ZERO FAIL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECRET SERVICE by Carol Leonning

The significant role played by the United States Secret Service in American history cannot be denied.  Be it the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the failed attempts on the lives of Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, few doubted the commitment of its agents to their craft and maintaining the safety of those in their charge.  However, during the last decade or two questions have arisen over its job performance and as Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter, Carol Leonning points out in her new book, ZERO FAIL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECRET SERVICE the actions or inaction of the agency question their effectiveness and how lucky they have been with the numerous mistakes and coverups that have come to light that no major disaster can be laid at its doorstep. 

Leonning’s monograph examines the decline in the agency’s readiness and for some supervisors and agents a cavalier attitude toward their own behavior.  Relying on interviews with over 180 sources, including many current and former agency personnel that includes field agents, directors, cabinet officials and members of Congress it is clear that the agency’s overall readiness is poor.  Leonning’s purpose in writing the book was to uncover why the agency employed outdated equipment and engaged in “spotty training.”  Leonning learned that the organization was spread too thin, was drowning in new missions, and was wrought with security risks brought on by a fundamental mistrust  between the rank and file and leadership.  She asks the important question, how long will dumb luck pass for competence?

Her focus is how the agency went from an elite, hard working band of patriots that was committed to protecting future presidents in the wake of the Kennedy assassination , to a “frat boy culture of infighting, indulgence, and obsolescence.”  Further she questions how the Service went from a close-knit group that prided itself on nonpartisanship to one used by presidents for craven political means.  Lastly, why is it that it has such difficulty in hiring people fast enough to cover departures and is seen as the most hated place to work in the federal government? 

The attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan

(U.S. President Ronald Reagan winces and raises his left arm as he was shot by an assailant as he left a Washington hotel, Monday, March 30, 1981, after making a speech to a labor group. The President was shot in the upper left) 

Leonning traces the development of the Secret Service from its inception after the Civil War through the end of the Trump administration. She provides numerous vignettes that are both entertaining and troubling.  For example, Kennedy’s penchant to sneak away for dalliances, Lyndon Johnson’s paranoia after the assassination that agent’s loyalties to the deceased president would override their role as his protector, or Richard Nixon’s desire to use the assassination attempt on George Wallace as a tool to enhance himself politically by linking Arthur Bremer to the McGovern campaign and Senator Edward Kennedy.

If there is one conclusion the reader must come to grips with is that the Secret Service is broken.  Her carefully crafted narrative is informative as she delves into numerous examples of agent and supervisor malfeasance.  What emerges is a service that condoned breaches in the agency’s protocols for behavior by agents and supervisors dealing with drinking, sexual escapades, and downright stupidity for decades as higher ups rarely called offenders on the carpet and discipline for offenses was rare.

Leonning takes the reader inside the inner workings of presidential protection and what is clear is that the job is an arduous one where marriages and families of agents suffered due to the time commitment which is also a function of an underfunded and poorly run organization which put career goals and coverups ahead of conforming to regulations.  A major issue are the different factions that existed and continue to exist within the service.  It is clear that for women and people of color the career path is made much harder due to racial and misogynistic attitudes that have existed for decades.  A case in point is the plight of Julia Pierson who replaced Mark Sullivan as Director of the Secret Service after a major scandal stemming from advance team partying with prostitutes and excessive drinking in 2011 in Cartagena, Columbia.  It appears supporters of Sullivan actively worked to undermine Pierson, the first female head of the Service, after a mentally disturbed Iraq war veteran, Omar Gonzales managed to jump the White House fence and actually gain entrance into the White House itself.

Barack Obama runs over to greet supporters next to U.S. Secret Service agents after he steps off Air Force One. | Reuters Photo

(President Obama surrounded by Secret Service agents)

Constructive criticism of leadership or policy was usually seen as a threat by higher ups.  Examples include the Charles J. Baserap affair.  Baserap, a former agent prepared a forty-two page survey for his superiors in January 2007 entitled, “The Secret Service State of the Union” which after surveying numerous personnel concluded that the White House security net was vulnerable to attack.  Agents were not trained to deal wit simultaneous attacks on the White House complex, and they lacked weaponry to thwart a lethal attack on the president and his family.  Baserap also focused on routine staff shortages, burned-out officers, and the lack of respect by supervisors for their “brother agents.”  Another example reflects Loenning’s assiduous research centers on Greg Stokes, another former agent involved in the Cartagena imbroglio was threatened with termination for behavior that was condoned for decades.  In his defense Stokes began to release some very uncomfortable examples of Service hypocrisy and after Supervisor Rafael Prieto committed suicide leadership felt it was because of Stokes’ actions and he was fired.  The double standard by leadership permeates the narrative.

By 2012 Leonning points out that partisanship became much more intense in a Senate Committee headed by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson and his research assistant Rachel Weaver.  Their goal was to embarrass the Obama administration as much as possible.  There were a number of agency screw ups during the administration of the most endangered president in history.  On November 11, 2011, eight shots fired at the White House by Oscar Ortega-Hernandez, and Mark Sullivan and his top deputies denied it had occurred at the outset and later lied to a Congressional hearing.  In 2014 as Obama was visiting the CDC in Atlanta when a man with a gun was allowed on an elevator with the president without being properly vetted.  It is no wonder that privately Obama questioned whether the Secret Service could actually protect his family, but at the same time Senator Johnson wanted to link the White House to the Secret Service’s incompetence when Service leadership repeatedly met with Obama and assured the necessary changes needed were being implemented.

trump bible

(US President Donald Trump holds a Bible while visiting St. John’s Church across from the White House after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC.)

In her exploration of the Secret Service Leonning does not skimp in her coverage bringing out details dealing with Watergate, the shooting of Ronald Reagan, 9/11 and numerous other topics including the politicization of the Secret Service by the Trump administration who used it as a political arm as well as a means of making money for his organization as Trump’s persistent travels to Mar-a-Lago left the Secret Service operating on a shoestring.  Financially the Trump administration has been a disaster for the Secret Service.  First, Trump Tower must be taken care of as at the outset Trump declared it his primary residence even if he visits only three times a year and switched his residency to Florida.  The result is the Service paid the Trump Organization $63 million for rent and utilities so it could secure the Tower.  Second, each time Trump visits Mar-a-Lago with his entourage it costs $400,00 for protection.  In addition, Trump travels to all his other properties rarely spending the weekend at the White House so he can play golf costing the Secret Service millions.  In addition, the Trump extended family of eighteen people must be secured as they travel all over the world. Politically, the Secret Service became an arm of the Trump administration as it was used to clear Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters so Trump could take a walk and show how “tough” he was as he held a bible upside down in front of a church.  Also, the use of the Secret Service at rallies and what made it worse is that the Service was split between pro and anti-Trump supporters which was against department protocols.  Finally, once Joe Biden was elected President Trump refused to grant Secret Service protection for the President-elect for over a month.

It will be interesting to see how the Secret Service reforms itself in order to restore its reputation but the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection that one Secret Service agent called the armed protestors patriots seeking to undo an illegitimate election does not seem promising.  In the end I agree with Rosa Brooks’ review of ZERO FAIL in the May 14, 2021, edition of the Washington Post as she writes that the book is important, “one that will ruffle feathers in need of ruffling and that will be useful to legislators, policymakers and historians alike. Leonnig’s careful documentation of decades of neglect and malfeasance buttresses her observation that the Secret Service has become more and more of a paper tiger, weakened by arrogant, insular leadership, promotions based on loyalty rather than capability, years of slim budgets, and outdated technology.

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. Despite its Hollywood-enhanced reputation for squeaky-clean professionalism, the Secret Service is just like every other organization made up of humans, which is to say that it’s a bit of mess: It’s sloppy, hostile to newcomers and new ideas, and even its most dedicated and hard-working agents are constantly playing catch-up in the face of ceaselessly evolving threats.

But, Leonnig reminds us, ordinary human messiness isn’t quite good enough when it comes to something as vital as presidential security. Presidents, and the voters who elect them, have the right to expect more than an old boys club that sometimes seems to prioritize protecting its own over protecting the president.”

The South Lawn of the White House, where President Trump will make his speech accepting the Republican renomination on Thursday.

AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER by Stephanie Dray; Laura Kamoie

Mrs. Thomas M. RandolphMrs. Thomas M. Randolph, (Martha Jefferson.)

Thomas Jefferson is one of the most complex figures in American history.  Author of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia, Minster to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and finally President Jefferson is synonymous with the founding of our nation.  His reputation has always been one shrouded in controversy.  Was he an ideologue who favored revolution or the pragmatist who engineered the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803?  During the last few years, his reputation has experienced a downturn in large part because of Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton which formed the basis for the Broadway production of the musical “Hamilton” which highlighted the rift between Jefferson and our first Secretary of the Treasury.  As a result, Hamilton’s persona as perceived by the public has improved, and the sage of Monticello’s declined in the eyes of the public. 

According to Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie in their historical novel, AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s eldest daughter was responsible for a good part of what we know about her father as she was his constant companion at Monticello, Washington, or Paris in addition to assuming the role as his protector following the death of his spouse.  Writing a work of fiction based on the life of such a devoted daughter whose primary goal was to protect her fathers’ reputation at a time when it was open season on any hint of scandal is quite an undertaking.  To Dray and Kamoie’s credit they have done an efficient job telling the story of America’s founding and Jefferson’s presidential administration  through the eyes of his daughter.

(Thomas Jefferson)

Relying on over 18,000 letters written by Jefferson and numerous other sources the authors have constructed a historical novel that focuses on the relationship between Jefferson and his eldest daughter and the other figures, major and minor that dominated their lives.  The vehicle the authors employ in telling their story must be taken with a grain of salt as Patsy Jefferson had an agenda of protecting all aspects of her father’s life and legacy and therefore the concept of objectivity was missing from her repertoire.

Almost immediately the reader finds Patsy defending her father against charges of cowardness when the British attacked near Monticello.  None other than Patrick Henry called for an investigation of Jefferson and his role as Governor of Virginia as he ran off rather than confront the British during the American Revolution.  To the author’s credit they do not shy away from controversial aspects of Jefferson’s life including his relationship with Sally Hemings and the birth of their son, his views concerning slavery and promising to free Sally and her brother James only after his death, his role during the French Revolution, his disagreements with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, among many other instances.

William Short, by Louis LeMet. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.  Photograph by Edward Owen.(William Short)

The authors convey the bond between father and daughter which was forged by the death of Martha Jefferson, Thomas’ wife, and Patsy’s mother.  This relationship forms the backdrop for the entire novel as at first, she would protect him from committing suicide as his grief seemed to place him on the edge of madness.  This relationship is not a healthy one as Patsy in large part became her father’s surrogate spouse and mother as she over protected him and had difficulty criticizing him.  She would sacrifice her relationship with Jefferson’s secretary in Paris, William Short and return to Virginia to be with her father rather than marrying him.  This behavior is due in large part to her promise to her dying mother to care for her father and the result is a rather uncomfortable relationship as they were constantly in each other’s company playing duets together, her anger at a possible liaison between her father and Maria Cosway, a married woman as she saw it as a betrayal of her mother’s memory, and her reaction to catching her father in the embrace of Sally Heming.

Sally Hemings
(Sally Hemings)

The novel is built upon dialogue developed from thousands of letters consulted, but is disappointing as insights into Jefferson’s behavior, belief system, and policies are not dealt with in a meaningful manner.  The authors place little emphasis in these areas as the first 40% of the novel are taken up with Patsy’s relationship with William Short which focused on slavery, courtship, her father’s state of mind, and his needs and emotions.

Monticello Estate Tour, Gray Line
(Monticello)

The authors give Jefferson a great deal of credit for launching the French Revolution through  his friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette and his authorship of the Charter of rights which later would morph into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.  The key for both men was the marriage of pragmatism and principle to achieve their goals.

There are a number of memorable scenes portrayed in the novel.  First, James Heming’s declaration of freedom from slavery while serving as Jefferson’s cook while in Paris and demanding freedom for his sister Sally before the Jefferson’s returned to Virginia.  Second, Patsy’s humiliation and anger upon learning that Sally was pregnant with her father’s child.  This continued with Patsy’s anger as she felt she gave up her relationship with William Short to care for her father and felt she was in competition with Sally Heming for her father’s attention – not a healthy situation.  Third, scenes that convey Jefferson’s need to control and dominate others out of his fears of being abandoned as his wife did by dying, as did his daughter Lucy who also passed away, Patsy’s desire to take her vows and join a convent, James desire for freedom, the death of his son with Sally Heming, and Jefferson’s argument that Patsy should marry Thomas Randolph whose wealth would help pay off the debts that Jefferson had incurred in Paris and the needs for Monticello.  The novel presents a man who stood in the way of his daughter’s marriage and reflects a selfishness and self-centeredness, traits that dominated his private and public life.

The author’s diligence can be excessive as they recount scandals, the lives of so many Virginia cousins, and disinheritances.  At times, the prose is sappy and becomes tiresome as Patsy consistently recounts her emotions as they pertain to Short, her husband Thomas Randolph and her father.

The book is well researched but should not be relied upon as a historical tool to be relied upon as Patsy’s version of history as presented by the authors is biased and in too many cases too self-centered and mundane as Jefferson’s legacy and honor must be maintained no matter the cost.  The book entertains a number of themes that dominate the storyline.  First, the concept of honor and the expectations of how a Virginia gentleman should act.  Second, Thomas Jefferson could do no wrong as a father, grandfather, president etc.  Third, Patsy dominates the story controlling the flow of events and visitors to the White House and later to Monticello.  Fourth, the highs and mostly lows of Patsy’s marriage to the demented Thomas Randolph and its effect on their children appear on each page.  Fifth, the importance of Sally Hemings; concubine, mother of Jefferson’s children, and overseer of the aging sage of Monticello.*  Lastly, the novel seems to shift from one disaster after another with little that can be categorized as domestic peace.

Overall, the novel is interesting and interesting at times, but one should pursue further research before accepting many of the author’s themes.

*see THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO: AN AMERICAN FAMILY  by Annette Gordon-Reed.

(Martha Patsy Jefferson Randolph)

HITLER’S JEWISH SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF NAZI RACIAL LAWS AND MEN OF JEWISH DESCENT IN THE GERMAN MILITARY by Bryan Mark Rigg

r/Colorization - Werner Goldberg as 'Ideal German Soldier' (from Berliner Tageblatt, 1939) Mischling ancestry
(Werner Goldberg, a Mischlinge seen as the ideal Aryan soldier)

For years I taught Holocaust history and showed my students the film “Europa, Europa” based on the life of Slomo Perel, a story about a young Jewish boy who joins the Hitler Youth and winds up in the Wehrmacht as a means of avoiding persecution and death.  I often wondered how many other young Jews did the same and fought for the Nazi regime.  The answer to that question is clearly laid out in Bryan Mark Rigg’s study, HITLER’S JEWISH SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF NAZI RACIAL LAWS AND MEN OF JEWISH DESCENT IN THE GERMAN MILITARY.

Mischlinge is defined as “half caste, mongrel or hybrid,” the key term that permeates Rigg’s narrative and the vehicle used to categorize half and quarter Jews as designated by the Nazis after the Nuremberg Blood Laws of 1935.  According to Rigg perhaps 150,000 Mischlinge served in the German military  and Adolf Hitler played a central role in the process. 

As Rigg develops his narrative a number of things become clear.  The Nazi reaction to racial laws was not consistent and, in many cases, appeared hypocritical as many Nazis including Hermann Goring, Head of the Luftwaffe did not conform to racial laws.  Many military officials believed that half and quarter Jews were experienced and excellent soldiers who they would need in combat and found Hitler’s anti-Semitism to be irrelevant to the Wehrmacht.  The war was paramount and the use of Mischlinge at least up until the invasion of Russia in June 1941 was the primary concern of German generals.  Following the summer of 1941 more and more Mischlinge would be thrown out of the Wehrmacht and deported to die in Hitler’s ovens as Martin Bormann, a rabid anti-Semite who opposed the concept of the Mischlinge serving in the German military would become Hitler’s secretary and right hand man.

wehrmacht soldier with grenade
(Wehrmacht soldier)

Riggs is determined to explain that the lack of uniformity on the part of Nazis toward Mischlinge was very confusing for these half and quarter Jews and created an Eriksonian identity crisis as they suffered from extreme role confusion.  Many realized that the only way to survive was to enlist or be drafted into the Wehrmacht and prove themselves to be brave and outstanding soldiers.  They believed that this could save their families in addition to themselves.  Many tried to shed their Jewishness as soon as society allowed and others who fought for Austria and Germany in World War I  believed that the assimilation they achieved through their service would assist them.  In the end this approach did not save most from death, though a large number did survive some through luck, some through perseverance and playing the Nazi system ingeniously, and lastly, some received special exemptions from Hitler himself who was intimately involved in categorizing people reflecting his obsession over racial policy.

Riggs approach to his topic does not lead to a smoothly written monograph.  In fact, it reads like a well cited dissertation as he relates countless examples of individuals within the Wehrmacht, the Nazi hierarchy, and Jewish citizens who were greatly affected by Nazi racial policy and the categorization of the Mischlinge.  Riggs stresses the confusion felt by Nazi leadership as the Mischlinge were part German and could be a significant asset in the war.  But Hitler despised most of them as he saw them as invisible and with the ability to infect the Aryan with their inferior blood.

For the Mischlinge themselves they would be deprived of citizenship, the rights to sleep with Aryans, university education, etc.  The racial laws forced Mischlinge to dramatically alter their lifestyle “causing many to live without confidence.”  The result was numerous divorces as people tried to protect themselves, children disowned, and many grandparents rejecting their grandchildren.  In this instance Riggs needs to provide more than anecdotal evidence in discussing how families were destroyed and how individuals came to terms with their loss of identity.

For the Nazis it was very difficult to identify Mischlinge and further they did not have the necessary resources to accomplish the task.  Riggs does provide a historical breakdown of the number of Jews that had fought in the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and other conflicts to arrive at his 150,000 figure which seems accurate.  For the Mischlinge most were unaware they were even Jewish until after 1933.

Riggs effort is well researched.  He provided voluminous foot notes, a strong bibliography, in addition to interviewing over 400 Mischlinge and their relatives, and received access to many of their personal records, both in their possession and government archives. 

Dr. Bryan Mark Rigg
Dr. Bryan Mark Rigg

Despite the valuable information that Riggs provides the title of the book is misleading as historian Richard J. Evans argues that the monograph is not about Jews as is commonly understood, but about Mischlinge or people that were categorized as half or quarter Jews, many of which were unaware that they were Jews in the first place.  These people were neither Jewish by their own identity, religious law, or even Nazi law.  The book’s title is a teaser because it appears to the uninformed that the book is about Jews in the Wehrmacht which is not accurate and many of these Mischlinge were anti-Semites themselves.  Interestingly as historian Jeremy Noakes argues less than 10% of half Jews saw themselves as Jewish, and only 1.2% of quarter Jews considered themselves as Jewish.  Riggs had an opportunity to explore the nature of Jewish identity beyond Nazi definitions, but he chooses to forgo that opportunity.  Further, Riggs relates that with few exceptions, none of the men he interviewed had any idea of the abuse and massacres that occurred as the Nazis tried to exterminate German and European Jewry.  Riggs concludes that “like most other Germans, many Mischlinge knew about deportation, but did not equate them with systematic murder.”  Further, Mischling serving in the Wehrmacht did not understand  what was happening to their loved ones.  Most claimed they learned what happened to their relatives after the war.

Riggs is successful in digging up a great deal of fascinating detail, but he does not really add to the historiography of Nazi Germany except for Hitler’s obsession with minute points of racial doctrine and how that concern was translated and executed by Wehrmacht leadership and German soldiers in general.  I agree with  David J. Fine in his H-Net Review in the Humanities and Social Sciences of July 2004 that the book “will be of interest to students of the Wehrmacht and Nazi racial policy, [but] it falls short of exploring the bigger questions of the role of Jews in supporting the Nazi state or of German soldiers’ acknowledgement of their role as perpetrators in the Holocaust.”

(L-R: Werner Goldberg, Bernhard Rogge, and Erhard Milch, half-Jews in Hitler’s army)

EMPIRE OF PAIN: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE SACKLER DYNASTY by Patrick Radden Keefe

(Purdue Pharma headquarters in downtown Stamford, CT.)

Yesterday I decided to binge on the two part HBO series “The Crime of the Century.”  It detailed the horrors inflicted on the most vulnerable of the American people – individuals who suffer from chronic pain or are about to pass away and are in extreme pain.  The culprit for these horrors was and remains the Sackler family and its company Purdue Pharma which was created when its other pharmaceutical company Purdue Frederick was making a great deal of money manufacturing items like Benedine and Senekot, but for the family led by Richard Sackler this did not produce enough profit, so it branched out into the “pain market” and took one of its products MS Contin and reoriented its composition to create Oxycontin.  The process involved pressure on the FDA, a great deal of obfuscation concerning its components, bribery, and outright lies to cause the death of over 500,000 Americans since its release in 1996.  One of the narrators for the documentary was Patrick Radden Keefe, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of the New York Times bestseller, SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND the winner of the 2019 National Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.  Keefe’s newest book EMPIRE OF PAIN: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE SACKLER DYNASTY fills in some of the gaps of the HBO expose and reaffirms the despicable actions of numerous characters in the family, Purdue Pharma employees, and individuals outside the company and family who were coopted into the process because of greed and a convoluted sense of morality.

EMPIRE OF PAIN is a multi-faceted biography of a family dynamic that produced individuals who seemed to lack empathy for others and were obsessed with the accumulation of wealth which allowed them to satisfy their pocketbooks and egos.  Secondly, it is a study that delves into the drug empire created by the Sackler family and the lengths they would go to continue to engage in practices that would enhance and maintain their wealth while ignoring the negative and at times disastrous effects of their decisions on the American people.  Some family members would argue that this accumulation of wealth is partially offset by the philanthropic ventures that the Sackler’s pursued.  The name Arthur M. Sackler, the individual most responsible for beginning the creation of its “pain empire” appears on museum walls and buildings ranging from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Harvard, Tufts, Columbia Universities, the Sackler School of Medicine in Tel Aviv, among others in London, Paris, and Berlin.  These gifts and/or donations were made possible by the fortune earned from developing and marketing drugs like Librium and valium in the 1960s and 70s with its negative effects on those patients whose doctors over prescribed the medication.

OxyContin
Image Icon

Keefe’s narrative unfolds as he explores the origins of Sackler family wealth which is estimated at about $14 billion.  He delves into the role played by three brothers; Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer Sackler, all three physicians who developed the edifice that resulted in the hundreds of thousands of drug overdoses that have been inflicted on American society in the last few decades.  The key figure is Arthur M. Sackler who after working at Creedmoor Mental Hospital in New York along with his brothers in the 1960s concluded that the care for the mentally ill was grisly and became convinced there was a better treatment solution.  Arthur Sackler, trained as a Freudian concluded that one’s life experience could not fully account for mental illness – that there was a chemical component, and he would unlock the mystery to help these people.  Sackler would conclude that the derangement of brain chemistry was the missing link.  The brothers conducted a series of experiments on rabbits which reinforced their views of chemical changes in the brain being responsible for mental illness.

Keefe lays out the early careers of the brothers, but Arthur was the key.  He was a complicated individual who enjoyed multiple careers; physician, mental illness researcher, and advertising executive.  His strategy was to market products/medicines directly to doctors and at first took “broad spectrum anti-biotics” and revolutionized medical marketing by convincing physicians to write prescriptions for his products.  The advertising techniques used for clothing, automobiles, food, perfume etc. were now applied to medicine.  Promotion and brand differentiation were key, and Arthur’s success was built upon his purchase of the William Douglas McAdams advertising agency whose major client was Pfizer. 

Letters spelling Sackler being removed from a sign.

As Keefe points out, Arthur was shrewd as he owned or had a partnership with McAdams and Bill Frohlich’s ad agency.  The brothers opened their medical practice in the 1950s in New York and purchased Purdue Frederick, a small company in the patent medicine business.  The expansion of their wealth was predicated on developing what they termed “a minor tranquilizer” to offset the use of Thorazine.  Roche, another major pharmaceutical company developed Librium to meet that market and Arthur was tasked to market the new drug.  In an age of Cold War anxiety, it was the perfect time to launch a new tranquilizer.  By 1963 Roche would build upon Librium and develop Valium and Arthur’s firm zeroed in on convincing doctors that it worked separately on anxiety, muscle tension and numerous other ailments.  It would become the first $100 million drug in history, further little was done to determine if the new drugs were addictive – creating a Sackler family pattern.  Valium would be used by 20 million Americans and was at that time the most widely consumed and abused drug in history.  Even the Rolling Stones wrote a song about Valium, “Mother’s Little Helper.”

Keefe encapsulates Arthur’s approach carefully correctly arguing that “he desired posterity, not publicity.  The last thing Arthur wanted to do was call attention to his own wealth and holdings, and to do so in a manner that might raise questions about his overlapping careers.”  It was quite clear that Arthur modus vivendi of helping develop drugs, fiercely marketing them to physicians, manipulating the FDA through the likes of Dr. Henry Welch, indirect gifts and bribery to the right individuals be they salespeople or doctors was unethical as well as illegal.

Cheryl Juaire, center, of Marlborough, Massachusetts, center, leads protesters near the Arthur M Sackler Museum at Harvard University, on 12 April.

(Cheryl Juaire, center, of Marlborough, Massachusetts, center, leads protesters near the Arthur M Sackler Museum at Harvard University)

As Keefe lays out his arguments it is clear the groundwork for our current drug problem was fostered by the Sackler brothers approach that drugs are not addictive, and it was the patient’s personality and needs that were responsible not the drug manufacturer or the physician.  It was clear as they marketed Valium they developed the advertising approach designed to create a vast market for Oxycontin.

The main culprit among the next generation of Sackler’s was Raymond’s son Richard, and Arthur’s daughter Elizabeth (Kathe).  The family created a new company, Purdue Pharma to engage in developing a “pain” product that would create a new market since their patent for MS Contin, a morphine based drug was running out.  The Contin process contained a time released component over a twelve hour period that they argued would prevent addiction.  Kathe’s goal was to apply the Contin system to Oxycodone and Richard would micromanage its development.  At first, they stressed that the new drug Oxycontin (time released Oxycodone/morphine) should be marketed just for cancer patients to gain FDA approval, but what was never mentioned was that Oxycodone was synthesized into heroine by Bayer in Germany.  Once on the market for a period of time the target market would be expanded.

Keefe does an excellent job recounting the mindset of Richard Sackler and his cohorts in undoing the perception that Oxycontin was addictive to enhance the profitability of the drug.  This approach was implemented with a vengeance.  Mitchell Freidman who had been Head of Marketing at the FDA joined Purdue Pharma a year after he left the government and he and Richard would spearhead the idea that Oxycontin could be used for a myriad of issues from back pain, arthritis, post-surgical pain etc.  Keene has culled the evidence and shows how Richard and Freidman deliberately chose a marketing strategy to deceive doctors and their patients of the low addictive quality of Oxycontin and the mistaken belief held by doctors that the drug was less powerful than morphine.  Curtis Wright, who oversaw pain medication at the FDA, was cultivated and he helped write the drug insert for the medication that stated, “Delayed absorption, as provided by Oxycontin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of the drug.”  On December 28, 1995 the FDA approved Oxycontin.  A year later Wright earned $400,000 at Purdue Pharma.

The sales approach described by Keefe to market the new drug rested on the company’s catechism, “the delivery system is believed to reduce the abuse liability of the drug.”  Keefe dissects the sales pitch and training of the hundreds of Pharma reps.  They would target certain geographical areas like southern West Virginia and eastern Virginia and the rust belt to maximize sales as people overdosed.

Keefe’s account is stunning and based on assiduous research, confidential and original documents, and interviews.  The author follows the legal battle to unearth what the Sackler’s had done and its vast implications for the wealth and health of the American people.  Their arrogance is clear in the words of Kathe Sackler who boasted  that Oxycontin was “very good medicine” and “a safe medicine.”  She also claims credit for coming up with the “idea.”  Years later in reference to the hundreds of thousands of addicted Americans she claimed not be aware of that.  In 2007 the Bush Justice Department only delivered a slap on the wrist after investigating Purdue Pharma.  It was no coincidence that the Sackler’s were major donors to the Republican Party and Rudy Giuliani was one of their lawyers!

The name Barry Meier, a New York Times reporter and author of the first major expose dealing with Purdue Pharma and the Sackler’s, PAIN KILLER: AN EMPIRE OF DECEIT AND THE ORIGIN OF AMERICA’S OPIOID EPIDEMIC became a thorn in the side of the opioid industry.  Keefe relies on Meier’s early work in his research and conveys the travails that the reporter had to deal with.  Purdue Pharma executives pressured the Times  to block Meier’s efforts.  They were successful for a period of time until the various trials against the corporation took place where he was “reinstated” on the topic and his incisive reporting reemerged.

Keefe and Meier argued that it is clear that Purdue Pharma had an inside man at the FDA and Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general during the Bush administration handcuffed the prosecution and the efforts of John Brownlee, the federal prosecutor for the western district of Virginia who went after Purdue Pharma.  In 2007 Purdue would pay a $600 million fine for the $35 billion earned from Oxycontin.  Two years ago, when the Sackler’s faced their harshest legal challenge, they sold their stake in Purdue Pharma, moved their money overseas and had Purdue file for bankruptcy.  Once that strategy was implemented, no court could gain damages from the family’s personal funds.  By 2019-20 the Trump Justice Department under William Barr gave the family a reprieve and no family members or company executives would face criminal charges.

Patrick Radden Keefe
Photograph by Ilene Squires

Keefe effectively traces how finally after 2013 the Sackler family name became toxic as museums, universities, medical schools, and hospitals refused their donations and, in some cases, removed their names from their properties.  Keefe follows the family’s efforts to counter lawsuits brought by numerous state Attorneys General and their use of White Plains, NY Judge Robert D. Drain to protect the Sackler family wealth, in addition to the family realization that for the first time settlements might hit them personally.  As a result, they began to siphon off vast amounts of cash (family wealth is estimated to be $14 billion) from the company and planting it in offshore accounts.  The result is that this entitled group of “Sackler’s” had to face the fact they had become social pariahs.

Samanth Subramanian’s review of May 13, 2021, in The Guardian sums up the devastation and corruption, both government and non-government very clearly and its implications for the future: Keefe’s narrative is so lush with details that only in the chinks do we spot the story behind the story: the rotting structure of American healthcare that almost wills disasters into being. Some failures are born of lethargy or neglect. A federal government official once told me that if states had simply transitioned faster to reporting their health statistics electronically, someone might have caught a pattern: “all the drug overdose deaths, the suicides, the medical examiner events” that advertised the opioid crisis. But other failures are the results of a system maintained at a level of designed corruption.

Purdue Pharma’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn., on Thursday.
(Purdue Pharma’s headquarters in Stamford, CT)