PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
December 5, 2006

Politics, Music and Nostalgia

by Jim Newsom

Once upon a time I was a voracious reader of books. But time itself has become such a precious commodity, and life offers so many distractions and requirements, that I have become more a reader of newspapers and periodicals than of books. That is partly because of my desire to know what’s going on in the world, but it’s also probably a function of time. When you commit to finishing a book, you are giving up a large block of the clock that could’ve been used for all the other activities and commitments you’ve made. An article, even a lengthy one, can be finished in one relatively short sitting.

One of my new year’s resolutions is to spend less time with the New York Times and Washington Post, and more with books. Maybe I’ll even start reading for escapist fun once in a while! This past year, however, was spent keeping up with the machinations of Congress and the Bush administration, and trying to understand the ins and outs of the changing world in which we live.

That’s what brought me to The World is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by columnist and commentator Thomas L. Friedman. He is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful journalists of our generation. He’s been writing about the effects of globalization since the late ‘90s, but a visit to Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, led him to the conclusion that titles the book.

Friedman identifies “ten forces that flattened the world,” beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, continuing through the growth of the Internet and open-sourcing, leading to international corporate outsourcing, the Wal-Martization of the entire world, UPS and just-in-time inventory, Google and mobile computing. When all of these factors converged, a “new global playing field” emerged, catching many of us unaware and unprepared.

Reading The World is Flat is both exciting and frightening, for the world is changing more rapidly than most of us can fathom. And unfortunately, the U. S. may not be ready to deal with these changes. There is, Friedman notes, a “quiet crisis” developing as America’s space age scientists retire without being replaced by the next generation, one without the drive, ambition or educational level of its predecessors. How do we adjust and adapt?

In American Theocracy (Viking), Kevin Phillips posits that the “disenlightenment” fostered by George W. Bush and the Republican majority of recent years has taken us down exactly the wrong road. As is typical of Phillips’ books, this one is well researched, steeped in history and, in this case, damning of the “ideological extremism, catastrophic fiscal irresponsibility, rampant greed and dangerous shortsightedness” of the folks who’ve been running things in recent years.

Beginning with a textbook history of “western fuelishness,” he tells of the decline of empires past while sounding a warning for the American empire with its oil addiction, and the effects of that dependence on both domestic and foreign policy. He then explores and exposes the impact of “radical religion” on the decline of American power and prestige, and the explosion of debt, public and private, that literally threatens the nation’s survival. His concluding chapter, “The Erring Republican Majority,” is an indictment of the policies that have brought us to the brink of environmental, social and financial disaster. The book is a reminder of Santayana’s warning that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

By mid-summer, I had had about enough of the Republican political nastiness and President Bush’s butchering of the language and “stay the course” silliness. So I turned to a book about a different kind of president, one whose speeches and talks inspired a generation of young Americans while providing leadership, vision and hope for the rest of the world. Let Every Nation Know (Sourcebooks) is subtitled “John F. Kennedy in His Own Words,” and that is literally what it is. Authors Robert Dallek and Terry Golway provide context and analysis for thirty-one of JFK’s major public utterances, from the early days of his 1960 campaign through a speech in San Antonio the day before he was shot in November, 1963, and concludes with the words of brothers Bobby and Teddy.

What makes this book particularly fascinating and valuable is the accompanying CD containing audio excerpts from the speeches being discussed in its pages. With generous helpings from the campaign debates with Nixon, the inaugural address (“ask not what you can do for your country…”), and pivotal moments like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and the tense period of the Cuban missile crisis, this book/CD set reminds us of the fragility of history and the strength that emanates from a well spoken, well educated leader who challenges his countrymen and women to seek greatness.

Of course, my true passion is music, and every year I find a biography or two of an artist, or a book about a musical era or genre. I started this year off with Dream Boogie (Little, Brown), a biography of the great soul singer Sam Cooke written by Peter Guralnick. It’s a fat, fascinating and well documented account that delves into the details of Cooke’s life and times, from his childhood as a preacher’s kid in Chicago through his days as a gospel star fronting the Highway QCs and the Soul Stirrers to his ultimate triumph at the top of the pop charts. Along the way we meet the greats who peopled his world, including childhood friend Lou Rawls, whose voice can be heard doing the “yehs” in “A Change is Gonna Come,” and get an inside look from those who were there at the focused, some say ruthless, drive that made Cooke a crossover star. It’s also an eye-opening account of the black entertainment scene before and during the civil rights movement.

Paul Desmond was a singular jazzman, with a dry alto saxophone tone like no one else’s. Take Five: the Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond (Parkside), is an exhaustive look at this gifted musician. Unlike Dream Boogie, however, it is not particularly well written, author Doug Ramsey relying too much on lengthy quotes from Desmond’s correspondence that slow the narrative and offer more minutiae than even the hardest core Desmond disciple would be interested in. But his life story is an interesting one, and the chronicle of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s development is an important one.

After Election Day finally arrived and this year’s political campaigns came to a merciful end, I turned to Bill Bryson’s memoir of growing up in the ‘50s, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Broadway), for respite. At last, an easy read, but one stuffed with details of the era when he and I were young children. Wrapping his personal story around a social history of the decade, Bryson brings back memories of Davy Crockett, Johnny Unitas, Zorro, Burns and Allen, Sputnik, movie matinees, Lincoln Logs, Peyton Place, nuclear tests, family farms and afternoon newspapers in a reminiscence of America’s last age of innocence. Though he lived in Des Moines, Iowa, his childhood was sufficiently similar to that of every middle class kid of the time that the specific incidents have a ring of familiarity and evince just the right touch of nostalgia.

I found myself laughing out loud a lot. It’s just what the doctor ordered after the kind of political year we’ve just been through.

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.