Tag Archives: President Obama

McChrystal Resignation, Alter on Obama’s Promise

Alter's book provides the back story to the McChrystal-Obama controversy.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s incendiary comments in a Rolling Stone story, summons to Washington and possible firing have dominated today’s headlines.

While in many ways it could be a dizzying fall from the heights of power, for those who followed McChrystal’s actions last year while Obama was weighing his options in Afghanistan, the decision is unsurprising.

I wrote earlier this month about Jonathan Alter’s The Promise, his look at the 18 months that started with the September 2008 economic summit and that ended this March with the passage of health care reform-legislation that thus far is the president’s singular domestic accomplishment.

Alter writes in words and in the caption to one of the book’s pictures that McChrystal’s attempts to force Obama’s hand represented the sternest test by the military of civilian authority since Gen. Douglas MacArthur and then-President Harry Truman squared off during the Korean War.

The late, great David Halberstam wrote about the earlier conflict in at least two of his books (I’ve not read all of his works, but plan to do so eventually): The Fifties, his exhaustive look at the decade during which he came of age, and The Coldest Winter, his final completed book.

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Antisemitic comment, community conversation policies.

I received an antisemitic comment yesterday.

Without getting into too many details, the sender’s name was “Adolf Hitler” and the thoughts expressed were unambiguously offensive.

After some deliberation, I deleted it.

I very much want this space to be a community where people around the world can express strongly held beliefs, opinions and ideas.

It gives me great satisfaction and joy that the community has continued to build in numbers, comments and countries.

The post I wrote about President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize, for example, elicited comments from readers in France, Chile, and Tibet, among other countries.

Dear friend David Axelrad appears to read regularly in Hungary.

I want to be clear that I encourage passionate and heated disagreement about what I and others have to say.

At the same time, I will not tolerate derogatory or hateful comments.

Thanks again for reading, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.

R.I.P., Ted Kennedy


Edward Kennedy, the last surviving sibling of his generation, has died at 77 years old.

Edward Kennedy, the last surviving sibling of his generation, has died at 77 years old.



Senator Edward M. Kennedy has died, just days after the death of one of his last surviving siblings, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

He was 77 years old.

Kennedy’s death marks the end of an era in American political and public life, both because of his individual death and because of the near passage of his generation of siblings.  

Kennedy did not live to see the passage of fundamental health care reform he cherished so deeply, but he did help usher through many landmark pieces of legislation during his nearly half-century of public service.  In addition to championing legislation that addressed the needs of America’s underserved communities for nearly half a century, Kennedy eventually came to be considered one of the most fair and bipartisan senators in the entire chamber.  

President Obama, whose campaign benefited heavily last year from Kennedy’s endorsement, has already labeled him “the greatest senator of our time.”

Tributes from both sides of the aisle are likely to pour in during the upcoming days and weeks.

In June I wrote about Edward Klein’s recent admiring biography, Edward Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died

In the book Klein argues that Kennedy conquered his personal demons and eventually became a lion of the senate, worthy of being mentioned along with giants like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun.    The three nineteenth century legislators are discussed in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, which I wrote about earlier this month. 

Each of these men bear similarities to Kennedy.  

Each embodied a region of the region.

Each had thwarted presidential ambitions.

And each had lengthy, contributory senatorial careers in which they ultimately put the interests of the nation above their own personal ambition and regional or state interest. 

Kennedy’s successor will be chosen by a special election.  

While the identity of that person is not yet known, what is known is that he or she will have impossibly large shoes to fill.

Michael Marmot Identifies the Status Syndrome.


Sir Michael Marmot looks at the impact of status on health care outcomes.  Hint: higher status is better for your health.
Sir Michael Marmot looks at the impact of status on health care outcomes. Hint: higher status is better for your health.



I wrote yesterday about Muriel Gillick’s call for America to stop denying aging and to shift radically its thinking about health care and the policies that flow from that different approach. 

Today, also at my father’s suggestion, I read Michael Marmot’s The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, and realized that, in order to have truly meaningful impact, health care policy changes should be accompanied by changes in social policies.

Marmot is one of the most prominent of an international group of scholars and researchers who investigative and write about the social determinants of health outcomes.

What they find may surprise you.

In The Status Syndrome,  Marmot marshals a host of different studies from around the globe, literary references from everyone from Leo Tolstoy to William Shakespeare to Saul Bellow, a few well-placed jokes, and his 30 years of research experience to show that one’s social standing does indeed have very real consequences for our health and life span. 

The book contains entertaining nuggets, like the point that Oscar-winning actors on average live four years longer than their nominated, but non-victorious, peers. 

His bigger point, though, is that there are a number of factors that are not directly to health care policy and that occur in societies where basic needs are generally met that have large influence on how long and how well people live.

One of the studies he conducted was the Whitehall Study in which he followed the health trajectories and experiences of English civil servants, most of whom had quite similar jobs and all of whom had access to public health care.

The workers’ health improved in direct proportion to their rank.   The highest ranked workers had the best health outcomes, followed by the next group, and so on down the line.

This may seem logical enough, and Marmot breaks down the different components of the syndrome, showing that the amount of money one own earns relative to others, control over one’s life, and connection on individual and society wide levels all have significant and quantifiable consequences for people’s health.  

Societies like Japan that have relatively high levels of social cohesion, meaning that people’s actions are characterized by consideration for, and trust of others, and that have lower levels of income inequality tend to have much better health outcomes on average than societies like the United States, which has a higher GDP, but greater levels of inequity and lower level of societal integration. 

A summation of decades of work, the Status Syndrome effectively blends research findings, literary and cultural allusion-Puccini gets a nod to open a chapter, for example-with a perspective that is at once moral, practical and self-interested.  While Marmot explores the idea in the book’s final sentence that full equality may never arrive, he urges societies to take specific actions to make the world more equal.  

“Why not make things better?” he asks.  “It’s in all our best interests.”  

Marmot includes as an appendix a list of recommendations he and other members of the Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health developed to try to make those changes possible. 

Unsurprisingly, of the 39 recommendations, only three are directly about health care policy. The other 36 focus on changing the social conditions that create those health care policies.

Marmot emphasizes that the book does not cover individuals experiences, but rather takes a nationwide vantage point, with the exception of a short section about two men who were born during the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but one lived most of his life in Austria while the other was in Hungary.  

The national perspective is a valuable one.   I hope that President Obama and the others looking to enact comprehensive health care reform consider the implications of Marmot’s work not to stop from going forward with the changes they seek, but rather to have those reforms be part of a larger restructuring of our nation’s priorities and policies.  

Obama’s visit to Buchenwald, Deborah Lipstadt’s exposure of Holocaust denial


Emory University Deborah Lipstadt after her victory over Holocaust denier David Irving in a British court.  Lipstadt's book about Holocaust denial is important reading on the subject.

Emory University Deborah Lipstadt after her victory over Holocaust denier David Irving in a British court. Lipstadt's book about Holocaust denial is important reading on the subject.



I carry the history of the Holocaust in my name. 

My Hebrew name is Yosef,  I am named for Joseph Lowenstein, or “Papa Joseph,” my paternal great-grandfather and the patriarch of that side of the family.

In 2004, I visited Mr. and Mrs. G. in the Essen-Steele area where our family had lived for generations.  

Mr. G’s father owned a print shop and had been Papa Joseph’s patient for many years. In addition to showing me a notebook full of correspondence between our families for more than 60 years, starting with a death notice his father had created for my great-grandmother, John’s wife Maike read a letter her father-in-law had written that described Papa Joseph’s desperate efforts to leave Germany after the war had begun.

Shunned by many of the people who he had cared for for decades, Papa Joseph carried around an English dictionary as part of his efforts to learn the language to help him adjust to life in America, should he get out.

He never did.

Instead, he was deported first to Theresienstadt, and, from there, to the Auschwitz death camp. There, he and more than 1 million other people, were murdered by the Nazi regime and the workers who carried out the killing. 

President Obama’s recent visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where dear friend and personal hero Leon Bass witnessed liberation in April 1945, had personal resonance.  

In between his stops in Cairo, Egypt and Normandy, France, Obama called the camp the “ultimate rebuke” to those who would deny the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, there are many who would do so.

Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University has written a powerful book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, created a blog and been featured on a web site that seeks to expose and counter Holocaust denial.  

In the book, Lipstadt breaks down the range of tactics that deniers use.  While some are open and avowed anti-Semites, others take more sophisticated and thereby disturbing tactics.  This second group starts from the seemingly reasonable premise that war is a terrible experience for all people before starting to nibble around the edges of the numbers, the gas chambers, survivors’ memory, the role of disease, the absence of written commands from Hitler ordering the genocide, and so on.  

The cumulative effect is to say that the death of about 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews did not occur.

Venerable historian Richard Hovannisian has written about how the similar tactics employed by deniers of the Armenian genocide-an event that to this day is still denied by the Turkish government-and the Holocaust. 

In her work, Lipstadt writes about other major deniers like Ernst Zundel, Robert Faurisson, and Arthur Butz, an engineering professor at Northwestern University.

Within this part of the book, she has an interesting section about Noam Chomsky, who had a back-and-forth position about Faurisson’s right to speak at certain forums and air his views that is captured in part in the documentary film, Manufacturing Consent.   A current denier site, Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, cloaks itself in the mantle of what in America is called the First Amendment.  

 She also explains the shift in tactics by the deniers, who have created “revisionist” pseudo-scholarly journals in which they peddle their hate.  

Lipstadt has always refused to appear on the same stage as Holocaust deniers because she says to do so would confer legitimacy to their lies and imply that there is an argument when, in fact, there is none.

She has paid a price for her scholarship.

In 1996, she was sued by David Irving, one of the major deniers, for libel in a British court.  Three courts found for Lipstadt, but the struggle continues, both because of the vast reservoir of information on the Internet-a Google search of her name and the book’s title instantly produced a denier’s “review” of the book that called it “vile”-and because of powerful leaders like Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly has denied the Holocaust.  

Obama called out Ahmadinejad by name at Buchenwald, making it clear that he stands on the side of truth.  

Still, the struggle continues, especially as survivors continue to age and die, leaving us to pass on the reality about what happened to the next generation. 

1. Have you seen any denial web sites?  What tactics do they use?

2. How do you best counter a lie about history?

3. Why are so many people silent when Ahmadinejad issues these odious statements?

Memorial Day Reading Recommendations

Jonathan Shay has written a gripping book that links the experience with Vietnam veterans of the Iliad.

Jonathan Shay has written a gripping book that links the experience with Vietnam veterans of the Iliad.

It’s early afternoon on Memorial Day and Dunreith is out shopping for food for our afternoon barbeque.  Thunder clouds are starting to gather ominously overhead, and we are looking forward to having friends and family over for what traditionall has marked the beginning of summer in Chicago.

Of course, for hundreds of thousands of American families throughout our history, Memorial Day has not been a day of celebration, but of solemn remembrance and honoring of the men and women who gave their lives in the service of our country.

President Obama called for Americans to take a silent moment at 3:00 p.m. today and reflect about the valiant sacrifice of our nation’s veterans.

Here are a couple of books that chronicle veterans’ struggles that might be useful during these times of honor and memory:

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, by Jonathan Shay.  A MacArthur Award winner,  Shay is not trained classics scholar, but explored The Iliad and found direct parallels between Homer’s tale and the experiences of the Vietnam veterans he counseled in his clinical psychiatric practice.  Others like Danielle Allen have linked the classics to contemporary life, and Shay’s work stands out both for its connection to the Iliad’s narrative arc and the questions of right and wrong the soldiers in the story and his patients confronted.

Fortunate Son: The Autobiography of Lewis B. Puller, Jr. , by Lewis B. Puller, Jr. This Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir tells the story of a scion of a Southern military family attempting to rebuild his life after becoming wheelchair bound in Vietnam.  That Puller eventually killed himself lends the work an additional layer of poignance.

What books, movies or art about war and veterans have impacted you?

How should we best remember their service?

Russian Reset, The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Richard Rhodes' outstanding work provides valuable context for Hillary Clinton's recent joke.

Richard Rhodes' outstanding work provides valuable context for Hillary Clinton's recent joke.

I wrote last week about President Obama’s efforts to “reset” the United States’ relationship with Russian, its former adversary while in its incarnation as the Soviet Union.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed up on the metaphor, handing her counterpart, the witty Sergei Lavrov, a fake “reset” button during a meeting next week.

Good humor aside, relations between the former Soviet Union and the United States went through very tense periods during the Cold War, none more so than during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

At stake: the possible destruction of the world by nuclear weapons. 

While some saw Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to turn his ships around and avert a possible nuclear confrontation as a clear victory for then-President John F. Kennedy, others later said that Khrushchev’s willingness to turn away from the brink may have averted a nuclear catastrophe of apocalytpic proportions.

The number of nuclear weapons at the leaders’ disposal had grown exponentially since the dropping of bombs Fat Man and Little Boy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945.

The bombs not only ushered in a new age of unprecedented destruction, but marked the culmination of a furious design effort headed by the brilliant J. Robert Oppenheimer. Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb is an authoritative account of the physics, physicists, geopolitics and consequences of making the bomb that caused Oppenheimer to quote Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and say, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Rhodes’ book richly deserved the Pulitzer Prize it received upon its publication in 1986. 

He weaves three major and interrelated narrative strands together seamlessly in this massive work: the evolution of atomic physics; the physicists’ gradual awareness of nuclear power’s destructive capacity; and the changing political and historical context in which they eventually saw the bomb as a necessary tool for survival to defeat the Axis Powers.

Any one of these topics are sufficient enough to fill a library.  Rhodes’ skill is that he shows the connections between the areas.  I have comparatively little education in and understanding of physics, but found myself able to understand Rhodes’ explanation of the syncretic contributions of luminaries like Albert Einstein, Eugene Wigner and Niels Bohr.  Rhodes similarly does a fine job of bringing these individuals, their passions, their competition and their belief, especially on Bohr’s part, on the value of an open society in which rank does not matter and the best ideas are implemented.

Rhodes also effectively shows the rise of Hitler’s fascist government in Germany, his hasty dismantling of the fragile and fledgling Weimar Republic and his relentless move to war.  In one of the book’s many ironies, Rhodes shows how Hitler’s antisemitism led to the forced departure of many of the people who worked tirelessly to defeat him by creating the atomic bomb.

Rhodes also depicts the physicists’ desire to finish the job and, in most cases, remorse after the bombs had been dropped in Japan, and, instead of leading to the permanent end of conflict between nations, only ushered in the most lethal and potentially destructive era yet.  Oppenheimer spoke publicly about the physicists’ knowing sin, and he was far from alone in the sense of distress at the cause to which he had contributed and dedicated many years and his most concentrated energy and attention.

In short, The Making of the Atomic Bomb is an outstanding book that I can easily picture making my list of Top 10 books for 2009.  People interested in understanding the meaning behind Clinton’s reset gesture would be well served to read Rhodes’ magisterial account of a time and place before nuclear weapons existed.