RAGE by Bob Woodward

Donald Trump has made an inordinate number of mistakes since assuming the presidency, however one of his most egregious was agreeing to an eighteen hour over nine session interview with author Bob Woodward.  The Washington Post investigative reporter had previously written a chronicle of Trump’s first two years in office entitled, FEAR which was not very flattering toward the president.  Trump, a firm believer in his own powers of persuasion was out of his league assuming if he developed a personal relationship with Woodward that his new book would praise the president and be an asset in the current presidential campaign.  The result has been Woodward’s latest work, RAGE which was once again even less flattering toward Mr. Trump.

Woodward’s effort is somewhat ironic in that his reporting during the Watergate crisis of the early 1970s helped remove Richard M. Nixon from office.  Now, almost fifty years later Woodward has written a book supported by audiotapes of his interviews with the president that provides evidence for the numerous falsehoods that president has engaged in since the book’s release.  As a historian I find it more than a coincidence that a reporter as thorough as Woodward is involved in another pursuit of a lawless president involving tape recordings.

(Dr. Anthony Fauci)

The book itself presents countless examples of Trump’s lies to the American people over a number of important issues that include his downplaying the coronavirus, his relationship with and the actions of North Korean leader Kim Jun-Un, his approach to racism and white nationalism, and of course his impeachment.  Trump comes across as a liar, a petty vengeful individual, a self-absorbed person who appears devoid of human decency who exhibits little or no empathy in his approach to a pandemic, hurricanes, and the wildfires out west.

From the outset, Woodward pulls no punches in recounting Trump’s attitude toward Covet-19.  Trump freely admits, though he has since denied that he downplayed the effects of the virus and its possible impact on the American people.  As early as January 28, 2020, Trump was warned by Robert O’Brien, the National Security advisor that “this is going to be the roughest thing you face.”  Matt Pottinger, the Deputy NSC advisor reaffirmed what O’Brien had stated and argued that after speaking with his Chinese sources concluded “don’t think SARS 2003, think influenza pandemic 1918.”  On February 7th, Trump told Woodward that “I think that [it] goes away in two months with heat…you know as it gets hotter that tends to kill the virus.  You know, you hope.”  Trump described the virus as “deadly” and “it goes through the air.”  At the same time as he expressed these fears in private Trump publicly reassured the American people that there was nothing to worry about and he had everything under control.  There is no reason to discuss the impact of Trump’s attitude and actions.  But it cannot be denied that while over 200,000 people have died, Trump has not carried out his constitutional duties to protect and defend the American people.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats attends a cabinet meeting at the White House July 16 2019 in Washington DC President Donald Trump and...

(Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats)

The book presents a plethora of examples of Trump’s malfeasance in office.  Each example is supported by excellent sourcing, a Woodward trademark, and we have audio tapes to support what the narrative purports.  One must keep in mind that Woodward has been chronicling presidential administrations for close to fifty years, that’s over twenty-percent of all presidents have been subject to Woodward’s incisive pen.  In all that time there has been little if any hint of emotion on his part in dealing with his subject matter.  However, in the current instance that emotional current  is present.  Trump realized that the first draft of history of any administration during the last five decades has been written by Woodward, and Trump wanted to influence it.  But, Woodward, aware of Trump’s obsession with the book still is the truth teller and if one turns to the last few pages of the narrative his personal reaction is based on Trump’s constant denials and absence of responsibility as he has lied to the American people.  Woodward concludes that Trump was the wrong man for the job of president because of the overwhelming evidence that the president has no sense of reason, order, guidance and morality and his administration suffers from “an organizational sickness,” and Trump, a personal sickness forcing Woodward to reach no other conclusion.

In reaching this judgement Woodward has examined the most important aspects of the Trump administration.  His personal relationships with James Mattis, John Kelly, Dan Coates, Rex Tillerson, and numerous others are all explored and it is interesting as information about them has reached the public with the publication of RAGE none of these individuals has come forth to dispute what Woodward has written.  Areas of concern include the relationship with Kim Jun-Un where the North Korean leader, after a legitimate war scare as related by Mattis, meets with Trump and achieves everything that he sought, particularly recognition by the United States, with Washington receiving little or nothing in return.  The situation in Syria is documented as Trump, as a favor to another of his authoritarian “buddies” convinced Trump to withdraw and or reposition US troops in Syria in order for the Turkish military to go after the Kurds, our ally for over a decade and our main partner against ISIS.  Trump’s attitude toward NATO and allies in general is depicted and an obvious cause for concern as Trump’s transactional nature is such that he does not accept the American need for allies with the attitude that there is little they can do for America and that they do not carry their own military and financial weight.  Mattis wondered what made Trump think anyone could make it alone in the world.  A country always needs allies just examine history, but since Trump does not read and has no sense or knowledge of history this intellectual exercise is superfluous.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

(Former Defense Secretary James Mattis)

What separates Woodward’s work from others is the detail that he presents after assiduous research.  A prime example are the letters between Trump and Kim Jun-Un seemingly declaring an uncomfortable “bromance.”  These letters present insights into the minds of both men and go a long way in explaining why to this day nothing of major importance has been accomplished.  The conversations between President Xi and Trump are eye opening as more and more it is clear the Chinese stonewalled, but in an earlier conversation Trump asked Xi to help him get reelected.  The commentary of Coates and Mattis is important since neither has gone public with their evaluations and experiences with Trump, but for the first time we see their angst over this presidency, the damage he has caused, and their fears for the future.

Woodward’s discussion of the Mueller Report and impeachment is fair and well thought out.  His conclusions are interesting in that he argues that it was more Ron Rosenstein’s investigation and report rather than Mueller.  The fact that there was no “John Dean type” with a smoking gun like Watergate was a major reason that Trump seems to have gotten away with colluding with Russia, though the Mueller Report did not exonerate him despite what Attorney General Bill Barr stated in his four page summary of the report.  Mueller was limited in what appeared to be an expansive investigation.  Mueller himself, as well as his staff of lawyers and investigators could not stray too far for fear of being fired, which Rosenstein made clear.  In the end Trump weathered the greatest threat to his presidency to that point which certainly emboldened him.  It is no accident that Trump’s machinations with Ukraine to smear Joe Biden through his son Hunter began almost simultaneously to the end of the Mueller investigation.

Trump’s disparagement of the intelligence community is on full display and the true nature of Vice President Pence is apparent as he throws his former close friend Dan Coates under the bus with his “fawning” over the president.  Be it Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Covid-19, the threat of White supremacists, Trump, when he actually reads his daily briefing always finds fault with the CIA, FBI, and a myriad of other intelligence agencies.  It caused Coates to state, “to him a lie is not a lie.  Its just what he thinks.  He doesn’t know the difference between truth and a lie.”  Intelligence had to conform to Trump’s prejudices and beliefs, if not they were rejected outright.

Bob Woodward
(Author, Bob Woodward)

At times it seems as if Woodward is banging his head against the wall as he tries to reason with Trump, i.e., his questioning of Trump over the Ukrainian matter that led to his impeachment.  For Trump, his “perfect phone call and transcript” were enough and he did not grasp the concept that a president cannot shake down a foreign leader to acquire dirt on a political opponent.  Other conversations would repeatedly produce a Trumpian riff dealing with past disparagement and feelings and get nowhere.  But I admire Woodward for trying.

Woodward relies heavily on interviews with a number of important former administration officials which he refuses to name, but their identity comes out in the narrative.  Their frustration and fear of Trump is warranted based on their experiences.  Nothing was more dangerous than the reaction to Covid-19 and the policies or lack thereof of the administration.  Woodward covers the full expanse of Trump’s tenure in office, but it is his response and lies to the American people are the most important aspect of the book.  A great deal of what Woodward covers has been mined by others, but in the realm of Covid-19 it reflects how dangerous Trump is for the health of American people, as even Trump realized as early as February 7, 2020 in reference to Covid-19 when he said, “there’s dynamite behind every door,” at the same time he was playing down the coming pandemic and lying to the American people by arguing “the virus would go away on its own” at a time when there was only twelve cases.  But as we know the virus proliferated and Trump obfuscated as he remarked that he “always played down…I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create panic.”  In the end he said, “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”

Woodward treats the reader to important comments and conversations dealing with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Up until April 17, 2020, Trump had at least implemented travel bans against China and Europe, shut the country down for fifteen days but amidst a thirty day extension of the shut down on April 17, the president tweeted about liberating Virginia, Minnesota, and Michigan violating his own stated policy.  Trump’s mantra was to open up the country willing to accept the tidal wave of death that would result and decided to muzzle of Fauci.   A frustrated and concerned Fauci remarked that Trump “was on a separate channel,” his leadership was “rudderless” and his “attention span is like minus-number as “his stated purpose is to get reelected.”  No matter what question Woodward would ask the result would be a defensive Trump saying “the virus had nothing to do with me.  It’s not my fault.  It’s—China let the damn virus out.”  When Woodward pointed out he was in charge of the national interest, Trump would ignore the question or change the subject.

Rosa Brooks in her September 10, 2020 review of the book in the Washington Post asks what new insights does Bob Woodward’s latest book, RAGE offer?  “We learn that President Trump is not the sharpest tool in the shed; members of his Cabinet consider him a narcissistic fool, devoid of empathy and incapable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood. Trump blithely minimizes the lethality of coronavirus because he doesn’t want to look bad. He takes no responsibility for anything, boasts repeatedly about his wealth and genius, and shows nothing but contempt for those who happen to get in his way.”  The end results this morning the 200,000th American death was announced. What wonders what might have been different if Trump would have performed his constitutional duties.

(President Trump and Vice President Pence)

AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins

(Acapulco)

For those of you who have had your eyes opened by Don Winslow’s trilogy dealing with the Mexican drug cartels you will not be disappointed by Jeanine Cummins’ new book AMERICAN DIRT.  Cummins offers a number of motivations in writing her novel.  Chief among them is that there are numerous books that depict the underside and violence of the drug cartels which contribute to the worst stereotypes involving Mexico.  Cummins on the other hand wants to deal with the flipside of that narrative, describing the experiences of ordinary people who for their own personal reasons must leave their families and past lives to escape northward.  How does a woman manage to escape a place like Acapulco where the story begins and take her child to an unknown destination facing possible horrors that they have only heard about in passing?  For Cummins, these stories have been overlooked, but she argues that all migrants need a voice as they are people with needs, dreams just like others and she intends to give them a platform.

Cummins begins her novel by metaphorically hitting her readers with a blunt object.  It makes the reader sit up and pay close attention and continue to read about another senseless killing that the Mexican police have no intention of solving.  The opening scenes deal with a mass revenge killing of sixteen people that Lydia and her eight year old son Luca must hid in the corner of a bathtub in order to escape.  Immediately, Lydia realizes that her husband, mother, aunt, and cousins are dead and that she and her son must leave as fast as possible before they are next because she knows who the killer is, though is unsure why her family is victimized.

Lydia first met the man who ordered the massacre in the bookstore she owned in Acapulco.  One day, Javier Crespo Fuentes, known as La Lechuza, enters the store and after browsing the stacks he chooses a number of items that are Lydia’s favorites.  After chatting it appears that they share a love of books and over the next few weeks he visits the store, buys more books, shares his poetry, and Lydia believes they have developed a close friendship.   Lydia’s husband, Sebastian Perez Delgado is a reporter who specializes in unmasking Mexican cartels and in this case unbeknownst to Lydia he has written an article about the head of Los Jardineros, Lydia’s new friend.  Once she learns who Fuentes is and the carnage and death, he has wrought she is conflicted.  First, she denies her friend is involved and then once the murder of her family takes place, she realizes she and Luca must run.

US-Mexico international border: Layers of Concertina are added to existing barrier infrastructure along the U.S. - Mexico border near Nogales, AZ, on February 4, 2019. See more information below. Stock Photo
(Nogales, TX and Mexican border)

Despite what she has been through Lydia’s approach to Fuentes is puzzling as she tries to balance her family’s needs with the truth, and the fact that Fuentes has fallen in love with her. The question is why she tortures herself emotionally after all that has occurred, a question the novel really does not address.  Half-way through the story Lydia learns why she and her son have become fugitives from Fuentes’ cartel and his contacts across Mexico.  From this point on it dawns on Lydia that she and Luca are the target of a nationwide search where police, social services, and other governmental institutions are in the pocket of the cartels.

Cummins graphically recounts Lydia and Luca’s journey as they leave Acapulco employing La Bestia, cargo trains, as they ride on top of the cars along with hundreds of other migrants from all over Central America and Mexico who are trying for a new life in the United States.  Cummins has produced a gripping story that in many ways is unconventional as she tells it from the viewpoint of the migrant experience.  Lydia suffers from a great deal of guilt as she sees herself as responsible for the death of her family and now all she can do revolves around saving Luca.  For years she pitied migrants, now she had become one.  Cummins’ portrayal is fraught with danger as Lydia and Luca must jump on to moving trains from overpasses, travel at night by themselves, and deal with “supposed” government migrant agents who are really predators who want to sell young girls and woman into sex slavery, rob them of their few possessions, and if they are of no use kill them.

The author creates a number of moving and important characters.  Soledad and Rebeca are beautiful sixteen and fourteen years old running from the dangers of Honduras who join with Lydia and Luca to form a quasi-family.  Along the way there are a number of people who help them, a doctor, priests, and peasant families all assist.  But there is danger around every corner.  The goal for Lydia and Luca is to reach an uncle in Denver, for Soledad and Rebeca they have an uncle in Maryland – however reaching those destinations seems almost impossible as they run into a number of nefarious characters along with those who want to help.  The question is who do you trust?

The US-Mexico border fence outside Lukeville, Arizona. Volunteers are said to have found hundreds of water gallons vandalised in a patch of Sonoran desert.

(The US-Mexico border fence outside Lukeville, Arizona. )

Cummins shifts the stories chronology a number of times to facilitate providing the background history of each of the main characters past.  As she does what takes place at the outset of the novel makes more and more sense, even in a convoluted way.  But the question must be asked, does the author reach her goal of making the reader aware of what is going on at our southern border, through the eyes of those who desperately want to escape their homeland for a better and safer life – that answer must be yes.*

*I would recommend Lauren Groff’s review of the book, “American Dirt Plunges Readers Into the Border Crisis,” New York Times, March 6, 2020 for an excellent analysis of what Cummins’ wanted to achieve and if she was able to do so.  It follows below:

‘American Dirt’ Plunges Readers Into the Border Crisis

By Lauren Groff

  • Published Jan. 19, 2020Updated March 6, 2020
  •  
  • AMERICAN DIRT
    By Jeanine Cummins

A few pages into reading Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, “American Dirt,” I found myself so terrified that I had to pace my house. The novel opens into a tense and vivid scene in Acapulco, the massacre of an entire Mexican family during a quinceañera cookout. The only survivors are a mother and her 8-year-old son, who must flee the narcos who spend the rest of the book hunting them down. When the boy’s mother tackles him so they can hide behind a shower wall in a bathroom, he bites his lip and a drop of blood splatters on the ground.

“Footsteps in the kitchen. The intermittent rattle of bullets in the house. Mami turns her head and notices, vivid against the tile floor, the lone spot of Luca’s blood, illuminated by the slant of light from the window. Luca feels her breath snag in her chest. The house is quiet now. The hallway that ends at the door of this bathroom is carpeted. Mami tugs her shirtsleeve over her hand, and Luca watches in horror as she leans away from him, toward that telltale splatter of blood. She runs her sleeve over it, leaving behind only a faint smear, and then pitches back to him just as the man in the hallway uses the butt of his AK-47 to nudge the door the rest of the way open.”

As the anxiety-riddled mother of an 8-year-old — as a person who has nightmares after every report of a mass shooting — I felt this scene in the marrow of my bones.

But another, different, fear had also crept in as I was reading: I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book. I could never speak to the accuracy of the book’s representation of Mexican culture or the plights of migrants; I have never been Mexican or a migrant. In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant. I was further sunk into anxiety when I discovered that, although Cummins does have a personal stake in stories of migration, she herself is neither Mexican nor a migrant.

Yet the narrative is so swift, I don’t think I could have stopped reading. I kept turning the pages, following Lydia and Luca, the mother and son, as they flee through Mexico, gathering a misfit band of other migrants. We learn that Lydia had been a bookstore owner, the wife of a journalist who infuriated the wrong people, and Luca a tiny prodigy of geography. They are hunted by Los Jardineros, the cartel that killed Lydia’s family. They are robbed by corrupt police officers. They learn how to ride La Bestia, the train on which hundreds of migrants die every year. They ultimately find themselves in Nogales, where they must cross the desert by foot at night with a coyote to arrive in the United States. Their painful and thirsty hours in the desert haunt me still.

I have been trained by my education, reading and practice of literary fiction to believe that good novels have some titration of key elements: obvious joy in language, some form of humor, characters who feel real because they have the strangenesses and stories and motivations of actual people, shifting layers of moral complexity and, ultimately, the subversion of a reader’s expectations or worldview. The world of “American Dirt” is too urgent for humor or for much character development beyond Lydia’s own. There is a single clear moral voice entirely on the side of the migrants, because the book’s purpose is fiercely polemical, which I would have understood even without the author’s note in which Cummins writes that she intended “to honor the hundreds of thousands of stories we may never get to hear,” so that people who are not migrants can “remember: These people are people.” Polemical fiction is not made to subvert expectations or to question the invisible architecture of the world; polemical fiction is designed to make its readers act in a way that corresponds to the writer’s vision.

All of this is to say that “American Dirt” contains few of the aspects that I have long believed are necessary for successful literary fiction; yet if it did have them, this novel wouldn’t be nearly as propulsive as it is. The book’s simple language immerses the reader immediately and breathlessly in the terror and difficulty of Lydia and Luca’s flight. The uncomplicated moral universe allows us to read it as a thriller with real-life stakes. The novel’s polemical architecture gives a single very forceful and efficient drive to the narrative. And the greatest animating spirit of the novel is the love between Lydia and Luca: It shines its blazing light on all the desperate migrants and feels true and lived.

“American Dirt” seems deeply aware of the discrepancies in power between the desperate people it describes, and both the writer who created it and the reader intended to receive it; the book offers itself as testament to the fact Cummins has worked to decrease this power differential. The major objection to cultural appropriation has always been about the abuse of power: inadequate research, halfhearted imagination and a lack of respect, the privileged assumption of the right to speak on behalf of people who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. In her afterword, Cummins relates that she did tremendous research, traveling extensively, interviewing many people, sitting with her material in utter seriousness for four years. Still, writers like Myriam Gurba have brought up concerns with the novel, saying that it trucks in stereotypes of Mexico as a place of danger while the United States is always envisioned as a place of safety, that these stereotypes could inadvertently give fuel to the far right in their contempt for Mexicans. At the same time, other Mexican-American and Latina writers are speaking out in support of the book, people like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez and Erika Sánchez.

It’s true that because this book’s aims are polemical, its intended audience is clearly not the migrants described in it, who — having already lived its harrowing experience — would have no need to relive it in fiction. “American Dirt” is written for people like me, those native to the United States who are worried about what is happening at our southern border but who have never felt the migrants’ fear and desperation in their own bodies. This novel is aimed at people who have loved a child and who would fight with everything they have to see that child be allowed a good future. Cummins’s stated intention is not to speak for migrants but to speak while standing next to them, loudly enough to be heard by people who don’t want to hear.

Fiction is the art of delicately sketching the internal lives of others, of richly and believably projecting readers into lives not their own. Writers can and should write about anything that speaks urgently to them, but they should put their work into the world only if they’re able to pull off their intentions responsibly. In the end, I find myself deeply ambivalent. Perhaps this book is an act of cultural imperialism; at the same time, weeks after finishing it, the novel remains alive in me. When I think of the migrants at the border, suffering and desperate, I think of Lydia and Luca, and feel something close to bodily pain. “American Dirt” was written with good intentions, and like all deeply felt books, it calls its imagined ghosts into the reader’s real flesh.

Lauren Groff’s most recent book is “Florida,” a story collection.

AMERICAN DIRT
By Jeanine Cummins
383 pp. Flatiron Books. $27.99.

Aerial view of Acapulco, Mexico An aerial view of Acapulco, Mexico.  rr Acapulco Stock Photo
(Acapulco)

MBS: THE RISE TO POWER OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN by Ben Hubbard

Mohammed bin Salman

(Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman)

Who is Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS?  Is he a young visionary reformer that he purported to be when he first came on the scene; the man who most probably ordered the death of Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi; or a rising dictator whose lack of experience has led to rash decisions like the war in Yemen which has greatly contributed to the destabilization of the volatile Middle East.  In Ben Hubbard’s new book MBS: THE RISE TO POWER OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN, we are treated to a deep dive into how he rose to power in Saudi Arabia and what his policies have done to impact the daily lives of the Saudi people and the countries that must deal with the Riyadh regime, it’s oil wealth, and its influence in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Hubbard, the Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times is very adept at digging deep into his subject area and developing astute observations.  At first, he provides the background history that resulted in the creation of the Saudi Arabian kingdom and the context of the Salman family in particular MBS whose actions always seem driven by how he could maximize his own personal power and influence.  Hubbard concentrates on the dynastic “pecking order” and how MBS, the sixth son of the twenty-sixth son of the kingdom’s founder would rise to power through luck and a series of deaths that unclogged the narrow path to achieve the position he coveted.  With the passing of a number of princes MBS would then develop a strong relationship with his father as they realized that they held many things in common. This renewed relationship was the cornerstone that MBS rode to power which should result in his succeeding his father on the throne in the not too distant future.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during an interview on Jan. 23, 2016, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

(Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during an interview on Jan. 23, 2016, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.)

In examining MBS’ life, Hubbard points out that he did little to make his mark before 2015, with no experience in the military, corporate policy, or knowledge how the United States functioned.  This would result in a number of miscalculations in how he thought Washington would view his adventurous policies.

Despite extensive experience in the region, Hubbard viewed Saudi Arabia as a black hole because of its murky politics and opaque society that was dominated by social conservatism, support for terrorists, and its Wahhabis beliefs encouraging the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Saudi influence appeared invisible, but Hubbard, a perceptive writer soon saw through what MBS was all about.  The book is an easy read and points are understandable for the layman as Hubbard relies on his extensive knowledge in the region, interviews with people from all walks of life, and traveling the country extensively learning about the pre and post-MBS period before his visas were terminated in 2018.

Hubbard carefully details the political machinations within the royal family focusing on MBS’ competition with Mohammed Bin Nayef, a moderate who was next in line to the throne ahead of him.  By 2016, MBS publicized his “Saudi Vision 2030” plan that was the core of his reform program which at the outset was his calling card to gain support.  Throughout this period the Obama administration remained skeptical when it came to MBS’ plans.  They felt he had all the ”buzz words” but little substance calling for economic reforms, but no political reform, privately arguing that he was too cocky despite the fact that his economic program made sense when he argued that his government suffered from an oil addiction.  MBS’ world view saw Iran as the major threat, along with the Moslem Brotherhood and the German intelligence service, the BND warned that the new assertive Saudi Arabia that MBS proposed could destabilize the region, i.e.; confrontational stance toward Iran, promoting proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.  However, MBS’ new approach called for improved relations with Israel.  MBS shared Israel’s view of Iran and its puppet, Hezbollah and admired the country’s technological and economic power.  MBS had never been totally supportive of the Palestinians, seeing them as an impediment to peace and in the not too distant future it is quite possible that an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement may be in the offering.

Jared Kushner

(Jared Kushner)

Hubbard introduces the reader to the contradictions of Wahhabism by focusing on a moderate cleric named al-Ghamdi Ahmed Qassam who confronted the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice which he believed went too far and was much too intrusive in the lives of the Saudi people.  Hubbard explores a number of examples ranging from the lack of woman’s rights, religious fealty, and support for the dynasty reflecting how absurd their actions were. 

Hubbard’s incisive analysis is on full display in discussing the life and impact of Jamal Khashoggi, a reporter who in his early career had links to Osama bin-Laden, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the mujahedeen who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  He believed that the Afghan revolt would reform Afghanistan, but he would be greatly disappointed particularly after 9/11 when he broke with al-Qaeda.  The later Arab Spring further encouraged Khashoggi’s belief in reform in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia which would soon be another major disappointment.  He continued to write about the Saudi Dynasty as a reporter for a number of Arab newspapers and the Washington Post, but his repeated criticisms of Saudi policies in Yemen and Saudi society led to his murder, a murder that Hubbard chronicles in detail despite the Crown Prince’s denials that he was responsible.

Hubbard does a good job digging up important information particularly the implications of an Iranian backed Wikileaks dump of the hacked Saudi Foreign Ministry.   Among the documents leaked was details concerning Saudi Wahabis missionary work worldwide training clerics and spreading the Saudi version of Islam.  Hubbard’s observations are quite astute as he states, “the funding was not just to promote Islam, but to promote the right kind of Islam, which meant undermining the wrong kind of Islam,” – stop the spread of Shiism in China, India, and Africa.  Further, Hubbard presents the actions and results of MBS’ disastrous policy of going after the Houthis in the Yemeni Civil War with almost full American support.  The devastation of Saudi bombing and resulting death and infrastructure loss is eye opening.  Hatred for Iran who supported the Houthi rebels was and remains the driving force for MBS.

(Ben Hubbard)

MBS’ obsession with Iran led to confrontation with the Obama administration who eventually grew tired of death and devastation in Yemen, his refusal to consider the civil rights of his people, and his opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal.  In perhaps the most important part of the narrative Hubbard recounts MBS’ anger at President Obama apart from his nuclear deal, and his lack of action in the Syrian Civil War.  As disagreement mounted MBS looked forward to the arrival of the Trump administration.

Hubbard’s remarks on the similarities between MBS and Jared Kushner are well thought out and he develops their similar ideologies and needs for power and wealth.  Hubbard refers to the “the two princelings” as the key to the new burgeoning relationship between the Trump administration and MBS’ government.  After eight years of sparring with Obama, Riyadh saw a breath of fresh air as issues like Iran, Yemen, arms deals, peace with Israel all seemed to come into greater focus as Trump, led by Kushner were open to whatever MBS offered, especially Saudi money entering the US economy, and kowtowing to Trump’s ego.  By March 2017, the depth of the MBS-Kushner relationship was clear as joint plans were being developed and implemented.

There are few new revelations in Hubbard’s book, but a useful synthesis of how ruthless MBS is and how he achieved power and developed a close relationship with the Trump administration.  The strength of the book is Hubbard’s thorough reporting and anonymous interviews of people inside the kingdom until the Saudi government stopped providing him visas in 2018.  As critical Hubbard is in detailing MBS’ rise and policies he does point out that women can now drive, and he did work to break through some of the barriers that many young Saudis found suffocating.  In April 2016 he striped the Commission of its powers and allowed certain forms of entertainment that previously had been banned.  But despite some progress, Hubbard warns that authoritarian regimes can do popular things, but when it comes to opposition it will not be tolerated.  Hubbard credits MBS for countering centuries of Saudi history by uncoupling the clerics from the monarchy.  “Under MBS, the states’ authority comes less from its claim to defending religious orthodoxy than from a sense of authoritarian nationalism.”

The question must be raised as to which direction MBS will go in the future, but part of that answer may lie in American presidential politics.  Trump has given him a free hand with little or no criticism especially when it came to Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment.  Hopefully, a Biden administration would demand greater accountability, if not MBS can continue to exercise his power with little restraint and based on his  age the United States will have to deal with him for years to come.


The Western media, foreign business and politicians will no longer be able to fete MBS as a great moderniser and visionary pulling his desert kingdom into the 21st century, writes Law [Reuters]

CLOSED CIRCLES by Viveca Sten




Sandhamn Island In The Stockholm Archipelago

(Sandhamn Island, Sweden)

Viveca Sten continues her Sandhamn murder series with her second installment CLOSED CIRCLES in which she continues her “softer” approach to the Swedish noir.  Unlike other authors, Sten chooses to mostly leave out the blood and gore and presents violent acts in a much more acceptable fashion, though the story does begin with a murder.  The victim Oscar Juliander, a womanizer and corrupt lawyer is shot as he stood by the boat’s steering column, the “Emerald Gin,” as he jockeyed for position at the Round Gotland Race.  Juliander was the first vice chairman of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club (RSYC) and a successful bankruptcy lawyer.  He was killed when the starting gun went off to begin the race which coincided with the bullet that resulted in his death.

Sten interestingly constructs her plot through a number of characters that appeared in STILL WATERS the most important of which are Detective Inspector Thomas Andreasson; Nora Linde, a lawyer and old friend of Andreasson; Carina Persson, an administrative assistant on the police force who was in a relationship with Andreasson; and Detective Inspector Margit Grankvist, Andreasson’s partner.  Sten introduces a series of new characters aside from Juliander which reflect the social status and lifestyles of RSYC members. They include Ingmar von Hahne, the yacht club secretary; Hans Rosensjoo, Chairman of the RSYC; and Martin Nyren, head of facilities for the RSYC among numerous others.

From the outset the dominant question revolves around who killed Oscar Juliander.  There are a number of interesting theories.  First, though married he had over thirteen mistresses over the years who he had made certain promises to.  Second, he was scheduled to replace Rosensjoo as Chairman of the RSYC, perhaps someone was jealous or had other plans.  Third, Juliander lived his life well beyond his financial means, i.e., how did he afford his lavish sailboat, leading to the supposition that the Russian mob may have been involved.  Fourth, Juliander was fond of drugs.  Fifth,  he was in possession of a crooked credit card linked to an offshore bank account that was difficult to penetrate, and lastly someone might have been focused on killing members of the RSYC’s board of directors.

For about two-thirds of the novel the plot line zeroes in on the investigation of Juliander’s death until a second killing takes place.  As you continue to read you expect some sort of defining moment, but Sten continues and strings you along.  To facilitate the story line Sten delves into the private life of Andreasson and Linde’s private lives in much more detail than in STILL WATERS.  For Andreasson his involvement with Carina Persson, fourteen years younger and the daughter of the Chief of Police puts him in a quandary, how to break it off and not anger anyone.  In Linde’s case her marital difficulties with her physician husband Henrik continues from the prequel as she inherits an old mansion that she wants to maintain, and her husband does not.  The marriage had difficulties before this new issue, and it is a focal point in the story as she turns to Andreasson for advice and he in turn looks to her for professional assistance in dealing with banking regulations to help solve the murders.

Namn: Viveca Sten.  Ålder: 60 år.  Bor: I en villa norr om Stockholm. Sommarhus i Sandhamn i Stock-holms skärgård.  Familj: Man och tre vuxna barn.  Gör: Är författare, juridisk rådgivare, styrelseledamot och föreläsare.
(Author, Viveca Sten)

Juliander’s vehicle for his wealth was a foreign credit card set up through a secret bank account.  The way banking regulations were set up, particularly in Liechtenstein it was difficult to obtain banking records.  Sten spends time explaining how these regulations impeded criminal investigations especially in certain countries.  It seemed the only way to penetrate this vehicle of corruption was if the issue revolved around terrorism or drugs.  In Juliander’s case it appeared that the protective wall was just about money laundering or other forms of accumulating wealth.

As the novel progresses Sten integrates the fears and angst of a number of characters, among them is Diana Soder who fears for her life because of a number of threatening e-mails.  Further the wives of RSYC board members have their own agendas as do a number of other somewhat shady characters.  Sten’s work flies by as you read as the translation from Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg is well done.  I enjoyed CLOSED CIRCLES and I hope to continue reading the series, with GUILTLESS, next up.

Sandhamn, Sweden Oh The Places You'll Go, Finland, San Francisco Skyline, Denmark, Touring, Norway, Sweden, Scandinavian, Semester

(Sandhamn Island, Sweden)

HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE by Jon Meacham

Martin Luther King Jr. with John Lewis at Mass Meeting in Nashville

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., center right, is escorted into a mass meeting at Fisk University along with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair John Lewis, left, and Lester Mckinnie, center, in Nashville, Tenn., in 1964.Bettmann Archive/Getty ImagesJuly 21, 

When John R. Lewis died recently, part of America’s conscience passed with him.  With all the turbulence, chaos, lies, and antipathy toward race that is endemic to the Trump administration it makes every day difficult.  A case in point was yesterday in Kenosha, WI when Trump refused to acknowledge the shooting of Jacob Blake by police and his subsequent paralysis or his support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the seventeen year old AR-15 carrying killer of two men.  For me this has led to despair as I do not see a way out of America’s current condition with a “serial igniter” when it comes to race. Trump and his acolytes blame everyone but their own policies and rhetoric for where we are as a country, and one can only imagine what will become of our racial divide should he be reelected.

Watching and listening to the outpouring of respect for Lewis by the American people because of his message of non-violence and hope for the next generation was always reassuring, but now he is gone.  However, the texture of his life’s work is on full display in Jon Meacham’s latest work, HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE.  Mecham’s latest is not a full scale biography like his previous subjects, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and George H.W. Bush, but a more nuanced rendering of the development of Lewis’ personal theology and his contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement dating to the 1950s.  Mecham’s new book is somewhat a sequel to his wonderful book THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR A BETTER ANGELS where he expresses an optimism for America’s future that I believe has been shattered by events in Portland, Kenosha, and the rise of the alt-right white supremacist movement in this country.  We are bombarded each day by bifurcated politics and have lost the leadership of a great man. 

martin luther king jr
Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In true Meacham fashion his newest narrative history relies on extensive research and the application of incisive analysis as the keystone to his examination of Lewis’ life work.  Mecham points out his goal was to present an appreciative account of the major moments of Lewis’ life in the Civil Rights Movement, “of the theological understanding he brought to the struggle and the utility of that vision as America enters the third decade of the twenty-first century amid division and fear.”  Mecham’s opening chapter entitled “Overture” returns the dying Lewis suffering from pancreatic cancer to Selma, AL last March to celebrate the events of fifty-five years ago at the Edmund Pettis Bridge where he was almost beaten to death by a white mob supported by police which frames the stage for his remarkable life’s work and accomplishments, but also his optimism and love in the face of hatred.

For Lewis growing up in the segregated world of Troy, AL the church become his comfort and restorative zone and from an incredibly young age he fashioned himself as a preacher.  He possessed a great imagination and quickening faith from biblical themes of resurrection, of exile, and deliverance shaped and suffused Lewis’ life from its earliest days.  Even as a boy he would preach to his “congregation of chickens” located in his “chicken coop”who he would minister to each day.  He would experience the vividness of the Jim Crow order and its segregation realizing how evil it was from an early age.  Once he was exposed to an integrated society at his Uncle’s home in Buffalo, he realized how difficult it was to reconcile the teachings of Jesus and segregation.

The watershed moment(s) of his life was his exposure and later meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King.  For the first time King’s words introduced a vision of “non-violence, religiously inspired protest, to a way of seeing the world in terms of bringing the temporal in tune with the timeless.”  Lewis was not concerned with the streets of heaven, but the streets of Montgomery and the way black and poor people were treated.

Stokely Carmichael speaking at Garfield High School, Seattle, 1967

There were a number of individuals who influenced Lewis’ intellectual development.  Apart from Dr. King, the “social gospel” concepts of Walter Rauschenbusch, the strategy of non-violence of Reverend James M. Lawson, along with the murder of Emmett Till, and the work of Rosa Parks all impacted him greatly.  Mecham does a workman like job weaving Lewis’ upbringing and later life within the context of American history.  His intellectual and emotional development applied to upheavals in America are clearly explored and provides a roadmap into what Lewis thought and what type of man he would become.

Lewis saw integration as a key step forward toward bringing the world into a closer tune with the gospel.  Meacham allows the reader to accompany Lewis on his life’s journey including experiencing the approach of peaceful protest met by violence, arrest and imprisonment in Nashville, TN, Oak Hill, SC, Jackson, MS, and Birmingham and Montgomery, AL. in the mid to late 1950s.  Along the way we meet the Reverend Ralph Abernathy of Birmingham’s First Baptist church, James farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Medgar Evers, Field Secretary for the NAACP before his murder by Klansmen in Jackson, Diane Nash, a key organizer of sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and of course the likes of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Conner, George Corley Wallace, and John Patterson.  There were also those that did not go along with Lewis’ “Beloved Community.”  Men like Stokely Carmichael who believed that systemic racism would not be defeated by non-violence – he favored radical action after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights bill that led to Lewis’ removal as Chair of the SNCC; and Malcom X who favored a more militant approach and denigrated some of Lewis’ ideas, though later on they came much closer to each other’s ideals.

The Missing Malcolm X

Malcom X

Meacham presents a balanced approach integrating theology, socio-economics, and political components that Lewis brought to the Civil Rights Movement providing insights into what made Lewis tick and made him such a social and political force of nature. 1963 would be a watershed for Lewis’ development and the Civil Rights Movement.  Meacham provides intricate details of events surrounding protests in Birmingham and Jackson culminating in the March on Washington on August 28th of that year where Lewis at age twenty-one was the youngest speaker.  At the age of twenty-three after his participation in the Freedom Rides and a stint at Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi prison, Lewis was elected Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  SNCC led the growing militancy of the Civil Rights Movement provoking violent resistance against their cause that pushed a reluctant federal government to embrace the cause of Black rights.  By 1965, the Johnson administration gained the passage of legislation prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and voting destroying the legal foundations of Jim Crow.  1965 was also the year that Lewis suffered a fractured skull at the hands of the Alabama State Police at the Edmund Pettis Bridge as they marched for voting rights in Selma, AL, an event known as Bloody Sunday.  SNCC leadership would pass from Lewis to Stokely Carmichael in 1966 whose Black Power slogan was the antithesis of Lewis’ vision of a nationwide integrated community. But the SNCC would flounder due to FBI harassment and internal disagreements and passed from the scene by the late 1960s.  By 1968 Lewis would join Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and after Kennedy’s assassination he would go on to be elected to Congress where he would serve for more than thirty years.

Much of Meacham’s work relies heavily on Lewis’ memoir, WALKING IN THE WIND and as the author points out he did not set out to write a full scale biography.  Meacham reminds readers that if they wanted a full scale biography they must wait until Rutgers historian David Greenberg completes his own work.  But in the interim, Meacham’s work should hold the fort for those with an interest in a remarkable man.

John Lewis. Courtesy High Museum.

(John R. Lewis, booked for one of his many arrests)

STILL WATERS by Viveca Sten

Sandhamn, Stockholm Archipelago

(Sandhamn Island)

Sandhamn Island was a picturesque spot across the water from Stockholm.  It possessed an interesting maritime history and how it evolved into a tourist spot mostly for the affluent.  It was a calm location where people left their doors unlocked and people went about their lives in a considerate relation to their neighbors.  During the spring and summer, it served as a retreat for visitors from city and for the most part nothing out of the ordinary occurred except for seasonal boating regattas.  The islands off Stockholm serves as the backdrop for Viveca Sten’s Sandhamn murder series.  The first STILL WATERS translated by Marlaine DeLargey is the first installment of eight other volumes is a cleverly conceived murder mystery.

The plot builds upon several characters led by Inspector Thomas Andreasson, a fourteen-year veteran of the Nacka municipality violent crime unit.  Andreasson’s private life is a sad one in that one night he and his wife found their three-month-old daughter dead in her crib.  The trauma and emotional strain would lead to a divorce and a very lonely life for the former married couple.  Next, is Nora Linde, a lawyer, and a childhood friend of Andreasson whose husband is a doctor in Stockholm and refuses to consider any change to their living situation when she is offered a promotion creating a great deal of tension.  Lastly is Margit Grankvist a close colleague of Anreasson and a very sharp individual who possesses a very analytical mind.

Sten’s writing is clear and engaging and it seems that each time the story begins to make sense she adds another twist, and the police have no idea concerning the murders that have taken place on the island and have no clue who might be the next victim.  No one on the island would be leaving their doors unlocked in the foreseeable future.  The beautiful island experiences two deaths that seem related.  The first is Krister Berggren, a very lonely man, who is discovered in a fishnet and rope around his waist.  He had been in contact with his cousin Kicki Berggren who also turns up dead.  Is it a coincidence or is it something nefarious going on?  Soon a third body turns up found by Nora Linde and it seems that the victim, Johnny Almhut had been with Kicki the last night of her life.

The police have a hard time making the connection among the three victims as Anreasson uses a methodical approach to the investigation.  Step by step building upon information that he and his team come across they get closer and closer to solving the murders, then it appears out of the blue, Stern shifts the story line in another direction.  She introduces the possibility that a smuggling operation from Systemet, a wine manufacturing company that had been in the Strindberg family business dating to the 19th century.

When Anreasson has difficulties making progress he turns to his childhood friend Nora Linde. Together, they attempt to unravel the riddles left behind by two mysterious outsiders—while trying to make sense of the difficult twists their own lives have taken since the shared summer days of their youth.  The plot will not keep you on the edge of your seat until the last chapter or two, but as it progresses Stern has the knack to draw you in without the blood and gore of other murder mysteries.

Sten’s novels have been made into an extraordinarily successful television series that is available on Netflix which I highly recommend.  After reading STILL WATERS I look forward to the next in the series CLOSED CIRCLES which continues the professional relationship of Anreasson and Linde in a manner that is not the typical Swedish “noir,” but more of a settled and less violent approach.

Sandhamn, Sweden Oh The Places You'll Go, Finland, San Francisco Skyline, Denmark, Touring, Norway, Sweden, Scandinavian, Semester

(Sandhamn Island)

TO START A WAR: HOW THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION TOOK AMERICA INTO IRAQ by Robert Draper

Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Photo is in the Public Domain.

(Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney)

In reassessing the results of the Iraq War one thing is clear, the United States made a terrible error invading Saddam Hussein’s kingdom in 2003.  If one looks objectively at the current state of the Middle East one can honestly conclude that the ultimate victor was Iran.  Iraq was a state that was held together by an authoritarian regime that dealt with Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.  Once the war brought “shock and awe,” or devastation the country split apart into civil war eventually allowing Iran to ally with Shiite forces and influence its government, fostered the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), contributed to the Syrian civil war, reinforced Turkey’s goal of destroying the Kurds, and diminished the American presence and reputation in the region.  One could argue that looking back after fifteen years that the mess that was created has pushed Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, particularly the United Arab Emirates closer to Israel as they have a common enemy in Iran, but that analysis does not undo a disastrous war.  The war itself is the subject of an excellent new book by Robert Draper, a writer at large for the New York Times, entitled TO START A WAR: HOW THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION TOOK AMERICA INTO IRAQ.

The book is a detailed overview of how the United States wounded by the 9/11 attacks sought revenge against the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring al-Qaeda, but not satiated despite destroying the Taliban, the Bush administration almost immediately sought further retribution against Saddam Hussein who they tried to link the attacks on the World Trade Center.  The decision making process that is presented is often convoluted and mired in a fantasy world of polluted intelligence as men like Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary, Doug Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, I. Lewis Scooter Libby, Cheney’s Chief of Staff, and ultimately President Bush pushed the United States into war against Iraq.  What emerges are CIA and other intelligence analysts bending and twisting intelligence to fit their preconceived notions to create an acceptable causus belli against Iraq.  There are a number of heroes in this process who tried to stop the roller coaster of bad intelligence and personal vendettas, but in the end, they failed leading to the most disastrous war in American history.  A war we are still paying for.

Wolfowitz, Paul

(Paul Wolfowitz)

Draper leaves no stone unturned as he pieces together almost every aspect of the decision making process that led to war.  Relying on over 300 interviews of the participants in the process, newly released documentation, command of the memoirs and secondary material, and his own experience in the region, Draper has written the most complete study of the Bush administration’s drive towards war.  Draper traces the ideological and emotional development of the participants, some of which longed to finish off the Gulf War of 1991 that they believed was incomplete, others who possessed a visceral hatred of Saddam Hussein, and others who saw an opportunity to foster a revolt that in the end would bring about American control of Iraqi oil.

The picture that emerges is a cabal led by Cheney and Rumsfeld who would accept nothing less than the removal of Saddam; a National Security Advisor, Condi Rice who was in over her head in dealing with bureaucratic infighting; Colin Powell, a Secretary of State who opposed the neo-cons in their push for war, but remained the loyal soldier; CIA Director George Tenet, a Clinton hold over trying to prove his loyalty though he seems to have known better, and a president who thrived on his “gut,” a version of human emotion and anger for an Iraqi attempt at assassinating his father.  All of these characters are flawed but each had an agenda which they refused to take no for an answer.

Douglas J. Feith

(Douglas Feith)

What is clear from Draper’s presentation is that before 9/11, despite repeated warnings from Richard Clarke and the intelligence community the Bush administration did not take the terrorist threat seriously with people like Wolfowitz arguing that CIA analysts were giving Osama Bin-Laden too much credit.  The administration ignored a combined CIA-FBI brief of August 6, 2001 warning that “Bin-Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.”  Once the attack took place the US responded with Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001 and in a short time 27 of 30 Afghani provinces were liberated from the Taliban.  As the situation in Kabul was evolving, Rumsfeld was already switching the Pentagon’s focus to Iraq.  Bush, now saw himself as a wartime leader with a newly found cause and for the first time in his career equated his situation with other wartime Presidents.  By January 2002 American assets were already being transferred to Iraq.

As the narrative evolves it is obvious that Bush’s national security team is one on dysfunction with back biting, disagreements, and power grabs.  It is clear that Rumsfeld and Cheney who pushed for war disliked and disagreed with Powell, who wanted to work through the United Nations.  Powell reciprocated his feelings toward them and their cohorts, Wolfowitz, Feith, and Libby.  Draper offers a number of chapters on these principle players and delves into their belief systems and their role in developing war plans to overthrow Saddam.  The specific evidence that decision making relied upon was fourfold.  First, a senior al-Qaeda operative, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured by the United States and after failing to reveal anything of value he was turned over to the Egyptians for further interrogation.  After being coerced by the Egyptians Al-Libi would confess that two al-Qaeda recruits had been sent to Baghdad in 12/2001 to be trained in building and deploying chemical and biological weapons.  Later this “evidence” was deemed to be a fabrication by the CIA and DIA.  Second, supposedly on April 9, 2001, one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi diplomat in Prague, however after careful vetting this too turned out to be false.  Third was Rafid Ahmed al-Takari, nicknamed “curveball” by German intelligence claimed to be an Iraqi chemical engineer at a plant that designed more than 6 mobile biological labs.  Fourth, Cheney believed that Saddam had agreed to purchase 500 tons of yellow cake uranium per year from the government of Niger.  Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, the spouse of CIA analyst Valerie Plame was sent to investigate, and he concluded there was no substance to the charge.

(Scooter Libby)

The dysfunction in planning for war is obvious when Bush inquired if there was a National Intelligence Estimate for the proposed invasion. Tenet responded there was none, and he had 19 days to create one a process that normally took between four months to a year to compile.  The result was a NIE that played fast and loose with intelligence and it pulled in anything that remotely was credible to make its case for war.  The problem according to Draper is that Bush had decided in August 2002 to go to war, and the NIE of October 1, 2002 had to come up with a justification for Bush’s decision.  The final NIE consisted of badly outdated intelligence which was often fabricated.  This is not the only example of a threadbare approach to intelligence.  Once Powell, because of his gravitas and reputation was chosen to address the United Nations on February 5, 2003, a speech designed to augment a coalition and the support of the international body the die was already cast.  The problem was that the evidence that Powell used in his speech, i.e., curveball and other improbable theories provoked disdain from certain American allies and the Arab world in general.  Powell plays an important role in Draper’s narrative as he conjectures what might have occurred if the Secretary of State had refused to go along with the push toward war.  However, as many other authors have offered, Powell was a military man whose loyalty was to the chain of command, so he was coopted.  In the end the neocons were hell bent on war and regime change and Powell’s reputation visa vie Cheney, Libby, Feith and Wolfowitz there was probably little else he could do.

If planning for war was disjointed, planning for post-war Iraq was a disaster.  Rumsfeld argued “we don’t do windows,“ meaning nation building.  The Pentagon refused to make serious plans once Saddam was overthrown.  Cheney and his people argued that the Iraqi people would greet American soldiers as heroes and with a minimum of American aid could oversee their own adoption of democracy.  On the other hand, Powell and his staff argued that an occupation force would be needed probably for two to three years.  A number of sketchy characters from the Iraqi exile community emerges, particularly Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress who had not been in Iraq for decades whose machinations behind the scenes finally led to Bush’s refusal to support him as Iraq’s version of “Hamid Karzai.”  The lack of American planning or arrogance would foster a complete disaster once the American occupation was created.

Colin Powell

(Colin Powell)

If one wonders why Draper’s book should be read now Joshua Geltzer argues that it clear that “he exposes the key points about the relationship among the American president, the executive branch he leads and the intelligence he receives that burn as fiercely today as they did almost two decades ago.”*  From the evidence that Draper offers the decision for war rested with George W. Bush.  As the self-styled “decider” it was Bush as president not his cabinet and other minions who bare the ultimate responsibility for war and what occurred after the fighting ended.  Obviously, the politicization of intelligence played a major role in Bush’s decision making.  Draper’s account is extremely important , it is one “to study not just to understand a war whose repercussions loom large given the Americans, Iraqis and others who ‘eve perished – and given the through-line from Bush’s decision to the continuing American presence in Iraq and the persistent threat from terrorists there and in Syria in the wake of the US invasion.”*

It should come as no surprise that regime change is a dangerous undertaking.  All one has to do is look at Libya and Iraq.  As President Trump contemplates through his tweets about regime change in Iran, perhaps he should read Draper’s narrative before he makes a decision that would be disastrous for the American people.

*Joshua Geltzer, “Behind the Iraq War, a Story of Influence, Intelligence and Presidential Power,” Washington Post, August 21, 2020.

(Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney)

 

DEMAGOGUE: THE LIFE AND LONG SHADOW OF SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY by Larry Tye

WASHINGTON, D.C.--May 5, 1954--Sen. Joseph McCarthy holds a copy of a letter under discussion at today's McCarthy-Army hearing session. A committee attorney quoted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as saying the letter produced by McCarthy yesterday was not a true copy of one written by Hoover to the Army. McCarthy this morning stressed that the letter he produced was verbatim with the FBI report, except for deletion of security information. (AP WIREPHOTO.)
WASHINGTON, D.C.–May 5, 1954–Sen. Joseph McCarthy holds a copy of a letter under discussion at today’s McCarthy-Army hearing session. A committee attorney quoted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as saying the letter produced by McCarthy yesterday was not a true copy of one written by Hoover to the Army. McCarthy this morning stressed that the letter he produced was verbatim with the FBI report, except for deletion of security information. (AP WIREPHOTO.) (AP WIREPHOTO /)

From the outset, Larry Tye in his new biography, DEMAGOGUE: THE LIFE AND LONG SHADOW OF SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY states that his book is about America’s love affairs with bullies, and certainly Joseph McCarthy fits that category.  At a time where the concept of a “political bully” seems to be on every pundit’ lips in covering Donald Trump it is useful to explore the life and tactics employed by the epitome of that description.  Confronted by Trump’s daily “bullying tactics,” many of which passed on to the president from McCarthy through Roy Cohn, political commentators have been exploring how the American people elected Trump and how least 30-40% of electorate still supports him no matter what he does or says.  People wonder how we arrived at our current state of partisanship, but if one digs into American political history, the McCarthy era seems to be an excellent place to start as the likes of Roy Cohn and others seem to dominate the political landscape.  If one follows the progression from Huey Long, McCarthy, George Wallace, Newt Gingrich on to Trump and examine their characteristics today’s political landscape becomes into sharper focus.

What separates Tye’s biography from those that came before, including David Oshinsky’s superb A CONSPIRACY SO IMMENSE: THE WORLD OF JOSEPH McCARTHY and Thomas C. Reeves’ THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOSEPH McCARTHY was his access to his subjects unscripted writings and correspondence, military records, financial files, and box after box of professional and personal documents that Marquette University made available for the first time after almost sixty years.  As he has done in previous books like SATCHEL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AN AMERICAN LEGEND, and BOBBY KENNEDY: THE MAKING OF A LIBERAL ICON, Tye examines all aspects of his subject and delivers an unquestionable command of primary and secondary materials. To his credit Tye makes a valiant attempt at providing a balanced approach to McCarthy’s life and politics.  No matter how hard he tried Tye has set himself a difficult task when like others he uncovers all the lies and bombast, but also his subject’s personal charm.  He concludes that McCarthy was “more insecure than we imagined, more undone by his boozing, more embracing of his friends and vengeful towards foes and more sinister.”

Near the end: Senator Joseph McCarthy with Roy Cohn in 1954.

(Near the end: Senator Joseph McCarthy with Roy Cohn in 1954.)

There are numerous examples in the book where Tye presents a McCarthy action and tries to give him the benefit of the doubt that previous biographers did not.  For example, in addressing the facts and myths that followed McCarthy his military record stands out when one tries to be objective.  “Tail Gunner Joe,” McCarthy’s chosen nickname actually volunteered for combat operations in the Pacific Theater during World War II, when he could have remained a “desk jockey” as an intelligence officer.  McCarthy would serve for a year before he requested a discharge and achieved a number of medals as newly released military record reflect, but despite his bravery it did not stop him from repeatedly embellishing and lying about his service record.  In addition, he engaged in political activity while in the Marines, trying to keep a political seat warm when he returned to Wisconsin which was “verboten” in the military.  Another example deals with the Malmedy Massacre at the outset of the Battle of the Bulge as the German SS murdered over 350 American POWs and 100 Belgian civilians.  As a new senator McCarthy needed an issue to enhance his political credentials so he defended the Germans in the Senate Sub-Committee, which he was only an observer arguing that they were only following orders and were coerced and beaten by American prosecutors, in addition to opposing “retributive justice.”  McCarthy’s real motivation was the preponderance of German voters in Wisconsin and some would argue that there was a strong element of anti-Semitism on his part as part of his belief system.

Tye correctly points out that McCarthy’s antics during the Malmedy hearings was “just a warm-up act.”  As McCarthy’s behavior surrounding the massacre muddied the historical record as it provided a glimpse into his senatorial future as he would employ a scorched earth strategy on any issue, he became involved in.  He fell for conspiracies and always elevated charges that he was spoon fed.  He would enhance his skills in dealing with the press, providing them with phrasing that they sought, and manipulate them in order to disseminate his views to his constituents.  The bombast, bullying, and lies which would later become his trademark were all present during the Malmedy investigation.

(A young Donald Trump and Roy Cohn)

One of Tye’s best chapters, entitled “An Ism is Born,” follows the pattern that McCarthy exhibited as a circuit judge, his military career, and his Senate campaign in 1946.  Tye provides exceptional detail and command of all aspects of McCarthy’s motivations and the creation of his February 1950 speech in Wheeling, W. Va. When he announced that there were 205 communists serving in the State Department.  Tye follows his disingenuous approach using innuendo as his primary tactic despite the advice of Congressman Richard M. Nixon to cease and desist this approach.  The Lincoln Day Dinner, the occasion for the speech was a natural extension of McCarthy’s playbook that he used up until that time and would now enhance as he discovered the “Communism” issue which would dominate the remainder of his political career.

Tye does a nice job providing examples of demagogues in American history.  He highlights men like Ben Tillman, Father Coughlin, Huey Long whose footsteps McCarthy easily fit into.  Tye also traces anti-communism in American history beginning with Woodrow Wilson’s administration,  the Palmer Raids, all part the Red Scare following World War I.  While tracing this theme Tye includes the Truman administration which instituted loyalty oaths and a crackdown on suspected communists.  With the House Un-American Activities Committee chaired by Martin Dies after World War II, the climate was set for the likes of McCarthy to latch on to this issue to base a reputation.  Congress would underestimate McCarthy and failed to measure the nation’s temperature.  It was not only kooks who succumbed to communist conspiracies, but patriotic organizations.  No matter how few facts McCarthy presented, how many lies he told, and how many old accusations he recycled, Congress did not learn the futility of taking on a man of “wit, whimsy, and mendacity” who when forced into a corner would transform himself into a pit bull or lamb, depending what the situation called for.

Tye carefully examines McCarthy’s approach to investigations.  Once elected in 1946 he usurps publicity and actions from legitimate Senate committees with false accusations against “supposed communists.”  It is in 1952 once Republicans gain a Senate majority and McCarthy gains the Chair of the Government Operations Committee and the Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations that he is unleashed.  He could now hold his own hearings, summon witnesses, issue subpoenas, publish findings, and bully anyone who tried to thwart him.  Tye describes how McCarthy would employ closed committee sessions in order to coerce witnesses with his tactics.  He would bully anyone who invoked their Fifth Amendment rights marking people as guilty even if something had occurred earlier in life, or a friend might have voice communist sympathies, etc.  In his committee innocence had to be proven.  His smears were designed to convict anyone who came before the committee and have them implicate others, much like a 1930s Stalinist Show Trials.  It is interesting that it took until 2003 to unseal the records of McCarthy’s executive sessions.

McCarthy seemed to go after just about anyone.  The Voice of America designed to confront Soviet propaganda in Eastern Europe was a major target; as was the Government Printing Office; overseas libraries and information centers; the poet Langston Hughes; and McCarthy even accused the State Department of book burnings.  McCarthy could not have conducted these hearings and investigations without his pit bull, Roy Cohn.  Tye delves into the role of Cohn who becomes McCarthy’s alter ego.  He joined McCarthy’s committee as Chief Counsel with little legal experience.  He used hearings as if they were a grand jury and presumed anyone who testified would crack under the right amount of pressure.  As Tye points out, “to Cohn, the ideal witness to drag from a private to a public grilling was one who’d grovel, stonewall, or otherwise ensure front-page headlines.”  Cohn later would become Donald Trump’s mentor and there is a remarkable similarity in their tactical approach to any given situation.

McCarthy and Cohn’s tactics fostered a high price.  In a chapter entitled “The Body Count,” Tye delineates a number of deaths related to being persecuted by McCarthy and company.  The suicides of Raymond Kaplin, an engineer at the Voice of America, former Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, Jr, and former Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt, Jr.; and Don Hollenbeck, a CBS reporter.  Is it fair to lay these deaths at the feet of McCarthy, one cannot really say, but what one can say is that he created the climate that pushed many people over the edge, and the number of lives destroyed and/or were impacted is incalculable.  The lives and careers of people like Reed Harris, professional diplomats known as the “China Hands” had their careers destroyed, as were many who were blacklisted in academia and the entertainment business.

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy with G. David Schine and Roy M. Cohn.

(G. David Shine, Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy)

 

Perhaps the most famous or for that matter infamous case was McCarthy’s actions against the US Army.  Known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings Tye recounts how even President Eisenhower, who had tolerated McCarthy for three years had enough.  Tye delves into how  Eisenhower would rage against McCarthy in private but enabled him in public.  Eisenhower had a number of opportunities to deal with McCarthy but from 1952-1954 he did little to speak out or take concrete action.  McCarthy could not have been as successful as he was without enablers like Eisenhower; Texas millionaires like Clint Murchison, H. L. Hunt, and Roy Cullen; Scott McLeod, the administrator of the State Department’s Bureau of Inspection who fed McCarthy material; FBI head, J. Edgar Hoover who did the same; politicians like John F. Kennedy, Robert Taft, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson all went along with McCarthy; the Catholic Church; and finally the American people – all facilitated McCarthy’s reign of terror. Tye’s recounting of the Army-McCarthy hearings is riveting and highlights the inequities of McCarthy’s system and how these inequities finally brought him down.

A number of characters stand out in the narrative.  Tye engages each in his analytical and personal style particularly Edward R. Murrow who stood up to McCarthy publicly on his television program.  Tye explores David Shine, ranging from his admiration of McCarthy and Roy Cohn to his own privileged view of himself and his responsibilities.  Jean McCarthy, the senator’s wife’s role as confidant and partner in exploiting communism is carefully evaluated.  Anita Lee Moss, a victim of McCarthy and her courageous stand against his committee is told in detail.  These are but a few that Tye incorporates into his narrative, they along with countless others were the victims of a paranoid and insecure man.

Tye has written the definitive account of Joseph McCarthy’s personal and public life.  Tye had documents availed to him that other authors did not making his account complete and enhanced by the author’s careful exploration of the important issues and personalities of the period.  Tye’s biography drips with comparisons of President Trump and hopefully the American people will digest their similarities and take the appropriate action on election day.

FALLOUT: THE HIROSHIMA COVERUP AND THE REPORTER WHO REVEALED IT TO THE WORLD by Lesley M.M. Blume

Hiroshima
The A-bomb Dome, which survived the 1945 atomic bombing on Hiroshima. 
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

On August 6, 2020, the world commemorated the dropping of a “10,000 pound uranium bomb” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  The weapon referred to as the atomic bomb unleashed the nuclear age and brought about the threat to human civilization.  According to journalist John Hersey the use of the bomb has kept the world safe from its use again because of the memories of the devastation unleashed on Hiroshima.

At the outset, the American government was open about the use of the weapon as President Harry Truman stated it was by far the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.  As time went on Washington began to clamp down on information circulating as to the effects of the bomb on the city’s landscape and its people.  Between 100-280,000 people may have died by the end of 1945, but the actual figure and its effects on future generations will never be known.  The government tried to convince its people that the atomic bomb was a conventional superbomb and ignored its radioactive aftermath.  The US military limited journalist access to the area to control its message, but reporter John Hersey was able to make his way to the site leading to his 30,000 word essay printed in the New Yorker magazine which ultimately became a book that millions of people have read since its publication in 1946.  The story of how Hersey gained access to Hiroshima and the impact of his writing is the back story of Lesley M.M. Blume’s provocative new book, FALLOUT: THE HIROSHIMA COVERUP AND THE REPORTER WHO REVEALED IT TO THE WORLD.

Leslie Groves.jpg(General Leslie M. Groves)

If the reader wonders why there was so little outrage over the use of the bomb one must keep in mind the need for revenge because of Pearl Harbor.  In addition, a war that produced the Holocaust, the Japanese rape of China, the eastern front, all contributed to the carnage on such an unprecedented scale that the public began to suffer from what Blume terms “atrocity exhaustion.”  According to Blume, Hersey’s goal was to drive home the gruesome reality of what occurred in Hiroshima and “create a work that would help restore a shared sense of humanity,” a difficult task considering the demonization and hatred that existed among the combatants and the societies that supported them.  The fallout from Hersey’s article was an embarrassment for the US government, but once the cover-up was blown, the reality of nuclear war would now be permanent.

Blume’s work is an important contribution to the literature that exists on the dropping of the bomb.  Hersey’s view of the bomb changed after the second one was dropped on Nagasaki.  The first he could rationalize, not the second which he saw as barbaric.  Almost immediately the US government began to limit information and journalistic access as reporters were forced into what Wilfred Burchett of the Daily Express described as a “press ghetto.”

Blume focuses a great deal on the role of the New Yorker magazine under the stewardship of its founder and editor, Harold Ross and the magazine’s deputy editor William Shawn and how they supported Hersey’s desire to go to Hiroshima and report on the human element of the bombing’s aftermath.  Providing important biographical information of each, Blume does an excellent job recounting their motivations, skill set, and ultimate triumph in eluding military censorship to bring the story to the public.

John Hersey at his desk, pen in hand, in the office at TIME. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

(John Hersey)

Blume’s research is impeccable as she quotes General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, particularly his commentary that dying from radiation poisoning was not a bad way to die.  Comparing Hersey and Groves’ views is a useful tool that Blume employs throughout the book. Hersey’s approach to his reporting is based on a book by Thornton Wilder, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY which detailed the lives of five people killed in Peru when a rope suspension bridge over a canyon broke.  After reading the book, Hersey admired how Wilder tracked the lead-up to the accident and how these people were led to that tragic moment.  Hersey’s research focused on how to connect with actual human faces; those belonging to a struggling widow and her three children, a young clerk, two doctors, a priest, and a pastor.  Hersey was lucky enough to establish relationships with Father Superior Hugo Lassalle, Father Wilhelm Kleinnsorge, and Reverend Kiyoshi Taminto upon his arrival in Hiroshima who introduced him to the 25-50 survivors he interviewed during his two weeks in the city.

Blume delves into the psychological component of the survivors in detail as they were confronted with the “atomic disease” that the bomb unleashed.  Hersey employed Japanese studies in addition to his own research as he avoided MacArthur’s attempts at repressing information.  An excellent source to consult on this aspect of the tragedy is Robert Jay Lifton’s classic, DEATH IN LIFE:SURVIVORS OF HIROSHIMA which describes Lifton’s work in Japan after the bombing.

The narrative brings the reader inside the New Yorker editorial room as Shawn and Ross edited the article and developed a strategy as to how it should be released.  Blume’s portrayal of Henry Luce of Time is priceless as the owner of the magazine could not tolerate Hersey, who at one time was his prodigal son and the New Yorker’s success.

Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities in 1945
Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

Perhaps one of her best chapters, entitled “Aftermath” is eye opening as it portrays the military’s reaction to publication in the August 31, 1946 edition of the New Yorker and the lengths they went to counter act its influence as its cover-up was now in the open.  Former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson penned a rebuttal, and President Truman went out of his way to justify the weapon’s use as the United States now had a “Hiroshima” image problem.  The US went from a global savior to a genocidal superpower in the eyes of many.  Despite the government’s counter arguments, Hersey had connected atomic war with actual human faces.  Once the magazine was released it sold out worldwide as did the book that was also published, fostering forever doubt as to whether the bomb should have been dropped.

Blume’s narrative is presented with an even prose that allows the reader to digest Hersey’s daring efforts and ultimate success in producing one of the most important books of the 20th century.  It is a story that has remained in the background for decades, and to Blume’s credit it has now been brought to the public’s attention.  FALLOUT provides powerful insights into the length’s governments will go to create a story that covers up real events and the means employed by a reporter to unearth the truth.

Hiroshima
(The A-Bomb Dome)

MAKE RUSSIA GREAT AGAIN by Christopher Buckley

Reince Priebus, John Kelley, Mark Mulvaney, Mark Meadows and now Herb Nutterman, all Chiefs of Staff for President Donald Trump.  All are real, except for Nutterman who is the central character of Christopher Buckley’s hilarious political satire entitled, MAKE RUSSIA GREAT AGAIN. If one follows the office of Chief of Staff during the Trump administration it appears to be a merry go round or a game of “whack a mole” as they resign, are fired, or only plain fade away.  In Buckley’s rendition of the office and the official who heads it the American people are faced with a somewhat comical situation; however, it reflects a presidency that is chaotic and exists to meet the personal needs of the president which is not humorous at all.

(President Trump)

Buckley’s plot, apart from his review of Trump’s, how shall we say idiosyncrasies that have led to an uncontrolled pandemic, racial unrest, an economy collapsing, along with his constant tweeting of “alternative facts/reality” is quite simple.  It appears that the CIA has a computer that hacked the Russian reelection of Vladimir Putin producing a victory for the Communist candidate Anatoli Zitkin.  The CIA computer program, entitled Operation Placid Reflux is designed to respond in kind to anyone or organization that interferes with an American election, hence the Communist victory.  Trump’s intelligence community and political staff refuse to tell the president because of how he might react.  A second plot develops around a Russian oligarch, Oleg Pishinsky whose business manufactures Novichok, a nerve agent designed to kill people, which Buckley affectionally describes as “oil of Oleg.”  It appears Pishinsky has a thumb drive that dates back to the 2013 Miss Universe contest which Trump attended and personally “examined” each of the eighteen contestants.  Later when one of the women complained it seems that “oil of Oleg” was used in her demise.  When the contents of the thumb drive are leaked, Nutterman and company come clean with the president who comes up with a new slogan, “Keep America Hard.”

Buckley possesses a keen sense of humor, at times a bit understated, at times somewhat sarcastic, but always funny.  Humor is a gift to all in our current Covid-19 world and perhaps Washington politicians might want to consult Buckley’s narrative as a means of breaking the political ice and make a real attempt to address the nation’s problems, rather than play the ego games that are a detriment to the American people.

Putin_shirtless

Buckley’s commentary concerning Trump match the descriptions offered by people no longer serving in the administration.  Buckley describes Trump’s behavior during intelligence briefings or other important meetings as simply having no patience. “He liked his briefings short, crisp, and to the point, and above all, without briefing books or even short memos.  Mr. Trump’s eyes had some sort of membrane that caused them to glaze over.  He attributed this to his ‘lightning-fast brain,’ not to attention deficit disorder.  The one exception was if someone was praising him.”

Buckley introduces numerous characters which are easily identified.  Katie Borgia-O’Reilly is obviously Kelly Ann Conway; Senator Squiggly Lee Biskitt of South Carolina is Lindsay Graham; Stephen Miller is Stefan Nacht von Nebel the author of THE FINAL SOLUTION TO THE MEXICAN PROBLEM;  Secretary of the Treasury Minutian is actually Steven Mnuchin; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is President Attajurk; Vice-President Mike Pants; Beula Puckle-Peters as Sarah Sanders; Cricket Singh, former UN Ambassador and governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley; Seamus Colonnity, alias Sean Hannity; and of course Jored and Ivunka, one of which “looked like his own Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.”  Others whose real names are used include Attorney-General William Barr, Vladimir Putin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Paul Manafort.

As each character is “poked,” it should cause the reader to shake one’s head.  An excellent example is the description of a state dinner for Turkish President Attajurk at the White House.  Kim Kardashian, of Armenian descent is seated on his right, and First Lady Melania Trump seated on his left leans over and asks about Kim’s Armenian heritage leading to an uncomfortable situation with the Armenian Genocide as backdrop.  Attajurk is repulsed and leaves, returning immediately to Ankara while Melania smiles.

At times, the book reads like a Kurt Vonnegut novel taking place in “Cloud Cuckoo Land.”  Be that as it may it is worth a quick read to make one laugh, which most doctors agree is the best medicine for people who suffer from excessive stress – which we all seem to be experiencing in our current environment.  The book has its absurdities, but too many of them are too close to reality, but at least Buckley has made politics funny again!