In Our Orbit

In Our Orbit


“Did you hear the one about the theft of the American presidency?” teases The Nation‘s Washington correspondent, John Nichols, at the start of his entertaining recounting of the 2000 election, Jews for Buchanan. But humor is just comic relief–the election, while perhaps ridiculous, was no joke at all. Still, Nichols writes, “if we are to believe that George W. Bush was elected president of the United States…we must suspend disbelief and accept that there were indeed Jews for Buchanan.”

“Jews for Buchanan”? That’s a joke, right? Buchanan himself thinks so. When Nichols asked the former presidential candidate to explain how one of his best vote totals came from the “overwhelmingly Democratic, heavily Jewish and Haitian-American” Palm Beach County, Buchanan himself drawled, “C’mon. It was the butterfly ballot. Everyone knows that now.”

Of course, Nichols’s detailed recap ventures beyond the “Buchanan stronghold in Florida,” as Ari Fleischer spun Palm Beach County, and into the shady workings of the Bushes, the impolitics of Katherine Harris, the secret workings of Tom DeLay and the partiality of the Supreme Court. Along the way we are treated to memorable political cartoons; samples of discarded “overvote” ballots, where voter-intent could not be more clear; and choice quotes from right, left and center.

Nichols ends his book with a battle cry for reform. “We can point to the evidence of racial disparity, systemic failure, official wrongdoing and judicial conflicts of interest and say, ‘Fix this broken system!’ We can point to George W. Bush and say, ‘You were not elected!’ We can point to the ‘Jews for Buchanan’ votes and tell the defenders of the 2000 result, ‘Your claims of legitimacy are a joke.'” And we must. As Nichols wraps up: “If we do not act on what we know about the corruptions and the compromises of the 2000 election, then the joke is on us.”

Sauk Centre’s Finest

“Everyone ought to have a home to get away from,” said Sinclair Lewis–and Nation senior editor Richard Lingeman demonstrates how amply Lewis followed his own advice. Ever restless, the author of such classics as Main Street, Babbitt and Elmer Gantry is shown in Lingeman’s biography to have led an itinerant life, moving ceaselessly about the United States and occasionally Europe.

“Red” Lewis grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and attended Yale after high school but dropped out before eventually completing his studies–he shuttled around the country, working for a time at the San Francisco Bulletin and AP before moving to Greenwich Village. Lingeman sketches out the ferment there early in the century, where Lewis joined the intellectuals’ wing of the New York Socialist Party (other members included Walter Lippmann, the novelist Ernest Poole and Ashcan School painter John Sloan), where his politics seemed inspired more by Shaw, H.G. Wells and Wilde (The Soul of Man Under Socialism) than Marx, we are told. It sparked a lasting interest, though, evident in the political satire of much of his work.

That cutting satire got Lewis in trouble with the era’s moralizers–though hardly the public; Main Street earned Lewis in the vicinity of $3 million–and Lingeman chronicles many celebrated literary spats arising from this. Archibald MacLeish scored Lewis and others in a prominent essay for having “not praised democracy as lustily as it deserved to be praised, instead devoting themselves to negativity, thus placing America in spiritual peril.” Sound familiar? He was echoed by the noted historian Bernard DeVoto in public lectures. But Lewis always believed that “chronic scolds were the true patriots,” Lingeman tells us, and quotes his response: that those “who so loved their country that they were willing to report its transient dangers and stupidities, have been as valuable an influence as America has ever known.”

The turmoil of the artist is all here in Lingeman’s engaging account: the uncertainties, the drunkenness, the divorces, the splits with friends, but also the successes–the development of those wonderful novels and, of course, the Nobel Prize.

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