Monday, September 18, 2017

My Amazon Review of Katy Tur's "Unbelievable: My Front -Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History"

In the Eye of a Political Hurricane

In the spring of 2015 Katy Tur was living large as an NBC correspondent in London. She had a French boyfriend with whom she was going on a Mediterranean vacation in July.  However on a home trip to New York, of a sudden, the powers that be at NBC/MSNBC drafted her to cover the nascent Trump campaign. All the parties involved thought it would be a short term assignment. Little did they know it would last for 17 months and lead to a Cronkite Award for Excellence in Political Journalism for Tur.

In a very personal, candid and breezy style Katy Tur tells us of her getting caught up in a Category 5 political hurricane that was the Trump campaign. From the beginning she is attacked by Trump and as the campaign goes on she legitimately fears for her safety. So much so that NBC hires a security detail for her. Through her eyes we see Trump’s love/hate relationship with the press. He hates them personally but he is validated by them.

She gets very personal about her life on the campaign trail. She changes clothes in a car and falls in the snow while racing to catch a plane out of LaGuardia Airport. She lives on a diet of junk food and alcohol that makes it difficult for her to zip up her pants and look in the mirror. By reading her book I got to appreciate the hard work that journalist do to bring the news to me.

Although she does not like Trump, she is very respectful of his voters. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, she feels their pain. She recounts a vignette about a middle-aged woman who happens to be a hair dresser helping her with a curling iron in a restroom. Later that woman would be cheering Trump on with his personal attacks on the press. Tur gives a real sense of how decent people can get caught up in the madness of crowds.  Further, she practically alone at NBC sees Trump winning.

I have previously written what great team of female reporters NBC has put together. I call them Oppenheim’s girls, after Noah Oppenheim, NBC’s current news director. (See                                                                                                                       Along with Katy Tur, there is Kasie Hunt, Hallie Jackson and Kristen Welker. I honor them by calling them “girls” because they are the modern day equivalent of Murrow’s Boys. They truly represent an all-star team in any journalism league.

I have one last and very personal point. While she was growing up she had a family dog named Daisy. My three children who are roughly Katy’s age also grew up with a dog named Daisy. She was the best dog.

I highly recommend “Unbelievable” for anyone interested in the 2016 election and the role of journalist in the hothouse of a presidential campaign.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

My Amazon Review of Richard White's "The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896"

History with a 21st Century Liberal Bias

Stanford professor Richard White is a distinguished historian; I only have amateur status. While reading White’s encyclopedic history of post-civil war America you get the impression that he is looking to shock the sensibilities of 21st Century liberals by highlighting racism, the plight of laborers and farmers, the corruption of government and the greed of the emerging capitalist class.

To be sure the post-civil war era was no bed of roses, but if Lincoln came back from the dead and looked upon the America of 1896 he would have been largely pleased. The Whig in Lincoln, after all he was an admirer of Henry Clay’s American  System,  would have been pleased to see the success of the Pacific Railway Act, the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act (land grant colleges). America truly became a country from sea to shining sea, surpassed Britain as an industrial power and was about to take its place on the world stage. Of course as White rightfully notes the Native Americans were far from being partners in this process. Nation building is messy.

The free labor Lincoln might have been a bit disappointed in that industrial workers instead of being free were in fact “slaves” to the industrialists. This last point White makes over and over. However industrial workers were far from being slaves and far from being a majority of the workforce and even with the urbanization that took place in the 30 years after the civil war, America was still an agricultural country with a small town economy. And as bad as factory conditions were, immigrants from Europe continued to pile in. Simply put higher real wages and freedom remained a big draw.  Moreover, White ignores the rise of the middle class who would read the muckraking journals that were just beginning to make their appearance in the 1890s.  

The idea that White doesn’t seem to get is that the America of the 1870s was an “emerging market.” Where he is shocked about the governmental corruption that took place, I view it as a stage in the growth of the economy. Industrialization is messy and that is why crony capitalism and emerging markets go hand in hand. He also makes a side comment that American growth was slow compared to some of the faster growing economies of the 20th century. Of course it was because America was inventing the stuff that the 20th century economies had the benefit of copying.

Although White cites the excellent work in Robert Gordon’s “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” he doesn’t take it to heart. (See )   Productivity growth was strong and real wages were rising. The U.S. was experiencing a “good” deflation, not a bad one as gains in productivity were translated into lower prices. Indeed the return to the gold standard, which White is critical of and it had a lot to do with the deflation, but it laid the basis of America becoming a global economic power at the dawn of the next century. The late 1800s truly were truly an age on invention and the locus of invention was largely in America.

All of the class issues that White discusses were fought out in the election of 1896. William McKinley’s defeat of William Jennings Bryan was a resounding vote for the gold standard and against the class-based reforms proposed by Bryan. Highlighting the rise of the new middle class is the fact that 750,000 people visited McKinley’s home to hear him give campaign speeches. These folks weren’t the tribunes of capitalism or White’s downtrodden workers and farmers, but rather they were of the rising middle class.

The one area where I know Lincoln would have been disappointed is the failure of reconstruction. Here the Republicans punted and turned the south over to the Ku Klux Klan, the armed wing of the Democratic Party. As White notes, the Republican traded the south for the west. I wish he would have spent more time on President James Garfield, whose was shot at the beginning of his term. If there was anyone who could have halted Jim Crow, it would have been him. We will never know.

I am sure White’s book will win its share of awards, but for me it was a disappointment. He should take off his liberal blinders and look at the world as it was.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

From Murrow's Boys to Oppenheim's Girls

At the start of World War II in Europe Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS news chief operating out of London, put together a team of radio broadcasters that would bring the realities of the war in Europe into millions of American homes. His team included such luminaries who would build CBS news into a television powerhouse in the postwar era included William L. Shirer, Eric Severeid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith and Richard C. Hottelet.

The modern day analogue to Murrow's Boys appears to be what I would characterize as Oppenheims's Girls. Oppenheim being Noah Oppenheim, NBC's current news chief. His "girls" are anchor/correspondent Katy Tur, chief White House correspondent Hallie Jackson, and political correspondents Kasie Hunt and Kristen Welker. These four women acting as a team are covering Washington and the Trump Administration as if it were a foreign country and just as Murrow's boys did 77 years ago they are bringing insightful reporting into the homes of millions of Americans.  

Nevertheless there is one problem that this all-star team has to deal with; they are associated with highly partisan Left that appear nightly on MSNBC at night thereby hurting their credibility. So my advice to Noah Oppenheim is not to let the partisans get in the way of straight news.

Friday, September 1, 2017

My Amazon Review of Sean McMeekin's "The Russian Revolution: A New History"

Russia Turns Red

Historian Sean McMeekin has written a very readable revisionist history of the Russian Revolution.  The perspective of the book is to look at the revolution from outside in. Hence we learn more about the opposition to Lenin rather than an inside out view which would focus more on the Bolshevik leadership. According to his archival sources McMeekin clearly portrays Lenin as a German agent who brought the financial resources of Hohenzollern Germany with him to overwhelm both his critics on the left and the forces of the provisional government.

In McMeekin’s view both the Tsar and the Russian army were in far better shape than what other historians have argued. I think he stretches here, because if it were that strong the army would not have collapsed as fast as it did under the weight of the Leninist policy of turning an imperialist war into a civil war by subverting the Russian draftees.

He argues, I think correctly, that Lenin was blessed by his opponents. The liberals who brought on the February/March Revolution were inept and the Socialist Revolutionary government under Kerensky was perhaps even more inept. When the time came for Lenin to strike in October/November, the provisional government was a mere shell.  Thus the revolution was more a coup d’├ętat than a real revolution. The revolution would come with the bloody civil war that followed the coup.

During the civil war period McMeekin highlights how split the opposition was and how unified the newly formed Red Army was under the leadership of Trotsky. Trotsky wisely utilized the officer corps of the defeated Tsarist army to build his new army and utilizing Russian gold reserves, Lenin was able to keep the army in the field. Nevertheless millions of lives were lost in the three year civil war as the country nearly starved to death and was saved by Herbert Hoover’s relief mission. One last note McMeekin tells us that the Cheka, the predecessor to the KGB, was founded to break the strike of banking, railroad and communication workers, so much for proletarian solidarity.

Therefore I highly recommend the ”The Russian Revolution” for history buffs like myself. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

My Amazon Review of David Thompson's " Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio"

From Youngstown, Ohio to Hollywood

David Thompson knows how to write. He has written a very entertaining book about four Jewish immigrant brothers from Youngstown, Ohio who make it in Hollywood and America. The book is a fitting edition to Yale’s Jewish Lives series, despite it being a biography of a movie studio rather than an individual.

As with most of the early movie studios Warner Brothers evolves from operating theaters to running a major studio in Hollywood. Along the way we witness the sibling rivalry among the bothers mostly pitting the oldest, Harry against the youngest, Jack. Harry stays true to his religion and his wife, not so much for Jack. Ultimately Jack wins and sells the company out from the other brothers in the 1950s and then buys it back to become its sole owner.  Harry dies of a stroke shortly thereafter.

The real guts of the book is how Warner’s evolved from making Rin Tin Tin movies in the early 1920s, to pioneering sound with Al Jolson’s “Jazz Singer.” From there we go on to the realistic gangster movies that brought us such stars as Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Warner’s also brings us the great Busby Berkeley song and dance spectaculars. In “Gold Diggers of 1933” Joan Blondell sings one of the two great anthems of the 1930’s, “My Forgotten Man.” The other anthem was “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.”   So if you add to the gangster movies, “Gold Diggers”, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” and “Petrified Forest” you get a real flavor of America in the 1930s. Because this is in the Jewish Lives series Thompson highlights the rolls of such Jewish actors as Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Peter Lorre and Lauren Bacall.

Of course no book on Warner Brothers would be complete without a full discussion of “Casablanca,” the best movie ever made that starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and was directed by the Hungarian Jew Michael Curtiz. In a few short pages he takes us into the inside of making that movie.

There is much more in book with vignettes on Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Howard
Hawkes and Joan Crawford. My one minor quibble with the book is that Thompson throws in a few gratuitous comments about Donald Trump. Nevertheless it is a very enjoyable read. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

My Amazon Review of Craig Shirley's "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980"

The Return of the Gipper

Reagan biographer Craig Shirley has written a hagiographic account of how Ronald Reagan rebounded from his defeat at the Republican convention in 1976 to his nomination four years later. Shirley has written a breezy telling of what happened with lots of inside baseball. Reagan, of course is the hero and the villain of the piece is John Sears his campaign manager who deliberately kept Reagan out of the limelight in 1979. That gave rise to serious opposition, especially from George H.W. Bush. The unsung hero of the Republican return to power is party chairman Bill Brock who picked up the pieces after the narrow defeat of 1976 to Jimmy Carter and an across the board loss in the congressional elections of that year.

My problem with Shirley’s account is that there are too many errors in the book. Among those errors is his view that the economy was weak in 1978. To the contrary, the economy was in an all-out boom. That is the reason the Republicans made only marginal gains in the House and Senate races. He pays lip service to the roll of California’s Proposition 13 which set off a wave of tax cutting in the states and it help legitimize the Kemp-Roth tax cut the Republican were advancing. Without Proposition 13 there would be no Kemp-Roth. He also omits the Steiger Amendment which lowered the capital gains tax in an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress in 1978. Change was in the air and Reagan knew it.

Shirley also misstates Lyndon Johnson record on civil rights. To be sure Johnson was slow to civil rights, but it was through his efforts that the first civil rights legislation since reconstruction passed in 1957 and 1959.

Shirley spends a great deal of time on Reagan’s opposition to the Panama Canal Treaties which became a cause celeb among the Republican right. The treaties passed and now 40 years later nothing really bad has happened. He should have noted that it was a political gimmick from the beginning. But it worked.

Finally although breezy reads well, the book needed much better editing and fact checking. Thus I can only rate it a modest three stars. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My Amazon Review of Graham Allison's "Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap"

Collision Course?

Graham Allison the Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center and former Dean of its Kennedy School has written a thought provoking book that should keep leaders on both sides of the Pacific awake at night. To Allison the rise of China to challenge the United States is a replay of the ancient Peloponnesian War where “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that it instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable” in the memorable words of Thucydides. By going through sixteen case studies where a rising power challenged an incumbent power Allison is careful to note that war is not inevitable, but it is likely.

The most glaring case study is that of the rise of Germany in the late 19th century to challenge the hegemony of England and the parallel rise of post-1905 Russia to challenge Germany on the continent created so much fear among the parties that the spark of an assassination in the Balkans heralded the onset of World War I.  In contrast the American challenge to England during the same time period led to a rapprochement between the two powers that exists through today. But what it took was England’s willingness to give America a free hand in the America’s. In the two cases I just cited economic rivalry preceded geopolitical rivalry.

So it is today with the U.S. and China. On purchasing power parity basis the Chinese economy is now larger than that of the U.S. and the fear of Chinese economic power is a constant drumbeat among American politicians. The question for the U.S. and China is the same that was presented to Sparta and Athens is whether or not an accommodation can be made. That would require either China pulling back on its ambitions to establish a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia or for the U.S. to accept the fact that Chinese ambitions are legitimate. Given what is going on with North Korea today it hard to tell whether diplomatic accommodations can be made. Of course for the U.S. to  cede Southeast Asia to China there would have to a high degree of confidence that the Chinese goals are limited just as the U.S. goals towards Latin America were limited at the turn of the 20th century.

To accomplish a modus vivendi will take a lot of hard work and remember the rise of China economically left in its wake abandoned factories throughout America just as the rise of Germany placed great stress on the British economy in the late 1800s. It is not going to be easy, but Allison is asking the right questions and pointing us in the right direction.