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

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

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

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

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(Allen W. Dulles)

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

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(Richard Helms)

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

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

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(Frank Olson)

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

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

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

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

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(Sidney Gottlieb)

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

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

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

SCHLESINGER: THE IMPERIAL HISTORIAN by Richard Aldous

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

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

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

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(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.)

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

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(Kennedy speech writer, Theodore Sorenson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(David Ben-Gurion)

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

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(the “young” David Ben-Gurion)

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

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(Albert Einstein and David Ben-Gurion)

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

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(Ben-Gurion and Israeli Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister Golda Meir)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Ben-Gurion finally meets Winston Churchill who is 87 years old!)

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

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(Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan)

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

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

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(Richard Holbrooke)

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

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

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

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(Anthony Lake)

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

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

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(Sarajevo, 1995)

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

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

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(Henry Kissinger)

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

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(Zbigniew Brzezinski)

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

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

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(Kati Marton, Holbrooke’s third wife)

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

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

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

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(Claude Monet)

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

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

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(Water Lilies, Water Lilies)

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

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

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(The Studio Boat, 1874)

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

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

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(Rouen Cathedral, 1894)

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

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(Monet’s Gardens at Giverny)

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

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

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(Haystack Painting 1890/91)

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

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(Portrait of a Painter)

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

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

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

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

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(Monet working on his Grande Decoration)

THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP by Michael D’Antonio

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

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

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

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(Coney Island – Brooklyn, NY)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FUNNY MAN by Patrick McGilligan

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(Mel Brooks)

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

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

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(Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman)

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

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(A scene from Blazing Saddles)

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

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

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(A scene from Young Frankenstein)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Scene from the film, The Producers)

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

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

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

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

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

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(Donald and Fred Trump)

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

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

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(The Trump siblings)

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

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(Trump’s mother and siblings)

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

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

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(Donald Trump and Roy Cohn)

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

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

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(Paul Manafort and Roger Stone)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Trump owned the Miss Universe beauty pageant for years)

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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(Donald and Fred Trump)

GOLDEN HANDCUFFS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF TRUMP’S WOMEN by Nina Burleigh

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(A younger Trump and Melania)

Nina Burleigh states in the Acknowledgements of her new book, GOLDEN HANDCUFFS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF TRUMP’S WOMEN that the idea for her new book derived from a Newsweek cover entitled, “The Queens of Trumplandia” shortly after Trump’s inauguration.  The book itself has several interesting tidbits about Trump’s three wives, daughter, Ivanka, his grandmother and mother, but it does not rise to the level of a complete volume, when an in-depth magazine article would have been enough.

Burleigh draws several interesting conclusions as it pertains to each of the women and the first part of the book dealing with Trump’s childhood and adolescent years provides a few important insights into the president, but again it could have been covered in a magazine article.  Perhaps one of the most insightful comments occurs early on as Burleigh quotes historian, Todd Gitlin who states, “Trump represents the other side of the ‘60s.  He’s not operating in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., God knows – he’s operating in the spirit of Hugh Hefner.  That’s his 60s: the liberated guy fucking around at will, grabbing women.  He’s living the Playboy philosophy as Heffner articulated it.”  His approach to women is clear-cut, they must surrender their power in measures of dignity in order to enhance his.  As he once said, “It really doesn’t matter what they write [about you] as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”

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(Spouse #1, Ivana Trump)

For Trump, women had to conform to his brand.  Further, for each woman, everything was for sale, especially their “look.”  By middle age Trump had become the arbiter of female beauty as he purchased several beauty pageants.  It is also interesting to note that all his women (if one excepts that southern Georgia was not conducive to overall American culture) were immigrants considering his own immigration policies as president.  In fact, Melania would not be allowed into the United States today if her husbands proposals had become law.

In imparting her narrative, Burleigh never misses an opportunity to relate something from Trump’s earlier biography to that of current obstruction, corruption, or just plain nastiness on his part.  Despite the sarcasm that abounds Burleigh does have something meaningful to impart.  Trump’s maternal grandmother Elizabeth Ann Christ who immigrated from a German village is given little credit for beginning the Trump family wealth accumulation.  Burleigh argues that the 49-year-old widow with three children was able to parlay her husbands bank account into a small, but successful real estate enterprise in Queens, NY.  Trump gives all the credit to his father, Fred who he claims was a real estate genius at 14, and grandma just wrote the checks.

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(Spouse #2, Marla Maples)

The key figure in Trump’s childhood was his father.  His mother Mary Anne MacLoad a Scottish immigrant accepted the patriarchal family where daddy was feared.  For Trump no woman could measure up to his mother which becomes a problem with women throughout his life.  The part of the book I was looking forward to the most was Trump’s childhood as I will be teaching a Psychohistory course next month and I will be analyzing the “Donald,”  but after reading the book I feel somewhat disappointed.

Trump as a child was a hellion from the time, he was a toddler.  His primal scream may have occurred when he was two years old as his mother suffered a hemorrhage, hysterectomy, and peritonitis with the birth of her fifth and last child.  Trump’s mother had cared for him very affectionately until that time and it was a blow to a boy who was in the midst of the “terrible twos.”  Mary was exhausted during her recovery and never rebonded with Donald who “became an aggressive, impulsive, and sometimes downright sadistic little boy.”  Trump would lash out at teachers, Doctors, schoolmates, etc. and grew proud of his own belligerency.  Today he would be diagnosed with ADHD highlighted by “inattentiveness, impulsivity and hypersensitivity” who refused to read which sounds like a daily occurrence at the White House!  One wonders if his son Barron has inherited some of his father’s learning issues.  Trump, undiagnosed suffered from these learning disabilities which we are all paying for.

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(Spouse #3, Melania Trump)

Donald’s development was markedly affected by his father.  Fred Trump whose treatment of women fixed his son’s attitudes towards females for life.  Burleigh argues that he was a philanderer who viewed women through two lenses – what they could do for him in private, and how they might be employed as props to advance his career and sell his properties.   Donald’s adulthood suggests a boy forever marked by a rigid, demanding, pathologically fastidious, and possibly physically abusive father – sound familiar?  The book unearths stark details of the forces that shaped Mr. Trump’s thinking about women — Mr. Trump’s father, went as far as forbidding the word “pregnant” from being uttered in a household that would grow to five children and explains Donald’s aversion to certain biological aspects of being a woman.

Perhaps his most interesting wife was Ivana who was a Czech immigrant who would become a mogul in her own right.  She became competition for the limelight that Trump could never share.  Burleigh points out that Trump loved to play Pygmalion which worked out well with Ivana for several years, but once she developed her own separate and successful brand she had to go.  In addition, as she grew older and had her facial and body alterations, she no longer fit Trump’s image of what his spouse should be.  Burleigh as he does with all the wives ply’s the myths and accepted facts pertaining to the marriages.  But what is clear that if Trump could not mold his women into what he needed, like Marla Maples, his second wife then they could no longer stay married.  As far as wife number three is concerned, Melania, is a stunning woman who could not measure up to the modeling world that was the source for Trump’s women.  She evolved into the perfect spouse as she seems to be content as she does not give any indication that she wants to bask in the limelight as her predecessors.

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(Fred Trump and Donald Trump)

Burleigh summarizes the relationship with all his wives very effectively, “Unlike Marla, who demanded Trump make an all-encompassing spiritual commitment to her, and a spiritual commitment to doing good works, and unlike Ivana, who morphed into a female version of Donald, Melania purred with contentment, was happy to stay indoors, and as she would say in many future interviews, she had no interest in changing Donald.” As one of Melania’s friends has stated “I think she needed a strong man, a father figure.”

The section of the book that is most disconcerting apart from Trump’s misogyny deals with first-daughter Ivanka.  Burleigh deals with the most important aspects of their relationship and perhaps the unconscious sexual dreams Trump has about his daughter.  What is clear is that she is a more refined version of her father with her own agenda.  Her disingenuous approach to issues and claims of being a supporter of liberal causes may ruffle her father’s base, but it appears it is to be part of her own political agenda in the future.  Trump raised her to be a combination of his own brand of woman, the future head of the Trump Organization, and possibly a political force for the future.

In summation if you are to be a Trump woman, be it a wife, mother, or daughter you must conform to the look – stiletto heels, have the characteristics of a model wearing the right clothing and jewelry, and have the visage of how you view and carry yourself as always showcasing the brand.

To her credit, Burleigh has sifted through decades of publicly available materials — including Mr. Trump’s own words in memoirs and interviews — to animate the central point of the book: that “Mr. Trump has long believed women, particularly if they are not able to be molded to his liking, are not to be trusted.” (New York Times, October19, 2018)  If you are interested in detail about Trump’s relationship with women this book may be for you.  However, it doesn’t really say much that has not been said before, though Burleigh corroborates a great deal of what has been in print and interviews.  If you are interested in a more sophisticated approach to the material, and I might be a bit facetious when I say material, I would pursue some of the other “Trump” books.

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CAMELOT’S END: KENNEDY VERSUS CARTER AND THE FIGHT THAT BROKE THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY by Jon Ward

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(Former President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy)

Today we find ourselves at the beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign even though the Iowa caucuses are eleven months away.  It seems that each day another Democrat announces their candidacy, and President Trump does what President Trump does. Talking heads on cable news programs ask each candidate why they are running and what sets them apart from the competition.  For me, it brings back memories of watching a 60 Minutes program in 1980 where Roger Mudd interviewed Ted Kennedy and asked him why he was challenging President Carter for their parties’ nomination.  Kennedy’s response went along way in destroying his candidacy as his rambling response lacked coherence, and in no way answered the question, leaving the American electorate in the dark as to why he was running.

At a time when the Democratic Party seems split between its progressive and moderate wings it would be a useful exercise to examine a similar split that played out during 1980 election campaign.  Jon Ward’s new book, CAMELOT’S END: KENNEDY VERSUS CARTER AND THE FIGHT THAT BROKE THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY successfully takes up the task and provides numerous insights into the politics of seeking the presidency considering today’s budding Democratic Party fissures.  One could also make a similar argument as the more establishment wing of the Republican Party appears to be growing tired of threats, government shut downs, “wall” politics for the base, that even President Trump might be challenged during the primary season for his parties’ nomination.

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(The Kennedy brothers…the legacy Ted Kennedy had to cope with)

Ward’s book is in large part a dual biography of President Carter and Senator Kennedy tracing their personal roots from their upbringing, their political careers, as well as their distaste for each other.  The scope of Ward’s narrative encompasses the politics of the south that Carter emerged from, in addition to the Kennedy legacy that Senator Kennedy had to cope with his entire career.  Ward raises important questions that effected the course of the Democratic Party after the 1980 election that elevated Ronald Reagan to the presidency, as well as the country at large.  Ward explores why Kennedy challenged Carter’s re-nomination, and what impact that challenge had for American political history.  Further, the author contemplates how Kennedy’s challenge impacted the two men on a personal level.

Ward argues that in part Kennedy was driven by the cost and state of health care in America in the 1970s.  A witness to one family health crisis to another; the death of two brothers and a sister, and his son Ted Jr.’s battle with cancer, apart from his own surviving a plane crash that immobilized him for six months, the Senator sincerely believed it was not fair that a rich family like the Kennedy’s could afford the medical bills from such tragedies, while most American families could not.  Secondly, Kennedy opposed Carter’s fiscal conservatism that produced budget cuts to basic social programs.  For the senator, “sometimes a party must sail against the wind.”  Further, 1979 was a terrible year for President Carter.  The Camp David Accords seemed to be unraveling, unemployment remained high, inflation was rising, gas prices were increasing, and events in Iran led to the overthrow of the Shah and the taking of American hostages.  For Kennedy and establishment types within the Democratic Party, the president with a 37% approval rating was so weak he could be defeated.  With the scandal involving his Director of Management and Budget Bert Lance, and Carter’s “Malaise Speech,” a vacuum seemed to appear that could be filled.   Finally,  Kennedy would seek the presidency that seemed to be his birthright, hoping that Chappaquiddick had receded far enough into the background of the American electorate’s collective memory.

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(Senator Kennedy confronts the press after the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick)

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Carter was a very driven man.  Ward states that he appeared to be a soft-spoken individual who had evangelical glow about him,  however, inside he was very competitive and was made up a steely disposition that hated to lose or admit he was wrong.  In addition to the persona he presented Carter viewed politics through a Niebuhrian lens, combining a belief in his divine calling, juxtaposed with a competitive politician.  Peter Bourne, one of his advisors and a biographer has written, “increasingly be conceptualized politics as a vehicle for advancing God’s kingdom on earth by alleviating human suffering and despair on a scale that infinitely magnified what one individual could do alone,” that individual was Jimmy Carter.

Ward argues that the turning point in the relationship between the two men occurred in May 1974 at the Law School Day speeches at the University of Georgia where both men where scheduled to speak.  Kennedy gave a traditional democratic values speech, but Carter who had decided to run for president resented Kennedy’s presence and as Governor of Georgia treated him rather shabbily that day.  Carter believed that Kennedy was pushing him around and he would not tolerate it.  Ward goes on to describe Carter’s successful race for the presidency in 1976 in detail and accurately points out that it was clear that the seeds for his 1980 defeat were already being planted.

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(Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s top aide and the president)

Carter and his people believed that they were not beholden to the Democratic Party establishment and Messrs. Jordan, Powell, Lance and others knew what was best.  Further, Carter alienated the journalistic community with his “refusal to give a plain answer to a plain question,” converting every act into a political morality play.  Carter’s insular group played hard in their personal lives stretching certain boundaries which conflicted to the holier than thou attitude that Carter preached to the press.

Ward dissects the 1980 race, and the book moves smoothly, but does not neglect scholarship relying on secondary works, memoirs, and numerous interviews.  Carter and Kennedy’s complex personalities are fully explored, including what causes drove them, and what they were most passionate about.

The events of 1980 had important implications for American politics for decades to come.  First, Kennedy was able to remove “presidential” fever from his system and go on to serve in the Senate for 47 years and become one of the most prolific legislators in American history.  Second, it launched the most successful post-presidency in American history as President Carter through the work of the Carter Center and other organizations has impacted world peace, helped cure disease, and reduce poverty, programs that continue to this day.  Lastly, With Carter’s defeat, Ward correctly argues that the coalition that Democrats relied upon since the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 had splintered apart.  Reagan was able to split the combination of “union members and ethnics in the big cities, poor rural voters, racial minorities, Catholics, and the South” that had formed the Democratic Party voting blocs.  This coalition was fractured so badly that it has not and may never be put back again.  This chasm in Democratic party politics is ongoing and it will be interesting how it plays out in the coming presidential election.

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(Senator Ted Kennedy’s snub of President Jimmy Carter at Madison Square Garden, NY after Carter was renominated by the Democratic Party in August, 1980)