Sunday, January 23, 2011

Gordon-Reed on Andrew Johnson; Carl Hiassen on the cult of celebrity

Book Ten: Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed

Randy Newman's album, Good Old Boys, is the perfect antidote to Annette Gordon-Reed's biography of Andrew Johnson.

An antidote isn't necessary due to anything Gordon-Reed has done, but rather it is needed due to the pernicious racism of the 17th President of the United States.

Newman explodes the notion of racism in his music. Johnson dashed the dreams of thousands of Freedmen in the heady days following the end of the American Civil War and set back their cause for nearly a century.

"Johnson's attitude toward blacks, or 'niggers' as he termed them in private conversation, was resolutely negative," writes Gordon-Reed. "It would be impossible to exaggerate how devastating it was to have a man who affirmatively hated black people in charge of the program that was designed to settle the terms of their existence in post-Civil War America."

Despite the task of writing a biogrpahy about such an unappetizing American politician as Johnson, Gordon-Reed provides a balanced portrait of the man who succeeded Abraham Lincoln as president. Her work fits admirably alongside the other uniformly superb biographies that make up Times Books' American Presidents Series. These are small books -- normally under 200 pages -- that focus on the individual's tenure as president.

Gordon-Reed notes, for example, that Johnson was a self-made man. He was born amid extreme poverty and later apprenticed to a tailor. In time, he fled the tailor and his hometown, ultimately migrating to Tennessee where opened his own tailor shop, married and found his way into elective politics.

Johnson was unusual in that when the Civil War broke out, and Tennessee left the Union, he remained loyal, continuing to serve in the U.S. Senate. He was selected Lincoln's running mate for his second term and became president when Lincoln was assassinated. He served only the one term, during which he was impeached and came within a single vote of being unceremoniously removed from office.

Gordon-Reed notes that Johnson believed that the South "never really left the Union because secession was a legal impossibility." Whatever his curious political beliefs, it is true that Johnson betrayed the thousands of African-Americans bound in slavery in the South, and millions of their descendants, by his resolute belief in white supremacy and in his desire to quickly restore the status quo following the war.

It is a sad chapter in American history. One that took generations to set right, if such a wrong can truly ever be set right.

Book Eleven: Star Island by Carl Hiaasen

I can think of few authors who so successfully explode pretension and greed as Carl Hiaasen. And, one should add, explode these fine attributes in such a damnably funny way.

Hiaasen's target in Star Island is the cult of celebrity that enthralls so many Americans today. He takes on narcisstic, talentless pop singers (think Jessica Simpson), whose true talent is their ability to ingest vast quantities of alcohol and drugs and engage in promiscious sex; their entourage from enabling parents to agents to PR flaks; and, finally, the paparazzi who prey on the famous and near-famous because of our endless appetite for scandal, sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The story isn't really important here. A few familiar faces do stroll across these pages, including Skink, the former, Florida governor who has abandoned the State Capitol for the Everglades, and Chemo, the pock-faced murderer with a weed whacker for an arm.

Star Island is funny, very funny. And, as with all Hiaasen's work, the bad guys get their comeuppance and good things happen to good people.

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