A Thriller Reading List for the Trump Administration

Mar-a-LagoDear New Trump Administration Members, Friends and Hangers-on:

I propose an easy, entertaining way to enhance your understanding of how the world of secrets actually works. Read (or watch) a few of the many highly regarded thrillers for key lessons. They may spare you more of the embarrassments of the past few weeks.

Trust no one.
The initial reaction of ousted Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to the possibility he’d engaged with Russian spies—“It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian Intelligence officer’”—was LOL funny to thriller fans. When you’re dealing with a power whose aims differ from yours, anyone may be a spy. To get his paranoia up, Manafort shoulda read:
The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry
The Increment by David Ignatius
John le Carré’s “Smiley” novels, newly relevant

There are no secrets.
If Manafort caused chuckles and head-shaking, the allegations against ousted National Security Agency Director Michael Flynn was jaw-dropping. Not because Flynn had premature conversations with Russians, not because he lied about them, but because he apparently didn’t know his conversations would be monitored, recorded, transcribed, and become fodder for a political debacle. Surely the head of the NSA would understand the reach of the nation’s security apparatus.

Leaving aside the debate about whether Snowden should have snagged our stuff, what about the content of his revelations? What does Flynn think NSA’s $1.5 billion data storage facility at Camp Williams, Utah, is for, anyway? He should have read—and maybe somebody over there still ought to:
No Place to Hide – Glenn Greenwald (non-fiction)

The terrace of a resort isn’t the best place to strategize about national security. (See above).
Technology’s ability to “listen” by supersensitive microphones and by monitoring phone traffic and to “see” via miniaturized cameras and screen captures of compromised electronics far exceeds what participants in that meeting apparently supposed. Do all the Mar-a-Lago wait and kitchen staff have security clearances? Do the members? Are tested for common sense? Apparently not, since a number of them recorded the confab. Worst was club member Richard DeAgazio, who posted a picture on Facebook of himself with “Rick,” the service member who carries the nuclear launch codes for the President—the “nuclear  football.” One hopes Rick, now identifiable by millions, has a safe new assignment.
Eye in the Sky – film by Gavin Hood
Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole

AND, WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, DEVELOP BETTER POLICIES, BECAUSE . . .

Climate change is real.
Dewy-fresh EPA director Scott Pruitt believes the debate about climate change is “far from settled.” While  recent heavy rains have alleviated most of California’s drought for now, the long-term trend persists. A fight over water in the U.S. Southwest is not inevitable, but its ugly consequences can be prevented only if the problem is squarely faced through regional strategies, which are what federal governments promote.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The War on Drugs is a loser.
This ill-conceived “war” has led to untold misery in Mexico and created a strong motive for illegal immigration. No wall will stop the drug flow. Fix this.
The Cartel, by Don Winslow
Down by the River, by Charles Bowden (non-fiction, not new, but harrowing. We’ve learned nothing.)

There, that should get the Washington newbies started. What would you have them read?

Lion

Lion, Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Another current movie that’s a fan favorite is Lion (trailer), well worth seeing for the heart-warming true story and excellent acting. Garth Davis directed and Luke Davies wrote the screenplay, based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way Home, and the movie was lovingly filmed in Kolkata and Tasmania by cinematographer Greig Fraser .

The story begins in 1986, when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother at a train station. He falls asleep on a decommissioned train and can’t get off for several days. Meanwhile, it has traveled far from his home, reaching the sprawling city of Kolkata. At the time, Kolkata had approximately 10 million residents, including thousands of orphans, and was full of dangers for a child—especially one from a rural area who could not speak the local Bengali. Some effort is made to help him find his family, but he doesn’t know enough. Eventually he’s adopted by an Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Only when Saroo is a young adult (Dev Patel) does the technology come along—Google Earth—that may be able to help him find home. The search becomes a secret obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and the parents who raised him. It’s worth the price of admission to see the happy-go-lucky Patel’s moment of overwhelming loss that starts this quest, triggered by the sight of the red jalebis he wanted as a child. With his hair grown out and shaggy, he even starts to look like a lion.

The story is rather straightforwardly about love, but what could have been overly sentimental is brought to a higher plane by virtue of the solid acting performances. Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo is a marvel!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 93%.

Sunny Pawar, Barack Obama

Sunny Pawar meets Barack Obama

Solace in True Crime?

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteEditors of The Guardian gave a topping headline to a Rafia Zakaria story about the attractions of the true crime genre: “Reading a genre where the worst has already happened is an odd comfort.” There’s truth in that. A few years ago, I was struck low by life circumstances and in a rare (for me) state of malaise sat down in front of the television in the middle of a Saturday afternoon to watch The Pianist. Oddly, when the end credits rolled, I felt better. When I told my daughter about this, she said, “Ah. A movie about someone with real problems.” Exactly.

Zakaria suggests true crime as a corrective, even for political angst. “No other genre is a more apt testament that our evil, primal, fearful selves linger just beneath our calm, civilised exteriors, that life goes on even after the worst has happened, and that all catastrophe, central or marginal, has to be understood and confronted before a future becomes possible.”

In our household we’re stuck back at the first stage: probing the calm, civilized exteriors, looking beneath Victorian London with our six books on Jack the Ripper—each with its earnestly promoted theory of the villain’s identity—our five books about the Lizzie Borden case, six about the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and more.

The distance afforded by time provides a bit of psychological insulation, and weighting the theories about these “unsolved” or “unresolved” cases have enlivened many a dinnertime conversation. Perhaps if you visited Cleveland, you went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even a ballgame at Progressive Field. Not likely you made a pilgrimage to the 1954 home of Dr. Sam Sheppard and his soon-to-be-late wife, Marilyn (LMGTFY). We did.

If in these trying times, you want to test the true crime palliative, Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood still sets the standard. (Both the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones movie versions are riveting as well.)

Here are four more excellent possibilities:

Ireland’s Easter Rising Reconsidered

Easter Rising

The dying Cú Chulainn, photo: wikimedia

2016 marked the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising, when Irish Republicans staged an armed insurrection aimed at achieving independence from Britain and establishing a separate Irish Republic. At the same time, many Irish citizens were fighting in World War I.

For that anniversary, two Boston College professors—novelist and philosopher Richard Kearney and artist Sheila Gallagher—created a performance in images, music, and words to expand the perception of those events. Called “Twinsome Minds: Recovering 1916 in Images and Stories,” they presented it last week at Princeton University, their 16th performance, I believe.

What did I think? I liked all the pieces—images, music, words—but was the whole more than the sum of the parts? Did the underlying conceit work? The idea for “Twinsome Minds” comes from a line in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. “Irish imagination is at its best, said Joyce, when moving between two ‘twinsome’ minds—that is, when it has ‘two thinks at a time’ opening onto a third,” Kearney said. In that it was partially successful.

I most liked the stories, and found the images alternately beautiful and distracting. Clipping headlines wanted to be read. Abstract images wanted to be interpreted. Art made on-the-spot wanted to draw attention to technique. Many of Gallagher’s images featured a raven, which sits of the shoulder of the dying Cú Chulainn, in the memorial to the Easter Rising.

The double meaning of twinning was that, as in any civil war brothers, cousins, friends, schoolmates, neighbors for various reasons found themselves on opposite sides. While some thought rebellion was the only way to achieve an independent Ireland, others though enlisting in the Royal Irish Fusiliers and fighting for the British in France better supported that goal. While 500 lives were lost in the six days of the Rising (more than half of them civilians), 3,500 Irishmen were killed in the battle of the Somme in one day.

Gallagher showed photos of Ireland’s men and women on opposite sides in this conflict. Poet Francis Ledwidge from County Meath, who died in France, suggested the depth of the divide—and perhaps a sprinkle of contempt—between partisans on the two sides: “I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.”

You can see the whole thing (75 minutes) on YouTube and see for yourself.

The Witness

apartment-building

photo: La Citta Vita, creative commons license

12/7 Update: The Witness is on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary!

On a March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in the vestibule of her Kew Gardens, Queens, apartment building as 38 witnesses did nothing, according to an unforgettable story in the New York Times, which described how she was allegedly stalked and stabbed three times in the span of a half-hour.

While spurring needed improvements in emergency response and community watchdog efforts, the horror of her death became imprinted in the public’s minds and in sociological texts as examples of urban dwellers’ indifference to others.

The Witness, a film released this year and now showing on Netflix, is an exhaustive examination of these events, resulting from a decade-long crusade to learn the truth about Genovese’s death. First-time documentarian James Solomon follows Kitty’s brother Bill as he traces the threads of the story, a story even some family members wish he could put behind him.

As Stephanie Merry wrote in Washington Post review, everyone got the story wrong, and they got Kitty wrong: “People don’t remember the vivacious bar manager, the prankster, the beloved big sister. They remember a victim.” Bill was especially close to his sister and loved her joyful, playful spirit. That is what he wanted to honor and remember in his quest to learn the truth.

“There were a lot of things we discovered,” he said in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon last spring. “During the course of 11 years, there were a lot of stones we overturned. But basically the most fundamental thing was that the 38 eyewitness story and three attacks was not true.”

Many of the so-called witnesses did hear something—desperate screams for help that roused people out of sound sleep—and many did do something. A neighbor who knew Kitty well ran down to the narrow lobby vestibule, now knowing whether the assailant was still in the area, and cradled Kitty as she was dying.

Even the convicted murderer, Winston Moseley (he died in prison while serving a life sentence), had his own version of what happened that night. In a letter to Bill, he claimed that he did not kill Kitty, but was the getaway driver for an underworld figure.

The nature of truth—and what we choose to believe—and the fuzziness of memory are key themes in the film that echo coverage in more recent stories about iconic victims such as Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.

The film shows Bill doggedly pursuing leads, reading trial transcripts, checking what people might have seen from their windows, and tracking down surviving witnesses and their families like a latter-day Lieutenant Columbo. He enlists a woman to re-enact the crime using what witnesses said they heard that night. The effect is chilling. And Bill sits weeping.

In a Merry’s review, filmmaker Solomon said, “For whatever reason I am drawn to these iconic stories we think we know.” (Previously, he wrote the screenplay for “The Conspirator,” about Mary Surratt, who aided John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.)

Editor’s note: The mischaracterization of Kitty Genovese’s death was possible, in part, because relatively few Americans have witnessed murder. We think we know how we would respond, but . . .? Today, social media makes many more of us “witnesses” to violence and provides a whole new range of responses (see this riveting WIRED account of social media around last summer’s police-involved shootings). The availability of real-time “evidence” on screens in front of us, even acknowledging that distortions may occur, should mean it won’t take 52 years for the true circumstances of these deaths to be understood.

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings, celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.

Loving

loving, Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton

Ruth Negga & Joel Edgerton in Loving

The landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which ended state bans on interracial marriage is brought to life here, lovingly, (trailer). This fine film is from writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose script has been called subtle and “scrupulously intelligent.”

Hard though it may be to believe that miscegenation laws persisted more than a century after the Civil War, at the time the case was decided, 16 Southern states had such laws. Virginia’s law put Richard Loving and his wife, Mildred Jeter Loving—and their three children—at serious risk.

Richard and Mildred marry in Washington, D.C., knowing Virginia authorities would give them problems, and when they return home and are caught, their attorney advises them to plead guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” They are given a suspended sentence contingent on a promise to leave Virginia and not return (together) for at least 25 years. If they are found together in the state, they’ll go to prison. The judge’s sentence effectively turns them into exiles in their own country.

Life in the District of Columbia is not easy or pleasant for two rural people. It is too crowded, too loud, too fast, and too dangerous for their children. But the Civil Rights movement is happening around them, and a letter Mildred writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy ends up in the hands of the American Civil Liberties Union, which takes on their case pro bono.

The decisions the Lovings make and why they make them are the meat of the movie. And while they don’t necessarily understand the machinations of the law and the courts or the strategies of their lawyers, their quiet courage is clear. As critic Mal Vincent wrote in the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, “In the end, when you think about the film’s ‘message,’ it is a very simple one. With so much hate in the world, should we suppress any effort to express love?”

With a strong supporting cast, Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred do a standout job in low-key, tender performances that never stray into sentimentality. Late in the day, Richard is asked whether there’s anything he wants to say to the Supreme Court Justices. He gives his lawyer a how can I make this any plainer? glance and says, “Yeah. Tell the judge I love my wife.” That’s all the Court—and the Virginia legislature, and the county sheriff, and anyone else—should need to know.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 90%; audiences, 79%

Cincinnati: Politics and Porker

flying-pig, Cincinnati

photo labeled for reuse: ArtWorks Cincinnati

From before the Civil War to the career of John Boehner, southwest Ohio has been steeped in politics. So maybe it should come as no surprise that later this week the president-elect is launching his “thank you” tour in Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, the city’s renown as the pig processing capital of the country earned it the sobriquet “porkopolis,” as a Cincy native recently reminded me. In the early 1800s, herds of pigs trammeled the streets. No more, we were glad to learn when we visited the sites below, though an ArtWorks project means you encounter gaily painted flying pigs all around town.

Politics and pork, together forever. Or was that politics and poker?

Harriet Beecher Stowe House

Stowe’s dramatic 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sold more than 1.5 million copies its first year and has been translated into some 75 languages. Historians credit her depiction of the horrors of slavery and the desperation of runaway slaves as energizing the U.S. anti-slavery movement. She based the book on her own experiences. She’d seen slaves in nearby Kentucky and the repugnant activities of slave-hunters in Ohio (a free state) after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and she could convey the profound sense of loss her characters experienced, based on her own grief after the death of her son Charlie. She lived in this house as a young woman, and the Ohio History Connection has added displays about Cincinnati at the time, including one on the whole porkopolis thing.

William Henry Harrison Tomb and Monument

A few miles west of downtown, along a winding Ohio River drive to North Bend, you’ll find the tomb and monument to ninth U.S. President William Henry Harrison (“Old Tippecanoe”). He’d already had a lengthy military and political career before becoming president at age 68, only to die after a month in office. He was pro-slavery and negotiated numerous extortionate treaties with the Indians that resulted in the loss of their lands. Although he came from a wealthy Virginia family, he pioneered modern campaign techniques, representing himself as a humble “man of the people.” This timely quote from President Harrison’s Inaugural Address is carved on one of the memorial’s stones:

“As long as the love of power is a dominant passion of the human bosom, and as long as the understandings of men can be warped and their affections changed by operations upon their passions and prejudices, so long will the liberties of a people depend on their own constant attention to its preservation.”

William Howard Taft House

william-howard-taft

Anders Zorn, Portrait of William Howard Taft, 1911

Taft was the nation’s 27th President and 10th Chief Justice, his favorite job. He lived in this house as a child and young adult. A Republican, he served as Governor of the Philippines and Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Vice-President, and right-hand man. (When Roosevelt sent feisty daughter Alice to Asia with a delegation headed by Taft, one of the chief inducements for her was the opportunity to hobnob with another famous Cincinnati politician in the group, her future husband Nicholas Longworth.)

Roosevelt was disappointed in Taft’s presidency, though, and ran against his re-election in 1912, splitting the Republican vote and assuring a victory for Woodrow Wilson. Taft was much happier as Chief Justice and worked almost daily, modernizing Supreme Court procedures and practices. The nicely maintained house and National Park Service’s visitor center provide an interesting glimpse into the impressive contributions of the entire Taft family to life in Cincinnati and the nation.

What To Read Between Stops

  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of course, the most popular book of the 19th Century! An American classic.
  • The Carnival Campaign: How the Rollicking 1840 Campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” Changed Presidential Elections Forever by Ronald G. Shafer

The Coup Against Public Opinion

constitutional_conventionBet you think this will be about politics. It is, but not how you think. The Framer’s Coup: The Making of the US Constitution is Michael J. Klarman’s book about the formation and adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Politicians who wave the Constitution about should perhaps read his book first. As he described in a recent lecture at the David Library of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers tore up what they were supposed to do in Philadelphia and rewrote our founding document quite differently than what the people expected.

Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor, believes the Constitution was a conservative response to the egalitarian impulses that produced the Revolutionary War. In the War, the founding fathers were frustrated at how slow the states were to provide support, deeming them “as obstructionist as the British.” And, they wanted government in the hands of “the right sort” of people—what today we would call “the elites.”

Contrary to what was expected, the framers of the Constitution produced a document that is more nationalizing, with certain explicit and implied powers reserved to the federal government, unlimited taxing and military authority, and the ability to regulate foreign and interstate commerce. It also has the ability to create laws “necessary and proper” to implement these provisions.

The federal government has a mechanism to enforce its supremacy, too, including the federal court system and rules that limit the powers of the states, forbidding them, for example, to print their own paper currency as they did in colonial times.

The Constitution’s anti-populist provisions include relatively long terms in office (for which we can be grateful; constant political campaigning sounds totally unbearable at the moment). Essentially, the men who framed the Constitution did not trust the people’s choice—“you might as well ask a blind man to pick a color,” they believed—and favored a system of indirect elections. Although members of the House of Representatives were to be elected directly, the number of these legislators was at first small, and they were elected from a state at large, not from specific districts, as now. This diluted an individual’s vote. Another of these anti-populist provisions was, of course, the Electoral College.

These friction points of more than 200 years ago are not irrelevant today. Texas governor Greg Abbott has agitated for a new Constitutional Convention aimed at restricting federal power. Article V of the Constitution allows for a new Constitutional Convention if two-thirds of state legislatures request it.

Klarman says, “there’s a reason there hasn’t been another one.” There are no rules in the Constitution about how such a body should proceed, making Article V “the black hole of constitutional law,” according to one legal scholar. Nor are their limits on what such a body can do, which means it could tear the whole thing up and start over, exactly as the Founding Fathers did.

****Foundation

bayeux-tapestryBy Peter Ackroyd, narrated by Clive Chafer – Is it anxiety about the future that’s propelling me to spend much time lately thinking about the past? I’ve pulled out the family genealogy to work on a new (updated and improved!) version. And I read award-winning British biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd’s 2013 Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors: The History of England Book 1. Several subsequent volumes are planned, four of which have been published..

Foundation takes you from England’s earliest pre-history and the building of Stonehenge, through its occupation by the Romans, the Norman Conquest, the revolt of the barons, and up to the reign of Henry VIII. That’s a lot of history to cover, and to cover it takes more than 18 hours (or almost 500 pages in the print edition).

If one thing is clear from those often difficult and violent early centuries, history doesn’t move forward in a straight line. It’s full of contingencies. There are setbacks, and unexpected jogs in the path. Yet, the habits and customs of the English people, the rights they accumulated, their preoccupations, and, especially, the development of the common law and a vigorous language are part of the patrimony of Americans today. In that sense, this volume is well-named.

Starting with William the Conqueror (1066), I already knew a bit about English monarchy (enough anyway to recite the succession of  kings and queens over the past millennium, an especially lively rendition after a g&t). What fascinated me about Ackroyd’s approach is not so much the parade of often-bloody regime changes, but his parallel descriptions of the lives of everyday people. What was life actually like for those masses we don’t see much of in a BBC costume drama? Makes you glad to live in the 21st century, I can tell you.

Scholars have quibbled with bits of Ackroyd’s research and speculations and lament the lack of footnotes, maps, and documentation—a problem irrelevant in the audio version—but can’t fault him for readability. Foundation isn’t written for them.

Chafer is a fine narrator, a little stiff, but his presentation matches well with his subject matter. This is another one of those books that I wish I’d read in paper and had a physical copy to flag and refer back to. Much in it is worth rereading and remembering. In an interview with Euan Ferguson in The Guardian, Ackroyd said, “what underlines that random happenstance (of history) are the deep continuities of national life that survive, uninfluenced by surface events.” One can hope.

****Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism

washington-star

The old Washington Star building; photo: wikimedia

By John Norris – You think women in journalism have a long way to go when you consider how being young, glamorous, blonde of hair and white of tooth seem to be hiring criteria, and when you learn how sexual harassment of them is more common than seems possible in 2016 (for organizations that make their living exposing secrets, after all). But then you read Mary McGrory’s compelling life story, written by John Norris—a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress—and realize the distance traveled is pretty far after all.

McGrory was from Boston, the first person in her Irish Catholic family to finish college, and she began her newspaper career at the bottom of a very tall ladder. She worked for a time in Boston, as an assistant to the Herald Traveler’s literary editor, but the quality of her writing propelled her to a position as assistant book critic at the Washington Star. The nation’s capital in 1947 was a boomtown, full of change, openness, mobility.

Six years later, Mary’s badgering of Star editor Newby Noyes led him to assign her to write a series of political profiles, and Mary began spending time with the men she’d be writing about for the next half-century, including new Senate minority leader Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The positive reception the profiles received garnered her a plum assignment: covering the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. From there she covered the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign of 1956, becoming one of the nation’s most respected reporters and colorful commentators on the political scene.

After the Washington Star folded in 1981, the Washington Post snatched her up. She wrote for that paper for twenty-two more years, though the Star was always her first love. She covered multiple Presidential campaigns, the Kennedy presidency was a miracle for Mary, pushing all her loyalty buttons—Boston, her faith, and her admiration of the family.

The fates of those brothers were intimately, personally felt. By contrast, she loathed Richard Nixon: “If he were a horse, I would not buy him.” Her name appeared on his infamous “enemies list.” Regarding the Gore-Bush campaign of 2000, she said the race was a “battle between the unlikeable and the unprepared.”

Although well known for her scorching prose, Mary’s life off the page is also fascinating. It seems she had one or more affairs with prominent politicians and journalists, and LBJ once propositioned her. She was a great party-goer and -giver. Her entire time in Washington, she regularly volunteered at St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home—a refuge for young unmarried women—and arranged with Ethel Kennedy for the children to have swimming parties at Hickory Hill, the Robert Kennedy family home in Virginia. She persuaded Hillary Clinton to visit at Christmas in 1995, the year journalist Tim Russert played Santa Claus. These children were the stand-ins for the children Mary, never married, didn’t have.

Indefatigable Mary McGrory, pioneer woman in journalism, astute and opinionated, winner of a Four Freedoms Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, mentor to women journalists, had a stroke at her desk in 2003 and her health—and worse, her powers of speech—never recovered. Her simple tombstone in Antrim, Mass., reads exactly the way she wanted it to:  name, dates, and the inscription “Newspaper Woman and Volunteer.”

“Baseball is what we were, and football is what we have become.”–Mary McGrory