The Month in Books - January 2009

At the start of 2009, I set a goal to read 30,000 pages by year's end. I am measuring progress in pages, rather than titles, to avoid last year's bias toward shorter books. Here's what I read in January:

  1. Bush's Law - Eric Lichtblau (review)
  2. Standard Operating Procedure - Philip Gourevitch (review)
  3. Ironweed - William Kennedy (review)
  4. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte (review)
  5. Stalin - Simon Sebag Montefiore (review)
  6. The People's Act of Love - James Meek (review)
  7. The Peloponnesian War - Donald Kagan (review)
  8. FDR - Jean Edward Smith (review)
  9. John Marshall - Jean Edward Smith (review)

Pages Read: 3,972
Year-to-Date: 3,972

FDR by Jean Edward Smith

smith_fdr.jpgAs we struggle through the most difficult economic situation in decades, with a new president swept into office on promises of economic renewal, many have seen parallels in another presidency that began in troubled times, that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For some this is a source of hope, as Roosevelt is considered one of the greatest of presidents, and the country he found in trouble he left as the most powerful nation on Earth. For others this is a source of fear, since a repeat of Roosevelt's political genius could ensure decades of Democratic dominance in Washington. The latter possibility has already caused the partisan hacks to start making outlandish claims, such as that the New Deal didn't work. Nice try.

Either way, FDR's reputation is at present nearly coterminous with the New Deal (even though the last pieces of New Deal legislation were passed ten years before he died in office); a few folks might also remember he played a bit role in World War II. While covering these well-traveled aspects of Roosevelt's presidency in great detail , Jean Edward Smith's recent biography, titled simply FDR, also demonstrates that Roosevelt's life before the presidency prepared him well for the challenges he would face in the White House.

His was undoubtedly a life of great privilege, with fortunes abounding amongst both the Roosevelts and the Delanos (his mother Sara's inherited Delano fortune would provide him financial support even into adulthood). He excelled at both Groton and Harvard, where he rose to be editor-in-chief of the Crimson. Like so many other aimless post-grads, his next stop was law school, at Columbia. He took the bar exam during his third year, passed, and promptly dropped out. Those were different times.

His political journey started early, winning election to the New York State Senate in 1910 at the tender age of twenty-eight. Roosevelt ran on an anti-corruption platform, targeting the boss mentality in both parties and gaining few friends in Tammany Hall, a relationship he would see fit to mend later as his ambitions grew. Setting a pattern that would recur throughout his career, including his campaigns for governor of New York and the presidency, FDR won the office through pure personal exertion and charisma:

For four exhausting weeks, Franklin, Connell, and Hawkey spent day after day on the dusty back roads of Dutchess, Putnam, and Columbia counties, giving the same speeches as often as ten times a day. They spoke from the porches of general stores, atop hay wagons, in dairy barns, at village crossroads, sometimes standing on the backseat of the old Maxwell itself--any place where a group of farmers could be brought together. "I think I worked harder with Franklin than I ever have in my life," said Hawkey afterward.

FDR was having the time of his life. Nothing seemed to lessen his enthusiasm for jumping into a crow, pumping hands, and making friends. He was "a top-notch salesman," a Hyde Park housepainter, Tom Leonard, remembered. "He wouldn't immediately enter into the topic of policies when he met a group. He would approach them as a friend and would lead up to that... with that smile of his."

After throwing his support behind Woodrow Wilson's presidential campaign, FDR was rewarded with an appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the number two job in the department. This was at a time when the Navy department was a cabinet level department, before it and the Department of War were submerged into the Department of Defense in 1947. It was also a job previously held by FDR's cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, on his own path to the White House:

Roosevelt's duties as assistant secretary were not defined by statute. Traditionally, the secretary of the Navy worked with the president on policy matters, dealt with Congress, and watched over the fleet. The assistant secretary handled the Navy's business affairs, rode herd on the bureaus, supervised civilian personnel, and negotiated contracts. But, as FDR said, "I get my fingers into just about everything and there's no law against it." When TR had occupied the post, he had taken advantage of Secretary John D. Long's one-day absence from the department to flash the historic signal to Commodore Dewey to move against the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, and Franklin, whenever Daniels was away, enjoyed twitting reporters about potential parallels. "There's another Roosevelt on the job today," he would say with a grin. "You remember what happened the last time a Roosevelt occupied a similar position?"

Smith argues that this experience made Roosevelt the best prepared commander-in-chief, after Washington and Grant, as he "understood how the services operated and did not hesitate to assert presidential authority." It is no surprise that the supremely confident Roosevelt never doubted his primacy in such matters, but it is also worth noting his tremendous success in choosing his staff. Unlike Lincoln, whose greatness as president is certainly not derived from his choices in military personnel, FDR's picks were virtually flawless:

FDR did not second-guess or micromanage the military. More than any president before or since, he was uniquely able to select outstanding military leaders and give them sufficient discretion to do their jobs. Leahy, Marshall, King, and Arnold made a cohesive team at the highest level, and they handled their individual service responsibilities superbly. In the Pacific, Roosevelt turned to MacArthur over War Department objections, and he named Nimitz to command the fleet despite the lukewarm enthusiasm of more senior admirals. Eisenhower ranked 252nd on the Army list when Marshall chose him to head the North African invasion, and he was still well down when FDR tapped him as supreme commander.

This is a positive biography, but it is not hagiography. Smith notes a number of notable blunders on FDR's part, particularly his "wrong-headed" court-packing plan, his "catastrophic" slashing of federal spending in 1937, his "ill-considered in intervention in Democratic senatorial primaries in 1938," and his "petulant" treatment of Charles de Gaulle. Smith handles the president's personal life with a deft touch. He writes with candor about the problems in his marriage, the other women in his life, and the lapses in parenting which left the Roosevelt children struggling in the shadows (each of the boys would have multiple marriages, some as many as five). But if the portrayal is candid, it is not sensational. Smith does not claim such matters are outside the scope of his study, nor does he think these weaknesses should take center stage in a life filled with such success. It is a commendable balance.

Smith's book is well-written and comprehensive. It covers the key personal, political, and military events of Roosevelt's life, quotes liberally from primary sources to give a first-person sense to the history, and offers warm but judicious praise for one of America's great leaders. Smith has clearly done his research, as evidenced both by the extensive detail of the text and by the 153 pages of endnotes and the 35-page bibliography. I've got two other recent Roosevelt biographies on tap, by Conrad Black and H.W. Brands, but it will take a tremendous work to surpass what Smith has produced.

At several points in the text, the ordeals through which Roosevelt and our nation navigated were so great that I shed an unembarrassed tear at the boldness and bravery demonstrated therein. A testament to both Smith and his subject, who literally worked himself to death in the service of his country.

The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan

kagan_peloponnesian.jpgThe ancient Greeks are much heralded for their groundbreaking efforts in poetry and philosophy, in drama and democracy. Accompanying these achievements was significant turbulence and turmoil in the constantly competing Greek city-states. The great rivalry, of course, was that between Athens and Sparta, and their greatest conflict came in the latter half of the 5th century B.C., known to us as the Peloponnesian War. Much of our knowledge about the conflict comes from an Athenian general named Thucydides, whose History of the Peloponnesian War has survived as a seminal work of military and political history.

Thucydides is revered as a historian, with his proclaimed focus on a factual account supported by first-hand evidence, omitting the sort of geographic and cultural tangents with which his predecessor, Herodotus, peppered his histories. Nevertheless, as Thucydides was himself personally involved in the historical events he purports to describe, there is good cause to question his objectivity. And as he died several years before the war concluded, there has always been a need to supplement his work for a full telling of the conflict. The most recent effort was conducted by Donald Kagan, a professor of history at Yale, whose four-volume analysis of the Peloponnesian War is highly regarded. In 2003, Kagan distilled his decades of study into a single volume appropriate for a more general audience, The Peloponnesian War. In the introduction to this text, Kagan explains the need for scholarship beyond what Thucydides left us:

The works of other ancient writers and contemporary inscriptions discovered and studied in the last two centuries have filled gaps and have sometimes raised questions about the story as Thucydides tells it... any satisfactory history of the war also demands a critical look at Thucydides himself. His was an extraordinary and original mind, and more than any other historian in antiquity he placed the highest value on accuracy and objectivity. We must not forget, however, that he was also a human being with human emotions and foibles. In the original Greek his style is often very compressed and difficult to understand, so that any translation is by necessity an interpretation. The very fact that he was a participant in the events, moreover, influenced his judgments in ways that must be prudently evaluated. Simply accepting his interpretations uncritically would be as limiting as accepting without question Winston Churchill's histories and his understanding of the two world wars in which he played so important a role.

With that, Kagan sets the tone of the book's necessary reliance on Thucydides' landmark text. It is treated with dignity but not deference, and where other texts conflict with Thucydides' account, or where the analysis simply does not seem right, Kagan is not afraid to disagree with the ancient master. Kagan is considered a leading neoconservative, his sons Robert and Frederick are very active in that movement, Thucydides' text is often trumpeted by neocons, and thus I approached this book with some trepidation. However, Kagan promises in the introduction that he has "avoided making comparisons between events in [the Peloponnesian War] and those in later history, although many leap to mind." Kagan makes good on that promise, a credit to his ability to bifurcate his politics from his scholarship.

The start of the Peloponnesian War is usually dated to 431 B.C., but tensions between Athens and Sparta had been building for some time. Kagan opens his book with a thorough discussion of the half-century preceding the war, including the nature of Spartan and Athenian politics and the rival "leagues" they led:

Pragmatism, not theory, provided the interpretive principle within the [Peloponnesian] alliance. The Sparts helped their allies when it was to their advantage or unavoidable, compelling others to join in a conflict whenever it was necessary and possible. The entire alliance met only when the Spartans chose, and we hear of few such gatherings. The rules that chiefly counted were imposed by military, political, or geographical circumstances, and they reveal three informal categories of allies. One consisted of states that were small enough and close enough to Sparta as to be easily controlled... States in the second category.. were stronger, or more remote, or both, but not so powerful and distant as to escape ultimate punishment if it was merited. Thebes and Corinth were the only states in the third group, states so far removed and mighty in their own right that their conduct of foreign policy was rarely subordinated to Spartan interests.

As this last group suggests, Sparta and Athens were not in complete control of the members of their alliances, and like Europe in 1914, it was conflict amongst the junior partners that eventually dragged their patrons into open war. Kagan offers a straight chronological narrative of the war, pausing occasionally to consider the backgrounds of the constantly changing military and political leaders, the diplomatic intrigues, the mood on the home front, and the war aims of the various belligerents.

Of particular note was the Spartan war claim that they were fighting to free the Greeks whose membership in Athens' Delian League has them subordinate and tributary. Yet when Athens proved more resistant than Sparta anticipated, and the war descended into stalemate, the Spartans cut a deal with an unlikely source, Persia. Operating under the notion that an "enemy of my enemy is my friend," the Spartans allied themselves with a foreign power that just decades before had been attempted to invade and conquer the Greek mainland. The terms of Persian assistance demanded Sparta sacrifice Greek cities in the eastern Mediterranean, the very Greeks whose liberation Sparta touted, to the rule of Persia's king:

The Spartan leaders, therefore, negotiated a new treaty with Tissaphernes at Caunus in February. Like the earlier agreements it contained a nonaggression clause, reference to Persian financial support, and a commitment to wage war and make peace in common, but the differences in this most recent version were crucial. It was to be a formal treaty requiring ratification by both home governments. King Darius himself must have approved the first clause that reads: "All the territory of the King that is in Asia shall belong to the King; and about his own territory the King may decide whatever he wishes." For all the grandiosity of the claim, it abandons all reference to the European lands included in the earlier agreements, a concession to the complaints made by Lichas. There can be no mistake, however, about Darius's' claim to sole domination of Asia.

Worthy of praise are the abundant maps scattered throughout the text at relevant points (29 maps in 37 chapters). These prove helpful in identifying the rotating cast of city-states and judging the wisdom or folly of Athenian or Spartan action in that area. The action shifts from fields as distant as Sicily and the Daradnelles, covering the breadth of Greek influence in the Mediterranean, and good maps are essential.

This was an extraordinarily long war, lasting upwards of three decades, and it becomes difficult to keep track of all the city-states and generals involved. Kagan does an admirable job providing clarity throughout this 500-page text, but eventually it does begin to feel repetitive, the battles begin to blend together, and it seems the end of the war will never come. When it does come it is rather anticlimactic. There is no dramatic sacking of Athens; rather the famed walls are torn down voluntarily after some diplomatic maneuverings saved the city from destruction. Before long Athens is back on its feet ("they had regained many of their former allies and restored their power to the point where it is possible to speak of a 'Second Athenian Empire'"), while it is Sparta that finds itself suffering from the hubris of empire:

To be sure, the Spartans had become the dominant force in Greece, but their victory brought no repose and much trouble. Within a few years they were compelled to abandon their empire and its tribute, but not before enough money had flowed into Sparta that its traditional discipline and institutions were undermined. Soon the Spartiates had to contend with internal conspiracies that threatened their constitution and their very existence. Abroad, they had to fight a major war against a coalition of former allies and former enemies that held them in check within the Peloponnesus, and from which they were able to emerge intact only through the intervention of Persia. For a short time they clung to a kind of hegemony over their fellow Greeks, but only so long as the Persian king wanted them to do so. Within three decades of their great victory the Spartans were defeated by the Thebans in a major land battle, and their power was destroyed.

A victorious hegemon that tries but fails to install its own form of government in conquered states? There are surely modern analogies that come to mind, but like Kagan I will restrain myself.

The People's Act of Love by James Meek

meek_peoples.jpgWith The People's Act of Love, James Meek has written a rather unlikely novel. It is not merely that this Siberian epic comes from the pen of a British author. Meek, after all, worked as a journalist in Russia for nearly a decade. Nor is it the obscure historical nature of the book, set during the Russian Civil War and drawing its cast from the remnants of the Czar's army, the Bolshevik party, the infamous Czech Legion, and a fanatical Russian religious sect. What is so improbable is that this British author has taken these elements, conjured from them a tale of mystery featuring acts of castration and cannibalism, and nearly succeeded in the effort.

The novel opens with the origins of Kyrill Ivanovich Samarin, a young Russian orphan raised by his uncle at the end of the 19th century. At age 12, the boy asks to be called simply "Samarin," after his uncle refuses his request to change his patronymic. Like his uncle, Samarin steers clear of the turbulent politics of the time, until becoming entangled by Katya, a fellow university student. It is now 1910, the empire is teetering, and Samarin learns that much to his chagrin, Katya is involved with a violent revolutionary movement. Despite his efforts to dissuade her, she is arrested and charged with "conspiring to commit an act of terrorism."

This cryptic beginning is rendered even more abstruse by the chapters that follow. The story suddenly shifts nine years forward, and we find a man meandering along a river toward a railway in rural Siberia. This silent scene is interrupted by a train whistle. As he rounds the river bend and sees the rail bridge, he pulls a package from his coat and drops it into the river. The train appears on the bridge, the man observes that one of its wagons is "rocking from side to side," and a phantasmagorical scene of destruction follows:

The door of the wagon shot open and a man in army breeches and a white shirt was in the doorway, with his back to the outside, holding on with one hand and trying to catch the bridle of a horse with the other. The horse was rearing up and flailing at the man with its forelegs. There were more horses behind, their heads lunging madly towards the light. The man fell from the wagon as it rocked towards the river and toppled over the rail. He fell fifty metres into rocky shallows. His limbs worked as if he was trying at the same time to fly, to land feet first, and to brace himself for the moment of impact. His eyes were open and so was his mouth but he did not scream. His cheeks were stretched back and he hit the water belly down. The water lifted white skirts high around him and when they came down again the man was not moving, beached on gravel, lapped by quiet eddies at the river's edge.

The horses, five of them, tumbled out of the wagon after the man. They were caught between the moving train and the low rusted guardrail of the bridge. One fell off the edge of the bridge immediately, landing on the edge of the river close to the fallen man with a crack on the water like a mine going off. The others fought for space on the bridge parapet. One stocky chestnut got dragged forward by a wagon, her harness caught by a projecting hook, and was hauled trotting and skipping and struggling against the mouth of the tunnel at the far end of the bridge, where her neck was broken.

Further grisliness follows, and if this violence is too shocking then this is certainly not the book for you. There are scenes of warfare, murder, and mutilation throughout the book, though it is important to note that Meek does not abuse his narrative license. The violence serves a purpose, and while graphic is not gratuitous, even if it seems so at the time. This is a novel of horrors but it is not a horror novel. Indeed the violence most upsetting is not necessarily the most extreme, but the most mysterious. Consider the riverside observer's reaction to the horrifying scene he has just witnessed:

He went over to the soldier and picked up his right hand. He looked back upriver the way he had come, placed the soldier's wrist on a stone washed by a thin stream of water and cut off his hand, sawing through the ligaments and parting the joints be pressure rather than the sharpness of the blade. Blood darkened the stone, clouded out into the waters and swirled away into the current.

The man let the soldier's arm fall into the river, took the severed hand and ran into the woods. He walked for a mile away from the river and dug a hole with his hands through the mud and leafmould and earth. He buried the hand and covered it up. He returned to the river, cleaned his hands and began to climb the rocks up to the railway tunnel.

Hopefully everyone shares my initial response to this scene: what the hell is going on? Indeed the mysteries of this chapter resurface throughout the text, some remaining unsolved until the closing chapters, some remaining unresolved completely. We learn shortly that this man is Samarin, quite distant in time, space and mind from the student portrayed in the opening chapter, but the same man nevertheless. He soon encounters another of the story's main characters (and enigmas), Balashov, a pious but evasive man who claims to be the local town's barber and is horrified by the animals' deaths. While Balashov is distracted, Samarin rummages through the bizarre contents of Balashov's bag, stealing a bottle of liquor and a woman's photograph, leaving behind the surgical tools and bloody cloth. They then walk together toward the local town, Yazyk, where the remainder of the book is set.

What follows is an often unexpected, often implausible story of the intersection in this small town between a band of Czech legionnaires, led by the megalomaniacal Matsulov and his distrusted lieutenant Mutz, the disturbing religious sect led by Balashov, and the young widow Anna Petrovna, whose photo Samarin removed from Balashov's bag. Through the memories (real or imagined) of these characters, Meek takes us as far as a battlefield of World War I and an arctic Russian prison camp. At the center of the ongoing enigma is the interloping Samarin; he is detained by the Czechs after a shaman they'd imprisoned dies the same night Samarin arrived in town:

As Samarin told his story, making his careful rounds of the listeners, Anna wondered at how alive and guileless his pleading eyes seemed against the ugliness of the events he described. She became aware that she had already decided he was innocent, and wouldn't change her mind; innocent, that is, of what Mutz was trying to chip out of him. She was surprised that she had reached a judgment so quickly, and realised there was nothing so convincing as a man who could feel all the richness of the world - its worst, so presumably, if it could happen, its best as well - without losing his soul to any one part of it, and becoming attached to that part.

While Meek has clearly done tremendous research into historical elements, the presentation of this knowledge is less skilled. The appearance of the Bolsheviks is clumsily handled, as they act more like comic automatons than misguided revolutionaries. And those not versed in Russian history may feel burdened by an additional layer of mystery, as some of the dialogue and plotting assumes a familiarity with the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.

Meek successfully evokes an impenetrable sense of foreboding that drives the narrative through to its conclusion, overcoming the frustration of the book's perplexing early chapters. Whether he puts this ominous mood to satisfying effect is a different question. But though the story is sometimes inscrutable, it is always interesting. Meek has collected the elements of a great novel; he just fell a bit short of putting them all together.

Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

montefiore_stalin.jpgJosef Stalin liked picnics and gardening. He was an avid patron of the arts, paying particular attention to literature and cinema. He liked to vacation on the Black Sea coast with friends and lovers. And he was, by the way, a paranoiac monster responsible for the death of millions. Such is the image cast by Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin, published in 2003 and based largely upon newly available archival material and author interviews.

The book opens with a fateful dinner party in 1932, after which Stalin's second wife would (apparently) commit suicide in their Kremlin apartment; her death was announced officially as an illness, and many contend she was murdered by Stalin. Montefiore marks this night as a significant turning point in the evolution of Stalin's psychology, and thus the shape of Soviet government, a controversial assertion that seems to ignore how hotly contested the basic facts surrounding that night remain. Nevertheless, Montefiore aptly recognizes that as late as the early 1930s, Stalin had yet to emerge with the dictatorial powers he would display later in his reign. He remained constrained by the independently powerful men who surrounded him, such as Kirov, Mikoyan, Viroshilov, and Ordzhonikidze, whose own rivalries and suspicions would eventually play right into Stalin's hands. By then he was already positioning to consolidate power in his own person:

He was a self-creation. A man who invents his name, birthday, nationality, education and his entire past, in order to change history and play the role of leader, is likely to end up in a mental institution, unless he embraces, by will, luck, and skill, the movement and the moment that can overturn the natural order of things. Stalin was such a man. The movement was the Bolshevik Party; his moment, the decay of the Russian monarchy. After Stalin's death, it was fashionable to regard him as an aberration but this was to rewrite history as crudely as Stalin did himself. Stalin's success was not an accident. No one alive was more suited to the conspiratorial intrigues, theoretical runes, murderous dogmatism and inhuman sternness of Lenin's Party. It is hard to find a better synthesis between a man and a movement than the ideal marriage between Stalin and Bolshevism: he was a mirror of its virtues and its faults.

Montefiore focuses heavily upon the personal lives of Stalin and the "magnates" who surrounded him, offering detailed accounts of their vacations, their health, their social gatherings and their families. There is a tremendously incestuous aspect to their circle, with a multitude of ongoing affairs. The wives, sisters, mistresses often take center stage in the book, playing important social and political function in their own right. And as in so many authoritarian regimes, the bubble these elites inhabited was starkly distinct from the lived experience of the Soviet masses:

The peasants ate dogs, horses, rotten potatoes, the bark of trees, anything they could find," observed one witness, Fedor Belov, while on 21 December 1931, Stalin celebrated his birthday at Zubalovo. "I remember visiting that house with Kilment on birthdays and recall the hospitality of Joseph Vissarionovich. Songs, dances, yes, yes, dances. All were dancing as they could!" wrote the diarist Ekaterina Voroshilova, Jewish wife of the Defence Commissar, herself a revolutionary, once Yenukidze's mistress and now a fattening housewife.

Stalin demonstrated great love for the arts, but here too his megalomania shines through. He would personally scrutinize the latest novels and plays, acting as editor and co-author. He was also a one-man MPAA, personally viewing each film before it could be released for public consumption:

"For us," Lenin had said, "the most important of all the arts is cinema," the art form of the new society. Stalin personally controlled a "Soviet Hollywood" through the State Film Board, run by Boris Shumiatsky with whom he had been in exile. Stalin did not merely interfere in movies, he minutely supervised the directors and films down to their scripts: his archive reveals how he even helped write the songs. He talked about films with his entourage and passed every film before it was shown to the public, becoming his own supreme censor.

Stalin's passion would redound to the benefit of some artists, who were protected from the regime's worst excesses by Stalin's favor. Stalin "could tolerate whimsical maestros: Bulgakov and Pasternak were never arrested," though their work was suppressed.

Less fortunate were those whom Stalin deemed a threat to his consolidation of power. He eliminated many during the Great Terror of 1937-38, which Montefiore discusses not from an omniscient perspective detailing Stalin's crimes, but from within the mechanisms of power. As throughout the book, this tragic episode is told via the machinations within the regime, where the rapid rise of Lavrenti Beria to replace Terror-architect Yezhov embodies Stalin's constant cyclical efforts to clean out rivals and install a new elite obligated to him alone:

Stalin gently told Yezhov that he needed some help in running the NKVD and asked him to choose someone. Yezhov requested Malenkov but Stalin wanted to keep him in the Central Committee so someone, probably Kaganovich, proposed Beria. Stalin may have wanted a Caucasian, perhaps convinced that the cut-throat traditions of the mountains--blood feuds, vendettas and secret murders--suited the position. Beria was a natural, the only First Secretary who personally tortured his victims. The blackjack--the zhguti--and the truncheon--the dubenka--were his favorite toys. He was hated by many of the Old Bolsheviks and family members around the Leader. With the whispering, plotting, and vengeful Beria at his side, Stalin felt able to destroy his own polluted, intimate world.

Montefiore has written a strange book; it covers neither the entire chronology of Stalin's life nor the political and economic philosophy for which he is most notorious. Instead it focuses almost entirely on an unexpectedly intimate portrait of the dictator and his minions in their prime. There is a decided sense of horror at realizing that these Soviet butchers had active social lives, that some were devoted husbands, warm fathers. Montefiore's myopic approach forces needed attention on oft-overlooked aspects of elite Soviet life, but it does so at tremendous cost.

Montefiore clearly assumes the reader will have a substantial working knowledge of the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War, as he covers neither with any substance. The same goes for Marxist philosophy and its peculiar Soviet iteration. There are casual mentions of collectivization and Five Year Plans, but no explanation for the causes or consequences of these programs. Montefiore enumerates in great detail the political cannibalism within the Soviet elite, but offers no substantive analysis of why Stalin operated in this way or why the elite tolerated it. Simply put, the book neglects to satisfactorily put Stalin in his place and times, an astonishing failure for a book that runs nearly 700 pages.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

bronte_jane.jpgThe year 1847 saw the publication of a remarkable trio of novels by an unlikely trio of young writers, the sisters Brontë. Anne's Agnes Grey, Emily's Wuthering Heights (reviewed here), and Charlotte's Jane Eyre all went into print that year. Blessed as the sisters were in literary talent, they were cursed in health; Anne and Emily would be dead within two years, Charlotte within a decade. With the longest life (38 years!), Charlotte also had the most prolific literary career, publishing three novels before her death in 1855 and one posthumously. Jane Eyre remains the best known and most well-regarded, and it rests alongside Wuthering Heights as a staple of secondary school syllabi.

The outline of the novel's plot is well known. Jane is an orphan girl, raised alongside three spoiled cousins in the home of Mrs. Reed, her unloving aunt by marriage. Despite possessing significant material wealth, Mrs. Reed does the bare minimum to feed and clothe her niece, and only offers this much because her husband made Jane's maintenance the subject of a deathbed request. The first section of the book covers her suffering in this household and her efforts to retain an independent spirit in the face of physical and emotional abuse:

What a consternation of soul was mine that dreary afternoon! How all my brain was in tumult, and all my heart in insurrection! Yet in what darkness, what dense ignorance, was the mental battle fought! I could not answer the ceaseless inward question-why I thus suffered; now, at the distance of--I will not say how many years, I see it clearly.

Jane's virtual imprisonment in the Reed household ends with her removal at age 10 to the Lowood Institution, a charity school run by Mr. Brocklehurst, a clergyman who hypocritically emphasizes privation as the path to salvation despite the luxuries of his own life. Despite the hardships, however, Jane finds the first friendly faces of her life in the superintendent, Miss Temple, and her fellow student, Helen Burns. Jane spends an eight year span at Lowood, including two as a teacher, and emerges a unique creature: possessed of neither wealth nor connections, yet independent and well-educated nevertheless. She takes a position as governess to a young girl housed at Thornfield Hall, and there meets the man who will change the course of her life:

Mr. Rochester, as he sat in his damask-covered chair, looked different to what I had seen him look before; not quite so stern--much less gloomy. There was a smile on his lips, and his eyes sparkled, whether with wine or not, I am not sure; but I think it very probable. He was, in short, in his after-dinner mood; more expanded and genial, and also more self-indulgent than the frigid and rigid temper of the morning: still he looked preciously grim, cushioning his massive head against the swelling back of his chair, and receiving the light of the fire on his granite-hewn features, and in his great, dark eyes; for he had great, dark eyes, and very fine eyes, too--not without a certain change in their depths sometimes, which, if it was not softness, remind you, at least, of that feeling.

Jane's experience at Thornfield is a study in contrasts, between the simple, quiet task of tutoring young Adele and the constant drama of being courted by Mr. Rochester. The latter is considered a prime example of the Byronic hero: moody, brooding, enigmatic. Just the sort of guy every teenage girl thinks they want to rescue and spend their life with. This is in decided contrast to Jane's subsequent suitor, St. John Rivers (her newly discovered first cousin), who seeks Jane's companionship in cold terms of religious necessity. Unlike Rivers or Heathcliff from Emily's Wuthering Heights, another oft-cited example of the Byronic archetype, Rochester exhibits genuine, credible affection for his beloved. Though both are depicted as being physically plain, even unattractive, their banter is filled with wit and affection, he takes incredible (if questionable) measures to win her companionship, and while devastated by her departure he does not succumb to madness or vengeance despite the hardships that follow.

While containing elements common to Victorian literature, the novel breaks from convention on key points. Of obvious significance is the protagonist's forceful feminism. Jane is well-educated and well-spoken, intellectually curious. She seeks self-sufficiency. She thinks marriage should be a partnership of equals. She is not willing to wholly subordinate her desires for companionship, whether it be Rochester's pleading or Rivers' moralizing. And she does not think custom should stand in her way:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

Religion is another sensitive subject that Bronte does not hesitate to treat frankly. Jane navigates a middle path in the application of faith to her personal life. Suffering under austere conditions in her childhood school, caused by Brocklehurst's theories of Christian sacrifice, Jane neither accepts this harsh asceticism nor uses Brocklehurst's hypocrisy as a basis for wholly rejecting religious doctrine. Befriended by the angelic Helen Burns, Jane admires Helen's ability to forgive without emulating her passive acquiescence. Jane refuses to live as a mistress to Rochester both on practical and moral grounds, but will also not subordinate herself to St. John Rivers' loveless demand that she marry him and join his mission to India, despite his puritanical zeal that reeks of self-righteousness:

"I shall be absent a fortnight--take that space of time to consider my offer: and do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God. Through my means, He opens to you a noble career; as my wife only can you enter upon it. Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself for ever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity. Tremble lest in that case you should be numbered with those who have denied the faith, and are worse than infidels!"

Once again Jane refuses to submit. Jane accepts the power of divinity and even ends her tale with prayer, but does not concede she must reject all that makes her happy in this world in order to live a moral life.

As mentioned above, the novel does adhere to some conventions of Victorian and Gothic literature, some of which have aged poorly. Of particular note are the supernatural conversation that Rochester and Jane share despite great geographical distance ("Jane! Jane! Jane!") and the extraordinary coincidence that finds homeless, wandering Jane wash up on the doorstep of the cousins she never knew she had. Yet unlike Wuthering Heights, which drowns in its morbid Gothicism, Jane Eyre is more than simply a noted example of a literary period. It is the story of an original female protagonist who defies convention without denying society, refuses patriarchal submission without surrendering to spinsterhood, and resists religious zealotry without succumbing to atheism or immorality. Not bad for a book they try and make you read in high school.

A Day We Have Waited For, A Day We Will Remember


What Obama Has Read, Should Read

There's been quite a bit of commentary recently over the outgoing chief executive's reading habits, with Karl Rove throwing his dubious credibility behind the notion that President Bush is a "book lover" who read nearly a hundred books last year. Perhaps Rove felt pressure to stick up for his guy, what with the President-elect actually reading books and all.

During the campaign, Senator Obama's literary choices were given great scrutiny, even becoming the subject of the daily pool report. Michiko Kakutani devoted a column this morning to the books in his life:

Much has been made of Mr. Obama's eloquence -- his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.

Now as we find ourselves just hours away from the long-awaited inauguration of our next President, pundits of all stripes are offering a deluge of predictions and prescriptions for what lay ahead. The Washington Monthly decided to take a much more interesting approach, and asked for suggestions on what the new President should be reading. I particularly liked David Ignatius' contribution:

I recommend the new president read (or reread) The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. He should do so to remind himself, when the clever, idealistic briefer comes to tell him about the "third way" that will produce a breakthrough in America's tangled relations with the world, that we've been down this road again, and again, and again.

The whole thing is worth a look. Lots of history, political science, and philosophy; kudos to those who offered up fiction. (Via Steve Benen)

Ironweed by William Kennedy

kennedy_ironweed.jpgWilliam Kennedy's Ironweed has been on my "to read" list for years. I think I even owned a copy in high school or college but never got around to it. The winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as an entry on the Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, Ironweed had a surprisingly difficult time getting published, rejected by eleven major publishing houses. In addition to winning several literary awards, it was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, and it was a movie tie-in paperback I found on the metal bookshelf that passes for a library in our little corner of Camp Arifjan.

Ironweed is the final book in Kennedy's "Albany Trio," tracing the stories of an interconnected set of Albany locals introduced in 1975's Legs and 1978's Billy Phelan's Greatest Game. It follows a few days in the sad life of Francis Phelan, a former baseball player and self-described bum who has returned to Albany in 1938, twenty-two years after abandoning his wife and children there. Just released from jail for registering to vote more than fifty times, Francis is given a day's work at the local cemetery to begin repaying the debt to his attorney. It is here, in the book's opening chapter, that we witness Francis' emotional first encounter with the grave of his son Gerald, who died just thirteen days old when he slipped and fell out of a diaper held in the hands of his father:

Francis found the grave without a search. He stood over it and reconstructed the moment when the child was slipping through his fingers into death. He prayed for a repeal of time so that he might hang himself in the coal bin before picking up the child to change his diaper. Denied that, he prayed for his son's eternal peace in the grave. It was true the boy had not suffered at all in his short life, and he had died too quickly of a cracked neckbone to have felt pain: a sudden twist and it was over. Gerald Michael Phelan, his gravestone said, born April 13, 1916, died April 26, 1916. Born on the 13th, lived 13 days. An unlucky child who was much loved.

This tragedy set the tone for Francis' violent and unfortunate life. This scene in the cemetery also sets the tone for this rather dark novel, which contains a great deal of death and violence. It features a series of passages seemingly offered from the perspective of those buried in the cemetery, including Francis' parents and infant son. Francis himself would be confronted throughout the book by the ghosts of his past, such as Harold Allen, whom Francis killed during a strike protest:

Why did you kill me? was the question Harold Allen's eyes put to Francis.

"Didn't mean to kill you," Francis said.

Was that why you threw that stone the size of a potato and broke open my skull? My brains flowed out and I died.

"You deserved what you got. Scabs get what ask for. I was right in what I did."

Then you feel no remorse at all.

"You bastards takin' our jobs, what kind of man is that, keep a man from feedin' his family?"

Odd logic coming from a man who abandoned his own family not only that summer but every spring and summer thereafter, when baseball season started. And didn't you finally abandon them permanently in 1916? The way I understand it, you haven't even been home for a visit in twenty-two years.

A wanderer in the years since, Francis has been accompanied for most of the past decade by Helen Archer, a fellow unfortunate whose prospects as a classical pianist were ended during her first year at Vassar College by her father's death and her mother's subsequent misappropriation of Helen's inheritance. Now sick from years of drinking and a stomach tumor, Helen is resolved to free herself and Francis from their co-dependency by whatever means possible. Francis' struggle, meanwhile, beyond the basic necessities of food and shelter, is to make peace with the resurfaced histories that come from walking the streets of his past, the fresh reminders of his culpability for his own choices:

Francis was now certain only that he could never arrive at any conclusions about himself that had their origin in reason. But neither did he believe himself incapable of thought. He believed he was a creature of unknown and unknowable quantities, a man in whom there would never be an equanimity of both impulsive and premeditated action. Yet after every admission that he was a lost and distorted soul, Francis asserted his own private wisdom and purpose: he had fled the folks because he was too profane a being to live among them; he had humbled himself willfully through the years to counter a fearful pride in his own ability to manufacture the glory from which grace would flow. What he was was, yes, a warrior, protecting a belief that no men could ever articulate, especially himself; but somehow it involved protecting saints from sinners, protecting the living from the dead. And a warrior, he was certain, was not a victim. Never a victim.

This is a grim novel and difficult at times. There is no shading the depredations of street living; Kennedy humanizes his characters without glamorizing them. He offers no Kerouac-esque sense of romance; these are not lives that one would trade for willingly. Yet if these people have disturbed memories, deranged minds, guilt-ridden souls, they are people first and foremost and Kennedy treats them as such. They have loyalties, prejudices, grudges, and pride; they feel hate, despair, tenderness and love.

The book's first epigraph comes from an Audubon guide, informing us that the Ironweed flower gets its name from "the toughness of the stem." The second comes from Dante's Purgatorio, with the pilgrim relying on "the little bark of my wit" to leave behind "a sea so cruel." Both are apt descriptions of the unfortunate but enduring life of Francis Phelan.

Standard Operating Procedure by Philip Gourevitch

gourevitch_standard.jpgThe devastation wrought upon America's rule of law by the Bush administration had tremendous consequences for all aspects of government policy. Many of the abuses in the domestic sphere were covered by Eric Lichtblau's book, Bush's Law, which I discussed last week. In that book, Lichtblau mentioned the role played by John Yoo and the Office of the Legal Counsel in crafting absurdly expansive legal opinions regarding the scope of executive power, the most infamous being the "Torture Memo." News of that memo, drafted in August 2002, broke just a few weeks after 60 Minutes ran a story reporting news of alleged detainee abuse at an Iraqi prison just west of Baghdad.

We now know, despite years of attempted obfuscation by the administration, that these two events were inextricably linked. In 2008, Philip Gourevitch published a book about the prison, Standard Operating Procedure, based in part on interviews done for Errol Morris' documentary of the same name. Early in the book, he efficiently laid out the trail of recklessness that connected the torture memo to Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib, resulting in an utter absence of cognizable constraints on prison authorities:

In the course of a month five different versions of the interrogation rules--the three unsigned drafts, and the two official policies--had been put into circulation at Abu Ghraib. Some of the changes along the way were substantial, but they were never explicitly identified. You had to scrutinize the succeeding documents side by side to detect all their differences, and they all looked enough alike that you could easily assume you'd already read one when you'd actually read the other... [T]he confusion about the law among those who were laying it down for Abu Ghraib suggested that the interrogation rules were not really rules but a kind of guess work, and that they invited exceptions, which certainly fit with the fact that interrogators were being allowed--even encouraged--to do so much that wasn't in their handbook, so much that was even restricted at Gitmo, so much they were not trained to do.

After establishing the responsibility of those who set the stage for the Abu Ghraib disaster, Gourevitch spends most of the book recounting the events as experienced by the soldiers who participated in or witnessed the abuse. Rather than offer a straightforward historical or journalistic treatment, Gourevitch has paralleled Morris' film and drafted what might best be termed a literary documentary. The words of the participants' are given priority, with Gourevitch adding context from the bird's eye view:

Real or unreal, participant or bystander, degrader or degraded, overstimulated or numbed out--[Specialist Sabrina] Harman may have meant no harm, but she seemed to understand that in the malignant circumstances of the MI block that hardly made her benign. Unable or unwilling to reconcile her most disturbing and her most appealing actions and reactions, she sought her equilibrium in equivocation. When she wrote of "both sides of me," she said, "It was military and civilian--the tough side and the non-tough side. You battle out which one is stronger. You're trained to be tough. I was right out of basic, and you're just trained to do what you're told, and to not let things affect you. You're supposed to set all emotions aside, because this is war. I think it's almost impossible. It is emotional."

Gourevitch made an interesting choice not to include any of the photographs in the book, explaining that "much of what matters most about Abu Ghraib was never photographed" and the "photographs have a place in the story, but they are not the story, and in would be untruthful here to submit once again to their frame." Instead, Gourevitch repeatedly pauses the narrative to offer a contextual interpretation of the more infamous photographs, discussing what the photographs do and do not reveal, why they were taken, and the powers and limits of the medium itself. Consider the photos of Private First Class Lynndie England holding a tie-down strap looped around the neck of a prisoner (nicknamed Gus) crawling on his knees:

The composition of the third photograph is the same, but England is in motion, taking a step toward the camera, and making eye contact with it. Gus's face is finally visible, and his eyes are eerie--rolled back in his head, flashing white. On the plastic chair by the cell door, a previously unidentifiable object can be seen to be a megaphone of the sort used for yelling at prisoners to keep them awake. This is the best-lit and the least-staged-looking of the three pictures, and therefore the most disturbing; it creates the impression that England is taking Gus for a stroll on a leash and has just run into [Specialist Megan] Ambuhl on her way. But it was a crop of the second photograph, showing only England and Gus, that was first leaked to the press and seen around the world, becoming almost overnight one of the most recognizable images of our time, and making England an iconic figure of American disgrace: "leash girl."

The MPs assigned to Abu Ghraib come across as hopelessly out of their element, untrained, unprepared, and most perniciously, unled. There is no sign of leadership, that most heralded of Army values, amongst any of the officers or NCOs who had any involvement:

Do these soldiers sound like they're just making excuses? Didn't some of them take liberties, and go to extremes--didn't they treat suggestions as orders, and then interpret them as they pleased--when they might instead have shown compassion? Yes. But what happened to command responsibility? There would have been no liberties to be taken, and no extremes to go to, if anybody had wanted to keep the MPs in check. Nobody wanted to because at Abu Ghraib lawlessness was the law.

Of particular personal note is the absence of leadership by the Judge Advocates who served as legal advisers to the relevant commands, including COL Marc Warren, who was subsequently denied a promotion to Brigadier General when his nomination was blocked in a Senate committee. That was also notable because it was among the few tangible consequences for senior leadership:

[N]o soldier above the rank of sergeant ever served jail time. No civilian interrogators ever faced legal proceedings. Nobody was ever charged with torture, or war crimes, or any violation of the Geneva Conventions. Nobody ever faced charges for keeping prisoners naked or shackled. Nobody ever faced charges for holding prisoners as hostages. Nobody ever faced charges for incarcerating children who were accused of no crime and posed no known security threat.

And so on. If the photographs had not been taken, or then not been turned over, or then not been leaked, we might not even know as much as we do. As much attention as Gourevitch pays to telling the story of the photographs, it is disappointing that he does not follow them much beyond their initial public disclosure. In a short epilogue titled "After," he outlines the criminal investigation and the eventual administrative and criminal actions brought against various participants. But he fails to tell the enduring story of the photographs; how they were published, by whom, how they were understood or misunderstood, and what reactions they generated. A full account of Abu Ghraib must contend with this aftermath.

That said, Standard Operating Procedure is an unusual but worthwhile entry into the literature on the Iraq War and the administration that started it. It brings a great deal of context and consideration to the traumatic events that took place in Abu Ghraib, and may even induce sympathy for some of the soldiers who took part. No such sympathy arises, however, for the administration that put them there, and that consciously created the anything-goes atmosphere that had its starkest realization in Saddam Hussein's favorite prison.

Bush's Law by Eric Lichtblau

lichtblau_bushs.jpgHaving just finished a lengthy book on the birth of the American Republic, which was in many ways the modern birth of civil liberties, I thought it might be interesting to read a book that covered as close to the opposite topic as possible. It came down to a biography of Joseph Stalin, or the story of the Bush administration's law enforcement and intelligence gathering policy in the years since 9/11. The ironic dichotomy of the latter carried the day.

The last few years have not been kind to the Bush administration, with the president entering uncharted waters for sustained unpopularity. That's only fair, after all, since for the last eight years the Bush administration has not been kind to this country. Several former administration officials recently claimed that Hurricane Katrina was the 'tipping point' that turned the tide against the president. I am sure there is some evidence to support this, and perhaps for many that was the blunder that finally laid bare the administration's incompetence. Along the way, however, there was plenty to suggest that there was more than mere incompetence at work. There was intentional malfeasance as well.

From the perspective of an attorney like myself, in law school from 2002-2005, a former intern at the ACLU, the most destructive efforts were those aimed at America's rule of law, the fundamental understanding that everyone in this nation, including the President of the United States, are subordinate to the laws of the land. This basic premise, thought to be widely accepted in the post-Watergate era, turned out to be anathema to this administration.

We still do not all the ways that the White House chose to circumvent or subvert existing law in its twisted theories of unfettered executive power. But for what we do know, we owe a debt of gratitude to the reporters who have zealously investigated and disclosed the numerous policies and programs that the Bush administration sought to keep secret. These are men and women who work long hours under great pressure for little pay, and they were rewarded by this administration by having their credentials pulled, being labeled as traitors, and threatened with imprisonment. At the center of much of this controversy was Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times, who co-authored a bombshell article in December 2005 revealing the NSA's warrantless wiretapping of domestic targets (and won the Pulitzer Prize for it).

Early last year, Lichtblau published Bush's Law, which details a range of post-9/11 efforts by the Bush administration to expand the reach of executive power, from the 2001 roundups by immigration officials to the NSA wiretap program to the collection of international banking transaction data:

This war would require different tactics, different tools, and a different mindset in what would amount to the most radical remaking of America's notion of justice in generations. What Woodrow Wilson did in going after the socialists and anarchists, what J. Edgar Hoover did in going after communists, what Bobby Kennedy did in going after organized crime mob figures, Bush and his inner circle would now do in training the sights of the American government on those suspected of aiding the enemy known as al Qaeda. There was a new ethos at work, and it relied at its core on smashing walls-walls that had failed to stop the enemy from storming the country on 9/11; walls that had been erected in a bygone "don't tread on me" era to protect the American people from the powerful reach of its own government. Now, counterterrorism agents from the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the FBI would be allowed to go places and do things they had never done before in the quest to stop the next attack. Lawyer would give legal sanction to covert programs and secret interrogation tactics unimaginable just a few months earlier. And the drift net of government would sweep up thousands of suspects--some real, many imagined--in its tide. The walls had come crashing down.

Lichtblau peppers these tales with the anecdotal richness characteristic of journalism and the authoritative insider view offered by Lichtblau's numerous well-placed sources. He does not offer a binary portrait of administration officials or Republicans as universally evil or unprincipled. In fact, the only officials who come across as utterly contemptible are rather deserving: John Yoo, whose legal work in the service of torture is only the tip of the iceberg of damage he did to to America's rule of law; and Alberto Gonzales, the ultimate yes-man, whose enabling of the administration's overreach extended from his days as White House counsel doing end-runs around the DoJ to his time in charge of that department as it became the laughingstock of the political and legal world until his resignation in disgrace (the man is apparently unemployable). The most infamous example being his trip to the hospital room of Attorney General John Ashcroft in an attempt to overturn a decision by Acting Attorney General James Comey (another story Lichtblau broke):

Ashcroft, weakened and drugged up, lifted his head from the pillow. In language that both Comey and Gonzales regarded as remarkably lucid, he outlined his concerns about the legality of the surveillance program, paralleling many of the same issues Comey had briefed him on the week before. He made clear that he shared those concerns. "I've been told it would be improvident for me to sign," he told Gonzales. "But that doesn't matter," he said, "because I'm not the attorney general." Gesturing to Comey next to him, he said: "There is the attorney general." Ashcroft put his head back down on the pillow. He looked so ill that [OLC chief Jack] Goldsmith figured he was going to die right there on the spot; it was, Goldsmith said later, "the most amazing scene I've ever witnessed."

While detailing the incredible audacity of henchmen like Alberto Gonzales, Lichtblau also tells the story of those in the administration who resisted such overreaching. Ashcroft and Comey's dramatic standoff with Gonzales is the most famous example, but there are many others. Like James Ziglar, the INS commissioner (and self-described "Goldwater conservative") who on 9/11, with fires will still burning at Ground Zero, had the courage to raise red flags about proposals to make door-to-door sweeps and arrests in heavily Muslim neighborhoods and would later vigorously oppose the FBI's no-release policy regarding prisoners detained on immigration violations.

In addition to providing coverage over the numerous abuses of power, Lichtblau also sheds significant light on his experience as a journalist covering those abuses. The book is 20% autobiography, and in this case it's a perfect mix. Lichtblau was on the razor's edge with his reporting, and drew tremendous ire from the administration and its conservative allies. In the book, Lichtblau provides great details about the behind-the-scenes battle to get the NSA wiretapping story published. Contra conservative tirades, the Times editors actively debated whether to print the story:

A week before the election in November 2004, we had a draft of a story in hand that laid out the NSA program and the legal and operational concerns about it. The editors debated whether to run it--and if so, when. The Times had just run an explosive story about the Bush administration's failure to guard munitions in Baghdad, a story that critics on the right had lambasted as a last-minute ploy to hurt Bush. In fact, the timing of the Baghdad story had nothing to do with the election, and Keller made clear to us that if the NSA story was ready to go before the election, it would run before the election too... The problem was that he didn't think the story was ready. He had questions, including the central one: whether, as the administration so urgently insisted, the story would harm national security if it were published.

It is a troubling counter factual to ponder, whether public knowledge of this spy program might have tipped the scales of the election. As it turned out, the newspaper would end up holding the story for over a year, giving the administration repeated opportunities to establish why the story should not run. It was only after Lichtblau's co-author threatened to publish the story in his upcoming book that the story got back on track, and only when the administration seemed poised to once again abuse its power, this time directed at the paper itself, that the story actually ran:

I learned, almost in passing, that the administration had apparently discussed seeking a Pentagon Papers-type injunction against the paper to stop the publication of the NSA story. Senior administration officials had reviewed the legal options for possibly seeking an injunction, but they had not moved on it. The tidbit was a bombshell. Few episodes in the history of the Times, or for that matter in all of journalism, had left as indelible a mark as the courtroom battle over the Pentagon Papers. The case had proven perhaps the ultimate test of the tense balance between the government's claims of national security and the public's right to know, and the Supreme Court had clearly tipped the scales on the side of the press.

Now, we were learning that the Bush administration had dusted off a Nixon-era tactic to consider coming after us again... By the time word about the injunction had been relayed to the editors in New York some hours later, it had an effect I hadn't envisioned. The editors had already run out of patience with the White House and were ready to move ahead with the story, but talk of an injunction helped seal the decision. We had a tool that wasn't available three decades earlier during the Pentagon Papers clash--the Internet--and the paper wanted to use it to our advantage... The editors figured that once we had notified the administration of our intention to publish the story, a court injunction might, in theory, be able to shut down the presses in the hours it took to get an edition print and on the streets. But there was no way to stop the near-instant ability to post a story on the Internet.

Indeed, the story's publication rocked the political world. President Bush went on television the next morning for an unapologetic confirmation of his extra-legal endeavors (he claimed the only thing illegal was the leak to the media). The ramifications of the disclosure of this and other Bush policies are felt right to the present, with President-elect Obama's appointees' views on the limits of executive power of immediate concern (things are looking good).

Lichtblau's book is a fast, fascinating read. He carries the accessibility of his journalism into long form, and manages to effectively tell two intertwined stories: the growing abuse of executive power by the Bush administration after 9/11, both in theory and practice, and the journalistic efforts to uncover these abuses and expose them to public scrutiny. Those predisposed to think that Lichtblau should have been tried for treason and executed will be unimpressed, but this is a remarkably even-handed account of a sad saga in the annals of American government.

A Leap in the Dark by John Ferling

ferling_leap.jpgThe revolution by the American colonies against their mother country and the subsequent founding of the first modern republic is a story highly ingrained into the American psyche. It a tale told repeatedly throughout our education and publicly celebrated on the fourth day of July each year. The standard version follows a Whiggish path of predestined progress toward independence and liberty: the oppressed colonists quickly unite in their opposition to taxation without representation, ally with French comrades to inflict defeat upon the British Army, and then harness an unparalleled burst of political genius that results in the sacred document that united us as a nation, the Constitution.

Trouble is, of course, things were a wee bit more complicated. The country was often deeply divided, from failed efforts to coordinate colonial defenses before the French and Indian War all the way to the hotly contested election of 1800. There are any number of excellent books that have illuminated elements along this time line (such as Edmund & Helen Morgan's The Stamp Act Crisis or Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick's The Age of Federalism), but John Ferling has done something special with A Leap in the Dark, published in 2003. In a single volume he has provided a cohesive account of the American political tumult in the half-century from Benjamin Franklin's first efforts at colonial cooperation in Albany to Thomas Jefferson's inauguration as president:

Each step was uncertain and chancy. The success of the American Revolution was far from inevitable. Years were required to forge an effective opposition to British imperial policies, and that was followed by a protracted war to bring about separation from the empire. Militarily, of course, an American victory was not assured. That has been well remembered by subsequent generations. However, the labyrinthian political struggles that accompanied the war and persisted in its aftermath have been long forgotten, save by a few scholars.

I could spend hours discussing all the insights and intrigues raised in Ferling's book, but I'll limit myself to one (in addition to what I discussed last week), concerning the considerable role that American elites played in the revolutionary struggle. We take for granted the intellectual and political talent of our Founding Fathers. It is actually somewhat counter-intuitive that these hugely successful men of the day, from Washington to Franklin to Adams and so on, would be so willing to turn upside down a world that had treated them so well. This was no mere peasant's rebellion; it was led by men who had achieved great success under the existing system. What explains their involvement? Ferling has some ideas:

Upwardly mobile young men in the colonies had always known that they faced limitations on their ability to rise simply because they were colonists. American politicians would never sit in Parliament or hold a ministerial post. A colonist might be an Indian agent who conducted diplomacy in a borderland wigwam, but he would never be a diplomat posted in the fashionable courts of Europe. Similarly, every aspiring colonist knew that the doors were shut to him in the highest places in the British judiciary, church, and armed forces. John Adams was on the money when he remarked that the most an enterprising young man in Massachusetts could hope for was to someday own an expensive carriage, be a colonel in the militia, and sit in the upper house of the provincial assembly.

Consider one such personage's view of colonial life from the heights at Mount Vernon:

Rich and powerful as he was, Washington could exert no authority over many things that truly mattered to him. Too many crucial issues were decided in London, where the interests of the mother country outweighed those of provincials. On substantive matters, the colonists too often were treated as dependents who were meant to serve the parent state, not compete with it. Colonel Washington, who had clawed his way to the top of Virginia's society through enormous sacrifice and risk, bridled at the thought of being considered second-rate by anyone. It had galled him during the late war that, although a colonel in a colonial army, he had been outranked by every officer who held a royal commission, even the most callow and lowly redcoat lieutenant.

This certainly clouds the simple picture some paint of an egalitarian "Spirit of the Revolution" trumped by conservative reactionaries in the Constitution of 1787. Make no mistake, there was an unparalleled outpouring of patriotic, republican verve during the war against Britain. And Ferling provides ample evidence of forces at work in the 1780s to reign it what some had come to see as "democratic excesses." But he also establishes that the powerful colonial elites had many interests of their own aligned with independence in 1776, and this should be remembered when considering how it came to be that America's native aristocracy led the revolution.

Though A Leap in the Dark reads with the ease of popular history, Ferling has demonstrated his academic chops. At several points in the book he raises an issue of scholarly disagreement (such as whether colonial radicals intentionally provoked the Boston Massacre), explains the competing views, and offers a well-grounded opinion of his own. I appreciate a historian who renders his reasoned judgment but acknowledges conflicting sentiment. The endnotes he provides are stellar, running 44 pages and including abundant primary citations as well as secondary sources for further reading.

The only complaint I can muster about the book is that in order to cover 50 years in 500 pages, some important episodes get less attention. This is particularly true of the Revolution itself, as Ferling never veers far off the political scene into the military details of the conflict. Thank goodness he devoted his most recent title, 2007's Almost a Miracle, entirely to the war.

Three Men in Colonial Pennsylvania

signers.jpgOne of the themes John Ferling establishes in A Leap in the Dark, his history of America's political evolution from 1754-1801, is that during this period there was a constantly recurring cycle of friction between the more radical elements willing to push into uncharted waters and those supporting the status quo:

The title of this book was taken from a line in a newspaper essay written in 1776 by a Pennsylvanian who opposed American independence. To separate from the mother country, he cautioned, was to make "a leap in the dark," to jump into an uncertain future. Time and again in the course of the half century spanned by this book, political activists confronted the reality that their actions would catapult them onto amorphous terrain. In every instance, there were those who were ready to take the chance. Always, too, there were those who resisted approaching the abyss that would be ushered in by breaking with the past.

Especially interesting is that amidst this series of "leaps in the dark" that Ferling describes, it was often the very same people who stood at the revolutionary vanguard at one such moment, only to lead the conservation reaction at the next (or vice versa). Three men closely connected to each other in colonial Pennsylvania politics provide a nice illustration: Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and Joseph Galloway.

After retiring as an enormously successful businessman, Franklin had turned his attention to politics. In particular, he became a strong opponent of the proprietors who ran the Pennsylvania colony, and he wanted the English crown to convert Pennsylvania into a crown charter and rule it directly. He was joined in this movement, dubbed the Assembly Party, by Galloway, who rose to become Speaker of the Pennsylvania House from 1766-1774. As a result, they sought royal favor even amidst growing rumblings of colonial discontent after the passage of the Townshend Acts:

Continuing to adhere to the quest for royalization, the Assembly Party immediately took essentially the same stance it had taken two years before: Pennsylvanians should shoulder a portion of the empire's economic burden, Parliament's taxes would be slight, and if they proved to be onerous, London would happily accede to the province's "dutiful remonstrance" to reduce the level of taxation. Once again, too, Galloway and his party sought to block Philadelphia's participation in a trade embargo.

Dickinson had been leading the opposition to royalization as head of the Proprietary Party, and he was also amongst the first to rail against Parliament's efforts to tax the colonies. As early as the winter of 1768, he was publishing newspaper articles articulating the radical argument that Parliament lacked the constitutional power to impose any tax whatsoever upon the colonies. In the wake of the Townshend Acts, Dickinson and his party "won acclaim as the fervent defenders of American Rights" and "the Assembly Party suffered heavy losses in its urban working-class base."

Flash forward a few years. Unlike Galloway, Franklin had seen the writing on the wall in time and signaled his support for the embargo before he could be forever tarnished as a Loyalist. From his perch in London, he attempted to reach compromises on behalf of the colonies, but eventually he perceived that the growing breach between the colonies and the mother country was irreparable and he returned home. Meanwhile, Galloway attended the First Continental Congress and proposed a Plan of Union involving an American Parliament that would share a mutual veto with its British counterpart; the plan was only narrowly defeated by a vote of six colonies to five, the high water mark for Loyalists in the Congress.

A last-second addition to Pennsylvania's delegation at the Second Continental Congress, Franklin was among the earliest convinced that war and independence were inevitable. Dickinson, the early agitator, was now leading the conciliatory wing of the Congress; he was convinced that the colonies' dispute was with Parliament, not the British Crown. It was he who wrote the last-ditch Olive Branch Petition, appealing to King George to intervene and mediate the dispute. He opposed the Declaration of Independence, which passed unanimously only because Dickinson and another conciliatory Pennsylvania delegate absented themselves the day of the vote. He never signed it.

Franklin, of course, served as one of America's leading lights at home and abroad. Dickinson continued to pursue conflicted positions: serving as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention for a country whose independence he had opposed; defending the Jay Treaty in 1796, but denouncing Federalist belligerence toward France in 1798. Galloway retired from politics when the war began, only to volunteer to serve as British police commissioner of occupied Philadelphia and then flee to London in 1778. He would die there in exile, informed by Pennsylvania that he would stand trial for crimes during the occupation if he returned.

Another Year, Another Reading Goal

bookstack.jpgSince I embarked on my Great Books Project six years ago, my life has been enhanced in immeasurable ways by a renewed devotion to reading. Well, not entirely immeasurable, since I have kept track of every book I have read since 2003 (439 so far).

Last year's goal of reading 100 books was a great success, and the quantifiable nature of the endeavor made it easier to motivate myself and to track progress. However, it resulted in a notable preference for reading slimmer books. In an attempt to correct that for this year, I am setting a different sort of goal:

I will read 30,000 pages in 2009.

Sounds daunting, no? But figuring the average length of the 105 books I read in 2008 was ~300 pages, this should require no more time or dedication than last year's goal. I'm likely to be in Kuwait for about five months in 2009, so I should have at least as much time to fill with reading as I did in 2008. It works out to be about 100 pages per day, 6 days per week. And as success is measured in pages, rather than books, there should be no inherent bias toward either longer or shorter volumes. I'll still track the number of books read here, but also plan to take monthly accounting of pages read.

Here's to a wonderful year of reading! Happy New Year!