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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WELL Done, Jim, you have earned your Badge of COURAGE FOR CNN


November 9, 2018

WELL Done, Jim, you have earned your Badge of COURAGE FOR CNN

To the Editor:

Re “Trump Bars CNN’s Acosta From the White House” (Election 2018 section, Nov. 8):

The revocation of Jim Acosta’s press credentials by the White House is the act of a banana republic dictatorship. To deny press credentials to a well-known, legitimate reporter for no other reason than that the President doesn’t like his questions is unprecedented in the United States and reveals the autocratic intentions of President Donald J Trump.

Image result for jim acosta cnn trump

This action must not pass unnoticed in the chaotic swirl of events unleashed by President Trump. Members of Congress, the rest of the press and the American people themselves must stand up against this abuse of executive power.

Tim Shaw
Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

This attack on an independent press needs to be answered not just by condemnation but also by collective action. The Times and other mainstream media should all turn in their White House press credentials and refuse to enter the White House until Jim Acosta’s credentials are restored. Starved of the attention he constantly seeks, President Trump will likely retreat. In any case, losing White House access is preferable to allowing an authoritarian president to decide who gets to cover him.

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Stephen Hart
Buffalo

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New York Times Book Review–Unhappy Conservatives


October 26, 2018

Books of The Times

To hear Max Boot tell it, he feels as forlorn as the despondent, battered elephant on the cover of his new book, “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.” Boot minutely describes a disillusionment that wasn’t only “painful and prolonged” but “existential.”

Here he is — a lifelong Republican with sterling neoconservative credentials (an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War and a champion of “American empire”) — explaining why he’s eager for the day when “the G.O.P. as currently constituted is burned to the ground.”

The scorched-earth rhetoric reflects not just a pro-war pedigree but also a profound feeling of betrayal. In the run-up to the November 2016 election, Boot was a vocal Never Trump conservative who couldn’t fathom that a “crudely xenophobic” reality television star would become the standard-bearer of the Grand Old Party, much less president of the United States. Along with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” another new volume by a Republican critic of Trump, Boot’s book attempts to answer a looming question for conservatives unhappy with the current occupant of the White House: What now?

“The Corrosion of Conservatism” does double duty as a mea culpa memoir and a political manifesto, detailing Boot’s “heartbreaking divorce” from the Republican Party after decades of unstinting loyalty. He charts a political trajectory that gave his life social and emotional meaning. As the 6-year-old son of Jewish refuseniks, Boot emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1976; at 13, he was inducted by his father into the world of “learned, worldly, elitist” conservatism with a gift subscription to National Review.

Max Boot CreditDon Pollard

Years later, even amid the peer pressure of “Berzerkeley,” the young Republican persisted. He may have been a white man of some means, but he enjoyed seeing himself as a besieged minority.

He “loved making a bonfire” of Berkeley’s “liberal pieties” in his column in the student newspaper and trolling his peers with a “Bush-Quayle ’88” sticker on his dorm-room door. He swiftly clambered up the echelons of the conservative establishment, editing the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal by the time he was 28 and eventually advising the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.

Those candidates all lost their bids for the highest office, but it would take Boot a while to get to where he is now — repulsed by the Republican Party’s fealty to President Trump and instructing Americans to “vote against all Republicans.” His surprisingly anguished book is peppered with so many penitential lines (“I am embarrassed and chagrined”) and so much bewildered disappointment in figures like Rubio (“I thought he was a man of principle”) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (“I had viewed him as smart, principled and brave”) that even the most die-hard leftist might be moved to hand Boot a hankie.

Not that he’s a particularly moving stylist; Boot’s clean, starched prose marches forward with all the spontaneity of a military parade (he’s uncommonly fond of words like “pusillanimous” and “japery”). But the stodginess reveals how much soul-searching it must have taken to write this candid, reflective book.

For his entire life, Boot wanted to be a good soldier. Instead he’s now in his late 40s, waking up to the historical brutality of “white identity politics” (“I have had my consciousness raised,” he says) and incredulously wondering: “How could all these eminences that I had worked with, and respected, sell out their professed principles to support a president who could not tell Edmund Burke from Arleigh Burke?”

How indeed? And Arleigh who? The confident name-dropping (of an admiral in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, natch) is quintessential Boot, who describes himself as one of the “sophisticates” of the Republican Party.

There’s something refreshing about an elite conservative owning up to being an elite conservative. The closest that Ben Sasse comes to doing the same in his new book is a cryptic recollection about how, when he and his wife lived in Chicago, they “were fortunate to be able to make ends meet.” (He was working as a management consultant at the time.)

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BenSasse (B.A. from Harvard, Ph.D. from Yale) spends a great deal of “Them” honing his down-home credentials (Nascar, TGI Fridays). He emphasizes the importance of civil debate, denouncing Fox News and MSNBC, and laments the extreme partisanship that characterizes public life in the Trump era. But “the dysfunction in D.C.,” he says, stems from something “deeper than economics,” and “deeper and more meaningful” than politics. “What’s wrong with America, then, starts with one uncomfortable word,” he writes. “Loneliness.”

He shores up his argument by referring to scholars of social isolation like Robert Putnam and Eric Klinenberg — though the socially conscious Klinenberg (with his emphasis on the crucial role of publicly funded institutions) might find it hard to recognize the conclusions Sasse has drawn from his work. Community, Sasse says, is fostered by individual acts of charity and fellow-feeling; government does what it needs to do when it gets out of the way. “Citizens in a republic must cultivate humility,” he writes in a section titled “Civics 101.” It’s “the only way to preserve sufficient space for true community and for meaningful, beautiful human relationships.”

This is standard conservative stuff; a little cloying in the delivery, sure, but not shocking. After all, Sasse — who regularly boasts about having one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate — doesn’t have a responsibility to become a Democrat in the Trump era, much less satisfy Boot’s desire for a politician who can “make centrism sexy.” (I had to laugh before I cringed.) Even Sasse’s ability to sentimentalize “rootedness” in little communities in one breath and welcome the “uberization” of existing industries in the other can be chalked up to an old strain of techno-optimism among business-friendly conservatives.

What’s curious, then, is not so much the careful avoidance of politics — politicians are really good at this — but Sasse’s repeated assertions that political solutions are meaningless. “Ultimately, it’s not legislation we’re lacking,” he writes. Public servants like him “simply need to allow the space for communities of different belief and custom to flourish.” It’s a pretty idea, though anyone familiar with how “belief and custom” have long propped up local prejudices (Jim Crow being a glaring example) knows that there’s nothing simple about it.

Image result for Ben Sasse book

As he did in his previous book, “The Vanishing American Adult,” Sasse talks a lot about the importance of “meaningful work,” yet he has chosen to be a United States senator, spending five days a week away from his family back in Nebraska in order to do whatever it is he does in Washington — which is what? Apparently vote with Trump close to 90 percent of the time and help his party try to bulldoze health care legislation and tax cuts through Congress, keeping crucial details secret until the last minute — all the while writing a book that solemnly proclaims the necessity of respectful debate and “engaging ideological opponents.”

“Our occupation links us to other people and gives us an identity and a sense of meaning,” Sasse muses, before waxing lyrical about a bedbug exterminator. For all his paeans to other people’s jobs, you might begin to wonder what the senator makes of his own.

Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.

The Corrosion of Conservatism
Why I Left the Right
By Max Boot
260 pages. Liveright Publishing. $24.95.

Them
Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal
By Ben Sasse
272 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $28.99.

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Dismantle The G.O.P.? Or Just Look Past Politics?

The Ongoing Judge Brett Kavanaugh Saga


October 5, 2018

The US Supreme Court–The Ongoing Brett Kavanaugh Saga

“In this crucible of power politics, of bullying and posturing and rage, no one has been more severely tested than Judge Kavanaugh. If he believes himself innocent of sexual assault — if he is innocent of sexual assault — the test, to him, can only appear monstrous.

Yet unfair as the test might seem to the judge and his supporters, senators who want to preserve the credibility of the Supreme Court cannot now look away from the result: Judge Kavanaugh failed, decisively.”–The Editorial Board,

The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, as much as any development in the challenging era of Donald Trump, is testing America’s politicians and its civic institutions. Few, so far, have met the test.

Not Republican senators, who, after denying one president his legitimate authority to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court, are now rushing their own nominee through, uninterested in the truth, while weeping crocodile tears about other people’s partisanship.

Not Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who tainted the process by bringing forward damaging allegations against Judge Kavanaugh only at the last minute.

Not the F.B.I., which either of its own volition or because of constraints imposed by Republicans failed to interview many of the key witnesses who could speak to the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh. And not President Trump, to absolutely no one’s surprise.

In this crucible of power politics, of bullying and posturing and rage, no one has been more severely tested than Judge Kavanaugh. If he believes himself innocent of sexual assault — if he is innocent of sexual assault — the test, to him, can only appear monstrous.

Yet unfair as the test might seem to the judge and his supporters, senators who want to preserve the credibility of the Supreme Court cannot now look away from the result: Judge Kavanaugh failed, decisively.

How? First, he gave misleading answers under oath. Judges — particularly Supreme Court justices — must have, and be seen as having, unimpeachable integrity. The knuckleheaded mistakes of a young person — drinking too much, writing offensive things in a high school yearbook — should not in themselves be bars to high office. But deliberately misleading senators about them during a confirmation process has to be.

If Judge Kavanaugh will lie about small things, won’t he lie about big ones as well?Indeed he already has: During the course of his confirmation hearings, he claimed, implausibly, that he was not aware that files he received from a Senate staff member, some labeled “highly confidential” or “intel,” had been stolen from Democratic computers.

Even the small lies, of course, aren’t so small in context, since they relate to drinking or sex and thus prop up his choir-boy-who-indulged-now-and-then defense.

Second, confronted with the accusations against him, Judge Kavanaugh made recourse not to reason and methodical process, but to fury and the rawest partisanship. Judges — particularly Supreme Court justices — must strive to be, and be seen as, above politics.

As Judge Kavanaugh said in a 2015 speech, “to be a good judge and a good umpire, it’s important to have the proper demeanor.” He added: “To keep our emotions in check. To be calm amidst the storm. On the bench, to put it in the vernacular, don’t be a jerk.”Wise words. He wasn’t able to live by them when it mattered. At last week’s hearing, Judge Kavanaugh was a jerk. He spun dark visions of a Democratic conspiracy of vengeance against him. He yelled at Democratic senators, interrupted them frequently, refused to answer questions directly and, at one point, confronted Senator Amy Klobuchar, who had asked him whether he had ever blacked out from drinking.

“I don’t know,” Judge Kavanaugh sneered. “Have you?” This contempt came only moments after Ms. Klobuchar told Judge Kavanaugh about her father’s struggles with alcoholism.

Was Judge Kavanaugh truly out of control, in rage and pain, as he appeared, or had he calculated that a partisan attack would rally President Trump and Republican senators to his side, as it did? (We all know he was capable of a more temperate response to the accusations: He’d demonstrated that just a couple of nights earlier, in his interview with Fox News.) For purposes of Senate confirmation, it shouldn’t matter. Such a lack of self-control, or such open and radical partisanship, ought to be unacceptable in a judge.

And indeed, on Thursday, the retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by a Republican president, took the astonishing step of saying that Judge Kavanaugh’s performance before the Judiciary Committee should disqualify him from the court. “Senators should really pay attention to it,” he said.

Judges are human beings, not ideological blank slates, but the American legal system depends on their being fair and open-minded to all who come before them. Judge Kavanaugh failed to show that he can do this, or that he even would want to.

That’s a disappointment, but maybe not a surprise to anyone who knew of his life before he joined the bench. He was a fierce Republican warrior in some of the most politically charged battles of the past two decades — including the investigation that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, in which he sought to expose the most intimate details of Mr. Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. He also played a role in the most controversial policies of the George W. Bush administration, including the torture of detainees and warrantless wiretapping. (How much of a role we may never learn, since Senate Republicans still refuse to release more than 90 percent of the documents related to Judge Kavanaugh’s work in the Bush administration.)

While many of Judge Kavanaugh’s defenders leapt to exonerate him of sexual assault or excused his rage-bender as understandable, virtually no one has tried to deny his rank partisanship. Yet after last week’s testimony, how could any self-identified Democrat, or leftist, or sexual-assault victim, or anyone who is not identifiable as a Republican, expect to get a fair shake from a Justice Kavanaugh? If he is confirmed, that will pose a profound problem for the court.

It is quite a tribute to Christine Blasey Ford that she has presented the one image of dignity and calm in this howling maelstrom. Dr. Blasey testified last week that a drunken Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a 1982 party while they were in high school. Her testimony was credible, and the F.B.I. inquiry was too cursory to substantiate or discredit it. Judge Kavanaugh denies the accusations, and in a court of law — and, we hope, in his life as an American citizen — he is entitled to the presumption of innocence.

He is not, however, entitled to a seat on the Supreme Court. Republican senators have repeatedly said they respected Dr. Blasey and were sympathetic to her; but to vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh now is to declare that her accusations mean nothing.

Presidents have the prerogative to name Supreme Court justices who reflect their values and views of the Constitution. President Trump has no shortage of highly qualified, very conservative candidates to choose from, if he will look beyond this first, deeply compromised choice.

Some Republicans have warned that if Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination fails, no decent person will ever want to be put up for the Supreme Court again. This, like so much nonsense in recent weeks, is political hysteria. For starters, consider these seven names: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, John Roberts Jr., Samuel Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch.

All were seated on the court since 1991, the last time a Supreme Court nominee faced credible allegations of sexual misconduct. In that case, Clarence Thomas got the job, even in a Democratic-controlled Senate. Since then, not a single nominee has faced allegations of the sort leveled at Judge Kavanaugh.

The only failed nominations since 1991 both came at the hands of Republicans: President George W. Bush’s choice of Harriet Miers, who Republicans said was unqualified; and President Barack Obama’s pick of Merrick Garland, a respected federal judge whose only disqualification was being named by a Democrat. Republicans refused to even grant Judge Garland a hearing. Meanwhile, if Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court justices will have been chosen by Republican presidents, and the court has had a Republican-appointed majority for nearly half a century.

The Supreme Court, coequal with Congress and the White House, takes up the most important issues facing the country. Its rulings are often decided by a single vote, and they can affect the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans. Yet the source of the court’s power is not tangible. It holds neither the sword nor the purse, to paraphrase Alexander Hamilton. The court’s legitimacy is founded instead in an act of national faith, of confidence in the integrity and fairness of the justices. It is that confidence that ratifies the court’s decisions as the final word on American law.

That confidence has already been shaken. The court’s party-line vote in Bush v. Gore, which effectively decided the 2000 presidential election, led many Americans to wonder if the justices were nothing but politicians in robes. Sixteen years later, Republicans made the balance of the court more clearly a political prize by blocking Judge Garland.

This confirmation battle has been awful for everyone. It has exposed to the country a depth of partisan grievance and connivance within the Senate that should embarrass and worry every American. It is a terrible reality that, at this point, either confirmation or rejection of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination by a narrow and overwhelmingly partisan margin will dismay and anger millions of Americans. But only by voting no, by asking Mr. Trump to send someone else for it to consider, can the Senate pass its test of institutional character and meet its obligation to safeguard the credibility of the Supreme Court.

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A28 of the New York edition with the headline: A Test of Mr. Kavanaugh, and America. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Michael Lewis Makes a Story About Government Infrastructure Exciting


If someone had asked you a few weeks ago whether former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would ever be depicted as a beleaguered hero in a Michael Lewis book, it would have been reasonable to say the chances were low — lower, even, than Christie’s abysmal approval ratings when he left office earlier this year. Christie, after all, hasn’t done much to endear himself to the American public; early in 2016, his surprise endorsement of Donald J. Trump (who once called Christie a “little boy”) looked like the desperate move of a politician whose office was still smoldering from a payback scandal.

But it’s 2018 in America, where anything can happen and everything is relative, and the opening pages of Lewis’s new book, “The Fifth Risk,” have Christie acting like an upright statesman during the run-up to the 2016 election, hoping to convince a chaotic Trump campaign to devise an orderly transition plan in case of victory. Lewis says this was like trying to persaude Trump that he needed to study for a test he might never take. Christie was soon dismissed from Trump’s team, and the transition proceeded accordingly — which is to say, shambolically. Two years later, out of more than 700 key government positions requiring Senate confirmation, only 361 have been confirmed, and a full 152 have no nominee at all.

“Many of the problems our government grapples with aren’t particularly ideological,” Lewis writes, by way of moseying into what his book is about. He identifies these problems as the “enduring technical” variety, like stopping a virus or taking a census. Lewis is a supple and seductive storyteller, so you’ll be turning the pages as he recounts the (often surprising) experiences of amiable civil servants and enumerating risks one through four (an attack by North Korea, war with Iran, etc.) before you learn that the scary-sounding “fifth risk” of the title is — brace yourself — “project management.”

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CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

Lewis has a reputation for taking fairly arcane subjects — high finance, sovereign debt, baseball statistics, behavioral economics — and making them not just accessible but entertaining. He does the same here with government bureaucracy, though “The Fifth Risk” feels a little underdone compared to some of his previous books. Two of its three parts appeared as articles in Vanity Fair; the other as an audiobook original. Those pieces might have been written under deadline, but even with extra time to smooth things out, Lewis has elected to preserve some clunkers: Silence is still “deafening,” poverty still comes “in many flavors” and Lewis still decides “to kill two birds with one stone.”

 

For the most part, though, he keeps the narrative moving, rendering even the most abstruse details of government risk assessment in the clearest (and therefore most terrifying) terms. He asks a handful of former public servants, now living as private civilians, what they fear might happen if Trump continues his haphazard approach to staffing the federal government. Their answers include an accidental nuclear catastrophe and the privatization of public goods, like government loans and drinking water.

One danger to the proper functi


oning of federal agencies is a combination of incompetence and neglect. Lewis reports how the Trump team filled jobs at the Department of Agriculture with a number of decidedly nonagricultural nonexperts, including a country-club cabana attendant and the owner of a scented-candle company.

But this kind of bumbling patronage, according to Lewis, is only one part of the Trump method. The other involves bringing in what looks suspiciously like a wrecking crew. Trump has repeatedly placed essential agencies under the leadership of individuals who have previously called for the elimination of the same agency, or else a radical limit to its authority.

Take, for example, Barry Myers, Trump’s nominee for the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Myers also happens to be chief executive of AccuWeather, his family’s company. As a private citizen, Myers lobbied to prevent NOAA’s National Weather Service from having direct contact with the public, saying that “the government should get out of the forecasting business” — despite the fact that AccuWeather repackaged free government weather data and sold it for a profit.

 

With Myers in charge, Lewis says “the dystopic endgame is not difficult to predict: the day you get only the weather forecast you pay for.”

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Michael LewisCreditTabitha Soren

Lewis leavens all the doomsaying with some (darkly) funny bits. A woman astronaut recalls that male NASA technicians were so flummoxed by the prospect of menstruation in space that they offered her a kit of a hundred tampons for a short journey. The wrappers had been removed and the tampons sealed in little red cases, strung together in an “endless unfurling” that she likened to a “bad stage act.”

What Lewis doesn’t do is delve too deeply into politics, preferring instead to focus our attention on technical functions of government that everyone takes for granted. This tack will undoubtedly make the book more appealing to some of the government skeptics (i.e. conservatives) who are traditionally part of his enormous audience, but it also leaves the book with an analytical weakness. As Lewis’s narrow depiction of Christie inadvertently shows, technical know-how isn’t nearly enough. You can have a detailed understanding of the technocratic workings of government and still be, politically speaking, extremely unhelpful to the public you’re supposed to serve.

Lewis undoubtedly knows this, and as a storyteller he had to put limits somewhere. Besides, when the polar ice caps melt and the world is in flames, Democrat, Republican — none of that will matter anymore. Lewis himself seems to swing from civic optimism to abject nihilism, sometimes within the same perfect sentence. As he says about the imposing, brutalist building that houses the Department of Energy: “It will make an excellent ruin.”

Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.

The Fifth Risk
By Michael Lewis
221 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Dangers Nestled in Arcana. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper |

President Barack H. Obama’s Eulogy for Senator John McCain


September 2, 2018

President Obama’s Eulogy for Senator John Sidney McCain

Former President Barack Obama on Saturday delivered a eulogy on behalf of Senator John McCain at a ceremony at the National Cathedral attended by many of Washington’s top current and former lawmakers.

The following is a transcript of those remarks, as prepared by The New York Times.

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To John’s beloved family — Mrs. McCain; to Cindy and the McCain children, President and Mrs. Bush, President and Secretary Clinton; Vice President and Mrs. Biden; Vice President and Mrs. Cheney, Vice President Gore, and, as John would say, my friends:

We come to celebrate an extraordinary man – a warrior, a statesman, a patriot who embodied so much that is best in America.

President Bush and I are among the fortunate few who competed against John at the highest levels of politics. He made us better presidents. Just as he made the Senate better. Just as he made this country better. So for someone like John to ask you, while he’s still alive, to stand and speak of him when he’s gone, is a precious and singular honor.

Now, when John called me with that request earlier this year, I’ll admit sadness and also a certain surprise. But after our conversation ended, I realized how well it captured some of John’s essential qualities.

To start with, John liked being unpredictable, even a little contrarian. He had no interest in conforming to some prepackaged version of what a senator should be, and he didn’t want a memorial that was going to be prepackaged either.

It also showed John’s disdain for self-pity. He had been to hell and back, and he had somehow never lost his energy, or his optimism, or his zest for life. So cancer did not scare him, and he would maintain that buoyant spirit to very end, too stubborn to sit still, opinionated as ever, fiercely devoted to his friends and most of all, to his family.

It showed his irreverence – his sense of humor, little bit of a mischievous streak. After all, what better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience?

And most of all, it showed a largeness of spirit, an ability to see past differences in search of common ground. And in fact, on the surface, John and I could not have been more different. We’re of different generations. I came from a broken home and never knew my father; John was the scion of one of America’s most distinguished military families. I have a reputation for keeping cool; John — not so much. We were standard bearers of different American political traditions, and throughout my presidency, John never hesitated to tell me when he thought I was screwing up – which, by his calculation, was about once a day.

 

 

But for all our differences, for all the times we sparred, I never tried to hide, and I think John came to understand, the longstanding admiration that I had for him.

By his own account, John was a rebellious young man. In his case, that’s understandable – what faster way to distinguish yourself when you’re the son and grandson of admirals than to mutiny?

Eventually, though, he concluded that the only way to really make his mark on the world is to commit to something bigger than yourself. And for John, that meant answering the highest of callings – serving his country in a time of war.

Others this week and this morning have spoken to the depths of his torment, and the depths of his courage, there in the cells of Hanoi, when day after day, year after year, that youthful iron was tempered into steel. It brings to mind something that Hemingway wrote in the book that Meghan referred to, his favorite book:

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”

In captivity, John learned, in ways that few of us ever will, the meaning of those words – how each moment, each day, each choice is a test. And John McCain passed that test – again and again and again. And that’s why, when John spoke of virtues like service, and duty, it didn’t ring hollow. They weren’t just words to him. It was a truth that he had lived, and for which he was prepared to die. It forced even the most cynical to consider what were we doing for our country, what might we risk everything for.

Much has been said this week about what a maverick John was. Now, in fact, John was a pretty conservative guy. Trust me, I was on the receiving end of some of those votes. But he did understand that some principles transcend politics. That some values transcend party. He considered it part of his duty to uphold those principles and uphold those values.

John cared about the institutions of self-government – our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, rule of law and separation of powers, even the arcane rules and procedures of the Senate. He knew that, in a nation as big and boisterous and diverse as ours, those institutions, those rules, those norms are what bind us together and give shape and order to our common life, even when we disagree, especially when we disagree.

John believed in honest argument and hearing other views. He understood that if we get in the habit of bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our democracy will not work. That’s why he was willing to buck his own party at times, occasionally work across the aisle on campaign finance reform and immigration reform. That’s why he championed a free and independent press as vital to our democratic debate. And the fact that it earned him some good coverage didn’t hurt, either.

John understood, as JFK understood, as Ronald Reagan understood, that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is based not on our bloodline; not on what we look like, what our last names are. It’s not based on where our parents or grandparents came from, or how recently they arrived, but on adherence to a common creed: That all of us are created equal. Endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.

It’s been mentioned today, and we’ve seen footage this week of John pushing back against supporters who challenged my patriotism during the 2008 campaign. I was grateful, but I wasn’t surprised. As Joe Lieberman said, it was John’s instinct. I never saw John treat anyone differently because of their race, or religion, or gender. And I’m certain that in those moments that have been referred to during the campaign, he saw himself as defending America’s character, not just mine, for he considered it the imperative of every citizen who loves this country to treat all people fairly.

And finally, while John and I disagreed on all kinds of foreign policy issues, we stood together on America’s role as the one indispensable nation, believing that with great power and great blessings comes great responsibility. That burden is borne most heavily by our men and women in uniform – service members like Doug, Jimmy, and Jack, who followed in their father’s footsteps – as well as the families who serve alongside our troops. But John understood that our security and our influence was won not just by our military might, not just by our wealth, not just by our ability to bend others to our will, but from our capacity to inspire others, with our adherence to a set of universal values – like rule of law and human rights, and an insistence on the God-given dignity of every human being.

Of course, John was the first to tell us that he was not perfect. Like all of us who go into public service, he did have an ego. Like all of us, there were no doubt some votes he cast, some compromises he struck, some decisions he made that he wished he could have back. It’s no secret, it’s been mentioned that he had a temper, and when it flared up, it was a force of nature, a wonder to behold – his jaw grinding, his face reddening, his eyes boring a hole right through you. Not that I ever experienced it firsthand, mind you.

But to know John was to know that as quick as his passions might flare, he was just as quick to forgive and ask for forgiveness. He knew more than most his own flaws and his blind spots, and he knew how to laugh at himself. And that self-awareness made him all the more compelling.

We didn’t advertise it, but every so often over the course of my presidency, John would come over to the White House, and we’d just sit and talk in the Oval Office, just the two of us – we’d talk about policy and we’d talk about family and we’d talk about the state of our politics. And our disagreements didn’t go away during these private conversations. Those were real, and they were often deep. But we enjoyed the time we shared away from the bright lights. And we laughed with each other, and we learned from each other. We never doubted the other man’s sincerity or the other man’s patriotism, or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team. We never doubted we were on the same team.

 

For all of our differences, we shared a fidelity to the ideals for which generations of Americans have marched, and fought, and sacrificed, and given their lives. We considered our political battles a privilege, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those ideals here at home, and to do our best to advance them around the world. We saw this country as a place where anything is possible – and citizenship as an obligation to ensure it forever remains that way.

More than once during his career, John drew comparisons to Teddy Roosevelt. And I’m sure it’s been noted that Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” oration seems tailored to John. Most of you know it: Roosevelt speaks of those who strive, who dare to do great things, who sometimes win and sometimes come up short, but always relish a good fight – a contrast to those cold, timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Isn’t that the spirit we celebrate this week? That striving to be better, to do better, to be worthy of the great inheritance that our founders bestowed.

So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear.

John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.

“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that will ever come can depend on what you do today.”

What better way to honor John McCain’s life of service than, as best we can, follow his example?

To prove that the willingness to get in the arena and fight for this country is not reserved for the few, it is open to all of us, that in fact it’s demanded of all of us, as citizens of this great republic?

That’s perhaps how we honor him best – by recognizing that there are some things bigger than party, or ambition, or money, or fame or power. That there are some things that are worth risking everything for. Principles that are eternal. Truths that are abiding.

At his best, John showed us what that means. For that, we are all deeply in his debt.

May God bless John McCain, and may God bless this country he served so well.