Tag Archives for " politics "

June 6, 2017

Al Franken’s memoir is revealing, insightful—and funny

al franken's memoirAl Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you’re expecting nonstop laughs from Al Franken’s memoir, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, you’ll be disappointed. Naturally, the book is laced with Franken’s signature humor. He rarely passes up an opportunity to go for a laugh. That even begins with the tongue-in-cheek title. But what comes through most strongly in this book is the man’s intelligence. If you’ve had the opportunity to talk to Al Franken, hear him speak about government policy or politics, or witness him in action on C-SPAN, you know what I’m talking about.

Learning how not to be funny

As Franken explains in his Foreword, this book is “the story of a midwestern Jewish boy of humble roots (the first in his family to own a pasta maker) who, after a thirty-five-year career in comedy, moved back home to challenge an incumbent senator. . . It’s the story of how, after spending a lifetime learning how to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.” Franken might have added that he also learned to keep his volcanic temper in check (at least most of the time).

Although it’s clear that Franken had a lifetime interest in politics, his entry into the arena was inspired by an extraordinary role model, Senator Paul Wellstone, who held the same seat in the U.S. Senate from 1991 until his tragic death in 2002. Like everyone else among Paul’s legion of supporters, Franken was shattered by the senator’s untimely death in a small plane that crashed in a snowstorm in northern Minnesota. (His wife, daughter, and two cherished long-time staff members died as well.)

The longest vote recount ever?

After a savage election campaign in which his integrity was repeatedly impugned and lines in jokes he’d told as a comedian were pulled out of context again and again to make him look evil, Franken eked out a victory in one of the closest elections in the history of the U.S. Senate. Republicans dragged out the recount process for eight months to keep Franken from providing Democrats with the 60th vote in the Senate that would enable them to prevent a filibuster. Franken wasn’t able to take his seat until nearly six months after the beginning of his term on January 3, 2009. Eight months might not represent the record for the longest vote recount ever, but if not it’s surely in the running.

Al Franken’s memoir: 35 years in comedy, 8 years in national office

Following what came naturally to him, Franken began a life in comedy in high school when he teamed up with Tom Davis. The Franken and Davis act went professional soon afterward and carried them both—as a writing team—into the inaugural year of Saturday Night Live. Franken spent 15 years with the show, and his account of that experience is prominent in his memoir. But the book is largely about Franken’s 2008 election campaign, the excruciating recount that followed, and his years in the Senate. Unlike so many other politicians who write autobiographies, Franken dwells at length on the role of his staff in feeding him with ideas and teaching him how not to be funny. This, despite the solemn advice he received from his colleagues in the senate never to credit his staff.

Befriending the enemy

Al Franken became even more famous than Saturday Night Live had made him when he became embroiled in a long-running feud with the recently-defrocked Fox News star Bill O’Reilly. Although many Republican senators express views as outrageous and unfounded as Reilly, Franken took a different approach when he got to the senate: he went out of his way to befriend his political enemies. To judge from what he writes in his memoir, Franken may have more good friends on the other side of the aisle than he does among his fellow Democrats. Franken’s friends include some of the most hard-line Right-Wingers in the senate. By all accounts, politics aside, he is respected by his colleagues—with one notable exception. As Franken makes clear, Texas senator Ted Cruz doesn’t respect anyone, Democrat or Republican. “[H]ere’s the thing you have to understand about Ted Cruz. I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.” It’s easy to understand why after reading the anecdotes Franken recounts. “Cruz isn’t just wrong about almost everything. He’s impossible to work with. And he doesn’t care that he’s impossible to work with.” That helps explain why Republicans didn’t flock to Cruz when he became the last man standing as an alternative to Donald Trump. Apparently, they hated Trump less.

An insider’s perspective on the issues

At times Franken departs from autobiography to explain his positions on leading issues that face the country. He’s well worth listening to. The best example of his thinking about national policy is healthcare. In a chapter entitled “Health Care: Now What?” he explains the logic behind universal healthcare—and the illogic that the Republican Party brings to the issue. Crediting a veteran journalist who has produced documentaries for PBS’ documentary show, Frontline, Franken explains that the U.S. doesn’t have a healthcare system. It has “a number of health systems. If you were in Medicare or Medicaid, you were in the Canadian system: single-payer. If you were in the military or the VA, you were in the British system: socialized medicine. If you got your insurance through your employer, as most Americans did, you were in the German system. But if you didn’t have any health insurance, you were in the Cambodian system, where one illness or injury could literally ruin or even end your life.” This is the reality on which the Affordable Care Act is grounded, as Franken explains. Given that the Act was based on a plan produced by the Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts under a Republican governor, “Obamacare” is a conservative solution to the problem. And it’s only a partial solution at that. All of which is why, as I write, Democrats across the country are increasingly turning to Medicare for All as the only real solution to America’s healthcare crisis. Franken explains, however, that the deal the country got in Obamacare was the best that could be had at the time, given Republican intransigence and the conservative inclinations of some Democratic senators.

Al Franken and me

In fairness, I must disclose that I’m a big fan of Al Franken’s, and I have been for a very long time. I can’t claim to “know” him, but I did interact with him on a few occasions early in his political career. Presumably because my fundraising agency had worked for Paul Wellstone, Franken hired us to conduct the direct mail campaign for the Political Action Committee he founded in 2006, the Midwest Values PAC. He was a client of my company for five years. On a couple of occasions, I even wrote fundraising letters that went out over his signature. Largely because Franken was so well known and admired, we raised a great deal of money for him.

For another perspective on Al Franken’s memoir, take a look at a review by Eric Lach in The New Yorker (June 2, 2017).



November 14, 2016

Cocaine, the CIA, and a Central American revolution

central american revolutionMissionary Stew, by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Start with a hapless French-American journalist imprisoned by the Emperor-President of a small African country. The Emperor is a cannibal, which is admittedly worrisome, but the journalist is rescued by Amnesty International and returned to the United States. He’s penniless but makes his way to Los Angeles. Through a freak connection, which as it happens is no coincidence at all, he meets a movie star who offers him on the spot a job as superintendent of an apartment building she owns in Santa Monica. And all this merely sets up one of two major strands of the plot.

A private war in Central America over tons of cocaine

Meanwhile, a political “money man” — a direct mail specialist — has flown to Denver to meet with a rich old man for advice about the upcoming 1984 presidential elections. The money man’s client, the Governor-elect of California (but not Ronald Reagan), has decided he’s ready to be President and has sent him around the country to discourage other potential candidates. But the rich old man tells him a story that sets him off on a wholly different path. A notorious former CIA agent turned heroin-smuggler has been killed in Singapore, apparently by agents of the CIA and the FBI. The story has something to do with a private war in Central America between the two agencies involving tons of cocaine and tens of millions of dollars.

Enter The National Investigator

Oh, and by the way, the journalist I mentioned? His estranged mother is the editor of a scandal sheet that is The National Inquirer in disguise. We’ll find out later that it’s secretly owned by an aging drug-runner in Florida.

And all this is just the beginning! Somehow, all these improbable characters are mixed up in a Central American crisis that bears uneasy similarities to the Iran-Contra Affair. (The book was published in 1983.)  Missionary Stew is another one of Ross Thomas’ gorgeously convoluted tales. Call it a thriller, or satire — whatever you call it, it’s fun from beginning to end.

A word about the author

In an introduction to the Kindle edition by the screenwriter and mystery novelist Roger L. Simon, some interesting speculation about Ross Thomas comes to the fore. As Simon writes, “I often speculated that Ross Thomas had been a spy, although it was hard to think of any government good enough for his deeply moral convictions. Still, his pre-crime writing career took him all over the world, including Africa and havens of the espionage game like Bonn. He worked for NGOs with odd-sounding names and did public relations for labor union officials in sore need of a sprucing up. Those are classical spook gigs, and I’ll never know for sure if he was one. I never had the nerve to ask . . .” (Thomas died in 1995.)

After reading quite a number of Thomas’ novels, I find Simon’s speculation right on-target. The man had an extraordinary grasp of the workings of politics here and abroad and of the espionage business. But, as Simon says, we’ll never know.


Donald Trump: populism, or fascism?

populismThe Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, by John Judis

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The unexpected emergence of Donald Trump as a major-party candidate for the White House has triggered a great deal of punditry about how the Republican Party managed to put forward such a bigoted and ignorant champion. Speculation has swirled around the nature of the political forces he represents. Some observers insist he, though home-grown, bears more resemblance to Benito Mussolini than to any democratic political leader. Others think of Trump’s candidacy as populist; they describe him as the embodiment of grassroots frustration with the failure of Republican leadership to deliver on its promises.

Rejecting facile definitions of populism

Veteran journalist John Judis wades into this debate with a slim volume entitled The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics. Judis’ subject is not the 2016 election but the much broader topic of the politics of protest. His argument spans more than a century, beginning with the emergence of the People’s Party in the United States late in the 19th century. Rejecting many of the facile definitions of the term, Judis insists that “there is no set of features that exclusively defines movements, parties, and people that are called populist — from the Russian Narodniks to Huey Long, and from France’s Marine Le Pen to the late congressman Jack Kemp.”

Describing populism on both the Left and the Right

However, the author manages to simplify the question by describing both left-wing and right-wing populism. “Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment,” he writes. “Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” Unfortunately, this distinction doesn’t much help to understand Donald Trump and the millions who back his candidacy. The views he claims on the campaign trail fit both leftwing and rightwing definitions.

Populism and the rejection of the “neoliberal consensus”

The fundamental premise in Judis’ argument is that populists on both the Right and the Left have come into prominence because of their loud opposition to what he terms the “neoliberal consensus.” He uses the term neoliberal in a fashion that encompasses Bill Clinton, the New Democrats, and (up to a point) Barack Obama as well as the uncompromising right-wing intellectuals who dominated the administration of George W. Bush. That “neoliberal consensus” includes advocacy for free trade agreements, an expansive foreign policy, low barriers to immigration, a hands-off policy toward Wall Street, and other policies that tend to widen the gap between rich and poor. Leftwing populists such as Bernie Sanders have railed against free trade, an aggressive foreign policy, deregulation, and the failure to narrow the income and wealth gaps. Rightwing populists single out intervention in the affairs of other countries as well as free trade. Donald Trump’s often self-contradictory policies encompass both left-wing and right-wing populist positions.

Trump: not easy to pigeonhole

Judis explains: “Trump’s political base was among the party’s white working- and middle-class voters — precisely the voters who had originally flocked to [George] Wallace and then to Nixon, who had been attracted to [Ross] Perot and [Pat] Buchanan.” Caricatures aside, all these “conservative” populist leaders went against the Republican grain to oppose tax cuts for the rich and dismantling Social Security and Medicare, just as is the case with Trump. Judis also makes the point that Trump’s position on healthcare, for example, is closer to Bernie Sanders’ than it is to today’s Republican leadership’s. Yes, he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But, like Sanders, sincerely or not, he advocates universal health care.

Trump as a fascist? Judis says no

Judis dismisses the contention that Donald Trump is a fascist. “Trump is a one-man show whose initial target was other Republicans,” he argues, “and who has not built a movement around himself. He has displayed anti-democratic tendencies, but they are idiosyncratic. If he has any correlate in European history, it is Italy’s Silvio Belusconi, not Mussolini nor Hitler.” However, Lawrence Rosenthal, Executive Director of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has a different view. He argues in the Huffington Post that it’s unfair to compare Trump’s campaign with the mature fascism of Mussolini. Instead, he finds a much closer correlate between Trump and the early fascist movement in Italy, which was much more difficult to pigeonhole.

Populism in both Europe and the US

Don’t be misled: The Populist Explosion is not in large part an analysis of the 2016 presidential election campaign. It’s a study of populism writ large, with examples liberally drawn from European as well as American politics over the last 130 years. If anything, Judis devotes more time to reviewing the rise of left-wing populist parties in Southern Europe (Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy) and right-wing populist movements in Northern Europe (the UK Independent Party, the National Front in France, the Freedom Parties in Austria and Holland, the People’s Party in Denmark).  Though circumstances vary greatly from one country to another, Judis maintains that the Great Recession created the conditions for populist movements to gain momentum not only in the United States but throughout most of Europe as well. The widening separation between rich and poor presents a rich opportunity for the politics of protest.

About the author

John Judis began his career as a journalist nearly half a century ago. For many years, he wrote for democratic socialist periodicals, several of which he helped to found. In later years he has worked for more moderate publications such as The New Republic, The American Prospect, and, now, the digital magazine The National Journal.

27 biographies worth reading


One of the very best ways to gain insight into history and the ways of the world around us is to read biographies. Which explains why I read them so frequently. Over the more than six years since I began writing this blog, I’ve read dozens. Here I’m listing 27 that stand out in my mind.

The 27 books below are arranged in no particularly order. You’ll see, too, that they cover a lot of territory. However, apart from Stacy Schiff’s biography of Queen Cleopatra and Robert Massie’s celebrated work on Catherine the Great, they’re all set in the 19th and 20th centuries. I occasionally read history set far in the past, but I’m far more interested in the modern era that began with the Industrial Revolution.

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles

T. J. Stiles won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for this outstanding biography of one of the seminal figures in American economic history. Cornelius Vanderbilt was the model for the generation of capitalists who came to be known as Robber Barons.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf

The amazing story of a 19th century superstar, little remembered today, who was regarded as a genius by Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and other leaders of Western civilization during and after his lifetime. This is the man who first laid down the principles of ecology — more than 200 years ago.

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman

If any one person was most responsible for today’s divisive politics in America — and for the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump — it’s Roger Ailes. As the longtime chairman of Fox News, Ailes steadily made Right-Wing extremism ever more respectable. We’re all paying the price for that now and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.

Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

Few Americans today can imagine the abject fear that stalked summertime America when polio epidemics were an annual occurrence. Jonas Salk solved the problem. Often shunned by his fellow scientists, Salk was a true pioneer. He ignored the limitations of medical science as it was known in his day to fashion drug trials that gave us the first (and safest) polio vaccine.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Hollywood’s portrayals of Queen Cleopatra bore little resemblance to the reality, as Stacy Schiff makes clear in this extraordinary original biography. More historiography than simple history, Schiff examines how the legend of Cleopatra grew over the centuries — and was steadily distorted in the process.

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, by Larry Tye

John F. Kennedy’s younger brother was showing the potential to eclipse him when he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on his path to the White House. Apart from the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Bobby Kennedy played a significant role at the side of his brother, and the goal he set of landing a man on the moon, it’s difficult to point to much in JFK’s presidency that history will regard as truly significant. Bobby seemed prepared to do much more.

America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, by Gabriel Thompson

Social change movements don’t start by themselves. Someone leads them. And often that person is what today we call a community organizer. Cesar Chavez was one such man, and this excellent biography is about the gifted teacher who taught him the tricks of the trade.

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles

This surprising biography of the Civil War hero and famous failure won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History. As Stiles makes clear, the jealousy of Custer’s fellow officers was probably in large part responsible for the general’s defeat at the Little Big Horn.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable

Though mainstream society shunned him as a criminal, most African-Americans in his time looked on Malcolm X as a hero. Along with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm must be considered one of the most significant figures in recent American history.

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber

The real-life Karl Marx was very different from the caricature created by Lenin, Stalin, and their minions. He was, in fact, a man of his time and not really a revolutionary in the manner of Lenin, much less Stalin or Mao.

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, by Michael Hiltzik

Today we take for granted that scientific advancement comes from huge, well-funded teams, not solitary individuals laboring away in white coats. This biography of the remarkable atomic physicist Ernest Lawrence tells the story of how Big Science came to be — and how he was a central figure in its creation.

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Few of us know any more about the Wright Brothers than the image lingering in our minds of that flimsy biplane lifting off the dunes at Kitty Hawk. Here, the prize-winning biographer David McCullough tells their remarkable story. What’s especially interesting are the years after Kitty Hawk, when the brothers became world famous.

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

David McCullough’s intimate biography of Steve Jobs grabbed the headlines, and it was beautifully done, as is all of McCullough’s work. But this later entry from two journalists who followed Jobs closely for many years gives a far more accurate and balanced picture of the man and his life. He was even more complex than we knew.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw

In his time, Joe Kennedy was considered by some (especially himself) as a possible contender for the Presidency. When his hopes were frustrated, he transferred his ambitions to his sons. This is the insightful story of a remarkable man who established one of the most important families of 20th-Century America.

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell

In his own time, Clarence Darrow was one of the most famous men in America. As an attorney — the country’s leading attorney — for unpopular people and causes, he was probably loathed at least as widely as he was loved. But no one would ever have dreamed of dismissing him as inconsequential.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie

Among the Tsars of Russia, only Peter the Great can be considered as a peer to the Prussian woman who married an heir to the throne and came to be called Catherine the Great when she succeeded her husband after a few years. Catherine ruled over the country for 34 years, expanding its borders and modernizing its institutions along Western European lines.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre

Espionage is, of course, a risky business. Few spies manage to operate undiscovered for more than a few years. Those who gain access to secrets at the highest level tend to be in even greater jeopardy. Kim Philby was a rare exception. For three decades, he worked undercover in the UK as a spy for the Soviet Union inside the British intelligence establishment. Even after his English colleagues became convinced he was a spy and isolated him from access to sensitive information, the CIA continued to defend him.

American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, by Alex Beam

In its own time, and into the present day, the Church of Latter-Day Saints was one of the world’s fastest-growing religions. For decades, the religion founded early in the 19th century by an uneducated young man in Upstate New York defended the practice of polygamy, a practice which the founder himself indulged in to an extreme degree. Eventually, the Mormon church abandoned its defense of plural marriage, but the mystifying fantasy at the heart of the beliefs expounded by Joseph Smith nearly two centuries ago live on.

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk

Much of what the public knows about poverty in the Global South comes from the work of an American economist who gained fame at an early age working a “miracle” in Bolivia. Unfortunately, there were no miracles to follow in any of his work over the following three decades. As Nina Munk makes clear through diligent research, Jeffrey Sachs is no miracle-maker, and the path he described out of poverty is a dead end.

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Geffen

A Russian-American journalist unmasks the former KGB agent who has set out to reconstruct the Soviet empire and is now aggressively taking on the world. His intervention in Syria and his meddling in the 2016 American elections are just two of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to work his way on the world. And, by the way, he’s stolen enough to amass a personal fortune of $40 billion. While Putin and his cronies have become absurdly rich, the Russian economy is in a shambles.

The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro

Robert Caro is one of America’s most celebrated political biographers. Though not without its critics, his multi-volume portrait of Lyndon Johnson is widely regarded to be one of the best presidential biographies ever written — and it’s yet to be finished. The Passage of Power is the fourth volume, and it brings Johnson’s story only up to 1964, when he was elected in his own right to the White House.

And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields

Like so many clowns, Kurt Vonnegut lived a sad life. His satirical take-downs of war, corporations, and life in mid-century America in his books were sometimes hilarious. But it doesn’t appear that the man laughed a lot. And even though for many years Vonnegut was regarded as one of America’s most important writers, it remains to be seen whether that reputation can endure much longer.

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, by Thomas Blass

Any educated person in America today is likely to be familiar with two of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in social psychology. One was the “obedience” experiment, in which he proved that Yale undergraduates could be persuaded to induce extreme, and even life-threatening, pain on others simply because they were told to do so. The other was the “small world” experiment, in which Milgram proved that we are separated from one another by no more than “six degrees of separation.”

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime precursor to the CIA, was responsible for much of the partisan activity behind Nazi lines in Europe. Though later evidence suggests it was only marginally helpful to the war effort, Donovan and his work had the confidence of FDR and became world famous.

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer

The historical record is shocking enough: the future Secretary of State and future CIA director helped steer Wall Street capital and American business to Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. The older brother, Foster, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with his diplomatic brinksmanship. The younger, Allen, first helped Nazi war criminals escape to the US and South America after World War II, sometimes with the fortunes they plundered. Later, he led US efforts to assassinate heads of government in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, and probably many others. Yet, as David Talbot showed in his later book (listed just below), even worse was to come.

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot

Digging much more deeply into the historical record, including interviews with contemporaries of Dulles and recently opened secret files, San Francisco investigative journalist David Talbot paints a much darker and more credible picture of Allen Dulles than Kinzer did in The Brothers. Even after JFK fired him as CIA Director, Dulles continued to meddle in political affairs at the highest level — with catastrophic consequences.

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, by Rich Cohen

The astounding-but-true tale of how a penniless Eastern European immigrant founded the United Fruit Company, helped engineer the murder of the President of Guatemala, and became one of the richest men in the world. It was Samuel Zemurray whose efforts shaped the history several of what came to be called “banana republics.”

A terrific political history novel

political historyDewey Defeats Truman: A Novel, by Thomas Mallon

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

For at least a year before the 1948 presidential election, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey was almost universally expected to beat the incumbent, former Vice President Harry Truman. (Apparently, even Truman himself thought he would lose.) The title of Thomas Mallon’s brilliant novel about that time was an infamous headline in the Chicago Tribune which wishfully predicted on election night that “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

A pivotal time in our political history

With election year in the background, Mallon spins a tale set in Tom Dewey’s home town, Owosso, Michigan. There he introduces a large cast of local characters, including Dewey’s mother, whose complex interrelationships wax and wane in the course of the novel. Every character is finely drawn, as though grabbed out of memory. Mallon writes with a sure hand about the love triangle among Peter Cox, “a hot young lawyer” who is running for the State Assembly, the beautiful newcomer Anne Macmurray, and an up-and-coming labor leader named Jack Riley. He finds drama in the daily lives of every character in town.

His command of the politics of the time is impressive, too. Mallon does solid research. (He was born three years after the 1948 election.) Set three years after the end of World War II, Dewey Defeats Truman reflects the boundless optimism of the period. In hindsight, we recognize the flip side of the time, as the Cold War intensified with the Berlin blockade and airlift and the fast-accelerating Red Scare at home.

About the author

Thomas Mallon is one of the most gifted interpreters of America’s political history. Dewey Defeats Truman was the first of several insightful novels built around historical figures and events at particular inflection points in our history: the 1948 election, Watergate, and the administration of Ronald Reagan.


July 19, 2016

An entertaining history of the post office

post officeNeither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, by Devin Leonard

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

For a guy who made his living for more than thirty years by writing letters and mailing hundreds of millions of copies of them, you might think I’d be familiar with the story of the US Postal Service. Unaccountably, I knew little before I read journalist Devin Leonard’s compact and engaging new popular history, Neither Snow Nor Rain. In Leonard’s account to learn just how significant the agency has been in building the American nation — and how much it has evolved since the days of our first postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin.

The staggering scope of the US post office

Leonard makes clear at the outset that the postal service remains one of the world’s largest business enterprises, the rise of UPS, FedEx, and email notwithstanding. “Six days a week, its 300,000 letter carriers deliver 513 million pieces of mail, more than 40 percent of the world’s volume. . . [T]he USPS delivers more items in nine days than UPS does in a year. It transports more in seven days than FedEx brings to its customers in a year.” Leonard traces the history of this gargantuan institution from its beginnings in the late eighteenth century through the development of railroads, the telegraph, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, and the Internet — every one of which substantially impacted the fortunes of the USPS. He introduces each one of these technological innovations, and every expansion of postal service, with an anecdote. The result is an eminently readable book. The story of the agency’s attempts to inaugurate air mail is especially entertaining.

“The great link between minds”

In the early years of the Republic, communications were spotty and almost always time-consuming. It could take weeks for a letter or a newspaper to travel from a city in the North to one in the South, or from a city in the East to one in the ever-widening West. Despite the cost, the US Postal Service undertook the challenge to reach every corner of the nation. Alexis de Tocqueville described the service in the 1820s as “the great link between minds. . . I do not think that so much intellectual activity exists in the most enlightened and populous district in France.” Leonard makes clear what in hindsight seems patently obvious: what was characterized as an “American character” could have emerged only through the linkages established by the postal system.

Fighting tooth and nail to modernize

America’s cantankerous brand of democratic politics has not served the postal system very kindly. Worldwide, despite its enormous size, the USPS stands out as an antiquated institution limited to delivering physical items, mostly letters, by hand. In other industrialized countries, the postal system is involved in a far wider range of activities that make it possible, in some cases, to become extremely profitable. Take, for example, Posti, the Finnish postal system, which (according to Wikipedia) consists of the four following divisions:

Postal Services handles the delivery of letters, direct mail, and newspapers and magazines in Finland through its subsidiary Posti Oy.

Parcel and Logistics Services offers comprehensive supply chain solutions, parcel and e-commerce services, transport services, international road, air, sea and rail freight services, warehousing or supplementary services and customs clearance services. The company provides global services through its partners.

Itella Russia provides logistics services in Russia.

OpusCapita provides financial process automation. OpusCapita has operations in eight European countries (Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland and Sweden) and a network of international partners covering the globe.

Posti may be an extreme example. However, it is a public limited company in some ways similar to the US Postal Service. The difference is that the operations of the USPS are constantly prey to intervention by Congress and vulnerable to massive lobbying efforts by private industry. (The pressure brought to bear by the direct marketing industry to keep bulk postal rates below USPS costs is one egregious example.) Congress has never been willing to grant full autonomy to the postal service. As a result, politics has almost invariably frustrated the frequent efforts over the years to modernize the USPS, largely because that would open up competition for private companies. The upshot is well known: in recent decades, the postal service has perennially operated at a deficit.

About the author

Devin Leonard is a business journalist who has worked for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Fortune, and The New York Observer. His articles have also appeared in The New York Times, Wired, and many other publications.

America’s third Red Scare

red scareFellow Travelers: A Novel, by Thomas Mallon

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Only American history majors are likely to be aware that America’s first Red Scare was sparked in 1886 by the Haymarket affair in Chicago — a demonstration by workers calling for an eight-hour day which led to widespread persecution of men, usually foreign-born, who were perceived as anarchists. Thirty-three years later a wave of anarchist bombings in the wake of World War I induced Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to recruit a 23-year-old named J. Edgar Hoover to locate and deport hundreds of anarchists, Communists, and other assorted leftists. Dial the clock forward nearly another thirty years to the anti-Communist frenzy following World War II that rose to a crescendo in the 1950s with the histrionic hearings presided over by Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. Thomas Mallon’s novel, Fellow Travelers, skillfully recreates the mood prevailing in Washington, DC, during McCarthy’s witch-hunt, placing fictional characters in solidly researched historic circumstances.

America’s third Red Scare

To appreciate Mallon’s tour de force to the fullest, you might need to be in my age cohort (yes, north of 70). Reading Fellow Travelers was a lot like old home week for me: the book is filled with references to the federal officials, celebrities, and signature events of the 1950s. Since Thomas Mallon was born only in 1951 and would have been just nine years old when the decade ended, it’s safe to assume that he had to do a great deal of reading and research to recreate the flavor of those times.

It’s well known that McCarthy and his collaborators — as well as those who knuckled under to their strong-arm tactics — targeted not just Communists but anyone left of center, including outspoken liberals, progressive, and unaffiliated socialists. Anyone who resisted the Red Scare was placed in McCarthy’s cross-hairs and frequently lost their jobs as a result. Among them were not only officials in the State Department and the Army and Hollywood personalities, all of whom have received a great deal of attention, but also teachers and administrators on campuses throughout the country and employees in private companies as well. It’s less well known that gay men, too, were driven out of their jobs as “security risks,” presumably because they were vulnerable to blackmail. (Whether lesbians were also targeted is unclear in the context of this gay love story, and I have no personal knowledge to answer the question). The McCarthy years were one of the darkest periods in American history.

A gay love story set against the background of the Red Scare

Fallon deftly weaves together two themes in Fellow Travelers: the rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy and the love between two men, one of them a senior government official. There’s irony — perhaps what might be called a double entendre — in the title as a result, as the two central characters were “fellow” travelers on the unconventional path they’d chosen.

About the author

Thomas Mallon is the author of seven nonfiction books and eight novels as well as numerous magazine articles, critical essays, and reviews. I’ve previously reviewed his two most recent novels, Watergate and Finale (about the final years of Ronald Reagan’s administration). Both were outstanding works of political fiction.



Dirty politics, union style

dirty politicsA review of Yellow-Dog Contract, by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s been so long since labor unions have appeared high on our radar screens here in the US that you may be unaware what the phrase “yellow-dog contract” means. I for one had forgotten. Well, it turns out that such a contract, or a clause in a contract, requires that a new employee never join a union. And that archaic concept is the hook at the centerpiece of this brilliant novel about dirty politics, union style. The book was published in 1976, so the concept was by no means archaic then.

The reigning master of dirty tricks

Though not yet 40, Harvey Longmire has long since retired to his farm near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, as Yellow-Dog Contract opens. There he lives with his wife and a zoo’s worth of animals when two men from his checkered past show up in a large Mercedes. Murfin and Quane were his henchmen in an unsuccessful union election campaign a dozen years earlier, when their candidate, the incumbent president of the Public Employees Union (PEU), narrowly lost to his challenger despite their considerable electioneering skills. Now the two men have come to enlist Harvey in an effort to find the man who defeated their candidate and has served as PEU’s president ever since: the man has disappeared, and shenanigans are afoot in the union under his successor. Harvey had proven himself the reigning master of dirty tricks in politics by winning eleven of the twelve “hopeless” Congressional and Senatorial campaigns he took on after their work together at the union. Their new boss, the multimillionaire head of a family foundation, insists that they bring Harvey back to investigate the disappearance of the PEU president, and he won’t take no for an answer.

A plot that twists, turns, and does little dances

You can expect three things above all in a novel by Ross Thomas: colorful, three-dimensional characters; dialog that is unfailingly witty and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny; and a plot that twists, turns, and does little dances before your very eyes. Yellow-Dog Contract offers all that and more, including a huge dollop of suspense. It would spoil the fun to describe any more of the story. Read it. You’ll thank me.

Falling union membership

By the end of World War II, the percentage of workers employed in the US economy who were members of labor unions peaked at more than one-third. Three decades later, in the mid-1970s, that proportion had fallen to between one-fourth and one-fifth. (In 2013 the share was 11.3%.) Most economists today consider this trend to be a major factor, and perhaps the greatest factor, in creating the yawning gap between rich and poor in America today. Undoubtedly, dirty tricks of the sort portrayed in Yellow-Dog Contract as well as corruption within a few major unions helped undermine the trade union movement. However, it’s clear that the biggest factor by far was a massively funded nationwide campaign by the American Right that began in the US Chamber of Commerce, gained steam throughout the 1970s, and continues today under Republican governors in such states as Wisconsin and Michigan.

About the author

According to his bio on Wikipedia, Ross Thomas “served with the infantry in the Philippines during World War II. He worked as a public relations specialist, correspondent with the Armed Forces Network, union spokesman, and political strategist in the USA, Bonn (Germany), and Nigeria before becoming a writer.” Is it any wonder that Thomas would be well positioned to write Yellow-Dog Contract and so many other great books about dirty politics?



The secret history of cyber war

cyber warA review of Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, by Fred Kaplan

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Occasionally, I come across a book on an important topic that’s crammed with information I was able to find nowhere else — but is a chore to read. Even though it is not an academic study but clearly intended for a general audience, Fred Kaplan’s recent history of cyber war, Dark Territory, is one such book.

A story stretching over five decades

Unlike previous treatments that I’ve read about the topic, which zero in on the vulnerability of the American economy to attacks through cyberspace, Dark Territory traces the history of our government’s slowly growing awareness of the threat, beginning nearly half a century ago. Then, a prescient Pentagon scientist wrote a paper warning about the dangers inherent in computer networks. Apparently, though, no one in a position to do anything about it paid much attention to him.

Kaplan identifies an incident fully fifteen years later in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan — a movie fan, of course — saw the film War Games. He queried the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a top-level White House meeting whether it was possible for a teenager like the one portrayed in the film by Matthew Broderick to hack into sensitive Pentagon computers. When the chairman, General John Vessey, reported some time later that the feat was in fact possible, Reagan called for and later signed the government’s first policy directive on the topic of cyber war. But that, too, led to no significant change at the Pentagon or anywhere else in the federal government.

Dark Territory is filled with revealing anecdotes like this, based on what surely was top-secret information not long ago. Kaplan reveals many little-known details about the Russian cyber war on Estonia and Ukraine, the Chinese Army’s prodigious hacking of American corporations and the Pentagon, the massive North Korean assault on Sony, Iran’s disabling of 20,000 computers in Sheldon Adelson’s casino empire, and the successful US-Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Kaplan also reveals the reason why US complaints about China’s cyber attacks have fallen on deaf ears: it turns out that the National Security Agency is attacking the Chinese government in much the same way. As The Guardian revealed in 2013, “the NSA had launched more than 61,000 cyber operation, including attacks on hundreds of computers in Hong Kong and mainland China.”

The book casts a particularly harsh light on the Administration of George W. Bush. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other senior officials in the early 2000s cavalierly dismissed urgent reports from national security and intelligence officials that the threat of cyber war, and the vulnerability of the US economy, were growing at an alarming rate. Only under Bush’s successor did reality strongly take hold. As Kaplan writes, “During Barack Obama’s presidency, cyber warfare took off, emerging as one of the few sectors in the defense budget that soared while others stayed stagnant or declined.”

It’s difficult to understand how anyone who was awake could have failed to grasp the problem. For example, a war game conducted in 1997 was intended to test the vulnerability of the Pentagon’s computer systems within two weeks. “But the game was over — the entire defense establishment’s network was penetrated — in four days. The National Military Command Center — the facility that would transmit orders from the president of the United States in wartime — was hacked on the first day. And most of the officers manning those servers didn’t even know they’d been hacked.” Not long afterwards, the Pentagon was hacked in a similar way by two 16-year-old boys in San Francisco. And when national security officials widened the scope of their attention to encompass the country’s critical civilian infrastructure, such as the electricity grid, they were shocked to discover that the situation was far worse. The Pentagon eventually bowed to the warnings and implemented needed security measures. But private corporations blatantly refused to do so because they didn’t want to spend the money — and Congress declined to allow the federal government to make security measures obligatory.

Unfortunately, Kaplan’s book is poorly organized. It’s roughly structured along chronological lines but jumps back and forth through time with such regularity as to be dizzying. And it’s crammed so full of the names of sometimes obscure government officials and military officers that it becomes even more difficult to follow the thread of the story.

However, these challenges aside, a picture clearly emerges from Dark Territory: For decades the American public has been at the mercy of incompetent and  pigheaded people in sensitive positions in the government, the military, and private industry — and we still are. Bureaucratic games proliferate. Politics intrude. Inter-service rivalries abound. Personal grudges get in the way. Repeatedly, some of those who are entrusted with the security of the American people make what even at the time could easily be seen as stupid decisions.

Other takes on cyber war

Last year I read and reviewed a book titled Future CrimesEverything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It, by Marc Goodman. I described it as “the scariest book I’ve read in years.”

Five years earlier, I read Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake. From the early 1970s until George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Clarke filled high-level national security positions under seven Presidents, so he knows whereof he writes. (He resigned in protest over the invasion of Iraq, which he thought distracted the government from the real threats facing the country.) Not long afterward, I read and reviewed Worm: The First Digital World War, by Mark Bowden, a much more focused treatment of the topic — a case study, really — but equally unsettling.

Though less current, all three of these books are better organized and more readable than Dark Territory. Admittedly, though, Kaplan’s book reveals the history that is only hinted at in the others.

About the author

Fred Kaplan wrote five previous books about the nuclear arms race and other topics bearing on US national security. He was on a team at the Boston Globe in 1983 that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about the nuclear arms race.

21 novels about politics

politicsPolitics fascinates me. Always has. Which is why I gravitate toward books that bear on the subject, nonfiction and fiction alike. Here are 21 novels that are worth considering, if you too are intrigued by the give and take of politics in a democratic society. These novels run the gamut from accounts of nasty and sometimes violent electioneering, to bureaucratic intrigue, and to influence-peddling by lobbyists, both official and non. Many of the stories take place in the United States. Others are set in the UK, Australia, Western Africa, and ancient Rome. One even detours to Yemen. The titles are arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ surnames.

In the last few years I’ve read and reviewed all but two of these books. I’ve inserted links to my reviews below. Stay tuned for reviews of the last two sometime in the months ahead.

The Mormon Candidate, by Avraham Azrieli

No Way To Treat a First Lady, The White House Mess, and They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, all by Christopher Buckley

Amnesia: A Novel, by Peter Carey

Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury

Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics, JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan, by Jeff Greenfield

Conspirata (Ancient Rome Trilogy #2) and Dictator (Ancient Rome Trilogy #3), both by Robert Harris

Echo House, by Ward Just

11/22/63, by Stephen King

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Fellow Travelers: A Novel, Watergate: A Novel, and Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, all by Thomas Mallon

Head of State, by Andrew Marr

The Seersucker Whipsaw and The Porkchoppers, by Ross Thomas

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, by Paul Torday

Farthing (Small Change Trilogy #1) and Ha’penny (Small Change Trilogy #2): A Story of a World That Could Have Been, both by Jo Walton

All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren





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