Books

Mr. Caro's Opus

Some observations on the fourth installment of The Years of Lyndon Johnson

(Courtesy of Vintage Press)
You've got no secrets from me this week. Unless you were one of the early birds who devoured the thing in vast, debilitating insomniac gobs after clawing the Amazon.com box open on publication day, you are now somewhere between page 300 and 500 of Robert A. Caro's The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV. (Spoiler alert: JFK doesn't make it.) And you're so engrossed that you're ignoring your significant other's timid semaphore signals—ah, can't beds can be as wide as the Atlantic sometimes?—to the general effect that he or she misses sex. Meals, too, and dammit, Joey. Isn't it your turn to walk Bowser? All that is more than understandable. The thing is as absorbing as a casket stuffed with brisket or a drowned Cadillac with unknown passengers. But as the roar of coverage that greets each new installment of Caro's epic recedes, I invite you to take wing alongside me like a seagull in search of interesting flotsam. 1. The Also-Ran. You know, folks, it wouldn't kill you...

Too Big to Imagine

Steve Coll's Private Empire tells you every last thing about ExxonMobil—except what to do about it.

(Flikr and AP Images)
E ven granting that testifying to congressional committees is not on the list of an oil CEO’s favorite things to do, when ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, known to his employees as “Iron Ass,” arrived at the Dirksen Senate Office building one morning in November 2005, he was in an especially reticent mood. Among other things, the Senate Energy Committee wanted to know about the corporation’s role in formulating policy with Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force. Raymond—who was chummy with Cheney and seven weeks away from his retirement, after 12 spectacularly profitable years at the helm first of Exxon and then Exxon-Mobil—did not think the committee needed to know. Thus when New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg asked Raymond whether he or any ExxonMobil executives participated in a 2001 meeting with Cheney, Raymond responded with a single syllable: “No.” The truth of that statement was something only a lawyer or a comedian could love, but it was consistent with how the company...

The Good Lyndon

Finally, Robert Caro lightens up on LBJ.

Courtesy AP Images
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro, Knopf, 736 pages, $35.00 “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” became a standard refrain at rallies against “Lyndon Johnson’s war” in Vietnam. The term “credibility gap,” if not the dissembling that led to it, originated with Johnson’s presidency. The Democratic Party seemed bound for permanent majority status after a landslide victory in 1964, but the polarization that stained Johnson’s last year in office spilled over into riots at its 1968 convention. Yet early in his sudden presidency, as he comforted a grieving nation and orchestrated the passage of historic measures to extend civil rights and battle poverty, Johnson appeared a good bet to have his likeness carved on Mount Rushmore. How would the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s monumental yet famously unforgiving biography of the 36th president account for Johnson’s high phase of triumph and inspiration? The charged anticipation of The Passage of...

Our Battle Scars

The Cause tells how liberals gave America the best of the 20th century. So why is it so hard to be one?

Google Images
I t’s taken me almost my entire life to come out of the closet as a liberal. In college at the end of the 1970s, I was no revolutionary, but I thought of myself as a radical. Working at “the independent socialist newspaper” In These Times in the 1980s, I tried on actual socialism, with some relief at having a name for what I thought I believed. Later I became a progressive, when that term came to stand for the Paul Wellstone-Howard Dean “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” In middle age, I’ve belatedly found solace and realism in calling myself a liberal. Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson’s The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama explains why. The book also makes clear why it took me so long to come to terms with my sober, modest, occasionally enervating political identity. Alterman and Mattson remind us how much liberalism has accomplished over the past 75 years: protecting workers; advancing civil and economic rights for black people...

What the F@%& Is Up With Stephen King?

When I was a kid, I was plagued by nightmares. One scary TV show, and boom, I'd wake up paralyzed with terror after a night in which animal-headed people tried to kill me all night, or Nazis pursued me through the streets of New York. After awhile, my little brothers knew to protectively chase me away from the television if something even faintly Hitchcockian came on; while they'd watch, I'd hunker down in my bedroom with Anne of Green Gables or, later, Tolstoy. My basic aversion to, or caution about, horror movies and scary books lasted well into my adulthood, until I learned how to tune down the fear and sleep through the night. But horror is a taste that I've never fully developed. All of which is to say that I haven't ever been a Stephen King reader or viewer—until yesterday, when he jumped on the Warren Buffett bandwagon with his Daily Beast blast, "Tax Me, For F@%&’s Sake!" Here's the gist: At a rally in Florida (to support collective bargaining and to express the socialist...

Vive la Mère

Is breastfeeding the new patriarchy? Elisabeth Badinter overstates her case—and overlooks what the French can really teach us about raising children.

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women By Elisabeth Badinter, Metropolitan Books, 224 pages, $25.00 Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting By Pamela Druckerman, Penguin Press, 304 pages, $25.95 Don’t smoke or drink while pregnant. Breast-feed for a year, if possible (it almost never is). Buy organic. Read to your little one every day. Don’t work full time unless you have to, line up the right schools, and if you can’t manage everything on this list, try not to wreck your kids’ fragile psyches with the guilt unleashed by your failure. The current advice to mothers makes child-rearing sound as fun as a sentence to Leavenworth. In the inevitable reaction, books attacking the escalating demands on mothers have become a cottage industry over the past ten years. Elisabeth Badinter, France’s preeminent woman intellectual, has responded to the rise of what she calls motherhood fundamentalism with a cri de coeur denouncing the...

The Queer List, Part 1: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool)
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, Pool) Del Martin, 87, center left, and Phyllis Lyon, 84, center right, are married by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom , center, in a special ceremony at City Hall in San Francisco, Monday, June 16, 2008. Also pictured are the couple's witnesses, Roberta Achtenberg, left, and Donna Hitchens. Lyon and Martin became the first officially married same sex couple after California's Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal. Once upon a time, we all knew their names. They shaped our world and our attitudes to ourselves. We had their books on our bookshelves, since there were very few books on the subject. Or we read about their travails in our subterranean newspapers— Gay Community News, The Washington Blade —which we received in the mail, in brown manila envelopes so that we weren't outed unintentionally to our neighbors. (Yes, seriously.) For the most part, the rest of the world ignored us. And so these figures who loomed so large in our lives were invisible...

The Case of the Vanishing Middle Class

Timothy Noah's The Great Divergence deftly explores the roots and resurgence of American inequality.

D id Timothy Noah catch a wave or anticipate one? In 2010, Noah, a longtime public-policy reporter now at The New Republic , wrote a ten-part series in Slate about American economic inequality. This was at a time when the most discussed issue in U.S. politics was how much government Tea Partiers aimed to slash and how quickly we must balance the budget—even in the face of the worst downturn in eight decades. Then, about a year after the Slate series, Occupy Wall Street and its proxies around the country seemingly awakened the nation to the vast disparity of wealth between the top 1 percent and the rest of us. This was just in time for The Great Divergence , Noah’s expanded book on the subject, to refer to the movement in an introduction. On the other hand, important ideas may lie dormant for ages, unacknowledged beyond a few specialists—and then, suddenly, they pervade “the air around us,” as an old professor of mine used to say. So it is with the issue of inequality, whose current...

The Madwoman in the Attic

Awhile back, I wasted an evening watching the 2011 film version of Jane Eyre , something that every former lit major should avoid. I loved the novel for its depiction of the vivid, rich inner life of a proud introvert who is passionately engaged in her life despite the fact that she knows it to be outwardly pathetic. The movie, unable to reproduce the character's inner liveliness, reduced the story to a melodramatic and utterly unlikely romance between a poor orphan and an arrogant nobleman. I had wasted marital chits on a movie that I hated as much as my wife knew she would. (Sports movies, here we come. Sigh.) Watching the movie sent me back to Jean Rhys’s astonishing Wide Sargasso Sea , which I remembered as an imagining of Bertha Rochester’s backstory, asking how, exactly, did the madwoman in the attic get there to begin with? I’ve lately been stripping my bookshelves, getting rid of novels I know I won’t read again, like Rhys’s earlier sharply drawn portraits of women I have no...

Rebuilding the World

Anthony Shadid's final book on the remaking of a house in Lebanon

Houghton Mifflin
House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East By Anthony Shadid, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, $26.00 T he story of making a house is one of the great and ancient archetypes of literature. You could say that it is a story as old as writing itself, since the image of a house, or bayt, underlies the B in the alphabet that the Phoenicians, inhabitants of what we now call Lebanon, invented. The word “bayt” also means family, or clan. The title of journalist Anthony Shadid’s memoir resonates with both meanings. An account of rebuilding an ancestral bayt in southern Lebanon, it is a diary of architectural adventure, a personal record of family history, a subtle examination of intricate regional politics, and an Odyssean journey home. Until a few weeks ago, House of Stone had a happy ending—a fulfillment, the house’s past, present, and future woven together in the form of traditional architecture. The new olive tree the author had planted was flourishing alongside...

Power Failure

Two new books on why nations gain and lose wealth and power miss the real story.

(Crown/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
A mericans have never felt at ease with empire, and with good reason. Running an empire often demands that we betray our republican ideals, at least for periods of time. It can also be costly in gold and in blood. So it was no surprise that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the American people leapt at the opportunity to lay down the imperial burdens we had carried since World War II. Politicians in both parties assured us that we could off-load our responsibilities onto a “global” market mechanism, overseen by a new institution created in 1995 called the World Trade Organization (WTO). Many if not most of us said, “Good riddance.” The September 11 attacks soon reminded us that it wasn’t possible simply to lay down our arms. What we failed to grasp then or since was that our Cold War–era hegemony had not been based solely on military force but also on our ability to manipulate a complex cross-border industrial system built with care over decades. America’s approach to empire after...

The Nuclear Politics of a Poem

A look at the poem that led the Israeli government to declare Gunter Grass a persona non grata.

(AP Photo/Fritz Reiss)
As you may have read in last Sunday's New York Times , the government of Israel has declared German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass persona non grata because of a poem. True, it's a pretty lousy poem: "What Must Be Said," it's called, and that "Must" tells old Grass hands that it's musty Gunter Gasbag time. But literary criticism has never been a big priority for Benjamin Netanyahu, who followed up his Interior Ministry's PNG announcement with his own condemnation of Grass: "Shameful." The big deal, you see, was that the 84-year-old author of The Tin Drum had denounced Israel for the first time in his l-o-o-n-g career as postwar Germany's obstreperously eloquent Jiminy Cricket. That's how folks used to talk about him, anyhow: "Much of what is active conscience in the Germany of Krupp and the Munich beer halls lies in this man's ribald keeping," critic George Steiner—not a man to shrug Hitler off—lauded Grass's Dog Years back in the 1960s. I must say I miss the days when paperback...

I’ve Got Some Assignments for Rachel Maddow

(AP Photo / Chris Pizzello)
Last week, the authorities here at the Prospect were calling me the substitute teacher. I got grumpy about that at first (all kinds of anti-woman and bad childhood associations). But I’ve decided to embrace it. Rachel Maddow, here’s your homework. When Leon Wieseltier wrote a snarky review trashing the snarky tone of Rachel Maddow’s Drift— and more important, suggesting that the nation had yet more wars to fight and that Maddow was foolish not to understand this—I pledged over on Alternet to pay retail, read the whole book, and comment. I’m delighted to say that the book came onto The New York Times bestseller list at No. 1 this past weekend, even though I allowed her publicist to tempt me into a free copy. So now I’ve read the book, and I’ve read half a dozen reviews of the book, from gushing to dismissive . I think I’ve now been through all the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross stages of reaction when a prominent person writes a book on a subject one knows well: Excitement, Pleasure at content...

Part Two: Charles Murray, the Long View

Coming Apart caps three decades of faux concern for the poor.

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The following is the second in a two-part series on Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 . For part one, please click here . In Coming Apart , Charles Murray begins by describing white America on the eve of the Kennedy assassination—a unified society where everyone watched the same three networks, few people had children out of wedlock or got divorced, neighbors didn’t need to lock their doors, and most folks felt themselves to be middle class. Murray wields the symbolic power of the rupture that ripped America on November 22, 1963, to suggest a parallel break in our economic lives. He contrasts a notional working-class neighborhood, “Fishtown,” with “Belmont,” home to the most affluent 5 percent. Since 1963, he reports, our coherent world has given way to cultural and economic fragmentation. America “is coming apart at the seams.” Murray baits his trap with descriptive material that reads like an American Prospect article, quoting Robert Reich’s “...

Charles Murray, the Long View

In 1984, the right's star public intellectual wrote the book that drove welfare reform. Coming Apart is an alibi for his own failed big idea.

(Courtesy of Crown Forum)
The following is the first in a two-part series on Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. F or a generation, the main story of working-class America has been the collapse of a living-wage economy due to such forces as globalization, weakened trade unions, and reduced government labor regulation. This trend has been a social catastrophe and, increasingly, a severe embarrassment to free-market ideology. Enter Charles Murray with a lifeline of alibis. His Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 has received worshipful treatment from conservative commentators, and for good reason. Faced with the awkward truth of widening inequality, the right usually adopts a strategy of strained denial. Murray offers an alternative. Instead of waltzing around the reality, he deplores the new schisms in America and then executes a deft pivot: Both the elite and the unwashed, he says, are getting what they deserve. The rich are getting richer because their...

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