Posts Tagged ‘History’

Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop – Guardians of the American Century

The names Woodward and Bernstein are probably still the first to come to mind when considering the high point of investigative journalism in the US.

But for four decades before the Watergate scandal two brothers were pre-eminent in breaking the biggest stories of the time and delivering the most influential commentaries on them, the Alsops.

Author Bob Merry brings the characters of Joseph and Stewart alive with a political insider’s eye on their methods and a firm grasp of historical background to put their reporting into perspective.

The brothers were prolific writers and they were golden. Four columns a week, every week, syndicated to 175 newspapers across the country, plus opinion pieces, extended investigative articles, political profiles, deep features and even books.

With family ties to the Roosevelts and a privileged upbringing they started out with a stellar contacts book and they worked hard to cultivate even more by hosting high-level dinner parties for makers and shakers of all persuasions.

There’s a wonderful anecdote from one of the parties in the 1950s in which a phone call for Dean Rusk, then the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, disrupts the evening.

He takes the call, returns to the gathering looking ashen-faced and declares that he has to go. Within minutes Army Secretary Frank Pace and Air Force assistant secretary John McCone offer apologies and also depart abruptly. There had been, said Rusk, “some kind of border incident” in Korea.

It was, in fact, a full-scale invasion of the south by the north and illustrates one of the themes that runs through the book, the Alsops proximity to the biggest breaking stories and their close ties to those in power.

Joe saw eight presidents come and go during his time and he was a frequent guest at the White House where he was forthright with his opinions and free with his advice.

He and his brother were among the original WASPs, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who wanted to preserve the mores and values of their caste and keep its place in shaping the destiny of the nation.

They endured through the most turbulent times of the 20th Century: WW2 – from which Stewart emerged with a Croix de Guerre with Palm from Charles de Gaulle – the last gasps of the Pax Britannica, the “loss” of China to the communist party, wars in Korea and Vietnam, McCarthyism, the Oppenheimer affair, the Suez debacle, the Cuban missile crisis, the election and assassination of JFK, the Watts riots, and Nixon’s Watergate disgrace.

As the world turned, Joe’s view of America’s place in the world became increasingly out of step with the opinions and aspirations of a younger generation. His writing became increasingly polemical and his influence less and less so.

His last book, I’ve Seen the Best of It, underscores his belief that America’s best days were those when the old elite flourished and it comes with a sense of sad incomprehension that not everyone else could see it that way.

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stoneThis is the Polish Zorba. A rambling, epic of a book charting the life of a hard-drinking, womanizing, beast of a man who lives life on his own terms, no matter the consequences.

Through the eyes of Szymek Pietruszka, a peasant with scant education, little money and even fewer prospects, we are shown a slice of rural life before, during and after the Second World War.

The transition is captured in minute detail and delivered in a series of soliloquies that act as metaphors for the change in Poles’ relationships to family, to community, the church and the land.

Memories pour onto the page and while there’s no fondness for the post-war Communist period there’s no great nostalgia for the past either.

Author Wieslaw Mysliwski takes us into a bleak period where people are living hand to mouth, shackled to the land as much as their beasts of burden. This is no rural idyll. This is a world of brutal work, simple minds, ignorance and superstition, jealousy and viciousness.

Pietruszka shuns the plough and spurns the authority of the church, but cannot escape his basest instincts. He drinks, he fights, he fornicates and wakes up to do it all again and again and again. He’s a ladies man, a heartbreaker, a man with the gift of the gab, a peasant who meets life head-on, takes the knocks and comes back for more.

He’s variously a policeman, a resistance fighter, a barber and a wedding officiant. At times he’s a hero, at times a rogue and, just occasionally, a man with words of peasant wisdom that pierce the sophistry of church and state.

Ultimately, he becomes the broken down shadow of the man he used to be, a cripple looking after his mentally ill brother in the ransacked farmhouse where they grew up. And the book ends where it begins, with Pietruszka intent on building a family tomb in the churchyard of the village where they grew up.

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An epic story of love, lust, greed, terror and survival woven around the Spanish civil war and its aftermath.

Grandes’ plot explores the consequences for families on either side of the disastrous coup that saw the republic disintegrate in an orgy of killing and re-emerge as a Fascist regime.

This is no dry history lesson, nor is it chicklit. The characters are carefully drawn and complex. Grandes captures brilliantly their fleeting thoughts, the dilemmas they face, and the consequences of their actions.

Perhaps best of all, she shows how the fears that haunted the Franco generation pervade the lives of their sons and daughters.

Arkwright's mill at Cromford

Image via Wikipedia

“What was once a high paying craft and skill which could earn them a good income was almost overnight worthless.”

The quote comes from Michael Rosenblum’s blog and likens the lot of present-day journalists to the stocking-makers of the 18th Century whose skills became redundant when Richard Arkwright started building mechanised weaving looms.

Rosenblum’s post – Lessons from the Industrial Revolution – suggests that the future now, as then, lies in cheap mass production – high volume and low cost.

As bleak as that sounds, Rosenblum also thinks the changing global economy represents an opportunity as great as that of the Industrial Revolution. But, as with the weavers of Nottingham, it will be painful for some.