Monday, November 29, 2010

The Making of the President 1964 - T.H. White

"It was as if the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass had planned the elections of 1964 - all should win, all should have a prize.  Lodge should have New Hampshire, Rockefeller should have Oregon, Goldwater should have California - and Lyndon Johnson should have the country." - p. 139

In his retelling of the 1964 presidential election, T.H. White shows us America at a turning point.  Less than five months removed from the assassination of President Kennedy, the citizens of New Hampshire kicked off the primary for the Republican nomination to the presidency.  Taking center stage for the first half of White's narrative are the men who would try to fashion a coherent, conservative response to an American condition that in so many ways seemed in the throws of change.  It reads as seemingly unfair that well-meaning and thoughtful leaders such as William Scranton and Nelson Rockefeller had to espouse a logical response to an administration which was itself struggling through its nascent stages.  Regardless of political stances one gets the sense that any Republican nominee in '64 would have been doomed from the start.

The nomination of Barry Morris Goldwater set off what White describes as a re-examination of American present and future, with the conservative crusader valiantly trying to combat not only a changing world, but the political ranges of Lyndon Johnson and the specter of John F Kennedy.  White paints a picture of Goldwater as perhaps the most reluctant presidential candidate in recent memory.  Averell Harriman said that, above all else, a man seeking the presidency must desire the position more than anything else in his life and more than his competitors.  Goldwater lacked this desire.  Truly concerned about the future of America Goldwater desired to crusade on issues of spirit, freedom and liberty.  Very adroitly President Johnson and his staff responded by focusing on issues of economic and national security and assuaging fears as the civil rights movement continued to burn across the country.  In what would be a historic landslide for ole Landslide Lyndon, America was perhaps denied a chance to engage on questions surrounding the concern of a moral society: "what is man's relationship, and his responsibility to, his fellow man"?

This retelling comes across as one framing perhaps the first truly modern election in American history.  White provides us glimpses at the candidates and their issues that feel so strikingly relevant to much that Washington gropes with today.  Phenomenally reported and masterfully written, White has taken an election whose outcome we know in advance, as it seems did so many of the players at the time, and given it drama, vitality and wonder.  Coming on the heels of tragedy as it does, the taste for retail politics seems all but spent and therefore the cycle takes on a thoughtful, melancholy and, in the end, hopeful tone.

This election could not help but live in the shadow of John Kennedy; White sets the stage for all of this by devoting the first forty pages to the assassination of and funeral for President Kennedy; this passage ought be regarded as some of the best historical/journalistic writing produced by an American.  Later White would write in his autobiography that November 22nd in Dallas was a fundamental moment of change and paradigmatic shift in the narrative of the country.  Whether he was aware of it in 1965 as he wrote this book is unclear, but on reflection from the present this work gains so much power as we see America once again in the process of struggle and reinvention; of citizens and leaders, of the young and old, rich and poor, black and white wrestling with what kind of people they are and of what kind of country they want to continue to build around them.  A masterful work.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Great Plains - Ian Frazier

Initially Frazier's work struck me as too episodic: with passages on Indians, musings on the wind and weather, concerns of nuclear weapons silos and editorials on the value of the western lifestyle coming from across the wide-open landscape adrift among the sea grasses.  Yet the more I thought about what his work does, the more I thought about how any sense of unity from a travelogue is really constructed around notions of the author's personal journey, and, really Great Plains is about the place, its people and its history, not about Ian Frazier.  The notion of a cogent narrative only makes sense for the narrator, for everyone else encountered along the way the traveler's coming and going is exactly a moment of disjointedness, something outside of the ordinary.

Frazier makes no bones about the fact that he is a stranger in the Great Plains, that vast expanse of land from the edge of the eastern forests to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  As similar outsiders Frazier situates his readers in the selected history and developments of the Great Plains.  Throughout he succeeds in casting the region as a palimpsest, with modern concerns only properly understood in light of what has come before.  Indeed Frazier makes a convincing argument that it is specifically this light of history in which the Great Plains are best viewed, for it is here that the recent past of American history remains the most visible and visceral.  Here was the last outpost of the free Indians, of the tribes of Lakota, Shoshone, Mandan and the Crow and a healthy portion of the book is focused on the disappearing history of the Indian tribes.  The book begins with dead Indians and to a certain extent never fully departs from this theme.  Along the way Frazier gives voice to the feeling that much of our continent's heritage has been lost, to never be regained.

"For a moment I could imagine the past rewritten, wars unfought, the buffalo and Indians undestroyed, the prairie unplundered.  Maybe history did not absolutely have to turn out the way it did." - p. 174

At its heart the Great Plains for Frazier, and indeed for many who live there, is really about another America, one that exists on the margins of the two coasts.  There time moves differently, with an eye to the future but also with a foot in the past.  There much may seem unmodern, but it is rather a place of people who have chosen, or been stuck in, a different kind of modern America.  Most people would say that the Great Plains have little to recommend themselves to people of the outside world.  But the plains Indians didn't think so and neither, it seems, does Ian Frazier.

"They are the lodge of Crazy Horse." -p. 214

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid - Douglas Hofstadter

Ostensibly Hofstadter's book examines the works of logician Kurt Gödel, artist M.C. Escher and composer J.S. Bach, weaving their these together to gain insight into our approaches to knowledge and how this impacts our attempts at creating and thinking about artificial intelligence.  Beyond the surface the work examines what Hofstadter terms, "Strange Loops", or alternately, "Tangled Hierarchies"; approaching the question of how we often seem to end up right back where we started?

The book brings together a multiplicity of disciplines and traditions to try for a better understanding of the relationship between the inanimate, lower-levels of human brain function and the cognitions which arise therein.  In essence Hofstadter speaks of the "hardware" of the brain - its physical constituent parts - and the "software" - that which is changeable, grouped and malleable to the world around us.

Of course this is a lot to tackle, but Hofstadter succeeds admirable (he was awarded the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for the work).  Throughout he clearly interweaves mathematics, zen, molecular biology, classical music, art and logic (to name a few) in hopes of more clearly explicating how people experience the world around us and how we differentiate that across numerous levels of understanding.  Of crucial importance to him is at what level we examine phenomena and what of them we expect?

This book is long, at times layered in obscurities of the most abstract of mathematics, occasionally redundant and perhaps a bit too long-winded.  It is also incredibly insightful and a true journey of the mind and, perhaps, even the spirit.  I already consider it one of the more insightful and instructive works I've been able to read carefully, and even understand some of.  I look forward to turning its lessons over in my mind for years to come.

Monday, November 8, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

Somehow I navigated the American educational system without reading Harper Lee's classic.  True to rumor and myth, Atticus Finch is a hero of the highest order and would serve as a fine model for any young man, not just aspiring lawyers.  The kind of steadfastness and quiet dignity he brings to the story serves as a rock and moral compass - even when Atticus himself appears daunted by the proper way forward.  Not only a tale of fairness, struggle, inequality and morality, but one that contains beautifully written passages.

We laughed.  Haints, Hot Steams, incantations, secret signs, had vanished with our years as mist with sunrise.  - p.293

True economy of language is a rare art; to say what is required both concisely and clearly is, for me, the crux of what is true in writing.  Capturing essence is the difference between a story to be cast aside upon completion and one that stays inside a person's mind - that spreads out, grows and changes the way we see the world and ourselves.  Harper Lee has certainly accomplished all these things.

Much has been written about this book by many people far more insightful and greater than I; I will not try to replicate or expand upon their work here.  This seemed like a proper place to begin this "catablog".  Now I have read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I am glad for it.