RFK: His Words For Our Times – Robert F. Kennedy, C. Richard Allen and Edwin O. Guthman

20210724_203834In 1968, the race for the next President of the United States intensified as sitting President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) issued a public statement that he did not want, nor would he accept the nomination for his party’s candidate for the oval office.  The announcement stunned the nation and took the election in a much different direction.  The late David Halberstam (1934-2007) had been following the campaign of former Attorney General and then Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)(D-NY).  As he observed Kennedy’s evolution into a powerhouse figure, he noted that “Robert Kennedy was in many ways the most interesting figure in American politics, not only because he was a Kennedy, not only because so much of his education had taken place in the public eye—it could be traced by putting together film clips of this decade—but primarily because he was a transitional figure in a transitional year.”  Kennedy was riding a wave of popularity and had resurrected the image of Camelot that was assigned to the presidency of his older brother John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). But Bobby, as he was known, was not Jack and had seen many things that his brother did not live to experience.  His eyes had been opened to the growing gap between wealthy and poor, black, and white, and right and left. He sought to bridge those gaps and had a vision to change America. Sadly, he too was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on June 5, 1968.   His death marked the end to what Halberstam had called his unfinished odyssey. 

Each time I read about Kennedy, I find myself discovering more of his statements, speeches, and ideas.  And what is deeply intriguing is that he was the icon of liberals across America but early in his political career he undoubtedly aligned more with conservatives.  That changed with the arrival of the civil rights movement and the gritty violence that played out on the streets of America as the country moved closer to the brink of anarchy.   Kennedy was highly observant as the chief of the Justice Department and later as a senator from my home state.  Editors C. Richard Allen and Edwin O. Guthman have compiled selected speeches and comments by him and memories by those who knew him into this book that provides the platform for Kennedy to speak to us in his own words.  And if we pay close attention, we can see that there is a wealth of thought-provoking words by the fallen figure. 

John F. Kennedy is regarded as one of the most gifted orators in history.  Even today I still listen to his speeches in particular his address at American University on June 10, 1963, which is referred to historically as the “peace speech”.  His inaugural address in January 1961 is perhaps the greatest in American history.  And directive to Americans that they “ask not what your country can do for-ask what you can do for your country” are still profound over half a century later.  Though he did not possess the charm of his older sibling, Robert Kennedy was a profound speaker in his own right and the speeches he gave show his preciseness for words and the direct approach to matters which became his trademark. He minced no words and did not hesitate to act when needed.  Some referred to him as “ruthless Bobby” but statements by those who knew him and the anecdotes in this book show that he was also extremely compassionate.   Further, he was also guided by the ancient Greek author Aeschylus’ words “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world“.  Kennedy believed in America and never wavered in his goal to see society change so that all Americans regardless of race could live in peace and prosper.   The speeches he gave on the plight of black Americans and the apartheid system in South America are what needed to be said.  Frankly, he had no fear in going to places where other politicians did not dare to go.  In all fairness, Lyndon Johnson had made his own visit to Appalachia and instituted policies to help the poor through his “Great Society” platform, but Kennedy was willing to take it one step further and there is no doubt that he would have used the powers of the presidency to focus on America’s disenfranchised citizens.

I purchased the paperback but do think for anyone who wants to take notes, the Kindle version is a much better option.  Of course, the speeches included here can be found elsewhere but I found this book to be the right collection of material for anyone who wants to get an idea of where Kennedy came from and where he intended to go.   And as we move forward, we can always come back to his words here as a reference guide so that we do not continue to make the mistakes of the past.  Kennedy is long gone physically but he lives on in spirit as an integral part of the American experience.

“Freedom means not only the opportunity to know but the will to know. That will can make for understanding and tolerance, and to ultimately friendship and peace.” – Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) 

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0062834142
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0062834140

Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal – Del Hahn

sealAmericans in my age range and older will easily recall Nancy Reagan’s (1921-2016) advice to “just say no” to drugs.  At the time, America had become fully engulfed in a deadly war against the rising trafficking and use of narcotics.  The federal government continued to increase spending each year in the effort to combat drugs in America but regardless of the approach, the drugs kept coming and brought with them lengthy jail sentences, murder, and scores of addicts.  However, the drugs did not arrive without help.  Drug traffickers quickly realized that the growing market for cocaine and other hard drugs also produced large amounts of money.  Drug routes began to sprout up all over the planet as traffickers continued to find ways to elude authorities.  Stories of their exploits are plenty.  And I believe everyone knows the names of the major drug kingpins such as Pablo Escobar (1949-1993) and Joaquin Guzman known as “El Chapo”.   The bosses made the deals, but the groundwork was left to those willing to risk death and capture in a market worth billions of dollars.  Among these fearless individuals was Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal (1939-1986).  Fans of the Netflix show Narcos might recall Seal’s demise in season one.  The scene is graphic but is also a fairly accurate depiction of Seal’s final moments.  But what is missing from the show is Seal’s full background and his descent into the criminal underworld.  Rumors have persisted that Seal was working for the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) or other secret parts of the U.S. Government. But is there any truth to that?  Author Del Hahn was an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and worked in the Baton Rouge field office at the time Seal was under active investigation.  In this informative and gripping book, Hahn provides what may be the most accurate account of Seal’s tragic life.

Prior to reading the book, I had a fair amount of knowledge regarding Seal.  Movie buffs will recall that Tom Cruise played Seal in the 2017 film American Made.   The movie is pure Hollywood and its allegation that Seal was “recruited” by the CIA are nothing short of misleading. Hahn explores the issue at length and explains what did take place at the Mena Intermountain Airport in Mena, Arkansas as Seal was preparing to depart for a trip to South America.  Officially, the CIA has stated that Seal never worked for their agency even though it did have a presence at the airport.  Seal himself never said that he worked for the CIA.  But what is more important in the story at hand is Seal’s downfall and his work for the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”).   However, before we reach that part of the book, Hahn provides a good biography of Seal, showing the twists and turns along the way even before he becomes involved in trafficking narcotics.  It is clear that Seal’s life was anything but ordinary even from an early age.   Further, I could see that Seal was an incredibly talented and articulate individual.  Readers might be surprised to learn how early he became involved in the field of aviation.  To say that flying was in his blood might be an understatement.  It will be recalled by some that he began working for Trans World Airlines (“TWA”) in 1967.   Although he was eventually terminated, he had established himself as a good pilot whose aircraft was the Boeing 707.   After leaving TWA, Seal found a new source of income in the world of smuggling.  But cocaine was not his first choice as Hahn explains as he shows the path Seal took from one drug to another.  In some instances, Seal was at the right place at the right time and around the right people.

Similar to other players in the drug game, incarceration is never far away, and Seal found himself in trouble with the law on several occasions.  But it was a major bust in an undercover sting operation by multiple law enforcement agencies that finally derailed the smuggler’s gravy train.  This is the part of the book where the story takes a sharp turn down a darker path.  At this point, Seal is fully engulfed in the cocaine business and associating with figures from the most notorious drug cartels in history.  Faced with a stiff prison sentence and additional time in other pending cases, Seal makes a life changing decision and becomes more acquainted with the DEA that some may realize.  The legal drama heightens the suspense in the story and Hahn does a solid job of putting everything in the simplest terms possible to help the story flow easily.  I personally picked up a couple of things about the Title III Wiretap law and the Brady Rule which put things into a more clarified context.  Law students and readers with an interest in criminal procedure will appreciate this part of the book.  A sub-story to the legal drama is that the author refutes some of the more outlandish rumors about Seal’s alleged “work” for the CIA or any other intelligence agency through the explanation of the wiretaps.   He also puts to rest any rumors about Seal’s connections to politicians in Washington.   Hahn states frankly that:

“Mena/CIA conspiracy buffs should take note that during the entire time the Title III wiretap was in operation, there were no conversations intercepted between Seal, Terry Kent Reed, Bill Clinton, Lt. Col. Oliver North, or any representative of the CIA.”

The real story is not as sensational as some may wish but it is crazy enough on its own to keep readers glued to the pages of this book.  Seal was a larger-than-life character with a love for the darker side of society.  And he learned that in the drug game, no one can be trusted.

We know that Seal died in February 1986 but is what we see on Narcos the full explanation?  Hahn also discusses how and why Seal was gunned down.  And as I read the account of the events leading up to his death, I shook my head at the fate in store for Seal who has no idea that he has become a pawn in a much larger and deadlier game.  As the 1980s progresses, Central America becomes a hotspot and the Reagan Administration becomes deeply involved in the war in El Salvador, events in Nicaragua and affairs in Honduras.  Ret. Lt. Col. Oliver North also makes an appearance and provides the author with a statement that I believe should help put an end to the Seal mystique.  North may be viewed suspiciously as some due to the Iran Contra affair but that is a discussion for another time. The focus here is on Barry Seal and North clears up any possible rumors about his alleged association with the notorious smuggler.

Throughout the book, not once does any information surface that Seal was anything other than a drug trafficker who got caught in an undercover operation and decided to work for the U.S. Government to help his own cause. That decision came with a heavy price, and he could not have known he was on a collision course with fate. His death while tragic, did nothing to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. And Seal himself stated more than once that the narcotics could not be stopped by the war on drugs. Today we know that he was correct in his assessment.  Seal may have been romanticized on screen, but the truth about his life is far more bitter and less glorious.  If you want to know exactly who Barry Seal was and what really happened behind the scenes during the war on drugs, this is a must read.

ASIN: B01DJQWDJW

The Hunt for the Last Public Enemy in Northeastern Ohio: Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and his Road to Alcatraz – Julie A. Thompson

ThompsonA few years ago, I visited San Francisco and decided to take the boat ride around the bay under the Golden Gate Bridge.  As the vessel made its way back to the dock, it traveled around the eastern side of the defunct prison once known as Alcatraz.  The facility has long been closed but seeing it in person puts the stories about it into a new perspective.   To some, the prison was  simply known as “the rock”.  Regardless of what it was called, it was home to some of America’s most dangerous criminals. And make no mistake, a decision to send an inmate to Alcatraz was not made lightly.  Further, inmates knew that if you were sent to Alcatraz, you better be prepared to spend a lot of years there.  Alvin F. Karpis (1907-1979) spent three decades at Alcatraz and in the annals of American history, he remains one of the most prominent crime figures from the outlaw era that saw the rise of such as John Dillinger (1903-1934), George “Baby Face” Nelson (1908-1934) and the deadly duo of Bonny Parker (1910-1934) and Clyde Barrow (1909-1934).  Unlike many other outlaws, Karpis not only survived the 1930s but was eventually released from Alcatraz.  This is the story his time on the run, capture by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and later years as a free man.

The story is undoubtedly focused on Karpis, but the book is not a standard biography.  Instead, the focus is on the mission to apprehend him and his life after being convicted.  Thompson does provide a fair amount of background information on Karpis, but it is not long before the story progresses to the time when Karpis becomes fully engulfed in the criminal underworld.  And once he did, there was no turning back.  However, in comparison to well-known killers from that time, Karpis comes off the complete opposite.  But behind the quiet demeanor was a highly intelligent and crafty individual.  And I believe that aspect of his character is what makes the story is so interesting.  Karpis is not the typical outlaw and in some cases, he was certainly in the wrong place at the wrong time.  That is not to say that he was completely innocent.  In fact, he was far from it. But Thompson does show that he was not the person that came to mind when people thought of America’s most wanted.  But eventually, he caught the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) who had committed himself to purging the outlaw from American society and capturing Karpis at all costs.

As readers will see in the story, there is no love lost between Karpis and Hoover.  The outlaw once remarked that when it came to Hoover, he “made that son a bitch”.   I can still feel the venom in Karpis’ words so many years later.  The statement seems outlandish, but is it?  His arrest by the FBI and Hoover’s role in it is explored in the book and I believe that the author addresses it as fairly and accurately as possible.   Was Hoover there? Yes, he was.  Did he personally walk up to Karpis and arrest him?  We may never know for sure.  But what is clear is that Hoover added more prestige to his reputation and was finally able to fend off criticism that he lacked actual field experience.  For Karpis, his ordeal with the law was only beginning. And after a stint at United States Penitentiary Leavenworth, Karpis is moved to Alcatraz where he remained incarcerated for the next twenty-six years.

Karpis’ time at Alcatraz is discussed and we also see the entrance into the story of other famous prisoners there such as Alphonse “Al” Capone (1899-1947).   Also discussed is the reason behind Karpis’ nickname of “creepy”.  I did not expect this part of the book but considering he was in prison, I guess I should not have been too surprised at what is alleged.  And I am sure that other readers will have a similar reaction.  Overall, Karpis’ stint at Alcatraz is quiet compared to his time on the run.  While far from a model prisoner, he was not a problem inmate.  But I have no doubt that Karpis most likely had his hands in some things common in a penitentiary.  In 1962,  Karpis finally left the prison for the last time. and ironically, it was Hoover’s boss, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) who finally closed Alcatraz for good.  Karpis spent several more years behind bars before finally being paroled in 1968.  But the conditions of his release may surprise some readers. Personally, I shook my head at what transpired.  But, that chain of events led Karpis to his final residence in Torremolinos, Spain.   On August 26, 1979, he died there at the age of seventy-one, outliving his nemesis Hoover and nearly every major gangster from the depression era.

The story Alvin Karpis is one of violence, politics, love, and disappointment.  Author Julie Thompson did a wonderful job of capturing the essence of Karpis’ chaotic life and the outlaw era.  As he moved through life, Karpis left a trail of destruction that affected two former wives, a son and family members trying to understand where he went wrong.  But to Washington, his life story did not matter because of all intents and purposes, Karpis had become the last public enemy.  The book has all of the elements that are part of the American way.   For those who are interested in American history and a time when the outlaw was also a pop culture icon, this book will satisfy that hunger.

“In the end, can we trust the words of an admitted thief ? Can Karpis’s words stack up against the official records of the FBI and the testimony of J. Edgar Hoover? There is no final jeopardy here. What has been stated with certainty is that Bill Trent, Karpis’s first coauthor, never once in all his fact checking found a Karpis story to be in error.”  – Julie Thompson 

ASIN: B08L9Q2964

The Search for Michael Rockefeller – Mitt Machlin

Rockerfeller

Each year as December approaches, the City of New York becomes even more active as tourists arrive to see the Big Apple during the holiday season. One of the biggest attractions is the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the complex of buildings that was the vision of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960). In 1961, his grandson Michael Rockefeller (1938-1961) returned to New Guinea to partake in an expedition to visit the Asmat region, home to the Otsjanep villagers. On November 19, 1961, Rockefeller was stranded on a raft with traveler Rene Wassing. As their situation worsened, Rockefeller decided to swim to shore for help. He took off his clothes, grabbed a few supplies and jumped into the water. Wassing watched him fade into the distance and that was the last time that Rockefeller was seen alive. In 1964 he was declared legally dead and officially it is presumed that he drowned in the water. He was declared legally dead in 1964 but theories persist about the final moments of a young man considered by all who knew him to be an expert swimmer.

In October, 1968, author Mitt Machlin (1924-2004) received a surprised visit from a man with a fake name who admitted that he had inside information about Rockefeller’s disappearance. After listening to the man’s account, Machlin is convinced that there is more to the Rockefeller story. He approaches is superiors and is given permission to the travel to the region where Rockefeller met his fate in an attempt to bring closure to the story. And the result is this book which at times, is not for the faint at heart. One the early leads that Machlin had surprisingly came directly from the New York Times which contained a statement from Father Cornelius van Kessel who stated that he had knowledge of the events surrounding Rockefeller’s disappearance that he did not drown at sea but met a far grislier fate at the hand of villagers along the territory where he would have swum ashore. To be clear, there are no admissions by anyone who might have been present when Rockefeller took his last breath. But if Father Van Kessel is to be believed, the end of Michael Rockefeller’s life was darker than anyone cared to admit. Machlin uncovers a dearth of information about Rockefeller and the natives whom many believe were responsible for his death. About the New York socialite, Machlin informs us that:

During his undergraduate years Michael have been an excellent student (he ultimately was graduated cum laude) but had shown a tendency to restlessness and a hunger for excitement which would ultimately lead him to Gardner’s Expedition. He had various methods of sublimating his restlessness. Once he was picked up for racing at 80 miles an hour along the Maine Turnpike, and again he was arrested for speeding on a Connecticut Parkway. During the summer Michael hardly live the life of a millionaire’s son. One Summer he worked in a Puerto Rican supermarket. Another year he worked as a ranch hand on his father’s spread in Venezuela. Except for poor eyesight, Michael was an excellent specimen physically, six feet one and a superb swimmer.

The third son of former Vice President of the United States and New York State Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908-1979) was not a “typical” child in the family. The picture of Michael that emerges in the book is of a young man who sought to see the world and show people that he was not just another rich kid riding his father’s coat tails. But did that restlessness and thirst for action lead to his demise? To answer that question, we must turn to Machlin who reveals disturbing truths about the people Rockefeller would have encountered during his trips to the coast of New Guinea which is officially known today as Papua New Guinea. I must warn readers that some of the information about the natives is unsettling. But it is imperative to remember that their world was far removed from ours and their customs while not considered civilized, were how they functioned as a group. Machlin explains this perfectly in the book as he continues to explore the Rockefeller mystery that gets more bizarre with each new twist and turn.

As I read the book, I became convinced that Rockefeller was not “lost at sea” and that there was in fact a darker aspect to his demise. A “smoking gun” is elusive but Machlin reveals a wealth of information and it becomes apparent that many people familiar with the territority had heard what happened to Rockefeller. In some instances the information apparently came from the natives themselves. But as disturbing as that part is, the actual reason for his demise is crucial and perhaps the crux of the book. Machlin goes a good job of explaining the possession of the Asmat territory at that time by the Dutch government and how actions by some of its representatives created a pattern of retribution that consumed Rockefeller who more than likely had no knowledge of what had transpired prior to his arrival. His death might have simply been a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadly, his body was never found preventing the Rockefeller family from obtaining closure about his tragic end. Machlin does reveal what has been said about Rockefeller’s remains and I assure you that this part of the book will give you a chill.

Officially, Rockefeller joins the list of famous people who have vanished into thin air including Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), James R. Hoffa (1913-1982) and Natalee Holloway (1986-2005). Their deaths have continued to stir debate about the truth and if it will ever be known. Machlin was on the right track and searches online will also reveal information similar to what he explains here. In fact, the Smithsonian has a brilliant article that readers will find to be a perfect addition to this book. If you love a good mystery and stories that are anything but orthodox, this book is a must read. And perhaps one day, we will know the whole truth about the final moments of Michael Rockefeller.

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1585790206
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1585790203

The Promise & The Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy – David Margolick

dreamOn January 6, 2021, I and millions of people in America and abroad watched the events at the U.S. Capitol in which thousands of individuals breached security and entered the historic building in the belief that the 2020 Presidential Election had been stolen from Donald J. Trump.  As I watched the video footage, a sense of gloom came over me due to the realization that the pillars of our vision of democracy were under siege. Personally, I have no political affiliation and regardless of which party we belong to, none of them are above reproach when our government is threatened from within or abroad.  By evening, the dust had settled over Washington and officials began to piece together the chain of events that left several dead, dozens injured, and hundreds detained or the target of criminal investigation.  Messages from family members and friends started to arrive on my phone with nearly if I had seen the events in Washington, D.C.   The insurrection forced many of us to confront unsettling realities and acknowledge that threats exist all around us.  Further, the day also showed how far America has strayed from the principles it professes to believe in. 

When I find myself attempting to understand the present or the future, I instinctively turn to the past for the answers.  History is an invaluable tool if applied correctly.  Amazon must have sensed that I was in need for another lesson when this book by author David Margolick showed up in my list of recommendations.  I have previously written about both men on the cover, former U.S. Attorney General and Senator Robert F. Kennedy (19125-1968)(D-NY) and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  (1929-1968).  Their deaths occurred roughly two months apart in 1968 and some have said more than once that America never recovered.  The nation was forced to live with the endless questions of what if they both had lived.  Each man had a sense of duty to change America for present and future generations.  And though they had met in person on few occasions, they were connected in the civils right movement and in death.  The violent decade of the 1960s claimed many victims and their murders brought an end to what the author calls the promise and the dream.  But there is far more to their story than some may realize.  Publicly they did not present an image of harmony but behind closed doors they were critically important to each other.  The private side of their relationship is explored here in this remarkable account of two human beings who had achieved nearly deity status as America grappled with social and political change. 

I would like to point out that there are no smoking guns in the book regarding the assassinations of each.  The crimes are discussed but briefly and constrained to small sections in the much larger story.   Readers who are interested in the assassination will find William Pepper’s “Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King” and “The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy: Crime, Conspiracy and Cover-Up” by Tim Tate and Brad Johnson to be very good. The author’s focus here is on the relationship beween Kennedy and King which went through several phases due in part to the administrations of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973).  The Kennedys had been criticize for not taking a stronger stance in defense of civil rights.  Margolick re-examines the issue and in the process, we see Bobby’s role in a much clearer lense.  The story is well-known, but I believe that Margolick presents the narrative in a thorough format which reveals that the Kennedys did act and had John Kennedy survived Dallas,  U.S. forces most likely wiould have withdrawn from Vietnam and civil rights legislation would have been the focus in 1964.  Johnson did turn Kennedy’s dream into a reality in July 1964, but America still had a long way to go.  In fact, Bobby wisely observed that:  

“You could pass a law to permit a Negro to eat at Howard Johnson’s restaurant or stay at the Hilton Hotel,” Kennedy said. “But you can’t pass a law that gives him enough money to permit him to eat at that restaurant or stay at that hotel.”

This quote is important for several reasons. The first is that many had been focused on the civil rights act and rightfully so but having the legal right to something and access to it are two different things.  The second is that it showed Kennedy realized that more than legislation would be required to change the plight of Black Americans in the United States.   In all fairness, Kennedy had undergone his own transformation as the gritty reality of life in America’s ghettos hit home.  His personal journey is one of the highlights in the book and it is not hard to see why he attained such a large following.  To many Black Americans, he was a candidate who understood or “got it”.   Curiously, Martin Luther King, Jr. never gave official statements endorsing Robert Kennedy or his brother and stayed largely out of politics and elections. But he did seek an audience with politicians whom he knew were crucial to changing America.  Both presidents and Bobby have their encounters with King in the book and the differences in the interactions King has with all three are interesting.   But each encounter is overshadowed by the wiretaps placed on King by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) under the grip of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972).  As an official of the Justice Department, Hoover’s boss was Kennedy himself who knew of and gave consent to the taps on some occasions.  The saga is revisited and reveals the dirty tricks the bureau was willing to employ to bring down King whom Hoover considered to be a “communist”.  The former director’s paranoia knew no bounds and his massive accumulation of secrets on those in powers safeguarded his thirst for power and intention to remain the head of the FBI which he did until his death in 1972.  The FBI never did prove that King was a “communist” but surely did try. 

As John Kennedy moves through his presidency, he is confronted not just with the threat of nuclear war but of unrest at home. But it was not until things exploded in the deep South that his administration began to realize the powder keg they needed to diffuse.  Civil rights activists were determined to integrate the South and eradicate Jim Crow. But first, blood would have to be spilled even if it made the Kennedy Administration uneasy.  Those tragic events are revisited and may be upsetting to some readers.   The visual recording of violent scenes by the media had thrust the reality of racial discrimination into the homes of millions of Americans.  In Washington, the president and his administration knew it had to act because if it did not, things would soon go from bad to deadly.   The attorney general was not about to let that happen.   And when action was needed, Kennedy stepped to the plate and his role in several key events are cemented in American history.  Of course, activists were still leery of the new administration but on person had this to say:

“You can fault the Kennedys in many ways on civil rights, but there are three things for which you must give them credit: their talk, their appointments, and Bobby Kennedy,” the head of the Americans for Democratic Action and one of the liberal stalwarts of mid-twentieth-century politics, Joseph Rauh, was to say.

Eventually, the story progresses to the trip to Dallas where John Kennedy met his tragic fate.  Bobby’s life is turned upside down and he exist in a sort of limbo for a significant period of time.  In the wake of his brother’s death, Kennedy realized that he had gone from one of the most powerful figures in Washington to someone who would soon be an outsider as the Johnson Administration took over.  However, he soon found himself again and eventually becomes a senator representing my beloved State of New York.   Watching the events play out is King who is the observer of all things and on occasion makes himself heard in Washington.  John Kennedy’s death had opened both King and Bobby’s eyes to the fact that they too would meet an early demise.  Their fatalism is conveyed in the book and I felt a chill as I read how each had essentially predicted his own violent death.  It was not lost on either that America had become engulfed in a climate of hate and that threat that still exist today.  But when asked about their premonitions of early deaths and the threats to their lives, each accepts both as conditions that apply.  Kennedy gives an even more blunt assessment of it with this statement: 

“I’ve got to present myself to the people as intimately as possible and get rid of some of these old bugaboos about me — let them know that I’m a human being.” But what would it do to the country, he asked, to lose another person of his stature? “That wouldn’t be good, but I can’t help that,” Kennedy replied. “If they want to get me, they’re going to get me — whether it’s in a crowd or whether I’m alone. I play Russian roulette every morning when I get up.”

And as for King, he was even more bleak: 

Befitting someone under constant threat, King talked about death incessantly and matter-of-factly. (The producer Abby Mann, who was to do his life story, asked him in 1966 how the film would end. “It ends with me getting killed,” King replied. “He was smiling, but he wasn’t joking,” Mann recalled.)

Despite the constant threat of death, each moved forward in their determination to bring true change to American society.  Kennedy continues to evolve and moves closer to where King is already at.  It is almost as if Martin was waiting for him.  Throughout the book we are witnesses to the transformation of the future candidate who eventually becomes the visionary that many had hoped for and wanted several years earlier. But as it is sometimes said, we do not choose the time, the time chooses us.  As I read through the book, I appreciated the author’s telling of the story in which we see the dance the two do around each other although they know their fates are intertwined. Further, Margolick does offer clues that the two spoke at great length privately but gave the impression publicly that they were cordial at best.  And in a tragic irony, following Bobby’s death, the widows of all three slain figures (JFK, RFK and MLK) have a meeting that their husbands may have wanted to have on a regular basis.  In death, many were united in ways they did not wish for. 

After finishing the book, I developed even more respect for Robert F. Kennedy and have deeper affection and grief for the loss of him and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The promise and the dream they were, and their deaths are some of the darkest moments in American history.  But on a positive note, the change that each desired continues to happen although there is still more work to be done.  As we look to the future we can return to the past and revisit the words and actions of these two legendary figures.   The key test will be for each of us to ask ourselves what type of country we want to live in.  In the book, we revisit a night when Kennedy had returned home from a trip to a poverty stricken location. He entered the house in a somber mood and as his daughter explained: 

“He said, ‘I’ve just come in and seen a family live in a room smaller than our dining room, with their tummies distended and sores all over them because they don’t have enough to eat and they don’t have healthcare,’” Kennedy’s eldest daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, later recalled. “‘Do you know how lucky you are? Do you know how lucky you are? Do something for this country.’” 

Kennedy had seen the face of poverty; a face Dr. King knew all too well having made his own journey across America.   What stood out to me in the book is although the two had infrequent contact, they were remarkably similar in many ways.   Quite frankly, they would have made a great team at whatever they did.   Sadly, any discussions they did have off the record are now lost to history.  But it is clear from their statements and writings that there did in fact exist affection and respect between the two. And I will always feel that one of Kennedy’s greatest speeches was his unscripted remarks in Indianapolis after Dr. King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968.  For Martin, his speech at the Washington Monument is part of the American Experience and remains one of the best oratorical deliveries in history. 

The amount of history contained in this book is both staggering and beautifully re-told by Margolick.  I absolutely loved how the narrative flowed without any lag or drifting into any particular direction. The story is streamlined, and as we move through time in the 1960s we can see its brutality and sources of hope.  I understand even more why my dad has always said that the 1960s “scared the hell out of him”.   Many figures met their ends during the 1960s but the list of names is too long to include here.  Heroes and icons were cut down before their time due to fears of unity, revolution and progress.  America will need to look at itself in the mirror as we move forward and combat the threats of unfounded radical ideology and misinformation.   Threats to our democracy must be challenged and eliminated.  The pillars upon which we place our faith in the system of government that has been adopted around the world must be protected not only for our time but future generations.  And maybe we can once again have a dream and a promise.  Highly recommended. 

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B07R6VMYHP

The Hidden Hindenburg: The Untold Story of the Tragedy, the Nazi Secrets, and the Quest to Rule the Skies – Michael McCarthy

50550830._UY400_SS400_On May 6, 1937, the German aircraft LZ 129, officially known as the Hindenburg, crashed upon landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey.  The crash claimed the lives of thirty-two people.  Sixty-two people survived the disaster and later gave statements regarding what they saw and heard in the air ship’s final moments.  In Berlin, the Third Reich went into crisis mode and grounded all Zeppelin air ships until authorities could figure out what went wrong.  The accepted explanation for the disaster is that an electrostatic discharge ignited hydrogen leaking through an outer cover which resulted in a fast-moving fire that caused the air ship’s demise.  The case seemed open and shut but is there more to the story?  Author Michael McCarthy addresses that question and others about the Hindenburg’s history, Nazi Germany’s rise to power and the aftermath of the Hindenburg’s final voyage to America.

I did have a fair amount of knowledge about the Hindenburg but like other historical events, there is more to the story.  McCarthy’s account of the full story behind the disaster is spellbinding.  As a primer, he provides the back story on the Zeppelins and their origin in Germany.  What we learn is fascinating and reminded me of how far air travel has come since 1937.  But it is not long before we move forward to the era of the Third Reich and the book takes a darker turn.  In the title, the author mentions Nazi secrets.  There are many of them revealed here showing the magnitude of Nazi Germany’s quest for world domination.  Had the Nazis achieved their goal to develop an arsenal of mega weapons, World War II might have resulted in a different outcome.

The Treaty of Versailles following World War I had severely punished Germany for its actions in starting the conflict.  Financially, Germany was in near ruin and politically, the people were ripe for change.  That changed arrived in the form of an Austrian soldier who saw himself as the next leader of Germany. But to save the fatherland, he would have to resort to drastic measures.  Adolf Hitler(1889-1945) seized power in 1933, ignored the treaty and commenced his plan to rebuild the German military.  The Zeppelins caught the eye of the dictator and Reich Air Marshall Hermann Göring (1893-1946) took personal interest in the asset the Nazis believed would change history.  However, the Zeppelins’ fate had already been decided and the decisions made by Hugo Eckener (1868-1954), the visionary behind the Zeppelin use, would have far reaching consequences for Germany and air travel.

Public interest in the Zeppelins allowed Eckener to enjoy publicity across the globe and the future seemed bright.  However back in Germany, engineers knew that something was wrong the LZ-129’s design.  In fact, the air ship had several issues that needed to be addressed and author does not mince words regarding them.  What I read sent chills down my spine but this statement from McCarthy sets the tone for the remainder of the book:

“I found evidence that the 800-foot-long Hindenburg was on a path to self-destruction back to its blueprints. Today, it’s hard to imagine just how large the Hindenburg actually was. Eight Goodyear blimps could have easily fit inside of it.” 

It is well-known that the Hindenburg used hydrogen to attain lift, yet engineers and German officials knew that helium was safer for commercial use.  Sadly, the Hindenburg never used helium, nor did Zeppelin officials attempt to obtain it.  But the full story behind the lack of helium for the Hindenburg and other air ships is laid bare in the book.  Readers will be left to shake their heads as the truth is revealed.  Further, several incidents involving air ships from other countries, that preceded the Hindenburg disaster should have served as a warning, but Eckener was determined to have his way and went as far to lure Captain Ernst A. Lehmann (1886-1937) away from the Goodyear Company in America to fly the Hindenburg.  Lehmann would later become a victim of the disaster and a scapegoat for the tragic crash.  Of all the people who were aware of the ship’s problems. Lehmann emerges as the most concerned and reveals his fears to a friend.  And it becomes clear that when it came to the Hindenburg, the writing was on the wall.

In the afternoon of May 6, the Hindenburg attempted to make its landing in between thunderstorms and sharp winds.  Before touching the ground, fire broke out in the rear of the air ship and within minutes all hell had broken loose.  Emergency personnel raced to the scene, but many could not be saved.  Others perished in the hospital and investigators were faced with the daunting task of determining what went wrong.   Zeppelin officials knew that their company was on the line, and they could not let it take the fall.  The actions and statements by those in positions of accountability left me speechless but as repulsive as they are, they pale in comparison to what we learn about the air ship’s production and its intended role in World War II.

Hitler’s thirst for dominance knew no bounds and whatever was needed to achieve it was given the green light.  Nazi engineers had been building superweapons throughout the war and successfully tested at least one. But behind the weapons production were secrets the Nazis had hidden from the world.  Jews that had been forced into concentration camps almost always face certain death through starvation, disease, and relentless manual labor.  Engineers needed human labor and had thousands of “undesirables” that could perform the heavy manual tasks needed at production facilities.  The Reich had no concerns about the prisoners’ health and thousands were conscripted into building the secret weapons that Hitler hoped would change the course of the war.  It may be hard for some to accept that the magnificent Hindenburg had any nefarious purpose.  But to remove all illusions about the Zeppelins, McCarthy explains that:

“The Zeppelin was conceived as a weapon. Of the 119 Zeppelins the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin built, 103 were for the military. And the V-1 and V-2 weapons were the fulfillment of Count Zeppelin’s long dream of a German attack weapon for aerial warfare. Eckener trained more than a thousand crew members for Zeppelin bombing missions.” 

Washington was aware of the Nazi weapons programs and knew that if Hitler succeeded, the war would take a tragic turn making victory exponentially difficult.  However, Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union, doomed Germany and it was a matter of time before the Allied forces brought it to its knees.  At the beginning of April 1945, American forces and the Red Army had closed in on Berlin and Hitler’s bunker.  Unwilling to face justice himself, Hitler took his own life and escaped punishment at Nuremberg.  But thousands of Nazi officials soon realized that they could be captured and executed for their actions.  Those who had connections within the U.S. Government or value to American policy were secretly transported out of Germany.  After settling in America, many received plush jobs and lived freely in the United States for the rest of their lives.  Readers interested in the arrival of former Nazi officials to America, will enjoy Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America.  Nazis who were not as fortunate soon realized that their ties to Hitler placed them in Allied crosshairs.  And businessmen who had financial ties to the Reich also realized that they were fair game.  Hugo Eckener knew that he too could face justice but was determined not to let that happen even if it meant re-writing history and leaving Germany.  His time in America after the war is one more example of the U.S. Government willing to look the other way when it came to Nazi affiliates.  Eckener was crafty and re-wrote history enough to keep his role in the Reich hidden for many years but as McCarthy points out, the truth about Eckener is:

“Into his eighties, Hugo Eckener became still more brazen in deceit, revising history and burying his sinister war record. Not only had he misled investigators at Lakehurst on the Hindenburg disaster, but his autobiography renewed his false charge that America was partly responsible for the deadly accident because it had denied him fireproof helium. And he continued to portray himself as anti-Nazi and safety-conscious, while painting his rival, the deceased Lehmann, as the opposite on both counts.” 

Despite Eckener’s actions, German investigators were able to uncover his past deeds with the Reich as can be seen in the book.  The results are scathing.  Eckener and his son Knut could not cleanse themselves of the Nazi stain no matter how hard they tried.  And the Nazi hunters would not stop until every page was turned over and every stone was lifted.  To be sure, many Nazis did escape justice and re-settled in other parts of the globe. South America was a popular destination.  But those who remained in Germany and were convicted of Nazi crimes had their lives turned upside down, yet their punishments were typically less severe than the death they dealt out to thousands of Jewish prisoners.  Eckener had never worked at a camp nor was he assigned the task of overseer, but he did have ties to the camps and certainly knew what took place there.

As the book reached its conclusion,  I found myself speechless at times as I learned of the relationship between the Zeppelin company and the Third Reich. Further, the actions by Eckener and others with knowledge of the air ship’s faults were reprehensible. Today they would be prosecuted, and the company would be dismantled. But in 1937, it was easier to keep secrets and the Hindenburg had many of them.  Its creator and others who controlled its existence had  ulterior motives and two of them were for Germany to rebuild itself into the country it once was and to make all other nations submit to its will.  But fate had other plans and before it was done, Germany’s greatest air ship and its military would crash and burn.  This is the true story of the Hindenburg and its relationship to the Nazi secrets behind World War II.

ASIN:‎ B08B519GMT

The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie – Andrew Carnegie

CarnegieRecently the world-famous Carnegie Hall in the midtown section of Manhattan announced its schedule for 2021-2022.  After the history changing year of 2020, the music venue is set to resume operations as music lovers return to enjoy all that it has to offer.  Opened in 1891, Carnegie Hall remains one of the most prestigious concert venues in New York City and keeps the name of its creator alive many years after his death.  Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) long ago cemented his place in American history as a successful philanthropist and one of the driving forces behind the expansion of the American steel industry.  In his later years he sat down to write his life story that became this engaging autobiography.

The story begins in the Scottish town of Dunfermline where Carnegie is born on November 25, 1835.  He fondly recalls his childhood and the great memories of his time as a youth.  But for “Andra” as he is called, America is the place to be, and he soon sets his eyes on the United States.   He eventually makes his way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and it is here in America that the Andrew Carnegie known to America begins his rise.   After arriving in the United States, he recalls the dreary scene that existed in Pittsburgh in the middle 1800s.  To say that it is far different from the Pittsburgh of today would be a massive understatement.  Financially Pittsburgh is not in the greatest shape and Carnegie takes on a series of smaller jobs but continues to learn business practices.  And it is not long before fate steps in and he finds himself working for the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  But as we see in the book, it was not meant to be his final destination and fate steps in yet again taking him to Washington, D.C. where he is assigned a high-ranking and important position in the telegraph department allowing him to make observations about the nation’s capital, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885).

After a brief return to Scotland in 1862, Carnegie arrives back on American soil and the businessman that he was destined to be is off to the races.  He soon makes one shrewd decision after another as corporations are dissolved and new ones are formed.  His rise in the business world through the steel and railway industries permitted him to cross paths with other financial greats such as George Pullman (1831-1897) and J.P. Morgan (1837-1913).   He also encounters other figures who come in and out the story according to the role they played in his life.  Carnegie is highly observant and at times plays peacemaker with those on opposite sides.  When looking back on his life he remarks:

“Most quarrels become acute from the parties not seeing and communicating with each other and hearing too much of their disagreement from others. They do not fully understand the other’s point of view and all that can be said for it. Wise is he who offers the hand of reconciliation should a difference with a friend arise. Unhappy he to the end of his days who refuses it. No possible gain atones for the loss of one who has been a friend even if that friend has become somewhat less dear to you than before. He is still one with whom you have been intimate, and as age comes on friends pass rapidly away and leave you.”

The words are wise and when I think of society’s issues today, this quote is hauntingly accurate. Carnegie was keenly observant about human nature and the wisdom he gained is clear in the book.  What I also found to be appealing about the book is not just the story which is incredible on its own but Carnegie’s ability to relate to all people regardless of who they are or where they come from.  As an ardent opponent of slavery and discrimination, he recalls several situations wherein the issue of race came up.  Carnegie had a great sense of humor and his words to those with whom he conversed are food for thought.  And his association with the Tuskegee Institute and Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) is just one example of the enormous generosity that Carnegie became known for.

As the book progresses, Carnegie gives the reader something to think about after each situation plays itself out.  Whether it was a tough business deal or an encounter with a difficult person, he remains in good spirits as he tells his story.  And not once does he resort to gossip or the slandering of a person’s name.  His upbeat personality was certainly not an act, and he has this to say for those who are listening:

“A sunny disposition is worth more than fortune. Young people should know that it can be cultivated; that the mind like the body can be moved from the shade into sunshine.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and embracing many of Carnegie’s wise words.  And though he died in 1919, many lessons he explains can still be applied today.  Of course, the world is a very different place, but some truths will always remain with us.   Prior to reading the book, I confess that my knowledge of Carnegie’s personal life was quite limited but when I saw this recommendation, I reminded myself that there is no time like the present.  My thirst for knowledge has once again been satisfied and I passionately believe this book is a gift that keeps on giving.  And regardless of our occupation, age, sex, etc., something can be found here by all.  Carnegie was ahead of his time and rightfully so.

“There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.” – Andrew Carnegie  

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B004UKDO7M

Coroner: America’s most controversial medical examiner explores the unanswered questions surrounding the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Robert F. Kennedy, Sharon Tate, Janis Joplin, William Holden, Natalie Wood, John Belushi, and many of his other important cases – Thomas Noguchi with Joseph DiMona

NoguchiThis may come as a shock to some, but I have always found the topic of death fascinating.  I find it so because how we leave here often explains how we lived when we were alive.  I am sure we have all asked the same question upon hearing of someone’s death:  what was the cause?  To determine the cause, care and faith is entrusted to the talents of forensic pathologists who become masters at unraveling the mysteries behind the final moments in the lives of humans.  In the City of Los Angeles, pathologists have often faced heavy workloads in a city has seen its share of violent crime. For many years, Dr. Thomas Noguchi was the lead coroner in the County of Los Angeles and was tasked with performing some of the most important autopsies in history.  In this short but highly engaging account of the cases that stand out, he explains what he found as he examined the bodies of larger-than-life figures Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)(D-NY), actress Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) and several other Hollywood stars.  And though there are no “smoking guns”, Noguchi does a masterful job of explaining the forensic approach and how mysteries are sometimes simpler than they appear.

The book opens with the case of Natalie Wood (1938-1981) who drowned while on a pleasure boat with film stars Christopher Walken and Robert Wagner.  The circumstances surrounding Wood’s death have given rise to numerous theories including murder.  But Noguchi is not prone to conspiracy theories and searches for the facts.  He does give his opinion for her death and the explanation is certainly plausible.  However, his position caused a stir at the time and even today the official explanation for her death is viewed by some with skepticism.   As I read through his account of the process to determine how she died, I took notice of his approach which is as detailed as one could ask for.  Wood’s tragic death remains one of Hollywood’s darkest moments, but Noguchi is not done. In fact, the book becomes even more fascinating as the cases keep coming in.

In between discussing each high-profile case, Noguchi recalls his personal life starting with his father’s career as a physician and Noguchi’s decisions to leave Japan for the United States.  His journey exemplifies the saying by President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) that America is “a nation of immigrants”. As a Japanese immigrant there were hurdles to be faced but Noguchi was determined and eventually landed a position with the County of Los Angeles.  But he could not have known that he would find himself the center of attention despite the deaths of major stars.  But it is the nature of the beast in the City of Angels.  His skill and fame would catapult him into in the public spotlight and give others reason to engineer his downfall.  Noguchi’s fight to remain in his position is also discussed and it is unbelievable to learn just how far some were willing to go to remove him from his post.

As we move on from Natalie Wood, Noguchi shifts his focus to the life and death of Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962).  To this day, questions surrounding her death persist and the official cause of suicide is often disputed.  But was there a sinister plot to murder Monroe? Noguchi takes on the case and explores all possibilities and what he discovered does answer some questions regarding her death.  But for those who are searching for a conspiracy, his words may not prove to be persuasive.  To be fair, Noguchi does acknowledge that initially some aspects of the scene did not make  sense and raised more questions.  However, after considering the evidence before him, he makes his final analysis and if there is more to what happened that night, the truth may be lost to history.   Readers interested in Monroe’s story might enjoy Donald Wolfe’s The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe which I believe will satisfy the curiosity of most.

Of all the cases in the book, perhaps none is as high profile as that of Robert F. Kennedy.  His assassination on June 5, 1968, sent shockwaves through the world and we will never know if he would have become president. After learning of Kennedy’s shooting, Noguchi steadies himself to conduct an autopsy that would prove to be the most controversial of his career. And the reason why is sure to have some readers scratching their heads.  Thoughts of “not another Dallas” reverberated throughout America as investigator pieced together the Senator’s final moments in the pantry area of the now demolished Ambassador Hotel.  The question that has haunted many is did Sirhan act alone? There is reason to believe that he did but there is also reason to believe that he did not. The coroner is on the job and the facts are laid out for all to see.   Noguchi is not a conspiracy theorist but what he finds combined with the testimony of witnesses at the scene does give rise to more disturbing questions about Kennedy’s murder.  However, the focus here is on the forensics and Noguchi delivers the goods.

After concluding the discussion on Kennedy, the book moves into darker territory with the murders of actress Sharon Tate (1943-1969) and several friends by followers of Charles M. Manson (1934-2017).  This is by far the most graphic part of the book and the descriptions of the victims may be a bit much for some readers.  Discretion is advised.  As the lead coroner, Noguchi was responsible for examining the victims and putting together the puzzle of what happened that night.  His account is haunting, and I cannot imagine the scene waiting for police officers as they arrived at 10050 Cielo Drive.  It must have been disturbing enough for many of them to wonder how one human being could do these things to another.  Manson and his followers were eventually tried and convicted. Their heinous crimes at the Tate residence and the LaBianca home remain some of the most macabre crimes in American history.  Noguchi explains how he was able to uncover which weapons were used and show the full savagery of the crime from the wounds alone.   I think it is safe to say that forensic science is an invaluable tool.

The author is still far from done after the Manson family crime spree and moves on to other cases such as that of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army (“SLA”) and the deaths of stars Janis Joplin (1943-1970), John Belushi (1949-1982) and William Holden (1918-1981).  All of the cases are gripping but the Hearst file is surreal.  Noguchi’s recollections of the final standoff and its aftermath feel as if they are straight out of Hollywood but they did happen in real life. And with regards to Belushi’s final moments, Noguchi performs what could only be called a one man show as he leaves officers shocked to discover that their original assumptions about the actor’s death were wrong.  But as Noguchi puts it himself:

“It is a system of observation at the scene which I’ve tried to teach young investigators over the years. Don’t worry about the body; the body will stay there. (If it gets up, that’s another story.) First, examine the room in a systematic, preplanned way, beginning with the ceiling. Clues may be up there: bullet holes, bloodstains, chipped plaster.” 

The book was completed in 1983 and Noguchi has been retired for many years.  At the age of 94, he is still going strong and carries with him a wealth of knowledge about forensic science.  Here he takes us behind the scenes allowing us to witness a master technician at work as he reveals what really killed some of the biggest names in history.

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B00L5M8U68

Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation – Robert W. Fieseler

36236137._UY630_SR1200,630_When I saw the cover of this book, I had to stop for a second to see if I could pull up something from my memory about the Up Stairs Lounge.  Satisfied that I had no prior knowledge of the incident described, I decided to buy the book and learn something new.  On June 24, 1973, the people of New Orleans awoke to a typically early summer day.  But by the time the sun set that day, the entire city was on edge and the patrons of the Up Stairs Lounge, an LGTB friendly establishment, found themselves in hell on earth.  Sometime that afternoon, an arsonist intentionally set fire to the building and within minutes, patrons were engulfed by flames and smoke.  The deliberate act claimed more than thirty lives with some victims perishing in grisly manners at the scene. Others met their ends while admitted to the hospital and the survivors were forced to confront mental and physical scars from one the deadliest days in New Orleans history.  And the Metropolitan Community Church, which was friendly to the LGBT community, lost one-third of its membership.   Author Robert W. Fieseler revisits that dark day in which the LGBT community New Orleans changed forever. 

I initially had the thought that there was an antagonist with bias against the LGBT community. Surprisingly, that is not the case and the true story behind the act of arson will leave readers speechless.  After a biographical sketch of the central characters in the story, we arrived at the lounge on afternoon of June 24th.   The mood inside the lounge is typical but a chance encounter between two patrons sets in motion a chain of events that no one wanted, or thought would ever happen.  And the lounge’s reputation as a hangout for LBGT individuals later played a crucial role in the investigation that followed.  The attitudes towards the LGBT community and the crusaders against lifestyles they deemed “unworthy” served as impediments to an investigation that would have been handled differently if the patrons had different sexual preferences.  Further, it may be shocking to some that even in the party City of New Orleans, there was a time when being LGBT was extremely dangerous.   The author pays close attention to these factors as he tells the tragic tale about an incident that should have never taken place. 

A sub-story in the book exist in the form of a good discussion regarding New Orleans social attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s.  At the time, New Orleans was home to a wide range of characters and one had his life changed permanently due to the actions of former New Orleans District Attorney James C. Garrison (1921-1992).  During his investigation into the murder of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Garrison and focused on several well-known New Orleanians whom he believed were deeply involved in the plot to murder the president. Among these figures was businessman Clay Shaw (1913-1974) who plays a vital role in the story and is also one of its tragic figures even though he was not at the lounge.  Shaw’s homosexuality is critical to the story and shows the risks associated with coming out of the closet.   Fieseler does not go into the Garrison investigation in full detail but does show enough to explain the flaws in it.  And while Shaw did admit to doing domestic work for the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”),  he was never convicted by any court for being part of a conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy.  

Shaw’s experience reveals another factor in the flawed investigation that followed.   Patrons who either left before the fire, escaped with injuries, or walked away unharmed sometimes had a hard decision to make as authorities searched for the truth.  The choice was not as easy as some may think and came down to a simple dilemma:  help authorities and let it be known that you frequent the lounge or remain quiet and protect your secret life.   Each person placed in this position struggles with their actions and decisions which compounds the tragedy playing out.  Their lives were permanently changed yet some still could not bring themselves to face the reality before them.  And the emergence of anti-LGBT crusaders such as Anita Bryant only added fuel to an already burning fire.  The implications for the Up Stairs Lounge investigation became vividly clear to those who once called it home. 

I mentioned earlier that there was in fact an arsonist.  His story is equally tragic and leaves us with many “what if” questions.  But what is clear is that he was highly disturbed and struggling with his own life at the time of the incident and in the wake of the tragedy.  His name was not known to those outside of a small group of people at the lounge, but his actions were earth shattering and revealed many dark secrets that had been carefully hidden from public view.  Survivors of the Up Stairs Lounge fire were forced to move on in life but none will ever forget that day. They will recall with sadness an era in which simply being LGBT could result in death and legislation was in effect that made life for that community unbearable at times.  Society has come a long way, yet we still have further to travel.  The story of this tragedy by Robert Fieseler should remain with us as a reminder of the dark sides of human nature and the difficulties that come with being LGBT.  

ASIN : B076MD2285                                                                                                       

Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties – Richard N. Goodwin

GoodwinOn more than one occasion my father has commented that the 1960s was the scariest decade of his life.  The threat of Nuclear War, increasing tensions in Southeast Asia and the growing Civil Rights Movement captivated American society and the world.  During one conversation he turned and said to me “at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we didn’t know if we would live to see tomorrow or die in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union”.  The assassinations of several activists and politicians spread fear across the nation and to many, it seemed as if America was on the verge of total anarchy.  Richard N. Goodwin (1931-2018) worked in the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and helped draft some of the most memorable speeches given by the iconic figures.  In 1988 he completed this memoir which was re-published in 2014, of the decade he spent in politics with two presidents and two presidential candidates.  And the result is a spellbinding account of a critical time in American history during which the country underwent profound heartache and change.

Goodwin’s account is in part an autobiography in which he revisits his upbringing as part of a Jewish family in the City of Boston and State of Maryland.   His exposure to racism came early as anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in the Old-Line State.  In stark contrast to his comfortable existence in Boston, Maryland would help shape Goodwin’s views that would remain with him throughout his life.  Age and opportunity is on his side and he is blessed with the fortune of working for former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965).  The experience further sharpened Goodwin’s legal and writing skills which later became highly valued and sought after.   As 1960 approached, President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) focused on the remainder of his term and the upcoming election that would determine his successor.  All eyes were on the two candidates engaged in battle for the White House: John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).   The Vice-President at the time, Nixon,  represented all that Goodwin opposed and he had come to like and admire Kennedy who won the election with one of the slimmest margins in history.  The young Irish-Catholic president soon embarked on a mission to change America and usher in “the New Frontier”.   Goodwin became a clutch player and Kennedy’s point man on Latin American affairs.  Some readers will recall that it was Goodwin who met and conversed with famed revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna (1928-1967).  Excerpts of their discussion are transcribed, and the dialogue is interesting for it shows the missed opportunity by Washington to understand the Cuban point of view.   As the story progresses, the two develop a mutual respect and upon learning of Guevara’s death years later, the author laments:

“And I like to think that I would have done what little I could to prevent Guevara’s execution. We were both trapped in the contending forces of a world we had not made; passionate adversaries in the struggle to control the future. Yet I liked the man. He had humor and courage, intellectual gifts and an unmistakable tenderness of spirit. I understood that he also contained ruthlessness, self-defeating stubbornness, and a hatred strong enough to cripple the possibilities of practical action. It is the paradox of the revolutionary that such divergent feelings must coexist in the same man.” 

Cuba proved to be the biggest test of Kennedy’s career in 1961 and again in 1962.  Goodwin takes us behind the scenes to witness the key events from another angle and observe the inner workings of the administration as it grappled with one crisis after another.  His proximity to Kennedy allowed him to make some keen observations about the president and behind the cool public image was was another side to John F. Kennedy.  I can only say that Bobby was not the only Kennedy with a temper.  The actions and reactions by Kennedy shed light on the frustrations of running an administration that struggled to stay in cohesion.  After each debacle Kennedy did shuffle around his cabinet and had become wise to game being played by figures loyal to the establishment.  And Goodwin does not hold back regarding his issues with speechwriter Ted Sorenson (1928-2010).   However, there is no gossip here but only what Goodwin witnessed and knew for certain.  And it is because of this streamlined focus that the story moves forward as fluidly as it does.  Over time, the Kennedy Administration began to fire on all cylinders and the seasoned president began to tighten his grip over Washington.  But with every story about Kennedy’s time in office, there is always the elephant in the room and his trip to Dallas soon approaches.  Goodwin was not with Kennedy that day and can only revisit how he learned of the assassination and the events that took place later that day in Washington.  There is no smoking gun about the crime or conspiracy theories about what happened that day.  Kennedy’s death affected Goodwin deeply and he grieved with millions of Americans.  John F. Kennedy was dead but far from forgotten.  Although his time in office was short he had set into motion a chain of events.  Goodwin is far more eloquent than I and this statement explain’s Kennedy’s importance:

“John Kennedy was not the sixties. But he fueled the smoldering embers, and, for a brief while, was the exemplar who led others to discover their own strength and resurgent energy; their own passion, love, and capacity for hate.”

America had begun the process to give John Kennedy a proper send-off while adjusting to a new leader in the White House. In just a few years, Lyndon B. Johnson would change America in ways no one thought possible. Goodwin had left Washington but soon receives a call from Johnson himself who uses his trademark influence to coerce Goodwin into joining the team.  He accepts and begins to draft statements that Johnson would use to increase his popularity and push legislation through the Senate. The passage of the Civil Rights Bill was a monumental feat but like a master puppeteer, Johnson knew which strings to pull to accomplish the unthinkable.  On July 2, 1964, the bill became reality as Johnson signed it into law and a year later he signed the Voting Rights Act.  Further, he also begun to initiate programs that were part of his vision for American that he famously labeled the “Great Society”.  But a little country in Southeast Asia would change all of that and seal his fate in 1968.  Goodwin was a firsthand witness to the rise and fall of Johnson and sums up the tragic figure he becomes as follows:

“For in the single year of 1965 — exactly one hundred years after Appomattox — Lyndon Johnson reached the height of his leadership and set in motion the process of decline.” 

In 1954, the French military suffered a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and soon withdrew their forces from Indochina.  The staggering amount of U.S. financial aid was not enough to turn the tide against the North Vietnamese Army and the movement spearheaded by Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) known affectionately as “Uncle Ho”. Followin the Geneva Accords, the country was divided into a Communist North Vietnam and Democratic South Vietnam.  Washington continued to eye Hanoi with suspicion and tensions regrettably began to simmer.  Things came to a head in August 1964 as U.S. patrol ships traveling through the Gulf of Tonkin encountered North Vietnamese patrol boats. The events of August 2 and August 4 are still subject to examination, but Johnson used them as a pretext for Congressional approval to escalate the growing war in Vietnam.  Initially, public support is behind Johnson and the fear of the “Domino Theory” combined with misleading intelligence reports resulted in increasing numbers of U.S. troops arriving in Vietnam.  But as we see in the book, the truth about Vietnam could not be hidden forever and became increasingly clear and more disturbing as the war dragged on.  On an interesting note, there were many figures who strongly opposed the war, including Kennedy himself who was highly aware of the dangers of a war.  Goodwin revisits this earlier statement by Kennedy who was still senator at the time and several years away from the throne in Washington:

“No amount of American military assistance in Indochina,” said Senator John Kennedy in April of 1954, “can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.”

As 1965 progresses, Lyndon Johnson’s fall from grace begins to accelerate.  Goodwin recalls the series of events that transpire as Vietnam becomes a dark cloud over Washington and the Civil Rights Movement gains momentum.  Although the book is not a biography of Johnson, Goodwin captures the multiple sides of of him perfectly.  And what we see is man self-destructing one step at at time due to a war he cannot end and a country turning against him.  Paranoia soon takes hold and his final descent into madness begins.  Everyone becomes a suspect and unworthy of his confidence and trust. Goodwin would also become the target of his wrath and be accused of being one of those “Kennedy people”.  A sad reality is that throughout his presidency, Johnson struggled with Kennedy’s legacy and never ceased to believe that “they” were out to get him along with the “liberals”.  The revelations by Goodwin are simply mind-boggling and as I read the story, I believe that had Johnson not stepped down, it is possible that a commission might have been formed to study his behavior.  He was clearly losing touch with reality and perhaps the entrance of Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy (1925-1968) into the 1968 election saved Johnson from himself.

After departing from Johnson’s administration and publicly voicing opposition to the war, Goodwin became public enemy number in Johnson’s eyes.  The continuing war and domestic turmoil became too much for Goodwin to accept and he begins to work for presidential candidate and Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005) who sought to capture the Democratic nomination for president.  Upon his arrival at the McCarthy campaign headquarters, he soon finds that there is much work to be done. But Goodwin is a seasoned professional and soon helps to transform the campaign into a well-oiled machine. However, the looming threat of a Kennedy campaign is never far away and after the New Hampshire primary, Bobby formally announces his candidacy.  Goodwin is now placed in a difficult position and must make a decision between McCarthy and Kennedy, with whom he had become remarkably close friends. The saga and its aftermath are thoroughly explained by the author whose observations about politics are some of the sharpest I have ever seen.  And Goodwin was correct in his belief that McCarthy was a great candidate, but Bobby was presidential.  As Kenedy’s campaign kicks off, the author witnesses a transformation of the Senator from New York.  Bobby was reinventing himself and challenging any notion that he was not fit for president. In one gripping scene, Goodwin recalls this experience that shows the passion for America that served as the basis for Kennedy’s actions:

“Kennedy asked, “How many of you left school or good jobs to work in the McCarthy campaign?” Almost every hand went up. “How many of you are going to stick with it to the end, even if it goes all the way to November?” Again, nearly all the hands were raised. “I know some of you might not like me,” Kennedy continued, “think I just jumped in to take your victory away. Well, that’s not quite the way I see it. But it doesn’t matter what you think of me. I want you to know that you make me proud to be an American. You’ve done a wonderful thing. I’m only sorry we couldn’t have done it together.” With that Kennedy got up to leave, and, as we began to start down the street, he turned and waved. Every person on the steps waved back.” 

Readers who are interested in Kenney’s campaign will thoroughly enjoy David Halberstam’s (1937-2007) The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy which shows the incredible change in the candidate as the race for Washington heated up.  Like Jack Kennedy, we know that Bobby’s tragic destiny awaits, and I steeled myself as it approached.  Kennedy is riding the wave of popularity and arrives in Los Angeles determined to win California.  He won the state but was shot and mortally wounded after his acceptance speech. Doctors performed emergency surgery but the wounds to Kennedy had proved to be too devastating and ruled out any chance of survival. Goodwin goes in to see his friend for the last time and his description of Kennedy’s final moments in the hospital bring the story to a melancholy conclusion.

When I finally put the book down, I felt as if I had just taken a ride for the ages.  This is an incredible story about pivotal moments in America’s story that continue to play themselves out.  Many years have passed since Robert and John Kennedy were murdered but their messages and the issues they fought for and against are still with us. However, the past is always prologue and I do believe America can and will make great strides.  Goodwin was also a believer in America and in looking back at that decade of the 1960s, he provides the following quote that confirms his optimism:

“We cannot, of course, go back to the sixties. Nor should we try. The world is different now. Yet, two decades have passed since that infinitely horrifying day in Los Angeles which closes this book. And a new generation is emerging. They can pick up the discarded instruments and resume the great experiment which is America. There is no question of capacity, only of will.”  – Richard N. Goodwin 

ASIN : B00L8FBEWO