Part Two: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Books on Politics

By John Miller

Professor of History Emeritus

The famed political scientist Robert A. Dahl provided a generation of his students at Yale University the following definition of politics: “The process that determines the authoritative allocation of values.” Such a rarified choice of words seems far removed from jousting presidential aspirants in the 2016 campaign — one that must be leaving some departed academics like Dahl spinning in their graves.

Another widely repeated definition that seems to bring the subject a little closer to home suggests that politics is about “who gets what when.” I’d like to think that politics is more about how groups of people in particular places, from the largest nations or regional groups to the smallest neighborhoods or villages negotiate their differences and engage in collective decision-making through discussion, debate, mutual accommodation, and democratic procedures.

In the United States, we have repeatedly redefined both the goals and visions we seek to attain as well as the means whereby we aspire to put them into practice. 

June 16 – One of Ours

one of ours cather.jpgFeminists during the 1960s informed us that "the personal is the political," and in the broadest sense that insight is indubitably correct. No more profound measure of its truth can be found than the phenomenon of war, which seems to have been an essential byproduct of human society since the beginning of recorded history.

Cather's novel, set initially in her adopted state of Nebraska, is a character study that takes place before and during the First World War. It follows Claude Wheeler as he navigates his quest for ideal selfhood during his passage from youth to manhood. The first half of the narrative describes how Wheeler's family and the surrounding Nebraska farmscape shaped him into the person he is, but he remains unfulfilled, searching for a true purpose that would give his life greater meaning. Farm life distracts him; an unfortunate marriage depresses him.

With the outbreak of war in Europe comes an opportunity to become involved Willa Cather is not usually understood to be a political writer, but One of Ours (1923’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) demonstrates how far politics frequently intrudes into people’s everyday lives. This book will be discussed by Distinguished Professor of Biology and Global Studies Emeritus Nels Granholm on June 16.

Cather’s fellow author Ernest Hemingway, who wrote his own novelistic take on the war, considered her version of the story to be naïve because she had no firsthand experience of battle and had to rely on Hollywood depictions for her understanding of the conflict. Hemingway’s interpretation of One of Ours influenced many critics at the time and later to discount the novel’s relevance (although it did not prevent it from capturing a Pulitzer).

Later literary critics, however, have rehabilitated it considerably and shown that if there is any naiveté on display in the book, it lay in the character of the protagonist, Wheeler, and not in that of the author, Cather.

The ultimate tragedy lay not in one person’s life story but in the near-suicide of an optimistic, vainglorious civilization that had failed to avoid an unnecessary war. Generals, diplomats, and civilian leaders blundered into war and made a botch of things in the prosecution of it, but millions of ordinary citizens experienced the tragic consequences of what was essentially a failure of politics. 

June 21 - All the King’s Men

AllTheKingsMen.jpgMac Harris, former director of the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum, will discuss Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1947 winner of Pulitzer Prize for the novel) on June 21.

Literary judgments are notoriously fickle, just because the operative decision is as much in the mind and heart of the reader as it is in the intent of the author and the words of the text. Thus one might agree or disagree with a blogger named Kathy, who recently wrote, “Wow, this is a fantastic book! The story and the characters are first-rate, but it is the language that really got me. Sentence after sentence of verbiage that is so evocative, so perfect, you just want to savor it, to make it last, running its sweetness over your tongue and your teeth and just keeping the taste of it around as long as possible.”

Or listen to “Mr. Jones,” who is also much impressed: “For my money, I think this is the greatest book in Southern literature exceeding Faulkner.” But then again, you might be like Simon, who quit the book once, then quit again around the 65 percent mark. He’d like to keep going, but, “I just can’t,” for various reasons. You either like a book or you don’t. All the King’s Men is currently ranked at numbers 36 and 67 on  two different lists of the 100 greatest American novels of all time (again, the subjectivity of such estimates intrudes).

This book is a meditation on American politics, inspired by thirties governor Huey Long of Louisiana, where Warren had taken a teaching job a decade before he published the novel. Long had produced an autobiographical book himself called Every Man a King, in which he had sketched out his program for economic recovery on a path that he hoped would ultimately lead him to the White House.

Warren’s narrative masterfully describes the process whereby idealistic intentions get wrapped up in megalomaniacal aspirations, blasted hopes, and devious resort to corrupt means. Jack Burden, who narrates the story, blends a cynical realism with a tender longing for love and for ascertainment of truth. The narrative, thus, is as much about his and other characters’ muddying about in the quicksand of memory, myth, desire, and aspiration as it is about the sometimes absurd, circus-like events that make up the hum-drum daily machinations of political leaders and wannabe political aspirants.

One insightful commentator pithily summed up the nature of the book: “More than just a classic political novel, Warren’s tale of power and corruption in the Depression-era South is a sustained meditation on the unforeseen consequences of every human act, the vexing connectedness of all people and the possibility—it’s not much of one—of goodness in a sinful world.”

Few authors could have been better equipped to tackle such a book – deemed by some commentators to be the best novel ever written about American politics – than Warren. He is the only author ever to have won Pulitzers in both the novel and the poetry categories. His soaring rhetorical style calls to mind that of his contemporary Southern writer, Thomas Wolfe, but Warren, Kentucky born and Tennessee educated, generally managed to contain his narratives within limits and under control better than did his North Carolina counterpart.

Orville Prescott, reviewing the novel for the New York Times when it came out in 1946, averred, “Robert Penn Warren’s ‘All the King’s Men’ is magnificently vital reading, a book so charged with dramatic tension it almost crackles with blue sparks, a book so drenched with fierce emotion, narrative pace and poetic imagery that its stature as a ‘readin’ book,’ as some of its characters would call it, dwarfs that of most current publications.” Seven decades later, readers come away from it no less impressed. 

July 5 – The Making of the President

the making of the president.pngRatcheting forward a generation, few literary productions have been as deserving of a Pulitzer Prize as Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960 (1962 prize for General Non-fiction), and few books have had as profound a long-term impact on the genre as this political campaign book highlighting the historic Kennedy-Nixon matchup of 1960. I will be discussing it on July 5.

Rising to the top of the best-seller charts in six weeks’ time, Making remained there for another 20 weeks and eventually sold more than four million copies. I purchased a paperback copy of it for 95 cents when it came out in 1962, and I still have it with all of the underlined markings that I made in it while reading it so eagerly. I entered college as a political science major that fall, and although I later switched to history, I never lost my taste for and interest in politics and political history.

White himself was a history major at Harvard, where during the late 1930s he became the first student of John King Fairbank, a young scholar of Chinese history, hailing from Huron and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. White developed a deep passion for history, and his success as a reporter for Time and other magazines and as a non-fiction book author and sometime novelist depended heavily upon his highly developed historical sensibility.

History had never seen anything like the instant campaign book that White came out with in July 1961, just eight months after the votes had been tallied. Four years earlier, journalist White had been preparing to write a long article for Collier’s magazine under the title of “The Making of the President—1956,” but when the magazine expired at the end of the year, that ended that opportunity.

When the journalist revived the idea three years later, this time with a book in mind, he benefitted from the creation of a new publishing house, Athaneum, which made a bet that the veteran reporter’s idea would attract a lot of readers and, in the process, help it launch its business with a bang. They were certainly right in the gamble they took on him.

What made White’s path-breaking project so amazingly successful on first try was not just the novelty of it. He had picked a very good year to cover: Kennedy-Nixon turned out to be one of the most dramatic election contests of the 20th century. It seemed to have everything: two bright, young, ambitious, articulate, and evenly matched political wunderkinds who had both served in the Navy in World War II and pursued similar, in some ways, but very different, in others, paths to the White House.

This was the first year for televised presidential debates, a development that hugely enhanced public interest in the contest. Tensions emanating from the Cold War (Sputnik had gone up in 1957, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was just two years away) cast a historic shadow over the proceedings. Public fears were balanced by huge expectations and dreams that had been building since the end of World War II. Uncommonly rapid economic expansion had been proceeding for a decade and a half and would continue on into the early 1970s.

Most of all, Americans, whatever their party and however satisfied or frustrated they were with the party in power, retained a healthy respect for their politicians and political institutions, generally deemed them to be honest and straight-forward in their rhetoric and actions, and harbored high hopes that the promises they made might some day come true.

Theodore White was able to capture the drama of the candidates, the issues, the campaign strategies, and the public mood in his reporting then at the time and later in his retrospective book covering the entire campaign.

The great advantage he had over his imitators in later years, who would try to emulate his success in covering the 1960 campaign, was that there were still only several dozen reporters following the candidates in 1960, allowing relatively easy access to all of the candidates, except one. The Nixon entourage guarded their man from inquiring reporters, and White was never able to get a one-on-one sit-down with the vice president.

In contrast, the Kennedy team welcomed White and other reporters, cultivated them, and fed them information that gave their readers the impression that they were on the inside of the action. In fact, White frequently was pretty close to the inside of the Kennedy campaign, as he was on the evening of the election, when he was present in the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport as the votes were being counted and was able to report to his readers the colors of the candidate’s trousers and tie, what people were eating and drinking, and excerpts from their conversations.

Vice-presidential nominee Lyndon Johnson called Kennedy to say, “I hear you’re losing Ohio, but we’re doing fine in Pennsylvania,” with an emphasis on the you in Ohio and on the we in Pennsylvania. If White could relate these intimate details to his readers, the implicit message was that he was close enough to the action to know what he was talking about. 

Beyond the detailed reporting contained in Making, White included manifold statistics, political analysis, state-by-state rundowns, historical background, and personal profiles to make for a dense narrative. The campaign itself was interesting enough, and White’s telling of it exploited it for all it was worth.

He came back again in 1964, 1968, and 1972 to write sequels and was fairly launched on the 1976 volume when he decided that maybe he’d done enough of that sort of thing and instead switched over to writing a memoir of his life and career, In Search of History: A Personal Adventure.

By 1976, White’s example of covering the “inside” campaign and not just relying on following the public speeches and activities of the candidates in the “outside” campaign had become the standard model to follow for reporters on the beat and for those who went further to write their own campaign books. Politics and political reporters had been forever changed, and much of that change was due to White personally. (For a fuller version of the story of White’s Making of the President 1960, see my article about it in Presidential Studies Quarterly, volume 29, June 1999).

At a time when cynicism, world-weariness, and low expectations seem to be the rule in politics, it is well that we step back from time to time to take a broader view of the scene, putting it in historical perspective and analyzing it in terms of the democratic system that our Founders intended it to be almost two and a half centuries ago.

They would not have been too surprised to observe clashing opinions, tearing down of the opposition, hardball campaigning, and frequent corruption. They would have been disturbed by the decline of deference, the infantile behavior of many leaders, and the extremes of emotion displayed by many participants in the political game.

Taking a rather dim view of human nature, they sought to build a framework that would dampen political passion, elevate reason, and emplace enlightened leaders in positions of authority so as to contain the chaotic emotions, fears, and demands that often bubbled to the surface. Frequently energetic readers and deep thinkers themselves (certainly not all of them fit the description!), they would have appreciated the efforts of individuals and groups in the humanities who sought to educate and enlighten the public, from the lowliest citizen to the most powerful office holder. Books, when well-conceived and well-executed, constitute a defense against the baser emotions and more ignorant musings that befuddle rational debate and contemplation.

In the end, as Winston Churchill so ably reminded us, “Democracy is the worst type of government, except every other system that has ever been tried.” The wisdom contained in the humanities and in Pulitzer Prize-winning books like these constitutes a significant reason for why we can entertain strong hope for the future of our democracy.

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John Miller, professor of history emeritus, wrote this as a continuation of the first two books in the five-book series.

The series of five Pulitzer Prize book talks, is called "The Role of Government in Americans’ Lives as Depicted in Pulitzer Prize-winning Books." All programs start at 7 pm in the library’s Cooper Room.

Talks were held Tuesday, May 17 with Larry Rogers and Tuesday, May 24 with Bob Burns. The next talks continue on Thursday, June 16 with Nels Granholm; Tuesday, June 21 with Mac Harris; and Tuesday, July 5 with John Miller.