NY Times Sunday Book Review:Cradle of Civil Disobedience

May 10, 2014

Sunday Book Review

Cradle of Civil Disobedience

Gandhi Before India,’ by Ramachandra Guha

At the end of the 19th century, Mohandas Gandhi was a young lawyer living in Durban, South Africa. He left his house in Beach Grove every morning for an office on Mercury Lane, where he spent much of the day helping his fellow Indian immigrants navigate the onerous colonial bureaucracy. He kept meticulous records, including a logbook of correspondence — from an English missionary and local planters, and a series of letters exchanged with the Protector of Indian Immigrants about the treatment of indentured laborers. In January of 1897, and again a few months later, he heard from another lawyer who was, like him, a Gujarati who had studied in England and then struggled to establish a practice in Bombay. The contents of these letters are unknown.

R GuhaIn a remarkable new biography, “Gandhi Before India,” Ramachandra Guha (left) gingerly speculates about what they might have been. Expressions of support for Gandhi’s nascent activism? Or perhaps “explorations of interest in a possible career in South Africa”? Guha wisely stops there.

What is not in doubt is the name in Gandhi’s logbook — “M. A. Jinnah,” Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who would become the founder of Pakistan. “All we now know is that, a full 50 years before partition and the independence of India and Pakistan, the respective ‘Fathers’ of those nations were in correspondence.”

Guha’s description of this encounter is evidence of his strengths as a historian. He mines primary sources — in this case, records of Gandhi’s law practice from the archives in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, and the logbook dug out of a filing cupboard in the Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad, India — to establish that Gandhi and Jinnah were in contact a decade earlier than previously documented. And he writes vividly enough to compete with that bête noire of all Gandhi biographies, Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi.” (In the movie, they meet at a garden party in India, where a skeptical Jinnah adjusts his monocle while the turbaned Mahatma smiles beatifically.) Guha reminds us of everything these two legendary opposites had in common — language, education and the desperate striving of the ambitious immigrant. “Gandhi Before India” is full of such revelations, each one a delight for the reader.

Early on, Guha spells out how his technique differs from those of previous biographers: He uses the records of contemporaries to complement and sometimes challenge Gandhi’s own account. Gandhi was prolific — the first 12 volumes of his collected works run to 5,000 pages — but, Guha explains, “This reliance on Gandhi’s words can often narrow the historical landscape against which his life and work were enacted.”

This approach helps illuminate Gandhi’s time in South Africa. (As the title indicates, “Gandhi Before India” ends with his final departure, in 1914. A planned second volume will pick up the thread in India.) What Gandhi achieved legally for Indians in South Africa was modest, but by filling out the narrative with Gandhi’s colleagues and rivals, Guha makes a persuasive case that this period is just as significant politically as the years in India. Through the mutual wariness of Gandhi and John Dube, his neighbor and a pioneer of the South African freedom struggle, Guha sketches the marginal, often conflicted role of Indians in African nationalist movements.

The frustrations of South Africa’s Gujarati Muslim merchants, Gandhi’s main political patrons, prefigure the mistrust that would later split apart the movement in India. Guha also uses the nervous functionaries of the Raj to show why Gandhi’s agitation in South Africa was so threatening to the larger colonial project — it forced authorities to acknowledge that under its veneer of liberal paternalism, the British Empire was built on racism. “Every patriotic South African looks forward to the establishment of a large and vigorous European population here,” the governor of Transvaal, Lord Selborne, wrote. “The immigration of an Asiatic population on a large scale he regards as a menace to the realization of this ideal.”

Most of the revelations in this book are political, not personal. Readers looking for salacious details about Gandhi’s sexual life will be disappointed. Guha does not venture far into that territory, except to recount the tale of Maud Polak, sister of Gandhi’s old friend Henry Polak, whose apparent infatuation with Gandhi led her to chase him from England to South Africa. “She cannot tear herself away from me,” Gandhi wrote in one letter to Henry. Guha is more interested in giving the well-known contours of Gandhi’s life a new gloss. He shows, for example, how Gandhi’s sexual abstinence and vegetarianism were informed by a long engagement with Christian nonconformism.

These ideas are thoroughly explored elsewhere, but Guha’s moving portrait of Gandhi as an immigrant is new. “Mohandas Gandhi had been a journeyman between continents,” he writes. “Born and raised in Kathiawar, he had braved convention and community to study in England. . . . Having tried, and failed, to establish himself in Rajkot and Bombay, on his third try Gandhi became a successful lawyer in Durban.”

Gandhi by Guha

Gandhi was part of a wave of Indian immigrants who left the subcontinent in the late 19th century to find work in other parts of the Empire, from Fiji to Mauritius to Trinidad. His struggles were their struggles: estrangement from his wife, Kasturba, and their sons; financial worries (at one point he considers abandoning law to study medicine); and a lifelong sense of indebtedness toward his brothers, who pawned the family jewelry to pay for his education.

Guha populates Gandhi’s world with a Bloomsbury’s worth of fascinating characters. In India, we meet the dissolute Sheikh Mehtab, a childhood friend who is shunned after arranging a disastrous visit for the young Gandhi to a brothel but later becomes a bard of the Indian struggle. In Durban, Leung Quinn enters the scene as a steadfast leader of the South African Chinese, traveling to India to preach the gospel of Asian solidarity. And hovering in the background is Sonja Schlesin, Gandhi’s secretary, who cut her hair and began wearing a shirt and tie as part of her bid to become the first woman in South Africa to qualify for the bar. Rejected, she visited jailed passive resisters, rushing “about on her bicycle from prison to prison, carrying food and messages.”

These small details give the book a cinematic richness. After his family moved to Johannesburg, Guha writes, Gandhi “rose early, helped his wife grind flour for the day’s meals, then walked the five miles to his office in Rissik Street, carrying a packed lunch of wholemeal bread with peanut butter and a selection of seasonal fruits.” When Kasturba is released from a difficult jail term, Henry Polak describes the scene via telegram: “Reduced skeleton tottering appearance old woman heart breaking sight.”

Guha falters, though, in explaining why it all matters. He tends to summarize rather than analyze. “There were, circa 1906, six separate strands in the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi,” he writes near the end of one chapter. And in a work of this depth, it seems glib to mention that “a prominent Chinese blogger has a portrait of Gandhi on his profile” as evidence of Gandhi’s relevance to China’s pro-­democracy movement.

Why does Gandhi matter now? Perhaps the fullness of his life is evidence enough. Guha introduces us to a stressed-out parent, a self-­righteous advocate for raw food and a risk-­taking newspaper editor (he coined the word “satyagraha” with a reader contest — an early experiment in user-­generated content). Above all, he was a skillful politician who allowed his adversaries to sharpen his thinking. Fittingly, Guha leaves the last word on Gandhi in South Africa to his nemesis, Gen. Jan Christian Smuts: “The saint has left our shores — I sincerely hope forever.” Jinnah, presumably, reappears in the sequel.

Penang to give Karpal official send-off

The Penang government will provide veteran lawmaker Karpal Singh an official send off.
The Penang government will provide veteran lawmaker Karpal Singh an official send off.

April 17, 2014

A Tribute to The Tiger of Jelutong:

Legacy of the ‘Tiger of Jelutong’ will endure

by Aimee Gulliver @www.malaysiakini.com

  • Cowards die many times before their deaths;
    The valiant never taste of death but once.
    Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
    It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
    Seeing that death, a necessary end,
    Will come when it will come.

    • Julius Caesar Act II, scene 2, line 33.

Karpal Singh’s story may have come to an abrupt end this morning, but the author of his biography says the legacy of the ‘Tiger of Jelutong’ will endure in Malaysia, where he was a warrior in the fight for equality and justice.


New Zealand journalist Tim Donoghue first met Karpal in Penang in 1987 and spent nearly 30 years researching the biography he wrote on the fearless lawyer and advocate, titled “Karpal Singh – Tiger of Jelutong”, which was published in 2013.

“I’ve done a few things in journalism, but I’m particularly proud of that because this man was the ultimate scrapper, but he had a sense of humour,” Donoghue said.

“The things he had to deal with, the life and death issues that he had to deal with, he smiled his way through them all, and he helped a lot of people out along the way. There was always that great twinkle in his eyes, and you just knew that no matter what anyone was ever going to throw at that guy, he was never going to kow-tow to any man.”

Karpal and his aide Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, 39, were killed in a road accident about 1.10 this morning near Kampar in Perak. The former DAP chairperson’s sudden departure has shocked the nation, and elicated a flood of eulogies from both sides of the political divide.

His death comes as the 74-year-old was gearing up to appeal his recent conviction for sedition that was cross-appealed by the government, which is seeking have the wheelchair-bound politician jailed.


“I don’t think the legal system has brought any great credit upon itself by convicting this man of sedition.“I think that is something that those in the ruling political and legal establishment of Malaysia do need to think about.”, Donoghue said.

The government’s persecution of the man who stood up and fought for human rights in Malaysia had made a martyr out of him, Donoghue said.

“Now that Karpal has gone to his death under threat of imprisonment for this sedition charge, I think he will be a great rallying point come the next election – there will be a huge groundswell of support among the opposition parties in the country.”

A long line of challenges

Karpal’s conviction for sedition was just the latest in a long line of challenges for the “Sikh warrior in legal attire”. “Back when he was 65, after the car accident, most people said he was gone. Even his best friends, with the best intentions in the world, were saying it would have been a far more merciful end if he had died at that time.”

“But the Tiger of Jelutong had a message for those who doubted him.

“He suffered a huge amount of pain as a result of that accident, but he vowed, with the help of his family, to get back out there into the realm of both politics and the law in Malaysia and to keep challenging those in power.”

“Karpal continued his work, and some of his most notable achievements came in the years following his debilitating accident”, Donoghue said.

“After his car accident, his life was totally shattered. But I do think he did his best work, both in the law and in politics, in the seven or eight years that he had after his accident. He did some amazing things in his life. “He would say to me, ‘retirement is not a word in my dictionary’. And the reason I think he hung on was as a result of the pain he suffered because of that accident.”

Donoghue said the manner of Karpal’s death could be considered a merciful release in some ways, but his family would not agree.

Backed by family, every step of the way

“Every step of the way they backed him, they fought with him, and they lifted and laid him. They fought to keep him going.” It was with the support of his family, and his devoted assistant Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, 39, who was also killed in this morning’s accident, that Karpal was able to continue his work after the 2005 accident.

“Michael gave his life for this man. He worked around the clock, 24 hours a day, just to support Karpal, and the whole family is very, very, grateful for the job he has done.

“Everything Karpal has done in the last few years has been with the support of (his wife) Gurmit Kaur and Michael. They’ve kept him going, really.”

When he came to Malaysia to launch Karpal’s biography in 2013, Donoghue said he could tell Karpal was extremely proud of what he had achieved in his life.

“Basically, his legacy is one of uncompromising challenge to human rights on a number of fronts throughout his 40-plus years in legal practice.

“I suppose what endeared him to me was he challenged, he challenged, he challenged – and he did it in such a way that everybody enjoyed the trip.”

Although he was an eminently patient man, Donoghue said, Karpal would occasionally get frustrated with him, and ask when the book would be completed.

“I would tell him we would finish when he gave me an ending. We had the final ending this morning, and I think Karpal Singh will go down as one of the great warriors of the Malaysian legal and political fraternities.”

“He was a man who, as long as he had breath going into his lungs, was always going to fight. And in the wake of this man’s life, the fight will go on in Malaysia.”

AIMEE GULLIVER is a New Zealand journalist interning with Malaysiakini for six weeks, courtesy of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Kennedy, the Elusive President

November 24, 2013

Kennedy, the Elusive President

by Jill Abramson* (10-22-13)

*Jill Abramson is the executive editor of The Times.

…John F. Kennedy remains all but impossible to pin down. One reason is that his martyrdom — for a generation of Americans still the most traumatic public event of their lives, 9/11 notwithstanding — has obscured much about the man and his accomplishments.

JFKThe 35th President of USA

Was Kennedy a great president, as many continue to think? Or was he a reckless and charming lightweight or, worse still, the first of our celebrities-in-chief? To what extent do his numerous personal failings, barely reported during his lifetime but amply documented since, overshadow or undermine his policy achievements? And what of those achievements — in civil rights and poverty, to name two issues his administration embraced. Weren’t the breakthroughs actually the doing of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson?

Even the basic facts of Kennedy’s death are still subject to heated argument. The historical consensus seems to have settled on Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin, but conspiracy speculation abounds — involving Johnson, the C.I.A., the mob, Fidel Castro or a baroque combination of all of them. Many of the theories have been circulating for decades and have now found new life on the Internet, in Web sites febrile with unfiltered and at times unhinged musings.

Of course the Kennedy fixation is hardly limited to the digital world. An estimated 40,000 books about him have been published since his death, and this anniversary year has loosed another vast outpouring. Yet to explore the enormous literature is to be struck not by what’s there but by what’s missing. Readers can choose from many books but surprisingly few good ones, and not one really outstanding one.

It is a curious state of affairs, and some of the nation’s leading historians wonder about it. “There is such fascination in the country about the anniversary, but there is no great book about Kennedy,” Robert Caro lamented when I spoke to him not long ago. The situation is all the stranger, he added, since Kennedy’s life and death form “one of the great American stories.” Caro should know. His epic life of Johnson (four volumes and counting) brilliantly captures parts of the Kennedy saga, especially the assassination in Dallas, revisited in the latest installment, “The Passage of Power.”

Robert Dallek, the author of “An Unfinished Life,” probably the best single-volume Kennedy biography, suggests that the cultish atmosphere surrounding, and perhaps smothering, the actual man may be the reason for the deficit of good writing about him. “The mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him,” Dallek told me.

“Historians see him more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.” Dallek also pointed to a second inhibiting factor, the commercial pressure authors feel to come up with sensational new material. His own book, as it happens, included a good deal of fresh information on Kennedy’s severe health problems and their cover-up by those closest to him. And yet Dallek is careful not to let these revelations overwhelm the larger story.

Dallek is also good on the fairy-tale aspects of the Kennedy family history, and he closely examines the workings of the Kennedy White House. So enthralled was he by this last topic that he has written a follow-up, “Camelot’s Court,” which profiles members of Kennedy’s famous brain trust and is being released for the 50th anniversary. This time, however, it is Dallek who doesn’t offer much fresh material.

This in turn raises another question: How much is left to say about Kennedy’s presidency? The signature legislative accomplishments he and his advisers envisioned were not enacted until after his death. Then there is the Vietnam conundrum. Some maintain that Kennedy would not have escalated the war as Johnson did. But the belief that he would have limited the American presence in Vietnam is rooted as much in the romance of “what might have been” as in the documented record.

Indeed, a dolorous mood of “what might have been” hangs over a good deal of writing about Kennedy. Arriving in time for November. 22 is the loathsomely titled “If Kennedy Lived. The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History,” by the television commentator Jeff Greenfield, who imagines a completed first Kennedy term and then a second. This isn’t new territory for Greenfield, who worked for Kennedy’s brother Robert and is the author of a previous book of presidential “what ifs” called “Then Everything Changed.” (Dallek’s “Camelot’s Court” and Greenfield’s “If Kennedy Lived” are reviewed here.)

Thurston Clarke, the author of two previous and quite serviceable books on the Kennedys, also dwells on fanciful “what might have beens” in “JFK’s Last Hundred Days,” suggesting that the death of the presidential couple’s last child, Patrick, brought the grieving parents closer together and may have signaled the end of Kennedy’s compulsive womanizing.

What’s more, Clarke makes a giant (and dubious) leap about Kennedy as leader, arguing that in the final 100 days he was becoming a great president. One example, according to Clarke, was his persuading the conservative Republicans Charles Halleck, the House minority leader, and Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader, to support a civil rights bill. Once re-elected, Kennedy would have pushed the bill through Congress.

Kennedy as Arthurian hero is also a feature of what has been called “pundit lit” by the historian and journalist David Greenberg. The purpose of this genre (books by writers who themselves are famous) is, in Greenberg’s words, “to extend their authors’ brands — to make money, to be sure, and to express some set of ideas, however vague, but mainly to keep their celebrity creators in the media spotlight.”

The champion in this growing field is Bill O’Reilly, who has milked the Kennedy assassination with unique efficiency. O’Reilly’s latest contribution, “Kennedy’s Last Days,” is an illustrated recycling, for children, of his mega-best seller “Killing Kennedy.” This new version, it must be said, distinctly improves on the original, whose choppy sentences, many written in the present tense, lose nothing when recast for younger readers. “He is on a collision course with evil,” O’Reilly declares.

No less elevated is his discussion of Kennedy’s decision to visit Dallas despite warnings of roiling violence, including the physical assault on his United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, who had given a speech in the city in October 1963. “J.F.K. has decided to visit Big D,” O’Reilly writes. “There is no backing down.” Happily, the wooden prose is offset by the many illustrations. My favorite is a spread on the first family’s pets, including puppies and a pony.

Bad books by celebrity authors shouldn’t surprise us, even when the subject is an American president. The true mystery in Kennedy’s case is why, 50 years after his death, highly accomplished writers seem unable to fix him on the page.

For some, the trouble has been idolatry. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote three magisterial volumes on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, attempted a similar history in “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.” Published in 1965, it has the virtues of immediacy, since Schlesinger, Kennedy’s Harvard contemporary, had been on the White House staff, brought in as court historian. He witnessed many of the events he describes. But in his admiration for Kennedy, he became a chief architect of the Camelot myth and so failed, in the end, to give a persuasive account of the actual presidency.

In 1993, the political journalist Richard Reeves did better. “President Kennedy: Profile of Power” is a minutely detailed chronicle of the Kennedy White House. As a primer on Kennedy’s decision-making, like his handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, the book is fascinating.

What’s missing is a picture of Kennedy’s personal life, though Reeves includes a passing mention of Marilyn Monroe being sewn into the $5,000 flesh-colored, skintight dress she wore to celebrate the president’s birthday at Madison Square Garden in 1962. (This is the place to note that Reeves edited “The Kennedy Years,” The New York Times’s own addition to the ever-­expanding Kennedy cosmos, and I wrote the foreword.)

Balancing out, or warring with, the Kennedy claque are the Kennedy haters, like Seymour M. Hersh and Garry Wills. In “The Dark Side of Camelot,” Hersh wildly posits connections between the Kennedys and the mob, while Wills, though he offers any number of brilliant insights into Kennedy and his circle of courtiers, fixates on the Kennedy brothers’ (and father’s) sexual escapades in “The Kennedy Imprisonment.”

The sum total of this oddly polarized literature is a kind of void. Other presidents, good and bad, have been served well by biographers and historians. We have first-rate books on Jefferson, on Lincoln, on Wilson, on both Roosevelts. Even unloved presidents have received major books: Johnson (Caro) and Richard Nixon (Wills, among others). Kennedy, the odd man out, still seeks his true biographer.

Why is this the case? One reason is that even during his lifetime, Kennedy defeated or outwitted the most powerfully analytic and intuitive minds.

In 1960, Esquire magazine commissioned Norman Mailer’s first major piece of political journalism, asking him to report on the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that nominated Kennedy. Mailer’s long virtuoso article, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” came as close as any book or essay ever has to capturing Kennedy’s essence, though that essence, Mailer candidly acknowledged, was enigmatic.

Here was a 43-year-old man whose irony and grace were keyed to the national temper in 1960. Kennedy’s presence, youthful and light, was at once soothing and disruptive, with a touch of brusqueness. He carried himself “with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause, his manner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from his corner when the bell ended the round.” Finally, however, “there was an elusive detachment to everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind.”

Mailer himself doesn’t know “whether to value this elusiveness, or to beware of it. One could be witnessing the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.”

And yet Kennedy’s unreality, in Mailer’s view, may have answered the particular craving of a particular historical moment. “It was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time, a man whose personality might suggest contradiction and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation.” Those words seemed to prophesy the Kennedy mystique that was to come, reinforced by the whisker-thin victory over Nixon in the general election, by the romantic excitements of Camelot and then by the horror of Dallas.

Fifty years later we are still sifting through the facts of the assassination. The Warren Commission concluded in 1964 that Kennedy had been killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. Edward Jay Epstein and Mark Lane were among the first writers to challenge that finding, and their skepticism loosed a tide of investigations. The 50th anniversary has washed in some new ones. Among the more ambitious is “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination,” a work of more than 500 pages. Its author, Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter, uncovered a new lead, in the person of a heretofore overlooked woman who may have had suspicious ties to the assassin. But when Shenon finds the woman, now in her 70s, in Mexico, she denies having had a relationship with Oswald, and Shenon’s encounters with her prove more mysterious than illuminating.

Kennedy’s murder was bound to attract novelists, and some have approached the subject inventively, if with strange results. Stephen King’s “11/22/63,” a best seller published in 2011, takes the form of a time-travel romp involving a high school English teacher who finds romance in Texas while keeping tabs on Oswald. At more than 800 pages, the novel demands a commitment that exceeds its entertainment value.

I rather like Mailer’s “Oswald’s Tale,” published in 1995. It is, like his earlier masterpiece “The Executioner’s Song,” a work of “faction,” which is Mailer’s term for his hybrid of documented fact and novelistic elaboration. Mailer and his colleague, Lawrence Schiller, spent six months in Russia examining Oswald’s K.G.B. files, and the huge quasi novel that came out of it contains a good deal of engrossing material about Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina, as well as the odd assortment of people the couple mixed with in Texas. Mailer’s narrative skills are prodigious, but in the end he has little to tell us that wasn’t already uncovered by Priscilla Johnson McMillan in “Marina and Lee,” her nonfiction portrait of the troubled couple from 1977. (Mailer properly credits McMillan’s book.)

Most critics seem to think the outstanding example of Kennedy assassination fiction is “Libra,” Don DeLillo’s postmodern novel, published in 1988. The narrative is indeed taut and bracing. But the challenge DeLillo set for himself, to provide readers with “a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years,” exceeds even his lavish gifts.

It is telling that DeLillo reverts to the shadowy realm of “half-facts.” Their persistence raises the question of just how many secrets remain, not only about Kennedy’s death but also about his life. And if there are secrets, who is guarding them, and why?

One clue has been furnished by the historian Nigel Hamilton, whose book “JFK: Reckless Youth,” published in 1992, was the first in a planned multivolume biography that promised to be a valuable addition to the current literature. (He has since dropped the project.) While the book was gossipy, especially on the subject of the young Kennedy’s sexual adventures, Hamilton also provided a vivid and lively account of Kennedy’s successful 1946 campaign for Congress. But when Hamilton began work on the next volumes, he said he came under a sustained barrage by Kennedy loyalists. “The family leaned upon well-known historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Doris Goodwin to write protest letters to the press,” Hamilton wrote in 2011 in The Huffington Post. “I was warned that no Kennedy-era official or friend would be ‘allowed’ to speak to me for my proposed sequel.”

Kennedy may have enjoyed the company of writers, but the long history of secrecy and mythmaking has surely contributed to the paucity of good books. The Kennedys — especially Jackie and Bobby — were notoriously hard on authors whose books they didn’t like. And they enlisted Schlesinger, Theodore Sorensen and other intimates to act as a kind of history police, not only withholding primary materials but also bullying writers.

A prominent historian recently told me he was once warned by Schlesinger, with whom he had been friendly, that because he had invited Hamilton to a meeting of the American Historical Association he might himself be banished from the organization. In recent years, the protective seal seems to have loosened. The Kennedy family, including Edward Kennedy and his sister Jean Kennedy Smith, gave unfettered access to their father’s papers to David Nasaw, the author of “The Patriarch,” a well-received biography of Joseph P. Kennedy that appeared last year.

Caroline Kennedy has been even more open to the claims of history. She herself was involved in the publication of two books and the release of accompanying tapes. One of them, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy,” contains the transcripts of the first lady’s interviews about her husband with Schlesinger, conducted in 1964 but kept secret until 2011. They are revealing and mesmerizing. The other, “Listening In,” offers White House conversations captured in a secretly installed taping system in the Oval Office.

Since Kennedy controlled the device, these conversations are more guarded, but the book includes at least one memorable moment, when the president hilariously loses his temper over unflattering press about the $5,000 cost of Mrs. Kennedy’s hospital maternity suite — “Are they crazy up there? Now you know what that’s gonna do? Any congressman is going to get up and say, ‘Christ, if they can throw $5,000 away on this, let’s cut ’em another billion dollars.’ You just sank the Air Force budget!”

Jack and JackieThe most disturbing case of the family’s attempts to control history came early on, and it involved William Manchester, the historian chosen by the Kennedys a few weeks after the assassination to write the authorized account, “The Death of a President.” Manchester was selected because of a previous, and fawning, book he had written about Kennedy, “Portrait of a President.” (In a bizarre twist, this was one of the books Lee Harvey Oswald checked out of a New Orleans public library just months before the assassination.)

Manchester was given sole access to almost all the president’s men as well as to his widow and virtually every principal figure. (Lyndon Johnson submitted answers in writing through his staff.) It seemed the ideal arrangement — until Manchester presented a manuscript to the Kennedys.

In a gripping piece from his 1976 collection of essays, “Controversy,” Manchester described what happened next. First there were the many insertions and deletions made by various Kennedy minions, who applied so much pressure that Manchester became a nervous wreck. An especially low point came when Robert Kennedy hunted Manchester down in a New York hotel room and banged on the door, demanding to be let in to argue for still more changes.

Next, Jackie Kennedy, who had not bothered to read the manuscript, accepted the view of her factotums that many of its details, like the fact that she carried cigarettes in her purse, were too personal. Further angered by the $665,000 Manchester had received from Look magazine for serial rights, Mrs. Kennedy went to court to enjoin the author from publishing the book. Eventually, she settled out of court and finally read “The Death of a President” when it was published in 1967. She deemed it “fascinating.”

Nevertheless, the Kennedy family, which controlled publication rights to “The Death of a President,” allowed it to go out of print, and for a number of years copies could be found only online or at rummage sales. The good news, maybe the best, of the 50th anniversary is that Little, Brown has now reissued paperback and e-book editions.

It’s good news because, remarkably, and against all odds, Manchester (who died in 2004) wrote an extraordinary book. There are obvious defects. Predictably, he blares the trumpets of Camelot, and he has a weakness for melodrama. It’s hard to believe, even at the time of Kennedy’s murder, that to the world it was “as though the Axis powers had surrendered and Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt had died in the hours between noon and midafternoon in Washington of a single day in 1945.” But these excesses don’t really matter, thanks to Manchester’s vivid reporting, masterly narrative and authentically poetic touches.

It is in small, quiet scenes that Manchester’s chronicle accumulates its greatest force. When it is time for Dave Powers, the slain president’s aide and sidekick, to pick out the clothes Kennedy will wear to his grave, he selects from eight suits and four pairs of shoes brought out by Kennedy’s valet, George Thomas. Powers settles on a blue-gray suit, black shoes and “a blue tie with a slight pattern of light dots.”

An embroidered “JFK” on the white silk shirt is hidden from view. The valet remembered that Kennedy’s “dislike of flamboyant monograms had extended to handkerchiefs,” Manchester writes. The president “had carefully folded them so that the initials would not show, and Thomas did it for him now, slipping the handkerchief into his coat pocket.”

Of all that has been written and that will be read on this 50th anniversary, it is the last paragraphs of “The Death of a President” that deserve to stand out from everything else. Manchester describes viewing the bloodstained pink suit Jackie Kennedy wore on November. 22, 1963, which had since been stowed in a Georgetown attic:

Unknown to her, the clothes Mrs. Kennedy wore into the bright midday glare of Dallas lie in an attic not far from 3017 N Street. In Bethesda that night those closest to her had vowed that from the moment she shed them she should never see them again. She hasn’t. Yet they are still there, in one of two long brown paper cartons thrust between roof rafters. The first is marked “September 12, 1953,” the date of her marriage; it contains her wedding gown. The block-printed label on the other is “Worn by Jackie, November 22, 1963.”

Inside, neatly arranged, are the pink wool suit, the black shift, the low-heeled shoes and, wrapped in a white towel, the stockings. Were the box to be opened by an intruder from some land so remote that the name, the date and photographs of the ensemble had not been published and republished until they had been graven upon his memory, he might conclude that these were merely stylish garments which had passed out of fashion and which, because they were associated with some pleasant occasion, had not been discarded.

If the trespasser looked closer, however, he would be momentarily baffled. The memento of a happy time would be cleaned before storing. Obviously this costume has not been. There are ugly splotches along the front and hem of the skirt. The handbag’s leather and the inside of each shoe are caked dark red. And the stockings are quite odd.

Once the same substance streaked them in mad scribbly patterns, but time and the sheerness of the fabric have altered it. The rusty clots have flaked off; they lie in tiny brittle grains on the nap of the towel. Examining them closely, the intruder would see his error. This clothing, he would perceive, had not been kept out of sentiment. He would realize that it had been worn by a slender young woman who had met with some dreadful accident. He might ponder whether she had survived. He might even wonder who had been to blame.

Unfortunately, the tapes of Manchester’s two five-hour interviews with Jackie Kennedy, who seems to have regretted her frankness, remain under seal at the Kennedy Library until 2067. This is a final sadness for a reader sifting through these many books. Taken together, they tell us all too little about this president, now gone 50 years, who remains as elusive in death as he was in life.


A version of this article appears in print on October 27, 2013, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Elusive President.


Tribute to Albert O Hirschman

July 23, 2013

Tribute to Albert O Hirschman: Worldly Philosopher and Original Thinker

by Cass R. Sunstein

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman
by Jeremy Adelman
Princeton University Press, 740 pp., $39.95

k9935Albert O Hirschman

Albert Hirschman, who died late last year, was one of the most interesting and unusual thinkers of the last century. An anti-utopian reformer with a keen eye for detail, Hirschman insisted on the complexity of social life and human nature. He opposed intransigence in all its forms. He believed that political and economic possibilities could be found in the most surprising places.

Hirschman is principally known for four remarkable books. The most influential, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), explores two ways to respond to unjust, exasperating, or inefficient organizations and relationships. You can leave (“exit”) or you can complain (“voice”). If you are loyal, you will not exit, and you may or may not speak out. The Passions and the Interests (1977) uncovers a long-lost argument for capitalism in general and commercial interactions in particular. The argument is that trade softens social passions and enmities, ensuring that people see one another not as members of competing tribes, but as potential trading partners. Shifting Involvements (1982) investigates the dramatically different attractions of political engagement and private life, and shows how the disappointments of one can lead to heightened interest in the other. For example, the protest movements of the 1960s were inspired, at least in part, by widespread disappointment with the experience of wealth-seeking and consumption, emphasized in the 1950s.

Albert O HirschmanFinally, The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991) is a study of the reactionary’s tool kit, identifying the standard objections to any and all proposals for reform. The objections are “perversity” (the reform will make the problem even worse), “futility” (the reform will do nothing to solve the problem), and “jeopardy” (the reform will endanger some hard-won social gain). Hirschman (left) shows that these objections are stupefying, mechanical, hyperbolic, and often wrong. In 1845, for example, the historian Jacob Burkhardt deplored the rise of democracy and the expansion of the right to vote on the ground that he did not “expect anything from the despotism of the masses but a future tyranny, which will mean the end of history.”

Hirschman’s work changes how you see the world. It illuminates yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His categories become your categories. A lot of moderate Republicans are disenchanted with the Republican Party. Do they “exit” or do they use their “voice” to try to change the party? In much of the world, nations and regions are now riven by religious and ethnic tensions. Should they emphasize how much their citizens can gain through trading with one another? If people are willing to buy your product, you might not care which god they worship. The Arab Spring saw an extraordinary outburst in political engagement. Is disappointment with the early results shifting people’s involvement toward the private sphere?

The current debate over gun control is a case study in “the rhetoric of reaction.” Those who object to legal restrictions urge that far from decreasing the risk of violence, such restrictions will actually increase it. For Hirschman, this objection would be an example of “perversity.” Opponents also contend that if we want to save lives, gun control will have essentially no effect—the argument from futility. We can find precisely the same rhetorical gambits in countless other debates, including those over Obamacare, increases in the minimum wage, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage.

Hirschman, born in 1915 in Berlin, was an economist by training, and he spent a lot of time reading Adam Smith, but his great intellectual loves were Montaigne (with his advice to “observe, observe perpetually”) and Machiavelli. To support his points, Hirschman drew on Dante, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Chekhov, and Yeats. He had a keen interest in social psychology. Crossing Boundaries is the title of one of his books; another is called Essays in Trespassing.

Part of what made Hirschman distinctive, even unique, was his ability to develop large themes from sharp observations of particular practices, and thus to connect apparently unrelated social phenomena. It was an observation of the behavior of motorists in a tunnel in Boston—who honked with outrage when people in an adjacent lane started to move while their lane remained stuck—that helped him to develop a general theory of disappointment and indignation. He was also wry and mischievous. As he wrote in the preface to Exit, Voice, and Loyalty:

Having found my own unifying way of looking at issues as diverse as competition and the two-party system, divorce and the American character, black power and the failure of “unhappy” top officials to resign over Vietnam, I decided to let myself go a little.

As Jeremy Adelman shows in his astonishing and moving biography, Hirschman sought, in his early twenties and long before becoming a writer, to “prove Hamlet wrong.” In Shakespeare’s account, Hamlet is immobilized and defeated by doubt. Hirschman was a great believer in doubt—he never doubted it—and he certainly doubted his own convictions. At a conference designed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his first book, who else would take the opportunity to show that one of his own central arguments was wrong? Who else would publish an essay in The American Economic Review exploring the “overproduction of opinionated opinion,” questioning the value of having strong opinions, and emphasizing the importance of doubting one’s opinions and even one’s tastes? Hirschman thought that strong opinions, as such, “might be dangerous to the health of our democracy,” because they are an obstacle to mutual understanding and constructive problem-solving. Writing in 1989, he was not speaking of the current political culture, but he might as well have been.

In seeking to prove Hamlet wrong, Hirschman was suggesting that doubt could be a source not of paralysis and death but of creativity and self-renewal. One of his last books, published when he was about eighty, is called A Propensity to Self-Subversion. In the title essay, Hirschman celebrates skepticism about his own theories and ideas, and he captures not only the insight but also the pleasure, even the joy, that can come from learning that one had it wrong.

He insisted that human history provides “stories, intricate and often non-repeatable,” which “look more like tricks history has up its sleeve than like social-scientific regularities, not to speak of laws.” He was interested in “the many might-have-beens of history,” including “felicitous and surprising escapes from disaster.” One of his most important essays is called “Against Parsimony,” which argues that people sometimes choose to change their own preferences (consider, for example, efforts to quit smoking), and that some resources, such as love or public spirit, “may well increase rather than decrease through use.”

Hirschman was delighted by paradoxes, unintended consequences (especially good ones), the telling detail, inventories of actual practices (rather than big theories), surprises, and improvisation. In his view, “history is nothing if not farfetched.” He invented the term “possibilism,” meant to draw attention to “the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone.” In his lifetime, one of many such outcomes was the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, which almost no one anticipated. Speaking of paradoxes: an economist by profession, he wasn’t great at math, and he wrote with remarkable clarity and subtlety.

Hirschman’s work is more than interesting enough to justify a book (or two, or ten), but Adelman’s achievement is to demonstrate, in novelistic detail, that he also lived an astounding life, full of narrow paths and ridiculously improbable twists and turns. Brought up in Berlin, he was raised during the better days of the Weimar Republic, when Berlin was alive with the avant-garde. Both of his parents’ families had converted from Judaism to Protestantism, and the family celebrated Christmas, not as a religious occasion but as a social one, with gifts for the children. Hirschman was baptized but declined to be confirmed: “Somehow I wasn’t impressed by the Minister, and I asked my parents to stop.”

At the age of nine, he was sent to the Französisches Gymnasium, an intellectual hothouse from which he graduated in 1932. In the early 1930s, of course, the influence of the Nazi party was swiftly expanding. Hirschman engaged in countless discussions with his Nazi classmates; his physical education teacher wore a swastika. Communism was also an important presence, and so Hirschman had early and close experience with intransigence on both the left and the right. The topic of his final exam was a quotation from Spinoza: “One should neither laugh nor cry at the world, but understand it.”

After graduation, Hirschman began to study economics at the University of Berlin, which was of course in the midst of intense political conflict, and which contained a large number of Hitler supporters. In his own account, the situation did not seem truly grave until “the Reichstag fire, which really marked the beginning of the political horror.” Hirschman faced personal horror as well. His father, a physician, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and quickly died. Confronted by a new law that threw Jews out of universities, Hirschman chose to exit while still in his teens and left for Paris, where he formed relationships with a number of refugees from Russia, Italy, and Germany.

As Adelman tells the tale, Paris left an indelible mark on Hirschman. Surrounded by political dogmas of many different kinds but rejecting every “guiding ism,” he developed an immense enthusiasm for what he called “petites idées”—small ideas and little observations that, for the rest of his life, he would write down in notebooks or on scraps of paper. In Paris he developed the habit of rejecting abstract theories in favor of close observations of actual practices.

In dealing with events during the difficult period between 1935 and 1938, Hirschman showed a great deal of resilience and bravery. He decided to fight in the Spanish civil war against Franco with the very first Italian and German volunteers, some of whom were killed on the battlefield. For the rest of his life, Hirschman remained entirely silent about this experience, even with his wife, though “the scars on his neck and leg made it impossible for her to forget.” Returning from the war, he worked closely with the anti-Fascist Italian underground, carrying secret letters and documents back and forth from Paris.

As war loomed between France and Germany, Hirschman became a soldier for a second time, ready to fight for the French in what many people expected to be a prolonged battle. After the French defense quickly collapsed, Hirschman lived under German occupation and engaged in what was probably the most courageous and hazardous work of his life. Along with Varian Fry, a classicist from Harvard, he labored successfully to get stateless refugees out of France. In 1939 and 1940, they created a network that would enable more than two thousand refugees to exit. As Adelman writes, the “list of the saved reads like a who’s who.” It included Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst. Meticulous logistical planning was required to work out the right routes and to obtain the necessary exit and transit visas. Hirschman’s “colleagues marveled at his skill; for all his youth he was a font of devious ingenuity and seasoned wisdom.”

It was inevitable that Hirschman would find himself at serious personal risk. The Vichy Government was helping agents of the Gestapo to find German Jews. It was time to run, taking one of the same routes that he had devised for so many others. Hirschman threw away everything he owned except what he could fit in a little bag (including his precious copy of Montaigne’s Essais and an extra pair of socks). With two other refugees, he started the long, grueling walk through the Pyrenees. Hirschman had to carry one of his exhausted companions for a part of the way.

After seven hours on foot, they crossed into Spain, and Hirschman made it into Portugal, where he waited for five weeks for the SS Excalibur, the ship that would take him to New York. In his mid-twenties, he wrote his mother, still in Germany, from the ship:

I shall enter this country with the will of getting to something, of showing that I have merited the extraordinary chain of lucky incidents which have led me here. Though I still love France, I am of course disappointed in many ways, and this makes my fourth—or is it the fifth?—emigration easier for me.

Hirschman had of course experienced plenty of horrific bad luck as well, but his characteristic hopefulness stood him in good stead. (One of his books is called A Bias for Hope.) Courtesy of the Rockefeller Foundation, he accepted a two-year fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley. Soon after his arrival there, he met Sarah Chapiro in the cafeteria at International House. Instantly captivated by her, he proposed eight weeks later, and she accepted.

At Berkeley, Hirschman focused on the effects of international trade on national economies. As part of his research, he developed statistical indices designed to measure market concentration (the degree to which a market is dominated by a limited number of firms) and market power. In a letter to his sister, Hirschman described his results as “pretty interesting”—a lovely understatement in view of the fact that those results continue to have basic importance for many areas of economics (including antitrust), under the name of the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, which measures the level of concentration in industries, and thus helps show how competitive they are. (Orris Herfindahl is often given credit for the index, but Hirschman got there first.)

Exploring the consequences of national power for the structure of foreign trade, Hirschman published his first book in 1945. Among other things, it addressed an interesting puzzle: Nazi Germany shifted from commerce with other wealthy nations to dealing with its smaller and less prosperous neighbors (Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania). Hirschman explained that it did so in order to achieve economic and thus political dominance over them. The problem is that when some nations are wealthier than others, national sovereignty can produce economic sovereignty over entire regions. Hirschman’s first book, largely ignored in its own time and also ours, helps to explain a number of current predicaments. Consider China’s growing economic power and the political dominance that is resulting from that power.

As the book was being completed, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the young German economist, so recently a soldier in Spain and France, promptly enlisted in the US Army. Originally assigned to a combat unit, Hirschman was shifted to the Office of Strategic Services, where he worked as an interpreter. He read voraciously, including Albert Camus and Friedrich Hayek, whose great work, The Road to Serfdom, he found “very useful for someone like me who grew up in a ‘collectivist’ climate—it makes you rethink many things….” Notwithstanding his extensive reading, he abandoned the idea of an academic career, believing that he had no future in it.

After the war ended, Hirschman was assigned to be the interpreter in the first Allied war crimes trial, brought against the German General Anton Dostler, who had ordered the execution of prisoners in plain violation of conventions of war. Hirschman sat next to Dostler through the dramatic five-day trial. What must this have been like for him? The only record of his feelings is a single sentence in The New York Times, which reported that the nameless American “interpreter turned pale as he had to utter the death sentence” to the German general. Home in California, Sarah came across a black-and-white photo of her husband, leaning close to the Nazi general. Reading about how the interpreter went pale, she “breathed a sigh of relief that the war had not destroyed her husband’s sensitivity.”

After returning to Washington, Hirschman was hired by the Federal Reserve Board and then the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA), where he emphasized the need for multilateral trading and helped to develop the thinking behind the Marshall Plan. With his ECA office just a few blocks from the White House, Hirschman argued vigorously against postwar austerity and for opening rather than closing markets. (It is reasonable to speculate that in the current economic situation, he would be a strong opponent of both austerity and protectionism.) Notwithstanding the high quality of his work, McCarthyism hit him directly and hard. A security review wrongly concluded, on the basis of unsubstantiated rumors, that he had some sympathy with communism. As a result, he was dismissed from the federal government in 1951. Adelman shows that false rumors about his past had dogged him since he joined the army.

Now with two daughters, Hirschman and his wife made their way to South America and to Colombia. There he went to work for the World Bank, acquired a lifelong interest in Latin America, and shifted the focus of his work to economic development. Advising Colombia’s president, he found a large disconnect between standard economic theory and actual practice. He produced a paper called “Case Studies of Instances of Successful Economic Development in Colombia,” which emphasized surprising success stories, including that of a bank specializing in small loans to individuals, artisans, and small firms, “which has experienced remarkable expansion recently due to novel methods and political support.”

In 1956, possibilism struck home. He received an unexpected letter from the chair of Yale’s economics department, who asked him whether he might be willing to come to New Haven as a visiting research professor. He accepted immediately, and his academic career started in his forties.

In New Haven, he produced his second book, The Strategy of Economic Development, which attacked the prevailing wisdom in favor of “balanced growth” and top-down planning. He argued instead for providing economic support to industries with strong “linkages,” understood as economic relationships with others. If one sector is closely linked to others, its own development, however unbalanced, can spur additional development and promote growth. Hirschman showed that in underdeveloped countries, the iron and steel industry tends to have high linkages; for that reason, it makes sense for such countries to support that industry. He contended that development depends “on calling forth and enlisting for development purposes resources and abilities that are hidden, scattered, or badly utilized.” In Hirschman’s account, history had no single course and could not be planned.

As he completed The Strategy of Economic Development, his exhilaration was palpable. He wrote his sister that an old teacher had explained

that I shouldn’t worry about love—and she stretched out her arms and then slowly brought her two index fingers together from afar—as sure as that, she said, would the girl that I will love get together with me one day. As it may be, along the lines of the example I think that there exists for each of us a personal (and nevertheless general) truth, we only have to trace it and then follow it deliberately and courageously. And I just had these last months the exciting feeling that I am about to succeed in following my truth.

Though the book received favorable reviews (and was destined to become a classic), Hirschman’s visiting professorship had run out at Yale. But in relatively short order, Columbia offered him his first real academic appointment. The only problem was that he hated teaching (and seemed to have a phobia about it throughout his life). In 1963, he moved to Harvard. Influenced by the protest movements of the 1960s, and seeking to challenge the view that market competition was a cure-all, he wrote Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which became an immediate sensation. As Adelman notes, the immense influence of the book stems in part from the familiarity and wide application of the master concepts. Faced with a difficult nation, employer, credit card company, religion, or personal relationship, does one leave, protest, or keep quiet? All of us have had to answer that question, and Hirschman offered a new set of categories with which to answer it.

Despising teaching as much as he loved writing, Hirschman longed to spend time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 1971, he asked whether he could visit there for the following year. He was indeed invited and the move became permanent. At the institute, Hirschman became keenly interested in the origins of capitalism and embarked on the project that became The Passions and the Interests. In that work, he rejected the nostalgia, current at the time, for a supposedly lost world of republican virtue, free of commercial avarice. He also rejected the suggestion, prominent then and now in the economics profession, that markets simply take human beings as they are, with their inevitable self-interest.

Instead he observed that the early theorists of free markets thought that commerce would transform people, by cooling our passions and making us gentler. In the words of Samuel Ricard in 1704, commercial interactions would encourage citizens “to be honest, to acquire manners, to be prudent and reserved in both talk and action.” At the same time, however, Hirschman worried that efforts to focus people on economic gain could “have the side effect of killing the civic spirit and of thereby opening the door to tyranny.”

Hirschman’s thinking about the alternating ease and difficulty of getting people to participate in public life led him to Shifting Involvements—a small masterpiece that illuminates the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and protest movements of diverse kinds. Hirschman emphasized that human beings are often choosing between private and public life, and thus between the different forms of happiness that are associated with each of them. He described “pendular motions of collective behavior,” in which people swing from happiness to disappointment in one kind of activity, and then to the other. For example, the disappointments and frustrations of the student rebellions of the late 1960s encouraged a return to private life in the 1970s and 1980s. Rejecting the highly influential idea that the problem of collective action has a kind of invariable, ahistorical “logic,” Hirschman drew attention to the immense importance of history and timing as, in Adelman’s words, “people leave the streets and plazas disenchanted with politics to seek happiness in the shopping malls”—and vice versa.

The Rhetoric of Reaction, written in his mid-seventies, was an outgrowth of the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s, and it speaks directly to our current debates. Hirschman was struck by the routine, stylized, even mechanical character of much conservative thinking—and its close connection, in its rhetoric, to arguments that have been made for hundreds of years. Indeed, conservative rhetoric is the book’s target, perhaps above all in the person of Edmund Burke, who deplored the French Revolution and its emphasis on the rights of men, and who exclaimed, “Massacre, torture, hanging! These are your rights of men!” But in a fascinating flip, the book ends with a demonstration that the left has its own, closely related rhetorical moves. Where conservatives argue that further reforms will jeopardize precious accomplishments, the left throws “caution to the wind, to disregard not only tradition but the whole concept of unintended consequences of human action,” and hence “progressives are forever ready to mold and remold society at will and have no doubt about their ability to control events.”

Commenting on this aspect of his project, Hirschman refers to the

sheer fun in pursuing my argument into this originally unexpected direction. As is well known, criticizing one’s friends is more demanding and therefore more interesting than to expose once again the boring errors of one’s adversaries. So there was some intellectual exhilaration in my exercise at self-subversion.

That exercise was intended to challenge intransigence on the part of both the right and the left—and to get people to listen to one another in a spirit of humility, rather than making their standard, mind-numbing rhetorical moves.

Hirschman was sharp and productive into his eighties, but his faculties started to fail him, and by 1997, he had lost the ability to write or read. Ultimately he withdrew entirely into himself. In Adelman’s words, he was forced “to gaze in silence from a wheelchair” while Sarah “comforted and accompanied an increasingly spectral husband through his decline.” In 2011, Sarah herself fell ill with cancer and notwithstanding “her determination to be there until his end, the cancer would not be stopped.” The morning after her death, their daughter Katia delivered the news. “Albert’s head jerked up and for a moment his body shook before settling back into his remove.”

Of his many books, Hirschman’s personal favorite was The Passions and the Interests. His explanation is illuminating:

It really was the fruit of free creation. I did not write it against anybody…. That book gave me prolonged pleasure: to write, feeling free to discover things without having to prove someone wrong. A very special case.

That special case has proved to be an enduring achievement, not only because of its eye-opening exploration of the softening power of commerce, but also because of its own gentle and capacious spirit. But if The Passions and the Interests was his favorite, and Exit, Voice, and Loyalty his most important, there can be no question about his most characteristic: The Rhetoric of Reaction. The sustained attack on intransigence, the bias in favor of hope, the delight in paradox, the insistence on the creative power of doubt—all these prove a lot of people wrong, not just Hamlet.


Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore; Not for Turning by Robin Harris – Review

April 28, 2013

Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore; Not for Turning by Robin Harris – Review

Andy Beckett of The Guardianby Andy Beckett, The Guardian, Wednesday 24 April 2013 13.57

Two authorised biographies have lots of new material. Do they have a new honesty too, asks Andy Beckett

How much more is there to say about Margaret Thatcher? That these biographies have the same phrase in their title is not a promising start. Nor is it a title – taken from one of her most self-mythologising moments, her studiedly defiant speech to the doubting 1980 Conservative conference – that suggests these heavy volumes will be leavened with too much fresh or independent thinking. Robin Harris worked with Thatcher, often “closely” in his words, for a quarter of a century from the late 70s, as a speechwriter, ghostwriter, adviser, organiser and diehard supporter.

In her memoirs, she calls him “my indispensable sherpa”. Charles Moore has been one of Britain’s best-known right wing journalists for equally long. Since Thatcher’s death, he has seemed happy to mix his promotional duties as an author with defending her against, as he put it on Question Time, “People who are horrible … promoting the idea that she is [sic] very divisive.”

the-margaret-thatcher-the-authorized-biographyMoore was chosen by Thatcher to be her official biographer in 1997. It was the year her party finally lost power: her reputation, it was reasonable to assume, was going to need some protecting. “The arrangement that Lady Thatcher offered me,” writes Moore, “was that I would have full access to herself … and to her papers. She would assist all my requests for interviews with others … As a result of her support … the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, gave permission for all existing and former civil servants to speak freely to me about the Thatcher years, and allowed me to inspect government papers, held back from public view under the thirty-year rule.”

Moore has exploited this unique access with thoroughness and skill; but a sense of the British establishment granting favours to one of its own hangs over this book, and is never quite dispelled.

Harris began his book in 2005, the year of another post-Thatcher Tory general election defeat. Despite the existence of the Moore project, it appears she was keen to collaborate with Harris too.

He reprints a letter from her: “I can think of no one better placed than you to tackle the subject … You know, better than anyone else, what I wanted our reforms to achieve.” Elsewhere in his preface, Harris pointedly describes Moore’s book as “a further, ‘authorized’ work”.

As Prime Minister, one of Thatcher’s ambitions was to make Britain more competitive; posthumously, it’s clear that included her biographers.

Yet as in the utilities she privatised, competition sometimes doesn’t produce much choice for consumers. Both these books begin, as almost every Thatcher biography has for decades, with a reverent depiction of her Grantham childhood, all formative hard graft and small town English virtues, which in the retelling – not least by Thatcher as a rising politician – has long become as sepia-tinted as a rustic Hovis advertisement.

Moore describes her ambitious shopkeeper father as “tall, with piercing blue eyes and wiry blond hair”; Harris calls him “tall, blond and blue-eyed”. As a young girl, writes Harris, Thatcher had “a sweet smile, beautiful hair, flashing blue eyes”. Here, as in much of the rightwing writing about her since her death, Thatcher seems to be becoming a sort of Tory Evita.

Robin Harris' Thatcher

But then Harris’s book wakes up. In Grantham and afterwards, he abruptly remarks, Thatcher “would never be very interested in people’s personalities … only in their actions – and specifically those of their actions that directly concerned her.” Further tart assertions about her personality and habits quickly follow.

When she ate, food would be “hoovered up as quickly as possible”. When she worked on official papers as Prime Minister, she often sat “in her [Downing Street] study in a high-backed chair … Over the years her feet wore a hole in the carpet. She refused to have a new one and had a patch inserted.”

In political conversation, “She had no real sense of place … adopting even in private discussion the same aggressive and self-justificatory stance as she would in a hostile television interview.” As a thinker, although she carried a collection of excerpts from Winston Churchill’s speeches and broadcasts in her handbag, Harris writes, she “did not have much historical sense, merely some rather romantic and fanciful historical notions”.

After all the eulogies, it is refreshing to read about an odd, driven, believable person – rather than some abstract national saviour or demon. In his confident generalisations about Thatcher, Harris is like a long-faithful courtier freed by a monarch’s death to speak the truth about them. He is not that interested in piling up evidence for his assertions. Like an article in the Spectator, the writing can be lordly rather than logical, and the word “probably” appears more often than in most biographies. Much of the book is closer to memoir or polemic – you need to take it on trust.

The recounting of Thatcher’s dark-horse dash through the Conservative party pack and tumultuous premiership is efficient rather than revelatory. There are slow stretches where Harris summarises and justifies her policies, one by one; and equally relentless but more quotable attacks on Thatcher’s many Tory enemies and allies-turned-nemeses, such as her chancellors Nigel Lawson (“too clever by half”) and Geoffrey Howe (“raddled with bitterness”).

Moore is more measured. His dense, intricate volume, the first of an intended two, follows Thatcher only up to the autumn of 1982, less than a third of the way into her premiership. For now at least, this cut-off date robs his version of her story of the always-compelling element of rise and fall – the latter vividly and emotionally depicted by Harris – and instead makes Moore’s Thatcher narrative like one of the economic graphs in Thatcherism’s boom years: jagged but generally upward.

There are some surprises, though. Thatcher’s sister Muriel, barely mentioned by other biographers, is revealed as the recipient of frank letters from the teenage Margaret. Of an Oxford university boyfriend, pre-Denis, also previously undetected by biographers, she writes: “Tony hired a car and we drove out to Abingdon to the country inn ‘Crown and Thistle’. I managed to borrow a glorious royal blue velvet cloak … I felt absolutely on top of the world as I walked through the lounge … and everyone looked up.” That Thatcher had a bit of a life before parliamentary politics claimed her in the early 50s is a less sensational discovery than some of the publicity around this book has trumpeted; but Moore, with typical care and perceptiveness, produces a clever coda to his account of the Tony relationship.

In 1974, long after it was over, Tony, now a stockbroker with a professional interest in the housing market, produced a scheme for council tenants to buy their homes. As the shadow minister responsible for housing, Thatcher invited him to the Commons. “She made only the most glancing acknowledgement of their old acquaintance and got straight down to the policy, towards which she was very receptive.”

Margaret Thatcher Blackpool 1972 Jamie Hodgson/Getty Images

This is Moore’s first book (Harris has written or ghostwritten half a dozen), and its prose is understated and less partisan than his journalism. Occasionally, the long, controlled paragraphs curl almost imperceptibly into dry wit. In the mid-60s, he writes, “At the highest levels of the [Tory] party … suspicions were aroused that the rise of Margaret Thatcher might represent some sort of threat to male peace and tranquility.” Nor is Moore a total prisoner of his many sources.

Their testimony is weighed, and sometimes contradicted. Even Muriel, who granted a rare interview, is corrected when she claims that Margaret was too busy to go to their father’s funeral, with reference to Margaret’s “two engagement diaries of the period” and a report in the Grantham Journal.

There is a downside to all this neat dovetailing of material and elegantly murmuring, High Tory style. Thatcherism was in many ways an unsubtle, unstable political project, exhilarating or brutal depending on where you stood; yet only the exhilaration feels fully present in Moore’s narrative, for all his conscientious detailing of Thatcherism’s 70s and 80s ups and downs. Part of the problem may be the slightly sketchy way he deals with the world beyond.

There is not quite enough sense of the social texture of Britain, and how that changed, as Thatcher rose, and how that change helped her. Similarly, events outside Westminster that proved pivotal for her – the 1978-9 winter of discontent that probably won her the 1979 election; the 1981 urban riots that so undermined her early premiership – are recorded too briefly and cursorily. Meanwhile, Moore’s politics surface unhelpfully when he caricatures postwar Britain as in “steep decline”, the economy under Labour in the 60s as a “car crash”, and the IMF that eagerly helped do away with British social democracy in the 70s as “impartial”.

As much of the debate since her death has shown, there are still plenty of takers for this doomy, simplistic view of pre-Thatcherite Britain. But present-day historians are becoming steadily less keen on it, and the struggles of our Thatcherised economy since 2007 don’t augur too well for the long-term reputation of books that present her rule as having solved all our problems.

Moore is more nuanced than that; unlike Harris, he offers a few quiet but stinging criticisms of her policies, for example on council house sales, which led to “the gradual build-up of a housing shortage which, in 1979, had not existed, and the stoking, for the future, of a housing bubble”.

Hari Keputeraan Duli Tuanku Sultan Kedah Darul Aman Yang Ke-85: Dirgahayu Tuanku

January 19, 2013

Hari Keputeraan Duli Tuanku Sultan Kedah Darul Aman Yang Ke-85: Dirgahayu Tuanku

by Din Merican, DSDK


Tomorrow, Sunday January 20, 2013 is a very special day for all Kedahans at home and abroad. It is the Official Birthday of His Majesty the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong and the Sultan of Kedah Darul Aman, Al Sultan Almu’tasimu Billahi Muhibbuddin Tuanku Alhaj Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah ibni Almarhum Sultan Badlishah.

We, His loyal subjects, take this opportunity to wish Duli Tuanku Selamat Ulang Tahun Hari Keputeraan yang ke 85. May Duli Tuanku and Your Gracious Consort Tuanku Raja Permaisuri Agong and Sultanah Kedah, Tuanku Hajjah Haminah Hamidon, continue to be in good health, happiness and prosperity. May Duli Tuanku also Guide our country and our leaders with wisdom and compassion during these challenging times.

According to Tunku Sofiah Jewa, Royal Chronicler, Tuanku’s cousin, and author of the fine coffee table book titled The Return*, which was published in collaboration with the National Archives  of Malaysia to commemorate the coronation of Duli Tuanku as the 14th Yang Di-Pertuan Agong:

“His Majesty Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah is every inch a King—aDuli Tuanku Sultan Kedah Darul Aman great Ruler who commands the love and respect of the Rakyat. and a King to whom the nation owes its political stability. Many in Kedah would attribute the political stability in the State to His Majesty’s understanding of the responsibilities of Monarchy within a constitutional setting, as well as a firm grasp of the fundamentals of democratic governance, as expressed in the concept of separation of powers and Rule of Law (p. 151)…

“As Sovereign of Kedah, He was able to  perform His duties admirably, and has never yielded to anyone’s demands, nor subjected Himself to their whims and fancies, thanks to the fact that He has never been partisan on political matters, nor has He had to ask for favors from anyone, including the ruling government. But He is not a wealthy person either... (p.152)…

“In his dealings with His subjects, His Majesty Tuanku displays a great measure of wisdom, holding counsel with officials and elected representatives in His usual calm manner, thereby earning Him the respect and admiration of all those who have served in Kedah, be they civil servants. members of the judiciary or  His subjects at large…”(p.154)

As Destiny would have it, Duli Tuanku is our King for a second time, making Him the first Sultan in our nation’s history to earn that rare distinction. Kedahans are proud of Duli Tuanku’s Return, one that is full of symbolic significance and good tidings for Kedah and our country.

According to Tunku Sofiah, “[T]he concept of Return relates to  a promise. It is a promise of change…In our own context, the Return of the King promises a return to our dream of freedom and a return to the euphoria and vision of Merdeka.” (p.185).

Allow me to reproduce a poem in The Return by my grand niece Puteri Arina Merican (below) to celebrate His Majesty’s 85th Birthday. If you watch the youtube on the book launch ceremony at Istana Negara, Puteri Arina is the young lady who read the poem before Duli Tuanku and other dignitaries.  Semoga Allah lanjutkan Usia Duli Tuanku and semoga Negara kita selamat, aman, berjaya,  dan maju dibawah naungan Duli Tuanku.

The Return

Lo and Behold,
The King has Returned
to the Throne of Glory
to be Crowned a second time
at four score and five,
heralding a new era
of hope and promise
against the ravage of age
and the tyranny of Time.

Of old it hath been said
That a King is first servant,
and first magistrate
of the State;
and that Majesty
there is none so lofty
nor noble
as that of a righteous King
who wields not the sword of power,
but Reigns over the hearts of men,
with the sceptre of justice and the mantle of love.

The Return
of the Ruler
represents A Return
of the Rights to the Rakyat
for whom the Ruler represents
all that is Noble, Fair, Just and Right.

Returned He has,
As symbol
of a new Cycle
in the life of the Nation.

The millennial Return this may not be,
but a Return of Springtime this must be;
a fulfillment, a culmination
of dreams and vision.

A Return it is
to the euphoria and ideals of Merdeka,
A Return it is
to our Dream of Freedom, and
A Return it is
to the Golden Age of Ancient Glory.

So Rejoice, Rejoice
O Ye People of the Land, Rejoice
For the King has returned,
Look within!
For He is Enthroned
in the Hearts of Men.

–Puteri Arina Merican

* The Return–An Authorised Biographical rendition of the life, times and thoughts of His Majesty Al Sultan Almu’tasimu Billah Muhibbuddin Tuanku Alhaj Abdul Halim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Badlishah, the Fifth and Fourteenth King of Malaysia by Tunku Sofia Jewa in conjunction with Akib Negara Malaysia (The National Archives of Malaysia), (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2012)

Lincoln the Movie: It’s about Personality

January 9, 2013

Lincoln the Movie: It’s about Personality

By Umapagan Ampikaipakan (01-08-13)  | interesting.times@mac.com

The 13 th Amendment to the US Consitution

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

IT’S ABOUT PERSONALITY: Lincoln’s moral courage to stand by his convictions can provide some inspiration for modern politics

THERE is a wonderful line from the movie Lincoln — Steven Spielberg’s marvellous new meditation on the events surrounding the abolishment of slavery — when Thaddeus Stevens, a Pennsylvania Republican, hands his housekeeper (and supposed common-law wife) the actual piece of paper containing the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution and says: “The greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”


And it was. Both Stevens’ appraisal of Lincoln’s character as well as his recognition of the importance of the 13th Amendment. It may sound simplistic, but the story of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the abolition of slavery, and the eventual end of the civil war, while undeniably complex and highly nuanced, can be boiled down to the integrity and strength of personality of one man.

The question of character is something altogether indispensable in modern politics. And it goes beyond mere issues of morality. Character in politics is about having the ability to not buckle when faced with overwhelming anxiety.

It is about having both the will and the way to accomplish your goals, even in the face of the most crippling challenges and setbacks, even in the face of the most heated opposition.

It is something that Spielberg makes a point to emphasise in his version of Lincoln’s story. In this particular retelling, we see the Great Emancipator as larger than life, as a man before which others were destined to cower. He is painted as possessing unsurpassed oratory skills, as a shrewd manager of men, and as having moral courage to stand by his convictions.

In her political biography of Lincoln, the book which this movie is based on, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes: “Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country — bigger than all the Presidents together.”

“We are still too near to his greatness,” Tolstoy concluded, “but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do. His genius is still too strong and powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us”

Spielberg builds on that notion and depicts Lincoln as a true political hero. It is something that takes a while to get used to. It takes a while to reconcile the idea of politics and heroes. Especially in this day and age, when the notion of statesmanship is often met with suspicion and disbelief.

There is a cynicism towards politics and politicians, towards government and its propensity for good, that is pervasive. So much so that it makes one wonder about the possibility of a modern-day Lincoln. It makes one wonder if such heroes are even likely let alone necessary. Or whether such things — and such people — are merely improbable notions rooted in some misplaced nostalgia for the past?

If this movie has any message at all, it is that for politics to work, it needs that one good man. Not to stand alone and above the fray but to be a part of it instead and to somehow endure. Be it with moral courage, or with political savvy, or with sheer grit.

That for politics to work, it needs someone so steadfast with purpose that he would inspire even those in opposition to overcome their petty rivalries. “Unhappy is the land without a hero.” Unhappy are the people who are unable to be inspired. For how else are we moved to action? To get off our collective behinds and strive towards something better; towards something greater. And for that we need our heroes.

We need individuals who are able to straddle that fine line between personal principle and national interests. We need leaders with emotional balance. Who are self-aware. Who possess the ability to properly estimate the value of collective and individual happiness.

Because we need our heroes. Our day to day lives are often so mundane and so ordinary that we need to be reminded of our tremendous capacity as human beings. We need to experience the extraordinary in order to be pulled out of our languor, in order for us to ask ourselves a simple question: “Did you know we could do that?”

Arnold Schwarzenegger: By the Book

January 3, 2013

Arnold Schwarzenegger: By the Book

Published: December 27, 2012

Arnold SchwarzeneggerThe actor, former governor and author of the memoir “Total Recall” says today’s cleaned-up versions of Grimms’ fairy tales are nothing like the horror versions he read as a child.

What book is on your night stand now?

Right now I’m reading a book called “Incognito,” by David Eagleman, about the human brain. I’ve always been interested in psychology, so learning about the things that influence our thinking is really important for me. In bodybuilding, I was known for “psyching” out my opponents with mind tricks. I wish I had this book then because the stuff I was doing was Mickey Mouse compared with what’s in this book.

What was the last truly great book you read?

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I absolutely love to hear stories about people who have tremendous vision; and when you talk about vision, Steve Jobs has to be in the conversation. He was such a revolutionary. It is completely inspirational to read about someone who saw the world, imagined something better, and then went out and made his vision a reality.

I got to know Steve when I was governor of California, and he wanted to help pass a law to encourage organ donation. A lot of people have the drive to be successful, but not the same drive to give back once they’ve found success. Steve saw what it was like to desperately need an organ, and he could have easily just paid for his operation and been done with it. Instead, he came with his big vision and wanted to rewrite the laws to make it easier. He did the necessary work, and we were able to hammer out a law and push it through. I think that his compassion should be a bigger part of his legacy. His story is the ultimate California dream.

What is your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I prefer nonfiction, especially biographies and history books. You could spend your whole life reading history and you would still have several more lifetimes’ worth of learning to do. I don’t have much time in my schedule to read, so when I have a chance to sit down and get into a book, I want to make sure it is a story of greatness that inspires and teaches.

Some of my favorite books about politics are Reagan’s autobiography “An American Life” as well as Lou Cannon’s incredible anthology about him, and James Wooten’s “Dasher: The Roots and the Rising of Jimmy Carter.” Of course I have mentioned many times how much Milton and Rose Friedman’s “Free to Choose” contributed to my economic views.

And what books would you suggest to an aspiring governor?

I think Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” is incredibly important. Today’s politicians can learn so much from Lincoln. I think the most important lesson is that, despite our politics, we should never treat each other as enemies. We can have disagreements about the direction of the country, but at the end of the day we all want to serve our country. Lincoln proved a powerful lesson by appointing his critics and political foes to his cabinet. He wanted the best minds around him offering advice. Not Republican or Democrat minds. Just the best minds. All of us can learn from that.

Are there any books you found to be particularly insightful about California?

I think any of Kevin Starr’s books fit the bill. No one — no one — knows California like Kevin Starr. When I ran for governor, I read binder after binder of briefings, but none of it taught me as much as one lunch with Kevin. He is an incredible historian, and he writes in a way that always makes what he’s saying interesting. To this day, every time I see Kevin, I learn something new.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

I could never choose one book for a president. There are so many things you need to learn. I would have to say, “Here is a book about Eisenhower building the highway system, so you can read about the vision it takes to build up our country, because we need to build again. Here is a book about how we developed our current energy policy, because we need to learn from that as we plan for our future energy needs.” Then I would give them a kindergarten teacher’s manual and let them know, “You’re going to need this when you deal with Congress.”

What were your favorite books as a child? Did you have a favorite character or hero?

When I was young, we were constantly exposed to the works of Peter Rosegger, who was a hero in Styria, my home state. He wrote incredible stories with a focus on our region, so he was one of the favorites.

We also constantly read these terribly violent stories by the Grimm Brothers. I mean, the cleaned-up versions of these are nowhere near the horror stories we used to read. It’s no wonder my brother was a total scaredy-cat and afraid to walk home alone after you realize he had been exposed to the tales of the Grimm Brothers.

But I have to say that Karl May wrote my favorite stories. He was a German who had never seen a real cowboy or Indian, but somehow he wrote fantastic stories about this wise Apache chief named Winnetou and his cowboy friend Old Shatterhand. The stories taught me a powerful lesson about getting along despite differences, but more importantly, they opened up my world and gave me a window to see America. I still don’t understand how Karl May was able to paint such an incredible picture of something he had never seen, but I do know that the cowboy stories immediately captured my attention and made me interested to learn everything I could about America.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

Winston Churchill. He is one of my heroes, and when I look at all of the books he somehow had time to write, it just blows my mind. To be such a vital figure in modern history and at the same time write incredible history . . . I would love to talk to him about how he had time to be great as a leader and as a writer. If there is one person who shows us the power of history, it has to be him. It’s an old cliché that history repeats himself, but when you read Churchill’s speeches attacking the idea of appeasing Hitler or warning about the cold war, you realize how brilliant he was. He was ahead of the game, which is a funny thing to say about someone who spent his spare time writing and researching history.

What’s the best movie based on a book you’ve seen recently?

I love everything about the “Harry Potter” franchise. You have an incredible, epic journey with amazing characters that I think plays just as well on the screen as it does on the page. But I’m also a sucker for a major success story, and it is very difficult to match J. K. Rowling in that category. Talk about inspiration: to go from being a struggling single parent to where she is today, it’s just incredible. I love to hear stories like that, and her personal story is as epic as the stories she wrote about Harry Potter.

If you could play any character from literature, who would it be?

One of my favorite characters in history is Cincinnatus, and I’ve read everything I can find about him. I would love to play him in a film about ancient Rome. He was given the keys to the kingdom — pure, absolute power! — and he did the job and then went back to his farm. He didn’t get drunk on the power. He did the job he was asked to do, dealt with the invasion and walked away. That is the purest form of public service I can imagine, and it would be fun to try to capture that character on film.

The United States was lucky to have George Washington as a founding father, because he had that same civic virtue, and of course he had read about and admired Cincinnatus.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 30, 2012, on page BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: By the Book: Arnold Schwarzenegger


Book Review: The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

December 8, 2012

Book Review: Robert A. Caro’s ‘The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson’

by David Greenberg (05-01-12)–The Washington Post

Passage of Power by Robert CaroWhen Robert A. Caro published “Master of the Senate” (2002), the third volume of his voluminous multi-part life of Lyndon B. Johnson, he said he would finish his labors with just one more installment. But clearly he wasn’t being realistic.

“Master of the Senate” concluded in 1958. It left untouched the 1960 campaign, the vice presidential years and the whole of Johnson’s presidency — the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society, Vietnam. Moreover, Caro is not exactly partial to verbal economy. His books are famous, or infamous, for running on profusely — not just because of the sheer mass of his research but also because of his overflowing literary style.

Caro strives for the epic. He will make a book, or chapter, or anecdote as long as it has to be to achieve his desired effect — elongating even a single sentence, if necessary, and then stitching it together with a passel of colons, semicolons and dashes, as if scooped by the handful from his handyman’s belt. (No wonder he and his longtime editor are known to fight over punctuation.) Given all this, if the 1957 civil rights bill consumed more than 150 pages of Volume 3, how could the historic 1964 bill weigh in at anything less?

Sure enough, Caro’s fourth volume, “The Passage of Power,” doesn’t complete the tale of Johnson’s presidency. On the contrary, it barely begins it. The book opens in the rump years of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, with our hero — or should that be antihero? — contemplating a presidential run. It chugs through the grand detour of John F. Kennedy’s reign, with LBJ sulking on the sidelines. And it ends in the first weeks of Johnson’s presidency, which has been thrust upon him by JFK’s assassination.

Although these are, for Johnson, years of relative inaction, Caro infuses his pages with suspense, pathos, bitter rivalry and historic import — with Robert F. Kennedy in particular emerging as a nearly co-equal, second lead in the psychodrama, always looming offstage and threatening frequently to steal the spotlight from his arch rival.

In Caro’s account, LBJ comes across by turns as insecure, canny, bighearted, self-defeating, LBJpetty, brilliant, cruel and, of course, domineering. In the opening pages, he longingly eyes the presidency but, psychologically paralyzed, can’t bring himself to declare his candidacy or enter even a few primaries. Instead, he rages at the upstart Kennedy, who shows unforeseen proficiency in the old game of locking down governors and state Democratic Party leaders for the convention and in the new game of winning over the masses via television.

When Kennedy claims the party’s mantle in Los Angeles and searches for a running mate, a different Johnson suddenly appears: calculating, cagey, capable of subsuming his contempt for Kennedy to a steely desire to place himself next in line for the presidency. LBJ has staff members look up how many presidents had died in office and then does the cruel math, admitting in many conversations — and Caro recounts several of them — that such a route is his best hope of becoming president himself.

Bobby KennedyWith the vice presidential years, Caro unveils still another LBJ: ill-tempered, self-pitying and feckless even in his old Senate back yard. JFK cuts him out of major decisions, and RFK (left) regularly humiliates him (sometimes, Caro suggests, at his brother’s bidding). At one party, he sticks pins into an LBJ voodoo doll to much laughter. The young, urbane White House staff members ridicule the folksy Texan as “Rufus Cornpone.”

For a while, Johnson seems determined to dutifully play his thankless part. But the slights and frustrations mount, and his skin is just too thin. One poignant scene features Johnson, in his bathrobe, interrupting the foreman of his Texas ranch, who is milking a cow, to play dominoes at 4 a.m. By mid-1963, what is clearly clinical depression takes a physical toll. Johnson’s “belly [had become] enormous,” recalled his aide Harry McPherson. “He looked absolutely gross.” Caro goes so far as to suggest that Kennedy was planning to drop Johnson from the ticket in 1964, although he has only one unsubstantiated recollection, from Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s secretary, to support that claim, against a preponderance of evidence on the other side.

But one more change is yet to come. When Kennedy is shot in the Dallas motorcade, Johnson is transformed again — in an instant, according to Caro. Facedown on the floor of his car, a Secret Service member’s foot planted in his back, Johnson is magically possessed by self-assured calm. Rising to the immense challenges before him, he guides the country with a strong hand through the dark days of November using Kennedy’s martyrdom to realize his slain predecessor’s unfulfilled agenda, although not without exacerbating already-miserable relations with Robert Kennedy.

The Man from Alor Star, Kedah Darul Aman

December 8, 2012

The Man from Alor Setar, Kedah Darul Aman

“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.” ― Marcus Tullius Cicero

Mahathir MohamadLike him or not, Tun Dr. Mahathir will not just go away. He evokes admiration as well as damnation in almost equal measure. To the majority of Malays he is a hero and an unapologetic defender of their rights. My generation of Kedahans regard him our role model.

Tun Dr. Mahathir (known as Dr.UMNO)is handsome, smart and well educated with a beautiful doctor wife, Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah binti Mohamed Ali. That was part of what I remember him growing up in Alor Star in the 1950s. It was my late mother’s privilege to serve Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah at Alor Setar General Hospital as it was mine to serve Bank Negara Governor Tun Ismail Bin Mohamed Ali and Tun Dr. Mahathir when he was Chairman, Kumpulan FIMA Berhad.

I disagree strongly with his politics, but I acknowledge his contributions to the development of our country. 22 years under his administration, Malaysia has been transformed from an agricultural backwater to a modern industrialized nation, deformities aside.–Din Merican

Cultivating Control in a Nation’s Crucible

November 21, 2012

NY Times: Book Review

New York Times: Books of The Times

Cultivating Control in a Nation’s Crucible

‘Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,’ by Jon Meacham

by Janet Maslin (11-20-12)

“Self-evident” is one of the most meaningful words in the Declaration of Independence, a document drafted by Thomas Jefferson but edited by some of his fellow founding fathers. According to Walter Isaacson, author of a biography of Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson’s original version used the phrase “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable.” It was Franklin who deemed those same truths “self-evident,” to convey that they were rooted in rationality, not religion.

The word “self-evident” has different relevance to Jon Meacham’s new biography, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.” Much of what Mr. Meacham has to say about Jefferson is too self-evident to be very illuminating. His strongest point, repeated frequently, is that Jefferson was both philosopher and politician but could be pragmatic when theory and reality were at odds.

“The Art of Power” takes less note of how self-evidently Jefferson’s personal life as a slaveholder violated his principled talk of liberty. But that is another recurring theme in this temperate, only modestly ambitious biography.

Mr. Meacham’s thesis — that presidents are also politicians — burned brighter in “American Lion,” his Andrew Jackson biography, which juxtaposed the bellicose and strategic sides of the outsize Jackson personality.

But Jefferson was a far more polished figure, at least in his later years. (“Take things always by their smooth handle,” he wrote, as one of 10 maxims intended for a young namesake.) And a far more revered one. In its dutiful inventory of the contents of Jefferson’s Monticello, “The Art of Power” notes that the Library of Congress has preserved scraps of paper used by Jefferson in his privy.

The biography begins less compellingly than it ends, perhaps because the young Jefferson’s entitlement precedes his accomplishments. Mr. Meacham’s admiration is at its most expansive here. He cites the observation that Jefferson was descended from “a very gentle, well-dressed people.” And he says “the first half of the 18th century was a thrilling time to be young, white, male, wealthy and Virginian.” Jefferson was born in 1743, and “he was raised to wield power.” What’s more: “He was born for command. He never knew anything else.”

When a fact becomes inconvenient, as does the detail that Jefferson lived as part of a large, combined family for seven years, before he turned 10, Mr. Meacham does not amend his flattery. He simply looks on the bright side of adversity, saying that perhaps this situation “set him on a path toward favoring comity over controversy in face-to-face relations.”

At 17, Jefferson would find himself in Williamsburg, Va., attending the College of William & Mary, living amid “a social swirl that included Virginia’s most charming women and most prominent men.”

Although this book is so lavishly fact-checked that its endnotes and bibliography run more than 200 pages, Mr. Meacham oddly glosses over unbecoming details. About an unsuccessful courtship that Jefferson conducted in the early 1760s, Mr. Meacham describes contents of his letters but does not quote from them. “His attempts at humor and self-mockery,” the book says, “fall largely flat, and the episode is chiefly interesting for the light it sheds on Jefferson’s sensitivity to rejection, disorder and criticism.”

But this book does not address its principal concern, power, until Jefferson has accrued some. When it comes to the force that he wielded as a slaveholder, Mr. Meacham finds ways to suggest that thoughts of abolition would have been premature; that it was not uncommon for white heads of households to be waited on by slaves who bore family resemblances to their masters; and that since Jefferson treated slavery as a blind spot, the book can too.

Far more attention is devoted to Jefferson’s perception of the burgeoning and then brand-new republic as being engaged in a decades-long, partly undeclared war with Britain, and to his fears that American independence could easily fall apart. Jefferson’s worries about creeping American monarchy, even during his own eight-year presidency, guide many of the policies and strategies that the book describes.

By coming to the presidency as a former governor of Virginia and Vice President, Jefferson had grown wise and wary. He was full of perceptions that seem both familiar and self-evident now. “I can say with truth that I would rather be thought worthy of it than to be appointed to it,” he wrote about the presidency, adding, “Well I know that no man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it.”

Mr. Meacham’s thoughts about this part of Jefferson’s life are truisms too. “However different in form presidential contests were, one feature has been constant from the beginning,” he observes. “They have been rife with attacks and counterattacks.” Any individual aspiring to the office still wishes, at least, to fit Mr. Meacham’s description: “a lifelong student of control and power bringing all of his virtues and vices to the largest possible stage.”

“The Art of Power” does not fully come into its own until Jefferson does: after the Louisiana Purchase, after the Lewis and Clark expedition, after Washington and back at Monticello, cultivating the intellectual, artistic and scientific pursuits that make him so exemplary and rare among American presidents.

This is the most affecting part of Mr. Meacham’s portrait — the man is finally freed from his carapace, able to cultivate his life and legacy. This biography ascribes less complexity and malice to Jefferson than other recent books have. But it captures less of his brilliance too.

Mr. Meacham intends “The Art of Power” as a portrait that “neither lionizes nor indicts Jefferson, but instead restores him to his full and rich role as an American statesman who resists easy categorization.” That sounds bolder than it proves to be. It’s a polite way of staking out middle ground.

A version of this review appeared in print on November 21, 2012, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Cultivating Control in a Nation’s Crucible.

‘Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,’ by Jon Meacham

November 2, 2012

NY Times Sunday Book Review: Thomas Jefferson

Grand Bargainer

‘Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,’ by Jon Meacham

by Jill Abramson*

Jill Abramson is the executive editor of The Times. A version of this review appeared in print on November 11, 2012, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Grand Bargainer.

The political biographies most popular in the modern era often tell us less about their subjects than about the moment in which the books themselves are published. John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. But few remember its portraits of Senate lions like Thomas Hart Benton and George Norris.

What lingers is its status as a kind of campaign document that set the table for Kennedy’s own rise from the Senate to the presidency.Similarly, “The Age of Jackson,” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s vivid book, published in 1945, the year Franklin D. Roose­velt died, recast the populist Andrew Jackson as the bold progenitor of the New Deal — and also won a Pulitzer. Schlesinger’s multivolume history of the New Deal was called “The Age of Roose­velt” — tightening the link between the two projects and the two presidents.

In our time, presidential historians have been reaching back even further, to the founders, either in search of lessons useful for current debates or to re-examine the characters and leadership of those colossal figures in ways that can help clarify our own preoccupations. Thus, Joseph Ellis (in 1993) and David McCullough (in 2001), reviving John Adams, who had fallen into disrepute (in part because of the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts), depicted him as a farsighted statesman whose conservative instincts could be held up as a counterexample to the destructive passions of the Clinton and Bush years.

Some recastings of the founders have been so original or counterintuitive as to alter their current reputations. This happened with “American Sphinx,” Ellis’s study of “the character of Thomas Jefferson,” which argued that the author of the Declaration of Independence and putative father of American democracy was also a scheming and even paranoid anti-monarchist, deficient in both wisdom and judgment, unlike his adversary, the stolid if unromantic Adams.

This stinging revisionism was amplified in 2008, with the publication of “The Hemingses of Monticello,” Annette ­Gordon-Reed’s majestic study of Jefferson’s “other” family, his slave mistress and the children Jefferson had with her. The author’s exhaustive research resulted in both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and “gave fresh energy to the image of Jefferson-as-hypocrite,” as Jon Meacham observes in his new book, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.”

Meacham is one of several journalists turned historians who belong to what might be called the Flawed Giant School. Other members include Walter Isaacson (on Benjamin Franklin), Evan Thomas (on Robert F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower) and Jonathan Alter (on Roosevelt and the New Deal). Books in this mode usually present their subjects as figures of heroic grandeur despite all-too-human shortcomings — and so, again, speak directly to the current moment, with its diminished faith in government and in the nation’s elected leaders.

Few are better suited to this uplifting task than Meacham. A former editor of Newsweek, he has spent his career in the bosom of the Washington political and New York media establishments.

His highly readable biographies are well researched, drawing on new anecdotal material and up-to-date historiographical interpretations (thereby satisfying both journalistic and scholarly expectation). At the same time his rendering of people and events reflects and reifies Establishment values and ideals.

His new book lacks the conceptual boldness of those by Ellis and Gordon-Reed but lies close to his own preoccupations — as gleaned from the many glittering names in his acknowledgments, from Robert Caro to Mika Brzezinski, that exhibit an impressively well-tuned appreciation for the social status quo.

“Jefferson understood a timeless truth,” Meacham writes, “that politics is kaleidoscopic, constantly shifting, and the morning’s foe may well be the afternoon’s friend.” One hears the ice cubes clinking in President Reagan’s highball as he and House Speaker Tip O’Neill shared drinks and jokes in the White House and hammered together a deal on Social Security.

Jefferson too “believed in the politics of the personal relationship,” Meacham observes, and “saw himself as a political creature,” not only the philosophe and dreamer others supposed. In moves that Meacham clearly admires — and that he implies are instructive today — Jefferson repeatedly reached out to his enemies and showed ideological flexibility.

A momentous example came in 1790, when he was George Washington’s secretary of state. Jefferson’s archenemy Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury secretary, had laid out a plan for the federal assumption of states’ debts, anathema to Jefferson, since it “would create the need for federal taxes to pay down the debts,” Meacham explains, “and the power to tax was, as ever, the most fundamental and far-reaching of all the powers of government.”

The issue bitterly divided the states, and Jefferson’s great friend and ideological soul mate, James Madison, had led the forces in Congress that voted down Hamilton’s proposal.Jefferson, for his part, had come “to see Hamilton as the embodiment of the deepest of republican fears: as a man who might be willing to sacrifice the American undertaking in liberty to the expediency of arbitrary authority,” Meacham writes. But then, one night in New York (then the nation’s capital), the two cabinet adversaries met near Washington’s door.

Hamilton, looking “somber, haggard and dejected beyond description,” as Jefferson later remembered, pleaded for help.Realizing “matters were dire,” Jefferson pitched in. “The beginning of wisdom, Jefferson thought, might lie in a meeting of the principals out of the public eye,” Meacham writes. “So he convened a dinner,” on the grounds that, as Jefferson put it, “men of sound heads and honest views needed nothing more than explanation and mutual understanding to enable them to unite in some measures which might enable us to get along.”

And in this case the stakes were high, for “if everyone retains inflexibly his present opinion, there will be no bill passed at all,” Jefferson warned, and “without funding there is an end of the government.”Needless to say, a compromise was reached. “Jefferson had struck the deal he could strike, and for the moment, America was the stronger for it.”President Obama and Speaker Boehner, are you listening?

But Meacham doesn’t simply dispense soothing history lessons. He argues persuasively that for Jefferson the ideal of liberty was not incompatible with a strong federal government, and also that Jefferson’s service in the Congress in 1776 left him thoroughly versed in the ways and means of politics. “He had defined an ideal in the Declaration, using words to transform principle into policy, and he had lived with the reality of managing both a war and a fledgling government,” Meacham writes. “A politician’s task was to bring reality and policy into the greatest possible accord with the ideal and the principled.”

And Meacham has been here before. His previous book, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” published just as a grass-roots tide swept Barack Obama into office, was a best seller and also won the Pulitzer. The quintessential Flawed Giant biography, it made the case that Jackson was a fresh voice of the people who protected individual liberty yet simultaneously “pressed the known limits of presidential power.” Meacham didn’t sugarcoat Jackson’s ruthless handling of slavery and American Indians, even as he made the case that Jackson’s presidency was among the greatest in history.

Meacham reaches the same conclusion about Jefferson, this time writing on the heels of a bruising presidential campaign in which voters have openly expressed their alienation from politicians as a class and have objected to the ever-growing partisan divide and the resulting near-­paralysis of the federal government.

The time does seem right to highlight Jefferson’s skills as a practicing politician, unafraid to wield “the art of power” or to put it to uses often at odds with his small-government ideology. So insistently does Meacham stress Jefferson’s pragmatism, which at times made him appear hypocritical to his followers no less than to his opponents, that in places the book has a curiously focus-grouped quality, as though Meacham has carefully balanced the consensus view of Jefferson the visionary “framer” and “founder” against the dissenting claims of assorted critics and skeptics, apportioning equal time to each. But to be fair, he also suggests that Jefferson himself was attuned to the medley of voices and competing interests. And what could be more reassuring in 2012 than a biography that explains how in turbulent, divided times a great president actually managed to govern?

Not that Jefferson was lavishly endowed with obvious political gifts. “Shy in manner, seeming cold; awkward in attitude, and with little in his bearing that suggested command” — so Henry Adams described him, in his great study of Jefferson’s two presidential terms. Though a peerless rhetorician, he did not always use this skill to best effect when in office. As the historian Eric McKitrick has pointed out, Jefferson gave no speeches during his entire presidency apart from reading, inaudibly, his two Inaugural Addresses.

One wishes Meacham offered more concrete details about Jefferson’s highest political achievements — including drafting, at age 33, the Declaration of Independence and, one year later, the seminal Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Both define the fundamental liberties that are the heart of democracy as well as Jefferson’s sweeping political vision for the new nation. Meacham does justice to other writings, especially the 158 letters Jefferson and Adams exchanged in the winter of their lives when, after decades of bitterness over perceived betrayals, they reconciled, two “aging revolutionaries” rekindling the shared intellectual and moral interests that had bound them together so many years before when both emerged as leaders in the Continental Congress, and renewing their longstanding debates about democracy and America.

“Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” guides us through the entire life, but without much color or drama. When Meacham offers revealing details — for instance illustrating Jefferson’s lifelong love of horses by listing the funny names he gave his own (Polly Peachum, Peggy Waffington) — the book comes alive, and Jefferson does too. But other opportunities are missed. Sally Hemings has only a few walk-on scenes, leaving the reader hungry for more on this fascinating, and troubling, relationship. For Meacham, pronouncement trumps storytelling. Often he resorts to the formulaic summarizing sentence: “Though he had hardly left the arena, he was now unmistakably back in it,” Meacham writes of Jefferson during Washington’s second term. Jefferson then lost the presidency, barely, to Adams in the Electoral College. It was an ugly fight, but Meacham, characteristically, covers it with balm: “However different in form presidential contests were, one feature has been constant from the beginning,” he reminds us. “They have been rife with attacks and counterattacks.”

We have heard this before, of course. But then, Jefferson’s life and career have been subjected to exhaustive scrutiny since at least 1943, when Dumas Malone began work on the definitive six-volume biography, completed some 40 years later, that sealed Jefferson’s place as the most interesting and conceivably greatest president.

Meacham touches all the familiar bases, beginning with Jefferson’s birth in 1743. The son of distinguished parents — his father a successful planter and surveyor, his mother from one of Virginia’s best families — Jefferson “was raised to wield power,” Meacham writes, and to “grow comfortable with authority.”

His range of talents was almost limitless. He was 26 when he sketched the first designs for Monticello, his grand construction project, the 33-room mansion that was his home until his death, though never definitively completed. (Visitors reported having to step over beams or piles of soil from one of Jefferson’s constant renovations.)

After studying with a tutor and attending the College of William and Mary, he served in the House of Burgesses and in the Continental Congress and was chosen to draft the Declaration over elders, including John Adams, who said, “You can write 10 times better than I can.”

But Jefferson’s first executive position, as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War, ended in near disgrace. When the British troops massed, Jefferson fled to Monticello and was accused of both dereliction of duty and cowardice. He was exonerated, but the episode haunted him for many years. Sent to the Continent after the war to help negotiate treaties with the great powers, he came to love European culture and food. He then returned to Washington’s cabinet, where he pursued his battles and compromises with Hamilton, the two elucidating the quarrel, over the size and role of the federal government, that still shapes our most profound political disagreements. When Jefferson became president, in 1801, it was the first time in our history that leadership transferred from one party to another.

The Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition highlighted his first term, while his second bogged down in an unsuccessful effort to prevent further war with England and possibly France. When he left office, he returned to his beloved Monticello, where he resumed his many extrapolitical enthusiasms — horses, literature and the serious study of science, agronomy and architecture. He also undertook his last great project, founding the University of Virginia and designing many of its buildings, including the magnificent rotunda. He died, as did John Adams, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1826. He was 83.

It is easy to see why such a life, with its grand sweep and many events so central to American history, took up so many volumes by Henry Adams and then Dumas Malone.

Meacham wisely has chosen to look at Jefferson through a political lens, assessing how he balanced his ideals with pragmatism while also bending others to his will. And just as he scolded Jackson, another slaveholder and champion of individual liberty, for being a hypocrite, so Meacham gives a tough-minded account of Jefferson’s slippery recalibrations on race, noting, “Slavery was the rare subject where Jefferson’s sense of realism kept him from marshaling his sense of hope in the service of the cause of reform.” In 1814 Jefferson wrote, “There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity.”

This wasn’t true. Jefferson “was not willing to sacrifice his own way of life, though he characteristically left himself a rhetorical escape by introducing the subjective standard of practicability,” Meacham observes. In fact, his slaves were his most valuable possessions. He also believed emancipation would precipitate a race war. The only solution was for free blacks to be exiled to another country. These were the reasons, or excuses, that underlay Jefferson’s justifications of slavery, though they were not his ideas alone. Lincoln, too, considered expatriation a viable solution to the slavery problem.

The art of power often involves brutality — and other offenses too. Jefferson was sometimes more sneaky than artful. Meacham lets him off fairly easily for having smeared John Adams, though it was Jefferson who secretly paid for a poisonous anti-Adams pamphlet prepared by the hack journalist James Thomson Callender. Joseph Ellis, referring to this bleak campaign, accuses Jefferson of “paying off hired character assassins.” Meacham, in extenuation, says first that Callender was someone “whom Jefferson had supported financially” and later that this support “had been based on opposition to the sedition laws and his agreement” with Callender’s politics, as if these reasons justified Jefferson’s collusion.

Elsewhere Meacham is more convincing. Where other historians have found hypocrisy in Jefferson’s use of executive power to complete the Louisiana Purchase, Meacham is nuanced and persuasive. His solid argument is that in order to transform the United States into a continental power, Jefferson sensibly drew on all of his political skills to secure the vast territory from France, but did so without abandoning his distrust of strong, centralized power.

Meacham, so determined to celebrate Jefferson and his use of power, departs from others as well in his relatively kind assessment of Jefferson’s second term, marked by a trade embargo that failed to prevent European wars and also exacted severe hardship at home.

Going further, Jefferson, the enemy of federal power, assumed total control over American shipping. Meacham concedes that “history has not been kind to Jefferson’s embargo” but concludes it was a pragmatic power play that at least delayed war. If not a good idea, “it was the least bad.” Others disagree. Henry Adams, writing in the 1880s, judged Jefferson’s second term a failure “under which his old hopes and ambitions were crushed,” and added that the ensuing “loss of popularity was his bitterest trial.” Yet Meacham is right to note that Jefferson influenced almost all the presidents who came immediately after him, with the exception of John Quincy Adams, and right as well to reckon this as an immense political legacy. As an Establishment man, Meacham ultimately celebrates the art of political compromise in service of moving the nation forward. It is an argument unlikely to meet with disapproval.

Remembering the Remarkable Tun Dr. Ismail

September 28, 2012

Remembering the Remarkable Tun Dr. Ismail

by Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

There is an anecdote told among close acquaintances of the late Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s feared and respected Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister in the early 1970s, that he once in confidence said that he felt he was at heart a greater racist than in his actions, unlike most of his politician colleagues, who were more opportunistic and were racists in words and deeds, but not at heart.

And yet, he was the Malay leader that Chinese Malaysian leaders of his day trusted. In fact, even Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore has often reiterated that Tun Dr Ismail was the only Malaysian leader he had faith in.

Multiracial upbringing

As a reflection of the Malaysian culture prevalent during his time perhaps, many of his best friends throughout his life were non-Malays. When Tun Dr Ismail was growing up in Johor Bahru, among his family’s closest friends were the Cheahs, the Kuoks and the Puthuchearys.

Dr Cheah Tiang Eam was a medical doctor who was very close to Ismail’s father, Abdul Rahman Yassin. Ismail’s elder brother, Suleiman, later a member of Malaya’s first Cabinet, was sent to the Cheah home to learn English manners from Mrs Cheah, who was an English lady.

Ismail was especially fond of the youngest Cheah daughters, who later married the Kuok brothers, Philip and Robert (right). The Kuoks would be among Ismail’s closest friends in adult life.

The painful process of securing independence and negotiating a workable path of nation building in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s seared the ever-present issue of race onto the political foreground, where it has stayed until today. Racial issues submerged consciousness of the inter-ethnic exchanges and cultural hybridisation, which continued nevertheless. Understandably, in many Malaysians, strong ethnocentric emotions were stimulated for a time, something that the ensuing politicking would not allow to dissipate.

What went wrong, of course, when we look back over the last few decades, was that they allowed themselves to be manipulated into seeing themselves exhaustively in racial terms and not in citizenship terms. The political establishment grew to depend on this discourse, and turned it into a chronic pathological state.


The golf handicap

Where policy making was concerned, Tun Dr Ismail saw racialism as a technical issue, and not a matter of rights. An unhappy and unacceptable historically given socio-economic condition had to be rectified for the country to move on—and that condition happened to have an extremely strong ethnic element to it. That was the reason why Malaysian politics had to have such a strong racial slant. It was a historical contingence.

One of his more memorable ideas was his famous use of the golf handicap metaphor to explain affirmative action for the Malays —the NEP.Having the handicap system is meant, firstly, to allow those weaker in the sport to participate, and secondly to provide these newcomers with opportunities to improve their game and to lessen their handicap successively. The aim is for as many players as possible to have as low a handicap as possible.

Realising the danger that the NEP could devolve into an exercise in Malay entitlement if not properly handled, he pushed for a twenty-year limit to be put on it.

The poignant point in Tun Dr Ismail’s admission about his feelings—and it is one that forces all of us to be sincere at least to ourselves—is that what makes a man good and a leader great is not what his innermost feelings are but how he rises above them.

As the celebrated scholar Prof Wang Gungwu (right) once told me: “We are all racially biased in our feelings at some level; but what is essential is how we rise above them in our actions”.

This attempt at rising above his feelings was what enabled Tun Dr Ismail to reach across ethnic divides. It was also well-known that he strongly disliked the term “Bumiputera” and feared that it would disunite Malaysians. He felt it best not to confuse the issue by lumping Malays with other groups.

Tun Dr Ismail enjoyed widespread respect from all who knew him and instilled awe in his subordinates because he could not stand fools. That trait is more important than one might think. If one takes the duties of leadership as seriously as he did, then subordinates or peers who did not feel a sense of urgency in what they did actually undermined his labours.

In fact, he was feared as a medical doctor as well, never tolerating patients who showed signs of self-pity and who were psychosomatic. As his Johor Bahru neighbour Robert Kuok would later say, “Doc would not have fared well running a medical clinic”.

Malaysian Dream

Politics became Ismail’s calling instead, and self-discipline, practical wisdom, and a strong ethical sense would mark his career. He could not stand corruption either, as was seen in how he with a shouted threat of prosecution sent away a Chinese vendor who had delivered vegetables and other goods to his home as gifts for his family.

Despite being Home Affairs Minister, it was nevertheless Tun Dr Ismail’s vision of a neutral Southeast Asia which came to define the country’s foreign policy that has remained so successful and consistent till this day.

As Tun Abdul Razak’s main confidante, he exerted a greater influence over the early years of Razak’s premiership than is normally assumed. When news of his demise in September 1973 reached Razak in Ottawa where the Prime Minister was attending a Commonwealth meeting, the latter practically collapsed and had to be medicated. Tun Razak later lamented: “Whom shall I trust now?”

Tun Dr Ismail has been dead for 40 years now, and Malaysia has changed greatly. But his legacy of inclusion and moderation, and honest and honourable leadership, is unforgettable and can yet inspire new generations of Malaysians from both sides of the political divide to lead with wisdom.

Perhaps we will yet see a Malaysia that strives to unite its people; that spontaneously celebrates its diversity; and that acts on universal human principles instead of demeaning opportunism.I would venture that that was the Malaysian Dream from the very start.

Ooi Kee Beng is the author of the award-winning bestseller The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (ISEAS 2007). He is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.–www.themalaysianinsider.com


Fenby’s Le General Charles De Gaulle

August 20, 2012

Le General Charles De Gaulle: “The World would not see his like again” (Fenby)

‘Le General,’ a Biography of de Gaulle, by Jonathan Fenby
NY Times Sunday Book Review: Charles de Gaulle by Josef Joffe

Reviewed by Josef Joffe

Dare I call a 707-page biography a page turner? For once, the fake enthusiasm of blurb prose rings true. I did “finish the book in one sitting,” as another chestnut has it, though the sitting was a very long flight of 16 hours. And why? Because Jonathan Fenby, a former editor of The Observer of London and a prolific author, knows how to turn breadth and depth into enthrallment. ­

Academic historians tend to shy away from the grand sweep, while journalists like to stick to the chatty and topical. Fenby has blended the best of both crafts — the historian’s gravitas, the journalist’s feel for drama — into a magnificent book that will rank alongside a classic like Jean Lacouture’s multi­-volume biography of Charles de Gaulle.

Fenby actually gives us two books, masterfully intertwined, for the price of one. “The General” isn’t just the story of a 20th-century giant who captivated the public’s imagination even while he was still alive. It also traces the course of a great nation that refused to come to terms with the loss of the strategic pre-eminence it had once enjoyed. This is history with an almost literary flavor.

Think of Booth Tarkington’s “Magnificent Ambersons,” which charts the waning fortunes of an aristocratic family in 19th-century America, and more particularly think of the movie that was made of it. Fenby hasn’t written a novel, but one can imagine how Orson Welles might have turned “The General” into a movie classic. Hollywood, take note.

Le Grand Charles (Statue in Champs-élysées, Paris right) looms so large because his nation kept shrinking. Humiliated by Prussia-Germany in 1871, France was barely saved by America’s intervention in World War I. Succumbing to the fatigue of the 1920s and 1930s, France was done in for good by Nazi power in 1940.

The shame of collaboration followed, but rebirth after D-Day was not to be. Instead, the end of the war signaled the death of an empire, from Indochina to Algeria, and the relentless decay of the Fourth Republic while the world became English with an American accent.

Enter Charles de Gaulle, a man from the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow, as his admirer André Malraux put it. A comrade from de Gaulle’s early army days recalled: “He stood out not so much because of his size but because of his ego, which glowed from afar.”

At 6-foot-3, naturally he could see farther than his contemporaries. As France hunkered down behind the Maginot Line after World War I, de Gaulle preached the armored offense Hitler’s panzer armies would use with devastating efficiency. When Nazi Germany rearmed, de Gaulle railed against appeasement as an “irreparable disaster.” He told his family: “We have capitulated without fighting.” It was all in vain.

This is the stuff from which tragedy is made. When Hitler subdued France in a matter of weeks, de Gaulle escaped to London. “It was for me,” he wrote while Vichy France half resisted, half embraced Hitler, “to take the country’s fate upon myself.” He and who else? De Gaulle’s war years in London read like “Don Quixote Doing Achilles at the Court of St. James’s.”

Hitler was the enemy across the Channel, Churchill the enemy next door. He (and Franklin Roosevelt) barely suffered the general’s antics. “The P.M. is sick to death of him,” a minion wrote. Even the Free French headquarters, another Churchill aide noted, were “getting nearly as tired as we are of their chief’s ungovernable temper and lack of balanced judgment.” Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, politely asked him: “Do you know that, of all the European allies, you have caused us the most difficulties?” De Gaulle smiled: “I don’t doubt that. France is a great power.”

France was not. De Gaulle perfectly embodied an economy-class power that insisted on flying first class. With Germany’s defeat in sight, the general triumphantly returned to Paris (Roosevelt and Churchill let his troops march at the head of the parade), but soon both the man and the country were found wanting.

De Gaulle, who probably never heard of the deadly sin of pride, would either rule or retire. After only a few days as head of the government he huffed “I’ve had enough,” and not long after he abruptly resigned. For him, none of the demeaning wheeling and dealing with those little men in the legislature. So it was off to ­Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, where he would hole up for the next 12 years.

While de Gaulle sulked, his country sank, going through about two dozen governments with an average life span of six months. France lost Indochina, Suez and l’Algérie française and was obliged to watch as the heirs of Prussia-Germany regained economic primacy and rose to become America’s “continental sword.”

By 1958, on the cusp of civil war over Algeria, the Fourth Republic was ready to collapse, and it did — right into the hands of Le Grand Charles. “Great circumstances bring forth great men,” he declared. “Only during crises do nations throw up giants.”

De Gaulle reigned over the Fifth Republic for the next 11 years — a latter-day Sun King forced to suffer the ornery ways of democratic politics. The “man from the day before yesterday” remained stuck in the 19th century, his consuming passion being the chessboard of realpolitik. Alternately, he would court and confront “les Anglo-Saxons,” the West Germans, the Soviets and the Chinese.

It was power politics without war, and its name was “leverage” — either by collaring new allies (like West Germany) or betraying old ones (like Israel).

As his various grands desseins faltered, de Gaulle fell back on a classic from his days in London: maximizing his nuisance value. Bribe me, or else! His “readiness to go to the brink,” Fenby writes, “created an exaggerated impression of power,” a power France did not have, never mind the atom bomb acquired in 1960. So the United States finally called his bluff. Dean Rusk, John Kennedy’s Secretary of State, said: “We learned to proceed without him.”

And so did his people. Les événements of May 1968, the mightiest student revolt in the West, brought up to 10 million students and workers into the streets. In the midst of the revolution, de Gaulle’s Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, declared: “The General doesn’t exist anymore; de Gaulle is dead.” Not quite.

The last few chapters read like a thriller with footnotes. De Gaulle escaped back to Colombey, then to French Army headquarters in Germany to plead for the support of the military. Meanwhile, the faithful rallied in Paris, and the general returned, winning a huge majority in the parliamentary elections of June 1968. But he was the nation’s savior no more, as he had been in 1940 and 1958.

When he called a referendum on his reforms — actually, on himself — he lost, and resigned on the same day. In November 1970, just short of his 80th birthday, he died in Colombey.

Fenby has written a story that is learned, incisive and gripping — an intellectual pleasure as well as a French window, so to speak, on Europe’s demise and rebirth. The dramatis personae are Churchill, America’s Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, Konrad Adenauer and, of course, de Gaulle, the outré hero, who could have sprung from the imagination of Homer or Cervantes.

There is no more fitting epitaph than Fenby’s last sentence: “The world would not see his like again.”

Josef Joffe is the editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg and a fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute and the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford. He is completing a book on the false prophecies of America’s decline.

A version of this review appeared in print on August 19, 2012, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Charles in Charge.

Sulaiman Al-Rajhi: A Poor Man by Choice

July 31, 2012


Rags-to-Riches Sulaiman Al-Rajhi: A Poor Man by Choice

Saudi Arabia’s rags-to-riches billionaire Sulaiman Al-Rajhi is the founder of Al-Rajhi Bank, the largest Islamic bank in the world, and one of the largest companies in Saudi Arabia.

As of 2011, his wealth was estimated by Forbes to be $7.7 billion, making him the 120th richest person in the world. His flagship SAAR Foundation is a leading charity organization in the Kingdom. The Al-Rajhi family is considered as one of the Kingdom’s wealthiest non-royals, and among the world’s leading philanthropists.

Al-Rajhi is a billionaire who chose last year to become a poor man at his own will without having any cash or real estates or stocks that he owned earlier. He became penniless after transferring all his assets among his children and set aside the rest for endowments. In recognition of his outstanding work to serve Islam, including his role in establishing the world’s largest Islamic bank and his regular contribution toward humanitarian efforts to fight poverty, Al-Rajhi was chosen for this year’s prestigious King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam.

In an interview with Muhammad Al-Harbi of Al-Eqtisadiah business daily, Al-Rajhi speaks about how he was able to succeed in convincing chiefs of the leading central banks in the world, including that of the Bank of England, nearly 30 years ago that interest is forbidden in both Islam and Christianity, and that the Islamic banking is the most effective solution to activate Islamic financing in the world and make it a real boost to the global economy.

The story of Al-Rajhi is that of a man who made his fortunes from scratch, relying on grit and determination. Al-Rajhi threw away his huge wealth through two windows — distributed a major part of his inheritance among his children and transferred another portion to endowments, which are regarded as the largest endowment in the history of the Islamic world. He had to fight poverty and suffering during his childhood before becoming a billionaire through hard work and relentless efforts, and then leaving all his fortunes to become penniless again.

Al-Rajhi is still very active and hardworking even in his 80s with youthful spirits. He begins his work daily after morning prayers and is active until Isha prayers before going to bed early. He is now fully concentrated on running the endowment project under his SAAR Foundation, and traveling various regions of the Kingdom managing activities related with it. He always carries a pocket diary containing his daily programs and activities and he is accustomed to stick on to the schedule he had prepared well in advance.

Al-Rajhi scored excellent performance results in almost all businesses in which he carved out a niche for himself. In addition to establishing the world’s largest Islamic bank, he founded the largest poultry farm in the Middle East. The credit of activating the organic farming experiment in the Kingdom mainly goes to him through launching a number of farming projects, including Al-Laith shrimp farming. He also established real estate and other investment projects.


Sheikh Suleiman, have you become a poor man again?

Yes. Now I own only my dresses. I distributed my wealth among my children and set aside a portion for endowment to run charity projects. As far as I am concerned, this situation was not a strange one. My financial condition reached zero point two times in my life, and therefore I have had the feeling and understanding (about poverty) well. But now the feeling is accompanied by happiness, relaxation and the peace of mind. The zero phase in life this time is purely because of my own decision and choice.

Why did you choose this path?

All wealth belongs to Allah, and we are only those who are entrusted (by God) to take care of them. There were several reasons that prompted me to distribute the wealth and that resulted in performing this virtue. Most important among them is to foster brotherhood and love among my children and safeguard their harmonious relationship. This is more significant than any wealth in this life. I was also keen not to be instrumental in wasting the precious time of courts in case of any differences of opinion among them with regard to partition of inheritance. There are several examples that everybody could see when children entered in dispute over wealth and that led to the collapse of companies.

Nation has lost many large companies and their wealth that we could have been saved if we tackled the matter in a right manner. Apart from this, every Muslim should work on some endowments that could benefit him in the life after death. Likewise, I prefer my children to work on developing wealth, which they inherit after my death, during my lifetime itself rather than I continue working to increase them.

Are you getting enough free time after the distribution of wealth?

As earlier I am still working on developing endowments. I will donate and give alms from it until Allah takes over this trusted deposit. I have worked out a meticulous scheme for this endowment and developed it with the support of specialist consultants and agencies. This idea struck me long before.

Usually people in the Islamic world set aside one-third or one-fourth of their wealth for endowment and that will be effective only after their death. But in my case, I decided to implement this decision in my lifetime itself. So I invited my children to Makkah during the end of Ramadan and presented the idea in front of them. They readily agreed it and then I distributed my wealth among my children in addition to setting aside a part of it for endowment. I sought the help of consultants to facilitate the procedures for the distribution of all my assets including properties, real estates and stocks, and that was completed in a cordial atmosphere. All my children are now fully satisfied with my initiative and they are now working on these properties in my lifetime.

How much wealth you distributed among children and set aside for endowment?

He laughed without giving an answer.

How do you feel now about your projects?

I would like to point out that there were some factors that prompted me to make investments in certain specific areas. My experiment in money exchange was the temptation to set up a bank. The absence of any Islamic banking was also another factor in establishing Al-Rajhi Bank, which is now the world’s biggest Islamic lender by market value.

I began the experiment with opening an office in Britain where we introduced Islamic banking system at a greater level. The experiment was a success and it had received total backing of the Saudi Islamic scholars at that time. I still recall the application made for getting license for the bank was turned down in the beginning. This was because the concerned British officials did not have any idea about Islamic banking.

Therefore, I went to London and met with the manager of the Bank of England and two of his deputies. I told them that Muslims and Christians see interest as forbidden (haram), and the Muslim and Christian religious people are unwilling to make transactions with banks based on interest and instead prefer to keep their cash and other valuables in boxes at their homes. I tried to convince them that (if we establish Islamic banks) this money would be helpful to strengthen the world economy. These talks were helpful in convincing them and they agreed to open Islamic banks. Then I traveled widely throughout the world in the West and East, and met with the chiefs of central banks in various countries and explained to them about the salient features of the Islamic economy. We started working and achieved success through launching it in the Kingdom and implementing it in London.

When I returned to the Kingdom from London, I met the late Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz and Sheikh Abdullah bin Humaid, and informed them about the plan saying: ‘We would reach, by the grace of Allah, the Islamic banking within a stipulated period of time.’ They praised me for the initiative. We started aggressively implementing the project and that is in the form of Al-Rajhi Bank as you see now.

Regarding Al-Watania Poultry, the idea of establishing such a venture struck me after my visit to a poultry project abroad. I saw that the way of slaughtering chicken was not proper. Then I decided to make investments in the field of poultry after considering it as a duty to my religion and nation. I started the project even though making investments in poultry involved high risks in those days. Now Al-Watania has become a mega Saudi project that is instrumental in achieving food security in many respects. The company enjoys a 40 percent market share in the Kingdom, and Al-Watania chickens are naturally fed and halal slaughtered in accordance with the Shariah principles.

What about your insistence on introducing organic farming through Al-Watania agricultural projects?

As you see, now I am 85 and still enjoy good health. If we pursue organic farming as our healthy food style, we can bring down cost of treatment to a great extent. We made several experiments in the field of organic farming. Our numerous experiments met with setbacks in the beginning. This prompted many engineers and workers to reach a conclusion that it is impossible to have organic farming and profit together. In the beginning, they were firm in their view that this would not at all be successful. But I insisted that it would work and continued compelling them to proceed with the venture. At one time, I took a firm position and told them either to do organic farming or quit.

Now we are reaping the fruits of this lucrative business in line with my vision to provide only the healthiest, safest and most trustworthy food to consumers. Al-Watania Agricultural Company stopped using chemicals and artificial fertilizers and focused exclusively on organic methods such as the use of pest insect repellants and animal manure.

Your austerity and thriftiness on spending are well known. Please comment?

I am not a miser. But I am always vigilant against extravagance. I always try to impart this lesson to all those working with me whether it is in banking or poultry or other projects, and I am more concerned about it when it is coming to the case of my children.

In the past, I never gave money to my children when they were young in return for nothing. When any one of them approached me to give them cash, I asked them to do some work in exchange for it. In our life, we practice some extravagance without being aware of it. But it affects our whole life, exhausting us and putting a burden on our country. For example, there is no logic in putting heavy curtain on our windows and then lighting lamps in daytime when we get sunlight free of cost while electric lamps are costly.

Despite all your wealth, why don’t you still have a private aircraft?

Let me tell you that I have many planes but they belong to various airlines. I have ownership in all of them to the tune of the ticket fare that I pay for each travel. I always travel in economy class with the conviction that Allah bestowed us wealth not for showing arrogance or spend extravagantly but to deal with wealth as a trusted property.

What about the recreation and hobbies of Sheikh Al-Rajhi? How do you spend free time?

I have not any special recreations. However, I find happiness and enjoyment while making a trip to the desert. I never went out of the Kingdom on a tourism trip.

What about your will? What are its salient features?

Regarding my will related with wealth, I have already implemented it in my lifetime. As for the remaining aspect of my will, it is a public matter and also involves certain private matters, besides encouraging my children to maintain their kinship and always reminding them about the life after death.

How do you see your children’s private investments? Are there any directives to them?

A number of them are doing an excellent work in accordance with their knowledge and experience. Most often, I try to guide them when I noticed anything undesirable even if it is in their private investments. Regarding my younger children, I always guide them, especially in the case of their investments. This is purely out of my keenness that they should be honest in their work as well as in spending wealth given by God as a trusted property. I am also eager to hear about my children that they are interacting with the society in the best possible manner, and that they are serving their religion and nation.

In what way you like to spend your time? What are the places that you like most?

I used to travel between Riyadh, Qassim, Al-Jouf, and Al-Laith to oversee my projects there. I always prefer to visit the farms in Qassim and Al-Jouf.

How could you preserve many old and precious things and antiques at Suleiman Al-Rajhi Museum?

A long time ago when I was in Jeddah, I was keen on preserving heritage pieces and gathered them together, especially those related with money exchange. There would be a history with every human being. The museum tells the story of money exchange. I particularly kept registers and cash boxes that were used when I started the money exchange business.

The first cash box was made of wood, and there was a huge treasure box in which we kept our gold and silver. The artifacts kept at the museum tells the evolution of currency in the Kingdom through issuance of bank notes, as well as some currencies and coins that were in circulation among the Haj pilgrims. A major factor that prompted me to set up the museum was the visits made by a large number of officials from various countries to know more about these old coins and currencies.

We have had to exhibit these rare collections in front of them to explain about our history and heritage, especially those related with money. I was keen to furnish the museum with historic and heritage pieces, especially with the same materials used for construction in the past. Hence, the roof of the museum was made of palm branches, and that was the case with the seating arrangements at the museum.

Al-Rajhi’s punctuality

The interview also sheds light on many qualities of Al-Rajhi, including his punctuality. “In the beginning of my business career, I had appointments with several top European company executives and officials. I still remember that I reached late for such an appointment due to an unavoidable reason. My delay was only a few minutes but the official excused himself for the interview. Later, after expansion of the projects, the same official came late for an interview with me so I excused myself for the interview. I always carry a paper to note down the schedule of meetings and stick to the schedule at any cost.”

Al-Rajhi continued: I am always keen to strictly adhere to the Islamic principles throughout my life. Once I received an invitation from an Arab government to attend an investment conference there. On the sidelines of the conference, I was invited to take part in a dinner reception. When I reached there, I found a recreational program, which is contrary to our religious customs and traditions, taking place. So I quit the place immediately and, Abdul Aziz Al-Ghorair from the UAE also joined me. Soon minister plenipotentiary rushed to us, and we explained to him that the function is against our Islamic tradition. So he informed us that the recreational party would be cancelled. When they canceled that party, we participated in the dinner.

Tackling crises

Al-Rajhi said: There was a huge fire that gutted down one of my factories managed by my son. When he came to inform me about it, I told him: Say praise be to God. I asked him not to submit any report about the losses to the authorities seeking compensation.

In fact, the compensation is from Allah and it is essential for us to be satisfied with What Allah destined for us. Assam Al-Hodaithy, financial director of Al-Watania Poultry, said: “When the fire broke out at the factory, we decided not to hurt Sheikh Al-Rajhi by informing about it at that moment. Later, when we met him next morning, he told us to shift the factory to another place and remove the debris until completion of reconstruction.”

There was a similar fire at Al-Watania Poultry project in Egypt. The company incurred losses worth SR 10 million Egyptian pounds. When the concerned factory official contacted Al-Rajhi to inform about the fire, he was surprised to hear an instant reply from him: “AlHamdulillah.”

‘Cronkite,’ a Biography by Douglas Brinkley

July 12, 2012

NY Times Sunday Book Review: Cronkite

And That’s the Way It Was
‘Cronkite,’ a Biography by Douglas Brinkley

Reviewed by Chris Matthews

“From Dallas, Texas. . . . ” The haggard newsman has just been handed wire copy. He removes his glasses. He looks into the camera and gives us the first hard news that our young president will never grow old. He marks the time of death on the newsroom clock and holds a moment of silence.

This was Walter Cronkite on November. 22, 1963, announcing the death of John F. Kennedy. It was consummate Cronkite — unscripted, authentic and heartfelt. For 19 years, the anchor of “The CBS Evening News” shared in our public grief and celebration. He was one of us, and Douglas Brinkley’s “Cronkite” is a majestic biography of America’s greatest and most beloved broadcast journalist.

“He was reassuringly permanent when so much was in flux,” writes Brinkley, a historian and contributing editor at Vanity Fair. “Even when he was announcing tragic news, he was himself a reminder that America would persevere.”

Perseverance was the hallmark of Cronkite’s surprisingly choppy career. He was buoyed by his ability to connect with an audience, a connection never more apparent than during CBS’s marathon coverage of the Kennedy assassination. Seventy million Americans and viewers in 23 countries tuned in. “CBS News became the meeting hall, the cathedral, the corner bar and the town square — wherever people went when they wanted the healing comfort of a group,” Brinkley writes, and Cronkite was the “impresario” of mourning, the unofficial national grief counselor.

Cronkite never shied away from telling hard truths. Recall his half-hour “Report From Vietnam” on Feb. 27, 1968, in which he declared the Vietnam War a “stalemate.” It was a verdict the veteran war correspondent didn’t relish delivering, but Cronkite, who had recently returned from reporting on the Tet offensive, now believed that the war was unwinnable and indefensible. He felt “conned” by Lyndon Johnson, Brinkley writes, and “sickened” that his network had swallowed the Pentagon’s spin.

“The aftershock of Cronkite’s reports was seismic,” Brinkley adds. President Johnson reportedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

How did Cronkite get the credentials to be taken at his word that an American war could not be won?

Born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Mo., Cronkite dreamed of becoming a broadcaster. An indifferent student, he dropped out of the University of Texas after two years and entered the newspaper business, covering the nightclub and church beats for The Houston Press.

At 19, he got his first radio job at Kansas City’s KCMO station, broadcasting college football games under the name Walter Wilcox (Cronkite sounded too German). He read the plays off the wire ticker, then re-enacted them for the audience as if he were at the game. “I didn’t need any facts,” he said. “I just used my imagination.”

Cronkite’s KCMO years were notable for two events: He met and married Mary Elizabeth Maxwell, known as Betsy, a KCMO advertising copywriter, and he was abruptly fired. He refused to report on a fire at city hall in which three firefighters had supposedly died. He defied his boss, insisting upon getting a second source before going on air. It was the standard that mattered: get the story right and then, first.

He landed on his feet as a night editor at United Press. It was “his proving ground,” Brinkley writes, the job that formed Cronkite as a journalist. He did everything from fact-checking to reporting, and in 1943 he covered the American bombing campaign over Germany. He joined a cadre of correspondents including Andy Rooney; they called themselves the “Writing Sixty-Ninth,” and they were instructed by Hugh Baillie, president of U.P., to “get the smell of warm blood into their copy.”

Here is Cronkite’s report from a raid he accompanied over Germany: “American Flying Fortresses have just come back from an assignment to hell — a hell of 26,000 feet above the earth, a hell of burning tracer bullets and bursting gunfire, of crippled Fortresses and burning German fighter planes, of parachuting men and others not so lucky.”

This dispatch caught the attention of Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS broadcaster, who offered him a CBS Radio job based in Stalingrad. Cronkite accepted — only to turn it down. “Radio was the new print,” Brinkley writes, but the U.P. man stayed loyal to wire reporting.

Cronkite’s work during the war informed the rest of his career. As Bob Schieffer said on a “Face the Nation” program honoring Cronkite, it’s why Americans trusted him. “Everybody knew that Walter didn’t get his suntan in the studio lights.”

Cronkite was finally recruited by Murrow to cover the Korean War. He tried his hand at television news and, according to Brinkley, exhibited an almost “innate understanding of the medium.” From 1953 to 1957, Cronkite was the host of “You Are There,” a weekly program on which he pretended to be a news reporter covering a major historical event like the Boston Tea Party (and offering covert critiques of McCarthyism), but his career continued to be rocky. In 1954, he was hired and promptly fired as host of “The Morning Show”; later, he was passed over for “Face the Nation,” which the network was creating to rival NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Even anchoring national political conventions — his specialty — proved challenging. He was overshadowed at the 1956 political conventions by NBC’s charismatic team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

“If something quirky happened in Chicago or San Francisco, Huntley and Brink­ley laughed,” Douglas Brinkley writes. “Cronkite, by contrast, reported that something funny had happened.”

Cronkite’s coverage of the 1964 Republican convention was judged so verbose and lackluster that the CBS chairman William Paley yanked him. The veteran Robert Trout and a young Roger Mudd were brought in to co-anchor the Democratic convention.

By the 1968 Chicago conventions, however, Cronkite was riding high again. “The Evening News” was tops in the ratings, its anchorman sure of his position and his material. His “Report From Vietnam” had won him widespread respect, and he was at his best as he held the peace as the convention devolved into violence. I remember Cronkite ending one late-night session bidding viewers to “get some sleep,” telling us he’d “see us in the morning.” It was gavel-to-gavel coverage, and he knew we were staying with him.

But Brinkley also reveals Cronkite’s darker, competitive side. He was churlish to colleagues and hated sharing the spotlight. He was so outraged to be co-­anchoring the 1960 convention with Edward R. Murrow that he locked himself in the anchor booth and refused to come out for photos. When Barbara Walters was paired with Harry Reasoner to anchor at ABC, Cronkite was publicly polite, but according to Brinkley, he “privately hoped she’d fail.” This was not news to her. “Let’s just say Uncle Walter wasn’t Uncle Walter to me,” she said.

Tom Brokaw agreed: “He was very protective of his seat of power. This nicest-guy-in-the-world was more Darwinian than you could imagine when it came to being top dog.” Cronkite’s ruthlessness was never more in evidence than during the 1952 Chicago conventions. Competition for coverage was fierce, and Cronkite (with the approval of CBS) had the Republican credentials committee room bugged.

Cronkite didn’t want to lose. Nor did he like the idea of giving up the anchor desk, even to Dan Rather (left), his preferred successor. His last night anchoring “The CBS Evening News” was March 6, 1981, but he was not prepared for retirement. “He had quit too soon,” Brinkley writes. “He had never felt more hopeless. He had a partial interest in everything, without a sharp sense of mission about any one thing.”

It’s time for the elephant in the room. Was Cronkite a liberal? The left-leaning was right there, Brink­ley notes, for all to hear if not see: Cronkite was always more outspoken off camera. “I thought that some day the roof was going to fall in,” Cronkite said. “Somebody was going to write a big piece in the newspaper or something. I don’t know why to this day I got away with it.”

At a dinner honoring the Texas representative Barbara Jordan, he said of the Democratic losses in the 1988 election:

“Liberalism isn’t dead in this country. It isn’t even comatose. It simply is suffering a severe case of acute laryngitis. It simply has temporarily — we hope — lost its voice. . . . But God Almighty, God Almighty, we’ve got to shout these truths in which we believe from the rooftops, like that scene in the movie ‘Network.’ We’ve got to throw open our windows and shout these truths to the streets and to the ­heavens.”

It was “Cronkite’s political coming-out party,” Brinkley writes. “The charade of being Mr. Center was over.” Curiously Cronkite’s liberal bent didn’t detract from his credibility or popularity. It seemed to me that conservatives watched him with great respect, distilling out whatever leftish sentiment they might detect.

But “Cronkite” will endure not for what it tells us about broadcast media but for what it reveals about the man — his paradoxes, his penchant for pranks and dirty jokes, his long and happy marriage.

“The greatest old master in the art of living that I know is Walter Cronkite,” Andy Rooney wrote in The Washington Post. “If life were fattening, Walter Cronkite would weigh 500 pounds.” We, his viewers, never got to go drinking with our guy. We knew him in a more formal setting, but our memories feel just as intimate.

I remember as a young boy watching “You Are There” in wonderment as he grilled the violators of King Tut’s tomb. I remember rushing to my college dormitory to watch him deliver the deadly news from Dallas. I remember as a graduate student walking in fall and winter evenings to the student union to catch him and Eric Sevareid (right) evoke the excitement of the elections.

In 1980, Cronkite, the college dropout, received an honorary doctorate from Harvard and with it a standing ovation. Fred Friendly, a former president of CBS News, told him that he wasn’t being honored merely for his work on television.

“At a time when everybody was lying — fathers, mothers, teachers, presidents, governors, senators — you seemed to be telling the truth night after night. They didn’t like the truth, but they believed you at a time when they needed somebody to believe.”

“Cronkite” is evidence that a job can be done just about perfectly. That goes for the man and this exceptional biography.

Chris Matthews is the host of “Hardball” on MSNBC and “The Chris Matthews Show” on NBC. His most recent book is “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.”

A version of this review appeared in print on July 8, 2012, on page BR12 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: And That’s the Way It Was.

Gaddis Reviews ‘Ike Eisenhower’

April 22,2012


Gaddis’ Review of ‘Ike Eisenhower’

He Made It Look Easy
‘Eisenhower in War and Peace,’ by Jean Edward Smith

by John Lewis Gaddis (04-20-12)

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s memoirs came out while I was in graduate school in the 1960s, and one of my professors commented — not entirely facetiously — that he’d been surprised to see print on the pages. My fellow students and I were being taught that despite Eisenhower’s victories in World War II, the presidency had been beyond his capabilities.

Like Ulysses S. Grant, the last general to make it to the White House, Ike won elections easily, but did not rise to the responsibilities these thrust upon him. Jean Edward Smith challenged that argument about Grant in a well-received biography published a decade ago: Grant had been a better president than contemporaries or previous biographers realized, Smith maintained.

In “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” Smith (right), who is now a senior scholar at Columbia after many years at the University of Toronto and Marshall University, makes a more startling claim. Apart from Franklin D. Roosevelt (whose biography Smith has also written), Ike was “the most successful president of the 20th century.”

Historians long ago abandoned the view that Eisenhower’s was a failed presidency. He did, after all, end the Korean War without getting into any others. He stabilized, and did not escalate, the Soviet-American rivalry. He strengthened European alliances while withdrawing support from European colonialism. He rescued the Republican Party from isolationism and McCarthyism. He maintained prosperity, balanced the budget, promoted technological innovation, facilitated (if reluctantly) the civil rights movement and warned, in the most memorable farewell address since Washington’s, of a “military-industrial complex” that could endanger the nation’s liberties. Not until Reagan would another president leave office with so strong a sense of having accomplished what he set out to do.

But does Eisenhower merit a place in the pantheon just behind Franklin Roosevelt? Smith’s case would be stronger if he had specified standards for presidential success. What allowances should one make for unexpected incumbencies, like those of the first Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, Johnson and Ford? Or for holding office in wartime? Or for “black swan” events — economic crashes, natural disasters, protest movements, self-inflicted scandals, terrorist attacks? What’s the proper balance between planning and improvisation, between being a hedgehog, in Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, and being a fox?

Smith doesn’t say. But he does carefully trace Eisenhower’s preparation for the presidency, and that’s what this biography is really about. (Only a quarter of the book is devoted to the White House years and beyond.) From it, Eisenhower’s own views on success in leadership emerge reasonably clearly. To reduce them to the length of a tweet — an exercise my students recommend, and which Ike might well have approved — they amount to achieving one’s ends without corrupting them.

Ends, Eisenhower knew, are potentially infinite. Means can never be. Therefore the task of leaders — whether in the presidency or anywhere else — is to reconcile that contradiction: to deploy means in such a way as to avoid doing too little, which risks defeat, but also too much, which risks exhaustion. Failure can come either way.

Exhaustion was the problem in World War I, in which the costs on all sides allowed no decisive outcome. As a young (and disappointed) Army captain, Eisenhower was kept stateside during the hostilities, training troops in the use of the recently invented tank. After peace returned, he and his fellow officers assumed there would be another war, but they had to plan for it under conditions wholly different from the profligacy with which the last one had been fought. With cuts in military spending that left ranks reduced, Eisenhower’s generation took limited means as their default position.

Doing as much as possible with as little as possible required setting priorities, so Eisenhower made himself an expert, during the 1920s and 1930s, on the theory and practice of limited means.

The theory came from the 19th-century Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, whose difficult classic, “On War,” Eisenhower mastered, as almost no one else in the Army at the time did. The practice came from serving on staffs: of Fox Conner in Panama, who introduced him to Clausewitz; of John J. Pershing in Paris, who had him map World War I battle sites; of Douglas MacArthur in Washington and the Philippines, from whom Eisenhower learned the pitfalls of arrogance in command; and, in the final years of peace, of the indispensable George C. Marshall, who catapulted Eisenhower above hundreds of more senior officers to make him, after Pearl Harbor, the Army’s chief planner.

Eisenhower’s skills were not those required to command armies on battlefields: in this respect, he lacked the talents of his World War II contemporaries Bradley, Patton and Montgomery. But in his ability to weigh costs against benefits, to delegate authority, to communicate clearly, to cooperate with allies, to maintain morale and especially to see how all the parts of a picture related to the whole (it was not just for fun that he later took up painting), Eisenhower’s preparation for leadership proved invaluable. Lincoln went through many generals before he found Grant, Smith reminds us. Roosevelt found in Eisenhower, with Marshall’s help, the only general he needed to run the European war.

There were setbacks, to be sure: the North African and Italian campaigns, the Battle of the Bulge after the triumph of D-Day. But because Eisenhower showed himself to have learned from these crises, Roosevelt and Marshall never lost confidence in him.

At the same time, Ike was perfecting the art of leading while leaving no trace — the “hidden hand” for which he would be known while in the White House.

The best wartime example, Smith suggests, was the way he gave his subtle support to Charles de Gaulle as the leader of the Free French, which left Roosevelt — no fan of le grand Charles — with a fait accompli. Eisenhower was getting to be good at politics as well as war.

Politics beckoned, after his victories, as it did with Grant before him, but the situations they inherited upon becoming president could hardly have been more different. Facing no credible external enemy, the United States in 1869 was as inward looking as it ever had been or would be. But by 1953, its interests were global and threats seemed to be too. Grant, in the aftermath of the Civil War, struggled to maintain any weapons more lethal than those required to fight American Indians. Eisenhower controlled weaponry that, if used without restraint, could have ended life on the planet.

Success in his mind, then, required not just avoiding the corruption of ends by means, but also their annihilation. How could the United States wage a war that might last for decades without turning itself into an authoritarian state, without exhausting itself in limited conflicts on terrain chosen by adversaries, without risking a new world war that could destroy all its participants? And how, throughout all of this, could the country retain a culture in which its traditional values — even the bland and boring ones — could flourish?

Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishment may well have been to make his presidency look bland and boring: in this sense, he was very different from the flamboyant Roosevelt, and that’s why historians at first underestimated him. Jean Edward Smith is among the many who no longer do. The greatest virtue of his biography is to show how well Eisenhower’s military training prepared him for this task: like Grant, he made what he did seem easy. It never was, though, and Smith stresses the toll it took on Eisenhower’s health, on his marriage and ultimately in the loneliness he could never escape. Perhaps Ike earned his place in the pantheon after all.

John Lewis Gaddis teaches history and grand strategy at Yale. His latest book is “George F. Kennan: An American Life.”

A version of this review appeared in print on April 22, 2012, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: He Made It Look Easy.