James Ellroy has called me a panty sniffer to my face. Granted, he calls everyone at his book signings a variety of colorful names, but I still like tJames Ellroy has called me a panty sniffer to my face. Granted, he calls everyone at his book signings a variety of colorful names, but I still like the idea that I’ve been personally mock-insulted by one of my favorite authors. This is his best novel, and my love for it is pretty much unconditional.
As proof of my devotion: My internet alias is from a character in it, and I’ve got an autographed copy of it sitting on my shelf along with an signed copy of the sequel, The Cold Six Thousand. The trilogy completes with the release of Blood's A Rover next week so I’m going back through the first two books, and it’d been a few years since I’d read American Tabloid. It was even better than I remembered.
This is Ellroy’s freaky take on American history from the late ‘50s through the JFK assassination, and it features Jack and Bobby Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, and Jimmy Hoffa. It’s got the Mafia and the CIA, Cuba and Cuban exiles, the 1960 presidential election, the Bay of Pigs, the civil rights movement, and some heroin trade, just for laughs.
Ellroy uses one of his unholy main character trinities of Bad White Men doing Bad Things, but instead of limiting the action to post-war Los Angeles like he did with the LA Quartet of crime stories, he uses his three fictional characters chasing their own twisted obsessions and ambitions to probe the darker moments of a particularly juicy slice of American history.
Kemper Boyd is ex-FBI, who begins spying on the Kennedy’s for J. Edgar Hoover, and ends up devoted to Jack, even as he is moonlighting for both the CIA and the Mafia. He wants all his masters to unite in a play to oust Castro so that his behind-the-scenes schemes will make him wealthy enough to be just like a Kennedy, but he has to make sure to keep his loyalties compartmentalized.
Ward Littell is Kemper’s former partner and friend, and is still with the FBI. He hates the Mob and wants nothing more to go to work for Bobby Kennedy to get away from J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with persecuting harmless leftist groups. Even though he’s considered weak and cowardly, he shocks himself and everyone around him with the lengths he goes to fulfill his dream of being a Mob buster for RFK.
Big Pete Bondurant is a former LA cop and works as a criminal handyman for Howard Hughes. He runs blackmail divorce shakedowns and does the odd contract killing for the likes of Jimmy Hoffa in his spare time. Once arrested by Kemper and Ward, he likes Kemper’s style but hates Ward with a passion. Pete thinks he can ride shotgun to history by becoming Kemper’s partner in his various Cuban schemes, and he likes the sound of that rather than being Howard Hughes’s errand boy.
As all three of these men scheme and plot and commit horrible crimes to become more like the powerful men they are beholden to, they keep rubbing up against big events and desperately try to shape them to their will. What they all find out the hard way is that the people they’re dealing with didn’t become who they are by getting fooled by the men they regard as useful but inferior.
One of the things I absolutely love is Ellroy’s complete lack of buy-in to the JFK/Camelot bullshit. The myth goes that JFK was a glorious leader who was cut down because he stood up to the Bad Men in the country who wanted to take us into Vietnam. (An odd story considering that JFK is the one who started committing troops to Vietnam.) Ellroy brilliantly points out that the reality is that JFK was the son of a rich and corrupt man, and in one of the weirdest twists every, probably owed his presidency to the very people that he then let his zealot brother prosecute. (In all likelihood, the Mafia helped JFK take Illinois because of promises from guys like Frank Sinatra that JFK was reasonable.) RFK hated the Mob but turned a blind eye to the CIA recruiting Mafia contacts for trying to kill Fidel Casto. The Cuban exiles felt terribly betrayed when not only did JFK not fully commit to the Bay of Pigs invasion, he turned on them in the aftermath by having the Feds bust their training camps in the South.
If you believe in a conspiracy about JFK’s death, Ellroy points out that the guy might have brought it on himself by betraying so many people. And if there was a conspiracy, it probably wasn’t some Oliver Stone paranoid fantasy about some all-powerful military-industrial complex, it was probably a group of these type of guys, motivated by general JFK hatred that knew that all the embarrassing entanglements of JFK’s legacy would keep a real investigation from ever being done. (I personally don’t think there was a conspiracy, but JFK surely pissed off a lot of dangerous people by having his cake and eating it too and it makes for a great story.)
This is Ellroy at his best. Fully in control of his crazy staccato-brilliant-writer-with-ADD- style, and wildly spinning plots and counter plots with over the top violence and history as the backdrop.
Fair warning for those who haven’t read, there’s a lot of ethnic slurs in Ellroy’s work and he’s taken some heat for this over the years. He defends this by pointing out that he’s writing about evil white guys doing horrible things 50 years ago. They wouldn’t have been politically correct. He’s got a point, but it is pretty jarring reading in this day and age.
This definately falls in the category of truth being stranger than fiction because this story is so unlikely that no one would believe it if it hadn'tThis definately falls in the category of truth being stranger than fiction because this story is so unlikely that no one would believe it if it hadn't happened. Not only is there much more detail and depth than the movie even hinted at, it's also a great inside look at how the American government and intelligence community actually work....more
I thought I knew Lawrence Block by now. I’ve read all of his Matt Scudder and Keller novels, several of the Bernie Rhodenbarr burglar books as well asI thought I knew Lawrence Block by now. I’ve read all of his Matt Scudder and Keller novels, several of the Bernie Rhodenbarr burglar books as well as all of his Hard Case Crime reprints and one of his short stories collections. Granted, he’s got more out there, but I like to think that I’m pretty well versed on his work. But every once in a while he throws me a curve ball that leaves me shaking my head and saying, “What the hell was THAT??”
I can add The Triumph of Evil to that category. I’d never heard of this one and came across it while trolling through a used bookstore. Written in 1971 and only 126 pages, it’s an intriguing mix of conspiracy theory, political science, sociology and murder. Oh, yeah. It’s a love story, too.
Miles Dorn is a fifty-ish former assassin who has retired to a small southern college town where he entertains himself by tutoring foreign languages. Miles is contacted by an old colleague who is representing some powerful interests with an ambitious plan. They see the growing gap between left and right wing political interests in the chaos of the late ‘60s as an opportunity to push the U.S. to extremes of both sides with a wave of calculated assassinations of key leaders and by provoking more incidents like Kent State to destroy the political center. The theory being that the right wingers outnumber the left wingers, and that when there are no more moderates, the far right will be the winner. And they’ve already got a new president picked out and are grooming him to offer a seemingly reasonable conservative candidate who will actually continue to push the country in the direction they’ve chosen.
(The gods of reading are mocking me here because I just got done reading a great book blasting the notion of conspiracy theories. Then I read this and start thinking about the ‘70s and Ronald Reagan. Ah, there’s my old friend, paranoia.)
Miles is brought in to take out six key figures representing both sides of the left and right wing in politics and labor interests. As he works on his list, the news is filled with other incidents that he attributes to the group he’s working for. There’s one other complication. Miles has fallen for a student he’s been coaching in German, and he’s starting to have second thoughts about his line of work.
Block took the conspiracy theories that sprang up during this time frame to build a chilling story of how the manipulation of public opinion can be easily accomplished by orchestrating violence. And while he was predicting that the left wing would turn to more radical violent acts than actually happened, he did predict the ultimate destruction of the political center in America that seems to have come about. The twists the book takes are unpredictable and the character of Miles has a lot of depth in the different ways we see him act while carrying out his mission, while explaining his personal views of politics and history and his unexpected love for his student.
All this in a 126 pages. Freakin' Lawrence Block........more
Another great installment of the continuing adventures of Mitchell Hundred, retired super-hero and mayor of New York. Vaughan continues to deliver a uAnother great installment of the continuing adventures of Mitchell Hundred, retired super-hero and mayor of New York. Vaughan continues to deliver a unique mix of political intrigue and adventure in these tales, and he somehow manages to make the story realistic and relevant on many levels.
Mitchell has plenty of headaches in this collection. The Republican national convention to nominate Bush for the 2004 presidential election is coming to New York, and they’ve asked the independent Hundred to give a keynote speech to cash in on his status as a 9/11 hero. Mitchell isn’t a fan of Bush, but thinks it’s his duty as the mayor to be a good host. And since he’s secretly started thinking about a White House bid of his own in the near future, it’s a prime opportunity to get some national exposure for himself.
But a costumed former female fan of Mitchell’s hero persona has begun making dangerous and headline grabbing demonstrations against Bush, and the Republicans are threatening to move the venue if she isn’t arrested. Also, Mitchell has decided to write his own speech and the writer’s block he’s suffering from provides plenty of comedy over the course of the story. And if he doesn't have enough on his plate, the Ku Klux Klan wants to hold a demonstration in NYC, and Mitchell's plan to not allow it by invoking a little used ordinance against wearing masks is going to seem very hypocritical coming from a former masked vigilante.
Any fan of comics, super-heroes, politics or just great stories should check the Ex Machina series. ...more
Mitchell Hundred was a nerdy civil engineer in New York. While inspecting the Brooklyn Bridge, a mysterious explosion injured him badly and left him wMitchell Hundred was a nerdy civil engineer in New York. While inspecting the Brooklyn Bridge, a mysterious explosion injured him badly and left him with the ability to talk to machines and make them obey his commands. So Hundred did what any self-respecting nerd would do: he tried to be a super-hero. But Mitchell found out quickly that vigilante justice is a lot harder than it looks in the comics so he tried to use the fame he acquired to be elected mayor of New York. Thanks to his heroics during the 9/11 attack, he won the election, but politics is even tougher than fighting crime.
Brian K. Vaughan is treating this series like his other masterpiece, Y: The Last Man by having an overall story arc that will wrap up in the near future. This installment definitely feels like the beginning of the end. Hundred’s first term as mayor is almost up, but the flashback sequences to his time as The Great Machine (Yes, that’s really what he called himself in his hero persona. Told ya he was a nerd.) are shedding more and more light on his history, and current events are finally giving us the origin of his powers. It looks like things are about to get seriously strange, and Hundred’s political career probably won’t be the only casualty.
Vaughan and artist Tony Harris also engage in some fun meta-fiction by incorporating themselves into the story by having them pitch the idea of doing Hundred’s autobiography as a comic book to the mayor and his staff.
I can’t wait to see how the series ends, but I’ll hate to see it go. ...more
Imagine if James Bond lost his license to kill and had to go work at the company in Office Space. “Yeah, hi. James? I’m going to need you to pack up aImagine if James Bond lost his license to kill and had to go work at the company in Office Space. “Yeah, hi. James? I’m going to need you to pack up all your guns and spy thingamajigs and your martini shakers and move that all down to the basement. If you could do that, it’d be great. Thanks.”
According to the introduction on the audio version of this book, Susan Hasler worked for the CIA. for over twenty years, and she was on the team that wrote up the infamous warning paper about Bin Laden being determined to strike in the United States a month before September 11. Per the intro, she left the CIA in 2004 after becoming disgusted with the way that the intelligence was misused to justify the US invasion of Iraq.
Here, Hasler gives a fictionalized account of the frustrations of the intelligence analysts with the bureaucracy and political games. Maddie James is a stressed out terrorism expert who still feels the failure of stopping 9/11 five years later. Maddie is convinced that another major terrorist attack is about to happen, but she constantly has to battle her bosses who care only about doing the bidding of politicians pushing their own agendas rather than actually analyzing the intelligence.
Maddie has a handful of co-workers that believe her and want to help, but they also are dealing with the various stresses that their work and managers cause them. Doc is a former Russian analyst and Maddie’s ex-father-in-law who can be counted on for reliable and friendly advice. Doc is carrying a torch for Fran, another transplant from the Russian section, who has decided to kick up her heels a bit at the tail end of her career. Vivian is another friend of Maddie who spends so much time trying to save every innocent creature in the world that she’s neglecting her own family.
Maddie finally manages to get her bosses to assign her some people to work the threat so they end up in a tiny conference room, trying to fend off distracting tasks assigned by know-nothing political appointees, deal with annoying co-workers and hoping that they’re not already too late.
Hasler uses several offbeat devices for this story. She shifts the first person viewpoint around to several characters, including the terrorist leader and the ghost of one of the legendary leaders of their intelligence agency.
There’s also some weirdness to how Hasler refers to people, events and government organizations in the book. She never uses the words CIA, 9/11, FBI, NSA or Congress. The CIA is the ‘Mines’ with a host of mining slang applied to the flow of intelligence. Bin Laden is known as ‘The Chieftain’. Al Queda is ‘The Base’. The FBI is ‘The Organ’ and Congress is ‘The Esteemed Legislative Body’. Maddie and her co-workers aren’t intelligence analysts, they’re intelligence ‘alchemists’. Instead of the Secretary of Defense it’s the Minister of Defense, and it’s the Department of Heartland Security, not Homeland Security.
At first, I thought that Hasler was just using all the slang as a type of insider’s jargon to show off her knowledge, but now I think that this may have been her way of getting around whatever non-disclosure agreements she had to sign. If pressed, she could claim that this is some kind of alternative history instead of an account of the CIA.
After reading The Washington Post’s Top Secret America series, watching AMC’s Rubicon about a privatized group of intelligence analysts, and now reading this book, I am officially scared shitless. Hasler makes the point that the sheer amount of info collected is staggering and there are too few trained personnel to analyze it all. Put a group of corrupt political hacks using a national tragedy to push their own agenda in charge of this process, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
While I liked the spotlight that Hasler shined on a lot of the problems within the intelligence community, the book took a few too many detours for my taste. Plus, there are events late in the book where it breaks away from actual history to set up a whole new plot. I liked the book much better when Hasler was using dark humor to create an odd combination of a Dilbert cartoon mixed with a spy novel to deliver an entertaining but effective warning about what happens when politicians make it impossible for intelligence professionals to do their jobs. ...more
Brian K. Vaughan wrote a powerful ending to his comic series Y: The Last Man, and he came up with an ending that was jusWow. I didn’t see that coming.
Brian K. Vaughan wrote a powerful ending to his comic series Y: The Last Man, and he came up with an ending that was just as devastating in it’s own way for Ex Machina.
Vaughan fused superhero comics and politics with a hardcore sci-fi plot for this series. Mitchell Hundred was a New York civil engineer who was injured by the explosion of a mysterious device that left him with the ability to talk to machines. After a brief and mostly unsuccessful attempt to be the world‘s only superhero , Hundred became a celebrity for saving many lives on 9/11, and he then used that publicity to become mayor of New York.
As mayor, Hundred struggled with impossible political problems while his past as a crime fighter and the mysterious origin of his powers kept coming back to haunt him. In 2005, Hundred is near the end of his first term, but he has his sights set on a higher office and won’t run for re-election as mayor. However, he’s dealing with a dangerous new foe as well as a potential scandal that could ruin his political career, and it’s looking like the biggest threat of all may be tied to the source of his powers. Even if Hundred can survive these crises, can he keep his principles intact as he gets deeper into politics or will he turn into just another ambitious elected official?
Much like Y: The Last Man, this was an incredibly good storyline filled with vivid characters and a story arc that was packed with drama, humor and tragedy. While I still give slight edge to Y as the better series, this one is right up there with the best of comics to me. Whatever Vaughan decides to write next, I’ll be reading it....more
At first glance, Willie Stark seems like he would have been the perfect Tea Party candidate. He uses fiery rhetoric to stir up crowds by claiming to bAt first glance, Willie Stark seems like he would have been the perfect Tea Party candidate. He uses fiery rhetoric to stir up crowds by claiming to be just like them and that he’s going to bust the heads of those evil ole politicians at the state house to force them the straighten up and do things the right way. But on the other hand, Willie actually knows something about government and uses his tactics to improve the lives of poor people by taxing the wealthy and using that money to do things like improve roads and provide free health care so maybe he wouldn’t fit in with Sarah Palin after all.
This classic novel tells the story of Willie Stark through the eyes of Jack Burden. Jack came from a privileged background but eventually turned his back on that life and became a cynical political newspaper reporter in an unnamed corrupt southern state. When Jack first meets Stark, he thinks of him as ’Cousin Willie from the country.’ because of his rube manner. Stark is a smart, hardworking and principled county commissioner, but he gets in over his head when he tries to award a government contract to the actual best bid and the corrupt politicians trash him for it.
Then Stark is tricked into running for governor by the state political machine to split the rural vote and make sure that the party favorite wins. Stark had been getting nowhere with his carefully planned speeches that patiently explained needed changes to the tax codes and other government business, but when he finds out he’s been played for a fool, Stark finds his voice as an angry hick who is tired of being abused by the politicians. Using his new populist tactics of playing up his upbringing as a poor farm boy who taught himself law at nights and promises to kick the collective ass of the political good-ole-boy network, Stark eventually does win the governorship, and Jack joins him as his political hatchet man.
Stark no longer cares about doing things the right way. He becomes a political force in the state through a combination of bullying, cajoling or bribing anyone who gets in his way. To Willie’s way of thinking, the state is full of sons-of-bitches that he either has to buy or break to get things done, and he is now fully convinced that the ends justify the means. He does actually follow through on his promises to try and help the common people of the state, but many consider him even more dangerous than the corrupt people he’s fighting.
Jack has no problems with the way that Willie runs thing until the governor gets angry at the incorruptible Judge Irwin for backing a rival in an election. When Willie can’t charm or bully the Judge into falling into line, he orders Jack to dig up some dirt on the man. However, Jack has known and admired the Judge since childhood so he has reservations about the assignment. Trying to find the Judge’s dirty laundry brings back Jack’s issues with his mother and father, and the girl he loved and lost, Anne Stanton. Things get even stickier when Willie decides that the only man to run his new pet project, a huge modern hospital, is Ann’s brother and Jack’s childhood friend, Adam.
I absolutely loved the way that Stark is portrayed in this book. It was inspired by Huey P. Long in Louisiana, a politician who accomplished a lot for the poor of his state but did so with highly questionable methods. Willie does indeed want to protect the common people from the ‘sons-of-bitches’ who have let the state wallow in poverty and neglect while lining their pockets, but this isn’t a simple case of power corrupting either. Willie always had a lot of ambitions for his political career, and he tried to play it straight at first because he thought that‘s how it was done. Once he saw the ugliness of reality behind the scenes, Willie seemingly adopts the same tactics without a second thought. Power didn’t change Willie, he changed to get and keep power, and he seems to relish his opportunities to take revenge on the types who screwed him over early in his career.
Warren’s prose is elegant and lyrical. He brings an entire region alive with a cast that includes everyone from the high society to the poorest farmers. His descriptions are so good that you can almost feel the humidity and hear the insects at times. However, he did tend to go on a bit long for my taste when relaying Jack’s personal history and insights. I would have liked more of Willie laying on the charm or ruthlessly taking down an opponent.
They say that watching government work is like watching sausage get made. Everyone wants the finished product, but no one wants to see how it‘s done. This story gives weight to this idea. It’s something that will make any reader think about whether one can get anything done in a democracy without deals being cut or threats being made. Even if the goal is accomplished, is the whole thing tainted because of how it came about? And how can a person with even the best of intentions work in a system like this without becoming corrupted? ...more
We have taken your family hostage. If you want to see them alive again, immediately write a dystopian novel that incorporates the folDear Dan Simmons,
We have taken your family hostage. If you want to see them alive again, immediately write a dystopian novel that incorporates the following ideas:
1) The election of Obama in 2008 triggers a wave of socialist entitlement programs that bankrupts the United States. Be sure to repeatedly point out that the debt run up by the liberals is the key factor in this. Do NOT mention that Bill Clinton‘s administration paid off a huge national debt that had increased dramatically during the Reagan and Bush Sr. years or that a surplus once again became massive debt during George W. Bush‘s two terms.
2) 75% of the US population does NOT pay taxes, but is entitled to expanded benefits like retiring at 50 with full Social Security benefits. Do NOT point out that it’s usually the Democrats who are accused of wanting more taxes or that current conventional wisdom regarding Social Security is that the retirement age will be raised, not lowered.
2) Muslim extremists now rule most of the world because Obama and the liberals appeased them at every turn. Do NOT mention the so-called Arab Spring or how Obama ordered a SEAL team to appease Osama bin Ladin.
3) The US has lost several states to secession and the southwest has been captured by militarized Mexican gangs.
4) Global warming was proven to be a myth. That’s it. Just say that.
5) The US wasted the last of its money researching worthless green technologies. All the cars are now electric pieces of shit with extremely limited range. Make sure that at some point the hero pins all his hopes of escape on obtaining a V8 muscle car and that his idea is inspired by Mad Max and The Road Warrior. Do NOT point out that a huge expansion of power by countries promoting radical Islam would probably have to be financed by oil production.
6) Right wing radio commenters have been banned and broadcast as pirate radio stations while the state sponsored NPR is the official news channel. Do NOT mention Fox News at any point.
7) The liberals stripped the US military of it’s nuclear arms and funding. However, the military is now farmed out as a mercenary army to raise cash. If the army was gutted, why would anyone hire it as a mercenary force? Do NOT raise that question.
8) Be sure that there is a character who is an aging academic who is realizing that his type of well-meaning but fuzzy headed liberal thinking was the reason the world has gone to hell.
9) Japan now effectively controls the US.
10) Texas is an independent republic that is the last bastion of real American ideals like keeping most of what you earn to pay for your own health care. Wait. Didn’t we say that we wanted you to have most of the old US paying no taxes and that was part of the downfall? Oh, well. Write it up like that anyhow. No one will notice.
You may incorporate whatever sci-fi elements you feel necessary to entice your usual readers. We suggest a drug that most of the country is addicted to that allows users to relive their favorite memories over and over. Also, mystery stories are popular so incorporate some kind of plot with a detective. Perhaps a former cop who is now addicted to this drug after the death of his wife? We leave those details up to you so that you can get your fans to read this political manifesto.
Once this book is published, we will release your family unharmed.
This book is about mobs of mindless zombies influencing American politics. Surprisingly, it’s not about the Tea Party.
In the year 2014, genetically enThis book is about mobs of mindless zombies influencing American politics. Surprisingly, it’s not about the Tea Party.
In the year 2014, genetically engineered viruses mutated and caused the dead to come back to life and start munching on people like senior citizens at a casino buffet. Over 20% of the world’s population got gobbled up like popcorn shrimp, and in 2040 the threat of the still existing virus and zombies has changed life forever. Since the virus is present in everyone’s system, when anyone dies, whether it’s from zombie bite or natural causes, they will turn into one of the undead cannibals. Large gatherings of people rarely occur, everyone’s homes and cars are fortresses equipped with high tech screening equipment and huge areas (like Alaska) have been given up as zones too hazardous to enter without special permits and training.
Georgia Mason and her brother Shaun are part of the new generation of bloggers. Georgia is a straight Newsie, reporting only the facts and trying to get past the spin. Shaun is kind of like one of the guys on Jackass who goes out to taunt the undead while recording and posting his exploits. When they are offered a chance to follow the presidential campaign of a senator it’s a chance for them to move to the head of the pack of web journalists. However, when the senator’s caravan is the victim of a zombie attack the Masons get caught up in a dangerous conspiracy.
This was a pretty unique zombie tale with some very good ideas in it. The explanation for the way the virus works is one of the more thought out causes of the undead I’ve read. It also shows a lot of thought of what the media of the future is going to look like with competing websites featuring a mix of news/opinion/death defying features and even fiction. Mira Grant has created a tale of how the fear of external threats can become an everyday part of society that’s ripe for exploitation.
However, at 600 pages it feels a bit overstuffed. We’re repeatedly walked through the blood screenings and other security measures that are part of society to the point of boredom. Georgia has an eye condition due to the zombie virus present in her system, and there are about 1236 instances of security guys demanding that she take off her prescription sunglasses and the problems it causes. And for a book where the threat of zombies is ever present, there are very few actual zombie attacks in it.
I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the Mason’s role in this story. They’re supposed to be young journalists on their way up, but somehow Georgia‘s reports quickly become must reading on the web as she instantly became an expert on presidential politics her first time covering a campaign. Also, Georgia and Shaun are constantly looking down their noses at everyone around them for being ‘amatuers’ when it comes to dealing with zombies because (as we are repeatedly reminded) they are licensed and trained journalists with extensive time in the field. So these young people are apparently the only ones with the smarts, experience and ability to see what’s going on and everyone, including a US senator, defers to them to an unbelievable degree.
Still, this was fun mash-up of a zombie story and a political/ conspiracy thriller with some interesting predictions about where the new media will take us. I’ll probably check out the next one in the series, but I hope there’s more brain munching and fewer blood tests in the second book....more
How else can you explain a country that embraced a right wing philosophy after a devastating terrorist attack that lCall us America the Schizophrenic.
How else can you explain a country that embraced a right wing philosophy after a devastating terrorist attack that led to blindly following a moron for eight years, yet finally overwhelmingly rejected those politics by voting in the liberal opposition only to seemingly overnight turn into a nation of screaming maniacs who consider spending a dime on anything but guns and prisons a waste of tax payer money?
The cold comfort I got from reading Nixonland was that America’s maddening division between left and right and the lack of a consistent philosophy isn’t anything new. Apparently we’ve always been this stupid.
After JFK was killed, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats won landslide victories in 1964. The country’s economy was booming, and the elections seemed to signify a new unification of the public behind liberal policies. Many pundits thought conservative politics and the Republican party were as dead as Abraham Lincoln. LBJ seized the moment and began pushing legislation on civil rights for blacks and his plan to end poverty and create a ‘Great Society’.
Four years later, LBJ declined to run again knowing that he may not even be able to win his own party’s nomination, and the country was tearing itself apart along right wing/left wing battle lines. And Richard Nixon got voted in as a president leaving everyone to scratch their heads and wonder what the hell just happened.
What this book does brilliantly is examine how that split occurred and how Nixon, and other right wingers like Ronald Reagan, both took advantage of and did everything they could to widen that gulf. The standard history class will tell you that it was Vietnam, and it was certainly one of the major factors. However, it wasn’t just about the war. Working class whites were generally OK with Johnson pushing the South to end segregation, but when policies like open housing and forced bussing impacted them directly, they got angry with northern cities like Chicago showing a kind of racism that caused Martin Luther King Jr. to say it was worse than Mississippi. Black communities, angry after years of racism and repression and frustrated with slow progress, erupted in riots and militant groups began to form. The war caused a split within the Democratic party and led to the rise of the counter culture.
So when your average Joe Six-Pack and Susy Homemaker (who were a generation that had grown up during the Great Depression and World War II and just wanted a little peace and quiet) turned on their TV’s and saw the country seemingly ripping itself apart while their kids turned into dirty hippies, they got pissed.
That well of white rage and resentment is what Nixon tapped into and encouraged. Republicans like to point to Reagan as their patron saint, but the modern right wing resembles Nixon’s black soul much more than Reagan. Resentful, paranoid, and insecure, Nixon’s personality became the blueprint for Republican politics that’s still used today.
Nixon always felt snubbed by the east coast ‘intellectuals and elitists’, and he used that to tar the high ranking Democrats as limousine liberals who were completely out of touch with ‘real Americans’. Nixon also played up his hatred of the press to convince people that the media had a left wing agenda and was run by more liberals. (He was so successful in this that many people refused to believe the stories about the My Lai massacre even after the army convicted Lieutenant Calley.) Nixon hired his own media people (including a young Roger Ailes, the current president of Fox News) to carefully control and craft an image of reliable steadiness. All the while, he also engaged in back room political deals like promising former Democrat and all-around evil fuck Strom Thurmond that he’d have the government drag it’s feet on enforcing the end of school segregation in exchange for Southern support.
But Nixon’s most diabolical play was in doing everything he could to keep the Democratic party in disarray. Nixon used back channels to sabotage LBJ’s Paris peace talks to North Vietnam to keep the war going before the election while promising that he had a secret plan to end the war. Once in office, he regularly drew down ground troop levels and talked peace in public while escalating the bombing and still seeking a ‘knock out blow’ that would force North Vietnam to come to favorable terms.
Nixon was more than willing to reap the political benefits of the war. It was an on-going propaganda campaign for him where he could go on TV and seem reasonable while shaking his head at all those crazy hippies tearing up college campuses. He made sure that his public events always allowed a few protesters in so that cameras could show the crowd and security turning on them, and his secret ‘rat fuckers’ launched constant sabotage operations against Democratic campaigns to make them look chaotic and confused.
The Democrats helped by shooting themselves in the feet repeatedly. While the counter culture fought the old machine bosses for control of the party, they were so busy trying to include special interest groups that they effectively lost the white working class and union voters who had been their backbone for years. That started a shift that the Republicans continue to exploit to this day.
All in all, this was a fascinating book that deeply explores the issues that led to the splitting of America into factions that has made it nearly impossible for politicians to just provide reasonable public policies. It also does a lot to debunk some of the favorite myths of the Baby Boomers about how they claim to have changed the country. If you buy into the book’s well made argument, the counter culture played right into Nixon’s hands and gave him the White House and led to the rise of the current right wing nuts. Thanks for that, you ole damn dirty hippies....more
Attention crazy people! If you are one of those poor souls who thinks that the Central Intelligence Agency is reading your thoughts and/or manipulatinAttention crazy people! If you are one of those poor souls who thinks that the Central Intelligence Agency is reading your thoughts and/or manipulating your brain waves, I have good news for you. You can take off your aluminum foil hat and stop trying to pull out that tooth with the tracking device. Here it is:
The CIA is too incompetent to do any of the things you are worried about. Seriously.
After reading Legacy of Ashes, I’m amazed that we weren’t taken down by the Soviets during the Cold War or that China hasn’t invaded and turned the US into a giant sweatshop that sews cheap clothing for its citizens or that some terrorists haven’t reduced the country to pile of radioactive rubble.*
*Kind of odd timing to read a book that bashes the CIA this much shortly after Osama got his much deserved bullet to the brain, but this book outlined how the CIA muffed multiple opportunities to kill him before 9/11 during the Clinton and W. Bush years. After repeated stories of just how incredibly bad the CIA is at actually collecting human intelligence, it’s really not that surprising that bin Ladin had been living in a posh neighborhood for years while American forces searched caves in Afghanistan.
If you read something like a Tom Clancy novel, you’ll get the idea that the CIA is really good at its job and that the occasional snafu like the Bay of Pigs or claiming that Iraq had WMD are just aberrations. Per Tim Weiner, the real story is that the for the CIA the Bay of Pigs and Iraq WMDs are the typical performance levels, we just only hear about the really big screw-ups.
After World War II and with the Cold War ramping up, America needed an intelligence service, but all Harry Truman really wanted was an agency to boil down all the information that the military and state department collected and summarize it for him daily. However, when a bunch of former OSS guys were put in charge, their brilliant idea of an intelligence service was parachuting half-trained dissidents behind the Iron Curtain to lead resistances and perform sabotage missions. Unfortunately, the people were so poorly prepared and the Soviets had already so thoroughly penetrated the Agency that they were almost all captured and/or killed. Oh, and they completely missed the Soviets developing their own atomic bomb thanks to stolen intelligence.
From the Korean War through Vietnam to missing the economic decay of the Soviet Union that caused it’s ultimate collapse, the CIA was so consistently wrong and bad at their supposed main job of gathering intelligence that it boggles the mind. Weathermen are jealous at how these guys were able to be so repeatedly and completely wrong yet somehow none of them lost their jobs over it.
The only thing that CIA seems to have been really good at was backing the most evil fucks around as long as they claimed to be anti-communist. If there was a strong arm dictator or leader of a military coup waiting to take over from a government with the slightest bit of left leanings, the CIA was there with bags of cash and support for assholes to take over countries like Iran and Guatemala , and the result has been countless deaths of innocent people and the trashing of goodwill towards America in many parts of the world.
To be fair, there’s a few parts of the book where it seems that Weiner doesn’t give them credit for the few things they did right. Accurately predicating the outbreak of violence in Rwanda or running a successful operation to help convince Libya to ditch it’s WMD programs are barely mentioned. And despite documenting how the CIA has bowed to political pressure and repeatedly told several presidents exactly what they wanted to hear, the Iraqi WMD claims are portrayed almost exclusively as an intelligence failure with little mention of poltical pressure from the Bush administration which is hard to believe.
Overall, Weiner used recently declassified internal CIA reports and histories to document a long history of spectacular failure. The book explores how a combination of politics and a bureaucratic nightmare has left America deaf and blind at the times it could least afford to be so even as the myth of an all-knowing intelligence agency has been perpetuated. Billions upon billions of dollars have been spent trying to keep tabs on America’s enemies. Frankly, we all would have been better off if the US would have used that cash to buy everyone in the world some cake and ice cream every now and then. At least maybe so many people wouldn’t hate us because how could you be mad at someone who gives you free cake and ice cream? ...more
Picture Principal Skinner from The Simpsons and Paris Hilton going to Nazi Germany, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this book is like.
I wasPicture Principal Skinner from The Simpsons and Paris Hilton going to Nazi Germany, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this book is like.
I was split on Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City because I found the half of the book about the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair incredibly interesting but thought the other half about serial killer H.H. Holmes to be just another true crime gore fest. Then in Thunderstruck he again gave us some nice pop history with the story of Marconi and the invention of the radio, but then he stretched the inclusion of a crime story to a ridiculous exteme by trying to tie in a manhunt for a killer across the Atlantic that used early wireless.
I was hoping that In the Garden of Beasts would allow Larson to play to his strengths with a story about Nazis in the 1930s because I thought he could give a detailed look at life in Berlin as Hitler was consolidating his power, and this time he’d actually have a legitimate horror story to tell without it feeling like something just tacked on to sell books. Instead, I got a story about a couple of people who were surrounded by evil and didn’t do a helluva lot about it.
The story centers on William Dodd and his daughter Martha. Dodd was a history professor in Chicago with minor political connections and a dream of obtaining a quiet government post somewhere so he could finish writing a history of the American Civil War. When President Roosevelt couldn’t get anyone else to take the job, he asked Dodd to be the ambassador to Germany. Dodd accepted and took his wife and two grown children along with him. Like a lot of Americans, Dodd was worried about some of the stories of Nazi violence coming out at the time, but thought that Hitler might be nudged towards controlling the extreme factions since he‘d just taken over as chancellor. His interactions with the Nazi power brokers and the rise of German nationalistic fervor eventually convinced Dodd that Hitler and his people were bad news for the entire world.
Here’s where the book falls down for me. Larson got me interested in the Chicago World’s Fair because I knew nothing about it, and he made it come alive. I already know about how the Nazis came to power so the history piece of this is old news to me. While there’s some interesting slice of life details and Larson does a nice job of giving you a sense of the weird combination of paranoia, pride, terror and zeal that pervaded Germany in the 1930s, it’s really nothing I haven’t heard before. Maybe I would have been more interested if I would have found Dodd’s story more intriguing, but frankly, the ambassador seemed about as interesting as a saltine cracker to me.
Dodd comes across as a decent enough guy for his time. He did advocate policies of getting tougher with Germany when most of America was in full isolationist mode, but aside from irking the Nazis with a couple of speeches and boycotting a couple of official functions, he really didn’t do anything. (And as one of his critics of the time pointed out, an ambassador who refuses to meet with the government of the country he’s in really isn’t accomplishing much.) Dodd irritated others in America’s diplomatic service with his constant criticism of their spending and seemed more concerned with cutting costs at the embassy rather than dealing with the Germans.
The odd thing about this book is that Larson all but ignores Dodd’s wife and son in favor of giving a detailed portrayal of his daughter, Martha. Martha came along with her father as her first marriage was ending, and to put it mildly, she got around. I mean, it’s good that a woman in her time was sexually liberated enough to carry on with guys like the poet Carl Sandburg. However, once she dated the head of the Gestapo and a top Soviet spy as well as many, many others, I had the impression that Martha was less than discriminating with her affections. Hell, she even kinda went along with a half-assed scheme one of the Nazis had to try and hook her up with Hitler himself.
So this becomes the story of a mild mannered diplomat dealing with the rise of some of the most evil fucks in history, but he’s pinching pennies at the embassy instead of giving visas to every Jewish person he could find. And his daughter is a sleeping her way through Europe while at first extolling the virtues of the Nazis, then deciding that she’s kind of a communist, but in the end Martha doesn’t do much but put a smile on the face of any guy who gives her a wink and a smile.
In this case, I knew the history and only got a story about a couple of people who seem like they should have been maybe a chapter in larger history of the time and place. Dodd and Martha just didn’t impress or intrigue me enough to warrant reading a whole book about them. It’s disappointing that Larson decided to make them the center of this....more