Books, Politics, Trump

Amusing Ourselves to Death…

     “Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

————

I have rarely – as in never before – thought of the televised Emmy award show and at the very same moment also reflected on Aldous Huxley’s 85-year old novel Brave New World.

Sean Spicer, yes that Sean Spicer, provided the connecting tissue between the glitz, phony seriousness and absurdity of the Emmy’s and the stunning relevance of a book written when Herbert Hoover was in the White House.

Spicer, the truth challenged former White House press secretary who shamed himself with six month’s worth of daily prevarications from behind the White House podium before finally resigning when The Donald brought The Mooch into the White House, was the talk of this year’s Emmy show.

How far, how very far, we have fallen.

Spicer, as everyone on the planet no doubt has seen by now, made a surprise appearance at the top of the award show pushing his podium on stage. It was all part of an elaborate inside joke, the kind that both Washington, D.C. insiders and celebrity A-listers find so irresistible. (Politics is show business for ugly people, as they say.)

Spicy at the Emmy Awards

Spicy was, it was pointed out, poking fun at himself from behind the same kind of moveable podium that Melissa McCarthy and Saturday Night Live used to make him, a political hack in service to a political disaster, into a national celebrity. By delivering a slight variation on his lie about the size of Trump’s inaugural day crowd and applying it to the Emmy broadcast, Spicer was apparently hoping that poking fun at his lying would remove the stink of his White House tenure. It was as if he were hoping that joking about being a lying joker would be as good as a confession before Saturday Mass.

Melissa McCarthy does Spicer

As Mark Leibovich wrote in the Times, Spicer “for all his professional sins, achieved something far more pertinent to the current environment: In the space of barely half a year, he became the most famous White House press secretary in history, hands down. After a while, the celebrity itself becomes the thing. Spicer’s embattled narrative became its own subplot in the greater Trump reality show. How long could he last? How much could he take? How low would he go? People tuned in to watch his briefings in record numbers.”

Yet, now a small time political operator who made White House “alternative facts” the new normal has a visiting fellow gig at Harvard and a seat next to Jimmy Kimmel on late night television. And he’s a “star” posing for photos with complete strangers and lining up speaking engagements like someone who might have something important to say. He doesn’t.

Spicer is alive and well on national TV and on the lecture circuit even if he is not yet quite settled into a well padded sinecure on cable TV. None of this is because he has done anything significant or great and not because he’s a thoughtful fellow (who just happened to lie and bluff his way to the top of the Trump heap), but simply because he’s now considered amusing.

Spicy is our living proof that Neil Postman’s seminal 1985 book – Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business – has become the handbook for our times.

Postman, who died in 2003, was a professor at New York University and perhaps our most authoritative analyst of the intersection where modern communication collides with culture and politics. Our great national reality show has prompted a wide revisiting of Postman’s prescient work, to read Amusing Ourselves to Death in the Age of Trump is to come face-to-face with the perilous nature of our times.

Neil Postman

Postman’s great subject thirty years ago was television and its role in shaping and diminishing American life. His 1985 dissection and critique of the vast wasteland of the blinking tube amazingly applies perhaps even more to our present Facebook/Internet-centric age. Television remains a huge force in modern lives, but the new sinister force that daily wads up truth and sends it to the trash lurks not in the corner of our living rooms, but on our laptops, smart phones and tablets. Spicer and his former boss remind us daily – hell, minute by minute – that distraction, diversion and decidedly fake news are always just a click away.

”When a population becomes distracted by trivia,” Postman wrote in the 1980s, “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” This is where we are, my friends, starring down the national vaudeville act that threatens everything from the rule of law to the law of common sense.

Neil Postman didn’t really predict that America in the second decade of the 21st Century would place a faux billionaire whose real claim to fame was hosting a reality television show in the most important job in the world, but he would not have been surprised. He predicted the enthusiastic embrace of ignorance that inserted Donald Trump into a role that he is demonstrably unfit to manage let alone master.

Postman, predicting our appetite for stupid over substance, would not have been surprised that Trump actually declined to fire Sean Spicer earlier this year because the guy “gets great ratings.” Postman would not have been shocked that the president of the United States began his Tuesday by delivering a juvenile and disjointed rant before the United Nations – praised by his “base,” of course – then ended Tuesday with a tweet bemoaning the poor ratings for the aforementioned Emmy awards show.

My pal Roger Plothow, a newspaper publisher who is actually trying to do something about our appalling lack of media literacy – he visits schools and talks about real news to anyone who will listen – is as worried as I am about the sewer we are swimming in.

“The fundamental inability of people to differentiate fact from fiction has always been a critical problem,” Plothow wrote recently. “The percentage of any population with highly developed critical thinking skills has probably always been low. When technology allows the spread of ‘alternative facts,’ and altered or invented ‘photographs,’ and it makes possible the viral proliferation of sources that intentionally spread fiction, the stakes are magnified beyond even Postman’s imagining. It creates a circumstance in which a man can be so convinced that a presidential candidate is operating a child sex ring in the basement of a pizzeria that he appears at the restaurant armed and ready to act. Amusements are so readily available that families sitting at a restaurant table may be more engaged with their smart phones than with each other. Taken separately, these are troubling. In aggregate, Postman would consider these circumstances a grave danger to our very survival.”

Trump’s great triumph was not his improbable and unprecedented winning of the White House (while losing the popular vote) it is rather the success he has had in destroying objective truth among a significant number of Americans. And, of course, the president has succeeded in replacing facts and most all political norms with chants of “lock her up” and “Make America Great Again.” He can call for terminating the internationally supported Iranian nuclear agreement without ever really grappling with the substance of the deal or what might replace it. He lobs Twitter barbs at North Korea’s “rocket man” with no apparent attention to the real world dangers that bombastic miscalculation might have on literally millions of people.

Sean Spicer, a small man with a small brain always so obviously on display is just one of a thousand exhibits in Trump Museum of Mendacity. The president of the United States lies about everything and trivializes all things. The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has been keeping track and records 588 lies (and counting) of varying seriousness since January. Meanwhile the Trump “base” and Republicans in Congress, most of whom really do know better, just keep smiling, amusing themselves en-route to the mid-terms.

Trump Tweets a short, fake video where he appears to drive a golf ball into Hillary Clinton’s back. He brags that the economy has never been stronger. He boasts that he has had the most productive start of any president, ever – period. The Russian election interference is “fake news” and, oh yes, his opponent last year is the “crooked” one.

It is all a show, a roiling, distracting, disgusting show of trivia and piffle, a show that Neil Postman, God rest his soul, forecast a generation ago. These smiling idiots, Postman warned, will destroy the very nature of democratic culture, which brings me back to Huxley.

Postman’s book is in some ways an analysis of the two great 20th Century dystopian novels that dealt with our communication culture – George Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1932. Postman correctly concluded that while Orwell’s book was supremely interesting Huxley’s was spot on correct.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one,” Postman wrote. “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”

Andrew Postman, the professor’s son, wrote recently in The Guardian about the  renewed interest in his father’s thinking about our willingness to replace relevant reality with phony amusement. “While fake news has been with us as long as there have been agendas, and from both sides of the political aisle, we’re now witnessing – thanks to Breitbart News, Infowars and perpetuation of myths like the one questioning Barack Obama’s origins – a sort of distillation, a fine-tuning,” Andrew Postman wrote.

Postman continues: “’An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,’” my father wrote. ‘Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?

“I wish I could tell you that, for all his prescience, my father also supplied a solution. He did not. He saw his job as identifying a serious, under-addressed problem, then asking a set of important questions about the problem. He knew it would be hard to find an easy answer to the damages wrought by ‘technopoly.’ It was a systemic problem, one baked as much into our individual psyches as into our culture.”

There is no easy solution to a political culture rotting in real time. Obviously, as my publisher friend Roger Plothow has shown, we must begin to foster a more media literate citizenry. This starts early with education and must include a genuine recommitment to education in the humanities, particularly courses in basic civics and American history. We all need to burst out of our bubbles and be willing to confront information – and facts – that we find uncomfortable and at odds with our own well-baked views. And we must engage, all of us, in citizenship. Put the country first. Think and behave with inclusion in mind rather than tribalism. In other words, act like a citizen who deserves a place in a society that was created around the ideal that all are created equal.

And here is another idea. Read. Read Huxley and Orwell and Postman and read Timothy Snyder’s marvelous and chilling little book On Tyranny, a call to arms for our age where the unimportant has trumped the vital.

Snyder, a Yale historian who specializes in European history, reminds us in his tiny and profound book that 20th Century history holds great lessons for our time. “Believe in truth,” Snyder writes. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then it is all spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

Failure of the world’s most important and enduring experiment in democracy is not a laughing matter, yet we confront the very real possibility that we are permitting the essential fact-based, serious work of citizenship to be perverted simply because we don’t care enough to keep from being amused to death.

Sean Spicer doesn’t matter. He really doesn’t. What he represents matters a very great deal.

Books

Read…It’s Good for You…

      “About a quarter of American adults (26%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.”

Report of the Pew Research Center

———-

Who doesn’t read books? Doesn’t everyone read books? Everyday? Who doesn’t use a library? Who can get along without books? Or libraries?

I can scarcely imagine going a day without picking up something to read – the latest non-fiction title that is making me think differently about the legacies of The Great War, or the Jim Harrison novel resting on my bedside table, or the slim volume of William F. Buckley’s essays that has been just about the perfect companion to fill a pleasant and informative ten minutes.

Who doesn’t read book? Or frequent libraries? Turns out about a quarter of the American population did not crack a book in the last twelve months. A Pew Research Center survey, not surprisingly perhaps, says less educated, more financially insecure Americans don’t read books and the same group fails to take advantage of the wonders at the local library.

Here’s a paragraph from the Pew report: “Given the share that hasn’t read a book in the past year [26 percent according to the survey] it’s not surprising that 19% of U.S. adults also say they have not visited a library or a bookmobile in the past year. The same demographic traits that characterize non-book readers also often apply to those who have never been to a library. For example, men, Hispanics, older adults, those living in households earning less than $30,000 and those who have no more than a high school diploma or did not graduate from high school are the most likely to report they have never been to a public library.”

I’m tempted to make some sweeping social comment about the non-readers and the fate of the country – Donald J. Trump, a kind of rich guy with time to burn never reads books, either – but I’ll resist the social commentary and merely observe that I can’t imagine a life without books. Those who don’t read – or visit the library for that matter – are simply missing out on one of life’s most rewarding and pleasant experiences – getting lost in a book. It is simply part of what makes life worth living.

So…eleven – why stop at ten – of the best books, in no particular order, that I read in 2016:

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates. A defining book on the still defining American issue – race. Coates’ book is a must read for those of us in the dominant culture who want to begin to understand what it’s like to live as a person of color in a deeply divided American society.

Custer’s Trials – T.J. Stiles. I thought I had read everything there was to read or that I needed to read about the ill-fated George Armstrong Custer, but Stiles, who won the Pulitzer for this book, showed me plenty of new material. He puts Custer in his times in a way no other book on Custer has and he doesn’t even write about the Little Big Horn.

All the Truth is Out – Matt Bai. This book came out in 2014 and received a lot of attention (that is clearly deserved), but I only got to it last year. Bai, a superb reporter and writer now with Yahoo News, tells the old story of Senator Gary Hart’s fall from the next president to a laugh line. You might think you know the Hart story, but I guarantee you won’t until you read this book. It also tells us so much about why politics and the media have become what they have become.

Spain in Our Hearts – Adam Hochshield. Another great reporter and writer tells the story of Americans enmeshed in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. It is a compelling and often tragic story.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavilier and Clay – Michael Chabon. Comic books, Nazis, Gotham and a rip snorting good read. I could not put it down.

The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes. The talented Mr. Barnes imagines the life of the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich who produced great music while constantly wondering when the KGB would come knocking at his door. The book is in part a meditation on how people behave in an authoritarian society under the constant threat of violence. Somehow Shostakovich lived in such a world – making many tradeoffs – and wrote his Fifth Symphony, one of the great symphonic works of all time.

The Immortal Irishman – Timothy Egan. Read anything the intrepid Tim Egan produces, including his weekly column in The New York Times. This wonderfully told story resurrects the legacy of Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish rebel, Civil War hero and Montana legend and in the process tells us much about the Irish diaspora and why we are all Irish, or want to be.

Prisoners of Hope – Randall B. Woods. We’ll see how much of Lyndon Johnson’s world remains after a new president and GOP Congress get down to business, but since 1964 we have all been living in a world LBJ made. Woods tells this powerful story with color and skill. Johnson emerges as a political genius and a deeply flawed personality and therefore is fascinating.

Bobby Kennedy – Larry Tye. Another fascinating and very complicated politician is treated both critically and with affection.

Finale – Thomas Mallon. This book offers another of Thomas Mallon’s deeply researched fictional takes on American politics and the book puts us right in the middle of the Reagan presidency. You’ll never think of Ron and Nancy quite the same way after reading this.

Dark Money – Jane Mayer. This book may be the best thing ever written about the deeply corrosive effect of vast money on our politics. Deeply researched and objectively presented it is difficult to read Jane Mayer’s awarding winning book and not be worried about our political future.

Go pick up a book and happy reading in 2017.

Books

Life is Sentimental…

     

      “Life is sentimental. Why should I be cold and hard about it? That’s the main content. The biggest thing in people’s lives is their loves and dreams and visions, you know.”

Jim Harrison, 1937-2016

——–

I can’t say I really knew him, the great novelist/poet/gourmand/fisherman/hunter who died last Saturday in the high desert south of Tucson, but I did have my fifteen minutes with Jim Harrison and hearing of his death this weekend burned a hole in my heart.

Jim Harrison in a typical pose
Jim Harrison in a typical pose

What a talent. What a huge talent. And what a life, what a quotable life.

Harrison, the Michigan-born writer of all manner of stories; violent, sweet, sexy, make you cry in the dark stories came to Idaho some years ago and it was both my pleasant and completely intimidating duty to interview him in front of an audience. Interviewing Jim Harrison was a little like reading Faulkner – a lot was going on there.

He didn’t know me from a bale and had no reason to care. No doubt he’d been through the “famous author answers questions from some rube in the sticks” routine ten thousand times. But he was kind, generous and did a reasonable approximation of Jim Harrison being interviewed; interviewed by someone – me – who wanted to sound “literary,” but mostly had to fake it. He might have embarrassed me. He didn’t.

      “The simple act of opening a bottle of wine has brought more happiness to the human race than all the collective governments in the history of earth.”

We still laugh about that interview in the auditorium of the high school in Hailey, Idaho. After the author of “Legends of the Fall” and “Dalva” and a dozen other shining, wonderful books answered the last question he need a cigarette break. Returning from the smoking interlude outside he positioned himself at a small table in the auditorium in order to sign his name in the books fans clutched as they waited in line for a moment of his time. My very much better half, hoping to be helpful, inquired if he might need anything, thinking glass of water, cup of coffee, etc.

“A glass of red wine would be nice,” was the reply. You got the impression that might have been an appropriate response to almost any conceivable question asked of Jim Harrison.

Of all the books and all the poems, I like “Dalva” the best, perhaps because the story is set in the rough and starkly beautiful country of northwestern Nebraska where I have my own roots. The book centers on a rough, starkly beautiful 40-something half-Sioux woman who is on the quest we all are on – to find ourselves.

The Guardian noted in a 2012 story about Harrison that the book is an “overlooked classic,” but not in France where Harrison has long enjoyed a major following. He has said that it was not uncommon for him to encounter French women named “Dalva.” If you haven’t read it – read it.

      “What’s the meaning of it all? “Seems to me nobody’s got a clue. Quote Jim Harrison on that: Nobody’s got a clue.”

Jim Fergus, interviewing Harrison for The Paris Review in 1986, said: “Harrison is a man of prodigious memory and free-wheeling brilliance and erudition, as well as great spirit and generosity, lightness and humor; so the reader should imagine wild giggles and laughter throughout, and supply them even when they seem inappropriate—especially when they seem inappropriate.”

His close friend Tom McGuane, another very fine writer, said much the same when he wrote a short “postscript” about Harrison in The New Yorker: “Few American writers of recent times have had his erudition and phenomenal memory. To the end, Jim was a country boy who’d been touched.”

He touched his readers, too.

Air Travel, Basketball, Books, Civil Rights, Native Americans, Television

Strong Inside

I love college basketball and of course the love affair is in full blossom this time of year. My romance began in 1966 when a bunch of unknown upstarts from a Podunk school in El Paso – who ever heard of Texas Western College? – won the NCAA championship over the vaunted Coach Adolph Rupp and the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

TWCThere have been a thousand (or more) great college basketball games since 1966, but for my money none was better or more important than Texas Western’s 72-65 win over the big dogs from Kentucky and the segregated Southeastern Conference (SEC). The Texas Western Miners started five black players in that 1966 game. Kentucky didn’t have a black player until 1969. Adolph Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass, a Hall of Fame coach who won 82 percent of his games, went to his grave remembered for that championship loss by his all-white team to a talented and determined all-black team. It is stunning to remember that Rupp refused to shake hands with the Texas Western players after the game. And it should be just a little embarrassing to Kentucky fans today that the still vaunted Wildcats play their home games in Rupp Arena.

As Kentucky steams toward another national title, let’s just say that I’m for anyone but Kentucky. Call it a grudge and label it unreasonable, since the Wildcats now depend on spectacularly talented African-American players to maintain an unbeaten season, but I have a long memory.

Maybe its just Kentucky. I’ve long remembered a great line uttered by the supremely talented Civil War historian Gary Gallagher who once joked that Kentucky stayed loyal to the Union during the rebellion and “only joined the Confederacy after the war.” Adolph Rupp and his basketball team were still fighting that war more than a hundred years later.

Strong Inside…

All this old basketball and racial history came rushing back to me recently with the publication of a fine and important new book on basketball and race in the SEC, the pioneering courage of an African-American player at Vanderbilt who was the first to play in that storied league and how far we have come – and still need to go.

The book is Strong Inside, the gutsy story of Perry Wallace and his trials and triumphs in the SEC in the late 1960’s. The author Strong Insideis Andrew Maraniss (son of Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss, author of acclaimed books on Roberto Clemente, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, among others).

In many ways the centerpiece of Wallace’s story is the account of a game he played in 1968 in Oxford, Mississippi. Remember the context. The Ole Miss campus was finally integrated in 1962, but not before a full-scale riot, a death and many injuries marked the school with scars that are still visible. The racist governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, played to local politics and his own ambition when he defied federal courts and President John Kennedy when James Meredith wanted to register for classes at Ole Miss.

In 1963, NAACP organizer Medgar Evers, an Army veteran of World War II, was assassinated in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Three young civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. Bloody Sunday took place in Selma in neighboring Alabama in 1965. It was into that environment of hate, fear and racism and that a courageous Perry Wallace stepped when he set foot on the basketball court in Oxford for the first game in Mississippi featuring a black player.

Shortly before halftime a white elbow was thrown at Wallace, a blow “so fast that no one knows who threw the elbow,” Perry Wallace Senior YearMaraniss says. The blood flowed from Wallace’s wound, the crowd cheered and no referee blew a whistle. “When halftime ended,” the Washington Post noted in a recent review, “Wallace was left alone in the locker room with a bag of ice and a swollen eye. He was ‘shaken not just by the physical blow but by the relentless taunting. . . . He could hear the Ole Miss crowd react when his teammates returned to the court without him: ‘Did the nigger go home? Where’s the nigger? Did he quit?’”

Wallace didn’t quit. He helped Vanderbilt win that game, but had to make the long walk back to the basketball court all by himself. None of his white teammates made the simple gesture of walking with him. In other SEC basketball venues Wallace “was spit on and pelted with Cokes, ice and coins. At LSU, some Vanderbilt players claimed, a dagger was thrown on the court in Wallace’s direction. . . . In Knoxville, teammates remember, fans dangled a noose near the Vanderbilt bench.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Wallace’s story is the grace and dignity with which he dealt with such unspeakable abuse and overcame it all. Today Wallace is a widely respected law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. and a man humble in talking about his pioneering role in SEC basketball. Perry Wallace 1Vanderbilt officials, originally peeved when Wallace talked candidly at the end of his playing days about his experiences, finally made peace with him and retired his jersey in 2004. Perry Wallace deserves to be more widely remembered and Andrew Maraniss’s book is a wonderful start.

Banning the Dunk Shot…

Wallace stood just 6’5”, which, even considering the standards of his day, made him a rather small frontline player, but the guy could jump and Maraniss writes, “the ‘stuff shot’ was Wallace’s most reliable offensive move.”

The long-prevailing basketball wisdom holds that the “dunk shot” was banned to neutralize the inside play of the great UCLA post man Lew Alcindor – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But, Maraniss makes a compelling case that Wallace and his role as the first black player in the SEC also had much to do with banning the dunk. In that 1966 NCAA championship game Texas Western’s unforgettable big man, David Lattin, “embarrassed Rupp’s Wildcats with a powerful dunk over Pat Riley,” later a great NBA player and coach. “The next season,” Maraniss writes, “Lattin’s protégé, Wallace, embarrassed Rupp’s freshman team with his slam over Dan Issel,” also later an NBA star.

Shortly thereafter the NCAA rules committee, long dominated by Adolph Rupp, changed the rules to ban the dunk, a decision Ruppthat it is hard not to conclude was racially motivated. Rupp’s Wildcats never scheduled Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins, but they played Perry Wallace’s Vanderbilt team twice every season. “While the [dunk] ban wasn’t directed at Wallace,” Maraniss says, “it was more than just a coincidence that the rules of the game changed just as the first black player – a prolific dunker – was about to enter the league that Adolph Rupp had dominated for decades.”

Sports at the college and professional level along with the United States military have been more successful than virtually any other segment of our culture in advancing the cause of racial equality. Both have their problems to be sure, but both have also shown what America might be if we finally come to grips with our haunted racial past and commit to a better future. Perry Wallace’s largely forgotten story is a testament to what one man can do to make ours a more perfect union and proof that heroes are found in many places, including above the rim.

Perry Wallace and Andrew Maraniss were recently featured on the NPR program Only a Game when they were interviewed by Bill Littlefield. NPR’s All Things Considered also recently featured a story on the book.

The Maraniss book was published by Vanderbilt University Press. Order it up. If you’re a basketball fan you’ll enjoy it. If you enjoy an uplifting and great American story you’ll love it.

 

Air Travel, Al Gore, American Presidents, Biden, Books, Eisenhower, Hats, Idaho Statehouse, Immigration, Lincoln, Obama, Theodore Roosevelt

Not the Party of Lincoln

130205_abraham_lincoln_ap_605_605Abraham Lincoln is the one American president everyone claims, well almost everyone. Lincoln is the model of principled leader, the shrewd strategist navigating through the most severe crisis the nation has ever faced. His writing skills astound. His humor, much of it self deprecating, was a marvel. I can make the case that Lincoln invented the role of commander-in-chief and despite his lack of education in military matters he became a better strategist than any of his generals, including Grant.

Lincoln’s Social and Economic Policy

In one year of his presidency, 1862, Lincoln signed four nation changing acts. One was the Homestead Act, a massive transfer of wealth to thousands of Americans who, without the chance to own and live off the their own land, had little hope of improving their economic status. One of the beneficiaries of was my grandfather, a poor Missouri boy who staked out his homestead in the sand hill country of western Nebraska just after the turn of the 20th Century. He proved up his place and got married to a woman whose husband had abandoned her leaving my grandmother with two young sons to raise on her own. Their marriage produced my dad who would admire to the end of his days the grit and determination of his own father in carving a life out of the land. My grandfather later owned a successful business, became the mayor of his adopted home town and gave his own sons, including my dad, a big leg up on life. It all started with Mr. Lincoln signing that Homestead Act in 1862.

That same year, 1862, the president also put his A. Lincoln on the Morrill Act creating the great system of public higher education – Land_grant_college_stampthe land grant colleges – that helped further transform the country and cemented the idea that everyone had a chance to attain an education and acquire a profession. I graduated from a land grant college, so too members of my family.

In 1862 Lincoln also authorized the transcontinental railroad, a massive windfall for a handful of already very wealthy railroad barons, but also a massive public works project that created wealth from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Many of those who benefited from the homesteads and the education and the railroads were immigrants, Irish and German, Swede and Finn. All came to America looking for opportunity and many finding it thanks to enlightened Republican-inspired public policy created, hard to believe, in the middle of a great civil war. All told the social and economic policy made during that one year of Lincoln’s presidency transformed America.

The fourth great accomplishment of 1862 was, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation, an audacious expansion of presidential power that Lincoln’s many critics condemned as executive overreach. One wonders if that executive order will stand the test of time?

In an engaging and provocative new book – To Make Men Free – Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson tells the story of the creation of the Republican Party – Lincoln’s party – as an activist, results oriented movement that was determined to support “a la-la-ca-0919-heather-cox-richardson-087-jpg-20140924strong and growing middle class, whose members had fought to defend the government during the war and now used government money and owned government bonds, paid government taxes and attended government-funded colleges, and gave their wholehearted allegiance to the nation.” Oh, yes, Lincoln’s Republican Party also championed immigration.

It is a curious twist of history that the Republican Party of Lincoln, a party that began as a champion of the middle class and freed the slaves, now so closely identifies with the most privileged among us, while catering to older, white voters, many in the south. Democrats have undergone their own evolution, as well, transforming a white, southern-dominated party that once stood mostly for state’s rights and private privilege into a party that embraced civil rights and now commands the allegiance of America’s growing minority population.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in it’s review of To Make Men Free, “Richardson traces the [Republican] transformation from an egalitarian and broad-minded coalition into a narrow and disappearing one, increasingly trapped in a demographic isolation booth of its own making.” Richardson argues the Republican transformation from Lincoln’s party to the Tea Party has hardly been a straight line progression. Theodore Roosevelt with his efforts to cut monopoly down to size and Dwight Eisenhower with tax policy and the interstate highway system were other Republican presidents who tried to return the party to its founding principles. Those efforts did not last and now the GOP has fully embraced a philosophy that is almost entirely based on opposition to the current man in the White House and tax cuts mostly designed to benefit the Koch Brothers class. One doubts whether Republican icons like T.R. and Ike could get out of an Iowa caucus these days. They simply stood for too much that is foreign to today’s Republican Party.

And…Then There Was Immigration

Now that Barack Obama has finally pulled the pin on the immigration grenade and rolled it across the table to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the country’s poisonous partisanship instantly became even more toxic. As is usually the case with this president he did a masterfully inept job of setting up the showdown.

Six months ago Obama might have given his GOP adversaries a public deadline for legislative action and framed the debate in simple, stark terms. Congressional Republicans have a chance to prove, Obama might have said, that they are not completely captured by the xenophobia of their most radical elements. He could have added the hope that Republicans would chose carefully their approach and then stumped the country for a specific proposal. Of course I know the Senate long ago passed a bipartisan immigration bill, but that recent history is lost on all but the most inside players. Obama’s approach to both teeing up and framing the issue and the predictable Republican reaction just doubles down on do nothing. The political environment grows more heavily seasoned with rancor that breeds hatred.

While Obama remains a maddeningly aloof personality who displays a persistent unwillingness to engage in the grubby details of politics, it is also true that the modern Republican Party has been captured, as Heather Cox Richardson says, by its no-to-everything base and can “no longer engage with the reality of actual governance.”

Obama, one suspects, will ultimately win the immigration fight. Facts, logic and demographics are on his side, not to mention an American tradition of fairness and justice. But in the meantime the senseless and petty partisanship rolls on. Congressman Raul Labrador suggests a government shutdown “lite” that would stop confirmation of any Obama appointees and slash some budgets. Others whisper impeachment and House Republicans have sued the president.

The incoming Senate Majority Leader says the new Republican Congress will consider a range of alternatives to deal with the president’s unprecedented power grab, which is not, of course, unprecedented at all. Here’s an idea for Senator McConnell who promises “forceful action” – how about you all pass a bill to fix the immigration mess. What a novel idea. Lawmakers legislating. Almost Lincolnesque.

Books, Climate Change, Football, Human Rights

Remarkable, But Shouldn’t Be…

140209211519-michael-sam-top11-single-image-cutIt is a given that our culture is obsessed with football. A Super Bowl game that quickly became non-competitive recently drew 111 million fans. Top level college football programs averaged more than 45,000 fans per game last season. In football crazed communities from Boise to Tuscaloosa the college game is an occasion for tailgate parties that often begin the night before the kickoff. National “letter of intent” day when high school stars commit to college programs gets way more media coverage than the Syrian civil war.

You might say football is in a way a metaphor for American culture. We love the ritual and root for our favorites, while quietly wondering about the lasting impact of sanctioned violence on young brains. We exalt the elite coaches and their seven figure salaries all the while secretly knowing that college should be more about the classroom than the locker room. Perhaps the football-as-life metaphor never fit more snugly than yesterday when a University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam, a likely high National Football League draft pick, let the world know what his teammates had known all season long.

Michael Sam, a strapping 6 foot 2 inch, 260 pounder, the best defensive player in the best football conference in the country, is gay. His knowing Missouri Tiger teammates selected him as their most valuable player after a season in which they had come to know the real Michael Sam. I can’t help but juxtapose that kind of courage and sensitivity against the head-in-the-sand bias and insensitivity of too many politicians from Boise to Sochi.

Michael Sam’s announcement almost seemed timed for maximum impact on our culture, and to his credit his timing also served to put his standing in a future NFL draft in some peril.

As the New York Times noted, “Mr. Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.” The guy who was credited with 11.5 sacks during Missouri’s 12-2 season instantly became a symbol of how quickly public attitudes are changing regarding matters of sexual orientation and, at the same time, Michael Sam set himself up – potentially – for the kind of abuse pathfinders often encounter.

The University of Missouri has something to teach the larger society about all this. “We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents #Mizzou,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement Sunday night. The coach’s classy responses came in reaction to Sam’s interviews with ESPN and the New York Times announcing he’s news.

Professional sports, perhaps particularly the NFL, have long been the athletic equivalent of the Idaho Legislature when it comes to recognize the fundamental human rights of our fellow citizens. Yet, as Jackie Robinson demonstrated in another civil rights context more than half a century ago, sports can also help the larger culture confront fundamental issues. Sportswriter Juliet Macur correctly says the slow, stone-by-stone dismantling of a professional sports wall of discrimination toward gays can now, thanks to Michael Sam’s courage, fall as though pushed by a bulldozer wearing Number 52.

“Same-sex marriage laws have been passed in many states,” Macur writes, “with more to come. Gay rights have been a major issue at the Olympics in Russia, where the government last summer passed a law that prohibits the transmission of ‘gay propaganda’ to children, prompting many groups and some athletes to speak out.

“Even Pope Francis has, in his own way, recently expressed support for gays, shocking conservatives when he said, ‘Who am I to judge?’ He said people ‘should not be marginalized’ because of their sexual orientation and ‘must be integrated into society.'”

Billie Jean King, who President Obama wisely asked to represent the United States at the Sochi Olympics (and in the process stuck a thumb in the homophobic Valdimir Putin’s eye), tells CBS that it “really it gets down to humankind. … We just happen to be gay. … We need to really shift where it’s a non issue. When it’s a non issue, it will mean we’ve arrived. It won’t happen in my lifetime but it’s definitely a civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

Here’s hoping Missouri’s Michael Sam has a great NFL career, but even if that doesn’t happen this articulate, intelligent young man will have displayed the kind of personal courage that some folks in public life would do well to try and emulate. Or, put another way: if Sam had enough courage to sit for an interview with the New York Times and ESPN and discuss the most personal aspects of who he is, perhaps its not asking too much that state legislators in Boise and other state capitols finally summon enough personal and political courage to really deal seriously with the civil rights issue of the 21st Century.

We should long for the day when it isn’t.

 

Air Travel, Books

The Year in Books

stack460It is that time of year when it seems everyone produces a Top 10 List of something – the best new restaurants, the hottest celebrities, or the best books.

I did something this year that I have never done before. I kept track of everything I read. The list is eclectic, heavy on non-fiction, and while it is a long list I hope next year to make it even longer. If you love books, as I do, you may consider your own list for 2014. It’s a great way to recall that book and author you read in January and can’t quite recall in November. So here goes – my own Top Ten best reads of 2013.

The best new book I read this year was 1913 – The Search for the World Before the Great War by a British writer Charles Emmerson who takes us on a 23 city tour of the world on the brink of the war that shaped the 20th Century. As the Washington Post said in a review, “The centenary of the Great War will no doubt see the publication of many fine histories of the conflict, but few are likely to paint so alluring a portrait of the world that was consumed by it — and that helped bring it about.”

I read or re-read four novels this year that now have a place on my all-time great list. The Great Gatsby may not be the Great American Novel, but it has to be one of the two or three contenders for that title. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece came to the big screen again this year, but it’s much better as a book. Read it again.

This year marked the 150th anniversary of the great Civil War battle at Gettysburg and I marked the anniversary by re-reading Michael Scharra’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels. This is the best kind of historical fiction. The story of Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and Joshua Chamberlain and the battle they fought near Gettysburg in 1863 is a true gem.

I also enjoyed for the first time Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled detective novel Red Harvest, which is set in a town that sounds a lot like Butte, Montana in 1929. Capote’s novel is set in a town that sounds a lot like New York in 1958. Both are fine reads.

Two biographies rate special mention this year: David Nasaw’s fine and engrossing life of Joseph P. Kennedy appropriately entitled The Patriarch and A. Scott Berg’s equally fine Wilson, the gripping life story of the 28th President of the United States complete with all his brilliance and with all his contradictions.

Of the raft of books released in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination the best may be Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court. Dallek focuses on Kennedy’s foreign policy and the brilliant – and often brilliantly wrong – advisers who served the young president. I came away with more respect for Kennedy’s own judgment and his courage in standing up to the bombastic advice he received, for example, from his generals during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

I also give very high marks to Ira Katznelson’s original and compelling history of the New Deal entitled Fear Itself. Katznelson goes deep behind the usual and well-known narrative of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to explain the political realities of the 1930’s with particular attention to the power southern racists Democrats had in the United States Senate and how FDR tailored his policies to fit that reality. I predict it will become a modern classic of the period that still defines American politics.

And finally another history to end the year, a book end really to Emmerson’s 1913 called The War That Ended Peace by a great historian Margaret MacMillan. MacMillan charts the policies and personalities that ruled in Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Austria-Hungry in the years leading up to The Great War. One comes away marveling at the pathetic emperors, the petty statesmen and the egotistical generals who played so recklessly with the peace of Europe until the fateful summer of 1914 when they touched off the war that ended empires, re-drew the map of Europe and the Middle East and foisted on the world the deadly 20th Century.

So many books. So little time. There are ten good reads I enjoyed in 2013. Happy New Year.

 

Air Travel, Andrus, Books, Energy, FDR, North Dakota

Power to the People

politifact_photos_rooseIn the second wave of New Deal legislation in the spring of 1935 – historians often refer to the period as the “Second New Deal” – Congress passed a massive omnibus bill – The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act. In a move that would be political poison today, Congress granted vast discretionary power under the Emergency Act to the president and Franklin Roosevelt got busy. With the stroke of a pen Roosevelt allocated millions to construct dams, build airports, bridges and tunnels.

Among the raft of Executive Orders signed by Roosevelt, and permitted under the Emergency Act, was the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). As Stanford University historian David Kennedy has written, “when REA began its work, fewer than two farms in ten had electricity; a little more than a decade later, thanks to lost-cost REA loans that built generating plants and strung power lines down country lanes and across field and pasture, nine out of ten did.”

Before the REA’s low-interest loans changed the landscape, as Morris Cooke the first REA Administrator said, the typical American farmer was in an impossible situation. “In addition to paying for the energy he used,” Morris wrote, “the farmer was expected to advance to the power company most or all of the costs of construction. Since utility company ideas as to what constituted sound rural lines have been rather fancy, such costs were prohibitive for most farmers.”

One of the great and enduring myths of the American West, as the great writer Wallace Stegner liked to remind us, is the myth that the West was built by rugged individuals. Nonsense, Stegner said. The West was built by the federal government and there are few better examples of how an enlightened government changed the landscape and life of millions of Americans than the REA. This fascinating and still immensely important story, fundamentally a political story about the good government can do, is told with engaging flair and real insight in Ted Case’s fine recent book Power Plays.

Case, the executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, argues that preserving the public institutions and the public good that the REA ushered in during Roosevelt’s day has required nearly 80 years of constant hand-to-hand combat with a variety of political forces, often including hostile presidents. The battle has been worth it, since it is not an overstatement to say that the region’s cooperative utilities, and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) that serves them with power and transmission, really have built the Northwest.

As debates rage in Washington over the scope and role of government, it’s worth remembering that during some of the nation’s darkest days of Great Depression, presidential candidate Roosevelt came to Portland, Oregon in 1932 and made an eloquent argument for a government devoted to the “larger interests of the many.” The occasion was a campaign speech – billed in the day as a major policy address on public utilities and hydropower development – that turned out to be one of FDR’s most important policy pronouncements during his history making campaign against Herbert Hoover.

“As I see it, the object of Government is the welfare of the people,” FDR said during his Portland speech. “The liberty of people to carry on their business should not be abridged unless the larger interests of the many are concerned. When the interests of the many are concerned, the interests of the few must yield. It is the purpose of the Government to see not only that the legitimate interests of the few are protected but that the welfare and rights of the many are conserved…This, I take it, is sound Government — not politics. Those are the essential basic conditions under which Government can be of service.”

During his Portland speech Roosevelt pledged to develop the hydro resources of the Columbia River, proposed vast new regulation of private utilities and foreshadowed the creation of what became the REA, the agency that, as David Kennedy says, “brought cheap power to the countryside, mostly by midwifing the emergence of hundreds of nonprofit, publicly owned electrical cooperatives.”

The reason many Americans in 1932 lacked access to adequate or any electricity, Roosevelt said, is “that many selfish interests in control of light and power industries have not been sufficiently far-sighted to establish rates low enough to encourage widespread public use.” He might also have said that many private utilities in the 1920’s and early 1930’s were content to operate highly profitable businesses in relatively easy to serve urban areas and were simply unwilling to make the effort and expend the resources to deliver power to smaller communities and farmers.

It’s difficult to imagine today, when without thinking we enter a dark room and flip the switch, how long it would have taken to get affordable electricity to rural Northwest and its farms had Roosevelt not followed through on his powerful Portland speech on power. Imagine the Pacific Northwest without the power of the federal dams that FDR promised in1932 in Portland – and I know they have become controversial – or the legacy of public power. The region’s great public utilities have played their part in the region’s development for sure, but they often have a fundamentally different mission from public power, including the need to generate a rate of return on investments, while answering to shareholders and investors.

It is a re-occurring feature of American democracy that we debate and debate again the reach and responsibility of government. We are stuck in a particularly dysfunctional period of that debate right now. Almost always in our history these periodic debates have been resolved, to the extent they are ever fully resolved, in favor of what Roosevelt long ago called “the welfare of the people.”

In the last years of his life, as Ted Case points out in his political history of how cooperative utilities remade rural America, Lyndon Johnson remarked that “of all the things I have ever done, nothing has given me as much satisfaction as bringing power to the Hill Country of Texas. Today in my home county,” LBJ said, “we have full grown men who have never seen a kerosene lamp except possibly in a movie – and that is all to the good.”

Rugged individuals make for good movies, but aggressive action by a federal government devoted to the greatest good for the greatest number helped turned on the lights in much of the Pacific Northwest. The story Ted Case tells in his book Power Plays is a reminder of what truly enlightened public policy once looked like.

 

American Presidents, Books, Football, Obama, Organized Labor, Political Correctness

What’s In a Name

Washington-RedskinsNow for something completely different…

While the nation dangles one foot over the fiscal cliff and while most of the federal government remains shut down, the epicenter of American politics has yet another crisis to confront – the name of its football team.

I knew the controversy swirling around the National Football League Redskins had reached crisis proportions when Lanny Davis, the slightly oily adviser to those in trouble, started issuing statements on behalf of the mostly tone deaf Redskins’ owner. Davis, you may remember, advised Bill Clinton in the Monica days and more recently helped out a charming fellow named Laurent Gbagbo who, before he was forced from power to face charges of torturing his political enemies, was quaintly described as the Ivory Coast’s strongman. Davis told the New York Times in 2010 “controversy is what I do for a living.” Welcome to the Redskins’ beat.

Davis was engaged – controversy is what he does after all – after President Obama weighed in on whether the Washington, D.C. team should change its name. “I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things,” Obama told The Associated Press.

“These things,” of course, would be names and mascots for sports teams that at least some Native Americans (and others) find offensive. Now you might think with all that the president has on his plate from Syria to Ted Cruz, from a debt ceiling to tanking approval numbers that he would have deftly sidestepped the question of the Redskins’ name. But to his credit, even while giving half the country another reason to dislike him, Mr. Obama answered the question and a million dinner table conversations were launched.

Maureen Dowd began her column on the controversy with this: “Whenever I want to be called a detestable, insidious proselytizer of political correctness, I just bring up the idea of changing the name of the Redskins at a family dinner. What if our football team’s name weren’t a slur, I ask brightly. Wouldn’t that be nice?’

Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder once said he would “never” change the name, but in post-Lanny Davis mode he struck a quieter, if no less certain, tone. “I’ve listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name,” Snyder wrote to the Washington Post. “But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too.”

“This word is an insult. It’s mean, it’s rude, it’s impolite,” Kevin Gover, who is Native American and directs the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “We’ve noticed that other racial insults are out of bounds. . . . We wonder why it is that the word that is directed at us, that refers to us, is not similarly off-limits.”

Here’s my guess: sooner of later, given a hard push by the ever image conscious NFL leadership and with what will surely be mounting pressure from political and business folks, the Redskins will take a new name. Gover, the Native American head of the Smithsonian museum, suggested a novel name – the Washington Americans. That may catch on and actually could be a tribute to the real Americans. But in the meantime Lanny Davis and others are left to defend the Redskins by pointing out that it’s not just the D.C. football team that has a potentially offensive name. There are the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Edmonton Eskimos. Not to mention the Utah Utes, the Florida State Seminoles and the Orofino Maniacs.

Orofino, Idaho, of course, is home not only to the high school Maniacs, but an Idaho state mental hospital. There is disagreement about which came first, the nickname or the facility, but the monicker has stuck through the years and helped create some memorable headlines. My personal favorite – “Maniacs Run Wild, Kill Kamiah.” Efforts to change the name have be labeled, well, crazy. Don’t mess with my Maniacs or my Redskins. No offense intended, of course.

The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux are no long either fighting or Sioux. After prolonged controversy the school dropped the “Fighting Sioux” nickname in 2012 and currently has no name. State law actually prohibits the university from renaming its sports teams until 2015. Let me get a jump on that and suggest the North Dakota “Damn Cold Winters.”

While we’re on the subject, I don’t generally like sports teams named after animals. Too many Lions and Tigers, Badgers and Eagles. The best sports names are unique and help tell a story. The Packers, for example, or the 49ers. I like the name, but have never been a fan of the Dodgers. The Minnesota Twins make sense to me. Also the Montreal Canadiens. Not so much the transplanted from New Orleans Utah Jazz. I’m not sure jazz is even legal in Utah.

Mr. Controversy-Is-My-Business Lanny Davis says in defense of the Redskins that the name is 80 years old and, of course, is used with no disrespect. Really. I grew up near the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota and no white guy, at least one in his right mind, would call a member of the tribe what the Washington teams calls itself. The Confederate battle flag has been around for more than 150 years, but it is now widely recognized as a symbol of white supremacy. The Ole Miss Rebels banned the stars and bars from football games for just that reason. Atlanta was once home to the minor league baseball “Crackers,” but that slang put down of poor whites wouldn’t fly today.

“Come to our reservation,” says Ray Halbritter, head of the Oneida Tribe that is leading the effort to change the D.C. team name, and “get up before everybody, families with children, and start out by saying how many cute little redskin children you see in the audience. Then try and tell us that you’re honoring us with that name.” No one has taken Halbritter up on the offer according to Joe Flood who has written at Buzzfeed about Native American reaction to the name controversy.

Yes, the Redskins will eventually change their name. The only real question is how much turmoil will be created and how long it will take. After all, as Maureen Dowd says, “All you have to do is watch a Western. The term ‘redskin’ is never a compliment.”

 

Air Travel, Books

My Summer Reading List

1913-The-World-before-the-GrFor many of us August is “book month,” a time of the year when we can kick back at the beach or in the back yard with the guilty pleasure of a page turning mystery or a door stop of history or biography. I personally lean to the door stop, so here are my half dozen best reads so far this summer.

1913: The World Before the Great War

The best book I’ve read in a while is the work of a British historian Charles Emmerson called 1913: The World Before the Great War, a sweeping survey of 23 of the world’s cities in the year before the world was plunged into the awful war that created the political, cultural and economic contours of the 20th Century. Emmerson is the engaging, historically fascinating travel guide as we visit the places like London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Vienna and Constantinople, cities that will be at the center of the war to come. But he also takes us to Detroit, Winnipeg, Tehran and Buenos Aires, growing cities in the first years of the century where optimism about the future soon gave way to the horror of The Great War.

As Ian Thomson noted in his review of 1913 in The Guardian: “The great cities of the world grew strong and rich by being open to foreigners. Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, united Serbo-Croats, Greeks, Bulgars and Transylvanians under the double-headed eagle of Emperor Franz Josef. The cosmopolitanism could not last, however. With a few deft strokes, Emmerson conjures an air of looming catastrophe in Vienna as Archduke Franz Ferdinand is about to be assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 and the calamity attendant on the break-up of Habsburg crown lands breaks out. If the coming war dispersed and murdered people, the Austro-Hungarian empire had at least sheltered Jews and non-Jews alike in the multi-ethnic lands of Mitteleuropa. By the end of the conflict, from the eastern border of France all the way through Asia to the Sea of Japan, not a single pre-1913 government remained in power. The once mighty German, Habsburg, Russian and Ottoman empires had collapsed.”

The year before The Great War was the beginning of 20th Century globalism with the world having one foot in the new century and the other in a simpler past. Writing in the Washington Post Michael F. Bishop said, “Millions were soon to die on the fields of France, but in 1913 Paris was ‘the quintessential city of seduction, sensation and spectacle.’ President Raymond Poincare still brooded over the German conquest of his native Lorraine in 1870, but his fellow Parisians were more exercised about the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. This modernist masterpiece seemed a harbinger of things to come, as a lusher and more ornate past ceded to a harsher but more dynamic present.”

This is a great and important book that opens a window on the last year before the defining event of the 20th Century changed almost everything. Emmerson says simply of the world that will be ushered in through the bloody trenches of Europe, “Somehow, somewhere, the world of 1913 had gone.”

The American Senate

For 30 years Neil MacNeil was Time magazine’s Congressional correspondent. From that perch MacNeil – some of you older PBS viewers may remember – was a regular in the early days of Washington Week in Review and wrote a delightful biography of one-time Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen. MacNeil died in 2008 before he was able to finish his sweeping history of the United States Senate and the project was taken over by long-time Senate historian Richard A. Baker. The result is a cozy, well-sourced review of the unique and critically important role the Senate plays in the scheme of American government.

The American Senate deals with the origins of “the world’s greatest deliberative body” through the days before the Civil War when the Senate, with names like Webster, Clay and Calhoun in power, came to dominate the presidency. All the great and not-so-great moments of Senate history are covered usually more by subject than chronology. We also get inside looks at effective leaders in Senate history like Joseph Robinson in the 1930’s, Lyndon Johnson in the 1950’s, Dirksen in the 1960’s and Howard Baker in the 1980’s. I’ve read much about the origin and history of the filibuster, which has come to dominate all the Senate does or tries to do, but I’ve not read a better assessment or history of the tactic of the filibuster and what its widespread use has done to diminish the Senate than in this book.

MacNeil and Baker also offer priceless stories, including how the mellifluous Dirksen came to be called “the Wizard of Ooze.” They note at one point that “some senators came to believe that their speeches were not just speeches, but action itself.”  In one case South Carolina Sen. Ellison (“Cotton Ed”) Smith made “an astonishing claim.” When he began his Senate speech, Smith said, “cotton was ten cents. When I finished four hours later, cotton was twelve cents. I will continue to serve you in this way.”

While the book is mostly a history of a great political institution that is currently in decline it is also a measured, responsible call for a better Senate with better leadership and Senators focused not on the next election, but the next generation. Who could disagree with that?

The Great Gatsby

The release of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “great American novel” was my prompt to pull down from the high shelf and read again my dog-eared paperback of the 1925 classic. It was worth it. Most of us read Gatsby in high school or maybe in college. Forget the movie and read the real thing. As we get a little older the last line of Gatsby – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” – takes on even more meaning.

1940 and Those Angry Days

Both of these books – 1940 by Susan Dunn and Those Angry Days by Lynne Olson – deal with the period immediately before the United States became involved in World War II. Dunn’s book is conventional but solid history of the historic election when Franklin Roosevelt won his third term. Olson’s book, highly readable and a page-turner, is marred by a number of silly errors that can cause a reader to question her, at times, overly simplistic conclusions. Still, I recommend both books as good, if not always nuanced, contributions to the history of a pivotal moment in the 20th Century.

Everyday Drinking

What’s a beach read without a cocktail? In his introduction to Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking the late and brilliant essayist Christopher Hitchens, who knew something about booze, says that Amis, novelist and writer of short stories and non-fiction, was “what the Irish call ‘your man’ when it came to the subject of drink.”

This funny, opinionated, how-too guide to spirits, wine and manners is the kind of slim book you can pick up and open to any page and be entertained and informed. There is even a section with various quizzes. (I’d recommend leaving it on the back of the toilet tank for easy, quick reading, but that would  be so not Kingsley Amis.)

One reviewer had this advice. “Under no circumstance should [Everyday Drinking] be read in one go. Not even with a pitcher of dry martinis at hand. You’ll do Amis’s work proper justice, as even he suggests, by reading it at the rate of, say, one chapter a night. You may even try reading it out loud at bedtime. Or not.”

Amis covers history, hangovers, recipes and almost everything that is put in a bottle behind a label and often in just a few paragraphs. He writes, for example, of Champagne as a drink that will “go with any food and one can theoretically drink it right through a meal…in practice it is suppose to be a splendid accompaniment to a cold summery lunch of smoked salmon and strawberries. Best of all on its own, I have heard its admirers say, about 11:30 a.m., with a dry biscuit. Which leaves plenty of time to sneak out to the bar for a real drink.”

There you have it – a half dozen good reads for August. Grab a drink and a book and have at it.