Sunday, May 29, 2011

#29: Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Harper Collins, 2010: 448 pp

I was not sure what to make of this book when I picked it up. On the inside of the cover flap, the following quote stared out at me: "You know, this shit would be really interesting if we weren't in the middle of it." It turns out that this was one of President Obama's favorite quotes according to the authors. The book relies on information from "nearly 100 interviews with over 200 people between July 2008 and September 2009" (ix). All were done on "deep background", meaning the sources are unidentified. I have some reservations about that, but will not throw out the book.

One is instantly struck by the disparity on the political parties. The first 270 pages focus on the Democratic Nomination campaign, and roughly 80% of that is focused on the rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Only the last 160 pages of the book deal with the general election, but certain personalities dominate the book, so a reader can guess which campaign insiders gave the most "deep background" info.

Those are: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. This makes sense, as they were the four most compelling stories of the 2008 campaign. Hillary comes across as seeing herself as entitled to the nomination, Obama comes across as distant, unapproachable and seemingly unflappable. John Edwards comes across as a jack ass. I mean, a real jack ass. Palin comes across as you would expect her to depending on your political leanings:

1. Small town egotist plucked out of anonymity to run for a job she was in no way ready for
2. Small town regular person who did a good job as governor sabotaged by a rampant liberal media, or
3. A colossal mistake by the McCain campaign, who took a little more than two days to investigate Palin's credentials. The Palin even omitted answers on her questionnaire for the campaign after she was picked. That should have told them something.

It is the media coverage, though, that is the real specter in this text. Keep in mind that some of these people were plotting a run for president in....July 2006. John Kerry's idiotic 2004 campaign was not really even cold by the time a few of these individuals started to cast around. The coverage of Clinton and Obama is deftly organized by the authors. Was Obama handled with "kid gloves" as Bill Clinton stated, or was that just sour grapes on the part of someone who felt that everyone should vote for her. No one candidate was happy with the coverage of any of the other candidates or of themselves. One gets the idea that the media could do a better job but it too close to the candidates to do so.

The real legacy of the 1988 Dukakis vs. Bush and the 1992 and 1996 Clinton campaigns is on full display. The handlers do not really talk about policy any more than the candidates themselves, but instead attempt to manipulate not their own candidate's image, but their opponents image. This should not be a surprise to anyone who pays attention to political campaigns, but it should bother us as voters and citizens. Our leaders discuss images, not issues. Make no mistake, this book is about images and not a campaign. This does not mean it is a bad text; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. But, there are larger issues here. Let's beat the dead horse that is Palin, for instance.

The book centers on her ability to learn by rote, her attempts to cram knowledge into her head that even I knew at the time and all the other assorted mine fields she stumbled through (Couric, for example.) What is not really discussed, except through quotes from Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, is WHY McCain picked Palin, did not vet her properly and loosed who is an insufferable egotist upon a campaign for which she was simply not ready. It's not her fault; hell, she has parlayed three months of absolute fucking idiocy into a national political career. I blame McCain's campaign. Senator (at that time) Joe Biden said it best: "Who the hell is Sarah Palin?" It strikes me as the equivalent of the mayor of my hometown in the 1980s suddenly tabbed to run for vice president of the U.S. It just should not happen. But, at the same time, she did have one thing going for her, the same thing that Obama did: she did not have the stink of Washington on her. Obama did have the stink of Ivy League elitism; the Clintons have the stench of both and so does Edwards. The pick reeked of desperation to continue this olfactory metaphor. This is what the title refers to; a "Game Change" shifts the frame of media discourse. Alas, it does not change what happens in Washington.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Additional Stuff

I have now changed the comments section so anyone should be able to call me names, complain, badmouth the President, etc.

Correction to #28

The author, being somewhat of a boob, mentioned Ed Ott in the last paragraph. That should be Mel Ott, the Giants Hall of Fame outfielder. Ed Ott was a catcher for several teams in the 1970s. Can I fire myself?

#28: The House that Ruth Built: A New Stadium, the first Yankees Championship and the Redemption of 1923 by Robert Weintraub

Hatchette Books, 432 pp 2010

Robert Weintraub does an excellent job in this text of exposing what many people (non-baseball history types, or, 97% of the population) do not know about the NY Yankees. Babe Ruth arrived in NY in 1920, in a trade looked at by several writers as a mistake (Read Rob Neyer's great book Big Book of Baseball Legends for several nice articles about the Babe).  Between 1920 and 1922, the Yankees won the AL pennant in 1921 and 1922, only to lose in the World Series to the NY Giants. Before Ruth's arrival, the Yankees (AKA the Highlanders) posted 5 winning records in 17 years. When Yankee Stadium was built, it was immense, larger than any other baseball stadium. It pissed off a lot of people, including a lot of folks in baseball. Why? It was a gold mine with 60,000 seats. Weintraub tells us that Waite Hoyt, a teammate of Ruth's and longtime Cincinnati Reds radio announcer, told his kids to thank God and Babe Ruth. Ruth was the attraction, and only a stadium as large as Yankee Stadium could accommodate him

More, and this is where Weintraub's book excels, is the battle of style and will between Ruth and John McGraw, manager of the Giants. Ruth fundamentally changed baseball. In 1920, Ruth hit 54 home runs. The second, third and fourth highest totals for a player that year (George Sisler, Tillie Walker and Happy Felsch) combined to hit...50. In 1921, Ruth hit 59, with the next highest players tied at 24. This was anathema to McGraw.

John McGraw came to the majors in the 1890s and played third base with the old Baltimore Orioles. The 1890s were a time period of downright thuggery in baseball, and McGraw was one of the chief thugs. Not that we wasn't a good player, he was. He could hit a little and excelled at getting on base and scoring runs. McGraw was small (5'7 and 155 pounds) but never met a fight "he didn't like or could win" according to his teammate Wee Willie Keeler. When McGraw managed, he was the Bobby Knight of his time: foul mouthed, pugnacious, irascible, intensely loyal to old players who played hard and merciless to those who he thought did not give everything they had. But, he won. McGraw took over the Giants in 1902, and by 1920 won 5 NL pennants and the 1905 World Series. In truth, his world series losses in 1911 and 1912 could be chalked up to some bad luck and errors.

McGraw's teams stole bases and played "scientific baseball", what now would be called "small ball". Before Ruth began to hit home runs and a lot of games were decided by scores of 3-2 or 2-1, this made sense. As McGraw's teams won the series in 1921 and 1922, two things happened:

1. Ruth wasn't Ruth. In 1921 and 1922, he hit 94 homers in 262 regular season games. He hit only 1 in 11 world series games and hit .212. "Throw him slow stuff and the big idiot falls all over himself," McGraw said. Weintraub's description of McGraw baiting Ruth is first rate.

2. In 1921 the Giants had two player (first baseman High Pockets Kelly and catcher Oil Smith) hit more than 10 home runs. The Yankees had only two as well...but Ruth and Bob Meusel outhomered the entire Giants team.

This was the direction the game was going. When the Yankees won the world series in 1923 (Ruth played well, and it was a redemption for him), more people started looking for power in the lineup. One common trap that Weintraub tends to avoid in this text is using the 1923 series as an example of how baseball passed McGraw by. It didn't; McGraw's health began to fail in 1924. He hung around until 1932 and he adapted. Between 1924 and 1932, his Giants teams led the National League in home runs 5 times, with Ed Ott using the short right field porch in the Polo Grounds to tremendous advantage. This book is a great introduction to the importance of Babe Ruth not only in baseball history, but also within a pop culture context.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

#27: Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall by Frank Brady

First off, let me say RIP to Harmon Killebrew. It is rare that you never hear a bad thing said about a sports hero, but Killebrew was a genuinely good hearted and decent man. Plus, he was one hell of a hitter. The one connecting element to his obits over the day is not his baseball career, but his generosity. It is not often we see the like of him.

The same could not be said of the subject of today's biography, Bobby Fischer. Fischer was a "chess prodigy", who won the US Chess Championship 8 times, the first when he was 14. He also recorded the only perfect score in the US Championship tournament in 1961. In other words, he was a certified fucking chess genius. He defeated Boris Spassky in 1972 in Iceland for the World Title, then refused to play and lost the title in 1975. The man won 22 international tournaments in 15 years; between 1957 and 1961 he did not lose a game in US Championship tournaments.

Brady's text is engrossing, well written and a good read from, start to finish. One does not need to know much chess to get through the book, as Fischer's games are not treated in detail. What emerges from the pages is a man who is convinced of his own greatness and more or less proves it on the world stage. He was a singular player; imaginative, brilliant, driven. His studies of the game from the age of 7 or 8 on are amazing. Brady does not spare the social effects on a young man who would rather spend his time reading chess books in elementary school than talk to girls. The only passion that came close during this time was baseball, specifically the Brooklyn Dodgers.

One gets the feeling in Brady's text that Fischer began to feel the pressure to be not only Bobby Fischer, but "Bobby Fischer, Chess Champion and Slayer of the Russian Dragon." He certainly saw that in himself, and Brady does not shy away from the more difficult portions of Fischer's personality. In the 1970s, as his life spun out of control, Fischer became more and more enamored of anti-Semitic, Neo-Nazi ideologies. This is the only drawback from Brady's text. Brady, as someone who knew Fischer, seems hesitant to call Fischer for what he was in the 1970s: an insufferable egotist, 24 karat asshole and all-around dick. The routine apologies offered by Brady read as poor excuses for boorish behavior on the part of someone who began to realize that even though he was the youngest grand master in the world, he could have been more.

One character I wish I knew more about was Fischer's great opponent, Boris Spassky. The two maintained cordial relations, and Spassky called Fischer a brother after Fischer's death. This is certainly one of those instances when only one genius could understand another, and I believed every word. Fischer was undeniably brilliant, and Brady does an excellent job at showing readers who may be unfamiliar with that brightness what "genius" in a chess context means. The book falls down when Fischer is not playing chess; Fischer comes off as a quarrelsome jerk-off, who coasts by on the genius that makes him unique. People get tired of that, and the second part of the book reads like a long list of burned bridges.

All in all, this is a wonderful study in the pressure of being "The Best." One gets the feeling that the pressure of being better at something than anyone else would be too much. It may have been for Fischer. This book is recommended.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

#26: Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 by Daniel James Brown

Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2006

I had no idea that the event this book describes ever happened. Imagine discovering that in 1894 a forest fire burned nearly 500 square miles of Minnesota and Wisconsin. It burned two towns and at least three villages to the ground, killing roughly 450 people. Roughly 30% of the victims were unrecognizable, and almost all are currently buried in mass trench graves in Hinckley, Minnesota.

The author's Great-grandfather was one of the victims, which is why he undertook the book. Mr. Brown's description of the fire is absolutely frightening, well written and disturbing. But, it is the stories and the historical information that makes this an excellent book. One gets at a glance the importance of the train to small towns like Hinckley, Sandstone, Pine City, Pokegama; cities that are now dying out because they are bypassed by interstates. Indeed, the rescue of nearly 500 citizens from Hinckley on a train is the centerpiece of the text. This book sounds like a disaster movie: imagine 500 people crammed on a double-engined train, running backward at full throttle while the passengers swat at small fires with pillows, hands, blankets. Estimates from Best and Barry (the engineers) were that the fire was moving at nearly 40 miles an hour. If this was in a movie, I would not believe it.

The author pulls together survivor stories, information on the Great Pullman Strike (in which one of the heroes walked off his job and was arrested), scientific explanations of the firestorm itself (which was absolutely fascinating) to create a book that is, quite simply, a little strange. I am not sure that the fire changed America; what emerges from the description of the relief efforts is the incredible generosity of the citizens of Minnesota. Brown mentions that anyone waiting for government help after Hurricane Katrina would have recognized the slowness of the reaction of the government (state or national) in Hinckley. The privately set up "relief organizations" should also give pause to those who think that non-profits can provide disaster relief on their own. If your dad was a "no good drunk", or you were a woman who "was given to flirt", you could expect no help from the relief organizations after the fire. It didn't matter that you lost everything in a fire, what mattered were your personal habits and churchgoing record. This was the only part of this true story that I actually found believable.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

#25: Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI by Bryan Burrough

552 pp, New York: Penguin, 2004

I picked up this book because of another Burrough text I read a long time ago, Barbarians at the Gate. I grabbed that one after I saw the movie of the same name starring James Garner. It was about the RJR Nabisco merger. Burrough is a journalist, and this book, while quite long, reads like a newspaper article. The organization centers around an 18 month timeframe in which Baby Face Nelson, The Barkers, Machine Gun Kelly, John Dillinger Bonnie and Clyde and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis literally fought running gun battles with the FBI. All of their tales are wound together, and it creates some wonderful reading.

I never really knew just how close in proximity and time all of these people were. I had some vague notion that "in the 1930s, they all robbed banks." All committed robberies in the Industrial Midwest down to Texas. All were operating at the same time, several of the groups were connected (Nelson, Dillinger and the Barker/Karpis groups most closely) and the "G-Men" chased them down. Some interesting items emerge, however.

1. Ma Barker, whom Burroughs describes as a "cranky old hillbilly", was actually gunned down by the FBI in what amounted to cold blood. She never robbed a bank and was guilty, if anything, of 'living off the ill-gotten gains of her sons." What she really liked was jigsaw puzzles. J. Edgar Hoover invented her identity as a criminal mastermind out of whole cloth (490-500 in the book, stories sprinkled throughout.)

2. I actually like Alvin Karpis. He is probably the criminal that I knew most about before reading this book, and he is presented as certainly the most intelligent person (FBI or otherwise) in the text. It is not unwarranted, as the description of his planning and cool head in robberies certainly put him if not in a sympathetic light, at least a more or less respectful one. Karpis, while hiding out in Cuba, went as far as to take Ma Barker there for a few days so she could fish and take in the beach. Like I say, a better man than most of her sons.

3. Bonnie and Clyde really come off as a couple of hick kids turned jackass turned murders. There is really nothing quite romantic about Bonnie and Clyde in the book. One thing that shocked me is that while Karpis and the Barkers were knocking off three banks in 1933 at roughly $40-70,000 each, Bonnie and Clyde's biggest haul was for a little more than $5000. They specialized in drugstores. One could not help but think of that line from the Coen' Brothers epic Raising Arizona, where John Goodman says "Hi, I know you're partial to convenience stores, but the sun does not rise and set on the corner grocery." I hate to say it, but I was actually happy to see them ambushed. Burroughs convincingly argues that the fame of Bonnie and Clyde is 95% Hollywood and 5% achieved. Thanks for the movie, though, Warren. And no, Bonnie was no Faye Dunaway in the looks department, weighing in at 95 pounds and 4'10.

4. Machine Gun Kelly was henpecked, and his wife thought he was an ass. His trail across Arkansas and Memphis, with his wife paying a family to pass messages to him, is sad yet quite funny. Take $50 and go to town to talk to someone? Hell, yes! I'll just stop at the bar and the whorehouse and be back in three days. This actually happened.

5. Dillinger seems downright charming. But we already knew that. He and Karpis both seem like decent enough fellows, not cold blooded killers like Baby Face Nelson or psychotic drunks like Fred Barker.

6. If it can be said that there is a tragic figure in this book, it is Melvin Purvis, the man who brought down Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. Hoover was angry at him for several failures (notably the shooting of two innocent bystanders in Wisconsin and several boneheaded non-following up with witnesses) but hated him most for garnering publicity. Burroughs writes that Purvis is not mentioned once in the official FBI history commissioned by Hoover, nor did the Bureau make any mention of his service following his death in the 1960s. It is as if Hoover wanted him excised from the records, and he did. You see, if it was one thing you didn't steal from Hoover (besides his feather boa) it was the limelight. Hoover is a shadow in this book while the outlaws are in the light from the beginning; the more the reader sees Hoover, the less the reader likes him.

Lastly, the subtitle "Birth of the FBI" is no mistake. When it started the manhunt in 1933 following a shooting in Kansas City, it had no jurisdiction, few if any of the agents had any weapons training and it was, for lack of a better term, amateur hour. Burroughs does an excellent job of interweaving complaints from criminals AND local law enforcement about the ham-handed tactics of the Feds and illustrates their multiple failures while showing how they learned from crime to crime. Overall, a good and quick read.

#24: Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges

 232 pp, New York: Nation Books, 2009

Why is Jerry Springer always held up as one of the symbols of the downfall of Western Civilization? Probably because he is the most visible symptom. I have read most of the books Hedges draws on in this text (Boorstin's The Image, Neal Gabler's Life: The Movie, and Chris Rojek's Celebrity being the most used) and agree with him on three points:

1. Life in this country is dominated by Boorstin's pseudo-event. A pseudo-event is an event pulled together to be reported on. It exists to draw attention and is not spontaneous. The ubiquitous "photo op" of today's politics is a pseudo event. The "red carpet reporting" and self-congratulation of the academy awards shows are a pseudo event. Perhaps the academy awards itself is, I do not know. Boorstin was highly critical of the artificiality of these events, as is Hedges, as am I.

2.Gabler, as quoted by Hedges, wrote that "everyone acts as if they are a star in their own movie." Hedges zeroes in on the selfishness of this and only in the latter half of the book gets into the problems this creates with awareness outside of our own little bubbles. Most people, when it comes right down to it, are clueless to the plight of their fellow man. Is this their fault? Not exactly.

3. Rojek differentiates between "ascribed" and "achieved" celebrity, the former from bloodlines and the latter from achievement. Both are frustrated because of the mass media and public relations departments. Think of the Kardashians and their father, Bruce Jenner. Bloodlines may have once made these people somewhat famous (for you kids out there, Jenner was a 1976 gold medal winner in the decathlon), but the non-stop bombarding of Kardashian ass, clothes, clothes with ass, ass without clothes, sex tapes, perfume and "reality" shows have conspired to make all of them famous.

Hedges describes the societal effects as he sees them. These are varied:  the rise in pornography as men are increasingly immune to the effects of bukkake films, gangbangs on the women who "act" in them, the emasculation of the Democratic party as "Bill Clinton led them to the corporate feeding trough" (157) and "diversity based on race and ethnicity but not class" in higher education. (101). What ties all of these things together is pure and simple: alienation and a loss of hope. This goes for blowhards on the Left and Right, contributing to a media landscape where programs like TMZ and The 700 Club are both categorized as "bona fide newscasts" by the FCC. (168)

Hedges overall point is not that the media has failed (even though they are courtiers; read Nixon's Shadow for a discussion of the "established" reporters view of the story of Watergate), but that Americans are beset by a cultural divide that transcends the "red state/blue state" business. People will move to control what they can, and what they can control from day to day is choice over what TV show to watch, what frozen treat to buy, what Starbucks to go to or what porn clip to whack off with in the evening. Hedges writes "Mass culture is Peter Pan culture. It tells us if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want...our lives will be harmonius and complete." (190)

What separates this text from most media/celebrity bashing tomes is Hedges insistence that we are not visualizing something that will benefit the most people; not just the rich with their SUVs, not just the 14% of Yale students who are legacies (102), not just the limo liberals who don't want to pay taxes but want services for the poor. As majors in the humanities have dropped since 1970 (in 2001, only 4% of BAs were in English, 10% on social sciences) BAs in Business rose to 21.7% in 2001. Business ethics courses are rare and in some cases not required; Hedges quotes no less a person than Kant: "Moral autonomy is only possible through reflection, self-determination, and the courage not to cooperate." (112). Corporate culture hates the troublemaker and psuedo-events single out those who do not play the game for the paparazzi and the media.

As studies of Ethics (which Aristotle defined as how individuals should best live) went the way of English, Social Sciences and Mathematics, amorality has become commonplace. This is the real takeaway from Hedges book. We are ceasing to become a nation of people who can make up their own minds. That is why the crowds on Springer chanting "slut! slut! slut!" at some moderately overweight woman wriggling in spandex in a last chance attempt to win back her husband from the boy toy in the next trailer are so frightening. No one asks any of the people involved "What were/are you thinking? Why did you do this?" We make judgments in the absence of reflection and throw out names. Newspeople, bloggers, opinion writes make judgments in the absence of reflection and call it news. This is why I had a jack ass in a bar once tell me that "Woodrow Wilson is the most successful socialist president in US History" and why Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann and Anne Coulter sell books. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

#23 A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America by Michael McGerr

380pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003

Michael McGerr's subtitle of "A Fierce Discontent" describes both the feeling in the country that created the Progressive Movement as well as the feeling that brought about its demise. McGerr argues that "much of our current political predicament was created by the Progressives. (xiv). While some may read this as a political argument from a conservative scholar, it strikes me as more or less correct. McGerr identifies four goals of the Progressives:
1. Change Others
2. End class conflict
3. Control Big Business
4. Segregate Society; this may be surprising, but it cannot be denied that the Progressive era (1870-1920) also marks what has been termed the "Nadir of race relations" by Howard Zinn. McGerr makes the argument that Progressive movements "viewed segregation as a way to protect minority groups from brutality....there were few alternatives at the time." (183). I agree with this assessment, and chapter 6 of the text provides varied voices that support McGerr's position.

It is the "changing others" and the "end class conflict" that creates most of the tension in the text. The saloon emerges as a crucial junction between these two goals. As the "true working class institution" (20) the saloon became a target for middle class reformers concerned about the consumption of Demon Rum. In 1900, Americans consumed 1.2 billion gallons of beer and malt liquor, roughly 30% more than we did in 1998. (84). As Victorians gave way to Progressives, the need to turn outward to reform others became a tool to for the Victorian need to reform the domestic sphere. I like this argument, as I think it works to explain much of what is loathed about current day "Progressives".

Directly after World War I, progressives "became out of step with the middle class." (274). The growth of films, baseball and leisure pursuits in the teens and twenties created a need for fun that the middle class chased. Why have a nattering nabob of negativity in the back muttering about the ruination of society through too many movies? Why look up to baseball players? They are just grown men paid to play a child's game. Jane Addams wrote that "youth of the 1920s went back to liberty for the individual." (316) This movement sapped their reformist urges as they focused more and more on themselves. McGerr points to FDR as thinking the task of government was to "make sure Americans can afford pleasure, and then get out of the way." (317)

Choice is not social justice, nor does individual liberty mean equal opportunity. Libertarians (such as myself) tend to think that the government has absolutely no place in my home, period. This is borne half of fear of the government (no matter who is running it) and half I-have-no-damn-business-telling-other-people-how-to-live. In this day and age, Progressives DO this constantly. They have good reasons (environmental catastrophe being the paramount one). The reforming energy that Addams saw disappearing in the 1920s has come back as a whiny, candy-ass progressives focused on lifestyles instead of the economics behind them. In other words, the goal of 1890s progressives (education, control of business, class uplift through neighborhood works, highlighting the power of thought in everyday life) has been reduced to progressives chastising the wealthy for owning large cars and living in McMansions and chastising the poor and uneducated for shopping at Wal Mart and watching bad reality TV shows.

People no matter what class need an incentive to change their behavior, otherwise they will not. To expect someone working for minimum wage to buy only organic foods at the Whole Foods market is as unrealistic as expecting a couple with 4 kids to pile them into a Prius and not a minivan when they go out. The fierce discontent of the progressives created "unrealistic expectations" according to McGerr (xiv). The biggest unrealistic expectation is for the government to protect our food and water, pave our streets and educate our kids without paying a cent for any of those things. Second only to that is to expect anyone, ugly American or not, to change their behavior because it is the right thing to do.