July 2, 2016 – Death of Elie Wiesel and Review of “Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy” edited by Nadine Epstein

This moving collection of speeches by Wiesel, pictures of him, and essays about him by others pays tribute to the life of Elie Wiesel, who died on July 2, 2016.

Eliezer Wiesel was born in 1928 in Romania, and was deported to Auschwitz in Poland by the Nazis in 1944. There his mother and sister were immediately sent to the gas chambers. He and his father were put in a work camp, and later sent on a death march to concentration camps in Germany in advance of the Allied armies. They ended up in Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. Elie’s father died in late January, 1945. His last word was “Eliezer.”

His father missed his freedom by three months. The Soviet Allies had reached Auschwitz eleven days earlier, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. On April 11, American tanks arrived at the gates, and Buchanwald was liberated by the United States Army. Elie was 16.

Elie Wiesel (circled) in Buchenwald a few days after the camp was liberated

In 1955 Elie wrote a book about his experiences in the concentration camps, first in Yiddish and then translated (by him) into French. An abridged version of the memoir was published in English in 1958, called Night. The book would eventually be translated into 35 languages. He went on to write 56 more books, as well as to deliver talks around the world in defense of human rights.

In the Foreword to this tribute, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:

“Whatever he did and wherever he went, Elie carried with him six million fragments of our people. He was the voice of memory when others sought to forget.”

It may seem like too much of a burden for one man, but as essayist and Wiesel biographer Joseph Berger observed, Wiesel told him “I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead. That was their obsession, to be remembered.” More than anyone else, Berger averred, Elie Wiesel made sure the six million would be remembered.

But he had another message to impart as well.

Sara Bloomfield writes:

“If you wanted to boil down everything to its essence with Elie, the biggest sin was indifference. He felt that indifference was a bigger sin than hate and evil. So he himself had to lead his life that way. That meant speaking truth to power. . . for him, voice was action.”

Ronald S. Lauder said he still hears Elie’s voice, “telling us what he would say to anyone who would listen: that people of good conscience have a moral obligation to speak out, be heard and fight bigotry.”

Many of the essays about Wiesel are testimonials from people who were influenced by him to choose the career paths they took, or to take actions different than they might have otherwise taken. They felt embraced by him, inspired by him, and gained courage from his example.

People looked to Wiesel to deliver some insights into the nature of evil in the world and how to understand it. Where was God during the Holocaust? Where is God in the face of all the other suffering in the world? Michael Berenbaum said that it took Wiesel until the 1990s to make peace with God. But he did so; the cantor who conducted his funeral service said that “Elie was a man of profound faith and sincerity…”

Weisel, in an interview with Nadine Epstein in 2013, included in the book, spoke about his relationship with God, saying:

. . . with God, the question, ‘Where is God?’ has obsessed me for many years and still does without an answer.’ But, he explained, he remained profoundly attached to his parents and grandparents and thought ‘What good do I do them if I say goodbye to God?’”

In a 1972 commencement address he urged graduates to have faith in spite of the mystery of God. He said:

“. . . anyone who tells you he has the answers to the questions — with all apologies to your teachers — I do not believe them. There are no answers to true questions. There are only good questions, painful sometimes, exuberant at others. Whatever I have learned in my life is questions. And whatever I have tried to share with friends is questions.”

As “The Economist” pointed out in its obituary for Wiesel, the questions about God never stopped for him:

“His Talmud-studying childhood had been devoted to God, but where had God been in the camps? Why had He allowed Tzipora, the little golden-haired sister, to die for nothing? Why had He caused old men to fall down from dysentery on forced marches, when they might have died peacefully in their beds? Why had God created man, if only to abandon him? What exactly did God need man for?

. . . He railed at God, and yet still strapped on his tefillin and recited his prayers as fervently as he had done on the day of his bar mitzvah. For ritual, too, was part of memory. And besides, how could he ever get closer to the mystery of God, unless he battered Him with his doubts?”

He may not have had answers about God, but he did have opinions on mankind. In an interview with David Axelrod in 2013, Axelrod asked him how he still believed in God in light of the Holocaust. Wiesel replied in effect, “Why look at God?  Why not look at man?”

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel speaks with David Axelrod at the University of Chicago in 2013. (University of Chicago Institute of Politics / YouTube)

Elie Wiesel seemed to reflect that school of Jewish thought that holds that God created mankind, gave them rules by which to live, and then left them to it. In the face of evil, the emphasis should not be on asking “Where is God?” [i.e., “passing the theological buck” to a deity who has given us free will, per Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg] but on putting the responsibility for evil on human beings. Rabbi Ruttenberg points out, just as Elie Wiesel might have said himself, that it is human beings who have the power to build gas chambers or dismantle them, or to stand idly by and do nothing.

In a speech he gave at the White House on April 12, 1999 reproduced in this book, Wiesel said that indifference was more dangerous than anger and hatred:

“…indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. . . . in denying their humanity we betray our own.”

Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, at which time the Committee called him a “messenger to mankind”, stating that through his struggle to come to terms with “his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps,” as well as his “practical work in the cause of peace,” Wiesel had delivered a message “of peace, atonement, and human dignity” to humanity.

An Afterword by Ted Koppel sums up Wiesel’s character by way of explaining why he would never have made a good President of the United States:

“He would have been incapable of the shallowness, the sheer nastiness. Elie Wiesel could never have adjusted to the constant demands of moral compromise. He was, simply, an unwavering symbol of uncompromising decency.”

Discussion: Perhaps there is no better time for this book to be published. It is not only that the incidence of anti-Semitic acts been on the rise. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported an increase of nearly 60 percent in anti-Semitic incidents between 2016 and 2017. During the Trump-instigated insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Nazi Holocaust imagery and rhetoric could be seen and heard among the participants. Antisemitic incidents reported to the ADL increased sharply during the 2021 Israel-Hamas conflict.

In addition, alarming figures reported by CNN document widespread lack of knowledge about the Holocaust:

Ignorance about the Holocaust is growing, particularly among young people. In the United States, a 2018 survey showed that 66% of millennials could not identify what the Auschwitz concentration and death camp was.

A recent CNN poll in Europe revealed that about a third of the 7,000 European respondents across seven countries knew “just a little or nothing at all” about the Holocaust. In France, nearly 20% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust.”

This shocking amount of unfamiliarity with what happened in the not too distant past puts not only Jews at risk, but even the idea of what civilization should be, and how different right is from wrong (as opposed to, say, the amoral assessment of Neo-Nazis versus protestors as consisting of “good people on both sides.”)

We desperately need the reminder provided by this book about the twisted ideologies, fear, and prejudice that led to this horrifying lapse of humanity. Elie Wiesel, as Rabbi Sacks stated, “was the voice of memory when others sought to forget. …” There is so much danger in forgetting. In honoring Wiesel, we honor memory just as we honor life more than its destruction from hate.

Evaluation: It would be hard to exaggerate how inspirational this book is. Elie Wiesel, as Ted Koppel said, converted pain, injustice, and horror into love, compassion, and tolerance. This tribute does not focus on the horror, however, but on the steps Wiesel took to fight silence and indifference, and to advocate for compassion and justice. Wiesel was a living embodiment of what humanity can mean. This book would make an excellent gift for everyone you know, but especially, for everyone you love.

Rating: 5/5

Published by MomentBooks, an imprint of Mandel Vilar Press, 2019

Review of “When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present by Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is a British writer for the BBC who spent many years in the United States covering the American political scene from the Reagan presidency through the Trump years. He has watched what, in his view, has been the decline of American prestige from being the unchallenged hyper-power of the 1991 Gulf War to something of a pitiful, laughable, rudderless former giant under Trump. He observes, “Were this a different country on a different continent, we would be speaking in terms of a failed state.”

To Bryant, the biggest problem facing America is the extreme polarization of the populace. The Cold War of the 1950s and 60s had given the country a sense of unity in its rivalry with communism and the Soviet Union. But that unity began to fissure with the rise of far right populism after Goldwater’s stunning defeat in 1964. Bryant observes:

The Lazarus-like tale of how right-wing Republicans turned the most humiliating defeat in the party’s history into a takeover of the conservative movement doubles as the foundation story for the polarised state of modern-day US politics.”

Bryant sees the seeds of America’s decline planted in the Reagan years and coming to fruition in the polarization of the country under the stewardship of the Republican Party. With Reagan, the president became more of a performer than a technocrat. He was one of the founding fathers of America’s polarization and changed the qualities and qualifications that the American people looked for in their president, “and not for the better.” Bryant writes:

The final 16 years of the twentieth century could be seen as a time of American dominion. The first 16 years of the twenty-first century could be looked upon as a period of rapid American decline. In 2026 Trump could be construed as a product of the dissonance between the two, a protest candidate for the millions of voters who mourned a future that never happened and a past that looked sunnier by the day.”

The Democrats do not escape blame in Bryant’s chronicle. Bill Clinton’s amorality and indifference, if not outright hostility, to the truth gave ammunition to critics on the right. For example, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he was quoted as saying, “We just have to win.” Indeed, his chief pollster Dick Morris conducted a secret poll to test whether the president should lie or tell the truth, which to Bryant was “the quintessence of Clintonian cynicism.”

American presidential elections are no longer exercises in efforts to persuade the undecided middle; rather they are efforts to motivate the already committed. As a result, we are in the midst of a cold civil war, and the country has gone 25 years without a properly functioning federal government.

Bryant provides much more detail that I can in a relatively terse review. His judgments, although provocative, are soundly reasoned. The culmination of his musings is rather pessimistic:

Is it too much to yearn at least for an American pageant that nurtures once more a sense of commonality and inspires global awe? Not a summertime of American resurgence. Rather, a season of American unification. Alas, I fear more American carnage.”

Evaluation: This very readable assessment of recent American politics is full of interesting anecdotes and astute insights about the powerful and those who support them. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Bloomsbury, 2021

Review of “Hellhound on His Trail” by Hampton Sides re Apprehending the Assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides has written a history book that reads like a suspense/thriller novel. His story follows the assassination of Martin Luther King by James Earl Ray. More than four decades after the event, Sides brings to life the characters involved and the era in which it occurred. He meticulously researched many of the minutia known about both the assassin and his victim during the period immediately preceding the killing and the three months thereafter, the time it took the FBI and numerous other law enforcement agencies to locate and arrest the killer.

James Earl Ray was a loner, a loser, and an extreme racist who had spent much of his adult life in prison. He was also remarkably resourceful, streetwise, and canny. Moreover, he seemed preternaturally inconspicuous and unobtrusive. The narrative begins in spring of 1967 with Prisoner #00416-J (as he was then characterized) serving a term for armed robbery in the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, a maximum-security facility. He accumulated some cash through trading in drugs and amphetamines, which were plentiful in the prison. He escaped by hiding scrunched up under and among some freshly baked loaves of bread that the prison bakery had sent out for delivery to the ostensibly trustworthy prisoners working outside the prison walls. He was resourceful enough to escape to Mexico without leaving a trace. He returned to the United States in November 1967, taking a large cache of marijuana, assumed the alias of Eric S. Galt, and blended into an underworld of cheap hotel and rooming houses. He was someone no one ever noticed.

Martin Luther King was internationally famous for his work in breaking down the legal barriers of Jim Crow legislation in the South through non-violent protest. King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and had led a protest march to Washington where he delivered his “I have a dream” speech, a paean to racial justice. But by late autumn 1967, his career was decidedly on a downward trend. Black leaders impatient with the slow pace of reform, like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown, had captured the imagination of many disaffected black citizens, and had incited numerous urban riots. Moreover King’s well-defined goal of abolishing discriminatory legislation and government regulation had been achieved, at least theoretically. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been enacted, negating most of Jim Crow legislation through federal preemption.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X

With the passage of these laws, King then turned his energy to ameliorating the lot of the poor of all races, and not just that of poor blacks. That decision did not sit well with all his entourage. Nevertheless, King turned toward organizing another march on Washington to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, this one with the laudable goal of eradicating poverty, but with little idea of how that could be accomplished and with no specific proposals toward achieving the goal.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at Riverside Church, NYC, April 4, 1967

By this time, King was considered to be a thorn in the side of President Lyndon Johnson, but was hated by the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover thought King was a communist, and was particularly concerned about King’s proposed mass gathering of poor people in a tent city in the Capitol. The FBI conducted a campaign of spying on King. Although it uncovered some of King’s sexual escapades and leaked them to the press (not to mention, to his wife Coretta), nothing seemed to come of the disclosures, which the press self-censored. It was clearly a different era in journalism.

On February 1, 1968, a horrible accident causing the grizzly death of two black men working as garbage collectors in Memphis, Tennessee set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in King’s assassination. The two men were seeking shelter from some rain when the garbage truck on which they were working malfunctioned, caught both of them in its maw, pulled them into its grinding mechanism, and literally crushed them both. Their deaths triggered the formation of a labor union by the all-black garbage-collecting work force and an illegal strike (municipal workers were not permitted to unionize or to strike) to protest low wages and dangerous working conditions.

Memphis Garbage Strike, 1968

The city government resisted the strike vigorously, if legalistically. Substitute workers were hired, but not enough to prevent the garbage from accumulating throughout the city. The strike attracted the attention of national labor and civil rights leaders, including James Lawson, a friend of MLK. Lawson persuaded King to lead a march in Memphis. The march was organized independently of King’s organization. Without King’s leadership and discipline over young hot heads, however, the march turned into a riot of looting and vandalism. King was discredited and very embarrassed. King’s second trip to Memphis was much more successful than the first, since he and his organization were able to arrange a dignified non-violent protest march.

Sides’ narrative intersperses Galt/Ray’s peregrinations with King’s preparation for the Poor People’s Campaign. Galt became obsessed with the possibility of killing King, following his travels closely through the press. Galt learned King would return to Memphis and that he would be staying at the Lorraine Motel, a black-owned enterprise. Galt rented a room in a cheap boarding house that provided him a second story view of the Lorraine’s balcony and courtyard. He purchased a high power hunting rifle, a powerful optical scope, and soft-tipped ammunition. He knew little about guns, but said he needed a deadly weapon because he would be hunting large game.

King was basking in the aura of a successful march and standing on his balcony waiting for others in his entourage to join him for dinner. Galt fire one shot, hitting King in the jaw. The soft-tipped bullet then careened through his throat and into his shoulder. King died shortly thereafter in a hospital operating room.

Hotel Lorraine, immediately after the shooting

Several anecdotes add poignancy to the aftermath of the assassination. King had spent his last night with Georgia Davis, one of his mistresses. She attempted to get into the ambulance to accompany King to the hospital, but Andrew Young avoided some bad press by touching her shoulder and saying, “Georgia, I don’t think you want to do that.” Jesse Jackson smeared his shirt with King’s blood and tried to claim he was the last person to speak to King. Others in King’s immediate circle strongly admonished him for grandstanding.

April 3, 1968: Balcony of Hotel Lorraine, left to right: Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, MLK, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy

King’s closest friends and successor, Ralph Abernathy, tried to carry on his legacy by completing the Poor People’s Campaign, which proved to be a disaster without King. Tens of thousands of people erected a tent city on the National Mall, but milled aimlessly for weeks, accomplishing little but incurring the ire of the national government and alienating many white former sympathizers.

The final one-fifth of the book covers Galt’s escape, his travel to Canada, England, Portugal, and back to England, where he was finally captured after the most exhaustive manhunt in history. He had sought to get to South Africa, where he thought the apartheid government might welcome him as a hero, or at least not extradite him.

The author shows how the FBI changed over night from trying to discredit King to trying to catch his killer. Much of the credit must go to Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who may have hated Hoover as much as Hoover hated King. It was only through extremely arduous and thorough police work that Galt was identified as James Earl Ray and located at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Atty. Gen. Ramsay Clark with President Lyndon Johnson

Evaluation: The book is fast paced, well-written, very detailed, and thoroughly researched. It manages to describe events without much speculation, basing its assertions on the testimony of the participants, particularly of the killer. The description of the police-FBI investigation reads like a crime thriller. Other reviewers have observed that it contains little that had not been written before, but it provides a sometimes heart-pounding refresher for people like me who have forgotten many of the details of forty years ago.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Doubleday, 2010

Note: Sides is also the author of, inter alia, Blood and Thunder, an exciting history of the exploration of the American West and the story of Kit Carson.

May 14, 1804 – The Lewis and Clark Expedition Sets Out from Camp Dubois, Illinois

President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery Expedition (more popularly known as “The Lewis and Clark Expedition”) shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He wanted to know just what the U.S. had purchased, and if the land contained a water route to the Pacific.

Captains Lewis and Clark recruited twenty-seven volunteers to join them on the mission. In addition, Captain Clark ordered York, his slave, to prepare for the trip. Thus, in May, 1804, twenty-eight men left from St. Louis, Missouri in three boats with the goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean.

There are many stories written about Lewis and Clark. Most do not tell the story the slave York.

York fulfilled important roles on the expedition. As Smithsonian Magazine reports:

As detailed in ‘The Journals of Lewis and Clark,’ during the two years of the Corps of Discovery expedition, York handled firearms, killed game and helped to navigate trails and waterways. In early December 1804, York was one of 15 men on a dangerous buffalo hunt to replenish their supply. ‘Several men returned a little frost bit,’ wrote Clark in his journal. ‘Servents [sic] feet also frosted…’ Native Americans they encountered were reportedly awestruck with York’s appearance, and he was later allowed to have a vote in key decisions. But when the men returned to the East legends and heroes, York, whose contributions to the expedition rivaled that of his comrades, returned to a life of enslavement.”

And yet, York was not freed by Clark after the mission, nor was he allowed to stay with his family when Clark moved to St. Louis. Clark had ordered him beaten, jailed, and forced into hard labor in attempts to break York’s continued desire to be free.

In an 1832 interview with Washington Irving, Clark claimed he had freed York and set him up in a business at which he failed. Then, according to Clark, York died of cholera while trying to return to Clark. There is no evidence for any of it.

What is clear is that York made a substantial and positive contribution to the Expedition, but like many men and women in history “behind the scenes” – especially black slaves, he received no credit for it.

April 4, 1968 – Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fight to Bring His Killer to Justice

In Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides has written a history book that reads like a suspense/thriller novel. His story follows the assassination of Martin Luther King by James Earl Ray. More than four decades after the event, Sides brings to life the characters involved and the era in which it occurred. He meticulously researched many of the minutia known about both the assassin and his victim during the period immediately preceding the killing and the three months thereafter, the time it took the FBI and numerous other law enforcement agencies to locate and arrest the killer.

James Earl Ray was a loner, a loser, and an extreme racist who had spent much of his adult life in prison. He was also remarkably resourceful, streetwise, and canny. Moreover, he seemed preternaturally inconspicuous and unobtrusive. The narrative begins in spring of 1967 with Prisoner #00416-J (as he was then characterized) serving a term for armed robbery in the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, a maximum-security facility. He accumulated some cash through trading in drugs and amphetamines, which were plentiful in the prison. He escaped by hiding scrunched up under and among some freshly baked loaves of bread that the prison bakery had sent out for delivery to the ostensibly trustworthy prisoners working outside the prison walls. He was resourceful enough to escape to Mexico without leaving a trace. He returned to the United States in November 1967, taking a large cache of marijuana, assumed the alias of Eric S. Galt, and blended into an underworld of cheap hotel and rooming houses. He was someone no one ever noticed.

Martin Luther King was internationally famous for his work in breaking down the legal barriers of Jim Crow legislation in the South through non-violent protest. King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and had led a protest march to Washington where he delivered his “I have a dream” speech, a paean to racial justice. But by late autumn 1967, his career was decidedly on a downward trend. Black leaders impatient with the slow pace of reform, like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown, had captured the imagination of many disaffected black citizens, and had incited numerous urban riots. Moreover King’s well-defined goal of abolishing discriminatory legislation and government regulation had been achieved, at least theoretically. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been enacted, negating most of Jim Crow legislation through federal preemption.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X

With the passage of these laws, King then turned his energy to ameliorating the lot of the poor of all races, and not just that of poor blacks. That decision did not sit well with all his entourage. Nevertheless, King turned toward organizing another march on Washington to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, this one with the laudable goal of eradicating poverty, but with little idea of how that could be accomplished and with no specific proposals toward achieving the goal.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at Riverside Church, NYC, April 4, 1967

By this time, King was considered to be a thorn in the side of President Lyndon Johnson, but was hated by the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover thought King was a communist, and was particularly concerned about King’s proposed mass gathering of poor people in a tent city in the Capitol. The FBI conducted a campaign of spying on King. Although it uncovered some of King’s sexual escapades and leaked them to the press (not to mention, to his wife Coretta), nothing seemed to come of the disclosures, which the press self-censored. It was clearly a different era in journalism.

On February 1, 1968, a horrible accident causing the grizzly death of two black men working as garbage collectors in Memphis, Tennessee set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in King’s assassination. The two men were seeking shelter from some rain when the garbage truck on which they were working malfunctioned, caught both of them in its maw, pulled them into its grinding mechanism, and literally crushed them both. Their deaths triggered the formation of a labor union by the all-black garbage-collecting work force and an illegal strike (municipal workers were not permitted to unionize or to strike) to protest low wages and dangerous working conditions.

Memphis Garbage Strike, 1968

The city government resisted the strike vigorously, if legalistically. Substitute workers were hired, but not enough to prevent the garbage from accumulating throughout the city. The strike attracted the attention of national labor and civil rights leaders, including James Lawson, a friend of MLK. Lawson persuaded King to lead a march in Memphis. The march was organized independently of King’s organization. Without King’s leadership and discipline over young hot heads, however, the march turned into a riot of looting and vandalism. King was discredited and very embarrassed. King’s second trip to Memphis was much more successful than the first, since he and his organization were able to arrange a dignified non-violent protest march.

Sides’ narrative intersperses Galt/Ray’s peregrinations with King’s preparation for the Poor People’s Campaign. Galt became obsessed with the possibility of killing King, following his travels closely through the press. Galt learned King would return to Memphis and that he would be staying at the Lorraine Motel, a black-owned enterprise. Galt rented a room in a cheap boarding house that provided him a second story view of the Lorraine’s balcony and courtyard. He purchased a high power hunting rifle, a powerful optical scope, and soft-tipped ammunition. He knew little about guns, but said he needed a deadly weapon because he would be hunting large game.

King was basking in the aura of a successful march and standing on his balcony waiting for others in his entourage to join him for dinner. Galt fire one shot, hitting King in the jaw. The soft-tipped bullet then careened through his throat and into his shoulder. King died shortly thereafter in a hospital operating room.

Hotel Lorraine, immediately after the shooting

Several anecdotes add poignancy to the aftermath of the assassination. King had spent his last night with Georgia Davis, one of his mistresses. She attempted to get into the ambulance to accompany King to the hospital, but Andrew Young avoided some bad press by touching her shoulder and saying, “Georgia, I don’t think you want to do that.” Jesse Jackson smeared his shirt with King’s blood and tried to claim he was the last person to speak to King. Others in King’s immediate circle strongly admonished him for grandstanding.

April 3, 1968: Balcony of Hotel Lorraine, left to right: Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, MLK, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy

King’s closest friends and successor, Ralph Abernathy, tried to carry on his legacy by completing the Poor People’s Campaign, which proved to be a disaster without King. Tens of thousands of people erected a tent city on the National Mall, but milled aimlessly for weeks, accomplishing little but incurring the ire of the national government and alienating many white former sympathizers.

The final one-fifth of the book covers Galt’s escape, his travel to Canada, England, Portugal, and back to England, where he was finally captured after the most exhaustive manhunt in history. He had sought to get to South Africa, where he thought the apartheid government might welcome him as a hero, or at least not extradite him.

The author shows how the FBI changed over night from trying to discredit King to trying to catch his killer. Much of the credit must go to Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who may have hated Hoover as much as Hoover hated King. It was only through extremely arduous and thorough police work that Galt was identified as James Earl Ray and located at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Atty. Gen. Ramsay Clark with President Lyndon Johnson

Evaluation: The book is fast paced, well-written, very detailed, and thoroughly researched. It manages to describe events without much speculation, basing its assertions on the testimony of the participants, particularly of the killer. The description of the police-FBI investigation reads like a crime thriller. Other reviewers have observed that it contains little that had not been written before, but it provides a sometimes heart-pounding refresher for people like me who have forgotten many of the details of forty years ago.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Doubleday, 2010

Note: Sides is also the author of, inter alia, Blood and Thunder, an exciting history of the exploration of the American West and the story of Kit Carson.

Review of “American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery” by Craig Unger

Craig Unger is an investigative journalist, writer, and analyst on national security. American Kompromat is a follow-up to his 2018 book, House of Trump, House of Putin, in which he made the case for Russian collusion. Kompromat, he explains, is the Russian term for compromising information which can be used in blackmailing, discrediting, or manipulating someone, typically for political purposes. It forms the basis for Russian intelligence control of human assets.

This book begins in October, 2020 with an examination of the leadership of Donald Trump before looking backward in time. Unger writes:

To most of the country, he was vulgar and vile, a misogynistic, racist firebrand, a buffoon who knew only his own pecuniary interests and prejudices and would stop at nothing to satiate them. He was clownish and repellent. But as the election approached, it became increasingly clear that he was far more dangerous than that suggested, that his buffoonery masked real demagoguery, that he was a tyrant who had mesmerized tens of millions of people, and that it didn’t matter to them what he said or did.”

And he wrote this even before the insurrection of January 6, 2021.

The author then goes on to present a wealth of material to establish that Donald Trump was cultivated and used by Russian intelligence to further their aims. Trump’s awareness of their efforts to control him was not necessary to the process. Unger writes:

From the KGB’s point of view, the most appealing quality about Trump was probably that he had a personality that was ideal for a recruit – vain, narcissistic, highly susceptible to flattery, and greedy.”

. . .

“Trump was a dream for KGB officers looking to recruit an asset…. Everybody has weaknesses. But with Trump it wasn’t just weakness. Everything was excessive. His vanity, excessive. Narcissism, excessive. Greed, excessive. Ignorance, excessive.”

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an influx of Russian Mafia and oligarchs into the U.S. who needed to launder billions of dollars, “a need that could best be filled by a wealthy real estate developer who had loads of luxury condos to sell and was willing to look the other way when it came to the source of the money.” This was a perfect set-up for the “perpetually bankrupt Donald Trump.”

Trump, Unger suggests, was compromised through “lucrative money-laundering schemes, sycophantic flattery, pie-in-the-sky Trump Tower Moscow projects, extravagantly well-paid franchising projects, and more.”

More critically, he details, “Russian intelligence had essentially hijacked Trump’s foreign policy in plain sight and nobody noticed,” especially because there was nothing explicitly unlawful about what they did. (The author quotes journalist Michael Kinsley’s observation: “The real scandal isn’t what’s illegal; it’s what is legal.”)

The author also discusses the ways in which it appears as if Donald Trump, Jr., Rudi Giuliani, and Trump’s Attorney General William Barr had also been compromised. With regard to Barr, the author goes into details of some of the shadier activity of Opus Dei,, the secretive, extremist right-wing Catholic organization. Barr’s affiliation with Opus Dei, the author avers, has influenced him to endorse an ideologically-driven understanding of religious liberty that reviles secularism, and a belief in extensive executive power, both of which helped further Trump’s autocratic and anti-liberal agenda.

As for deceased sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, he is included because he supposedly was in possession of the most kompromat of anyone, even more than the Russians. So far, however, what Epstein had or didn’t have has not been revealed, but even the threat of its existence is powerful. Epstein’s contact list was extensive, and included of course, Donald Trump.

At the very least, what this book shows us is that electing a president with Trump’s weaknesses was a foolhardy proposition – he would never even have received low-level security clearance for government work in normal circumstances.

Evaluation: This book is disturbing and scary, even without written confirmation of its conclusions. They are based on an overwhelming compilation of circumstantial evidence and bizarre behaviors, particularly with respect to Russia, that are not otherwise explainable.

That mystery aside, Unger’s book is effectively argued and riveting in its detailed description of the unseemly side of spy craft.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2021

March 22, 1788 – Publication of First Installment of Bound Federalist Papers & Review of “Liberty’s Blueprint” by Michael Meyerson

In the seven-month period prior to the adoption of the Constitution, from October 1787 to May, 1788, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (with a small contribution from John Jay) produced a series of outstanding essays popularly known as The Federalist Papers, designed to sell readers on the idea of ratification. The Federalist, as it is properly called, was more than just a sales document. Thomas Jefferson called The Federalist “the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written.” Meyerson summarizes the issues covered in The Federalist, including the balance of power among the three branches and different levels of government, the danger of factionalism, and the role of the courts, seeking to show why this brilliant collection retains relevance in the interpretation of the Constitution even today.

The first in the series of eight-five essays by “Publius,” the collective pen name of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, was published on October 27, 1787 in the New York City newspaper “Independent Journal.”

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Federalist No. 1 encouraged the people of New York to support ratification of the Constitution approved by the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787.

Although written for the New York press, newspapers around the country reprinted the essays.

Since all of the essays were signed “PUBLIUS,” the actual authors of some are under dispute, but the general consensus is that Alexander Hamilton wrote 52 (including the first), James Madison wrote 28, and John Jay contributed the remaining five.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

[You can read the full text of all of the Federalist Papers here.]

On January 1, 1788, the New York publishing firm J. & A. McLean announced that they would publish the first thirty-six essays as a bound volume; that volume was released on March 22, 1788, and was titled The Federalist Volume 1. New essays continued to appear in the newspapers; Federalist No. 77 was the last number to appear first in that form, on April 2. A second bound volume containing Federalist 37–77 and the yet to be published Federalist 78–85 was released on May 28. The last eight papers (Federalist 78–85) were republished in the New York newspapers between June 14 and August 16, 1788.

Meyerson suggests that appreciation of The Federalist has been compromised by the disagreement between “originalists” and “non-originalists.” Originalists contend, as explained by Justice Scalia in a speech in 2005, that interpretation of the Constitution should begin with the text itself, in an attempt “to give that text the meaning that it bore when it was adopted by the people.”

Arguments in favor of originalism include that it provides the best mechanism for preventing judges from deciding cases based on their personal preferences instead of on legal principles. Moreover, the fact is that the legitimacy of the American polity is based on the Constitution as it was written. As Madison pointed out, repeated changes in the Constitution would lead people to assume their founding document [and therefore polity] was flawed and could or should be replaced.

The Federalist, Meyerson argues, can bridge the gap between the seemingly irreconcilable approaches of Constitutional interpretation. Understanding why it was written and what it contains can illuminate the answer to “how and when we should call upon the views of the framers….” Specifically, Meyerson points out that because Hamilton and Madison both attended the Convention, for which no proceedings were released, The Federalist “explains, in detail, the logic and reasoning behind the choices made by those who drafted the Constitution in Philadelphia.” No less importantly, The Federalist “showed how these choices reflected the goals and ideals of the population of their time.

Alexander Hamilton

Unfortunately, shortly after the generation of The Federalist Papers, Hamilton and Madison had a falling out over a number of issues, and Madison, “acquiescing to the views of Jefferson,” became a bitter enemy of Hamilton. Both Hamilton and Madison used The Federalist to argue against each other, even taking positions contrary to those espoused in the essays! As an example, Jefferson was incensed when President Washington (who Jefferson considered to be a puppet of Hamilton) declared neutrality in the war between England and France. Hamilton published some essays defending Washington’s position. Jefferson, an unrepentant Francophile even knowing the excesses of the French Revolution, wrote to Madison in July, 1793:

For God’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public.”

Jefferson preferred to execute his dirty tricks through the agencies of others, Madison being one his preferred proxies. But in this instance, the problem for Madison was that Hamilton was making points consistent with what Madison had written in The Federalist Papers. Meyerson notes that “Madison reluctantly took up the challenge,” but was never able to rebut Hamilton.

James Madison

In fact, Meyerson advises us to use caution in relying on statements about The Federalist Papers made by Hamilton and Madison after ratification of the Constitution: “They used temporary, mutable stratagems, adapted solely to support the political positions they were championing at the moment.”

Meyerson suggests that if we avoid that trap, we will benefit greatly from reference to The Federalist Papers. He asserts “the history of the drafting and ratification of a document such as the Constitution simply cannot be irrelevant in understanding the meaning of unclear terms and enigmatic omissions.” Further, he opines “original meaning, whenever it can be recovered, should … prevail over the lesser acts of legislators and the preferences of jurists.” He points out how helpful it has been to have such a thorough understanding of what the words meant in the Constitution as opposed to the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, for which such documentation is lacking.

Nevertheless, he observes that sometimes it is not possible to uncover an original meaning. Additionally, we now have a “more evolved understanding” of some issues, such as the rights of minorities. Certainly we must not treat The Federalist as “holy writ;” however, the overall structure of our government has not changed in 200 years, and there is much in The Federalist that is instructive on the balance of power and dangers of usurpation by one branch or another.

Evaluation: This is an interesting overview of the writing of The Federalist Papers and the uses to which it has been put from our early Republic through the present Supreme Court. Meyerson tries to give both sides of the originalist – non-originalist issue, although his respect for the brilliance and continued relevancy of The Federalist Papers is clear. His book serves as a useful reminder that the Constitution is the legitimizing document of this country, and should not be trimmed to suit the political tides of the moment.

Published by Basic Books, 2008

Review of “A Promised Land” by Barack Obama

This is the first installment of Barack Obama’s promised two-volume memoirs. It covers his early life through his presidency up to the killing of Osama Bin Ladin in 2011. It is a thoughtful, self-reflective, well-written account of a very eventful time.

As Obama looks back, he questions some of his decisions, or at least acknowledges that there were legitimate questions about what he did. For example, he is quite aware of all the criticisms for his handling of the 2008 financial crisis and the appearance it gave of catering more to greedy bankers than the many ordinary citizens who suffered from their actions.

His approach to that crisis remains part of the disappointment progressives feel over Obama not delivering what they hoped he would. He seems keen to address them, writing that the image of him as “starry-eyed idealist” is not quite accurate. His is instead a pragmatic idealist, influenced by his grandmother. His attitudes and beliefs also show his academic influences: he graduated from Columbia University in 1983, enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1988 where he was the first black person to be president of the Harvard Law Review, and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004.

In any event, there were expectations from both liberals and conservatives that his decisions would reflect his race more than his education and temperament, but they never did. Ironically, his vice president, Joe Biden, now the president, has more freedom as a white man to institute policies that help Blacks, since he will not be seen as “biased.”

The perception of Obama by the right was not helped by his infamous description of the rural white working class — “They get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” He is still brooding over having said this, and the reaction to his remarks.

Obama also addresses his foreign policy moves with respect to Afghanistan and Libya, and it’s hard not to conclude that he still hasn’t come to terms with what would have been the correct approaches to those issues.

On a related note, he discusses his addition of Bob Gates, a Republican, to his administration as Secretary of Defense. He stated that he wanted help to push against his own biases. And in fact, the two men remained somewhat adversarial throughout Obama’s presidency. In Gates’s own memoir about that time, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War, Gates made some harsh observations about Obama, writing of Obama’s approach to the Afghanistan war, the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

In hindsight, it looks as if Obama would not entirely disagree with him.

Obama is still incredulous that he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. “For what?” he asks. The official statement claimed it was for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people.” In addition, “The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

While Obama may disagree over whether he deserved the prize it is clear that he was, and remains, committed to “the American idea: what the country was, and what it could become.” In every political campaign in which he has supported Democratic candidates against divisive and racist Republicans, he has assailed his audience with the cry, “America! This is not who we are!” The 74 million who voted for Trump in 2020 tell a different story. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s isn’t worth hearing. He does indeed represent some of the best of American politics.

Evaluation: I listened to the audio version, read by the ex-president himself in his own inimitable cadence. To say listening to the book was sheer joy might be an exaggeration, but not much of one, particularly in light of the arrogant and ignorant rants of his successor. Throughout the book, Obama comes across as an honest, caring, intelligent human being willing to share his extraordinary experiences in a measured, guarded way.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Crown Publishers, 2020

Review of “Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law” by Preet Bharara

Preet Bharara served as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) from 2009 to 2017. In that position, as the New York Times noted, Bharara “made a name for himself as one of the nation’s most aggressive and outspoken prosecutors of public corruption and Wall Street crime.” During his tenure, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the SDNY prosecuted nearly 100 Wall Street executives for insider trading and other offenses. He reached historic settlements and fines with the four largest banks in the United States, and closed multibillion-dollar hedge funds for activities including insider trading.

Nevertheless, in March, 2017, he and 45 other United States attorneys around the country were abruptly told to resign by President Trump. This book is not about President Trump, however, nor about the decision by Trump to fire Bharara. Rather, this very entertaining book provides an overview of the criminal justice system by offering fascinating anecdotes about famous cases that went through Bharara’s office.

For those who love “true crime” podcasts or even “Law and Order,” this book will not disappoint.

The book is divided into four sections: Inquiry, Accusation, Judgment, and Punishment. Bharara has two main underlying themes. One is that all of the actors involved, on both sides of the law, are human beings, and have human needs, and make human mistakes. Another, but not unrelated to the first, is that rapport works better than coercion and brutality – especially in the information gathering stages, and that when the prosecution shows respect to the identity and needs of a perpetrator, it is infinitely more fruitful. [Or as my parents used to admonish me (uselessly, it’s sad to say), “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”]

The chapter on methods of interrogation is especially good at illustrating that point. Bharara contends that whether interrogations are done in peacetime or war, or on criminals or terrorists, some methods work consistently better than others. For example, Bharara provides evidence that the notorious torture of alleged terrorists by the CIA produced very little useful information. On the other hand, he maintains, kindness, empathy, and building relationships, rather than brute force, have proven effective in getting people to talk. What most perpetrators want, Bharara argues, is to be respected for who they are and to get to tell their own story, rather than having lawyers or media place them in unflattering boxes. Treat them like human beings, Bharara says, and they will start providing names, connections, and background. The least likely to talk or flip? Surprisingly, Bharara writes, it’s not Islamic terrorists as many people would guess, but police. Their code of silence, preventing the police from incriminating other officers for their wrongdoings, is a harder barrier to crack than even the Mafia’s Law of Omertà – the code of honor that places importance on non-cooperation with outsiders, especially those in law enforcement.

Some of the stories are shocking, and all are thought-provoking. Perhaps the saddest anecdotes come out of Bharara’s coverage of Rikers Island, in the section on punishment.

Rikers Island in New York is one of the world’s largest correctional institutions. Approximately 85% of those detained there have not been convicted of a crime, but rather are awaiting trial, either held without bail or remanded in custody. The others in the prison population have been convicted and are serving short sentences. But regardless of why they are in Rikers, prisoners must deal with shocking brutality. Reports indicate Rikers is notorious for violence within the walls — a place where inmates attack inmates, inmates attack correction officers, and correction officers attack inmates. An exposé in Mother Jones found:

“When it comes to ignominies, New York City’s island jail complex has it all: inmate violence, staff brutality, rape, abuse of adolescents and the mentally ill, and one of the nation’s highest rates of solitary confinement. Rikers, which hosts 10 separate jails, has been the target of dozens of lawsuits and numerous exposés. Yet the East River island remains a dismal and dangerous place for the 12,000 or more men, women, and children held there on any given day—mostly pretrial defendants who can’t make bail and nonviolent offenders with sentences too short to ship them upstate.”

Coming up with fair methods of punishment, Bharara writes, remains a troublesome problem with no clear solutions.

Evaluation: This book is rich with informative and thought-provoking observations about doing justice, and how much “being human” sometimes helps and sometimes interferes. Bharara has a good sense of humor, skill as a raconteur, and a great deal to offer through his experiences as U.S. Attorney. I did not expect this book to be so engaging, but was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed it and learned from it.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Knopf Publishing Group, 2019

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to this book on audio. The author narrates the book in his distinctive clipped speaking style. But he comes across as warm, intelligent, thoughtful, and caring, and dedicated to treating everyone – no matter the crime – with consideration and respect.

Published unabridged on 9 CDs (approximately 10 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2019

December 24 – Birth of Jesus & Review of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan

Zealot by Reza Aslan takes us through the history of early Christianity and the change from Judaism as a source of law to a new philosophy largely interpreted by the former Pharisee (an ancient Jewish sect) later known as St. Paul.

This book has been very controversial largely because of a rather ill-conceived and poorly conducted interview on Fox News that went viral on the Web. In that segment, the interviewer, who clearly had not read the book, and didn’t have any interest in the book’s contents, only wanted to indict Aslan for writing about Jesus when he is a Muslim. He had to point out repeatedly that he is a scholar and that his religious orientation should be irrelevant. The content of his work was not addressed. Nevertheless, all the attention propelled the book to the best-seller list.

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I am happy to address the content, which is quite good. Aslan doesn’t break any new ground, but he presents the early history before and after the start of the “Common Era” in an entertaining and accessible way.

Aslan reviews some of the prophecies that the story of Jesus was expected to validate. He then goes through the gospels and points out the contradictions, historical inaccuracies and fact-massaging that were clearly intended to ensure that Jesus would fit the description of the Messiah predicted by the Old Testament.

Aslan also explains some of the ways in which the stories told in the gospels would have been understood differently by the people at that time from the way we interpret them now according to our modern sensibilities.

Importantly, Aslan gives a brief accounting of some of the other would-be messiahs at that time in Jerusalem who were also claiming to be The King of the Jews or The Savior of the Jews or The Messiah. They were all beheaded or crucified. So why did the story of Jesus prevail? Aslan spends the remainder of the book telling us how and why that happened.

Evaluation: This is an informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking book. The information Aslan imparts is extremely valuable for those who have not read any early Christian history. The ground he covers has been plowed often before, but usually in a more inaccessible way. This is a history of Jesus for the people, and one that is thoroughly subscribed to by historians (if not theologians). Aslan does an excellent job of presenting it, in my opinion.

I listened to this book in audio form, and it was read by the author. I thought he was a great choice for a narrator, because he loaded his arguments with passion and conviction.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published unabridged on 7 compact discs by Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013