Tag Archives: Robert Caro

Joe Scarborough doesn’t know much about history

Joe Scarborough

Joe Scarborough

If you’re going to try something as cheeky as letting cable blowhard Joe Scarborough review a serious book about political history, you should at least make sure you’ve got a safety net in place. But the New York Times Book Review doesn’t even bother, letting Scarborough step in it repeatedly in his review of Jeffrey Frank’s “Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage.”

You can hear the mellifluous  strains of Sam Cooke in the very first two sentences:

It may be the closest of political relationships, but it rarely ends well. Vice President Thomas Jefferson challenged President John Adams for the top spot in the vicious campaign of 1800.

There are two possibilities to ponder as we consider this remarkable lead. The first is that Scarborough doesn’t realize the Constitution originally stipulated that the candidate who received the most votes from the Electoral College would become president and that the person who came in second would become vice president. Perhaps that’s too much math for the famously innumerate Scarborough.

The second possibility is that Scarborough knows but doesn’t care, because he thought it sounded good to suggest that, right from the earliest days of the republic, the partnership between the president and his number two was somehow destined to go bad.

The reality, of course, is that Adams and Jefferson were bitter rivals and ran against each other in the 1796 campaign. Adams won and Jefferson came in second, sentencing both of them to a partnership that neither wanted. The possibility of such an outcome was abolished when the 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804.

Scarborough’s more serious lapse comes in the second paragraph:

Frank, a former editor at both The New Yorker and The Washington Post, examines how Ike’s cool nature and detached management style left Richard Nixon insecure and embittered through the remainder of his political career.

Now, I haven’t read Frank’s book, so I’ll accept that Scarborough is simply reporting what Frank wrote — with a fair amount of exaggeration and oversimplification, I suspect. But really. If Frank truly believes that the notoriously neurotic, paranoid Nixon got that way because Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t nice to him, that’s revisionist history with a vengeance. It’s one thing to suggest that Eisenhower played to Nixon’s insecurities; it’s quite another to assert that he was responsible for them. For Scarborough to accept that uncritically is a failure of the first order.

Scarborough even compounds it, writing, “Like Lyndon Johnson’s after him, much of Nixon’s pathos sprang from his painful contemplation of his boss’s public slights.” Seriously? As anyone who’s read Robert Caro’s “The Passage of Power” knows, Johnson, like Nixon, suffered from a world-class case of insecurity long before he ever met John Kennedy. The truth is the opposite of what Scarborough claims: both Nixon and Johnson were uniquely unsuited to suffer the slights that are inherent to the vice presidency long before they assumed the office.

Strike three, and Scarborough is out:

A fascinating subplot in Frank’s story details Nixon’s role in pushing the administration on the issue of civil rights. Long criticized as the author of the Republican Party’s racially tinged “Southern strategy,” Nixon is shown by Frank to be a determined advocate for the Civil Rights Act of 1957, as well as a trusted ally of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson.

“Long criticized”? Well, yes. Here the reviewer’s obligation is to tell us how Frank traces Nixon’s devolution from a liberal on civil rights in the 1950s to a race-baiting panderer — a cleaned-up version of George Wallace — in his successful campaign for the presidency in 1968. And if Frank fails to document that devolution, Scarborough needs to say that. Instead, Scarborough leaves us with the fantasy that Nixon is a forgotten champion of civil rights who has somehow been unfairly castigated ever since.

Overall, a predictably poor performance. What was the New York Times thinking?

Photo (cc) by Mark Mathosian and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

How Kennedy and Obama are alike, for good and for ill

Kennedy with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961

I’m most of the way through Robert Caro’s “The Passage of Power,” the latest in his series of Lyndon Johnson biographies. And I’ve been struck by his description of John F. Kennedy’s governing style, and of the similarities to President Obama.

What they share is a daunting intelligence; level-headedness in moments of confusion and  anxiety, which served them in good stead when high-stakes foreign-policy decisions had to be made quickly (the Cuban missile crisis, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound); and the ability to give a terrific speech, undermined to some degree by their aloof detachment.

The downside? Kennedy comes across as utterly clueless in working the levers of power with Congress, a failing he shares with Obama. Yes, it often appears that the Republicans are going to say no to Obama regardless of what he proposes. But Caro describes a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats in the early 1960s that was no less intractable than the Tea Party Republicans of today.

Kennedy, Caro writes, concluded that working with Congress was hopeless as he watched his tax-cut bill and civil-rights legislation go nowhere. But when Johnson became president, he engaged in a combination of cajoling, flattery and threats that he mastered in the 1950s as Senate majority leader. What Kennedy had seen as the pragmatic acceptance of reality turned out to be a rationalization of his own shortcomings.

Could Obama have gotten more than he has from Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor? It seems unlikely. But given Bob Woodward’s description of the president’s hapless dealings with the Republican leadership, perhaps a leader more willing to engage with the opposition could have had better results.

Not to get carried away. It’s hard to imagine a better schmoozer in the White House than Bill Clinton. Yet his tax plan was approved without a single Republican vote — and on health care, Obama succeeded where Clinton failed. (I enjoyed Clinton’s speech last week as much as anyone, but his invocation of the 1990s as a time of bipartisan cooperation was pure fiction. I assume the Big Dog hasn’t forgotten that he was impeached for his personal behavior.)

Still, it’s interesting to think about how the past four years might have been different if Obama was a little less JFK and a little more LBJ.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons, from the U.S. Department of State in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.