Friday, 30 October 2009

“SuperFreakonomics”, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (Allen Lane)

Levitt&Dubner-SuperFreakonomicsThe follow-up to mega-selling and revolutionary Freakonomics

Freakonomics took the publishing world by storm in 2005, when it wormed its way onto pretty much every bestsellers’ list, selling over four million copies in thirty-five languages. It was the first book on economics I’d ever read (I’m a slow starter), and I was completely blown away by it. The authors’ approach, to me, was highly original, accessible and interesting. Therefore, when I found out that a second book in the series was coming out, I eagerly prepared myself to be impressed all over again.

SuperFreakonomics, as can be expected, unearths a number of freaky things in the economic realm, and the authors treat us to their opinions and observations on a broad spectrum of subjects. For example, they delve into the economics of prostitution (sometimes it pays to have a pimp); the ‘truth’ about terrorists’ socio-economic origins (it’s not what you think); grading your doctors is unfair (though they were also to blame for a lot of disease and death in the 19th Century); they explain their attraction to the idea of their LoJacked cars being stolen; why scarecrows work on humans, too; and other things. In fact, the chapter titles aren’t entirely indicative of what is contained in any given chapter – the authors sometimes come across as suffering from a mild case of ADHD, as chapters seemingly flit from one topic to another – Dubner and Levitt do, however, manage to tie off pretty much everything by the end of each chapter.

By far the most interesting chapter is the one that covers the economics of prostitution. Once again, as in Freakonomics, the authors have taken a look at what Sudhir Venkatesh has been up to. This rogue sociologist (also of Harvard) and author of Gang Leader for a Day (also published by Penguin) has this time been looking into the economics involved in Chicago’s prostitution sector. “wages are determined in large part by the laws of supply and demand, which are often more powerful than laws made by legislators”, which goes a long way to explaining why prostitutes in 1910 Chicago were able to make so much money: the “butterfly girls” at the Everleigh Club could earn as much as $430,000 annually (in today’s money). Today, however, perhaps due to the evolution of sexual mores, wages have been decreasing (pre-marital sex is now a viable alternative to prostitution for horny young men).

To refer back to the socio-economic origins of terrorists, the authors show how the belief that poverty breeds terrorists is not actually accurate. Through a lot of evidence and observations (always careful to highlight that they are inferring conclusions, not ‘proving’ them), they show that middle class educated men are more likely to become terrorists than poor people (who have more important things to worry about, like getting food). They show, in other words, that

“the kind of person most likely to become a terrorist is similar to the kind of person most likely to… vote. Think of terrorism as civic passion on steroids.”

This brings me to the storm of criticism that has been swirling about the internet concerning Levitt and Dubner’s chapter about climate change. Many experts, economists, and pundits in general have weighed in on the issue (see here, here, here, and heretold you there was a lot), to which any comment from myself would be insufficiently educated. While the chapter is fine and pretty well researched, it doesn’t have quite the impact of previous chapters. If I hadn’t read plenty of other stuff about the content, I probably would have been none-the-wiser; over the course of two books I have come to trust Levitt & Dubner’s instincts and research.

The book’s not perfect, as a couple of the chapters lag a bit, or go on for a little too long; the section about car-seat safety, for example, while interesting, felt a little repetitive, while the chapter about climate change flitted to grand theft auto (the crime, not the game). As mentioned above, too, they aren’t always as diligent as one might hope when it comes to discussing political hot-button issues like climate change.

One could write an almost endless review of this book (and its predecessor), but here are the things that are most important to know, regardless of whether or not you are in a position to agree or disagree with their findings and observations:

1. SuperFreakonomics is an engrossing and highly entertaining book.

2. It will make you rethink some existing biases and common-wisdom you perhaps take for granted, in an open, intelligent and accessible way.

Highly recommended.

Also try: Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics (2005); Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader for a Day (2008); Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Point (2002) & Outliers (2008)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

“Inventing the Job of President”, by Fred I. Greenstein (Princeton University Press)

Greenstein-InventingTheJobOfPresident

How the First Seven Presidents Approached their Duties and Invented the Job of President

Known for his excellent examination on presidential leadership, The Presidential Difference, which looks at the leadership style and characters of the presidents from FDR to George W. Bush, Fred I. Greenstein has turned his attention to the start of the American Experiment, taking a look at the first seven Chief Executives: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson.

Greenstein argues, based on his extensive research into all things presidential, that “the matter of who happens to be president of the United States has sometimes had momentous consequences.” To show this, he evaluates each of these presidents

“in terms of his strengths and weaknesses in public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, policy vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence.”

“This book examines presidential leadership in a period… when the actions of chief executives had a bearing on the fate of the American experiment in popular government.” The first seven presidents also “served in a time when the sketchy description of the presidency in the Constitution gave the chief executives imperfect guidance on their responsibilities, leading their conduct of the presidency to depend heavily on their personal inclinations.” This meant that each of these seven presidents were conscious of the fact that their actions in office could well have lasting and important consequences – this was especially the case for George Washington, who was working in thus-far entirely new territory: even the “many things which appear of little importance in themselves” (in Washington’s words), “may have great and durable consequences” for his successors.

Today, presidents are staffed by the considerable bureaucracy of the Executive Office of the President, while the first seven presidents “had little or no staff assistance”, with the members of the cabinet fulfilling the role presidential advisers. The cabinet itself was a smaller outfit, too: today there are 22 members on Obama’s cabinet, while at the very beginning, Washington had by a Secretary of State (Thomas Jefferson), Secretary of War (Henry Knox), Secretary of the Treasury (Alexander Hamilton), and an Attorney General (Edmund Randolph).

Communication was of particular importance in these times and often relied on “patronage-subsidized administration newspapers that played a central part in early presidential public communication”. For the Federalist faction, this was the Gazette of the United States. What is interesting is to consider the “virulence of political discourse” in the early Republic: “contemporary political rhetoric is bland by the standards of an era when political opposition was not accepted as legitimate, much less constructive.” This was a time when dueling was still commonplace (Andrew Jackson was notorious for his duels, long-suffering from a shoulder wound), and not infrequently did members of Congress come to blows in the House Chamber.

Equally, all seven of these president “paid lip-service to the ideal of transcending politics”, but to varying degrees each one “also did what they deemed politically necessary to respond to the realities of a divided nation in a conflict-ridden world”, not to mention whatever they saw as in their own interests with regards to re-election and improving the lot of their supporters and political faction.

The book is organised into easily-digestible, short chapters, all of which follow a similar format, with clear conclusions under the evaluation-criteria at the end of each chapter. This makes the book an excellent, easily used reference book; however, coupled with the shortness of the volume (a mere 103 pages, not including notes, etc.), it does mean the readability suffers. That the author has gone favoured brevity is certainly a welcome departure from much presidential scholarship, however this has the adverse effect of making his conclusions sometimes come across as only half-supported, or arrived at through cherry-picked facts and/or sources.

That being said, the author does make use of plenty of contemporary sources – including the opinions of these men held by the others of the seven; for example, Jefferson’s opinion of Washington that, while a durable and prudent man, his opinions and policies were “little aided by invention or imagination”.

Some will be disappointed that there aren’t really any surprises in the book – Washington was virtuous and is portrayed like a God among men (of course); Jefferson went downhill in office, as he focussed to much on abstractions; the “anticlimactic” presidency of James Madison; and the two Adamses were ineffective and bumbling presidents, the victims of their temperaments and, for the younger, the circumstances of his election, while the elder is referred to as the “Absentee President”. Monroe comes across very well, which I agree with, and it makes a nice change for this to be recognised. All these presidents were different in their characters and approach to the Executive Office, performing at different levels of efficiency and political aptitude. For someone interested in the presidency, this book was certainly an interesting read and addition to my ever-expanding library.

Greenstein does an excellent job of providing short biographies of each president covered, as well as placing their presidencies into the context of their times, making this book a no-nonsense guide to the characters of these seven presidents, and an examination of the characteristics that the author believes served them well and poorly during their time in office.

An interesting addition to the study of the presidency, I would recommend Inventing the Job of President along with the books listed, below.

Additional Reading: Fred I. Greenstein, The Presidential Difference (3rd Edition, 2009); Morton Keller, America’s Three Regimes (2007); Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power (1991); James David Barber, The Presidential Character (2008); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2006); Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers (2000); Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Imperial President (2004)

Saturday, 24 October 2009

“Riches Among The Ruins”, by Robert P. Smith (Amacom)

Smith&Zheutlin-RichesAmongTheRuins

One man’s adventures in the Dark Corners of the Global Economy

Riches Among the Ruins has quite an opening line: “On a single day in 1998, I lost $15 million in the ruins of the Russian economy.”

Described by Forbes magazine as the Indiana Jones of international finance, Robert Smith has lived an incredibly exciting life for a bond trader. In Riches Among the Ruins, he offers his memoir of his international travels and adventures (sometimes, there’s really no other word that can be used for his experiences) in Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nigeria, Iraq, and Russia (not approached chronologically in the book). He finishes the book with an objective appraisal of the state of the US economy and also its future promise (which he thinks it has).

He favours Forbes’s nickname as apt because, “Indiana Jones searched for riches among ancient ruins. I search for riches among modern-day economic ruins.” (Rather than this statement coming across like some deluded sense of cool and grandeur, the author makes no attempts to convey this as anything other than someone delighted to be given a cool nickname.)

“For more than thirty years, I have made my living by creating a market for sovereign debts of governments in what are often called, sometimes euphemistically, emerging markets or, sometimes third-world countries.”

Smith has a great, self-deprecating sense of humour, frequently painting his earlier forays into the new and frequently dodgy developing nation sovereign bond market as the actions and posturing of someone clearly in over his head. From his attempts to be threatening and menacing in his first meeting with his money-contact in El Salvador (when, really, the other guy could just have easily had him killed, quietly and efficiently, rather than go into business with Smith). Considering he spends two pages outlining the long history of violence in the small country, his posturing could be seen as suicidal. But, he adds:

“The murder and mayhem went on and on, which is why El Salvador in the mid-1980s was such a perfect place to do business.”

His approach to the business was pretty basic: he went where the big players wouldn’t dream of going. “Your typical banker isn’t keen on to stay in hotels where foreigners are shot, or to work in office buildings that are blown up”, all of which make the risks far too high for larger corporations. But for Smith, “a solo practitioner in a $99 seersucker suit from Filene’s Basement and a bad toupee, the risk of life and limb was lower and the returns, which looked like the five-cent deposits on soda cans to Citibank, looked pretty good.”

“I’ve made and lost tens of millions of dollars by investing in the world’s most derelict and downtrodden economies”, competing with and confronted by war, revolution, rampant inflation, corruption and graft, in “economies battered by bullets and bandits”.

Sometimes the language use can be a bit over-done, or stretched, particularly when it comes to metaphors: Smith says he “surf[s] the perilous tsunamis” of global capitalism,

“and the view of this books is sometimes from the crest of a tsunami. But because I… am human and prone to irrational exuberance from time to time…, sometimes my perspective is from the beach, after the wave has crashed ashore, leaving me bedraggled, alone, and a good deal poorer.”

Smith’s adventures and stories give us a glimpse of a man at the forefront of globalization, chasing money and his dreams of travel (you really get a sense of his wanderlust throughout the book) into regions the big banks would ignore as too risky or worthless. From his experiences (and not a little hindsight), Smith can see how globalization was on the rise in these regions, and he saw first-hand the ways in which people can affect the global economy even without the input or interference from governments.

As for the future, Smith’s prognosis is positive: “the United States, for all its economic problems, is and will remain a stable and relatively predictable place to invest, create a business, and thrive,” cautioning also that the US government must start paying more attention to, and expend more energy addressing, the growing gap between the rich and poor.

“My trading days are over. The globalization of the market and the availability of information rapidly transmitted electronically has made the business much less lucrative than it used to be… But it was a hell of a run, filled with vibrant characters and cochamamy schemes that, even today, seem incredible, even though I thought up some of them myself.”

It does indeed seem to have been quite a ride, and Riches Among the Ruins is a brilliant account of Smith’s travels, with his experiences vividly and engagingly realised on every page, and filled with the knowledge and wisdom he has accumulated over his career. His affection and fascination with different people and civilisations is clear, and you can’t help but be swept up (even a little) by his enthusiasm for his work.

Books about economics are very rarely engaging, entertaining and informative. This manages to be all three and more. It seems bizarre to have got so much enjoyment out of reading it.

Very highly recommended indeed.

Monday, 19 October 2009

“The Murder of Lehman Brothers”, by Joseph Tibman (Brick Tower Press)

Tibman-MurderOfLehmanBros A first-hand, personal account of the demise of Lehman Brothers and what caused it

There are now so many books on the market that discuss the demise of Lehman Brothers (LB). For any new volume to stand out, something special is needed, beyond the quality of research or writing style. According to Tibman, the purpose of his book is “to tell you what it was like within the belly of the beast, during the unimaginable unfolding of events at my office-home that have indisputably impacted the world”, to “tell the tale from an intensely personal perspective”. The author is actually writing under a pseudonym, choosing the name Joe because of the ubiquitous nature of similar names in connection to the 2008 Presidential Elections in the US (Joe-the-Everyman, and of course, Joe-the-Plumber). By writing anonymously, the author was afforded a good deal of freedom to write about events without harming any potential for future employment in finance and banking. His first-person perspective is the ace-in-the-hole for this volume, providing a connection with the events and the firm that is missing from the many other books on LB.

Before he gets to the events of 2007-8, Tibman first lays out a history of the firm. LB has a very long and storied life, not always tarnished by the events of 2008. Tibman says,

“while LB quite often stumbled, and ultimately crashed and burned, the firm did much that was good – not only for the bank accounts of its tabloid defamed rainmakers as well as its clerks (who I pray sold lots of their shares a couple of years ago), but for the development of business and commerce in our country. Of this, I am proud.”

Established in 1850 as a dry-goods business in Alabama, Lehman Brothers quickly morphed into a commodities trader, opening up an office in New York. Until 1969, the firm was always ruled by a member of the Lehman family, but following the death of the last, “dictatorial” Lehman brother, Bobbie Lehman, the firm was left in the hands of “commoners”. The author outlines Bobbie’s tenure as a time of considerable growth, innovative investment in a number of emerging industries, as well as “unparalleled, toxic infighting”.

In the second act of LB’s life, there was no clear dictatorial-style leader to step into Bobbie’s shoes, resulting in some considerable upheaval and a waning in LB’s stature. Pete Peterson, Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce, would help revive LB during his tenure as CEO (1973-1984), while his manner and demeanour alienated many of his staff, who found him insufferable and a snob. Peterson was succeeded by Lewis Glucksman, another storied employee, after he effectively ousted Peterson (who would go on to found the Blackstone Group). During this time, the infighting between investment bankers and traders continued to grow and fester further (indeed, it would not disappear until after 9/11).

This is also the time during which Dick Fuld, LB CEO upon its death, made a name for himself – as well as illustrating his desire to keep LB independent, voting against its sale to American Express in 1984, a position he would repeat “with Biblical consequences” a couple of decades later. AmEx would later decide that it couldn’t handle the cyclical nature of LB’s industry, and sell it off, with Dick Fuld at the helm. Tibman seems to have a mixed opinion of his former boss, the man sometimes referred to as “the Gorilla” for his tendency to communicate mainly through grunts – “He has puzzled, alienated, and at times impressed me, though I was more impressed by what I heard and read, not what I saw of him first hand.” Fuld was a strong leader in the vein of Bobbie Lehman, ruling with an iron fist and a fearsome reputation: “No one in the firm wanted to deliver bad news to Dick, fearing he would shoot the messenger, perhaps after disembowelling the poor soul.”

Tibman paints an interesting picture of the people he used to work with, as well as those in the same business at large: They are, basically, a bunch of jocks with money. “We became, in our minds, invincible... In hindsight, we were also like a teenager who believes he will live forever.” Each seems to be attempting to out-bravado the next, and this is true between firms, as well as employees. Also, post-9/11, the firm adopted a patriotic need to “deal the terrorists a fuck you”, as the author puts it, putting a patriotic sheen to the driven capitalism that infused the firm and its employees (this is the only time the author submits to schmaltz). However, despite this need to succeed for America, in this “rarefied world” of business, “what matters most is this year’s bonus... at times we capitulated to faulty, flawed judgement.”

“when these lapses occur, we are often found rationalising that the great risk inherent in contemplated business is a trifle. When the lucid point this out, we characterise them as buzz killers. It is this mentality that sometimes leads to disaster.”

And so the seeds for LB’s destruction were sown. Many column inches and pages have been written about the subprime mortgages and “collateralised debt obligations” that brought down the economic system in 2008. While I will freely admit to not entirely understanding it still, Tibman’s account and explanations went a long way to clearing some of the fog for me. At LB, it is clear to the author that only a small number of people among Lehman’s top executives were responsible for the ultimate decision to “accumulate a massive position in real estate assets at the very worst of times.” While there were many experienced voices who cautioned against this move, “in the end, it was the imprudent decision of a very few, deaf to rational internal misgivings, that would ultimately decide Lehman’s fate.”

Fuld, especially, comes across as reckless – on one hand telling guests at the January 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos that he was concerned about the real estate bubble, claiming that LB were reducing their risk and had “taken a bit of money off the table”. This, naturally, impressed his audience, but the truth was the opposite:

“Lehman was not reducing its exposure. Even in early 2007 with visible fissures in the housing market, Lehman was increasing its real estate holdings… in 2007, Lehman added $12 billion of commercial real estate exposure”

This is partly because Fuld had delegated the day-to-day running of the firm to others; particularly to Joe Gregory who “undiscouraged by Dick, did much to insulate, even separate the chief from what was happening at the firm.”

While there are plenty of vigorously researched, intelligent books on the death of Lehman Brothers, Tibman’s tome benefits from first-hand experience of the company since its inception. Another clear benefit of the book is that Tibman highlights the links between politicians in Washington and Wall Street, as well as their part in helping create the environment in which the 2008 crisis could happen. Tibman offers one of the most accessible accounts of the LB debacle, explaining why it was allowed to fold while other firms were bailed out (seems to have been a case of poor timing on LB’s part), and the various reasons the firm collapsed in the first place. Through liberal and frequent use of footnotes to explain important jargon, without ruining the flow of his narrative, Tibman has probably written the most user-friendly account of LB’s demise and guide to the economic collapse of 2008.

There are many who might find some of Tibman’s statements somewhat eyebrow-raising – how, for example, can someone who trumpeted the benefits of free-market capitalism so much, not to mention someone who worked where he did, have a moral makeover? Is it self-serving? Perhaps, but much of what he has written appears sincere and genuine, written with a welcome bluntness and honesty:

“The endgame was always money, and as much of it as possible, but not at any fucking cost. We were not choir boys, but I always thought we were far more scrupulous whores that those who filled the ranks of other investment banks.”

“I cannot pretend that every deal in which I was involved as an investment banker was driven by altruism. Not even close. Such a contention by any investment banker is pure oxymoron.”

The Murder of Lehman Brothers may not be the most objective account of LB’s death – nor does it pretend to be – but it is certainly one of the best available. Tibman’s honesty and writing style make this a refreshing addition to the growing body of literature on the 2008 Economic Crisis, and if you’re looking for something with a first-hand slant, then this is perfect. Accessible and an enjoyable read, I would certainly recommend this book to others.

Other books on Lehman Brothers & Economic Crisis:

Charles Morris, Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown (2009); William Cohen, House of Cards (2009); Lawrence G. McDonald, A Colossal Failure of Common Sense (2009); Vicky Ward, The Great Mistake (2009)

Sunday, 18 October 2009

“Physics for Future Presidents”, by Richard A. Muller (W.W. Norton)

Muller-PhysicsforPresidentsPbk

The physics behind the news, minus the politics

Richard Muller has done an excellent job of providing a science-for-laymen volume to explain the issues that are currently on the front page and at the forefront of our leaders’ minds. The author quotes Josh Billings to start things off and give some of the reasoning behind the need for a book like his:

“The trouble with most folks isn’t their ignorance. It’s knowin’ so many things that ain’t so.”

Separated into well-thought-out sections, Muller methodically goes through some of the key issues facing leaders today: terrorism, energy, nuclear weapons, space, and global warming. Each section has a chapter dealing with each of the main problems that make up the overall issue, in easily digestible chunks and (most importantly) in language that all non-scientists can understand and utilise (up to a point, obviously). Muller doesn’t go into the politics itself behind the issues, instead wishing to provide just the facts minus the opinions and biases of politicians and pundits. His aim was to cover “only the most essential facts and ideas, the key concepts that will help a president make better decisions”. This Muller has more or less done.

I have only a passing aptitude in physics and science (having long-ago succumbed to the pull of the arts and social ‘sciences’), but I found this book engaging and accessible – and, therefore, invaluable. As someone interested in, and writing on, US foreign policy, to know the science behind terrorist attacks, 9/11, nuclear weapons, space programs, and global warming (“a subject in which misinformation is as prevalent as truth”) – from the pen of an actual scientist, rather than a science journalist or politician – is invaluable.

Muller should be praised by all with an interest in the world today, and Physics for Future Presidents should not only be essential reading for future presidents, but all democratically-elected leaders and representatives. He bursts a few cherished ideas and biases, hoping that anyone wanting to be president (or reading the book) will be able to let go of them, accepting that reality is somewhat (if not completely) different from what they have come to accept as truth.

Unlike all of my physics teachers at school, Muller also asks that readers at least try to enjoy the subject matter – because too many people feel physics is stuffy, exclusive knowledge for brainiacs. Fine, some of the finer, more detailed theories will likely (and do) fly way over many people’s heads, but Muller’s book will help shed more light on topics that are relevant to us all, in a manner and style that is inviting and accessible to anyone who might actually pick up the book.

Highly recommended, this is an engaging, interesting and above all illuminating book on the science behind the headlines.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

“Why Not Socialism?”, by Gerald A. Cohen (Princeton University Press)

Cohen-WhyNotSocialism

A short, direct argument for socialism

In this short volume (it’s roughly the size of a passport), Gerald Cohen offers his moral argument for socialism, arguing that any obstacles in the way of socialism’s wider acceptance are exaggerated. Given the deadly nature of the very word “socialism” in America, it would be interesting to see what American politicians thought of this book. Needless to say, we are unlikely to ever find out.

Cohen opens with a theoretical scenario – one of a camping trip – offering a situation where people naturally need to work together, dividing labour and jobs equally. The question that needs to be considered is whether or not socialism is desirable or even possible?

Cohen’s argument is that the chief obstacle to socialism is not intractable human selfishness (as Hobbes, Machiavelli and others might argue). Rather, it is the lack of an obvious means to harness human generosity that is inherent in us all – because we don’t have a way to harness this generosity, society falls back to relying on the market to address pretty much everything.

To be honest, the book is perhaps too short to really convert many people or alter the overarching argument and discussion overly much. However, what this short volume can do is make those who hadn’t thought about it before get involved in the debate (should they want to).

It’s well written, very easy to read, but I felt the length somewhat dissatisfying, despite Cohen’s capturing the argument quite well (he had a lifetime of studying and theorising socialism, so anything less would have been unthinkable).

Worth a try, if you have a spare hour or so.

Monday, 12 October 2009

“The Clinton Tapes”, by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster)

Branch-ClintonTapes

A glimpse into the mind of a sitting President

In The Clinton Tapes, Taylor Branch has produced perhaps the most interesting book on the Clinton presidency (not to mention the man himself) thus far. Through a series of 79 late-night one-on-one interviews, Branch and Clinton recorded hours and hours of candid and honest discussion about issues that were troubling the President or just taking up his time.

Having once shared a flat with the Clintons while working on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, Branch shares some history with Bill, but was nevertheless surprised when the newly elected President approached him to take the post of his personal historian – or the new Arthur Schlesinger (perhaps America’s most famous and successful presidential historian). While the invitation certainly held its positives, Branch felt that their shared history would compromise the project:

“from the start, I would be considered partial to Clinton as his political colleague from long ago, and no ‘court history’ by me could earn much credit for either of us.”

Therefore, in order to avoid this situation, Branch agreed instead to share frequent one-on-one, contemporaneous interviews and conversations with the president, leaving all tapes with the President (who actually stored the tapes in his sock drawer) to do with as he saw fit. The tapes were intended to provide future historians with as honest, candid and unvarnished accounts of Clinton’s thinking as possible, while avoiding all the sticky legal issues that confronted former presidents with a penchant for recording things (Nixon, for example…) or keeping a diary.

Branch didn’t quite manage to avoid the semblance of partiality he was so concerned about when first offered the job. This book is quite clearly pro-Clinton. However, Branch does make no bones about this, accepting this as probably colouring his view and portrayal of his old friend and colleague. Equally, the author accepts that this is not a history per se, nor really a memoir, as it draws almost exclusively from a single perspective. The author believes this book is “a preview in close witness” to whatever might become of the Clinton tapes themselves. Clinton’s “stories enjoy the benefits of privacy, immediacy, and control, but not hindsight. They are revealing but not conclusive.” Despite this, The Clinton Tapes is easily one of the most interesting books on any American president I have ever read (and I’ve read rather a lot).

The range of topics the two friends covered is broad and wide-ranging. From politics to personal topics, Branch and Clinton managed to cover all the most important things in both the President’s life and also his job: the US intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo; the troubles of Supreme Court candidates; his difficulties in forming a connection with Jiang Zemin; a single oral history of Clinton’s recollections and feelings on the Whitewater investigation; his affair with Lewinsky (“I think I just cracked”), which was so frustrating for Branch; Boris Yeltsin’s drunken visit to the White House and his embarrassing nighttime quest for pizza; Clinton’s thoughts on the 2000 presidential election and his feelings for Al Gore; Osama bin Laden (a particularly interesting and revealing section); among many others.

As a journalist, it is understandable that Branch broached the subject of the Clintons’ relationship with and opinion of the press – it was notoriously poor, with both Clintons frequently lashing out with hostility towards a press they believed treated them badly, which in turn resulted in poor coverage. The Clinton Branch knew was not the one portrayed in the press, as “most images of Clinton collapsed into formula and hype, however pervasive. They were myths.” Rather, Bill Clinton was far more reflective and intellectually curious than anyone gave him credit for, and far less cynical than accused.

Branch’s prose are fluid and benefit from a journalistic style, making the book both deep and engaging, relatively quick-paced and accessible. While I would perhaps have swapped the order of chapters one and two, the book progresses in a logical and orderly fashion, mirroring somewhat the mindset and conversational style of the author and president’s meetings.

If there is one book on the Clinton Presidency you should own, I think this one just might be it. To compare with a couple of others: John Harris’s The Survivor is great, too, but The Clinton Tapes has great personal input from the subject along with concise context to properly locate events and quotes. Nigel Hamilton’s Mastering the Presidency might be highly detailed, but Branch’s book is far more readable and contains a significant amount of depth and detail while not allowing the reader to drown under the sheer weight of research. The greatest strength of this book is that Clinton’s thoughts were recorded at the time of the events (or near enough), which strips the benefit of much hindsight to colour his recollection.

Branch has retained an eye for accessibility to compliment the considerably ambitious scope of this book. The Clinton Tapes is excellent, and couldn’t come more highly recommended.

Also try: Bill Clinton, My Life (2005); John Harris, The Survivor (2006); David Halberstam, War In a Time of Peace (2003); Joe Klein, The Natural (2003); Sally Bedell Smith, For Love of Politics: The Clintons in the White House (2008); Sidney Blumenthal, The Clinton Wars (2004); George Stephanopolous, All Too Human (2000)

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

“The Kennedy Legacy”, by Vincent Bzdek (Palgrave MacMillan)

Bzdek-KennedyLegacy

Through the brothers, an examination of the Kennedy family’s impact on the US and its politics

The Kennedy Legacy is an unusual book, in that it examines this most famous family’s ‘legacy’ primarily from the perspective of the youngest brother, Teddy, rather than predominantly through the tragic figures of his brothers Jack and Bobby. Gary Hart once indelicately wrote,

“The way it worked was the old man would push Joe, Joe would push Jack, Jack would push Bobby, Bobby would push Teddy, and Teddy would fall on his ass.”

In The Kennedy Legacy, the author shows how Teddy went on to not only avoid falling on his ass, but enjoying a long, successful career in the Senate – some even might say it was, due its longevity, more successful than either Jack’s or Bobby’s. Bzdek’s intention is to show how each brother affected the others, while keeping an eye on Teddy’s place in each ‘era’, how he saw and interacted with his brothers and, ultimately, how he dealt with the heavy burden of carrying the Kennedy torch.

Each part of the book covers the time when a specific brother was the focus or vehicle of family patriarch Joseph Kennedy’s considerable ambitions (he once boasted of wanting to ‘beat’ the Adamses by having more than one son become President). With this approach in mind, the book is separated into the times when first Joe Jr., followed by Jack, Bobby, and finally Teddy bore the Kennedy mantle and family aspirations.

Before this, however, Bzdek offers a portrait of life in the Kennedy household. As someone who has not read that widely on the Kennedy family, I found this introductory chapter (“The Blowtorch”) to be interesting and very informative: Joe Sr and Rosemary Kennedy’s parenting style was quite marshal and very strict, with every family dinner coming across like a catered class or lecture in politics, debate, and history (complete with visiting speakers). These dinners were merely an extension of the aforementioned ambitions of the father.

“The intense pressure Joe Sr. put on his children to succeed was somewhat deflected by the older kids, allowing Ted and the other young ones to fly a little lower under the radar.”

Joe Kennedy Snr. was determined that his children would make a difference in the world and “be somebody”. He certainly got his wish on this account, as Bzdek outlines the achievements of all four of the Kennedy sons. He didn’t get his wish to ‘beat’ the Adamses, but he certainly helped create an enduring Kennedy dominance of Massachusetts and, to an extent, American national politics. (I haven’t gone into details here in the review as the Kennedys are such a highly-publicised family, I thought I’d stick with my opinions on the book itself.)

An interesting new approach to the Kennedy family and its place in US politics, this book compliments Teddy Kennedy’s posthumously-released memoir. Bzdek’s prose are clear and well-constructed, making for an interesting and pleasurable read. His use of extensive interviews with (and exhaustive research into) Kennedy family members and friends brings a good deal of first-hand opinions and memories of the brothers and the rest of the Kennedy clan. Each aspect of the Kennedys’ lives are covered, focusing of course on the political aspects of their careers. Teddy’s role in the family dynamic is well portrayed; the descriptions of his relationship with his brothers and how they interacted illuminating and also explanatory for some of the events and actions they undertook.

I don’t think I’d go so far as to describe this as ‘revelatory’ as, even though this is actually the first book I’ve read on the Kennedys, most of the content will likely be known already – even if only in passing or through other sources. It is, overall, complimentary and pro-Kennedy, which might disappoint people who would have preferred something a little more balanced. However, Bzdek does not shy away from detailing and discussing the more infamous aspects of Kennedy history, leaving it all on the page for readers to make their own decisions and draw their own conclusions – he reserves his more complimentary passages to Teddy’s senate career and his input and impact on Obama’s election campaign.

As an introduction to the Kennedys, this is a pretty good place to start. Bzdek shows how the brothers ‘passed the torch’ to each other, how their collective efforts have changed and shaped America, and also who might be the Kennedy’s torch-bearer now. It sounds arch, perhaps, and just a little too much like sycophancy, but really Bzdek does an excellent job, and The Kennedy Legacy was a very good read.

I would recommend it to anyone interested in US politics and, of course, the Kennedy family itself.

Also try: Teddy Kennedy, True Compass: A Memoir (2009); Peter Canellos, Last Lion: The Fa'll and Rise of Ted Kennedy (2009); Peter Collier, The Kennedys: An American Drama (2001); Richard D. Mahoney, Sons & Brothers: The Days of Jack and Bobby (2000); Laurie Kennedy, The Importance of Being Kennedy (2008); David Talbot, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (2008)