Front Row At the White House

The Book of the Week is “Front Row At the White House, My Life and Times” by Helen Thomas, published in 1999. The cover of this volume hints at a career memoir, but the contents are mostly about other people and topics– namely, U.S. president-related information meant to entertain as much as inform, targeted at female readers.

Born in 1920, Thomas grew up in Detroit in a family of nine children. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English, she hired on at United Press, a news wire service, assisting with radio broadcasts. When men went off to fight WWII, opportunities became available for women in journalism.

However, in the 1950’s, female journalists were forced to form their own press club; for, until 1971, they were banned from the National Press Club. Thomas was president of the women’s group for the 1959-1960 term. In 1975, she was the first woman to be admitted to the Gridiron Club. It is known mostly for having an annual dinner that roasts elective officeholders.

At the very end of 1960, the author was assigned to cover the White House. She did this for 38 years. It appears that she gathered “soft” news until around the Reagan Era, when her male bosses allowed her to do what the men had been doing. Nevertheless, she built a reputation for herself as a hard-hitting reporter (figuratively).

Initially, Thomas interviewed store owners that sold goods and services to Jackie Kennedy, and wrote about Jackie’s children. Acquiring such information was more difficult than it looked, as Jackie actively hid herself and her children from the media. The tabloid gossip during Lyndon Johnson’s administration included Thomas’ scoop on his daughter’s engagement.

Thomas wasn’t allowed to cover serious political issues until the 1980’s. Yet, ironically, here in the double-digit 2000’s, “journalism” has come full circle. The media is allowed to cover whatever they want. Yet, increasingly, in recent decades, they have continued to insult viewers’, readers’ and listeners’ intelligence. There used to be people called journalists who reported facts. And they checked them.

Now there are people on TV reading Teleprompters, on the radio reading scripts, and providing screen-based text stating their opinions on: the first lady’s clothing, the president’s diet, and all manner of comments from narcissistic attention whores on Twitter. Other outlets are commenting on the fact that their competitors are covering this stupid trivia. Ad nauseam.

Anyway, the author rambled on about press secretaries of Kennedy onward. She described the renovations done to the White House and Air Force One, and the food served in them. She also provided a detailed account of a Washington, D.C. busybody who got involved with the Watergate scandal.

Martha Mitchell (the wife of President Richard Nixon’s campaign manager and Justice Department head, John Mitchell) complained that Nixon wanted her husband to take the rap for the coverup. She also knew Nixon was evil and said– this was about a year and a half before it actually happened– the president should resign.  In August 1974, finally vindicated, she went on the talk-show circuit.

Thomas delved into the personal lives of the first ladies, and how they stood by their men. She showed how President Ronald Reagan’s best friends were plausible denial and willful ignorance.

Read the book to learn much more about trivial White House goings-on from JFK to Bill Clinton, but also– a summary of hard political and historical facts on each president’s administration. Perhaps the latter should have become a separate book– as it could be a valuable resource for a unit on American presidents for a high school social studies class.

Turmoil and Triumph

The Book of the Week is “Turmoil and Triumph, My Years as Secretary of State” by George P. Shultz, published in 1993. This tome described the author’s every conversation, meeting and diplomatic action, complete with historical backdrop– the behind-the scenes issue-wrangling that occurred among top U.S. officials and world leaders during the author’s tenure as secretary of state under president Ronald Reagan.

Shultz came to office in the summer of 1982, after Alexander Haig’s resignation. Shultz was very careful to minimize conflicts of interest– resigning as president of Bechtel and from teaching at Stanford University. He put his assets in a truly blind trust– not managed by family members.

The policy of the administration with regard to most matters of international diplomacy seemed to be “Might makes right.” Cold War hysteria was still in full force, and the United States continually stockpiled weaponry and sent its troops to foreign shores on various continents to deter the Soviets from taking over more territory. Starting at the tail end of the 1970’s through the 1980’s, hostage-taking was all the rage. Terrorist groups sponsored by evil regimes were using people as bargaining chips to achieve their political goals at every turn. The U.S. therefore used the threat of its weaponry and armed forces at every turn.

When Shultz took office, controversy was raging over the Israelis’ attack on the PLO in Lebanon. Various countries– Israel, Jordan, Syria, Iran, NATO countries, and the United States were jockeying for position in the complicated situation. Shultz, of course, tried to represent the interests of the United States– oil accessibility and continued goodwill with Israel.

Unfortunately, Israel had been and continued to be unnecessarily militarily hostile in various ways. Reagan simply decided to have the United States troops leave Lebanon altogether rather than risk additional deaths of Americans– which wasn’t necessarily a cowardly act. That would avoid a quagmire like Vietnam. But a year later, in the autumn of 1983, the American military was back in Lebanon. And in Grenada.

According to Shultz, “The report was sharp and clear:  some Western democracies were again ready to use the military strength they had harbored and built up over the years in defense of their principles and interest.”

Eighteen American troops died in Grenada during the “rescue” operation of one thousand American medical students (who weren’t in immediate danger, according to some people who were physically present, contrary to Shultz’s account) at the school there. The CIA had convinced Shultz that Grenada was a weapons-transporting-Cuban-aircraft refueling stop between Cuba and Angola or Ethiopia.

In summer 1983, there was a power struggle between the National Security Council and Shultz over America’s policy in Central America, when he learned that both he and Congress weren’t informed of the agency’s activities. In summer 1984, the Council authorized U.S. peace-keeping forces to engage in a secret mission in Honduras.

This was ostensibly to protect the Contras, a Nicaraguan fighting force (generously rewarded by the United States because they were anti-Communist) that had infiltrated Honduras. According to what Shultz was told at the time, Saudi Arabia was sending financial aid of one million dollars a month to the Contras. Shultz wrote that he wanted that allowance to end by the end of 1984.

The CIA told Shultz that the Soviets were sending the Sandinistas (the Contras’ enemy) Czech-made weaponry. In addition, the spy agency ordered the American military to line Nicaragua’s harbors with land mines. An international court said that was a crime.

In 1985, Shultz agreed with the policy conveyed by America to foreign officials– that it was against sending arms to Iraq and Iran, in order to discourage them from continuing their war.

At that time, Shultz said he himself, at least one member of the State Department, and a counter-terrorist official weren’t informed that National Security Council adviser Bud McFarlane and non-government individuals were arranging arms sales from Israel to Iran. This, in order for strings to be pulled to release American hostages held by terrorist groups in Lebanon. Others in on the deal included John Kelly, Middle East ambassador from the United States– located in Beirut, the CIA, and some people in the White House.

By November 1986, it was revealed that McFarlane and four others flew to Tehran using phony Irish passports to make the secret deal. Shultz did admit to encouraging talks for the release of hostages, but absent arms sales. He felt that selling arms to a rogue state would be an invitation for them to keep taking hostages one by one to acquire more arms.

White House spokesman Larry Speakes claimed that Shultz knew about the deal during its execution. Treasury Secretary and later Chief of Staff Don Regan claimed the same– at least since a November 1985 meeting. Shultz said no, he didn’t know. Incidentally, Congress didn’t know. Reagan claimed he didn’t. Then he did. Then he didn’t. No one will ever know. Admiral John Poindexter contended that he just found out in November 1986.

[Insert scandal here.]

Poindexter changed his story after it was revealed that some Iranian-weapons-sales-proceeds had been sent to the Contras in Nicaragua. It was just by chance that the CIA head William Casey was debilitated by a brain tumor when he was. Otherwise, the scheming co-conspirators would have continued their clandestine activities.

Shultz egotistically wrote, “… we have lied to the American people and misused our friends abroad. We are revealed to have been dealing with some of the sleaziest international characters around… There is a Watergate-like atmosphere around here as the White House staff has become secretive, self-deluding, and vindictive… But almost every aspect of our foreign policy agenda will suffer unless the  president makes the decision now to halt this operation and let me clean up the mess.”

Shultz was aggrieved that in the Reagan Era, foreign policy and intelligence analysis were commingled at the CIA. Shultz– at the State Department, was left out of the loop. Separating those functions previously minimized possible abuses because the State Department used to handle policy; the CIA, analysis.

Further, having people who weren’t currently U.S. government employees, represent the United States abroad in diplomacy was risky. Shultz pointed out that people such as Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson weren’t accountable to the American government. A secretary of state, prior to taking office– like Shultz– was subjected to a rigorous vetting process. Shultz was outraged that during Iran-Contra, clowns off the street who had friends in high places were allowed to be hostage negotiators, unbeknownst to him.

Anyhow, most of the book described the arms-reduction talks between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. There was a tug-of-war over the interpretation of the ABM Treaty. Reagan had agreed to allow the military to begin a research project into the “Strategic Defense Initiative” — a weapons system that was decades away from actual implementation and broke the bank, but was intended to scare the Soviets into agreeing to do away with more of its offensive weapons than otherwise.

There were indications that Reagan was going senile, but Shultz tried to gloze over them and cover for him when he became loopy in public. “Once a certain arrangement of facts was in his head, I could hardly ever get them out.”

Read the book to learn of the untold taxpayer dollars that were wasted making dictatorial shenanigans go away (amid a flurry of propaganda) in Haiti, Panama, the Philippines, Libya, Chile, Angola, Namibia and South Africa; the three skills a secretary of state should have; of every last interaction between the Reagan administration and the Soviets; and how Shultz (according to Shultz) saved Reagan’s presidency.

Leadership

The Book of the Week is “Leadership” by Rudy Giuliani, published in 2002. This was a description of actions the author took in supervising and managing people to accomplish his law-enforcement and political goals.

In general, Giuliani wrote that when he was mayor of New York City in the second half of the 1990’s through 2001, he did his homework and lived by the motto “be prepared.” He held an 8am daily meeting for high-level officials of major city agencies for purposes of communication, identifying problem areas, and monitoring progress.

In 2000, he was planning to run for the Senate. However, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The media behaved the way they usually do. “First of all, a great deal of the coverage was wrong. Reporters were talking about me to doctors I’d never even met… Television networks… asked if I’d be willing to have a camera come with me to my MRI and other extremely private moments– even a digital rectal examination.”

The author felt that it was important to learn the basics about every aspect of his administration- through reading, not just talking to people. He wrote, “It helps you distinguish between authentic and make-believe experts, the truly competent and the ideological knee jerkers.”

Giuliani was a very popular mayor who was credited with cleaning up Times Square and truly taking care of New Yorkers.

However, this book’s structure was redundant. It kept returning to the subjects of his law-enforcement achievements and what he saw and did on and after 9/11. Read the book to learn the details of this bragfest (notwithstanding the fact that the man has bragging rights.)

Scorpions for Breakfast

The Book of the Week is “Scorpions for Breakfast” by Jan Brewer, published in 2011.  This book– which cited no sources when stating facts and statistics– is about an anti-ILLEGAL-immigration bill proposed and signed by then-governor (Republican) of Arizona, Jan Brewer, in April 2010.

Even though the book cited no sources whatsoever, it seems these days, that the answer to every question about hard numbers and factual data is, “It depends on whom you ask” anyway. The burden of proof is now on the reader, viewer or listener to look up “the facts” because he or she has the entirety of human knowledge at his or fingertips, so why should information and opinion providers do more work than they absolutely have to?

It is impossible to speak with comprehensive knowledge, but the late New York State governor Al Smith and the late TV journalist Peter Jennings– to name just two voracious researchers– were truly passionate about their subjects, did their homework, so that they would be able to speak with knowledge in convincing their audiences that they knew what they were talking about.

According to the book (which appears to be credible), in 1994, a fence was built in the San Diego area to keep out illegal immigrants. Violent crimes decreased significantly. There were fewer accusations of civil rights violations against Border Patrol as well. El Paso, Texas was another area that took steps to curb illegal immigration. People-smuggling was then shifted to Arizona, as it had the next-best geographic location along the Mexican border.

Illegals trespassed on Arizona ranches near the border, littering, setting fires, breaking water lines, scaring cattle, and committing other acts of mischief. By 2003, the sociopathic ruthless Mexican drug cartels were getting violent about protecting their smuggling routes. In Phoenix, they committed home invasions of, and extorted from, their competitors, and had gunfights on the I-10 freeway.

Gangs were getting more efficient at trafficking illegals– guiding tens of people all at once, at thousands of dollars per head a few times a week, and forcing them to lug backpacks of marijuana across the border to boot. Meth, cocaine and heroin were other lucrative products that made the trip.

The people willing to risk their lives for a better life, were deposited at a “drop house” where heavily armed guards would demand additional money from their payers or relatives, torturing or killing the captives when the mood struck them.

Due to illegal immigration to Arizona, not only did crime rise, but there was overcrowding at education, health care and correctional facilities. As of the book’s writing, according to the author, more than three quarters of illegal immigrants in California and New York State were on public assistance. Elsewhere in the book, the author had one brief sentence of elaboration on how this was possible, as one would think that identification documents are required for people to collect money from the government. The answer is that illegals have babies in the United States. The babies are automatically American citizens. Many people theorize that the Democrats do nothing to stop illegal immigration because those babies grow up to become Democratic voters.

After the death of a rancher in March 2010 and previous years of lack of interest from the federal government, Brewer decided to take action by proposing a bill to curb illegal immigration.

Unfortunately for Arizona, members of Congress and the president take steps to protect the borders of the United States only insofar as it is politically advantageous to do so.

The author wrote, not unreasonably, “…with limited funds available to provide social services, those services should go first and foremost to citizens.” That point was also part of the reason for Senate Bill 1070. Before she signed the bill, Brewer’s office was bombarded with hate mail, including death threats.

As it usually does, the liberal mainstream media spread inflammatory, defamatory, misleading propaganda saying that the Arizona governor was going to unleash a racist witchhunt against Hispanics. President Obama didn’t disagree. At least two spokespersons from his office bad-mouthed the ten-page bill something awful, but admitted that they hadn’t read it— as though they had been playing a game of telephone. Unsurprisingly, the unwashed masses chimed in with a vast quantity of unfortunate remarks and inane comments.

Yet another campaign of misinformation was launched by a childish (aren’t they all?) hidden-camera reality show that portrayed Arizona’s proposed anti-illegal-immigration law in a bad light, to put it mildly.

In January 2011, there was a shooting spree in Tucson. The press blamed Arizonans, gun owners, the Tea Party (remember them?) and supporters of Senate Bill 1070 for the mass murder.

Read the book to learn of the law’s fate, the author’s career history, of an episode in her life that might indicate that she’s not a racist, and other (uncited but credible) claims she made about the trials and tribulations she suffered to put forth her immigration policy.

Man of the House

The Book of the Week is “Man of the House” by Tip O’Neill with William Novak, published in 1987.  This is the career memoir of Tip O’Neill, politician from Massachusetts.

O’Neill had a leg up in politics because his father controlled thousands of civil service jobs as a member of the Cambridge City Council and superintendent of sewers in the very early 1900’s.  Born in December 1912, O’Neill himself was elected to the Massachusetts legislature at just 24 years old. In 1977, he was named Speaker of the House.

In the 1940’s, members of the federal government made numerous, important deals behind closed doors. Secrecy prevailed with regard to the federal budget. When the author protested that a pork-barrel project for his state had been omitted after approval in 1949, a colleague reassured him, “We’ll just put it back in… After all, nobody knows what the figures were.”

Conflicts of interest also abounded, but were considered business as usual in the early to mid-twentieth century.  For example, all Congressmen’s expenses of a 1950’s annual leisure event at the Cleveland Indians’ spring training camp in Daytona Beach, Florida were paid for by local merchants: every Easter break, the two major political parties played a baseball game against each other. The purpose was to promote the area as a vacation destination. According to the author, the Democrats always won. However, he remarked that one Congressman alone usually cannot push through legislation and that is why bribery of one House member doesn’t work.

Another memorable, one-time, traumatic event for the author was when a shooting spree took place on the House floor in March 1954. The five gunmen from Puerto Rico injured several people but no one was killed. Fatefully, just prior to the incident, O’Neill had been called outside by a Boston Globe reporter.

In September 1967, O’Neill informed his constituents that he was changing from hawk to dove on the Vietnam War. This was a politically unpopular action, as the press and most of the Democrats still favored the war. Various members of the CIA and the military had secretly agreed with him. His reasoning was that, because President Lyndon Johnson was refraining from using aggressive firepower, the Americans could never win militarily. Johnson feared that mining harbors, disabling bridges and power plants in Vietnam would spark involvement by the Russians and/or Chinese. So, inefficient guerrilla warfare continued for years, taking many lives needlessly.

Additionally, the author showed that there’s nothing new under the sun. In the 1970’s, Evans and Novak, a well-known pair of political journalists, were nicknamed “Errors and Nonfacts” around D.C. “They’re also known for publishing negative stories about members of Congress, stories often leaked to them by people who don’t have much knowledge and aren’t much respected on Capitol Hill.” Besides, O’Neill wrote that a power-hungry Chief of Staff working for a president who likes to delegate is a “formula for disaster.”

On another topic, the author commented that President Jimmy Carter was the one who actually implemented deregulation in various industries and drew attention to the ballooning federal deficit. Nevertheless, in 1977, Carter’s energy bill would need to be reviewed by as many as seventeen different committees and subcommittees in the House, and each group would object to portions of the document.

Read the book to learn how O’Neill was instrumental in getting the package passed; the evils that Presidents Nixon and Reagan perpetrated; what Lee Iacocca did; how the attitude of Americans has become mean-spirited starting under Reagan, and much more.

Against the Grain

The Book of the Week is “Against the Grain” by Boris Yeltsin, published in 1990. This is the career memoir of the Soviet politician.

Born in 1931, Yeltsin always had a keen sense of justice that got him into trouble.  For, his country’s leadership ruled by fear, force and deferment to the head of state for ultimate authority on all matters, rather than (like in the U.S.) open discussion, checks and balances, and consensus more or less.

After graduating from university, he learned all twelve building trades– carpenter, plasterer, glazier, painter, etc. He then decided to put his management skills to work for the Soviet government in the 1970’s.

Yeltsin was First Party Secretary in Sverdlovsk for nineteen years. He started a chess club after Anatoly Karpov complained that there was none in his district. He also organized a local volleyball team, as that was his favorite sport. He built a road and improved the housing of the worst-off citizens there.

By the early 1980’s, the government of the U.S.S.R. had fallen into stagnation under a lack of strong leadership from Leonid Brezhnev.

Crooked backroom deals were the norm, as top government officials were resistant to sacrifice their lavish perks in order to serve their nation’s citizens. Such perks included use of a luxury dacha, a car and driver available 24/7, the highest level of medical expertise the country had to offer, and a variety of expensive foods that were unavailable to the general population. Even so, because all of these were actually State-owned, the top government official (Gorbachev) could confiscate any of them on a whim. Furthermore, Yeltsin wrote, “It had been drummed into everyone from kindergarten onward that we were supposed to thank the Party [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] for all our achievements.”

Gorbachev’s attempts to reform his nation’s government resulted in two linguistic terms that were tossed around for a decade or so:  glasnost and perestroika. Yeltsin had a strong desire to implement the policies they were supposed to represent. A sign that the former was working, was the unprecedented Moscow newspaper coverage of stories on vice and corruption among local politicians. However, it took some years for the author and others to engender the power struggle required to get the country moving again.

In June of 1988, the author delivered a government-conference speech that contained the following: “Clearly, we all need to master the rules of political discussion, to tolerate dissenting opinions as Lenin did; not to hang labels on people and not to regard them as heretics.”

Read the book to learn how the author came to hold different Moscow political positions while numerous government officials and organizations tried to discredit him and ruin his reputation; and of his proposals to improve the governance of the then-Soviet Union.

The Age of Turbulence

The Book of the Week is “The Age of Turbulence” by Alan Greenspan, published in 2007. This is a career memoir / global macroeconomics overview in one tome. Perhaps it should have been split into two books so as to be more comprehensive, as the author, in describing the recent economic affairs of India, Russia and China, failed to mention major factors in connection therewith; such as the caste system, Jeffrey Sachs’ advice to Boris Yeltsin, and a detailed description of China’s one-child policy.

Born in 1926, Greenspan studied business and finance at New York University after WWII. While there, he spent two months on freelance work doing economics research. It involved pencil, paper and a slide rule. These days, it would take minutes and involve software.

In August 1974, the author was appointed chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. He cited President Nixon’s price and wage controls as an example of government action that leads to resistance from the market. The first quarter of 1976 saw the U.S. economy grow at 9.3% and the second quarter, at less than 2%. Greenspan was not alarmed by this kind of extreme swing; however, the slowing economy caused voters to choose Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford for president in 1976. During Carter’s term, economists learned that the way for a country to achieve long-term prosperity is to control inflation. The reason Carter caused financial havoc was that his economic goals contradicted each other.

In summer 1987, Greenspan became chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank. In 1993, Bill Clinton chose to reduce the federal deficit rather than keep his campaign promises that necessitated increasing spending on various items. He could not afford to do both. The result was a budget surplus by 1998.

In late 1994, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve had to take action to prevent Mexico’s financial collapse. Otherwise, the southwestern states would be adversely affected, and immigrants coming into the U.S. would double.

In 1996, more and more households were exposing themselves to equity risks. Even so, introduction of the World Wide Web appears to have been an innovation that temporarily increased the economy’s ability to expand on an unusually grand scale. Approximately during the Web’s first decade, the economy wasn’t in a normal business cycle. The Web’s ability to make information available instantaneously, thus reducing uncertainty, provided a major boost to corporate America. The Fed, therefore, raised interest rates to curb inflation only in autumn 1998, what with the dire financial straits of the Russians, and hedge fund Long Term Capital Management’s bailout.

In the autumn of 2002, the Republicans turned a deaf ear to the author when he tried to tell them why it was important to rein in spending and renew the Budget Enforcement Act. He already had a difficult job, as he explained, “But too often we have to deal with incomplete and faulty data, unreasoning human fear, and inadequate legal clarity.” Nevertheless, Greenspan is optimistic about the future because the level of worldwide commerce and living standards can continue to rise indefinitely. He believes the presence of wholly competitive free markets and ever-improving technology are what drive them.

Read the book to learn about the two major elements required for a market economy and two others that are essential for growth and prosperity; the factors involved in predicting the health of the U.S. economy in 2030; three important influences on global growth; about the nature of economic populism, and much more.

My Wild World

The Book of the Week is “My Wild World” by Joan Embery With Denise Demong, published in 1980. This is the career memoir of an animal lover and trainer.
The San Diego Zoo was founded in 1916. In the late 1960’s, the author went to work for the Children’s Zoo there. An entry-level position normally involves lots of dirty work.
By early 1970, Embery was a public relations representative for the zoo. She went on numerous TV shows such as “What’s My Line” and “The Steve Allen Show” to promote the animals. One of her signature feats was training Carol the elephant to paint by holding a brush with her trunk.
Training animals is challenging and entertaining, but can also be a frustrating, dangerous business. Lots of behind-the-scenes work goes into simply displaying animals at a zoo; never mind animal shows. Many specialists are involved, including a lawyer (in the United States, of course), veterinarians, pathologists and behaviorists.

In 1969, the San Diego Zoo began to build the Wild Animal Park, a monorail ride for visitors that shows wild animals in their natural habitat. A major issue always associated with animals is finding sufficient space for housing them. The Siberian tiger can weigh as much as 800 lbs, and an elephant gains about 60 lbs a month when it is maturing. Various birth control methods are employed to minimize overbreeding.

In the early 1980’s, a computer database was initiated to the facilitate the exchange of animals among zoological establishments, to foster the reproduction of endangered animals.

Read the book to learn of the author’s experiences working and performing with, and serving as owner of, exotic animals such as pachyderms, reptiles, marsupials, predatory cats, and more.