Give The Gift of Nostalgia and Angst

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For a holiday gift this year, consider giving a book about politics, since politics this year is so very special.

There are two kinds of books out this year of special interest. There is a plethora of books that expose the evil underpinnings of the white supremacist meritocratic oligarchic patriarchy. And, there is a growing collection of books about the last time America was going under for the third time, and the people of those times. Here is a selection for you to ponder.

JFK: A Vision for America. As our political system slides off the seat and into the crapper, I am finding this book to be a worthy and informative distraction. From the publisher:

Published in commemoration of the centennial of President John F. Kennedy’s birth, here is the definitive compendium of JFK’s most important and brilliant speeches, accompanied by commentary and reflections by leading American and international figures—including Senator Elizabeth Warren, David McCullough, Kofi Annan, and the Dalai Lama—and edited by JFK’s nephew Stephen Kennedy Smith and renowned historian Douglas Brinkley. Combined with over seven hundred documentary photos, it tells the story, in words and pictures, of JFK’s life and presidency, and depicts his compelling vision for America.

JFK brings together in one volume John F. Kennedy’s greatest speeches alongside essays by America’s top historians, analysis from leading political thinkers, and personal insights from preeminent writers and artists. Here is JFK at his best—thought-provoking, inspiring, eloquent, and wise—on a number of wide-ranging topics, including civil rights, the race to the moon, the environment, immigration, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and much more. JFK demonstrates the deep relevance of his words today and his lasting power and influence as an outstanding American leader and orator.

Elegantly designed and enriched by more than 500 photographs and facsimiles of Kennedy’s marginalia on drafts of speeches, his notes from important meetings, letters, and other fascinating documents, JFK is a major contribution to American history.

The august list of contributors includes Secretary John Kerry, Ambassador Samantha Power, Congressman John Lewis, Senator John McCain, Senator Elizabeth Warren, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Robert Redford, Conan O’Brien, Dave Eggers, Gloria Steinem, Don DeLillo, David McCullough, George Packer, Colum McCann, Michael Beschloss, Robert Dallek, David Kennedy, Ted Widmer, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Drew Faust, Tariq Ramadan, Pastor Rick Warren, Jonathan Alter, E. J. Dionne, Ron Suskind, Paul Krugman, Kofi Annan, Governor Jerry Brown, Paul Theroux, Jorge Domínguez, and many others.

Check it out

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit by Chris Matthews

A revealing new portrait of Robert F. Kennedy that gets closer to the man than any book before, by bestselling author Chris Matthews, an esteemed Kennedy expert and anchor of MSNBC’s Hardball.

With his bestselling biography Jack Kennedy, Chris Matthews shared a new look of one of America’s most beloved Presidents and the patriotic spirit that defined him. Now, with Bobby Kennedy, Matthews returns with a gripping, in-depth, behind-the-scenes portrait of one of the great figures of the American twentieth century.

Overlooked by his father, and overshadowed by his war-hero brother, Bobby Kennedy was the perpetual underdog. When he had the chance to become a naval officer like Jack, Bobby turned it down, choosing instead to join the Navy as a common sailor. It was a life changing experience that led him to connect with voters from all walks of life: young or old, black or white, rich or poor. They were the people who turned out for him in his 1968 campaign. RFK would prove himself to be the rarest of politicians—both a pragmatist who knew how to get the job done and an unwavering idealist who could inspire millions.

Drawing on extensive research and interviews, Matthews pulls back the curtain on the public and private worlds of Robert Francis Kennedy. He shines a light on all the important moments of his life, from his early years and his start in politics to his crucial role as attorney general in his brother’s administration and his tragic run for president. This definitive book brings Bobby Kennedy to life like never before and is destined to become a political classic.

Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics by Lawrence O’Donnell.

From the host of MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, an important and enthralling new account of the presidential election that changed everything, the race that created American politics as we know it today

The 1968 U.S. Presidential election was the young Lawrence O’Donnell’s political awakening, and in the decades since it has remained one of his abiding fascinations. For years he has deployed one of America’s shrewdest political minds to understanding its dynamics, not just because it is fascinating in itself, but because in it is contained the essence of what makes America different, and how we got to where we are now. Playing With Fire represents O’Donnell’s master class in American electioneering, embedded in the epic human drama of a system, and a country, coming apart at the seams in real time.

Nothing went according to the script. LBJ was confident he’d dispatch with Nixon, the GOP frontrunner; Johnson’s greatest fear and real nemesis was RFK. But Kennedy and his team, despite their loathing of the president, weren’t prepared to challenge their own party’s incumbent. Then, out of nowhere, Eugene McCarthy shocked everyone with his disloyalty and threw his hat in the ring to run against the president and the Vietnam War. A revolution seemed to be taking place, and LBJ, humiliated and bitter, began to look mortal. Then RFK leapt in, LBJ dropped out, and all hell broke loose. Two assassinations and a week of bloody riots in Chicago around the Democratic Convention later, and the old Democratic Party was a smoldering ruin, and, in the last triumph of old machine politics, Hubert Humphrey stood alone in the wreckage.

Suddenly Nixon was the frontrunner, having masterfully maintained a smooth façade behind which he feverishly held his party’s right and left wings in the fold, through a succession of ruthless maneuvers to see off George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, and the great outside threat to his new Southern Strategy, the arch-segregationist George Wallace. But then, amazingly, Humphrey began to close, and so, in late October, Nixon pulled off one of the greatest dirty tricks in American political history, an act that may well meet the statutory definition of treason. The tone was set for Watergate and all else that was to follow, all the way through to today.

Playing With Fire is the perfect holiday gift!

The other category, the present state of democracy and governing, includes urgent information and often advice on what to do. You should start with Shawn Otto’s The War on Science, which recently won the Minnesota Book Award for non-fiction. (Click through to my writeup of the award to find the book.)

Then check these out:

The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy by Brian Klass. It is the current Amazon best seller in the category … wait for it … “fascism.” Here’s the details:

An ex-US campaign advisor who has sat with the world’s dictators explains Donald Trump’s increasingly authoritarian tactics and the threat they pose to American democracy.

Donald Trump isn’t a despot. But he is increasingly acting like The Despot’s Apprentice, an understudy in authoritarian tactics that threaten to erode American democracy. Whether it’s attacking the press, threatening rule of law by firing those who investigate his alleged wrongdoings, or using nepotism to staff the White House, Donald Trump is borrowing tactics from the world’s dictators and despots. Trump’s fascination for the military, his obsession with his own cult of personality, and his deliberate campaign to blur the line between fact and falsehood are nothing new to the world of despots. But they are new to the United States. With each authoritarian tactic or tweet, Trump poses a unique threat to democratic government in the world’s most powerful democracy.

At the same time, Trump’s apprenticeship has serious consequences beyond the United States too. His bizarre adoration and idolization of despotic strongmen?from Russia’s Putin, to Turkey’s Erdogan, or to the Philippines’ Duterte?has transformed American foreign policy into a powerful cheerleader for some of the world’s worst regimes.

The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy will explore how Trump uniquely threatens democracy?and how to save it from him.

Here is a discussion with the author.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean is a book much hated by the right wing, and that is very much under attack by them, so it is a fair guess that MacLean is on to something.

The enemy in this particular story is not Barry Goldwater, or the Koch Brothers, but rather economics James McGill Buchanan. Of course, Charles Koch ends up being a disciple of Buchannan’s approach, ad do others. And that is where the money comes from.

MacLean’s key point is that this is not a battle of who rules, but rather, what the rules are, and the key objective is to rewrite those rules so the wealthy elite can, well, rule.

Buchanan was a well established and widely respected scholar, won the Nobel, founded a center for studies in political economy. When he died (2013) the New York times noted that he had influenced the current generation “of conservative thinking about deficits, taxes and the size of government.”

MacLean’s book has shaken up quite a bit of thinking on Buchanan. The book’s thesis is based on documents not previously examined, that are part of the Buchanan archives. Liberarian activists have complained at length about MacLean’s scholarship and arguments.

Democracy in Chains might be an insighful analysis using a fresh examination of previously ignored documents. Many of the attacks on the author and the book have been personal, similar to attacks on, say, evolutionary biologists or climate change scientists. Her Amazon page was covered with negative reviews clearly from people who never read the book, probably organized by the right wing. She was called a rabid feminazi, pathological socialist, etc.

Of the Libertarian attack on her work, MacLean noted in a recent interview:

…look, Buchanan was a gentleman, generous and kind with students and colleagues who shared his commitments and was well-liked by them in return.

And I’m getting the sense from the complaints of movement insiders that they view the book as disrespectful to heroes of the cause.

So it’s perhaps important for everyone to understand that I did not set out to critique Buchanan or other libertarians as human beings. I was not writing a biography or biographies. I was looking at these scholars’ ideas and tracing the impact of those ideas.

This is a group that has been insular since its founding. Now its members are confronted with an outsider’s view of their history. And they don’t like what they’re seeing in the mirror Democracy in Chains puts up to them.

To the criticism that her book oversimplifies the story and demands that we ignore all the other factors leading to the rise of the Right Wing in America, she responded, “As a scholar, I would never say “you don’t need to read anything else.” Of course there were other tributaries feeding the right; we have a huge body of scholarship now that explores them… my work draws attention to a missing piece of the puzzle that had been ignored, one that puts the current alarming state of our politics in an illuminating new light….The book traces the history of an idea — the idea of enchaining modern democratic government, as developed by James Buchanan. It shows how that idea came to appeal to an extremely wealthy and messianic individual, Charles Koch, who has harnessed it and organized other extremely wealthy donors to fund efforts, staffed by thousands of people, to radically alter our government in ways that will be devastating to millions of people and already seem to be producing an utterly unsustainable society in terms of social norms and governance.”

You should just go read it.

Also read Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.

Also consider having a look at Hillary Clinton’s book.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
*Please note:
Links to books and other items on this page and elsewhere on Greg Ladens' blog may send you to Amazon, where I am a registered affiliate. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, which helps to fund this site.

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4 thoughts on “Give The Gift of Nostalgia and Angst

  1. MacLean is making stuff up about Buchanan. She was nominated for the National Book Award by liberals that liked the theme, but then was denied the prize as these liberals became aware of all the errors.

    Great gift would be the Newsweek issue available on EBAY either as a poster or the actual issue,

  2. When Chris Matthews published his book on JFK, he was plugging it everyday on MSNBC and then suddenly stopped when a story came out about one of his interns that he abused.

    I wonder if something will come out now about RFK.

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