The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz: In this searing collection, the Polish poet blends history, philosophy, and lightly fictionalized biography to explore the psychology of complicity and other moral ambiguities of his era. I think I’ll be haunted for the rest of my life by Milosz’s description of a young woman being rounded up for the camps while shouting that the small child running behind her and calling out to her is not her own — as well as the sternness with which Milosz forbids his readers the consolation of judgment. This woman is young, he tells us, she is alive; she is not yet done living. It’s the brutality of Milosz’s empathy — as well as the brutality of his clarity — that makes this collection so powerful.
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Richard Perlstein: Written with novelistic verve and more deadpan humor than you might expect from a book about Richard Nixon, Perlstein’s account of the 37th president’s political rise casts modern American politics in an illuminating, and often frightening, context. With a cameo by a young Karl Rove as a puckish operative who lures hippies to opponents’ rallies with promises of free food and girls.
Finally, three astonishing literary thrillers: Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and William Landay’s Defending Jacob. These books’ plots cover varied terrain — The Keep follows the fallout of a childhood prank gone wrong, Gone Girl explores the sinister depths of a fatally flawed marriage, and Defending Jacob grapples with the harrowing legacy of family violence. But in each of them, the most terrifying aspect of the story winds up being the human mind’s capacity for denial, rationalization, and self-deception — and in each of them, the notion of the mystery plot twist is upended by re-imagined parameters of the mystery itself.
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Somebody needs to start a 12-step program for compulsive readers of presidential biographies. It can be a dangerous little addiction. My Millions colleague, Janet Potter, who is reading biographies of the 44 U.S. presidents in chronological order for her Presidential Biography Project, has reached Ulysses S. Grant, or President #18. I myself am nowhere near so ambitious or organized, but at last count I’ve read biographies of 11 of the 44, a fair number of them in multi-volume sets. In some contexts this might sound like boasting, but at the meetings of ARPBA (Addicted Readers of Presidential Biographies Anonymous), it would be recognized for what it is: a cry for help.
So when I heard about Thomas Mallon’s new novel, Watergate, I thought: Aha! Here’s a way to stay out of rehab and still kick the habit. I can read fictional presidential biographies. Mallon, author of eight novels, mostly on historical themes, has spun a fictional insider’s tale of the famed Nixon scandal that, for a hopeless junkie like me, held out the promise of a book-length methadone cure for my presidential biography jones.
Told from the point of view of numerous players in the Watergate saga, from the president on down to minor walk-ons like Mississippi-bred campaign operative Fred LaRue, Mallon’s novel is a dizzying high-wire act mixing fictional explanations of famous historical mysteries (how did Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods create that 18-minute gap?) with outright fictions (Plastic Pat Nixon, the president’s cipher of a wife, has a secret lover!). Mallon writes like a dream, and his mastery of the complex historical record and the equally byzantine folkways of Washington’s establishment class are staggering. But the book itself remains, for all its shining prose and historical insight, more of a literary achievement than an illuminating read.
This is unfortunate because Richard Nixon is in desperate need of better biographers, nonfictional and otherwise. It is an odd fact that Nixon, surely one of the most Shakespearian figures to hold the office occupied by that long rogue’s gallery of Iagos, Hamlets, and Lears, has yet to inspire a truly great biography. Stephen Ambrose’s three-volume Nixon is admirably thorough in all the ways that makes that sound like faint praise, and so many of the other writers to take Nixon on, like Rick Perlstein, whose Nixonland appeared in 2008, are so busy blaming Nixon for every bad thing that ever happened since he entered politics that the man himself gets lost. To my mind, the most convincing, and compelling, portraits of Nixon and his administration remain the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein originals, All the President’s Men and The Final Days, which is curious since those books were written largely on the fly while the Watergate scandal was still being fought out in the courts.
Mallon’s singular achievement in Watergate is to present Nixon and his co-conspirators not as the fright-mask caricatures they have become in popular culture, but as flesh-and-blood human beings trying, however crookedly, to run the country. Mallon performs this trick by making masterful use of close third-person narration, which allows him to bounce seamlessly from character to character and still give the reader access to those characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings. In one delicious scene, Mallon has a fuming Nixon attend the 1973 Washington Correspondents’ Association dinner, at which Woodward and Bernstein were honored for their trailblazing Watergate reporting:
The president looked at the three Washington Post tables just below the dias — a whole little government-in-exile presided over by [Post executive editor Ben] Bradlee, Jack Kennedy’s fellow cocksman; the two of them had fornicated their way into middle age like Harvard boys still panting outside the burlesque stage door in Boston.
But this rare chance to inhabit the minds of a gang of criminals hatching one of this country’s most notorious political crimes is also the novel’s fatal flaw. In Watergate, the scandal’s central figures, while occasionally aware that what they’re doing might be technically illegal, always see their actions as furthering the greater good of the United States. “I am not a crook,” Nixon famously declared during a press conference, and, in Mallon’s telling, it never seems to occur to him that he might be. Late in in the novel, as Nixon is flying home to California hours after delivering his mawkish farewell address to his staff and resigning the presidency, Mallon has a damp-eyed Nixon tell his wife:
I don’t know how it happened, how it began. Half the time I hear myself on those tapes I realize I’m barely remembering who works for who over at the Committee [to Re-Elect the President]. I hear myself acting like I know more than I do — pretending to be on top of the thing so I don’t embarrass myself with whoever’s in the room — especially [presidential advisor John] Erlichman. Christ, I can’t now apologize for what I can barely understand!
This is, as history, fanciful — Nixon was far too good a manager and politician not to know exactly who worked for him on his re-election team — but, worse, as literature it is mendacious. It is as if at the end of Othello, Shakespeare gave Iago a speech saying he couldn’t remember just how that handkerchief ended up in Cassio’s hands. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is as if at the end of the play Shakespeare turned Iago into a doddering, ill, self-pitying King Lear, howling insensibly among the rustling palm trees in San Clemente, always and forever “more sinn’d against than sinning.”
One could argue that such reflexive self-justification is inevitable in a novel that aims to give us a view of the scandal from the inside out, but I don’t think so. Mallon follows enough characters to fill a cell block, but all of them are, in one way or another, inside the Nixonian tent. LaRue, the Mississippi operative and bagman, is as close as the book comes to a protagonist, as is indicated by the fact that he is granted an invented — and entirely bogus — side plot involving an investigation into his role in the shooting death of his father during a hunting trip. But LaRue, who in real life was an early proponent of Nixon’s cynical, and deeply racist, “Southern strategy” to bring the once-Democratic South into the Republican column by playing to the region’s fear of black power, is a True Believer in Richard Nixon from start to finish. LaRue doesn’t experience a crisis of faith, or learn that his hero has feet of clay. He just thinks the break-in was a stupid waste of time and resources, and wishes, like the rest of the gang, that they hadn’t gotten caught.
Some of the other characters, particularly Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the rapier-tongued octogenarian daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, and even Plastic Pat, whose portrayal as a quietly passionate woman loyal to a marriage that no longer really makes human sense is the book’s most revelatory, are a lot of fun to be around, but they too are Nixon partisans. All Mallon had to do was follow one outsider — a reporter like Seymour Hersh, say, who worked the story for The New York Times; or one of the Republican politicians, of whom there were many, who finally broke with the president over the scandal — and he could have cracked the book wide open. After all, what gives those early Woodward and Bernstein books their lasting power isn’t merely the thrill of the chase, but the poignancy of insiders like Deep Throat, later revealed to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, who believed passionately in their government and were at the same time disgusted by what it was doing.
But Mallon, for all his talent and insight, doesn’t want to take that risk, because to do so would expose Watergate for what it was, a laughably pointless and ill-conceived but nevertheless grievous crime against the American system of government. Mallon has said in interviews that he is a moderate Republican, which is to say he is a Nixonian Republican before Nixon the man let his pathologies get the better of Nixon the president. One cannot read this book without thinking that, in key elements of structure and characterization, Mallon the partisan got the better of Mallon the novelist.
In this, of course, he is no worse than countless liberals who, to this day, brainlessly invoke the jowly Nixon mask to personify all that is wrong with this country, but then he isn’t any better, either. In the end, Watergate is not a whitewash. The book is too well-written, too smart about people and politics for that. But it isn’t really history, either. It is history by other means, the made-up kind.
So, no rehab for me. I’ll take my presidential biography straight, thanks.
In the most recent issue of The Atlantic James Fallows asks a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds these days: “Is America going to hell?” It’s a provocation that has recurred throughout American history, from John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630 to Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech in 1979. In every case doomsday predictions have proven to be premature; what looked at the time like a descent turned out to be just a dip.
As a rule, it’s a good idea to be skeptical whenever anyone tells you this time is different. It’s hard enough to understand our own time, let alone to measure it against hundreds of years of national history we’ve only ever read about. Chances are that even the most acutely wrought pessimism has been felt before and for much the same reasons.
And yet when Fallows contends that this time is different, it’s hard to dispute him on the facts. The core of the problem, he argues, is not any one particular challenge—debt, health care, energy—or even all of them summed together; it’s that our government has become incapable of organizing the national effort required to meet those challenges.
The culprits Fallows identifies are familiar ones. They include an ADD news media, the permanent campaign, and hyper-partisanship. But mostly he blames the filibuster and special interest groups. The two merit mentioning together because they sow dysfunction by the same method: In both cases well-organized factions are able to get their way at the expense of the common good.
While these conditions were present in America at the start, Fallows worries they’ve grown more entrenched and pernicious over time. The gap between the most and least populous states in the country is considerably larger than it was two hundred years ago which means that small states hold even more outsized influence in the Senate today than they did at the Founding. (Fallows notes that the 41 votes needed to filibuster legislation could conceivably represent as little as 12% of the population; 500,000 folks from Wyoming effectively neutralize 37 million Californians.)
And about special interests, he says they accumulate like plaque, so that the situation today is a lot worse than it’s ever been. The political economist Mancur Olson wrote in his 1982 book The Rise and Decline of Nations that “organization for collective action” takes a long time (agricultural lobbies didn’t coalesce until after World War I; the AARP until 1958) but that once organized, such groups “usually survive until there is a social upheaval or other forms of violence or instability.” And until that day comes, they nickel and dime the country of its wealth, one earmark, subsidy, and loophole at a time.
So there are reasons beyond a general sense of dismay to believe that American greatness may be ebbing.
Regardless of how you come down on Fallows’ argument (and as discussed below, I disagree with him), his essay comprises a nice primer on what might be called “Essential Reading for the End of Life As We Know it in America.” Here is a selection of the most influential titles mentioned in his essay:
The federal government’s first problem is that it’s viewed as inept. This stacks the deck against big legislative initiatives which are vulnerable to the “government takeover” epithet lobbed so effectively against health care reform. Rick Perlstein provides a genealogy for this anti-government attitude in two books critical of modern conservatism—Before the Storm and Nixonland—that show how a postwar “American consensus” shattered into the “American cacophony” that deafens today.
The US has staggering debt-obligations dumped around the world: We owe China $2.5 trillion; Japan $1 trillion; Korea $200 billion. In their 2010 book The End of Influence Berkeley professors J. Bradford DeLong and Stephen Cohen argue that as a consequence, “America is unlikely to remain the cultural hegemon, the overwhelmingly dominant source of cultural memes.”
In Are We Rome? Vanity Fair editor at-large Cullen Murphy draws unsettling parallels between present-day America and the culturally insular, governmentally corrupt final days of the Roman Empire.
Pessimism about the future is nothing new in America. As Sacvan Bercovitch retells it in The American Jeremiad (1978) the Puritans worried that the game was up before they had even stepped off the boat. From Winthrop’s sermon to The Education of Henry Adams, Bercovitch traces the history of what he calls a “national ritual” of lamentation. To that history, Fallows adds George Kennan’s Memoirs, which he tabs as the apotheosis of the tradition in the 20th century.
T. Jackson Lears, the Rutgers historian, is the author of two books that caution against viewing the dissatisfaction of our time as exceptional: In No Place of Grace he examines the antimodern impulse percolating through industrializing America in the late-19th century; and in Rebirth of a Nation, he narrates how amidst the hollowness of the Gilded Age, Americans turned to militarization as a source of meaning. Or as Lears puts it: “The rise of total war between the Civil War and World War I was rooted in longings for release from bourgeois normality into a realm of heroic struggle.”
The single biggest reason our government doesn’t work, argues Jonathan Rauch in Demosclerosis is “creeping special-interest gridlock.” This in line with Olson’s argument from The Rise and Decline of Nations discussed above.
My own view of Fallows’ argument is that it’s either too pessimistic or too optimistic depending on how you think about the American electorate, which strangely goes almost unmentioned throughout the essay.
It’s true that aspects of our government are basically set in place: Parliamentary rules will always slow change, the two major parties will always monopolize the ballot, the rich and well-connected will always have an edge over everyone else. But given that, it’s also true that every year we have elections and that those elections matter.
Fallows thinks about government like a broken down car, such that no matter how skilled the driver or where he wants to go, he’s not going to get there. During the eight years of the Bush presidency we would have been better off had that been true. But instead we got Iraq and trillion dollar deficits. It feels odd to point to the election and reelection of George W. Bush as proof that our democracy remains vital, but the extreme calamity of his presidency indicates better than anything else in recent memory that for better or worse, who we choose to lead our country has consequences.
The real question, then, is can we choose the right leaders and hold them accountable once in office? There are reasons to be pessimistic here, too. In 2004, Fallows notes, 153 state or federal positions were up for election in California and not one switched parties, even as the status quo was driving the state into the sea. So there’s reason to doubt whether voters are capable of promoting their own interests at the ballot box.
But there’s also reason for optimism. It’s clear to me at least that we chose the right candidate for president in 2008. And while Obama’s efforts to reform health care have been derailed, maybe for good, the fact that we came within one fluke special election of addressing the biggest problem facing the country says to me that all hope is not lost.
If it really were true that our future depended on special interests giving up the fight, or senators ceasing to act like senators, I’d agree with Fallows’ bleak view. But so long as we have the opportunity every November to reset our course, I can’t believe we won’t eventually, and maybe even in spite of ourselves, end up moving in the right direction.