Monday, April 04, 2005

Lance Morrow's The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in 1948: Learning the Secrets of Power was one of the books I ordered from Amazon the other week on a blog recommendation; it was also the first to arrive. When I ordered it, I had not noticed that the author was that self-same Time columnist whose work was part and parcel of the bland uselessness which has always kept me from reading the modern incarnation of that publication.

I suppose I wouldn't be spoiling any expectations by noting that I was less than impressed with Best Year of Their Lives. I had ordered it sight unseen because the idea sounded promising - a treatment of the freshman class of 1946 in a pivotal political year. I suppose I expected a detailed historical narrative demonstrating political and intellectual connections in that no-doubt epochal period. That's what I get for having expectations, no?

What was delivered was not that promised book. Instead, the UPS deliveryman deposited upon my doorstep a sattershot, dizzy, dazzled, addlepated tangle of loosely connected anecdotes and great heaping piles of amateur psychoanalysis at a distance. The author demonstrates the patience of a hummingbird, and the attention-span of a sugar-addled ferret. He is incapable of maintaining a thought for more than a page at a time, and is fully capable of dropping a line of argument in mid-sentence for yet more pages of ill-considered, highly redundant, airily comparative psychological guesswork. At one point in an otherwise narrational passage, he drops the first part of a fact - something about Elizabeth Bentley's testimony before HUAC - and goes haring off on a five-page biographical diversion about Whittaker Chambers. He never returns to the subject of Bentley's testimony. The reader is left ignorant of what she told the Committee. Such abandonments of actual informational explanation in favor of psychobabble absolutely litter the text.

The book is supposed to be a treatment of why the year 1948 was so terribly, terribly important in the formation of the political characters of the three primaries - Kennedy, Nixon, and Johnson. The fact that all three became presidents seems to be the only reason behind this grouping of subjects. Kennedy and Nixon were essentially comparable political characters - freshmen Congressmen of the 80th Congress, recent Navy veterans, debate partners, clashed over the Taft-Hartley Act, knew each other socially, etc. Johnson, on the other hand, was a very veteran legislator of a previous generation, whose only wartime service of note was a sickening showboating joke which resulted in a utterly unearned Silver Star. Johnson didn't apparently socialize with either Nixon or Kennedy.

Even so, the author at least makes a case for the year 1948 being of some political importance for Johnson. I still don't know why Kennedy was a principal in this narrative. To judge from what is given in the book, he lost a sister, nearly died, and had a debate with Nixon in McKeesport. Every other word in the book on the subject of Kennedy is dedicated either to a very short (if interesting) passage on the social scene in Washington, or to Kennedy's interior life. Kennedy acted as Nixon's foil. That's why 1948 was important to him. Oh, and he almost died the year before. Not in 1948, mind you - 1947.

Most of the book is dedicated to endless ruminations upon the impenetrable psyche of Richard Nixon. Some parts of these digressions are actually interesting, in brief passages and interludes. When, that is, the author isn't chasing off after long, belabored allegories derived from various films. I wish I could say "various films of the year in question", but Morrow's lack of discipline betrays itself once again, and much chatter is spent on out-of-period pieces like Around the World in Eighty Days and Blazing Saddles of all goddamned things.

Really, truly, the Best Year of Their Lives can only be described as a comprehensive failure. Its best characteristic is that it is a very quick and easy read, if you don't destroy the binding from one too many high-velocity discards at the nearest vertical surface.

Now, if you'll excuse me, Stross's the Atrocity Archives await, and I really must say, that I heartily wish I had spent my Sunday afternoon reading that book, than wasted my weekend with Morrow's indulgence.

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