Reader’s Corner: ‘The Ballot Box’

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Call it karma. The day after the pundit class wrapped itself in feverish discussion of Iowa’s Democratic primary and a malfunctioning vote-tabulating app (the hanging chad of the new decade), my new book was published.

The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History has one of those self-explanatory titles. You get the gist.

It’s available now from Barnes & Noble (exclusive hardcover or ebook) and Amazon (ebook).

I published a related piece on Medium: “Writing About Elections in the Age of Trump.”

Quote of the Day: What Jim Mattis Didn’t Say

Call Sign ChaosFormer Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, one of those adults we keep being told are keeping things in the White House from being even worse than they are, has a new book out: Call Sign Chaos.

If this essay in the Wall Street Journal, which Mattis and his co-author Bing West adapted from the book, is any sign, there is much he is not saying in the book. To wit, this section on how he dealt with an unnamed admiral who harshly and indiscriminately mocked his subordinates:

I called in the admiral and carefully explained why I disapproved of his leadership. “Your staff resents you,” I said. “You’re disappointed in their input. OK. But your criticism makes that input worse, not better. You’re going the wrong way. You cannot allow your passion for excellence to destroy your compassion for them as human beings.” This was a point I had always driven home to my subordinates.

“Change your leadership style,” I continued. “Coach and encourage; don’t berate, least of all in public.”

But he soon reverted to demeaning his subordinates. I shouldn’t have been surprised. When for decades you have been rewarded and promoted, it’s difficult to break the habits you’ve acquired, regardless of how they may have worked in another setting. Finally, I told him to go home.

There is no indication in this exercise in avoiding the elephant in the room that Mattis ever suggested that the commander in chief should consider not berating or demeaning people, much less just going home.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Russian Roulette’

Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s new book Russian Roulette is, well, timely. My review is at PopMatters:

The intent here was not to write an all-inclusive study of the history of the Washington-Moscow power dynamic, the full legacy of Trump’s law-skirting business dealings, or the noxious way those two elements have meshed together. Something like that wouldn’t be a book. That would require a multi-volume Robert Caro-type of effort which some future generation—assuming deep-dive narrative nonfiction survives Peak TV and Instagram—can take up to figure out what the hell happened. In the meantime, we’ll resort to Russian Roulette

Screening Room: ‘What Lies Upstream’

The bracing new documentary What Lies Upstream is a scarifying investigation that starts with a chemical leak into a West Virginia river and expands into an indictment of a nationwide regulatory system riddled with lax oversight and dangerous levels of compromise.

What Lies Upstream is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International.

Here’s the trailer.

Reader’s Corner: Bannon, Trump, and the ‘Devil’s Bargain’

As the D.C. news circuit scrambles to dissect the court turmoil in the White House to see how long Steve Bannon may or may not survive, it’s instructive to read Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.

My review is at PopMatters:

Years from now—assuming that books are still being published and we aren’t just wandering dazedly through a burnt-out cultural void of screaming memes—the books written about the 2016 US Presidential election will fill even more shelves than those written about Watergate. They will discuss the strategies, the major players, and the trendlines that led to this decision or that. Some books will also analyze how, in 2016, a fury-fueled flim-flam man broke almost every rule about presidential campaigns and became the most powerful man in the world. Those authors will argue with good reason that 2016 was the election that changed everything…

Reader’s Corner: ‘Dark Money’

darkmoney1Last year, the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer published Dark Money, a detailed expose of the massive, decades-long program run by billionaire conservatives like the Koch brothers to re-engineer American politics in a more libertarian, low-tax, and small government direction.

The paperback edition was just released, with a new preface that highlights how the agenda of the Kochs, who theoretically didn’t support Donald Trump, will nevertheless likely be supercharged under the new administration. My review is at PopMatters:

Written with the sharp but cool incisiveness that typifies her long form work for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer’s exposé is the type of book one reads first heatedly, then with a kind of sickened resignation. Her first book since 2008’s The Dark Side, a similarly disquieting investigation into the Bush administration’s legacy of post-9/11 abuses, Dark Money goes looking under a lot more rocks. Again, Mayer finds a cabal of authoritarian-minded Republicans looking to fundamentally alter the American landscape…

Writer’s Desk: How Speechwriters Do It

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With the election, and (who knows?) maybe a gut-punch to democracy itself, just around the corner, it seems like the right time to get some writing advice from people who have to churn out a lot of words on demand at high velocity and with extreme precision: Speechwriters.

Scholastic gathered together a bunch of them, from Paul Begala to Bob Shrum, and boiled down their advice to a few points, explained at length here. Here’s the upshot:

  • Get to the Point — Quick!
  • Make It Look Easy
  • Make ’em Laugh
  • Get Them on Your Side
  • The Meat and Potatoes (what you actually are there to say)

There’s no writer out there who couldn’t stand to get to the point quickly and effectively while making it seem effortless. And the occasional gag never hurt anybody.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Strangers in Their Own Land’ – Fury and Crisis in Trump’s America

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(photo: Gage Skidmore)

It’s hard to look at today’s chaotic political and cultural landscape and not wonder—among many, many other things—in deference to Joan Walsh’s book from a couple years back: “What’s the matter with white people“?

strangers_in_their_own_land_finalA part of the answer can be found in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s fantastic new book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. It came out last month and is necessary reading to understand what is and has been going on in America for the past couple decades.

My review is at PopMatters:

When Arlie Russell Hochschild set out in 2011 to research her perceptive ethnography of the frustrated white American conservative, Strangers in Their Own Land, she didn’t realize how many of her subjects would later be driving off a cliff in a fume- and insult-spewing conveyance with “Trump 2016” stenciled on the side. How could she? Few of us knew it would come to this…

Here’s an interview with Hochschild from Vox. where she talks about spending five years among the people who would form the base of Donald Trump’s nationalistic insurgency.

New in Theaters: ‘Citizen Koch’

Madison, Wisconsin, ground zero for the Koch brothers' political campaigns. (Variance Films)
Madison, Wisconsin, ground zero for the Koch brothers’ political campaigns. (Variance Films)

citizenkoch-posterYou would think that a hit-job documentary about the Koch brothers—billionaire conservative villains par excellence—would have been something of a slam-dunk. But Citizen Koch, for all the surrounding it for having been supposedly yanked from PBS (which receives a lot of money from David Koch), is a disappointingly toothless thing.

Citizen Koch is playing now in limited release; not on PBS. My review is at Film Journal International:

Citizen Koch has passion aplenty, but it begins as a well-starched and solidly structured argument about the dismantling of campaign-finance reform. It’s smartly and entertainingly told in the by-now standard format of attack documentaries: stringing together television news footage for a pulse-pounding narrative and cutting away to talking-head interviews for context. Instead of jumping all over the Kochs from the start, the filmmakers lay out out how the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for increased corporate donations to political advocacy groups. Former Wisconsin senator and campaign finance reformer Russ Feingold calls the decision a “huge power grab” by corporations, who were now freer to support or attack politicians of their choosing…

You can check out the trailer here:

Now Playing: ‘Caucus’

'Caucus': This man also wanted to be president
‘Caucus’: This man also wanted to be president

caucus_poster_bachmann_v011Once upon a time, in the land of Iowa, there were people who thought that Rick Perry might become president of these United States. It was a strange time, the 2012 GOP Iowa caucus, and something that you really wish that Hunter S. Thompson had still been alive to see and write about.

In the meantime, there’s Caucus, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about all the sun-baked, deep-fried, conservative weirdness. It’s playing now in limited release. My full review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:

The 2011 Iowa State Fair captured in AJ Schnack’s Caucus has a frozen-in-amber quality. Just a little of those butter sculptures, livestock demos, and toddling families baking in the bright prairie sun go a long way. What stands out are those interlopers stalking the fairgrounds, grinning and gripping any who come within range, cameras and recorders buzzing like flies. There’s something highly alien about mixing these politicians’ bright and buffed ambitions with the laidback surroundings. It makes for some surreal flashes in the film, like the hippie protesters drumming in the distance, or when an announcer booms out an introduction for “the next President of the United States…Michele Bachmann!”…

The trailer is here:

 

Readers’ Corner: ‘This Town’ and the Gilded Trough

this town-coverAlmost the best thing about Mark Leibovich’s new Washington, DC tell-all This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital is what’s not in it. He didn’t include an index, thusly avoiding the tendency of Beltway types to cruise into bookstores and flip instantly to the index for any reference to themselves. Given the high-pitched response to his book from the corridors of power, a surprising number of those people have actually been reading the thing. It’s worth it.

My review is at PopMatters:

Mark Leibovich’s This Town is angry but funny, hitting big targets with ease while somehow avoiding the shrill tone of the screed. As the New York Times’ chief national correspondent, he has spent more time covering politics in the American capital than any human being should have to, unless serving time for a horrific crime. After 16 years covering the circular grip n’ grin of Washington politics, Leibovich has served up a heaping platter of disgust, but he’s done it with a smiley-face emoticon. After all, he’s still got to work in the place he calls “a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives”…

You can watch Leibovich on The Daily Show here.

New in Books: ‘The Story of America’

Those truisms quoted today from Ben Franklin? Not meant to be taken seriously. Voting anonymously with paper ballots at polling places free of violence? Unheard of in America until 1890. This and more discussed in Jill Lepore’s new book The Story of America:

When in doubt about your thesis, cover the spread and present everything as a variegated tapestry of humanity. Sometimes this can serve as a neat dodge for a potentially failed project, better than trying to shoehorn everything into an explanation that doesn’t quite hold water. Depending on the richness of your material, this can be either a rag-and-bone shop of leavings (usually subtitled “sketches” or “impressions”), or a rich panoply of story that rattles and bursts with humanity. Even though it should fall in the former category, being mostly a collection of New Yorker articles, Jill Lepore’s wonderful The Story of America fits snugly into the latter…

The Story of America is on sale now at finer (and not so fine) bookstores everywhere; my review is at PopMatters.

Weekday Reading: Pre-Election Edition