One-Minute Book Reviews

April 16, 2009

In the Land of the Jane Fonda Urinal Target — ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America’

[You can find some of my comments on the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books, which will be announced Monday, at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.]

How ignoring the economy and lifting up wedge issues got us into a mess

What’s the Matter With Kansas? By Thomas Frank. How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Holt, 336 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Why did the Republican Party for years attract so many Americans who recently have lost their homes, jobs or life savings to its policies? How did the GOP recast itself as the party of working-class voters, who for generations had lined up behind the Democrats?

Thomas Frank gives bracing and witty answers in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a former New York Times bestseller that is still one of the best books on the political roots of the current fiscal mess. Frank argues that for decades, Republicans have been eroding the traditional Democratic base by focusing on wedge issues such as abortion, gun control, and “filth” in the media, not on the economic policies that separate the parties. And since the Clinton administration, the Democratic Leadership Council has played into their hands by promoting “triangulation,” a business-friendly stance that downplays its differences with the GOP.

The result: The line between the parties blurred, and year after year Americans elected Republicans whose laissez-faire economic policies eventually would wipe out their 401(k)s.

Frank refracts the changes through his native Kansas, once a hotbed of progressive ideals, a state that has paid a scalper’s price for its march to the right. A portent of the American economic meltdown occurred when the attacks of Sept. 11 halted the orders to the Boeing, a mainstay of the Wichita economy. The aircraft manufacturer laid off many union workers and said that, this time, their jobs wouldn’t be coming back.

“In the summer of 2003, unemployment in Wichita passed 7 percent and foreclosures on homes spiked as these disasters reverberated through the local economy,” Frank writes.

But Kansans didn’t seem blame the Republican union-busting policies exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers. The state went for George Bush in 2004. And Frank’s pessimism about its political climate seems well-founded, if not prophetic, given the economic free fall that has occurred since the publication of his book. Even as the recession was spreading around the world, Kansas voted Republican in the 2008 presidential election.

Best line: At Kansas Vietnam Veterans reunion in 2002, trinket vendors sold “such items as the Jane Fonda urinal target.

Worst line: Frank describes how the national swerve to the right affected his hometown, the affluent Mission Hills, Kansas, and says you “can observe the same changes” in Shaker Heights, Ohio. No, you can’t. Parts of Shaker Heights — where I lived for 11 of the years when those changes supposed to be occurring — may look like Mission Hills with its castellated stone fortresses. But the Cleveland suburb is 10 times the size of Mission Hills, has a far more diverse population, and for other reasons does not fit the pattern he describes. Shaker Heights has lost enough of its cachet in the past several decades that the elite suburbs now lie farther to the east. Those suburbs include Hunting Valley, which more closely resembles his hometown.

Editor: Sara Bershtel

Published: June 2004 (hardcover), April 2005 (paperback).

Furthermore: Frank’s latest book is The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 12, 2008

A Boy Runs for President of the U.S. in the Picture Book ‘President Pennybaker’

A young candidate campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire and other politically influential states after setting his sights on the White House

President Pennybaker. By Kate Feiffer. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

It’s probably safe to say that many adults would find it easier explain to young children how babies are made than how U.S. presidents are made. Libraries and bookstores abound with good picture books on conception, pregnancy and birth. But how many show the importance of putting up posters, taking part in debates and campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Most authors seem to assume that presidential campaigns are too complex a topic for young children and that they may write only about elections that occur in school or neighborhood settings. These writers may be giving too little credit to their potential audience. Child psychologists tell us that children are aware of changes in their environment even if they don’t understand them. So they’ll notice if campaign signs are sprouting on lawns, Dad is wearing a shiny red-white-and-blue lapel button, or Mom is spending a lot of time on the telephone asking people she doesn’t know for money.

Kate Feiffer and Diane Goode cast a national election in terms young children can understand in President Pennybaker, the story of a boy who sets his sights on the White House after his father’s edicts convince him that life is unfair and that he can bring about his own form of social justice. Luke does many things that adult candidates do: He sets up a campaign office, puts up posters and solicits contributions. And as he travels to politically important states like Iowa and New Hampshire, he makes promises he’ll never be able to keep. Campaigning as the candidate of the Birthday Party, Luke vows that under his administration kids will get to eat cake and open gifts every day. After winning by a landslide, he realizes that he’s in over his head and resigns after a week on the job, leaving Oval Office to his hand-picked vice-president — his dog, Lily.

Goode leavens Feiffer’s somewhat abrupt ending with entertaining watercolors that set President Pennybaker mostly in the early 20th century — when voters tooled around in Model Ts – except for a few anachronisms such as television sets and a female governor of California. Her pictures also suggest some of the comedy in Luke’s serious motive for seeking the White House. In real life, when children ask their elders why people run for president, the adults tend to fall back on bromides like, “They want to make the world a better place.” That explanation is far too dull and abstract for many children. Luke’s rationale for his candidacy is likely to be much more appealing to its intended audience: Life is not fair. What 4- or 5-year old couldn’t relate that?

Best line/picture: All of Goode’s pictures show her flair for retro details, but Bruce Springsteen fans may especially like the page that shows Luke campaigning on “on the beach at the Jersey shore” in what looks like old Asbury Park.

Worst line/picture: Anachronisms such as the television set are clearly intentional and often amusing but weren’t essential to the story.

Recommendation? A good choice for parents who want to explain to young children why Dad starts swearing every time he sees a certain candidate on television. This book may especially interest schools and libraries in the places where Luke campaigns or whose elected officials are mentioned in it — the cities of Detroit, Cincinnati, New York and Washington, D.C., and the states of Iowa, Maine, Kansas, Colorado, California, New Jersey and New Hampshire.

Editor: Paula Wiseman

Published: August 2008 www.katefeiffer.com and www.dianegoode.com. Feiffer is a Massachusetts filmmaker who also wrote Henry the Dog With No Tail, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Goode is a New Jersey artist who won a Caldecott Honor for her art for Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains and also illustrated Mind Your Manners, a guide to table manners for young children www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/23/.

Furthermore: Click here to read about other new children’s books about elections, including Rosemary Wells’s Otto Runs for President www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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