ALEXANDER HAMILTON: AMERICAN by Richard Brookhiser

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

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

File:James Madison.jpg

(James Madison)

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

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

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

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

3rd Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr

(Aaron Burr)

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

 (Library of Congress)

HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY by Brendan Simms

Image result for photo of hitler
(Adolf Hitler)

At the outset of his new biography of Adolf Hitler, Brendan Simms points out that by 2000 over 120,000 books and articles have been written about the Nazi dictator.  The question then must be asked, why another?  Simms states in his introduction to HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY that conjecture concerning Hitler’s motivations that resulted in his rise to power, reorienting Germany toward Nazi domestic and foreign policy, and his ultimate defeat that have been examined since the 1950s by the likes of Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, Ian Kershaw, and more recently by Volker Ulrich and Peter Longerich and others needs to be reexamined.  Simms seeks to build on the works of others, integrating many of their viewpoints as he puts forth his own revisionist interpretation of his subject in the tradition of A.J.P. Taylor.

Simms is a political scientist and professor of international relations and his newest book is his first attempt at biography and though it is a comprehensive look at Hitler from World War One onward it does lack coverage and interpretation of his life before that period.  What Simms is concerned with are three interrelated new claims.  First, Hitler was primarily obsessed throughout his career with Anglo-American and global capitalism, not the Soviet Union and Bolshevism.  Second, Hitler held a negative view of the German people arguing that even when purged of Jews and other “Untermenschen” he reflected a sense of inferiority in comparing the “volk” with “Anglo-Saxons.”  Thirdly, historians have focused too much on Hitler’s negative view of eugenics regarding the Jews and other undesirables and not enough on what he saw as positive eugenics, which was designed to elevate the German people to that of his British and American rivals.  According to Simms, historians “have missed the extent to which Hitler was locked in a worldwide struggle not just against “world Jewry” but with the Anglo-Saxons.”  These claims or themes are hammered home by Simms on each and every page no matter the topic he is engaged in and it comes across as quite repetitive.  The book is extremely detailed and well thought out but could have been written in a more concise manner.

Image result for photo of hitler

To Simms’s credit he offers a great deal for the reader and other historians to consider and analyze and ultimately question.  One of Hitler’s core beliefs according to the author is that the reason the United States developed into superpower status was because of “living space.”  America had almost an entire continent to settle and when Native-Americans got in the way they were removed.  This large area provided an enormous supply of natural resources and areas to resettle millions of immigrants who arrived from Europe in the 19th and early 20th century.  For Hitler, it was German emigrants leaving the Fatherland who arrived in the United States who were greatly responsible for the American dream.  They brought skills that were needed ranging from farming, industrial labor, and their intellect.  By leaving Germany and emigrating across the Atlantic they left a void at home and an inferior population.  During World War One, Hitler became impressed with American soldiers in large part because they were made up of a significant number of Germans.  For Hitler, it became a civil war, German emigrants fighting against Germans who remained in the Fatherland which explains as the reason Germany lost the war.  This argument is carried forth throughout the 1920s and 30s leading to and including World War Two.

Image result for photo of allied bombing of germany during wwii
(Results of Alloied fire bombing of Dresden)

Simms provides documentary evidence of Hitler’s beliefs through speeches, private conversations, and an analysis of MEIN KAMPF and THE SECOND BOOK which Hitler authored.  Simms provides numerous examples to support his claims as Hitler constantly worried about the power of the United States and during the late 1930s he wondered what approach Franklin D. Roosevelt would take as appeasers dominated English and French foreign policy.  In developing his strategy during World War Two, Simms argues that Hitler at the outset was not concerned with race and viewed the Jews as hostages to keep the United States out of the war and it was only after Washington signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941 that Hitler decided he needed a quick victory in the east and the implementation of the Final Solution.  Hitler feared that the Charter was similar to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points during World War I which he believed was a propaganda victory that resulted in the Germany agreeing to end the fighting.  Further, to argue that race had little impact up until 1941 in the plight of European Jewry is a bit specious at best.  All one has to do is look at Hitler’s speeches and writings to realize that race was the core of his attitude toward Jews.  The 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Hitler’s constant comparison of the treatment of Jews and black colonial soldiers, Kristallnacht, Einsatzgruppen in Russia,  and numerous other examples reflect the Hitler’s obsession with race.

Related image

Simms’s argument that the entrance of the United States into the spelled the death knell for Jews as he no longer needed them as hostages is hard to accept.  All one has to do explore the evolution of Hitler’s views on Jews from the writing of MEIN KAMPF throughout the 1930s to the unwritten order to eradicate European Jewry surrounding the Wannsee Conference, and further events to see that argument that if the United States had not entered the war, Jews might have lived is fallacious at best.

As far as the British are concerned, Simms’s Hitler fawns over the empire, its colonial policy, and the sturdiness and bravery of its people.  Hitler repeatedly tried to make peace or ally with England throughout the 1930s, the years leading up to World War Two, and the war itself.  His strategy as is argued by many was to invade the Soviet Union as a means of pressuring London into making peace.  This is not really new, but it is interesting to explore Simms’s presentation as he has culled an enormous amount of primary and secondary materials which are part of an exceptional compendium of sources and footnotes in presenting his arguments.

Image result for photo of allied bombing of germany during wwii
(Allied bombing of Romanian oil fields)

Simms does present all of the salient facts regarding Hitler’s life and the course of German history between World War I and II.  The author presents a detailed account of Nazi Party politics from the 1920s through the assumption of power in 1933 and beyond, Hitler’s impact on German federalism and Bavaria in particular, German culture, the removal of any threats to Hitler’s power, i.e., Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s fears of the restoration of the Habsburg Monarchy, the machinations of Nazi foreign policy using the excuse of self-determination, and many other issues.  The difference is his approach. He seems to enjoy exploring Hitler’s thought patterns and how he reached his conclusions.  A good example is how he believed England would switch sides after being defeated and support the Nazis as the Austrian Empire had done with Prussia in 1866 after the Battle of Sadowa.  Another example is how Hitler viewed the Slavs in relation to Germany, much in the same way that the United States viewed Native-Americans.  Slavs were to be moved out of the Ukraine to create Lebensraum for Hitler and provide Germany with the breadbasket of the Soviet Union as well as natural resources as the removal of Native-Americans had for Washington.

Historians seem overly concerned with watershed dates.  For Simms it is the May, 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia as anti-appeasement factions in the British Foreign Office and in MI6, aided by Czech and German social democrat exiles triggered a crisis in order to torpedo Neville Chamberlain’s policy of conciliation toward Germany and to mobilize resistance to Hitler.  It was claimed that Hitler had mobilized German forces and was planning an imminent attack.  This was not the case as an embarrassed Hitler retreated – the result would be the Munich Crisis and the ceding of the Sudetenland in September 1938 to assuage Hitler’s ego.  As a result of the crisis Hitler began to realize that a rapprochement with England was not likely and he would rush the Czechs completely by March 1939.  Hitler did make another attempt to seek a deal with London over a “rump” Poland after the Danzig crisis and the German invasion in September 1939, but they turned him down.  According to Simms, Hitler never forgave them, and the “blitz” or Battle of Britain was a direct result as was the invasion of Russian in June 1941 as a means of showing Churchill he was isolated and should make peace, not because they were Bolshevik as many have argued.  In fact, according to Simms, Hitler held a certain admiration for Stalin for the way he ruled and how his troops fought so fiercely against the Nazis.

Image result for photo of allied liberation of auschwitz
(Allied liberation of Auschwitz)

As to the idea that Nazism was socialism as Simms proports one must realize Hitler’s coopting of German “big business” for rearmament was designed as a drive to war, resulting in increased profits for Krupp and Thyssen and other industrialists rather than improving working conditions and wages for workers – this is not socialism.   According to Richard J. Evans in his review in The Guardian, on September 27, 2019, a great deal of what Simms argues is untenable, and though I agree with this assessment I would not go as far as his statement that Simms’s work should be ignored by serious students of the Nazi era as it is provocative and in parts interesting.  I would say though that what Simms argues should be taken with a grain of salt, but his work should not be dismissed out of hand.

Evans review article follows as it appeared in The Guardian, September 27, 2019.

Hitler by Brendan Simms and Hitler by Peter Longerich review – problematic portraits

Was Hitler obsessed with destroying capitalism? Did he drive policy ‘even down to the smallest detail’? Two new biographies fall into different traps

Richard J Evans

 

“Hitler was a socialist,” has become a mantra for the “alt-right” in the US as it seeks to discredit Democratic politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Dinesh D’Souza’s book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left expounded this claim at length in 2017, comparing points of the Nazi party’s 1920 programme with policies put forward by modern Democrats. So, anyone who claims to be a socialist is really a Nazi who wants to set the country on the road to totalitarianism, war and genocide. Obamacare is only the start; enslavement and death will be the end. It’s a claim that has spread through the Republican party and has been echoed by Donald Trump Jr.

Now it has found its way across the Atlantic in the form of Brendan Simms’s new book, the central argument of which is that “Hitler’s principal preoccupation throughout his career was Anglo-America and global capitalism, rather than the Soviet Union and Bolshevism”. Everything in his life can be traced back to this obsession. “Hitler wanted to establish what he considered racial unity in Germany by overcoming the capitalist order and working for the construction of a new classless society.” Throughout his career, “Hitler’s rhetoric” was “far more anti-capitalist than anti-communist”. Simms asserts “the centrality of the British Empire and the United States in the gestation of Mein Kampf”, just as he claims of Hitler’s long unpublished Second Book that “the main focus of the text was the overwhelming power of Anglo-America, and especially of the United States”.

Hitler has been the subject of a string of major biographies, from those by Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest to, most recently, Ian Kershaw and Volker Ullrich. But they have all, Simms writes, got him wrong: “The extent to which he was fighting a war against ‘international high finance’ and ‘plutocracy’ from start to finish has not been understood at all.” Now he has come along to set us all right.

There are good reasons, however, why the overwhelming consensus of historical scholarship has rejected any idea that Hitler was a socialist. Simms emphasises the violence of Nazi stormtroopers in the early 1930s against German conservatives rather than socialists and communists, but in fact the latter made up the overwhelming majority of the 200,000 or so opponents of Nazism who were thrown into concentration camps during Hitler’s first year in power. As for Mein Kampf, it was the threat of communism and socialism that dominated the political part of the text, in which Hitler expounded his belief that “the Bolshevisation of Germany … means the complete annihilation of the entire Christian-western culture”. In similar fashion the main focus of the Second Book was not the US, which is mentioned only on a handful of pages, but the need for “living-space” in eastern Europe and German claims to Italian South Tyrol.

The central planks in the socialist platform have always been the belief that capitalism oppresses the mass of the people and needs to be overthrown, or at least moderated and regulated in their interest. Simms claims that “what Hitler did very effectively” was “to nationalise German industrialists by making them instruments of his political will”. But this was not economic or financial control exercised in the interests of the people, nor did Hitler nationalise industry or the banks in any meaningful sense of the word. Rather, he set a political course for rearmament as part of his drive to war that pushed industrialists such as Thyssen and Krupp to devote ever more resources to arms production in the interests of increasing their profits. The result was heightened exploitation of the workers, as the overheating of war production forced them even before 1939 to work longer hours without extra pay. This was not socialism, whatever else it was.

Simms’s reduction of virtually all the major events in the history of the Third Reich to a product of anti-Americanism even extends to episodes such as the nationwide pogrom of the Reichskristallnacht in November 1938, when thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed and 30,000 Jewish men put into concentration camps. Apparently this was caused by “Roosevelt’s hostility to Hitler and his defence of the Jews”. The invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was launched in order “to strike at Britain, and to deter the United States … Barbarossa was to be a campaign of conquest and annihilation, for reasons more to do with Anglo-America than the Soviet Union itself”. Even the Holocaust, we should not be surprised to learn, was “primarily driven … by his fear of Britain and the United States”.

All this is nonsense, and indeed, Simms is forced to contradict himself by the sheer weight of the evidence against his thesis. The invasion of the Soviet Union was, he concedes, “part of a much broader ideological war against Bolshevism”: “a struggle between two world views”, as Hitler put it. He admits that Hitler “was not completely opposed to all forms of capitalism”, only “unproductive” ones: in other words Jewish-owned capital, as with, for example, department store chains – he forced Jewish owners out but did not close them down. Interviewed by the Daily Express correspondent Sefton Delmer in 1931, Hitler said: “My job is to prevent the millions of German unemployed from coming under communist influence.” He did not even mention America in outlining his foreign policy aims to the journalist.

Time and again, Simms uses rhetorical sleight of hand to underscore his claim that the US was the main focus of Hitler’s foreign policy by referring to “Anglo-America” when he is in fact just talking about Britain. He quotes a proclamation from Hitler saying on New Year’s Day 1944 that the war was being fought against the “Bolshevik-plutocratic world conspirators and their Jewish wire-pullers”; a few lines later this has become in Simms’s words a struggle against “Anglo-American imperialism”, and all mention of the Bolsheviks has disappeared. Yet Hitler was quite clear about the issue: “Everything I do is directed against Russia,” he said.

Simms claims that Hitler was engaged in “a war of annihilation against Anglo-Saxons, the Jews and their Bolshevik puppets”. But there was no war of annihilation against “Anglo-Saxons”; indeed, it was striking that when in 1944-45 the camps were emptied as the Red Army advanced, British, American and French prisoners were relatively well treated, while the evacuation of Slavs and the few remaining Jews turned into death marches in which tens of thousands were murdered.

The military conduct of the war in Simms’s view was also directed against the US: even “the drive on Stalingrad, like the entire war, was primarily driven by the contest against Anglo-America”. But contrary to Simms’s denial of the fact, Stalingrad held a special significance for Hitler because of its name. Pursuing his claim to the centrality of “Anglo-America” in the Nazi war effort, Simms declares that the capitulation of axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943 “was a much greater disaster than Stalingrad, with well in excess of 130,000 Wehrmacht personnel taken prisoner, many more than had entered captivity” at Stalingrad. But these are phoney statistics. In fact, about the same number of German and allied troops were captured on both occasions (around 235,000). The real difference was in the numbers killed – some 50,000 or so in Tunisia, anything up to 750,000, more than 10 times as many, at Stalingrad. It was north Africa that was the sideshow, not Stalingrad, the effects of which on the strategy and morale of the Germans were shattering.

Hitler’s genocidal antisemitism was based on the paranoid belief that Jews were racially pre-programmed to engage in subversion and conspiracy, whether from the communist and socialist left or from capitalist “profiteering”. In the end, Simms hasn’t written a biography in any meaningful sense of the word, he’s written a tract that instrumentalises the past for present-day political purposes. As such, his book can be safely ignored by serious students of the Nazi era.

For a real biography by a genuine specialist on Nazi Germany, we have to turn to Peter Longerich’s book, ably translated from the German by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe. He makes it clear that Hitler was politicised by the “Jewish-Bolshevik” revolution in Munich in 1918-19, and from early on in his career courted business in search of funds; his 1932 speech to industrialists in Düsseldorf, which Simms dismisses as unimportant, was a turning point in this respect. As for socialism, Hitler simply defined it as “love for one’s nation” and used anticapitalist rhetoric cynically in an effort to win over the working classes to his cause. Longerich dismisses the idea, currently fashionable among German historians, that Hitler created a classless “People’s Community” after he came to power, rightly stressing that social divisions and inequalities continued unabated during the Third Reich. It was communism that he was obsessed with destroying, not the US, which is mentioned only once in the book before we get to page 700.

Longerich delivers some penetrating analyses of the documentary record and takes good account of such recent publications as the diaries of Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels. Unfortunately, however, in focusing relentlessly on Hitler himself – his politics and his decision-making – he falls into the trap of ascribing virtually everything that happened in Nazi Germany to his will, portraying him as an all-powerful dictator who drove policy “even down to the smallest detail”. This is not new, of course; it’s a reversion to the historical perspectives of the 1950s, and it’s not borne out by the evidence.

Even according to Longerich’s own narrative, Goebbels, with a very few exceptions, was the driving force in cultural policy, Hjalmar Schacht in economics (at least until 1937), Heinrich Himmler in coercion and repression, Robert Ley in the creation of the “Strength Through Joy” scheme for workers’ leisure, and so on. Given Hitler’s chaotic working habits as described by Longerich, one should not expect otherwise. And on occasions such as the formulation of the Nuremberg race laws, Hitler is described in this book as reacting to events rather than shaping them. You don’t have to go to the opposite extreme of regarding Hitler’s policies as the product of structural pressures in the regime to realise that Longerich’s bold claims for Hitler’s responsibility for everything are overdone. He claims, for example, that Hitler’s willpower kept the Germans going to the bitter end of the war, but a mass of recent research shows there were many other reasons, from fear of the Gestapo and terror of the Red Army to strong allegiance to German national identity. In the end, therefore, neither of these books comes close to supplanting the standard modern biographies by Kershaw and Ullrich.

Image result for photo of hitler

 

POISONER IN CHIEF: SIDNEY GOTTLIEB AND THE CIA SEARCH FOR MIND CONTROL by Stephen Kinzer

Sidney Gottlieb, Sept. 21, 1977.
(Sidney Gottlieb, circa 1977)

Stephen Kinzer’s latest book, POISONER IN CHIEF: SIDNEY GOTTLIEB AND THE CIA SEARCH FOR MIND CONTROL is a very troubling and disconcerting book.  The fact that the United States government sanctioned a program designed to conduct what the author terms, “brain warfare” highlights a policy that allowed for torture, the use of chemicals to develop control of people’s thoughts, murder, and the disintegration of people and their quality of life making one want to question what these bureaucrats, the military, and the intelligence community as well as the president were thinking.  Those who are familiar with Kinzer’s previous works, THE BROTHERS,  a duel biography of the John Foster and Allen W. Dulles; ALL THE SHAH’S MEN, which describes the errors of American policy toward Iran and the overthrow of the Shah; BITTER FRUIT, an analysis of the CIA coup in Guatemala in 1954;  OVERTHROW, a history of CIA coups including Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, among the author’s nine books will recognize his fluid writing style, impeccable research, and pointed analysis.  In his current effort all of these qualities are readily apparent and apart from a certain amount of disgust by what they are reading you will find the book an exceptional expose.

Kinzer’s deep dive into the lethal and unscrupulous world of “brain warfare” must be seen in the context of time period that he discusses.  The United States found itself in the midst of the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union with intelligence focusing on Russian research into mind control.  With Soviet aggressiveness in Eastern Europe and beyond, the rise of Communist China, the Korean War, and the domestic ramifications of McCarthyism the mindset of the American military, intelligence organizations, and politicians were open to anything that could keen up and surpass the Communist bloc in any area that was deemed a threat to American national security.

Related image
(Allen W. Dulles)

The story originates with World War II with German and Japanese scientists researching how people’s thoughts could be controlled and how chemical and biological weapons could be employed against civilians and soldiers.  At the outset the book focuses on how the American government handled enemy scientists following the war, particularly “Operation Paperclip,” a program to integrate captured scientists and flip them to provide their expertise and research for the United States – see Anne Jacobsen’s OPERATION PAPERCLIP and books by Ben Macintyre for a detailed description.  Many of the scientists were guilty of crimes against humanity during the war, but that did not stop what policy makers believed to be a matter of extreme importance.

Image result for photo of Richard Helms
(Richard Helms)

Once Kinzer provides the origins of the programs developed he delves into the life of Sidney Gottlieb, a rather ordinary individual from the Bronx whose interest growing up included biology and chemistry which eventually led to a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin  where he would meet Ira Baldwin who would recruit him and become his boss which eventually placed Gottlieb in charge of America’s mind control program beginning with research into the application of mind altering drugs including LSD, and the title, “Poisoner-in-Chief.”

Kinzer finds Gottlieb to be a free spirit who cultivated spirituality and wanted to be close to nature as he chose a personal voyage that was remarkably unconventional.  At work he did the same; “rejecting the limits that circumscribed more conventional minds and daring to follow his endlessly fertile imagination.  This approach allowed him to conduct research into numerous areas all designed to see if a person’s thoughts and behavior could be reoriented in a way that would benefit American national security.  Kinzer will build his narrative  block upon block of the infrastructure that the CIA created to conduct its brain research.  Beginning with Operation Bluebird in 1951, which was designed to be a broad and comprehensive, involving domestic and overseas activity including “safe houses” all over the world to conduct experiments. Later the program was renamed Artichoke which would take it to the next level, and finally MK-ULTRA which would harness chemicals, biological agents, assassination, torture, and sensory deprivation in order to carry out the mission.

Image result for photo of Frank Olson
(Frank Olson)

Kinzer describes in detail the scientists and doctors involved, with particular focus on Gottlieb; the roles of CIA head Allen W. Dulles and his second in command, Richard Helms; the experiments themselves conducted with “expendables” who were likely prisoners, unsuspecting foreigners and American citizens, coopted doctors and scientists,  as well as CIA employees. The impact on people’s lives is explored in detail and in the case of Frank Olson, a scientist who had an expertise in the distribution of airborne biological germs, was involved in research who began to question his role winds up jumping out of the thirteenth floor window of a New York hotel shortly after he was given a drink laced with LSD that he was unaware of.  The programs described by Kinzer are hard to fathom and the fact that no one was held accountable is even more upsetting.

Those involved in the programs believed they were all that stood in the way between their country and devastation.  Kinzer has benefited from the Freedom of Information process, numerous interviews by participants and victims, in addition to other types of research.  His conclusions are damning and if one follows the chain of command it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who approved experiments and the program in general.  It took the failure of the Bay of Pigs to cost Allen W. Dulles his position and later the Watergate break in which linked Gottlieb’s research and inventions to bring about a degree of change and congressional investigations.

Image result for photo of Church Hearings 1974

This resulted in the end of Gottlieb’s career as President Gerald R. Ford appointed the Rockefeller Commission to investigate actions taken by the CIA outside its charter in 1974 and finally the Church Committee hearings.  The problem for investigators was that Gottlieb had destroyed a great deal of the evidence of CIA murders, plots, and research and the 1950s and 60s.  Further, President Ford did not want too much information to enter the public realm as the Rockefeller Commission result was not as damning as it could have been.  In the end Gottlieb  would testify anonymously before Congress, but with a “grant of immunity” which protected him from prosecution.  It is interesting that by the early 1960s after years of relentless MK-ULTRA experiments Gottlieb reached the conclusion that there was no way to take control of another’s mind.

The author introduces a number of interesting and important characters into his narrative.  The saga of Frank Olson is important as it took years for the truth about his death to emerge.  George Hunter White a sadistic narcotics officer who opened a “national security whorehouse” to carry out his activities.  Dr. Carl Pfeiffer of Emory University, one of a number of psychiatrists who worked with the CIA.  John Mulholland, a magician who would write THE OFFICIAL CIA MANUAL OF TRICKERY AND DECEPTION.  Dr. Ewen Cameron of McGill University who conducted experiments at the Allen Memorial Institute in Montreal.   Whitey Bulger, the Boston mobster was a victim of one of Pfeiffer’s drug experiments.  Dr. Harold Abramson, a New York allergist who shared almost total knowledge of MK-ULTRA with Gottlieb.  John Marks, the author of THE SEARCH FOR THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.  The work of these individuals and others was very impactful for Gottlieb’s work, but in the end,  it will be for naught.

Image result for photo of sidney gottlieb's family
(Sidney Gottlieb)

Kinzer’s research brings out a number of fascinating tidbits.  First, Gottlieb developed the cyanide capsule that Francis Gary Powers was supposed to use when his U-2 plane was shot down over Russia.  Two, Gottlieb delivered and developed the poison the CIA was to use to assassinate Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1960.  Third, Gottlieb helped develop poisons designed to kill Fidel Castro.  Lastly, the drug that Gottlieb and his associates hoped would allow them to control humanity had the opposite effect.  The LSD experiments and their results would fuel a generational revolt unlike any in American history as they were popularized by the likes of Ken Kesey, the author of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST, the poet Allen Ginsberg, and Harvard professor Timothy Leary.

Related image(Senators Frank Church and John Tower during Congressional hearings into CIA activity, 1974)

Kinzer’s description and summary of results pertaining to “brainwashing” experimentation and implementation brings to the fore the paranoia of the 1950s and 60s.  It is an important book as it shows how the government can engage in processes that violate the civil rights of Americans as well as foreigners on their own soil, in addition to the numerous deaths that took place.  It remains astounding that Gottlieb’s successors would resort to other types of illegal activities like waterboarding in addition to other techniques from an earlier period, again in the name of national security.  Detention centers and CIA “black sites” for rendition of prisoners, the Phoenix Program in Vietnam,  Guantanamo Bay etc. are all legacies of Gottlieb’s work.  Kinzer takes the reader to some very interesting places both inside and outside the human psych with Sidney Gottlieb as our guide, but in the end his contribution to our knowledge of the period is greatly enhanced and it makes for an amazing read.

Sidney Gottlieb, Sept. 21, 1977.
(Sidney Gottlieb, 1977)

SCHLESINGER: THE IMPERIAL HISTORIAN by Richard Aldous

Image result for photo of jfk and arthur schlesinger
(President John F. Kennedy and Arthur M. Schlesinger)

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

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

Image result for photo of Arthur Schlesinger Sr.
(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.)

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

Image result for photo of theodore sorensen
(Kennedy speech writer, Theodore Sorenson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related image

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

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

Image result for photo of jfk and arthur schlesinger
(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy)

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

A STATE AT ANY COST: THE LIFE OF DAVID BEN-GURION by Tom Segev

Image result for photos of david ben gurion
(David Ben-Gurion)

A STATE AT ANY COST: THE LIFE OF DAVID BEN-GURION is an apt title for Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev’s new biography of Israel’s first Prime Minister.  Segev is a prolific writer who is the author of seven books ranging from a biography of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal; THE SEVENTH MILLION; 1967: ISRAEL, THE WAR AND THE YEAR THAT TRANSFORMED THE MIDDLE EAST; and  ONE PALESTINE, COMPLETE.  Segev’s books reflect impeccable research that includes archival work, interviews, and a strong command of secondary materials in addition to examining previously unavailable materials.  This approach dominates all of his previous books as well as his newest effort.  For those familiar  with Ben-Gurion’s life  and decision making it is clear that the creation of an Israeli state was paramount, even to the point of sacrificing refugees from Europe during and after the Holocaust or turning against other leaders and organizations who would not accept his leadership.  He was a man who did not change and from the outset Segev points out he “exhibited ideological devotion that awed those around him.  The Zionist dream was the quintessence of his identity and the core of his personality, and its fulfillment his greatest desire.”

Image result for photos of david ben gurion
(the “young” David Ben-Gurion)

Ben-Gurion wanted to be a leader and aspired to a specific place in history – the man who facilitated the creation of a Jewish state. He often referred to the Bible and Jewish destiny but realized that achieving his dream required “exhausting labor, and tiny, often exasperating steps forward.”  Segev is correct that many shared his vision, but few of his contemporaries were as obsessed with politics.  Few of his colleagues were as diligent and addicted to detail and these characteristics made him “an indispensable leader, though not an omnipotent one.”  If he had to use people, lie about them, manipulate situations for his benefit he had no compunction that it might be wrong, as long as it contributed to his overall goals.

Image result for photos of david ben gurion
(Albert Einstein and David Ben-Gurion)

Segev does a very good job explaining the different organizations associated with Palestine.  Be it Zionist groups in Poland before World War II, groups in America or London, groups in Russia, or those in Palestine, Segev dissects their ideologies as well as the important personalities involved.  For supporters of Zionism they were required to reconsider their traditional identities and position themselves between the values of Jewish tradition and a new Jewish nationalism.  Most Jewish immigrants who came to Palestine before World War I arrived with the belief that they came to a land that belonged to them, land that God had promised Abraham.  For Ben-Gurion taking control of the labor market which, these immigrants reinforced was the key in turning Jews who had run from pogroms back into normal people.

Image result for photos of david ben gurion
(Ben-Gurion and Israeli Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister Golda Meir)

Segev’s biography puts forth a number of important themes.  First, his subject is a deeply flawed individual who suffered from bouts of anxiety, depression, and at times manic behavior.  Segev is at his best when probing the human side of this complex leader.  His integration of excerpts from his diaries and letters show a lonely man despite his iron will and outwardly self-assured manner.  His personality at times touched levels of megalomania that fostered a series of internal and external conflicts.  But one must realize that the price of creating a Jewish state was steep and it took a personal toll on Ben-Gurion as thousands would die and he had to cope with that fact and so many other details.

These characteristics are present in Segev’s second theme as Ben-Gurion worked his way up the Zionist leadership ladder, he would also engage in nonstop, often rivalrous and sometimes divisive power struggles with just about everyone.  Among those he competed with include the likes of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of an uncompromising Revisionist Zionist Movement, Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun and future Prime Minister of Israel, and fellow Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann whom he argued with over strategy and who would be the dominant voice in Zionist leadership.  Despite his strident behavior and beliefs Ben-Gurion did have the ability to compromise if he perceived that he could adopt a position that would further the goal of a Jewish state.  This strategy manifested itself with his attitude toward Holocaust survivors, compromises with the British during World War II, and support for partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs.  Ben-Gurion could be pragmatic when necessary particularly when it came to partition.  For example, the 1936 Peel Commission allotted Jews a small territory which elated Ben-Gurion as he argued the fact that having a state was more important than borders; besides, “borders are not forever.” In every instance Ben-Gurion always believed in the righteousness of his approach.

Related image

A third theme that drives the entire narrative focuses on Ben-Gurion’s ideology and belief system which he used to try and encourage people to immigrate to Palestine and win over political allies as he traveled to the United States, London, and throughout Europe rarely staying at home for more than a few months at a time.  Ben Gurion’s world view contributed to the factionalism that existed within the Zionist and non-Zionist movements be it the Zionist Congress, Hapo’el Hatzair, Ahdut Ha’avodah and others.  This factionalism is evident as Segev does a marvelous job describing the rhetorical and personal hatred that existed between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky; Ben-Gurion and Weizmann; the creation of a Jewish army; disagreements with the likes of Israel Galili, the Chief of the National Command a few weeks before the Arab attack in May 1948; and the final creation of the Mapai party among many examples.

A fourth theme encompasses Ben-Gurion’s personal life as he chose power politics over family.  His marriage to Pauline Moonweis seemed at times cold, but at times loving.  Ben-Gurion’s travel presented many opportunities for at least four mistresses and other affairs which he engaged in repeatedly despite his wife’s knowledge of them.  Ben-Gurion had three children, but he was a poor father at best and his relationship with his son and daughters was quite distant.

Image result for photos of david ben gurion

Segev points out a number of interesting aspects of Ben-Gurion’s political development.  He would visit Moscow in 1923 and stay for four months and he came to admire Lenin’s ability to reshape his people’s destiny apart from his ideology.  He would learn the structure of authoritarian leadership and use it systematically to achieve his life’s goals.  According to Segev “Ben-Gurion intended to be a Zionist Lenin.”  This approach to leadership was exhibited in his reaction to Arab Revolts of 1921 and 1936, the issuance of British White Papers throughout the 1930s, and the rise of Nazi Germany.  Ben-Gurion’s principle occupation as a leader was to respond to events, he had no control over and do the best he could in manipulating them for his future goals.

Segev is very clear in his view of Ben-Gurion’s callousness in response to the Holocaust.  The European Jews who escaped extermination were those who immigrated to the United States or elsewhere before the killings began.  Ben-Gurion blamed the Holocaust on those Jews who remained.  Segev points out that “Zionist ideological negation of the Exile presented the Jews of the Diaspora as passive and weak and thus contemptible.  It was a common claim—instead of coming to Palestine, the Jews of Europe let the Nazis murder them, and thus undermined the Zionist project.”  Ben-Gurion stated, “they refused to listen to us.”  This attitude contributed to Ben-Gurion’s approach toward the Holocaust as he realized that was little that could be done. Segev speculates that Ben-Gurion’s guilt over his inability to help Holocaust victims was responsible for distancing himself from their suffering when he visited them in Displaced Persons camps in Germany after the war.  For Ben-Gurion, any plan or strategy should focus on bringing “able” survivors of the Nazi death camps to Palestine after the war as labor would be crucial to achieving the Zionist state.  The only way Ben-Gurion could deal with his helplessness during the Holocaust was to place it behind him emotionally and focus on the future.  Ben-Gurion’s fear was that the annihilation of European Jewry would obliterate Zionism, it was a crime against the future State of Israel as he feared there would be no one left to build the country.

Image result for photos of david ben gurion
(Ben-Gurion finally meets Winston Churchill who is 87 years old!)

According to Segev, who has often been associated with revisionist historians who have challenged Israel’s founding narrative, one of the most controversial aspects of Ben-Gurion’s  role in Israel’s founding was Plan Dalet.  A formal written order seems to have been written in May 1948 expelling Arabs from entire villages solving the problem of depopulating areas of Arabs and supposedly clogging the roads with Arab refugees hindering the progress of Arab armies. A further goal was to prevent Arab settlements from being used as bases for enemy forces resulting in the destruction of entire villages and forcing the Arabs to flee.  Other plans were employed using propaganda, “whispering campaigns,” shutting off water and electricity to encourage people to leave their homes.  In the end according to historian Ilan Pappe in his ETHNIC CLEANSING OF PALESTINE at least four to six hundred thousand Arabs if not more fled or were uprooted.   Ben-Gurion’s role according to other historians like Benny Morris in THE BIRTH OF THE PALESTINIAN REFUGEE PROBLEM, 1947-1949, is that the Israeli leader was present on May 10, 1948 at a meeting in Tel Aviv where the decision to depopulate certain Arab population centers and the forcible depopulation and destruction of villages was made.

Image result for photo of moshe dayan
(Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan)

Segev spends a great deal of time on the development of the United Nations Partition Plan once the British decide to leave Palestine as the cost of keeping the peace and dealing with terrorism and the bankruptcy of their empire was too much.  The reparations negotiations with West Germany receive fair coverage as does the 1956 Suez War, which provides a great deal of new information about the Israeli security mindset leading up to the war.  All in all, Segev’s comprehensive monograph will probably leave Ben-Gurion admirers and critics equally unhappy but it cannot be in doubt that Israel’s first Prime Minister was the most important figure in Israel’s founding and eventual survival.

Image result for photos of david ben gurion

OUR MAN: RICHARD HOLBROOKE AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY by George Packer

Image result for photo of Hoolbrooke in Vietnam

(Richard Holbrooke)

Perhaps the most colorful and able diplomat in American history has been Richard Holbrooke.  The possessor of an irascible personality who was not the most popular individual with colleagues and presidents that he served but was a highly effective strategic thinker and negotiator with a number of important accomplishments to his credit.  The success that stands out the most is his work that produced the Dayton Accords in 1995 that brought closure somewhat to the civil war that raged in the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s.  But he should also be given credit for his work as Ambassador to the United Nations, Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs, and his last position as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan for which he gave his life.

Holbrooke exhibited a powerful ego that did not always play well with others be they friend or foe, but in the end,  he was at the center of American strategic thinking throughout a career that spanned the beginning of US involvement in Vietnam through our continuing imbroglio in Afghanistan.  A self-promotor who saw his work and ideas as the key to American success, Holbrooke was a dominating presence in the American foreign policy establishment for decades and is the subject of George Packer’s important new study, OUR MAN: RICHARD HOLBROOKE AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY.

Holbrooke owned many personality flaws for which he paid dearly.  His drive would in part destroy two marriages and his closest friendships.  His character defects would cost him any chance of being chosen Secretary of State, a position he craved,  for which he was eminently qualified.  If he had the capacity of introspection and a dose of self-restraint, he could have accomplished anything.  However, if he was able to tone himself down, he would not have been true to himself which is the core of why he was successful.

Image result for tony lake

(Anthony Lake)

For George Packer, Holbrooke was the embodiment of the American Century (or half century!) which encompassed Holbrooke’s life.  He was part of the belief that the US could accomplish anything, be it the Marshall Plan, remake Vietnam, bring peace to Bosnia, or make something out of the quagmire that is Afghanistan.  For Holbrooke to be part of great events and decisions was his life blood and that is why it is important to tell his story.

In many ways Packer’s narrative is a conversation with the reader as he imparts practically all aspects of Holbrooke’s private and public life.  He takes us inside his subject’s marriages and family life, his intellectual development, travels throughout the world and the important individuals who were his compatriots or enemies, and his obsession to create a foreign policy that would embody the liberal internationalism that was so effective following World War II.  Packer makes assumptions about how conversant the reader is with post-war history as it relates to Holbrooke’s career and to his credit, he offers a great deal of background information to make the reader’s task easier.  Packer prepares character sketches of all the major personages that Holbrooke shared the stage with; be it Edward Lansdale, the CIA psy-ops guru; Averill Harriman, a mentor and benefactor; David Halberstam, the New York Times reporter; Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Hillary Clinton, presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama among many others.

Image result for photo of sarajevo 1994

(Sarajevo, 1995)

Perhaps the most poignant relationship that Packer describes is that of Anthony Lake who was a close friend of Holbrooke in the early 1960s as they both entered the Foreign Service and served in Vietnam.  Packer follows their relationship and competition over the next five decades, they’re ups and downs on a personal level, policy disagreements all of which would ruin their friendship and turn them into bureaucratic enemies.  At times it feels like Packer has inserted Lake’s autobiography amidst the narrative as a means of comparing the two and providing insights into steps and positions Holbrooke might have taken which may have altered his career path.

Holbrooke’s Vietnam experience would stay with him throughout his career.  The military self-deception of Vietnam and the role of the national security establishment created doubts and reinforced the idea that Holbrooke himself knew what was best and would usually consider himself to be the smartest person in the room.  This is evident in Holbrooke’s writings which critique US policy as he integrates his personal life into the narrative.  Packer does an excellent job culling Holbrooke’s thoughts as he incorporates segments of his notebooks into his story.  When it came to Vietnam, Holbrooke was very astute as he saw the failure of the Strategic Hamlet program early on and that fighting the Viet Cong only from the air could only result in failure.  For Holbrooke the watershed date for the war was February, 1965 as the Pentagon issued an “evacuation order” for non-essential personnel and families as it brought an end “to the pretty colonial town of Saigon” and “was the beginning of sprawling US bases and B-52s and black market Marlboros and industrial scale-prostitution.”

Image result for henry kissinger

(Henry Kissinger)

Packer’s discussion of Kissinger and Brzezinski are fascinating.  Both men despised Holbrooke and the feelings were mutual.  When three egos as large as theirs the result had to be intellectual and verbal fireworks.  For what it is worth, Holbrooke felt Kissinger was a liar, amoral and a deeply cynical man with an overblown reputation who had contributed to the culture of Watergate and the events that followed.  Kissinger described Holbrooke as possessing minimal intelligence and “the most viperous character I know around town,” which was something coming from Kissinger.  Holbrooke saw Brzezinski as another Kissinger type who would destroy Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and seize control of President Carter’s foreign policy through his role as National Security Advisor.  Brzezinski’s hard line view of the Cold War was born out with Russia, but “he did help destroy the last pieces of any postwar consensus, bringing viciousness and deception into the heart of the government.”  Both men loved the spectacle of power and wielded it for its own sake, bringing Vance to tell Holbrooke, “I still cannot understand how the president was so taken with Zbig.  He is evil, a liar, and dangerous.”

Image result for photo of zbigniew brzezinski

(Zbigniew Brzezinski)

Holbrooke’s greatest accomplishment was his work bringing a pseudo peace to Bosnia.  Packer delves into the Yugoslav civil war in great detail providing character studies of the major players and/or psychopaths from Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, Fanjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia, Alija Izetegovic, president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Radovan Karadzic, president of Republic Srpska, among many other “interesting individuals.”  Packer’s details of the Dayton negotiations are priceless and reflect Holbrooke’s doggedness and highlights the difficulties that he faced dealing with such diverse characters steeped in their own ethnic, religious, and nationalistic hatreds.  Packer describes Holbrooke’s negotiating tactics, ranging from bombasity, reasonable proposals, and Bismarckian type threats to achieve his goals.  In so doing he believed he was rectifying Bill Clinton’s disinterest, ignorance, or lack of gumption in dealing with the Balkans.  With the slaughter of Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, Holbrooke was able to rally Clinton, foster NATO action by our European allies, who had done nothing to that point to bomb and coerce the participants to the negotiating table and foster a diplomatic agreement.

Holbrook always believed he should be Secretary of State, but his personality and poor judgement would turn off Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama in addition to his colleagues in the diplomatic arena whether it was Cy Vance, Madeline Albright, Susan Rice and a host of others. The bureaucratic battles behind the scenes and some in public are present for all to see, many of which Holbrooke won, but many of which he lost.  It was only Hillary Clinton who saw the positives in using Holbrooke’s talents as she made him the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan which Packer discusses in great detail as Holbrooke worked to try and bring about negotiations with the Taliban and gain Pakistani cooperation.

Image result for kati marton
(Kati Marton, Holbrooke’s third wife)

Packer delves into the personal side of Holbrooke particularly his marriages which resulted in two divorces and a decades long marriage to Kati Marton, who was more than a match for Holbrook in terms of ego, self-centeredness, and their own special type of charm.  Holbrooke’s feelings are explored when he failed to achieve the positions he desired and Packer provides numerous insights into policy and personal decision-making that affected himself, his family, and the professionals around him.

Packer’s effort is to be applauded as he seems to have captured Holbrooke, warts and all in conducting research that included over 250 interviews, the liberal use of Holbrooke’s notebooks, and a strong knowledge of American post-World War II foreign policy.  But one must remember that Packer and Holbrook were friends who strongly believed in a liberal-internationalist approach to foreign policy that encompassed a strong humanitarian component.  The importance of the book cannot be in doubt as it rests on the major impact that Holbrooke had on the conduct of US foreign policy over four decades.

Related image

MAD ENCHANTMENT: CLAUDE MONET AND THE PAINTING OF THE WATER LILIES by Ross King

Related image

(Claude Monet)

The work of artists who enter their declining years is not usually positive fodder for biographers, but Claude Monet’s later years is one of the exceptions as depicted in Ross King’s book, MAD ENCHANTMENT.  King who has written a number of interesting books dealing with art history, including, BRUNELLESCHI’S DOME, MICHELANGELO AND THE POPE’S CEILING, and LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER begins his narrative by pointing out that once Monet reached his sixties and seventies, he had achieved great wealth, notoriety, and produced numerous career defining works.  For years rejected by conservative critics and the new Avant Garde Cubists, Monet would find himself producing his Grande Decoration, consisting of eight waterlily murals during the World War I period.

King does an exceptional job reviewing Monet’s life and career up to 1914 when the French artist decided to return to painting after a four-year hiatus due to a series of tragedies.  First, his loving second wife, Alice passed away in 1908, then in 1914 his son Jean died, in addition, he began to suffer from cataracts and in 1912 his vision began to decline. During this period a group of his friends also passed, including; Manet, Renoir, Rodin, Pissarro, and Cezanne.  Monet still had a number of friends remaining who he could lean on, chief among them was Georges Clemenceau, the French journalist, politician, and man of letters.  Clemenceau would support Monet emotionally throughout his life and encouraged him to renew his painting after a visit in early 1914.

Image result for pic of claude monet
(Water Lilies, Water Lilies)

One of the most important components of the book is King’s quasi-biography of Clemenceau within the larger narrative of Monet’s life.  The later French Prime Minister nicknamed “the Tiger” helped lead France to victory in World War I and would become their voice at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.  King uses Clemenceau as a vehicle to integrate French history with Monet’s life story and career and provides the reader the context of how major events affected Monet, how he responded, and their results.

There are a number of turning points in Monet’s life that King delves into.  The first is the purchase of Le Pressair in the village of Giverny in 1890, a transaction that did not go over well with local farmers who resented his plan to divert the River Ru and purchase adjoining land to create the large pond on which to plant his water lilies providing him with his subject to paint. The locals saw no commercial benefit in these paintings and resented him as an outsider.  Monet’s cantankerous personality also did not endear him to the locals.

Image result for pic of claude monet

(The Studio Boat, 1874)

The second turning point for Monet was his reaction to the Dreyfus Affair in 1898.  Up until that point, Monet’s paintings depicted rural France, deemed as a patriotic message through his art.  Along with his friends, Emile Zola, Georges Clemenceau, and other Dreyfusards he rejected and criticized the rise in right-wing French anti-Semitism throughout the 1890s, as well as the unjust conviction of Captain Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army for spying for Germany.  Monet decided he would no longer paint rural scenes that could be interpreted as patriotic and concentrate on developing his gardens and canvases.

King accurately points out a number of contradictions when it came to Monet as an artist.  First, he wished to work in warm, sunny, and calm conditions, yet much of his career his place of choice to paint was Normandy whose weather was cool and damp for long periods of time.  Second, he loved to paint, yet he claimed to find it, “unremittingly torture.”  But this torture, friends pointed out was the key that drove him to perfection.  King does a wonderful job describing Monet’s methodology and philosophy of painting throughout the narrative, I.e. Monet would paint twelve separate canvases at a time while preparing his Grande Decoration and rotate them on wheels  according to the light in order to capture what he hoped to represent.  Monet’s health greatly impacted his work in his later years as he was a victim of fatigue and neurasthenia even though to outsiders, he appeared hale and hearty most of the time.  His maladies were greatly affected by the weather, which many times he refused to give into resulting in a negative impact on his health.

Related image

(Rouen Cathedral, 1894)

King approaches his explanation of Impressionism very carefully arguing that Impressionist artists  “conspicuously called attention to their brushes and paints.  They fragmented their brushstrokes into flickering touches of color that seemed to dissolve their painted worlds into shimmering mirages.”  Canvases were not meant to be viewed at close range.  King’s discussion of Monet’s painting of the Rouen Cathedral in 1894 with the proposed commission by the state of France to paint the damage caused by German shelling to the Cathedral at Rheims is illustrative of this point.  Monet’s Impressionist approach would not be the best way to depict the savagery of German artillery on the cathedral for a government which wanted to heighten French distaste for the “barbaric Germans.”  But, for Monet who always wished to receive a commission by the government this was not an acceptable argument, despite the “fuzzy envelope” that seemed to surround the objects that were represented.

Image result for pic of claude monet

(Monet’s Gardens at Giverny)

The most important event that impacted Monet’s later years was World War I.  Monet’s travel and work would have to consider the effects of the war.  Art supplies, food, petrol was all rationed and in short supply.  A further reason for a state commission would allow Monet to receive coal, food, and materials for his canvases that others could not obtain.

King takes the reader to the Louvre which housed many of Monet’s and his fellow Impressionist friend’s paintings.  He reviews the political and economic considerations involved and how German bombardment of Paris, and at times fears of a German attack on the city affected these artists.  King provides a unique description and perspective  of Paris during the war.  Interestingly the fighting produced a war of words between German and French intellectuals over wartime accusations of barbarism.  Monet was even recruited to lend his name to these efforts as French intellectuals produced a book entitled, THE GERMANS: DESTROYERS OF CATHEDRALS AND THE TREASURES OF THE PAST.

Image result for pic of claude monet

(Haystack Painting 1890/91)

The war also impacted Monet’s personal life, particularly his anguish over his paintings and his family.  Monet refused to leave Giverny during the war as he stated he would rather die among his canvases and life’s work than depart.  He also feared for his son Jeanne-Pierre who was in the army as was his son-in-law Albert Salerou.  His son Michel would not enter the army until later in the war and would participate in the fighting.  It easy for the reader to follow the course of the war as King describes Monet’s life and his interactions with his close friend Georges Clemenceau, I.e., the two battles of the Marne, and the Battle at Verdun, along with its overall impact on Monet and France in general.

Image result for pic of claude monet

(Portrait of a Painter)

The war also galvanized Monet, with a friendly push from Clemenceau to complete the Grande Decoration which according to Kathryn Hughes writing in The Guardian (3 September 2016) there was nothing remotely optimistic or even particularly French about the massive painting that stretched to over 300 feet.  It is as Deborah Solomon points out in the New York Times (December 2, 2016) among art history’s greatest last acts as “the water lilies dispense with contours and boundaries and veer toward abstraction.”  It is important to note that the subject of Monet’s painting was a garden and pond that was man made and contained hothouse cultivars from South America and Egypt and not a natural outcrop of rural France.

King introduces an important discussion of how tastes in art changed because of the war and the impact of the death of over 300 artists.  According to art historian Kenneth Silver, the public and the painters would turn their backs on daring innovation.  For many Frenchmen, Cubism and other forms of pre-war art were wild experiments and adventures that were seen as specifically German, and therefore, not to be replicated after the war.  At the end of the war Monet offered to donate some of his paintings to the people of France and eventually the lily paintings were installed on specially constructed, curved walls at the Musee de l”Orangerie in Paris. The donation and the negotiations exacerbated by Monet’s need to control how the building would be prepared to receive and maintain his paintings are an integral part of the narrative as King relates his subject’s state of mind and physical health, particularly issues with his vision that led to a number of painful operations.

Image result for photo georges clemenceau

(Monet’s close friend and supporter, Georges Clemenceau)

Solomon sums up her review by arguing that “the book is short on analysis and fails to definitively explain the role played by Monet’s illness in the development of his late style.”  But overall King has written a useful book that shatters the myth that Monet painted his Grande Decoration in seclusion when in fact people surrounded him.  A staff of gardeners, his granddaughter Blanche, and others all impacted his life, and no one can take away anything from the gift that Monet has produced for posterity.

Related image

(Monet working on his Grande Decoration)

THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP by Michael D’Antonio

Image result for photo of donald trump

This morning I spent an inordinate amount of time reading the MUELLER REPORT.  It is not my purpose to recount what was divulged, but what concerns me most is the dysfunction that exists at the pinnacle of our government.  What does it say about us as a people, and what does it say about the man who is responsible for trying to block American citizens from learning about Russian penetration of our elections, his refusal to even accept that it occurred, and the fact that his administration refuses to take any action to secure our elections for the future.  Denial is one thing, but outright deception and overt lying is another.  So, one must ask what type of individual would use the American electoral process as a “branding opportunity,” and upon learning of the appointment of the Special Counsel from then Attorney-General Jeff Sessions responds that “Oh my god, this is terrible.  This is the end of my presidency.  I’m fucked.”*  The answers to these questions are provided in Michael D’Antonio’s book, THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP.

Image result for photo of donald trump and his children

To D’Antonio’s credit his narrative is based on thorough research and he even had access to Donald Trump  until he started interviewing people who were critical of him.  He has written an entertaining and fair biography and has created the foundation for several books that have followed his publication which repeatedly cite his work.  Whether you have read TRUMP REVEALED by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP by David Cay Johnston, or TRUMP NATION: THE ART OF BEING THE DONALD, by Timothy L. O’Brien they all tell similar stories and anecdotes and all seem to agree on their characterization of Trump’s early life, career, business practices and philosophy, personal life including his marriages and affairs. However, what sets D’Antonio’s book apart is the detail provided and his ability to integrate the political and economic history of New York City and its unique personalities like Mayors Ed Koch, Abe Beame, and John Lindsay as well as Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn among many other fascinating characters throughout his narrative.  In addition, the author places the Trump family and wealth in the context of American history, going as far as comparing the post 1980s to the Gilded Age of the 19th century as he discusses Trump’s life in the context of broader social, psychological and technological trends throughout the 20th century.

As part of his discussion of New York’s economic crisis of the post 1960 period, D’Antonio describes the urban decay and blight that began to affect Brooklyn, the home base of Trump’s father’s wealth and operations.  Trump was very perceptive as he witnessed white flight to the suburbs, civil rights violence, and the poverty endemic to New York’s economic collapse.  Trump realized that this situation depressed real estate values and that a move to Manhattan could be very profitable.  Trump would be at the forefront of trying to displace the poor and middle class in Manhattan who lived in rent-controlled apartments as he sought to turn buildings into expensive condominiums which he will accomplish over a period of years greatly enhancing his wealth into the 1980s.

Image result for photo of coney island during the 1960s

(Coney Island – Brooklyn, NY)

If there is a failing in D’Antonio’s approach is that in addition to the amount of detail pertaining to Trump’s lifestyle and accumulation of wealth are his constant tangents.  The author will be describing any one of many complications associated with Trump’s business dealings and other affairs and then will turn to a full accounting of the lives of other individuals’ attendant to the original discussion I.e., Liz Smith, the gossip columnist, Ed Koch’s biography, or discussing what made a man sexy in the 1980s according to Playgirl magazine or any number of other seemingly  irrelevant digressions.

One of the more interesting aspects of D’Antonio’s methodology is his dissection of Trump’s financial dealings, the creation of his fortune, his dance with insolvency and bankruptcy, and his economic recovery.  D’Antonio delves into various financial transactions dating back to Fred Trump and how he took advantage of Lehrenkrouss and Company, a Brooklyn Mortgage Company in the 1930s; Donald Trump’s manipulation of New York bankers, politicians, and others to acquire various properties including the Commodore and Plaza Hotels; how Trump was able to wedge himself into the casino industry in Atlantic City and the fallout from those  transactions; and his success in branding so many buildings with his name.  Other interesting chapters deal with Trump’s battle with author Tim O’Brien over his book TRUMPNATION that argued that “the Donald’s” wealth was far below what Trump stated.  What follows is a detailed description of the legal battle that ensued.  In similar fashion D’Antonio relates the battle over Trump University that would lead to a financial settlement for many of the students that were fleeced.

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

D’Antonio describes Trump’s early years, most importantly the impact his father had upon him and how he wanted to mirror Fred’s business tactics.  Another important component of Trump’s upbringing was his experience at the New York Military Academy, where under the auspices of Major Theodore Dobias cadets were instilled with a feeling of confidence that would propel them through life with a sense that they deserved great success because the academy made them better than everyone else.  Trump took his father’s lessons and his experiences under Dobias to heart to create the foundation of the narcissistic personality that would dominate his adulthood that emphasized winning at all costs and avenging those who were critical of him.  Further lessons were learned from Roy Cohn, Trump’s lawyer for many years who believed in stalling, duplicity, threats, law suits, and never admitting that you made an error.   In dealing with the origin of and later manifestation of Trump’s need to be the best at everything, no matter how insignificant, D’Antonio is correct in arguing that it is not important that Trump lies per say, but he actually believes the lies that he tells and then acts upon them – the mark of a truly disturbed personality.

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

What is clear from D’Antonio’s biography and numerous other books pertaining to Trump’s journey in life is that he spent a lifetime constructing his personal image.  When that façade is threatened by a negative comment or something or someone, he perceives to be untoward he goes ballistic and seeks revenge employing the “Roy Cohn/Roger Stone” strategy.  What is interesting today as Trump fumes and derides people who worked in his administration who testified for the Special Counsel, the White House is filled with fear from presidential retribution.  If one compares his behavior today with the collapse of his casino empire and fear of bankruptcy in the early 1990s it is the same, even to the point of blaming his financial debacle on three of his executives who were killed in a helicopter crash who had helped administer the Atlantic City hotels and casinos.

Image result for photo of trump casino

Trump is the master of self-promotion and much of his wealth is tied to his brand not his ability to make “deals.” Trump figured out that fortune and fame go together, and superficiality is more important than substance, the result is that he is the epitome of both concepts.  As other authors have also argued D’Antonio is clear that Trump is a classic case of narcissism.  Narcissists enjoy conflict and will exaggerate or obfuscate to gain the upper hand, a strategy that Trump has pursued in political, business, and personal conflicts that he has either caused or exacerbated when the opportunity presented itself as he views publicity whether good or bad, as good.

Related image

No one should be surprised at the type of President Trump is, the signs were clear long before he ran for the White House and we are now experiencing the fallout from the admonitions of authors, reporters, and Trump associates  about before the 2016 election. Perhaps D’Antonio is correct as he portrays Trump in the context of what Christopher Lasch developed in his 1979 book, THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM: AMERICAN LIFE IN AN AGE OF DIMINISHING EXPECTATIONS – “Trump represented….the pathology of our age.”  Our society, in part may be responsible for the creation of a Trumpian character as it evolved over the decades, now we reap its benefits!

Image result for photo of donald trump

 

 

 

 

FUNNY MAN by Patrick McGilligan

Image result for photo of mel brooks

(Mel Brooks)

Recently I read ROBIN by David Itzkoff, a biography that described the comic genius and troubled life of Robin Williams.  The book was thorough and replete with explanations of why Williams turned out as he did, and the role comedy played in his life.  There are few people who can approach Williams’ ability to transform themselves into different characters and employ improvisation.  One who might approach Williams’ talent is Mel Brooks, the subject of a wonderful new biography by Patrick McGilligan entitled, FUNNY MAN.

Brooks’ background and early life stems from the wave of Russian Jewish immigration to the United States at the turn of the 20th century.  Thousands would pass through or remain on the lower east side of Manhattan or move across the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn as Brooks’ family did in 1917.  McGilligan describes his subject as a pampered child as the youngest of four brothers and his role in the family seemed to be to make everyone laugh. All was not laughter as at the age of two and a half, Brooks’ father passed away, leaving a void in his life that would affect him throughout adulthood.

Image result for photo of mel brooks

(Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman)

McGilligan goes on to describe Brooks’ life in minute detail as he ponders his future leading up to World War II, a turning point as he will wind up as an “entertainment specialist.”  Though he passed through areas of combat with the US Army as it made its way toward Germany, Brooks was considered a “barracks character” throughout the war.  McGilligan does a workman like job describing Brooks’ transition from a grunt who entertained his comrades to scheduling touring entertainment for the USO, hosting programs, and even taking the stage with his comedy act.  By 1946, Brooks found his enlistment extended an extra year where he continued his “entertainment” responsibilities.

Image result for photo of mel brooks

(A scene from Blazing Saddles)

McGilligan’s narrative is replete with numerous watershed moments that altered the course of Brooks’ career, personal life, attempts at psychological analysis to explain Brooks’ actions, and a careful rendering of each of his films.  McGilligan’s approach is fascinating though at times the constant entrance into the world of “psychobabble” can be annoying.  Important turning points are many and the key to Brooks’ career is his association with Sid Ceasar dating back to the late 1940s.  Brooks would become an integral part of “Club Ceasar,” a group of writers and later directors and producers who wrote for the Show of Shows and the Ceasar Hour in the 1950s.  The group includes Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Mel Tonkin, Lucille Kallen, and Howard Morris.  McGilligan takes the reader inside the writer’s room (called “the jockstrap”) for the Ceasar’s programs and the mayhem which was a daily occurrence.

He explores the relationships among the writers and how Brooks fit in on a personal and professional level.  We witness Brooks’ obnoxiousness, crudeness, temper, rudeness, but also his overwhelming comedic talent.  Kallen would describe “writing scripts was like throwing a magnetized piece of a puzzle into a room with the other pieces racing toward it.”  Reiner would always play his straight man and try and keep him out of trouble and their friendship would last for decades as he always indulged Brooks’ outbursts.   Of course, McGilligan launches into an explanation of how Ceasar was a father figure for Brooks, who was trying to fill the void in his life.

Image result for photo of mel brooks

(A scene from Young Frankenstein)

The author follows Brooks’ career carefully from the Catskills, early television, and finally film pointing out how he was able to navigate the “comedic writing world” and the roadblocks that he had to overcome.  But the key to McGilligan’s narrative in dealing with the Show of Shows and Ceasar Hour apart from the insights into the writer’s relationships was how the history of comedy was shaped by them for decades.

Brooks’ personal life receives extensive coverage particularly his two marriages.  The first to dancer, Flora Baum provides insights into what kind of character Brooks really was.  During their marriage and relationship Baum readily gave up her own career and the couple would have three children.  Once the philandering Brooks found himself in a failed marriage, he did his best not to own up to his financial obligations toward his soon to be ex-wife and children.  Brooks would miss alimony and child support payments on a regular basis and when he finally made it big with films like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein his duplicitous nature came to the fore as he was able to avoid sharing his new found wealth with his first family through the approach taken by his lawyers.  His second marriage to actress Ann Bancroft followed a different pattern.  They had one child, but Bancroft was a stronger person who did not let Brooks run roughshod over her as Baum had.  She had an exceptional career of her own and was equal to her husband in talent and wealth.  They did have a happy marriage and they were able to pursue separate careers which is probably why their marriage was so successful.

Image result for photo of mel brooks

(A scene from History of the World, Part I)

McGilligan digs down into Brooks’ personality issues.  For years he was afraid of dying before the same age as his father had passed.  He was a hypochondriac who really was never sick.  But he would use his hypochondria to learn all he could about illness and diseases from books and medical journals and freely offered medical advice to friends.  His own psychiatrist, Dr. Clement Staff diagnosed him as having “anxiety hysteria,” a phobia where the mental aspects of anxiety are emphasized over any accompanying physical symptoms.  His overly aggressive personality and sometimes crude comedic impulses sprang from defense mechanisms as he desperately tried to please his absent father, getting even with those who had rejected him in his past, and resentment for having been born short, poor, and Jewish.  Brooks himself would explain the choice of some of his characters from a Freudian perspective, i.e., in the film The Producers Leopold Bloom would be considered his ego, and Max Bialystock his id!

The strongest part of McGilligan’s narrative is his review of the history of comedy in the 1960s and 1970s.  The program, Get Smart is a good example of how comedy was evolving, and the role Brooks played.  Perhaps an even more important component of the narrative is McGilligan’s dissection of Brooks’ film career.  The constant reference to “Springtime for Hitler” an idea that Brooks worked on for a decade and its evolution into the film The Producers is fascinating.  The description of the actual shooting of the film with the novice director Mel Brooks was eye opening as his insecurities concerning a project that was so much a part of his life are completely exposed.  One of Brooks’ best decisions was to cast Gene Wilder as Leon Blum in the film and for the next few years Wilder would become Brooks’ alter ego and the two would emerge as the key to the success of several future films.

Image result for photo of mel brooks

(Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, married for 41 years)

McGilligan digs deep into the origins of Blazing Saddles which emerged from the novella Tex X written by Andrew Bergman.  Brooks loved westerns, wanted to skewer the genre, and told his writers to “write the craziest shit.”  McGilligan’s details are marvelous especially how Brooks cast the film.  His first choice for the black sheriff was Richard Pryor, but the comedian was too controversial for Warner brothers, so the part was taken by Cleavon Little, then an unknown singer-actor.  The substitution of Gene Wilder as the “Waco kid” at the last minute was genius and proved to be the key to the film’s success.  These were lucky breaks and Brooks knew it.

McGilligan will unravel the production process taking the reader behind the scenes of Brooks’ approach to directing and finally starring in his own movies, including how the films were edited and distributed.  He will continue the process with all of Brooks’ major films including Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Space Balls, Silent Movie etc.  Though some where more successful than others and reflected Brook’s obsession to be accepted by the critics they will reflect an evolution away from more crude dialogue and offensive scenes.

Image result for photo of mel brooks' the producers

Image result for photo of mel brooks' the producers

(Scene from the film, The Producers)

If there was anyone who competed with Brooks during the proliferation of his films it was Woody Allen, who McGilliigan brings up several times as he compares the critiques and popularity of the work of both men, especially when Allen’s Sleeper and Annie Hall were so successful.  A major difference between the two according to Milligan was that Allen invited audiences into his semiautobiographical fictions, in which his lead characters often behaved as variants of himself.  Brooks’ films had little or nothing to do with his private self.  Perhaps Brooks success as a director and comedic actor was due to his marriage to Ann Bancroft as it appears it was no accident that his career took off after their marriage.

Brooks will branch out with the creation Brooksfilms in the early 1980s.  Brooks will develop into a shrewd producer-director; however, his main successes were the films, Elephant Man and My Favorite Year. Brooks will shift back to the bad taste excesses that had made earlier films a success with History of the World Part I.  McGilligan analyzes the film in detail and the result is a series of skits that spoof historical events with song and dance routines which are hysterical, i.e., “The Inquisition” and others.  The critics were split on its quality which did not approach the popularity of his earlier successes in the United States but did well in foreign markets.  Brooks’ last major accomplishment was bringing The Producers to Broadway for a six-year run.

Image result for photo of carl reiner and sid caesar

(Carl Reiner, Sid Ceasar and Imogene Coca from the TV program, The Show of Shows)

Overall, McGilligan describes the differences of the “nice” Mel, and the “bad” Mel throughout the book.  This dichotomy is a useful tool in understanding Brooks, and McGilligan handles it well.  McGilligan is a veteran show business biographer and has written a monograph that reflects enormous research and extensive knowledge of the industry.  The main drawback to the book is that there is so much detail at times plowing through the narrative can become cumbersome, however it is an interesting book that explores American comedy, focusing in large part the role that Jews played.

Image result for photo of mel brooks

TRUMP REVEALED: AN AMERICAN JOURNEY OF AMBITION, EGO, MONEY, AND POWER by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher

Image result for photos of Donald and Fred Trump

(Donald and Fred Trump)

Before each presidential election cycle the staff at the Washington Post engages in extensive research of the candidates to determine what can be expected should they take up residence at the White House.  2016 was no exception as they dove deep into the background of Donald J. Trump and the result is a deeply informative book entitled TRUMP REVEALED: AN AMERICAN JOURNEY OF AMBITION, EGO, MONEY, AND POWER by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher.  The narrative joins the plethora of books on Trump ranging from THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP by David Cay Johnston, THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP by Michael D’Antonio to the more recent ones since he assumed the presidency that focus on the role Russia played in the last election including COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN  by Luke Harding, RUSSIAN ROULETTE: THE INSIDE STORY OF PUTIN’S WAR ON AMERICA AND THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, THE APPRENTICE: TRUMP, RUSSIA AND THEW SUBVERSION OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY by Greg Miller, and HOUSE OF TRUMP HOUSE OF PUTIN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF DONALD TRUMP AND THE RUSSIAN MAFIA by Craig Unger.  Others deal with the Trump White House like FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Bob Woodward and FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE by Michael Wolff.  Recently, the Trump children have been the subjects of new books, BORN TRUMP: INSIDE AMERICA’S FIRST FAMILY by Emily Jane Fox, KUSHNER, INC.: GREED. AMBITION. CORRUPTION, THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY PF JARED KUSHNER AND IVANKA TRUMP by Vicky Ward, and lastly the focus shifts to Trump’s relationship with women in GOLDEN HANDCUFFS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF TRUMP’S WOMEN by Nina Burleigh.  What is clear in all these narratives is that Trump possesses a flawed personality that dates to his dysfunctional upbringing that has created character traits that have pushed him toward actions and policies that are all to familiar with people who have paid attention the last two years.

As you read Kranish and Fisher’s work William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech comes to mind as Trump comes across as obsessed with money, wealth in general, his self-created brand, and gold.  The authors present a detailed account of Trump’s life and career beginning with a discussion of the immigration of his paternal German grandparents and Scottish mother, through his childhood, ending with the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Image result for photos of Donald and Fred Trump

(The Trump siblings)

His early years are catalogued tracing his family’s “immigrant” background reaffirming Trump’s  refusal to give credit to his grandmother, Elizabeth Christ who inherited a significant sum from her husband, who died at 49, and eventually would set up the Trump Organization.  Donald gave full credit for the ensuing financial success to his father Fred Trump and down played the role of his grandmother.  This would be a pattern in his life as his attitude toward women seemed set at an early age as is argued by Nina Burleigh in her recent book GOLDEN HANDCUFFS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF TRUMP’S WOMEN.

Image result for photo of Trump's mother

(Trump’s mother and siblings)

As the authors recount his life, we come across few close friends or humane interests.  Apart from reading about himself, he opens few books and is unconcerned about literature, history, or the arts.  He will exhibit little interest in foreign cultures or travel abroad, unless of course it can enhance his business interests.  The result is a man who exhibits little empathy for others, except perhaps for immigrants who were “the proper white European ethnic stock” as his grandparents were.

Fred Trump receives a great deal of attention because of his impact on his son’s life emotionally and financially.  A distant father he ran a tight ship at home, and was absent making money in the Queens, NY real estate market during the depression and post-World War II period.  His business techniques relied on bombast, publicity, beautiful women, and government programs would be copied by his son whose quality time with his father was spent at his Coney Island office.  A womanizer and at times distant man, Fred Trump would always be there for his son even though he disagreed with in his approach toward the real estate market in Manhattan, and the development of casinos in Atlantic City.  Despite their philosophical divergence, Fred would always co-sign loans, guarantee payments, and have his son’s back.  Despite Donald’s denials his father provided him with a $1 million trust fund, as he did with all his children, which allowed him to begin his career.

Image result for photo of roy cohn and trump

(Donald Trump and Roy Cohn)

The Donald Trump that is portrayed in the book emerges as the person we see in the White House each day.  It begins with his education from elementary school onward with early signs of attention deficit and behavioral issues that are attendant to the malady.  Donald disliked reading and listening to teachers and counselors.  His attitude towards classmates was one of a bully for which the authors provide evidence from his teachers.  Fred decided to send Donald to the New York Military Academy where after a nasty beginning, he learned the ropes and did well.  He would go on to Fordham University for two years, then transfer to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School for business for his junior and senior year.  Trump constantly points to his Ivy league education to promote his brand and assuage his ego but comments like “perhaps the most important thing I learned at Wharton was not to be overly impressed by academic credentials….the other important thing I got from Wharton was a Wharton degree.  In my opinion, that degree doesn’t prove much, but a lot of people I do business with take it very seriously” is evidence of what type of person he is.

The authors do a good job integrating Trump’s own statements and those of others who impacted his life throughout the book in deriving an accurate picture of his personality, approach to business and people, and events surrounding his career.  Donald’s relationship with his father is key as in 1971, Trump is made president of Trump Management and his father remained as Chairman.

Related image

(Paul Manafort and Roger Stone)

A major turning point is developed in a chapter that deals with Fred Trump’s unscrupulous approach to government housing programs and racial bias in his properties.  Though Fred would escape any prosecution after Senate and New York State investigations, the Justice Department filed one of the most significant racial cases of the era against the Trumps in October 1973 with United States of America v. Fred C. Trump, Donald Trump, and Trump Management, Inc.  This came at a bad time for Donald as he was about to enter the Manhattan real estate market, but the result is important as the family decided to fight the federal government and not give in even though the Justice Department offered an extremely lenient settlement.  The key in the process was the beginning of the relationship between Roy Cohn and Donald Trump.  Cohn, a notorious figure who earned his spurs chasing after Alger Hiss, serving as counsel for Joseph McCarthy and escaping numerous federal charges dealing with tax evasion and other unscrupulous activities would become Donald’s surrogate father, a mentor who he would learn from and mirror during his career.  Cohn preached, never settle, always threatened lawsuits, never settle a lawsuit,  and employ the art of the counter attack.  The authors take the reader through a detailed analysis of the case and its importance in Donald’s development – a mirror into his tactics on the news each night.

A second prominent individual who influenced Trump was Norman Vincent Peale, the Protestant minister who in 1977 officiated at his first wedding.  Peale was the author of the 1952 bestseller THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING and predicted that Trump would become the “greatest builder of our time.”  Trump saw Peale as another mentor, who taught him “to win by thinking only of the best outcomes.”  As one engages the narrative, no matter what difficulty Trump found himself in, particularly in business he would always spin any outcome in a positive fashion, and to his credit in the end he would emerge on top, usually employing unethical tactics that I do not believe Peale would approve of.

Image result for photo of trump tower new york

Trump makes much of his wealth and the authors point out his ability to manipulate the media and develop his own “brand.”  As early as 1973 the New York Times put out a description of Trump which was a publicist’s dream, but it also stated that Trump’s net worth was $200 million at a time when his income was reported to be $24,594 paying taxes of $10,832.  Despite the “lies” told about his income and wealth, Trump’s bombast and manipulation of the media which was in the midst of tabloid wars in New York, “the Donald” was able to feed the public any information he desired, even acting as his own publicist, John Barron a totally fictitious character that Trump mimicked in phone calls to reporters.  I find it fascinating that he named his son, “Baron!”

Trump is addicted to publicity and name recognition, his focus has always been to get his name on products, buildings, and news stories.  His obsession with his wealth is well documented whether it is $200 million or the $3 through $9 billion that Trump has reported depending on his mood, and other factors. For decades he would begin his day reviewing stories about himself that appeared in the previous days news cycle and if he was not satisfied with what he read he would threaten to sue the offending newspaper, magazine, or author.  All told in over thirty years, Trump and his companies filed more than 1900 lawsuits!

Image result for photo of trump tower new york

(Trump in his office at Trump Tower.  Notice the magazine in front of him with his picture on the cover!)

The author’s follow Trump’s acquisitions of real estate thoroughly from his purchase of the Commodore Hotel, Bonwitt Teller’s building in Manhattan, developing casinos in Atlantic City, raising the Trump logo on all his properties, i.e.; Trump Tower etc.  They delve into how he financed his real estate empire in detail and what emerges is “New York City sleaze” as a lack of enforcement and corruption falls easy prey to bullying, disingenuous tactics, being in bed with organized crime, all facilitating Trump’s rise.  Trump has an insatiable appetite for loans with little collateral and the accumulation of debt, but banks continually support him even as it reaches a point when he is nearing bankruptcy over his three Atlantic City casinos in 1990.

Image result for photo of trump at Miss Universe beauty pageant

(Trump owned the Miss Universe beauty pageant for years)

Perhaps the author’s best work is reported in the chapters dealing with Trump’s entrance into the Atlantic City casino market which says all we need to know about the president’s approach to business, negotiations, and the accumulation of wealth to maintain his image and brand.  Seen as a savior by the Atlantic City political establishment and bureaucracy that approves casino licensing through tax relief and funding, Trump was able to cajole, bully, bullshit, coerce, blackmail his way into building three casinos, one larger than the next in a market that could not support his financing.  Trump had Atlantic City leaders believing the mirage of “bait and switch” compounded by fabrication and outright lies and deception.  The use of junk bonds, and threats against the Casino Control Commission were effective in getting approval of his next projects.  It was clear, despite his self-created image based on his version of publicity that he was in deep trouble by the late 1980s.  His need to feed his ego by controlling all gambling on the east coast meshed with Atlantic City politician’s belief that he was the economic savior of their downtrodden city helped created this catastrophe.  By 1990 he was unable to pay his debts which amounted to $3.2 billion, most of which was owed to seven major banks.  They would restructure the loans and allowances for Trump because he was worth more to them “alive, rather, than dead!”  There were others that Trump stiffed, contractors who either did not get paid or were paid very little as compared to what was agreed to – a number of which were family businesses that eventually had to declare bankruptcy.

Image result for photo of trump atlantic city casinos

(Notice Trump’s name has been removed from his casino!)

Of the many components of Trump’s life and career presented his attitude towards women is fully played out from his three marriages, purchase of beauty pageants, his affairs, and in general treatment of the opposite sex.  What emerges is a carefully crafted image designed to enhance his brand as he will become, in his own mind, the arbiter of what is beautiful in a woman. For him “as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass” that was all that was needed to maintain your celebrity and brand.  Trump wrote the script and he protected it with prenuptial and non-disclosure agreements that maintained the silence of any female who had a relationship with him.  For Trump women are nothing but pawns to his ego and his brand.  His wives, girlfriends, mistresses etc. had to measure up to a certain image or they were not worth his time and interest.

 

According to the authors a major turning point that led to Trump’s run for the presidency was the reality television program, The Apprentice.  Trump’s character would become his bridge to Middle America as his popularity with average citizens was enhanced.  He was a person who turned from a “blowhard Richie Rich who had just gone through the most difficult decade into an unlikely symbol of straight talk, an evangelist for the American gospel of success, a decider who insisted on standards in a country that somehow slipped into handing out trophies for just showing up.”  The program sold an image of the host-boss as supremely competent and confident who quickly achieved results. The transition to politics was easy and it served as a stepping stone to the White House.

Image result for photo of trump atlantic city casinos

The authors venture into Trump’s repeated dabbling with politics until he finally goes down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015.  The primary campaign is covered in detail until he gains the Republican nomination.  There is a great deal of information in the book, much of which is now known by the public.  But at the time it was written it should have been an eye opener for those people who read it.  The Donald J. Trump that is presented is the mirror image of the occupant of the White House.  One must ask the question, based on the last two years and the background presented by the authors is what will become of the American political system if he is reelected, because it is obvious that he will not change as his personality and attitudes originated in his childhood.  But what is clear is that Trump’s real estate career evolved into what can only be described as the “huckster-in-chief” as he figured out how to profit from branding, whether or not projects succeeded as long as he made a profit, even to the extreme detriment of others.

Kanish and Fisher’s work is remarkable due to the three-month time table they were working under.  Relying on numerous interviews representing a cross section of Trump’s life the authors have prepared an insightful and at times scary portrayal of a man who holds the destiny of the American people for the foreseeable future in his hands.

Image result for photos of Donald and Fred Trump

(Donald and Fred Trump)