Monday, January 19, 2009

The Man

Today, on the day set aside to remember the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. 80 years ago, I've been thinking about a book I read as a teenager.

It was called "The Man," and it was written by Irving Wallace in 1964. He wrote many remarkable novels — and a few works of nonfiction, like "The Book of Lists" and "The People's Almanac," as well.

"The Man" was written before the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1967.

(The 25th, in case you aren't familiar with the amendments, provides the means for a president to nominate someone to be the next vice president when the duly elected vice president has died or resigned or cannot fulfill his responsibilities. It was first used when Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 and Richard Nixon chose Gerald Ford to replace him. The following year, after Nixon himself resigned and Ford became president, Ford chose Nelson Rockefeller to be the next vice president.

(The 25th also provides a framework for the vice president to be the "acting president" when the president is unable to carry out his duties for any reason. Fans of the TV show "The West Wing" may remember that the president in that series invoked the 25th Amendment to temporarily hand over power to the speaker of the House when the president's daughter had been kidnapped. The move was hailed as patriotic in the show because it showed the president was putting the interests of the country ahead of his own and didn't want important decisions to be made by a distraught father.)

That's important to remember because, in the novel, the vice presidency is vacant; then, on a trip overseas, the president is killed in a bizarre accident and the speaker of the House (who was next in line to be president) dies during surgery. That makes the next person in line the president pro tempore of the Senate — who, in this case, happens to be a black man.

The novel then becomes an examination of the many problems faced by America's first black president. He has to deal with racists who aren't happy to have a black man in the Oval Office. At the other end of the political spectrum, he has to deal with black activists and their agenda. He is also the target of an assassination attempt, and he is impeached for firing the secretary of state — in proceedings that are remarkably similar to the ones surrounding Andrew Johnson's impeachment nearly 100 years earlier.

On a personal level, he has to contend with the racial issues faced by one of his children, who looks white and is harassed.

Eight years after the book was written, it was made into a movie. The film originally was intended to be a TV movie, but it was released theatrically instead because of its sponsors' concerns about racial backlash.

The black president was played by James Earl Jones, who may be best known for providing the voice of Darth Vader in the "Star Wars" movies, although he has had a long and distinguished career — which began with a part in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" in 1964.

Others in the cast included Georg Stanford Brown (who appeared with Jones in the TV blockbuster "Roots" a few years later), Burgess Meredith and Martin Balsam. Rod Serling (of "Twilight Zone" fame) was the screenwriter.

"The Man" was written more than 40 years ago. It was written, obviously, in a different time and in a country that was different from the one in which we live today. But Barack Obama, like James Earl Jones' character, will face many challenges in his presidency. He will not always be the popular figure he is on the eve of his presidency. And he will need everyone's support to succeed.

1 comment:

Duae Quartunciae said...

I found this book quite interesting; it's easy reading but not great literature. The book is saved by the large themes. I have read it a couple of times, and I guess that means I like it.

The politics of the book always set a jarring note for me. Political parties are not mentioned; but Wallace uses the book to advocate some of his own political views, and they come across to me as very odd. For example: Dilman (the black president) is shown as taking a principled stand against the advice of nearly everyone by making a strong military stand against the USSR for a small African state. It's a classic and simplistic account of the domino theory and the need for the USA to defend freedom abroad against USSR infiltration and manipulation of and undermining of weaker states. What's weird is how much Dilman's sabre rattling is portrayed as being a risky move politically because the nation and the political establishment would much rather not risk upsetting the Russians.

Similarly, Wallace is down on affirmative action and on the bad domestic afro-american terrorists. All the politics and social action in it come across as a right wing fantasy; repudiating crude racism and repression in the context of right wing political ideals.

Fun read. Obviously fiction.