The End of October by Lawrence Wright (A Book Review)

The End of October is a novel that incorporates the following elements = Horror Story + Political Novel + Family’s fight for survival + Cautionary Tale.

This novel was written and published before the Covid 19 pandemic and what’s most surprising is how the author has eerily forecasted many of the events and issues that we are experiencing now. (He even predicted the U.S. Vice President being in charge of the pandemic task force and failing.)

I have read two other non-fiction books by Wright: Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David and The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Those books, like this novel, are excellent.

The background of this book includes the following: Global pandemic (Kongoli) that kills hundreds of millions of people…no cures, no vaccines…famine worldwide…Middle East war between Saudi Arabia And Iran…terrorist attacks by religious fanatics…cyber warfare between the United States and Russia that destroys each nation’s infrastructure and economies…economic depression, fallen governments worldwide…

It’s not a pleasant read or a feel good story. One can easily imagine the parade of horribles that could happen under those events. Panic. Hospitals overwhelmed. Government ineffective. (Philadelphia becomes the first U.S. hotspot in this novel).

Within all this chaos is epidemiologist Henry Parsons desperately trying to develop a vaccine, stay alive (he has more adventures and near death experiences than Indiana Jones)  and find a way to get back to the United States and save his wife and two children.

For me, the book had a slow start but quickly became a page turner after the fourth or fifth chapter. There is also an unexpected surprise finding at the end of the book.

One of the two or three best novels I have read in 2020…

Dewey Beats Truman: A Cautionary Tale for 2020

I just finished an excellent book titled Dewey Beats Truman: The 1948 Election and The Battle for America’s Soul by AJ Baime. It serves as a cautionary tale of what could happen, particularly to the unpleasant surprise for Democrats, in this year’s Presidential election.

First, my admiration for Truman as a President continues to grow. His administration was dealing with post Second World War relations and issues with the Soviet Union. There was a genuine concern there may be war between the two countries, particularly when the Soviets tried to blockade food and supplies getting into Berlin. Civil Rights was a huge issue as black soldiers returning home from the war demanding equal opportunity and equal justice. Truman initiated a number of civil rights legislation that infuriated the Southern Democrats in his own party. Truman was an early supporter for the state of Israel. This angered many in his party who were concerned that the Arab states would cut back on the distribution of oil to the United States.

Second, there are some corollaries between candidates Truman and Trump. Polls showed that both candidates were/are behind 15-20% of their challengers. Political pundits and writers almost unanimously picked Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate to win. Dewey was so confident of winning that he was focusing on who would be members of his Cabinet when he won in November. Major newspapers including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post endorsed Dewey. Both Trump and Truman were characterized as unpopular candidates. Congressional candidates running for reelection avoided having their endorsements or helping their campaigns with joint appearances. There were also concerns about one candidate winning the popular vote but the other winning the electoral college and causing a crisis. (Fortunately Truman easily won the popular and electoral college vote.)

Third, there were concerns in 1948, like today, of Soviet Union involvement in the election. During the campaign, Joseph Stalin exchanged letters with the progressive candidate, Henry Wallace. Stalin’s involvement intimated that he could work on building a peace with Wallace. The Soviet Union also engaged in certain military and political activities that were intended to discredit the Truman presidency and campaign.

Fourth, Truman’s path to victory was more problematic. Southern Democrats bolted the party as they opposed civil rights for blacks. They nominated Strom Thurmond as their choice for President. (Ironic that Strom was such a huge segregationist as he fathered a black daughter. To his credit, he did support and take care of her, surreptitiously.) The progressive wing of the Democratic Party nominated Henry Wallace as President. Wallace was not afraid to identify with the communist party. Wallace portrayed himself as a peace candidate, he was afraid that Truman would declare war on the Soviet Union.

Since Truman was not expected to win, campaign funds were very low. Customary Democratic party contributors decided to sit out this presidential election. This impacted Truman’s ability to get out his message, particularly with the advent of election coverage by television networks.

Sadly there were some things that happened in 1948 that still occur today. There were a number of incidents where innocent black men were killed by white mobs and gangs in southern states. These murders were often taken to suppress black voting turnout in the South. Despite overwhelming prosecution evidence presented at the trials of the of the people responsible and charged for the crimes, white juries in those southern states would not render guilty verdicts.

There are differences between the campaigns of 1948 and today. In 1948, both Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey refused to engage in character assassination and both treated their respective opponent with relative respect. When the votes were counted, Dewey respectfully conceded the election and wished Truman well. We certainly have not seen that courtesy exhibited today. In addition, the incumbent, President Truman engaged in a whistle-stop tour sharing his plans on foreign and domestic affairs. His speeches were disciplined. Truman addressed voters concerns, he did not engage in vitriolic language and focused on policies, not personality.

Evil Geniuses: the Unmaking of America : A Recent History by Kurt Andersen

This is a very sobering but not surprising story. The “evil geniuses” in this story include Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, Milton Friedman, Lewis Powell, John H. Sununu, Mitch McConnell, Grover Norquist, Robert Bork and others. The Democrats own a lot of the blame too. Their Congress representatives were lobbied to support various deregulation efforts and tax cut packages. And now many Americans reap what has been sowed and plotted by the economic right.

The rich have gotten richer and the middle and lower classes have struggled the past 40 years. Listed below are some notes from my reading of the book:

In 1980, income above $700,000 (in today’s dollars) was taxed at 70% by the federal government, but today the top rate is 37%. And the richest Americans, who back in the day paid an average of 51% in federal, state and local taxes combined, now pay just 33%.

The richest 0.01% of Americans, the one in 10,000 families worth an average of $500 million, pay in effect federal income tax rate half what it was in the 1970s.

Before 1980, all Americans’ incomes grew at the same basic rate as the overall economy. Since 1980, the only people whose incomes have increased at that rate are people with household incomes in the range today of $180,000 to $450,000. People with incomes higher than that, the top 1%, have gotten increases much bigger than the overall economic growth. Meanwhile 90% of Americans have done worse than the economy overall.

The average monthly Social Security retirement benefit more than tripled from 1950 to 1980, adjusted for inflation, but it has increased by just half in the four decades since.

“The greatest lie is that the 401(k) was capable of replacing the old system of pensions,” says the regretful man who was president of the American Society of Pension actuaries at the time and who had given his strong endorsement to 401(k)s. Today only one in eight private sector employees are in line to get such a pension, and most American workers don’t even have a 401(k) or an IRA or any other retirement account.

Only a quarter of people graduating from four-year public colleges and universities in the early 1990s had student loan debt; by 2010, 2/3 did.

The United States economy since 1980 has grown as much as or more than those of most of our rich country peers, although not all —-Sweden, for instance, has continuously grown faster than America for the last 30 years. But while the average US income and GDP per capita have risen as fast as or faster than incomes in your European economies, in exceptional America the more real life relevant median income – – the amount of money going to the person who earns more than the poor half and less than the rich half has hardly budged for decades.

In every international ranking of healthcare quality, the United States is low, from 28th to 37th place. Until the 1980s too, life expectancies for people in all the rich countries were increasing right in line but now people in the other countries live 3 to 5 years longer on average than Americans. According to the health efficiency index compiled by Bloomberg News which combines longevity and healthcare spending into a single metric for almost every country, the United States is second from the bottom, better only than Bulgaria.

Book Review: Hoax by Brian Stelter

So there is a resistance movement within Fox News! Good to know! Today it was on display as many Fox “journalists” defended Jennifer Griffin after Trump wanted her fired after her sources revealed that certain allegations in the recent Atlantic article were confirmed by her sources. Trump accused our military dead, injured and POWs as being “losers.”

Fox Heroes: Carl Cameron, Shep Smith, Neil Cavuto, Chris Wallace and Brett Baier

Fox Zeroes: Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Jeanne Pirro, Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, Eric Bolling, Kimberly Guilfoyle

Listed below are some sections from the Stetler book to give one a taste of what it covered and was about:

The day after his on air powwow with Hannity, the president called the host with a question; “How did we do?” Hannity knew that the real meaning of the question was “How did we rate?” pg. 5

Hannity chose this life, so no one felt sorry for him, but the stress took its toll. “Hannity would tell you, off off off the record, that Trump is a bat shit crazy person,” one of his associates said. Another colleague concurred; “Hannity has said to me, more than once, “he’s crazy”. pg. 9

Most Americans knew that Trump was on trustworthy, but the Fox base still trusted him. They also trusted Hannity, who dismissed “coronavirus hysteria,” and Laura Ingraham, who called Democrats “the panDEMic party” and Watters , who said, “I’m not a bit afraid of the coronavirus and no one else should be that afraid either.” pg. 12

It’s worth stating the obvious here: Trump’s entanglement with Fox has no historical precedent. Never before has a TV network effectively produced the president’s intelligence briefing and staff the federal bureaucracy. Never before has a president promoted a single TV channel, ask the hosts for advice behind closed doors, and demanded for them to be fired when they stepped out of line. pg.22

Here’s what everyone should understand about Fox’s relationship with Trump, a former Fox and Friends producer said: “People think he’s calling up Fox and Friends and telling us what to say. Hell no. It’s the opposite. We tell him what to say.” pg.43

What works (at Fox): 

  • Stories about undocumented immigrants killing Americans
  • Stories about citizens standing up to the government bureaucracy 
  • Stories about college students disrespecting the flag 
  • Stories about hate crime hoaxes 
  • Stories about liberal media outlets suppressing the truth 
  • And whenever possible stories involving attractive women pg.50

Sex is what Ailes (Roger) wanted, and sex is what he got. He used his power to enforce the short skirts and “leg cams” and exploitive segments that kept men watching. He also abused his power by preying on dozens of women, including Gretchen Carlson, who hatched a plan to hold him accountable. Ailes downfall would coincide with Trump’s takeover of the American right. (pg.51)

(Kimberly) Guilfoyle’s cheerleading for Ailes confused some staffers, since Ailes was known to be dismissive of her in private. According to unsubstantiated allegations in a lawsuit filed by former Fox co host Julie Roginsky, Ailes once said to her that Guilfoyle would “get on her knees for anyone.” pg. 67

In private, during the 2016 primaries, (Carl) Cameron likened Trump to a con man and reminded people of all Trump’s documented fraudulent activity. He pointed out that Fox was owned by Murdoch, a phenomenally successful businessman who built a global media empire, while Trump merely sold his name to other people’s projects. pg.123

Rounding out the five was a “hot chick,” and in Ailes’ words — – two actually, Kimberly Guilfoyle and Andrea Tantaros, who took turns sitting at the end of the table so the wide shot shot showed off their legs. That was the “leg chair.” pg. 139

(Ailes) always wanted a certain southern beauty queen look from the women on his channel. Sometimes (Suzanne) Scott would convey his messages directly, by telling new hires to “let hair and make up do their job.” She wanted more glam, longer eyelash extensions, shorter skirts, bronzer legs. Some of the Fox make up artists called it the “Barbie doll look.” pg. 143

Poll after poll showed that Fox viewers were less concerned about the virus than average consumers of other news sources, strongly suggesting a linkage between the networks’ commentary and the audience’s beliefs. The Knight foundation and Gallup found that 57% of respondents with a “conservative news diet” believe that the new virus was less deadly than or as deadly as the flu. pg. 306

Book Review: The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton

I finished The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir by John Bolton. Bolton was Trump’s former National Security Advisor for about 18 months. Out of all the Trump related books written by authors who used to work with Trump that I have read, this appears to be the most detailed and documented. Since there has been no real pushbacks about the events described in the book, I assume that Bolton’s story is credible. Like many other of his appointees, Trump soured on Bolton but Bolton resigned first before Trump could fire him by Tweet.

It is a long book (494 pages) and drags at times. (If you are not into Presidential history, foreign affairs or the Trump presidency, you may want to skip this book and just watch Bolton’s various interviews on Youtube.)

Here are my six takeaways from reading the book:

1. Trump is incompetent. He runs his administration like he ran The Apprentice. He is disorganized, uninformed (doesn’t read or listens to intelligence reports), indecisive, easily manipulated and shows little respect or confidence in the opinions and expertise of those individuals who work for him. Hence the extremely high turnover in White House staff and cabinet officials.

2. Bolton devotes chapters to events and policies related to China, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran. Trump has managed to mishandle them all, particularly North Korea where Trump was schooled by Kim Jong Un.

3. Trump had a foreign affairs team that included Bolton, Mike Pompeo, General James Mattis, Jared Kushner, Nikki Haley, H.R. McMaster and General John Kelly. The Marx Brothers defending Freedonia  were more effective than Trump and his appointees in promoting our national defense and interests.

4. Trump does not have a dog in the White House. He does not need one—-he has Vice President Pence. Bolton claims that Trump has sole control over what Pence does or says. Trump has a touch leach on any ambitions that Pence may have. There are no examples of Pence trying to mitigate Trump’s influence or fix the various dysfunctions among various departments and cabinet members. Bolton alluded to the rumor that Haley could replace Pence on the GOP ticket.

5. Trump treats our allies (Britain, France, Canada, Japan, Germany, South Korea etc) with contempt while trying to cozy up to our enemies (Russia, North Korea and China.) Bolton claims that Trump asked for China’s help in his reelection campaign.

6. I have very little respect for John Bolton. My lack of respect also extends to most of Trump’s cabinet and appointees and to most of the Republican party. They all understand that Trump should have been removed as president and they have kept quiet about this. Now that the Trump presidency is ending, many former Trump supporters are bailing out so that history does not judge them as harshly as they deserve.

I have provided some notes and highlights from the book to provide a flavor of what Bolton was trying to communicate about Trump and how Trump mishandled foreign affairs:

Charles Krauthammer, a sharp critic of his, told me he had been wrong earlier to characterize Trump’s behavior as that of a 11-year-old boy. “I was off by 10 years,” Krauthammer, remarked. “He’s like a one-year-old.’ page 8

The White House announced Trump would make a major Iran address on October 12, so I (Bolton) decided to stop being shy, phoning Westerhout to ask for a meeting. By then, Tillerson had reportedly call Trump “a fucking moron,” which he refused to deny flatly. page 25

For a US president to grant Kim a summit with no sign whatever of a strategic decision to renounce nuclear weapons – – in fact, giving it away for nothing – – was a propaganda gift beyond measure. page 33

I met with Trump and Pence at 1:30 in the small dining room down the short hall from the oval. Trump spent a lot of time in his dining room, with a white screen television on the wall opposite his chair, usually turn to Fox news. page 53

Of course, Trump didn’t help by not being clear about what he wanted, jumping randomly from one question to another, and generally frustrating efforts to have a coherent discussion about the consequences of making one choice rather than another.” page 56

Although the first Abe (Japan’s prime minister)— Trump meeting was on political matters, our briefing room was filled with trade policy types who, having heard there was a briefing, wandered in. Trump was late so I said we would have a brief discussion on trade and then get to North Korea. It was a mistake. Trump, set off about a comment that we had no better ally than Japan, jarringly complained about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Things went downhill from there.  pages 61 to 62

I joined one of the intelligence briefings Trump hat every week from the director of National Intelligence Coats, CIA director Haspel, and briefers who accompanied them. I don’t think these briefings were terribly useful, and neither did the intelligence committee, since most of the time was spent listening to Trump, rather than Trump listening to the briefers. I made several tries to improve the transmission of intelligence to Trump but failed repeatedly. page 89

Is it Finland kind of a satellite of Russia?” He (Trump) asked later that same morning if Finland was part of Russia. I tried to explain the history but didn’t get very far … page 128

He (Trump) then turned to his visits to Walter Reed, where the wounded soldiers had not the impact on Trump they’ve had on most people, impressing them with their bravery and commitment to their mission. Trump has simply been horrified by the seriousness of their wounds (oblivious also that advances in military medicine saved many men who simply would’ve died in earlier wars). page 219

As it was, Trump generally had only two intelligence briefings per week, and in most of those, he spoke at greater length than the briefers, often on matters completely unrelated to the subject at hand. page 224

I opened the door to ask where Kelly (Chief of Staff) was but no one knew. I went to the hallway; saw him speaking to someone; pulled him into the Roosevelt Room, which was empty; and shut the door. This was our second emotional conversation, even more intense than the first. “I’ve commanded men in combat,” he said “and I’ve never had to put up with shit like that,” referring to what just happened in the Oval. I could see his resignation coming, so I asked, “But what is the alternative if you resign?” Kelly said, “What if we had a real crisis like 9/11 with the way he makes decisions? page 232

Trump said approvingly (to Chinese President Jinping Xi) that there was great hostility among the Democrats. He then stunningly turned the conversation to the upcoming US presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. page 310

Flying to Washington, I concluded that Hanoi (location where Trump and Un met) showed the US still didn’t know how to deal with North Korea and its ilk. We spent endless hours negotiating with ourselves, whittling away at our own position before our adversaries even got to it… page 33

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