Memoirs

The Book of the Week is “Memoirs” by Mikhail Gorbachev, published in 1995. This tome described the Soviet leader’s push for political and economic change for the benefit of the millions and millions of people governed by him.

Born in March 1931 in Stavropol, Gorbachev grew up to become a bureaucrat, following the mentality of his agricultural community.  The (federal) Central Committee of the Soviet Union (the Union) had a command economy– the government dictated all aspects of labor, capital and goods. It also assigned housing to all people living in the Union, including officials, pursuant to the political hierarchy. Additionally, vacation houses (dachas) were bestowed upon higher-level officials. Incidentally, according to the author, Politburo members socialized among themselves at work-related functions only, nowhere else– because they were afraid others would gossip about them.

The bureaucracy by the State Planning Committee (“Gosplan”) generated endless memoranda and plenums, not to mention meetings– on harvests, irrigation, infrastructure and what to do about natural disasters such as drought. A dozen different departments and ministries involved themselves in the approval process. “At the beginning of each year the oblast [Communist] Party committees would make unrealistic commitments, which were promptly forgotten. Manipulators were the heroes of the day. Those who worked diligently were looked upon with pity.”

The local government felt a desperate need to keep a stranglehold on their power. They were content with their culture of bribes, graft and mutual favors. So the bureaucrats scotched an early 1960’s capitalistic experiment of paying piece-rate wages to farmers in the infant territory of Kazakhstan when productivity caused payroll expenses to soar. Yet, the bosses wanted to see high returns on a stingy budget.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, farms disappeared when the Union underwent a period of industrialization with extraction of fossil fuels, the introduction of electricity, and construction of army bases. The Baltic Republics counteracted increased soil salinity with lime, but Latvia didn’t. The use of weed killer worsened the already unchecked spread of pollution.

Gorbachev wrote of 1985, “No one even imagined the extent of our ecological disaster, how far we were behind the developed nations as a result of our barbaric attitude toward nature… A wave of bitterness and anger rolled through the country when it came out that the genetic pool of our peoples had been threatened.” Curiously, starting in mid-November 1982, the Union had a series of three leaders who died of ill health within a three-year period: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

Besides, the Politburo consisted of “dead wood” who preferred to maintain the status quo because their own living standards were the highest in the nation in terms of housing, health care, education and necessaries (food, clothing). Each bureaucrat was like the Wizard of Oz–  a phony behind a curtain– except that Gorbachev couldn’t even offer accurate data to the people who needed his help.

Members of government agencies– for the purpose of public and foreign consumption– generated fanciful statistics on the Union’s products: weapons, grain, oil, gas and metals. The real numbers were abysmal. The KGB’s numerical data were also kept secret. That was just the tip of the iceberg on censorship. No negative news coverage of anyone was allowed (except of dissidents). In the spring of 1987, Gorbachev was distressed to learn that true military expenses accounted for 40% of the Union’s budget, and 20% of GNP. Four-fifths of “scientific research” was military-related.

Gorbachev opposed sovereignty for territories ruled by the Union’s central government due to his paternalistic arrogance. He claimed he wasn’t informed that Soviet tanks rolled in to Georgia to quell unrest in the spring of 1989.

Back in March 1987, Margaret Thatcher criticized Gorbachev for making arms shipments to war-prone nations worldwide. He said she made the (hypocritical, untruthful) claim that the West and the United States sent financial aid and food instead, to needy nations. He tried to correct her. No word on whether he succeeded.

On their first visit to the United States in the mid-1980’s, Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were defamed by American propaganda. The media contended that Raisa wouldn’t deign to visit specific places. In reality– those places were on her schedule but she couldn’t control her vehicle’s driver in her motorcade who bypassed those places without consulting her. Also, the tabloids made up the story that she was having a cat fight with Nancy Reagan.

Gorbachev knew and took the risks involved in “rocking the boat” to move the nation forward after so many decades of deleterious political and economic self-delusion, with his concepts of “glasnost” and “perestroika.”

Read the book to learn the details, and how he was punished for doing so, why Soviet tanks rolled into Moscow (!) in October 1993, and how the Union broke up.

Endnote:  This book’s translation was awkward in a few spots, such as: “After our forces were sent to Afghanistan, the USA and other nations took a number of measures against us.” [were sent?]

The Long Game

The Book of the Week is “The Long Game” by (Senator) Mitch McConnell, published in 2016. This is the autobiography of a Republeral (Republican Liberal).

Born in 1942 in Alabama, McConnell survived polio when he was a toddler, thanks to his mother’s endless patience in treating him with prescribed exercises. His father fought in WWII. He spent his later formative years in Georgia and Kentucky.

Although he acquired a law degree, McConnell disliked practicing law. Aspiring to a political career, he had already been elected to leadership positions in high school and college. In 1997 in Louisville, Kentucky, when he ran for a Jefferson County judgeship, he promised to eliminate corruption and patronage among the Democrats.

Instead of elaborating on whether he actually fulfilled those promises, the author admitted that he glad-handed every voter in Kentucky in order to prepare to run for a higher elected office– Republican U.S. Senator. This book had zero about what he did in his two terms as a judge.

In 1984, during McConnell’s Senate race, he hired Roger Ailes, who produced ads that humorously cast aspersions on his opponent. When the opponent ran radio ads, he responded in kind with equal air time. Money was no object. His miraculous comeback resulted in a victory by 5,100 votes– 1 vote per district. The recount took two weeks.

McConnell’s stances on numerous issues were incongruous with his party (Republican). He took a Liberal stance when he voted in favor of economic sanctions against South Africa and in favor of free speech issues, even when it came to flag-burning.

McConnell opposed campaign finance reform, but offered an invalid argument against it. He reasoned that the (illusory) Liberal media bias was so strong that limiting “soft” money political donations would limit a candidate’s ability to purchase equal media time for issue ads appearing in a liberal media outlet. However, soft money donations are fungible— not always spent on ads.

The author’s second wife was a Chinese overachiever. In the summer of 2000, she delivered a speech about her experience as an immigrant, and agreed with “… [George W.] Bush’s belief that immigration is not a problem to be solved, but a sign of the continuing appeal of the American dream.” This viewpoint is not usually held by Republicans.

McConnell could not have been clearer about his hero-worship for George W. Bush. One line went, “I think George W. Bush was an outstanding wartime president.” To push the point, the author made outrageously, ridiculously dishonest statements about the war the president started in Iraq; two included: “Morale was very high– among both our troops and the citizens of Iraq.” and “There was simply no question that on the military and tactical levels, the [General David] Petraeus plan had been a tremendous success…” According to most Americans and even government officials, the war actually turned out to be another Vietnam.

Senator McConnell could not get enough of George W. Bush’s Republican Conservative cronyism. He resoundingly voted yea for the president’s alleged deficit reduction bill that imposed austerity on Medicaid, Medicare and farm subsidies, an energy bill, and legislation relating to the Alternative Minimum Tax. The senator wrote that when the economy crashed in 2008, prompting bailouts for only the financial institutions with friends in the Treasury Department– “We had saved the economy from complete peril (and in fact the money given away through TARP has since been repaid with interest).” Was the money a loan or was it given away?

Yet one more head-shaker in McConnell’s book mentioned how, in 2008, when the nation chose Obama as its next president, the author was thrilled that it had elected an African American. Yet he also characterized the new leader as a great speaker, but a poor negotiator, condescending, and a critical lecturer in meetings. Vice President Joe Biden, on the other hand, was honest in expressing his side’s goals and was willing to compromise without offending his counterpart.

The legislation that eventually became Obamacare needed to contain a vast quantity of “pork” or else the Democrats couldn’t have gotten even a sufficient number of their own Congress members to vote for it. Further, McConnell complained bitterly that in 2014, Harry Reid had changed the rules of the Senate to favor the Democrats. In the mid-1990’s, Republicans owned Congress and treated it as their personal fiefdom. Excuse the cliche, but “Turnabout is fair play.”

Read the book to learn of McConnell’s scholarship program at the University of Louisville, and how he finally reached the peak of his career (with the help of two traits– patience and perseverance), despite other crazy contradictions in his words and actions.

Wait Till Next Year

The Book of the Week is “Wait Till Next Year” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, published in 1997.  This is the first portion of an autobiography of a New York female baseball fan who grew up in the suburb of Rockville Centre, Long Island in the 1940’s and ’50’s.

During the author’s childhood, there were three baseball teams in New York: the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants and New York Yankees. Between 1949 and 1957 inclusive, one or another of these teams played in the World Series. The author’s father inspired in her a diehard Dodgers fandom. She was taught to keep score, and did so for every regular season game for years and years, starting in the late 1940’s. It was a time in history in which men played for their love of the game. The greats at that time included Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Peewee Reese, Gil Hodges, Enos Slaughter, Robin Roberts, Richie Ashburn, Allie Reynolds, Phil Rizzuto and many others.

Kearns Goodwin was raised as a Catholic, but attended public school. Nevertheless, the nuns struck fear in her heart in many ways, one of which was pressuring parishioners to refrain from entering any house of worship other than a Catholic one.  So when Campanella was coming to her area to speak at a non-Catholic church, she faced a moral dilemma. The priest reassured her that she would not be going to hell, because the event was not a religious service.

Baseball was so popular in the author’s community that in 1955, a radio broadcast of the seventh game of the Dodgers-Yankees World Series was piped through the public address system of her high school. The kids were willing to stay after school to hear it. Back in the day, World Series games were played in the afternoon. When the Dodgers won, thousands of people danced in the streets. The baseball players came back to a Brooklyn restaurant that evening for their victory dinner, interacting personally with fans without any security at all.

For the first twelve years of her life (before the neighborhood changed), Kearns Goodwin’s family was quite close with all of the different (white) families (of different religions) in her community. Their homes were as open to her as her own home.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s coming of age in a bygone era of baseball and Postwar suburbia.

The Real Deal

The Book of the Week is “The Real Deal, My Life in Business and Philanthropy” by Sanford Weill and Judah S. Kraushaar, published in 2006. This career memoir describes how, over the course of about fifty years, Weill became a major change agent in the American financial services industry. His specialty became leading the execution of mergers and acquisitions for the investment, banking, and insurance companies of which he was an executive and board member.

In spring 1960, he started a securities brokerage, actually on Wall Street, with three partners. The stock market was bearish in 1962 and 1963. Interesting Side Note: “The typical stock in the Dow Index had a price 23 times its earnings as this downturn began, compared to a multiple of only 10 times in the early 1950s.”

Through the years, he gained more and more power and accumulated more and more wealth. When he attended events at which he had to speak to stockbrokers, he adopted a policy of brevity, saying, “You’ve heard enough speeches– what questions do you have for me?”

Although the author fostered a corporate culture of informality and “Management By Wandering Around” at his own company, in many instances, he failed to take into consideration the culture of the target company. His strengths lay more in bringing the top executives of the parties together to do the deals, and negotiating the new management structures. It was ironic that he was such a poor judge of how the two cultures would mesh once the integration process began.

At times, Weill tapped the power of his friends in high places, one of which was the government. It helped him change federal law to allow transactions to proceed. For instance, prior to 1999, certain banking and investment banking services could not be legally offered by the same company, due to financial conflicts and possibilities for abuses. He and his cohorts had a hand in making the historic change so that people within the same company could offer their clients all kinds of financial services.

Weill describes a whole bunch of instances that provided evidence for the necessity of strict financial auditing laws. In just a few years at the turn of the 21st Century, greed had spun out of control in the industry, leading to the accounting scandals of Enron and WorldCom, the dot-com crash, and a major hedge-fund crash that required a bailout. A terrorist attack didn’t help, either. By 2002, the chickens had come home to roost in the form of a bear market. “The regulators, the press, and politicians of all stripes…” played “the game of pointing fingers.”

And yet Weill writes, “…governance rules mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley (enacted in summer 2002) made it seem likely that bureaucratic needs would trump the fun of the business.” He also complains that businesses would have to spend more money preparing their financial statements. Sorry about that, Mr. Weill. Yes, pesky, bureaucratic, expensive laws reining in greed are no fun.

Six years later– same song, different verse… a whole lot worse. Need it be said– The more things change, the more they stay the same. History will continue to repeat itself, given human nature.

Read the book to learn the details of Weill’s career ups and downs and trials and tribulations. This blogger skipped the last chapter, in which Weill merely rambles on stating his opinions, and the endnote, which is an interview with his wife, whom he lavishly praises as loving and supportive throughout this ebook.