Walter Isaacson (Author, Biographer, Former Chair of Broadcasting Board of Governors)
This is the storied life of a self-educated savant. Walter Isaacson scrupulously details a genius’s life and notes how curiosity and focus inform his intellect. Leonardo da Vinci is an illegitimate child raised by an extended family that includes his educated wayward father and unlettered mother. Born in Florence, da Vinci grows to manhood and follows a path festooned with powerful Italian and French rulers.
Self portraits of Leonardo belie Isaacson’s characterization of him as handsome. However, Isaacson’s supposition is drawn from other people’s perception of him rather than Leonardo’s perception of himself.
Leonardo da Vinci self portrait as an old man
Parenthetically, Isaacson notes that Leonardo is gay and finds the idea of heterosexual acts as volitionally repugnant.
Isaacson suggests every person can reach higher levels of understanding by being acutely observant and curious. He suggests these two characteristics have a yin and yang, a good and bad consequence.
The good comes from a restless desire to understand what one sees. The bad comes from distraction that causes a brilliant mind to wander and fail to complete an idea or finish a project.
Isaacson infers Leonardo’s innate intelligence magnifies his ability to pattern what he observes into insights that are hundreds of years ahead of future discoveries. From observations of nature, the human body, and expressed human emotion da Vinci refines the art of painting.
However, Isaacson notes Leonardo is so much more than an artist. Leonardo is a polymath. Leonardo acquires understanding of cosmic phenomena, the dynamics of water and air movement, the physical expression of human emotion, and the general science of earth’s structure, and substance.
At the same time, Isaacson notes that Leonardo often fails to publish, or diseminate his findings. Leonardo becomes distracted by new observations that lead to incomplete works of art, science, and engineering. Isaacson explains that some of the incompleteness is a consequence of finding a new discovery that causes Leonardo to rethink how a painting or project is to be completed.
Isaacson notes many paintings were carried with him to his death. Some were never finished. Leonardo continually refines his paintings with new understanding of light and shadow, muscle and bone.
In some cases, painting’ modifications were made years after their initiation because of a muscle, tendon, or ligament discovery from Leonardo’s many human dissections.
Leonardo revised “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness” years after he started it because of research on neck muscles from his numerous dissections of the human body.
Leonardo lived in a time of powerful Italian and French leaders. He serves men of power like Cesare Borgia, Francis I, and Pope Leo X (the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici).
Leonardo serves Cesare Borgia for 8 years as an engineer and artist. He creates the model for a massive horse (a larger mold than had ever been created would be required). It is to be a tribute to Cesare Borgia but it is never cast because of the circumstance of war.
By historical account, Cesare Borgia is ambitious and arrogant. Cesare is alleged to have murdered his brother to assume control of a Papal State. He is alleged to have been responsible for several political assassinations. Leonardo seems to have had no compunction for serving Borgia and appears to have been a confident of the brutal dictator.
Two interesting reveals by Isaacson is Leonardo’s willingness to serve whoever would sponsor his work regardless of their good or bad actions, and his role as a scene creator for theatrical productions. Isaacson’s explanation of Leonardo’s scene creations for plays is revelatory because of the many mechanical inventions drawn by this master of innovation.
One can imagine how thrilled an audience would be at a theatre production that showed Leonardo’s skill as an animator of mechanical wonders. It seems a perfect venue for Leonardo’s inventive mind.
Leonardo becomes friends with luminaries like Niccolo Machiavelli and Luca Pacioli (an Italian mathematician).
Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527, died at age 58. Cesare Borgia is said to have been the model for “The Prince”.
Most, but not all, of Leonardo’s patrons and customers were men or women of great power and wealth. Some, like Borgia had little or no moral conscience. Some with great wealth who requested commissions were ignored by Leonardo.
A younger contemporary of Leonardo is Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Michelangelo is a competitor for Art commissions who disdains Leonardo.
Detail of Michelanglo’s “Doubting Thomas”.
Isaacson notes that Leonardo is no less disdainful of Michelangelo but much less confrontational when asked for opinions about his competitor’s work.
Isaacson wrote a biography of Stephen Jobs and often refers to Jobs’ driven personality.
His biography of Leonardo shows a commonality between these two geniuses. They both looked for perfection in their work.
From a painting of the Last Supper, to the image of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, to the Mona Lisa, Isaacson shows Leonardo to be among the most creative artist of all time. Leonardo’s understanding of light and shadow, human vision, physiology, and facial expression contribute to art what E=MC squared contributed to physics.
(Sadly, Isaacson notes much of “The Last Supper” shows little of Leonardo’s original work because of cleanings and restorations over the centuries.)
Isaacson shows Leonardo is much more than an artist. From the idea of creating power from water movement to the planning of cities for Kings, Leonardo da Vinci is shown to be an insightful civil engineer. In sum, Isaacson implies Leonardo’s insights rival all the savants of history. Leonardo da Vinci is an artist and scientist ahead of his time.
In 1939, Churchill calls Russia a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Stephen Kotkin unravels some of that enigma in “Stalin. Volume II” but the unraveling is marred by details that will only appeal to historians; not dilettantes. Nevertheless, a dilettante listening to nearly 50 hours of narration will find much to recommend Kotkin’s second volume of what is to be a trilogy.
Was Stalin a mad man, committed idealist, or something else? Was Stalin paranoid and highly calculating, or something else? Was Stalin a detailed planner or reactionary? What drove Stalin to eliminate 90% of Russia’s military leadership before WWII?
In “Stalin, Volume II” Kotkin describes a despot. Stalin controls a population of over 109
million people before and during WWII. Before
the war, it is estimated–between 5.7 and 7.0 million die from famine in Stalin’s
Russian agricultural collectivization.
During the war, Russia is estimated to have had 10,700,000 military
deaths, and 12,500,000 civilian deaths, of which 1,000,000 were Holocaust victims.
It seems Stalin’s administration before and during WWII led to 23,000,000 Russian deaths. In contrast, Hitler’s administration’s toll is estimated at 7,000,000 deaths; of which 6 million were Jews.
This is not to trivialize loss felt by any culture or nation, but–none exceed Stalin’s atrocity.
(An exception may be China and the famine during Mao’s administration. An estimated 45,000,000 died in the 1958-62 “Great Leap Forward”, led by the “Gang of Four”, a cabal that Mao later opposed.) Communism is clearly shown to be a treacherous and ultimately failed form of governance.
The ultimate question is –how could Stalin remain in power before, during, and after WWII? What people or nation would countenance 23,000,000 deaths? “Stalin, Volume II” offers a credible explanation.
Kotkin infers Stalin is neither a mad man nor committed idealist. Stalin is driven by an insatiable need for power and international influence.
Kotkin shows Stalin is highly calculating more than paranoid. The clue is in the fact that Stalin never countenanced bodyguards because he did not fear assassination. His longevity is the result of pragmatic use of power to eliminate rivals. Stalin assiduously pursues the preeminence of Russia as a communist state; not a Stalinist state. Contrary to some historian’s analysis, Stalin did not intend to create a “cult of personality”. Kotkin infers Stalin’s goal was to create a wider, more hegemonic, state of communism.
Stalin’s sleight of hand maneuvering is accomplished by publicly denying honorifics as leader of the state.
With that pirouette, Stalin systematically undermines any rivals by using state apparatchiks like the NKVD to arrest, torture, and obtain confessions. By branding rivals as “enemies of the state”, Stalin eliminated leadership competition.
Stalin operates as a bully without outwardly appearing to be a bully. But, each competitor who defies or competes with Stalin’s policies or position is confronted after gathered false or true accusations. A confrontation can be direct or indirect depending on Stalin’s whim. If it is a close associate, confrontation is personal and accusatory in a way that causes some to commit suicide; some to be disgraced and sent to a gulag, and a few to defect.
Through personal intimidation, and the help of a secret police, Stalin systematically destroys public perception of potential competitors. They are summarily tried, convicted, and sentenced to Gulags, or executed.
e.g.: Pavel Mikhalev, a wandering monk, was arrested in August of 1937 at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge for “counterrevolutionary activities”. He was tried on October 10 and shot on October 13. Mugshot taken in Moscow on October 13, 1937.
Stalin’s “hang man”, Lavrenty Beria.
Stalin replaces executed competitors with young followers. They are drawn from backgrounds of a less grounded education; similar to Stalin’s. These young followers become fierce defenders of Stalin; undoubtedly, in part, out of fear, but also out of appreciation for their gift of limited power and prestige in roles traditionally held by older citizens.
Stalin seduces new young leaders with dachas and improved economic benefits. Stalin appeals to the middle and lower classes; bypassing the upper-class or well educated.
A negative consequence of this system of promotion is lack of experience in leadership or management.
PURGED MILITARY LEADERS BY STALIN
Kotkin notes an estimated 90% of experienced military leadership is removed by Stalin before the war. The consequence is to make cannon fodder of many Russian soldiers as they are thrown into battle against better equipped and experienced German soldiers. Nevertheless, Stalin maintains control of Russia by recruiting from the young who are motivated by their own ambition.
Stalin, above all else, is shown to be a pragmatist in his increasing control of Russia after the revolution.
Prior to WWII, Trotsky attempts to form a competing communist party in Spain but is trumped by Stalin’s maneuvering.
Stalin opposes Franco’s fascist fight. He balances his enmity toward Trotsky with armament provisions to Spain’s communist party. That support diminishes Trotsky’s effort to form a competing communist party.
By discrediting Trotsky’s ideological support, Stalin undermines Trotsky’s success in forming any independent communist party. Kotkin notes that Stalin forestalls separate recognition of outlying communist parties by using Russia’s industrial capability to co-opt nascent movements. Stalin wishes to capture outlying communist movements by making it a part, rather than competitor, of Russian communism.
Stalin’s competition is either exiled or jailed. His ideological rival is Trotsky whom Stalin tries to have assassinated after exile from Russia. (Stalin finally succeeds in having Trotsky assassinated in Mexico.)
CHINA’S CHIANG KAI SHEK & MAO ZEDONG–eg. STALIN’S REALPOLITIC
Another example of Stalin’s pragmatic effort to extend territorial influence is in his playing Chiang Kai Shek forces against Mao’s communist movement. On the one hand, Stalin wants to spread communism in China but not Mao’s version. When Chiang Kai Shek is captured by Chinese communists, Stalin forbids Mao from executing him. Stalin insists on Chiang being released to join with the communists to combat Japan’s interest. Chiang refuses to join Mao but Stalin’s influence on China is undiminished. Stalin is playing a long game by offering arms support to Mao while resisting either Japan’s encroachment or Chiang’s defeat of Maoist communism.
Stalin is not characterized as a genius as is evidenced by his being duped by Germany. Stalin’s pragmatic effort to keep Russia out of war discounted Hitler’s oft spoken opposition to communism. Stalin fails to intellectually grasp the monomaniacal intent of Hitler.
Stalin is shown by Kotkin to be a consummate consumer of information. He uses information to make decisions about who to eliminate that might challenge his control. But, Stalin misses the realpolitik intent of Hitler.
In contrast to Stalin’s obsession for information, Hitler
is shown to shoot from the hip. Hitler
is neither a pragmatist nor an information addict. In shooting from the hip, Hitler chooses to
fight WWII on two fronts which is the beginning of the Third Reich’s end.
Graham Farmelo (Author, biographer, science writer, and an Adjunct Professor of Physics)
Paul Dirac (1902-1984, English theoretical physicist born in Bristol, UK) After listening to Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac, one begins to understand why so few outside of Science know of this “brainiac”. Paul Dirac’s history of communication is Spartan; i.e. rife with “yes” and “no” answers, long pauses, or abrupt departures, Dirac fails to become a household name like Einstein or Bohr.
Considered by some to be the second Einstein of Physics’, Paul Dirac is practically unknown to most of the non scientific community. At the age of 31, Dirac shares the Nobel Prize with Erwin Schrodinger for discovery of new forms of atomic theory.
In the span of Dirac’s life, he manages to astound the Physics community with his independent research, and taciturn analysis of quantum mechanics.
From Dirac’s top down theoretical formulation of quantum mechanics, he manages to reveal the spin of electrons and an early stage belief about string theory. His formulations were solitary revelations born of a superior perception of reality that kept Dirac at the cutting edge of Physics well beyond his 30th year of life.
One of the revealing parts of Farmelo’s biography is Dirac’s remembrance of childhood and his parent’s treatment of him and his two siblings. Dirac believes his father destroyed his children’s lives while Farmelo’s biography seems to show Charles Dirac deeply loved his two sons and daughter.
Farmelo is not suggesting that Charles Dirac was a good father or husband but he is saying an offspring’s memory of what happens in their childhood is a distortion of reality.
Charles Dirac may have been a martinet, though he did not strike his children. He may have been a philanderer, but he remained with his wife until she died. He may have been a cheap skate, but he left what he had to his wife when he died. Ironically, Paul Dirac is genetically predisposed to be a genius but he seems to see a distorted truth of his childhood.
The Chinese curse of “may you live in interesting times” is a hallmark of Paul Dirac’s life. Born in 1902 Dirac lives through WWI, WWII, The Korean War, The 1950’s Red Scare, the reign of Joseph Stalin, Sputnik, the Cuban missile crisis, and Vietnam. He dies in Tallahassee, Florida in 1984. In the course of his life he met. competed with, and mostly surpassed the crème de la crème of the Physics community.
Dirac’s life is a journey through 20th century history. He falls for Russian communism as many intellectuals of the 1920s did. He lives through and understands the potential of the atomic bomb and chooses not to participate in its creation. He lives through Germany’s bombing of England, deplores German dehumanization of Jewish scientists, but accepts post war rationalizations of German scientists (e.g. Werner Heisenberg) who supported Hitler. Dirac is denied a visa to immigrate to the United States in the 1950s because of McCarthyism. He leaves Cambridge in the 1970s to become Florida State University’s most famous professor.
Though Dirac made monumental theoretical contributions in the field of Physics, he fails to acquire the same cosmological gravitas as Albert Einstein or Niels Bohr. It seems largely because of his lack of charisma.
Farmelo’s biography shows Dirac as a human being working through life, burdened by perceptions of childhood, blessed with a superior perception of reality, and subject to the exigencies of living any life in this world; the difference being that Dirac was a genius among geniuses.
Like Malcolm Little (aka Malcolm X), Martin Luther King, and Barrack Obama, Douglass faces down poverty and demonstrates the equality of all human beings.
By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by: Prentice Onayemi
Written by: David W. Blight
DAVID BLIGHT (AUTHOR, PROFESSOR OF AMERICAN HISTORY)
David Blight offers a nuanced biography of Frederick Douglass, a great 19th century American leader. Blight shows Douglass to rival the intelligence and charisma of the best known 20th and 21st century black Americans. Like Malcolm Little (aka Malcolm X), Martin Luther King, and Barrack Obama, Douglass faces down poverty and demonstrates the equality of all human beings. Malcolm Little, King, and Obama never face the lash of slavery, but Blight shows how Douglass pushes aside physical and cultural cruelty to demand freedom and equality of all.
JOHN BROWN (AMERICAN ABOLITIONIST 1800-1859) Brown is neither lionized or vindicated by Blight but is shown as a turning point in Douglass’s life; a turning from moral suasion to action by people of color against slavery.
Ethan Hawke as John Brown.
Though shown to begin in peace, Blight shows how Douglass grows to understand peace will not come from words alone but must come from action. Douglass came to revere the anti-slavery violence of John Brown. Courageously, Douglass attacks the institution of slavery before, during, and after the American Civil War. Douglass becomes the conscience of white and black America.
Blight explains how Douglass came to revere Abraham Lincoln; not in Lincoln’s beginnings, but in Lincoln’s life of struggle for the true meaning of the American Constitution.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Douglass is shown to decry President Johnson’s abandonment of reconstruction in the south. Douglass offers unstinting support for Ulysses Grant’s election because of his commitment to the abolitionist cause.
Blight shows Douglass, like all human beings, is imperfect. He has blind spots when speaking of freedom and equality. Douglass discounts America’s decimation of native Americans and denial of women’s rights by arguing neither compares to slavery, subjugation, and murder of blacks.
The irony of Douglass’s imperfect argument is in native Americans who are murdered and restricted to reservations that are indiscriminately encroached upon by free and enfranchised Americans.
Indian families are regularly isolated, displaced, and murdered at the whim of white men in power.
In women’s rights, Douglass discounts the same inequality trap that captures black Americans; i.e. the disenfranchisement trap. Women have no power. Women without power, just as any separated classification of humanity, are looked at as less equal by some measure. How many women are treated by men as property in the history of civilization? How many women are abused, and/or raped by men without consequence? How many women are unable to find work or are not paid the same wage for the same job? The bible is one of many records of discrimination faced by women.
FAMOUS WOMEN IN HISTORY (History, as well as this pictorial, shows many women are as intellectually strong and mentally tough as men; e.g. Cleopatra, Sojourner Truth, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto, Malala Yousafzai, and others.)
Blight fairly describes Douglass’s blind spots while clearly identifying his remarkable insight and intelligence. Douglass’s many speaking engagements, published books, and newspaper articles graphically and forthrightly explain the plight of black Americans in the 19th century. Blight explains how Douglass manages to survive slavery, educate himself, forgive (but not forget) his oppressors, and become one of the greatest Americans of his time.
SLAVES LYNCHED IN 19TH CENTURY AMERICA
It is sad to know so many of Douglass’s observations remain true in the 21st century. Much of white America still fears the rise of black freedom and equality. “All men are created equal…” is preached but remains un-practiced in today’s America.
RODNEY KING (APPEARANCE 3 DAYS AFTER CAR-CHASE BEATING 3.6.92–KING DIES IN JUNE 2012 @ 47 YEARS OF AGE
The lessons of history show that people are not to be feared; they are to be offered equal opportunity to become all they can be. By nature, human beings are equally free and capable of being incredibly good and disastrously evil. It is the purpose of government to protect the rights of each from the other when evil takes hold of the governed. A moral life requires equal treatment of all. That is the essence of what Blight is writing about in the story of Frederick Douglass’s life.
STEPHEN KOTKIN (AMERICAN AUTHOR, HISTORIAN, ACADEMIC)
Stephen Kotkin offers a remarkable and comprehensive view of Russia’s 1917 Revolution in “Stalin, Volume I”. Kotkin succinctly describes how power in the hands of one may advance a nation’s wealth, but at a cost that exceeds its benefit.
Kotkin’s first volume about Stalin’s rise to power offers lessons to modern American and Chinese governments. China seems on one path; America another.
The formation of “checks and balances” sustains America’s economic growth; even in the face of leadership change. In contrast, a “rule of one” has moved China’s economic wealth to new heights, but “rule of one” threatens its future success; particularly if it follows Stalin’s mistaken path.
In historical context, Kotkin profiles the three most important characters of the Russian revolution; e.g. Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Leon Trotsky. Kotkin documents the personalities and circumstances of the pre-U.S.S.R.’ economy; i.e. an economy based on the disparity between wealth and poverty, federalization and centralization, political idealism and pragmatism.
MAO ZEDONG (1893-1976, FOUNDING FATHER OF PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA.)
Three leaders in the Chinese revolution were Mao Zedong , Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping. Zhou Enlai is the moderate of the three in trying to preserve traditional Chinese customs. Mao is by some measures an idealist who attempts to expand the theory of communism. His idealism creates a bureaucracy that nearly derails China’s economy. “The Gang of Four” radicalized Mao’s idealism into a more Stalinist view of communism. “The Gang of Four”s radicalization of Chinese communism is eventually reversed with the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, but not until after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
DENG XIAOPING (CHINA’S CHAIRMAN OF THE CENTRAL ADVISORY COMMISSION 1982-1987)
After Tiananmen Square, Deng recognizes the power of public dissent. Rather than increasing suppression, Deng opens the Chinese economy to a degree of self-determination. Deng does not abandon communist ideology. However, he recognizes the importance of economic growth and how less doctrinal communist policy would unleash the power of people as demonstrated at Tienanmen Square.
Deng dies in 1987 and the government of China is reshuffled. Deng’s eventual successor, President Xi, emphasizes the idealism of communism that threatens return to a Stalinist-like terror in China; i.e. a terror enhanced by technological invasion of privacy, and “big brother” control.
XI JINPING (GENERAL SECRETARY OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CHINA AND PRESIDENT OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA)
President Xi returns to Mao’s authoritarian belief in enforced collectivism with the idea of expanding China’s new-found wealth through government subsidization of industry. Xi renews emphasis on rule by the Communist party, headed by himself.
The growing disparity between rich and poor in both China and America is widely seen in the internet, and with increased international travel. China’s rapid rise in economic wealth is unevenly spread, just as it is in the United States. The difference is in how that economic disparity is addressed.
In America, private dissent is an inherent part of its history which lauds individualism, self-determination, and freedom (within the boundary of “rule of law”). But, these characteristics denigrate American citizens who are unable or unwilling to reap the rewards of individualism, self-determination, and freedom. These are the Americans sleeping on America’s streets and living in their cars.
America’s system of governance allows a rift between the rich and poor because it is based on a system of “checks and balances”. America’s system demands debate, and more broadly considered human consequence, before government action is taken.
LIVING ON THE STREET IN AMERICA
In China, the homeless are compelled to work at jobs created by the government. China’s system of governance is driven from the top, with limited debate, and more singularly determined public consequence. Government action is autocratically determined.
BEIJING-In China, dissent is discouraged and freedom is highly restricted, but homelessness is addressed with housing for the poor at subsidized prices.
In ancient China, singular autocratic rule offered a mixed blessing. Some of the world’s wealthiest and most cultured governments were created in China. These ancient dynasties successfully expanded their economies to make China a world leader in science and industry. At the same time, with few checks and balances, the history of China’s “rule of one” resulted in periodic social and economic collapse.
In some ways, China’s ancient civilization’s rise and fall is reminiscent of the rise and fall of the U.S.S.R. after 1917. Kotkin describes the turmoil surrounding Russia in 1917. The beginning of WWI and Germany’s invasion exaggerate the paradox of power in Russia. Modern European, Asian, North American, Middle Eastern, and African countries are experiencing some of the same economic, and political disruption.
On the one hand, the peasant is a proud Russian; on the other hand, he is a slave of the landed gentry; indentured to preserve the wealth of others at the cost of his/her life.
In 1917, the Czar and wealthy aristocracy depend on a population of the poor to defend the government. Russian peasants are faced with defending a government system that recognizes them as serfs, agricultural laborers indentured to wealthy landowners. (A similar system existed in China prior to 1949.)
In 1949, Mao recognizes the same inequity and judiciously separates landlords from their vast estates and re-distributes it to tenant farmers who worked for them. Ownership restructuring improved agricultural production until Mao tried to make small collectives into large collectives with Communist party oversight. Formation of a Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy distorted actual production and de-motivated farmers that did the real work of farming. The result of production over-estimation caused a nation-wide famine.
KARL MARX (BORN TRIER, GERMANY 1818-DIED LONDON, ENGLAND 1883)
Kotkin notes Russian social and economic inequity is a breeding ground for a Leninist/Marxist revolution. Marx’s dialectic view of the wealth of nations suggests that governments will change based on the growing recognition of the value of labor; i.e. beginning with agrarian feudalism, growing through industrialized capitalism, and socialism; reaching to a state of equilibrium in communism (a needs-based and communal sharing of wealth). Marx suggests all nations will go through this dialectic process.
Lenin bastardizes Marx’s dialectic idealization. Lenin believes the process can be accelerated through revolution and centralized control of the means of production. This idea is adopted by Mao Zedong in China in 1949 with early success. However, Mao expands the collectivist policy with “The Great Leap Forward” in 1958. Mao’s broader collectivist policy collapses the Chinese economy in 1962. Thousands of Chinese die from starvation as communist overseers exaggerate food production quotas.
Collectivist expansion is an oversimplification of Kotkin’s explanation of Vladimir Lenin’s form of communism but it shows the risk of “rule of one” governance. Even Lenin is conflicted about how Russia will grow into a communist society.
Lenin recognizes the social and economic distance that Russian peasants must travel to gain an appreciation of a new form of government.
Much of the Russian population, like the Chinese in 1949, were illiterate and living at a subsistence level; bounded by a non-mechanized agrarian economy. Lenin vacillates between growth through education and growth through autocratic command. Kotkin suggests that Lenin gravitates toward centralized command because of the need to consolidate power within the revolution.
What Lenin needed in 1917 were followers that could get things done. Before being felled by brain disease and stroke, Lenin relies on the abilities of men like Joseph Stalin. Mao relies on his revolutionary Red Guard. Kotkin argues that Stalin became close to Lenin as a result of his organizational skill and his penchant for getting things done without regard to societal norms. For Mao, close associates like Deng Xiaoping, were his enforcers. Stalin becomes the most powerful enforcer in Lenin’s revolution. Deng eventually becomes the leader of Communist China.
Though Stalin wields great enforcement powers, Kotkin infers Trotsky is the intellectual successor to Lenin. Stalin and Trotsky are shown to be at odds on the fundamental direction of the Bolshevik party, the successor party of Russian communism. However, the exigency of getting things done, as opposed to understanding the goals of creating a Leninist/Marxist government, were paramount goals for consolidating power after the revolution. Kotkin explains how Stalin became a defender of Leninist doctrine while Trotsky became an antagonist and eventual apostate because of Stalin’s manipulation of events.
MAO AND STALIN IN 1949
China waits and observes Stalin’s method for rapid industrialization of Russia. Kotkin explains that Stalin gains an intimate understanding of Lenin’s doctrines while Trotsky chooses to compete with Lenin’s philosophical positions. The threat of factionalism accompanies Trotsky’s doctrinal departures.
The irony of the differences between Stalin and Trotsky are crystallized by Kotkin. Stalin’s intelligence is underestimated by both Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin carefully catalogs and memorizes Lenin’s communist beliefs. In contrast, Trotsky chooses his own communist doctrinal path based, in part, on Lenin’s writing. Here, another similarity is drawn with the near religious following of Mao’s Red Book with aphorisms about governing oneself and China.
Kotkin suggests Lenin views Trotsky as a more likely successor than Stalin as leader of the country. Lenin appreciates Stalin’s organizational ability but views Stalin’s temperament as too volatile for long-term government control. In 1922, Lenin is said to have dictated a “testament” saying that Stalin should be removed from his position as General Secretary. Lenin’s “testament” critiqued the ruling triumvirate of the party (Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev) and others like Bukharin, Trotsky and Pyatakov but the pointed suggestion of removal for Stalin is subverted.
After Lenin dies, the triumvirate chooses to ignore Lenin’s “testament” for Stalin’s removal. After all, Stalin is a doer; i.e. he gets things done. Just as Stalin suppresses opposition to his interpretation of Lenin, China suppresses opposition to the Communist Party’s doctrines. Doctrinal differences are successfully suppressed in China until the the failure of “The Great Leap Forward” in the 1950’s. The consequence of “The Great Leap Forward”s failure is the cultural revolution in the 1960’s.
In America’s history the economy slugs along with setbacks and successes. Though 1929 sees the collapse of the American economy, it recovers with government intervention, the advent of WWII, and the push and pull of a decision-making process designed by the framers of the Constitution. That push and pull is from leadership that is influenced by the checks and balances of three branches of government. That same process saves the American economy in 2008. The power and economy of America has grown to become the strongest in the world.
Kotkin’s research suggests young Stalin is something different from what is portrayed in earlier histories. Stalin grows close to Lenin because he is the acting arm of Lenin’s centralized command. Lenin relies on Stalin to get things done. He is Lenin’s executor. At the same time, Lenin turns to Trotsky as an economic adviser to ensure a more comprehensive understanding of what needs to be done to stabilize the revolution. Trotsky believes in the importance of centralized control of the economy.
Both Lenin and Stalin believed in communism but the first acts on a vision of the future; the second acts on the “now”.
China’s Deng and Xi seem to reverse Lenin’s and Stalin’s reasoning. Rather than Deng being like Lenin, he acts on China in the “now”. Xi seems more like Lenin and looks at China’s future based on the ideals of communism. However, from an American perspective, all autocrats common failing is belief in “rule of one”.
Kotkin puts an end to any speculation about Lenin being poisoned by Stalin. Kotkin argues that Lenin died of natural causes, strokes from a brain disease. What Kotkin reveals is the internecine war that is waged between Stalin and Trotsky while Lenin is dying. The strokes steadily debilitate Lenin and suspicious written pronouncements are made that may or may not have originated with Lenin. Lenin’s secretary is his wife. Some evidence suggests a missive from Lenin saying Stalin should not be his successor, noting Trotsky as a better choice. Kotkin suggests such a missive is unlikely. Lenin seems to have had his doubts about both men.
Succession in modern China seems less filled with intrigue than communist Russia but the opaqueness of China’s politics makes the rise of Xi a mystery to most political pundits. What seems clear is that China’s rise and fall has always been in the hands of the “…one”.
PRESIDENT XI’S ONE BELT, ONE ROAD PLAN FOR CHINA’S FUTURE
History will be the arbiter for President Xi’s success or failure with a road and belt plan for China’s economic future. The same may be said for President Trump’s focus on the virtue of selfishness for America’s economic future. The fundamental difference is Xi has no “checks and balances”; Trump has the Supreme Court, Congress, and a 4-year-election-cycle to assuage arbitrary government action.
AYN RAND (1905-1982, AUTHOR WHO FIRMLY BELIEVED IN THE VIRTUE OF SELF-INTEREST AND UNREGULATED CAPITALISM.)
In Russia, Trotsky is characterized as an intellectual while Stalin is a pragmatist. In China, Deng is characterized as a pragmatist while Xi seems a doctrinal theorist.
In history, Trotsky is highly opinionated and arrogant. Stalin is street smart and highly Machiavellian. Trotsky thinks right and wrong while Stalin thinks in terms of what works. In China, Deng is Stalin and Xi is Trotsky. In America, Trump is Stalin and his opposition is Trotsky-like do-nothings.
Trump lost the election in 2020 because–from an American perspective, all autocrats common failing is belief in “rule of one”.
Stalin is reputed to be temperamental while Trotsky is aloof. Though Trotsky insists on centralized control, Stalin argues for federalization. Stalin paradoxically argues for federalization because he knows Russian satellite countries want independence but he will act in the short-term for centralization to get things done. And of course, Stalin clearly adopts centralized economic planning for the U.S.S.R.; i.e. another of Kotkin’s paradoxes of power.
There is much more in Kotkin’s powerful first volume about Stalin and the Russian revolution. Germany’s role in the revolution is a case in point. The writing is crisp and informative. The narration is excellent. After listening to “…Volume I”, one looks forward to Kokin’s next which is published this year.
The past is present in Kotkin’s excellent biography of Joseph Stalin.
Peter Baker’s “Days of Fire” offers a picture of George W. Bush’s administration that compares favorably and unfavorably with today’s American government.
By Chet Yarbrough
Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House
By: Peter Baker
Narrated by Mark Deakins
PETER BAKER (AUTHOR, EMPLOYED BY NYTIMES, FORMER REPORTER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Peter Baker’s “Days of Fire” offers a picture of George W. Bush’s administration that compares favorably and unfavorably with today’s American government.
The pain of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq remain raw for many Americans. Baker’s exploration of George Walker Bush’s administration offers historical information but perspective requires more time.
Baker’s book will not change minds about the success or failure of George W. Bush’s administration. It offers details to supporters and detractors of Bush’s tenure as 43rd President.
GEORGE W. BUSH (43RD PRESIDENT OF THE U.S., SON OF 41ST PRESIDENT OF THE U.S.)
DICK CHENEY (46TH V.P. OF U.S., FORMER U.S. SECY. OF DEFENSE)
Supporters will admire Bush’s tenacious spirit. Detractors will decry Bush’s obstinate belief in “experts”. Supporters will admire Cheney’s toughness in the face of unexpected problems. Detractors will vilify Cheney for not foreseeing consequences.
Baker shows Bush’s tenacity in following the lead of people hired to do a job. However, Baker infers Bush does not provide enough vetting or oversight of “experts” he hires. When vetting is done, Bush is shown to minimize serious concern about candidate’s faults. When “experts” are hired, Bush prizes loyalty over results in sticking with the chosen.
TRUMP & ROBERT REDFIELD, AN AMERICAN VIROLOGIST AND DIRECTOR OF CDC
There is also a loyalty demand with today’s American President, but it seems one-sided. Mr. Trump expects loyalty from subordinates but undermines associates who report to him. In contrast, George W. stood by Cheney through the worst years of the Iraq war.
Administration turnover is high in Trump’s administration. Too often, Trump chooses image over substance.
JAMES MATTIS (FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE)
For Trump, believing in one’s own judgement and being in charge take precedence over collaborative decision-making. The most recent evidence of this willful characteristic of President Trump is the resignation of General Mattis.
TRUMP ADMINISTRATION DEPARTURES
Baker shows Cheney as a tough-minded, defense oriented protector of American freedom. At the same time Baker reflects on Cheney’s five heart attacks, lack of respect for differing opinions, and single-minded pursuit of simple solutions for complicated problems. Baker suggests multiple heart attacks may have affected Cheney’s view of life. He suggests Cheney’s actions may have been compromised by medical conditions affecting his health. There are some (mostly Democrats) who question the state of Trump’s personal health and his actions.
Parenthetically, one might argue Trump views himself as protector of capitalist freedom. An apropos example is Trump’s single-minded pursuit of simple solutions for America’s trade deficit.
Baker leaves little doubt about President “W’s” role as decider. The same may be said of Trump, but their leadership success or failure will be based on history; not on today’s view of their actions and results.
LEADERSHIP SUCCESS OR FAILURE IS BASED ON HISTORY; NOT CURRENT CONCEPTION.
Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed as our next Supreme Court Justice on October 26, 2020.
Barrett describes herself as a strict constructionist, not a legislator. History will determine the quality of Barrett’s appointment. As a Supreme Court justice, one must recognize it is up to Congress to clarify what they mean when they pass legislation.
Barrett’s appointment is today’s reality. Her decisions, just as Trump’s, Obama’s, and W’s actions, have tomorrows’ consequences. The appointment of Barrett needs the perspective of history; not the praise or condemnation of the present.
Barrett, like all high government leaders, brings her own life history of successes and failures. Cheney left a long public life to become CEO of Halliburton, a multi nation oil field services company. Returning to government opens Cheney to conflict of interest questions.
Baker notes that former associates of pre-VP Cheney feel he changed. Pre-VP Cheney was conservative but more open to others opinions and easier to get along with. (Some argue that Trump is not open to other’s opinions.) Pre-VP Cheney served in the Nixon, Ford, and George H. W. Bush administrations. He also served as a 5 time elected representative of the State of Wyoming.
Halliburton receives multi-million dollar contracts from the American government for support in Iraq. Cheney argues that no other American company had equal resource capability. Trump chooses to surround himself with people like Jared Kushner, Wilbur Ross, and Carl Icahn who have Cheney-like commercial conflicts of interest; not to mention hotel and real estate interests of President Trump himself.
JARED KUSHNER, WILBUR ROSS, CARL ICAHN, AND TRUMP’S SONS AND DAUGHTER–EXAMPLES OF CONFLICT OF INTEREST AND CONFLUENCE OF INTEREST
Baker raises the specter of heart attacks and Halliburton experience affecting Cheney’s personality, demeanor, and actions as Vice President of the United States. The author, like every human being, cannot know what he does not know. The same is true for Mr. Trump. Trump is healthy and highly intelligent because he says he is. As Socrates is believed to have said–“I know something that I know nothing.
Trump was a showman before he became President. Some suggest he remains a showman today. In today’s view, mage is substance to Mr. Trump.
Cheney was who he was before and after he became V.P. of the United States. Of course, age and experience changes everyone; only time and history will confirm or deny today’s opinions of the George W.’s and Trump’s administrations. Many details of Bush and Cheney’s lives are reported in Baker’s book. The data compilation offers color, if not insight, to Bush and Cheney’s characters. Today’s comments and actions of President Trump are equally colorful (in the worst sense of the term) but insight to his administration remains for history to determine.
Baker’s choice of details endears readers to Bush more than Cheney. Bush interactions with the public after 9/11; his bravado in flying to Iraq to meet with troops, and Baker’s description of Bush’s love for his dying 15-year-old Springer Spaniel, tug at a reader’s heart. Details of Cheney’s emotional life are limited to descriptive interactions with family. Baker describes Cheney’s experience with the twin tower terror, heart attacks, and affection for anyone other than family as fatalistically analyzed incidents.
Baker links Bush and Cheney’s early life experiences. He exposes different consequences of their linked experience. Both men are shown to be smart but Bush’s rebelliousness seems parentally sheltered while Cheney’s rebelliousness seems experience driven. Bush graduates from Yale and Harvard while Cheney flunks Yale, returns to work as a power lineman; returns to Yale, flunks again, and eventually graduates with BA and MA political science degrees from University of Wyoming.
BUSH AND TRUMP SHARE THE GOOD FORTUNE OF A LIFE OF PRIVILEGE
Bush’s silver spooned life is contrasted with Cheney’s stainless steel life. Bush’s parental-rebellion is contrasted with Cheney’s “who gives a damn”’ wilding. Because Bush and Cheney both attended Yale, they had some common experience but Bush graduated; Cheney did not. This detail reinforces the argument that Bush may have respected Cheney but felt more qualified to be the decider; not only by virtue of position but by virtue of accomplishment. Baker infers that possibility, particularly in the second term of Bush’s administration.
Cheney offers his resignation before the second election campaign. The decision to invade Iraq is perceived to be hugely influenced by Cheney and Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense. The mistaken intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is a potential re-election killer. Bush considers Cheney’s resignation but chooses not to accept.
Baker suggests that Bush moves away from Cheney toward the end of his first four years in office. Baker reports that some Cheney’ colleagues felt resignation was a Machiavellian-Cheney’ gesture to keep his position; others suggest it was a fall-on-his-sword move to protect the leader; a needed act to get Bush re-elected.
Internal conflicts in “W’s” administration show politics at its best and worst. When Bush pushes for a revision in the Medicare prescription plan for senior citizens, he is stonewalled by his own party on a vote for approval. Baker suggests passage was dead in the water until Bush tacitly agrees, with an Arizona Republican congressman (Trent Franks), to fight any attempt to appoint a Supreme Court Justice that supports women’s rights to abortion. The Medicare prescription plan barely passes, after the meeting.
Bush’s judgment is called into question when he tries to get Harriet Miers appointed to the Supreme Court. Bush believes Miers is qualified without fully vetting her background and education. Ms. Miers, though a lawyer, is shown to be ignorant of basic legal interpretations of practiced law. President Trump has had his share of judgement questions in his foolish twitter comments.
A QUESTION OF LEADERSHIP JUDGEMENT
Baker explores hard feelings between Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Condoleeszza Rice. Rumsfeld mentored Cheney but was dismissed by President Bush in his second term; in part, because of Abu Ghraib but largely because of pentagon and secret service chafing under Rumsfeld management style. Rice succeeds Colin Powell as Secretary of State in the second administration.
Bush felt Powell was not a team player and that he used the media to get around disagreements with Rumsfeld’s military defense decisions. Rice steers the State Department back to diplomacy from being an adjunct of defense. President Trump’s Attorney General is called out as “not a team player” but not for the same reason as Powell.
BOTH BUSH AND TRUMP ENDORSED TORTURE IN INTERROGATION OF POLITICAL PRISONERS.
Baker reflects on the “torture” memorandum approval by John Yoo, Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General, during “W’s” first administration. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” were approved for the CIA by Bush with Yoo’s tortured legal reasoning. Dick Cheney insists torture saved lives after 9/11. Trump endorses water boarding as a justified torture of political prisoners.
Bush’s second term also replaces John Ashcroft with Alberto Gonzales as U. S. Attorney General. Baker infers the change is due to Ashcroft’s refusal to reverse a Justice Department ruling on a part of the Patriot Act regarding privacy. On the other hand, it could have been Ashcroft’s health. With Ashcroft’s refusal to sign Bush’s reaffirmation of the law, Bush chose to overrule Ashcroft and the Justice Department by Executive Order.
Baker shows how and why Americans have become so closely divided over Bush’s war on terror; his belief in democracy as a guarantee of freedom, and the inference that privacy is a privilege, not a right.
Though it is too soon to write an unbiased history of “W’s” time in office, Baker reports some interesting details about the George W. Bush’ years. Both Bush and Cheney survive the days of fire but Cheney appears more scarred than Bush at the end of Baker’s tale. America seems more divided today; not only in regard to the war on terror, but in more ways than realized during George W. Bush’s administration.
In Trump’s administration, the country seems as divided as it was in the Bush/Cheney years. But, of course, views of the Bush and Trump administration are without the perspective of history. History has hugely changed perceptions of Presidents Grant, Wilson, Eisenhower Truman, Kennedy, and Nixon since their deaths.
Some Presidents were considered better; some worse, when they were leaders. One wonders how the 22nd century will look at the George W. and Trump years.
The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin
Written by: Steven Lee Myers
Narration by: Rene Ruiz
Vladimir Putin is no Tsar. Steven Lee Myers has written a highly polished and informative biography but fails to convince one that Putin is a Tsar. Putin is more Richard Nixon than Catherine the Great. Putin, like Nixon, is smart and thin-skinned. Putin, like Nixon, makes personnel decisions based on loyalty, and views the world in real-politic terms.
Myers shows that Putin comes from a family of Russian patriots with a grandfather and father that fought in Russian armies in different generations. Each lived during the Stalinist years of Gulags and terror but none rebelled against the power of Russia’s leadership.
Myers explains how Putin becomes interested in the KGB at the age of 16 and grooms himself for a life in the secret service. Putin’s KGB-influenced’ career-path is to become an attorney. He learns German and is assigned to East Germany in his first years as a KGB agent.
Myers explains how Putin’s steely disposition grows in East Germany, and later St Petersburg, Russia. Putin keeps a low profile but exhibits bravery, independence, and initiative when his country’s leaders are overwhelmed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain.
Putin becomes the “go-to” guy for the Mayor of Leningrad (aka St. Petersburg). Putin’s relationship to the Mayor of Leningrad, Anatoly A. Sobchak, is founded on loyalty. Sobchak is initially recognized as a representative of new Russia but the power of his position is diminished by the ineptitude of his administration. In spite of Sobchak’s mistakes, Myers shows that Putin stands by him. Loyalty is a characteristic of Putin that is expected of all who work with him. Eventually Sobchak is electorally defeated and Putin is left out of a job.
Russia is unlikely to be ruled by a Tsar again because its population is better educated; aware of the value of qualified freedom, insured by relative social stability and security. Russia is equally unlikely to return to a repeat of U. S. S. R.’s hegemonic control because ethnic nationalism and the desire for greater freedom are unquenchable thirsts. This is not to say Russia will not remain a major international power and influence in the world. Nuclear capability and cybernetics guarantees Russia’s position in world affairs.
Forcing the Ukraine or Georgia to return to the Russian block or quelling Chechen resistance is beyond the military strength of Russia’s Putin or his successors. Reassembly of a form of the U. S. S. R. is only conceivable based on political accommodation based on economic influence or volitional federation. Neighboring countries can only be seduced; i.e. either by economics, or cybernetic influence. A majority vote of neighboring countries; not military dominion, will be the “modus vivendi” for Russian expansion.
But what about the Crimea. It is a part of the Ukraine.
An argument can be made that territory of the Crimea is not an exception; it is proof of the point. Millions of dollars were spent by Russia to modernize Crimea for the Olympics. Undoubtedly, a great deal of time was spent influencing Crimea’s population (which is ethnically 65% Russian). It is conceivable that a majority of the Crimea residents voted to become part of Russia.
Of course, this sets aside the truth of Crimea’s territorial and nationalist connection with Ukraine. One might argue this is analogous to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Hitler used the excuse that ethnic Germans were being abused in the Sudetenland. In this view, Putin is no Tsar; i.e. he is more Stalinist.
(To make the Sudetenland the equivalent of the Crimea one might ask oneself if the majority in the Sudetenland were ethnic Germans, and was there a vote by Sudetenland residents.)
Myers cogently reveals the strengths and weaknesses of modern Russian rule. In a limited sense (limited by Myers’ independent research and fact checking), Myers’ corroborates the experience noted in William Browder’s book, “Red Notice”. Putin is certainly capable of undermining the influence or action of any person in Russia who chooses to challenge his authoritarianism.
In spite of Putin’s great power, Myers shows there are chinks in his invincibility. Putin’s sly manipulation for re-election after Medvedev’s only term as President fails to quell the desire for freedom of Russian citizens. Just as Watergate exposed the hubris of Nixon, Putin will suffer from the sin of being a flawed human being. Putin, like Nixon, is a great patriot of his country but neither exhibit the inner moral compass that make good leaders great leaders. This is a reminder of today’s American President who is focused on the business of America; not its role as a beacon for freedom and equality of opportunity.
Myers creates a convincing portrait of a man who is subject to the sins of most who rise to power. Putin believes he has become a god among men. He rationalizes his greed by thinking the fate of Russia’s re-ascendance lies in his hands. Even in the days of Stalinist governance, relationship to the leader was the sine ne quo of wealth and power. Putin carries on that tradition. Putin’s friends and associates from the KGB and his tenure in St. Petersburg are critical components of Putin’s control of the economy and government.
Putin is no Tsar but he could have been if education had not advanced society and freedom of expression had not entered the internet age.
Malcolm X has been in the news lately. Some Malcom X’ papers have been found that seem to reveal a new vision of the man. However Manning Marable’s biography of Malcom X suggests the papers were never lost. Malcolm X’s life became an open book.
Driving to the office the other day, while waiting for a traffic light to change, a well-dressed youngish black man offers a newspaper titled “The Final Call” to anyone willing to make a donation to its publication. “The Final Call” is the official paper of the “Nation of Islam” (NOI) that covers news worthy events of black America and expounds the philosophy of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of NOI in the United States.
After reading a couple of “The Final Call” papers, one can understand its appeal because it offers news about black experience in America. However, every edition has one page dedicated to the philosophy of the “Nation of Islam” as a religious movement. It states blacks and whites must have separate nations with their own governments; including dedicated land for Nation of Islam’ believers, qualified by the color of their skin.
“Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” is an educational tour de force of the good and not so good aspects of the NOI movement in the United States. Acknowledging my personal skepticism about “organized religion”, the Nation of Islam has the same negative qualities of all organized religions; it makes claims of divine authority for humans that have the same failings of all humans; i.e. lust, and greed for money, power, and prestige.
Men like Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan offer a sense of pride and belief in oneself that every human being owns when they are born. But they, like all human beings, are not perfect. One can cast stones at Elijah Muhammad’s infidelity, Malcolm X’s incitement to riot, or Louis Farrakhan’s belief that a Black person can only be free in a Black nation, but what human being has not lusted for sex or coveted money, power, and prestige?
Manning Marable, the author of this book, was (he died in April of 2011) a professor of African-American Studies at Columbia University. This American historian, with the help of Alex Haley (author of “Roots” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”), has written this book to educate ignorant Americans on the NOI movement in the United States.
Though “Malcolm: A Life of Reinvention” is primarily about Malcolm Little’s (Malcolm X’s) life, it tells the history of the Nation of Islam and the rise of its current leader, Louis Farrakhan Muhammad, Sr.
Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. In the last year of his life, he split from NOI because he did not believe America could be separate and equal for black and white Americans; i.e. he endeavored to make NOI a political; not just religion-based, black organization. This was a contradiction to the Nation of Islam leader’s teaching, which may have led to his assassination. Malcolm Little’s transition from uneducated hoodlum to Malcolm X, a self-educated political activist and religious leader, is a well told story in Marable’s book.
With the election of Barack Obama, one is inclined to believe Malcolm X was on the right trail (the political power trail) and Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam in the United States, was mistaken because he relegated the black movement to an extreme form of religion; akin to nationalism, that has the same social baggage carried by right-wing propagandists like George Lincoln Rockwell, the American Nazi Party leader of the early 60s.
Louis Farrakhan Muhammad continues Elijah Muhammad’s message by insisting on NOI’s adherence to religious, economic, and political separation of black and white people. In a practical and bigoted sense, Rockwell and Farrakhan are allies in extremis.
Malcolm X is not a saint in this biography. He is shown to be a hoodlum in transition but he touches the nerves and lives of black and white America. Malcolm X lives and dies in America’s effort to become a true land of the free, with equality of opportunity for all.
Malcolm X’s life story kindles fear and hope in a world populated by “all too human” human beings.
BEN BRADLEE, JR. (AUTHOR, WRITER-EDITOR FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
Nearly two-thirds of “The Kid” is about Ted Williams as an extraordinary ballplayer, fisherman, and sports spokesman; the remaining third details Williams’ failure as a husband and father. Ted Williams marries three times, and divorces three times; he philanders as a husband, and ignores the early lives of his three children; i.e. the first from wife number one; the two others from wife number three.
Ben Bradlee, Jr. pulls no punches in recounting parts of Williams’ life that Ted Williams would possibly regret; that is, if the psychological picture painted by Bradlee is correct. After finishing Bradlee’s book, one believes Williams would lament mistakes made in his family life. Williams’ drive for perfection and fragile self-confidence left little time for a wife’s needs, or a child’s parenting.
THE SWING KING :
The price of Williams’ obsession for “being the best” is three divorces, an older daughter that rebels against convention, a son that feels entitled, and a daughter who idolizes, fears, and desires her father’s attention. All of Williams’ wives are beautiful but a handsome husband with a beautiful wife is shown by Bradlee’s story to be a small part of a happy marriage. Bradlee suggests infidelity, anger, and single-minded focus destined Ted Williams for divorce.
Williams seems only able to maintain a relationship with a woman who tolerates his imperfections; not as a sycophant, but as an ally; i.e. a woman who complements his strengths and accepts his weaknesses. Only one woman, whom he does not marry, fulfills that description; i.e. his lifelong admirer, Louise Kaufman.
Bradlee exposes raw facts about Williams’ children. His oldest child, Bobby-Jo, is committed to a psychiatric ward for mental instability, is released, gets married, philanders, becomes an alcoholic, has two children, divorces, and is disowned by Williams.
BOBBY-JO WILLIAMS FERRELL AND THEN HUSBAND MARK IN 2002. (As his first child, Bobby Jo, flirts with insanity, Williams provides financial support but very little personal attention. At the end of his life, Williams removes Bobby Jo from his will, except for a $200,000 life insurance annuity. )
Williams only boy, John-Henry, is characterized as a thief that steals his mother’s paintings, borrows money against Ted Williams’ name (without his knowledge), fails to pay it back, and lies about it. John-Henry trades on his father’s reputation as though he is entitled.
Bradlee tells a story of John-Henry’s selling Ted Williams’ signed memorabilia and then brag about his ability to forge his father’s name. Claudia, John-Henry’s sister, refuses to believe John-Henry forges their father’s signature. She chooses to make her own way in life by living abroad, learning French and German, and establishing her own identity without the influence of her father’s reputation.
CLAUDIA WILLIAMS (WROTE A MEMOIR-MY FATHER-ABOUT TED WILLIAMS)
Late in Williams’ life, Bradlee shows Williams expresses love for John-Henry and Claudia but, in the progress of their maturity, they assert their independence either in self-interested affection or rebellion. Fatherly influence in his children’s early life seems limited. William’s way of living life and his acquired wealth seem his most pronounced paternal influences.
Bradlee infers Williams had little time for his children until retired from baseball. Even then, professional fishing took the place of fatherhood; at least, until much later in Williams’ life. As an example of William’s love for his children, Bradlee notes Williams proudly attends a college graduation ceremony for his son and sheds prideful tears for John-Henry’s accomplishment. Later, it becomes known that John-Henry did not really graduate. He is 3 credits short; e.g. one of several deceptions by John-Henry that are forgiven or discounted by Williams.
Bradlee savages John-Henry’s reputation by inferring that, though he loves his father, he reeks of dishonesty, feels entitled by paternity, and tarnishes Ted Williams’ fame and name.
Bradlee’s biography of Ted Williams ends sadly with the picture of a ravaged legend that appears to have sacrificed too much to become the greatest hitter in baseball. Bradlee shows Ted Williams as a towering sports figure but a tiny, unimpressive husband and father.
Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Dwight Eisenhower defines the meaning of political leadership. Smith does not show Eisenhower to be a great intellect or military genius. Smith suggests Eisenhower is similar to Ulysses Grant in having come from a modest family to rise to the office of President of the United States.
Like Grant, Eisenhower is shown to be a consummate leader who politically manages and develops people who understand how to get things done. Unlike Grant, Smith shows Eisenhower to be a better President than battlefield commander.
The newly revealed Eisenhower monument in Washington D.C. shows Eisenhower in command of others. It correctly infers Eisenhower is a leader who trusts others to be the best they can be. Eisenhower is not a doer but a manager of others who do.
Eisenhower leads Allied forces on D-Day by using the best battlefield generals of WWII. Smith implies–without the Allied generals’ experience in battle, Eisenhower would likely have failed on D-Day.
Smith notes that Eisenhower had minimal combat experience. The one time Eisenhower directly manages a battle is in Sicily. If it had not been for superior manpower and material, Smith argues Eisenhower would have been defeated. Smith goes on to suggest that British Field General Montgomery is unjustly scapegoated for Eisenhower’s Italian campaign mistakes.
Smith also notes Montgomery’s role in D-Day is unfairly characterized. Montgomery argues for concentrated forces at critical points in German defenses; while Eisenhower demands a broad frontal attack along the entire front. Eisenhower’s tactics, in some generals’ opinions, prolong the end of the war by six months; i.e. increasing the casualty count and stalling Montgomery’s advance on Omaha Beach.
However, Smith’s biography of Eisenhower shows that military successes and failures make him a perfect political leader.
Smith reveals an inner moral compass that defines Eisenhower’s beliefs and decisions. Eisenhower uses that moral compass to become Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in WWII; and later, President of the United States.
Smith infers, despite tactical failures as a battlefield commander, Eisenhower’s innate ability to get things done through other people make him one of the great twentieth century American Presidents.
Smith offers a comprehensive picture of Eisenhower. Eisenhower is no moral saint. His power as Allied forces’ general leads to the Somersby affair even as Eisenhower professes a deep need and affection for his wife, Mamie.
Somersby appears to have been loved by Eisenhower, but she is unceremoniously dumped in a “Dear John” letter when Eisenhower is ordered back to the United States. On the one hand, Smith is showing Eisenhower is human; on the other, Smith is showing the perfidy of men in power positions.
Smith explains Eisenhower’s path to the presidency. A part of that trail is festooned with Eisenhower’s sense of duty, but it is also tainted by the power and glory of high office. Eisenhower is solicited by both Democratic and Republican parties. In the end, the Republican platform more closely adheres to Eisenhower’s belief in fiscal conservatism.
However, Smith shows Eisenhower to be a domestic social liberal. Eisenhower is no ideologue. The inner compass that directs Eisenhower’s life recognizes the cruelty of poverty, the shallowness of red-baiting exemplified by Joseph McCarthy, and the importance of patience when dealing with international and domestic affairs.
Eisenhower resists the hawkish tendencies of his Republican colleagues. He insists on withdrawal from the Korean conflict. Eisenhower abjures any suggestion that nuclear bombs should be used to attack American enemies. He forthrightly confronts Governor Faubus when the governor refuses to integrate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.
On the other hand, Eisenhower succumbs to the machinations of his defense department and several covert plans to overthrow foreign governments. Though Eisenhower initially rejects a British assassination plot against Mossadegh in Iran, he changes his mind when he begins to believe oil availability is more important than one human life.
Though Mossadegh dies from natural causes, America supports a military junta that overthrows Iran’s government. Eisenhower’s support of the overthrow is based on British settlement of an Iranian oil agreement with Iran, and Iranian oil availability in the United States.
Eisenhower also mistakenly establishes the domino theory of communist infiltration. Though he refuses to support the French in Indochina, he believes the fall of Vietnam will expand communism in Southeast Asia. Eisenhower sets the table for Kennedy’s and Johnson’s mistakes in Vietnam.
Eisenhower is well-known for his opposition to the military/industrial complex growing in America. He insists on balancing the budget by reducing military expenditure. He reduces financing for American military forces while strengthening Air Force capability as a more modern military deterrent. Eisenhower faces down numerous military commanders that insist on expanding conventional forces that can intercede in foreign conflicts without employing weapons of mass destruction (an argument that is being made by today’s military establishment).
Smith shows that Eisenhower refuses to balance the budget by cutting domestic programs that serve the poor and aged. Eisenhower presses unsuccessfully for increases in medical services for the American public (quite different from today’s Republican President).
Smith offers a balanced picture of Dwight Eisenhower. America benefited from Eisenhower’s political acumen. He may not rank with Washington and Lincoln, but he drew from an inner moral compass that makes human beings as good as they are capable of being.
In contrast to America’s current President, Eisenhower made one proud to be an American.