A Complex Fate

The Book of the Week is “A Complex Fate, William L. Shirer and the American Century” by Ken Cuthbertson, published in 2015. This tome was supposed to be the career biography with historical backdrop, of a colleague of Edward R. Murrow. However, it was sloppily edited and recounted as much about Murrow’s career as Shirer’s.

Born in February 1904 in Chicago, Shirer was the second oldest of three children; his father, a Republican attorney. After graduating from a small Christian college, while bumming around Europe for a few months, Shirer got a job as a copy editor at the foreign office of the Chicago Tribune.

Shirer met the celebrity literary social set, including Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Thurber, Thornton Wilder and Ezra Pound. At the paper, “letters to the editor” were fabricated. The writers, who composed stories from cabled summaries, didn’t go out and get the stories themselves. Not only that, the stories were embellished with fictional details. Sounds familiar.

In any case, in the late 1920’s, Shirer was promoted to foreign correspondent. Because he traveled all over Europe covering sporting events and royal-family trivia, he was able to have a love affair with a Hungarian countess.

In 1930, Shirer’s long hours of hard work and quality writing paid off. For, his new position of Eastern-European-bureau-chief put him in charge of formerly Ottoman-Empire countries. His office was in the economically socialist Vienna.

Since it took a week for Shirer’s articles to be cabled to Chicago where they were published, he had to write about tabloidy areas of interest– scandals, crime, sex and weird items (what passes for “breaking news” these days)– that appealed to American Midwesterners.

Shirer was soon commanded by his autocratic boss to get the lowdown on Gandhi. However, before undertaking an arduous bunch of flights in new-fangled yet primitive machines, he became a pincushion for syringes containing disease-preventing contents. While in India, he contracted malaria and dysentery, anyway.

Shirer found his career on the skids by the mid-1930’s. He insisted on enjoying a luxurious lifestyle even though he then had a family to support. In the autumn of 1937, desperate for a job, he was hired by Edward R. Murrow to produce CBS radio broadcasts from Vienna; i.e., he marshaled the resources required for them.

On the eve of the Anschluss in March 1938, Shirer found himself fleeing Austria for London via Berlin and then Amsterdam, packed in with a planeload of Jewish passengers. NBC had already scooped the story of the takeover– disseminating Hitler’s speech on the alarming historical development, translated into English, live.

Thereafter, CBS president William Paley allowed Murrow and Shirer to actually gather stories and broadcast them themselves. Shirer was resistant to switching to radio from print. His voice was less than mellifluous and he lacked the instincts of a good announcer or newscaster.

Nonetheless, with their game-changing live five-minute news updates from London, they had listeners in five European cities in six time zones. But most of the airtime was still taken up by music and quiz shows arranged by Murrow and Shirer, because sponsors shied away from news that caused arguments. Finally, in autumn 1938 when Czechoslovakia became Germany’s next victim, radio news woke up. Shirer visited all the different territories suffering from the German takeover.

The author’s text was unclear about exactly how German authorities restricted American broadcasting, aside from censoring it: “By 25 August [1939], the German government had severed radio, telephone, and cable communications with the outside world…” yet “In his August 26 broadcast from Berlin, Shirer somberly declared…”

The author contradicted himself, but related that New Yorkers were supposedly receiving CBS radio broadcasts from Berlin. He failed to state exactly how many listeners there were.

By the end of September 1939, hardships abounded in Europe. In 1940, Shirer tried to report the secret, growing hostility between Germany and the USSR, but was thwarted by three censors. He was able to do intelligence-gathering, though, after being told what to look for– observing the quantity of war resources the Germans actually had, rather than what their propaganda claimed. They lacked troops, tanks, supply vehicles, etc. Top German officials disagreed with each other on how to execute the war.

In late 1940, Shirer took a break from the trauma of war reporting and moved to New York. He wrote a book, delivered a lecture series and starred in a newsreel.

After his previous good luck in journalistic endeavors, fate dealt Shirer a cruel blow. His name appeared in the booklet “Red Channels.” “Suddenly, he was faced with the task of defending himself against an indefensible accusation– the kind of reverse onus proposition, so common in totalitarian states, that puts the burden not on the accuser– the state– but rather squarely on the accused.” This resulted in a rift in his relationship with Murrow, and other adverse consequences.

The owners of “… America’s mass media and advertising agencies… were cowards; none of them had the courage to question the tactics, much less the truthfulness or motivations of the politicians and their disciples who were bullying Congress, spreading fear, publishing lies, and defaming innocent people.”

Nowadays, America’s mass media and advertising agencies are willing accomplices to smear-fests. But at least there’s free speech on each side, and hardly anyone is persecuted (not hired at all or being fired for not taking a loyalty oath, or thrown in jail for having the wrong friends or not naming names) for their political beliefs. Just smeared. Don Rickles would be proud.

Moreover, it is a good thing that both sides are encouraging citizens to vote. Voting is a gesture that shows belief in the democratic process. A significant number of people need to buy into the process of free and fair elections, in order for democracy to work.

Voter apathy breeds dictatorship. In 1972, voter turnout was the lowest since 1948:  55%. It might be recalled that Richard Nixon was reelected in a landslide.

Anyhow, read the book to learn of the catharsis Shirer underwent that revived his livelihood, and much more.

The Rise of A Prairie Statesman

The Book of the Week is “The Rise of A Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern” by Thomas J. Knock, published in 2016. This biography covered the senator’s life only through the 1960’s, and his remaining history would presumably be told in another volume.

McGovern’s uncle, whose name he got– George– was born into a poor family in 1881. That uncle was the youngest of six children of Irish/Scottish extraction. McGovern’s grandmother died when his youngest uncle was less than a year old. McGovern’s grandfather was a miner; his father– the oldest child in his family– Joseph, too, started mining at nine years old.

Joseph became a Methodist minister in South Dakota, a state with an agricultural economy– wheat and corn. Harsh conditions abounded, including blizzards, locusts, grasshoppers, floods, hail, and prairie fires. And dust storms from drought. To add insult to injury, the Great Depression hit. South Dakota got more financial aid than any other state.

Joseph’s first wife died when he was 49. He wed the second in 1918. McGovern was born in Mitchell, a medium-sized town in July 1922, the second oldest of four siblings. It was “Life With Father.” Nevertheless, leisure pursuits included pheasant hunting, picnics, swimming in the creek, (sneaked-into) movies, etc.

The high school personnel cared about their students. The Episcopalian basketball coach would wake up his team on Sunday mornings to take them to religious services, and then to lunch of burgers and rhubarb pie at a cafe. An English teacher told McGovern to join the debate team to get him out of his shell.

McGovern graduated third in his high school class of one hundred forty. He got a scholarship to Dakota Wesleyan University. During the Depression, the school accepted farm animals and crops in lieu of tuition. But there were no dances, fraternities or sororities allowed because it was Methodist.

In February 1943, McGovern was drafted. He became a war hero, flying 35 bombing missions over Germany. The ten-man flight crews wore heated suits, oxygen masks, and wool-lined boots and gloves because at 20,000 feet altitude, the temperature fell to about minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Life-threatening risks included being shot down, a blown plane engine and/or tires, and damage to a plane and its occupants from anti-aircraft flak. Most of these happened to McGovern and his crews but they survived.

McGovern also suffered psychological trauma when, on a mission, his plane accidentally let go its bomb right onto an Austrian farmhouse, just when it was likely the family would be eating their midday meal. He never found out how many people if any, died in that incident, but the entire place was destroyed.

Through the years, McGovern got married, had five children and earned a PhD in history from Northwestern University in Illinois, on the GI Bill. He traveled to various states to research his thesis on the Colorado Coal strike of 1913-1914. “Through his scholarship, McGovern had become a firsthand witness to the exercise of power without accountability, and he soon surmised that people who held such advantages rarely surrendered it voluntarily.”

McGovern became a professor and coached the debate team at Dakota Wesleyan. He supported Henry Wallace in 1948. Even though McGovern was a “local boy who made good” J. Edgar Hoover still compiled an FBI file on him. McGovern gave up a brilliant teaching career to enter politics. He re-grouped the Democratic Party in South Dakota– traditionally a Republican state– after Adlai Stevenson’s loss to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

In June 1953, the US had fifteen hundred nuclear weapons; by January 1961, eighteen thousand. The nuclear tests in 1958 alone numbered about 81, most of each of them about fifty times more destructive than the bomb that hit Hiroshima.

McGovern’s speeches and writings recommended that America stop such scary stupidity (and cancer cluster proliferation) that was supposedly taking place in the name of peace. To no avail. His voice of reason, one of the few, was outnumbered. An estimate of the cost of nuclear weapons alone was fifteen billion dollars for 1963 alone; in fiscal 1964, the military budget was actually $54.8 billion. This accounted for more than half of the entire federal budget, and exceeded the cost of all the programs of the New Deal from 1933 to 1940.

In September 1963, more than one hundred nations (except for France and China) including the US, signed a nuclear test ban treaty whose inevitable loophole was the allowance for unlimited underground testing. Sure, the treaty banned testing in the sea and air, but humans, due to their nature, are destroying the earth, anyway.

Sadly, many well-intentioned documents governing test bans, arms reduction, peace, economic arrangements and environmental initiatives among nations have historically turned out to be worthless pieces of paper.

A handshake can be as trustworthy (or not) as a document; it depends on whose hands are doing the shaking. Government officials can accomplish things through fear and force, but they won’t earn respect. Or they can exude charisma and make people feel good, even if they break their campaign promises or act against the nation’s best interests. The images of friendly, jokey leaders are more fondly remembered historically than serious, insecure, mean-spirited ones.

McGovern should have continued his academic career. His idea– that instead of possibly overkilling the world with nuclear arms, the money spent to build them could more wisely be used for providing Americans with better education and health care– was ignored. It sucked for him. And the world.

In 1961, after McGovern lost his senate race, President John F. Kennedy appointed McGovern to lead the Food for Peace Program. According to the author, “Adding in the school lunch program, he had coordinated the feeding of more hungry people than any other individual in American history.” Or was it Herbert Hoover?

Anyway, read the book to learn of other international aid programs orchestrated by McGovern and how the humanitarian goal of the original program was turned on its ear (instead of feeding the starving, it fed people in the war machine) unbeknownst to McGovern; the dirty campaigning in McGovern’s senate elections; and his political views and actions on various issues.

The Chief

The Book of the Week is “The Chief, The Life of William Randolph Hearst” by David Nasaw, published in 2000. This tome described not just the life of the media emperor, but the historical backdrop of his generation.

Born in April 1863 in San Francisco, Hearst was a mama’s boy. He grew up in a highly cultured family. However, its fortunes waned, and finally waxed in the 1870’s. The father was in the gold mining business; politics too– he was elected as a Democratic member of the state assembly of California in November 1865.

When Hearst was at Harvard, his mother “…redecorated his rooms [in Matthews Hall] in Harvard crimson, equipped him with a library, hired a maid and valet to look after her boy.” In those days, one student could live in an on-campus suite and have servants. Hearst was an outsider who bought himself a position in society by making the Harvard Lampoon profitable and donating big money to Harvard’s sports teams. But he lacked the manners to get invited to the elitist summer resorts.

In October 1880, Hearst’s father bought San Francisco’s Evening Examiner and turned it into a morning newspaper to win a future election. Father and son helped get Grover Cleveland elected president in November 1884. Two years later, Hearst’s father was elected to the U.S. Senate. Hearst eventually failed out of Harvard.

In his mid-twenties, Hearst got an opportunity to attempt a financial turnaround of the Examiner. He took various creative steps to achieve this goal. The Examiner‘s editorial bent was pro-labor, anti-capital and anti-railroad.

In the 1890’s, the culture of journalism was a mixture of “fact-based reporting, opinion and literature.” Readers liked emotionally-moving stories. They could tolerate a lot of fiction in their news. And they must’ve, when Hearst published made-up war stories to help Cuba gain its independence from Spain in 1898. However, toward the mid-twentieth century, journalism strove to be more objective.

In 1893 at the time Hearst bought the New York Morning Journal, there were eight established morning newspapers in New York. The Journal‘s editorial bent was pro-labor, pro-immigrant and anti-Republican. But it did have anti-African-American cartoons and jokes. According to Hearst, New Yorkers were overpaying for their gas, power, coal, ice, milk and even water due to monopolies (in those days called “trusts”).

In 1900 and 1901, the Hearst papers constantly criticized and even mentioned killing president McKinley. When the president was shot by a madman in September 1901, Hearst was accused of hiring the hitman. In 1902, Hearst was elected to Congress as a Democrat from New York, eleventh district. When he ran for a third term, he gave every man, woman and child in his district a free trip to Coney Island, including most of the Luna Park shows (thousands of tickets). Then he changed his mind and ran for mayor instead in 1905 in an attempt to “drain the swamp.” He wed in 1903, at forty years old. In May 1905, he bought Cosmopolitan magazine, kicking off his entry into the magazine business.

Hearst lived high on the hog and spared no expense when it came to gathering stories for his growing media empire. He paid his employees well, sent droves of them to cover stories which appeared in his newspapers that had more pages and special features than the competition’s. His business was losing more money than ever.

In the early 1920’s, “After 2 decades of debate and agitation, the rise and fall of Populist, Progressive and Socialist parties…” and lots of labor unrest, there was general consensus between government and American business “… that the role of government was not to supersede or control the corporation, but to legalize and legitimize it by regulating its excesses.”

Public relations at the turn of the twentieth century consisted of billboards and posters, newsreels and serial films, stunts, service features and contests. Radio was the next big thing in the 1920’s.

After recording political history for decades, Hearst concluded that “…politicians were, with few exceptions, mendacious, corrupt, and incompetent. The country needed a leader who was not tainted by the political process and was not dependent on the largess of machine politicians or big businessmen.”

On one trip on Hearst’s yacht, with a group of Hollywood celebrities, a movie director was celebrating his 43rd birthday. The director had a major heart attack and later died. All sorts of wild stories abounded in the newspapers that Hearst had killed him. A 2001 FICTIONAL movie called “The Cat’s Meow” was made of one wild-story version. No evidence of any crime has ever surfaced, except Hearst’s violating Prohibition– a crime whose exposure he wanted to avoid. That was the reason he didn’t want the media anywhere near the heart attack victim.

In late 1927, for nearly a month, Hearst had published front page articles based entirely on fictitious sources. He had libeled several nations, dozens of foreign statesmen, at least two prominent American journalists, Oswald Garrison Villard and Ernest Gruening, and four U.S. senators. Yet he wasn’t taken to task on any of that. There’s nothing new under the sun.

Read the book to learn the details of Hearst’s friendly relationships with William Jennings Bryan, Marion Davies, Mussolini, Hitler, Churchill and others; his wire service; his reporting on Tammany Hall; San Simeon and how his other estates with mansions came to be; his art collection; the size to which his media empire grew; his rabid anti-Communist activities; and how he worked his way out of financial ruin. Most of the aforementioned involved disgusting excesses.

inventing late night

The Book of the Week is “inventing late night (sic), Steve Allen and the original tonight show (sic)” by ben alba, published in 2005.  This slightly sloppily edited book tells how Steve Allen created the format for late night talk shows on American television, starting in the early 1950’s.

When television was in its infancy, Allen’s original ad-libbing and off-the-wall physical comedy made audiences laugh through the 1950’s.  However, since history is written by the most prolific propagandists, and Allen was modest and less than aggressive at self-promotion, other entertainment-industry moguls such as Johnny Carson and his ilk, bragged that they were the ones amusing Americans in an unprecedented way on their late-night talk shows. David Letterman was one of the few who attributed his show’s stunts to Allen’s ideas.

In autumn 1954, Pat Weaver, president of NBC, gave Allen free rein to do whatever he wanted on his new, unrehearsed, live (!) program, “Tonight!” What resulted was an unscripted variety show featuring insane stunts, a band, singers, celebrity guests, news and theater reviews. In planning each weeknight’s episode, Allen would loosely specify the number of minutes of each segment– but continue with a segment if it got a great audience response, and cut the next act on the spot. If the show was a bit slow, he would go into the audience to converse with them.  Every minute of airtime was unpredictable. The only segment that was usually predictable, was the music.

Unfortunately, episodes of the taped, live shows were later incinerated due to lack of storage space at the network. Shortly after the airing of the show, the only way for the general public and cast and crew to get a recording was to buy one– a kinescope for $160. The singers made about $300 a week.

Eydie Gorme had this to say: “All of us working singers would go the Brill Building [in Manhattan] and get all the new sheet music, which they gave you free in those days.” Other celebrities who appeared on the show and were interviewed for this book, lamented that of late, performers of recent decades have resorted to obscenity and vulgarity to elicit cheap laughs from the audience, because they lack talent and creativity. Sadly, most audience members are unaware that their intelligence is being insulted. Even so, the younger ones are unaware of how high Steve Allen set the bar for quality entertainment.

Even more impressive– Allen’s show had TWO writers and twenty band members, while nowadays, late-night shows have TWENTY writers and five or six band members.

Read the book to learn the specifics of Allen’s stunts, antics, routines and style, and what changed when he started a second talk show simultaneously with what became “The Tonight Show.”

Michelle Obama

The Book of the Week is “Michelle Obama” by Peter Slevin, published in 2015. In this biography, the author writes that Michelle possesses the skills, talents and abilities of a politician. She is a great public speaker who appeals to blacks of all economic classes. However, the book also implies that she is looking forward to living a life free of the political spotlight and its attendant stresses.

Initially, the book describes the historical backdrop of Michelle’s generation as much as a general overview of her life, and then, Barack’s political life. She is a rare bird, having risen from humble beginnings in Chicago. She is what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as an “outlier.” She grew up in a loving but strict home environment where her parents had high expectations for her, and believed that success could be achieved through hard work. After receiving an elitist education, she became a community organizer. She was able to raise a family while managing her high-powered career despite her politician-husband’s frequent absences, because she got assistance from relatives and close friends, who also rose to prominence and prosperity.

It will be recalled that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack was attacked on various fronts– his beliefs, nationality and high school and college lifestyle. His skin color also evoked the controversial debate on the root causes of black disadvantage.

Michelle’s experience in community organizing came in handy on the campaign trail, enabling her to: exchange personal stories, make one-on-one connections, gather a following and inspire voters and volunteers to lead. Nevertheless, by 2012, Michelle had been characterized as elitist, socialist and militant by her critics.

Upon his election, Barack faced a difficult state of affairs. For, “The $236 billion surplus at the end of the Clinton years turned into a $1.3 trillion deficit under George W. Bush, thanks to substantial Republican-inspired tax cuts for the wealthy and a pair of wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, churning along without end.” Not to mention a recession. Meanwhile, as First Lady, Michelle was expected to hire and supervise staff to work in the the White House, where there are 36 rooms, including 11 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms.

Read the book to learn of the three major political initiatives Michelle launched:  Let’s Move, Joining Forces and Reach Higher, and the details of her life and times.

Trouble Man

The Book of the Week is “Trouble Man” by Steve Turner, published in 1998. This is a biography of Marvin Gaye. His father, a Pentecostal preacher for the House of God church, and violent drunk, was the third oldest of thirteen surviving siblings, born in October 1914.

Gaye was born in April 1939. His full name was Marvin Pentz Gaye II. “His Motown image was still that of a polite, handsome black man who believed in fidelity, success and family life… like his father, Marvin was misogynistic. The function of women, he believed, was to serve and obey men.”

Unfortunately, his life spiraled downward into drug addiction and promiscuity, not unlike another famous and popular peforming artist of a later generation– Richard Pryor. Read the book to learn the details.

You Might Remember Me

The Book of the Week is “You Might Remember Me, The Life and Times of Phil Hartman” by Mike Thomas, published in 2014. This biography has a spoiler in the introduction that ruins the suspense of the ending, if the reader is unfamiliar with Hartman’s life.

Hartman was a multi-talented actor. He did eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, voiced various characters on the animated TV show “The Simpsons” and appeared in various movies. A middle child with seven siblings, he had a difficult childhood.  He thought that people are filled with rage, but many do not know how to express it in healthy ways. As an aside (unrelated to Hartman), if the truth makes one angry, one is living a lie.

Read the book to learn of a major incident involving Hartman in the spring of 1998. His brother John kept a hounding press away from the family. His brother Paul explained why “If it bleeds, it leads”: “People are miserable, and when they see more misery than they’re experiencing [themselves], it makes them feel good.”

Molly Ivins

The Book of the Week is “Molly Ivins” by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith, published in 2009. This is a biography of Molly Ivins– witty, brash journalist.

Born in 1944, Ivins was someone whom Malcolm Gladwell would characterize as an “outlier.” Her daddy was a social climber in the oil industry in Texas. The family was good friends with the political Bush family. They lived in the wealthy area of River Oaks. Ivins and her older sister and younger brother went sailing on her father’s yacht and their house had a swimming pool.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, female journalists were relegated to writing about food, the country club and fashion. Except for Ivins. She did years-long stretches writing about urban issues and politics for newspapers in Minneapolis, New York and Austin. While at the New York Times, she wrote, “I am becoming a Yankees fan, that’s how low I’ve sunk.”

Ivins was morally repulsed by the conflicts journalists had. She thought objectivity in reporting was virtually useless. Her irreverent, wickedly funny articles, frequent participation in the nicotine- and alcohol-fueled social culture of journalists, and her generosity in her personal life earned her a large following.

Read the book to learn the details of how Ivins achieved her fame and eventual fortune.

Louis Renault, A Biography

The Book of the Week is “Louis Renault, A Biography” by Anthony Rhodes, published in 1969.

Renault, an automobile entrepreneur, was born in February 1877. When he began his career, there were only two classes of any real importance in France– the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Renault sold vehicles initially for commercial purposes like taxis, public buses and milk delivery trucks.

By 1905, there were 22 intensely competing European automakers. The year 1908 saw six-cylinder engines made by eight French, ten American, three Belgian and one German manufacturer. In 1909, Renault sold his cars in New York. The goal was to sell 1,200 to 1,500 of them.

In the 1920’s, Citroen, Renault’s chief rival, employed many women in his factories. He conducted an ongoing direct-marketing campaign, mailing letters to potential first-time and new car buyers who had visited the local showroom and expressed interest in a purchase. He also made toy models of his cars for kids. Renault and Citroen competed in starting bus lines between cities in France. Citroen was taken over by Michelin after going bankrupt in 1935.

Read the book to learn of Renault’s accumulation of wealth, his company’s corporate culture and labor troubles, what transpired among automakers during the World Wars and through the decades, and how history dealt Renault a serious blow toward the end of his life.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

The Book of the Week is “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, published in 2009.

This ebook is the inspiring autobiography of a boy born in 1988 in Kasungu, Malawi. He grew up on a farm where corn, tobacco and pumpkins were grown and livestock was raised. The people there believe in witchcraft, but his father believed God protected his family from it because they were Presbyterian. Nevertheless, he wrote, “Sadly, our country’s constitution doesn’t have a clause that protects us from witchcraft.” He recounted incidents in the single-digit 2000’s in which people were put on trial for witchcraft and when deemed guilty, heavily fined.

In the mid 1990’s, entertainment in the “trading center” near Kasungu consisted of “… a thatch hut with wooden benches, a small television, and a VCR” on which to watch movies.  The author and his friends played a game they called “USA versus Vietnam.”

The Malawians celebrate their independence from Great Britain on July 6. Throughout his childhood, the author was a fan of the MTL Wanderers, aka the Nomads, a professional soccer club– the enemy team of the Big Bullets, in the Malawi Super League. He listened to the games on Radio One on a battery-operated radio. There was only one other radio station, Radio Two. Both were run by the government. The author wrote, “Only 2% of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem.”

Read the book to learn of the extreme hardships Kamkwamba and his family faced with respect to famine and his education, and learn of his ingenuity, resourcefulness, persistence and industriousness in doing a project that was eventually noticed by people halfway around the world.