Whittaker Chambers

The Book of the Week is “Whittaker Chambers” by Sam Tanenhaus, published in 1997. This large volume described a situation that lends itself to the hypothetical board game “Survival Roulette: Alleged Commie Edition” (See “Blind Ambition” post).

Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers were just two of thousands of people starting in the late 1940’s who were losers of this game. The winners actually won only temporarily: Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and other bullies.

The board’s spaces could describe wiretapped conversations of such evil Commie fronts as the Boy Scouts, and dossiers acquired through the Freedom of Information Act in which every word of every page has been redacted (blacked out) except the names of the 205 guilty State Department officials.

Of course, there could be spaces such as “Go to the Electric Chair” and “IRS Audit.” A “Commie Chest” (rather than Community Chest) card, for instance, could say “Collect $1 in a libel suit while your attorneys collect $50,000.” By the way, any player wearing a red necktie is a Commie.

Chambers, born in 1901 in Brooklyn, was accepted to Columbia University in 1920 through, at that time, simply passing an intelligence test rather than taking entrance examinations. He was fluent in several languages and was a skilled writer. As a commuter from Lynbrook in Long Island, New York, he paid only the school’s annual tuition of $256. The following year, living on campus, he also paid room and board of $400.

As a sophomore and rebellious intellectual, Chambers penned an offensive, blasphemous piece for one of a few campus publications for which he wrote. Fierce critics forced him to take a leave of absence from the school.

In the next several years, he traveled around Europe, came home, held short-term odd jobs he obtained through friends, returned to school, rode the rails out West, etc. in an effort to find himself; also in an attempt to escape his dysfunctional family. According to the author, Chambers suppressed his homosexual urges by having affairs with women.

In the course of his voracious reading– a lifelong passion– Chambers discovered a speech of Vladimir Lenin called The Soviets at Work. In it, Lenin advocated violent authoritarianism. Curious factoid: a line in the speech is reminiscent of a line in the Elton John song “Yellow Brick Road” paraphrased: “… where the dogs of society howl… I’m going back to my plow…”

Anyway, in February 1925, Chambers joined the Workers Party of America, a then-illegal political party that espoused Communist ideals. Its American members numbered about sixteen thousand. He also joined the International Workers of the World.

In the spring of 1927, Chambers was found to have stolen tens of books from Columbia University’s libraries and various other libraries. He was proud rather than ashamed. He wrote articles for The Daily Worker and other Communist publications, got a short story published in The New Masses, that was turned into a play performed internationally.

Some Americans became Communists because they felt that capitalism was the cause of the Great Depression— with its breadlines, labor unrest, suicides, protests, etc. In spring 1932, Chambers joined the OGPU– the Soviet agency that eliminated anyone who expressed the least negative thoughts about Comrade Stalin or his ilk.

Chambers was a valuable addition, as he had experience in bureaucracy, was fluent in German and Russian and literate in the Classics. The American chapter of the Party forced him to become a secret agent man.

But it was fun to play adolescent-boy spy games. And the pay was really good. He played well with others. He and his comrades got secret messages in invisible ink and microfilm from the Germans in their safe house on Gay Street in Greenwich Village. They spied on businesses and the military. He helped steal blueprints for weapons to be built by military contractors, and sent them to the Soviets.

In summer 1934, Chambers was relocated by the Soviets to Washington, D.C. to become a New-Deal advocate for sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who were opposing landowners and big growers in the agricultural industry.

Then Chambers started assisting with generating false passports to be used by his comrades. The initial step was to comprehensively extract information (such as birth dates and names) from the archives of obituaries of babies, in the research branch of the New York Public Library (yes, the one with the lion statues in front).

A birth certificate was then the only proof of citizenship that was required to obtain an American passport, which allowed the easiest travel. The above information (reflecting the then-age and gender of the agent who traveled internationally) would be used to apply for a fraudulent birth certificate, which could then be used to obtain a fraudulent passport.

The Party headquarters was in the U.S.S.R., though, and was the ultimate boss. It could shut down a cell if it saw little productivity. For example, an agent was reassigned to Riga (equivalent to Siberia). But before the transfer, the agent did win the handball championship at a YMCA in the closed Tokyo cell.

Across the United States, there were plenty of organizations posing as Communist fronts, such as a literary agency in San Francisco, the Unemployed Council in Queens county in New York State, and the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians. Chambers used a series of aliases for himself, his wife and daughter with each new assignment.

Changes were always afoot. In the mid-1930’s, the OGPU became the NKVD. Chambers’ boss was purged by Stalin. His highly-strung new boss reflected the Soviet mentality of proactively engaging in an act of generosity to butter up his new office in Washington, D.C. He therefore gave it a large cash gift that was used to purchase Oriental rugs to be given to the top operatives there.

In December 1936, the Soviets considered Germany, Italy and Japan their fascist enemies. The United States, France and England were passively standing on the sidelines. Chambers’ new mission was to, with the help of comrades, procure stolen original State Department documents, take photos of them, and return them, turn the photos into microfilm, and send it to Moscow. Although the documents usually didn’t contain anything world-shaking.

Nevertheless, circumstances were getting dangerous for Chambers. He was considering withdrawing from the Party, but then he and his family would have to disappear. He didn’t want to end up like Ignace Reiss, a “…well dressed corpse, perforated with bullet holes.” In spring 1938, he took the plunge and went into hiding. About a year later, he was able to get a job through a friend at Time, Inc.

Chambers knew the NKVD could kill him or harm his family at any time. Besides that, he could be convicted and imprisoned for treason, and he couldn’t afford to flee. So in September 1939, he turned state’s evidence instead. He named names of Treasury Department and State Department members and discussed the U.S. military’s Communist spy ring.

Into the 1940’s, Chambers continued to work around the clock at Time, Inc., where he received an obscenely high salary for his new rabidly anti-Communist editorial bent. His intuitions were correct, however. He knew that the Soviets had designs on world domination.

In August 1948, Chambers was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Reputable officials and journalists were angry that in a public hearing, Chambers claimed that Alger Hiss, a high-level State Department official had been a Communist in the 1930’s. Hiss’s integrity had been irreproachable up to that point. The then-freshman Congressman Richard Nixon (R., CA) was the only member of the Committee who insisted on continuing the case against Hiss.

Initially, Chambers couldn’t name anything Hiss had done that was illegal. For, Party membership hadn’t been illegal in the previous decade. Neither had paying Party dues, nor meeting with other Communists.

However, with circumstantial evidence that Chambers produced in his own sweet time, he was able to convince the authorities that Hiss had lied under oath. Another crime that Hiss might have been punished for, was espionage. Fortunately for Hiss and Chambers, the three year statute of limitations on that had expired.

Political accusers always seem to scream about risks to national security!!! But it has become a cliche that more often than not, documents have been labeled top-secret, not to become declassified for decades– in order to cover up government’s bad, embarrassing behavior, NOT because American lives are at risk.

For approximately the last seventy years, on and off, vicious political vengeance has been the norm– best interests of the country be damned. However, the punishments haven’t fit the crimes. The most guilty and least punished perpetrators have acted in ways that have resulted in needless deaths and ruined lives.

Who knows what else Hiss did– making love to an intern in the Old Executive Office Building? He did get caught lying under oath.

Based on lies, the most guilty perpetrators have led the United States to attack other countries and smeared their political opponents for their own selfish political and financial ends. At least they didn’t get caught lying under oath.

Anyway, as is common with these kinds of situations, different government agencies are fighting to grab glory for bringing the perpetrators to justice. In the Hiss case, it was the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and HUAC.

Individuals such as Nixon and Robert Stripling, the chief investigator of HUAC, were also jockeying for power and bragging rights. Then-Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter testified on behalf of Hiss, an unprecedented move, and possible conflict.

Read the book to learn why Chambers wasn’t also tried for lying under oath, even though he was the biggest liar in the world; every ugly detail of the Hiss case, and much more about Chambers’ life.

BONUS POST

I am pleased to announce that my book: “The Education and Deconstruction of Mr. Bloomberg, How the Mayor’s Education and Real Estate Development Policies Affected New Yorkers 2002-2009 Inclusive” is available through the following online channels:

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Ibn Saud

The Book of the Week is “Ibn Saud, The Desert Warrior Who Created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” by Michael Darlow and Barbara Bray, originally published in 2010. This wordy and redundant biography described the life of a pivotal figure in the history of the Middle East in the twentieth century and his legacy in the twenty-first century.

Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud (hereinafter referred to as “Saud”) was born circa 1881. He was the oldest surviving son of his forever growing family. The culture of his Islamic, nomadic tribe involved a Robin-Hood like practice called “ghazzu.” Only at a time when a tribe was literally starving, would it rustle camels and/or livestock for itself, from a tribe that was better off, inasmuch as it needed to survive. The raid was not for the purpose of conquest.

A boy would become a man by aiding his fellow men in such a raid. Due to a forced evacuation by a militant attack by the Rashid family in the Middle Eastern desert in 1891, Saud left his family when he was about ten. He assisted with a ghazzu with the Al Murra– one of the poorer Bedouin tribes. They were Muslim, but not as fanatically religious as the Wahhabis in Riyadh, where Saud’s family lived.

Saud’s family was allowed to reside in Kuwait until his father could regain his sheikdom from the Rashid family. In the 1890’s, the whole region was being fought over by the Ottoman Empire, Germany, France, Russia and Great Britain for purposes of international commerce, rail transportation and shipping.

In 1899, Saud took a bride in his second arranged marriage, and his first son was born the following year. He was to have: more than one hundred wives, almost one hundred children, plus numerous concubines in his lifetime, but only three wives at any given time, pursuant to the Quran. At that time in Saud’s culture, divorce was cheap and fast.

Saud led men into the vendetta-laden battle between his family and the Rashid. Allying with other tribes in the area, they fought on camels with swords, rocks and fire. Saud achieved victory in January 1902.

Two months later, his messengers arrived to tell government leaders in London, India, Istanbul and Moscow. Saud’s father’s army retook the territory over the next two years, but the Ottoman empire had the resources to re-conquer the Saud family’s small military and tentative claim on land the Saud family had previously owned. So the two parties signed a treaty conditionally acknowledging the land’s owner.

Until WW I, Saud allied with the Wahhabi tribe, Ottomans and British, but would not help them during the war. To Saud, the Rashid remained an enemy, and Sharif Husayn– British diplomat and leader of a rival tribe– became a new one. All still had territorial claims to the Arabian peninsula.

In 1922, the presence of oil was suspected in the disputed territories. However, the oil drilling equipment at the time was too primitive to the find the oil.

In the mid-1920’s, Saud was allied with the Wahhabi-related Ikhwan tribe, which were fanatically religious and violent with their livestock-grabbing, looting, plundering, destroying Shia artifacts and killing enemy males of all ages– forcing them to flee the Arabia/Iraq border. Saud had to tell the Ikhwan to cool it. Even so, Saud didn’t compensate the enemy for his allies’ war crimes. He kept all the territory he got, and acquired more.

Into the early twentieth century, the Arab tribes thought of the desert as an ocean, around which they could wander because no nation had a sovereign claim on it. Since Najdis (residents of Najd) and Iraqi Bedouins (both allies of Saud) were having border skirmishes against the British, the British thought they had a right to build forts to clarify their claimed territories to corral the local nomadic tribes. Of course the British, having a more advanced military and weaponry, plus the world’s best navy, had the upper hand on the ocean too.

In 1928, one oil company each from America, Britain, Netherlands and France agreed to divvy up any oil that was discovered in the Middle East.

After various battles, finally, in September 1932, Saud named his territory the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, governed exclusively by a literal interpretation of the Quran. In other words, It was a theocratic, not a constitutional, monarchy. For the rest of Saud’s life, excessive amounts of money were spent on keeping Saudi Arabia’s citizens (Saud’s royal family and others, plus millions of charity seekers–to whom hospitality was an obligation according to the Quran) loyal to King Saud.

Read the book to learn what transpired:

  • when a significant amount of oil was finally discovered in Saudi Arabia;
  • what Saud did just before and during WWII;
  • that led the Americans to become besties with Saudi Arabia for decades– which was related to how Saud reacted to the debate over the territory of Palestine and how Saudi Arabia ran into financial trouble in the latter half of the twentieth century; and
  • when Saud died– how his successors led the country in the next half century.

Blind Ambition

The Book of the Week is “Blind Ambition, The White House Years” by John Dean, published in 1976.

Investigations of politicians accused of wrongdoing at the highest level of the U.S. government, are complicated, because officials must at least make a pretense of complying with due process.

There is document gathering and analysis, subpoenas that compel witnesses to testify, endless debates on various interpretations of various sources of laws pertaining to the federal government, etc.; not to mention the most important aspect of the whole kit and caboodle: public relations! Plus, nowadays, the media and social media keep the constant barrage of inane comments coming.

In fact, there ought to be a board game, “Survival Roulette” that tests players’ ability to weasel out of legal trouble through shaping public opinion using claques, flacks, sycophants and attorneys.

Of course, Survival Roulette could be tailored to the Nixon White House; it could be the Politician Edition. The game could be structured like Monopoly, with players rolling dice and moving pieces onto spaces that describe financial crimes, illegal-surveillance crimes and damage-control speeches. The most famous space could be “Go To Jail” and there could also be “Cash In Political Favors.” The ultimate winner could be Rich Little.

In the Tabloid Celebrity Edition, the object of the game is to become the ultimate winner, Marc Rich. Other players (the losers) end up as other notorious figures who face different punishment scenarios: Jimmy Hoffa, Jeffrey Epstein, O.J., Bernie Madoff, Bill Cosby and Martha Stewart. The board spaces could describe financial crimes, sex crimes, violent crimes, and social media postings.

The Teenage Edition could feature more recent celebrities– simply spreading vicious rumors about them, rather than confirmed offenses– like in the case of Dakota Fanning.

In Survival Roulette: Politician Edition, John Dean could be one of the worse losers. He was one of various attorneys and consultants who: a) aided and abetted President Richard Nixon’s nefarious attempts to wreak vengeance on his political enemies (whom Nixon believed were revolutionaries and anarchists who used dirty tricks on him in the 1968 presidential election) and b) help Nixon keep his job as president (which Nixon believed was to play God).

In the summer of 1970, Dean’s career took a leap from the Justice Department up to the President’s side, as one of his legal advisors. He thought of his new department as a law firm, so he solicited legal work in all practice areas to make it grow; it did, to five people.

Dean quickly began to feel uneasy about his new position, even though it carried luxurious perks. The White House was fraught with politically incorrect goings-on. There was friction with various federal agencies, such as the FBI.

The FBI was dominated by J. Edgar Hoover, whom it was thought, possessed the means to blackmail the administration. He supposedly had evidence that the president had ordered the secret wiretapping of both the media and leakers on his staff.

As became well known, such wiretapping turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. Nixon recorded himself— every conversation he ever had in the White House! He had listening devices planted to spy on protestors against the Vietnam War, and his other political enemies, which appeared to be almost infinite in number.

Nowadays, the equivalent would be a “loose cannon” with hubris syndrome, addicted to: Tweeting / posting on Facebook but keeping a private profile / texting and emailing, who didn’t destroy his electronic devices.

In July 1971, Dean encountered his first major ethical conflict. He felt obligated to appeal to presidential aide John Ehrlichman to restrain Special Counsel Chuck Colson from orchestrating a break-in to steal Pentagon-Papers documents at the offices of the Brookings Institution. Nonetheless, Dean did sic the IRS on Brookings, and suggested that its contracts with the Nixon administration be cancelled.

Dean got so caught up in the excitement of helping the president get reelected in 1972 that he proposed expanding the collection of intelligence, which was already sizable. Yet he was also disturbed by reelection-committee director G. Gordon Liddy’s crazy plots to steal the 1972 election via burglary, spying, kidnapping, etc.

Dean attempted to remain willfully ignorant of Liddy’s actions thereafter so that he would have the defense of plausible denial in the future. However, after the Watergate break-in June 1972, he rationalized that he was protected by the attorney-client relationship and executive privilege.

One meta-illegality of the coverup of the administration’s various, serious crimes involved the distribution of hush money to hundreds of people who knew too much. By the late summer of 1972, seven individuals were found to have committed the Watergate break-in. Nixon basically said in his communications to the world that those perpetrators were the only ones responsible for that incident, which he claimed was an isolated one. Of course it wasn’t.

The president’s men held their breaths and crossed their fingers counting down to re-election day, as the White House was still the target of inquiries, and a party to legal skirmishes with the FBI, Department of Justice, Congress, the General Accounting Office and journalists. Immediately after election day, Nixon ordered a Stalin-style purge (merely job termination, actually) of all sub-Cabinet officers he had previously appointed.

As the palace intrigue continued into late 1972, Dean, through his own research, learned that he himself could be criminally liable for obstruction of justice. He would inevitably be forced to choose between betraying his colleagues (who hadn’t been all that friendly to him) or perjuring himself to save others insofar as it helped save his own hide.

A true “prisoner’s dilemma” existed among the several indicted bad actors. No one would receive immunity for tattling on the others, but no one knew of any deals made with prosecutors except their own.

Dean wrote of early spring of 1973: “He [Nixon] is posturing himself, I thought– always placing his own role in an innocuous perspective and seeking my agreement… The White House was taking advantage of its power, and betting that millions of people did not wish to believe a man who called the president a liar.”

Read the book to learn the details.

Believer

The Book of the Week is “Believer, My Forty Years in Politics” by David Axelrod, published in 2015. This book is mostly about Axelrod’s role as a political campaign consultant and close aide to Barack Obama.

Born in February 1955 in New York City, the author became passionate about politics at the age of five, when his nanny took him to a political rally for JFK. At nine, he volunteered to assist with RFK’s New York State Senate run.

Axelrod began a career in journalism, covering politics for a number of years. His mother’s cousin introduced him to powerful political figures in Washington, D.C. This gave Axelrod a leg up in co-founding a political consulting firm located in major American cities, serving various mayoral candidates.

In addition to having friendly contacts of all stripes, the best and brightest consultants ought to be extremely well-read in history, politics, psychology, law and economics. Life-experience and cynicism, too, can help with opposition-intelligence and creative messaging.

During the last days of the presidential election in 2008, “[vice-presidential candidate– thought by many to be the presidential candidate– Sarah] Palin ramped up the ferocity of her attacks, to the delight of angry throngs who streamed to greet her… some chanted vile epithets about [presidential candidate Barack] Obama… resented taxes, reviled gun control and eagerly parroted right-wing tripe questioning whether Obama was even a citizen…”

In 2016, it was deja vu all over again, with Donald Trump’s copying Sarah Palin in his targeting and messaging. Trump copied the late president Ronald Reagan too, with his tax cut and also, with taking an active role in foreign policy, some of which for Reagan at least, did not end well. Axelrod commented that performing was Reagan’s forte. However, Obama was not as willing a performer. Trump is neither good at reading scripts nor good at speaking off the cuff.

Unlike Trump, Obama was principled and ideologically-oriented rather than reelection-oriented. He was his own man as much as he could be, given that he was forced into extremely difficult situations. He inherited a slew of problems from his predecessor George W. Bush, including a crashed economy and two wars. In 2009, then-Harvard law professor and bankruptcy specialist, Elizabeth Warren, helped Obama create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Axelrod claimed that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., KY) started the obstructionist attitude in which the party ruling a house of Congress pettily blocks all legislation the opposing party is trying to pass. There have been previous periods of American history in which each side engaged in shenanigans to thwart the other– such as during the impeachment debate surrounding president Andrew Johnson in the 1860’s (!)

However, nowadays, angry and mean-spirited polarization becomes viral at the speed of light, as the easily brainwashed who have access to social media become easily outraged by the finger-pointing hypocrisy, hypocritical finger-pointing, and poison propaganda spewed by one side or the other.

Axelrod wrote, “Fear too often trumps reason.” Read the book to learn about the kinds of situations Trump has reason to fear, and Obama’s campaigns and administration.

King of the Club

The Book of the Week is “King of the Club” by Charles Gasparino, published in 2007.

The subject of this book “… was suffering from the downside of loyalty; he spent so much time surrounding himself with people he could trust that he forgot he also needed smart people who could get a job done in times of crisis, and he was now facing… the greatest crisis of his career.”

Sounds familiar. It was actually “Richard Grasso and the Survival of the New York Stock Exchange.” When he was fifteen years old, Grasso began trading stocks in an account held in his mother’s name, getting stock tips from his drug-store-owner-employer.

The author was rather vague about Grasso’s two years of military service which allegedly began in the mid 1960’s, spent: “…in Fort Meade, Maryland, though he did make periodic trips to Vietnam.” Apparently, Grasso’s eyesight was good enough to get him drafted by the U.S. Army, but not good enough to get him hired by the New York City Police Department, his first-choice employer after the military.

Grasso therefore began work as a back-office Wall-Street clerk at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in early 1968. The author failed to mention whether Grasso was told to put his stocks in a blind trust, or whether his new employer had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Grasso meteorically moved up through the ranks. He was innovative in executing new marketing initiatives for the exchange. He also poached companies that were listed on either the American Stock Exchange or the NASDAQ– that provided fierce competition to the NYSE. All three were stock markets of corporate entities that wanted to sell their shares far and wide. But the companies could be listed in only one place. Grasso convinced them that the NYSE was the best place to list.

By 1980, Grasso controlled NYSE listings, its trading floor and almost all its trading operations. In the mid-1980’s, the chair of NASDAQ, Bernie Madoff, claimed his market’s trading was more fair for investors because it executed trades electronically, thus multiple players were interacting continuously while setting impartial prices. The argument went that electronic trading made the market more “efficient”– as no buyers or sellers had significantly better pricing information than others on which to trade, theoretically.

In 1990, Grasso stepped up to the second-most powerful position at the NYSE. He was in charge of the exchange listees and, at the same time, in charge of regulating them. He did the legwork of bringing new business to the exchange. His boss, the chairman, did the public relations work of delivering speeches globally and persuading the federal government to keep conditions favorable for the exchange.

Several of the NYSE’s board of directors were Wall Street executives who passively continued to keep the status quo– lavishly rewarding Grasso monetarily for his undivided attention to lavishly lining their pockets year after year when times were good.

There was honor among thieves, as Grasso’s henchmen turned a blind eye to the various forms of illegal activity that allowed them to make obscene amounts of money on the trading floor. Until there wasn’t honor among thieves– as conditions changed.

From a not-for-profit-organization-legal-standpoint, most of the parties and individuals involved were engaging in various highly unethical activities, at best; conflicts of interest abounded as participants in the exchange network cooperated in a way that maximized profits for everyone until, as usual, some individuals got too greedy.

Being head of the New York Stock Exchange is not unlike leading the U.S. government. The marriage of politics and commerce is always fraught with conflicts of interest. Some are avoidable. It’s a shame that politics in particular tends to attract dishonest attention whores with hubris syndrome whose ethics are in the basement. Of course, they usually use the “everybody does it” excuse and change the subject if they can.

But there ought to be equal justice under the law for any of the accused– after an investigation of where the evidence leads— with NO jumping to conclusions, assumptions or biases prior to a thorough review of all evidence, if any. Along these lines, one would do well to ignore the superlative-laden, repetitive, sensationalist drivel emanating from the teleprompter box, um, er– idiot box.

Anyway, starting in the late 1990’s, unbridled greed led to a bunch of scandals. There was Long Term Capital Management, Enron, WorldCom, the dot-com crash, various major SEC violations committed by big-name brokerages; not to mention 9/11’s impact on the financial markets. All on Grasso’s watch. Yet, his pay kept soaring, anyway. It wasn’t pay-for-performance anymore.

Finally, Grasso got the same treatment, figuratively speaking, as other major historical figures. One week he was flying high and the next, kicked to the curb. Grasso was suffering from a bad case of hubris syndrome. In early September 2003, herd mentality / groupthink seized the board; jealousy (possibly subconscious) of his pay package reached critical mass.

Read the book to learn of the usual occurrences in such a situation (investigation, litigation, political machination and myth propagation) that led to the changing of more things, and more of same.

A Good American Family – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “A Good American Family, The Red Scare and My Father” by David Maraniss, published in 2019.

Born in 1918 in Boston, the author’s father grew up in Brooklyn. He was outed as a Communist by a female member of the FBI. She joined the Communist Party USA in order to spy on it, then for nine years, was paid big bucks to tattle on its members.

In March 1952, the elder Maraniss was subpoenaed to appear at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in Detroit. At that time, he was summarily fired from his job as a re-write man at the Detroit Times; ironically, a rabidly anti-Communist newspaper owned by Hearst.

A high-level federal judge in New York State, Learned Hand, provided the legal grounds on which the investigations into Communists rested in the 1950’s. Suppression of free speech was justified by the extent and probability of its leading to evil. “The worse the evil and the greater the probability, the more free speech could be curtailed.”

The ironies and consequences resulting from the above reasoning led to a dark period in American history. The take-away from the Red Scare was that the accusers led by Joe McCarthy, trampled on due process when confronting their prey– those who were allegedly associated with or were allegedly Communists.

One curious little experiment indicated just how effective fear-mongering propaganda can be. One irony is that fear-mongering propaganda is itself considered to be protected free speech!

In early July 1951, a reporter from the Capital Times newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin asked 112 random people in Henry Vilas Park to sign a petition, the text of which contained, “… the preamble to the Declaration of Independence… six of the ten amendments to the Bill of Rights, along with the Fifteenth Amendment granting black men the right to vote.” Only one person willingly signed. Almost one fifth of the people called the reporter a Communist.

Read the book to learn additional details of the tenor of the times in connection with the author’s father’s persuasion and generation, and the fates of his other immediate and extended family members and his accusers.

How the Post Office Created America / Superpower

The First Book of the Week is “How the Post Office Created America” by Winifred Gallagher, published in 2016. This was a detailed account of the history of the delivery of written communications in what is now the United States.

In the 1630’s, a Boston-area tavern doubled as the first post office. Local politicians and rich businessmen collected their Transatlantic written correspondence there; the latter paid for the privilege. The service was “… primarily designed to advance an imperialistic power’s interests, serve a narrow elite, and produce some revenue for the [British] Crown.”

It was in the interest of Great Britain to improve the roads to distribute the mail in the thirteen colonies (which later became the United States), as she was competing with France to rule the colonies.

Postal carriers had to deal with unforgiving land, mountains, rivers and hostile Native Americans in making their appointed rounds. A month might elapse, what with uncertain weather, before mail went from Boston, MA to Richmond, VA. The literate read letters aloud to update their fellow community members of goings-on in places far away.

Ben Franklin was a prominent figure in the mid- to late 1700’s due to his numerous, various contributions to humanity. Between and among the colonies– Canada and Britain– in the mid-1750’s, he served as one of two Postmasters General.

The colonists were demographically and geographically fragmented even after they became Americans. There were Puritans in Massachusetts, Dutch traders in New York, elitist slave owners in the South, and pioneers in the Midwest. But they all agreed that there should be a nationwide free exchange of ideas.

Read the book to learn how mail delivery quickened with more advanced forms of transportation and mail-sorting, what the “Pony Express” really was, and the controversies over: a) postage rates for different regions; b) which entity should authorize mail delivery– the federal or state governments, or private companies; c) whether the Post Office should stray from its core business of delivering only written communications, including newspapers and magazines (rather than electronic, or packages), and more.

In the United States, delivery of written communications evolved into a public-private partnership, as has the distribution of electric power. The two have become interconnected because communications have increasingly required electric power. Government regulates the two because they are the trappings of an industrialized society and massive disruption of them might cause significant economic and social (not to mention political) harm to the nation.

Some Americans are pushing to significantly reduce pollution by sourcing electric power from wind and sun. That activity, which is growing in popularity, was described in the Second Book of the Week– “Superpower, One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy” by Russell Gold, published in 2019. This was the career biography of Michael Skelly, renewable-energy entrepreneur.

As is well known, what to do about environmental pollution has been a political football for the last few decades. In the late 1970’s, when Minnesota farmers used weaponry and sabotage to protest the building of power towers on their land, a Minnesota state trooper commented, “Whenever there is progress, there is change and change does not benefit everyone. Change is hard for some people to accept.”

In the Obama administration years, the U.S. Energy Department funded a study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory outside Denver.

Researchers used a supercomputer to analyze hypothetical scenarios in 2026 in which wind and solar power would account for thirty percent of the power generation of the Eastern Interconnection (infrastructure that would transmit energy across states and provinces between eastern New Mexico and Quebec, Canada); electric power would go back and forth, depending on need. The results were promising. Once infrastructure was in place, costs wouldn’t be significantly higher than fossil fuels or nuclear energy.

For, wind and sun are free of charge. Fossil fuels’ prices fluctuate. True, wind and sun aren’t available 24/7, but a giant network spanning thousands of miles would allow energy to be transferred across time zones wherever needed, when wind and sun aren’t available.

Skelly was a doer. He didn’t waste time in “Twitter feuds or policy battles.” In the early 1990’s, after acquiring life experience in the Peace Corps and Harvard business school, he supervised the construction of an unprecedented tourist attraction in Costa Rica: an open-air gondola / tram from which travelers could view flora and fauna from the rain-forest-canopy.

Then Skelly got into wind farms. Building them involves an extremely expensive, years-long series of steps to get cooperation from numerous stakeholders such as investors and local: residents, governments and utilities, not to mention the federal government. The company building the turbines sees nary a penny of revenue until it sells the energy. It must get a slew of regulatory approvals, and fend off angry opposition and lawsuits.

Interesting factoid: by 2007, Texas had surpassed California in renewable energy generation.

Bankruptcy is always hanging over the head of the project initiator. In 2005, Skelly and his fellow executives were able to sell to Goldman Sachs a 90% interest in their company. Getting the investment bank involved enabled them to purchase a few billion dollars’ worth of turbines from Europe. Goldman got a major tax break for building the wind energy project.

Skelly was a conscientious individual. Federal law required a different, later venture of his– Clean Line– to have one public meeting with the locals. Clean Line had fourteen meetings. Skelly spent eight years involved with another project, Plains and Eastern. “It would be a $9.5 billion private investment, generating thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs and using enough steel for four aircraft carriers.”

Read the book to learn all the details of Skelly’s trials and tribulations in supervising renewable-energy projects.

In My Time – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “In My Time” by Dick Cheney with Liz Cheney, published in 2011.

Born in January 1941 in Lincoln, Nebraska, Cheney and his family moved to Wyoming when he was twelve. He learned fishing at a young age. In high school: he was co-captain of the football team, was senior class president, and met his future wife.

Cheney got a scholarship (work/study program) to Yale. “… I continued to accumulate bad grades and disciplinary notices. In the spring of 1962, Yale and I finally parted ways.”

Cheney claimed that by 1967, he had aged out of the Vietnam draft through obtaining deferments for being a student and father. He got into politics, and was elected as a Republican from Wyoming, to the U.S. House of Representatives for six terms, beginning in 1978.

Interesting factoid (apropos of the way the U.S. government can behave badly): “The tobacco companies supplied free cartons of cigarettes to the Nixon and Ford White Houses…”

In October 1995, Cheney became CEO, as the previous one retired– of the international monster-sized oil-services / construction / military contracting company, Halliburton. He therefore moved to Texas. He rambled on a few pages about his quail-hunting there, and global fly-fishing trips. He explained how his February 2006 hunting accident happened.

Karl Rove opposed naming Cheney as George W. Bush’s running mate. According to Cheney, Bush was the only one who was desperate to have Cheney be his vice president. It took months of discussions before Cheney reluctantly agreed.

Even then, the two candidates were both from Texas, which meant the electoral college could vote for only one of them. Cheney had to hurry up and register in Wyoming before the deadline, to exploit the loophole in election law that allowed him to run from a different state. To be fair, in late July 2000, when Cheney’s candidacy was announced, “… the Democrats were waiting in the wings, ready to attack.”

Cheney asked Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan about the extent of 9/11’s economic impact on the United States, just after the attacks. Greenspan couldn’t say, because the “million equation model” (factors too numerous to account for) applied to such an event.

If that was the case, then the economic conditions of one president’s administration CANNOT be compared– apples to apples– to any other’s, no matter how indicators or numbers are quantified or adjusted. Each one faces challenges or advantages unique to his administration– as well as increasing globalization– as time goes on.

However, the economy’s tanking under Bush’s administration, was hardly due to 9/11. In October 2008, Bush signed a $700 billion bailout plan for failing financial institutions, the largest in United States history. In the fourth quarter of 2008, the economy contracted 8.4%. In sum, Obama inherited a national deficit of $6.369 trillion from his (blankety-blank) predecessor, thanks to tax cuts, mad military spending and a hog-wild mortgage crisis– the one that required that bailout– among other factors.

Bill Clinton happened to get reelected at the dawn of a once-a-century technological innovation that lifted all boats. It’s impossible to say how much his actions directly contributed to that.

So the line– uttered emphatically during any particular president’s administration (especially at odd times; i.e., whenever there’s a news lull)– “The economy is booming with president A, but in the same time period it sucked with president B!!” is meaningless. Sadly, this reckless kind of propaganda that targets the ignorant, works.

Anyway, roughly the last third of Cheney’s narrative consisted of infuriating, depressing and sickening myth-making, and credit-grabbing of feats that were arguably dubious distinctions. Excuse the cliche, but he rewrote history.

For one thing, Cheney was rather vague on the time frame in which he created a charitable trust to contain the after-tax profits of the stock options he still had yet to redeem with the aforementioned Halliburton; this, instead of putting his assets in a blind trust so as to reduce conflicts of interest upon becoming a (sorry excuse for a) public servant who was involved in numerous, highly suspicious circumstances. Curiously, one of the trust charities, Capital Partners for Education, has yet to be rated as of this writing by Charity Navigator, though it was founded in 1993.

The reader wonders whether Cheney would have acted completely unethically had there not been a firestorm from the media that followed his every move from the get-go. He is one of those people who, unless he gets caught, having a crack public relations team, will keep doing what he will.

Cheney wrote that Bush conferred with him in making major administration decisions. If true, Obama got elected due to the outrageous nature of the acts ordered by Cheney as much as by Bush, that sullied the Republican party’s reputation: Unethical opportunism. Unconscionable greed. Unmitigated hubris.

Cheney and Bush favored money over human lives by starting two needless wars launched on false pretenses in order to profit in many ways. ZERO of the 9/11 terrorists were from Afghanistan. ZERO of the the 9/11 terrorists were from Iraq. Yet retaliation was directed at only those two countries for harboring terrorists. The United States can’t be the world’s police officer. Clearly, it’s expensive and results in needless deaths and damage to America’s reputation.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of Cheney’s version of events.