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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”.


Buy ‘The Pit’

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.


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Book Review: Bush by Jean Edward Smith

Biographer Jean Edward Smith chronicles the life of George W. Bush, the nation’s 43rd president, in Bush, available this week. Detailed, comprehensive and often even-handed, the heavily pictured, indexed and footnoted account reinforces that the fundamentalist Christian’s faith drove his decisions and two-term presidency. Smith undercuts his credibility at times. Most unfortunately, Smith ignores or evades certain logical conclusions about President Bush.

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The reader learns about Bush’s life, career and disastrous presidency and other judgments about Bush’s mistakes, flaws and decisions are clearly outlined, reported and analyzed. I did not know about Bush’s business deals with George Soros and Saudi Arabia, for instance, or that his father, George H. W. Bush the 41st president—the one who refused as president to defend the United States and American booksellers against the Islamic terrorist threat by Iran during its fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie—had lived in Compton. Or that Bush, known as 43, Dubya or “W”, praised preacher Billy Graham for leading Bush to believe in God, believed he was God’s messenger and had concluded that he “could not have stopped drinking without faith.”

The degree of the U.S. government’s entrenched cronyism is staggering, as Bush illustrates time and again. Besides Soros, Saudis and familial connections to Connecticut’s Senator Prescott Bush, Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush and the former U.S. president, Bush connects to major power sources. CBS News journalist Bob Schieffer’s brother Thomas, for example, a former Democrat in the Texas legislature, was the Texas Rangers’ “point man” on negotiating the special deal for a new ballpark when Bush owned the baseball team. Reading Bush, every chapter seems to disclose another major government-connected or state-sponsored instance of favoritism. When Mr. Smith makes reference to what someone describes as the “one-syllable guttural chuckle, a ‘heh’ straight out of Beavis and Butt-head“, the reader is reminded that Bush’s frat boy persona is backed by enormously powerful crony connections.

Some of those connections might have served the president and America’s best interests. For example, Smith notes that Bush wanted FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith, who was two years ahead of Bush at Yale University in Connecticut and, like Bush, was a member of Skull and Bones, as secretary of defense. Fred Smith had served as a Marine in the Vietnam War, and won a Bronze Star, Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. The Cato Institute’s major donor took himself out of contention for health reasons and, given how the wars were executed, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been under a war hero’s leadership. Throughout Bush, one sees Bush’s potential as president (I did when I met and interviewed then-Governor Bush in downtown Los Angeles).

This only underscores Bush’s severe deficiencies, which caused the United States to wage neverending war, lockdown and surveillance and welfare statism. The result, depression, despair and the threat of total economic collapse, made possible the historic election of his successor, Barack Obama. Author Smith doesn’t draw these conclusions, however, supporting facts for these assertions are laid out in page after page, chapter after chapter—”Inauguration”, “March of the Hegelians”, “Katrina”, “AIDS”, “Asleep at the Switch” and, the most understated title, “Quagmire of the Vanities”—and note after note. Despite the author’s warped perspective, with his anti-capitalist expressions of admiration for some of the president’s most damaging enactments, such as the monstrous controls on education known as “No Child Left Behind” and government drug subsidies for the wealthiest generation of old people in history, evidence that Bush’s was one of America’s worst presidencies is abundantly and thoroughly presented.

The first U.S. president to impose an office of “faith-based initiatives” in the White House, for instance, had warned Americans in his inaugural speech that, in opposition to the founding ideals of the republic:  “Church and charity, synagogue and mosque, lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored (!) place in our plans and in our laws.” (Exclamation added).  Author Smith demonstrates that teetotaler Bush practices what he preaches, beginning every cabinet meeting with a prayer—”not a silent prayer, but a direct appeal for divine guidance” and all but sidelining funding for stem cell research on faith, abetted by a conservative philosophy professor at University of Chicago.

Regurgitating another philosopher’s dubious ideas, Smith quotes Bush’s guru Karl Rove as proclaiming that “we create our own reality..and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” With Bush sincerely believing that he was the instrument of a supernatural being, he was surrounding himself with a band of obstinate intellectuals that referred to themselves as “Vulcans” for the Roman god of fire. It makes for chilling reading when you think about the thousands who would be doomed to die in fiery pits of hell on earth at the hands of religious terrorists and war policymakers from 2001, when religious fundamentalists brought the Twin Towers down, to 2009, when the economy came crashing down (and never has recovered despite Bush’s multi-trillion dollar debt schemes).

Jean Edward Smith makes mistakes, uses wrong words and lets his political philosophy distort his thinking, as when he chastises Bush neoconservatives, such as Paul Wolfowitz, for following philosopher Leo Strauss who believes in “moral absolutes” and thinks the United Nations is “inherently suspect” (it is and ought to be to anyone who takes rights seriously). But he tracks down crucial facts about the Bush presidency, career and lifetime, including that George W. Bush did not meet with his National Security Council a single time after his initial meeting in January 2001 until after the September 11 attack on America, despite numerous urgent and credible warnings of impending Islamic terrorist attack and Communist China’s seizure of a U.S. spy plane and the American crew.

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In this sense, the author provides a useful account of a very recent and extremely important figure in American history. While lacking a deep and fuller judgment about George W. Bush, Jean Edward Smith sheds new light on Bush’s background, motives and political philosophy. He also sets the record straight that it was Bush, not Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Condoleezza Rice, who took charge of U.S. foreign policy, demonstrating the toll faith takes on the ability to make rational decisions. Smith shows how Bush did everything or almost everything wrong in response to the act of war known as 9/11. This spiraled the nation faster toward its current pre-totalitarian state. Thanks to Bush, it is easier to see so soon after he was president how Bush  endangered Americans’ lives, properties and liberties and ended, harmed and foreclosed pursuits of happiness for generations to come.

For their roles, Rumsfeld and Cheney come off as flawed but more measured and responsible than they are often portrayed by some pundits and journalists. Rice, whom Smith asserts (as I’ve suspected) willfully evaded signs of impending catastrophic assault on the United States, contrary to what she claims, and “threw fits”, does not. Other illuminating facts include President Clinton‘s attempt to visit North Korea. The author gets facts wrong, too, as when he writes that “President Reagan deserves full credit for ending the Cold War” (facts about the then-crumbling Communist Russia show otherwise). But Smith gets most of the important facts right and, which is perhaps more important, he shows that he grasps the magnitude of President’s Bush’s wrongdoing  (even as he doesn’t name it as he could and should).

On this issue, Smith observes that, at a certain point in the president’s term:

When Bush returned to Washington on Labor Day, he had spent a total of fifty-four days at his ranch since inauguration. “That’s almost a quarter of his presidency,” said the Washington Post. Throw in four days last month at his parents’ seaside estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, and 38 full or partial days at the presidential retreat at Camp David, and Bush will have spent 42 percent of his presidency at vacation spots or en route.”

Bush declared a war against terror, which Smith correctly suggests is inherently unwinnable, recited Bible verses and instructed a speechwriter that a reference to 9/11 “as an act of war” be deleted. Under Bush’s administration, CENTCOM changed the name of America’s military operation in Afghanistan after 9/11 from Infinite Justice to Enduring Freedom to appease Moslem sensibilities, the NSA justified mass, indiscriminate spying on Americans in what one scholar calls “a defining moment in the constitutional history of the United States” and the Marines were ordered to “cut and run” at Fallujah in Iraq just when they needed to use unyielding force against the enemy.

George W. Bush gets his due as a man with a kind of American decency, too, especially when viewed here in the context of the Bush family, particularly in a story about a chandelier in which Bush spares a childhood playmate from his mother’s wrath. But Smith outlines and explains in Bush how Bush ruined America for Americans with wars of altruism, the morality Bush essentially adopted from his father’s and grandfather’s noblesse oblige and mangled with Americanism, which caused intellectuals such as Smith, whose biographies of Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower have earned acclaim, to mistake Bush for an advocate of moral absolutism.

This fraudulence is exactly why Bush was a bad president, one of the worst. Smith gets this judgment off to a serious and scholarly start, whatever Bush‘s imperfections, and he does it with clarity in the narrative, the facts and the contexts. What he gets wrong, he gets wrong, such as his penultimate chapter’s last line that “[i]deology was replaced by [Bush’s] pragmatism.” The author’s frequently purposeful account of the facts of Bush’s life and times proves otherwise; pragmatism, mixed as it is by Bush with faith at a moment in U.S. history that called for the clear, sober and ruthless use of reason, is George W. Bush’s philosophy. Jean Edward Smith’s disturbing yet important Bush, with its barrage of tales, facts and names showing that America’s government is contaminated with favoritism, nepotism and small, blank and corrupt minds, makes the case that Washington is led by petty little believers and illustrates why time for argument and action based on reason is running out.


Related

Interview: George W. Bush (1999)

Thoughts on George W. Bush

George H. W. Bush at the End of Iraq

Buy Bush by Jean Edward Smith (Simon & Schuster)

 

 

Book Review: Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty

Writing as “a historian who has devoted four decades to the study of Virginia” and an author striving to “do his best”, Richmond, Virginia scholar Jon Kukla—who has directed research and publishing at the Library of Virginia, authored history books and run Virginia’s Red Hill/Patrick Henry National Memorial—accounts for the one major American Revolutionary who “never held national office” in his biography Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (published today by Simon & Schuster).

Presuming an audience with serious interest in the Virginia lawyer, planter and American radical who defiantly proclaimed “Give me liberty, or give me death!”, Kukla immerses the reader in a dense, detailed and exhaustively factual biography. Neither exactly a straight chronological narrative nor a predominantly political philosophical reckoning, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty instead goes for completeness in providing the central facts of Patrick Henry’s career as an orator, thinker and founder of the American republic.

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is impressive. Do not, however, expect or look forward to a portrait of the whole man. Kukla emphasizes essential points of Patrick Henry’s remarkable life, career and achievements—most impressively, offering deeper or newer details on Henry’s thoughts, ideas and writings—and does not get into the personal life, such as children and marriage. Patches of Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty are dull, dry and laboriously overdone with non-essential facts, names and information. But if history, and, in particular, great mythical tales of American history, entices your intellect, most of the reading is page-turning.

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History earns my most intense​ readership and Jon Kukla’s meticulously researched volume, with over 100 pages of notes, acknowledgements and preface, brings newly disclosed documents and insights to this patriot’s role in the radical, grass-roots movement to break free from British statism, declare independence and create an American republic.

“[Patrick] Henry was of medium build and average height, with deep-set but piercing steel-blue eyes, a dark complexion, and strong features,” Kukla writes. “His face was described not as handsome but as ‘agreeable and full of intelligence and interest.” Henry once sported a bright red cape when elected to public office. Indeed, he became known for rampant individualism, which may explain why he does not typically get his historical due as an influential Founding Father. Absorbing and continuing threads include Patrick Henry’s abiding friendship with George Washington—Virginia’s first governor and America’s first president—despite the pair’s principled dispute over the Constitution.

Young Patrick Henry and his brothers had grown up hunting, fishing and exploring the countryside, Kukla notes, and his philosophy apparently formed relatively early in life. Virginian Henry, indulging himself in nature, studied and guided himself in contemplating books, arts and Western ideas. “After breaking his collarbone at the age of twelve,” the author writes, “Henry during his convalescence taught himself to play the flute, though only for his private enjoyment. He was also an excellent performer on the violin.” Henry, like Thomas Jefferson, “spent hours ‘lying with his back upon a bed’ reading Laurence Sterne’s popular and risque comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote or Daniel Defoe’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” Friends described Patrick Henry’s disposition as “benevolent, humane, mild, quiet, and thoughtful.”

As an adult, Patrick Henry did own slaves even as he denounced slavery, which he believed was detrimental to everyone, causing white workers to “despise honest physical labor”, and Kukla seeds the volume with a running and carefully integrated account of slavery. He does so as it relates to his subject. So, the reader is more likely to come away with an objective grasp of why early advocates for slavery’s abolition, such as Patrick Henry, failed to follow through. Among complicating factors are Haiti’s violent slave rebellion, which set the cause of abolitionism back, an inter-colonial slave trade and, not insignificantly, the looming War for Independence, which appears to have all but derailed serious consideration for abolition.

Patrick Henry emerges as a compelling man of principle. Henry taught himself the law, seeking guidance from an attorney whom he considered honest, who “won [Patrick Henry’s] admiration for his strict refusal to defend clients he thought were wrong.” Soon, Henry built a profitable legal practice, increasing his caseload from 176 in 1760 to 493 in 1763, according to Patrick Henry’s ledgers.

Yet his ability to make money was inextricably tied to the issue of the British government’s control of nearly every aspect of colonial lives and Henry’s lifelong pursuit of happiness fuels his activism for creating a society based on individual rights. When the British crown rejected the Two-Penny Act of 1758, which Henry considered a perfectly logical law, Henry echoed political philosopher John Locke, denouncing the British king’s disallowance by noting that a king who fails to protect his people “forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.” After accounting for Henry’s formative three weeks in Williamsburg, where he witnessed Virginia’s first opposition, both public and private, to the government’s imposition of stamp duties on the colonies firsthand, Kukla takes on the facts and details of the Stamp Act of 1765, which, like ObamaCare, was concealed from the public and presented in the press as a fait accompli weeks after enactment, a tactic which would inform Patrick Henry’s later political methodology.

Henry’s blistering opposition to the Stamp Act forged his reputation as an American radical for liberty. In fact, Kukla reports that colonial newspapers reprinted versions of Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act resolutions during the summer of 1765, galvanizing resistance among the colonial population. The Massachusetts governor warned the British that Henry’s proposals were proving to be “an Alarm bell to the disaffected.”

And Henry, who celebrated Hugo Grotius and others as “illustrious writers” and benevolent spirits who “held up the torch of science to a benighted world,” took painstaking inventory of the toll each act of injustice took on himself and his fellow Virginians. Kukla writes that even Patrick Henry was shocked when the Stamp Act’s details came to light; Henry’s legal practice was subject to 40 government fees on every document, including wills, deeds, bills of sale, even college diplomas. The Stamp Act imposed taxes, too, on Virginia’s newspapers, almanacs, calendars, and pamphlets. A fellow attorney and Virginia burgess exclaimed: “Every kind of business transacted on paper is taxed!”

The Virginian fought the king’s tyranny with words, ideas—and oration. George Mason wrote that Henry was “the most powerful speaker I ever heard.” Mason attested that “[e]very word he says not only engages but commands the attention; and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them. But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is in my opinion the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities as public virtues.” Congressman Silas Deane gushed: “Patrick Henry is the compleatest Speaker I ever heard…but in a Letter I can give You no Idea of the Music of his voice, or the highwrought, yet Natural elegance of his stile.”

Patrick Henry’s oratorical style, like his savvy political, business and intellectual sense, was bred by thoughtful and methodical study of facts, context and analysis of what making a nation based on individual rights would necessitate, mean and entail. While visiting Philadelphia, Patrick Henry roamed bookstores, purchasing Thomas Leland’s edition of The Orations of Demosthenes on Occasions of Public Deliberation (London, 1763), one of many books about oratory Kukla writes that Henry used to improve his public speaking. The book bears Henry’s printed bookplate, signature, and his handwritten notation: Philadelphia 1774. But Kukla observes that Henry’s copy also contains a dog-eared corner of a page at this passage of particular interest to Virginia’s great orator: “When we take up arms against the Barbarian,” Demosthenes proclaimed about 354 BC, “we take them up for our country, for our lives, for our customs, for our liberty, and all such sacred rights.”

Henry “electrified the whole house”, Kukla writes, recapturing Henry’s legendary lines delivered on Tuesday, September 6, 1774, according to delegates’ notes of the congressional debates, that “The Distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” Kukla adds that “Patrick Henry’s oratorical skills were impressive, of course, but the delegates placed greater weight on his ideas.” Years later, John Adams told Jefferson that, in that Congress of 1774, “there was not one member, except Patrick Henry, who appeared to me sensible of…the Pinnacle on which he stood, and had candour and courage enough to acknowledge it.”

With a chosen pen name Scipio—”a pseudonym honoring the Roman patriot and general praised by Cicero as an exemplary orator and leader”—Partick Henry railed against Britain’s “bloody massacre” at Boston, reminding the king that “the breath of a tyrant blasts and poisons every thing, changes blessings and plenty into curses and misery, great cities into gloomy solitudes, and their rich citizens into beggars and vagabonds.”

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Filling Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty with such stirring words, usually grounding the speeches, excerpts and moments in their proper context, Kukla lays Patrick Henry’s life and ascent bare, demonstrating that the brilliant agitator for an American revolution and nation based on man’s rights was often biting and brave. That he once “sneered” to appeasers: “Shall we try “humble supplication”? That he may have saved the Midwest from British rule during the American Revolution with a band of elite forces, battled malaria and wrote his will entirely in his own hand. That believer Patrick Henry had concerns about the growing influence of deism and was not strictly for separating religion and state. That President Washington twice considered appointing him to the Supreme Court and once to succeed James Monroe as ambassador to France. That he wrote that he “detests” paper money. That Henry had 17 children and nearly 80 slaves when he died of stomach cancer at the age of 63.

Or that the text of Patrick Henry’s 1765 resolutions against the Stamp Act were a starting point of the American Revolution.

But Kukla also recounts, sometimes too generally or, conversely, with too much detail, that Patrick Henry, who was also a military colonel in the Revolutionary War, was intensely interested in and had a decent understanding of military history and strategy. Col. Henry created Virginia’s navy and, Kukla notes: “By the end of the Revolution, the legacy of Patrick Henry’s navy comprised two major shipyards and a dozen smaller ones as well as scores of warships—brigs and brigantines, schooners and pilot boats, and cruisers and row galleys—all manned by seven hundred officers, sailors and marines.”

To this end, Henry was loved by his enlisted men, who at one point threatened to quit and refused to serve under any other commander. But what also comes through in Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is that Patrick Henry was a deep and serious thinker, not merely a man of high ideals, inspiring speeches and decisive action, who was capable of life-affirming insight and introspection. For instance, Henry held that “[m]aturity grew not from “uninterrupted tranquility” but from hardships that “compel an exertion of mental power…Adversity toughens manhood—and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempted from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.”

Surmount them Patrick Henry apparently, did, too, as his wife Sarah, his “beloved companion”, “lost her reason” and showed signs of mental instability, dying in early 1775. Henry put his Scotchtown plantation up for sale in August of 1777. He sold it the following year for “eight times the purchase price, considerably advancing his fortune.”

Patrick Henry, whom Ayn Rand named a Midwestern university after in her epic novel of ideas, Atlas Shrugged, uttered his most famous line on March 20, 1775. Jon Kukla alludes to it in the title of his book’s Chapter 14: Liberty or Death: “When at last Henry took the floor, eyewitnesses describe him as starting “calmly,” as was his practice…Henry warned that his opinions were “very opposite to theirs.” …Henry wanted Virginians to face the whole truth, acknowledge the worst, and provide for it. Henry’s speech, as one distinguished historian observed, “transformed resistance into revolution.”

How exactly comes into sharp focus as Kukla recaptures Henry’s glorious American moment:

There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.” When Henry paused, murmurs of “Peace! Peace!” emanated from the pews where some of his timid colleagues sat, punctuating the dramatic moment and plodding one of history’s greatest orators toward the culmination of his most famous speech. “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace,” Henry answered. echoing the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, “but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field!” he exclaimed, affirming once again Virginia’s policy of steadfast unanimity with the other colonies. “Why stand we here idle?” “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He paused again, lifted his eyes and hands toward heaven and prayed, “Forbid it, Almighty God!—I know not what course others may take, but as for me…give me liberty, or give me death!” Then as his voice echoed through the church and his audience watched in stunned silence, Henry raised an ivory letter opener as if it were a dagger and plunged it toward his chest in imitation of the Roman patriot Cato. The church fell silent. “Men looked beside themselves,” one listener recalled. Another listener, standing outside a window after failing to find a seat inside, felt overwhelmed by Henry’s oratory. “Let me be buried at this spot,” exclaimed Edward Carrington, the younger brother of a Charlotte County delegate.”

Kukla notes that the British redcoats moved to disarm colonists at Concord and Lexington three weeks later, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson termed the shot heard ’round the world, setting off the fireworks that sparked an American Revolution.

For his part, Patrick Henry, convinced that the Constitution would result in a consolidated government that, when it proved oppressive to Virginians, could not be altered, opposed ratifying the Constitution. He opposed We the People, which he held was presumptuous, insisting that We the states was the proper phrase. “The chief aim of government, he insisted, was neither the promotion of trade nor imperial visions of becoming “a great and powerful people” but the protection of personal liberties. “Liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.” But this does not mean that Henry was an advocate of states’ rights as that term is widely understood. He wrote that “the dissolution of the Union is most abhorrent to my mind. The first thing I have at heart is American liberty: the second thing is American union.”

Nearing conclusion, Kukla observes that Patrick Henry warned that “The Constitution squints toward monarchy” and that he cautioned that “Your president may easily become king,” asking: “What will then become of you and your rights?”

In the chapter Last Call, Kukla largely lets the great American hero Patrick Henry have the floor, recalling his words: “If I am asked what is to be done when a people feel themselves intolerably oppressed, my answer is ready—overturn the government. But … wait at least until some infringement is made upon your rights that cannot otherwise be redressed; for … you may bid adieu forever to representative government.”

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty ​is an excellent and important biography of the patriot Patrick Henry—who inspired the American to rational action for individual rights in this land’s darkest hours—and wrote:

Reader! whoever thou art, remember this,

and in thy Sphere, practice Virtue thyself,

and encourage it in others.

P. HENRY

Event Review: Festival of Books

The 22nd annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is a unique combination of book sales, signings and promotional events. I’ve attended for years and, still, I enjoy it while acknowledging its deficiencies. My top complaint is the same as always: volunteers, event staff, venue staff and security are poorly equipped and trained to direct the over 150,000 people who come to the University of Southern California campus. Event maps are lacking. One volunteer in a festival information booth gave me the wrong directions to the Salvatori Computer Science Center, not to be confused with an arts and letters building donated by a Salvatori with that name emblazoned on it. Getting around the festival, important if you favor lectures and panel discussions as I do, gets worse every year (read my thoughts on last year’s festival here).

Once at the destination, which could be anywhere around USC’s wonderful campus near downtown Los Angeles, you’re often afforded outstanding opportunities to listen, learn, ponder, explore and examine the world of books and ideas. I spent much of the two-day weekend event roaming around booths, visiting small university presses, independent booksellers, university writing programs, USC’s many schools’ showcases and booths for various authors, theaters, publications, schools and products, from Atheists United, Titanium sponsor Acura dealers of Southern California and the Ayn Rand Institute to author Zoe Summer and YaYa’s Creole Products. Add music—the Trojans’ marching band is always a favorite—cooking and kids’ areas, and C-Span’s Booknotes interviews and scads of other contests, prizes and free samples, from books and prints to power bars and bags (which come in handy with California’s plastic bag ban, which amounts to a tax) and the book fair truly is a festival. Subtract the presence of book publishers that dominated early festivals, however, and there are fewer and fewer books, especially new, major books and authors.

I had previously attended a conversation with author Glenn Frankel at an event at the Autry Museum of the American West in LA’s Griffith Park several weeks ago. His book about High Noon and what he and many others in Hollywood refer to as the blacklist (Hollywood’s highly touted 1950s’ blackballing of presumed Communists or Soviet sympathizers, not the list of unmade scripts) makes Frankel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and worked for the Washington Post, an attractive guest speaker. So, I already knew that Frankel, who also taught journalism at Stanford and the University of Texas, knows his subject well. He’d told the Autry audience, for instance, that High Noon was shot in 32 days on a low budget, that screenwriter Carl Foreman was called to testify to a congressional committee about his membership in the Communist Party and that star Gary Cooper was the son of British immigrants, that he may have been impacted by childhood visits to Montana’s state house, where he saw a painting of Lewis and Clark, and that he was not very political.

When I saw that Frankel was on a book festival panel on classic Hollywood, I decided to attend. Knowing that, at the Autry, he had dropped the context that the United States was under threat of attack by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), something that people who talk about the Hollywood blacklist usually do, and that we know that the Soviets funded subversive efforts to undermine the U.S. government, I wanted to hear a detailed analysis of classic Hollywood, including the blacklist, through panel discussion.

Instead, the panel was the opposite. Moderated by USC writing instructor, Newsday political cartoonist and author M.G. Lord, who wrote a book on Elizabeth Taylor titled The Accidental Feminist, the panel was a barrage of uncorroborated claims and arbitrary assertions about the blacklist which turned into a political rant against Trump and conservatives with hardly any discussion of classic Hollywood. Author Jon Lewis, a movie professor at Oregon State University, declared that Trump’s election means democracy is dead in America (seriously). Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times film critic, whom apparently everyone calls Kenny, barely spoke about classic film, though he did mention being raised as an Orthodox Jew. Frankel, who is both extremely knowledgeable and fundamentally mistaken in his book’s assertion that Ayn Rand is to blame for what he sees as the injustice of a Hollywood blacklist, gave the most substantial classic Hollywood analysis. Others went for laughs and digs at Trump or the blacklist.

To her credit, Karen Maness, a scenic artist and co-author of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop and painting instructor for the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance and scenic art supervisor at Texas Performing Arts, gave very interesting facts and insights about classic movies’ backdrops.

The classic movies discussion was disappointing but a panel on writing short stories was worse, despite efforts by PEN Center USA literary programmer, author and moderator Libby Flores. Given the team’s credentials, I was astonished that no one really talked about writing short stories. Channelle Benz, who earned her MFA at Syracuse University, has published short stories in The American Reader and is the recipient of an O. Henry Prize. Author Dana Johnson is an English professor at USC and winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Brooklyn writer Rebecca Schiff graduated from Columbia University’s MFA program and her stories have appeared in The Guardian. Deb Olin Unferth, who writes in Austin, Texas, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and her work has appeared in Harper’s, the Paris Review, and Tin House. So I was looking forward to a detailed examination of writing short stories. The panel started late and veered into the writers’ rambling thoughts on why they are fascinated by “the color of blood” and admissions and confessions of personal tastes and idiosyncrasies. When I asked if they have an explicit theme in mind when they write a story, only Schiff answered and she didn’t say much. No one else spoke.

Unferth was the most entertaining short stories panelist, using humor to lighten the dense discussion, which did not include mention of a single writing habit. Unferth, who told the audience about a story she wrote in which a shooter contemplates whether to gun down a child at the top of a hill, was asked about the most memorable reader response to her writing. She made the audience laugh when she admitted that a blogger once posted—and apparently kept posting—about how he hated one of her stories, which he wrote was a downer that kept dragging him down. Imagine that.

When Flores asked everyone to name the first story to make an impression, no one could think of a single story to name. At some point, Schiff did manage to credit Kurt Vonnegut with the advice to “make your character want something—even if it’s just a glass of water.”

Titles among their material might have been a cautionary clue that they aren’t terribly interested in breaking down the writing, let alone editing and publishing, process. Benz is the author of The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead. Johnson’s newest book is titled In the Not Quite Dark: Stories. Schiff’s latest book is called The Bed Moved.

Easily the most stimulating panel came late in the festival on Sunday. Whereas the short story writers gave the impression that writing is mysterious, magical and indecipherable, the writers on the “From Page to Screen” panel stressed the opposite idea.

Panelists included Brian McGreevy, author and screenwriter (and co-creator of AMC’s The Son with Pierce Brosnan), who was a James Michener Fellow at the University of Texas. His latest novel is The Lights. Also on board: novelist Tod Goldberg, who wrote novels based on USA Network’s Burn Notice and co-authored the Hammett Prize finalist Gangsterland, for which he’s writing a sequel, Gangster Nation, scheduled for publication this fall; Los Angeles writer Pamela Ribon who recently co-wrote Disney’s Moana and former Dark Shadows actress Lara Parker, author of three novels based on NBC’s cult soap opera, who attended Vassar College, graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis with a BA in philosophy and received her MFA in creative writing from LA’s Antioch University. The moderator, USC writing instructor Richard Rayner, who’s written nine books, including an LA crime history, A Bright and Guilty Place, and an interesting article on Rudyard Kipling, liked to talk more than he liked to let the panelists talk.

When they did, the page-to-screen writers were hilariously insightful and incisive, generously sharing their insecurities, showing their battle scars and being utterly candid in every detail about their writing. Contrary to the painfully pretentious short stories panel, these writers were quite self-aware and purposeful in trying to help the audience grasp the hard work and wrenching business of writing. They fed off of Goldberg’s delightful banter with Ribon, which was at once politically incorrect and perfectly suited to the occasion, delivering with good humor the necessary tips, tools and knowledge to manage Hollywood’s often anti-conceptual handling—more like belittling—of the writer. Goldberg wisely explained that he knows his limits (he didn’t put it this way) by focusing on prose writing. McGreevy had said something similar.

Everything Tod Goldberg said, and he is enormously successful, and, not coincidentally, decent, kind and gracious in person, tracks to not letting the pain of pursuing a livelihood in writing go too deep down into your soul. In his own introverted way, McGreevy, too, let the audience know how to let off steam and cope with adversity in the potentially ruinous page to screen process, alluding to horror stories while delivering a blistering breakdown of the term “showrunner” as a total lie. McGreevy, who explicitly embraced writing’s solitude and said that he really doesn’t like spending a lot of time with people, explained that he studied the creative process from a primarily different orientation—that of the perspective of those titans of the technology industry. He said he read many of their books on being productive and gained real value. He also encouraged writers to take breaks often to give detachment and distance to the material (my writing class students may recognize this particular writing lesson).

Parker shot down the moderator’s attempt to credit her acting with any meaningful tie-in to her writing, crediting her own reading of great works of horror literature, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula to more recent novels and, finally, her decision to mimic the structure and approach of Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn). She derided the box office bomb movie version starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins (“Tim Burton is not interested in story”, she said) and, having played a villainess, the witch, she pointed out that the franchise Dark Shadows is a supernatural thriller rooted in serious, universal themes of life and death through gothic romanticism. Asked by Rayner after she griped about having to deliver bad lines as an actress to name the worst line, Parker fingered The Six Million Dollar Man on ABC, in which she played Col. Steve Austin’s love interest who told him at the end of the weekly episode that: “There will always be a candle buring for you in the window, Steve.” To which Mr. Goldberg deadpanned, a moment after audience laughter subsided: “Was this during the Civil War?”

All of which only made this writer want to read their books.