Duty

by Robert M. Gates

 

Yes, the title reminds you of poo. Moving on.

Duty is Gates’ memoir about his time serving as Secretary of Defense, under Presidents Bush (fils) and Obama. Appointed by the former to fix the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was asked to stay on by the latter, presumably to add a bipartisan flavor to Obama’s cabinet and Department of Defense. Duty describes Gates’ time at the Pentagon and provides his perspective on each administration.

If you’ve read about the book, you’ve probably heard the gossipy accounts of the successive administrations: who got along with whom, etc. I think one question everyone wanted answered was, “Who do you think made better decisions as President?” DutyWell, Gates knows enough to steer clear of that one, though he’s less comfortable with the Obama team than he is around Republicans or the military. On the other hand, he shit-talks Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden about equally, thinking that both were too political and too vocal in foreign policy meetings, while just about professing his undying love for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So he at least keeps an open mind.

But most of what Gates talks about is actually bureaucratic intransigence within Defense. His biggest problem at the Pentagon was that most of the top brass were focused on potential future wars, to the point of obsession. While this focus on upcoming problems and conflicts isn’t necessarily a bad thing- I’m glad that they think about tomorrow- Gates found that this attention came at the expense of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he felt he was brought in to fix. His mandate, as he saw it, was to realign the massive bureaucracy with the goal of winning our current wars. I find it hard to believe that the military paid as little attention to the wars it was fighting as Gates indicates, but he’s quite proud of his accomplishments in this area, especially the accelerated procurement of the life-saving MRAP, which I’ll get into in just a minute.

Though his book was interesting, by and large, I would get kind of annoyed when I felt that Gates was using his bipartisan label to elevate himself above decisions he didn’t like. In addition to disagreeing with and arguing against these decisions on their merits- which, to his credit, he does- he tends to adopt the posture of a neutral observer. The implication of this is that if you disagree with him, you’re behaving like a partisan hack. Gates consistently tells us that everything he did, by contrast, was for our country and our troops on the front line. While I don’t doubt that he’s telling the truth, I can see how it would get frustrating dealing with a man who believes his motives to be purer than anyone else’s in the room.

A couple months ago, while I was reading DutyNew York magazine came out with a cover story about race in the Obama era. In case you missed it, Jonathon Chait basically said, “Sure, Republican policies and politics can be racist, but Democrats are just as bad when they call Republicans racist. Everyone’s at fault.” What bothered me about this line of reasoning was best articulated by Elias Isquith on Salon as “the view from nowhere.” Essentially, Chait needs to retain his credibility as a neutral journalist, meaning that he can neither fully endorse either side’s actions or fully impugn either side’s motives. If he did so, he would immediately cease to be ‘neutral.’ The result? A piece pretty much devoid of actual content, all in the name of fairness.

I don’t think it would be fair to put Gates on the same level as Chait, but his tone sometimes bothered me. There are a few people in government that he would respect, even when he disagreed with them, but there were many whom he would often accuse of being hacks. The Obama White House, and particularly Joe Biden, are singled out as making foreign policy decisions based almost purely on politics. This is an especially strange charge given that during the Bush Administration, by Gates’ own account, national politics had a very strong influence on war policy in Iraq. Motives are not called into question in this case, but because Gates has taken the stance of an impartial observer, we’re supposed to trust that he knows the difference between a ‘political decision’ and an ‘informed’ decision.

Similarly, Gates likes to claim that he’s not a politician, and moreover that he has weak political instincts. A closer look reveals that the opposite is the case. In the aforementioned example of Iraq, Secretary Gates, the civilian team at the Pentagon, the military, and the White House were very adept at setting timetables for the surge, knowing how far away a deadline would have to be to avoid immediate accountability, while dodging a situation in which they could be criticized for setting a ridiculously distant (and therefore nearly irrelevant) date. This is not me calling them out for trying to outmaneuver Congress and the nation without us noticing. Go read the book. Gates is pretty open about politics driving aspects of decision-making in his time at Defense before the 2008 election.

A more subtle example of Gates’ political instincts is the MRAP program, which is credited with saving many, many lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates writes that he had to fight the Pentagon for the procurement of these vehicles, which were better-suited than any other to withstand IEDs, and therefore protected soldiers on patrol. If his account is accurate, this means that a) top officials at the Pentagon didn’t place the highest priority on protecting their soldiers, at least not to the extent that they would go around the normal procurement process to do so, and b) the Pentagon and the White House failed to recognize that American casualties were driving opposition to the war in Iraq. I think it’s fair to say that American opposition to wars largely develops when we see our fellow Americans fighting and dying for reasons we don’t understand. A good way to keep opposition from spiraling out of control, therefore, would be to place the highest priority on protecting American lives. Hence, the MRAP. If Gates was as integral to the MRAP procurement as he tells us, either the Bush Administration and the military were incredibly obtuse about the impact of casualties on American war fatigue, or Gates is much more politically savvy than he lets on.

I feel a little bit bad, because it must seem like I’m criticizing a high-level government official for acting like a politician. I often find myself in the position of defending politicians, even those that I disagree with, when people write them off as self-interested blowhards. I think it’s rare that anyone gets into public service, politics included, without a real desire to see people’s lives improve. From Bob Gates to George Bush to Barack Obama to Stanley McChrystal, I don’t think there’s anyone in Duty that I wouldn’t assume to be a patriot, and it saddens me that Gates is so adamant about certain individuals not always having the public interest at heart. But of course, it’s his book, and he’s entitled to his opinions. It’s likely that Gates is just trying to be honest about his experiences, and I can’t fault him for that.

I’ve kind of gotten bogged down in the political crap, which I really tried not to do, but it is simply amazing to me how openly Gates disdains political theater while just as openly engaging in it. Regardless, most of the book isn’t really about that. Gates talks about the Defense budget, our relationships with Russia and China, changes in military culture (including the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell”), and other challenges that we’re facing or that we will face in the near future. He makes his opinions known, and tells it like he sees it. I’m guessing that Gates’ tenure at the Pentagon will turn out to be an important one, and it’s pretty interesting watching the changes at the Pentagon from the perspective of a man who clearly wasn’t always comfortable with the way things went down.

Duty is a fascinating memoir for what Gates says- the great anecdotes from his relationship with Obama, Bush, Clinton, etc- as well as what he doesn’t say. There’s probably no better vantage point on the foreign policy pivot between the Bush and Obama Administrations.

What It Takes

by Richard Ben Cramer

 

We know running for President isn’t easy. We know it’s not fun. The whole process is rough on the candidates, their family, and their staff. We have to assume, though, that it’s the best way- or at least, it’s the fairest way- to pick a President. But what does a two-year campaign for the White House really amount to? What does it accomplish? What do we learn about the candidates that’s actually relevant to the job?

What It Takes is Cramer’s way of trying to figure that out. The book follows six presidential hopefuls (Republicans George Bush and Bob Dole as well as Democrats Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Joe Biden, and Gary Hart) during the 1988 election, from before they’ve publicly announced their candidacies through the end of primary season. What It TakesWe also get a history of who these people are: where they come from, how they got into politics, and what makes them think they’re ready for the Big Job.

As a political junkie, I found it interesting just to learn about the candidates, all of whom I’d heard of but several of whom I’d known next to nothing about. Cramer jumps back and forth between the current campaign and the early lives of the candidates, connecting their personal qualities with their runs for President. Whether it’s Dole’s long and painful recover from injuries sustained in World War II, or Dukakis’ immigrant roots and lifelong struggle against corruption in Massachusetts, the candidates awed and fascinated me.

But while the book is ostensibly about the candidates and their campaigns, Cramer also focuses on the other half of the process- the media. And man, he does not like the media. In his view, each individual reporter is only out for himself, trying to become a respected journalist by ‘breaking’ a story that will change the race or even force one of the candidates out. When the media scents a ‘scandal,’ next to nothing will stop them from hounding the people involved, regardless of the harm they may cause to individuals and to our body politic itself.

Joe Biden’s campaign ran into trouble with the media when he alluded to speech by a contemporary British Labor politician. While Biden was running all over the country, using this borrowed section in his own stump speech, he forgot to attribute it at least once. When the video of this omission leaked, he had a plagiarism scandal on his hands, which led to a more thorough look into his past, which dug up an incident of improper citation at Syracuse Law, which eventually forced Biden from the race. You might think- Biden certainly thought- that a small mistake in law school and a one-time slip-up on the campaign trail shouldn’t disqualify a politician from being President, but in 1988, to Joe Biden, it did.

Biden was taken down by a group in the media that Cramer refers to as the ‘Karacter Kops.’ These journalists, and the interested public that they supposedly represent, look for any character flaw that they can find in a candidate that would disqualify him being President. Cramer views this as an unfair and dishonest practice, and openly disdains the Kops. He seems particularly sympathetic to Gary Hart, who had been the Democratic frontrunner until his own scandal blew up.

Gary Hart and Donna Rice: the picture that ended Hart's campaign

Gary Hart and Donna Rice: the picture that ended Hart’s campaign

The immediate cause of Hart’s problems was a photograph of him with a woman, on a boat. The woman wasn’t his wife. Hart, who thought that his ideas for the country should be all that mattered, who thought that his private life was not the public’s business, was forced out of the race. Of course, the media had preconceived notions of Gary Hart; he was a risk-taker, he was a womanizer. So when they finally had proof of both, they wrote their stories with glee. When he quit the race, they wore his exit as a badge of honor.

But Hart wasn’t the only candidate who was unable to break free from his own reputation. Throughout What It Takes, sinking campaigns do their best to show that they’re adapting, either superficially or substantively; in the end, only the media tells the story. (It’s sort of a tree falling in the forest situation; if the media doesn’t report on it, is it real?) Hart’s campaign couldn’t get anyone to see past his rumored character flaws, and his whole candidacy blew up with a single picture. Bob Dole, who’d worked harder than anyone to get where he was, had become a ‘hatchet man’ to the media, partially due to his time as Richard Nixon’s Republican Chairman and Gerald Ford’s running mate. Dole was presented as a spiteful, partisan hack, though he’d always tried to imbue all of his campaigns with a single attitude: Don’t be mean.

In running for President, the media attention makes the person almost inseparable from the politician. But every candidate has their own line that they refuse to cross. Having a limit, just one, makes it easier to cope. For Hart, the limit was way, way too far out there; he didn’t think anyone should know anything about his personal life. (Good luck with that one, bud.) Dukakis wanted to be able to campaign while still running the government of Massachusetts at least three days a week. Bush wanted to avoid sacrificing what he considered his greatest strength and asset- his friendships. When the Reagan Administration appeared to be on its last legs, Bush refused to put any distance between himself and the President, out of pure loyalty. All of the candidates wanted to hold on to something; Cramer argues that the process picks as a winner the candidate who finally accepts that he has to give up everything.

In a way, What It Takes serves as a defense of the candidates themselves against the unfairness of the process. While many people feel that everything wrong with our politics is reflected in our politicians, and vice versa, Cramer tries to separate the blatant cynicism of the electoral process from the genuinely good people who run for office. Each of the candidates in the book had a mix of ability and ambition that landed him in the national spotlight and propelled his run for President, though each would come up short at some point. (Dukakis lost to Bush in the general election; Bush lost to Bill Clinton four years later.) But the candidates’ ambition doesn’t mean they’re not human, or that they can handle the process any better than we can. One of the most emotional moments of the book came near the end, as primary season was winding down. Dick Gephardt, on the night of the Michigan primary, is waiting with his family and staff for the inevitable news that he’s just lost another one, when Jesse Jackson, another contender for the nomination, enters the room. They hug, and Gephardt cries on his rival’s shoulder. He’d found one of the few people in the world who understands what the process has done to him.

Gephardt loses the nomination. But just a few months later, he makes an important decision.

He’s going to run again.

What It Takes reads like an exceptionally long Rolling Stone article; it’s a detailed, entertaining, emotional saga. Cramer helps one identify with the hard-working and optimistic candidates, and then provides a visceral understanding of the process that will destroy almost all of them.

The Oath

by Jeffrey Toobin

 

A few years back I read The Nine, an interesting book about the Supreme Court and its nine members. Jeff Toobin went into exceptional detail about what made each Justice tick and how that influenced the Court’s rulings. But time marches on, and four of the Supreme Court Justices highlighted in The Nine have died or retired, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist. So we’ve got a new Chief Justice (John Roberts, nominated by Bush to replace Rehnquist in 2005) and a new President (Barack Obama, whom you may have noticed succeeded Bush in 2009). Each has his own ideas about the role of the judiciary in American democracy. The fundamental difference, according to Toobin, is that while Roberts believes that judges can and often should be agents of change in our society, Obama initially believed that elections and lawmaking must be primary in our system.The Oath

Shocking, right? The judge thinks judges matter, and the politician thinks politicians matter. According to Toobin, however, Obama’s disdain for the judicial process was a self-inflicted and grievous wound on his own Administration.

For me, at least, how I feel about the Supreme Court pretty much depends on what decisions they’ve handed down recently. Striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act? Yaaaaaaaay. Striking down part of the Voting Rights Act? Boooooooo. Depending on your own political persuasion, you might disagree with me on one or both of those. I’m pretty sure there’s nobody out there who could agree with every single ruling the Court makes in a year; it’s always gonna be a mixed bag. But if you look carefully, you can see which way the Court is trending, and Roberts has taken the Court in a decidedly conservative direction.

Toobin argues that stare decisis, the judicial deference to precedent, has been taking a major hit on the Supreme Court lately. Though Roberts is no originalist, unlike Clarence Thomas, his Court seems to be ready to throw out precedent on issue after issue, from affirmative action to gun control to campaign finance. This means the Supreme Court has become almost a source of new law rather than an impartial arbiter of justice, which is ironic for two reasons. First, conservatives are generally more likely to decry judicial activism, though they would argue that the real judicial activism happened decades ago and that the Roberts Court is only undoing that damage. Second, John Roberts himself made it clear during his confirmation hearings that he would prioritize moderation, unanimity, and precedent. His Court has done anything but, meaning that while President Obama is spending his time and energy trying to pass new legislation, the Court is quickly, quietly, and unilaterally effecting change in American society.

So that’s kind of the gist of The Oath. Unfortunately, I didn’t really catch on to Toobin’s thesis until I was almost done with the book. John Roberts and Barack ObamaWhile he lays out the fundamental differences and similarities between Obama and Roberts, he kind of splits his time between two stories. One story is about the Obama Administration’s interactions with the courts- filling vacancies, defending federal law- while the other traces the history of the Court’s radical conservative majority. Both stories are interesting, but they don’t always have that much to do with one another. The introduction, detailing the causes and ramifications of President Obama’s botched inaugural oath, was fascinating. It did not, however, say all that much about the Chief Justice’s or the President’s interpretation of the Constitution. Likewise, the conclusion of the book centered on the Administration’s successful defense of the Affordable Care Act, with Roberts writing for the majority that voted to uphold the law. This conclusion doesn’t exactly square with Toobin’s view that the Court is increasingly conservative and political.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually really liked the book. It just seemed to me that Toobin was trying too hard to find a singular narrative to tie everything together. It felt like he was searching for a ‘beginning’ and an ‘end’ to the story. I applaud him for the effort, but he knows that the whole story hasn’t been written yet, and while this is a great start, it’s naturally going to be incomplete. This need for a unifying theme seems especially odd considering that the book is largely composed of several short histories that don’t really fit in with a larger narrative. These vignettes are interesting on its own merits, and Toobin absolutely didn’t need to shoehorn in a completed story structure. But like I said, I give him credit for trying.

The complete history of the Obama Administration’s relationship with the Roberts Court is still at least a few years down the line. Until then, The Oath is detailed, informative, and entertaining, and it’s a great step towards understanding how our executive and judicial branches interact today.

Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency

by Barton Gellman

 

The public, including myself, has a certain concept of the George W. Bush administration, and it is generally not very positive. Bush himself is seen as an almost accidental president, and while he campaigned on a ‘compassionate conservative’ platform, his style of governance was criticized for being anything but. Some of his boldest campaign statements were essentially retracted after his election victory, and he himself gained a reputation for a lack of, shall we say, intellectual curiosity. Many people reached the logical conclusion that, if the administration is reneging on its promises, and if Bush isn’t all that clever, someone must be pulling the strings: it must be Dick Cheney.

Thus, Dick Cheney developed the reputation of a diabolically clever force within the Bush White House. It sure didn’t help his image when he said that the government would have to work through the “dark side, if you will.” Gellman, however, emphatically disputes the idea that Cheney essentially ran the administration, presenting instead a more nuanced picture of how the White House worked. Bush always intended for Cheney to be the first among his advisors, based both on his years of experience in the government and private sectors, and his reluctance to accept the politically expedient at the expense of principle. Bush also intended, however, to balance this with his own advisors, such as White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, and with people who would bring different views to the table, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell.

This did not prevent Cheney from creating the most powerful Office of the Vice President in history, as Cheney was incredibly skilled at bureaucratic manipulation. Gellman gives many examples of this, such as Cheney’s automatic and largely unnoticed receipt of emails sent to the National Security Council (meant for Condoleezza Rice and her staff), as well as his successful installation of loyalist Scooter Libby as both his chief of staff and as assistant to the president. Moves such as these gave Cheney unparalleled access to nearly every corner of the White House and the government, and gave him multiple chances to influence the president’s ultimate decision.

Angler details several major decisions that Cheney influenced, starting with his selection (by a committee consisting of Dick Cheney) as Bush’s running mate and the staffing (spearheaded by Dick Cheney) of administration posts. Other chapters relate Cheney’s part in the NSA’s secret domestic intelligence program, the handling of captured al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, the loosening of environmental regulation, and other significant administration policies. The final few chapters show the limitations of Cheney’s power, as by the end of Bush’s second term he has lost many of his allies, including Libby and Donald Rumsfeld.

Look at him go

I was reading Angler the other day and I started laughing, and my friend asked me what was funny, and how I could even read a book like that. I realize that for many people, a book about Dick Cheney may not be very appealing. Some might not want to read it simply because they believe they already have a handle on the man and don’t need their negative suspicions confirmed. While Gellman does an excellent job of staying neutral about the motives of the major players, he does not hesitate, for example, to point out that the Vice President lied about his recollection of the events of 9/11. On the other hand, he makes it clear that he believes Cheney made no vice presidential decisions out of self-interest.

While the book shows no signs of partisanship, I do understand that it is the most inside of inside stories. Angler goes into incredible detail on Cheney’s lawyers, the staffers of the Office of Legal Counsel, and other relatively obscure government positions. But just because they are not famous does not mean that they are not important, and just because the administration gave the outward appearance of harmony does not mean there were not dramatic moments. Gellman tells a great story.

If you care about politics, or if you like history, or power dynamics, or the law, or just reading in general, you should definitely check out Angler. It is always interesting and at times riveting.