Review of Tom Menino’s Mayor for a New America

Mayor for a New AmericaMayor for a New America by Thomas Menino

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good book that is surprisingly candid in many areas. Tom Menino was a true Mayor, and has left us a book with interesting stories, and some sound advice for those looking to become a Mayor, or for those who are already serving. I enjoyed very much his candor, including his thoughts on the real way he exercised political control, his answer to those who said he was a micro-manager, and the standards he expected from those that worked for him. His explanation of how he would (and did) have no qualms about cashiering a BRA Director who actually believed that the position was “independent” of the Mayor was priceless. His thoughts on incrementalism, and that change cannot get too far out in front of your constituency, were valuable as well. The Mayor was not afraid to put some wood on those that he felt deserved it, including John Kerry, who he shredded.

Mayor Menino served for so long because of his fundamental understanding of what it is that the citizens of Boston are looking for from local government. His critics claimed he had a “lack of vision”, but I submit that he knew what kind of change was truly possible, and what the people of Boston really thought was important. Unlike those broad brush “visionaries” who could not manage a three car parade Tom Menino kept Boston financially sound, and grew it to be a world class City. Like all of us he was not perfect, but on balance I think history will show him to have been a remarkable leader, and a Mayor for a New America.

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Nixonland- Master of Division.

Nixonland: America's Second Civil War and the Divisive Legacy of Richard Nixon 1965-72Nixonland: America’s Second Civil War and the Divisive Legacy of Richard Nixon 1965-72 by Rick Perlstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perlstein brings us back to Nixonland, and it is not a pretty picture. I had read the earlier book “Before the Storm” by Perlstein, and “Nixonland” brings us from Goldwater to Nixon, positing that Nixon planted the seeds that grew into the current huge divide in American political life. Perlstein had shown us the the rise of the right wing dominance of GOP politics in “Before the Storm”and the comfort that the American left took in the drubbing of Barry Goldwater by LBJ in 1964. Despite Perlstein coming from the left he shows how that “comfort” on the left after the LBJ landslide masked the deep divide that was about to become evident in American political life. And Perlstein is not afraid to show how the left so badly misunderstood some of the currents running through the country that brought us the Presidency of Richard Nixon.

This book is not a biography of Richard Nixon but rather a snapshot of a crazy time in American life and politics. It is very detailed, and covers lots of ground. We see how Richard Nixon began his comeback from the political abyss, doing the nitty gritty of hard work in the 1966 mid-terms, traveling the country for the GOP, and being in a position to take some credit (and gather some chits) for a gain of 47 Republican seats in the House, and 3 in the US Senate. Perlstein shows how the Republicans (and Nixon in particular) came to exploit the deep divide over Vietnam as well as the fears and prejudices of race in America. Race divisions are a large part of this book, and I think Perlstein is on mark there. I have read some reviews of the book that claim Perlstein has overstated the impact of this era and Nixon on our current divisions. On race I would have to disagree with that assessment. With the Democratic Party embracing Civil Rights, and Democratic majorities (driven by LBJ and the Movement itself) in Congress enacting major legislation and leaving behind its segregationist (racist) wing Nixon and the GOP saw opportunity and votes in the South, which brought us the Nixon “Southern Strategy”, frankly embracing the racist element and trying to dress it up as a “states right” movement. That determination by Nixon and the GOP drove African-Americans to the Democratic Party, and has led to a GOP dominance with white voters, especially white males. I would have to say that Perlstein has that part of Nixon’s legacy exactly right.

Perlstein does have plenty of criticism of the left as well. We see how the outrages of 1968, where Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without winning a primary, led to the reforms of 1972, which badly split the Democratic Party. Perlstein shows Nixon (“the Master”) not only ruthlessly exploiting these divisions but through a myriad of dirty tricks helping to create them. (Yes we get another look at Donald Segretti and Dwight Chapin). We get another look at the Democratic Convention of 1968 in Chicago, and how the Yippies and assorted other youth groups created street chaos, and how that chaos was exploited by Nixon. That street violence and the divide between police and demonstrators brought the type of divisions we are seeing today, with Nixon appealing to the “Silent Majority” against “scrubby and dirty” demonstrators.”And let me also say, ladies and gentlemen, I can assure them that they are a very loud minority in this country, but they are a minority, and it’s time for the majority to stand up and be counted.” Nixon, responding to demonstrators at a campaign stop. Seems to have some applicability today.

Watergate of course leads us to the end of Nixon’s Presidency, but for me the biggest indictment Perlstein makes is relative to Nixon’s conduct (as a candidate) in undercutting the LBJ opportunity to make gains in peace talks with North Vietnam, and the utter mess that became Nixon’s Vietnam policy (as President), colored by cynical political calculation and a willingness to be absolutely brutal in his conduct of the war.

I must concur with the evaluation of Richard Nixon, love him or hate him, as one of the most influential Presidents of the 20th Century. This book does not paint RMN in a very positive light, but I think it hits the mark much of the time. On “the more things change the more they stay the same” front Perlstein highlights a Nixon ad attacking the George McGovern proposal for a guaranteed income for every American: “According to an analysis by the Senate Finance Committee, the McGovern bill would make forty-seven percent of the people in the United States eligible for welfare.’ Slowly, angrily:’Forty-seven percent. Almost every other person in the country would be on welfare. The camera moves on the bustling, blaring street below- the 53 percent.” Maybe Mitt Romney read the book. The GOP playbook still has many pages written by “The Master”, Richard M. Nixon.

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First Aid Kit- Music from Krugman????

Much to the chagrin of my more conservative friends I not only read Paul Krugman’s New York Times column but his blog as well. Krugman, on his blog, highlights some musical selections that he enjoys on Friday nights. I must say that one of those musical selections, from a group called “First Aid Kit”, piqued my interest. When listening to some radio over the holiday I heard them again, and I am hooked. A Swedish folk duo consisting of two sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, the music is entrancing. So will I now be accused of having socialistic musical tastes? Enjoy the music!

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Above the Fray- Dukakis on the 1988 Campaign

The 1988 Presidential campaign keeps crossing my path lately. I finished reading “What it Takes” by Richard Ben Cramer, reviewed below, that was a terrific book about that campaign, looked at through the eyes of several of the candidates. NBC-Learn has just put out a great video that gives a view from Michael Dukakis himself. The Duke talks about several things that were central to the campaign, including the Dukakis campaign release to the media of the plagiarism charge against then Senator Biden (done through John Sasso, who lost his job with Dukakis over it), the return of Sasso during the general election campaign against George H.W. Bush, the Dukakis in the tank episode (which was omitted from the Cramer book), the Willie Horton furlough issue, and Dukakis talking about his debate response to the “rape of Kitty Dukakis” question. In todays busy world it is difficult to find the time to watch a 37 minute video but if you like politics this one is worth the watch.

One of the things that is crystal clear is that Michael Dukakis steps up repeatedly and points the finger of blame at himself for this loss. Throughout the film he identifies himself as the player making key decisions that he admits in retrospect were incorrect. He allows himself one small indulgence, when talking about the return of John Sasso to the campaign, which he said was “floundering” and needed Sasso’s expertise. But in the end Sasso “didn’t win the campaign for me”, which might be the only time the Duke expresses some doubt about the campaign team he assembled. Dukakis realizes that his determination to run a “clean” campaign, which had proved to be a successful formula in the primaries (with the Biden exception)just did not serve him well against the H.W. Bush onslaught of negativity.

The media masterminds for Bush were Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater, and they hit Dukakis with everything but the kitchen sink. The Duke does not express regret over the tank episode itself, pointing out that Bush had been photographed riding in a tank as well. But in the hands of Ailes and Atwater the image of Michael Dukakis riding around in a tank while George H.W. Bush is saying that “Dukakis has opposed every new weapons system since the slingshot” made Dukakis the object of ridicule. Dukakis acknowledges the impact of the ads, candidly admitting that he and his team were not prepared with the proper responses.

The one huge takeaway from this campaign was the impact of the Willie Horton ads, which Ailes and Atwater rolled out to tremendous effect. Dukakis accepts responsibility for the campaign non-response: “Shame on me for not effectively dealing with it. And I didn’t.” So much ugliness in that ad campaign by the Bush team, with the documentary showing Bryant Gumbel asking George H.W. Bush “Can you deny that the Willie Horton ad tapped a rather rich vein of American racism?”, and Bush denying any such thing. The Duke ruminates over some responses that might have been given, including comparisons of the Houston and Boston homicide rates, and the fact that the federal government (run by Reagan-Bush) actually had a prison furlough system. The Bush onslaught on this issue is detailed, showing some of the over the top campaign literature that was deployed by the GOP (“Dukakis to Rapist: ‘Have a Nice Weekend'”)

The early GOP attacks even tried to exploit rumors of Dukakis being in bad health, with President Reagan, at a press conference responding to a question on the release of medical records, saying “Look, I’m not going to pick on an invalid,” in reference to Dukakis. In response Dukakis challenged the press corps to a power walking exercise jaunt in Denver, which is highlighted. The Duke was in great shape.

The Dukakis failure to respond was borne out of an admittedly stubborn personality, and a self evaluation as a “different” type of politician.That self image, and his core conviction that people were looking for effective, competent government and not mudslinging, brought him the nomination, but failed him in the end. It also taught Bill Clinton an important lesson for 1992: rapid response to attacks must be made. The Clinton rapid response team (the war room) was a key component in his victory over George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Finally I think that Governor Dukakis is a thoughtful and exceedingly brilliant individual who should have had a larger role to play in national politics after his loss. I do believe he is a little bit too tough on himself relative to the campaign, but that points to his core decency. The Duke ran a clean shop, as Governor and as a candidate. I believe that served the public well, but it didn’t always help him. (See Duke I).

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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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