Thursday, January 29, 2015

`You'll Find Very Interesting Things'

Lists of recommended books can be gifts or rubbish, depending on the author of the list. Bad taste, limited reading and enthrallment to fashion are fatal flaws. But a reader can rely on a good, inspired list-maker to introduce him to new titles and reanimate old ones. I’ve just read The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House (Brookings Institution Press, 2015) by Stephen Hess, who served on the White House staffs of Eisenhower and Nixon, and later advised Ford and Carter. Hess begins his story winningly: “I am the only person—perhaps in the world—who was a friend of both Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan before they knew each other.”  Early in his first term, Nixon named Moynihan – a liberal Harvard professor with close ties to the Kennedys – his urban affairs adviser. Hess calls them “the oddest. . . of all the odd couples in American political life.” 

In a chapter titled “Tutorial,” Hess reports the president asked Moynihan for a list of his favorite political biographies, and quotes Nixon as writing in a memo to Moynihan: “As you know, I do quite a bit of evening reading, and I want to be sure that I’m reading the best!” One is touched by Nixon’s earnestness and eagerness to please his staff intellectual. Limiting himself to ten titles, Moynihan leaves out Erik Erikson on Gandhi, Arthur Link on Woodrow Wilson and Catherine Drinker Bowen on Oliver Wendell Holmes. Here is the list Moynihan gives Nixon: 

Autobiography, John Adams (1802)
Abraham Lincoln, Lord Charnwood (1917)
The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams (1918)
Talleyrand, Duff Cooper (1932)
Melbourne, David Cecil (1939)
Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Alan Bullock (1952)
The Republican Roosevelt, John Morton Blum (1961)
Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution, Clinton Rossiter (1964)
Disraeli, Robert Blake (1966)
Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, John Womack Jr. (1969) 

I’m humbled, having read only seven of these books, and only one of them (Henry Adams) more than once, though I’ve already borrowed Cecil’s Melbourne from the library. Moynihan annotates each suggestion. About Charnwood’s Lincoln he writes, “For my money still the best volume on Lincoln,” and on the Henry Adams volume: “I suppose this may be the great American book. Surely it is an astoundingly perceptive account of our times, written decades before they commenced.” Just the other day I returned to a beautiful passage in the first chapter of Adams’ Education that begins: 

“Winter and summer, then, were two hostile lives, and bred two separate natures. Winter was always the effort to live; summer was tropical license. Whether the children rolled in the grass, or waded in the brook, or swam in the salt ocean, or sailed in the bay, or fished for smelts in the creeks, or netted minnows in the salt-marshes, or took to the pine-woods and the granite quarries, or chased muskrats and hunted snapping-turtles in the swamps, or mushrooms or nuts on the autumn hills, summer and country were always sensual living, while winter was always compulsory learning. Summer was the multiplicity of nature; winter was school.” 

Hess reproduces Nixon’s reaction to Moynihan’s list, taken from notes kept by William Safire: 

“Pat Moynihan is somewhat my mentor in telling me what I should read. He doesn’t think I am too well educated, so as a result, a while back he sent me a group of books to read. What surprised him was that I read them. . . .You wake up late at night—1:00-2:00—and then for two or three hours you read. . . .I would urge you some time to, when you wake up in the middle of the night as I do, to pick up Cecil’s Melbourne or maybe Blake’s Disraeli and read it. You’ll find very interesting things. You think we have problems. You should read about the problems in nineteenth-century England!” 

As a human being, as a man amply filled with contradictions, Nixon is, with Lincoln, our most endlessly interesting president, in part because his flawed sensibility is often so like our own. In regard to Moynihan, I defer to Joseph Epstein: 

“With the exception only of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom I knew slightly, there has not been a single member of either body of the United States Congress during the past half century whose company I should want even for the duration of a cup of coffee.”

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