Tag Archives: 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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Coming Up Next…

The Gamble hardcopy

Coming up next, a review of The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election by John Sides and Lynn Vavrick.

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I’m Walking to New Orleans

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington: A Documentary (shown on PBS TV on January 3, 2013 and afterward)

Joseph Cao was a Congressman who voted for Obama Care before he voted against it.   This is one of the factors that led to his defeat when he ran for a second term as a U.S. Congressman from the historic Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana.   The producers of this documentary would have the viewer believe that Cao’s defeat had more to do with racial partisan politics but that may be an overstatement; an attempt to find more meaning than is supported by the facts.Mr. Cao profile

Mr. Cao, a once-politically Independent Vietnamese-American who became a Republican, was elected to go to Washington in 2008.   His election was such a surprise that, in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory with 78 percent of the vote in the Second Congressional District, the national media came to call Cao “The Accidental Congressman.”

Cao was a former seminarian whose pro-life Catholic views colored his approach to political issues, and may have put him out of touch with his poor, primarily African-American constituents.   A key issue, as stated by an African-American community spokesman in the film, is that when speaking to constituents, Cao would say that he would do whatever was necessary to secure government funds and services for his district (i.e., a big government approach); but when in the company of big donor Republicans, he would oppose taxes on the rich and take other highly conservative positions (i.e., a small government approach).   It was transparent enough for the voters to catch on quite easily.

Mr. Cao Goes to Washington seems to argue that Cao was roughed up the vicissitudes of politics, but then politics is not bean bag; it’s a sport for big boys and big girls, and the thin-skinned need not apply.   When the Democrats nominated Cedric Richmond, a younger version of President Obama, Cao chose to go negative against Richmond, something that one of his chief political advisors (as seen near the end of the documentary) viewed as a basic mistake.   Throwing mud on Richmond seemed to contradict Cao’s labeling of himself as a man of “high integrity.”   Cao clearly worked extremely hard for his constituents after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Gulf Coast oil spill, and perhaps his campaign should have focused, first and foremost, on his successes in securing services and corporate and federal rebuilding funds for his heavily-impacted district.

Cao’s strategy was proven to be quite wrong on Election Day 2010, as African-American voters in the District turned out at almost twice the usual rate – despite a heavy rain – to vote for the challenger Richmond.   The election was held just days after Cao had lost his father, and he appears to be devastated and disoriented at the end of the hour-long film.

Mr Cao Ep Main

This is an excellently produced documentary, and it’s fully engaging.   However, I suspect that it offers fewer lessons than intended for the average viewer since Cao is somewhat less of a sympathetic figure than the filmmakers intended.   Joseph Cao seems to have been bitten by the hubris that infects most politicians, and he appears to have adopted a world and political view that was strangely narrow, based more on his religious training and personal background than on the needs of the generally impoverished voters that he was elected to serve.

In the film, we’re expected to believe that Cao honestly viewed President Obama as a close friend, despite the fact that they were of different political parties.   (Sixty-eight percent of Cao’s votes over two years were supportive of the Administration.)   The friendship would not survive Cao’s position change on Obama’s landmark Affordable Health Care Act, which led to distrust on both sides.   Joseph Cao, like too many once-idealistic human beings, attempted to play both sides against the middle.

The lesson of Cao may be that a politician is free to change his or her views on major issues, but doing so without sufficiently explaining those changes to one’s constituents can be, and often is, fatal.

Mr. Cao is a tough reflection of a tough town.   It succeeds when brightly reflecting the political wars that rage in our capital.   It’s less successful when viewed as a tribute to a flawed, transitory political figure.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review DVD was provided by PBS.   Mr. Cao Goes to Washington premieres on PBS TV on January 3, 2013. 

My thanks to Daniel D. Holt of Master Po Editing Services HP for his assistance on this review.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics Video (TV/Film) site:  http://blogcritics.org/video/tv-review-mr-cao-goes-to/ .

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A preview-review of the documentary, Mr. Cao Goes to Washington, which will be seen on PBS TV beginning on January 3, 2013!Cao and Obama

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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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Hollywood Nights

Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot (Three Rivers Press, $17.00, 375 pages)

“(The Hollywood social scene) was…  made up of Republicans.   The Powells, the Murphys, the Steins, the Bergens, the Taylors, all were conservative-leaning Republicans; Reagan was the only die-hard registered Democrat among them.”

It’s hard to associate the following words with our mental perception of President Ronald Reagan:  hardy Democrat, union leader and uber-supporter, heavy drinker and womanizer…  And yet, this is the picture of a young Reagan – the man before he met and married Nancy, painted by Marc Eliot, who specializes in writing biographies of famous actors.   It’s the shock attached to this portrait of an untamed young man who later became a stabilizing leader that will make the prospective reader of this account choose sides.

Some will refuse to read or even consider Reagan: The Hollywood Years since it does not mesh with the majority view of Ronald Reagan, the man.   This is a person’s right, just as it’s fair for some of us to refuse to read (or believe) the worst stories about the Kennedys.   Some will love that the account casts a disparaging view of an early Reagan; although, Eliot does not deny that Reagan experienced tremendous personal growth after marrying Nancy, settling down in every sense of the word, and entering politics.   And some, as I did, will find it to be a very engaging read, a quick read except for the fact that so many of the actors mentioned will be unknown to anyone not alive in the 1940s.   (You’ll need to have ready access to Wikipedia to continually look up the facts about actors and actresses; very few of whom are now living.)

Is Eliot’s biographical account credible?   Well, there are arguments to be found on both sides of the issue.   On the side of plausibility, Eliot’s not a hack writer.   He earned his MFA from the Columbia University School of the Arts, and then studied for a PhD in film history.   It’s not clear if he actually earned the PhD at Columbia, but he knows his films and he’s written some generally praised biographies, including American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant: A Biography and Jimmy Stewart: A Biography.   Eliot’s also packed Reagan: The Hollywood Years with an immense number of source notes, specific references and a detailed index.

In addition, at least one of the then young actresses who was said to have had a sexual fling with Reagan back in the day confirmed Eliot’s account after the book’s publication.   On the flip side, a number of individuals have challenged the “facts” in this unique account, and Eliot more recently published a biography of Steve McQueen that many have found to be a bit implausible, to say the least.   (There are better biographies of Steve McQueen.)

In Eliot’s version of his early life, Reagan was a minimally talented actor who became extremely well-known even though he was not even in the Top 40 actors of his time – one poll listing him as the 82nd favorite actor in 1939-40, when Clark Gable was number 1.   But Reagan was always a lucky young man, always getting the right break at the right time, which brings to mind what Paul Newman was to call “Newman’s luck.”   Mr. Reagan had Reagan’s luck.

“…he chose to spend most evening with young, willing and always beautiful starlets.”

This Reagan had a very contentious marriage to Jane Wyman.   He once said to  her, “We’ll lead an ideal life if you’ll just avoid doing one thing:  Don’t think.”   But his divorce from her almost destroyed him and led him to become a man who went through young starlets like a hot knife through butter.   He also was at one time, allegedly, a man who loved his drink.   In Eliot’s telling, Reagan sometimes met William Holden in the early evening at Ciro’s Nightclub on the Strip in West Hollywood where they would drink until the place closed.

Whether this all sounds plausible or not, it is one of Eliot’s most interesting accounts and it’s highlighted by some details that will not be found anywhere else.   For example, Eliot writes about the run-ins that Reagan had with the Kennedy brothers going back several decades; information that I’ve never come across before.

In the end, this is what Newsweek termed “A fascinating portrait.”   It may or may not be an accurate one; that’s not my decision to make.   One of the fascinating tales told in Eliot’s version of events in the life of the young Ronald Reagan came about when Reagan blasted Motion Picture magazine for violating his privacy – something that had not bothered him previously – once he began dating one Nancy Davis.   The magazine returned fire by printing an open letter to Mr. Reagan which sternly reminded him that, “Yours is a business, Mr. Reagan, which is built on publicity.   In this sense, actors are like politicians…”

Recommended, with the caveat that for some reading this book will require a suspension of disbelief.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   Here is a link to our review of Marc Eliot’s bio of Clint Eastwood:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/american-rebel-the-life-of-clint-eastwood/

The best biographies of Steve McQueen are Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel by Marshall Terrill, and Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of Hollywood Icon by Marshall Terrill and Peter O. Whitmer PhD.

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A review of Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot.

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