THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP by Michael D’Antonio

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This morning I spent an inordinate amount of time reading the MUELLER REPORT.  It is not my purpose to recount what was divulged, but what concerns me most is the dysfunction that exists at the pinnacle of our government.  What does it say about us as a people, and what does it say about the man who is responsible for trying to block American citizens from learning about Russian penetration of our elections, his refusal to even accept that it occurred, and the fact that his administration refuses to take any action to secure our elections for the future.  Denial is one thing, but outright deception and overt lying is another.  So, one must ask what type of individual would use the American electoral process as a “branding opportunity,” and upon learning of the appointment of the Special Counsel from then Attorney-General Jeff Sessions responds that “Oh my god, this is terrible.  This is the end of my presidency.  I’m fucked.”*  The answers to these questions are provided in Michael D’Antonio’s book, THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP.

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To D’Antonio’s credit his narrative is based on thorough research and he even had access to Donald Trump  until he started interviewing people who were critical of him.  He has written an entertaining and fair biography and has created the foundation for several books that have followed his publication which repeatedly cite his work.  Whether you have read TRUMP REVEALED by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP by David Cay Johnston, or TRUMP NATION: THE ART OF BEING THE DONALD, by Timothy L. O’Brien they all tell similar stories and anecdotes and all seem to agree on their characterization of Trump’s early life, career, business practices and philosophy, personal life including his marriages and affairs. However, what sets D’Antonio’s book apart is the detail provided and his ability to integrate the political and economic history of New York City and its unique personalities like Mayors Ed Koch, Abe Beame, and John Lindsay as well as Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn among many other fascinating characters throughout his narrative.  In addition, the author places the Trump family and wealth in the context of American history, going as far as comparing the post 1980s to the Gilded Age of the 19th century as he discusses Trump’s life in the context of broader social, psychological and technological trends throughout the 20th century.

As part of his discussion of New York’s economic crisis of the post 1960 period, D’Antonio describes the urban decay and blight that began to affect Brooklyn, the home base of Trump’s father’s wealth and operations.  Trump was very perceptive as he witnessed white flight to the suburbs, civil rights violence, and the poverty endemic to New York’s economic collapse.  Trump realized that this situation depressed real estate values and that a move to Manhattan could be very profitable.  Trump would be at the forefront of trying to displace the poor and middle class in Manhattan who lived in rent-controlled apartments as he sought to turn buildings into expensive condominiums which he will accomplish over a period of years greatly enhancing his wealth into the 1980s.

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(Coney Island – Brooklyn, NY)

If there is a failing in D’Antonio’s approach is that in addition to the amount of detail pertaining to Trump’s lifestyle and accumulation of wealth are his constant tangents.  The author will be describing any one of many complications associated with Trump’s business dealings and other affairs and then will turn to a full accounting of the lives of other individuals’ attendant to the original discussion I.e., Liz Smith, the gossip columnist, Ed Koch’s biography, or discussing what made a man sexy in the 1980s according to Playgirl magazine or any number of other seemingly  irrelevant digressions.

One of the more interesting aspects of D’Antonio’s methodology is his dissection of Trump’s financial dealings, the creation of his fortune, his dance with insolvency and bankruptcy, and his economic recovery.  D’Antonio delves into various financial transactions dating back to Fred Trump and how he took advantage of Lehrenkrouss and Company, a Brooklyn Mortgage Company in the 1930s; Donald Trump’s manipulation of New York bankers, politicians, and others to acquire various properties including the Commodore and Plaza Hotels; how Trump was able to wedge himself into the casino industry in Atlantic City and the fallout from those  transactions; and his success in branding so many buildings with his name.  Other interesting chapters deal with Trump’s battle with author Tim O’Brien over his book TRUMPNATION that argued that “the Donald’s” wealth was far below what Trump stated.  What follows is a detailed description of the legal battle that ensued.  In similar fashion D’Antonio relates the battle over Trump University that would lead to a financial settlement for many of the students that were fleeced.

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D’Antonio describes Trump’s early years, most importantly the impact his father had upon him and how he wanted to mirror Fred’s business tactics.  Another important component of Trump’s upbringing was his experience at the New York Military Academy, where under the auspices of Major Theodore Dobias cadets were instilled with a feeling of confidence that would propel them through life with a sense that they deserved great success because the academy made them better than everyone else.  Trump took his father’s lessons and his experiences under Dobias to heart to create the foundation of the narcissistic personality that would dominate his adulthood that emphasized winning at all costs and avenging those who were critical of him.  Further lessons were learned from Roy Cohn, Trump’s lawyer for many years who believed in stalling, duplicity, threats, law suits, and never admitting that you made an error.   In dealing with the origin of and later manifestation of Trump’s need to be the best at everything, no matter how insignificant, D’Antonio is correct in arguing that it is not important that Trump lies per say, but he actually believes the lies that he tells and then acts upon them – the mark of a truly disturbed personality.

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What is clear from D’Antonio’s biography and numerous other books pertaining to Trump’s journey in life is that he spent a lifetime constructing his personal image.  When that façade is threatened by a negative comment or something or someone, he perceives to be untoward he goes ballistic and seeks revenge employing the “Roy Cohn/Roger Stone” strategy.  What is interesting today as Trump fumes and derides people who worked in his administration who testified for the Special Counsel, the White House is filled with fear from presidential retribution.  If one compares his behavior today with the collapse of his casino empire and fear of bankruptcy in the early 1990s it is the same, even to the point of blaming his financial debacle on three of his executives who were killed in a helicopter crash who had helped administer the Atlantic City hotels and casinos.

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Trump is the master of self-promotion and much of his wealth is tied to his brand not his ability to make “deals.” Trump figured out that fortune and fame go together, and superficiality is more important than substance, the result is that he is the epitome of both concepts.  As other authors have also argued D’Antonio is clear that Trump is a classic case of narcissism.  Narcissists enjoy conflict and will exaggerate or obfuscate to gain the upper hand, a strategy that Trump has pursued in political, business, and personal conflicts that he has either caused or exacerbated when the opportunity presented itself as he views publicity whether good or bad, as good.

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No one should be surprised at the type of President Trump is, the signs were clear long before he ran for the White House and we are now experiencing the fallout from the admonitions of authors, reporters, and Trump associates  about before the 2016 election. Perhaps D’Antonio is correct as he portrays Trump in the context of what Christopher Lasch developed in his 1979 book, THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM: AMERICAN LIFE IN AN AGE OF DIMINISHING EXPECTATIONS – “Trump represented….the pathology of our age.”  Our society, in part may be responsible for the creation of a Trumpian character as it evolved over the decades, now we reap its benefits!

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METROPOLIS by Philip Kerr

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(Berlin, 1928)

Sadly, last March British author Philip Kerr passed away.  Kerr was a prolific writer of over thirty books, including works of adult fiction and non-fiction, in addition to writing children’s books under the name, P. B. Kerr.  At the time of his death he had just completed his last novel entitled, Metropolis, the last iteration of his successful Bernie Gunther series that dealt with German history from the 1920s through the Cold War.  Kerr, one of my favorite purveyors of historical fiction consistently laid out his view of Nazism, its effect on Germany, and how Germany navigated the Cold War through the eyes of Gunther.  METROPOLIS  is the 14th book in the  series and the reader has experienced the progression of Gunther from his time as a Berlin detective, a reluctant member of the Gestapo, and the course of his career in and out of law enforcement during World War II and the Cold War.

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(Reichstag Building, 1928)

The series is not presented in chronological order as we witness the rise of Nazism, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler, German’s defeat in World War II, and how Germany fits into the post war world.  Despite the lack of chronological continuity, Kerr makes it easy for the reader to follow German history through Gunther’s experiences.  It is interesting that the final volume is set in Weimar Berlin in 1928, a city that resembled Babylon which according to Gunther “was a byword for iniquity and the abominations of the earth, whatever they might be.”

Metropolis begins with Gunther’s promotion from the vice squad by Bernhard Weiss, Berlin’s Chief of Criminal  Police to a position on the Murder Commission.  A move that will change Gunther’s life in that from this point on everyone he meets has the capacity to commit murder and he must size them up.  The first case deals with the murder of three prostitutes by a serial killer nickname “Winnetou,”* and the investigation reflects the underside of what Berlin has become – a dichotomy of rich and mostly poor who will do anything to survive.  Kerr has an excellent command of history as he weaves events and personalities throughout the novel.  In this case, it is the stirring of the Nazis as a political party, worker unrest exacerbated by the Communist Party,  the inflation of 1923 and what it has done to the savings and daily cost of living for the people of Berlin.

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A major theme that permeates the story is the effect of World War I on the soldiers who survived the carnage of the trenches and the battlefield overall.  Today we refer to it as post-traumatic stress disorder, after WWI it was called shell shock for which over 80,000 German soldiers were under medical treatment in 1928.  For eugenicists of the period, Berlin was infested with crippled combat veterans who survived in their “cripple carts”, crutches, and severe pain.  They are paralyzed, suffer from anger issues, flashbacks, survival guilt, and as Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist who specializes in surviving extreme trauma has pointed out, deal with the loss of self as they try to cope each day.  For those living in Berlin in 1928 their lives offer a version of some sort of trauma daily; i.e., the violence pursued by Nazis and Communists, the lack of food, homeless in shelters, thousands living on the street, unemployment etc.

Kerr’s theme is carried forth as the Murder Commission learns of a series of murders of disabled veterans perpetrated by a man referred to as Dr. Gnadenschuss** by the press, who are killed by one bullet to the back of the head.  Some argue that the murderer is doing society a favor by doing away with the constant reminder that Germany lost the war.  For these eugenicists, the Weimar Republic must be cleansed for Germany to recover her strength, and the weak must be weeded out.  These views are accepted by many including Doctors, Konrad Biesalski and Hans Wurtz who administer the Oskar-Helene rehabitation facility for veterans whose ideas on medical care and social integration are at best, Neanderthal.

Philip Kerr, 62, Author of ‘Gunther’ Crime Novels, Is Dead

Philip Kerr at his home in London in 2016. At his death he left behind a Gunther manuscript titled “Metropolis.”CreditNina Subin/Putnam Books

The scars that have infected Gunther’s soul come to the fore throughout the novel.  As in other books in the series, Gunther’s daily existence is a battle in dealing with his past, the moral choices he makes, and what he has become.  Gunther’s sardonic and sarcastic commentary is a defense mechanism to cope with what ails him.  He is aware of what the war has done to him, but he is able to compensate for his feelings and thoughts through his firm belief in what he is accomplishing as an officer of the law living in Berlin under the aegis of the Weimar Republic, a seedy, sexy, and cosmopolitan edifice that is out of step with the growing fascist threat to the rest of the country.

Kerr pursues many strategies in conveying his material.  One approach stands out the best, the soliloquies that Gunther has with himself, particularly when he enters an imaginary conversation with Mathilde Luz, a young Jewish worker who was the first victim.  At the suggestion of Bernhard Wiess, Berlin’s Chief of Criminal Police, Gunther is encouraged to place himself in the shoes of the victim as a tool in solving the murder.

Taken as a whole METROPOLIS is detective story and a nasty murder mystery that will maintain the interest of the reader throughout.  It is a tale of vice and horror that works and lives up to the standards that Kerr has developed in his previous novels involving Detective Gunther.  As Adrian McKinty writes in The Guardian the book is “wonderfully plotted, with elegant prose, witty dialogue, homages to German Expressionism and a strong emotional charge, this is a bittersweet ending to a superb series.” (The Guardian, 4 April 2019)

*fictional Native-American hero from the novels of Karl May. The term means “burning water.”

**mercy bullet.

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FUNNY MAN by Patrick McGilligan

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(Mel Brooks)

Recently I read ROBIN by David Itzkoff, a biography that described the comic genius and troubled life of Robin Williams.  The book was thorough and replete with explanations of why Williams turned out as he did, and the role comedy played in his life.  There are few people who can approach Williams’ ability to transform themselves into different characters and employ improvisation.  One who might approach Williams’ talent is Mel Brooks, the subject of a wonderful new biography by Patrick McGilligan entitled, FUNNY MAN.

Brooks’ background and early life stems from the wave of Russian Jewish immigration to the United States at the turn of the 20th century.  Thousands would pass through or remain on the lower east side of Manhattan or move across the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn as Brooks’ family did in 1917.  McGilligan describes his subject as a pampered child as the youngest of four brothers and his role in the family seemed to be to make everyone laugh. All was not laughter as at the age of two and a half, Brooks’ father passed away, leaving a void in his life that would affect him throughout adulthood.

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(Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman)

McGilligan goes on to describe Brooks’ life in minute detail as he ponders his future leading up to World War II, a turning point as he will wind up as an “entertainment specialist.”  Though he passed through areas of combat with the US Army as it made its way toward Germany, Brooks was considered a “barracks character” throughout the war.  McGilligan does a workman like job describing Brooks’ transition from a grunt who entertained his comrades to scheduling touring entertainment for the USO, hosting programs, and even taking the stage with his comedy act.  By 1946, Brooks found his enlistment extended an extra year where he continued his “entertainment” responsibilities.

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(A scene from Blazing Saddles)

McGilligan’s narrative is replete with numerous watershed moments that altered the course of Brooks’ career, personal life, attempts at psychological analysis to explain Brooks’ actions, and a careful rendering of each of his films.  McGilligan’s approach is fascinating though at times the constant entrance into the world of “psychobabble” can be annoying.  Important turning points are many and the key to Brooks’ career is his association with Sid Ceasar dating back to the late 1940s.  Brooks would become an integral part of “Club Ceasar,” a group of writers and later directors and producers who wrote for the Show of Shows and the Ceasar Hour in the 1950s.  The group includes Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Tonkin, Lucille Kallen, and Howard Morris.  McGilligan takes the reader inside the writer’s room (called “the jockstrap”) for the Ceasar’s programs and the mayhem which was a daily occurrence.

He explores the relationships among the writers and how Brooks fit in on a personal and professional level.  We witness Brooks’ obnoxiousness, crudeness, temper, rudeness, but also his overwhelming comedic talent.  Kallen would describe “writing scripts was like throwing a magnetized piece of a puzzle into a room with the other pieces racing toward it.”  Reiner would always play his straight man and try and keep him out of trouble and their friendship would last for decades as he always indulged Brooks’ outbursts.   Of course, McGilligan launches into an explanation of how Ceasar was a father figure for Brooks, who was trying to fill the void in his life.

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(A scene from Young Frankenstein)

The author follows Brooks’ career carefully from the Catskills, early television, and finally film pointing out how he was able to navigate the “comedic writing world” and the roadblocks that he had to overcome.  But the key to McGilligan’s narrative in dealing with the Show of Shows and Ceasar Hour apart from the insights into the writer’s relationships was how the history of comedy was shaped by them for decades.

Brooks’ personal life receives extensive coverage particularly his two marriages.  The first to dancer, Flora Baum provides insights into what kind of character Brooks really was.  During their marriage and relationship Baum readily gave up her own career and the couple would have three children.  Once the philandering Brooks found himself in a failed marriage, he did his best not to own up to his financial obligations toward his soon to be ex-wife and children.  Brooks would miss alimony and child support payments on a regular basis and when he finally made it big with films like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein his duplicitous nature came to the fore as he was able to avoid sharing his new found wealth with his first family through the approach taken by his lawyers.  His second marriage to actress Ann Bancroft followed a different pattern.  They had one child, but Bancroft was a stronger person who did not let Brooks run roughshod over her as Baum had.  She had an exceptional career of her own and was equal to her husband in talent and wealth.  They did have a happy marriage and they were able to pursue separate careers which is probably why their marriage was so successful.

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(A scene from History of the World, Part I)

McGilligan digs down into Brooks’ personality issues.  For years he was afraid of dying before the same age as his father had passed.  He was a hypochondriac who really was never sick.  But he would use his hypochondria to learn all he could about illness and diseases from books and medical journals and freely offered medical advice to friends.  His own psychiatrist, Dr. Clement Staff diagnosed him as having “anxiety hysteria,” a phobia where the mental aspects of anxiety are emphasized over any accompanying physical symptoms.  His overly aggressive personality and sometimes crude comedic impulses sprang from defense mechanisms as he desperately tried to please his absent father, getting even with those who had rejected him in his past, and resentment for having been born short, poor, and Jewish.  Brooks himself would explain the choice of some of his characters from a Freudian perspective, i.e., in the film The Producers Leopold Bloom would be considered his ego, and Max Bialystock his id!

The strongest part of McGilligan’s narrative is his review of the history of comedy in the 1960s and 1970s.  The program, Get Smart is a good example of how comedy was evolving, and the role Brooks played.  Perhaps an even more important component of the narrative is McGilligan’s dissection of Brooks’ film career.  The constant reference to “Springtime for Hitler” an idea that Brooks worked on for a decade and its evolution into the film The Producers is fascinating.  The description of the actual shooting of the film with the novice director Mel Brooks was eye opening as his insecurities concerning a project that was so much a part of his life are completely exposed.  One of Brooks’ best decisions was to cast Gene Wilder as Leon Blum in the film and for the next few years Wilder would become Brooks’ alter ego and the two would emerge as the key to the success of several future films.

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(Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, married for 41 years)

McGilligan digs deep into the origins of Blazing Saddles which emerged from the novella Tex X written by Andrew Bergman.  Brooks loved westerns, wanted to skewer the genre, and told his writers to “write the craziest shit.”  McGilligan’s details are marvelous especially how Brooks cast the film.  His first choice for the black sheriff was Richard Pryor, but the comedian was too controversial for Warner brothers, so the part was taken by Cleavon Little, then an unknown singer-actor.  The substitution of Gene Wilder as the “Waco kid” at the last minute was genius and proved to be the key to the film’s success.  These were lucky breaks and Brooks knew it.

McGilligan will unravel the production process taking the reader behind the scenes of Brooks’ approach to directing and finally starring in his own movies, including how the films were edited and distributed.  He will continue the process with all of Brooks’ major films including Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Space Balls, Silent Movie etc.  Though some where more successful than others and reflected Brook’s obsession to be accepted by the critics they will reflect an evolution away from more crude dialogue and offensive scenes.

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(Scene from the film, The Producers)

If there was anyone who competed with Brooks during the proliferation of his films it was Woody Allen, who McGilliigan brings up several times as he compares the critiques and popularity of the work of both men, especially when Allen’s Sleeper and Annie Hall were so successful.  A major difference between the two according to Milligan was that Allen invited audiences into his semiautobiographical fictions, in which his lead characters often behaved as variants of himself.  Brooks’ films had little or nothing to do with his private self.  Perhaps Brooks success as a director and comedic actor was due to his marriage to Ann Bancroft as it appears it was no accident that his career took off after their marriage.

Brooks will branch out with the creation Brooksfilms in the early 1980s.  Brooks will develop into a shrewd producer-director; however, his main successes were the films, Elephant Man and My Favorite Year. Brooks will shift back to the bad taste excesses that had made earlier films a success with History of the World Part I.  McGilligan analyzes the film in detail and the result is a series of skits that spoof historical events with song and dance routines which are hysterical, i.e., “The Inquisition” and others.  The critics were split on its quality which did not approach the popularity of his earlier successes in the United States but did well in foreign markets.  Brooks’ last major accomplishment was bringing The Producers to Broadway for a six-year run.

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(Carl Reiner, Sid Ceasar and Imogene Coca from the TV program, The Show of Shows)

Overall, McGilligan describes the differences of the “nice” Mel, and the “bad” Mel throughout the book.  This dichotomy is a useful tool in understanding Brooks, and McGilligan handles it well.  McGilligan is a veteran show business biographer and has written a monograph that reflects enormous research and extensive knowledge of the industry.  The main drawback to the book is that there is so much detail at times plowing through the narrative can become cumbersome, however it is an interesting book that explores American comedy, focusing in large part the role that Jews played.

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TRUMP REVEALED: AN AMERICAN JOURNEY OF AMBITION, EGO, MONEY, AND POWER by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher

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(Donald and Fred Trump)

Before each presidential election cycle the staff at the Washington Post engages in extensive research of the candidates to determine what can be expected should they take up residence at the White House.  2016 was no exception as they dove deep into the background of Donald J. Trump and the result is a deeply informative book entitled TRUMP REVEALED: AN AMERICAN JOURNEY OF AMBITION, EGO, MONEY, AND POWER by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher.  The narrative joins the plethora of books on Trump ranging from THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP by David Cay Johnston, THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP by Michael D’Antonio to the more recent ones since he assumed the presidency that focus on the role Russia played in the last election including COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN  by Luke Harding, RUSSIAN ROULETTE: THE INSIDE STORY OF PUTIN’S WAR ON AMERICA AND THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, THE APPRENTICE: TRUMP, RUSSIA AND THEW SUBVERSION OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY by Greg Miller, and HOUSE OF TRUMP HOUSE OF PUTIN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF DONALD TRUMP AND THE RUSSIAN MAFIA by Craig Unger.  Others deal with the Trump White House like FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Bob Woodward and FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE by Michael Wolff.  Recently, the Trump children have been the subjects of new books, BORN TRUMP: INSIDE AMERICA’S FIRST FAMILY by Emily Jane Fox, KUSHNER, INC.: GREED. AMBITION. CORRUPTION, THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY PF JARED KUSHNER AND IVANKA TRUMP by Vicky Ward, and lastly the focus shifts to Trump’s relationship with women in GOLDEN HANDCUFFS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF TRUMP’S WOMEN by Nina Burleigh.  What is clear in all these narratives is that Trump possesses a flawed personality that dates to his dysfunctional upbringing that has created character traits that have pushed him toward actions and policies that are all to familiar with people who have paid attention the last two years.

As you read Kranish and Fisher’s work William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech comes to mind as Trump comes across as obsessed with money, wealth in general, his self-created brand, and gold.  The authors present a detailed account of Trump’s life and career beginning with a discussion of the immigration of his paternal German grandparents and Scottish mother, through his childhood, ending with the 2016 Republican National Convention.

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(The Trump siblings)

His early years are catalogued tracing his family’s “immigrant” background reaffirming Trump’s  refusal to give credit to his grandmother, Elizabeth Christ who inherited a significant sum from her husband, who died at 49, and eventually would set up the Trump Organization.  Donald gave full credit for the ensuing financial success to his father Fred Trump and down played the role of his grandmother.  This would be a pattern in his life as his attitude toward women seemed set at an early age as is argued by Nina Burleigh in her recent book GOLDEN HANDCUFFS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF TRUMP’S WOMEN.

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(Trump’s mother and siblings)

As the authors recount his life, we come across few close friends or humane interests.  Apart from reading about himself, he opens few books and is unconcerned about literature, history, or the arts.  He will exhibit little interest in foreign cultures or travel abroad, unless of course it can enhance his business interests.  The result is a man who exhibits little empathy for others, except perhaps for immigrants who were “the proper white European ethnic stock” as his grandparents were.

Fred Trump receives a great deal of attention because of his impact on his son’s life emotionally and financially.  A distant father he ran a tight ship at home, and was absent making money in the Queens, NY real estate market during the depression and post-World War II period.  His business techniques relied on bombast, publicity, beautiful women, and government programs would be copied by his son whose quality time with his father was spent at his Coney Island office.  A womanizer and at times distant man, Fred Trump would always be there for his son even though he disagreed with in his approach toward the real estate market in Manhattan, and the development of casinos in Atlantic City.  Despite their philosophical divergence, Fred would always co-sign loans, guarantee payments, and have his son’s back.  Despite Donald’s denials his father provided him with a $1 million trust fund, as he did with all his children, which allowed him to begin his career.

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(Donald Trump and Roy Cohn)

The Donald Trump that is portrayed in the book emerges as the person we see in the White House each day.  It begins with his education from elementary school onward with early signs of attention deficit and behavioral issues that are attendant to the malady.  Donald disliked reading and listening to teachers and counselors.  His attitude towards classmates was one of a bully for which the authors provide evidence from his teachers.  Fred decided to send Donald to the New York Military Academy where after a nasty beginning, he learned the ropes and did well.  He would go on to Fordham University for two years, then transfer to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School for business for his junior and senior year.  Trump constantly points to his Ivy league education to promote his brand and assuage his ego but comments like “perhaps the most important thing I learned at Wharton was not to be overly impressed by academic credentials….the other important thing I got from Wharton was a Wharton degree.  In my opinion, that degree doesn’t prove much, but a lot of people I do business with take it very seriously” is evidence of what type of person he is.

The authors do a good job integrating Trump’s own statements and those of others who impacted his life throughout the book in deriving an accurate picture of his personality, approach to business and people, and events surrounding his career.  Donald’s relationship with his father is key as in 1971, Trump is made president of Trump Management and his father remained as Chairman.

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(Paul Manafort and Roger Stone)

A major turning point is developed in a chapter that deals with Fred Trump’s unscrupulous approach to government housing programs and racial bias in his properties.  Though Fred would escape any prosecution after Senate and New York State investigations, the Justice Department filed one of the most significant racial cases of the era against the Trumps in October 1973 with United States of America v. Fred C. Trump, Donald Trump, and Trump Management, Inc.  This came at a bad time for Donald as he was about to enter the Manhattan real estate market, but the result is important as the family decided to fight the federal government and not give in even though the Justice Department offered an extremely lenient settlement.  The key in the process was the beginning of the relationship between Roy Cohn and Donald Trump.  Cohn, a notorious figure who earned his spurs chasing after Alger Hiss, serving as counsel for Joseph McCarthy and escaping numerous federal charges dealing with tax evasion and other unscrupulous activities would become Donald’s surrogate father, a mentor who he would learn from and mirror during his career.  Cohn preached, never settle, always threatened lawsuits, never settle a lawsuit,  and employ the art of the counter attack.  The authors take the reader through a detailed analysis of the case and its importance in Donald’s development – a mirror into his tactics on the news each night.

A second prominent individual who influenced Trump was Norman Vincent Peale, the Protestant minister who in 1977 officiated at his first wedding.  Peale was the author of the 1952 bestseller THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING and predicted that Trump would become the “greatest builder of our time.”  Trump saw Peale as another mentor, who taught him “to win by thinking only of the best outcomes.”  As one engages the narrative, no matter what difficulty Trump found himself in, particularly in business he would always spin any outcome in a positive fashion, and to his credit in the end he would emerge on top, usually employing unethical tactics that I do not believe Peale would approve of.

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Trump makes much of his wealth and the authors point out his ability to manipulate the media and develop his own “brand.”  As early as 1973 the New York Times put out a description of Trump which was a publicist’s dream, but it also stated that Trump’s net worth was $200 million at a time when his income was reported to be $24,594 paying taxes of $10,832.  Despite the “lies” told about his income and wealth, Trump’s bombast and manipulation of the media which was in the midst of tabloid wars in New York, “the Donald” was able to feed the public any information he desired, even acting as his own publicist, John Barron a totally fictitious character that Trump mimicked in phone calls to reporters.  I find it fascinating that he named his son, “Baron!”

Trump is addicted to publicity and name recognition, his focus has always been to get his name on products, buildings, and news stories.  His obsession with his wealth is well documented whether it is $200 million or the $3 through $9 billion that Trump has reported depending on his mood, and other factors. For decades he would begin his day reviewing stories about himself that appeared in the previous days news cycle and if he was not satisfied with what he read he would threaten to sue the offending newspaper, magazine, or author.  All told in over thirty years, Trump and his companies filed more than 1900 lawsuits!

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(Trump in his office at Trump Tower.  Notice the magazine in front of him with his picture on the cover!)

The author’s follow Trump’s acquisitions of real estate thoroughly from his purchase of the Commodore Hotel, Bonwitt Teller’s building in Manhattan, developing casinos in Atlantic City, raising the Trump logo on all his properties, i.e.; Trump Tower etc.  They delve into how he financed his real estate empire in detail and what emerges is “New York City sleaze” as a lack of enforcement and corruption falls easy prey to bullying, disingenuous tactics, being in bed with organized crime, all facilitating Trump’s rise.  Trump has an insatiable appetite for loans with little collateral and the accumulation of debt, but banks continually support him even as it reaches a point when he is nearing bankruptcy over his three Atlantic City casinos in 1990.

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(Trump owned the Miss Universe beauty pageant for years)

Perhaps the author’s best work is reported in the chapters dealing with Trump’s entrance into the Atlantic City casino market which says all we need to know about the president’s approach to business, negotiations, and the accumulation of wealth to maintain his image and brand.  Seen as a savior by the Atlantic City political establishment and bureaucracy that approves casino licensing through tax relief and funding, Trump was able to cajole, bully, bullshit, coerce, blackmail his way into building three casinos, one larger than the next in a market that could not support his financing.  Trump had Atlantic City leaders believing the mirage of “bait and switch” compounded by fabrication and outright lies and deception.  The use of junk bonds, and threats against the Casino Control Commission were effective in getting approval of his next projects.  It was clear, despite his self-created image based on his version of publicity that he was in deep trouble by the late 1980s.  His need to feed his ego by controlling all gambling on the east coast meshed with Atlantic City politician’s belief that he was the economic savior of their downtrodden city helped created this catastrophe.  By 1990 he was unable to pay his debts which amounted to $3.2 billion, most of which was owed to seven major banks.  They would restructure the loans and allowances for Trump because he was worth more to them “alive, rather, than dead!”  There were others that Trump stiffed, contractors who either did not get paid or were paid very little as compared to what was agreed to – a number of which were family businesses that eventually had to declare bankruptcy.

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(Notice Trump’s name has been removed from his casino!)

Of the many components of Trump’s life and career presented his attitude towards women is fully played out from his three marriages, purchase of beauty pageants, his affairs, and in general treatment of the opposite sex.  What emerges is a carefully crafted image designed to enhance his brand as he will become, in his own mind, the arbiter of what is beautiful in a woman. For him “as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass” that was all that was needed to maintain your celebrity and brand.  Trump wrote the script and he protected it with prenuptial and non-disclosure agreements that maintained the silence of any female who had a relationship with him.  For Trump women are nothing but pawns to his ego and his brand.  His wives, girlfriends, mistresses etc. had to measure up to a certain image or they were not worth his time and interest.

 

According to the authors a major turning point that led to Trump’s run for the presidency was the reality television program, The Apprentice.  Trump’s character would become his bridge to Middle America as his popularity with average citizens was enhanced.  He was a person who turned from a “blowhard Richie Rich who had just gone through the most difficult decade into an unlikely symbol of straight talk, an evangelist for the American gospel of success, a decider who insisted on standards in a country that somehow slipped into handing out trophies for just showing up.”  The program sold an image of the host-boss as supremely competent and confident who quickly achieved results. The transition to politics was easy and it served as a stepping stone to the White House.

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The authors venture into Trump’s repeated dabbling with politics until he finally goes down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015.  The primary campaign is covered in detail until he gains the Republican nomination.  There is a great deal of information in the book, much of which is now known by the public.  But at the time it was written it should have been an eye opener for those people who read it.  The Donald J. Trump that is presented is the mirror image of the occupant of the White House.  One must ask the question, based on the last two years and the background presented by the authors is what will become of the American political system if he is reelected, because it is obvious that he will not change as his personality and attitudes originated in his childhood.  But what is clear is that Trump’s real estate career evolved into what can only be described as the “huckster-in-chief” as he figured out how to profit from branding, whether or not projects succeeded as long as he made a profit, even to the extreme detriment of others.

Kanish and Fisher’s work is remarkable due to the three-month time table they were working under.  Relying on numerous interviews representing a cross section of Trump’s life the authors have prepared an insightful and at times scary portrayal of a man who holds the destiny of the American people for the foreseeable future in his hands.

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(Donald and Fred Trump)

D-DAY: THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY by Anthony Beevor

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(June 6, 1944, D-Day Landing)

Anthony Beevor is a prolific historian.  His works include; STALINGRAD, THE BATTLE OF ARNHEM, ARDENNES 1944, THE FALL OF BERLIN, 1945, THE BATTLE FOR SPAIN, and CRETE, 1941.  His works have achieved critical acclaim by military historians and the general public and one of his earlier books, D-DAY: THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY written in 2009 is very timely today.   On June 6th the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the invasion will be held on the northern French coast and after reading Beevor’s account of the allied crossing of the English Channel one has to marvel at the logistical achievement and the courage of allied soldiers as they would land on the Normandy beaches and face the brunt of the Nazi military machine.  Beevor, a former commissioned officer in the British Army’s account encompasses more than just the invasion of Normandy which is covered in half the narrative, but the author continues with the breakout from Normandy, the opposition to Hitler and the July 1944 attempt on his life, the closing of the Falaise Gap through the liberation of Paris.  There are many books on D-Day from Cornelius Ryan’s classic, THE LONGEST DAY, Max Hasting’s OVERLORD,  the works of John Keegan, Carlo D’Este, and Stephen Ambrose, and the latest book on the topic, Giles Milton’s SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D DAY all of which Beevor’s effort compares quite nicely.

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(Allies unloading at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944)

Beevor’s approach is quite simple; provide the reader with the experience of being a witness to the daily decision making by allied strategists, and to a lesser extent what the Germans were planning.  He takes the reader inside the thoughts of SHAEF Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, Generals Omar T. Bradley, George S. Patton, Lt. General Sir Miles Dempsey, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, Field Marshall Sir Alan Brooke, among many others.  We are exposed to their opinions of each other as well as their approach to warfare.  There are many candid comments be it President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and Eisenhower’s low opinion of French General Charles de Gaulle, or the views of American generals concerning the lack of progress due to Montgomery’s poor leadership.  Beevor’s comments are very insightful particularly labeling Montgomery as suffering from an Adlerian inferiority complex and his description of General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. is priceless.

Beevor begins his narrative with a careful analysis of the allied approach to launching D Day.  Weather evaluation became the key to success and when it was not cooperative it caused a one-day postponement.  Later, Eisenhower would be extremely thankful when 110-mile winds buffeted parts of the French coast on June 19, lasting to the 22nd which caused massive destruction and incalculable damage to the beaches which had been transitioned to a supply base and center for further action.  The resulting delay hampered the evacuation of casualties, hindered air operations, but the allies would recover and take the key port of Cherbourg by June 26th.

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The author is at his best when describing the preparation and resulting battlefield action.  His description of the preparation of the 82nd and 101st Airborne as they trained and were about to land behind German lines before the invasion commenced is fascinating.  Beevor focuses on the experience of soldiers in combat from facing German Panzer Tiger Tanks and 88 mm. artillery, actual paratroop jumps, the need to dig fox holes quickly, the “black humor” soldiers resorted to as a coping method, and the terrain they had to navigate, i.e.; the bocage or hedgerows that dominated the French landscape as allied troops broke out into the French countryside.  He concentrates on the obstacles that allied troops would face preparing for the landing as well as the fighting that resulted i.e., the weight of their packs and the amount of equipment that they carried.  For some over 100 pounds which made it difficult to wade in the Channel without drowning, jump out of airplanes, or marching to the next engagement with the Germans.

Beevor provides maps of the battlefield and statistics that make the reader in awe when thinking about what took place in June 1944.  Beevor’s intimate knowledge of daily occurrences reflects an inordinate amount of research from interviewing allied survivors of the war, immersing himself in the work of unit historians as battles took place, traveling to 12 countries and examining 30 archives, as well as consulting many primary and secondary materials.

Perhaps Beevor’s best chapters come early as he deals with what appear to be scenes from the film, “Saving Private Ryan” as he describes what occurred on Utah and Omaha Beaches.  Beevor provides numerous stories of bravery and fortitude as chaos reigned on Omaha Beach in particular; “a mass of junk, men, and materials,” as well as the damage inflicted by the proliferation of German land mines on the beaches.  His evaluations are extremely accurate as he states the British army was woefully unprepared for infantry-tank operations, and the poor preparation of the Germans which allowed the allies to remain on the beaches.  Beevor also spends a great deal of time dissecting the attempts to take the city of Caen and the final success in doing so.  He accurately points out that the initial failure to take the city created a rift between American and British commanders as it seemed they both had their own agendas.   Beevor’s evaluation of battlefield tactics are exceptional as well as the commanders involved.  He describes numerous lost opportunities on both sides pointing to the German ambush of British Cromwell tanks on June 14 at Hill 213 outside the village of Villars-Bocage.  In the end the RAF would flatten the village after earlier being greeted as liberators.

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The key to success was American organization as within a week after D Day, Omaha Beach “resembled Coney Island on a hot Sunday.”  The Omaha Beach command was made up of 20,000 soldiers, the bulk of which were from the 5th and 6th Engineer Brigades.  But there were many problems that arose as the battles proceeded.  What to do with German POWS, shoot them or send them back to England?  How to transport casualties at the same time transporting POWS on the same LSTs.  What approach should be taken to thwart Hitler’s savior, the V-1 rockets as they began to reign on London and the English shore line?  How should commanders deal with combat exhaustion, more commonly known today as shock or PTSD?  What allowances should be made because of troop shortages and the lack of training of replacements?

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(SHAEF Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, and General Omar Bradley)

Beevor is very concerned with the humanitarian aspects of the war.  The death of French civilians due to allied bombing is well covered as is the French resentment against the British who they blamed for most of the Allied bombing errors.  As Beevor points out the French villagers paid a hefty price for their liberation.  Speaking of bombing errors, Beevor recounts more incidents than I was aware of pertaining to allied friendly fire.  Be it American, British, Canadian, Polish or French soldiers they all paid a hefty price for pilot or intelligence errors throughout Beevor’s narrative.

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(Over 425,000 Allied and German soldiers were killed)

The German high command receives a thrashing from Beevor as he points out that they did not have a central command in France at the time of D Day.  They relied on a ridiculous system of sharing command between General Field Marshall Edwin Rommel and General Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt.  Hitler’s over reliance on his “Atlantic Wall” is covered in detail and his micro managing that only impeded the German war effort.  The frustration would boil over after Rundstedt is relieved of his command and a group of officers realize they are losing the war resulting in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt of the Fuhrer.  Amazingly 20% of German forces in France in 1944 were made up of non-Germans, mostly Poles and Russians.

Beevor should be commended for showing his readers the heroism of the Soviet Army.  What the Russian people and soldiers experienced on the eastern front was horrendous, but Beevor is correct in arguing that Soviet propaganda put out by Stalin that Normandy was a side show to events in the east was wrong.  The battle for Normandy was comparable in its intensity to the fighting on the eastern front.  The Germans would suffer over 250,000 casualties during the 90 days of summer in 1944 and lost another 200,000 as POWS captured at a rate higher than on the eastern front.

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The last third of the book is spent on the rush to liberate Paris, which was not part of the original D Day plan.  Bevor takes the reader through a series of operations and what stands out is German doggedness, particularly the Waffen-SS’s refusal to make life for allied soldiers any easier and the vengeance they meted out to French civilians, Resistance fighters, and Jews.  Another aspect that dominates is Montgomery’s constant attempts to assuage his own ego by launching and/or suggesting certain operations which would be counterproductive.  Another final component deals with internal French issues be it how collaborators were treated, De Gaulle’s battle with the Communists and the role of the Resistance.  Beevor joins Max Hastings as producing one of the most thorough accounts of D-Day and it should be read by anyone seeking the experience of what occurred, the personalities involved, and its effect on civilians caught in the cauldron of total war.

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THE BORDER by Don Winslow

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(The US-Mexico border)

After completing THE FORCE, the second installment of Don Winslow’s THE POWER OF THE DOG trilogy that encompasses the narco-drug world that resides in Mexico, but also a symbiotic relationship with areas of the United States, I looked forward to seeing how his fictional account with elements of fact would resolve itself.  The concluding volume, THE BORDER has just been released and it will not disappoint as it maintains Winslow’s breadth of knowledge of the purveyors of the drug trade, the intricacies of how it operates, the violent battles among the cartels, the relationship between the Mexican and American governments, and how corruption and death pass back and forth over the Mexico-United States border, themes that seem to overlay each chapter.

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(Mexican border with El Paso, TX)

Art Keller is once again the main protagonist and he maintains his ability to make enemies among key characters in the cartels, as well as members of the American government whose job it is to create and enforce drug laws.  In THE FORCE Keller’s ability to create enemies reaches new heights as he manages to alienate his own Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the United States Senate, the Mexican drug cartels, and the President of the United States.  It seems Keller has triggered a scandal that results in an investigation that spreads from Mexican poppy fields to Wall Street, all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Keller has been fighting the drug war for decades, but his focus was across the border in Mexico.  When he shifts his strategy the war on drugs will be impacted inside the United States as it rolls up several interesting individuals.

The key event takes place in Guatemala on November 1, 2012 at a supposed peace conference involved rival cartels, the Zeta and Sinaloa.  However, instead of peace it turns into a bloody shootout that results in the death of the Zeta leadership, and Adan Barrera, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, a man whose history with Keller goes back decades and as delineated in the first two books of the trilogy.  Barrera’s death cannot be confirmed for over a year, but once it conclusive the question that dominates Keller’s mindset is who will replace him, how that individual or individuals will carry on the cartel’s drug empire, and what are the implications for a drug trade with the United States that sees the volume of drugs arriving in the United States expanding, and the resulting explosion of deaths from drug overdoses.

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(The wall that separates El Paso and Juarez)

Keller’s imprint on the events in Guatemala are a well-kept secret, an operation that was rogue within American drug enforcement, though it had the President’s approval.  Keller, who will be appointed the head of the DEA because of the machinations of Texas Senator Ben O’Brien wants to radically change the DEA’s approach but he must deal with Washington’s bureaucracy, an assistant head of the DEA who opposes him and wants his job, and a presidential candidate for the 2016 election who wreaks of Donald Trump.  Further, the prison system in the United States  has a privatization component, therefore if policy is changed it could cost people in high places billions.  For years the American approach was to try and deal with the drug problem inside of Mexico.  Since the Mexican government was in bed with the cartels, with Washington’s pseudo cooperation, in order to maintain political stability, it is not surprising that the DEA and other agencies made little headway.  Keller’s new strategy is to focus on what was occurring inside the United States which leads to numerous roadblocks and an approach that had not really been implemented previously.

As in all of Winslow’s books there are layers to the overall story, and THE BORDER is no different.  Once the cartels decide to shift their export focus to heroin resulting in a major increase in drug related deaths Keller decides to do something to curtail demand in the United States and make it unprofitable for Americans involved in the trade.  The key for Keller is how does the cartel launders its drug money which leads Keller’s investigation to Wall Street.  Keller’s work is further complicated by the upcoming presidential election, an operation designated “Agitator” that calls for an undercover agent penetrating America’s finance system at a high level, and trying to implement much of his strategy in secret, away from elements in the DEA and other agencies who have a separate agenda from what Keller is trying to achieve.

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(Don Winslow, author)

As Winslow unveils his diverse plot lines characters from previous books reappear, but he also creates new ones who have a major impact on the course of the novels.  First, Dr. Marisol Cisneros, badly wounded in a previous cartel attack and the love of Keller’s life; Ignacio Esparza, Barrera’s brother-in-law; Elena Sanchez Barrera, Adan’s sister; Sean Callan and his wife Nora, Sean a former hit man for Adan Barrera and Nora his mistress; Raphael Caro, a Sinaloa god father figure who wields a great deal of influence and other narco types from the two earlier books.  Next, we meet John Dennison, who might as well be Donald Trump, candidate for president; Jacob Lerner, the second coming of Jared Kushner who is Dennison’s son-in-law who has major real estate investment issues.  The cartel figures abound, Tito Ascension, known as El Mastin who at one time was head of Esparaza security and now heads the New Jalisco cartel; Belinda Vatos, La Fosfora, in charge of security for the Nunez faction of the Sinaloa cartel; Ricardo Nunez, the head of the Sinaloa cartel; “Little” Ric Nunez, Barrera’s godson who tries to step into his empty shoes; Damien Tapia and the Renterias brothers who also try to take advantage of Adan Barrera’s death; and Darius Darnell, a black ex-con who is trying to carve out his own nitch in the drug trade centered in New York.  Keller’s allies include; Hugo Hidalgo, the son of a murdered DEA agent and assistant to Keller; Brian Mullen and Bobby Cirello, NYPD detectives working on Operation Agitator; and Admiral Roberto Orduna, Mexican Special Forces, an ally of Keller.   Chandler Clairborne is a different type of character, white collar, a syndication broker for the Berkley Group, who has links to money laundering; and Denton Howard, assistant head of DEA who supports Dennison and wants Keller’s job, among many others who impact the story.

Winslow repeatedly brings out the inequities in the war on drugs and changes that are needed as a disproportionate number of poor Hispanics and African-Americans get ensnared by the mandatory minimums endemic to the legal system.  Winslow’s views are brought out through Keller’s appearance before a Senate Committee and other avenues.  The number one reason for the increase in the heroin trade that has reached epidemic proportions is the poverty in the United States that has moved from large urban areas to small towns and rural regions. Keller, a.ka. Winslow argues the real source of the opiate problem is on Wall Street.  Corporate America ships out shops overseas, closes factories, which destroys people’s hopes and dreams resulting in pain for significant numbers of Americans.  For Winslow what is the “difference between a hedge fund manager and a cartel boss?”

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Winslow provides numerous descriptions and insights into the narco culture as he describes family life, education, funerals etc.  He takes the reader inside the US prison system and explains the daily existence of inmates  and the socio-economic hierarchy that exists and how the cartels are run from prison and how the narco types outside the prison influence what happens behind its walls.  Winslow creates characters like, Jacqui as an example of how a little girl grows up to be an addict, providing gruesome details of her acquisition of and use of drugs.  This is played out in Staten Island, NY, not Mexico.  He also creates the characters of Nico Ramirez and Flor, a nine and ten-year-old who escape Guatemala and make their way through Mexico to the US border.   The entire political culture of the cartel’s places Keller in a double bind situation.  The Sinaloa cartel is the key to the heroin trade.  If he destroys the trade the Pax Sinaloa for Mexico will end resulting in chaos and instability in the daily lives of Mexicans.  However, if he does not destroy the trade, the heroin epidemic in the United States will continue to explode.  Further the US bureaucracy is split on how to deal with the situation; the CIA and State Department collude with the Mexican government in dealing with the drug trade, while the DEA, Justice Department want to take the cartels down.

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The back story that exists throughout the novel apart from Keller’s war against the cartels are the cartels themselves.  Once Adan Barrera is dead the wars to control the Mexican drug trade recommence and the results are brutal as individuals try to make a name for themselves, and others try to recapture reputations and territory that they had previously lost to Barrera’s cartel.

The degree of financial and moral depravity described by Winslow is beyond the pale.  The inroads of the cartels into American politics and power is how the author derives his title.  The financing of the drug trade was usually in Mexico, now it has crossed the border.  By reading Winslow’s trilogy, three books in quick succession made me feel I was partaking in a penetrating journey – a voyage to many dark places that produce horror, depravity, disgust, and shame.  But the trip is one of necessity as Winslow has educated the reader, and at the same time he has produced a narrative that is a compelling view of reality even though it is supposedly a work of fiction.

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(US-Mexico border [El Paso and Juarez])

SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND by Patrick Radden Keefe

 

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(The funeral of Dolours Price)

In reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book, SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND one has the feel they are inhaling a novel, a work of fiction that is drawing them into a complex plotline where it is hard to discern what is fact and what is fiction.  But Keefe’s work is not fiction, but a recounting of the brutal events that are part of the history of Northern Ireland from the 1960s onward that includes extreme violence, personal heroism, ideological commitment, individual growth, ideological evolution, and the last vestiges of colonialism.  The ongoing struggle between Catholics and Protestants; the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Protestant Unionists; the British army and its occupation are all played out from the “Time of Troubles” to an acceptable peace settlement.  Keefe is a terrific storyteller who has created a true story of murder and memory in the context of the larger struggle that is and was Northern Ireland.  Keefe accomplishes this by providing novelistic quality and pace which is the key to creating history that reads as if it is fiction.

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(The Price sisters, Marian and Dolours in prison)

When asked in a New York Times podcast how he came to write the book, Keefe describes how he was reading the Times obituary of Dolours Price on January 23, 2013 and was attracted to the former IRA member and decided to dig further into her life story.  As he became engrossed in her biography he came across Jean McConville, a Catholic mother of ten who was kidnapped, and whose fate would be buried for decades.  The connection between the two women is a major theme of the book as it pulled together victims and perpetrators during the “Time of Troubles.”

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Keefe focuses on a few important individuals as his protagonists.  Within this context are several families that come to the fore.  The story unfolds as Jean McConville, at the age of 38 is kidnapped and seized in front of her children to be murdered by unionist thugs.  Next, is the Price family that produced two daughters, Dolours and Marian who would experience the brutal unionist attack against a peaceful Catholic march on January 1, 1969 from Belfast to Derry.  This would turn the sisters from their socialist and civil rights beliefs into joining the IRA.  Radden reviews the history of Catholic v. Protestants, including important political, religious and socioeconomic points of view to place the reader in the moment as the “Time of Troubles” is about to commence.  The British response to the violence is key as Catholics assumed that British troops were being sent to Belfast to protect them from Protestant violence, but in short order it was clear that their mission was to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and B-Specials (anti-Catholic Unionist Auxiliary police).

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(Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein leader)

The history of the period is seen through the eyes of the McConville children as they have to cope with the loss of their mother, the separation of siblings into orphanages and other institutions, and living on the streets; the Price sisters who become key members of the violent wing of the IRA and carry out their operations until after years of imprisonment and hunger strikes they are released from prison and turn against the violence; and paramilitary leader turned politician, Gerry Adams and his alter ego, Brendan Hughes.  In addition to these individuals’ other major characters impact the story.  Reverend Ian Paisley, a radical Protestant preacher who calls for “religious cleansing” of Catholics; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who does not have an empathetic bone in her body when it comes to the Irish; and Frank Kitson, a British officer who excelled an counter-insurgency in putting down the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and was assigned to Belfast along with 30,000 troops to Northern Ireland to institute his theories in crushing a civilian led rebellion.  In introducing his characters Keefe provides a mini-biography of each that is insightful and allows the reader to understand their role and place in history.  What is amazing is how Keefe takes each character and deals with their emotional burdens.

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(Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes)

Keefe analyzes the strategies and tactics used by all sides in the conflict.  He explores the creation of MRF by Kitson, an elite squad that infiltrates the IRA and carries out “interrogation in depth,” rather than “enhanced interrogation,” or just torture.  The planning and implementation of Provisional bombings carried out, i.e.; in central London in 1973 and the trial that followed are investigated in depth as are several other operations.  The conflict within the IRA between the Old Guard and the Provo’s is carefully dissected.  The imprisonment, particularly of the Price sisters is examined carefully, in addition to the overall effect of Provo, Unionist, and British actions taken to achieve their agendas.  But the main mystery that clouds the entire story surrounds the abduction of McConville.  It will eventually take decades to learn what occurred that night, well into the 1990s when the children learn the truth and finally break their silence.

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A key to Keefe’s success as an author is his ability to integrate aspects of Irish history throughout the narrative be it the Great Famine, the Easter Rebellion of 1916, etc.  As he tells his story Keefe weaves a few threads very effectively.  Keefe concentrates on one aspect of his story, the plight of the McConville children, then switches to the Dolours Price planning a bombing operation, to the arrests and escapes of Gerry Adams and Brenden Hughes, or the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, elected to Parliament, but allowed to die in prison from a hunger strike.  The components of the story seem diverse and unconnected, but Keefe can mesh the disparate elements for the reader which in the end come together.

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(Jean McConville and three of her ten children)

A key development in the history of the conflict is the supposed evolution of Gerry Adams from a paramilitary leader to a politician.  Adams would come to realize that violence alone would not achieve his goals and believed a political component to the IRA strategy was called for.   Adams believed that a political movement was needed to run parallel with the armed struggle, the Provo’s would carry out the armed strategy, the Sinn Fein the political as he is elected to parliament.  It is fascinating how Adams can carry out his metamorphosis as the provisional IRA was illegal, and its political wing, the Sinn Fein was not.  Keefe is correct in emphasizing the importance of how Adams successfully develops the IRA from a revolutionary cadre to a retail political outfit.

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(Northern Ireland during the Times of Troubles)

Keefe is very careful as he confronts the war’s strange ending.  Adam’s negotiates, but at the same time is planning and carrying out paramilitary operations.  The split between the former “partners” Adams and Hughes is thoughtfully portrayed as is the split between Adams and Dolours Price.  Keefe digs deep into their relationships as Adams seemed to suffer from amnesia concerning his role in the IRA, but for Hughes and Price he was their commanding officer who ordered them to carry out nasty operations.  The result was Adams denied it all, and Hughes and Price passed away by 2013.

Keefe’s approach is comprehensive and tries to uncover as many secrets as possible that are buried, bringing many to the attention of the public.  Keefe has done all those involved in “The Troubles” a great service as his efforts lays out the past and hopefully it should help those involved to achieve some type of closure.  Further, he describes the creation of the Belfast Project, an oral history of the “Time of Troubles” that is archived at Boston College which contains interviews that include Brendan Hughes that sparked a great deal of controversy and intrigue.  However, when you approach the history of Northern Ireland from 1969 to the present one must remember that the civil war was so vicious that closure may be something to aspire to, but difficult to achieve.  One last tidbit that Keefe brings up in the last pages of the book; wouldn’t it be ironic if Ireland is finally unified after all these years because of the Brexit vote, if so, the “Time of Troubles” needed have taken the course that it did – just a thought.

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(The funeral of Dolours Price)

MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST NUCLEAR DISASTER by Adam Higginbotham

An aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world's worst nuclear accident, is seen in April 1986, made two to three days after the explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine. In front of the chimney is the destroyed 4th reactor.
(Chernobyl a few days after the explosion at Reactor #4)
These are the front pages of four British morning newspapers reflecting the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, Soviet Union.

March 28, 1979 was an overcast day in Woodbridge, Va. when news arrived of a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor near Middletown, Pa.  Feeling totally in the dark when it came to information about the accident, my neighbors and I gathered outside our homes and immediately began testing to see which way the winds were blowing, and should we pack up and head in the opposite direction.  Living about two and a half hours from the reactor which would eventually partially melt down, we were scared.  Up to that time this would be considered the greatest nuclear accident in history being unaware of the Kyshtym Disaster which was a radioactive contamination accident that occurred on September 29, 1957 at Mayak, a plutonium production site in Russia for nuclear weapons and a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the Soviet Union.  After reading Adam Higginbotham’s new book, MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST NUCLEAR DISASTER, an excellent account of the explosion and meltdown at Chernobyl the evening of April 25-26, 1986 and the ramifications of that disaster, memories of that March day flashed before my eyes.

Firefighters with protective gear wash a West German car near the East German border after it arrived from Poland with radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster,  May 3, 1986

(East German-Polish border, decontaminating a car after Chernobyl explosion)

Higginbotham has written the most informative and insightful description of events and analysis of the meltdown that has yet to appear.  It replaces Harvard historian, Serhii Plokhy’s CHERNOBYL: A HISTORY OF A NUCLEAR CATASYTROPHE as the most comprehensive and detailed work that has been written.  In dealing with events such as Chernobyl one must ask: What happened, why did it happen, and could it happen again?  Higginbotham, a journalist and his research partner Taras Shumeyko interviewed numerous eyewitnesses and conducted a prodigious amount of research that included a small number of declassified documents available, and argues that the fanatical view among Soviet bureaucrats and leadership to maintain secrecy, (for example, information about what occurred at Mayak was kept from the public for thirty years) was the reason the accident was so devastating, but also not surprising that it occurred.  Higginbotham recreates the disaster providing a history of Soviet nuclear development, including numerous accidents; the planning and building of Chernobyl; the accident; attempts to remediate the situation after it occurred, the trial of the operators who were blamed for the disaster; and other aspects of the aftermath.  The book reads in part as narrative history, but also a terrifying account of an event which could easily be repeated today.

The plan to build Chernobyl was hatched in February 1970 as a means of catching up to the west and meet Soviet electricity needs.  The Soviet Union would engage in a crash program to build nuclear reactors, but the problem was that the project began during a period of economic stagnation with material and resource shortages everywhere.  The reactor was to be completed by 1975 which was totally unrealistic due to the approach taken by the Soviet bureaucracy, party elites, and engineers that did not consider shortages, safety needs, and planning for possible future nuclear accidents.  The result is that corners were cut in terms of material, training, design flaws, “cooking the books,” and the stubborn nature of the Soviet bureaucracy in charge of construction.  As Higginbotham discusses this aspect of the project, he provides the reader an interesting history of the development of radiation, nuclear development, and their affects on people and society.  The author’s approach to complex scientific information and jargon is such that it is very easy to understand for the lay reader as he describes how reactors are supposed to be constructed.

Galsjo Forest elk hunters fill a quarry in Northern Sweden with carcasses contaminated with radioactivity, September 18, 1986

(Animals killed in Northern Sweden in May, 1986 from radiation)

According to Higginbotham there were design flaws dealing with a high-power channel reactor labeled RMBK.  These flaws would dog designers who would pay little attention to test results because of pressure from the Communist Party and the bureaucracy that flowed from it.  This made disaster possible because no one knew how the reactor would react in case of an accident.  The reactors colossal size made start up and shut down the most demanding and treacherous stages of RMBK operation.  The author follows RMBK’s development and its flaws as it went into production, particularly the AZ-5 emergency protection system whose design took too long to respond in an emergency which came home to roost on April 25, 1986.

A similar plant in Leningrad experienced an accident on November 11, 1975 resulting in the release of radiation into the atmosphere over the Gulf of Finland.  However, Sredmash, the Soviet agency in charge of production and construction of nuclear reactors covered up the investigative findings of design flaws related to the accident.  On September 9, 1982 there was a partial meltdown at Unit 1 at Chernobyl which took eight months to repair, but the KGB instituted a gag order, and the following year a similar accident took place in a Lithuanian reactor and one in Armenia.  But the world knew nothing of these accidents.  Further exacerbating Soviet nuclear reactor building was the shoddy workmanship that plagued Soviet industry in general, and that carried over to the construction of Chernobyl.

The town of Pripyat remains abandoned to this day

(Town of Pripyat remains abandoned even today)

A major problem that arose once Reactor #4 at Chernobyl exploded is that many of those in charge were unprepared to deal with what occurred and succumbed to wishful thinking and self-delusion in approaching how to deal with what had transpired.  Higginbotham describes in detail the lethargic Soviet bureaucracy and their response to disaster.  Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev was not notified as to what had occurred until the afternoon of April 26, 1986.  The author narrates the debates inside the Commission that was set up to oversee the crisis.  He relates the personalities involved and their debates on how to respond and their final decision making, many of which were out of some sort of fantasy.  An excellent example apart from how to cool the reactor was whether they should evacuate the city of Pripyat and its 50,000 residents who were in danger of radiation exposure which took until April 27th to accomplish.  As the radioactive cloud blew over Scandinavia, Swedish, Finish, and Danish diplomats lodged complaints to Moscow once it was realized where the radiation originated resulting in the Soviet government stonewalling.  It would take until April 28th at 8:00pm for Moscow to come clean and announce that “an accident had taken place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.…One of the atomic reactors has been damaged.”  Soviet citizens were used to this type of response as it was a continuation of the way the state had covered industrial accidents for decades.

Higginbotham descriptions of helicopter pilots flying low dumping sand and boron on the reactor are harrowing.  The author’s approach as he carefully describes how officials, academics, scientists, fire fighters, guards, and others and what they went through is chilling, especially as he brings the reader to Hospital #6 in Moscow created to treat victims of nuclear accidents and war.  The ultimate fear was the “China Syndrome,” the further devastation that would occur if the reactor’s foundation exploded and nuclear material leaked into the earth.  Even though Moscow TV announced on May 11, 1986 that the primary threat of explosion was over, scientists remained skeptical.

The Central Committee of the Politburo decided against Gorbachev’s new policy of Glasnost and followed the traditional approach and blamed “bourgeois falsification….propaganda and inventions” as its immediate reaction, in addition to dishonesty and declining help from the west.  This approach would backfire in terms of containing the accident but also hindering Gorbachev’s hope of nuclear disarmament talks with the United States because how could one negotiate with someone who was so untrustworthy.

The sarcophagus of Chernobyl reactor 4 which exploded after a power surge and dispersed radioactive material into the air in 1986

The sarcophagus of Chernobyl reactor 4 which exploded after a power surge and dispersed radioactive material into the air in 1986

Higginbotham spends a great deal of time describing what the victims of the disaster experienced.  He follows the medical care that victims received and for far too many their ultimate deaths.  He recounts the bravery of so many who fought to contain the toxic results of the explosion, and countless men who returned to build the sarcophagus that was designed to seal reactor #4 for at least a hundred years.

The narrative of how the newly created refugees, numbering over 116,000 from the exclusion zone is told with sensitivity and insight into their future plight.  The scapegoating that dominated the investigation by Soviet authorities was appalling as was the propaganda machine that worked overtime to find blame and paint the accident in the best light as possible.  The stories are often poignant and provide a true picture of what can happen on a personal and societal level from a nuclear disaster.

 

Perhaps one of the most destructive results of Chernobyl was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev realized that even his own nuclear bureaucracy was rotten to the “core” and as was most of the Soviet state.  The launching of perestroika opened debate among Soviet citizens that had been dormant, but slowly the issues of Afghanistan, drug addiction, the abortion epidemic, and the horrors of Stalinism emerged.  The Russian people began to realize that they had been lied to for decades and as Higginbotham successfully argues they “faced the realization that their leaders were corrupt and that the Communist dream was a sham.”

If wonders if a major nuclear accident could occur in the future remind yourself of Fukushima.  In 2011, the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s nuclear plant underwent a process identical to Chernobyl; the loss of coolant that provoked a meltdown.  As to what remains of Chernobyl itself, it is part of an “exclusion zone” of 1,000 square miles, a radioactive Eden for new wildlife and vegetation.  Higginbotham has done the public a favor by exposing the events of April-May 1986 and give us pause as to how we should approach nuclear power in the future.

FILE - in this Nov. 10, 2000, file photo The shattered remains of the control room for Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine. We reached the old control room, long and poorly lighted, with its damaged machinery, the place where the Soviet engineers threw a power switch for a routine test on that doomed night, and two explosions followed. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion was only about 60 miles from photographer Efrem Lukatsky's home, but he didn’t learn about it until the next morning from a neighbor. Only a few photographers were allowed to cover the destroyed reactor and desperate cleanup efforts, and all of them paid for it with their health. I went a few months later, and have returned dozens of times.
(Remains of Chernobyl operations facility after the explosion)

GOLDEN HANDCUFFS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF TRUMP’S WOMEN by Nina Burleigh

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(A younger Trump and Melania)

Nina Burleigh states in the Acknowledgements of her new book, GOLDEN HANDCUFFS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF TRUMP’S WOMEN that the idea for her new book derived from a Newsweek cover entitled, “The Queens of Trumplandia” shortly after Trump’s inauguration.  The book itself has several interesting tidbits about Trump’s three wives, daughter, Ivanka, his grandmother and mother, but it does not rise to the level of a complete volume, when an in-depth magazine article would have been enough.

Burleigh draws several interesting conclusions as it pertains to each of the women and the first part of the book dealing with Trump’s childhood and adolescent years provides a few important insights into the president, but again it could have been covered in a magazine article.  Perhaps one of the most insightful comments occurs early on as Burleigh quotes historian, Todd Gitlin who states, “Trump represents the other side of the ‘60s.  He’s not operating in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., God knows – he’s operating in the spirit of Hugh Hefner.  That’s his 60s: the liberated guy fucking around at will, grabbing women.  He’s living the Playboy philosophy as Heffner articulated it.”  His approach to women is clear-cut, they must surrender their power in measures of dignity in order to enhance his.  As he once said, “It really doesn’t matter what they write [about you] as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”

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(Spouse #1, Ivana Trump)

For Trump, women had to conform to his brand.  Further, for each woman, everything was for sale, especially their “look.”  By middle age Trump had become the arbiter of female beauty as he purchased several beauty pageants.  It is also interesting to note that all his women (if one excepts that southern Georgia was not conducive to overall American culture) were immigrants considering his own immigration policies as president.  In fact, Melania would not be allowed into the United States today if her husbands proposals had become law.

In imparting her narrative, Burleigh never misses an opportunity to relate something from Trump’s earlier biography to that of current obstruction, corruption, or just plain nastiness on his part.  Despite the sarcasm that abounds Burleigh does have something meaningful to impart.  Trump’s maternal grandmother Elizabeth Ann Christ who immigrated from a German village is given little credit for beginning the Trump family wealth accumulation.  Burleigh argues that the 49-year-old widow with three children was able to parlay her husbands bank account into a small, but successful real estate enterprise in Queens, NY.  Trump gives all the credit to his father, Fred who he claims was a real estate genius at 14, and grandma just wrote the checks.

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(Spouse #2, Marla Maples)

The key figure in Trump’s childhood was his father.  His mother Mary Anne MacLoad a Scottish immigrant accepted the patriarchal family where daddy was feared.  For Trump no woman could measure up to his mother which becomes a problem with women throughout his life.  The part of the book I was looking forward to the most was Trump’s childhood as I will be teaching a Psychohistory course next month and I will be analyzing the “Donald,”  but after reading the book I feel somewhat disappointed.

Trump as a child was a hellion from the time, he was a toddler.  His primal scream may have occurred when he was two years old as his mother suffered a hemorrhage, hysterectomy, and peritonitis with the birth of her fifth and last child.  Trump’s mother had cared for him very affectionately until that time and it was a blow to a boy who was in the midst of the “terrible twos.”  Mary was exhausted during her recovery and never rebonded with Donald who “became an aggressive, impulsive, and sometimes downright sadistic little boy.”  Trump would lash out at teachers, Doctors, schoolmates, etc. and grew proud of his own belligerency.  Today he would be diagnosed with ADHD highlighted by “inattentiveness, impulsivity and hypersensitivity” who refused to read which sounds like a daily occurrence at the White House!  One wonders if his son Barron has inherited some of his father’s learning issues.  Trump, undiagnosed suffered from these learning disabilities which we are all paying for.

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(Spouse #3, Melania Trump)

Donald’s development was markedly affected by his father.  Fred Trump whose treatment of women fixed his son’s attitudes towards females for life.  Burleigh argues that he was a philanderer who viewed women through two lenses – what they could do for him in private, and how they might be employed as props to advance his career and sell his properties.   Donald’s adulthood suggests a boy forever marked by a rigid, demanding, pathologically fastidious, and possibly physically abusive father – sound familiar?  The book unearths stark details of the forces that shaped Mr. Trump’s thinking about women — Mr. Trump’s father, went as far as forbidding the word “pregnant” from being uttered in a household that would grow to five children and explains Donald’s aversion to certain biological aspects of being a woman.

Perhaps his most interesting wife was Ivana who was a Czech immigrant who would become a mogul in her own right.  She became competition for the limelight that Trump could never share.  Burleigh points out that Trump loved to play Pygmalion which worked out well with Ivana for several years, but once she developed her own separate and successful brand she had to go.  In addition, as she grew older and had her facial and body alterations, she no longer fit Trump’s image of what his spouse should be.  Burleigh as he does with all the wives ply’s the myths and accepted facts pertaining to the marriages.  But what is clear that if Trump could not mold his women into what he needed, like Marla Maples, his second wife then they could no longer stay married.  As far as wife number three is concerned, Melania, is a stunning woman who could not measure up to the modeling world that was the source for Trump’s women.  She evolved into the perfect spouse as she seems to be content as she does not give any indication that she wants to bask in the limelight as her predecessors.

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(Fred Trump and Donald Trump)

Burleigh summarizes the relationship with all his wives very effectively, “Unlike Marla, who demanded Trump make an all-encompassing spiritual commitment to her, and a spiritual commitment to doing good works, and unlike Ivana, who morphed into a female version of Donald, Melania purred with contentment, was happy to stay indoors, and as she would say in many future interviews, she had no interest in changing Donald.” As one of Melania’s friends has stated “I think she needed a strong man, a father figure.”

The section of the book that is most disconcerting apart from Trump’s misogyny deals with first-daughter Ivanka.  Burleigh deals with the most important aspects of their relationship and perhaps the unconscious sexual dreams Trump has about his daughter.  What is clear is that she is a more refined version of her father with her own agenda.  Her disingenuous approach to issues and claims of being a supporter of liberal causes may ruffle her father’s base, but it appears it is to be part of her own political agenda in the future.  Trump raised her to be a combination of his own brand of woman, the future head of the Trump Organization, and possibly a political force for the future.

In summation if you are to be a Trump woman, be it a wife, mother, or daughter you must conform to the look – stiletto heels, have the characteristics of a model wearing the right clothing and jewelry, and have the visage of how you view and carry yourself as always showcasing the brand.

To her credit, Burleigh has sifted through decades of publicly available materials — including Mr. Trump’s own words in memoirs and interviews — to animate the central point of the book: that “Mr. Trump has long believed women, particularly if they are not able to be molded to his liking, are not to be trusted.” (New York Times, October19, 2018)  If you are interested in detail about Trump’s relationship with women this book may be for you.  However, it doesn’t really say much that has not been said before, though Burleigh corroborates a great deal of what has been in print and interviews.  If you are interested in a more sophisticated approach to the material, and I might be a bit facetious when I say material, I would pursue some of the other “Trump” books.

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EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI: THE CONCUBINE WHO LAUNCHED MODERN CHINA by Jung Chang

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(The Dowager Empress Cixi)

Last week the Peabody Essex Museum located in Salem, MA concluded its wonderful exhibit, Empresses of China’s Forbidden City.  It was “the first major international exhibition to explore the role of empresses in China’s grand imperial era — the Qing dynasty, from 1644 to 1912. Nearly 200 works, including imperial portraits, jewelry, garments, Buddhist sculptures and decorative art objects from the Palace Museum, Beijing (known as the Forbidden City), tell the little-known stories of how these women influenced art, religion, court politics and international diplomacy.” (https://www.pem.org/blog/stories-of-opulence-and-influence)  The exhibit peaked my interest in Cixi (Tzu His), the last Empress of China who was a concubine to the Emperor Xianfeng, and produced a son in 1856.  In doing so Cixi guaranteed a place for herself at court and would pave the way for her to obtain power in the 1850s when the Emperor died . The Empress Dowager Cixi lived a remarkable life that is fully captured in Jung Chang’s 2013 biography EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI: THE CONCUBINE WHO LAUNCHED MODERN CHINA.

 

Related imageFormally, Cixi had no power, but she succeeded in mounting a coup against the regents with Empress Zhen, the late emperor’s principal wife, before he was buried. Cixi falsely accused the regents of forging the emperor’s will, and in the first of what would be a substantial list of Cixi ordered murders, she ordered the suicide of the two most important regents. Her son was crowned Emperor Tongzhi, and Cixi’s extraordinary political career was launched. (The Guardian, 25 October 2013)

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(the author)

Chang  has done an exceptional job unearthing new Chinese sources and fills in the gap in the historiography that lacks major studies of Cixi in English. In her absorbing new book, Chang laments that Cixi has for so long been “deemed either tyrannical and vicious, or hopelessly incompetent — or both.” I agree with Chinese historian Orville Schell that “far from depicting her subject as a sinister conservative who obstructed reforms, Chang portrays Cixi as smart, patriotic and open-minded. In her view, the empress was a proto-feminist who, despite the narrow-minded, misogynistic male elite that made up the imperial bureaucracy, “brought medieval China into the modern age.” Chang concludes that Cixi was an “amazing stateswoman,” a “towering” figure to whom “the last hundred years have been most unfair.” (New York Times, October 25, 2013)

One of the strengths of Chang’s narrative is her blend of major historical events in China during Cixi’s lifetime (1835-1908), how it affected her elevation to a powerful position, and how she wielded that power.  Events such as the First and Second Opium Wars are discussed in this context resulting in the first treaty ports in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking that effectively opened China to further English and European trade and Catholic missionaries that struck at the heart of the Middle Kingdom’s insularization.    The Taiping Rebellion that lasted from 1850 to 1864 was in effect a Chinese Civil War that in the end produced further western encroachment on China and the death of over 20 million people.  For Cixi, the events surrounding her taught her many lessons that would influence her own use of power.

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(The Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864)

In discussing Cixi’s rise and attempts to modernize China through industrialization several watershed dates emerge.  In 1861 Emperor Xianfeng died resulting in her five-year-old son being elevated to replace him, with eight regents overseeing the decision-making process.  These eight men had proven to be a disaster with their anti-foreign, xenophobic policies that resulted in increasing western encroachment.  Cixi and the Empress Zhen became allies and were able launch a successful coup against the traditional Confucian regents and Cixi was able to become the defacto ruler of China through the cooperation of the Empress.  Chang provides intimate details how Cixi was able to maneuver against the regents, reflecting her deviousness and developing realpolitik that would serve her well in the future.  The second watershed focuses on 1875 with the death of her son, Emperor Tongzhi who had reached the throne two years earlier.  Since the Emperor left no written will, Cixi once again could manipulate the situation to her benefit as she and Empress Zhen chose the next emperor.  Under the new Emperor Tongzhi China stood still as reform and industrialization were neglected.  Once in full control, Cixi resumed her policy of modernization through copying certain aspects of western industry, calling her policies one of “self-strengthening.”  She appointed ambassadors and sent study groups abroad.  Further, she pushed for factories, road building, opening trade, a naval fleet, and introducing certain aspects of western education that would benefit China.  Railroad building was a priority, but as Chang describes in all subject matter, Chinese culture and tradition were always paramount and railroad building had to wait until the late 1880s to begin construction.

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(The Emperor Guangxu)

Chang introduces several historical characters that Cixi relied upon to institute her policies.  Prince Gong, a reformer was a key player, as was Li Hongzhang who was respected by western nations, and was a very able and successful trade negotiator.  Viceroy Zhidong Zhang, a proponent of modernization, in the end he would stand by Cixi after the disastrous Boxer Rebellion.  Of course, there was conservative opposition who looked down upon Cixi led by Prince Chun, her brother-in-law who sought revenge against her pro-western policies.  Grand Tutor Weng despised westernization and his views rubbed off on the new Emperor whom he tutored resulting in a downward spiral for China in the 1890s.  In the end, Cixi was able to defeat Prince Chun and turn him into an ally.  Chang also describes several westerners that Cixi appointed to important positions.  W.A.P. Martin became a force in developing Chinese education.  US Minister to Beijing, Anson Burlingame was appointed China’s ambassador extraordinaire to represent the Middle Kingdom throughout Europe.  Lastly, Robert Hart would create an efficient customs service that as trade increased dramatically, import and export revenues rose to help finance many of Cixi’s projects.

Chang’s Cixi is a very pragmatic woman who employed a blend of thoughtful contemplation in evaluating the course China should take, but also used violence and threats to achieve her goals if the situation called for it.  Cixi reached the height of her power in by 1889 when her adopted son, assumed power as the Emperor Guangxu.  To that point her legacy was secure.  The American Minister to Beijing, Charles Denby praised her accomplishments from the creation of a “fine” navy, building an electric telegraph system, shipyards, railroads, steamers, factories, and a strong army.  He praised her religious tolerance and her diplomacy that resulted in treaties with France, England, Russia, and the United States.  Even her former enemy, Prince Chun, now an ally marveled at her prowess in standing up to the French and the resulting treaty in 1885 that protected Chinese borders from western encroachment.  One wonders, had Cixi’s reign ended in 1889 perhaps history would view her differently as her “Make China Strong” campaign appeared to be a success.

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(Kang Youwei)

China’s domestic political problems would emerge after Cixi’s retirement, as the new Emperor Guangxu resented Cixi, her reform ministers, and the fact she had forced him to marry someone he detested.  Educated in the Classics and Confucian texts, Guangxu turned the clock back under the influence of his arch-conservative Grand Tutor Weng whereby all forms of reform and modernization came to a halt.  This would have grave implications as at the same time Japan, following the restoration of the Meji Emperor in 1867 began a period of westernization and modernization.  It would build a large and powerful navy, while the Chinese did not continue their own program.  By 1894, Japan’s expansionist policy against China’s vassal states, Taiwan and Korea led to a war that China could not win.  The result was a disaster due in large part to Chinese incompetence and lack of preparation as the navy deteriorated once Cixi was out of power.  The Emperor was soon convinced to bring about Cixi return to the kingdom after four months of fighting, but by this time it was too late, and China’s defeat was inevitable.  The Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 included the cession of Taiwan, the Pescadores, the eastern tip of the bay of the Liaodong peninsula (which would be returned) , autonomy for Korea, most favored nation trading status, opened a series of Chinese cities to Japanese trade, and an indemnity of 200 million taels (roughly $148,400,000).*

Chang has gone a long way in trying to resurrect Cixi’s historical reputation by exposing many of the myths associated with her.  An interesting example involves the supposed reformer Kang Youwei, whose nickname was the Wild Fox.  When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, I was taught that Kang was the leading force for reform in China.  According to Chang, who basis her interpretation on the discovery made by Chinese historians in the 1980s, Kang was a plotter who sought to assassinate Cixi, and eventually seize the throne.  He even co-opted the Emperor into his plot couching everything in terms of reform and spreading lies about the Empress Dowager.  Chang points out after the plot was discovered Kang escaped to Japan and continued to spread his version of events blaming Cixi for China’s defeat against Japan, and many other false claims.  Kang would continue to organize assassination attempts against Cixi from Japan after the Boxer Rebellion and sought to bring back the Emperor to replace the Dowager Empress.  Cixi would cancel trials against  Kang’s co-conspirators and have them executed because she did not want it known that her adopted son, the Emperor was involved in the assassination plot, information had it been made public would have split China in half due to Kang’s popularity, and would have created a situation for Japan and others to take advantage.

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(The Boxer Rebellion, 1900)

Cixi’s greatest mistake during her reign was how she treated events leading up to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and decisions she made while the fighting and slaughter unfolded.  Cixi grew tired of years of foreign encroachment and disrespect and Chang is correct as she describes how she faced down Italy’s demands for treaty ports.  The Dowager Empress developed a false confidence that she could stand up to foreigners as she had with Italy and when the western nations began to make demands after the xenophobic Boxers killed a German diplomat and numerous missionaries, Cixi decided, going against the advice of several counselors, to try and take advantage of the Boxers who were deemed to be, by like-minded princes and aristocrats as “loyal, fearless, and disciplined.”  The Boxers would be organized into military units, but their beliefs which included being impervious to bullets would not stand them in good stead against western technology resulting in extreme violence and slaughter throughout northern China, and the surrounding of the Foreign Legation in Beijing.  Cixi’s decisions were questionable as she went back and forth from withdrawing support for the Boxers to reaffirming it throughout the rebellion.  Cixi was forced to escape the Forbidden City and move westward as the western invasion proved successful.  As a result, Cixi’s leadership was demeaned, even though she maintained a degree of support.  The western powers realized that the removal of Cixi could only be brought about through military action that would evolve into a civil war.  Thus, they decided to allow her to return to Beijing to prevent fighting that would result in the loss of trade, default of loans, and the reemergence of the Boxers.  However, what is clear is that the (Qing) Manchu Dynasty under Cixi, would begin its last chapter as the western countries imposed an indemnity of over 450 million taels (roughly $333,900,000)* thus punishing the entire population of China.

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(The Boxers)

According to Chang, after imposing the peace the Western powers recognized Cixi as the undisputed leader of China allowing her to embark on a massive program to change her country that can be considered the “real revolution in modern China.”  Cixi would spend her last few years pushing to make China a constitutional monarchy, and at the same time surviving numerous assassinations attempts against her, most of which were planned by Japan.

Chang has written a superb biography that encompasses her life as well as the traditions and culture of China’s ruling and peasant classes while in and out of power.  As China’s current “President for Life,” Xi Jinping deals with the problems of reform and change today, he like Cixi must achieve a balance between fostering change too slowly, and bringing about change too quickly, as each approach has its own pitfalls.  Perhaps he should study Cixi’s role in Chinese history and learn to deal with similar issues that confronted her.

*One tael is calculated at 3 English Shillings or 0.742 American dollars. ( See footnote p. 297)

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(The Empress Dowager Cixi)