Books: November-December 2006

November 30, 2006

Private Lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America By William Chafe

Private Lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America By William Chafe. Harvard University Press, 2005. 432 pages. $29.95.

A month into the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. received a late-night phone call. "Listen, nigger," the voice said, "we've taken all we want from you. Before next week, you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery." King, who was twenty-seven years old and unknown outside Montgomery, had recently come to the city to assume the pastorship, his first, of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Shortly after he arrived, a succession of unexpected circumstances thrust him into the leadership of the now-legendary boycott sparked by Rosa Parks' defiance of local Jim Crow laws.

King had received threats before, but something about this one was different. As he put down the phone, he was wracked by self-doubt, wondering whether he should be putting his wife, his two-month-old daughter, and himself in such danger. Unable to sleep, he paced the floor of his kitchen and began praying. Suddenly he heard an inner voice telling him to fight on, that Jesus would always be with him. "Almost at once," King recalled years later, "my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared." According to William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of history, that incident transformed King and history—forever. "That night," Chafe writes in Private Lives/Public Consequences, "he found a personal bond with God, which provided the anchor that would sustain him through trials sufficient in intensity and pain to break almost any other mortal."

In a series of sharply drawn biographical sketches, Chafe, whose previous books include a pioneering study of the civil-rights movement, seeks to explain how the private lives of ten prominent American leaders shaped their public careers. In addition to King, he profiles Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, John and Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon LL.B. '37, Ronald Reagan, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The value of integrating the public and private lives of such famous leaders seems so obvious one is surprised to learn it hasn't been done before, at least not in a sustained and systematic way. A bifurcated quality characterizes the literature on most American political leaders. Just about everyone who has written about FDR, for example, has treated his ordeal with polio. A couple of fine books are devoted exclusively to the subject. But few writers have examined in any detail how polio influenced both FDR's major decisions as president and his style of leadership. Chafe argues that you can't fully understand either without referring to Roosevelt's ordeal. Details differ, but Chafe finds the same holds true for all of his subjects—and, by implication, for all leaders. To understand their public performances, you have to delve deeply into their personal histories.

And what troubled pasts most of them had. Despite being born into a family of wealth and prominence, Eleanor Roosevelt had a childhood clouded by an insensitive, sometimes cruel mother, an alcoholic father, and a stern and repressive grandmother, into whose home she was shunted after being orphaned at age ten. Ronald Reagan's father was also an alcoholic who provided for his family indifferently, and, as everyone knows, Bill Clinton's stepfather was both an alcoholic and physically abusive.

The Kennedy brothers grew up, in Chafe's words, in "a household of many demands, enormous contradictions, and oftentimes very little affection or emotional support." The crises of Chafe's subjects continued into adulthood: King's night of doubt and FDR's polio, of course, but also Eleanor's discovery that Franklin was having an affair with another woman and JFK's death-defying, PT-109 heroics during World War II. For Bobby Kennedy, it was the assassination of his brother.

Most of these tribulations will be familiar to casual viewers of the History Channel. But Chafe is trying to get us to think about them in a different way—not as isolated episodes in a life but as keys to future behavior. So, for example, he traces both Lyndon Johnson's will to dominate and Ronald Reagan's romantic vision and detached management habits to difficult circumstances of their upbringings. Many of Chafe's subjects might never have entered politics had their lives been less troubled; public life offered a chance to exorcise the demons of their past. It's unlikely Chafe's book will find its way onto the list of must-read parenting guides. The implicit message is, introduce plenty of tension into your children's lives, the earlier the better, if you want them to be president. (That Hillary Clinton, alone among Chafe's subjects, had a relatively happy and uneventful childhood would seem to bode ill for her presidential prospects.)

Each of Chafe's biographical essays is fresh and provocative and comes with enough qualifications, disclaimers, and nuances to prevent it from deteriorating into armchair psychologizing, as could have happened in less skilled hands. Three essays are especially good: those on Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. The Kennedy brothers emerge more complex, more substantial, and, quite frankly, more interesting in Chafe's pages than in many accounts.

Not everyone will accept Chafe's contention that wartime service made JFK skeptical of military solutions and prone to reject the bellicose recommendations of his advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Over against this is the Bay of Pigs incident, the intensification of the arms race during his first years in office, and the not inconsiderable danger inherent in the naval quarantine of Cuba during the missile crisis.

But one need not agree with Chafe's interpretation of Kennedy or of anyone else to find this book rewarding reading. His goal is to point us in new directions, and in this he has succeeded admirably.


The Near Future By Joe Ashby Porter

The Near Future
By Joe Ashby Porter.
Turtle Point Press, 2006. 248 pages. $15.95, paper.

Joe Ashby Porter's intriguing, meticulously constructed realm called Manatee, a retirement village in Gulf-coast Florida, unfurls in The Near Future's opening pages to reveal a swampy, overheated milieu both familiar and strange. "Blinking lights whiz along the freeway, palm fronds and hibiscus, egrets and ruined haciendas and blue electronic jungles," Porter writes, describing a highway between Manatee and Miami. Determining exactly when the action in the novel takes place presents an interesting question.

In The Near Future, a new sexually transmitted disease called OIDS has developed, which afflicts sufferers with blue spots and robotic speech tics, and AIDS has been vanquished. A population explosion has jammed even sleepy back alleys of south Florida. The Internet is no more, victim of a meltdown. "Virts," or virtual worlds, are available with the ease of running a living-room film projector. Libraries have been outlawed because computers and virtual worlds made hard copy obsolete, leaving them to devolve into havens for the homeless. In the future, Porter's world warns, petty crime will rise and people will travel less—a depressing result of routine car bombings.

With a close eye for detail enlivening his narrative, Porter, who is also known as professor Joseph A. Porter in Duke's English department, offers a window into the lives of a small set of characters during a few days set in Manatee and on a road trip to Key West. Placing his characters in neat trailers on Manatee's flowering lanes, he introduces us to Gwen and Brent Runkles, whose adult daughter has abandoned them, and their friends, Vince and Lillian Margiotta, all of whom are in their seventies. Before the novel opens, though, Lillian walked out on Vince, and he's been speedily picked up by a fetching spinster named Vola Byrd. Completing the cast, Denise Passaro, the Margiottas' granddaughter, who is in her twenties, arrives from Baltimore in a sporty coupe with Tink Quinn, her boyfriend.

Hyperreality, here, is tethered to actual events. 9/11 cost Vola a lucrative New York real-estate career; during Vince's childhood, hanging laundry air-dried in Brooklyn; Brent fought in Korea. These grandparents show sensibilities from 1950s suburbia, and their grandchildren a post-millennial insouciance; baby-boomers, interestingly, are absent. To focus on fixing Manatee at a spot in time, though, is to miss the point. The characters' relationships—between spouses, children, lovers, neighbors, strangers at a bus stop—shape its narrative arc. Each of these funny, truculent individuals seems to be seeking something, though the haphazard, comical nature of that search is foreshadowed early, when Denise (Neesy) misstates the explorer who sought Florida's fountain of youth: "Corleone," she says.

In The Near Future, opportunism thrives. Neesy and Tink, who met when he attempted to rob a convenience store where she worked, are in Florida to launch a pyramid scheme. Vola, whose interest in Vince peaks around mealtimes because she's always strapped for cash, shoplifts cheap bracelets at a souvenir shop. Vince has damaged his marriage with affair after affair, but remains dumbfounded that the behavior would ultimately alienate his wife.

Stymied by repeated efforts to win Lillian back, Vince travels with Neesy and Tink to Key West, and Vola rides along. Wandering around Key West, now a major drug-trade port—crack, yes, but geriatric contraband like memory drugs and hair tonics, too—the characters meet a string of odd people. Vince wanders into Hemingway's house and finds himself the target of a gonzo drug-world assassin.

Here, the novel's storyline becomes a bit confusing—a dozy Florida sojourn turned dangerous by a criminal undercurrent. Porter writes with ruthless efficiency, paring his images to a few stark words, to lasting effect, and he applies a similar economy to his characters' dialogue, but as the action escalates, punchy banter between them sometimes blends into a glib blur. Missed connections between the characters also build tension, but it's a relief when the four Key West adventurers pile back into the car and rehash events. The most harrowing scenes for Vince happen away from the other characters, and are only described by him on their way back to Manatee.

Florida's inherent surrealism, fast-forwarded and steeped in an irreverent retiree worldview, gives latitude to Porter's talent for fiction. Porter, the professor, also creeps in occasionally—when, for example, it's noted that scholarship on Hemingway's sexism is outdated. A tumultuous street-fair scene, with identity mix-ups and peopled by Hemingway look-alikes, also bespeaks elements of Shakespearean comedy.

The near future, as it happens, may be only a few years away, or it may exist even now, an alternate reality, with the help of virtual electronics. "I wonder," says Lillian, "why time has to be real in a virtual world," her question perhaps a wink from the writer about fiction's very construct. Freed of the question, a reader examines the complication and pathos of growing old still enlivened by heartache and hopefulness.