3 Books About George H.W. Bush’s Legacy


December 8 , 2018

 

 

Newsbook

 

George Herbert Walker Bush, who was president from 1989 to 1993, died on Nov. 30; his state funeral in Washington National Cathedral is today. As memorial services continue throughout the week, many are publicly reckoning with his one-term presidency. Some have praised his statesmanship and decency, while others have criticized his insufficient action during the AIDS epidemic and his role in paving the way for the extreme partisanship of today through campaign methods including an infamously racist ad featuring Willie Horton and aided by his chief strategist, Lee Atwater. Here are three books that discuss his life and legacy.

[Read The Times obituary of President George H.W. Bush.]

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BEING POPPY
A Portrait of George Herbert Walker Bush
By Richard Ben Cramer
192 pp. Simon & Schuster. (2013)

 

Cramer’s original opus was a more than 1,000-page-long accounting of the 1988 presidential election, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” in which he delved into the idiosyncrasies and flaws of George H.W. Bush, Joseph Biden, Gary Hart and three other candidates running for the presidency in 1988. In that book, Cramer “set out to write neither campaign history nor political biography,” wrote our reviewer. His main goal was to “examine what leads a person to enter the cement mixer of presidential politics and what happens to him once he does.” “Being Poppy” is drawn from those pages, isolating the story of George H.W. Bush’s candidacy into a slimmer offering.

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THE FAMILY
The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty
By Kitty Kelley
705 pp. Doubleday. (2004)

In this cross-generational family saga, “Kelley reminds readers just how long the Bushes have been with us, sweeping like cattle raiders toward the sources of power.” She opens with Prescott Bush (1895-1972), the elder Bush’s father, and then spends considerable time on H.W. and his namesake son. Kelley depicts George H.W. Bush as “hungrier for power than we remember and willing to do just about anything to achieve it,” said our reviewer, adding that “it is startling to read Kelley’s account of Bush (whose father was relatively progressive on racial issues) campaigning hard against the civil rights movement and calling Martin Luther King ‘a militant.’”

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DESTINY AND POWER
The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
By Jon Meacham
836 pp. Random House. (2015)

Meacham gained unprecedented access to the Bush family patriarch for this biography, in which he covers 41’s personal life — including the tragic death of his daughter from leukemia as a toddler — as well as his political career. Both of our reviews, though largely positive, wrote that Meacham’s biography was sometimes too forgiving of its subject’s flaws and controversial decisions, such as his nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas. Still, the book broke new ground, particularly in reporting Bush’s criticisms of Dick Cheney, whom he credited for his son’s administration’s harsh rhetoric against foreign nations. “But the pleasures of this panoramic book (it clocks in at 800-plus pages) have little to do with the news it breaks,” wrote our reviewer. “They’re about psychological portraiture, enabled by the artful use of Mr. Bush’s diaries — they’re surprisingly rich — and the author’s many probing interviews with Mr. Bush over the years.”

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A3 of the New York edition with the headline: Here to Help; Three Books on the Legacy of George H.W. Bush. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

 

 

Book Review:The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi


November 19, 2018

Book Review:

The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi

Hans-Bernd Zöllner and Rodion Ebbighausen (translated by Vipasha Bansal) (Silkworm Books, 2018)

http://www.newmandala.org/book-review/selth-the-daughter

Few figures in modern history have attracted as much biographical attention as Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Griffith Asia Institute’s select bibliography of Burma (Myanmar) Since the 1988 Uprising, the third edition of which was published earlier this year, lists 34 books in English about her, all written since 1990. There are several others, in other languages, and even a few collections of photographs. Most have been aimed at the general public, including young readers.

All of these books were written after Aung San Suu Kyi became an icon of democracy, adored by millions and held up by the international community as a paragon of virtue, the result of her long struggle for universal human rights and peaceful democratic change.

Very few biographies have appeared since her government took office in 2016, and she was in a position to give practical effect to her ideas about political, economic and social reform. As a result, the world has been waiting for years for a study that rigorously and objectively examines not just the Nobel Peace laureate’s undoubted strengths and achievements, but also her weaknesses and policy failures.

The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, by long time Myanmar-watcher Hans-Bernd Zöllner and freelance journalist Rodion Ebbighausen, is a comprehensive and thoughtful account of her life and times, and ventures into a few unfamiliar areas, but it still does not satisfy that need.

Before 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi was not just admired, she was idolised. Wherever she went, both within Myanmar and outside it, she was given what journalists liked to describe as “a rock star welcome”. This cult of personality helped her become a household name around the world and boosted her cause, but it had a downside.

In journalistic and even academic circles she was rarely subjected to the same level of critical analysis as other world figures, or members of the military government she opposed.

When more objective Myanmar-watchers dared to point out examples of her poor judgement and tactical missteps, or suggested that, like everyone else, she had flaws in her character, they were subject to an avalanche of abuse. One outspoken critic who wrote disparagingly about The Lady (as she became widely known), and the tunnel vision of her more extreme supporters, was sent a death threat. This had the effect of silencing many commentators aware of her imperfections, or who disagreed with some of her decisions. Even professional analysts began to self-censor what they wrote about her.

To be fair, they did this not just out of fear of being attacked by Aung San Suu Kyi’s legion of supporters, who used the Internet and social media to great effect. Serious observers of Myanmar were aware that to openly criticise Aung San Suu Kyi risked giving the military regime ammunition to use against her.

For years, a virulent campaign was waged against the opposition leader in the state-run news media, where she was cast as a traitorous renegade who had turned her back on her own people. Countless stories and cartoons, including jibes about her marriage to a foreigner and her schooling abroad (in India and the UK) were published with the aim of undermining her popularity with the Myanmar people.

Anything written by foreign commentators in the international press, or said by them in public, that could be used to support the regime and bolster its case against Aung San Suu Kyi, was seized upon and shamelessly exploited. With that danger in the back of their minds, more critical and aware foreign observers tended not to draw attention to her shortcomings as an alternative leader of Myanmar.

Doubtless, in private counsels and confidential reports prepared for senior officials, diplomats and strategic analysts took a hard-headed approach and produced unvarnished assessments of Aung San Suu Kyi’s character, political skills and suitability for high office. Presumably, they also warned that, should she ever find herself in a position of real power, she would inevitably be forced to choose sides between contending factions, and make hard decisions about contentious issues, in ways that would leave some of her admirers dissatisfied. She would not be able to please everyone, or avoid controversy, simply by referring to broad principles and abstract concepts, as was her usual practice. However, for obvious reasons, the recipients of such assessments were unlikely to share them with the public. Some senior officials (George W. Bush and Gordon Brown spring to mind) may have even been reluctant to accept them. Thus the net effect of the world-wide campaign being waged on her behalf was to strengthen the popular image of her as being without fault or peer, existing above the grubby political fray.

This two-dimensional picture was reflected in most of the books written about her. As Kyaw Yin Hlaing pointed out in a review article, “Quite often the biographies of leading political figures are written by their loyalists, enemies, or by neutral authors or scholars. In the case of Suu Kyi, however, one finds that most of the writings about her are written by her sympathisers and her enemy (the Myanmar junta)”.

Works in the former category were not all hagiographies. For example, Bertil Lintner’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy discussed some of the criticisms usually levelled at The Lady. Other books made passing references to Aung San Suu Kyi’s human frailties and some other perceived shortcomings. However, these character flaws tended to be brushed over as insignificant in the greater scheme of things. As a rule, very few authors attempted to offer an objective picture of the opposition leader that stripped away her public image to show the real person underneath, warts and all. As Barbara Victor wrote in her own biography, titled The Lady, “deconstructing Aung San Suu Kyi is not part of the game”.

 

 

The TOUGH and GUTSY Lady in OSLO

Over the past few years, however, the pendulum has swung completely the other way. Aung San Suu Kyi is now being lambasted by the international community and, albeit to a much lesser extent, criticised by many people within Myanmar. At one level, this is hardly surprising. Her government has disappointed on several fronts, failing to deliver on most if not all the promises she made before the 2015 elections. Given the challenges she inherited, and the unrealistic expectations held about her ability to solve Myanmar’s “fiendishly complex problems”, that was to be expected. However, her dramatic fall from grace in the eyes of the international community has come about mainly because of her response—or lack of it—to the Rohingya crisis of 2016–2017, which saw three quarters of a million Muslims driven into Bangladesh by Myanmar’s security forces in circumstances that have been labelled by the UN ethnic cleansing, if not genocide. She has also publicly defended egregious human rights violations in other contexts.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now the subject of vitriolic abuse in the international news media. Amnesty International recently stripped her of its highest honour, telling her that “you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage and and the undying defence of human rights”. There have even been calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be rescinded.

The collapse of Aung San Suu Kyi’s international reputation, and the flight of her former high profile supporters, begs for a detailed explanation. Also, the apparent abandonment of her principles on universal human rights, and her rejection of the international community’s responsibility to protect the vulnerable in countries like Myanmar, warrants close examination.

 

So, what have these two experienced observers made of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career and her performance since she achieved her life-long ambition to become Myanmar’s (de facto) ruler?

Her current position is in stark contrast to the well-publicised views she held as a political prisoner. While at one level the picture is clear, these issues can be quite complex, and in certain cases her actions may appear less reprehensible when put into a wider context. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi has no control over the actions of Myanmar’s armed forces (Tatmadaw) which, under the 2008 constitution, act independently of her quasi-civilian government. Similarly, on the Rohingyas, there is a rare consensus between the government, the armed forces and the wider population that may restrict her freedom of action. This is not to offer any excuses, simply to emphasise the need for a thorough and objective account of her policies and personal attitudes.

Hans-Bernd Zöllner is in a good position to offer informed comments on such matters. He is an accomplished Myanmar-watcher, with several major works to his name. To English-speakers, he is perhaps best known for his compilations of Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches and informal comments to her followers, published as Talks Over the Gate: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Dialogues with the People, 1995 and 1996.

He has also written a history of the conflict between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, set in a global context. Another work of note is his chapter comparing different accounts of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, published in Volker Grabowsky’s edited volume Southeast Asian Historiography. Rodion Ebbighausen is not well-known in English-speaking countries as a Myanmar-watcher, but he is an experienced journalist who has covered the country for Deutsche Welle and other news outlets. He has also written occasionally about Aung San Suu Kyi, most recently in connection with the Rohingyas.

So, what have these two experienced observers made of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career and her performance since she achieved her life-long ambition to become Myanmar’s (de facto) ruler?

As might be expected, The Daughter is a well-researched and comprehensive account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s early childhood, her time spent travelling as a young woman, her studies at Oxford and her marriage to British academic Michael Aris.

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It describes her return to Myanmar in 1988 and unexpected rise to fame as General Secretary of the opposition National League for Democracy. Her 15 or so years under house arrest are also covered. There is an interesting excursion into Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhist studies, and their apparent impact on her political thinking. The authors also discuss the lack of understanding about democracy in Myanmar and explore Aung San Suu Kyi’s relationship with her followers.
As Nic Dunlop has pointed out, these sections offer helpful insights into her attitudes and personal philosophy at the time. The book finishes with an account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to the Union parliament in 2015 and subsequent appointment to the newly-created position of State Counsellor (the presidency having been denied to her by the 2008 constitution).

 

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This narrative is well told and covers all the main bases, but is curiously flat. The book goes over a lot of familiar ground, but offers little by way of new information or original analyses of critical events.

Given everything that has already been written about Aung San Suu Kyi, this was perhaps inevitable to a certain extent, but the reader is left wondering why the authors have not addressed more directly and in greater depth the criticisms made of Aung San Suu Kyi during her political career.

 

Despite the general reluctance to highlight her shortcomings, commentators have referred to such personality traits as her profound sense of personal destiny, her aloofness (or arrogance), her refusal to accept criticism or to countenance dissent, her dismissal of potential rivals, and her reluctance to include activists like the 88 Generation Students Group in the wider pro-democracy movement. Nor have the two authors critically examined her encouragement before 2011 of tough economic sanctions against Myanmar and her opposition to tourism, despite the negative impact these policies clearly had on the wider population.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book, however, is its failure to take the opportunity to look closely at Aung San Suu Kyi since she took political office. She has been criticised for vetting all bills herself and taking all important decisions on both party and government matters. She has reportedly surrounded herself with a small group of loyalists, and does not consult others who could offer different advice. These practices have caused serious problems in the conduct of government business.

More particularly, her attitude towards the ethnic communities has been described as both imperious and unsympathetic, encouraging the view that, at heart, she is an ethnic Burman centralist who shares the Tatmadaw’s hard line towards minority groups, including the Muslim Rohingyas. Indeed, over the past few years she appears to have made little attempt to curb the blatant misuse of power by the security forces and judicial system. These are all matters that would have benefited from a rigorous and balanced analysis, both to put the record straight where it has strayed from the truth, and to help explain what appears to many people to be a puzzling about face on the part of someone they once admired.

Zöllner and Ebbighausen have said that they are keen to provide a nuanced portrayal of Myanmar’s crises over the past 30 years, with Aung San Suu Kyi as a focal point. They have succeeded in this aim, but failed to meet the not unreasonable expectation that Aung San Suu Kyi would be examined more critically, now that she has revealed herself to be a more complicated person than was once portrayed. Her elevation to the leadership of Myanmar, and the challenges that she has faced in that role, has required qualities that seem to be lacking.

As former US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell has written, “Opposing oppressive state power and running a government are two vastly different skills”. There were bound to be teething problems, and grumbles at the slow pace of change. Also, the 2008 constitution was going to require compromises. However, few people expected that Aung San Suu Kyi would become the target of such bitter invective, mostly from the same foreigners and foreign institutions which had once idolised her.

Myanmar has always been much more complex than popularly portrayed, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been subject to as many myths and misconceptions as other aspects of the country’s modern history. Had Zöllner and Ebbighausen written more about the controversies and criticisms now associated with The Lady, and tried to explain them in greater depth, they would have produced a more interesting book, and one that made a greater contribution to the burgeoning literature on modern Myanmar.

Dr Andrew Selth is Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, and at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. He is the author of Burma (Myanmar) Since the 1988 Uprising: A Select Bibliography and Burma, Kipling and Western Music: The Riff From Mandalay.

New York Times Book Review: Andrew Roberts on Sir Winston Spencer Churchill–A Man of Courage


November 17 ,2018

New York Times Book Review: Andrew Roberts on Sir Winston Spencer Churchill–A Man of Courage

 

 

CHURCHILL
Walking With Destiny
By Andrew Roberts
Illustrated. 1,105 pp. Viking. $40.

In April 1955, on the final weekend before he left office for the last time, Winston Churchill had the vast canvas of Peter Paul Rubens’s “The Lion and the Mouse” taken down from the Great Hall at the prime ministerial retreat of Chequers. He had always found the depiction of the mouse too indistinct, so he retrieved his paint brushes and set about “improving” on the work of Rubens by making the hazy rodent clearer. “If that is not courage,” Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord, said later, “I do not know what is.”

Lack of courage was never Churchill’s problem. As a young man he was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery fighting alongside the Malakand Field Force on the North-West Frontier, and subsequently he took part in the last significant cavalry charge in British history at the Battle of Omdurman in central Sudan. In middle age he served in the trenches of World War I, during which time a German high-explosive shell came in through the roof of his dugout and blew his mess orderly’s head clean off. Later, as prime minister during World War II, and by now in his mid-60s, he thought nothing of visiting bomb sites during the Blitz or crossing the treacherous waters of the Atlantic to see President Roosevelt despite the very real chance of being torpedoed by German U-boats.

 Churchill had political courage too, not least as one of the few to oppose the appeasement of Hitler. Many had thought him a warmonger and even a traitor. “I have always felt,” said that scion of the Establishment, Lord Ponsonby, at the time of the Munich debate in 1938, “that in a crisis he is one of the first people who ought to be interned.” Instead, when the moment of supreme crisis came in 1940, the British people turned to him for leadership. Here was his ultimate projection of courage: that Britain would “never surrender.”

 
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Credit: Associated Press

If courage was not the issue, lack of judgment often was. Famous military disasters attached to his name, including Antwerp in 1914, the Dardanelles (Gallipoli) in 1915 and Narvik in 1940.

So too did political controversies, like turning up in person to instruct the police during a violent street battle with anarchists, defying John Maynard Keynes in returning Britain to the gold standard or rashly supporting Edward VIII during the abdication crisis.

His views on race and empire were anachronistic even for those times. The carpet bombing of German cities during World War II; the “naughty document” that handed over Romania and Bulgaria to Stalin; comparing the Labour Party to the Gestapo — the list of Churchillian controversies goes on. Each raised questions about his temperament and character. His drinking habits also attracted comment.

Such is the challenge facing any biographer of Churchill: how to weigh in the balance a life filled with so much triumph and disaster, adulation and contempt. The historian Andrew Roberts’s insight about Churchill’s relation to fate in “Churchill: Walking With Destiny” comes directly from the subject himself. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny,” Churchill wrote of that moment in May 1940 when he achieved the highest office. But the story Roberts tells is more sophisticated and in the end more satisfying. “For although he was indeed walking with destiny in May 1940, it was a destiny that he had consciously spent a lifetime shaping,” Roberts writes, adding that Churchill learned from his mistakes, and “put those lessons to use during civilization’s most testing hour.” Experience and reflection on painful failures, while less glamorous than a fate written in the stars, turn out to be the key ingredients in Churchill’s ultimate success.

He did not get off to a particularly happy start. His erratic and narcissistic father, Lord Randolph Churchill, saw the boy as “among the second rate and third rate,” predicting that his life would “degenerate into a shabby, unhappy and futile existence.” His American mother, Jennie, was often not much kinder, sending letters to him at Harrow.


By the late 1930s, out of office and despised for his opposition to appeasement, Churchill seemed finished once and for all. But he was ready. “The Dardanelles catastrophe taught him not to overrule the Chiefs of Staff,” Roberts writes, “the General Strike and Tonypandy taught him to leave industrial relations during the Second World War to Labour’s Ernest Bevin; the Gold Standard disaster taught him to reflate and keep as much liquidity in the financial system as the exigencies of wartime would allow.”

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Winston Churchill later claimed that Turing had made the single biggest contribution to allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.

Alan Turing and the Ultra decrypters in the second war; the anti-U-boat campaign of 1917 instructed him about the convoy system; his earlier advocacy of the tank encouraged him to support the development of new weaponry. Research for a life of Marlborough (a book that Leo Strauss called the greatest historical work of the 20th century) taught Churchill the value of international alliances in wartime.

If Churchill’s entire life was a preparation for 1940, “the man and the moment only just coincided.” He was 65 years old when he became prime minister and had only just re-entered front-line politics after a decade out of office. It would be like Tony Blair returning to 10 Downing Street today, ready to put lessons learned during the Iraq war to work. Had Hitler delayed by a few years, Roberts suggests, Churchill would surely have been away from front-rank politics too long to “make himself the one indispensable figure.”

Image Credit;The New York Times

Experience certainly did not make success inevitable. In France, Marshal Pétain, revered as the “Lion of Verdun” for his glorious career in World War I, made all the wrong decisions as prime minister from June 1940 onward, equating peace with occupation and collaboration.

Churchill was the anti-Pétain, but what was it that made him “indispensable”? Hope, certainly, and an ability to communicate resolve with both clarity and force. Recordings of wartime speeches can still provoke goose bumps. In the end, Roberts sums up Churchill’s overriding achievement in a single sentence: It was “not that he stopped a German invasion … but that he stopped the British government from making a peace.”

That turned out to be the whole ballgame. After the Battle of Britain was won and, first, the Russians and, then, the Americans came into the war, Churchill knew that “time and patience will give certain victory.” But it also meant a gradual relegation to second if not third place. Britain had entered the war as the most prestigious of the world’s great powers. By its conclusion, having lost about a quarter of its national wealth in fighting the war, Britain had become the fraction in the Big Two and a Half, and was effectively bust.

Roberts is admiring of Churchill, but not uncritically so. Often he lays out the various debates before the reader so that we can draw different conclusions to his own. Essentially a conservative realist, he sees political and military controversies through the lens of the art of the possible. Only once does he really bristle, when Churchill says of Stalin in 1945, “I like that man.” “Where was the Churchill of 1931,” he laments, “who had denounced Stalin’s ‘morning’s budget of death warrants’?”

Some may find Roberts’s emphasis on politics and war old-fashioned, indistinguishable, say, from the approach taken almost half a century ago by Henry Pelling. He is out of step with much of the best British history being written today, where the likes of Dominic Sandbrook, Or Rosenboim and John Bew have successfully blended cultural and intellectual history with the study of high politics. But it would be foolish to say Roberts made the wrong choice. He is Thucydidean in viewing decisions about war and politics, politics and war as the crux of the matter. A life defined by politics here rightly gets a political life. All told, it must surely be the best single-volume biography of Churchill yet written.

Richard Aldous, the author of “Reagan and Thatcher” and “Schlesinger,” teaches at Bard.Richard Aldous, the author of “Reagan and Thatcher” and “Schlesinger,” teaches at Bard.

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 10 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Life of Triumph and Disaster. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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A New Biography Presents Gandhi, Warts and All


October 15, 2018

By Alex von Tunzelmann

GANDHI
The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948
By Ramachandra Guha
Illustrated. 1,083 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $40.

“The number of books that people write on this old man takes my breath away,” complained the politician B. R. Ambedkar of the proliferation of Gandhiana. That was in 1946.

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Ramachandra Guha  (pic above) must have smiled when he quoted that line in his new book, the second — and final — volume of his biography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Few figures in history have been so extensively chronicled, including by himself (Gandhi’s own published collected works run to 100 volumes and over 50,000 pages). The really surprising thing is that there is still so much to say.

“Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948,” encompassing both world wars and the struggle for Indian independence, is a portrait of a complex man whose remarkable tenacity remained constant, even when his beliefs changed. It is also extraordinarily intimate. Gandhi drew no distinction between his private and public life. He made his own body a symbol, mortifying it through fasting or marching for political and spiritual change. He even went public with his sexual life — and the negation of it through brahmacharya, or chastity.

It is difficult to write about a man who was a revered spiritual leader as well as a keen political operator. Guha, the author of “India After Gandhi” and “Gandhi Before India” (the first volume of the monumental biography that this book concludes), approaches Gandhi on his own terms while trying not to gloss over his flaws. Perhaps inevitably, with one who has been regarded almost as a saint, it is the flaws that will capture many readers’ attention. A key theme that emerges is Gandhi’s effort to control himself and those around him. This extended from his own family to his political allies and opponents.

 

The most compelling political relationship Guha reveals is the antagonism between Gandhi and the aforementioned B. R. Ambedkar, the pre-eminent politician of outcaste Hindus then known as “untouchables” and now as dalits. Guha’s book charts the two men’s interactions over decades, along with Gandhi’s own changing views on caste.

Even while he still saw some value in the caste system, Gandhi opposed untouchability. Guha is at pains to refute Arundhati Roy’s dismissal of Gandhi as a reactionary on caste. He details Gandhi’s exhaustive campaigns to allow untouchables into temples, and his many attempts to persuade other Hindus of his caste to accept them. Certainly, Gandhi did much brave and important work. Yet he still characterized untouchables as “helpless men and women” who required a savior — namely, him. As Guha says, Gandhi’s rhetoric “sounded patronizing, robbing ‘untouchables’ of agency, of being able to articulate their own demands and grievances.”

Image result for politician B. R. Ambedkar

Gandhi fought Ambedkar over establishing separate electorates for untouchables, arguing that these would “vivisect” Hinduism. “I want political power for my community,” Ambedkar explained. “That is indispensable for our survival.” Gandhi’s reply, as quoted by Guha, was that “you are born an untouchable but I am an untouchable by adoption. And as a new convert I feel more for the welfare of the community than those who are already there.” Gandhi cared passionately about untouchability: He repeatedly emphasized his willingness to die if that was what it took to end it. What he could not seem to do was let untouchables themselves take the lead.

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Some of the most interesting parts of this book concern another group Gandhi sought to instruct: women. Two sections in particular are likely to raise eyebrows. The first is Guha’s account of Gandhi’s relationship with the writer and singer Saraladevi Chaudhurani in 1919-20. Gandhi was, by then, celibate; both he and Sarala were married to other people. Yet their letters speak openly of desire — “You still continue to haunt me even in my sleep,” he wrote to her — and he told friends, “I call her my spiritual wife.” He signed his letters to her Law Giver, which, as Guha observes, was “a self-regarding appellation that reveals his desire to have Sarala conform to his ways.” Gandhi’s friends appear to have talked him out of making this “spiritual marriage” public. Eventually he distanced himself, confessing that he did not have the “infinitely higher purity” in practice “that I possess in thought” to maintain a “marriage” that was perfectly spiritual.

The secon section that will provoke controversy tackles an even more sensitive subject: Gandhi’s notorious brahmacharya experiments, beginning in 1946. When Gandhi was involved with Sarala, he was 50 and she was 47, a mature woman exercising her own free will. Nearly three decades later, when he was 77, he made the decision to “test” his vow of chastity by sleeping in a bed with his teenage grandniece, Manu Gandhi.

Manu was vulnerable. She had lost her mother at a young age and had been taken in by Gandhi and his wife (who was deceased by the time the “experiments” started). Manu grew up in an ashram in which everyone was devoted to her great-uncle. She wrote a diary mentioning the “experiments” that Guha quotes, though it is a compromised source: Gandhi read it as Manu wrote it and his own writing appears in the margins.

Guha has found a letter written by Horace Alexander, a close friend of Gandhi’s. Alexander said that Gandhi told him Manu wanted to test her own vow of chastity. Guha suggests that this puts a new light on the “experiments,” and that Manu may have become involved partly to deter another man who was pursuing her romantically: “There may have been, as it were, two sides to the story. Both Gandhi and Manu may have wanted to go through this experiment, or ordeal. To be sure, there was a certain amount of imposition — from his side.”

That caveat is important, for, as Guha allows, there was an enormous power differential between Gandhi and Manu. It is not clear that the letter from Alexander changes how we view the “experiments”: He spoke only to Gandhi, not Manu. In the wake of #MeToo, we know that the powerful may delude themselves about the willingness of those they manipulate, and that their less powerful victims may go along with things they do not want because they are overwhelmed by the status of their abuser.

Lest anyone think this applies modern standards to a historical event, Guha provides extensive evidence of the horrified reaction of many of Gandhi’s friends and followers at the time. Most were appalled that a young woman should be used as an instrument in an “experiment,” and some of his political allies, like Vallabhbhai Patel, feared it would become a scandal. At least one, the stenographer R. P. Parasuram, left Gandhi’s entourage when Gandhi refused to stop sharing a bed with Manu.

Guha does as much as any reasonable biographer could to explain the “experiments” with reference to Gandhi’s 40-year obsession with celibacy. Ultimately, though, the reader is left feeling that Gandhi’s own defenses of his behavior are riddled with self-justification, and Manu’s voice may never truly be heard.

Gandhi posed a huge challenge to his world in his time, and still does. Guha’s admiration for his subject is clear throughout this book. He tries to explain controversial aspects of Gandhi’s life by contextualizing them within Gandhi’s own thinking. Some of Gandhi’s fiercer critics may feel this is soft-pedaling, but it does help build a fair, thorough and nuanced portrait of the man. Gandhi spoke for himself more than most people in history, but even the most controlling people cannot control how history sees them. Guha lets Gandhi appear on his own terms, and allows him to reveal himself in all his contradictions.

There is much truth in a verse Guha quotes, written by Gandhi’s secretary, Mahadev Desai:

To live with the saints in heaven
Is a bliss and a glory
But to live with a saint on earth
Is a different story.

Alex von Tunzelmann is the author of “Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire.”

 

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The Nixon I enjoyed reading–America’s much maligned Foreign Policy President and Peacemaker


August 1, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Monica Crowley– Nixon in Winter

https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/06/14/reviews/980614.14willst.html?_r=1&oref=login

Let Me Say This About That

Richard Nixon’s confidante records his thoughts on Clinton and Bush, Plato and Kant.

Books by Richard Nixon

 

By GARRY WILLS

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Monica Crowley is one of the great comic writers of our time. But she doesn’t get her own jokes. In ”Nixon in Winter,” she nods sagely while Richard Nixon tells her how he chastised Chinese leaders over the Tiananmen massacre. Then, in a typical Nixon duck, he remembers that students were killed at Kent State during his first term. But the Kent State students were not protesting Communism: ”Those kids were Communists.” She just records the absurdity with a straight face.

In fact, she increases Nixon’s store of absurdities. One day she tells him that she is enthusiastically reading a book (”Silent Coup”) that asserts the Watergate break-in was ordered by John Dean to uncover his wife’s connections with a call-girl ring. Nixon, who claims he never reads Watergate accounts, encourages her to finish the book and tell him about it. She is so carried away by the authors’ ”evenhanded approach” that she writes to thank them for their service to the truth. Nixon hears this gladly and says the book ”should have gotten far more attention.”

At another time, he asks Crowley, ”Why do you think people hate me?” She says it is because he was so effective against Alger Hiss and Hiss’s defenders, and because of ”the threat he represented as a conservative continually able to command the headlines.” Nixon has to agree that ”the problem with Bush is that no one hates him.” George Bush was not effective against the Communist foe — he only managed the dismantling of the Soviet empire, a feat that fills Nixon with bitter envy: ”Bush and Baker suffered from a great lack of creativity in foreign policy; it was a damn shame that they were in charge at the end of the cold war.” She agrees that their trouble is their refusal to take his advice on dumping Mikhail Gorbachev — just as she finds a certain wisdom in Clinton when he backs most-favored-nation status for China because ”Clinton had decided that Nixon was right.”

Why would Nixon, in 1989, make a senior at Colgate (as Crowley was) the object of his confidences, and then find in her his closest intellectual companion for the rest of his life? He saw or talked to her daily from 1990 to 1994, took her with him to Russia and China, introduced her to world leaders, went to her house so she could witness him making an important phone call, included her in family holidays. The official reason was that she was his research assistant. Luckily, in Nixon’s case, there is no question of a sexual interest. She had what mattered more to him than sex — an unquestioning adulation perpetually on tap.

Court fools were supposed to have been employed in the past to give kings a daily reminder of their flaws. Crowley was a fool in reverse. She was there to tell Nixon, constantly, what a great man he was. Her real role in preparing his books was to say that the world cried out for insights that only he could supply. Time and again Nixon fishes for compliments. Can he really bring off such a daunting task as adding another to his long list of unread books? ”I gave him my usual reassurances that the country and the world needed to hear from him,” she tells us.

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Crowley’s duties were extensive, enough to test anyone’s adoration quotient; but they broke down to three main ones. She had to hear over and over, from his own lips, and then endorse, the claims that Nixon was a wise man, and a powerful one, and virtuous. She does not sort things into these categories, but it is useful, in cataloguing the humor, to do so.

1. Nixon was a wise man, even a scholar. In order to show that, Nixon had to be seen reading the great thinkers when Crowley arrived at his house. One day he is renewing his acquaintance with ”The Republic,” and he gives her a little lecture on ”the bottom line for Plato.” In one of her better comic strokes she tells us, ”Two days later he had dispensed with Plato and turned his attention to Aristotle.” Soon after this, she says he tells her that he has been ”giving another cursory reading to Immanuel Kant’s ‘On History.’ ” In other sermons he gives her Machiavelli, Locke, Tocqueville and Nietzsche in a nutshell.

But Nixon is not only a theoretical thinker. He has practical advice that will spell success or failure for leaders. When Bush cooperates with Gorbachev, he asks, ”Has Bush lost his mind?” He complains: ”I guess he felt that since Gorbachev looked him straight in the eye . . . gosh, he must be a good guy, on our side. Wrong! Smart leaders act on behalf of their national interest, personal relationship be damned.” Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker, also pins too much hope on one man (Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze). But then Nixon meets Boris Yeltsin, who ”looks you straight in the eye.” He takes Crowley to meet Yeltsin and feel his force, and says that everything in Russia depends on his prevailing. Crowley, who has been writing anti-Gorbachev essays for Nixon, agrees entirely. She felt the force.

2. Nixon was a powerful man. Oddly enough, it was his very power that brought him down. He had to be destroyed because he posed such a threat. If Watergate had not occurred, some other excuse would have been found. He was on the verge of creating the new conservative majority: ”I was going to start with newspaper reporters. . . . I was going to get conservatives in there to take these people on. That’s why in ’72 they had to bring me down. They knew I was after them and that I’d succeed.”

After his fall, he says, the news media had to keep ”wallowing in Watergate” because ”they were afraid of a comeback because of my record on that score.” Even in his final years, he threatens others with his power. He may go public against Bush and Baker: ”If they don’t take a harder line on Gorbachev now, I will have to seriously consider my options.” Like Lear, he still feels regal (though vaguely): ”If Bush blows it at the end, I will — well, I don’t know what I’ll do. But it won’t be quiet, it won’t be private, but it will have an impact. I guarantee that.” Lear, it is true, says, ”I will do such things — What they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.” But Crowley’s Nixon is more Edward Lear than Shakespeare’s king.

3. Nixon was a virtuous man. Sometimes the claim is made positively — he revered his mother, he believed in God, he did not cheat on Pat. But more frequently he proves his superiority by noting how rotten everybody else is. He despises other ex-Presidents — ”he resented being grouped with them,” and he blew up at Bush for sending an emissary to him ”on the same day that he was sending him to talk to Ford and Carter and Reagan.” Bush is a lightweight, Baker an egotist — and those are just the people on his side. As for Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton is ”cold as ice”; Janet Reno is ”a partisan witch.” Bill Clinton was all right for a period, when he flattered Nixon, but Whitewater is worse than Watergate because ”we didn’t have a body” like Vince Foster’s. Intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers are worthless — that is the trouble with the Foreign Service, the Democratic Party and the press. One of the few people Nixon expresses unqualified admiration for is Oliver North: ”North and Weinberger got to the heart of it, like I did with Hiss. They were against the goddamned Commies!”

Crowley assures us Nixon wanted her to relay the wisdom imported to her, which recalls a different play of Shakespeare:

O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!

And so:

Thou livest, report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.

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In her Horatio role, Crowley testifies to the kind of man she served. But what kind of man was that? One who needed a young and unchallenging acolyte to hear him rant and boast. A deficient human being desperate to fill some inner emptiness. One forever pulling himself down by trying to pull down others. To all of this Crowley bears accurate if unwitting testimony.


Garry Wills’s most recent book is ”John Wayne’s America.”

 

On Princess Margaret–NY Times Book Review


July 25, 2018

On Princess Margaret–NY Times Book Review

  • Margaret of The House of Windor–Din Merican’s Special Princess

The past, Julian Barnes once wrote, has a way of behaving like a piglet, greased up and let loose in a room. It makes a lot of noise. People make fools of themselves trying to capture it. Invariably, it slips away.

This is the very business of biography — “the most sheepish and constrained of the arts,” the English journalist and satirist Craig Brown writes in his new book, “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.” However, his study of the Princess, the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth — and one of the 20th century’s great malcontents — is gloriously truant. Brown ignores all the starchy obligations of biography and adopts a form of his own to trap the past and ensnare the reader — even this reader, so determinedly indifferent to the royals. I ripped through the book with the avidity of Margaret attacking her morning vodka and orange juice.

Brown’s technique owes much to the experimental French writer Raymond Queneau and to Barnes’s “Flaubert’s Parrot.” He swoops at his subject from unexpected angles — it’s a Cubist portrait of the lady. One chapter tells Margaret’s story solely through the public notices that announced her birth in 1930, divorce in 1978 and death in 2002. Another enumerates her most famous rebukes. There is a list of possessions auctioned after her death — her pillboxes and playing cards, two silver-mounted ivory lemon-squeezers. One section riffs on the phrases coined in the year of her birth: “bail out,” “feel up,” “sick-making.” “Each of these three has something Margaret-ish about it,” Brown writes, “as do crooner and eye shadow and the adjective luxury.”

 

As a subject, the princess proves to be something she never was in life: obliging. Beautiful, bad-tempered, scandal-prone, she makes for unfailingly good copy, and heaps of it. “Everyone seems to have met her at least once or twice, even those who did their best to avoid her,” Brown writes. “She shows up without warning, popping her head around the door of every other memoir, biography and diary written in the second half of the 20th century” — usually to insult her hostess or use someone’s hand as an ashtray.

Craig Brown

But, for a time, her charms were considerable. “Little hot looking pretty girl,” according to Ralph Ellison. Picasso desperately wanted to marry her. Peter Sellers would have settled for an affair. John Fowles publicly fantasized about abducting her and keeping her as a prisoner.

When the playwright Alan Bennett visited a friend, the television interviewer Russell Harty, on his deathbed, Harty requested the tracheotomy tube be removed. He just had to report that Margaret had inquired about his health — twice.

The princess could, her father said, “charm the pearl out of an oyster.” Her interests, however, ran more to sadistic parlor games (she makes an indelible appearance in Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels). She was aflame with snobbery and, as she grew older, addicted to bullying and one-upmanship. She would boast about her royal status to her children, and insist lovers address her as Your Royal Highness. When needing a rest, she was known to commandeer the Queen Mother’s wheelchair.

“Disobedience is my joy,” she supposedly told Jean Cocteau. But it was more than that; it was her identity. It was the opinion of Gore Vidal, one of her more loyal friends, that since the Queen was the source of national honor and duty, it fell to the princess to be the evil sister, the source of “creative malice.” (Of Vidal, the princess once said dryly: “The trouble with Gore is that he wants my sister’s job.”)

 

 

 

But, as Brown reveals, those cutting remarks and outrageous scenes were a form of bizarre achievement and autonomy in a life that was otherwise barren. Margaret had no education, no occupation, no formal role. From time to time she’d preside over, say, the opening of a pumping station. Her relationships were chilly. She communicated with her mother by letter even when they lived one floor apart. Her marriage was a disaster. After the scandal of her love affair with an older, divorced man (a key story strand in Netflix’s “The Crown”), she married Antony Armstrong-Jones, a photographer who evinced a talent for cruelty all his own. He liked to leave little notes for her tucked into the book on her bedside table that said simply, “I hate you.” Other than her two children (oddly absent from the narrative), her most memorable accomplishment was gluing matchboxes to tumblers so she could light cigarettes without interrupting her drinking.

The wisdom of the book, and the artistry, is in how Brown subtly expands his lens from Margaret’s misbehavior — sometimes campy, sometimes desperate — to those who gawked at her, who huddled around her, pens poised over their diaries, hoping for the show she never denied them. History isn’t written by the victors, he reminds us, it’s written by the writers, and this study becomes a scathing group portrait of a generation of carnivorous royal watchers. “We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them,” Hilary Mantel wrote in an essay on Kate Middleton. Without ever explicitly positioning Margaret for our pity, Brown reveals how we elevate in order to destroy. Who or what, in the final reckoning, is the true grotesque — the absurd, unhappy princess, those desperate to get close to her, or the system propping them all up?

Follow Parul Sehgal on Twitter: @parul_sehgal.

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Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret–A Ravishing Beauty. King George VI said she could “charm the pearl out of an oyster.”

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret
By Craig Brown
Illustrated. 423 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $28.