Blind Ambition

The Book of the Week is “Blind Ambition, The White House Years” by John Dean, published in 1976.

Investigations of politicians accused of wrongdoing at the highest level of the U.S. government, are complicated, because officials must at least make a pretense of complying with due process.

There is document gathering and analysis, subpoenas that compel witnesses to testify, endless debates on various interpretations of various sources of laws pertaining to the federal government, etc.; not to mention the most important aspect of the whole kit and caboodle: public relations! Plus, nowadays, the media and social media keep the constant barrage of inane comments coming.

In fact, there ought to be a board game, “Survival Roulette” that tests players’ ability to weasel out of legal trouble through shaping public opinion using claques, flacks, sycophants and attorneys.

Of course, Survival Roulette could be tailored to the Nixon White House; it could be the Politician Edition. The game could be structured like Monopoly, with players rolling dice and moving pieces onto spaces that describe financial crimes, illegal-surveillance crimes and damage-control speeches. The most famous space could be “Go To Jail” and there could also be “Cash In Political Favors.” The ultimate winner could be Rich Little.

In the Tabloid Celebrity Edition, the object of the game is to become the ultimate winner, Marc Rich. Other players (the losers) end up as other notorious figures who face different punishment scenarios: Jimmy Hoffa, Jeffrey Epstein, O.J., Bernie Madoff, Bill Cosby and Martha Stewart. The board spaces could describe financial crimes, sex crimes, violent crimes, and social media postings.

The Teenage Edition could feature more recent celebrities– simply spreading vicious rumors about them, rather than confirmed offenses– like in the case of Dakota Fanning.

In Survival Roulette: Politician Edition, John Dean could be one of the worse losers. He was one of various attorneys and consultants who: a) aided and abetted President Richard Nixon’s nefarious attempts to wreak vengeance on his political enemies (whom Nixon believed were revolutionaries and anarchists who used dirty tricks on him in the 1968 presidential election) and b) help Nixon keep his job as president (which Nixon believed was to play God).

In the summer of 1970, Dean’s career took a leap from the Justice Department up to the President’s side, as one of his legal advisors. He thought of his new department as a law firm, so he solicited legal work in all practice areas to make it grow; it did, to five people.

Dean quickly began to feel uneasy about his new position, even though it carried luxurious perks. The White House was fraught with politically incorrect goings-on. There was friction with various federal agencies, such as the FBI.

The FBI was dominated by J. Edgar Hoover, whom it was thought, possessed the means to blackmail the administration. He supposedly had evidence that the president had ordered the secret wiretapping of both the media and leakers on his staff.

As became well known, such wiretapping turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. Nixon recorded himself— every conversation he ever had in the White House! He had listening devices planted to spy on protestors against the Vietnam War, and his other political enemies, which appeared to be almost infinite in number.

Nowadays, the equivalent would be a “loose cannon” with hubris syndrome, addicted to: Tweeting / posting on Facebook but keeping a private profile / texting and emailing, who didn’t destroy his electronic devices.

In July 1971, Dean encountered his first major ethical conflict. He felt obligated to appeal to presidential aide John Ehrlichman to restrain Special Counsel Chuck Colson from orchestrating a break-in to steal Pentagon-Papers documents at the offices of the Brookings Institution. Nonetheless, Dean did sic the IRS on Brookings, and suggested that its contracts with the Nixon administration be cancelled.

Dean got so caught up in the excitement of helping the president get reelected in 1972 that he proposed expanding the collection of intelligence, which was already sizable. Yet he was also disturbed by reelection-committee director G. Gordon Liddy’s crazy plots to steal the 1972 election via burglary, spying, kidnapping, etc.

Dean attempted to remain willfully ignorant of Liddy’s actions thereafter so that he would have the defense of plausible denial in the future. However, after the Watergate break-in June 1972, he rationalized that he was protected by the attorney-client relationship and executive privilege.

One meta-illegality of the coverup of the administration’s various, serious crimes involved the distribution of hush money to hundreds of people who knew too much. By the late summer of 1972, seven individuals were found to have committed the Watergate break-in. Nixon basically said in his communications to the world that those perpetrators were the only ones responsible for that incident, which he claimed was an isolated one. Of course it wasn’t.

The president’s men held their breaths and crossed their fingers counting down to re-election day, as the White House was still the target of inquiries, and a party to legal skirmishes with the FBI, Department of Justice, Congress, the General Accounting Office and journalists. Immediately after election day, Nixon ordered a Stalin-style purge (merely job termination, actually) of all sub-Cabinet officers he had previously appointed.

As the palace intrigue continued into late 1972, Dean, through his own research, learned that he himself could be criminally liable for obstruction of justice. He would inevitably be forced to choose between betraying his colleagues (who hadn’t been all that friendly to him) or perjuring himself to save others insofar as it helped save his own hide.

A true “prisoner’s dilemma” existed among the several indicted bad actors. No one would receive immunity for tattling on the others, but no one knew of any deals made with prosecutors except their own.

Dean wrote of early spring of 1973: “He [Nixon] is posturing himself, I thought– always placing his own role in an innocuous perspective and seeking my agreement… The White House was taking advantage of its power, and betting that millions of people did not wish to believe a man who called the president a liar.”

Read the book to learn the details.

The Code

The Book of the Week is “The Code, The Evolution of Secrecy From Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography” by Simon Singh, published in 1999. This book described a few different contexts in which communications needed to be deciphered or kept secret– in war, in determining whether to execute a queen, in learning about life in ancient Egypt and Greece, and in electronic exchanges to prevent theft of identity or assets, or maintain privacy.

The author related not only the details of how the WWII Allies were able to outwit the Germans by learning what they were doing, but also every last technical detail of the code-breaking, which is brain-breaking for most laypeople. But not for cryptography hobbyists.

Anyway, beginning in the early 1930’s for about eight years, a German intelligence agent sold information on his country’s secret communications operations, to a French intelligence agent. The French couldn’t have been bothered with such time-consuming, labor-intensive work that would allow them to intercept encoded military messages to and from Germans.

However, Poland was interested. The French turned it over to the Poles because the latter felt vulnerable to invasion from both sides, from the Soviets and Germans. Fortunately, Poland had a long standing-agreement with France to share such information.

Also, fortunately, the Poles’ lead cryptographer was a genius. But it took even him a year to compile a catalogue of alphabet-letter chain lengths in order to be able to decipher the Germans’ daily messages, whose code was different every day.

In 1938, the Germans added two more scramblers to their existing three, which made code-breaking by foreign intelligence agents, very nearly impossible. So in the summer of 1939, the Poles sent their deciphering equipment to Great Britain, which took over the spying operation.

In early September 1939, the Government Code and Cypher School in Britain hired its own genius, Alan Turing. He invented a setup of structures in which the completing of an electrical circuit would be indicated by a lit bulb when a code was broken. Construction of the contraptions of the top secret operation was completed by summer 1940, but the code-breaking was still agonizingly slow.

Different German contingents, such as the North Africa campaign, the army in Europe, the Luftwaffe, and the navy each had different codes. The navy’s was the hardest to break. But the work was worth doing because it significantly shortened the war by informing the British what the Germans were going to do next.

The Allies’ knowledge of German messages was especially helpful in the Battle of the Atlantic, and was instrumental in the Pacific Theater at Midway– in killing a powerful Japanese admiral in the Solomon Islands.

Eventually, 420 Native Americans of the Navajo tribe conveyed messages on behalf of, and to and from the Americans, because their language was indecipherable to the Japanese.

At this book’s writing, “Diffie, Hellman and Merkle [Americans] have become world famous cryptographers who [allegedly] invented the concept of public-key cryptography while Rivest, Shamir and Adelman [also Americans] have been credited with developing RSA [in 1977], the most beautiful implementation of public-key cryptography.”

However, three different British men conceived of the concept first– by early 1974. They were sworn to secrecy, as it was part of a classified military operation, and computing at the time wasn’t powerful enough to implement their concept. Being Americans, the aforementioned latter trio patented their method, and in 1996, sold their company for $200 million.

Interesting factoids: Cryptanalysts are in greater demand than ever before. The U.S. National Security Agency is still the world’s largest employer of mathematicians.

At this book’s writing, quantum cryptography was the wave of the future in cybersecurity, because it would be absolutely unbreakable. It would use either photon transmission or fiber-optics. The message sender and receiver could see whether there was an interloper because the messages would be altered. A card game– Hanabi– has since been invented, that uses the logic that allows communicators to decipher one another’s messages, while preventing third parties from doing so.

Read the book to learn about Philip Zimmermann (someone whom the National Security Agency viewed as a troublemaker), and the whole kit and caboodle on how codes were historically made and broken, and how messages can be kept secure. Six ways to Sunday.

Just the Funny Parts – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Just the Funny Parts… And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club” by Nell Scovell, published in 2018.

Born in Boston, MA in November 1960, Scovell was the third of five siblings. She became a comedy writer, producer and director in Hollywood.

Scovell wrote of the many issues female writers face in the writers’ room, and in higher-level positions, if they achieve the great feat of actually getting hired in the entertainment industry. For, gender discrimination still persists. Females are still conditioned by society to feel as though the employers are doing them a favor for giving them a job, rather than feeling they deserve it on the merits.

Scovell– by writing an article that prompted truly important discussions on daytime talk shows– made Americans more aware of the fact that for decades, the late-night talk shows had been hiring practically all male writers. She herself had written for Late Show with David Letterman and felt “awkward, confused and demorazlied” due to the male-dominated work environment. She quit of her own accord after a short time.

Scovell said, “But in the real world, awareness more often leads to defensiveness which leads to excuses… you must also be aware that your knee-jerk defensiveness is part of the problem.” Simply saying, “Some of my best friends are female” doesn’t get them equal treatment in the workplace. Which should spark a discussion of gender-related issues of the impeachment brouhaha presently plaguing the U.S. government and the U.S. propaganda community. Which sometimes are the same thing.

First of all, Nancy Pelosi, a female, is the point person for the House of Representatives in connection with the impeachment vote. The way she is portrayed in the media and social media is crucially important to how the public views the whole story, and public opinion can have a tremendous influence on Congress’ activities.

A male Speaker would set a completely different tone– not necessarily intentionally, but simply due to subconscious conditioning by American society. Psychological research has shown that both females and males perceive females in a negative light, but perceive males in a positive light– when asked to comment on a hypothetical someone in a leadership position, having been told the leader’s gender.

As is well known, in 1998, former president Bill Clinton had an impeachment proceeding launched against him for lying under oath about his salacious activities in the Oval Office. That was a male-on-male attack borne of political vengeance. If females had been in the mix (in a major way, leadership-wise), there would have been a different dynamic.

Interestingly, Trump has nicknamed Pelosi, “Nervous Nancy” for a reason. He is trying to razz her to put her at a psychological disadvantage. One of Scovell’s male coworkers said something like that to Scovell when she worked for Letterman, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On another topic, perhaps there is an algorithm for the bad behavior of U.S. presidents. Clinton copied his hero, JFK, who was rumored to have had similar liaisons about thirty-seven years earlier. Trump copied his hero, Ronald Reagan, who was engaged in non-standard foreign policy activities, about thirty-seven years ago.

There must have been some Congress members in Clinton’s administration who fondly remembered JFK. There must be some Congress members in Trump’s administration who fondly remember Reagan. However, the two presidents’ legal situations are a generation apart– have different political, cultural and social backdrops, and have very different sets of facts.

Comparing the troubles of the current American leader with other past leaders isn’t exactly on-point, either. The older generation has seen political turmoil before, so “Have you no decency left” and “I am not a crook” are cliches.

If one is considering emotionally troubling historical events on a continuum pursuant to preventable deaths on one end, and celebrity dramas on the other, the present doesn’t seem so bad.

Younger Americans have no understanding of the Vietnam Era or the genocidal episodes of the 1940’s and 1990’s (!), but they are bombarded with world-shaking “news.” OMG: Elton John was allegedly a witness to Royal-Family child abuse, and Taylor Swift’s appearance on Saturday Night Live was challenging for her.

Right now the political climate is kind of like before the third act of an old-school Broadway play– the audience needs a breather. It is sick of the whole thing. It needs a period of quiet to regroup and assess the situation.

Nevertheless, when the media claims that Pelosi is actually going to resolve the situation, females in the media ought to remind females in Congress not to be intimidated by the males who have conditioned them to be so, and give Trump a nickname.

Anyway, read the book to learn of Scovell’s career ups and downs.

Believer

The Book of the Week is “Believer, My Forty Years in Politics” by David Axelrod, published in 2015. This book is mostly about Axelrod’s role as a political campaign consultant and close aide to Barack Obama.

Born in February 1955 in New York City, the author became passionate about politics at the age of five, when his nanny took him to a political rally for JFK. At nine, he volunteered to assist with RFK’s New York State Senate run.

Axelrod began a career in journalism, covering politics for a number of years. His mother’s cousin introduced him to powerful political figures in Washington, D.C. This gave Axelrod a leg up in co-founding a political consulting firm located in major American cities, serving various mayoral candidates.

In addition to having friendly contacts of all stripes, the best and brightest consultants ought to be extremely well-read in history, politics, psychology, law and economics. Life-experience and cynicism, too, can help with opposition-intelligence and creative messaging.

During the last days of the presidential election in 2008, “[vice-presidential candidate– thought by many to be the presidential candidate– Sarah] Palin ramped up the ferocity of her attacks, to the delight of angry throngs who streamed to greet her… some chanted vile epithets about [presidential candidate Barack] Obama… resented taxes, reviled gun control and eagerly parroted right-wing tripe questioning whether Obama was even a citizen…”

In 2016, it was deja vu all over again, with Donald Trump’s copying Sarah Palin in his targeting and messaging. Trump copied the late president Ronald Reagan too, with his tax cut and also, with taking an active role in foreign policy, some of which for Reagan at least, did not end well. Axelrod commented that performing was Reagan’s forte. However, Obama was not as willing a performer. Trump is neither good at reading scripts nor good at speaking off the cuff.

Unlike Trump, Obama was principled and ideologically-oriented rather than reelection-oriented. He was his own man as much as he could be, given that he was forced into extremely difficult situations. He inherited a slew of problems from his predecessor George W. Bush, including a crashed economy and two wars. In 2009, then-Harvard law professor and bankruptcy specialist, Elizabeth Warren, helped Obama create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Axelrod claimed that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., KY) started the obstructionist attitude in which the party ruling a house of Congress pettily blocks all legislation the opposing party is trying to pass. There have been previous periods of American history in which each side engaged in shenanigans to thwart the other– such as during the impeachment debate surrounding president Andrew Johnson in the 1860’s (!)

However, nowadays, angry and mean-spirited polarization becomes viral at the speed of light, as the easily brainwashed who have access to social media become easily outraged by the finger-pointing hypocrisy, hypocritical finger-pointing, and poison propaganda spewed by one side or the other.

Axelrod wrote, “Fear too often trumps reason.” Read the book to learn about the kinds of situations Trump has reason to fear, and Obama’s campaigns and administration.

King of the Club

The Book of the Week is “King of the Club” by Charles Gasparino, published in 2007.

The subject of this book “… was suffering from the downside of loyalty; he spent so much time surrounding himself with people he could trust that he forgot he also needed smart people who could get a job done in times of crisis, and he was now facing… the greatest crisis of his career.”

Sounds familiar. It was actually “Richard Grasso and the Survival of the New York Stock Exchange.” When he was fifteen years old, Grasso began trading stocks in an account held in his mother’s name, getting stock tips from his drug-store-owner-employer.

The author was rather vague about Grasso’s two years of military service which allegedly began in the mid 1960’s, spent: “…in Fort Meade, Maryland, though he did make periodic trips to Vietnam.” Apparently, Grasso’s eyesight was good enough to get him drafted by the U.S. Army, but not good enough to get him hired by the New York City Police Department, his first-choice employer after the military.

Grasso therefore began work as a back-office Wall-Street clerk at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in early 1968. The author failed to mention whether Grasso was told to put his stocks in a blind trust, or whether his new employer had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Grasso meteorically moved up through the ranks. He was innovative in executing new marketing initiatives for the exchange. He also poached companies that were listed on either the American Stock Exchange or the NASDAQ– that provided fierce competition to the NYSE. All three were stock markets of corporate entities that wanted to sell their shares far and wide. But the companies could be listed in only one place. Grasso convinced them that the NYSE was the best place to list.

By 1980, Grasso controlled NYSE listings, its trading floor and almost all its trading operations. In the mid-1980’s, the chair of NASDAQ, Bernie Madoff, claimed his market’s trading was more fair for investors because it executed trades electronically, thus multiple players were interacting continuously while setting impartial prices. The argument went that electronic trading made the market more “efficient”– as no buyers or sellers had significantly better pricing information than others on which to trade, theoretically.

In 1990, Grasso stepped up to the second-most powerful position at the NYSE. He was in charge of the exchange listees and, at the same time, in charge of regulating them. He did the legwork of bringing new business to the exchange. His boss, the chairman, did the public relations work of delivering speeches globally and persuading the federal government to keep conditions favorable for the exchange.

Several of the NYSE’s board of directors were Wall Street executives who passively continued to keep the status quo– lavishly rewarding Grasso monetarily for his undivided attention to lavishly lining their pockets year after year when times were good.

There was honor among thieves, as Grasso’s henchmen turned a blind eye to the various forms of illegal activity that allowed them to make obscene amounts of money on the trading floor. Until there wasn’t honor among thieves– as conditions changed.

From a not-for-profit-organization-legal-standpoint, most of the parties and individuals involved were engaging in various highly unethical activities, at best; conflicts of interest abounded as participants in the exchange network cooperated in a way that maximized profits for everyone until, as usual, some individuals got too greedy.

Being head of the New York Stock Exchange is not unlike leading the U.S. government. The marriage of politics and commerce is always fraught with conflicts of interest. Some are avoidable. It’s a shame that politics in particular tends to attract dishonest attention whores with hubris syndrome whose ethics are in the basement. Of course, they usually use the “everybody does it” excuse and change the subject if they can.

But there ought to be equal justice under the law for any of the accused– after an investigation of where the evidence leads— with NO jumping to conclusions, assumptions or biases prior to a thorough review of all evidence, if any. Along these lines, one would do well to ignore the superlative-laden, repetitive, sensationalist drivel emanating from the teleprompter box, um, er– idiot box.

Anyway, starting in the late 1990’s, unbridled greed led to a bunch of scandals. There was Long Term Capital Management, Enron, WorldCom, the dot-com crash, various major SEC violations committed by big-name brokerages; not to mention 9/11’s impact on the financial markets. All on Grasso’s watch. Yet, his pay kept soaring, anyway. It wasn’t pay-for-performance anymore.

Finally, Grasso got the same treatment, figuratively speaking, as other major historical figures. One week he was flying high and the next, kicked to the curb. Grasso was suffering from a bad case of hubris syndrome. In early September 2003, herd mentality / groupthink seized the board; jealousy (possibly subconscious) of his pay package reached critical mass.

Read the book to learn of the usual occurrences in such a situation (investigation, litigation, political machination and myth propagation) that led to the changing of more things, and more of same.

Undercover

The Book of the Week is “Undercover, The Secret Lives of a Federal Agent” by Donald Goddard, published in 1988. This was the biography of a New York City undercover drug agent allegedly named Michael Levine.

Born in December 1939 in the Bronx (in New York City) among blacks and Latinos, Levine’s childhood was fraught with fighting and underage drinking. At eighteen years old, he applied to join the Air Force but pursuant to his aptitude test results, was assigned to the Air Police. He, helped only by a German shepherd, ended up guarding American nuclear weaponry in a rural area near the Canadian border. He enjoyed the work, but after a year, got into a fight sparked by racial tension.

In the next several years, he found that intelligence work was his calling. That was the way to put his acting talent and street-Spanish language skills to use for good, to combat evil. He did time at the IRS Intelligence Division, and then the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agency, part of the Treasury Department of the federal government.

Sometimes as many as four other government entities (FBI, CIA, IRS, NYPD) were supposed to cooperate to surveil a mafia don in the neighborhood of Little Italy in Manhattan (New York City). The undercover work became a joke because the don knew he was being tailed, and the don’s driver told the spies where he would be going. Working morning, noon and night, Levine frequently got his man, arresting all walks of life of the criminal underworld– possessors of unlicensed guns, drugs, stolen driver’s licenses and credit cards– taking on five or six cases at a time.

From the ATF, Levine was promoted to customs inspector, under the auspices of the State Department, where he got more power than ever. He was able to execute searches without a warrant, and operate internationally. In 1973, he survived the consolidation of entities of law enforcement of cocaine, heroin, hash, marijuana, etc.– into one Drug Enforcement Administration.

Levine’s favorite place to work was on the street. He wasn’t meant to be a paper-pushing bureaucrat in an office. One kind of case he worked might involve a “buy-bust” on the Lower East Side (of Manhattan) in which the informer was an “orange-haired Cuban bisexual who lived with the female Jewish butcher” that resulted in the arrest of three Mexicans who possessed a full kilo of heroin.

Levine acquired more than two decades of experience masquerading as an insider in the New York City drug scene. He witnessed all aspects of it, handling thousands of cases, working harder, and more hours than most other law enforcement personnel. He testified in court as an expert witness countless times. Therefore, he felt he knew the least bad solution to the ever-increasing societal problems stemming from the abuse of drugs.

Levine said the drug users were the problem– they were the ones generating demand for the product. If they disappeared, so would the problems because the sellers would go out of business. He pointed out that the “… dealers weigh the risks against the money they make. They don’t respond to fear of the law.” The users would.

Levine recommended that there be strong deterrents: hard prison time for illegal-drug possession and illegal-drug intoxication of the slightest amounts.

At first glance, that recommendation seems logical. Of course, Levine’s career would get a gigantic boost in the event of such a trend. For, Levine described his undercover work thusly: “We’re paid to lock people up, that’s all. What happens to ’em after that has got nothing to do with us. It’s up to them, their attorneys, our attorneys, public opinion, politics, the media… Juries convict people, not agents… But that’s not to say you won’t face real dilemmas about guilt and justice.”

HOWEVER, considering the consequences, one begins to think, “Oh, that’ll end well.” Harsher punishments would create as many problems as they would solve. The trouble was that many of the users were also dealers. So if the users/dealers were the sole source of income for their families, and the users got locked up for a long time, what happened to their families?

The jails would become overcrowded, and there would have to be a massive hiring effort to build more prisons, and catch, process, judge, guard and legally represent the additional soon-to-be prisoners, not to mention the legal can of worms that drug-testing would open up.

Not only that, such a major change in the legal system would highlight the two-tier justice system in this country. Poor people of all ethnicities possessing drugs would be imprisoned. As always, the troubles of those people (most of whom began their lives in unlucky situations) would be compounded. Just ask any public defender– whose caseload would increase, but his or her budget wouldn’t.

This, while the rich people (such as those in the Hamptons– the summer-vacation region on Long Island in New York State), would skate. Those inheritors of wealth and privilege could afford to hire high-priced attorneys. They would squelch the bad publicity that would result from their indiscretions by paying people to shut up and go away with non-disclosure agreements. Their families might have been just as dysfunctional as those of the poor, but the public would never hear about any of that.

As is well known, addicts hurt themselves and their families, but are usually not a danger to society at large, unless they get behind the wheel of a car, or operate heavy machinery. Or get into a gunfight over a drug deal gone bad. However, as an aside– there ought to be NO inherent unfairness in imposing very harsh penalties on possessors of firearms that were acquired ILLEGALLY. Applying the “broken windows theory” of crime to such possessors would likely prevent countless violent crimes.

For, the kinds of people who get hold of guns when they shouldn’t, are the kinds who use them in not-so-nice ways. So it would seem that they would be much more dangerous to society at large, than addicts.

In recent decades, there has been a media trend to report on human interest stories of mass-shooting victims so as to not glorify the shooters. But the news cycle on them ends, and celebrity non-stories, hysterically reported, grab the headlines again.

There’s no follow-up– NO reporting of punishment, if any, for the shooters subsequent to their pleas or trials, if they weren’t killed at the scene of the crime. Perhaps if the media showed (with harsher, new laws) the serious punishments resulting from the shooters’ actions again and again, there would be less tolerance in society for illegal firearms. This might be a start.

Anyway, read the book to learn the details of Levine’s life.

A Good American Family – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “A Good American Family, The Red Scare and My Father” by David Maraniss, published in 2019.

Born in 1918 in Boston, the author’s father grew up in Brooklyn. He was outed as a Communist by a female member of the FBI. She joined the Communist Party USA in order to spy on it, then for nine years, was paid big bucks to tattle on its members.

In March 1952, the elder Maraniss was subpoenaed to appear at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in Detroit. At that time, he was summarily fired from his job as a re-write man at the Detroit Times; ironically, a rabidly anti-Communist newspaper owned by Hearst.

A high-level federal judge in New York State, Learned Hand, provided the legal grounds on which the investigations into Communists rested in the 1950’s. Suppression of free speech was justified by the extent and probability of its leading to evil. “The worse the evil and the greater the probability, the more free speech could be curtailed.”

The ironies and consequences resulting from the above reasoning led to a dark period in American history. The take-away from the Red Scare was that the accusers led by Joe McCarthy, trampled on due process when confronting their prey– those who were allegedly associated with or were allegedly Communists.

One curious little experiment indicated just how effective fear-mongering propaganda can be. One irony is that fear-mongering propaganda is itself considered to be protected free speech!

In early July 1951, a reporter from the Capital Times newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin asked 112 random people in Henry Vilas Park to sign a petition, the text of which contained, “… the preamble to the Declaration of Independence… six of the ten amendments to the Bill of Rights, along with the Fifteenth Amendment granting black men the right to vote.” Only one person willingly signed. Almost one fifth of the people called the reporter a Communist.

Read the book to learn additional details of the tenor of the times in connection with the author’s father’s persuasion and generation, and the fates of his other immediate and extended family members and his accusers.

A Fort of Nine Towers

The Book of the Week is “A Fort of Nine Towers, An Afghan Family Story” by Qais Akbar Omar, published in 2013.

As is well known, the Russians marched into Afghanistan in 1979. The resistance fighters were called the Mujahedin, the Holy Warriors. The Russians had advanced aerial bombs, while the Warriors had old hunting-guns. The Russians left in 1989, but continued to financially support the government until spring 1992; galloping inflation ensued.

The author and his growing family lived in Kabul, of which the Mujahedin then took control. Omar’s father and grandfather ran a lucrative Oriental carpet business. They lived in a multi-generational household, with large families of uncles, aunts and cousins.

At the time Omar began to experience the hardships of war, he was about eight years old. His elementary school stopped teaching the basics of evolution, and began to teach creationism instead. There was no more fear of stray bullets in the streets, but there was a food shortage. The following year, tribal infighting plagued the Mujahedin; rockets fired from above by the different tribes– all Muslim– started to kill people.

Omar’s grandfather’s resistance to change, anger at having his livelihood, property and material possessions stolen, and love of his homeland were largely responsible for his family’s precarious situation, and their traumatic experiences in the coming decades. He insisted the family stay in Afghanistan– to try to protect what they had. He was stripped of the fruits of his life’s work, anyway. Most of their community fled. Omar’s family obeyed the law of Islam by which the females and children obeyed the oldest male relatives.

As the year 1993 progressed and the violence worsened, schools closed and no one went outside for fear of getting hit by sniper bullets, or a rocket-propelled grenade or other weaponry.

In late spring, the declaration of a cease-fire prompted Omar’s father to temporarily evacuate the family from their home in a northwesterly direction over a mountainside to a more peaceful village. They were the only people in their area who had a car.

About four miles away, the closest family members who could fit in the car, were driven to and stayed at the quiet estate of the author’s father’s fabulously wealthy business partner. Until the war came to that neighborhood.

The author, as the oldest son in his immediate family, on a few occasions in the next few years, was invited to accompany his grandfather or his father in a return to their old property to see how it was doing, and perhaps to dig up the gold they had buried in the garden there before they left. Those were harrowing, emotionally and physically hurtful episodes with gruesome scenes and near-death experiences.

For, the war had turned illiterate young Muslim men into sociopathic sadists with weaponry. The hatred among different tribes knew no bounds. On the streets, ragged, begging children were used as decoys for hidden robbers who might also commit rape if passersby stopped to help.

“Panjshiris and Hazaras were supposed to stop launching the rockets at each other that had come from the Americans to be used by the Mujahedin against the Russians. But the Russians were defeated and long gone.”

In September 1996, a new tribe, the Taliban– supplied with weapons by Pakistan– was wreaking havoc in Kabul. Omar’s grandfather described them thusly: “They capture a village and torture people and club them to death, then afterwards ask the young boys to do the same to their parents. They tell the young boys that this will make a man of them.”

The Taliban held public executions of thieves, prostitutes, murderers and gays. They enforced their own draconian version of observance of Islam. After a while, though, people at least knew what to expect. The trains ran on time.

Read the book to learn how the author and his family survived in this extremely suspenseful, emotionally-charged cautionary tale whose moral is this: early evacuation of a region with a history of civil war, whose violence is flaring up again, is advisable.

How the Post Office Created America / Superpower

The First Book of the Week is “How the Post Office Created America” by Winifred Gallagher, published in 2016. This was a detailed account of the history of the delivery of written communications in what is now the United States.

In the 1630’s, a Boston-area tavern doubled as the first post office. Local politicians and rich businessmen collected their Transatlantic written correspondence there; the latter paid for the privilege. The service was “… primarily designed to advance an imperialistic power’s interests, serve a narrow elite, and produce some revenue for the [British] Crown.”

It was in the interest of Great Britain to improve the roads to distribute the mail in the thirteen colonies (which later became the United States), as she was competing with France to rule the colonies.

Postal carriers had to deal with unforgiving land, mountains, rivers and hostile Native Americans in making their appointed rounds. A month might elapse, what with uncertain weather, before mail went from Boston, MA to Richmond, VA. The literate read letters aloud to update their fellow community members of goings-on in places far away.

Ben Franklin was a prominent figure in the mid- to late 1700’s due to his numerous, various contributions to humanity. Between and among the colonies– Canada and Britain– in the mid-1750’s, he served as one of two Postmasters General.

The colonists were demographically and geographically fragmented even after they became Americans. There were Puritans in Massachusetts, Dutch traders in New York, elitist slave owners in the South, and pioneers in the Midwest. But they all agreed that there should be a nationwide free exchange of ideas.

Read the book to learn how mail delivery quickened with more advanced forms of transportation and mail-sorting, what the “Pony Express” really was, and the controversies over: a) postage rates for different regions; b) which entity should authorize mail delivery– the federal or state governments, or private companies; c) whether the Post Office should stray from its core business of delivering only written communications, including newspapers and magazines (rather than electronic, or packages), and more.

In the United States, delivery of written communications evolved into a public-private partnership, as has the distribution of electric power. The two have become interconnected because communications have increasingly required electric power. Government regulates the two because they are the trappings of an industrialized society and massive disruption of them might cause significant economic and social (not to mention political) harm to the nation.

Some Americans are pushing to significantly reduce pollution by sourcing electric power from wind and sun. That activity, which is growing in popularity, was described in the Second Book of the Week– “Superpower, One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy” by Russell Gold, published in 2019. This was the career biography of Michael Skelly, renewable-energy entrepreneur.

As is well known, what to do about environmental pollution has been a political football for the last few decades. In the late 1970’s, when Minnesota farmers used weaponry and sabotage to protest the building of power towers on their land, a Minnesota state trooper commented, “Whenever there is progress, there is change and change does not benefit everyone. Change is hard for some people to accept.”

In the Obama administration years, the U.S. Energy Department funded a study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory outside Denver.

Researchers used a supercomputer to analyze hypothetical scenarios in 2026 in which wind and solar power would account for thirty percent of the power generation of the Eastern Interconnection (infrastructure that would transmit energy across states and provinces between eastern New Mexico and Quebec, Canada); electric power would go back and forth, depending on need. The results were promising. Once infrastructure was in place, costs wouldn’t be significantly higher than fossil fuels or nuclear energy.

For, wind and sun are free of charge. Fossil fuels’ prices fluctuate. True, wind and sun aren’t available 24/7, but a giant network spanning thousands of miles would allow energy to be transferred across time zones wherever needed, when wind and sun aren’t available.

Skelly was a doer. He didn’t waste time in “Twitter feuds or policy battles.” In the early 1990’s, after acquiring life experience in the Peace Corps and Harvard business school, he supervised the construction of an unprecedented tourist attraction in Costa Rica: an open-air gondola / tram from which travelers could view flora and fauna from the rain-forest-canopy.

Then Skelly got into wind farms. Building them involves an extremely expensive, years-long series of steps to get cooperation from numerous stakeholders such as investors and local: residents, governments and utilities, not to mention the federal government. The company building the turbines sees nary a penny of revenue until it sells the energy. It must get a slew of regulatory approvals, and fend off angry opposition and lawsuits.

Interesting factoid: by 2007, Texas had surpassed California in renewable energy generation.

Bankruptcy is always hanging over the head of the project initiator. In 2005, Skelly and his fellow executives were able to sell to Goldman Sachs a 90% interest in their company. Getting the investment bank involved enabled them to purchase a few billion dollars’ worth of turbines from Europe. Goldman got a major tax break for building the wind energy project.

Skelly was a conscientious individual. Federal law required a different, later venture of his– Clean Line– to have one public meeting with the locals. Clean Line had fourteen meetings. Skelly spent eight years involved with another project, Plains and Eastern. “It would be a $9.5 billion private investment, generating thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs and using enough steel for four aircraft carriers.”

Read the book to learn all the details of Skelly’s trials and tribulations in supervising renewable-energy projects.