The Gold Standard of Crazy

I have made a basic principle never to discuss politics with doctors or medicine with politicians. I have never had a discussion with an optometrist over a tax policy where they suggested it be replaced with whatever popular regressive idea is popular at the time. No family practitoner could control themselves before lashing out at the crooks in Washington and how Citizens United would solve our woes. This is why healthcare reform has so been difficult. It’s also why Dr. Ron Paul, obstetrician-gynecologist, has nearly driven me insane.

Ron Paul’s popularity might be completely unrelated to his childlike faith in the gold standard but is rather frustrating to anyone with a little history knowledge. How can a nation of debtors support a candidate who considers even the most marginal uptick inflation to be a crime against humanity? Didn’t the West and South spend most the late 19th Century to get just a bit of silver in the monetary system to inflate farm prices just a little? Where is William Jennings Bryan? Dead, you say? At a time like this!?!? In H.W. Brands fascinating book American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865-1900 there’s a clue why the gold standard narrative has caught on even if the logic behind it is contradictory to many voters interest.

Between the years 1894-1896, William Harvey’s Coin’s Financial School sold a million copies. The story is rather simple, a series of lectures by a man name Coin about the value of silver and bimetallism. Many critics try to outsmart the wily lad on both matters great and small but he can easily answer all their questions with his expertise.  Now the popularity of such a work in a period leading up to Bryan’s great crusade is not surprising.  The way, however, Harvey frames the argument as a bunch of robbers destroyed the well-established principle of silver money to help further the interest of London banks. The message of why bimetallism would help farmers goes not toward inflation but a very basic concept: this is how are ancestors did it. Coin extols how long silver was accepted currency in the past only for a bunch of crooks in Congress during 1870s took away our birthright. People who grew up in “the days of Washington and Jefferson and our revolutionary forefathers, who had a hatred of England and an intimate knowledge of her designs on this country” (Brands, 499) knew better than to trust a gold standard. Our founding fathers gave us silver money! How DARE a new generation of legislatures take it away from us! Economics is important but the value of tradition is more- like gold to silver.

This is not very far away about Ron Paul’s pitch that the gold standard was the accepted theory for 5,000 years and we should bow to their expertise. When Abraham Lincoln called himself a conservative, it’s not because he wasn’t trying to lead the country down a radical path (very slowly of course, Lincoln was a moderate on the slavery issue) but Americans prefer the idea that traditional values are the best and while trying something new, we’re trying something new in an old way. What works in the past will the future goes to the heart of our pattern recognition ability and we prefer old trustworthy medicine to any new stuff. So if you’re trying to anything progressive, you should probably throw the bedsheet of tradition and pretend it’s the ghost of the past trying to lead us into a happy future. Any call for the gold standard is not based in any economic or political logic but that the idea is very old and therefore trustworthy. The fact slavery and blood-letting are also ancient concepts does not seem to bother them. The Silverites hit on a popular narrative older than their cause to sell their policy, only to see it to live much longer than any of their ideas. And thus Ron Paul is using the same argument that people who would have hate his guts.

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Could time-traveling LBJ save us?

Robert Caro released his book in the middle of a blog kaffufle (not that it would be possible to release in any different period) Ezra Klein wrote a New Yorker article describing a cutting edge political science paper arguing that there is no such thing as the bully pulpit effect. That presidents can’t change their popularity ratings by big speeches, so expecting, say a current presidential fellow could make a couple of speeches to change policy, is hopelessly naïve. I would write a review of the article but I’m too lazy to look it up again (What? I ain’t getting paid for this) but hopefully a look at a recent post on TNR about the LBJ and the Great Man theory of history could explain some of my problems.

Obviously his recent article still  on his mind, Ezra Klein brought up a section in Passage of Power that shows the ineffectiveness of the bully pulpit. The blog post mangles the bully pulpit with the Great Man theory for no particular purpose (it even starts with a strawman though that’s probably because Ezra Klein would rather not call anyone out for holding an opinion like that).  While the bully pulpit may not push legislation through an insurgent Congress, the GMT merely holds one man can reach his goals through some sort of method and that he’ll always be able to find that method. LBJ didn’t have to make speeches, just get things done. Johnson did use multiple methods to get bills through the Senate, which Caro describes in detail. LBJ traded with Senators, he created rhetorical flourishes to force Senators to pick sides (“Will the Party of Lincoln reject this bill?”), and he used old connections to push for favors. With the mingling of different terms, it might advantageous to explain what the GMT actually extols.

The question, to keep in Passage of Powers terms, is LBJ a man prepared by psychology and circumstance to use the code of the Senate: institutional rules older than him to his advantage- did he have a hammer when the problem was a nail? Or was he someone who when faced with a situation will always find a solution- did he have a nail and started looking for a hammer?  The later is the Great Man theory but the former can be both true and a rejection of the theory. This difference is confusing a couple talking heads.

For example, Alex MacGillis goes too far in his column. While LBJ might just be purely a product of circumstance, who faced with today’s current political environment would fail (as Ezra Klein seems to be arguing here ) That doesn’t mean someone today couldn’t solve our current institutional problems. Caro’s modern political genius who is also just purely a product of circumstance, who would have been unable to get a Civil Rights bill pass a Southern Senator with an army and a kind word back in the ‘60s, could change the Senate that would gain MacGillis’ approval. When Klein says, “the idea that an LBJ could simply come along and bring Congress to heel is a wishful anachronism. The Senate doesn’t need a great man. It needs better rules.” It sounds like Klein believes the Senate rules were set in stone by unknown hands, found by the pilgrims when they landed on Plymouth Rock or the Fates wrote them in-between cutting threads. But it is men who make the rules and therefore men who can change them. A “political genius” is therefore someone who can change the rules in these circumstances.

The problem in these specific circumstances that MacGillis and Klein are alluding to is that those trying to draw lessons from Passage of Power are far more likely to pull inconsequential facts for politicians to follow.  The Johnson treatment is probably not going to get any tax increases passed Tea-partiers. As always, a book’s practical value is only what useful information the reader can find. Sometimes it’s wrong to go searching for hobbyhorses and biases just because they happen to be on your mind. As Georg Lichtenberg said, “ a book is a mirror: If an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.” Hopefully with Passage of Power you shall find the inspirational apostle in yourself to get something novel with it.

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LBJ and the Penultimate Crusade

There is a danger continuing an old work. Instead of innovation, there’s a chance for stagnation where the work becomes too self-referential, too concerned about the work’s nebulous tradition than creating something new. The last Indiana Jones film worried too much at winking at the audience with references to the original trilogy, keeping themes from the series that were only recognizable in retrospect. When Lucas and Spielberg made the original trilogy, they just wanted to make some two-fisted tales of adventures like the Old Republic serials. With Kingdom of the Skulls, they suddenly had to copy 1950s sci-fi flicks on the understanding that Indiana Jones had to reflect the B-movies of the time. Just like it’s better to be the prophet than the student, since the prophet can break the rules he sets while the student must be constrained by them, returning to a well-established series constricts new directions the artist can go. So when Robert Caro follows up on the phenomenal Master of the Senate with Passage of Power, there are dangers of his being meticulous enough in his research that it takes a decade to write a book- and having ideas tied down thirty years back when he started his project.

Passage of Power is the fourth volume in a supposed five book series “The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson.” It covers LBJ from his attempts to get the presidential nod in 1960 to his first State of the Union Address, seven weeks after John Kennedy’s assassination.  After writing wonderful biographical pieces on the Kennedy brothers and the political fights that followed before the convention. Caro quickly goes from the Presidential campaign to Johnson as Vice-President. They are low times for LBJ. After promising friends (and the press) “that power follows the man,” Johnson stripped of any sort of authority by Kennedy administration that little need of the Texan after he help captured the state for them in the election. He is forgotten and given not even busy work. He loses the respect of those in Washington and becomes the butt of jokes. His very spirit is broken. In the same way, it’s a low point for the book as a whole. Robert Caro is above all a student of power and while he shows all the indignities a President can force on his Vice, these pages lack the same energy that carried Master of the Senate from beginning to end. Caro’s writing is wonderful as ever yet he loses his rhythm. Throughout the series, there are refrains like a great hymn, returning to the same ideas, quotes, and descriptions to remind the reader the permanent factors of Johnson’s life. His fear of an early death, his father’s failures, his meanness to staffers are repeated for a purpose. Alas, in the early parts of Passage Caro loses the meter. He makes references his other books more than ever in this volume as though new episodes are only interesting by how they color older issues. Caro finds a need to slog through this period more out of thoroughness more than for any storytelling purposes- Johnson’s time as VP is unlikely be used to explain any of his future actions. The man at the pipe organ has lost track and those in the pews must worry if the old man will hit the right keys again. Thankfully Caro finds the beat again is when LBJ finally gets the reigns in Dallas. November 22, 1963 is covered in all its gore and sadness mostly from the Vice-President’s perspective. What follows is the nation’s period of mourning- and LBJ quiet maneuvers that would end with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and a major tax cuts- the largest pieces of Kennedy’s domestic agenda, which to that point been stagnating in committee.

The last section of the book is not a story of the cultural influences on LBJ. It does not contain more than the most basic psychological analysis of the President. It certainly does contain any history of different ideological differences between liberal and conservative thought. It is a study of how a man who understand how power and influence works can use a position of strength to change things. LBJ understood how the Senate worked. He knew when to compromise and when to capitulate. He also knows when to go for the jugular and only accept total victory. Caro since the time he wrote The Power Broker is an expert at following these maneuverings. And in his descriptions there is brilliance. Something dreary sounding as counting votes- knowing how Senators will vote on a proposition- becomes moments of high drama. That Johnsons is doing it for good causes. For THE good cause of the 1960s make the subject all the more compelling. LBJ went against his great friend Dick Russell over Civil Rights. He knew all the methods his mentor would use- because he had been taught to use them against the sort of law he was now pushing. Johnson help the Civil Rights Act in the House so he could push the rest of his legislative agenda through. After this was accomplished, he turned a technical issues being used to hold up the bill into a moral issue forcing Republicans to pick sides while offering pork-barrel projects to those sitting on the fence. The same methods worked in the Senate as they overcame a filibuster to pass the law. The Kennedy agenda, so close to being completely destroyed had been passed in seven weeks by a man considered a joke.

Given a subject worth his time and expertise, Caro delivers what his fans expect. The only question remaining if he can keep it up for one more volume. And hey, when you go in expecting a fridge nuking and a space between spaces, having hope is a wonderful feeling even with the knowledge where Johnson’s demons will take the country- and Robert Caro.

In Part II, I will look at how LBJ is being applied to current circumstances.

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The Man from Nebraska

When in 1896 William Jennings Bryan made his Cross of Gold speech, there had been no moment like it at a political convention in American history. It should have been the pinnacle of his career, capping a long time in public service and setting course for a future he would only see part of. His campaign that fall should have been a swan song, memorable for a progressive Mosses losing to William McKinley. A sort of liberal Goldwater whose lost will be a guide to future leaders like Woodrow Wilson. Instead Bryan would futility fight the Republicans during the time between of the Bourbon Democrats to the roots of the New Deal Coalition. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (2006) by Michael Kazin tells the sadder story about the man who ran for president three times and lost. Who is best remembered arguing against evolution and science in the Scopes Monkey Trial and thus became an early symbol for Evangelical ignorance. The greatest blowhard who ever crossed America from sea to sea and a man who deserves to be remembered better than just for those failings.

Bryan is just one, but possibly the most famous, link between the Jefferson-Jackson Democratic Party to the “Hamilton methods for Jefferson goals” party of Wilson-FDR. When technocrats today suggest admiration for the Whig Party, they forget the federal program of national roads, tariffs, and private banking benefited mostly the rich manufacturing classes of the 19th Century. When Bryan said, “There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them” he’s arguing against trickle down economics almost a century before Laffer drew his napkin curve. More importantly, Bryan is suggesting new-fangled legislative techniques could help save an old class of people and their traditional ways. The yeomen Jefferson romanticizes in his writings suffered throughout the late 19th Century. They toiled under the sun often against useless soil, watch their children run off to the city, see the profit margin for crops boil down to nothing, get push around by the railroads and corporate farmers, feared African-Americans and pray loudly to God. Bryan stood up and offered them temporal salvation. The Republicans turned out to be worthy heirs to the Whigs in general philosophy if not exact policy.

A Godly Hero explains the religious, economic, and social situation of the time as well as can be expected in a one-volume biography. Kazin shows a deep understanding of the different threads of historical circumstance of Bryan’s era. But he cannot weave these threads into a tapestry. The best passages are like the one on the role of oratory in public life, where the best speakers could make a living going town to town to preach or lecture. Or how Bryan’s stance against evolution was more moderate than given he’s given credit (he would allow the teaching of evolution alongside creationism) and came more from a worry about what Darwinism would do to children morally (this at a time when Social Darwinism was entwined with the science) making them question the underpinnings of Christianity and thus give up on morality. I would guess Bryan wasn’t much of Nietzsche reader but he had the same worry of nihilists even if he didn’t used the word. Yet these elements never seem to explain Bryan’s vast influence. The writer gingerly comments on those who write letters to the Great Commoner, never reading a satisfactory conclusion on what made a person a likely fervent supporter.  Bryan’s dominance of a political party while only having been elected to one public office in his life (a single term in the House of Representatives) is unique in American history and Kazin doesn’t gives an explanation for this odd influence.

This isn’t a day-to-day life of the man or his personal makeup. There’s the nominal description of his family and wife (though not much on how Bryan behaved as a father) expected from a biography but this is more on his life on the road. The book is certainly not a psychological biography unsurprisingly as no one sees as Bryan as a particularly complicated personality. Unfortunately then for what the book is, Kazin cannot explain the political environment of Bryan. When he explains Bryan helped Wilson’s domestic agenda, it’s the first hint that Bryan had any influence over anyone in Congress besides a couple allies mentioned earlier nor does it explained how Bryan’s influence worked. It did not have enough coverage on his influence on party elites compare to the rank and file. Was it entirely through persuasion, the unspoken threat of Bryan’s bully pulpit, or did Bryan ever fall to the level of horse-trading? Like it argues about Bryan, the societal understandings of the book do not overlap with an understanding of institutions. This might be more of a projection of the author on his subject. Bryan had a wildly successful organization (Kazin credits Bryan’s brother Charles on running this group) that he could count on and understood the process well enough to control two other Democratic Conventions after his magnificent rise in 1896.

Despite these failings, the book serves its purpose of as an introduction to a wrongly forgotten political figure. Kazin while not a fan of Bryan, especially of his passive support for the Jim Crow element of Democratic Party, gives a fair trial for the man.  There’s a slight taste of how Bryan influence a few politicians, artists, and regular people and how they viewed him. Kazin shows his fluency in the literature as can be expected from a prestigious academic and isn’t in the business of trying to create a radically new picture for the Great Commoner. Even as a sort of political dead-end, there’s much to offer to understand about William Jennings Bryan. As it is in the losses that shapes a party, when a new identity that must form to go back to the business of winning elections. Bryan got three chances to do that, which is much more than a lot of pols ever got.

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The Media in the Desert

If there’s a great appetite for politicos to know how the sausage is made there is also a taste to know how the sausage is made to know how the sausage is made. The modern television era of electioneering had a created the professional press pool. The reporters that follow the candidates around the country, the columnist who gives odds for the horse races, and the big-time writer who swoops in to write a cover story before disappearing into the night have all shaped the American scene in a way de Tocqueville could predict. The professional outsider publication Rolling Stone has given looks at both the press and candidates in their coverage. There’s the understanding how the mainstream media is as much as part of the establishment as the candidates they’re covering. And only something like Rolling Stone, on the edge of it, can both point it out and still be able to interview those involved. But the movement of coverage found in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 and Timothy Crouse’s Boys on the Bus to David Foster Wallace coverage of the McCain 2000 campaign does not show changes in how the media works as much as Rolling Stone’s changing position in the media hierarchy.

Timothy Crouse’s Boys on the Bus is the best of the lot so far in my campaign reading. Well-written if not as vivid as Thompson’s writing, Crouse insight into the news biz is still pertinent to today’s world and far more understandable than Making’s proto-McLuhan babble. Crouse’s state of the media is still the most apt description of the industry even at the dawn of twitter. The same problems the press face now are well recognized by Crouse’s interview subjects. As Brit Hume of all people in 1972 points out, “What they pass off as objectivity is just a mindless kind of neutrality.” A complaint commonly echoed against today’s media for equivocating Democrats with Tea-Partiers. Hell, Crouse quotes a New Yorker article that describes David Foster Wallace, “…the reporter’s basic question- what is the story what the point- was resolved autobiographically: story and point were whatever happened to impinge on the author’s sensibility.”  Wallace unsurprisingly shares more in common with Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer writing on the trail than Thompson or Crouse.

The most callous line of the American President, otherwise an insipid look of the Presidency until Aaron Sorkin turned it in a TV show, comes after idealistic presidential aide Michael J. Fox says of the public, “they want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”  President Michael Douglas (These characters might have names. You can look it up.) channeling Gordon Greco once more replies, “They drink the sand because they don’t know any better.”  In “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shurb” David Foster Wallace drinks enough sand to cry glass.

Wallace, a touchstone in the modern literary world, well recognized as a genius, comes off like the guy who can’t name both candidates in a Presidential campaign. Just look at how McCain dealing with a man with schizophrenia impresses the author:

Which McCain, incredibly, sees—the man’s humanity, the seriousness of these issues to him—and says yes, he will, he’ll promise to look into it, and yes he’ll put this promise in writing, although he “believe[s] [they] have a difference of opinion about this mind-control machine,” and in sum he defuses the insane man and treats him respectfully without patronizing him or pretending to be schizophrenic too, and does it all so quickly and gracefully and with such basic decency that if it was some sort of act then McCain is the very devil himself.

The problem here is that Wallace apparently never seen a politician deal with a voter in his life. Newt Gingrich, well recognized to be one the meanest asshole to ever walk the Republican Presidency trail, handles people screaming in his face with grace and charm. When a politician makes it to the level of presidential politics they know how to talk to a voter. No matter how crazy the candidate might seem on policy or nasty during a debate, he will not mock an actual insane man when they come face-to-face. Anyone that tone deaf is weeded out long before they have enough of a base to take a shot for the big prize. If a candidate starts to sniping voters it means the man is fully cooked and is about make an exit, that’s how Thompson knew Muskie was about to take a wash in 1972.

For another example, Wallace might not have written his experiences with the camera crew if he had a firmer grip on how the media works. The idea that the blue collars secretly know the inner-workings of the system better than the stuffed shirts might hit the ear of a writer or longtime viewer of Upstairs, Downstairs but comes off as counterfeit in real life. It is an example of Wallace’s inexperience that he is unable to make those statements in his own voice. The writers wandering with McCain may have understood this well enough but Wallace defines his time on the campaign trail by separating himself from the rest of the crowd.

When Wallace goes on about leadership, he points out that Kennedy was the last “true” leader of President.  “JFK had that special leader-type magic, and when he said things like “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” nobody rolled their eyes or saw it as just a clever line.” Except that’s bullshit. Of course someone rolled their eyes, someone made a snarky line. Kennedy barely won the Presidency and a lot thought his daddy bought the election for him. Even those on the left might have giggled. To split statesmen from salesmen is more an allowance of time as we forget the negative traits of the salesmen. Don’t forget what Noah Cross said in Chinatown, “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” And that’s what Wallace really lacked compared to Crouse or Thompson- a sense of the political scene. Rolling Stone didn’t care. They got a big-time novelist write a fluid piece on a campaign.  Maybe even thought they were following the “tradition” of in-your-face political coverage they’re known for. But they have nothing new to add. They’re have no tricks, nothing more to say after 30 years.  A magazine, a newspaper, a news show have to go on even if they have nothing to add. And that’s the problem. That’s why all the trash gets published That’s why the media is hell. There’s no water so they must drink the sand.

P.S. Recent accusations that Wallace played fast and loose with the facts makes his article all the more odder. The Rolling Stone is willing to put the literary over the factual but for a purpose. When Thompson throws a sharp elbow, it serves a goal. Muskie is out of the election. McGovern is selling out. Wallace does it for atmosphere. He really doesn’t have much to say about or to the men he meets on the bus. They’re props for the larger doings going on in his mind. Wallace doesn’t do this in other non-fictional writings; just look at “Roger Federer as a Religious Experience.” But there’s something about the campaign trail if you can’t follow the action you start talking about yourself.

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I Probably Should Relate Mad Men to This, But I’ve Never Watch the Show

I’m going to be reviewing a bunch of campaign books and such on the overcoming weeks to get a better perspective on presidential politics. Enjoy! Or not!

In Back to the Future, the 1950s Doc Brown quickly comes to terms about the television culture that future boy Marty McFly describes. After rebuffing the very idea Ronald Reagan could be elected president only a day before, Doc takes a look at a video camera and says, “No wonder your president has to be an actor. He’s gotta look good on television.” The same sentiment was expressed by Nixon staffer William Gavin against the California governor back in 1968, “reagan manages to appeal to both [generations] at the same time; he’s the tv candidate who instinctively reaches the aural-tactile; he speaks with a linear logic, and his quick simplicisms appeal to children old and young.” [all mistakes his] The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinnis and Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary The War Room gives an inside look on the political specialists who get men elected in the television age.

Selling is short with only 180 pages of large print narrative alongside 70 pages of insider memos and political strategies. Like the documentary-makers, McGinniss only got a limited view into the world of political strategy. Will Durant laments in Heroes of History that only Aristotle’s technical treaties remain instead of his popular works making it difficult to get a sense of over-arching ideals. The same is missed from these studies. What drives these politicos is missing, maybe leaving enough raw material for the reader to figure out what is going on. Selling is slightly better with some predictions about the future of television in politics but all the men he watches remain ciphers. Instead, the focus is on the day-to-day workings (though not every day which would have been quite tedious). The artists are slightly in awe of these new Machiavellians, even when their actual maneuverings aren’t that impressive.  An example of Clinton’s main strategist James Carville’s political acuteness is arguing with a news producer if they should do a story on Bush printing bumper stickers out of the country (Carville loses this argument.)  These are exciting only so far is how the meat is made but says little why the meat must be made in this way. Sausage-makers might not be notorious philosophers but asking for perspective wouldn’t have hurt. Instead there are the old tricks pretending to be new.

The War Room starts with an old time campaign song and a dog walking around with a sign tied to him before entering Clinton’s war room. Watch out, this ain’t your daddy’s campaign! That might be shocking for the cynics who worked for Nixon, Jim Sage, “We’re moving into a period where a man is going to be merchandised on television more and more. It upsets you and me, maybe, but we’ve not typical Americans. The public sits home and watches Gunsmoke and when they’re fed this pap about Nixon they think they’re getting something worthwhile.” For the most part, there’s not much different running a presidential campaign in the late 1960s than the early 1990s.  Unsurprising really, thirty years rarely make much a difference unless it’s a war in Germany. But reporters have a natural inclination to make every event out to be novel. Perhaps out of ignorance but more likely to make their story more important. Everyone would rather read and write (and film) about the dawn of a new era instead of the middle of an era. Though there are changes that show the professionalization of image-makers might play an unhappy role on how the public view candidates and campaigns.

No matter the idiosyncrasies of Richard Nixon, his ad-men were loyal to him. His ideas and beliefs made him endearing to him. “A candidate can’t be too smooth,” Artie Kopelman puts it. “There have to be some rough edges into the nooks and crannies. If a communications effort is too smooth it becomes just that- a communications effort on the candidate’s behalf rather than a projection of the candidate himself.” They turned him into a television candidate. By the time the politicos got to Clinton, rough edges had to be buffed out not displayed.

Today there’s an entire industry that deals only with the candidate’s image. They’re professionals as finding the best way to make smiles sizzle on TV and to ensure every zinger lands without offending. So professional are these new men the candidate is immaterial. While the war room eats breakfast, Bill Clinton might as will be Banquo’s ghost. He can’t even get them to quiet down quickly when he’s on a phone, like they’re a bunch of toddlers with a permissive mom.  Clinton’s men were interested in left-leaning policies not the candidate. Clinton was merely a fellow who could win in the age of cable news. George Stephanopoulos little speech at the end to the political troops about what a Clinton administration will mean is memorable for how little they wanted. Making health care a little cheaper and putting a few extra dollars in the pockets of voters. They’re not dreamers or visionaries but men and women worrying about the details.  You hire the guy because they know which tie pops under the bright lights, not because they want to lead America into a new era. That’s useful running a campaign which bombards and gets bombarded a million different ways a day. But someone has to be thinking big picture.

Near the end, when tallying up how far Clinton is up in voting George (I’m not going to write his last name again if I can help it) looks briefly into the camera. A nice reminder of how much of this was playing to the camera. The reporters behind these works were merely visitors to this world and more importantly were known to be visitors. The politicos could whet their appetites, show off how smart they are, and still get the work done without giving away too many company secrets. The strategy paid handsome dividends as getting knock out of the political no longer means retirement. James Carville is on CNN and George is on Good Morning America. Their showmanship gives them easy entry into the media and pundit world. The ad men Nixon released into the body politic has spread to general culture to spin why bland news items are the most important events in the history of humanity since the invention of the steamship. But perhaps we can Tricky Dick wiggle off the hook on this one; he so needed help and someone was going to figure out the talking picture box sooner or later.

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Red Plenty

With the recent publishing of The Lifespan of a Fact and Mike Daisey fiasco, American is facing the start of a national debate about the value of facts against fiction. What counts as a lie? What is non-fiction? How creative can an essayist be? Or maybe it’s just a coincidence that will be quickly forgotten. Whatever. I’m not psychic. Stop bugging me. Anyway, a less scandalous entry into this debate is Red Plenty by Francis Spufford which tells the story Soviet central planning in the Khurschev era through a series of short stories. It’s fiction with endnotes, fairytales with analysis, and if it was published a while back Daisey and D’Agata might have been able to save themselves the embarrassment of looking like semantic liars.

The stories themselves are satisfying but would not work without the historical context that Spufford’s research brings. You would not publish any of them alone in a magazine. They’re sharp reflections of the humanity that the technocrats could not measure and rarely in historical fiction do characters less argue ideas as much as live them. Characters are either historical figures, fictional creations, or a hybrid where a fictional character takes the place of real person where they follow the career trajectory but with their own personality, foibles, etc.

Besides Khrushchev’s perspective at the beginning and end of the book, the point of view of these stories are from the low-level technocrats, party flunkies, and economists who must actualize the dreams of their leader of a perfect rational economy that could produce at levels unimaginable in capitalist societies. The adventures of a tolach, a sort of salesperson in a society where the difficulty is to attract suppliers not consumers are fascinating. What better way to explain to explain the negative incentives created by a planned economy than a story about factory management who sabotage their own machines? The regular Soviet citizen appears rarely though they seem to understand the mechanism of the state as well as the professionals. When one woman wants drugs while giving birth, she claims to be the wife of a high party official. Incentives in Communism twist and turn a person even more so than anything Marx imagined in Capitalism.

The limitations to Spufford’s approach are rather obvious. The actual shape of the planned economy, its ideological origins, and the day-to-day workings of the system can only appear as flashes; if you want to understand how the Soviet economy produced or how the theoreticians planned a new economy you’ll have to read another book (works Spufford’s commonly references in bibliography would seem to be a reasonable point to start). He readily admits that his stories to tend to be pat and self-contain in ways life never is and thus never reflected in real history. To get a message across, fiction is allowed to do things history could do with the same message which is not an insult to either field. Strong messages are maybe more persuasive but they lack the trustworthiness of the weak message of history. It shouldn’t be surprising ever so often writers trying to marry the two though it could lead to all sorts of trouble.

The non-fiction writer must find both the facts and the poetry in those facts. She cannot create a fact just to make their argument easier or more aesthetically pleasing. There’s obvious value when someone says what they’re writing are about true events (otherwise they wouldn’t bother to claim so). Fiction naturally borrows from history and the news. There is no shame to use real life events as the basis of a novel or short story. Because it turns out that when the marriage fails, people get real angry and the second causality after your integrity is your message.

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