Archive for April, 2016

Being Nixon : A Man Divided / Evan Thomas

I campaigned against Richard Nixon during the 1972 presidential election and cheered when he resigned from office. In picking up this recent biography of him, I was unsure of how I would react to being reintroduced to him forty years later. To my surprise, I came away feeling more sympathetic than vindictive toward a man clearly divided. After all, he was capable of great kindness, and he accomplished a number of bold initiatives while in the White House. His intelligence is beyond question. And yet for all his strengths, he was also damaged psychologically. Quick to perceive a slight, his downfall came about as a result of needing to extract vengeance on others who questioned his judgment.

Unlike some biographers, Evan Thomas seems to have come into the book with no preconceived opinions about his subject. In fact, he goes to great lengths to show the favorable side of Richard Nixon. While not excusing the mistakes of his Administration, neither does he present them in a damning manner. Nixon is always allowed to tell his side of the story. This is the book’s greatest strength. Too many of the books written about Nixon are authored by people who seem to have an axe to grind. Here, he gets a fair hearing.

That said, Thomas concentrates on Nixon’s accomplishments in foreign affairs while neglecting his domestic policy. And as he shows in the book, Henry Kissinger played a big part in America’s warming relations with Russia and the opening of China to Western capitalism. Though a staunch anti-Communist, Nixon’s willingness to encourage such overtures shows his flexibility as a politician. The black mark on his record is his assertion that he could quickly bring about an end to the war in Vietnam. His decisions to expand the war into Cambodia and the bombing activity in North Vietnam proved to be complete failures.

Naturally, the centerpiece of the book is Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in and the subsequent coverup by the White House. Thomas suggests that Nixon was not actively involved in explicitly ordering this illegal activity. Instead, he blames Nixon’s inability to rein in his staff, citing the President’s reluctance to involve himself in confronting personnel issues. While Richard Nixon might not have expected his expressed desire to extract vengeance for perceived slights to be acted upon, he did nothing to prevent such acts from occurring.

I have a theory about Nixon’s actions regarding these illegal activities. He was clearly a loner, a person who felt uncomfortable dealing with people on a personal level. And yet he desperately wanted to fit in. As a result, I think he tried to act the tough guy around his staff to prove he was “one of the guys”. The White House tapes show a man who often spouts off emotionally and yet does does not truly expect his words to be taken literally. In the end, Nixon’s dark side proved to be his downfall, whether or not he expected to be obeyed.

As the book’s title indicates, Richard Nixon was indeed a man divided. Throughout his political career, he swung from acts of great kindness to needless vindictiveness. What made me more sympathetic to Nixon was his relationship with his wife and children. While he was often remote and sometimes cruel to his wife in public, there is no doubt he loved her and she him. The same goes for his two daughters who stood by his side through the tumult of Nixon’s last year in office. And to his credit, even after his resignation, Nixon never succumbed to self-pity and surrender. Always the fighter, he continued to work to make a come back on the national stage.

The book in many ways is incomplete, focusing more on the character of Richard Nixon than the American political landscape of the time. In no way is it a definitive biography. But Thomas does succeed to make the man seem less the monster the demonstrators at the time portrayed. Instead, he presents a more sympathetic depiction of a person blessed with intelligence and a drive to succeed, unable to overcome the dark side of his personality. No matter what side of the political divide the reader stands, this book is sure to prove a fascinating read.

Darkening

Having presented
another guest, a curious Jupiter
hovering overhead,
“civil twilight” has begun to dim
our expansiveness.

Carrying a whiff
of the sea, we struggle to follow
“nautical twilight” as
it whispers tales our eyes strain
to comprehend.

“Astronomical twilight,”
minus illumination, illustrates;
imperceptible to
each other, we are hushed by
a candled sky.

Skyfaring / Mark Vanhoenacker

There is certainly poetry to be found when navigating the world aloft in an airplane. However, few pilots are poets. Mark Vanhoenacker, who flies a Boeing 747, turns out to have a poet’s soul with the necessary writing chops to capture and convey the magic of soaring miles above the clouds, traversing the globe as a part of his daily routine.

His revelatory reflection on the experience of modern air travel made me appreciate all over again the wonder I felt the first time I traveled across the country on a plane. Vanhoenacker masterfully explains the business of air travel as experienced from the cockpit. While he describes the nuts and bolts issues of taking more than one hundred passengers airborne, he also addresses the psychological aspects of leaving the boundaries of earth and traveling long distances in a relatively short amount of time. In the process, he reminds us of the wide-eyed amazement of the actual experience.

The chapter titles of Skyfaring give the reader a good understanding of the scope of the book: Lift; Plane; Wayfinding; Machine; Air; Water; Encounters; Night; and Return. Taken as a whole, they depict all that really happens while passengers struggle to find a comfortable position in their cabin seats. Vanhoenacker spices his account with insights on air travel history, geography, weather, family left behind, and the science that has brought about today’s relative safety and mundaneness of defying Earth’s gravity.

Air travel has become so commonplace and regimented that, for most frequent flyers, it has been drained of its intrinsic marvel. Just one hundred years ago, the rich members of society would have paid a king’s ransom to experience what we now take for granted. Thanks to Mark Vanhoenacker, I’ve been reintroduced to the miraculous aspects of the act of boarding a plane and traversing the globe. Jaded passengers, who all too often focus on the uncomfortable aspects of air travel, should gain a renewed appreciation by reading this book. He eloquently shows that what we grudgingly “endure” come travel day is a special experience that pays dividends exceeding the ticket price.

Singing On The Porch

Tonight, a third listening ear,
the moon eavesdrops on our conversation.
Neighboring homes darken
and their lawns open into shadowy vistas.
Blocks away, nutrient rich
and phosphorus-based, the bay exhales
a whiff that wrinkles noses.
A gentle comb, the breeze has begun to
untangle the day’s problems.
Our wives off to bed, a splash of Scotch
unlocks memory’s closet.
School buddies lost to the mist of time.
Details that conflict entirely.
The greatest hits of stories shared before.
No, it wasn’t that we fell
asleep still talking, merely that the quiet
inserted itself between words.
Lengthening like the night’s the shadows,
what we no longer had to say
mattered just as much as conversation.
Somehow, we knew our
‘golden oldies’ could never compare to
the moon’s recollection.
Besides, after a soundtrack concludes,
there is nothing left to sing.

American History : A Very Short Introduction / Paul S. Boyer

In 1995, Oxford University Press began to publish a series called Very Short Introductions. Covering an array of topics in history, philosophy, religion, science, and the humanities, the VSI library now contains more than 300 volumes. In this series, Paul Boyer took on the difficult task of condensing a historical account of America from pre-history to Obama’s presidency into a pocket sized book that contains just 150 pages.

Boyer, the Merle Curti Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, does a remarkable job of winnowing this country’s historical milestones into a coherent overview. His account captures the complexity of our history in a highly readable format. While highlighting America’s positives, he does not shy away from also presenting the negatives, especially in regards to the issues of inequality and racism.

This was Boyer’s last book before he succumbed to cancer in 2012. Over his career, he wrote extensively on the religious and moral history of the American people. In this history, he masterfully weaves strands of this expertise into the narrative. While he is mostly evenhanded in his presentation, once he reaches the 1960s and beyond, he does become a bit more expansive and subjective. Nonetheless, for anyone who would like to read a quick refresher course (or an easy to read introduction) to America’s history, this book is sure to satisfy.

Seeking Directions

They take their privacy
seriously out here, surrounding themselves
with acres of it.
Not a single house waits by the roadside to
invite passing interest.
Edged with snow despite a May day’s heat,
potholed gravel driveways
stretch and narrow into a screen of trees.
Mailboxes stand sentry.
In spite of forebodings, seeking directions,
you follow one such artery.
The forest floor gives way to sweet clover.
Arrested in mid-crumble,
a wooden corncrib announces occupancy.
Then, around the bend,
curious but suspicious, behind barb wire,
a field full of grazing cows
is suddenly tracking your slow progress.
Reaching the farmstead,
you both fear and hope someone appears.
On the home’s front porch,
a dog bristles even before the car stills.
Stalled and directionless,
you have come too far to find a way back
to the safety of privacy.