The American reconstitution

Sly And Able
February 23, 1996

Sly and Able is an eight-year labour of love and understanding. It comes complete with a number of health warnings. The dedication: "To S. L. M, for the beauty of her honesty." The poetry: "[They] urge and urge. They want you better/Than you are." (James Dickey, The Bee, written in honour of the football coaches of Clemson College, South Carolina, where the James F. Byrnes papers reside and where David Robertson, poet and former newspaper editor, taught English). The preface: "It is the quality of the unknown and the unknowable in the life of any greatly influential man or woman that both attracts and torments biographers and that leads such writers to try to construct what Walter Pater once called the 'subjective immorality' of writing biographies." The prologue: "Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Byrnes together sang a love song. Each man was proud of his voice, and each enjoyed singing sentimental ballads in the company of friends. Roosevelt was a full baritone, with all the subtle modulations of his patrician upbringing; Byrnes was an Irish tenor, and sang with a noticeable southern accent. At the time of their duet, the two men were at the height of their political powers, and they had known each other for more than 30 years. The song Roosevelt and Byrnes chose to sing together was a mutual favourite entitled When I Grow Too Old to Dream, I'll Have You to Remember." And the puff: "If you care to understand where Newt Gingrich came from, read this book." (The Washington Post, no less).

All biography is reclamatory, political biography more clamorously than most. This one has high aspirations in that direction, only partially fulfilled. David Robertson wants to reclaim his deeply unattractive subject as a significant force in United States domestic politics and as an all-purpose "wise man" manque (or calomnie) in the transition from world war to cold war, in particular in his brief incarnation as Truman's first secretary of state in 1945-46. The first of these claims is sustainable - it is sustained with great conviction in this book. The second is not. Jimmy Byrnes was a southerner and a fixer. He was good at both, exceedingly good, but each implied certain limitations, and Byrnes had neither the character nor the intellect to transcend them. Robertson's epigraph, from a contemporary profile by Joseph Alsop and Robert Kintner, is very apt: "Byrnes, whom enemies call the slyest, and friends call the ablest, member of the Senate, does not appear to have been born to wear the toga."

Some of the health warnings should be heeded. Neither piety nor poetry obtrudes, mercifully, but there is a rather strenuous high seriousness to the writing, especially when straying into historical controversy, which does not mesh with the author's transparent desire to shape and tell a good story. The Hon. Jimmy, as Dean Acheson called him, is reconstructed - one might almost say reconstituted - with loving care. This is no small achievement. But it is an achievement more akin to taxidermy than biography. Byrnes lives and breathes but shallowly in these pages. Robertson is too careful with him, too reluctant to probe and prod, too respectful, perhaps, if not of his subject, then of his subjective immortality - the craft itself. Ultimately, it is as if this versatile poet-editor-teacher has not quite found his voice as biographer.

And Newt? The connection is nowhere made explicit, but in a bibliographical note at the back of the book, Robertson speculates that the Byrnes profile and the Byrnes programme (if it can be dignified as such) - race, reaction, retrenchment - has paved the way for a devilish demagogue: "that the American electorate soon will be highly receptive to a presidential candidate in either major party or a new third party who will be as sly and able as Jimmy Byrnes; as persistent and durable as Richard Nixon; as economically populist and racially divisive as Pitchfork Ben Tillman; and as eloquently charming and unhesitatingly brutal as Huey P. Long": that, put crudely, the Hon. Jimmy begat the Hon. Newt. How sly, how able to sucker us all from beyond the grave.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Sly And Able: A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes

Author - David Robertson
ISBN - 0 393 03367 8
Publisher - Norton
Price - £22.00
Pages - 639

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