One Clique to Rule Them All…and in the Bullshit Bind Them

 

If you’ve ever wondered how someone as goofy as Boris Johnson got to be  prime minister of the UK, Chums by Simon Kuper is the book you need to read. Short, sharp and devastatingly insightful, it explains how a tiny clique of posh and semi-posh conservative aristocrats and wannabe aristos have ruled Britain on and off since 1945.

They almost uniformly attended Eton where they learned both public speaking and self-presentation as an art.  Charm, cutting wit and discoursing on subjects about which they were ignorant (or close)–and their privileged backgrounds–proved a gateway to Oxford.  Once there, they continued to be focused on style over substance.

Playing student politics in surprisingly byzantine ways prepared them for positions in Parliament and government (sometimes by way of journalism), positions which they believed they deserved.  After all, hadn’t their class historically been in charge?  More than one felt that entering Westminster was “coming home.”

Boris Johnson seems like the apotheosis of this trend, with his endless blather, his comic hesitations, and his “shambolic” hair:  a rumpled Bertie Wooster. Oxford was his dress rehearsal: In a setting that emphasized and rewarded eccentricity, he was glib, clever, entertaining–“an unthreatening funny man.”

Did he and his ilk stand for anything?  Power for themselves and a fantasy of Britain when it ruled he world or seemed to.

Brexit was something they cooked up as students and young men well before they actually had any power, and their well-documented deception and fakery around the vote to remain or stay in Europe has changed history.

For the “Brexiteers,” Brexit was the grand cause [they] had lacked all their political careers.  It would give them a chance to live in interesting times, as their ancestors had.  It would raise the tediously low stakes of British politics.  It would be a glorious romantic act, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, only with less personal risk.”

Chums is a ruthless, penetrating, and very funny indictment of a tiny class of Britons who show no sign of letting go of power no matter how hapless or wrong their policies are.  They believed, in the words of author Anne Applebaum “that is was still possible for Britain to make the rules–whether the rules of trade, of economics, of foreign policy–if only their leaders would take the bull by the horns, take the bit between the teeth, if only they would just do it.”

The clichés are deliberate mockery of a caste that has done irreparable harm to Britain and its citizens.  While some of the names might be unfamiliar to American readers, the dynamics of contempt and wanton disregard for the public good while aiding the wealthy should feel very familiar. 

Listening to the latest Oxonian PM, Liz Truss, try to explain her new economic moves that have sent shock waves through the UK and beyond, I’m reminded of lines from The Maltese Falcon.  Humphrey Bogart asks Mary Astor “Was there any truth at all in that yarn?”  Her reply:  “Some…  Not very much.”

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report and several public radio stations in Michigan.

The Trump/Nixon Nexus

King Richard by Michael Dobbs charts the calamitous fall of Richard Nixon from his landslide election victory in 1972 to the collapse of all attempts to keep Watergate from plunging his entire administration into chaos.  That happened in just 100 days.

With the feel of a firsthand diary, thanks to the infamous tapes and many diaries, the book is a mesmerizing story of overweening pride and rampant mendacity.  And it’s filled with people who are so over-the-top in myriad ways that the tragedy keeps veering into burlesque.

The dynamics of disorder and dysfunction that Dobbs describes are eerily reminiscent of the term of our previous president which didn’t end in resignation but insurrection. Trump is never mentioned, but after four years of lies and craziness, it’s hard not to think of the former president on almost every other page.

–Both Nixon and Trump were intensely paranoid and convinced that the world never gave them enough credit.

–Both men felt besieged by “enemies” and hated the media.

–Both men were surrounded by sycophants who alternated between  lavish, obsequious praise and doing their best to ignore illegal or  impossible orders.

–Both men had an unquenchable desire to be admired, extolled, glorified.

–Both men were grievance collectors and wanted to use every arm of the government to punish anyone who criticized or crossed them. 

–Both men were given to long wandering conversations and late-night phone calls which exhausted minions had to put up with.

–Both men were cowards, unable or unwilling to fire people directly, delegating that task to staffers.

–Both men falsely believed they were bugged: Nixon asserting that his plane was bugged by the Humphrey campaign in 1968, Trump tweeting crazy claims that Obama wiretapped him.

–Both men had an unhealthy obsession with a previous president who overshadowed them and got much better press: For Nixon it was JFK and for Trump it was of course Obama.

–Both men had an exalted sense of their own power.  Trump claimed “I alone can fix it” and Nixon told a subordinate “I’m the only one…in the whole wide blinking world that can do a goddamned thing.” Nixon was speaking of the exploding Watergate scandal, Trump about the catastrophic state he saw the U.S. in, from the economy to our global status.

Nixon was smarter and more successful, certainly on the international stage, up until his hubris, lies, and inattention brought him down surprisingly early in his second term.  

Dobbs has used a novelist’s tools to tell this amazing story about a President who doomed himself.  Beautifully written, filled with sharp and sometimes stunning details, the book reads like a thriller and would make a dazzling series along the lines of House of Cards

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His latest crime novel is Department of Death, which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable.”

 

Review: Washington’s Retirement Was Anything But Dull

Like other school kids, I was steeped in reading about the Father of Our Country from elementary school onward, but my fascination with George Washington had a personal backdrop.  I lived in Washington Heights in Manhattan, and our apartment building was on Ft. Washington Avenue.  My high school was named after him as well.

It created a sort of kinship which was deepened by studying his famous letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island where he promised that the new nation “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  More than that, he wrote that Jews were not going to be less equal than Christians: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” (Slavery, of course, was a giant asterisk to this discussion)

How could a son of Holocaust survivors who came to American for freedom not admire a man like the author of that letter?  A man who could have been king if he wanted to, given how so many people idolized him.  But at the end of his second term as president, having steered the fledgling nation from revolution to democracy, he chose to ride off to his Virginia estate, leaving politics and governing behind because the quiet life of a farmer with large holdings suited him best.  He faded gently from the scene, appropriately aloof from politics.

As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

In fact, Horn shows through brilliant use of contemporary letters and newspapers from a wide range of figures that Washington may have been offstage but he was as deeply embroiled in politics as ever.  He scrupulously followed every twist and turn of the rivalry between the two parties forming around President Adams and Vice President Jefferson and was keenly alert to the threat of war with our former ally France.  And for anyone who knows Alexander Hamilton only from the musical, he cuts a much less dashing figure here, and had delusions of grandeur.  But then Hamilton fits the general turmoil of jockeying for position against a background of tremendous political and global instability.  Many of our Founders and their supporters had their diva moments.

In the middle of all this Sturm und Drang, you feel the sorrowful isolation of Washington who complains of “Having staked my life–my reputation–my fortune–my ease, tranquility & happiness–in support of the government of our country” when at every turn fate might undo all that effort and plunge the United States into bloody chaos.

Yet there’s the wildly comic dithering about what kind of insignia officers for the new army being formed should be wearing, and you wonder how anyone could be so concerned with minutiae at a time when war with France was looming–or seemed to be.

Horn’s deft use of letters reveals the daily reality of Washington’s “retirement” and his recruitment as commander-in-chief.  President Adams realized that Washington was the best person to lead a newly strengthened army in case the French decided to invade the US.  He did not have to be on the scene to be caught in the tug of war between Republicans and Federalists and affected by war fever.  Just as important was his abiding concern about the legacy he left behind in his voluminous papers.

And if you thought our current political climate was newly poisonous, think again.  The scheming and invective between various factions around Washington before and after he left the White House were every bit as vicious, cruel, and divisive as today.  The main difference is the speed at which the poison spread and the tools used to spread it.  The rhetoric employed today to eviscerate your opponents is a lot more juvenile and not remotely as witty, either.

This book is everything you could ask for from a popular biography. It’s beautifully written, dramatic, compelling, colorful, revelatory, refreshing, sometimes hilarious and sometimes shocking–and at times it reads like a thriller.

Best of all, it makes Washington relatable and human, not a portrait, not a monument.  That’s the author’s greatest achievement.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, several public radio stations, and had his own on-air book show where he interviewed authors like Salman Rushdie and Erica Jong.

 

 

 

Did Winston Churchill Really Say That?

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

–A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

–A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

–An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.

 

My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one above. She also credited Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

When I looked for the source, the brilliant line didn’t show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a cinematic connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

The line’s political lineage extends further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit.

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. He put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers. You can find them on Amazon.  Lev teaches online writing creative workshops at writewithoutborders.com.