Monday, May 28, 2012


     May 28, 2012: I've just come from Sag Harbor's annual Memorial Day parade, with its veterans, a few still remaining from World War II, its firemen, the high school band, an honor guard firing blanks (don't bring your dog, folks), and even its celebrity observer, Matt Lauer, who has a weekend home nearby. It's nice to see him there, but it's also nice that Sag Harbor is in New York, and in New York people leave celebrities alone. I generally tear up when taps is played, but I didn't this year. At the end the parade gathers at Marine Park and people give speeches. I don't stay for the speeches, either, or the playing of patriotic songs.

     But I am a patriot, and I was thinking about patriotism as I walked home. Saturday night Lorraine and I went to a dinner party where a friend of ours told us that his 26-year-old daughter just couldn't work up any enthusiasm about the election this year. She had been among the millions of young people whose enthusiasm for Barack Obama in 2008 put him in office, but now--well, she wasn't going to volunteer, she might not even vote. The man was such a disappointment. What happened to all the promise, the hope, the return to democratic principles and Democratic policies? Why were the rich still getting off tax free; why didn't the wars come to an end right away, how could he allow off-shore oil drilling, and now, drilling in the Arctic Ocean?! Where was the Obama of the speeches, of his two books? 2008 had been so exciting, such heady stuff. But his actual Presidency was more than a bit of a bust. So why get involved?

     It is times like these that one despairs of one's country. When one remembers all the republics that have gone the way of the ancient Roman Republic: Florence, Venice, the Weimar Republic, the Republic of Czechoslovakia, numerous South American republics. The list is long and tragic.

     There's nothing about a republic that is immortal. The Founders knew that very well indeed; they understood how fragile they were, that the very idea of a republic required the active participation of educated citizens who understood the issues, because issues are immortal, who debated, campaigned, and who voted. In a republic active participation is not only a right, it is a duty. You have an obligation to get involved. It's not something you do only when a candidate gets you excited and enthusiastic. Citizenship is not a feeling, a high you get out of participating in a great event like the election of the first African-American President. It's the work you do, that you absolutely have to do, if you take your patriotism seriously, if you actually do care about the United States of America and what it stands for. What it stands for in fact is precisely the most basic of the immortal issues that underlie American politics, a fact that is peculiarly germane to American history because it was the first self-made country, the inspiration for so much of the revolution in rights that subsequently transformed the world. For the first time a country announced, at its very formation, that its whole reason for being was to guarantee these rights. Human rights. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and more. If you don't actually fight for your idea of what it stands for you have only yourself--ONLY YOURSELF--to blame if other peoples' views prevail and it turns out to stand for something else entirely.

     Many years ago, just a few years after we settled into Sag Harbor, the man who owned the house we were renting was trying to decide whether to run for Mayor, and he came to us to ask our advice, and would we help. The issue on that occasion was a bridge over the culvert that connects Otter Pond, at the entrance to the village, to the open bays beyond. The man who was mayor then wanted to rebuild it, and he wanted NYState money to do it with, which meant that it would have to be rebuilt to state standards, and thereby be widened and straightened. It would have made the entrance to the village look like an Interstate ramp. The village was upset over this idea. Sag Harbor is quite beautiful. The entrance to the village sets the tone for the whole place. The election turned out to hinge on the issue of that culvert. Lorraine and I went to strategy meetings, helped form a slate, wrote publicity, started letter-writing campaigns. I did all the radio announcements. And our man won; he took two-thirds of the vote. The  culvert was rebuilt in a much more modest way, the road wasn't straightened, the entrance to the village wasn't changed. It's still beautiful.

     Subsequently we formed a Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, I was its first Chairman, and I served for four years. Lorraine went on the Zoning Board and ultimately became its Chairwoman. I went up against the Mayor when he wanted to sell the Municipal Building, and build a new one on the outskirts of the village next to the new firehouse. We formed a second committe, an ad hoc committee to look into the feasibility of this. We met for six months, every other week. We called in some of the best historic preservation people in the country. I had a lot of help from architects who had homes in the village. They were also good citizens. Turns out the old Municipal Building, built in the 1840s, was a really interesting example of period construction and was basically fine, but it did need some work so we floated a bond issue to get the work done. I wrote copy for that, too, and we won again.

     I'm not bragging. You don't brag about doing your duty. But I am proud of that work. It was citizenship; it was a moral obligation. It was also thankless. People questioned our motives, attacked us in print. These were not paid positions. But that's politics. There's always opposition; it's always messy and often dirty. It's even more so on the national level. A president gets elected on the strength of his rhetorical skills and then his enthusiasts, who have drunk the Kool-Aid, are disappointed when the realities of American politics and the viciousness of the fight over what the country stands for sinks in, and he turns out not to be what they thought he was, but a centrist who, bless his level of intelligence, understands that the country is far more complicated than the Left wants to believe and has far more constituencies and interest groups than one can easily imagine. He has not had an easy time. It is not an easy job, and he may not be the perfect man for it.

     But he's infinitely preferable to the alternative.

     So use your brains, children (because children you are). Twelve years ago a similar attitude--oh who cares? both parties are corrupt, both have sold out to big business--put, what was it, thirty, forty thousand votes, in Florida in the Ralph Nader camp and gave the nation George W. Bush, two wars, one of them built completely of lies, both unfunded, a tripling of the national debt, and 6,000 more soldiers to mourn on Memorial Day. Not to mention the national embarrassment of having an idiot in the White House.

     Or don't use your brains, don't get involved, don't campaign, don't care, don't even vote. And what happens next will be YOUR FAULT, and the historians of the future will place the blame on YOU, the shallow generation, for abandoning YOUR republic to its ignoble fate.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


May 16, 2012:

     "Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?"

     So said the 1st Duke of Gloucester to Edward Gibbon when presented with another volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And now here is Robert Caro with the fourth volume of his life and times of Lyndon Johnson, and it runs to 714 pages. It will take weeks to read-- no, months; I have a busy life of my own to live, lots of work to do, which requires its own reading, and once in a while I like to go to the movies. Then there's the thinking. I am one of those people who sits down with a notebook and thinks, taking notes as things occur to me. Occasionally I have a genuine insight. A book like Caro's leaves no time for idle thought.

     I read Gibbon's Autobiography some years ago, but I never tackled the Decline and Fall. It seemed so much like a life's work, that once you had read it you would have to read about it, read Tacitus and Livy and Polybius, in other words, for background, read other books about the late Empire for the sake of comparison, then read J. G. A. Pocock's current three-volume project (so far) on the significance of Gibbon's book for Enlightenment studies, become a classics scholar, in short--well, definitely not in short--in order to appreciate it fully. I hesitate generally to read really long books. It may come as a shock to those who consider me well-read, but I have not read War and Peace, nor Paradise Lost, nor Joyce's Ulysses all the way through, nor Gravity's Rainbow, nor David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I did once read Leon Edel's five-volume biography of Henry James, but that was when I was studying Henry James in grad school. Generally I find really long books off-putting. Who has the time? How interested am I in the subject? And Caro's is more than a really long book. It is, or promises to be, five really long books, all featuring a history I lived through, and about a President I followed in the press at the time. How much more do I need to know?

     When Caro's third volume on Johnson came out ten years ago I was a judge of the non-fiction panel of the National Book Awards and I remember when it came in the house, along with the 400 other books that publishers had nominated that year for the non-fiction award, and I blanched. Four hundred books, and the most prestigious, the most watched, was Caro's, and it was 800? 900? pages long. To be a judge is a mostly honorary position; you do get paid, but very little, for going through 400 books. It's obvious you can't read them all. We didn't. You become expert at making decisions about books within a page or two. But you couldn't toss Caro aside that way. Caro was clearly writing an American epic, he was important, he was a genuine candidate for the award. One of the judges, I remember, complained that the book was too heavy to read in bed and wanted to reject it for that reason. I suspect that judge had other reasons as well, but there it was: too big, too clumsy; another damned, thick, square book.

     But it was also mesmerizing. I read half the book, which I really didn't have time to do, and learned more about the U. S. Senate and the exercise of power within the Senate than I could have learned in years of reading other histories. Caro is a great storyteller, and that's how he gets away with it. Even when you already know the outcome you go on reading, not quite breathlessly but nearly so. He gets to the heart of American politics in all its messy ingloriousness, and he draws you in, seduces you, makes you forget who you are and what else you have to do. In the end I saw that what he was doing was comparable to what Henry Adams had done in his history of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, which ran to nine volumes when he finished it; it was that grand, that powerful, that good. I cannot forget the first one hundred pages of Adams's book, which is a riveting physical description of the United States in 1800, the roads, or lack of them, the river transportation systems, the communications systems. It sounds dry, doesn't it? But in Adams's hands it's a masterpiece and is sometimes published as a separate book in its own right. So with Caro. His first book on Johnson spends an inordinate amount of time in the Texas hill country, where Johnson grew up, but it's extremely helpful to understanding Johnson. We all come out of a specific context. The hill country was Johnson's context. To understand him you have to understand the context.

     And it is American power politics that Caro is writing about. It's a subject we need to know much more fully. When I listen to my liberal friends, all of them idealists, all of them rather naive about politics and how it works and even more naive about the way the right thinks, and why, I wonder to myself, what would it take to educate them? If this sounds arrogant on my part, I can't help it. The five years I spent in local politics taught me a great deal; six months living in Oklahoma was a revelation. You don't know a swamp until you wade through it. If you want to drain it, you damn well better get your feet wet. It's not enough to sit around in a park near Wall Street and carry a sign. You get involved. Or else, like Caro, you wade into the archives, you read everything, every scribbled note, every memo; you talk to everybody you can find; and you come out of it knowing. If you want to understand American politics in depth, in other words, you have to get into it, or you have to read Caro.

     Caro had enemies on the National Book Award panel that year, but in the end all five of us voted for him. He's doing something truly unusual; he's writing the American epic of our time. Much of the best in America, and much of the worst, flows from Lyndon Johnson and his Presidency. You have to read Caro. He has the power to open eyes.