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Books: Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ at 60

My relationship with Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand began years ago. As most reading this may know, the fictional story of man’s mind on strike is Rand’s magnum opus. I read the mysterious tale, which struck me as both knowing and searching, one summer in Chicago. I recall thinking that it was at once epic, cautionary and glorious. When I finally finished, I felt exalted. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, which was published 60 years ago today, several times since.

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But that first time was indelible. I was confused, serious and young, still forming my thoughts and views and, frankly, wanting more from life than sometimes seemed possible. I remember reading Atlas Shrugged — in my apartment, while riding on the El or Chicago & North Western railroad or on the rocks on Lake Michigan’s shore — and thinking that this story was suddenly, strikingly very important and relevant. I had lived long and hard enough to know that its characters, plots and theme were true, though I knew I had more to learn.

Reading Atlas Shrugged was part of my lesson plan. It turned out to be much better than that. This is a plug, not a review. Yet writing even this brings back the searing emotions I experienced while reading Atlas Shrugged as a young man. I was caught up in the thrills, suspense and drama of everything from finding the motor to losing the lights of New York City. I hung on every page and thought about every chapter. I recall being stopped by passengers on the train. I was often harassed or scolded but I was also met, on occasion, with an abrupt interruption by someone who’d say something short, direct and oddly personal. They’d usually spot me reading. Then, before disembarking, they’d simply tuck a briefcase, newspaper or package of cigarettes away while coming to face me and say: “Who is John Galt?” I’d look up. We’d almost always part in silence with a nod or a smile.

Yet there’s loneliness while reading this epic tale. I experienced it that summer in Chicago, again when I re-read it years later, and again and again, as the world closed in, resembling the dystopian America Rand conceived, re-created and dramatized with romantic realism, power and a passionate love for life. The story of the woman of ability who runs a railroad in a rotting civilization and who is the ideal man breeds a sense of alienation, at least it did for me, while at the same time yielding a sense of clarity and peace. I am enlightened, soothed and uplifted when I read Atlas Shrugged. I am horrified, too, of course, and the libertarian movie trilogy narrowly and unfortunately focussed on that, but, mostly, I am exalted. Though it is fiction, this is the world in which I live. It is richer and more vibrant than the horror of a civilization coming to a grinding, screeching stop.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand teases, sketches and distinguishes with literary brilliance what makes the world go. She does this eerily, compellingly and with grace, depth and grandeur. That I’ve found it takes a lifetime — at least it does for me — to contemplate, reflect and integrate the wisdom to be gained from its themes is less discouraging now than it was when Atlas Shrugged was in its 20s. I celebrated in Boston when Rand’s last published novel turned 35, ten years after its author had died, and again in Colorado when it turned 50. And again at the first Objectivist Conference (OCON) in Chicago and this summer at the world’s first OCON in Pittsburgh. I think of it when the lights go out, trains derail and Washington directives come down. I think of it when the manmade glows, rockets soar and the individual rises above the collective and for his own sake.

I think of Atlas Shrugged, too, when the best men fall, hide or stumble. The world is still confusing, though I am less confused, perhaps even more than when I read it when I was young. There is still so much about life that stings, saddens and looms, and, 60 years after it shocked the West and was denounced by the dominant thinkers, Atlas Shrugged is here to read, enjoy, think about, ponder and inspire.

In my general adult writing course, I recently read “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury and a draft of a short-short story I wrote called “Escape from Indigena”. Each student reads or listens and formulates what he thinks is the writer’s theme. This immersion in the writing process, which I call Writing Boot Camp, is a kind of mental fitness training for living in a world that still sometimes feels like it’s about to “blank out”, expire or has just plain gone bad. Atlas Shrugged is foremost a novel about what being alive means. It is poetic, serious and profound. I first read it because I passionately wanted to live. I write this because I still do. So, this is my 60th anniversary plug for Atlas Shrugged, which is to say — if you want to read a great and powerful American novel, especially if you, too, sense that something’s horribly wrong with the world and you want to know why so you can live and enjoy your life to the fullest, do something wonderful for yourself: read Atlas Shrugged.

Book Review: The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

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In The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by Thomas Childers, on sale in early October, a historian tracks the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Unfortunately, this massive volume lacks philosophical perspective. It’s as though war and history professor and author Childers, who recently retired from University of Pennsylvania and has researched his topic, is overwhelmed by the scope, impairing his ability to select the subject’s essentials for a cohesive theme. But, while this massive book, with maps, notes, photographs and an index, is overstuffed with information and certain assertions, it is also packed with history.

In The Third Reich, Childers starts with compelling prose, tracing young Adolf Hitler’s rise from activist community organizer to the raging racist-nationalist-socialist who would become Germany’s dictator. The Third Reich includes the familiar catalysts such as the Versailles Treaty. Childers accounts for how Hitler organized the Nazi party. From the failed Munich putsch in 1923 to Hitler becoming chancellor in 1933, the reader gets what amounts to a condensed biography and facts about World War 2 in Europe and the systematic mass murder of six million Jews in what became known as the Holocaust.

Using German documents rarely used by previous historians, The Third Reich strives to be as comprehensive and accessible as William Shirer’s epic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. With more dates, names and events than demonstrated links, contextualization and examined causes, however, The Third Reich is at best an additional volume in one’s library of books about Nazi Germany. Like The History of the Holocaust and other scholarly Nazi-themed non-fiction, it is useful especially as a reference.

Childers tells compelling stories throughout the book, such as Hitler’s response in 1908 when an arts school rejected his drawings for a second time: “The whole academy ought to be blown up,” Hitler said. As most readers probably know, he neither smoked nor drank. He rarely ate meat. Adolf Hitler, the author writes, appreciated Puccini and Verdi. But he was “utterly enthralled” by Wagner’s operas.

Spurned by intellectuals and sponsored by society matrons taken with his charisma, Adolf Hitler crafted his persona. Hearing him speak in Munich, one observer gave what Childers reports was a common response: “I do not know how to describe the emotions that swept over me as I listened to this man…the gospel he preached a sacred truth. He seemed another [Martin] Luther…his magnetism was holding these thousands as one…I experienced an exaltation that could be likened only to religious conversion.”

As he perfected his oratory appeal, Hitler also grasped the ease with which pictures can comfort the masses. Childers writes that

a black swastika emblazoned in the center of a stark white circle on a background of bright red was the design Hitler hit upon. The red, he reasoned, would appeal to workers, while the combination of black, white, and red, [Germany’s] old imperial colors, would reassure nationalists and others on the right. The [National Socialist] party also adopted a handful of short pithy slogans—”the common good before the individual good” (Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigenutz)…”

In stump speeches, pamphlets (and later in Mein Kampf), Hitler called for nationalization of trusts, enactment of cooperatives, profit-sharing, the “breaking of interest slavery” (“whatever that means,” Childers writes), German socialism, a classless, people’s community and the ennoblement of the German worker. All of this only makes Childers’ insistence that the Nazis were right-wing, even placed far to the extreme right on a chart at the book’s beginning, in case you miss his points, more bizarre. Childers writes that Nazis, sounding like socialist American Sen. Bernie Sanders, blamed “kings of finance”, “International bank and stock-market capital” and Jews for Germany’s ills.

With the New York Times proving to be as wrong and unreliable then as it is now, reporting after the Nazis’ 1924 electoral loss that Hitler “looked a much sadder and wiser man” who “was no longer to be feared”, the Times forecast that Hitler would “retire to private life and return to Austria.”

But the Nazis pressed on, making their case to the German people. One Nazi explained in 1925 that “We want in place of an exploitative capitalist economic system a real socialism, maintained not by a soulless Jewish-materialist outlook but by the believing, sacrificial, and unselfish old German community sentiment, community purpose and community feeling. We want the social revolution in order to bring about the national revolution.” So, despite the author’s thesis, it is impossible not to notice that the Nazi philosophy resembles the collectivist anti-capitalism of America’s New Left.

It is equally impossible not to notice in this laborious account the Nazi parallels to the nation’s solid, currently 30 percent-ish, core of heel-clicking support for America’s new president, Donald Trump. For example, one of the men who would become one of Germany’s top Nazis appraises the rising Nazi leader, gushing that Hitler is

a mixture of collectivism and individualism. Land to the people. Corporations, trusts, finished goods, transportation, etc. socialized…Hitler has thought everything through [and]…always sees the big picture.”

The man making this observation became the Third Reich’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

Propaganda is crucial to the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Childers asserts. “[H]ere Hitler had quite specific ideas. Propaganda, he argued, ‘must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect.” Hitler regarded Germans as “feminine by nature”. By feminine, he meant prone to persuasion by emotion more than reason. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have diversity in Nazi ranks. Inspired by Communist cells, according to Childers, who again refuses to reconcile this with his conclusion that Nazis are spawned strictly from the right, not the left, the Nazis sought to broaden propaganda by enlisting women to serve in one third of the cells.

The primary Nazi propaganda model was the public mass meeting, which started with a major speech and resulting discussion, continuing with recruitment and climaxing in “catcalls, insults, threats, and finally bottle-throwing melees” as part of the fun, which was part of the Nazis’ goal to present a “rough form of entertainment.”

Does any of this sound eerily familiar?

If it does, the Nazi means achieved familiar ends, culminating — like Trump’s 2016 election as president of the United States — in “stunning” electoral totals in leftist strongholds, such as Saxony, echoing the Obama voter’s switch to Trump in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that stunned pundits last November. A Nazi newspaper established in 1927 printed attacks on “the bosses of capitalism” which were, in the author’s words, indistinguishable from anti-capitalist attacks by Communists. Reminding readers of Communist Korea’s threat to launch a 9/11 type attack on U.S. movie theaters when the Obama administration refused to defend Sony Pictures and its targeted film The Interview, Nazi stormtroopers attacked a movie theater in 1930 for showing All Quiet on the Western Front, rampaging through the Berlin theater, releasing stink bombs and mice and assaulting anyone they suspected of being Jewish. The film, like The Interview, was withdrawn from distribution. The 1930 Nazis, like the 21st century Communists, were emboldened.

Titling a chapter “Making Germany Great Again”, Childers makes a partially warranted reference to Trump’s (and, before Trump, Reagan’s 1980) campaign slogan. After all, aside from policy parallels, the name Hitler, like the name Trump, conveyed a one-word strongman sensibility during the campaign. Hitler, Germany’s first politician to campaign by airplane, uniquely used modern means, like Trump using Twitter, to spread his message. And, as did Trump, at “each stop on Hitler’s speaking tour, they peddled photographs of Hitler, Goebbels, Strasser and other top party leaders; they hawked swastika-crested pens, scarves, pendants, bookmarks, and copies of Mein Kampf.”

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The Third Reich is too focused on Nazi politics and not enough on Nazi philosophy, leaving Childers’ assertion that the Nazis “were charting a radically new course” largely unsubstantiated as the reader wonders: toward what? Why? New as against what previously accepted ideas? He tracks details without supplying reasons (for those, and for an essential and proper philosophical grasp of Nazi Germany, the definitive source is Leonard Peikoff’s penetrating 1982 analysis, The Ominous Parallels).

Childers does get at the core of the Nazi philosophy, if circuitously, in the book’s second half, beginning with his chapter, “The People’s Community” (again, glaringly ignoring any parallels to Hillary Clinton‘s and Barack Obama‘s community organizer-Saul Alinsky influenced mentality). He begins the section with an exposition on the Nazis’ requisite faith in the state, the collective and the race. Goebbels, who’d previously been quoted as admiringly cast under Hitler’s spell for what he (wrongly) ascribed to individualism was by 1933 actively putting such ideals in their place. The Nazi propaganda minister rails to an audience of artists:

Individualism will be conquered and in place of the individual and its deification, the Volk [people] will emerge. The Volk stands in the center of all things. The [Nazi] revolution is conquering the Volk and public life, imprinting its stamp on culture, economy, politics and private life. It would be naive to believe that art could remain exempt from this.”

By the end of this chapter, Thomas Childers finally starts offering a fuller account of what the rise of National Socialism means in theory and in practice:

By mid-1934 it was obvious to all that this was no ordinary authoritarian dictatorship but a regime with totalitarian aspirations, a regime that sought to dominate not only the individual’s public behavior, but his private life, his thoughts…[wiping out] the distinction between public and private life. ‘The revolution that we have made is a total revolution,’ Goebbels stated in November 1933. ‘It encompasses every aspect of public life from the bottom up….It has completely altered relations between individuals and utterly transformed the relationship between the individual and the state.’ The Nazi goal was to ‘replace individuality with collective racial consciousness and the individual with the community.’ In the Third Reich, Goebbels bluntly proclaimed, there would ‘no longer [be] any free realms in which the individual belongs to himself…the time for personal happiness is over.”

Not that Nazi Germany, foreshadowing Obama, Trump and Black Lives Matter, didn’t have what most intellectuals today would call an upside. Hitler was a health and nature enthusiast and, while Childers plays down the Nazi belief that nature has intrinsic value, he notes that Nazi scientists declared a war on cancer, studying the link between diet and cancer and “endorsing the consumption of fresh, organically grown vegetables and whole wheat bread”. Nazi medical scientists were the world’s first to establish the link between tobacco and cancer. The Nazi gains are depicted too, for those who favor state-sponsored roads and infrastructure, with Adolf Hitler breaking ground on the German autobahn.

That these supposed gains came under compulsion comes through if not in explicit terms, with doctors being forced by the state to no longer tend to the individual … but to the Volk. “There was no higher moral obligation,” Childers writes, echoing the morality of Obama, McCain, Bush, Clinton, Trump and almost every leading government authority in the West. This duty of the individual to serve the state, the race or collective provides the perfect transition to the Reich Flag Law or the Reich Citizenship Law stripping Jews of German citizenship, rendering Jews as alien “subjects” in their own country.

Accordingly, Jews were choked from their productiveness, banned from practicing medicine, law and dentistry and numerous other work and professions, prohibited by law from distributing stamps. Childers follows with descriptions of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when Nazis smashed Jews’ glass windows, crystal and mirrors and then forced them to pay for the damages. Then comes the “Aryanization”, the “Jew tax” and the death and concentration camps, a horror which is fully detailed, except for any mention of the historic revolt by Jews imprisoned at Sobibor. As always for this reader and student of history, these stories are both gripping and horrifying.

Thomas Childers offers good insights on key, isolated parts of Nazi Germany’s history, such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics and American athlete Jesse Owens. In a brief section, Childers describes the Nazi conspiracy to cover up from visitors Nazi plans, laws and atrocities during the Olympics. But he also concludes in one of the few value judgments that the Olympics provided a triumph for Hitler and the Nazis, putting Jesse Owens’ celebrated victory as an American Negro in Berlin in its proper context. Other interesting tales, though they are short bits, include the stories of the Christian White Rose movement, with its heroine Sophie Scholl, who with her brother and comrades opposed the Nazis, and the Valkyrie conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (both depicted in decent movies) in which the assassination conspirators were hanged by piano wire from meat hooks in slow executions that Hitler ordered to be filmed. The related story of Erwin Rommel’s suicide is included, too.

Hitler’s own cowardly suicide is recounted in detail, with Childers concluding by quoting Nazi architect Albert Speer, who remarked that the dictator had “reached the last stage in his flight from reality, a reality he had refused to acknowledge since his youth.”

Hitler as basically anti-reality and anti-reason comes through in an evaluation by one of his field marshals, who observed that “Will, his Will, Hitler believed, ‘had only to be translated into faith down to the youngest private soldier for the correctness of his decisions to be confirmed and the success of his order ensured…[leaving Hitler, the field marshal concludes] impervious to reason [and leading Hitler] to think that his own will can operate even beyond the limits of hard reality.”

That Hitler’s delusional power-lust, combined with his insatiable desire to serve in duty to the race, tribe and state, could result in diabolically coordinated mass death is likely to be puzzling or inexplicable to the typical American reader. The mass murder of Jews known as the Holocaust is wrongly, tragically known as a causeless horror rather than as the ultimate application of an evil philosophy. “The dead stand like basalt pillars…” one conscripted Jew who survived wrote about the routine of cleaning up after a mass murder, “and even in death one can tell which are the families. They are holding hands in death and it is difficult to tear them apart in order to empty the [gas] chambers for the next batch.”

So, the author’s gravest error is in ending his lengthy and extensive book on Nazi Germany with the term (“moral imperative”) created by the philosophical father of the Nazi German state, Immanuel Kant, whose name is inexcusably absent in The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Can one write Nazi Germany’s history without naming and addressing the ideas that made it possible?

Not in terms of fundamentals (and, again, for a history of the Nazis in terms of essentials, read Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels). But it’s not as though a compilation of facts about one of the world’s most monstrous regimes is often published in today’s culture of memes, blurbs, Tweets, jabs and pics. Thomas Childers has devoted his career to studying war and Germany and there is value in his The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. He notes that SS chief Heinrich Himmler told a gathering of SS men in 1943 — on the mass murder of millions of Jews: “This is a glorious page in our history and one that has never been written and can never be written.” Though it lacks context and what I think are clear and evident causal connections, Thomas Childers proves Himmler and the Nazis wrong as he adds to the written histories of an evil that civilized man should learn, know and never forget.

Books: True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy

In a 1935 photograph of Soviet spy Noel Field at a London disarmaments conference — Field had been recruited by Soviet Russia to spy on the United States of America — his lantern-jawed face contains the faraway vacancy of one who knows he’s too far gone. Field, who never showed remorse for his crimes or renounced his admiration for Stalin, was part of the same Soviet spy cell with Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, who outed them both, in Washington, DC.

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The picture’s included in True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, on sale in paperback next week. In it, author Kati Marton tells Field’s dark, horrifying story of Communist faith and fanaticism. Though she tends to romanticize his suffering and makes the common mistake of granting good intentions for his idealism, despite evidence to the contrary, True Believer demonstrates that Noel Field, an American who passionately spied for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, ruined his family and believed in Communism until the very end, when he was kidnapped and tortured by the KGB and forced to testify against his Communist comrades in one of Stalin’s show trials. In particular, she discloses that Field’s work with the Unitarian Church was a front for helping Soviet Russia and resulted in at least one murder, proving once again that, as Ayn Rand observed, faith and force are “the destroyers of the modern world.”

How a Harvard-educated, State Department employee became friends with Alger Hiss and made himself a Stalinist is True Believer‘s focus, starting in earnest with the Red Decade, the 1930s, when Field enlisted in the International Communist Movement, which New York City-based author Marton partly blames on U.S. evasion of the rise of European fascism. Author and reporter Marton, the child of a Hungarian political prisoner whose parents found and spoke with Field in the only press interview he ever gave, is author of several books.

In often engaging narrative detail, she traces Noel Field’s presumed pursuit of a meaningful life using access to Soviet Secret Police records, the Field family’s correspondence and historical research and reports on Communist spy Hiss, CIA Director Allen Dulles and, of course, Stalin, the bloodiest monster of the 20th century. True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy — published in softcover by Simon & Schuster and available on Sept. 19 — accounts for this faith-based little monster’s pathetic life of crime, treason and evil in what amounts to another volume documenting Stalin’s mass murder and the full force of Communism with notes, bibliography, photos and an index.

Books: The Pit

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Read and indulge in The Pit: Photographic Portrait of the Chicago Trading Floor to recreate Chicago’s capitalism at its best. Published by Chicago trader Jonathan Hoenig’s Capitalistpig earlier this year, this softcover picture book of traders on Chicago’s trading floor features excerpts from The Pit: A Story of Chicago by Frank Norris (1903) such as this one: “A man gets into this game, and into it, and into it, and before you know he can’t get out…and he don’t want to.”

Inspired by the 1903 book by Norris, hailed by the Washington Post when it was published in 1903 as “one of the best descriptions of the wheat pit”, The Pit is the story of a businessman who begins trading, becomes enthralled and is “ultimately ruined by the Chicago futures markets, a fascination ‘worse than liquor, worse than morphine.'”

Jonathan Hoenig, an OCON speaker and Fox Business analyst whose introduction, dedication and acknowledgements pay tribute to the novel, the photographers, traders, trading pit and, of course, Chicago, worked on the floor, which closed in 2015. With 88 pages of color and black and white photos — several with detailed captions — of downtown Chicago’s pit in action, accompanied by selected prose from the novel, the reader gets a strong sense of the thrill of capitalism in the afterglow of its purest period on earth and what once made Chicago “the city that works”.


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Review: OCON Chicago (2013)

Winter in Chicago

Capitalism on Chicagoland’s North Shore

Ayn Rand in Chicago

Official Web Site for ‘The Pit’

Book Review: ‘Before the Colors Fade’ by Harry Reasoner

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Before the Colors Fade (Knopf, New York, Hardcover 1981) by the late ABC News anchorman and 60 Minutes correspondent Harry Reasoner is a light, simple and rewarding tale of the media’s recent past. I came across this unique out-of-print memoir while conducting research on modern media. Instantly, I felt an affection I hadn’t experienced in years.

It’s a feeling one gets from the predominant era of that instantly familiar visual media format, television. Unlike today’s invasive visual media, which is everywhere and therefore constantly intruding upon one’s controlled experiences, such as desktop, laptop and mobile machines, TV was at once a shared and intimate kind of visual media—watching the Apollo 11 moon landing, Roots, Donahue, sports, Frasier was both very direct and easy to like, discuss and share with others—and Harry Reasoner was one of the best broadcast journalists in the later postwar 20th century.

His voice was as sonorous as Morgan Freeman’s—they shared that even-toned, slightly graveled sense of wonder at the world—his look affable yet knowing and he brought a mildly biting sense of humor to his reports. This quality, which most readers probably remember from his segments on Sunday’s CBS series 60 Minutes, is fully expressed in Before the Colors Fade. Reasoner’s memoir is peppered with refined storytelling. It’s also filled with teases, such as his mention in the introduction that he interviewed one of the world’s worst terrorists, a woman named Leila Khaled who hijacked and threatened to crash passenger jets to force the West to create a Palestinian state, unfortunately none of which he details.

In this sense, his book is a bit like wandering into the bar after the game lets out and finding a salty old pro at the corner who’s already had a few drinks and doesn’t mind holding court until it’s time to head home. Reasoner assesses his early broadcasting career with an admission that he thought he would “never make it in studio work” because he thought he had “no presence” and did not open his mouth when he talked, which was “probably the result of an adolescent reticence about showing bad teeth.”

One viewer had noticed that, too, and she wrote to tell him so. “Years later, [while] co-anchoring the ABC News with Howard K. Smith,” Reasoner writes, “I got a letter from a deaf person. Howard and I, she said, were virtually useless to her as broadcasters because we didn’t open our mouths and articulate the words in a way to help her lip-reading. “Howard is terrible,” she wrote, “and as for you, Mr. Reasoner,” she went on, “if you ever fail in the news business, you should do very well as a ventriloquist.”

Harry Reasoner, who comes across as extremely ambitious, reports that he languished for a while until a media critic gave his work a short, passing and positive notice in the New York Times:

If the individuality in Mr. Reasoner’s broadcasts … reflects a broader CBS policy to encourage members of its news staff to be themselves and not echo a corporate pear-shaped tone…”

Reasoner uses this fellow journalist’s clever compliment, which was also a dig at Big Media’s sameness, to reflect on some of his own reports and explore the industry in detail, noting with an intelligent—and predictive—thought of his own that “…news broadcasters should not be humorists … but if the news itself, viewed in a certain way, reveals wit or insight or comment, it’s all right to go ahead. So we did.”

Reasoner’s balance of the sacred and the profane was a key component in his outstanding success and popularity; what made Harry Reasoner light and enjoyable was the sense that he took the news, ideas and life seriously, as he did in one of his best TV broadcasts, his report of a deadly plane crash. He told viewers about Captain Charles White, “an Eastern Airlines pilot and former combat pilot, who died in the Constellation crash yesterday…” explaining that, “after the collision, the plane was unflyable. But he flew it.” Knowing that viewers must have been both horrified and gripped by news of the commercial aviation disaster, Reasoner went on: “As a result, some fifty people are alive who might logically be expected to be dead.”

The newsman described reports of the damaged passenger plane’s “crazy motion”, adding that Captain White’s

alternately powering engines on one side and then another, warning his passengers, and then picking out a field and coming in as softly as you can with that many tons at that kind of speed with no control—coming in flat and uphill—so that before the airplane burned up, almost everyone got out alive. And, now, tonight, Eastern Airlines tells us something else about Captain White: his body was found in the passenger cabin. Eastern’s conclusion is that he could have gotten out, but that he died because he went back to see to the safe evacuation of his passengers.”

Harry Reasoner goes on with a perspective that’s rarely on display among today’s anchors—in an act of decency that’s unthinkable to the generic put-down artists posing at TV desks delivering what passes for the news: “The pride in a man like this radiates out in lessening circles of intimacy—from his family to his fellow employees at Eastern, to all pilots, to all his countrymen, and finally the pride you have in just being a member of the same species. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”

Not that he couldn’t be arch and knowing, too, as when he reported on one of Elizabeth Taylor‘s weddings to Richard Burton, noting that the couple “were married today in Montreal. They met two years ago while working on the movie Cleopatra in Rome and have been good friends ever since. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”

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His breezy Before the Colors Fade glides from witty career notes to commentary on the press, TV and behind the scenes at CBS News, grazing history with Reasoner’s thoughts on “the night East Germany built the wall…”, “very sexy and trivial and irresponsible network news…” and how “[a]n argument with Betty Friedan” may have gotten him the job he wanted. These make for interesting snippets and they are precisely that and not more than that, so read Reasoner’s account for its facts, lessons and glimpses of a better media, not for his deep insights, though he does have them.

For instance, writing about his job, Harry Reasoner argues that “…even though the most important quality a reporter can have is detachment, you have to be able to love, too.” Though it’s true that he doesn’t go deeper and point out that to love is to value, etc., honestly, what journalist of Reasoner’s stature today would dare make such an assertion?

Some of the most penetrating parts are thoughts on his reporting from Gio Linh, Vietnam. “He was not a bad man, or a war-lover,” Reasoner writes about a Green Beret who commanded troops with whom Reasoner was embedded on a combat mission: “He was a professional. The worst casualty of the Vietnam War may have been the spirit and confidence of men like that. They are as yet, in an imperfect world, indispensable. We just asked them to do things for us that we should not have asked.”

Good writing makes reading Before the Colors Fade a treat. The author covers encounters, thoughts or bits on Phil Donahue, Fred Friendly, Lyndon Johnson (whom he describes as a “big, ebullient, manic-depressive Texan”), David Halberstam, Salvador Dali and Peter O’Toole, whom Reasoner writes he’d declined to interview, observing that the star of Lawrence of Arabia “had been out all night and was disorganized.” About one of his favorite 60 Minutes journalists, he writes: “Andy Rooney is my best friend. We just don’t talk to each other much. Well, that’s my essay on Andy Rooney. That would be his ending to that paragraph. Mine would be that he, like Don Hewitt, changed the face and course of American non-fiction television.”

This is how I remember Harry Reasoner as an anchorman and as a correspondent; straightforward, accessible yet judgmental in the best sense. In that example, he doesn’t explain why he thinks Hewitt changed TV, and, while reading Before the Colors Fade, I found myself wishing more than a few times that Harry Reasoner had gone deeper in his analysis. I certainly would have welcomed an opportunity to have interviewed him. He goes by facts, and this is what the best newsmen did and do, though too often he declines to examine facts and their implications, particularly on issues such as the existence of God, religion and ethics. But reading a book by a journalist who goes by facts is surprisingly refreshing and another reminder that the lights have dimmed and grow dimmer, to paraphrase Leonard Peikoff. Harry Reasoner appeared braced for this possibility, judging by his book’s title.

Harry Reasoner thought for himself and it’s clear that he saw himself as a whole man. Reading what were his thoughts about life in its everyday ordinariness, especially in retrospect now that he’s no longer alive, contains key clues about what was then the future, and offers lessons for the future now, despite and due to today’s media-savvy and media-saturated culture:

I wish readers would be a little less herdlike. If there is one rule I would recommend to any reader not specifically engaged in studying for an examination, it would be to read only what you like. It doesn’t matter what it is: if you don’t like it, don’t read it. Reading is a pleasure or it is nothing. Following this rule will mean you are left out in the cold in a lot of literary discussions, where the basic standard for a book seems to be that it be unpleasant, but you can always go in the next room and pick up your copy of Ian Fleming or Richard Hughes or Rex Stout or Ernest Hemingway or Loren Eiseley and improve on most conversation anyway.”

Or consider his take on cigarette smoking. After referring to smoking as one of “life’s most rewarding pleasures”, he writes that

The idea of trying to outguess life, to avoid everything that might conceivably ever injure your life, is a peculiarly dangerous one, I think; pretty soon you are existing in a morass of fear and you have given up not only cigarettes, prime beef, good butter, fine whiskey, spinach, tennis, sleeping on your side, riding without seat belts, air travel, train travel, your chiropractor — maybe, next month, love.”

Harry Reasoner’s most credible thoughts center upon his profession: the press. He warns against what came true throughout this light, slender book, observing its practitioners’ pompous and pretentious tendencies and transgressions and concluding: “I blame the colleges, partly; so many of them took broadcast journalism out of journalism and put in something called a “Communications” major, turning out people who knew all about how but not what to communicate.” He correctly describes the premise of the phenomenally successful 60 Minutes as holding to its tagline “that “all of reality is the grist of news.”

Long before media critics noticed the revolving doors, the cronyism, the concealed biases and the cozying up to power-lusters of state, Reasoner wrote that “too many of us interview the people we have had dinner with the night before. I think journalists and subjects can be mutually respectful friends, but when you are close enough so that you are no longer adversaries, our profession or craft or racket—craft, I think we decided—is in trouble.”

Yes it was, which led to distrust among the public, which is leading to faster acceptance of censorship. Conservatives often ignore that the freedom of the press they find so fashionable to doubt or denounce is part of the freedom of speech that they claim to support. Leftists do the same in reverse, ditching freedom of speech (by calling it “hate speech” for instance) while purporting to recognize freedom of the press, which is impossible without absolute recognition of the former. That’s unfortunate for many reasons, one of which is the disengagement or disenfranchisement of thoughtful journalists such as Harry Reasoner, who exercised his absolute right to free speech with Before the Colors Fade including commentary on the media’s complicity in Big Government, which of course he doesn’t describe that way. He gets at the corruption which was to come with breaking down the press-state distinction:

Knowing people, being on first-name terms or even privy to diminutives, has some advantages. But it is also very dangerous. Maybe we have been too successful, which is why we are, I’m afraid, a bit prematurely old. We have lost some strange and invigorating sense of being outsiders.”

He goes on, however, and this is what the best journalists do, noting the withering away of America’s innocence, as he softly applies this idea to universals, such as the state of the nation’s underlying sense of life…

Because along with the justified cynicism, and the justified feeling that everything seems to be going to hell, we retain our basic optimism, and some inside feeling that man as a whole and Americans in particular don’t have to be like the whispering curlew. We ought to be able to make some sense out of what we’re doing, and stop the worst of it, and limp along…We have on some precious occasions, like July 4, 1976, held each other’s hands and said I love you.”

Harry Reasoner doesn’t stop there. Rather than be accused with some justification of being overly sentimental, he refers to that above excerpt and adds that: “Journalism cannot and should not foster this sort of thing; it should, however, report it. It should be human without being maudlin, aware of sentiment while shying from sentimentalism. It should be awake.”

These last four words are the essence of everything decent and good about his old, tattered, out-of-print memoir Before the Colors Fade, which I found in a used bookstore for a few dollars, like a yard sale treasure. And the last two words are his straight, upbeat and dead serious warning to you, the reader, about navigating what was only starting to become the information glut at the peak of the broadcast media age. So, definitely read Before the Colors Fade if you do as a kind of warning. But revel, too, in Harry Reasoner’s flinty moments of bright writing, such as this diversion, a marvelous affirmation of the benevolent universe:

In case we have another day of it, the thing to do is to be outside, or by a big window, at just about 6:15 in the morning, in this longitude at least. Position yourself on high ground, with the ground sloping away from you sharply to the east and then climbing again; the west bank of a ravine does nicely. Right then you’re looking at the black and white of the world: the other side of the ravine is absolutely black — there could a city or a pride of lions or seven houses of neighbors hidden there—and the sky above the line of the hill is a bright, silvered white—no color at all. And then, before you get too cold to watch, the pink and orange of the sun comes, and the black of the hillside rolls down from the top, down to the river, and there are no lions there at all, but the empty branches of the trees are so clear you think you’ve never seen a tree before. And then you go milk the cows or catch a train or cook the cocoa or whatever it is you do at 6:25 in the morning. And whatever it is you do, it’s easier.”

Neither Harry Reasoner’s grit nor gleam fully makes and completes this conversational memoir, which is frosted by his fabulous sense of humor. At one point in Before the Colors Fade, the late, great Harry Reasoner, who embodied the American sense of life, capsulizes his distinguished career in a few beats that, on the surface, seem to herald the attention-deficit age but don’t, not really, and very much on the contrary if you catch the writer’s drift:

You will notice in these chronicles how often I have been a co-something. A surrogate for Cronkite. Me and Mike Wallace. Me and Mary Fickett. Me and Andy Rooney. Me and Howard K. Smith. And, briefly, me and Barbara Walters. I have gotten over worrying about what all this means and whether I should have inferiority feelings about it: things seem to work better that way. But I would like to note that this book is all mine (unless we decide to treat it as a pilot, recall it, and get a co-author).”

I get it, accept it and miss journalists like Walter Cronkite, Edwin Newman and Harry Reasoner. This is all his, catchy, clever title and all, and thankfully none of it reads like a perfunctory thank you list. If only there were more books like Before the Colors Fade and funny, thoughtful and factual reporters like Harry Reasoner, the world would be a better place and stand a better chance.


Buy Before the Colors Fade by Harry Reasoner