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The pursuit and wielding of power may be America's most intoxicating and sometimes revolting pastime. John M. Barry, award-winning author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1997), purveys American uses and abuses of might in the media, in Washington, in Olympians, and in college football.
With Power Plays: Politics, Football, and Other Blood Sports Barry draws together essays that examine the causes and effects of power. He shows how much politics and powerful agendas affect our lives. Barry draws from personal experience to probe deep into all aspects of gaining and expending personal clout.
Reflecting on life as a major college football coach, on politicians such as Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, and Jim Wright, or on such American athletes as world record-holding hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah, Barry pushes past the glamour and glitz to tackle the nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty stratagems that create and destroy America's most powerful figures.
Barry's witty and well-informed narrative voice keeps the discussion from becoming purely abstract. His numerous examples, including candid moments from his own life, focus on people and specific events that remain--and should remain--in the public eye and imagination.
Revealing the ethos, skills, and brinksmanship inherent in both sports and politics, Barry draws parallels between the two, often presenting sports as a metaphor for understanding the American political scene. His poignant memoirs of coaching football, and his highly opinionated voice within the other essays, make Barry as much a character and example in the book as any of the people he profiles.
Drawing on his 1989 book on the rise of Newt Gingrich and the fall of Jim Wright, The Ambition and the Power: A True Story of Washington, Barry re-envisions a book-length argument as a series of profiles and shorter articles. Barry creates in Power Plays: Politics, Football, and Other Blood Sports an engrossing and disturbing primer on American politics, helping readers to understand how might is made, manipulated, and lost.
John M. Barry lives in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and is the author of the award-winning Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1997) and The Ambition and the Power: A True Story of Washington (1989). Former Washington editor of Dun's Review, he has published articles in Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the Washington Post, Esquire, and the Los Angeles Times.
Everything in this book means something personal to me, including the title of this chapter. The first story that I ever sold was initially titled "Flexible Blocking Patterns." At the time I was a football coach, and the story explained to other coaches how a team could call its blocking assignments at the last second, after it broke the huddle and lined up, to take advantage of a weakness in the defense or to avoid a disaster. The story ran in Scholastic Coach magazine. The editor in his wisdom changed the title, but now at least I get to use it to title this chapter. It seems more appropriate here anyway.
"Flexible Blocking Patterns" represents ways in which we attempt to maneuver to exploit openings or avoid disasters. How we adjust, twist, block. How we try to survive and, sometimes, strike and conquer. For a block is not defensive merely; in football one throws a block, and it is an offensive, attacking move. In other words, the title represents ways in which all of us try to exercise power.
This book explores that exercise of power. It is a collection. Some of the pieces in here are new, but most have appeared either in a magazine or in my first book. All of them examine how power works.
Some, those about politics, do so in an obvious way. Others, particularly those about athletes, do so less obviously. But all look at the price one pays to win, the price of losing, how one imposes one's will on others (a process that usually begins with imposing one's will on oneself), and how people react when the world grinds slowly away at them, when the world grinds exceeding small.
Even in my days as a coach I wondered about such things, about how power can be used or abused, not only in the abstract or en masse but in individual relationships. I wondered as well about force, dominion, might, sovereignty, rule, authority, and how those aspects or synonyms of power affect the shape of society. In fact the words themselves can shape the world; George Orwell made that point long before the fashion of deconstruction. So the words themselves can matter.
Sport analogies are often applied to politics, and for that matter to war. This makes at least some sense: in sports and in politics the competitiveness, the dedication to a goal, the abilities of particular individuals, and in many instances team effort all play a role in determining who wins and who loses. And of course the British victory over Napoleon was said to have been determined on the playing fields of Eton.
Indeed, the connections between sport and politics may go even deeper. As already noted, Jose Ortega y Gasset argued, "The great political process was not begun by the worker, the intellectual, the priest, properly speaking, or the businessman, but by youth, preoccupied with women and resolved to fight—the lover, the warrior, the athlete."
And for me the connection between sport and politics is tied quite directly to my work. Had I not coached football, I would not have been able to write my first book. Which is odd, considering the subject.
In that book I wanted to analyze how power works in Washington. At the time I was a journalist covering national politics. I preferred writing a narrative, a case study, to some static analysis. The case study I chose turned out to be better for my purpose than I could have hoped, better in fact than I wished it to be. It turned out to be the story of the destruction of one man who had spent his life in politics, and the rise to power of another. When Jim Wright became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives I asked him to grant me access to his private meetings. I told Wright the book would use his effort to control policy and move legislation as a narrative vehicle to describe the exercise of power.
When I asked him to grant me access, he barely knew me, and he had a far worse relationship with the press than did most politicians—and none of them like the press, or truly have a good relationship with it. I had met him for the first time only a few weeks before making my request, when I began working on a profile of him for the New York Times Magazine. Yet he gave me more than I asked for—much more—allowing me into virtually all his meetings during his speakership. If any staff attended a meeting, I could attend, with nothing off the record. I believed at the time, and Wright later confirmed, that he agreed to cooperate because his first ambition in life was to be a football coach and I had coached football. Because of that he saw me as different from other journalists, thought of me as someone who might understand him better.
His nemesis Newt Gingrich also cooperated with me, as did others among Wright's allies and enemies, but they would not have done so had Wright not already granted me such extraordinary access.
As it turned out, Wright served only two and a half years as Speaker—he became the first Speaker in history forced to resign. Still, he was a remarkable man who even in that short term did remarkable things. Gingrich achieved power by destroying him.
The cooperation of both Wright, a constitutional officer who wielded power from the dais above the floor—the dais from which the president gives the state of the union address each year—and Gingrich, then a back bencher with no formal leadership position of any kind in his party, meant that I observed first-hand the events leading to Wright's auto-da-fe. The most difficult thing I have ever done as a writer was to try to maintain distance from and perspective on those events.
The book that came out of those experiences, The Ambition and the Power: A True Story of Washington, chronicled more than just the story of Wright's undoing or Gingrich's rise. It detailed the end of the old style of politics and the emergence of the new, a new that has largely held sway since. Indeed, Bill Kovach, who has served as Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, and curator of the Nieman Foundation, reviewed the book and noted that it "may presage the final push for political dominance in Washington."
That book's sales disappointed not only me—no surprise, all writers think their books will become bestsellers—but also my editor, who had a more realistic grasp on marketing realities, and it went out of print a few years later. With perfect irony, almost the day it went out of print, the New York Times Book Review listed it as one of the eleven best books ever written on the ways of Washington and Congress. (Why the Times listed a "top eleven" instead of a "top ten" I have always wondered, but I'm not complaining.) Gingrich himself called it one of the three best books ever written on Congress; his other favorites are Woodrow Wilson's Congressional Government and Allen Drury's novel Advise and Consent. Wright embraced the book as well. That these two most bitter antagonists both considered the book accurate and fair meant something to me.
Sport, politics, and war are said to be all about winning. War is of course about nothing but winning and has no rules, and, as the Wright-Gingrich contest shows, politics can be almost as brutal, but I have never believed that sports are about only winning. My somewhat heretical view on this—heretical at least for an ex-football coach—stems not from any lack of competitive zeal, but from the belief that winning by itself is superficial. Maybe my feelings in this area come from my own experience not in football but in individual sports, high school track and field and competitive weightlifting after college.
At Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island, my football and track coach was Al Morro, who had been an NCAA champion in the discus and captain of a Boston College football team ranked in the top five nationally. Al is an unusual man, to say the least. Never married, quite mysterious to his players, he coached in the old style. He never swore. The worst thing he ever called someone was "a dirty lousy louse." But getting called that made you feel as low as anything in the world. Sometimes he hit his players, although never with a closed fist. Sometimes he grabbed our face masks and twisted our heads around. Once he warned us, "No matter how hard you get hit out there on the field, you know you'll get hit harder in the locker room at half-time." In track he was almost as intense. He sounds like a horrible man. And yet most of his players loved him. I certainly did. And he loved us. He taught us we could give more than we believed we had. He also took care of players who got in trouble with the police, took care of players who had to work to keep their families going, took care of players who needed to be taken care of.
He hated "baloney." Every football team I have ever seen, from the pee-wee level to the pros, counts cadence when it does warm-up exercises, growling, "One-two-three-four! One-two-three-four!" The players' voices rumble up from deep inside their chests, as they try to intimidate the opponent and submerge themselves in a blood-lust.
Not Classical High School. We never counted cadence at all, never made grunting or growling noises, never relied on group-think. When we went through our warm-ups some of us would be stretching our hamstrings, others would be doing jumping jacks, others loosening their shoulders.
Oh, Al could get us up. Once we played what he considered one of the best teams in New England, a team far better than we were, and he got us so psyched we didn't just beat them, we absolutely took them apart. That was probably the only game I've ever been involved in when emotion utterly overwhelmed talent. But also once, as we left the locker room really psyched, ready to kill the other team, we shouted, "Let's GO!"
Al turned around and said, "Oh yeah? Where ya going?"
Deflated, thrown off, we lost that game.
I guess he preferred each of us to ready himself alone, to face the world alone. Not that he didn't believe and work toward creating a harmonious team, but we are alone in the world and he knew that.
In track, he was a truly great field event coach. In a mid-sized public high school that did not recruit athletes and sent practically every graduate to a four-year college, he produced high school All-Americans. I picked up a Track and Field News a few years ago and noticed that in one event, the hammer throw, he had coached seven of the top twenty high school performers of all time, including one athlete who held the teenage world record—an extraordinary feat considering that Russians and Germans have dominated this event for decades. (Alvin Jackson, the athlete who set that record, would soon play on the offensive line for Penn State and bragged he could out-eat anyone; Al Morro took up that particular challenge and trounced him in an eating contest.) His formula for success was simple: hard work and outstanding technique. His field event men—especially shot putters, discus throwers, and so forth—practiced seven days a week, including Easter Sunday.
So maybe because of Al and track, I always thought that even in football you competed chiefly against yourself. Just to score more points than another team? What did that mean? It seemed stupid. Because no matter how bad you are, you can always find some team somewhere you could beat 30-0, and no matter how good you are, some team somewhere is capable of beating you 30-0. So what did the win itself mean? Nothing.
Competing against yourself, to play at your best, that meant something. The difference is akin to that between pride and dignity. Dignity is an internal thing, and it is a kind of truth; it reflects a concern with how one sees one's own self. Pride is something external, and therefore superficial and false; the proud worry about how the world sees them. Pride represents a state of action and aggressiveness, yet people with pride can be manipulated. (It's rather like judo—using an aggressor's own power against him—and not particularly difficult.) Dignity is essentially passive, a state of being. Yet it is also rooted and firm and unyielding, and the more it is tested or assaulted, the stronger and truer it becomes.
My own experience in weightlifting may also have had something to do with my feelings. I was a decent lifter, and if I had trained elsewhere, I might even have considered myself pretty good. At my very best I was capable of qualifying to compete at the national championships. But I was never good enough to contend for a medal there, and I trained at the Central Falls Weightlifting Club in Rhode Island, so I could have no illusions about my abilities. The coach there, Joe Mills, had himself been a national champion and developed the greatest American lifter of the past several decades, Bob Bednarski, a world heavyweight champion who set more than twenty world records. Bednarski, the only American lifter in more than thirty years to win a world championship, was no accident. Mills also produced another lifter who won five straight national heavyweight championships and a bronze medal in the world championships, another man who lifted a national record over his head but couldn't hold it, and still another who set a teenage world record. I was never going to beat any of them, and so I had to compete against myself or why bother lifting at all?
I quit coaching football in fact when the wins, per se, began to matter to me more than anything else. I was on the staff of a nationally ranked and bowl-bound Tulane University team, and we beat one team 42-0. It may have been our worst game of the season, we just completely outclassed them on ability, and yet I kind of liked the idea of playing them just to get the victory and pad our record, instead of testing ourselves against Notre Dame or Michigan or Miami. It meant nothing and I knew that, but I was becoming corrupted. One can have neither pride nor dignity if one is corrupt. So I quit.
I had already started writing and turned to it full-time, went to Washington to cover politics, then left journalism to finish my first book. There is much in subsequent chapters about the media, and I consider reporters to be different from writers. (That distinction is by no means automatically pejorative, but it does exist: a journalist reports what someone else does; a writer creates something new.) But let me say that I think a football coach, a politician committed to doing something real, and a writer resemble each other—at least the good ones do—in three ways. In fact, the same traits can be found to a greater or lesser degree in the best people in most professions where some kind of over-all vision matters.
First they notice ... everything. Henry James urged that a writer "be one of those on whom nothing is lost." Good politicians, coaches, and writers do notice everything. Yet they also focus; while remaining aware of the external, they practice "concentration without elimination," as T. S. Eliot said.
Second, each sits at the center of chaos and, through vision and will, tries to order that chaos. This vision and will function like a crystal to precipitate an order out of possibilities that already exist.
Third, politicians and coaches perform and maneuver, or manipulate, others into performing. A writer too—a good writer does anyway, whether by intent or not—alters the perceptions of others, in turn changing what they do.
Other than that, these professions share little. Politics and coaching are ultimately pure act; writing, pure shadow. A writer simply observes, although he or she is no mere spectator, oh no, as Heisenberg hypothesized, observations have effect. Politics and coaching are entirely social, with success dependent upon how one interacts with others; writing is entirely isolating, with success independent of others. In the former, you are surrounded and involved with many people, sometimes tens of thousands of people. As a writer, you work alone. You see no one in the course of your work. Every eighteen months (if you work fast and I don't) you send something off to your editor. And sometimes you become even more isolated than writing itself demands.
As for me personally, considering the different roles a football coach and a writer play, it may be appropriate that those who know me as one have difficulty picturing me as the other. As a coach, I loved having a sense of certainty of what a team needed to do, loved being at the center, controlling, directing, demanding, manipulating, loved the decisiveness required, the idea of making a decision and making it work. Yet my natural inclination is to observe. I am uncomfortable in crowds, hanging back, more asocial than antisocial.
I quit coaching twenty years ago. I miss not only the game itself, but also the kind of chaos that went with it, and the way one could create something more or less concrete.
But I'm a writer. That's all I ever really wanted to do or be. Write. Maybe the real reason I left football was just because it was time to go home. Home was my writing.
And as the next chapter shows, home is also where I learned my first lesson in real power.
Excerpted from POWER PLAYS by JOHN M. BARRY. Copyright © 2001 by John M. Barry. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Flexible Blocking Patterns||3|
|WASHINGTON: THE PLAYERS||19|
|The Making of a Politician I||21|
|The Making of a Politician II||35|
|It's All a Part of the Game||57|
|No More Play||65|
|WASHINGTON: WRIGHT'S PLAY||83|
|WASHINGTON: GINGRICH'S PLAY||131|
|The Outside Game||133|
Posted December 18, 2001
I bought this for one reason-- the author also wrote Rising Tide, one of my all-time favorite books. On the one hand, this may not be Rising Tide (how could any book be that good?), on the other hand, this too is original, provocative, and passionate. And once again, this non-fiction reads like excellent fiction. It's a collection that sounds like a hodge-podge, some first person stories, some profiles of athletes, and a hell of a lot about Newt Gingrich, Congress, and the media. They woulnd't seem to all fit together. But they do. Some of the pieces evoke far more emotion than anything in Rising Tide.. Among the most memorable is 'We were never really friends,' about someone the author grew up with who went to Vietnam, and a story about a Harvard football captain whom the author coached in high school (yeah he used to coach football before he became a writer) that reminds me of the movie Everybody's All American, or Irving Shaw's famous story 'The 90 Yard Run.' The piece about Renaldo Nehemiah, the former world record holder in the hurdles, and 'Regrets,' a bit of a confessional, are kind of haunting. Other chapters teach you more about the political process and the media than you can imagine. Now, everybody takes shots at the media (hell, they deserve it), but Barry analyzes it and explains the pressures that force individual reporters and their organizations to behave as they do. The way power works is the theme of the book, both the way athletes exercise power over themselves and the way politicians exercise power in Washignton. After reading this book, I was reading a New York Times editorial and suddenly I started thinking, 'How naive the Times is.' That tells you how much I learned. So the collection, stranegly enough, works. And even if it didn't, several of the individual pieces are worth the price of admission by themselves.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.