Monday, November 19, 2012

15 Big Takeaways From The Election Of The Century (Okay, So Far Anyway)

Republicans need to stop, take a deep breath and learn.
Nearly two weeks after the most important presidential election since 1932, my big takeaway is that Barack Obama's re-election was even more historic than his victory in 2008.  That is, despite continuing economic ills and a Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan campaign deft at tailoring its message to what audiences wanted to hear -- whether fat cats at closed-door fundraisers or on the stump in the heartland -- the coalition that elected the first African-American president not only did not fray but it grew, handing the incumbent an unlikely but well-deserved victory.

Other takeaways:

* Despite all the high- and low-tech tools, as well as a mind-boggling $1.2 billion at their disposal, Romney-Ryan ran a Campaign of Magical Thinking that was a study of what happens when people live and think in a bubble.  It wasn't until about 10 p.m. on election night when Pennsylvania fell to Obama and Ohio became out of reach, that it began to dawn on the candidates and their yes-man advisers that it takes more than fairy dust to persuade a majority of voters -- let alone a majority of voters in swing states -- to believe you are of presidential caliber.
* Romney never could seal the deal primarily because he was unable to articulate an economic message that went beyond lower taxes and the hair-brained notion that he could create 12 million jobs with the snap of a finger.  This is because he didn't give a crap about people and was terrible at attempting to show that he did.  While voters were disappointed about the slow economic recovery, many understood it was the Bush administration that had caused the recession.
* Despite Citizens United, national elections still are not for sale. At least not yet.  PACs and Super PACs spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads to attack Obama.  Republican wrestling magnate Linda McMahon spent $100 million of her own money while her campaign distributed door hangers urging Connecticut votes to support she and Obama. McMahon and most Republicans bankrolled by wealthy donors were rejected, while Romney spent $6.35 per vote and Obama only $1.83.
* The Republican Party will not win another national election until it alters its extremist message.  Minorities have accounted for 85 percent of the U.S.'s population growth over the past decade, with the Democratic Party reaping an overwhelming majority of newly-registered blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans. Republicans will not be able to turn their party around by merely pandering on immigration, although they certainly will try.
* A post-racial America seems to be, if anything, further away than it did after Obama's 2008 victory.  The depiction of him as not being American -- and alternatively Kenyan, Indonesian and Muslim -- and therefore ineligible to be president, was not just the view of the lunatic fringe but a sizable minority of Republicans, while the fact remains that beyond Obama only two other blacks have been elected to the Senate since Reconstruction.

* Virtually every voter ID law enacted in states where Republicans held sway was overturned or held in abeyance until after the election, but efforts to disenfranchise minority voters through baseless allegations of fraud and corruption continued through Election Day in some states where poll workers made it more difficult for minorities to vote.  Overall, suppression efforts were at their greatest since Jim Crow laws were abolished in the late 1950s into the 1960s.
* The president fully leveraged the advantages of incumbency.  Like George W. Bush in 2004, his campaign team had the benefit of having run a national campaign and faced no primary challenges.  Obama had the most sophisticated GOTV organization in electoral history while Romney had a jalopy of an organization. 
* Obama benefited from an October Surprise -- Superstorm Sandy -- that enabled him to be presidential, lip lock with Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and get New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's endorsement while Romney fumed on the sidelines.
* What happened on the fourth Wednesday of June had repercussions on what happened on the first Tuesday of November.  Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts' deciding vote in upholding the Affordable Care Act did not remove it as a campaign issue, but the high court's validation of health-care reform left Romney with little other than repeatedly saying that he would repeal it on his first day in office.

* Fact checkers came into their own.  They found many of Romney's statements to be demonstrably false as well as a few of Obama's, but this did not prevent the Republican candidate from lying with relatively impunity because a cowardly mainstream media more or less
looked the other way as he simultaneously held opposing positions on issues ranging from abortion to Medicare to education to defense policy. 

* Democrats have surrendered the intellectual high ground over decades of Republican opposition to government intervention in personal, social and economic affairs.  The result is that with the exception of the Affordable Care Act, Democrats have stopped thinking big and Obama has shied away from major initiatives such as public works projects and immigration reform.
* Although that opposition has been no better personified than after the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, a vast majority of voters -- as many as 80 percent in exit polls -- have had it with hard-nosed politics, particularly the refusal to compromise, although that lesson remains unlearned by the Republican leadership post-election because the obstructionist Tea Party remains the tail that wags the GOP dog.
* Unbelievably, some Republicans are proclaiming that hanging onto the House despite falling further behind in the Senate and failing to retake the White House is nevertheless a mandate to continue pushing its tired agenda. After all, the popular vote was close.
* Despite a gracious concession speech, Romney continues to gripe that Obama won because he gave "gifts" to minorities and young voters, which is code for his 47 Percenters.  This must have entailed quite an effort since Obama got more electoral votes than any winner since George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988.  
* At the end of the day -- in this case, Election Day -- Obama made the better argument that he would make voters' lives better.  Nothing else mattered as much.

Monday, November 12, 2012

If Demographics Is Destiny, The GOP Is Screwed Unless It Is Willing To Change

The Republican Party as it exists today in all its extremist glory will never win another presidential election. 
If that reality is to change -- and it must change, Democratic schadenfreude aside, because there must be a viable two-party system -- then the GOP's long slog back toward the political mainstream should begin by partnering with President Obama to prevent the country from going off the so-called budget cliff.  This should be followed by a coup d'etat by party moderates against the Tea Partiers to whom the party is in thrall.  Alas, I have little expectation that either will happen because it just isn't in the party's DNA, which means that Republicans will wander ever deeper into the electoral wilderness. 
Beyond African-Americans, President Obama's victory last week was greased by winning over Hispanic and Asian-American voters in huge numbers, as well as a majority of women and voters under 30.   This formidable coalition enabled him to win several swing states, which is to say the election. 
The president won just 39 percent of the white vote and just 44 percent of the vote of people 65 and older, but he won 93 percent of the black vote (representing 13 percent of the electorate), 71 percent of the Latino vote (10 percent), 73 percent of the Asian-American vote (3 percent), and 60 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 (19 percent). 
Minorities have accounted for 85 percent of the U.S.'s population growth over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making us truly a rainbow nation, and changes in the makeup of the electorate have come with lightning speed. Republicans have not won as many electoral votes as Obama did since George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988.  Translation: The GOP's Southern strategy of appealing to white voters had been failing for years but has now hit the wall. 
Party leaders can't be surprised that Mitt Romney tanked with Latinos.  They took a calculated risk to draw in more conservatives and that backfired badly. 

"For the first time in U.S. history, the Latino vote can plausibly claim to be nationally decisive," said Stanford University university professor Gary Segura.
Republicans were repeatedly warned by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and others that taking a hard line on immigration was a dangerous tactic.  Yet for four decades the GOP has pursued a strategy of attracting huge majorities of white male voters and winning just enough other voters to carry the day. George W. Bush and John McCain were attacked for making overtures to immigrants that might antagonize the party's base, while Romney, as was his wont, was on several sides of the issue.
"Before, we thought it was an important issue, improving demographically," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "Now, we know it’s an essential issue. You have to ignore reality not to deal with this issue." 
Cardenas, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said his party would never earn Latino support until it found a new way to address illegal immigration.
"We need to check off that box; we need to get immigration reform done in 2013," he said.  "We need to show that Republicans are willing to sit at the table and reach a compromise that is in keeping with what the Hispanic community wants and needs." 
Yet some Republican leaders and the party's punditocracy are minimizing their Latino problem because, after all, the popular vote was close. 
As the reliably vile Bill O'Reilly opined on Fox News, "It’s a changing country, the demographics are changing.  It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama."
That not only is false, it ignores a super-sized reality:  Women make up 53 percent of the electorate. Many are coveted independents and view the GOP as deeply unfriendly to them, the result of which is that Obama beat Romney by a 55 to 44 percentage point margin among women.
In Indiana and Missouri, where woman voters tend to be conservative, Republicans lost sure-thing Senate contests because of their male candidates' deeply distorted views of rape even as many of those voters went for Romney, who carried both states. 
In Wisconsin, a majority of women went for a liberal lesbian for Senate over a male former governor.  In Connecticut, they went for a male Democrat for Senate over a conservative woman, and in Massachusetts they went for a woman Democrat for Senate over an incumbent male Republican.  All three Democrats won.
"We have a significant problem with female voters," acknowledged John Weaver, a senior Republican strategist. Unsympathetic comments about rape by Todd Akin in Indiana and Richard Mourdock in Indiana "did not seem foreign to our party," Weaver said. "They seemed representative of our party." 
That perception was fueled by the focus on social issues affecting women by many congressional Republicans, including opposition to abortion and to contraception, which is not just counter intuitive but profoundly stupid.

House Republicans entered the election with just 24 congresswomen, but that number will fall to 21 or 20.  There were 52 congresswomen among House Democrats, and that number will rise to 61 in the next Congress.

While one Republican woman will join the Senate in January, Democrats will add four women. There are currently 17 women in the Senate and only three of them are Republicans. One is retiring.
Meanwhile, opposition to another demographic -- gays and lesbians and the issue of same-sex marriage -- has long been a favorite wedge issue for so-called family values Republicans but now merely highlights their bigotry.  This is because a growing majority of voters don't give a fig about someone's sexual orientation.

The GOP must shed its ideological cocoon to survive, let alone grow beyond being a party of angry white men and dutiful wives that has relatively little clout outside the South. 
And it must understand that policy positions that may seem favorable to minorities are not enough.  It is also about respecting people no matter their skin color or gender, something that Obama emphasized over and over again in his stirring Election Night victory speech.  That means ditching the self-righteous demagogy and calling out Republicans who can't help themselves.
"If demographics is destiny," wrote columnist Renée Loth in The Boston Globe, "the Republican Party has a rendezvous with irrelevance — unless its policies change."

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? The Story Of The Historic Romney-Ryan Collapse

Mitt Romney had not exactly been in free fall in the days after the Republican National Convention in August.  Yet he not only didn't get an appreciable bounce from his prime time moment, President Obama came out of his own convention with the edge and never looked back as the Romney campaign's shameless shape shifting, as well as damaging gaffes exposing the candidate's true nature, sent waves of panic through a GOP hierarchy that lurched from smugness to concern to horror as Election Day approached. 

The campaign's serial dysfunction, broken only briefly in the days after Romney's prevarication-filled star turn in the first presidential debate, was to continue through to a narrow popular vote victory and an Electoral College rout yesterday by Obama, who few pundits thought had a serious chance of being reelected as 2011 begat 2012 and the recovery from the Bush Recession inched along at a snail's pace with unemployment remaining high.  Obama's victory is a stinging rebuke to Romney, running mate Paul Ryan and the ideological cesspool that the Republican Party has become.
Romney's custom-tailored shirttails turned out to be so short that the Republicans lost Senate seats that once were theirs for the keeping, sealing continued Democratic control of the Senate, while the Republican margin in the House remained pretty much unchanged.
One need look no further than September 11, not coincidentally the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the homeland by an Al Qaeda that Obama has substantially neutered, to pinpoint the day that the last wheel came off the Romney bandwagon. It soon became obvious that the candidate and his nannies didn't have a clue as to how to get the wheels back on.  They resorted to a strategy of throwing everything against the wall in the hope that something would stick.  Something did: A cosmetic makeover that positioned Romney as a bleeding-heart moderate, but that was not enough.

The reason was perversely simple: The campaign to take back America was built on a foundation of cynicism, lies, doubletalk and artifice of Orwellian proportions, while no presidential candidate in the modern era ever has had to put so much energy into getting his own party to accept him.  Long story short, the Republican hierarchy did accept Romney but only while holding their collective noses, and as the results came in last night, some party bigs were openly disparaging him for what they saw as his blowing a sure thing.
It did not help that Romney, like the Presidents Bush before him, wanted to gut the Federal Emergency Management Agency and has called federal disaster relief "immoral." 
Obama, like President Clinton before him, had revived FEMA, which was able to respond to Superstorm Sandy quickly and for the most part effectively in stark contrast to George Bush's belated and botched response to Hurricane Katrina.  Polls showed overwhelming support for Obama's take-charge attitude and his view that government should provide aid in times of crisis, while storm victims in New York and New Jersey went to extraordinary lengths to vote and did so in surprisingly large numbers.
* * * * *
September 11 was the day, as one pundit aptly put it, that Romney broke our deal. And in retrospect was destined to lose the most important presidential election since 1932.
Some 5,000 miles away, mobs had attacked American embassies in Egypt and Yemen and a consulate in Libya in an outpouring of manufactured rage over a video titled Innocence of Muslims made by a shady California felon with right-wing backers that depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a drunken torturer of women and children. Before the tear gas had dissipated, the young American ambassador to the nascent Libyan democracy and three other diplomats were dead.
Following the protocol for such times of international crisis, politicians of every stripe rallied around the commander in chief.  Except for Romney, who in an extraordinarily fact-free rush to judgment denounced Obama as being "disgraceful" because of a mild statement from the Cairo embassy issued before the attacks concerning the importance of respecting other people's religions.  That is something that Tea Party jihadists and perhaps Romney himself do not.
Romney defended his hissy fit in subsequent days as the largest of all the holes he had dug for himself became deeper -- yes, even deeper than the 47 Percent of Americans Are Moochers hole.  Dissing Olympic organizers on a trip to London and Palestinians on a trip to Israel were one thing, but on September 11 Romney revealed himself to be a dullard and a hothead, not exactly traits that Americans look for in a would-be president.
* * * * *
Undecided voters in swing states were paying attention.  

A few days after the September 11 debacle, the Romney campaign pulled all its advertising in Pennsylvania and Michigan, which had been two must-win states, and Obama widened his lead in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, the three other Romney must-wins.  Then Obama went ahead in Iowa and Wisconsin, Ryan's home state, both once thought to be safe havens for the Republican ticket.

The news out of Ohio was especially grim because no Republican had ever been elected president without carrying the Buckeye State, as well as another sobering factoid: The candidate leading two weeks after the in-party's convention had gone on to win the Ohio popular vote in every presidential election since President Truman's come-from-behind victory in 1948, and while Obama's lead in polls there was never substantial, he never ceded it.

Except for that fleeting first debate bump in which some GOP undecideds who had voted for John McCain in 2008 moved into the Romney column and a "surge" more spin than real that was deftly marketed by Romney's handlers to a news media anxious for a close race, it was pretty much all downhill.  What had been orchestrated to be a cakewalk became a slow motion collapse.

Here's why that happened:
* Romney was the default standard bearer for a Republican Party whose standards have become appallingly low.  In the course of a brutal primary season, Romney eventually outspent and outlasted Newt Gingrich, who had demanded an open three-way relationship with a mistress who is his current wife; Rick Perry, who made a fool of himself whenever he talked about practically anything; Herman Cain, who had a zipper problem; the crackpot known as Rick Santorum, and the lunatic known as Michele Bachmann, among other wannabes.
* If a political campaign is a war of ideas, Romney was uncourageous and fled from them while Obama, as has always been his wont, talked large and used the power of his incumbency to full advantage.  Romney made no bold pledges -- his 12 million new jobs mantra was a mathematically impossible subterfuge -- while his efforts to focus on the struggles of a middle class being bled out because of the Bush Recession and the widening gulf between the 1 Percenters and everyone else were ungenuine as the 47 Percent video confirmed.
* Romney's greatest perceived advantage was his business experience, but he was unable to get out from under the reality that he destroyed jobs as CEO of Bain Capital in the service of becoming filthy rich.  For most of the campaign, his "plan" to fix the economy was predicated on the gauzy notion that the economy itself would defeat Obama, and it may well have absent slow but steady growth in employment. 
* When pressed to be specific about how he would engineer an economic recovery, Romney trotted out the tired GOP mantra that prosperity is predicated on lower taxes on the wealthy, whose largesse will magically trickle down to school custodians and fast food workers, as well as loosening the reins of regulation on financial markets and the environment.  When pressed further, he reached into his hat and pulled out those mythical 12 million jobs.
* Abolishing Medicare as it now exists, a centerpiece of Romney's domestic agenda, and replacing it with Ryan's voucher system was unpopular among elderly voters, as well as the Baby Boomers who represent a whopping 37 percent of the electorate.  Many fled en masse from the Republican ticket once they understood that the sickest and poorest of them would in effect be put on a raft and sent out to sea.
* Woman voters fled from Romney in droves before and after his "binders full of women" gaffe in the second debate.  The flub not only became a social network piñata, it confirmed that he was a male whose views about females were stuck in the 1950s.
* It appears that Romney's pledge to abolish the Affordable Care Act on his first day in office backfired.  While the plan remains deeply controversial, many voters already are taking advantage of improved access to affordable care, a prohibition on insurance companies denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, while young adult children can stay on their parents' insurance plans until age 26.
* Giving the finger to Hispanics and other immigrants made strategic sense in the service of coddling Tea Partiers, but this guaranteed Obama a sizable bloc of votes from the fastest growing segment of the electorate as well as accelerated the GOP's dog-whistling descent into an ever shrinking Southern-based party of angry white men and their dutiful wives.
* Taking the concept of the flip-flop places it had never been, Romney simultaneously held opposing positions on issues ranging from abortion to Medicare to education to defense policy.  He reserved more extreme positions for closed-door meetings with right-wing partisans and big-bucks donors and more centrist positions for public appearances and the debates, all the while lying through his ivories, most notably about what Obama would do to Medicare and the oft-repeated claim that Chrysler was moving Jeep production to China.
* Obama was off his game in the first debate, but so had been Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2004.  As it was, Romney never debated that night but did "perform," which gave the news media a story line it craved despite the candidate's lying legerdemain.  Obama not only bounced back in the second and third debates, he eviscerated Romney, and his third debate bounce turned out to be considerable because of Romney's weakness on foreign policy.
* He did not have a Bill Clinton to help energize his campaign.  The former president gave a powerful convention speech, then campaigned forcefully and effectively for Obama, while calling out of retirement the deeply unpopular George Bush was not an option for Romney. 
* First Lady Michelle Obama was a superb campaigner and did much to fire up the Democratic base.  First Lady wannabe Anne Romney was a tone-deaf whiner whose overweaning sense of privilege and disdain for public schools, among others institutions fundamental to American democracy, was evident.
* Republican efforts to suppress turnout through draconian voter registration laws failed in every swing state where the GOP was the predominant party as courts rejected the laws outright or held them in abeyance until after the election, but the party still continued to try to suppress the minority vote right up to Election Day in Ohio and Florida, among other states.
* Democrats were able to substantially neutralize Romney's reliance on the super PACs through which his friends and former colleagues poured millions of dollars into his campaign by drawing on their own deep-pocketed donors, typically trial lawyers, labor unions and Hollywood, all longtime sources of largesse for the party. Meanwhile, Obama shattered his own record for attracting small donors while few small donors gave to Romney.
* * * * *
Republicans, of course, are blaming everyone but themselves this morning for a disaster that Romney and the Tea Party own.  And isn't it precious that Romney, whose self righteousness and contempt for the electorate were barely disguised, did as well as he did by abandoning the "values" that greased the skids for his nomination by adopting new "values" that in some respects were little different from Obama's?
The excuses already being ginned up range from the improbable to the ludicrous: Hurricane Sandy, Obama's new best friend New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the liberal media, massive voter fraud, fact checkers and, of course, minorities seeking handouts.

Denial in politics is nothing new.  Democratic liberals fooled themselves through the first half of the 2000s, paying dearly in the first three elections of the decade.  But the GOP has become a party of amnesiacs that is bereft of ideas, let alone vision, beyond a generic meanness that has done substantial harm to the body politic and country as a whole. 
The party's leaders interpreted their 2010 successes as a mandate although they were no such thing.  They believed that focusing on defeating Obama was more important than being patriotic partners and rolling up their sleeves to help engineer an economic recovery, while refusing to support no-brainers like a fully funded bill to create a Veterans Job Corps that would give vets an inside track for first responder jobs, one of many important legislative initiatives they blocked in the service of Just Saying No.
They believed that an empty suit like Mitt Romney could smack down a very real suit like Barack Obama, who unlike Romney had he won, will continue to be a president for all Americans.  And as history will tell, a great one.

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Thursday, November 01, 2012

'Innocence' To 'Summer Moon': The Books That Have Most Influenced Me

The end of another new year and there are another batch of books under this bibliophile's belt.
Two years ago I published a list of the 30 books that have most influenced me, which I republish here with a few updates and deletions, and in doing so find that 30 has become 29.  No matter. All of these books are available through online retailers and for free through the Inter Library Loan service of which most larger public libraries are a member.

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE by Edith Wharton (1920) This beautifully told tale of a couple's impending marriage in the 1870s and the introduction of a scandal-plagued woman whose presence threatens their happiness questions the assumptions and morals of 1920s New York society.
THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET by Lawrence Durrell (1957-60). These four stunningly written and interlocking novels are set in Alexandria, Egypt between the first and second world wars. Written in experimental form, Durrell presents his narrative of love and love's labors lost from different viewpoints.
THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger (1951) This classic tale of teenage angst was the first of many books that would alter my world view. I bought a Signet paperback that I still have with money from my paper route at age 12 and read it through twice -- and several more times over the years.
CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller (1961) Reading this satire on the insanity of war was a rite of passage for my Vietnam era generation, but Heller's masterpiece of comic set pieces is timeless. "Catch-22" has entered the English language to signify a no-win situation and influenced Robert Altman's M*A*S*H.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866) I only recently got around to reading the classic story of Romanovich Raskolnikov, a dissolute former student who rationalizes killing a greedy pawnbroker as not just a way out of poverty but justifiable in the pursuit of the higher purpose of ridding the world of an evil person.

DEVICES AND DESIRES by P.D. James (1998) By my lights the best of James's 14 Adam Dalgleish murder mysteries and the author at her writerly heights. The book begins with the New Scotland Yard detective himself finding a body on a beach and then cascades into a series of interlocking plots and startling conclusion.

GOING AFTER CACCIATO by Tim O"Brien (1978) Like Heller, O'Brien brilliantly captures the absurdity of war in this tale of a private intent on walking 8,000 miles to the Paris peace talks deserting his post in Vietnam. This is hands down the best novel about Vietnam.

A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS by David Eggers (2001) I finally understand what all the buzz was about when this alternately hilarious and sad memoir was published. Eggers, a college senior, loses his parents to cancer in the space of five weeks and inherits his eight-year-old brother.

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969) Women's liberation and reevaluating gender roles were ascendant in the 1970s, and no book better captured these memes than this sensitively told story of an emissary to a planet where people are of no gender -- or both. Science fiction at its very best.

by J.R.R. Tolkein (1954-55) The beauty
of this trilogy, written by Tolkein for his grandchildren, is that it is great literature whether you read it simply for the epic story of Frodo Baggins and his trek through Middle Earth, or dwell on its religious, mythological and philological sub-themes.

THE MAGUS by John Fowles (1966) I only rarely read a book more than once, but I read this masterpiece of mystification and survival shortly after it was published and then again three years ago. Given my own intellectual growth, it was even better the second time around.

MATTERHORN: A NOVEL OF THE VIETNAM WAR by Karl Marlantes (2010). This list was already somewhat Vietnam and war book top-heavy and I didn't think I had the stomach for a 600-page account of a Marine Corps infantry company's struggles to take and retake a mountain, but I did and was hugely rewarded.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut (1969) This is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a former prisoner of war in a German POW camp who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens. A masterpiece of absurdity. 
SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW by Peter Hoeg and Tina Nunnelly (1995) As the title implies, Smilla knows everything there is to know about snow (and ice) and that leads her to a shattering series of murders and other crimes.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee (1960) Lee's only novel follows three years in the life of a backwater Mississippi town through the eyes of an eight-year-old, but is chockablock with big themes, including race, class and justice, as well as one of the best surprise endings in fiction.

AMERICAN PROMETHEUS: THE TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY OF J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (2005) Behind the scenes, the life of the brilliant physicist and mastermind of the Manhattan Project was devastatingly sad and the way that the U.S. and other governments exploited scientists and science irrevocably damaging.
BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM by James MacPherson (1988) If you can read only one book about the Civil War, this is it. MacPherson writes beautifully, but it is his deft weaving of the oft-told story of the war on the battlefield with the complex economic and social forces of the time that make it so special.
DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA by Alexis de Toucqueville (1835-40) This, of course, is the seminal reference work on the American democratic system, but it is the exploration of the economic sociology of the young republic that I found most fascinating.
THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST by Tom Wolfe (1968) This tale of Ken Kesey and his LSD-gobbling, revolution-fomenting Merry Pranksters is the ultimate Sixties book and a harbinger of what became known as New Journalism. It has one of the best openings paragraphs evah.
EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON: QUANAH PARKER AND THE FALL OF THE COMANCHES, THE MOST POWERFUL TRIBE IN AMERICAN HISTORY By S.C. Gwynne (2010) This is the amazing story of the improbable rise and eventual fall of the Comanche nation, focusing on the epic saga of the pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah, who became the last and greatest Comanche chief.

FIRE IN THE LAKE by Frances Fitzgerald (1972) Precious few studies of the Vietnam War were written as seen through Vietnamese eyes. Fitzgerald's analysis is a reminder of how the U.S. so tragically misinterpreted the people and misunderstood the conflict.

IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote (1966) This story of the brutal murders of a wealthy Kansas farmer, his wife and two of their children was a harbinger of the flood of true-crime books, television shows and movies that continues to this day. Capote is at his best in exploring the complex psychological relationship between the murderers.
THE ISLAND IN THE CENTER OF THE WORLD By Russell Shorto (2005) If you think that the history of Manhattan began when the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, think again. And read this marvelous account of why Dutch influence still imbues the island in unexpected ways.
THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY IN FOUR MEALS by Michael Pollan (2006) This book picks up where Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation left off as Pollan begins with a description of a McDonald's meal consumed by his family. He asks fundamental questions about the moral and ecological consequences of our food in this brilliantly written and witty wake-up call which, of course, has been widely ignored.
MALCOLM X: A LIFE OF REINVENTION By Manning Marable (2011) This book is an overdue corrective to Alex Haley's bestselling bio, and while laudatory of the great civil rights leader in some respects it portrays him as a serial embellisher.

THE SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM by T.E. Lawrence (1922) I had read a popular abridged version of "Lawrence of Arabia," but finally read the original, which is about a third longer and twice as good. Lawrence's penetrating observations about the Arab world and British imperialism during World War I are just a pertinent today in Iraq.
STORMING HEAVEN: LSD AND THE AMERICAN DREAM by Jay Stevens (1998) Although not the best written of books, this history of LSD is invaluable. Most accounts give the usual suspects too much credit, while none focus on a strange and wonderful bird by the name of Al Hubbard, who is said to have given LSD to 6,000 people in the belief that the drug could change the world.
UP IN THE OLD HOTEL by Joseph Mitchell (1992) A sort of counterpoint to The Age of Innocence, this legendary New Yorker writer lovingly chronicled the lives of odd New York characters, including greasy spoon cooks, oystermen, gofers, bag ladies and Gypsies, all struggling to survive during the middle decades of the 20th century.
THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: THE EPIC STORY OF AMERICA'S GREAT MIGRATION by Isabelle Wilkerson (2010) As migrations go, it dwarfed the California Gold Rush of the 1850s and the Dust Bowl migration in the 1930s. But somewhat perversely, the Great Migration of six million blacks from the South was so immense that it has escaped the notice of most historians. That imbalance has finally been corrected with this magisterial book.
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