Saturday, March 23, 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 part II of Buffa's take on Theodore H. White's The Making of the President series:
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won the Presidency in a landslide against Barry Goldwater, with more than 61 percent of the vote. Four years later, in 1968, Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States with only 43.4 percent of the vote, and yet, according to Theodore H. White, Nixon’s election was also a landslide, a negative landslide, the first one in American history. Adding the vote for George Wallace, an extreme conservative, to that of Nixon, a traditional conservative, the conservative vote against Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, was 56.9 percent. What had happened?

The war in Vietnam had happened. What became known as the Tet offensive, had broken “the confidence of the American people in their government, their institutions, their leadership….” The enemy “had astounded the world with a force, a fury, a battlefield presence that gave the lie to all that America has been told for months,” that America was winning the war. It is one of the ironies of history that the Tet offensive had been “a complete failure,” with a third of the enemy forces killed, and none of its objectives achieved, but failure on the battlefield was a victory in the domestic politics of the United States.

Opposition to the war was led by university students, a group that had become, in White’s description, “the largest working-class group with a single interest in the United States - or any other country.” There had been 1,350,000 college students in l939; there were 6,900,000 in 1968. Political compromise, the idea that it takes time to change things, was seen by university students as nothing more than an “excuse for postponing the inevitable, for denying the truth. If a certain goal is accepted by the best thinking as an unchallenged good, why cannot it be made real now?” What was considered the “best thinking” was itself a reflection of a remarkable revision, and sometimes an outright rejection, of traditional values. “On stage, on screen, in letters,” American intellectuals “created a world without heroes.” The “new avant-garde has come to despise its own country and its traditions as has rarely happened in any community in the world; American institutions, customs and laws are regarded as the greatest system of restraint on that individual self-expression which it sees the highest right of man.”

Free from all restraint, and appalled by what the future seemed to offer, American students mobilized against the war. Convinced that the war would not be ended so long as Lyndon Johnson was still President, the question was who among the Democratic politicians who opposed the war would be willing to challenge him for the Democratic nomination. Eugene McCarthy, the Senator from Minnesota who owed his start in politics to Hubert Humphrey, decided it should be him. McCarthy did not doubt he was qualified. “You can put it down that I’m the best prepared man who ever ran for the Presidency of this country,” he told White. McCarthy had no political allies and few personal friends. He “lived by truth and principles of his own soul, with a courage that was to change American history. He owed no one anything, recognized no political obligation - not even to his own movement, or his own constituency.” And then White adds, in one of the most subtly devastating lines ever written about a candidate for the nation’s highest office: “All through the year, one’s admiration of the man grew - and one’s affections lessened.”

McCarthy came within a few votes of winning the Democratic primary in New Hampshire, and Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not be a candidate for re-election. Bobby Kennedy entered the race, and the McCarthy students felt they had been stabbed in the back. Martin Luther King was murdered, two months later Bobby Kennedy was killed, and the world seemed to be spinning out of control. The choice for Democrats was now between McCarthy and Lyndon’s Johnson’s vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, but when the Democratic convention that met in Chicago became a study in televised violence, the nomination was almost not worth winning. White insists that, “The revolt in the streets was an attempt of the alienated to express their desire for an identity, an attempt to control their environment by protest.” It may have been that, but it was also an attempt at intimidation, an attempt by the anti-war forces to win in the streets what they could not win in the convention, an attempt to overturn the result of an elective process by threatening to destroy everything in their way, an attempt which brought the police into open conflict, which, witnessed by tens of millions on television, seemed at the very least to cast doubt on the ability of the Democrats to govern even their own party.

In all the turmoil, no one paid much attention to a minority report that, in a moment of absent mindedness, the Democratic Convention adopted directing the formation of a reform commission to take up the question of how the party could become more open and more responsive. After nearly a year of hearings, the Reform Commission decided that it was not enough to prohibit the exclusion of blacks and other minorities from participation in the Democratic Party; they must, as White describes it, “be guaranteed their mathematical proportion of representation….” This meant quotas, and it would become, four years later, one of the major reasons for George McGovern’s massive, inglorious defeat.

Scorned by conservatives and hated by liberals, Hubert Humphrey never had a chance. With their protests, with their open contempt for American traditions and American power, liberals made it possible for George Wallace to become a serious candidate. His followers, like those who follow Donald Trump today, had “a nearly religious faith that everyone was against them but the people, and that the saving of white America from the pointy-heads was a cause greater than politics.” The phrase ‘pointy-heads’ was George Wallace’s contribution to the American political vocabulary, a more colorful reference to the government bureaucrat who decided everything and knew nothing, the over-educated, narrow-minded, unelected government official who, as Wallace joyfully added, carried only a ham sandwich in his otherwise empty brief case.

Wallace was a racist, pure and simple, the Governor of Alabama who had declared with willful pride, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” His appeal in the North was to the white working class, the union member in Michigan who had moved to the suburbs so he and his family could live in safe neighborhoods and send their children to safe schools, and had then discovered that the government thought it necessary, in the interest of racial balance, to open their neighborhoods to public housing and bus their children thirty or forty miles away to a school in a crime-ridden inner city. While the children of the affluent white professional class were protesting the war they did not want to fight, the white working class was voting for Wallace to protest a liberal government that would not leave them alone; a government, as Wallace was quick to point out, made up of people who could afford to send their own children to private schools.

McCarthy had been defeated in Chicago, and Humphrey was defeated in November, but the student movement continued to protest the war. Nixon was concerned about this, not with the protests as such, but the absence, among young people, of “a sense of common challenge.” Sitting with Teddy White in the Oval Office, days after his inauguration, Nixon said he agreed with what John F. Kennedy has said in his inaugural, that famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The nation “needed a sense of purpose, a sense of a binding ideal.” He asked White if he remembered the phrase he had used in the campaign: “‘the country needs the lift of a driving dream.’ That is what he was looking for.”

Lyndon Johnson had spoken of the Great Society, and had promised to find the experts who would discover what the American purpose should be. Nixon agreed with what Kennedy had said, but he had no more idea than anyone else what anyone should be told who asked what they could do for their country. Nixon knew it was important, and White thought it important as well; not just important, but a matter more complex than what Lincoln or FDR had faced, because, “it defied definition, thus it was graver.” This, to be polite, is almost insane. Something is missing, without it the country can never be what it should be, and no one, at least no one elected President, has any idea what it actually might be!

Four years later, in l972, the Democratic Party, now led by George McGovern, did not have any doubt about the purpose of the United States, or, rather, the purpose of the United States government. It was to oppress the American people. The government, which did nothing but lie, supported a “corrupt clique in Saigon against a peace-loving regime in Hanoi,” and murdered innocent civilians. McGovern’s army was not just out to win an election; they were going to change politics and make it, finally, democratic, everyone able to participate at every stage in the choice, and the election, of candidates. The quotas of the Reform Commission of l969 were applied in full vigor. Blacks, women, and youth, defined as anyone between the ages of l8 and 30, were represented at the Democratic convention in proportion to their percentage of the population. Every trio of speakers contained a man and a woman, a black and a white. Democrats thought this progress; Nixon thought it helped him win the election. Accepting the Republican nomination, he insisted that “the way to end discrimination against some is not to begin discrimination against others. Dividing Americans into quotas is totally alien to the American tradition.”

In 1968, as has been noted, Nixon and Wallace together had 56.9 percent of the vote. In l972, Nixon alone got 60.7 percent of the vote. The Democratic share went from 42.7 percent for Humphrey to 37.5 percent for McGovern. Lyndon Johnson had gone from the “greatest mandate, the greatest personal triumph of any election year, the election of l964, to the greatest personal humiliation of any sitting President.” Until Richard Nixon, who, less than two years after winning re-election by almost the same percentage of the vote Johnson had been given, became the first American President to resign in disgrace.

For all his fascination with the personal character and the political style of candidates for the Presidency, Theodore H. White has a deep concern for the underlying forces that were changing American politics by changing America. The students who organized to protest the Vietnam War and made Eugene McCarthy their temporary hero, constituted a new phenomena made possible by an increasing prosperity that, by allowing millions of young people to avoid the necessity of work, gave them the opportunity to spend four or more years in college. There was another large segment of the American population who, with nothing like the same advantages, had faced problems of a kind difficult for anyone who has not faced them to understand. It is impossible, White tells us, “to understand any of the domestic politics of the United States…without understanding how deeply…goes the cleavage of race.”

Unlike most writers on American politics, Theodore H. White knew his history, both ancient and modern. It is, for him, almost a commonplace that no one in American history understood better than Abraham Lincoln what would happen to race relations unless white citizens changed they way they thought. “Now when by all these means you have succeeded in dehumanizing the Negro; when you have put him down and made it forever impossible for him to be but as the beasts of the field; when you have extinguished his soul, and placed him where the ray of hope is blown out in darkness like that which broods over the spirits of the damned; are you quite sure the demon which you have roused will not turn and rend you?”

Starting in the early sixties, there were riots, demonstrations, and protests in the South, and then riots, demonstrations, and protests in the North, for civil rights. In l940, 77 percent of blacks lived in the South; thirty years later, in l970, 65 percent of blacks lived in the industrial states of the North and West, mainly in the major cities. This changed politics. The black vote was now an essential part of the Democratic coalition. But there were other changes as well, one of which White considered a serious threat to political stability. The movement from the South to the North brought with it “a decomposition of family life and family discipline which simply cannot be contained in the traditional form of American democracy or orderly politics.” One fifth of black children were illegitimate in l960; nearly 29 percent in l970. The riots, according to White, “were not race riots.” They were instead “a revolt led by wild youth against authority, against discipline, against the orderly government of a society that had taken too long to pay them heed.” And then he adds, “Despair incubated the riots, but dogma created the thought climate which realized them: the dogma that all ills within the Negro bit-city community are the fault of white men alone….”

It is our great misfortune that black despair at their condition, and white resentment at the remedies that have been tried, are not only still with us, but have, if anything, become more pronounced, intensified by the dangerous rhetoric of our times; rhetoric that, instead of leading us toward a sense of common purpose, something we can believe in, something that challenges our imagination, threatens to divide us even more. In that threat, however, some instruction may be found - the need for a different rhetoric, one that defines what Teddy White thought defied definition, but what both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, jr. understood: that it is not what we want to achieve, but rather what we want to be, what kind of human being, that is important, and that in a republic, a nation of free men and women, the pursuit of human excellence is the one true common endeavor.
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.

Third Reading: Theodore H. White's The Making of the President series, part I.

--Marshal Zeringue