An impressive and very readable tour of postwar European history. I learned a tremendous amount in just the first hundred pages about the impact of Wo...moreAn impressive and very readable tour of postwar European history. I learned a tremendous amount in just the first hundred pages about the impact of World War II on different parts of Europe, and on the rest of the world as exhausted and impoverished hegemons found they literally couldn't afford to keep their empires anymore.
Judt does a masterful job of interweaving political, social and economic currents after 1945 from one end of the continent to the other. It's a hefty book and not a quick read, but I found every chapter genuinely fascinating, and it is an especially good primer on big questions like the origin and prospects of the European Union and the collapse of Communism.
Judt is serious, well-informed, and opinionated. If there's one thread of the story I'm left a little confused about, it's his take on whether and how much ideology matters. He seems to say that for most Europeans after the war, economic concerns (broadly speaking: comfort and security) pushed any serious debate about politics to the margins, AND at the same time capital-P politics became pretty much subsumed in the binary categories of the Cold War. At the same time he seems critical of people for not caring very much about ideological distinctions, and yet seems to me to imply pretty strongly that those distinctions were completely beside the point as policy makers found themselves groping for broadly similar answers to urgent questions, whatever party they represented.
And he mocks people who *did* take ideas a little too seriously. In some places I think he's a little hard on people who adopted some of the intellectual fads that took hold in the fifties and sixties (and he can come off a bit superior - not for him the messiness and poor taste of the counterculture!).
I think Judt is particularly unjust to those in emerging new social movements, even when those movements are bringing rather important and neglected issues to the table (say, the environment and women's rights). He seems to me to regret how "identity" politics movements distracted from ... what exactly? A class-based, more encompassing vision of politics? Hard to believe that could be right, since he definitively documents how the classically-defined industrial proletariat had shrunk into a pretty narrow demographic slice by the time the early 70s roll around. And again, the failure of political parties to gin up an inspiring and effective vision seems to reflect what he shows to be a narrowing of genuine alternatives available to political leaders of all stripes.
All that said, there are a lot of people that deserve his scorn, especially lefties who took way too long to let go of the fantasy that the Soviet Union was anything like the egalitarian utopia they projected upon it. And honestly, the world would be a much, much better place if more people had the sound and thoughtful political instincts of a Tony Judt. We lost him much too soon.
If you really want to know "What's the Matter With Kansas" - read this book. Perlstein's fascinating and readable overview of the rise of Richard Nix...moreIf you really want to know "What's the Matter With Kansas" - read this book. Perlstein's fascinating and readable overview of the rise of Richard Nixon is essential reading, as much for how different the 1960s were, and how much is all-too-familiar.
Perlstein documents how Nixon capitalized on the resentment of white voters from the upper-middle class on down, patenting the Republicans' strategy to disrupt the Democrats' New Deal coalition into a dozen ineffective fragments. It's generally a very depressing story, showing how readily confused and misled the American public can be.
Not that they didn't have help outside the administration. One critical theme Perlstein brings out is how prone to wishful thinking the press was - not so much as "liberals" but as centrists who really, really wanted to believe the president was a good man. Or at least not the lying, cheating, conniving criminal he turned out to be. The mainstream media was continually behind the curve, refusing to see what was evident to anyone willing to look.
Parts of the left too, engaged in dramatically self-defeating activity, not least grandstanding domestic terrorists, professors who thought the revolution was finally here, and celebrities trying to make a difference but making crucial tactical errors.
The book is a richly-realized portrait of America in the sixties and early seventies, and makes a great bookend with Caro’s mammoth series on another president fed by insatiable ambition, resentment and megalomania.
As with Caro’s Johnson, one can empathize with Nixon’s relatively hard-scrabble origins, and feelings of inadequacies next to the Harvard & Yale best and brightest he strove against, but only up to a point. Johnson’s character seems Shakespearean in a way that Nixon simply isn’t, at the end of the day. There’s a lot not to like in LBJ – revolting, dishonest, manipulative to start with – but there is a side of his character that one can believe was not simply “political” in the pejorative sense: he had a political grounding in sensitivity for less-fortunate Americans that’s utterly lacking in Nixon.
That’s finally the most fascinating thing about the Nixon Perlstein presents: while Tricky Dick (and the all-start cast of malfeasants and miscreants around him, including Hunt, Liddy, Mitchell and Colson, but also Buchanan, Rove, Rumsfeld and Ailes) tells himself the ends justify the means, no ends are really apparent. He fancies himself a statesman using American power on the global stage for higher purposes, but finally chooses to screw around in Vietnam for…. domestic political reasons; yes, the man made sure to keep the war going in ‘72, because it was tearing the Democrats apart. Ultimately he pursues power simply for the sake of power. Or put slightly differently, the point of politics is to stomp your enemies.
And whatever you do, don’t fall for the attempt to posthumously rehabilitate the old man. Perlstein paints a damning picture of a man who succumbed to a corrupt path to power, developing an early habit of letting himself off the hook morally on the insistence that he had to prevail against men even worse. Lying, cheating, illegal spying (on figures in his own Cabinet!), bombing noncombatant countries… all in a day’s work when you’re clinging to power. And those domestic policies Nixon sometimes gets credit for as “enlightened” and progressive actions by a man sometimes mistakenly thought to be to the left of any recent president: not so much. It turns out Nixon’s heart was not in the environment, labor, antipoverty, or health: they were all just political tactics, just one more way to make Democrats look bad.
In the broadest sense, the book will bum you out about Americans. One of the big themes here is that Nixon wasn’t pursuing a “Southern strategy” bent on bringing bigoted ignorant southern whites under the Republican tent: he was pursuing a truly national strategy of harnessing the grievances of (mostly white) Americans in all 50 states. Anyone who ever felt looked down upon, left out, mocked or just ignored. And, honestly, who can’t check one or more of those boxes? Nixon was a kind of genius (after Ailes and others helped polished his presentation) at presenting himself as a victim, and eliciting sympathy even against much more sympathetic rivals.
Note the implication: we pull for a victim against… his enemies. So Nixon’s people could rally "real" Americans against long hairs, Black Panthers, radical professors, unruly Vietnam veterans, Jane Fonda, and even mild-mannered midwestern war hero George McGovern. And even when Democrats weren’t actively sabotaging their own prospects, they couldn’t figure out how to effectively respond to a politics based on fear, rage, and righteous resentment.
I don’t have to belabor the legacy of that strategy, which is painfully obvious. (less)
One of those adolescent discoveries that I suspect may not stand up well to a re-read, but at the time it changed my life.
I had been a music major my...moreOne of those adolescent discoveries that I suspect may not stand up well to a re-read, but at the time it changed my life.
I had been a music major my freshman year of college for the first few months, until I realized that my goals in music (essentially become a rock god & enjoy the side-benefits of that divinity) weren't being materially furthered by learning the difference between the Lydian and Ionian modes.
Thanks to a friend, I'd discovered the other Fear & Loathing, and as per usual set about devouring everything my new favorite writer had in print, starting with this massive head-trip of a book. HST's lurid, scatological, outraged account of the '72 election showed me that politics were not boring at all, but as fascinating and as dramatic as anyone could wish for. Even if Hubert Humphrey and Spiro Agnew are involved.
That's a cheap shot. My apologies to Hubie.
But that goes to show you the kind of effect Thompson has on a person, not entirely (I need hardly add) a beneficial effect. A stylist who changed the game of writing about politics, Thompson not only seeded an army of epigones (not all as good as say, Matt Taibbi), but injected a shot of snark and cynicism (& utterly selfish, irresponsible exhibitionism ... literally shamelessness) into the national culture that we're still high on.
Oh, and the other "effect" HST had on me: this is the book that inspired me to study political science, and indirectly pointed me on the track I spent the next 15 years on.
And at some point, I will go back and re-read this, and see what 25+ years of perspective have ruined for me.(less)
Halberstam's books are always a great read - the man knew how to tell a story with enviable economy, liveliness and clarity. I went into this partly t...moreHalberstam's books are always a great read - the man knew how to tell a story with enviable economy, liveliness and clarity. I went into this partly to fill in my knowledge of the Kennedy years as a supplement to reading Caro's LBJ trilogy, and didn't completely realize that this is a full-blown history of the Vietnam conflict from the American side. I also wasn't prepared for the intense anger Halberstam's prose barely contains in places; it's a vivid illustration of the disillusionment that generation felt when it realize how much it had been lied to, and a depressing (and depressingly relevent) account of a horrific set of interlocked foreign policy blunders from which the smartest people in the US couldn't figure out how to extricate us.(less)
Fascinating, appalling, and all too relevant. Karnow begins with the earliest colonial era in Indochina, and takes you all the way up to the last heli...moreFascinating, appalling, and all too relevant. Karnow begins with the earliest colonial era in Indochina, and takes you all the way up to the last helicopter leaving Saigon. Written in an engaging, polished prose that nonetheless lets some passion through as Americans again and again can't let go of illusions and walk away from a bad situation of their own making.
I learned many things I hadn't understood at all before - how deep French cultural roots ran in Viet Nam, role of Catholics, Buddhists et al, the "loss" of China as precedent, and the extreme feebleness of the various governments in the South. And most importantly how early US planners understood the war was hopeless and how difficult it was to reverse years of foreign policy posturing under the white-hot glare of domestic politics in the Cold War era.(less)
Well-told account of Lyndon Johnson's early years. As moving and fascinating as any novel or play you could imagine - Johnson is truly a Shakespearean...moreWell-told account of Lyndon Johnson's early years. As moving and fascinating as any novel or play you could imagine - Johnson is truly a Shakespearean character, compelling, affecting and deeply flawed. We owe Caro a great deal to put so much of his life energy into telling this story before the details slip over the historical horizon.(less)