Tuesday, February 23, 2016

All the King's Men

In Roman times Julius Caesar was famously murdered when he wouldn’t play ball with the powers that be. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men found a modern equivalent for Caesar in the story of the rise and fall of Huey Long, the legendary governor of Louisiana. In Robert Rossen’s l949 Academy Award winning film, Broderick Crawford plays the character. But who today will act out the myth of the populist hero who becomes corrupted by power? Though probably more political than idealistic, Lyndon Johnson was, for example, a perfect example of the New Deal politician who became a major power broker—to quote the title of another book written by the prominent biographer of Johnson’s life, Robert Caro. Treachery and behind the scenes deal making is, of course, the nether side of our democratic process and what unfortunately makes it interesting. Who wouldn’t rather read a book about Huey Long than one say about a pleasantly equanimitous governor like Mario Cuomo? "As a governor, that is my job every day is to turn the aspirational into the operational," Chris Christie recently told CNN--which might have been fodder, but the governor of New Jersey seems to be in no danger of attaining mythic status. Ted Cruz is cracking up to be a good candidate not for president, but for a book about behind the scenes hardball playing. Prematurely announcing Ben Carson’s retirement from the race to voters attending the Iowa caucuses was the epitome of cut throat politics. And now we learn that he’s pulled one his own ads because a fetching actress in it turned out to have had a career in soft core. Add to that the impugning of his opponents faith ("The Devil in Ted Cruz,NYT, 2/23/16). Donald Trump has famously written his own book Trump: The Art of the Deal but he needs his Jack Burden, the journalist narrator of All the King’s Men. Who will be his Boswell? The story has color and glamour, but somehow lacks the gravity of either the Robert Penn Warren novel, or Caro’s non-fiction work. Trump’s legacy will probably result in the creation of many books, but what's lacking in this tale is the presence of a truly great figure. Trump is the rare example of a larger than life character with, to decontextualize the title of Eldridge Cleaver’s autobiography, a Soul on Ice.

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