MY FIRST DRAFT WAS TOO bombastic and had too many echoes of Shakespeare and Milton,” Michael Lind confessed as we flipped through the galleys of The Alamo, his 6,006-line epic poem that will hit bookstores on March 6, the 161st anniversary of the legendary battle. “I chose to use the seven-line rhyme royal stanzas because of the historical connotation. The two epics in English that use this poetic form are Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece, which is a very substantial epyllion.”
I glanced up from my notebook. “Epyllion?”
“A short epic. I focus on the individual,” Lind continued, seemingly without need of oxygen. “This is my major innovation. I name all one hundred eighty defenders and show each of them making his last stand within the rooms of the Alamo. Homer does this in the Iliad —he has all of these androktasiai. It’s twenty-seven hundred years old, but it’s still a very avant-garde narrative technique.”
A little dizzy from Lind’s roller coaster vocabulary, I squinted at my scribbled approximation of “androktasiai” (a classicist friend explained later that it’s the introduction of a minor character’s life history the moment before he’s killed). We had been talking for the better part of two hours in a book-lined conference room at the Manhattan headquarters of HarperCollins, which last year published Lind’s third book, Powertown, a merciless portrait of political life in the nation’s capital. Decked out in jeans and pointy cowboy boots, he resembled a boyishly pudgy George Will all set for a barbecue. He was unnervingly soft-spoken, and his voice seemed less a presence than a channel of encyclopedic information about everything from economic libertarianism to Hill Country folklore.
Lind’s intellect, however, circled the room like a shark’s fin. If not the most intelligent young writer in America, at the age of 34 Lind is arguably the most productive, his razzle-dazzle professional life the career equivalent of all the big words he uses: His first New York Times op-ed piece was published before he was out of his twenties. He has already served as a senior editor for Harper’s and The New Republic and as the executive editor of the foreign-policy quarterly The National Interest; he’s currently a staff writer for The New Yorker. His poetry has appeared in Sparrow, The Classical Outlook, and other journals. He has been interviewed on National Public Radio as well as the political talk shows Crossfire and Firing Line and has delivered lectures at Yale and Harvard. Before finishing The Alamo and Powertown, he published not one but two autobiographical books about American political life and his role therein—a feat not surprising, perhaps, from someone who, at the age of six, supported Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 bid for the presidency. Without a gray hair yet on his head, Michael Lind has accomplished more in his still-blossoming career as a political pundit, novelist, poet, and full-time intellectual than a bevy of eighty-year-old think-tank icons.
A fifth-generation Texan, Lind grew up in Austin and at twenty graduated from the Plan II liberal arts honors program at the University of Texas. (His father, Charles, is a former assistant state attorney general; his mother, Marcia, is a retired elementary school principal.) Recently in The New Republic Lind waxed nostalgic, if not somewhat romantic, about a childhood in which he “chased armadillos and fled rattlesnakes” and about being a teen who cruised around the Capitol in a white Cadillac with two members of an all-girl punk band called the Chickadiesels. I remember Lind from a UT freshman philosophy course we both took back in 1979. He wore mismatched clothes so unfashionable he seemed almost transcendentally cool. On the first day of class the professor challenged us to identify several dozen relatively obscure figures from the world of intellectual history: Finnish composers, Greek mathematicians, Eastern mystics. I knew maybe six of the names on the list. Lind knew them all. And over the semester the rest of us would listen, slack-jawed, as he discussed their accomplishments as effortlessly as most other teenage Texans might discuss Longhorn football stats.
Precociously well read (and Democratic) as a kid, Lind transformed into a precociously influential (and Republican) political writer while completing a master’s degree in international relations at Yale. Under the tutelage of premier conservative William F. Buckley—who helped fund Scrutiny, a “center-right” political journal Lind founded while still a student—Lind was soon professionally and socially embraced by the most powerful conservative intellectuals in America. “There was a Texas connection,” Lind said, explaining his initial involvement with Buckley. “Turns out his family was from Texas. His father, William Frank, was the big man on campus at UT back in the twenties. Believe it or not, his grandfather was the sheriff of Duval County.”
But after Pat Buchanan’s inflammatory address at the 1992 GOP convention in Houston, Lind publicly broke with his Republican friends and colleagues. “I got angry,” he said as he recalled the conservative columnist’s harangue against seemingly everyone who is not white, heterosexual, and overtly Christian. “It was a scary speech. A Jewish friend of mine—whose mother escaped Hitler—called up and said that it was happening all over again. So I sat down that evening and wrote an attack on Buchanan that the New York Times op-ed page published on the day that Bush was renominated.”
The attack persisted in Lind’s first two books, The Next American Nation (The Free Press, 1995) and Up From Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America (The Free Press, 1996). Both detail what Lind perceives as the growing plight of American politics, embodied in far-right conservatives like Buchanan and televangelist Pat Robertson. Up From Conservatism opens with the proclamation that “American conservatism is dead” and concludes just as direly: “A future in which the alternatives are symbolized by Newt Gingrich and Patrick Buchanan is grim to imagine—but, alas, not all that difficult to imagine. It is too late to rescue American conservatism from the radical right. But it is not too late to