One Of Us

The Book of the Week is “One of Us” by Tom Wicker.  This is a biography of Richard Nixon, published in 1991.

This book discusses aspects of the late president’s psychology as well as his life story and historical events. Nixon had an inferiority complex. He always felt like an outsider in Washington because he was a Duke University, rather than an Ivy League, graduate. He used an apt phrase to describe the focus one needs to succeed in a law career: a “lead butt” that can sit in a chair for hours, reading.

Despite his shameful crimes and resignation, he still took some actions that benefited the United States, the most well known of which was “opening up” China.

Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion

The Book of the Week is “Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion” by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel, published in 2010. As can be surmised from the title, this book is about Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s life and liberalism.

When Brennan was first appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid 1950’s, the United States Supreme Court was ruling on cases dealing with integration, Communism and censorship of pornography. “Brennan and his allies on the Court were being attacked by the mid 1960’s for encouraging racial mixing, coddling Communists and trying to drive God out of public life.”

The Court turned very conservative after Richard Nixon was elected president. Conservative politicians secretly investigated liberals for any conflicts of interest, or worse sins, to force the liberal justices off the Court. Brennan quit all teaching and lecturing to eliminate all of his own conflicts of interest and divested himself of real estate interests and stock. No other liberal justices took such precautions.

Although principled, legally obedient and even supportive of several women’s rights issues, ironically, Brennan refused to hire females as clerks in his own chambers. It was only after an aide wrote to him in strong language in the early 1970’s– that sooner or later, someone would sue a Supreme Court Justice alleging gender discrimination in clerk selection. Besides, Brennan would want his own daughter to be hired, if she were in a position to apply.

The Court stayed conservative for the rest of Brennan’s tenure. Read the book to learn the impact Brennan made on the Court nevertheless.

Little Princes

The Book of the Week is “Little Princes” by Conor Grennan, published in 2010. This the story of a global aid worker who changed many lives for the better over the course of three years.

Initially, Grennan volunteered to be, in essence, a surrogate parent for a couple of months in Nepal in late 2004 at an orphanage, whose name in English is “Little Princes.” However, the children were not truly orphans. Months or years before, a child trafficker had told their parents, living in poverty-stricken rural villages, that if they gave him a lot of money– in some cases, their life savings–  that their children would be fed and clothed well and get an education. Instead, the trafficker sold them into domestic servitude in private homes. Those lucky children had been rescued by a pitifully incomplete patchwork of international child-services organizations or a government official in Kathmandu. “In Nepal, there were no safety nets, no system where all children were cared for in an orderly manner.”

Grennan fell in love with the children at Little Princes, and they, him. He thus returned to be with them after a year’s interlude. He learned of a group that ran homes in Kathmandu, and visited with kids there, too. He, with a fellow volunteer, had a dream to form an organization to have rescued children come to live in their own children’s home.

After the decade-long civil war between the Nepalese monarchy and the Maoists ended, Grennan’s goal became to find the children’s parents and reunite them. In prior years, the Maoists had occupied villages and had been ruthless with people associated with aid organizations. A weeks-long expedition taken on foot in the high-altitude mountains to find the parents, was already fraught with the dangers of death by a fall, illness, marauders, and snow, and even in this day and age– the absence of communications devices (!)

Grennan encountered a traumatic situation, of which he knew not, how many of its like there were. While on an expedition like the one described above, he found out from a postal service worker that the parents of a fourteen-year old kid in a home were alive and well. At some point in the past, the kid had been given their death certificates. Grennan realized the certificates were forged. “Here was a boy who had grown up believing that his entire family was dead… I was struck by how viciously the civil war had torn this country apart.”

Once Grennan started having success reuniting children and parents, the latter were overjoyed to see the former again. “But when they learned that their child was being well taken care of, they were suddenly reluctant to take him or her home. Nepal is a terribly poor country; it is a challenge to support a family.”

Read the book to learn more about the author’s trials, tribulations and triumphs, which include a romantic subplot.

McIlhenny’s Gold

The Book of the Week is “McIlhenny’s Gold, How a Louisiana Family Built the Tobasco Empire” by Jeffrey Rothfeder, published in 2007.  This book tells the history of a company that sells hot sauce.

A man named Edmund McIlhenny started the company in southern Louisiana in the 1870’s. He developed a method for making the sauce so that it was very consistent from batch to batch, and its production was not easily imitated. Due to his marketing savvy, the product was soon distributed in California, Nevada, Maine and Florida– “…anyplace with telegraph lines, paved roads and train depots.” His son died in 1949.

One of his son’s sons took over the business. In order to attract a reliable workforce, he created a company village– a compound where white employees both worked and lived (almost rent-free). Black employees commuted, and held difficult, low-level, pepper-picking jobs.

Through secret political machinations, the family was able to get the sole right to use the name “Tobasco” even though competing companies had also been using it during the whole prior time.

When the company, still privately held, was well over a century old, it began to lose its grip on market leadership due to various factors, including American dietary trends, refusal to maximally automate its operations, lack of strong leadership, and growing list of family shareholders.

Read the book to learn of the company’s strengths and weaknesses, and looming opportunities and threats going into the first few years of the 2000’s.

Savages

The Book of the Week is “Savages” by Joe Kane, published in 1996.  The author describes his encounter with the Huaorani tribe– people living in the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador.

The author recounts an interesting episode in which the natives take a jaunt in a food store– a place they had never visited before, and comments on their strange eating habits. He also writes about the health problems contracted by non-natives in the rain forest.

The bottom line of the book though, is that in the early 1980’s, the Ecuadorian government colluded with American oil companies to keep the natives politically powerless. The country was burdened by staggering international debt and was dependent on oil-related business for half of its revenue. It therefore felt disinclined to share approximately $2 billion in oil revenue with the Huaorani. The author details how the Americans destroyed the land and consequently, the tribe’s ability to survive.

Long Walk to Freedom

The Book of the Week is “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela, published in 1994.  This is Mandela’s autobiography.

The author’s father died when he was nine. The author was destined for a dreadful life of poverty under South African apartheid, were it not for a lucky break. His mother had a connection to a wealthy, powerful Xhosa chief, who raised him along with his son. They acquired a quality, British-style education.

Although he was a poor student, Mandela earned an undergraduate degree and eventually, after many years, a law degree. An attorney with whom he worked, advised him against entering politics, as this would cause him to “get in trouble with the authorities, lose all his clients, go bankrupt, break up his family and end up in jail.” Unfortunately, most of the above came to pass.

The South African government employed “divide and conquer” tactics to prevent the Whites, Africans, Indians and Coloureds from uniting and overthrowing White rule. However, there were indications that it cared about world opinion during the decades Mandela was in prison (the 1960’s into the 1990’s).  The government could have summarily executed Mandela and his fellow African National Congress party members (as well as committed genocide against all dark-skinned ethnic groups), but it did not.

Instead, it held Stalin-like show trials to inevitably determine that politically active protest groups were dangerous subversives who had to be locked up. It oppressed all non-whites by restricting many aspects of their lives, including voting, employment, place of residence, local travel, curfew hours; even medical care. Mandela’s boyhood was completely absent of physicians. Black ones did not exist in his generation, and going to see a white one was unheard of.

In 1962, Mandela, was living “underground” during a respite from prison. With the help of friends, he found a way to travel internationally to attend political conferences.  He recounted that, “…as I was boarding the plane I saw that the pilot was black. I had never seen a black pilot before, and the instant I did I had to quell my panic. How could a black man fly a plane? But a moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior and that flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat, and chided myself for such thoughts.”

Mandela experienced conflicting feelings about his Xhosa-tribe origins and English upbringing. “I confess to being something of an Anglophile. When I thought of Western democracy and freedom, I thought of the British parliamentary system. Despite Britain being the home of parliamentary democracy, it was that democracy that had helped to inflict a pernicious system of iniquity on my people. While I abhorred the notion of British imperialism, I never rejected the trappings of British style and manners.”

If This Be Treason

The Book of the Week is “If This Be Treason: Your Sons Tell Their Own Stories of Why They Won’t Fight For Their Country” by Franklin Stevens, published in 1970. This book is about American men who received draft notices, but were against the Vietnam War. The threat of being sent to fight in a war in which they didn’t believe took a terrible psychological toll on these men and their families– who were neither wealthy nor influential enough to keep them out of it. They explain not only why they were against the war, but how they kept out of it.

The men implemented all sorts of strategies for at least temporarily rendering themselves ineligible to fight on physical or psychological grounds:  consuming an excessive number of salt pills, increasing one’s weight to 250 lbs or more, reducing one’s weight to 105 lbs or less, eating soap to get an ulcer, cutting off a limb, faking a condition such as:  insanity, transvestitism or homosexuality; or claiming one was a sleepwalker. Some other ways to stay away from the military were:  qualifying for a deferment by getting one’s wife pregnant or staying in school, enrolling and paying tuition at a school where one did not actually have to attend classes, or becoming a teacher or other government worker.

Some men found out about a draft-resisters’ organization located (ironically) in the United Nations area in New York City, where they learned how they could flee to Canada.

Other men were sent to jail for refusing to fight.

Some men applied for conscientious objector status, claiming they should be exempted from military service because they believed participating in a situation in which people might die at their hands, was wrong. “A conscientious objector had a better chance of being acquitted for draft dodging by a jury because every case of offenses against the draft law that demands a jury trial adds a burden to the judicial system and thus increases pressure against the draft and the war.” Unfortunately, it took a very long time before sufficient pressure forced the United States to pull out of the war in disgrace.

Some readers might consider this subject matter controversial and disturbing, but as long as history repeats itself, this subject merits discussion.

Personal History

The Book of the Week is “Personal History” by Katharine Graham, published in 1997.

The autobiographer was born in June 1917. She grew up in a large, wealthy family, in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Mount Kisco (upstate New York). She attended private schools. At high school dances, “Of course, no boys were allowed so all the girls put on evening dresses and corsages and danced with each other.”

The autobiographer’s father, Eugene Meyer, a business tycoon, purchased the Washington Post in 1932. In 1942, she wed Phil Graham, and took his name. Over the next ten years or so, they had four children (a daughter and three sons) who survived to adulthood. In 1946, her husband was named publisher of the Post. In 1963, she experienced serious personal problems that led to her taking over the paper.

Two of the Post‘s journalists, the infamous Woodward and Bernstein, were the first to seize upon the story of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel (the 1972 campaign headquarters of the Democratic party) by Republican party operatives. Over the next few years, the paper proceeded to reveal the corruption present in the Nixon administration with regard to the president’s reelection and the start of the Vietnam War. The story was extremely complex. The paper was at once courageous and foolish for casting aspersions on the Federal government. For, the Washington Post Company owned television and radio stations, in addition to print publications. These media holdings found themselves the victims of retaliatory action when it came time for the FCC to renew their broadcast licenses.

Lawsuits were launched in connection with the scandals over whether news articles published by the Post, were revealing State secrets that would compromise the national security of the United States. Many people thought the government was simply trying cover up its own embarrassing conduct. As is now evident, the post-Nixon decades saw history repeat itself many times over both in terms of similar scandals and overzealous classification of documents.

There occurred a mid-1970’s debilitating four and a half month strike of the many unions on which the Post had become too dependent through lax management. Before disgruntled workers walked out, some sabotaged the printing presses and thereafter waged a campaign of telephone threats and physical violence on picket-line crossers. Graham got right down in the trenches, moonlighting alongside non-union executives to get the paper out. She also achieved several female “firsts” and provided various examples of how being female subjected her to treatment males would not have experienced.

The Post had its ups and downs through the years.  In early 1991, Graham handed down leadership of the Washington Post Company to one of her sons.

Strength In What Remains

The Book of the Week is “Strength In What Remains” by Tracy Kidder, published 2009. This is the biography of a man named Deo who miraculously survived the genocidal violence that spilled over from Rwanda into Burundi in 1994-95.

Deo grew up in the latter nation, where his family, of the Tutsi tribe, did farming and herding in the mountains near Lake Tanganyika. In the 1970’s, the Catholic church owned and operated his one-room schoolhouse. His parents, who believed in education, could ill-afford the school tuition of one dollar. They were able to buy him a pencil but not a pen.

The Germans and later, Belgians (colonizers of Rwanda and Burundi) engendered hatred between the Hutus and Tutsi tribes.  In 1995 in Burundi, a two-month killing spree led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.  During that time, Deo was attending medical school in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, far from his home. He found himself in a traumatic and dire situation; traumatic in that he witnessed gruesome scenes, including those of deteriorating corpses of humans and cows lining the roadside, and dire, in that there were hostile soldiers everywhere, seeking out people who looked like Tutsis, pursuant to their facial features  (similar to the way Nazis sought out Jews during the Holocaust) and torturing and murdering them. Over the next decade, Deo was able to overcome his seemingly overwhelming difficulties and fulfill his dream.

Burundi’s people continued to suffer long after the violence was over. There was poor regard for human rights, especially among those injured in the tribal warfare who were indigent. (A lot of those lucky enough to survive, were rendered indigent by the tribal warfare). In the late 1990’s, hospitals had a special section for patients who could not pay their medical bills. They could not be discharged until they paid up, during which time they were given neither care nor food. Family and/or friends were expected to assist them. In addition, the bodies of deceased patients could not be released to their families unless the bills were paid.

This blogger found Deo’s story remarkable and suspenseful. However, she is giving the author the benefit of the doubt with regard to a few ambiguous passages in the book, attributing them to a bad editorial decision. The passages occur in the first half. In the middle, the author explains that over the course of two years, Deo told him his story, and I’m sure that the account of his escape suffered here and there from memory’s usual additions and subtractions, and there was no direct way to verify a lot of it…” This warning should come at the very beginning so that native New Yorkers will not question the geographic accuracy of the following passages, referred to above:

 

“On a day in his sophomore year he was riding the subway home from Columbia [University] and remembered that he hadn’t talked to Claude [in Burundi] for weeks. He got off at 125th Street.” [The story says that Deo was an undergraduate, attending classes at the Morningside Heights campus, not the medical school, and at the time, he was staying with people downtown]

“He figured he needed only twenty dollars a week for subways to and from Columbia, and sometimes he could save part of that by walking from lower Manhattan to the campus up in Harlem.” [same comment as above]

“Deo pushed the grocery cart down the sidewalks of Eighty-ninth Street. There were times when he felt crushed by the height and humiliated by the splendor of the buildings in this part of New York.” [West or East 89th Street? This is an important distinction to New Yorkers.]