LBJ biographer Robert Caro, winner of the Texas Book Festival’s Bookend Award
The Texas Book Festival, which ran over the weekend at the State Capitol in Austin, came directly out of politics — thanks, in part to then-First Lady of Texas Laura Bush. And thanks, in part, to Austin itself and the Austin political-social types who continue to run it, the festival has always had a huge contingent of presidential biographers, state historians and political journalists, more than most literary shindigs. What can you say about a book festival that has seemingly had Texas Monthly political editor Paul Burka on some panel or other just about every year (not this time, thankfully)? It has always had sessions with titles (taken from this year’s festival) like “Texas Political Giants” and “Memo to the President-Elect” and “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.” Beyond the staples of any book festival — popular novels, cookbooks, children’s books, books on music and celebrities — this has been the defining trait of the Austin fest.
So, initially, it was something of a surprise that on this weekend — of all election-year weekends — the Texas Book Festival definitely was not drawing the same size crowds, pulling the same political mojo, as in previous years. Frankly, I find the Austin festival’s focus on politics distracting at times, and its history of apparently avoiding the depth of more academic literary types just north of the capitol at UT-Austin a bit irksome. But I was there in 2000 when the festival was held during the heated election interregnum, when no one knew whether Gov. George Bush was going to be President George Bush, and the national media was present in locust-swarming numbers. Yet the governor still found time to pop in to the gala dinner, while frantically trying to master the recount in Florida. The nervous tension was palpable. Imagine anything as politically hard-knuckled happening at, say, the Los Angeles Book Fair. That year, Nicholas Lehmann, the New Yorker writer, Columbia journalism dean and author, expressed a widespread sentiment during one panel when he said he had just realized that he deeply valued our political system because it generally has guaranteed a stable transition of power. Unstable transitions can be really scary and very ugly.
Roy Blount, Jr.
Obviously, in comparison to that cliffhanger, any festival is going to seem far less fraught with tension and significance. There were certainly crowds this weekend to see a number of NPR and NPR-related authors, including Roy Blount Jr. and Peter Sagal (both of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me) and Scott Simon — as well as satirist Christopher Buckley, whose recent departure from his father’s conservative journal, National Review, because of his endorsement of Barrack Obama, provided one bit of up-to-date political newsiness. (Speaking of poliltical satire, my friend Sarah Bird provided one of the weekend highlights with her impersonation of Sarah Palin, as recounted in the Austin American-Statesman). And when it comes to presidential biographers, the winner of this year’s Bookend Award was none other than the dean of the genre, Robert Caro, author of perhaps the greatest Texas political biography, The Path to Power, the first volume of his profile of LBJ.
But previous festivals have seen huge, I mean, huge, turn-away audiences for the likes of Barrack Obama as well as Bill Clinton and even the first President Bush. At the same time, in past years, the big-name popular authors have included the likes of Frank McCourt, Michael Connelly, Kinky Friedman and Robert James Waller (shudder).
The fact is that this election year, all the political big guns seem to be on the stump, for obvious reasons (revealingly, Clinton, Obama and President Bush all appeared in what were essentially non-campaign years for them). And when it came to non-political authors, the festival did get the nothing-to-sneeze-at Richard Price, Rick Riordan, and T. Boone Pickens, among others, plus a number of other writers, like Sarah Bird, who drew full houses in the smaller venues.
But with an era-defining election looming this week, the buzz was definitely elsewhere. And the crowds weren’t the same.
OK, so there was also something else going on that might have drawn Austinites away, something about an unbelievably close UT-Texas Tech football match. But you can imagine how much attention I paid to that.
Roy Blount image from wikimedia, Robert Caro from nndb.com