Friday, 27 March 2009

“The Man Who Sold the World”, by William Kleinknecht (Nation Books)

Kleinknecht-ManWhoSoldTheWorld “Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Ordinary Americans”

Since Ronald Reagan left office in January 1989, his influence and presence has loomed large over American political life. Conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard and National Review praise the 40th President at every opportunity, bestowing upon him an almost messianic air (ironic, given their disdain for the adulation expressed by Obama supporters). In the 2008 Republican primaries, the contenders were falling over each other in their attempts to show themselves as they tried to out-Reagan each other. During the election proper, even Obama spoke positively about Reagan’s legacy.

William Kleinknecht contends that this carefully nurtured image and reputation is a fiction. He argues that while Reagan’s presidency was indeed transformational, it is not in the ways his hagiographers contend (invigorating private enterprise, toppling the Berlin Wall, strengthening America). The author believes he had a wholly different legacy far more important and with a greater impact on America. Therefore,

“This book is borne of annoyance: a great bewilderment over the myth that continues to surround the presidency of Ronald Reagan. It gives voice to a vast swath of psychically disenfranchised Americans, millions of them, lumped thickly in the urban areas on either coast, who never understood Reagan’s appeal.”

The Man Who Sold The World focuses on Domestic Policy, and in fact explicitly does not discuss Reagan’s foreign policy – where, during the Reagan presidency, there were some undeniable beneficial advances, victories and successes. Whether or not these can be attributed to Reagan himself is debatable and not the subject of this book or review.

The structure of the book is quite straightforward: each chapter deals with a separate element of Reagan’s policies’ domestic impact. This includes the impact on Dixon, Illinois, as case study of the economic impact of Reagan’s presidency, but also his indifference to the ‘little-man’; politicians who were adversely and positively affected by Reagan’s presidency (Tip O’Neill and Senator William Promire for the former, deregulator extraordinaire Jim J. Tozzi for the latter), as well as providing a good, detailed explanation of the evolution of laissez-faire economics and its embrace by the right. A chapter about deregulation (“The looting of America”) is filled with depressing and infuriating facts to get a liberal’s blood boiling. In Kleinknecht’s view, deregulation seems to be the root of all Reagan’s evils: “Reagan changed the role of government from watchdog to lapdog without even bothering to consult the Congress”, which led to “two and a half decades of thievery wrought by Reagan’s financial deregulations.”

Kleinknecht has written a very passionate book aimed at debunking the tenacious myth of Reagan’s ‘brilliance’. Some are guaranteed to disagree with his position, but he does lay out a very compelling case to suggest that Reagan’s brilliance was one of PR and pageantry, rather than policy. The author argues that Reagan, while professing to be a conservative and standard bearer for traditional life and values, was actually anything but. Taking a pro-business path whenever it was an option, Kleinknecht explains how he actually betrayed most if not everyone who voted for him on a conservative-values basis, and ushered in an era of opulence, wealth and ostentation in Washington and US politics.

The book is exceptionally well written, and I found myself getting through chapters very quickly, not realising just how much I had read in each stretch. This makes a nice change from many political history books, which occasionally suffer from a dryness usually only found in deserts. The author’s feistiness is something that also helps the pacing of the book, but his attention to detail prevents it from turning into merely another anti-Reagan/Republican screed.

Drawing on plenty of interviews (including man-on-the-street quotes), not to mention exhaustive statistics and economic data, this book is incredibly informative and all of the author’s arguments are supported or substantiated with evidence (something I often feel that conservative pundits conveniently leave out, to their detriment). Kleinknecht has a very detailed-yet-inviting style, passionate without being too much of a polemic. Sometimes he comes across a little strong, which might put people off (such as his obvious dislike for everything produced by Hollywood and the music industry in recent decades), but on the whole this is a very enjoyable, engaging read.

A very well written, persuasive and compelling book, The Man Who Sold The World is recommended for anyone (like myself) who doesn’t understand the enduring myth of Ronald Reagan. The book brings his policies into the contemporary world, explaining how the roots of a lot (if not all) of today’s economic woes can be traced back (to varying degrees) to Reagan’s economic policy of hyper-capitalism, deregulation and tax-cuts for the rich.

Also try: James Mann, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan (2009); Will Bunch, Tear Down This Myth (2009); Thomas Frank, What’s The Matter With Kansas (2005); Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (2008)

Monday, 23 March 2009

“The Strategic President”, by George C. Edwards III (Princeton)


What does it take to be a successful President?

In The Strategic President, George C Edwards III (editor of the excellent Presidential Studies Quarterly journal) approaches the presidency with some tough questions: How exactly do presidents lead? If presidential power is the power to persuade, why is there a considerable lack of visible result of presidential persuasion? If there is lack of evidence in support of the power of presidential persuasion, why does it still persist, and what is the actual reason for presidential success and/or failure?

“Commentators on the presidency in both the press and the academy often assume that the White House can move public opinion if the president has the skill and will to effectively exploit the ‘bully pulpit’.”

Edwards challenges this widespread assumption about presidential leadership, believing it to be false. The aim of this book is to discover whether presidents who led the fights for the most significant changes in public policy succeeded through persuading others or because they successful exploited existing sentiment and opportunities for change. His main conclusion:

“Presidents, even skilled presidents, rarely are able to lead the public and thus reshape the contours of the political landscape to pave the way for change. Instead, even the most able communicators are facilitators who depend upon the public moving at its own pace to provide opportunities to accomplish their goals.”

Edwards lays out his argument very well, following reviews of existing literature with his own analysis of certain presidents and their ability to persuade and move public opinion on their own. In chapter two, he looks at three presidents long believed to be rhetorical geniuses and highly persuasive, who governed in extraordinary circumstances: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. His findings are surprising, as he argues that all three presidents were not able to shift public opinion the way once believed.

For Lincoln, this is especially surprising, when you consider the sheer amount of literature produced focusing on just his speeches and writings (even though, as Edwards mentions, there is nothing in any of these books that shows the impact of Lincoln’s eloquence). But, Edwards lays out his case in detail (especially for Reagan, for whom there is a wealth of polling data to assess the impact of speeches), and argues convincingly that these three presidents fall into the category of talented readers of public opinion and facilitators of public sentiment. An interesting inclusion in the book is the short comparative study with two British Prime Ministers to see if what Edwards believes is the same in Britain. Looking at Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, the author shows that a similar situation exists in the UK.

The truth about shifting policy preferences is not as tied to sitting presidents as one expects: “the public’s collective policy preferences generally are stable and change by large margins only in response to world events.” To support this, Edwards explains how these supposedly highly-persuasive presidents often failed to achieve their intended goals – be it FDR’s Supreme Court-packing scheme, or Reagan’s many resisted budgets.

In the next section, Edwards looks at the ability of presidents to read the Congressional mood, in more normal circumstances, and how they capitalised on the sentiments of the times to pass their ambitious agendas. To keep the continuity with the previous section, he looks again at FDR and Reagan, but also takes a look at Lyndon Johnson’s Congressional relations.

Challenging the conventional approach to presidential studies, Edwards has written a very important, lucid and rather accessible book on presidential leadership. Drawing on polling data to look beyond immediate reactions to presidential addresses or speeches, he is able to show how the supposed reaction to important (in hindsight) speeches was not always as we might have presumed.

The book is especially useful in today’s climate, as we see a gifted orator newly elected to the presidency, struggling to get approval and support for his ambitious economic programs. The Strategic Presidency will offer a great deal to those who are starting to study the presidency of Barack Obama, and it will be very interesting to see if Edwards’ thesis holds up as the Obama Presidency progresses. My guess is that it will.

An excellent book, it is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the American Presidency.

By the same author: On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit (2003)

Further Reading: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2009); John Arquilla’s The Reagan Imprint (2006); Michael Beschloss’s Presidential Courage (2008); Lou & Carl M. Cannon’s Reagan’s Disciple (2008)

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

“Superclass”, by David Rothkopf (Little, Brown)


“The Global Power Elite & The World They Are Making”

In Superclass, David Rothkopf has written a portrait of the most powerful people on the planet. Literally one-in-a-million, these people are found in diverse walks of life, be it politics, business, the media, or religion. One constant among them is that they wield a level of power and influence that far outstrips any other grouping. As will become apparent while reading this book, and as Rothkopf himself puts it, “power on the planet is not only concentrated, it is extraordinarily concentrated.”

Superclass is a highly informative and engaging book. Far from being a who’s-who of the wealthy, or just some rather wordy version of Forbes’ rich-list, Rothkopf has instead tried to gather a greater, deeper understanding of how these people operate, how they have come to be in the position they are in, and what this means for the rest of us. He begins by explaining who they are, how their wealth and power has accumulated, as well as highlighting the growing inequities in wealth-distribution in this globalised era (going on at length about CEO compensation).

There has always been, throughout history, some form of superclass. Whether it was comprised of politicians or the extremely wealthy, history has been peppered with the stories of these most influential people. The author deals with a number of issues that the existence of this class creates: How does it effect global equality? What is the impact on national sovereignty and international law? How has the class evolved? And what is the nature of its power?

The book is divided into six main sections. The first deals with the ‘theory’ of the superclass – who are they, what is their place in today’s society, and also some historical context (looking at Ancient Greece, Ming/Qing China, and then Gilded Age America). The next four sections deal with the superclass from four distinct groupings and sectors: financial/business, political, military, and ‘ideas’. Despite separating them into these groups, there is considerable overlap – especially for the business and political elites, where the one reinforces the other. This is the section of the book that, for me, was most interesting.

Rothkopf manages to draw the reader in using anecdotes, interviews, and plenty of original reporting. In the business chapter, he discusses Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Russian oligarchs, Pete G. Peterson of Blackstone, Goldman Sachs (which seems to have its paws in everything), and a host of other elites with their hands on influential levers. The political chapter naturally focuses on the American President, the National Security Council and US State Department (where apparently almost two-thirds of employees don’t even have a passport!), though also on Nicholas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi. Military power has always been a force of influence, and Rothkopf details the extent of the military-industrial-complex and the premise of “eternal war footing”, which drives much of the development and procurements of the (US) military. The power of ideas is increasingly important – be it generated from Google or Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire, or religious leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or even the Pope.

All of these examples are used to illustrate the trends and consistencies with the lessons learned from the historical analysis. How the lessons of Ancient Greece and Qing Dynasty China has shown that the consequences of overreaching can be disastrous, just as complacency can be; “Neglect of power is as corrosive as abuse of power.” In some ways, it is surprising that today’s elite haven’t always learned from their predecessors’ mistakes.

By describing the paths taken to power, and through anecdotal stories of coffee at Davos with Paulo Coehlo, or meeting with Chile’s elite over wine, Rothkopf provides some valuable insight into the way these modern-day titans think about and look at the world and just what their influence means for the average citizen of any one country. He also details the extent of their networks – the overlapping board positions across the globe, providing access and contacts in the most important markets and governments in the world. In some ways, it’s very impressive but at the same time a little frightening when you consider just how much influence this select few people wield.

The author draws on a host of exclusive interviews, original reporting, and a wealth of data and statistics to give us a clear view of the state of the upper echelons of the global community. This exhaustive approach can at times feel rather overwhelming, as though the first couple of chapters are just sieving data, but he gives us a very clear picture of the changing nature of the world (“while the rich are getting much richer, most everyone else – well, they are just treading water”).

Overall, this is a very good book. The book contains a different take on the class often looked at as if it were populated only by evil conspirators, tugging on the strings of politicians and markets to solely their own benefit (sadly, though, there are a few of those). If there is one fault with the book, it is that it’s a little slow to get going. There were a few times when I found myself muttering, “Get on with it!”, but by laying the groundwork at the beginning, for about 90 pages, Rothkopf sets the scene for a very interesting and readable book.

With a keen attention for detail, and a fair appraisal of the world as it is, Superclass is a very worthwhile read. While Rothkopf can’t resist putting his opinion on the Iraq War out there, he at least approaches it armed with data and statistics (matched by a lack of polemic) to explain why he believes it was a “spasm of national overreaction”.

Anecdotal, illuminating, exhaustively researched, and balanced, this is definitely a fascinating and recommended – even essential – book.

Also try: David Rothkopf, Running the World (2005), Robert Frank, Richistan (2008); Robert Reich, Supercapitalism (2007); Charles D. Ellis, The Partnership (2008); Kevin Philips, Wealth & Democracy (2002); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1988 - reprint); David Rothkopf @ Foreign Policy

Sunday, 15 March 2009

“The Godfather Doctrine”, by John C. Hulsman & A. Wess Mitchell (Princeton)


An unusual, original take on American Foreign Policy

John Hulsman and Wess Mitchell have taken perhaps the most unique approach to American foreign policy analysis I’ve ever come across. In this brilliant little book, they’ve taken Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather series as a parable or analogy for the three main foreign policy paradigms evident in America’s approach to international relations, and persuasively argue that America is in need of a change. Using each of Vito Corleone’s sons, they have identified the trends and use events from the movies to perfectly highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each son/ideology.

America in 2009 is “economically palsied, diplomatically isolated, and militarily exhausted,” while at the same time it is seeing a resurgent Russia, a strengthening China, and other upstarts flexing their muscles on the international stage. The movie, therefore, “given the present changes in the world’s power structure… becomes a startlingly useful metaphor for the strategic problems of our times.”

We first have Tom Harper, Vito’s adopted son and consigliere, whose approach to the world is nothing if not liberal institutionalist. He focuses on moderation and multilateralism, assuming every situation can be talked through. Sonny, on the other hand, is a dyed-in-the-wool neocon – seeing the world as something that needs to be re-shaped into how he believes it should be, resorting to violence at the drop of a hat. Hulsman and Mitchell argue that these two approaches to the world are limited and have naturally run their course, in part due to a “dangerous affection for the past” inherent in foreign policy elites. Tom’s multilateral approach (“We oughta talk to ‘em.”) is flawed because “a family policy, or a foreign policy, of merely using carrots suffices only in a world dominated by rabbits”; while Sonny’s brutish approach only helps harden resentments and opposition to the Family, deepening chasms and pushing allies and friends further away (neoconservatism has been “disastrous and must must be discarded”).

What America needs to do, they argue, is follow the example of Michael – the undoubted realist of the Corleone family. Taking an approach that deals with the world as it is, rather than how we wish it was, Michael uses a blend of sticks and carrots – applying force only when necessary, when diplomacy won’t bring the outcomes that best serve the interests of the Family. The authors argue this is the approach that is needed today. While easily pointing out the weaknesses of liberal institutionalism and neoconservatism, they do not ignore Realism’s shortcomings. However, while the first two paradigms (according to the authors) suffer from problems inherent within the theories themselves, realism suffers more from problems inherent with the theorists and practitioners of realism. They consider themselves aloof and apart from others, creating a club- or clique-like atmosphere. Instead, Hulsman and Mitchell argue, “Realism, like Shakespeare, must be for everyone.”

In the final chapter, the authors defend their approach, and answer some of the criticism that they’ve received (the book started as an article in the National Interest journal). In response to those who argue they’ve not produced an academic piece, they rightly come back with the defense that it was “never intended as an academic treatise or primer on International Relations theory,” and that one aim of the book was “to get away from the inaccessible postulates of theory”, and instead to “connect with a mass audience around the very different idea of looking at worldviews of those who directly guide the future course of the country.” In this regard, the authors have succeeded entirely.

The Godfather Doctrine is a brilliant piece of work. It is an entertaining, informative, different and accessible look at the paradigmatic debate surrounding American foreign policy. In some ways, this is exactly what was needed at this time in this field, and I recommend it to everyone. Its compact length (a mere 82 pages) makes it a quick read if you want something different and less academic in tone, but still intelligently written; and the use of The Godfather analogy is inspired and ensures a higher level of interest and entertainment than almost all other books on foreign policy would provide a casual reader.

In a word: Superb.

Also try: G. John Ikenberry et al., The Crisis of American Foreign Policy (2009); Matthew Yglesias, Heads In The Sand (2007); Zbigniew Brzezinski, Second Chance (2007); David E. Sanger, The Inheritance (2009)

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

“Defusing Armageddon”, by Jeffrey T. Richelson (W.W. Norton)


“Inside NEST, America’s Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad”

Most books about nuclear weapons range from those prophesying impending nuclear doom, or focus on the science and politics of creating and maintaining a nuclear arsenal. Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the US’s National Security Archive, has taken a different approach.

After a short introduction detailing nuclear catastrophe on American soil in the realms of film and popular fiction (which, in itself, was very interesting), the book starts in the mid-20th Century, when growing intelligence concerns over the possibility that the Soviet Union might smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States. Coupled with a number of other events of the time, Richelson looks at how this led to the creation of a special team of scientists and technicians tasked with keeping the country safe from any potential nuclear threat (domestically-situated or otherwise). The author explains and describes how the team was utilised to sniff out potential bomb threats during America’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976, and also the 2008 Beijing Olympics; as well as other instances around the United States (e.g. Las Vegas and New Orleans), and also Canada.

This is a fascinating book, and an illuminating read. It covers every aspect of NEST: from their various deployments (as mentioned above) and the risks its members/employees take, to the exotic equipment they use (e.g. “automated tether-operated manipulator” and “high-speed liquid abrasive cutters”), and Richelson also looks at the impact of 9/11 on NEST, and also at some controversial programs it has recently undertaken (such as the covert surveillance of certain Muslim websites in the US).

Having taken a different approach to the world of nuclear weapons, Richelson has written an engaging history of America’s secret team of nuclear bomb specialists. Meticulously researched and written in a semi-journalistic style, the book is a rewarding and enjoyable read.

Defusing Armageddon is a refreshing alternative to other, more common-themed books on nuclear weapons and proliferation.

Also try: Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly (2008); Graham Allison, “The Nuclear Detectives” (Newsweek, March 14th 2009)

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

“The Silence of the Rational Center”, by Stefan Halper & Jonathan Clarke (Basic Books)

HalperClarke-SilenceOfRationalCentre “Why American Foreign Policy is Failing”

This book is already a couple of years old, I know, but I’ve just finished it and, like Stephen Ambrose’s The Rise to Globalism, I believe it is a book that belongs on the shelves of all US foreign policy scholars and enthusiasts. The Silence of the Rational Centre is an accessible book about perceived failings of America’s foreign policy establishment and culture. The authors discuss a number of factors currently holding the US back from producing proper policies: for example, the tradition of focusing on “Big Ideas” to formulate foreign policy (the authors briefly outline how this has developed through American history), and how this detracts from actually creating a proper, timely approach to current international issues and crises.

Each issue is dealt with individually, in its own chapter. The authors look at the importance of political elites (government officials, elected representatives, and former officials), the media, think tanks, and academic elites and how they all affect foreign policy formulation. Halper and Clarke are particularly hard on academics who succumb to the lure of television, altering their approach and so forth to match the “infotainment” nature of today’s news broadcasting, as well as those they put in the “Anti-American” camp; this includes Noam Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson, who appear to subscribe to the notion that no bad thing can happen in the world that isn’t caused by America. (The authors are particularly disappointed with Johnson, as his expertise in East Asia is considerable, if his approach is ill-advised and unproductive). Everything is tied together in the “Acid Test” chapter, in which China is used as a case study for further evidence of policy inadequacy (this was certainly the best chapter of the book).

Written in a highly accessible way, with the occasional, light touch of perplexed humour, The Silence of the Rational Center is a brilliant critique of the foreign policy establishment and how they each affect the other to create a dumbed-down and ultimately counterproductive range of policies. The authors are particularly critical of those who should know better (the media, and especially academics like Samuel Huntington and Graham Allison, for example), but they explain why these elites are failing the nation as a whole, rather than just taking issue because they happen to be a Democrat or Republican. Their arguments are sensible, and the authors always recognise if their own proposals are not perfect; their main argument is that the culture of foreign policy in the states needs to change, in order to meet the challenges of the future. This can sometimes take the form of looking back, as in the case of intelligence: “The lessons of the past have value, if we are to get the intelligence service we need.”

Devoid of polemic or ideological bias, well argued and clearly written, this book is essential.

Friday, 6 March 2009

“The China Diary of George H.W. Bush”, Edited by Jeffrey A. Engel (Princeton)


A fascinating account of George H.W. Bush’s time in China

Reviewing a diary is a bit of a strange proposition, but The China Diary offers a great deal of insight into the 41st President’s time as Special Envoy to China, and is written in a very accessible, engaging way.

George Bush went to China in 1974, a time when China and the United States were only just starting to get to know each other again, after a period of estrangement (due to Cold War ideological hostilities). The China Diary is a fascinating look at one of the most formative periods of Bush’s political and diplomatic career, and also a personal-level account of this most important periods of Sino-American relations.

Filled with honest, personal reflections on events of the day, and people he met. We are told about Bush’s frustrations in trying to engage China’s leadership in diplomatic dialogue. We get to know a little more about Bush’s feelings towards some of the key players in the region (Deng Xiaoping) and American politics of the time (Ford, Rumsfeld, and the “ever-difficult” Kissinger). Bush writes about detente, Vietnam, tensions in the Middle East, and even the apparent decline of the United States (which is ironic, given that his son’s presidency has resulted in a tsunami of literature suggesting the nation is in a steep decline).

It offers insights and further understandings, on a personal scale, too. Other than the important, crucial political events of the time, Bush tells us about his own feelings, experiences and opinions on everything from Chinese cuisine, the Chinese people, exploring Beijing on his bicycle (with its “Texas George” plate), his language lessons, to, of course, Ping-Pong.

Engel does a brilliant job, providing passages of historical context and footnote annotations, to set the scene and allow for a wider understanding of what Bush is writing, as well as placing Bush’s experiences in the wider context of his overall career. As someone interested in both the US-China relationship, and also the personalities of the American presidents, this is an invaluable book. It should also hold interest for the general reader, too, with Bush’s lively descriptions and his take of certain events. His opinions on Chinese and American officials are particularly interesting, as are his experiences with Chinese life and the country as a whole.

Engaging, insightful, and accessible, this is a fascinating book, and certainly one of the most interesting published about the 41st President.

Very highly recommended.

Also try: George H.W. Bush, All The Best, George Bush (2001); Timothy Naftali, George H.W. Bush (2007); Derek Chollet & James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars (2008); Margaret MacMillan, Seize the Hour (2007)

Thursday, 5 March 2009

“Putting Our House In Order”, by George P. Schultz & John B. Shoven (W.W. Norton)


Following an election which, in part, focused on proposals for reforming America’s largest entitlement programs – Social Security and Medicaid, and a new president who has spoken often and forcefully about his plans to reform these programs, Putting Our House In Order offers an agenda for getting these programs solvent.

Taking a look at plans already on offer by legislators, academics and pundits, Shultz and Shoven chart a potential course to provide livable-income to the elderly and universal access to affordable healthcare. Given that, when discussing the state of the American economy, the cost of these entitlements are considered to be the largest and potentially disastrous fiscal commitments, Schultz and Shoven argue that it is essential for these problems to be solved. Couple this with the simple fact that people are living longer, it is incredible that more progress has not been made to make these programs sustainable.

The authors don’t offer guarantees or even final solutions, but rather “to help find a way to make progress on this most important problem.” Little attention is paid to other nations who have managed to create successful, affordable healthcare systems, and the authors certainly subscribe to the Republican “government should get out of the way” ideology. They rightly point out that the “staggering” costs of the programs mean “inaction is not an option”, and indeed that reforms are long overdue; the poor accounting for the fund is another issue that the authors touch upon. Some suggestions also don’t really make a whole lot of sense. For example, why raise the tax that pays for Social Security (FICA), but put the money in a separate account? Why not put it into Social Security? It seems a bit pointless to create all the extra paperwork and administration that would likely end up costing even more. With the current state of the stock market, it’s unlikely that personal-/single-payer accounts will receive much support – why tie your social security money to something that’s not performing very well at the moment (though, sure, I believe it will recover, eventually). The voucher system proposed for Medicaid isn’t a bad idea, but I can’t see it being feasible in the long run. I admit, this might be because my understanding of the various taxation and financing systems discussed are way beyond my Social Science-educated mind… (This might explain why I’ve been stumped by the above two examples – happy to be put right.)

For those interested in, and well-read on the subject, Putting Our House In Order will provide an interesting alternative text to use, with some interesting propositions and a measured argument. For those interested in the subject, but without much current knowledge, this book will work as an introduction to various issues and perspectives already floating around the political world. It’s a wonkish book, which makes it a bit too dense for the casual reader, but there’s still plenty in here that will get you thinking.

A cautiously optimistic book, whether you agree with the authors or not, it’s worth a read.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

“The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News”, by Jeffrey E. Cohen (Princeton University Press)


A detailed look at the changing relationship between the US Executive Branch and the ever-growing, ever-hungry media

In this interesting book, Cohen attempts to understand and analyse the changing status of the news media (predominantly the mainstream network news) and its influence and interactions with the American presidency. One of Cohen’s main questions: “How has the change in the news media from the broadcast to new media age affected the relationship between the president and the mass public?” Cohen is primarily interested in “attempt[ing] to understand why news has lost its ability to affect public attitudes toward the presidency.”

The book starts with an explanation of how things have changed, using three presidential scandals (Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky) to show the changing nature of media influence (how it does not affect public attitudes toward the president as much as it once did), how “public regard for the media has eroded”. What follows is broken down into manageable, well-structured chapters on a number of related topics: the decline in political news coverage (usurped by overtly partisan and opinionated programming); presidential news in the New York Times; the increased negativity of presidential coverage (using data from 1980-1999 and more contemporary analysis); the decline in public news consumption (at least from traditional sources like newspapers and broadcast network news); and the erosion of the public’s regard for news media and why this has happened. In his conclusion, Cohen brings this all together by looking at what this all means for the Presidency and also American democracy.

This is an interesting book that fits nicely in with, and adds considerably to the current debate about the future of the media (particularly the print media) in this age of growing connectivity and a new president who has a habit of going over the heads of the mainstream media and straight to the public.

Jeffrey Cohen has written a useful appraisal of how the American media and Presidency interact. The book is written in an academic tone, but Cohen’s coverage of important events (not to mention Presidential scandals) adds content that the reader will either be able to relate to, find interesting, or at least remember. He covers the decline of influence of the mass media, as partisanship and agendas crowd out objective reporting, and what this means for presidents (focus on ‘the base’, special interests, etc.) and the media (audience stats, advertising revenue, etc.). He offers interesting insights and observations throughout; using extensive data (from previous surveys and his own research), the author writes an interesting, intelligent analysis of the media’s changing position in American society and politics. Perhaps what is missing is some analysis of the effect of shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which, according to some surveys, are increasingly the go-to source for presidential news for younger generations. It would have been interesting to see this featured more prominently in Cohen’s coverage and research.

Overall, this is a good (if slightly dry) read with plenty to offer academics, students and casual readers alike.

More on Media’s ‘Decline’: Paul Starr, “Goodbye To The Age of Newspapers” (The New Republic, March 4th 2009); TNR Editors, “MSM RIP” (The New Republic, March 4th 2009); Gabrial Sherman, “The Scoop Factory” (The New Republic, March 4th 2009); James Fallows, “Why Americans Hate The Media” (The Atlantic, February 1996); Walter Lippmann, “The Job of the Washington Correspondent” (The Atlantic, January 1960); David Halberstam, “The Power & the Profits” (The Atlantic, January 1976)