Tag Archives: Politics

American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Michelle Obama is a very public first lady.  We follow her fashion choices, hairstyles, arm workouts.  She flaunts her organic vegetable garden, recently featured on a special episode of Iron Chef America.  Her predecessor, Laura Bush?  Not so much.   What do we know about her pet projects?  Literacy, for one — she was a librarian, after all.  But the American public, while it approved of Laura Bush at rates much higher than those of her husband’s, didn’t know how she stayed in shape, what designers she wore, or what she ate.  Laura Bush was a fairly enigmatic, “traditional” First Lady.  At least, she seemed that way until I read American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld.

When I was in Washington, DC, last July, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which features the perennially popular First Ladies exhibit.  One of Laura Bush’s inaugural gowns, a long-sleeved sequined number, was on display.  I remember marveling at her tiny shoulders and narrow waist.  Obviously I’ve never seen the woman in person, nor been close enough to see the size of her figure.  But seeing her red gown hugging the mannequin made her seem a bit more approachable, though of course far removed from the actual museum display.

Reading American Wife is a bit like this — you catch a glimpse of what the woman is really like, as the novel is clearly modeled on Laura Bush, but so much of it is imagined that you can only confirm the outlines of the story.  The true woman is more mysterious and unknown.

In short, I loved American Wife. [Spoiler alert — plot points after the jump.] Continue reading


Guest Post from Flora: A Pole in Africa

Writing from the relative warmth of Boston (I’m in the Twin Cities, land of snow-crete), Flora returns with a blog post about Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński.  I have allowed her to keep her weirdo British spelling, even though she is technically American. Stay warm, blog friends!

So many dichotomies in the world. Type A’s and Type B’s.  Optimists and pessimists. Doers and dreamers. Those who fly into war zones, arc over burning roadblocks, slip through the jungle towards Stanleyville post-independence pre-Mobutu, stare into gun barrels; those whose days are spent in the swirl of “people, hotel, key, room, stuffiness, thirst, otherness, foreignness, loneliness, waiting, fatigue, life.” And those whose days simply- aren’t.  Or such is the ineluctable conclusion drawn after reading three of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński‘s books.

Just under a year ago I read the posthumously published Travels with Herodotus. I was new to Kapuściński‘s work, and his measured grace struck me. In truth, his world is not one that encourages dichotomies but instead subverts them, one in which a roaming journalist from a beleaguered nation-state, spectre of German and Soviet subjugation at his back, tries to wend his way through the polarizations – black and white, democracy and totalitarianism – that threaten to coopt day to day life. If only more people alighted on a Calcutta train station platform or waited days for transport in a Sudanese waypost, cross-fertilizing revelation if not understanding; then, he seems to promise, the madnesses of the world might settle into sense if not resolution. I used a passage from Travels for a volunteer orientation session on culture shock for (shameless promo) WorldTeach. I then rather foolishly traded my copy of Travels with Herodotus for an Indian buffet lunch. End Act One of my encounters with Kapuściński. Continue reading

Giving, by Bill Clinton

I’ve been reading Bill Clinton’s book Giving, which is about philanthropy of time, money, and energy.  Since he left office, Clinton has devoted himself to a variety of causes, much like Bill and Melinda Gates — he has a foundation, and he pulls in powerful, wealthy people from around the world and demands contributions. Bill Clinton is a unique figure in that he is so well-connected to people in politics, show business, the venture capital community, and non-governmental organizations.  When he went to rescue the two journalists in North Korea last month, it was apparent that he was one of the only people who could successfully liberate them.  Not only is his stature significant as a former President, but he had made overtures to North Korea during his term, so Kim Jung Il respected him.  I know there were a lot of jokes made about Bill Clinton picking up women, but to me, it was a poignant moment of rescue and reunion.  How miraculous he must have seemed to those two journalists when they first laid eyes on him.  So, whatever his personal failings, Bill Clinton commands a certain respect for accomplishing tasks large and small.

He’s also astoundingly smart and exudes mastery.  I’ve seen him speak a couple times since he left office, and both times I’m pretty sure he spoke without any notes.  Most recently, he was stumping for Al Franken here in Minnesota (the Frankens and Clintons are friends), and he made a clear and compelling case for why Barack Obama needed Al Franken.

So when I picked up the book, I knew that it would be well-written and have a clear argument.  It does.  He’s divided it into sections about giving money, as individuals or groups doing fundraising, giving time, and giving abilities.   The chapter I’m reading now is on businesses that are leading the way on green technology and climate change initiatives.  Clinton is passionate about the issue, probably in part because of Al Gore’s influence.  He writes, “When Al won the Academy Award for his fine documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, I was thrilled.  America was finally listening to the lecture he’d given me every week for eight years!”

The book is very detailed in terms of groups and individuals that have made efforts to change communities for the better, but at a certain point, each chapter seems to become a litany of examples.  The differences between the examples help keep it interesting, but it’s clear that the thesis of the book is so obvious, the only way that Clinton can make it into a book is to keep providing examples of how to give.

Clinton is forthcoming about his failings on Rwanda, which I think is the biggest thing that haunts him from his presidency.  He mentions the country in eight different chapters, sometimes just giving an example of a community outreach program, but in other times going into detail about his foundation’s efforts to improve health care or education in the country.  He joined with Dr. Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health program, which has clinics in Haiti, Peru, and Russia, to open a hospital in Rwanda.  I think that Clinton will keep going back to Rwanda throughout this life to see that he can make up for his failure to move the international community to action against the 1994 genocide.

I give credit to Clinton for making his book accessible to people who, as he notes, don’t have millionaire friends.  There’s an index in the back of each organization and its website that he mentions in the book, and he offers examples of how individuals can make a difference in their communities.  He makes a good argument that if we all contribute, the world would indeed be changed for the better.  It’s a book that can’t help but inspire, and it’s not overtly political.

I think that Bill Clinton has done a lot of good since he left office.  I was reading a tribute to Ted Kennedy this week that noted that ex-presidents are left with a lot of time to be statesmen and to play golf, but Kennedy was able to always have influence and power by remaining in the Senate and not succeeding in becoming President.  I’m sure it’s a harsh new reality to leave the Oval Office and all its trappings.  Clinton himself has said that he wishes he could be President forever.  With his foundation to fight HIV/AIDS and childhood obesity and his Global Initiative to bring leaders together to develop innovative solutions to global problems, he seems to be doing the best he can to retain some power and influence.  I think the book Giving succeeds in part because it’s not all about him — it’s about how he has been moved by his travels to developing nations like Rwanda and Cambodia and the philanthropic efforts he’s witnessed and supported.  Even if you don’t like Clinton or his politics, I think you would find the resources and examples offered in the book to be a call to action.

Article of the Day: Krugman Takes Down Grassley

Well, Chuck Grassley has done it again.  Remember when I pointed out his absurdly capitalized tweets?  Unfortunately, Grassley is back at his silliness, which strikes me as undignified for a long-standing U.S. Senator.  First, he voted against Sonia Sotomayor, the first time he has voted against a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Then, he presented a critique on increasing the deficit in the form of a fairy tale featuring the “Deficit Dragon.”  And now, astonishingly, he has given credence to the false notion of so-called “death panels” in the health care bill.

In his op-ed piece today, NYT columnist (and Nobel Laureate in Economics) Paul Krugman takes down Grassley and other opponents of health care reform:

Last week, Mr. Grassley claimed that his colleague Ted Kennedy’s brain tumor wouldn’t have been treated properly in other countries because they prefer to “spend money on people who can contribute more to the economy.” This week, he told an audience that “you have every right to fear,” that we “should not have a government-run plan to decide when to pull the plug on grandma.”

Again, that’s what a supposedly centrist Republican, a member of the Gang of Six trying to devise a bipartisan health plan, sounds like.

I’m not saying the health care bills are perfect — far from it.  But if we, as a nation, are looking at a paradigm shift in how health care is allocated and paid for, we should do so honestly.

Renegade, by Richard Wolffe

Reading Renegade, by the Newsweek writer Richard Wolffe, was like a happy skip through the last two years.  It brought back the intense excitement of the Democratic primary season, when I would watch MSNBC for the results from each caucus and primary.  Sometimes I would watch the acceptance/concession speeches with Mike, who would be in Minneapolis, hearing the successive roar from our TVs over our cell phones.  Renegade, if you don’t already know, is the Secret Service code name for Barack Obama, and it is also Wolffe’s favorite means of characterizing Obama in this campaign biography.

Apparently Obama, who is very good at getting what he wants, asked Wolffe to write a book chronicling the campaign, and Wolffe got great access from the very beginning.  A lot of the information is familiar, but certain individuals, like Obama’s friend Marty Nesbitt and campaign manager David Plouffe (very media shy), become prominent figures in the tale.  I’ve read both of Obama’s books (Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope), and Wolffe references them frequently.  But he sheds light on Obama’s college days in ways that Obama didn’t himself — notably, Obama’s friendships with two Pakistani students at Occidental College.  Wolffe reveals that one of them is Sunni and the other is Shia, and Obama was thus able to discern early on the different threads of Islam and even traveled with his friends in Pakistan.  His familiarity with regular, non-elite Pakistanis ends up showing him, in his political career, that depending only on propping up a military regime does not have to be the only way to support a nuclear Pakistan.  It’s interesting to see how Obama actually brings his informal international experiences to bear on his outlook, which I think is more informative than what I’ve read previously.

A favorite comparison is with Michael Jordan — and why not?  Both are Chicagoans, both are basketball players, both are transcendent African-American figures.  But the book suffers from a bit too much repetition (probably a result of quick editing and publishing timetables).  I’ve noticed this in other nonfiction books, where the writer offers up the same information in the book, ostensibly to aid the reader.  To me, at least, it seems like the author or editor doesn’t trust the reader enough to remember the details.  Such repetitions include references to Jordan as an individual player who transitioned to being a team player; two references to Michelle Obama’s “one-bedroom bungalow” home on the South Side of Chicago; and multiple references to Obama as “the renegade” (we get it — it’s the book title!).  I just wish the editor would more carefully scrub the book of redundancies like this, because for a nit-picky reader like me, it is a bit of an annoyance.

The book is definitely favorable to Obama.  I would think that any reporter, after having lots of time and access, would come up with a favorable portrayal of a public figure.  I remember reading a piece in GQ several months back by a staff writer who’d written a book on George W. Bush.  He’d had so many lunches and so much time with Bush that he saw him as a complicated man, and a likable one, rather than the caricature so often portrayed in the media.  So it’s interesting to see Wolffe try to get beyond the cool, distant persona of the public Obama to peel back his decision-making process and his emotions with his family, friends, and close staff.

For an Obamaniac like me, this book was like catnip, and I gobbled it right up.  (Am I mixing metaphors?  I don’t actually know how catnip works.)  Because Wolffe is a journalist, the writing style is pretty quick and breezy, and it is surprisingly focused on the Obama campaign, rather than the ancillary Democratic campaigns or the McCain campaign.  There are discussions of Hillary Clinton in particular, of course, but John McCain and Sarah Palin are almost nonentities.  I guess Wolffe assumes in part that his reader will still remember the election vividly, because all that he is able to offer of the competing campaigns are widely known facts and observations.  (Although it’s delightful to learn that some of the Obama staff referred to McCain as “the old man.”  We talked about his age a lot in our campaign office.)  So what the book lacks in breadth it certainly makes up in depth and focus, which I appreciate.

Any other intriguing surprises?  Obama is a procrastinator when writing and editing speeches.  Pretty much everything else you already know but might want to learn about again.

PS — egads!  For early readers, I apologize for all the typos!  I have now scrubbed them out.

Article of the Day: Republicans on Twitter, featuring Chuck Grassley!

I’m not much for Twitter — there’s enough inane information about people in the ethers already.  I struggle to get on the bandwagon, much as I embraced Facebook in college.  And I really hate when the print media (like the most recent edition of Time magazine) feels the need to “explain” phenomena like Facebook and Twitter.  If you’re already a part of those social networking sites/programs, you don’t need it explained to you.  If you’re not, such articles are usually so breathless and fawning that you might get scared away or the actual phenomenon won’t live up to the hype.  In general, blech.  Find some real news, media!

But in Slate, there’s a great, short piece about Republicans on Twitter.  Mostly I don’t care about political spin, but I love that the piece quotes Chuck Grassley, my longtime Iowa Senator.  Here’s the quote:

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley rebuked President Obama: “Pres Obama you got nerve while u sightseeing in Paris to tell us ‘time to deliver’ on health care. We still on skedul/even workinWKEND,” wrote Grassley in the shortened vernacular of the form. Soon thereafter, he Tweeted: “Pres Obama while u sightseeing in Paris u said ‘time to delivr on healthcare’ When you are a ‘hammer’ u think evrything is NAIL I’m no NAIL.”

Way to spell like a champ, Chuck!  Also I appreciate the grammar.  For realz, he needs to get one of his interns to help him be slightly more coherent and not so shouty.

Riding Around in My Automobile with Al Franken

Although I almost always listen to NPR in my car, because I’m exceedingly nerdy and hew especially close to liberal stereotype, sometimes I hit the loop of All Things Considered and I need something else.  It’s remarkable to me sometimes that I even put up with ATC, because as a little girl, my dad listened to it in the car frequently, and I hated — detested, even — the theme song.  Those blaring horns, those dry public radio voices (to a little girl enamored of New Kids On The Block, anyway).  It was anathema, but now it’s my afternoon juice.

However, when NPR won’t do or won’t come in over the radiowaves, I turn to audiobooks at times.  I recently finished Al Franken’s The Truth: With Jokes, which originally came out around 2004/2005.  As you may know, I worked for about a month on Franken’s recount campaign in Minnesota, although it’s long gone to the courts.  So it was interesting to hear more from my would-be new Senator.  The last time I listened to Franken on audiobook was a Stuart Smalley book, and he’s come a long way since then.

Listening in 2009 mostly brought back a lot of memories from the second Bush Administration (I had pretty much forgotten about Terri Schiavo, and I had never paid much attention to Tom Delay/Jack Abramoff), but it was fresh because of Franken’s imminence on the Minnesota political scene.  Here’s a recent Star-Tribune article about him.  The book, like the man, obviously plays to a political niche, but I appreciated his adamant approach to “debunking” politicians’ statements or conventional wisdom.  Also, he does a funny Dick Cheney impression.  And the impressions make it clear that a) he’s still got that SNL ability and b) this is not your regular political screed.

The lengthy epilogue dances around who he thinks will have won the 2008 election, but by naming his mythical future grandchildren Barack and Hillary, you can see he was hedging his bets.  He was pretty confident about the Democratic ascendancy in 2006 and 2008 — and right.  Franken’s clear in his epilogue about his desire to become a U.S. Senator, although he doesn’t specify from which state.  Hindsight makes this an especially ironic part, as no one could have foreseen the ugly, drawn-out election and recount battle.

I’m not sure how Franken will do as a Senator — I’m sure his iconoclastic, inquisitive perspective will make a few waves amidst the entrenched Senate — but he does make for good company in the car.