Laslo Boyd: A Holiday Reading List

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By: Laslo Boyd 

College football bowl games and blockbuster movies will provide a form of escape from the dreary condition of contemporary politics for many people over the coming holiday season.  But we all know that the show will return to Washington in January.  Few will be convinced that the recent budget deal is a sign of a new and more constructive era.

However tempting, tuning out from politics won’t make the situation better.  Instead, disengaging will just turn over more power to the extreme fringes who vote no matter what.  The decline in voter turnout in non-presidential years is one of the great failings of our democratic system.

Let me propose a more constructive albeit temporary escape from the current political malaise in this country.  I offer for your consideration three books which, taken together, may offer a perspective on what is going on today that could give hope for the future.  And even if that’s not the result for you, you will have spent many enjoyable hours absorbed in reading.

The first book on the list is at first glance the least substantive.  Mark Leibovich’s Our Town chronicles life among the political class in Washington.  Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, has engaged in what a sociologist would call a participant-observer study.  His portrait is of a privileged elite who live well, make lots of money, and are not particularly concerned with either the appearance or the reality of conflict of interests.

The politicians, lobbyists, and journalists who are the subject of Our Town mingle at the same high society parties and move rapidly and without second thoughts through the constantly revolving door between influencing and being influenced.  Leibovich quotes a number of elected officials and staff who talk about being able to “monetize” their public service once they move on to the private sector.

Our Town reads a lot like a long gossip column but there is a deeper message.  In his breezy style, Leibovich confirms the worse suspicions of both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement.

George Packer, in The Unwinding, covers a longer time period but ends up in the present looking at a very different part of contemporary society.  Through a series of descriptions of ordinary people, Packer shows that the promise of the American dream — if you work hard and play by the rules — no longer assures you of an adequate slice of the economic pie.

The Unwinding chronicles profound changes in the American economy that have left many people on the outside with little chance to improve themselves.   Packer’s subjects are the flip side of Leibovich’s.  Taken together, they provide a vivid illustration of the new inequality in America that seems to be getting more permanent by the day.

Packer also offers a few portraits of prominent Americans.  None is more devastating than his description of Robert Rubin.  The account at first reads like a classic success story until it becomes clear that Rubin’s role in the economy has contributed directly to many of the problems that Packer’s other subjects are facing.  Moreover, Rubin sees no harm in anything he has ever done.

Appointing Rubin, along with Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, to manage the economic recovery is, arguably, the worst mistake that Barack Obama has made in his presidency.  And it was, to top it off, an avoidable error.

By now you’re thinking, where’s the ray of hope?  I found it in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, her account of the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.  She also describes Roosevelt’s interactions with the press of 100 years ago.  Goodwin has won a Pulitzer Prize, wrote a widely admired history of Lincoln and his cabinet, and is a frequent guest on cable news shows.

TR may well have been the most progressive president we ever had.  His extraordinary record was achieved in an era of extreme disparities in wealth and income and an economy dominated by big corporations in much the same way that ours is dominated by big banks and money.

He showed that a president with a clear vision, strong political skills, and fearlessness about battling opponents could overcome what seemed insurmountable obstacles.  (Robert Caro makes a very similar point about Lyndon Johnson’s accomplishment in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)

Goodwin also describes Roosevelt’s positive and close working relationship with the press.  He provided incredible access to reporters, discussed ideas with them, and did not see the relationship as adversarial.   Of course, he didn’t have to deal with Fox News, but he still provides a very different model that we have seen in many years.

A second important point raised by Goodwin was the existence of long form journalism, particularly as epitomized by McClure’s magazine.  Reporters such as Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker, would work for month on a single story and would often impact the national debate and resulting public policy.  The closest parallel I can think of today is the New Yorker and the work of such staff writers as George Packer.

Here’s my hopeful conclusion from reading these three books.  Much as we view politics as the problem today, politics could be the solution.   The moderate middle doesn’t seem to exist now, but it could be revived by a strong leader willing to take risks, not be intimidated by shrill attacks and irresponsible segments of the press, and with a positive vision of America’s future.

Where are you, Teddy Roosevelt, when we really need you?

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.