescension.---Holmes’ back-handed compliment of Theodore has come to define Franklin in the popular imagination, to FDR’s everlasting (and deserved) credit, but also somewhat to his caricaturization.
Roosevelt was Machiavelli’s lion and fox, as James MacGregor Burns had it in the title of his biography. FDR succeeded through a mixture of strength and courage and cunning and guile. His intelligence took the forms of political acumen and psychological insight---he knew how to read people, and the People, and manipulate them. His achievements, then, were due to his personality, his character, his temperament.
Sure, the thinking goes, he might not have been an intellectual like Jefferson or Lincoln or Woodrow Wilson but he knew how to be President better than anyone else who held the office before or since because he was so perfectly suited in spirit and feeling for the job and the times. It was that first-class temperament that made him our greatest President.
And of course it did, but…
You can’t be suited to a job you don’t understand.
In a President, a first-class temperament requires a first-class intellect.
Our best and most successful Presidents had temperaments well-suited to the job and their times. But they were also extremely smart. Jefferson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, Barack Obama. George Washington wasn’t an intellectual in the strictest sense but he was very smart, arguably even brilliant.
For evidence of this, all you need to do is to consider that he was able to converse equally Jefferson and Hamilton.
(I don’t know how he fared with Franklin but I imagine he held his own. But I also imagine Franklin was wonderful at adapting his conversation to whomever he was talking to.)
The converse of this is that being smart doesn’t do a President much good if he doesn’t possess the right temperament. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter were brilliant men.
Richard Nixon, who is in his own entirely different category of Presidential failures, was as smart as any of these very smart presidents, possibly smarter than most of them. Hard to say because his thinking was so twisted by his demons.
You’ll notice I’m leaving out LBJ.
He’s yet another one-President category. He was temperamentally suited to the job and the times until the times changed on him.
But, to bring the focus back onto FDR---who, by the way, saw the times change on him too and adapted in a blink, his adaptability being one of the qualities that made up his first-class temperament but also being a sign of his formidable intelligence:
We've been re-watching Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate History which is terrific but puts the emphasis on Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor as personalities. Of course it does. They were fascinating people and beloved for their personal qualities. And they're portrayed as having had large hearts and great souls . At times, Eleanor comes close to being beatified. TR seems to be the stuff folk tale and legend. FDR is, well, the lion and the fox writ very large. Their individual intelligence, however, is taken as a given. It shows in the things they said and wrote but it isn't explored. When how smart they were comes up, it comes up in the context of their political battles and maneuverings and it's a matter of calculation and savvy---they outsmarted their opponents. More often, though, they outworked them.
We're told that TR read everything and memorized it but we're not told if any of what he read affected his thinking about policy and governance. The speed reading and the superhuman retention, along with his astounding output as a writer---our first and so far only professional author President, he wrote over thirty-five books---are presented as more evidence of the tremendous energy and passion he brought to everything he did. FDR's voracious reading is left out as is the fact that Eleanor was a prolific author. Folks at his Presidential Library at Hyde Park have estimated that if all the books FDR owned---and by the time he died that was over 20,000---were stacked on top of each other the resulting tower would be twice as tall as the Empire State Building. Eleanor published twenty-seven books Going by the series, you could come away with the impression that Franklin never picked up a book after he left law school and Eleanor wrote a lot of letters and even a few newspaper columns but what's mainly to be gleaned from that is that what she wrote was heartfelt.
The resulting impression is that their places in history and in our hearts are due to their great hearts and large souls---and their first-class temperaments. This is particularly so in the case of Franklin because of the emphasis the series puts on his polio and how his physical and spiritual struggles to overcome his illness and disabilities changed him for the better and greater.
This is true but it’s not the whole story.
As the series tells it, the New Deal was practically an expression of Roosevelt’s spirit. It came about through his expanded sympathy for the suffering of others. Basically, his illness prepared him for the presidency.
I think it’s more true to say that his illness was more step in his nearly lifelong preparation for the office. Roosevelt had been preparing for the job since he was a very young man, and a great deal of that preparation was intellectual.
When the series deals with his education, it’s often by contrasting it with Theodore’s. TR was a star student in prep school and at Harvard. FDR was an indifferent one. (The comparison is also social and personal. TR was popular. FDR was not.) But as any wise teacher can tell you, the smartest students don’t always get the best grades. Their minds and interests are often elsewhere, and the reason they seem not to be keeping up with the class is that they’re actually ahead of it. They’re the students who don’t do the homework but read the library. They’re largely self-educated and it’s a habit they keep their whole lives.
In The Money Makers, Rauchway implies that FDR was one of them. Actually, it’s more than implied.
Although Roosevelt completed his Harvard degree in three years, he stayed on for a fourth year, studying history and economics in the graduate school at the recommendation of his professors. He took courses on American economic development, on the economics of railroads and other corporations, and on money and banking.
Many of his professors had emphasized the importance of adhering to the gold standard, but Roosevelt moved beyond their ideas. “I took economics courses in college,” he would later say, as president, “and everything I was taught was wrong.” The president could declare this conviction because as an adult he kept abreast of economic writing and knew about the shifts in belief that had occurred in monetary theory even before the Depression. In the late 1920s he expressed an interest in the theories of William Trufant Foster and Waddill Catchings, American economists who emphasized the importance of monetary policy in avoiding crises and sing government spending to increase demand during a slump---priorities akin to those of Keynes. “There is a vicious cycle of inflation, and an even more vicious cycle of deflation,” Foster and Catchings wrote in 1928. “What we need is planned prosperity, guided by the hand of man.”
As governor of New York during the Depression, Roosevelt took an interest in the monetary theories of Warren and Fisher, whose works he read, and who emphasized the importance of maintaining the stable purchasing power of a dollar---something a gold standard could not do. And in 1932, as presidential candidate, Roosevelt gathered around him advisors, including the economist Rexford Tugwell, who were prepared to assist him in developing monetary policy.
Looking at all the improvisation Roosevelt and his New Dealers had to do, you can get to wondering if they were making the whole New Deal up as they went along. But Roosevelt came into office with definite and well-considered and well-thought out plans. The improvising was forced on him by constantly changing circumstances and political realities, but it was, as much as possible, done to keep the plans on track. The Money Makers focuses on one of those plans, his monetary policies. Roosevelt wanted to change the way money works. And he succeeded. But the underlying theme of The Money Makers is the underlying theme of the history of FDR’s presidency.
Franklin Roosevelt was a very smart and thoughtful man who knew what he was doing and was able to do what he did because he was smart and thoughtful and because he had prepared.
And he had a first class temperament.
This is interesting and important because Roosevelt is interesting and important, but it seems especially relevant this election year because both the Republicans and the Democrats have leading candidates whose appeal to voters is mainly in their being perceived as having their hearts in the right the place.
FDR was idealistic and some of his ideas were revolutionary but he didn’t run for president as an idealist and he didn’t present himself as a revolutionary. In fact, he emphatically denied it---agayn, and agayn, and agayn, as he’d have said it---offering reform instead in order to save the country from revolution. He had a record as a pragmatic problem-solver who’d shown he knew how put ideas to work as a leader of progressive reform in the New York State legislature, as the assistant secretary of the navy, and as the governor of New York and he campaigned on that. His speeches were eloquent and inspiring. His messages were often spiritual, even out and out religious. But the foundation for his claim upon the White House was that he knew how to get good things done because he was experienced and prepared.
But many Republicans and not a few Democrats these days not only don’t seem to think a would-be president needs to have experience or to have prepared for the office, they see experience and signs of thoughtful preparation as disqualifications.
Preparing? That’s for losers.
Experience? Just another way of saying you’ve been compromised and corrupted by Wall Street, the Washington establishment, and your husband.
End of Part One.
The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace by Eric Rauchway is available in hardcover and for kindle at Amazon.
Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge is out in paperback. Which means it’s time for me to start reading it again. Which means it will soon be time for me to stop reading it again.
This will make the fourth time I’ll have picked it up and the fourth time I’ll have put it down again.
This isn’t because it’s a bad book or that I don’t like it for some reason.
It’s an excellent book and I’ve liked what I’ve read very much.
Most of what I’ve read.
Trouble I’m having is it’s about what it’s full title says it’s about: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.
You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that long passages---whole chapters!---of The Invisible Bridge are devoted to chronicling Ronald Reagan’s life from his less than idyllic routinely self-idealized boyhood through his less than stellar career as a movie star through his political re-education as a Right Wing Corporatist shill through his rise to the leadership of the ultra-conservative movement within the Republican Party, and those are the passages and chapters I’ve been having trouble getting through.
And it’s not Reagan’s rise I’m having trouble with---although of course I had no trouble reading about Nixon’s fall---it’s Reagan himself.
I'm in the habit of referring to him as our most destructive President. But that seems a little ridiculous when you consider we had Johnson and Nixon not long before him and have had George W. Bush since.
Reagan had a much lower body count than any of one of them. Lower than most of the great Presidents, in fact, even keeping in mind that Lincoln and FDR can't be held morally culpable for all the deaths that occurred on their watches. (Lincoln himself might disagree.) It may even turn out that Obama's will be higher.
On the other hand, it's hard to add up all the lives lost because of how he ignored the AIDS crisis and how he encouraged and aided the Death Squads and dictators in Central America. Something to remember when another fatuous journalist waxes sentimental about how Reagan and Tip O'Neill got along. Reagan wanted to go to war in Central America and Tip O'Neill wouldn't let him. That's how we got Iran-Contra.
And then there was his support of apartheid in South Africa and insurgencies of mass murdering terrorists in Angola and Mozambique.
But even if the mortal tally against him isn’t as high at it is against other presidents, Reagan was still terribly destructive and deliberately so and in a way and with a purpose no other President in our history was or had.
He set out to turn us Americans against each other and destroy our faith in our ability to govern ourselves and solve our problems together, and to a great and still lasting degree he succeeded.
That's what it means to say “government is the problem” in a democracy where the government is the People.
It’s the very opposite---a negation---of “Our problems are man-made. Therefore they can be solved by man.”
But it’s not Reagan the villain President or Reagan the twinkling demagog or Reagan the leader of a reactionary political movement I have trouble reading about. It’s Reagan the man.
To say I don’t like the guy doesn’t begin to cover it.
I’d say I’ve never felt warmly towards him but that sounds like I expect to feel affection or something like it.
What I mean is that I’ve never felt the warmth of human company in his (imagined) presence. Not many people beside Nancy did. Not even his own children. Definitely not his first wife. He was liked well enough. He had friends. Lovers. But there was no real passion in him. No intensity of feeling. His angers and hatreds were as mild as his sympathies and pleasures. Reagan loved jelly beans. He kept jars of them on his desk and snacked on them by the fistful. Jelly beans were the perfect candy for him. They’re symbolic of the man. All sugar, with only a hint of flavor, quick to dissolve.
The only times his words seemed to have had real feeling behind them was when he got mean, and he had a mean streak. But that showed up less and less as his Presidency wore on...and he wore down.
Reagan doesn’t leave me cold. He gives me a chill.
I do feel warmly towards Nixon. It’s usually the heat of anger and the fire of hatred flaring up from the smoldering embers of disgust. But sometimes it is affection or something like it. Pity. Sympathy. I like the definition of sympathy Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey gives in 42: “To sorrow with.” It’s possible to sorrow with Nixon. It’s impossible not to sorrow over him and what he did but I mean his own sorrows are recognizable. We know them. We’ve felt them ourselves. They’re human. How he handled them and how he didn’t are what made him inhuman. It’s why he’s sympathetic even as he makes us hate him, because his throwing away his humanity is such a human thing to do. It’s as if he’s most like us in the act of ceasing to be one of us.
That’s the essential tragedy of all the great horror stories.
But Reagan short-circuits natural inclinations towards fellow-feeling. I can’t sorrow with him because he never let on that he felt any sorrow within himself.
Perlstein makes much of this. Turns it into a refrain, in fact.
Here's Perlstein's account of Reagan dealing or, rather, not dealing with his father's death:
[Reagan] brought his parents to the gala debut [of Knute Rockne, All American, in which Reagan famously played the role that gave him his supposed nickname, Notre Dame football star George Gipp], in South Bend, Inidana, the thrill of his Catholic father's life. Jack [Reagan], many years on the wagon, enjoyed one last spree with his fellow Irish Catholic rogue, [the movie's star,] Pat O'Brien and died shortly after. (Dutch told the story of Jack's funeral to his daughter Maureen: "My soul was just desolate, that's the only word I can use...all of a sudden I heard somebody talking to me, and I knew that it was Jack, and he was saying, 'I'm OK, and where I am it's very nice. Please don't be unhappy. And I turned to my mother...and I said, 'Jack is OK, and where he is he's very happy'...the desolation wasn't there any more, the emptiness was all gone." Everything always works out for the best, gloriously.)
"Everything always works out in the end, gloriously." Perlstein repeats a variation of this after the many scenes from Reagan's life in which he was able, at least in his own mind, to turn a sorrow into a gladness, a defeat into a victory, a minor success into an heroic triumph.
It’s somewhat banal to call Reagan banal, but he was. There’s not much of a record that there was much going on with him beneath the surface. He doesn’t seen to have been given to self-reflection or to have thought the unexamined life wasn’t worth living. He doesn’t seem to have had any deep and abiding interests. There’s no sign of his feeling real passion about anything or anyone. He certainly doesn’t appear to have thought deeply on any subject or thought much at all. His conversation was all anecdotes from his Hollywood days, oft-repeated jokes, and snippets from his stump speeches. It can be amusing and interesting to imagine what various Presidents might have been if they hadn’t gone into politics. But it’s almost impossible to imagine Reagan having been anything or anybody but what he was and this is funny because he did do something else. He had a real career before he got into politics. But he effectively erased that aspect of himself and his life from the image of the politician he became. That was an aspect of his gift, an ability to be so much in the moment that he made people forget there’d been any other moments before it.
In 1979, when it was beginning to look inevitable that Jimmy Carter would be a one-termer and Reagan was emerging as his likeliest successor, there was a fad among liberal intellectuals of comparing him to Chance the Gardener, the thoroughly empty and banal main character of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There, which had just been made into a movie starring Peter Sellers.
Chance is almost a complete non-entity, a nearly blank slate with nothing on his mind except tending his garden. But people who meet him can’t believe there’s a human being so empty of thought and emotion. They insist to themselves there must be a there there somewhere and then they provide it for themselves. They project their own thoughts and emotions upon Chance and essentially turn him into idealized versions of themselves.
Being There is a satire on celebrity worship and Ronald Reagan was no more (or less) Chance the Gardener than any movie star, politician, or other type of famous person we think we know but really only know as an image on a television or movie screen.
The thing is most celebrities, and all successful politicians, create their images. Many are geniuses at it. Reagan was one of the geniuses.
He lived through the image. He lived in it. That’s a way of saying he lived on the surface of his self.
Reagan wasn’t projected upon. He projected.
Reagan was always acting the role of Ronald Reagan, playing out scripts he’d written in his head with himself in the role of hero. And he was utterly convincing in the part. Perlstein makes the case he taught himself to do this when he was very young as a way to escape at least in his head the sadnesses, disappointments, dislocations, and confusions of his childhood caused by his being the child of a feckless, irresponsible, and often absent alcoholic father and a fanatically religious mother who was absent and emotionally remote in her own way, finding an escape for herself from the family’s dysfunction in local celebrity as a lay preacher and spiritual counselor. Reagan appeared to have no inner life but not because there was no there there but because he didn’t like what was in there. He didn’t want to feel his own heartbreaks.
Reagan wrote and re-wrote the script of his own life. His great talent was persuading people to act along, happy just to have been cast in supporting roles, even as extras, and to accept the movie in place of reality.
But people with no inner life don’t have much of an outer one either because, disengaged from themselves, they can’t engage with other people.
And people who can’t feel their own heartbreaks---or don’t let themselves feel them---can’t feel others’ either. Reagan did not “sorrow with you” because he did not acknowledge his own sorrows.
And I see this as the root of his destructiveness.
It often seems that Reagan is better remembered and more revered for his optimism and sunny disposition than for anything he actually accomplished as President, even by people who credit him with ending the Cold War.
But it was a the optimism of a solipsist and practiced denialist.
It was always morning in Reagan's personal America because, as far as he ever acknowledged, there was never a night, not a dark and stormy one, at any rate, certainly not a dark one of the soul.
Again and again in The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein shows how Reagan avoided acknowledging his sorrows and heartbreaks. But he also shows how this tendency worked itself out in Reagan's political career.
This is from a Q and A did with the Chicago Reader:
Speaking of how unbreakably positive Reagan could be, I was surprised at how much he minimized Watergate. That would have been the lowest-hanging fruit of all the things that happened in the 1960s and 1970s.
Yeah, it was stunning. Transcripts of the Nixon tapes come out, and everyone’s talking about how they reveal the White House to be a combination between a sewer and a mafia den, and Reagan shrugged his shoulders, and says, “We can’t really know until we read all of it; I don’t really understand it.” He says the Watergate burglars were not criminals at heart, and it was a shame they had to go to jail. Or he’d say it was a lynching that liberals were taking out against the mandate of 1972, a witch-hunt.
Two months before Nixon resigns, that summer when his approval rating was 20 percent, every sentient political actor is distancing himself from him. Ronald Reagan’s aides are freaking out, because their boss, who they want to make president, refuses to distance himself from Nixon. And if there’s one historical insight that this book has, it’s that attitude, that refusal to even acknowledge negativity in America present or past, was the soul of Ronald Reagan’s appeal. That was the feature, it wasn’t the bug.
The same way he said in 1980 that Vietnam was a noble cause. The media all reported that as a gaffe. But I’m sure it gained him many more votes than it lost, because it absolved the American people from reckoning with the cost of the Vietnam War.
As Perlstein says, “It’s hard to learn lessons when there are no lessons to learn.”
It's similar to something Dickens wrote.“’Whatever is, is right’ [is] an aphorism that would be as final if it is lazy, did it not include the troublesome consequence that, nothing that ever was, was wrong.”
If everything works out for the best then everything that happened before was also a working out for the best, so nothing that ever happened, then, was bad.
Perlstein presents Reagan as anticipating and then taking a lead in a "retreat from the challenges of a country that’s facing serious, serious problems" and "an almost infantilization of political culture" that took place in post-Civil Rights, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America in reaction to decades of change, upheaval, anxiety, and disillusionment.
But I see something else pernicious in his supposed optimism.
Think about his speech after the Challenger blew up, killing six astronauts and a schoolteacher along for the ride as a prop in a publicity stunt.
A great speech, a terrific moment. Just what the country wanted to hear.
But what we wanted to hear was that it hadn't happened.
And that's practically what he said.
He made their unnecessary and pointless deathless mythic. An apotheosis. It sounded almost right that they had died the way they had. There was no need for grief. All that was required was sentimentality and wistful admiration. There was no admission that the disaster was senseless or that it might have been worse than an accident: a horrific screw-up brought on by design flaws, mismanagement, impatience, and perceived and possibly real political pressures.
No. All was glorious and would work out for the best.
The crew of the Challenger hadn't died. They weren't sitting strapped in their seats dead at the bottom of the ocean. They had slipped the surly bonds of earth, launched into eternal flight, forever on their way into outer space.
It was typical of his leadership. He encouraged us to distance ourselves from sorrow and disappointments.
Our own and others'.
If things are glorious and working out for the best, why are you complaining?
Things are ok with me, why aren't you ok? What are you doing wrong? What's wrong with you?
All those gay men dying of AIDS. All those "inefficient" farm families facing foreclosure in Iowa. All those Welfare Queens and "strapping young bucks" dining on steak and driving Cadillacs. Their pain, their sorrows, their disappointments? Their fault and not my lookout. My pain, my sorrows, my disappointments---my fault? Can't be. Better hide it. Better deny it. Better yet, find someone else to blame. Blame them.
But do it with a smile and a twinkle and wry, chuckling, "Well", like the Gipper.
This is all hindsight. And it’s literary. It’s based on what I’ve read about him in the twenty-five years since he left office.
I don’t remember thinking much about Reagan as a character when he was President. When he was President, he was a person in the news. I disliked him but I disliked him for the things he said and did and stood for. I judged him by what any of us are to be judged by: the effect of our actions upon the world, and the effects of his were mostly destructive. To the degree I thought about his psychological makeup, it was in relation to what he said and did and stood for. I judged him to be an outwardly genial man who was essentially callous and mean-spirited with a sentimental streak that helped him sound and sometimes even act like a nicer person than he was, but I never thought or cared about what made him that way.
It was afterwards, when he became an historical figure, which is to say, a character in stories writers were trying to tell that I began to think about his inner life or, rather, his apparent lack of an inner life----and that I got from reading histories and biographies in which I could sense the authors struggling to account for the man and coming away baffled and frustrated. Reagan gave them, and therefore me as a reader, nothing to get a handle on. Nothing to sympathize with. This drove his official biographer Edmund Morris nuts to the point that he resorted to writing fiction---he invented an alternative Reagan he called Dutch and imagined a boyhood friendship between himself and this Dutch in order to have somebody with whom he shared enough fellow-feeling to want to try to understand and write about as his subject.
Since Perlstein's an historian, not a biographer, he mainly isn’t writing about Reagan himself, and his real subject in The Invisible Bridge---continuing from the first two books in this series (with several more to follow), A Gathering Storm and Nixonland---is the rise of the Radical Right, he doesn’t let himself get bothered by Reagan’s apparent banality. He sees Reagan’s quirks and ambiguities as fairly typical of adult children of alcoholics and takes it for granted that there was something going on inside the man but he leaves it to others to puzzle out what that might have been. For the most part, he works at showing how Reagan used his self-created image---images. Reagan re-created himself practically from decade to decade, starting in grade school---to advance himself and his political goals. Perlstein’s Reagan is a key figure in a mural not the solitary subject of a portrait. He's rarely shown apart from the crowd of characters and circumstances swirling about him.
Still, by necessity, for many, many of The Invisible Bridge’s first 400 or so of its 801 pages, the reader is left alone with Ronald Reagan and this reader has just had to keep leaving to seek out other, warmer, more sympathetic company.
Reagan did, however, have one quality with which I share some fellow-feeling.
He was artistically ambitious.
He wanted to be a movie star. Technically, he was, for a time. But being a star meant starring in good movies and acting well in them. Reagan was a pretty good actor. He wasn’t a strong enough presence on the big screen to be a true star but he was good enough to hold his own part of the screen against the likes of Errol Flynn. He could never take any of it away from Flynn but he didn’t disappear next to Flynn and when Flynn wasn’t on screen Reagan could command the audience’s attention until Flynn returned. That’s what made him a good second lead. It turned out, he did have a strong presence on the small screen. He was great on television. If you want to imagine how it might have been different for Reagan, imagine if he’d found a second stardom on TV as the lead in a popular television series and was too busy and feeling too successful to waste his time as a corporate shill for General Electric. Didn't happen that way, though. What happened is that his career in the movies faded and he found himself cast in lesser and lesser films, Bedtime for Bonzo not being the worst of them. Perhaps as humiliating was that in this time, the 1940s, when fellow actors like Tyrone Power, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda were going off to war, Reagan's poor eyesight kept him home making training films. He served his county but not as the hero he dreamed of being. On top of everything, his supposed storybook marriage to Jane Wyman was coming apart. He felt himself cast aside as he watched her star rise and felt his own decline. And it's in Perlstein's account of this period of Reagan's life where I came close to sympathizing with the man, to sorrowing with him because it's the one time in his life when appears to have come close to sympathizing with himself, to admitting to his own sorrows, disappointment, and pain.
But then he signed on to the cause of anti-Communism, met Nancy---who was in her own way a practiced denialist----and went to work shilling for General Electric, and that's where I left off reading, shivering in my soul.
And that's where I'll be picking up again. I'm looking forward to it, though. Nixon's gone from the stage but Gerald Ford is still there and Jimmy Carter's waiting in the wings. Other sympathetic characters will enter and exit. The awfulness of the 70s will continue to play itself out in the background. Maybe this time I'll be able to stick it out until the end without Reagan's coldness driving me to seek shelter in another book.
I'm bundling up though.
I don’t mean the day he was inaugurated. And I don’t mean the day he was elected. It might have been the day he clinched the election, although if you look at the polls going back into the summer, it looks pretty clear that he was well on his way to winning before either convention, but people were temporarily fooled by McCain’s post-convention bounce. But what I mean is that this was the day when Barack Obama became President in that it was to him the country began looking for the leadership and reassurance we always look for in our Presidents in moments of trial and crisis.
From The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis:
By Thursday, September 18, 2008, however, the big picture had grown so unstable that the small picture had become nearly incoherent…On Monday, Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch, having announced $55.2 billion in losses on subprime backed CDOs, had sold itself to Bank of America. The U.S. stock market had fallen by more than it had since the first day of trading after the attack on the World Trade Center. On Tuesday the U.S. Federal Reserve announced that it had lent $85 billion to the insurance company AIG, to pay of the losses on the subprime credit default swaps AIG had sold to Wall Street banks---the biggest of which was the $13.9 billion AIG owed to Goldman Sachs. When you added in the $8.4 billion in cash AIG had already forked over to Goldman in collateral, you saw that Goldman had transferred more than $20 billion in subprime mortgage bond risk into the insurance company, which was in one way or another being covered by the U.S, taxpayer. That fact alone was enough to make everyone wonder at once how much of this stuff was out there, and who owned it.
The Fed and the Treasury were doing their best to calm investors, but on Wednesday no one was obviously calm. A money market fund called the Reserve Primary Fund announced that it had lost enough on short-term loans to Lehman Brothers that its investors were not likely to get all their money back, and froze redemptions. Money markets weren’t cash---they paid interest, and thus bore risk---but, until that moment, people thought of them as cash. You couldn’t even trust your own cash. All over the world corporations began to yank their money out of money market funds, and short-term interest rates spiked as they had never before spiked. The Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen 449 points, to its lowest level in four years, and most of the market-moving news was coming not from the private sector but from government officials. At 6:50 on Thursday morning when [FrontPoint hedge fund manager Danny Moses arrived at work], he learned that the chief British financial regulator was considering banning short selling---an act that, among other things, would put the hedge fund industry out of business…
…At 10:30, an hour into trading, every financial stock went into a free fall, whether it deserved to or not…
It had been four days since Lehman Brothers had been allowed to fail, but the most powerful effects of the collapse were being felt right now. The stocks of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs were tanking, and it was clear that nothing short of the U.S. government could save them. “It was the equivalent of the earthquake going off,” [Danny] said, “and then, much later, the tsunami arrives.” Danny’s trading life was man versus man, but this felt more like man versus nature: They synthetic CDO had become a synthetic natural disaster…
Bush had already absented himself from the job. And McCain panicked, pretty much letting everyone know who didn’t already he didn’t have what it takes to be President. I’d have to do some rummaging through the virtual library, but I think it was about then that McCain became a supporting player in his own campaign and Sarah Palin, God help us, took over the starring role. But Obama remained what had always been his most Presidential quality, steady. If anything, he got steadier. Calmer. People looked at him and they saw their President already at work. That was the day Mitch McConnell lost too. And Mitt Romney. There would be plenty of people who didn’t like seeing him as the President. Who wouldn’t vote for him no matter what. Who would never admit he’d actually won. Who still can’t admit it.
But from that day on there were always going to be a majority of Americans who would look at him and see---not our President---the President.
We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history. But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.
He didn't know he was being used by God. Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group -- the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court -- in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn't imagine that.
The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley -- -- how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond -- not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.
You can watch the whole eulogy here. Clear some time: It’s nearly 40 minutes.
Read the transcript.
Woodrow Wilson, in case you didn’t recognize him. He’s about 18 feet tall. Weighs in at about 6 tons. Same stats on the by my count 8 other Presidents pictured with him and the 34 more out in the grass with them. (President Obama isn’t there. A money issue, not a political issue.) How they got there, what they’re doing there, why Wilson’s face is in such sorry shape is explained in this story and photo essay by Pablo Iglesias Maurer:
The museum finally opened in 2004, but suffered due to its location. Though adjacent to I-64 and a stone’s throw away from a cluster of retail, the park was essentially invisible, masked by the woods around it. The busts began to fall into disrepair. A lightning strike badly marred half of Ronald Reagan’s face, while others suffered a less spectacular fate, subject to the sun, rain, and bird traffic of the area.
The park was unable to afford a bust of President Obama—at the time Adickes put a price tag of $60,000 on the sculpture—and traffic dwindled to a near standstill. In September of 2010, Newman couldn’t hold on any longer. The park was shuttered and the land auctioned off, purchased by an unidentified buyer. An Enterprise Rent-a-Car outfit has since taken up residence.
President’s Park, it would seem, had gone bust. But what would become of the busts themselves? Enter Howard Hankins.
Hankins, a local businessman who runs—among a few other operations—a concrete recycling outfit, ended up with the busts in 2012 after the owners of the now-defunct park reached out to him. “They called me and wanted to know if I would come down there and crush [the heads] and haul them away,” Hankins tells me as we sit in a truck on his farm. "I said ‘heck no, can I have ‘em?’ I’m going to preserve them.”
You should read the whole story, Busted: A Presidential Park Lies Dormant Near Williamsburg, Va., at dcist.
And follow the link Maurer provides to an earlier story by John Kelly on the original park’s decline and demise at the Washington Post, Answer Man learns the fate of Virginia’s colossal commanders in chief:
At the same time, David was having trouble with his own Presidents Park, which he’d opened near Deadwood, S.D. The tourist window is narrow — just three months of summer — and when a half-million bikers show up every August in nearby Sturgis, it tends to drive away the family crowd.
David said he tried to lure the bikers by offering 50-cent beer in the visitors center, but “they’re there for women and beer and to compare each other’s tattoos and bikes.”
Bikers may be patriots, but they’re bikers first.
Guess who's going to be doing his own twittering.
"I want my own Twitter" "We've talked about this, Barack" "It's time" "What will you say there you can't here?" "Things" "Oh?" "And stuff"— Andrew Katz (@katz) May 18, 2015
Not going to be systematic about turning my notes from the Clinton Global Initiative into posts so they won’t be appearing chronologically. Blog might read like one of those novels full of flashbacks and flashforwards for the next few days. Probably when I’m done I’ll go back and rearrange things. Right now I’m starting out near the end of the day Tuesday with this from President Obama’s remarks closing the plenary session.
Here’s the set up. Chelsea Clinton’s baby is due soon. Very soon. Like any day now. And the the New York meetings of the Clinton Global Initiative always coincide with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly’s High-level Meetings and General Debate and the two events together flood the streets with convoys of limos and armored Chevy Suburbans. Traffic lanes and whole streets get blocked for blocks. Makes getting around by car not fun. So…
President Obama walks onstage Tuesday afternoon, pauses on his way to the rostrum to have a few words with Bill Clinton, and when he steps up to the mic opens by letting us know what he said to Bill.
I was just discussing with President that if Chelsea goes into delivery while I’m speaking, she has my motorcade and will be able to navigate traffic. Cause actually it’s pretty smooth for me during the week. I don’t know what the problem is. Everybody hypes the traffic, but I haven’t noticed.
Maybe you had to be there. They say it’s all in the delivery. Cracked Matt Damon up anyway.
Photo by Paul Morse, courtesy Clinton Global Initiative.
One of the ways I’ve counted myself one of the blogosphere’s luckiest bloggers over the past ten years is that I’ve always had terrific commenters---smart, thoughtful, articulate, witty, knowledgeable, opinionated but even-tempered, fair-minded, and considerate.
Last two days I’ve been even luckier, because, thanks to a link from Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money, the comment thread on my post Smarter than the President? has been filling up with the thoughts of folks trooping over from LG&M, whose commenters are almost a match for my regulars. An interesting discussion on what if anything to do about ISIS has developed and I urge you to check it out, starting with one of our cherished own, Falstaff, who wrote:
I'm kind of in the same boat as you here, Lance. I'm faintly reminded of the scene in Christopher Stasheff's Her Majesty's Wizard where the title character realizes that while he might know a fair amount about a diverse range of subjects, all that means is that he's not an expert in any of them, and so that knowledge doesn't count for a lot. (Of course, unlike him, I haven't been transported to a plane of reality where all my apparently-useless knowledge makes me into a skillful magician who can defeat bad guys, fight armies, and rescue princesses. Ah, well.)
To answer the question you pose, I don't know. My inclination is that we ought to do something, although exactly what we ought to do I have no idea; I don't think we should move in ground forces, and I don't think we should continue bombing. Times like this, I struggle with my Quaker belief system -- I'm committed to peace in all things, but good God, someone must do something to help the innocent people being oppressed and killed over there. I wish I was wiser and knew what that was.
I happen to have been right about Iraq (this is no great claim to fame; plenty of people smarter than me were right for better reasons), and I do feel that President Clinton failed morally (I don't know enough about geopolitics to really say otherwise) on Rwanda. But if I'd been there, and if by some strange chance he'd taken leave of his senses and asked a kid just out of high school (I've forgotten just what year that went down, but I think that's about right) what exactly he should be doing, I wouldn't have had the first idea how to advise him.
It's actually kind of infuriating. On the other hand, I'm just a former mailman and once-again student; all my training's either been in, you know, sorting, transporting, and delivering mail or esoteric stuff like comparative religion, history, American politics, and obscure sports trivia. On the other, isn't this the sort of situation where we have presidents, senators, congresscritters, and their advisers for?
To answer the rest of your questions for the record, even though I do take it that the point you're trying to make is in the asking, not in whatever answer we might give:
Kuwait was a mistake, I've always thought -- not because of the end result, which I have no problem with (anything that increases the power of men like Saddam Hussein is at best morally questionable), but because I didn't like our motives and our mucking around for the umpity-umpth time in Mesopotamia. The Kurds have been comprehensively screwed for the last few centuries, and we should have kept our promises to them; likewise, I think that it was both just and right to intervene in Kosovo, because good God, if we stand by and watch genocide happening and do nothing, what good are we as a people?
The Tora Bora campaign I felt was a useless dumb show, more about President Bush and his administration looking like they were tough warriors than actually accomplishing any of the stated goals. I have a suspicion that I'm one of very, very few Americans who was and is angry about the death of Osama bin Laden -- not because I carry any water for that miserable, evil man, but because I don't believe that the state (even when "the state" is the United States, the country I believe in and love most) should ever go around murdering people. I would have been very pleased had he been arrested and put on trial in a civilian criminal court, and then, presumably, locked away where he could do no harm ever again. (I feel that way very strongly about all terrorists, actually.) And Libya... hell, I don't know. I suppose it was handled as best as one could expect, but still, what a mess.
Follow the whole thread.
I’ve said it before, it was a lot easier to be smarter than the President when the President was George W. Bush.
A major change in the tone, tenor, direction, and focus of this blog occurred sometime in the late summer of 2011 when it dawned on me that this President is smarter than me.
Of course I knew this already. I’d known it since 2004 when he made the speech at the Democratic convention. It’s one of the reasons I was happy to vote for him in 2008. But there’s knowing a thing and then there’s knowing a thing. Vanity is a powerful mind-altering drug. Even though I knew he was way smarter I hadn’t adjusted my thinking about my own thinking accordingly. I’d blogged merrily along as if although I might not be smarter than him on every issue there were plenty on which I could still teach him a thing or two (because of course he read my blog and asked himself every day, What does Lance think about this?). I’m not sure what exactly caused it, but once it finally sank in that compared to him I’m dumber than a box of rocks, it became nearly impossible for me to criticize him or his policies anymore.
This didn’t mean I decided he couldn’t or shouldn’t be criticized. I certainly didn’t start thinking he was never wrong.
What happened was that I realized that in order to criticize him I had to make myself smarter by making myself more knowledgeable. Once I set out to do that, though, I was in trouble. The more I learned, the more I learned I had to learn. Worse than that---worse as in a bigger blow to my pride---the more I learned the more I learned that I wasn’t smart enough to learn a lot of things I needed to learn. It’s as Richard Feynman was fond of saying in various iterations: The more I know, the stupider I get.
I found myself having to admit that for seven years I’d been pretty much blogging off the top of my head (If you do the math here, you’ll see I just told you I’ve been at this for ten years. In fact, today is the blog’s Tenth Anniversary.) and that had to stop.
It was ok to bullshit my way through some arguments. I do know stuff, lots of stuff, and am not really dumber than a box of rocks.
There were times when I still felt smart enough to write about politics: when the targets of my criticism were the Political Press Corps, just about every Democratic politician who is not Barack Obama and every Congressional Republican, and priests, preachers, and their yahoo congregations.
I can be fairly confident I’m smarter than almost every single member of the Press Corps but that’s not saying much, and it’s only because the conventions and practices of their reflexively group-thinking profession make them stupid. Plenty of individual journalists and pundits are way smart but they only get to show it now and then while they’re in DC and it only comes to the fore when they get the hell out of town and stop spending their time among other insider journalists and pundits.
Plenty of politicians, left and right, are smart too, but they’re all too often pressured by political realities into not doing the smart thing because the smart thing hits pocketbooks, upsets apple carts, gores oxen, and hides cheese or, to put it in actual English, getting the smart thing done usually costs money and requires people to change their minds, change their expectations, and give up things they like, trust, and rely on to try to do what usually hasn’t been tried before because it was the smart thing to do.
When it comes to the priests and the preachers it’s practically a no-brainer. I mean that almost literally. Their object is to keep people from using the brains God gave them.
Still, the truth was I wasn’t as expert on the political and economic issues I blogged about as I’d taken for granted I was and as I felt I had a responsibility to be.
And once I faced up to that I had to ask myself, “What other subjects have I been blogging about as if I’m such a smart guy but where I’m actually showing myself up as a pettifogging, derp-acious, logorrheaic horse’s patoot?”
After serious self-reflection and review, I concluded there were only three subjects on which I had done the required homework that I could rely on my stored knowledge enough to be reasonably sure I knew what I was talking about and ask readers to trust I wasn’t just making it up as I went along.
Shakespeare, Discworld, and movies. Superhero movies, in particular, although not a few readers will tell you I’m not all I’m cracked up to be on that one either. Hello, Gary.
Of course I didn’t give up writing about everything else. But I wrote less and less often and with, I think, less certainty---except when the target was Right Wing Republicans, the priests and preachers, and their yahoo congregations. I’m still certain I’m smarter than all of them. Smarter enough, at any rate.
But since then there’ve been all numbers and kinds of issues, events, and topics du jour I’ve shied away from that once upon a time I would have “nailed” with easy confidence.
Which brings me back to the President and on to ISIS.
I have no idea.
I think we really need to do something to stop ISIS.
ISIS is an army of mass murderers led by a genocidal maniac. Whether or not that maniac can lead his mass murderers into an attack on the United States (he probably can’t and probably doesn’t want to) is a separate question from whether or not we should do something to stop them in Iraq. What blood-thirsty warmongers like Dick Cheney, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and their stooges in the political press corps say we should do is beside the point, too. They always think the answer is killing more brown people. Everything they say is noise and posturing and has no real bearing on the question of whether we should set our sights on destroying or at least driving back ISIS. The fact that John McCain is always wrong shouldn’t figure into our trying to decide what’s right.
What we should do and how that would work are the next questions.
The President, smart as he is, isn’t much help on this. He doesn’t seem to know the answers. Of course one of the signs he’s smart is that he generally admits, tacitly but sometimes explicitly, he’s not certain what to do or whether or not what he’s planning to do will work or if it’s even the right thing to do. Another sign is that he takes his time making up his mind. Anyone who criticizes him for being indecisive has to explain what good it did when we had a Decider in the White House.
But the liberal blogosphere hasn’t been any help either. Seems a great deal of the discussion on the left side of the bandwidth is based on naturally fading memories of the run up to the invasion of Iraq and the smug certainty that Since we got it right then, we must be right now.
Republicans would like to forget George W. Bush was ever president. I think a lot of liberals have forgotten exactly what he did that makes them want to forget.
Bush and Cheney and company weren’t wrong generally about Iraq. Just as with everything else they put their dirty and bloody hands to, they were wrong specifically every step of the way, starting with their decision to let bin Laden and al Qaida get away in order to clear the decks for them to indulge Bush’s personal vendetta against Saddam and Cheney’s ambition to own all the oil.
That Iraq and with it the rest of the Muslim world was a democracy waiting to be declared was a lie they told themselves to justify their other lies but they believed it and based their military strategy on it.
“We’ll be welcomed as liberators!”
This seems a little different place to begin than where the President is beginning now.
He may be working from wrong assumptions, but he’s not working from the same assumptions.
Here is where a lot of internet doves lose me. Their arguments seem to me to be based on the assumption that we should get ourselves out of the Middle East no matter what because there’s basically nothing we can do to make things better and just by being in there we make them worse by stirring up suspicions and hatreds. Those are the smart ones. But I would think that since I’m inclined to agree.
I’m inclined to agree. That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree.
There are others, though, who’ve based their case on the bumper sticker-profound idea that War is Never the Answer and plenty of others whose arguments are based on a vague and circular logic: “This reminds me of what George Bush did in some way I can’t put my finger on but it must be wrong because of that or else I wouldn’t be reminded of George Bush.”
I’m not bothering with any arguments that are based on the assumption that whatever we do is wrong because we’re the ones doing it.
So I’m asking for help.
Should we do nothing? Why or why not? What should we do and how would that work? And what I want to know, more than that you were right about Iraq in 2002, is if you think Bill Clinton failed morally and geo-politically when he did nothing about Rwanda.
Also what are your thoughts on Kuwait, the Kurds, Kosovo, Tora Bora, killing bin Laden, and Libya?
Yep. Ten years. How about that?
Quinnipiac University has done a poll that shows, among other not particularly surprising or informative things, that Americans think President Obama is the worst President since World War II and Ronald Reagan was the best.
Before you re-introduce your head to your desk, read the whole thing. You’ll notice that while the editors say the poll shows that Americans think the country would be better off if Mitt Romney was President the percentage who actually thinks this is less than the number who actually voted for him in 2012. And in the ranking of best Presidents, Obama comes in fourth, behind Reagan, Clinton, and Kennedy, Feel a little better? Ok, here’s my take.
What the poll likely really shows is that liberals who were polled, in our earnest humorless way, took it seriously, actually deliberated with themselves before giving thoughtful answers, and in the process wound up dividing their votes for the worst President between Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush and their votes for the best between Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton, and Obama, while conservatives saw the poll as as an opportunity to tell liberals Fuck you.
Oh, that’s right, there was an election a couple weeks back, wasn’t there?
Our guy win?
Yeah, I crack myself up.
Naturally, Republicans have been casting around desperately for a reason for their loss, looking to blame anybody or anything but themselves and their message. They seem to be settling on Mitt himself. God forbid they consider that the President just out campaigned them or, gasp, that more people in the country just liked him better. Better instead to blame God Himself or, at any rate, an act of God.
Before he decided it was that the President bought voters off with “gifts,” Mitt liked this one best.
Sandy blunted his momentum. Which he did not have.
It boils down to his claiming it was unfair that the country got to see the President being the President so close to the election.
Of course the possibility that the President would have to be the President at some point during the campaign should have figured in Mitt Corp’s thinking and planning from the start. Apparently it didn’t, and probably because, since they never let themselves see the President as the President themselves, it didn’t occur to them that anybody else would ever see him as the President either even when he was busy being the President.
Scratch that. It wasn’t that they could never see the President as the President. It was when they did see him as the President, they saw him as a particular President who wasn’t Barack Obama.
But it was also the case that Mitt never saw the President as the President because he never saw himself as the President. I’ve said this before. He apparently never thought about what it means to be President.
He didn’t prepare.
Which is why he made a fool of himself over Bengazi.
And it’s why he was lucky people weren’t paying attention to him during Sandy. If they had been, they’d have seen him making a fool of himself again by not acting Presidential. His stunt collecting canned goods the Red Cross told him it did not want was a cheap gimmick that, if voters had noticed, made him look like a small time huckster trying to cash in on a tragedy.
Which is what he was.
Not. A. President.
This guy is a President.
The President being the President. Photo courtesy WhiteHouse.gov: “President Barack Obama listens to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood speak during a briefing on the response to Hurricane Sandy at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Oct. 31, 2012. Pictured, from left, are Secretary LaHood; Energy Secretary Steven Chu; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)”
"President Barack Obama fist-bumps custodian Lawrence Lipscomb in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building following the opening session of the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth. December 3, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza." Courtesy of the White House and the President.
The President had a rough night Wednesday. But he had a pretty good day yesterday. Thirty thousand showed up at a rally in Wisconsin in the afternoon. In the morning he gave this speech in Denver:
Email's still the best way to make something go viral, so don't just tweet and like on FB. Email this to all and sundry.
Just a reminder. Comments are moderated. Any comment that references Seinfeld, George Costanza, and the jerk store will not get posted.
Hat tip Imani Gandy at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.
“Obama grabs babies and lifts them up on almost a daily basis. About time he got a taste or his own medicine.” New York Magazine editor Dan Amira on Twitter.
This is what I was talking about the other day, the kind of thing you have to do if you run for office. And like I said, you don’t have to like it, you just have to mean it.
Somehow, though, I think the President likes it and means it.
The President got hugged while campaigning in Florida, but as any good reporter will tell you, there’s always a local angle. Jeremiah Horrigan found it for our local paper, the Times Herald-Record:
He was in his sweats, swinging away on a driving range Sunday when he got an excited call from the manager of his pizzeria.
"The president's coming here, in like 18 minutes!" the manager said.
"The president of what?" a mystified Scott Van Duzer wanted to know.
As all the world now knows, the president whom Van Duzer immediately ran off to greet was the president of the United States, Barack Obama.
You could say, as most already have, that Van Duzer's greeting was an uplifting experience for President Obama: after high-fiving him, he gave the president an exuberant bear hug and lifted him off the floor of Van Duzer's Big Apple Pizza and Pasta Italian Restaurant.
But who, you might reasonably wonder, is Scott Van Duzer? The short answer is he's a local boy — he was born in Cornwall and lived there until he was 7.
Read the whole story, Ex-Cornwall man surprises Obama with big bear-hug. (Registration suggested but not required.)
You may have heard that vindictive Right Wingers with too much time on their hands decided to try to punish Van Duzer for the sin of liking it that the President of the United States visited his pizza joint by hate-spamming Big Apple’s Yelp entry.
Fortunately, sane and decent-hearted people have been coming to the rescue. At the Atlantic wire, Adam Clark Estes reports that The Boycott Against Obama's Bear-Hugging Buddy Is Failing Miserably.
Both photos by Doug Mills of the New York Times.
I don’t watch the daily polls and I don’t like anybody who does.
Ok. I don’t like it when anybody does. My Twitter feed is full of poll obsessives who alternately drive themselves nuts and launch themselves into states of giddy euphoria as they watch the polls go up and down. People seem to think that any minute now a new poll’s going to come along that will decide things once and for all right now so we can all relax and stop worrying about November. I’ve actually unfollowed a number of people I like and admire as bloggers and twitterers because of their poll watching compulsions. Months before an election I don’t need to know. And I don’t need to spend the months before an election alternately driving myself nuts and launching myself into states of giddy euphoria over politics! I’ve got too much else to make me crazy and even a few other and better reasons to be euphoric.
Plus, there’s some arrogance at work.
I don’t feel I need to watch the polls because I’ve predicted the outcome of every Presidential election since I was a kid long before the second Tuesday in November. Every election has been decided in my mind by late spring. The only one that fooled me a bit was 2000. I thought Gore would win it a little more handily.
So I’ve been trying to ignore the polls, even when they’ve been good news for the President, which, the last few days, they certainly have been.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Two things have been at work. The first is that it’s been a theme of Mitt Romney’s life that the more people get to know him the less they like him. It goes way back. It’s the subtext of the bullying and assault of that kid in prep school. Mitt was doing it to try to get the other students to like him. I don’t know why he’s had this effect on people. Probably lots of different reasons. I used to like him. Sort of. When he ran against Ted Kennedy. Massachusetts is kind of our second home state and I followed that race. I didn’t want him to win. But while I wouldn’t have voted for him against Ted I might have voted for him if he’d been running against some other Democrat. Massachusetts has produced some pretty lousy Democrats and I don’t mean of the Republican-lite variety. I mean corrupt, stupid, inept, or otherwise useless. Mitt didn’t strike me as so bad next to some of them. I didn’t like him as much when he was governor though. I liked him less when he ran for President in 2008. I couldn’t put my finger on why. But this time out I positively loathe the guy and I can tell you why. I have told you why, in about a dozen posts. Boils down to this. To him people are costs to be controlled. He’s the first person to run for President on a major party line who believes human beings are a problem.
If that’s what people are picking up on, it’s no wonder nobody likes him.
And virtually nobody does.
That’s one thing that has been consistent in the polls. People do not like him. Even people who plan to vote for him. This has been a point pundits and analysts in the Village media have studiously ignored, because they’ve been wedded to the idea that the President is doomed and if they included Mitt’s personal approval in their analyses they would be predicting that the American people are bent on putting a man they don’t like in the White House.
When has that ever happened?
Nope. Liberals didn’t like Nixon. Most people did. My grandmother loved him.
But my feeling---and that’s all it is, my feeling, not a prediction---that the President is on his way to re-election isn’t just based on Mitt’s being unlikeable and his convention giving more people the opportunity to learn not to like him.
I also expected the President’s convention to be just that---the President’s convention.
I expected that the more people saw of the President outside of the filter of Village Conventional Wisdom, the more they would remember that we don’t need a new President. We already have a pretty good one. I’m not talking about his effectiveness at getting this or that bill passed. I’m talking about his ability to be the many things we need our Presidents to be, all of which add up to giving us confidence that he is in command.
And if you think being in command means being able to make political opponents drop to their knees and beg for mercy with just a frown, you have watched too many episodes of The West Wing.
Even George Washington couldn’t do that.
FDR couldn’t even do it to his political allies.
Being in command or, rather, giving the people confidence that the President is in command, means giving them the confidence that the day to day running of the country is being taken care of and that if something happens, if there’s a crisis, the President will act swiftly, decisively, and competently to put things back to right. Again, this isn’t a matter of doing the right thing by anyone’s ideological lights or by Paul Krugman’s lights (bright and focused as they so often are). It’s more a matter of the passengers trusting that when the car spins out on the ice the driver isn’t going to panic and steer us off a cliff.
And this has been the basis of my “predictions” of who is going to be President. The guy who gives the impression of being the better driver wins. The re-election of George W. Bush would seem to refute this, but there are always other factors at work as well, and one of them is that Americans tend to like their Presidents and it takes a lot of work on the part of one to make them dislike him. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter worked at it.
W. didn’t. Well, he didn’t work at anything. But people still liked him until Katrina hit and he proved that he wasn’t in command, and then it was too late.
What happened at the Democratic Convention is that people were reminded that we have a President. Bill Clinton tore Mitt Romney to pieces but after starting with the point that Barack Obama is Bill’s idea of a good President. From there on, everything he said about Mitt was an implicit or explicit comparison between Mitt and the President. And then, Thursday night, the President took the stage.
He didn’t come out as that hopey-changey guy from 2008. He emphatically put that guy in the past. He stood there as the President of the United States.
And a lot of people’s hearts swelled with pride.
I think the debates will accelerate both these trends, that the more people see of Mitt the less they will like him and the more they see of the President the more they will accept it and like it that he is the President.
That’s what I think. I’m not predicting. I’m just saying what I think and why. I think the President will be re-elected because he is the President.
The Village talk about the polls has been all about what a tight race it is, but the focus has been on the polls of likely voters and, for reasons of prudence, those polls have been based on a very strict and limiting definition of likely. The talk, though, hasn’t been simply a matter of prudence. It’s been colored by a number of assumptions. One is that that even though the President has generally been up a few points even among likely voters, because his lead is within the margin of error, the error will correct in Mitt’s favor. The other assumption is that the President is running against history.
Here’s the CW in a nutshell: “Obama’s in deep trouble because no modern President has won re-election with economic numbers as bad as the numbers the President has had to deal with.”
“Modern” means since World War II, so how many incumbent Presidents are we talking about?
Jimmy Carter and George Herbert Walker Bush.
I’m not including Gerald Ford because he’s a special case.
How many other un-elected Vice Presidents who became President because the sitting President resigned in disgrace and left town one step ahead of the law and who then pardoned that disgraced President ran for what wasn’t in fact re-election but election for the first time?
But here’s the thing.
They’re all special cases.
Jimmy Carter and George Herbert Walker Bush were running for re-election when the unemployment numbers were bad but not as bad as they are now, true. But weren’t other things going on too?
Off the top of my head I can think of a few things that might have hurt Carter beside unemployment.
A thirteen percent inflation rate.
Lines at the gas stations.
The world’s biggest, meanest, fastest-swimming rabbit.
My mother would add one more.
He stopped smiling.
I could write a whole post about how this all adds up to people having the sense that Carter wasn’t in command. Maybe I will. For now, though, the point is that it’s not just the economy, stupid.
By the way, the sign Carville put up in campaign headquarters was “The economy, stupid” not “It’s the economy”. It was a reminder to anyone talking to the press to stay on message. Keep the focus on the economy because that was President Bush’s main weakness. Mitt Corp went off message. Probably because they realized that the economy wasn’t going to be as much of a weakness for the President as they hoped it would be and panicked. But that’s yet another post.
So, that’s what I think has been happening. I also think that as the election gets closer more people are going to move into the likely voter category and more of them will be people who plan to vote for the President.
But we’re still two months out. All kinds of things can happen. Even if the trend continues in the President’s favor he’s still going to need every vote he can get.
One more point.
It’s not enough that the President gets re-elected.
We need to take back the House and hold the Senate and I haven’t seen polls showing that either is guaranteed.
But then, like I said, I’m trying to ignore the polls.
His mother was a saint. About to be former President Richard M. Nixon delivering his farewell address to his staff, August 9, 1974. His daughter Julie and her husband David Eisenhower are to his immediate right. His wife Pat and his other daughter Tricia and her husband Ed Cox are far off to his left. Author Thomas Mallon has put that large empty space between Nixon and his wife to symbolic and psychological work in his novel Watergate.
In his compelling, believable, and surprisingly romantic and tender-hearted new novel, Watergate, Thomas Mallon tells the story of how that third-rate burglary led to the resignation of the 37th President of the United States through the eyes of characters who can't tell us what is going on. His main male characters are too distracted and his main female characters have no direct involvement with the break-in, the cover-up, or the political machinations and investigations that follow. The news comes to them as it did to the country, in snatches and echoes. They have pieces of a puzzle they each avoid putting together. None of the three wants to know the truth about the man they are devoted to, Richard M. Nixon.
The historical events we know as Watergate make their way into their thoughts like week old news from far away cities, registering but not immediately affecting their thinking or their feelings. The unfolding truth hangs at the backs of their minds, nagging at them from there, sometimes consciously ignored but unconsciously directing their decisions, sometimes dealt with intellectually but then having no influence on their actions---they pursue their own courses in spite of what they know is happening around them.
This is a useful narrative strategy. No one at the Committee to Re-Elect or at the Washington Post or in the Special Prosecutor’s office or on the Senate Watergate Committee was paying much attention to Nixon’s wife, his secretary Rose Mary Woods, or his friend and surrogate mother-figure, Alice Longworth, the eighty-nine year old daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. This allows Mallon to tell his story through moments that if they did occur were not taped, televised, or written into diaries, official records, trial transcripts, or reporters' notebooks. It's not just that there are things that can't be checked against the historical record. They can't be checked against the most comprehensive and obsessive memory. If you’re old enough and had been paying attention at the time, you'll be surprised by how much you do remember. There's enough Watergate lore, important and trivia pursuit level, to jog memories loose. But still things are done, things are said that won’t prompt a That didn’t happen or a That couldn’t have happened as much as an Is that made up or did I just forget about it?
So Mallon has given himself lots of room to make things up, to invent dialog, to read minds and attribute thoughts and motivations, to fiddle with chronologies and leave out narratively inconvenient facts, to “see” things that probably weren’t there and not bother with things that were, and imagine scenes and situations and even create and insert wholly fictional characters, some with invented names and backstories but many with the names and biographies of real people. And among the things he’s made up are a plausibly mundane explanation for the infamous eighteen and a half minute gap and a lover for Mrs Nixon.
You read that right.
Mallon has Pat cheating on Dick.
He leaves open the possibility that the affair was purely platonic and it’s been over for several years when the book begins but it's clear that it was deeply romantic and that Pat was and still is in love.
Ok. First the men:
Fred LaRue, a lawyer and consultant at the Committee to Re-Elect and the bagman who delivered bribe money to the Watergate burglars after they were caught to keep them quiet, is distracted by personal and romantic problems and, anyway, his voluntary and unofficial position and duties at the CREP are so nebulous that no one not even himself knows just what he’s supposed to be doing there and in fact his nominal bosses often seemed to forget about him for long stretches of time. When they remembered him, they didn’t tell him things because they assumed he already knew them. When the cover-up starts collapsing and the indictments start coming down, he's left half looking forward to being hauled in by the prosecutors so he can figure out from their questions where he fits into the whole scheme.
Howard Hunt, the former CIA agent turned novelist turned Plumber who supervised the break-in, is a romantic and a fabulist who starts off having a hard time distinguishing between his real life and the fantasy life he's concocted for himself in his spy novels and is then unhinged by a personal tragedy.
And Elliott Richardson, the Attorney General who was lionized for resigning rather than firing Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, although he has a pretty good idea of what happened and just how deep into it the President is, doesn’t let himself think much about the details. He’s focused on how he can use events to advance his career, which he sees as leading him to the Republican nomination for President in 1976.
It’s one of Mallon’s dark jokes that the man who came out of the scandal with a shining reputation for honesty and probity is an even more cynical and calculating political animal than Richard Nixon himself.
Which brings us to Nixon.
One of the things Mallon does not invent is an answer to the question What did the President know and when did he know it?
The only person who could ever have answered that was Nixon and he was never going to do that and his fictional counterpart doesn’t do it here.
Throughout Watergate, Nixon is always seen in company with people he can't confide in or alone where he refuses to confide in himself---he won't let himself think honestly about what happened. He deflects, rationalizes, explains things away, rehearsing in his head the story he wants everyone else to believe and testing it by how completely he can sell it to himself. With Mallon's Nixon, his first dupe is always himself.
The women are more clear-eyed and able to be more honest with themselves and about themselves. To a point. The point being where too much honesty would break their hearts.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth is the most clear-eyed and the expression brutally frank may have been coined with her in mind. But she's removed from key events by her age and by being only a friend of the Nixons, although a friend who can make quasi-secret visits to the White House whenever she likes and feels up to it. But her affection for Nixon is based on what he did to help her with a family tragedy almost twenty years ago that she still can't bear to think about. She knows he's in trouble. She has a pretty good idea of how he got himself in that trouble. She knows him well enough to guess how he's likely making it worse for himself. I don’t mean she knows the specific details of the dirty tricks and the step by step path of the cover up. But she knows how his mind works and understands that self- destruction is wired into him. She has what it takes to figure it all out for herself (and therefore for the readers of the novel) just from what she sees on television or reads in the papers or overhears at dinner parties. The trouble is that if she lets herself think about Nixon too long she ends up having to thing about what happened back then and she's determined to avoid that.
And she's old. She tires out quickly. And while she's far from senile, her mind isn't as sharp as it used to be. When she lets her thoughts turn towards the past, they often turn towards the very distant past, and the President she winds up thinking about, when it's not her cousin Eleanor's husband, is her father.
Rose Woods decided a long time ago that she was going to accommodate certain aspects of her boss' personality and ignore what she couldn't accommodate, which is how she manages not to blame him for hiring people she can’t stand, like H.R. Haldeman, who were clearly hired for the reasons she can’t stand them. It’s also how she can transcribe the tapes without actually hearing what's on them or, more to the point, hearing what they reveal about Richard Nixon.
Rose is a great character, a tough cookie and a creampuff, a realist and a romantic, nobody's fool but her own, with a passion for dancing and a longstanding habit of attaching herself to unobtainable men, of which her boss is only the most obvious. Rose lost the love of her life in World War II but she has steadfastly remained faithful to his memory not by perpetual morning but by searching out and then embracing, cheerfully and vivaciously, pieces of her understandably idealized fallen soldier in those unobtainable men. For instance, she is smitten by Alexander Haig the second he comes on the scene as Haldeman's replacement as chief of staff because he’s the kind of career officer and gentleman she imagines her lost Billy would have been had he survived the war. She doesn't delude herself into thinking that any of these men are Billy or could qualify as his replacement. She has just found a way to continue to love him by loving the pieces of him she finds in these men.
But this means she tends to see men in pieces. And that goes for her boss. She doesn’t see what’s right before her eyes because she only sees the pieces of him that are like Billy, which means she only sees the best in him. And not seeing the worst in him or even what's just not the best means not seeing Watergate for what it was, the ultimate expression of Nixon's instinct for self-destruction. She thinks of the scandal as something being done to him and not something he might have brought on himself.
Pat Nixon has carefully and determinedly created spaces, psychological and physical, into which she can retreat and politics cant follow her. And she expects---needs---her husband to respect those spaces and to know when not leave her alone inside them and to not bring politics in with him when he does enter. Of course Nixon being Nixon, one of Pat's great frustrations is that he keeps forgetting what's expected of him. He's constantly blundering in when he's not wanted and dragging politics in with him.
Pat has another reason for maintaining these spaces besides as refuges for her peace of mind. Within them she can protect her memories of one of the happiest times in her life, the years in New York City before Nixon became President and she was having that affair with a lawyer who numbered among his attractions being entirely without political ambitions. She also needs the spaces to keep open the possibility of reviving the affair.
Pat's affair is the most effective, affecting, and believable part of the novel. Not believable in the limited and literal sense of being something that might actually have happened. Believable in the sense that it feels true to life while you're reading it. The real Pat Nixon didn’t do this but this woman if she was real would have and would have felt and thought the same way. Pat's affair is the big reminder that Watergate is fiction, both by calling attention to the fact that Mallon has license to invent and to the skill by which the invention is accomplished---history, even the best narrative type, can’t be as well written.
Seeing Pat Nixon as a woman in love means seeing her as someone different than the stiff, pinched, and worrisomely too thin figure in the now very old photographs and news clips. It means seeing her as a character and that means seeing her the way we tend to see characters in books, which for most readers is as looking like people they know from real life or movies and television. I saw her looking like Michelle Pfeiffer, believe it or not. Pfeiffer’'s getting to be the right age and with a well-sprayed bouffant and a good Republican cloth coat...
I also saw Tom Hanks as Nixon.
The point is not to see them as the real Nixons, because they aren't and aren't meant to be.
They are Nixons that might have been.
As I said, Mallon’s decision to tell the story of Watergate through the eyes of people who don’t know the whole story because they weren’t really part of it is useful to him as a storyteller because he’s free---free-er---to make things up. But it’s good for us as readers because it keeps Watergate from turning into a political melodrama and from being a too historical a historical novel. Shades of Alan Drury and Gore Vidal cross the page throughout Watergate, but Mallon doesn’t share Drury's and Vidal's romantized and aggrandizing views of politics or politicians. Mallon gives us ordinary human beings to care about instead of heroes and villains to root for or against.
Norman Rockwell painted the history out of Nixon by not showing the qualities that made Nixon his own worst enemy. He painted Nixon as he might have been, if he’d been a happier, more contented, more secure man, or as he might have been on his best days when all his demons were safely at bay.
Mallon doesn't paint all the history out of Nixon to create his Nixon. He leaves out the meanness or, rather, doesn’t bring it on stage. We never see this RN at a Nixonian worst. We do however see him at his weakest and it's a very Nixonian weakest and as with the real Nixon almost more unattractive than his worst. The way Mallon's Nixon is most like the real Nixon is in his bottomless capacity for self -pity. But what we also see is how this Nixon might have been on his best days and how he might have enough best days that people who were close to him would believe that the real Nixon was that Nixon and therefore be inclined to ignore or forgive him at his worst and indulge him at his weakest. This is a Nixon you can easily imagine good people loving.
There's a limit to the inventing Mallon can do and stay within the bounds of the kind of realistic and broadly accurate historical fiction he’s made his reputation writing. He can’t change any of his main characters’ fates. We know that Pat Nixon didn’t leave her husband for another man. We know Rosemary Woods didn’t quit. There wasn't much Alice Longworth could have done that would have made its way into the history books, unless she turned out to be Deep Throat and Mallon never raises that possibility as even a joke. But that doesn’t mean Watergate isn’t suspenseful.
The suspense is provided in two ways. The first is by Mallon's trick of keeping the big historical events offstage from where they can act as reminders of what it was like as the story unfolded and nobody knew how bad things would be or how they would end---a remembered suspense. The other is by making us take these characters so much to heart that we worry about how they will deal with their disappointment and heartbreak when they finally learn the truth about what kind of man they've devoted themselves to and dread the moment when they learn it.
Mallon has us almost rooting for Nixon to get away with it, even hoping that he didn't do it, in order to have these good women's feelings spared.
Photo courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library via Wikipedia.