Tag Archives: Donald Trump

“Zero Fail – The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service” by Carol Leonnig

Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service

Often, I begin by telling you how a book reached me. Zero Fail was positively reviewed and I entered a “reserve” request with my county public library. It was not immediately available, the first book for which I was “waitlisted” in the past year! It took several months for me to get it. 

Zero Fail falls into an important target category of mine – books about history I lived through. After a brief prologue, the book begins with the Kennedy assassination. The epilogue ends after the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol. 487 pages of text are followed by acknowledgements, notes and index. 

I greatly enjoy well written documentary history. I would put Carol Leonnig in the same class as Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air) and Bricker and Ibbitson, who wrote Empty Planet. This is high praise. 

Leonnig began her journalistic career at The Philadelphia Inquirer and has worked as an investigative report for The Washington Post since 2000. She won three Pulitzer prizes, and began publishing books in 2020.

Leonnig is clear about why the Secret Service rose and fell. The Kennedy assassination (1963) was a low point in Presidential protection. Changes were made that probably saved the life of Ronald Reagan in 1981. 

What went wrong thereafter? Why was the Secret Service response to 9/11 so badly compromised? Many “near miss” situations are described in Zero Fail. 

Leonnig describes a number of problems that are “baked in” for the Secret Service. It has been chronically underfunded. Presidents want to appear “approachable” and confident. They like friendly agents who are flexible, but these are not necessarily the best people to run an agency. Transitions between presidencies are difficult. Likely assassins (most are mentally ill loners) are hard to spot.

Then there is the issue of “political climate”. Barrack Obama was hated by a certain portion of the American electorate. It’s amazing he (and his family) survived 8 years in office. Some of the near misses that took place during his terms are simply terrifying. 

A major issue about the Secret Service is it’s workplace culture. It is macho, insular and self serving. At it’s worst, it’s “frat boy culture” of “infighting, indulgence , and obsolescence” (Leonnig p xvii). It’s also profoundly racist and misogynistic. And, ironically, highly patriotic. 

This book describes an important agency that is in trouble. NOW. It’s not clear that improvement is underway. I hope Biden and his team are able to stay safe. 


“The Mirror and the Light” by Hilary Mantel and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 25

This book is #3 in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell (1485 to 1540), who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII of England. The title of this book is perfectly clear – King Henry is the light and Thomas Cromwell is the mirror. Reading this book and knowing Thomas Cromwell was executed by order of King Henry, I kept wanting to yell out a warning. “Get out! Now! While you can!”

Serious question: Was hereditary monarchy worse or better than the democratic chaos we now face? Trump will not hold office as long as Henry VIII. What kinds of change can a leader impose? How can those around a powerful leader maintain both sanity and self-respect? Will any Trump cabinet member be beheaded?

For your consideration, I offer Shakespeare’s Sonnet 25:

Let those who are in favour with their stars

Of public honour and proud titles boast,

Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,

Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.

Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread

But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,

And in themselves their pride lies buried,

For at a frown they in their glory die.

The painful warrior famoused for fight,

After a thousand victories once foil’d,

Is from the book of honour razed quite,

And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d:

Then happy I, that love and am beloved

Where I may not remove nor be removed.

If you don’t want to entertain yourself with historical fiction, why not memorize a sonnet? And share it with someone you love!

“Holding the Line – Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis” by Guy M. Snodgrass – Covid19 #7

Holding the Line: Inside Trump's Pentagon with Secretary Mattis

This is another of the books I grabbed on my last pre-Corona visit to the public library, and one of the last that I read.

This is the third book I’ve read about the American military in the past six months. I didn’t plan this! See All Hell Breaking Loose (about climate change) and Inside the Five-sided Box (about Secretary of Defense Ashe Carter, immediate predecessor of Mattis).

Secretary of Defense James Mattis was appointed by President Trump on Inauguration Day in 2017. He disliked the nickname “Mad Dog” Mattis, used by Trump and some members of the media.

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

After his resignation at the end of 2018, Secretary Mattis (with coauthor Bing West) wrote his memoir Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. It was published in September of 2019. Snodgrass’s memoir about speechwriting for Mattis Holding the Line was delayed by Pentagon censorship until just AFTER Mattis’s book was released.  Holding the Line contained no classified material, but Snodgrass had to sue to publish his book. (Wikipedia)

All of this I learned AFTER reading Holding the Line. I’m pleased to report that Mattis’s book is also available at my library, which is closed due to the pandemic. It’s worth having (at least) two views of the Trump/Pentagon relationship through difficult times.

Holding the Line doesn’t really explain why Mattis accepted Trump’s offer to be Secretary of Defense. Mattis had retired from the Marine Corps as a four star general in 2013. When he interviewed with Trump in November of 2016, he found that he and the President elect disagreed on most matters of policy, including the use of torture, specifically waterboarding. Equally substantive, Mattis and Trump disagreed profoundly on the role of military allies in maintaining US security. Mattis felt that “America First” shouldn’t mean “America Alone”. Mattis was quoted as saying “The country that fights without allies, loses.”

Snodgrass, a Navy aviator, came to work with Mattis as his speechwriter and eventual Communications Director. In terms of age, they were a full generation apart; by military status they were separated by five ranks. Snodgrass had previous experience as a Pentagon speechwriter for an Admiral. His most notable accomplishment was the 2014 authorship of a study on retention of naval officers, a major concern of the military since around 2008.

Why a speechwriter? The Secretary of Defense oversees the vast American military, enacting the policies of the Commander in Chief, aka POTUS. Every move he makes, every word he speaks, carries weight and is intensely scrutinized not just in the US but around the world. NOTHING goes unscripted.

Mattis intended that his public statements be entirely aligned with Trump’s positions. Would he have accepted the job, if he had known how often important policy issues would be announced by Twitter? Snodgrass worked exhaustively to keep up with White House policies, but the occasional surprise made Mattis’s office a tense and difficult workplace.

During the early Trump administration, Mattis was part of the small group that Washington insiders sometimes called “the adults in the room”. The “adults” expected and intended to prevent some of President Trump’s apparently impulsive schemes from being implemented. Four other men fell into this category. They occupied the positions of

  • Secretary of State,
  • National Security Advisor,
  • Director of the National Economic Council and
  • Director of Homeland Security.

By March of 2018, Trump has dismissed each of these appointees. Mattis was the “last adult standing”.

It’s not clear to me why Mattis held on through 2018. He resigned after Trump announced unilateral withdrawal of the US military from Syria, against Mattis’s advice. Trump tried to claim Mattis had “retired”, but his resignation letter makes his position perfectly clear. He disagreed with the Syria pullout.

One thing this book makes very clear is the incredible mystique that surrounds the Presidency. (I’m pretty sure it is NOT what America’s founding fathers intended.) Even very intelligent and level headed leaders (like Mattis) act awed by the office, even when they are critical of the office holder.

The New Yorker magazine just published (April 27) a 14-page article entitled “Abandoned: America’s Syrian allies suffer after the US withdrawal”. One big problem was communication. In the absence of clear information, American military officers had provided reassurance to their counterparts, not themselves believing that Trump would side with Turkey against the Kurds. The article makes evident the extreme complexity of Syrian civil war and the ambiguousness of American involvement. Trump had promised to disentangle the US from the Middle East, without a plan, other than the intention to eliminate the ISIS caliphate. (The author of the article, Luke Mogelson, writes for the New York Times and won an award from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Watch for his work.) I recommend this article.

Much to think about, especially now, as we face a crisis of incredible magnitude in a totally different arena, international public health.

“All Hell Breaking Loose – The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change” by Michael T. Klare

All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change

237 pages plus notes (69 pages) and index, 2019.

I had some difficulty reading this book, despite my very strong interest in the topic. The author, for good reasons, relies heavily on government generated reports full of acronyms and unfamiliar terminology. Maybe this is why to me, the writing seemed “flat” and dull. I was determined to read it anyway. It took me around 6 weeks. I need to return to the last chapter, “Going Green – The Pentagon as Change Agent”. I’m glad I persevered.

All Hell Breaking Loose is organized around increasing severity of military challenges, moving from humanitarian emergencies, which the military is excellently equipped (and quite willing) to handle, through three more categories of conflict (unstable states, global shocks and, most dangerous of all, great power clashes) up to domestic climate disasters and climate change threat to US military facilities. I had trouble focusing until I got to domestic climate disasters. Then I was reading about Hurricane Sandy and other storms that menaced ME and the people and places I love.

To me, the message about the future presented by this book can be summarized by one word – HARDSHIP. It will be difficult to live in a changed and changing world. Setting priorities will be challenging. Providing for human needs will be complicated. The only thing that will become easier is exploiting the resources of the far north, and already the Great Powers are bristling uneasily in the Arctic.

Complicating our understanding of the impacts of climate change is the fact that other things are changing at the same time. Two of the big things are globalization and urbanization. Globalization means America’s concept of “our interests” reaches further than before. How close are we to saying that “everything” that happens “everywhere” is America’s business?

I’m also trying to figure out how to factor in demography, the study of population, and the concept of a “demographic transition” that may be a one way street. See Empty Planet, which I wrote about on August 15, 2019. Another book I need to go back to! Recent news articles analyze the demographic transition in Japan and China.

All Hell Breaking Loose provides valuable perspective on the American military and its role in our culture. As an institution, it seems to me to be more far sighted than some other institutions, like our legislative system with its emphasis on the election cycle. Klare describes what he calls the “military’s strategic predicament”. Their job (described above as winning “great power clashes”) is to protect the US against foreign enemies by use of arms. What will happen when “too much” of the military is occupied with humanitarian emergencies and propping up failed states? What will happen when a concatenation of disasters prevents response to a serious military threat?

This book was published in 2019 but doesn’t take into account  the changes associated with the Trump presidency. Klare points out that the military has not backed off from dealing with climate change – they have simply changed their language, referring now to “extreme events”. How long will they be able to stay on this course?

Recent news articles detail a meeting held on July 20, 2017 at which US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other high officials attempted to tutor President Trump on the role of the military in foreign affairs. (See Washington Post, January 17, 2020.) The attempt failed. Trump angrily called the country’s highest military officers “dopes and babies”. “You’re all losers”, he told the generals. The meeting so shocked the participants that they agreed not to discuss it publicly, but (inevitably) information was ultimately released.

I wonder what would have happened if the meeting had been organized by Ash Carter, whose book I reviewed (twice) on November 11, 2019. I was impressed by Carter’s description of how he “managed” the announcement that all military restrictions by gender on positions and job titles were at an end. Could he have found a way to speak so that Trump would listen? I wonder what he would have recommended to the high officials who failed in “educating” the President?

As usual, I looked up author Michael Klare. He’s an emeritus professor at Hampshire College in Massachusetts who has written an impressive number of books and articles. Neither his Wikipedia entry or his Hampshire College website is particularly up to date. He writes for The Nation and other periodicals. He’s covered a topic I’m interested in, the issue of undeclared wars. Before All Hell Breaking Loose, he published The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources in 2012.

I recommend this book and this author to those seeking insight into our current dilemmas, both political and environmental.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (Lingua Franca) and Allan Metcalf

A fringe benefit of my job is on-line access to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a must-read for college and university employees and anyone who supports or utilizes our strange and complicated system of post secondary education. The Chronicle covers everything from the fall of Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina to classroom access for underserved student populations. Every day, there’s something worth reading, and I always check the column called “Lingua Franca”.

“Lingua Franca” is all about language, and offers blog entries from a dozen academics, all highly credentialed, opinionated and amusing.

The article that motivated me to write this review was published on September 9, authored by Allan Metcalf (English professor and forensic linguist) and titled “Who is Anonymous? An Extraordinary Writer”. The anonymous missive was published in the New York Times around September 1, talking about President Trump and the discontents of his highest advisors. Of course everyone wants to know the source. Personally, I’m astonished that a paper with the stature of The Times published an unsigned document.

Metcalf’s discussion relies on rhetorical analysis and a variety of forensic linguistic approaches. (I’ve read several popular works of linguistic forensics. Remember the Unabomber?) I realize that my education, which was strong on grammar, gave little attention to rhetoric.

No, Metcalf does not put a name to Anonymous. His conclusion? “…look for someone who is noted for her or his extraordinary command of language, who knows how to recruit the exact right words and deploy them artfully and memorably in sentences and paragraphs and whole essays. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind, but he’s not eligible”.

Wow! That is high praise. I’m okay with leaving “Anonymous” alone for the time being, but I hope I live long enough to learn his or her identity.