The American presidency has no doubt changed since the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974. Cynicism of and distrust toward government and polThe American presidency has no doubt changed since the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974. Cynicism of and distrust toward government and politicians are high. Political opponents and reporters are constantly on their toes, ready to pounce if a President does, or appears to do, something wrong. Rightly or wrongly, Presidents no longer have as much power to enact a sweeping agenda like FDR or LBJ did. Shadow chronicles the five presidencies immediately following Watergate. Using presidential documents, diaries, and hundreds of interviews with firsthand witnesses, Woodard attempts to show how each president discovered the Presidency had been altered, but his attempts ultimately fall short.
The book is broken into five sections - one for each President. The first four sections focus more on the office of Independent Council that was created in the aftermath of Watergate. The largest section of the book is a point-by-point account of Ken Starr's investigation into Bill Clinton.
Clinton comes off the best of all the Presidents portrayed in the book, while the others are reduced to the common caricatures of them. Woodward paints Gerald Ford as a good guy, but ill-equipped to be President. Jimmy Carter is two-faced and preachy. Ronald Reagan is unengaged and moody, while Nancy rules the White House by astrology. George Bush is a wimp who wanted a war with Iraq to prove his tough-guy credentials. Bill Clinton is a good-old boy who was persecuted by nasty Ken Starr. The only person who comes off as more sympathetic is Hillary.
Woodward merely used Watergate and Nixon as a hook to get readers to buy this book. He offers very little evidence that the subsequent presidents learned anything from Watergate. The only president who appears to have thought of Watergate was Ronald Reagan, when he hired Howard Baker to conduct an internal investigation into Iran-Contra.
Shadow is ultimately a shallow book. Woodward hardly does any analysis of the men and the problems they faced. By hyper-focusing on the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky scandals and dismissing Whitewater (not to mention spending three sentences on the White House Travel Office affair), the book reads as a defense of Bill Clinton and the first attempt at rehabilitating his reputation after impeachment....more
President George H. W. Bush has stated on many occasions that he doesn't plan to write a memoir. Given that Bush is 90 years old, it seems unlikely thPresident George H. W. Bush has stated on many occasions that he doesn't plan to write a memoir. Given that Bush is 90 years old, it seems unlikely that he'll do so, even if he reverses his stand. But in 1998 he wrote a book with his National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft about the major foreign policy decisions they made during their four years in office. These events were Tienanmen Square, Desert Storm, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In one of the lighter sections of the book, President Bush talks about The Scowcroft Award, given every year to an Administration official who fell asleep in a meeting and did the best acting job of trying to appear they were awake the whole time.
Reading about these events that occurred only 25 years ago, one is reminded about how much chaos and uncertainty there was on the world stage in those four years. Nearly every day there was another country moving toward independence from the Soviet Union, Germany moving toward reunification, and shifting borders between countries. After the great personal diplomacy and treaties between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, relations were better between the US and the USSR than they had been at any point in the histories of the two countries. Bush and his team performed a high-stakes high wire act between supporting these breakaway republics and not antagonizing our new Soviet Allies.
In hindsight, the reunification of Germany was seamless and almost inevitable, but it didn't appear that way to those in power at the time. Everybody in government of all of the allied countries underestimated the speed of the dissolve of East Germany. Some of our allies were wary of German reunification, partially because of the history of German aggression (this was only 40 years after WWII), but mainly because of the unresolved issue of Germany's border with Poland.
Each chapter in the book is made up of alternating sections: one written by Bush, the next by Scowcroft. Sometimes this was a little jarring and stopped the good narrative flow, but it was interesting to get the participants' differing perspectives. Bush's style was a lot more readable than Scowcroft's. Another thing I found interesting was how Bush referred to foreign leaders. He'd talk of phone calls with Margaret (Thatcher), inviting Francois (Mitterand) to Kennebunkport, and trying to reach Mikhail (Gorbachev) during the attempted coup against him. In all the books I've read by world leaders, nobody has ever done that.
Some sections of the book were more interesting than others, but overall it provided a good insight into the diplomatic efforts of the Bush Administration and a real fly-on-the-wall feeling of the tumultuous early '90's....more
In the Arena was the eighth book written by Richard Nixon, published in 1990, and one of his most candid. The subtitle of the book is "A Memoir of VicIn the Arena was the eighth book written by Richard Nixon, published in 1990, and one of his most candid. The subtitle of the book is "A Memoir of Victory, Defeat, and Renewal" and Nixon opens with one example of each. For victory, the former President talks about his groundbreaking visit to China in 1972. For defeat, it is his resignation and self-imposed exile to California. His previous memoir, RN, ended with Nixon and Pat boarding the helicopter on the White House lawn, and the chapter on defeat picks up the night before, dealing conversations with his daughters, who wanted him to fight. He then talks about a sever bout of phlebitis, which sent him to the hospital for a surgery that almost killed him, and his years in the wilderness. For renewal, it was the writing of his memoirs and the television interviews with David Frost that helped him rediscover his purpose and decide what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
Nixon critics who want to hear about Watergate shouldn't look here for answers (RN is better for that), as the President barely mentions the scandal. After the trio of chapters on victory, defeat, and renewal, the book is divided into five page mini-essays, each on a one word topic (e.g. faith, family, war, peace). He offers advice for politicians or anyone in a leadership role based on his years in office and things he learned from some of the big names of the 20th Century like Churchill, Eisenhower, and de Gaulle. The last chapter, "Twilight", is all about the importance of keeping active and mentally sharp as you age.
This is the third Nixon book I've read, and the man could write. He was also a very clear thinker and knew how best to communicate his ideas. It seems funny to say it about the only U.S. President to resign from office, but he writes at great lengths about duty and honor. If any politician lifts from his chapters on power, privacy, or governing, they'll have my vote.
Democrats hate Nixon for Alger Hiss and Watergate. Republicans hate Nixon for the EPA, OSHA, and wage and price controls. Conservatives should be heartened to know that in this book, Nixon says the wage and price freeze of 1971 was a mistake and he would not take that action if he had to do it over again.
In the Arena is a great read that I'd recommend to any student of American politics or history....more
The Unmaking of a Mayor is the story of the unique campaign of William F. Buckley, Jr. for New York City Mayor in 1965. At this point in his life, theThe Unmaking of a Mayor is the story of the unique campaign of William F. Buckley, Jr. for New York City Mayor in 1965. At this point in his life, the 39-year-old Buckley had founded National Review, published six books (including God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of 'Academic Freedom'), had a syndicated column in hundreds of newspapers across the country, run the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement, and had energized the conservative wing of the Republican party to a point that it nominated Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. With this long list of accomplishments, why would he run for mayor? That's one of the questions this book answers.
In the mid-1960's, many people thought New York City was ungovernable, broken, and on an unreversible course of decline. Many of the city's problems will sound familiar with those of us who remember the period before Rudy Giuliani's election in 1993. Buckley opens the book with an account of the political system of New York, with its intricate third party laws, and follows on with a history of the previous 30 years of governance. Then he delves into what John V. Lindsay, the liberal congressman and presumptive GOP nominee, and Bill Buckley were doing in the spring of 1965.
It is customary to call any third party candidate "unserious" because they have no legitimate shot of winning and they typically have a few kook positions. Buckley was under no illusions of his chance at winning. In a famous exchange from the campaign, a reporter asked him what would be the first thing he'd do if he was elected. Buckley quipped, "Demand a recount." But reading his position papers, reprinted in total with reactions from the press and the other candidates, shows he really thought through the problems facing New York.
You don't have to agree with all of his proposals, but the position papers were a very compelling and thought-provoking part of the book to read. The typical politician's position papers are vague, gauzy pieces of fluff that aren't worth the paper they're printed on. Candidate Smith promises to balance the budget by eliminating waste and closing loopholes. But Buckley's papers actually offered concrete solutions. Bad Traffic? Reserve one lane in the Holland and Lincoln tunnels for buses. Allow delivery trucks to only park on odd-numbered streets on Mondays and Wednesdays and even-numbered streets on Tuesdays and Fridays. Pollution? Convert city buses to liquefied petroleum gas. Add control devices to city vehicles to reduce emissions. Modernize municipal incinerators.
But the position papers also reveal some of the oddities associated with third party candidates. Buckley's traffic proposal included a Bikeway to travel above Second Avenue from 125th Street to 1st Street. His proposal for the drug problem included moving addicts to special housing so they don't get others addicted to narcotics. His affordable housing platform had something similar. Of course, twenty years after World War II, his opponents pounced on these relocation ideas as "concentration camps".
So why did Buckley run? Part of it was to counter the leftward lurch of the Republican party under the leadership of Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller. Many people were predicting that Lindsay would be the GOP standard-bearer in 1968 or 1972 if he became mayor. The other reason was because he saw Lindsay and Abe Beame, the Democratic nominee, as mealy mouthed politicians who would throw bromides at each other and not discuss the things that were actually wrong with New York City.
Unmaking of a Mayor is a bracing, sometimes hilarious, account of the race and the personalities involved. It shows the difference between career politicians and those with something to say about government. Sometimes I wish people would take more risks and speak plainly about the issues as Buckley did. It's well worth the read for anyone interested in political history, New York history, and public policy....more
William F. Buckley Jr. was a gifted polemicist, best-selling novelist, sesquipedalian speaker, television star, political candidate, yachtsman, harpsiWilliam F. Buckley Jr. was a gifted polemicist, best-selling novelist, sesquipedalian speaker, television star, political candidate, yachtsman, harpsichordist, wit, and bon vivant. He also had an abiding love for the paperback book. When the paperback edition of any of his books was released, his publisher would send him a box full of them. After his death in 2008, the folks at National Review began the task of cleaning out his office and his salon in NYC. They found numerous unopened boxes of his books and eventually put many of them up for sale.
This is how I happened upon The Governor Listeth: A Book of Inspired Political Revelations, a big collection of WFB’s best columns, speeches, obituaries, and other writings from the late 1960s. Here we find Buckley near the height of his powers and in the form, I think, that suited him best. I have nothing against his longer books (Up From Liberalism, God and Man at Yale), but the short form of columns and speeches let Buckley swoop in and dive-bomb his subjects with his trademark wit. You can almost hear him smile as he twists the knife.
Is it worth reading a book of columns written in the 1960s? Yes and no. There are some sections, particularly those on Vietnam, that won't hold the modern reader's interest very long. But the collection opens with a speech on political violence, delivered in 1968 after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr and John F. Kennedy, but before the murder of Robert Kennedy, that is well worth reading. He says, "[M]ore significant by far than the ghastly executions of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King - acts committed by isolatable and isolated men - more significant by far is the spontaneous universal grief of a community which in fact considers it aggrieved. That is the salient datum in America: not that we bred the aberrant assassins of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but that we bred the widely shared and the most intensely felt sense of grief: such grief over the loss of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. King as is felt over the loss of one's own sons."
Buckley's reporting of the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions are excellent examples of his reporting style. Those sections were among my favorites in the book.
I received great joy from some of the non-political essays in this book. For example, his column on the Apollo 8 mission entitled "Can Men Make Miracles?" is near poetry. I've never sailed much outside of tooling around the bay on vacation, but "A Week Aboard Cyrano" makes me want to hop aboard a yacht and sail down to Bermuda.
The title of the book comes from the Bible (James, chapter 3):
In many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
A great sentiment to invoke for a book by Buckley....more
In 1946, George Orwell published his famous essay “Politics and the English Langugae”, decrying what he saw as sloppy writing driven by lazy thinking.In 1946, George Orwell published his famous essay “Politics and the English Langugae”, decrying what he saw as sloppy writing driven by lazy thinking. His argument was the English Language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Orwell makes it clear that he has "not been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing thought.” Despite his injunction, we can see that in the intervening seventy years, very few have heeded his advice. Chief among language's abusers have been academics and politicians.
Syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg's latest book, The Tyranny of Cliches, is a sort of spiritual successor to Orwell. After numerous speaking engagements (and, most likely, watching a lot of cable news), he started to notice a trend. People mouth all sorts of cliches (“I disagree with you, but will defend your right to say it”, “Violence never solved anything”), defending principles they haven't really thought through. These outbursts are a way to avoid arguments by not even making them. People invoke these cliches as placeholders for arguments not won or ideas not fully formed. And these are usually the same folks who denounce a truly thought-out position as “ideological”.
Anyone familiar with Goldberg's columns knows he makes his arguments with a combination of serious research and humorous pop culture references. He's a writer who is at home quoting anyone from William F. Buckley, Jr. and Thomas Sowell to Jean-Luc Picard and Ron Burgundy. In the span of two paragraphs in his chapter on ideology, Goldberg references Fredrick Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Steven Bochco's Cop Rock. We're all familiar with parents hiding medicine in applesauce to make it more palatable, well, Goldberg's writing is like hiding your medicine in a hot fudge sundae.
Each chapter takes on a hoary cliché and shows why we shouldn't just accept its argument at face value. Quite often, his research shows that the original formulation of the cliché has very little direct correlation with the currently accepted meaning. For example, the phrase “social justice” is used quite often these days; from politicians to charities to civic organizations and labor unions, hell, even the American Nazi Party uses the phrase in their mission statement. A cry for social justice is usually little more than a cry for “goodness”, however goodness is defined by its wielder.
The phrase social justice began as a technical term within Catholic theology, coined around 1840 by theologian Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio as a way to emphasize that much of the important stuff in life lay outside the realm of the State. Human beings are social animals, belonging to more institutions (read: societies) than just the State. These societies maintain a level of autonomy apart from that of the State. The State has a responsibility to not “destroy the inner unity” of these societies, but rather they must respect their freedom and autonomy within the society. In other words, the government cannot trample the structure of social ecosystems that make life worthwhile. It had nothing to do with redistributing wealth (never mind fighting for gender equality). Taparelli thought of and employed social justice in a completely different way than almost everyone does in contemporary society. 
This is just a brief example of Goldberg's core thesis. The first couple chapters are a fabulous piece of work showing that the high-minded-sounding phrases of pragmatism and “no labels” and the disdain for ideology and dogma are nothing more than nonsense on stilts. After this point, each chapter is a mini-essay, some are better than others. I loved the chapter on dogma, but his attack on the phrase “power corrupts”, was lacking. He started off by showing where the phrase came from, then devolved into attacking the late Senator Ted Kennedy.
One great thing about this book is that it's wonderfully browseable. You can pick up and read any chapter at any time without missing a thread of an argument. This also leads into one of my nitpicks: the book is not homogeneous. I would've liked if he tried a little more to bring the book under more than just the broad umbrella of attacking cliches, or at the very least write a concluding chapter to tie it all together. The introduction is wonderful and carefully lays out his thesis, so it would've been nice to have a complementary chapter at the end.
Since Goldberg is a conservative author, the majority of cliches he debunks are used by those on the left. He does tackle some cliches the right uses, like "slippery slope" arguments, but not too many.
There are a number of chapters that I'd like to reread and internalize their arguments to use against the gauzy nonsense spouted by many. Other chapters, I'll leave alone. If you're a fan of Goldberg, you should get the book. If not, I'll show you which are the best chapters.
Side note: Shortly after the book's release, Goldberg did an interview with ReasonTV. He talks about the book, the founding of National Review Online, and some other topics. It's really a good interview that you should watch. Here he is in his own words explaining what the book is about:
"Liberals are sure they're in the reality-based community and anyone who disagrees with them either has a bad brain, or in some other way rejects empiricism and science, and they are the only ones working with the building blocks of facts and reason. And I call bullshit on that."...more
I remember hearing about this book when it first came out and thinking "Great. Another book saying how great Reagan was that people will write off asI remember hearing about this book when it first came out and thinking "Great. Another book saying how great Reagan was that people will write off as hero worship by Republicans." On a recent Ricochet podcast, the hosts mentioned how to get a free audiobook from audible.com and that Robinson's book was read by him, with audio excerpts of Reagan where he is quoted. Since I've become an admirer of Robinson's through Uncommon Knowledge, I decided I'd use my freebie to download this book. Robinson himself says the book is kind of a "love letter" to Reagan, but it's not an outright hagiography of the president. He shares ten important lessons he learned from Reagan and it reads as a warm portrait of a mentor - who just happened to be the leader of the free world.
Each chapter of the book focuses on a life lesson Robinson took from his time in the White House. Some of these include finding the good in the bad, do the work you are intended to do, act now, what you say matters, and take things in stride. Each one of these items is backed up by anecdotes from Robinson or from other former Reagan staffers who he interviewed. Those interested in the "Tear Down This Wall" speech should pay close attention to chapter 4, it is a detailed behind-the-scenes look at how that speech came to be.
The book is written in an easy, conversational style. Since Robinson reads the book himself, it has the effect of a witty, urbane friend over for a dinner party, regaling you with interesting stories for hours on end. I can't tell you how many times he had me laughing out loud.