AL FRANKEN: GIANT OF THE SENATE by Al Franken

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(After)

Senator Paul Simon, left, adjusts comedian Al Franken's bow tie on June 5, 1991, as they rehearse for a Citizen Action dinner honoring Simon at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

(Before)

In the current political climate with congressional hearings, a special prosecutor, and a chief executive who demands fealty as if he were a godfather it was good to read a political manifesto in the form of biography that drips with sarcasm and humor.  When one thinks of Al Franken, Saturday Night Live (SNL) comes to mind, and the “serious” laughter his writings, i.e., RUSH LIMBAUGH IS A BIG FAT IDIOT, and appearances produced.  His new autobiography is in the same vein as he uses his life story as a clarion call for a progressive agenda and a fight against alternative news and/or reality and the lies that are perpetrated regularly by certain politicians and supposed news outlets.

AL FRANKEN: GIANT OF THE SENATE describes the evolution of a belief system that began at an early age, particularly as a young teen reacting to Lyndon Johnson’s work to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed into law.  From that point on we witness Franken’s intellectual growth using his comedic sense through high school, college, a career on SNL, and a second career in the United States Senate.  As Franken matures emotionally and politically his commitment to a progressive agenda for the American people (as well as Minnesota!) emerges.  But make no mistake for Franken to be successful he had to suppress his public humor to avoid political pitfalls

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(Senator Franken on a USO tour in Afghanistan)

The key event in his career was the death of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone; his mentor, teacher, and intellectual role model.  For Wellstone “politics was about improving people’s lives.”  Franken presents a wonderful chapter encompassing Wellstone’s life’s work and positive goals for the American people.  Franken explains the type of person he was and how he was influenced by his progressive agenda.  Once Wellstone and his family are killed in a plane crash he was replaced in the Senate by Republican Norm Coleman who stated “I am a 99% improvement over Paul Wellstone.”  For Al Franken it was “game on.”  Franken believed in Wellstone’s core, that “we all do better, when we all do better,” a mantra that Franken has worked for since his time in the Senate.

Franken explores in detail his campaign against Norm Coleman.  Faced with Republican obfuscation, distortion, and outright lies Franken was welcomed to the wonderful world of what he calls the “Dehumorizer,” or how his opponent would do or say anything about his opponent’s past and present be it fact or fiction, in the 2008 campaign, mostly fiction.  Franken would defeat Coleman by 312 votes, but it took over eight months to finally join his Senate colleagues as Coleman’s team dragged the results through the courts and in the end never really conceded.  Fast forward, eight years later Franken was elected by a 10% margin.  It is interesting how the Obama people did little to assist Franken, no matter what he did even Democrats could not wrap their heads around a former SNL comic becoming a serious politician.

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(Franken on SNL)

The most interesting aspects of Franken’s story rests on the legislative process which is bound in hyprocracy by both major parties, though perhaps a bit more by Republicans.  He cites a number of examples dealing with the 2009 Stimulus package which finally passed despite Republican opposition which led to a slower recovery than was necessary.  This allowed Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell to blame the slow recovery on President Obama.  This is the same Senator who stated once Obama was elected in 2009 that it was his primary purpose to make sure that the new president would not achieve any successes.  It is also fascinating that certain congresspersons who voted against the stimulus took credit for it when it created benefits for their own districts.

Franken takes the reader behind the scenes as the Senate votes on legislation.  In particular a “disclosure bill” designed to offset the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.  The cavalier attitude of a number of Republicans is offered in their own words, of course funded by the Koch Brothers and their “Federalist agenda.”  Franken goes on to eviscerate Texas Senator Ted Cruz in a chapter entitled “Sophistry.”  Franken is proud of the fact that he hates a colleague who in two short months managed to turn almost his entire party against him.  As is Franken’s methodology throughout the book his comments are sardonic, humorous, and sarcastic, but below the surface the Senator from Minnesota is seething.

A major theme of the book is a clarion call for Democrats to turn out and remove Republicans from power.  If it is not done soon, Franken argues President Trump will continue to dismantle the achievements that Obama was able to attain.  Franken tries to be upbeat throughout as he rests on his comedic talent.  But, after watching the Senate Intelligence Hearings and Trump’s response congressional hearings televised on what seems to be a daily basis, a special prosecutor, and a chief executive who demands fealty as if he was “the godfather” it was good to read an uplifting political manifesto in the form of a biography that the past few days we all must be careful because what we are witnessing cannot be good for our country, which seems to be what motivates Franken each day-what is good for our country.

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THE BLOOD OF EMMETT TILL by Timothy B. Tyson

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(Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant)

At a time when the “Black Lives Matter” movement continues to gain momentum it is interesting to contemplate what the turning point was for the Civil Rights Movement.  In his new book THE BLOOD OF EMMETT TILL, Timothy B. Tyson argues that the lynching of Emmett Till on August 28, 1955, by two white men in rural Mississippi was the tipping point.  It appears their actions were in part motivated by the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, KA decision outlawing “separate but equal,” a landmark case that lit a fire under white supremacists in the south.  Shortly thereafter, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Birmingham, AL and events began to snowball.  Tyson reexamines the murder of Till and explores what really happened that night.  The author includes new material gained from his 2007 interview of Carolyn Bryant who was supposedly the victim of some sort of offensive behavior that violated Mississippi’s unwritten code that existed between whites and blacks.  It seems that Bryant’s memory of what transpired after fifty years has changed, which makes it even more disconcerting in exploring the plight of Emmett Till.

In her interview Bryant changed her story from the testimony given in the trial of her husband Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. “Big” Miam who were accused of murdering Till.  Her testimony “that Till grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities” was not true.  Till did not grab her, but the all-white jury acquitted both men of the murder.  Till a fourteen year old boy and his cousin, Wheeler Parker who lived in Chicago’s south side were visiting their uncle Reverend Moses Wright who was a sharecropper on the G.C. Plantation in the Mississippi Delta.  Both boys were not ignorant of the mores of white-black relations in Mississippi, but what is key to the story is what actually happened when Till entered the Milam country store and interacted with Mrs. Bryant.  That night Till was seized from Wright’s house by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam and was severely beaten, shot in the head, and dumped in a river twelve miles from the murder scene.  Tyson provides detailed accounts of August 28, 1955, the return of Till’s body to Chicago, the arrest and trial of the two men, the effect on American society, the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, and the world wide reaction to the verdict which played into the hands of the Soviet Union in the heart of the Cold War.

For Tyson, the key to the reaction to Till’s murder was the behavior and strategy pursued by his mother, Mamie Bradley.  Once she learned of her son’s kidnapping she decided that “she would not go quietly” and began calling Chicago newspapers as she realized there were no officials in Mississippi she could appeal to.  Sheriff Clarence Strider of Tallahatchie County was put in charge of the investigation despite the fact the murder occurred outside his jurisdiction.  For Strider and other county officials the goal was to bury Till as soon as possible and let the situation blow over.  Bradley refused to cooperate and demanded that her son be returned to Chicago for burial.  Once that occurred Bradley’s only weapon to make sure her son’s death had meaning was his body.  During the viewing and funeral she made sure that the casket was open so the public could learn the truth of how her son was tortured and then murdered, and learn what Mississippi “justice” was all about.  Because of the new medium of television and newspaper photographs of the mutilated body the entire country was now a witness to the results of the lynching.

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(J.W. “Big” Milam, Roy Bryant and their wives)

Tyson does an excellent job bringing the reader inside the courtroom and explaining why the two murderers were acquitted.  He digs deep into Mississippi’s historical intolerance of African-Americans and how they should behave and be employed.  Tyson reviews the plight of Black America through World War II and touches on the hope that returning black veterans who fought for democracy would be treated differently after the war.  This did not occur nationwide, particularly in Mississippi.  However, as the Civil Rights Movement shifted its strategy toward enforcing its voting rights and employing the economic weapon, Mississippians grew scared and became even more violent towards African-Americans, and with the Brown decision men like Bryant and Milam were exorcised to the point of lynching Till.

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(The mutilation of Emmett Till)

Tyson presents a concise history of intimidation, violence, and murder that African-Americans confronted each day in Mississippi.  As the NAACP grew and demands for voting rights and desegregation expanded the powers that be in Mississippi grew worried.  They relied on people like Thomas Brady, a Mississippi Circuit Court Judge and occupant of a seat on the state’s Supreme Court to create the “Citizens Council Movement” to espouse the propaganda of race mixing and the threat to southern womanhood as the gospel of the white south.  In fact, the defense in the Till trial leaned on the threat of southern womanhood in its argument that gained the acquittal.  The fact that the trial itself took place only twenty days after the murder in of itself reflects the lack of proper investigation. Further, the threats and coercion to prevent witnesses from testifying is testimony to the lack of justice.  In fact, a few who did testify for the prosecution, uprooted their lives in Mississippi and moved to Chicago for fear of retribution.

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(Carolyn Bryant, then and now)

The person in this drama who should feel ashamed of themselves is Carolyn Bryant whose lies contributed to the acquittal of Till’s murderers.  It is a shame that there is a statute of limitations for perjury because she was certainly guilty.  Her show of “conscience,” for this reader is fifty years too late.

Reading this book can only make one angry about America’s past and one would hope that race would no longer be a factor in our society.  But in fact it is.  We witnessed race baiting throughout the last presidential campaign and as a society we have not come to terms with the idea of “equal justice under the law.”  Tyson’s book should be read in the context of history, but also as a vehicle to contemporary understanding.  As Tyson aptly points out, the death of Emmett Till “was caused by the nature and history of America itself and by a social system that has changed over the decades, but not as much as we pretend.” (208)  One wonders if the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO will be as transformative an episode as the death of Emmett Till.

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(Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant)

PRUSSIAN BLUE by Philip Kerr

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(Hitler’s Berghof retreat)

The title of Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel, the 12th in the series is PRUSSIAN BLUE, a title that is either the antidote for a nasty odorless and colorless poison or the color of Prussian Army coats worn during the Great War.  The novel that includes the usual array of Nazi historical figures takes places rotating between Nazi Germany in October, 1939 and France during April, 1956.  Kerr deftly moves back and forth between the two time periods as Gunther must weave his way among Hitler’s Nazi henchmen and East German Stasi secret police.  The mysteries in two separate time periods seem disconnected for part of the novel and then hints emerge and finally the two time periods come together.

Gunther learns about “Prussian Blue” at a dinner on the French Riviera from General Erich Mielke, a Nazi era acquaintance who happens to be the Deputy Head of the East German secret police – the Stasi.  It is October, 1956, and Mielke has a simple proposition for Gunther, kill another old acquaintance, Anne French who is living south of London.  If Gunther chose not to cooperate the Stasi head would arrange his death, by hanging, which is used to convince him take on the task, or by other means.  Supposedly, once the mission is accomplished Gunther would be assigned to West Germany setting up a neo-Nazi organization that would desecrate and vandalize Jewish sites in order to discredit the Bonn government.  Gunther, always a resourceful individual finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place.  However, Bernie being Bernie, decides to escape from his Stasi chaperoned train ride to Berlin and make his way into the French countryside.

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As in all the Bernie Gunther novels, Kerr’s command of history is impeccable and he does a wonderful job integrating accurate events and figures into the flow of the story.  This is evident when Kerr introduces Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, also known as “the butcher of Czechoslovakia” who summons Gunther to a meeting in April, 1939.  Gunther is told that he is being dispatched to solve a murder that has taken place in Berchtesgaden, the site of Hitler’s Berghof retreat.  It seems that the Fuhrer’s birthday is only a week away, and the murder of Dr. Karl Flex, a civil engineer has put a damper on the coming festivities.  In true Kerr fashion, Gunther must work with Martin Bormann who sees himself as Hitler’s right hand man.  Upon meeting Bormann, Gunther is told he must solve the murder within seven days or else.  If the Fuhrer will not visit until the murder is solved, and if Gunther fails, Bormann could lose his esteemed position in the Nazi hierarchy (which would make his rival Heinrich Himmler very happy!).  Despite Bormann’s seeming power, Heydrich wants Gunther to spy on Bormann while he is conducting his investigation, in addition to gathering dirt on Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the SS Head in Austria who is in the midst of a number of extra-marital affairs, something Hitler frowns upon.    As in the first story line, Gunther is once again caught in the middle and though he has always been a resourceful detective, a Social Democrat and not a Nazi Party member, he may not have the skill to navigate these situations.

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Kerr creates a number of characters to augment his Nazi/Stasi types.  Friedrich Korsch is a good example, a clinical assistant to Gunther in 1939, by 1956 he is a Stasi agent in charge of making sure that Gunther carries out his mission to London.  Through this character Kerr describes how Nazi training before the war was put to good use by the Stasi in East Germany in the post war world as the skill set to be successful in the two organizations are quite similar.  Kerr employs Gunther’s sarcasm as a tool to show the continuity between the Nazis and the Stasi, in addition to cutting remarks about the lack of French bravery and the immorality of Nazi society.  Kerr also explores the byzantine world of Nazism and the political rivalries within the Nazi hierarchy as he unveils the egoism, corruption and cruelty of the likes men like Heydrich, Himmler, Bormann, Kaltenbrunner and others.

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(Hitler in his Berghof study)

It appears that Kerr has read the new book that describes drug use among Nazi security services and the military, BLITZED by Norman Ohler that describes the use of meta-amphetamines before and during World War II.  As Bormann gives Gunther the drug pervitin he becomes more alert, productive, and while on the drug he seems to lack fear.  As the plot evolves Gunther discovers that meta-amphetamines are being diverted from civilian to military use as part of the run up to the war which seems to have a great deal to do with his murder investigation.

As in all the Gunther novels, Bernie is the ultimate survivor who has committed acts in the past that weigh on his conscience, and in his own intrepid way manages to move on.  As is evident in previous installments Kerr has a strong handle on historical research, character development, and the ability to surprise and capture his readers.  PRUSSIAN BLUE should be added to the list of successful Bernie Gunther novels, and hopefully number 13 will follow.

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(Hitler’s Berghof retreat)