Tuesday, November 9, 2010


A review of Sir Nigel Bagnall’s The Punic Wars: Rome, Carthage, and the Struggle for the Mediterranean (1990)

(Rating 5 of 5)

This book was the first of two works by Sir Nigel Bagnall, who had been a field marshal in the British Army to which this book is dedicated. I had reviewed his later work, about the Peloponnesian War, a short time ago. I was not a big fan of the other piece of history that this writer produced but I really liked this book. The Punic Wars is an incredible tale of two great civilizations that went on a collision course against each other that would result with one becoming a world power and the other completely annihilated. When writing about each of the three wars Bagnall focuses on one theater at a time, telling each theater’s story rather than proceeding in complete chronological order. This helps the book flow better and does not harm the general narrative.

Bagnall starts of by giving the reader a bit of background of the two major civilizations; we know more about the Romans of course because they were not destroyed as thoroughly as they destroyed Carthage. He traces the rise of the two cities from mere cities to the heart of minor empires in the Mediterranean, one a land power and the other a sea power. Both cities have to adapt when they fought each other in the First Punic War. Rome would create a navy that would overtake Carthage, and Carthage would also learn how to use its natural military advantages such as trained elephants and a diverse Mercenary army composed of its subject peoples.

(Rome vs. Carthage)

The Second Punic War focuses on the great general, Hannibal Barca. His training under his father, Hamilcar, and his rise in Spain are covered. Hannibal crosses the Alps and, for years, ravages Italy and nearly destroys Rome. The famous Fabius Maximus creates what is known as the ‘Fabian Strategy‘ in order to defend against Hanibal, that is do not fight him directly only indirectly by cutting supply lines and forms of harassment. The book covers how Rome had a hard time sticking to this strategy until the rise of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus who would ultimately beat Hannibal.


“On taking up his appointment, Scipio faced the task of welding a disparate lot into a cohesive fighting force: there were the dispirited survivors of the defeated legions, the raw reinforcements fresh out of Italy, and Spanish mercenaries of uncertain loyalty. No light task for a young man, especially one whose close relation had so intimately associated with disasters. But Publius Cornelius Scipio (later given the cognomen Africanus) was remarkable. As Polybius says, he was ‘perhaps the most illustrious man of any born before the present generation’, and one of his first acts was to show his trust in Marcellus, the man who had striven so hard to rally the survivors of the two Scipios’ shattered army, but who could now well be regarded as an awkward rival.” p.206

(Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus)

The Third Punic War would be the end of mighty Carthage. The city would be defeated, raised, and destroyed by Scipio's grandson. The impact of Carthage, fulfilling the dream of Cato the Elder, would be erased even though another one of Scipio’s own grandsons would try to argue against it.

“He pleaded that though Rome’s position as the dominant power should be preserved, Carthage should not be destroyed as a rival. Were this to occur, there would be no check on Rome’s arrogant disregard for the legitimate interests and the concerns of smaller states. She would lose all sense of shame when there was nobody of stature to pass judgment on her conduct and stand up for the rights of others. Moreover, in the absence of any external threat, the Roman Confederation would be in danger of disintegrating as fractious political and social groups pursued their own self-interested ends.” p.307

(Carthage Destroyed)

I highly recommend this book to anyone. It is a thrilling read involving one of the greatest struggles in the history of the world: Rome and Carthage. Not until the Cold War would the world see another quite like it. This work of Nigel Bagnall was much stronger than his later work on the Peloponnesian War; however I leave open the possibility that the reason for his Punic Wars being easier to understand maybe due to the fact the the Punic Wars are an easier conflict to understand compared to the Peloponnesian War.

{Carthage destroyed image taken from this incredible site. Video is from the history channel series Battles B.C.}

Saturday, November 6, 2010


A review of Tania Gergel’s Alexander the Great: the Brief Life and Towering Exploits of History’s Greatest Conqueror as Told by his Original Biographers (2004)

(Rating 4 of 5)

With an introduction by Michael Wood, who in the 1990s produced the BBC series In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, this book was assembled by Tania Gergel who took the work of three famous Alexander the Great biographers—Lucius Flavius Arrianus (Arrian), Plutarch, and Quintus Curtius Rufus—and edited them into a single narrative. All the authors are citizens of the Roman Empire writing centuries after Alexander had died, but they are closer to his time then we are to theirs.

Gergel does an excellent job of taking the best of the three works and making them into one single narrative. The story goes from Alexander’s princely boyhood to the death of the King who was ruler of the all the world that was known to him.

(Phillip, Alexander's father)

For years the Persian Empire had been the greatest threat to the freedom of Greece, the invasions of Darius I and Xerxes the Great had ended the polis or city-state of Greece and led various leagues and counter leagues transforming the culture of Greece from a free collections of city-states into the foundation for an empire. Alexander's father, Phillip, had brought Greece under the thumb of Macedon. Alexander takes the long-standing Greek conflicts, and brings a new war to Persia itself, invading and conquering the greatest power in the ancient world.

(Alexander the Great riding Bucephalus)

The Alexander portrayed in this text is a young man of brilliance and inexhaustible ambition. He is viewed as good person who kind and charitable but becomes corrupted with power and does cruel things even to his closest friends. Although the would later regret some of his actions his remorse comes only after the evil deed is done. Yet his flaws are from the same source as his strengths so it is hard to tell if he could be any other way.

(Alexander the Great)

(Alexander's road to conquest)

“Meanwhile some of the older of his companions, and Parmenion in particular, looked out over the plain between the river Niphates and the Gordyaean mountains and saw the entire plain agleam with the watch-fires of the barbarians, while from their camp there arose the confused and indistinguishable murmur of myriads of voices, like the distant roar of a vast ocean. They were filled with amazement at the sight and remarked to one another that it would be an overwhelmingly difficult task to defeat an enemy of such strength by engaging him by day. They therefore went to the king as soon as he had performed his sacrifice and tried to persuade him to attack by night, so as to conceal from his men the most terrifying element in the coming struggle, that is, the odds against them. It was then that Alexander gave them his celebrated answer, ‘I will not steal my victory.’ Some of his companions thought this an immature and empty boast on the part of a young man who was merely joking at the presence of danger. But others interpreted it as meaning that he had confidence in his present situation and that he had correctly judged the future. In other words, he was determined that if Darius were defeated, he should have no cause to summon the courage for another attempt: he was not to be allowed to blame darkness and night for his failure on this occasion, as at Issus he had blamed the narrow mountain passes and the sea. Certainly Darius would never abandon the war for lack of arms or of troops, when he could draw upon such a vast territory and such immense reserves of manpower. He would only do so when he had lost courage and become convinced of his inferiority in consequence of an unmistakable defeat suffered in broad daylight.” p.70-1

This is a great little book. I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to know more about the life of the man who conquered the world before he was thirty—literally!

{Video from the BBC Documentary In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.}

Monday, November 1, 2010


A review of Sir Nigel Bagnall's The Peloponnesian War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Greece (2004)

(Rating: 3 of 5)

Sir Nigel Bagnall was a British military officer during the mid-to late twentieth century rising to become Chief of the General Staff. After an extraordinary military career, he began a second career as a writer during which he wrote two volumes in ancient military history. This work was his last book which was published posthumously. His first work, The Punic Wars, which will be reviewed later, focused on the war between Rome and Carthage; this work focuses on the even earlier conflict, the Peloponnesian War. This famous conflict between the two most famous city-states of Ancient Greece, Athens and Sparta, is a conflict that is at best really confusing, and unfortunately this book does not succeed in making it less confusing. As a historian telling a tale, one must decide if he or she is to proceed chronologically or categorically, most historians do some of both but Bagnall leans a little too heavily with a categorical focus.

The first forty-five pages of the book are historical notes that deal with all the Greek cities that participated in the conflict. In doing this he should have limited these brief histories up to the start of the rest of the book instead of the roles that each city played during the conflict. Sir Nigel might have been better served scraping the whole forty-five pages and instead give us a one-page timeline in bullet points in order to give a clear picture to his reader about how this whole event happened. Also, we do not arrive to the actual Peloponnesian War into chapter 6 starting on page 131! The earlier Greek wars with Persia dominated the first four chapters, I understand how a historian might feel that one event cannot be explained without really explaining an earlier event, but in doing so he over explains somethings and under explains others. For example, an explanation into the forming of the Delian League and how Athens itself became corrupted with power transforming the League it into an Athenian Empire that was ruthless—to say the least—to dissenters, is confusing. How central figures played role in the war and the events leading up to it deserves more attention than it gets. I realize that Bagnall was a military historian and not a political one, but his take on Pericles is so choppy and out of order that at times it is difficult to put into context.

One of the strengths in the book is how Bagnall uses his own knowledge of military history, plus what he saw in his own career to help compare and contrast the Peloponnesian War to more commonly understood historical events, such as World War II or the Cold War, to increase the readers understanding of this ancient conflict.

This is an okay book but it is more suited for someone who understands a good deal of the material already, such as a person with a focus of study on ancient or military history. I would not recommend it for the average reader wanting to learn about ancient Greece for the first time since public school.

{Video posted by phenomenos on YouTube}

Monday, October 25, 2010


A review of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997, original) (2003, my copy)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning work dares to tackle one of the oldest, most difficult, and at times uncomfortable questions about development of human civilization. Why was it that the civilizations of the continent of Eurasia* achieve the most technological advancement, written language, productive farming techniques, and military power? Why were the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia technologically 'backward' by comparison?

For centuries the answers to these questions was racial and cultural supremacy, such as that the west was simply better than the other 'lesser' peoples. We now quickly and correctly identify such thoughts as hateful, racist, and counter-productive, but questions still remain and often we do not know how to begin to ask them. In recent times the trend for historical revisionists is to try to focus on the strengths of the conquered cultures and explaining that their down fall was due to disease or dishonorable trickery. Nevertheless, more questions remain, if disease was such a factor why was it only one way, and why were the Europeans able to fool their opponents at times easily? Diamond dares to try to tackle these questions head on.

“The time is now ripe for a fresh look at these questions, because of new information from scientific disciplines seemingly remote from human history. Those disciplines include, above all, genetics, molecular biology, and biogeography as applied to crops and their wild ancestors; the same disciplines plus behavioral ecology, as applied to domestic animals and their wild ancestors; molecular biology of human germs and related germs of animals; epidemiology of human diseases; human genetics; linguistics; archaeological studies on all continents and major islands; and studies of the histories of technology, writing and political organization.”p.26

Diamond rejects all of the racist and revisionist arguments pointing out that no race or group of people is stronger, smarter, more capable, creative, or more cruel and ruthless. All humans are the same—that is not to say that all individuals are the same and equally as capable, but any large group of humans is just as good as any other. There is no 'master race,' no group of human beings proven superior to every other group of human beings. Diamond successful argues that since people adapt to their environment, often environmental factors determine how a civilization will develop. A good example would be a person from Florida who would find Maine winters intolerable and while someone from Maine would like wise find Floridian summers unbearable. Humans are creatures of their environment and the societies they build are products of the environment as well.

Various environmental factors such as how fertile the land is, what types of crops grow, the abundance of large animals that can domesticated, and geographic features. Australia, with rare exception, has terrible land for farming which is why its native population was still in the Stone Age in the 1800s, the Americas have no great animals capable of domestication that put them in at a great military and physical disadvantage. Without great beasts to domesticate they would miss out on a good source of food and would have no Calvary. Animals were also the source of diseases that the Europeans were able to build immunities that peoples native to the Americas were not.

Diamond's narrative is a bit difficult and technical even for an advanced reader. Although when he discusses his personnel adventures his narrative becomes more clear, the center chapters that focus and agriculture and farm animals are very tough to plow through. I highly recommend this book, but it is something to be tackled more at the graduate level.

*One thing that I strongly agree with Diamond on, is that Europe and Asia are not two continents but one big continent.

{Video is part of the National Geographic series on Diamond's book}

Saturday, October 23, 2010


A review of Bill Bryson's *A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

(5 of 5)

Bill Bryson is full of wit and humor in his little book about everything we know and how we know it. Bryson's book tackles how the universe, the sun, and the world formed. It also explores the atoms, human evolution, the nature of water and anything else you could ever want to know. In addition to answering the greater questions he also explains how we know things and the people who helped us figure it all out.

Bryson makes it very clear why he is doing this, science, although something he was always interested in, was presented in the most boring and dull manner possible. As a history buff I must concur. I to have experienced this, not only with science, but also but history and literature. A great deal of professional academics seem to devote their time in making the most fascinating very dull.

“My own starting point, for what it's worth, was an illustrated science book that I had as a classroom text when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. The book was a standard-issue 1950s schoolbook—battered, unloved, grimly hefty—but near the front it had an illustration that just captivated me: a cut-away diagram showing the Earth's interior as it would look if you cut into the planet with a large knife and carefully withdrew a wedge representing about a quarter of its bulk.

Excited, I took the book home that night and opened it before dinner—an action that I expect prompted my mother to feel my forehead and ask if I was alright—and, starting with the first page, I read.

And here's the thing. It wasn't exciting at all. It wasn't actually altogether comprehensible. Above all, it did not answer any of the questions that the illustration stirred up in a normal inquiring mind: How did we end with a Sun in the middle of our planet? And if it is burning away down there, why isn't the rest of the interior melting—or is it? And when the core at last burns itself out, will some of the Earth slump into the void, leaving a giant sink hole on the surface? And how do you know this? How did you figure out?”(p.4-5)

One the most enjoyable aspects of the book is not only the discoveries made, but also the work that went into discovering them and the politics and personnel quirks of the scientists. The science community is also featured in this work with all its bias and foibles. If someone, like myself, saw scientists as being purely logical devoid of silly biases normally associated with religious fanatics and political groups, then reading this book will be an enormous shock. Scientists, it appears, can often have huge egos that become a disservice to the general public.

“With his pipe, genially self-effacing manner and electrified hair, Einstein was too splendid a figure to remain permanently obscure, and in 1919, the war was over, the world suddenly discovered him. Almost at once his theories of relativity developed a reputation for being impossible for an ordinary person to grasp. Matters were not helped, as David Badanis points out in his suburb book E=mc2,when the New York Times decided to do a story and—for reasons that can never fail to excite wonder—sent the paper's golfing correspondent, one Henry Crouch, to conduct the interview.

Crouch was hopelessly out of his depth, and nearly got everything wrong. Among the more lasting errors in his report was the assertion that Einstein had found a publisher daring enough to publish a book that only twelve men 'in all the world could comprehend.' There was no such book no such publisher, and no such circle of learned men, but the notion stuck anyway. Soon the number of people who could grasp relativity had been reduced even further in the popular imagination—and the scientific establishment, it must be said, did little to disturb the myth.

When a journalist asked the British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington if it was true he was one of only three people in the world who could understand Einstein's relativity theories, Eddington considered deeply for a moment and replied: 'I am trying to think who the third person is.' In fact, the problem with relativity wasn't that it involved a lot of differential equations, Lorentz transformations, and other complicated mathematics (though it did—even Einstein needed help with some of it), but that it was just so thoroughly nonintuitive.” p.124


I highly recommend this fun, entertaining and enlightening book to anyone. It will show why Pluto was not a planet— and the fact that we thought it was is rather ridiculous— why leaded gas was so horrible, and why water is so weird. In this book you will find that great scientific minds not only come from universities but also from the janitor's closet and a patent office.

{Video was posted on Youtube by Sonnett7}

Sunday, August 29, 2010


A review of John Fiske’s History of the United States (1895)

(Rating 5 of 5)

One of the greatest little treasures that I have in my book collection is a 115-year history book, simply entitled the History of the United States. The book is written by a man named John Fiske. John Fiske is a man with an agenda. He is very upset, because when he lived and wrote this book, the 1890s; there was tendency, especially after 1876, to speak of 1776 as the beginning of our nation at the expense of the colonial period. Something that he seeks to rectify with this book, which does cover the colonial period with great detail. There is a tear in the cover which, while tragic, does seem to revel that it was made with recycled paper, the inside of the cover looks like it was once a page in dictionary. The book was written for teachers to help with their classes and the end of each chapter is filled with advice on how to best relate the material to the students.

The book starts with a map of the then 'modern' United States showing the time zones as they existed back then, and each of the forty-five states have the date in which they entered the Union. The book's written part begins with discussion on the last presidential election 1892: Grover Cleveland vs. Benjamin Harrison, round 2. He discusses the then homogenous nature of the United States, which was not entirely true but was a lot truer then than now. Not surprisingly there is a good deal of racism in the book, and although it is not hateful racism it is there. For example, when discussing slavery, which he condemns as evil and immoral—which is not surprising because it was stopped in his lifetime—he states that there was 'not a job a slave could do that white person could not do better.' He then goes on to explain how slavery was not only morally wrong, but economically inefficient. I do fell after reading his work, that if knew Fiske personally I could probably point out to him some his racial bias in his work and perhaps he might have addressed them. For example, replace the 'white' with 'free' and his economic anti-slavery argument is upheld.

Fiske engages in a lot of presentism, he judges events by standards of the late 19th century. He often lets you know his personal opinion on all sorts of matters. He thought King Charles II of England was nothing short of an idiot, whose only good trait was he was not as dangerous as his father, King Charles I.

I will give the man credit for his ability to explain things that are very complicated by simplifying them and laying out the facts for his reader to follow along. A good example is how he explains the reason behind the British response to the American cause of 'no taxation without representation.'

“There was then going on in England a hot dispute over the very same business of 'no taxation without representation,' and it was a dispute in which the youthful king felt bound to oppose Pitt to the bitter end. Let us see what the dispute was.

In such a body as the British House of Commons or the American House of Representatives, the different parts of the country are represented according to population. For example, to-day New York, with over 5,000,000 inhabitants, has thirty-four representatives in Congress, while Delaware, with about 170,000 inhabitants, has only one representative. This is a fair proportion; but as population increases faster in some places than in others, the same proportion is liable to places than in others, the same proportion is liable to became unfair. To keep it fair it must now and then be changed. In the United States, every tenth year, after a new census has been taken, we have the seats in the House of Representatives freshly redistributed among the States, so that the representation is always kept pretty fair. A hundred men in any one part of the country count for about as much as a hundred men in any other part.

Now in England, when George III, came to the throne, there had been nothing like a redistribution of seats in the House of Commons, for more than two hundred years. During that time, some old towns and districts had dwindled in population, and some great cities had lately grown up, such as Manchester and Sheffield. These cities had no representatives in Parliament, which was up-surd and unfair as it would be for great states like Missouri to have no representatives in Congress. On the other hand, little towns and thinly populated districts kept on having as many representatives as ever. One place, the famous Old Sarum, had members in Parliament long after it had ceased to have any inhabitants at all!

The result was that people could not get representation in Parliament by fair means got it by foul means. Seats for little towns and districts were simply bought and sold and such practices made political life at the time very corrupt. Parliament did not represent the people of Great Britain; it represented a group of powerful persons that could buy up enough seats to control the majority of the votes.”p.192-3

A very good explanation if there ever was one. I like the comparison to 'modern' New York and Delaware. Imagine only ten million people living in New York State!

In the table of contents the Civil War is followed by 'modern events.' To him the Civil War was like Civil Rights Struggle for my parents, something that he lived through and had firsthand knowledge of, but was too young at the time to really appricate. As big Union man, I love Fiske's introduction to the Civil War.

“About this time for the sake of conciliation, several northern states either modified or repelled their personal liberty' laws. In general, the attitude of the North was such that the seceders cherished a strong hope of accomplishing their purpose without war. A great many people in the North seemed ready to surrender almost anything to avoid bloodshed. All sorts of weak suggestions were made by men usually bold and firm and there was no telling what might have happened but for one man, the gentlest but most unflinching of men, who was prudent enough to make the last stage of his journey to Washington in secret, because rumor had threatened him with assassination on the way. When Abraham Lincoln took his place at the White House, it soon appeared that the distressed ship of state had a firm hand at the helm.”p.367

At the end of the book is a phonics section to help the reader pronounce the names and large unfamiliar words. There is also a good index section and a suggested reading list to help you further expand your knowledge. The whole is a classic; it is marvelous reading about our 'new' Statue of Liberty.' In the end I would like to share my 'favorite' passage, it is about something that is very bad but I love his take on the whole thing.

“The attention of the English began to be turned towards America soon after 1560, early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. About that time the famous sailor Sir John Hawkins, began kidnapping negroes on the coast of Guinea and bringing them to the West Indies to sell them to the Spanish colonists for slaves. Very few people in those days could see anything wrong in slavery; it seemed as proper to keep slaves as to keep cattle and horses. When Hawkins was made a knight, he took as part of his coat-of-arms the picture of a captive negro bound with a cord. Hawkins was an honest and pious man, but he actually felt proud of his share in the opening of the slave trade, as a profitable trade for England. In our time nobody but a ruffian would have anything to do with such a wicked an horrible business. Changes of this sort make us believe the world is growing to be better then it use to be. But improvement is very slow.”p59-60

It is very slow, sometimes too slow, but he is right as humanity grows it does change for the better, we hope.

The New York Times has a review of this book still on file!

Thursday, August 26, 2010


A review of Julian Thompson’s Call to Arms: Great Military Speeches (2009)

(Rating 2 of 5)

This is a book about great speeches made by famous military leaders written by a general who fought in the Falklands War. This book features speeches by from Alexander the Great to the first Gulf War. Some of these speeches are not really ‘speeches’; most of the sections of this book are just mini-biographies of various military commanders and statesmen. Some articles feature whole speeches while others do not. I found many the articles lacking in certain respects. For example, I do not know how someone could write an article on George Patton with an emphasis on military speeches and never mention his most famous quote: 'No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country!' Nevertheless, there is a lot of great imagery in this work: various pictures and paintings that are very enjoyable. I would recommend this book to anyone with a strong interest in military propaganda.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


A review of Mark Bowden’s The Best Game Ever (2008)

(Rating 4 of 5)

This book is not about one game, despite its title, rather it is about the world in which the game was played. It is played in Dwight D. Eisenhower's America where people are discussing sputnik and the Rosenburgs. Where if you were a black player, playing for the Baltimore Colts, you had to play in a city that was segregated. The modern Civil Rights Movement, which would led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was just getting started, but in this place that still seemed too far away.

In the 1950s baseball is the national pass time and basketball is in second with the Boston Celtics of Bill Russell being totally dominant. Football was not really new, it had been around for over half a century, but it was still evolving. The book captures this evolution and those who had made it so. Coaches, players and commissioners, all who had a hand in creating the modern game are featured in this book. The two personalities that stand out the most are Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry.



This Championship game would be played at Yankee stadium because the Giants were not important enough to get there own stadium. It would be the first ever NFL game to go into overtime. The two teams were the Giants and the Colts, who as a Patriots fan I despise both making it in some ways a difficult book for me. Nevertheless I would highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to know more about this era in the history of football.

{Video is from the NFL Greatest Films series}

Saturday, August 21, 2010


A review of Bob Woodward’s Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate (1999)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Bob Woodward, who with his partner, Carl Bernstein, brought down the Nixon Administration with their exposes of Watergate. Twenty-five years later, Bob Woodward would take a crack at the legacy that Nixon left behind on the presidency itself and how that institution would have to cope with restrictive laws and scrutiny that it did not have in the past. The book examines how the five presidents who followed Nixon have had to handle that terrible legacy. It is also however, a strong indictment on the very existence of the Office of the Independent Counsel that was created in response to Watergate.


(President Richard M. Nixon)

Woodward begins with Gerald Ford the immediate successor who, after already making history by being the nation's first appointed vice president, becomes President on the moment of Nixon’s resignation. The first major crisis he would have to deal with would be rather or not he, President Ford, should pardon Nixon, who did not want to admit to doing anything wrong. The new President would have a hard time with new national mood, which was very sensitive to any perceived abuse of executive powers. Woodward's analysis is that Ford suffered from only having run in campaigns no bigger than a Michigan congressional district. Every other president, even former 'accidental presidents,' had to at least campaign in one national campaign. Ford was unique in the fact that he did not have the experience coming into the presidency, which made it difficult for him to function.

(President Gerald Ford)

“As the years have passed, I have become more and more convinced that Ford made the correct decision in pardoning Nixon. Nixon had already paid the political death penalty of resignation, and for Ford a pardon was the only way of ending the public and media obsession with his predecessor's future. The problem in the pardon was in Ford's execution. To be successful, the pardon required elaborate orchestration. The public, Congress and the media needed to be prepared. Ford should have mustered all his sense of decency to explain his actions to the public. He should have seen the danger and avoided the discussions of the pardon with Haig. He should have required Nixon to sign a statement admitting his guilt and release it with the pardon.”p.37

In 1977, Jimmy Carter replaced Gerald Ford under the promise he would never lie to or deceive the American people. That was a promise he could not keep. Worse, Carter in signed into law the Ethics in Government Act that was intended to clean up government and prevent future President Nixons, and was a disaster. Failing to understand that the Founding Fathers always knew that man like Nixon would come along, and thus created a system of checks and balances and a free press within the Constitution, the U.S. Congress and President Carter decided to that another 'President Nixon' should be made impossible. The law would allow what would be later called an Independent Counsel, to become a fourth branch of government. The Carter Administration would pay dearly as investigation after investigation would go on for months at a time.

(President Jimmy Carter)

“The shadow the two-month Lance scandal cast was long, deepening the alienation Carter felt toward the Congress, the media and Washington. The implicit promise that he would never allow a repetition of the national Watergate embarrassment was in question. Carter realized he had somewhat ostentatiously sought high ethical and legal standards but was quick to seek exception for a friend.” p.61

The book takes a small detour to discuss Theodore Olson's brave fight against the Act. Olson, who after this book was written would go on to argue for George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore and is now trying to overturn California's ban on gay marriage, fought an independent counsel all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. Morrison v. Olson was one of the most wrongly decided cases in history, but Justice Scalia* had a powerful dissent that hopefully may become the majority opinion if the Supreme Court ever had to review a case like it again.

(Theodore Olson)

“Olson found immense comfort in Justice Scalia's dissent, which said the dispute was about one thing: 'Power.' Since Article II of the Constitution vest all executive power in the president, including the power to investigate and prosecute crimes, Scalia wrote that the law modified the Constitution. 'How much removal of presidential power is too much? Many countries of the world get along with an executive that is much weaker than ours—in fact, entirely dependent on the continued support of the legislature. Once we depart from the text of the Constitution, just where short of that do we stop?' The prospect of an independent counsel turned loose was 'frightening...One must grieve for the Constitution,' Scalia argued.” p.94

In his section on Ronald Reagan, Woodward skips right to the last quarter of Reagan's presidency when the Iran-Contra affair was heating up. Judge Lawrence Walsh, who would be the Independent Counsel assigned in this case would carry on his investigation for six years, long after Reagan left office, and did not stop until President Bush pardoned most everyone. Walsh even had Reagan under oath when he was clearly severely affected by his Alzheimer's disease creating a pathetic and sad show.

(President Ronald Reagan)

“Walsh respected what Reagan had done so far as president. He did not sense public anger with Reagan, as had been the case with Nixon. He decided to move carefully. He would try to make cases against North and Poindexter, and then see what developed. He had no plan to prosecute Reagan, although many in the White House, Congress and the media assumed he was moving to lay the grounds to impeach the president. Walsh suspected that President Reagan knew about the diversion of millions of dollars from the Iran arms sales profits to his beloved contras. But he couldn't project precisely where he was taking his investigation. 'I sort of move as I feel,' he said. His style was to be deferential to the president, but not to his men.” p.131

George Bush would have to deal with many scandals during his own presidency. One was the Savings and Loans scandal involving his son, Neil Bush, and the author was Walsh investigation of Iran-Contra that he inherited from his predecessor. Reading this book over decade after it first came out, I am a little amused by Woodward's reasoning for George Bush's problems. According to Woodward, Bush lacked the killer instinct that most politicians have. I find this interesting because his son, President George W. Bush, clearly did not lack that instinct.

(President George H.W. Bush)

“Bush's political skills were interpersonal—the chummy heads of state club he managed so well and loved even more. Struggle, name-calling, digging into a motivation or person's life deeply offended him. He generally didn't make noise or protest. He had built his career as the patron of other Republican presidents, turning setbacks into opportunities. Nixon had rescued him from defeat in 1970, after he had lost the Texas Senate race, appointing him United Nations Ambassador. Ford had made him director of central intelligence, his first major executive post and one with mystique. Reagan had selected him to be vice president after he lost the nomination.

Bush had played by the accepted rules of the Republican Party and gentlemanly restraint had served him well. But the same qualities that had helped Bush reach the presidency hurt him once he became president. He had not acquired the political skills that many politicians develop through struggle and adversity.” p.223

The book then turns to President Bill Clinton, who was president at the time of the book's publication and who over half this book is about. President Clinton would face the worst attack on the institution of the presidency since Andrew Johnson was impeached. In fact, Clinton would share that legacy with the first President Johnson. The attack on Clinton was in part his own fault, not just for his foolish behavior, but also because he did not let the Ethics in Government Act expire when he should. Not that the President was not warned.

(President Clinton)

“In any form, Nussbaum was opposed. 'Here is an institution I understand,' he told Clinton. 'It is evil. They have one case. They have unlimited resources. They have no time limit. Their entire reputation hinges on making that one case.'

Nussbaum recalled for the president that when he had worked as a prosecutor, he had many cases going, often simultaneously. If one didn't work out he could turn to another in the stack. The process naturally drew the prosecutor's attention to the most obvious and important crimes—the ones with the best evidence. In contrast, an independent prosecutor closed the office only when no crimes were found. It becomes a magnet for allegations, Nussbaum said. The office might as well be an advertisement for people to bring in dirt. The Justice Department is at least accountable to the president in a sense on a president's side, he argued. The Justice Department would at least receive and evaluate allegations with a presumption of innocence. An independent prosecutor can and often does operate with a presumption of guilt, he maintained.” p.234-5

Clinton would endure an assault on him and his presidency that none of the Founders could have imagined. The President found himself being degraded and humiliated in a way no president should have gone though. His personal sins were exposed in ways that had nothing to with the government. Clinton would be impeached and acquitted. After the public uproar the Office of the Independent Counsel would be abolished, hopefully for good. Although, this book was published prior to that great event happening.

(Ken Starr)

“During the pre-Lewinsky phase of the Whitewater investigation, from 1994 to early 1998, the Clintons and their attorney David Kendall reacted too many times as if the scandal were Watergate. They seemed to be hiding. Scrambling for cover, the Clintons and their lawyers played their parts too well. The forest is full of wolves, Kendall said. The forest is full of wolves, Kendall said. He believed that some of Starr's deputies were so hostile and aggressive that they had to be beaten into the ground. He had a strong case after 1996. But earlier, in 1994 and 1995, the president, Kendall and Starr should have worked out an arrangement to end the investigation at any reasonable cost. The prolonged investigation became an abuse in itself. Starr's decision to send a massive narrative of the Clinton-Lewinsky sexual relationship to Congress as part of his impeachment referral was pathetic and unwise. His determination to continue the marginal investigations and prosecutions after he had essentially completed his Clinton inquiries made no sense. Starr had lost his way.” p.515-6

This is book is a fascinating look into American Government of the late twentieth century. It no longer has the same 'feel' when it first came out since it is becoming more history than news. Since this book was written we have had two presidents and I find it difficult to envision a Starr-like investigation into a president in the era of the 'War on Terror' and that is good thing. If a president is ever again impeached, let it be for a real reason.

*Who I disagree with on many things.

{Videos taken from YouTube}

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


A review of Conrad Black’s A Life in Full: Richard M. Nixon (2007)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Conrad Black's biography of President Richard Nixon is an incredible book. We tend to look at people, things, and events retroactively basing the past on the affairs and knowledge of the present. This is especially true with President Richard Nixon, the only president in U.S. History to have resigned his office and leave in absolute disgrace. Even presidents who are overwhelmingly voted out of office do not leave so tainted. Yet, Nixon was not incompetent; in fact, he was extremely intelligent and capable person. In many ways Nixon was very good president, he was extremely effective despite having an opposition Congress; his foreign policy achievements were amazing and has one of the best environmental records of any president. Then there is Watergate, the 'cancer' that doomed a presidency. After Watergate people's view on Nixon not only changed for the present but the past. The 'Checkers Speech' in 1952, went from Nixon successfully defending himself from a smear to one he 'got away' with. In the Nixon/Douglas 1950 Senate election, people remember Nixon's 'hateful' attacks on Helen Gahagan Douglas, but Douglas's attacks on Nixon are forgotten, including the fact that Douglas was the first one in that campaign to go dirty. Alger Hiss must have been innocent. If Nixon was revealed to have cheated on third-grade assignment, it might be said that particular cheating incident was sign of things to come. Black, however, chooses to show Nixon as someone who started out as an honest public servant and transformed into a man who would obstruct justice for political ends.

Black begins with Nixon’s ancestry, which is typical with biographies, then going through his childhood growing up in California where he was heavily involved in his local Quaker community. He grew up in a strong Republican household, although he was a personal admirer of President Woodrow Wilson. Nixon would serve his country in the United States Navy in World War II, and he would also get married and start a family.

(The Nixon clan)

Nixon goes up like a rocket in his political career. He begins by defeating a popular incumbent named Jerry Voorhis to earn a seat in the United States House of Representatives. He would serve for two terms earning a reputation as a strong Anti-Communist, but not a crazy like Senator McCarthy. In 1950 he ran against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas for the California Senate seat, in what was one of the most attack filled campaigns in history, and won.

(Congressman Jerry Voorhis)

(Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas)

Nixon would be crucial to securing the California delegation of the 1952 Republican Convention to Eisenhower. This would earn him a spot on the ticket. Nixon would redefine the vice presidency, making it a major office that would represent the United States on important assignments and fill in for the president when needed.

(Ike and Nixon)

“Nixon's inestimable services in bringing the Republican Party out of isolationism and reaction and ending the McCarthy era, and the undoubted value of some of his foreign travel, have been recounted and have no precedent in the prior history of the vice presidency. He conducted most of the administration's reelection campaign of 1956, and he performed impeccably when Eisenhower's indispositions required him to be more or less an acting president. Nixon effectively succeeded Walter Bedell Smith as 'Ike's prat boy,' the designated assistant in charge of the dirty work. Nixon performed these odious and thankless tasks admirably, even when Eisenhower sawed off the limbs he had sent him out on, especially the more spirited attacks on Democrats. Eisenhower rewarded Nixon's loyalty, discretion, efficiency, and suppression of his own dissent with an uneven pattern of appreciation and aloofness.” p.426

(Nixon as Vice President)

Black goes over the colossal errors in judgment that Nixon made over the election of 1960. Although, Black's analysis is good, I have to take issue with his claim that Nixon was at a disadvantage because of Kennedy's Catholicism. Kennedy was clearly at the disadvantage and Black's own critique of Nixon campaign even supports this more than undermines it. The years in which Nixon plotted his comeback are well covered by Black in the following chapters.

(Kennedy and Nixon)

In the chaotic year of 1968, Richard Nixon would emerge as the Republican Nominee for the second time in his life. This time Nixon was facing Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had also lost against Kennedy in 1960 in the Democratic primaries. It was the first time since 1800 that a sitting vice president ran for president against one of his predecessors*. Nixon would be the more aggressive and victorious candidate; he was able to position himself as the sensible alternative to both Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace, the Dixiecrat candidate. He was not going to turn the clock back to segregation but he was against some of the more unpopular ideas such as busing. Nixon would win the White House and take office on January 20, 1969, the same day he would left if all had went as planned in 1960.

(Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey)

Nixon would go on to have an incredible first term as president. Desegregation would increase dramatically in the South, the economy was in good shape, and there would be incredible achievements in foreign policy. Nixon would re-establish a diplomatic relationship with China and introduce triangle diplomacy in dealing with the great Communist powers. Although, there were sour points during the first term, such as the increase in the Vietnam War with its expansion into Cambodia**. I also have some issue with the way Black discusses the situation in Chile. Although he is right to point out that Salvadore Allenee was hardly hero of democracy, he does tend to sweep Pinochet's atrocities under a rug.

(Nixon as President)

Nixon would go on to be triumphantly reelected in 1972 over Senator George McGovern. Senator McGovern would be humiliated in the election as Barry Goldwater was eight years prior, securing Nixon for a second term.

(Senator George McGovern)

“Richard Nixon was now only the tenth person to win two consecutive contested elections to the presidency of the United States. He was a widely admired and even popular figure, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had, by any measurement, been a very effective president. He was a personally sensitive, and often generous man, and he understood the loyalty of the White House staff. But his somber and morose nature took possession of him, especially when it would have seemed that he had a right and a reason to celebrate. He cheered up in crises, was let down by victory, and the few things that excited him caused him childlike pleasure. His best friend was a man with whom he exchanged few words, and his love of solitude was extreme, especially for one of the most energetic and durable politicians in the country's history. All these factors made his achievements as a public man the more remarkable. Very strange things were about to happen, but Richard Nixon was already a very considerable president and statesman.” p.845

Then his presidency came tumbling down, the Watergate conspiracy would change forever the way the nation viewed its government. The fact that Nixon was dumb enough to record everything helped assure his downfall. Black chronicles the tragedy that would be taught in every civics class for generations to come. The only drawback is the author of this work is currently in prison and he has a strong present bias against the judicial system and prosecutors in general. He constantly lets the reader know his personnel feelings about modern grand juries, prosecution practices, and deal-making for testimony.

“Of course the Democrats and some of the media were guilty of hypocrisy. Arthur Schlesinger and Henry Steele Commager, distinguished but partisan historians, revered the strong presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, and John F. Kennedy, but found Nixon, facing a hostile Congress, 'imperial.' As Nixon pointed out in a memo to Halderman, Kennedy had impounded more funds, installed more wiretaps, and engaged in more illegal surveillance than he had; and Truman had pushed the theory of executive privilege beyond anything he had done. Bobby Kennedy had bugged the Kennedy's own vice president, Lyndon Johnson, who duplicated that liberty with his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. But they had not meddled in criminal prosecutions as Nixon was doing, especially not prosecutions involving their own staff and campaign workers.” p.874

Nixon infamously resigns his office and leaves the capital. Black covers the drama of the early Ford Administration that dealt with the pardon that President Ford gave Nixon. The rest of the book deals with Nixon's post-presidency, that would involve some more comebacks and a new legacy.

(President Gerald Ford)

I highly recommend this book. It is a great and detailed look into the life of one of our most complicated presidents, Richard M. Nixon. Despite his personnel flaws, Conrad Black, is an extremely talented historian with a brilliant narrative.

*In 1800, Vice President Thomas Jefferson challenged his own president, John Adams. President Adams had served as vice president under George Washington.

** The expansion would be stopped, not by the President, but a resurgent Congress.

{Videos taken from YouTube}

Saturday, August 14, 2010


A review of Irwin and Debi Unger’s LBJ: A Life (1999)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Irwin and Debi Usher wrote this book about our thirty-sixth president. They tell the tale of a man who would spend a life in politics fighting for the poor and underprivileged, yet would involve the nation is one of the bloodiest and stupidest wars in its history. The late Tim Russert once described him as the victor of a thousand battles who was ultimately beaten in the end. The story of Lyndon B. Johnson is one of tragedy and triumph.

Johnson was born in 1908, the year William H. Taft was elected president, his grandfather and father; both named Sam Johnson, were fighters for the common people. The Ushers tell a story of a Lyndon Johnson who followed his father's career in the state legislature very closely, watching him do politics and fight for benefits for the common people. In some ways, the reason why Johnson would go off to Washington so early in his career, is he had already experienced a career in Austin by being so close to his father.

(Campaign poster for young Lyndon Johnson)

Johnson would first go to the U.S. Congress as a congressional aide before winning his own seat in 1936. Johnson was a very eager young new dealer, the tall skinny Congressman from Texas was on very good terms with the President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR would refer to Johnson as 'his boy' in Texas. His time in Congress was interrupted by World War II. LBJ would serve as a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy.

(President Roosevelt was an important patron for young Congressman Johnson)

(Johnson family, all LBJs)

In 1948 he would fulfill a prophecy his grandfather made when he was born, that he would be a U.S. Senator. Johnson would take to the Senate like a fish to water. In only two years, he convinced his colleagues in the Democratic caucus, after the massive defeat in the 1952 presidential election that saw the Democrats lose of the presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time in twenty years, to make him the new minority leader. Two years later, he had the Democrats back in the majority and for the first (and only) time in the history of the U.S. Senate the body had a ruler. Johnson would be the master of the Senate, whatever came out of that body during the next six years had to have Johnson's approval, and if it did not it was dead on arrival.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy, a little accomplished senator from the state of Massachusetts, shocked the world by winning the presidential nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention. Johnson would end up joining the ticket, to the horror of Bobby Kennedy, and was probably the most important pick a presidential candidate had ever made in regards to a running mate and was crucial to Kennedy's narrow victory over Richard Nixon.

“When it came to Congress he felt like a powerless outsider among the people he had once so successfully dominated. And he could barely bring himself to help Kennedy in the legislative area, where his services would have been most appreciated. 'Johnson pulled back...after that caucus,' related a Kennedy aide. 'He hadn't expected it, and it made him reluctant to approach senators.' At the weekly White House breakfast meetings for legislative leaders, Johnson was uncharacteristically silent. He looked tired and tense, giving his opinion only when specifically asked by Kennedy to offer one, usually mumbling his answers.” p.261

(Johnson was unhappy under President Kennedy)

Johnson was miserable as vice president; he was not a Kennedy insider and was not close to those who were. He was no longer allowed in the Senate caucus and was at times utterly miserable. Johnson and President Kennedy got along enough but Johnson was at a career low. In Dallas, on November 22, 1963, while campaigning, the President of the United States was assassinated in front the nation on live television. On Air Force One, Johnson was sworn in as the new president. Assuming the role of mourner-in-chief, Johnson led a grieving nation. With the martyr ghost of JFK at his side Johnson would get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. The Republicans would nominate the extreme Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Johnson would slaughter him in the biggest landslide elections in our nation's history.

(Sworn in on Air Force One)

“There were still pestiferous amendments to get out the way, 115 in all. All told there were 106 Senate roll-call votes on the bill. It was clear that the real battle was over, however, when at one point, Richard Russell was speaking and Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy cut him off, telling him his time was up. Dick Russell had never been treated so rudely before. As Russell took his seat, he had tears in his eyes. Finally, Dirksen came up with a 'revised' bill, one that almost a duplicate of the strong measure the House had passed in February. The one proviso that diluted the bill somewhat was the 'Mrs. Murphy's clause,' exempting from nondiscrimination provisions boardinghouses with no more than five rooms to rent. Nine days after cloture was invoked, the Dirksen bill passed the Senate, 73 to 27. On July 2 Johnson signed into law the most comprehensive civil rights act in the nation's history.” p.311

(Johnson as President)

Johnson would unveil his 'Great Society' programs in a revival of New Deal polices that would see the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. Johnson's programs would become as important as Roosevelt's New Deal reforms in the 1930s. However as the war in Vietnam escalated, Johnson sent more and more troops in, feeling that doing anything else was appeasement. Facing a hostile right and an increasingly dissatisfied left—that had very little appreciation for what had been accomplished but was really concerned about what had not. Race riots that were occurring that became worse after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy that June killed the hopes of the Democratic Party in the election of 1968.

“In truth, his advisers' views did not entirely conflict with Johnson's own inclinations. The president's understanding of twentieth-century history, especially the abysmal appeasement chapter of Munich, would not allow him to surrender part of the Free World to Communist subversion without a fight. Shortly after the Ann Arbor speech, Johnson discussed American policy in Southeast Asia at a news conference. In Vietnam, he said, he would be guided by four principals: One, 'American keeps her word.' Two, 'The issue is the future of Southeast Asia as a whole.' Three, 'Our purpose is peace.' Four, 'This is not a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity.'” p.319

(The President and First Lady)

Johnson having already declined to run for another full term sat back and watched his vice president, Hubert Humphrey; lose the presidency to Richard M. Nixon. On January 20, 1969, Johnson was replaced as president by the man who he had replaced as vice president eight years earlier. Johnson entered his post-presidency extremely unpopular; he went back to Texas to work on his ranch. He watched the party he loved make the serious mistake of nominating George McGovern, who was beaten nearly as badly in 1972 as Goldwater was in 1964.

(The death of Robert Kennedy made Nixon's win that much easier)

Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973 had he served another term as president then he would have lived only two days after the term ended. I highly recommend this book about President Johnson; the Ungers do an incredible job telling the story of a complicated president.

{Videos taken from YouTube were produced by the University of Virginia}