Reviewing the Review: June 11 2006

Rory Stewart’s chronicle of a journey through wartime Afghanistan gets a rave review from Tom Bissell on the front cover of today’s New York Times Book Review. The book sounds intriguing, though I wish the reviewer didn’t spend so much column space on speculative tangents like this:

Pity the contemporary travel writer: routinely viewed as a kind of overstuffed guidebook author, struggling to explain what he or she does. Specialists pounce on the tiniest “mistakes” and ideologues condemn the whole enterprise as colonialism with a guidebook.

Actually, that pretty much describes how many of us treat and feel about the New York Times Book Review. Luckily, this week’s issue is better than average, by which I mean that several articles are worth reading. Stephen Metcalf provides a thoughtful consideration of Michel Houellebecq’s futuristic satire The Possibility of an Island that aptly references Plato’s Republic and concludes that Houellebecq’s sinister sense of libertinism is more banal than shocking in today’s hedonistic world. This is a good, solid article that develops a clear, relevant and coherent argument (and has only one clunker line, an obligatory joke about french writing and french toast, which somebody should have simply excised). Still, it’s a good piece.

Mark Costello gives us an appealingly brief and informative summary of the career of British essayist Will Self and enthusiastically recommends his new Junk Mail, and Daniel Swift argues convincingly that there’s not much substance to Richard Davenport-Hines’ Proust at the Majestic, about a legendary 1922 dinner party where Igor Stravinsky, Marcel Proust, Sergei Diaghilev, James Joyce and Pablo Picasso famously met for a dull evening (“Proust … made a dramatic entrance in white gloves and a fur coat, and tried to engage Stravinsky in conversation about Beethoven, to which the composer snapped back, ‘I detest Beethoven.’ Joyce arrived drunk, and either fell asleep at the table or pretended to.”)

It’s a pleasure to read Garrison Keillor’s thoughts about Harper Lee and her new biography, Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields, even if he ignores the book to write his own one-page consideration of this newly-talked-about Alabama recluse. I guess big-shot reviewers don’t actually need to write book reviews, as long as they show up. In this particular case, I really didn’t mind.

I was sorry Claire Dederer didn’t oblige my hopes with a favorable review of Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow, since I enjoyed Pearl’s The Dante Club and would like to look forward to Pearl on Poe. She informs us that the book’s a dud, which is a shame if it’s true (and possibly more of a shame if it’s not — I’ll let you know).

Troy Patterson is similarly dismissive of E. Lynn Harris’s I Say A Little Prayer, though his reasoning isn’t very convincing, and I have to gripe about his sideswiping comparison to John O’Hara, who he characterizes as a “famously clueless brand-name-dropper”. Not so fast, there … O’Hara’s literary reputation is currently nowhere, but then so was Harper Lee’s until recently; O’Hara was a superb writer and there is nothing clueless about his best books and stories.

There’s more excitement in today’s Letter section, as John O’Connor, co-author of the recent A G-Man’s Life with Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, dukes it out with John Dean, who recently described the O’Connor/Felt book as “riddled with errors” even though a comparison with the historical record turns up no errors at all (thanks, by the way, to GalleyCat’s Ron Hogan for acknowledging that I had this scoop a month before the Daily News). Both men have privileged access to Watergate history: O’Connor is a long-time friend of Mark Felt, and Dean is the former White House counsel who directly managed the Watergate cover-up for Nixon in 1972 and early 1973. Both men show up in today’s Letters section to toss facts around, appealing to “informed sources” to support their arguments.

Well, gentlemen, I’d like to volunteer myself as an informed source, since it just so happens I’m an obsessive Watergate buff the way some people are obsessive Civil War buffs. The fact that I own all these books doesn’t make me an expert:

But the fact that I’ve read them all at least twice, I think, does. So here’s my verdict: John O’Connor is right and John Dean is wrong. Example: Felt and O’Connor wrote in the book that John Dean had influenced the choice of a new F.B.I. chief after L. Patrick Gray’s disastrous confirmation hearings, and John Dean mocked this as an error. The historical record proves Felt and O’Connor right, and so in today’s letter to the Book Review Dean tries to explain his position by pinpointing a single incident in which the succession was discussed, and explaining that he could not have been influential during this particular discussion because he was already out of the White House inner circle at the time this discussion took place.

However, the selection process for Gray’s successor was not limited to this one single discussion. The selection process, naturally, began as soon as it became clear that the Senate was not going to approve Gray for the position. This was earlier in April, when Dean was still the active White House counsel, and still on reasonably good terms with the President. Dean’s rejoinder cannot withstand any scrutiny at all; it’s simply a desparate attempt to squirm out of a mistake.

I’m sorry to have to beat up on John Dean like this, since he is generally one of my favorite Watergate figures (he’s no Bob Haldeman, of course, but who is?). I respect Dean’s books Blind Ambition and Worse Than Watergate, and I’m disappointed to see him turning out this kind of performance in public. He was supposedly one of the sharpest lawyers in Washington D. C. when he worked for the White House. Well, defense is obviously not his strong point. Come to think of it, it wasn’t his strong point in 1973 either.

8 Responses

  1. One could argue (even with an
    One could argue (even with an expert) that if Werner Heisenberg saved the world by not giving Hitler the atomic bomb, then John Dean similarly saved America by not allowing Nixon the laurel wreath of Caesar. T

    o be clear here (as clear as Nathan Jessup, in A Few Good Men) Heisenberg could’ve given Hitler the bomb; and Nixon’s intent was to eradicate democracy in America. (Perhaps that’s already been done, as Robert Kennedy Jr. suggests — he who controls the Ohio voting machines determines elections.) But at a point in time, the Nixonites were about seizing and holding power, forever, and by any means necessary. According to the movie “Nixon” Kennedy Jr.’s father was a removable impediment. (Well, somebody removed him anyway.)

    But one man, and one man alone stood up and stopped the Nixonites. And that was John Dean. I’m grateful to Heisenberg; and to Dean. (Would that Colin Powell were similarly chosen to stand up.)

  2. Voltaire’s Quote”History’s a
    Voltaire’s Quote

    “History’s a pack of lies.”

    I remember hearing the same things about the FBI on the Discovery channel.

    All this was over thirty years ago and even then, I don’t know if what people in other buildings were doing in D.C.

    As for Garrison Keillor phoning in his review: no one can ever rest on their laurels.

    The attraction of the travel book genre, just like reality TV, must be explained to me.

  3. Stokey — interesting
    Stokey — interesting comments, though I have to say I see it differently. We all hold onto our own versions of the Watergate story, and to this day nobody knows the full truth. In my interpretation, even Richard Nixon himself was just a single player in this incredible ensemble drama, and did not play the sinister central role that popular history seems to have bestowed on him.

    According to the interpretation I tend to agree with, the “quiet revolution” of Watergate (a successful Presidential administration was overturned, which does qualify the event as a revolution) was a necessary step due to a basic political disconnection between the American people and the bureaucracy that had come to dominate the government (a bureaucracy well characterized by the expression “military-industrial complex”).

    The United States Government was committed to continuing an aggressive and excruciating war in Vietnam, and the American public was largely against it (both sides were vocal, of course, but America clearly wanted peace). It wasn’t just the Republican party that was committed to the Vietnam war — in fact Nixon inherited the mess from the Kennedy and LBJ administrations.

    Despite the fact that the American public was increasingly against the Vietnam war, the US governmental bureaucracy was inextricably committed and could not find a way out. A coup d’etat was necessary, and Woodward and Bernstein provided the spark when they caught the Nixon administration in a petty election-year crime.

    That’s my interpretation of Watergate — I believe it makes no sense to discuss Watergate outside the larger context of the Vietnam war, which was a terrible American crisis during that time. I think this is a fascinating topic — and an especially relevant one today, when perhaps a quiet revolution is needed again.

  4. Check out the Wikipedia
    Check out the Wikipedia version of “Watergate” or “All the President’s Men.” Historical fact is always subject to opinion; but this is such a critical part of American history…”petty” just isn’t right. The concept “America” deserves better than that.

  5. How Many of Us Feel…I fell
    How Many of Us Feel…

    I fell under my desk laughing. “How many of us feel about the NYTBR.” That one sentence says it all. My soul has been released. I never have to read the NYTBR ever again. I never realized what my problem was with the NYTBR until reading this. It has no humor. Not even tongue in cheek. It takes itself too seriously. Even the French hedonists have become passe. It hasn’t one whit the wit of: “Actually, that’s how many of us feel.” Indeed, we do.

  6. I can agree that the
    I can agree that the Watergate burglary was more than “petty”, but I also think it falls short of “sinister”. A close look at Nixon’s electoral ethics shows him to be an old-school dirty-trick-playing mud-slinger hard campaigner. But then, so was Lyndon Johnson. The development of the Nixon administration “covert actions” team (headed by the hilariously incompetent G. Gordon Liddy, the Dwight Schroot of 1972) was undoubtedly a response to the leak of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, which Nixon’s right-wing critics considered an embarrassing sign that the Nixon administration was not playing hardball well enough. So they created the “Plumbers”, they hired Donald Segretti and G. Gordon Liddy, and they planned a few “operations”, like the Watergate burglary, to prove that they knew how to pull off the covert stuff. In a way, the Watergate burglary was a “proof of concept” for an administration that was worried it couldn’t compete with opposing spy/infiltration operations. The fact that they did such a terrible job of the burglary reinforces the fact that they were beginners at this type of activity.

  7. I knowWatergate is important,
    I know

    Watergate is important, but I don’t know much about it beyond the basics, and I can’t bring myself to get interested in it. It’s enough trying to keep my head wrapped around what’s going on right now.

    I thought you were against the NYTBR getting all political, anyways.

    I sympathize with Tom Bissell, as the internet has allowed a universe of pedants to ply their craft, and I can imagine it gets frustrating.

    But in the end it sounds like Bissell was using a “review” of someone else’s book as a forum for personal vendettas. I know he’s written a travel book himself, so I imagine he’s writing from experience. But his comments make him sound like a bit of a whiner, because what he’s essentially saying is that people shouldn’t point out his mistakes.

    Of course, there are big mistakes and little mistakes, and the pedant’s folly is not being able to distinguish between a big mistake and a smaller one that has no real relevance to the larger work, like say the writer chooses a colloquial spelling of a word in the regional dialect rather than a more universally accepted one.

    That kind of stuff would piss me off too.

  8. Hey Shamatha — good to see
    Hey Shamatha — good to see you again.

    I definitely don’t expect anybody to share my enthusiasm for the topic of Watergate. But when somebody gives me an opening, I take it, and the Book Review gave me an opening.

    About politics in general, well … I have complained when I felt the Book Review was becoming an arm of the News desk. But I do think of literature as having a political element, in the analytic or theoretical sense. I’m always up for discussing substantive issues of global policy or historical interpretation, when the issues come up. I’m not actually sure if John Dean vs. John O’Connor counts as substantive anything … but like I said, if somebody gives me an opening …

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