An American Editor

October 19, 2011

Thinking About Presidents: The Election of 1948

One of the discussions that takes place in my household with some frequency revolves around the questions “who were our greatest presidents and why?” Over the years, Harry Truman has ranked among my top presidents. (I also admit that I love that classic photograph of Truman holiding the Chicago Daily Tribune newspaper with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”)

The issue is not do I agree or disagree with what a president did, but rather the impact of the president on the United States. I cannot imagine making the decision to drop the second atomic bomb after having witnessed the destruction of the first.

Truman was a leader in many ways. Barack Obama’s national health care plan got its first breath of life under Harry Truman. Just as today’s Republicans oppose Obama’s plan, the Republicans opposed Truman’s plan in the late 1940s.

Truman broke the ground on civil rights, too. When the Republican Congress refused to integrate the U.S. military, Truman did it by executive order.

Perhaps, most importantly, I think Truman saved the United States from a crisis that could have been as impacting as was our Civil War. General Douglas MacArthur was a World War II hero and commanded a lot of attention among GIs. In fact, MacArthur was put forth as a nominee for president in the 1948 election by those who were seeking anyone but Truman.

But MacArthur had an ego that was significantly larger than deserved or appropriate, with the result being that he instigated a constitutional crisis during the Korean War. At the time, MacArthur was much more popular than Truman, which helped lend credence to the crisis.

MacArthur was ordered not to cross the Yalu River. Truman was fearful that doing so would bring Russia into the war and potentially could lead to atomic war. Truman preferred to use a “containment strategy” that would limit the scope of the Korean War. Because MacArthur made it publicly clear that he disagreed with Truman’s strategy, Truman ordered MacArthur to clear his plans with Truman, an order he was entitled to give as commander-in-chief. MacArthur disobeyed  Truman’s order by privately communicating with Congress and disparaging Truman in those communications. Consequently, on April 11, 1951, Truman relieved MacArthur of his command.

This firing raised the issue of whether the military was subordinate to the president, something that was part of the American tradition of military-civil relations, but which was strained as a result of the firing. Truman’s firing and its subsequent confirmation by a congressional committee established to determine whether the firing by the president was lawful finally firmly established civilian and presidential superiority over the American military.

What brings all this to the table today? I just finished reading 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory by David Pietrusza. This is a well-written fascinating look at presidential politics of 1948.

Within months of winning the 1944 election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died and Harry Truman became president. Although Truman successfully completed World War II, albeit not without controversy largely over his use of the atomic bomb, he rapidly became a rejected-by-his-party president. In 1947-1948, the Democrats tried to convince Dwight Eisenhower to run as their candidate. Polls showed that no matter who ran against Truman, Truman would lose the 1948 election.

In the end, as we know, Truman won. Why he won makes for a fascinating story, especially as his Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, even on election day as ballots were being counted, was prognosticated to win the election handily. Surprisingly, it was Truman who won handily. The reasons were many, not least of which was that Americans liked Truman’s feistiness, which was in contrast to Dewey’s play-it-safe posture during the campaign.

Truman’s 1948 victory has lessons for Barack Obama. With the contempt that many prior supporters are showing for Obama, it is clear that Obama needs to do something if he wishes to resurrect himself and be reelected in 2012. He could do much worse than to read about Truman’s approach, especially as Truman faced greater opposition within his own party than Obama currently does.

Regardless, Pietrusza’s 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory is not only well-written, but it is one of the best edited books I have read in a long time (definitely 5-star) — at least the print version is; I did not buy the ebook version as I wanted this for my library. I have ordered The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election by Zacharay Karabell (2000) in hardcover and am planning on ordering Irwin Ross’s The Loneliest Campaign: The Truman Victory of 1948 (1968) so I can compare author insights into this fascinating election.

I highly recommend Pietrusza’s 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory for anyone interested in true life, come-from-behind, against-all-odds stories.

July 6, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (IX)

It seems as if it was only yesterday (it was a month ago) when I published On Today’s Bookshelf (VIII), but there has been no stopping my book acquisitions. My recent acquisitions include:

Hardcover —

  • Roosevelt’s Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party by Susan Dunn
  • The African American Experience During World War II by Neil A. Wynn
  • Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II by J. Todd Moye
  • Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House by Kenneth T. Walsh
  • Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang by John Ayto and John Simpson
  • Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial by H.L. Mencken (this is a paperback reprint of Mencken’s newspaper reports)
  • Hitler and America by Klaus P. Fischer

Several of the hardcover books I bought at Author’s Day, which was held at the FDR Library on June 18, 2011. The authors were invited by the Library to give a speech or reading and then autograph their books. The capstone event was a conversation between the historians Michael Beschloss and James MacGregor Burns.

ebooks —

  • In Her Name: Empire; Confederation; Final Battle; First Contact; and Legend of the Sword by Michael R. Hicks (see my review of this series: On Books: In Her Name)
  • Demon Lord by T.C. Southwell
  • Through a Dark Mist by Marsha Canham
  • Sacred Secrets, A Jacoby Ives Mystery by Linda S. Prather
  • Murder on the Mind by L.L Bartlett
  • Driftnet and Deadly Code by Lin Anderson
  • Stumbling Forward by Christopher Truscott
  • A Death in Beverly Hills by David Grace
  • Bake Sale Murder by Leslie Meirer
  • Blood Count and Londongrad by Reggie Nadelson
  • Durell’s Insurrection by Rodney Mountain
  • Impeding Justice by Mel Comley
  • Maid for Mayhem by Bridget Allison
  • Pilate’s Cross by J. Alexander
  • The American Language by H.L. Mencken
  • The Blue Light Project by Timothy Taylor
  • Who Killed Emmett Till by Susan Klopfer
  • Dying for Justice, Passions of the Dead, Secrets to Die For, and Thrilled to Death by L.J. Sellers (These are books 2 to 5 in the Detective Jackson Series; the first book, The Sex Club, was listed in an early On Today’s Bookshelf — see below)
  • Enemies and Playmates by Darcia Helle
  • Henrietta the Dragon Slayer by Beth Barany
  • Hostile Witness by Rebecca Forster
  • Oathen by Jasmine Giacomio
  • The Last Aliyah by Chris Hambleton
  • Too Near the Edge by Lynn Osterkamp

Most of the ebooks were gotten free, either that being the author-set price or as a result of an author promotion using a coupon code. After reading Michael Hick’s In Her Name: Empire, I decided I liked the book well enough to purchase the other 4 available volumes of the series — Confederation, Final Battle, First Contact, and Legend of the Sword (see my review of this series: On Books: In Her Name). I purchased Christopher Truscott’s Stumbling Forward on a recommendation from author Vicki Tyley, whose books I have reviewed previously (see On Books: Murder Down Under).

L.J. Seller’s Detective Jackson Series is an excellent mystery series. When I have finished reading the recently acquired books 2 to 5, I plan to review them. However, for anyone who is looking for a 5-star mystery series, this series fits the need. Currently, the author is offering the books at a discounted price of 99¢ each (be sure to scroll down the page to the discounted price); the normal price is $3.19 each. If you like mysteries/police procedurals, you won’t go wrong buying them before I review them.

For those interested, Smashwords is having a major sale, their July Summer/Winter Sale, with authors offering their books at discount s of 25% to 100%. The sale runs through July 31, 2011. It is a good time to buy indie books and get introduced to some new authors.

October 25, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (VI)

My book buying has been a bit slow since the last On Today’s Bookshelf. I’ve been trying to get through my to-be-read (TBR) pile, especially my ebook TBR pile, which is much too large, nearly 250 ebooks. But that hasn’t wholly stopped me from buying new books to read — someday (it’s an addiction).

New hardcovers, including those on order, include:

  • Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews by Peter Longerich
  • Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
  • Decision Points by George W. Bush
  • Above His Proper Station by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • Empress of Eternity by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • EPUB: Straight to the Point by Elizabeth Castro
  • Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

New ebooks include:

  • The 7th Victim by Alan Jacobson
  • The Novice and The High Lord (2 books) by Trudi Canavan
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Crown Conspiracy by Michael Sullivan
  • Tales from the Green Book One: The Magic Flute and Book Two: The Wizard’s Tome by S.D. Best
  • The Kinshield Legacy by K.C. May
  • Sleight Malice by Vicki Tyley
  • The Sword and the Dragon by M.R. Mathias
  • Call of the Herald, Inherited Danger, and Dragon Ore (trilogy) by Brian Rathbone
  • The Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

Last week I finished Brian Rathbones’s trilogy, Call of the Herald, Inherited Danger, and Dragon Ore. With the first book being free and the second and third being 99¢ each (available at Smashwords), it is hard to complain about the books. In fact, there isn’t much to complain about as regards these books. The biggest problem is that the characters are single dimension. Unlike what I believe to be the gold standard for self-published novels, the Promises to Keep quartet (see, e.g., On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept), where the characters are such that they drew me into their lives, Rathbone’s characters have some interesting characteristics, but don’t rise to the level of my much caring about them one way or another.

On the other hand, the characterizations are not so terrible that I wouldn’t recommend the books, especially at the price (truthfully, however, if the books were $2.99 each, I wouldn’t recommend them at all). Out of 5 stars, I would give the trilogy 3.5 stars; but I have to reiterate that a significant factor in that rating is the pricing of the books — should the pricing go up, the rating would go down.

The story is interesting, albeit not compelling, and devoid of many of the spelling and grammar mistakes that are much too often seen in self-published novels. It is not to say there are no errors, just that the errors are few and are not distracting; they didn’t make me pause to decipher what the author intended. For a quick read at a very reasonable price, you can’t go too far wrong with this trilogy.

In a previous On Today’s Bookshelf (IV), I listed Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century by Ruth Harris as a recent hardcover acquisition. I finally started reading it, and even though I am not yet finished with the book — I’m about two-thirds done — I can recommend it to anyone interested in the Dreyfus Affair or its surrounding events.

Dreyfus is well written and a fascinating read. Unlike many of the books I have read on the topic, Dreyfus delves into the emotional and cultural aspects of the affair. For example, Harris notes that many of the key characters were all Alsatians, and thus bonded by the same “tragedy,” which was Germany’s taking over of Alsace after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Each of these Alsatians, including Dreyfus, left their homeland and chose to become French citizens and joined the French military in hopes of someday regaining Alsace for France.

Harris explores what is really a fascinating question about the Dreyfus Affair: Why did so many of the foremost writers and philosophers and current and future French leaders become so involved in what appeared on the surface to be a proper carriage of justice applied to a junior military officer? The Dreyfus Affair occupied these people and the news for nearly a decade, yet Dreyfus was an insignificant person in the military scheme of things and an officer who was not all that well liked by his colleagues.

Harris also explores why so many of the anti-Dreyfusards continued to persist in their efforts to have the Dreyfus decision upheld even after it was exposed that the evidence was faked.

The Dreyfus Affair caused families to split — some members becoming Dreyfusards and some becoming anti-Dreyfusards — in bitterness, brought what had been a declining overt antisemitism back in full force, and nearly triggered a coup d’etat in the young French Republic. It was a story that was followed by the European and American press.

I think that if were to recommend just one book about the Dreyfus Affair, this would be that book. Harris does explore the Affair itself, as well as all the machinations that went on the periphery. What at first seemed to be an internal military affair, soon became the cause of the era. I find that it still captivates today and still has lessons to be learned by the world today.

August 16, 2010

75 Years of Success: Happy Birthday!

Yes, it is 75 years this month since the birth of Social Security, one of America’s most successful social program.

Yesterday, my wife and I went to the home and presidential library of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park, NY, to view the opening exhibit in the museum celebrating 75 years of Social Security. It is an excellent exhibit, as is FDR’s home. A visit to the FDR presidential library and museum is to transport one back to the days of desperate struggle and to discovery of how the charisma of one man and his equally charismatic wife — and their concern for the average American — lead a country from despair to recovery.

Aside from what we learned about the birth of Social Security, we did pick up a few tidbits of presidential history. FDR’s presidential library was the first presidential library and is the only library that was used by a sitting president (it was opened in 1941 and FDR had an office in it that he used).

The house and estate land were owned by FDR’s mother. She died in September 1941 and FDR wore a black armband in memory of his mother. Americans thought, however, that he wore the armband in memory of Pearl Harbor, which took place 3 months later. The house is the house in which FDR was born, grew up, and raised his family. When he died, he willed the house to the National Parks Service, but gave his wife Eleanor, and his children, life estates in the property. Eleanor and the children all agreed to immediately turn the house over to the NPS. When asked about the speed with which she gave up the house, her response was to the effect that the house was Sara Delano Roosevelt (FDR’s mother) and FDR’s house, not her house. (This was borne out by FDR’s refusal to let Eleanor change anything in the house that his mother had done.)

Although there are a lot of rooms (35) and bathrooms (9) in the house, the house is really quite modest and lacks the grandeur that is evident in the Vanderbilt summer house just down the road. There was no room at the home for Secret Service to stay, so they were lodged at the Vanderbilt Mansion, which was also owned by the Park Service.

The Social Security exhibit is a reminder of how desperate lives were in the mid-20th century. Few people had pensions (less than 20% of workers) and most had to live off savings, which were wiped out with the bank failures of the Depression years. The letters written to the Roosevelts are poignant and heart-breaking.

When Social Security was established, it did not cover all Americans. In order to get the necessary votes to pass the legislation, certain classes of workers were excluded, including agricultural workers, most of whom were minorities. Even so, the legislation was challenged in the courts and it was a 5-4 Supreme Court decision (reminiscient of decisions today) that finally affirmed Social Security.

Today, Social Security serves as the safety net for many American workers. In the recession of the past few years, absent Social Security many Americans would starve.

As I left the grounds of FDR’s home, I remarked to my wife that here is an example of the fundamental difference between Democrat and Republican administrations: Democrats prefer to tinker to make things, hopefully, better for all citizens, whereas Republicans prefer to encourage people to stand up for themselves, hopefully to make things better for the individual. Each is right at times, but each is wrong at times. It is knowing when one is right and when one is wrong that is difficult.

Roosevelt gave us Social Security (and the first woman cabinet member who was also responsible for Social Security, Frances Perkins); Truman integrated the armed forces; Eisenhower gave us the interstate highway system, which propelled economic growth; Johnson gave us social equality; Nixon made us a true world player.

Alas, it seems that the greatness of immediate postwar presidents has declined. More recent presidents have been less visionary and more partisan, and perhaps less good for America as a whole. After seeing the exhibit, I have no doubt that politics were as partisan then as they are today. The difference was the leadership qualities and abilities of the president, the ability to transcend partisanship.

Americans should renew their faith in America by visiting the FDR library and museum. FDR brought us a new world, one that still benefits Americans 75 years later. Happy birthday, Social Security!

May 24, 2010

Viewing the Future of Publishing

Sometimes all the discussion that can be had about publishing’s future can be boiled down to a few minutes of video.

Although humorous, the video does illustrate the confused state of publishing. No one knows how to accommodate all  the different needs that each of the characters in the video represent.

What is clear, however, is that none of the pundits, none of the publishers, none of the technologists — no one — has a clear vision of tomorrow’s publishing landscape. Some commentators predict that ebooks will soon be 25% of all publishing; others predict it will soon be 50%. But those predictions are really unhelpful without a plan for maintaining publishing standards while moving to a more standardless medium.

Everyone says that publishers need to adapt and change. Easy enough to proclaim, but without firmer guidance as to what adaptation is needed, what changes to the industry must be accomplished, and how all the various competing interests  can be reconciled, the pronouncement is like spitting into the wind.

Before the ease of computer-to-Internet ebook publishing, the book market was inundated with new books, many of which could be classified as a waste of time, effort, money, and paper primarily because finding a particular book (without guidance to the book) was like finding a needle in a haystack of needles. Too many books were being published for any person to rummage through. Now the problem is compounded as the number of books brought to market has quadrupled with ebooks and the direct-from-computer-to-Internet model — and it will continue to grow, because with ebooks, there is no need for any book to go “out of print.” Now it is like looking for a sliver of a needle in a haystack of needles.

The one thing no one wants to hear is that the more books that are available, the fewer will be read and the less valuable books become. In the marketplace, it is scarcity that causes prices to rise, not abundance. It is true that marketplace forces have had little effect in list pricing of books before the Age of eBooks, but there was definitely an effect on actual selling pricing — at least until agency pricing. And it has been true that certain authors could lead a price increase that “trickled down” to books of all authors, but this required that the certain authors were authors of such repute that they were instant million sellers.

Alas, this is all changing under the new regime. As difficult as it was to find financial gems among 250,000 books published traditionally in 2009, imagine how much more difficult it will be to find those gems among 1 million plus books, especially as that 1 million grows to 2 million and more in the Age of eBooks.

With such increases in numbers of books available, the only way to get one’s needle to be seen in the haystack of needles will be price. Consequently, ebooks will lead the spiral of pricing downward. As that happens and as there is less money to divide among multiple parties, there will be lots of negative effects on the publishing industry:

  • a publisher who can only sell an ebook for $2.99 (or less) will be unwilling — if not unable — to spend money on production and marketing, thereby gradually eliminating the publisher’s role altogether, which will make a chaotic market even more chaotic
  • an author who has to sell his or her work for $2.99 (or less) has to rethink the whole artistic endeavor and has to consider 100% self-publishing as the only viable way to earn a return
  • such pricing and self-publishing will also put downward pressure on production quality, even more corners will be cut by necessity than are currently cut, leading to a downward trend in quality
  • readers will continue to exert a downward pressure on pricing because readers are, for the most part, author agnostic; that is, they are less interested in who the author is than in a story they enjoy, the consequence being that they will look for lower-priced ebooks to try
  • third-party book producers — the editors, the marketers, the printers, the designers, etc. — will struggle to keep afloat in a world that wants to pay less for fewer of their services, adding to the overall decline in quality

The future of publishing — once we get past the notion of quantity and instead focus on the notion of quality — as a structured enterprise appears bleak in the eBook Age. I, for one, have difficulty imagining a survivable structure focused on quality in the absence of an easing of pressure on pricing. Consequently, I am like the other pundits — I know that there has to be adaptation and change, but I can offer no guidance on how to accomplish either, not even for my role in the production process. Will historians of the future look at the 20th century as the epitome of publishing?

April 9, 2010

On Words: Jim Crow

Last week I came across Jim Crow in two different magazines: the first was in the current issue of American Heritage and then in the current week’s The Economist. Jim Crow is not an unknown or rarely used term. It is commonly found in American history books dealing with slavery and segregation and is found in magazine articles discussing segregation, the civil rights movement, and the history of racism. I understand what it means (systematic discrimination against and segregation of blacks, especially as practiced in the southern United States after the Civil War and until the mid to late 20th century) and that it is an epithet reserved for the racial group being discriminated against. But I never knew its origins.

Jim Crow was the stage name of a black minstrel character in a popular song and dance act performed by Thomas Rice about 1835. Rice was known as the “father of American minstrelsy.” Following Rice, other performers performed the Jim Crow character.

The song on which Rice’s act was based first appeared in an 1828 play called Jim Crow. The play’s song had the refrain “My name’s Jim Crow, Weel about, and turn about, And do jis so.” Rice’s version used the refrain “Wheel about and turn about and jump Jim Crow.” The song was so popular that newspapers and reviews in the 19th century often referred to it; for example, the Boston Transcript (March 25, 1840) wrote: “Tell ’em to play Jim Crow!” In 1926, the New York Times (December 26) wrote: “From ‘Old Jim Crow’ to ‘Black Bottom,’ the negro dances come from the Cotton Belt, the levee, the Mississippi River, and are African in inspiration.” The 1849 Howe Glee Book stated: “Toe and heel and away we go. Ah, what a delight it is to know De fancy Jim Crow Polka.”

Perhaps the musical origins were not innocent, but they did not carry the malice of subsequent uses, particularly as Jim Crow was used following Reconstruction after the Civil War.

The first recorded use of the word crow in its derogatory sense was by James Fenimore Cooper in his 1823 book The Pioneers, in which he used crow as a derogatory term for a black man.

One of the earliest uses of Jim Crow as a derogatory term not associated with the song or the minstrel act, was in 1838, when “Uncle Sam” in Bentley’s Miscellany wrote: “Don’t be standing there like the wooden Jim Crow at the blacking maker’s store.” And one of the earliest direct, no mistake about, uses of Jim Crow as a racist term was in the Playfair Papers (1841): “A portmanteau and carpet bag…were snatched up by one of the hundreds of nigger-porters, or Jim Crows, who swarm at the many landing-places to help passengers.” In 1842, Jim Crow car meant a railroad car designated for blacks. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), wrote: “I thought she was rather a funny specimen in the Jim Crow line.”

But Jim Crow as a political term came into its own following Reconstruction. The Nation of March 17, 1904, reported that “Writing of the ‘Jim Crow’ bills now before the Maryland Legislature, the Cardinal expressed his strong opposition.” Two months later, the Richmond Times-Dispatch (May 25, 1904) reported: “The Norfolk and Southern Railroad was fined $300 to-day for violating the ‘Jim Crow’ law by allowing negroes to ride in the same car with whites.” The previous year, the New York Sun (November 29, 1903) reported that “The members of the committee have arranged with the parents of negro children to send them all to the Jim Crow school, thus entirely separating the white and negro pupils.”

The New World (1943) discussed Jim Crowism: “Negro soldiers had suffered all forms of Jim Crow, humiliation, discrimination, slander, and even violence at the hands of the white civilian population.” Time reported in 1948 (December 13) that “The Federal Council…went on record as opposing Jim Crow in any form.” And in what became a prescient statement, the Daily Ardmoreite of Ardmore, Oklahaoma, wrote on January 22, 1948: “What they call a ‘Jim Crow’ school cannot meet the federal court’s requirements for equality under the 14th amendment.” This was subsequently confirmed in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many more examples are available of Jim Crow and its morphing from a popular song to a derogatory term. No history of the word can take away the harm and the hurt Jim Crowism inflicted on innocent people. Even today Jim Crow remains a blight on the reputation of the South. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that Jim Crow began its death spiral. As each year passes, Jim Crow increasingly becomes a relic of history — where Jim Crowism belongs.

March 31, 2010

On Books: The Death of American Virtue

As I have written in earlier posts, I like to read nonfiction history. As is true of many readers, I have subject area interests, some broad, some narrow. For example, I am interested in antisemitism as a broad topic and more narrowly the Alfred Dreyfus Affair that rocked late 19th century France. I am interested in World War II, mainly the European theater, but more narrowly on the Nazis and the Third Reich and its antisemitic and genocidal behavior. I am not much interested in the FDR presidency (surprising, I suppose, since I live near his presidential library) except for his failed attempt to pack the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937. I am also very interested in the history of slavery and the American Civil Rights movement.

But one thing that has fascinated me is the impeachment process. I guess my interest was first aroused listening to the Watergate hearings and Senator Sam Ervin. I was appalled by the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon’s attempt to quash the investigation — America is not supposed to work that way — and pleased with how the independent counsels approached our constitutional crisis, displaying both a sense of fairness and justice along with a regard for history. I thought I was living in rare times, witnessing events not seen since Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and unlikely to be seen again in my lifetime. I didn’t know how wrong I was.

Twenty-five years later history was to repeat itself in the form of William Jefferson Clinton. But this time, things were different.

Today many of us are appalled at the partisanship displayed by elected officials. Even at my local county level, the partisanship is appalling — and it gets worse as each day passes. This partisanship, I think, is one of the lasting legacies of the Reagan presidency. I think Reagan gave birth to the divide and subsequently elected presidents and congressman have consciously worked at making it worse, not better.

Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr is an excellent telling, in neutral terms, of one of the major political divides and one of the foundational pillars of our current partisanship. I found the story and the writing compelling; I had great difficulty in putting the book down for the night.

Let me say upfront that I was one of many Americans who thought Clinton’s impeachment was wrong. My view, like that of many fellow citizens, was that lying about sex between consenting adults is simply not an impeachable offense. I saw the process simply as wasting taxpayer dollars in an attempt by the right to remove a president who was too far left for their liking. Had the president had sex with a child (i.e., someone not older than 21) or with a spy for another country, then impeachment would be proper; but sex with a 24-year-old consenting adult who was not a spy and was not promised a job was none of my business. Like many Americans, I wasn’t interested in what was to me a family problem. I had little respect for Ken Starr and the Office of Independent Counsel. All I saw was a rigid moralist who was out to get a left-leaning president any way he could.

Gormley’s book provides a more balanced and nuanced perspective. Although my overall opinion hasn’t changed, I better understand the dynamics between the parties. Gormley interviewed nearly all of the key players in the investigation and impeachment, including, Clinton, Starr, Tripp, and Lewinsky. What comes out is that the investigation was a tragic comedy of errors. Probably the most important revelation is how Ken Starr, a well-respected judge and lawyer, was such a mismatch for this investigation.

The tragedy begins with Paula Jones. What started as a minor diversion that would not have amounted to anything had the accused been anyone but the president, soon escalated with the help of “elves” — conservative lawyers who began pushing Jones, seeing her lawsuit as a vehicle to get Clinton, but pushing and aiding in the background, never coming to forefront. Jones began with high motives, but soon got sidetracked as her husband kept pushing her, making increasingly impossible demands of Clinton and finally quashing a settlement.

The investigators had their own problems. Starr was involved in the Jones case, albeit peripherally, but failed to disclose his involvement when offered the post of independent counsel. Starr also had poor management skills, preferring to manage by consensus rather than exercise his own judgement, leading the stronger-willed, more conservative attorneys to become the decision makers and pushing their own anti-Clinton agenda.

The real victim in this fiasco was Monica Lewinsky. She was abused by everyone: by her best friend, Linda Tripp, who surreptitiously tape recorded conversations with her; by Clinton, who took advantage of a woman who thought she was in love with him; by Star and his staff, who braced her repeatedly and denied her requests for a lawyer and who threatened and coerced her mother and father as a means of putting pressure on her; by one of her attorneys, whose methodology didn’t protect her; and by the judges, who should have supervised more closely and not promoted their own agendas.

American virtue began its death march in the Reagan administration (Iran Contra being but one example), but it had its full outing in the Clinton impeachment. Ken Gromley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr adds perspective to the events that led to the constitutional crisis of the late 1990s. This is a book that every American should read, regardless of whether they believe Clinton should have been impeached or not, because it is the story of a system run amuck, the story of what happens when politics is more important than the American people whom the politicians ostensibly serve, and because it is a warning about our current state of partisanship — the destruction it could lead to if allowed to continue along its current path.

Well written, informative, and important are the words that describe The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, perhaps the most important book on recent American history published in recent years.

March 17, 2010

Worth Noting: C-SPAN Video Library

I do not watch TV and rarely watch videos on my computer but when I saw C-SPAN’s advertisement in today’s New York Times, I thought I might start to occasionally watch a replay of history. C-SPAN is making hundreds of thousands of hours of its past broadcasts available for free in its video library, which can be found here.

This is quite timely for me. The last time I sat in front of the TV to watch anything for more than a minute or two was the Clinton impeachment proceedings in the House and Senate. I was fascinated by the historic proceedings, and still am. As it happens, I have started reading Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, which is a well-written, fascinating replay of the conflict between Clinton and Starr (which I will review when I have finished the book), so C-SPAN’s making available the videos of the proceedings will add to my enjoyment of the book.

Although a bit off topic, let me say this: If Crown, the publisher, had been smart (and there is still hope), this book begs for enhanced ebook and pbook versions. I would gladly have paid twice, maybe even thrice the price for the book if it had included a DVD of the proceedings, perhaps even commentary by some of the key players on the proceedings. This is an example of where enhancements would be well worthwhile.

March 3, 2010

On Words: Dada

I’m not much of an artist — in fact, my art skills are less than those of the average kindergartener — but my wife is a fantastic painter. Whereas I am the consummate less-than-amateur painter, she is a professional of the highest caliber, her work and skill having been compared to that of John Constable.

My knowledge of art and art history begins and ends with the super-well-known artists like Da Vinci, Degas, Picasso, Monet, Remington, Homer, O’Keefe, and the like. I know their names, perhaps a piece or two, and whether I like their style or not, but don’t ask me to identify the period to which they belonged (Was she a classicist? Was he a dadaist?). My college art appreciation class was almost 50 years ago.

So when I read in a magazine a reference to dadaism, I had to run to my dictionary and find out what was meant. Unlike a lot of people, I admit to having a dictionary handy when I read, and to owning and using multiple dictionaries. (There is nothing more thrilling to an editor to discover that leading dictionaries don’t agree on a spelling. Imagine the hours of debate that can fill! :))

The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.), tells me that dada was a European artistic and literary movement of the early 20th century that produced work “marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity.” I admit to being a bit perplexed — what does it mean to be “marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity” — but it’s a start. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) tells me that the movement was based on “deliberate irrationality and negation of traditional artistic values” — sounds like a James Joyce novel, doesn’t it? Interestingly, American Heritage tells me that both Dada and dada are correct, whereas Merriam-Webster only permits Dada. At least they both agree it is a noun.

Alright (another dispute in the making between my dictionaries and usage books, which was discussed in On Words: Alright and All Right), I still don’t really know what makes a work identifiable as part of the dada movement (which was short-lived, 1916-1923), but at least I now know what dada means.

Dada is the French word for hobbyhorse, a child’s toy. (As I recall from when my children were infants, dada is also “baby talk” for daddy. Perhaps children are smarter than we think — dada = daddy = child’s toy?) So how did its use come about for an art movement? I don’t have a clear answer but I did learn this much.

The term was borrowed from the title of a literary periodical, être sur son dada, founded in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916 by Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet, and Hans Arp, a French poet and artist, who chose the name for its nonsensical sound and meaning. The movement was a reaction to the horrors of World War I, reflecting disillusionment with society. Dadaism attempted to undermine art itself by rejecting contemporary values. It was a nihilistic movement that sought to negate the accepted laws of beauty.

The movement’s founders were exiled poets, painters, and philosophers who were opposed to war, aggression, and the changing world culture.  Founders included Marcel Janco, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Tristan Tzara. By 1924, the Paris dada movement had morphed into surrealism.

As an anti movement, the choice of a nonsensical name seems appropriate. Today, when we call a contemporary a dadaist, we mean our contemporary is anti Western values and is nonsensical, unless, of course, we are referring to the dadaist movement of the early 20th century. Perhaps dada is an appropriate appellation for dysfunctional politicians and legislatures, too.

February 22, 2010

Can eBooks Save American Education?

On February 14, in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article titled “How Christian Were the Founders?”, the question of what control people with personal agendas have over what elementary and secondary school students are taught. The article reminded me of a book I read several years ago, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn by Diane Ravitch (2004), which addressed the same issue.

What bothers me most about what is happening before the Texas State Board of Education, which is the focus of both the article and the book, is that whatever decisions the TSBE make will affect the education not only of Texas students, but of students in 46 other states. I don’t care if Texas wants to dumb-down its student population, but it bothers me that it wants to drag down the rest country along with it.

The problem, yet again, lies with book publishers. Because Texas has a centralized textbook purchasing procedure, it has clout in the textbook market, and publishers kowtow to its demands. Understandably from a financial perspective, publishers don’t want to be excluded from Texas’ $22 billion dollar expenditure on textbooks (some 48 million textbooks each year), but from an ethical/moral perspective, the publishers are contributing to America’s decline in exchange for the almighty dollar.

In past years the problem was nearly insolvable. But now things have changed — or they should be changing — and ebook textbooks can be the answer. With today’s technology, there is no reason why publishers can’t create a pick-and-choose menu for school districts. Instead of printing millions of textbooks and locking knowledge in shackles for the next 10 years (the lifespan of the Texas review decisions), publishers could both reduce textbook costs and allow each state and/or school district to create custom books for local courses.

If Texas and Kansas want to teach that the world is flat, while New York and California want to teach that the world is round, customized textbooks would let them do so. In the expansion of fact over fiction, ebooks can play a role in saving America from total educational collapse.

And think about how much money local school districts could save. It should be less expensive for schools to provide ebooks as course textbooks; in fact, it probably would be cost-effective for several school districts in a state to band together to build their own etextbooks than what is currently being spent on printed books that are not as focused on local needs.

The shame of the publishing industry is that it focuses intensely on profit, with lackadaisical attention paid to insuring that American students are truly well equipped to meet future challenges. Declines in academic scores illustrate the problems that publishers, by permitting themselves to be suborned by agenda-driven groups, are perpetuating and making worse. Publishers should exercise an ethical judgment and refuse to continue down that path.

eTextbooks will make it easy to break the stranglehold pressure groups exert over the textbook market. the questions are: Will textbook publishers go the etextbook route or stick with print? Will schools adopt etextbooks?

Actually, if I were younger I think I would consider entering the etextbook creation market. This is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to break the grip of the major coursebook publishers. And California seems intent on helping with its open source textbook plan. If more states followed California’s example and moved to open source etextbooks, we might see a smartening up rather than a dumbing down of students because there would be no reason why etextbooks couldn’t be customized not only for the local school district, but for the individual classroom or even the individual student.

Perhaps the future of education isn’t as bleak as it appears today. Perhaps the future will include enhanced, customized instruction that enables each student in a classroom to learn at his or her own pace and depth. But most important, perhaps the etextbook world of the future will prevent a whole nation from succumbing to the agenda of a few who would reverse the course of knowledge, taking us back to a medieval time. Certainly, as Macmillan is demonstrating with its DynamicBooks at the college level, the technology is available; now there only needs to be the will.

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