The Fixer

This new biography of one of the great "fixers" in American political life, James F. Byrnes, creates the impression of an American Ozymandias, proclaiming by example the ephemerality of human greatness. Byrnes and his political colleagues did mold the world in which we live long after the last of them died; yet the scene of waste remains, as the life of James Byrnes, almost all of its 90 years spent in the public sphere in an astonishing array of positions—member of both houses of Congress, Supreme Court Justice, secretary of state, governor—extends itself before us. James Byrnes was in many ways an honest and committed public servant, yet even he, no matter how sly or able (and he was indeed both) could not resist being increasingly consumed by the steady possession of public power.

Sly and Able presents a vibrant, at times colorful account of a nation struggling to define and accommodate itself to rapidly changing social and economic realities. Robertson throughout the book gives us glimpses of a world barely remembered: the "palmetto stump" campaigning in turn-of-the-century South Carolina, the great textile mill strikes of the 1930's, and the forgotten figures, great and small, that populated American political life earlier in this century. Byrnes's career was spent largely as a participant, and his life (1882-1972) spans most of the significant post-Civil War events of American...

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