3 paths to the President

New book examines three stories that start in 1948 and lead to the White House

Published: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 1:04 a.m.

The Best Year of Their Lives

By Lance Morrow (Basic Books, 312 pages, $26) In 1948, three diverse young congressmen all set out on wildly disparate political journeys that would lead them to the same place: the White House.
1948 - what a year.
Columbia Records introduced the 33 1/3 rpm record. Edward Land unveiled the Polaroid, a camera that could print a picture in a minute. CBS and NBC lengthened their nightly TV newscasts to a whole 15 minutes. Ed Sullivan's variety show, ''Toast of the Town,'' debuted, and Leo Fender thrilled the music world with the electric guitar.
All that paled in comparison to what was happening politically though. People of a certain bent probably think 1948 - oh yes, that picture, President Harry Truman holding up an early Nov. 3, 1948, edition of the Chicago Tribune, smiling broadly at that headline, ''Dewey Defeats Truman.'' No question, Truman's surprise 1948 defeat of Thomas Dewey for the White House was the year's seminal political event.
Not as apparent at the time, though, were some other political dramas playing out, some that Lance Morrow unearthed while rooting around in the dustbins of history. Three diverse young congressmen all set out on wildly disparate political journeys that would lead them to the same place: the White House.
One was an overearnest young California lawmaker, Richard Milhous Nixon, who in 1948 listened intently as Whittaker Chambers, a senior editor from Time magazine, told the House Un-American Activities Committee of his activities as a communist undercover agent reporting U.S. government secrets to the Soviet Union.
Another, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Texas congressman, was locked in the fight of his young political life as he sought to beat a conservative former governor and goat rancher for a Democratic seat in the U.S. Senate.
And the third, U.S. Rep. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, had just arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary from London after suffering his first onset of Addison's disease, a potentially fatal insufficiency of the adrenal glands.
In ''The Best Year of Their Lives,'' Morrow argues that these three events were formative, launching these three men toward tragic destinies. ''Nineteen forty-eight,'' Morrow says, ''was, for all three, a rite of passage and the moment of their political maturing.''
For some, it's history lite For those who worship LBJ, biographers such as Robert Caro and Robert Dallek, Kennedy authors like Joan and Clay Blair Jr. and Doris Kearns Goodwin, or Nixon biographers Roger Morris and the late Stephen Ambrose, this book is definitely history lite.
Morrow, in fact, graciously credits all of these scholars and openly acknowledges he borrowed prodigiously from their work. The book, he says, ''is not a work of original scholarship but rather an extended essay on the meaning of the year 1948 and on the characters of three men who would go on to become president of the United States.''
And that is what makes the book fun. Except in some parts, ''The Best Year of Their Lives'' is a fun read with descriptions, insights and observations that can appeal to all of your biases. If you are in the school that sees Nixon as a hog-jawed creep, here's Morrow's description of a black-and-white photo in the files of the Nixon library at Yorba Linda, Calif.: ''The young Nixon wears an enigmatic half-smile, lips closed but wet, his black eyes sanpaku and strangely sleepy, almost as if (by a shocking improbability) there were seductive thoughts occurring behind them. But what, exactly, was the object of his desire? . . . The man is a sphinx.
''The face, as in later life, is a slightly odd, distinctive off-handsome, a face broad and bottom-heavy (the famous jowls, rounded like an eggplant), bisected, upper from lower, by the line of the ears and eyes, as if the head comprised two hemispheres that do not quite go together: that clash. One senses architecture of discrepancy and contradiction. The mystery seems to deepen the more you contemplate his face.''
OK, give him a break - he used to work for Time magazine, a place where writers would describe eyes as ''sanpaku,'' which is Japanese for an optical condition that connotes physical and spiritual imbalance. Morrow displays another, more-sympathetic and insightful side to Nixon, though, as the unexpected hero, the shrewd poker player, a man plagued by a psychology of victimhood that casts a pall over his brilliance in areas such as foreign policy. He brings the same richness to his treatments of Johnson and Kennedy.
Thesis works best with Nixon, Johnson Morrow's thesis, that events of 1948 represent pivotal moments for the three future presidents, works best with Nixon and Johnson.
The Chambers hearings truly propelled Nixon down a path that made him a national political figure. Morrow demonstrates considerable skills as a storyteller spinning the tale of Chambers, a rumpled journalist and sometimes farmer, fingering Alger Hiss, a respected, urbane, Establishment figure, as a communist spy.
Nixon's role as Hiss' chief protagonist in the heyday of the Red Scare led to a spot on the national Republican ticket as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president and later to the White House and Watergate, his downfall.
Morrow does an equally good job recasting the story of Johnson's narrow 1948 victory over Coke Stevenson, a former popular Texas governor who started the race for the U.S. Senate far ahead of LBJ. Morrow captures the spirit of LBJ with well-placed anecdotes.
At one point in the campaign, Morrow recalls, Johnson had a driver roar down rough rural roads trying to knock his kidney stone loose so he wouldn't have to waste valuable campaign time in a hospital. It didn't work, and Johnson ended up going to the Mayo Clinic.
Had Johnson lost, his national political career could have ended right there - or at least that's how Johnson saw it. So he pulled out all the stops and embarked upon the first modern political campaign, blending new tactics (spending oodles of cash and using helicopters to move between campaign stops) with old (lying about his opponent and cheating at the ballot box).
Johnson won by the 87 votes from Box 13 in Texas boss George Parr's Duval County, a sleight-of-hand vote count that would have made Chicago's Paddy Bauler blush.
Unflattering portrait of the Kennedys Morrow's thesis doesn't work as well with Kennedy. After his first near-fatal bout with Addison's disease, Kennedy and his family flat out lied to the public about it. Morrow is right about one aspect of Kennedy's predicament. Had the public learned that he suffered a debilitating and dangerous disease, he probably wouldn't have been elected president years later. But it's harder to argue that Kennedy's survival was a seminal event that marked his political maturing. It simply pales by comparison to the roles Hiss and Stevenson played in the lives of Nixon and Johnson.
But that shortcoming doesn't hurt Morrow's story. His less-than-flattering portrait of the Kennedy clan is every bit as entertaining at his recap of the Nixon and Johnson sagas.
''What's striking in the three beginnings in 1948 is the way in which they predict the ends, years later,'' Morrow says. ''The three tales have a symmetry - a Newtonian reciprocity, or a Shakespearean dynamic of comeuppance. A cold poetic justice manifests itself in each denouement.''
Under Morrow's theory, ''Nixon's prosecution of Alger Hiss's secrets in 1948 predicts the prosecution of his own secrets'' years later in Watergate; ''Johnson's theft of the Senate seat from Coke Stevenson in 1948 foreshadowed his own downfall, twenty years later, when the techniques of deceit that defeated Stevenson ultimately failed'' in regards to the Vietnam War; and Kennedy, whose ''formal mythmaking began in 1948 . . . ended by vanishing after his death in a cloud of myth that apparently no revisionism can completely dispel. He became the myth, and the man all but disappeared into the elaborately spun confection.''
And it all started in 1948, the same year Hollywood switched to inflammable film.

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