Air Travel, Books

Good Reads this Year

Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman/writer of the 20th – or perhaps any – Century. Over his long life he made serious money as a writer, won the Nobel Prize for his life’s work as a writer and was also a serious reader.

Winston once said, “If you cannot read all your books…fondle them – peer into them – let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them with your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate, be your acquaintances.”

Such a quote is a good jumping off point to praise some of the books of this year that I enjoyed – and perhaps you will, too.

First…Churchill. The book is The Last Lion – Defender of the Realm the last of three volumes – the first two by William Manchester – that constitute a mini-library of the remarkable life of the great Englishman. Knowing he was dying, Manchester asked reporter Paul Reid to finish his magnum opus. It was sure to be an impossible job, but I must say Reid does a fine job of closing the Churchill ring. One can nitpick the style or the focus and some critics have hit the length – over 1,000 pages – but Reid has done justice to Manchester’s Lion. The book covers Churchill during the war and to the end of his life. If, like me, you continue to be fascinated by the bigger than life, flawed, funny, tender, petulant, brilliant Churchill you’ll need to tackle the book. You can build up the upper body just by holding it. The workout is worth it.

The quote – “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know” is attributed to Harry Truman, another prolific reader. Such is the case for me with a book, not new but published in 2009, entitled England’s Last War Against FranceAuthor Colin Smith tells the story of the bloody, far flung war between Churchill’s British Empire and Nazi-friendly Vichy France from 1940-1942. It is a remarkable story now mostly forgotten.

Public opinion research tells us that most Americans cannot name a single member of the United States Supreme Court. John Roberts, the chief justice and best known member of the court, was identified by only 20% of Americans in one survey during 2012. That amazing and disturbing fact makes Jeffrey Toobin’s book – The Oath – on the Supreme Court and the Obama Administration all the more valuable. The title refers to the botched presidential oath Roberts administered to Obama in 2008 and that story is a fine point of departure for Toobin to take us into the inner workings of the third branch. Reading this book will give you reason to believe that knowing the nine justices and understanding how politics and background drives the court even more important than worrying over the fiscal cliff.

For pure power of good writing and enormous grasp of history, culture and literature, treat yourself to a copy of the late Christopher Hitchens‘ collection of essays Arguably. You don’t have to like Hitchens’ politics or approve of his views on religion to be astounded at his range and writing. This is kind of book you can pick up for a few minutes, lose yourself, put down and then discover again and again. Remarkable stuff.

John Lewis Gaddis’ brilliant life of diplomat, writer and big thinker George F. Kennan won the 2012 Pulitzer for biography. It deserves the medal. You’ll come away from reading about Kennan’s life wondering why we aren’t producing such public servants today or, if we are, why they are never heard from.

So many other great books in 2012 – Caro on LBJ, Meacham on Jefferson, new novels from Jim Harrison and Ivan Doig and more.

As Winston said, “If you cannot read all your books…fondle them – peer into them – let them fall open where they will…let them be your friends.” It was a good year for friends.

 

Air Travel, American Presidents, Books, Giffords, Humanities, Obama

Bad History Matters

David Barton’s book “The Jefferson Lies” is a New York Times bestseller. It was also recently voted “the least credible history book in print.” The book has been widely panned by real historians, but still it sells and sells.

David Maraniss, an Associate Editor of The Washington Post, is just out with a completely sourced, deeply researched reporting job called “Barack Obama: The Story.” Maraniss, a Pulitzer winner for his reporting on Bill Clinton, has written a shelf full of fine books on Clinton, Al Gore, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi, among other subjects. He’s a pro and turning to the footnotes in his books tells you all you need to know about how seriously he takes the research that is the super structure of his reporting.

Yet, Maraniss’ book, well-reviewed and critically praised, hasn’t broken through as a big seller. For that book on Obama you’ll need to turn to Edward Klein’s book “The Amateur,” which has been on the Times bestseller lists for weeks despite the fact that is based on anonymous sources and little real reporting.

Klein’s highly-critical polemic about the President is nevertheless outselling Maraniss’ even-handed, yet critical biography. Actually, outselling is an understatement. Klein’s book has sold 137,000 copies and the Maraniss book has sold 19,000.

Garbage sells seems to be the lesson.

Part of the explanation for the sales success of Klein’s Obama book is the still apparently widespread notion that major elements of the President’s life – his religion and his birth, for example  – are phony, made up, invented. Maraniss picks through his pile of conspiracy and myth making and concludes that the real frauds and fabricators are those, like Klein, who keep repeating the lies, inventing new ones and passing it off as history.

Same goes with Barton’s book about Jefferson in which he concocts the story that Jefferson’s real beliefs about God and the place of religion in our public life have somehow been hidden all these years. Rather than believing in a strict separation of religion and government, Barton would have us believe Jefferson was really “an Orthodox Christian.”

As distinguished religion scholar Dr. Martin Marty points out a “real”
historian of the American founding, Gordon Wood, had this to say about Jefferson:  “It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the ‘priestcraft’ were always in alliance with despots against liberty. For him the divine Trinity “was nothing but ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘hocus-pocus’. . . Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it.”

Barton and Klein write what they pass off as history in order to advance a cause and, of course, to sell books with the help of Glenn Beck and others with a political or religious agenda. It’s a free country and we do have a First Amendment after all, but what they do is not history and to pass it off as such is also a fraud.

One of the great and pressing problems with our politics is the inability of too many people to agree on even the most fundamental facts. How can we fix out-of-control federal spending unless we agree on what is causing it? Is it some of the lowest real tax rates in history? Or runaway spending on entitlements? Or both?

Is climate change real? Is the Earth warming and, if so, has man contributed? What to do?

The beginning of solving problems is to agree on at least a few fundamental facts. Silly books that pretend to report history don’t help, nor do book sellers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon who treat phony history like we should really take it seriously.

Next time you’re browsing for a new read check out the cover, of course, but then turn to the back before you buy. Has the author really sourced the book? Do the footnotes, if there are any, pass the smell test? Is there a bibliography, meaning that the author consulted other books on his subject? Are sources named? Does the writer have an obvious agenda?

If you want to read fiction, you should, but don’t fall for fiction that passes itself off as history. There is too much good and important history being written to let the frauds and fabricators make all the sales.

 

Afghanistan, Air Travel, Books, Journalism

The Anchorman

The Most Trusted Man in America

This may be the most famous photo of the many famous photos of the famous CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. The grainy, black and white image was taken while Cronkite, in shirt sleeves, announced the awful news that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.

In a remarkable piece of 1963-vintage television reporting, Cronkite sits calmly in the middle of what had to have been massive confusion in the CBS newsroom, fielding notes handed to him and seamlessly handing off the airwaves to a local reporter in Dallas. He makes it look easier than it was in 1963. We take that electronic news sleight of hand for granted today. It wasn’t normal back in the black and white days of television.

Two things about Cronkite’s reporting and demeanor strike me after all these years and after having seen the video many times. First, was his unwillingness to rush to the judgment that JFK had actually died. A local reporter in Dallas says that the president has apparently died and then Cronkite is handed a note saying that Dan Rather, who ironically would no so successfully replace Cronkite at the CBS anchor desk in 1981, was reporting the same thing.

Still, the veteran wire service reporter won’t flatly speak the dreaded news. Finally, when the wire services confirm Kennedy’s death, Cronkite, with a slight quiver in his voice, says its true – the President of the United States has been assassinated. And that is the second remarkable thing about the video. Cronkite shows the emotion that I can remember and most American’s felt upon hearing the news of Kennedy’s death – disbelief, horror, sadness, even fright. All of that was captured in a few seconds of television’s first draft of history.

In his masterful new biography of Cronkite historian Douglas Brinkley devotes an entire chapter, 20 pages, to Cronkite’s and CBS’s handling of the Kennedy murder. I read the passage, still gripped by the intensity of the moment all these years later, just a day after CNN and Fox News, among others, blew the initial coverage of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Obamacare. What a contrast. And, while the two events – a president assassinated and a controversial court ruling – are hardly comparable, Cronkite’s careful, humble, measured response in handling a huge story is a startling contrast to a flustered, unprepared Wolf Blitzer mishandling a big story.

The Brinkley book, more than anything I have read recently about the state of journalism, particularly television journalism, makes the case that Cronkite-era standards have gone missing on much of the nation’s airwaves. The three network evening news programs, while drawing a sliver of the audience that Cronkite and his contemporaries once commanded, still offer a version of the old network quality and seriousness, but the vast wasteland of cable news is completely foreign to the news product CBS once put on the air night after night.

Cronkite, we learn from Brinkley’s exhaustive research, was far from a saint. He was extraordinarily competitive, could cut his colleagues off at the knees, loved bawdy jokes and arguably became too much the cheerleader for the space program and NASA. And, later in life, Cronkite simply quit trying to mask his liberal political opinions giving his detractors reason to question whether he had always played the news straight down the middle.

 Still, the Cronkite that emerges at Brinkley’s hands is a pro, a well-read, well-sourced reporter who wanted to be first, but more importantly wanted to be right. Cronkite also had a nuanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of television news. He knew he couldn’t match the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage and didn’t try, but still based almost an entire CBS Evening New broadcast on the print reporting Woodward and Bernstein had done. Cronkite’s coverage of the Nixon resignation in 1974 is still riveting television.

At the same time, Uncle Walter knew that taking a reporter and camera along as U.S. GI’s hunted the Viet Cong in the rice paddies of South Vietnam was exactly the story that television could report with brutal and uncomfortable honesty. CBS with Cronkite as the Managing Editor, a newspaper term and role at he completely embraced, helped make Vietnam the living room war. Cronkite’s 1968 special on Vietnam – he declared the war at a stalemate – was a decisive political and media moment in that awful period of our history.

For most Americans younger than 40 Walter Cronkite and his brand of television news are ancient history, no more relevant to modern America than Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Edison. But Cronkite, who died in 2009, is relevant precisely because there is no one like him now.

No one, really, picked up the Cronkite mantle when he left the anchor desk, prematurely he would conclude, in 1981. Cronkite came, it is now clear, from the greatest generation of television news, as did Huntley and Brinkley, Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner, and many others from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. But there was only one Cronkite and now we have a book that remembers his story and his greatness, warts an all, even as some of us search for a place to turn in the vast television wasteland that measures up, even a little, to his standards.

“He seemed to me incorruptible,” said director Sidney Lumet, “in a profession that was easily corruptible.”

Cronkite would joke when someone referred to him as the “most trusted man in America,” that it was clear “they hadn’t checked with my wife.” But that title fit then and it seems all the more special – and retired – today.

 

Books, Football, Kramer, Sanders

Guest Post

My Call from No. 15

A guest post today from my Gallatin colleague Randy Simon.

At this point in my life I like and appreciate my morning office routine. I turn on the computer, fix a cup of coffee and check the daily headlines before tackling the day’s tasks. Call me a creature of habit, but I typically don’t like early morning surprises unless of course they involve getting a phone call from Green Bay Packer legend Bart Starr.

Which is exactly what happened today.

Halfway through my coffee and the phone rings showing a 205 area code. Like most people I’m hesitant to answer an unfamiliar number, but this time I’m glad I did.

“This is Randy”

“Hi Randy, its Maggie from Bart Starr’s office. Bart would like to speak with you.”

“Um, err, yeah, I mean yes, that would be great.”

“Hi Randy its Bart Starr, how are you?”

At this point I wanted to say, “Are you kidding me? Bart Starr? The guy who was the MVP of the first two Super Bowls and arguably the most recognizable quarterback in the history of the NFL. I’m great! In fact I’m awesome now that I’m talking to you,” but I managed instead to squeak out, “I’m well Mr. Starr, how are you?”

“Call me Bart. Mr. Starr is too formal.”

What ensued was an incredible 15 minute conversation with an NFL legend and Hall of Famer, who at 78, is still on top of his game.

For the past few months we’ve been working with Alicia Kramer to help her dad, Jerry Kramer, another Packer legend receive what is well over due – induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Marc Johnson, who usually writes in this space, wrote a convincing piece recently about why Kramer is so deserving of Hall of Fame recognition.

As part of our effort to secure support for Jerry, I had recently sent Bart a letter asking for his endorsement. I never expected a phone call, but was happy to hear that Bart has been sending letters to the Hall of Fame voters for several years endorsing Kramer’s nomination. Like us, Bart still can’t believe Kramer has not been inducted – and he should know. Bart had the best seat in the house to watch Kramer leading the way on those famous “Packer Sweeps.”

Bart is still an icon and continues doing things the right way. To this day, if you donate any amount of money, no matter how small the amount to his charity Rawhide Boys Ranch, he will sign the memorabilia you send him and pay the postage to return it to you.

Now, he’s repaying Kramer and backing a teammate who had his back for so many years. It’s a conversation I will never forget.

I wish everyday started this way.

By the way, you can support the Kramer to the Hall effort by sending your own Bart Starr-like endorsement to:

Pro Football Hall of Fame 
Attn: Nominations 
2121 George Halas Drive N.W. 
Canton, OH 44708

 

 

Books, Football, Kramer, Sanders

Jerry Kramer

Time to Right a Wrong

Forty-three years ago this past Tuesday, the Green Bay Packers issued a terse statement that began with these words: “Guard and author Jerry Kramer announces his retirement after an 11-year career that stretches back to 1958.”

Kramer, just 33 years old, had compiled an outstanding career in his slightly more than a decade on some of the most storied professional football teams in the history of the National Football League. Of course, he’s in the Green Bay Hall of Fame. Kramer was also a perennial All-Pro and Pro-Bowl selection, won the 1962 NFL title game by kicking a field goal, and greased the skids on the famous Packer sweep with the kind of speed and agility – Kramer played at 245 pounds – that is rarely matched by any offensive lineman, then or now.

If you don’t believe me look at some of the old film of Number 64 pulling from his right guard position and outrunning a Jim Taylor, a Donny Anderson or Paul Hornung to get in position to put a staggering hit on an opposing linebacker or cornerback. The legendary Vince Lombardi ran an offense based on a limited number of plays and he expected flawless execution every time, particularly when it came to the thundering Packer sweep. Lombardi considered Kramer the best of his generation as his position.

Jerry Kramer, for perhaps a variety of reasons, none of which withstand analysis, has not been voted into the NFL Hall of Fame in the 43 years since he hung up his pads. He deserves it. His time has come and, in fact, is way past due.

Kramer is the only player named to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team not in the Hall. Forty-nine other guys made the cut. For some reason he hasn’t. NFL films consider him the Number 1 player not in the Hall. Good enough for me, yet perhaps the most powerful evidence that Jerry Kramer’s gridiron greatness has slipped through the Hall of Fame cracks is contained in the endorsements the 76-year old Montana native, Sandpoint, Idaho High School grad and University of Idaho Vandal has received from his peers. The guys who know Kramer’s gifts the best, who played across the line from him, who tried to knock him on his backside, think he is clearly a Hall of Famer.

Gino Marchetti was as good as anyone who ever played defense in the NFL. In his 13 years with the old Dallas Texans and then the Baltimore Colts he was year-after-year a consensus All-Pro. Gino was voted into the Hall in 1972 and thinks Kramer should be there, too.

“I was truly shocked,” Marchetti wrote recently, “to find that Jerry was not a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. I know personally that there was no one better at his position.”

Frank Gifford, Roger Staubach, Alan Page, Chuck Bednarik, Paul Hornung, Bob Lilly, Doug Atkins, Bob Schmidt, Bob St. Clair, Willie Davis, Raymond Berry and Larry Csonka – Hall of Famers every one – say the same thing.

Before his tragic death in 2011, Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey said of Kramer, “We who played with him in pro bowls and against him during our careers vote 100% for Jerry to join us in the Hall.”

Athletes normally do not easily praise the virtues of their opponents 30 or 40 years after the battles are over. That so many of Kramer’s peers, Hall of Famers themselves, speak so highly of his talents is an astounding testament to his greatness. That alone should be enough to lift him into the Hall.

There are three theories about why Kramer hasn’t received the call to Canton, Ohio the home of the NFL Hall of Fame. One theory says he had the misfortunate to play on the great Lombardi Packer teams with so many other Hall of Famers. Those great Packer teams of the 1960’s won three straight titles, five overall and the first two Super Bowls. They were great and richly blessed teams, but saying that a great player like Kramer should suffer because he happened to play on a team with a locker room full of great players is like saying Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies, while Mozart wrote 41 and therefore they can’t both be considered great. Poppycock.

The Lombardi era was great because the great coach found, developed and then got the most out of a team of superb players, including Kramer. The theory that there are too many Packers from this era already in the Hall is bogus. In a place where only accomplishment should matter, there is room for a Mozart, a Beethoven…and a Brahms.

The second theory holds that the football writers who vote on Hall of Fame matters are of a sufficiently younger generation that they just don’t know enough about Kramer’s playing days and therefore they discount a guy who has been nominated several times in the past. But not knowing isn’t right.

Baseball writers finally got around to selecting the worthy Orlando Cepeda for the baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. Cepeda quit playing 25 years before. A careful review of Kramer’s career by the current selection panel will show, beyond a doubt, that his career is worthy. Cepeda waited for a quarter century, Kramer has been shut out for more than 40 years. It’s time.

Finally, in a perverse way it’s been suggested by some that Kramer the author – his best seller Instant Replay is still one of the best sports books ever – hurt his Hall of Fame chances because of his candid take on what life was – or may still be  – inside the NFL. If there is any truth to this theory it too is poppycock. Kramer was not only a rugged, physical, smart football player, he happens to write well, even elegantly, and his keen observations on Lombardi, his teammates, the media and football showcase that he was far from a one dimensional pulling guard. Kramer’s substantial literary accomplishments are just frosting on this offensive lineman’s career cake.

The latest effort to Get Kramer to the Hall isn’t the work of Jerry Kramer. He has said he’s often introduced as a Hall of Famer and he’s quit correcting the record simply because so many people think a guy with his credentials must just automatically be were the greats go to be remembered. He’s not losing sleep over the snub and his ego is in check. Kramer isn’t a guy to live in the past even though his stories about Lombardi and the Green Bay dynasty are still the stuff of football legend.

No, the effort to get Kramer his due has been spearheaded by his daughter with a little volunteer help from my firm and a whole bunch of people who like the big guy and feel like getting his plaque up on the wall in Canton would amount to one of the world’s little wrongs made right. The University of Idaho joined the parade this week.

In the whole scheme of things securing a moment of Hall of Fame recognition for an old football player hardly ranks with world peace or a cure for cancer on the list of society’s great causes. But recognition, especially when it is so obviously deserved and truly does reflect the enduring importance of excellence, is never a minor matter whether you’re talking art, literature, science or sport.

The Oscars wouldn’t be complete if Jimmy Stewart hadn’t gotten one. Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner got their Nobel Prizes for literature. Heck, Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television, has a statue in the U.S. Capitol. 

Idaho’s and Green Bay’s Jerry Kramer performed on a different, grassy stage. His science was speed and finesse, his art courage and determination. Kramer used all those skills when he popped the most famous block in football history in 1967, opening a hole for Bart Starr to leap into the frozen end zone at Lambeau Field and beat the Dallas Cowboys. They’ve always called that game The Ice Bowl. It was 13 below zero at game time. Kramer will tell you it was a great team effort that did in the Cowboys on that bitter cold last day of the year and, of course, it was a team effort, but only one guy made the critical block.

It’s time now – past time – that the guy who iced that memorable victory, just one of his many greatest moments, had a chance to ice the champagne. Kramer needs to be in the Hall of Fame and when he is the football gods will smile because those gods know what’s right and this is right.

You can support The Get Kramer to the Hall effort by writing to the nominating committee on Jerry’s behalf. The address is:

Pro Football Hall of Fame

Attn: Nominations

2121 George Halas Drive, NW;

Canton, Ohio 44708

 

Air Travel, Baucus, Books, U.S. Senate

Once it Worked

The Last Great Senate

Given today’s persistent gridlock in Congress, it’s easy to forget that the United States Senate was once a place where bipartisan lawmaking actually occurred on a fairly regular basis and not that long ago.

A fine new book – The Last Great Senate by Ira Shapiro – remembers a Senate full of great and gifted legislators, including Washington State’s Scoop Jackson, pictured nearby. Shapiro, a former trade official in the Clinton Administration and Senate staffer, makes a compelling case that the U.S. Senate in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a great place. A roll call of the great ones of that period, Scoop included, reads like a roster of some of the institutions very best.

Mansfield from Montana, Baker from Tennessee, Church from Idaho and Hatfield from Oregon. And there were more, Javits of New York, Rudman of New Hampshire, Byrd of West Virginia, Cooper of Kentucky and Case of New Jersey. Most are lost to memory now, but the Senate they occupied was a far different place than today’s where party leaders seem only to traffic in partisan sound bites and elbow each other for each day’s tactical political advantage.

Writing last week in the Seattle Times, Shapiro remembered the great Scoop as a fully formed, well informed and well intentioned Senator.

“Jackson was also a master legislator,” Shapiro wrote, “able to reach principled compromises to further the national interest. During the late 1970s, as energy dependence became a central concern for America, Jackson was the chairman of the newly formed Senate Energy Committee. Jackson loathed President Jimmy Carter (the feeling was mutual), who had defeated him for the Democratic nomination in 1976. Jackson doubted Carter’s readiness to be president and also disagreed with the thrust of his energy proposals, believing them to be too generous to the oil and gas industries.

“Yet, despite all these factors, and even while leading the fight against Carter’s effort to negotiate the SALT II arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union, Jackson worked tirelessly for three long years to produce a national energy policy. He respected the presidency, if not the president, and saw the need to forge compromises between consumer and producer interests, and the various regions of our country.”

Talk privately to any thinking member of Congress and they will tell you that the country faces serious challenges that aren’t difficult to identify. We must gain control of fiscal policy and the tax code is a mess and must be reformed for reasons of both fairness and increased revenue. We face serious competitive issues that are only met by world-class trade, education and infrastructure investment. Immigration policy must be re-structured and – brace yourselves – even gun violence in America must be addressed.

The problems are readily apparent, what is failing is our institutions, beginning with the federal legislature and particularly the United States Senate. Gone is the sense that a six-year Senate term gives 100 elite Americans a license to operate just a little above the partisan hustle. For the better part of three decades, as Shapiro’s must read book makes clear, many of the nation’s most pressing problems have gone begging, while the Senate has fallen into a frozen, partisan swamp of inaction.

It would be comforting to think that the institution can reform itself from within and regain some of its historic luster, but in today’s Twitter-infused partisanship that is probably asking too much. The fault, dear friends is not in the Senate, really, but in ourselves. We settle for gridlock rather than demand a Senate of Scoop Jacksons.

 

Air Travel, Baseball, Books, Britain, Brother, Football, Johnson, Politics, Reagan, Religion

Weekend Reads

Robert Caro, Jerry Kramer and More

There is a fascinating piece planned for publication Sunday, and already online, in The New York Times on legendary Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro. Caro is about to release volume four of his projected five volume bio of LBJ. To date he has produced 3,388 fascinating pages.

Caro’s work is one of the greatest studies ever of the accumulation and use of political power. The piece also has great insights into the author’s methods, which could properly be described as “old school.” He dresses for work every day in jacket and tie, for example. Great piece.

Northwest Nazarene University political scientist Steve Shaw and one of his colleagues, English Department Chair Darrin Grinder, have just released an important new book that I highly recommend. The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey wrote about the book – “The Presidents and Their Faith” – earlier this week. From Jefferson’s own version of the Gospels to Woodrow Wilson’s Presbyterian minister father to Richard Nixon’s Quaker roots, Shaw and Grinder give us wonderful mini-portraits of 43 presidents and their personal and political faith. With so much talk of politics and religion, the book couldn’t be timelier. Highly recommended.

Insightful piece in The Atlantic by staff writer Conor Friedersdorf that explains why national Republicans have spent 20 years searching for the next Ronald Reagan and haven’t found him.

“Today, would be Reagans with less charisma, less executive experience and less time spent honing their thinking and communication skills are somehow expecting to succeed even as they operate in a less advantageous political environment. Of course it isn’t happening. And it’s no wonder conservatives are divided in who they support.”

And finally, I am very aware (and happy) that baseball is back in action. My Giants open today in the city by the bay. But, the best sports book I’ve read in a while is an older book, published in 1968, Instant Replay by Green Bay Packer great and University of Idaho grad Jerry Kramer. The New York Times called Kramer’s book the “best behind the scene glimpse of pro football ever produced.”

Some think the book’s candor has contributed to Kramer being passed over for the NFL Hall of Fame. If so, that’s ridiculous. Kramer is the most deserving NFL player not in the Hall and that oversight, at long last, should be corrected. Get a copy of the book and read it. It’s great.

 

Air Travel, Books, John Kennedy, Johnson, Religion

LBJ

Our Eternally Fascinating and Flawed President

The steady re-examination and reinterpretation of our 36th president is one of the most interesting developments in the shifting world of political history and biography. There are new and often very good books all the time about the Roosevelts, Kennedy and, more often now, Reagan, but the story of the big, drawling Texan is simply a political historian’s dream.

The fact that LBJ biographer Robert Caro is about to release the fourth volume of his massive and nearly life-long work on Johnson was, in and of itself, a significant news story. The book, Passage to Power, is out May 1 and covers the Kennedy assassination and deals with the fact that the ambitious then-vice president had all but given up aspirations to sit in the Oval Office. Caro has another volume still to come. To mark the release of the book, Caro has written a piece in The New Yorker and the magazine has collected seven different pieces Caro has written over the years about Johnson. The collection amounts to soul food for the political junkie.

Meantime, another fine new book on Johnson’s presidency is just out. Indomitable Will by Mark Updegrove – he’s the director of the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin – tells the story of Johnson’s Shakespearean presidency through oral histories of those, LBJ included, who lived the experience.

Dozens of other books have been written about Johnson and Robert Dallek’s two volume treatment remains among the best. There will be more.

During his presidency, Lyndon Johnson was loathed by many for what some saw as his unsophisticated manner and for having inherited the presidency that John Kennedy’s should have held much longer. Others came to despise Johnson for his escalation of the war in Southeast Asia or his vast expansion of the social safety net in the guise of Johnson’s Great Society. Still, Johnson remains one of the pivotal figures of 20th Century politics. Rarely has there been a better politician in the White House. Rarely has there been a more effective senate majority leader. Johnson’s impact on his moment in time survives years after his death and for anyone who loves politics and the American story will find the new volumes and many of the old fascinating reading. Put another way, you cannot begin to understand the politics of the United States in 2012 – the economy, health care, foreign policy, race – without an appreciation for the life and times of Lyndon Johnson.

 

 

Air Travel, Baseball, Books, Politics

They Also Ran

These Guys Never Made it to President’s Day

If you recognize the fellow in the photo as the 1924 Democratic candidate for President of the United States you are a trivia master. That smiling, prosperous looking fellow was John W. Davis and he lost the presidency in 1924 to Calvin Coolidge.

It somehow seems appropriate – the day after President’s Day – to remember the also ran’s who also ran, guys like John W. Davis. Who knows whether Davis would have been a good president? He certainly had the resume. Davis was born and grew up in West Virginia where he practiced law, served in the state legislature, got elected to Congress, became Solicitor General and U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. So far, he seems over qualified.

When Democrats nearly destroyed the party in 1924 with a convention battle over the Klan and booze – the wet, anti-Klan crowd wanted New York Gov. Al Smith, the dry, pro-Klan faction favored the former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo – Davis emerged on the 103rd ballot as the compromise nominee.

[Could a man named McAdoo have ever won the presidency? Well, a guy named Obama did.]

When that 1924 convention entered its 16th day without a nominee, Will Rogers joked that New York had invited the Democrats to visit the city for their convention not to live there permanently. When Davis finally had the nomination, it wasn’t worth much. He lost everything but the solid south and Silent Cal polled 54% in an election that also featured a Progressive Party ticket lead by Sen. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin.

Davis gets his own chapter in one of my all-time favorite political books, which is appropriated called They Also Ran. Irving Stone wrote the profiles of the men who ran and lost in 1943. The book covers the losers from the beginning of the Republic until 1940 and it’s a great read with Stone often suggesting that the guys who lost – Davis, Winfield Scott Hancock, etc. – might have been a good deal better than the guys who won.

The book also bunches the also ran’s into parallel lives with the military men grouped together, the newspaper men considered together, etc. It is a very effective technique and a unique perspective on those who ran and lost.

It’s fun to think about the presidents we might have had – Henry Clay, for instance – or we should have had – Horace Greeley rather than a second Grant term. David Frum played the game yesterday by focusing on three important elections.

While the also ran’s failed to make it to the White House a number of them still influenced history. Davis, for example, became one of the most famous lawyers of his day. No less an authority than Justice Hugo Black considered him one of the two or three greatest advocates of the 20th Century. By the end of his legal career, Davis had made 139 oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, including representing the state of South Carolina in one of the most important cases in court history – Brown v. Board of Education.

In that case, just as in his moment of presidential fame in 1924, John W. Davis lost. But, fair is fair, losers deserve to be remembered, too, and who knows what might have been.

 

 

Air Travel, Baucus, Books, Bush, Church, CIA, Civil Rights, Film, Poverty, U.S. Senate

The Spy from Boise

A Real Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Years ago as a very young, very naive reporter, the boss handed me a piece of wire copy ripped straight off the teletype machine and told me to find a photographer and get an interview with James Jesus Angleton.

I should have said – who? But, of course, I was too inexperienced (too stupid) to ask that question and to pause for a moment to think what I might ask the man who had recently been forced out as the long-time chief of counterintelligence at the CIA. I headed for a local hotel to try and stick a microphone in the face of man who, since World War II, had been the intelligence service’s top expert on the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB.

I found Angleton, as I recall, in a hotel ballroom – I don’t remember what he was doing in Boise – and after my innocent, stumbling approach he conceded to answer a couple of questions, the substance of which is now lost of history or, in the days of 16mm film, the cutting room floor. I think I asked his reaction to the on-going Church Committee investigation of CIA abuses. Again, as I recall, not surprisingly the old CIA hand was dismissive of the efforts of Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church to expose assassination plots, domestic spying and such on the part of the Agency.

I’ve long been struck by the irony of an Idaho United States Senator leading the investigation of a CIA that had come to be so influenced by an Idaho-born spy. Would you call that a small world?

My long ago and very brief encounter with James Angleton, I believe it was in 1976, came back to me recently after watching the thoroughly enjoyable new film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the inspired performance of Gary Oldman in the lead role of spy catcher George Smiley.

The movie, based on the great espionage thriller by John la Carre, is, in many ways, a British version of the story James Angleton lived at the CIA; the story of an alleged “mole” at the very top of the nation’s intelligence service; a counter spy Angleton was determined to find and eliminate. The quest eventually took Angleton down instead.

The Republican politician and one-time ambassador to Italy, Clare Booth Luce, once told Angleton, who began his spy career organizing operations against Italian fascists, “There’s no doubt you are easily the most interesting and fascinating figure the intelligence world has produced, and a living legend.” Others were not so charitable.

Angleton was born in Boise, Idaho in 1917, as his New York Times obit noted the year of the Russian Revolution, the son of an employee of the National Cash Register Company. After spending summers in Italy, Angleton went to Yale where he developed his life-long love of literature and poetry and was recruited into the OSS, the agency that eventually became the CIA.

Angleton, in later years his posture stooped and his thick mane of hair streaked with gray, was, by all accounts, a Renaissance Man. He grew orchids and attended lectures on Joyce. One colleague said, ”He had a remarkable amount of knowledge about world events, art, literature.”

Former CIA officer David Atlee Phillips, who like Angleton was caught up in the whirlwind that surrounded the Agency in the 1970, wrote in his memoir, that “Angleton was CIA’s answer to the Delphic Oracle: seldom seen but with an awesome reputation nurtured over the years by word of mouth and intermediaries padding out of his office with pronouncements which we seldom professed to understand fully but accepted on faith anyway.”

It was Angleton’s zealous search for the CIA mole – the counter conspiracy theorists speculated that Angleton himself might have been the mole – that eventually lead then-director William Colby to show the counterintelligence chief the door. Angleton’s forced retirement from the CIA came in 1974. Unlike George Smiley, the fictional character in Tinker, Tailor, who was brought out of retirement to search out the mole in Britain’s MI6, Angleton was fired, in part, for too aggressively pursuing the CIA’s mole. In the process, some argue, he not only damaged the individual careers of many intelligence agents, but undermined the Agency’s efforts to run an effective intelligence program against the Soviets.

To detractors Angleton became the worst kind of paranoid operative, secretive and suspicious of everything all the time. To others he was the very personification of the dedicated intelligence agent. One magazine profile suggested that “If John le Carré and Graham Greene had collaborated on a superspy, the result might have been James Jesus Angleton.”

Angleton died of cancer in 1987 at age 69, as much a mystery in death as in life. What secrets he must have taken with him.

Old-time Boiseans will remember Angleton’s brother, Hugh, a diminutive, elegant man who owned a rather spectacular downtown gift store. Hugh Angleton, always impeccably dressed in suit and tie, served as a kind of showroom director at his store – Angleton’s. The store was filled to overflowing with rare and elegant china, jewelry and art objects. I often wondered if his more famous brother helped locate some of the exotic and expensive items that filled the display cases in Hugh’s store, which, sadly, passed out of existence years ago.

Years ago, it’s said, then-CIA Director James Schlesinger went to Capitol Hill to brief Senate Armed Services Chairman John Stennis on a major Agency operation.  “No, no my boy,” responded Senator Stennis.  “Don’t tell me.  Just go ahead and do it, but I don’t want to know.”

So it is with the intelligence agencies. So secret is what they do, as the joke goes, they could tell us, but then would have to kill us. In trying to explain this shadowy world, novels and motion pictures are more satisfying than reality. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley – sort of – got the mole. The spy from Boise never did.