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.

Living History

The Book of the Week is “Living History” by Chaim Herzog, published in 1996. This autobiography describes the life of a Jew who participated in Palestine’s military and political life before, during and after its birth as the state of Israel.

Herzog’s father was named chief rabbi of Ireland in mid-1919.  As a teenager, the author chose to leave Ireland to attend school in Palestine. At that time, there were three competing, underground intelligence services in Palestine: the Haganah, Irgun and the Stern Group.  The author joined the Haganah. His father was named chief rabbi of Palestine in 1937.

In 1938, the author started his undergraduate years in London, then studied law at Cambridge University. Upon graduating in 1941, he immediately volunteered for the British Army. As an intelligence officer, he interrogated German prisoners of war.

After the war, Herzog’s father helped orphaned children who had previously had a Jewish identity to move to Palestine, fighting against their conversions by the Catholic Church, which had hidden and taken care of them during the war. Herzog himself helped promote the settling of Jews in Palestine.

The author married Aura Eban, daughter of Abba. Originally from Egypt, she completed a special program that enabled her to join the Israeli diplomatic corps, then in its infancy. Herzog and his wife worked in the most dangerous areas of Jerusalem. During Israel’s war for independence, the enemies’ (Arabs’) terrorist car bombs were all the rage.

In 1949, truces were signed with Israel and its neighbors– Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan and Syria. The rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization meant that “Any Arab politician who was visibly friendly toward Israel faced serious, often fatal, repercussions” from retaliatory terrorist attacks.

David Ben Gurion watched television in Oxford and “…decided it was the ruin of mankind.” That was why Israel’s people were unable to have a television in their homes until 1968.

In autumn 1984, after a new government was formed in the country, (according to the author) Prime Minister Shimon Peres performed an economic miracle.  He had reduced the inflation rate from 450% in July to 20% in October, via an agreement among the government, the trade unions and industrialists. The resulting 30% compensation decrease of the unions curbed unemployment and saved the economy. However, he still failed to achieve world peace. And cure cancer.

Read the book to learn of what transpired when the French were looking to withdraw troops from Algeria, of the Israeli government’s internal power struggles in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, of the political positions held by the author, and what he accomplished in each of them through the decades.

Caribbean Time Bomb

The Book of the Week is “Caribbean Time Bomb” by Robert Coram, published in 1993. This is a book on Antigua describing the Bird family’s dictatorship in the second half of the twentieth century.

Antigua’s history is largely similar to that of Haiti– an eastern Caribbean island with sugar plantations, dictators and generous financial aid from the United States to ward off overtures from nearby Communist Cuba.

In 1674, Antigua became a colony of Great Britain, whose military kept slave uprisings at bay. Abolitionism in 1834 saw the slaves freed but they had no where else to go, and needed jobs. Therefore, plantation owners got away with paying them slave wages, and didn’t have to feed, house and clothe them.

In 1951, the unions extracted major concessions from management, thanks to V.C. Bird. However, in 1968, he had his law enforcement team spray tear gas at protesting workers. Tim Hector, a journalist/activist/newspaper publisher educated the workers on what to do.

In the 1970’s, Antigua’s economy switched from one based on sugar plantations to that on tourism. The nation achieved independence in 1981, but there was still plenty of black-on-black violence and racial tension with wealthy white tourists.

In the next few decades, the country became a source of huge scandals perpetrated by the government, some of which were clandestinely aided and abetted by the CIA. It also harbored foreign-national white-collar criminals on the run. There was excessive money to be made in infrastructure projects whose planners (corrupt government workers) lined their own pockets with public funds and fed their own egos.  There was no shortage of greed, incompetence, criminality, cost overruns and delays.

Read the book to learn of the Sovereign Order of New Aragon, the would-be aristocracy of Antigua’s sister island of Redonda, the environmental destruction of it and its other sister island, Barbuda, plus the reasons the Birds were able to maintain their stranglehold on power in Antigua for so long, despite its unbelievably bad financial condition.

CNN, The Inside Story

The Book of the Week is “CNN, The Inside Story” by Hank Whittemore, published in 1990. This volume tells the history of CNN, Cable News Network. The point of CNN was to create an alternative to the then-three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, that monopolized American TV.

In 1976, Ted Turner owned a company that provided cable TV via satellite, consisting of games of the professional sports teams owned by him, and movies. By the end of the 1970’s his goal was to start a 24-hour cable network of just news. He was like the American president Donald Trump in that “…Turner had set the goal and the deadline and the sense of mission; and now, as he always did, he was putting together the people who knew how to make it happen.” However, the entertainment industry in the United States is a completely different animal from the federal government.

Nevertheless, a headquarters– a previously decrepit structure, gutted and created from scratch– for the new cable channel in Atlanta, had been readied sufficiently to provide minimal functionality in six months. The secretary of Reese Schonfeld, a high executive in the venture, had this to say, “… they had sketched out the whole newsroom one night on the back of a grocery bag…”

Launched in mid-1980, CNN evolved into a “revolving door” station (viewers tuned in periodically to see whether there was breaking news; they didn’t watch it every second) because it had to do things on the cheap and fill 24 hours of airtime every 24 hours. The big three networks practiced cartelizing behavior in order to shut CNN out of information-sharing. So CNN sued all parties involved, not just the networks.

Read the book to learn of what became of CNN, up until the book’s writing.