American Political Literature '23

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The powerful & the powerless

"In order to write about political power the way I wanted to write about it, I would have to write not only about the powerful but about the powerless as well--would have to write about them (and learn about their lives) thoroughly enough so that I could make the reader feel for them, empathize with them, and with what political power did for them, or to them."

Robert Caro, Working


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Assigned readings

Books to buy

Robert A. Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing. A brief memoir by one of our great Journalist-historians discussing his craft.  Caro wrote about Robert Moses, the un-elected power broker who rebuilt New York City, and is currently working on the fifth volume of his series about LBJ, perhaps the most effective legislator in US history. 

J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families. A landmark masterpiece of journalism that offers deep insights into the intersection of race, class, and politics in Boston during the busing crisis of the 1970s.. Sadly, we'll only have time to read excepts.

I'm hoping to have copies available in the bookstore before you go home for break.  If that doesn't work out, hardcover copies of Caro's book available at Thriftbooks for $8:59. Paperbacks of Lukas, $4:19. Please purchase the books rather than downloading a pirated PDF.  It ruins Harkness when students try to read from different versions of the same book.

Photocopies provided: 

Selections from Caro's other books

Weekly discussions

We'll meet every Sunday night beginning on March 26 to discuss the week's assigned readings. 


(Information about grading for this course)

Reading Schedule (leader; partner)

8. May 7 (David, Nur) On Common Ground--Twymon group:  12, 16, 18; McGoff group: 15, 17, 18; Diver group: 13, 16, 18.  What are we learning about power in this reading: who has it and who doesn't?  Compare the power of Mayor White with that of Moses and LB; the people of East Tremont with Civil Rights activists and the people of Charlestown, etc.   

Twymon 12: The story of Methunion Manor in the South End sheds light on Federal low-income housing policies (see 183-185).  Are there lessons to be learned from the failures?  What is the relevance to the current housing crisis?  According to this chart, 49% of renters today are considered "cost burdened": they pay more than 30% of their income on housing.  Also of interest: leadership in the black community as reflected in Revs. Caldwell and McClain.

Diver 13: Traces Colin's experience inside Mayor Kevin White's administration and his departure to work under the Republican governor, Frank Sargent. Also explains the origins of the court case that led to busing: Morgan v. Hennigan. (The Racial Imbalance Act, which led to the suit, was discussed on page 131).  Like LBJ, we see the tension between Mayor White's ambition and his commitment to high ideals.  But unlike Moses, White put the interests of the neighborhoods ahead of "citywide interests" (214-215).  Has Colin lost faith in liberalism and government action to solve problems?  See Forrester's thesis about the power of unintended consequences, 212-214.    

McGoff 15: Busing the perspective of white, Irish Charlestown.  A case of white privilege/racism or bad policy virtue-signaling elite liberals?  Working class alienation from liberals, a national trend, seen on the local level here, esp. on pp. 268-271. Are the whites defecting from liberalism for legitimate reasons?

Twymon 16: Busing from the perspective of Black Roxbury students transferred to Charlestown.  From the Black perspective, is this an enlightened policy? Compare and contrast the white and Black perspectives on Busing. Are there clear heroes and villains?  Do you agree with the African Liberation Committee on pp. 296-297?

McGoff 17: This chapter tells the story of one of the most iconic news photos ever, the  one image that came to symbolize the Boston Busing crisis, 323-326.  Stanley Foreman of the Boston Herald American won the Pulitzer for this photograph. Does Billy McGoff's experience in sports suggest an alternative, better path to integration. What do you make of the school leadership: the principals, the coaches, the teachers? For the visually inclined, you might check out this massive collection of news photos of the crisis. 

Diver 18: Is the Divers' resistance to busing any more justifiable than the McGoff's?

9. May 14 (Tina) Read Chapters 22 (Diver) and 24 (The Editor).  Watch this space for further instructions/suggestions/study question. 

You can skip pp. 478-486, on the history Boston newspapers, though there is some interesting stuff about the newspaper war between the Globe and the Herald in which Joe Kennedy incidentally manages to corruptly get his son Jack a Pulitzer Prize for biography.  

What is gentrification?  What are the various sides in the disputes over South End development?  Who are the heroes and villains?  Is there a better way to deal with these issues. 

The dilemmas faced by the Globe are quite similar to what the Times and other contemporary journalists were dealing with after the George Floyd killing and during the "racial reckoning" that followed.  Do you agree with the Times reporter Wes Lowery who called for Moral Clarity rather than balanced objectivity in 2020? You can read or listen (15 minutes) to his essay here

10. May 21 (Sinna) Read 26. "McGoff"; and 28. "The Mayor," but you only have to read the following sections: 596-597 (about White's conflict with his brother, Terry, his campaign manager in his  first mayoral campaign), and 603-611 (on Busing) and 616-619. This will be your last chance to write a reflection on the readings in your journals that shows deep thinking, synthesis, insight, engagement--you know, stuff that would justify my giving you an A.  See the pull down for some thought provokers: 

All this term we've read detailed accounts of people trying to wield power in this country: an appointed bureaucrat (Moses); a judge, a mayor, a president and Senate Majority Leader, a conservative-populist School Committee Chair, and various organized and unorganized groupings of people. Meanwhile, working in Congresssional offices you have witnessed the legislative process first hand, and the role of committees, twitter, MOC, staff, constituents,protesters in that process.  What lessons will you take away about power--who has it and how it works in the USA--and the nature of our "democracy."  What is democratic about it? 

What do the readings tell us about unintended consequences and good intentions. 

Who are the heroes and villains in the readings?

What did you learn about this legacy of liberalism in the 60s and 70s? The value of idealism vs pragmatism?

Political ambition is the greatest obstacle to social justice and wise policy. 

Anti-racism--what works; what doesn't?  What kinds of good intentions make racism worse? 

How do the authors try to make us feel about various historical actors, including ones we might consider racist villains, like the people of Charlestown? 

On page 506, Lukas quotes Robert Coles: "The ultimate reality is the reality of class.  And to talk about [busing] only in terms of racism is to miss the point." What did you learn from Common Ground about how class complicates our understanding of race in American history. Or how race obscures the role of class in US culture. 

What Rep. Lyndon Johnson saw on his way to work. 

"Veering along a path to the left, he would come up Capitol Hill and around the corner of the Capitol, and the marble of the eastern façade, already caught by the early-morning sun, would be a gleaming, brilliant, almost dazzling white."

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