MAURICE SENDAK AND HIS ANTI-HEROES

Here’s a new piece done for my new friends at The American Interest:

The incidences of writers taking ownership of words are few and far between. Moses or whoever wrote Genesis certainly owns begat; the authors of the Declaration own inalienable; and Maurice Sendak owns rumpus. I cannot hear the word without thinking of reading Where the Wild Things Are to my children. When we reached the moment when Max declares the wild rumpus begin., we would begin the bouncing and tossing and squealing and tickling that constituted a rumpus in our house. One author, one word, striking memories in a house miles and years removed.

Like so many revolutionaries, it is difficult to see the influence of Sendak in the world that he remade in his image, only because that influence has become so pervasive. When I began reading to my children, there was no shortage of complicated stories and characters, Alexanders with the their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days and others even sadder and more unsettling. But long before that, before Sendak began writing, the books I had as child were simpler and sweeter, Golden Books filled with apple-cheeked girls and boys whose hair must have been parted with a plough. Starting in the fifties, Dr. Seuss came along with his anarchists and iconolclasts, Brandos and James Deans of the children’s book world, upsetting every apple cart and embellishing everything with their own jazzy, snazzy inflections. Then, starting in 1963, Sendak, who had for a decade been illustrating books, began publishing his own books. Lo and behold, they featured era-appropriate anti-heroes: the obstreperous Max of Wild Things, the jubilantly disruptive Mickey of In the Night Kitchen, preening Rosie of Really Rosie, “I don’t care’’ Pierre. Encountering scenes and people who alarmed them, or dismissed them, or tried to regulate them, these characters reacted the way characters played by Hoffman or Nicholson or Pacino or Dunaway did. Hoffman shouts “Elaine!’’ Pacino shouts “Attica!’’ Max shouts “Let the wild rumpus begin!’’

Sendak, of course, was a double-threat man; his illustrations were intrinsic to the experience. Not only do Sendak’s characters break form; so do his very drawings. Like his contemporary, the peerless comic book illustrator Jack Kirby, Sendak literally cannot contain his thoughts within the box. Mickey breaks out of the panel, and skips and clambers from frame to frame like Spiderman scampering up the face of a high-rise. And when Sendak isn’t exploding panels, he is packing them with information, filling rooms with objects, filling shelves with products, creating labels for all the boxes. Even the drawings he did for the books of other writers are crowded with information: look, for example, at his illustrations for Dear Mili, written by Wilhelm Grimm in 1816 and illustrated by Sendak in 1983. Dark and deep are these woods, but not even Frost could look at the thickets of barren branches and gnarled roots and layer upon layer of concealing foliage and call them lovely. They see impenetrable. They look scary.

But it’s an important part of Sendak’s message to realize that scary looks aren’t everything. Early on he disclosed that the monstrous wild things he drew were in fact based on impressions of his own relatives . Knowing that, one could no longer look at the bug-eyed, pointy-toothed, scaly-skilled, cucumber-nosed monsters without seeing my own beery-breathed uncles and fat aunts with their heavily lilaced bosoms, all squeezing and hugging to the point of repulsion. It was an act of great generosity, after having exaggerated their sad human imperfections into forbidding fangs and claws, to have redeemed them, and turned the wild things into Max’s merry playmates.

Appearances aren’t everything, Sendak tells us. The world is a scary place, but half of what we fear lies in our own perceptions, and most of that will yield, if not to courage, than to our own rambunctiousness.

THOMAS MALLON’S NEW NIXON

With the fortieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in arriving this June, we should prepare ourselves for a deluge of Watergate- and Nixon-related material. This may well be the last good anniversary opportunity to revive and relive this massively frightening, entertaining scandal before the vast majority of those who cared about these matters as they were happening have gone off to join the Great Unindicted Coconspirator in the Sky.

After that, it will be interesting to see how much we hear about Richard Nixon again. Will he be studied, like Theodore Roosevelt? Mentioned, like William McKinley? Ignored, like Benjamin Harrison? Nixon was one of the largest figures of the third quarter of the twentieth century. But as his era recedes, he is overwhelmed by Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan—the liberal icon who preceded him, and the conservative giant who came in his wake, two leaders of consequence whose ideas persist decades after their deaths. With no enduring legacy to call his own—detente was at best a mixed bag; wage and price controls were an embarrassment; he may have opened China, but Deng Xiaoping was the more significant figure—Nixon now seems destined to be best known for the Watergate scandal and for being the un-Kennedy, dark to Jack’s light, ambitious and striving in comparison to Jack’s grace and ease, sweaty to Kennedy’s infinite cool.

And yet we remain interested in Nixon, welcoming him as a character the way the Brits always seem happy to see a new Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. Just three years ago we got Frost/Nixon, where we saw Nixon tortured by guilt and defeat; later this year we’ll see Elvis & Nixon, the third film about that weird, marvelous, and ultimately meaningless encounter. We have had Oliver Stone’s tragic Nixon, the Nixon of All the President’s Men, unseen and malignant, The Watchmen’s Nixon as the despot of the new dystopia. It is perhaps the unique accomplishment of Watergate, the excellent new novel by Thomas Mallon, to depict Nixon not as a moral to a story, a symptom of a political pathology, or a walking character flaw, but as a man.

(To read the rest of my review of Watergate in The Washington Monthly, click here.)

MAESTRO ROBERT CARO

In the Times yesterday, Joe Nocera wrote a column that groused, if I read it correctly, about a man attaining excellence in his life’s work, and gently chided the man, it seems to me, for being great.

Nocera, whom I generally admire for his lucid writing about the turgid field of business and economics, took as his subject today Robert Caro, who, Nocera aside, is enjoying generally excellent reviews for The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. Reviewing the book, Bill Clinton not only called it “fascinating and meticulous,” but then awarded it a sort of special ex-presidential medal by saying that with this book, “Robert Caro has once again done America a great service.” (Writers get credited with many things, but providing a service to the nation is not frequently cited.) Last night I finished The Passage of Power, I’ll just say that it is a brilliant piece of work, reported by a master historian, told by a master story teller, comprehended by a shrewd and insightful student of power and politics. If I had a presidential medal to give, it would be Caro’s.

Nocera, however, thinks it’s long; and worse, it took a long time to write. “He would spend years — nay, decades — in the field, finding stray facts no one else had ever known existed. And then, when he started writing, he couldn’t stop. Other, lesser authors had deadlines, but not Caro. He turned in each volume only when he was ready, and sometimes a decade passed between volumes — so much time, in fact, that he began quoting his previous books in his newer books. Originally intended to be three volumes, written over maybe a half-dozen years, his L.B.J. biography eventually stretched to four, and then five.”

To which one might reply: So? Caro isn’t responsible for designing an emergency response system. He’s not charged with getting a liver to Pittsburgh to save the life of a 10 year old violin prodigy. And it’s not like Caro is in his room striving mightily in order to produce dreck; he’s using the time to produce quality stuff. The man has won two Pulitzer Prizes in Biography, the National Book Award, and, among other pieces of hardware, a Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Art and Letters. This is if you can take Wikipedia’s word for it, which we know Caro wouldn’t: he’d have delved into ancient archives and interviewed 150 people to vet those stats, but you can certainly see the effort on the page. If it takes a decade to produce such work, who is Joe Nocera to snark about it?

Nocera also complains about what he sees as Caro’s inconsistent portrayal of LBJ across the four volumes. “Johnson has almost no redeeming qualities in the first two books. Yet how could this same man, at the end of Volume 4, push through the landmark Civil Rights Act as president? How does Caro square this great achievement — as well as all the other liberal achievements to come — with his portrayal of the power-mad Johnson in the earlier volumes? In truth, he never really does.”

This is a ridiculous accusation. In each of the volumes, Caro has recognized the complexity of LBJ, while at the same understanding that a man is not a glass of chocolate milk, in which all the ingredients are smoothly blended. Men not only have not how conflicting and competing impulses, but at different points in time, different ideas, and different passions hold sway. Nocera’s reading doesn’t just lack insight, it’s just not correct. First, Caro does show that during this period of success and accomplishment, he nonetheless played politics with troops levels in Vietnam, and also took steps to insure that he could still manage his personal business interests on the sly. But more fundamentally, Caro shows that “the bad Johnson” was not much in evidence during the crucial two month period that is the focus of the book. Caro quotes Johnson aide George Reedy, who wrote “Almost at once, the whining, self-pitying caricature of Throttlebottom [a bumbling vice president from the musical Of Thee I Sing] vanished. During this whole period, there was no trace of the ugly arrogance which had made him so disliked in many quarters. . . The situation brought out the finest that was in him.” In fact, Caro closes the book with the comment that “this period stands out as different from all the rest, as perhaps that life’s finest moment.”

To sum up: one man spends decades researching a life, observes that the subject was different during one period than in others, and finds the subject’s different dimensions fascinating. Another man spends some days reading the books, observes that the subject seems different on one volume than in the others, and concludes that the biographer has failed to reconcile the subject’s different dimensions.

I’m looking forward to Volume V, however long it is, whenever it gets here.

ADIEU, NEWT

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Newt Gingrich, a man far and away my favorite presidential candidate, and the most sublimely creative, spontaneous, narcissistic, brilliant, shameless, cynical, destructive, ridiculous, entertaining political figure of my lifetime, has suspended his presidential campaign. That’s right, suspended. Forget that he commands negligible support. Forget that Romney has all but won. With Newt, one never says die: the next campaign, the next opportunity, is never more than a chance away–and that chance will come! As Thor seeks Loki, as the Fantastic Four seeks Dr. Doom, as Batman always keeps an eye out for The Joker, we will keep our eyes peeled for you. See you on down the road, Big Guy! (Above, ABC’s Jonathan Karl highlights Newt’s greatest moments from Newt’s 2012 campaign.)

CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE

Ed Gillespie, John McCain, Sean Hannity and other Republicans can complain all they want about President Obama taking the credit for making the decision to take down Osama bin Laden. After all, it’s what happened; as Walter Brennan used to say, “No brag, just fact.” Maybe it was a little tacky to bring Mitt Romney‘s 2007 comment that he “would not move heaven and earth” to Osama nor would he “enter an ally of ours” to kill or capture the mass murderer, but that’s just largely a matter of taste–I think plenty of people would have made the same point for the president, vigorously and often.

Now Romney’s saying “Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order”–a nasty canard–and Ed Gillespie is saying that Obama took “something that was a unifying event for all Americans….And he’s managed to turn it into a divisive, partisan, political attack.”

Actually, a real attack would look more like this.

Who was in charge of the country’s defenses on 9/11? George Bush

Who had fair warning that Al Qaeda was planning an attack on American soil? George Bush

Who said that capturing Osama was “not a top priority use of American resources”? George Bush

Who said, about bin Laden, “I really just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with you”? George Bush

Who pulled troops who were hunting bin Laden out of Tora Bora and redeployed them to Iraq? George Bush

And here’s the coup de grace:

Polls show that the American people believe that President Obama would do a better job handling foreign policy and national security issues by 53 to 36 percent. At the same time, voters think Romney would do a better job handling the economy by a margin of 49 to 40.

Of course, Obama is free to conduct foreign policy and national security policy virtually unilaterally; with the economy, he has to work with an obstructionist Congress.

Think it makes a difference?