Posts Tagged ‘Book Review’

The Washington Times, 1-14-10


By Leslie Holmes

Oxford University Press, $11.95, 144 pages


By Stephen Lovell

Oxford University Press, $11.95, 144 pages


By Gil Troy

Oxford University Press, $11.95, 168 pages

Reviewed by Jeremy Lott

“This is a book,” writes University of Melbourne political scientist Leslie Holmes, “about a dream … that for too many became a nightmare.”

The book is “Communism: A Very Short Introduction,” and it is one of three related volumes released recently as part of Oxford University Press’ invaluable, sprawling Very Short Introduction series. The other two Very Short Introductions that we will consider are “The Soviet Union,” by Kings College reader Stephen Lovell, and “The Reagan Revolution,” by McGill University historian Gil Troy. These three authors help document the nightmare that was communism and how most of the world finally managed to jolt itself awake from it.

“The overwhelming majority of states that were Communist as recently as the late 1980s have now moved on,” explains Mr. Holmes, former president of the International Council for Central and East European Studies. “While, formally, five Communist states remain, the two successful ones (China and Vietnam) are so largely because they have jettisoned many of the original basic tenets of communism and are in some important areas – notably the economy – already post communist.”

Of the other three holdouts, Laos is a “backwater” that is beginning a transition to capitalism, North Korea is an isolated kingdom, and Cuba is trying to hold back American influence, with a little help from U.S. sanctions. In another decade or so, it’s possible that the few remaining nations will not even bother to describe themselves as communist.

The near total collapse of communism is a really remarkable thing, given how ascendant world communism looked for so long. From the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, the reds were on a roll. Mr. Holmes reminds us, “By the 1970s, more than a third of the world’s population lived in a Communist system.”

In 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall was torn down, the same year Ronald Reagan boldly declared “the Cold War is over,” Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson wrote in the latest edition of his popular textbook “Economics” that the “Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” Mr. Lovell provides the perfect rebuttal to that sort of blinkered theorizing in his survey of the Soviet Union: “The Soviet order ended as it had started: with food queues.”

There aren’t many remaining out-and-out apologists for communism left, but some thinkers have offered creative arguments for why it failed. Karl Marx theorized that communism was the stage that an economy could reach only after capitalism, but the places that communism really took root – Russia, China, Cambodia, etc. – were not industrialized, and the communist regimes felt they had to sacrifice a great deal of their citizens’ blood, sweat and foolish bourgeoisie dreams to secure a better proletarian future.

The result was buckets of blood – senseless death on a massive scale. Perhaps 100 million people were killed by communist governments in the 20th century, and, no, that’s not counting most wars. Mr. Lovell says his task is to “characterize the Soviet Union, not pass sentence on it,” but any accurate characterization will invite angry condemnation.

Forget, for a moment, the purges, the gulag, the show trials and most other state-sponsored forms of violence. Even when the communists weren’t actively trying to kill people, they still often managed it through dogmatic determination and malign neglect.

The efforts to collectivize agriculture brought famines, killing millions of innocent people. This is illustrated by one haunting photo in Mr. Lovell’s book, captioned “A starvation victim in Kiev, November 1932.” In the picture, one man lies on his back on the sidewalk while half a dozen people mill around him. No one looks at him or gives any indication that he is anything other than a part of the landscape. People chat. A father takes his son’s hand and shuffles him away. Nothing can be done about it, so the people avert their gaze.

Mr. Lovell and Mr. Holmes look more at communism’s interior deterioration but do say that outside agents hastened its demise. Mr. Holmes writes that “by the beginning of the 1980, leading Western nations had a new generation of much tougher-minded anti-communist leaders, notably Margaret Thatcher in the UK (1979) and Ronald Reagan in the USA (1980). The tide was about to turn, and the days of Communist power’s expansion were over.”

Mr. Troy does a good job showing the part Ronald Reagan’s statesmanship played in hastening communism’s end in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. President Reagan’s religious upbringing and his reading of free-market economists played a role, as did his anti-communist credentials. He knew that communism had gotten human nature dead wrong and that a command economy couldn’t work; thus he knew where the Soviet Union was vulnerable.

The surprising thing, to many of President Reagan’s critics, is that he showed how vulnerable he could be as well. “[W]hile recovering from John Hinckley’s bullet,” Mr. Troy reminds us, “Reagan wrote a surprisingly warm letter to soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev” and he would reach out to Mikhail Gorbachev, which helped to make the Soviet Union’s dissolution relatively bloodless. He wanted world peace and – for one all-too-brief moment – he got it.

Jeremy Lott is editor of Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter and author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency” (Thomas Nelson, 2007).

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By Gil Troy, The News & Observer, 2-3-09

“The Reagan I Knew” by William F. Buckley Jr., (Basic Books, 240 page)

William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan were the conservative revolution’s odd couple. Buckley was the movement’s elitist prophet, scolding Americans polysyllabically. Reagan was its populist preacher, inspiring millions to join him in repudiating “big government.”

In this herky-jerky yet compelling valentine, “The Reagan I Knew,” Buckley recalls their relationship through 40 years of correspondence with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, interspersed with adoring commentary.

Readers should not expect to find thoughtful discourses on conservatism from Buckley or detailed reflections on governing from Reagan. The book — Buckley’s 55th and last, completed just before he died in February 2008 — is impressionistic. The book’s limits suggest the friendship’s boundaries, demonstrating one of the great Reagan paradoxes.

For all his legendary affability, Reagan was remarkably remote. Even his devoted wife, Nancy, called him an emotional “brick wall.” Reagan filled his letters to friends and strangers with homilies preaching conservative doctrine, but he neither shared doubts nor engaged in tortured debates. His governing philosophy seemed hatched fully formed. He lacked the capacity to regret, replay mistakes in his mind or apologize. In some this remoteness provoked anger, as evidenced through a series of scorching memoirs by spurned aides, especially David Stockman and Donald Regan.

Instead of moping about his powerful friend’s enigmatic distance, the aristocratic, infamously secure Buckley delighted in whatever contact they had. Marinated in a 1950s sensibility, the Buckley-Reagan exchanges reek of cigarette smoke and vodka martinis. They evoke a time when gentlemen corresponded rather than chatted on the phone or e-mailed, and delighted in their flirtatious, twinkle-in-the-eye banter.

They met in 1961. Buckley, 36, the National Review’s founding editor, was lecturing in Los Angeles. Reagan, 50, was a disenchanted Democrat and aging movie star slated to introduce the conservative wunderkind. Alas, the auditorium’s control booth was locked with the microphone off. Unruffled, Reagan opened a window, slid along a parapet two stories high, broke into the booth and turned on the microphone. This act — done with Reagan’s characteristic grace — anticipated their roles in the coming conservative revolution. Reagan’s bold moves helped broadcast Buckley’s ideas.

That bonding experience began a 30-year friendship. Despite Buckley’s swagger as one of America’s smartest smart alecks and Democrats’ caricature of Reagan the dummy, Reagan’s repartee easily matched Buckley’s.

Buckley flirted with Nancy Reagan, addressing her as “Cherie” and imagining a rendezvous in Casablanca. He also befriended Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s two children, Patti and Ron Jr., occasionally mediating between the oft-neglected offspring and their frustrated parents.

Buckley and Reagan agreed that Communism was evil and America’s government was overgrown. By 1966, Reagan was running to be California’s governor and Buckley had started his public affairs television show, “Firing Line,” which would run until 1999. Reagan was an occasional guest.

For one memorable moment in the late 1970s, the two buddies clashed over returning the Panama Canal to Panama. The story of their televised debate is the book’s highlight, as the friends dueled with civility, wit, and flair. After the opening statements, Reagan, who opposed the treaty, paused, flashing his charming smile, then said, “Well, Bill, my first question is, Why haven’t you already rushed across the room here to tell me that you’ve seen the light?” Buckley retorted: “I’m afraid that if I came any closer to you the force of my illumination would blind you.”

Although Buckley was suitably deferential after Reagan became president, the jesting continued as did the occasional frank exchanges. In July 1981, after nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, Reagan reported, brusquely, “I am going forward on this first court appointment with a woman to get my campaign promise out of the way.” He added, however: “I’m happy to say I had to make no compromise with quality.”

Regarding Reagan’s other towering accomplishment, Communism’s collapse, Buckley feared Reagan was too wowed by Mikhail Gorbachev. He warned the president not to mothball America’s Pershing missiles too quickly under 1987’s sweeping disarmament treaty. Reagan told Buckley he relied on “our verification provisions and on the fact that Gorby knows what our response to cheating would be — it’s spelled Pershing.”

In the spirit of the book — and this remarkable friendship — Buckley credits Reagan for being right, knighting him the world statesman most responsible for defeating Communism. Buckley’s disagreement with Reagan regarding Gorbachev highlights the contrast between the two men.

An ideologue with political savvy, Buckley packaged his ideas to popularize them but ultimately cared more about staying consistent.

A politician with an ideological edge, Reagan rooted his policies in a broader vision but cared more about staying popular — and winning. Reagan’s surprising nimbleness was a key to his success; he was far more willing to compromise and change than his allies or his opponents expected. Reagan governed in America’s great centrist tradition of muscular moderation, balancing the ideal and the real, the politics of what should be done with the politics of what could be done.

This easy-reading, illuminating volume adds to the growing literature celebrating Reagan’s style and substantive achievements, especially in ending the Cold War. Reagan once again comes across as a deeper, smarter, suppler leader than Democrats acknowledged. Buckley offers an inspiring example, too. At a time when issues were just as serious, Reagan and Buckley showed how to talk politics and do politics, with a lighter touch, keeping a wry perspective that diluted the partisanship. This book commemorates William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan as successful revolutionaries and true gentlemen.

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University.

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The Grand American Narrative

As the united States prepares to inaugurate a new president, popular historian simon schama examines the country’s past to find hope in the present

By GIL TROY, Freelance, Canwest Newspapers, January 17, 2009

A conductor leads a military band rehearsing outside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington last Sunday. Barack Obama is to be sworn in as president Tuesday.

Many Americans – and friends of the United States worldwide – are greeting the new age of Barack Obama with particular glee. The giddiness is partly due to

Obama’s youth, eloquence and rock-star charisma, and partly because Obama’s inauguration Tuesday will

also mark George W. Bush’s retirement. In this early

example of what will probably become a library-full of Obama redemptive tales, historian Simon Schama identifies the Iowa Caucus that Obama won in January 2008 as the moment “when American democracy came back from the dead.”

Schama is one of today’s most readable and well-rounded historians. In an age of hyper-specialization, Schama has written lyrically and insightfully about the French Revolution and the African-

American slave crossing, about subjects as sweeping as the history of Britain and as specific as the works of Rembrandt. His histories are usually Rembrandt-like, vivid, realistic portraits displaying remarkable dimensionality and depth.

In this offbeat, journalistic yet nevertheless appealing book, Schama has produced an impressionistic work more akin to a Picasso during the artist’s rollicking, energetic, colourful Cubist period. This work finds inspiration for the future by sampling more than 300 years of U.S. history in a non-linear, creative way.

Reflecting the kind of efficiency that helps make Schama so productive, the book is a prose version of a similarly named BBC production. Back in his native England, Schama has become famous for narrating sprawling popular television documentaries. This project seems intended to reassure his fellow Brits that by looking at the United States’s proud history, they can rest easy about its future. The double-dipping may be responsible for the book’s herky-jerky and

occasionally obscure nature, as Schama seeks out particular sites and individuals who can illustrate his point, rather than developing his story chronologically.

Schama believes that the United States remains the beacon to the world, a magnet attracting more than a million immigrants

annually, a wellspring of liberal rights and noble ideals. The country works both because of its founding principles and because of its advantageous practical conditions.

Tackling the explosive issue of church and state, Schama praises the founders’ “daring bet” that “freedom and faith” could be

“mutually nourishing.” This delicious mix, Schama writes, “has made Americans uniquely qualified to fight the only battle that matters … the war of toleration against conformity; the war of a faith that commands obedience against a faith that promises liberty.” This tension, he believes, “turns out to be the big American story.”

Americans have struck the right ideological balance because they are blessed by what Schama calls “the wide blue yonder.”

Having so much space has always allowed Americans to move on, start over, find a new spot. He exults: “Say howdy, give it a good poke and up will pop your very own piece of plenty: a crop of corn, a magic glint in the stream, a gush of black gold.” Even today, in a more developed, bureaucratic and sclerotic country, America’s great expanse remains redemptive. Schama celebrates the United States’s stunning diversity and complexity as a source of healing, the spur to “rejuvenating alternatives,” neither impeding order nor reform. The many alternatives mean that Americans never hit a dead end: “Americans roused can turn on a dime, abandon habits of a lifetime … convert indignation into action and before you know it there’s a whole new United States in the neighbourhood.”

Predictably, Schama venerates the country’s great constructive subversives, ranging from founders like Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to civil-rights revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer. Less familiar to readers will be Schama’s fascination with the Meigs family, an American dynasty whose story traces back to 1636 and tracks “the history of America.” The most prominent member of this clan was Montgomery C. Meigs, the quartermaster general of the Grand Army of the Republic

during the Civil War. Meigs and his family embody all the great virtues Schama recognizes in his adopted country – pragmatism and altruism, creativity and adaptability, passion and candour.

Ultimately, this book is history for hortatory purposes, applying the grand American narrative of the past to find hope in the present.

If Obama’s presidency gets bogged down in controversies, if he becomes a leader whose governing abilities cannot match his lovely ideals or the high hopes he generated, Schama’s book will end up on the ash heap of history, a reflection of Obama’s great potential and a sobering reminder, once again, of problems unsolved, dreams

unfulfilled, messianic expectations dashed and believers in democracy disappointed.

On the other hand, if Obama transforms the U.S. mood, and the country’s condition and reputation, Schama’s book will be hailed as prophetic, as both anticipating and helping to realize this great, healing Obama moment so many crave.

Gil Troy is a professor of U.S. history at McGill University.

The American Future: A History

By Simon Schama

Viking, 392 pages, $34

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Muscular moderates; Gil Troy: Centrists make best Presidents

HUBERT BAUCH, The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, Sptember 13, 2008, WEEKEND: BOOKS; Pg. I6

Leading from the Center By Gil Troy

Leading from the Center By Gil Troy

It’s a pity that this book had to go to press before the tickets for this year’s U.S. presidential election shaped up. It is nevertheless timely, coming as it does at the start of the sprint stage of the marathon that is a U.S. presidential race, which essentially begins the day after the last one ends.

Gil Troy’s review of past presidencies is an instructive guide to rating this year’s contenders. His thesis is that the most successful presidents have practiced constructive moderation by embracing and defining the political centre of their times, rejecting extremism of the left and right, but at the same time seeking to reconcile conflicting currents of thought with enlightened compromise.

Going for the centre may sound like a no-brainer. It is the hoariest of political wisdom that the leader who best positions himself at the political centre that encompasses the broad majority of

voters will be blessed with success. But as the Queens-born Troy, who now teaches history at McGill University, expounds in Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, that’s easier said than done.

“It is a high-wire balancing act,” he writes. “Leaning too far in any one direction or holding on too tight to heavy baggage risks a steep fall, often with no safety net. … Vigorous responses have to be rationally based. Shrill debates obscure real dangers and risk hysterical overreactions.”

The successful practitioner must be a visionary, but cautious in the application of vision, able to compromise without abdicating principle, capable of firing the public imagination while respecting the bounds of realism. It takes not just moderates, as Troy puts it, but muscular moderates; not just centrists, but passionate centrists. The governing idea is to think creatively, cultivate broad alliances and “push voters just enough so they move forward without losing their balance.”

Those who have masterfully succeeded at this in Troy’s book include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin Delano and, most lately, Ronald Reagan. Prominent among those he counts as falling short on one essential count or the other include Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

He suggests Washington, with his power of personality, modesty of manner and diligent striving for common cause in forging a nation from a gaggle of disparate colonies, set a lasting tone for American democracy at its best, when it works in a spirit of civility and centrism.

Troy makes the point that the centre path is by no means the easy way. His successful centrists tend to have in common that they catch flack from both sides of the ideological divide between left and right, including from their own partisans. Lincoln was reviled by both slavers and abolitionists for his incremental approach to emancipation, initially willing to allow some slavery in the interest of preserving the union; in his day, F.D.R. was denounced as a stooge for both commies and capitalists.

Clinton gets marked down as a failure even though Troy hails him as a “political virtuoso” and an instinctive centrist. He gets written off for being bigger on talk than action, reluctant to stake his popularity on risky endeavours. The conclusion is drawn that “presidents who love to be loved too much fail to accomplish much.”

Bush II fails the moderation grade for the opposite reason. Where Clinton’s moderation lacked muscle, Bush came on with an excess of muscle and a dearth of moderation, content to be president of half the country and damn the rest.

This is a scholarly book, but most accessible to anyone with a serious interest in politics. It offers a sprightly tour of U.S. presidential history liberally sprinkled with bon mots and eloquently expressed insights, both Troy’s and those he quotes.

Another pity is that the book is entirely devoted to U.S. politics. It would have been interesting to get a take on how his thesis applies to Canada, and why the U.S. political centre is so markedly skewed to the right of where it lies in Canada.

But then, that could make for a whole other book.

Hubert Bauch is The Gazette’s senior political writer.


By Gil Troy

Basic Books,

341 pages, $29.50

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