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 Education of a Coach

The Book of the Week is “The Education of a Coach” by David Halberstam, published in 2005. This ebook describes the career of Bill Belichick, eventual head coach of two different professional American football teams from the 1990’s into the 2000’s. His excellence at analyzing films of players in action was instrumental in assembling winning teams and Super Bowl victories.

Job security is poor for coaching positions in college sports departments and in professional sports. There are many factors out of the control of the personnel, and networking is crucial for obtaining the next job, often in a different city. A newly installed athletic director could fire the head coach, and the assistant coaches would have to leave with him. Players could get injured or the team owner could interfere with the coaching of the team. Egos are big and the system for how players are chosen for professional football teams has changed over the decades.

Read the book to learn how Belichick rose to the top and why he ran into trouble in Cleveland but achieved tremendous success in New England.

Island Practice

The Book of the Week is “Island Practice” by Pam Belluck, published in 2012. This ebook discusses in detail, the life of a doctor who has been practicing general medicine and surgery on Nantucket for decades. He is a colorful character: having no qualms about cursing when providing psychotherapy (without a license); making house calls and treating patients at his own house; allowing patients to pay their bills through bartering; not charging indigent patients at all; treating animals as well; maintaining an extensive collection of operative firearms; occasionally allowing a needy person to live with him, his wife and three kids; and engaging in other offbeat pursuits.

Nantucket, a less-than-fifty-square-mile island in Massachusetts, is a socially isolated summer vacation destination for many wealthy celebrities. However, its year-round residents also need medical care, frequently for three serious tick-borne diseases, on which Dr. Lepore is an expert. When a patient has a life-threatening condition that requires immediate treatment, the doctor has them airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in the Boston area. In times of severe weather when aircraft are not flying, he must try to save the patient himself, by doing a Caesarian section or sewing up a hole in a duodenum in a case of pancreatitis.

The author portrays Dr. Lepore as similar to the fictional TV character Dr. Gregory House in that he is often diagnosing “zebras” (rare medical conditions) rather than “horses” (common ailments) through his intuition and then heroically curing the patient while bucking hospital rules.

Read the book to learn of the doctor’s highly irregular approach to practicing medicine, the difficulties and controversies he and his family have faced through the years, and the precarious future that medical professionals like him face, with the introduction of Obamacare.

As an aside, it appeared that this book’s thesis, stated toward the end, is that Obamacare would force doctors such as Lepore out of business. This blogger thinks that that will not occur. The wealthy will always seek out the best medical care, and pay such doctors under the table if necessary, to obtain it. They will find the loopholes in national healthcare to avoid a bad HMO. They would gladly pay the fine for not signing up for Obamacare because the fine will never be sufficiently high to be a deterrent for making their own private arrangements for medical treatment. A major argument some people– not just the wealthy– have against national healthcare– is that it is unfair to make the healthy people pay the high medical bills of the people who knowingly engage in risky, self-destructive behaviors (smoking; poor eating habits, lack of exercise) that result in preventable medical conditions or that exacerbate certain conditions (cancer, obesity, diabetes, etc.) that require expensive medical care. [By the way, this blogger’s medical bills were $0 last year and have been $0 so far this year (this includes out-of-pocket expenses)– for you curious readers.]

Milosevic, Portrait of a Tyrant

The Book of the Week is “Milosevic, Portrait of a Tyrant” by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, published in 1999. This lengthy volume contains the history of the six Slav Republics– Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia– from WWII through the late 1990’s, and the biography of a fascist, supremacist, genocidal terrorist– Slobodan Milosevic. His wife, Mira chimed in at specific moments. They had the usual traits of all tyrannical couples– extreme narcissism, hubris syndrome, refusal to face reality and vengefulness. You can see where this is going, if you’ve read your history. “Western leaders were loath to get involved in the Yugoslav mess.” They got involved insofar as to reap economic benefits and public relations kudos for negotiating peace plans.

Milosevic was born in August 1941 in suburban Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia. His parents, at different times, died via suicide. During his decade-long reign, he was an undiplomatic megalomanaical micromanager, pursuing his goals through conspiracy, deception and force. He demanded mindless loyalty, discarding those who worked for him when their assignments were done. There was high turnover among his staff.

After the Communist Marshal Josip Broz Tito, leader of Yugoslavia died in 1980, Milosevic stepped into the power vacuum. Tito had tried to foster the unity of different ethnic groups. To keep the peace, he allowed them to freely practice their religions. Serb nationalists didn’t like that. They wanted to be dominant.

In the early 1980’s, Milosevic was appointed Communist Chief of Belgrade by his friend, whose family was party-entrenched into the 1980’s. Then in January 1986, he was promoted to Communist party chief of Serbia. His friend became president of Serbia. Milosevic was largely responsible for installing his cronies to strictly enforce Marxism.

Different ethnic groups hated each other. For instance, the Albanians were sworn enemies of the Serbians and the Turks. Milosevic deviously was able to convince each side that he agreed with them. He used a divide and conquer strategy in addressing them, sowing seeds of hatred among them. He would eventually betray his aforementioned friend. Since he didn’t control the army or the police, all he could do was spread propaganda and incite crowds.

Milosevic had the newspaper Politika secretly launch propaganda attacks on his political enemies. He also secured the support of military and party chiefs. Only two groups opposed his usurping of power: the Communist Albanians and his wife’s father’s old-line Communist politicians. Milosevic’s wife disowned her father for that. His secret enemies also included ethnic Albanians, Bosnians, Muslims and Croats. He pushed for Serb nationalism, regardless of whether different ethnic groups supported Communism.

By the fall of 1989, Milosevic had seized political control of Kosovo and a part of Serbia with a high Hungarian population, and Montenegro too. In 1990, he rigged the presidential election for himself, with 53 parties as candidates for Parliament, most run by his operatives.

In spring 1991, there was serious opposition to Milosevic’s desire to take over all of Yugoslavia. In March, he and the dictator of Croatia met secretly to plan how to carve it up. In June 1991, he had no objection to Slovenia’s secession from Yugoslavia because it had virtually no Serb citizens. Croatia, also mostly Catholic, followed suit with its own secession. The Serb dictator had previously been able to eliminate democratic leaders through arrests, intimidation or corruption. Both he and the Croatian dictator incited violence and hatred against the peoples of other Balkan territories.

The Bosnian leader knew his nation was doomed because he saw how ruthless the Serb and Croat dictators were. Bosnia was 44% Muslim, 31% Serb and 17% Croat. By summer 1991, the Serbs were warring against the Croatians. It was mostly independent military groups and not the Yugoslav army. The Serb men who had been drafted didn’t even want to fight. Men were forced to fight against their will. “The regime vigorously suppressed all news about malcontents and desertions. There were political killings of dissenters by the police and paramilitary members.” 

A rumor had it that there were 83 different armed groups in Bosnia, some mercenaries, in the secret pay of Milosevic. A group would go to a village and do ethnic cleansing of Muslims. The Croatian army did this too, demolishing mosques in Bosnia. The Serb dictator denied the existence of the paramilitary groups. There was lots of looting. He was careful to act as though he delegated authority for people on his staff so it would appear that he had less power than he actually had. He left no paper trail.

In autumn of 1991, Milosevic insisted that the nationalists and not the republics were the legitimate constituent units of the Yugoslav Federation. In January 1992, the Bosnian Serbs proclaimed their own republic, separating themselves from the rest of Bosnia. The different territories voted on whether to go to war. The lands Milosevic had under his thumb voted yes: Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina and Kosovo. Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia voted no.

In spring 1992, the United States finally intervened by extending diplomatic recognition (recognizing a country as a sovereignty (independent nation)) to the Muslim government in Sarajevo in Bosnia. The Saudi Arabians had pushed the Americans to do so.

By summer 1992, villages were on fire; Muslims fled. There were detention camps. The Serbs were like Nazis. There had been torture and executions. Student protesters blamed Milosevic for the Siege of Sarajevo. In November 1994, a show-trial was held to judge war criminals. Milosevic’s government controlled the media. The idea of a Greater Serbia was dead in the face of diplomatic recognition of Croatia and Bosnia by the United States, Germany and other European nations. Disaffected nationals held secret meetings planning to overthrow the Serbian dictator. There was palace intrigue.

In late May 1992, the UN imposed a total economic embargo against Yugoslavia. Milosevic used the sanctions as an excuse to say the Serbs were a victim of worldwide conspiracy. From 1991 to January 1993, the Yugoslav citizen’s average monthly salary fell 97%. In a scheme of appearing to be conciliatory, Milosevic got an American business leader of Slavic origin appointed as prime minister. Against the Serb dictator’s secret wishes, the new prime minister wanted to democratize, Westernize and unite Yugoslavia, give it capitalism, and recognize the different nations’ sovereignties. But he knew he had to remove Milosevic from office first.

Prime Minister Milan Panic proposed that Milosevic resign and take a job as a drug company executive in California. Panic got high praise from Yugoslavians. The Serb dictator was hated. Even the media criticized Milosevic. However, the U.S. State Department did not support Panic because the UN sanctions were a delicate matter that the U.S. said needed to be discussed through the UN. Panic wanted the sanctions lifted. The U.S. didn’t want to get involved in the war in Bosnia. Panic pressured Milosevic to resign but he refused. “Panic was in charge of the federal police and secret police but Milosevic controlled the Serb police.”

In October 1992 the Serb police took over the building of the federal police. Panic, fearing civil war, attempted to get the conflict resolved through political rather than military means. His cowardliness prompted the American government to throw its support behind Milosevic. A little later, Panic was a candidate in the Yugoslav presidential election. He lost because Milosevic rigged the election. Shocking.

The Serb dictator’s wife Mira wrote libelous columns in the newspaper. In summer 1994, desperate to hold onto his power, Milosevic attacked the Bosnian Serbs in a propaganda campaign; he had used them to acquire his power just five years earlier.

By 1995, the Serb economy had recovered from a steep currency devaluation of the dinar and its conversion to the Deutschmark imposed in 1993 by Milosevic. The dictator’s wife had welcomed large financial contributions from the newly rich, corrupt businessmen who manipulated the closed Yugoslav market. The state-run media made her book on economics a best seller in 1994. In 1995, she was elected to Russia’s Academy of Sciences. This was as much of a joke as Yasser Arafat’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Read the book to learn what happened in the rest of the 1990’s. Or this blogger could just tell you: more of same. And a boatload of refugees.

American Radical

The Book of the Week is “American Radical, The Life and Times of I.F. Stone” by D.D. Guttenplan, published in 2009. This is the biography of a muckraking journalist, who wrote of “good, honest graft” and the “…human wreckage piling up around me.”

He was born Isadore Feinstein on Christmas Eve, 1907 in Philadelphia. He spoke Yiddish as a second language. In 1924, because his grades were below Harvard standards and there was open enrollment for local residents, “Izzy” as he was affectionately known, began attending the University of Pennsylvania. He changed his name to I.F. Stone at the tail end of his twenties.

The year 1955 saw Congressional surveillance of Stone’s weekly publication “Weekly.” Stone launched lawsuits against his oppressors, arguing that public moneys should not be used to violate his 1st Amendment rights to privacy and freedom of the press. He would have lost his lawsuits but for a curious situation.

James Eastland, chief counsel and chairman of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, included the New York Times as one of many newspapers and magazines he was surveilling. Stone had embarrassed the Times for pointing out inconsistent behavior: the newspaper’s firing of its employees who were accused of Communist leanings. Yet the Times had published articles arguing for civil rights, anti-segregation, condemning McCarthyism and immigration restrictions. The Times was indignant because it thought it was being singled out for investigation by Eastland. Eastland dropped his investigation.

Other organizations accused of harboring Communists included the Boy Scouts, Voice of America, the USO and YMCA. The Justice Department‘s whole roster of professional informers was finally discredited…” when an ex-Communist admitted to fabricating the allegations against the organizations. In fall 1955, finally, there was vindication of Stone and other activists who were under threat of arrest or deportation or subpoena.

This blogger believes the author’s historical accounts are misleading in spots; he implies that in 1948, when the Israelis had achieved military victory over the Arabs in their war for an independent homeland, the Arabs fled. Historical accounts other than this book say that the Israelis subjected the Arabs to a forced evacuation from their homes where they had been residing for generations.

The result of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, according to the author, was cause for celebration for Stone, because a new government was installed that would impose socialism, and Stone was all for socialism. The author neglects to mention that the Soviets crushed the revolt in an orgy of bloodshed. Then the author goes on to say that Stone misread the Suez Canal Crisis.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn modern history through the eyes of a smartass reporter who called a spade a spade most of the time.

Jimi Hendrix

The Book of the Week is “Jimi Hendrix” by Sharon Lawrence, published in 2005. This ebook is the biography of the world-renowned guitarist.

Hendrix suffered numerous hardships and deprivation in his childhood. Born in 1942, he was shuttled among various relatives, including his alcoholic father– divorced from his mother when he was 9; she died when he was in his mid-teens. He developed a passion for music, which was his one solace.

By the mid-1960’s, he had formed a band with two other musicians, and they were touring and recording on an unusually rigorous schedule. This prompted them to resort to partaking of pills, marijuana, hashish and LSD to mitigate severe sleep deprivation and stress.

Hendrix was afforded the opportunity to meet or play music with many other rock stars of his generation. Due to his incredible talent, he experienced tremendous fame very suddenly. Unfortunately, he was too passive and nice. Read the book to learn the details of how Hendrix fared after he allowed numerous greedy, manipulative and ungrateful people to enter his life.

 

Cronkite

The Book of the Week is “Cronkite” by Douglas Brinkley, published in 2012. This tome is the biography of Walter Cronkite. Born in 1916, he was one of the first news reporters to appear on television. He spent most of his career at CBS, covering most of the major historical events of the twentieth century. He developed a reputation for trustworthiness in delivering information to Americans at a time when the nation watched an excessive amount of TV.

In the 1950’s, stiff and awkward newsmen initially read the headlines aloud in fifteen minute segments. Eventually, reporters broadcast on-location, and coverage was lengthened to half an hour and then an hour– and sometimes much longer (during political conventions and after assassinations) to provide more in-depth stories.

There were occasions when Cronkite “…abandoned all the rules of objective journalism he had learned…” such as during WWII, when, according to the author, he “… eagerly wrote propaganda for the good of the Allied cause.” The first TV anchorman believed that journalism was obligated to expose tyranny everywhere in the world. At the same time, he was concerned that TV could be used as a communication vehicle for hate speech.

This blogger thinks Cronkite’s concern smacks a little of arrogance and hypocrisy. Either, there should be free speech for all, or for none. The United States has committed and hushed up its share of political sins. In addition, it is too difficult to define hate speech. Some people might argue that hate speech is any communication that is offensive to the people in a society at large. How many of which people? Some might argue that the speakers have a right to express their opinions, or say whatever they want in the context of entertainment. In the United States, if an issue is controversial enough, the U.S. Supreme Court– nine people– are in charge of a majority vote that decides what constitutes “opinions” or “entertainment.”

This blogger thinks society is better off allowing blanket freedom of expression, than imposing a totalitarian gag order. For, American citizens have placed sufficient trust in their system of government to continue, more or less, to uphold a Constitution from its beginnings; the pendulum has swung back and forth with regard to numerous First Amendment issues. Nevertheless, movements that oppress free speech, whether hateful or not, on a large scale, are unsustainable in the long term, as are movements that spout hate speech.

For instance, the McCarthy Era did see a number of years in which people were oppressed for expressing unpopular political views, associating with those who did so, or being falsely accused of associating with those who did so. However, some witchhunt victims–a minority of the population of the entire nation– sacrificed their livelihood or their lives; backlash reached critical mass among the majority, and the nation righted itself again.

The author says that in the 1950’s, Cronkite also believed in objective reporting. He thought that a reporter covering a political election should refrain from expressing his preference for a particular candidate. Nevertheless, whenever it was convenient for furthering his career, Cronkite abandoned objectivity, like in WWII. He was a “huge cheerleader for NASA,” established in the summer of 1958. The “Space Race” (between the United States and the then-Soviet Union) was a great distraction. In 1962, a massive, six hundred square foot screen was placed “…on top of the central mezzanine in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal so commuters could watch [astronaut] John Glenn on CBS.” Besides, the newsman’s Vietnam War reporting included graphic images of atrocities every night in 1965.

Cronkite understood the conflict CBS faced as a profit-making organization. The network needed to entertain its audience in order to sell advertising to stay in business. It was in CBS’ best economic interest to report news inoffensive to Southern viewers, for example, during the Civil Rights Era; a tall order, to say the least. By 1960, critics thought that the head of CBS, William Paley, was shying away from controversial news reporting to please Republicans and big business.

Read the book to learn more of Cronkite’s role in informing the nation on what was happening, what he made happen, and his commentary on what happened over the course of about four decades. One caveat:  the book is wrong by one year on at least three major, recent historical events–  the year Iraq invaded Kuwait, the year the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal started, and the Y2K situation.

Bad Boy Ballmer

The Book of the Week is “Bad Boy Ballmer, the Man Who Rules Microsoft” by Frederic Alan Maxwell, published in 2002. This ebook recounts the history of Microsoft and the career of its co-founder, Steve Ballmer.

Ballmer grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, which was a community comprised of “intense and well-funded academic, athletic, and social competition, and a high level of parental expectation, involvement, and support.” Ballmer’s father decided he was going to attend Harvard College. Fortunately, his superb academic record proved sufficient for acceptance. There, he met Bill Gates. They struck up a friendship and started Microsoft in the spring of 1975.

In the early 1980’s, under Ballmer’s and Gates’ auspices, the company created applications software that worked best on its own operating systems. This was one of many of Microsoft’s monopolistic practices that prompted government investigations and many lawsuits against it. Legally, financially and politically astute, Microsoft successfully defended itself for well over a decade, and employed unlawful dirty tricks in taking swipes at IBM, Sun Microsystems, Netscape and many other companies that made competing products. The whole time, Microsoft arrogantly denied it was a monopoly.

In the summer of 1998, Ballmer was named president of the company, which was still dogged by accusations of illegal business practices. The corporate culture had changed for the worse, and employee turnover rose. In order to boost morale, Ballmer “scheduled one-on-one interviews with the top hundred of Microsoft’s now thirty-five thousand employees, asking them what they thought was wrong with the company and how it could change.”

Ballmer told the press that his $180 billion company was overvalued. Shortly thereafter, on September 23, 1999, Microsoft’s NASDAQ stock price plummeted. Shareholders in the Seattle area alone suffered collective losses of $11 billion, or over “$3,000 for every man, woman, child and dog.” Other tech stocks fell precipitously as well. It was thought that Ballmer’s remark was a deliberate strategy to financially debilitate Microsoft’s rivals, which lacked the resources his company did.

Performance of Microsoft employees was reviewed every six months, on a 5-point scale. Managers competed for the privilege of supervising employees awarded high scores. However, the system had an inherent unfairness in that some managers gave 3’s for 4.5-level work, because they were supposed to rank their subordinates pursuant to the normal curve.

Read the book to learn more about how Ballmer’s personality and actions shaped Microsoft for over a quarter of a century.

Beam, Straight Up

The Book of the Week is “Beam, Straight Up: The Bold Story of the First Family of Bourbon” by Fred Noe, with Jim Kokoris, published in 2012.  This autobiographical book recounts the history of the brand of Kentucky bourbon known as “Jim Beam” as told by a descendant of the company’s founder.

The drink recipe dates back to the 1790’s, and the family first started selling whiskey in 1795. Bourbon is a kind of whiskey. The name Bourbon was derived from the county name in Kentucky in about 1820.

Whiskey is “a spirit that’s made from a grain like corn, rye, wheat or barley.” A whiskey can be called bourbon only if it is comprised of a minimum of 51% corn, that has been aged a minimum of two years “inside charred, new oak barrels that can only be used once.”

Other varieties of whiskey include scotch (mostly barley), Canadian (mostly rye) and Irish (mostly malted barley). “Thanks to our innovation and our premiumization (upscale brands), bourbon was the fastest-growing large category in the United States in 2011.”

In the early days, the family shipped the bourbon in oak barrels on flatboats via streams and rivers, of which Kentucky likely has more than any other state. In the 1850’s, railroads and steamboats began to serve as additional shipping channels.

The spirit industry had its share of problems through the decades. In the 1920’s, there was Prohibition. Other drinks containing alcohol including vodka, scotch, wine and beer rose in popularity. Even so, competing whiskey-making companies would assist each other when they faced various equipment failures due to disasters.

Noe writes, “Sometimes I think the whole world is like one big bar, and I’m the world’s bartender.”

The Man Time Forgot

The Book of the Week is “The Man Time Forgot” by Isaiah Wilner, published in 2007.  This ebook tells the history of Time magazine, and contains the biographies of its two original business partners. According to this account, Brit Hadden alone came up with the concept for the magazine, and partnered with Henry Luce to create the publishing company for it.

The concept was to cobble together days-old stories from all the news outlets and retell them in a sassy way, intended to provoke controversy. Hadden believed “Controversy is unrest, and unrest breathes the spirit of progress.” In the mid-1920’s, one could get away with reprinting articles without crediting his sources.

In the nineteen teens, Luce and Hadden had developed a contentious but complementary relationship at the elitist Hotchkiss, a private boarding school in Connecticut, and then continued their teamwork on academic publications at Yale college. There, they competed in a rigorous contest whose prizes consisted of opportunities to work on the school newspaper. They both made the cut.

During WWI, the president of the college allowed academic credit to be given for military courses. In fact, the school became largely a military training ground in the war years. Hadden and Luce availed themselves of training but stayed stateside, although in 1918, President Wilson lowered the age of conscription to 18.

Postwar, consumerism abounded. “As households bought their first automobiles, washing machines and phonographs, companies plastered the streets with billboards.” The public spent its leisure time partaking of magazines, newspapers, books, movies and radio. Sensationalism had become big business.

More and more American residents were able to experience common entertainment. This was advantageous for the ad sales success of Time. When the magazine met its “rate base”– a minimum number of magazines being circulated among the public– it was able to charge more money to its advertisers. Direct mail was a budding advertising outlet for the magazine itself, of which it took full advantage. By the early 1920’s, Time had tens of thousands of readers.

It took several years for Hadden to convince the Post Office to classify Time as a newspaper, affording the national publication faster delivery from its sole office in New York City.

Letters to the editor (some were fictional, concoted by Hadden) was a favorite section of the magazine. The author contends that “Time remained the place to hear the full-throated call of the average American moron, expressing his prejudices with confidence and joy. Subscribers enjoyed reading such letters…”

Sadly, Hadden’s poor health resulted in his untimely death. Until he himself died, Luce was extremely reluctant to concede that Time was Hadden’s idea, and released propaganda making himself and Hadden co-founders. He failed to credit Hadden as the magazine’s true sole creator. Such deception boosted his ego and brought him undeserved honors. Such can be the nature of publishing and public relations.