Tag Archives: the White House

An Innocent Man

500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars by Kurt Eichenwald (Touchstone, $30.00, 611 pages)

Amazing.   Bush believed that he could establish a new legal system, and then declared his order exempt from judicial review?   Had anyone in the White House even read the Constitution?”

This is a stunningly good, and often sad and depressing, account of the first 500 days of the Bush administration’s response to 9/11.   As detailed in this book, a number of innocent persons were labeled as dangerous terrorists and were either tortured or lost their lives.   However, author Eichenwald seems to be both sympathetic to, and critical of, the people who worked in the White House and in the U.S. intelligence system.

“My God, they’re arguing that the president can do whatever he wants.”

The Bush White House was guided, during these 500 days, by a Berkeley law professor who incredibly advised that, “…we do have the right to violate international law.”   John Woo, a Republican lawyer in the Office of Legal Counsel, asserted that the executive’s power was virtually unbounded; a latter-day acceptance of Richard Nixon’s version of an imperial presidency beyond the review of the courts and Congress.   Fortunately for this country, a number of other government lawyers were fully prepared to take on Woo.   And they did.   One noted of Woo’s position:  “Adopting these standards would invite enemies to torture American soldiers.”

“The call ended without a resolution of their conundrum and with both men befuddled by the difficulty of nailing down Arar’s terrorist leanings.   Neither considered the obvious explanation – the evidence didn’t exist because Arar was an innocent man.”

These were days when fear and hatred led to a trampling of individual human rights; a national tragedy was exploited by extremists.   Let’s hope this account prevents us from repeating such a misguided and unfortunate chapter in our nation’s history.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A page turner…  Jaw-dropping…  It crackles.”   The Washington Post500 Days (3d)

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Rawhide Down

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Picador, $16.00, 320 pages)

Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber tells the story of President Ronald Reagan’s assassination attempt in what is very nearly “real time.”   Wilber, a reporter for The Washington Post and one-time finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, takes the title from the Secret Service’s code name for Reagan.

With the election nearing, it is interesting to reflect back on the man, the president, who was generally well-liked by the public, even those who disagreed with his politics.   In fact, his likability and fine sense of humor permeate the account of the time leading up to his shooting and subsequent surgery, hospital stay, and recovery.

Also prevalent in the account is the now-famous mutual adoration between the former president and his wife, Nancy.

The reader is led to believe that the story will be about the details of the day of the assassination attempt, so when the author initially deviates and shares select anecdotes, characteristics of White House (WH) staff members, details of WH meetings, and personal interactions with various constituent groups, etc., the reader is pulled off track.   However, the story quickly recovers, and nuances that color and deepen the events surrounding the assassination attempt and the people involved are shared effectively throughout the remainder of the book.   The writing style is direct, entertaining, and of high quality.

Other interesting elements of the book include: the questioning of shooter John Hinckley, Jr., an unstable person who was apparently driven crazy by his infatuation with actress Jodie Foster; the accounts of the actions, decisions and occasional gaffes of Reagan’s Cabinet and those entrusted to protected him; and, perhaps, above all, information about the actions of the medical professionals who had to make quick, high-pressure decisions on how to save Reagan from a very nearly fatal gunshot wound.

Certainly much has been written about Reagan, but this book provides a unique perspective on the man,  with unique facts that most readers will no doubt find enjoyable and quite informative.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the Midwest and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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My Best Friend

Do You Have a Cat? by Eileen Spinelli (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers; $16.00; 32 pages)

“A cat who likes to caterwaul is better than no cat at all!”

There’s an old saying that dogs and their owners begin to look like each other.   Well, I may be just a kitten but even I know that’s not true just for dogs…  And this book, Do You Have a Cat?, proves me to be right.   This book shows us – and especially the young humans in the reading audience – that 14 very famous people owned felines (that’s a cat, to you).   And, guess what?   These famous people looked just like their cats and vice-versa!

If you don’t believe me, just look at the swell drawings in this book.   You’ll see that everyone from Cleopatra to Queen Victoria and Charles Lindbergh and Albert Schweitzer and President Calvin Coolidge owned very special cats, all of whom just happened to be the spitting-image of their home owners!   And you’ll learn some very cool stuff, too, like the fact that President Coolidge went on the radio to tell the folks when his cat was lost.   Luckily, for Cal, Tiger was soon found and returned to the White House!

So, I’m a young cat but I know good books.   This one’s as good as a bowl of half-and-half!

Highly recommended.

Sasha (the kitten) Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Geraldo Valerio is the illustrator of this children’s book, recommended for ages 4 through 8.  

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America

The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (Doubleday, $27.95, 352 pages)

Imagine that you are in charge of making decisions for a major publisher.   A writer presents you with a new novel based on the following story:  A very young (49-year-old) President of the United States is elected and quickly stalked by a madman.   The president serves only 6 months before he is shot by this crazy person.   As the shooting takes place, one of the men standing alongside the president has been present at three presidential assassinations (although he is in no way connected to the assassins).   The physician in charge of saving the president cannot locate the bullet in the president’s body, and turns to a world-famous inventor for his assistance in creating a new machine that will find it.   Despite their best efforts, the president does not survive and the vice-president – a political hack who is against everything the former president stood for – assumes office.   This new leader throws aside his former supporters, and proceeds to fully implement the dead president’s political agenda.

No doubt you would reject this fictional tale as being beyond the bounds of believability.   And you might be right, except for the fact that this all, in fact, occurred in 1880.   As documented in The Destiny of the Republic, one truly fascinating account of the events surrounding the assassination of President James A. Garfield, and the assumption of the high office by Chester A. Arthur, these events happened.   The genius inventor who attempted to save the life of the president (in the days before x-rays) was Alexander Graham Bell.   The witness to Garfield’s assassination was Robert Todd Lincoln, “…the only man to be present at three of our nation’s four presidential assassinations.”   And President Arthur, a product of the New York State spoils (political patronage) sytem, was to be the man who enacted civil service reform.   Arthur came to be known as the Father of Civil Service, a title that would likely have been Garfield’s, had he survived being shot.  

“Assassination can no more be guarded against than death by lightning, and it is best  not to worry about either.”   James A. Garfield

This is a detailed and moving version of the events surrounding the life and death of James Garfield of Ohio, a man who was very much in love with his wife; a woman who nearly preceded him in death.   Garfield was to die, not from the bullet that lay harmlessly encased in body fat within his frame, but from medical malpractice and incompetence.   In modern times Garfield, like President Reagan, would have survived his  injuries and returned to the White House.

Garfield turned to the doctors closest to him, and asked what chance he had of surviving.   “One chance in a hundred,” the doctor gravely replied.   “We will take that chance, doctor,” Garfield said, “and make good use of it.”

The reader will come to see that Garfield was a very courageous man who suffered at the hands of a medical team that hastened his death.   Alexander Graham Bell and Chester Arthur also come to life as fascinating characters; Bell as an imperfect but well-meaning genius, and Arthur as a man who reluctantly but boldly grew into the role that destiny selected for him.   (Arthur was not born to greatness, but grew into it when the nation desperately needed a leader to fill Garfield’s very large shoes.)

This true story is very cinematic in nature and might well make for an excellent film filled with multiple larger-than-life characters.   Thanks to Candice Millard, it is a story that will not longer be a blip in the history of the United States.   If you know of a young person who is interested in reading about the history of our country, consider presenting this book to him or her as a very valuable present.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Destiny of the Republic will be released on September 20, 2011.   “What an exceptional man and what an exciting era Millard has brought to elegant life on the page!   After reading The Destiny of the Republic, you’ll never think of James A. Garfield as a ‘minor’ president again.”   Hampton Sides, author of Hellbound on His Trail

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Inside Job

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis (Norton, $15.95, 291 pages)

“The problem wasn’t that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to fail.   The problem was that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to succeed.”

If you read The Blind Side by Michael Lewis, and think this is going to be another warm and fuzzy story, think again.   This is a former insider’s telling of the reasons the American economy was virtually destroyed by greed in the early 2000’s and it will get you angry – or at least it should.   Here’s one example pointed out in the book…

It’s late 2006 and U.S. home values have just suffered their greatest decline in 35 years.   And, so, Goldman Sachs selected this time to give a bonus to each and every one of its employees – a little bonus of $542,000 (not salary, but some extra spending cash for the holidays)…   How does this make you feel?

If you’re a normal human being without any ties – familial or otherwise – to Wall Street, you should be infuriated by the knowledge of these practices; and there are dozens of examples provided by Lewis.   Yes, this is a tale of incredible hubris.  Lewis, who had once worked at Solomon Brothers, notes that Wall Street traders saw themselves as geniuses who were above reproach:  “(They had) the ability to see themselves in their successes and their management in their failures.”   In fact, however, Lewis well makes the case that these same self-proclaimed geniuses simply didn’t grasp the details of the game that they were playing.   And we all paid the price for their failures.

In just a few years, “One trillion dollars in (subprime-related) losses had been created by American financiers…”   Lewis is honest enough to say that if he’d remained on the Street, he might have been part of the problem:  “If only I’d struck around, this is the sort of catastrophe I might have created.”

“This woman (Meredith Whitney) wasn’t saying that Wall Street bankers were corrupt.   She was saying that they were stupid.”

This is also the story of one Dr. Michael Burry, a man who figured out that big money could be made off of the Street’s losses and ignorance – he decided to bet, big-time, against subprime mortgage tranches and won big-time.   Burry was a man who figured out early on (in 2007) that Wall Street’s rating firms were engaging in massive cheating – rating as solid risks mortgage packages that were pure losers.   One single pool of “crappy mortgages” (falsely rated) – based on home loans made between April and July of 2005 – was allegedly worth three-quarters of a trillion dollars, but the entire pool was basically worthless.

The problem with Lewis’ account, which he states began as a policy paper on the roots of the modern-day American fiscal crisis, is that it reads like a dry white paper.   There’s no sense of outrage, no moral center.   Even while Lewis complains that the U.S. government (and, specifically, the White House) transformed Wall Street firms into public corporations, which were then deemed to be “too big to fail,” there’s no sense of anger.   Thus, we’re left with a sense of amorality, instead of immorality, in this presentation.

This is an interesting and easily read account, but it’s quite frustrating and not recommended.   If you want to enjoy something written by Michael Lewis, try The Blind Side.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.  

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The Mighty Quinn

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Henry Holt and Company; $27.00; 296 pages)

On March 30, 1981, I was at the Orange County (California) airport – waiting for my return flight to Sacramento – when it became clear that something had happened back east.   The new president of the U.S., and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan had been shot in an apparent assassination attempt.   Three other persons were shot and it was not known whether Reagan, at his advanced age, would survive.   It appeared that a hundred or so persons jammed into the airport’s pub to watch the 19-inch RCA televisions broadcasting the dramatic events.

On that day, I assumed that a book about the near assassination of an American president would appear within 6 to 18 months, clarifying exactly what happened that day.   Years and decades passed by and it did not appear…  This, finally, is that book.

Del Quentin Wilber takes a micro-level look at the events of 03/30/81 in a style that recalls books like The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Death of a President. It is an immediately engaging narrative which begins by looking at the schedules of Reagan (whose secret service code name was Rawhide), his secret service detail members and of the highly disturbed and bizarre individual who sought to impress a Hollywood actress.   The language and mood become more intense as the hour of the assassination attempt draws near.  

Wilber properly sets the stage by reminding us that this shooting came just three months after the killing of John Lennon, and followed the history-altering assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.   Wilber’s sadness in relating these events is palpable, and informs the reader that this is a non-partisan account – one need not have been a political supporter of Reagan’s to fear for his safety (and for the country’s future) while revisiting that period.

“If Jerry Parr hadn’t decided to redirect the limousine from the White House to the hospital, Reagan would likely have died…”

“(The) doctors had been keeping pace with Reagan’s bleeding by pumping donated blood and fluids into his system.   So far, the tactic was working…  But this compensatory approach couldn’t continue forever.   They would have to stop the bleeding surgically.”

In these pages, Ronald Reagan is a likeable and courageous man who was able to joke with his emergency room physicians.   (He wondered what the gunman had against the Irish as all those shot on this day happened to be of Irish heritage.)   But he was also a man who wondered if he was about to meet his maker.   It was an open question because, as we now know, Reagan lost fully half of his blood volume as surgeons sought to remove the bullet that lodged just one inch from his heart.   Those of us glued to the TVs in early 1981 had no idea that the president came this close to dying.

Once the danger period passed, the president was advised to convalesce for several months.   But he was a uniquely physically fit and strong elderly man.   Twelve days later he was back at the White House, and a mere month later a visibly thinner president addressed a joint session of the Congress.

There’s more, much more, in this telling that disappoints only in that it seems to conclude too soon.   The courage of the secret service agents who saved the president’s life on this day is close to being incomprehensible.   “(Agent) Parr’s training had taught him one thing above all:  when faced with an actual threat, he could never freeze.   Not for three seconds, not for one second.   Without fail, he had to respond instantly.”

This is a fascinating and unique account, and constitutes a worthwhile addition to the historical record.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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