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.

Wild Ride

The Book of the Week is “Wild Ride” by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach, published in 1994. This is a long story largely similar to many others in which one person acquires and abuses too much power in an organization that eventually comes to a bad end.

The horse racing industry is largely a playground for the wealthy, as it costs big bucks to purchase, stable and train horses for racing. There is only a tiny probability of profiting, considering all the different risks, and the factors required to produce a winning horse.

Major racing sites are located in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky; New York City, Saratoga Springs in New York State, and Hialeah in Florida.

Calumet Farm was the site of the training and spawning of racehorses. It was owned by the Wright family, whose patriarch’s goal in the 1980’s was to turn it “… into a bustling assembly-line style breeding operation, hellbent on producing winner after winner.”

In the early 1980’s, J.T. Lundy wed a Calumet heiress with the aim of inheriting the large horse farm. He inherited it at 41 years old.  He  immediately engaged in excessive spending on farm renovations, the purchase of a corporate jet and additional horses, and paying more workers. In the industry in general, new systems were created by financiers to cash in on the horse-racing boom.

Lundy spent other people’s money (namely the Wright family’s) to fund his wheeling and dealing, while also commingling personal and business funds. The family (who knew nothing about horse racing) trusted him and his colleagues (who had numerous conflicts) to run the business and do what was in the family’s best interest.

The chief financial officer of Calumet attempted to duly inform Lundy of the farm’s mounting debt service, the unpaid insurance premiums and dwindling resources, etc. at the end of the 1980’s.

By November 1990, Calumet had approximately two hundred thoroughbreds and one hundred employees. Its fifteen-year-old stud Alydar, accounted for a large part of its revenue.

Sadly, the industry would reach its saturation point within a decade of Calumet’s soaring reputation as the premier place to breed winning horses. Read the book to learn the details of how the farm had gone from owing not a cent with the death of an heir prior to Lundy’s takeover, to the largest instance of debt explosion in the history of bluegrass.

A Death… – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel” by Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang, published in 2013. This is a story whose details get tiresome after a while, about the downfall of two powerful politicians in China in 2012.

One politician was Wang Lijun. To compensate for his lack of a college education, he added laughable lies to his resume, such as the entry for “a master’s degree in business administration through a one-year correspondence education program at something called ‘California University.” This blogger recalls that that was the fictional school attended by the characters on the late 1980’s American TV show, “90210.”

Wang Lijun also purchased an eMBA from the diploma mill of China Northeastern Finance University. During a ceremony, the president of Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications publicly announced that Wang held a PhD in law. He was frequently called professor, and certain media disseminated propaganda that he was a researcher, author, inventor and fashion designer. His real job was police officer and later, police chief.

In addition to his making myths about himself, Wang used the usual techniques of dictators to amass a tremendous amount of power. Unsurprisingly, “…Wang had gone through fifty-one assistants during his two-year tenure in Chongqing…” He wrongly accused businesses of engaging in organized crime, used illegal surveillance techniques, denied suspects due process in the extreme, and embezzled public funds. You get the picture. Bo Xilai was Wang Lijun’s rival. According to Bo’s intimates, as of March 2012, Bo’s family had larcenously obtained 100 million yuan; in April 2012, that figure was 1 billion yuan.

“Suicide from depression is common among leaders at all levels of the Chinese government” especially when they are “…under investigation on corruption related charges.” Read the book to learn: whether Wang Lijun used this way out, and about the international incident that he staged; what prompted Bo Xilai to act similarly to Richard Nixon in delivering a “Checkers speech;” about the governmental infrastructure in China that provided the means for Wang’s and Bo’s outrageous conduct; and here and there, about Chinese history– such as Mao Tse Tung’s anti-intellectual campaign of May 1966.

The Billionaire’s Apprentice

The Book of the Week is “The Billionaire’s Apprentice” by Anita Raghavan, published in 2013. This ebook describes the investigation into the activities of a few Wall Streeters who were accused of insider trading in the past several years. Most of the accused happened to be of South Asian descent–from  Sri Lanka and India.

One concept the book conveys to readers is that it is unknown how many American securities-industry professionals are benefiting from insider trading, but the people in this book just happened to get caught because there was sufficient evidence against them to prompt the SEC, US Attorney’s office and FBI to go after them, rather than other possible offenders. The departments involved included the SEC’s Market Abuse Unit and the Department of Justice’s Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force in the legal jurisdiction of the Southern District of New York (covering Manhattan and the Bronx, according to the author).

Another concept is that the investigating organizations and the securities industry are staffed with many people who, during their careers, switch allegiances. They might go from being a prosecutor to being a defense attorney, or from brokerage executive to government regulator, or vice versa. In this book the “old boy network” is alive and well. Arguably, conflicts abound.

Read the book to learn, among other extremes, about wiretapping (not the NSA’s), about one of the accused who “had several phones– at least thirteen– and he used them all” and a $30 million legal bill.

The Hoax

The Book of the Week is “The Hoax” by Clifford Irving, published 2006.

This is a personal account of an incredibly talented, savvy phony and writer, who, starting in 1969, with a co-conspirator, Dick Suskind, proceeded to write the autobiography of reclusive businessman Howard Hughes; phony, because he had never met Hughes.

McGraw Hill, Irving’s publisher, believed Irving when he told them he had actually spent time with Hughes. McGraw wanted to believe that it was going to produce an exclusive work on a billionaire businessman who, up to that point, had refused to let anyone publicize significant information on his personal life.

Irving and Suskind perpetrated their deception because: trying to get away with preying on the gullibility and greed of the publishing industry was a challenge that would make them feel alive.

Pursuant to the writers’ scheme, the book was “…based on fact and yet we had the freedom and power to infuse fact with the drama of fiction.” The writers did extensive research– spent hours poring over old city telephone directories, old maps, surveys, society columns and classified documents in order to perfectly embody Hughes’ voice in print. When they were concocting anecdotes, they inserted (real) people who were dead because dead people couldn’t sue for libel.

Incidentally, a whole other book could be written on the name for the marital anguish: soul-vomit, that Irving caused his wife with his adulterous behavior– that has so much female appeal on the big screen and in books.

Read the book to learn what was becoming of Irving and Suskind when Irving was heard to say, “You know, I’ve had a lot of experience in this past year burning manuscripts. It takes a long time and it’s not easy.”