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Our pols, ourselves
Jack Beatty on politics, great political writers, and what the past has to say about the era of George W. Bush

HANOVER, New Hampshire ó Talking about history can be a way of talking about ourselves. Jack Beattyís latest book, Pols: Great Writers on American Politicians from Bryan to Reagan (PublicAffairs), is a terrific read on some of the 20th centuryís most compelling political figures. But Beatty edited his material so that itís also a prism through which to view the current political landscape.

You shake your head when you come across a footnote that quotes Woodrow Wilson ó in 1912 ó as saying that, "at this late date," the idea that a person of "intelligence and education" might not believe in evolution was unimaginable. And you want to scream when Philip Rothís fictional Richard Nixon, Trick E. Dixon, panders to the anti-abortion forces of his day by embracing the notion of rights for embryos. Thus has George W. Bush managed to reverse Marxís adage that "history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."

A 59-year-old Dorchester native, Beatty now lives up the road from Dartmouth College, where he is researching a book on 19th-century American history. The study of his home reflects several aspects of his life. In one corner is a reproduction of a poster from James Michael Curleyís 1945 mayoral campaign; Beatty is the author of The Rascal King, the definitive Curley biography. Next to that is a blown-up cover of the Atlantic Monthly, where Beatty is senior editor. In another corner is some electronic equipment hooked up to an ISDN line, which allows him to participate as the news analyst for On Point, on WBUR Radio (90.9) and NPR. Above that is an 1851 map of Dorchester.

Wiry and energetic, Beatty talked with the Phoenix on a recent afternoon. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.

Q: I read most political books very quickly, looking for the part where, say, Bush is playing with the candy jar while Cheney is explaining how he plans to take over the world. But with Pols I had to slow down, because the writing is so good. This is a different level of political writing than weíve become accustomed to, isnít it?

A: Yeah. The fabric of it, the manner of it, is as important as the matter. I think thatís what makes good political writing last. There is some value added of style, of intense identification, of intellectual energy that makes the person seem alive, even though youíre talking about a politician from long ago. Youíre not just reading for the facts, youíre reading for the experience. Actually, itís the way you would read a short story.

Q: Do you have a favorite?

A: Yes. The piece on Sam Rayburn by Robert Caro, which I think is one of the great set pieces in American political biography.

Q: Can you think of anything that was particularly hard to leave out?

A: We had to cut pieces a little. We had a piece by Richard Rovere on Joe McCarthy where we just couldnít keep it in for space. I hated to lose that.

Q: Thereís no Hunter Thompson.

A: No, and that problem is mine. I just havenít read any of him. So thatís a lack. In fact, I didnít even think of him.

Q: At the end of the book, thereís a piece by Richard Ben Cramer on the Bush campaignís decision to use Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election. [Horton, a convicted murderer, failed to return to his Massachusetts prison while on furlough and was later arrested after terrorizing a Maryland couple.] Certainly the racially charged manner in which the Bush campaign used Horton deserves to be criticized, but it was based on something that was actually true. How does that compare with the past campaign, and especially the swift-boat ads, which falsely accused John Kerry of having lied about his military service?

A: With Willie Horton, they didnít make that up out of whole cloth. They exploited the hell out of the issue, which was first raised by Al Gore in a debate. But with Kerry, Bush posited a fictitious character. "Heís going to nationalize health care. Raise taxes on everybody. Cut and run in Iraq." Whatever. To all of which Kerry said, "No, no, I donít want to do any of that." But fact-based, reality-based politics, thatís the difficult thing. I think thereís been a flight from reality.

Q: Do you think itís fair to blame the swift-boat ads on the Bush campaign?

A: Well, itís clear that there were people who raised money for Bush, people who were connected with Karl Rove, who were connected with those ads. So, yeah, they had plausible deniability, but this was not just done out of the blue. If people didnít know exactly what was going on, they were stupid. And that was a travesty. The Times had those stories exposing them.

In the past, there were terrible lies told about candidates. But I think the difference is that journalism has become a vector for these lies, and a way of dignifying them and treating them through this terrible trap of objectivity. "You say, Mr. Hitler, that the Jews are in fact parasites and need to be destroyed. You over here, Rabbi, disagree. Letís talk." This objectivity is strangling. You think of journalism as a mirror and a lamp. Itís strictly a mirror today.

Q: You include essays on Southern and Western Democrats such as Tom Watson, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, and Sam Rayburn. All of them were populists, very left on economics. But as Thomas Frank writes in Whatís the Matter with Kansas?, these are all red states now, and people are voting for Republicans against their own economic interests. What happened?

A: "Whatís the matter with Kansas?" was first asked by William Allen White, talking about the populist distemper. "Whatís got Kansans so mad?" Now itís "Whatís got them so asleep?" I think that itís the running away from economic issues on the part of the Democrats. The Democrats do not want to offer hard answers.

Kerry didnít carry Ohio. He had nothing to say to those laid-off workers. Suppose we had a living wage. Suddenly, we could say to Wal-Mart and all the rest of them, sorry, if you work full-time in America youíre not going to go for food stamps, youíre not going to have to go to the state of California, as they do, to get medical care. Thatís economic populism. When you donít have any populism, cultural populism beats it every time, I think. Thatís what Frank says.


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Issue Date: December 17 - 23, 2004
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