The Club (Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age)
By: Leo Damrosch
Narrated by Simon Vance
Leo Damrosch (American author and professor of Literature at Harvard)
“The Club” is more of a biography of James Boswell than “…the Friends Who Shaped an Age”.
James Boswell (1740-1795, died at 54, Lawyer, diarist, biographer.).
Though many pages reflect on Samuel Johnson (best known for the “Dictionary of The English Language”), the primary source of information on Johnson, as well as “…the Friends…”, appears to come from Boswell’s diary and notes.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784, died at age 75, Author, poet, playwright, moralist, editor, and lexicographer.)
An irony of Damrosch’s story is that Boswell neither has the intellectual depth nor historical significance of Johnson or many of the “…Friends who shaped an Age”. What Leo Damrosch explains is Boswell is a great mime for the opinions and voices of Johnson and Friends. Damrosch suggests Boswell is the first biographer to capture natural dialog with detailed features of friends and acquaintances.
In some ways, Boswell is like a court jester, eliciting laughter and opinion in a court of higher-ranking superiors.
Damrosch is not denigrating Boswell’s contribution to historical information but shows Boswell as a bon vivant, rather than an intellectual. “The Club” is an association of writers, artists, and thinkers formed in a London tavern in the 1760s. Damrosch notes that the club is formed by Joshua Reynolds, a noted portrait artist. In addition to Reynolds, the original members are Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, John Hawkins, Topham Beauclerk, Anthony Chamier, Bennet Langton, and Christopher Nugent. To become a member of the club, one is elected by existing members.
Sir Joshua Reynold’s Club
Boswell, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith become members in the 1770s. From an American perspective, the names of Reynolds, Johnson, Burke, Gibbon, and Smith are the best known. Many will recognize Reynolds for portrait paintings of famous people of that time. Reynold’s portraits are in galleries today. Damrosch notes the portraits represent the best of what a person looks like with creative enhancements of the subject’s best features. Burke is famous for vilification of the French Revolution and his conservative views of government. Gibbon is famous for his “…History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, and Johnson for his dictionary.
Contrary to what Damrosch notes, it does not appear David Garrick, a famous Shakespearean actor and producer, was in that club but had his own tavern club called the Garrick Club. Garrick had been a pupil of Samuel Johnson. Damrosch may have identified Garrick as a member of “The Club” because of his association with Johnson.
David Garrick (1717-1779, died age 62, English actor, playwright, theater manager, and producer.)
Boswell is characterized by Damrosch as an excellent conversationalist because of an ability to listen and ask questions that have interest for those whom he questions. However, at times, Damrosch notes Johnson becomes irritated with Boswell’s questions because of their vacuous value. The example given is Boswell’s question to Johnson about why Apples are round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips.
Boswell’s question to Johnson-why are Apples round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips?
Damrosch shows Boswell comes from a wealthy, aristocratic family. He is the eldest son, in line to receive the wealth of his family when his father dies. Boswell moves to London to become an attorney but fails to learn his profession well enough to be financially or reputationally successful. He meets Johnson whom he admires, and through association, Boswell manages to meet the movers and shakers of his day. Boswell becomes a diarist that records his life and the lives of people he meets. His writing makes him famous, largely because of his association with Samuel Johnson and his remarkable ability to reproduce the natural conversation of “…Friends Who Shaped an Age”.
Boswell, from Damrosch’s description, is a hedonist. He lives for pleasure from conversation with luminaries, drinking to excess, and dalliance with women of the street and lovers whom he seduces.
Boswell is characterized as a pursuer of women who have an interest in sexual encounters for pay or pleasure. Boswell’s lifestyle leads to periodic treatment for crabs and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Damrosch notes that Boswell marries but continues his profligate behavior. Boswell professes love and remorse to his wife, who knows of his dalliances. She bares his behavior and accepts his remorse. His wife dies of consumption with seeming disregard by Boswell’s self-absorption.
Margaret Boswell (1738-1789. died at age 51.)
Boswell inherits his father’s wealth but squanders it and fails as a barrister. Nearing the end of his life, he produces the best biography of Samuel Johnson ever written. It becomes a best seller in his time and is still read by some today. Damrosch notes Boswell’s contribution to biography is in making his subjects human by including detailed descriptions of their appearance, and emotive qualities.
More detailed information about the lives of Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith would have made “The Club” more interesting to this reviewer but any who have listened to other narratives by Simon Vance will be pleased by Damrosch’s story. At the least, a struggling writer may be encouraged to keep a diary of life’s events to become a better author.
William Taubman (Author, Political Science professor at Amherst College, received 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Biography of Krushchev.)
The length of William Taubman’s audiobook requires a Gorbachev II review. The first review addresses Gorbachev’s personal life. The second reflects on Gorbachev’s political life. Gorbachev’s life is suffused with great accomplishment and tragic failure.
Georgy Malenkov replaces Joseph Stalin after his death in 1953. Malenkov is believed to be a reformist who plans to reduce military spending and Stalinist suppression.
However, within weeks, Malenkov is pushed aside by Nikita Khrushchev who takes supreme power within two years of Stalin’s death. Surprisingly, Khrushchev becomes something of a reformist himself.
Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971, First Secy. of the Communist Party 1953-1964)
Stalin’s autocratic, paranoid leadership is semi-privately exposed by Khrushchev in a speech to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Khruschev’s vilification of Stalinist suppression, imprisonment, and murder eventually become known to the world.
The overriding concern of Russian leaders is to maintain suzerainty over Baltic nations and satellite territories in the face of ethnic and economic diversity. Taubman notes older Russian leaders tend toward autocratic dictate to maintain political control. The younger and more politically astute lean toward confederation of adjacent soviet republics and East Berlin with the U.S.S.R. as an umbrella organization. Gorbachev is in the “politically astute” group.
Mikhail Gorbachev rises to chairman of the Communist Party and eventual President of the U.S.S.R., with the expressed intent of democratizing the Baltics, Russia, and East Berlin into a democratic socialist block. However, ethnic, and cultural differences, accompanied by general economic failure, defeat Gorbachev’s unionist objective.
There is no question of Gorbachev’s success in democratizing U.S.S.R.’ citizens.
However, in that democratization, the drive for independence becomes paramount to the satellite countries. German reunification, and the breakaway of Baltic nations from the U.S.S.R. is inevitable. Freedom, based on ethnic and cultural identity, surmount all efforts by Gorbachev to reinstate U.S.S.R. suzerainty. Only by force could the U.S.S.R. prevail over state and territorial independence. Taubman notes force is not within Gorbachev’s nature as a leader.
Once socialist democracy is dangled before the electorate, the die is cast. Gorbachev’s governance could not provide enough economic stability to justify confederation. That is his tragic failure.
Gorbachev’s immense success is liberating millions of former U.S.S.R. citizens. With liberation, former citizens of the U.S.S.R. return to govern as citizens of their own countries. This at a time of Reagan’s conservative government in the United States, and European distrust of U.S.S.R. militarization. Taubman shows Gorbachev becomes an international hero based on his personality and persuasive power. He is greeted as the great liberator of the twentieth century even though his primary objective is to retain those countries seeking freedom within the U.S.S.R.
Gorbachev raised the bar for nuclear disarmament by cultivating American and European participation in the reduction of nuclear weapons.
Taubman explains Gorbachev is a tragic hero because momentum-of-change is halted by a cult of personality, compounded by economic insecurity. Gorbachev is replaced by acting President, Alexander Rutskoy, after the 1993 constitutional crises. Rutskoy is replaced by a second acting President, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Boris Yeltsin succeeds Chernomyrdin as President in an overlapping term.
The Russian economy falters in its transition from communism to democratic socialism. Russian history of “rule-of-one” reasserts itself with the rise of an incompetent President (Boris Yeltsin) and an autocratic but effective leader, Vladimir Putin. Taubman suggests and infers Gorbachev’s success, and world history in general, are two steps forward with one step backward. Based on historical precedent of “one-man-rule” (dating back to czarist Russia) Taubman’s inference seems spot-on.
Gorbachev flipped a switch that released the power of democracy but failed to provide adequate economic infrastructure to assure U.S.S.R. survival. Taubman optimistically infers economic infrastructure of eastern bloc countries will improve overtime, even with autocratic leadership by people like Vladimir Putin.
The growth of democracy has always been messy, but it moves forward in the face of temporary setbacks. Spheres of influence will always be in play. It seems a matter of time for another Gorbachev to make two more steps forward with a repeat of the next leader’s “one-step-backward”. Taubman reminds readers of America’s trial in the civil war. Slavery is abolished but institutional racism remains a work in progress. The risk is that the world destroys itself before freedom and economic security become real for all.
Destined for War (Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
By: Graham Allison
Narrated by Richard Ferrone
Graham Allison (Author, American political scientist, Professor of Government at Harvard.)
Allison briefly reviews the history of war to reinforce an argument about its causes. He suggests wars come from the rise of competing hegemonic powers. A quibble one may have with Allison’s argument is that it diminishes reasons beyond power that led to WWII. The rise of Hitler may not have occurred if reparations for WWI had not been excessive. However, his main point is that cultural differences are seeds from which power and conflict grows. Allison suggests, when nation-state’ cultures are different, countries competing for political and economic power incline toward war. He gives many relevant and convincing examples.
Graham Allison suggests the cause of war is defined by Thucydides (Greek Historian of the Pelopnnnesian War, Born 460-455 B.C., Died 400 B.C.) in the fifth century BC.
The “Thucydides’s trap” is when one country achieves a competitive level of political power it challenges existing hegemonic powers, leading to conflict and probable war.
Allison argues that war is not inevitable but that to avoid it requires acceptance of spheres of influence. This is not a new concept. The terms “sphere of influence” became legally significant in the 1880s when Africa was being colonized by European countries. It was meant to explain a colonizer’s political claim for exclusive control of a particular area of the world.
Allison notes that China’s Chairman Xi is, in a singular respect, the same as America’s Ex-President, Donald Trump. That “sameness” is Xi’s goal of making China “Great Again”. In no other respect, does Xi seem comparable to the bombastic Trump.
Allison explains China is culturally unique based on its history, reaching back to 1600 B.C. Like Ancient Egypt (3400-3200 B.C.), China is as culturally different as any nation-state in the world. Allison offers a highly intelligent and informative analysis of how different Chinese culture is from American culture.
To avoid war, Allison argues America, the current hegemon of the world, must couch its political behavior and power in ways that acknowledge cultural difference between itself and rising hegemons of the world.
Allison recalls the history of England’s dealings with America after the 1776 revolution. England reluctantly accepted America’s eventual rise to hegemon of the world. (Some would argue, England’s decision to remove itself from the European Union accelerates that decline.)
The United Kingdom’s economic, military, and political power (its sphere of influence) diminishes as America’s flourishes. England remains a power in the world, but its sphere of influence steadily declines.
Russia struggles with their sphere of influence because of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. In 2021-22 Russia may invade Ukraine, just as they did Crimea in 2014, to re-expand its sphere of influence. Russia maneuvers to politically enlist China as an ally to accomplish that end. Putin undoubtedly cultivates China’s objection to America’s attempt to expand its sphere of influence in the far east.
The issues of Ukraine and Georgia are more precarious for Russia than the rest of the world. Putin’s demand to expand Russia’s sphere of influence renews a cold war that will inevitably become hot. The only question is where the heat will lie.
Ukraine and Georgia will become Putin’s Vietnam. It is a war that can only be resolved at the expense of many Russian’, Ukrainian’, and Georgian’ soldier’s lives. The most other countries can do is support Ukrainian and Georgian resistance while pursuing a diplomatic solution that respects sovereign independence.
The inference one draws from Allison’s book is that America must recognize the cultural difference between itself and China to avoid war. Like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and other hegemons of world history, America must gradually adjust its behavior as a hegemon of the world. America, like all hegemonic powers, effectively operates within a sphere of influence. America’s sphere of influence is being challenged in the Far East by China.
Allison’s view of the world gives weight to Putin’s great concern about Ukraine’s independence and implied wish to join NATO. The fear Putin has is a reminder of even Gorbachev’s opposition to western encroachment on eastern bloc independence.
The sense one draws from Allison’s insight about culture is that no country in history has ever treated its citizens equitably. In America, the stain of slavery and native Indian displacement remain festering wounds. When and if those wounds heal, America’s sphere of influence will either grow or diminish. In China, it may be the wounds of Uighur discrimination and Han superiority that wounds its future as a hegemon. In Afghanistan, the unfair treatment of women may doom its sphere of influence. In Russia, it will be the mistakes Putin makes in violating the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia.
Every nation’s sphere of influence is affected by internal cultural errors and external cultural influences. Only a state that adjusts to the demands of its culture will survive. Culture is not exportable, but it has weight. Foreign cultures can only be an influencer to other countries. A culture imposed by force will fail as both America and France proved in Vietnam. Cultural change must come from its own citizens as it did with the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
Spheres of influence evolve. They are not static.
America’s goal should be to understand other cultures. In that understanding, there must be acceptance of a competitor’s sphere of influence. Allison is not suggesting America withdraw from the world stage, but that engagement be along the lines of a containment strategy like that proposed by the former ambassador to Russia, George Kennan, in the 1950s. Kennan’s long memorandum is born of an intimate understanding of Russian culture.
Allison argues America should pursue a policy of minimizing conflict while promoting democracy to citizens who seek freedom and equality.
Allison recommends engagement with rising hegemonic powers with an eye on their respective cultures. Allison argues, only with understanding of cultural difference is there a way to avoid Thucydides’ trap.
One cannot deny the economic success of China. At the same time, anyone who has visited China in recent years knows of dissidents who object to communist monitoring and control of citizen freedom. Tiananmen Square remains a rallying point for mainland China resistors. Hong Kong continues to demonstrate against Xi’s influence on the lives of local business owners. Taiwan objects to Xi’s intent to repatriate their island country. Tibetans are denied their rights as followers of Buddhist belief.
Black Wave (Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry)
By: Kim Ghattas
Narrated by: Kim Ghattas, Nan McNamara
Kim Ghattas (Author, Dutch Lebanese Journalist for the BBC)
Kim Ghattas capsulizes the causes of cultural and religious conflict in the Middle East. Her complex explanation of politics in the Middle East shows the importance of religious freedom and the negative consequence of mixing religion in nation-state governance. Ghattas’s intimate understanding and experience in the Middle East illustrates how ignorant America has been in confronting Middle Eastern leaders in their struggle for peace in their own countries.
“Black Wave” is a difficult book to summarize. Some reader/listeners will conclude from Gattis’s book that the heart of Middle Eastern conflict is religious intolerance. However, it is not religion itself but political leaders who distort religious belief for personal power that roils the world. America has its own religious zealotry, but it is tempered by a political culture that demands freedom of religion, independent of political governance. It does not keep American political leaders from distorting religion for their own agendas, but it tempers its potential for state acceptance of orchestrated violence.
Osama bin Laden used religion to justify his directed murder of innocents. He sought political power at the expense of religion.
Ghattas dances around America’s bungled effort to democratize the Middle East. Some would argue Iran democratically elected an Imam to lead their country. Ghattas notes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia clearly fears popularly elected leaders.
In ancient times, the middle east is known as Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Empire, and Babylonia (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and today’s Saudi Arabia).
America’s self-interest has made many enemies in the Middle East. America is a cultural and political baby in respect to the ancient cultures of the Middle East. The birth of the Islamic religion dates to 7th century in Saudi Arabia.
As is true of all religions that have stood the test of time, the Islamic religion has broken into different factions that consider themselves Islamic but with different interpretations of their faith.
The added dimension of poverty, cultural identity, and economic inequality encourage belief in religion. A religious believer’s purpose in the world is to gain some peace in this world, with hope for eternal life in the next. Therein lies the source of much violence within and among all countries of the world. There can be little peace in a world where people are being indiscriminately murdered, starving and treated unequally.
An example of how violent and unfair nations can be is Syrian leaders’ murder of its own people.
Ghattas explains there are two major versions of the Islamic religion in the Middle East. One is Sunni, the other is Shite.
The hegemon for the Sunni Islamic religion lies in several countries but its center of power is Saudi Arabia. The center of power for Shite belief is Iran. “Black Wave” recounts a history of both power centers and how they use religious belief to increase their influence and power in the Middle East.
Ghattas argues religious interpretation is a tool used by Saudi Arabian’ and Iranian’ leadership to gain power and influence in the Middle East. Ghattas infers the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia do not believe in peaceful coexistence but in hegemonic power. They use the Islamic religion to maintain control of their power. When state power is threatened, their leaders’ resort to interpretations of Islam that preserve their control.
Citizens of any country may be murdered by zealots, domestic terrorists, or foreign invaders. Leaders seeking power care little for those who believe in an afterlife or the luxury of their current life as long as they are obedient servants of the state.
Ghattas recounts many examples of Middle Eastern leadership that show little concern for their citizens, e.g., Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi, Syria‘s gassing of Syrian citizens, and Iran’s imprisonment and torture of citizens who choose not to follow political leaders’ interpretations of the Koran.
Ghattas’s book implies the consequence of American ignorance of Islamic beliefs victimizes the poor, powerless, and disenfranchised. A western country that does not understand the subtlety of religious beliefs in the Middle East has little influence on the course of events. With a better understanding of Islamic faith and how it is being used by Saudi Arabia and Iran, there is some hope for peace.
Understanding and acceptance of those who fervently believe in a religion, along with economic opportunity for those who are victimized by hardship and/or violence, offers some hope for peace. Without understanding of foreign cultures and economic assistance for those victimized, world conflagration is an ever-present danger. One must ask oneself–how wise is it to use political policy or trade to victimize the poor and disenfranchised?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries (Author, associate professor of history at Ohio State University,)
A timely refresher on the civil rights movement is given by Hasan Kwame Jeffries in the “Great Figures of the Civil Rights Movement”. It is timely because of the resurrection of the assassination of Malcolm X and its reification of a fundamental split in the black civil rights movement in America.
Marcus Garvey (1887-1940, publisher and jornalist, black nationalist.)
Jeffries reminds us of the movement initiated by Marcus Garvey. Though the idea of a return to Africa has come up many times in the history of America, Garvey established a black movement for the creation of an independent African nation.
To one who believes in the principles of freedom and equality for all, the idea of equality through independence is wrong. All humans live on space ship earth. It is the principle of our equal humanness that preserves civilization. Separate is not equal. The problem is human freedom, equality, and equality of opportunity are works in progress toward a goal of equal treatment by society.
Women and minorities are not treated equally in America or in most places of the world. Since America’s beginning as a republic, many believed in qualified freedom, and a few in universal equality, but equality is falsely preached by white power and never achieved. Slavery is an undeniable truth in world history. In America, atrocities of black slavery in the south and institutional discrimination in the north are well documented. It is no wonder that Marcus Garvey successfully tapped into a desire of many black Americans to achieve equality through separation. Separation’s appeal is in its potential as a base for political power. Even though that power is limited by being a faction in a dominant social and political power structure.
What Jeffries shows is that Garvey is the father of the idea of Black Power that is symbolized by the Black Panther movement in the mid-20th century.
From Jeffries’ history, one can see and understand a more nuanced and broader American civil rights movement. White American power did not exhibit much understanding of the black power movement in the 1960s. White America responded with violence. White America murdered Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther Chairman and local leader. This unjust murder lies at the feet of the City of Chicago and the FBI.
Stokely Stanford Carmichael aka Kwame Ture (1941-1968, 4th Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.)
Jeffries notes the idea of Black Power came from a Stokely Carmichael’s rallying slogan in the 1960s. (The phrase is said by some to have originated in a non-fiction book, “Black Power”, written by Richard Wright and published in 1954.) Carmichael participates in the 1961 Freedom Rides in Alabama. They were organized by CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) to desegregate public transit services and restaurants. In 1961, Carmichael and others travel to Jackson, Mississippi to sit in a segregated restaurant. Carmichael, along with other freedom riders, is arrested for disturbing the peace. He is sent to prison for 53 days in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Because of Carmichael’s bravery and oratorical skill, he became a full-time organizer for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).
Of course, the stars of the non-violent black movement are best known as men like Martin Luther King.
King’s history is well known but Jeffries notes there were many black women that became extremely important to the movement for black emancipation. Ella Baker becomes involved with the NAACP (1938-53), SCLC (1957-60), and the initial foundation of SNCC (1960-66) as a black activist and highly successful recruiter. Rosa Parks becomes the face of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Diane Nash, as a Freedom Rider, is known for integrating lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. Nash is also a co-founder of SNCC. Fannie Lou Hamer fights for women’s rights as the vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi. The newly formed party successfully gets several local black politicians elected in Mississippi. Jeffries notes the FDP is less successful on a national level, but Hamer is elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964, and later serves in the Mississippi State Senate.
In order pictured left to right: Ella Josephine Baker (1903-1986, Political activist for the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC.), Rosa Parks (1913-2005, Civil Rights Activist, best known for the Montgomery bus boycott.), Diane Judith Nash (Freedom rider and co-founder of SNCC.), Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977, Civil rights leader, Vice charwoman of Freedom Democratic Party, Co-founder of National Women’s Political Caucus.)
Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998, spent 7 years in exile in Cuba, returned in 1975, joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and became a conservative Republican.)
Jeffries glosses over Eldridge Cleaver’s leadership in ambushing Oakland police officers (two officers were wounded) and his arrest and escape to Cuba to avoid trial. However, Kathleen Neal Clever, who married and divorce Cleaver, became an active member of the Black Panther Party that helped feed people, provide family medical care services, and provide transportation for families to visit loved ones in prison. Jeffries notes Kathleen Neal Clever came from an upper middle class black family and supported the early founders of the Black Panther organization with her father’s witting or unwitting financial support.
One of the most interesting chapters of Jeffries book is about Malcolm X, particularly because of the recent release of a wrongly accused assassin. Jeffries implies Malcolm X is assassinated by the Nation of Islam. Jeffries infers the assassination is related to Malcolm X’s disillusion with the founder’s (Elijah Muhammad) dissolute sexual behavior, and NOI’s belief that the races should be separated to form a black nation to compete with all nations.
Malcolm X came to believe all people are created equal in the eyes of God, while arguing the separatist ideal of NOI and Marcus Garvey were wrong. The history of Malcolm X’s journey through life is fascinating, short, and impactful. One cannot help but wonder how Malcom X could have changed the course of history had he not been assassinated.
Jeffries could have gone further back in history to tell the story of American black nationalism but he has done a great job of identifying the history of the 20th century heroes of the movement.
Robert Caro is a great biographer but his history of the early years of Lyndon Johnson is diminished by his political idealism.
Politics is the pursuit of power. Some pursue that power by any means necessary. Others may be less constrained, but the goal is the same–To Be Elected to Rule.
Caro shows the young Johnson as a Machiavellian politician in the vein of Donald Trump but without a silver spoon. History shows Johnson and Trump are willing to lie their way to power. Both are willing to do whatever it takes. Caro shows Johnson, like Trump, are bullies who intimidate subordinates to get what they want. There is no moral or ethical line that these two ex-Presidents would not cross to stay in power. Trump lost his second term because of rejection by the voters, and Johnson resigned because of embarrassment by Americans who opposed the Vietnam war.
Caro reveals Johnson’s bullying treatment of his wife and people who report to him.
Caro shows Johnson is far superior at getting his way when compared to Trump. Caro notes Johnson stole his first election to the Senate from former governor of Texas, Coke R. Stevenson.
Coke R. Stevenson (1888-1975, Former governor of Texas, died at age 87.)
Without big money contributors like Brown (of Brown and Root) to pay monitors to stuff ballot boxes in San Antonio, Texas, Lyndon Johnson would have lost. With a legal maneuver by Johnson’s friend, Abe Fortas, and illegal help from election monitors, Johnson beats Stevenson for election to the Senate by 97 votes. (Fortas became an Associate Supreme Court Justice appointed by Johnson in 1965. He resigned in disgrace for unethical practice in 1969.)
In every election, the elected is beholding to someone. Caro notes Brown and Root received a great deal of federal and State financed work in Texas because of Johnson’s support.
Johnson is shown to be a consummate politician, a good storyteller with the ability to persuade superiors like the leader of the House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn, to support his ideas. This is no small thing because Rayburn is history’s longest serving Speaker of the House, with possibly more power and influence than any past or modern Speakers of the House.
Sam Rayburn (1882-1961, 43rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.)
President Johnson, as the Senate Leader kissing the head of Sam Rayburn.
Caro notes Johnson uses his 6-foot, 2.5-inch height, to dominate associates who are either reporting, beholding, or superior to him.
Johnson is shown to be extraordinarily energetic when pursuing power. Caro explains how Johnson uses helicopter visits to Texas communities when he runs for the Senate against Stevenson. Johnson works himself into a frenzy that makes him ill (recurring kidney stones) because of an indefatigable need to do everything he can to be elected.
In Johnson’s presence, many were awed by his stories, even when they knew the stories were lies or gross exaggerations. During the war years, Caro notes how Johnson appeals to Texas voters by claiming he will go to the front to fight Germany and Japan. To fulfill that pledge, he accompanies a “band of brothers” flying a bombing mission on a Japanese island off the coast of Australia.
Johnson’s (Observer Mission in Austrailia during WWII.)
Caro explains Johnson’s only direct combat experience is as an observer in Australia.
In Caro’s telling, the mission did occur. There is great danger. The plane is damaged by enemy gun fire. Caro’s research shows Johnson maintains a cool demeanor during the flight. Johnson plays no combatant role in the mission. But, he was an observer on the plane when it is strafed by the Japanese.
Caro notes the story of the flight is changed many times. In Johnson’s retelling he explains he is a hero who fought in many bombing raids, a lie. Caro dispels Johnson’s brave hero characterization by telling of Johnson’s childhood that shows him to be a physical coward. Caro interviews former childhood friends who recall Johnson’s cowardice. When confronted with violence, Johnson is reported to lay down and kick his feet out to ward off anyone who might attack him.
Caro notes Johnson’s will power is extraordinary when it comes to doing whatever it takes to be elected to public office.
Caro’s research suggests Johnson is a focused and relentless seeker and user of power. Johnson could use his position for either good or bad depending on whether it increased or diminished his power. One example Caro gives is Johnson’s rejection of an oil interest offered to him by a constituent. It could make him rich. Johnson’s concern is it would diminish his chances for election to higher office if he were recognized as an oil interest’ owner.
In contrast to the oil interest rejection, Caro shows how Johnson acquires a radio station to become a source of income for his family and a tool for his political ambition. Johnson had been appointed to the FCC as a junior congressman. He used his influence with the FCC to acquire and grow the radio station, with his wife as the holder of record. A competitor is shut out of buying that station through Johnson’s influence with the FCC. The FCC also expedites the gift of a popular frequency that widely expands the radio station’s area of coverage in Texas.
Lady Bird and her ownership of KTBC in Texas.
“Means of Ascent” is not Caro’s finest work. Johnson is painted too harshly in the context of American Democracy.
Like America’s experience with Trump, there is much to hate about Johnson’s rise to the Presidency.
The reality is–Democracy is a messy process that brings both good and bad leaders to the world. No President of the United States has been totally bad or totally good. Democracy remains, and will always be, a work in progress.
Narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Cranham, Roger Allam, Brendan Coyle, Miriam Margolyes, Time Mcinnerny, Jamie Glover, Emily Bruni, Jenna Coleman, Joshua James, Hugh Skinner
Charles Dickens, Author.
Dickens appeal in the 21st century is magnified by economic change.
The industrial revolution, like the tech revolution, put people out of work. In Dickens’ time, Great Britain’s and the world’s industrial growth demanded change.
Today’s tech revolution demands the same. The change required is different in one sense and the same in another.
The industrial revolution occurred in a time of scarcity while the tech revolution takes place in a time of abundance. Both revolutions require training for new kinds of jobs.
Smog plagued Great Britain as it grew in the18th century.
(This is smog in today’s Beijing.)
Dickens is born in 1812 and dies in 1870. He witnesses and writes of the squalor that existed in London during his adult years. “A Christmas Carol” is one of many stories he wrote that reflects on the human cost of economic change.
London fog 1952
In 1952, the streets of London were enveloped in a fog caused by coal used for domestic heat and industrial production.
An incident of London fog in the 20th century is comparable, on a local scale, to the world’s pollution crises today. An estimated 4,000 people were said to have died, with 100,000 made ill because of unusual windless conditions in that year.
Today, air pollution is compounded by global warming.
“A Christmas Carol” is a reminder of the damage world leaders can do by ignoring the plight of those who are most directly impacted by economic change. Too many American leaders are acting like Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley by ignoring the Bob Cratchit s and Tiny Tim s of the world.
For those who may not remember, Scrooge and Marley were capitalists who believe all that matters in life is personal wealth. Marley comes back as a ghost to offer Scrooge a picture of past, present, and future Christmases, based on how he lives the remainder of his life.
Todays’ political leaders are in Jacob Marley’s ghostly presence with a chance to change the future for the Crachits, Tiny Tims, and wage earners of the world. The world needs leaders who are not blinded by the allure of money, power, and prestige at the expense of the jobless, homeless, and disenfranchised.
“A History of Wine in Ten Glasses” is a journey around the world of wine.
Paul Wagner is a wine instructor at (where else?) Napa Valley College.
There are several revelations about wine for us amateur wine drinkers. Thomas Jefferson tried and failed to create a good wine in his home state of Virginia.
Jefferson’s failure is related to a grapevine disease in Virginia’ soils that attacked the roots of plants he brought with him from his diplomatic mission in France. The root disease is discovered after Jefferson’s death. Once the disease is diagnosed and treated, Wagner notes Virginia began producing some fine wines.
Wagner dates the production of wine back to 6000 BC in what is now known as Georgia. Some would dispute that and suggest China had a rice and grape mixed fermented wine in 7000 BC. Others suggest Iran may have been the origin of the first wines on the the Persian Gulf. In any case, wine has been with us for centuries.
Wagner argues the Roman Empire is the primary disseminator of the art of wine making.
Rome’s conquest of countries surrounding the Mediterranean spread wine making throughout the known world, sometime between 27 BC and 476 AD. Even today, the greatest wine volume comes from Italy with France and Spain, the second and third biggest producers
More than ten glasses are identified by Wagner, but the primary libations are from Italy, France, Spain, U.S., Australia, Greece, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and Germany. However, Wagner takes side trips to smaller countries like Portugal and New Zealand.
Having traveled to some of these countries, his assessment of their wines seems spot on. Interestingly, his assessment of Chile’s inexpensive Malbec is a favorite of mine. In Italy, the selection of wine at dinner seems the simplest of all decisions. Rarely is red wine in Italy served that is too bitter or too sweet. Retsina in Greece is a horrible drink but adding water makes all the difference. Retsina remains an acquired taste but with water it becomes palatable. Traveling to Argentina and New Zealand confirms Wagner’s assessment of the quality of their wines.
The idea of adding water to wine is a surprise but Wagner notes added water was often the habit of early wine drinkers. (Of course, watered wine is common in religious ceremony.)
Wagner also notes that a pinch of salt can smooth the acidic taste of an inexpensive wine. Potassium chloride, not salt, is what is recommended by some wine connoisseurs.
German wine Labeling system.
A surprising note by Wagner is that German and New Zealand wines are tightly controlled by a labeling system to assure the quality of their wine.
Wagner reports on Germany’s and New Zealand’s precise label certification. One suspects precise wine labeling is a characteristic of the precisionist culture of Germany. However, New Zealand’s labeling is a result of some Marlborough wines that were contaminated by runoff from lumber harvesting activities in 2005. Both countries labeling assures the quality of their wines. Undoubtedly, there is a concomitant cost for the right label.
Wagner lives in Napa Valley and, not surprisingly, suggests many of the best wines in the world come from Napa Valley’ vineyards. Blind wine testing in Paris confirms his opinion. What he says is true about many Napa Valley wines, but prices of those great tasting wines are often higher than many can afford.
“A History of Wine in Ten Glasses” is a nice introduction to the vagaries and mysteries of wine selection. For we amateurs wine selection remains hit and miss because it is only our personal taste and affordability that matters.
Chopin is noted as a Romanticist composer considered among the most creative of all time. For that reason, the sound of Chopin’s work has changed with the times.
There are several ironies in Kildea’s history of Chopin. Chopin is shown to have been pleased by being considered French though he was Polish. Chopin is characterized as anti-Semitic though at times financially supported by Jews and resurrected by a world-renowned harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska, a proud and nationalist Pole who escaped Nazi persecution and extermination. Landowska, a woman of the Jewish faith, flees Paris when Germany invades France.
Wanda Landowska in front of the Bauza piano owned by Chopin.
One of her treasured pianos is the Bauza piano used by Chopin to create his greatest masterpieces, the Preludes.
George Sand (1804-1876, French novelist and 10 year companion of Chopin)
Kildea reflects on Chopin’s diminutive physique and self-effacing nature. Chopin never marries but has a ten-year relationship with George Sand, a divorced woman with a broadly libertine reputation.
One wonders what Sand’s influence is on Chopin’s creativity. What Kildea explains is that Sand admires Chopin’s dedication to music and supports Chopin through his frail health during the most productive period of his life. However, at the end of their ten year relationship, Sand leaves because the burden of their relationship is either too much or she just chooses to return to a life of independence.
The thread of Kildea’s history is the Bauza piano’s location in the 21st century. It’s whereabouts remains unknown.
This piano was used by Chopin between 1838-39 when living with George Sand in Majorca. A striking point in Kildea’s story is that the Bauza piano is a crudely formed instrument carved from local softwood. Its innards are made of felt, pig iron, and copper but its cultural importance is extraordinary and its provenance unquestioned. It disappeared when confiscated by Nazi Germany when they ransacked Landowska’s home in Paris.
Wanda Landowska in 1953.
The last half of Kildea’s story is about the trials and achievements of Wanda Landowska. In reflecting on Landowska’s rise to fame, the Bauza piano is a symbol of Chopin’s creative genius.
This flawed instrument is used to create compositions that are endlessly translated by pianoforte (soft and loud sound) from the use of harpsicords to modern Steinways. Landowska, and many pianists of the 19th through the 21st century are listed by Kildea, showing the brilliance and variety of Chopin’s compositions. Only a musical conductor turned author like Kildea could explain this to the public. “Chopin’s Piano” is a small opening to a big world.
Only historians and former secret service agents are likely to be enraptured by “The Sword and The Shield”. The book is based on a detailed record kept by Vassilli Mitrokhin when he served as major and senior archivist for the Soviet Union’s foreign intelligence service. To a generalist, Mitrokhin’s detailed naming of names is mind numbing.
Later chapters are more interesting than earlier chapters of “The Sword and The Shield” because they reveal details about motivation, interpretation, and consequence of spying during the cold war that have application to today’s American and Russian secret service.
However, cost is of little concern to a national government that believes international intelligence service is critical to its survival. Modern Russia is as beholding to its intelligence service today as it was when Joseph Stalin ruled the U.S.S.R. It is suggested by the authors that Stalin successfully prepared for a hegemonic agreement (resisted by Churchill) at the end of WWII with the help of intelligence gathered by Russian spies about FDR’s secretly held intensions. There is little reason to believe Putin thinks any differently about secret intelligence on American Presidents with whom he deals. Putin, like Stalin, undoubtedly uses the Russian secret service to spy on personal beliefs and activities of America’s presidents, or as many suggest, imprison or murder Russian dissidents.
Based on current events and this book, an argument may be made that human and material cost of an American intelligence service is necessary because of Russia’s driven intent to remain a world power by any means necessary. In this era of nationalism, it seems unlikely Russia will ever become another union of independent eastern block nations. However, Russia intends to strengthen its position as a world power regardless of other nation’s concerns or interventions.
Despite Russia’s drive to maintain world power–to paraphrase Martin Luther King’s optimism “The arc of history and the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Some argue we are entering a second cold war today. The questions is can we learn anything from secret service failures of the first cold war. “The Sword and The Shield” details past successes and failures. The final chapter reflects on the power of intelligence service to influence the course of history. Today’s surveillance technology certainly magnifies the power of secret intelligence services. The question is–do today’s American and Russian secret services improve results or magnify mistakes?
Details of “The Sword and Shield” show paranoia, as well as realpolitik, led Stalin to create a network of spies.
Stalin’s spy network’s duty is to reveal secrets held by the west and then bend public opinion to the will of Stalinist communism with the goal of expanding and controlling Socialist Republics within the U.S.S.R.
The authors suggest Stalin’s paranoia leads him to believe all western nations and some leaders within the Soviet Bloc are in league to destroy or weaken his regime. Churchill’s iron curtain speech confirms some elements of Stalin’s beliefs. The authors note that classified foreign documents provided by Stalin’s network of spies is interpreted in ways that lead Stalin to imprison or murder many of his own citizens. Stalin’s successful use of that information is evident in the brutality of his regime and his survival until death from a presumed heart attack.
The Stalinist Soviet Union perseveres at the expense of many innocent people. The author’s infer U.S.S.R. citizens appear to respect Stalin but fear imprisonment or murder by their paranoid leader. One wonders if Putin’s regime drinks from the same poisonous cup.
Andree/Mitrokhin’s history of the U.S.S.R.’s acquisition of the atom bomb reveals Americans and Brits who willingly provide classified documents that give Joseph Stalin plans for development of an atomic bomb. The totalitarian Stalinist’ State steals English and American secrets by seducing scientists like Klaus Fuchs with propaganda that distorts and glorifies Stalinist communism. If political persuasion did not work, Stalinist’ money is offered to both American and British scientists, political officials, and citizens to acquire government, science, personal, and social secrets.
In listening to “The Sword and The Shield” it seems western economies are at the forefront of most initial scientific discoveries because of relative human freedom. No amount of secret surveillance defeats human nature whether one lives in a democratic or totalitarian state. Every nation has dissidents willing to betray their countries.
Putin once said on a “60 Minutes” interview–what he admired most about America is its innovation without seeming to understand that the heart of innovation is freedom.
On the democratic side, Americans like the Rosenberg’s, and Aldrich Ames, became tools of the U.S.S.R. The Rosenberg’s reveal American nuclear research secrets, and Aldrich Ames offers the names of CIA agents to the U.S.S.R. In England, Klaus Fuchs, Ray Mawbey, and the Cambridge Five (including Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald McClain, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross) feed critical science and intelligence information to the KGB. During WWII, a Latin-American double agent, Juan Garcia, uses false reports to mislead Germany on the D Day invasion by Allied forces.
On the totalitarian side, the co-author of this book betrays his own country by revealing the names of the U.S.S.R’s secret service actors and their nefarious activities. Mitrokhin also notes the betrayal of Russian electronic engineer, Adolph Tolkachev, who reveals secret military capabilities of the U.S.S.R. to the CIA.
Adolf Tolkachev (1927-1986, CIA agent working in the U.S.S.R.)
This history of the KGB shows the dissemination of science is a force unto itself. No amount of secret service effort is shown by Mitrokhin to protect or retard the advance of world-wide scientific research and understanding. Motives for spies range from patriotism to greed.
Some scientist’s betray their country’s science discoveries for what they believe is a greater good, others betray their country to be paid thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars.
“The Sword and The Shield” shows how both patriots and enemies of the state are equal partners in trading scientific discoveries for either money, power, or prestige. There is the obvious lure of money as evidenced by Ray Mawby who is paid 100 to 400 English pounds for details about English Parliament’ gossip. For money, over a nine-year period, Aldrich Ames is paid nearly $3,000,000 by the Soviet Union for disclosing hundreds of American CIA agents. For power and prestige, “The Sword and The Shield” notes Kim Philby coveted the title of general in the Soviet Union when he escaped England’s arrest for espionage. (Interestingly, Philby is denied the title or the pension that would have gone with it when he arrived in the Soviet Union. Philby died 25 years after defecting to the Soviet Union. Some say he became a disillusioned communist.)
It is more difficult to understand Klaus Fuch’s motivation. He eschewed Russian money. He was a nuclear scientist who seems to have preferred working in obscurity. One presumes he believed in Stalin’s communist propaganda or divulged critical information on the atom bomb to serve what he believed was a “greater good”.
Fuch’s may have revealed the secrets of the atom bomb to preserve balance of power, with the presumption that no rational human being would start a nuclear war.
Much of the last section of this long book recounts the history of Soviet Union’ secret service use of propaganda and misinformation to create turmoil in countries that are opposed to authoritarian communist beliefs. Russian effort at influencing other countries domestic affairs with misinformation and lies is recounted in detail by “The Sword and The Shield”. Attempts to destroy personal reputations, exploit democracy’s failures, and influence domestic elections during the cold war are detailed. America’s recent elections suggest that policy is used by Russian secret intelligence today.
In completion of this tome about the KGB, some will be left with the thought that nothing much has changed. The U.S.S.R. has become Russia, but its leader appears to use the same tactics as Stalin in punishing dissidents. Accusations of murder and false imprisonment by Russia’s spy network continue to be reported in the western press. Western countries continue to employ secret service organizations to undermine non-aligned authoritarian nations. America, like Russia, has been accused of using torture, false imprisonment, and murder to further its political agenda. What “The Sword and The Shield” ends with is a kind of warning.
The dismantling of the U.S.S.R. has left few binding organizational consistencies in governance of its reformation as a nation-state. The one system of governance that has survived the reformation is the Russian secret service. It is no surprise that the longest serving government leader since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. is a former KGB trained officer. Continuity and identity of a modern Russian state lies in its continued use of covert intelligence to retain its status as a world power. The fear accompanying that realization is that secret service thought, action, and consequence is monumentally expanded and improved with the advance of surveillance technology.
Rodney King (1965-2012, died at 57 from accidental drowning.)
Some wonder like Rodney King, who was beaten by Los Angeles police in 1992—when he said: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?”. The answer lies somewhere in the cloud of surveillance technology.
As history is revealed in “The Sword and The Shield”, secret services imprison and murder the innocent as well as the guilty. With surveillance technology, the power of the sword is exponentially more dangerous.