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Book report


What follows are some reflections on 10 of the books I read for the first time this year - not necessarily the 10 best, or those I enjoyed most (though I recommend all on both counts) but the 10 that left the strongest impression, that drew my attention back weeks and months after I first consumed them. Not all are new, though some were, but they all were new to me this year. Collectively, they made up for me some of the better parts of 2022. This was, if nothing else, another good year (as I said too last year) to kick back and read.

They're listed here in alphabetical order (by author name), not preferential ranking, which would be too problematic for books as different as these.

Corban Addison - Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial (2022). You could fairly argue that this book is slanted: It takes the side of the plaintiffs in a case of industrial pollution, and you're not put in much doubt about who to root for here. But the breadth of the case and the reasons for people standing where they do is amply explored. And more than that, and what sticks with you, is the awfulness of what a while lot of people in one region of eastern North Carolina were made to experience, for decades, as a result of the industrial practices of the hog industry in their area. Really, the book makes a solid case that the sides here are not morally equal at all.

Ron Chernow - Washington: A Life (2010). I picked up two big and excellent historical-biography books this year super-cheap at the used bookstore at the Salem Public Library, but for variety's sake I didn't choose to list both. Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit (2012), about Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the muckrakers, was enjoyable, enlightening and intriguing in its its interweaving multi-biographical approach to showing how a long-festering set of subtle conflicts improbably developed (and reshaped the nation). I strongly recommend it. I narrowly give the edge in this lane though to Chernow's Washington, if just because his carefully constructed take on the man as a human being - with great strengths and flaws both - was such a refreshing look at the founders. (Even if, I think, a tad ungenerous to Jefferson.)

Kristin Kobes Du Mez - Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020). To people who are looking for more insight into how we got where we are politically in this country, I may have recommended this book more often than any other in the last year - not as gospel but as a way of thinking about why the evangelical right is the way it is. The Amazon description says in part, "Many of today’s evangelicals might not be theologically astute, but they know their VeggieTales, they’ve read John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, and they learned about purity before they learned about sex—and they have a silver ring to prove it. Evangelical books, films, music, clothing, and merchandise shape the beliefs of millions. And evangelical culture is teeming with muscular heroes—mythical warriors and rugged soldiers, men like Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, Mel Gibson, and the Duck Dynasty clan, who assert white masculine power in defense of 'Christian America.' Chief among these evangelical legends is John Wayne, an icon of a lost time when men were uncowed by political correctness, unafraid to tell it like it was, and did what needed to be done." There's a lot to unpack here, and while I wouldn't argue for every piece of it, this book better explains what we're seeing in this area than any academic study I've yet seen.

Stephen Kotkin - Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 (2014). If you're in the crowd of people waiting for Robert Caro to finally deliver his long-promised Lyndon Johnson finale, you might while waiting give this a try - and find a more engaging, albeit often dark, story than you might have expected. In common with many big historical figures, Stalin is often seen in monochrome and outside of his context (which see, to some extent, Washington), and by sketching in with fine-grain detail the life and surroundings of Stalin, we get a far different view of him and his world than we (or at least, I) have been accustomed to. Not a more favorable one: He still seems like a monster (there is no whitewash of his awfulness here), albeit than his major monstrosities happened after this segment of his life, which more closely covered his surprising political cunning (somewhat reminiscent in that regard of Johnson). It's something of a mind-bender of a book. And the research effort behind it is staggering. Volume 2 is on my reading list for this year; you can handle only so much Stalin at a time.

Stephen Markley - Ohio (2018). Only a few fiction books this year really grabbed me, and this was one, drawn out of the current world of younger people maneuvering through unstructured lives and a broken society, some of it (not all) blasted by opioids and other social problems. It's alternatively been called a "masterpiece" (by National Public Radio), which is a stretch, and been criticized for characters who sometimes seem a little too dopey. But it reads in aggregate like an accurate mirror held up to a too-large part of American life as it is now. It is, a little like Jesus and John Wayne, not a book to take to heart as gospel, but offering a lot to think about.

Mike Rothschild - The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything (2022). A basic field guide to one of the foremost conveyors of insanity in America today. I've read any number of articles and books with descriptions of the Q-Anon madness, what it is, where it came from and how to deal with it, but this one most effectively puts the pieces together, and best explains why it has had the appeal and impact we've seen. In the telling, there are some useful suggestions about where we might go from here.

Eric Silberstein - The Insecure Mind of Sergei Kraev (2021). I didn't read a lot of dystopian sci-fi this year (and a couple of others were simply disappointingly implausible), but when I did ... well, this one was the most entertaining and most provocative by far. Its premise kicks off with the serious current problem of disinformation delivered by our global electronic information network, and extends the speculation over that and related subjects to what might happen if we go too far in the wrong directions in trying to combat it - and that destination might not be where you imagine. Concerned as I am about the disinformation that's been swamping us in recent years, this book did convince me we need to be careful in how we try to cope with it.

Leah Sottile - When the Moon Turns to Blood: Lori Vallow, Chad Daybell, and a Story of Murder, Wild Faith, and End Times (2022). This book wouldn't be here - and I might not have read it - if it were just about the true crime case that has gotten more headline in Idaho than any other in recent years. (I would say it's the Northwest nonfiction book of the year.) But it is much more than that: This mainly is about what happens when boredom and the desire to become Important get out of control, a fantasy better suited to a video game becomes a person's perceived reality, and really terrible results ensue. It becomes a thoroughly engrossing, compelling story that sounds all too much like central elements in our present day politics.

Guido Tonelli - Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began (2021). One of the subtitles in the book is, "abandon prejudice, all ye who enter here," and that's just about right; this was by science mind-twister of the year. Written by an Italian physicist well immersed in recent quantum physics, this is a speculative guide going all the way back - all the way - and what we might find if we look hard enough. One reviewer said "You will find poetry here, and a strong sense of wonder and awe." I wouldn't disagree.

Barbara Walter - How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (2022). Of the books on this list, probably none got more general national attention than this one, and with none do I probably have larger bones to pick. (I wonder what she thought of the mid-terms.) And yet, it's an essential read. The book's premise, amply developed, is that America has been drifting away from stable democracy and toward an anocracy, a condition in which our social order as we've known it isn't exactly gone but is shaky. I think (but then ring me up as an optimist) that we're not quite as far gone as she makes out (she was writing in the Trump years, after all) and her definition of what constitutes a civil war is more expansive than mine. That said, she makes excellent points about some bad directions we've been heading (see some of the other books on this list for more about some of these) and the comparisons with how other countries historically have devolved into disorder makes for sobering and gripping reading. Even if you disagree with pieces of what she has to say, this is an essential part of today's public affairs literature - for good reason.


Book report


What follows are some reflections on 10 of the books I read for the first time this year - not necessarily the 10 best, or those I enjoyed most (though I recommend all on both counts) but the 10 that left the strongest impression, that drew my attention back weeks and months after I first consumed them. Not all are new, though some were, but they all (with one exception) were new to me this year. Collectively, they made up for me some of the better parts of 2021. This was, if nothing else, another good year to kick back and read.

They're listed here in alphabetical order (by author name), not preferential ranking, which would be too problematic for books as different as these.

Jessica Bruder - Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017). "Surviving" is the key word here. This is a portrait of a new American subculture, one of people - retirement age mainly but not entirely - who can no longer afford decent housing, owned or rental, and in most cases have run out of housing options altogether; so, they take the road. They work at temp or short-term jobs (at Amazxon warehouses, forest lands, wherever they can find something to bring in a little money) and clump together in vans, RVs or even cars in low-cost places to stay. Many approached it with the hope of finding a freer, more open life; many of them discover something else, something much harsher, a side of America most of us would rather not acknowledge. Written plainly and mostly unemotionally, it was one of the more haunting reads I've had in recent years.

Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, Jason Stanford - Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth (2021). And no, I did not include this just to tick off the state of Texas. There is a broad message here about how and why historical mythologies develop. Especially the why; the Alamo was not quite so big a deal in Texas (where it still is in fact a very big deal) until people began to figure out that emphasizing the central role of slavery in the development of Texas (specifically, its detachment from Mexico) was not especially good PR. For me, once I absorbed the fact (as I had not before reading this) that slavery was abolished in Mexico about four decades before it was north of the border, quite a few historical developments fell into place. Useful history, useful commentary, presented entertainingly. Little wonder certain power people in Texas just hate it.

David Graeber and David Wengrow - The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). Many people may read this as a counter or even a rebuke to among other books Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, and the authors (one of them now deceased) might not have had a problem with that, since they took on several keynotes of the GGS approach to broad human history. Take a step further back and you find those books, and others, working together: Each contributing large chunks to a very large puzzle. That puzzle lies in working out of the contours of how human beings got from where they were 100,000 or so years ago, to now - and to what extent those developments, in broad strokes, were inevitable. The Graeber and Wengrow addition to this discussion centers on the useful idea that human development was hit and miss, trial and error, and that we had and still have the ability to construct our societies in different ways. Every attempt at "big picture" human history I've seen has been married somewhat by authorial biases, and this one is no exception (Graeber was a long-time outspoken anarchist). But this is one of the most useful pieces of analysis about our history anyone has developed in years. So long as you read it in context ...

Mark Harris - Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008). America, and the world for that matter, changed enormously in the sixties, and this book offer an unusual and smart way of approaching that - why the changes happened, the nature of them, and what in many cases did not change. The book's discipline was to focus on the five movies that were Oscar nominees for 1967 (Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and, oh yeah, Doctor Dolittle) and work through how they came to be, the sometimes surprising connections between those and other movies (and other developments at large), the debates and arguments over them during and after production, and what all that says about the changes of that day. The movies themselves are interesting enough (well, except for one) but the depiction of the world around them will stick in and broaden your mind more than you might expect. A good slice of history.

Elizabeth Kolbert - Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (2021). Considering the subject - the impact, often negative but sometimes positive - of human beings on their environment, you might be expecting a doorstop-sized tome. It isn't; Kolbert's approach here is to report carefully on several specific case studies (widely varied, from Asian carp to Icelandic gas recycling to the fate of the coral reefs) and then, without overreaching, draw lessons from them. I like the approach, because it allows the non-specialist reader to more easily absorb a complex subject. I also appreciated her attitude; much of the book relates of course to climate change, but she is neither as dogmatic nor as gloomy about it as you might expect; she seems to take a well-informed middle road with some room for hope, sometimes in unexpected places.

Hervé Le Tellier (Adriana Hunter, translator) - The Anomaly (2021). The news reports around this book centered on how it was a massive bestseller in France, where its author lives. But it also deserves strong bestseller status in the United States (where it is mostly set); it is absorbing in some of the same ways the TV series Lost (at its best, and to which it has been compared) once did: You couldn't be certain where this thing was going, or even what genre you were reading. In the end, as the novel's title seemed to suggest, it was a genre-buster about blowing iup expectations, even our most human and basic expectations. Getting any clearer than that would constitute a spoiler, which you really should avoid in reading this book. Which, if you're interested in mind-twisting but highly readable stories, you really should.

Peter Maass (translator) - Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil (2011). People who live near industrial oil plants or other facilities most of us would rather be located far from where we are, frequently offer the argument that "it smells like money" - there's a big economic benefit, and our jobs and society wouldn't be here otherwise. Maass' book, thoroughly reported from around the globe, is an immensely powerful takedown of that argument, at least as applies to oi extraction and production. In case after case he shows what has happened in places where oil development came to town in a big way, and what happened during and after - very little of it good, and that's leaving aside the environmental considerations (which he touches on as well). I'd be fascinated to see a rebuttal to this, but I find it hard to imagine a good one.

David Unger - The Mastermind (2016). As I started reading this I was expecting something on the order of a caper or swindle novel, one set in an unusual location, Guatemala City. The setting was as expected, and in fact much of Central America - and its view of itself from the inside - was expertly delivered. (Don't let the author's name throw you; he lived there for many years.) The story was plenty suspenseful, but the book title was somewhat ironic, and just how ironic we could discuss. The tale of a wealthy businessman, based around a real incident involving the Guatemalan government, is worth the read, but so is the psychological suspense, and the human question of what is and isn't worth giving up, and for what.

Isabel Wilkerson - The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (2017). Most people who have read much American history know that in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, millions of Black residents of the south headed north and west, largely in search of better opportunities and escape from Jim Crow. That is, many of us know this as a matter of demographics and social trends, but not more specifically: How the migration worked, what pressured many people not to go, what the migrants found when they reached their destinations, what varied stories were involved in this massive movement. Telling it all would be beyond the scope of any single book, but Wilkerson gives this epic story its due by focusing on a few individual lives, and the details of what happened. Nearly an oral history, it is one of the most affecting works of history I've read in recent years.

Lawrence Wright - The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006). I passed on this one, despite its glowing reviews, for years because I thought: "I've read all kinds of stuff about Al Quaeda and 9/11; what more is there to know that's worth knowing that we're going to see in publication?" Wright's answer to that is compelling: He tells in remarkably complete fashion the story of where the terrorist organization came from and what it aimed to do, and the environment it developed within. I thought I couldn't have been surprised by much of what was here; I was wrong.

The Equal Voice Voting option


Not all but a great many of us have serious complaints about the electoral college, the constitutionally-mandated collection of people that, most directly, elects the presidents of the United States.

Established in the constitution as a sot of uncomfortable compromise, it has shaken and wobbled through the years and when pressed given us some unfortunate results. Because electoral votes are counted in a winner-take-all approach state by state, the national results won't necessarily match the preferences of America's votes. Just that happened in 2016 (and 1888).

There's not a lot we can readily do, however, to get to the simplest and most logical result, which is to elect our presidents by direct popular vote. As a practical matter, since the EC is embedded in the constitution, the job of getting that change made would be a political lift beyond the superheroic. In anything like the near term, that simply isn't going to happen.

There are alternatives for working within the system. One, which almost a third of the states has signed on to, involves a compact in which a large group of states would agree that their electoral votes would go to whichever presidential candidate receives the most popular votes nationally. (It would have to be approved by states accounting for at least 270, the number needed to elect a president, to go into effect.) It might be better than the current system, because at least the will of the people is more likely to be directly carried out, but it does have a series of problems of its own, including some questions of constitutionality.

A new book out this year, All Votes Matter, by game theorist Jerry Spriggs, of West Linn, Oregon, proposes another way to use the current electoral college system in a way that offers some significant benefits.

There's a hint of what could be in the states of Maine and Nebraska, where the electoral college votes are awarded in a split fashion, two of them (in each state) reflecting the statewide vote but the others matched to the presidential winner in each of the congressional districts. (Both of those state split their electoral college votes between the candidates in 2020.)

What Spriggs calls Equal Voice Voting would involving splitting every state's electoral college vote based on the portion of the vote each candidate received. As a practical matter, that would mean major-party presidential candidates rarely would receive all the electoral votes from any state, in a block; they would be split depending on how strongly or poorly the candidates did. That would have meant, in 2020, that Donald Trump would have gotten some of the electoral votes from California, and Joe Biden would have gotten some of the votes from Texas - even, very likely, one of Idaho's four electoral college votes.

Part of the idea is that, for voters, no one would be shut out because they live in a "red" or "blue" state - even the underdogs are likely to collect some votes there. Another idea is that this approach would mean the electoral college vote would much more closely reflect the actual popular vote. Spriggs reviewed the national results over the last 16 presidential elections and found those electoral college votes were a close match for the popular vote.

He has some concerns I don't share or think as critical as he does - the significance of votes by states and the risk of abuse in elections, for example. And he tends to elide, as the book closes, the extreme difficulty of getting all 50 states to adopt such a system, which is what they'd have to do to make it work. (Say you're in a red or blue state: Do you want to go first in surrendering some of your party's advantages? Probably not until the other side puts up as well.)

But he makes an excellent case for the usefulness of Equal Voice Voting as a means of developing one-man one-vote system without having to take a run at the constitution. Check it out. And maybe give a little thought to launching some support for it.

Book report


What follows are some reflections on 10 of the books I read for the first time this year - not necessarily the 10 best, but the 10 that left the strongest impression, that drew my attention back weeks and months after I first consumed them. Not all are new, but they all (with one exception) were new to me this year. Collectively, they made up for me some of the better parts of 2020. This was, if nothing else, a good year to kick back and read.

They're listed here in alphabetical order (by author name), not preferential ranking. that would be too problematic for books as different as these.

Stephen Brusatte - The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World (2019). There's some new science here informing Brusatte's descriptions of the long-ago beasts and their world, but what grabbed me was the way the material was organized: As a historical narrative, not just of the dinosaurs but also of the world around them, and how and why it changed over time. He walks the reader through the story of the dinosaurs from the beginning to their (mostly: birds excepted) end, with the arrival of a rock from outer space. Instead of the usual circus parade of odd critters, we get here a story of how and why they developed as they did. It's surprisingly gripping. And you may gain a whole new appreciation for our avian friends in the process.

Andy Greenberg - Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin's Most Dangerous Hackers (2020). From years of reporting - largely out of the magazine Wired - How cyberattacks grew and mutated and spread around the world, with detailed accounts at their best describing massive attacks in Georgia and South Korea, among other places, and burrowing inside two Kremlin-based organizations that seem to have been responsible for much of the worst activity. There's also a fascinating account of an American cyberattack on Iran (relating to its nuclear program (which spanned the Bush and Obama administrations. A stunning piece of investigative reporting.

Matthew Horace and Ron Harris - The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America's Law Enforcement (2018). Harris worked from street level to top administration in law enforcement at the local, state and federal levels over 28 years, which is one part of what informs in this book on policing and race. The other part is that he is black. I read seven on eight books on law enforcement this year, and this one stood out for the thoughtfulness and emotional crunching Horace exposed, even if there were layers of cause and solution he didn't unearth as much as he might have. Horace loves law enforcement, has devoted his life to it, believes powerfully in its mission, but he does not shrink from the problems, which he acknowledges amounts to something much more than just a few "bad apples."

Fletcher Knebel - Night of Camp David (1971). The paperback cover carried the tag line, "What would happen if the president of the U.S.A. went stark raving mad?", and the book amply carries through on the premise. The novel, a solid popcorn story I first read back in the 70s, became an unexpectedly hot seller this year. Can't imagine why. The story is actually somewhat tamer than what we've been exposed to in the last few years, and the novel's ending was more uplifting than anything we in this year have any reason to expect in real life.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn - Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (2020). All right, it's here in part because the central story in this book is set about five miles north of where I live. (And from time to time I walk through the location pictured on the front cover.) But there's also the unusually pragmatic take it sets in a subject area - inequality and our social difficulties - often given to politics, moralism and the dismal side of sociology. Kristof was raised outside Yamhill, Oregon, and the directly-told center story here is about the people there - and why, when some of them (such as Kristof) wound up doing very well, others saw their lives crater, crash and often end far too soon. The why of this, supplemented by other useful stories from around the country, make useful food for thought. It's not the whole story, but it encompasses a lot of it.

Jill Lepore - These Truths: A History of the United States (2019). Lepore has been an excellent bringer of fresh perspective on American History for years in her New Yorker articles, and a great big, massive slab of her take on American history makes for a real treat all by itself. It is set up in part as a corrective to some other broad-brush American histories, spreading less time and attention on the traditional national heroes, elections and military actions than most such books so, and pouring a lot of space into the marginalized - the American history of slaves and their descendants, and of women, get quite a work through. This isn't necessarily the only book on American history you'd ever want to read, but it belongs on a short list that you should, partly as a useful balance to almost everything else out there, and partly because of the beauty of the writing and the laying-out of connective tissues that are Lepore's hallmark.

Henning Mankell, Laurie Thompson (translator) - The White Lioness (2011). Series novels less and less stay in my mind for long - too often the writers seem to stretch out their material, thinning each book, milking the series. Even some of the more interesting-set detective stories in this century have fallen prey to the tendency. On top of that, translated novels often lose some of the original freshness of language. So why is this Kurt Wallender book (the third in the series about that Swedish detective) here? It helps that the translation here seems more artful and lively than most. More important, aside from the neatly complex - as opposed to over-complicated - story which makes a logical if stark juxtaposition of rural Sweden and roiling (and dangerous) parts of South Africa, the locales between which the book is split - and never really unites.

Barack Obama - A Promised Land (2020). The former president's first memoir, Dreams from my Father, was written long before he launched his political career, and carried a distinctive and sharply honest voice; to read it is to know it wasn't written with a political campaign in mind, and that it was crafted by someone who really could write well. This first presidential memoir (a second is planned, to follow from the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid) has a good deal of that feel, despite the very different subject matter. More than any other presidential memoir I've read, it conveys the sense and feel of what doing the job and living the life of a presidency must actually feel, look and sound like, through the lens of a specific personality.

Chibundu Onuzo - Welcome to Lagos (2017). More often than not, if I'm going to read a novel, then I want to read something novel - something I haven't read before, that introduces me to new people and places. The Inspector O novels, the first few of them anyway, set in North Korea got my attention a few years ago for that reason. And so did this stand-alone, a tale about a couple of deserters from the Nigerian army - who'd had enough of the murder and abuse of the people in rural villages - and wander off to the megalopolis of Lagos, where the story turns strange and amusing and insightful, meandering between issues of simple survival and governmental corruption. Some reviewers have criticized its wandering nature toward the end, and some readers might be slowed by the distinctive localized language (though I found it worth the effort), but if you read this you'll get a clearer picture than you otherwise would about life in a very different part of the world.

Stuart Stevens - It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (2020). The preceding parade of books on this post notwithstanding, I read a bunch of books about current politics during the last year. Quite a few were pretty good, but a lot of them overlapped and seemed to run together. Among the many blasts at Trump and the many ruminations by Republicans over the last couple of years, this one by Stevens stuck out to me for the sheer level of personal emotion: The degree to which Steven appears to have exposed his outright agony over where he has been, what he has done and what he contributed to. To those who hurl invective to the never-Trumpers on the lines of, "See what you did?", Stevens replies, "I know. I know. Now we need to put it all out on the table, and figure out how to fix it."

The Bolton book


The newly-published - over the objections of the Trump Administration - book by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened, is worth the read, even if not for most of the reasons I had expected.

I picked up on it (and yes, I know the many arguments for not doing so) definitely not for guidance on the more controversial aspects of foreign policy; Bolton and I, for example, simply would never see eye to on the Iraq war, or on a number of other items. In a book that covers the range of foreign policy in a rough tour d'horizon (to use the favored phrase in that crowd), I wasn't anywhere persuaded off earlier views, though I did find useful education a number of areas I hadn't been very familiar with.

And as for political bombshells ... most (not all) of those already have been exploding in news reports.

No parts of the book I found most interesting and useful, and these parts took up a great deal of the text, had to do with this: What's it like to work in and make decisions in the Trump Administration? That is, not just as a matter of adjectives and metaphors (though we do get some hot examples of those here too), but rather, in plain language, how does decision-making work, or not, at the White House in the current term, especially as compared to how it was done before.

Bolton had the advantage of working in three presidential administrations before Trump's, and at a high level in foreign affairs in two of them (the Bush administrations), so he has a basis for comparison. A lot of the book is about the nuts and bolts of how information is evaluated and decisions are made. You don't necessarily have to agree with Bolton's policy preferences to see clearly when the process is going awry. As, in Bolton's telling, it often does.

This is no hatchet job. Bolton loads his narrative with precise detail (these five people met on this day at this time for 20 minutes in this room), which speaks to his reputation (like that of many foreign affairs professionals) as a note-taker. He is careful to give credit to Trump where merited, as happens, from time to time. But the basics are damning. Trump seems unable to learn, to think conceptually, to get beyond personalities and immediate impacts on himself. His obsession with his own image (and how things play on cable television) seem as front-and-center here as in many other reports. Attempts by aides to educate him in the complexities of the real world typically run into a thick wall.

Seeing that description (you've of course seen it before) is one thing. But over the course of 592 pages, Bolton lays it out day by day, meeting by meeting, conversation by conversation. What's damning is not so much the big news items (the plea for Chinese help with his re-election, for example). What's damning is how it all settles into a depressing, rut.

What is this White House actually like? An answer to that question, from someone who was in a central position there, for a while, is what this book answers. It makes it worth the read.



The Mueller report took a little while to read, at 448 pages of fairly dense type. (I did skip many of the footnotes.) But it sped along in many places for this reason: So much of what it had to say, the people involved and the things they were doing, is by now familiar.

One of the appendices includes a list of the people involved, a rather long list. Some of the names tend toward the obscure, but a great many, from members of the Trump family to campaign personnel to shadowy Russian operatives, have become household names over the last nearly three years.

They've gotten that way through news stories - in newspapers, wire services and magazines - and through books and other media. In fact, if you've read the books about the Trump White House from writers from Bob Woodward to Michael Wolff to Cliff Sims, you've seen this story. (The fullest still might be Seth Abramson's Proof of Collusion, which covered much of the same territory as the Mueller Report but also reaches further back in time.)

It's not that there's nothing new here. There are new pieces, and even some striking quotes from Donald Trump, and a good deal of additional context has been added. Even if you've read many of the earlier reports, there's reason to add this one to your reading list. (And it reads in a clear enough manner that non-lawyers can absorb it readily enough.)

But the really striking thing about the Mueller Report is this: It confirms so much of what we already knew.

If you thought, or wondered, if much of what we've been told about the White House, Russia, cover-ups and related matters was true, then the Mueller Report as much as anything else serves as confirmation of it. Seldom has so much investigative work by news reporters been so firmly nailed down - by documents, sworn testimony and much more - than it has in this case. Mueller did not set out simply to provide confirmation of news reporting, but he wound up doing it.

Others have remarked about how no additional new charges came out of the final report, and the president was neither charged nor exonerated. And the point has been made, as Mueller took great care to do, that he felt constrained (by Justice Department rules and procedures, legal definitions and interpretations and other considerations) when deciding not to turn the final report into a prosecutor's charging document.

So then what was it for? It was written, and in the end released (the redactions raise serious questions but do not seem critical to the overall effort), with the same idea as the news reports were: To shine a light, to encourage action where it should be taken.

The location for that action, presumably and for now, is Congress.

Secondarily, next year, it may be as well in a more scattered location: The ballot box. And that might come be considered the final confirmation.

Political Hell-Raiser


History is written by the winners, so goes the line; we get accustomed to a narrative of history that doesn't allow for alternative outcomes - or choices. Sitting here today, for example, the story of the 2020 presidential election is yet to be written; two years from now, it all will seem inevitable.

We need those reminders of the mutability of our story and the options before us, and that's the value in the essays and longer narratives of counterfactual (what-if) history. And it's the value in looking at history from a different angle, a perspective that offers a fresh take on what happened and why, and what the alternatives might have been.

That brings us to Political Hell-Raiser, the new book by Marc Johnson, published by University of Oklahoma Press. (Semi-disclaimer here: This is the same Marc Johnson whose columns are appearing here on Saturdays.)

The hell-raiser of the title is Burton K. Wheeler, a U.S. senator from Montana from 1922 to 1946. He was a remarkable figure, and a full biography of him is overdue, but not just because he was one of the leading figures in Congress for a long time. He was also, remarkably, a counter to most of the trends that ran during his political career, and until near the end thrived doing it. He was a radical leftist during the 20s, when the nation veered to the right, and - after working hard for Franklin Roosevelt's election - became a bitter critics of Roosevelt and was identified toward the end more with business interests and anti-communism. (His own view was that he never changed all that much, but the emphasis and perceptions he allowed to grow certainly did.)

He loved political fights, and got into no lack of them, and more than one threatened to rip up not only his political career but private life as well. There was some courage here, no small amount of intelligence and political street smarts and a clear and persistant awareness - even allowing for some change over time - of who he was and what his guiding principles were.

He became best known as one of the leaders in the non-interventionist movement, the group (Johnson generally avoids the term "isolationist" though others might not) which argued against American involvement in a second world war, and helped keep the United States out of it until Pearl Harbor made war inevitable. He was a major national political figure then, and though a Democrat a leading - maybe the leading - thorn in FDR's side. (And FDR was fully aware of it.)

This is a side and perspective of history we don't often get. The prevailing side in American politics in that period is what we ordinarily hear: About the draft toward war, the push by Roosevelt to help0 Great Britain and oppose the Nazis, and the ultimate triumph in 1945. But there was, until Pearl, a strong anti-war movement, and it had no stronger spokesman than Wheeler. After the United States entered into the war, Wheeler's balloon deflated, fast, and after winning four races for the Senate he lost his seat, in the Democratic primary, in 1946: His views were out of step, and widely perceived as being soft on or even sympathetic to the Nazis (though Wheeler personally never was and supported the war once it was declared).

That's the outline, but there's more to the story. We see not only the poorly-informed and even naive aspects of Wheeler's non-interventionism but also the wise aspects to it; he foresaw the rise of a military-industrial complex and the tendency toward militarism, and the threats to freedom and democracy, that war would bring. We see here also some of the often-neglected dark sides of the Roosevelt years, the way the federal government's power was often abused in time of war. The internment camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry are noted here (and Wheeler was critical of them), but many other bad actions joined them in those years.

Johnson has done fine work here shining a light on a part of American history we often do not see (or might feel uncomfortable examining). Much of it, too much, resonates with American as it is most of a century later.

Book: Proof of Collusion


Quite a few years ago, I read (and still have a copy of) a book called Silent Coup, which sought to answer some of the questions and clarify some of the fuzzy areas surrounding the Watergate scandal.

In it, author Colodny reviewed a mass of facts surrounding Watergate. It did not exculpate Richard Nixon or his aides, at least in general, but it did provide a significant reinterpretation of the evidence. The summary at says, offered "revelations shocked the world and forever changed our understanding of politics, of journalism, and of Washington behind closed doors. Dismantling decades of lies, Silent Coup tells the truth." It received high touts from President Gerald Ford and a number of people connected to Watergate. It was an intriguing read.

But time hasn't been kind to Silent Coup. Several figures in the story, including one-time White House counsel John Dean, punching some critical holes in it. The biggest revelation in the book, the identity of journalistic source Deep Throat - Colodny built the case for Alexander Haig - fell apart when Mark Felt's identity as the mystery man was released by reporter Bob Woodward. They tentposts of Silent Coup's story largely fell apart.

It was a cautionary note that came to mind reading the current book Proof of Collusion: How trump Betrayed America, by Seth Abramson. In this far more recent story - we're much closer in time to the events described than the Watergate book was - the author spins for us the story of what happened in the relationship between Donald Trump and key officials in Russia. It, like Colodny's book, builds a case: Here, that there is clear evidence of collusion between Trump and his campaign, and Russia.

There's some temptation to draw a cautionary note from the Silent experience. The difference between the books, though, is also clear. Proof is an assembly of facts, a lot of them, are little is extrapolated from them.

Abramson is an attorney, and much of the book reads like a brief in a legal case. It's not quite that dry (the material is a grabber), but it's written in Joe Friday fashion, with much more emphasis on the plain and undisputed facts than on argumentation about them. Where the facts are not clear or undisputed, Abramson seems to be forthright about that too.

The caution is in how much information is still out there. In just the last few days, another critical piece of information - an acknowledgement, apparently, by Trump spokesman Rudolph Guiliani that Trump-Russia hotel negotiations continued right up to election day, rather than ending many months earlier as had been alleged - came into public view. More will be found by journalists, by congressional committees (we can only guess what the House may now unearth) and by special counsel Robert Mueller. How much more, we can't even really guess.

And yet ... so much is already out there that it's hard to conceive how what remains could be very exculpatory. The assembly into a coherent chronological (roughly) narrative is what Abramson has done here, and the sheer volume of what we already know really is astounding. What he has written (as of before the turn of the year) is so detailed that it almost feels like a complete story. And it is very well documented; through much of the book, most sentences are footnoted, and the detail and backup are impressive.

The whole story won't be told for some time to come. But Proof of Collusion does a solid intermediate job: It gives us a good framework for putting into place the information yet to come, and working out what it means.

As the title hints, it doesn't look good. And its hard to see how it could, even if what we now know is all we know.

A significant day


Over the last week I've been re-reading The Final Days, the old Bob Woodward-Carl Bernstein book about the closing months of the Nixon Administration. So much of it rings bells in our present day.

The ringing got all the louder Tuesday with the conviction in one case and guilty pleas in another of two of this current president's once top men: his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his (until recently) main personal counsel, Michael Cohen.

During the time stretch in Final Days, several of President Richard Nixon's former aides ere going through criminal trials, in some cases acquitted but in others convicted. The book did not much focus on them directly but rather on the Nixon White House, as it dealt with the fallout of the decisions made when Nixon, Haldeman, Erlichman, Dean and others all were still in place, and still a team.

But there was definite White House fallout from their legal troubles.

For one thing, Nixon himself was at least somewhat distraught. That's not hard to understand. He had hired these people, in a number of cases friends of his, to work in positions of high responsibility, and now directly as a result of choosing to go to work for and with him, they were being jump-suited and packed off to prison. Whatever else Nixon did or didn't feel guilty about, he surely felt some guilt over that, over bringing such a result to his friends and allies. Who wouldn't?

Which raises the question of, does Donald Trump? Does he feel what Nixon did?

We can ask that question in no less a serious way about everyone else working in and around the White House. Imagine this: You've gone to work for an important organization, doing important work, and then you discover that your predecessors, at least a whole bunch of them, are being laid law and slapped behind bars. Not just one or two, but a lot of them - and for reasons that stem directly from having worked for, and taken orders from and tried to please, the same boss you're now working for.

That might make me spooked enough to have, well, unfortunate side effects. It certainly wouldn't make me a more useful or helpful part of the organization, not when some significant part of the day is spent wondering if someone will be coming for me next, for having done something I didn't even quite see coming until it was too late.

Cohen and Manafort are two of the most important figures so far to be dragged in, but they're not the first and they won't be the last. Don't imagine this won't have a big effect on the White House. It may even have some effect on the elections now not much more than a couple of months away.