Tuesday, 25 May 2010

“Spoken From the Heart”, by Laura Bush (Simon & Schuster)

Bush-SpokenFromTheHeart The Former First Lady’s Story

Born in the boom-and-bust oil town of Midland, Texas, Laura Welch grew up as an only child in a family that lost three babies to miscarriage or infant death. She vividly evokes Midland’s brash, rugged culture, her close relationship with her father, and the bonds of early friendships that sustain her to this day. For the first time, she writes about the high school car accident that left her friend Mike Douglas dead and about her decades of unspoken grief.

When Laura left West Texas in 1964, she never imagined that her journey would lead her to the world stage and the White House. She began as an elementary school teacher, working in inner-city schools, then trained to be a librarian. At age 30, she met George W. Bush. Three months later, “the old maid of Midland married Midland’s most eligible bachelor,” joining one of America’s most prominent political families.

In 2001, she moved into the White House. She captures presidential life in the harrowing days and weeks after 9/11, when fighter-jet cover echoed through the walls and security scares sent the family to an underground shelter. It was a time that would also transform her role: Laura was one of the first US officials to visit war-torn Afghanistan; she reached out to disease-stricken African nations; tirelessly advocated for women in the Middle East and dissidents in Burma; she championed programs to get kids out of gangs and to stop urban violence.

In Spoken From The Heart, she reveals her public triumphs and personal tribulations and the story of real life inside the White House.

The early parts of the book, which cover Laura’s life in Midland, are interesting in their quaintness, not least in the considerable, stark difference to what her life as the wife of a governor and president would be. Her reminiscences and portraits of her parents are endearing – from her father’s love of gambling (though he was never a degenerate), to his cheeky respect for his mother’s opposition to alcohol:

“When Grandma Welch came to visit, Daddy would still drink, but out of deference to his mother, he poured his bourbon into a Coca-Cola bottle.”

She draws a picture of small-town Texan life that anyone might recognise from Friday Night Lights, where Friday night is football night; where close-knit families are the norm; the importance of oil to the Midland region; retail politics; race relations; and the fact that life is good, if sometimes hard. She even recalls the day JFK was assassinated: she was “sitting in my senior year History of Western Thought class at the precise moment when our own history shuddered and changed”.

My main issue with the pre-White House third of the book is that it can be somewhat repetitive, and could have been cut by a good 50 pages or so. That being said, this is only because Mrs. Bush seems uncomfortable or unwilling to go into much detail. The car accident mentioned in the synopsis, for example, is dealt with quite quickly and in a somewhat detached manner.

This, actually, is my main criticism of Spoken From the Heart: it has a rather detached air about it. For some reason, perhaps an innately reserved nature of the author herself, the biography feels disconnected, as if Mrs Bush is writing about someone else’s life. This is perhaps a little bit of an unfair characterisation, as Mrs Bush’s love for her family – particularly her daughters – is evident whenever she discusses them; as is her love of books and she writes nostalgically of her teaching years.

There is an interesting, if short and not particularly in-depth description of GWB’s decision to stop drinking. Clearly, Mrs Bush did not approve of GWB’s drinking, even while recognising that it was perfectly normal for a Texas male to drink as much as he – and their friends – did. She writes,

“when he’d poured enough, he could be a bore. Maybe it’s funny when other people’s husbands have had too much to drink at a party, but I didn’t think it was funny when mine did... I was disappointed. A I let him know that I thought he could be a better man.”

Mrs Bush seems to put less responsibility on Billy Graham’s influence (although he is mentioned) and more on the simple fact that GWB had grown up and generally matured on his own, taken on the responsibility of a family, and continued concerns about embarrassing his father.

Her life with George W. Bush (GWB) and as a member of one of America’s most famous and powerful families provides more interesting reading material, and this is when the memoir really kicks in. Almost as soon as they returned from their honeymoon in Cozumel, Mexico, GWB’s life in and around politics becomes a central part of her life – from the campaigns to her experiences as the daughter-in-law of a president and the wife of a governor and president. “We spent nearly a year on the road, and in many ways the bonds of our marriage were cemented in the front seat of that Oldsmobile Cutlass” that they travelled in during GWB’s campaign unsuccessful for Congress; this campaign was followed by George H.W. Bush’s two vice-presidential campaigns and two presidential campaigns, and then GWB’s gubernatorial campaigns and the contested presidential 2000 campaign. This latter could have been dealt with at more length – it was over rather quickly, and it would have been interesting to see another side of the tense months of the recount. Speaking of GWB’s decision to run for president, Mrs Bush was not an immediate convert:

“I had been late to sign on to his decision to run. Politics had turned ugly during his dad’s 1992 race with Bill Clinton. I had watched political opponents and the media draw the most hideous caricatures of George H.W. Bush until I barely recognised my own father-in-law. I believed in my George... and I knew he would be a great president. It was the process in which I had far less faith.”

This is a somewhat ironic statement, given the accusations thrown at the feet of GWB’s political team, most notably Karl Rove, of underhanded and unsavoury tactics used in, particularly the primaries (let’s not forget the smearing of John McCain in South Carolina) and also the general. This is not mentioned at all in Mrs Bush’s memoir.

It is after her marriage to GWB that she writes about her long-frustrated desire to have children, and the eventual affection and love she feels for her daughters is undeniable. The passages about her family come across as the most personal, and as a result are more interesting to read, and we get to know Laura Bush a little better. She also seems more animated when discussing her work on the Austin Book Festival and then the National Book Festival she founded in partnership with the Library of Congress.

There is plenty in Spoken From the Heart that is interesting, and certainly Laura Bush writes well and clearly. What disappointed me – beyond the slight detached air – is what will probably disappoint other political junkies: the first 130 pages or so are just a little bland, and don’t really contain anything we don’t already know. Mrs Bush sprinkles tangents throughout the book, many of which offer interesting asides and tidbits of information about life as a governor or as First Lady, and it is these little touches that offer the greatest value in the book – for example, the fact that being president is an expensive enterprise: from the First Lady’s wardrobe expectations to the itemised monthly bills for food and supplies at the White House (turns out, only ‘bed’ is provided, not ‘breakfast’). There are certain omissions, which made me think that perhaps Mrs. Bush was being overly careful when compiling the book. This was disappointing, as the potential for this book to properly pull back the curtain on the GWB presidency, to offer a full, alternative perspective on life in post-9/11 Washington, appeared considerable.

The events of and immediately after 9/11 are, of course, an interesting section. Here Mrs Bush offers her own perspective, of the general sense of paranoid anticipation, having to deal with sporadic alarms at the White House (being woken at the dead of night, told that they needed to leave because the White House was under attack). The confusion and fear of the time are ably portrayed, and all from an outside-yet-inside perspective that must have been particularly difficult to live through.

The author does discuss, in good detail, the life and expectations of being the First Lady – something it does not always seem that she was comfortable with. Indeed, in the near aftermath of GWB’s election in 2000, Laura had the sense that

“There was, from the start, an underlying assumption on the part of the press that I would be someone else when I assumed the role of First Lady, that I would not, under any circumstances, simply be myself.”

As First Lady, though, Laura did plenty of work with disadvantaged children and on women’s rights issues – in Africa, Afghanistan and also at home in the US. It is surprising, reading Spoken From the Heart, just how active she was during her husband’s presidency. It was inevitable that she would not receive much attention, considering the scandals – real and imagined – that surrounded the Bush administration, the War in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a multitude of other problems that have been written about seemingly ad infinitum. There were times when she was asked about certain policy decisions, and it is welcome that, even on some of the most hot-button Culture War issues in presidential politics, Mrs Bush is confident enough to voice her own opinion. For example, on abortion – which was prominent in the 2000 campaign, she writes (after suggesting adoption as a worthy alternative to be promoted but not pushed – a position I share, actually):

“We are a nation of different generations and beliefs, seeing issues through different eras and different eyes. While cherishing life, I have always believed that abortion is a private decision, and there, no one can walk in anyone else’s shoes.”

In the 2004 presidential campaign, the Culture War focus was Gay Marriage, and Laura writes how she “had talked to George about not making gay marriage a significant issue”, given the number of gay friends and the children of friends who were gay they knew. Unfortunately, John Kerry brought the issue into a presidential debate by mentioning Dick Cheney’s daughter, which hurt his campaign (even though what he said, indelicate and misplaced as it was, was completely logical and would have identified certain hypocrisies in staunch Culture War Republican positions).

Laura writes of how the discussions and “great debates” during her time at university were “sometimes with a bit of remove” – this is a little how I found the early parts of the memoir. That being said, this is not, really, meant to be a ‘political memoir’, and this is perhaps something I kept forgetting throughout reading it. If I’d kept this firmly in mind, then I would have realised sooner that what I mistook for detachment is really a lack of the ego that so often characterises even the best-meaning political memoirs.

If you’re expecting political revelations about the GWB administration, then this is not the best book for you to read. If, on the other hand, you are interested in learning a bit more about life behind the scenes, in the White House without being President, what it is like to exist in such a world (dealing with the history, responsibility, the pomp and ceremony, the expectations), the Spoken From The Heart is a well-written account of a First Lady’s life in the capital. It’s not exciting, but it is accessible and clearly written. Following in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s memoirs – her predecessor in the ‘position’ – it was always going to be difficult to live up to expectations. It is, actually, unfair to judge the two women’s writing on the same scale, so different are their personalities and ambitions, but it is an inescapable fact that they will be – just as Spoken From the Heart will be judged more as a book on the George W. Bush administration than it will a memoir of just Laura Bush.

A wary recommendation, then, largely dependent on what it is you are hoping to get out of such a memoir.


Thursday, 13 May 2010

“A Presidency in Peril”, by Robert Kuttner (Chelsea Green/Demos)

Kuttner-APresidencyinPeril The Inside Story of Obama’s Promise, Wall Street’s Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future

When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, he had an unprecedented chance to do what no other recent president could: seize the nation’s financial reins from the corporate elite and return them to the American people. Progressives everywhere held out hope that their new leader would take advantage of the economic crisis he stepped into and enact bold policies that would evoke real financial reforms-putting Main Street in front of Wall Street, at last.

But that is not the way things turned out. Instead, America’s best chance for radical financial reform turned into Wall Street’s greatest victory. Obama filled his administration with allies of financial elites who were more interested in business as usual than in transformative change. As a consequence, Main Street remained mired in deep recession. Instead of being the instrument of economic renewal, Obama became the target of economic frustration.

Kuttner shares an unique, insider view of how the Obama administration not only missed its moment to turn our economy around, but deepened Wall Street’s risky grip on America’s future. Carefully constructing a one-year history of the problem, the players, and the outcome, Kuttner gives readers an unparalleled account of the president’s first year. More importantly, though, Kuttner shows how we could – with swift, decisive action – still enact real reforms.

This is a book not to be missed by anyone who wants to understand exactly how Wall Street won, and how Main Street can still fight back.

It is almost unfortunate that this book was published when it was – just before the latest Goldman Sachs scandal and the debate it has spawned. Fury over the “the hegemony of Wall Street” (Kuttner’s words) are rife, and populist anger appears to be driving the policy debate. What’s needed is a more measured (dare I say it, “academic”) approach to Wall Street regulation. Is Kuttner’s book the place to look for it?

From the introduction, it is clear that Kuttner is not about to present a biased, laudatory account of Obama’s first couple of years in office. Far from it, the author pulls no punches, and clearly views the Obama presidency thus far a disappointment:

“Obama was poised to create a new majority coalition, built on the premise that rapacious private finance had to be contained so that the rest of America could thrive.

“But history has a way of playing tricks, and this hopeful scenario in not the way Barack Obama’s first year unfolded.”

Continuity between administrations is far more common than outright change – or, at the very least, new administrations will eventually assimilate certain practices from their predecessors as they come to believe they are the best practices. For Kuttner, however, Obama has not maintained his promises to be an agent of, or for, change, and the continuities with Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s administrations are troubling:

“Our story charts the stages of this business-as-usual political path – from Obama’s appointment of an economic team filled with Wall Street insiders and their allies, to the seamless continuation of Bush’s financial policies, to the systematic sidelining of fundamental financial reform”

Obama’s Economic Team

The author spends the first proper chapter (‘The Politics of Capture’) to the people who came to dominate Obama’s exonomic team and, by extension, his policies. Kuttner details the evolution and changes within Obama’s economic advisory team – from the campaign up until taking office, when his team had morphed to comprise the Democratic economic stalwarts – most connected, in some way, to Robert Rubin, and all connected to Wall Street. Indeed, Rubin – the “Kingmaker” of Democratic economics – is particularly singled out as a considerable, negative influence (something Jacob Weisberg has written recently about, here), and Kuttner argues (convincingly) that he “personifies the capture of much of the Democratic Party by Wall Street”. Not only did Rubin push appointments for his protégés and compatriots with the Obama administration, but he hedged his bets by also pushing them on the Clinton candidacy (Larry Summers, it seems, would have been hired by either administration, for the same position). The result of this is that, “instead of the team-of-rivals model that Obama had often invoked, Obama hired a team of Rubins.”

The “capture” by Wall Street, and the power and influence of those on Wall Street (particularly its eminence gris), are indicative of the troublesome state Obama is presented with:

“Obama felt he needed men like Rubin and Summers for tutelage, access, and validation. That itself speaks volumes about where power reposes in America.”

In this first chapter, Kuttner outlines the professional histories, and inherent conflicts of interests, of all the key players: Rubin, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Rahm Emanuel, and Ben Bernanke (not to mention the others who orbit such characters).

Each of these appointees came with significant baggage. For example, the multitude of scandals as President of Harvard University and his “checkered past” were “more than sufficient” to persuade Obama’s political team that Summers was “not an acceptable risk for Senate confirmation.” Unfortunately, this “did not give much pause to the premise that Obama should put Summers in charge of America’s economic policy,” and the centre for economic decision making was moved to the NEC, which Summers now heads. Even Tim Geithner, who is largely approved of in government and on Wall Street, was not untainted by scandal; this time for not paying certain taxes for four years running. As Kuttner writes,

“Of all people who should know better than to chisel on taxes owed, the Treasury Secretary – the nation’s top tax-collector – should be above reproach.”

Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s pitbull Chief of Staff, is not held in high regard, basically accused of being a lapdog of Wall Street and a divisive character whose “operating style was viciously partisan”, and yet still someone the media seem to have conveyed acceptability and a ‘quaintness’ onto through his association with Obama (the epitome of a media-darling president, whether you believe it deserved or not).

Two Cheers for Muddling Through

Kuttner frequently provides historical perspective and comparisons with key events and presidential activism (specifically: Lincoln, FDR, JFK and LBJ), explaining that a president must harness popular movements to push policy and reform. Where before presidents have been able to draw on activist populations and movements, Obama is faced with a different political and social environment:

“Today,… there is a gross political imbalance in which elites are mobilized and ordinary people are frightened and sullen, but mostly passive.”

The author’s belief in Obama’s ability to face the problems ahead, and at least attempt to solve them, is still in place, although he is perfectly aware that it will not be an easy fight. However, in keeping with the historical comparisons and analogies, the author explains how it is “depressing… when one contrasts the boldness of Roosevelt with the timidity of Obama”. Effectively, Kuttner paints a portrait of a meek president, whose economic team ensure continuity with the old system, and thwart efforts of reform, regulation, and therefore progress.

Kuttner comes across as most disappointed by the continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations. After detailing the players involved, Kuttner goes on to describe the “continuity and collusion” in the system. The author describes the economic policy Obama inherited from the Bush administration as setting “the government on a path of propping up rather than cleaning out zombie banks or the system that bred them.” In another historical comparison, Kuttner explains how,

“in stark contrast with Roosevelt, who made a clean break with the old political and financial regime, Obama and his economic aides chose instead to work in concert with the Wall Street elite.”

The policy of favouring Wall Street over Main Street (to use the electoral parlance), is also continuing: “The Bush administration made the fateful decision to give primary reflief to banks, not to homeowners. Obama continued the basic policy.”

Even when more abuses were unearthed, “Obama seldom criticised the banks except on occasions when he needed a quick dose of symbolic populism”. The administration gave every indication of being more interested in restoring confidence in a broken, failed system, than in reforming said system into one that might actually work for the benefit of (almost) all.

One thing that strikes me is Kuttner’s almost pathological opposition to Wall Street denizens. While there is certainly plenty to dislike and distrust them for of late, it has not always been the case that administrations who worked with or employed former members of the Street made policies that disadvantaged the public and rewarded the financial elite. For example, Joe Kennedy was appointed SEC by FDR in 1934 mainly because of his expertise and experiences on Wall Street – he was believed to be the perfect person to reform things, as he knew exactly how the financial system was being abused in favour of elites.

“To succeed, Obama, who has reinvented himself more than once, will need to drastically revise his view of how to bring about durable change.”

Kuttner’s prose are fluid and accessible, making A Presidency in Peril a book that could be easily digested by political scholars and also casual politics or economics enthusiasts. The author is able to explain the complexities of derivatives, sub-prime mortgages and other financial systems and devices, in clear and concise language, in many ways demystifying what lies at the core of the problem. The single focus on the economy and Wall Street might not be broad enough for some (you might have to wait for Jonathan Alter’s upcoming book), but it allows for considerable attention to detail, offering a more rounded and complete picture of Obama’s first year economic policy.

Overall, this is an engaging, accessible, and interesting book on the Obama administration’s inability to bring about the financial changes and reforms the candidate promised (both in the primaries and the national election cycles). Regardless of whether or not you agree that Wall Street has a stranglehold on the political process (though it’s difficult not to believe this in the current environment), A Presidency in Peril will provide you with some excellent facts and analysis from an astute and intelligent liberal journalist and author. (On a personal note, it’s also nice that books on Obama are finally moving beyond the election campaign to look at his presidency.)


Also try: Robert Kuttner, The Squandering of America (2007) and Obama’s Challenge (2008); Jonathan Alter, The Promise (2010); Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (2006)