The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency – Chris Whipple

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Jul 092017

This is a must-read for anyone who’s interested in how the White House works.  It’s a well-researched, non-partisan history of every Chief of Staff since Sherman Adams, who first held the position under Eisenhower.  The first “modern” Chief was H.R. Haldeman, who under Nixon developed the staff system that’s proved indispensable to every administration since.

The White House Chief of Staff is the second-most powerful man in Washington: it’s a little-understood but crucial job that determines the effectiveness of any administration.  He’s first and foremost the “Gatekeeper”: the single person through which everyone – internal and external – communicates with the President.  The most important resource of any administration is the President’s time, and a good CoS guards it zealously, while still providing face-time with numerous staff and other persons on important issues, being an “honest broker” who faithfully transmits ideas and positions to the President for his consideration without filtering them through any personal agenda of his own.  The Chief of Staff must also impose discipline and focus on the staff, and ride-herd on any and all issues big and small, short- and long-term.  Most ominously, he is the President’s “son-of-a-bitch”, telling him what he needs – not wants – to hear, and taking the heat for unpopular decisions, along with dropping the hammer on anyone and anything that becomes a liability to the execution of the President’s agenda.

Aside from the Presidency itself, it’s the worst job in Washington, and the most important.

Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East – Gwynne Dyer

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Jul 092017

As someone who’s eschewed current events for history the last few years, I’m a little behind on things.  This history of Islamist terrorism and ISIS (now “IS”) went a long way towards catching me up.

Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 (Max Hastings)

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May 292017

There’s tons of WWII “overview” histories.  Hastings’ contribution distinguishes itself in its focus on civilians and soldiers: a zoomed-in, on-the-ground look at the war and how it affected those it touched (as opposed to histories discussing grand strategy and the men who framed it).  A damned fine book.

Genius (2017)

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May 292017

National Geographic channel’s biographical series about Albert Einstein.  It’s very good (relatively speaking).

The Saga of Tanya the Evil

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Apr 102017

Good anime series.  Only one season, so I suspect you’ll have read the Manga to see how it ends (though the anime reaches a perfectly good stopping point).  There’s lots of neat historical parallels, though for each one there’s an example of how the series diverges, so don’t read too much into that.  It’s by no means an allegory, and many aspects are more characteristic of WWII (such as the aerial component), though there’s no Hitler.  I’m impressed by some of the little things (like the French starting the war without helmets).

On a more personal scale, the protagonist has a definite Job thing going on between herself and God.   Though to be sure, Job wasn’t such a bitch-on-wheels.

Carl Sandberg’s Abraham Lincoln

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Feb 252017

Christmas gift WIN.  Sometimes parents give you socks (which are not to be despised, being so uncommon useful when one’s feet are cold).  But sometimes they knock one out of the park.  Exhibit A: this handsome 3-volume biography of Lincoln by Carl Sandburg.

I’m not normally one to get wrapped-up in nostalgia, or to imbue physical objects with emotional significance: media is media, digital or otherwise, and is replaceable.  I nonetheless feel a certain something about this particular collection, since it came from the estate of my dear Aunt Nell, whom I didn’t know nearly well enough but held in great esteem as a kind, cultured, and well-read lady.  Lincoln’s my favorite historical figure, and my reverence for him teeters on the brink of objectivity – indeed has perhaps fallen into a hopeless abyss of semi-religious awe.

I could gush about Lincoln at the same interminable length a teenage girl in the 60’s could for The Beetles.  I honestly believe he’s the finest human being America has yet produced.  No joke.  He may be the most intelligent, wise, tough, cunning, indomitable, and moral individual to ever walk this continent.  If not, he’s easily in the top-ten in all those categories.  He’s an utter freak of nature – a Dungeons & Dragons character born with the maximum possible score for all abilities, who then levelled-up to 20.  In fact, my respect for his faculties is such that I’ve occasionally wondered what the world would be like if he’d lacked his prodigious morality (which many consider his greatest characteristic).  What would America, or the world for that matter, look like today if Lincoln had possessed a mediocre sense of right and wrong, or if – God forbid – he’d been outright evil, or a psychopath?  The notion chills me to the bone.  Napoleon’s failure can be traced to politics, geography, logistics, and perhaps hubris.  Hitler was undone by megalomania and ideology, which drove him to micromanage military strategy in an inept fashion.  But a malicious Lincoln might have conquered the world – such was his adroitness and lack of weak-points.

And so this feels a particularly fitting disposition of one of her possessions (whereas I’d feel most awkward accepting, say, a piece of jewelry or stock shares).  Its monetary value is negligible, and I could literally torrent the entire work in epub format in the time it took to type this sentence – yet I look-forward to reading Nell’s copy with the liveliest anticipation.   It’s a striking departure from my usual rationality in matters of this sort, but a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.  And small though my mind may be, I really dig these books.

War: The Lethal Custom (Gwynne Dyer)

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Feb 032017

Dan Carlin sometimes references this in his Hardcore History podcast – it’s a great overview of warfare, from ancient times to the present.  Explains things such as why chariots fell by the wayside (selective breeding finally produced horses with backs strong enough to carry a man) as well as why they were developed in the first place (ie. the abilities of cavalry and the roles it can play on the battlefield).  However, the book’s overarching theme is that the destructive capability of human technology has reached the asymptote of existential threat: mankind must abandon the custom of war or go extinct.

War: The Lethal Custom