They Also Ran

The Book of the week is “They Also Ran” by Irving Stone, originally published in 1943; updated in 1966. This book documents 23 specific losing candidates in 45 American Presidential races spanning 166 years, from the early 1800’s to the early 1960’s.

In 1872, Horace Greeley, newspaper publisher, tried to convince voters to nix a second term for Ulysses S. Grant, Republican, hero of the American Civil War; the General’s administration had been mired in nepotism, cronyism and corruption. No such luck. “Grant had not the faintest conception of what a president should do… gazed with the mind of a child at the affairs of state, blinked uncomprehendingly, and turned them over to his friends to be kicked around.” Zachary Taylor’s ignorance and inexperience was largely similar, although his 1848 (mercifully short-lived) administration was less corrupt.

Another election in which voters chose the wrong man– resulting in an egregiously dishonest government– was that of Republican president Warren G. Harding. “If ever a nation made a valiant attempt to commit suicide, the United States did in the year of 1920.” However, economic mores were different in the early 20th century. There was thought to be no conflict of interest when newspaper owners accepted shares of stock of public corporations to foster favorable reporting, and amiable relationships. James Middleton Cox was one such owner, who failed to stem the tide of political wreckage under Harding.

In 1824, Democrat Henry Clay, narcissistic attention-whore litigator, super-successful at courtroom histrionics, used his talents to attack the characters of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Upon his being nominated, Clay acquired a healthy dose of hubris syndrome. The opposition depicted Clay as a drinker and gambler (probably true). “The nation was crisscrossed by plowing streams of rumor, gossip, invention, fragmentary truths.”

William Jennings Bryan was another colorful character who mesmerized audiences with his public speaking skills, in the elections of 1896 and 1900.  Unfortunately, his megalomaniacal belief that he was God, diminished his chances to get elected president. His debating on the issues of the day– tariff, monopoly, railroad legislation and agriculture– lacked substance. He had sympathy for poor voters only insofar as it would help him retain political power. Nonetheless, his entire campaign in 1896 cost him $34(!) Democrats voted for Bryan, but in their hearts, shuddered to think what would happen if he was elected.

In 1905, in a ten-week investigation, Charles Evans Hughes, as corporate attorney for the New York State legislature, single-handedly found that a gas-supply monopoly was overcharging customers through artificially keeping prices high. Hughes’ good work led to more work, in the form of opening the can of worms that was corruption perpetrated by New York Life Insurance Company; more specifically, the bribing of local politicians in exchange for the enactment of insurance-friendly legislation (horror!).

Yet another war hero turned politician was George B. McClellan. In 1864, he lost to Abraham Lincoln. In the military, he had trouble with authority, control-issues stemming from an inferiority complex. The soldiers under him worshipped him; however, if elected president, his insecurities would rule. There would have been “… destructive clashes with his cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, with every function of government which attempted to limit his control.”

Modest Civil War hero and losing 1880 presidential candidate Winfield Scott Hancock had read the politically democratic book of his day, Chitty’s Blackstone. Thus, it was his opinion that civil, not military courts should settle disputes concerning the Confederacy’s rejoining the Union under “Reconstruction.” Congress disagreed.

In the 1870’s, Samuel Tilden did an end-run around the entrenched criminal syndicate that was Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall, to kick out the perpetrators.  Lawsuits were useless because the Boss owned the judges. Instead, over the course of four years, as a New York State legislator, Tilden aggressively pushed anti-Tammany elective candidates for Democratic state officers and the legislature. Most of them won; he impeached the rest. He paid for some of the investigations out of his own pocket.

In his 1876 pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination, Tilden launched an aggressive direct mail campaign with extensive print promotional materials in color– hundreds of thousands of pieces, on the political situation and on himself. He also published a 700-page tell-all tome about Grant’s failures as president.

Calvin Coolidge beat John W. Davis in 1924. Coolidge truly thought that big business could do no wrong, so he allowed a free-for-all. He would never have been elected but for his promotion from vice president upon Harding’s death in office. Herbert Hoover ignored pleas by experts to halt the gravy train and impose some regulation.

Another fun factoid: in 1940, prior to losing to Franklin Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie (and his wife) rode in open-car processions where people threw food and other objects at them.

Fast-forward to 1942. WWII economic sluggishness led New York State Governor Thomas Dewey to wrongheadedly stimulate the economy by rewarding the moneyed class. As is well known, incidentally, he lost to Harry Truman in 1948.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater used extreme language and failed to work harmoniously with his fellow Republicans. He refrained from reining in his constituents’ rudeness and selected a reactionary running-mate.

Read the book to learn which candidates should have won, why they didn’t, and qualitative as well as quantitative data on their professions, parties, platforms and personalities. One important generalization: “Many were teachers in their youth, and nearly all came from homes in which there was love of learning and books.”

The Inheritor’s Powder

The Book of the Week is “The Inheritor’s Powder” by Sandra Hemple, published in 2013. This book recounts the advances made in investigating homicide by poisoning in England in the early to mid 1800’s, and describes one 1833 case that shows why killing via arsenic was so common at the time, and why it became even moreso. One reason was that 1840’s popular reading matter, novels and newspapers, piqued readers’ morbid curiosity by featuring stories on poisoning, which could serve as instructions.

In 1754, the founding of the Society of the Arts saw the launching of “… a series of competitions for inventions, discoveries and artistic endeavors with prizes in the form of medals and money.” This prompted chemists and dispensers of medical treatments to engage in research to improve their practices. The year 1814 saw the first extensive textbook on toxicology.

One scientific advance in the mid-1830’s was made by James Marsh, who developed a method to test for arsenic in human organs rather than stomach contents. Hugo Reinsch developed a different test that mixed arsenic with other substances. Both methods had their flaws.

Usually, money was the motive for murder by poisoning. The killer poisoned a member of his or her household and/or family– because he or she stood to inherit and/or collect on an insurance policy. There were many controversial cases that pitted scientists against each other over the toxicology test results. It will never be known how many people were sent to the gallows due to bungled tests.

Read the book to learn of the fate of the prime suspect in the aforesaid 1833 case, and whether the more likely perpetrator– whose past criminal history allegedly included a felony, jailing, illegitimate children and attempted murder, not to mention extortion in later years– was ever brought to justice.

Murder in the Stacks

The Book of the Week is “Murder in the Stacks” by David DeKok, published in 2014.  This book describes the November 1969 murder of Betsy Aardsma– Penn State University graduate student– and provides extensive biographical information on the prime suspect in the case.

In 1969, Penn State was Pennsylvania’s largest public university, with almost 26,000 students. The library where Aardsma died contained the resources required for completing research papers for English classes. It was a sprawling, dark place where anyone off the street could engage in illicit activities involving sex or drugs, and often did. There was no security like there would be nowadays.

Aardsma made serious sacrifices to be somewhat geographically close to her then-boyfriend, a doctor in training. She turned down a Peace Corps tour in Sierra Leone, and applying to medical school, before she decided to become an English teacher instead. She was counseled by her family to get her master’s degree at Penn State because at that time, ironically, there was a serial killer of female students on the loose at the University of Michigan, the school she would have attended.

The murder investigation was a cluster screw-up. The police interviewed thousands of students and professors. The person thought to have committed the crime escaped notice due to the circumstances. If the investigators had done a better job, they would have learned that as a pedophile, he had a history of trouble with the law. However, with regard to past incidents, he got off because the victims or their families failed to call the police, so he had no arrest record for a long time. Additionally, the 1960’s perception of his monstrous behavior was simply a matter of indecency. There was insensitivity with regard to the victims– little thought was given to the traumatic toll of sex crimes on the psyches of the victims.

Read the book to learn many details of the life of the suspect– about whom much more was known than those of the victim– and the outcome of the case.

Butterfly in the Rain

The Book of the Week is “Butterfly in the Rain, The 1927 Abduction and Murder of Marion Parker” by James L. Neibaur, published in 2016. This short ebook recounts a gruesome crime and the aftermath, that occurred in late 1927 in Los Angeles, California.

The fame of this sensational case was comparable to that of O.J. Simpson’s. However, the newspaper, rather than television, was the medium through which the nation was riveted by the unfolding story. The case involved a child and plenty of controversy. Read the book to learn the details.

Digital Gold

The Book of the Week is “Digital Gold– Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money” by Nathaniel Popper, published in 2015.

This ebook is about Bitcoin, a bookkeeping system used on various websites that distributes, records and stores the value of units called Bitcoins.

The system was created in 2009 by a computer geek who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto. His vision was to create a worldwide means-of-exchange to be used online that would be:

  • a decentralized network of users so that no one central authority has the majority of power over the system– unlike the current situations in the world; in other words, place power in the hands of the users, rather than the economic royalists. (Nevertheless, the irony is that Bitcoin has largely stayed in the realm of the wealthy computer geeks- so there has bascially been redistribution of wealth among the wealthy);
  • created and maintained by users of the system on a consensus basis rather than by the powers-that-be, whose political campaigns are funded by financial institutions, and who stay in power by doing their will;
  • anonymous (like cash– no third parties acquire the information of buyers and sellers);
  • secure (no one point of failure would mean vulnerability for the whole system, plus have protections against identity theft, malware, counterfeiting etc.); and
  • offered at a lesser cost than the current system (avoiding financial institutions with their fees).

However, no utopian vision is perfect. Various tech-startups around the world have been created to store and exchange Bitcoins. That is all well and good. In the last seven years or so, a “remarkably engaged online community” has sprung up to discuss the ideology and all the different issues attendant to the new system. Even the major American financial institutions, fearing competition, have begun to rethink the security of their online dealings, and so have assembled task forces to research how to harness Bitcoin’s loss-prevention technology.

Bitcoins are acquired by computer users who log on to a specific site on the Internet. The users get the virtual “coins” for free, but might have to pay to store them elsewhere to keep them secure.

Bitcoins are more like a security than a means of exchange like cash because:

  • The system distributing Bitcoins is like a combination slot machine and a financial market where instruments are bought and sold, and the value of Bitcoins fluctuates.
  • There’s an inherent unfairness in the system in that– technologically astute users of the system have banded together to create devices that mine Bitcoins at a significantly faster rate than individual users.
  • People can acquire a national currency such as the American dollar in many more ways than they can Bitcoins, most of them honestly– earning, borrowing, begging or stealing.

Anyway, the purpose of Bitcoins as a means of exchange has yet to catch on among mainstream consumers of industrialized countries. There is no sufficiently compelling reason for consumers to start to buy things online with Bitcoins rather than credit cards. “Why should they trust a digital code that had nothing backing it but the computers of some libertarian nerds?”

Argentina is one country where Bitcoins have been useful. The super-speedy inflation of the peso there has meant people must spend their Argentinian money the minute they acquire it or risk the inability to buy anything because they wouldn’t be able to afford it– even food. In China, Bitcoin is popular because the government regulates the yuan exchange rate in order to stem “capital flight” and sell more of its own goods to the world.

As with all human-created systems that rely on the honor system, ALL users must act ethically. One American Bitcoin-processor in particular created a drug-distribution entity called Silk Road that was deemed illegal according to U.S. law.

Another bad actor hacked into a company called Mt. Gox in Japan. All users of that service suffered. “Bitcoin users eventually went to government authorities that Bitcoin had been designed, at least partly, to obviate.”

Besides, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has been examining the legal aspects of Bitcoin as a virtual currency. Homeland Security is concerned about the fact that Bitcoins could be anonymously sent to terrorist cells overseas.

Read the book to learn much more about the good and bad consequences of the creation of Bitcoin.

Skyway

The Book of the Week is “Skyway” by Bill DeYoung, published in 2013. This volume describes the Sunshine Skyway disaster that occurred in May 1980. The Skyway (whose name has since been changed) is a bridge across Tampa Bay that links Pinellas and Manatee counties in Florida.

A large boat was buffeted about by unexpected stormy weather on the fateful day, and the boat’s pilot was unable to negotiate a safe passage to a shipping lane under the bridge.

Read the book to learn exactly what happened, and whose lives were changed forever by the tragedy.

Red Notice

The Book of the Week is “Red Notice, A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight For Justice” by Bill Browder, published in 2015. This suspenseful, emotional saga should be made into a motion picture, as it is not only entertaining and engaging, but is a comprehensive picture of the extremes of human nature.

Rebelling against his left wing intellectual family, Browder became a capitalist. During his career, he worked under two big bosses who died under mysterious, suspicious circumstances– Bob Maxwell and Edmond Safra. As a young whippersnapper, he longed to do investment consulting in Eastern Europe, but had to settle for London. Browder got in on the ground floor when the Russian securities industry was in its infancy in the early 1990’s.

In early 2000, the power of Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin, was actually held by “… oligarchs, regional governors, and organized-crime groups.” Browder started a hedge fund called Hermitage. What with complex economic and political goings-on, his hedge fund became the victim of the Russian mentality. In 2006, Hermitage had to “… sell billions of dollars worth of Russian securities without anyone knowing.” That was just one of many traumatic episodes in Browder’s career.

The author had the brains and skills to become not only a successful financial consultant and investor, but a muckraker; however, this made him a “Darwin Award” candidate. He became involved in a true thriller with intrigue, greed, power hunger, human rights abuses and karma. Russia struck at his attorney, Sergei Magnitsky. Numerous Russians in positions of authority– in the government, prisons, the police– all lied to the world about what happened to Magnitsky. Under Putin’s rule, Russia had reverted to the Stalinism of the 1920’s, with thousands of dissidents tortured and killed.

The few people whose eyes were open, who were raising the alarm– were risking their own lives. The rest of the world didn’t want to get involved because they were of the mentality that the violence was confined to Russia, and it wouldn’t spread to them. And they might end up like those dissidents if they rocked the boat. Besides, in the 2000’s, people have become desensitized to human rights abuses due to the widespread, propagandized publicizing of them (like video clips arousing viewers’ morbid curiosity, of the alleged beheadings of journalists by Middle Easterners on YouTube).

(Please excuse the legalese in this paragraph- but it is the briefest way of explanation) Some people would say that Browder had “unclean hands” and there was “contributory negliglence” on his part, so his story should not have deserved the special attention it got. Admittedly, he was out for revenge, not because he truly wanted to stem uncivil behavior in the world. He made his living in an industry full of greedy people whose scruples are less than stellar– securities. He made a ton of money by engaging in “self-dealing” and insider trading, which would be considered violations of American securities laws. He was from America, the country that gave rise to the corrupt economic system in Russia in the first place. It might be recalled that Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs gave bad advice to Boris Yeltsin (to put it generously), convincing him to adopt “shock capitalism” — a ruinous financial plan. Lastly, Browder had “constructive knowledge” that doing business in Russia was especially risky (not just financially), compared to other countries. Arguably, he was trying to apply American morals and laws to get justice in a situation in which he had profited from Russian morals and lawlessness. Some people would say, “Pox on everyone’s house.”

Browder wrote, “There was something almost biblical about Sergei’s story, and even though I am not a religious man, as I sat there watching history unfold, I couldn’t help but feel that God had intervened in this case.” This blogger thinks that, but for Browder’s powerful professional and political contacts who intervened in this case, it would be just another infuriating, depressing, suppressed, and eventually forgotten human rights abuse story.

Read the book to learn the details of the story, including the actions taken against the morally bankrupt, brazen Russian criminals, and learn whether justice was done.

Simon Says

The Book of the Week is “Simon Says” by Kathryn Eastburn, published in 2007. This is the true story of a triple murder that occurred in the small town of Guffey in Colorado in early 2001.

The mastermind behind the criminal act was a teenager, Simon Sue, who convinced others that he was part of an anti-governmental group in Guyana. He and his father collected guns for their investment value. They had a humongous collection. The younger Sue believed that theft of firearms from other households in the neighborhood was acceptable if their owners were racist or dealt illegal drugs.

Sue ran a terrorist training camp of sorts for three other high schoolers he had befriended. Read the book to learn the details of the heinous atrocities committed by them, how they got caught, and their fates.

 

The CBS Murders

The Book of the Week is “The CBS Murders” by Richard Hammer, published in 1987. This is the true story of the murders of two women, and three men who were by-standing CBS employees– in a parking lot in midtown Manhattan’s far west side in April 1982.

The ugly crime was the culmination of a white-collar crime spree committed over a number of years by a family named Margolies, in the jewelry business. The major perpetrator of the crimes, Irwin, schemed to blame the company bookkeeper, but complications arose.

The case was unusual in that criminals like Irwin generally do not hire a hitman, but only hire fancy attorneys to weasel out of legal trouble. Irwin and his wife Madeleine behaved like a dictatorial couple, like the Perons, Caucescus or the Marcoses. Read the book to learn the details of this suspenseful business story.