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

ph0002001r

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.

AP_00042602638
(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.

AP_610714012
(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.

AP_730314012
(March 14, 1973, McCain is released as a POW)

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


Sean Hannity
(Sean Hannity)

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

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

(Rupert Murdoch)

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

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

(Tucker Carlson)

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

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

laura-ingraham
(Laura Ingraham)

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

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

(CNN’s Brian Stelter)

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


sean hannity trump vaping fox book
(Sean Hannity)

RAGE by Bob Woodward

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

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

(Dr. Anthony Fauci)

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

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

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

(Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats)

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

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

Alex Wong/Getty Images

(Former Defense Secretary James Mattis)

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

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

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

Bob Woodward
(Author, Bob Woodward)

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

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

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

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

(President Trump and Vice President Pence)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(A young Donald Trump and Roy Cohn)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Meet the Doctor Who Convinced America to Sober Up

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

Benjamin Rush

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Franklin
(Benjamin Franklin)

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

John Adams, circa 1790.
(President John Adams)

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

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

 

PELOSI by Molly Ball

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

061215_pelosi_obama_ap.jpg

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

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

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

Political cheer

(Nancy Pelosi and her family)

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

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

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

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

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