Chester Alan Arthur

The Book of the Week is “Chester Alan Arthur” by Zachary Karabell published in 2004. This history book describes a little-known president who became so, through the assassination of President James Garfield.

In 1871, Arthur was earning about $10,000 a year as counsel to the New York Tax Commission when the average American earned about $500 annually. Arthur’s pay rose significantly when he assumed the powerful position of collector of the customhouse of the Port of New York. He received a percentage of the revenue collected when smugglers were caught. The numerous conflicts of interest and widespread influence-peddling that was considered standard procedure in New York City politics then, would be considered morally repulsive in this day and age.

In 1880, the Republican Garfield chose Arthur as his running mate. “They had won the ticket, but they lived hundreds of miles apart, barely knew each other, and were hardly friends.” In those days, a new president was inaugurated on March 4. In summer 1881, Arthur became president, an unwanted promotion. Nevertheless, he got to ride in the then-equivalent of Air Force One– a luxury horse-drawn carriage.

Read the book to learn of Arthur’s public-service career, and what his administration accomplished despite various unhappy circumstances in his life and times.

The Ordinary Spaceman

The Book of the Week is “The Ordinary Spaceman” by Clayton C. Anderson, published in 2015. This book describes everything you ever wanted to know– including all the disgusting details– about riding and living in a spacecraft via NASA employment.

There were 338 men and women who left earth’s atmosphere between 1959, when NASA first began hiring astronauts, and 2013, when the probability of being hired was .6%. NASA has a laborious, rigorous annual recruitment process. The author was hired on his fifteenth try. Prior to that, he had worked for NASA as an engineer.

Once someone beats the odds and wins approval to go on a mission, they require months or years of training in extreme conditions, such as handling diverse, high-pressure physical and mental tasks underwater, atop a blizzardy mountain, in the desert, and in a device that imposes centrifugal force. Working in a tightly confined vehicle calls for a specific set of social and physical skills and talents. Read the book to learn the degrees to which the author possessed different ones, and how he fared in space.

The Brethren

The Book of the Week is “The Brethren” by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, published in 1979. This book documents the power struggles of, and kinds of cases decided by members of the U.S. Supreme Court– the highest court in the land– covering the period from autumn 1969 to the spring of 1976, during President Richard Nixon’s administration.

Annually, the Court received about five thousand petitions that were handwritten, mostly from prisoners appealing their cases. The justices ruled on only a tiny number of cases. The ones they chose to rule on, gave rise to weeks or months of scrutiny, debate, hours of research, and reams of writings. When the justices or their clerks (assistants) gave further consideration to a case, they might procrastinate reviewing the case until the next court session in the fall, or order it remanded to a lower court.

The major controversial cases involved desegregation, pornography, monopolies, abortion, freedom of the press, and the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court had the final say on where local control (States’ Rights) ended and Constitutional protections began.

Warren Burger, a conservative, was the Chief Justice. His authority was exceeded only by the President and Vice President.  Nevertheless, there were usually two or three justices who might vote one way or the other in any given case, as tiebreakers. So they had the real power. The Court members were always divided in their votes along liberal/conservative lines.

The early 1970’s were eventful years for the Burger Court, what with the replacements of a few justices who retired due to ill health; and attempted lobbying of two justices on a monopoly case (considered not just a conflict, but an overtly aggressive act that would have biased the justices had they not been sufficiently principled in demanding the departure of the lobbyist forthwith). Oh yes, and a near-impeachment of a president.

In June 1971, the first installment of the 47-volume Pentagon Papers was published in The New York Times. It was the job of the Court to decide the extent to which publication of the 1945-1967 study of Vietnam would affect: national security, the process of the termination of the war, and release of prisoners of war. However, the government had lied too much about the war already.

The Court– at least five justices– had to decide whether to expedite the case relating to Nixon’s turning over of audiotapes consisting of conversations of administration officials. The overall dispute was not uncommon, over the authority of two branches of the American government– the Executive and Judicial. Nixon (a member of the Executive) was attempting to claim executive privilege (invoking Constitutional protection) in not turning over the tapes. Seven of Nixon’s top aides had already been indicted by a grand jury. They had implicated unindicted coconspirators. One was the President himself.

Those portions of the tapes containing Nixon’s voice engaging in interactions of a conspiratorial nature were not protected by executive privilege. At least one justice believed that such audio evidence bespoke of obstruction of justice.

Nixon’s attorney attended the hearing that would determine the role the Court would play in presiding over Nixon’s conspiracy case. It was the attorney’s contention that Nixon would basically be the judge at his own trial, as he should get to interpret the Constitution, after the Court made a recommendation on the case law.

Read the book to learn the details of the office politics in the Court, different aspects of the endless ideological debates on various super-controversial issues, how the justices dealt with the Chief Justice’s actions, as well as Court-related lore– during a particularly tumultuous time in the nation’s political history.

Fidel Castro

The Book of the Week is “Fidel Castro, 10th World Trade Unions Congress.” This is the repetitive speech delivered by Castro on the 10th of February, 1982– year 24 of The Revolution. Its hearers consisted of 135 nations representing 351 trade union organizations comprising 260 million workers.

At the time, it might be recalled that the United States was engaging in an arms race with the Soviets. Castro accused the U.S. of being a greedy bully.  The monster-sized corporations, oil and chemical interests of its military industrial complex were profiting from oppressing Third World workers.  Such workers were victims in nations plagued by aggressors: South Africa in Angola, Israel and its neighbors, various imperialists in Vietnam, dirty little wars in South America…

Was it necessary for the U.S. to have three hundred military bases worldwide with personnel numbering half a million? Was it actually threatened by anyone?  The arms race defied reason, as every day, it cost more because the weaponry needed to be more and more destructive. “… the U.S. and its allies seek military superiority as an instrument for political pressure…” According to Castro, there existed three tons of explosives for each man, woman and child on the planet.

Castro railed on about how the world was experiencing its worst financial state since the Great Depression. Humanity would benefit if only a part of the money spent on military-related purposes was diverted to raise people’s standard of living and make progress in the world. He claimed that spending in the private sector created more jobs than spending in the military sector.

In 1980, U.S. military spending was five hundred billion dollars. Reagan’s military spending was out of control. If it continued at his pace, it would be valued at $940 billion by the year 2000. The money could be spent instead on eliminating malaria or caring for infants. According to Castro, the U.S. was planning to build thirteen “Trident nuclear submarines” by 1990. The cost would pay school tuition for sixteen million Third World kids for a year.

Children were dying for various reasons but the ultimate cause was imperialist policies– selfish war-mongering and capitalism. Castro claimed (about Cuba) “… Our health indicators can compare with those of developed countries; the scourge of unemployment has been done away with, and there is no racial discrimination, prostitution, gambling, mendacity or drug addiction.” He said there was a vicious rumor that Cuba had bought militarily advanced weaponry, but it wasn’t true!

Read the book to learn more about the villainy of the United States and how it was hurting the workers in socialist countries.