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.

Fidel Castro

The Book of the Week is “Fidel Castro, 10th World Trade Unions Congress.” This is the repetitive speech delivered by Castro on the 10th of February, 1982– year 24 of The Revolution. Its hearers consisted of 135 nations representing 351 trade union organizations comprising 260 million workers.

At the time, it might be recalled that the United States was engaging in an arms race with the Soviets. Castro accused the U.S. of being a greedy bully.  The monster-sized corporations, oil and chemical interests of its military industrial complex were profiting from oppressing Third World workers.  Such workers were victims in nations plagued by aggressors: South Africa in Angola, Israel and its neighbors, various imperialists in Vietnam, dirty little wars in South America…

Was it necessary for the U.S. to have three hundred military bases worldwide with personnel numbering half a million? Was it actually threatened by anyone?  The arms race defied reason, as every day, it cost more because the weaponry needed to be more and more destructive. “… the U.S. and its allies seek military superiority as an instrument for political pressure…” According to Castro, there existed three tons of explosives for each man, woman and child on the planet.

Castro railed on about how the world was experiencing its worst financial state since the Great Depression. Humanity would benefit if only a part of the money spent on military-related purposes was diverted to raise people’s standard of living and make progress in the world. He claimed that spending in the private sector created more jobs than spending in the military sector.

In 1980, U.S. military spending was five hundred billion dollars. Reagan’s military spending was out of control. If it continued at his pace, it would be valued at $940 billion by the year 2000. The money could be spent instead on eliminating malaria or caring for infants. According to Castro, the U.S. was planning to build thirteen “Trident nuclear submarines” by 1990. The cost would pay school tuition for sixteen million Third World kids for a year.

Children were dying for various reasons but the ultimate cause was imperialist policies– selfish war-mongering and capitalism. Castro claimed (about Cuba) “… Our health indicators can compare with those of developed countries; the scourge of unemployment has been done away with, and there is no racial discrimination, prostitution, gambling, mendacity or drug addiction.” He said there was a vicious rumor that Cuba had bought militarily advanced weaponry, but it wasn’t true!

Read the book to learn more about the villainy of the United States and how it was hurting the workers in socialist countries.

The Jew in American Sports

The Book of the Week is “The Jew in American Sports” by Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow, originally published in 1952, revised most recently in 1985.

The authors contended that the achievements of the athletes who were perceived to be Jewish, were all the more remarkable, considering that they had to overcome religious discrimination in addition to the fierce competition, rigors of training and harsh traveling conditions they had to endure in their generations. That is why the authors compiled this specific list of athletes.

The authors said Hank Greenberg might have been better than Babe Ruth in the 1930’s. “… Ruth was left handed and aimed at a 296 foot wall at Yankee Stadium most of the time. The park was built for him. Greenberg, right handed, aimed at a fence 340 feet away… he fell only two [homeruns] shy of Ruth’s record!” Later ballplayers had more opportunities to break records with lengthier seasons, stadiums easier to hit in, not to mention performance-enhancing drugs. Other baseball standouts included Al Rosen, Moe Berg and Sandy Koufax.

Jews became proficient in professional boxing in the early 20th century due to abuses they suffered at the hands of local neighborhood thugs of rival ethnicities, such as Irish and Italian. The New York City law against boxing was relaxed when Mayor Jimmy Walker saw the appeal of the sport among World War I veterans.

Benny Leonard was a Jewish boxer who benefited from that. He became rich and famous and from the mid-1920’s into the 1930’s, used his fame to purchase a hockey team, act in Vaudeville, write about sports and teach a course on pugilism at City College, New York. After his failed comeback, he tried his hand at refereeing, Zionism and helping to sponsor a Jewish Olympics in Tel Aviv.

Harry Newman, like Benny Friedman before him, played exceptionally great college football in the early 1930’s at the University of Michigan. In 1932, the team was undefeated and untied. “He had a hand in every winning play in every single game.” Benny Friedman, who played with the (professional) New York Giants, was popular with Jewish fans. The Giants saw Newman’s potential to keep up the good work, so they agreed to an irregular contractual provision that gave Newman a percentage of home attendance revenue.

In 1928, Irving Jaffee competed as a speed skater in the Olympics. When a Norwegian judge committed religious discrimination against Jaffee, a tremendous hue and cry erupted from athletes and the International Olympic Committee to award Jaffee a deserved gold medal. The American media picked up the story so the athlete became more famous than otherwise.

Read the book to learn about many other American athletes perceived to be Jewish, who overcame hardships and prejudice to rock the sports world with their feats.

The Conscience of a Conservative

The Book of the Week is “The Conscience of a Conservative” by Barry Goldwater, published in 1960. This slim volume lays out the political opinions of the late conservative Senator from Arizona.

Goldwater believed that Conservatives considered the spiritual as well as economic needs of their constituents; Liberals; only the economic needs. There was a conflict between freedom and order, but the Conservatives wanted to maximize freedom.

“Throughout history, government has proved to be the chief instrument for thwarting man’s liberty.” He thought that government power grew with allowing people to live their lives as they saw fit.

Goldwater was a big advocate of limiting the power of the federal government not just because the people deserved the most freedom possible, but because their local governments knew better how to take care of them.

The Senator lamented that federal programs were being imposed on the states in the guise of States’ Rights. And the programs were conditional– the Fed was using both the carrot and the stick to achieve its aims while having the states do its bidding. Of course, there is nothing new under the sun. A recent example of this was the 2009 “Race to the Top” education dollars that rained down on the states that changed their policies to get with the program. It emphasized standardized testing, teacher evaluations, other easily manipulated statistical measures and common standards whose results were questionable with regard to actual education improvement.

The Senator took issue with a few other areas besides education that he thought the states, not the federal government, should control:  welfare, public power, farming, public housing and urban renewal.

Goldwater also related his views on labor unions. He felt that membership should have been voluntary, and that their political activities should have been banned. For, only unions’ top leadership had a say in their affiliations and funding with member dues, and the workers were forced to comply. He thought that the purpose of the union should have been solely to give workers the ability of collective bargaining. He made many generalizations and did not differentiate between government unions and private-sector unions.

This blogger thinks that current unions in the private sector should be allowed to continue their activities, but they are unnecessary with the way things are in the United States today.

Economics 101 says that a nation requires a healthy, well-educated workforce. Unions in the private sector discourage upward mobility– why should workers want to acquire more training and edification in their careers if they’re making a decent living and their jobs are protected? Unions in low-skilled positions especially, foster complacency. This blogger thinks that private-sector unions foster a lazy, poorly educated nation of low-skilled employees who go to work to collect a paycheck.

Non-union employees need no protection in the private sector. Employee satisfaction gets the same score as customer service. Free-market competition usually keeps employers in line.

If employees walk off the job en masse, other employers will gladly accept employees and business lost by the wayward employer. Customers and employees can go over to Wendy’s if McDonald’s is unsatisfactory, or to Target if Walmart doesn’t deliver. Low pay and difficult working conditions should encourage fry cooks and greeters to go to school to get a better job.

In the early 20th century, there was a need to protect workers– who were easily subjected to exploitation because many workers were poorly skilled, poorly educated new immigrants. There was limited opportunity for education, and limited transportation options even if workers were willing to relocate to find a job. Today, workers have more resources than ever to find work or engage in professional improvement if they want to.

Unions are needed in civil service, and a few monopolistic industries (such as couriers, transportation, education and healthcare services), because they are exceptional. They are providing essential services (health, education and welfare), or else the work they provide is a matter of life and death. Government employees who are providing essential services deserve due process, in exchange for not striking.

Striking is illegal, and rightly so. There would be massive economic and/or societal disruption, and possible deaths, if they were to walk off the job en masse. Therefore, civil service unions are a necessary evil.

Read Goldwater’s book to learn more about his take on government, and American foreign policy. Here’s a hint:  “… if all nuclear weapons suddenly ceased to exist, much of the world would immediately be laid open to conquest by the masses of  Russian and Chinese manpower.”

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.

This Just In

The Book of the Week is “This Just In, What I Couldn’t Tell You On TV” by Bob Schieffer, published in 2003.

The author started his journalism career at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the dawn of the 1960’s. Later, he covered the overnight shift police beat. In those days, there was no security in the detectives’ office. He and people off the street could roam the station at will. Before Miranda Rights, reporters frequently recorded the confessions of suspects because they could type and the cops couldn’t.

Schieffer got his wish to go to Vietnam to cover the war in 1964, before it became controversial. During more than four months, he rooted out and interviewed all of the soldiers from Texas, hitching rides on military helicopters. President Lyndon Johnson was also from Texas, so the author trusted him when he initiated fighting in order to nip Communism in the bud and keep neighboring states from it, too.

The author later changed his mind when he saw how extremely inefficient it was to have tens of U.S. troops searching for one or two Viet Cong guerrillas per day in rural areas. He also saw how the teenage South Vietnamese would-be ragtag soldiers recruited by the Americans, refused to help the U.S fight. Stateside, he was sent to cover countless anti-war protests. At that time, protestors were expressing their feelings about a super-controversial situation in their country that was a matter of life-and-death.

In 1966, the author started to anchor TV news in Forth Worth. At the time, the screening of primitive newsreels was the norm. Next came CBS radio news in Washington, D.C. in 1969. Washington’s real beats consisted of the White House, State Department, Pentagon and Capitol Hill. Schieffer’s station chief expected his news gatherers to be on call 24/7, so CBS became the network that covered the government best.

However, President Richard Nixon held sway over the FCC. Negative news about the president was censored, because the agency had the power to revoke the licenses of TV stations.

In 1971, Nixon’s childish aides had nothing better to do than generate a blizzard of memos pouncing on every little negative thing that the press reported on the president, or memos on issues they failed to cover. Ironically, there was no security at the Pentagon– most of the building was open to the public. Anyway, the aides also did phony letter-writing to the networks with exaggerated complaints about slanted coverage, and had praise for the Nixon administration.

In 1972, during George McGovern’s presidential campaign, it was found that “Man-on-the street interviews are notoriously inaccurate gauges of public sentiment…” Broadcasting news on the traveling candidate was quite cumbersome. In those days, two reporters were at every campaign stop– one to get the story and the other to go get the film developed. Another fun factoid– the campaign plane served whiskey and food to the news crews, paid for by the networks.

THE AUTHOR HAD PEOPLE TELL HIM THEY THOUGHT A GOOD BUSINESSMAN COULD “… STRAIGHTEN OUT THE GOVERNMENT IN NO TIME…” The author disagreed. Sure, the positions of CEO and president both require leadership skills. However, a business and a government have different goals. THE GOAL OF GOVERNMENT OUGHT TO BE PUBLIC SERVICE, NOT MONEY-MAKING AND THE ACQUISITION OF POWER. All too often, elected officials forget what they were supposed to have been taught in high school civics class. They go astray. And a leopard doesn’t usually change its spots. Businessmen are usually once and always.

That’s why business leaders are less than ideal candidates for government. Besides, the 535 members of Congress make up a very diverse group of individuals who bear listening to, unlike a small board of directors- who are less likely to disagree.

Even when journalists are not under duress to slant their reporting, they have confirmation bias– hearing and seeing what they want to– which is “… the easiest and most destructive habit that a reporter can fall into and has probably caused more stories to be missed than any other single thing.”

Read the book to learn other pearls of wisdom from Schieffer. His decades-long career included experiences in the newspaper, radio and TV trenches covering crime, war and politics– which in some cases, were and still are, one and the same. 🙂