The Brethren

The Book of the Week is “The Brethren” by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, published in 1979. This book documents the power struggles of, and kinds of cases decided by members of the U.S. Supreme Court– the highest court in the land– covering the period from autumn 1969 to the spring of 1976, during President Richard Nixon’s administration.

Annually, the Court received about five thousand petitions that were handwritten, mostly from prisoners appealing their cases. The justices ruled on only a tiny number of cases. The ones they chose to rule on, gave rise to weeks or months of scrutiny, debate, hours of research, and reams of writings. When the justices or their clerks (assistants) gave further consideration to a case, they might procrastinate reviewing the case until the next court session in the fall, or order it remanded to a lower court.

The major controversial cases involved desegregation, pornography, monopolies, abortion, freedom of the press, and the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court had the final say on where local control (States’ Rights) ended and Constitutional protections began.

Warren Burger, a conservative, was the Chief Justice. His authority was exceeded only by the President and Vice President.  Nevertheless, there were usually two or three justices who might vote one way or the other in any given case, as tiebreakers. So they had the real power. The Court members were always divided in their votes along liberal/conservative lines.

The early 1970’s were eventful years for the Burger Court, what with the replacements of a few justices who retired due to ill health; and attempted lobbying of two justices on a monopoly case (considered not just a conflict, but an overtly aggressive act that would have biased the justices had they not been sufficiently principled in demanding the departure of the lobbyist forthwith). Oh yes, and a near-impeachment of a president.

In June 1971, the first installment of the 47-volume Pentagon Papers was published in The New York Times. It was the job of the Court to decide the extent to which publication of the 1945-1967 study of Vietnam would affect: national security, the process of the termination of the war, and release of prisoners of war. However, the government had lied too much about the war already.

The Court– at least five justices– had to decide whether to expedite the case relating to Nixon’s turning over of audiotapes consisting of conversations of administration officials. The overall dispute was not uncommon, over the authority of two branches of the American government– the Executive and Judicial. Nixon (a member of the Executive) was attempting to claim executive privilege (invoking Constitutional protection) in not turning over the tapes. Seven of Nixon’s top aides had already been indicted by a grand jury. They had implicated unindicted coconspirators. One was the President himself.

Those portions of the tapes containing Nixon’s voice engaging in interactions of a conspiratorial nature were not protected by executive privilege. At least one justice believed that such audio evidence bespoke of obstruction of justice.

Nixon’s attorney attended the hearing that would determine the role the Court would play in presiding over Nixon’s conspiracy case. It was the attorney’s contention that Nixon would basically be the judge at his own trial, as he should get to interpret the Constitution, after the Court made a recommendation on the case law.

Read the book to learn the details of the office politics in the Court, different aspects of the endless ideological debates on various super-controversial issues, how the justices dealt with the Chief Justice’s actions, as well as Court-related lore– during a particularly tumultuous time in the nation’s political history.

A Death in White Bear Lake

The Book of the Week is “A Death in White Bear Lake” by Barry Siegel, published in 1990. This is a long, suspenseful story about how a case of manslaughter helped spark awareness of deaths of children due to physical abuse in the United States. As book-lengthening filler, the history of White Bear Lake, Minnesota is also contained within.

The story starts when an infertile couple seeks to adopt a child. Through intense scrutiny, the Commissioner of Public Welfare of Scott County, MN learns that the prospective mother has a history of psychiatric problems. In the early 1960’s, the couple are permitted to adopt a child anyway. Some time later, they seek to take in a second child. Trouble ensues, especially on Palm Sunday in 1965.

Read the book to learn: how the American attitude toward physicality with children changed from the tail end of the 1950’s to the late 1980’s; the people and agencies (“the system”) that had enabled the trouble and would continue to do so; and the twists of fate that gave the story its fitting ending.

Side Note: The author gave the impression that the White Bear Lake case was one of the most influential factors that forced the change in attitude. However, prior to the Internet, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on TV and other communications of Oprah herself were major nationwide publicity vehicles on child abuse discussions. Additionally, another notorious case was that of Joel Steinberg in New York City in 1987.

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.”

Trump and Me

The Book of the Week is “Trump and Me” by Mark Singer, published in 2016.  This very short ebook, released just before Election Day, appears to have been an attempt to deter people from voting for Trump.

Singer, a writer for The New Yorker, recounts that when Trump declared bankruptcy in the spring of 1990, investors in his ventures lost approximately eight hundred million dollars. This blogger is mystified as to why, knowing Trump’s financial history, people would trust their money with him repeatedly. According to the author, through leveraging his name, Trump convinces investors he has power over other parties’ assets.

In the past, another way Trump became rich using other people’s money, was by bringing his casinos public. Trump’s bag of financial tricks also included– during his first investment in New York City real estate in 1975 (besides inheriting his father’s good name, wealth, and contacts)– reaping incredible tax breaks from a “… functionally bankrupt municipal government.”

The author mentions a few different sins Trump committed in connection with his work in the New York City construction industry, such as hiring illegal immigrants to demolish a building in the early 1980’s. However, Trump is far from alone in terms of such actions. Nevertheless, Singer does make him look hypocritical in that a large part of Trump’s political platform was to ban illegal immigrants from entering this country.

Read the book to learn some details of the President’s offensive, ridiculous and untruthful utterances, a little about his family, and more about his career highlights.

Side Note:  This blogger checked out this ebook from the New York Public Library using OverDrive software for Kindle, through the Amazon.com website. The “Wireless” was turned off right after the ebook was brought up on the screen. Suspiciously, during the reading of this ebook, the screen froze an unprecedented number of times, especially at the bookmarking of screens containing passages most critical of Trump. It is unclear whether this was a coincidence, or whether Amazon’s software just happened to have glitches or security breaches at those times.

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.

Report From Engine Co. 82

The Book of the Week is “Report From Engine Co. 82” by Dennis Smith, published in 1972. This is the personal account of a firefighter in the South Bronx at the busiest firehouse in New York City in the 1960’s.

The author elected to work in that high-crime neighborhood because he experienced fulfillment from saving lives, and minimizing injuries to the downtrodden and damage to their homes.

During the author’s several-years’ tenure there, he witnessed many traumatic scenes including the death of a coworker– who fell off the truck as it was rushing to what turned out to be a false alarm. At that time, there were call-boxes on the street where anyone could report an emergency.

More than half of the calls were false alarms and there were emergencies both medical and crime-inspired that would be significantly less frequent, such as drug overdoses and injuries from fights– had Smith worked in a nicer place. Four or five calls every shift were cars set afire; those having been previously stolen for a joyride, then stripped of parts and tires.

Sometimes the firefighters had rocks or bricks thrown at them while they were trying to do their jobs, or heard racist chants from area residents. To add injury to injury (and there were many kinds a firefighter could get) cinders could fly into a firefighter’s glove, causing third degree burns. The author related a few of the unpleasant conditions he experienced when he entered burning buildings, including throat irritation from inhalation of poisonous smoke and a serious burn on the back of his neck.

In the three months he was keeping track, Smith never had a meal uninterrupted by a fire alarm. During firefighting on a freezing cold night, workers had to lift 71-lb hose sections over the exhaust pipe of the fire engine to warm the connections.

Read the book to learn more about what happened to firefighters of the author’s generation, and what he had to go through to start his career, which unsurprisingly, was the most dangerous job in the United States at the book’s writing.

Iphigene

The Book of the Week is “Iphigene, Memoirs of Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger of The New York Times Family” by Susan W. Dryfoos, published in 1979. This is the life and times of a New York Times heiress, as told to Dryfoos– her granddaughter.

Iphigene was an only child in a wealthy family. Her father was a highly successful newspaper publisher, having turned around The Times upon his purchase of it in 1896. “While the other New York papers fought a ruthless and unscrupulous battle for circulation by means of outrageous headlines and sensational stories, The Times sought to expand readership with sober and comprehensive reporting.”

In 1898, The Times faced stiff competition from the tabloids that sent their reporters on location to the Spanish-American war front. Iphigene’s father, Adolph Simon Ochs, dropped the price of his paper from 3 cents to 1 cent instead of making up inflammatory war stories.

The paper maintained its integrity and avoided conflicts of interest under Ochs . For instance, he claimed to refuse to accept gifts from, or print laudatory stories, about advertisers.

Iphigene was born in September 1892. Suffering from then-undiagnosed dyslexia, she was beset with poor grades although her schooling was the best that money could buy. Nevertheless, Iphigene studied for Barnard College’s entrance exams. At that time, the school had a two-year program for students whose academic abilities were less than stellar, but were eager to learn. She wrote, “I found the atmosphere of the school congenial, the students friendly and the teachers excellent…” Iphigene passed additional exams in order to upgrade to the four-year program, enabling her to graduate in 1914 with a degree in economics.

The Times went beyond the call in covering WW I. Its daily circulation between 1914 and 1919 rose to 170,000. Iphigene wed a man who eventually proved himself equal to the task of publishing The Times as competently as her father did. In 1944, he had the company purchase the New York radio station WQXR.

Read the book to learn much more information on what Iphigene did for various communities in New York City in various areas including parks and education; her global travels during which she met various politicians and dignitaries, and her impressions of them.

Stalin’s Daughter

The Book of the Week is “Stalin’s Daughter” by Rosemary Sullivan, published in 2015. This biography tells of the life and times of someone who could not escape her father’s shadow. As is pretty well known, Joseph Stalin, of Soviet Georgian origin, was a twentieth-century world leader who committed untold atrocities for decades, during which his country ended up on the winning side of WWII.

Born in February 1926, Stalin’s daughter was given the first name Svetlana, but her last name kept changing later in life, pursuant to her marriages and desire for anonymity. In order to run his brutal dictatorship of her birth country, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, her father formed a cult– an atmosphere of fear and loathing with himself an object of worship. Soviet citizens who had seen peoples and cultures other than their own developed a split personality because in their hearts, they knew they were living a lie. “Many Red Party members were seen at their dacha but mysteriously disappeared through the 1930’s.”

There was a 23-year age difference between Svetlana’s mother and father. The older one, her father, was 48 when she was born. She, although receiving what was thought to be the best of everything while growing up, was sheltered from many truths, such as the real cause of the death of her mother when she was six. As was common in wealthy families of that era, she got a nanny, governess, and tutors until she started attending school. She was taught German and Russian at an early age.

In the autumn of 1937, Svetlana was assigned a bodyguard, who stuck to her like glue. Her whole life was seen by that bodyguard, and she was forced to terminate relationships with friends whose parents had shown any signs of political leanings adverse to Stalin.

In the late 1930’s, Stalin “purged” his own in-laws– employees of the State Bank. When Svetlana was seventeen and a half years old, she was tested on assembling a rifle as part of the final exam her first year of college. When her son was four years old, he met with his grandfather Stalin for the first time. As an adult, her father had always provided her with luxurious housing– a four-room apartment with a private kitchen, unlike most folks who shared their kitchens and bathrooms and had one-room apartments with plywood separations.

In March 1953, ironically due to a murderous policy perpetrated by Stalin himself– the “Doctor’s Plot”– Stalin failed to receive possible life-saving medical treatment for his arteriosclerosis and later, stroke. Svetlana’s father might have died, but his ghost lived on to sully her reputation for the rest of her life. No matter that she constantly changed her geographic location, her Soviet mentality was evident. Regarding her friendships, she expected 100% loyalty and reciprocity. She adopted a “go big or go home” attitude in hiring former professional mentors and coaches to help her younger daughter learn piano, drawing, swimming and horseback riding. They attended many social events at which her fourteen-year old daughter was a party to numerous customary drinking-toasts, and was a marriage prospect in Tbilisi.

Read the book to get what is probably a more comprehensive picture of the life of Stalin’s daughter in one volume, than any other.

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.