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)

 

 

Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

The third and final picture in Fox’s latest Planet of the Apes franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes, is a stinker. So much was expected by this fan of the first two films―I also enjoyed Fox’s original 1968-1973 quintet, which I repeatedly saw as a boy in theaters and on TV and video―and so little is delivered from filmmakers, including co-writer and director Matt Reeves. The flat movie fails to engage at every level, starting with characters. But the main problem with War for the Planet of the Apes is a lack of plot, conflict and war. It’s rote and there’s not much at stake.

Consider that the trilogy’s leading character, the chimpanzee Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, who is sufficiently expressive in computer generated or performance capture mode, loses his wife and child early in the plot. This ought to be either devastating or formative or both. But it’s not. This is because the audience is not invested in the murdered characters. Accordingly, the pivotal plot point’s impact is limited. Without proper exposition, the whole plot feels strangely uninvolving. You know you’re supposed to empathize with Caesar, the voice of reason in the series, but it only goes so deep and, with the loss mitigated by lack of development―wife and son screen time goes by in a few blinks―you don’t get absorbed into the rest of the film. No abundance of CG tears and facial expressions can make this crucial event and its aftermath matter.

Caesar’s loss needs to matter very much, too, because it ostensibly serves as the catalyst for major change in his character. Without saying too much, Caesar is haunted by the deaths and rightly moved to seek justice. This entails hunting, tracking and defeating those responsible for the attack, ape and human alike. Quickly deciding that he must do this alone, and leaving his surviving son Cornelius with the tribe, Caesar goes off in search of hostile apes and humans, led by Woody Harrelson (Wilson), essentially and unfortunately playing Woody Harrelson in one of the most hollow performances of his career. What could have been a catalyst for introspection into Caesar’s failed or flawed leadership—really, after 15 years, Caesar still fails to gauge dissent and detect betrayal and hostile threats?—turns into an overly sentimental trek that exists primarily to create and chew scenery, overplay Michael Giacchino‘s sugary score and borrow too heavily and obviously from James Cameron’s Aliens.

Not that the first two films, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, didn’t move the audience to emotion and even get cute here and there. Yet the first two movies, made by the same studio and filmmakers, also provoke thought, which War for the Planet of the Apes does not. At every plot turn, from Harrelson’s sadistic military colonel running an ape slave camp with goosestepping troops one minute and with lousy patrols, training and cohesion the next to a human child wandering into harm’s way as if her entirely war-ravaged, traumatic life had never happened, the jaw drops at the unrealism of the whole, ridiculous thing. During my theatrical showing, one couple started laughing and walked out. At first, I thought they were jumping the gun, so to speak. In subsequent scene after scene of preposterous plot action, I understood what drove them out. Effects are not enough to satisfy an intelligent audience. Recreating tears with skill, ability and precision does not substitute for plot, character and theme.

On this point, War for the Planet of the Apes‘ theme is lame. Aside from being predictable, and every major development lacks imagination, the meaning of the movie is safe, tame and purely serves the status quo. Its Judeo-Christianity—the movie proposes that to forgive everyone, including the mass murdering tyrant, is divine—contradicts its righteous bloodlust, which apparently on the movie’s terms is morally acceptable if judging one’s identity solely by one’s species. That might not matter, or it might matter less, if War for the Planet of the Apes, which I opted for over comic book-based movies (which I wasn’t in the mood to see), had been entertaining. A zoo chimp adds nothing and might even be mildly annoying. It’s a mystery why filmmakers dispensed with clever references to the original series, such as Maurice’s name (Maurice is the best thing about War for the Planet of the Apes), which would have made this movie tolerable. Naming a character after a car and Forbidden Zone-type scarecrows do not count as clever; they come off as add-ons.

Instead, this curious departure from superior previous entries is puzzling, plodding—with long, boring stretches without action—and, because it overplays its contradictory themes, pretentious. I can’t begin to count gaping plot holes but let me point out that mortal wounds probably take their toll before days-long treks across deserts, mountain ranges and promised lands. A movie called War for the Planet of the Apes ought to at least have a strong sense of conflict. War for the Planet of the Apes does not. Like its number of references to the first movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is zero—Caesar apparently has no interest in reflecting on his life in whole—ape leader Caesar’s climax comes to a low, flat and empty end.

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

An Objectivist in Pittsburgh

Blake Scholl addresses Objectivists in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Scott Holleran)

Watching Boom Supersonic founder and CEO Blake Scholl address this summer’s Objectivist Conference in Pittsburgh, I was struck by the newness, youth and growth of the movement to advance Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. Blake is a friend whom I’ve known since he was a student at Pittsburgh’s distinguished university named for two great American capitalists — Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie — at the end of the 20th century. Today, Blake’s a leading new voice for capitalism, seeking to reclaim and restore supersonic air travel.

As the only philosophy to advocate capitalism on the ethics of egoism, which Ayn Rand (1905-1982) reduced to what she boldly and, I think, rightly called the virtue of selfishness, Objectivism is perfect for attracting, inspiring and guiding productive achievers such as Blake Scholl, who departed after his talk in Pittsburgh to Paris, where he tripled orders for Boom Supersonic’s new jet (its XB-1 Supersonic Demonstrator is scheduled to fly at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California in 2019). The system of ideas created by the author of Atlas Shrugged is bound to foster businessmen such as Blake Scholl, who presented his vision for aviation based on speed, convenience and quality before what the Ayn Rand Institute claims is its largest annual Objectivist Conference.

Pittsburgh

The city of steel, bridges and exemplary education, Pittsburgh, too, is the perfect place to exhibit an enticing preview of the manmade. Pittsburgh was at the crux of creating the world’s single, greatest period of productive achievement, the Industrial Revolution. This magnificent city, where pioneering soldiers, frontiersmen, industrialists, doctors and artists protected and forged the nation’s most enduring new enterprises — in medicine, engineering, energy, movies, television and the arts — continues to be underestimated. Just like America, Ayn Rand and the best minds.

Certainly, Boom’s Blake Scholl is not infallible; he may make mistakes in executing his vision. However, with Blake’s presentation, the Objectivist movement reaches a higher point — fittingly, in a tower located next to railroad tracks at the south bank of the Monongahela River in a proudly industrialized metropolis which climaxes at a golden triangle pointing West, stretching into lush, green hills. This year’s OCON included lectures on intellectual property, stoicism and the gold standard. Ayn Rand biographer Shoshana Milgram delivered insightful talks on Rand’s interviews with industrialists and an examination of Rand’s favorite novel, which is about building a grain elevator. There was a screening and discussion of the Oscar-nominated documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, trivia and talent events and a panel discussion on free speech with Flemming Rose, a journalist who once published a Mohammed cartoon and still needs police protection. Pittsburgh doctor Amesh Adalja spoke on the history of infectious disease in the city where his heroes, Drs. Thomas Starzl and Jonas Salk, made medical history. OCON Pittsburgh — during which the Pittsburgh Penguins won hockey’s Stanley Cup and I visited family and friends and saw the Pittsburgh Pirates defeat the Colorado Rockies at PNC Park — included tours of the Homestead blast furnace once owned by Andrew Carnegie‘s U.S. Steel, Henry Clay Frick’s (1849-1919) home and owned works of art and Fallingwater, the home Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann in 1936. I was writing TV scripts on deadline during the conference and missed some talks, events and mixers. And, while certain conference services, staff and events failed, fell flat or need improvement, others were good, new or interesting.

Blake Scholl’s talk stands out as an Objectivist hallmark. That this Carnegie Mellon University graduate stood as a businessman against the cynicism and anti-intellectualism of our times to demonstrate that the good is possible and that air transportation can and ought to be grand, fast and glorious realizes Ayn Rand’s depiction of man as a heroic being. That he did it in Pittsburgh is perfectly rational. So, here comes evidence that the potential for the gleaming, industrialized future Ayn Rand’s idealistic novels envision, promise and dramatize can be made real. Whatever happens on the day after tomorrow, to paraphrase a condensed description of Atlas Shrugged — a novel, it must be recognized, which also depicts a dramatic episode of aviation adventure — this is true, which is cause for all thinkers to want more of what Objectivism explains and offers for living here on earth.

Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)

Tom Cruise stars in Universal’s The Mummy, which looked like it might be a throwback to classic horror movies. In spite of Cruise, whose movies are often almost as formulaic as his acting, I wanted to like The Mummy. With David Koepp, whose cinematic adventure stories (Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, and also the underrated Zathura) can be enjoyably childlike, as a credited screenwriter, I knew it might be fun (and, to some extent, it is).

There’s more to The Mummy than Koepp’s storytelling and Cruise’s appeal, however. The more that’s piled on, the less engaging it gets. Russell Crowe (Man of Steel) as a mysterious Dr. Jekyll and steampunk atmospherics might have infused The Mummy with psychological subtext. But the movie is diminished by bad acting (not Crowe’s), flat directing and poorly written lines.

“You have been selected as the vessel of the ultimate evil.” Audiences might have reason to expect such a line in a comic book-based movie and Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll as the default narrator of this retelling of the mummy as monster delivers it as best as he can. As with so much of The Mummy, it stands out for its silliness, exacerbated by the unevenness of the whole movie. Corpses from the Crusades, a plot point which starts things off, might also have been developed into an interesting subplot. But, they, too, are depleted and reappear predictably and without finesse. This tale from the crypt of a power-lusting, tattooed, erotic zombie (Sofia Boutella) in black-haired bangs borders on camp.

With an Egyptian backstory, the plot about this bloodthirsty monster being “mummified alive” sticks to its pretzel-twisted logic. Wasting Courtney B. Vance as a military leader, Cruise and sidekick roam Iraq with the U.S. military while searching for treasure to loot. Indeed, Cruise for the first half is like a sobered, showered and shaved cousin of Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s a scoundrel, a thief and a looter, as when he forces his partner to join him on a dangerous mission, which turns out badly for the sidekick. Cruise’s character is as lovable a wreck as Sparrow, which is not meant as a compliment.

None of the characters in The Mummy are sympathetic, which derives from the picture’s theme that everyone, including Jenny the archaeologist (milquetoast Annabelle Wallis) is flawed and that life’s a grand trick to redeem oneself. Again, it might have all clicked into place on its own terms—opposing views aside and despite the generics and histrionics—had the parts been affixed rather than discarded amid silly distractions. For example, following a harrowing plane crash, Jenny and Cruise’s character stop for a beer. This after he went down with the plane and miraculously survived; no scars, no serious shock, no blood, bandages or medical treatment, just bar banter.

Add a sandstorm, corpse close-ups, spiders, parasitism and necrophilia and The Mummy tops implausibility with effects over essence. It may look exotic, but it starts to get incomprehensible. An Arab terrorizing London with a looming threat of mass death heightens the ghoulishness (now that’s bad timing). Cruise’s character is drawn to the berserk mummy as to a siren which is more puzzling than involving until you realize that it sets up The Mummy‘s point that one must “sacrifice for the greater good”.

In short, it’s a newly rearranged blend of stuff you’ve seen and heard before. This includes overstylized films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, the atrocious War of the Worlds (complete with Cruise’s character running with the apocalypse) and Cruise’s own immortal ghoul vehicle, Interview with a Vampire, only with milder homoeroticism, and, of course, the superior World War Z. The Mummy is not awful. It’s merely mediocre. It might have been better.