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.

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.

Financier

The Book of the Week is “Financier, The Biography of Andre Meyer, a Story of Money, Power, and the Reshaping of American Business” by Cary Reich, published in 1983.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Meyer was a pioneer of the mergers and acquisitions craze in corporate America. He was the head honcho at the investment banking firm of Lazard Freres.

The firm exploited the trend, switching from supplying venture capital to advising its clients which were institutional, to form conglomerates, because it was thought that bigger was better. Other firms spent big bucks on research analysts, whose pronouncements were sometimes wrong. Lazard specialized in numerous, diverse, creatively structured deals.

Beginning in August 1951, for instance, for the purpose of minimizing the tax on the purchase and sale of an eight hundred thousand acre cattle ranch in Texas, over what turned out to be the course of a decade– Lazard split up the real property into sixteen different parcels, each owned by a different corporate entity. This way, the eventual 80% profit on the approximately $18 million investment was classified as capital gains (taxed at 25%) rather than real-estate income (taxed at 90% in those days; that’s not a typo).

The absolutely most valuable investment in the 1950’s and 1960’s was real estate because inflation was only 1%, and real estate ventures were easy to form. This was shown by Bill Zeckendorf, who (after obtaining loans with usurious terms on various occasions from Lazard), in August 1968, with assets of $1.8 million and debt of $79 million, rose from the ashes of bankruptcy to form General Property Corporation, and continued doing real estate business.

In early 1977, Meyer “… was convinced that the world was heading for economic apocalypse, that capitalism was dying, that government deficits and inflation were out of hand, and that nothing was a safe investment any longer… Should you buy gold? Stocks? Art? Bonds? And he didn’t want to buy anything.”

A man with his life experience should have known better. As is well known, the economy recovered within a decade. Granted, it got worse before it got better, and of course, shortly after that, there occurred a stock market crash and recession. But one need only wait ten years or less to see major changes in the nation’s economics (and politics for that matter; not that there aren’t lingering scars).

Excuse the cliche, but this too, shall pass.

Read the book to learn about Meyer’s major deals, the corporate culture of Lazard Freres, and how its reputation was hurt when it became too creative with its complicated stock swaps in its underwriting activities.

George F. Kennan

The Book of the Week is “George F. Kennan, An American Life” by John Lewis Gaddis, published in 2011. This is the biography of an emotionally troubled American diplomat, an expert in Russian– the language and mentality– who became known for his historical writings on the Cold War power struggles between the United States and the Soviet Union; the struggles arose from the the two rivals’ weaponry and opposing ideologies.

Born in February 1904 in Milwaukee, Kennan was raised by his three older sisters and other relatives after his mother died in spring 1904. His father was 52 years old.

In 1910, Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor. The city was a melting pot of Western, Eastern and Northern European immigrants. Kennan graduated from a military school, then from Princeton University. The Foreign Service had recently become a civil service job, comprised of Northeastern elitists.

After passing its two exams, starting in 1927, Kennan was posted to Geneva, then Hamburg, then on to Estonia to learn Russian. He met his 21-year old wife in Norway. They eventually had four children. After stints in Riga in Latvia, and Prague, he spent most of the rest of his career in Berlin, Moscow, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey.

In 1944, as WWII was winding down, Kennan tried to convince President Franklin Roosevelt to sternly warn the USSR not to expand geographically. Roosevelt, in a tough position, argued that the Allies couldn’t win the war without the USSR’s military assistance, so he had to tread lightly with Stalin; Harry Truman, too. The president had to deal with one issue at a time. Those men in Los Alamos couldn’t say how soon the atomic bomb would be ready. That was the kicker.

Stalin tried a divide and conquer strategy– to drive a wedge between the United Kingdom and the United States so they would fight. Nevertheless, after the war, they became best friends.

For the second time, and it wouldn’t be the last, Kennan submitted a letter of resignation, as he perceived that his counsel and advice were being ignored. Nevertheless, he was convinced to stay on at the Foreign Service. He read the classic novels and plays of Tolstoy, Chekhov and others to understand the Soviets’ behavior.

In February 1946, Kennan sent a telegram which later became famous, urging the United States to take a hard line with the Soviets. But it was already too late. Six months later, he “…saw how Soviet ambitions, American complacency, and British weakness might combine to upset the balance of power in Europe.”

According to the author, Kennan’s input for the Marshall Plan– whose purpose was to financially aid the then-needy, war-ravaged European nations (with the true goal of warding off a Communist takeover)– was to suggest to offer such aid to the Soviets knowing Stalin would reject it. Stalin also told the Soviet satellites to reject the aid. The Americans then knew which countries needed help (in countering Communism).

In summer 1947, Kennan recommended that the sixteen countries split up the aid themselves rather than let the United States decide, so that way, the USSR couldn’t claim the United States was acting imperialistically. The recipients could spend the funds on food, arms– whatever they wanted.

Around that time, the US established the CIA. Kennan agreed that the organization should conduct covert operations to keep up with the KGB. He later regretted agreeing on that issue.

The US couldn’t afford to politically, militarily and financially help all nations vulnerable to Soviet domination, but Kennan advised President Truman on which regions were most at risk, and where America’s resources should be deployed. He told him to cease assisting Chinese Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai Shek because Stalin had already staked out strategic military locations within striking distance of China, and China posed a minor threat to the US, having a shaky economy anyway.

In short, Kennan believed in particularism– a practice of selectivity in taking action against the Soviets. The newly formed United Nations believed in universalism– all nations should share and share alike, regardless of cultures and ideologies.

In early 1948, the Soviets took over the Czechoslovakian government. In the spring, in a lesser wrong, America meddled in Italy’s election– threatening to cut off Marshall Plan aid to the government if people voted for the Communist party instead of the Social Democrats. Additionally, Italian Americans wrote lots of letters to the Vatican, which told Italian voters for whom not to vote.

In January 1957, pursuant to the Suez Canal Crisis, President Eisenhower signed legislation based on the doctrine that the United States would financially and militarily assist any Middle Eastern nations vulnerable to Communist influence.

In 1978, Kennan became a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. Due to his prolific writing and prominence, he got special treatment– continued to be treated like a full-time professor. Private donors such as the Rockefeller family, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and Warren Buffett funded his continued tenure.

Read the book to learn why Kennan was expelled from the US embassy in Moscow, of a proposal that would result in German reunification in the 1950’s, of one step Eisenhower took in deciding the Soviet question, of Kennan’s activities after his Foreign Service career, of America’s relationship with Yugoslavia’s leader Josip Broz Tito, and much more.

American Governor

The Book of the Week is “American Governor, Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption” by Matt Katz, published in 2016. Christie was a two-term New Jersey governor known for skillful fund-raising, telling cute stories, and verbally attacking the media, hecklers and political opponents.

In September 1962 in Newark, New Jersey, Christie was born to be a politician. He was elected to leadership roles beginning in high school. He argued for civil rights as a student-officeholder in college. But his stands on most major issues prompted him to become a Republican.

Christie entered politics after practicing law as a commercial litigator with the help of his law partner’s contacts. He started to work in politics in the early 1990’s. After 9/11, he was appointed by George W. Bush to the patronage position of U.S. Attorney (chief prosecutor) for the state of New Jersey. He lacked the criminal-law experience for it, but learned on the job.

He drained the swamp of dirty New Jersey politicians of both parties. At the same time, he was collecting goodwill by doling out multi-million dollar legal contracts to big-money political donors.

After his election to the New Jersey governorship in 2009, out of necessity, Christie was forced to work with a Democrat-controlled legislature. Otherwise, he would have gotten nothing done.

To his credit, Christie “… was a big guy who knew how to get people to sit down and shut up and compromise– just what Washington needed.” He was so good at fundraising because his staffers identified community influencers at the most local levels, and invited them to town hall meetings.

However, “The reformers, led by [Newark mayor Cory] Booker and Christie, were shockingly naive about how closing schools with little public input would upend the daily lives of Newarkers.” Christie argued or voted in favor of a series of anti-liberal policies which hurt the poor in housing, wages, heating and cooling of homes, and food stamps.

Additionally, due to the purported reason of a fiscal crisis, he “… froze almost all construction funding for the state’s poorest school districts.” (It would have killed him to raise taxes; then he wouldn’t get reelected.) This led to the cancellation of the building of a new school in the neighborhood of Lanning Square in the city of Camden. Instead of a new school, Christie’s crony would get the opportunity to construct a building for his medical school on the site, plus five privately funded schools in Camden.

Christie gave tax breaks of tens of or millions of dollars to a diverse bunch of businesses to get them to stay in his state so that they “created jobs” (and bragging rights for politicians). Over the years, those tax breaks resulted in: the creation of tens of jobs, a net dollar value of hundreds of thousands in benefits’ going to the state, and incalculable billions of dollars in lost tax revenue; showing yet again that cronyism thrived in Christie’s New Jersey.

And now, as an aside, an interesting factoid: “Christie had met Bill and Hillary Clinton in January 2005 at Donald Trump’s wedding.” And another: In January 2014, he signed the Dream Act, which (conditionally) allows children of illegal immigrants to qualify for (greatly discounted) in-state college tuition.

However, the major incident for which former Governor Christie will be remembered is “Bridgegate.” His political enemies turned out to be sufficiently aggressive to turn it into a humungous scandal.

Deliberately-created traffic congestion by a handful of people in Christie’s organization caused hours-long delays in September 2013 for five days in a row during the morning rush hour on the George Washington Bridge (GWB)– that links New Jersey and New York City. This was done for the purpose of petty, political retaliation against the mayor of a New Jersey suburb in GWB territory. That mayor had declined to endorse Christie for gubernatorial reelection.

It is a shame that Christie’s political record of unethical behavior in so many areas that ended his political career negated the one good thing he did that had long-term positive results– eliminated a significant amount of corruption in New Jersey.

The same seems to be happening with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio: the one good thing he did was institute free pre-kindergarten across the city. There is ample evidence that this is a game-changer– it helps “even the playing field” for kids of all economic and social levels. The earlier the intervention in the lives of at-risk kids, the better. Preschool is not too soon.

Research has shown that the kids who have home environments with severe deprivations, are significantly less likely become career criminals when, in very early childhood, they are provided with a safe place that provides resources to assist them in learning, and learning how to interact with other children.

However, de Blasio’s alleged wrongs in recent years in fund-raising activities and housing, both steeped in patronage (like Chris Christie’s administration) — just to name two of many issues– have earned him numerous political enemies.

Anyway, read the book to learn more about the above GWB scandal, and Christie’s fights with New Jersey’s civil service unions – especially the teachers’; how he sold out environmentally; why his approval rating soared immediately following Hurricane Sandy; his actions on a range of other issues such as drugs, abortion and gun control, and much more.

The Chief – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “The Chief, The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts” by Joan Biskupic, published in 2019. This slightly redundant biography described prominent U.S. Supreme-Court cases in detail, explaining them for laypeople. Most of the cases revolved around issues with which the United States continues to grapple, especially various kinds of discrimination.

Born in January 1955 in western New York State, Roberts and his family moved to Indiana near the Illinois border when he was about eight years old. He turned into a staunch conservative Republican.

The burning question that must be answered in any given case, that would determine whether favoritism or compensation should be given to the victims of discrimination, is whether, as a group, the victims– having been oppressed for so long– have caught up to the rest of society, with regard to the case’s area of life covered; education, housing, employment, political elections, financial dealings and other day-to-day situations.

In the applicable areas of life, whether and how much discrimination still exists is of course, extremely subjective (given the anecdotal evidence and propaganda wars from both sides). Each case needs to be decided on an individual basis because the times are continually changing. If the victims have yet to catch up, it is because one thing leads to another. If for decades, they’ve been rejected from, say, colleges based on their skin color, they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to employment opportunities, which leads to financial disadvantages and a slew of other lifestyle limitations. It’s not just a matter of compensating victims for past wrongs against them– the wrongs (if there were wrongs) held them back from being treated equally with others for decades longer.

It is impossible to require truly color-blind acceptance policies, however. And of course, there’s always that lingering uncertainty whether the college applicants were accepted more for– when compared with their peers– their potential success in furthering their education, than for their skin color.

Roberts claimed the Supreme Court was nonpartisan in handing down decisions. But– the Court has been divided 4-4 or 5-4 practically all the time in famous cases, because each of its presiding justices has consistently subscribed to a particular political persuasion in his or her opinions.

Further, appointments of Supreme Court Justices (or lack thereof) have been fiercely political in recent decades. “From the start of Obama’s presidency [Mitch] McConnell had put up hurdles to Obama’s lower Court nominations, ensuring, for instance, that not a single appointment was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit in Obama’s first term.”

Read the book to learn of the many ways Roberts made known his political beliefs through his Court pronouncements.

Leading Lady

The Book of the Week is “Leading Lady, Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker” by Stephen Galloway, published in 2017.

The subject of this movie-studio-executive biography was born in July 1944 in Chicago. She had a younger sister. Her biological father died of a heart condition when she was almost nine years old. That childhood trauma made her driven to succeed in life. But she took her stepfather’s last name, Lansing.

After graduating from Northwestern University, she and her medical-student husband moved to Los Angeles so she could pursue her dream of becoming an actress. To earn a living, she became a substitute teacher.

She suffered through three years of cattle calls and other indignities, which allegedly did not include sexual favors for career advancement. Arguably, in retrospect, there were mitigating factors to the culpability of men who displayed behavior on the continuum of sexual harassment of women in the entertainment industry.

In Lansing’s generation, both females and males accepted the continually reinforced gender-stereotypes in American culture, especially in that line of work. The vast majority of women never thought to question their enforced inferiority. The tiny number who did, were left silently seething.

Any woman who dared to enter the entertainment industry knew that that was the status quo, or quickly found that out. Institutionalized gender discrimination was a fact of life. Nowadays, of course, men’s offensive behavior is considered by everyone to be inexcusable, but accusations are still very hard to prove, absent reliable witnesses or physical evidence.

Anyhow, Lansing finally got a few roles, the most exciting of which was a bit-part on the TV show Laugh-In. However, the phoniness of acting wasn’t for her; she found she needed to be true to herself and the world.

Lansing, then 26, had cultivated valuable Hollywood contacts, one of whom, a producer, gave her work as a script-reader. Again, in the 1960’s, movie-making was still a male-dominated field, in which few women were able to tolerate the old-boy-network’s frat-boy behavior if they were trying to climb the corporate ladder. Lansing had a calm, peace-inducing temperament and engaging personality. She was able to keep her mouth shut and endure her hostile work environment until such time as she wielded the power to work with men as an equal.

That time came in November 1992, when Lansing became chair and CEO of Paramount Pictures’ movie division. Nevertheless, her work involved a boatload of stress and worries. She was the ultimate decisionmaker on whether a movie got made, but there were frequent problems with, and fierce arguments over hiring crews, financing, casting, shooting, screening, promoting, etc.

By the 1990’s, studios were forced to jointly pay production costs because filmmaking had become so expensive with high-tech special effects and for other reasons. So the relocating of the shooting of Braveheart from Scotland to Ireland due to foul weather, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Irish government provided 1,700 extras on the set, free of charge. Despite the astronomical costs of Titanic, the movie reached its break-even point prior to the revenue streams of cable TV, home entertainment and ancillary markets. Eventually it raked in revenues of $2.19 billion.

But after ten years at the top, Lansing was becoming disenchanted with the trends of the industry. For, “…the quality of pictures no longer seemed essential… clever sales strategies could redeem all but the most abysmal of movies.” In other words, execrable movies that never should have been made were profitable, anyway– the marketers had become more important than the producers, casts and crews. Curiously, the same thing happened in publishing– the people managing the creative side of the business got greedy when cultural changes caused costs to rise.

Besides, Lansing asked, “How did the Oscars become the monstrosity where people [movie studios] are spending zillions and having parties and slipping things here and there? What happened to the camaraderie?” It should not have come as a surprise that by early 2003, Wal-Mart had become one of the largest distributors of DVD’s in the nation.

Read the book to learn more about Lansing’s career trials, tribulations and successes, her personal life, and the activities she found more fulfilling after she left Paramount.

No Room For Small Dreams / Rabin / My Country, My Life (Very Long Post)

The First Book of the Week is “No Room for Small Dreams–Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel” by Shimon Peres, published in 2017. This is the autobiography of the late prime minister (in the mid-1980’s) of Israel.

Born in 1923, Peres spent the first decade of his life in a shtetl on the Russia/Poland border. In 1934, his (Jewish) family moved to Palestine seeking religious freedom. At fifteen years old, he put his natural leadership skills to good use at the kibbutz Ben-Shemen. The institution was like boarding school, but it emphasized the teaching of skills for agriculture and use of weaponry more than academic subjects.

In 1941, Peres moved to Kibbutz Alumot, where he herded sheep amid olive and date groves. The youths there lived in tents lacking electricity and indoor plumbing.

After WWII, when the Jews were pushing for statehood, Peres became a disciple of David Ben Gurion. He favored a partition between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. In 1947, Ben Gurion recruited him for the Haganah, one of the intelligence services of Palestine. However, his lack of fluency in the English language was a handicap. This was remedied in June 1949, when he began to attend the New School for Social Research in New York City. Three years later, he and his family moved back to Israel, where he took a position in the Defense Ministry, and assisted with the founding of El Al Airlines.

In the early 1950’s, neither Great Britain nor the United States was in the mood to sell arms to Israel. Peres found an unexpected supplier in France. In addition, in the summer of 1957, France allegedly mentored Israel in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. In connection therewith, Peres claimed that he planned and organized the construction of a top-secret corporate village in the Negev desert near Beersheba to give the world the impression that Israel was a superpower.

In 1959, the author was elected to the Knesset and also kept a position in the Defense Ministry. In the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Egypt and Syria limited the spoils of their victory to territory they lost in the 1967 Six-Day war. According to the author, in the 1973 war, Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat refrained from attacking Israel’s central cities for fear it would retaliate with weapons of mass destruction. Apparently, threat of retaliation was not a deterrent to small-time terrorist groups, such as the PLO, who intermittently killed the Jewish state’s citizens, a few at a time, for decades.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of Peres’ brilliant political career (according to him) as an economic genius and peacemaker with Jordan and the PLO. Yet, Peres admits he played the former role thanks to Israel’s cozy relationship with the United States. Yassir Arafat could not really guarantee and did not take responsibility for, violence perpetrated by the organization he headed; foolish Peres failed to take heed of the following cliche: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

The Second Book of the Week is “Rabin, Our Life, His Legacy” by Leah Rabin, published in 1997.

Born in April 1928 in Prussia, Leah Rabin met her husband Yitzhak in Palestine’s co-ed military intelligence service– the Palmach– in the 1940’s. The group was actually a secret society because it was deemed illegal by the British authorities.

In Palestine, the author and her beloved lived in a kibbutz or a tent and did farming, herding, hiking and jogging. And firearms training, not to mention military-attack drills. In the summer of 1946, due to Leah’s sixth sense about imminent danger, she avoided getting arrested by the British, but Yitzhak was caught. However, the weaponry hidden in the women’s body cavities went undiscovered because frisking of females by the authorities was chivalrous in those days.

In 1948, after spending more than four months in jail, Yitzhak became a commander in the Harel Brigade, one of three newly formed Palmach divisions. The group became part of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF)– the Israeli military– in 1949. Ten years later, Yitzhak was chief of operations of the IDF.

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel (which achieved its independence in spring 1948), belonged to the Mapai (Labor) party.  Yitzhak didn’t, and therefore Ben-Gurion favored other men over him when he staffed his government and formulated military policy.

In November 1963, the Rabins made a diplomatic visit to the United States. Just after they returned to Israel, they learned that President John F. Kennedy was dead. “Yitzhak… had just completed an intensive study of state-of-the-art defense and security practices from the most powerful nation in the world, and suddenly we learned that this country’s chief executive was slain by a lone gunman.”

Shortly thereafter, Yitzhak took a break from military matters to become a social butterfly– an ambassador to the U.S., from Israel. Such a lifestyle involves having cocktails, attending parties, making small talk and gossip mongering. In 1973, Yitzhak tried his hand at elective office. He won a seat in the Knesset in the Labor party, and an appointment as Minister of Labor.

In April 1974, Golda Meir felt obligated to resign as Israel’s fifth Prime Minister due to the mishandling of the Yom Kippur war, which had occurred about six months prior. Yitzhak was voted in as her replacement. He was battered about by political contentiousness and decided after three years to resign his Prime Minister post. He remained a member of the Knesset, though. Political comebacks are not uncommon in Israel. Yitzhak staged his in the autumn of 1984. He became the Minister of Defense.

That was when the Mapai and Likud (Conservative) parties merged in order to form a major voting bloc. The new entity was called the National Unity Party. In 1985, Yitzhak helped supervise the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Jordan. He became Prime Minister again in 1992.

In the first half of the 1990’s, Yitzhak Rabin sat down at the negotiating table with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat. Many people thought Arafat was a terrorist who led a terrorist group and would never be trustworthy, and Yitzhak was being way too nice.

Further, U.S. president Bill Clinton, the mediator of the peace talks, had a credibility problem. So– it was kind of like a diplomatic charade because sincerity wasn’t a strong suit of at least two of the three parties there. Further, regardless of the ulterior motives of the three parties involved– history had already shown grave doubts as to whether durable agreements could be reached between the two centuries-long rivals.

Israel had previously had a policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists such as Arafat and had refused to meet with them under any circumstances. However, Rabin believed in appeasement of the Egyptians and Jordanians as well. He was willing to hear them out and sign documents that were supposed to foster peace in the Middle East. In this way, he garnered a lot of political enemies. Ironically, he was shot at a peace rally.

Read the book to learn the details of what transpired, the aftermath (especially the aftermath– through Leah’s eyes) and many more details of Israeli history and Rabin’s role in it.

The Third Book of the Week is “My Country, My Life– Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace” by Ehud Barak, published in 2018.

Born in 1942 in one of the early kibbutzim– Mishmar Hasharon– the small village north of Tel Aviv, Barak pursued a military career from the 1960’s into the 1980’s, alternating it with his education. He led special forces on secret missions. He eventually earned a degree in physics from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a master’s degree in operations management from Stanford University.

Barak seemed a bit resentful about Israel’s dependence on the United States for its very existence; for, when describing the Yom Kippur War, he omitted the inconvenient fact that the United States sent weapons to Israel when the nation’s ability to defend itself was in serious doubt.

Barak began his political career in summer 1995 when he joined Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet. At his first vote, he abstained, holding onto his belief that Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories pursuant to the Oslo agreements was the wrong thing to do.

However, during peace talks with Syria, Barak thought the major question was whether, if Israel were to withdraw from the Golan Heights, it could still have a secure border. As a former (military) chief of staff, he argued in the affirmative.

In late winter and spring 1996 during election season, the terrorist group Hamas tried to reduce Shimon Peres’ chances of an election victory by killing tens of Israelis in terrorist attacks. It and Islamic Jihad viewed him as a traitor for conducting negotiations with Yasser Arafat. Peres was forced to retire at 73 years old.

In June 1996, Barak was elected leader of Israel’s Labor Party. It seemed Barak changed his tune and wanted to comply with the Oslo accords in the next couple of years. He got angry at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for delaying Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories. Netanyahu was desperate for power, and withdrawal was politically unpopular.

In summer 1999, Barak was elected prime minister. In May 2000, he ordered the departure of Israeli troops from Lebanon, despite the shenanigans of the PLO in its territorial / recognition / non-belligerence discussions with the Israelis. He rambled on for page after page, detailing the summer 2000 back-and-forth with Arafat, still moderated by U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Arafat turned out to be a tease for two weeks (before Barak realized he’d been played for a fool)– not budging an inch, not counter-offering any concessions while Barak bent over backwards to offer the Palestinians sovereignty over East Jerusalem, a large portion of the occupied territories and the holy sites.

Barak lost his reelection bid in 2001, so he retired. Read the book to learn more about Barak’s life, his views on various political issues, the current situation regarding the Israelis and Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s leadership.

ENDNOTE: A distracting grammatical error that is becoming more and more widespread was made repeatedly throughout the book (the word before the gerund should be possessive):

“Though I wasn’t sure about legal provisions for officers leaving the army…” [It should be officers’ leaving the army]

“What were the prospects of Arafat reining in Hamas and Islamic Jihad?” [It should be Arafat’s reining in …]

John Tyler/Benjamin Harrison

The First Book of the Week is “John Tyler, The Accidental President” by Edward P. Crapol, published in 2006. This wordy, redundant career biography described the ideology and actions of a little-known American president and his times.

Born in March 1790, Tyler was an elitist trained for leadership in his youth. The education curriculum included Shakespeare, Anglophobia and male role models, including his father, with whom he studied law. At seventeen years old, he graduated from the College of William and Mary.

In the early 1830’s, abolitionists created a national anti-slavery organization. They launched petitioning and postal campaigns which were met with verbal harassment, egg and rock throwing, and censorship of the mail. The slave owners spread the vicious rumor that the abolitionists were colluding with the British– who had decided that slavery was uncool and had set free their slaves.

In April 1841, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia after one month in office. Tyler, 51 years old, then serving as vice president (rather than other high government officials) became President of the United States because he aggressively convinced the government that he should.

As a point of pride, Tyler was eager to geographically and populationally expand the United States. He boasted about what a great model for freedom America was in the world. To this end, he wanted to welcome European refugees onto America’s shores and promote free trade.

But Tyler was a hypocrite in various ways. He owned tens of slaves in his workforce at his home in Virginia. He used his personal slaves in the White House as butler and valet. He exploited female slaves sexually.

Able to project an image of independent thinking, or have the chameleon-like flexibility of a politician, Tyler refrained from declaring himself a member of the major political parties of the time– the Whigs, Democrats or Liberty Party. He voted against creating a national bank– defying checks and balances of power by keeping his own (executive) and the legislative branch (which was supposed to have financial oversight of government operations), together.

In the early 1840’s, Tyler unwittingly did good by appointing a Navy secretary who appointed a superintendent who believed in scientific research using the Navy’s resources.

Tyler made a diplomatic trade trip to China, arriving in February of 1844. By summer of that year, he truly completed a deal (didn’t just boast about having a deal that was still in progress) to sell to China, America’s excess goods. In the next five years, the total dollar value of goods exchanged, doubled.

Read the book to learn of Tyler’s various territorial, slavery-related, Constitutional and States’ Rights controversies– in Oregon, Hawaii, Texas, and Maine’s Canadian border– on behalf of the United States (in which the president launched a propaganda campaign funded by a secret slush fund (illegally) unbeknownst to Congress), his relationships with Britain, France, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, post-presidency hot-button issues (which he covered in speaking tours, and about which he didn’t shut up until his death), and more.


The Second Book of the Week is “Benjamin Harrison” by Charles W. Calhoun, published in 2005. This is a brief career biography of America’s 23rd president, whose grandfather William Henry Harrison, was the ninth president.

Born in August 1833 in North Bend, Ohio into a big family, Benjamin Harrison studied political science, economics and debating in college, and then studied law, graduating in June 1852. Like his mother, he was a devout Presbyterian.

At the time, the type of capitalism practiced in England involved a vicious economic cycle: robber barons, who– among other exploitative practices– paid starvation wages to workers, who, in turn, required government welfare. The government taxed the workers so that they needed additional welfare.

For the rest of the 1850’s, Harrison established his career practicing law and holding various Republican leadership positions in Indiana and at his church. In summer 1862, he volunteered to fight for the Union in the American civil war. He worked his way up to brigade commander.

The (financial) Panic of 1873 made Harrison more wealthy than ever by giving him copious legal work. But that is not why he viewed the depression as a good thing. It was good because after a time, it put a stop to America’s excesses.

For years, people had been engaging in gambling, thinking they would get rich quick. Excuse the cliche, “The only place ‘success’ comes before ‘work’ is in the dictionary.” He knew that rewards came over time through focused labor and clean living.

Beginning in 1880, Harrison was elected as a Republican senator from Indiana. He believed in equal opportunity for all, including blacks, and integrated co-education. He thought the most important political issue of the day was black enfranchisement.

In 1888, Harrison was drafted by his fellow Republicans to run for president. His opponent went on a campaign tour. “Long tradition called for a presidential nominee to discuss the issues in a formal letter of acceptance but otherwise remain at home and leave the hard campaigning to surrogates.” Harrison stayed in Indiana and representatives from his political network visited him. He made speeches which were printed in all the major newspapers within a day. That’s how he reached voters.

Harrison was super-cooperative with Congress, pushing through 531 pieces of legislation during his administration. In early 1891, he secured trade agreements with Brazil, Central American nations and Austria-Hungary. However, he pointedly avoided a deal with Canada because that country was neither going to stop importing factory products from England to purchase America’s, nor would it purchase America’s food from farms.

Read the book to learn of the hot-button political issues of Harrison’s time (hint– there were contentious arguments on various economic fronts); of why he was a one-term president; and of many more details about his professional and personal beliefs, accomplishments and incidents.