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Stuff you probably didn't know ...

This was another book that the “Almighty Algorithm” matched to my book collection over on LibraryThing.com for their Early Reviewers program. As is frequently the case, “early” doesn't necessarily mean “pre-release”, although the copy in hand is an ARC (review copy), as this hit the shelves the first week of April. I guess that's “my bad” as this was a February LTER selection that showed up here mid-March.

Anyway, Juan Williams' We the People: The Modern-Day Figures Who Have Reshaped and Affirmed the Founding Fathers' Vision of America is an odd concept, as one might gather from the cover graphic, this is sort of setting up “new founders” for the changed America that some love and some loathe.

I'm always somewhat surprised by Williams, as I identify him with Fox News, and so expect a level of conservatism that he only exhibits on occasion. However, it turns out that he had a long career at leftist bastions The Washington Post and National Public Radio, that I'd not been previously aware of, so that explains a lot about how much this book grated my sensibilities.

While this is not blatantly some “progressive” screed, it certain reflects the author's preference for stances, movements, legislation, and cultural shifts that I think are wrong, bad, or just plain evil, so I was grinding my teeth a lot while reading it. However, Williams anticipates this, and starts the book with the (quoted) question “What happened to my America?”, and points out that, during the 2012 election
One poll found 53 percent of white Americans saying the changes in culture, economics, demographics, and politics were coming too quickly and damaging America's “character and values.”
Interestingly, in the same poll, 51 percent of African Americans also felt these changes were too much … so it's not just me as a middle-aged white male! There is a big divide here, though … with the author clearly admiring people, movements, and organizations that I loathe … so take that as a caveat to my impressions of the book.

This is structured in chapters that address one societal issue and the figures Williams identifies as being related to the changes in that. As I have just three or four of my little bookmarks in this (pointing out places that I felt had information good to present here), I'm going to resort to, basically, walking you through the TOC initially to give you the “30,000 ft view” on this. The following are the sub-headers of the chapters, which present the characters and the contexts for each:

JFK, Ted Kennedy, and the Immigration Reform That Changed America

Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fight for Civil Rights

Bill Bratton and Modern Policing

General William Westmoreland and the Rebirth of the U.S. Military

Milton Friedman's New Math of Free Markets, Big Business, and Small Taxes

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Fight for Global Human Rights

Robert Moses, William Levitt, and the American City

George Meany, the Labor Unions, and the Rise of the Middle Class

Billy Graham and the Power of the Christian Right

Betty Friedan and American Feminism

Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and the Opening of China

Pat Moynihan and the War on Poverty

Harry Hay, Barry Goldwater, and Gay Rights

Ronald Regan, Ed Meese, and the Remaking of the Judicial System

Social Security, Medicare, and Robert Ball

Rachel Carson and the Environmental Movement

Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and the Fight for Racial Equality

Charlton Heston and the NRA

Now, even in a 400+ page book, that's quite a list of stuff to cover, so nothing is covered particularly in depth, although at an average of 20 pages each, these are not trivial looks at the subjects. Obviously, the majority of the individuals discussed are “household names”, but with a sprinkling of folks I'd never heard of. The time periods covered also shift around quite a bit, from Robert Moses, active in the first decades of the last century, to Bill Bratton, whose influence first manifested in the 1990s.

The book gets off on the wrong foot, as the figure of Ted Kennedy (whom Williams obviously greatly admires) is, to me, more the elite power-abusing monster that bought his way out of the Chappaquiddick incident and regularly championed causes I disliked. The author argues that the Kennedy brothers had a deep connection to immigration via their Irish background … but I wonder how real that is, being raised in power and privilege by their bootlegger Nazi-supporting family patriarch. It appears that the 1964 Civil Rights Act only got passed because Lyndon Johnson and Ted Kennedy used the trauma of JFK's assassination to “guilt” it through congress.

The chapter dealing with Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr. is the first place where Williams tries to envision the thoughts of the original founders about demographic realities of recent decades, and spins off from the founders supposedly not being able to imagine or accept how the Constitution has been construed by modern Courts, and into territory which in danger of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” in attempts to push “progressive” (Leftist) goals. Johnson is a key player in this chapter as well, but I guess didn't make the cut for the sub-header.

The next chapter is entitled “Broken Windows, Urban Crime, and Hard Data”, and focuses on the figure of Bill Bratton, the police figure (former Chief of Police in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, and current NYC Police Commissioner) who developed the “data driven” approach to policing, which drove down crime rates by responsively assigning resources where they were needed … but more controversially following the “broken windows” theory of reacting to small crimes before they create perceived permission for more serious crimes. This, with advanced surveillance has raised a lot of civil liberties questions, and Williams indicates that Bratton was instrumental in hooking in local law enforcement with Homeland Security under the Patriot Act.

The chapter on General William Westmoreland is fascinating in its look at the history of America's military, from the early days when many were unwilling to have an army, on up through Vietnam. Of course, Westmoreland had been the commander of the efforts in Vietnam until 1968, and got to see up close how debilitating that conflict, and the systems involved in it, were for our forces. It was he, and his successors, who pioneered the present highly-trained all-volunteer force.

Next comes a look at economic theory, featuring the famed economist Milton Friedman (whose Free To Choose video series and accompanying book in 1980 were huge successes). One gets the sense that Williams doesn't much like Friedman's stances on things (repeatedly contrasting him with Paul Krugman), but he's presented here due to his influence, both in economic theory and the ideas of freedom.

The concepts of American-style “liberty and justice” applying world-wide is the key point in the chapter on Eleanor Roosevelt, who had become the head of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1946. Williams says:
Mrs. Roosevelt offered the Founding Fathers' claim of natural rights as the new baseline for judging how any government, in any place, treats the poor, political dissidents, racial and ethnic minorities, women, and children.
Aside her work in these areas, this chapter has quite a lot of interesting information regarding her life, which was extraordinary by any measure.

The chapter on the rise of cities probably has the least-known names here, Robert Moses and William Levitt, both operating in New York City, although in different eras. Moses was born in 1888 and became a very controversial figure, one one hand, fighting corruption and ingrained political factions, on the other, “bullying” his way toward tearing down whole swaths of housing to build highways, and other personal pet projects. While Moses operated in the governmental sphere, Levitt was to be instrumental in developing the suburbs: “It was Levitt who was the first to build middle-class residential communities off the exits of the parkways and highways.”, his family company initially having contacts to build housing for defense workers in Norfolk, VA, they devised new building techniques for “assembly-line” housing construction that was able to pump out hundreds of times the units of traditional builders.

I suppose the name George Meany is familiar to older readers, as I suspect he's not much on the radar of anybody under 40 at this point. He ran the AFL (American Federation of Labor) which later merged with the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), to form the familiar AFL-CIO union structure. This piece is fascinating to read as a union outsider, as it represents a time when the unions were massive, powerful, yet stridently anti-communist … a world away from Leftist monstrosities like the SEIU or government employee unions these days!

Williams does a great job at backgrounding the chapter on the Christian Right, both in tracing Billy Graham's history but also outlining assorted laws, etc., such as the 1948 Supreme Court case that prevented the teaching of religious doctrine in public schools. Much of this is focused on the 60's and 70's, however, with the rise of evangelical broadcasting, and the all-too-familiar names involved in that (he quotes Jerry Falwell saying that people were fascinated to be able to see him on TV in the morning and then get to see him live at an event that night). Frankly, Graham isn't the “main player” in here, but he seems to be the one who got the ball rolling, and much of the later figures are, essentially, his protégés.

Another name that might have faded with the years is that of Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book The Feminine Mystique (based on research initially begun in 1957), was a ground-breaking look at women in the post-war world, and the “nameless, aching dissatisfaction” they felt. She ended up publishing the book, because she was unable to interest any magazine in taking the article she had originally planned to write … of course, when the book sold over 3 million copies, the magazines, talk shows, and other media were all too happy to cover it … and it has been described as “a good example of a book that permanently shifted the society in which it was published”. She was President of the National Organization for Women (and was instrumental in developing that group's “Bill of Rights for Women”), a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus, and a key player in numerous other organizations.

One of the most fascinating (for me) chapters here is the one on the Opening of China, which is largely centered on the still-imposing figure of Henry Kissinger. That noted anti-communist Richard Nixon was the President to begin normalizing relations with Mao's China was a shock at the time, and is still a pretty amazing episode in American history. Kissinger's background is remarkable (and I'd not previously seen anything on this), including hunting down Gestapo agents in post-war Germany. He was largely responsible for much of the Cold War strategy of fighting “little wars” (like Korea and Vietnam) and avoiding full-on conflict with the USSR. The tales of back-channel negotiations (and even cloak-and-dagger operations such as his going on a trip to Pakistan that was a ruse to fly to China to work out Nixon's eventual visit) should be the stuff of movies.

Pat Moynihan is another of those names that I remember, but generally just as a whiny liberal Senator that always seemed to be on the wrong side of issues. It appears that his upbringing in and out of the lower end of the middle class, set him up for being very sensitive to poverty, and became an Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration, and continued into the Johnson administration where he wrote The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (more commonly known as the Moynihan Report) in 1965. This report was seminal to Johnson's “war on poverty”, and argued that “the problems of poverty and unemployment were rooted in common problems of broken families, poor education and training”. He worked in the Nixon administration (and became an ambassador) before winning a Senate seat in 1976 (to which he was reelected three times, retiring in 2000), and even co-sponsored bills with the Reagan administration. There is quite a lot of detail about his career, and the legislation involved, here … plus some interesting personal details about the author's life.

While I have always been a big fan of Barry Goldwater, I did not recognize the name Harry Hay. It turns out that he was an English immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1917 and was very active with political organization to support the rights of gays. His long career (he died at age 90 in 2002) spanned a lot of cultural territory, which was further complicated by his being a member of the Communist Party. It turns out that Goldwater was one of the strongest supporters of gay rights in the mainstream political world “arguing that conservative reverence of the Constitution and its guarantees of persona liberty include the right to make personal choice about sexual preferences” … a stance that's more associated with the Libertarians these days.

As one might expect, a writer who had been with the Post and NPR probably never had Ronald Reagan or Ed Meese on his Christmas card list, and the “Remaking of the Judicial System” chapter, while remarkably detailed in its look at the courts, has that sort of feel of adversarial attitude about it. Of course, he's pretty even-handed here, saying regarding Meese: “The height of his effort to get back to the Founder's original intent was to select judges on the basis of their fidelity to strictly interpreting the law on the basis of the Constitution.” … which I think is a shame that that is notable rather than required.

One name that I doubt any but hard-core policy wonks will know (I certainly didn't) is that of Robert Ball. The first third of this chapter walks the reader through the history of social programs in the U.S., up through the Truman administration, during which a Senate panel was formed to look at Social Security, the head of this panel was Ball, a former Social Security official noted for his expertise and abilities to do high-level presentations on the intricacies of the system. He was, essentially, the go-to guy for the program on up through the Reagan administration (serving on panels and commissions even after his official retirement in 1973).

Rachel Carson is probably still a recognizable name as her Silent Spring is an environmental classic. After WW2 she had gotten a position with the U.S. Department of Fisheries as an aquatic biologist and began writing materials for the government in the 50's. She published an award-winning book, The Sea Around Us in 1951, and continued publishing through the decade. Her research into the deleterious effects of the insecticide DDT led her to writing Silent Spring in 1962, which is credited (although she died two years later) with being the foundation for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Everybody knows the names of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, and the chapter on “the Fight for Racial Equality” largely looks at how their messages, in very different styles, interacted. This takes detailed look back at social and legal history leading up to King, and how Jackson, essentially, tried to push himself into the leadership of the movement after King's assassination (including wearing his blood-soaked shirt constantly at meetings and rallies for days after). As much as Jackson wanted to be seen as the natural inheritor of King's mantle, he was not much liked by others in those circles, and even MLK at one point told him (in public): “If you want to carve out your own niche in society, go ahead, but for God's sake, don't bother me”! Williams details Jackson's political ambitions, and frustrations with never getting the power he was seeking (leading, no doubt, to the bitterness he's frequently shown regarding Obama).

Finally, there's Charlton Heston, and the NRA. This is another case where I think Juan Williams had to “stretch” a bit, as Heston, while universally known, and active (at one point President) in the NRA, was hardly a central figure. In fact, his initial involvement was being hired for some commercials. This chapter is very interesting, however, in looking at the NRA, its history (at one point it was a quasi-governmental organization to train kids to be better shots), and the whole “gun issue”. Needless to say, this is a topic very much “of the moment”.

Anyway, that's pretty much what's in We the People … each of these is fleshed out with enough detail to make it worth reading, but not so much as to make it unbearable (I'm pretty sure I'd take a pass at reading an entire book on some of these). While I don't agree with the author's “spin” on a lot of these (and think the whole premise is somewhat off), he's certainly presented something that shines new light on a lot of areas of American life. This just came out in April, so should be generally available, but the on-line big boys have it for nearly half off at the moment (making it nearly a wash with what the new/used guys have it for, with shipping).

To be honest, this is not a book that I think I would have picked up “free range” to read, but I don't think I wasted my time reading it. I suspect that someone of a more Leftist bent might have been more enthusiastic about it than I was … so there's that to consider.


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