“I ALONE CAN FIX IT”: DONALD J. TRUMP’S CATASTROPHIC FINAL YEAR by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker

PHOTO: Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they push barricades to storm the Capitol in Washington D.C., Jan. 6, 2021.
(January 6, 2021, Washington, DC)

“Tis the season to read Trump books, fala la la lah…..”  It appears this summer is the publishing season for monographs on the final year of the Trump administration.  A number of important books are available, i.e., Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta’s NIGHTMARE SCENARIO, Michael Wolff’s LANDSLIDE: THE FINAL YEAR OF THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY; Michael C. Bender’s “FRANKLY WE DID WIN THIS ELECTION, and Carol Leonnig and Paul Rucker’s sequel to A VERY STABLE GENIUS, I ALONE CAN FIX IT: DONALD J. TRUMP’S CATASTROPHIC FINAL YEAR.  All zero in on Trump’s final year in office which has turned out to be one of the most consequential years in American history since the flu pandemic of 1918.  Leonnig and Rucker’s latest effort continues to take readers deep inside Trump’s chaotic and impulsive presidency and Leonnig must be recognized as a few months ago she released another important work ZERO FAIL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECRET SERVICE.

Leonnig and Rucker are Pulitzer Prize winning reporters for the Washington Post and have had access to numerous sources inside and outside the Trump administration.  They have consulted over 140 sources that include senior most Trump administration officials, career government officials, friends, Trump himself, and outside advisors.  As in her previous book, Leonnig along with Rucker have produced a well sourced, crisply written monograph that is equal to her previous efforts.

What separates the first three years of the Trump administration from the last is that between 2017 and 2019 Trump faced no major crises.  It was a period dominated by Trump’s bluster, self-aggrandizement, scandal, and self-preservation, characteristics that were not conducive to the events of 2020.  As Trump made loyalty and personal power the number one traits that dominated his management skills his immigration policy that ripped children from their parents, his denigration of the rule of law, his threats to democracy, his support for white supremacy, his contempt for allies are all important, but he faced no economic or military crises, or a public health disaster until his last year in office.

Donald Trump

( June 1, 2020, President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House)

The authors give Trump credit for Operation Warp Speed in helping to develop vaccines in record time, but his ineptitude, back biting, lack of empathy and cruelty in combating the virus through mask wearing and making vaccines a partisan political issues have resulted in the death of over 600,000 Americans and the infection of tens of millions of people with Covid-19.  Apart from the pandemic, Trump’s White House oversaw the collapse of the economy, heightened racial tension after the George Floyd murder, conducted political rallies that became super spreader events, and the policy of “law and order” was being manipulated to the point that advisors had to talk him out of giving orders to shoot demonstrators.

Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 election result created further chaos as he resorted to misinformation and lies that the election was stolen from him.  He created a “personality cult” that politicized any effort to combat the virus and introduced disastrous treatment options such as bleach and hydroxychloroquine. The result is that 50% of the American people are fully vaccinated and the country is now on the precipice of a fourth wave of the disease as cases are rising in areas that are under or not vaccinated.  We have become a country that is split between those who are and those who are not vaccinated.  As an aside Trump and his family are also fully vaccinated at the same time, he fueled the distrust in government that led to the January 6th insurrection to overturn the election of Joe Biden.

Leonnig and Rucker correctly point out that the concept of the “common good” is alien to Trump as every issue; race, economics, health, immigration, foreign policy, and finally the pandemic is seen through the lens of what he believed to be in his best personal and political interests.  Trump’s toolbox of bluster, bullying, and manipulation would not work during a pandemic.  Muzzling experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, picking feuds with public health officials, holding super spreader events, and refusing to be a correct role model during the pandemic helped to spread the virus further.

Leonnig and Rucker provide a detailed narrative outlining the cause of the virus, the role of China, and how it spread to Europe and the United States.  They relate the efforts of Dr. Robert Ray Redfield Jr., Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the president, Matt Pottinger, former Deputy National Security Advisor of the United States,  Dr. Deborah Birx, White House Coronavirus Coordinator, Stephan Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration, Francis Collins, head of the National Institute of Health, and others who worked to control the virus but who also were targets of President Trump as he railed against Public Health professionals.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley speaks at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on Feb. 26, 2020, in Washington.

(Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley)

The dysfunction inside the Trump administration as it sought to deal with the pandemic are numerous and the authors present a series of them to support their points.  Jared Kushner was brought in to deal with the lack of PPE and ventilators.  He in turn brought in a bunch of his friends and associates, called “financial whiz kids,” who knew nothing about government procurement or how international markets functioned.  One person described them as “the whiz bang crew of numb nuts” as Kushner’s “sourcing team” were in way over their heads and chaos reigned.  The turf battles, messaging, fealty to Trump, and inability of advisors to get along dominate the narrative as the White House tried to speak with one voice, but the leaks proliferated.  Leonnig and Rucker’s recreation of dialogue between HHS Head Alex Azar, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Trump advisor Michael Caputo, White House Director of Strategic Communications Alyssa Farah, and White House Spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany places the reader inside the room where the dysfunction takes place.

If there is a hero in Leonnig and Rucker’s account it is Joint Chiefs of Staff Head Mark Milley.  A good example of the role he played is depicted in his comments toward Stephen Miller, Trump’s sycophant and immigration guru.  After listening to Miller spout his hatred, Milley told him to “shut the fuck up,” and that US troops could not be used against peaceful demonstrators.  The conversations that led up to the clearing of Lafayette Square of demonstrators by Park Police, National Guard and others so Trump could have a photo op in front of St. John’s church fit Leonnig and Rucker’s ability to explain why and how things evolved and their implications.  Once Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke out against what occurred the tongue lashing he experienced by Trump is available for all to read.  Milley and Esper were in a constant battle with Trump over the politicization of the military as the former president became laser focused on demonstrations in Seattle and Portland and having a large military parade on July 4th.  For Milley and Esper it was all about preserving democracy and preserving the constitution.

The misinformation seems to appear on every other page as the Trump administration tried to develop a narrative that the president was doing all he could to stave off the virus.  At one point Kushner’s “whiz kids” and others were asked to develop new models to offset public health predictions of the number of Covid-19 cases for the future if something was not done.  They were to do so by prioritizing economic recovery over public health.  This goes along with Trump’s attitude that things were doing well no matter what the evidence reflected.  Trump was obsessed with the number of covid-19 victims as it reflected negatively on this reelection.  The stock market was another Trump obsession and when it did not cooperate he would blame others and accuse them of “killing him!”  Of course, it was all the fault of the “deep state.”  Once the senate voted 52-48 not to impeach him, Trump received the memo that no accountability for his actions existed, and he went on his revenge crusade getting rid of the likes of Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman and Olivia Troye once an advisor to Vice President Pence who publicized the illegalities in dealing with Ukraine.

Leonnig and Rucker do not miss a trick even including Melania Trump’s attempts to speak some sense with her husband in February 2020 to no avail.  They recount advice particularly by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie among others on how Trump could win reelection but as in the case of his spouse, the former president felt he knew what was best by going after “Sleepy Joe” and discarding a series of sound suggestions.  According to the authors the turning point in fighting the virus came with the arrival of Scott Atlas. For Trump, the virus stood in the way of his continuation in office and finally in July 2020 he found a public health official who would parrot his medical beliefs, Dr. Scott Atlas.  Atlas was a neuroradiologist at the conservative Hoover Institution who knew nothing about contagious pathogens, but he wanted to open up the economy, refused to endorse the wearing of masks, and was an advocate that the US was approaching herd immunity.  Atlas’ views were used to undercut public health officials and he went after Anthony Fauci with abandon. 

As Leonnig and Rucker shift to discuss the election about halfway through the book they bring the same talent and relentless reporting as Trump ratcheted up misinformation about the virus and every other issue as he tried to ignore the virus, but events would not let him, i.e.; the disastrous super spreader rally in Tulsa in June.  By the end of July Trump began his campaign that would result with the accusation that the election was stolen.  He suggested on July 30 that the election should be postponed, and fraud dominated mail in voting.  Further on September 23, 2020, Trump stated for the first time he might not honor the results of the election if he lost.  Tweets concerning the election  such as “the most INACCURATE AND FRAUDULENT election in history” still reverberates today as the House began its hearing concerning the January 6th insurrection. 

The William Barr-Trump relationship receives a great deal of coverage apart from the Attorney-General’s role at the Justice Department.  Leonnig and Rucker recount Barr’s repeated attempts to prevent the former president from self-sabotage.  Barr, known more for his role in defining the Mueller Report for Trump’s benefit and interfering with the sentencing of Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, offered Trump advice about his campaigns shortcomings and what he needed to do to win reelection.  Barr’s political advice was mostly ignored and the author’s recount the numerous examples of  how Trump was his own worst enemy in trying to improve his position in the polls visa vie Biden, i.e., allowing Mark Meadows to cut federal funding for the CDC while Redfield was trying to get the billions needed for vaccine distribution once it was available.

Rudy Giuliani emerges as a comical figure with his conspiracy theories, distorted advice to Trump over election fraud, and trying to get Trump to just declare victory despite the evidence that he had lost the election to Biden.  Leonnig and Rucker’s daily account from January 2020 to January 2021 doesn’t leave out much that occurred or important conversations that took place.  They culminate their story of administration incompetence and back biting with the run up to January 6th by explaining why it occurred and who in their view is to blame.  The book offers a strong narrative, but is a bit light on analysis and interpretation, but if you are looking for an engrossing recapitulation of the last year you cannot go wrong consulting I ALONE CAN FIX IT.

PHOTO: Supporters of President Donald Trump climb on walls at the U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by Congress, in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
(January 6, 2021, Washington, DC)

NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: INSIDE THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC THAT CHANGED HISTORY by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta

Plan your visit to the CDC Museum

For those of us who live in a world defined by facts and not an alternative universe it is clear that over thirty-three million people have contracted Covid-19 and over 600,000 have died from the disease in the United States.  From the time of the first case to our current drive to vaccinate all Americans there have been a number of predictions made by the Trump administration as to how to deal with the disease.  At one point President Trump said it would be gone once the weather warmed up, then it would be done by Easter, then all we needed to take was the drug hydroxychloroquine or inject ourselves with bleach.  These absurdities would be comical if not for the fact that people took Trump’s words seriously as how they should proceed, but what was even more ludicrous was the Trump administration’s overall strategy to cope with the disease.  In Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, both Washington Post reporters’ new book, NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: INSIDE THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC THAT CHANGED HISTORY the authors accurately convey the inner workings of the Trump presidency and how they produced a strategy that exacerbated the effect of the pandemic on American citizens and still impacts the government’s response under President Biden.

One could argue that it has all been said before.  The lies, misinformation, and the stupidity just to secure reelection.  We all lived through it and despite Fox News and other obscure outlets of right wing media, most news organizations have explained what has occurred as have a number of important books.  However, none have gone into the detail and sourcing that Abutaleb and Paletta have put together and therefore if we want to become upset once again because of the crassness of the Trump administration and its dear leader there is a formidable volume that is hard to question, though the likes of Tucker Carlson and his minions certainly will.

(Dr. Anthony Fauci)

WGL.05.Anthony-Fauci

The authors have taken a deep dive into the events, decisions, personalities and results of decision making that have led to the catastrophic response to Covid-19 by the United States.  They hold no punches, and they dig up information beyond what has been reported in the media for the last year and a half.  Trump did not act alone in this process as he was enabled by advisers, cabinet members, friends, and family who shared his view about the virus and in a number of cases exhibited even greater disdain for the government’s scientific and public health experts than the president himself.  Decisions revolved around unforced errors, petty rivalries, and a perverted attitude toward the virus that devastated the government – the key being the assault on science by Trump and his minions.

From the outset the United States was at a disadvantage in dealing with the virus as China, despite Trump’s praise of President Xi was not forthcoming with valuable information that might have assisted in containing the disease.  One of the key figures was Matt Pottinger, Deputy National Security Head who had witnessed the Chinese response in dealing with SARS in 2003 as a member of the Bush administration and as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who called for a travel ban with China and was ignored.  Trump had just made a trade deal with China and was up for reelection and did not want to rock the boat.  As the disease proliferated in January 2020, 1300 flights from China entered the United States carrying 381,000 passengers.  The situation was exacerbated by the lack of cursory coordination by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, other agencies, and the inability of the heads of those agencies to come to agreement and leave their egos at the door.

The authors present many examples of Trump’s modus operandi of pitting aides against each other and believed that the virus would magically disappear if he willed it so.  Aides and advisors were completely unprepared for what was coming and focused more on their own survival as opposed to what was best for the country.  Once the concept of asymptomatic spread emerged the dysfunction and disagreements mirrored what would later occur over the importance of masks, testing, ventilators, and the overall messages from the Trump administration cascaded throughout the media along with the negativity put forth by the likes of Fox News.

Deborah Birx
(Dr. Deborah Birx) 

The authors have written a carefully crafted narrative of the steps or lack of steps taken by the Trump administration from the outset of the crisis until January 2021.  It relies on numerous interviews of government officials, culling of emails and other internal documents, along with speaking with people off the record.  The result is that the authors follow the progression of the virus as each chapter heading contains the date, number of cases and deaths that resulted from the lack of the government’s response.  They followed up the figures by discussing the decision making process in confronting the virus for that period of time.  The chapters that deal with cruise ships which Trump wanted kept at sea or possibly sending people to Guantanamo to keep virus numbers down, the lack of PPE and other supplies to fight the virus, the misinformation put out by the Trump administration, the need by aides and health officials to assuage Trump’s ego as he did not want to deal with the virus as he focused on his reelection, and Trump’s personal comments concerning those who did not kow tow to his viewpoints all reflect the disaster that was the US response to the virus.

All the important personalities are present.  Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC was unprepared to deal with Trump’s “team of vipers.”  Jared Kushner, the second most powerful decision maker next to Trump would bring in inexperienced people to deal with the lack of PPE and ventilators then when he became bored would move on to the Middle East or other issues.  Deborah Birx, the White House Covid-19 Coordinator who did her best behind the scenes to move Trump in the right direction.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, served as the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, became a foil for Trump who resented his popularity.  Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist who mirrored Trump’s views concerning opening the country and its economic impact was brought into the West Wing. Stephen Hahn, FDA head tried to cope with the pressure in approving certain “cures” for the disease.  Scott Azar, the head of HHS whose main goal after warning about the virus was to keep his job.  Peter Navarro, the bombastic assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing whose commentary was always over the top.   Mark Meadows, Trump’s Chief of Staff whose views were a detriment to the health of the American people.  Vice President Pence who privately seemed to agree with public health officials, but publicly fawned over Trump throughout.  The authors integrate others into the narrative as the US fell deeper and deeper into the viral abyss.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield holds up his mask as he speaks at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on a
(Dr. Robert Redfield)

For Trump everything seemed to be about messaging.  Trump and his minions saw the pandemic more as a matter of public relations than of public health.  Reelection was his mantra and any information that was not helpful for that process was discarded.  As Trump lost interest in the virus by June 2020, he turned nastier toward those who disagreed with him, his rhetoric particularly after the death of George Floyd became more racist.  He would resort to threats of violence and prodded his supporters to go after Black Lives Matter protestors and used federal troops and police to create a photo op at Lafayette Square.  Further, Trump’s desire to open the country up economically and politically would lead to super spreader events like his rally in Tulsa, OK and other areas.  For Trump it was all about the economy and his reelection as his fear about appearing weak.  The end result is that the disease spiked from Memorial Day, 2020 throughout the summer, and the violence that Trump encouraged spread throughout the country.  Trump weaponized the virus as a tool that exacerbated existing divisions in our country as a means of retaining power for himself.

One of the most important discussions the authors raise was the link between the virus, the death of George Floyd, and the racial impact of what was occurring throughout the pandemic.  It is clear that the virus impacted brown and black citizens more than whites.  Due to the socio-economic makeup of the country, i.e., more minorities worked in jobs like meatpacking that spiked the disease, 33% of cases involved Hispanics, 22% of cases involved blacks resulting in half the victims were brown and black when they only made up 30% of the population.  In the end brown and black people were three times as likely as whites to contract the virus!

Scott W. Atlas

(Dr. Scott Atlas)

The authors cover every aspect of the Covid crisis.  Trump’s obsession with hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, the use of bleach, magical fantasy, pressure to approve vaccines as the election approached, and conspiracy theories are all present.  In addition, the authors weave the threats against public health officials, the bifurcation of the country over mask use as a political statement for and against Trump, the personal price paid by those who did their best to stem the disease, the errors made by public health officials and their attempts to overcome those mistakes, and many other aspects of the crisis are on full display.  The authors have written the most comprehensive study of what transpired from the outbreak of the disease through the beginning of 2021 and all Americans should consider what they have to say because another “nightmare scenario” is certainly something we will have to cope with in the future.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. An official said new guidance on coronavirus transmission had been posted “prematurely” and was still under review. 

(The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. An official said new guidance on coronavirus transmission had been posted “prematurely” and was still under review. Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times)

ZERO FAIL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECRET SERVICE by Carol Leonning

The significant role played by the United States Secret Service in American history cannot be denied.  Be it the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the failed attempts on the lives of Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, few doubted the commitment of its agents to their craft and maintaining the safety of those in their charge.  However, during the last decade or two questions have arisen over its job performance and as Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter, Carol Leonning points out in her new book, ZERO FAIL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECRET SERVICE the actions or inaction of the agency question their effectiveness and how lucky they have been with the numerous mistakes and coverups that have come to light that no major disaster can be laid at its doorstep. 

Leonning’s monograph examines the decline in the agency’s readiness and for some supervisors and agents a cavalier attitude toward their own behavior.  Relying on interviews with over 180 sources, including many current and former agency personnel that includes field agents, directors, cabinet officials and members of Congress it is clear that the agency’s overall readiness is poor.  Leonning’s purpose in writing the book was to uncover why the agency employed outdated equipment and engaged in “spotty training.”  Leonning learned that the organization was spread too thin, was drowning in new missions, and was wrought with security risks brought on by a fundamental mistrust  between the rank and file and leadership.  She asks the important question, how long will dumb luck pass for competence?

Her focus is how the agency went from an elite, hard working band of patriots that was committed to protecting future presidents in the wake of the Kennedy assassination , to a “frat boy culture of infighting, indulgence, and obsolescence.”  Further she questions how the Service went from a close-knit group that prided itself on nonpartisanship to one used by presidents for craven political means.  Lastly, why is it that it has such difficulty in hiring people fast enough to cover departures and is seen as the most hated place to work in the federal government? 

The attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan

(U.S. President Ronald Reagan winces and raises his left arm as he was shot by an assailant as he left a Washington hotel, Monday, March 30, 1981, after making a speech to a labor group. The President was shot in the upper left) 

Leonning traces the development of the Secret Service from its inception after the Civil War through the end of the Trump administration. She provides numerous vignettes that are both entertaining and troubling.  For example, Kennedy’s penchant to sneak away for dalliances, Lyndon Johnson’s paranoia after the assassination that agent’s loyalties to the deceased president would override their role as his protector, or Richard Nixon’s desire to use the assassination attempt on George Wallace as a tool to enhance himself politically by linking Arthur Bremer to the McGovern campaign and Senator Edward Kennedy.

If there is one conclusion the reader must come to grips with is that the Secret Service is broken.  Her carefully crafted narrative is informative as she delves into numerous examples of agent and supervisor malfeasance.  What emerges is a service that condoned breaches in the agency’s protocols for behavior by agents and supervisors dealing with drinking, sexual escapades, and downright stupidity for decades as higher ups rarely called offenders on the carpet and discipline for offenses was rare.

Leonning takes the reader inside the inner workings of presidential protection and what is clear is that the job is an arduous one where marriages and families of agents suffered due to the time commitment which is also a function of an underfunded and poorly run organization which put career goals and coverups ahead of conforming to regulations.  A major issue are the different factions that existed and continue to exist within the service.  It is clear that for women and people of color the career path is made much harder due to racial and misogynistic attitudes that have existed for decades.  A case in point is the plight of Julia Pierson who replaced Mark Sullivan as Director of the Secret Service after a major scandal stemming from advance team partying with prostitutes and excessive drinking in 2011 in Cartagena, Columbia.  It appears supporters of Sullivan actively worked to undermine Pierson, the first female head of the Service, after a mentally disturbed Iraq war veteran, Omar Gonzales managed to jump the White House fence and actually gain entrance into the White House itself.

Barack Obama runs over to greet supporters next to U.S. Secret Service agents after he steps off Air Force One. | Reuters Photo

(President Obama surrounded by Secret Service agents)

Constructive criticism of leadership or policy was usually seen as a threat by higher ups.  Examples include the Charles J. Baserap affair.  Baserap, a former agent prepared a forty-two page survey for his superiors in January 2007 entitled, “The Secret Service State of the Union” which after surveying numerous personnel concluded that the White House security net was vulnerable to attack.  Agents were not trained to deal wit simultaneous attacks on the White House complex, and they lacked weaponry to thwart a lethal attack on the president and his family.  Baserap also focused on routine staff shortages, burned-out officers, and the lack of respect by supervisors for their “brother agents.”  Another example reflects Loenning’s assiduous research centers on Greg Stokes, another former agent involved in the Cartagena imbroglio was threatened with termination for behavior that was condoned for decades.  In his defense Stokes began to release some very uncomfortable examples of Service hypocrisy and after Supervisor Rafael Prieto committed suicide leadership felt it was because of Stokes’ actions and he was fired.  The double standard by leadership permeates the narrative.

By 2012 Leonning points out that partisanship became much more intense in a Senate Committee headed by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson and his research assistant Rachel Weaver.  Their goal was to embarrass the Obama administration as much as possible.  There were a number of agency screw ups during the administration of the most endangered president in history.  On November 11, 2011, eight shots fired at the White House by Oscar Ortega-Hernandez, and Mark Sullivan and his top deputies denied it had occurred at the outset and later lied to a Congressional hearing.  In 2014 as Obama was visiting the CDC in Atlanta when a man with a gun was allowed on an elevator with the president without being properly vetted.  It is no wonder that privately Obama questioned whether the Secret Service could actually protect his family, but at the same time Senator Johnson wanted to link the White House to the Secret Service’s incompetence when Service leadership repeatedly met with Obama and assured the necessary changes needed were being implemented.

trump bible

(US President Donald Trump holds a Bible while visiting St. John’s Church across from the White House after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC.)

In her exploration of the Secret Service Leonning does not skimp in her coverage bringing out details dealing with Watergate, the shooting of Ronald Reagan, 9/11 and numerous other topics including the politicization of the Secret Service by the Trump administration who used it as a political arm as well as a means of making money for his organization as Trump’s persistent travels to Mar-a-Lago left the Secret Service operating on a shoestring.  Financially the Trump administration has been a disaster for the Secret Service.  First, Trump Tower must be taken care of as at the outset Trump declared it his primary residence even if he visits only three times a year and switched his residency to Florida.  The result is the Service paid the Trump Organization $63 million for rent and utilities so it could secure the Tower.  Second, each time Trump visits Mar-a-Lago with his entourage it costs $400,00 for protection.  In addition, Trump travels to all his other properties rarely spending the weekend at the White House so he can play golf costing the Secret Service millions.  In addition, the Trump extended family of eighteen people must be secured as they travel all over the world. Politically, the Secret Service became an arm of the Trump administration as it was used to clear Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters so Trump could take a walk and show how “tough” he was as he held a bible upside down in front of a church.  Also, the use of the Secret Service at rallies and what made it worse is that the Service was split between pro and anti-Trump supporters which was against department protocols.  Finally, once Joe Biden was elected President Trump refused to grant Secret Service protection for the President-elect for over a month.

It will be interesting to see how the Secret Service reforms itself in order to restore its reputation but the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection that one Secret Service agent called the armed protestors patriots seeking to undo an illegitimate election does not seem promising.  In the end I agree with Rosa Brooks’ review of ZERO FAIL in the May 14, 2021, edition of the Washington Post as she writes that the book is important, “one that will ruffle feathers in need of ruffling and that will be useful to legislators, policymakers and historians alike. Leonnig’s careful documentation of decades of neglect and malfeasance buttresses her observation that the Secret Service has become more and more of a paper tiger, weakened by arrogant, insular leadership, promotions based on loyalty rather than capability, years of slim budgets, and outdated technology.

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. Despite its Hollywood-enhanced reputation for squeaky-clean professionalism, the Secret Service is just like every other organization made up of humans, which is to say that it’s a bit of mess: It’s sloppy, hostile to newcomers and new ideas, and even its most dedicated and hard-working agents are constantly playing catch-up in the face of ceaselessly evolving threats.

But, Leonnig reminds us, ordinary human messiness isn’t quite good enough when it comes to something as vital as presidential security. Presidents, and the voters who elect them, have the right to expect more than an old boys club that sometimes seems to prioritize protecting its own over protecting the president.”

The South Lawn of the White House, where President Trump will make his speech accepting the Republican renomination on Thursday.

THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS by David S. Brown

(Henry Adams)

What impact does one’s lineage have on the course of one’s life?  If you were born into a family where you are the great-grandson of a Founding Father, the grandson of a president, and the son of a Congressman and Minister to England one would assume you would have a great deal to live up to.  In the case of Henry Adams, an important contributor to the “Adams Dynasty” politics was not a passion as it was for those who preceded him, and he chose the path of journalism, historian, and author.  Adams lived a fascinating life based on his writing, travels, and the historical personage he was close to or came in contact with.  Adam’s journey is recounted in David S. Brown’s latest biography, THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS.

Adams excelled in a number of areas.  His reputation has been formulated in large part by his autobiography, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS where he warned Americans about unlimited immeasurable power that would be unleashed in the 20th century which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in biography.  Adams’ other major work was his masterful HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES DURING THE ADMIMISTRATIONS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON AND JAMES MADISON, a nine volume compilation that historian Gary Wills calls “the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the 19th century in America.”  Brown’s biography captures the fullness of Adams’ remarkable life that encompassed many highs, as a political reformer, novelist, world and traveler.  It also encompassed a number of devastating lows which include a pressure packed family familiar that was familiar with depression, alcoholism, and suicide along with presenting an important window into 19th century American history.

Brown emphasizes Adams’ role as a transitional figure between colonial and modern America.  More specifically American history was moving toward “an imperial, industrial identity, one both increasingly beholden to technology and concerned with the fate of the white race. This is the context that the author believes Adams must be viewed in order to understand him.

The book itself is divided into two parts.  The first takes his life to 1885 and the suicide of his wife, Marian Hooper, called Clover.  In this section the reader is exposed to Adams’ impressions, Harvard and European education, and influences and pressure brought forth by his family resulting in the last of his generation of relations to achieve national recognition.  During this period his rural Quincy, MA background which he believed was superior to other parts of America, his bitter reaction to partisan politics, his attraction to a cosmopolitan Europe, and the development of his elitist outlook on life are all explored.  Following Clover’s death, Brown deftly examines a person who seemed to be set adrift resorting to constant travel, darkening meditations on capitalism’s quick expansion, and a propensity toward different personas, i.e., “Henry the 12th century Norman, the Tahitian prince, and the progress defying and denying conservative Christian anarchist.”  All of the masks that Adams’ personality presents point toward some quiet defiance of modernity, as all were primitive and skeptical of the coming age. 

According to Brown, this component of his personality defined his outlook and “at times threatened to distort his work, leading to caricature, doomsaying, and the uncritical elevation of those civilizations and peoples he often patronizingly regarded as anti-modern.” This aspect of his thought process opened to him an exceptionally wide range of ideas and yielded a complicated and insightful individual as any American thinker for his time period and beyond.  As Adams wrote in his autobiography, “by the unknowable, uncontrollable dynamo of industrial development; it is a world we have inherited, a cultural spirit we have yet to shake.”

(Marian (Clover) Hooper Adams on horseback, 1869)

Brown has a strong handle on the course of American history during Adams’ lifetime.  He effectively integrates important events and characters into the narrative and how they impacted Adams’ opinions, thought processes and actions.  An area that Brown spends a great deal of time is dealing with race and slavery in particular.  Brown makes the important connection between the “Lords of the Leash” and the “Lords of the Loom” as he describes the economically incestuous relationship between northern manufacturers and southern planters.  In Brown’s view Adams saw slaves/blacks as inferior to whites and held many of the same racial views of his time including men like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward.  The difference is that Adams’ views concerning ending slavery did not evolve as Lincoln and Seward’s did.  Henry held the seemingly New England Puritan view that opposed anything compromised, wicked, or wrong.  This is evident in his efforts during the Gilded Age to combat various forms of political, financial, and corporate corruption on the part of “Robber Barons” and their political cohorts.

Adams’ intellectual development was greatly influenced by the trends and political movements he observed before the Civil War.  As he evolved as a “thinker” he was exposed to events leading up to and including the ramifications of the Mexican War that led to the Compromise of 1850 and the slow progression toward war.  For Adams, the difference between north and south presented a dichotomy he found difficult.  The north represented education, free labor, piety, and industry, but he was also attracted to the south’s lack of institutional oversight, of church, state, and school, that pinched him at home in Quincy.  Despite this view of the south and a close friendship with Robert E. Lee’s son, Adams could not shake the divergent views when it came to slavery.  Throughout the pre and post-Civil War period Adams suffered from a failure to grasp the ethical struggle over slavery.  Many of his views were rather fanciful, i.e., the idea that the south would be defeated quickly, he saw Lincoln as a clumsy, rustic and too western etc.  The strength of Brown’s biography emerges as he discusses of Adams’ intellectual evolution as he went from a poor prognosticator to an eminent historian.

Adams’ education was a cacophony of differences.  Harvard for him was not a success as unfortunately he attended the Cambridge institution at a time when it was at the tail end of its older scholastic tradition.  When he graduated in 1858 Harvard was on the cusp of major curriculum changes and approaches to teaching science, economics, and politics.  Adams would travel to Germany to further his education outside the study of law that seemed to be his family’s traditional avocation.  He rejected the stringency of German university education but enjoyed traveling throughout Bismarck’s realm.  While in Europe he wrote a column for a Boston paper reflecting his love of travel particularly Italy where he was taken by the Italian movement toward unity and meeting Giuseppe Garibaldi and learning about Cavour.  While traveling Adams read Edward Gibbons’ THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and decided the Adams family needed a historian.

Charles Francis Adams

(Charles Francis Adams)

During the Civil War his father, Charles Francis Adams gave up his congressional seat to become the US Minister to England, Henry served as his secretary.  Their role was to make sure England did not afford the south diplomatic recognition and political and economic support.  After a slow start integrating into English society, Henry was able to adapt in large part because his own snobbish approach to people fit in with the English upper class.  Henry’s elitism plays a major role in Brown’s analysis of his subjects’ behavior and the evolution of his beliefs.  Upon returning to the US after the war it appeared the Adams’s were becoming more and more irrelevant which pushed Henry to leave Quincy for Washington and position himself as a political critic.  Obviously, the key issues of the day surrounded the plight of former slaves.

Brown’s insights into Adams views of race are insightful as he stresses Adams’ refusal to accept slavery’s corrosive and all pervading impact on America.  Brown is accurate when he argues that Adams narrow outlook reduced slavery to a  “repercussion-less fact, a wicked act now mercifully ended.”  In addition, he had an inability to see congressional reconstruction as a moral struggle rather than a political blunder reflecting his indifference to race.  He opposed the 15th amendment and feared Congress was overstepping its bounds, and he totally misjudged the south’s ferocity to reclaim what they saw was stolen from them.  Adams suffered from the delusion that a virtuous people was unfairly subjugated by a combination of Yankee carpetbaggers, black congressmen, and unscrupulous scalawags.  He had gone to Washington to free Congress from corrupt corporations and lobbyists but failed to appreciate America’s racial problems as” he lacked urgency, insight, or empathy.”

Adams was content to be a political outsider.  He viewed himself as a reformer despite the fact he clung to a patrician system that was on its way out.  He did recognize his personal aristocratic expectation of achieving political power was not going to pan out and resented the new social order that deprived him of this type of success from the monied men at the top to the immigrants at the bottom.  His anti-Semitism was ever present as he tended to blame Jews for the monied interests that appeared to dominate the American economy as it developed capitalist wealth which negatively impacted the American people.  Reflecting his elitism, Adams was the type of person who believed that few men or women were his equal, however his friends loved him, but he definitely was an acquired taste.

photograph of John Hay
(John Hay)

Brown does an exceptional job detailing Adams’ career as a writer and an intellectual.  He argues that Adams’ approach is diverse.  He can be considered one of the first “muckrakers” as coined by Theodore Roosevelt as he published a series of articles dealing with corruption during the Grant administration.  His “The New York Gold Conspiracy” zeroes in on Jay Gould and James Fiske’s attempt to corner the gold market.  In this and other articles he warns that a “rising plutocracy threatened to upend the republic.  Brown focuses on Adams’ more literary projects along with the personal drama surrounding the publication of each.  Novels like ESTHER and  DEMOCRACY reflect his talent as a satirist along with many personal details particularly his spouse Clover.  His greatest triumph came as a historian as his nine volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations reflected not only American history from 1800 to 1817 but also it places events in the United States in the context of European politics.  Brown points to the major criticism of the work in that Adams downplayed the impact of slavery and ignored its strong presence in the northern economy and society.  Further, women are hidden in the narrative with but a few mentions like Dolly Madison and Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia.  Adams’ focus is a dismissal of elitism and praises the contributions of non-elites for American society.  Following this history Adams continued his literary career with MONT-SAINT MICHEL AND CHARTRES, a meditative reflection on medieval culture.

Much of Brown’s approach as a biographer is his ability to analyze Adams’ personal writings and delving into a plethora of primary documents.  Further Brown’s portraits of Adams’ friends, allies, and enemies over his lifetime creates a coherent intellectual and political history of half of the 19th century.  Brown has created a land bridge through Henry Adams’ eyes that effectively connects the 19th and 20th centuries that his readers will benefit from.  But one must remember as Brown points out that Adams suffered a number of personal tragedies from the death of his sister Louise, the suicide of his wife that is reflected in his distinctive fatalism built upon an already “defensive and satirical exterior to stiffen.”

Henry Adams’ life is a historical duality in that he thought of himself as an 18th century man and argued for decades against corruption and searched for an antidote for Anglo-Saxon materialism.  However, despite his firm belief that capitalism could ruin the United States in the coming 20th century, he did little on a personal level to disavow his own wealth which allowed him to travel the world, purchase art works and other cultural artifacts, and benefit from the fruits of his societal position.

To sum up Brown has offered  a credible account of America’s transformation during one man’s lifetime, from a Republic where the Adams name was extremely consequential, to an industrialized monolith that had left the family behind.  As historian Amy Greenberg writes “it’s a tribute to Brown’s talent as a biographer that he enables the reader to feel empathy for a man who expressed so little for anyone else.”

The Education of Henry Adams by [Henry Adams]

HIS VERY BEST: JIMMY CARTER, A LIFE by Jonathan Alter

(Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter)

When one thinks of James Earle Carter III (Jimmy) many would argue that he achieved extraordinarily little as President and some describe his administration as a total failure.  On the positive side as Douglas Brinkley argues in his THE UNFINISHED PRESIDENCY: JIMMY CARTER’S JOURNEY BEYOND THE WHITE HOUSE Carter’s post-presidency has been the most effective and impactful of any former president in American history.  The diminution of the Carter presidency is somewhat unfair as luck was never on Carter’s side and his somewhat prickly self-righteous personality rubbed people the wrong way.  But to be fair one cannot take away the numerous accomplishments that the Carter administration was responsible for. 

To begin, the Camp David Accords was the most successful peace treaty since the end of World War II, the Panama Canal Treaties prevented war in Central America, normalized relations with China which revitalized trade between the two countries, expanded the CDC role into global health, instituted new pollution controls, increased consumer protection, implemented civil service reform for the first time in a hundred years, increased the number of women and blacks on the federal bench, doubled the size of our national parks, deregulated trucking, airlines, and utilities, placed intermediate nuclear missiles in Europe – reflecting his toughness, oversaw a Pentagon that developed the B2 bomber and other high tech weapons that the Soviets could not match, provided aid to anti-communist forces in Afghanistan, and a human rights policy that contributed to the winning of the Cold War.  This would seem to have been a strong record to run for reelection, but 1979 saw a number of events beyond Carter’s control that gave the United States a black eye – the seizure of American hostages in Iran and a failed rescue attempt, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and an increase in the price of oil due to actions by OPEC sending an American economy already tottering over the edge with inflation until a tailspin.  The interesting thing is that had Carter been reelected he would have continued to foster a sound energy policy and would have acted on the coming environmental crisis and perhaps the world we live in would at least have been cleaner and perhaps the dramatic climate changes we all observe might have been lessened.

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin sitting at table smiling (© David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
(Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin)

The question is what we should make of this man and have we misjudged him and his presidency.  In Jonathan Alter’s new book, HIS VERY BEST: JIMMY CARTER, A LIFE, the first full length biography of Carter the author attempts to answer those questions and analyze his role in American and because of his post-presidency world history.  Alter presents a president who is an enigma.  On the one hand he comes across as a pious Christian and a moral individual, however certain personality traits seem the polar opposite.  Extremely stubborn and self-righteous at times he rubbed people the wrong way as he could not suffer fools gladly and he often appeared hypocritical, particularly in dealing with members of Congress.  Alter, the author of three ­New York Times best sellers and a former senior editor at Newsweek has produced a well-documented analytical approach to Carter’s life and part of his thesis revolves around the idea that much of what Carter accomplished as President paved the way for future successes in foreign policy, the environment, and politics which were not necessarily clear at the time they were instituted.

Alter correctly points out that part of Carter’s problems politically was that he was a “real” outsider and had difficulty acclimating himself to the way things were done in Washington.  It is exceedingly difficult to pigeonhole Carter as a progressive or a conservative as it depended on the issue where he might fall on a political continuum.  However, if there is an overarching label, we can apply to Carter it would center around some sort of moral ideology.  Alter provides the reader with intimate details of Carters early years growing up in Americus and Plains Georgia, a boyhood that corresponded with the Depression.

Jimmy Carter Peanut Of Plains Statue, Plains, Georgia
(Jimmy Carter Peanut Statue, Plains, Georgia)

Alter provides numerous insights into the person Carter would become.  His lifetime mantra developed in high school as he learned that “we must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles,” a moral code that could produce success but also failures throughout his life.

Alter points to two key relationships for Carter.  He delves into Carter’s marriage to Rosalynn and what emerges is how supportive they were of each other and created a true partnership.  Carter would never have been as successful as he was without her be it his pre-presidential, presidential, or post-presidential years.  She was involved in all decisions in their marriage and his career and he would not have experienced his personal successes without her input.  The second important relationship was with Admiral Hyman Rickover who became a father figure for Carter and demanded that he always do his best and live his life as if he had something to prove.

Alter’s narrative is all encompassing, and a number of aspects stand out.  First, is the dichotomy that Carter presents dealing with race.  He grew up in a racist region of Georgia where segregationists ruled, Brown v. Board of Education was never enforced, and African-Americans knew their place.  Early on it seemed that Carter was oblivious to what was transpiring though his Christian upbringing showed him something was terribly wrong.  Though Carter would come across later as a true friend of the black community he was not above using the “race card” when it would benefit him politically in campaigns for Congress and the Governorship of Georgia.  The employment of “coded words” was present and he could speak at Black churches and preach equality at the same time he was supporting George Wallace.  Later in life Carter would admit the error of his ways and spend a good part of his adult life trying to make up for what he did or not do early in his career.  Alter does an excellent job breaking down Carter’s moral beliefs and imperfections which are highlighted by his racial attitudes and approach to politics.

Plain Peanuts Store, Plains, Georgia
(Plains Peanut Store, Plains, Ga.)

The second part of the narrative that is important is how Alter dives into a number of important topics, be it the Camp David Accords, environmental policy, the Panama Canal Treaty, normalization of relations with China, human rights as a major component of foreign policy, or the appointment of Paul Volker to head the Federal Reserve and how it impacted people in the future, mostly in a positive way.  In each instance Alter explains how each topic created a future that would benefit people well into the 21st century be it no major wars involving Israel and the Arab states, an energy policy that pushed for higher emissions standards, cleaner air, trade with China, and other examples.  Alter to his credit points out the negative aspects of some these policies, i.e.; how China has taken advantage of its economic relationship with the US as thousands of Chinese were educated in American universities and engaging in serious industrial espionage, and how Carter’s courting of evangelicals in 1976 brought them into the political process and allowed them to evolve into the negative political force they are today.

Back in the Headlines: Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979
(Return of American hostages from Iran, January, 1980)

Alter’s in depth coverage of Carter’s campaign for the presidency and his term in office is a key part of the narrative.  Carter would benefit from the post-Watergate period as an outsider.  His long shot campaign saw the application of Carter’s relentless approach to winning as he did in all aspects of his life.  Carter, along with his “Georgia Mafia” would arrive in Washington trying to do too much too soon alienating important members of Congress and other important political leaders.  His inflexibility, refusal to conform to Washington norms, and moral tone alienated many and it is amazing he accomplished what he did with an inexperienced administration who did not know how or have the desire to be involved in the political give and take needed to be successful.  Despite these shortcomings the first two years of Carter’s presidency can be considered quite successful as Alter points out, but the final two years were a disaster, mostly because of bad luck and many questionable decisions by Carter who micro-managed a great deal of time during his presidency and as a result did not have enough time during the day to reach more measured conclusions.

The list of events seems endless.  The situation in Iran that forced the Shah to be overthrown brought questions concerning how the Carter administration approached the problem.  It was clear a lack of intelligence contributed to the Shah’s resignation, but also Carter was so busy with the Camp David negotiations he was somewhat caught blindsided by events in Iran.  The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan reflected a weak presidency and a resurgence of Cold War rhetoric.  The nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island and what came to be known as “the malaise speech” lowered Carter’s approval rating to Nixonian levels.  If this was not enough by 1979 the US economy which suffered from high inflation and interest rates, long gas lines due to OPEC policies and Carter’s attitude that the American people relied too much on conspicuous consumption did not help.  In a number of instances Carter was out of his depth in dealing with these problems, particularly in confronting the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise and the hostage situation and Alter correctly argues reflected a president “who lacked a diplomatic and clandestine imagination.” 

(Carter advisor and Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan)

It is clear from Alter’s narrative that Carter lacked the disposition to be an effective president, but this doggedness and self-confidence would be a major reason why he experienced such a successful post-presidency.  Carter’s belief in “soft power” in foreign policy found a willing world once out of office.  Human rights came to dominate his presidency with support for Russian dissidents, pressuring dictators in Latin and South America,  and in Africa.  This continued after he was defeated by Ronald Reagan and Alter delves into his support of the Palestinians who he felt were squeezed out of the Camp David process, supervising elections worldwide, working to gain the release of American seized abroad, support for victims of Aids and other diseases that ravaged poor countries and finding cures, Habitat for Humanity, and on and on.  Carter’s later years reflected his total commitment to making a difference, his willingness to experiment with diverse projects, invest his time and emotions in numerous projects and causes, and risk his reputation in the name of helping others.  In his nineties Carter would admit that his “involuntary retirement were the best years of his life.”

Alter’s chief argument is that Carter “was a surprisingly consequential president.”  Alter’s account is ably sourced and fluidly written and is one of the best presidential biographies that have been published in the last decade.  Alter convincingly demonstrates that Carter should be admired for sticking to his guns in many areas that in the end, even decades later, would prove beneficial to the American people as opposed to politicians who negotiate away their beliefs in their constant need to be reelected.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter speaking in New York on July 12, 1976

(Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter speaking in New York on July 12, 1976)

THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES BAKER III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

(Secretary of State James Baker III and President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1990)

Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times and Susan Glasser, a staff writer for The New Yorker have written an engrossing biography of James Baker III, a man whose impact from 1976 through the election of 2000 can not be denied.  The book’s range is impressive as the authors describe a childhood under the thumb of a father whose nickname was “the Warden.” As an adult we witness the death of his wife from cancer at a young age and a remarriage that merged two families resulting in eight children, a number of which experienced numerous problems including drugs and alcohol.  Baker would give up the practice of law in Texas and move on to a political education in Washington, D.C. that produced lessons that stressed how to accumulate power and brook no opposition as he managed political campaigns, served as Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan as well as Treasury Secretary, and Secretary of State under George H. W. Bush.  Based on his resume it is obvious why the authors titled their book, THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES BAKER III.

Baker and Glasser employ the tools of investigative reporters in addition to those of a historian.  They have an excellent command of the written word and have the ability to present their narrative and analysis in a deeply thoughtful manner.  Baker is the author of books including DAYS OF FIRE: BUSH AND CHENEY IN THE WHITE HOUSE; THE BREACH: INSIDE THE IMPEACHMENT AND TRIAL OF WILLIAM JEEFERON CLINTON, and an excellent biography of Barack Obama entitled OBAMA: THE CALL OF HISTORY.  Glasser is the author of COVERING POLITICS IN POST TRUTH AMERICA,  and co-authored with Peter Baker, KREMLIN RISING: VLADIMIR PUTIN’S RUSSIA AND THE END OF REVOLUTION.  For those unfamiliar with the work of the author’s they are in for a treat.

Baker is one of the most consequential political figures of the last quarter of the 20th century.  He seems to have been involved in most issues and policy decisions of the period ranging from managing successful presidential campaigns, gaining passage of the Reagan tax cuts, the reunification of Germany, the end of the Soviet Union as we knew it, the removal of Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, and heading the legal team that resulted in the election of George W. Bush as president in 2000.  Each of these topics is explored in depth as the authors delve into the personalities involved, their political agendas, and the historical impact of each decision as events played out. 

James and Mary Stuart Baker with their four boys in Houston in 1964.
(The Baker family before the death of his first wife)

Two themes that dominate the narrative and analysis is how Baker earned the nickname the “velvet hammer,” and his relationship with President George H.W. Bush.  The nickname itself as the authors develop is based on Baker’s approach to achieving power, control, and at times domination of any given situation.  He comes across as a smooth, sweet talking Texan, but in reality, he played hardball whenever he felt it was necessary.  He cut his teeth on the campaign trail, the in fighting that dominated the Reagan administration, and achieving legislative victories.  His approach in the domestic area can also be seen in his conduct of foreign policy as he sought to impose his will on those who opposed him and, in many cases, it seemed as if he was president, not the then occupant of the White House.

The second theme rests on Baker’s friendship with President Bush.  The two developed a decades long friendship from the time they met at a Houston Country Club in 1961.  Baker earned the imprimatur of Bush and when he spoke or negotiated everyone knew he was speaking for the President, or earlier the Vice-President.  The authors do an excellent job describing their relationship which rested on a similar outlook, a close personal bonding that witnessed numerous vacations together in addition to policy decisions.  Baker was artful in at times manipulating Bush to achieve his aims and periodically the president grew resentful of his friend to the point that Barbara Bush never really warmed up to Baker and at times did not trust him until later in life.

Baker did not become the ultimate insider because of any fervent ideology, though he described himself as a conservative Republican.  However, more so than anyone of his generation he figured out how to employ the levers of power.  Today, in an era of extreme partisanship, “deals” are seen as a sign of weakness, but for Baker compromise to achieve an end, diplomacy, and raw power were his mantra.  One of Baker’s talents rested on how he cultivated Congress and the press, which he did assiduously.  He realized that power was in part perception and he did more to create that perception than any of his peers.  


(Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev (L) and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 1986 as they arrive in Iceland for talks with President Ronald Reagan)

As the Cold war concluded, Baker had the skill set that fit the era whether developing a close working relationship with Soviet Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze or initiating bureaucratic intrigue to achieve a domestic goal in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  When Baker made a promise, he earned the reputation of being able to deliver because of his relationship with Reagan and Bush and his own negotiating abilities. Never in American history did a president and Secretary of State enjoy a genuine friendship before entering office.  Baker learned to operate in a political environment by employing his skill set, a skill set that was highly successful and current politicians would do very well if they would emulate him as he is best described by the authors as the “un-Trump.”

As successful as Baker was as a political insider and practitioner of power the authors develop his family history which is not one that one should emulate. He left it to his second wife to take care of the family as he worked twelve hours a day on domestic issues and once, he became America’s chief diplomat traveling thousands of miles each year.  The children of both marriages had difficulties integrating and there were numerous conflicts which would lead to difficult issues that needed to be faced, and for the most part he was absent.

The authors develop numerous scenarios that reflect Baker’s talents as a politician and negotiator.  He believed that there was no way to achieve 100% of one’s goals in any negotiation and was happy to obtain 75% or any percentage that he believed would deliver most of what he hoped to achieve.  This can be seen during the Reagan administration when he outmaneuvered the likes of Alexander Haig and Edward Meese on numerous occasions, as he worked with Democrats to save Social Security when Republicans were obstinate, or negotiating the Reagan tax cut with Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill.  In all areas Baker seemed to have a superb instinct at “self-preservation,” be it dealing with the stock market crash in October 1987, his reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, or leaving US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie out to dry in the lead up to war in the Persian Gulf in 1991.  The authors point out that Baker was a realist and argued against the ideologues in the Reagan administration particularly as it related to  policy in Central America as he did his best to avoid the stain of Iran-Contra, again his antenna knew when to back off or proceed with a certain policy – it seemed he always knew which way the wind was blowing. 

baker glasser
(The authors)

Baker’s pragmatic and realistic approach is also seen as he worked to allow Mikhail Gorbachev a semblance of comfort as his country was collapsing.  Baker realized that the Soviet President had to deal with his own hard liners in the Kremlin and as he was wont to do would make subtle agreements behind the scenes that never became public.  Baker had an extremely hard edge to him as the Israeli government realized after the United States and its coalition removed Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991.  Baker had used the promise of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as a lure to convince Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to join his coalition against Saddam.  After the war Baker pressured Israeli Prime Minster Yitzchak Shamir, who he disliked intensely withholding promised funding and loans to finance the hundreds of thousand of Soviet Jews who were immigrating to Israel at the time.  The end result was the Madrid Peace Conference which later impacted the signing of the Oslo Accords. 

Baker long sought to be considered a statesman not just a fixer or dealmaker.  However, the authors argue that he had no grand plan domestically or in foreign policy, but he had the knack of bringing people together and finding pragmatic ways to paper over disagreements.  The end result, no matter what Baker engaged in, solutions resulted.  Part of this success rests with a group of individuals that Baker and Glasser label the “plug-in unit,” a small group of aids that worked with him in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  They included Margaret Tutwiler, who handled the press and Janet Mullins, Robert Zoellick and Robert Kimmitt who handled policy.  Interestingly, the authors point out that though they worked closely together for years, Baker showed no interest in them as people and maintained a personal distance even among his most loyal staff.

Baker’s achievements did not come without some “black eyes.”  Baker would work with Lee Atwater a Republican firebrand who did not find a dirty trick that did not interest him.  The authors stress his role in the Willie Horton commercials in the 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis and Baker seemed to have no problem with it, in addition to his failures in dealing with the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ethnic and religious violence that ensued.  His approach in 2000 is typical.  When Al Gore’s spokesperson Warren Christopher proposed that the two sides work out a solution, Baker’s position was clear, no negotiations, Bush was president according to the Supreme Court.

Baker and Glasser had unfettered access to Baker and many of the key characters from the period.  Their numerous interviews will not be repeated down the road by future historians, and their insider access and command of primary and secondary materials is evident.  The authors do not fall into the trap of hagiography and have written a superb book that is easily the seminal work on James Baker III, and probably will remain so for years to come.

George Bush with James Baker
(James Baker III and George Herbert Walker Bush)

BAG MAN: THE WILD CRIMES, AUDACIOUS COVER-UP AND SPECTACULAR DOWNFALL OF A BRAZEN CROOK IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Rachel Madow and Michael Yarvitz

(Vice President Spriro T. Agnew and President Richard M. Nixon)

In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.

A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as “intellectuals”.

There are people in our society who should be separated and discarded.

Three things have been difficult to tame: the oceans, fools and women. We may soon be able to tame the oceans; fools and women will take a little longer.

Perhaps the place to start looking for a credibility gap is not in the offices of the Government in Washington but in the studios of the networks in New York!

Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.

A narrow and distorted picture of America often emerges from the televised news. A single dramatic piece of the mosaic becomes, in the minds of millions, the entire picture.

*****************************************************************************

For those of you who are too young or have forgotten their history the above words of wisdom did not emanate from Donald Trump but from Richard Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro T. Agnew.  Some would argue that Agnew has passed on to the dust bin of history, but if one is looking for the words of a demagogue we can begin with Joseph McCarthy, follow with Agnew, and just look at the daily tweets of the current president.  Agnew’s tale may have receded into the past, but it has been resurrected by MSNBC program host Rachel Madow and television producer Michael Yarvitz’s new book, BAG MAN: THE WILD CRIMES, AUDACIOUS COVER-UP AND SPECTACULAR DOWNFALL OF A BRAZEN CROOK IN THE WHITE HOUSE.

Madow and Yarvitz offer a breezy, well documented account of how a sitting Vice President Spiro T. Agnew ran an undercover bribery and extortion scheme from inside the White House.  Agnew’s machinations were a continuation of a process he had developed as Baltimore County Executive and later as Governor of Maryland.  The authors describe the investigation of three young prosecutors from Baltimore; Barney Skolnik, Ron Leibman, and Tim Baker that began as a case against a few engineering firms with contracts with Baltimore County, an area surrounding the city of Baltimore that was booming in the 1960s and 70s that eventually led to Agnew.  The problem that emerged was that the Watergate investigation was well underway and the number two man to the president was also a crook!

ElliotLeeRichardson.jpg

(Attorney General Elliot Richardson)

If the Agnew scandal had not occurred during Watergate it would have been considered one of the most sordid chapters visited upon the White House in the pre-Trump era.  In telling the reader about Agnew’s tale, the authors focus on a corrupt occupant of the White House “whose crimes are discovered by his own Justice Department and who clings to high office by using power and prerogative of the same office to save himself.”  Maddow and Yarvitz explore the strategies pursued by prosecutors and Agnew’s defense which raises some interesting historical tidbits.  For example, Agnew was able to get Nixon to pressure the US Attorney George Beall to drop the case.  Nixon enlisted his new Chief of Staff Alexander Haig (H.R. Haldeman had resigned over Watergate) to approach Maryland Senator Glenn Beall to call off his younger brother who was the US Attorney in charge of the investigation.  When that did not work, he enlisted George Herbert Walker Bush, the future Vice President and President to engage in obstruction of justice by pressuring Beall.  To his credit Beall refused and protected his prosecutors from the administration.  In Jon Meacham’s biography of Bush, he hems and haws about Bush’s role in Iran-Contra, but never mentions his role in the Agnew case.  Perhaps he should rework his hagiography of Bush.

There are numerous examples of the author’s attention to detail and insights.  A wonderful example surrounds Agnew’s refusal to fade away into the night and arguing that he would fight for his job all the way to the Supreme Court employing the logic that a sitting Vice President could not be criminally indicted unless they were impeached by the House and removed by the Senate.  If the Supreme Court rejected the argument, a strategy already employed by Nixon’s lawyers, then the President would also be in trouble.  This explains why Nixon had enough of Agnew and sent Haig to tell him to resign.  It is somewhat humorous how the authors present a president seemingly drowning in his own scandals having to deal with a Vice President who demanded support in weaseling out of his own crimes.

George Beall, the United States attorney for Maryland, right, with Attorney General Elliot Richardson in October 1973, when his graft investigation of Vice President Spiro Agnew came to a head.

(Attorney General Elliot Richardson and US Attorney George Beall)

The authors do an exceptional job placing the Agnew scandal in the context of Watergate.  Their job was facilitated by tapes and documents that seemingly were buried for decades which they have brought to life integrating verbatim transcripts to support their conclusions.  The use of hours and hours of White House tapes, secretly recorded, as well as an audio diary dictated by H.R. Haldeman is a treasure trove of information that prosecutors did not have in 1973.  They zero in on the investigation of Agnew and relate a number of scenes dealing with the prosecutors, Agnew-Nixon meetings, the comments by Agnew’s defense lawyers, and the machinations of the Nixon administration which are all priceless.  When the authors inform the former prosecutors what they have learned they are amazed, “Wow! Agnew said my name! Oh joy….makes my whole life worthwhile.”

If there are heroes that emerge from the Agnew fiasco, they are Attorney General Elliot Richardson who allowed his office to pursue the case.  Interestingly, it was Richardson who refused to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox when ordered to by Nixon as part of the Saturday Night Massacre.  The next hero is George Beall who withstood immense pressure from the Nixon administration and his brother to stop the investigation.  Beall refused and shielded his prosecutors to allow them to perform their constitutional duties.

The link to current events rest with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel which ruled that a sitting Vice President could be indicted, but a president could not.  The 1973 ruling was cited by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to explain why he could not indict Donald Trump.  The ruling has never been tested in the courts and provides a loophole for future presidents to follow in Trump’s footsteps.

Agnew’s “pay for play” activities are delineated in detail as his convoluted defense and uproarious personality, along with his bullying tactics-sound familiar?  In 1973 the American people were able to get rid of a criminal through prosecution and eventual resignation, today luckily, we are able to rely on the elective process because the likes of Bill Barr and Republicans in the Senate refused to perform their constitutional duties.

A PROMISED LAND by Barack Obama

President Barack Obama waves at the conclusion of his news conference in the briefing room of the White House, Dec. 16, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

(President Barack Obama waves at the conclusion of his news conference in the briefing room of the White House, Dec. 16, 2016, in Washington, D.C.)

After listening to a 46 minute incoherent rant last night by Donald Trump about how the election was stolen from him and other conspiracy theories I was pleased to sit down in a quiet corner of my study and engage Barack Obama’s new memoir, A PROMISED LAND.  The comparison between Trump and Obama is alarming as one man uses (ed) the presidency as if were a vehicle for wealth accumulation and as a means of destroying anyone who disagreed with him, while the other, whether you agreed with him or not was sincere about carrying out his constitutional duties as chief executive in a reasonable manner.

Obama has written an engaging memoir that encompasses his early years to his life in Chicago, his early political career, and the first three years of his presidency through the killing of Osama Bin-Ladin.  It is clearly written and reflects a great deal of thought, a remarkable knowledge of history, and personal detail which is missing from most presidential memoirs.  Over the years I have read all the existing presidential memoirs since Harry Truman’s two volume contribution and would argue for breadth of detail, insightful analysis, candor, and substance, Obama’s memoir should be on the top of the list as he avoids much of the trenchant narrative that his predecessors engaged in.

Obama’s narrative has three major components.  First, the personal.  Obama is incredibly open about the effect of his political career on his marriage and children.  Further, he has no compunction about hiding his feelings about the likes Mitch McConnell, Stanley McCrystal,  Hillary Clinton, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Ted Kennedy, David Axelrod and countless others.  Second, reflecting his broad historical knowledge he provides introductions, in addition to lessons for each issue he is confronted with be it the 2008 financial crisis, Iran’s nuclear program, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, trying to deal with Vladimir Putin, pandemics, among the many problems he faced on a daily basis.  Lastly, the core of any presidential memoir is his political career, relations with other politicians, and trying to gain passage of important legislation, i.e.; the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, and regulating financial institutions. 

Michelle Obama podcast Barack Obama

(Michelle and Barack Obama)

In all areas he explains his decision-making process as he attempted to solve the problems America faced on a daily basis.  A case in point was his approach to troop levels in Afghanistan when he assumed the presidency.  The Pentagon favored the “McCrystal Plan” that called for a 40,000 troop increase that would bring troop levels to over 100,000 and would probably keep America in Afghanistan long after an Obama presidency ended, even if he served two terms.  Obama as he does in most cases breaks down how he worked with Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to reach a compromise of 17,000 men but setting a controversial withdrawal date for American forces.  But no matter what issue Obama discusses be it the inherited economic crisis, rethinking the U.S.’s place in the world, racist resentment lurks below, and its stench rises into sharper focus seemingly in each chapter.

Obama’s writing and approach is not perfect and he like others tends to get bogged down in details, but he has the ability to integrate personal observations on a host of issues and personalities that most readers should find on one level, charming, but also quite interesting.  Obama conveys his views very carefully and succinctly as he opens a window to his private life and presidency.  At the forefront is his relationship with his wife Michelle.  He is very honest about the role she played in his career and sacrificing a great deal personally as she took over direction of their two daughters.  She was against his pursuit of a political career, though she provided her full support.  But it is clear from her own memoir that she despised politics.  It is also clear throughout the narrative that Obama agonized over how his political career and the presidency in particular affected his family, but it did not derail his belief that he could change America for the better and bridge the partisan divide, a belief that reflects his naivete in dealing with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Hillary Clinton and President Obama are seen in this 2012 photo.

(Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama)

Of the many important subjects that Obama addresses a number stand out which remain problematical to this day.  It seems that at every turn the Republicans led by Senator Mitch McConnell and John Boehner that their goal was to make sure he was a one term president.  These feelings on the part of Republicans in general were based on the need to maintain power, but in Obama’s case it had racial overtones.  The Professor Louis Gates affair that resulted in the infamous “beer summit” at the White House is very reflective of the racial issue.  Obama tried to downplay the arrest of Gates, a Harvard professor who was placed in handcuffs as he tried to enter his own home.  But when Obama supported his friend the criticism of the president by the conservative right was heightened.  What is crystal clear was that as a Republican you were not supposed to cooperate with Obama and if you did it would negatively affect your political career.  Obama would comment on conservatives’ reactions to him in many cases as “have they lost their minds.”

The 2008 financial crisis, that produced the TARP legislation at the end of the Bush administration, the Recovery Act, and the auto industry bailout are dealt with in detail.  Dealing with the crisis before he assumed office and immediately after his inauguration it reflects Obama’s deference to the quality of his cabinet and advisers.  He weighed all recommendations and relied heavily on the likes of Tim Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury and others.  He clearly explains the machinations of bankers, hedge fund managers, and others that brought the United States and many of its citizens to financial disaster and in many cases, particularly among minorities and other segments of society who to this day have not totally recovered.  Obama takes the reader inside the George W. Bush administration cabinet room as well as his own as attempts at legislating an end to the crisis – very eye opening.

Obama’s commentary on foreign policy issues is a blend of hard nose realism and baseless hope.  Dealing with Russia easily comes to mind.  When Vladimir Putin stepped aside and allowed Dimitry Medvedev to assume power in Russia, Obama felt he might have a partner in his “Russian reset.”  Though fully aware that Putin was pulling the strings from behind he clung to the idea that progress could be made.  His description of his first summit with Putin who in a rather forceful manner harangued the American delegation about American slights toward Russia and the damage the NATO expansion, the financial crisis, and constant human rights complaints which the Russian leader believed humiliated his country.  This should have opened Obama’s eyes as he experienced the “real Putin” and developed a firmer response toward the  Russian autocrat.

President Obama leads a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet room

(The Obama Cabinet)

Relations with Iran attract a great deal of attention, as does his approach toward the Shi’ite government in Iraq under Nuri al-Maliki, the corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, the disingenuous Pakistani government, and relations with Angela Merkel of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and English Prime Minister David Cameron.  Obama’s remarks are priceless as he provides details dealing with all of these issues and relationships.  Clearly, he was taken aback in a number of situations, particularly the awarding of the Nobel Prize which he himself knew he really had done nothing to earn other than not being George Bush and becoming the first black American president.  His comment is revealing; “for what?”

On the domestic front Obama expresses a vibe of disbelief as he tried to develop legislation on a number of important topics.  In dealing with the financial crisis Wall Street and banking reform was called for which in the end would result in Dodd-Frank, which for many did not go far enough.  Environmental problems festered and getting republicans to accept climate change was a big ask which of course negated any comprehensive legislation to regulate corporations and lobbyists.  However, as some progress was made, the Deep Water Horizon Spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico changed everyone’s focus.  In what some have called “Obama’s Katrina” the president takes the reader inside the government and BP’s attempts at ameliorating the situation.  As Obama states, each day seemed to bring a new crisis, many of which his administration was not prepared for.

situation room obama biden clinton osama raid
US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune’s Spear, a mission against Osama bin Laden, in one of the conference rooms of the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. 

Aside from a narrative focused on policy and personalities, Obama makes an interesting point in discussing his own upbringing in Indonesia, Hawaii, and frequent visits to Kenya, and how it affected his later approach to problem solving.  His background was one of diversity and his approach to foreign policy and domestic decisions dealing with minorities and poverty bear this out.  Perhaps Obama’s background helps explains his appearance of being aloof and “cool,” traits that seemed to alienate anyone who disagreed with him be it on the left or right of the political spectrum. 

Overall, Obama’s massive memoir, which has another volume which will be released at some point in the future is an exercise in choosing topics that he felt comfortable examining leaving out certain aspects of his presidency that may not cast a favorable light.  For example, there was a 700% increase in drone strikes in Pakistan which receives little mention.  Obama’s approach to the Arab spring and his chaotic policy toward Libya merits greater discussion.  Under Obama administration policies deportation of immigrants rose markedly as did the prosecution of government whistle blowers.  These issues are important, but in comparison to the coverage that Obama provides they do not detract from my view of the importance of this memoir and for many setting the political record straight.  For Obama it appears that if he laid out his thinking in sufficient detail, along with the constellation of obstacles and constraints he faced, any reasonable American will understand why he governed as he did.  No matter how much he may internalize this belief our current political environment reflects that his premise is wrong.

An excerpt of former President Barack Obama's upcoming memoir "A Promised Land" was released Monday by the New Yorker.

(An excerpt of former President Barack Obama’s upcoming memoir “A Promised Land” was released Monday by the New Yorker.)

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)