Review of “Thirteen Days in September” by Lawrence Wright

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp DavidThirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pretty good accounting of the Camp David Agreement forged by President Jimmy Carter. Lawrence Wright manages to weave in some history of the Arab-Israeli conflict to go along with the very good accounting he gives us of the Camp David summit. After the historical trip to Jerusalem by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt President Jimmy Carter undertook an effort to translate that trip into a tangible peace. Carter’s efforts led to the Camp David summit, where Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his team were essentially locked down with Sadat and his team for thirteen long days. Wright shows us what a difficult process that was, and how an accord was reached in spite of the vast gulf between the Israeli and Egyptian positions.

Sadat comes off as the greater risk taker for peace in this book, and I think Wright has given us a fair evaluation of the main players, their motivations, and especially their limitations. Sadat, a Vice President under Egyptian strongman Gamel Abdel Nasser, had always been underestimated by the international community until he made some rather stunning political and diplomatic moves that opened the eyes of that community. Wright gives us an overview of how the multiple wars between Egypt and Israel impacted the diplomatic views of the two delegations, and the real animus that existed between the parties. While Wright does engage in some psycho-analysis it is very apparent that the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, launched by Sadat, left indelible marks on all of the participants, weighing heavily on them as they tried to bridge the enormous gulf that separated them.

Wright is less charitable towards the Israeli Prime Minister Begin, but I do believe he tries to treat the subject matter in an even handed way. We manage to catch glimpses (and some good history) of some of the very large names involved in this process. Vance, Brzezinski, Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon,Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and many others.

President Carter deserves much praise for his efforts. Without his determined resolve the Camp David process would have collapsed, as it very nearly did on several occasions. Carter was not perfect in this effort, but few are when dealing with the intractable issues that separate the parties in the Middle East. The Accord itself was rescued by Carter putting his and American prestige on the line at key times, making clear that American “friendship” and all that implies would be at risk to the party that ended the discussion without agreement. Carter used the Kissinger tactic of trying to bridge difficult issues with strategically imprecise language that could be construed different ways, and sold to domestic constituencies in ways that were less damaging politically. The notable failure was the inability to solve the “Palestinian” issue, essentially concentrating on an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in return for a bilateral peace with Egypt. President Clinton ventured down that road in 2000 by bringing the Israelis and the Palestinians back to Camp David to try to hammer out a deal that would have addressed those issues punted by Carter, Begin and Sadat. The Clinton failure at the 2000 summit shows me how monumental Carter’s efforts were here.

Sadat ended up paying for his efforts by being assassinated by extremists opposed to his efforts. Carter lost his bid for re-election, and Begin continued on until he retired and became a recluse. I doubt whether any effort like this would even be possible anymore, as having the heads of three countries locked down for thirteen days likely could not happen. If you want a good accounting of a key part of the history of Israel and the Middle East I would recommend this book.

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Review of Richard Ben Cramer’s “What it Takes”

What It Takes: The Way to the White HouseWhat It Takes: The Way to the White House by Richard Ben Cramer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A tour de force by Richard Ben Cramer. At over a thousand pages this look at the 1988 Presidential campaign may seem daunting but if you are a fan of politics it is a must read. Even though the book was written some time ago I had not run across it until I started to look at the new Matt Bai book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid”. Bai heaped high praise on Cramer and the book, and highlighted a visit he had made to Cramer (now deceased) to talk about the subject matter for his prospective new book, which would focus on Gary Hart, and how his imploded candidacy changed the way politics is reported in this country. Bai called the Cramer book “…arguably the greatest and most ambitious work of political journalism in American history.” Bai was not wrong. When I looked it up on Amazon the Cramer book was selling for $3.99. I bought the Cramer book, and saved the Bai book for later.

Cramer looks at the 1988 Presidential race from the perspective of six candidates: Republicans Bob Dole and George HW Bush, and Democrats Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden, Gary Hart, and Michael Dukakis. The book offers so much more than reporting on the ins and outs of the campaigns. He gives readable and insightful biographical information on each candidate, carefully weaving his narrative together while dealing with six complex individuals and what had come to make them into the candidates they were. I was fascinated by all, but the Bob Dole story, with the horrific injuries he suffered serving in the military, and his ferocious will to overcome, was especially compelling. Cramer’s candidate backgrounds include some of each man’s electoral history, and how that political history had contributed to how they handled the race for the big prize. Being from Massachusetts I have to say that Cramer’s description of Michael Dukakis is spot on. The Dukakis “clean Mike” persona could not have been more accurate. Cramer’s insights on the Dukakis personality, and how that personality ultimately doomed his candidacy, from my perspective, is some of the best writing on Dukakis that I have ever read. Without being judgemental Cramer shows us the strengths, and flaws, of the individual candidates. Of course Cramer covers the Gary Hart candidacy, but not in the way that everyone else did. Like the Dukakis writing Cramer gives us so much more than a standard slash and burn on a flawed candidate. We have family perspective, and from that family perspective we get a real sense of what it was like to be under the media crush that the Hart revelations brought. It is truly extraordinary writing.

The 1988 election brought us President George H.W. Bush, and although the Bush name is still very much alive in American politics I see the 1988 election as the last one of an older era. Waiting right around the corner was Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush,ready to usher in a new era of politics. Without having read the Bai book I get the sense that he may feel that way too. I do not give five stars to very many books. This one, in my opinion, is right in there with the Caro masterpiece “The Power Broker” and his LBJ series. That is high praise, and richly deserved. Matt Bai had it right. if you love politics pick this book up and get a real sense of what it takes to run for President.

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Review of “Kissinger” by Walter Isaacson

A recent book that I reviewed over at Goodreads. Well worth your time if you are interested in this very interesting time and very complex man who elicits such broad emotions even today.

KissingerKissinger by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs I thought this might be a good read. I was right. Isaacson gives a balanced accounting of Kissinger without delving too far into the weeds of policy. But there is enough policy to satisfy, including a fair evaluation of the Kissinger philosophy of realpolitik, and how that may have influenced him to be less than honest in explaining key foreign policy decisions to the American people. (As well as Secretary of State William Rogers.)Kissinger’s brilliance is never in doubt throughout this book, but that brilliance and ego brought an operating style that created some measure of difficulty that even Kissinger acknowledges to have been unnecessary. Some terrific anecdotes, including Kissinger “criticizing” a staff report by placing it on the floor and stomping on it. The examination of his relationship with Nixon is fascinating as well. All in all another great book by Isaacson. Of course Bismark and Metternich are next on the read list.

View all my reviews” title=”Kissinger”>I gave five stars on Goodreads

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Seabrook Tree Lighting

Seabrook Tree Lighting

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Happy Thanksgiving Weekend

A very happy Thanksgiving weekend to all of you. I will hopefully begin to have a bit more time to post on subjects of interest to get the blog moving again.

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