Books postsMonday March 25, 2019
Every Hollywood Studio Exec Ever
“Most people have a will to power that is imitative, and when they see something that works, their imitative mind says, ‘Well, we’ll do that, but we‘ll do it three times better, or bigger.’”
George W.S. Trow, “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1998.”
McCabe on Sessions
Was reading this last night in Andrew McCabe's “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump” (recommended) and thought I'd share some of McCabe's observations about former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions:
- As time went on, I observed many things about Attorney General Sessions that gave me pause. I observed him to have trouble focusing, particularly when topics of conversation strayed from a small number of issues, none of which directly concerned national security.
- Almost invariably, he asked the same question about the suspect: Where's he from? The vast majority of the suspects are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. If we would answer his question, Sir, he's a U.S. citizen, he was born here, Sessions would respond, Where are his parents from?
- He was very interested in narcotics trafficking—an important issue for the country, but not usually central to the kinds of national-security issues that are the focus of the President's Daily Brief. Still, to try to get his attention, the briefers started putting updates about narcotics shipments from Colombia in the book. Someone had told Sessions that even if we knew in advance about every drug shipment destined to leave Colombia by boat or ship, the U.S. wouldn't allocate enough vessels to intercept them. This made Sessions apoplectic. ... Why don't we have more boats down there? Why don't we put more boats in the water? Is that all we need—more boats? This is ridiculous! I‘ll go talk to the White House chief of staff. I’ll get us more boats. Sometimes he went on like this for fifteen minutes. He seemed to think that the FBI had some kind of navy at its disposal, and that this navy was off doing other things. We had to tell him, We don't have the boats in Colombia. We are not able to do that. That's not us.
- Sessions spent a lot of time yelling at us about the death penalty, despite the fact that the FBI plays no role of any kind in whether to seek the death penalty—that's a job for Justice. All the people on Sessions's side of the table would look at their laps.
- You never knew when you’d bump into some distorted perception. On one occasion Sessions launched into a diatribe about whom we were hiring at the FBI. Back in the old days, he said, you all only hired Irishmen. They were drunks, but they could be trusted. Not like all those new people with nose rings and tattoos—who knows what they’re doing?
- In time it became impossible to avoid the overwhelming evidence that the attorney general had little use for serious discussions of national security. And an attorney general can't ignore that conversation. Engaging on counterterrorism is not optional.
I'd say we dodged a bullet but ... it's the St. Valentine's Day Massacre out there.
‘He Does Not Know What Democracy Means’
“But I will say this. Donald Trump ... has shown the citizens of this country that he does not know what democracy means. He demonstrates no understanding or appreciation of our form of government. He takes no action to protect it. Has any president done more to undermine democracy than this one? His 'I hereby demand' tweet in May 2018, ordering Department of Justice investigations of the investigators who are investigating him—I can barely believe that I just wrote that phrase—is a clear example.”
Andrew McCabe, former acting director of the FBI, in his book, “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump”
Turning Every Page with Robert Caro
Along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of course, another American we‘re all hoping lives long enough to finish his work is Robert Caro, who, in 1976, began a multi-volume biography of the then-recently deceased 36th president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson. Since then, he’s published four volumes, tomes really, that have taken us all the way to the first days of Johnson's presidency. He supposedly has 300-400 pages of the presidential years finished, which would be about one-third of the size of one of his normal books. He says it will take anywhere from two to 10 years to finish. He's 83.
On some level, it already seems a shame that a man has spent his life writing about another man, but it would be a particular shame if that work went unfinished, with the last, perhaps most important volume published posthumously. That said, Caro's books aren't merely about LBJ but about the sweep of American history; and if anything, American remains forever unfinished and in a state of constant reinvention. (Our latest is the two steps back variety.) So while such an end wouldn't be desired, it might be appropriate.
Anyway, he has a new book coming out, which isn't an LBJ book but a book about writing the LBJ book. Many fans are disappointed, perplexed, angry. “Finish!” they cry. But I'm gettingit. I loved the recent excerpt in The New Yorker, “The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson's Archives,” which is all about the slow, steady work of research; it's about the truths that are there if you take the time to turn every page.
All of this is in direct contrast to the current state of things, where not only is no one turning every page but few read past the headlines or check the source or timestamp of their latest rage—assuming it has a timestamp. Was this yesterday or five years ago? Was it 40 years ago? Judgment feels in lockstep with the news and sometimes a step or two ahead. And I'm talking legit news, not the manufactured variety. That's an even deeper problem.
Caro's pace you can feel in the New Yorker piece. I felt myself relaxing even as I read it. I thought: One of my people. My natural state.
Here's an excerpt from the excerpt:
V. Tricks of the Trade
In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people's need to fill it—as long as the person isn't you, the interviewer. Two of fiction's greatest interviewers—Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret and John le Carré's George Smiley—have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking and to let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglasses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for me, I have less class. When I'm waiting for the person I'm interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SU”s.
“Working” by Robert Caro, subtitled “Researching, Interviewing, Writing,” will be published April 9.
There's a great anecdote in Michael Lewis' “The Fifth Risk,” a book that's not only about how the Trump administration screwed up the transition but how government works, and how dedicated its civil servants are, and what we‘re losing as a result of doubling down on Trump idiocy and half a century of GOP anti-government rhetoric.
Here’s the anecdote:
As the USDA's loans were usually made through local banks, the people on the receiving end of them were often unaware of where the money was coming from. There were many stories very like the one Tom Vilsack told, about a loan they had made, in Minnesota, to a government-shade-throwing, Fox News–watching, small-town businessman. The bank held a ceremony and the guy wound up being interviewed by the local paper. “He's telling the reporter how proud he is to have done it on his own,” said Vilsack. “The USDA person goes to introduce herself, and he says,‘So, who are you?’ She says,” I'm the USDA person.' He asks,‘What are you doing here?’ She says,“ Well, sir, we supplied the money you are announcing.' He was white as a sheet.”
In this section, Lewis interviews Lillian Salerno, a Texas enterpreneur and Deputy Undersecretary of Rural Development in the USDA during the Obama administration. What did her department do? “Channel low-interest-rate loans, along with a few grants, mainly to towns with fewer than fifty thousand people in them,” Lewis writes.
Salerno: “You go through these small towns and you see these ridiculously nice fire stations. That's us.” Lewis: “It was always more expensive for these towns to get electricity and internet access and health care.” Salerno: “But for the federal government, rural Alaska wouldn't have any drinking water.”
Of course, the good work the federal government does here isn't well-known, per above, and most of the people in these areas watch Fox-News and buy into the small-government argument and vote Republican. They voted overwhelmingly for Trump. They gave us Trump. And what did he give them? To show he was serious about foreign trade, he split USDA department, “Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services,” into two: farm programs and foreign ag affairs.
Oddly, at that very moment, Trump was removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and costing American farmers an estimated $4.4 billion a year in foreign sales, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. As there's a rule against having more than seven little boxes on the USDA's org chart, they had to eliminate one of the little boxes. The little box they got rid of was Rural Development.
“I worked in the little box in the government most responsible for helping the people who elected Trump,” said Salerno. “And they literally took my little box off the organization chart.”
Read the book. Spread the word.