FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE by Michael Wolff

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(President Trump and Stephen Bannon)

By this time everyone in America has probably heard of Michael Wolff’s new book, FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE.  Wolff has appeared on every cable news or network program and ‘talking heads” couldn’t get enough of the material he presented.  The question remains is what affect will the book have, and what percentage of what is presented is accurate or factual.  What is clear is that Wolff has written a sometimes gossipy account of the first nine months of the Trump White House.  In fact, the first third of the book is an insider account with intimate details of the Trump family, the attack of Steve Bannon on left-wing liberalism, a chapter that tries to put Jarvanka (as Bannon describes Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner), in their respective places, and an attempt to explain what the roles are for Kellyanne Conway, Steven Miller, Hope Hicks, and a host of “supposed” Trump friends and advisors.  Trump himself comes across as a germ phobic megalomaniac, who like Louis XIV sees himself as the “Sun King,” in which his universe and acquaintances revolve around him.  The question one must ask after dealing with the “Muslim Ban,” the similarities between Trump and Kushner, an explanation of Bannon’s world view and other topics; can Wolff’s sources be relied upon?

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(Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump)

As one reads on you hope to emerge from what Kurt Vonnegut described as “cloud-cuckoo land.”  In Trump’s world his associates conducted business as usual.  Michael Flynn could accept money from the Turkish and Russian governments, Paul Manafort could make millions managing accounts in the Ukraine, and family members could proceed as usual because they never thought he could win.  Perhaps Wolff’s most interesting analogy was comparing Mel Brooks’ hit Broadway show “The Producers” to the Trump campaign.  In Brooks’ story the protagonists would write a script and attract people to over invest in the show, knowing it would be a failure and they would reap the profit – the problem would be if the show was a success!  The same is true for the Trump campaign, for the candidate, even if he lost, would make money as his brand would be accentuated.  Problems would only arise if he won.

As far as the organization in the White House, there was little during the first three months, if any.  Wolff best sums it up by quoting Katie Walsh, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, “Steve Bannon was running the Steve Bannon White House, Jared Kushner was running the Michael Bloomberg White House, and Reince Priebus was running the Paul Ryan White House,” (117)  each person was a polished leaker, and Trump was in the middle.  In fact there was so much leaking from within the Trump administration that it was probably the most transparent administration in history.

The Syrian chemical attack of April, 2017 is a case in point when dealing with White House dysfunction and decision making.  Trump, apart from his bragging of how intelligent he is does not read and has a very short attention span.  Since he has no knowledge of most issues when a crisis occurs that calls for his input that in of itself, is a crisis.  For Trump any decision that he arrives at rests on how it affects him personally, not what is best for the country or the American people as a whole.  When National Security advisor H. R. McMaster tried to advise the president concerning the actions of the Assad government, Wolff points out that what occurred was “an exercise in trying to tutor a recalcitrant and resentful student.” As Trump has stated, McMaster “bored the shit out of me.” (189)

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(General H.R. McMaster and President Trump)

One of the major questions that has arisen of late is whether Trump is a racist, a question that has been exacerbated by his recent remarks characterizing African and other regions of the world as “shitholes” (Freud would characterize Trump as stuck in the anal stage, age 2-4), in addition to remarks concerning white supremacists after the events in Charlottesville, Va.  Wolff discusses Trump’s racism in the context of antisemitism in a chapter entitled, “Goldman.”  Here Wolff encapsulates the Bannon (anti-Semite) and Kushner (orthodox Jew) battle to influence the president and establish their own power base.  According to Wolff, Henry Kissinger described the West Wing as “a war between Jews and non-Jews.”  Bannon ridicules Kushner’s Israel portfolio, and the sentiments are returned in the context of the racist alt-right.  This represent further evidence of dysfunction with this type of conflict just to get the ear of the president, an important component of decision making as Trump’s conclusions are in many cases based on the last person he has spoken with.

A major sub heading for Wolff is his biographical narrative that deals with Bannon, a man who sees himself as the protector of the nation’s soul.  Wolff follows Bannon from crisis to crisis, through lost influence and then a comeback, and his wars with Jarvanka and their supporters.  Bannon is central to the book as a source, as well as putting forth his own opinions.  In reference to the June, 2016 meeting between Don, Jr., Paul Manafort and company with the Russians, Bannon commented that “the chance that Don, Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero.”  Further, Bannon accused Don, Jr. of treason and being unpatriotic.  Bannon’s comments would eviscerate Don, Jr. saying “this was all about money laundering,” and “they’re going to crack Don, Jr. like an egg on national TV.” (255)  As far as Ivanka was concerned, Bannon referred to her as “dumb as a brick” and even called her “a fucking liar” in front of her father.  In Bannon’s mind he was setting up the firewall to protect Trump from the Russian investigation which was caused when Jarvanka recommended firing FBI Director James Come.  Wolff describes a war between Stephen Bannon and the First Family which could only end poorly for Bannon.

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(General John Kelly)

The problem with what Wolff describes is that it is difficult to believe that you couldn’t make this stuff up!  The discussion of H.R. McMaster trying to get Trump to make a decision on Afghanistan, the Anthony Scaramucci episode, Trump’s personal war with the hosts of “Morning Joe,” General John Kelly’s attempt to reign in the president and bring structure to the West Wing, the war of words between Trump and Kim Jung un, and an almost daily bombardment of chaos is a description of the reality that is currently the Trump presidency.

Wolff describes a president who has little interest in the detail that is needed to be president.  Much of what he tells us is not new and many of his judgements are quite vague, a strategy he probably adopted to protect himself from libel laws.  But taken as a whole, stripping away the gossip, Wolff’s narrative is very scary.  All one needs to see is what has happened since the book came out.  Bannon has been banished, the president’s loyalists have gone after Robert Mueller, and Trump’s launching a campaign to undermine the FBI and the Justice Department. Yesterday, we learned that Trump ordered the firing of Mueller last June, but the White House counsel refused to carry out the order and threatened to resign.  For me, each day is an adventure that produces further angst.  Hopefully in the near, as someone once said, “our long national nightmare [will soon] be over.”

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(President Trump and Stephen Bannon)

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THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: EDWARD LANSDALE AND THE TRAGEDY OF VIETNAM by Max Boot

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(Edward Lansdale)

The popularity of the new film, “The Post” has refocused the attention of many people on the PENTAGON PAPERS and the Vietnam War.  Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the history of the war commissioned by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to the New York Times created a crisis atmosphere that was settled by the Supreme Court.  In his latest book, THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: EDWARD LANSDALE AND THE TRAGEDY OF VIETNAM, Max Boot, a Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, revisits the war and the life of one of the most interesting figures associated with it.  Lansdale was a former advertising executive who strongly believed in capitalism and American democracy.  He would join the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, become an advisor and intelligence officer in the Philippines and South Vietnam, and possessed a vision of how to deal with communist advances during the Cold War.  His realpolitik rested on winning the loyalty of indigenous people through honesty, respect, and a willingness to work with and treat people with humanity.  Boot has written a superb biography of Lansdale who hoped to win the “hearts and minds” of people as opposed to acting as a typical colonial oppressor.

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(Lansdale with Ngo Dinh Diem)

Lansdale first made his reputation in the Philippines as he advised the Philippine army in defeating the Hukbalahap (Huk) Rebellion against then President Elpidio Quirino.  Lansdale’s work in the Philippines was a petri dish for his strategies, reputation, concept of nation-building, and counter-insurgency.  Working with the Secretary of National Defense, Ramon Magsaysay he was able to achieve one of the few American successes in nation-building after World War II as he orchestrated his rise to the presidency in 1953.  The problem for Lansdale was that he was unable to transfer the strategy and techniques that worked in the Philippines to Vietnam.

Boot begins his narrative with a discussion of Lansdale’s life and career before he was dispatched to the Philippines.  After spending roughly a quarter of the monograph on Lansdale’s counter-insurgency education in the Philippines, Boot moves on to his initial exposure to Vietnam and his early relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem.  As Boot proceeds he provides a detailed discussion of French colonialism until their disaster at Dienbienphu, and a short biography of Ho Chi Minh and his rise to leadership in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

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Boot’s overriding theme is that had American policy makers, including presidents, cabinet members, bureaucrats, and other policy makers listened to Lansdale’s advice the course of the Vietnam War might have been different.  He does not say that North Vietnam would have been defeated, however the way the United States conducted the war would have been different and at least civilian deaths and American casualties would have been lessened a great deal, and perhaps the United States’ ignominious departure would not have taken place as it did.  For Boot the key was the removal and assassination of Diem from power in 1963 as there was no one who could take his place and what resulted was a series of coups by generals who had no political support outside of the military.  Diem may not have been the best of leaders, but at least he kept the Saigon government somewhat unified for almost a decade.  Boot’s thesis is sound and it is well supported through analysis and his access to materials that previous biographers did not have available.

Lansdale’s view of nation-building can best be summed up in the advice he offered Diem in June, 1954 when he stressed the need to bring the nationalist political parties in an anti-communist coalition, create public forums around the countryside where government representatives could hear from people, and immediately adopt a Philippine style constitution among many suggestions.  For Lansdale psy-ops, methods of mental and emotional manipulation and soft propaganda were the key to success, not bombing people back to the Stone Age.  Lansdale would take the time to learn about the countries he was assigned to and prepare in depth original analysis that were incomparable.  He argued that insurgencies arose from chaotic, impoverished conditions, and any success would only result from meeting the needs of the people by creating functioning state institutions.  Washington’s decision to withdraw Lansdale from Saigon in late 1956 and failing to replace him with someone who could have at least a benign influence on Diem was a major error.

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(Philippine President, Ramon Magsaysay)

Lansdale was a complex individual who may have been the model for characters in two Graham Greene novels, THE UGLY AMERICAN and THE QUIET AMERICAN.  Boot examines Lansdale’s character and private life in detail as he had access to recently opened government files, letters, and diaries from Lansdale’s children, in addition to the correspondence with Patrocinio Yapeinco Kelly (Pat Kelly), who was his mistress in the Philippines, and years later became his second wife.  Boot describes his relationship with many of the important historical figures of the period.  An important aspect is how Lansdale’s personality was an asset to his work throughout the 1950s, but once the Kennedy administration came to power his influence waned, especially since he and Robert McNamara did not see eye to eye.  Lansdale may have had the ability to get foreign leaders on his side, but he was not very effective in dealing with the bureaucracies in Washington who ignored his advice and pursued their own agendas.  It seems that only Lansdale had the skill and relationship with Diem to get him to reform.  Instead of appointing Lansdale as ambassador to South Vietnam, President Kennedy made him assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Special Operations.

Boot carries his analysis further as he explains how Lansdale’s second tour in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1968 did not go as well as he had hoped.  During the Johnson administration he would once again be marginalized and would leave Saigon as a “beaten man.”  Once again resentment from his many critics and his inability to work with people outside of his circle did him in.

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(Daniel Ellsberg)

Boot does an effective job introducing the major characters Lansdale had to deal with.  Each character from Alan Dulles, Ngueyen Cao Key, Ramon Magsaysay, Robert McNamara, Daniel Ellsberg, Ngo Dinh Nhu, to numerous others is presented through a short biography that is integrated into the narrative for the reader.  Boot is an excellent writer and has uncovered a great deal of new information.  Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters in the book entitled “Waiting for the Second Coming,” explores Lansdale’s second tour in South Vietnam and how Lansdale became irrelevant.  It is a shame because by 1966 “Lansdale was generally far more realistic in his assessment of the situation than Westmoreland, Lodge, and other senior officials. And less prone to trumpeting illusionary progress.” (500)  There are many other important chapters in the book including one dealing with Operation Mongoose, headed by Lansdale designed to eliminate Fidel Castro once he came to power in Cuba; material that highlighted Lansdale’s testimony in the Senate hearings into the CIA in the mid-1970s; in addition to a discussion of Lansdale’s relationship with Daniel Ellsberg.

What makes Boot’s contribution to the historiography of the Vietnam War important is his examination of events, personalities, and strategies through the world view of someone, who with hindsight, turned out to be quite accurate in his predictions.  Lansdale lived a fascinating life and his impact can still be seen in American counter-insurgency doctrine as applied in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Lansdale was a believer in “soft power,” not the “Westmoreland approach” as Philip Caputo puts in his memoir, A RUMOR OF WAR, “Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: kill communists and to kill as many of them as possible.  Stack ‘em like cordwood.” (475)

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(Edward Lansdale)

COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN by Luke Harding

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(the Kremlin, Moscow)

Each day it seems as if the American people are exposed to the drip, drip of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the possible role played by the Trump campaign in collusion with the Putin government.  We hear about Christopher Steele’s “Dossier,” the link between Russian oligarchs and their ties to Putin, meetings with Trump officials, the role of Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign manager facing indictment, the flipping of a Trump foreign policy advisor to the Mueller investigation, and the latest, a deal between Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security advisor and the special prosecutor.  The latest twist seems to be conservative House Republicans calling for a Special Prosecutor to investigate the Special Prosecutor.  If names like Orbis, Fushion GPS, Gucifer 2.0, GRU, FSB, Sergey Kislyak, Carter Page, Robert Goldstone, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and numerous other names boggle the mind then you might want to consult Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent for the Guardian, new book, COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN.

For those who are skeptical about Trump’s role in either obstruction of justice, or outright collusion with Russia they should consult Harding’s monograph.  In fact, as the confusion that surrounds the collusion becomes clearer and clearer one might say that Harding has done us all a service by preparing a handbook of all the characters, motivations, crimes, disingenuous behavior, outright lies/falsehoods, and other aspects associated with the topic.  Harding digs deep using his many sources based on a career that saw him posted to New Delhi, Berlin and as the former bureau chief in Moscow from 2007 to 2011, as well as his contacts in Britain’s MI6 and SIS, as well as the American intelligence community.  Further he has followed and written about the likes of Paul Manafort and his machinations in the Ukraine for Viktor Yanukovych long before Trump announced his candidacy, and was also able to interview Christopher Steele.  What results is almost a legal brief that points to the guilt of the Trump campaign and the President in collaborating with Moscow, and doing all it could to deflect any investigation of what actually occurred.

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(Putin and Trump)

Harding begins by providing the background for the “Dossier,” authored by former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele.  The famous “Dossier” grew out of Steele’s assignment to uncover the Kremlin’s innermost secrets as they applied to Donald Trump.  Steele’s investigation argues a number of points that anyone who has followed this story in any detail has heard numerous times before;  from Trump’s public call for Putin to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, the Wikileaks leak of Clinton emails in June and October 2016, the hacking of Democratic and Republican National Committee computers, with only Democratic information leaked, Trump’s denigration of almost every politician domestic or worldwide, except for Putin who he constantly praises, the fact that Russian intelligence sources have been “cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years,” how Trump and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, claims that the FSB has compromised Trump through his past activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him, and a trail of money laundering and other acts that make one ask, what does Moscow have on Trump that he is afraid to criticize Putin, and constantly denies Russian involvement in the election, in addition to repeatedly interfering in the Mueller investigation?  All the answers to these questions are present in Harding’s narrative.

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(Christopher Steele)

The author takes the reader through the actions of Aras and Emin Agalarov, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and a host others along with a short biographical sketch of each.  We learn their role in the collusion through their interest and relationship with the Kremlin.  Harding explores Vladimir Putin’s motivations and goals as they relate to his hatred of Hillary Clinton, the desire to create chaos and doubt in the American electoral system, and most importantly gain a reduction or lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration due to Russian actions in the Crimea, Ukraine, and the 2016 election.  In Donald Trump, Putin found an American politician who could allow him to achieve these goals.  The question Harding raises is how do we establish the trail between the two men?  The answer he argues lies in following the money.

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(Carter Page)

The entire scenario would seem unbelievable if it hadn’t occurred.  Trump and his supporters can scream “fake news” all they want, but indictments are facts and Trump’s behavior throughout points to someone with something to hide.  Harding provides an in depth analysis of the Trump-Kremlin tie that dates back to 1987 when the KGB looked on the New York real estate developer as a meaningful target.  Harding traces Trump’s relationship with certain Kremlin linked officials, and oligarchs.  What emerges is a clear picture of how the Kremlin developed its relationship with Trump that would lead them to support his candidacy for president.  Harding explores the role of Donald Trump, Jr. and the infamous June, 2017 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, former KGB officer Rinat Akhmetshin, and others who offered the president’s son dirt on Hillary Clinton.  At first, as in most cases with Trump associates, Trump, Jr. denied the meeting, then said it was about something else, then finally gave in and admitted he met with Russians and was favorable to receiving foreign dirt on Clinton.

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Harding follows his own advice and follows the flow of money.  Offshore shell companies, multiple bank accounts, tax havens, payoffs, Russian oligarchs, laundering of funds, money disguised as salary or real estate deals, the role of Deutsche Bank, Trump’s New York creditor are all included in Harding’s expose.   Harding relies a great deal on Steele’s research and conclusions and believes that roughly 70-90% of what is in the “Dossier” is true, that being the case, it is clear as to why Trump wants to shut down the Mueller investigation.  In fact, Harding provides so many plots and sub plots that at times it is hard to keep up with the flow of information, evidence, and characters discussed.  For the Trump people it appears that almost every day they have to put out some sort of brush fire that relates to the Mueller investigation be it the testimony of Donald Trump, Jr., Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or the investigative work of Congressional committees.  One thing that is clear from Harding’s investigative work – the Trump Organization has been laundering Russian money for years, and without Russian money the Trump Organization’s many financial issues would have proven disastrous.

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(Michael Flynn addressing the Republican National Convention)

Harding also explores the relationship between former FBI Director James Comey, the role of the Justice Department, and Trump’s attempts to bring Comey on board in dropping the investigation of Michael Flynn.  The author takes the reader through the Comey firing and its role in obstruction of justice which the president even admitted to NBC’s Lester Holt.  Harding has gone a long way in disentangling the web of Trump’s financial empire, a structure that appears to rest on a great deal of Russian state funds.

One wonders why certain Republicans have cooperated with Trump’s campaign of fake news and obstruction.  Perhaps it is the current tax bill that they are trying to ram through Congress might want to achieve corporate tax cuts and follow the orders of their donors.  Be that as it may, if you are interested in learning what Trump is afraid of you to consult Harding’s latest book.

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(the Kremlin, Moscow)

MY LAI: VIETNAM, 1968, AND THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS by Howard Jones

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From the outset of his new book MY LAI: VIETNAM, 1968 AND THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS notable historian Howard Jones argues that the massacre that took place on March 16, 1968 killing 504 Vietnamese villagers “laid bare the war, revealing that it was unwinnable and that, in the process of fighting for democracy and a way of life; America had lost its moral compass.”  .  When it comes to examining American opinion on My Lai one finds that it is split.  On the one hand, during his four month trial Lt. William Calley argued that he was innocent and that he was just following orders.  However, at the time Americans were polarized and the massacre fed opposition to the war, which addition to the Tet Offensive, the invasion of Cambodia, and the Kent State shootings helped unite Americans against the carnage in Southeast Asia and for many it had turned our young men into “baby killers.”  On the other hand, many saw Calley as a scapegoat for a war gone wrong, with a flawed military approach that hindered the prosecution of the war correctly.  Calley’s conviction would harden support for the war and no matter what one’s point of view is the fissures in American society were exacerbated by events at My Lai.

Jones is to be commended for attempting to produce the most balanced and accurate account of the massacre and its aftermath as possible.  He employs all the tools of a good historian by exploring all documentation available, secondary sources on the topic, interviews, and film to present a fair representation as to what happened.  As historians we are aware that total objectivity in reporting and analyzing historical events is almost an impossible task, but Jones comes very close in achieving his goal.  What sets Jones’ effort apart is the availability of Vietnamese accounts which are skillfully integrated into the narrative that were not available for authors who have previously engaged this topic.

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(Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, President Richard Nixon, Lt. William Calley)

Jones does an excellent job in setting the scene of the area known as “Pinksville” where the My Lai villages were located.  It is clear that events leading up to March 16th were fraught with booby traps, land mines, snipers, and other obstacles that resulted in the death of many soldiers.  Jones captures the mindset of men who were ordered to take part in the sweep that targeted the 48th Viet Cong Battalion that dominated the area.  Men were told that Vietnamese civilians would be absent in large part as they usually walked to the market in Quang Nai City, and that the Vietcong force would be double the size of the American units.  The instructions given to American troops by Captain Ernest Medina, Lt. Calley, and other higher ups was poorly conceived and left a number of gaps for troops to deal with.  Jones stresses the relationship between Medina and Calley as a major issue as Medina held a very low opinion of his Platoon commander and often humiliated him in front of the troops.  Jones further stresses the weak intelligence that was provided and orders that zeroed in on a “search and destroy” mission that applied to anything that could possibly be used by the Viet Cong (anything, including civilians who supported the VC).

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(Capt. Ernest Medina)

Jones describes what feels like a minute by minute account of the slaughter that took place.  The actions of certain soldiers receives greater attention as they were actively involved in the killings.  Jones has mined trial transcripts, Army reports, and interviews and with a historians eye for detail and lays out that happened on March 16, 1968 in a cogent fashion.  He explores the command structure, personalities involved, as well village life for Vietnamese peasants.  Captain Medina is center stage whose orders were to kill any Vietnamese present, because if they were in the villages they must be Viet Cong.  For Medina “search and destroy” meant burning the villages and killing its inhabitants.  Since the troops were told no civilians would be present, for the soldiers once the killing started it could not be controlled.  For Platoon One under Calley another component was his need to prove himself to Medina.  For Calley the way to impress Medina was the body count.  Taken with racism and fear infused in the men, and Calley’s psychological needs it was a disaster waiting to happen.

At times the reader will become sickened by what Jones describes.  Wanton murder, gang rapes, sadism are all present as Jones relates the actions of deprived men like SP4 Gary Roschevitz, PFC Robert T’Souva, PFC Paul Meadlo and numerous others, a list that is too long to reproduce.  Calley as the officer in charge saw himself as judge, jury, and executioner.  Eventually a number of men refused to continue to take part or refused from the outset.  Men became concerned as Stars and Stripes reporter Jay Robert and photographer Ronald Haberle were present and creating a record of events.

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(Helicopter gunner Lawrence Colburn)

One of the most important characters that Jones introduces is Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who flew over the battlefield, landed and confronted the perpetrators, and even got into an argument with another officer that almost turned violent.  Once the massacre ended Thompson would report what he witnessed which takes the reader into the second part of the book entitled “Aftermath and Cover up” which is exactly what took place.  Jones does a good job following the trail of “investigations,” written reports, denials, and collusion that was designed to cover up the actions taken by those in charge.  Men like Colonel Frank Barker, Colonel Oran Henderson, and their commander Major General Samuel Koster are seen pursuing an investigation with blinders on.  First, trying to discredit Thompson; Second, obfuscating and fabricating as much as possible in the hopes that the evidence would not produce war crimes; lastly, arguing that 128 Viet Cong were killed, however it could never explain why only 3 weapons were captured, which made no sense and reflected their disparate reasoning.   Jones pinpoints the strategy used to white wash events and zeroes in on the lack of accountability taken by those in command from General William Westmoreland on down.

Perhaps the most important person in pursuing the truth was helicopter gunner Ronald Ridenhour who came in contact with PFC Charles “Butch” Gruver who was present at My Lai in April, 1968.  Gruver told Ridenhour what had happened which conformed to what he saw on the ground during a fly over of the region.  Ridenhour would continue to run into men who were at My Lai, but fearing retribution would wait a year before sending out a five page description of what really occurred to military, administrative, and congressional leaders.  This would finally lead to a series of contacts within the government, one of which was the Inspector General’s Office.  Colonel William Wilson was charged with investigating Ridenhour’s allegations.  Jones follows Wilson’s journey across the United States and as he interviewed a number of former soldiers who had been present on March 16, 1968.  Based on his information General Westmoreland directed Chief Warrant Officer Andre Feher of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division to conduct an inquiry as to what happened in My Lai.  Jones reproduces important aspects of his conversations with Calley, Thompson, Meadlo and others as well as the Army’s attempt to keep the charges against Calley out of the media.

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Throughout the narrative Jones’ presentation is impeccable and it continues as he presents and analyzes the results of the Peers Commission which found that American troops had massacred between 175 and more than 400 Vietnamese civilians.  The commission blamed Major-General Samuel Koster for suppressing information, falsely testifying, and initiating a conspiracy to withhold facts.  Further, it found evidence that Medina and Calley were guilty of war crimes.

The role of the Nixon administration fits the pattern of illegal actions they were engaged in at the time.  Nixon personally became involved as he tried to discredit witnesses to the massacre and believed that Calley was “getting a bum rap.”  Nixon set up “Task-Force My Lai” under H.R. Haldeman to undermine negative press reports.  Nixon’s strategy was to reduce opposition to the war as My Lai was causing the opposite.  He would pressure Senator Mendel Rivers, who headed the Senate Arms Services Committee investigation to discredit witnesses, and the Sub-Committee headed by Senator F. Edward Herbert which zeroed in on Thompson and Colburn.

Jones follows the legal trail that led to a series of trials, though fewer than recommended.  Since many witnesses were unavailable or refused to cooperate, in addition to the defense argument that you could not convict someone for obeying an illegal order held sway making it very difficult to obtain convictions.  The result was that the Army dropped the charges against numerous individuals.  The trials that receive the most attention are those of Calley, Henderson, and Medina.  Jones has carefully examined the trial transcripts and reconstructed the courtroom scenes of each, in addition to the public and military reactions to the verdicts.  In Calley’s case many saw him as a scapegoat for a war no one wanted to fight.  For President Nixon, the verdict was superfluous as he decided to “commute” the sentence before it was even imposed.

Much of what Jones has written reads like a “Grisham” type novel as rape, murder, deceit are all on full display inside and outside the courtroom.  My Lai was the worst massacre in American military history and it deeply affected American politics and society for the years that followed.  One must ask the question was My Lai an aberration or one of many atrocities American troops engaged in.  The answer based on available evidence is no, as there are numerous examples of this type of behavior, but were not on the level of My Lai because of the numbers involved – over 500 dead, a result of the actions of at least 40 American soldiers.  Jones brings his study to a conclusion by talking about the lives of many soldiers including Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn, and many others and how it affected their lives following military service.  The conclusion that can be drawn is we still do not know why allows why people that appear to be normal commit such acts of horror.  Jones has written the penultimate book on My Lai and its historical implications and it should be read by all considering a military career and those civilians who are in charge of the military and are involved in the conduct of foreign policy.

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PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS by Lawrence O’Donnell

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstration on the streets of Chicago)

The publication of MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell’s new book, PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS comes at a propitious moment in American political history.  According to O’Donnell 1968 is the watershed year that set our current politics in motion – a partisan conflict were by ideology and party affiliation has become more important than the needs of the American people.  O’Donnell argues that before 1968 the terms conservative democrat and liberal republican existed, today they are pretty much extinct.  By examining 1968 we can discern the origin of this political schism and conjecture on how it affects the United States domestically and in the realm of foreign policy.  The comparison between our current politics and 1968 is fascinating as Donald Trump seems to have adopted the populist message of Alabama governor George C. Wallace, be it state’s rights or white nationalism, and Bernie Sanders can be compared with Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and his liberal socialist agenda.  We must also mention the emergence of Roger Ailes and the role of Fox news in molding a certain part of the electorate, because in 1968 Ailes joined the Nixon campaign, which over decades led to the creation of his successful news outlet and helped formulate the term “fake news.”

 

The election of 1968 was about life and death as the war in Vietnam controlled people’s lives.  A person’s draft status dominated their waking hours be it soon to be high school graduates, college students, and recent college graduates.  The United States found itself in this situation due to the machinations of the Johnson administration in late July and early August, 1964 that resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which provided Lyndon Johnson with almost imperial powers to conduct a war.  According to Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach appearing before Senator J. William Fulbright’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized the president to use “the armed forces of the United States in any way that was necessary,” and argued further that the constitution did not require the Senate to play a role in foreign policy.  Johnson would take the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as almost carte blanche in getting the United States into a quagmire in Vietnam.  Keeping with the theme of comparing the past to the present, the Patriot Act passed by Congress and signed into law on October 26, 2001 in response to 9/11 has been used in a similar fashion by three presidents; Bush, Obama, and Trump to conduct war on their own terms in the Middle East, and currently it appears, in Africa.

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(President Lyndon Johnson agonizing over Vietnam)

For O’Donnell the key figure in 1968 is Senator Robert Kennedy who appeared as a political “rock star.”  People believed that he would never send America’s youth to fight in Vietnam a subject he rarely spoke about in his speeches.  People related to Kennedy because they recognized the pain he was in and believed his empathy for the electorate was real.  Many believed that it was only justice for Robert Kennedy to reclaim the presidency that was lost in Dallas when his brother was assassinated in November, 1963.  The 1960s was an era of change, and no one’s view of the world changed more than Robert Kennedy.  By 1968 the Senate began questioning Johnson’s “monarchial” approach to Vietnam and this would help foster the political upheaval we are still dealing with today.

O’Donnell does a wonderful job replaying the events leading up to 1968 and what took place that incredible year.  My main problem with O’Donnell’s approach is that it mostly based on his own experience and writing and a slew of secondary sources and in some cases not even the best ones.  A case in point is the Johnson-Kennedy rivalry and contempt for each other.  The best study of rivalry is Jeff Shesol’s MUTUAL CONTEMPT: LYNDON JOHNSON, ROBERT KENNEDY, AND THE AND A FEUD THAT DEFINED A DECADE an in depth nuanced look that O’Donnell might have consulted.  There are many other examples including his over-reliance on Evan Thomas’ biography of Kennedy, which reinforces my belief that O’Donnell needs to broaden his research, with the integration of more primary materials that would further his arguments as a significant part of the book reads like Theodore White’s THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968.

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(New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy)

To O’Donnell’s credit there are many fine chapters and insights interspersed throughout the narrative.  By delving into the different factions on the left and the right the reader is exposed to the ideological struggle that existed in both the Democratic and Republican parties.  The introduction of Allard Lowenstein, the role of Gene McCarthy’s candidacy, in addition to the rise of the radical left, we can see the beginning of the splintering of the Democratic Party.  The chapters dealing with the Kennedy-McCarthy competition for the Democratic nomination is well played out as is the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey after Robert Kennedy is assassinated.  Republicans also experienced many fissures in their quest for the presidency.  The discussion involving the reinvention of Richard Nixon, the liberal quest of Nelson Rockefeller, and the rise of Ronald Reagan on the right within the Republican Party are all artfully explained and we see the end result, and the type of campaign the “new Nixon” ran.

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Among O’Donnell’s most important points include the machinations within both major political parties, the role of the Tet Offensive in Johnson’s withdrawal from the race, Kennedy’s candidacy, and the politics of fear employed by George Wallace.  Perhaps O’Donnell’s most interesting comments encompass the rise of Ronald Reagan as a conservative spokesperson for General Electric allowing him to develop into a viable political candidate.  O’Donnell’s is right on when he argues that Reagan was GE’s tool in educating workers, and indirectly the public in the evils of unions, government interference in the economy, and the benefits of giving freer rein to corporate America embodied in General Electric.

In addition, O’Donnell is correct in pointing out that the militarization of America’s police forces that we experience today began in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  King’s death led to burning and rioting in 30 US cities that called for 18 Army Brigades, consisting of 50,000 troops to restore civilian control.  The result was 20,000 arrests and 39 dead.  Another example of how the past formed the present is the concept of “premeditated confrontation” that ABC introduced as a way to save money on their coverage of the Republican convention.  By pitting the well-known conservative intellectual William F. Buckley against Gore Vidal, novelist and liberal commentator the expected explosions took place.  When we watch PBS, the networks, and cable television today, we can easily discern where these types of panels originated.

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(Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago yelling anti-semetic comments toward  Senator Abraham Ribicoff at the Democratic Convention)

O’Donnell forces the reader to relive or learn for the first time the impact of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and to contemplate a counter factual approach to history by conjecturing what America might have experienced had he been elected to the presidency.  Vietnam, civil rights, and numerous other issues would probably have played out much differently than it did under the Nixon administration, an administration that came to power based on the treason Nixon committed by interfering with the Paris Peace talks at the end of October, 1968 thereby contributing to the ongoing war in Vietnam and perhaps lost the opportunity for peace that led to the death of over 20,000 more Americans.

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(President Richard Nixon)

What is clear from O’Donnell’s narrative is that Donald Trump copied the 1968 Richard Nixon playbook in his presidential run.  First, the slogan “America First” began with Nixon as did the concept of the “silent majority” that Trump also followed.  Second, Nixon’s approach was one of anti-tax, anti-government, anti-abortion, pro-law-and-order, just as was Trump’s.  It is also clear that 1968 was a dividing line in the evolution of partisan politics and a realignment of the American electorate, it is just a question of how long the American people will suffer because of these changes.  For O’Donnell, Eugene McCarthy is his hero because he was the first one to take the risk and try and end the war.  Bobby Kennedy, is also his hero, but he was not the first to challenge an incumbent president as McCarthy had.  In conclusion, I would recommend that O’Donnell include more of his comments that have been on display recently on various programs on MSNBC, because they strengthen his overall narrative argument.

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrations on the streets of Chicago)

STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY by Walter Stahr

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

When one thinks of impactful figures in American history few would come up with the name, Edwin M. Stanton.  However, without Stanton the North would have had a much more difficult time defeating the South in the Civil War, the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated someone else would have had to step forward to round up the conspirators and capture John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis, and perhaps Andrew Johnson might not have been brought before the Senate for an impeachment trial.  Lincoln’s Secretary of War is the subject of Walter Stahr’s latest biography, STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY, a smartly written, intimate, and incisive portrait of Stanton’s role in the Civil War and American history in general.  As he did in his previous biographies of John Jay and William Seward, Stahr has mined the available sources reaffirming many of the standard opinions of his subject, but also evaluating new sources and developing new perspectives.

Born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1814 Stanton was raised near the dividing line between the slave and non-slave states of Virginia and Ohio in a period when abolitionism was beginning to take root.  Stanton would attend Kenyon College, but never graduate.  He went on to study law under the auspices of a Steubenville attorney, Daniel Collier and began his practice of law in the spring of 1837.  Soon Judge Benjamin Tappan, a staunch Democrat would become his law partner and mentor.  At this point in time Stanton grew increasingly interested in politics in large part due to the depression that would last over five years.  Stanton’s involvement in Democratic Party politics increased and he was soon elected Prosecutor for Harrison County, Ohio.  Judge Tappan would soon be appointed to the US Senate and Stanton was well on his way as a partisan Democrat developing a “no holds barred” approach to politics.

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(Stanton and Lincoln’s cabinet)

Stahr has full command of primary materials as he repeatedly points out what documents pertaining to Stanton’s views were available and those that were missing.  This allows him to compare diverse viewpoints and sources to determine what Stanton actually wrote, said, or acted upon during his law and political career.  Stahr attacks the many myths associated with Stanton and he does his best to straighten out discrepancies in the historical record.  In Stahr’s study we follow the evolution of Stanton from an important member of the Ohio Democratic Party to becoming the cornerstone of Lincoln’s Republican administration.  During this later process, in particular, we witness the liberalization of Stanton’s views dealing with race.

Stanton’s personal life was wrought with tragedy leading to a strong sense of religiosity.  As a boy he would lose his father, a brother would commit suicide, and a sister would pass at a young age.  Further, in March, 1844 he would lose his first wife to tuberculosis and during the war years he would lose his infant son James.  These experiences made him appear decidedly older than he actually was.

Stahr correctly stresses that though he was known for his service to a Republican president, Stanton was a staunch Democrat who had supported Martin Van Buren as President, and later James K. Polk’s annexationist policies.  Though he had a very low opinion of James Buchanan whose presidency directly preceded the Civil War, he did not think that highly of Abraham Lincoln either during the pre-war period.

An area that Stahr should have developed much further were Stanton’s views on race and abolitionism.  The author seems to skirt these issues and based on his later beliefs an earlier intellectual roadmap for Stanton’s thinking is warranted.  In Stahr’s defense,  he does give the appropriate amount of attention to Stanton’s views and handling of the use of blacks as soldiers in the union army and what prerequisites it demanded and how it would be implemented, especially the Freedman’s Bureau.  Further, the care and treatment of former slaves is examined and the reader gains a more complete picture of where Stanton stood on these issues especially constitutional amendments.   Stahr does spend an inordinate amount of time detailing Stanton’s legal career, seemingly case by case ranging from the Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge case arguing that the bridge blocked commerce on the Ohio River designated for Pittsburgh, to land cases in California, patent claims, labor riots, medical body-snatching, death from duels, and electoral chicanery.  Stanton would argue many cases before the Supreme Court, and many thought he was the leading lawyer of the period.

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(Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, January, 1863)

One of the strengths of Stahr’s effort are his descriptions of American society, culture, and geography in areas in which Stanton lived and influenced.  Stahr provides numerous insights particularly concerning California in the 1850s where he argued numerous land claims, and Washington DC before, during, and after the Civil War.

Stahr stresses how Stanton seems to always claim the moral higher ground no matter the situation.  It is difficult to sustain that approach by supporting the weak President Buchanan and the corruption that surrounded him.  Stanton became a member of the Buchanan administration because of his legal work and with a few months remaining in office Buchannan appointed Stanton Attorney-General.  The most important issue that was at hand was whether to supply Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded.  Buchanan’s cabinet was split by secessionists and those loyal to the union, and Stanton did his best to stiffen Buchanan’s back and get him to support resupply.  Once out of office Stanton’s view of cabinet meetings stressed positions that Republicans would support as a means of strengthening his position with Lincoln.  Stahr is on firm ground as he argues that Stanton’s view of Lincoln at this time was not much better than Buchanan.  Stahr quotes Stanton’s letter to Buchanan after Lincoln assumes office, “the imbecility of this administration.… [is]…. a national disgrace never to be forgotten….as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.”  Stanton’s bonifides are also to be questioned as he was close with General George McClellan and seemed to share the same views.  It appeared too many inside and outside the press that they were “confidential friends.”  Simon Cameron as Secretary of War advocated arming slaves which McClellan abhorred.  With Congress upset over the course of the war by January, 1862 it should not have come as a surprise that Cameron would be fired.  What was surprising is that Lincoln chose Stanton as his replacement.

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Stahr is accurate in his assessment that Lincoln chose Stanton because of his organizational ability, his workaholic approach, and his ability to get things done.  Critics, particularly the northern democratic press pointed to Stanton’s extensive use of military commissions that tried civilians for military offenses, suspension of habeas corpus, and cutting telegraph privileges to opposing newspapers.  These criticisms of Stanton must be weighed against the crucible of war since the Militia and Conscription Acts did deprive numerous individuals’ due process and civil rights.  But one caveat to Stanton’s record on civil rights were the virulent attacks on the Secretary of War which a good part of the time were unmerciful.

Stahr does a workmanlike job reporting on the McClellan-Lincoln/Stanton imbroglio.  McClellan’s ego is explored in detail and the author makes excellent use of the available correspondence.  Stahr performs equally as well in detailing Stanton’s relationship with other generals including; Grant, Sherman, Hooker, Halleck, Meade, and Burnside.  The Stanton-Lincoln relationship is analyzed and the author like many historians before him concludes that personalities and demeanors may have been opposite in many cases, but as A.E. Johnson, Stanton’s private secretary wrote “they supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were necessary to each other.”

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Stahr does a commendable job revisiting the Andrew Johnson-Edwin Stanton relationship and the deterioration that led to Johnson’s trial in the Senate.  As with other examples in the book this aspect is well documented and the “large” personalities and issues involved are careful dissected.  The result is that Stahr has captured the essence of Stanton as a man who could be deceitful, arbitrary, capricious, as well as vindictive.  However, he was a superb Secretary of War who galvanized Union forces as well as President Lincoln with his energy, organizational skills, ability to learn and adapt, and overwhelming will to defeat the south.  Stahr characterizes Stanton as the “Implementer of Emancipation,” as opposed to the “Great Emancipator,” that was Lincoln.  But for all intents and purposes Stanton must be seen as the equal to Lincoln and Grant in earning accolades for their work during the Civil War.

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

THE GATEKEEPERS: HOW THE WHITE HOUSE CHIEFS OF STAFF DEFINE EVERY PRESIDENCY by Chris Whipple

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(Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first Chief of Staff)

At a time when the oval office is occupied by a man who seems to know no bounds of decency when it comes to race, hounds people who disagree with him on twitter, and vilifies individuals who he views as disloyal or refuse to do his bidding like former FBI head James Comey or Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, it is refreshing to read Chris Whipple’s new book THE GATEKEEPERS: HOW THE WHITE HOUSE CHIEFS OF STAFF DEFINE EVERY PRESIDENCY.  Recently President Trump fired his Chief of Staff, Reince Pribus, a man who had little influence over the President.  Since Trump is enamored with generals, he finally convinced John Kelley, a former Marine general to become his new Chief of Staff.  Kelly made it clear his role was not to reign in the President, but to bring order and efficiency to the West Wing.  It is clear that Kelly does not totally subscribe to the historical role of the Chief of Staff as defined by Leon Panetta, who successfully rescued Bill Clinton’s presidency who states that, “you have to be the person who says no.  You’ve got to be the son of a bitch who basically tells somebody what the president can’t tell him.”  If you had hoped that Kelly would influence or temper Trump’s tweets and actions all you have to do is evaluate the President’s reaction to events in Charlottesville, his rally in Phoenix, his reaction to the ongoing Russia investigation, and his pardon of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio of Maricopa, AZ.

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(Reince Pribus and John Kelly, President Trump’s Chiefs of Staff)

Whipple does the American people a service by describing and evaluating the men who have served as Chiefs of Staff dating back to the presidency of Richard Nixon.  In each case we see individuals battle to keep the Chief Executive on message, fully briefed on issues, and to project themselves as presidential unlike the dysfunctional situation that currently plagues the White House.  The key for the Chief of Staff is to instill discipline and focus on the West Wing as Leon Panetta was able to do to get Clinton reelected in 1996.  The most important task for the Chief of Staff is to always tell the President what he may not want to hear.  Whipple is correct that the role of the Chief of Staff is to translate the president’s agenda into reality.  “When the government works, it is usually because the chief understands the fabric of power, threading the needle where policy and politics converge.”  For example, without James Baker who stood between the press, Congress, and internal factions, Reagan’s presidency would have been a failure.  Further, without Leon Panetta to bring discipline and order to the White House Clinton would have been a one term president; without Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy had to deal with the Bay of Pigs; Lyndon Johnson did not have a strong Chief of Staff and he was swallowed by Vietnam.  As President Eisenhower told Richard Nixon, “every president has to have its own son of a bitch.”

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(President George H.W. Bush and John Sununu his Chief of Staff)

One of the most surprising points that Whipple makes is that the most advanced model of organizational structure at the White House was developed by H.R. Haldeman – the problem is that he did not follow his own ideas resulting in Watergate.  For later Chiefs of Staff eventually they would fall back to Haldeman’s structure.  Other surprising points include the career of Dick Cheney who was a sensational organizer during his tenure as Chief of Staff under President Ford, and almost got Ford reelected in 1976, but when he became Vice President under George W. Bush his entire world view had changed as he morphed into the defacto chief.  Many have conjectured why, and point to 9/11’s impact as being responsible.

The chief that one should not model was Hamilton Jordan who served under Jimmy Carter.  Jordan was not interested in the nitty gritty of policy and found basic White House protocol incomprehensible.  Jordan exacerbated his situation by his continual offending of Congressional leadership.  What made matters worse for Jordan was when Carter was elected the new president believed he was “the smartest person in the room” and acted as his own chief and the net result was the seeming failure of the Carter presidency despite his energy policy, the Camp David Accords, arms control, and the Panama Canal Treaty.  The opposite of Carter was Ronald Reagan who didn’t think he was the smartest person in the room, and knew how to delegate and have a strong Chief of Staff.  Apart from Iran-Contra, Reagan’s presidency is seen as a success as Baker made Reagan understand the political process of the presidency would be closely linked to his acceptance in Washington, something Carter never bought into, and navigating between the ideologues and pragmatists that served the president.

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(James and Howard Baker, two of Ronald Reagan’s Chiefs of Staff)

The strength of Whipple’s book is how he reviews the highs and lows of each administration by focusing on the actions of the diverse Chiefs of Staff who organized the West Wing and made it run efficiently.  By doing so Whipple explains the strategies and actions taken and judges whether their approach to governance was effective or not.  In the process the history of each administration is dealt with, and at times Whipple uncovers “nuggets” that have not been covered effectively by other authors.  A case in point is the reputation of Leon Panetta and by turning the Clinton administration around he proved you didn’t have to be “a bully or an attack dog to be an effective Chief of Staff.  You just have to be very smart.  You have to know when to be tough, and also when to let the reigns be a little looser.”  The Clinton administration also produced Erskine Bowles and John Podesta who demanded that Clinton treat them as peers despite their friendships and were able to be honest and upfront with him which led to a balanced budget, the States Children’s health Insurance Plan and the survival of the Lewinsky Affair.

Andrew Card who would have the longest tenure as a chief saw James Baker as a role model, but 9/11 would produce a new “Dick Cheney.”  Whipple explores why this occurred conjecturing with CBS’ Bob Schieffer that it could have been his heart condition that was responsible.  Whipple reviews the debate and actions that led to the ill-fated invasion of Iraq.  He does not really add anything new to the discussion, but what emerges is a marginalized Card who could not navigate between Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, and the Vice President.  One of the most controversial chiefs was Rahm Emanuel who served under President Obama.  Whipple does an excellent job explaining the different factions within the Obama administration and Emanuel’s role particularly guiding legislation through Congress as he was able to overcome the scars left over from the Clinton administration in gaining the passage of the Affordable Care Act.  Once Emanuel is replaced, Whipple is dead on in explaining why Emanuel’s replacement William Daley was a failure in his short stint at the White House, and how Dennis McDonough was able to counter Obama’s “Chicago crowd” as like Emanuel he was a strong communicator, something that Daley was not.

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(Andrew Card informing President George W. Bush about 9/11)

In a sense by reviewing each Chief of Staff’s tenure Whipple has created a handbook for President Trump’s Chief of Staff.  He does so by presenting a theoretical approach to the position, but also the realities that each man faced.  The political pragmatism that is needed to be successful emerges under the auspices of Baker, Emanuel, Panetta, and others, a characteristic that seems to be missing in the current White House.  Whipple writes with the journalistic flair one would expect from a multiple Peabody and Emmy award winner and in the current environment there are many people in power who should consult it.  If the Trump presidency eventually is unsuccessful in reaching its goals, Whipple has already explained why.

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(Rahm Emanuel)

 

 

 

 

AL FRANKEN: GIANT OF THE SENATE by Al Franken

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(After)

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

(Before)

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

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

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(Senator Franken on a USO tour in Afghanistan)

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

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

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(Franken on SNL)

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

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

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

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HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

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(Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION is the perfect companion for those interested in an in depth look at the development, creation, and performance of the musical, “Hamilton.”  At the outset the authors make the cogent point that they believe that what Lin has gifted to the American people is more than just a Broadway show, it reflects two revolutions side by side.  The first being the an 18th century revolution that is the foundation of our country and society, and the second, a 21st century revolution  for American theater as the musical provides a glimpse into a more diverse America.  In 2008, Lin came up with the idea of a hip-hop concept album about Alexander Hamilton.  He would employ hip-hop to tell the story that had nothing to do with hip-hop – using its form not content.  Lin’s success has gone far beyond whatever he could have imagined and his book co-written with Jeremy McCarter provides the public many important insights about the musical itself, and our country.

The book is both a narrative and oral history of how Lin gave birth to the musical lyrics and overall concept of “Hamilton.”  It is important that he does not deify the founders and by creating cast of Latinos and African-Americans to act out our “white” early history provides a unique perspective that audiences would not have experienced with a traditional approach to casting.  We are a nation of immigrants and through Hamilton’s own immigrant story it should bring us together and encourage immigration, as opposed to the political rhetoric of our times.

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(Elizabeth and Alexander Hamilton)

Lin is a master of character development.  A case in point is how in Act II has the actors who portrayed the Marquis de Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan, friends of Hamilton in Act I, play Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, his enemies.  Further, Lin creates lyrics based on his vast research, apart from Ron Chernow’s masterful biography, that augments the historical players and delivers through the lens of artistic license a fairly accurate presentation of history.  As a former history educator I drool at the thought of using the musical in a classroom situation. With students role playing and singing their way examining primary documents to learn our history, using a strategy that will make them remember their experience and material without pressure, would have been very rewarding.  The outreach of the musical in New York, and with plans to do the same as the production expands across the country, as McCarter points out on any given day hundreds of classes might be studying our early history using “Hamilton” as an excellent educational tool.

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The book explores a range of topics that include the biography of Alexander Hamilton, but also the causes of the American Revolution, its outcome, the main characters involved, the political struggle (vicious at times) that ensued, and culminates with the duel that resulted in Hamilton’s death.  The reader will gain a greater understanding of the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr, John Adams, and George Washington.  Lin explores the partisanship that existed through his lyrics as he does with the most important events of Hamilton’s lifetime.  Lin also delves into Hamilton’s family and the portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton is important in trying to determine what type of person Hamilton really was.  Lin has the ability to convey issues, relationships, and individual personalities in a way that entertains and interprets history in a meaningful way.

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The book thoroughly examines each song and places it in its historical context and how Lin went about creating the lyrics.  In addition, the book explores the people behind the scenes from the production, choreography, and scene creation in detail.  Vignettes abound, as the reader is exposed to information that normally would not be revealed in this type of companion volume.  If you did not believe that Lin was a “genius” before; once you read this book and explore songs ranging from the opening number that deals with Hamilton’s early years taking forty pages of Chernow’s biography and condensing it into song, to “Non-Stop,” which details the need for a justification for the new constitution, or the lyrics that go with George III’s three numbers, you will now.  Hopefully, all will be able to witness the musical in person at some point, but your viewing will be totally enhanced with the material that Lin and McCarter offer.

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(Hamilton and the Schuyler Sisters)

WAR OF TWO: ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR AND THE DUEL THAT STUNNED A NATION by John Sedgwick

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If you are looking for a comparative biography of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr I would avoid John Sedgwick’s WAR OF TWO: ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR AND THE DUEL THAT STUNNED A NATION.  I would turn to Ron Chernow’s magisterial work on Hamilton and Nancy Isenberg’s excellent life of Burr.  To his credit Sedgwick makes no pretensions to have produced similar all-encompassing works, and states that his goal was to prepare a more personal and intimate portrait of Hamilton and Burr as they careened through the late 18th and early 19th centuries toward their eventual collision.  There is a great deal that is attractive in Sedgwick’s work, but his seeming obsession with his subject’s attitudes and actions toward women detracts from some substantive insights.  There is much that can be praised, but careless errors abound.  I guess the reader should keep in mind that Sedgwick is a novelist, which is reflected in his prose, and not a trained historian.

The title of the book is an apt description of the end of the Hamilton-Burr relationship that dated back to the American Revolution.  Sedgwick’s goal is to present an analysis and history of the two men and determine why their relationship soured.  Sedgwick’s quest is to determine the turning point that pushed them on to the dueling field in Weehawken, New Jersey in 1804.

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(Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, “Hamilton: The Musical”)

It is ironic that two men who had much in common ended up with such antipathy for each other.  On the one hand Hamilton was particularly vocal about his disdain for Burr that seemed to originate in the election of 1792 and continued as he successfully contributed to Burr’s failed quest for the presidency and the governorship of New York State.  Or perhaps it was Burr’s defeat of Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler for his New York Senate seat.  In either case it appeared that Burr could swallow Hamilton’s demeaning and insulting comments for over a decade, but once Hamilton blocked him from the New York governorship in 1804, it was the last straw, especially due to Hamilton’s remarks at an Albany dinner at the home of Judge John Tayler.  Also in attendance was Dr. Charles D. Cooper who passed along Hamilton’s remarks to the editor of the New York Post, William Coleman.  Once Hamilton’s words reached the public, Burr was pushed over the edge.

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(The Duel)

Sedgwick recounts the most important aspects of the Hamilton-Burr association, mostly in a somewhat superficial manner.  Beginning with their upbringing and the fact that both grew up without parents, Burr, an orphan; Hamilton the son of an illegitimate pairing abandoned by his father, with a mother who was jailed for illicit behavior and passed away when Hamilton was a boy.  What sets Sedgwick’s narrative apart is the attention he offers to certain aspects of their lives that other biographers do not.  A case in point are Sedgwick’s ruminations concerning Burr’s attraction to women and resulting sex life, and Hamilton’s true lineage.  Sedgwick seems to hold a fascination with the sex lives of both men, noting the many affairs in which they were involved that are explored in detail.  As a novelist I guess he is drawn to tawdry aspects of his story and spends an inordinate amount of time on Hamilton’s idiotic pursuit of Maria Reynolds and the ruination of Hamilton’s career.

As previously mentioned, Sedgwick is prone to a number of historical errors.  As the eminent historian Gordon Woods points out;

He has Benjamin Franklin in Paris negotiating the peace all by himself.  He mistakenly           makes John Adams the minister to France when in fact Adams was never minister and was only a member of a peace commission.  He says that President Washington pardoned the rebels in Shay’s Rebellion when in fact it was Massachusetts governor John Hancock.  He has Washington selecting Hamilton to make the a ‘grand summation’ of the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention ‘at the end’ of the meeting, when actually Hamilton gave his six-hour speech on June 18 near the beginning, and it was not a summation at all but an effort to make the Virginia plan seem more moderate.  He says the Senate decided to call the chief executive the president, when actually it was the House of Representatives that overturned the more monarchial title suggested by the Senate.  (”Federalists on Broadway,” New York Review of Books, January 14, 2016)

I guess the reader should keep in mind that Sedgwick is a novelist, and at times is also prone to overstatement and hyperbole; for example, “When Laurens died, it was as if the true Hamilton died too.”

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Sedgwick mostly alternates chapters between his two protagonists as he compares his subjects.  Burr is described as a man who was always short of money or in debt, charged the highest lawyer fees he could obtain, engaged in land speculation, and never committed to a position unless it could benefit him – a man without an ideology.  Hamilton, on the other hand maintained a consistent ideology and was not obsessed with wealth, though he was concerning his reputation and social station.  Sedgwick explores the marriages of both men in detail with Burr deeply in love with Theodosia, a widow of a British soldier he had had an affair with and was ten years his senior.  It was more of an intellectual relationship than a physical one and despite his meanderings he worshiped her.  Hamilton who suffered from his own peccadilloes, loved the “matronly” “Betsy,” but she was more of a traditional wife with womanly skills, and not a feminist.  Sedgwick also spends time comparing their approach to fatherhood.  Though away a great deal of the time Burr adored his daughter, also named Theodosia who was educated as if she was a male.  Hamilton was a good father who was thrilled with his large “brood” and was very involved in the lives of his children.

My concern with Sedgwick’s approach is that he does not provide enough information when he introduces a topic and fails to provide the necessary historical context for the many scenes he introduces.  For the novice his presentation is inviting, but I imagine too many times it is confusing.  Further, the author seems to spend more time on inconsequential aspects of the story rather than the more important events that surround his subjects.  A case in point is that he spends more time on why Federalists did not shake hands with each other, or even touch each other, than discussing the development and importance of Hamilton’s National Bank.  In addition, Sedgwick’s approach to citations is somewhat cavalier.  He presents a rationale for the approach he takes and it seems like a cop out.  Stating that the existence of Google provides the best sourcing for readers, Sedgwick does provide a short paragraph for each chapter reflecting a few main sources to let the reader know where the information originated.  Since he states that he used a myriad of sources it could not have overly taxed him to provide the proper affirmation.espite these shortcomings Sedgwick does provide some interesting insights particularly Washington’s disdain for Burr who he saw as arrogant, untrustworthy, unsoldierly, and one who would not conform.   Another is his remarks pertaining to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s view of Burr that he would do for them in the political world what Philip Freneau did in the newspapers by backing him for the Senate from New York State.  It was designed to “drive Hamilton to a frenzy of irritation, causing him to bring about his own ruin with no further help from them.”  Sedgwick is also insightful as he explores Burr’s machinations as vice president, after the duel with Hamilton, and his plot to create his own western empire.

Overall, Sedgwick’s work can be categorized as entertaining and as a stylized historical narrative the book seems to be a success, but as a work of history, it is rather weak.

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