Wednesday, February 21, 2024

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Theodore H. White's The Making of the President series:
Graduating summa cum laude from Harvard in 1938, Theodore H. White received a fellowship which allowed him to travel to China, where he became correspondent for Time Magazine and then, a few years later, chief of Time’s China bureau. Toward the end of the war, he attended a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party where, in an “unheated, draft-leaking, mud-chinked assembly hall,” he met Mao Tse-tung and knew immediately “who was master, always had been master, always would be master.” Mao had not been elected by the Communist Party; he had chosen himself, but there “was no doubt in l944…that authority was his alone” and “that succession of leadership would pass at his will to whomever he chose.”

Years later, in The Making of the President 1960, White showed how different things were here. Power was not held by one man or one party; power was transferred by frequent and regular elections, and “no people has succeeded at it better, or over a longer period of time, than the Americans.” John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon by a mere 112,000 votes out of nearly 69 million votes cast, but even before the vote had been counted, White knew with complete certainty that, “Good or bad, whatever the decision, America will accept the decision - and cut down any man who goes against it, even though for millions the decision runs contrary to their own votes. The general vote is an expression of national will, the only substitute for violence and blood. Its verdict is to be defended as one defends civilization itself.”

Beginning with the election of 1960, in which he reports how John F. Kennedy was elected, to the election of l980, in which he reports how Jimmy Carter was defeated, Theodore White wrote about every Presidential campaign. No one, before or since, has written about American politics with as much breadth of coverage or depth of understanding. For White, the question was more than the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates; it was the changes that were taking place in the country. He did not just write about the Black vote for Kennedy, or the White vote for Nixon; he wrote about the movement of the Black population from the South to the North, and what that meant for the two races in the nation’s major cities. He had an eye for the small detail that is too often overlooked, and the intellectual honesty to write about what he saw. Watching a crowd of working class voters who had come out for George Wallace in the campaign of l968, he was reminded of the soldiers he had seen in the Second World War, not the soldiers who believed in what they were doing, but the soldiers who had hated their generals and were, more than willing, eager, to kill.

The Making of the President 1960 had an effect on everyone who read it, and gave at least one person the idea that he might one day run for President himself. In the hospital recovering from hepatitis in the fall of 1962, George McGovern read it and thought that “the book, written in a romantic style, made a more serious impression than the later books written by the same author, which McGovern felt ‘missed the story.’ Yet the first story of how a Presidency was won seemed reasonable and simple.” McGovern was on to something. The Making of the President 1960 does read like a romance; mainly, perhaps, because it is written about John F. Kennedy, but also because of how well it is written. Not many writers could describe, the way Theodore White does, what it was like in Hyannisport the day John F. Kennedy waited for the election returns:
Now in November, the New England hardwoods - oak, elm and maple - had given up their color with their leaves, and the scrub pines of the Cape were beginning to show branch tips wind-bored and hurricane-scorched to a rust brown. A slight offshore breeze blew off the surf less waters; the dune grass and the feather-gray tufts of beach rushes bent gently to the breeze. A single gull wheeled over the house and the beach most of the morning, dipping toward the water when a glint suggested food. The sky was pure, the weather still a comfortable few degrees above freezing; the scudding white clouds were to break up by evening as the breeze freshened.
The first chapter of The Making of the President is about what happened on election day. White then goes back to the beginning, to show how it all came about, how much depended on planning and calculation, and how much on things no one could have anticipated, on chance. Kennedy was forty-three years old. No one that young had ever been elected President. And he was Catholic He was, in the judgement of the power brokers of the Democratic Party, unelectable. He had to prove them wrong, and the only way to do that was to win in the primaries. The first was Wisconsin, where he would have to go up against Hubert Humphrey, a liberal’s liberal, from neighboring Minnesota.

A comparison White draws between Humphrey and Kennedy tells much of the story. When Humphrey finished talking, “there were no mysteries left; nor was he a mystery either. He was just like his listeners. There was no distance, no separation of intrigue, none of the majesty that must surround a king.” He was “just like everyone else.” Kennedy, on the other hand, presented himself, “as a young Lochinvar running against the big bosses…as a man summoning all of his listeners to consider the nature of the Presidency: that the Presidency is the key office in American life…and that therefore they, who in Wisconsin were privileged to have first voice in this selection, should take it as seriously as did he.”

Kennedy won in Wisconsin, but it was close, which meant that he would have to go through all of the remaining primaries - West Virginia, Maryland, Indiana, and Oregon - and win them all. This, as it turned out, was the best thing that could have happened. Had the result in Wisconsin not been as close as it had, Humphrey would probably not have run in West Virginia, and Kennedy, unopposed in a state 95% Protestant, would have not been able to demonstrate his ability to win Protestant votes. But Humphrey ran, and Kennedy was able to deal with the religious question in what White thought the “finest TV broadcast I have ever heard any political candidate make.”

Kennedy explained that “when any man stands on the steps of the Capitol and takes the oath of office of the President, he is swearing to support the separation of Church and State; he puts one hand on the Bible and raises the other hand to God as he takes the oath. And if he breaks his oath, he is not only committing a crime against the Constitution, for which the Congress can impeach him - and should impeach him - but he is committing a sin against God.”

Kennedy won the West Virginia primary, and, with that eye for the small detail that tells the larger story, White reports that the morning after the primary, Humphrey woke up to find that his campaign bus had been ticketed for illegal parking.

White learned early that Kennedy not only “saw politics differently from other men,” but that it was “the range, the extent, the depth and detail, of information and observation that dazzled, then overwhelmed, the listener.” Sitting with Kennedy on his plane, someone mentioned that a bookstore in a town they had just visited had sold out all their copies of Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. Kennedy began to talk about books. He corrected a quotation about something Lincoln had said, then “quoted with amusement” a passage from Churchill’s biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, “In his youth he prized money more than passion, in his age money more than fame.” He asked the others if they had read what he had just finished, Theodore Roosevelt’s report on the funeral of Edward VII. “From Marlborough and the writing of history to the personality of Adlai Stevenson and the quality of American intellectuals. Then to a long, tender and perceptive disquisition on the Irish and the Jews in American life. From that to the American Negro and what their problems were - and their search for leadership.”

The Democratic Convention was held in Los Angeles. White notes that four years earlier, in l956, the flight from New York had taken between nine and eleven hours, but now, in l960, only five. “The continent had been cut in half.” The size of the audience for Kennedy’s acceptance speech had also changed. A hundred million Americans watched it on television. What they heard was the announcement of something new in American politics, a New Frontier, “not a set of promises - it is a set of challenges. It sums up, not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not their pocketbook - it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security….” Among those watching on television was Richard Nixon, who “thought it a poor performance, way over people’s head, too fast. He could take this man on TV - so he felt.”

Of all the changes that had taken place in America, television may have been the most important. In l950, only 11% of American homes had a television set; now, in l960, 88% had one. When Nixon and Kennedy agreed to a series of four televised debates, American politics was changed forever. The most famous debates in American political history, before the age of television, were the Lincoln-Douglas debates in l858. Each debate lasted three hours. The first speaker spoke for one hour, the second speaker an hour and a half, and then the first speaker had half hour to reply. When Kennedy and Nixon debated, each had eight minutes for an opening statement and two and a half minutes to reply to the questions they were asked. That candidates today are given only two minutes for an opening statement and only one minute to respond to questions tells something about what has happened to our ability to concentrate in this new, electronic, age in which we now live.

Between 115 and 120 million Americans watched one or all of the the four Kennedy-Nixon debates, this at a time when the population of the country was a little more than half of what it is now. Those who heard it on radio thought the candidates about even; those who watched it on television thought Nixon did poorly. Part of this was because television distorted Nixon’s look. In person, he was “a handsome young American, attractively slim, and as lithe as Kennedy.” On television, his face “glowered on the screen darkly.” For Kennedy, on the other hand, the televised coverage of the first debate gave him the “‘star quality’ reserved for television and movie idols.” The crowds that ‘erupted for Kennedy in the…last few weeks of the campaign were, and remain, unbelievable.” In New York, 1,250,000 people turned out to see him when he rode in a motorcade in Manhattan. Television decided the election. Fifty-seven percent of those who watched, said the debates influenced their decision; six percent, or over four million voters, said their vote was based entirely on what they saw, and of these, seventy-two percent, or almost three million, voted for Kennedy.

The election of John F. Kennedy made Theodore White wonder whether it was the beginning, or the end, of an era. The nation “sensed crisis - but crisis locked in the womb of time…crisis whose countenance was still unclear.” The famous phrase from Kennedy’s inaugural, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” was an uncertain call, a challenge to sacrifice for something that was not yet defined, and when he was assassinated three years later, television, which had made him President, made him a legend, and legends have no answers of their own. The assassination only intensified the feeling of unease, the belief that the country had lost any real sense of direction. Everything seemed to be falling apart. It was a problem both candidates for the presidency in l964 tried to address.

Accepting the Republican nomination for President, Barry Goldwater insisted that, “Tonight there is violence in our streets, corruption in our highest offices, aimlessness among our youth, anxiety among our elderly, and there’s a virtual despair among the many who look beyond material successes toward the inner meaning of their lives….” Lyndon Johnson, seeking to replace Kennedy’s New Frontier with something of his own, insisted that a Great Society would meet “the challenge of the next half century…whether we have the wisdom to use [our] wealth to enrich our national life - and to advance the quality of American civilization…. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products our labor….” Where would the wisdom necessary to meet the challenge of the next half century be found? “We are going to assemble the best thought and broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers. I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of conferences and meetings…. From these studies, we will begin to set our course toward the Great Society.”

This was like a ship sailing for a destination the captain had never heard of, but hoped some of the passengers might help him find. John F. Kennedy had spoken of the pursuit of human excellence; Lyndon Johnson spoke of using the bureaucracy to develop a policy about what it meant to be a human being. Whatever his failings, Kennedy had understood that a country, a people, was what it looked up to; Johnson, and most of those who succeeded him in the office, saw, or thought they saw, only what was right in front of them. And then came the Vietnam War, which ended the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson and began the Presidency of Richard Nixon, as Theodore H. White chronicles in The Making of the President l968, the third volume of his remarkable series on the Presidents we, in our wisdom or ignorance, have chosen to elect.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

Third Reading: A Passage To India.

Third Reading: Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Third Reading: The Letters of T.E. Lawrence.

Third Reading: All The King’s Men.

Third Reading: The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus.

Third Reading: Naguib Mahfouz’s novels of ancient Egypt.

Third Reading: Main Street.

--Marshal Zeringue