Undercover: Power Plays (06/17/76)

Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy by Bruce Miroff (McKay, 334 pp., $9.95; $4.95 paperback). A well-written, closely argued study by a good friend of mine that should (but probably won’t) put to rest hazy dreams of Camelot and corollary hopes for a return of what never was. Miroff’s work—especially strong on the marginal nature of Kennedy’s commitment to change in the areas of economics and civil rights—makes sobering reading at a time when Jimmy Carter is being promoted by some (notably Time) as a New South version of JFK; one is reminded that the opportunities of the presidency, if potentially ruinous on the right, are inherently and systemically limited on the left. “The record of the Kennedy presidency,” Miroff writes, “should serve as a warning to those who still believe that major changes in American society can be instituted if only the right liberal makes it to the White House. Liberals will no doubt regain the presidency in the future. But they will hardly refashion it into an instrument for the progressive transformation of American politics. That transformation can be accomplished only by those who have a stake in change. It is likely to be impeded by presidents—who are, after all, the most successful products of the existing order.” An extremely valuable book.

Life on the Run by Bill Bradley (Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 229 pp., $8.95). A rarity among sports books not only in form—Bradley, forward for the New York Knicks, actually wrote it—but in content, this is a pointedly ambiguous exploration of the nature of a team, friendship, celebrity and maturity, disguised as a journal of the daily grind of pro basketball. Careful, loving attention is given to the background of each of Bradley’s coworkers, and Bradley’s presentation and analysis of how each man deals with the game is informed by his knowledge of how each got the chance to do so. Not the best book on pro basketball—David Wolf’s Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story (Warner Paperback Library) deserves that distinction—but perhaps the most emotionally precise.

The Wild Man From Sugar Creek: The Political Career of Eugene Talmadge by William Anderson (Louisiana State University Press, 268 pp., $3.50 paperback). Not to be compared to C. Vann Woodward‘s Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (Oxford) or Harry Williams‘s Huey Long (Bantam), Anderson’s book is a fascinating study of the perversion of populism, and a straightforward demonstration of how empty and fraudulent American politics can be. Talmadge (1884 – 1946) was a dominant figure in Southern politics as the anti-New Deal governor of Georgia in the Thirties and Forties—a man who believed in little save himself and the Southern way of life as practiced before most of those who voted for him were born. Inspired not by Watson’s early interracial agrarianism but by his final collapse into racism and anti-Semitism, Talmadge ran against hand-in-the-till corruption and promptly replaced it with incompetence and martial law; typically for a populist of his time, support came from impoverished rural farmers, with whom Talmadge identified himself, and from big business, who found his reactionary, mindless administrations an open field for their schemes. When he died, just after winning his third term as governor, he left almost nothing behind save racism, fading memories of wild days on the stump, and his son Herman, who became a classic New South senator. Whether Talmadge’s legacy in any way encompasses Jimmy Carter remains to be seen. But it might be worth looking.

Pete Lowry of Trix Records writes that the title I gave to a recent column, “Death May Be Your Santa Claus,” did not, as I claimed, derive strictly from Mott the Hoople’s song of the same name, but from a record made by the Rev. J. M. Gates of Atlanta, Georgia—a 78 rpm sermon entitled “Death Might Be Your Santa Claus,” recorded in 1926. “Gates,” says Lowry, “was one of the most successful pastors in the black community in his day—he headed the Streamline Baptist Church [no one can deny that Gates had a way with words] in Atlanta, and recorded extensively from 1926 to 1941. On his death in 1946, his funeral stopped movement in the city, and it was the biggest event of that nature seen there until the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr…”

Speaking of gospel, or Georgia, or Gene Talmadge (who, as it happens, pioneered the use of country music in political campaigns by enlisting Fiddlin’ John Carson), or Jimmy “Blowin’ in the Wind” Carter, or whatever it was we were speaking of, The Folk Music Sourcebook by Larry Sandberg and Dick Weissman (Knopf, 260 pp., $7.95 large paperback) won’t tell you everything there is to know about blues, country, Cajun, Irish, American-Indian, bluegrass, Appalachian, western swing, or any other kind of folk music, but it will tell you how to find out; the bibliographies are magnificent (though the discographies are a bit slim—write to J&F Southern Record Store, 44 North Lake, Pasadena, California 91101, for their blues, gospel and rockabilly catalogs). The volume also includes filmographies, instrumental primers, a smattering of analytic and background articles. Best of all, the authors don’t just list items, they provide publishers’ and distributors’ addresses in every case. For that, they deserve more than thanks; they deserve to have their book bought… Knopf (and its corporate parent, Random House) also deserves credit for pricing novels in the 200-page range at $6.95, which is almost unheard of these days—and this whether the book is one that can be expected to sell with ease (Michael Crichton‘s entertaining Eaters of the Dead, Knopf) or perhaps not at all (Gayl Jones‘s beautifully written and utterly bleak Eva’s Man, Random House). You can still expect to pay at least ten bucks for longer fiction, though—and even more for non-fiction, the prize example of the last few months being Alan Swingewood‘s The Novel and Revolution (Barnes & Noble), an undistinguished academic study, 270 pages long, with no illustrations, gilt binding, or even, as far as I could tell, invisible CIA codes between the lines of type: the asking price, dust jacket included, was $22.50.

Rolling Stone, June 17, 1976

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