What I learned from Robert Caro

Robert Caro came to give the Dennis and Brooks Holt Distinguished Lecture last night. That sponsored lecture allows USC to attract distinguished thinkers on politics and the media.

Caro was so charming in every way–an amazing story-teller, with a lovely New York boy accent–and I loved so much of what he said it’s hard to distill.

For one thing, I love how Caro manages to humanize Lyndon Johnson without romanticizing him. Caro has been able to demonstrate why LBJ is so important to the left–and how effective a political genius he was in accomplishing things for people–like rural Texans–that are normally not the beneficiaries of public policy. And just how ruthless he was in doing so.

The second thing I took away was his incredible patience. It doesn’t seem to bother him that, in his 80s now, he may or may not get to the end of his LBJ project before it’s time for him to exit. And he does seem to have another project in mind–but he refused to answer that question when asked because he’s superstitious. I love this–I really don’t like to discuss nascent work, either, which many people rather treat like a weakness. Well, if Robert Caro can do it, I can, too. I don’t like to talk away ideas before I write them.

In addition to his interest in new projects, he admitted last night that he reads Trollope, which made me squeal with delight. I love Trollope, but whenever I am reading these old, long meandering 19th century novels, there is a nagging person inside my head telling me that I am wasting my time, that nothing these novelists have to say matters to the world, and that, at middle-age, I only have so much reading time left. If a guy in his 80s can spend his free time reading Trollope, and his working time working for 8 years on a biography of roughly 3 months of a man’s life, then I can let time go lightly, too.

House of Cards and a Machiavelli renaissance?

Unless you have been in a media blackout, you’ve no doubt seen the adverts for Netflix-produced House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey. I’m holding off on seeing it until I’ve subjected Andy to watching all of the original BBC series from the early 1990s. I shall, of course, watch it as a junkie of politics and television, and in part because I have been in love with Kevin Spacey since Glengarry Glen Ross. I also have high hopes that the series might help people actually understand what a “whip” is and does. Do you understand how sad it makes me to hold out hope that Americans will learn about their government from a remake of an English series?

Anyway, it does promise to be good. The original, with the incomparable Ian Richardson, is really wonderful, as is the novel upon which the original is based. Has anybody dipped into the US version yet?

The tagline for the US series is “Bad, for a greater good.” Perhaps the US version attempts to make the main character somewhat more sympathetic.The reviews keep referring to Spacey’s Underwood (Urquhart in the Beeb’s original) as “Machiavellian”, which get us to the point of today’s ramblings about Machiavelli and his largely misunderstood attempts at political philosophy.

My favorite book on Machiavelli is from the late Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, called Machiavelli’s Virtue. I say my “favorite” in that I still don’t understand large portions of Mansfield’s thought here, nor Machiavelli’s. Mansfield’s is not an easy book, but Machiavelli is not an easy subject–certainly not along the lines of what people get from their “intro to political science” courses. Machiavelli wrote a good deal more than the Prince. Jeremy Wadron’s excellent review of Mansfield’s book in the London Review of Books (unfortunate paywall) gives us a great deal of food for thought, in particular highlighting how Mansfield’s read of Machiavelli as a modern political liberal.