Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book Review: It's Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein (2012)

Paperback cover of It's Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, 2012.

Why is Congress so gridlocked? Why can’t anything get done in Washington D.C.? Political scientists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein attempt to answer those questions, and others, in their excellent 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. Mann and Ornstein are both non-partisan political analysts, so they don’t have a partisan axe to grind, but they do place much of the blame squarely on a Republican party that has moved much farther to the right, and has refused to work with President Obama at all. 

In the Introduction, Mann and Ornstein write:

“One of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier-ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” (Mann and Ornstein, p.xxiv) 

I think Mann and Ornstein have hit the nail on the head. I’m a liberal Democrat, so I have my own biases, but from where I stand, it’s not that the Democrats are getting any more liberal, it’s that the Republicans have taken a sharp turn to the right. Liberal and moderate Republicans are an endangered species, if not outright extinct. Nelson Rockefeller, who was something of an outsider in the Republican Party during his own lifetime, wouldn’t be able to find a place inside the Republican Party in 2014. Republicans have demanded a stifling orthodoxy of all their members, and the insurgent Tea Partiers have made sure that anyone not toeing the line will see a primary challenge from the far right. 

Republicans have made it very clear from day one of Obama’s Presidency that they were just waiting out the clock, and wouldn’t lift a finger to help him. This has hurt our country, as the Republican party has not offered any ideas of its own, but just turned into an obstructionist faction. Of course, it’s natural for the party opposing the President to not just roll over and give the President what he wants, but Republicans have taken obstructionism to a whole new level. The Republican party of 2014 doesn’t have an agenda beyond just opposing Obama’s policies. What do they stand for? It’s a question the party has to ask itself. If they keep only appealing to old, rich, straight white men, they won’t win any more Presidential elections.  

Part of the problem with gridlock in Congress is that our political system is designed to be hard to change. It’s meant to be difficult for a simple majority to completely override the minority party. And while that might be a good thing in the long run, it also means that it’s extremely difficult to get anything done in the short term.

Mann and Ornstein also discuss other problems facing contemporary politics, like the proliferation of Super PACs and unregulated money that has poured into the political system since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. Stephen Colbert has often highlighted the absurdity of the rules surrounding Super PACs by forming his own Super PAC in 2011, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” Colbert deftly showed how much of the money going to Super PACs is untraceable, and how the contributors’ identities remain secret. 

Fortunately, lest you get too depressed by Mann and Ornstein’s compendium of the political madness of the 2010’s, the authors also have a long section of the book in which they propose solutions to some of these maladies. Some of their solutions are modernizing voter registration to increase turnout, which Republicans have been overwhelmingly against, making Election Day a holiday, and making voting compulsory. They also mention doing away with mid-term elections, which would be a great idea, as turnout in the 2014 mid-terms was a pitiful 36.4%, the lowest since 1942. Changing to open primaries would be a great idea to get candidates for office that are more moderate, since they would have to appeal to more people than just the base of their own party. Another solution Mann and Ornstein suggest is limiting the number of filibusters in the Senate, which would greatly increase the amount of floor time available for debate. 

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks is an excellent look at the politics of today, and I would recommend it to anyone wondering why Congress is so ineffective.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: Once Upon a Secret, by Mimi Alford (2012)

The cover of Once Upon a Secret, by Mimi Alford, 2012.

Mimi Beardsley, circa 1962. She was an intern in the White House press office during the summer of 1962, and worked at the White House again during the summer of 1963.

President John F. Kennedy. He wouldn't have been smiling if he had ever had to field questions from the press about his extramarital affairs.
John F. Kennedy once said that the reason we read biographies is to answer the question, “What was he like?” That’s certainly the reason that Kennedy still intrigues people more than 50 years after his tragic death. Personally, I find JFK to be one of the most interesting Presidents, so I was fascinated by Mimi Alford’s excellent 2012 book, Once Upon a Secret: My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and its Aftermath. Alford, then known by her maiden name as Mimi Beardsley, was a 19-year-old college student and intern in the White House press office during the summer of 1962. On her fourth day on the job, presidential aide Dave Powers invited her to go swimming in the White House pool during lunch. She said yes, and joining her for the swim were two White House secretaries and the President. At the end of the day, Powers invited Beardsley to a party for new White House staffers. She accepted, and once again, President Kennedy was there. Later that evening he took her on a tour of the private residence and had sex with Alford in First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s bedroom. Mimi Beardsley lost her virginity in 1962. To John F. Kennedy. While he was President. In the White House. Wow, now that’s a story.

Kennedy seduced many women, both before and throughout his Presidency. He once said to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, “I wonder how it is for you, Harold? If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches.” (President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves, p.290) Despite his charm and good looks, Kennedy wasn’t known to be a great lover. Actress Angie Dickinson was rumored to have had a relationship with JFK, and this quote has often been attributed to her: “Sleeping with the President was the greatest 20 seconds of my life.” That pretty much sums up John F. Kennedy’s attitude towards sex. It was definitely all about his pleasure, not hers. Beardsley writes that her first sexual experience with Kennedy was brief, but later on she writes “As time went by, he was also more attentive, more gentlemanly than he had been in our first encounter…Our sexual relationship was varied and fun.” (Alford, p.65) 

Kennedy saw Beardsley regularly for the rest of the summer of 1962, and their sexual relationship continued. Kennedy even continued seeing Beardsley after she went back to college in the fall, using a fake name to place phone calls to her dorm, and arranging for her to make weekend trips back to the White House. Beardsley was even in the White House during one of the most tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. The reason that Beardsley was able to sleep over at the White House so often was that Jackie Kennedy was hardly ever at the White House, which is ironic, since one of the most famous things that Jackie Kennedy did as First Lady was to oversee a remodeling of the White House. But Jackie hated politics, and wanted to ride horses in the country, so she spent most of her time at Glen Ora, the Kennedys’ house in rural Virginia. 

Beardsley also traveled with the President, making several trips as a part of the President’s entourage. I was surprised as I read the book by how much time Beardsley spent with Kennedy. She spent many, many hours in his company during 1962 and 1963, which made me wonder, how deep was their relationship? What would Kennedy have said about their relationship, how would he have defined it? I don’t think that he was in love with her, but he was obviously drawn to her, and there must have been a reason other than sex that he spent so much time with her. For her the relationship was something like a schoolgirl crush, but what was the relationship like for him? Kennedy obviously enjoyed Beardsley’s company; otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to such great lengths to keep seeing her. 

Beardsley continued working in the White House during the summer of 1963, even as she got engaged to Tony Fahnestock, a college student at Williams. Beardsley knew that she would eventually quit working at the White House and stop seeing President Kennedy. The last time she saw Kennedy was at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City on Friday, November 15, 1963. Kennedy gave her $300 and told her to buy something nice, as his wedding present to her. Kennedy told Beardsley, “I wish you were coming with me to Texas. I’ll call you when I get back.” (Alford, p.127) A week later Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

The second half of Once Upon a Secret deals with how the secret that Alford kept for so long affected her relationships in her life. She told her fiancé Tony about her affair with JFK on the night of November 22, 1963, as they were watching television coverage in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination. Tony took the news poorly and made Mimi promise that she would never tell anyone, ever. Their marriage eventually crumbled, and they divorced. Alford writes very well about her struggles on her journey to becoming a woman who is happy with herself and who can love someone on her own terms. She has been happily married to Dick Alford since 2005. Her secret relationship with JFK remained something that she had only shared with a few people until May of 2003. There was a reference to Alford in an oral history that Robert Dallek quoted in his acclaimed biography of JFK, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963, although she wasn’t named. But soon the press figured out her identity, and reporters were stalking her. Alford made a brief statement confirming her relationship with JFK, but didn’t give any interviews to the press. 

Once Upon a Secret is an excellent book, and I applaud Alford for telling the truth, even when it’s difficult. Her book sheds new light on John F. Kennedy, and he comes off as a very flawed human, but still likeable.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"For Your Pleasure," an Essay on Roxy Music

All the iconic album covers of Roxy Music, not in chronological order.

Roxy Music, 1972. Top row: Bryan Ferry, Graham Simpson, Andy Mackay. Bottom row: Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, Paul Thompson.

Roxy Music, 2000's. Left to right, Phil Manzanera, Bryan Ferry, and Andy Mackay.
I’ve known about the British band Roxy Music for a long time, probably since my infatuation with David Bowie began around 2000, but it wasn’t until ten years later that I started seriously listening to their music. I quickly became a big fan of their unique style. 

Earlier this month, Roxy Music’s lead guitarist Phil Manzanera told Rolling Stone that the group has broken up, which seems like a rather belated announcement for a group that hasn’t released a new studio album since 1982. But Roxy Music did re-form in 2001 and has toured off and on since then, although their last live appearance was in 2011. So what legacy does Roxy Music leave behind? Between 1972 and 1982 they released 8 studio albums that trace the evolution of the band from glam rock and experimental art rock to smooth, slick dance grooves. 

Roxy Music started out as an arty glam rock band, releasing their debut album in June of 1972, the same summer that David Bowie finally broke big in the UK with the single “Starman” and the “Ziggy Stardust” album. Similar to Bowie, Roxy Music looked like they had been beamed down to Earth from some other planet. Lead singer Bryan Ferry’s unique croon was paired with Phil Manzanera’s scorching lead guitar, Andy Mackay’s saxophone and oboe contributions, Paul Thompson’s thumping drums, and Brian Eno’s electronic experimentations on synthesizer to give Roxy Music an unmistakable sound. Their debut album is astonishing. With Roxy Music there were no half measures, no hesitation, no finding your voice. The group seemed to emerge from the womb fully formed. 

Early Roxy Music songs were definitely a bit weird. “Re-Make/Re-Model,” the first song on their first album, had a cryptic backing chorus of “CPL 593H,” which was apparently the license plate number belonging to an attractive woman that Bryan Ferry saw. (The song actually makes a lot more sense viewed through the lens of a failed flirtation.) One of their most famous songs, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” is about a blow-up doll that Bryan Ferry gets a little too attached to. Ferry doesn’t so much sing the lyrics as recite them, like a bizarre prose poem. 

One might think that Roxy lost some of their thirst for experimentation once Brian Eno left the group in 1973, after their second album “For Your Pleasure.” But Roxy continued to expand their sonic palette, as Ferry wrote songs like “Bitter-Sweet,” which sounds like a lost song from “Cabaret.” Roxy Music turned out three excellent albums in a row without Eno, “Stranded,” “Country Life,” and “Siren.” Oddly enough, Eno has said that his favorite Roxy Music album is “Stranded,” the first album the group made without him. The lead single from 1975’s “Siren” album was the insanely catchy “Love is the Drug,” which proved to be Roxy’s only US Top 40 single. Ferry had written catchy songs before, but “Love is the Drug” paired a funky bass line with a killer chorus that made it an easier song to follow than, say, “Mother of Pearl.” 

After the 1976 live album “Viva!” Roxy Music went on hiatus. I’m not entirely sure why they decided to take a break. Part of the reason might have been for Bryan Ferry to focus on his burgeoning solo career. Ferry had released his first solo album “These Foolish Things,” an eclectic collection of cover versions, in October of 1973, just a month before the Roxy Music album “Stranded” came out. Ferry released a staggering total of 10 studio albums between 1972 and 1978, 5 with Roxy Music, and 5 solo. 

Roxy Music reconvened in late 1978 to begin recording “Manifesto,” issued in 1979. “Manifesto” is really a transition album. There are still some rough edges, but it’s definitely a little smoother than their previous albums. The song “Angel Eyes” highlights this. The album version of the song is rougher and rockier, but the single version is smoother and more polished, a hint of the new direction that Roxy would be moving in. The hit single “Dance Away” was also a smoother piece of great pop than they had previously put out. 

The group’s next album, 1980’s “Flesh and Blood” shows the new, smoother Roxy Music in full flower. Personally, it’s my own favorite Roxy Music album, as I can’t resist the slinky tunes like “Oh Yeah,” “Same Old Scene,” “My Only Love,” and “Over You.” Roxy Music followed up “Flesh and Blood” with another supremely smooth album, 1982’s sublime “Avalon.” It’s a perfect pop album. And then suddenly they were gone, breaking up after finishing the “Avalon” tour in 1983.

What made Roxy Music such an interesting band? It’s the yearning passion that typifies their songs, Ferry’s romantic and expressive vocals, the excellent arrangements that seemed to fit each song perfectly, and their stylistic range. It’s kind of weird for a band to go from “Do the Strand” to “Avalon,” but Roxy Music did it, and both songs are great in their own way. 

Visual style was always a large part of the Roxy Music mystique. Bryan Ferry is not only one of rock’s great singers; he’s also one of the most stylish rock stars. Roxy Music was also famous for their sleek and sexy album covers-the most famous of which, 1974’s “Country Life,” was heavily censored in the U.S. The original cover showed two beautiful women clad only in see-through lingerie. The U.S. cover omitted the women and instead featured a close up of the trees they were posing in front of!

Roxy Music never achieved as much success in the US as they did in the UK. Stateside, their highest charting album was “Manifesto,” peaking at #23, and their biggest hit single was “Love is the Drug,” which hit #30. In the UK, all 8 of their studio albums peaked in the Top 10. In all, they had 11 Top 10 albums and 4 that made it to number 1. On the UK singles chart, they had 10 Top 10 singles, and 1 number 1, a cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” that was released in early 1981 as a tribute to Lennon. 

Whether you enjoy smooth pop tunes crooned by an effortlessly cool singer, or spiky arty songs filled with references to visual art, you’ll find something to enjoy in the albums of Roxy Music.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson (2011)

Cover of In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, 2011.

Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts.
Berlin. The name of the city conjures up numerous visions-the decadent nightlife of the Weimar Republic, immortalized in Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, the bombed-out ruins of Hitler’s bunker, the drab gray concrete of communist East Berlin and the infamous Berlin Wall. Erik Larson’s excellent 2011 book In the Garden of Beasts gives us a riveting account of Berlin at the very start of Hitler’s rule. The main character of In the Garden of Beasts is William E. Dodd, the ambassador of the United States to Germany from 1933-1937. 

Dodd was an odd choice for ambassador, as he was a history professor at the University of Chicago. He had become a good friend of Woodrow Wilson’s during Wilson’s successful run for President in 1912, and he later wrote a biography of Wilson. Dodd was not well suited to the job of ambassador. He didn’t enjoy the social obligations that were a large part of being an ambassador, and he doesn’t seem to have gotten along well with anyone on his staff. Because he wasn’t independently wealthy, Dodd didn’t fit in with the other U.S. diplomats, and many of his colleagues undermined him in their letters and reports. 

When Dodd arrived in Germany in July of 1933, Hitler was Chancellor, but he was not yet the all-powerful dictator he would later become. At that time Paul von Hindenburg, the elderly President of Germany, still had the power and authority to remove Hitler as Chancellor and declare martial law. But it was obvious to Dodd and other foreign observers that the Nazis were the dominant faction in Germany. 

In the beginning of his service in Berlin, Dodd did not see the danger that the Nazis represented, and like many other observers thought that either Hitler’s government would quickly collapse, or that the Nazis would eventually moderate their extreme views. Obviously, as we know all too well, neither of those things happened.

In the Garden of Beasts focuses on Dodd’s changing attitude as he sees more of the brutality of the Nazis’ rule, and he gradually understands that Hitler is not a man who can be dealt with rationally. The book also deals with Dodd’s family, who accompanied him to Germany. Specifically, it focuses on his spirited daughter Martha, who was 24 when the Dodds arrived in Berlin. Martha was quickly entranced by the Nazis, as she only saw what she interpreted as good things, like a renewed sense of national pride in Germany. Martha attracted many suitors, and she had a close relationship with Rudolf Diels, who was then the head of the Gestapo. While she was in Berlin, Martha also fell in love with Boris Winogradov, a Russian who was a member of the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. Martha only needed to sleep with a member of Stasi, the brutal East German secret police, to complete her trifecta of notorious authoritarian secret police forces. 

The climax of In the Garden of Beasts is Hitler’s June 1934 purge of the SA, the brown-shirted “Storm Troopers” led by Ernst Röhm, who had been a long-time ally of Hitler’s. Röhm’s brown shirts tended to be a rowdy bunch who were likely to randomly beat up American citizens for not giving the Hitler salute during parades. (This behavior, and the German police’s reluctance to punish the SA members, led to many headaches for Ambassador Dodd.) Hitler was facing pressure from President Hindenburg to reign in the excesses of the SA, or else Hindenburg would strip Hitler of his title and declare martial law. Röhm was at the same time pressuring Hitler to let him take control of the German army. Hitler’s purge of the SA, known as the “Night of the Long Knives,” led to the murder of many key SA leaders, including Röhm. The official Nazi story was that Röhm was trying to overthrow Hitler, which was untrue. Hitler claimed that the purge was necessary to protect Germany from traitors. In purging the SA, Hitler satisfied Hindenburg, and at the same time did away with a key rival within his own party. When Hindenburg died in August of 1934, Hitler persuaded his cabinet to pass a law merging the offices of President and Chancellor, and thus when Hindenburg died, the last real threat to Hitler’s power died too. Hitler and the Nazi party now had total control of Germany. 

Larson is able to craft a non-fiction book that also has a fast-paced narrative, which is a difficult feat to pull off. He creates vivid portraits of the many fascinating and bizarre characters that populated the early days of the Third Reich. I have only two criticisms of In the Garden of Beasts. One is that, like Larson’s previous book The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts doesn’t have a separate picture section. Larson paints such great portraits of Berlin and the people who inhabited the city at the time that I wanted to see more pictures of what these people looked like. My other criticism is that Larson skates over the fact that Martha Dodd was a spy for the Soviet Union after she returned to the United States in 1937. She and her second husband Alfred Stern were indicted on charges of espionage in 1957, and they fled the United States and never returned. Larson does not say that Dodd was indicted on charges of espionage; he merely writes “as pressure from federal authorities increased, they moved again…” (In the Garden of Beasts, p.361) But that omission doesn’t detract from the many pleasures that In the Garden of Beasts provides the reader. I learned a lot more about a fascinating time in world history, a brief window in which Adolf Hitler might easily have been removed from power, which would have changed much of the history of the 20th century.