Tuesday, October 13, 2020

a few more books

First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama by Joshua Kendall (Grand Central)
Here's another way to rate US presidents: as fathers. (Those few who had no biological children functioned, at least in practice, as stepfathers.) It turns out that, by that measure, the top-ranking president is James A. Garfield, with Hayes, Truman, and yes, Obama following up. They found the proper balance in parenting. Criticism is reserved for those who were either too strict (both Adamses and, unexpectedly, Eisenhower) or too lenient (especially Grant), or too preoccupied to pay attention to their children (too many to list, but LBJ was probably the worst). One regrets, due to date of publication, the lack of an opportunity to subject DT to this searching light. There are also chapters on presidents mired in emotional distress over dead children (of whom Calvin Coolidge is the one who may come as a surprise), and those who dallied in fathering illegitimate children, sometimes on slaves (though Jefferson is mentioned in that context only briefly: there were several others). The book's only flaw is its tendency to judge the president's fathering on the subsequent success in life of their adult children: Garfield's and Hayes's offspring all prospered. But I think there's a lot of factors influencing success in life beyond how your father treated you as a child, and while a lot of the bad-fathered ones did have great difficulties in life, some of them did very well, even those whose fathers were strict (John Quincy Adams thrived under his parents' regimen, though his siblings didn't) or preoccupied (William H. Taft's son Robert was an epically formidable politician, and his daughter Helen equally formidable in academia).

The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government by Fergus M. Bordewich (Simon & Schuster)
Reading this book reminded me of the time I visited Churchill's War Rooms in Downing Street. You're imagining exciting WW2 action scenes, and discover what actually went on there was a lot of meetings and bureaucratic paper-pushing. Necessary for running the war, but kind of boring. Same goes for a history of the legislative proceedings of the first US Congress (1789-91). The author tries to write entertainingly, but the topic is a lot of talking and fumbling around, by "extraordinary men" who are mostly local politicians with constituency-based chips on their shoulders, same as we have now. Towards the end, things start to get a little more interesting as debate tightens up on the focal issues of whether to accept Alexander Hamilton's plan for organizing federal finances, and on where to locate the permanent national capitol (these issues turn out to be related via political deal-making). But then you learn that half of the major government-invention issues brought up in the First Congress were, due to lack of time, left undone for the Second Congress to deal with.

Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization by Parag Khanna (Random House)
What a horrifying book. Conceived on a basic assumption that continuous capitalist expansion is the natural and necessary condition of society, and the faster the expansion the better, and written in a tone of narrowly-focused optimistic boosterism, so that whatever he's saying at the moment is of the utmost importance. The initial thesis is that a global network of communication and supply chains is remaking civilization in the Internet age. But then he also says that civilization has always been run on communication and supply chains. And then there's a chapter on how existing connections are falling apart. In fact all these things are happening at once, and the interactions are subtle. But Khanna writes as if whatever he's writing about right now is the only important thing.
Full of bloopers and clangs. In two sentences on the subject, mischaracterizes the Lewis and Clark Expedition twice. Touts Fort McMurray, Alberta, as the successful boom town signifying Canada's economic future. That's the town that was entirely evacuated and half-destroyed by a wildfire in the same year this book was published, 2016 (and which has suffered a gas leak and a major flood since). I don't expect him to have predicted that, but global climate change does not exist in this book at all. But the most amazing sentence is on p. 301, in a section on how supply chains don't always work (and what's going to fix this? More corporatism!): "In August 2014, it was revealed that Western fast-food chains in China such as McDonald's and KFC had served beef and chicken that had been expired for several years." The meat was several years old? I don't think that's what he means. I think he means they'd been doing it for several years. But that's not what he says. This guy cannot write. A cover blurb from Chuck Hagel calls the book "A must-read for the next president," but I can't imagine DT reading this or getting anything out of it if he tried.

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