Woodrow Wilson by Scott Berg

Scott Berg’s biography, Wilson, published in 2013, presents a candid, complete, and well-rounded portrait of an American president whose impact places him among a small group of U.S. presidents, including Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Truman.

The critical issue, Wilson’s vision of egalitarian democracy, self-determination and the rights of small countries remains relevant today. He famously championed the League of Nations after WWI to prevent a similar war from occurring, and he famously failed to achieve Senate ratification of what he had negotiated in Paris. A “coven” (not an inappropriate word used by Berg) of Republican senators acted
under the leadership of Henry Cabot Lodge just as Republican senators have acted under the direction of current senator Mitch McConnell, who vowed the day Barrack Obama was inaugurated that the priority was to ensure he would not be re-elected. Lodge’s pre-Versailles plan was to scuttle whatever Wilson negotiated, not knowing what that would be. This kind of cheap partisanship found its target more fatally in Wilson’s case than Obama’s. But Obama has paid a steep price nonetheless.

What Wilson foresaw was that Europe and the world would head into another terrible war if the peace of 1919 was not just and far-sighted. He was right. He also predicted that the United States, if it withdrew into itself, soon would head into a domestic depression. Right again.

But history makes it almost impossible to explain exactly what Wilson had in mind. By this I mean, he envisioned the impossible. He wanted a community of nations to act in concert, preserving peace and declining to pursue narrow national interests. Clemenceau of France and Lloyd George of England said yes to this but were lying even as they spoke. They had revenge and imperial interests on their minds. The latest example of such cynical leadership is Vladimir Putin, who is pressuring Ukraine because it boosts him politically, if not economically, at home, and accords with a sense of Russian grandeur. Meanwhile, Ukraine struggles to stay afloat. The United Nations, which finally came into being post-WWII and assumed the mantle of the League of Nations with greater authority and more “buy-in” is effectively helpless in thwarting Putin. Large powers like the U.S. and the E.U. have to resist him on Ukraine’s behalf, but the game is a delicate balance of interests. The U.S. objects to the bullying and destabilizing effect Putin is having not only on Ukraine but Europe at large. The E.U., more cautiously, needs to preserve natural gas flows from Russia while struggling to keep Ukraine oriented in Europe’s direction. What we see here is not egalitarian democracy, self-determination, and the rights of the small against the large, and it’s almost 100 years since Wilson offered us what seems, in truth, an ethereal vision of a world that can never be so pure, so self-restrained, so lacking in vindictiveness and overwhelming self-interest. The affairs of humankind do not seem destined to work that way . . . ever. This applies domestically in curious, perverse ways as well. If a president today attempted to champion a campaign to save us from climate change spoke with the eloquence, tenacity, and passion of Wilson championing the League of Nations, he or she would meet the same fate as Wilson. He or she would fall to “interests.”

Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR were three U.S. leaders who had to take the United States into and through great wars that Americans questioned and resisted. Each literally gave his life to his cause, assassinated or so worn out with the effort that he expired .

When we look at the craven stupidity of George Bush in Iraq or the naiveté of JFK and Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, we see American presidents behaving more like the leaders of other countries. This is not to say that there have not been great idealists elsewhere or that all leaders of other countries are craven and naive. It’s only to say that the idealistic exceptions are few.

Berg presents a Wilson I didn’t know: he had his light side, his deeply romantic side, and apparently a spellbinding eloquence both as a college professor and president. The secret to his effectiveness as a speaker is one I’ve always believed in: talk to a thousand people as if you are talking to one, don’t talk down, the more extreme your rhetoric, the more quietly you should express it, give people a simple scheme of what you intend to say at the outset so that they can better understand what you will say at greater length later on.

Wilson’s complexity is more than I could address in a book review, but it seems that Wilson’s experience growing up in the defeated American South deeply affected his vision of how reconciliation should proceed. He agreed that slavery was an abomination and worth fighting against; in other words, he was a southerner who did not defend the practice, but he was a paternalistic figure who pushed the full integration of African-Americans into U.S. society very, very slowly. He did not give American blacks the respect he accorded citizens of other countries: the right to self-determination, protection from larger powers, and full participation in the democratic process. This, he believed, would take time, more time than he had at his disposal. Segregation in various forms made sense to him. Perhaps he was only a realist about this. Decades would pass in America before the Civil Rights movement. More decades would pass before Obama would be elected, and even then an undercurrent of persistent racism has trebled the difficulty of his job.

The most compelling portions of Berg’s book are the penultimate chapters following Wilson on his train campaign across America, preaching to huge crowds that the League of Nations was the right answer for America and the world. He had not been a well man for many years. He had had strokes and he had intestinal problems and he had severe headaches. But the crowds drew the best from him until he ultimately could not leave his train to undertake the last five or six scheduled events.

At that point he rolled back to Washington and remained in seclusion for months, and we come to the passages where his second wife, Edith, and his doctor, Admiral Grayson, conspired to shield him from prying eyes and assist him in carrying out the functions of his office.

The poet who most reminds me of Wilson is Rilke. Rilke had the same ethereal qualities, the same impossible-to-pinpoint faith in spirits and angels and ideals. It strains the mind to follow his otherworldly visions, and yet there is beauty and hope, passion and desperation, that make Rilke intriguing. The same can be said for the professor who became president. He always wanted to be a politician, but that did not enable him to do what he set out to do–change the world.

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A Sport of Nature by Nadine Gordimer

A Sport of Nature by Nadine Gordimer recounts the life a white Jewish girl named Hillela whose mother abandoned her as a child, who was raised by two aunts, who ran away from a middle-class South African life and became, through sundry love affairs, the widow of a black South African revolutionary and the wife of a successful president in a country (not named) neighboring South Africa.
The concept here is that a “sport of nature” is an aberration, perhaps a felicitous aberration, and that Hillela mysteriously adapts to mysterious circumstances, becoming a political force in her own right–well-versed in international affairs as well as in romantic affairs.
In a sense, she is a natural blank slate upon which many different individuals are permitted to write. Her cousin, Sasha, is one. A South African informer, pretending to be a journalist in sympathy with anti-apartheid forces, is another. Then comes the love of her life, the high-ranking black South African who is assassinated on the threshold of their temporary home in exile, where he is planning and executing military actions against the white South African government.
All this makes for colorful, interesting reading. Hillela never resolves into what Gordimer claims for her–a personage who really understands her own purposes and is obscure simply because she keeps her own counsel–but she gets caught up in the spirit of the times and is willing to cross boundaries few white women would cross in the apartheid days of South Africa.
The peculiar quality of the novel’s heroine is matched in some ways by Gordimer’s curious style. She writes as if she’s taking notes, jumping here and there, starting sentences she doesn’t quite know how to finish, all in the service of exploring the intimacy of life under oppression and in revolt. I’ve read other novels and stories written by Gordimer that were not so distractingly expressed. In the end, I can’t help but feel that her inability to really get at Hillela (as Henry James got at Isabel Archer, for instance) made her stumble.
Having said that, A Sport of Nature has fascinating scope, many fine passages, and historical value. Here we encounter the conscience of anti-apartheid whites, their frustrations, the risks they took, and the limits of what they could contribute to the cause.
Gordimer takes some pains at one point to almost marry Hillela off to a New Republic-style American liberal who lives in a fine brownstone and knows all the right people. Given Hillela’s exotic past and taste in men, these passages read like a lame attempt to work in some anti-Americanism. Naturally Hillela breaks off their engagement when she falls in love with the revolutionary who would become president (for the second time) of the aforementioned neighboring country. This fellow is a lion of a man who is tough to take, or believe in: he’s shrewd, tenacious, brave, and wise. With Hillela as his mate, he does a hell of a lot of good for his country. I spent some time trying to determine what country Gordimer had in mind because I’m not aware of many countries in Southern Africa where things have turned out well.
At novel’s end, Mandela takes the stage and the overthrow of the whites is complete. Structurally, this is odd. Gordimer clearly is determined to focus on the politics of South Africa per se rather than on the psychology and personal life of Hillela the presidential consort who has, by this time, not that much to contribute to what her assassinated first husband helped bring about. She lives elsewhere, after all. By way of compensation, Gordimer focuses on the miserable fate of the one cousin (Sasha) who stayed behind and really suffered (and was imprisoned) as a result of his anti-apartheid efforts.
For about two-thirds of this almost 19th century novel, I thought I was reading something exceptionally good, and I’m still sure I was reading something interesting. But what I now think is that the conclusion devolves into a kind of sloganeering posing as a novel. In different contexts, Solzhenitsyn and Dos Passos actually used journalistic excerpts from the times about which they wrote as a way of penetrating further into their stories. That wouldn’t work here because, despite Gordimer’s themes, she really doesn’t seem to have been a deeply political writer. This isn’t to question the staunchness of her beliefs–it’s to suggest she wanted to have her cake and eat it, too. Her strong literary personality leaves the stage at the end of A Sport of Nature and it’s just too late in the book to bow down before History and serve as its rapporteur.

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The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo is a collection of stories written between the late 1970s and 2011. Each story seems to be based on a strong central idea–a story idea–that decays into DeLillo’s vision of the world and his way of expressing it. When he writes novels, there are enough events to give this DeLillo vision a kind of rhythm that rescues it from its monotony and repetitiveness. Here, the singularity of the story-idea gradually erodes even as it crests. I know that’s contradictory, but I don’t know a better way to express the effect of story after story.

The flatness, the dullness, the boringness of DeLillo’s prose in this collection points in the direction of his central theme–estrangement–and his secondary theme (which is is his primary theme in novels)–conspiracy.

DeLillo’s estrangement is somewhat different from what Camus offered in The Stranger. It is the constant representation of life and things and people as unique and fascinating and bewildering and not belonging to any controlling order. Much of what DeLillo depicts is grubby urban reality (New York reality) that feels momentary and arbitrary, as though buildings were the mourners at a funeral, gathered around a grave, who soon will all go off in different directions and may never meet again. DeLillo’s characters are equally estranged from one another, arbitrarily, coincidentally, or perhaps indifferently tied together. I could love you, I could love someone else, it doesn’t matter because I don’t know what love means in the first place.

In story after story, the cadence of details and exchanges seems to be building toward a release DeLillo deliberately subverts. Estrangement always leads to the revelation of vacancy. The final story, “The Starveling,” reveals the backbone of this march toward emptiness. That backbone is a code of conduct, almost a religious rite, that disallows variations. One must always do the same things and expect the same thing, nothing.

The face of conspiracy in DeLillo is variable. Sometimes it is the unknown and unknowable, sometimes it is the intrusion of mystery, sometimes it is the laughter of a parallel world recorded and projected in the media. In one story, “The Ivory Acrobat,” conspiracy even takes the form of post-earthquake aftershocks. These earthly rumblings must be telling us something, mustn’t they? The question is whether they are telling us about the arbitrariness of nature or the desperate contingency of self.

So there is something grueling about The Angel Esmeralda, but in that there are rewards. The first reward is that we all see things we don’t see. We are unobservant. We don’t have room in our thoughts for the mute statements that hurtle at us all the time. DeLillo rectifies that. The second reward is DeLillo’s apparent belief that we should not force a malign interpretation on the weirdness of the world. Many of his characters are frozen in a protective, paranoid crouch, but their discomfort is not necessarily terminal or definitive. In DeLillo’s world, it’s possible that what seems to be be really isn’t, and it’s possible that what happens doesn’t happen because a cosmic hostility is pursuing us, and it’s possible that the ultimate emptiness of things isn’t so ultimate. He seems to be saying that whatever we have invented and allowed to become our internal guidance system could have been, and still could be, invented otherwise. So we’re trapped–another contradiction, I admit.

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Open Secrets by Alice Munro

Open Secrets by Alice Munro is a collection of her stories published in 1994 that I had not read before, which was something of a surprise to me since I’ve read so much of her work with so much pleasure.

Here she continues to achieve her almost novelistic effects in the most deceptively simple way: she often sticks to one location in rural Canada, a mill town on the way down, she builds significant changes in time into her narratives, and she manages to conclude her stories with a sense that the fullness of a life has now been revealed.

One story, “The Albanian Virgin,” is a classic captivity story that almost seduces the captive—a woman—into accepting her fate but for the intervention of a Franciscan priest, who, one speculates, connects with her in freedom later on.

Another story, “The Jack Randa Hotel,” plays a game of hide-and-seek between a separated couple who have to travel from Canada to Australia to reach one another. Or maybe it’s a game of tag . . . could be.

Munro writes with specificity about faces, moods, landscapes, and characteristics. Her subjects have not yet found the homogenizing effect of Prozac and other hi-tech drugs that squeeze the weirdness out of them. A girl from an orphanage is married to a young man setting out in the wilds to build a farm with his brother, but as the story unfolds, great uncertainty develops as to how the young married man actually died. At the end, we know, although the girl from the orphanage still keeps many secrets to herself.

I particularly like two tricks Munro plays with time: Sometimes she shifts into the present tense without explanation, only to return to the past tense, also without explanation. No explanation is necessary, of course. The present tense, when used judiciously, intensifies a story. Munro also occasionally drops a piece of a narrative in a spot that is chronologically all wrong but creates an out-of-time fulness and completion, even though it suggests the same story, the one that has just been told, is now going to be told all over again.

Without a doubt, Munro is a lady, meaning a gentlewoman, but her writing can be earthy and spicy and quite realistic about old men who want their younger wives to talk dirty to them or boys who want to jump girls so bad they call them ugly first, as if to drive them away, not embrace them.

Not infrequently Munro flashes forward toward the end of a story to show how things turned out decades after the main events. Two things stand out about this: the characters have gotten old and feeble and suffered many losses . . . and hypocrites usually receive what they always had coming to them.

Perhaps Munro’s effectiveness in deploying all these techniques lies in the humbleness and unpretentiousness of her principal characters and settings and her straightforward, clean style.

She goes to the heart of the matter—how life grabs you there and makes your pulse race or seize up. She’s not a writer who blinks at joy or misery. She lets each have its due.

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The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

As I was reading The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, more than 600 pages of them, I had to set aside what I already knew of his colossal literary achievements to better appreciate how they came to be, how long he spent publishing his work in tiny emigre newspapers, how little he was appreciated before Lolita and Pale Fire were published, two books that made him impossible to ignore.
He had many literary friends and admirers throughout his career, of course. Perhaps the most famous, and famously arrogant, was Edmund Wilson, a man of letters equal to Nabokov in many ways but not, as he stupidly insisted, in his knowledge of the Russian language.
But the fact is that Nabokov’s own stories tell the tale of his melancholy moments in Europe—especially in Berlin—better than a deservedly proud man would like to tell them directly, in his own voice.
He wrote about lots and lots of losers, losers who missed their main chance at love, a career, exotic travel, a good friendship. And he wrote about lots of romantics who yearned for the kind of explosive aesthetic revelation that only a master like Nabokov could really concoct.
I don’t see any point in retelling any of the dozens of stories in this volume. They’re there to be read, not summarized. Early in his career Nabokov clearly had some Chekhov in him. As he hit stride, one senses an affinity for Turgenev. Someone like Dostoevsky would have appalled him, only to be treated with comedy. Tolstoy? Well, Tolstoy did have that drop-dead lucidity about him; the problem with him, though, was that like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy became a devout moralist and refused to do what Nabokov consistently did—use his powers to transcend the little good and bad distinctions and glory in the pure beauty of life observed and described for and of itself.
At one point in these stories a character is dismissed because he relates to the world through feelings, not concrete, scientific assessment. Here’s a key to Nabokov. He was an expert lepidopterist (butterfly expert), and as such he was more exacting and precise than mere feelings permit. That’s where his famous—almost unbelievable—style explodes on the page; he captures tiny, intriguing details and fits them within a kind of narrative nomenclature that doesn’t really require plot. The thing is the thing. It was self-evident to Nabokov that demonstrable existence—the existence of clouds, of rain, of trams, of long flabby chins, of self-pity, of lies—possesses an inherent aesthetic thrill that required no trumped-up metaphysical, moral or religious justification. All he had to do was find the right words and fit them into the right moments, and voila, a story was born.
These days we hear over and over again “show, don’t tell.” It’s so boring, and it’s so wrong. Nabokov told plenty of tales, he summarized, he leaped forward in time, he sniggered, he forced the reader to agree, the woman was beautiful, the man was doomed.
What Nabokov could not abide, says his son in the introduction to this volume, was cruelty. I found that an interesting revelation. In fact, there is everything in Nabokov except cruelty, or its endorsement. This matches well with his need for aesthetic freedom. He simply avoided certain subjects without, I must say, failing to belittle the dolts who stole Russia from him.
The other major man of letters who has taken a similar position on cruelty is the philosopher Richard Rorty. He recognizes that it is difficult not to be cruel by accident or unintentionally, but he insists this is the great human project: to imagine human experience devoid of cruelty. Realistic? No, but if you have Nabokov’s talent, you can still make the proposition believable.

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Iraq Ten Years Later

Last week I did an interview with ShoutoutUK.org on the current situation in Iraq. I thought I’d summarize what I said here.

Ten years ago today I was in Baghdad just finishing up a strategy that was supposed to–and did–put that tragic country on a political path by suppressing the insurgency then burgeoning and making elections the number one goal. I wrote this story in my book, Nights in the Pink Motel/Naval Institute Press, 2008.

The election took place as we planned in January, 2005. Sunni voters sat out that election and paid a price they could not have afforded anyway. Iraq as presently constituted is dominated by a majority Shiite population. But the first elected Iraqi prime minister was a disappointment and soon enough Nuri al-Maliki took over, another Shiite leader. He became what we knew was possible, an Iraqi version of Mubarak (since overthrown). The level of hatred and need for revenge Shiites like Maliki feel toward the Sunni population (Saddam was Sunni, of course) quickly overcame his better judgment. Subsequent years of persecuting Sunni citizens and excluding them from the government led to deep fissures that the new militant force, ISIS, has successfully exploited. ISIS flooded into Iraq in part because Iraqi Sunni elements saw it as a way to break al-Maliki’s grip on Iraqi politics. I’m simplifying here, but the gist of the matter is that Iraq was created by the British after World War I, fusing Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish provinces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire into a single state. This was a terrible mistake because those three groups had little in common. Ultimately, Saddam gained control of the country by force, intimidation, torture, exclusion, and general brutality.

The United States made a terrible mistake in assuming the British legacy could be put right by toppling Saddam. The result was the brutal insurgency going on in the summer of 2004, when I came on the scene as an aide to the U.S. ambassador. The Iraqi parliament somehow has held together as a dysfunctional element of national disunity. Right now it must find a way to push al-Maliki out of office, replace him with a unifier, and keep the Kurds from getting off the Iraqi train entirely.

This will be the easy part, even though it will take some weeks or months. Afterward, the new Iraqi government (if there is one) will have to fight ISIS for years to take back the territory and major cities it has seized. At some point indigenous Sunni populations (ISIS is not indigenous to Iraq, it first gained traction in the Syrian civil war) will have to withdraw their cooperation with ISIS. Or to express this process more accurately, the Sunni populations will have to undermine and help run ISIS out of town. This likely will happen because ISIS will overplay its hand in imposing sharia on the Sunnis of Iraq; they’ll reject radical Islam, and they’ll do it from one day to the next. The question is, what day?

A fundamental issue for so-called Western powers and publics is swallowing something I said above: this is a struggle that will take years. We in the West like things done in news cycles, be they 24-hour cycles or 100-day cycles. That’s not the way things work in the context of historic clashes and struggles in places like the Middle East.

A second fundamental issue for Western powers and publics is coming to terms with why the Middle East matters. The chief reason is oil. When U.S. politicians suggest that American oil independence will save us a lot of grief in the Middle East, they’re knowingly lying. Oil is a foundational element of the world economy, and it is fungible, meaning that American oil companies would sell American oil abroad for a better price if they could get it–America be damned–and that the rest of the world cannot prosper, as presently constituted, without oil. And if the rest of the world cannot prosper, neither can the U.S.

Add to this a third fundamental issue: Fossil fuel–oil,gas, and coal–ultimately is ruining our planet. Again, it will take years, not news cycles, to do something about moving away from fossil fuels to energy sources that do not contribute to global warming, with all of its dangerous consequences.

These factors all interlock. Any strategy for the Middle East has to take time, sectarian hatred, and colossal economic/energy forces into account. That is a complex proposition that is difficult for world leaders to express, much less sell,to their electorates. But the fact is that it is not “easier” to go to war; blood is not the energy source that will bring peace to the Middle East and arrest the looming threat of global warming.

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New Story: The Duchess of Malfi

The Pavilion (pavilionmagazine.com) just published one of my stories, “The Duchess of Malfi.” This is a short piece that plays on some memories I have of spending a few days with Gore Vidal in Madrid back in the ’80s. A friend who knew Vidal better than I said I “nailed” him — a compliment, by the way, not reference to any aggression.

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