The Forgotten Political Genius of Philip Roth

“The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality,” the novelist Philip Roth wrote in an essay called “Writing American Fiction,” published in Commentary magazine in early 1961. “It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” Name-dropping various 1950s scandal artists, Roth added, “Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren? Roy Cohn and David Schine? Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine?”

In the days since his death last week at age 85, Roth has been celebrated (and here and there skewered) for his contributions to American fiction. New York Times critic Dwight Continue reading “The Forgotten Political Genius of Philip Roth”

TV Gave Us the Modern State of the Union. Then It Killed It.

When he became president, Woodrow Wilson wanted to transform the office into a seat of activism, and he planned to start with a speech to Congress. For more than a hundred years, presidents had fulfilled their constitutional duty of reporting to Congress “from time to time” on the “State of the Union” by sending written messages to the Hill, where a clerk would read them, usually without event. (These bland missives, the British scholar and statesman James Bryce noted in an 1888 book, did not have “necessarily any more effect on Congress than an article in a prominent party newspaper.”) But while that modest influence may have suited the presidency of the 19th century—an office of relatively modest powers—Wilson, a brilliant political scientist, grasped that times, and politics, were changing. The president now had to assert himself more forcefully, as his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt had begun to do. So, Continue reading “TV Gave Us the Modern State of the Union. Then It Killed It.”

What Happens When Americans Try to Psychoanalyze Their Leaders

Was this petty, snarling man, utterly lacking in presidential temperament and heedless of the established rules and norms of politics, going to get us into a nuclear war? That’s what a lot of Americans wondered about Richard Nixon back in 1956. Chosen as Dwight Eisenhower’s running-mate four years before, Nixon was seen as unscrupulous, mean-spirited and reckless in smearing his opponents. So in the 1956 campaign, with Ike still wildly popular, Democrats made Nixon’s character an issue. The Soviet Union had just detonated its first hydrogen bomb, and Eisenhower had recently suffered a heart attack and a bout of ileitis (a gastrointestinal illness)—putting Nixon, they warned, perilously close to the Oval Office. In the fall Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats’ nominee, invoked what the liberal New York Post columnist Max Lerner called “the triple issue”: should Eisenhower suddenly die, the unreliable Nixon would have his finger on the button.

Today, of Continue reading “What Happens When Americans Try to Psychoanalyze Their Leaders”

Why We Shouldn’t Let the #MeToo Movement Change History

As if by unspoken assent, we’ve adopted a name for our overdue reckoning with sexual harassment and assault: It’s the “Me Too Moment.” “Me too,” everyone knows, comes from the Twitter hashtag by which women are sharing their experiences with sexual predators of various sorts after the New York Times’s exposé of Harvey Weinstein. But the word “moment” is significant as well. It reminds us that there’s a time factor at work, a historical element. Starting now, it promises, we’re taking a harder line against these offenses than we did in the past.

Most of us take some satisfaction in seeing women emboldened to speak out where they had once been intimidated and seeing justice finally delivered to rank offenders. But for those concerned about history, there’s also a danger in some of the arguments being tossed about. If we’re not attentive to the history implicit in the Continue reading “Why We Shouldn’t Let the #MeToo Movement Change History”

America’s 100 Other Declarations of Independence

The American War of Independence was fought from April 19, 1775 (Lexington and Concord) to September 3, 1783 (the Peace of Paris), and although Massachusetts and some other states observe the first of those dates as Patriots’ Day, neither has become a national holiday. It’s July 4, of course, that reigns as our undisputed Independence Day—the occasion for picnics and parades, festivities and fireworks, and star-spangled, red-white-and-blue kitsch. That was when the representatives at the Second Continental Congress, the 13 colonies’ newly formed governing body, signed the Declaration of Independence, our nation’s founding document, which is still often read aloud, 241 years later, at July 4 celebrations across the land.

Since 1776, the Declaration of Independence has assumed a near-biblical status in America’s national mythology—its opening paragraphs memorized by schoolchildren, its formulation of liberal principles of equality and self-government venerated by citizens of all political stripes. It still provides a Continue reading “America’s 100 Other Declarations of Independence”

Why Liberals Hate the New Obama Biography

Apart from journalists assigned to review it and a book editor who considered publishing it, I have yet to meet anyone who has read, or is reading, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, the phenomenal new biography of the former president by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David J. Garrow. Although the book made No. 14 on the New York Times best-seller list—no mean feat—it stayed there just one week. This is a little surprising, because Rising Star has got to be one of the most impressive and important books of the year. It’s a masterwork of historical and journalistic research, Robert Caro-like in its exhaustiveness, and easily the most authoritative account of Obama’s pre-presidential life we’ve seen or are likely ever to see. It’s also a terrific read.

Garrow’s research alone makes his book essential for anyone who wants to understand our recently departed president. Early headlines Continue reading “Why Liberals Hate the New Obama Biography”

Watergate Fueled Conspiracy Theories, Too

For all the similarities between President Donald Trump’s Russiagate scandal (or, as I prefer to call it, Onion Dome) and Watergate—the special counsels; the Congressional hearings; the talk of obstruction of justice and secret tapes—there’s one parallel that is getting less attention.

In Watergate as in Onion Dome, defenders of the president plunged deep into conspiracy theory to explain away a growing body of evidence pointing to serious White House wrongdoing. Today, Trump surrogates deny Russian interference in the election and assert that U.S. intelligence agencies—portentously (and inaccurately) called the “Deep State”—are hoping to overturn the election results through leaks and fake news. And though it has largely been forgotten, some Nixon acolytes during and after Watergate pushed a very similar claim: that the CIA, the Pentagon or other entrenched government interests secretly conspired to oust Nixon for their own reasons, even as the news media trumpeted a Continue reading “Watergate Fueled Conspiracy Theories, Too”

The Crackpot Theories of Stephen Bannon’s Favorite Authors

Ethel Kennedy opened the door in her bathrobe, welcoming us in from the blizzard. The snowstorm had made it impossible to reach Harpers Ferry, where a retreat had been planned for a gaggle of Washington-based Generation Xers, as we were called then. So one participant, Doug Kennedy, asked his mother to let us relocate to their Hickory Hill estate. Over the next hour that Saturday morning in March 1993, twentysomethings of diverse stripes including Jon Karl, now of ABC News, Jon Cowan, now of Third Way, and Eric Liu, now of Citizen University, streamed in for a weekend of debate.

The confab was hatched by a man much older than we were—William Strauss, a charming, gray-haired congressional staffer known in Washington for founding the Capitol Steps, a troupe of Hill aides who performed mildly funny political satire in a small Georgetown theater. One typical parody featured a George Bush Sr. Continue reading “The Crackpot Theories of Stephen Bannon’s Favorite Authors”

The Perils of Calling Trump a Liar 

When Richard Nixon was president, most journalists knew he was a thoroughly dishonest man. Early in his first term he had declared war on them—famously in two high-profile speeches delivered by his pit-bull vice president, Spiro T. Agnew—and he spied on many with illegal wiretaps authorized by his national security adviser Henry Kissinger. When reporters crossed him, he punished them with petty retributions (excluding some from his trip to China) and unconstitutional abuses of power (siccing the IRS or FBI on others) that became grounds for his impeachment.

Well before Watergate, Nixon’s treatment of reporters led them to thunder that because of his distortions and manipulations, freedom of the press was under siege. The news media’s leading lights sounded the alarm. Accepting the “Broadcaster of the Year” award in 1971, Walter Cronkite labeled Nixon’s anti-press campaign “a grand conspiracy.” On the Dick Cavett show, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee Continue reading “The Perils of Calling Trump a Liar “

Was Obama a Transformational President?

For weeks now, the impending departure of Barack Obama from the White House has inspired a run of paeans to his greatness, a flood of laments about how much he’ll be missed. Everywhere there are bouquets to his classy family, tributes to his avoidance of scandal, toasts to his decency, appreciations of his dry wit. Even his reading habits are cause for celebration: “Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped—in his life, convictions and outlook on the world—by reading and writing as Barack Obama,” wrote the book critic Michiko Kakutani in a front-page New York Times story. (Really? More than Theodore Roosevelt, who read a book a day and wrote more than 30 himself? Or Woodrow Wilson, our only Ph.D. president and one of the leading political scientists of his era?)

If it’s not Obama’s dignified, cerebral style being venerated, it’s a laundry list Continue reading “Was Obama a Transformational President?”

An Intellectual History of Trumpism

For most of the last 18 months, Donald Trump has been portrayed as a clown, a showman, an opportunist, a faux conservative, a political naïf, and an egomaniac bent on nothing but power and glory—but rarely as a man with an intelligible ideology. Yet if Trump’s ideas can’t quite be said to cohere into a unified worldview, and if his legion flip-flops deny him any claim to philosophical consistency, many of his signature promises and policies do add up to a set of ideas—populist, nationalist, authoritarian—with deep roots in American history. After a year and a half of dwelling on Trump the personality, it may be time to turn our attention to Trumpism.

To the extent that analysts have discerned any new philosophy behind Trump’s rise, they have focused on the vicious, bigoted internet stylings of the so-called alt-right. But the unabashed white nationalism, anti-Semitism and misogyny of that hitherto Continue reading “An Intellectual History of Trumpism”

How Roger Ailes Created Modern Conservatism

As much as the Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump as president this week, the demise of Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes marks the end of an age.

Toppled by a cascade of sexual harassment charges and said to be nearing the exits at Fox, Ailes will be remembered for undermining the dominant 20th-century model of objective journalism with his defiantly right-wing news channel. But he was equally important in transforming politics itself. Not only did he tutor presidents from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush in the ways of media politics, but he was largely responsible for two of the signal changes in American political culture since the 1960s: the rise of television as a national force and the emergence of cultural populism as a key feature of the Republican Party.

In fact, apart from the presidents he served, he was arguably the single most Continue reading “How Roger Ailes Created Modern Conservatism”

Are Clinton and Trump the Biggest Liars Ever to Run for President?

In their personalities and their politics, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might not have much in common, but in the public eye they share one glaring characteristic: A lot of people don’t believe what they say. In a July New York Times/CBS poll, less than one-third of respondents said Clinton is honest and trustworthy. Trump’s scores were about the same.

Trump’s campaign-trail falsehoods are so legion that cataloguing them has become a journalistic pastime. With a cocky disdain for anything as boring as evidence, the presumptive GOP nominee confidently repeats baseless assertions: He purports to have watched American Muslims celebrate the Twin Towers’ fall; he overstates the sizes of the crowds at his rallies, he understates America’s GDP growth rate, and no reputable business publication agrees with his claims of a personal net worth of $10 billion. In March, when three Politico reporters fact-checked Trump’s statements for a Continue reading “Are Clinton and Trump the Biggest Liars Ever to Run for President?”

Lessons from 1912: Why Trumpmania Probably Won’t Last

This year’s Republican convention appears to be primed for a rupture of a kind we haven’t seen since Teddy Roosevelt broke dramatically with the party in 1912. The parallels are striking: The party is riven between establishment and insurgents. The people’s choice is prone to intemperate remarks and hotheaded declarations—to the delight of his followers and the frustration of party leaders. And, as Roosevelt did, this year’s front-runner claims he’s being screwed by the establishment—even having delegates stolen—and is vowing to do something about it. Donald Trump has openly flirted with the idea of running as a third-party candidate, and on Tuesday he even took back his pledge to support the GOP nominee if he’s not chosen. “[If] I go,” he warned earlier this month, “I will tell you, these millions of people that joined, they’re all coming with me.”

But if history is any guide, even a Trump Continue reading “Lessons from 1912: Why Trumpmania Probably Won’t Last”

FDR’s Nate Silver

In the spring of 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt was worried. Running for reelection, he had lost the backing of two former supporters with important constituencies: Father Charles Coughlin, the fiery radio priest based in Michigan whose broadcasts commanded a huge national following; and Huey Long, the populist Louisiana senator whose radical wealth redistribution schemes had galvanized millions more. Despite Roosevelt’s many accomplishments, these populist firebrands were now denouncing the New Deal as weak tea and demanding stiffer measures. Nothing FDR did—steering patronage jobs to Long’s enemies, suspending federal projects in Louisiana—seemed to dent the men’s popularity. When former National Recovery Administration chief Hugh Johnson assailed the pair in March, Long responded with a radio address in which he took the high road, coolly presenting his “Share Our Wealth” scheme as a paragon of reasonableness. It won him his largest audience ever. Roosevelt and Johnson, concluded Turner Catledge of the New Continue reading “FDR’s Nate Silver”

Stop Renaming Things That Offend You

In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Jefferson was one of Roosevelt’s heroes, and FDR took the occasion to praise his predecessor in extravagant terms. He also commented on the vicissitudes of historical reputation. “Our generation of Americans can understand much in Jefferson’s life which intervening generations could not see as well as we,” he declared. Speaking as American GIs were fighting fascism to defend the basic ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, FDR continued: “He faced the fact that men who will not fight for liberty can lose it. We, too, have faced that fact. He lived in a world in which freedom of conscience and freedom of mind were battles still to be fought through—not principles already accepted of all men. We, too, have lived in such Continue reading “Stop Renaming Things That Offend You”

Can Bernie Keep Socialism Alive?

<p>Before Bernie Sanders was the hot challenger to Hillary Clinton, before he was even an oddball Vermont congressman from Brooklyn, the proud socialist made a documentary film—and a long-playing record—about Eugene Victor Debs.</p><p>The 20th century’s most renowned American socialist, Debs has long been a hero to leftists and radicals of many persuasions. Numerous children were named after him; so were a radio station, a town in Minnesota and a couple of beers. In Sanders’ quaint, low-budget 1979 documentary, <i><a href="http://www.folkways.si.edu/bernard-sanders/eugene-v-debs-trade-unionist-socialist-revolutionary-1855-1926/oral-history-biography/album/smithsonian">Eugene V. Debs</a></i>—issued by the now-defunct American People’s Historical Society of 295&frac12; Maple Street in Burlington—Debs is given the full Howard Zinn treatment, depicted as a fighter on behalf of exploited workers, a fearless critic of ruthless corporate power and a martyr to free speech.</p><p>With the insurgent Sanders showing no signs of flagging in the Democratic nomination race, his esteem for Debs—whose picture graces Sanders’ office Continue reading “Can Bernie Keep Socialism Alive?”

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the authenticity trap

We always want to know more about politicians–until they tell us too much.

Keep Andrew Jackson on the $20

Critics of the current $20 bill forget the president who made American democracy democratic.