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 clich├ęs 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.