Two Days of Infamy: One Act of Leadership

Two days of infamy. The first we commemorate on its 80th anniversary today, the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. The second day of infamy, 1/6/2021 was when our democracy was attacked in plain sight by a crazed and violent mob at the U.S. Capitol provoked by incendiary speeches by a desperate and defeated President and his delusional sycophants.

The Pearl Harbor attack was met with a declaration of war by the President and Congress. A nation became united in its determination to win a war and defend its democracy. Men signed up for the military, women took over jobs in industry and manufacturing to help in the war effort. Americans sacrificed so that needed resources and materials would go to our military. Maybe more importantly, we had a leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had prepared the country for war. Roosevelt covertly aided England to help in their national survival. During an election year (1940), FDR reinstituted the draft knowing it could hurt his re-election chances. He placed the interests of the country before his personal interests.

pictures of FDR by Harry Podlinski

The Capitol attack was met by indifference and denials by the Republican party, even though its Vice President was a target by the mob. Instead of a united country, there was significant support for the insurrection. In 1941, Congress united and declared war. In 2021, many Congressional members ran from their responsibility with the same alacrity as they ran from the mob. Some members of Congress who aided the mob are still in office. Instead of action, a Congressional “commission” was created to investigate what clearly happened that day and who was clearly responsible for incitement and violence.

History calls Americans alive during the 1940s as the “Greatest Generation.” What will history call the Americans living in the past five years based on our political discord and antipathy to science and reason? One generation dedicated to saving democracy; one ready to abandon it.

Note: Photo taken of FDR was by Harry Podlinski, my father-in law and amateur photographer.

Review: Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

Authors Bob Woodward and Robert Costa closed this book with the following warning based on a conversation with Donald Trump.

“Real power is – – I don’t even want to use the word – – fear,” Trump told us.

“I bring the rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have. I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do.”

Could Trump work his will again? Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power?

Peril remains.

I have read a number of the retrospectives of the Trump presidency particularly as it relates to his last year and last days in office. There is nothing in this book that presents Trump in a positive light. There are plenty of examples of him being a bully, arrogant, insensitive and just plain stupid. Despite entreaties from many in his cabinet, among advisers and even from his daughter Ivanka, Trump continued to believe that he was cheated in the 2020 presidential election. There is very little doubt that he caused the insurrection on January 6, 2021.

Most of the highlights of this book have been reported through various media. Here is my list of observations and analysis from this book:

Mike Pence was a coward. Yes he finally did the right thing by validating the election. But it appears to the reader that he was looking for a way to accommodate Donald Trump’s wishes to overturn the election results. Pence even sought the advice of that well-known constitutional scholar, Dan Quayle, as to what to do. Quayle thankfully told Pence that he had no role in overturning the election. Even after a Trump mob wanted to hang him, Pence returned to the White House and tried to mend a relationship with a man who mocked him and treated him very poorly during their four year administration.

General Mark Milley was a voice of reason during a very precarious period in our nation’s history. He understood the danger that Donald Trump represented and was very concerned that Trump would create either a war or some type of foreign policy crisis so he could stay in office. In particular Milley assured the Chinese that there would be no military actions against them. There were a few countries that were very concerned that Trump would initiate a military attack against them.

The benefit of this book was to see the campaign of Joe Biden and his first few months as President. The contrast in decency between Biden and Trump is very evident throughout the many anecdotes in this book. Unfortunately the Democratic party does not shine. Too much infighting. Lack of party discipline and unity. Too much influence by West Virginia senator Joe Manchin. One gets the sense that Biden is a placeholder and does not possess the necessary influence to put forward a transformative domestic agenda and get it passed in Congress.

Interestingly enough, there is not a lot of coverage about Vice President Kamala Harris. Biden had spoken with South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn prior to the South Carolina primary and Biden indicated he was favorable to Kamala being on the national ticket. There is little indication how much influence Harris possesses in decision making or policy.

If you are going to read just one book about the end of the Trump presidency in 2021, this book is the best to read. Just don’t be surprised if Woodward has to write another sequel in 2024 about the re-election of Trump.

Book Review: Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency by Michael Wolff

There are so many tragedies described within this book. First, Donald Trump’s obsession with perceived fraud in the 2020 presidential election. It absolutely consumed him. Despite entreaties from some responsible Republicans, Trump continued to pursue crackpot theories and schemes that the election was stolen. His “legal team” filed hundreds of suits but no court, including the Supreme Court would listen to their case. Second, the complete fall of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Once the hero of 9/11, he was described in this book as a drunk and a flatulent, senile old man, spinning wild conspiracy theories and urging Trump to just announce that he won the election. The third major tragedy was that approximately 74 million people voted for Donald Trump. And a significant majority of them also believed that Trump was the legitimate winner of the election.

The book describes the bizarre behaviors of Mike Lindell, Peter Navarro, Mike Flynn and Sidney Powell along with other Trump enablers to encourage Trump to protest the election.

Wolff also recounts the events of January 6, 2021 when at the urging of Donald Trump, his supporters invaded The Capitol. What will future generations think of us that such a horrific event could happen?

There are a number of unflattering portraits and descriptions of people within the Trump White House. Very few heroes exist as no one was able to curb the actions and plans of Donald Trump.

If you are not a supporter of President Trump, nothing in this book will surprise you. What may surprise you is how much worse things really were during his administration. Wolff also includes a chapter on his interview with Trump after the election. Unsurprisingly Trump is not apologetic or remorseful in what he put this nation through, especially in the last year of his Presidency.

Book Review: I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker

Anyone interested in reading this book should first understand that this is not a pro – Trump book. There are very few instances where Donald Trump is shown in a positive light or where he is shown competent in his job. This is not because of the prejudice of the authors but based on the actual reporting and eyewitness accounts during the last year of the Trump presidency. If you keep up with the news or have not been in a coma the past four years, there is not a lot in this book that will surprise you. If I gathered anything new it was that things were a lot worse than even I imagined.

This book primarily focuses on three major events/issues in Trump’s last year: handling (or mishandling) the coronavirus, the 2020 presidential election and post-election claims of fraud by Trump resulting in the January 6, 2021 invasion of The Capitol by his supporters.

What I was looking for were examples of competence and courage by people within the Trump administration. There were a few including General Mark Milley, who was very concerned about a possible coup and how Trump viewed the military as a weapon that he could use. Despite incredible abuse and intimidation by the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci continued to tell the truth about COVID-19. On occasion, even Attorney General Bill Barr showed some back bone when pressed by Trump to initiate some bogus investigations against Trump enemies.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was fired by Trump primarily due to his opposition to Trump’s plan to use the military against demonstrations from the George Floyd killing. Trump wanted to employ the Insurrection Act of 1807 as a means of curbing demonstrations.

Regrettably Trump had a lot of enablers.  Rudy Giuliani, Mike Flynn, and Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff was a faithful soldier to until the end of his Presidency. Mike Pence does not read well in this book. He blindly supported Trump throughout the four years. And though Pence did the right thing in certifying the electoral vote, it seems that he was looking for a way to blocking it. Pence comes off as a toady.

The authors appeared to make every attempt to keep this story as authentic and factual as possible. They also conducted a several hour interview with Trump after he left office.

A very revealing book though there are about 74 million people in the U.S. who might disagree.

Greatest U.S. Presidents Survey

C-Span conducted a Presidential Historians Survey 2021. They judged Presidents based on the following criteria: 1. Public Persuasion, 2. Crisis Leadership, 3. Economic Management, 4. Moral Authority, 5. International Relations, 6. Administrative Skills, 7. Relations with Congress, 8. Vision, 9. Pursued Equal Justice for All, and 10. Performance within Context of Times.

My list is a small re-shuffling of the list. I am a huge admirer of FDR who pulled the U.S. from a depression, a world war and initiated a variety of badly needed social programs. My recent readings of books regarding the Truman presidency has moved him up from my previous lists.

Donald Trump is listed in the bottom four of the survey only ahead of James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Franklin Pierce. On my list, he would be our worst President just based on his actions of 1/6/2021.

C-span Presidential HistoriansEric Amateur Historian
1. Abraham Lincoln1. Abraham Lincoln
2. George Washington2. Franklin D. Roosevelt
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt3. George Washington
4. Theodore Roosevelt4. Harry Truman
5. Dwight Eisenhower5. Thomas Jefferson
6. Harry Truman6. Theodore Roosevelt
7. Thomas Jefferson7. John F. Kennedy
8. John F. Kennedy8. Barack Obama
9. Ronald Reagan9. Dwight Eisenhower
10. Barack Obama10. Ronald Reagan

Recommended Reading

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself and Win by Maria Konnikova (With help, a plan and a lot of preparation, a woman writer learns to play professional poker and beats the pros. Excellent psychological insights on mastering poker and life.True story!)

Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman (I really enjoy Pearlman’s sports books and this one is really good with a lot of interesting inside stories. You don’t have to be a Lakers fan to enjoy this book about a dysfunctional group of players and egos who manage to win world titles.)

Gods at Play: An Eyewitness Account of Great Moments in American Sports by Tom Callahan (Reporter’s memoir of covering great athletes like Muhammed Ali, Pete Rose, Oscar Robertson, Roberto Clemente, Arthur Ashe and others. His story about Bob Cousy and how Cousy took care of his sick wife was very moving.)

The Presidents vs. the Press: The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media by Harold Holzer ( a very long book with interesting anecdotes of Presidents vs. the Press going back to Washington; chapter on Trump is very interesting):

Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neuman and WeWork by Reeves Wiedeman (business book that reads like a novel)

Epitaph by Maria Doris Russell (Historical novel about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Tombstone. Great read!)

The Quiet American: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson (A Book Review and Introspection)

“In this, the United States really had no one to blame but herself. By the autumn of 1956, she had shown her preference for a dictatorship over democracy in Iran and Guatemala. She had so thoroughly shred her anti-colonial stance of the Roosevelt years as to aid her European imperial allies in quelling independence movements around the world. Under the leadership of the Dulles Brothers, the United States had compiled the hit list of foreign leaders to be removed, by assassinations if necessary. 

Most shameful of all, in the tumult of the autumn of 1956, America may have lost the best chance it ever had to bring the Cold War to an early close, and to avert all the tragedy that was to come.”

The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—-A Tragedy in Three Acts (page 431)

I am used to having my assumptions and preconceptions confirmed when I read a history related book. Sure there may be some minor surprises and some gaps of knowledge filled but when I close most books, there are no major changes in how I feel, especially about our country. Not so with this book…

This book impacted my current thinking about American exceptionalism and honor or lack of as the Pentagon Papers changed my thinking about the Vietnam War and the U.S government when I was in my 20s.

I have always looked at World War II and its aftermath as possibly our greatest hours, based on my knowledge of history. “The Greatest Generation” won a war fought on two fronts and after it was over, helped not only our allies but our vanquished in rebuilding their countries. The United States was respected not only for our military might but also what we stood for, freedom, liberty and democracy.

However as I read Scott Anderson’s well researched and well written book, I realized that much of my thinking was illusion about American history between 1945-1960. 

The events within the book post-World War II were viewed by four different men involved in the U.S. intelligence community. They had different backgrounds, personalities, missions and roles but shared disillusionment with many of our foreign intelligence and policy efforts including: 

  • No or little resistance by the U.S. and Britain to Russia’s ruthless takeovers of Eastern European countries including Romania, Poland and Albania. (Churchill negotiated a secret deal with Stalin to precipitate this.)
  • Intelligence fails by General Douglas McArthur (Philippines invasion by Japanese,; North Korea invasion of South Korea; Chinese troops cross border to fight in Korean War)
  • In house political fighting by J. Edgar Hoover and others to control collection of foreign intelligence. Damage created by Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade to morale and recruitment within U.S. intelligence services.
  • Failure by U.S. and Britain to identify Kim Philby and others as Russian spies. Russia was aware of our atomic weapon secrets and espionage plans.
  • Various failures at insurgency within Russian satellite countries that were anticipated by the Russian KGB resulting in failed missions and tortured and killed agents.
  • President Eisenhower’s refusal to provide any aid or support to Hungary and Poland in 1956 when revolts broke out in both countries. His refusal to do anything resulted in the revolts being crushed by Russia (who were ready to agree to pull their troops from the satellite countries), with thousands killed and imprisoned.
  • Successful violent overthrows initiated by U.S. intelligence over democratic elected governments in Iran and Guatemela. Ramifications over these events still felt today.
  • Intelligence and strategic planning failures (including assassination of South Vietnam President) in Vietnam that precipitated our military involvement there resulting in tumult and riots within the United States after tens of thousands of American soldiers injured or killed.

Just as we are experiencing in our govenment today, there was a lack of leadership, moral cowardice, unbridled ambition, poor judgment and incompetency during the 40s and 50s. Many of the failures committed in foreign affairs then are repeated today. We started a war over “missing weapons of destruction” that were never found but which the Bush administration said existed.

I recommend the book to all no matter your political affiliation or ideology. Very well researched and written.

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.

Observations on a Hot, Steamy Sunday

My fear is that the next presidential election will not be determined by ballots but by bullets; not at the polls but on the streets.

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Axios: “80% of Americans say we are headed in the wrong direction.” I say that we have already arrived.

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The United States has rested on its laurels since 1945. Other than the moon landings, what have we done in terms of significant accomplishment, national pride and purpose? How did we earn our sense of exceptionalism?

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The coronavirus is the King Kong of our time. Scientists can’t stop it. Governments are powerless. It rumbles through with little resistance. Kong and the coronavirus did meet their match in New York City. Let’s call it a draw for now…

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I don’t write for an audience of today. I write for a reader or student 20-50 years in the future so they may understand our current times, tone and culture. My sense is that they will be in disbelief in how poorly we conducted our politics, economy and health.

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On Sundays, people used to buy the paper to read the “funnies.” Here’s what I read from the NewYork Times and Washington Post on Sunday and they are not funny.

America 2-27-20