Saturday, December 22, 2007

Favorite Political Books and Biographies

We are only a pebble throw away from 2008, and if you want high political drama, all you need to do is read the newspaper. But if you are just catching the political bug, it wouldn't hurt to take a look at the politics of both the distant and recent past. Here are a few great political reads to prime you for 2008...

1) The Making of the President: 1960, By Theodore H. White. This is one of my favorite books of all time. To understand the primary system we have today, you have to go back to John F. Kennedy's historic run for the Democratic nomination and how he was inspired to seek the nomination through the primaries. Furthermore, the race between Kennedy and Nixon has modern resonance because of the important technological and demographic changes occuring at the time. The thing I loved most about this book is the way that White describes his characters--you truly hear the voice of a 1960's "newsman" as he describes the virtues and flaws of the candidates and describes the humor and intellect of the "Kennedy Brain Trust." It has been twelve years since I read this book, but I plan to dust it off this coming year.

2) First in His Class, by David Maraniss. It's a funny thing how one book can lead you to another. I was reading this book in high school and it mentioned a young Bill Clinton reading "The Making of the President: 1960." Sometime later I was browsing the bargain book table at the library and found "The Making of..." sitting there. I bought it, read it and still own that copy.

"First in His Class" is a rich, well-researched biography of the pre-presidential years of Bill Clinton. While officially "unauthorized", this book is the product of many interviews with associates of Bill Clinton and is quite even-handed. It talks about Clinton's student elections in Arkansas and at Georgetown, his dating Hillary Rodham, his time at Oxford and Yale, his unsuccessful run for Congress, travels and more. Reading this book gave me the sense of thinking I know what makes Bill Clinton tick.

3) All Too Human, by George Stephanopoulos. What a read! I remember when this book came out and some journalists were asking if it was too personal and unfair to the Clintons. I did not feel that way at all. Stephanopoulos not only shows the "human" side of the Clintons but also his own human side, including the enormous stress he bore and the sense he conveys that there were times when he felt out of his league.

4) Kennedy and Nixon, by Chris Matthews. I have never had anything against Chris Matthews, but before reading this book, I assumed you could not be a pundit and a historian at the same time. Matthews' thesis is that Nixon's old rivalry (and never ending paranoia) with the Kennedys shaped his actions all the way through Watergate. Even after Chappaquiddick, Nixon thought that Ted Kennedy might rob him of a second term, and this paranoia was apparently part of what drove him to some of his Watergate sins.

5) The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940 by William Manchester. Speaking of Chris Matthews (and being led to books by reading books), it was in "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think", that Matthews recommended William Manchester as a great American biographer of Sir Winson Churchill. I read "Alone" just after reading Manchester's biography of Churchill's youth ("Visions of Glory") and could not put the book down. This book is about the years when Winston Churchill was a political pariah, but would not stop warning Britain about the Nazi menace. It is the true story of political courage.

6) Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think, by Chris Matthews. Ah, what the heck. I'll throw this one in too. There are many great lessons in this book, but the most salient one is a line that goes something like this: The person who is going to win the presidency is going to be the man with the sun in his face. With Hillary Clinton a major (perhaps the major) contender in 2008, I would like to say that the winner will likely be the man or woman with the sun in his or her face. Matthews is talking about optimism and how winning presidents have always made America feel good about ourselves and them. Strident activists in both parties are usually angry about something or they wouldn't be involved. But the Commander-in-Chief will actually have to stop fighting "city hall" and run it the day he or she is elected. That is why anger-fueled movements can only vault a candidate so far--and probably not to a general election win. I think Obama has the sun in his face and Romney has glints of it too. If Hillary can somehow project the suny optimism that her husband has mastered, I think her chances would improve dramatically.

7) Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I confess, I just started reading this but I am being held in rapt attention. Goodwin makes a departure from earlier Lincoln biographies to also biographize Lincoln's greatest rivals--men who he included in his inner circle because of both his shrewdness and humility. The nation was blessed because of the actions of Abraham Lincoln. What more can I say? Abraham Lincoln: what a man!

8) Thirty Days: An Inside Account of Tony Blair at War, by Peter Stothard. A fascinating read about a man trying to get his party and countrymen to move in a direction that many of them don't want to go. This books is about Tony Blair during the run-up to the Iraq War, told by a British journalist.

9) Big Russ & Me, by Tim Russert. This is ostensibly a book about a father and a son, but is really a book about influential figures in Tim Russerts life--and primarily his dad of course. It is also a book about the events and ideas that influenced a young Russert, a man who grew up in a working-class household and who now holds tremendous political clout himself. In this book are a lot of great anecdotes about people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other mentors of Russert--most of whom exhibited great wisdom about life or politics.

10) The Choice, by Bob Woodward. I know, you are w0ndering what a book about the 1996 Presidential race has to offer today (I mean, wasn't 1996 about a millinium of dog years ago?). In all seriousness, you can learn a lot about the upcoming presidential race by reading about any one of them from the past. You realize that the same gaffes (like, oops, I guess so and so didn't endorse me after all) happen over and over. Also, whenever a veteran reporter follows an entire race, you begin to get a sense of the human element on both sides of the battle--not just a one-sided run down of the political laundry list.

Friday, December 21, 2007

George Romney and Martin Luther King

SYNOPSIS:…at least four historical Books about MLK and 1960s politics state that King and Romney did March together...George Romney was a guest at King's funeral along with Governor and HUD Secretary Romney was a noted non-black Civil Rights leader of his day...George Romney was recognized along with King and RFK as one of four leaders popular among disadvantaged black youths in a 1967 below to photograph of MLK and Lenore Romney (Mitt's mother) below to photo of Romney being heckled by racist protesters in 1960s for HUD efforts... and most important, George Romney himself, led a march of 10,000 people through Detroit to protest after Bloody Sunday occurred in Selma, Alabama...see below

David S. Bernstein did a shabby and extremely slanted job researching and writing his article Was it All a Dream? which questions Mitt Romney’s assertion that his father, Governor George Romney marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dispensing with the issue of whether a teenage Romney ever actually saw his father marching arm-locked with King, Bernstein and the Phoenix have done an extremely one-sided job by insinuating that it is proven fact that the two never marched together and that Romney recently made up the story out of whole cloth. Either Bernstein failed to do basic research, or ignored the facts he found.

Bernstein's headline reads: “Mitt Romney claims that his father marched with MLK, but the record says otherwise”.

I ask, what record Mr. Bernstein? Where does your article show us one “record” that says Romney and King never marched together? Not having after hours access to libraries or archives, and just using google I have found three books, here, here, and here that state that the two did march together (and that's not counting David Broder's book, written four decades ago which would be number four!)

Unlike Bernstein and the Phoenix, I am not going to make grandiose assertions that a King-Romney march has been scientifically proven to have occurred, and it is evident that some writers have Romney marching on June 23, 1963, whereas others say that he issued a proclamation but avoided that particular March because it was held on his Sabbath. My point is that the whole thrust of Bernstein’s piece is to insinuate that Romney recently made the story up. That is hogwash. Take this extremely biased line: “Nor did Mitt Romney ever previously claim that this took place, until long after his father passed away in 1995 — not even when defending accusations of the Mormon church’s discriminatory past during his 1994 Senate campaign.” Basically, Bernstein is saying that if the story were true, then Romney would have bragged about it in the past. In other words, Bernstein is saying that Romney recently made the up the story to guild his "Faith in America" speech.

But the overwhelming weight of facts show that it is entirely reasonable for Romney to have believed his father did in fact march with King (and—barring proof otherwise, may have actually done so). Allow me to list just a few...I found today:

First, four published books by historians and reporters published long before 2007 say King and Romney marched together (see above). That would generally be good enough for a Presidential campaign to make a historical assertion without being accused of lying; second, Mitt’s older brother Scott Romney says he recalls his father saying he marched with King; third, George Romney himself led a Civil Rights march in Detroit to show solidarity with King after the defining Selma travesty (see here and here); fourth, Coretta Scott King's biography and other books indicate that George Romney, along with RFK, were guests at Martin Luther King's funeral (see here and here); fifth, I have not yet found a photo of George Romney and MLK together, but I did find this one of Mitt's mother, Lenore Romney with MLK; sixth, as HUD Secretary, Romney was a prime mover in making housing affordable for poor blacks (see here). In fact, when Romney sought to open white neighborhoods to blacks, like King before him he was heckled by racist protestors (check out the lower right-hand picture in this article, here); seventh, Romney visited Watts in 1967 (see here); eighth, Romney declared two days of statewide mourning for death of Viola Liuzzo during which time King went on Meet the Press to protest Viola Liuzzo’s murder by the KKK (see here and here); ninth, Coleman Young writes that Michigan blacks reached a Zenith when Romney was governor (see here) and another writer describes George Romney as a Civil Rights Republican (see here). Yet another historian says that Romney “believed that Civil Rights of black Americans, deserved the unwavering support of the Republican party…” (see here); tenth, disadvantaged black youths in a 1967 survey cited Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Nicholas Hood, Robert Kennedy and you guessed it...George Romney as their most popular leaders (see here).

I could go on, but my point is that Bernstein is insinuating that Romney is lying and is ignoring a huge amount of information that is easily obtainable on the internet or in a university library. If being a reporter were MY FULL TIME JOB, I would have already flown out to Lansing to see MSU's collection of 50,000 photographs, where (I have a hunch) the Mitt Romney campaign might find a lot more things to brag about. So the fact that Bernstein failed to even check those historical records readily available on the internet beats me!

That a 60 year old Romney (between the ages of 15-21 during King's marching years), familiar with all of the above background information, believes that his dad marched with MLK, is highly understandable. The record shows that his dad MARCHED FOR KING. I think Romney may get the last laugh on this one...

Basically, George Romney was one of the most progressive white leaders of his day. He probably belongs in the ranks of the Kennedy brothers, Everett Dirksen, LBJ and others.

In Sum: If in fact thorough research (which will take some time) shows that either 1) Romney and King did march together or 2)These historians and reporters were citing each other on a mistaken fact as to the June 23, 1963 march, the fact remains that George Romney did indeed lead a march for Civil Rights (whether or not King was with him at the time) and that George Romney was a Civil Rights leader in general and that he marched in solidarity with King in immediate response to Selma—the most defining Civil Rights episode of the era.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Is Romney back in the Iowa Driver's Seat?

Well, I have been waiting for news out of Iowa. My gut tells me that Romney is righting the ship and the latest Insider Advantage Poll at says that Mitt is up by 3 points amongst “Highly Likely” voters. The “Highly Likely” voter edge is an indication that Huck’s surge may end up in hindsight as simply a “flavor of the month” episode— a restless bout of Republican fidgeting before they finally seal the deal with Romney. Remember 1999 when Republican activists were suspicious about George W. Bush’s hazy views on abortion and myriad other issues? Of course you don’t. It really happened, but American’s are forgetful voters. And such matters as squinting at Romney’s conservative bona fides may be ancient history come summertime—especially if it’s Mitt v. Hillary in the big dance.

My gut tells me that Huck’s surge may still take a backseat to Romney’s year of heavy-duty field organizing in Iowa. And even if it’s close with Mitt in 2nd, well, then Mitt is the comeback kid and he will hang on to his big lead in New Hampshire. Also, if Mitt wins in Iowa, watch for him to start emphasizing his centrist past, trotting out his New Englander magic, along with the centrist legacy of his Michigander Dad. George Romney's image can now be found online at the
NYT, on stage with the Supremes as well as in Romney speeches marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. You won’t find pics or stories of Goldwater doing stuff like that (or Nixon or Reagan for that matter). That may kill McCain and leave Romney as the alternative to Rudy in S.C.

Back to Mitt v. Huck…I have made thousands of poll calls myself (and hundreds of GOTV and volunteer reminder calls). The fact of the matter is, many people will tell a pollster they are going to vote (out of what I call civic-duty embarrassment), but only those who are die hard caucus goers are likely to show up on the evening of January 3rd. I know a lot of otherwise-dedicated Church-going old ladies, who are found safe at home if it snows on Sunday morning. And it’s hard to imagine those little old ladies showing up to caucus on a frosty evening in January whether or not there is ice on the road. However, if these same elderly ladies are the ones who have been attacking McCain over immigration at meet-ups in Iowa, they might just be at the Baptist Church on Sunday, but at the Caucus voting for Romney on Thursday.

My predictions:

Iowa will either be: 1) A close win for Huckabee; 2) A close win for Romney; or 3) Romney will break away and win comfortably (by that I am talking 4-5 points…not your usual breakaway of 7-10 points or so in a regular election). Remember, it’s a primary with a crowded field and things have been fluid. Expect more fluidity as we see the media’s classic primary horse-race narrative crunched into the next two weeks.

Will there be surprises?

It’s hard to say, but if Thompson makes a move, it’s not going to be like what we saw with Kerry and the Democrats in ’04, because the Republican caucus uses private ballots and they don't seem to have what I call the “caucus herd” phenomenon on their side.

What else?

I had planned on just leaving my pontificating to Iowa, but I have an incontrollable urge to make some bigger predictions [hey, I can always delete them later!]:

1) If Romney’s strategy turns out to work for him in Iowa and New Hampshire and then he picks up (or is close) in South Carolina-Michigan-Nevada, but Giuliani holds on to a win in Florida, then things could get interesting. What if the Republicans go into February 5th without their normal consensus leader? What if Romney and Giuliani split the 2/5 baby and McCain and Huck bring up the rear? I know every political junkie likes to talk about the possibility of a convention fight, and in past years I just sighed or snickered when I heard that kind of talk. But with split loyalties in the first few contests and an overloaded Mega Tuesday on February 5th, I think it’s not a far-fetched possibility. Am I predicting it? No. But is it more possible than in recent decades? Yes. [Candidates may want to keep Theodore H. White’s account of Kefauver, Kennedy & the gang scrapping for VP in ‘56 handy just in case— because that’s what it will look like folks…fist fights and all!]

2) I predict that Romney will be the Republican nominee. That’s 60% my gut talking and 40% my brain.

3) The Dems: I just don’t know. If Edwards can pull a rabbit out of his hat, reconfigure himself as the “sunshine boy” while somehow hanging on to the strident left, he could still make things interesting. One fault of some progressive activists is that they underestimate the flexibility, tolerance and diversity of American voters. At the last moment, some of these activists might subconsciously go for the white male because they think he is most electable. Edwards needs to start talking electability (for his sake, that is…I think all three Democrats are electable, including Hillary). In fact, I actually think that of the three, Edwards is the least electable. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t pitch electability to primary voters--some may buy it. Obama has already made things interesting, but there is still plenty of time for the Clintons to pull out all of the stops along with a quarter century's worth of hard-ball expertise.

4) My gut says that if Hillary wins in New Hampshire, we will see Clinton ’92 nostalgia and Hillary will then move on to more victories. But, don’t count out Obama’s field work in many a February 5th outpost. O.K., I really hedged on that one.

5) Did I really say what I said in #2? I think I did. I have felt it for some time and the whole rise of Huck has not changed my feelings that Romney is going to take the Republican nomination. Yes, I could be wrong (but only like scores of times before).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Winston Churchill and John McCain

I am aware that many Americans (including not a few conservatives) have read and enjoyed William Manchester's "Last Lion" series on the life of Sir Winston Churchill. In them, Manchester recounts the life of Churchill, a man born during Victoria’s reign and who lived to see his own political career dashed more than once—partly because of his connection with a bygone era but also because of controversial actions that put him at odds with leaders of his own party and the electorate at large.

When I read David Brooks’ recent column on John McCain (“The Character Factor”) I found that Brooks had put into words some thoughts I have had about John McCain over the past few months—thoughts of whether McCain might be America’s Last Lion. Of course, no analogy is perfect and the things that got Churchill in trouble—his management of Gallipoli, his old-school loyalty to Edward VIII and his outdated views on India—are different from those things that have made McCain an occasional pariah—like his stand on immigration reform and his views on torture.

The differences don’t end there, but the similarities are striking nonetheless.

History will view both men as having gruff personalities and even occasional temper tantrums. Both men experienced war first hand and spent time as prisoners (although McCain's experience was far, far more lengthy and grueling). Both had a tendency to rankle the powers that be, but also had a sense of when it was time to shut up and support the man at the helm—such as in wartime. In that vein, Manchester tells a story about Churchill, who, just after the invasian of Poland, surprised a dinner guest by denouncing a family member who had cracked a joke at the expense of Prime Minister Chamberlain. Churchill’s public and unqualified show of loyalty to a man whose policies he had strongly criticized and whom he had previously told many jokes about himself, was indicative of his sense of propriety per the times. Having watched the ceaseless mockery of our own Commander-in-Chief in a time of war by the likes of David Letterman, I have wondered what we have most forgotten as a Nation—the fact that we are at war or the principles that guide men like Winston Churchill and John McCain.

The character trait historians will find in both Churchill and McCain—a trait that was waning in the 20th Century and that is arguably near extinct now was described by David Brooks as "ancient honor." What is ancient honor? Well, it’s hard to explain, but I’ll give you an example. When McCain was a POW in North Vietnam—wounded and subject to extreme mistreatment–he was offered to go home because of the status of his father, a top Admiral in the U.S. Navy. McCain refused special treatment and spent over five years as a POW. Knowing what I know about John McCain, I have more than a hunch that he never would have shook hands with Mr. Ahmadinejad as did 15 Royal Navy personnel earlier this year—an act that surely had Horatio Nelson and Winston Churchill turning in their graves. While I don’t doubt that a week of captivity, being blindfolded and hearing guns cocked would rattle many, I sense that Western Civilization has grown to believe that anything is better than even the threat of pain. But that is where John McCain is different from most of us.

At the core of “ancient honor” is the notion that deprivation and even death are not as frightening as absconding one's principles. Maybe that is why McCain--who has actually stared death and torture in the face--has been a gadfly on the torture issue. Perhaps to him, America's honor at times even trumps its safety. But this is not to say McCain is weak, for of all the presidential candidates, only McCain has vowed to follow Osama bin Laden to the Gates of Hell. Just as Churchill was born to face the greatest madman of his generation, perhaps McCain is the one who born to face the modern menace of terrorism. I am confident that if there is one person in America who has the proverbial stiff upper lip, who is not in the slightest frightened by Osama bin Laden, and who is not rattled by Islamist threats, it is the Arizonan John McCain.

Churchill was considered an over the hill relic whose time had passed years before he led Britain through its finest hour. Similarly, we hear numskulls ask if Senator McCain is too old to be President. I am not sure whether to laugh or weep when I hear that question. My only response is that Senator McCain is neither overqualified nor over experienced for the job he seeks; rather he is indisputably the one candidate that has more experience for being Commander-in-Chief than any other.

Folks can fret over immigration (I fret over it myself), but the problem only gets worse while the diehards on both sides refuse to compromise. Senator McCain (unlike Churchill on India) may actually see the writing on the wall and realize that there will be no improvement in this mess until all sides realize they will never get exactly what they want.

Ultimately, it is McCain's honor and peculiar traits that intrigue me in these troubled times. Admittedly, a different candidate is my favorite, but for the past few months I have not been able to shake the image of two extraordinary men who seemed to have been groomed for extraordinary times: Winston Churchill and John McCain.

Will these thoughts change my vote? It’s a possibility.