Tag Archives for " politics "

June 6, 2017

Al Franken’s memoir is revealing, insightful—and funny

al franken's memoirAl Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you’re expecting nonstop laughs from Al Franken’s memoir, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, you’ll be disappointed. Naturally, the book is laced with Franken’s signature humor. He rarely passes up an opportunity to go for a laugh. That even begins with the tongue-in-cheek title. But what comes through most strongly in this book is the man’s intelligence. If you’ve had the opportunity to talk to Al Franken, hear him speak about government policy or politics, or witness him in action on C-SPAN, you know what I’m talking about.

Learning how not to be funny

As Franken explains in his Foreword, this book is “the story of a midwestern Jewish boy of humble roots (the first in his family to own a pasta maker) who, after a thirty-five-year career in comedy, moved back home to challenge an incumbent senator. . . It’s the story of how, after spending a lifetime learning how to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.” Franken might have added that he also learned to keep his volcanic temper in check (at least most of the time).

Although it’s clear that Franken had a lifetime interest in politics, his entry into the arena was inspired by an extraordinary role model, Senator Paul Wellstone, who held the same seat in the U.S. Senate from 1991 until his tragic death in 2002. Like everyone else among Paul’s legion of supporters, Franken was shattered by the senator’s untimely death in a small plane that crashed in a snowstorm in northern Minnesota. (His wife, daughter, and two cherished long-time staff members died as well.)

The longest vote recount ever?

After a savage election campaign in which his integrity was repeatedly impugned and lines in jokes he’d told as a comedian were pulled out of context again and again to make him look evil, Franken eked out a victory in one of the closest elections in the history of the U.S. Senate. Republicans dragged out the recount process for eight months to keep Franken from providing Democrats with the 60th vote in the Senate that would enable them to prevent a filibuster. Franken wasn’t able to take his seat until nearly six months after the beginning of his term on January 3, 2009. Eight months might not represent the record for the longest vote recount ever, but if not it’s surely in the running.

Al Franken’s memoir: 35 years in comedy, 8 years in national office

Following what came naturally to him, Franken began a life in comedy in high school when he teamed up with Tom Davis. The Franken and Davis act went professional soon afterward and carried them both—as a writing team—into the inaugural year of Saturday Night Live. Franken spent 15 years with the show, and his account of that experience is prominent in his memoir. But the book is largely about Franken’s 2008 election campaign, the excruciating recount that followed, and his years in the Senate. Unlike so many other politicians who write autobiographies, Franken dwells at length on the role of his staff in feeding him with ideas and teaching him how not to be funny. This, despite the solemn advice he received from his colleagues in the senate never to credit his staff.

Befriending the enemy

Al Franken became even more famous than Saturday Night Live had made him when he became embroiled in a long-running feud with the recently-defrocked Fox News star Bill O’Reilly. Although many Republican senators express views as outrageous and unfounded as Reilly, Franken took a different approach when he got to the senate: he went out of his way to befriend his political enemies. To judge from what he writes in his memoir, Franken may have more good friends on the other side of the aisle than he does among his fellow Democrats. Franken’s friends include some of the most hard-line Right-Wingers in the senate. By all accounts, politics aside, he is respected by his colleagues—with one notable exception. As Franken makes clear, Texas senator Ted Cruz doesn’t respect anyone, Democrat or Republican. “[H]ere’s the thing you have to understand about Ted Cruz. I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.” It’s easy to understand why after reading the anecdotes Franken recounts. “Cruz isn’t just wrong about almost everything. He’s impossible to work with. And he doesn’t care that he’s impossible to work with.” That helps explain why Republicans didn’t flock to Cruz when he became the last man standing as an alternative to Donald Trump. Apparently, they hated Trump less.

An insider’s perspective on the issues

At times Franken departs from autobiography to explain his positions on leading issues that face the country. He’s well worth listening to. The best example of his thinking about national policy is healthcare. In a chapter entitled “Health Care: Now What?” he explains the logic behind universal healthcare—and the illogic that the Republican Party brings to the issue. Crediting a veteran journalist who has produced documentaries for PBS’ documentary show, Frontline, Franken explains that the U.S. doesn’t have a healthcare system. It has “a number of health systems. If you were in Medicare or Medicaid, you were in the Canadian system: single-payer. If you were in the military or the VA, you were in the British system: socialized medicine. If you got your insurance through your employer, as most Americans did, you were in the German system. But if you didn’t have any health insurance, you were in the Cambodian system, where one illness or injury could literally ruin or even end your life.” This is the reality on which the Affordable Care Act is grounded, as Franken explains. Given that the Act was based on a plan produced by the Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts under a Republican governor, “Obamacare” is a conservative solution to the problem. And it’s only a partial solution at that. All of which is why, as I write, Democrats across the country are increasingly turning to Medicare for All as the only real solution to America’s healthcare crisis. Franken explains, however, that the deal the country got in Obamacare was the best that could be had at the time, given Republican intransigence and the conservative inclinations of some Democratic senators.

Al Franken and me

In fairness, I must disclose that I’m a big fan of Al Franken’s, and I have been for a very long time. I can’t claim to “know” him, but I did interact with him on a few occasions early in his political career. Presumably because my fundraising agency had worked for Paul Wellstone, Franken hired us to conduct the direct mail campaign for the Political Action Committee he founded in 2006, the Midwest Values PAC. He was a client of my company for five years. On a couple of occasions, I even wrote fundraising letters that went out over his signature. Largely because Franken was so well known and admired, we raised a great deal of money for him.

For another perspective on Al Franken’s memoir, take a look at a review by Eric Lach in The New Yorker (June 2, 2017).



Donald Trump: populism, or fascism?

populismThe Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, by John Judis

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The unexpected emergence of Donald Trump as a major-party candidate for the White House has triggered a great deal of punditry about how the Republican Party managed to put forward such a bigoted and ignorant champion. Speculation has swirled around the nature of the political forces he represents. Some observers insist he, though home-grown, bears more resemblance to Benito Mussolini than to any democratic political leader. Others think of Trump’s candidacy as populist; they describe him as the embodiment of grassroots frustration with the failure of Republican leadership to deliver on its promises.

Rejecting facile definitions of populism

Veteran journalist John Judis wades into this debate with a slim volume entitled The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics. Judis’ subject is not the 2016 election but the much broader topic of the politics of protest. His argument spans more than a century, beginning with the emergence of the People’s Party in the United States late in the 19th century. Rejecting many of the facile definitions of the term, Judis insists that “there is no set of features that exclusively defines movements, parties, and people that are called populist — from the Russian Narodniks to Huey Long, and from France’s Marine Le Pen to the late congressman Jack Kemp.”

Describing populism on both the Left and the Right

However, the author manages to simplify the question by describing both left-wing and right-wing populism. “Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment,” he writes. “Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” Unfortunately, this distinction doesn’t much help to understand Donald Trump and the millions who back his candidacy. The views he claims on the campaign trail fit both leftwing and rightwing definitions.

Populism and the rejection of the “neoliberal consensus”

The fundamental premise in Judis’ argument is that populists on both the Right and the Left have come into prominence because of their loud opposition to what he terms the “neoliberal consensus.” He uses the term neoliberal in a fashion that encompasses Bill Clinton, the New Democrats, and (up to a point) Barack Obama as well as the uncompromising right-wing intellectuals who dominated the administration of George W. Bush. That “neoliberal consensus” includes advocacy for free trade agreements, an expansive foreign policy, low barriers to immigration, a hands-off policy toward Wall Street, and other policies that tend to widen the gap between rich and poor. Leftwing populists such as Bernie Sanders have railed against free trade, an aggressive foreign policy, deregulation, and the failure to narrow the income and wealth gaps. Rightwing populists single out intervention in the affairs of other countries as well as free trade. Donald Trump’s often self-contradictory policies encompass both left-wing and right-wing populist positions.

Trump: not easy to pigeonhole

Judis explains: “Trump’s political base was among the party’s white working- and middle-class voters — precisely the voters who had originally flocked to [George] Wallace and then to Nixon, who had been attracted to [Ross] Perot and [Pat] Buchanan.” Caricatures aside, all these “conservative” populist leaders went against the Republican grain to oppose tax cuts for the rich and dismantling Social Security and Medicare, just as is the case with Trump. Judis also makes the point that Trump’s position on healthcare, for example, is closer to Bernie Sanders’ than it is to today’s Republican leadership’s. Yes, he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But, like Sanders, sincerely or not, he advocates universal health care.

Trump as a fascist? Judis says no

Judis dismisses the contention that Donald Trump is a fascist. “Trump is a one-man show whose initial target was other Republicans,” he argues, “and who has not built a movement around himself. He has displayed anti-democratic tendencies, but they are idiosyncratic. If he has any correlate in European history, it is Italy’s Silvio Belusconi, not Mussolini nor Hitler.” However, Lawrence Rosenthal, Executive Director of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has a different view. He argues in the Huffington Post that it’s unfair to compare Trump’s campaign with the mature fascism of Mussolini. Instead, he finds a much closer correlate between Trump and the early fascist movement in Italy, which was much more difficult to pigeonhole.

Populism in both Europe and the US

Don’t be misled: The Populist Explosion is not in large part an analysis of the 2016 presidential election campaign. It’s a study of populism writ large, with examples liberally drawn from European as well as American politics over the last 130 years. If anything, Judis devotes more time to reviewing the rise of left-wing populist parties in Southern Europe (Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy) and right-wing populist movements in Northern Europe (the UK Independent Party, the National Front in France, the Freedom Parties in Austria and Holland, the People’s Party in Denmark).  Though circumstances vary greatly from one country to another, Judis maintains that the Great Recession created the conditions for populist movements to gain momentum not only in the United States but throughout most of Europe as well. The widening separation between rich and poor presents a rich opportunity for the politics of protest.

About the author

John Judis began his career as a journalist nearly half a century ago. For many years, he wrote for democratic socialist periodicals, several of which he helped to found. In later years he has worked for more moderate publications such as The New Republic, The American Prospect, and, now, the digital magazine The National Journal.

27 biographies worth reading


One of the very best ways to gain insight into history and the ways of the world around us is to read biographies. Which explains why I read them so frequently. Over the more than six years since I began writing this blog, I’ve read dozens. Here I’m listing 27 that stand out in my mind.

The 27 books below are arranged in no particularly order. You’ll see, too, that they cover a lot of territory. However, apart from Stacy Schiff’s biography of Queen Cleopatra and Robert Massie’s celebrated work on Catherine the Great, they’re all set in the 19th and 20th centuries. I occasionally read history set far in the past, but I’m far more interested in the modern era that began with the Industrial Revolution.

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles

T. J. Stiles won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for this outstanding biography of one of the seminal figures in American economic history. Cornelius Vanderbilt was the model for the generation of capitalists who came to be known as Robber Barons.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf

The amazing story of a 19th century superstar, little remembered today, who was regarded as a genius by Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and other leaders of Western civilization during and after his lifetime. This is the man who first laid down the principles of ecology — more than 200 years ago.

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman

If any one person was most responsible for today’s divisive politics in America — and for the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump — it’s Roger Ailes. As the longtime chairman of Fox News, Ailes steadily made Right-Wing extremism ever more respectable. We’re all paying the price for that now and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.

Jonas Salk: A Life, by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

Few Americans today can imagine the abject fear that stalked summertime America when polio epidemics were an annual occurrence. Jonas Salk solved the problem. Often shunned by his fellow scientists, Salk was a true pioneer. He ignored the limitations of medical science as it was known in his day to fashion drug trials that gave us the first (and safest) polio vaccine.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Hollywood’s portrayals of Queen Cleopatra bore little resemblance to the reality, as Stacy Schiff makes clear in this extraordinary original biography. More historiography than simple history, Schiff examines how the legend of Cleopatra grew over the centuries — and was steadily distorted in the process.

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, by Larry Tye

John F. Kennedy’s younger brother was showing the potential to eclipse him when he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on his path to the White House. Apart from the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Bobby Kennedy played a significant role at the side of his brother, and the goal he set of landing a man on the moon, it’s difficult to point to much in JFK’s presidency that history will regard as truly significant. Bobby seemed prepared to do much more.

America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, by Gabriel Thompson

Social change movements don’t start by themselves. Someone leads them. And often that person is what today we call a community organizer. Cesar Chavez was one such man, and this excellent biography is about the gifted teacher who taught him the tricks of the trade.

Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles

This surprising biography of the Civil War hero and famous failure won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History. As Stiles makes clear, the jealousy of Custer’s fellow officers was probably in large part responsible for the general’s defeat at the Little Big Horn.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable

Though mainstream society shunned him as a criminal, most African-Americans in his time looked on Malcolm X as a hero. Along with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm must be considered one of the most significant figures in recent American history.

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber

The real-life Karl Marx was very different from the caricature created by Lenin, Stalin, and their minions. He was, in fact, a man of his time and not really a revolutionary in the manner of Lenin, much less Stalin or Mao.

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, by Michael Hiltzik

Today we take for granted that scientific advancement comes from huge, well-funded teams, not solitary individuals laboring away in white coats. This biography of the remarkable atomic physicist Ernest Lawrence tells the story of how Big Science came to be — and how he was a central figure in its creation.

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Few of us know any more about the Wright Brothers than the image lingering in our minds of that flimsy biplane lifting off the dunes at Kitty Hawk. Here, the prize-winning biographer David McCullough tells their remarkable story. What’s especially interesting are the years after Kitty Hawk, when the brothers became world famous.

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli

David McCullough’s intimate biography of Steve Jobs grabbed the headlines, and it was beautifully done, as is all of McCullough’s work. But this later entry from two journalists who followed Jobs closely for many years gives a far more accurate and balanced picture of the man and his life. He was even more complex than we knew.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw

In his time, Joe Kennedy was considered by some (especially himself) as a possible contender for the Presidency. When his hopes were frustrated, he transferred his ambitions to his sons. This is the insightful story of a remarkable man who established one of the most important families of 20th-Century America.

Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, by John A. Farrell

In his own time, Clarence Darrow was one of the most famous men in America. As an attorney — the country’s leading attorney — for unpopular people and causes, he was probably loathed at least as widely as he was loved. But no one would ever have dreamed of dismissing him as inconsequential.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie

Among the Tsars of Russia, only Peter the Great can be considered as a peer to the Prussian woman who married an heir to the throne and came to be called Catherine the Great when she succeeded her husband after a few years. Catherine ruled over the country for 34 years, expanding its borders and modernizing its institutions along Western European lines.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre

Espionage is, of course, a risky business. Few spies manage to operate undiscovered for more than a few years. Those who gain access to secrets at the highest level tend to be in even greater jeopardy. Kim Philby was a rare exception. For three decades, he worked undercover in the UK as a spy for the Soviet Union inside the British intelligence establishment. Even after his English colleagues became convinced he was a spy and isolated him from access to sensitive information, the CIA continued to defend him.

American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, by Alex Beam

In its own time, and into the present day, the Church of Latter-Day Saints was one of the world’s fastest-growing religions. For decades, the religion founded early in the 19th century by an uneducated young man in Upstate New York defended the practice of polygamy, a practice which the founder himself indulged in to an extreme degree. Eventually, the Mormon church abandoned its defense of plural marriage, but the mystifying fantasy at the heart of the beliefs expounded by Joseph Smith nearly two centuries ago live on.

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk

Much of what the public knows about poverty in the Global South comes from the work of an American economist who gained fame at an early age working a “miracle” in Bolivia. Unfortunately, there were no miracles to follow in any of his work over the following three decades. As Nina Munk makes clear through diligent research, Jeffrey Sachs is no miracle-maker, and the path he described out of poverty is a dead end.

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Geffen

A Russian-American journalist unmasks the former KGB agent who has set out to reconstruct the Soviet empire and is now aggressively taking on the world. His intervention in Syria and his meddling in the 2016 American elections are just two of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to work his way on the world. And, by the way, he’s stolen enough to amass a personal fortune of $40 billion. While Putin and his cronies have become absurdly rich, the Russian economy is in a shambles.

The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro

Robert Caro is one of America’s most celebrated political biographers. Though not without its critics, his multi-volume portrait of Lyndon Johnson is widely regarded to be one of the best presidential biographies ever written — and it’s yet to be finished. The Passage of Power is the fourth volume, and it brings Johnson’s story only up to 1964, when he was elected in his own right to the White House.

And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, by Charles J. Shields

Like so many clowns, Kurt Vonnegut lived a sad life. His satirical take-downs of war, corporations, and life in mid-century America in his books were sometimes hilarious. But it doesn’t appear that the man laughed a lot. And even though for many years Vonnegut was regarded as one of America’s most important writers, it remains to be seen whether that reputation can endure much longer.

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, by Thomas Blass

Any educated person in America today is likely to be familiar with two of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in social psychology. One was the “obedience” experiment, in which he proved that Yale undergraduates could be persuaded to induce extreme, and even life-threatening, pain on others simply because they were told to do so. The other was the “small world” experiment, in which Milgram proved that we are separated from one another by no more than “six degrees of separation.”

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime precursor to the CIA, was responsible for much of the partisan activity behind Nazi lines in Europe. Though later evidence suggests it was only marginally helpful to the war effort, Donovan and his work had the confidence of FDR and became world famous.

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, by Stephen Kinzer

The historical record is shocking enough: the future Secretary of State and future CIA director helped steer Wall Street capital and American business to Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. The older brother, Foster, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with his diplomatic brinksmanship. The younger, Allen, first helped Nazi war criminals escape to the US and South America after World War II, sometimes with the fortunes they plundered. Later, he led US efforts to assassinate heads of government in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, and probably many others. Yet, as David Talbot showed in his later book (listed just below), even worse was to come.

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot

Digging much more deeply into the historical record, including interviews with contemporaries of Dulles and recently opened secret files, San Francisco investigative journalist David Talbot paints a much darker and more credible picture of Allen Dulles than Kinzer did in The Brothers. Even after JFK fired him as CIA Director, Dulles continued to meddle in political affairs at the highest level — with catastrophic consequences.

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, by Rich Cohen

The astounding-but-true tale of how a penniless Eastern European immigrant founded the United Fruit Company, helped engineer the murder of the President of Guatemala, and became one of the richest men in the world. It was Samuel Zemurray whose efforts shaped the history several of what came to be called “banana republics.”

From Thomas Mallon, a terrific political history novel

political historyDewey Defeats Truman by Thomas Mallon

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

For at least a year before the 1948 presidential election, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey was almost universally expected to beat the incumbent, former Vice President Harry Truman. (Apparently, even Truman himself thought he would lose.) The title of Thomas Mallon’s brilliant novel about that time was an infamous headline in the Chicago Tribune which wishfully predicted on election night that “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

A pivotal time in our political history

With election year in the background, Mallon spins a tale set in Tom Dewey’s home town, Owosso, Michigan. There he introduces a large cast of local characters, including Dewey’s mother, whose complex interrelationships wax and wane in the course of the novel. Every character is finely drawn, as though grabbed out of memory. Mallon writes with a sure hand about the love triangle among Peter Cox, “a hot young lawyer” who is running for the State Assembly, the beautiful newcomer Anne Macmurray, and an up-and-coming labor leader named Jack Riley. He finds drama in the daily lives of every character in town.

His command of the politics of the time is impressive, too. Mallon does solid research. (He was born three years after the 1948 election.) Set three years after the end of World War II, Dewey Defeats Truman reflects the boundless optimism of the period. In hindsight, we recognize the flip side of the time, as the Cold War intensified with the Berlin blockade and airlift and the fast-accelerating Red Scare at home.

About the author

Thomas Mallon is one of the most gifted interpreters of America’s political history. Dewey Defeats Truman was the first of several insightful novels built around historical figures and events at particular inflection points in our history: the 1948 election, Watergate, and the administration of Ronald Reagan.

If this book intrigues you, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels. This novel is included.

Thomas Mallon on America’s third Red Scare

red scareFellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Only American history majors are likely to be aware that America’s first Red Scare was sparked in 1886 by the Haymarket affair in Chicago — a demonstration by workers calling for an eight-hour day which led to widespread persecution of men, usually foreign-born, who were perceived as anarchists. Thirty-three years later a wave of anarchist bombings in the wake of World War I induced Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to recruit a 23-year-old named J. Edgar Hoover to locate and deport hundreds of anarchists, Communists, and other assorted leftists. Dial the clock forward nearly another thirty years to the anti-Communist frenzy following World War II that rose to a crescendo in the 1950s with the histrionic hearings presided over by Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. Thomas Mallon’s novel, Fellow Travelers, skillfully recreates the mood prevailing in Washington, DC, during McCarthy’s witch-hunt, placing fictional characters in solidly researched historic circumstances.

America’s third Red Scare

To appreciate Mallon’s tour de force to the fullest, you might need to be in my age cohort (yes, north of 70). Reading Fellow Travelers was a lot like old home week for me: the book is filled with references to the federal officials, celebrities, and signature events of the 1950s. Since Thomas Mallon was born only in 1951 and would have been just nine years old when the decade ended, it’s safe to assume that he had to do a great deal of reading and research to recreate the flavor of those times.

It’s well known that McCarthy and his collaborators — as well as those who knuckled under to their strong-arm tactics — targeted not just Communists but anyone left of center, including outspoken liberals, progressive, and unaffiliated socialists. Anyone who resisted the Red Scare was placed in McCarthy’s cross-hairs and frequently lost their jobs as a result. Among them were not only officials in the State Department and the Army and Hollywood personalities, all of whom have received a great deal of attention, but also teachers and administrators on campuses throughout the country and employees in private companies as well. It’s less well known that gay men, too, were driven out of their jobs as “security risks,” presumably because they were vulnerable to blackmail. (Whether lesbians were also targeted is unclear in the context of this gay love story, and I have no personal knowledge to answer the question). The McCarthy years were one of the darkest periods in American history.

A gay love story set against the background of the Red Scare

Fallon deftly weaves together two themes in Fellow Travelers: the rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy and the love between two men, one of them a senior government official. There’s irony — perhaps what might be called a double entendre — in the title as a result, as the two central characters were “fellow” travelers on the unconventional path they’d chosen.

About the author

Thomas Mallon is the author of seven nonfiction books and eight novels as well as numerous magazine articles, critical essays, and reviews. I’ve previously reviewed his two most recent novels, Watergate and Finale (about the final years of Ronald Reagan’s administration). Both were outstanding works of political fiction.

If this book intrigues you, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels. This novel is included.

Dirty politics, union style

dirty politicsA review of Yellow-Dog Contract, by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s been so long since labor unions have appeared high on our radar screens here in the US that you may be unaware what the phrase “yellow-dog contract” means. I for one had forgotten. Well, it turns out that such a contract, or a clause in a contract, requires that a new employee never join a union. And that archaic concept is the hook at the centerpiece of this brilliant novel about dirty politics, union style. The book was published in 1976, so the concept was by no means archaic then.

The reigning master of dirty tricks

Though not yet 40, Harvey Longmire has long since retired to his farm near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, as Yellow-Dog Contract opens. There he lives with his wife and a zoo’s worth of animals when two men from his checkered past show up in a large Mercedes. Murfin and Quane were his henchmen in an unsuccessful union election campaign a dozen years earlier, when their candidate, the incumbent president of the Public Employees Union (PEU), narrowly lost to his challenger despite their considerable electioneering skills. Now the two men have come to enlist Harvey in an effort to find the man who defeated their candidate and has served as PEU’s president ever since: the man has disappeared, and shenanigans are afoot in the union under his successor. Harvey had proven himself the reigning master of dirty tricks in politics by winning eleven of the twelve “hopeless” Congressional and Senatorial campaigns he took on after their work together at the union. Their new boss, the multimillionaire head of a family foundation, insists that they bring Harvey back to investigate the disappearance of the PEU president, and he won’t take no for an answer.

A plot that twists, turns, and does little dances

You can expect three things above all in a novel by Ross Thomas: colorful, three-dimensional characters; dialog that is unfailingly witty and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny; and a plot that twists, turns, and does little dances before your very eyes. Yellow-Dog Contract offers all that and more, including a huge dollop of suspense. It would spoil the fun to describe any more of the story. Read it. You’ll thank me.

Falling union membership

By the end of World War II, the percentage of workers employed in the US economy who were members of labor unions peaked at more than one-third. Three decades later, in the mid-1970s, that proportion had fallen to between one-fourth and one-fifth. (In 2013 the share was 11.3%.) Most economists today consider this trend to be a major factor, and perhaps the greatest factor, in creating the yawning gap between rich and poor in America today. Undoubtedly, dirty tricks of the sort portrayed in Yellow-Dog Contract as well as corruption within a few major unions helped undermine the trade union movement. However, it’s clear that the biggest factor by far was a massively funded nationwide campaign by the American Right that began in the US Chamber of Commerce, gained steam throughout the 1970s, and continues today under Republican governors in such states as Wisconsin and Michigan.

About the author

According to his bio on Wikipedia, Ross Thomas “served with the infantry in the Philippines during World War II. He worked as a public relations specialist, correspondent with the Armed Forces Network, union spokesman, and political strategist in the USA, Bonn (Germany), and Nigeria before becoming a writer.” Is it any wonder that Thomas would be well positioned to write Yellow-Dog Contract and so many other great books about dirty politics?



21 novels about politics

politicsPolitics fascinates me. Always has. Which is why I gravitate toward books that bear on the subject, nonfiction and fiction alike. Here are 21 novels that are worth considering, if you too are intrigued by the give and take of politics in a democratic society. These novels run the gamut from accounts of nasty and sometimes violent electioneering, to bureaucratic intrigue, and to influence-peddling by lobbyists, both official and non. Many of the stories take place in the United States. Others are set in the UK, Australia, Western Africa, and ancient Rome. One even detours to Yemen. The titles are arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ surnames.

In the last few years I’ve read and reviewed all but two of these books. I’ve inserted links to my reviews below. Stay tuned for reviews of the last two sometime in the months ahead.

The Mormon Candidate, by Avraham Azrieli

No Way To Treat a First Lady, The White House Mess, and They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, all by Christopher Buckley

Amnesia: A Novel, by Peter Carey

Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury

Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics, JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan, by Jeff Greenfield

Conspirata (Ancient Rome Trilogy #2) and Dictator (Ancient Rome Trilogy #3), both by Robert Harris

Echo House, by Ward Just

11/22/63, by Stephen King

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Fellow Travelers: A Novel, Watergate: A Novel, and Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, all by Thomas Mallon

Head of State, by Andrew Marr

The Seersucker Whipsaw and The Porkchoppers, by Ross Thomas

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, by Paul Torday

Farthing (Small Change Trilogy #1) and Ha’penny (Small Change Trilogy #2): A Story of a World That Could Have Been, both by Jo Walton

All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren





A liberal icon finds fault with liberal politics

liberal politicsA review of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, by Thomas Frank

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Blame for the widening gap between rich and poor and America is typically laid at the feet of the Republican Party, chiefly through the actions of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Without question, these two men, and their right-wing collaborators in Congress, bear a lot of responsibility for the dire circumstances under which millions of Americans now eke out a living. But Thomas Frank, an historian and widely read liberal commentator, forcefully argues that many of the policies at the heart of today’s economic dysfunction were shaped under Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “It is time to face the obvious,” he writes, “that the direction the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure both for the nation and for their own partisan health.” He lays out the case in his eye-opening new book, Listen, Liberal: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

The conservative roots of today’s liberal politics

Economic inequality in America today is all around us. The income of all except those at the very top of the pyramid has been stagnant for decades. A single family (the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame) possesses more wealth than 42% of American families combined. And 91% of all the economic gains over the past decade have gone to the “one percent.” The causes are reasonably easy to see. In contrast to the period from 1945 to 1980, when the country’s prosperity was broadly based and the middle class was the envy of the world, changes in labor, law enforcement, tax, social welfare, and trade policies have shifted the balance of power to the uppermost ranks of bankers, corporate executives, and the heirs to large fortunes.

Though he points to the growing rejection of New Deal values and policies within the Democratic Party of the 1970s, Frank traces the ideological rationale for many of these changes to the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Founded in 1985, the DLC successfully moved the Democratic Party to the right, adopting traditionally Republican policies to broadcast its claim to the center of American politics. Among these were deregulation of finance and industry, “law and order,” deficit reduction, “entitlements reform,” lower taxes on the rich, and ending welfare — in other words, a shopping list of goals advanced by conservatives since the 1970s. Bill Clinton, who served as DLC Chair in the year before he announced his candidacy for President, took steps toward all these objectives during the eight years of his Administration. He enacted laws toward these ends in partnership with Congressional Republicans: witness, for example, his expansion of the War on Drugs, NAFTA, “welfare reform,” and the repeal of Glass-Steagall (the signature banking reform of the New Deal). Less well known were his secret negotiations in 1997 with Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security. As Frank points out, “the deal [with Gingrich] evaded Bill Clinton’s grasp, but only barely” — because the Monica Lewinsky affair blew up in his face.

What is the difference between Democrats and Republicans?

The groundswell of support for the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders this year dramatizes the conviction among many, especially young Americans, that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. While it’s true that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have staked out many positions that in other advanced countries might be considered conservative, the sad reality is that the Democratic Party is not alone in drifting to the right since the 1970s. Today’s Republican Party advances policies that might have embarrassed Ronald Reagan — positions that can no longer be legitimately described as conservative. What the news media refer to as the Tea Party wing that dominates the Republican Party today represents a perspective that ignores reality and defies rational thought. Regrettably, then, even the most “moderate,” middle-of-the-road Democrat is a paragon of logic, common sense, and compassion by comparison. Unfortunately, Frank merely pays lip service to this all-important distinction.

An indictment of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama

In Listen, Liberal, Frank spells out the many ways in which Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have betrayed the Democratic commitment to progressive principles. The case against Clinton is solid, encompassing a litany of policies that still raise the hackles of activist Democrats, as enumerated above. His indictment of Obama, while difficult to contest on economic issues, is less convincing overall.

Frank acknowledges some of the progressive accomplishments of both men. “Clinton raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit,” he writes. “He secured a modest tax increase on the wealthy.” And under his presidency the country achieved nearly full employment. But in Frank’s view these modest accomplishments paled against Clinton’s signature achievements, such as NAFTA, welfare reform, and the repeal of Glass Steagall. In the final analysis, Frank contends, “Clinton made the problems of working people materially worse. . . To judge by what he actually accomplished, Bill Clinton was not the lesser of two evils, as people on the left always say about Democrats at election time; he was the greater of the two. What he did as president was beyond the reach of even the most diabolical Republican.”

Frank concedes the importance of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but in his single-minded focus on economic inequality he dwells at length on the many ways that Obama continued to champion the same Wall Street-friendly economic and trade policies as Clinton. However, he largely ignores what the Obama Administration has sought to achieve in other areas, notably immigration policy and climate change. Frank would have been on solider ground had he limited his indictment to Clinton, whom historians are certain to regard as a conservative President. It would be difficult to render the same judgment about Obama without considerable qualification.

The root of the problem, as Frank sees it

For decades following the Great Depression, the Democratic Party’s success at the polls rested on what political historians have called the New Deal coalition, which found its greatest strength in trade unions, racial minorities, and white Southerners. This assemblage of forces began to unravel quickly with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which drove many working class whites out of the Party, not just in the South but nationwide.

Beginning in the 1970s, Democratic intellectuals began to search for a new formulation that would reliably return a Democratic majority. Eventually, they found what they thought was the answer in the New Economy. Frank’s prose drips with sarcasm in describing this shaky concept: “Postindustrialism! Globalization! The information superhighway! These were gods before whom everyone bowed back then, deities who made their will known to the country’s opinion columnists and management theorists.” And the gods demanded that the Democratic Party turn its back on the unions, adopt free trade policies such as NAFTA, deregulate industry, lower taxes on the rich, and set its sights on Innovation and the so-called Creative Class.

Instead of poor people and the working class, the Democratic Party came to identify itself with “the upper 10 percent of the population — the country’s financiers, managers, and professionals.” Frank refers to this diverse group as a “professional class” defined by graduate degrees and specialized white-collar work. At the apex of this class sit the exalted products of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other elite universities — the sort of people who have dominated both the Clinton and Obama Administrations. Supposedly, “[p]rofessionals are the people who know what ails us and who dispense valuable diagnoses.” In Frank’s view, they have proven to be the crux of the problem, not the solution.

About the author

Listen, Liberal is Thomas Frank‘s ninth book. He’s best known for What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, a bestseller a decade ago. Frank is a columnist for Harper’s Magazine.


A brilliant and witty novel about dirty politics

dirty politicsA review of The Porkchoppers, by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you’re looking for insightful writing about dirty politics, the novels of Ross Thomas have no peer.

Dirty politics, union-style

In The Porkchoppers, Thomas portrays the behind-the-scenes reality of a high-stakes labor union election, and it ain’t pretty. The picture is likely to be exaggerated through the lens of the author’s cynicism, but not by all that much.

Now in his 60s, Donald Cribbin has served for decades as the president of a million-member international union headquartered in Washington, DC. He is bored with his job and regularly turns to the bottle for solace, leaving his much younger wife to seek sexual fulfillment in the arms of Donald’s loyal but dumb sidekick.

For the first time in years, Donald now faces a serious challenge. His protege, Sammy Hanks, the younger man he rescued from obscurity and appointed as the union’s international secretary-treasurer, is running a strong campaign against him. Sammy has problems of his own, of course. Big ones. Not only is he unnaturally ugly but he has a tendency to fly off the handle in a tantrum at the slightest provocation, often throwing himself to the floor and obsessively pounding the surface until someone manages to distract him.

They’re called “advisers”

Each of the two candidates has both a retinue of loyalists inside the union as well as outside advisers, and the rub comes with the outsiders. They’re the forerunners of today’s political campaign professionals — the ones who put all those negative ads on TV — but the comparison is weak. These guys are what might better be called “fixers.” They don’t play nice. As I said, dirty politics.

On Donald’s side, there’s a Washington-based firm named Walter Penry and Associates, all former law enforcement officers. “What Walter Penry and Associates, Inc., actually specialized in was skullduggery, the kind that stayed within the law” (though just barely). Penry secretly takes direction from a shadowy old millionaire who appears to know everyone and everything. (Of course, there are such people who seem like they do.)

Sammy’s campaign connects with a Chicago political operator who is said to have stolen the 1960 presidential election for John F. Kennedy. (Somebody actually did.) The man attempts to do the same for Sammy. But Sammy’s main man is Mickey Della. Among political “PR agents,” Mickey was “without doubt the most vicious one around and just possibly the best.”

When all these colorful characters converge in a single dramatic election campaign, sparks fly — and that’s not all.

The signatures of Ross Thomas’ writing

You can count on at least three things in a Ross Thomas novel. First, the writing is witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Especially the dialog. Second, the novels reflect Thomas’ well-informed and all-too-realistic rendering of politics as it’s actually practiced. He’s clearly cynical, and he certainly exaggerates for dramatic effect, but he clearly knows how stuff gets done in high-stakes political campaigns. And, third, Thomas manages to people every book with a large cast of characters — and only rarely leave the reader confused about who’s who or what’s happening. Every character is vividly pictured. It’s quite extraordinary, really. This is a great example of what truly deserves the monniker literature, academic critics notwithstanding.

About the author

The late Ross Thomas wrote twenty-five novels and two books of nonfiction. As Wikipedia notes, “He worked as a public relations specialist, correspondent with the Armed Forces Network, union spokesman, and political strategist in the USA, Germany, and Nigeria before becoming a writer.” The man knew his stuff!



Who wields the real power in Washington, DC?

real powerEcho House by Ward Just

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s a commonplace that what transpires “inside the Beltway” that rings Washington, DC, is at best a poor reflection of American views and values. Over the years, scholars, pollsters, and pundits have attempted to understand this contrast, but the mechanistic tools of science and the biases of political analysts fail to grasp the nuances of the way things get done in the nation’s capital. Reading fiction is a better route to understanding the peculiar character of Washington’s insular community. For example, the work of Thomas Mallon (Finale, Watergate) offers more insight into the scandal-plagued years of the Nixon and Reagan Administrations than anything else I’ve read. But the reigning master of American political fiction is Ward Just. Echo House, the eleventh of his eighteen novels, is a brilliant portrayal of three generations of Washington deal-makers.

The real world inside the Beltway

Every second year, the population of Capitol Hill changes a little, and every fourth often witnesses a dramatic shift in the upper reaches of the Administration. But the hundreds of individuals who account for these changes are a tiny fraction of the city’s population. Life goes on, essentially unchanged, for the hundreds of thousands of other citizens — not just the janitors, taxi drivers, housemaids, and others who constitute the city’s working class but also the bureaucrats, lawyers, journalists, lobbyists, spies, consultants, and assorted deal-makers who make government work. In Echo House, Ward Just drills down into the lives of three generations in a family of Washington power-brokers. The picture he paints is troubling even though it’s illuminating.

Where real power lies

Presidents habitually complain they have far less power than the public might think. In fact, scholars and political observers alike have explored the difficulty of bringing about significant change in American policy from the top — sometimes even just making what might seem to be straightforward decisions. Old-school political scientists argue that this is a result of the competition among the many special interests that converge on government. While this is certainly a factor, the power of the permanent bureaucracy and of the private citizens who wield influence from one Administration to the next may be even greater. These are the people who remain in place, regardless of which party or which President is “in power.” Echo House demonstrates the subtle ways the most powerful of these people operate behind the scenes and dictate the course of events.

A saga of three generations

Echo House traces the history of the rich and powerful Behl family from the time just after World War I until close to the end of the twentieth century, when the novel was first published. Senator Adolph Behl is his party’s presumptive nominee for Vice President. Then the presidential candidate reneges on a promise and names someone else. A young boy at the time, the Senator’s son, Axel, takes it all in, resolving to aim for the White House himself. Axel, much like John F. Kennedy’s big brother, Joe, seems destined to achieve his ambition. But, like Joseph Kennedy, his plans are derailed during World War II. Serving as an OSS officer in Occupied France, the Jeep Axel is driving hits a land mine, horribly wounding him and leaving him in great pain for the rest of his life.

Leaving aside the dream of winning the White House, Axel builds a power base through the intelligence community, becoming a confidential adviser of every president and becoming widely acknowledged through the capital as one of the most influential people in town. Axel’s son, Alec, a close observer of his father, takes up the mantle himself in due time. Eventually, he too arrives at the pinnacle of influence, portrayed on the cover of TIME Magazine as “The man to see in Washington.” Along the way we witness the turbulent Roosevelt years, the hard-fought battles under Harry Truman, the years of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Joseph McCarthy, and all the presidents who follow. The tale is rich with detail and well-informed with insight about the seminal events of all those years. Politics in the nation’s capital looks much different from the perspective the author conveys.

About the author

Ward Just’s eighteen novels include some of the most remarkable political tales of the twentieth century. Echo House is one of those. Just published his first novel in 1970 following a career in journalism. His most recent book appeared in 2014.

If this book intrigues you, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels. This novel is included.

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