Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

The Immortal Bobby

March 24, 2013 Leave a comment


I wrote twice last week (here and here) about Georgia Odyssey, James Cobb’s short history of the state, which I was reading in preparation for our upcoming trip. On finishing it Tuesday, I had two ideas for further reading directions: a book on the history of the Masters golf tournament, or a book on some aspect of the South’s economic history.

There’s no shortage of books on either subject. For southern history, I eventually settled on three candidates, which I’ll discuss in a separate post. More difficult was coming up with candidates for Masters history, especially given my fear that many would be of pedestrian writing quality.

A search at Amazon yields, just as a start, Steve Eubanks’ Augusta: Home of the Masters Tournament, Curt Sampson’s The Masters: Golf, Money, and Power in Augusta, Georgia, and David Owen’s The Making of the Masters: Clifford Roberts, Augusta National, and Golf’s Most Prestigious Tournament, all from around 1998. Of more recent vintage is last year’s Making the Masters: Bobby Jones and the Birth of America’s Greatest Golf Tournament, by David Barrett.

How is one supposed to choose?

I decided on a different tack. Why not a biography of Bobby Jones, golfing great, Atlanta native, and Masters co-founder? That might give me a better combination of golf history, Masters history specifically, and Georgia history. Alas, perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s an inexhaustible supply of Jones biographies as well. A more recent one is Ron Rapoport’s The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf, from 2005.

Rapoport’s website offers reviews by two prominent sportswriters, the Washington Post’s Leonard Shapiro and then-Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski. Shapiro writes, “There’s a fabulous new biography out on Bobby Jones, “The Immortal Bobby,” by Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Ron Rapoport. The author conducted scores of interviews and had access to previously undiscovered correspondence between Jones and some of his friends and acquaintances, … .” And Posnanski:

Bobby Jones turned a small Southern town into the home of golf. And yet, even here, he remains a mystery. He was the greatest golfer of his time, perhaps all time. He was once as famous as Babe Ruth. He remained an amateur when there was money to be had. He was a lawyer, he loved opera, he earned a degree in engineering from Georgia Tech and a degree in literature from Harvard, he made movies in Hollywood, and he designed America’s favorite golf clubs for 40 years.

And yet, in a way, Jones remained unknowable.

This is best seen in Rapoport’s chapter on Bobby Jones’ views on race and the Masters, the biggest issue this golf tournament has faced through the years (in 1996, when the Olympics were in Atlanta, they were going to play the first Olympic golf tournament at Augusta. The tournament was eventually pulled because of what were called Augusta’s “discriminatory policies”).

There are those who say that Jones was a racist – the Masters, after all, did not invite a black man until after his death. There are others who say that he was a man of his time and place, a man who grew up in the American South just after the turn of the century. And there are still others who will say that Jones was ahead of his time, a good man who was always, as Rapoport says, “fair and honorable to the many black people he knew.”

The truth is, we don’t have any idea.

Rapoport interviewed dozens of people for his book. He scoured more than 100 golf books. He read an uncountable number of magazine and newspaper articles and letters Jones had written. And he never once heard or read a single clue about how Jones felt about race issues.

“I just find that remarkable for a guy who was so political and such a prolific letter writer,” Rapoport says.

These reviews appeared to confirm my impression that Rapoport’s book would simultaneously enhance my knowledge of golf history, inform me on the early days of the Masters, and provide background on race history in Georgia. I downloaded it and began reading, reaching the end this morning. Though mistaken in my expectations, I was thoroughly entertained.

The book has three parts. The first two, which occupy 260 of the book’s 320 pages, offer a close account of Jones’ career, from his stunning 1916 appearance in the US Amateur at suburban Philadelphia’s Merion as a 14-year-old to his dramatic return fourteen years later—when Merion once again hosted the US Amateur—to complete his Grand Slam: a sweep of the year’s four major national championships (the British Amateur and Open, followed by the US Open and Amateur).

The focus is narrow: golf, golf, golf, and the psychological toll the pressure takes on Jones. Yes, Jones studies engineering at Georgia Tech, literature at Harvard, law at Emory, ultimately joining his father’s law firm, but Rapoport mentions this only in passing. The book is not a biography, as it turns out, so much as a you-are-there report on the drama of Jones’ golfing career. Which is pretty darned exciting, so no complaints.

Only in the final 60 pages—Jones having retired from competitive golf after his 1930 victory at Merion—does Rapoport broaden the book’s scope. Jones may have been an amateur, and a practicing lawyer, but golf remained his love and became the primary source of his income. He goes to Hollywood to make instructional videos with the stars. He contracts to make golf clubs with Spalding and become a member of their board. He writes golf books. And he oversees the construction of a new golf course in Augusta.

Rapoport treats all this in one chapter, then devotes the next chapter to the desegregation of Atlanta’s public golf courses including the eponymous Bobby Jones course. (This would go to the US Supreme Court, which decided the case in 1955 in favor of desegregation.) This, too, is the chapter in which Rapoport discusses Jones’ attitude toward race and the long contentious issue of allowing a black golfer to play in the Masters.

Next comes comes a chapter on Jones’ crippling spinal problems, the exact nature of which remains a mystery today. Rapoport has done some excellent research here, tracking down doctors and addressing the issue of whether Jones suffered, as he claimed, from a particular kind of spinal cord illness or whether, instead, his wondrous golf swing was the source of long-term damage. A final chapter brings Jones’ life to a close, way too soon and with way too much physical pain.

Let me mention two unexpected cameos. Prescott Bush* shows up at the 1929 US Open as the United States Golf Association official who makes a crucial rules decision on the final day at the 17th hole, a decision that saves Jones a lost ball and seals his victory. And Charles Seaver, one of the top amateur golfers in California, appears at Merion in that 1930 US Amateur, where he makes the semi-finals, with Jones playing in the other semi. Seaver leads or is even with his opponent throughout, until the 36th and final hole, which he loses, ending the match one down. Had he won, he would have faced Jones in the final, representing the last obstacle between Jones and his Grand Slam.

*Bush’s father-in-law, George Herbert Walker, lent his name to the Walker Cup, which is awarded to the champion in the biannual competition between a US amateur team and an amateur team representing Great Britain and Ireland. Jones’ Walker Cup matches are a central part of Rapoport’s story. Bush would go on to success on Wall Street, in business, and in the US Senate, stepping down in 1962, only to regret it when political ally Nelson Rockefeller’s case as 1964 Republican presidential candidate was weakened due to divorce. Who knows? Perhaps Bush might have got the nomination over Goldwater and run for president. Instead, he left presidential politics for his son and grandson. (See Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House for more on these fine fellows.) Seaver’s son would go on to have a pretty good sports career of his own, as a professional baseball pitcher.

The book could have used some additional editing. Seaver is such an important character that it’s jarring, having read about him earlier, to be introduced to him anew at Merion. And there’s one passage in which Rapoport appears to forget that he’s writing about match play, not medal play, and talks about someone being seven strokes down rather than seven holes down. Still, and even though I would have enjoyed more insight into the world of Atlanta in the first half of the twentieth century, I’m happy with what I learned instead.

Categories: Biography, Books, Golf

What It Takes, 3

February 9, 2013 Leave a comment


I’ve been reading What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer’s brilliant, 1050-page treatment of the 1988 presidential election, the last few weeks. As noted in my two earlier posts (here and here) on the book, I turned to it on reading repeated praise of it by a host of writers after Cramer’s death a month ago. For instance, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza:

I first encountered “What It Takes,” Cramer’s magisterial account of the 1988 campaign, as a college student. It was a dangerous book to read so early in one’s career—like falling in love with the idea of becoming a novelist after reading “Finnegans Wake.” Cramer did not really write about politics. He wrote about people who happened to be involved in politics. It was a revelation to learn that campaigns could be covered through deeply reported studies of the characters who inhabited the campaign trail. Though no campaign book has come close to accomplishing what Cramer’s did, he taught a generation of political writers that the two pillars of great nonfiction—immersive reporting and expert storytelling—could turn even a mediocre campaign into high drama.

In my second post on the book, at which point I was about halfway through, I observed that the book’s hero turns out to be Joe Biden. “As Cramer alternates between the past and the present (circa 1987), he has so far taken the early Biden story up through Biden’s courtship of his first wife Neilia, their marriage, their starting of a family, and the beginning of his political career. The 1987 passages take second wife Jill’s presence for granted, as if she were always there. Neilia is front and center in some chapters, Jill in others, with no mention of what changes. I don’t think I can bear what lies ahead, Cramer recounting of the death of Neilia and their daughter.”

Recall that Biden ran for the Senate in 1972 at the age of 29. The Constitution sets 30 as the minimum age for Senate membership, an age Biden would reach two weeks after election day. A month after that, Neilia and the three children were out Christmas shopping when their car was hit by a tractor trailer, killing Neilia and the one-year-old.

In the most powerful section of the book, Cramer alternates the accident and subsequent hospitalization of the boys with the collapse of Biden’s presidential campaign in August/September 1987 and his simultaneous leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Robert Bork. Biden’s devotion to family was already established earlier, but the reader’s admiration for him deepens in the post-accident passages. Yet, in Cramer’s contrapuntal weaving, one is left stunned and dismayed by the willful ignorance of the press as they move in for the kill when he fails to cite British Labor leader Neil Kinnock as the source of the climactic remarks in his Iowa state fair speech of August 1987.

Plagiarism! The hunt is on. He also plagiarized Robert Kennedy! And what about that paper he wrote in law school at Syracuse? Well, he had cited Kinnock many times before. In the excitement of the moment, he just forgot that one time. And he did cite the appropriate reference in the Syracuse paper, though perhaps he borrowed too much. And so on. No matter. There was blood in the water. Within days, he quit the campaign. The press had done its job. The truth was out. But Cramer gets at a deeper truth, revealing that a man of the highest character had been besmirched.

This is just one small portion of Cramer’s rich work. I had been reading the book piecemeal until today, when I knocked off the final 175 pages in one sitting. There’s so much to comment on, so much that is revealing of character. Let me quote a few passages that I marked in the last week.

1. On Michael Dukakis, just after his 1974 election as governor of Massachusetts.

He set out to make a government unlike anything the citizens of the Commonwealth had every seen. “The best government,” he had promised, “this state has ever had.”

This would be a government of principle not patronage. That was the first order of business: a radical patronage-ectomy, a professional personnel operation. No one would have a job because he was a friend of Dukakis. …

And Michael didn’t stop with jobs—all favors had to cease! The Governor had at his privy command the power to dispense low-number license plates. This was a harmless, much-coveted sign of standing, something like the Order of the British Empire, or a Lenin Medal for Valiant Factory Production. Best of all, it cost the Commonwealth … nothing.

“Nope. No special plates. That’s not the way we’re gonna do business.”

“But Michael, somehow you gotta thank your friends.”

So Michael told Kitty to schedule a dinner—not too big, maybe twenty-five people.

“Good. I’ll hire a caterer.”

“The way they charge?”

“Michael, I can’t do it!”

So … the Governor-elect made turkey tetrazzini for twenty-five.

Then he cleaned up.

Then, thanking was over.

2. On George Bush, during the 1988 primaries:

Jim Baker and Teeter told him he had to define himself. He had to start giving people a clearer idea of what Bush believed in … what President Bush would do.

“I don’t know,” Bush said. “I don’t get the feeling people want that.”

They argued … but Bush just wouldn’t believe it. Personal quality was his “thing.” He thought people would see it … once they took a look at him.

The fact was, he hadn’t a clue how to define himself. Some people saw him as moderate … some, conservative—that was fine! He didn’t want to rope himself into … positions.

Why should he?

The fact was, he wanted to be President. He didn’t want to be President to do this or that. He’d do … what was sound.

When people would ask—reporters, usually—why did he want to be President, he’d talk about Big Pres: “My father inculcated the idea of service.”

True enough. But one could serve by raising money for United Way? Why President?

One time, a reporter kept asking. Bush said: “Well, you know … doesn’t everybody grow up wanting to be President?”

Maybe where he grew up.

3. In my first post on What It Takes, I wrote, “Dole was severely wounded in Italy in 1945. Cramer’s depiction of these events is utterly gripping. Dole’s slow and unexpected recovery is a wonder. You find yourself caring … deeply.” As the book continues and Dole becomes a more remote figure, one’s sympathy for him lessens. Then this, after Dole was badly beaten by Bush in the Super Tuesday primaries of 1988:

This was his time. And they took it away! … He’d lost before. He wasn’t going to whine. But this time was different. This time, he couldn’t sleep at all, couldn’t stop his head: things that could have been different … all the things he’d done … probably wrong—half the things, anyway.

But the worst part wasn’t the things he’d done. It was the pictures of Bush—that’s what he couldn’t stop—pictures of Bush! In his head! Bush throwing snowballs, driving trucks, forklifts … unwrapping his Big Mac. Dole never wanted to see that in his head. And he never wanted to say—even in his head …

It would not leave him alone … five in the morning! Had to come down to the lobby … but he couldn’t get away from it. For the first time in his career—first time in thirty years anyway—Bob Dole said to himself:

“Maybe I could have done that … if I was whole.”

4. And speaking of Bush’s campaign for southern states on Super Tuesday:

Bush was appealing to Republicans across the South. He knew who they were—how they came to be Republicans.

They were Democrats all, when he first moved among them, in the forties … when the Democrats brought to the South the schools, hospitals, the electric lines that it so desperately needed. And he lived among them in the fifties, while the region caught up in development and wealth … and into the sixties, when the Democratic Party identified itself with the struggle for civil rights … For four decades, Bush had watched these people as they moved in from the countryside—or the cities moved out to meet them—where they now had roads, schools, hospitals, country clubs … and homes in suburbs, attained and established, they insisted, by their labor … and the last goddam thing they wanted was the government to come in and get in their way … to take more taxes, for example … or, worse still, to erode, to take away, any measure of the security and comfort they had attained … those schools, houses, neighborhoods, jobs, … in any effort to bring along the have-nots—blacks, for instance, or the poor in those rotting cities, the workers in rust-belt factories … bailouts, affirmative action, Congressional mandates, federal court orders … no!

These were the got-mines that Joe Biden used to talk about.

“Got mine … go get yours!”

These were people who thought they wanted government to do … well, not much .. save to stand tall for America, God bless her.

“I’ll never apologize for her,” Bush vowed, in Super Tuesday speeches.

As it turned out, George Bush was perfect for Super Tuesday.

What a book!

Categories: Biography, Books, Politics

What It Takes, 2

January 29, 2013 Leave a comment


Two weeks ago, I unveiled my New Year’s resolution: read fewer books. A few days later, I described one of my techniques for achieving this: read a 1050-page book. Namely, Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House.

I quoted a brief description of What It Takes from the NYT obituary of Cramer: “The book uses exhaustive research and vigorous, detailed reporting to delve into the passions, idiosyncrasies and flaws of George Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Joseph Biden and other candidates as they fought for the presidency in 1988.” I was 150 pages in when I wrote the post, just 5 pages short of the end of the first part, which is devoted to Bush and Dole. I wrote at the time:

You might think you don’t care about Bush and Dole. … But read the 50 pages that Amazon offers for free and you’ll care. Cramer is that compelling a storyteller. Bush and Dole are that compelling as people.

Twelve days later, I’m on page 544, just past the halfway point. Only 500 pages to go! We’ve moved on from Bush and Dole to Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, Biden, and Dukakis.

It turns out that the book’s real hero (well, for now anyway) is Biden. Two days ago, the NYT had a loving portrait of Biden. “In a few short months, the motor-tongued, muscle-car-loving heartbeat-away hell raiser has been transformed from gaffe-prone amusement to someone whose star shines as brightly as his teeth.” If you really want to understand Biden’s appeal, read what Cramer has to say about him. Yes, it was written twenty years ago. Much has changed. But Biden’s magic hasn’t. Whatever you think of his politics, or his gaffes, you’ll love him.

Cramer interweaves tales of the 1988 campaign with the family backgrounds and biographies of his six subjects. The campaign portions jerk ahead in fits and starts. The book starts in October 1986 with Cramer’s brilliant treatment of Bush’s appearance at the opening of the National League Championship Series between the Astros and Mets in Houston. Now, I’m into August 1987, the Bork nomination to the Supreme Court, and Biden’s preparation for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Bork. In the chapter I just read, Biden has delivered the speech to the ABA convention in San Francisco in which he quoted from British Labor leader Neil Kinnock’s speech a few months earlier, but forgot to credit Kinnock. Poor Joe. He would pay a huge price for this. But as you read along with Cramer, you are swept up in Biden’s excitement and can see how he might forget.

Indeed, Cramer succeeds in viewing each character as sympathetic. His treatment of Gary Hart’s fall from grace, when Miami Herald reporters found him together with Donna Rice in DC while Lee Hart was back in Colorado, is especially complex. However one may view Hart’s behavior—and listening to Lee, one thinks maybe he wasn’t so bad after all—Cramer tells the tale in a way that places national political reporters in a poor light.

Back to Biden. What a family story! His father’s rise in business, the collapse of it all, moving back to Scranton and into the home of Joe’s mother’s family, breaking free at last (Joe’s father, this is), moving the wife and kids to Delaware to get away and try to make it on his own, only to have his wife’s family come join him one by one in the years to come, as well as the business partner of years past who had brought him down. This alone would be the basis of a riveting book. And speaking of riveting family stories, there’s that of Dukakis’s parents, coming separately from Greece and finding their ways.

As Cramer alternates between the past and the present (circa 1987), he has so far taken the early Biden story up through Biden’s courtship of his first wife Neilia, their marriage, their starting of a family, and the beginning of his political career. The 1987 passages take second wife Jill’s presence for granted, as if she were always there. Neilia is front and center in some chapters, Jill in others, with no mention of what changes. I don’t think I can bear what lies ahead, Cramer recounting of the death of Neilia and their daughter.

And then there’s Bush, only an occasional figure since the first part, but front and center when Cramer turns to the story of his attempt to unseat incumbent Democrat Ralph Yarborough as one of the two US senators from Texas. Cramer has a way of treating Bush with sympathy while revealing Bush’s utter lack of any sort of political principle. Befriend every Republican leader in the state, try to bring them together, win. Bush begins as chairman of the Republican Party in Harris County, having moved to Houston from Midland a few years earlier. He decides it’s time to put business aside in favor of politics and public service. But what faces him is a weak and divided party, with right wing John Birchers on one side of the fault line, mainstream Republicans on the other, each contemptuous of the other. Or, as Cramer tells it:

The GOP was growing in Houston—in fact, it was on the rise all over Texas. …

But the problem was how the Party was growing. The GOP had papered the state with its new slogan, “Conservatives Unite!” Of course, no one dreamed what that might mean. They had pried the right wing loose from the Democrats. The Party meetings were bigger than ever, but those new Republican voters—they were extreme, on the fringe, they were … well, they were Birchers!

These … these nuts! The were coming out of the woodwork! (Actually, they came out of a couple of fringy churches in the working-class suburb of Pasadena.) These people talked about blowing up the UN, about armed revolt against the income tax. They had their guns loaded at home, in case commies should appear in the night. … Well, you can imagine how upsetting it was to decent Republicans—that is, to the lime-green pants crowd, who’d organized the GOP in Texas about the same time they’d founded their country clubs.

Almost fifty years later, we know exactly what happened to the party, and not just in Texas. Those nuts did more than come out of the woodwork. They took the party over altogether. Why? Vast books have been written on that. I have nothing to add. But Cramer shows us a younger George Bush moving right to accommodate them, as he would twenty-four years later in his race against Dukakis. Nice guy though he is, he helped lead the way to the disintegration of a once meaningful party.

Well, enough said on that. Let me conclude by entreating you to read the book. I know, it’s 1050 pages. It will take a while. And there are other books to read, other things to do. But this book is worth it.

Categories: Biography, Books, Politics

What It Takes

January 17, 2013 Leave a comment


Last Sunday I unveiled my lone 2013 new year’s resolution: read fewer books. In a post later in the day, I described a strategy that has been working so far: read a book that is beautifully written, but on a subject you aren’t greatly interested in. The beauty keeps you going from day to day; the lack of interest allows you to put it aside after 10 or 15 pages.

The book to which I was applying this strategy was Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, in which I had reached page 115. But then an alternative strategy emerged. Read a book that is 1050 pages long. I’ve put Elie aside temporarily in order to pursue this approach. The book? Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House.

I can say with confidence that I’m not the only one immersed in What It Takes right now. Cramer’s unexpected death ten days ago (NYT obituary here) prompted numerous appreciations, all emphasizing the book’s greatness.

From the obituary:

At 1,047 pages, the book uses exhaustive research and vigorous, detailed reporting to delve into the passions, idiosyncrasies and flaws of George Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Joseph Biden and other candidates as they fought for the presidency in 1988.

As he reported for the book, Mr. Cramer spent time with the candidates’ relatives, college roommates and sometimes even their elementary-school teachers. He grew close to the candidates themselves and in some cases formed friendships that endured after the election. Mr. Biden later gave him tips on fixing up an old farmhouse that he purchased in Maryland, Mr. Cramer said.

“He made no bones about the fact that he became friendly with the people he reported on,” said Mr. Cramer’s longtime friend Stuart Seidel, an editor at NPR. “He liked Joe Biden and Bob Dole and both Bushes. He did not feel compromised by allowing himself to get close to them. He did not see himself in a confrontational reportorial role — he was telling a story.”

From Ryan Lizza at the New Yorker:

I first encountered “What It Takes,” Cramer’s magisterial account of the 1988 campaign, as a college student. It was a dangerous book to read so early in one’s career—like falling in love with the idea of becoming a novelist after reading “Finnegans Wake.” Cramer did not really write about politics. He wrote about people who happened to be involved in politics. It was a revelation to learn that campaigns could be covered through deeply reported studies of the characters who inhabited the campaign trail. Though no campaign book has come close to accomplishing what Cramer’s did, he taught a generation of political writers that the two pillars of great nonfiction—immersive reporting and expert storytelling—could turn even a mediocre campaign into high drama.

From Tom Junod at Esquire:

Listen to the first sentence of the greatest magazine profile ever published by Esquire and, not incidentally, the greatest magazine profile ever written:

“Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those.”

Now, I’ve read that sentence, and that story, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” at least twenty-five times, and I’ll never be able to do justice to what makes it so great except to say it’s a handshake of a sentence — brisk, warm, offhand, relaxed, firm, honest, and man-to-man, the kind that accompanies a promise. It’s the sentence of a writer who is himself about to try for the best ever, and is willing both to let you in on what he’s going for and to do whatever’s necessary to make good.


But if “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” was a promise, it was still just a magazine story, and not long after it was done, Richard Ben Cramer began the long process of keeping it, in a book. Few men try for the best ever? Damned right — and he was about to show us why. He began following all the men who were running for president in in 1988, in order to define what it took to be president, in a book timed for the election of 1992. He called it What It Takes, and it was a title that bore the same relation to his 1,047-page endeavor as the first sentence of “Ted Williams” bore to what was to follow — it was a title that announced the nature of his project and set the height of the bar. When he was writing it, there were rumors of what it took him to write it, rumors of lost money, lost health, and even lost teeth. He would keep his promise, or die trying, and the book he wrote was not just the best-ever about a political campaign, it was one of best ever about men trying to be the best ever: about ambition and its costs both small and large, which he curated with an exacting and infinitely forbearing eye.

From Joe Posnanski:

Then I read this amazing book about the 1988 Presidental Election, called “What It Takes” — I read all 1,051 pages and I wanted it to last so much longer. I read parts of it again. And again. Every few weeks, even now, I read a section or two. I just pulled down my paperback version of the book, and it’s dogeared and underlined and warped in some weird way. Every page of it courses with ambition and crackles with joy — parentheses everywhere, exclamation points, nicknames, purposeful misspellings, ellipses, star breaks, it’s a big and sprawling Scorsese movie, no, five big sprawling Scorsese movies cut into one.

I was shocked when I learned that there were critics who did not love his writing. I mean that sincerely — shocked. Yes, of course, writing is utterly subjective, and what’s great to some is unreadable to others, but Richard’s writing felt universal to me. How could you not love it? He was hilarious. He was furious. He was, most of all, constantly surprising. I just cracked open “What It Takes”and re-read the opening scene of George H.W. Bush at the Astrodome, throwing out the first pitch, how it is a political mortal lock and how it is also a political disaster in the making, and no matter how many times I read it I find myself slightly unsure how it will end and thrilled when I get to that end.

You can see why I thought to give What It Takes a try.

The beauty of 1050-page books is that when you download the free sample from Amazon, you get fifty pages. Fifty pages will get you through the 28-page opening chapter on Bush at the Astrodome and well into the second chapter, on Bob Dole back in DC the same day, October 8, 1986.

You might think you don’t care about Bush and Dole. You might know you don’t care about the 1988 presidential election. Dukakis photographed in the tank. Willie Horton. George Bush selling his soul by giving Lee Atwater free rein to take the campaign into the gutter. That about covers it, no?

But read the 50 pages that Amazon offers for free and you’ll care. Cramer is that compelling a storyteller. Bush and Dole are that compelling as people.

I’m just five pages short of finishing Book I, 156 pages devoted entirely to the pair. We’ve gotten from October 1986 to December 1986, with Cramer filling in their family histories and their war experiences. It’s no secret that Bush’s plane was shot down over the Pacific in 1944 and Dole was severely wounded in Italy in 1945. Cramer’s depiction of these events is utterly gripping. Dole’s slow and unexpected recovery is a wonder. You find yourself caring about them deeply.

I haven’t even addressed Cramer’s extraordinary writing style. I could quote gems from any page. Then again, you can just read the opening pages at Amazon, and you should. Go to the webpage, click on the image of the book, start reading.

Okay, I’ll give you a sample, about Bush.

The thing that was neat about Air Force Two was the way it helped him make friends. He’d be doing a state, so he’d get the Congressmen, State Party Chairman, or State Treasurer, even a County Chairman or two, and ferry them along to the next event. They loved it. They’d talk about it for the next year. That was one beautiful plane!

Actually, it wasn’t just one: any plane he rode was called Air Force Two. In the bad old seventies, when Mondale was Veep, and the government still worried about things like fuel and noise, the Vice President flew on small, efficient DC-9s. But now, in the age of Reagan, Bush mostly flew a big old 707, the Stratoliner, a Cadillac-with-tailfins kind of plane, so heavy, noisy, and greedy for fuel that no commercial airline would be permitted to land one at an American airport. The Air Force had enough of the behemoths to keep two on call for Reagan, maybe send another overseas with a Cabinet Secretary, and still give one (or one and a backup) to Bush, to ease his travels. On most trips, he got Number 86-6970, which was the first jet a President ever flew. It was delivered for Ike, at the end of his term, and it was JFK’s number-one plane. Sometimes Bush got Number 26000, the plane that flew LBJ back to Washington after Kennedy’s assassination, on which he took his oath of office in the nation’s darkest hour. Of course, by the time a guest learned any of that, he felt like he was riding a shrine.

This is one hard book to put down. Even so, at 1050 pages, it’s going to take a while. My new year’s resolution is in good hands.

Categories: Biography, Books, Politics

The Life You Save May Be Your Own

January 13, 2013 Leave a comment


Earlier this evening, I described my New Year’s resolution: read fewer books. The first book I selected for 2013, Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, appears to be a good choice in pursuit of this goal, as I’ll explain in conclusion. First, let me review how I came to read it.

I mentioned Elie’s book last October, in writing about Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful.

Lewis-Kraus does have this odd habit of quoting people without any reference to the source of the quote or any explanation of who the quoted writer is. For instance, out of the blue, a section begins with a quote from Paul Elie: “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned an described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”

Do you know Paul Elie? I didn’t, and L-K chooses not to help me out. It turns out that Elie wrote The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a 2004 study of four great mid-twentieth-century Catholics: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.

I went on to mention that just two weeks earlier, Elie’s second book had “appeared, Reinventing Bach. The re-inventors are Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, Glenn Gould, and Yo-Yo Ma.” Moreover:

Hours later, at the NYT website, I saw that the subject of the next day’s book review was none other than Reinventing Bach. And a little later, I found that it was the subject of one of the briefly noted reviews in this week’s New Yorker. Moreover, had I only been paying attention, I would have seen a review a week earlier in our local paper, the Seattle Times, by their former music critic, Melinda Bargreen, with Elie scheduled to speak in Seattle the next day as part of his book tour. Someone was trying to tell me something.

I began Reinventing Bach soon thereafter. On finishing it, I considered turning directly to The Life You Save May Be Your Own, but decided I wasn’t sufficiently interested in 470 pages of text (plus notes) on Elie’s Catholic quartet.

The matter might have ended there were it not for the appearance three weeks ago of a cover essay by Elie in the Sunday NYT book review, titled “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” In the essay, Elie observes that

Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time as something between a dead language and a hangover. Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what O’Connor called “Christian convictions,” their would-be successors are thin on the ground.

So are works of fiction about the quan­daries of Christian belief. Writers who do draw on sacred texts and themes see the references go unrecognized. A faith with something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House”: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new ­occupants.

It’s a strange development. Strange because the current upheavals in American Christianity — involving sex, politics, money and diversity — cry out for ­dramatic treatment. Strange because upheavals in Christianity across the Atlantic gave rise to great fiction from “The Brothers Karamazov” to “Brideshead Revisited.” Strange because novelists are depicting the changing lives of American Jews and Muslims with great success.

I am the author of a book about four 20th-century American Catholic writers, and I am often asked who their successors are. Usually I demur. I observe that we look in the wrong places. I point out that Graham Greene and J. R. R. Tolkien were considered baffling in their time. I cite Matthew Arnold to the effect that ours is a critical age, not a creative one. I reflect that literature is created by individuals, not compelled by social forces.

Inspired by the essay, I thought I should reconsider Elie’s book. Doing a search on it, I was reminded that beliefnet had named it their 2003 book of the year and provided an interview with Elie, adding that

This group biography of four mid-20th century Roman Catholic writers—Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy—explores an era when American Catholicism enjoyed an intellectual high tide. Far from portraying his protagonists as avatars of some vaunted Catholic golden age, however, Elie shows how they worked out their ideas and exemplary lives in a context no less daunting than our own. Elie’s vivid group portrait is a serious work of criticism that can also serve as an introduction to the four writers’ work and lives.

I still wasn’t convinced that I wanted to spend 470 pages with Elie’s chosen Catholic quartet, but I decided to put myself in his hands. I downloaded the book and began. Soon I was drawn in, by Elie’s writing more than the content. I find it unexpectedly beautiful, in his construction of mood and of place. Sometimes I read just 3 or 4 pages at a time, but I immediately settle into Elie’s world.

This approach has its defects. Reading in small bits as I follow the lives of four characters, I struggle to remember details. But I enjoy the book just the same, enjoy immersing myself in the New York of my parents’ youth through which Day and Merton and Percy pass, the Mississippi and Georgia of Percy and O’Connor, the families and friends who shape their lives.

Plus, my piecemeal reading yields a bonus: it contributes to the success of my New Year’s resolution. If I keep it up, I won’t be reading many books this year!

Categories: Biography, Books

Emmy Noether in the News

March 27, 2012 Leave a comment

[Bryn Mawr College Archives]

NYT science writer Natalie Angier devoted her column in today’s science section to one of the twentieth century’s great mathematicians, Emmy Noether. Angier is a superb writer. I was thrilled that she chose one of my favorite mathematicians to write about, and I urge you to read her piece. But I have to confess that Angier didn’t succeed in conveying Noether’s greatness. Angier points out early on that “Noether was a highly prolific mathematician, publishing groundbreaking papers, sometimes under a man’s name, in rarefied fields of abstract algebra and ring theory.” A sentence later, Angier moves on to Noether’s contributions to physics, never to return to those rarefied fields.

I get it. I get that if you choose to write a short piece for the general public about the mathematician who laid the foundations for modern algebra, and who also happened to prove a theorem fundamental to modern physics, you’ll shy away from the algebra and head toward the physics. In doing so, however, you will miss the opportunity to describe her impact on mathematics itself.

In the fall of 2008, Princeton University Press published The Princeton Companion to Mathematics. I bought a copy when it came out, and wrote about it when Ron’s View was just a month old, observing that

Part VI, Mathematicians, contains 96 short biographies of mathematicians, arranged chronologically by birth. The few I’ve read were superb, even given the severe space constraints. The first and last mathematicians treated are Pythagoras (born ca. 569 B.C.E.), about whose life nothing is known, and Bourbaki (1935), who didn’t even have a life. Two of the ninety-six are women: Sonya Kovalevskaya (1850) and Emmy Noether (1882).

In quoting this, I wish to highlight how special Noether was, one of just two women sufficiently important in their mathematical contributions (through the early twentieth century; the situation would look much different now) to be included. I fear that Angier has not given a rounded picture of why.

Yet, Angier does succeed in conveying how admired Noether was by her contemporaries. David Hilbert was the leading mathematician of the era, based in Göttingen, the leading mathematical center. Angier tells the story of his efforts to hire Noether:

Noether’s brilliance was obvious to all who worked with her, and her male mentors repeatedly took up her cause, seeking to find her a teaching position — better still, one that paid.

“I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her,” Hilbert said indignantly to the administration at Göttingen, where he sought to have Noether appointed as the equivalent of an associate professor. “After all, we are a university, not a bathhouse.” Hilbert failed to make his case, so instead brought her on staff as a more or less permanent “guest lecturer”; and Noether, fittingly enough, later took up swimming at a men-only pool.

I taught a course on abstract algebra and ring theory this past winter for our math majors. The mathematician I most frequently mentioned was Emmy Noether. I concluded the course by giving an overview of her work (circa 1920) that, in effect, united number theory and the theory of smooth curves in one setting. She continues to be an inspiration, eighty years after her much too early death.

Categories: Biography, Math

Logicomix Again

October 7, 2009 1 comment

Two Saturdays ago, I wrote a short post about the new graphic novel Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, right after reading Jim Holt’s review of it in the next day’s New York Times. Now that I’ve read it, I’ll say a little more.

As noted in my earlier post, the novel tells the story of Bertrand Russell‘s failed effort to build a logical foundation for mathematics. Why math? Well, there’s the obvious reason that it’s more interesting than anything else. But more to the point, one can imagine that if there’s any hope of building a foundation for some subject– a foundation allowing us to know the truth of its statements with certainty — then the subject most likely to yield to such a construction project is mathematics. The Russell depicted in the novel (and it is a novel, based on the real Russell and his compatriots, but not a genuine biography or history) is excited in his youth by the beauty of Euclidean geometry, thrilled that logic and reason can yield truths, but disturbed that there was something missing in the foundations of the subject. At Cambridge, his disquiet grows. He observes, while courting his future wife, that “At Cambridge, no one talks about the real issues of mathematics. Like what is the nature of mathematical truth?” He adds, “If only you knew how much depends on these questions. How crucial they are!”

And she married him! How about that? I had similar interests as an undergraduate. And I wasn’t as smart as Russell. But I did know that talking about the nature of mathematical truth wasn’t a promising approach to dating. (Then again, I didn’t exactly have a lot of success with other approaches. Maybe I should have tried it.)

The novel isn’t just about logic and math. Irrationality, madness, pacifism, the limits of reason, the Vienna Circle and Nazis all play major roles. Plus, of course, it’s a graphic novel, so there are all the drawings, which I didn’t give sufficient attention the first time around, since I was so eager to follow the story. I will need to re-read it with a closer look at the artwork. Along the way, the authors get to poke a little fun at those annoyingly logical people who make normal conversation difficult. For instance, there is the imagined visit Russell and his wife pay to the great logician Gottlieb Frege in Germany some time in the 1890s. They arrive at a home and ask the fellow who is seen in the yard, trimming the hedge, “Is this Professor Frege’s house?” “No,” he replies. “This is his garden. His house is in there.” Russell asks if the professor is at home. “No, he is in the garden.” Maddening. Which gets back to the recurring theme of the interplay between logic and madness.

An important character throughout the novel, inevitably, is Alfred North Whitehead, the co-author with Russell of Principia Mathematica, the three-volume work in which they lay out their logical foundations for mathematics. But the one who steals the show — for me — is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who appears about three-fourths of the way through the book (page 223) when he arrives at Russell’s door in his Cambridge University rooms, having been sent from Germany by Frege to learn logic from Russell. Seemingly an admirer, Wittgenstein soon becomes Russell’s most powerful critic. World War I intervenes, dramatically altering both Russell and Wittgenstein. Then, as the book nears its conclusion, Kurt Gödel inevitably arrives, demolishing the dream that a proper logical foundation for mathematics can assure the existence of a proof for every true mathematical statement. One of the amusing conceits of the novel is that Gödel, who laid waste to Russell’s program, may have been the only person who ever bothered to read the Principia Mathematica in full. Yet, perhaps only by building on the Russell and Whitehead’s development of logical foundations could Gödel have developed the methods that showed the limitations of logic as a foundation for mathematics. The book can only touch on this, one of the great intellectual discoveries of the twentieth century.

The authors and artists themselves appear throughout the novel, along with a pet dog, in interludes in which they discuss the book’s issues while working or walking in Athens. All the ideas come together when they attend a local production of Aeschylus’s Oresteia Trilogy.

Math, logic, war, peace, theater, dogs. I haven’t even mentioned the failed marriages, crazed experiments in education, and messed-up children. Something for everyone.

A final note: I just noticed a link at the book’s website to a trailer, which is the youtube video I have inserted at the top of the post. Have a look. It includes an appearance by Barry Mazur, a fabulous mathematician from whom I learned algebra in my sophomore and junior years. He then became my senior thesis advisor.

Categories: Biography, Books, History, Logic, Math


September 26, 2009 Leave a comment


In looking ahead, online, at tomorrow’s NYT Sunday Book Review, I came upon Jim Holt’s review of the graphic novel Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou and illustrated by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna. I read the review, looked at some sample pages available from the review’s webpage, went to the book’s website, realized that there will be a book reading here in Seattle in two weeks, and ordered it. I have a bit of a book backlog, as usual, but I knew I would want to read this eventually, so why not just get it?

As best I can tell, the book tells the story of Bertrand Russell’s decades-long failed effort to find a logical foundation for mathematics. Along the way, other famous logicians and mathematicians appear, including Gottlieb Frege, Georg Cantor, David Hilbert, Russell’s co-author Alfred North Whitehead, and, of course, Kurt Gödel, the greatest of all logicians, hero to us all. Plus, various world events intervene. How could I resist?

Perhaps I’ll have more to say after I read it, or after I attend the book reading. If you’re skeptical that such a book might be interesting, I suggest that you read the NYT review and visit the book’s website. See too, among many choices, Rebecca Goldstein’s recent book Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel.

Categories: Biography, Books, History, Logic, Math

Torture and Hypocrisy

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment


This morning, as part of my continuing catch-up efforts following our trip last week, I finally read James McPherson’s article in the current NY Review of Books reviewing a few of the many books on Abraham Lincoln that have appeared recently in celebration of the bicentennial of his birth. McPherson is himself an eminent scholar of Lincoln and the Civil War era, author of the mammoth, Puliter-Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, which I read with pleasure many years ago. Having just a few minutes earlier read Glenn Greenwald’s latest blog post at Salon, about an editorial in today’s Washington Post, I was particularly struck by one passage about Lincoln in McPherson’s article.

Let me start over again, with a look at the WP editorial on which Greenwald commented. Read more…

The Rural Life

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment


Norman Borlaug, the great plant scientist, father of the Green Revolution, and recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, died on Saturday at the age of 95. I have little to add to what has been written about him in many places, such as this NYT obituary. When I read the obituary yesterday, though, I was taken by the one short passage about his childhood, as it made me think of the life my father-in-law must have led at much the same time among Norwegian immigrants in rural northeastern South Dakota.

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born on March 25, 1914, in his grandfather’s farmhouse near the tiny settlement of Saude, in northeastern Iowa. Growing up in a stalwart community of Norwegian immigrants, he trudged across snow-covered fields to a one-room country school, coming home almost every day to the aroma of bread baking in his mother’s oven.

He was a high-spirited boy of boundless curiosity. His sister, Charlotte Culbert, recounted in an interview in 2008 in Cresco, Iowa, that he would whistle aloud as he milked the cows, and pester his parents and grandparents with questions. “He’d wonder why in some areas the grass would be so green, and then over here it wouldn’t be,” Mrs. Culbert recalled.

Gail’s great-grandparents came to South Dakota from Norway, and her grandparents and father grew up there. Much of the family, including Gail’s father Stewart, would ultimately leave South Dakota for the Seattle area, but one of Gail’s uncles stayed behind. The uncle’s three daughters and grandchildren still live there. Gail visited regularly when she grew up. Her last visit — and my only one — was in June 1999. We went with Stewart and Joel so Stewart could attend his 60th high school reunion in Groton. Gail, Joel, and I stayed in the tiny (really tiny) community of Claremont with her aunt, while Stewart stayed farther north in Britton with one of Gail’s cousins. We almost made it to his parents’ family farm between Claremont and Langford, but the road was under water. Indeed, much of the area was under water, a phenomenon you can see if you fly east from Seattle to New York and look out the left window. The standard route takes you over Aberdeen, the main city in northeastern SD, with Groton another 20 miles to the east and Claremont 20 miles north of Groton. Look to your left and you’ll see lots and lots of lakes that weren’t there 70 years ago. Somewhere amidst the lakes is the farm.

Stewart’s life was nothing like Norman Borlaug’s, but like Borlaug, Stewart never left the farm behind. I don’t think he ever felt as at home as when he was around one. He would have enjoyed our little garden if he were still alive. Gail picked our first tomatoes of the season — at long last — just yesterday. She’ll be using them in tonight’s dinner. I hope.

Categories: Biography, Family, Science