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Politics More Frightening than Fiction

Jan. 17, 2017
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Key West, Fla.—One of my greatest pleasures every few years is attending an annual gathering here of some of the best writers in the world at the Key West Literary Seminar. This year, it was also terrifying.

That’s because the theme those writers gathered to discuss this January, immediately following one of the most shocking presidential elections possibly ever, was “Revealing Power: The Literature of Politics.”

Robert A. Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of President Lyndon Johnson and New York City power broker Robert Moses, provided the title. Caro contends that power doesn’t always corrupt, but “what power always does is reveal.” 

In the case of Lyndon Johnson, Caro said, power revealed Johnson’s lifelong concern for the poor and for equal rights as someone who’d grown up in poverty and always felt denigrated by privileged, Ivy League-educated elites, even as vice president.

Caro said Johnson hid his concern for civil rights for more than 20 years in order to rise to political power by voting with Southern segregationists against civil rights legislation, even opposing laws protecting blacks from lynching.

But in Johnson’s first address to Congress upon his unexpected rise to the presidency after President Kennedy’s murder, he embraced Kennedy’s civil rights bill over the objections of political advisors who called it a lost cause that would once again die in Congress. 

Then Johnson used his political skills and knowledge of the opposition to pass not only the Civil Rights Act, but also the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act.

Among acclaimed fiction writers Thomas Mallon, Joyce Carol Oates and George Saunders, journalists Joe Klein and Gail Collins, humorist Calvin Trillin, poet Billy Collins and other writing luminaries, none expected any such happy, progressive surprises to be revealed when Donald Trump assumes the presidency.

One of the most riveting presentations was by Nigerian-American novelist and social critic Teju Cole, who described Trump’s election as a catastrophic stripping away of the myths and sanitized images decent American like to believe about their country.

“If you have a pretty story for yourself about what the United States is, it ain’t,” Cole said.

He continued, “How many times have we heard President Obama say, ‘That’s not who we are’ [when something horrific happens]? That’s exactly who we are. We have a great deal of antecedent hatred for each other. Our acts reveal who we are.” 

Joe Klein, the political reporter who anonymously wrote Primary Colors, the satirical novel about Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, said he should have foreseen electing Trump, a less than fully functioning adult, when working-class voters embraced Clinton’s actions.

“Their reaction was: ‘Hell, yeah. He makes out with lounge singers, eats at McDonald’s and he seems to care about me,’” Klein said.

 

‘Deranged’

Thomas Mallon is a political novelist who has brilliantly imagined personal stories within some of the most dramatic recent events in presidential history. Mallon is completing a trilogy about Republican presidents at especially low moments in their careers.

The first two were Watergate: A Novel, self-explanatory, and Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, in which Reagan, without Nancy at his side and already slipping from reality, walks away from a 1986 agreement in Iceland with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate all nuclear weapons. 

I told Mallon the last in his trilogy has to be the only novel anyone will ever look forward to reading about the presidency of George W. Bush.

But Mallon is no liberal writer trashing Republican heroes. He described himself to the right of most of the other writers present and even most well-educated readers who show up for literary seminars.  

That made Mallon’s shocking assessment of the coming Trump presidency even more dramatic. But he also gave the most hopeful prediction of how we’ll all survive the next four years.

Mallon doesn’t simply believe Trump is unfit to assume the presidency. “I really believe we’ve elected someone who’s deranged,” Mallon said.

He sees the most likely end for Trump’s presidency to be removal from office under the 25th Amendment, which allows the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to declare to both houses of Congress “that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

Short of that, here’s the most positive way we will make it through, according to Mallon.

“Nobody is going to make me lose faith in my country,” he said. 

The U.S. has survived political madness before, Mallon said, citing Aaron Burr, vice president and murderer of Alexander Hamilton; Confederate President Jefferson Davis; and presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. 

“And I am going to do my part to help it survive the son of a bitch that moves into the White House six days from now,” Mallon said.

We all have to if we want to continue believing along with our outgoing, idealistic president that our nation’s worst, most hateful political actions do not define who we really are. 

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