Duo-biography

Woodward RageBob Woodward, Rage (2020) [link].

This is an intriguing book. The veteran (older than Mr. Trump, younger than Mr. Biden) investigative journalist for the Washington Post returns to the subject of his 2018 book: Fear: Trump in the White House. While I think he will always be best known for his work with Carl Bernstein on All the President’s Men (1974) and his collaboration with Scott Armstrong on The Brethren (1979), this book is well worth reading as a (generally) unsympathetic account of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

Of course, Woodward provides ample evidence of Mr. Trump’s personality quirks from the unpleasant to the unnerving (fascinating, but nothing much new here if you have been awake since 2016), but he deals at length with the major crises of the last four years—Comey, North Korea, the Mueller investigation, the impeachment, the Biden-Ukraine scandal, the pandemic—in such a way that the reader has to conclude that Mr. Trump has been a reasonably effective president despite his unpleasant and unsettling style.

Many of the early advisors come off well here, especially James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and Dan Coats, and (most surprisingly) Jared Kushner. Mr. Trump himself seems just as mean-spirited and impulsive as you thought, but also vaguely lucky in how things turn out—like a drunken driver who manages not to hit anything or anyone despite veering repeatedly onto the wrong side of the road.

Though Mr. Trump has been widely mocked for being so foolish as to be interviewed on tape so many times* for this book, the jury remains out on the political wisdom of that decision.

The book is not just about Mr. Trump. Because of the emphasis on personal interviews, Woodward is a major character in the book and often seems to be trying to persuade Mr. Trump to change his mind on points of policy or character. We learn nearly as much about Woodward’s clever technique as Mr. Trump’s rambling responses. Though Woodward writes of the April 5, 2020 interview “We were speaking past each other, almost from different universes,” [300], they seem to be very much from the same universe to me—the universe of accomplished men whose success has blinded them to the fundamental contingency of their lives.

Woodward bluntly writes

When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.

[392] Nevertheless, the portrait Woodward draws is strangely compelling.

Recommended.

*Woodward lists nineteen interviews, eighteen dated in the last ten months: 03/31/2016; 12/05/2019; 12/13/2019; 12/30/2019; 01/20/2020; 01/22/2020; 02/07/2020; 02/19/2020; 03/19/2020; 03/28/2020; 04/05/2020; 04/13/2020; 05/06/2020; 05/22/2020;06/03/2020; 06/19/2020; 06/22/2020; 07/08/2020; and 07/21/2020. [450]

 

Let Justice

Many of you are aware of Andrew Peterson’s online Christian Community The Rabbit Room (rabbitroom.com).

In August The Rabbit Room is sponsoring an online reading group on John Perkins’ 2006 Autobiography Let Justice Roll Down.* I thought it sounded interesting and I’ve signed up to participate.

John Perkins was a sharecropper’s son who left Mississippi for California, but came to Christ and returned to minister and devote his life to reconciliation:

“His brother died in his arms, shot by a deputy marshall. He was beaten and tortured by the sheriff and state police. But through it all he returned good for evil, love for hate, progress for prejudice, and brought hope to black and white alike. The story of John Perkins is no ordinary story. Rather, it is a gripping portrayal of what happens when faith thrusts a person into the midst of a struggle against racism, oppression, and injustice. It is about the costs of discipleship—the jailings, the floggings, the despair, the sacrifice. And it is about the transforming work of faith that allowed John to respond to such overwhelming indignities with miraculous compassion, vision, and hope.”

The class is being led through once a week Zoom meetings by Belmont University professor and musician Steve Guthrie. The class will take place on Thursday night at 8:30p ET/7:30p CT. If you are interested, here’s the [link] to sign up.

I’ll look for you on Zoom next week!

*The Kindle book is available for $1.49 at Amazon. [link] — I’ve begun reading and it is a moving story.

A right to one’s opinion

Surprised_By_Joy_C.S._Lewis_First_Edition

I was reminded today of a wonderful anecdote told by C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy. Unsatisfied by the progress of his son’s education, Lewis’ father transferred him into the care of a private tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick (“Kirk” or “The Great Knock”) to prepare Lewis for university. Kirk walks Lewis from the train station to his house, and Lewis recalls:

small quotesI began to “make conversation” in the deplorable manner which I had acquired at those evening parties and indeed found increasingly necessary to use with my father. I said I was surprised at the “scenery” of Surrey; it was much “wilder” than I had expected.

“Stop!” shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?”

I replied I don’t know what, still “making conversation.” As answer after answer was torn to shreds it at last dawned upon me that he really wanted to know. He was not making conversation, nor joking, nor snubbing me; he wanted to know. I was stung into attempting a real answer. A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word “wildness,” and that, in so far as I had any idea at all, “wildness” was a singularly inept word.

“Do you not see, then,” concluded the Great Knock, “that your remark was meaningless?” I prepared to sulk a little, assuming that the subject would now be dropped. Never was I more mistaken in my life. Having analyzed my terms, Kirk was proceeding to deal with my proposition as a whole. On what had I based . . . my expectations about the Flora and Geology of Surrey? Was it maps, or photographs, or books? I could produce none. It had, heaven help me, never occurred to me that what I called my thoughts need to be [based] on anything. Kirk once more drew a conclusion—without the slightest sign of emotion, but equally without the slightest concession to what I thought good manners: “Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?”

By this time our acquaintance had lasted about three and a half minutes; but the tone set by this first conversation was preserved without a single break during all the years I spent at Bookham.

Perhaps it is all too clear how this anecdote struck me on April 27, 2020. We are now surrounded by a myriad of opinions justified by nearly nothing at all. In the age of too much “information,” we consider it a useful skill to discern which opinions to ignore, but it has been a long time since I remembered that a person might actually be held to account for expressing an irrational opinion.

Jesus said (admittedly in a different context) “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,” and this is worth remembering and taking to hear—may we be intentional in our speech and take great care with our opinions.

2019 Reading

The only planBy this stage of my life, I have more-or-less hit my stride, and this last year I read just about the normal number of books, clocking in about two a week.

I was surprised that almost 40% fell into the nonfiction category (typically biography or memoir), but with  smattering of other sub-genres. The rest were novels.

On the non-fiction side,  I particularly enjoyed

Garrett M. Graff, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 (2019) was an excellent account of that day, and reminded me of much which I had known and forgotten.

Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (2018), and Condoleezza Rice, Extraordinary, Ordinary People (2010) explored each author’s family history and shed some light on the black experience in America. Both books are well worth your time, as is Albert Woodfox, Solitary (2019) [post], which tells a rather different story. All three are enlightening.

Two old favorites came out with new offerings: Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, and Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, were both published in 2019. The Body has many quality instances of Brysonian snark, but Talking to Strangers is the more arresting book, and will bear re-reading, I think.

Antonin Scalia died in 2016, but some of his writings and speeches were collected in Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived (2017) [post], and On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer (2019) . Through these pieces, the justice is revealed as a man of deep thoughts, precise words and strong opinions. For those of certain political persuasions who know him as the Prince of Darkness of American jurisprudence, there will be much here to explain Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s famous comment that they were “best buddies.” Indeed she wrote a forward to Scalia Speaks. There is some overlap between the two books, but each is worth reading.

John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War (2005), Warren Zanes, Petty (2015), Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well (2018), and C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well (2018) [post] were good reading and good education.

Virgil WanderOn the fiction side, I “discovered” (like Columbus “discovered” America) three authors and began investigating their other books:

Leif Enger — Virgil Wander (2018), Peace Like a River (2001) — two standalone novels (with the Empress movie theater in common), that are beautifully written. I am looking forward to picking up So Brave, Young, and Handsome (2008), and hope that I do not have to wait too many years for a fourth.

H.S. Cross — Grievous (2019), Wilberforce (2015) — each about an English boys school, and each lush and dense with moral ambiguity and spiritual pondering. Not for everyone, perhaps, but two which I will reread thoughtfully.

Amor Towles — A Gentleman in Moscow (2016), Rules of Civility (2011) — two marvelous books, and ones I am embarrassed to have missed in their publication years.

Old friends published in 2019 and did not disappoint, including Peter Heller, The River [post] [review], Alastair Reynolds, Shadow Captain, Richard Russo, Chances Are . . . , and Neal Stephenson, Fall. I had anticipated several of these [post] and also William Gibson, Agency, which will come out in a couple of weeks.

Once again the labor of other old friends (including Wendell Berry, C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Williams and Herman Wouk), were greatly enjoyed.

As the Preacher say, “ Of making many books there is no end,” and to that I reply, “. . . and thank God for that!” The complete list is in the sidebar.

Albert Woodfox

IMG_1421Some good stuff, here (review forthcoming in The Champion):

p. 23:

I’d seen guys in my neighborhood come back from Angola throughout my childhood. They were given the highest respect. I thought it would be an honor to go there. I chose Angola.

p. 49:

Writing about this time in my life is very difficult. I robbed people, scared them, threatened them, intimidated them. I stole from people who had almost nothing. My people, black people. I broke into their homes and took possessions they worked hard for; took their wallets out of their pockets. I beat people up. I was a chauvinist pig. I took advantage of people, manipulated people. I never thought about the pain I caused. I never felt the fear or despair people had around me.

p. 59:

Prison is prison. First you figure out the routine, which doesn’t take long because every day is the same. Then you learn the culture and how to play between the lines. The faster you do that the quicker you adjust. . . . Conditions were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and run-down.

p. 173:

Nelson Mandela taught me that if you have a noble cause you are able to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Malcolm X taught me that it doesn’t matter where you start out; what matters is where you end up. George Jackson taught me that if you’re not willing to die for what you believe in, you don’t believe in anything.

p. 207

In my forties, I chose to take my pain and turn it into compassion, and not hate. Whenever I experience pain of any origin I always made a promise to myself never to do anything else to suffer the pain I was feeling at that moment. I still had moments of bitterness and anger. But by then I had the wisdom to know that bitterness and anger are destructive. I was dedicated to building things, not to tearing them down.

Albert Woodfox with Leslie George, Solitary: Unbroken by four decades in solitary confinement. My story of transformation and hope. Grove Press (2019).

Simon Tam

Simon Tam 2I attended a great event (at the Chester Bedell Inn of Court) last night with Simon Tam (@SimonTheTam) of The Slants (“The Band Who Must Not Be Named”)*, who described his odyssey to the Supreme Court** and why reclaiming an ethnic slur could be so critical to young Asian-Americans.

Excellent speaker, moving story, important take away.

*http://www.theslants.com/
**Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017) [link]; see page at SCOTUSblog [link].

slanted

 


I am also looking forward to reading his new book: Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court (2019). I’ll have a brief review up soon.

A mentor

One of the nicer things about working at my law firm is hearing other attorneys talking about the former members of the firm, in this case the senior partner of the firm when I first arrived. Sometimes those old stories find their way into print, as in this recent example:

small quotes blue[After clerking for Judge David W. Dyer, I returned to the private sector, and was working for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where] I was working on a sensitive criminal case arising out of the Kennedy Space Center. Our client, a contractor on the space program, had been accused of defrauding the government. It looked like the case might go to a grand jury for possible criminal charges. I was in charge of the day-to-day investigation. Part of my duty was to prepare for Armageddon if, heaven forbid, the company was indicted. Continue reading A mentor

The Delightful Scalia

In 2018 I read an old book of miscellaneous addresses and essays by my favorite Canadian curmudgeon Robertson Davies called The Merry Heart (1998 [amazon]), and in previous years enjoyed similar compilations of material from Neil Gaiman (The View from the Cheap Seats, 2016 [amazon]); and Neal Stephenson (Some Remarks, 2012 [amazon]).

Scalia SpeaksThis year’s delight is certainly going to be Scalia Speaks (2017 [amazon]), a compilation of speeches by the late justice known for his staggering erudition, his biting wit, and his personal warmth. One of his sons (Christopher J. Scalia) and one of his former law clerks (Edward Whelen) have chosen and introduced a number of addresses given on many occasions. They are marvelous! Scalia’s good friend and fellow justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Notorious RBG herself) wrote the forward.

Here are a few tidbits:

Continue reading The Delightful Scalia

Jerusalem and Birmingham

I recently read (more of less at the same time) two historical books which I would highly recommend.  Each is flawed, but each gives a picture of a tragic time of which I knew too little.

eichmannThe first was Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), about Nazi middle-manager Adolph Eichmann, captured in Argentina in 1960, and tried in Jerusalem in 1961. Arendt’s famous account of the trial is idiosyncratic, and oft-criticized, mainly for being thought too soft on Eichmann and too hard on the victims, the prosecutors and David Ben-Gurion, who Arendt portrays as the political choreographer of the trial.

She blames the many Nazis who wielded greater power and had greater capacity for evil, but she does not remotely excuse Eichmann.  Nor does she blame those who died, except in the sense that she is troubled by the unwillingness of some victims to resist totally and violently early enough that they (might?) have made a difference.

As a trial account, the book is fairly weak, in the sense that she is telling the back story as much as she is summarizing the evidence presented.  This may have been due to the length of the trial and her sense that Eichmann was too slender a reed to support the weight of the crimes he facilitated. I would have liked more reporting and less musing.

But her musings are fascinating!*

MLKThe second book, Martin Luther King, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King (1998), is equally well-known, a compilation of writings, speeches and sermons stitched together with narrative sections cast in the first person by the historian Claiborne Carson.

If what you know of Dr. King is entirely from the perspective of 2017, or MLK-as-political-signifier for one party or another, then this is a nice opportunity to delve back into primary sources.

In any case, you know Dr. King was a master orator and the audiobook takes advantage of the available recordings — that man could preach!**

Each of these two books is narrow, and it will be necessary to read more to have a well-rounded comprehension of the times and the issues, but both are well worth your investment.


NOTES

*From Eichmann in Jerusalem:

  • “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” p. 47
  • “These habits of Eichmann’s created considerable difficulty during the trial—less for Eichmann himself than for those who had come to prosecute him, to defend him, to judge him, and to report on him. For all this, it was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar—which he obviously was not. . . .
    Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.” p. 52
  • “The facts of the case, of what Eichmann had done—though not of everything the prosecution wished he had done—were never in dispute; they had been established long before the trial started, and had been confessed to by him over and over again. There was more than enough, as he occasionally pointed out, to hang him. (‘Don’t you have enough on me?’ he objected, when the police examiner tried to ascribe to him powers he never possessed.) p. 88.
  • “And the question of individual guilt or innocence, the act of meting out justice to both the defendant and the victim, are the only things at stake in a criminal court. The Eichmann trial was no exception, even though the court here was confronted with a crime it could not find in the lawbooks and with a criminal whose like was unknown in any court, at least prior to the Nuremberg Trials. The present report deals with nothing but the extent to which the court in Jerusalem succeeded in fulfilling the demands of justice.” p. 296.

**From The Autobiography of Martin Luther King:

  • I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
  • “As a young man with most of my life ahead of me, I decided early to give my life to something eternal and absolute. Not to these little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow. But to God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
  • “I have always felt that ultimately along the way of life an individual must stand up and be counted and be willing to face the consequences whatever they are. And if he is filled with fear he cannot do it. My great prayer is always for God to save me from the paralysis of crippling fear, because I think when a person lives with the fears of the consequences for his personal life he can never do anything in terms of lifting the whole of humanity and solving many of the social problems which we confront in every age and every generation.”
  • “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.”