THE LUCKIEST MAN: LIFE WITH JOHN McCAIN by Mark Salter

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Last week Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection no matter what conspiracy theory he employs or how many lawsuits he implements to overturn the results.  One reason he may have lost rests on the state of Arizona which went blue for the first time in decades.  Trump’s commentary concerning Senator John McCain before his passing arguing during the 2016 campaign that the senator was not a hero but a loser because he was captured after being shot down over North Vietnam does not seem to have sat well with the Arizona electorate.  McCain, the self-proclaimed maverick when it came to legislation and politics and former POW emerged once again in the 2020 election as his wife, Cindy, and daughter Meghan emerged as a driving force to defeat Trump.  McCain’s life story is a complex one due to the storied military history of his family, his personality, and his fervent belief in honor and standing up for the United States world-wide.  Mark Salter, friend and senatorial aide has offered a wonderful look inside McCain’s approach to life, beliefs, career, and the author’s relationship with him in THE LUCKIEST MAN: LIFE WITH JOHN MCCAIN.

According to Salter, McCain was the consummate practitioner of an honorable life.  Whether refusing an early release as a POW by Hanoi to remain in captivity until all his men were released, a commitment to political reform particularly when it came to came to campaign finances, immigration, or his ability to work across the aisle with the likes of liberals, Ted Kennedy, or Russ Feingold, McCain remained consistent.  Though some would argue that during the 2008 presidential campaign he became less of a maverick a more of a traditional Republican once he was defeated he assumed the moniker of maverick once again as is evidenced by his vote to kill Republican attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act while he was slowly dying of cancer, which added to the ire of President Trump.  Salter’s book is not a traditional biography as it focuses on the author’s friendship and working relationship with the senator bringing forth numerous disagreements and sharp insights into McCain’s personality and beliefs.

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(John McCain tells his son Jack about his time as a Vietnam war P.O.W. as they look into a prison cell at the Hoa Lo prison in 2000.) 

Salter was in an excellent position to explore McCain’s life.  He co-wrote seven books with the senator and acted as a valued confidant for over thirty years.  The narrative provides in depth coverage of the most important aspects of McCain’s work, leaving certain gaps and chapters that can stand by themselves.  Salter describes a man with many foibles who dealt with them with a quick wit and a joking manner.  According to Salter he was a man whose “public persona, for most people, most of the time, he kept it real to a degree unusual for a politician.  And most people seemed to appreciate it.” 

The book is a cacophony of anecdotes, many of which are humorous, but apart from the levity Salter delves into McCain’s serious nature, his moral core, and his political and personal beliefs.  Since reading Robert Timberg’s mini-biography of McCain contained in his book THE NIGHTENGALE’S SONG I had always looked forward to a more in depth examination of McCain’s life and Salter provides it. Among the many important aspects of the narrative is Salter’s discussion of McCain’s family background that was so impactful for him. Salter catalogues the military careers of McCain’s father and grandfather and their impact on naval history and on him personally. “The late John McCain’s paternal line was touched by a kind of tragic greatness. The senator’s grandfather, “Slew” McCain, a brilliant and courageous admiral in the Pacific during World War II, dropped dead four days after the Japanese surrender; he was only 61 but, after years of high stress and hard drinking, looked far older. His son, John S. McCain Jr., a celebrated submarine commander during the war, rose to command the entire Pacific fleet during the Vietnam War. But an inner anguish, no doubt exacerbated by his own son’s imprisonment in North Vietnam for five years, drove Jack McCain, as he was known, to a debilitating illness.” McCain had a complicated relationship with his father as he felt that he loved the navy more than him, apart from the fact he was a binge drinker as a tool to deal with combat. His grandfather, Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. and his father are considered war heroes in their own right and it is obvious from Salter’s retelling they both helped foster McCain’s worldview, behavior, and sense of duty to one’s country.  McCain’s father assumed he would pursue a naval career which he resented and in part explains why he did so poorly at the naval Academy.  In a sense McCain was more like his mother who imparted his sense of humor, curiosity, candor, and lively intellect that required constant stimulation.  At Annapolis, McCain developed his antipathy to bullies, particular upper classmen and his entire life he refused to accept that type of behavior which helps explain his attitude toward President Trump.

John McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis) in 2006
(Despite their positions on opposing sides of the aisle, McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold joined forces to reform campaign finances. )

From the outset of his political career McCain showed that he had the ability to attract  Democrats and Independents.  In office he would cross the divide to work with Democrats on important issues.  Among the men who greatly impacted him early on was Congressmen Mo Udall of Arizona, the chair of the House Interior Committee who would become a close friend and taught him about the people, culture and history of Arizona.  Later he would work on campaign finance reform with Minnesota Senators Russ Feingold and Paul Wellstone, and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy on immigration reform.  Not only did he work with members from the other side of the aisle they would become his friends.  McCain was a proponent of “big government conservatism,” with Theodore Roosevelt as his role model.  McCain believed in improving the country through pragmatic problem solving rather than the “drown-government-in-a-bathtub goal of libertarian conservatism, achieved in part by restoring the public’s faith in the credibility and capabilities of government.”

The most compelling aspect of the narrative was McCain’s description of his treatment after he was captured and imprisoned after he was shot down over Hanoi.  Broken shoulder, leg, arm etc. and the lack of medical treatment, interrogation, and torture was gut wrenching.  For McCain, his later embarrassment and anger at himself for appearing weak is palatable, particularly the forced confession he provided.  Later during the Abu Ghraib crisis during the Iraq War McCain would become a thorn in the side of the Bush administration as he was angered by “enhanced interrogation” techniques that violated the Geneva Convention.  For McCain, waterboarding and other aspects of CIA techniques hit home for him and he refused to allow his country to stoop to those levels.

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(McCain Field, the U.S. Navy training base, was commissioned and named in honor of Admiral John S. McCain July 14, 1961. Standing before his plaque from left, grandson, Lt. John S. McCain III and his parents, Rear Admiral John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta Wright McCain. )

Another aspect of the narrative that is important was McCain’s attitude and untiring work to normalize relations with Vietnam and his approach to his former enemy is fascinating.  He experienced many trips to Vietnam, and he came to see the country as a “beautiful and exotic place with enterprising people who were unexpectedly friendly toward him.”  He was greatly involved in negotiations with Hanoi over POWs and MIAs and other issues that eventually led to normalization.  It was a rocky path and McCain was involved throughout.  He would argue with colleagues and many in America who believed that POWs and MIAs remained in Vietnam, but McCain came to believe that no American remained in Vietnam. He felt that these issues were kept alive by conspiracy theorists who were fools.  During contentious Senate hearings in 1991 McCain felt the truth needed to be accepted so normalization could proceed.

Salter provides complete analysis of and the course of McCain’s two presidential runs, 2000 and 2008.  It is clear that the Bush people feared losing to McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary which may have cost them the presidential nomination by resorting to the Roger Stone/Charlie Black/ Karl Rove school of politics with lies and distortions to defeat McCain.  Later McCain who said the actions of the Bush organization was just politics, but on issues relating to Donald Rumsfeld, Abu Ghraib, the leadership, and the need for a “surge” in Iraq in 2004-5 McCain would get his revenge or support moves he felt were better off for his country.  The campaign in 2008 is examined where it seemed McCain moved toward traditional Republican politics and away from reform but be that as it may it was clear that there was little, he could do to defeat the Obama phenomenon.

What sets Salter’s work apart is his exceptional access to McCain personally as well as his relationship with the family. At times it appears that Salter has written an ode to McCain.  He recounts many positive accomplishments during McCain’s career.  But he also includes certain negative aspects of his subject’s personality; his ability to anger easily and even chastise colleagues on the Senate floor in vituperative language, his sometimes petulance, and his mistakes including the Keating Five scandal, and the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. However, McCain’s love of country, humility, honor code, and empathy for others outweigh any negatives of McCain’s persona.  To sum up McCain’s life Salter’s comment is best, he was a politician who wanted to be a hero, but he didn’t take himself too seriously.

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(March 14, 1973, McCain is released as a POW)

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)

RAGE by Bob Woodward

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

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

(Dr. Anthony Fauci)

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

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

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

(Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats)

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

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

Alex Wong/Getty Images

(Former Defense Secretary James Mattis)

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

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

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

Bob Woodward
(Author, Bob Woodward)

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

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

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

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

(President Trump and Vice President Pence)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(A young Donald Trump and Roy Cohn)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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.

 

PELOSI by Molly Ball

With some enthusiastic assistance from her grandchildren, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California smiles as she casts her vote for herself to be speaker of the House on the first day of the 116th Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The term chutzpah can be interpreted in only one way – a great deal of nerve or other words I cannot use!  In the present case it is the perfect description of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi particularly following the completion of Donald Trump’s State of the Union message last January when she ripped up the speech as it was riddled with lies in front of an audience of millions of Americans.  Opponents of Pelosi castigated her actions, but they forget it was preceded by Trump’s refusal to engage in the traditional handshake with the Speaker before the speech.  Why did Pelosi react in such a manner?  The answer to this question is imbedded   in who she is as a person and a professional and forms the core of Molly Ball’s new book, PELOSI.

Ball’s crisp writing style makes PELOSI an easy biography to read as in part Pelosi missed the woman’s movement of the early 1960s as she married and raised five children.  She would be considered the “almost picture perfect” mother as she trained her brood with Catholic family values as each child was given certain tasks and responsibilities within the family.  Once her children were of school age, we see the beginning of a career that begins with fund raising from her home.  Ball points out that the seminal moment in Pelosi’s career came when San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto placed her on the city’s Library Commission which exposed her to the give and take of local politics.

 

Ball carefully traces Pelosi’s rise from a housewife to a congressional victory in 1986 highlighting two skills that remain her strengths to this day, fund raising and organizational acumen.  Ball describes Pelosi as “ballsy, confrontational, even bitchy.”  Further Ball states that once Pelosi was freed from family responsibilities at age forty-seven, she pursued her congressional work with “a maniacal level of energy.”  Ball provides a window into the Congressional process upon Pelosi’s arrival, especially the denigration of women and her role in altering traditional male views of women who served in Congress.  The white male power structure dominated Congress epitomized by conservative Democratic  Pennsylvania Representative John “Jack” Murtha.  On the surface it would appear that the “San Francisco liberal” and the hard-nosed Vietnam veteran would have little in common.  But as Ball effectively develops their relationship it is clear that without Murtha’s mentorship and support Pelosi’s career may have taken a different path.

Pelosi was a tenacious legislator and supporter of human rights as was evident in her view of China after Tiananmen Square.  She was always skeptical about trusting President Clinton and when she tried to tie China’s human rights policies to most favored nation trading status, she thought she had Clinton’s support.  When Clinton sold her out, she screamed “corporate sellout,” and never trusted Clinton again.

Ball is dead on in zeroing in on Newt Gingrich and his responsibility in creating the toxicity that exists in politics today.  Gingrich’s goal was to block any legislative successes for Clinton and interjected words like, “sick, pathetic, liars, anti-flag, traitors, radicals, corrupt to describe Democrats.  When Republicans decided to demonize Pelosi, her response was “I’m shaking in my boots, that is so pathetic, tell them, C’Mon.”  She proved to the Republican leadership that unlike Richard Gephardt, the congressman Pelosi replaced as House Democratic Leader that she was no pushover and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert found her inflexibility and hyperattention to detail galling.  Pelosi’s approach throughout her career no matter what position she held in the House was to out work and know more about legislation, her caucus, and any other aspect of her work than any of her colleagues – making her indispensable for any legislative success, Democratic or Republican.  She would take advantage of GOP policy failures be it Bush’s invasion of Iraq and its failures, the Katrina debacle, or Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security.

061215_pelosi_obama_ap.jpg

Ball encapsulates Pelosi by quoting her, “I get up, eat nails for breakfast, put on a suit of armor and go into battle.”  Ball states that the suit of armor she created, an extreme and steely toughness that dismissed any hint of vulnerability, would keep her safe.”  She would reign in Bush after the 2006 election after six years of being run over by the GOP and by 2008 when she became Speaker one would have thought working with a new administration would produce a collegial relationship, but it did not.

In perhaps her best chapters Ball explores the Pelosi-Obama dynamic which was not very smooth in large part because Obama always sought consensus and believed he could always peel off a segment of GOP support, whereas Pelosi had learned not to trust the GOP leadership and its right wing caucus and all she cared about was winning and delivering on what she believed to be the policies that a majority of Americans wanted.  She tried to educate Obama whose “intellectual arrogance” and the attitude of many in his administration won out.  The Obama people came to believe that Pelosi at times was more of a hinderance than an asset.  Republicans would demonize both, but more so Pelosi over the Affordable Health Care Act, Climate legislations, stimulus, or a grand bargain than the president.  From Obama’s perspective she gave him cover.

Ball does an excellent job taking the reader inside negotiations to solve America’s problems.  Her reporting concerning Pelosi’s attempts to achieve a withdrawal date from Iraq, or the TARP bill to deal with the 2008 economic meltdown are two cases in point.  In both instances Pelosi exhibited her tenacity, control over her caucus (which the GOP could never master), and legislative dexterity to achieve her goals. Ball provides a perceptive analysis how Republicans were able to play Obama, who did not follow Pelosi’s warnings in legislative battles, particularly health care and taxes.  As Ball points out, you only get one chance to make a first impression and Obama blew it with his stimulus package, a pattern that would continue throughout his administration particularly after the 2010 congressional shellacking which the GOP learned to block everything they could and give Obama no legislative victories. Despite losing 63 seats, Pelosi rededicated herself and became more tenacious than ever.

Political cheer

(Nancy Pelosi and her family)

Overall, Pelosi is a practitioner of retail politics learned at the feet of her father who was Mayor of Baltimore and later a Congressman.  She is superb at arm twisting, raising money, and knowing when and how to cut a deal even if it means angering members of her caucus.  But despite rubbing certain members the wrong way even females over aspects of abortion she has earned the respect from most of her opponents.

Donald Trump is the perfect adversary for Pelosi.  He is a narcissist, thoughtless, uninterested in issues or its details with no sense of tactics or strategy.  He may have been a reality TV star, but Pelosi presents a different type of reality the “avatar of a feminist political future.”  Ball quotes Amy Klobuchar’s famous observation:  “If you think a woman can’t beat Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”  Ball’s presentation of the Pelosi-Trump relationship is clear and pulls no punches as she discusses their hostility toward each other even though some of it has been papered over as Pelosi held back her caucus during the Mueller investigation until the Ukraine matter led her to finally support impeachment.

As we confront the Coronavirus and seem stalled at any further stimulus money for the states., hospitals, and PPE, it would be interesting to see what would happen if traditional retail politics could be employed instead of Mitch McConnell’s refusal to engage in anything meaningful other than securing lifetime conservative judges.  Ball’s work is based on her excellent reporting and interviews and despite a bit of hagiography the book is an interesting personality and political study that is a fascinating read.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi made her feelings clear about Donald Trump's speech.

 House speaker Nancy Pelosi made her feelings clear about Donald Trump’s speech.

ALEXANDER HAMILTON: AMERICAN by Richard Brookhiser

Many of you are probably familiar with Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton which was the basis for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton.”  The book is the ultimate source for the first Secretary of the Treasury, and it is a narrative that is hard to measure up to.  However, there are a number of important biographies of Hamilton, one of which is Richard Brookhiser’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON: AMERICAN, a compact volume that covers all the important aspects of Hamilton’s life in a very analytical fashion that can serve as a wonderful introduction to its subject.

Brookhiser presents Hamilton as the nation’s accountant who was able to create the bureaucratic infrastructure that allowed the new republic to survive and fostered the basis of our current economy.  Brookhiser identifies a number of threads that run through his narrative.  First, despite his background as an immigrant throughout his life Hamilton saw himself as an American and a nationalist.  Second, Hamilton maintained his identity as a New Yorker and more importantly he brought his home state to center stage rivaling Virginia and Boston in influence.  Thirdly, was Hamilton’s fondness for the military pushing for a standing army to be used in any opposition to governmental policy which created a great deal of partisanship.  Lastly, his role as a constitutional lawyer reflected in the cases he tried and his authorship of the majority of THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.  Brookhiser argues that Hamilton may have been the most important of the founding fathers, if not the most significant, he was certainly on par with James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

File:James Madison.jpg

(James Madison)

The author has the uncanny ability to distill large amounts of information and presenting the most important salient details and analysis in a concise and flowing prose.  For example, his discussion of the fighting in upstate New York during the revolution and the role of General Horatio Gates or how James Madison, once an ally evolved into one of Hamilton’s most important intellectual enemies.  Brookhiser does an excellent job comparing Hamilton to other historical characters that he dealt with during his lifetime, presenting the strengths and weaknesses of his main subject in addition to the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and a host of others.  Perhaps Brookhiser’s most important contribution to our knowledge of Hamilton is how he interacted with Washington and Jefferson.  Brookhiser compares the political philosophies of these figures in addition to how their philosophies conflicted.

Brookhiser devotes an entire chapter to Hamilton’s views about government, economics, and the future of the new republic.  Later, Hamilton was seen as a monarchist who admired the British system of government as well as their economic system particularly the role of the Bank of England.  In many instances Hamilton sought to replicate the best of what the British had to offer, a strong executive, and a three-year elective assembly that was similar to the eventual House of Representatives.  It is obvious from the narrative that the author admires his subject, but he does not shy away from certain blemishes in dealing with Hamilton’s character, for example his affair with Maria Reynolds and though he was blackmailed by her husband James he continued the affair before going public with what he had done.  In discussing Hamilton’s behavior in this episode and others, at times Brookhiser engages in pop psychology which is not a strength of the book.  A clear example is when he writes in reference to the Reynolds Affair that “some of Hamilton’s wrath at Jefferson and his other enemies may well have been displaced anger at his own betrayal and folly.”

Brookhiser makes the interesting point that Hamilton was the least experienced of Washington’s first cabinet.  Henry Knox, the Secretary of War had been a general during the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State had been ambassador to France, and Hamilton served on Washington’s staff as an aide during the Revolution and was a prolific writer.  The key was that Washington could be his own Secretary of War and State because of his vast experience in those areas, but he did not have the economic background to function without his Secretary of the Treasury.

Brookhiser dissects the Hamilton-Jefferson relationship and reaches the conclusion that members of Jefferson’s entourage believed that Hamilton did not have the right “to instruct the founding fathers, to ignore their fears, and to redesign their institutions” as he proceeded to develop an economic and political system that sought to mirror England and overturn their idyllic southern squire lifestyle.  The competition with Jefferson is fascinating as Brookhiser dives into the election of 1800 when Hamilton did all he could to elect his foe because of his fear of Aaron Burr.

3rd Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr

(Aaron Burr)

Some might argue that Brookhiser’s work is a bit esoteric as he includes chapters on Hamilton’s writing ability, the role of passion in his contemporaries in addition to a chapter dealing with political and societal rights.  Be that as it may, the book is very effective in conveying the partisan hatred that existed during Washington’s second administration.  Brookhiser delves into the debates dealing with the French Revolution and America’s supposed debt for what the French had done during the American Revolution.  The character study of Aaron Burr is dead on as well as how Hamilton approached his family.  Overall, Brookhiser provides a valuable, incisive portrait of Hamilton’s character as well as his impact on America’s survival.  It is a concise work that will allow the reader to digest a great deal of information if they do not want to tackle other longer works encompassing Hamilton’s life and career.

 (Library of Congress)

AGENTS OF INFLUENCE: A BRITISH CAMPAIGN, A CANADIAN SPY, AND THE SECRET PLOT TO BRING AMERICA INTO WORLD WAR II by Henry Hemming

por 7789 r33

(Charles Lindbergh)

At a time when many Americans fear the impact of foreign interference in our elections, be it what the Russians did in 2016, or what may be in store for 2020 there is an excellent historical example of such a campaign on foreign soil that tried to sway Americans and help make entrance into World War II against Nazi Germany palatable.  The example I am alluding to is the subject of Henry Hemming’s new book, AGENTS OF INFLUENCE: A BRITISH CAMPAIGN, A CANADIAN SPY, AND THE SECRET PLOT TO BRING AMERICA INTO WORLD WAR II.

By June 11, 1940 a week after the British evacuation from Dunkirk allied shipping losses in the Atlantic had reached over 1,135,263 tons.  At the same time the German army outnumbered the British army 4.3 to 1.6 million.  In another month the Germans would launch the Luftwaffe against London in a “blitz” that would last almost a year.  The Churchill government faced long odds in overcoming the Nazi onslaught and the only hope to offset a disaster would be American entrance into the war, but in May 1940 only 7% of Americans favored doing so.  The British proceeded to send 700 crates of gold bullion along with a spy named William Stephenson to the United States. Interestingly, the author’s grandfather, Harold Hemming, a major in the Royal Artillery was a friend of the newly minted British spy, and along with his wife Alice would carry out a number of missions which included visiting American military bases and presenting a series of demonstrations revealing the intricacies of flash-spotting, a technique designed to locate German artillery, and lecturing soldiers what it was like to live in Nazi Germany.

Sir William Stephenson [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA141575]

(Sir William Stephenson)

Hemming does an excellent job recounting the business career that led Stephenson to be recruited by MI6 and chosen as Chief of Station with his main office in New York.  His task was to foster a climate that would allow Washington to declare war on Nazi Germany.  Hemming writes with an easy flair that allows the reader to become engrossed in how the British went about trying to surreptitiously convince the American people to favor entering the European war and pressuring their government to do so.  Stephenson’s task was not an easy one due to isolationist sentiment created by the Nye Commission which delved into the profits of munitions companies and other corporations from W.W.I., Neutrality legislation that hamstrung President Roosevelt, and a growing belief flamed by Charles Lindbergh that the British could not defeat Germany so it would be a waste for the US to enter the war.*

The British were not the only ones who were trying to manipulate American opinion.  Hans Thomsen, the German Charge d’affair in Washington was developing his own propaganda machine to keep the US out of the war, in addition to convincing a Montana Congressman and Senator to read pro-German material into the Congressional Record and using their congressional franking privilege to disseminate these views by mail to their constituents.  He was also able to bribe 50 Republican congressman, including New York’s influential legislator Hamilton Fish who attended the Republican National Convention to oppose entrance into the war.  “At the time the most extensive foreign intervention – direct intervention – ever in an American election campaign.”  Until Trump!

William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, the Buffalo-born founder of the agency that preceded the CIA, won't have his name on Western New York's new veterans cemetery. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Strategic Services Society)

(General William J. Donovan)

Hemmings examines Lindbergh’s role in speaking out in favor of Nazi Germany very carefully tracing his views from the time of his son’s kidnapping and death.  Lindbergh would testify before Congress numerous times against legislation like the Destroyer-Base Deal and Lend-Lease both designed to assist the British navy whose merchant shipping was being shredded by Nazi submarines and the fact they were slowly going bankrupt.  The German embassy would mail Lindbergh’s speeches all across America to gain US domestic support.  Lindbergh would become the leading “isolationist” spokesperson in the country and a central figure in the “America First Committee” movement.

After describing what Stephenson was up against, including his own government who did not want to interfere in American politics as the 1940 election approached, the man in charge of British propaganda operations and returning refugees back to Europe as agents was ordered to hold back and not institute any radical plans.  Stephenson did have an ally, the British ambassador to the US, Lord Lothian who worked assiduously and ignored Foreign Office instructions to try and lobby Washington.  When Lothian died suddenly, Stephenson was left with Lord Halifax, a former Foreign Secretary and appeaser who Churchill sent to America to get him out of his cabinet.  Hemmings has unearthed a number of interesting commentaries presented throughout the book, for example, referring to Halifax as a “foxhunting aristocrat” who would not be well received in administration circles.

The Bow Tie Crowd.
Ian Fleming, 1958.

(Ian Fleming)

Once FDR is reelected in 1940 and he was able to get Lend-Lease passed it was clear that the president wanted to get the US into the war against Hitler’s forces.  He went so far as to have the US Navy patrol the North Atlantic hoping to create a casus belli to enter the war.  It was at this time that Stephenson, who had been put in charge of all MI6 activities in the western hemisphere, head the Special Operations Executive (SOE) nicknamed the “Ministry of Gentlemanly Warfare,” run MI5, British Passport Control and any propaganda dealing with the war effort, to take off the gloves and disregard his own Foreign Office.

An aspect that Hemming develops in full is the relationship of General William J. Donovan and Stephenson.  Donovan was a close friend of FDR and had the president’s ear.  Stephenson felt his relationship with the FBI did not deal with Nazi penetration enough and he sought to help develop a partner in the United States for MI6 in dealing with joint intelligence.  Stephenson worked to convince Donovan, who at first was skeptical, to pitch the idea to FDR.  Soon Donovan became Stephenson’s conduit to FDR leaving out J. Edgar Hoover.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the narrative is the role played by Wendell Willkie who ran for president against FDR in 1940.  Willkie spent most of the campaign as an “interventionist,” but under pressure from Republican isolationists he switched his position.  However, once he was defeated, he once again switched positions and became one of the administrations most important spokespersons favoring intervention.  Some have questioned why he changed positions.  Hemming points out that that FDR might have threatened to expose his long affair with Irita van Doren, but no matter the motivation he became what Secretary of State Cordell Hull characterized as a strategic weapon used by the administration to help the British.

Adolf Hitler : News Photo

(General Wilhelm Keitel, Hans Thomsen, and Adolf Hitler)

Adolph Berle, a long-time ally of FDR and in charge of US intelligence operations did not want to intervene to help the British and conducted a series of investigations into Stephenson’s growing spy network and he wanted to shut it down.  This provoked Stephenson into launching an all-out attack on American isolationists.  Hemming delineates Stephenson’s new strategy aside from spreading pro-British propaganda.  Agents were dispatched to infiltrate America First organizations as well as those in favor of intervention to create support for the British.  The best of his agents was Joseph Hirschberg who escaped Belgium before the Nazis arrived.  An orthodox Jew who lost most of his family in the death camps he was involved with assassinations and worked to subsidize “Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights.”  This was not the only organization Stephenson funded along with creating violent showdowns between protesters on both sides to drown out coverage of Lindbergh’s speeches in daily newspapers.  Another tactic employed was called “sibs,” meaning rumors from the Latin sibillare, to whisper.  The approach was simple, make up events, mostly anti-Nazi and have them investigated by newsmen and plant them in the media, for example, photos of Nazi atrocities, stories about the capture of German pilots behind enemy lines, convince shipping companies executives concerning German saboteurs, etc.  This became quite effective as agents would tell people things in “strictest confidence, that’s the best way to start a rumor.”  Another effective tactic was the creation, in conjunction with Donovan of a forgery unit under the auspices of a Hollywood screen writer, Eric Mashwitz outside Toronto designed to produce as many faked documents and news as possible.

A key for Stephenson and the Roosevelt administration was to directly link Berlin with spying on the United States.  Henry Hoke, a direct mail specialist stumbled on Thomsen’s franking scheme.  For Stephenson this was a direct link between the Nazis and isolationists.  Another hopeful episode was conjuring up a scheme that linked Berlin to a coup in Columbia involving forgeries and other strategies.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Hemmings discussion of Stephenson’s role in trying to create a mirror MI6 in the United States.  A number of interesting characters emerge, including Ian Fleming.  Stephenson did not give up on Donovan as the head of an American spy organization until he finally agreed to become the new Coordinator of Intelligence (COI).  The result is that the British had a tremendous impact on the creation of the OSS during the war, which would morph into the CIA in 1947.  Another fascinating component to the narrative is how Hemming lays out step by step how Stephenson developed his own organization that created the right atmosphere for Washington to enter the war in Europe; facilitated American aid to Great Britain; helped beat back and unearth the isolationists; and developing a conduit to FDR.

Perhaps the greatest error made by isolationists was a speech given by Lindbergh on September 11, 1941.  Lindbergh followed a speech given by FDR the same day involving the USS Greer which had engaged a Nazi submarine in the North Atlantic signaling the onset of a shooting war between Washington and Berlin.  Lindbergh’s address in Des Moines, IA  where he blamed the real “war agitators” as being the British, the Jews, and the Roosevelt administration.  He continued with a number of anti-Semitic remarks focusing on the price  Jews would pay should a civil war break out in the United States over entrance into the war, as well as a number of anti-Semitic tropes.  This led to a backlash against Lindbergh that his movement never recovered from.  Hemmings conclusion that Lindbergh was correct that there was someone or something behind the scenes was agitating for war, but it was Stephenson, not the Jews.

Title: A Man Called Intrepid: The Incredible True Story of the Master Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Author: William Stevenson

Hemmings picture of FDR’s actions is quite interesting.  Like Lincoln during the Civil War, the president can be accused of committing impeachable offenses.  In Hemmings view that conclusion fits FDR’s actions in securing Lend-Lease, the Destroyer-Base Deal, the American intelligence relationship with the British, instructing Donovan to setup public opinion polls to ascertain what the public thought of certain policies before they were instituted, and trying to foment incidents with the Germans that would make her declare war against the United States.  If these were not impeachable, at a minimum FDR was pushing the envelope.

Hemming has written a crisp and easily read description of how the British successfully influenced American policy leading up to WWII.  Stephenson’s work was the key as was his working relationship with Donovan and indirectly with FDR.  In addition, by December, 1941 polls reflected what Churchill and Roosevelt had hoped for, the American people were ready for war. If you are interested in the onerous debate and how public opinion was transformed by a foreign power this book is very timely.

*See Philip Roth’s novel THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA whose counterfactual story centers on the defeat of FDR in the 1940 election by Charles Lindbergh.

Charles Lindbergh And Spirit Of St Louis

(Charles Lindbergh)

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.

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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)

SCHLESINGER: THE IMPERIAL HISTORIAN by Richard Aldous

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(President John F. Kennedy and Arthur M. Schlesinger)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a “gadfly” is a person who stimulates or annoys other people especially by persistent criticism.”  According to Richard Aldous, in his new biography, SCHLESINGER: THE IMPERIAL HISTORIAN, the definition fits Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s role as Special Assistant to the President during the Kennedy administration.  Aldous’ work is the first full-length biography of Schlesinger and he successfully grapples with a number of questions as his narrative unfolds.  First, was Schlesinger a great and important historian, a model of how academics and public service can mix?  Second,  was he a popularizer and court historian held captive to the establishment that nurtured his career?  After reading Aldous’ monograph there is no conclusive answer and elements of each question make up Schlesinger’s academic career at Harvard, as well as a speech writer and advisor to President Kennedy.  However, Aldous ably balances his subject’s talent as a writer of historical monographs and speeches with a clear acknowledgement of his shortcomings as a political analyst and aide.

My interest in Schlesinger dates back to a debate between Schlesinger and William F. Buckley, the editor of the National Review and the preeminent voice of conservatism during his lifetime.  I was a college senior and witnessed their give and take as I watched how Buckley goaded Schlesinger as the spokesperson for a liberal internationalist foreign policy as well as social engineering.  My memory points to an academic who had difficulty keeping up with Buckley and the scenes described by Aldous in the book provides further evidence as to how Buckley would get under Schlesinger’s skin.

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(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.)

Aldous’ work describes a young man who was guided by his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, a Harvard professor and distinguished historian.  Along with his father, Harvard connections would guide Schlesinger through the world of academia as well as other aspects of his life, for example, his work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) at the end of the war.  When Schlesinger felt uncomfortable in a position, his Harvard connections and relationships would ease him into a more favorable position.  Aldous explores the evolution of Schlesinger’s intellectual and ideological development very carefully honing in on the influence of his father, his attachment to Adlai Stevenson who twice ran unsuccessfully for president, a diverse group of Harvard academics like John Kenneth Galbraith and others, and the lessons learned as he tried to navigate his role in the Kennedy administration where he was seen as part of the liberal establishment in what was really a conservative leaning presidency.

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(Kennedy speech writer, Theodore Sorenson)

From the outset we see the young Schlesinger using his father as a role model.  Once he made the decision to attend Harvard and use “Jr.” as part of his legal name he was inevitably seem as “the sorcerer’s apprentice” in relation to his father.  Schlesinger would achieve early academic success with the publication of ORESTES BROWNSON: A PILGRIMS PROGRESS a book about  a convert who attempted unsuccessfully to liberalize and Americanize the Catholic Church. But the work that placed him on the academic ladder was his AGE OF JACKSON published in 1945 which moved away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” by emphasizing the national character of the western frontier that included urban workers, small farmers, and intellectuals in the Northeast.  Schlesinger would present Jacksonianism as a forerunner of the Progressive Era and the New Deal in attempting to restrain the power of the business community.

Image result for photos of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s family

Aldous’ work is in part an intellectual history as he follows the thesis of a number of important historians who came to the fore in the 1930s who impacted Schlesinger’s work.  At the end of World War II, Schlesinger’s academic bonafede’s would be enhanced with the completion of his seminal work THE VITAL CENTER which defends liberal democracy and a state-regulated market economy against the totalitarianism of communism and fascism.   As Schlesinger has written, “it is the very process of democracy itself, not perfect ends, which forms the bulwark against totalitarianism.”  The book that Schlesinger is most noted for is his chronicle of the Kennedy administration, A THOUSAND DAYS which earned him the nickname as the “court historian” for the abbreviated presidency.  As Aldous points out the book was to be a “legacy project” for Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and the book that resulted, completed a year after the assassination, “endures as a masterly portrait of a man that its author believed had been the perfect leader for a nation in the nuclear age and the zenith of its prosperity and global sway.”*

Aldous has prepared a thoroughly researched work with many insights into Schlesinger’s personal life, academic career, and public role. He introduces numerous stories and individuals that enhance the narrative. His competition with Theodore Sorenson during the Kennedy administration is a case in point as the two men vied for the primary role as the president’s speech writer.  Sorenson emerges as somewhat of a control freak who resented Schlesinger and did his best to make him as irrelevant as possible.  Another prominent individual that Schlesinger held in low opinion was Secretary of State Dean Rusk who he viewed as weak, lacking a backbone in debating issues and formulating policy. The publication of the first three volumes of the AGE OF ROOSEVELT which was supposed to run five volumes is a turning point for Schlesinger as he crystalized the war between liberalism and business-dominated conservatism, and ultimately the collapse of faith in business led to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Aldous effectively dissects the published three volumes which were all published by 1957.

Image result for photos of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s family

During that time Schlesinger worked to elect Adlai Stevenson as president as one of his major speech writers and advisors.  The relationship between the two men occupies a great deal of the narrative as the Kennedy people eventually saw Stevenson as weak and too liberal.  In fact, Aldous points out that Schlesinger was tasked to control Stevenson’s high moral tone during the Cuban Missile Crisis and make sure he was strong enough against the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council.  Schlesinger’s main problem in the Kennedy administration was his links to Stevenson’s presidential runs and the fact that conservatives within the administration saw him as a liberal in the mold of the eastern establishment.  Despite this, Schlesinger developed a good personal and working relationship with Kennedy even though he believed there were too many conservatives and Republicans in the administration.  He did have a great deal of access to Kennedy as the president enjoyed their discussions of history and ideas and wanted to be remembered as a great president and therefore, he thought it was wise to have in attendance a great historian as he saw Schlesinger as having a keen mind who drew parallels between events of the day and past historical events and figures.

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During the Kennedy administration Schlesinger fulfilled his role as a gadfly.  As a Special Assistant to the President he had no specific role and tended to delve into areas of interest as well as those assigned to him.  His views on the planning and outcome of the Bay of Pigs fiasco were dead on and Kennedy would ask him to analyze how the CIA and decision-making in general could be reformed or improved.  During the Berlin Crisis he advocated giving Khrushchev an out as not to humiliate him and possibly cause a war. He was involved in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty debate but was kept to the side except for his role as “keeper of the UN Ambassador” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Schlesinger had limited interest in Southeast Asia and opted out on the issue of Vietnam which are an indication of the limitations of his role as special advisor without any particular portfolio.  If there is a weakness in Aldous coverage is his short shrift in discussing the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the legislation that emanated from the Kennedy administration and other domestic issues that Schlesinger prepared speeches for.  But overall, Schlesinger’s role in the administration was impactful and somewhat influential, despite the fact it took him a long time to learn how to navigate the positives and pitfalls of a public career.

It is unfortunate that Aldous rushes through Schlesinger’s last four decades, devoting little space to works such as THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY, CYCLES IN AMERICAN HISTORY, THE DISUNITING OF AMERICA and his biography of Robert Kennedy.  In doing so “he misses the opportunity to examine how Schlesinger’s gradual loss of intellectual influence mirrored the crisis of American liberalism itself.”*  Despite this shortcoming, Aldous has written the preeminent biography of a fascinating career.

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(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy)

*Michael Kazin, “A Liberal Historian’s Imprint on Mid-Century America,” New York Times, November 2, 2017.