Sunday, May 25, 2008

Navasky on Buckley

This one goes to my two major preoccupations: Carey McWilliams and Ramparts magazine.

In a recent New York Times book review, Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, mentions McWilliams in his remarks on books by or about William F. Buckley. Navasky's book, A Matter of Opinion, also noted the similarity between the two men. Somewhere on this blog I passed along the fact that Lou Cannon, Reagan's biographer, once sent out 40 letters trying to interest people in his first book, on Reagan and Jesse Unruh. He got exactly two replies, from McWilliams and Buckley.

But Buckley had a Ramparts connection, too. On Firing Line, he debated Robert Scheer during the magazine's heyday. In my forthcoming book, I argue that Buckley had at least two reasons for being interested in the San Francisco muckraker. First, it started as a Catholic magazine, and Buckley was a lifelong and very vocal Catholic. Its transition to radical muckraking must have been a source of concern. Second, Ramparts exposed the CIA, for which Buckley had been an agent before starting The National Review.

I tried to interview Buckley in what I didn't realize was the last month of his life. His note said he was so far behind on other work that he couldn't spare the time.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Boyarsky on McWilliams and Kerby

Bill Boyarsky's Truthdig article today on citizen journalists gave kudos to Carey McWilliams and Phil Kerby, editor of Frontier, which was finally folded into The Nation. Boyarsky has seen a lot of changes since that era, and I appreciate the historical perspective he brings to old school figures like McWilliams. If you didn't know any better, you might think that bloggers and citizen journalists are the only ones who have escaped the dominion of the dreaded MSM (mainstream media).

Boyarsky is also the author of Big Daddy, the Jess Unruh bio. But you already knew that. You also knew that Truthdig is produced by Robert Scheer, the former editor of Ramparts. Boyarsky and Scheer both teach at USC, as does Marc Cooper, whom Boyarsky mentions in his article. Cooper also writes for The Nation, where Scheer is still a contributing editor. Starting to get it?


Madam Speaker

I flew through Marc Sandalow's Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi's Life, Times, and Rise to Power. It was built for speed; short paragraphs, newspaper style, probably the result of Sandalow's former day job at the Chronicle.

Readers expecting a full-blown, soup-to-nuts critical biography won't find it here. Also, the "Times" part of the subtitle isn't quite apt. This is Pelosi's life story, told quickly and effectively, but without the benefit of much retrospection or even cooperation from the subject or her staff. (Pelosi is planning to write a memoir.) For this more replete kind of biography of a San Francisco politician, the gold standard is still John Jacobs's Rage for Justice, which features Phil Burton, one of Pelosi's mentors.

Still, I enjoyed Madam Speaker and learned a lot from it. In fact, one of the things I learned is that Pelosi wasn't Burton's creature, though Burton's widow essentially bequeathed her House seat to Pelosi on her death bed. According to Sandalow, Pelosi said that Phil Burton might not have supported that move. Interesting.

The other thing I learned is how much political savvy Pelosi picked up from her family in Baltimore. Her father was elected both to the House and as mayor, and he did retail politics the old-fashioned way--right in the neighborhood. In fact, he did a lot of it in the house, which was frequently full of constituents seeking favors and whatnot. Pelosi's father also provides a good deal of the book's color. Her messaging is very disciplined, which is necessary these days. He was more willing to open up his game, and Sandalow records some of his zingers, at least two of which I found hilarious.

The picture that emerges from Sandalow's biography is that of an organized, hardworking, business-like leader. She's sure of her convictions but focused on results, self-respecting but more than willing to share the credit. Most of her peers describe her as a tough Italian grandmother--which happens to match her self-description. "I'm not taking complaints today," she used to tell her five young children when the lamentations began. But like all good legislative leaders, she knows what motivates her colleagues, tracks every detail, and takes no mess.

Very worthwhile. (Full disclosure: I edit Pelosi's daughter, Christine.)

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Big Daddy

Just finished reading Bill Boyarsky's Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics. A man of huge appetites--for power, food, drink, and women--Unruh shaped a political culture that was rough around the edges but got a lot of work done for the people of California.

As an AP and LA Times reporter, Boyarsky covered Unruh in Sacramento and brings a valuable, first-person perspective to the story. He resisted the temptation to produce a tome; this nifty little book (265 pages) can be read in a few sittings. As a significant political figure in a fascinating era, Unruh could support a longer work, but I like Boyarsky's decision to keep it relatively brief and moving quickly.

Boyarsky's portrait jibes well with a growing list of books on California politicians of that period. These include John Jacobs's bio of Phil Burton, Lou Cannon on Ronald Reagan, James Richardson on Willie Brown, and Ethan Rarick on Pat Brown. Naomi Schneider at UC Press has edited almost all of these books. We've never met, but my hat is off to her. She deserves a great deal of credit for sponsoring an impressive collective portrait of mid-century California politics.

This photograph doesn't feature Unruh very well--that's him falling out of the right frame--but it's the best photo I could find that shows Unruh, Brown, and Burton together. That's Bobby Kennedy with his back to us.