"Five Chiefs" is an excellent book, though it often strays from the story it is trying to tell. The author begins by saying that his purpose is to tell a story about the Five Chief Justices he had the opportunity to know from the time he was a law clerk to his retirement from the countries highest Federal Court. While there are indeed many interesting stories and anecdotes about these five men, the chronology is often interrupted by Justice Stevens' appraisal of their legal philosophies. Particularly when it comes to Burger, Reinquist, and Roberts, Justice Stevens begins by telling us how they were as managers of the Court, and then proceeds to tell us how he disagrees with a number of cases they authored. While this is certainly interesting, it strays from the purpose of the book. Though I suppose when you've spent nearly half a century serving your country, you are entitled to take liberties as an author, and I think most readers will gladly forgive these tangents. :)
A few words of warning:
(1) This book is filled with legalese. While the author does a good job of explaining his legal discussion, it might be harder to follow for someone who doesn't have a legal education. If you ARE a lawyer by trade, then his discussions of constitutional law will be pretty straight forward and understandable.
(2) If you fall into the Scalia/Thomas camp of Constitutional law, you will not agree with the author on most issues. In fact, in this book he is often critical of the conservative block on the court. If this criticism will make you angry or motivate you to write a negative review for political reasons, you should avoid this book and select something more in line with your political views.
Overall: This book succeeds in the goal of providing a perspective on the five most recent chief justices of the US Supreme Court. While it is obviously not a biography of those individuals, it certainly serves as a valuable perspective on those individuals, as well as some of the other justices on the court. This is why I say it is only half a biography of those individuals. The other half is a memoir of Justice Stevens' own views and disagreements with the chiefs and other member of the Court. I hope that we will hear from Mr. Justice Stevens again in a full memoir, but until then, this book will certainly wet the appetites of lawyers and citizens alike.
This Post isn't about his politics or his change of heart. Everyone will have their own take on those issues, and anyone can find evidence to support their view in this book. Instead, this post is about reading between the lines, and how incredibly disingenuous this book reads. When I sat down to listen to the first substantive chapter about his family history I was struck by how strange it all sounded. He was weaving in the usual tapestry of immigrant roots and "the hard work of my father", but the examples he was providing struck me as a little odd. It wasn't until I reached his high school years that I realized the author was forcing his silver spoon upbringing into the "everyman" motif.
Here are some examples. The author talks about his father as if he were a hard working blue collar guy, who does what he can to provide for his family. As you read on however, it becomes clear that his father is a well-to-do, and quite wealthy, doctor. The author talks about his father "building the family home," and then "building a second home", which sounded strange to me (who builds their own homes these days?). But then you realize, he didn't build them with his own hands, and he didn't even buy a home, rather spent millions having them built on premier lake front property. Translation: he comes from a very well-to-do family.
And Mr. Christ sugar coats his own experiences too. He casts himself as the shy, friendly outsider in high school, who wandered onto the football field one day, and, to his shock, the coach recognized his unique skills as quarterback material. Not to mention how he was the awkward kids candidate for student body President, who pulled off a surprise win! Translation: He was the prototypical popular jock.
He's the stereotypical politician: comes from a rich white family, played the role of popular kid in school, made a ton of money, and then entered politics. That kind of story shouldn't surprise anyone. What is so disappointing about this book is that he's so obviously trying to hide that privileged story behind the veil of the "everyman" motif. And that's just dishonest.
If you choose to read/listen this book, just be sure to read between the lines.
For those looking for second helping of O'Connor's "The Majesty of the Law" you will be disappointed. There are two important differences:
(1) Majesty was a discussion of the law and public policy. Out of Order is an introduction to the Supreme Court as an institution, and a particularly short introduction at that. Although some of the stories are interesting and even funny, on the whole the book reads more like a high school civics course than the work of a supreme court justice.
(2) Majesty was written for an educated audience. Out of Order was written for those with little or no understanding of the legal system or the functioning of the government. Now, the cynics among you may be snickering and thinking "well that's most of the population," and considering she may be trying to reach the broadest possible audience with this book, that may be a valid observation. But just a fair warning that the two books are written for different audiences.
In Short: if you are looking for an intellectually stimulating book and you have more than a cursory understanding of the Supreme Court, this book will offer you very little. For those completely ignorant of the Judicial Branch and its inner workings, this will be a good introduction.
I came into this book thinking it would be the same dry experience you'd expect from the sixty year account of a government agency. I was quite mistaken. The author takes a bold position right from the start: Everything you know about the CIA is based on a propaganda campaign from the 1960s. The real CIA has been mired by bitter incompetence and humiliating failure. I must admit that I was skeptical at first. By now we've all seen Zero Dark Thirty, and we have developed a cultural image of the clandestine service loaded with respect, admiration, trust, and just a hint of fear.
This book was a rude awakening to the real world. What was perhaps most shocking was the discussion of how the CIA's efforts in so many parts of the world (Iraq, Iran, South America, Korea, Vietnam, etc.) led directly to the problems we face today. What was most disturbing was the realization that the CIA crushed budding democracies for no reason other than the fear that they might elect a socialist or communist leader, instead installing military juntas so repressive and terrifying that it is hard to wonder why they were so often overthrown by their own people. It is clear that the communist paranoia, which we now know to have been exaggerated if not entirely unfounded, that led to the creation of the CIA and sustained it for much of its life did far more harm than good. Indeed, today we are reaping the rewards of the CIA's misdeeds all around the world.
This book, and the discussions found within are vital to a complete understanding of the Cold War and American foreign policy after the Second World War. For those who, like me, sat in the traditional euro-centric pro-American high school history class, you will undoubtedly be blown away by this book. I was prepared for a critical analysis of America's clandestine service, but I was not prepared for the astonishing indictment I would receive.
I would strongly recommend this book for this who are interested in the 1945-1989 period of American history, as well as anyone looking for a fresh perspective on American history untainted by the pro-American biases of our education system.
The Valid Criticism: I am not sure there is anyone in American who isn't tired of the divide (or perhaps chasm) on K-12 education reform. This book's overarching observation is that we are just instituting new fads over and over, without a larger vision for what education should look like in the 21st century. This is certainly a valid point, and indeed it is a novel point that deserves a thorough hearing.
The problem is that this book is an extremely poor mechanism for publicizing the author's central thesis.
The Problem: This book is an epic whine-a-thon.
The Early Chapters: In the first few chapters the author spends nearly 4 hours complaining about how no one listens to him, and how he has been slighted by reformers. These reformers (neo-progressives) simply refuse to accept changes to the fundamental character of the school system, he complains. They attack anyone who doesn't agree with them (including the author). Why oh why won't they listen to the author's amazing ideas for changing the system? Because they are stubborn. The idea that there may be principled reasons why these "neo-progressives" would defend the present system doesn't even seem to cross the author's mind. The author gives absolutely zero attention to the possible benefits of the current system (aside from paying brief homage to the system's goal of universal education, though not without a border-line originalist snipe about how the founders never imagined a system of universal education).
Cherry Picking History: Throughout the book the author styles himself an amatuer historian, largely because he ones taught history to high school students. It is important to note, however, that he is NOT an educational historian in the traditionally recognized sense, and that fact becomes VERY clear as you listen. His historical examples are belabored and bewildering. Take for example his defense of religion in the classroom, which is based on the fact that religion controlled education for much of history including a sizable chunk of US history. So, why are we so hostile to religion in school, when it has been done before? As he does so often in the book, the author declines to discuss any of the historical or policy reasons behind the shift away from religious schooling. In some cases, the historical examples border on the laughably ridiculous, such as his suggestion that we look to the education systems of ancient Greece and Rome to inform our views on vocational education and teacher pay. Greek teachers didn't expect fair/equal pay, so why should our teachers?
The Later Chapters: In the later chapters, the author offers some recommendations and conclusions regarding good education reforms. Early in the book the author disclaims any interest in advocating traditional partisan reform ideas such as vouchers, charter schools, and merit pay. The author then proceeds, despite his desire not to advocate these policy ideas, to explain why they are actually sensible policies that would be far better than the "neo-progressive" status quo. If you are feeling more than a little bewildered at this point, things wont get better for you. The whine-a-thon then picks up again, as the author continues his relentless criticism of the "neo-progressives" and their stubborn refusal to permit any structural reforms. Even as he makes perfectly valid criticisms of the system (such as how the style of teaching hasn't changed despite advances in technology), he muddles his perfectly valid observations by decrying the "neo-progressive" conspiracy to maintain the status quo.
Overall: This book is really little more than an man airing his complaints about "neo-progressives." There is precious little discussion of actual reform in this book, and what little discussion there happens to be is hopelessly befouled by a political agenda. By the second chapter I was imagining the author, not as a participant in a larger education reform discussion, but as the lunatic screaming bitterly on the street corner about how the evil "neo-progressives" won't give him a seat at the table. Perhaps if the author would like a seat at the table, he shouldn't inject such riotous vitriol onto an otherwise valid suggestion for a large scale reform effort. Perhaps, the author should consider that the "neo-progressives" will let down their stubborn barriers to his participation when he is willing to drop the mantel of principled victim.
In Short: If you are looking for a good book on education reform, I recommend you look elsewhere.
With her easy going personality and reputation as a commentator on MSNBC, it is easy to forget that Rachel Maddow is one of the most educated people on TV today (She has a Ph.D.!!). This book is an excellent reminder of just how brilliant she truly is. While her contemporaries at Fox News are busy writing bargain bin political propaganda, Rachel offers a reasoned and scholarly discourse on American foreign policy in the 20th century that actually adds to our understanding of the topic.
Short Summary: The author begins with a discussion of the foundations of military power in America from the writing of the Constitution to the Second Wrold War. She notes the numerous barriers errected by the founders in order to prevent the country from going to war without substantial public involvement. Then, beginning with Vietnam, she outlines how those barriers have been systematically widdled away. From Reagan's bumbling assertion of presidential authority to President Obama's cavalier disregard for any and all checks on his executive authority. From the disgusting excesses of Blackwater (Xe, Academi... whatever) to the ultra-secretive, virtually unchecked CIA. Today, war is easy. One man can take the country to war and no one even notices. Indeed, with the CIA's private army of drones and shield of secrecy, we may not even know when we've gone to war.
Far from being a political piece (which will undoubtedly be a criticism hurled at this book by some segments of society), this book is actually in line with the scholarship on the topic. Many authors have noted the expansion of presidential power in war making, as well as our national predaliction for constant war in recent years. Rachel's lasting contribution may be that she has made that information accessible to the public in a short and easy read.
Overall: Highly Recommended for the history buffs and politicos out there. If you are in any way worried about the unprecedented expansion of the US military or alternatively in the astonishing expansion of executive power, this will definitely be an enlightening read.
This book was excellent. It follows the professional careers of Four of history's greatest justices (Black, Douglas, Jackson, and Frankfurter). All four were expected to be champions of the liberal cause, but struggled to find their place for various reasons. By the end of their lives, however, they had completely changed the face of Constitutional law as we know it.
The book weaves through the early careers of each man, their appointment to the bench, and their subsequent time on the court. It is an excellent mix of story telling and legal explanation. I was especially impressed by how the author describes the relationships between the four justices, including how their relationships began to fray in the latter years of their tenure.
The book is a non[artisan historical account. The author's own commentary does seep into the book in a few places, but it is barely noticable. Anyone who is interested in the Supreme Court will find this book fascinating. Conservative readers may even be interested in learning that it was liberal justices who created their favorite methods of Constitutional interpretation: Judicial Restraint (Frankfurter) and Originalism (Black).
Overall: a great historical account of the Supreme Court that FDR created.
Let's be honest here, we all have a certain skepticism about Area 51. The secret military base is a curiosity to most Americans, but I think most of us respond to the Aliens and Flying Saucers mythology with a heavy sign and a quizzical expression. While this book does address that mythology, the research goes well beyond the conspiracy theories. The vast majority of this book is about American technological developments during the Cold War. The first chapter and the last chapter address possible coverups of Soviet (and perhaps even American) human experiments and black propaganda, but this is hardly the "meat and potatoes" of the book.
Who Would Like This Book: Anyone with an interest in nuclear testing, high-altitude flight technology, the history of Cold War technological developments, stealth technology, and drone technology will love this book. The book covers all of the major developments in flight and recon technology for after the 1950, and dabbles in some of the nuclear testing near the end of the second World War. This is a great read for anyone interested in a little scientific history.
A Note on Writing: I strongly disagree with those who nitpick factual anomalies, grammatical mistakes, or poor writing in this book. As with anything, it is hard to get everything right all the time. If you are interested in the precise speed that the A-12 Oxcart was capable of flying, then stick to academic journals and scientific books. A history book obviously isn't going to put special emphasis on those kinds of details. This book is wonderful for the history, not necessarily for the "miles per hour" facts. Try to keep in mind that this book is not even trying to be a scientific manual.
OVERALL: I thought this book was fascinating, and I enjoyed the narrator. Again if you are interested in cold war technology, and a history of American technological developments during that period of time you will find this book very interesting.
THE CONSPIRACY: I suppose I can't just ignore this part of the book. I actually enjoyed the last chapter where the author addresses her interview with a former engineer who claims that the US was conducting secret human experiments at Area 51. Some people criticize this part of the book for lacking corroboration, but as every trained researcher knows, corroboration is just one facet of validity. Besides, I don't think the author's purpose in writing the last chapter was to provide a definitive accounting of American and Russian human experiments. On the contrary it seems like the author was just trying to start a conversation, and suggest that there is still more to learn. I think the last chapter certainly accomplishes those goals.
There are a lot of books out there, particularly from Republican/Conservative authors, that offer nothing more than bitterness, vitriol, and misplaced rage. However, Ron Paul's The Revolution is a refreshing policy perspective without all the "liberals are evil" garbage. Dr. Paul presents his policy views in a cogent and persuasive manner, and he is entitled to a tremendous amount of respect.
I found Dr. Paul's explanation of his foreign policy particularly appealing. His view runs counter to both the traditional conservative (declare war on everyone you don't like) and the traditional liberal (play diplomatic games and throw money at the problem) foreign policy norms. I found his novel perspective refreshing in today's climate of either-or politics.
While I disagree with his views on abortion and economics, I appreciated his explanation of how he developed those views. It's so rare to see a politician these days who really takes the time consider their views rather than just jump on a given political or religious bandwagon.
I recommend this book to all of my liberal and moderate friends as a worthwhile perspective on conservative policies. I would recommend this book to any liberal or moderate person reading this review. You may not agree with everything he says, but you'll appreciate the thought provoking discussion of his beliefs and who knows maybe he'll sway you with one of his policy arguments.
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