Tag Archives: George W. Bush

David Finkel writes about The Good Soldiers in Iraq

David Finkel's harrowing book The Gold Soldiers makes for gripping reading.

The war in Iraq is well into its seventh year.

While President George W. Bush famously arrived on an aircraft carrier with the words, “Mission Accomplished” blaring on a banner behind, in reality the coalition’s time in Iraq had just begun.

Washington Post editor David Finkel spent the better part of a year with a division of Rangers in Iraq during the period in 2007 to 2008- a time in which Bush ordered a surge of thousands of additional troops to Iraq to defeat the counterinsurgency.

The Good Soldiers is the book Finkel wrote after these experiences, and it’s a searing one that should be required reading for those who maintain that war has no costs.

Ralph Kauzlarich, who was born a week later than me, is the book’s central commander.  A lieutenant colonel who learns some Arabic phrases to help interact with the locals and connect during his regular radio appearance, Kauzlarich is a career soldier whose philosophy at the book’s opening can be expressed in three words: “It’s all good.”

That philosophy is sorely tested in the weeks and months that follow.

Man after man, a dozen in total, are killed throughout the course of the time that Finkel spends with the unit.  Some, like Duncan Crookston, die after excruciating suffering and months of attempted rehabilitation in the United States.

Kauzlarich comes to be called “The Lost Kauz” and compared to Bush, who cannot see what the men do.

Bush’s words hover like a ghost throughout the book.  Finkel opens each chapter with a quote from the former president.

Some of the excerpts come from prepared speeches, while others more vernacular and representative of his character. “We’re kicking ass,” Bush says at one point, for example.

But, through their skillful placement as epigraphs, and thus their distance from the writing that follows, the quotes all illustrate the vast gaps between Bush’s comfortable callousness and the suffering the good soldiers undergo and inflict.

Finkel’s writing is spare and peppered with heartbreaking details, each of which illustrate the valor and character of the men and the undeniable toll of soldiers and Iraqis’ bodies and their humanity.

The soldiers’ families hurt, too.  Finkel devotes extensive space in the book to recounting the toils of wives and their children trying to carry on and preserve the illusion for the soldier that, to steal from Kauzlarich, all is good on the homefront. 
Some of the marriages endure excessive strain and end, while other couples struggle to bridge the gap of time and experience that has occurred during the second, third and sometimes fourth deployment.

In the end, the men return, but the war goes on.  President Obama has stated his determination to bring soldiers home from both Afghanistan, but only after another surge that is similar to that depicted by Finkel. 

In his recent Nobel Peace Prize address, Obama stated frankly that some of these soldiers will kill, while others will be killed.   This admission may earn him some points for honesty, but will likely do little to reduce the agony witnessed and described so expertly by Finkel.


Sotomayor’s Confirmation, James MacGregor Burns’ Proposal

Historian James MacGregor Burns takes on the Supreme Court's authority in this provocative book.

Historian James MacGregor Burns takes on the Supreme Court’s authority in this provocative book.

Whether talking about her “wise Latina” remark or contending with angry white firefighters, Sonia Sotomayor and her confirmation hearings dominated press coverage this past week.

According to critics, Sotomayor’s comment signaled a tendency to decide cases on the basis of identity politics rather than judicial merit.  Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who played a prominent role in the hearings and now says that he is leaning toward voting to confirm Sotomayor, initially articulated the concerns of many opponents when he criticized her ideology.

This type of criticism is standard fare for opposing parties: both Chief Justice John Robertsand Justice Samuel Alito are the most recent nominees by a Republican president – in this case, George W. Bush– to have faced the same kind of commentary, only from Democrats.

Still, the judge’s confirmation by the Senate appears highly likely – a decision that would make her the first Latina in the court’s more than 200-year history.

The senatorial vote is authorized in the advise and consent clause in Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

If venerable historian James MacGregor Burns had his way, the Constitution would see significant changes regarding how the Supreme Court conducts its business.

His radical proposal to have the electorate vote on the power of judicial review is just one part of a lively, stimulating and highly readable book, Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Activism and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court.

Now nearing the end of his ninety-first year, Burns opens the book by hearkening back to the day in 1937 when then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt unveiled his original “court packing” proposal.  Frustrated with the highest court’s thwarting of key aspects of his New Deal legislation, Roosevelt proposed to add additional justices for those who stayed on the court beyond a certain age.

The proposal, which had been developed without the knowledge of other party leaders, led to a firestorm of controversy and eventually cost Roosevelt much of the political capital he had gained with his first term and resounding electoral victory over Alf Landon in 1936.

Burns, who was a sophomore at Williams College when Roosevelt made his announcement, maintains that such going against the people’s will was hardly a unique or unprecedented occurrence.  Packing the Court traces the history of the court from its inception at the end of the 18th century and finds multiple such instances as well as a long pattern of presidents attempting to nominates justices who they believe will support their views.

The demonstration of a long history of attempted court packing is interesting enough by itself, but is hardly the most engaging feature of Burns’ work.

In a relatively brief survey, Burns reviews the history of many of the court’s key decisions and finds it often has countered moves toward social progress.

Among the more memorable are the Dred Scott decision, which is considered by many to be the nadir of all the court’s verdicts; Plessy v. Ferguson, which gave official sanction to the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that underpinned American apartheid; a series of railroad cases in the late 19th century that enhanced corporate power and diminished workers’ rights;  and Hirabayashi v. U.S., which held that curfews against a group of people were acceptable when the country was at war with the country from which that group originated.

This is to say nothing of Bush v. Gore, which Burns makes clear he considers a completely baseless decision, or Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War.

Burns’ point is that the immunity from accountability after the confirmation hearings, combined with judges’ lifetime tenure, has meant that a small bunch of individuals has ended up taking actions with momentous consequences, even when those decisions are dramatically at odds with the people’s desires.  He notes that this tendency has only increased since 1970, when judges’ tenures have increased from an average of 17 to 26 years.

Part of the value of Burns’ argument is that he does not hew simply to conservative or liberal lines.

While one senses he approves of the substance of many of the decisions issued during the Warren Court, he notes fairly that the trampling of federal, state and local statutes is another example of the same deplorable behavior of judicial activism.

In short, he maintains that justices have moved beyond interpreting rules to creating them.

The source of these creative tendencies is the concept of judicial review-an idea and legal practice developed by John Marshall, whose decisions over three decades greatly enhanced the judicial branch and federal government’s power.

Burns’ book gives us entertaining nuggets on the personalities of many of the nation’s most famous justices, from the cantankerous Felix Frankfurter to the worldly Louis Brandeis.  While painting a respectful picture of Marshall, he does take square aim at the concept of judicial review that he developed and advanced without popular consent.

His final section includes a proposal to restrain the court’s power.  Burns suggests that the president should ignore the court’s verdicts unless the people pass a constitutional amendment officially authorizing the justices to strike down unconstitutional laws.

Burns acknowledges that such an action would occasion strong reaction, up to and including impeachment.  Still, he maintains that such a risk is worth taking to deal squarely with what he sees as the unwarranted expansion of the court’s authority far beyond what the framers initially intended.

It’s a provocative notion, and one that at the very least merits discussion, if not concerted action.

Some reviewers have criticized Burns for an inconsistent reading of the court’s decisions.  I saw that part of the book as more of an explanation of the intersection between individual justices, their temperament at the time and the questions they had to decide.

After reading Packing the Court, I called Mr. Bradford Wright, my high school U.S. History teacher and himself a nonagenarian.  Sharp as ever, he listened to my description of the work, then said, in essence,

“I haven’t seen that book yet.  It sounds like I should read it.”

You should, too.

Matt Bai Breaks Down the Democrats’ Rebuilding


Matt Bai chronicles the Democrats' return to political dominance in The Argument.

Matt Bai chronicles the Democrats’ return to political dominance in The Argument.

Life is good for the Democratic Party these days.

In firm control of all three branches of government for the first time in more than a generation, the Democrats have seen their ranks swell with the recent defection of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Specter’s switch gave the Democrats a near filibuster-proof majority of 59 senators – something that may come in handy during the upcoming nomination process of Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Barack Obama recently put forward to be the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice and the first Latina in the nation’s history to serve on the court.

The Democrats have had a string of successes since Obama’s inauguration in January, overseeing the passage of a $787 billion stimulus plan, starting to implement a withdrawal time line and process for the war in Iraq and moving both to close Guantanamo prison camp and repudiating the Bush Administration’s interrogation policies that many described as torture.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are struggling.  Mightily.

Each week seems to bring new headlines that suggest a party in disarray,  with an unclear voice, hierarchy or direction.  One week it’s Rush Limbaugh saying that Colin Powell is not actually a Republican. Another it’s Meghan McCain, daughter of the defeated presidential candidate, slamming conservative pundit Ann Coulter.

In this climate, it can be easy to forget that the political scene was completely reversed less than five years ago.

After Bush soundly defeated John Kerry in the November 2004 presidential election, the Democrats seemed to some to be poised on the brink of irrelevance, or, even worse, obscurity.  Bush’s victory,  which gave him the opportunity to later appoint two Supreme Court justices, was the seventh by a Republican in the previous 10 presidential contests.  Continued majorities in both the House and Senate accompanied his triumph.  

New York Times Magazine political reporter Matt Bai remembers this dry period in the Democrats’ history.

He traces the party’s path back from the political netherlands to reclaiming the House, the Senate and the majority of governorships, in The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.

The road to political redemption was a twisted one, with many engaging characters and twists along the way.

Bai begins the book with Kerry’s crushing, and apparently surprising, defeat in 2004. (I had had a strong feeling about the race’s outcome from the point that he did not respond forcefully to the Swift Boat attacks in August and thus I did not share the surprise of some of the sources Bai interviewed.  If anything, Kerry’s lack of response reminded me strongly of Michael Dukakis‘ failure to counter the Lee Atwater-conceived Willie Horton ads that had such a devastating effect on his candidacy.)

From the loss, Bai moves to explore the different level of change in party operation and vision that Democratic strategists and members felt were necessary.  Democracy Alliance founder Rob Steinn is shown as playing a key role in raising party awareness about the degree of organization the Republicans had fostered, thereby helping people understand what Democrats confronted. 

Bai spends a lot of time in the book talking about the ascending role of technology – a development that led to the surprisingly successful candidacy of Howard Dean and his later selection as party chairman, the emerging power of organizations like Eli Pariser’s MoveOn.org and the potency of bloggers like Markos Zuniga, creator of the wildly popular DailyKos.

Technology also is a lense through which one sees some of the major conflicts between, on the one hand, the 1990s Clinton-era establishment, which modernized and moved the party toward the political center and fashioned two presidential victories by traditional methods of fundraising and politicking, and, on the other hand, the more progressive and technologically-oriented new guard embodied by Zuniga and Pariser.

The resulting conflicts are often messy.

Bai describes one party gathering where the former president lost his temper when questioned about his wife Hillary’s vote to go to war in Iraq  and proceeded to rant about all kinds of right-leaning policies and directions he said were ascribed to him.  Bai also shows the ongoing and occasionally public struggles between current White House majordomo Rahm Emanuel and the then party chairman about Dean’s 50-state strategy – an approach which Emanuel felt diverted valuable resources from battleground states. 

In the end, the Democrats swept to victory. Each of the groups and people listed above and a host of others could claim some share of the triumph, if not the spoils. 

The inside argument about remaking Democratic politics is less clearly answered.  Bai ends the book with a lion in winter-like address from former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who reminds the exultant Democrats that, despite their smashing electoral victories, they still “have no big idea.” 

The Argument has a number of the strengths and weaknesses that characterize much of Bai’s work that appears in The New York Times magazine.  His intelligence, writing skills and thorough reporting are apparent throughout the work; and yet one often leaves his pieces, and, in this case, the book, feeling like she has not actually learned much new or different.

The Democrats’ need to articulate a vision greater than “We are not the Republicans” has been known for a long time, for example. So, too, has the Republicans’ superior ground level organizational capacity, forged during the late 70s and 80s by people like Richard Viguerie, strategist Grover Norquist and strengthened in the 90s by Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed.  Bai’s explanation of the rise of blogging is engaging but not particularly informative to the tens of millions of people who have clicked onto DailyKos during the past decade.

Bai does not explore the mixed legacy of the Clinton presidency as fully as he could, and Ned Lamont’s primary victory over Joe Lieberman, which Bai seems to herald as the triumph of the new way, seems a bit hollow given Lieberman’s ultimate triumph.  

One gets the sense while reading The Argument that Bai is writing for those people who were among Rob Stein’s target audience – Democrats who did not get why their party was being consistently clobbered in elections, yet did not think that drastic action or rethinking needed to be taken to stop the slide.  

Which brings us back to Obama and the Democrats’ current strong position. 

Obama appears in The Argument as a skilled writer who unsurprisingly adopts a both/and position toward traditional party stalwarts and the emerging online progressive movement.  He contributes a spirited articulation of his position in a lengthy blog post which urges people not to demonize Republicans, affirms the establishment’s importance and uses available technology to share his views.  

Written during the throes of Obama and Clinton’s fight for the Democratic nomination, the afterword includes the following somewhat prescient thought:

“Should Obama win the nomination, though, and perhaps even the White House, he will face a choice where the powerful progressives in his party are concerned: whether to attempt, through the power of his personality and argument, to lead the new movement away from the limited politics of hostility and toward some modern vision of liberalism, or whether to become, like so many political leaders before him, a reflection of the movement he inherits.  If Obama can’t change the trajectory of the new progressive movement, then the movement will very likely change him.”

Obama has not been president long enough to definitively answer the questions Bai or Cuomo pose, and the answers to those questions may go a long way toward predicting whether his victory is a blip on the screen of Republican dominance or augurs a new era in liberal thinking.

For posing those questions, and for providing an enjoyable read along the way, Bai deserves credit, even if The Argument does have a number of flaws.

St. Patrick’s Day, Part II: William Kleinknecht takes aim at Ronald Reagan.

Journalist William Kleinknecht takes on Ronald Reagan in this lively read.

Journalist William Kleinknecht takes on Ronald Reagan in this lively read.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day today, but fans of the late Ronald  “Dutch” Reagan won’t be celebrating after reading journalist William Kleinknecht’s book about the former president.

In The Man Who Sold The World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street, Kleinknecht takes square aim at the venerated Reagan legacy. 

Far from being a revival of America, Kleinknecht says, Reagan and his minions are responsible for the near wholesale gutting of governmental programs and regulation, an accompanying spree of merger and acquisitions and yawning increases in inequality, a coarsening of public dialogue, an increase in crime and a general descent into second-nation status.

Kleinknecht opens the book on Election Night 1980 in Reagan’ hometown of Dixon, Illinois.  He shows both the town’s loyal support for its favorite son and Reagan’s policies having a devastating effect on the community.

Kleinknecht notes that Reagan did not visit Dixon after being elected until the fourth year of his first term, when he was seeking re-election.  By this time the negative effects of Reagan’s policies were becoming visible to the loyal townspeople.

In many ways, Kleinknecht suggests, Dixon is a metaphor and microcosm of the nation as a whole-loving and supporting an emotionally aloof and unengaged Reagan, whose actions have completely negative consequences for the community and its residents.

From Dixon, Kleinknecht moves to another venerated Irish-American politician, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill.  He paints a vivid picture of the ruddy pol, his humble background, his long career in politics, and belief in government’s ability to make a positive difference in people’s lives. 

This stands in marked contrast to Reagan, who, the author points out, originally supported and benefited from New Deal legislation before turning in a far more conservative direction.

The chapter with the two politicians shows an aging and physically drained O’Neill on the defensive in the early part of Reagan’s tenure, being told by his constituents to stop opposing the new president’s initiatives.  Against his better judgment, O’Neill does so. 

While the 1982 mid-term elections lead to Democratic gains and the revelations about Lt. Col Oliver North’s participation in the Iran-contra scandal led to O’Neill’s declaration that the Reagan Revolution was over, Kleinknecht argues that it had just begun.

The following chapters spell out the different aspects of the revolution. 

The results are not pretty.

Armed with plenty of data, Kleinknecht presents a convincing picture of  the negative impact on millions of Americans on Reagan’s domestic policies (Kleinknecht states in the introduction that he is not going to address foreign policy.). 

Those who lived through the 80s will encounter a familiar cast of characters, from consigliere and former Attorney General Edwin Meese to  avowed environmental foe James Watt, who served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, to insider traders like Ivan Boesky

In addition to addressing individual players and policies, Kleinknecht has an extended discussion of economic theory and its wholesale revision from some version of Keynesianism to the David Stockman-propelled tax cuts, glorification of greed and a top-down, supply-side approach advocated by Arthur Lafferand others.  These adovcates saw themselves as heirs to Adam Smith and the theories he delineated in his classic work, The Wealth of Nations.

Kleinknecht argues both that these policies had negative effects on much of the populace and that Reagan himself did not understand them.  At one point, he compares Reagan to Chance the Gardener in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, whose simple  and uncomprehending statements are treated by gullible listeners as oracular declarations.

Kleinknecht also maintains that Reagan’s tenure led to the ascent of corporate capitalists emboldened by his administration’s encouragment.  In the book’s final chapters, he argues that the net effect of the policies and Reagan’s continual mean-spirited factual distortions combined to lower the nation’s standing and bipartisan spirit. 

He closes the book by drawing a straight line from Reagan’s election and presidency to the Bush administration’s callous response to Hurricane Katrina and Sarah Palin’s mocking of Barack Obama’s past as a community organizer at the 2008 Republican National Convention

The Man Who Sold The World is thoroughly researched, written in a lively style and has both plenty of supporting detail and an overall argument.  Kleinknecht demonstrates an admirable versatility in bringing together people, policies and ideas into an engaging and coherent narrative.

While Kleinknecht’s efforts to puncture what he sees as the Reagan myth are largely effective and will be welcomed, I imagine, by liberal readers, he at times goes too far in painting Reagan in completely negative terms.  

He mentions in a number of different places, for example, the low voter turnout and Reagan’s slim margin of victory over then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980 to say that Reagan both had no mandate and did not truly reflect the will of his people.  

Yet Kleinknecht simply dismisses these as the triumph of image over substance Reagan’s ability, given these circumstances, to carry out his legislative agenda.  Instead, he only grants a grudging concession that the intensity of Reagan’s convictions were an asset to him. 

Kleinknecht also does not sufficiently address how, given all the negative consequences of Reagan’s actions, he won a resounding popular and electoral triumph over Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in 1984.  

Like it or not, the American people turned in greater numbers and higher percentages to reelect Reagan by one of the largest margins in the nation’s history.  Kleinknecht also does not discuss at all Reagan’s first showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease during his second term.

In a similar vein, Kleinknecht’s discussion of the ascencion of corporate capitalism is a bit overstated.  While it’s true that 60s icons like the Rolling Stones, among others, started to shill for companies in their commercials, it’s hard to place sole responsibility for that on Reagan. 

In addition, one should be careful before making qualitative distinctions between baseball parks formerly named after wealthy indidviduals like Charles Comiskey, for example, and later being identified by their current sponsor-in this case, U.S. Cellular.

These excesses do not make The Man Who Sold Main Street unreadable, but do lessen slightly the impact of the blows it seeks to strike.  Still, opponents of the Reagan myth who are celebrating St. Patrick’s Day are likely to raise a glass to Kleinknecht during their revelry if they take the time to read this entertaining and informative work.

Black History Month and Valentine’s Day: Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom


Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom is timely for Valentine's Day.

Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom is timely for Valentine's Day.

 As everyone who has already overindulged in chocolate, flowers and dinner reservations knows, today is Valentine’s Day.

I debated for a while which book to write about for this post.  I considered R.M. Johnson’s Million Dollar Divorce before heeding my wife Dunreith’s point that a book about a guy who hires another man to sleep with his wife and avoid paying $1 million in a divorce wouldn’t be the best match for a day about love and romance.  

Fair enough, but do check the book out if you want a very fast, light and relatively graphic Chicago story with a couple of funky twists at the end.

After some more deliberation, I thought about someone who through his life has embodied many different types of love: love of family, love of humanity; love of culture and tradition; yes, love of women; and, ultimately, love of freedom.

That man is Nelson Mandela.

The former ANC head and South African president turned 90 last July, walks with a cane and is not seen in public as often as in previous years. 

But his commitment to equality and acceptance of all people remains undimmed.  In the past few years, in addition to issuing salvos against what he saw as the follies of George W. Bush, Mandela has focused on the issue of HIV and AIDS, a disease that claimed the life of his oldest son, Makgatho, in 2005. 

Mandela told his life story from his birth in the rural Transkei to being elected president of South Africa in 1994 in the country’s first truly democratic elections in Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.

It is an epic tale.

Mandela is a gripping storyteller and a skillful writer.  The combination hooks the reader from the very first sentence, which reads, “Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlhala.”

Mandela is first and foremost an African, and the first section of the book covers his early years in the rural areas, learning from others by observation, engaging in stick fighting and enduring the pain of circumcision at age 16.   Several years later, he made one of the first significant adult decisions, and one that truly altered his life’s trajectory, by fleeing an arranged marriage and heading to Johannesburg, the city of gold known in Zulu as “Egoli.”

While in his new home, Mandela both became a lawyer-he and former ANC head Oliver Tambo formed the country’s first black law firm-and became involved in politics.  It was a gradual involvement that eventually came to be his life’s mission. He writes:

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.  There was no particular day on which I said, henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

Mandela pursued his vision of a free and democratic South Africa free of the oppressive yoke of the apartheid system with a controlled fury during the following half-century.  In the book he traces his and many other people’s nonviolent efforts to change the system, his determination that a nonviolent approach was futile and subsequent decision to found Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, the African National Congress’ military branch. 

Mandela also recounts his years in hiding, when he was known as the Black Pimpernel, the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, his 27 years in prison, release and, finally, his victory over National Party head F.W. de Klerk and a host of other candidates in the 1994 elections. 

A dizzying and dazzling array of characters, from the thoughtful Tambo to Chief Albert Luthuli, a previous ANC head, to long-time comrades like Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo to the recently deceased Helen Suzman, fill the book.  Apartheid stalwarts like Hendrik Verwoerd make appearances, too.  One of the book’s many positive features is that the reader, I imagine by design, gets a primer on 20th century South African history.

But this is indeed a memoir, not a history.  Mandela shares many personal moments, such as the time in the mid-80s when he held his then-wife Winnie for the first time in 21 years.  He also repeatedly shows moments when he either makes mistakes, like when he insisted that a fellow prisoner surrender all of his cherished tobacco, or when he did not know what to do.  One part of his life that I had never considered before reading the book was how Umkhonto we Sizwe decided what to do after renouncing nonviolence.

The answer: they read books! 

Mandela and other read Castro, Mao and many other military and strategic thinkers to learn what to do.

This humanity is one of the book’s most appealing aspects.  Mandela’s confidence and willingness to show his weaknesses not only underscores his strength, but keeps the reader engaged. 

Mandela’s unceasing commitment to, and love for, his people and the principles of justice, equality and freedom course through the book, too.  He shows how he and others struggled continually, sacrificing decades of their lives, destroying marriages, missing loved ones’ funerals in the process. 

In the end, though, they won.

Mandela recounts the history of his release  in February 1990 and the ensuing whirlwhind of events during the next four years that culminated in his election.   

The book does have some faults.

Mandela can be forgiven for the fact that at times the book reads like a 600 plus-page acceptance speech in which he thanks nearly every one he has met or who he feels contributed to the freedom struggle.  To begin, it is his book and he has earned the right to write it through his life.  More basically, though, the acknolwedgment is consistent with Mandela’s view of himself as being a servant of the people, who ultimately deserve the credit.   The coverage he gives to Winnie Mandela’s descent from freedom fighting icon to leader of a thuggish and murdering “soccer team” that terrorized the townships and Mandela’s role in the ending of his first marriage could be more extensive, too.

There is irony in reading the book’s final paragraph, in which he concludes that he cannot rest for long because his long walk to freedom is not yet ended.  South Africa’s AIDS problem has exploded, the economy has taken a nose dive like those of most other countries , leaving millions who had not escaped poverty and unemployment in even more dire straits, and alleged rapist Jacob Zuma seems poised to become the country’s next elected leader.  

Come what may in the future, and whatever the book’s shortcomings are, though, this Valentine’s Day is a perfect time to reflect on the man from Qunu who not only has found love and happiness with Graca Machel, but who desired the taste of freedom and has refused to relinquish it to this day.

Pushing Through The Red State/Blue State Dichotomy

The idea of blue states and red states is a widely, if not universally, accepted concept in American politics.  

Every four years pundits and news anchors like Brian Williams – and before him the troika of the late Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather – stand in front of maps of the United States, projecting which states will turn Democratic blue and which will turn Republican red.

Many have commented about the political and cultural divide between blue states, which tend to be on the coasts and in part of the Midwest, and the red states, which have been everywhere else, particularly in the South and Southwest.

Others have contested that notion.

In his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention that contributed mightily toward launching him to political superstardom, then U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama declared, in one of many memorable phrases:

“The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

Obama’s point was that the blue and red distinctions do not really apply to people’s lives. Rather than thinking in these terms, Obama said, we would be better served to base our actions on the recognition that there is “a single American family.”

Since that speech, Obama has continued to advance that same message of national unity – and has been rewarded handsomely.  

The center of a meteoric rise that is arguably without precedent in American history, Obama shattered fund raising records on the way to winning a historic victory November 4 that will culminate officially in his inauguration just 10 days from today. 

As Obama’s time to govern approaches, he confronts no end of daunting problems. An economy teetering on the edge of catastrophe, two wars, and conflict in the Middle East possibly sparking a global conflagration top a very long list. 

Successfully tackling these challenges will require drawing on the commonality that Obama asserted exists throughout the country.

Obama may find this commonality in shorter supply than he would like, but not for the reasons he articulated in his 2004 keynote speech.

The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, an intriguing book by journalist and editor Bill Bishop with heavy research assistance from retired University of Texas at Austin sociology professor Robert Cushing, may hold the key to help Obama and other readers understand that resistance.

Drawing on an engaging blend of election and census data analysis,  psychology, shoe-leather reporting, and historical interpretation, Bishop argues that millions of Americans have, largely unconsciously, participated during the past 35 years in a national sorting process whereby they live in increasingly homogeneous communities.  

The consequences of this sorting have been profound, he says.  Bishop maintains that this homogeneity has led to the near disappearance of the political center, a diminished public discourse and an entitled populace who approach democracy as consumers, rather than participants.

The sorting has been driven by a number of factors, one of the most important of which has been the increased mobility in America during the past 30 decades. 

While acknowledging that America has seen massive migrations before – Bishop refers to the Second Great Migration of African Americans to northern urban centers like Chicago and Detroit in the 1950s – the migration from 1970 to 2000 differed from earlier versions because it was selective and based on personal characteristics, rather than broad demographic similarities.

The ability to choose to live in areas where other like-minded people have gathered before, Bishop says, has led to the formation of thousands of increasingly polarized communities divided along political, economic and cultural lines.

Bishop cites evidence from national elections to buttress his assertions.  His tracing of the decrease of political moderates from 1976 to the middle of this decade is particularly noteworthy, as are the maps which show the growing number of communities where one presidential candidate or another won a victory of at least 20 points over his opponent. 

Bishop’s book is far from a recitation of statistics. 

A fascinating section discusses the boarding houses in Washington, DC, where representatives from each major party stay. 

By staying in these houses until Thursday night, when they head back to their districts, these representatives have less contact and dialogue with people from the other party than they did in the past – a phenomenon, Bishop argues, that is a microcosm of what has happened in the nation as a whole.  

These sections and nuggets are among the book’s strongest. (His explanation for the reasons that led to the sorting, starting in what he describes as a watershed year of 1965, is more thought provoking than illuminating.) Bishop successfully employs the skills he plied as a projects reporter for the Austin American Statesman with Cushing’s data and other fields to point out divisions that have not previously identified. 

Bishop’s gloom about the democratic implications echo those raised about technology by recently appointed Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs chief and noted scholar Cass Sunstein in Republic 2.0.

As impressive as these attributes are, the book’s analysis seems more convincing in explaining the electoral map of 2004, when George W. Bush scored a narrow victory over John Kerry, than Obama’s triumph over John McCain in 2008. 

Just three states switched political allegiance from the bitterly contested 2000 race between Bush and then Vice President Al Gore to 2004. By contrast, Obama won nine more states and received more than 10 million more votes than Kerry had four years earlier.

The electoral and financial support of a candidate whose central message based on unity and possibility challenges, if not blatantly contradicts, Bishop’s argument.

To be fair, winning an election is not the same as debating and forging a collective legislative agenda. For his part, Bishop could conceivably argue that the increased political involvement by people of all political stripes in the presidential campaign demonstrates how far the American people had retreated from political life. 

Obama’s assumption of the presidency comes at a time of intense national adversity.  Such periods in the past, whether during the Great Depression, World War II, or, more recently, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, have coincided with periods of national unity. 

The ensuing months and years will tell whether the sorting Bishop ably describes is surmounted on the path to national unity and advancement or whether the excitement generated by the Obama campaign will be remembered as a temporary aberration in an increasingly divided nation.