Reagan Agonistes — Thomas Mallon’s ‘Finale’

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Confronted with the enigma of enigmas, Christopher Hitchens throws up his hands:

He wondered if all the effort that Reagan’s nasty lieutenants put into figuring out his nullity – and perhaps projecting something onto it – didn’t give his government a peculiar centripetal energy. Did this grinning, infirm film star, himself so entropic and gaseous, actually keep accruing might and gravity, a sort of unconscious creativity, from all the cogitation by the courtiers in his orbit? Did their various hypotheses about the president’s nature somehow supply him with consequentially, as kind of superreality – whereas by himself he lacked any reality at all?

The nullity is Ronald Reagan, reeling from his first sustained bit of public obloquy after the downing of a cargo plane flown by Eugene Hasenfus over Nicaragua set in motion the events that almost wrecked his presidency. But his infirmity saved his ass too, for the Democrats who controlled the Senate for the first time since 1980 exercising their investigatory powers spared him Richard Nixon’s fate. The thirty-seventh president has a strong supporting role as a minor spirit of intrigue in Thomas Mallon’s novel about the Reagan administration in 1986, himself frustrated by Reagan’s reluctance to accept his counsel even with the tidbits of information fed to him by Anders Little, his mole in the National Security Council.

A fine chronicler of Beltway mores who considers Gore Vidal’s historical fiction as valuable as his essays, Mallon has chosen the setting with care. 1986 was the apex and nadir of the administration, peaking with a gaudy July 4 ceremony commemorating a restored Statue of Liberty with lasers and Neil Diamond and a TIME cover story whose cover rebukes the idea of a liberal press. Other narrators include Nancy Reagan, a concatenation of resentments and worry; Pamela Churchill Harriman, secure in the millions she inherited from her late husband and out to unseat the big-haired Paula Hawkins from her Senate seat in Florida; and, uh, an imprisoned John Hinckley, Jr. These and speaking parts for Jimmy Carter and Margaret Thatcher threaten to turn the novel into a John Jakes extravaganza, adapted for eighties TV audiences and starring Leslie Ann Down as the Iron Lady and Ed Begley, Jr. as The Sage of Plains. But Mallon understands how power is the illusion of power, dissolved at the first stink of weakness. As much as the notoriously autocratic management style of Reagan’s second term chief of staff Don Regan is played for laughs, Regan covered for his master’s shall we say lax management, thus becoming the ideal scapegoat when the public leaned the identity of the CIA-NSC junta conducting foreign policy. Mallon, who was acquainted with the late Hitchens, presents his friend as both larger and smaller than life: nibbling away at the story by exploiting Little’s sexual insecurities, he’s closer to a caricature of a shoe leather reporter from thirties film, albeit one kissed by wit, at which Mallon is expert at simulating. Told that the president cannot attend the service for Averell Harriman because of a Rose Garden event, Hitchens replies, “Ah. Perhaps he can turn into a Victory Garden for Enrique Bermudez. He can still send vegetables even if the law now prohibits him from sending guns.”

For Reagan watchers like yours truly, Finale deserves a read if only for reminding its audience of the environment of puffed, camp versions of hyper masculinity in which his administration thrived. The real Hitchens broke the story about the Carl “Spitz” Channell circle, an unofficial consortium of rich homosexuals pumping millions in private contributions to the Nicaraguan Contras. Little’s sexual awakening coincides with his peripheral involvement in this crew and before the Hasenfus crash and AIDS stopped the party. Like Fellow Travelers, Mallon’s 2006 novel about gay men scrambling for cover at the dawn of the McCarthy era, Finale suggests a tenuous connection between jingoism and an admiration for muscle flexing in every sense. A protected enclave, however, existed around Nancy Reagan, who surrounded herself with courtiers like Merv Griffin (Mallon gets laughs at the TV host’s penchant for placing the emphasis on the noun modified by “great,” i.e. “Great movie!”)

If point of view is the novelist’s consuming problem, as Henry James theorized, then Mallon needs therapy. Hearing from Nixon, Nancy, and Little would have compressed Finale into a terser narrative about a lucky son of a bitch, a president whose disinterest in minutiae and who suffered from the slow erosion of his cognitive powers nevertheless demonstrated at Reykjavik that he was willing to eliminate the entirety of American nuclear arsenal if he could keep his dream of space lasers firing on phantom threats. Andropov would have taken the old man at his word and never proposed anything but a paper agreement; instead, Reagan had Mikhail Gorbachev as negotiating partner. Only an imbecile or a man who means what he says about wanting to live in a nuke-free world would have done that, the Soviet general secretary realized. Maybe it was both.

Even at its most redundant, though, the polyphony fascinates. Whether it’s The Great Gatsby or Citizen Kane, American artists love dramatizing the powerful blank. Finale has the virtue of eschewing definitions for Ronald Reagan’s strategy; thanks to Reagan, these personalities, malevolent and otherwise, to whom Mallon cedes fictional space thrived. And the book is pretty funny. About The Speech and the moonbeam-like focus not taught at Warner Brothers that Nancy brought to bear: “It was simple: she never listened to it.” Or when Maureen Reagan, the president’s eldest child and closest political kin, dizzy with frustrated love for him, finally getting the run of the White House after her stepmother and dad are out calls mother Jane Wyman and says, “It isn’t every Friday night that Falcon Crest gets tuned in from this house!” With his obsession with ceremony, Ronald Reagan showed employees and relatives alike that a successful life depends on knowing when the camera starts rolling. Political life too.

About grievances…

Autumn is several weeks old, the academic term has three weeks left, and I’m overdue for a Trollope novel. This season’s novel: The Eustace Diamonds. Twenty-six pages in, I read the following about a superannuated Tory:

These people are ready to grumble at every boon conferred on them, and yet to enjoy every boon. They now too their privileges, and after a fashion, understand their position. It is picturesque, and it pleases them. To have always been in the right and yet always on the losing side; always being ruined, always under persecution from a wild spirit of republican demagoguism–and yet never to lose anything, not even position or public esteem, is pleasant enough. A huge, living, daily increasing grievance that does one no palpable harm is the happiest possession that a man can have.

This couldn’t refer to anyone in our political class.

The truth about Pablo Neruda’s death?

Amazing:

The official cause of death was prostate cancer, but doubt about the government’s version of events set in amid the authoritarianism of the Pinochet years.

General Pinochet took power after the coup and ruled Chile until 1990. Thousands of people were killed, disappeared or tortured during his rule.

An official inquiry into Mr. Neruda’s death was opened in 2011 after several witnesses, including his longtime driver, Manuel Araya, challenged the idea that he had died of natural causes. Mr. Araya said he believed that the military might have poisoned Mr. Neruda. A judge ordered the poet’s body to be exhumed in 2013.

The government statement Thursday came in response to a report in the Spanish newspaper El País that included an Interior Ministry document on Mr. Neruda’s death. That document, dated March 25, 2015, said in part, “The poet was injected with a pain killer that produced the cardiac arrest that would cause his death.”

The report assigned no ulterior motive for the administration of that drug, but also noted a number of irregularities in the medical care that Mr. Neruda received that day. It said he had received the injection in his abdomen — as opposed to intravenously — which, it noted, was unusual in a medical center. It also said that it was not clear who had given him the injection or exactly what it had contained.

Admirers of Residencia en la tierra and Las alturas de Macchu Picchu understand how his work was out of step with the immolation of leftism in South America, but it is still bracing to read the degree to which a poet mattered as a public force in the early seventies. Almost twenty years later Mario Vargas Llosa could run against Alberto Fujimori and receive 34 percent of the primary vote.

‘It’s this or nothing’

Before his alleged conversion to liberalism, Bobby Kennedy was a shit:

Before that, Marshall had been a federal appeals court judge in New York, begrudgingly named six years earlier by President Kennedy after Marshall had spurned his offer of a seat on the federal trial bench. (“My boiling point is too low for the trial court,” Marshall had explained. “I’d blow my stack and then get reversed.”) That initial offer had come from Robert Kennedy. “You don’t seem to understand,” he warned Marshall. “It’s this or nothing.”  “I do understand,” Marshall lectured him. “You don’t know what it means, but all I’ve had in my life is nothing. It’s not new to me, so goodbye.”

This anecdote, drawn from a review of Will Haygood’s Showdown, is used for effect; by contrast, Lyndon Johnson, who nominated Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967, felt an affinity for one of the outstanding litigators of the last half century. I can’t imagine LBJ doing this to Marshall.

The unique awfulness of Jonathan Franzen

I’ve said for years that Jonathan Franzen gets details right and people wrong. This explains why he concentrates on suburbia; this kind of fiction requires John Cheever’s surreal flights to be readable in 2015 (and 2005, 1995…). Reviewing the unfortunately named Purity, Brian Phillips has had enough:

Probably no one alive is a better novelist than Jonathan Franzen, and this is frustrating because his novels are awful, excellent but awful, books you read quickly and remember ponderously, books of exhaustive craft and yet a weird, spiraling cluelessness about the data they exhaustively collate. They analyze the wave frequency but don’t hear the sound. They are full of people who talk and act exactly as you imagine such people would talk and act in real life; everyone in them is forever buying the right brand of granola bar or having believable thoughts about their mother or fantasizing in a particularly characteristic way about fucking on a hotel-room air conditioner. And yet they don’t feel like real life. They feel like real life irritably recreated from a spreadsheet, by someone who is a genius at reading spreadsheets. Whether a novel ought to feel like real life is of course a separate question. Many novels that I love don’t, but those novels aren’t trying to, and as far as I can tell, Franzen’s are.

I’m going to voice the obvious caveat here and say that I mean Franzen’s novels don’t feel like real life to me…

And it gets better from there. This is no hatchet job, though. Phillips diagnoses the disease with the meticulousness of a surgeon performing his hundredth appendectomy (I balk though at “no one alive is a better novelist than Jonathan Franzen”). Read it.

The bare cupboard: H.W. Brands’ Reagan

10/22/1983

As Republican super PACS prepare to Brylcreem candidates who babble about liberty and marauding Mexican invaders, yet another biography about the greatest leader in world history emerges from a reputable publishing house. But H.W. Brands, who distinguished himself with fine FDR and U.S. Grant bricks in 2008 and 2012, respectively, emerges no less stunned and stunted by the Sage of Dixon, Illinois than Edmund Morris at century’s end but quite a bit more hornswaggled. Pace, an absence of jargon, and scrutiny of the supporting cast keep Reagan lively. New facts are rare. One of those known facts concerns the fortieth president’s intellectual lassitude, unwillingness to question subordinates, and a fealty to communist-free plutocracy so thorough that he fell prey to every free market bozo, Central American caudillo, and paramilitary moron in Jim Baker’s appointment book. Brands’ own lassitude is almost as thorough.

Readers for whom the interaction of personages makes history will enjoy Reagan. Sentence for sentence this book has less whiz-bang and flaccid insights than Bob Woodward’s stenographic efforts. But Reagan synthesizes—it doesn’t analyze. Reading this biography saves one the trouble of perusing the memoirs of Alexander Haig, George Schultz, Robert McFarlane, and other figures, minor and major, whose tell-alls sink used bookstore shelves. Its focus on Reagan’s diaries, published in the late 2000s, depicts a president in command of his administration, quick to anger when required but sober about weighing pros and cons; he emerges as the great president that his huge and unrelenting claque insist he was. Now, I’ve read those diaries, and while they reveal a monarch who grasped the subtleties of serving as head of state, they also glaze the eyes with the unrelenting vapidity of the observations, canned patriotism, coy language: legal and international phenomena buried in leather. Wedded to momentum, Brands shows little interest in consequences. What Gramm-Latta in 1981 did to school lunch programs and the effects of “simplifying” the tax code in 1986 did to eviscerate the middle class gets scant attention; the delicious anecdote is his governing principle. Brands would rather recount the familiar story of OMB director David Stockman’s abasement before a damp-eyed Reagan after admitting to an Atlantic Monthly reporter the loophole-dotted racket that was the ’81 budget; or of the misadventures of Donald Regan, the president’s hapless second term chief of staff who exploited Reagan’s mental torpor to run the West Wing like a Wall Street boardroom and, naturally, became the Beltway press corps’ scapegoat when the Iran-Contra story broke.

The tome does boast two deviations from the Prayer to Saint Ron. The first is a an impressive sifting through documents showing that Reagan campaign manager William Casey was in Spain “for purposes unknown” in the summer of 1980 at the same time as Iranians who later said they would release the American hostages after the 1980 election. Adding to the suspicious pattern was the George H.W. Bush administration’s reluctance to surrender any paper related to that period; FOIA requests in the intervening years have taken care of the rest. The world learned the results in November 1980, including the subsequent appointment of Casey as, what else, director of the CIA (he was distraught when he didn’t get the State Department). How this felonious and deplorable chain of events presaged the malfeasance perpetuated by Casey, McFarlane, Poindexter, Oliver North, and others is unremarked on by Brands, nor are the number of creeps and quasi-fascists with West Wing access (the absurd Al Haig, fired in 1982, was said to have growled to Reagan about Cuba, “Give me the word, give me the word and I’ll turn that island into a fucking parking lot”). The second: the inclusion of generous excerpts from the Reagan-Gorbachev duels in Geneva and Reykjavik without much comment, showing a nimbler president than expected, worth the credit that the sycophants lavish. As James Mann’s The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan documented, the president by this point had to fight leaks from Cabinet officers like Caspar Weinberger and the bitching from footstools like George Will for the apostasy of believing that the threat of nuclear war wasn’t worth American posturing.

El Salvador, playing coy with Botha’s apartheid regime in South Africa, Ed Meese’s conflicts of interest — they get paragraphs and in the case of Grenada a few pages because there was shooting and skullduggery and flags and things (a retired and less demented Haig said the Provincetown police department could have handled the invasion better). Meanwhile the banalities quietly fall, a grey drizzle. And the wrongness. In 1972, Nixon seemed “formidable” because of “his shrewd maneuvering between liberals and conservatives and his clever conduct of American diplomacy.” Bill Clinton defeated George Bush “aided by the wild card and sometimes wild-eyed candidacy of Texas billionaire Ross Perot.” For all his research Brands doesn’t seem to have an article that challenges Beltway clichés. To find credible critical biographies, look to Lou Cannon’s President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime and Morris’ batty and ridiculed Dutch; even Steven F. Hayward’s two-volume special manages to situate Reagan in the conservative ferment in ways that anticipate Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge. Instead of reading H.W. Brands’ book, study the included photographs. They show depth of field, personality, and texture.

‘Careless self-interest and optimism’: Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s work after 1980 remains her best. The essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album boast too perfect a marriage between form and content. Covering the El Mozote massacre, the prestidigitators working in the Reagan administration, the Michael Dukakis campaign, and the Bill Clinton impeachment applied her talent for selective quotation to larger works concerned with the ways in which the political class sells fictions about itself to a public that wants to believe them (the title of her omnibus is We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live). Friends looking for Didion recommendations know I push Miami, After Henry, and Political Fictions all the time.

Tracing how Didion shed her GOP roots in part by airing her disgust with the counterculture, Louis Menand argues that the New Left had little to do with it. In a review of Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song, he writes:

Didion’s transformation as a writer did not involve a conversion to the counterculture or to the New Left. She genuinely loathed the hippies, whom she associated with characters like Charles Manson, and she thought that the Black Panthers and the student radicals were both frightening and ridiculous. She found Jim Morrison kind of ridiculous, too. Polsky, in his study of the Beats, had dismissed the theory, endorsed by some social critics in the nineteen-fifties, that disaffected dropouts are potential recruits for authoritarian political movements. Didion never rejected that theory. She thinks that dropouts are symptoms of a dangerous social pathology.

What changed was her understanding of where dropouts come from, of why people turn into runaways and acidheads and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, why parents abandon their children on highway dividers, why Harlem teen-agers go rampaging through Central Park at night, why middle-class boys form “posses” and prey sexually on young girls—and, above all, why the press fixates on these stories.

The Californian ethos, in other words – what Didion called “careless self-interest and optimism.” Finally – traits that brought the counterculture and Ronald Reagan together.

The lyric and gritty Michiko Kakutani

To lapse into Didionspeak, Ta-Nehisi Coates may or may not have written a good book in Between the World and Me, but he doesn’t deserve the fate of a Michiko Kakutani book review:

Sometimes Mr. Coates can sound as though he’s ignoring changes that have taken place over the decades, telling his son that “you and I” belong to “that ‘below’ ” in the racial hierarchy of American society: “That was true in 1776. It is true today.” He writes that “the plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”

Such assertions skate over the very real — and still dismally insufficient — progress that has been made. After all, America has twice elected a black president. At other moments in this powerful and passionate book, Mr. Coates acknowledges such changes. In fact, his book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.

Kakutani reminded me of John McCain’s 2008 concession speech, the one in which he implied that because America elected a black president he doesn’t want to hear any more yapping about racism. Earlier in the review she tsk-tsks Coates’ “hazardous tendency to generalize.” Then, after explaining why this “Manichean tone” is necessary, she circles back to warn him about the dreaded Taken Out of Context routine. Virginia Woolf and E.B. White didn’t have to worry about being taken out of context.

Last week Jody Rosen was on Kakutaniwatch: “‘Expressionistic,'” “‘evocative,'” “‘compelling,'” “’emotional reach,'” “‘gritty prose'” — ALL IN ONE SENTENCE. Also: “‘depth of…emotion,'” “‘searing meditation.'” Today I’ll add “lyric and gritty prose” and “In fact, his book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.”

Founding and fighting and arguing: The Quartet

To everything there is a season, and for every season a Joseph J. Ellis book about the awesomeness of the Founders. Beguiled by a concept of history that posits it as the byproduct of great men doing monumental things, Ellis plundered his notes and other books to produce The Quartet. The genius foursome consists of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. They’re important:

…this political quartet diagnosed the systemic dysfunctions under the Articles, manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to ensure state compliance with the constitutional settlement. If I am right, this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history.

Gosh. Ellis isn’t wrong though — how could he be? And he makes a shrewd decision. The Quartet opens in the early 1780s after the war has ended and the Articles of Confederation bind this loose association of millionaires, billionaires, and babies. Already Washington despairs of what has happened to the spirit of ’76. “We have no politics excepting those creeping principles of self and local interest, which are the reverse of what ought to actuate us in the present moment, and which can neither form the dignity nor strengths of a great nation,” wrote his artillery commander Henry Knox. So begins the familiar and rather wearying two step in which a younger man, in this case Madison, persuades a reluctant Washington to succumb to the side of his vanity that sought to participate in shaping the arc of events; no one for a second believed the old man’s protestations of exhaustion. Securing Washington for a constitutional convention meant the political situation was serious enough to call legislators to Philadelphia when the Confederation Congress sometimes went months without getting quorum.

If in the early twenty-first century John Adams enjoyed a biographical renaissance that would have wonders for his mighty ego (Ellis himself wrote a fine contribution, Passionate Sage, in the mid ’90s), James Madison is now the favorite Framer, admired by Lynne Cheney (resist the chuckles: her book’s not bad) for shaping the federalism that in our own time triggers admiration and discontent when, say, gay marriage comes up. Madison, Ellis insists, wasn’t a philosopher so much as a political operator of consummate modesty but adamantine concentration. The chapter, called “Madison’s Moment,” boasts some of Ellis’ most trenchant writing:

There was in Madison’s critical assessment of the state governments a discernible antidemocratic ethos rooted in the conviction that political popularity generated a toxic chemistry of appeasement and demagoguery that privileged popular whim and short-term interests at the expense of the long-term public interest.

By 1787 Madison was the most prepared member of the Constitutional Convention, compensating for a mild debate presence with the best arguments. Ellis is quick to note, often, that Madison didn’t deserve the moniker “Father of the Constitution” — peg-legged ladies man Gouverneur Morris actually wrote it and made a crucial edit. Thanks to him, the preamble says “We the People of the United States, thus enshrining the tenet that this government operated through its citizens, not through its states. How Madison (d)evolved from the most fervent nationalist to the author of the Virginia Resolution still mystifies historians, and Ellis wisely lets the mystery be.

I would have loved a book on Morris, one of those second-tier figures often mentioned but not revered. A chapter on Robert Morris (no relation), the Pennsylvanian shipping magnate whose checks paid for the Revolution, whetted my appetite. Similarly, John Jay gets a chapter in which his equanimity and sobriety are praised but he disappears from the narrative. Preferable at any rate to the scant attention paid to quartet member Alexander Hamilton, about whom Ellis offers little that Ron Chernow’s magisterial 2004 biography hasn’t already presented. The prose style that has made American history accessible to millions often collapses into surfer dude banality: Ellis’ conclusion refers to Washington as the “Foundingest father of them all. Or just bad taste, such as the note that “the real weapons of mass destruction in the eighteenth century were viruses.” But Founding Brothers and his sturdy biography of Jefferson called American Sphinx introduced me to this period, and if The Quartet sends readers scurrying towards the primary sources, so much the better. After Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton were the best of the writers, attempting to reach a mass audience that needed suasion. A trade paperback edition of The Federalist Papers will set you back five dollars.

‘Saltwhite crumbling mush of corpse’

Joyce-and-Clovis-Monnier

I don’t reread Ulysses often, but when I do I flip to the sixth chapter. Called “Hades” because it purportedly mirrors Odysseus’ descent into the underworld, it follows Leopold Bloom and his acquaintances to the funeral of a Dubliner. In the carriage with Bloom sit Simon Dedalus, the lachrymose blowhard and professional drunkard; and the wise and bearded Martin Cunningham and his shadow Jack Power, whom Joyceans will remember from “Grace.” As a Jew, a modest intellectual, and immune to piety and superstition, Bloom is an outsider. He makes inappropriate jokes (despite the tolerance shown to Dedalus when he lapses into a vulgar, sententious mood at the mention of son Stephen). He assures these fervent Catholics that a sudden death is the best death. Power dismisses the suicide as a coward and “the greatest disgrace to have in the family,” unaware that Bloom’s father overdosed on pills. He tolerates Jew jokes.

As a feat of writing, “Hades” is prodigious, a mix of conventional realist narrative and the stream of consciousness. It’s not “difficult.” When skeptics impugn Ulysses, they create a formidable chimera that looks like the last five or six chapters. My favorite passage from “Hades”:

One of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean no matter who it was. Ordinary meat for them. A corpse is meat gone bad. Well and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk. I read in that Voyages in China that the Chinese say a white man smells like a corpse. Cremation better. Priests dead against it. Devilling for the other firm. Wholesale burners and Dutch oven dealers. Time of the plague. Quicklime fever pits to eat them. Lethal chamber. Ashes to ashes. Or bury at sea. Where is that Parsee tower of silence? Eaten by birds. Earth, fire, water. Drowning they say is the pleasantest. See your whole life in a flash. But being brought back to life no. Can’t bury in the air however. Out of a flying machine. Wonder does the news go about whenever a fresh one is let down. Underground communication. We learned that from them. Wouldn’t be surprised. Regular square feed for them. Flies come before he’s well dead. Got wind of Dignam. They wouldn’t care about the smell of it. Saltwhite crumbling mush of corpse: smell, taste like raw white turnips.

“But being brought back to life no” – don’t I know it, chum.

In High school James Joyce’s Women was available at your local video store. If found, watch it for the great Fionnula Flanagan’s recitation of Molly Bloom’s monologue and sardonic portrayal of Joyce wife Nora Barnacle.

Frankly vulgar: Barney Frank

When the delicate and estimable Dick Armey ruled the Congress in the late nineties, he once called a colleague “Barney Fag.” The representative from the Fourth District of Massachusetts didn’t hesitate: “There are a lot of ways to mispronounce my name. That is the least common…I checked with my mother. In fifty years no one’s ever called her ‘Elsie Fag.'” Thirty-two years in the House serving alongside ponderous tubs of guts would debilitate any man. For the indefatigable legislator, sharing his wit was part of a day’s work. For example, he once said that abortion opponents, most of whom show little interest in social services, believe that “life begins at conception and ends at birth.”

In Frank, a memoir of his political life, the congressman, who retired in 2013 to enjoy his husband and available seats on the major political talk shows, doesn’t disappoint those who understand his insistence on following the rules. While containing its share of boasting and score settling, Frank also presents in clear and jargon-free prose a theory of government that amounts to a defense of government. Entering Congress the same year as Ronald Reagan’s first election allowed Frank to observe how the forces of reaction, subdued at first, gained momentum as the decade unfolded and culminated in the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994. For decades the two parties had understood their roles. The GOP rejected “intrusive regulation and higher taxes while accepting a significant amount of each.” Democrats “would put limits on the market while recognizing the importance of profit making.” The modern world was here.The fifty-year truce between the welfare state and conservatism had ended. What Frank understood and fellow liberals did not was that the GOP’s victory consisted of keeping eyes and ears open to the complaints from white Americans; when economic downturns chipped at their savings, they were likely to blame the government, not because they intrinsically found welfare and unemployment checks demeaning. White men and women, in Frank’s review, reject “activist government not because they reject a major role for the public sector but precisely because they support one — implicitly, perhaps but nevertheless strongly — and have been punishing government for its failure to fulfill that mission.” The party of government will get the blame when government is lethargic or denied funds. Reagan’s smarter acolytes, Frank realized, understood that equitable tax rates and making federal programs more efficient and “accountable” was a fiction; a hobbled Department of Education and poorly staffed EPA would add to the suspicion that Government Can’t Work.

Frank has a few words for Democrats too eager to accept the assumption that Big Government is a mistake, including Bill Clinton, whom Frank defends, mildly, as the only Democratic president the party could have elected and for keeping his promise to issue an executive order removing homosexuals as federal security risks: compensation, Frank thought, for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. That excrescence, to which Frank devotes an entire chapter, might never have made it out of committee had opponents done the boring work of calling and writing congressmen. This chapter contains the book’s second leitmotif: Liberals protest. Conservatives vote. Liberals chant. Conservatives organize. The National Rifle Association, the most successful voting bloc in the country’s history, does it right. The NRA, writes Frank, urges “urge all of their adherents to get on the voting rolls. They are diligent to the point of obsession in making sure that elected officials hear from everyone in their constituencies who opposes any limits on guns…” A denizen of a safe district who spent half his political life in the minority, Frank has no patience for purity. Activists who reject partial victories get the full force of his contempt. On Ralph Nader’s flaw:

Never let the other side think you’re satisfied; you should always be asking for more; and you best maximize gains in fact by minimizing them in characterization, until and unless you are a hundred percent successful…When you tell your supporters that nothing has gotten better…you take away their incentive to stay mobilized.

And enemies?

If you denigrate anything they concede as worthless, they will soon realize they can obtain the same response by giving nothing at all.

To be clear, Frank is not defending the acceptance of legislative crumbs for the sake of victory. Don’t demand more than you can get. He wanted gay marriage in 1993. He wasn’t going to get it. It took Lawrence v. Texas and the Massachusetts Supreme Court to make it a possibility, and even then Frank criticized San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom for moving too fast for voters. Time and again, Frank compares the securing of homosexual liberties to the civil rights movement. It didn’t start with getting voting rights — it started with the NAACP suing the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma law schools over separate but equal facilities.

Those looking for an insider account of how the bill that was eventually called Dodd-Frank passed will like Frank’s book, although read Robert Kaiser’s Act of Congress for the most thorough tracking, from commas to signature. A quarter of this chapter explains the supposed complicity of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for those radio personalities who think Barney Frank was chair of the House Finance Committee in 2004. Also included: a laudatory portrait of Hank Paulson, the only Bush cabinet member who understood exactly what cataclysm awaited when AIG went bust in September 2008 and Barack Hussein Obama secured the presidency. What he doesn’t comprehend he doesn’t touch — and he admits it. He doesn’t have anything to say about the Human Rights Campaign, but I suspect he disliked its reluctance to support the rights of the transgendered, whose rights Frank has supported from his earliest days. Frank is also poignant regarding his own coming out and straightforward about his involvement with a prostitute for whom he fixed parking tickets (Frank also requested that the House investigate him rather than affirming his innocence; the chamber voted in overwhelming numbers to reprimand him).

After the flurry of promotional interviews, political memoirs suffer an ignominious end on bookstore remainders sections. Frank will share their fate, which is a plus: this excellent book will be affordable.

The price for rejecting partial victories

At the airport in April I read fifteen pages of Frank, the memoir by the acerbic congressman of Massachusetts Fourth District who declined to run for another term. Reading it, I’m struck by how well he writes: few instances of jargon, sentence after sentence of clear forceful prose. I’ll probably review it.

In his review-essay, Garry Wills ponders one of Barney Frank’s remarks made at the expense of the left: “There is a price to pay for rejecting the partial victories that are typically achieved through political activity. When you do so, you discourage your own foot soldiers, whose continued activity is needed for future victories.” The anecdote:

It began when he was an undergraduate at Harvard, just arrived from his Bayonne, New Jersey, home, where he had pumped gas at this father’s truck stop. In Cambridge he heard the liberal icon Pete Seeger wow a packed Harvard audience with a song mocking “ticky tacky” homes that “all look just the same.” Frank knew that many people in these postwar housing projects were proud of owning their first home, and owning it with government aid. Affordable housing would be one of Frank’s greatest concerns throughout his political career, and he could never understand people who ridicule others’ modest successes.

When he went to Mississippi, he noticed that his fellow do-gooders mocked middle-class values to blacks who just want to join the middle class. It is now fashionable to blame contempt for government on Tea Partiers; but Frank saw the same attitude earlier, and on the left—in all those who said they were defying “the System.” The radicals blamed liberals for being too bourgeois. Frank blamed them for not being bourgeois enough. He left before the MFDP was defeated at the Democratic convention in 1964, but he had foreseen its demise. The party’s delegation was not accepted as a whole but, with the help of Joe Rauh and others, two of them—one white, one black—were given seats with the white delegates.

The MFDP, with fine scorn, rejected this compromise, and let the all-white delegation sit for their state. Frank thinks they should have acted on this partial victory, since it is overwhelmingly likely that the regular delegation would have bolted the convention rather than sit with blacks. Other southern states had declared their intention of doing that if the MFDP slate had been accepted. Just imagine how the TV cameras would have focused on that one black face in a sea of white.

One of Reagan’s gifts was treating partial victories as full ones. I’m one of Barack Hussein Obama’s most fervent critics because hosannas may lead to resting on your ass.

This morning Frank could barely contain his contempt for Bill Kristol, brainchild of foreign wars real and halted, the eminence behind Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin. He was salty, of course, but hardly worth the effort.