HOAX: DONALD TRUMP, FOX NEWS, AND THE DANGEROUS DISTORTION OF TRUTH by Brian Stelter


Sean Hannity
(Sean Hannity)

Never in the history of American politics has a national news organization been an extension of a political party or president.  This may seem to be a harsh observation but when one examines President Donald Trump’s twitter feed, public statements, or speeches it appears at times to reflect what is presented on Fox News.  If one were to listen to the commentary of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs, or the hosts of Fox and Friends among many others one can only imagine if the president is parroting them, or they are parroting him.  Amidst a pandemic that has killed over 206,000 Americans President Trump spends a good part of his day watching Fox News.  Since we live in such precarious times it would be interesting to know how this situation evolved, whether it is in fact true, and what are the implications for American democracy.  Thankfully, CNN’s Reliable Sources anchor, Brian Stelter’s new book, HOAX: DONALD TRUMP, FOX NEWS, AND THE DANGEROUS DISTORTION OF TRUTH has taken on this task.

The title of Stelter’s book, HOAX is very apropos.  It’s Donald Trump’s new favorite word.  He fears Covid-19 makes him look weak, something his ego cannot accept.  Instead of fulfilling his constitutional duty to protect the American people he categorizes the pandemic as a hoax, with Sean Hannity as his chief enabler, some referring to him as Trump‘s “shadow chief of staff.”  Stelter aptly describes how is early 2020, Trump and Hannity engaged in their usual feedback loop which had life and death consequences as they downplayed the coronavirus to the detriment of the American public.  Hannity “fed misinformation to Trump and Trump fed misinformation right back to Hannity.”  The two men brought out the worst in each other as it appeared that Trump programmed Hannity’s show with his constant call-ins during prime time and it often appeared that Hannity produced Trump’s presidency.  Hannity would become apart from granting sycophantic interviews and concocted conspiracies but a daily sounding board for the president.

(Rupert Murdoch)

The concept of a feedback loop is one of Stelter’s primary themes as he displays examples of it throughout the book that reinforce his arguments.  Whether dealing with Fox and Friends’ hosts, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham the loop seems fully functional.  A few examples.  When Congressman Elijah Cummings’ House committee was investigating how the Trump administration was treating migrants, all of a sudden Fox programming was reinforcing and supporting Trumps’ tweets – “The Battle for Baltimore,”  as Trump referred to Cummings’ district as “a disgusting rat infested mess that no human being would want to live there.”  Fox opinion hosts employed constant repetition as they did with trying to clean up Trump’s mess after his courting of white supremacists during and after the Charlottesville debacle, or how Fox went after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after she was elected to Congress in 2018, or the caravans that were invading America through Mexico before the 2018 Congressional elections, or Trump’s defense during the impeachment process or the Mueller investigation; or Trump’s belief that the crowd at his inauguration was much larger than Obama’s; or how a debunked conspiracy theory that a Democratic National Committee staffer was murdered for leaking campaign emails; or the false claim that Ukraine, not Russia, was interfering in the 2016 election; and of course the current coronavirus highlighted by hydroxychloroquine– the list goes on and on.

Fox’s approach raises the question are they really a news station or just entertainment and “brain washing” for the extreme right in America.  Rupert Murdoch has created an exceptionally profitable business model that thrives on deceit, lies, personal attacks, while reinforcing an alternative reality as opposed to fact and truth.  Stelter describes numerous personality issues at Fox, but more importantly he presents the schism that exist(ed) as the more traditional news types like Brett Baier, Chris Wallace and Shep Smith had to deal with the outrageous commentary of the Fox and Friends hosts, Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade and Ainsley Earhardt;  Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.  Finally, in October 2019, Smith had enough and resigned because of disagreements with Carlson over Fox coverage of the impeachment process.  The reality for Trump is that unlike President Bill Clinton who created a “war room” to deal with impeachment, Trump did not have to as Fox became his “war room.”

(Tucker Carlson)

Stelter reviews the history of the Fox news channel delving into turning points in their approach to news.   In 1996 Rupert Murdoch provided Roger Ailes with a “boat load of cash” to develop a strong news channel to attract conservatives, sort of a “Limbaugh” approach for cable television is one example.  The election of Barack Obama became the radicalizing force is next, and finally in 2011, Ailes gave Trump a weekly phone-in slot on Fox and Friends.  Hannity would become a nightly attack ad for people who distrusted the nightly news. Guests on Hannity and other programs went outside the accepted norms of journalism.  In fact, Fox and Friends with their constant call-ins from Trump may be more important to Trump’s presidential launch than “The Apprentice.”  If one examines the “incestuous” relationship between Trump and Fox hosts one can see that once in office that Trump’s daily briefings seemed prepared by Fox as their commentary usually wound up in Trump’s tweets and then he would act upon them.

Stelter explores numerous dramas that have taken place internally at Fox.  The Meghan Kelly/Trump feud; the sexual harassment lawsuits against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly; the machinations between Hannity and O’Reilly; the problem that Tucker Carlson presented as he was losing ad revenue;  attempts to keep Shep Smith which failed; the reasons why so many journalists remained at Fox and only a few walked out; issues within the Murdoch family as the two sons had diametrically different visions for the channel.  In terms of drama Carlson and Ingraham pursued it each evening with their message of cultural displacement of whites by immigrants and the loss of status of white Christian America.  Fox and Friends would supplant Trump’s morning intelligence briefing and it became the A.M. edition of Hannity.  But as disgraceful as it appeared it made sense as most Fox hosts were geared to an audience of one – Donald Trump. 

laura-ingraham
(Laura Ingraham)

If there are criticisms that need to be made regarding Stelter’s work is at times he becomes too emotional and his language regresses to match the Fox hosts he decries.  Further, he should have tried to approach Fox viewers and see what is so attractive to them about the information that they are being exposed to.  It is obvious that Fox is enticing to millions, but why?  Do viewers understand that they are being manipulated or in their heart of hearts believe and accept all the misinformation they digest?  Stelter glosses over answers to these questions.  Perhaps he could have examined this phenomena a bit more.

CNN’s Brian Stelter was confronted by a C-SPAN caller who told him the network is “dividing our nation." (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for CNN)

(CNN’s Brian Stelter)

After reading HOAX I emerged with a massive headache – a malady brought upon by Stelter’s description of the manipulation of fact and news by a media giant to the detriment of our democracy.  For Fox ratings and profits were the mantra and they would say and do anything that would reinforce that goal.  As the Trump presidency evolved Fox became more and more state run television, something that has never happened since television became a mainstay in American households.  Now that I have completed the book, I know what it is like to spend time in the Fox pro-Trump universe of misinformation.  As the election approaches, I would recommend that most Americans should read Stelter’s work and apply what they learn to their choice of candidate.


sean hannity trump vaping fox book
(Sean Hannity)

RUSH: REVOLUTION, MADNESS, AND THE VISIONARY DOCTOR WHO BECAME A FOUNDING FATHER by Stephen Fried

Meet the Doctor Who Convinced America to Sober Up

Meet Benjamin Rush, father of the temperance movement, signer of the Declaration of Independence

Benjamin Rush

When we think of the Founding Fathers and heroes of the American Revolution the names that are mentioned include George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John and Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison, among others.  Rarely if ever does the name Benjamin Rush enter the conversation.  However, in Stephen Fried’s new biography RUSH: REVOLUTION, MADNESS, AND THE VISIONARY DOCTOR WHO BECAME A FOUNDING FATHER, the author presents a truly Renaissance individual who impacted the era in which he lived on multiple levels including science, politics, sociology, psychology, and other aspects of intellectual life.  The question must be asked why such a brilliant scientist and political thinker who influenced many of his contemporaries in countless ways has not been the subject of greater historical research.

Fried has filled that gap with an absorbing portrait and attempts to answer the question by arguing that Rush may have known too much about his fellow revolutionaries and physicians who made him privy to many of their deepest thoughts.  After his death in 1813, Adams and Jefferson, along with his family members suppressed his writings resulting in the diminution of his legacy.  According to Fried he would become the “footnote founder, a second-tier founder.”

Stephen Fried at the statue of Benjamin Rush at Dickinson College (Photo: Carl Socolow)

 

No matter where Rush falls in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers after reading Fried’s work it is clear he was an exceptional historical figure who impacted many aspects of American society and politics during his lifetime.  From his education as a physician, his polemical writings, his role during the revolution, the people he developed relationships with, his impact after the revolution in dealing with mental illness, and raising the level of the health of Americans Rush’s life is worthy of exploration.  Fried begins with his medical education stressing the methods available in the 1760s.  The study of anatomy and the compounding of medicines created a baseline in which to compare what existed and the improvements that would develop as Rush’s career evolved.  His mentors, Doctors John Morgan and Willian Shippen are important in that they provided Rush with knowledge of techniques and diagnostics which laid the ground work for what George Washington would complain, “those damn physicians” who later could not get along because of their egos causing a great deal of trouble during the revolution and after.  From the outset Rush’s approach to medicine, i.e., dissection, obstetrics, and midwifery at the time were controversial and provoked a great deal of opposition.  As Fried lays out the development of Rush’s belief system it was clear he was his own man and was not shy about putting his opinions in letters and pamphlets and rarely backed away from his approach to medicine or politics.

The strength of Fried’s approach rests on integrating Rush’s writings/opinions from his diaries, journals, letters, and common place books into the narrative.  Fried uses this material providing intimate details of Rush’s most important relationships during a lifetime in which he developed  with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and a host of medical contemporaries.  Rush was a prolific writer and soon employed “the pamphlet” as his major tool in letting the public know his opinions, many of which rubbed people the wrong way.  One of his first pamphlets reflects his dilettantish nature published in the early 1770s, “Sermons to Gentlemen on Temperance and Exercise,” in addition to publishing his views as a Philadelphian concerning the English tax on tea which would lead directly to the Boston Tea Party, and his influence and editing of Thomas Paine’s COMMON SENSE.  Rush would dabble in all types of subjects, but his underlying coda was to improve society, but from his own perspective.  Eventually he would be a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Admission ticket, Benjamin Rush's lectures on chemistry, 1769

Fried’s narrative recounts the course of the American Revolution in a clear and concise manner.  There is nothing that is presented that previous historians have not mined.  What sets Fried’s work apart is the role played by Rush in attending the medical needs of the colonists even crossing the Delaware with Washington.  Rush witnessed the horrors of 18th century warfare firsthand and he used what he experienced as a basis for a platform to improve medical care through diagnosis, technique, medicines, and the creation of military hospitals.  Rush tended to rub people the wrong way with his writing and commentary, a flaw that got him into trouble with many people including his commentary about Washington’s leadership.

Rush had no compunction about criticizing his mentors particularly Dr. William Shippen leadership as Chief Physician and Inspector-General during the revolution.  Historians have pointed out the lack of food, clothing, and pay that colonial soldiers had to cope with.  Fried takes it further by exploring the weaknesses of medical care for soldiers.  Rush would finally resign from Washington’s army in 1778, but many of his ideas about hospital care were implemented.  Later Rush would testify at Shippen’s court-martial against Washington’s advice, but he would be acquitted by one vote.

Fried does not overlook Rush’s private life.  He would not marry until the age of thirty because of the advice of his mother.  He would marry Julia Stockton who was sixteen, but they had a long life together and were deeply in love.  The marriage would produce thirteen pregnancies, but unfortunately only six children would live to adulthood.  He was a good father and provider, but as with most men during the period he was away from home at least half the time until the 1781-1786 period were, he devoted himself to his family and medical practice.

Fried describes Rush’s political role in detail particularly after the American Revolution.  He had been a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and later would be a delegate to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention which would ratify the Constitution in 1787. Rush also became involved in the issue of slavery.  He would become an abolitionist; despite the fact he did own one slave who he would free in 1793 and he argued profusely concerning the inhumanity of the “peculiar institution.”  Another of his pet peeves was the lack of a comprehensive educational system in Pennsylvania and after the new nation was ratified.  He worked assiduously to include women, blacks and immigrants in his program and helped create what would become Dickinson College and Franklin and Marshall later on in addition to improving medical curricula at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Benjamin Franklin
(Benjamin Franklin)

But what Rush is most noted for was his attempts at improving care for his patients.  He would serve in numerous capacities during his medical career and once gain rubbed many the wrong way.  His work with the mentally ill is key as he found their treatment abhorrent and studied numerous cases to determine a better way of treatment.  He published a number of pamphlets outlining his ideas that included how best to raise the level of mental health care and arguing that mental illness was a disease to be treated and that patient care was important and they should not be locked away in basements chained to the wall.  He would be involved in creating the University of Pennsylvania Hospital and helped create the first American Medical society and would soon oversee the care of the mentally ill.  Perhaps Fried’s most incisive chapter deals with Rush’s handling of the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia which killed with “biblical proportions.”  Employing Rush’s letters to his wife Julia the reader is exposed to the depth of the tragedy that unfolded.  Rush favored a more extreme treatment of victims which provoked a great deal of controversy with his colleagues.  It is interesting how a politically partisan approach to treatment took place.  Doctors who had Federalist leanings tended to oppose Rush’s methods, while Democratic-Republicans tended to support Rush (sound familiar!).  Fried delves into the effect of the disease on Rush’s family, friends, and cohorts and the reader is provided insights into the approach taken toward an epidemic in the early 1790s.

John Adams, circa 1790.
(President John Adams)

Fried spends a great deal of time examining Rush’s later years which were dominated by his correspondence with John Adams who he was able to convince to reconcile with Thomas Jefferson.  Further his writing remained prolific particularly in relation to his work with the mentally ill working to improve their treatment and living conditions and continuing his lectures at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.  Rush was always looking to improve the quality of life of his patients and with the deterioration of his son John’s mental health he redoubled his efforts in the areas of alcoholism and mental stability.

Fried has written a comprehensive and fascinating biography raising the historical profile of Benjamin Rush for a twenty first century audience.  Rush was a flawed character whose comments and writings often got him in trouble, but as Fried points out repeatedly his motives were usually pure, and his goal was to raise the level of many aspects of society.  Fried has created the most comprehensive work to date on Rush, but also has uncovered a treasure trove of documentary sources that can be mined by future historians.

 

THE GREAT INFLUENZA: THE EPIC STORY OF THE DEADLIEST PLAGUE IN HISTORY by John Barry

As I sit at my desk and examine the latest Covid-19 statistics and fantasize about what might have occurred had the Trump administration carried out its constitutional duties to care for American citizens instead of fomenting a civil war against democratic governors and denying their role in the current pandemic I am appalled and overwhelmed.  At this moment there are 927,000 cases of people testing positive for the virus in the United States out of 2,790,000 worldwide.  The death rate is 52,400 in the U.S. out of 196,000 worldwide, and each day we add thousands to the total.  Words like mitigation, social distancing, ventilators, and numerous others have entered our everyday vocabulary.  The questions that pervade the news are when we will “open up” the country? what happens if we do it too fast? and what will happen if each state goes its own way?  Writer and philosopher George Santayana is credited for stating that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  In our current circumstances it would be best for those in charge of leading us through the crisis to heed Santayana’s words.  All one has to do is turn the clock back one hundred years to learn certain lessons.  Those lessons are portrayed based on excellent historical research in John Barry’s 2004 book, THE GREAT INFLUENZA: THE EPIC STORY OF THE DEADLIEST PLAGUE IN HISTORY.  A pandemic that “likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million.”

wilson at desk.jpg
(President Woodrow Wilson)

Barry immediately caught my attention with his opening section that dealt with the state of the American medical infrastructure, readiness, and state of mind in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Barry’s discussion of American medical schools and their lack of standards, i.e., it was not necessary to have a college degree, once admitted no work on actual human bodies, and engaging in no laboratory science is eye opening in addition to being appalling.  In the late 19th century the United States lagged behind the rest of the world in the study of life sciences and medicine.  The inability of American medical schools to accept science as part of the curriculum is shocking.  American physicians would travel to Europe, Germany in particular to study laboratory science and the advances that existed in record numbers and returned to implement what they learned in American classrooms and setting up laboratories.  The key development was the launching of Johns Hopkins in 1876 and their medical school in 1893, along with their hiring of Daniel Gilman as the school’s president, and William Henry Welch who studied in Europe to head the medical school, a man who would become the most influential scientist in the world.

Hopkins would begin the transformation of American medicine as they employed Welch’s reputation to hire the best physicians and researchers in the world and developed a laboratory research component.  In a sense Dr. Welch was the Dr. Fauchi of his era!  The other important development that Barry delves into is the role of the Rockefeller Foundation whose donations led to the creation of the Rockefeller Institute in 1901.  The Institute would be headed by Simon Flexner, a protégé of Welch. Flexner had a large vision; “in his own work, he had what Welch lacked: the ability to ask a large question and frame it in ways that made answering it achievable.”  The Institute developed a small affiliated hospital to investigate disease, where patients would pay no fees but only those suffering from diseases that could be studied were admitted.  Flexner saw the hospital as a testing ground for ideas generated by laboratory scientists.  Further, Flexner used Hopkins as a model medical school and was also able to attract philanthropic funds to deserving institutions.  Those institutions were weeded out as medical schools were ranked based on how well they prepared their students to practice.  As a result, those schools that did not measure up dropped their medical schools and others either reformed their approach or faded away. The next important reform on Welch’s agenda was the creation of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, which was scheduled to open October 1, 1918, toward the end of World War I.

William H. Welch
William Henry Welch 2.jpg

Barry correctly develops the role of World War I in fostering the worldwide influenza pandemic.  Evidence seems to suggest that the virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas.  By January/February 1918 Dr. Loring Milner who had treated influenza throughout his checkered career noticed a much more virulent type that was killing people and it completely overwhelmed him.  New cases declined in the spring but would reemerge later in the year.  With the American entrance into World War I in April 1917 one of the training centers was Camp Funston, part of the Fort Riley Reservation, located about 250 miles from Haskell County.  On March 4, 1918, a soldier was diagnosed with influenza at Camp Funston, three weeks later there were 1100 cases – the problem is that there was a great deal of traffic flow between Haskell County and Camp Funston.  These soldiers would carry the flu virus with them as they were assigned to units that then traveled to Europe.

Barry points to a great deal of disturbing statistical information for the reader to digest.  He examines the history of warfare and concludes that more soldiers died from disease than wounds suffered in combat.  In the Spanish-American War more men died of disease in a 6:1 ratio than on the battlefield.  The US lost more personnel to disease 63,114 than to combat 53,402, largely due to the influenza epidemic of 1918.  If one includes the overall US losses to influenza it is roughly 675,000.  In terms of combat losses, the American military was in no condition to deal with an epidemic with 776 doctors in the military out of an overall total of 140,000 for the entire country.  Lastly, influenza-related deaths reflected that one in 67 American soldiers in the army died of influenza and its complications, nearly all in a ten-week period beginning in mid-September 1918.  It was a disease that targeted those in the prime of their lives as opposed to the old and weak.

The ramp up to prepare for WWI created a situation that made the possibility for an epidemic in the US extremely plausible.  In an important chapter, “Tinderbox,” Barry focuses on the number of physicians who were needed overseas leaving the US short of physicians to care for civilians, and those that remained stateside were mostly over 45 and trained in the older methods that were not very effective.  Further, by the fall of 1918 research laboratories could only function on a reduced scale.  Research was cut back and focused on the war, on poison gas or defending against it, on preventing infection of wounds, on ways to prevent diseases that incapacitated troops like typhus.  Laboratory animals were unavailable, and the war sucked into itself technicians and young researchers.  As a result, the US was at a disadvantage in fighting the flu epidemic from the get-go.

Barry dissects the impact of politics on the spread of the flu and combating it in detail.  The role of machine politics in New York and Philadelphia are cases in point.  In Tammany Hall, the New York Health Department was purged replacing qualified people with patronage weakening the response to the virus.  In Philadelphia State Senator Edwin Vane’s political machine and the response of Public Health Director William Krusen were a disaster.  The Liberty Loan parade on September 28, 1918 is a case in point.  Health officials advised against it, but Krusen who did little in preparation to mitigate the disease allowed it to take place with disastrous results.  The Liberty Loan parade is emblematic of the role of President Woodrow Wilson.  His administration was obsessed with morale and did everything they could to keep news of the epidemic from the public.  Between J. Edgar Hoover’s new internal security agency in the Justice Department, and George Creel’s Committee on Information prosecutions increased markedly as anyone seen as a security threat was arrested, i.e., Eugene Debs who ran for president in 1912 and Congressman Victor Berger were incarcerated.  Newspapers did not report accurate information and a good percentage of the public was left in the dark.

(Oswald Avery)

The horrific details of the epidemic appear in a number of chapters from its impact on the treatment and deaths of soldiers in various army encampments, i.e., Camp Devens in Massachusetts and the Philadelphia Naval Yard.  The impact on civilians is described as is the attempts by scientists to combat the disease.  The work of William H. Park, Chief of the Laboratory Division of the New York City Health Department and his deputy Anna Williams in what was considered the best laboratory in the country is explored in detail as was the work of Paul Lewis who earlier proved that polio was a viral disease and centered his research at his lab in Philadelphia, and Oswalt Avery from the Rockefeller Institute.  The overriding issue for all of these scientists is that of time and the need for speed which meant they had to forgo the usual protocols and approach to research which of course caused many problems.

Barry does not neglect the scientific details of research.  He describes in detail how viruses were determined, explores previous research dealing with pneumonia, typhus, malaria etc. as a means of introducing the reader to what scientists were up against and their approach.  Barry assumes the reader knows nothing as he treats the reader to mini lectures in microbiology, immunology, and epidemiology.  There are a few chapters that engage in this material and for a “biology novice” like myself it became  much to detailed particularly the various types of bacteria, other aspects of lab research, and as a result the book comes across as very text bookish.

Barry’s work is important and should be consulted by public health officials and members of the Trump administration to learn lessons that seem to have bypassed them today.  Though the flu epidemic was a hundred years ago certain aspects provide important lessons – it comes in waves and Covid-19 will return in some degree in the fall and possibly well past.  Ignoring the past is akin to signing a death warrant for many.  Barry has done a service for the American people and though the book was written in 2004 it provides many important guidelines and is  a very effective piece of historical research.

THE AGE OF ILLUSIONS: HOW AMERICA SQUANDERED ITS COLD WAR VICTORY by Andrew Bacevitch

(The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s I enjoyed a sense of security knowing where to focus my fears and angst.  The Soviet Union was the enemy and policymakers developed the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that carried us through threats like the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Fast forward to 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and my security blanket was gone – the Cold War was over.  In what President George H.W. Bush referred to as the unipower world, Americans now have to decide who the enemy was, since it was hard to imagine a world without one.

Andrew Bacevitch in his latest book, THE AGE OF ILLUSIONS: HOW AMERICA SQUANDERED ITS COLD WAR VICTORY examines the post-Cold War period as American policymakers struggled with which direction US foreign policy should go.  Bacevitch a retired army officer and graduate of West Point, in addition to being a professor emeritus from Boston University concludes that the path chosen carried a certain amount of hubris that led to numerous errors squandering our supposed victory that began when Boris Yeltsin faced down a coup attempt by elements in the Kremlin that could not accept defeat.

Former President George H.W. Bush smiles during the second day of the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

(President George H. W. Bush promised a New World Order)

 

According to Bacevitch the United States chose the path of globalization or unrestricted corporate capitalism designed to create maximum wealth.  Second, it fostered global leadership, or hegemony and empire.  Third, we called for freedom, emphasizing autonomy.  Lastly, presidential supremacy as the prerogatives of the legislative branch declined.  In making his case, Bacevitch provides historical context for each and integrates a comparison of his own career with that of Donald Trump.  In so doing Bacevitch seeks to explain how someone like Trump could be elected president and he will argue it could have been predicted based on events that took place in 1992 and after. For Bacevitch the villains who are responsible for basically continuing America’s path after the Cold War are the elites who pushed  a consensus that raised expectations, and when they went unfulfilled, outraged voters turned to Donald Trump.

The election of 1992 is a watershed in American history as President George H.W. Bush despite overseeing the end of the Cold War, prevailing against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, gaining an 89% approval rating, and promised a “New World Order,” lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton.  The election produced three insurgencies that directly relate to the election of 2016.  Former Nixon speech writer and newspaper columnist Patrick Buchanan, and millionaire H. Ross Perot were both verbal “bomb throwers” who represented an “America First” approach to foreign policy and a populist economic message.  Buchanan gave Bush a scare in the New Hampshire primary and Perot garnered 19% of the vote in the election.  The third member of this insurgency was actually Hillary Clinton who worked to do away with white male domination in society as she put it, a vote for Bill Clinton was “two for the price of one.”  Her battles in the White House reflect how Republicans, and right-wing political elements feared her.

headline photo

Bacevitch’s analysis throughout the narrative is based sound logic and a very perceptive view of American society and the conduct of foreign policy.  He takes the reader through the historically impactful ideas of Alfred Mahan, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Rudyard Kipling who explained the need for American expansion and nationalism.  In his discussion of “thinkers,” he points to Francis Fukuyama who created a secular ideology to justify American hubris in the 1990s and after.  Bacevitch also delves into the 1940-1992 period offering analogies that make a great deal of sense as he explains how the US emerged from WWII as the dominant power in the world, but shortly thereafter the Soviet Union became an ideological and military threat.

THE FREE TRADE ACCORD; Nafta: Something to Offend Everyone

Credit…The New York Times Archives

As one becomes immersed in Bacevitch’s narrative you begin to question the path the United States chose.  The expectations of the American economy after the Cold War was extremely bullish.  Globalization was seen as the key element to achieving economic domination and the spread of American values.  Global leadership was seen as policing this new American economic empire and a vastly increased military budget would fund the military who would police the world and enforce American hegemony.  As Colin Powell has written, “Our arms should be second to none.”  As the US led the way in techno-warfare a large conventional force was no longer needed.  Bacevitch discusses the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).  “It purported to describe the culmination of a long evolutionary march to perfection.  Globalization promised to reduce uncertainties that had plagued operation of the market.  In a similar manner, the RMA was expected to reduce—and perhaps even eliminate—uncertainties that had long plagued the conduct of war and had made it such a risky proposition.  The nation that seized the opportunities it presented would enjoy decisive advantages over any and all adversaries.”  The problem with techno-militarism is that “smart bombs,” drones and other “toys” are not as precise and predictable as policy makers are convinced of.  Washington also engaged in a “kulturkampf” as it tried to spread its values creating a backlash seemingly everywhere it went.

This approach led the United States to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, the support of numerous repressive dictatorships, a war in Afghanistan that continues today, and other policies that today is making the United States a pariah among its allies and a joke in relation to Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.  Bacevitch sums up the post-Cold War period very nicely, “the spirit of the post-Cold War era prioritized self-actualization and self-indulgence over self-sacrifice.”

Bacevitch saves his most trenchant remarks as he places the last three presidents under a microscope and renders the following judgements that make a great deal of sense.  By the time Bill Clinton left the White House white males still ruled Washington, Wall Street and Hollywood still saw further power to be garnered and making money was king.  Gays could neither marry nor serve in the military.  Checks on corporate capitalism all but disappeared. Americans learned to take war in stride observing from a comfortable distance with the volunteer army that targeted a miniscule part of the population.

 

(President George W. Bush shortly after his “Mission Accomplished Speech”

Under George Bush, the central theme of his administration was war, a complement to globalization and another means of bringing the world in line with American goals.  Clinton may have dabbled in war, but Bush went at it whole “hog.”  The Bush Doctrine argued after 9/11 that American prerogatives where beyond reproach.  American values were universal, and compliance was almost compulsory as resistance was futile.  When the US went to war, they did it with a sense of righteousness that was hard to fathom.  We saw ourselves as the global peacemaker, but in reality, we categorized them, i.e.; “axis of evil” rather than engage them.  Finally, Bush saw himself as a unitary executive and the world order that the Washington constructed was preordained.

Barrack Obama did not fair much better in Bacevitch’s estimation as he paved the way for a powerful backlash resulting in the election of Trump.  He saved globalized neo-liberalism with his $787,000,000 bailout.  His administration never reassessed globalization as a policy that caused the “great recession.”  After Bush’s failures, Obama gave using the military a new lease on life.  Obama vowed to win the war in Afghanistan and even promoted an Iraqi type of “surge” that was unsuccessful.  Hostilities continued in Iraq, civil war decimated Syria and part of Obama’s legacy was the continuation of wars.  Under Obama, the concept of “forever wars” took hold.  “Hope and change,” became “more of the same.”  He did become a cultural warrior celebrating diversity, empowering women, and exploring the variable nature of identity, but over all his administration was a missed opportunity.

One may disagree with Bacevitch’s assessment of the last few decades, but one must really think hard about the following.  The wars that continue are working class wars with a volunteer army that the elites have little to do with.  Globalization accelerated the de-industrialization of America as we exported more jobs than we created.  The disparity in wealth and income is abhorrent as 43 million people are below the poverty level, credit card debt is $8377 per household, and most retirees have just $5000 in savings.  After the Trump tax cut of 2018, the 1% keeps more and more of its wealth.  In this situation it is understandable that economic populism has run rampant.

Bacevitch has written a very thought-provoking book that demands that we reexamine our pre-2016 policies to understand what has been transpiring in American foreign policy since Trump assumed the presidency.  If the book has a weakness it is that Bacevitch’s criticisms are seemingly correct, but he never offers an alternative to what he criticizes.

(The inauguration of Barrack Obama as President)

Though the book appears to be a work that focuses on American foreign policy, it also shines a light on American social and cultural history.  A chapter entitled, “Al, Fred, and Homer’s America – and Mine!” provides insights into American society in the late 1940s and 50s through movies and social class issues.  There are constant references to literary works, the dismantling of our industrial base and how unwinnable wars tore apart our social fabric that bound all elements of society together.  The references to cultural tools is used as a vehicle to explain in part the partisan divide that developed in our country and in the end all of these references be it to John Updike’s character, Harry Angstrom or others rests on the author’s belief that the United States had an opportunity to alter its path.  However we chose not to and let the mistakes of the last 40 years continue to the point that even Trump with all his criticism and bombast about allies and wars has committed even more troops to the Middle East, and funded the techno-military component of the Defense budget to the maximum.  Bacevitch is a harsh critic and does not hold back, but it would be nice to know exactly what policy changes he would make.

(The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)

THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA by Daniel Okrent

Image result for photo of ellis island circa 1910

(Ellis Island, NY)

Recently I learned that the Trump administration finally concluded a tariff deal with Mexico which had a number of components related to illegal immigration into the United States.  Apart from Trump’s stupefying rhetoric surrounding his “wall” and other asinine comments like, “why are we having so many people from these shithole countries come here,” immigration and race have become litmus tests for certain politicians.  This political atmosphere in the United States makes Daniel Okrent’s new book, THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA an important contribution to the background history of our current views of people who are trying to escape tyranny and poverty and come to the United States.  Okrent focuses on what he describes as the “perverse form of ‘science’ [that] gave respectability to the drastic limits Imposed on the number of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles, and various other eastern or southern Europeans seeking to come to America between 1924 and 1965.”  It is during this period that some of the arguments and attitudes concerning immigration were formed that still impact us today.

Image result for photo of henry c lodge circa 1890

(Massachusetts Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge)

Okrent’s narrative is scary as it points to the pseudo-science and ignorance employed from the late 19th century that is still exists today.  His history of the eugenics movement and its role in passing the Johnson-Reed  Act of 1924 is very disconcerting as it reflects the racism and bigotry that dominated American thought throughout the period, including historical figures ranging from Margaret Sanger to Woodrow Wilson.  Okrent points out that the key to the development of these ideas was the growing belief that the United States was being overrun by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who brought certain traits and attitudes that would blend negatively with the American population.  As millions poured into the United States between 1890 and 1910 politicians like Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the epitome of Brahmin superiority led the fight to keep these people from entering the United States through legislation that featured literacy tests and other obstacles.  This movement which fostered the Immigration Restrictive League (IRL) which came about in 1894 rested on the works of other Boston types who would come up short in passing their agenda until after World War I.  Once the war ended fears of these immigrants centered on labor union unrest, political radicalism, and racial conflict.  In the end it was Senator Albert Johnson with the assistance of eugenics and anti-immigration elements who was able to gain the passage of restrictive legislation in 1924 that would stem the tide.

In providing a general history of the eugenics movement and its marriage to immigration restriction from 1890 onward, Okrent zeroes in on the development of their convoluted ideas and the diverse personalities who came to be at the forefront of the movement.  A number of individuals emerge that moved the process forward.  In addition to politicians like Lodge who stoked American xenophobia from the 1890s onward as he took on the role of evangelist and propagandist from anti-immigration forces, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson also became proponents of many of the racial theories related to Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Poles and others that were propagated.

Image result for photo of charles davenport eugenics movement

(Charles Davenport)

What is fascinating is how people bought into these ideas and concepts of racial breeding and how the United States was committing “racial suicide” by allowing these ethnic groups to enter. Okrent’s narrative provides a who’s who of those who advocated the selective breeding of human populations to improve their genetic composition.  Okrent reviews the ideas of Francis Galton who coined the term eugenics in 1883, Charles Darwin, the French anti-Semite Count Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain a proponent of Aryan superiority, and William Z. Ripley, all popular authors in the late 19th century.

Okrent takes it further as he traces the further development of these ideas through the works and ideas of Charles Davenport, a prominent biologist and leading spokesperson for the eugenics movement who set up his “racial laboratory” in Cold Harbor, NY, funded at the outset by Mary Harriman, the heir to the railroad fortune.  In addition, +he focuses on James H. Pattern, an effective congressional lobbyist for the IRL;  Edward A. Ross, the author of THE OLD WORLD AND THE NEW that merged eugenics and xenophobia doubling down on the inferiority of Slavs;  Madison Grant, zoologist, lawyer and author of THE RACIAL BASIS OF EUROPEAN HISTORY;  Henry Goddard’s famed Kallikak study convinced thirty states to pass legislation to impose forced sterilization on the “feebleminded;” and lastly Harry H. Laughlin who directed the Eugenics Records Office who advocated for the “involuntary sterilization of defectives.”

Image result for photo of Harry Laughlin eugenics

(Harry Laughlin)

What is even more disconcerting is the list of the pillars of society Okrent uncovers that supported these ideas.  The reputable publishing company, Charles A. Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins helped publish the works of a coterie of eugenicists that included Lothrop Stoddard’s THE RISING TIDE OF COLOR AGAINST WHITE WORLD SUPEREMACY, that became a best seller and went through fifteen reprints (interestingly Scribner’s published Okrent’s history).  Samuel Gompers the head of the American Federation of Labor.  The Saturday Evening Posts editor  George Horace Lorimer published stories of the pariahs that threatened American society, even Eleanor Roosevelt, reflecting her aristocratic origins held negative racial views until she grew more intellectually mature and worldly.

Okrent’s work is punctuated with documentary excerpts of the work of prominent eugenicists and their opponents.  He has drilled down in his analysis of their “quackery” and has a firm handle on his source material.  The narrative is excellent considering the topic, particularly how the Johnson-Reed Act became law, especially Johnson and company manipulated census and immigration figures to create quotas and the resulting impact on American history for decades to the detriment of millions. Historian, Linda Gordon writes; “previous immigration restrictions targeted particular groups — notably people from Asia — but this comprehensive law aimed not just to limit immigration but to preserve white Protestant dominance in America. It assigned a quota to each nation, ranging from 51,000 for Germany to 2,000 for Russia to 1,100 for the entire African continent.” (New York Times, “The Last Time a Wall Went Up to Keep Out Immigrants,” by Linda Gordon, May 20, 2019)

Image result for photo of Fairfield H. Osburn eugenicist

(Fairfield H. Osborn)

What is shocking throughout the book is Okrent’s ability to explore the ideology of eugenics providing primary evidence of their views.  For example, Fairfield H. Osborn, paleontologist and teacher of Mary Harriman told delegates to the National Immigration Conference held in New York City in 1923 that army testing of soldiers during World War I showed 6,346,856 immigrants were “inferior or very inferior.”  He commented further that “if the army tests served to show clearly to our people the lack of intelligence in our country, and the degrees of intelligence of different races who are coming to us [then] I believe those tests were worth what the war cost, even in human life.”  Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz, the authors of the definitive text on German eugenics, HUMAN HEREDITY AND RACE HYGIENE argued further that the “Nordic race marches in the vanguard of mankind.”  Interestingly in 1924 Adolf Hitler, then an inmate at Landsberg Prison in Bavaria found the book useful “jailhouse reading.” (322)

The title of Okrent’s narrative, THE GUARDED GATE was inspired by an 1895 poem by the Boston patrician Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a leading restrictionist. Aldrich would have none of Emma Lazarus’s words, chiseled into the Statue of Liberty, welcoming “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Writing in a mode more like Donald Trump, Aldrich warned:

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,

And through them passes a wild motley throng ...

O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well

To leave the gates unguarded? (Washington Post, “When the Government Used Bad Science to Restrict Immigration,” by David Hollinger, May 24, 2019)

Related image

(Maxwell Perkins)

Okrent has taken on an important historical topic as George Santayana has warned “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  It took the rise and fall of Nazi Germany discredit eugenics in the United States, but even in 1952 with the McCarran-Walter Act Washington continued to show its preference for people from northwestern Europe.  It would take until 1965 to drop that preference.  With a president who calls for the immigration of whites from countries like Norway as opposed to Hispanic types one must wonder where American immigration is headed for today – is race still the major qualification?

Image result for photo of ellis island circa 1910

 

THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP by Michael D’Antonio

Image result for photo of donald trump

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.

Image result for photo of donald trump and his children

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.

Image result for photo of coney island during the 1960s

(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.

Image result for photo of the west side of NYC with trump buildings

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.

Image result for photo of the west side of NYC with trump buildings

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.

Image result for photo of trump casino

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.

Related image

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!

Image result for photo of donald trump

 

 

 

 

THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean

Image result for photo of la central library fire 1986

(April 28, 1986 Los Angeles Central Library City Fire)

“Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance.

It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.” (93)

 

People can acquire many types of addictions.  Mine, happens to be books and libraries and it is a very difficult “affliction” to accommodate.  Despite the digital age, there are books everywhere.  New, old, they seem to proliferate mercilessly, the temptation seems to rise each day.  When I came across Susan Orlean’s new book, THE LIBRARY BOOK I knew that I once again had to confront my disease.  In the end, Orlean has written a wonderful ode to libraries and books.  Her subject revolves around the April 28, 1986 fire that destroyed about 500,000 volumes and damaged another 700,000 books, in addition to microfilm, special collections, and an unsettling amount of other materials at the Los Angeles Central Library.  Her narrative is a combination of historical fact, and a deeply personal emotional experience as she describes her own childhood visiting libraries with her mother and doing the same with her son.  Orleans provides a concise history of the Central Library and how the city of Los Angeles responded to the crisis the day of the fire, and how it tried to cope and rebuild from the loss.  As Billie Connor, a children’s librarian described after she and others entered the building immediately after the LAFD put the fire out; “they felt like they died and gone to see if Dante knew what he was writing about.” (34)

Image result for photo of la central library fire 1986

For Orlean the motivating factor in writing THE LIBRARY BOOK was emotive as she realized she was losing her mother to dementia.  Her mother who had imbued her with the love of libraries is recognized as Orlean composes her narrative to try and preserve her memories of her mother from when she was a child.

Orlean’s approach is rather eclectic and comprehensive at the same time.  She provides wonderful character portraits which add to our understanding of the role that libraries play in our communities.  One individual stands out, that of John Szabol, the head of the Central Library system of Los Angeles who early in his career acquired the nickname,  “Conan the Librarian.”  Szabol views libraries as serving many functions in addition to the dissemination of books.  During disasters they serve as a community center to assist displaced people.  Libraries are one of the few places where the homeless are welcomed and given access to computers, the internet, and if they want “dally” all day.  Szabol dispatch of mobile bookmobiles to homeless areas are among the many programs to assist the public that went beyond the traditional library.

Image result for photo of la central library fire 1986

Character portraits abound in the book.  Apart from Szabol is Orlean’s description of Charles Fletcher Lumis who became the head of the Central Library in 1905 because the library board fired his predecessor because she was a woman.  Lumis’ life is an amazing story in of itself.  Traveler, poet, historian, journalist his talents and life are a fascinating story.  Despite his unusual approach to administration he was responsible for many library components that exist today, i.e.; the photography and autograph collections; the California and Spanish history collections; among his many innovations.  Another library character that stands out is Glen Creason who began taking courses in library science in 1979 and is currently the longest serving librarian in the history of the Central Library.  He has become the library’s institutional memory and his career has spanned surviving the 1986 fire, the AIDS epidemic in which thirteen librarians died, the reopening of the building, and the adjustment to the internet.  Orlean’s approach is to discuss these somewhat obscure figures in a deeply personal manner and she gives them an enthusiasm and zest for what they have done and continue to do that is unimaginable.

Image result for central library los angeles today photos

(The library today)

Focusing on a different aspect of her study of libraries, Orlean presents a history of book burning that appears to be the norm, rather than the exception throughout the centuries.  Orlean begins her discourse with a discussion of the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria, carrying forth through the 20th century as the Nazis committed libricide with their Feurspruches and Brenn Kommandos designed to snuff out all Jewish learning.  It seems that Heinrich Heine was correct, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”  Hitler was not the only practitioner of libricide; Mao, the Khmer Rouge, Saddam, and the Taliban who continue the practice to this day. Further, Orlean even tries to replicate burning books by trying to ignite her copy of FARENEIHT 451, a task that was difficult and painful.

Image result for central library los angeles today photos

Before the fire the library contained over 2 million volumes.  Orleans’ initial focus is how so many volunteers and businesses responded to try and salvage the 700,000 damaged books.  She describes amazing people and procedures to save them.  From freeze drying the books, to packing them up and transporting them to freezers at the fish market, hotel kitchens, and other food warehouses in order to stop the spread of mold.  The city’s response was incredible. Human chains of hundreds of people were formed as strangers worked together to save “knowledge.”  The fire itself was deemed as suspicious from the outset, and in a short time it became clear it was arson.  Since Harry Peake, an actor wanna be, fit the profile of an arsonist; white male between seventeen and twenty-five; in addition to being present at the library at the time of the fire he was immediately considered a suspect.  A month later, when someone identified him from a composite photo it reaffirmed that suspicion.

Orlean does a wonderful job integrating American history and its impact on the Central Library’s own progression.  There are numerous examples to support that conclusion.  Some of the most interesting is how the library administration responded to the demographic growth of Los Angeles, particularly after World War II.  New programs were added to meet the needs of the people, i.e.; microfilm and microfiche, teen departments and other innovations.  The library also tried to meet the concerns of the government as Sputnik and returning veterans created concerns for the public that needed to be met.  Finally, Orlean’s history reflects the sexism that was dominant in all libraries.  For decades only, men were allowed top administrative positions. That began to change with the appointment of Mary Jones, Mary Foy, Harriet Wadleigh, and Althea Warren over the years.

Image result for central library los angeles today photos

By the last third of the book, Orlean began to alternate chapters dealing with the library’s history and the case against Harry Peake. The investigation of Peake’s actions at the time of the fire  was drawn out over a long period as Harry was a fabulist who could not keep his story straight.  With seven different iterations of where he was the morning of the fire, investigators had a difficult time creating other than a circumstantial case against him.  The bizarre case resulted in Peake’s law suit against the city, and the city’s counter suit against Peake.  The result was inconclusive and to this day one wonders how the fire came to be.

If there is a theme that emerges from reading Orlean’s work, it is how the Central Library has maintained its relevance throughout the last hundred years or so.  The ability to reinvent itself to meet the needs of their community and constituency whether rich or poor, or even homeless is truly amazing.  Reading Orlean is to travel and immerse oneself in the problems faced by libraries, and how miraculously in the case of the central Library it has overcome disaster and continues to flourish to this day.

Image result for central library los angeles today photos

Perhaps  the most wonderful aspect of Orlean’s narrative is how she navigates the Central library and its branches and explain how they operate. Along the way she imparts numerous pearls of information to acquaint the reader of the wonderful world of libraries.  Her observations are priceless as she states that a library is the perfect place to become invisible.  It also has its own rhythms and sounds that are unique.  The Los Angeles system is best described “as if the city has a bloodstream flowing through it, oxygenated by books.”  Orlean has written a wonderful book that should satisfy the interests for all who frequent libraries and wonder how they evolved, and how they are constantly working to meet our needs.

Image result for photo of la central library fire 1986

(Fire damage from April 28, 1986)