Sunday, 28 December 2008

“Write It When I’m Gone”, by Thomas DeFrank (Berkley Publishing)


Off-the-record conversations with the 38th President

Thomas DeFrank is perhaps the luckiest journalist in the United States. Not only was he able to cover Gerald Ford first as Vice-President and then as President, but he grew close enough to the man to produce this body of work, comprised of candid interviews and conversations during the president’s retirement years.

The seed of this book was planted in 1974, when Ford was still Vice-President, and the Watergate scandal was mere weeks away from bringing down President Nixon. After an unguarded comment by Ford, the journalist and Vice-President struck a bargain to keep that comment (about how likely it was that Nixon was going to go) quiet until after Ford died. Following Ford’s electoral loss in 1976, and almost two decades of close relations, DeFrank contacted Ford asking if he’d be interested in a series of candid interviews about politics and the people who make up the power elite, to be published after the president’s death. Ford accepted.

After a couple of chapters outlining DeFrank’s relationship with Ford during his Vice-Presidency and then the Presidency, and another chapter on Ford’s post-presidential buckraking, the book turns to the off-the-record conversations that are the main selling point of this book. The topics Ford discussed with DeFrank over the course of 15 years cover a wide range of political subjects, including:

- Nixon and Watergate – how he felt betrayed by Nixon and others involved for lying about what really happened. How he feels vindicated now that history has shown Nixon’s pardon as a good idea, but also his sadness that Nixon mishandled the situation so disastrously. He discusses his predecessor as VP, Spiro Agnew, who – despite living close to Ford – shares nothing in common with Jerry or Betty.

- Former Presidents – Ford speaks candidly and honestly about the other members of the world’s most exclusive club. He discusses his long lasting animosity toward Ronald Reagan: “a politician with a reputation for never holding grudges harbored such uncharacteristic bitterness against Reagan that he never really softened his disdain until November 5 1994 – almost two decades after their nasty 1976 primary tussle”, only tempering his comments when it was announced that Reagan was battling with Alzheimer’s. He speaks with disdain for his successor Jimmy Carter (“the weakest president I’ve ever seen in my lifetime”), who he tried to get kicked out of the White House, only for their relationship to thaw following a shared foreign trip during Reagan’s administration. He speaks with respect of “George 41”, who he believed was very successful in foreign policy, only seemingly blind to the domestic situation. He calls Clinton a “helluva salesman” on a number of occasions, but Ford is clearly appalled by Bill’s wandering eye and loose morals (though he speaks highly of Hillary). To begin with, he is also content with George 43’s conduct following 9/11…

- Politics today. Ford appears disappointed with the conduct of the Iraq War, but still relatively content with George W. Bush. His long-time respect and affection for Cheney is still in place (Cheney was one of Ford’s chiefs of staff), but he has some surprising things to say about whether or not Cheney should have been on the ticket in 2004. Ford also talks of his disappointment in the Gingrich Congress and partisanship-on-the-rise of today’s politics.

- Miscellany. Ford and DeFrank also discuss plenty of non-political topics, such as the trials of getting old, family, the ex-president’s wary approach and adoption of modern technology (he eventually bought a laptop), the occasional spot of gossiping. Sort of political, but also historical, Ford also laments the power the media has had at distorting his work on the Warren Commission, and how movies such as Oliver Stone’s JFK have made people obsessed with conspiracy theories.

To be honest, there’s nothing particularly shocking or stop-the-press outrageous in any of these interviews. But, this book’s major strength, and in many ways unique selling-point, is that these interviews were conducted in full knowledge that they would be published after any backlash or sense of impropriety could have any effect on Ford himself. For this reason, the candor and honesty, which would be unlikely from President George W. Bush or Bill Clinton at the moment, adds so much to the study of Gerald Ford’s time in office and also to understanding Ford the man – he’s actually got a pretty wicked sense of humour, and displays an acute understanding of the political environment of the years he met with DeFrank for their interviews.

DeFrank is an exceptional writer; his prose are constructed to pull the reader along with the interviews, which he weaves together to form a picture of Ford’s evolving and changing opinions on specific topics. He builds his narrative with plenty of context, helping to flesh out Ford’s observations and opinions with plenty of information and other amusing and/or endearing anecdotes from Ford’s friends and associates (though, considering the candid nature of these interviews, it’s ironic that many of these friends and associates are left anonymous…). DeFrank’s writing is so engaging, the content so fascinating, that I burned my way through the book in two sittings, staying up well into the wee hours.

A fascinating portrait of America’s only unelected president, unfettered by PR tyrants. A must-read for anyone interested in American politics.

Also try: Douglas Brinkley, Gerald R. Ford (2007); Gerald R. Ford, A Time To Heal (1983)

Friday, 26 December 2008

“The Limits of Power”, by Andrew J. Bacevich (Metropolitan Books)


An absorbing critique and analysis of the crises currently affecting America’s position in the world.

Bacevich identifies three crises currently facing the US: economic-and-social, political, and military. What makes the situation all the more depressing, is that “they are all of our making”. He draws the conclusion that a large part of the reason for the US’s weakened position is the result of the sin of self-indulgence, and this domestic environment of conspicuous consumption has a massive impact on the nation’s foreign policy: “Whether it is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life.” Bacevich is also someone who believes the United States has leveraged itself beyond what can be argued as either sensible, safe or moral.

In terms of politics, Bacevich has little good to say about the inhabitants of Washington. Unlike Thomas Frank, though, he doesn’t train his sights solely on Republicans and conservatives. Instead, Bacevich evinces a great deal of contempt for many (if not most) denizens of the capital: “The Congress may not be a den of iniquity, but it is a haven for narcissistic hacks, for whom self-promotion and self-preservation take precedence over serious engagement with serious issues.” The author clearly has very little respect of the way American politics has evolved since the founding, how the chief attribute of the current system is “dysfunction”, occupied by a “gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” To illustrate the ineptitudes of current government officials, he points to all the failures of the current administration (stressing that they are just the tip of the iceberg).

He does not leave the blame at the feet of just elected officials, though: “if presidents have accrued too much power, if the Congress is feckless, if the national security bureaucracy is irretrievably broken, the American people have only themselves to blame,” for allowing their democracy to be “hijacked”. Believing that everything will change with an Obama administration (which was not a certainty when the book was published), Bacevich suggests, “is to succumb to the grandest delusion of all”.

On the military front, the United States finds itself over-stretched: “Seven years into its confrontation with radical Islam, the United States finds itself with too much war for too few warriors.” Merging the political and military elements of his argument, he shows how the 2006 midterm elections, which were supposed to serve as a referendum on the Iraq War (which, “to put it mildly… didn’t follow its assigned script”) resulted in… well, nothing. The Democrats are too interested in securing their majority over actually doing anything. As a former military man, Bacevich is disappointed with the acquiescence and politicization of the military during the Bush years, the leadership of which now act as yes-men for their civilian leaders. He condemns the military brass for being “complicit” in a ever-growing number of disinformation campaigns.

Using plenty of historical detail and perspective, Bacevich shows the reader that America’s problems are not new, nor are they the result of any nefarious aspect of the current Bush administration, putting it all into context, painting a picture of governmental incompetence. Rather than just offering a screed of America’s failures and abhorrent qualities (he takes shots at both Democrats and Republicans), he offers sensible prescriptions for solving any perceived decline – for example, “Rather than insisting that the world accommodate the United States, Americans need to reassert control over their own destiny, ending their condition of dependency and abandoning imperial delusions.”

It’s not entirely clear (to me, at any rate) what side of the political spectrum he hails from, but what you’ll find in The Limits of Power is a balanced, insightful, eloquent and lucid critique of the state of America today, lacking in partisan bickering or cheap potshots from the sidelines. Bacevich’s arguments are all measured and well explained. He’s not frothing, but everything covered in this book is clearly close to his heart, and his passion for the subject comes across through his writing. The tone of the book seems rather negative, but in the closing chapter Bacevich argues that the United States is not necessarily in irreversible decline, and he writes with a degree of optimism that the US can return to its previous stature, only warning that it will not be easy, and will take some time.

Andrew Bacevich is one of the most important observers writing about the United States today. If you buy only one book about America’s place in the world and its foreign policy this year, I strongly recommend you buy this one.

Also try: Andrew J. Bacevich, The New American Militarism (2006) & American Empire (2004); Alan Brinkley, The Age Of Abundance (2008); Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, War & The American President (2004); Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire (2004); Stephen Ambrose & Douglas Brinkley, The Rise To Globalism (1997)

Saturday, 20 December 2008

“Quantum”, by Manjit Kumar (Icon)

Kumar-Quantum In Quantum, Manjit Kumar, the founding editor of the interdisciplinary journal Prometheus and co-author of Science and the Retreat From Reason, attempts to provide an authoritative narrative of the history of quantum physics and those that shaped it. Kumar starts with Max Planck and Albert Einstein at the turn of the twentieth century and leads the reader through all the major players, and many others, involved in the intellectual upheaval that was/is quantum physics.

In 1905, Einstein suggested that light be considered a particle, as opposed to a wave, in an attempt to explain the phenomenon of ejected electrons from materials that had light incident upon them (the so-called photoelectric effect), going against the wisdom of the day. This insight set off a revolution in physics; a revolution that required the reworking of all the rules and scientific prejudices of the atomic and subatomic universe.

This book is described as “the definitive popular book on quantum
theory”' and claims to “set the science in the context of the great upheavals of the modern age”. But it is and does neither of these things.

Quantum is essentially a write-up of Kumar’s extensive biographical investigations into the scientists that shaped quantum theory. The level of biographical detail, interesting anecdotes and the awareness of how the various people, research groups and experiments fit into the history of quantum theory is impressive – the main reason to have Quantum on your bookshelf. However, it is also one of a number of reasons why this book fails in its claimed raison d’etre.

If the science takes a back seat, then it cannot be a popular science book. By choosing to concentrate on the individuals, Quantum fails to describe the science in a satisfactory manner. In the early part of the book, the setting of the scene by working through each scientist in turn leads to a jumping back and forth in time in the narrative, which makes it hard to follow. When Kumar decides to write about the science, as opposed to the individuals, his descriptions are generally lazy, giving an impression that he has failed to grasp what is necessary to attempt a project such as this. The correct strategy would be to make the science the centrepiece, especially early on, bringing in personalities and anecdotes to create a rounded discussion. This way, the debate between Einstein and Niels Bohr later in the text can be placed in context, with a solid description of quantum theory as its base.

His somewhat lethargic approach to the descriptions are made manifest by the use of algebraic forms to make his points. This is bad style in a popular science book unless no description is possible without them. They appear in Quantum through a lack of effort. Even with the equations, Kumar is inconsistent. He often explains the easiest pieces of mathematics in more detail than the harder extracts!

There is a further problem with regards the content and the pace. Quantum has the subtitle “Einstein, Bohr and the great debate about the nature of reality”. The claim that “Kumar’s centrepiece is the conflict between Einstein and Bohr over the nature of reality and the soul of science” is misleading. The concentration on the biographical details mean that this “debate” is not reached until page 263 of 360. An interjection on the war, and the book finishing on John Stewart Bell’s inequalities, means that very little time is devoted to the intellectual sparring of Bohr and Einstein.

Kumar's failure to discuss the science adequately earlier in the book reduces the debate down to a mere report of what went on. Quantum is an opportunity lost; it is a book caught in two minds. It has ambitions to be a popular science book, but the emphasis on biography lets it down. Any masterpiece on quantum theory has to put the science in the foreground and use the history as a narrative tool. Quantum gets this the wrong way around and consequently does not achieve what it sets out to do, and, more importantly, what it claims to do. This was the most frustrating feature of the book which, at times, projected a kind of arrogance.

Books describing the history of scientific revolutions are always welcome, which, with some tinkering, this book could have been. Readers searching for a lay text describing in detail quantum theory and the debate over reality can do much better with the now almost twenty-five years old, In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, by John Gribbin.

Reviewed by Chris Orme

Thursday, 18 December 2008

“Confessions of a Former Dittohead”, by Jim Derych (iG Publishing)


The Republican who came in from the cold…

Dittohead: a self-identifying term used by fans of right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh.

This is Jim Derych’s 189-page rant about the strange, unsubstantiated beliefs of the millions of Rush Limbaugh’s faithful listeners. Unlike some anti-Republicans (or, for that matter, anti-Democrats), Derych provides plenty of counterargument for the bizarre positions of the dittoheads (or dittiots, as he calls them).

The book starts with his account of how he came to be a dittohead in the first place (first hearing the big man’s show while in the car on the way to college), and Derych writes very honestly: he doesn’t shirk or shy away from admitting to positions that might be considered highly inappropriate or bigoted by the Bobos on the coasts. He then proceeds to describe his break with Rush and the Republican party. How “[i]t stopped being about governing, and evolved into just doing whatever it takes to stay in power”, and also how “it was the complete abandonment of anything remotely resembling intellectual honesty that caused me to change sides.”

What follows is a distilled debunking of the main disseminated opinions of Rush and those who believe everything he says; regardless of how ludicrous, overblown, hateful or purely stupid this “fact-free gibberish” might be. (I’d recommend Al Franken’s Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot for more on the “intellectuality” of Rush.) Again, he never goes too far, and is always ready with some “proof” or logical counterargument to point out how, with just a small pause for thought, every Dittohead really should see that they are being lied to and manipulated. While it is not the deepest of analyses on Republican wingnuts, Derych touches on all the big-button issues, such as abortion, gay rights, social security, taxes, guns, and Iraq, to such other topics as Sean Hannity, anti-intellectualism, and how to talk to a Dittohead (should you really want to, but Derych says you must).

An short, honest, very personal accounting of one man’s flight from the Republican Party and disenfranchisement from one of the GOP’s standard bearers, that can act as a manual to help all liberals and progressives (and independents, of course) understand one of the largest, confusing blocks of the opposition.

Friday, 5 December 2008

“Please Don’t Remain Calm”, by Michael Kinsley (W.W. Norton)

Kinsley-PleaseDon'tRemainCalmAn excellent collection of articles from one of America’s best opinion writers

The first time I noticed Michael Kinsley’s byline was when I read an article of his that appeared in TIME magazine back in 2006, in which he was discussing his brain surgery (he has Parkinson’s). His light touch dealing the subject, and the lack of any “pity-me” sentiment made me remember his name. I’ve been a loyal reader ever since. (The article is reprinted in this volume.)

Please Don’t Remain Calm is a collection of Kinsley’s articles that appeared in TIME, Slate (which he helped found), The Guardian and the Washington Post, among others. The articles within cover a pretty wide timeframe, with chapter one containing choice articles from 1995-1999. He touches on many subject, including “buck-raking” (the lucrative lecture circuit a lot of commentators avail themselves of), Newsweek’s refusal to run with the Monica Lewinsky scandal to begin with, Clinton’s impeachment, and the rise of importance, possibilities and promise of the internet.

The following chapters are each devoted to a single year of George W. Bush’s presidency, and cover an even broader range of subjects. Kinsley discusses his views on racial-profiling at airports, the 2000 election (including plenty on the drawn-out battle to reach a result), the Iraq War (of course), but he also talks about a particular spat that occurred between him and titan of right-wing radio and TV, Bill O’Reilly (these two articles are excellent), and the now ubiquitous nature of the phrase “God bless you, and God bless America”. Kinsley touches on some common tropes for those analysing and commenting on the USA – such as media bias, the comparative influence that journalism and business (i.e. “the general allure of large piles of money”) have when it comes to politics – but he manages to come at them from new or interesting directions, avoiding tired clichés and party-line positions.

Whether he’s discussing brain surgery, Pat Robertson or George W. Bush, Kinsley writes eloquently, authoritatively, in a tone that is appropriate for the subject, and with a keen eye for the hypocrisies of both American politics and Washington journalism. He writes with a distinct style, balancing a dry wit with insight. Mostly, Kinsley does this perfectly, but (by his own admission) his articles can verge on the slightly silly. He demolishes the arguments and fallacies of fear-mongers and people he clearly thinks have lost their senses in the aftermath of 9/11, and it’s clear from his calm writing that he was probably one of the few journalists in the US who didn’t lose their heads or cave to the constricting notion of patriotism peddled by the Bush administration.

With hindsight, many of Kinsley’s arguments and observations still hold up (if they haven’t been further justified with the passage of time and new White House information that has come to light in slow drips). In many ways, Kinsley’s articles are an excellent barometer of the evolving opinions of the American public. They are also filled with excellent deconstructions of the politics and public figures that have shaped the social, financial and military disasters over the past couple of decades.

Throughout my time reading this, the main thought that kept passing through my mind was simply, “I wish I could write this well…”

If you’re a fan of Matt Taibbi and Al Franken (when he’s doing reportage, rather than “satire”), then you’ll find plenty in Please Don’t Remain Calm that will make you both laugh and also think.

An excellent collection of commentary on the state of politics and journalism in America today. This comes very highly recommended.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

“Striking First”, by Michael Doyle (Princeton University Press)

Doyle-StrikingFirst Tackling one of the most controversial policy issues in international relations of the post-9/11 world, Michael Doyle argues that there is no adequate response to pressing issues of international security in today’s world. In Striking First, Doyle “addresses not only the underlying moral question of the conditions under which preventive war is justified, but also the complex practical question of how, if at all, international law should be refashioned in the current era”. Doyle’s aim is to offer his opinion of the conditions under which preventive war is justified.

Doyle explains how the United Nations can again play an important part in enforcing international law, something the Bush Doctrine has often flaunted and disregarded in the administration’s pursuit of the War on Terror. In an effort to redeem the practice of pre-emption and prevention (now much maligned in the wake of the Bush administration), he suggests circumstances when unilateral action can be justified (i.e. without UN sanction) or is necessary. Doyle argues that traditional international orthodoxy is unrealistic and unnecessarily constraining given the conditions and situations that now confront global leaders. At the same time, Doyle argues that the Bush Doctrine offers to broad and unstructured a framework through which to work.

A useful addition to the book is a collection of responses from noted international relations scholars Richard Tuck, Jeffrey McMahon and Harold Koh, allowing Doyle’s ideas to be put to a peer-review. These are then followed by another chapter from Doyle, responding to these guest writers.

Drawing on a number of examples of preemption/prevention, Doyle looks at the current war in Iraq, the 1998 attack on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Cuban Missile Crisis and a number of other events to help reinforce his argument. His framework is comprised of four guidelines that address 1). the lethality and likelihood of perceived threat; 2). the legitimacy of the threat; 3). the necessity to make the case to international institutions (e.g. the UN); 4). the acceptance that multinational bodies don’t always act rationally or reasonably.

Not everyone will agree with his proposals, such as the unilateral pursuit of pre-emptive measures when multinational consent is found wanting (see the guest commentator’s critiques for more on this, specifically Koh’s essay), but they deserve to be taken seriously. There is also a question of feasibility, and not enough attention is paid to electoral incentives to act in a nation’s self-interest, rather than seeking international approval for specific actions; the efficacy of the UN is also questioned as a body capable of influencing determined state actors.

This is an useful book to further the debate about pre-emptive and unilateral state action in international relations, and I believe Doyle succeeds in his ultimate goal of offering a framework to help improve decision making and assessment of looming threats, and also further out understanding of when a nation might be justified in acting unilaterally and preemptively. The book’s brevity is a bonus, and Doyle doesn’t get too bogged down in the minutiae of international law, making the work more accessible to intermediate level IR scholars and enthusiasts. His long experience both as a scholar and government official informs his thesis throughout, adding extra weight to his positions.

Striking First won’t suit everyone, but if you’re interested in learning more about preventive and defensive pre-emption, this would be a good place to start.

Friday, 28 November 2008

“Shakespeare on Toast”, by Ben Crystal (Icon Books)


An enthusiast bursts the bubble of Shakespeare elitism, opening its doors to all

Who’s afraid of William Shakespeare? Just about everyone. He wrote too much and what he wrote is inaccessible and elitist. This is wrong. Shakespeare on Toast knocks the stuffing from the staid old myth of Shakespeare, and author Ben Crystal brings the Bard to life, revealing the man and his plays for what they really are: modern, thrilling and uplifting drama.

Crystal romps through the facts about Shakespeare’s life in under fifteen pages and then dismisses them with a cool ‘I don’t care who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.’ He then launches into a pithy and witty account of what Elizabethan life was like, what it would have been like going to the theatre in Shakespeare’s time, and why exactly he wrote in poetry anyway. The second half of the book covers how to read and understand Shakespeare’s language, explains how Shakespeare left clues for his actors within the text, and finishes with an in-depth examination of a scene from Macbeth. Crystal’s prose is peppered with humorous asides and pop culture, his use of dialogue from Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, or rap by Mos Def to explain about rhythm and metre. The structure of the book breaks it down into five easily digestible “Acts”, while the chapter titles are all fun and pertinent scene locations, e.g. “Act 2: Curtain Up, Scene 3, A galaxy far, far away”.

The author is a trained actor who also studied Language and Linguistics at university, and obviously knows what he’s talking about. It is refreshing to have an actor’s perspective on Shakespeare, and makes a great change from dry academic books with too much emphasis on reading Shakespeare and not enough on actually watching him. As Crystal admits, the book is short, but it does exactly what it says on the label: offers the reluctant reader a way to crack the basics of the Bard. Crystal’s no-nonsense attitude and witty approach really make the book stand out, and he covers all the major things you need to understand and (whisper it) enjoy Shakespeare. I’d like to buy a copy for the last two Shakespeare-phobic directors I worked with.

This should be required reading for actors, anyone doing English Literature at school or university, and the girls who spoiled the performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor I went to at the Globe this summer by whispering to each other that they couldn’t understand a word. Highly recommended, and not just by me but also by Judi Dench and Richard Eyre!

Try this along with Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare and David Crystal’s Think on my Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language.

Reviewed by Emma Newrick

Sunday, 23 November 2008

“Angler”, by Barton Gellman (Allen Lane/Penguin)


An in depth look at the shadowy reign of the most powerful vice-president in US history

In Angler, Barton Gellman expands on his Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles about Vice President Dick Cheney’s domestic agenda, that appeared in The Washington Post. In the book, Gellman broadens his scope, starting with Cheney’s role in his own selection as Vice President, his control over the transition team, and moving through the eight years he’s served. He’s had an unprecedented role in shaping America’s economic, environmental, and military policies during this time. Gellman details Cheney’s role in shifting the focus of the War on Terror from Al-Qaeda to Iraq, helping to instigate the domestic wire-tapping program to spy on American citizens, and also promoting cruel and unusual torture methods.

Gellman tells us that “Cheney’s overriding goal was enlargement of presidential authority”, and Angler is filled with anecdotes and explanations of the vice-presidents methods for achieving this: for example, how “amid stealth and misdirection, with visible formalities obscuring the action offstage”, Cheney managed to get his own way for many important policies and decisions that historically have not been the purview of the Vice President. These included (among others) reversing the president’s position on the environment, which Cheney achieved simply by isolating the President from those with views opposed to the vice-president’s; it also included Cheney's taking over executive office oversight of all intelligence-related projects.

Gellman’s writing style is very accessible and engaging, not to mention sparse; almost informal in tone. The quality of the writing puts me in mind of John F. Harris’s excellent account of the Clinton White House, Survivor (2006), which was narrative in style and had, at times, the feel of an intimate political novel. Unlike Harris, however, Gellman has a tendency to focus on a specific incident for longer than is really necessary, long after his point has been made (for example, exactly when the “weapons free” order was given, following the airplane collisions with the World Trade Centre). This is not a frequent occurrence, but a noticeable one nonetheless. In the main, Gellman is more than capable of holding the reader’s attention and interest.

Angler is packed with fresh insights and first-hand recollections from those close to the Vice President. Gellman was able to draw on amazing access to Cheney’s staff and associates (which he apparently condoned), as well as revealing, lengthy interviews with those who found themselves on the receiving end of Cheney’s brand of Machiavellian politics. The book particularly comes into its own when explaining the situation post-9/11. Up until that point (about the first third of the book), it had the unfortunate feel of a roll-call of Cheney’s staff, not particularly contributing much to the debate.

Using already published material, contemporary notes from officials and staff, and plentiful original reporting, Gellman has drawn a fascinating (though not particularly intimate) portrait of a man famous for his personal discretion and pathological secrecy (especially in the chapter "Dark Side"). Angler is an important book for anyone wanting to put to rest some of the conspiracy theories floating about Cheney, and also for those wanting to get a look inside the executive branch from a slightly different angle.

Recommended reading, Angler is one of the most intriguing books of this year.

Also try: Charlie Savage, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency (2008); Stephen Hayes, Cheney: The Untold Story of America’s Most Powerful and Controversial Vice-President (2004); Bob Woodward, The War Within (2008); Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); Frederick Schwartz & Aziz Huq, Unbalanced & Unchecked (2008); Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency (2007)

Thursday, 20 November 2008

“The Reagan I Knew”, by William F. Buckley Jr. (Basic Books)


An intimate look at a friendship between one of America’s most gifted conservative thinkers and America’s 40th President

When William F. Buckley started National Review in 1955, proposing a journal that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop!”, Ronald Reagan was an actor in Hollywood stumping for liberal Democrats. Buckley grew up in a patrician household speaking three languages. Reagan was born in an apartment in the tiny town of Tampico, Illinois. Buckley attended Yale, Reagan went to Eureka College. Despite these significant differences, these two men would come together and define American conservatism in the 20th century.

The Reagan I Knew is Buckley’s tribute to their friendship. The book is comprised of correspondence with Reagan and his wife Nancy (with whom Buckley was extremely close), transcripts of Reagan on Buckley’s long running TV show, Firing Line, and his personal observations of the man who was known affectionately as “The Gipper”.

Buckley’s relationship with Reagan roughly corresponded with Reagan’s transition from an FDR liberal to the conservatism he would later come to define. The book is broken into sections of time and issues Reagan was involved with (Panama Canal, presidential campaign, budget issues, and national defense) and illustrates his thinking well.

The letters between Buckley and Reagan, and especially the transcripts of Reagan’s appearances on Firing Line, show clearly that the two men had significant differences over policy – specifically with regard to the Panama Canal. But on the core issues (anti-communism, slowing the growth of government, and a strong national defense) they were in concert.

It is often said that Buckley made conservatism respectable by detaching it from, and in the process discrediting, the far right, anti-Semitic, protectionist base it had previously been associated with. Buckley, despite his high-brow manner and blueblood upbringing, brought conservatism out of the country clubs and gave it a veneer of worldliness which largely reflected the man himself. Buckley engaged the world and, more specifically, confronted his enemies directly, through years of debates on Firing Line and other public forums with such establishment leftists as Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky, and indirectly via his columns and books decrying communism.

Buckley was a public intellectual in the truest sense of that phrase and recognized more than any other figure on the right that conservatism must be clearly defined and be forceful in the public arena to have any effect. In Ronald Reagan, Buckley found a man who could bridge the gap between the heady world of intellectual debate and the average American. The correspondence between Reagan and Buckley details this process and the book is at its strongest when the two men are grappling with consequential issues such as the Panama Canal, détente with the Soviets and the budget.

The book also delights when Buckley recounts Reagan’s interaction with personalities such as Truman Capote, as well as some personal anecdotes regarding both men’s children. Unfortunately, there are too many letters between Buckley and Nancy Reagan of no real value or interest to anybody but the two authors and the book looses focus during these. I have no idea if such correspondence exists between Buckley and the First Lady, but it would’ve been interesting to gain an insight into Nancy’s thinking during her “Just Say No” campaign or her thoughts later in Reagan’s presidency when the press was increasingly attacking his advanced age.

The Reagan I Knew provides a unique insight into two of the most consequential men in the last one hundred years of American politics and is well worth the read for students of politics and history.

Reviewed by Nick Plosser

Also recommended: William F. Buckley, God and Man at Yale (1951) & Up From Liberalism (1961); Ronald Reagan, An American Life: The Autobiography (1990) & Reagan: A Life in Letters (2003)

Saturday, 15 November 2008

“The Leaders We Deserved (& A Few We Didn’t)”, by Alvin S. Felzenberg (Basic Books)


A new look at the presidential rating game

With George W. Bush on his way out, and the inevitable presidential post-mortems that will follow his departure from the White House, it’s good to look back at his predecessors and consider how successful they were at the world’s most powerful and difficult job. Will Bush be like Truman, who left office with rock-bottom approval ratings, only to be redeemed by history? Or will he be remembered like James Buchanan or Andrew Johnson – both considered to be failures in office?

Felzenberg does not include George W. Bush in this, his take on the presidential rating game. Looking instead at the other 42 men who have held the office, he attempts to inject more of a scholarly, even scientific approach to grading them. In the introductory chapter, Felzenberg gives a quick account of previous rating polls (conducted by Arthur M. Schlesinger Snr. & Jnr.), discusses the difficulties in conducting an unbias evaluation, and proposes a better approach.

Where previous attempts, according to Felzenberg, have been little more than opinion polls, here he identifies six criteria with which to grade past presidents (with scores out of five):

  • “Character”, “Vision”, “Competence”, “Economic Policy”, “Preserving & Extending Liberty”, and “Defence, National Security & Foreign policy”

For each criteria, Felzenberg has a chapter which focuses on those he rates the highest and also the lowest. This allows for a varied spread of examples and analysis, for the most part. Some of the usual suspects crop up in all or most of the chapters (Reagan, Jefferson, Lincoln), but it is also refreshing to read about some of the lesser-know – some might say “forgotten” – presidents, such as Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore and Rutherford B. Hayes. The short treatments of the presidents in each chapter – all written in fluid, tight prose – make the book far more accessible and easily digestible. Looking at each president through the lens of each criteria also makes for interesting, varied reading throughout, and Felzenberg’s analysis is often insightful and illuminating. Another first, the author is also able to make the chapters on policy interesting, holding the reader’s attention throughout (even for economic policy, which many people might automatically skip over).

Even if you do not agree with Felzenberg’s ratings, reading The Leaders We Deserved will provide you with a wealth of historical detail and analysis that will certainly expand your knowledge of the presidents, as well as make you question your natural biases depending on your political philosophy. For example, I agree with most of his top 12 picks, but I would not rate Reagan any where near as high as Felzenberg has (5/5 for economic policy… really?).

His giving Abraham Lincoln the top spot would be difficult to argue with, but his considerable down-grading of presidents such as Truman and Lyndon Johnson might strike some as bizarre. This, I think, is where Felzenberg’s rating system is most flawed: each of the categories carries the same weight. As a result, presidents with good characters can be rated higher than presidents with bad characters, but who also got more done in office (Taft is higher than both Lyndon Johnson and also Bill Clinton, for example).

Inevitably, those presidents he rates most highly, as already mentioned, crop up in most chapters. Unfortunately for some, this means limited examples with which to draw on – this is more the case in the first three chapters than the latter three. The discussions of Jefferson are always interesting and colourful, but the sections on Reagan do become a little repetitive. In fact, I would say that Felzenberg’s obvious fondness for Reagan has not allowed him to make as balanced an argument for the 40th president as he might hope. His treatments of some of the "lesser" or "forgotten" presidents - such as Benjamin Harrison, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge - are pleasantly fair and instructive, suggesting that perhaps they shouldn't be so forgotten after all.

Ultimately, though, I think Felzenberg has succeeded in his ultimate aim: to stimulate debate. His conservative/republican preference is clear in the final rankings, making his work considerably different from existing polls, which had a tendency towards liberal/democratic bias. Not only will this book stimulate debate (and no doubt a few of heated arguments), but it’s main strength is that it will offer presidential scholars and amateur history buffs alike a proper framework with which to consider the legacies and impacts of past US presidents.

Intelligent, in-depth and rigorous, The Leaders We Deserve is an important book for all those with an interest in the US presidents and their legacies, as well as those seeking a source for historical detail on a broad range of presidents. Highly recommended, and highly enjoyable.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

"The American Future", by Simon Schama (Bodley Head/Random House)

An in-depth look at four facets of America’s nature.

In The American Future, British historian Simon Schama shines a light on four facets of America that help make it what it the nation we all love or hate: “American War”, “American Fervour”, “American Plenty”, and “What Is An America?”. He does this by looking at both the large figures of American legend and history, but also lesser-known (if at all) Americans who have left their mark on the world’s most powerful nation. Taking advantage of the recently-ended election, Schama tries his hand at campaign journalism for his prologue, which sets the scene (and style, in many ways) for the chapters to come.

American War, the first and longest part of the book, discusses the often contentious place of warfare and the military in America’s national character, and the militarism that permeates its society. Using the military academy at West Point and the Meigs family as touchstones for his history, Schama paints a very personal picture of how the Meigs family left their mark on America: Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster for Grant’s Union army during the civil war, designed the Capitol’s dome, and set up Arlington Memorial Cemetary on his former classmate and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Virginia estate. Throughout the discussion, Schama draws our attention to the rival factions among the Founding Fathers (specifically, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the latter of which was the more bellicose) and how these initial squabbles have continued through over two centuries of America’s existence.

American Fervour. It seems everyone is ready to mock the religiosity of America, but what Schama does instead, is just look at the roots of religion in America. He discusses the roots of religion in the US – Jefferson’s declaration of religious and intellectual freedom for the State of Virginia, which he and Washington campaigned to make official throughout the new country. He touches on how it is that America enshrined these freedoms as a “natural right”, yet it remains one of the most religious Western nations with religion creeping ever more into national politics; covering also religion as an impetus to rid the United States of “the National Sin” (slavery), its importance to the Civil Rights Movement, and its role in Prohibition. Again, Schama looks at the Presidents and “smaller” Americans who shaped religion in the US (including Charles Grandison Finney, Fanny Lou Hamer, and Billy Sunday), as well as the evolvement of the church from small chapels to the mega-churches of Evangelical America.

American Plenty. This was an excellent chapter about how continental expansion has affected the American mindset when it comes to resources and the can-do, “boundless” attitude. Discussing how expansion has led to such engineering advances and marvels as the Hoover Dam (and, by extension, Las Vegas), but also disasters such as the Dust Bowl. This was a surprisingly interesting chapter, as I'm not usually that taken with tracts on agriculture and so on. Schama's use of real-life examples of families affected by resource depletion and so on makes the subject matter more compelling and interesting by giving it a face, rather than treating it in the abstract.

What Is An American? (Perhaps this section could have been entitled “American Ethnicity”, to keep with the same format?) An important section of the book, given the ever-changing notion of what and who is American, and the contentious issue of immigration that fires up political bases of both parties every few years. Schama discusses the wide range of ethnicities that have poured into the American make-up, and how each affects the character of certain regions. Schama shows how initial beliefs that the US would be a land of free immigrants have changed as the source of these immigrants has changed. He also shines a light on the darker side of the American melting-pot – such as the anti-immigration policies of the Know-Nothing party, the paranoia of unchecked-immigration of Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson’s harsh treatment of Native Americans, the abuse of Chinese labourers after they built America’s railroads. Schama’s not averse to showing the darker underbelly of the United States, which makes the book all the more useful and interesting.

A superb achievement, The American Future is one of few books that create an engaging history of America while not being yet another volume of Presidential biography. Despite his years as a university professor (and the assumed stuffiness that should bring), Schama has a gift for fluid prose that allows one to breeze through the book at a remarkable clip. He provides an occasional chuckle as he points out an absurdity or inherent contradiction, dealing with it not in an aloof manner, but the lighter touch of someone who has some genuine affection for the US, warts and all. Sometimes these lighter moments can detract from the book, though; such as the times he injects his opinions of certain officials he may not like. It is therefore not flawless. Schama can also come across as being indulgent with his choice of overly poetic phrases and imagery, and perhaps a few too many references to his own opinion or experiences.

The American Future is nonetheless engaging and informative, filled with superb historical detail, depth and is mostly even-handed. A must read for all interested in understanding a little more about America and the components of its collective psyche.

Also try: The American Future DVD (2008, BBC - for those who maybe don’t have the time for the whole book, or want something with more on the 2008 Election); Robert D Kaplan's An Empire Wilderness - Travels Into America's Future (1999)

Thursday, 30 October 2008

"Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State", by Andrew Gelman

Why do Americans vote the way they do?

With the American election taking place next week, it seemed an apt time to take a look at the myths and misperception about why Republicans (ostensibly the party of business and the rich) keep winning the poor states, while Democrats (the party of the poor and workers’ unions) keep winning the richest states.

Andrew Gelman and his team of assistants draw on existing research in political science, building on its foundation to create an accessible and engaging book. The book is not meant as some high-academic, scientific explanation, but rather an accessible look into American politics (at the presidential-, congressional- and state-levels) for the general reader who wants a little more than they can find in newspapers or weekly magazines.

The book puts paid to Thomas Frank’s argument in What’s The Matter With America?, in which he suggests that poor Americans vote for the Republican Party, against their interests. He also shows that the richer voters do not always favour Democrats, as author and journalist David Brooks has observed (in Bobos In Paradise). Gelman, through extensive use of polling and voting data, shows these arguments to be false.

After removing these assumptions, Gelman is able to show what’s really going on in America’s polarized politics. His main argument is that simple Red State-Blue State polarisation is not sufficient to explain why Republicans now win poor states and Democrats now win rich states. One of his answer is: “Voters in richer states support the Democrats even though within any given state, richer voters tend to support the Republicans.” And apparently, because there are more working class people in urbanised, rich states, then they can usually tip the balance towards the Democrats. Although, it is also true that in New York, California, Massachusetts and Connecticut, the difference in numbers between rich voters voting for Republicans and Democrats is narrower. Gelman addresses all the possible voting indicators, including religion, race, political sorting (where people move to areas more conducive to their own political and social ideology) and economic situation – even touching on the idea of correlating the number of Starbucks or Wal-Marts with voting patterns. One fact that intrigued me the most is that it appears as though the “culture wars” are predominantly a thing of the richer states, with poor state voters still voting along economic lines. For a Republican to win, though, he only needs to get just enough of the lower-income voters to tip him over the top.

Despite the book’s accessibility, it is not without flaws. First off, the style it is written in is very methodical and dry. This has both good and bad points; good because it makes it easy to follow, bad because it can become a little repetitive and occasionally tedious as Gelman feels the need to often reiterate what has been observed so far. A small niggle, but one that definitely is there. The book has a feel of a welcoming university lecture on voting habits, rather than a journalistic appraisal of how American’s decide on their office-holders. The bombardment of statistics will probably turn some readers off, but ultimately it all goes to painting a far more complicated picture than we have often been led to believe by the media. The extensive inclusion of graphs and maps is good, but ultimately some will probably find them confusing, which means the main people who will get use out of them are likely to be political science students, pollsters and maybe journalists.

This book is a quick read (I polished it off in about a day), and full of interesting arguments and insights that will turn many deep-seated beliefs about American politics on their head, and make a lot of people reconsider their assumptions and biases.

Gelman has added much to the argument that America is not so much Red and/or Blue, but rather it is far more Purple (just look at some of his maps!). I would recommended this book to all politics-junkies and political science students and lecturers everywhere. It will also be interesting to see how/if his observations hold true for the 2008 election, too.

Also try: Mark Penn & E. Kinney Zalesne, Microtrends (2007); Rick Shenkman, Just How Stupid Are We? (2008); Earle & Merle Black, Divided America (2007); Bill Bishop, The Big Sort (2008); Karen Kaufmann, John Petrocik & Daron Shaw, Unconventional Wisdom (2008); Thomas Frank, What’s The Matter With America? (2005)

Monday, 27 October 2008

"America Between the Wars - 11/9 to 9/11", by Derek Chollet & James Goldgeier

An insightful look at American foreign policy between the demise of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the War on Terror.

The 12 years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the September 11th attacks in New York saw the United States searching for a guiding principle to shape its foreign policy in the newly unipolar world, struggling to adjust after 40 years of relatively consistent strategy (specifically, one form or other of containment).

Some see the period as a “lost decade” as Bush and Clinton floundered, attempting to find an overarching framework in which to conduct the US’s international relations. For Bush it involved realism, while Clinton sought comfort in globalisation and economics, tripping due to his obsession with how his policies would play in the media and polls.

While some in America pushed the Bush and Clinton administrations to make the most of the “peace dividend”, others tried to pull American forces back home, believing that it was not in America’s interest to get involved in the myriad conflicts and mini-wars around the globe. Neither party had a united view on foreign policy, making it only that much harder for the presidents’ teams to recreate the traditional bipartisan consensus. The authors detail all of this in an engaging manner.

The book discusses foreign policy in the context of America’s domestic politics, too. During the national elections, as well as the general domestic environment of the time (which was rife with international apathy), and what it meant for possible policies a president could pursue.

The authors appear to have no specific political agenda, detailing successes and failures of each of the three administrations, as equally at ease in criticising Bush and Clinton for inaction in humanitarian crises around the world (Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Rwanda, etc.). Internal conflicts are honestly explained and described (e.g. between President George H.W. Bush and then-Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney). They offer analysis of how certain decisions have affected American foreign policy ever since, and frequently place events and policies in their historical context, providing insight into trends and traditions in the foreign policy establishment.

The book, written in a narrative-history style, is as much about the government appointees and characters who were involved in foreign policy as it is about the presidents, as well as the various forces (domestic and foreign) that exerted pressure on each administration. In this respect, it is a welcome change, as often American foreign policy is approached as a facet of presidential biography. Of course, ultimately the buck stops with the president (as Truman famously believed), but Chollet and Goldgeier’s attention to the presidential advisers, Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Council, and so on, adds so much more to the discussion and overall picture.

Drawing on extensive interviews – from the time, and also recent – adds even more depth, as well as honest appraisals of various members’ conduct and actions.

Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier have achieved something truly special with American Between The Wars. A cross between narrative history and an analysis of America’s confused search for a grand strategy following the end of the Cold War, America Between The Wars is an indispensible book for anyone wanting to make sense of this strangely difficult period. The authors have definitely achieved their goal of explaining how America got to where it is now. It’s rare for a book such as this to grab one’s attention so firmly, but America Between The Wars is the most readable account of American foreign policy since Stephen E. Ambrose’s Rise To Globalism (1997).

I could write at great length about all the strengths of this book, but I will limit myself. Highly informative, illuminating and in an accessible style that is a joy to read, America Between The Wars is an indispensible history and analysis of the decade between the Cold War and the War on Terror. I urge everyone to read this book.

An exceptional read.

Also try: Stephen E. Ambrose & Douglas Brinkley, Rise To Globalism (1997); Matthew Yglesias, Heads In The Sand (2007); Colin Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders (2006); Fraser Cameron, US Foreign Policy After The Cold War (2002); David Halberstam, War In A Time Of Peace (2002)