Sunday, July 21, 2013

Early observations on an experimental family e-library and e-bookclub using Kindles

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds writes today that his Kindle Paperwhite has "replaced [his] iPad as [his] favorite device for reading Kindle books":

The backlighting is the key. It’s light, battery lasts a long time (longer than the iPad), it charges quickly (faster than the iPad), and it’s very clear and easy to read in all kinds of light, from bright sunshine to a dark room. And of course, it’s much, much cheaper [than an iPad].

To all of which, I say: Ditto. I bought one of the first Paperwhites last fall, and I like mine so much that I made this product the basis for a family e-book club.

PaperwhiteSpecifically, I've given four Kindle Paperwhites, plus two older Kindle models I'd purchased in 2010 and 2011, to my four college-age kids and two of their best friends. All these devices are associated with my Amazon Prime account, and as the group's sponsor I encourage the members to make responsible e-book purchases through Amazon using their devices. Those purchases are of course billed to my Amazon account — like many parents, I've never regretted buying books for my kids! — and each purchase generates an emailed invoice to me, which helps me keep track of new additions to our collective e-library and its ongoing costs.

Here's how the Kindle system multiplies the already formidable convenience and economics of e-books for a family e-library, though:

Most of Amazon's Kindle books include licensing rights for multiple copies of e-books to be downloaded simultaneously to six different devices. (The precise number is set by the publisher of each book, I gather — I wonder if that was another one of Apple's ideas or something the publishers insisted upon on their own?) Not everyone in our group can simultaneously be reading the same book, then. But then again, six copies at any one time is quite a few: What home library has as many as six copies of on-dead-trees books available for simultaneous checkout? When you remove a copy from one Kindle or other e-reader device, it automatically frees up the license rights for another free and nearly-instant download on any of my account's devices, so even the six-copy limitation turns out to have a trivial and rare effect on us.

And although we have a total of seven Kindle devices among us, there are actually more e-readers than that associated with my account. With the Kindles' autosync via WiFi capability, I also use my smartphone and a free Amazon Kindle app as an additional e-reader — which lets me pick up with the same book I'm reading on my Paperwhite on my smartphone, in exactly the same spot, whenever I happen to find myself standing in line or eating out alone.

(I opted to forgo the more expensive Paperwhite models with the built-in 3G wireless capability to augment the built-in WiFi. However, my smartphone can sync using either 4G or WiFi, and my Paperwhite back home will sync to where I leave off reading on my phone too. We don't think our group members need, or would much use, wireless on our Paperwhites, but YMMV and for some of you the additional cost may be justified.)

As I'd hoped, many of the books that one of us buys are ending up being read by more than one of us — and sometimes (e.g., the Game of Thrones series) by all or almost all of us. And as I'd also hoped, we're trading book recommendations and discussing books more frequently. Our "family book club" doesn't have meetings or circulate memos; instead these shared books become evolving, continual topics of occasional conversation whenever any two or more of us happen to feel like chatting (in person, on Facebook, or wherever) about something we've just read.

For those who worry that this might be "cheating" or that they'll get sued under the DMCA: I haven't studied the fine print in Amazon's sales and licensing agreements, but I emailed Amazon's customer support folks about my family book club plan before buying the additional Paperwhites last December. They replied that Amazon is perfectly happy to sell on those terms, which include the understanding that I'm maintaining financial responsibility for the purchases made by the responsible young adults to whom I've entrusted what are, legally, still "my Kindles" and "my [licensing rights to Amazon-purchased] e-books."

Finally: my older daughter just returned from a month's volunteer work in Nepal, where her internet access was limited and infrequent. She reports that she got more use and more satisfaction out of her Kindle than from any other gadget she had with her.

So far, then, I've been very happy with this ongoing plan and the return I'm getting on my investment. These Kindles don't suck at all. If you decide to buy one, I recommend doing it through either Instapundit's site or your other favorite blogger who's an Amazon Associates participant. (I'm not any longer; Beldarblog is nonprofit for the additional freedom that buys me with respect to "fair use" copyright issues.)

Posted by Beldar at 05:31 PM in Books, Family, Technology/products, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Reactions upon reading today's court ruling against Apple in the ebook price-fixing conspiracy case

I ought to have simply done this as a blog post to begin with, but:

When I started reading U.S. District Judge Denise Cote's written opinion in United States v. Apple Inc. this evening, I originally only intended to post a link to the opinion, with a very short comment, on Facebook, mostly for a few of my legally-inclined friends. But then I started leaving comments on my FB post, and it turned into a sort of "live-blogging" as I worked through the opinion.

Eventually I decided I ought to re-post it all here for a broader audience, with apologies for the disjointed format:

Ipad_ibook_reader

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Apple lost in court in New York today on the ebook antitrust case brought jointly by the Justice Department and several states (including Texas). U.S. District Judge Denise Cote's opinion is 160 pages (double-spaced), so it will take me a while to read it. But from the summary of findings (beginning on page 9 of the .pdf file), it looks like a major defeat for Apple. This paragraph (from page 11) seems key in my initial skim:

Apple and the Publisher Defendants shared one overarching interest — that there be no price competition at the retail level. Apple did not want to compete with Amazon (or any other e-book retailer) on price; and the Publisher Defendants wanted to end Amazon’s $9.99 pricing and increase significantly the prevailing price point for e-books. With a full appreciation of each other’s interests, Apple and the Publisher Defendants agreed to work together to eliminate retail price competition in the e-book market and raise the price of e-books above $9.99."

Here's a link if you're interested:

https://www.justice.gov/atr/cases/f299200/299275.pdf

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I hadn't realized that 38 different states had joined in this litigation, but I'm pleased to see that the Texas and Connecticut attorneys general were "liason counsel for the plaintiff states" (i.e., carried the ball and probably did most of the work for all the other state plaintiffs).

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The financial impact on Apple is uncertain, but treble damages loom: "The Plaintiffs have shown that Apple conspired to raise the retail price of e-books and that they are entitled to injunctive relief. A trial on damages will follow." And at that trial the question won't be whether Apple has to pay — today's ruling effectively decides that against Apple — but just how much, and to whom.

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No jury was involved in this, by the way. By consent of all parties, there was a bench trial in which Judge Cote served as factfinder in lieu of a jury.

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CEO Les Moonves of CBS (which owns Simon & Schuster, one of the defendants who settled before trial) is pegged as a major conspirator. I remember him from Rathergate.

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In footnote 38 on page 71, Judge Cote labels Apple Sr VP Eddy Cue's trial testimony as not being "credible" — which is the polite way to say she thinks Cue was lying under oath on at least some points. The factual recital is just brutal. Apple comes across as the proverbial 800 pound gorilla who bullied not only the consuming public and Amazon (which was fighting to keep ebook prices low), but Apple's fellow conspirators, five of the six big publishing companies. Appellate courts are particularly reluctant to overturn credibility determinations by the factfinder, whether that's been a judge or a jury. Apple's going to have a hard time digging its way out of the hole it's dug for itself.

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From pp. 85-86 of the .pdf file:

On January 27, Jobs launched the iPad. As part of a beautifully orchestrated presentation, he also introduced the iPad’s e-reader capability and the iBookstore. He proudly displayed the names and logos of each Publisher Defendant whose books would populate the iBookstore. To show the ease with which an iTunes customer could buy a book, standing in front of a giant screen displaying his own iPad’s screen, Jobs browsed through his iBooks “bookshelf,” clicked on the “store” button in the upper corner of his e-book shelf display, watched the shelf seamlessly flip to the iBookstore, and purchased one of Hachette’s NYT Bestsellers, Edward M. Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, for $14.99. With one tap, the e-book was downloaded, and its cover appeared on Jobs’s bookshelf, ready to be opened and read.

When asked by a reporter later that day why people would pay $14.99 in the iBookstore to purchase an e-book that was selling at Amazon for $9.99, Jobs told a reporter, “Well, that won’t be the case.” When the reporter sought to clarify, “You mean you won’t be 14.99 or they won’t be 9.99?” Jobs paused, and with a knowing nod responded, “The price will be the same,” and explained that “Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon because they are not happy.” With that statement, Jobs acknowledged his understanding that the Publisher Defendants would now wrest control of pricing from Amazon and raise e-book prices, and that Apple would not have to face any competition from Amazon on price.

The import of Jobs’s statement was obvious. On January 29, the General Counsel of [Simon & Schuster] wrote to [the CEO of S&S, Carolyn] Reidy that she “cannot believe that Jobs made the statement” and considered it “[i]ncredibly stupid.”

Yeah, I agree that it was incredibly stupid. And arrogant. Jobs was bragging in public about the price-fixing conspiracy that his company had organized and executed to fix ebook prices. The reason the publishers were threatening to withhold their books from Amazon altogether was because that was the key term in the conspiracy that Apple was proposing. Unless Amazon agreed to knuckle under to the "agency pricing" model that Apple wanted (because it would eliminate retail price competition in ebooks, to Apple's benefit, and let Apple compete with Amazon on the basis of hardware, never price) — Amazon wouldn't be able to sell ebooks at any price.

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This whole fact pattern would never make a good exam question in an antitrust course in law school. It's way too easy. There's an arsenal of smoking guns. It's like no one at Apple ever heard of the Sherman Act.

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Maybe you aren't an ebook buyer, and because you only buy paper books, you think this conspiracy didn't affect you. Nope (p. 95): "The Publisher Defendants raised more than the prices of just New Release e-books. The prices of some of their New Release hardcover books were also raised in order to move the e-book version into a correspondingly higher price tier."

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From p. 103, Jobs is quoted as making the following brag — actually, a stunning admission to which he was blinded by his egotism — to his biographer:

Amazon screwed it up. It paid the wholesale price for some books, but started selling them below cost at $9.99. The publishers hated that — they thought it would trash their ability to sell hardcover books at $28. So before Apple even got on the scene, some booksellers were starting to withhold books from Amazon. So we told the publishers, “We’ll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30%, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that’s what you want anyway.” But we also asked for a guarantee that if anybody else is selling the books cheaper than we are, then we can sell them at the lower price too. So they went to Amazon and said, “You’re going to sign an agency contract or we’re not going to give you the books.”

Yes, the customer pays a little more, but that's what you want anyway — if you're running a conspiracy to eliminate market competition via illegal price-fixing agreements, that is indeed exactly what you want.

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Key finding (from page 120, citation omitted):

In sum, the Plaintiffs have shown not just by a preponderance of the evidence, but through compelling direct and circumstantial evidence that Apple participated in and facilitated a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy. As a result, they have proven a per se violation of the Sherman Act. If it were necessary to analyze this evidence under the rule of reason, however, the Plaintiffs would also prevail.

That's a "belt and suspenders" finding: Judge Cote thinks (and I agree) that this is a "per se" case because of the type of conspiracies and restraints involved and where the players all were in the various supply chains. But she's also saying that even if she's wrong about that point, and even if Apple gets the benefit of the more flexible "rule of reason" standard instead of the "per se" standard, Apple would still lose.

That makes it much harder for Apple to win on appeal.

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This is just a methodical thrashing. In every appeal, the first thing the appellate judges (and their law clerks) read is the district judge's opinion. After reading this one, I think almost any appellate judge is going to be favorably impressed with its comprehensiveness and clarity. It's the kind of opinion after which you exhale and say, "Whew! That's going to be hard to fault in any significant way."

Apple is going to have a very tough row to hoe on appeal. I think they're well and truly hosed in this case, although it's not likely to threaten their existence as a company or even delay the next iPhone-whatever.

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Footnote 63 (at p. 135) is quite droll, as antitrust humor goes:

Apple uses the term 'competitive' to convey that it wanted its prices to be the lowest in the marketplace, not to convey that it wanted prices arrived at through the process of competition.

That means: "We want all the business, but at a higher, fixed price."

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In footnote 66 on p. 143, Judge Cote labels individual Apple and Publisher Defendant executives as "noteworthy for their lack of credibility" — which I would paraphrase as meaning they're "liars lying under oath and they can't be believed."

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Okay, finished. The last 30+ pages are devoted to anticipating every argument Apple can be expected to make on appeal and methodically rebutting or undercutting each of them. Judge Cote is a Clinton appointee who's senior status, so she has a lot of experience; and she's clearly learned how to write opinions in a way that make them particularly hard to reverse. The smartest and best federal district judges are usually the best advocates for why their own written decisions ought be upheld — they try to anticipate how the appeal is likely to proceed, and to make their decisions as nearly "bulletproof on appeal" as possible (which is to say, clear, well-reasoned, and correct). And this may be a candidate for the Second Circuit to "affirm on the basis of the district court's opinion" — basically the appellate court, instead of writing its own opinion, just saying, "Yeah, what she said." It's a very high compliment to a district judge when that happens in an important case.

Posted by Beldar at 08:47 PM in Books, Budget/economics, Law (2013), Mainstream Media, SCOTUS & federal courts, Technology/products, Texas | Permalink | Comments (49) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On 9/11/01 plus eleven

As part of my private commemoration of the eleventh anniversary of 9/11/01, earlier this evening I finished reading No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden, written under the pseudonym "Mark Owen" by a senior member of SEAL Team 6 (with assistance from an experienced military author who'd been embedded with American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kevin Maurer). It is a quick read, and it is written in the most plain and straightforward prose, but I nevertheless found it to be a very satisfying and timely read.

But today's news is full of ugly omens. The President of the United States has once again publicly brushed off the Prime Minister of Israel, who'd like to meet this week to discuss the completely unresolved problem of Iran's nuclear weapons program. American embassies are being assaulted in Egypt as the Muslim Brotherhood-led government that we're supporting with money borrowed from China nominally stands watching and secretly plots America's mortification.

Roughly half of America has nevertheless been lulled back into the most false sense of security in human history. The voters among them will vote for Obama, again.

But when the next attack comes, and when it is worse, they will be incandescent in their resentment and fury whenever anyone suggests to them that they were foolish back in the Novembers of 2008 and 2012, back when Iran's nuclear program could still have been stopped at less than the cost of an American city.

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UPDATE (Sep 12 @ 5:40am): All Americans of every political stripe will be horrified by the awful news coming out of Libya this morning. I'm not yet prepared to comment on it, and when I am I'll do that in another post, so I'm simply going to close comments on this post for now.

Posted by Beldar at 11:05 PM in 2012 Election, Books, Foreign Policy, Global War on Terror, Obama, Politics (2012) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Red books vs. blue books, and Obama's book(s) vs. Romney's book

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds links Amazon's Election Heat Map 2012, which contains Amazon.com's ongoing analysis of its sales of political books, which it divides into "neutral" books, "red" books, and "blue" books. A book's color, for this purpose, has nothing to do with its cover; instead, Amazon says it classifies political books as red or blue (rather than neutral) "if they have a political leaning made evident in book promotion material and/or customer classification, such as tags."

No ApologyAccording to Amazon's current analysis, in the last 30 days, "red" books have outsold "blue" books by 56% to 44% nationally, and "red" books have outsold "blue" books in all states except New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia. Texas, colored cherry-red on Amazon's map, buys two "red" books for every "blue" book, but "red" books only hold a tenuous 2% lead in California.

Prof. Reynolds notes Amazon's sidebar, though, which tracks the sales of Barack Obama's second book, "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," against Romney's "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness" — with Obama's book substantially outselling Romney's.

I haven't yet read Romney's book, but I read Obama's first quote-unquote "autobiography" — "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," quite closely before the 2008 election. Indeed, I compared Obama's "Dreams" to John McCain's "Faith of My Fathers" in a long post then — McCain versus Obama: 'placelessness,' faith, and dreams — which I think holds up pretty well today. (My two key conclusions: (1) "Barack Obama's young life, and the people around him then, were filled with unconnected randomness. John McCain's young life, and the people around him then, were filled with deeply shared purpose"; and (2) "McCain got a rock-solid and abiding 'faith' from his grandfather and father — faith in them, in himself, in the U.S. Navy and the other U.S. military forces, and most importantly, in all of America — while at best, Obama got only 'dreams' from his.")

Audacity of HopeI also tried to read "The Audacity of Hope" in 2008, but I frankly found it dull, nearly impenetrable, and entirely forgettable: It's not really another autobiography, and it has no plot or story. Rather, it's more or less a repackaged bundle of early Obama campaign speeches and position papers. It's a typical politician's book — which is to say, it's a book that exists to be bought (so it will generate a nicely laundered royalty), and to be displayed on supporters' bookshelves, not a book to actually be read by anyone other than a zombied sycophant whose brains have already been scooped out and consumed.

Of course, both of Obama's books are still selling — and providing him with a handsome continuing royalty stream — and if we counted both Obama books against Romney's one, the sales gap would surely be even larger. And indeed, when I noticed that Amazon had only pitted one of Obama's two books against Romney's single book, I thought perhaps that Amazon was guilty of an oversight.

But then I had a small epiphany, and I suddenly understood why "Dreams From My Father" wasn't included in Amazon.com's sale comparison:

It simply wouldn't be fair to compare fiction to nonfiction.

Posted by Beldar at 05:27 PM in 2012 Election, Books, Humor, Obama, Politics (2012), Romney | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Madame Secretary, please hold — the President says he needs to speak with you urgently

On Sunday, I predicted that Obama will replace Biden with Hillary, and I explained why I think that:

... Paul Ryan's selection just moved Hillary Clinton from "possible" to "probable" as Biden's replacement on the 2012 Dem ticket. Look for Slow Joe to find a sudden yearing to become an elder statesman who has more time to spend with his family. I'll bet Hill & Bill are having champagne tonight. Even most of my Democratic friends will admit, if pressed, that it would be a good thing for the country to get Joe Biden out of the line of presidential succession....

....

Pawlenty, Portman, or even Rubio would have whipped Biden in the Veep debate and as a campaign surrogate, but not so badly as to make Biden look much worse than Biden does even with no active opponent. If Romney had chosen one of them, then keeping Biden would have been a closer call. But recall that Paul Ryan is the only Republican politician in the last two years to have obviously bested Obama himself in face-to-face argument in a public forum. And whether you credit Obama with modest or supernatural eloquence, he's certainly aware that Biden isn't in his own league, and he surely knows that Ryan will disarticulate Biden, both stylistically and substantively, in the Veep debate.

Biden turns 70 in late November, and his medical history includes two brain aneurysms. The rationale for him being on the ticket in 2008 (that he would offset Obama's foreign policy inexperience) no longer exists. He brings no constituency that Obama doesn't already have on his own now; among young voters, whose participation Obama wants desperately to encourage, Biden is very nearly as much a standing joke as he is among Republicans. There has always been a decent chance that Obama would dump him in 2012, but of course that would never conceivably have happened until Obama first saw who Romney picked, in order that Obama could know who Biden's successor would be up against. Now he knows.

The best chance the Dems have to respond to the Ryan selection would be asymmetric political warfare — which translates quite neatly into replacing Biden with the most ambitious and most popular Democrat in the country, Hillary Clinton. Indeed, that will mesh like clockwork with the coming Obama pivot to foreign policy as the best possible distractraction, and the only substantive distraction, from the economic ruin he's wrought. The rest of the Obama-Clinton campaign would largely consist of heaping calumny on Romney-Ryan and Mediscare — Dems cannot talk about the economy in anything but the most simplistic, jingoistic talking points, because anything else is poison to Obama's campaign — but SecState/Veep nominee Clinton, along with a newly energized Bubba, would surely be employed to highlight the relative lack of traditional foreign policy credentials on the part of both Romney and Ryan.

A couple of my very articulate readers left comments containing thoughtful counter-arguments and skeptical observations.

Since then, though, Biden has, in short order, told the citizens of Danville, Virginia, that "With you, we can win North Carolina again," and that Romney's "gonna put y'all back in chains."

The only thing remarkable about the latest Biden gaffe is how routine these gaffes have become, and what a cosmic double standard everyone in the public eye — the press, both campaigns, everyone but the general public and its snarky bloggers — employs to avoid asking the question, "Just how panicked would we all be if Barack Obama suddenly had chest pains?"

Meanwhile, as Prof. Reynolds notes, The Onion has some pretty funny insights into the new dynamics of this race since the Ryan pick.

I could well be proved wrong. I'm out alone on my limb, it would seem. But I'll bet you there are back-up provisions in the election laws that, in the event of a convenient "health crisis" involving V.P. Biden,* or perhaps simply a decision by him that he wants to forego the nomination so he can spend more time with his family, would still let Obama pick a replacement even after the Democratic convention. I don't think he'll wait that long because Obama will want to use the convention to squeeze one last sentimental appearance out of Biden as he goes to pasture, and more importantly, to rub some of Hillary's popularity back off onto himself.

And when you say "sure, Ford changed Veeps, and FDR switched Veeps like he changed his underwear, but the Dems couldn't replace a prominent candidate this late in a major federal election these days," I have one name for you: Bob Torricelli.

If you think Hillary would say no: The conventional wisdom is that that's what "everyone" thought LBJ would say when JFK offered him the Veep nomination at the Democratic convention in 1960. Robert Caro's newest volume in his phenomenal biography of LBJ takes a fresh look at that historical surprise and concludes that it made perfect sense from both JFK's and LBJ's points of view. Caro also convincingly debunks the later attempts by the Camelot Crew (led by Bobby) to claim that JFK had only offered Johnson the spot as a "courtesy," and that JFK had been stunned when Johnson accepted, but too polite to withdraw the offer. Instead, Kennedy offered the spot to Johnson not out of any courtesy at all, but because without Johnson on the Democratic ticket, Jack Kennedy thought Nixon would probably win — it was exactly that simple, and Jack knew it whether Bobby could come to grips with it or not. The notion that Jack Kennedy would have taken on a Veep for four years who he didn't really think was the best choice, simply to avoid offending Johnson, is risible.

It will come down to one two-part question: Does Barack Obama think he'll have a better chance to win this election by replacing Biden with someone else — and if so, with whom? And as with JFK's pick of LBJ in 1960, it's exactly that simple.

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*(Lest anyone think or suggest otherwise, I stress that I wish the Vice President a long and healthy life, whether in or out of politics, as his wishes and the fates decide. I bear him no personal ill-will. This is simply about him being an anchor dragging back the Obama campaign, and whether it makes political sense for Obama to replace him.)

Posted by Beldar at 04:37 AM in 2012 Election, Books, History, Obama, Politics (2012), Ryan | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What would Leo think?

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy — "Leo" to us English-speakers — was a very romantic fellow, and I am among his many fans. But the quality for which he is most widely known is prolixity: If the Family Feud question is "Name a really long novel," then "War and Peace" (1440 pages in paperback, almost 600,000 words) is always going to be the Number One Answer.

It's fascinating to me, then, but also disquieting, to see how Hollywood boils down the 832 pages (in paperback) of another of his epic novels — Anna Karenina — into a movie poster. To genuinely appreciate this one, if your internet connection permits, click on the image below to open a really huge hi-rez image in a new window:

Promo poster for 'Anna Karenina,' a Focus Features Film opening on November 16, 2012

I didn't gag, but I sputtered when I read the tagline: "You can't ask why about love." But then again, taglines are meant to be memorable, and one way to achieve that is by being quite trite. This poster's tagline has the same sort of repulsive attraction as "Love means never having to say you're sorry," a well-remembered tagline from an otherwise forgettable movie made from a quite trite novel. (I watched it again on late-night cable a couple of years ago; it doesn't hold up well, although the pretty actors and actresses still look pretty.) So, if there has to be a tagline for Anna Karenina, "You can't ask why about love" is certainly more romantic than "Look out for that train!"

And once you get past the puffery and oversimplification inherent in the movie poster format, this one is actually very ambitious, very detailed, filled with visual allusions to Tolstoy's plot line, and sumptuously stylish. This poster does its job, which is to trigger my fond memories of a romantic novel to entice me to see a romantic film adaptation. I also don't find it hard to watch Keira Knightley, and this poster reminded me of that too. So I will likely go see this movie in the fall.

Posted by Beldar at 10:58 PM in Books, Film/TV/Stage, History | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Beldar & kids see "The Hunger Games"

My daughter Molly introduced me to Susanne Collins' trilogy "The Hunger Games" when the novels first came out a few years ago, and I was much taken with them.

There have been many criticisms of the books, and by and large they also apply to the just-released movie version of the first book. The central premise — in which twenty-four teens, drawn by lottery from twelve world districts, compete in a televised deathmatch  — requires a large swallow of "willing suspension of disbelief" to wash it down. Indeed, the rest of the "world creation" is thin and often internally inconsistent. (Small spoilers ahead, click and drag to display text: How could a society with the technology to materialize deadly robotic wolves out of thin air still be dependent on coal mining done by humans in a village that's functionally indistinguishable from Depression-era Appalachia?) As science fiction plots go, "The Hunger Games" trilogy is fairly trite and not very original. No one would mistake it for great literature, and it doesn't aspire to be that.

Jennifer Lawrence as 'Katniss' in 'The Hunger Games'Nevertheless, however improbably, the trilogy succeeds as well-spun and spare-but-compelling story-telling — a page-turner that induces readers to identify with and care about the characters, and that is particularly likely to inspire sentimental tears from anyone who's ever had a sister or daughter. So Molly and I have been eagerly awaiting, and following the advance press accounts regarding, this first episode of the film adaptation. We resolved to see the film during the first weekend of its release, and we were joined today by my son Adam and his roommate Erik, neither of whom had read the books.

Many trilogy fans criticized the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as the protagonist, "Katniss Everdeen," on grounds that she is too old and too blonde. Her blondeness was easily remedied, of course, and with due respect to purists who'd rather the films exactly track the books, and to the many excellent child actors who've graced other difficult film roles, I frankly can't imagine this movie having been made successfully with an actual thirteen- or fourteen-year-old. And Jennifer Lawrence's performance is stunning; the phrase "vividly understated" sounds contradictory, and I guess it is, but it approximates the tightrope she successfully walks between making Katniss too ordinary to be inspiring and too terrific to be believable. By the end of the film's first major plot development (roughly 10 minutes into the movie), she completely owned the screen and, I suspect, the hearts of everyone (of any sex or age) in the theater. The film is quite long (142 minutes), but Lawrence's performance is so persuasive and so winning that the filmmakers were able to mostly omit many of the cut-away scenes which I had expected to be necessary from reading the books — especially the ones showing Katniss' performance in the Hunger Games as generating strong reactions among not only her hometown friends and family, but among those viewing the spectacle of the Games from her competitors' home districts too.

(Among the trailers shown before our screening was one for the upcoming "Snow White and the Huntsman"; when Kristen Stewart appeared on-screen, she inspired much muttering, if not quite hissing or cat-calls. And if you're familiar with her lifeless, boring performances in the "Twilight" series of films, you can easily imagine how she, or someone else equally young and hot but talentless, might easily have been cast in — and have thoroughly ruined — "The Hunger Games.")

The only real clunker of a casting decision in "The Hunger Games" was Woody Harrelson as Katniss' mentor, "Haymitch Abernathy." My extreme personal dislike of that actor admittedly taints my reaction to any film he's in. I suppose he wasn't quite as much of a travesty in this film as he was in "Friends With Benefits," which I watched on cable last week; and I haven't yet steeled myself to watch "Game Change," since my dislike of Harrelson is significantly exceeded by my contempt for the real person Harrelson plays in that particular piece of gutless defamation.

But Haymitch is among the most important half-dozen characters in the books, and next only to Katniss, he's absolutely the most interesting, complicated, and challenging character. In this film adaptation of the first book, the character deserves, and gets, a fairly generous allotment of screen time. Yet Harrelson wastes just about all of it. Veteran Donald Sutherland, by way of easy contrast, brings one hundred times the acting talent to a part with a quarter or less of the screen-time that Harrelson had. Indeed, in the film's delicious and wordless final scene, Sutherland does more to provoke your attention for the next film in the trilogy — using merely a slight change in the way he's holding his mouth and a tiny flick of his fingertips — than Harrelson manages with all his carpet-chewing throughout the rest of the movie. True stars like Sutherland, and even new talents like Lawrence, make Harrelson look genuinely simple-minded and completely out of his league in this film — rather like Woody Boyd, the dimwitted bartender in "Cheers" (after which role, Harrelson ought to have simply retired, or perhaps taken up bartending). Indeed, I'd gladly see the second and third films sacrifice continuity in order to replace Harrelson with a real actor who's up the part of Haymitch.

Other supporting actors worth recognition include young Amandla Stenberg as "Rue" and the ever-talented Stanley Tucci as the perfectly named master of ceremonies, "Caesar Flickerman." Molly also particularly liked Lenny Kravitz' performance as "Cinna," but he didn't really leave me with a very strong impression. I do hope they'll give Paula Malcomson, whose performance as "Trixie" in HBO's splendid series "Deadwood" showed considerable acting chops, something more substantive to say and do in the role of "Katniss' mother" in the next two episodes of "The Hunger Games." But her slim role in this film does track Collins' books fairly closely, and the essential element of that character is her emotional vacancy, so it's hard to criticize Malcomson for being very low-key.

Generally speaking, as Adam and Erik confirmed afterwards, the film is quite accessible even to those who haven't read the books, and it hews closely enough that I don't think there's any particular downside to reading the books after seeing the film(s). If you're uninterested in pop culture, you've likely missed the books already and you'll similarly decline the opportunity to see the film versions. But if you can follow at least the first half of the advice Haymitch gives to Katniss' chaperone, Effie Trinket (played by an almost unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks) — "Loosen your corset and have a drink!" — you might enjoy this movie a great deal. Molly, Adam, Erik, and I all give it a solid "thumbs up."

Posted by Beldar at 09:38 PM in Books, Film/TV/Stage | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, January 13, 2012

Blogger Aaron Worthing's new novel, "Archangel," now available

My blogospheric friend Aaron Worthing, known to me (and perhaps you) as a regular guest-poster at Patterico's Pontifications and author of his own blog, Allergic to Bull, has self-published his own novel — "Archangel: A Novel of Alternate, Recent History" — on Amazon.com, where it's now available for painless and quick download to your Kindle or other e-book reader.

'Archangel: A Novel of Alternate, Recent History,' by Aaron WorthingI have today ordered a copy with an eye toward a potential review or note here, but I haven't yet read it, so all I can say for sure yet is that the premise is intriguing. However, Aaron's a good writer and keen observer of our times, well-read and clear-thinking.

I'm a fan of the new self-publishing paradigm; Knowing that my purchase price is going mostly to Aaron as the content-creator (rather than mostly to a big publishing company that thinks it and its fellows should be entitled to decide what we all get to read) pleases me.

And last but not least, Aaron's another lawyer-turned-novelist — a fairly common species that I (like just about every other lawyer I know) have often wistfully contemplated joining, but haven't yet gathered the diligence and creativity to manage.

Accordingly, I'm publishing a link to Aaron's book here. (If I've managed the link properly, it should also rebate a further small portion of the purchase price, at no additional cost to you, to Aaron's blog through the Amazon Associates program.) 

If you join me in buying Aaron's book as an impulse purchase, please feel free to leave your considered reactions in the comments to this post, or at Aaron's blog.

Good luck, Aaron!

Posted by Beldar at 06:02 PM in Books, Global War on Terror, History, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Ryan reviews Sachs' ode to nanny-statism, "The Price of Civilization"

Politicians are often credited with op-eds that are published in their names, and that may indeed express their views, but that were mostly written by a staff member or aide. This has been true at least since the days of the Greek and Roman democracies.

When I read Texas Gov. Rick Perry's recent and much-discussed op-ed about Obama's hostility to Israel, my assumption was that Perry didn't write its first draft, and may not have changed a comma in what someone else wrote on his behalf. Perry is nevertheless politically accountable for what it says to the same degree as if he had written it, and there's no reason to think his own views differ a whit from his ghost-writer's. (Indeed, the ghost-writer has failed in his job if his work varies from his principal's views.) Jen Rubin at the WaPo snarked that a "ghostwritten piece so far above [Perry's] current abilities highlights the concern" that "his own foreign policy views are rudimentary." I think that's harsh, but I take her point. Like all governors who run for president, Perry will have to struggle to establish foreign policy bona fides, and that can't be done solely through ghost-written op-eds.

But I was reminded of this topic — politicians and their ghost-writers — just now when I read this review of Jeffrey Sachs' new book, "The Price of Civilization," by someone of whom Ms. Rubin and I are both big fans: Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee. Having heard Mr. Ryan speak extemporaneously, I have no trouble believing that he, personally, penned lines like these:

In "The Price of Civilization," Mr. Sachs is asking the right questions. What is a life well lived? What should our government's role be in building a more virtuous society? What policies should it pursue to promote fulfilling lives for its citizens? If such questions direct us to the moral wisdom of our cultural traditions, they can indeed help to balance the excesses of capitalism and so help us to extend its benefits to all.

Yet Mr. Sachs's gospel of happiness draws not on the inspired tradition of the Founders but rather on the Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. In the 1780s, Bentham proposed that "happiness," which he equated with "pleasure," could be mathematically measured. It was not sufficient, he thought, for government to protect our rights if it was to vouchsafe our pursuit of happiness. Government must instead quantify "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" and set policies and goals accordingly. There was a science to satisfaction, Bentham claimed, and it was a puzzle that trained experts could solve.

Channeling Bentham, Mr. Sachs calls for the establishment of a national metrics for life satisfaction and sets a 10-year goal to "raise America's happiness." Although the specific measures are hazy, the steps are clear: For people to be happy, their government must increasingly shield them from the challenges of life. The good life is thus defined as one of ever-more pleasure at the expense of work.

But happiness in this world results not from avoiding challenges but from meeting them. Happiness is the recompense of real effort, whether intellectual or physical, and of earned success. It comes from achievement — from doing something of economic, artistic or emotional value. The satisfaction to be taken in producing valuable things brings with it a lasting sense of personal fulfillment. Mr. Sachs's design for paternalistic government will only impede the pursuit of happiness.

Read the whole thing. This man has a talent for communication, and a passion for the ideas he's communicating, but the delivery is simple, fair, and respectful to the views of the skeptical reader. I think that's the secret to Ryan's effectiveness — not just as an explainer, but as a persuader.

And I still wish he were running for POTUS. So this blog's official position continues to be:

Draft Paul Ryan.

Posted by Beldar at 09:28 PM in 2012 Election, Books, Budget/economics, Politics (2011), Ryan | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 29, 2011

John Kennedy, foreign policy idiot

I've just finished reading "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth," Frederick Kempe's important new history of events that took place when I was four years old.

Frederick Kempe's 'Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth' (Putnam 2011)It is a gripping, well-written, and immaculately researched explanation of how John Kennedy wrong-footed his relationship with his Soviet counterpart from even before JFK's inauguration, and then proceeded to botch both his own efforts to appear resolute and his own efforts to promote a more peaceful coexistence with the Soviets.

In particular, the book puts the disastrous Vienna Summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in June 1961 under a magnifying glass. Reading it, one realizes that John Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and their "best and brightest" cadres essentially invited Khrushchev and his East German puppets to seal off West Berlin — an act that brought the superpowers to the brink of war at Checkpoint Charlie later that year. And having signaled, and then proved, that the U.S. would not react strongly so long as Khrushchev was staying within the Soviets' own "sphere of influence," they made inevitable the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, and the long further subjugation of Eastern Europe that persisted until Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush finished winning the Cold War.

The name "Barack Obama" appears nowhere in the book, and there's not the slightest of hints that this book was intended in any way as a commentary on him or his foreign policy. Nevertheless, by highlighting tendencies and characteristics of John F. Kennedy that Barack Obama surely shares, this book troubled me a great deal. In particular, the overwhelming and utterly unjustifiable arrogance that the Kennedy brothers displayed — with their personal end runs around the NSC, the State Department, the CIA, and the FBI — resonates with Obama's ridiculous confidence that he's his own best foreign policy adviser.

Most of you have read books or watched movies about the "Missiles of October," and for the last half century those have nearly uniformly depicted the Kennedy brothers as smart, calm, and shrewd actors who saved the world from disaster. Well, this book is the other half of that story — how those two brothers were culpably responsible for taking the world to the brink of that disaster, and indeed, how they took the U.S. from a position of overwhelming strength and unquestioned strategic superiority under Eisenhower to a full-scale retreat from American commitments around the globe in less than two years. You will definitely be better informed about world history, and particular about the Cold War, after you finish this book. And you'll probably wince the next time you hear anyone refer to Camelot.

Bismarck said that "God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America." I hope that's true, but this book suggests that He certainly had a special providence for a hard-drinking, drug-addled, skirt-chasing young Irish-American fool who managed to become POTUS when he didn't have a clue how to perform that job responsibly. This book further convinces me that it was only by divine grace that the world survived long enough for me to see my fifth birthday.

Posted by Beldar at 10:20 PM in Books, History, Obama | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review: Thumbs up from Beldar for James Hime's novel about 9/11, "Three Thousand Bridges"

There's considerable truth to the cliché that inside of every lawyer lurks a wanna-be novelist. Indeed, it's true even of tax and real estate lawyers. The surprise is when a lawyer actually manages to write a readable novel — much less a compelling and intensely authentic one!

Author James HimeBut the proof that can happen is "Three Thousand Bridges," a new novel by Jim Hime — with whom I worked when he was a very capable young tax and real estate partner, and I was a trial department associate, at Baker Botts in the 1980s.

I'd been pondering buying a Kindle for some time, and when I learned (via Facebook, from another Baker Botts alum) that Jim's new book is being released only as an e-book, my curiosity about both book and gadget crossed the tipping point, and "Three Thousand Bridges" became my first Kindle purchase through Amazon.com.

(Of the Kindle, I'll say this: I like it better than I thought I would, and getting used to it was easier than I expected. The good things about it — price; capacity; ease of content delivery; spectacular battery life; and superb text legibility on a screen that doesn't tire your eyes — are very good indeed. In other ways, it very much reminds me of an Apple Macintosh computer circa 1986: its technology and interface both seem reasonably elegant but seriously dated. I suspect the Kindle is better adapted for the simple and singular task of serious and sustained reading than an iPad or other comparable device, but I haven't owned one of those yet, so I'm just guessing based on my limited experience trying to read other novels on my very-good-quality desktop LCD monitor. Reading on the Kindle beats that by a wide margin.)

Hime is, and writes like, a native Texan who's also grown wise in the ways of the world outside the Lone Star State. "Three Thousand Bridges" weaves a tale that incorporates some very powerful and poignant recent history of our state and our country. Here's an accurate blurb from biographer Hershel Parker, as reprinted on Hime's website:

The mystery writer James Hime made his mark with The Night of the Dance (an Edgar finalist) and Scared Money, both heralded by other novelists and reviewers for memorable characters, taut prose, and a comedic take on how things and people work. Hime nailed dialects as if no one else had ever listened to Texans talk, and readers settled back to await more adventures of Jeremiah Spur and Clyde Thomas. Adventures will follow, we are assured, but Three Thousand Bridges is of a different order of achievement, not a mystery novel but a novel with mysteries. Its unlikely and at first unlikable hero, a Viet Nam veteran, is the outrageous and outraging Texas oil supply man, Cole Simms — a belated cousin, we recognize, of Mark Twain's Pap Finn. In sculpted prose, pacing his revelations, Hime traces his bedeviled hero's journey across the South just after 9/11, toward Ground Zero and toward self-insight. Hime, who escaped from the South Tower of the World Trade Center with a printout of The Night of the Dance after witnessing the crash of American Flight 11 into the North Tower, has created a classic narrative of transforming American experiences, personal and national. After its wide initial popularity, I predict, Three Thousand Bridges will endure in college classrooms as a powerful, accessible testimony about an unthinkable time.

And I enjoyed, and agree with, Arden Ward's review of the book and interview with Hime, which includes some marvelous facts and factoids like these (bracketed portions in original):

Hime was halfway through his descent, on floor 35 or 36 he recalls, when the building rocked violently — "Almost enough to knock you off your feet," he remembers. Still, he kept walking, finally reaching the street.

"That was the first time I saw the gaping hole in 1WTC [the north tower of the World Trade Center] and the fire blazing out of 2WTC at just about the level we had been at maybe 30 minutes earlier." ...

Hime began wondering about his father, who hadn’t known he was in New York City at the time of the attack. "I was fascinated by the premise of what it would have been like to be a father whose son goes missing in New York City on that day. Suppose that no one knew why he was there to begin with, and you wake up on the morning of 12 September and know only that he was missing. What would you do?"

It's pretty much impossible to write about Texas without bumping into stereotypes and clichés. My favorite thing about this book, I think, is the way Hime embraces those — and then proceeds to bend and twist them to one degree or another, in ways that turn out to be quite funny. "Three Thousand Bridges" gets the Beldar Stamp of Texas Authenticity. It's a danged good book, and I'm proud of my friend for writing it.

Posted by Beldar at 02:27 PM in Books, Global War on Terror, Law (2011), Texas | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, May 30, 2011

My four-legged bit of Westeros

I've been recording HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, but I only began watching yesterday. I'd already read all the books in the still-unfinished series, but it didn't occur to me until just now that I have my own "direwolf" of sorts — although officially, my dog Weiss is more of a Dyer Wolf.

Beldar's dog, Weiss

Yes, she's a very friendly dog, but check out that dentition!

Posted by Beldar at 10:45 PM in Books, Family, Film/TV/Stage | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, May 16, 2011

Obama as Grant

This past weekend's "Week in Review" section of the NYT included Peter Baker's essay entitled Comparisons in Chief. Mr. Baker muses over the comparisons, flattering and un-, of Barack Obama, the forty-fourth POTUS, with predecessors such as John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and the Bushes (George H.W. and George W.):

What makes us so eager to find historical parallels for Mr. Obama? Why do we take one president and try to fit him into the mold of another? Maybe it is because more than halfway through his term, we just cannot agree on who Mr. Obama really is. Or maybe it is the same public fascination with historical personalities that lately has filled best-seller lists with presidential biographies. Or maybe it is just a surplus of shallow punditry in an era with endless hours of airtime and Internet space to fill.

“Sometimes I think the only president we haven’t been compared to is Franklin Pierce,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “But I am not ruling out the possibility of that comparison sometime in the next couple of years.”

Mr. Pfeiffer said he assumes these comparisons come up because many political writers were history majors. Naturally, he, too, has read many books on presidents. “The key,” he said, “is studying the similarities and differences and understanding that history is informative but not determinative.”

Mark K. Updegrove, director of the Johnson presidential library, points to the proliferation of news media. “In my view,” he said, “pundits often make comparisons to previous presidents because it allows them to sound authoritative without putting forth a great deal of thought.” He added that he has been among those who have made such comparisons.

After Mr. Baker's quotes about pundits who want to sound authoritative or were history majors, however, I could not help but shake my head when I read his concluding lines (emphasis mine):

In the end, said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, our views matter less than Mr. Obama’s: “The real key is, in his heart, which historical figures does Obama himself really find himself looking to most often for inspiration and guidance?” Usually, he added, we do not find out until after a president leaves office and historians can read his records or memoirs.

So maybe then, Mr. Obama will actually be another Ulysses S. Grant, who wrote the most celebrated presidential memoir of all time. Remember, you read it here first.

Mr. Baker is correct that U.S. Grant's memoirs have been celebrated, and justly so. I recommend them to anyone interested in U.S. history, and they're available in full-text, free, online.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant Anyone who's actually read them, however, would surely recall the careful, disciplined organizational style of Grant's memoirs. His chapter titles, for example, are verbose by modern standards, but they comprehensively summarize the contents of each chapter. The next-to-last one, Chapter 70, was entitled: "The End of the War — The March to Washington — One of Lincoln’s Anecdotes — Grand Review at Washington — Characteristics of Lincoln and Stanton — Estimate of the Different Corps Commanders." Grant's memoirs basically stop at the end of the Civil War. And even in his final chapter, entitled simply "Conclusion," Grant said nothing of his two terms as president.

Grant's memoir, in short, was not a presidential memoir, but a commanding general's. Given the enormous disparity between history's concensus verdict on Grant as a commanding general (top-tier) and as a president (bottom of the barrel), that's a rather significant fact.

Depending on whether you credit his second book as a memoir or just campaign flackery (and I lean toward the latter), Obama's already written either one or two memoirs of his own pre-presidential days. And if Mr. Baker thinks that Barack Obama's accomplishments as a community organizer, part-time lawyer, part-time seminar teacher, and part-time state legislator compare in any respect to Grant winning the Civil War — or even that Obama writes as well as Grant did — then Mr. Baker's punditry is very silly and shallow indeed.

Posted by Beldar at 05:46 PM in Books, History, Obama, Politics (2011) | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is Barack Obama one of America's 50 most influential lawyers?

InstaPundit Glenn Reynolds has a polite and useful practice of acknowledging some of the "review copies" of books that have been sent to him, even if he hasn't yet read them, with his short "In the Mail" posts. These usually consist of no more than the author's name and the book's name, typically with an Amazon link (which, altogether appropriately, rebates a small percentage of all purchases back to him through the Amazon Associates program). I think it's fair to infer from such posts that Prof. Reynolds' interest has been piqued by each of the books he so lists, whether or not he ends up reading them. But I certainly don't interpret him to be endorsing all these books, or even necessarily recommending them; when he does want to recommend or endorse something, he's pretty clear about that.

Today he has such a link for a paperback by Ross Guberman called Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation's Top Advocates. Like any adversary-practice lawyer with the requisite healthy ego for that job, my first reaction upon reading that title was, of course: "It's not the 'Nation's Top Advocates' unless it includes me."

My own hypertrophied ego aside, however, I was nevertheless highly amused to read this sentence in Amazon's "Product Description" for this book:

The author takes an empirical approach, drawing heavily on the writings of the nation's 50 most influential lawyers, including Barack Obama, John Roberts, Elena Kagan, Ted Olson, and David Boies.

One of these things is not like the other things. One of these things just doesn't belong.

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Even Elena Kagan — who I thought was a disastrously poor oral advocate during her short tenure as Solicitor General — has at least made an undeniably successful career as a lawyer. David Boies, Ted Olson, and John Roberts are all "lawyer's lawyers," meaning that anyone who knows a damn thing about the practice of law, and in particular the practice of appellate advocacy (a fairly narrow sub-discipline), will indeed recognize them as fine examples from whom much about the art of advocacy can be learned.

Obama at Harvard Law School And there's no doubt that Barack Obama — merely by virtue of the office he holds — is one of the 50, or five, most influential people in the world. But he certainly didn't get that job because of his excellence and abilities as a lawyer practicing law.

Indeed, the very best that could ever be claimed for Barack Obama's legal practice is that it was short, sporadic, undistinguished, and unmarred by the drive for either billable hours or courtroom success that most new "litigators" are expected to demonstrate. From his spot as "president" (effectively editor-in-chief) of the Harvard Law Review, he could certainly have found prestigious judicial clerkships and a prime job with almost any law firm in the country. He chose instead to blow off judicial clerkships, to spend the year after graduation writing his book and working on a voter registration project, and then finally to join a small Chicago firm of some local political influence but no national prominence. There, by all reports he alternated between "civil rights" legal work (broadly defined, e.g., protecting apartment dwellers' "civil rights" not to live amongst asbestos contamination) and much better-paying work representing slumlords like Tony Rezko. Indeed, Obama's current Wikipedia entry sums up his career as a practicing lawyer in a single sentence that's quite comprehensive and, if anything, a bit generous: "In 1993 he joined Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a 13-attorney law firm specializing in civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development, where he was an associate for three years from 1993 to 1996, then of counsel from 1996 to 2004, with his law license becoming inactive in 2002."

Based on my Westlaw search of federal libraries, Barack Obama was listed as appellate counsel of record in precisely one federal appellate decision, in which he represented ACORN (yes, that ACORN) in supporting Ohio's "motor voter" law — a matter that's almost as much political as legal — and while he might well have written part or all of that brief, he wasn't even the first-chair lawyer on the case. That hardly puts him in the company of John Roberts, Ted Olson, or David Boies as an appellate advocate. Rather, it puts him in the company of about 10,000 other schlubs who've dipped a toe in appellate waters and found them too cold, the competition too intense, and the judges too demanding of excellence.

I will grant that Obama was apparently quite popular as a part-time lecturer in constitutional law seminars at Chicago Law School. But that, even added to his law practice, wouldn't make him one of the 50 most influential lawyers in the city of Chicago — much less in the whole country.

*******

Pres. Obama playing basketball I haven't bought, and obviously haven't read, Mr. Guberman's book. I wonder, though, if it doesn't rely on Barack Obama's political speeches, rather than anything he's ever written or said specifically as a practicing lawyer. [This bit of speculation was in error; please read the "Update" below. — Beldar] Because I'm here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, friends and neighbors: When I die, if I ever make it to heaven and the Good Lord gives me some choice over leisure activities, among my top five would be trying any sort of lawsuit, representing any sort of client, in a jury trial on neutral territory against Barack Obama. Somewhere in my top ten would be arguing any appeal against Barack Obama.

I would be less keen to face him in a duel of teleprompters, especially if he still gets to have the flags and the "Hail to the Chief" and Nancy Pelosi's Botoxed grin in the background. But if Barack Obama is one of the nation's top 50 most influential lawyers based on his lawyering, his advocacy for a client in any sort of court setting, I will eat my much dog-eared copy of the Bluebook.

So let it be understood: Barack Obama is one of the nation's fifty most influential lawyers in exactly the same sense as he's one of the nation's fifty most influential basketball players: He's a President of the United States who happened to dabble in basketball and lawyering.

And frankly, I haven't seen any accomplishments from his legal practice that can rival his occasional three-pointer on the basketball courts.

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UPDATE (Sun Feb 20 @ 11:50pm): I'm pleased to report that the author of the book in question, Ross Guberman, has answered the rhetorical question I asked in this post — and my speculation that he'd relied upon one of Obama's political speeches was flat-out wrong. By his express permission, here verbatim is his considered response, which he sent me as part of a genuinely sparkling and civil email exchange (embedded link his):

Dear Mr. Dyer,
 
Thank you for mentioning my book today and for sharing your thoughts on my inclusion of Obama as one of the 50 most influential advocates.
 
I found your objection to be reasonable, so I thought I'd explain my thinking a bit.
 
I agree that Obama had a short and thin legal career. But he did sign a cert petition in an important Voting Rights Act case (Tyus v. Bosely), and so I thought my readers might be interested in seeing a few excerpts from the brief as an example of the President's legal work in his academic specialty.
 
Like any author, of course, I hope your own readers will buy my book and judge for themselves! Nearly all of the other people whose work I include have had more traditional legal careers.

Now I am indeed eager to read the book, not least because I've found so few samples of Obama's work product as a practicing lawyer online. Mr. Guberman has promised to send me a review copy — thus have I leveraged myself unabashedly into the same privileged position as Prof. Reynolds, at least in this one very small particular — and I've promised to read it with the intention of writing a review here in due course. Stay tuned!

Posted by Beldar at 11:05 AM in Books, Law (2011), Obama, Politics (2011), SCOTUS & federal courts | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Review: Lowry & Korman's "Banquo's Ghosts"

Banquo's GhostsI adore a good spy novel. When I was in grade school, my mother (of all people) turned me on to Ian Fleming's James Bond books. (She had to telephone the local librarian to confirm that it was okay for me to check books out of the "adult" section.) And I've liked, and read, the genre ever since.

But I've grown sick to death of tendentious and preachy books like those John Le Carre has been turning out lately. I won't ever buy another of his books, and I frankly wouldn't bother to cross the street to spit down his neck if some jihadist had cut off his head and set his corpse on fire. I'm just out of patience with the moral relativism crowd; there is good and there is evil in the world, and while I don't pretend that everything American is or has always been unmitigatedly good, I have no patience left for the fools who insist that everything American is and has always been evil, or mostly evil, or more evil than good.

That combination ought to put me squarely in the target audience for Banquo's Ghosts by Rich Lowry and Keith Korman. Mr. Lowry is, of course, the successor as editor in chief at National Review to the late and truly great William F. Buckley, who was also a spy novelist of some renown with his Blackford Oakes series. In this fictional endeavor, as in his punditry, Mr. Lowry has large shoes to fill. I hope he keeps trying, and he's done a good job with this effort, but I'm confident that he can do better.

I'm sad to say that this novel badly needed a better editor. Although I was previously unfamiliar with Mr. Korman's work, I've found Mr. Lowry's nonfiction prose to be consistently quite good. Most of this prose is entirely competent, and there are lyrical, even brilliant bon mots and allusions scattered throughout this book that I'd guess are products of his creativity. But this edition is also filled with non-dialog sentence fragments and inconsistent punctuation. That's a practice which, especially in spy or detective fiction, is not an unforgivable sin by itself; but it becomes unforgivable when, as here, it's both carried to excess and the fragments sometimes leave genuine doubt about their antecedents (and therefore their meaning). And when I pay for a hardbound book written by two American authors and published by an American label, I don't expect to see "mold" spelled "mould." Bad editing causes me to subtract one star.

But this book did not disappoint when it comes to moral clarity. Its twin targets — Iran and the American Hard Left media/intelligentsia/glitterazzi — are well and truly skewered. Messrs. Lowry & Korman could certainly succeed if they were assigned to "deep cover" as writers for The Nation or the HuffPo or the WaPo or even dKos. The plot line is creative and fast-moving, if somewhat shaky and disjointed at times. Without going too deeply into spoiler territory, however, I suspect most readers would agree with me that the ending is ultimately the least credible portion of the entire novel. I think Lowry and Korman pulled their punches — and for that, I must subtract another star.

The book clearly was written with the anticipation of one or more sequels, however, and there are indeed several characters who I'd enjoy reading more about. This is a commendable first effort, which I award three stars out of a possible five. And yes, when the sequel comes out, I'll buy it too.

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UPDATE (Sun May 10 @ 6:05pm): On reflection, I regret making the snarky remark about my extreme lack of regard for John le Carre because of his recent books. I aspire to a higher tone on this blog, and I think I generally have maintained that since 2003. That most on the Left consistently permit themselves to fall into such a corrosive hatefulness is no excuse for my doing so. Ironically, I credit so-called comedienne Wanda Sykes' hateful remarks about Rush Limbaugh at last night's White House Correspondents' Dinner for reminding me of this.

Posted by Beldar at 12:47 AM in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (8)

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Brokaw claims Ayers is now a mere "school reformer"

My latest guest-post at HughHewitt.com ponders how Tom Brokaw can revere the Greatest Generation's heroism in the 1940s, yet dismiss Bill Ayers' terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s, and call him a mere "school reformer" despite his present radical plans to turn our educational system on its head and turn every teacher into a "community activist" to teach against "oppression."

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[Copied here for archival purposes on November 5, 2008, from the post linked above at HughHewitt.com.]

(Guest Post by Bill Dyer a/k/a Beldar)

I like Tom Brokaw. I really liked his 1998 book, The Greatest Generation. Because I like him, I sometimes almost persuade myself to forget that he, like the entire old-media structure of which he's a conspicuous part, is a liberal who oftentimes willfully blinds himself to reality. That's the only way that this morning on "Meet the Press," he could make a statement like this, on the topic of whether the McCain-Palin campaign is "going more negative":

Well, they've already signaled that they're going to come out pretty hard on — uh, attacks on what they called [Obama's] absence of character and his absence of leadership qualities. In fact, there was a story in the New York Times just in the last couple of days about [Obama's] association with William Ayers, who'd been a member of the Weathermen, who were a radical group from the 1970s, and who's now a school reformer in Illinois.

Later, during the round-table discussion with other pundits, Mr. Brokaw again pointedly referred to Ayers as "now a school reformer from Illinois."

"Now a school reformer"? I suppose that's literally true, if shamefully misleading. Bill Ayers wants to "reform" American education in the same way that he wants to "reform" America — as in, literally "re-forming" it after he's blown it all to pieces. From Stanley Kurtz' reporting in the Wall Stree Journal:

The [Chicago Annenberg Challenge's] agenda flowed from Mr. Ayers's educational philosophy, which called for infusing students and their parents with a radical political commitment, and which downplayed achievement tests in favor of activism. In the mid-1960s, Mr. Ayers taught at a radical alternative school, and served as a community organizer in Cleveland's ghetto.

In works like "City Kids, City Teachers" and "Teaching the Personal and the Political," Mr. Ayers wrote that teachers should be community organizers dedicated to provoking resistance to American racism and oppression. His preferred alternative? "I'm a radical, Leftist, small 'c' communist," Mr. Ayers said in an interview in Ron Chepesiuk's, "Sixties Radicals," at about the same time Mr. Ayers was forming CAC....

Mr. Ayers's defenders claim that he has redeemed himself with public-spirited education work. That claim is hard to swallow if you understand that he views his education work as an effort to stoke resistance to an oppressive American system... For Mr. Ayers, teaching and his 1960s radicalism are two sides of the same coin.

Mr. Ayers is the founder of the "small schools" movement (heavily funded by CAC), in which individual schools built around specific political themes push students to "confront issues of inequity, war, and violence." He believes teacher education programs should serve as "sites of resistance" to an oppressive system. (His teacher-training programs were also CAC funded.) The point, says Mr. Ayers in his "Teaching Toward Freedom," is to "teach against oppression," against America's history of evil and racism, thereby forcing social transformation.

That's the modern Bill Ayers. And it's the modern Bill Ayers who posed for a magazine article entitled No Regrets while proudly stomping on an American flag.

Bill Ayers posing for photo for August 2001 article in Chicago Magazine entitled 'No Regrets'

Bill Ayers, not in the 1960s, but in 2001

Sure, Justice Scalia and I would both defend this twisted dollop of evil scum's First Amendment right to profane America's most sacred symbols. But no one has to ignore the fact that he's scum. No one has to give a free pass (or a vote) to politicians like Barack Obama who — despite knowing both Ayers' radical history and radical present — have consistently chosen to associate with Ayers, to cooperate with him, and to hand out small fortunes to support Ayers' radical goals to "re-form" the educational system.

Do you want another example of cognitive dissonance? It's how someone like Tom Brokaw can simultaneously (a) revere as "our greatest generation" the ordinary Americans who put their lives on the line for that same flag in the 1940s, but yet (b) defend and embrace as a "school reformer" an unrepentant terrorist, bomb planter and would-be cop-killer from the 1960s and 1970s who even now boasts that he "walked out of a jail cell and directly into [his] first teaching job." What, we're supposed to pay attention to the 1940s, yet ignore the 1960s, 1970s, and the present?

I hope that Mr. Brokaw will rise above his innate liberal bias and do a fair job in moderating this week's presidential debate. But don't persuade yourself that he's not a liberal, or that he sees the world through anything but a liberal's blinkered world-view.

— Beldar

Posted by Beldar at 11:08 AM in 2008 Election, Books, Current Affairs, McCain, Obama, Politics (2008) | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Is Veep debate moderator Gwen Ifill biased?

Disclose the book, but let viewers decide if there's any real bias. So I advise Gwen Ifill in my latest guest post at HughHewitt.com.

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[Copied here for archival purposes on November 5, 2008, from the post linked above at HughHewitt.com.]

(Guest Post by Bill Dyer a/k/a Beldar)

Michelle Malkin performs a valuable service by alerting us (here, here, and here) that vice presidential debate moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS' NewsHour program has an upcoming book, due to be released at about the time the next president is inaugurated, entitled Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. As Michelle points out, Ms. Ifill's financial interest in the success of the book might reasonably be thought to be linked to its subject's success in the general election.

Therefore, if for no other reason than the potential appearance of a conflict of interest, Gwen Ifill should publicly disclose her book's impending release and title to the entire nation at the very beginning of tomorrow night's debate. To do anything less would be unethical. (And the disclosure itself is unlikely to do Ms. Ifill any harm; rather, it may actually pump her pre-release sales.)

As for Michelle's underlying charge that Ms. Ifill is in the proverbial (and very crowded) tank for Obama, that is something about which you should make up your own mind. But I do have a few thoughts to share on that subject.

I think it's very, very likely that Ms. Ifill is extremely sympathetic to the Obama candidacy, and that he's likely to get her vote if she votes (and she has every right to; I don't hold that journalists ought to recuse themselves from casting personal votes). That an anchor for PBS and a member in excellent standing of the mainstream media should be to the left of center in her personal politics is, at this stage, very much a "dog bites man" story.

The issue, however, is whether Ms. Ifill can successfully put aside her bias in her performance of her role as debate moderator. What's been so dreadful this election season in watching figures like Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann beclown themselves repeatedly as shills for Obama is that they're not even making any effort to hide their biases, much less to rein them in and be fair.

[# More #] Part of my (and most courtroom lawyers') standard spiel as we're selecting juries has to do with bias and prejudice. "We each come to the courthouse today," I say, "with a unique set of life experiences, from which we've drawn our own sets of beliefs and expectations, and through which we filter our new experiences, too."

And thus, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is: "Yes, of course Gwen Ifill is biased. We all are biased toward or against something."

I tell prospective jurors that at several points during the trial, however, the judge will caution them that the law requires them to set aside their personal biases and prejudices, and to instead decide the case based only upon the testimony and exhibits received into evidence. So the question during jury selection, I explain, becomes whether anyone has a bias or prejudice relating to the issues in the case which is so strong that despite the prospective juror's best efforts, he or she won't be able to put that bias or prejudice aside in receiving and weighing the evidence.

Some people won't answer that question honestly — and one of my jobs as a lawyer is to try to make accurate predictions as to who those people are, for use in deciding how to spend my peremptory strikes — but a remarkable number of prospective jurors do answer it honestly when they have a strong bias or prejudice. Often, they end up getting themselves excused "for cause" upon confessing the depth of their biases in further (hopefully gentle and respectful) questioning. Vastly larger numbers of jurors, though, sincerely believe that they can set aside their biases and prejudices and decide the case based solely on the evidence. Their ability to actually do so is one reason for my abiding faith, after nearly three decades of practicing in it, for the American jury system as an imperfect but essential instrument of dispassionate justice.

I recently re-read the debate transcript from 2004, in which Gwen Ifill moderated the debate between vice presidential candidates Dick Cheney and John Edwards. Were I to guess, my guess would be that Ms. Ifill personally preferred the Kerry-Edwards ticket to the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2004, although I can't make any particularly meaningful guess about the intensity of that preference. Regardless, however, I didn't see any clear evidence, or even a strong suggestion, of bias in the selection and phrasing of either Ms. Ifill's initial questions or her follow-up questions in 2004. To me, that indicates that she was making a conscious — and successful — effort to separate her own personal biases and prejudices from her job performance. (The example Michelle quotes an emailer as citing from 2004, in which Ms. Ifill limited Vice President Cheney to a 30-second response after Mr. Edwards had gone on a rant about Mr. Cheney and Halliburton, came after a question from Ms. Ifill to Mr. Cheney about Halliburton in which he'd had two minutes to respond, giving him more time overall on the topic than Mr. Edwards had had. The original question was tough but fair, and the refusal to deviate from the format's time limits was by no means a sign of bias.)

If, this time, Ms. Ifill's performance is biased toward Joe Biden and against Sarah Palin, the likelihood of that being obvious to the general public is roughly proportional to the degree of bias shown. If the question asked is, "Gov. Palin, as a Bible-thumping, breeder-hick from the sticks, do you think you can find a pumpkin truck that will actually bring you to Washington?" then there's not likely to be much harm done. The risk, rather, comes from subtle forms of bias that may be less obvious but more harmful — false or questionable presumptions built into the premises of questions, for example, or selection of questions in a way skewed to focus more on one candidate's presumed weaknesses than the other's. Still, the members of the voting public — assisted or not, as they choose, with the opinions of pundits — can draw their own conclusions about those matters, too. And certainly the candidates have some tools at their disposal to expose subtle bias and fight against it — as by challenging the premises of questions.

So I'm going to be alert to signs in this debate that the moderator may be exhibiting signs of bias — as I hope I'm alert in all such important debates. You should be too. I, for one, will try to set aside my pre-existing impression that Ms. Ifill is probably an Obama-Biden supporter and considerably to the left of center in her own politics, and I'll try my best to judge her performance on the basis of what actually happens tomorrow night. As a self-acknowledged and obvious fan of Gov. Palin's, I have my own biases to contend with too, which in addition to acknowledging, I must try to account for in my punditry if I want my opinions to have any usefulness and credibility.

To us all, then, I say: Good luck, and let's do our respective bests!

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UPDATE (Thu Oct 1 @ 7:25 p.m. CST): Here's John McCain's reaction (ellipsis in original):

Sen. John McCain says he is confident PBS reporter Gwen Ifill will “do a totally objective job” moderating Thursday’s vice presidential debate despite authoring a new book that is reportedly favorable toward Sen. Barack Obama.

Asked during an interview Wednesday with Fox’s Carl Cameron whether Ifill should excuse herself as the debate moderator, McCain acknowledged the potential conflict of interest but expressed confidence in the longtime journalist.

“I think that Gwen Ifill is a professional and I think that she will do a totally objective job because she is a highly respected professional,” McCain said during an interview at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. “Does this help…if she has written a book that’s favorable to Senator Obama? Probably not. But I have confidence that Gwen Ifill will do a professional job and I have that confidence.”

— Beldar

Posted by Beldar at 10:50 AM in 2008 Election, Books, Mainstream Media, McCain, Obama, Palin, Politics (2008) | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

In 1995, Obama notified the world that he'd tie himself to extremists like Bill Ayers

In part because I was a college classmate and friend of its originator, I try to resist falling prey to Godwin's Law in my blogging. But I can't help wondering if someday, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance will be considered as prophetic as a certain other book written in the late 1920s by a certain other struggling and ultimately transformative politician.

My newest guest-post at HughHewitt.com quotes a couple of paragraphs from Obama's 1995 book which practically shouted at us a warning that Obama would find a literal bomb-thrower like Bill Ayers with whom to associate himself. And of course, he did.

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[Copied here for archival purposes on November 5, 2008, from the post linked above at HughHewitt.com.]

(Guest Post by Bill Dyer a/k/a Beldar)

Stanley Kurtz' most recent reporting on the connections between Sen. Barack Obama and unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers — Founding Brothers: What's Behind Obama's Early Rise? —leaves no doubt that the candidate, his campaign spinners, and their allies have systematically, and largely successfully, concealed the astonishing depth and breadth of those connections.

But long before Obama and his handlers had finalized their "just a guy from my neighborhood" meme with regard to Ayers, Obama himself made the mistake of being candid about the carefully calculated preferences for forming associations which he'd chosen as a young adult.

In the first of his two autobiographies, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (published in 1995), Obama vividly described the crowd he deliberately chose to "hang with" as a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles — and reveals exactly why he chose them (italics mine):

To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our setereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling constraints. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.

But this strategy alone couldn't provide the distance I wanted, from Joyce [a former girlfriend] or my past. After all, there were thousands of so-called campus radicals, most of them white and tenured and happily tolerated. No, it remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names.

Now, that's at pages 100-101 — and Obama went on for another 340 pages of carefully styled and painfully self-aware prose to describe his further journeys of self-discovery. When did the journey stop? It certainly hadn't by the trip to Kenya with which Obama's first book ends, and there's good reason to believe it's still on-going today — which led to one of Gov. Palin's best one-liners in her Veep-nomination acceptance speech, impliedly comparing Obama to McCain: "My fellow citizens, the American presidency is not supposed to be a journey of 'personal discovery.'"

But with respect to the paragraphs I've quoted just above from Obama's book, I'm unaware of Obama having ever renounced this conscious "strategy" by which, in his own words, he's "chose[n his] friends carefully" even going back to his college days.

Thus, Obama practically shouted a warning to America and the world in 1995 that he'd deliberately find, and choose as his friends, associates, and allies, people who were not just "so-called radicals" from among the "white and tenured and happily tolerated." No, to "avoid being mistaken for a sell-out," to achieve the "distance" he wanted, to show his "solidarity," he'd find someone who'd thrown more than metaphorical, verbal bombs.

Reading these two paragraphs, one cannot be at all surprised to learn that almost immediately after the publication of his first book, Obama eagerly entwined himself with Bill Ayers.

— Beldar

Posted by Beldar at 09:38 PM in 2008 Election, Books, McCain, Obama, Palin, Politics (2008) | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Review: Kaylene Johnson's "Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down"

Kaylene Johnson's 'Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down' Enthusiasm for reform-minded, fiscally prudent, and socially conservative Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has moved beyond the "buzz" stage to the point where it's now rolling thunder.

On June 8th, after finishing several hours of internet research, I posted a long essay (with many photographs) entitled Would Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin be a grand slam as McCain's Veep? I'm not claiming any causal relationship, mind you, but consider the following events since then (in addition to my own short follow-up post on June 18th):

  • On June 9th, Real Clear Politics reported that among her own constituents in Alaska, Gov. Palin "enjoys an incredible 82% positive rating, while just 10% don't see her in a good light."

  • On June 22nd, Politico.com included Gov. Palin as one of "Three women who could join [the] GOP ticket," noting that "it’s her personal biography, which excites social conservatives, and reformist background that might most appeal to McCain."

  • In a June 23rd letter, Gov. Palin directly confronted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on the federal government's boneheaded refusal to consider drilling for oil and gas on a tiny portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.

  • On June 24th, Rush Limbaugh played contrasting sound clips from Gov. Palin and Democratic nominee-presumptive Sen. Barack Obama in order to highlight the fact that Gov. Palin whips Obama hands-down on this issue, and that the Dems essentially have no energy plan other than to "Just say no!" Quote Limbaugh: "Amen! Here is a female Republican who is willing to gut it up!"

  • On June 25th, Gov. Palin gave an extended interview to economist and CNBC pundit Larry Kudlow in which she confirmed herself as a thoughtful and articulate leader on national energy issues.

  • And from his regular slot as a panelist on "Fox News Sunday" this morning, Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, was positively ebullient about the possibility of Gov. Palin being chosen as John McCain's vice presidential running mate:

    Republicans are much more open to strong women, and that's why McCain is going to put Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, on the ticket as vice president.... She's fantastic! You know, she was the point guard on the Alaska state championship high school basketball team in 1982. She could take Obama one-on-one on the court. It'd be fantastic! Anyway, I do think — I actually think that Sarah Palin would be a great vice presidential pick, and it would be interesting to have a woman on the Republican ticket after Hillary Clinton has come so close and failed on the Democratic side.

There's no denying that Gov. Palin is a hot new talent on the national political scene. But is there substance behind the sizzle?

In search of further details in order to answer to that question, I turned to Kaylene Johnson's just-released biography, "Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down." After finishing it, I'm even more firmly aboard the Sarah Palin for Veep bandwagon.

Two-year-old Sarah clutches live shrimp caught in her father's shrimp pot in Skagway, Alaska As a long-time Alaskan writer and quite literally a neighbor of the Palins — the jacket cover informs us that she "makes her home on a small farm outside Wasilla," a suburban community north of Anchorage — Johnson has done a timely and competent service to the political junkies among us who hunger for basic factual information on our leading political figures.

To read this book, I set aside another biography that I'd almost finished, one that is also much in the news these days — Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, about which I'll blog at greater length between now and Election Day. Suffice it to say, for now, that although both books purport to cover the early lives of these two young politicians, Johnson's book contains more in the way of objective facts, pertinent anecdotes, and relevant information in 137 pages (plus a fine set of source notes and a serviceable index) than Obama managed to do for himself in 442 pages of vague, breezy, touchy-feely, and wholly unsourced (indeed, admittedly sometimes fictionalized) narrative.

Given the choice between brisk and factual, on the one hand, and deep and muddled on the other, I'll take brisk and factual any time.

Johnson's writing is blessedly free of angst and existential philosophizing. She doesn't need that — for she has, in Sarah Palin, a compelling tale to tell that's based on the remarkable accomplishments of a remarkably normal person. Indeed, although they're products of, respectively, the forty-ninth and fiftieth American states and both grew up outside the continental 48, Sarah Palin's personal history is as familiarly American as Barack Obama's is exotic and strange. And Johnson serves it up without mysticism or manufactured romance:

Born in Sandpoint, Idaho, on February 11, 1964, Sarah Louise was the third of four children born in rapid succession to Chuck and Sally Heath. The family moved to Alaska when Sarah was two months old. Chuck took a teaching job in Skagway. Her older brother, Chuck Jr., was two years old. Heather had just turned one, and Molly was soon to come. Chuck Jr. vividly remembers the days in Skagway when he and his dad ran a trapline, put out crab pots, and hunted mountain goats and seals. The family spent time hiking up to alpine lakes and looking for artifacts left behind during the Klondike Gold Rush....

In 1969, the Heaths moved to southcentral Alaska, living for a short time with friends in Anchorage, then for two years in Eagle River before finally settling in Wasilla. The family lived frugally. To help make ends meet, Chuck Heath moonlighted as a hunting and fishing guide and as a bartender, and even worked on the Alaska Railroad for a time. Sally worked as a school secretary and ran their busy household.

It's basically the Ward and June Cleaver family, albeit transplanted to the last American frontier. Sarah Palin didn't need to indulge in intercontinental travel and cosmic soul-searching to find out who her father was, or where her roots were, or where she fit into her own family and community. She knew where she and her family fit in. In an appendix, Johnson reproduces Gov. Palin's inaugural address, which included this simple but moving tribute:

I believe in public education. I'm proud of my family's many, many years working in our schools. I hope my claim to fame, believe it or not, is never that I'm Alaska's first female governor. I hope it continues to be, "You're Mr. Heath's daughter." My dad for years has been teaching in the schools and even today he's inspiring students across the state. So many students around this land came up to me not saying, "Oh, you're Sarah Palin ... you're running for office ... you're the governor." No, it's been, "Sarah Palin, wow! Mr. Heath's been my favorite teacher of all time."

With short exceptions for college stays in Hawaii and Idaho, Alaska forms the backdrop for most of Palin's story, but Johnson neither minimizes nor overplays its role. Growing up there meant that Sarah participated in hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, and the like — but for the most part, her experiences could have just as easily been in any of countless small towns scattered across America.

'Miss Wasilla 1984' then became first runner-up in the Miss Alaska competition. As Bill Kristol noted today, she was a high school basketball player (and also ran track). "Sarah Barracuda," they called her for her competitiveness on the court — but Johnson gives us Palin's real life story in an entirely plausible account, rather than a Cinderella story crafted or staged by someone consciously trying to build or burnish a political résumé.

Indeed, until her senior year in high school, Palin was frustrated at being relegated to the junior varsity; she was a team captain, but not one of the team's two top scorers; and an ankle injury kept her out of most of the second half of that championship game. Her coach put her back into the lineup to seal the win against a heavily favored Anchorage team — whereupon she drew a foul and hit a free-throw to score the game's final point.

She startled friends and family when she decided to compete in the local beauty pageant, but for her, becoming "Miss Wasilla" in 1984 was all about snagging some college scholarship money. And Palin put her 1987 bachelor's degree in journalism (with a minor in political science) from the University of Idaho to work as a weekend sportscaster in Anchorage.

When Palin married her high-school beau, Todd Palin, in 1988, they eloped — snagging two residents of a nearby nursing home to serve as their witnesses for the civil ceremony at the courthouse in Palmer, Alaska. They started their family about the same time Todd took a blue-collar job with British Petroleum on the North Slope:

The Palins named their first child, a boy, Track, after the track and field season in which he was born. Sarah's father jokingly asked what they would have named their son if he had been born during the basketball season. Without hesitating Sarah answered "Hoop."

But by 1992, Palin "felt a yearning to try to make a difference in her community. Like her years playing basketball," writes Johnson, "she wasn't interested in sitting on the sidelines."

So did she become a "community organizer"?

Johnson doesn't use that term, and I doubt either the term or the notion ever occurred to Sarah Palin. Instead, she ran for the Wasilla city council, going "door to door pulling a wagon with four-year-old son Track and two-year-old daughter Bristol." The existing political establishment had expected a passive homemaker who'd support the status quo, but that was not to be:

After taking office, Sarah was dumbfounded by the inner workings of the city government. "Right away I saw that it was a good old boys network," she said. "Mayor Stein and [Councilman] Nick Carney told me, 'You'll learn quick, just listen to us.' Well, they didn't know how I was wired."

Within weeks, Palin had upset the status quo by voting against a pay raise for the mayor and an exclusive city-wide garbage pickup contract with Carney's company. But during her second term, she became convinced that she needed to throw the good-old-boy network out entirely — so she decided to run for mayor herself in 1996, and she whipped the long-time incumbent handily.

Sarah Heath and Todd Palin a few months before their August 1988 marriage. As mayor, Palin took a voluntary pay cut from $68,000 to $64,200, cut real property taxes and eliminated taxes on personal property and business inventory, and sponsored a $5.5 million road and sewer bond to promote new commercial development. In 1999, Stein ran against her again, but she whipped him by an even larger margin than the first time. By then, she was attracting state-wide attention, which resulted in her being elected president of the Alaska Conference of Mayors.

Former U.S. Senator Frank Murkowski was returning to Alaska to run for governor in 2002, and he encouraged Palin to run for lieutenant governor. She did, but the race quickly became a crowded one when three other well-established GOP state politicians who'd been considering running for governor instead opted to seek the second seat. Although she was outspent by the eventual winner by more than four to one, she finished a strong second, coming within 2000 votes and three percentage points of victory.

New governor Murkowski promptly appointed her to chair the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission — and there begins the tale of Palin as a reformer on a statewide stage. Johnson recounts how Palin tried, without success, to force fellow Commissioner Randy Ruedrich to comply with statutory ethics reporting requirements. Ruedrich, who was also the chair of the Alaskan Republican Party, apparently felt himself to be exempt from such concerns, and he also felt no qualms about billing his Commission expense account for political traveling or using Commission personnel and material to do party work. Moreover, rather than looking out for the public interest, he effectively turned himself into a lobbyist and public spokesman for a company that had secretly leased from the state certain underground rights to extract natural gas from coal seams under private property. Palin's written and oral complaints to Alaska's attorney general, Gregg Renkes, eventually forced Ruedrich's resignation from the Commission, but Renkes' office ordered her to stay mum and stonewall the press. Her further complaints to Murkowski were also ignored.

Frustrated, Palin resigned from the Commission. She was partially vindicated in the public's eyes, however, when Ruedrich negotiated a settlement of the ethics claims against him in which he admitted to three out of four alleged violations and paid a $12,000 fine. Palin then continued to speak out against what she perceived as ethical lapses on the part of both Attorney General Renkes and Governor Murkowski. Murkowski complained that Palin was trying to "create a sideshow" to further her own political ambitions. But as Johnson writes:

In her toe-to-toe face-off with the governor, Sarah once again refused to back down. She fired off a guest-opinion piece to the [Anchorage] Daily News. "It's said the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick," she wrote. "So, with lipstick on, the gloves come off in answering administration accusations."

After slamming Murkowski for "hiring his own counsel, paid for by the state, to investigate his long-time friend, confidant, and campaign manager [Renkes]," Sarah concluded by writing, "Despite those in Juneau who think otherwise, it's healthy for democracy to ask questions. And I'll bet there are hockey moms and housewives all across this great state who agree."

Two months later, Renkes resigned.

That meant two down, one to go. Based on reservations harbored by her oldest son, Palin passed up a 2004 opportunity to challenge Lisa Murkowski, whom her father, the governor, had named (in an act of unbridled nepotism) to fill an open U.S. Senate seat. But in 2005, she decided to challenge Frank Murkowski himself in the 2006 GOP gubernatorial primary. 

Johnson's biography is at its best in relating the granular details of Palin's underdog state-wide campaigns — first in the GOP primary, and then in a closely contested general election — as a reformer who'd impose fiscal conservatism and return ethics to state government. After winning the GOP primary without a run-off by capturing 51% of the vote (compared to Murkowski's 19%), Palin went on to win a three-way general election, garnering 48% of the vote to defeat Democrat Tony Knowles' 41% showing.

Sarah Palin relaxes after hauling in salmon nets aboard her husband's commercial fishing boatGetting oneself nominated, and then elected, to public office is one type of accomplishment. Indeed, it's about the only sort of accomplishment that Barack Obama can claim. But just as she did while she was a city mayor, during her first two years as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin has actually demonstrated an ability to govern.

Some acts were symbolic: Among her first decisions in office was to list the corporate jet that her predecessor had acquired for sale on eBay, and she fired the executive chef from the Governor's Mansion because she and "First Dude" Todd believe they're perfectly capable of cooking for their own family.

But Johnson reports that Gov. Palin has also been successful in pushing through substantive reform legislation. At her urging, for example, the Alaska Legislature has repealed an oil and gas severance taxation system that Murkowski had negotiated behind closed doors with BP, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips, replacing it with a slightly higher tax structure negotiated transparently and at arms' length. Gov. Palin has also worked with the legislature to encourage these three big oil companies — and others who are not already so heavily invested in Alaska — to compete in developing a natural gas pipeline that will bring cheaper and more reliable energy to Alaska's own consumers and eventually permit cheap export of natural gas to the Lower 48 states. Palin has shown herself to be simultaneously pro-environment, pro-development, pro-competition, and emphatically outside the pockets of either the corporate powers-that-be or their traditional politician allies.

Johnson's straight-forward writing style complements her subject's own style. And if there is a dark side to Sarah Palin, this book doesn't tell it. However competitive she was on the high school basketball courts, one can't help but infer from the facts related in the book that Sarah Palin has left bruised ribs in her political wake. But her chief victims seem to have been the complacent, the spendthrift, and the ethically challenged members of her own political party, and they're laying low.

Neither in this book, nor in the many video clips I've watched her in, does Gov. Palin give any sense of being grumpy or vindictive, but Johnson's book includes an admission regarding one of McCain's defining characteristics that Sarah Palin does share — "what her father calls an unbending, unapologetic streak of stubbornness":

"The rest of the kids, I could force them to do something," Chuck Sr. said. "But with Sarah, there was no way. From a young age she had a mind of her own. Once she made up her mind, she didn't change it." ...

Later on, Sarah's father would enlist the help of people Sarah respected — especially coaches and teachers — to persuade her to see things his way. Yet he concedes Sarah was persuasive in her arguments and often correct. Later, when his daughter became governor, Chuck found it immensely amusing that acquaintances asked him to sway Sarah on particular issues. He says he lost that leverage before she was two...

... From the moment she began making her mark in politics, she was criticized for being too young, too inexperienced, and too naive.

Yet, time after time over the years, underestimating Sarah always proved to be a big mistake.

"New energy for Alaska" was Gov. Palin's gubernatorial campaign slogan. After reading Johnson's biography of her, I'm going to have to work hard to summon up new energy to return to the last few dozen pages of Barack Obama's autobiography. He is, without doubt, a complex figure — and I say that with worry, not admiration, because that complexity often translates into a troublesome slipperiness even in the portrait he carefully crafts of himself. By contrast, Johnson's book makes me more confident that with Sarah Palin, as with John McCain, what you see is pretty much what you'll get. That's rare in politics, but we need more of it. And I'm increasingly convinced that I would like to see her as the GOP's candidate for vice president this fall.

(Photographs from the book, as reprinted here with the generous, express written permission of Epicenter Press, are all copyright 2008 by Chris and Sally Heath, except the last one, which is copyright 2008 by Chris Miller/CSM, and those parties reserve all rights to these photographs; please don't republish them elsewhere on the internet without obtaining their express permission in advance.)

Posted by Beldar at 08:29 PM in 2008 Election, Books, Energy, McCain, Palin, Politics (2008) | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Review: Beldar's watching, and highly recommends, "John Adams"

As I age, I become more sentimental, and about more things. One topic of my sentimentality is American history generally, and the American Revolution and the American Civil War especially.

Thus, I identified completely last summer when reading this post by Ann Althouse, who described listening to an audio-book version of Paul Johnson's George Washington: The Founding Father while she walked through lower Manhattan. She would have been close, I think, to Fraunces Tavern, the still-standing inn where in December 1783 Washington famously bid a fond and tearful farewell to his officers of the Continental Army. She had just reached this passage in the audio-book as she was crossing Lafayette Street:

In London, George III questioned the American-born painter Benjamin West what Washington would do now he had won the war. "Oh," said West, "they say he will return to his farm." "If he does that," said the king, "he will be the greatest man in the world."

Prof. Althouse wrote that upon hearing these lines, she broke down and cried. Cynics might wonder: Why would a law professor find herself weeping in public, even while walking historic ground, even while listening to a well-written history? But what I wonder is: How could any well-educated and reasonably self-aware adult American in those circumstances not do so?

Some few months earlier, a few dozens of miles up the Hudson at Newburgh, Washington had thought to quell a potential mutiny among those officers — who were upset at rumors that the Congress would not make good its promises of pay — by reading them a letter he'd received from a Congressman detailing the young country's financial woes. A few halting sentences in, he stopped abruptly, and he reached into his pocket to remove a pair of eyeglasses.

Noting their surprise — Washington was a man who was particular about his appearance, and few of them had known that he ever wore reading glasses — he asked this of them: "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles? For I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."

In that instant, the possible insurrection was over. And although I've read or heard it dozens of times, in a half-dozen Washington biographical books and movies and many other sources, I still cannot re-read that line without tearing up, for the same reasons Prof. Althouse did.

*******

If you are similarly sentimental about our Founding Fathers, then you will need a box of tissues at hand when you watch HBO Films' and executive producer Tom Hanks' latest mini-series, "John Adams," drawn in large measure from David McCullough's fabulous 2001 bestseller of the same name. But I urge you to watch it even if you're skeptical, clear- and dry-eyed when it comes to matters historic.

Much of the book's success came from its skill in placing Adams within a detailed, vivid, and highly accessible human context among other great historic figures — especially Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson — who were, by and large, far less quirky and far easier to lionize into legends. McCullough, and now this mini-series, demonstrate how Adams, too, was an essential ingredient to that extraordinary mix of complementary, contradictory personalities and talents — often a work-horse surrounded by show-horses, a proud man aware of his own tendencies to annoy, a republican who was yet quite aware of the essential needs of strong leadership (and sometimes overfond of it). He's shown as a gentleman farmer who can relish teaching young John Quincy the utter necessity and joy of going elbow-deep while hand-mixing the contents of the manure-cart, and yet who immediately thereafter, upon hearing the boy's stated desire to become a farmer, firmly announces that it's to be the schoolbooks and "then the law" for the lad. (Some of you will see this — manure-spreading and lawyering — as entirely uncontradictory, just not in the same way Adams himself would have.)

The highlight of the first installment was Adams' 1770 defense of the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre — a historical episode dear to all, and especially all lawyers, who (like Adams) believe that the rights to effective assistance of counsel and trial by jury are essential components of the Rule of Law. What blogging lawyer can fail to thrill as Adams leans into the jury box to argue: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." We can perhaps forgive, despite the stubbornness of facts, the artistic license through which the mini-series ignores that two of Adams' eight clients (those who'd admittedly fired directly into the crowd) were not (as depicted here) acquitted, but convicted by the jury of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Defending them was still a bold undertaking, and a largely successful one.

Even only one-quarter through, this mini-series has already proven itself sufficiently exceptional that I've decided to buy the Blu-Ray high-def DVD in due course to add to my small and carefully selected video library. Just now, my TiVo is paused — from the moment when I was inspired to write this post — at a visually arresting image in Episode 2. It's during a July 1776 thunderstorm in Philadelphia, and it features a soberly gray- and brown-clad Adams and Franklin, immersed in earnest and fateful conversation, while seated on a bench in a gray hallway, beneath a long hat-rack upon which seven black, gray, and brown tri-cornered hats have been hung (equally spaced but randomly rotated) to drip dry.

Be assured that in addition to a compelling and true tale to tell, the mini-series offers superb historical production values (think "Saving Private Ryan, albeit thus far less bloody) and terrific, often-surprising acting. I had high expectations for Paul Giamatti in the title role and Laura Linney as the incomparable Abigail — like McCullough's book, this series is secondarily but not incidentally a great, true American love story — but I've been surprised and greatly tickled so far by understated yet compelling performances by David Morse as Washington and, especially, Stephen Dillane as Jefferson.

Highly recommended.

Posted by Beldar at 07:41 AM in Books, Film/TV/Stage | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Review: Stuart Taylor, Jr. and KC Johnson's "Until Proven Innocent"

I should know better than to start a new book after midnight even on a weekend, but upon finishing what I'd been reading last night, I picked up Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case, intending to read a chapter or two.

I put it down about twelve hours later to begin typing this review.

Until_proven_innocent

I know there are a couple of other books that had already come out this summer about the outrageously fraudulent rape prosecution against three Duke lacrosse players between March 2006 and April 2007. But large chunks of what I already thought I knew about the case came came from my occasional visits over the past year and a half to Dr. KC Johnson's Durham-in-Wonderland blog or, more recently, Johnson's and co-author Stuart Taylor, Jr.'s series of guest posts on The Volokh Conspiracy. I was impressed by their writing there, and by some other reviews I'd read of this book (including Jeralyn Merritt's and Ed Whelan's). So when I received a review copy, it went to the top of my "read-next" stack.

If you care about colleges, or college athletics, or justice and the criminal justice system, or political correctness, or rape and sexual assaults, or race relations, or mainstream media blindness — or any combination thereof — this is an important and worthwhile book. In it you will find much that is educational, shocking, funny, revolting, pathetic, outrageous, courageous, smarmy, and fascinating. It is a genuinely compelling story that, as I read it, frequently alarmed my poor dog (me laughing, me shouting in disbelief, me slamming the book down and then pacing and muttering for five minutes, me getting all choked up with empathy, me racing over to the computer to Google something or someone, me laughing again, and so forth).

*******

The book is far from perfect. The prose is always workmanlike or better, but at least in this first printing the book shows signs of needing a better copy-editor. The first fifty pages occasionally read like the paragraphs were shoveled into position to form a roughly chronological introduction — perhaps because they were drawn in whole or part from blog posts or other writings? or they're new and were whipped up in a comparative hurry? — but without being knitted together very well. But that smooths out as the authors and/or editors hit their respective strides. There were also a distracting number of small proofreading or editing errors (unnecessary commas, unmatched parentheses, and such). My review copy came with a multi-page press release that included a seven-page "dramatis personae" list that I found essential, and that ought to be included in later printings. The index looks awfully thin for the number of text pages and their average indexable facts per page (which is very high). There are neither footnotes nor endnotes (although I would wager that a very large percentage of the source materials are either posted on or hyperlinked from Dr. Johnson's blog). But in context, these are mere nits.

I already knew enough about the case to have drawn confident conclusions about the now-disbarred, disgraced, and genuinely criminally conspiratorial prosecutor, Michael Nifong. If this book hastens by even a day the badly needed criminal prosecution of that man for conspiracy to obstruct justice and other serious felonies, the authors will have done the world in general, and my profession in particular, a great service. He's done one day of jail time for criminal contempt-of-court, and is now a probably judgment-proof defendant in the federal civil rights lawsuit just filed by the three accused players. But the man needs to be prosecuted fairly and aggressively, with all of the scruples minded and due process provided that he honored only in the breach as a prosecutor himself, but with a tenth the pretrial publicity and ten times the vigor he employed. In painting him, this book creates a coherent and thorough narrative that should nauseate anyone who loves the concept of justice. (I had to rinse my mouth after reading that Nifong claims his favorite book is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.)

I was also generally acquainted with the despicable performance of the Duke administration, a large vocal minority of the Duke faculty (the "Gang of 88"), and the mainstream media throughout the affair, but the book provides, literally and metaphorically, chapter and verse on their sins of commission and omission. There are many goats, but a surprising and encouraging number of heroes too. (Where, oh where, though, was the rest of the Duke Law faculty besides the conspicuously heroic James E. Coleman, Jr. during all of this? They sat by essentially silent, it would appear, neither reminding their main-campus colleagues of the basic civil liberties they're charged with teaching to law students nor uttering a peep as Nifong proceeded to make mockery of those liberties. For shame, for shame.)

I knew in general that the defendants and their teammates had been badly abused but had kept their heads high and fought back honorably and doggedly. I had no sense before picking up this book, though, of any of the athletes' personal circumstances or characters. The book remedies that deficit, and in the process explodes some stereotypes about them. It also provides a series of vivid vignettes of the various defense lawyers and their complementary strengths and efforts.

*******

But I'll tell you what choked me up, that I did not at all expect to be choked up by: It was the description of, and the quotes from, the women who knew these young men. Their moms and kid sisters. Their classmates among the student body generally, and in particular in the student government and student newspaper (both of which put their "adult" counterparts to shame with their maturity and open-mindedness). And especially their counterparts on the Duke women's lacrosse team (and their coach, Kerstin Kimel), who were themselves formidable NCAA Division I national competitors. They weren't girlfriends or  groupies, but respectful peers who would probably have been among the least tolerant fellow-students imaginable if the male players had indeed been the racist, misogynistic, violent bullies that the prosecution, the PC crowd, and the media insisted on painting them as. Instead:

While the three defendants had been in exile, Yani Newton and her teammates had been advancing to the semifinals of the national championship. In the ACC tournament, all the players had worn blue shoelaces to show solidarity with the men's team. While preparing for the trip to the Final Four in Boston, Coach Kerstin Kimel mentioned to a Herald-Sun reporter, in an off-the-record conversation, that the players might wear "innocent" armbands. By the time the team got to Massachusetts, the tentative plan was all over the news — and was being assailed as scandalous.

The players and coaches discussed the issue before the May 26 semifinal game against Northwestern. Given all the attention, Kimel said, the players could wear the armbands if they wanted but should not if it would be a distraction from the game. Most players settled on armbands displaying the lacrosse-team numbers of Dave [Evans], Reade [Seligmann], and Collin [Finnerty]: 6, 13, and 45, respectively. A few stuck with "Innocent." Midfielder Rachel Sanford wore that message on a headband right across her forehead.

The women lost a heartbreaker in the semifinal, 11-10, in overtime. But many in the media, and on Duke's faculty, were less interested in the game than in trashing the Duke women for having the gall to resist the media-faculty rush to judgment against their friends.

I can just imagine a helmeted, pad-wearing, stick-wielding Ms. Sanford scowling at her opponents from beneath that headband. I would not have wanted to be between her and her team's goal that day.

Allow me to wax old-fartish for a moment (as if I ever don't). Consciously or not, highly motivated, over-achieving college-age young women — despite their own tendencies to be young and irresponsible while they're young and irresponsible — start looking at the boys around them with a critical eye, searching in them to see not just what they are, but the men they are poised to become. Yet for speaking out against the notion that these particular young men were animals that needed caging or tranquilizing or castrating, they were called "stupid, spoiled little girls" (and worse). It was the sudden shock of imagining the male players through the tear-filled eyes of their female classmates — who knew better, who were watching these young men's futures being destroyed, and yet who could do nothing to stop it — that actually yanked my own parental-type reactions into gear.

*******

Co-author Stuart Taylor, Jr. has a law degree from Harvard and spent three years at a superb D.C. firm, Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, and he and Johnson had close cooperation from the defense lawyer teams. As a consequence, there are no significant blunders in their understanding or explaining of the various legal principles and events, and in fact I think they do a commendable job of keeping everything broadly accessible to well-educated non-lawyer readers. In general, they display a solid grasp of prosecutorial responsibilities and ethics. Once or twice, though, I thought their enthusiasm and, well, advocacy for the students and against their foes led them astray.

For example, they do a splendid job of explaining why Nifong's application for a court order compelling all 46 lacrosse team members to surrender DNA samples for testing almost certainly lacked probable cause (some team members had not only not been at the party, but had been in other towns on the night in question, and at least two non-athletes were at the party but not named in the application). They conclusively demonstrate that the application was based on flagrant misstatements and exaggerations of the evidence the prosecutors then had in hand. And from all that, they correctly argue that the order was an unconstitutional intrusion on the players' Fourth Amendment rights. That should be enough, but Taylor and Johnson then proceed to run through all the exculpatory evidence that Nifong's team already had in hand yet didn't mention in their application.

That's a step too far: While obliged to disclose exculpatory evidence, a district attorney isn't ethically obliged to then marshal it against his own arguments in the most persuasive fashion. Part of the exquisite tension inherent in the role of prosecuting arises from prosecutors' obligation to accommodate simultaneous and conflicting roles as evaluators of evidence (to decide whether justice will be served if charges are pursued) and vigorous advocates for the State. The authors clearly understand how badly Nifong abused the first role, and that the second role didn't excuse him in that. But occasionally they seem less than crystal clear on how ethical prosecutors avoid Nifong's abuses while remaining effective advocates.

Similarly, of their three "big picture" wrap-up chapters — on the frequency of prosecutorial abuse generally, age-old tensions in rape law as exacerbated by feminist trends, and the disturbing PC paralysis and intolerance within the academy — it's the first one that I find least perceptive or persuasive. The authors seem ignorant, for example, of the fact that many capital defendants who've been removed from death row or even released from prison don't necessarily receive that relief because they've been proven innocent like the Duke lacrosse players were, but because their convictions and/or sentences have been overturned and, for whatever reason, the state is not quite able to re-establish their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. (Lots of people who "walk" because their convictions are overturned are not necessarily "innocent.") Nor do I think it's practical to import the British practice of the same barristers prosecuting one week, then defending during the next. And if their assumption is that the British criminal justice system otherwise provides procedural or substantive safeguards for criminal defendants that are better than America's counterparts, they're sadly mistaken.

But overall, this is not just an important book, but a good book. Its authors should be proud of their work. And the rest of us should continue to ponder the lessons the book teaches on a wide variety of topics.

Posted by Beldar at 03:44 PM in Books, Law (2007), Mainstream Media | Permalink | Comments (12)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Review: Ron Liebman's "Death by Rodrigo"

Long ago in the spring of 1979, when I was the incoming book review editor for the Texas Law Review, the out-going book review editor told me a secret:

"Book publishers like to see their books reviewed in serious periodicals like ours," he said. "Sells more books. So if you write them a letter asking nicely, most times they'll send us a free 'review copy' of their new books! You can skim the book and see if you think it's worth reviewing. Sometimes, though, you can tell even before you get it that a book is going to be worth our reviewing, so you don't have to wait for the book. You can go ahead and start lining up a reviewer, and then forward the book as soon as you get it."

And thus I learned that part of my job was to scour the pages of magazines and newspapers that mentioned newly-released, or even soon anticipated, books about legal topics, to consider them as possible candidates for which we'd seek distinguished law professors to write book reviews for the Texas Law Review. The professors, of course, got to keep the books, but still: What a deal! Free books — and new ones, in hardback!

*******

'Death by Rodrigo' Fast-forward twenty-seven years. I get a really polite email from a well-spoken publicist at Simon & Schuster, a serious publishing company on anyone's list of serious publishing companies, asking me if I'd like a review copy of Ron Liebman's new novel, Death by Rodrigo. "Sure," I write back. The book arrives in the mail a few days later with a nice hand-written note on embossed note-card stock from the publicist enclosed. Very classy. No visible strings.

And objectively, this is the kind of handsome book I might have bought out of my own pocket in an airport bookstore somewhere anyway, because I like books, and I like hardbacks, and I like books about courtroom lawyers — and from the jacket blurb raves, this particular one sounds like it will be pretty funny. And I'm not particularly offended by the jacket art. Hey, it's discreet; I've seen truck mudflaps that are much more raunchy. When I'm in airport bookstores, I don't look for books with silhouettes of strippers pole-dancing on inverted gavels, but that's no reason not to buy a book, is it?

I hit the internet before I open the book. Liebman, per his law firm's website and the looseleaf promo sheet also enclosed with the book, is a senior partner in the litigation section of a serious Washington law firm, Patton Boggs. Pretty interesting résumé, even discounting for the puffery inherent in all such online efforts: Among other things, he apparently had something to do as an AUSA prosecuting Spiro Agnew once upon a time, which must have been a hoot (while, of course, being very, very serious business). He clerked for a U.S. District Judge in Baltimore back in the day, which means he'd seen the soup-to-nuts practice even before he arrived inside the Beltway. That's intriguing. War-horse, not show-horse, stuff.

The promo sheet also says he "plays in a rock band," though. Oh. Really? They were smart to leave that off the book jacket.

Nineteen pages into the book, however — at the end of Chapter One — I just hated it. "Wow," I thought to myself, "I'd like to keep getting nice free books from Simon & Schuster, but not at the price of writing a puff-piece review on my blog that I don't really mean." It's funny enough, I'm thinking, but not quite as funny as I'd been led to believe by the jacket blurbs. It doesn't seem very novel, as novels go.

But then the book really surprised me, at the beginning of Chapter Two.

*******

The punch that jolts you is the one you didn't see coming. That's true in the boxing ring, and it's true in fiction, including legal fiction. I'm not going to put any spoilers in this review, but I will tell you that on page 22, Liebman landed a solid left uppercut on me.

Anyone reviewing, or even just reading, this book will not be able to avoid drawing comparisons to HBO's The Sopranos. It's inevitable, because Liebman's protagonist is an Italian-heritage criminal defense lawyer who lives in New Jersey and whose nickname, for Pete's sake, is "Junne," like "Junior," like "Uncle Junior." And for other reasons. But don't assume that you'll be stuck on those comparisons as you work through this novel.

Ron Liebman For one thing: Start with David Margulies, the fabulous character actor who played Neil Mink — (still wondering?) — who was Tony Soprano's regular lawyer (oh, him). Make him 20, but not 30, years younger. Then move your map over a few hundred yards culturally, but about 90 miles southwest geographically, from Newark to Camden, N.J., across the river from Philadelphia. Then move your law firm indicator down and diagonally two notches, to the kind of lawyer who's two full steps below Mink but still one step above the barely surviving public defender — to the kind of street-smart, public school criminal defense lawyer who subleases his office space, but who disdains indigent appointments, but who has to keep his continuing reputation among the city's non-mobbed pimps and drug-dealers constantly in mind. An ex-cop criminal defense lawyer who got his law degree from night school and had a really hard time passing the bar, but who has a line of metaphorical notches on his six-shooters from having slain "white-shoe" hotshot opponents in jury trials, and from whom the mighty and powerful may well find themselves well obliged to seek counsel when they need down-and-dirty legal representation. (Meaning, when they're guilty as sin.) The kind of lawyer from whom a basically honest jail guard might borrow $20 until the next payday when he really needs it, not in exchange for anything crooked, but just because they respect each other for working hard in crummy jobs, one of which pays a little better than the other.

Usually I read lawyer fiction in hopes of seeing some really brilliant courtroom riffs that I might steal, or at least profit from. That's not this book. The courtroom scenes are all from pretrial hearings, and while there are winners and losers, heroes and goats, those scenes can best be described as gritty and realistic, rather than glib or instructional.

On the other hand, I don't usually expect lawyer books to leave me rubbing my chin, wondering about the "human condition." Liebman's book is subtly provocative, ambiguous, and thereby ultimately lifelike. Oh, it does have some laugh-out-loud passages. But it's not a collection of war-stories, and it's not a romp.

*******

Bottom-line, it entertained me while I read it, but a day after finishing it, Death by Rodrigo has left me still thinking about it on both personal and professional levels. That's a surprise — a pleasant one, actually. I'll leave you to decide for yourself if my judgment has been compromised by getting it for free, or by the fact that I'll make some fractional portion of a dollar if you choose to order it in hardback from Amazon via the link above. But here's Beldar's thumb — pointed up.

Posted by Beldar at 09:04 AM in Books, Law (2007) | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Novak's anecdote regarding JFK's November 1963 trip to Dallas

Over at Patterico's Pontifications, guest-blogger WLS promises a multi-part review of Bob Novak's wickedly titled new memoir, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington. In his first installment, WLS writes about "an incredible anecdote about an [Evans & Novak Report] column that sparked an incident that seems to have contributed to JFK making the fateful trip to Dallas in late Nov. 2003":

Novak received a tip from a Texas confidant of his wife that LBJ was secretly planning to put the weight of his vast Texas political machine behind  a run by Jim Wright — LBJ’s Texas protege’ and future Speaker of the House — to run for the Senate in 1964 against an incumbent Democrat Senator, Ralph Yarborough.  Yarborogh was an extreme liberal with whom LBJ had long clashed when they were both in the Senate, and Yarborough was clearly in the Kennedy camp after the 1960 election.  The E&N column detailing LBJ’s plan to go after Yarborough was published on November 8, 1963, and titled "Johnson v. Kennedy."

The column made JFK very unhappy because Yarborough was one of the few southern Democrats that JFK could count on for unqualified support of his New Frontier programs.  After the E&N column was published on Nov. 8, and knowing that Johnson’s muscle against Yarborough put Yarborough at risk, Kennedy scheduled the swing through Texas for the benefit of showing his support for Yarborough’s reelection, and to try and short-circuit LBJ’s plan.  That trip, as everyone knows, ended with JFK’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22 — two weeks after the column first ran.

It is a fascinating anecdote, and I'm grateful to WLS for recounting it so succinctly as part of a longer post that includes one other meaty anecdote and associated commentary. I'm thoroughly intrigued by the entire complex history of the relationship between JFK and LBJ (and its subsequent effects on LBJ's presidency). That's one reason I'm (metaphorically) holding my breath waiting for the fourth and presumably concluding volume of Robert A. Caro's series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which will pick up with LBJ's service as vice president; Caro's third volume from 2002, Master of the Senate, remains the single best book on modern American politics I've ever read.

Here, though — in keeping with Patterico's oft-repeated advice to me that I spend too much time writing comments on others' blogs, when I ought to be posting on my own — is a cross-post (without block quotes) of the mildly cautionary comment I left there:

---------------

WLS: Thanks for this first episode in a running book review!

With due respect to Novak, however, the split within the Texas Democratic Party between conservative (LBJ-protégé) Gov. John B. Connally and populist/liberal Sen. Yarborough was obvious without respect to anything Novak or any other Washington pundit might have said about it. Yarborough was a reliable supporter on New Frontier domestic programs, but he was just as likely to be a gadfly to JFK on foreign affairs, as Yarborough later proved in spades during the Johnson Administration. Yarborough's liberalism, including his anti-Vietnam War position, eventually led to his defeat in the 1970 Texas Democratic primary by Lloyd Bentsen.

And I don't doubt that showing support for Yarborough was one reason for the November 1963 trip, but there were certainly others. Texas was, and is, an enormous source of fund-raising opportunities for candidates from both parties (which is why you'll see Hillary Clinton in Texas these days). LBJ certainly had his fingers on large parts of that pulse, but JFK was independently interested.

Kennedy also wanted to shore up his support in Texas and Florida (the latter of which he had visited earlier in November 1963) because of concerns that his civil rights proposals might make those states go Republican in 1964. Kennedy had only carried Texas by 46,000 votes in 1960, notwithstanding the presence of favorite-son LBJ on the ticket. (Wags said that with LBJ’s fate at stake in any important election, however, there would always be at least a 40,000 vote margin, at least until Duval County and other parts of South Texas ran out of corpses willing and able to vote Democratic in alphabetical order.)

Kennedy also wanted to run in 1964 against a "hard Right" candidate like Goldwater, not someone like Nelson Rockefeller. Dallas was famously the home of John Birch Society right-wingers like retired general Edwin Walker (whom Lee Harvey Oswald had already tried, unsuccessfully, to assassinate). Visiting Texas, and Dallas in particular, was a thumb to the hard Right's eye, intended both to show that Kennedy wasn't awed by the hard Right and, perhaps less directly, to begin framing the 1964 election as being between their values and his. The enthusiastic crowds in Dallas, of course, were what led Nellie Connally to say the last words JFK would ever hear: "Mr. President, you certainly can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you!"

Posted by Beldar at 09:13 PM in Books, Politics (2007) | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, August 10, 2007

Kerry's and Beauchamp's shared pre-traumatic stress disorder

Others have noted the parallels between fraud Scott Thomas Beauchamp and fraud John F. Kerry in their lies about their fellow servicemen, but it wasn't until I read Charles Krauthammer's op-ed today — in which he noted (as have others) that the "whole point of [the "melted face in the Iraq mess hall"] story was to demonstrate how the war had turned an otherwise sensitive soul into a monster" — that I suddenly remembered Sen. Kerry's own episodes of pre-traumatic stress disorder, about which I blogged at some length (albeit without that wonderfully descriptive diagnosis) on August 29, 2004, in a post entitled "The war-torn soul of John Kerry."

Although I wrote it during the middle of the SwiftVets controversy, that particular post — and the transparent phoniness it demonstrated — relied solely on Kerry's own wartime writing, and on the date and place from which he was writing to his then-sweetheart:

From biographer Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, we get this powerful portrait of young John Kerry's anguish, quoting a lengthy letter he wrote to his sweetheart (pp. 82-83; boldface mine):

Judy Darling,

There are so many ways this letter could become a bitter diatribe and go rumbling off into irrational nothings.... I feel so bitter and angry and everywhere around me there is nothing but violence and war and gross insensitivity.  I am really very frightened to be honest because when the news [of the combat death of his college friend, Dick Pershing] sunk in I had no alternatives but  to carry on in the face of trivia that forced me to build a horrible protective screen around myself....

The world I'm a part of out there is so very different from anything you, I, or our close friends can imagine.  It's fitted with primitive survival, with destruction of an endless dying seemingly pointless nature and forces one to grow up in a fast — no holds barred fashion.  In the small time I have been gone, does it seem strange to say that I feel as though I have seen several years experience go by....  No matter [where] one is — no matter what job — you do not and cannot forget that you are at war and that the enemy is ever present — that anyone could at some time for the same stupid irrational something that stole Persh be gone tomorrow.

You can practically hear the mortar rounds shriek overhead Kerry's foxhole, can't you?  Everything around him "is nothing but violence and war" — "endless dying," the enemy "ever present."

Except that this letter was written in Febuary 1968, while Kerry was an ensign aboard the missile cruiser U.S.S. Gridley as it plied the dangerous waters of war-torn Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.  The Gridley was still almost 6000 miles and many weeks away from the waters offshore of Vietnam....

Same sort of drama queens; same exaggeration; same self-aggrandizement; even the same bad writing (especially if the comparison is to Beauchamp's blog writing, which obviously lacks the benefit of TNR's copy editors). They're definitely birds of a feather, those two. Sort of a three-way cross between peacocks, vultures, and mocking-birds (although I suspect even vulture-lovers would object to that comparison, and it's definitely unfair to mocking-birds, but they're the first kind of bird I can think of who're frauds, sort of).

Posted by Beldar at 12:44 AM in Books, Global War on Terror, Politics (2007), SwiftVets | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Beldar reviews J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows"

"I couldn't put it down!" is supposed to be high praise for a book. Since the spells and curses and other magic of J.K. Rowling's fantasy world in the "Harry Potter" series are imaginary, I could indeed put down the seventh and final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

But I chose not to (except for one night's sleep, a couple of meals, and one trip outside the house to convey my older daughter from a friend's house back to her mom's). That was partly motivated by my promise to pass my pre-ordered copy along promptly to my kids, but it was mostly motivated just by the fun I was having in the reading of it.

(Very mild spoilers ahead.)

Nothing and no one is perfect, including Rowling's characters and including her writing about them. But I have been a fan of the series of novels, and of the series of movies made from the novels, and I had high expectations for this one. Those expectations were satisfied.

Rowling did a remarkable job of weaving together not only the characters from the preceding books, but their plot lines, places, devices, and themes. I'd re-read the first five books before the sixth was released, and I've seen all of the five movies so far (all but the most recent one, more than once), so I'd describe myself as fairly well-steeped in Potter lore. All that is to say, I'm probably very much the type of reader to whom Rowling particularly targeted this final book, because I was prepared to appreciate the degree to which she was able to pluck threads from the previous books and draw them forward into the weave of this one.

And yet, to the further credit of this book, it contains its own goodly share of newness. One of the challenges of writing this book, I think, was to avoid simply churning out seven hundred plus pages of gathering anticipation for the inevitable final show-down between Harry and Voldemort. And, to borrow an image from another fantasy classic, it would have been easy for the plot line of Deathly Hallows to become as tired and tedious and unrelenting as Frodo's last several dozen miles en route to Mt. Doom. Rowling mostly avoided that danger in this book through fresh plot twists and, to be blunt, a bloody willingness to kill off at least one decidedly nontrivial character long before the climactic last few chapters; that done, all the other characters seemed genuinely at risk.

Some of the critiques I've seen of this book are apt and obvious. Rowling doesn't do teen romance very convincingly, for example. But I don't think she set about to, and she nevertheless does it well enough that clunkers generally don't shock us out of our willing suspension of disbelief for the story as a whole. And I know there are already critics who're compiling, or adding to, lists of continuity errors, or particularly improbable or incongruous properties of her magical world. To which my reply is: Even that sort of criticism is a compliment, because it presumes that someone is enough drawn into Potterworld to care. And people generally don't, and oughtn't, read magic and fantasy books with the same degree of concern about magic technologies, if that term will do, as they may expect from science fiction.

In the broadest terms, the series works because the books led me to care about the characters and what happened to them, and the whole progression entertained me. That's usually all I'm looking for when I plunk down the cash for a book — I certainly wasn't expecting "deep and profound life-changing effects" from a book about magic-wielding teens — and I therefore don't regret a dime spent buying, or a minute spent reading, any of the Harry Potter books. I congratulate Ms. Rowling on a fitting conclusion to the series. And if her bank vault at Gringotts Wizarding Bank (or Barclays or NatWest) is now filled to overflowing with gold galleons and treasures, I'm perfectly fine with that too.

Posted by Beldar at 08:35 PM in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A large owl just flew in my window ...

Well, actually, it wasn't an owl. But the postman did ring, and he handed me a box that only a very large, perhaps even magical owl could have carried, within which was a book containing seven hundred and fifty-nine numbered text pages. Huzzah!

Expect my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows here in due course, keeping in mind that it will be written from my perspective as a charter member of the "Republicans for Voldemort" movement.

 

Posted by Beldar at 11:04 AM in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Beldar reviews Jan Crawford Greenburg's "Supreme Conflict"

I've read quite a few reviews of Jan Crawford Greenburg's book Supreme Conflict: The Insider Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court, and most have been very favorable, including some by reviewers whom I believe to be tough critics. And I actually bought the book some time last spring, within a few weeks of its late January 2007 release. But it's been sitting on an end-table next to my couch.

I just haven't been able to bring myself to read it before now because I knew it would rip open psychic wounds I still bear from the Harriet Miers nomination.

And it did. I'll review this book because it deserves it. But I'm also gonna close the comments on this post because I don't want someone to re-open mooted old fights in them based on what I say here.

 

*******

One passage, though (at pp. 258-59, boldface mine), made me laugh aloud through some otherwise sad memories, when Crawford described discussions that were going on between the Federalist Society's Leonard Leo, general counsel Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network, Deputy White House Counsel William Kelley, and White House Counsel Miers. It was at a time when only Kelley, among that group, knew that Miers' name was under serious consideration to for the Sandra Day O'Connor seat (after John Roberts' nomination had been shifted to the Chief Justiceship upon William Rehnquist's death):

In that meeting with Leo and Long, Miers led the discussion, soliciting their views on what Bush should consider in making his decision. "What do you think is most important?" Miers asked at one point.

"Quality, quality. That's all that matters," said Long, whose Judicial Confirmation Network was formed to support Bush's judges and supported by the same donors that contributed to the Federalist Society.... "We can handle the rest if there is quality," Long said.

Miers and Kelley nodded in agreement. The discussion on nominees was brief. Most of the conversation focused on the strategy for getting Bush's nominee through the confirmation process and how to ensure the most widespread support against inevitable attacks by Democrats. Miers in particular was keen to tap into the grassroots groups and influential commentators outside the mainstream press. "I think the blogs will be really important," Miers said.

Later, Ms. Greenburg's book goes on to mention by name a great many of the pundits who opposed the Miers nomination, including David Frum and Ramesh Ponnuru at the National Review, Bill Kristol at the Weekly Standard, and David Brooks at the NYT. I don't know whether that's the sort of "bloggers" that Ms. Miers' mention of "the blogs" corresponded with; I'd instead characterize all of those as mainstream media columnists, even though (for example) Ponnuru contributes regularly to The Corner and Frum has his own kinda-sorta NRO blog. Certainly Ms. Greenburg could also have constructed a long list of more traditional (non-MSM columnist) bloggers who also lined up against the Miers nomination, and whose clamor is widely regarded as having also contributed to the nomination's withdrawal. But she doesn't name those names — much less compile the very short list (comprising mainly me and Hugh Hewitt, who's also of course not just a blogger) who aggressively supported the nomination.

But as she tells the inside story from the White House, it was Dubya alone who made the decision to pull the nomination, and he emphatically didn't give a furry rat's butt about the furor in either the conservative blogosphere or the broader conservative punditocracy at all. He was, according to Ms. Greenburg, persuaded solely and reluctantly by the reports from conservative senators and especially from her confirmation hearings prep team that in the three weeks available, she simply couldn't be adequately refreshed and/or re-educated in constitutional law to a degree sufficient to get her through the hearings.

That seems likely to me — meaning, in keeping with my understanding of Dubya's character and tendencies. And I guess it makes me feel marginally better. I might have been a dim and unsuccessful candle against a hurricane, but it wasn't the hurricane that ended up wrecking the ship, no matter how smug the hurricane was afterwards.

*******

Ms. Greenburg also writes (at page 279):

... [T]he confirmation process had changed since Reagan nominated Justice O'Connor, who was no constitutional law expert herself. The hearings [during the Bush Administration] were so contentious and the questions so focused that nominees without a background in constitutional law — either an experienced judge or a Supreme Court advocate like [Miguel] Estrada or [Maureen] Mahoney — would have a very tough time of it. Gone were the days when a president could nominate a practicing lawyer like Lewis Powell or Byron White and watch him sail through.

And then again (at page 302), in one of the book's occasional examples when an editor could have profitably trimmed some redundancies:

Lawyers like Miers, who haven't spent their lives planning for a Supreme Court nomination, are expected to do the impossible. At one time, there was a place on the Supreme Court for lawyers like Miers, those with practical experience who handled witness interviews and managed law firms and ran bar associations. Lewis Powell was one before President Nixon nominated him. But those days are gone. The job interview is designed for the appeals court judge or the elite appellate lawyer — someone like a Roberts or an Alito.

I can't disagree with those paragraphs as being accurate and penetrating observations of the process at the time of the Miers nomination. But one of the great successes of Ms. Greenburg's book in my view is how vividly it communicates the extraordinary and unusual confluence of contributing factors during the Miers nomination — specifically, (1) the judicial rockstar John Roberts' confirmation hearings having just ended, (2) followed immediately by a soft-spoken and somewhat shy Powell-type practicing lawyer nominee (without a judicial or academic career), who (3) would be taking a "swing seat," combined with (4) harsh time pressures and (5) a president whose political capital was hemorrhaging madly due to a perceivedly bungled response to a uniquely catastrophic hurricane.

What she leaves out, but what I believe was also a huge factor, was (6) a large portion of the President's so-called conservative base (one over-represented on the coasts, inside the Beltway, and among the pundits and "opinion leaders" generally), that is, and actually always has been, deeply suspicious of his own commitment to transforming the Court, and his fitness for making sound judgments in pursuit of that goal. That George W. Bush knew Harriet Miers more thoroughly than almost any other President has known any other Supreme Court nominee counted for nothing in their eyes. Instead they insisted in pre-playing what they claimed would be the broad Democratic charge of "cronyism" based on that thorough personal knowledge. Instead, the Dems, who also reflexively hold Dubya in low regard (but take no effort to conceal that), would have been perfectly willing, even delighted, to let Miers sail through after first embarrassing her and Dubya just for giggles and grins and Bush-hater brownie points.

And thus, it's not entirely clear to me that if some of those factors were absent or even just diluted, the same results would be repeated. If, for example, you had a decidedly non-shy mid-40s female trial lawyer with a strong academic record from a top-25 law school (even if not Ivy League), a somewhat more prestigious judicial clerkship, and a deeper first-chair courtroom record (maybe including a stint as a state or federal trial judge) — one who had a little more time to study up and was, perhaps, both undistracted and a very quick study — who was replacing, say, Justice Scalia ....

Then maybe. I'm not giving up yet on my hopes of getting someone who's actually tried some jury trials and maybe presided over a few up there on the SCOTUS' loft bench.

*******

My intense personal recollections of, and lingering painful emotional investments in, the Miers nomination notwithstanding: I very much enjoyed Ms. Greenburg's book.

It does leak a few minor state secrets — or at least, things roughly comparable to the breathless revelations of intra-Court confidences from Bob Woodward's and Scott Armstrong's "The Brethren" from some years back. And I remain skeptical of the degree to which Ms. Greenburg ascribes to contrasting personality types the various Justices' successes in persuading their fellows to join them on legal rulings. I seriously doubt, for example, that the course of the Nation's judicial history was as seriously affected as Ms. Greenburg suggests by a perceived slight Justice O'Connor received as a rookie Justice at the hands of Justice Brennan. I do not believe that the Supreme Court functions mostly on the principles of a junior high school cafeteria, with the cool kids all at one table on any given case. 

But most mainstream media legal analysts seem incapable of ever exhibiting anything deeper than a junior high-esque understanding of the Court. To them, the idea that Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsberg and their respective spouses can have been steadfast personal friends over many decades just does not compute; they think it's like those "lion and lamb" photographs in which the lion has secretly been shot with a tranquilizer rifle before the photo was snapped, and someone's putting one over on them.

Instead, to her credit, Ms. Greenburg doesn't rely solely, or even mostly, on such shallow psycho-babble, nor exclusively on frenzied interpretation of the number of exclamation points that Justice Blackmun added to the draft opinions from other Justices' chambers. She actually understands, and more amazingly, fairly consistently explains in laymen-accessible language, the substance of a great many issues that the Court's been dealing with over the last thirty years or so. She doesn't view everything through the prism of abortion rights cases (although, inevitably, that is her number one focal point). And she mostly gets the details right.

Without question — as many other reviewers have already noted — Ms. Greenburg takes enormous and, frankly, very courageous strides toward correcting huge injustices in the widespread misperceptions about Justice Thomas, even (and perhaps especially) within the legal community and the ranks of the well-educated and legally-observant laity. It would be the rare individual, lawyer or not, who reads this book without having his perceptions of that cryptic man much affected, and almost certainly for the better. And it's based on solid reporting about the merits of cases and his positions on them and intra-Court communications about them, not just anecdotes and homilies about how he grew up or how he relates on a personal basis to other Justices. The material about Justice Thomas would, all by itself, make this a book worth purchasing.

And best of all, though, from my viewpoint — because I didn't learn any law from reading her book, nor did I expect to, and I already knew the outlines of the changes in the Court's ideology and its members' drift patterns — Ms. Greenburg provides a whole host of genuinely vivid and consistently delightful personal details that aren't state secrets. Here's one, for example (from page 190), that just made me grin:

The morning of his interview with President Bush's selection team, Roberts went to work in his courthouse chambers downtown as usual. Later that day, he drove himself back up Massachusetts Avenue, past the big embassies that line the street, to Cheney's residence in northwest Washington. He got there forty-five minutes early, so he sat in his car until it was time to go in.

Now, see, that just dovetails so neatly with everything else I know of and about John Roberts (and with everything else Ms. Greenburg writes of him, too), that I can practically see him sitting calmly behind the wheel, checking his wristwatch but not very often and without any impatience — assured of not being late, gracious, and indeed grateful for the quiet chance to practice, sotto voce and into the sun visor, more of his anticipated answers to some of the Veep's anticipated questions. I know John Roberts has done that hundreds of times before oral arguments at which he's appeared as an advocate — maybe on a courthouse bench or in a back hallway, if not in his car. And reading that sort of simple detail, thinking of him gesturing into the steering wheel, re-confirms his humanity to me, and helps me relate to him in endearing and important ways.

I grade this book at a solid, unequivocal A. I don't think I've ever given that high a grade to any legal writer affiliated with any mainstream media outlet in the four years I've been blogging. I don't suggest you take its every word as gospel, nor that it be your only source of information and analysis about the modern Supreme Court. But I do recommend it, without any substantial reservation.

(Disclosure and shameless financial self-promotion: buying it via the Amazon link at the top of this post will cost you no more, and save Beldar a few pennies off his own next Amazon purchase, if you're persuaded even in part to buy the book based on this review.)

Posted by Beldar at 01:18 PM in Books, Law (2007) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

On failing to display a lifelong lean and hungry ambition to become the President

      I very much enjoyed, and commend to you, Joseph J. Ellis' 2004 biography, His Excellency: George Washington. I've read several other Washington biographies. But I particularly appreciated Ellis' analysis (at pp. 70-71) of the image of Washington as the reluctant hero — as when, for example, he protested to the Continental Congress that he was unequal to the job they would thrust upon him of leading America's fledgling, amateur, overmatched armed forces:

      One is tempted to read this kind of public modesty with a skeptical eye, as a ritualized statement of humility designed to demonstrate gentlemanly etiquette, rather than as a candid expression of what he truly felt.  After all, Washington had been talked about as the leading candidate for the job of military commander for several weeks, had done nothing to discourage such talk, and had been wearing his uniform [during the May 1775 sessions of Congress] as a rather conspicuous statement of his candidacy....

      What, then, is going on here? It helps to recognize that Washington engaged in the same pattern of postured reticence on two subsequent occasions: when he agreed to chair the Constitutional Convention; and when he accepted the office of the presidency. In all three instances he denied any interest in the appointment, demeaned his own qualifications, and insisted that only a unanimous vote left him no choice but to accept the call. The pattern suggests he had considerable trouble acknowledging his ambitions. His claim that he had no interest in the commander-in-chief post was not so much a lie as an essential fabrication that shielded him from the recognition that, within a Continental Congress filled with ambitious delegates, he was the most ambitious — not just the tallest — man in the room. He needed to convince himself that the summons came from outside rather than inside his own soul.

      I am not going to suggest a thoroughgoing comparison between George Washington and Fred Dalton Thompson — they have some things in common besides great height, but they obviously have a great many other differences from one another. But I do argue here that this particular trait of Washington's that Ellis' passage above (and others like it in his book) highlight so vividly is, in fact, an excellent trait for any would-be American president to have.

*******

      Or perhaps it's actually just that the opposing trait is simply so ugly, inappropriate, and dangerous when it is extreme. One of the things that I most despised about John Kerry was (and is) that the man has been running for President since he was in pre-school. He picked a running mate who had not very much in common with him except that trait. And then he proceeded to campaign on the basis that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was his hereditary castle, and that only an idiot could fail to see how superbly suited he is to give the rest of us our marching orders.

      Others in the last half-century who've been similarly gripped by that same sort of life-long obsession with becoming POTUS — Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton — all saw their presidencies ruined by their own character flaws.

      "His Excellency George Washington," by contrast — the indispensable American, the man who could have been the American Caesar — was indeed ambitious, but he was redeemed by what Ellis calls "an essential fabrication that shielded" his own ambition even, and in fact especially, from himself. Were George Washington available today, however, to become the nominee of either party, he would be savaged by pundits like Richard Cohen, whose op-ed in today's WaPo positively insists that industrial-strength ambition is essential for the job!

[T]he presidency that Thompson now seeks is won not by the normal, the average, the ordinary, but by people fueled by an explosive combination of overriding ambition and charming megalomania. The world needs them, they are convinced. God wants them, they have been told. The country calls; they answer and march smartly into history. This is the stuff of parody (and I exaggerate a bit), but you don't get to be president by waiting for others to ask — unless you are the son of one. Let us not repeat that mistake....

[Thompson] indisputably lacks the passion, the concern, the fire-in-the-bellydom that Reagan had — not just for winning but about issues themselves. Thompson never showed [as a senator] that he was out to change matters, to right some major wrong, to fix the god-awful mess the country is in. I contrast him with a senator I recently chatted with who took virtually childlike delight in being a senator — being able, as he said, to be a player. He savored his power — as one of only 100. What a difference he could make!

I hate to tell you this, Mr. Cohen, but whoever the childlike senator was that you spoke with is deluding himself, and you're deluded too, if either of you think that being a senator gives one a reasonable shot at changing matters, righting the major wrongs, and fixing the god-awful mess the country is in. Recall, sir, that Ronald Reagan left the California governor's mansion in 1975, and did not thereafter seek to run for the U.S. Senate. Being a "big dog" there just ... isn't really that big a deal. Just ask former President Teddy Kennedy, for example.

      Perhaps, Mr. Cohen, we should let the race tell us who has the necessary desire, stamina, and other qualities required to win the race. That makes more sense to me than disqualifying candidates at the starting blocks because they didn't leave you with any memorable sound-bites when you waited around for a delayed flight with them in National Airport some years ago. I wonder, Mr. Cohen, if you said anything that Sen. Thompson found memorable that evening either? No? Well, then, I guess your "fire in the bellydom" (heh! ... how'd you get that past the WaPo editors?) to be a really well-connected op-ed writer must be pretty cold, bud.

      Mr. Cohen, you would, I presume, be equally savage in deriding the candidacy of Dwight Eisenhower, who also  failed to become a hard-driving difference-making U.S. Senator before running for President, and who was thought by most of his countrymen to be fairly indifferent to politics — until not long before he was nominated, and then elected in an enormous popular and electoral vote landslide.

      There has not been such an absence of an early-dominating GOP presidential candidate — neither incumbent seeking re-election, nor a vice president seeking elevation, nor an early favorite who has dominated fund-raising and early straw polls — since as far back as 1968, or maybe even 1964. But if there is one prediction I can make with great confidence about the primary campaign for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, it is that nobody will find it a cakewalk; and certainly the general election will be as hard-fought an affair, from an underdog's standing and against major odds, as has likely ever been the case in American politics.

*******

      Of Washington's decision to accept the commander-in-chief role, Ellis went on to write (at pp. 71-73):

While everyone around him was caught up in  patriotic declarations about the moral supremacy of the American cause, Washington remained immune to the inflated rhetoric, keenly aware that a fervent belief in the worthiness of a crusade was no guarantee of its ultimate triumph.

      And he was right. For the larger truth was that no one was qualified to lead an American army to victory, because the odds against such an outcome appeared overwhelming....

      If the decision to marry Martha Custis most shaped his own life, the decision to take command of the Continental army most shaped his place in history....

      Although there was no way he could have known it at the time, Washington was assuming command of the army in the longest declared war in American history....

But he persevered. By the end of that war, George Washington had become, and he has forever since remained, "first in the hearts of his countrymen." Shielded or not, there was indeed ambition enough inside him, to the extent that is a required part of the mix, to see George Washington through the Revolutionary War.

      Times have changed, and our struggles now are in many ways different. But whether it's Fred Thompson or some other Republican who wins the 2008 presidential election, that can only be done by someone who — by post-hoc definition — in fact turns out to have had "enough" ambition to persevere and to succeed. And that has been continuously true since the first President was elected, even though his own election was by acclamation: For he could have said, "No, I will not serve," and yet been assured of an immortal place in our pantheon of national heroes.

      So count me, contra Mr. Cohen, extremely unconcerned if Fred Thompson has been coy. Count me unworried whether he has enough "fire in his belly" — for if he doesn't, he likely won't get the nomination, and he certainly won't win the general election. Count me relieved and profoundly grateful that John Kerry is still the junior senator from Massachusetts, and that no one among the GOP field shares his sort of prideful, disdainful, consuming, ugly ambition. And count me pleased and amused that, indeed, it looks as though we'll have a genuine horse-race within the Republican Party this campaign cycle.

Posted by Beldar at 06:02 AM in 2008 Election, Books, Politics (2007) | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A little history about the filibuster

Rand Simberg at Transterrestrial Musings and Hindrocket over at Power Line justly mock ABC News for publishing this (since stealth-corrected) history blooper (boldface mine):

The filibuster has been used historically by the minority party, which can't win with a vote count. Democrats have opposed the filibuster before — in the 1960s, they accused Republicans of using it to block civil rights legislation.

According to the Senate Historical Office, the record for the longest individual speech is held by the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. To keep the floor, he read some of his wife's recipes and passages from novels out loud.

It's no particular surprise that ABC News' reporters and editors might not be immediately familiar with all the details of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which President Eisenhower signed into law on September 9, 1957. Your gray-bearded host of this weblog was still a little over two months shy of emerging from the womb then, and presumably many of ABC News' staff are younger than I am.

But Hindrocket and Rand are right to express surprise and dismay that even those youngsters — or anyone whose only knowledge of the civil rights struggle comes from history books — would presume, incorrectly, that Republicans have historically been anti-civil rights. Do they presume as well that this bias goes back to the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln? Do they remember him as fighting to destroy the Union and perpetuate slavery? Was ABC News referencing the 1957 record-setting single-senator filibuster by Sen. Strom Thurmond (D-SC) under the (mis)impression that he was one of those "Republicans [using the filibuster] to block civil rights legislation"? Well, duh.

As it happens, because of the ongoing struggle over judicial nominations and the role of the filibuster in it, I've just re-read the best single book about politics that I've ever read: the third volume (2002) in Robert A. Caro's multipart biography "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," this one aptly entitled "Master of the Senate." At 1040 pages (plus footnotes and sources), this book isn't a casual read. But if you want to know about the history and dynamics of the United States Senate — including the filibuster (and related subjects like Rule XXII on cloture) — you probably couldn't find a better or more fascinating basic textbook.

Caro provides this information as part of his fabulous tale of how LBJ came to be the most brutally powerful and effective Senate majority leader by far in American history. LBJ had decided by 1957 that to ever have a chance of securing the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, he had to shed his (until then well-earned) image as an anti-civil rights southerner. And indeed, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 turned out to be entirely toothless.  The 1957 Act — in contrast to, for example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that LBJ later succeeded in passing as President — is only important in historical context because it marked the first civil rights legislation to be successfully passed into law in 82 years.

The sole reason for that shameful 82-year gap in American civil rights history was the consistently effective use of the filibuster by southern Senate Democrats. Literally for decades, their number one priority had been to block anti-lynching and similar legislation favored by a substantial majority of Americans, and to preserve their unfettered "right" to filibuster in order to maintain that blocking ability.

Caro's book — lively and very readable despite its length — explains how LBJ achieved the seemingly impossible task of preventing a sustained filibuster by racist southern Democrats that would certainly have killed the 1957 Act too. LBJ did so in large part by deliberately gutting every meaningful provision from the version of the 1957 Act that had originally been drafted by the (Republican) Eisenhower Administration and supported on a bipartisan basis by Republicans and non-southern Democrats. This — plus LBJ's canny manipulation of the southern Democrats' fear that they might finally lose a cloture fight if they didn't let some kind of civil rights legislation through, and of their desire to help LBJ burnish his own presidential credentials — is why nobody other than Strom Thurmond tried to filibuster the 1957 Act. And indeed, it required all of LBJ's political genius — cynical and duplicitous and effective as it was — to keep pro-civil rights forces (i.e., Republicans and non-southern Democrats) from themselves blocking the watered-down version of the 1957 Act as being "worse than nothing."

So brilliant was Johnson's political manuevering, in fact, that Thurmond's lonely, long, and ultimately ineffective attempt to mount a solo filibuster against the 1957 Act was scorned by the other southern Democratic senators. As Caro tells the story (at pp. 997-98):

"When, however, Thurmond attempted to persuade the Southern Caucus to filibuster, [LBJ's senate mentor] Dick Russell [D-GA] countered with the same reasoning he had been using all year [as LBJ's ally] to deflect one. The southerners could use that reasoning to deflect the anger of constituents over their failure to filibuster — and they did.... And in the end, all of the southerners but one agreed, as usual, to accept their general's [i.e., Russell's] decision. When the bill returned to the Senate [from a joint Senate-House conference committee], Strom Thurmond held the floor for twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes — the longest one-man filibuster in the Senate's history — drawling out the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and George Washington's Farewell Address — but that scene from the Senate's past was a solo performance; none of his fellow southerners would join him, and they were furious at him because they felt he was showing them up for not filibustering themselves .... "Oh, God, the venomous hatred of [Thurmond's] southern colleagues," [LBJ aide] George Reedy was to recall. "I'll never forget Herman Talmadge [D-GA]'s eyes when he walked in on the floor of the Senate that day and saw Strom carrying on that performance." Even Russell, faced with what the Atlanta Constitution called "rumblings of criticism [that] are being heard" in Georgia, felt a need to justify his strategy, telling the Constitution that the South had "nothing to gain and everything to lose" by filibustering, and declaring, "Under the circumstances we faced, if I had undertaken a filibuster for personal aggrandizement, I would have forever have reproached myself for being guilty of a form of treason against the South." ...

If you can listen to the present-day liberal Democrats lauding the filibuster — insisting upon its value to "protect minority interests," and thereby deliberately conflating their own status as the present political minority with the status of racial minorities whom the Democratic Party's southern senators historically used the filibuster to disenfranchise and persecute — without laughing out loud at the incredible irony ...

Well, then, you're probably exactly well-schooled enough in American history to work for ABC News. Congratulations.

Posted by Beldar at 07:51 PM in Books, Current Affairs, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Reviewing Michael Standaert's LAT review of Hugh Hewitt's "Blog"

Although both appeared on the same day, when I wrote my own review of Hugh Hewitt's Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World, I had not yet read Michael Standaert's book review in the Los Angeles Times. In mine, I described Hugh's prose (in the book, and on his radio show and his own blog) as "never, ever mean or bitterly sarcastic." Alas, I cannot say the same for Mr. Standaert's prose (nor always for my own) — but that is a question of style, and my intent here is to comment on substance.

And indeed, Mr. Standaert's fundamental misunderstanding of Hugh's book appears in his review's initial paragraph:

People who pick up the book "Blog" are likely to think that it's about blogs. For the most part, it's not about the Internet phenomenon of blogging, the term for individual or group Web-based chronicling and instant publishing. Rather, this book is a sustained effort of partisan hackery aimed at further eroding trust in what the author Hugh Hewitt calls "mainstream liberal media," which for him means anything to the left of Rush Limbaugh. This regurgitated mantra, in the hands of skilled marketers, can be applied to the latest hot brand — in this case anything to do with blogs.

As I noted in my own review — and as anyone even vaguely familiar with Hugh, his books, his radio show, or his blog well knows — Hugh is indeed a partisan, and fiercely (if very politely) so. "Hack," of course, is a loaded term — perhaps the most loaded term one can fling at a journalist or a pundit or any other sort of writer. To sustain it, however, one ought to at least try to provide a few examples of hackery — and in my judgment, Mr. Standaert conspicuously fails at that task.

Now, it is true enough that Hugh's book is "sustained." It is also true that part (but far from all) of the book is about the mainstream media and the erosion of public trust in it. But "Blog" is not an effort to further that erosion, but to explain and comment on it — and in particular to comment on the connection of blogs to that phenomenon. Somehow Mr. Standaert concludes from this that Hugh's book title is misleading. I'm sorry folks, but to say that this book isn't really about blogs is — gosh, I'm searching for another word, but the one that seems to fit best is "hackery."

I suppose that Hugh may take some comfort for being recognized as a "skilled marketer," and indeed he is one. But his stock in trade consists of ideas and the very broadest of social and political trends. Hugh, at least, understands that what's going on with the blogosphere makes it more than "the latest hot brand." I'm not at all sure that Mr. Standaert does understand that. He seems to think that the emergence of blogs is something like the emergence of minivans or hula hoops.

Mr. Standaert writes, for example, that "[w]ithout traditional media to feed off of, there would be little for most political bloggers to link to and comment on," and that "the other fallacy is that blogging will supplant mainstream media." But Hugh never argues the latter, nor denies the former (although the current pattern includes both controversies that originate on blogs and migrate to the MSM and vice versa). Instead, "Blog" is about the effects of the blogs on public consciousness and opinion, and upon mainstream media (recent past, present, and future). Only a — gosh, here I go again — hack would put words in an author's mouth that the author never used, or that oversimplify and indeed misrepresent what the author has actually said, for the sole purpose of knocking them down.

There's also the problem that — well, how to put this delicately? — Mr. Standaert doesn't seem to have actually read the book very closely.  I don't know how else to explain a sentence like this one: "Hewitt never shies away from celebrity name bashing, dropping every right-wing pundit's favorite punching bag — Barbra Streisand — into the mix." Barbra Streisand is mentioned once in "Blog," and it was because she's a blogger. But Mr. Standaert's review uses that one instance to give the impression that it's an example, instead of an exception. What would we call a writer who takes a single instance and tries to leave the impression that it's representative of a common occurrence?  Would it start with an "h"? In any event, it's an odd book reviewer who confuses a serious book on media trends with People magazine.

Mr. Standaert writes that

unfortunately Hewitt's "independent" position advocates right-wing, corporate or advertisement blogging and not independence as such.

In a Jan. 15 entry on his blog (HughHewitt.com), Hewitt is a bit more forthcoming about the ethical dilemma faced among the top tier of political bloggers who may or may not get paid to advocate for causes, saying "bloggers should disclose — prominently and repeatedly — when they are receiving payments from individuals or organizations about whom or which they are blogging." But in the book, Hewitt describes how blogs should be used by opinion makers to get their points across through directly influencing the most prominent bloggers.

What's rather conspicuously missing here, however, is context and the rest of the timeline. In his January 15th post, Hugh was writing about the then-swirling blog swarm over the Kos/Armstrong Williams alleged nondisclosures (or inadequate disclosures) of concealed conflicts of interest arising from what Mr. Standaert aptly calls "payola" (a term that goes back to covert bribes paid by record companies to radio disc jockeys, if I recall correctly). Amazon.com lists the official date of publication for "Blog" as January 14th, but of course it was actually written weeks before this particular controversy erupted.

And more importantly, nowhere in "Blog" does Hugh suggest or even imply that opinion makers ought to make covert payments to influence bloggers. Rather, in a section explicitly addressed to opinion makers who don't yet "get" blogging, Hugh suggests (chapter 9) that they advertise on blogs (a self-disclosing potential conflict), and perhaps (chapter 10 at page 140, italics mine) that if such opinion makers cannot find "a superstar blogger in [their] midst," they should email some talented medium-traffic bloggers "offering them employment as a blogger." In my own review, I expressed skepticism about the practicality of this latter suggestion because I'm not sure the talent, the "knack," is transferable — but if they are writing on the GM or Coke website as disclosed, paid employees of those companies, I have no doubts about either the bloggers' or the companies' ethics.

Now what kind of reviewer would lead his readers to believe that Hugh's ethical positions in his book and in his blogging were inconsistent with each other, when they're not? And what kind of reviewer would fail to note that the controversy over blogger payola had developed after "Blog" was already at the printers? Gosh — are half-truths and cheap shots characteristic of "hackery"? Or is that just part of being a "literary" (i.e., non-literal, i.e., fictional) critic?

Even the credit that Mr. Standaert is willing to give to Hugh and the blogosphere comes grudgingly (boldfacing mine):

Though at times Hewitt makes important points about how blogs have kept scandals such as Rathergate and Sen. Trent Lott's flub over Strom Thurmond's segregationist past in the public eye, his fanatical fervor leads him down the path of triumphalist bombast.

I was glad I'd set my soda can down and swallowed before I read that sentence, for I was one of many metaphorical midwives to the term "Rathergate" (helping publicize it and offering instructions on how to superscript the "th" for the .html-challenged).  At the time that it first appeared (eventually to make its way into the consciousness of even those like Mr. Standaert, superscript and all), no one in the mainstream media had yet started writing seriously about the forged Killian memos, and CBS News was still resolutely ignoring the blogosphere. "Keeping [the scandal] in the public eye"? Mr. Standaert seriously thinks that's the sum total of the blogosphere's contribution? And yet he expects us to take him seriously as a writer and a book reviewer about the blogosphere? (Oh, wait — perhaps Mr. Standaert expects the readers of the LAT who don't also read blogs to take him seriously. That might be a more achievable goal.)

But about that last phrase — "triumphalist bombast."  Oh, that is very rich indeed!  Did Mr. Standaert read these paragraphs (boldface and bracketed portion mine; italics Hugh's) in the introduction to Hugh's book?

A word about the scoffers. I hear from them every day — every day. They think they have the internet figured out; they have a strategy; they don't see the sales; they don't care about amateurs; they even blog a little themselves [Mr. Standaert writes a literary blog called Nipposkiss that's not listed in TTLB's ecosystem, has no obvious Sitemeter-type counter, but for which a Technorati search produces "13 links from 12 sources," as compared to "2,438 links from 1,740 sources" for HughHewitt.com—Beldar] and they don't get the big deal. The best word they have is "triumphalism." "A little too much triumphalism in that point of view," the scoffer will say.

Well, John Kerry was probably once a scoffer as well....

If people like Kerry, Raines, Rather, and Lott can be humbled by the blogosphere, so, too, can you, your company, your movie, your church,  your anything.

"Triumphalism" isn't exactly an obscure word, but neither is it exactly common. Gosh, I wonder if Mr. Standaert's use of it in his review was an example of unconscious plagiarism? Naw, that's far too harsh and speculative a charge. On the other hand, now, that H-word ... Well, I'll leave it to you, gentle readers, to decide if that shoe fits.

Mr. Standaert would doubtless class mine as among the "bevy of rightist blogs" whom "Blog" supposedly fawns over, and I plead guilty to having been a fan of Hugh's long before his nine generous references to BeldarBlog in the book. But with respect to Mr. Standaert, perhaps we can all agree that the word "scoffer" certainly does fit. And I suppose time will tell whether his scoffing is justified. In the meantime, I also plead guilty — in being a reviewer of a reviewer — to being a scoffer at a scoffer.

Posted by Beldar at 11:28 PM in Books, Mainstream Media, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Reviewing Hugh Hewitt's "Blog" in the aftermath of Eason Jordan's destruction

Upon returning from a vacation from blogging last month, I promised a nontrivial (which is my codeword warning for "long-winded") review of Hugh Hewitt's latest book, Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World. The announcement on the front page of today's WaPo — that CNN's chief news executive Eason Jordan has resigned — prompted me to make good on that promise.

Indeed, someone should send U.S. News & World Report editor at large David Gergen a copy of Hugh's book immediately, because poor Mr. Gergen — a old-school journalist and pundit whom I generally respect even when I don't agree with him — may be suffering from fossilization of the cranial arteries when it comes to blogs and bloggers, as this quote in Howard Kurtz' fascinating WaPo article demonstrates:

Gergen said Jordan's resignation was "really sad" since he had quickly backed off his initial comments. "This is too high a price to pay for someone who has given so much of himself over 20 years. And he's brought down over a single mistake because people beat up on him in the blogosphere? They went after him because he is a symbol of a network seen as too liberal by some. They saw blood in the water."

I can't resist the impulse to digress from my review of Hugh's book to fisk that particular paragraph, so here it is again with my bracketed interlineations in green:

Gergen said Jordan's resignation was "really sad" since he had quickly backed off his initial comments. [I don't doubt that Gergen is genuinely sad, nor do I begrudge him professional or personal sympathy for a sadly self-destructive colleague. Gergen certainly tried to help Jordan "back off his initial comments" in Gergen's own account of the Davos session, and maybe Gergen's interpretation — Gergen as mind-reader, wishfully guessing that Jordan instantly realized he had blundered — is correct. And if, within hours or at most a day or two after the comments, Jordan had gone further than merely diluting or "backing off" his comments — if he had squarely disavowed them, and then apologized for them, instead of having tried to defend, re-spin, and divert attention from them — then Gergen might have a point. But Jordan didn't, so Gergen doesn't.] "This is too high a price to pay for someone who has given so much of himself over 20 years. [No, it's exactly the right price to pay for a senior MSM journalist and network chief who's slandered our men and women in uniform with false accusations and who then systematically refused to make a full retraction or to show genuine contrition. Because Jordan apparently believed he could lie about such matters in such a forum and before such an audience, and yet remain exempt from just consequences of that lie, he destroyed his own credibility.  And despite the MSM's conspiracy of near-silence about the controversy, his masters at CNN (some of whom probably have read Hugh's book, or at least have independently come to some of the same conclusions expressed in it) realized that Jordan had become an intolerable liability. As for the 20 years, that rather blinks reality — it implies, incorrectly, that those 20 years have been blemish-free, and they were anything but that.] And he's brought down over a single mistake [see above] because people beat up on him in the blogosphere? [By "beat[ing] up," Gergen apparently means "digging out and drawing attention to the factual truth, and then expressing opinions — some of which were outraged, some of which were sympathetic — based on that truth." Gergen makes his own living "beating up" public figures in this very same sense. Also: the blogosphere hung the lantern from the broken mast and then beat the drum, but the actual keelhauling was performed by CNN execs.] They went after him because he is a symbol of a network [this much is true; Ted Rall says equally stupid and offensive things all the time but is now mostly ignored because he doesn't have the responsibilities or the bully pulpit power of a cable news network executive position to say them through] seen as too liberal by some. [Also true, but not causally connected to the first statement; see Jordan's critics from the center-left like Mickey Kaus et al.; cf. right-leaning bloggers' same dogged treatment of Trent Lott.] They saw blood in the water." [Definitely true, but it misses the point, which is that Jordan was trying to deny, and the MSM was trying to ignore, the bloody water. See generally Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Scene 4, "The Black Knight" ("Just a flesh wound ... I'm invincible!").]

*******

The reason Jordan's resignation is such a good cue for a review on Hugh Hewitt's book is the book's excellent definition in chapter one of the phenomenon Hugh calls a "blog swarm." If Hugh writes a second edition, the Jordan debacle will certainly join Hugh's list of examples — Trent Lott, Howell Raines, John Kerry and the SwiftVets, and Rathergate. The definition from page one:

When many blogs pick up a theme or begin to pursue a story, a blog swarm forms. A blog swarm is an early indicator of an opinion storm brewing, which, when it breaks, will fundamentally alter the general public's understanding of a person, place, product, or phenomenon.

And then an explication of his examples, as mentioned above, with this common observation about them:

There was no shared plan of attack among the blogs. There was no coordination between them and their allies in talk radio and a few corners of MSM such as FOX News. There was, however, a network and there was an understanding of what mattered — facts — and a desire for speed and, crucially, a target. The destructive energy of the blogosphere is fierce indeed when focused.

Mr. Gergen clearly thinks this is a bad thing. But he seems to have quite a bit in common with a fellow member of his profession whom Hugh quoted (at page 6):

A senior journalist for the Los Angeles Times told me in the middle of "Rathergate" that he writes with the fear that he will be "blogged," meaning exposed as careless or agenda-driven, thus mocked and shamed and perhaps fired.

That fear — a good thing for journalists to carry with them — should also be on the minds of every public figure and corporate leader....

"Careless" (or simply exaggerating to the point that it's indistinguishable from lying); "agenda-driven"; "mocked and shamed and perhaps fired." Oh yes! Sing it with me, brothers and sisters, for this is the hymn of accountability in the Twenty-First Century! The light is bright, sometimes harsh, sometimes even distorting (bright lights can make harsh shadows) — but the light is ever shifting and from countless sources, so the distortions are generally self-corrected by the invisible hand of the marketplace of competing ideas. And what we have left in the end, brothers and sisters, is "the truth." (See generally A Few Good Men, the closing scene in the military courtroom, Col. Jessup: "You can't handle the truth!")

It's fair to say, I think, that this is the central teaching of Hugh's book, and his main purpose for writing it. Hugh's main target audience is everyone who "doesn't yet get blogging" — those who (as the book jacket notes) still need to "catch up with and get ahead of this phenomenon."  If, when you read this book, you have an almost irrepressible urge to click on the hyperlinks that aren't there (because dead-trees-text can't display them), then you've already been assimilated, and you are probably not at the core of Hugh's target audience.

However, almost anyone who reads blogs will enjoy this book too. Indeed, the most eager readers of this book are doubtless other bloggers — the most dorkish of whom will bemoan the book's lack of an index, because that means they we had to dog-ear pages and use yellow fluorescent highlighters to mark Hugh's references to our own blogs. (BeldarBlog was graciously mentioned on pp. xxiii, 30, 41, 44, 78, 110, 148, 200, and 207 — not that I was counting or anything. Heck, I still haven't made Hugh's own blogroll; a Google search of his site turns up only nine references to my blog; I've only been on his radio show twice; we root for different football teams, went to different law schools, clerked for different U.S. Circuit Judges, and I've never been in a snowmobile accident. But there's your full disclosure. Oh wait — someone at his publisher, I think, sent me a free review copy of the book, too. I intend to pass it along, immodest dog-ears and all, to some liberal friends now that I've reviewed it.)

*******

Like most ambitious but hyper-timely books (and much blogging), this one is sometimes a bit disjointed; not all the transitions are seamless, and not all of the ideas have fully ripened. I found myself generally receptive to Hugh's comparison of the outbreak of the blogosphere to the Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printing press. I found myself likewise fascinated by the comparison between "blog swarms" and modern "netcentric" and asymmetrical military warfare. Hugh's treatment of these comparisons isn't shallow, but neither is it (nor does it attempt to be) as exhaustive and reflective as, say, a PhD thesis would be.

The one comparison I found offputting — not necessarily invalid, but uncomfortable and more strained than the others — was between what the blogosphere is doing and what internet-using terrorists are doing. For the most part, Hugh's book is about the American and international "blogosphere proper" — not about the internet and websites in general, or communications even more generally. I think the role that indigenous bloggers will play, and are already playing, in the transformation of despotic regimes into open and free democracies is an important topic; and I think the adaptations of jihadist terrorists to use internet websites to manipulate the mainstream media and thereby public opinion is also an important topic. But other than the fact that both of them are accomplished via the internet, I'm not convinced yet that I see a connection or even a meaningful comparison.

Business executives are also among Hugh's target audience, and appropriately so. As one who has represented public corporations in court fights that have sometimes spilled over into the media and the general public consciousness, I concur in Hugh's recommendations that large companies and organizations need to understand the new role of the blogosphere in helping shape public opinion. I'm troubled, though, by his suggestion that such companies and organizations raid the blogosphere for talent. Certainly there are very good bloggers who also happen to be looking for day jobs of any sort, or who would like to make their blogging self-sustaining or even profitable. But I think this suggestion presumes a sort of fungibility and transferability of talent that probably doesn't exist. Whatever odd quality in my writing brings people to read BeldarBlog, for example, probably wouldn't work so well if General Motors (or for that matter, the Republican National Committee) phoned me up and said, "Hey! We want you to write our organizational blog!" And without intending to demean anyone who does write a blog for such an organization, I associate the quality of "blogness" with someone (or sometimes a group of like-minded someones) writing independently and without obligation.

Indeed, like Hugh's own and most other blogs, "Blog" is written in a highly personal voice and from a distinct first-person viewpoint. Hugh's personal interests include politics, evangelical Christianity and religious history, law, talk radio, and football — so you'll find all of those subjects interwoven into his book about blogging and blogs. And therefore, if you're looking for something dry and impersonal and academic, you'll be disappointed. (Of course, since you're reading BeldarBlog, which if anything is far more idiosyncratic, you probably aren't put off by that writing style anyway.)

Although he's far more often compared to a cheerleader than to a rabid dog, Hugh is also politically conservative on his own blog and radio show — hawkish on the Global War on Terror, supportive of Dubya, etc. And that viewpoint also affects, and probably to some degree necessarily undercuts, the book's discussion of the left hemisphere of the blogosphere. I believe that Hugh recognized, and made an effort to overcome, those limitations; for example, "Blog" discusses dKos, Atrios, Talking Points Memo, and some other prominent blogs of the center- and far-left that I know Hugh at least skims from time to time. This book is far less aligned with, and addressed to those receptive to, conservative political philosophy than was his most recent previous book, If It's Not Close, They Can't Cheat: Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends on It. But Hugh has watched and participated in the events related in "Blog" from the right (as have I), and it might be interesting to read a book-length collaboration on these same topics between Hugh and, say, Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, or Mickey Kaus.

*******

There's plenty of substance covered in "Blog" — as I mentioned earlier, it's a very ambitious book — but it's broken up into bite-sized chunks with clear signposting and organizational structure. Long-time, bemused readers of Hugh's blog (since the days before he figured out how to spell-check his text using other software) will be pleased to know that Hugh (and/or his editors) have polished up his text (that is, cleared away distracting typos and such) in this book. Any day now, Radio Blogger (a/k/a Generalissimo Duane) or someone will hogtie the man for a badly needed weekend of hypnotherapy on blog fonts and html formatting. But while the book is slick (or as much so as any medium without hyperlinks can be), the basic prose is the same that you read on Hugh's website or that you hear him deliver on the radio: vivid, clear, conversational, sometimes wry, but never, ever mean or bitterly sarcastic. In the introduction (at page xiv), Hugh writes:

"Life is a habit, Hughie. Life is a habit." Jerry Tardie has said this to me about a thousand times. Jerry was once a basketball coach, and a very successful one, at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California. He speaks in coach talk, the repetitive, specific, motivational, and tutorial style that all good coaches use.

Well, "Blog" is an entire book that's written in "coach talk." If you want to join the team or become a serious fan — or especially if you want to position your political party/news organization/major corporation to prepare for, participate in, and respond to the changes the blogosphere has wrought — this book is certainly worth your while to read.

Posted by Beldar at 06:15 AM in Books, Global War on Terror, Mainstream Media, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Opposing Specter for Judiciary

I've just finished Hugh Hewitt's If It's Not Close, They Can't Cheat.  I wish I'd finished it before the November 2nd election, but I heartily recommend the book to anyone — including Democrats! — who's interested in politics.  Hugh's prose is crisp, concise, and lively — in other words, he doesn't write in a style that would immediately lead you to conclude that he's a lawyer or a policy wonk.  A comparatively small part of the book is specific to the election just past, and in particular his Chapter 12, entitled "Parties Can't Govern Without Majorities or Pluralities of Seats," contains little-appreciated wisdom for the ages:

Americans generally have very firm opinions on everything and want what they want to be "just so."

Unfortunate this demand for particularity doesn't work at all when applied to politics. In fact, insistence on personal taste is disastrous for political parties. There are only two real choices in America — Republican or Democrat. To demand more is to be disappointed before you begin, and to hand a victory to the set of choices most repellent to you.

Hugh explains the overwhelming importance of having one's own party in majority status, from which position it can choose the members and in particular the leaders of key House and Senate committees. Because of this, Hugh argues that as a general rule, one should almost always support the politicians of one's own party — even those who frequently desert its ranks on particular votes and issues — because

[i]t is an individual who governs as president, but it is the party with a majority that legislates. It is simply foolish to condemn as unsuitable any denominated member of a party of grounds of issue divergence.

Speaking of two particular Republican senators who've been challenged within their own party as insufficiently conservative, Hugh writes:

Neither [Pennsylvania's Arlen] Specter nor [Arizona's John] McCain is a weak incumbent in general elections. Conservative purists should not only leave both men alone; they should enthusiastically support their reelection efforts....

Please absorb this basic fact about American politics: majorities, not individuals, govern. Without an understanding of this, the GOP's return to near permanent minority status — and the powerlessness it includes — is all but guaranteed.

I entirely agree with Hugh's book on this general point, and thus was pleased to see both Senators Specter and McCain cruise to easy re-elections last Tuesday. But does this principle of supporting party-over-particulars also extend to the majority party's selection of key committee chairmanships in the House and Senate? This week, Hugh offers the following thoughts on his blog:

I see that there is a blog swarm forming around the expected assumption of the chairmanship of the Senate's Committee on the Judiciary by Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter. The opposition to Specter seems headquartered at [NRO's in-house blog,] The Corner. Many friends post at The Corner, so I paused, considered their arguments, and thought it through. On reflection, it seems to me a very bad idea to try and topple Senator Specter from what in the ordinary course of events would be his Chairmanship. I hope my colleagues on the center-right that embrace pro-life politics will reconsider.

For probably any other Senate or House committee, I would agree that it would be unduly destructive — an example of devouring one's own young — to undercut particular legislators of one's own party to prevent them from ascending to a chairmanship that seniority would otherwise prescribe. But I must respectfully disagree with Hugh as to Sen. Specter and the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

My own opposition to Sen. Specter's Judiciary chairmanship isn't based on his pro-choice views. Rather, it's based on my perception of Sen. Specter as not being a reliable "team player" in general. Dubya expended substantial political capital and showed remarkable party loyalty in supporting Sen. Specter in a tough primary fight; I think he was wise to do so, on grounds that if Sen. Specter had lost in the primary, his successor candidate might well have lost in the general election, handing that seat over to the Democrats. But in marked contrast to other Republicans like Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Specter refused to risk any of his own political capital on behalf of President Bush's re-election — and in a battleground state that Dubya lost by only two percent, and might well have won had Sen. Specter campaigned aggressively for him.

John J. Miller makes a compelling and fact-specific case that Sen. Specter's only true and reliable allegiance is to Arlen Specter.  But the chairman of the next Judiciary Committee has to be the sharp point of the President's spear in getting his judicial nominees confirmed. He needs to be not just a dutiful warrior for President and party, but an enthusiastic and creative one — both in his public pronouncements and in his backroom arm-twisting. The Democrats will again field their "first team" to oppose Dubya's nominees — a team that has positively tied the President's plans in knots, and that may still have the practical power to continue doing so if not more skillfully opposed than they have been. And not just the occasional important piece of legislation is affected by this committee chairmanship, but the long-term trend and fate of an entire branch of our government.

The Republican Party simply can't afford to have this key position in the hands of someone whose loyalty to party and President is intermittent at best.  It's not a question of the Republicans devouring one of its young, but rather of giving an unruly and untrustworthy rebel a bit of a "time out."

My candidate for the chairmanship?  Texas' John Cornyn, whose own background includes distinguished service as both a trial and appellate judge and a state attorney general.  Arizona's Jon Kyl would also suit me fine.

Posted by Beldar at 12:01 PM in Books, Law (2006 & earlier), Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink | Comments (42)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

What are the prospects for bipartisanship in the next President's term?

Despite the political leanings of the greater Houston metropolitan area in which it's sold and from which it draws its advertisers, it wasn't a certainty that the Houston Chronicle would again endorse George W. Bush for President, as it did in 2000.  But it has.  I rarely pay serious attention to newspaper endorsements, at least for top-of-the-ticket candidates.  (I do more often pay attention to them on contested down-ballot races, propositions, amendments, etc. — at least for the purpose of alerting me to issues or controversies that I might otherwise have missed.)  But the Chron's endorsement of Dubya has a paragraph near the end that intrigues me:

The Chronicle believes Bush, if granted a second term and freed of the need to appeal to the extreme factions of his party, will regain his bipartisan effectiveness at solving problems. That is not an idle hope but rests on the experience of an earlier Texan who occupied the White House, Lyndon B. Johnson. As long as he was a U.S. representative and senator elected by Texans, he never strayed far from the conventional wisdom of his constituents. In the White House, Johnson remained true to his populist roots but, freed from the common prejudice of that era, became one of the nation's foremost champions of civil rights and opportunity for all.

I very much hope this prediction comes true, but unfortunately, I'm afraid I'm not convinced by the Chronicle's reasoning.  Yet I have hopes of somewhat similar results, for other reasons. 

*******

Probably the single best book on politics and political history that I've ever read is the third volume of Robert A. Caro's LBJ biography, Master of the Senate — which, while part of a fine (and still incomplete) series on LBJ (whom I find fascinating of his own accord), also makes a great stand-alone read for anyone interested in how the Senate, Congress, and entire government did work and could work.  Caro vividly reveals how during his legislative career, LBJ had been as actively involved in blocking civil rights legislation as in promoting it — sometimes on the same day and in the same Senate cloakroom doorway. 

It's true enough that once he was no longer dependent solely on Texas votes to maintain his political position, LBJ had less reason to worry about backlash from championing civil rights.  But the major social legislation that LBJ rammed through Congress during his unelected partial term from November 1963 through January 1965, and even moreso during the first part of his elected term beginning in January 1965, had been gathering bipartisan steam and momentum for a long time; and the South was changing due to factors that had nothing to do with LBJ.  Johnson's compelling political sledgehammer in these fights was to portray himself as upholding the martyred John Kennedy's legacy (never mind that JFK's own civil rights record and commitment were not terribly consistent or heroic).  And finally, in terms of effectively stroking and twisting and caressing and jerking the levers of congressional politics and politicians, LBJ was a political genius, a cowboy-executive savant, of the sort Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, or even Bill Clinton could only dream of being.

*******

A re-elected Dubya will be freed from some of the pressures that probably resulted in first-term miscues.  I don't expect, for example, to see a second Bush administration wobble off the free-trade course the way the first one did with steel tariffs.  And I'm hopeful that presidential vetoes in a second term, or threats thereof, will bring more restraint to the Congressional pork factory.  (I'll agree that, as with those who believe John Kerry will be tough on terrorists and support our military, my belief here must be largely a matter of faith, not something based on recent past performance.)

But bipartisanship is a tango that requires two.  When he was the governor of Texas, Dubya had willing dance partners from the left side of the Legislative aisle, including powerful and self-confident Democrats like then-Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, who weren't hypnotized by or beholden to hard-left interests.  Alas, I see no such leaders among the current crop of prominent national Democrats.  Perhaps some would emerge from the smoking ashes of a Kerry loss.  The most obvious candidate — much as it pains me to type these words — is Hillary Clinton, but there may be others.

*******

Nevertheless, although not for the reasons the Chronicle postulates, I do see hope for bipartisan progress during a second Bush term in two key areas:

  • First, and most important, is on foreign policy/domestic security matters.  I expect Democrats to continue to carp and criticize on Iraq.  But once the campaign rhetoric on that topic — the retrospective "Bush lied!"/"No WMDs" memes — have faded, and focus shifts more definitively to  forward-looking "What's the best way to finish the job?" substantive issues, there ought to be room for bipartisan compromise.  Where there's not, one hopes that the partisanship will take the form of genuinely constructive criticism of forward-looking proposals.  One thing Dubya showed as governor was a willingness to coopt creative ideas that arose from the other side of the aisle; it could happen again.  And if freed from the need to take an opposite position to create political campaign separation — the need to scream "Anybody but Bush!" and "I'm against it because he's for it and I'd do everything differently than Dubya!" — then perhaps some Democratic leaders will see fit to actually consider, for example, whether it makes good sense to continue to insist on the six-way talks with North Korea.  Perhaps we can ratchet up the international pressure on Iran and Syria without having roughly half the Congress in effect urging our allies and our enemies not to cooperate with us.
  • Second, just as Clinton coopted and made political hay with originally-Republican domestic themes like welfare reform, I have some modest hopes that some Democrats may get on board with at least parts of Dubya's genuinely revolutionary "ownership society" initiatives.  Social Security may still be the third rail.  But there is vast potential for reform of, and controlling costs in, our bloated and incentive-confused health care system.  Ownership stakes in the medical decisions and consequences can introduce market rationality and cost-effectiveness considerations that are completely missing now; and if excessive tests and procedures are to be curtailed through consumer economic choices, there must be tort law reforms that reapportion responsibility between patients and their potential malpractice targets.  A Democrat willing to embrace individual choice, personal responsibility, and market capitalism ought to be able to find common ground with Republicans here — and those ought not be disqualifying themes for neo-New Democrats to run on in two or four years.  Immigration reform is another area in which there could conceivably be room for creative bipartisanship.  Radical tax simplification and reform?  Goliath lurks there; but damn, he needs to be slain, and the same Dubya who took the outrageous political risk of invading Iraq may indeed have the courage to take him on.  If so, there's risk and glory enough for ambitious Dems to share, if they will.

*******

There will be some bipartisanship if there's a second Bush term.  On some issues, Bush will be able to continue to peel off enough "conservative Democrats" to fashion filibuster-proof majorities.  But whether there will be genuinely broad bipartisan coalitions after a Kerry loss depends, frankly, more on what the Democratic Party's leaders do to reform their party, and/or whether new leaders step forward,  than on anything Dubya can do.

There will likewise be some bipartisan agreement if Kerry wins, if Kerry's not just paying lip service about fighting the Global War on Terror.  But such agreements are likely to be few and far between.  And they'd require a President Kerry to stand firm against the Michael Moore wing of his party.  Color me skeptical; in fact, photoshop me and ramp up the color saturation until your monitor resembles a steel furnace at full blast.

-----------

Update (Sun Oct 24 @ 1:20pm):  The Austin American-Statesman — hometown paper for what many of us UT alums fondly refer to as "Sodom on the Colorado" or "Berkeley East," and unquestionably the basion of Texas liberalism and populism — has also endorsed Dubya.  Amazing first three and last two paragraphs:

A country so deeply divided over such an array of issues should pause a moment and take a serious, sober look around.

Americans should ask themselves whether they really believe that European nations critical of the war effort will intervene in Iraq if Sen. John F. Kerry is elected president. They won't.

Further, we should ask whether they really believe that anything less than a fundamental change in the way Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs are funded is adequate to meet future demands....

This president is not a conservative in either foreign or fiscal policy. In some ways, he is radically changing the course of government — and that might be just what we need to face foreign threats and a rapidly changing global economy. We certainly hope so.

We do not make this endorsement lightly or without reservation, and we ask that the president return our faith by acknowledging his failures and acting to correct them.

Knock me over with a feather!

Posted by Beldar at 03:35 AM in Books, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink | Comments (13)

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Sorriest excuse for a book review I've ever read

A helpful reader, Allan J. Favish, has emailed me to point out that finally, in Sunday's edition, the New York Times has finally gotten around to reviewing John O'Neill's Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.  I say "finally" because this week, the book holds the number three spot on the NYT's own best-seller list for the second week in a row; it held the number one spot threefourfive, and six   weeks ago; and it's been on the list now for eight consecutive weeks.   

I'm a fan of book reviews, having commissioned and/or edited about a dozen very strong, article-length book reviews — as the first person to hold that editorship unmixed with other responsibilities — for the Texas Law Review.  (The reviewers I dealt with included Professors Charles Alan Wright, Herma Hill Kay, Mark Tushnet, Douglass Laycock, Sanford Levinson, and William C. Powers, Jr.)  So I'll claim some credentials as, so to speak, a "book review reviewer."  But frankly, no expertise is needed to size up this particular book review as a piece of shallow, partisan garbage.  Written by "Susannah Meadows[, who] is covering the Kerry campaign for Newsweek," this one concludes:

Kerry has never been a terribly beloved figure in Massachusetts politics, and in the presidential race he's buoyed more by hatred of Bush than by any passion for his candidacy. But the irony is that this book goes after the one piece of Kerry's history that left the politician with his greatest friends, the lifelong die-hards for the cause. In its determination to wreck Kerry's candidacy, ''Unfit for Command'' seems to reveal more about the authors than about Kerry.

But Ms. Meadows' extremely superficial review reveals more about herself and her determination to promote Kerry's candidacy than it does about the book.  Here, for example, is the review's entire description of the controversy over Kerry's medals:

Navy records have discredited the book's claim that Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star and third Purple Heart — though only after the sensation hijacked cable news for a month.

That's it — half a sentence that mentions only half the medals in dispute; and far, far less than half an effort at comprehensiveness or honesty. 

Ms. Meadows' begins her review with this statement, very nearly the only accurate one in her entire review:

If John Kerry loses the presidential election, ''Unfit for Command,'' by John E. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi, will go down as a chief reason.

Yes, ma'am — and you and the NYT will be on record as having completely failed to grasp, much less to honestly deal with, that chief reason.  This is an effort so pathetic that it actually should be insulting even to Sen. Kerry's partisans.

Posted by Beldar at 12:29 AM in Books, Mainstream Media, Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink | Comments (16)

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Brinkley continues to play coy on Kerry records

WABC Radio's Steve Malzberg interviewed Kerry biographer Doug Brinkley today, which interview generated this NewsMax.com report about Brinkley's guarded comments on the Navy Department's very preliminary-stage  investigation of Kerry's medals.  (Hat-tip to one of my readers and to InstaPundit.)  The report also has this bit, which puzzles and frustrates me:

The presidential historian called on Kerry to authorize the release of his full military file, saying, "Clearly some of these military records should be made available to the press."

I wish I'd heard the interview live, or had a full transcript, because I'd like to know whether Brinkley called on Kerry to release his "full military file," or whether he's really only calling for "some of these military records [to] be made available to the press."  All isn't some; the press, and we, have some already, but the problem is they're only the ones Kerry has decided to show anyone outside his campaign, and even then, he's apparently shown some of his military medical records only briefly to reporters, and then snatched them back so that no one can review them in any detail.

Moreover, coy Doug continues to dodge the question of why — if, as he wrote in Tour of Duty, Kerry authorized Brinkley to obtain all of Kerry's military records directly from the Navy — Brinkley won't either clear up some of the discrepancies himself, or better yet, turn over to everyone what Kerry authorized the Navy to turn over to him.

Posted by Beldar at 05:32 PM in Books, Mainstream Media, Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Kranish book makes awful first impression

I'm genuinely trying to withhold judgment, but even before I got to the pages with regular numbers, I'm having serious doubts about Michael Kranish et al.'s John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best.  At page xxvi in the Introduction (boldface mine):

Do these actions reflect the conflicts of a powerful intellect, of a man who appreciates nuance in policy and deeds but sometimes has trouble translating it to a mass audience?  Do his statements and votes on military force reflect the natural caution of a man who was severely wounded in combat, who watched men under his command die, who lost five of his best friends in a war that ended in U.S. withdrawal? ...

I'm wondering if maybe this book is actually about former Sen. Bob Kerrey.  I'm almost certain that John Kerry wasn't ever "severely wounded" because I Google-searched his campaign website for that phrase and got zero hits.  Maybe he was "severely wounded," and just didn't tell anyone on his campaign staff, d'ya think?  I'm in suspense — must resist the urge to skip ahead in the book to find out whether he survived or not!

(Google search is so much fun!  It tells us that "bandaid," for instance, does appear one time — but it's something about Bush's "bandaid solutions" to economic problems.  No hits for "ouchie," "boo-boo," "kiss it and make it better," "Ghengis Khan," "Hanoi Hilton," "Jane Fonda," "cabana boy," "diddler," "Boston Strangler," or "do you know who I am," either.  Twenty-six hits for "Purple Heart," though, which would be approximately 26 more than the stitches Kerry's severe wounds required; zero hits for "stitches" or "stitch."  But "Vietnam" pulls 236 hits — hey, did you know Kerry served in Vietnam?  "Combat" gets 165 hits; "veteran" scores 164; "courage" pulls up 106; "swift boat" draws 71; "brave" and "decorated" tie at 50; "medal" pops up 34 hits; and "hero" draws a modest 24.  "Gridley" bottoms out at 11; man, those guys have such a right to feel slighted.) 

And I'm pretty sure that if Kerry'd had a crewman die in his arms, Doug Brinkley would have already written the major motion picture movie script and Spielberg would have rushed it into production. 

But we'll see, we'll see.  Maybe by chapter three, I'll have it figured out.

Posted by Beldar at 05:44 AM in Books, Humor, Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink | Comments (46)

Friday, September 03, 2004

Kerry apparently signed Form 180 for Brinkley, but Brinkley is cooperating in the cover-up

I had always assumed that Sen. Kerry had himself provided his biographer Douglas Brinkley with Kerry's official military records that were already in Sen. Kerry's hands.  But in reviewing Brinkley's citations and references for ToD, I came upon this statement at page 520 of his "Acknowledgements" section (boldface mine):

Also with Kerry's permission, I obtained his Navy records and have used them as a reliable source.

I don't know any other way to interpret this than to presume that Kerry signed, and gave to Brinkley for Brinkley's submission to the DoD, Standard Form 180.  Brinkley's wording — "I obtained" — indicates that he submitted the form and that the results were sent directly to him by the DoD.

If so, I believe that a strong argument can be made that by authorizing the DoD to release these confidential materials directly at the request, and into the hands of, one historian, Kerry thereby waived any and all rights to insist that he has a privilege to prevent their release to other interested members of the press, the academic community of historians, and the public.  Brinkley's not Kerry's lawyer, wife, priest, or otherwise in a position such that sharing privileged information with him might not constitute a waiver.  [Important Note: as discussed in an update below, I haven't been able to find caselaw under the Privacy Act of 1974 to support this broad waiver argument, and it may well be incorrect.]

The public disclosure of these records via Standard Form 180 is precisely what the SwiftVets have been demanding since May 2004.  WaPo's Michael Dobbs has pointed out Kerry's refusal to release these records — although he didn't use the perfectly apt phrases "cover-up" or "stonewall" — in the same August 22nd article that Kerry's sympathizers in the media claim to have "knocked down" the SwiftVets' claims:

Some of the mystery surrounding exactly what happened on the Bay Hap River in March 1969 could be resolved by the full release of all relevant records and personal diaries. Much information is available from the Web sites of the Kerry campaign and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and the Navy archives. But both the Kerry and anti-Kerry camps continue to deny or ignore requests for other relevant documents, including Kerry's personal reminiscences (shared only with biographer Brinkley), the boat log of PCF-94 compiled by Medeiros (shared only with Brinkley) and the Chenoweth diary.

Although Kerry campaign officials insist that they have published Kerry's full military records on their Web site (with the exception of medical records shown briefly to reporters earlier this year), they have not permitted independent access to his original Navy records. A Freedom of Information Act request by The Post for Kerry's records produced six pages of information. A spokesman for the Navy Personnel Command, Mike McClellan, said he was not authorized to release the full file, which consists of at least a hundred pages.

Brinkley insists — both in ToD's Author's Note (at page xiii) and in its Acknowledgements (at page 520) — that Kerry "had no editorial control" over Brinkley's book manuscript or the entire biography project.  Fine.  If that's so, and if Brinkley didn't obtain Kerry's military records from Kerry as part of the personal archives subject to Kerry's exclusive control and subject to some sort of contractual restriction that would bind Brinkley, then nothing prevents Brinkley from handing them over to WaPo's Dobbs or any other reporter (or blogger, or SwiftVet). 

Nothing, that is, except a partisan desire to help Kerry succeed in his cover-up.

---------------

Update (Fri Sep 3 @ 11pm):  My working assumption in writing this post is that the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, is what creates Sen. Kerry's right to maintain the privacy of his military records.  This is similar to, but not quite the same as, common law rights to assert privileges against compelled disclosure (for instance, attorney-client).  Although I have a good familiarity with privileges and the ways in which they may be deliberately and inadvertantly waived, I'm not an expert on the Privacy Act.  Hence the qualification of my suggestion above that a "strong argument" can be made that if Kerry authorized Brinkley to receive his military records with Form 180, he's waived his right to continue to insist upon those records' privacy.  I'm doing some digging in the caselaw to see if this precise issue has come up under the Privacy Act, and may update this post, or start a new post, depending on what I find.

Update (Fri Sep 3 @ 11:50pm):  The relevant portion of the statute is 5 U.S.C. § 552a(b), which provides:

No agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains, unless disclosure of the record would be [followed by a number of exceptions that don't appear to apply].

The question is whether Kerry's prior written consent for DoD to disclose Kerry's records directly to Brinkley would operate as a broad waiver and, in effect, consent for DoD to disclose Kerry's records to anyone else who might later ask.  Alas, and somewhat to my surprise, I cannot find a case in the annotations to the statute that's directly on point in either direction.  But given the prohibitory language of the statute as it applies to government agencies — and, frankly, given the purposes of the statute — it may be too great a stretch to argue that "consent for anyone equals consent for everyone."  This may indeed be a situation where a statutory privacy right differs from a common-law privilege.  I've deleted the phrase "thereby waiving confidentiality" from the original title of this post.  Mea culpa; I plead guilty to probably going off half-baked on the broad waiver argument.

My other main point in this post, however, I think is still valid.  On its face, once Brinkley has the records, nothing in the Privacy Act would appear to prevent him from making whatever further distribution of them he chooses.  {return to text}

Posted by Beldar at 07:30 PM in Books, Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink | Comments (20)

Kerry brought the Belodeau Eulogy to Brinkley's specific attention

Yes, I admit that I'm obsessed with the Belodeau Eulogy, having previously posted about it on August 17, August 26, and most recently, on August 31, 2004.  But I keep stumbling upon indications that Kerry biographer Douglas Brinkley — and indeed, Kerry himself — also regard the Belodeau Eulogy as particularly significant.

From the Epilogue chapter of Brinkley's Tour of Duty:  John Kerry and the Vietnam War, at page 436 (boldface mine):

Late in the summer of 2003 the fifty-nine-year-old junior U.S. senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, sat at a desk in the study of his house high atop Boston's Beacon Hill, riffling through his Vietnam War files.  He was searching for the long statement he had written for a memorial service held for an old Swift boat crewman who died in 1997.  Kerry and Chelmsford native Thomas Belodeau had become friends serving together in Vietnam aboard PCF-94....  Belodeau had been the first of the Swift's mates to pass away.  "I'm sorry he's not around for Charleston [referring to Kerry's official announcement of his 2004 presidential campaign, planned for September 2, 2003, with the historic U.S.S. Yorktown as a backdrop]," Kerry said softly.  "He'll be with us in spirit, though."

My guess is that this passage is taken from Brinkley's interview with Kerry on June 30, 2003, as referenced in the list on page 466 of ToD; the next listed interview isn't until September 8, after the Charleston event.  Perhaps Prof. Brinkley thinks of June 30 as being "late in the summer" in the same general sense that Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is described at page 453 as "Kerry's fellow Democratic Senator."  Perhaps it's in that same general sense that the water-jet-propelled Patrol Boats (River), or PBRs, that are pictured at the bottom of ToD's ninth picture page (between text pages 274 and 275) are described by Brinkley as a "Swift boat [i.e., PCF] convoy." 

Mid summer or late summer; PCFs or PBRs; Republican or Democrat; Rassmann falling overboard due to a sharp turn or due to a nearby mine blast — details, details, who cares about the details when you've got a candidate to help elect?

I'm left wondering exactly why Kerry was searching for a copy of his Belodeau Eulogy in the midst of one of Brinkley's brief twelve total hours of personal interviews (per the Author's Note on page xiii).  Apparently, out of all the materials in his archives, Kerry thought the Belodeau Eulogy was important enough to bring to Brinkley's direct attention — although perhaps it didn't occur to Kerry that if a copy wasn't readily at hand in his desk, he could also find it online from the Congressional Record for January 28, 1999 (first page and second page in .pdf format).

We know that eventually, Brinkley somehow found a copy of the Belodeau Eulogy, because Brinkley quoted directly and extensively from it at page 264 in Chapter Twelve of ToD, as I wrote in my August 31 post.  Shortly after writing that post, I found another direct quote from the Belodeau Eulogy later in Chapter Twelve of ToD (at page 267):

New Englander Tommy Belodeau felt an immediate kinship with his new lieutenant based on simple regional pride.  "The crew didn't have to prove themselves to me," Kerry explained in retrospect.  "I had to earn my spurs with them.  When the chief petty officer, Del Sandusky — known as Sky — finally gave me the seal of enlisted man's approval, Tommy was the first to enthusiastically say: 'I told you so, Sky — he's from Massachusetts!'"

Brinkley actually omitted the words "who came from Illinois to be with Tom today" after the phrase "known as Sky," and did so without indicating the omission through an ellipsis, but otherwise that's another direct quote. 

Although he clearly used the Belodeau Eulogy as a primary source for two direct quotes in Chapter Twelve, as I noted in my earlier post, Brinkley did not include it in his listed sources for that chapter in his unnumbered Notes section at the conclusion of the book (pp. 483-84).  And neither does the Belodeau Eulogy appear in the Notes for the Epilogue chapter (pp. 495-97).  Elsewhere in the Notes for various chapters in ToD, Brinkley at least mentions in general terms the unpublished source materials upon which he's drawn — for instance, for Chapter Eight he writes (at page 479), "Kerry's journals and correspondence for the crux of this chapter," and for Chapter Nine he writes (at page 480), "Again Kerry's war journals form the backbone of this chapter." 

But in contrast to, say, Kerry's letters to his parents or his journal writings, the Belodeau Eulogy was originally delivered in a public setting, and was subsequently, deliberately, published by Kerry in the Congressional Record, both in print form and in a searchable online database.  And yet the Belodeau Eulogy is nowhere listed in ToD's Selected Bibliography.  As Alice cried from Wonderland, "Curiouser and curiouser!"

Posted by Beldar at 07:01 PM in Books, Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Brinkley had in-hand the Belodeau Eulogy, but ignored it in telling the Rassmann rescue story

My regard for Kerry biographer Douglas Brinkley as an historian has dropped to a new low.  I've discovered that Brinkley must have had in his hands — and ignored — an unimpeachable source in which John Kerry told a version of the Jim Rassmann rescue that is completely, mutually inconsistent with the version which Kerry has related, and Brinkley himself has repeated, everywhere else.

Prof. Douglas BrinkleyIn reading his book Tour of Duty:  John Kerry and the Vietnam War, I've mostly marvelled at Brinkley's tin ear — his seeming obliviousness to Kerry's own tendencies toward self-aggrandizement, exaggeration, and hyperdeveloped ego.  I'd wondered if Brinkley had noticed these things and was just being droll, passing them along with a straight face to let his readers draw their own conclusions.   I'd thought that Brinkley himself — despite being a professor of history and the Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans — perhaps just didn't know much about, for example, the Battle of Antietam during the American Civil War.

But then I came upon this passage tonight at page 264 of Tour of Duty, in which Brinkley is writing about the crewmen young Lt. Kerry took over when he assumed command of PCF 94 when that Swift Boat's skipper, Tedd Peck, was wounded in an ambush on January 29, 1969 (boldface mine):

Rounding out Peck's five-man crew on PCF-94 was Radarman Thomas M. Belodeau, whose shy, demure demeanor masked a fighting instinct that had already made him a decorated seaman.  On July 5, 1968, Belodeau had been serving on PCF-27 when he spied a Viet Cong suspect running from a riverbank and went after him.  As enemy fire exploded all around, Belodeau had gone in and pulled the suspected VC from the water for interrogation, earning a Bronze Star with the Combat V device for his bravery.  "I cannot adequately convey or describe to you the measure of this man at war — screaming up a river in the dead of night, no moon, fifty yards from Cambodia, literally bouncing off the riverbank, waiting for a mine to go off or a rocket to explode," Kerry would later marvel at Belodeau.  "And always, always dependable — always there for the rest of the crew."

Since the point of this paragraph was to tell Belodeau's history, I have no particular quibble with Brinkley's failure to point out explicitly that Belodeau's medal-winning performance on July 5, 1968, long predated his association with Kerry.  (In July 1968, Kerry was finishing up his service on the Gridley and hadn't even started his Swift Boats training in San Diego.) 

But my jaw dropped upon reading the next lines — because the "Kerry later marveled at Belodeau" quote in ToD is drawn directly, word-for-word, from the eulogy that Kerry gave at Belodeau's funeral on November 10, 1997, and then had inserted into the Congressional Record for January 28, 1998!  As shown by this screencap of three consecutive paragraphs from the .pdf version (at 150 percent magnification) of page S186 from the Congressional Record on that date:

relevant text  from the far-right column

It is simply inconceivable that, in extracting the Kerry quote from the Belodeau Eulogy that he republished in Tour of Duty, Brinkley could have missed what appeared a mere two paragraphs up from it.  Anyone even vaguely familiar with Kerry's war-hero record could not possibly fail to recognize this as Kerry re-telling the Bay Hap River action — including the loss overboard of Green Beret Lt. Jim Rassmann, whose rescue got Kerry his Bronze Star.  And anyone even vaguely familiar with those events cannot fail to spot, immediately, the inconsistencies between the version of this story that Kerry told in the Belodeau Eulogy and the version that Kerry has told everywhere else — including the version later recounted by his authorized biographer Brinkley in Tour of Duty!

I've already blogged at length (here and here) about the inconsistencies between the Belodeau Eulogy version of the Rassmann rescue and that which Kerry has told elsewhere.  In the Belodeau Eulogy version, for example, Rassmann goes overboard during a "high speed turn to starboard," and the only mine has gone off some time prior to that, under Kerry's own PCF 94, lifting it two feet out of the water.  In the other versions that Kerry and his supporters have told, Rassmann goes overboard not during a sharp turn, but due to a second mine (or perhaps a rocket explosion, per Kerry supporter Sandusky), and it's Lt. Pees' PCF 3 that had previously been lifted out of the water (and indeed totally disabled) by the first mine.

I've been frustrated that these inconsistencies — which seem to me as simple and stark and obvious as those which led to the exposure of the "Christmas in Cambodia" fairy tale — haven't gotten any substantial attention in the blogosphere, much less in the mainstream media.  I was pleased to hear (although I don't yet have a verifying link) that Fox News' Brit Hume has mentioned the Belodeau Eulogy within the last couple of days.  And I am very pleased to read the just-published article on the Belodeau Eulogy by Art Moore in WorldNetDaily.com, in which Mr. Moore was kind enough to link and credit my blog for first finding it (although the credit should actually go to two of my readers who emailed me about it).

Brinkley's own tellings of the Rassmann rescue — both in Chapter Thirteen (at pp. 314-18) of ToD and in a slightly reworked version of that chapter later published as "John Kerry's Final Mission in Vietnam" on History.net — contain their own odd internal inconsistencies.  (For example, at page 314, the print version of ToD has Rassmann going overboard not from Kerry's own PCF 94, but from "PCF-35" — a boat that wasn't there at all that day.  And the History.net version has Rassmann aboard Pees' PCF 3, which is clearly wrong by everyone's account.)  In trying to sort through those inconsistencies — much less reconcile them to the versions told by Kerry's skeptics among the SwiftVets — I've been inclined to give Brinkley the benefit of the doubt, and to blame at least some of the errors on gremlins or sloppy editors.  I was inclined to attribute to an editor trying to shorten the online version, for example, the omission of this rather important sentence that, at page 313 in the print version of ToD, made clear that Kerry's butt-wound (which may have been at least part of the basis for his third Purple Heart) occurred through his own negligence rather than due to enemy fire:

"I got a piece of small grenade in my ass from one of the rice-bin explosions and then we started to move back to the boats, firing to our rear as we went," Kerry related.

But to find that Brinkley had the starkly different version of the Rassmann resuce that Kerry told in the Belodeau Eulogy actually in his hands — and that Brinkley ignored it! — simply stuns me.  This is simply not something one can blame on an incompetent editor or typesetting gremlins.

There's more mystery here, however:   In Brinkley's unnumbered "Notes" for Chapter Twelve at the conclusion of the book (at pp. 483-84), he gives no reference whatsoever for his "Kerry would later marvel at Belodeau" quote on page 264.  It's therefore unclear whether Brinkley was quoting from a written version of Kerry's Belodeau Eulogy as delivered at the funeral and maintained in Kerry's private records — records to which Brinkley was given exclusive access, and that the Kerry campaign disingenuously continues to insist, despite Brinkley's vocal disagreement, that Kerry's contract with Brinkley prevents Kerry from releasing — or instead from the presumably identical version of the Belodeau Eulogy that Kerry had inserted into the Congressional Record.  The troubling omission of any documentation, however, for the one Belodeau Eulogy quote that Brinkley did use in his book raises an inevitable ugly question: 

Was Brinkley just spectacularly incompetent?  Or did he deliberately deep-six the Belodeau Eulogy attribution that should have appeared in his notes section for Chapter Twelve, and then deliberately ignore its contradictory version for his telling of the Rassmann rescue in Chapter Thirteen?

Posted by Beldar at 01:50 AM in Books, Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink | Comments (24)

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Brinkley and Kerry as students of history

I could blog for a week, I'm sure, with nothing but my reactions while reading Doug Brinkley's Tour of Duty, but I'm intermixing my reading with some light blogospheric skimming, and another juxtaposition jumped out at me.

From ToD at page 115, discussing Kerry's reactions to the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, while he was training for his Swift Boats assignment in San Diego:

It was one more sign that America seemed to be unraveling into anarchy that year.  On top of the deadly riots in Detroit, Newark, and other cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King, John Kerry's great fear, as he watched an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 antiwar protesters clash with some 12,000 Chicago police, 6,000 U.S. Army troops, 6,000 National Guardsmen, and 1,000 FBI agents, was that a bloody massacre of Antietam-like proportions was in the offing.  The media dubbed the melee the Battle of Michigan Avenue.  Fortunately, the violence was contained with no loss of life.

"Antietam-like proportions"?

Although there were longer battles in which more men died, Antietam was the deadliest single-day battle in America's deadliest war, with 3650 Union and Confederate soldiers killed outright.  Did Kerry honestly expect 3650 deaths at the Chicago DNC?  And how can a professor of history report that with a straight face?

Of course, there's a more recent national catastrophe in another pair of large American cities in which something on the order of 3000 Americans did die in a single day, in a war most of them (and most of us) didn't yet realize was under way.  Roger L. Simon, blogging from the Republican National Convention in New York, nicely sums up the 2004 presidential election in one snapshot of bemused NYPD cops watching the anti-Republican protesters swirl around them, and one six-word quote from one of New York's finest (a quote so good I'll break my usual policy of avoiding hard profanity and quasi-profanity on BeldarBlog):

Photo shamelessly stolen from rogerlsimon.com

Cops were everywhere. It was fun talking to them. One of them said to me, "It's like fuggin' 9/11 never happened." His buddies seemed to agree.

Now there's a real student of history speaking!

Posted by Beldar at 08:00 PM in Books, Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink | Comments (11)

The war-torn soul of John Kerry

From biographer Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, we get this powerful portrait of young John Kerry's anguish, quoting a lengthy letter he wrote to his sweetheart (pp. 82-83; boldface mine):

Judy Darling,

There are so many ways this letter could become a bitter diatribe and go rumbling off into irrational nothings.... I feel so bitter and angry and everywhere around me there is nothing but violence and war and gross insensitivity.  I am really very frightened to be honest because when the news [of the combat death of his college friend, Dick Pershing] sunk in I had no alternatives but  to carry on in the face of trivia that forced me to build a horrible protective screen around myself....

The world I'm a part of out there is so very different from anything you, I, or our close friends can imagine.  It's fitted with primitive survial, with destruction of an endless dying seemingly pointless nature and forces one to grow up in a fast — no holds barred fashion.  In the small time I have been gone, does it seem strange to say that I feel as though I have seen several years experience go by....  No matter [where] one is — no matter what job — you do not and cannot forget that you are at war and that the enemy is ever present — that anyone could at some time for the same stupid irrational something that stole Persh be gone tomorrow.

You can practically hear the mortar rounds shriek overhead Kerry's foxhole, can't you?  Everything around him "is nothing but violence and war" — "endless dying," the enemy "ever present."

U.S.S. Gridley DLG/CG-21, the 'Gray Ghost of the South China Sea'Except that this letter was written in Febuary 1968, while Kerry was an ensign aboard the missile cruiser U.S.S. Gridley as it plied the dangerous waters of war-torn Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.  The Gridley was still almost 6000 miles and many weeks away from the waters offshore of Vietnam.  Certainly Kerry already knew that once there, he would remain aboard that large ship, on which his own risk of death or injury through combat would be essentially nill.  (During its entire service, the Gridley had only one combat fatality, Petty Officer William J. Duggan, who was killed while aboard a helicopter flying a search and rescue mission in 1967.  Kerry flew no such missions.)

I have no doubt that young Kerry felt genuine grief at the report of his college friend's combat death — certainly everyone who knew and loved Dick Pershing felt that.  Sadly, there were many deaths to mourn.  Nor do I mock or denigrate the notion that serving aboard the Gridley was important and patriotic.  [Update: And as a veteran of the Gridley aptly pointed out in my comments below, there were very real noncombat dangers in that service, as in much of military life even during peacetime.] 

But what's striking — and yes, what I frankly do mock — is the incredible self-aggrandizement and exaggeration of this letter.  Brinkley reports this with a straight face and, seemingly, a completely tin ear.

On to Kerry's shore patrol duties when the Gridley was at Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines.  This came after a brief patrol in which, as Brinkley reports, "[every] day that the Gridley patrolled the Gulf of Tonkin an enemy attack was remotely possible."  (That would be from the North Vietnamese Navy's combined battleships-and-aircraft-carriers task force, one presumes.)  At Subic, Kerry had Shore Patrol duty.  But even in that duty, Kerry and his biographer must find the seeds of Candidate Kerry's future greatness and nobility (page 88):

Kerry was both amused and surprised by the squalid life of this liberty city.  His "beat" was the bars and brothels part of town.... On [one] occasion he came upon a woman passed out on the floor of a bar, a sailor standing above her muttering, "Please don't let her die," over and over.  Kerry felt for her pulse and tried to bring her back to consciousness.  He succeeded.

Well, damn!  He woke up a drunk bar girl, isn't that worth another Bronze Star at least?

Later Brinkley writes breathlessly of the Gridley's return to Vietnamese waters, where Kerry came "only forty miles away" from "North Vietnam's treacherous Haiphong."  Now, again, I'm not suggesting this was trivial duty or that the Gridley should have turned off its radar and sonar and sent all its crew to bed drunk around 11pm.  But of this duty, we find Kerry writing to his parents (page 94-95):

The Viet Cong have tremendously increased their counter batteries along the coast and there is not a ship on the shore bombardment that does not encounter opposition.  Most of the shore effort is down south — in the I Corps area where Persh was killed.

I guess that must've been pretty much exactly like The Guns of Navarrone, wasn't it?

A couple of Brinkley's short passages about Kerry's service aboard the Gridley do resonate, so to speak — if not in ways Brinkley may have intended.  From page 84, describing the Gridley's voyage from Long Beach to Honolulu:

Every few days while at sea he would write an 800-word vignette about World War II battles that he would then read over the intercom in his best Edward R. Murrow stentorian tones.

And from page 86:

One time [Ensign Kerry] was directing helicopters during an exercise from the Combat Information Center.  [Robert E.] Jack, who was the watch officer that day, said, "Captain Harper (who had been listening to the radio chatter on the bridge) burst into CIC and asked me who was that person talking to the helos with the great voice.  So, I guess the skipper did at least give John a compliment on one occasion."

Too bad Kerry didn't have a chance to tell his shipmates about "Jeng-jhis" Khan, but I think we can all be sure that both his vignettes about naval history and his instructions to the helo pilots must have been "seared — seared" into their memories nonetheless.

Kerry's service aboard the Gridley has drawn almost no attention in the current SwiftVets controversy, and he's rarely mentioned it during his campaign — even though he spent three times as long assigned to that ship as he did in the Swiftees.  It's well worth your time to read the reactions to the chapter from ToD about his Gridley time from those who served with him then on the Gridley's website.  You'll find comments there detailing more of Kerry's consistent self-aggrandizement and exaggeration as reported by Brinkley in ToD — Kerry claiming responsibility for "motivating 400 swabbies," when his actual responsibilities were for 30, for instance.  The Gridley's website home page has a very understandable reaction: 

When questioned about [the relative lack of reporting in his biographical materials about Kerry's greater time aboard the Gridley], Kerry told Douglas Brinkley that "nothing much of note happened during his tour aboard the vessel."  So much for us!

I say again:  I do not mock or belittle Kerry's service aboard the Gridley.  It's something he should be very proud of — even if it wasn't the stuff of which Hollywood movies are made.  There are a whole lot more vets (and friends and family of vets) whose military service has resembled Kerry's aboard the Gridley, and can you not imagine how positively they'd have reacted if, instead of ignoring his time there, Kerry had made that service at least some small part of the balloons-lights-and-magic routine at the Democratic National Convention?

Instead, the only way he's used his Gridley service in his campaign has been as a basis for claiming that he served "two tours in Vietnam."  If anyone's mocking and belittling the Gridley, it's John Forbes Kerry.

Posted by Beldar at 06:17 PM in Books, Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink | Comments (54)

Saturday, August 28, 2004

With friends like Doug Brinkley, does John Kerry need enemies?

PrestoPundit Greg Ransom has posted lengthy quotes from newspaper articles just published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and WaPo about author Douglas Brinkley, whose early 2004 book Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War energized the SwiftVets into public action.  (Greg also gave me a hearty belly-laugh with his pithy description of this bit of nonsense from the Kerry campaign as a "John Nash moment.")

Clearly University of New Orleans Prof. Brinkley wants to be helpful to Sen. Kerry.  The whole point of his book, after all, was to argue that Kerry's tour of duty in Vietnam and his subsequent antiwar activism have shaped and defined his moral and political character to make him a fit President.  The WaPo article notes that

with this book, Brinkley has become a political historian as well, having authored a book that burnishes just the part of Kerry's biography that the candidate chose to highlight to defeat a wartime president who never has seen battle himself. "These days, Brinkley is acting a lot less like a historian and a lot more like a PR flack for John Kerry," wrote Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam. In its review, the New York Times referred to "the odor of salesmanship that lingers around 'Tour of Duty.'"

Now, I think it'd be harsh and unjustified to compare Prof. Brinkley to more obvious salesmen like, say, Joe Isuzu.  But just as the fictional Professor Philip Brainard's invention, Flubber, didn't always bounce the way one expected it to, neither has absent-minded Prof. Brinkley's output always bounced in ways that help propel John Kerry toward the White House.

In the back rooms of the Kerry campaign this morning, for example, there must be gnashing of teeth and low mutterings over this bit of candor from Prof. Brinkley in the WaPo article (boldface mine throughout):

The Kerry campaign has refused to release Kerry's personal Vietnam archive, including his journals and letters, saying that the senator is contractually bound to grant Brinkley exclusive access to the material. But Brinkley said this week the papers are the property of the senator and in his full control.

"I don't mind if John Kerry shows anybody anything," he said. "If he wants to let anybody in, that's his business. Go bug John Kerry, and leave me alone." The exclusivity agreement, he said, simply requires "that anybody quoting any of the material needs to cite my book."

From your mouth to WaPo's ears, Prof. Brinkley!  WaPo, "go bug John Kerry"!  How much material are we talking about?  Perhaps the Kerry campaign would prefer to downplay the size of the pile of evidence they're stonewalling to protect, but count on Doug Brinkley to give us some context here too:

"I'm talking a massive archive. I had to sit in his house, with this woman watching me, and go through the collection — 12-page letters, notebooks, journals. I made three different trips, and stayed there for days," said Brinkley, who also interviewed the senator for about 12 hours.

And people have mocked Nixon for merely keeping a few shelves full of Oval Office tapes!

Then there's this searing description from Prof. Brinkley of John Kerry's claims to have spent "Christmas in Cambodia":

"I'm under the impression that they were near the Cambodian border," said Brinkley, in the interview. So Kerry's statement about being in Cambodia at Christmas "is obviously wrong," he said. "It's a mongrel phrase he should never have uttered...."

Ahem.  "Mongrel phrase" might more aptly be used to refer to Kerry's tales of his acrobatic dog, "VC," who apparently was miraculously catapulted from PCF 94's deck onto another unidentified SwiftBoat at or about the same time the day before Lt. Rassmann was catapulted into the Bay Hap River.  But the flying pooch isn't part of Brinkley's ToD, and [ed: whoops] I'll leave the spirited fisking of that tale to Hugh Hewitt and James Taranto, the latter of whom has been sniffing out the story of VC's gymnastics since last spring.  [Update: And also to Steve Sturm, thanks!]

From the NOTP's article, we find that Prof. Brinkley is oddly comforted by the ways in which the SwiftVets have been able to make use of his book against Kerry:

Brinkley said the dual use of his successful book [by both the senator's opponents and supporters] is proof of his objectivity. Everything he has written and said to date, he insisted, has been based on the historical record.

Well, yes — that's sorta true, if one includes within the term "historical record" John Kerry's own amazing contemporaneous writings from his time "in-country."  For example, this passage from page 310 of ToD with a lengthy quote from Kerry's journals may not be a very profound or reliable source on the topic of war profiteering and corruption, but it certainly gives the reader some vivid, if weird and disturbing, insights into the self-absorbed mind of young Kerry during the 13Mar69 action that preceded the "rice pile explosion" and his subsequent Bronze Star and third Purple Heart:

I was amazed at how detached I was from the whole scene.  I just lay in the ditch, not firing because I wanted to save ammo and because I couldn't see what I was firing at, and I thought about what was happening in New York at that very moment, and if people really felt that I was doing something worthwhile while they went down to Schraaftt's and had another ice cream sundae or while some fat little old man who made another million in the past months off defense contracts was charging another $100 call girl to his expense account.  And then, when the shooting stopped, I came back to where I was.

This sort of detail is indeed useful for voters who are trying to decide whether the Global War on Terrorism should continue to be prosecuted by George W. Bush or instead by, say, Captain John Yossarian.

I'm about a quarter of the way through ToD, and I'm enjoying it.  And I have to admit, I sorta like Prof. Brinkley, from what I know about him.  I'm just worried, though, that the Kerry campaign is going to lock him in a small room for a long weekend of "strategic reprogramming" with James Carville and Lanny Davis.

Posted by Beldar at 07:47 AM in Books, Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink | Comments (28)

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Post-war planning: 1941-1945 vs. 2002-2003

I've just finished Michael Beschloss' new book, The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945

I wish I could recommend it, but it's written with a stylistic quirk that — completely apart from content — drove me up the wall.  Beschloss includes extensive endnotes and I take on faith his historical accuracy throughout.  But he writes with very extensive — painfully extensive — embedded quotations mid-sentence, packing in phrases and clauses and semi-sentences surrounded by quote marks.  The result is prose that ends up reading like a legal appellate brief that's summarizing a trial record — which is fine when you're working under strict space limitations and there's going to be an advocate writing an opposing brief that challenges your every factual assertion, but which becomes extremely tedious after about the first twenty-five pages of this book.  The jacket liner describes this as "let[ting] us eavesdrop on private conversations and telephone calls among a cast of historical giants," but I, for one, would far rather either read full-bodied block quotations or else pithy summaries in the author's own words.

The book is copyrighted 2002 and Beschloss began work on the book in 1991, but the central subject — the planning that went on during World War II for what to do with Germany after the war — is extremely relevant today.  The description of the actual post-war occupation and reconstruction is extremely brief.  Instead, the focus is almost entirely on the policy struggle between Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. on the one hand, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson on the other, to influence FDR (and indirectly, Churchill and Stalin) during the planning for the post-war period.

Morgenthau was a non-practicing Jew and a close personal friend of FDR who wanted to punish the German people for this war and ensure that they'd never be able to wage another like it.  To accomplish this, he proposed to systematically demolish Germany's entire industrial capability; to give its industrial equipment and markets to the USSR and Britain in lieu of reparations; to forcibly deport Germans with industrial training and skills; and to dismember the country into feudal, agricultural semi-states.  Hull and Stimson opposed such dramatic measures, both on humanitarian grounds and because of their growing concerns that a rebuilt and stabilized Germany would be needed as a bulwark against post-war Soviet expansion.  Apparently, FDR deliberately waffled on this subject — and Beschloss paints this as a characteristic and deliberate management strategy whereby Roosevelt would maintain his own political power by playing off his strong-willed subordinates against one another.  Nevertheless, by Roosevelt's death just before VE-Day, the "Morgenthau Plan" was almost a dead letter, and new President Truman paid it lip service, and nothing more, only as long as he wanted to keep Morgenthau at Treasury — which turned out not to be very long. 

Today, of course, no one would ever dream of arguing for something like the "Morgenthau Plan" for Afghanistan or Iraq; it simply goes without saying that we want to rebuild and improve these countries after defeating their ruling regimes.  And on both broad concepts and the devilish details, America's 2002 and 2003 pre- and during-war planning for post-war periods looks pretty damned sophisticated in comparison to what was done during World War II.

Beschloss does offer this tidbit that is particularly timely and interesting in ways he probably couldn't have predicted when he wrote it:

      At the White House, Truman was surprised to learn that Hitler had killed himself.  He had expected "many high German officers" to "take this way out," but Hitler, "in his fanaticism," to "resist to the very end."

      Accustomed to mistrust what they heard from Nazi Germany, sixty-eight percent of American respondents to a Gallup poll questioned whether Hitler was really dead.  A Michigan animal trainer named Spikehorn Meyer wired Truman, "I am offering $50,000, cash American money, for the capture of Adolf Hitler, delivered to me.... I want to make Hitler a sideline attraction with my bear show, and I will tour Russia, England and other Allied countries."

Herr Hitler's availability to tour with the bears notwithstanding, Americans then seemed to be reasonably sure that we had done a worthwhile thing in that war; they should feel the same now about Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of whether we ever actually account for the bones, living or dead, of those monumental losers bin Laden and Saddam.

Posted by Beldar at 08:21 AM in Books, Current Affairs, Global War on Terror | Permalink