Mildly Malevolent

"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell

"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde

contact info:

ecohn-at-uchicago-dot-edu

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Saturday, November 15, 2003

Robert Graves had a way with words. His description of Dylan Thomas: "a demagogic Welsh masturbator who failed to pay his bills." That quotation appears in a discussion of Thomas's posthumous reputation, and includes lots of interesting tidbits. (Kingsley Amis, for instance, was an executor of Thomas's estate.)

Today's Guardian also includes a review of Norman Davies's new book on the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1944 and a review of two new studies of the Warsaw ghetto more generally. These reviews are interesting in their own right, but they also reminded me of my reaction to the discussion in a Polish history class I once took. "Ever since his remarkable history of Poland, God's Playground," The Guardian writes, "Davies has been widely recognised as the historian of that benighted country." This is a somewhat surprising development, I would argue, since Davies is a British scholar--and one might expect the most prominent historian of any given country to be one of that country's natives. (I suspect that Poland's Communist past--and hence the inability of Polish historians to write honest accounts of their country's history--made it easier for a foreigner to rise to such prominence. If I'm not mistaken, Davies is something of a celebrity in Poland.) There are times, I suspect, when every historian of a foreign country wonders whether he (or she) should have chosen a different subject of study--I know vastly more about American history than I'll ever know about Russia, for instance, and the same is presumably true of most Americans.

The history of the Warsaw ghetto, however, is a case study of how it can be good for the historical profession when historians from one country look at the past of another. When the Warsaw uprising came up in my Polish history class, a student from Poland loudly denounced the Soviet Union for its attitude toward the uprising and denied that any Polish soldiers had killed Jews who escaped the uprising. Her opinions didn't just seem strong--they seemed unshakable, and impervious to debate or reasoned argument. As it happens, I think that her first conclusion was probably correct; according to The Guardian's review, Davies writes that

Stalin denounced the uprising and even obstructed the minor attempts by the western allies to help by air. The NKVD's behaviour on the ground made it clear that the Soviets never had any intention of allowing Poles to decide their future democratically. To Moscow, the leaders of the rising were capitalist criminals run by the imperialists in London.

The second Guardian review, however, calls the role of the Poles into question. Gunnar Paulsson, it says, has "unearth[ed] shocking evidence that units of the Polish Home Army actually massacred Jews who emerged from hiding during the uprising in 1944." There's nothing stopping a Polish historian from openmindedly discussing the role of Poles in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or a German from detailing Nazi atrocities. Nevertheless, it's sometimes easier to be objective when your background is different from that of the people you're studying.


The Cold War International History Project has posted an article on what one historian calls "the Cold War's longest coverup," the Soviet Union's role in instigating 1967's Six Day War between Israel and its neighbors. (via The History News Network) The question of whether the USSR intentionally sparked the war is apparently a matter of some controversy, but the article (and the information it links to) is interesting reading whatever you think of the question.

It's also fascinating for another reason: twelve years ago, when the USSR fell, historians hoped that the opening of the archives would settle some of the Cold War's most contested historiographical debates. Now, more than a decade later, some of the documents needed to udnerstand Soviet history have been released--but they often haven't had the effect that researchers had hoped. (Not to put the point too strongly, of course: newly released documents have made it possible to research many historical topics that would have been unthinkable before 1991.) This article is a case in point. The release of a secret 1967 report by Brezhnev has led one scholar to argue that the USSR "had no intention of inciting an armed conflict in the Middle East and that the June 1967 war was the result of grave miscalculations and of Soviet inability to control the Arabs" and another to claim that "intentionally instigated the Six-Day War by knowingly disinforming Egypt in mid-May 1967 that Israel was amassing troops on the Syrian frontier." Historical research, like life, is never simple.


What should you do if you want to become a famous historical novelist of naval adventures? As Jeet Heer writers in The National Post, you can start by fabricating lots of details about your personal life, just as Patrick O'Brian and C.S. Forester did.


What, exactly, is an Arab-American? Answering that question is one of the many challenges facing the organizers of a survey of changing attitudes since September 11.


Did the decline of written English begin with the excesses of the 1960s? John McWhorter apparently thinks so. McWhorter, a self-taught speaker of 12 languages and "the world's only straight musical-theater cast-album fanatic," argues in a new book that the decline of English was caused by the collapse of the distinction between the written and the oral.

Friday, November 14, 2003

This week's Spectator reviews a book called Great Smaller Museums of Europe. The book sounds charming, but not all the examples cited by the reviewer were as charming as he thought they were.


Regular readers of this blog know that I'm not a huge fan of Christopher Hitchens, as charming as he can sometimes be. I tend to prefer his articles on literature to his articles on politics, however, and this Hitchens article in Slate (about Master and Commander) is worth reading.

In my limited reading of O'Brian, I've always found Stephen Maturin more interesting than Jack Aubrey, so I'm highly sympathetic to Hitchens's argument. (I'd already noticed that Maturin was getting far less attention in the pre-film publicity.) An excerpt:

I have seen numerous half-baked articles, saying that Master and Commander is perfectly timed for our current moment of military fortitude and challenge, with strength and honor and selflessness (and perhaps a hint of Francophobia) proudly to the fore. As far as I know, Weir began the movie well before this was likely to be any part of its screen-test or focus-group exposure. And in any case he doesn't match the hour, where we need Stephen Maturins with their skepticism and cynicism and their determined enmity to tyranny, and not just Jack Aubreys who will discharge blasts of cannon at whoever is nominated by His Majesty as the enemy.

This is a great argument--and I'll refrain from commenting on how surprised I am to see Hitchens making it! I suspect that he's right in his criticism of how Peter Weir adapted two O'Brian novels to film, but I want to see the movie nonetheless...


Sid Blumenthal, a former Bill Clinton aide, has an article in the Guardian about Bush's betrayal of Tony Blair. Its conclusion? "Harold Macmillan remarked that after empire the British would act towards the Americans as the Greeks to the Romans. Though the Greeks were often tutors to the Romans, Macmillan neglected to mention that the Greeks were slaves." That's one way to put it, I suppose...


Via Arts and Letters Daily, I found this fascinating Asia Times article on America's leading foreign intelligence problem--the lack of spies adequately trained in Arabic and other languages. An excerpt:

By contrast, Israeli intelligence can draw on a pool of first and second generation immigrants who speak foreign languages (among which Arabic is most common) as natives, but feel no loyalty whatever, but rather hostility, to their native culture. During the Cold War, European intelligence services could find native speakers of all varieties - German-speaking Bohemians from the Austrian Empire, Polish-speaking Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Poles, Italian-speaking Austrians - who despised the cultures in which they were educated and were happy to subvert them. The average Hungarian headwaiter had a greater command of languages than today's doctoral students in comparative literature at American universities.

In terms of linguistic and cultural capacity, the US today commands what may be the lowest-quality clandestine service of any great power in history. Why don't more Americans learn foreign languages? Turn the question around: why do they forget the languages they already know? The children of immigrants almost invariably lose the native language of their ancestors. One finds German festivals in Wisconsin with lederhosen-wearing brass bands, Weissbier and bratwurst, but no one who can form a single German sentence. Italian-Americans march through the streets in what they imagine to be native costume to honor the birthday of Columbus, without knowing more than a few obscenities in a southern dialect.

This is an aspect of the problem that I'd never considered before. (In the past, I'd only thought of America's inability to train enough Americans in foreign languages; as the article puts it, "German and British universities once produced spies who could speak half a dozen Arab dialects and recite the Koran from memory. Today's only superpower cannot recruit enough Arabic translators to handle routine intercepts.") This article does not make me confident about the future...


What do Edward VII, Ernest Shackleford's disreputable brother, the theft of the Irish crown jewels, and a royal cover-up of a gay sex scandal have in common? According to a new TV documentary, they were all part of a 1907 scandal hidden by King Edward VII.


From today's Moscow Times:

The excitement never dies in Russia, it seems!


Sometimes I'm not totally sure what to make of A.O. Scott's movie reviews in The New York Times: he can be more intelligent and insightful than other reviewers, but sometimes he just misses the point. I enjoyed reading his review of Master and Commander (which I now want to see), though occasional comments of his amused me. "Aubrey (Mr. Crowe) is an ideal personification of modern executive authority," Scott writes, "the Harry Potter of the managerial class." Does that sentence sound bizarre to anyone else?

Thursday, November 13, 2003

The teaser trailer for the third Harry Potter movie is now available on the web. I'll have to watch it once I get home.

In general, I don't know whether I should be glad that they've hired a real director for the third movie, or whether I should worry that by far the best book in the series is about to be Hollywood-ized...

In other random Harry Potter news, the first book in the series has now been translated into Hindi. (The translator had to read the book 35 times in English to get a good feel for how the language sounded, he says.)


The Village Voice looks at the creation of the Iraqi Media Network, a Pentagon-sponsored media operation.


Jacqueline Kennedy may have considered suicide after JFK's assassination, according to recently released notes taken by a priest who counseled her. The release of these notes has sparked an ethics debate...


I'm glad I don't live in Albania. Consider the first paragraph of this New York Times article:

Fatmira Bonjaku's husband is in jail, accused by the police of selling their 3-year-old son to an Italian man in return for the television set that six other children watch in the family's dimly lighted room. The police also say her husband had plans to sell their newest born, whom she is breast feeding.

All isn't well in Eastern Europe, it seems...


Does everyone love Reagan? In Slate, David Greenberg looks at the transformation of Ronald Reagan's reputation over the last few years.

It would have been nice if Greenberg had discussed the ups and downs of Reagan's reputation in a little more detail (and hadn't used the start of his article to repeat uninteresting facts about a mediocre cancelled documentary.) One of his main points, however, bears repeating: "In forsaking insight into the antipathy he often engendered, [Reagan boosters] seek to render him a sunny, universally adored, wholly benign, and two-dimensional figurehead--a portrait that, even more than this idiotic docudrama, would utterly conceal for posterity the reasons that Ronald Reagan mattered." What's more, I think that if conservatives succeed in portraying Reagan as a bland, benign, and avuncular figure, he'll cease to be an effective political symbol--which, I'd argue, is a good thing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

In his essay "Such, Such Were the Joys," George Orwell describes his experiences in boarding school. The essay is charming at times (like many Orwell works), though it's far from the best that its author wrote. One passage, in particular, interested me:

There was in those days a piece of nonsense called the Harrow History Prize, an annual competition for which many preparatory schools entered. It was a tradition for St Cyprian's to win it every year, as well we might, for we had mugged up every paper that had been set since the competition started, and the supply of possible questions was not inexhaustible. They were the kind of stupid question that is answered by rapping out a name or quotation. Who plundered the Begams? Who was beheaded in an open boat? Who caught the Whigs bathing and ran away with their clothes? Almost all our historical teaching ran on this level. History was a series of unrelated, unintelligible but -- in some way that was never explained to us -- important facts with resounding phrases tied to them. Disraeli brought peace with honour. Clive was astonished at his moderation. Pitt called in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. And the dates, and the mnemonic devices. (Did you know, for example, that the initial letters of 'A black Negress was my aunt: there’s her house behind the barn' are also the initial letters of the battles in the Wars of the Roses?) Flip, who 'took' the higher forms in history, revelled in this kind of thing. I recall positive orgies of dates, with the keener boys leaping up and down in their places in their eagerness to shout out the right answers, and at the same time not feeling the faintest interest in the meaning of the mysterious events they were naming.
"1587"
"Massacre of St Bartholomew!"
"1707?"
"Death of Aurangzeb!"
"1713?"
"Treaty of Utrecht!"
"1773?"
"Boston Tea Party!"
"1520?"
"Oo, Mum, please, Mum--"
"Please, Mum, please Mum! Let me tell him, Mum!"
"Well! 1520?"
"Field of the Cloth of Gold!"
And so on.

Some random commentary:

  • The times have changed (I): Orwell's mnemonic for the battles of the Wars of the Roses seems just a tad insensitive today, don't you think?
  • The times have changed (II): can anyone imagine memorizing all 49 battles of the Wars of the Roses today? For that matter, how many people can actually name, say, 10 battles of the war? (I'm the sort of person who thinks he's smart because he knows, say, that St. Albans was the first battle of the war...)
  • Out of curiosity... So who was beheaded in an open boat? Who did catch the Whigs bathing and ran away with their clothes? What the @!#$ is Orwell talking about?
  • Is there anyone on the quizbowl circuit who can't think of people who sound a lot like Orwell's sillier classmates?
  • Aren't British nicknames like "Flip" and "Mum" oddly charming? Almost as charming as nicknames like Fruity Metcalfe...
  • The competition Orwell describes sounds rather silly. I can't help but think, however, that public education in history has shifted too far away from knowing historical names, dates, facts, and chronology. Too many people, I believe, couldn't explain the significance of St. Bartholomew's Massacre, tell who Aurangzeb was, or describe the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Too few Americans could explain events of similar importance from U.S. history. That's a shame.

    Of course, you don't need to know what year Aurangzeb died to be able to explain his significance. But you probably do need to know something about when he lived. Likewise, you don't need to know the year of the Field of the Cloth of Gold to know why it was important, but you do need to know the names of the two kings who met there and the general state of European politics at the time. The right facts and dates can be a tool to deeper historical understanding--and far too few people have the framework to deeper understanding that can be established by these facts.

On a mostly unrelated note, Susan and I appeared on WGN's radio show Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg last night to compete with Northwestern in a QB-style competition. We won. Thankfully, we didn't need to tell Milt who plundered the Begams (or even who the Begams were.)

Update: A reader informs me that the line about bathing Whigs comes from an 1845 speech by Benjamin Disraeli, who said that "The right honorable gentleman [Sir Robert Peel] caught the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes." (The line refers more generally to an instance when one party steals the positions of another party for its own.)

Update 2: It seems that a man named William de la Pole, the first duke of Suffolk, was the man who was "beheaded in an open boat." (Jack Cade's revolt broke out soon afterward.) I wonder what an equivalently obscure fact from American history would be...


Mark Greif (my former TAP colleague) isn't a big fan of Pierre Bourdieu's latest collection of essays, which--he says--"reads like a string of back-to-back editorials from The Nation." Ouch!


A.N. Wilson--the charming writer of a biography of C.S. Lewis and a history of 19th-century disbelief in God--has written a review of a book on World War I's impact on J.R.R. Tolkien.


Kurt Vonnegut on writing and punctuation:

I realize that some of you may have come in hopes of hearing tips on how to become a professional writer. I say to you, "If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college."

Is this true? Semi-colons always strike me as the punctuation mark of choice for high school students who want to look like they've been to college, but don't most college students grow out of their use relatively quickly? I'm also not convinced that it's useful to say that semi-colons " stand[] for absolutely nothing." They're inelegant and frequently used by lazy writers who think their writing will look more grown up if it includes fancy punctuation, but do they stand for anything less than other punctuation marks?

This Vonnegut article--or, rather, this collection of random Vonnegut remarks--confirms my impression that Vonnegut can be kind of witty (sometimes), but doesn't really have much to say. (Aren't all his books exactly the same thing rewritten in slightly different form?) I thought he'd announced that he wasn't writing any more novels, but the intro to this article seems to suggest that I was wrong about that.


Wesley Clark probably just lost any chance at my vote: he endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration.


The federal government has, for the first time, approved a memorial to Confederate soldiers designed by the Daughters of the Confederacy. (It's located in Rock Island, Illinois.) (via The History News Network)


Montaigne was cool.


Should God be written into the new European constitution?


Douglas Brinkley reviews a history of the Republican party by the University of Texas historian who inspired Karl Rove's interest in U.S. history.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Monuments in a public park are the source of controversy in Casper, Wyoming, according to this Slate article.


How much damage did Guy Fawkes really want to cause?


The Guardian reviews a biography of Robert Byron, a great (but little-known) pre-war travel writer.


Alan Lightman discusses problem-solving and the love of science in The New York Times.

Monday, November 10, 2003

D.H. Lawrence, according to The Guardian, "might have been a modern Blake - if he had been able to draw." A new volume of his paintings is about to be published.


Being a scholar just isn't what it used to be, it seems.


Should Ivan the Terrible be canonized? Lots of Russians think so--and also favor sainthood for Rasputin.


There are some neat details in this New Yorker profile of Wesley Clark:

Clark has suggested that, as a boy, he was somehow out of place in Little Rock. When the neighborhood kids played soldier, they always made Wes be a Yankee. He had a speech impediment but overcame it by taking classes at the local Boys Club. The Clarks weren’t rich, but they lived on the prosperous side of town, and when it looked as though Wes might miss his first year of high school, in 1959, because of the lingering school-integration crisis in Little Rock, his parents sent him to Castle Heights Military Academy, in Tennessee.

I'm amused at the idea that poor Wes always had to play a Yankee when the kids played Civil War...

I was also interested in this article about Rimbaud. It has a charming title ("Arse Poetica") and was fun to read:

The legend begins at the moment of Rimbaud’s birth on October 20, 1854, in the small town of Charleville. Some say he was born with his eyes open, as a sign of the seer that he would become; others claim that the future traveller surprised the midwife by crawling toward the door. As a child, Rimbaud showed little interest in the usual boyhood pursuits, but his school compositions earned him a reputation for genius. Entering a regional poetry contest at the age of fifteen, he slept through the first three hours, then he had breakfast brought to him, and, handing in his poem as time was called, won the competition.

Wesley Clark and Arthur Rimbaud were both precocious youths, it seems...

Tangent: wouldn't the First Blood movies be much better if they were about Rimbaud rather than Rambo?

Sunday, November 09, 2003

The biggest tragedy in America today: Congress has become boring.

The Washington Post article I've linked to offers several explanations for why Congress has become blander. The silliest: "One reason for the decline of the colorful pol, [Congressman Sander] Levin suggests, is an increase in partisanship. 'When you become highly partisan, that inhibits individualism.' " (Bob Dornan and Newt Gingrich, Levin seems to believe, either weren't very colorful or weren't very partisan.) Dornan himself offers another theory:

Dornan believes that blandness is exacerbated by rules requiring members of Congress to disclose their personal finances. "Disclosing everything about your life drives a lot of people away," he says. So do the media: "The dark side of being colorful is the media picks up on you and hounds you."

The result, Dornan says, is a new breed of pols, "annoying little guys who ran for class president in fifth grade and lost and ran again in eighth grade and lost again and now they're policy wonks and all they want is power."

Dornan is not too shy to name those folks. One of them is House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) -- "the anti-colorful man, the antidote to it."

Dornan's argument seems to me like evidence against what Sanders says: strong views (and most likely partisanship) often go hand in hand with eccentricity.

The article was interesting, but I had some issues with it. Consider this passage:

There are, of course, other candidates for the title of colorful. In the House, there's Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who won the nickname "The Hammer" for his sheer orneriness. And Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who conducted his own investigation into the death of Clinton aide Vince Foster by shooting a bullet into a melon. And Dave Obey (D-Wis.), a man whose caustic wit and sharp tongue might qualify him. And Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who once hired a male prostitute based on a newspaper ad that read, "Hot bottom plus large endowment equals good time."

In the Senate, there's Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who is the last of the great 19th-century orators. And Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is . . . well, Ted Kennedy.

A picky observation: Robert Byrd isn't "the last of the great 19th-century orators"; he's a pompous old blowhard. (Then again, so were a lot of "great" 19th-century orators, I suppose...) On a deeper level, I'm not sure how many of the politicians listed above can be described as colorful. Frank and Burton are plausible choices. But unless you believe that "ornery," "witty," and "drunk" aren't synonyms for "colorful," I'm not sure that Delay, Obey, and Kennedy qualify. You could probably make a case for any of these people as a colorful personality. But you wouldn't need to make a similar case for Traficant or Dornan, since they were so colorful that everyone knew about them. That fact alone shows just how bland Congress has become...

[Then again, if you'd asked me what I thought of Dennis Kucinich a year ago, I'd have said he was an idiot, but I wouldn't have considered him especially colorful. Now I know that he's a colorful idiot, if his presidential campaign is any indication. There may be other closet colorful congressmen out there...]


Were the French right? National Journal asks that question in this week's cover story on the Iraq war.

A question I find more interesting: whether or not the French were right in their pre-war critique of the invasion of Iraq, why have so few Americans been willing to look back at what the French (and the other Europeans) said before the war? (Beyond the fact that no one seems to like the French much and that Jacques Chirac is obnoxious, I mean.) News reports have been reconsidering pre-war U.S. intelligence, the Bush administration's pre-war rhetoric, and plenty of other issues--but essentially no one in the U.S. has compared what's happened in Iraq to what the French and Germans said would happen.


Of all my views, the opinion most likely to offend my friends and acquaintances is my low regard for collegiate study abroad programs. Don't get me wrong: I think it's really important for all Americans--including college students--to get to know foreign cultures better, and one of my main regrets from college is that I never studied in Russia. I tend to believe, however, that most foreign study programs have very little academic rigor, that relatively few students gain real knowledge of a foreign country by studying there for a semester, and that it would make more sense for American college students to go on vacation abroad than to spend time in a foreign country "studying."

(The main reason to study abroad, I would argue, is to get really in-depth practice with a foreign language. Studying abroad in England--as a colelge student, that is--strikes me as fun but kind of pointless, unless there's some good academic reason to do so. Getting a master's degree in England sometimes make more sense, but not always.)

Jay Mathews discusses some of these issues in today's Washington Post. He describes the lack of academic focus in many programs, noting that:

I asked one undergraduate at a selective private university how much learning happened during these foreign adventures. He smiled and called them "a great opportunity to go on what is basically a 10-week vacation." ... For a while, I was the harrumphing father, dismissing this as scholastically suspect stimulation for an already over-entertained college generation. The top four study-abroad destinations are Britain, Italy, Spain and France, just the vacation spots my wife and I dream of visiting once we escape our tuition-paying penury.

This strikes me as a simplistic, but decent, description of the problem. I wouldn't limit the issue--as Matthews does--to the high number of short, 10-week programs (as opposed to rigorous semester-long programs.) Undergrads I knew at Swarthmore often studied abroad for a semester; my sense is that some of them went to Oxford (where they never had to do much work and instead spent lots of time sight-seeing) or went on feel-good, environmentally-friendly programs in Latin America. I don't think they learned all that much, and I'm not convinced that they picked up much knowledge of foreign cultures. (They probably learned more by studying in Latin America than by going to Oxbridge, however.)

Jay Mathews comes to a very different conclusion, however:

Whatever is drawing our young people overseas, it isn't costing that much more than tuition, and the return on the investment could be enormous. There has never been a moment in history in which our influence on the rest of the world has been as great, or our understanding of it less adequate.

The problem with this article is that Mathews never differentiates among programs or among students: he simply asserts that foreign study programs could have an "enormous" impact on students. One of the examples he describes--that of a Barnard College student who studied Sufism in Mali--may fit that description. (I can't imagine that she could learn French or Bambara nearly as well back in New York, after all.) Mathews notes that the proportion of American college students going to Africa and Latin America has risen, while the percentage going to Europe has fallen--which is, indeed, a good sign. But I'm not convinced that it makes much sense for someone to study film in Australia for less than a semester--it's a lot of fun, I'm sure, but seems more like being a tourist than being a real student. Moreover, my sense is that there are plenty of study abroad programs in exotic places that isolate their students from the real world, preventing the sort of cultural immersion that would be really beneficial.

Anyway, I've ranted longer than I planned, probably convincing all my readers that I'm a cranky old conservative when it comes to questions of education. Maybe I am. Just to be clear, I'm sure that there are many wonderful foreign study programs out there--I just think that a majority of the American students who go abroad to study would be better off staying home and then going overseas as tourists or to work.


Derrida and Hawking: together at last! (Well, almost, anyway.)


What should you do if you want your employees to be more productive? Let them play computer games, of course!


David Greenberg reviews Lou Cannon's new book about Ronald Reagan. The book, as other reviewers have noted, shows that Reagan was less dogmatically conservative than often believed when he served as governor of California. One interesting excerpt from the review:

In an often forgotten 1967 scandal, a circle of Reagan's aides conspired to force the ouster of an unpopular colleague, Phil Battaglia, by threatening to expose his homosexual trysts. The episode ended badly all around, with Battaglia being removed and Reagan tainted. Reagan ''paid so little attention to what was going on in his office that he was unaware of pitched battles occurring down the hall,'' Cannon concludes. Worse still, ''Reagan rarely followed up by asking his subordinates what they did with the enormous grants of authority he ceded to them.''

Reagan's obliviousness, it seems, wasn't merely a sign of his age. (Cannon suggests that it would be a mistake to write Reagan off as a simpleton, and he's probably right; Greenberg writes that he does a good job of keeping Reagan's career in the right perspective.)

Another NYT book review discusses the life of George Orwell, the "patron saint of inconsistency."


Does financial aid cause tuition increases?


Geoffrey Nunberg discusses past debates over "media bias" in The New York Times.