David Bromwich needs to remember how to love his monster
Years ago I read this passage in Gary Wills' review of Robert A. Caro's Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson Vol. 2 (1990), Monstre DésacréNew York Review of Books 04/26/1990 edition.
In 1944 Laurence Olivier began a run as Sergius in Shaw's Arms and the Man, unsuccessfully. When Tyrone Guthrie came by to see the Shaw play, he asked, "Don't you love Sergius?" Decidedly not, Olivier answered. "Well, of course, if you can't love him, you'll never be any good in him, will you?" Olivier called this the "richest pearl of advice in my life." Years later he could point to the exact spot outside the theater where he had received this pearl, after which he loved — and played — the hell out of Sergius.
Robert Caro needed a Tyrone Guthrie at some earlier stage of this long run with the life of Lyndon Johnson. "Love that stooge?" Olivier had asked Guthrie; but Sergius is simply a blusterer. It is easy enough, with effort, to love a vain child. Monsters are another matter, and Lyndon Johnson was clearly a monster of ambition, greed, and cruelty. What's not to loathe?
But it rots the soul to entertain, too long, an unmixed contempt for any human being, even the worst. There is something eerily obsessive about Caro's stalking of his villain. It is the inverse of gilding the lily, this continual tarring of the blackguard. Johnson's treatment of his wife was bad enough, one would think, that Caro need not exaggerate it. Yet Caro reserves information where it would partly exonerate, and produces it only when it further incriminates. We are told, early on, how Congressman Johnson flew home to his district on his patron's corporate airplane while his wife had to drive the long trip with their belongings. Though Caro admits that "Lady Bird disliked flying," he tells us that the principal reason for "this disparity in the Johnsons' travel arrangements," which proved that "he treated her like the hired help," was Johnson's parsimony where she was concerned.
In my mind, I compressed this down to the advice, "You have to learn how to love your monster." And took it to mean that when you are evaluating someone whose ideas or actions you find particularly unsympathetic, you have to find some way to empathize enough with them to understand how they approached things. Otherwise, you'll wind up doing what Robert Caro did in that installment of his four-volume biography of Johnson, disliking the subject so much that you look for ways to trash him, whether or not you're being consistent or making sense.
I've been very impressed with David Bromwich's various analyses of Barack Obama's, which he has based heavily on a close reading and listening to the President's speeches on the stump and as the Chief Executive. His Why Has Obama Never Recognized the Tea Party?Huffington Post 08/02/2011 continues that trend, and has some important and perceptive insights.
But I've begun to worry that Bromwich has reached a level of downright contempt for Obama that he's starting to slip into Caro's authorial mistake of looking too hard for reasons to trash him. In my own experience, looking at Obama's actions from the viewpoint of a Democrat who had cautious but substantial hopes for his Presidency, you don't have to look that hard to find substantial things to criticize.
Here Bromwich does again what he's been so good at doing: looking closely at what Obama public style and self-representation tell us about his decision-making and deal-making. But a distinct note of contempt is creeping in:
It is an abysmal failure like the larger strategy favored by Obama's handlers: the devising of ever more talking venues for him, on the assumption that if people disapprove of the way things are going, the reason must be that they don't see and hear enough of Obama.
Undertone: I'm sick of hearing this guy.
There follows the baby-talk explanation of "No Taxation without Representation" as if his audience were barely sophisticated enough to remember the rudiments of fifth-grade history.
Undertone: Really, I'm sick of hearing this guy.
Ever pliable and parental, Obama pronounces "healthy" the desire shared by both parties to see the country pay its debts.
Undertone: No, seriously, I'm sick of hearing this guy's voice.
Worse than the lofty disclaimer is the debonair condescension.
Undertone: Really, people, the sound of this guy's voice kind of makes my skin crawl.
The broad programs to which he thought he adhered, and talked as if he believed in, he has sold down the river.
Undertone: I'm sick of hearing this guy's voice; plus he's, you know, black.
That "sold down the river" phrase is a reference to slavery. It referred to slaves being sold to owners in the Deep South, where their chances of escape were less than those in states bordering on a free state.
I don't want to get all prissy about political vocabulary. But, just as with Matt Taibbi, Bromwich's introducing a well-known race-related phrase in a piece otherwise dripping with contempt for Obama is not a appealing thing.
I'm noticing these things more because my own impression is that Obama with his debt-ceiling deal and his offers to cut Social Security and Medicare has crippled his Presidency and almost certainly fatally wounded his re-election prospects. He's now seriously "damaged goods" politically. So for writers and pundits, attacking Obama is now something that can please a wide spectrum of the audience, not just Republicans. Defending him will look more and more like tying yourself to a doomed cause. Expect more commentators to pile on with criticisms tailored to win quotes from conservatives as "even the liberal so-and-so says ..."
Bromwich's analysis in that piece is generally sound. Obama has avoided directly confronting the Tea Party narrative. He does frequently speak in a way that sounds condescending, especially after hearing it over and over. That's a particular problem for a Democrat, because the Republicans have well established a narrative that says Democrats are "elitists" that look down on the Real Americans. And Bromwich is correct about Obama's failure as Democratic party leader:
For Obama has torn up the social contract which was the heart of the Democratic Party. Those who want to confine the blame to Republicans say that the opposition party follows the dictates of a fanatical faction. True; but a president in these circumstances would seem all the more obligated to confront the opposition.
One might quibble over whether the "social contract" has been shredded. After all, Social Security and Medicare benefits survived last weekend's Big Bad Deal. But the political contract between the Democrats and their electoral base that the Party would protect Social Security and Medicare.
But if Bromwich wants to keep his orientation in writing about Obama, he needs to remember how to love his monster.