Posted at 2:09am on Jul. 24, 2008 Book Review--Clinton In Exile

By Pejman Yousefzadeh

It was only a matter of time before someone decided to write a book on Bill Clinton's post-Presidential career and Carol Felsenthal went ahead and did just that. The book is a good one, though in certain sections, it wanders and meanders. Various chapters appear to be hijacked from their original subject (see, for example, the chapter "Clinton Opens His Library In A Downpour" which actually devotes very little time to Bill Clinton and the opening of his Presidential library). But the book is full of information on Clinton's post-Presidential career and it lays out each step of that career in a manner guaranteed to interest and engage the attentions of political junkies like yours truly.

Felsenthal does a very good job of capturing both the immense political gifts that Bill Clinton possesses and the ways in which he has allowed those gifts to go to waste--in addition to discussing in significant detail many of the allegations concerning Clinton's business and personal life that were laid bare in Todd Purdum's article on Clinton's life after the Presidency. She discusses at length Clinton's efforts to make the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) a potent and positive force--both for policy transformations around the world and for the resuscitation of Bill Clinton's legacy. She traces how the dynamic in the Clinton family has continued to change and evolve. She covered the nomination contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama deep into 2008 and while she ended her book before Hillary Clinton finally fell on her sword, Felsenthal's recounting would be sufficient to make it clear to someone from Mars without any knowledge of the resolution of the nomination contest that Hillary Clinton's campaign was in trouble and would likely not get out of it. And she sheds a lot of light on the creation of the unexpected friendship between Clinton and George Bush the Elder, as well as Clinton's relationship with the current President Bush.

This is a fairly quick and breezy read. But a good one nonetheless and for people who like to keep up with current events in general--and especially for people who want to read any good politically related book they can get their hands on--Clinton in Exile is recommended.

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Posted at 2:32am on Jul. 19, 2008 Book Review--The Audacity of Hope

By Pejman Yousefzadeh

The Audacity of Hope is nowhere near as good a book as Dreams From My Father was--in large part because it is written much less in Barack Obama's voice and much more in the voice of the ghostwriter Obama employed, a sharp contrast to Obama's first book. But the other part stems from the fact that Obama portrayed this latter book as offering "a new kind of politics" and then allowed the book to lapse into Democratic cant.

That he did so does not come as much of a surprise; Obama warns us at the very beginning of his book that he won't try to hide the fact that he is a Democrat. Fair enough and he shouldn't. But it would be a whole lot easier to respect the book if Obama came out and said that he was going to write something akin to an answer to Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative; a clear, blatant, (dare I write it?) partisan call to arms. Instead, Obama tells us that he will try to transcend politics while remaining true to his Democratic roots. He pulls off the second goal just fine but the first one? Not so much.

Read on . . .

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Posted at 5:23pm on Jul. 11, 2008 Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater by William F. Buckley Jr.

By Kevin Holtsberry

FlyingHigh.jpg

There is a certain bittersweet aspect to reading Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater. It is the last book William F. Buckley wrote, or at least that was ready or publication - he was working on a book on Reagan when he passed, and at the same time to it looks back to what was in many ways the the political dawn of the conservative movement. Those seem like heady days compared the troubles of today.

The fact that it is a very personal account, and a sort of novelization, ads to this feeling. This isn't straight history but rather a remembrance: Buckley attempting to capture his friend not just the historical figure. As such it tells the reader about both Goldwater and Buckley and their relationship. That doesn't mean there isn't history involved just that it is a particular perspective and description of the history they both witnessed and participated in.

As such it is a quick and enjoyable read with the typical WFB style and wit. With a few flash forwards interspersed, Buckley basically tells the story of how Goldwater came to be seen as the candidate which would allow the conservative wing of the GOP to take control of the party and offer a full throated conservative as the party's candidate. He details how the conservatives centered around his magazine, National Review, played a critical role in bringing this about and how they were eventually cut out of the campaign by Goldwater's top advisers. Along the way Buckley attempts to give readers insight into the Goldwater he came to know and how their relationship developed and survived the stress and strains of the campaign and its aftermath.

This is not an ideal volume for students seeking to get the basic facts but rather an enjoyable look back for fans of either man; or those acquainted with the larger history of conservatism and American politics. And that is only appropriate as Buckley was not a historian but rather a unique combination of prose stylist, conservative polemicist (and populiser), and larger-than-life personality. All of these characteristics are present in Flying High.

This volume is an obvious must have for Buckley and Goldwater fans, but it is also an interesting look at the intersection of the conservative movement and American politics. Anyone with an interest in either topic will enjoy this short but unique read.

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Posted at 3:21am on Jul. 9, 2008 Book Review--Dreams From My Father

By Pejman Yousefzadeh

Now that Barack Obama is the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee, I figured that it made sense for me to read the book that launched him on the literary scene. Overall, I have to write that I am very impressed. By all accounts, this book was Obama's own and he did a very good job telling the story of his life. His voice is developed, his narrative is compelling and his ability to observe and recount is formidable indeed.

I suppose that I should note as well two of the problems I had with the book. The first has to do with the way in which he tells the story of his maternal grandmother, who Obama calls "Toot." Recall the following from Obama's now-famous speech on race when the Jeremiah Wright controversy broke:

I can no more disown [Reverend Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

From this passage, I thought that Toot was going to be portrayed as a woman of quite antediluvian views on race. But when I read the book, I found that the only potentially objectionable thing she did was to express fear a day after having apparently been somewhat aggressively panhandled by a black man on the bus she took to and from work. This isn't the most enlightened behavior around; merely because a person of one particular race decides to be less-than-pleasant on one particular day, it does not mean that such less-than-pleasant behavior can be attributed to all people of that race. But Obama's speech made it seem as if Toot was guilty of far, far worse and when I read the book, my reaction to Obama's description of his grandmother's offending attitude was to be underwhelmed. Again, her Pavlovian reaction in the wake of being aggressively panhandled was not enlightened, but neither was it the "cringe" inducing pattern of behavior that Obama described it as in his speech. And indeed, Obama was unfair to his grandmother in his speech, since many a time in his book, he describes her enlightened attitudes on race, recounting, for example, the stories of her willingness to stand up to bigots and their ugly words and deeds when Toot and Obama's maternal grandfather lived in Texas.

Read on . . .

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Posted at 5:24pm on Jul. 8, 2008 Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State by Tara Ross and Joseph C. Smith

By Kevin Holtsberry

The authors of this calmly argued and well sourced book, Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State, are not likely to appear on any of the cable gab fests any time soon despite the relevance of the subject matter. Their book lacks the hyperbole and controversy those shows thrive on. From my perspective this is a compliment - not that I don't enjoy a good polemic now and again - but if it means that the book's subject fails to spark a discussion then it is a shame. Because the history the authors lay out deserves wide distribution and debate.

The flap jacket copy succinctly explains what this book is about and why it is important:

No American living in 1800 would have predicted that Thomas Jefferson s idiosyncratic views on church and state would ever eclipse those of George Washington let alone become constitutional dogma. Yet today's Supreme Court guards no doctrine more fiercely than Jefferson's antagonistic wall of separation between church and state. Washington's sharply contrasting views, explored in this path-breaking new book, suggest a more reasonable interpretation of the First Amendment, one that is consistent with religion s importance to the enterprise of democracy.

The most admired man of his age, Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and was president when religious freedom was enshrined in the Bill of Rights. His claim to constitutional authority is considerably more impressive than the brilliant but eccentric Jefferson's. Washington considered religion essential for the virtue required of self-governing citizens. Though careful not to favor particular sects, he believed that a democracy must not merely accommodate religion but encourage it.

This is one of those situations that can beggar the imagination. After a particularly bitter battle for the presidency Thomas Jefferson writes a political letter to the Danbury Baptists advocating his position that there should be a "wall of separation" between church and state. The letter is controversial at the time and by no means taken as definitive. Hundreds of years later the Supreme Court plucks Jefferson's phrase out of history and soon it becomes accepted as if it were enshrined in the constitution itself. And George Washington's far more pertinent and experienced views have faded from public consciousness.

Ross and Smith aim to start the hard work of overturning this state of affairs. They calmly and patiently outline in clear prose how Washington had a great deal of experience as a military commander, legislator, and as president with the questions surrounding church and state relations. They show how he developed a highly pragmatic view that sought to balance the critical and necessary role of religion in American life and government with the important principal of freedom conscience and the need for social comity.

Contrary to the near hysteria many have about any connection between church and state, or religion and state, Washington saw religion as a public good and thus something that government would be wise to promote. He had no problem with the religious symbolism and public religion that the courts have nearly outlawed in our time. He supported public funding of military chaplains, federally printed Bibles for soldiers, and even the financial support of missionaries to the Indians. These views both pre-date and post-date the ratifying of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In the first section of the book, the authors outline Washington's perspective and positions in his various roles from regimental leader to legislator to president. In the second section they reproduce Washington's letters, speeches, and official documents that touch on church state relations. The combined sections form a restrained yet powerful argument for a re-evaluation of this contentious issue.

The author's basic question is this: Why are the views of the much revered and respected Washington not part of the discussion on this critical topic?

This is a question well worth asking. But I won't hold my breath waiting for a wider debate, because a willingness to ask the question risks the abandonment of some very closely held dogma regardless of its lack of historical or legal foundation.

For more on this see my podcast with the authors.

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Posted at 5:52am on Jun. 13, 2008 Book Review--War And Decision

By Pejman Yousefzadeh

If there was any justice, Douglas Feith's book would get a great deal more attention from the press than would Scott McClellan's opportunistic tell-all. Unlike McClellan, who confines himself to reciting the words and arguments of others and who does not present any kind of original or interesting analysis, Feith presents genuine scholarship, an interesting and original argument concerning 9/11, American actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and the general war on terror and a valuable behind-the-scenes look at the way in which foreign policy, defense and national security policy was made during the course of the Bush Administration.

Feith's main critique of Administration policy when it comes to Iraq revolves around his argument that the Administration should have handed over power to the Iraqis far earlier than it actually did. The reason it failed to--according to Feith--was that the State Department and Paul Bremer were concerned that the Iraqis were not up to the task of handling things and needed a Coalition Provisional Authority to manage a period of transition Feith believes went on far too long. Additionally, Feith faults the State Department and the CIA for a hostile attitude towards "external" Iraqi leaders, including Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress. Feith's opinion of Chalabi is far kinder than that held by conventional wisdom and he points out, interestingly, that when Chalabi was sidelined after the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime, the American opposition towards "externals" went by the wayside as well. Feith finds this opposition to have been bizarre--independent of any opinion of Chalabi specifically--since the United States relied on externals to head up the Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban and since externals occupied a number of high offices once the CPA was dissolved and power was handed over to the Iraqi people.

Feith additionally points out that the Pentagon was engaged in efforts to point out in advance all of the things that could possibly go wrong with the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime and the subsequent reconstruction period in Iraq. These efforts manifested themselves most notably in the "parade of horribles" memo drawn up at the direction of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to lay out all of the potential pitfalls associated with the execution and aftermath of Operational Iraqi Freedom. Feith does not shrink from describing and decrying problems, errors and blunders associated with the American reconstruction effort, but he still makes a potent and powerful case backing the decision to remove Saddam Hussein. He reminds readers that the belief that Saddam possessed WMD's was universally accepted from the Clinton Administration on and helpfully cites quotes from Democrats stating in stark and unmistakable terms their belief--independent, in many cases, of any intelligence analysis from the Bush Administration--that Saddam possessed WMD's. In addition, Feith points to the Duelfer Report and the work of David Kay and his inspectors, who pointed out that while WMD's could not be found in post-Saddam Iraq, the capacity to regenerate a WMD program was entirely in existence and that a terrible chance would have been taken if Saddam were left in power with a weakening sanctions regime doing next to nothing to restrain any of his malevolent intentions. Feith argues that in the wake of 9/11, ensuring punishment for the perpetrators of the attack was less important than actually preventing a future attack and given Saddam's past acts of aggression, plus what was discovered concerning Saddam's WMD program by Kay and Duelfer, if the decision was made to leave Saddam in power, a future attack would have rightfully brought opprobrium upon the Bush Administration as those very Democrats who in the past sounded the alarm concerning Saddam's behavior would have savaged the Administration for not having taken their warnings seriously. (Rightfully so, though again, it should be noted that many of those same Democrats are currently effectively attacking the Administration for having agreed with their past alarm-raising comments concerning Saddam. Oh, the irony.)

Read on . . .

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Posted at 5:21am on May 13, 2008 Book Review--The Guermantes Way

By Pejman Yousefzadeh

The Guermantes Way is the third volume of the Modern Library's six-volume edition of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time series. It relates the narrator's involvement in the salons of the highest echelons of Parisian society and discusses to great and fascinating length the nature of the personalities present in the salons--most notably that of the Duchesse de Guermantes, who the narrator was in love with until his mother disabused him of the silly notion that to loiter outside in hopes of catching the eye of the Duchesse was to make her love him eventually. While the interplay at the salons makes up the guts of the book, the story revolves in large part around the Dreyfus Affair and the divisions the debate between the Dreyfusards and the Anti-Dreyfusards created in Parisian society.

Much of the tendentiousness inherent in the play-by-play of the interactions between the royalty and aristocracy with whom the narrator spends his time is likely best excused as a way to convey to the reader the narrator's own disenchantment with the Guermantes and the high society he worked so hard to become a part of. The insensitivity and callousness of the salons are made clear in the Guermantes' reaction to Swann's revelation that he is dying and therefore cannot join the Guermantes on a journey they ask him to attend. Without a shred of sensitivity, the Guermantes announce that they simply do not believe that Swann is dying and that they will take up the matter with him after attending a party (a party that M. de Guermantes is eager to attend instead of standing vigil at the side of a dying friend). The narrator's examination of Parisian society is almost clinical and scientific in its scope, but as always, Proust is able to inject astonishing descriptive powers to his prose, and he makes clear that like Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, Proust can best be understood as a philosopher and psychologist. More than a writer, he is a natural examiner of the human condition and as with his previous volumes, The Guermantes Way oftentimes prompts nods of recognition from the reader in response to a particular passage or observation. So long as the reader is personally addressed in this manner, he or she will continue to remain engaged in the story and it is testament to Proust's skill and power that he is able to ensure the reader's engagement concerning a subject matter--the ins and outs of Parisian high society--whose tendentiousness will, in the hands of a lesser writer, utterly turn the reader off and cause him or her to give up on the writing altogether.

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Posted at 2:08am on Apr. 13, 2008 Reading Herodotus

By Pejman Yousefzadeh

Consider first this link. The following jumped out for me:

Herodotus made history by inventing history. There are two senses of "history" in that English sentence, neither of which corresponds to the Greek historia. The first sense seems to me to be a powerful one in public usage. This is the sense involved in such phrases as "making history", "history will show", or "the end of history". Really, this is the way that moderns get at a concept of "fate"--where fate itself is an ossified word that lives, for most people, as something the ancients "believed in".

Think of the Congressional Record: it is not the minutes of a meeting. Things get put in there that were never uttered by a live human being. Similarly, we all have a space in our consciousness for statements we consider "for the record", or "off the record", as though there were a cosmic ledger somewhere being filled with the detail of our lives and our countries' lives, a ledger of record, the last word before we "close the book".

Herodotus fears the wearing agency of time, which can turn colourful statues with piercing eyes into the falsely pristine marble of neo-classicism. (Greek temples were more like Hindu temples than like the touristy ruins now left behind.) Perhaps this justifies David Grene's use of "history" to translate historia. At the very least, Herodotus does want to get the record straight. But there is more, a majestic even-handedness in his recognition that both warring agents produced great and wonderful deeds that deserve to be remembered vividly. ("Great" and "wonderful" should not be taken to imply "good".)

The second sense is "history" as a discipline, a thing in which you can earn an advanced degree. The professional historian, along with humanists of many other disciplines, is especially concerned with a thing she has invented called "methodology". Whole books of historical writing climax with vindications of their own methodology. It is the way.

By these lights Herodotus does not usually qualify as an historian. He is merely a "story-teller". I rather think that he is anti-methodological, and hence a kind of champion. The irony in the modern historian's verdict comes when Herodotus is treated as source material. Whenever it has been possible to corroborate elements of his narrative or description independently, almost always Herodotus has been vindicated. (There are whole swaths of ancient history for which he is, apparently, our only source.)

And consider this one as well. Again, the following passage struck me as being especially important:

Perhaps Solon's admonition, "look to the end", best applies to those who are wont to confuse the extravagant external with an internal worth. Surely those who count themselves blessed are not completely aware of their situation. Croesus thought he was the most blessed of all, given his wealth and importance, yet he was deluded and delusional. But when Adrastus "knows within himself" that he was "the heaviest-stricken with calamity", he was smitten with perfect clarity and self-knowledge. Alas, those who think they're God's gift often have misfortune coming to them, but depressed people usually have good reason to be so. Adrastus shows us that there can be a piercingly specific, terribly non-delusional, and altogether internal clarity about one's random and yet genuine misfortune.

Read it all. My copy of Herodotus is this one. I look forward to reading it and I imagine that it will be considered a classic translation in the years to come.

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Posted at 5:18am on Mar. 26, 2008 Book Review--In Search Of Lost Time: Within A Budding Grove

By Pejman Yousefzadeh

Proust continues to demonstrate his mastery of the art of observation in the second volume of his magnum opus. We see that mastery manifest itself in the way Proust writes about the first throes of love with Gilberte, the heartbreak and gradual indifference that he experiences concerning her and then his amorous feelings for Albertine. Proust's ability to describe and analyze in both passionate and dispassionate terms does not cease to amaze and though the work is fiction, it becomes clear quite quickly that Proust is as unsparing and as exact in his analysis of the self and of life as Augustine was in writing his Confessions. Again, it should be emphasized that Proust's greatest and most potent power as a writer is his ability to identify and empathize so effectively with the feelings of the reader; feelings that the reader thought were particular only to himself or herself until Proust was read.

Equally impressive is Proust's ability to focus on society's darker side, both on the macro level and on the micro one. The microanalysis can be found in Proust's discussion of Bloch, who quickly strikes the reader as being thoroughly annoying and insufferable. The macroanalysis comes from Proust's examination of anti-Semitism in France; a phenomenon that will have a greater impact on the story as we read through Proust's opus and concern ourselves with the ramifications of the Dreyfus Affair.

To be sure, reading Proust is a tremendous challenge. The writing is dense and while it is well-planned and plotted, the language resembles stream-of-consciousness thought (necessary, given the themes of involuntary memory that continue to run through the book). But it remains well worth the effort to read Proust; those who find themselves occasionally exhausted by the task of reading through his great work may console themselves with the thought that the satisfaction of reading through it is at least equal to the challenge.

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Posted at 2:32am on Dec. 25, 2007 Book Review--Swann's Way

By Pejman Yousefzadeh

From the À la recherche du temps perdu series, Swann's Way begins the story of the narrator, his love for the Swanns' daughter Gilberte, the romantic travails of Swann himself, French society, infidelity, the dangers of idealization and the power of involuntary memory--evinced most strongly by the flavor brought about by dipping the madeleine into tea. Within the tremendously long and incredibly descriptive Proustian sentences lay dazzling insights into the human condition, insights that have the reader nodding readily in recognition and ensure that Proust takes his place alongside Nietzsche and Dostoevsky as a master psychologist as well as a tremendously talented novelist. The book is rich with description and imagery and Proust is one of the best there is at transporting the reader into his mind, the better to understand Proust's story. Tremendous credit must be given to the translating effort, which allows us to fully appreciate the overwhelming beauty of Proust's story and prose. The nostalgia that is redolent in the book is powerfully affecting and many times, deeply moving. And the characters are unforgettable. One naturally feels sorry for Swann, so hopelessly in love and so blind to the manner in which he is being humiliated by the truly repulsive Odette. The Verdurins remind us of the shallow clique of people each of us has, at some point, run across in our lives. The narrator seems deeply burdened and almost overwhelmed by his emotions and his inability to attract Gilberte's love is heartbreaking. And at the end of the book, we want more.

And more, of course, we are able to have. I look forward to completing the entire series and Within A Budding Grove, naturally, constitutes my current fare. Oh, and I suppose that it would be wrong of me not to note that Proust has become thoroughly iconic in our lives.

How iconic?

This iconic (the last little bit makes it Not Safe For Work):


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