What Hillary got wrong — what we got wrong in school

I missed the Democratic town hall last night — I was watching Joan Crawford in Autumn Leaves, a terse sudster by Robert Aldrich in which the star’s beetle-like eyebrows persuade Cliff Robertson he’s not young enough to sex her on the beach like Burt Lancaster did Deborah Kerr. But I gasped when I read Hillary Clinton said the following when asked why she admired her favorite president (guess who):

You know, he was willing to reconcile and forgive. And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly. But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.

Politicians don’t read. I doubt anyone running for president except the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue knows what to do with a semicolon or a piece of printed text between two softcover sides more than one hundred fifty pages long. But a lot has changed since I learned in high school that the so-called Radical Republicans had no wish to compromise with the South (call it one of the earliest instances of a Beltway ruling class accusing the faction on the side of moral justice of being unwilling to compromise). Even Matthew Josephson, one of the most lucid stylists who ever wrote history, got Reconstruction wrong, so flummoxed was he by the paradox of Republicans who believed in racial justice while stuffing their pockets with railroad dough. Charles Pierce:

Race has become an issue this year in an overt way that it hasn’t been in any presidential campaign in about 30 years. After the upheavals of the 1960s, and the two Wallace campaigns in 1968 and 1972, race became a covert weapon in the hands of the rising conservative movement in the Republican party, and, increasingly, something marginalized and thickly camouflaged within the Democratic party. (The Democratic establishment’s sour reaction to Jesse Jackson’s galvanizing campaign in 1988 was the perfect example. Also, it should be noted that Bill Clinton’s oft-cited “Sister Souljah” moment in 1992 was really a shot at Jackson, who was sitting on the same dais.)

That paradigm is breaking down. The Republicans currently are in the middle of a public argument over how much of a white nationalist party they truly want to be, and African-Americans are not willing to be shined on by Democratic politicians. Fairly or unfairly—and I think, in the case of Bernie Sanders, it has been pretty unfair—that’s the state of play right now. HRC walked right into the middle of it on Monday night because she spoke the history she was taught, which is the same history a lot of us of a certain age were taught. Its sell-by date is long past.

Besides Eric Foner, whom Pierce rightly praise, try Douglas Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction, an unforgiving account of how the forces that killed the president whom Hillary thinks would have Bridged All Divides gutted the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment and enforced the Black Codes at the point of a bayonet or by a hangman’s noose.

Still — what a state of affairs that in my lifetime we’re having these discussions at last.

Rereading ‘Tender is the Night’

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For my fourth time reading of Tender is the Night I followed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s purported advice, duly observed by Malcolm Cowley in an out of print 1951 edition, and read the Dick Diver section first. A flashback in the original edition timed to a grim discovery by alleged protagonist Rosemary Hoyt, it makes better logistic if not much imaginative sense. What the novel gains in clarity it loses in suspense; this section plods. As a introduction to the carnival of grotesques studding this rather garish book it works, though. A father who raped his daughter, a schizophrenic who’s set up by her sister to marry her doctor — who said Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha grew monsters?

As central to the Fitzgerald mythos as the early success, flappers, Zelda, and the Saturday Evening Post, the failure of Tender is the Night presaged the final collapse of his methods and the vaporizing of illusions about his public image. Into this novel, which took seven years to write, he poured what he’d learned about life and fiction. The Great Gatsby remains the American novel’s best distillation of a type we all know: the self-made man who comes from nothing and nowhere and is essentially a gorgeous empty suit. What personality he has is assembled from the detritus of his will and stubbornness. Beginning as a chronicle of a matricide, Tender is the Night evolved over the course of several aborted drafts; each version managed to draw in bits from his collapsing life like a magnet attracting ball bearings. As published the novel tells the story of a self-made psychiatrist who comes from nothing and nowhere and is essentially a gorgeous empty suit. This explains some of the novel’s blurred effects and misplaced pathos. Still, it’s remarkable that Tender is the Night is so coherent.

Swollen in places with rhetoric but in its final movement precise and ruthless about degradation, Tender is the Night professes to be about the decline of a promising talent but is actually about a mediocrity who turns mean when alcohol erodes his manners. When Dick’s sister in law Baby Warren praises him for keeping “a party moving by just a little sentence or a saying here and there,” I’m puzzled, for I’m not sure whether to take her at her word and delight in this charming, trivial trick or if Fitzgerald is mocking the sort of person who takes this talent seriously (Warren, an American with a fetish for Englishness, is a spinster who shuns human contact). Bearing this in mind may palliate the vertigo induced by the switch in tone from the conventional realism of the Diver history and the lyricism of the Rosemary section; it’s as dazed and lustrous as the eighteen-year-old actress and ingenue. But the novel still moves uneasily, like a child walking barefoot on a sofa, between an omniscient narrator and the free indirect style.

Fitzgerald saves his best prose for the occasions when Rosemary’s offscreen, as it were. The slow decline of Diver forces the novelist to reconsider what John Updike called Fitzgerald’s excessively dewy writing, and Updike would know. Replacing it is an aphoristic firmness. About Diver’s harried colleague Franz Gregorovius:

He was forty. Upon his healthy maturity reposed a set of pleasant official manners, but he was most at home in a somewhat stuffy safety from which he could despise the broken rich whom he reeducated. His scientific heredity might have bequeathed him a wider world but he seemed to have deliberately chosen the standpoint of a humbler class, a choice typified by his selection of a wife.

On Nicole’s schizophrenia:

But the brilliance, the versatility of madness is akin to the resourcefulness of water seeping through, over, and around a dike. It requires the united front of many people to work against it.

And often the lyricism works anyway, never more so than when Fitzgerald dotes on Nicole’s sexual maturation:

In the fine spring morning the inhibitions of the male world disappeared and she reasoned as gaily as a flower, while the wind blew her hair until her head moved with it.

And: “If she need not, in her spirit, be forever one with Dick as he had appeared last night, she must be something in addition, not just an image on his mind, condemned to endless parades around the circumference of a medal.”

Would I love to be the college professor who has to answer for the spics and dagos and other slurs that Diver uses casually and endorsed by the narrator. Mary North, an amiable parasite, marries an “Asiatic” man with several last names after the death of her alcoholic husband and beloved Diver bro Abe; to be “Asiatic” means to leave dirty water for the Divers’ lily white children to bathe in, causing a scene that signals Dick’s imminent collapse. And all over Tender is the Night Fitzgerald, to quote Gore Vidal about the novelist’s notebooks, makes rather too many nervous references to fairies and pansies. Less than a decade after the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, Fitzgerald’s psychiatrist is less fascinated than Proust’s Marcel, whose experience watching two men he knows buggering at least provides data for the exquisite taxonomy of the male invert that takes up the next thirty pages. The homosexuals in Tender is the Night shudder and weep like women, faint, and behave amorally; a group of lesbians who check out Rosemary are called “the three cobra women.” When a young Spaniard whose father had had him horsewhipped after a presumably fruitless week in a brothel dares to show some cheer, Diver puts him in his place. Although it’s clear Fitzgerald condemns the sadist as much as the homosexual, both typify the sickness of Europe to which Diver, the American abroad, succumbs. These were the dark days when a researcher like Diver can claim, with the entire psychiatric profession behind him, that alcoholism triggers the “abnormality,” not vice versa.

Alone among male American novelists of the early twentieth centuries Fitzgerald empathized with his female characters. Not once did he condescend to their caprices, lusts, choice of hair and makeup. Try imagining Faulkner, Hemingway, or Wilder writing the passage in which Fitzgerald lovingly describes Nicole after a bath getting ready to meet would-be lover Tommy Barban. When the point of view wobbles towards Nicole, I think of Fitzgerald smiling. I would love for him to have written the novel through the eyes of a female schizophrenic whose gradual control of her life eclipses her husband’s affection and causes little more than a piteous sigh. But the Tender is the Night we’ve got, flawed and ungainly as it often is, understands collapse better than the piecing back together.

The book I read: 2015

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I broke a personal record this year. I’m not including poetry or books I’ve reread in the following list. After a couple years of steady reviewing on this blog, I got a freelance gig at The Miami Herald, which added to the tally.

Nicolas Wapshott – The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Road to World War II
Robert Stone – A Flag For Sunrise
Kingsley Amis – One Fat Englishman
Marilynne Robinson – Lilla
John Julius Norwich – Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy
Frank Norris – The Octopus
Merrill D. Paterson – The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun
Lawrence Wright – Thirteen Day in September
Reinaldo Arenas – Before Night Falls
Patricia Meehan – The Unnecessary War
Henry Green – Party Going
Robert Christgau – Going into the City
Joseph O’Neill – Netherland
Muriel Spark – Girl of Slender Means
Susan Butler – Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership
Julian E. Zelizer – The Fierce Urgency of Now
Langdon Hammer – James Merrill: Life and Art
Mario Vargas Llosa – The Discreet Hero
Joseph Roth – The Tale of the 1002nd Night
George Simenon – Maigret and the Madwoman
George Simenon – Dirty Snow
Joseph Roth – The Forgotten Waltz
Eric Larson – Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Michaelangelo Matos – The Underground is Massive
Megan Abbott – The Fever
Stephen Kotkin – Stalin
Guy Lawson – Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle: Vol 1 and Vol 2
Robert Goolrick – The Fall of Princes
Thomas Hardy – A Pair of Blue Eyes
George Simenon – Maigret on the Riviera
Barney Frank – Frank
William Carlos Williams – White Mule
William Carlos Williams – In the Money
Nikolaus Wachsmann – KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps
Joseph J. Ellis – The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789
Muriel Spark – Not to Disturb
Edmund White – States of Desire
Adam Kirsch – The Wounded Surgeon
Elizabeth Gaskell – Wives and Daughters
H.W. Brands – Reagan: The Life
Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me
Sarah Vowell – Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Honoré de Balzac – The Wild Ass’ Skin
Philip Larkin – A Girl in Winter
Willa Cather – One of Ours
Willa Cather – My Mortal Storm
Edith Wharton – Twilight Sleep
Mary Gaitskill – Veronica
John Le Carré – The Tailor of Panama
Jeffrey Toobin – A Vast Right Wing Conspiracy
Patricia Highsmith – A Dog’s Ransom
Thomas Mallon – Finale
Patricia Highsmith – Ripley’s Game
Anthony Trollope – The Eustace Diamonds
Mary Gaitskill – The Mare
James M. McPherson – Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief
Rosemary Sullivan – Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
Ari Berman – Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America
Lillian Faderman – The Gay Revolution
Muriel Spark – The Mandelbaum Gate
Muriel Spark – Aiding and Abetting
Penelope Fitzgerald – The Gate of Angels
Melvin I. Urofksy – Dissent and the Supreme Court: Its Role in the Court’s History and the Nation’s Constitutional Dialogue

Rights vs might: ‘Give Us the Ballot’

“Do you think they are going to appoint someone with extensive civil rights experience to head that division?” Erwin Griswold said about protegé William Bradford Reynolds, chosen by Ronald Reagan to head the Civil Rights Division in 1981 and not one to waste time adjudicating old wrongs or on clear English:

Before, you didn’t have the programs that were designed to focus on color. In the 1950s, for example, which all of us recognized was as wrong as you can get, you didn’t have a quota program or an affirmative action program or a voting rights program. During that ear, the cry for color blindedness was to try to wake up people to the fact that everything was color-coded…When you get to the 1980s, the problem was that the solution to discrimination became to color-code.”

That neologism had a simpler but no less grotesque synonym: “reverse discrimination,” the rebel yell of every opponent of voting and civil rights of the last thirty-five years.

In Ari Berman’s terrific Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, The Nation correspondent spends little time on what is familiar terrain – Lyndon Johnson’s full endorsement of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 – to explore less hallowed ground. Thanks to the invaluable John Lewis, bludgeoned on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and allies, black and white, Democratic and Republican, the Voting Rights Act survived initial dilution efforts by the Nixon administration to actually get more encompassing with each congressional reauthorization. Then a cabal of Justice Department appointees, thriving in the new dawn of Reaganism, sought to undo these advances. Republicans took the Senate for the first time since 1952. Ted Kennedy’s replacement as chair of the Judiciary Committee? Strom Thurmond. Key to these efforts was an ambitious lawyer named John Roberts, who drafted talking points, speeches and op-eds for Reynolds and attorney general William French Smith. “John seemed like he always had it in for the Voting Rights Act,” career Justice Department lawyer Gerry herbert tells Berman. “Voter fraud” replaces reverse discrimination as the new crusade. Lightning strikes are more common yet the zealots insisted on the danger to the Republic. On occasion the truth oozed from the cracks. “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people,” said New Right crusader Paul Weyrich in 1980. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Rewrite the old saw about money: when someone tells you these state laws aren’t supposed to restrict the right to vote, they’re about restricting the right to vote.

At least Reagan, encouraged by none other than Bob Dole (already aware that he lived in the Cretaceous Era for establishment Republicans) signed the reauthorization; even Reynolds went along, converted by a trip to rural Mississippi with Jesse Jackson to see, to quote Berman, “how white plantation bosses and factory owners forced employee to work overtime on Election Day, moved polling places from black to white neighborhoods, and white neighborhoods [were] annexed to dilute black representation.” A foxier crew in the administrations of both Bushes would do subtle things with the last point. Collaborating with black legislators in a heartbreaking example of (un)intended consequences, these voting rights denialists formed the Fairness for the ’90s coalition, one of whose goals was to ensure healthy percentages of black voting by creating majority black districts. The results: intensely white voting districts in the South that elect conservative legislators. During the second Bush administration, Berman writes, people were referring to Brad Reynolds as the good old days. Voter fraud became the bugaboo. Charlatans like Hans von Spakovsky saw their dreams realized when in the 2013 Shelby case old ally John Roberts and four other justices struck down, in an ingenious strategy, Section Four of the VRA. The coverage formula, whereby Congress had singled out Alaska, New Mexico, districts in New York, and much of the Deep South as places with egregious histories of voting rights suppression, was eviscerated. As Berman acidly notes:

A law that eight justices had praised as a “valid effectuation”of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1966 had been transformed into a “racial entitlement” that only the Supreme Court was brave enough to end.

Typical of John Lewis’ generosity was lobbying as congressman for VRA expansion in 1975 to cover Mexican Americans, the latest victims of disenfranchisement. “It would be a mockery of the whole Voting Rights Act effort during the past 10 years if we leave the Voting Rights Act as it is and not cover the other minorities in this country,” he said. It passed. After registered voters increased by 5 percent in 2008, several GOP governors said enough of that. The Pennsylvania house majority leader was as outspoken in 2012 as Weyrich: a rescinded voter ID law would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” In my own state Rick Scott overturned predecessor Charlie Crist’s decision to restore voting privileges to convicted felons, leading to the disenfranchisement of almost 100,000 Floridians. And brace yourselves: one person one vote got a skeptical hearing before Roberts and the Furious Five yesterday. John Lewis is denied a serene old age.

‘Getting on each other’s nerves is our right’

In his review of Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, Chris Heller asks:

The question that lingers throughout Lafayette is why this democracy has lasted. If America has such an exceptional form of government, what is it that makes it so special? The answer, says Vowell, lies in our freedom to permit and accommodate protest. That’s why she sets a handful of late scenes within Lafayette Park at the White House, a site that’s probably seen more civil disobedience than anywhere else in the country, and is only a couple hundred yards away from the president’s bed. America, she’s saying, has a tremendous tolerance for insurrection.

“In the United States,” Vowell writes, “there was no simpler, more agreeable time.” We Americans, I wrote in my own review of Lafayette, don’t like paying for things we need; even in 1778, “infrastructure” was crumbling. Behold the complaints of Rep. David Nunes of California:

“I used to spend ninety per cent of my constituent response time on people who call, e-mail, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation,” Nunes said. “Ten per cent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head.” The overwhelming majority of his constituent mail is now about the far-out ideas, and only a small portion is “based on something that is mostly true.” He added, “It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.”

When wackos, flame swallowers, four-headed babies, and Ayn Rand message board denizens start freaking out about the continued existence of Obamacare despite the fact that its namesake sits in the Oval Office with a veto pen uncapped, then even so fervent a conservative like Nunes must realize it’s not a disease from his constituents suffer – it’s imbecility created by the gutting of civics and social studies courses. Oscar Wilde, as usual, was correct: each man kills the things he loves. Men like Nunes stoke the fears of their flat earther constituents during elections but complain when the constituents insist on their guy turning the world into a tortilla.

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.