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

(Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Carter advisor and Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

baker glasser
(The authors)

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

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

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

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

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

A PROMISED LAND by Barack Obama

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Obama podcast Barack Obama

(Michelle and Barack Obama)

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

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

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

(Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama)

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

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

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

President Obama leads a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet room

(The Obama Cabinet)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE LUCKIEST MAN: LIFE WITH JOHN McCAIN by Mark Salter

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

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

AP_00042602638
(John McCain tells his son Jack about his time as a Vietnam war P.O.W. as they look into a prison cell at the Hoa Lo prison in 2000.) 

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

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

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

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

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

AP_610714012
(McCain Field, the U.S. Navy training base, was commissioned and named in honor of Admiral John S. McCain July 14, 1961. Standing before his plaque from left, grandson, Lt. John S. McCain III and his parents, Rear Admiral John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta Wright McCain. )

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

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

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

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

HENRY KISSINGER AND AMERICAN POWER: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY by Thomas A. Schwartz

Henry Kissinger
(Henry Kissinger)

For members of my generation the name Henry Kissinger produces a number of reactions.  First and foremost is his “ego,” which based on his career in public service, academia, and his role as a dominant political and social figure makes him a very consequential figure in American diplomatic history.  Second, he fosters extreme responses whether your views are negative seeing him as a power hungry practitioner of Bismarckian realpolitik who would do anything from wiretapping his staff to the 1972 Christmas bombing of North Vietnam; or positive as in the case of “shuttle diplomacy” to bring about disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Syria following the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the use of linkage or triangular diplomacy pitting China and the Soviet Union against each other.  No matter one’s opinion Thomas A. Schwartz’s new book, HENRY KISSINGER AND AMERICAN POWER: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY, though not a complete biography, offers a deep dive into Kissinger’s background and diplomatic career which will benefit those interested in the former Secretary of State’s impact on American history.

Schwartz tries to present a balanced account as his goal is to reintroduce Kissinger to the American people.  He does not engage in every claim and accusation leveled at his subject, nor does he accept the idea that he was the greatest statesman of the 20th century.  Schwartz wrote the book for his students attempting to “explain who Henry Kissinger was, what he thought, what he did, and why it matters.”  Schwartz presents a flawed individual who was brilliant and who thought seriously and developed important insights into the major foreign policy issues of his time.  The narrative shows a person who was prone to deception and intrigue, a superb bureaucratic infighter, and was able to ingratiate himself with President Richard Nixon through praise as his source of power.  Kissinger was a genius at self-promotion and became a larger than life figure.

Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.

(Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon)

According to Schwartz most books on Kissinger highlight his role as a foreign policy intellectual who advocated realpolitik for American foreign policy, eschewing moral considerations or democratic ideas as he promoted a “cold-blooded” approach designed to protect American security interests. Schwartz argues this is not incorrect, but it does not present a complete picture.  “To fully understand Henry Kissinger, it is important to see him as a political actor, a politician, and a man who understood that American foreign policy is fundamentally shaped and determined by the struggles and battles of American domestic politics.”  In explaining his meteoric rise to power, it must be seen in the context of global developments which were interwoven in his life; the rise of Nazism, World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War.

In developing Kissinger’s life before he rose to power Schwartz relies heavily on Niall Ferguson’s biography as he describes the Kissinger families escape from Nazi Germany.  Schwartz does not engage in psycho-babble, but he is correct in pointing out how Kissinger’s early years helped form his legendary insecurity, paranoia, and extreme sensitivity to criticism.  In this penetrating study Schwartz effectively navigates Kissinger’s immigration to the United States, service in the military, his early academic career highlighting important personalities, particularly Nelson Rockefeller, and issues that impacted him, particularly his intellectual development highlighting his publications which foreshadowed his later career on the diplomatic stage.  However, the most important components of the narrative involve Kissinger’s role in the Nixon administration as National Security advisor and Secretary of State.  Kissinger was a practitioner of always keeping “a foot in both camps” no matter the issue.  As Schwartz correctly states, “Kissinger sought to cultivate an image of being more dovish than he really was, and he could never quite give up his attempts to convince his critics.”  He had a propensity to fawn over Nixon and stress his conservative bonafede’s at the same time trying to maintain his position in liberal circles.  Though Schwartz repeatedly refers to Kissinger’s ego and duplicitousness, he always seems to have an excuse for Kissinger’s actions which he integrates into his analysis. 

Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger
(Henry Kissinger and Donald Trump)

Schwartz correctly points out that Nixon’s goal was to replicate President Eisenhower’s success in ending the Korean War by ending the war in Vietnam which would allow him to reassert leadership in Europe as Eisenhower had done by organizing NATO.  This would also quell the anti-war movement in much the same way as Eisenhower helped bring about the end of McCarthyism.  Schwartz offers the right mix of historical detail and analysis.  Useful examples include his narration of how Nixon and Kissinger used “the mad man theory” to pressure the Soviet Union by bombing Cambodia and North Vietnam; the employment of “linkage” to achieve Détente, SALT I; and ending the war in Vietnam by achieving a “decent interval” so Washington could not be blamed for abandoning its ally in South Vietnam; and bringing about cease fire agreements following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  In all instances Kissinger was careful to promote his image, but at the same time play up to Nixon, the man who created his role and allowed him to pursue their partnership until Watergate, when “Super K” became the major asset of the Nixon administration.

Kissinger was the consummate courtier recognizing Nixon’s need for praise which he would offer after speeches and interviews.  Kissinger worked to ingratiate himself with Nixon who soon became extremely jealous of his popularity.  The two men had an overly complex relationship.  It is fair to argue that at various times each was dependent upon the other.  Nixon needed Kissinger’s popularity with the media and reinforcement of his ideas and hatreds.  Kissinger needed Nixon as validation for his powerful position as a policy maker and a vehicle to escape academia.  Schwartz provides examples of how Kissinger manipulated Nixon from repeated threats to resign particularly following the war scare between Pakistan and India in 1971, negotiations with the Soviet Union, and the Paris Peace talks.  Nixon did contemplate firing Kissinger on occasion, especially when Oriana Fallaci described Kissinger as “Nixon’s mental wet nurse” in an article but realized how indispensable he was.  What drew them together was their secret conspiratorial approach to diplomacy and the desire to push the State Department into the background and conduct foreign policy from inside the White House. Schwartz reinforces the idea that Kissinger was Nixon’s creation, and an extension of his authority and political power as President which basically sums up their relationship.

HENRY KISSINGER MEETING WITH ANWAR SADAT
(Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat)

Schwartz details the diplomatic machinations that led to “peace is at hand” in Vietnam, the Middle East, and the trifecta of 1972 that included Détente and the opening with China.  Schwartz’s writing is clear and concise and offers a blend of factual information, analysis, interesting anecdotes, and superior knowledge of source material which he puts to good use.  Apart from Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East successes Schwartz chides Kissinger for failing to promote human rights and for aligning the United states with dictators and a host of unsavory regimes, i.e.; the Shah of Iran, Pinochet in Chile, and the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. Schwartz also criticizes Kissinger’s wiretapping of his NSC staff, actions that Kissinger has danced around in all of his writings.

Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger
(Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger)

Though most of the monograph involves the Nixon administration, Schwartz explores Kissinger’s role under Gerald Ford and his post-public career, a career that was very productive as he continued to serve on various government commissions under different administrations, built a thriving consulting firm that advised politicians and corporations making him enormous sums of money, and publishing major works that include his 3 volume memoir and an excellent study entitled DIPLOMACY a masterful tour of history’s greatest practitioners of foreign policy.  Kissinger would go on to influence American foreign policy well into his nineties and his policies continue to be debated in academic circles, government offices, and anywhere foreign policy decision-making is seen as meaningful.

After reading Schwartz’s work my own view of Kissinger is that he is patriotic American but committed a number of crimes be it domestically or in the international sphere.  He remains a flawed public servant whose impact on the history of the 20th century whether one is a detractor or promoter cannot be denied.  How Schwartz’s effort stacks up to the myriad of books on Kissinger is up to the reader, but one cannot deny that the book is an important contribution to the growing list of monographs that seek to dissect and understand  “Super-K’s” career.

Former US Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger Sits In An Office383230 04: (No Newsweek - No Usnews) Former Us Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger Sits In An Office In Washington, Dc, circa 1975. Kissinger Served As The National Security Advisor To President Richard M. Nixon, Shared The Nobel Peace Prize For Negotiating A Cease-Fire With North Vietnam, And Helped Arrange A Cease-Fire In The 1973 Arab-Israeli War. (Photo By Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)
(Henry Kissinger)

RAGE by Bob Woodward

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

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

(Dr. Anthony Fauci)

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

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

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

(Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats)

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

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

Alex Wong/Getty Images

(Former Defense Secretary James Mattis)

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

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

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

Bob Woodward
(Author, Bob Woodward)

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

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

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

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

(President Trump and Vice President Pence)

MBS: THE RISE TO POWER OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN by Ben Hubbard

Mohammed bin Salman

(Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman)

Who is Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS?  Is he a young visionary reformer that he purported to be when he first came on the scene; the man who most probably ordered the death of Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi; or a rising dictator whose lack of experience has led to rash decisions like the war in Yemen which has greatly contributed to the destabilization of the volatile Middle East.  In Ben Hubbard’s new book MBS: THE RISE TO POWER OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN, we are treated to a deep dive into how he rose to power in Saudi Arabia and what his policies have done to impact the daily lives of the Saudi people and the countries that must deal with the Riyadh regime, it’s oil wealth, and its influence in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Hubbard, the Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times is very adept at digging deep into his subject area and developing astute observations.  At first, he provides the background history that resulted in the creation of the Saudi Arabian kingdom and the context of the Salman family in particular MBS whose actions always seem driven by how he could maximize his own personal power and influence.  Hubbard concentrates on the dynastic “pecking order” and how MBS, the sixth son of the twenty-sixth son of the kingdom’s founder would rise to power through luck and a series of deaths that unclogged the narrow path to achieve the position he coveted.  With the passing of a number of princes MBS would then develop a strong relationship with his father as they realized that they held many things in common. This renewed relationship was the cornerstone that MBS rode to power which should result in his succeeding his father on the throne in the not too distant future.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during an interview on Jan. 23, 2016, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

(Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during an interview on Jan. 23, 2016, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.)

In examining MBS’ life, Hubbard points out that he did little to make his mark before 2015, with no experience in the military, corporate policy, or knowledge how the United States functioned.  This would result in a number of miscalculations in how he thought Washington would view his adventurous policies.

Despite extensive experience in the region, Hubbard viewed Saudi Arabia as a black hole because of its murky politics and opaque society that was dominated by social conservatism, support for terrorists, and its Wahhabis beliefs encouraging the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Saudi influence appeared invisible, but Hubbard, a perceptive writer soon saw through what MBS was all about.  The book is an easy read and points are understandable for the layman as Hubbard relies on his extensive knowledge in the region, interviews with people from all walks of life, and traveling the country extensively learning about the pre and post-MBS period before his visas were terminated in 2018.

Hubbard carefully details the political machinations within the royal family focusing on MBS’ competition with Mohammed Bin Nayef, a moderate who was next in line to the throne ahead of him.  By 2016, MBS publicized his “Saudi Vision 2030” plan that was the core of his reform program which at the outset was his calling card to gain support.  Throughout this period the Obama administration remained skeptical when it came to MBS’ plans.  They felt he had all the ”buzz words” but little substance calling for economic reforms, but no political reform, privately arguing that he was too cocky despite the fact that his economic program made sense when he argued that his government suffered from an oil addiction.  MBS’ world view saw Iran as the major threat, along with the Moslem Brotherhood and the German intelligence service, the BND warned that the new assertive Saudi Arabia that MBS proposed could destabilize the region, i.e.; confrontational stance toward Iran, promoting proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.  However, MBS’ new approach called for improved relations with Israel.  MBS shared Israel’s view of Iran and its puppet, Hezbollah and admired the country’s technological and economic power.  MBS had never been totally supportive of the Palestinians, seeing them as an impediment to peace and in the not too distant future it is quite possible that an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement may be in the offering.

Jared Kushner

(Jared Kushner)

Hubbard introduces the reader to the contradictions of Wahhabism by focusing on a moderate cleric named al-Ghamdi Ahmed Qassam who confronted the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice which he believed went too far and was much too intrusive in the lives of the Saudi people.  Hubbard explores a number of examples ranging from the lack of woman’s rights, religious fealty, and support for the dynasty reflecting how absurd their actions were. 

Hubbard’s incisive analysis is on full display in discussing the life and impact of Jamal Khashoggi, a reporter who in his early career had links to Osama bin-Laden, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the mujahedeen who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  He believed that the Afghan revolt would reform Afghanistan, but he would be greatly disappointed particularly after 9/11 when he broke with al-Qaeda.  The later Arab Spring further encouraged Khashoggi’s belief in reform in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia which would soon be another major disappointment.  He continued to write about the Saudi Dynasty as a reporter for a number of Arab newspapers and the Washington Post, but his repeated criticisms of Saudi policies in Yemen and Saudi society led to his murder, a murder that Hubbard chronicles in detail despite the Crown Prince’s denials that he was responsible.

Hubbard does a good job digging up important information particularly the implications of an Iranian backed Wikileaks dump of the hacked Saudi Foreign Ministry.   Among the documents leaked was details concerning Saudi Wahabis missionary work worldwide training clerics and spreading the Saudi version of Islam.  Hubbard’s observations are quite astute as he states, “the funding was not just to promote Islam, but to promote the right kind of Islam, which meant undermining the wrong kind of Islam,” – stop the spread of Shiism in China, India, and Africa.  Further, Hubbard presents the actions and results of MBS’ disastrous policy of going after the Houthis in the Yemeni Civil War with almost full American support.  The devastation of Saudi bombing and resulting death and infrastructure loss is eye opening.  Hatred for Iran who supported the Houthi rebels was and remains the driving force for MBS.

(Ben Hubbard)

MBS’ obsession with Iran led to confrontation with the Obama administration who eventually grew tired of death and devastation in Yemen, his refusal to consider the civil rights of his people, and his opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal.  In perhaps the most important part of the narrative Hubbard recounts MBS’ anger at President Obama apart from his nuclear deal, and his lack of action in the Syrian Civil War.  As disagreement mounted MBS looked forward to the arrival of the Trump administration.

Hubbard’s remarks on the similarities between MBS and Jared Kushner are well thought out and he develops their similar ideologies and needs for power and wealth.  Hubbard refers to the “the two princelings” as the key to the new burgeoning relationship between the Trump administration and MBS’ government.  After eight years of sparring with Obama, Riyadh saw a breath of fresh air as issues like Iran, Yemen, arms deals, peace with Israel all seemed to come into greater focus as Trump, led by Kushner were open to whatever MBS offered, especially Saudi money entering the US economy, and kowtowing to Trump’s ego.  By March 2017, the depth of the MBS-Kushner relationship was clear as joint plans were being developed and implemented.

There are few new revelations in Hubbard’s book, but a useful synthesis of how ruthless MBS is and how he achieved power and developed a close relationship with the Trump administration.  The strength of the book is Hubbard’s thorough reporting and anonymous interviews of people inside the kingdom until the Saudi government stopped providing him visas in 2018.  As critical Hubbard is in detailing MBS’ rise and policies he does point out that women can now drive, and he did work to break through some of the barriers that many young Saudis found suffocating.  In April 2016 he striped the Commission of its powers and allowed certain forms of entertainment that previously had been banned.  But despite some progress, Hubbard warns that authoritarian regimes can do popular things, but when it comes to opposition it will not be tolerated.  Hubbard credits MBS for countering centuries of Saudi history by uncoupling the clerics from the monarchy.  “Under MBS, the states’ authority comes less from its claim to defending religious orthodoxy than from a sense of authoritarian nationalism.”

The question must be raised as to which direction MBS will go in the future, but part of that answer may lie in American presidential politics.  Trump has given him a free hand with little or no criticism especially when it came to Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment.  Hopefully, a Biden administration would demand greater accountability, if not MBS can continue to exercise his power with little restraint and based on his  age the United States will have to deal with him for years to come.


The Western media, foreign business and politicians will no longer be able to fete MBS as a great moderniser and visionary pulling his desert kingdom into the 21st century, writes Law [Reuters]

HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE by Jon Meacham

Martin Luther King Jr. with John Lewis at Mass Meeting in Nashville

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., center right, is escorted into a mass meeting at Fisk University along with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair John Lewis, left, and Lester Mckinnie, center, in Nashville, Tenn., in 1964.Bettmann Archive/Getty ImagesJuly 21, 

When John R. Lewis died recently, part of America’s conscience passed with him.  With all the turbulence, chaos, lies, and antipathy toward race that is endemic to the Trump administration it makes every day difficult.  A case in point was yesterday in Kenosha, WI when Trump refused to acknowledge the shooting of Jacob Blake by police and his subsequent paralysis or his support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the seventeen year old AR-15 carrying killer of two men.  For me this has led to despair as I do not see a way out of America’s current condition with a “serial igniter” when it comes to race. Trump and his acolytes blame everyone but their own policies and rhetoric for where we are as a country, and one can only imagine what will become of our racial divide should he be reelected.

Watching and listening to the outpouring of respect for Lewis by the American people because of his message of non-violence and hope for the next generation was always reassuring, but now he is gone.  However, the texture of his life’s work is on full display in Jon Meacham’s latest work, HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE.  Mecham’s latest is not a full scale biography like his previous subjects, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and George H.W. Bush, but a more nuanced rendering of the development of Lewis’ personal theology and his contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement dating to the 1950s.  Mecham’s new book is somewhat a sequel to his wonderful book THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR A BETTER ANGELS where he expresses an optimism for America’s future that I believe has been shattered by events in Portland, Kenosha, and the rise of the alt-right white supremacist movement in this country.  We are bombarded each day by bifurcated politics and have lost the leadership of a great man. 

martin luther king jr
Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In true Meacham fashion his newest narrative history relies on extensive research and the application of incisive analysis as the keystone to his examination of Lewis’ life work.  Mecham points out his goal was to present an appreciative account of the major moments of Lewis’ life in the Civil Rights Movement, “of the theological understanding he brought to the struggle and the utility of that vision as America enters the third decade of the twenty-first century amid division and fear.”  Mecham’s opening chapter entitled “Overture” returns the dying Lewis suffering from pancreatic cancer to Selma, AL last March to celebrate the events of fifty-five years ago at the Edmund Pettis Bridge where he was almost beaten to death by a white mob supported by police which frames the stage for his remarkable life’s work and accomplishments, but also his optimism and love in the face of hatred.

For Lewis growing up in the segregated world of Troy, AL the church become his comfort and restorative zone and from an incredibly young age he fashioned himself as a preacher.  He possessed a great imagination and quickening faith from biblical themes of resurrection, of exile, and deliverance shaped and suffused Lewis’ life from its earliest days.  Even as a boy he would preach to his “congregation of chickens” located in his “chicken coop”who he would minister to each day.  He would experience the vividness of the Jim Crow order and its segregation realizing how evil it was from an early age.  Once he was exposed to an integrated society at his Uncle’s home in Buffalo, he realized how difficult it was to reconcile the teachings of Jesus and segregation.

The watershed moment(s) of his life was his exposure and later meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King.  For the first time King’s words introduced a vision of “non-violence, religiously inspired protest, to a way of seeing the world in terms of bringing the temporal in tune with the timeless.”  Lewis was not concerned with the streets of heaven, but the streets of Montgomery and the way black and poor people were treated.

Stokely Carmichael speaking at Garfield High School, Seattle, 1967

There were a number of individuals who influenced Lewis’ intellectual development.  Apart from Dr. King, the “social gospel” concepts of Walter Rauschenbusch, the strategy of non-violence of Reverend James M. Lawson, along with the murder of Emmett Till, and the work of Rosa Parks all impacted him greatly.  Mecham does a workman like job weaving Lewis’ upbringing and later life within the context of American history.  His intellectual and emotional development applied to upheavals in America are clearly explored and provides a roadmap into what Lewis thought and what type of man he would become.

Lewis saw integration as a key step forward toward bringing the world into a closer tune with the gospel.  Meacham allows the reader to accompany Lewis on his life’s journey including experiencing the approach of peaceful protest met by violence, arrest and imprisonment in Nashville, TN, Oak Hill, SC, Jackson, MS, and Birmingham and Montgomery, AL. in the mid to late 1950s.  Along the way we meet the Reverend Ralph Abernathy of Birmingham’s First Baptist church, James farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Medgar Evers, Field Secretary for the NAACP before his murder by Klansmen in Jackson, Diane Nash, a key organizer of sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and of course the likes of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Conner, George Corley Wallace, and John Patterson.  There were also those that did not go along with Lewis’ “Beloved Community.”  Men like Stokely Carmichael who believed that systemic racism would not be defeated by non-violence – he favored radical action after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights bill that led to Lewis’ removal as Chair of the SNCC; and Malcom X who favored a more militant approach and denigrated some of Lewis’ ideas, though later on they came much closer to each other’s ideals.

The Missing Malcolm X

Malcom X

Meacham presents a balanced approach integrating theology, socio-economics, and political components that Lewis brought to the Civil Rights Movement providing insights into what made Lewis tick and made him such a social and political force of nature. 1963 would be a watershed for Lewis’ development and the Civil Rights Movement.  Meacham provides intricate details of events surrounding protests in Birmingham and Jackson culminating in the March on Washington on August 28th of that year where Lewis at age twenty-one was the youngest speaker.  At the age of twenty-three after his participation in the Freedom Rides and a stint at Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi prison, Lewis was elected Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  SNCC led the growing militancy of the Civil Rights Movement provoking violent resistance against their cause that pushed a reluctant federal government to embrace the cause of Black rights.  By 1965, the Johnson administration gained the passage of legislation prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and voting destroying the legal foundations of Jim Crow.  1965 was also the year that Lewis suffered a fractured skull at the hands of the Alabama State Police at the Edmund Pettis Bridge as they marched for voting rights in Selma, AL, an event known as Bloody Sunday.  SNCC leadership would pass from Lewis to Stokely Carmichael in 1966 whose Black Power slogan was the antithesis of Lewis’ vision of a nationwide integrated community. But the SNCC would flounder due to FBI harassment and internal disagreements and passed from the scene by the late 1960s.  By 1968 Lewis would join Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and after Kennedy’s assassination he would go on to be elected to Congress where he would serve for more than thirty years.

Much of Meacham’s work relies heavily on Lewis’ memoir, WALKING IN THE WIND and as the author points out he did not set out to write a full scale biography.  Meacham reminds readers that if they wanted a full scale biography they must wait until Rutgers historian David Greenberg completes his own work.  But in the interim, Meacham’s work should hold the fort for those with an interest in a remarkable man.

John Lewis. Courtesy High Museum.

(John R. Lewis, booked for one of his many arrests)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(A young Donald Trump and Roy Cohn)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE by Philippe Sands

The twisting tale of the career and flight of Otto von Wächter sounds like something that would make a superb film or a TV box set. Photo / Horst Wächter

(Otto Wachter)

Who was Otto Wachter?

According to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal at the conclusion of World War II he served as Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland’s deputy, the Governor-General of Krakow, and a number of other positions in the SS and SD in Austria.  He was indicted for mass murder of at least 100,000 people, if not thousands upon thousands more.  Wachter is the subject of Philippe Sands latest book, THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE, the “Ratline” was an organization that Wachter and the likes of Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Mengele, Klaus Barbie, and countless others used as an escape route out of Europe as the war ground to a close.  Sands builds upon his previous book EAST WEST STREET: ON THE ORIGINS OF ‘GENOCIDE’ AND ‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY” were he wove together the story of his quest to uncover family secrets in the Ukrainian city of Lviv in the 1940s and the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II.  The route Sands describes, known as the “Ratline” was popularized in Frederick Forsyth’s THE ODESSA FILE, and thoroughly researched by Uki Goni, an Argentinian researcher in his book, THE REAL ODESSA and other monographs exploring how Nazis were able to avoid justice, the most important of which was Gerald Steinacher’s NAZIS ON THE RUN.  These works among many other titles uncover the role of the Vatican, the governments of Argentina, the United States, Switzerland among a host of countries each for its own reasons assisted former Nazis in their attempts to avoid prosecution.

Sands, a British and French lawyer, and Professor of Laws at the University College London is the author of seventeen books dealing with international law, many of which focus on the concept of genocide.  In his latest effort Sands traces the life of Otto Wachter, with special emphasis on his marriage to Charlotte Wachter, as he rose through the Nazi Party ranks, first in Vienna and later in Germany landing in his positions in occupied Poland.  After recounting his subjects’ Nazi career, he follows his attempts to avoid justice as he meanders his way employing the Ratline from 1945 to 1949.   Sands research is noteworthy as one of his main sources was through the relationship, he established with Wachter’s fourth child, Horst.  Through a series of interviews that resulted in a 2013 article for the Financial Times, Sands was able to extract a great deal of documentation dealing with the family from his mother’s diary, copiously kept from 1925, except at times when it came to the atrocities her husband was involved in.   But what must be kept in mind during Sands’ quest to decipher the life of a man on the run, and his wife’s attempts to help him; can be described as some sort of a “Nazi love story!”

Lawyer, humanitarian, and writer Philippe Sands. (Wikimedia Commons)

(Philippe Sands, author)

Horst was adamant during their many conversations that his father had done nothing wrong.  Horst argued that “his father was not responsible for any crimes…Rather, he was an ‘endangered heretic’ in the National Socialist system, opposed to racial and discriminatory actions applied in the German-occupied territories of Poland and Ukraine.”  His father was “an individual, a mere cog in a powerful system, part of a larger criminal group.”  Horst did not deny the horrors of the Holocaust and saw the process as criminal, but he did not think his father’s actions were criminal.

Sands does a remarkable job piecing together Wachter’s personal life and SS/SD career.  He takes the reader through the important events in Europe culminating with the Anschluss (union) between Austria and Germany and the role played by Horst’s god father Arthur Seyss-Inquart who served as Chancellor of Austria after it was taken over by Hitler’s forces.  Following the Anschluss, Wachter’s career advanced rapidly as he starts out as a lawyer in the Criminal Division of the SD ending up as Governor of Krakow were he implemented the creation of the Jewish ghetto for the city, the execution of numerous Poles, and advanced the process of Jewish deportation to the concentration camps.

Sands interest in Wachter is deeply personal as his grandfather, Leon Bucholz who lived in Lemberg, Galicia was deported from the city to his death during the Holocaust.  Between 1942 and 1944 Wachter was installed as Governor of the District of Galicia and supervised the city of Lemberg and probably signed the death warrant of Sands’ grandfather.

Horst Wächter

 Horst Wächter: ‘I do not return the objects for me, but for the sake of my mother.’

The most important  aspect of the book revolves around the 1945-1949 period.  This period comes to light once Horst agreed to make available his mother’s archive.  After the material was digitized Sands had access to “8677 pages of letters, post cards, diaries, photographs, news clippings, and official documents.” This required a painstaking act of reconstruction and interpretation that evolved over a number of years.  The result was detailed information how Charlotte Wachter assisted her husband even though she believed she was under surveillance.  Charlotte Wachter was the only reason Otto survived along with the vast network that supported him in the Austrian mountains in the Lower Tauerin area.

What becomes clear as the narrative unfolds is no matter how much documentation to the contrary concerning his father’s culpability in the death of thousands, Horst refuses to accept his guilt.  No matter how many interviews with people who were involved, scholars etc., Horst remained adamant.  As Otto Wachter came down out of the mountains and left for Rome in late April 1949, he took on the identity of Alfredo Reinhardt and would make his way to a monastery in Rome called Vigna Pia where Catherine Wachter sent money, clothes, and other survival necessities.  After living in the monastery for three months, Otto Wachter would die of a liver ailment leading to Sands’ investigation of how he died.  Horst was convinced that he was poisoned, probably by the Soviet Union, or perhaps by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, or even the Americans.

The last third of the book is spent analyzing Otto’s death.  What emerges is documentation of the role of a number of individuals, two of which stand out, Bishop Alois Hudal and SS Major Karl Hass.  It is clear from the evidence that Hudal was a focal figure in the escape of a number of important Nazis employing the “Ratline” and contacts within the Vatican.  Hass is an example of former Nazis that were used by the United States after the war in the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Interestingly, he would escape and turn up working for the United States Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) on Project Los Angeles in Rome recruiting spies to be used against the Italian Communist Party.  It is clear from the evidence that  Otto was in contact with Hass right before he died.  Horst was certain that Hass might have been the double agent who murdered his father.

Black and white portrait photograph of Hudal

(Alois Hudal)

As Sands investigates the last three months of Otto’s life, he pieces together his movements and who assisted him with life’s necessities and the forged documents to survive.  What cannot be questioned is that Charlotte Wachter, Nazi acquaintances, and others from the Vatican were Otto’s prime enablers, many of which facilitated the “Ratline” for others like Walter Rauff, Joseph Mengele, Franz Stangl, Erich Priebke, Karl Hass, and others.  In effect Otto Wachter walked in the footsteps of his “old Nazi comrades.”

Sands has composed a remarkable historical detective story, bordering on a “thriller.”  Through the life of the Wachters, the Nazi “Ratline” comes into full focus, in addition to how Otto Wachter’s actions, a man who oversaw numerous atrocities during the war was not accepted by his son Horst.  As a result, the book has a great deal to offer about the mindset of a Nazi murderer, but also the lengths people went to, to allow him to maintain his freedom.

(Otto and Charlotte Wachter and their children))