Sunday, November 26, 2006

Bobby and Carey

My daughters and I saw Bobby yesterday here in Palm Desert. It has a few things going for it, including a kind of Altmanesque structure and an ending that sneaks up on you emotionally. Of course, the film leaves out everything that doesn't mesh with the Kennedy myth, and some of that omitted stuff helps explain why Carey McWilliams wasn't a Robert Kennedy fan.

First, there was the fact that Bobby served briefly as counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s. Second was Bobby's efforts to "get Hoffa," which worked against McWilliams's labor sympathies. Then there was JFK's plan to invade Cuba, which McWilliams exposed and decried in The Nation well before the invasion failed miserably. Let's not forget, too, that JFK speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had called McWilliams a Typhoid Mary of the left in the early 1950s, when that kind of accusation could do a lot of damage. For these and other reasons, McWilliams was pulling for Eugene McCarthy, not Bobby Kennedy, in 1968.

But aside from McWilliams's misgivings about the Kennedys, there's no denying that Bobby's 1968 campaign touched a lot of people, or that his assassination was a searing experience for the nation. Much of Bobby doesn't work all that well, but I recommend it anyway because it successfully captures--or rather, surrounds--those two big points.

And now it's time for a family plug: My uncle (Dr. Roderick Richardson) gave Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, a battery of psychological tests and testified at his trial.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Warren, Nixon, McWilliams

You can learn a lot about American political history by studying three Californians who hit the national scene at about the same time: Earl Warren, Richard Nixon, and Carey McWilliams. I was reminded of this yesterday when I saw Jim Newton's new bio of Warren, Justice for All.

There was no love lost between Nixon and the other two men, but the Warren-McWilliams relationship was more complicated. McWilliams saw Warren as a right-wing, anti-labor opportunist beholden to the state's major business leaders, especially the owners of the Los Angeles Times and Oakland Tribune. He continued to regard Governor Warren as "the personification of Smart Reaction"--even after Warren fought for a variety of progressive programs and followed McWilliams's suggestion to investigate the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles.

Why the continued animosity? Well, he certainly didn't respect Attorney General Warren's role in the Japanese-American evacuation and internment. Also, Warren told Central Valley audiences in 1942 that his first official act as governor would be to fire McWilliams as head of the Division of Immigration and Housing. (Much to the annoyance of growers, McWilliams had held hearings to raise wages and improve housing for farm workers.)

Is that why McWilliams had difficulty explaining the record of Chief Justice Warren, perhaps the most important progressive jurist of the twentieth century? In the end, McWilliams subscribed to the "he-grew-in-office" school of thought, but Warren was one of the few figures that McWilliams didn't read clearly from the get-go. It appears that, for once, McWilliams may have let his personal feelings cloud his political judgment.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Hunter S. Thompson: Carey's Creature

I heard Ralph Steadman on "Fresh Air" last night; his illustrations famously appeared with Hunter S. Thompson's writings. But how many HST fans know who made him famous? If you guessed Carey McWilliams, you get a happy face next to your name.

As editor of The Nation, McWilliams suggested that Thompson write a story on the Hell's Angels. HST was living in San Francisco and needed the $100. He replied to McWilliams, "Your cycle idea came this morning & was a pleasant surprise ... I'm surprised anybody in an editorial slot would be interested in a long look at this action."

That story--"The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders"--came out in 1965. Then McWilliams introduced Thompson to his editor friends in New York, and HST got the book deal for Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, his first bestseller.

Thompson famously abused his editors as well as drugs and alcohol, but when it came to McWilliams, he was a marshmallow. In 1966, he wrote to a friend, "Writing for Carey McWilliams is an honor ... So what if he doesn't pay much ... When your article appears in The Nation you feel clean." And in the 1999 Modern Library reprint of his first big book, Thompson was even more explicit about his debt to McWilliams: "More than any other person, Carey was responsible for the success of Hell's Angels."

Pretty rare sentiments, really, which is why Douglas Brinkley concluded that "throughout his long literary career there was one editor whom Thompson unhesitatingly admired: Carey McWilliams of The Nation."

I rest my case.

You can check out HST's correspondence with and about McWilliams in The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, edited by Brinkley. Highly recommended.


Friday, November 17, 2006

McWilliams and Chinatown

Fanatical readers of this blog already know that Carey McWilliams inspired Robert Towne's original screenplay for Chinatown, the neo-noir classic set in pre-war Los Angeles. But you may not know that Towne confided to McWilliams that Southern California Country (1946) "really changed my life. It taught me to look at the place where I was born, and convinced me that it was worth writing about." Funny to think now that an L.A. native, even 30 years ago, would need convincing that his hometown was a worthy subject, but there you have it.

At the time, Towne was a well-paid script doctor; when he was hatching Chinatown on spec--he eventually received $25,000 for it from Paramount--he was also earning $175,000 to salvage Truman Capote's script for The Great Gatsby. His passion for the undervalued project paid off for him and film fans everywhere. For more details, see David Thomson's The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. The relevant passage is excerpted on the Random House website:

Like many movie-lovers, McWilliams thought the film was brilliant, but it also worked for him at the autobiographical level by dramatizing the scope of his own life and career. In effect, McWilliams was the bridge between writer Mary Austin, who personally witnessed the Owens Valley water swindle in the early 1900s, and Towne, the A-list Hollywood screenwriter of the 1970s who really made that swindle famous.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Link for Patt Morrison KPCC Interview

My friend Cammie Morin told me that she found (and listened to) the interview I did with Patt Morrison in the KPCC archive. That was news to me, so I put the link over to the right. Click on it, scroll down to Friday, June 16, find the blurb for American Prophet, and have a listen. You need RealPlayer to do that, but you can load that for free from the same page. Even I was able to manage that.

I just listened to the segment and was struck by Patt's easy command of the Lo-Cal material. I also like her bilabial stops, especially her p's.


1958 Redux?

Here's my theory of GOP governance and its 12-year life cycle. It was prompted by my study of Carey McWilliams, who watched with disappointment as Republicans took over Congress in 1946. They immediately went after their enemies and ruined many lives. Within six years, a Republican occupied the White House, too, partly because the Dems decided to run a candidate who came off like a brainy stiff--twice. The GOP continued to scare the bejeezus out of everyone for another six years and then folded under the weight of its own accusations and do-nothingness in 1958.

Sound familiar? Republicans took over Congress in 1994 and began persecuting their enemies, including a sitting Democratic president. Six years later, they installed their own guy in the White House, but he was no Eisenhower, and the truly crazy stuff started in earnest. Now, six years later, most of us have had enough. If the historical analogy holds, the Democrats will win the White House narrowly in 2008 by running a liberal who believes in a strong defense. And in his parting speech, Bush will warn us about the military-industrial complex.

Why do the wheels fall off for the Republicans after 12 years? I think it's because they don't really believe in governing, if by that we mean running programs to promote the general welfare. And at a certain point, most taxpayers notice that they're not getting anything in exchange for the money they send to Washington. It's the old John Burton maxim of politics: I give you a dollar, you give me a hot dog. But the GOP has mostly delivered a steady diet of fear--along with sermons about why we shouldn't want any hot dogs. So when we hear that the federal government is sending 250 million hot dogs a day to Iraq, and that the CEO of Halliburton took home 47 million hot dogs in 2004, we start to wonder.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

New York Law Journal review

I just received another review of American Prophet, this one by Eleanor J. Bader, who stresses McWilliams's prescience, versatility, brilliant writing, cool head, and fighting spirit. For her, McWilliams is nothing less than "a lost American hero." Couldn't agree more.

According to Bader, my portrait of McWilliams is "admirable--but somewhat spotty": spotty because it says nothing about feminism, the lesbian and gay rights movement, or The Nation's relationship to The National Guardian or The Progressive. (In his vast corpus, McWilliams was very quiet about these issues.) "These gaps notwithstanding," Bader concludes, "Richardson has written a compelling biography of Carey McWilliams introducing, or for some readers re-introducing, a man who deserves to be remembered and lauded."

Thanks to Marjorie Cohn, PoliPointPress author and president of the National Lawyers Guild, for forwarding the review to me. It's posted at It appeared just above a piece co-authored by Steven Hill, another PoliPointPress author (10 Steps to Repair American Democracy).


Monday, November 06, 2006

Choice Review of American Prophet

Choice weighed in with a positive review of American Prophet. Here's a quote: "This volume goes deep below the surface, admirably describing and analyzing the man, the times, and the tensions. As the first full-length biography of the journalist, this book sets a high standard for McWilliams study." Whoo hoo.

Choice helps libraries figure out which books they want to acquire. The reviewer was S. W. Whyte.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Gray Brechin and Imperial San Francisco

Gray Brechin and Richard Walker will talk about Gray's book, Imperial San Francisco, at UC Berkeley on Sunday. It was reissued this year by UC Press, and it's a bit like the San Francisco version of Mike Davis's City of Quartz. But that comparison only goes so far. Gray would say that his main point--that San Francisco's growth has spelled economic and environmental woes for the rest of the region--applies to many cities around the world.

By the way, Gray wrote a fine introduction to Fool's Paradise: A Carey McWilliams Reader. (See my review in the links to your right). In an email to me yesterday, Gray said he thought Carey would like this talk.

The talk is part of a lecture series celebrating the Bancroft Library's 100th year on the Berkeley campus. Gray's book made heavy use of the library's holdings, and his presentations usually include remarkable images. (He studied art history before taking a Ph.D. in geography from Berkeley.) The talk is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 5, 3:00, in the Museum Theater. Very worthwhile, I bet.