Tag Archives: American Politics

A Tricky Life

Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas (Random House, $35.00, 619 pages)

Being Nixon

“This is not a book intended to weigh the success and failure of Nixon as a policy maker, and, although the Watergate scandal figures inevitably and prominently, I do not attempt to solve its many mysteries. Rather, I have made an attempt to understand what it was like to actually be Nixon.”

Richard Nixon, as noted in Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas, once said: “Politics would be a hell of a business it it weren’t for the goddamned people.” Thomas, who wrote the exemplary and comprehensive Robert Kennedy: His Life, attempts to get into the head of the only president to resign the office. Seeing the world as Nixon did is likely not possible – as Thomas concedes when he writes, “What Nixon really felt, deep down is unknowable…” But then Thomas makes up for this by stating, “(Nixon) was determined not to worry about being worried.”

Henry Kissinger was to say of Nixon that, “He had a kind of desperate courage.” In Thomas’s view, “Kissinger knew that for Nixon, entering a crowded room or talking to a stranger required an enormous act of will.” In essence, Thomas has drawn up a portrait of a man who – despite being the one-time leader of the Free World, was completely alone.

Thomas does a fine job of explaining the importance of the Alger Hiss case to Nixon’s later political career. The same is true of his detailing of Nixon’s foreign policy achievements. But on Watergate, there’s nothing new here. In terms of fulfilling the book’s stated mission, as quoted above, it fails.

Being Nixon is a sometimes intriguing, sometimes frustrating, read about a man who, quite simply, was utterly unknowable.

Recommended, for those willing to tackle a 600-page biography.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.


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Luck Of The Draw

The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election by John Sides and Lynn Varvick (Princeton University Press, $29.95, 331 pages)

Is The Gamble a truly definitive look at the 2012 election?

The Gamble large

There are books that over-promise and under-deliver; this is one of them. A front cover blurb from Nate Silver promises that The Gamble is “The definitive account of what really happened and what really mattered in the campaign.” This is far from a definitive account.

One of the main points made in this mathematics and polling-based treatise is that voters tend to be almost evenly split in American presidential elections and, thus, it takes something substantive to move them to one side or the other. It especially takes some major event to change their initial choice as to who to vote for. In the 2012 election, neither Mitt Romney’s 47% remarks nor Barack Obama’s poor debate performance in Denver were dominant factors in the outcome according to Sides and Vavrick: “The impact of this debate showed, once again, how quickly even dramatic moments like the 47% video could be undone by new events as the tug-of-war between the candidates continued. The losses Romney appeared to suffer after the video’s release actually made subsequent events like the debate more likely to bring him gains….”

And then there’s the factor cited in The Gamble, that the incumbent in the Oval Office wins 68.7% of the time. Against this background, where many votes are cast in stone, the writers supposedly explain what factors determined the election outcome. Except that they actually don’t. In a number of instances they tell us that voter surveys were not “necessarily dispositive.” And then they examine various factors – such as religion, only to tell us that the factor or factors were negligible: “In 2012, Romney’s religion appeared to be a minimal factor in his loss.”

The writers discount the notion that the economy would define the election: “There was much speculation as to whether late changes in the economy would reshape the presidential race. This has rarely been the case… (major economic) shocks are uncommon.” So much for that issue.

Some issues are brought up and left unresolved such as the alleged personal favorability gap between Obama and Romney: “The exit poll can shed no light on this question. Our data cannot resolve this issue either….” The writers go on to quote a statement from Mitch Stewart, director of the Democratic campaign group Organizing for America, to the effect that “the electorate is just not that volatile.” (emphasis in the original) Sides and Vavrick also repeatedly remind the reader that “Many (voters) were loyal partisans.” Because the data they present is not determinative and because the writers cannot pinpoint what decided the election, the account is far less than satisfying.

The Gamble would have benefited from better editing. As an example, in a section discussing the number of local campaign offices for each candidate we find the statement, “Romney had outsourced the operation to the Republican National Committee (RNC), who was charged with mobilizing support for Republican candidates up and down the ballot.” Since the RNC is not a person – notwithstanding the debate as to whether a corporation is a person, this is grammatically incorrect.

If there’s one point worthy of consideration raised by this account, it’s that Romney sought to appeal to conservative Republicans when he actually needed the support of moderates and liberals in the party. But the book undervalues the importance of Bill Clinton’s involvement in securing a winning margin for the re-election of President Obama.

Personally, I never arrived at the feeling that this rather emotionless book “explained” the 2012 election. A book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Double Down: Game Change 2012, is the competing account that does so, while presenting the politicians on both sides as honorable yet flawed human beings. Halperin and Heilemann bring flesh and blood to their story, something that is sadly lacking in this robotic and inconclusive interpretation of events.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics site:


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The Real Romney

The Real Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman (Harper Paperbacks, $15.99, 448 pages)

“Looks like I’ve turned out like all the rest, but Mama my intentions were the best.”   Randy Travis (“Good Intentions”)

“A lot of it is, he is patrician.   He just is.   He has lived a charmed life…  It is a big challenge that he has connecting to folks who haven’t swum in the same rarefied waters that he has.”   A former aide, quoted in The Real Romney.

I’ve now read two accounts of the personal and political life of Mitt Romney (the other being Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics by R. B. Scott) – adding up to some 693 pages – and yet I feel like the singer in Randy Travis’s song, “Good Intentions.”   No matter now good my intentions are, I’ve not had any luck in finding out exactly who Mitt Romney is, in head or in heart.   I’m beginning to wonder if his biographers wind up with the same frustrated feeling.

What were his issues?   What did he believe?   Sure, he was against Kennedy, but what was he for?   In other words, who was Mitt Romney?

The team of Kranish and Helman, seasoned reporters for The Boston Globe, covered Romney as the governor of Massachusetts for four years; therefore, they have some background on the subject.   And the 400-plus page account that they’ve fashioned seems impressive – with annotations and a fine index – until it dawns on the reader that the subject of the book remains more of a specter than a human being.   Specter: something that haunts or perturbs the mind (Merriam-Webster).

“Everything could always be tweaked, reshaped, fixed, addressed,” said one former 2008 aide, describing Romney’s outlook.   “It was foreign to him on policy issues that core principles mattered.”

What Kranish-Helman do well, fanatically well, is to provide a “fair and balanced” approach.   There’s almost a mathematical precision to their balancing of “good” Mitt versus “bad” Mitt stories.   Let them provide a couple of examples in which Romney did admirable work based on his Mormonism, and they’re quickly followed by two stories of when he allegedly acted uncharitably – and perhaps heartlessly – toward two Mormon women facing personal struggles.   And when it comes to his work with Bain Capital, the stories of Romney’s “good” venture capitalism are quickly cancelled out by an equal number of tales of his practice of “bad” vulture capitalism.

“The goal of the investor in Bain Capital is to make absolute returns.   When they do well, Bain does well.   When Bain does well, they do well.   It is essentially capitalism at its finest – and its worst.”   Howard Anderson, MIT professor and former Bain investor.

It all seems to verify the accounts that Romney is only “the real Romney” when he’s practicing his Mormon faith.   However, since that’s not something he’s comfortable either talking about or dealing with in public, it means that the person he is – or may be – remains hidden.   In reading The Real Romney, an image comes to mind of the presidential candidate dressed in a Zorro-style costume – a man who wears a mask that’s never removed, and which never slides down for even an instant.

“After all the weeks and months of that campaign, if you ask, ‘Why did Mitt Romney run for (the) U. S. Senate, and what did he stand for?’ most people had no clue.”   Mitt Romney, speaking about himself, as quoted by a fellow party member.

There are entertaining sections in this nonfiction read, most notably those involving Romney’s seemingly foolish run against Ted Kennedy for the U. S. Senate (a race that Romney thought he had a chance of winning until the pre- and post-debate polls came out) and the details of his single term as governor.   The reporters also do an admirable job of explaining how Mitt’s life is almost an exact re-run of his father George’s life – both were elected as governor of a state at the age of 55, both were successful businessmen, and both ran for president.   In this respect, Mitt Romney sounds very much like Al Gore, who was raised to accomplish the things that his senator father had not been able to.   Yet, it’s never clear in this account if Mitt Romney has the fire in his belly that will make him settle for nothing less than the presidency.

“When he’s with people he doesn’t know, he gets more formal.  And if it’s a political thing where he doesn’t know anybody, he has a mask.”

“He has that invisible wall between ‘me’ and ‘you’.”

Unless you’re the ultimate political junkie, there’s just not enough here to justify reading 450 or so pages to find out that the mask, the invisible wall, never comes down.   The question simply changes from, “Who was Mitt Romney?” (past tense) to “Who is Mitt Romney?”   Based on The Real Romney (and on the book by R. B. Scott, a cousin of Romney’s), it remains a fully unanswered question.

Joseph Arellano

 A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Real Romney was released in a trade paper version, with a new Afterward, on August 21, 2012.   “…absorbing and fair minded.”   The New York Times

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Coming Up Next…

A review of We’re With Nobody: Two Insiders Reveal the Dark Side of American Politics by Alan Huffman and Michael Rebejian.

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