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REVIEW: The Last of the President’s Men

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward

Last of the President’s Men is a short but revealing work by Bob Woodward, the prolific author on American presidents who returns full circle to the subject that made Woodward a celebrity journalist, Richard Nixon and Watergate. Specifically, Last of the President’s Men is about the relationship between Richard Nixon and Alexander Butterfield, the man who revealed to the world Nixon’s secret White House taping system which ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation under the sure threat of impeachment. Butterfield, who unsuccessfully attempted a book of his own, is virtually Woodward’s co-author here and it is Butterfield’s voluminous personal papers, carted out from his White House office against the rules and hidden away for decades, that serve as the evidentiary basis of this book.

Aside from the precise description of how the taping system came to be installed in the Oval Office, a task Nixon’s feared chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, delegated to Butterfield, the focus is on Butterfield’s role as a top aide to both Nixon and Haldeman, a post to which Butterfield ascended only with considerable difficulty after first navigating Richard Nixon’s neurotic quirks, becoming in essence, “Haldeman’s Haldeman”.  Butterfield does not come across as an entirely admirable character. Like Mark Felt who in turning informer during Watergate had acted out of frustrated ambition, Alexander Butterfield’s betrayal of Richard Nixon had less to do with safeguarding the Constitution from an out of control president than the reaction of an unappreciated servant who had noted every slight and had nursed his grievances.

What shines through in the story is how truly weird and brittle Nixon had become in dealing with other human beings by the time he had reached the presidency. It is very difficult to reconcile the Richard Nixon of The Last of the President’s Men who had paralyzing anxiety attacks over working with – or even meeting- new staff with the Nixon who wrangled with lawyers, FBI agents and fellow Congressmen in investigating Alger Hiss, who forcefully debated Nikita Khrushchev or who remained steady when his limousine was attacked by a Communist mob in Venezuela. Perhaps Nixon grew worse with age or perhaps as president, Nixon finally had the means to keep unwanted people – and that would be nearly everyone – at bay. The portrait painted by Woodward of Richard Nixon is of a desperately lonely, misanthropic figure, inept at and pained by normal social relations to such an extent that he kept even his wife and children at a strange remove.

NIXON

Yet Nixon had his gifts and even Woodward allows this, particularly his “strategic mind” which Woodward credits for Nixon managing to retain to this day, admirers. Nixon, for all his social awkwardness (which in sections is  downright painful to read and I speak as someone deeply versed in things Nixon) had a penetrating intelligence that let him understand the board and the players, the moves they might make and their strengths and weaknesses of which Nixon might take advantage. Had Richard Nixon not outsmarted himself with the taping system that Butterfield meticulously oversaw, he most likely would have prevailed in Watergate over his enemies and left office after two full terms. Nixon was far smarter than his critics gave him credit at the time and far more ruthlessly manipulative than his defenders are willing to concede to this day.

The Last of the President’s Men is fast read but an interesting one. Recommended.

Not Dubuque, Dabiq — DAH-biq

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — hopefully, we live and learn — plus a quiet, personal announcement ]
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Here’s Marco Rubio, from earlier in the month:

Apparently he said much the same last night, though I haven’t found the video.

I’m grateful to Will McCants for this clarification, too:

I’ve been guilty of the same mistake. And I still don’t know how often or egregiously I offend in mixing diffrerent methods of Romanizing Arabic in a single post.

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Okay, that’s the tiny but hopefully helpful point I wanted to make, and what follows is by way of a grace note.

Rubio’s comments last night seem to be good for book sales, too. For McCants:

and for Tim Furnish:

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Oh, and an announcement:

I now have a proposal making the rounds for a book exploring the nature of religious and specifically apocalyptic violence — across continents and centuries, in great religions and small sects — drawing on comparative religious, anthropological and depth psychological angles to provide context for a richer understanding of contemporary jihadism and the passion that drives it.

Trump, Barthes and Calvinball

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — not to mention Alasdair MacIntyre ]
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First, Calvinball:

all_games_turn_into_calvinball 2 panel 602

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If you’ve been following my stuff for a while, you’ll know I’m interested in situations where two teams or individuals are playing two different games. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it:

Not one game is being played, but several, and, if the game metaphor may be stretched further, the problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to by a lob over the net.

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Roland Barthes, the French philosopher, made a related observation:

This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time… The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.

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So what does this have to do with Donald Trump?

Just that one of the more interesting things I’ve read about Trump’s campaign is Judd Legum‘s This French Philosopher Is The Only One Who Can Explain Why Trump Is Skipping The Republican Debate — and his key graph essentially applies Barthes’ distinction to MacIntyre’s observation:

In the current campaign, Trump is behaving like a professional wrestler while Trump’s opponents are conducting the race like a boxing match. As the rest of the field measures up their next jab, Trump decks them over the head with a metal chair.

If, like me, you find that idea illuminating, by all means read the whole thing.

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Bingo!

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Ah, but..

.. now that Go, like Chess, has fallen to the wiles of the computer, I suppose we can chuck our games of strategy books and cast our pleading glances towards the new overlords.

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Throw away books? Never!!

And just for the record, here’s Calvinball, the full version:

calvinball2012

Quick note pending review: Tim Furnish

Monday, January 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — slowed down by health issues, but getting there ]
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furnish x 2

A quick announcement from Tim Furnish:

The second of my complementary volumes on Islam and Islamic world issues is finally up on Amazon, albeit at this point only in Kindle format. Sects, Lies, and the Caliphate: 10 Years of Observations on Islam is the follow-on to Ten Years’ Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps, which came out in November 2015. The latter focused entirely on Islamic eschatology and apocalyptic movements (especially ISIS and Iran); the new one, on the other hand, deals with more mundane, but no less important, issues–such as the Islamic roots of ISIS and Muslim terrorism, how Christianity is indeed more peaceful and less problematic than Islam (not to mention being true), and, in the longest section (some 86 pages), on mostly failed US policies toward Islam and the Islamic world over the last decade.

I shall be reviewing both books when time permits, but wanted to let you know both are now available.

Tim’s previous book, Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden (Praeger, 2005) is more scholarly — it’s Tim’s doctoral dissertation-turned-book. These two books bring us up to date on Tim’s thinking since then.

Book Bonanza

Monday, December 28th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

My usual yuletide haul of books received and purchased….

     

     

     

     

The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum
Avoiding Armageddon: From the Great War to the Fall of France 1918-1940 by Jeremy Black
Roots of Strategy Book 3
Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner
Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes
Democracy in Retreat by Joshua Kurlantzick
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
The Middle-East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years by Bernard Lewis
Patton: A Genius for War by Carlo D’Este
Beetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith by D.K.R. Crosswell
The Libertarian Mind by David Boaz
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
A Dance of Dragons by George R.R. Martin 

If anyone has read these titles and wishes to fire away about them, or their authors in the comment section, feel free. Not sure how many will be featured in future reviews.

The Nixon books were first brought to my attention on, if I recall, the Facebook page of historian Maarja Krusten of NixonNARA, the expert’s expert in matters relating to the presidential records, documents, court cases and tapes of Richard Nixon. When Maarja opines on Nixon topics, I listen with care. I look forward to reading these, even though my opinion of  Bob Woodward is that he often has to be treated cautiously, Alexander Butterfield’s cooperation and contribution was obviously central to the book (not unlike the far longer cooperation between George Kennan and his biographer,  historian John Lewis Gaddis). Evan Thomas’ theme just offhand strongly reminds me of Richard Reeves’ excellent President Nixon: Alone in the White House; I’m curious if this will be a rehashing or if Thomas can bring something new to the table about America’s 37th President.

I am also excited about Rule of the Clan, which should be of interest to anyone thinking about insurgency, irregular warfare, unconventional warfare and terrorism intersecting with tribal or quasi-tribal societies. My friends Michael Lotus and James Bennett who wrote the excellent America 3.0 and drew on the family structure ideas of British anthropologist Alan Macfarlane and French scholar Emanuel Todd, would also be interested.

The fiction was picked up for a simpler reason. I need a change of pace and never read the last, most recent book in the Game of Thrones series.

What are you reading these days?


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