A Review Of The Bush Presidency


Defining a president’s legacy is a difficult task. There are two reasons for this.

First, the economic and political repercussions of a president’s decisions are rarely evident during his or her tenure. Second, a president’s legacy is often the product of a collective of decision makers around him. Their decisions on what to leave out or include in their briefings to a leader plays an important role in his or her decision.

That is why most presidents have a mixed record on policy decisions. Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. In hindsight, that action seems like a terrible mistake and sets him on the wrong side of history. Yet, he was also responsible for some of the most economically prosperous years in America’s history. Similarly, President Obama navigated America out of a perilous recession. At the same time, his record is tarnished by charges of race-baiting and a less-than-stellar record on ending human rights abuses. Personal foibles, such as Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes or Obama’s nice guy demeanor (that is ill-suited to the rough and tumble of Washington politics), have made these leaders approachable.

It is hard to find a similarly redemptive account of the Bush presidency.

He took over from Clinton at a time when America was peaceful and prosperous. By the end of his tenure, the nation’s record read like a roll-call of natural and man made disasters. In 2009, America was involved in two wars of its own making abroad. It had suffered an enormous natural disaster at home and was wracked by a financial crisis, the likes of which it had not witnessed since the Great Depression.

Bush’s tenure also set the tone for much of the political discourse and debate occurring across the world today. His binary worldview of “us versus them” and “good versus evil” birthed and fanned the flames of Islamophobia. “Personal diplomacy” won Bush friends like Tony Blair (who, incidentally, has been excoriated similarly by the British media). But they also ended up alienating the country across the globe. America’s moral standing took a precipitous hit abroad in no small part due to Bush’s “Texas swagger” on the world stage.

That swagger itself has become the butt of jokes. A cursory search for Bush Jr. on Youtube yields a slew of videos which catalog his gaffes and are littered with derisive comments about his intellectual capabilities. For a long time, George Bush’s website was the top result in response to a Google search for “a miserable failure.” If one were to judge Bush purely on the basis of public comments, the overwhelming portrait is that of a man who was unfit for Presidency.

And, yet, it did not seem that way in 2000, when Bush became president for the first time.

Bush may have lacked the professorial gravitas of Obama or Clinton’s charm but he was a man who “got things done.” (These were words that Bush used to describe himself).

He came to the President’s office as a “compassionate conservative.” He was (and continues to be) empathetic to the plight of immigrants and (continues to) advocated for immigration reform. This image of a compassionate conservatism also won him 90% of the Muslim vote during the 2000 election. While campaigning at the stump, he said “we don’t believe in discrimination against anybody.”

So what happened during his years in presidency to change his stance? I read two books – Jean Edward Smith’s Bush and Bush’s own description of his years in office Decision Points – to find out the answer.

Smith, who had earlier written a critically acclaimed biography of Dwight Eisenhower, does not pull any punches in “Bush.” “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush,” he writes in the book’s first sentence. There is a theory that Bush was influenced by the war hawks surrounding him. Notably, this list included vice president Dick Cheney, who had earlier served under Bush Sr. and advocated for an invasion of Iraq back then, and Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s Defense Secretary.

But Smith makes short work of this theory in the preface. He writes that Bush was the “decider,” (Again, to use a word that Bush used to describe himself).

Smith’s main charge against Bush is that he “personalized” the presidency by surrounding himself with acolytes. Unlike past presidents, he showed an unwillingness to confer and counsel with people who were opposed to his worldview. Condoleezza Rice, who served as Secretary of State under him, was referred to as an “accelerator” because she reinforced his impulses by simplifying complexity to make it digestible to Bush. This practice led to his being trapped in a bubble of his own making and ended up with disastrous consequences for the country and the world at large.

George W. Bush does himself no favors in his presidency memoir “Decision Points.” It is an exercise in blame-shifting and a book of short sentences and equally short explanations. While it does not provide a comprehensive explanation of Bush’s motives, it’s main utility lies in providing us with a glimpse (and, by that, I mean just a glimpse since Bush is famous for his aversion to “absurd psychobabble”) into the man’s thinking.

First, the Basics

George Walker Bush was born on 6 July, 1946 in New Haven, Connecticut to George Prescott Bush and Barbara Bush. Bush Sr. had just returned from World War II duty and was enrolled at Yale University. Although he was born in Connecticut, Bush Jr. was very much a Texas kid. He grew up in Midland, Texas in an “imposing custom-built three thousand square foot home with the first residential swimming pool in the city.” After completing the initial part of his schooling in Texas, Bush Jr. followed family tradition and completed his schooling at the prestigious Andover Academy in Massachusetts and college at Yale. He also completed an MBA at Harvard Business School. At all three places, Bush was an unexceptional student academically and was popular with fellow students.

According to Smith, Bush’s experience at Yale led him to disdain “intellectual snobbery,” a trait that he carried over to the White House. At B-school, his classmates considered him a clown because he was “exceptionally opinionated” and “dynamically ignorant.” Bush left Harvard with 53 job interviews but was rejected in every single one of them.
He moved back to Midland and started an oil prospecting firm, which was acquired by another company and went public in the early 1980s. Eventually, it was absorbed into Harken Oil & Gas Exploration. During this period, Bush met and married Laura Bush, a fellow Texan from Midland, who became a calming presence in his life, and fathered twin daughters.
After years of hard partying, he also became sober. His moment of epiphany occurred after a raucous 40th birthday celebration during which he and his friends took over an entire restaurant. He’d already been thinking about quitting alcohol after conversations with evangelical preacher Rev. Billy Graham. The hangover after his 40th birthday provided him with the necessary impetus and he resolved never to touch a drop of drink again.

About these years, Smith says that Bush was a child of privilege and that he benefitted from this position in society at each turn. For example, he got into the National Guard even though it had a waiting list of over 100,000 men. According to a later testimony by Thomas Bishop, who was overall Commander of the National Guard at that time, a place was found for Bush in spite of there being “no vacancies in the Texas Guard.”

Smith also writes that the list of investors for Bush’s first company – Arbusto – “reads like the roster of George H.W. Bush’s A team of campaign contributors,” Harken Oil & Gas exploration, the company which eventually absorbed Arbusto, liked to attach itself to “stars.” With a father who was Vice President at that time, Bush Jr. was more than a star.

In 1993, Bush defeated incumbent Ann Richards to become the governor of Texas. His record as governor was impressive and included securing bipartisan support for a complete overhaul of the Texas educational system (the first such overhaul in 50 years), and welfare and tort reform. That the demands of his job were not excessive helped matters.

“The governorship is all hat and no cattle, as a Texan would say. George W. Bush thrived in that setting,” writes Smith. He even details Bush’s schedule: arrive at the office at 8 am, go for a three to five mile at 11:40 am, return after lunch at 1:30 pm, play computer solitaire or video golf till 3 pm, when the workday ended.

The Presidency And 9/11
Smith spends a chapter exclusively outlining details of that night and how Bush won the election against a stiff Al Gore. Despite the drama surrounding his election, Bush came to the presidency with vigor and spent the first couple of months in office pushing the No Child Left Behind act.

And then 9/11 happened.

On that day, as has been recounted several times, Bush was in Florida at a school reading. The sequence of events that occurred after the reading can be said to have shaped Bush’s thinking and strategy regarding the war on terror. In “Decision Points,” Bush refers to these events as “the fog of war.” (Remember, he did not know at that point of time, whether this was, indeed, war).

As an essay on Politico detailed recently, Bush spent eight hours up in the air after the attacks. He was stopped from returning to Washington D.C. by his Chief of Staff and Secret Service that day. Instead, he landed in Louisiana at the headquarters of the Eighth Air Force. Here he received briefings from top brass and then directed his vice president Cheney to follow orders. (Smith claims that this was a contravention of authority of command).

Bush returned to Washington that evening and addressed the nation in a “dreadful” and “stilted” delivery, writes Smith. In “Decision Points,” Bush writes that his first instinct that day was to tell the American people that “we were at war.” But he decided to wait one day. Instead, he gave a speech in which he declared that “we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

At night, Bush was asked to sleep in the White House bunker for safety by the Secret Service. But he overruled that request. He was woken up in the middle of the nigh by Secret Service agents, who said an unidentified plane had been spotted flying towards the White House. The president and his wife were forced to run downstairs in the middle of the night to the bunker. Bush was in his running shorts and Laura was in her robe. Later an enlisted man walked in and said “matter-of-factly” that the plane heading towards the White House was “one of ours.”

Just before going off to bed, Bush dictated this sentence into his recording machine: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st Century took place today.” But Smith writes that comparison is erroneous. 9/11 was different from World War II, Smith writes, when armed forces of multiple nations were on march to grab territory. That said, it cannot be denied that 9/11 was the single largest loss of human lives on American lives since World War II.

Bush, however, believed in this description. In subsequent days, he received several intelligence briefings from security agencies and met 9/11 survivors and relatives of those who had been killed. The effect of information combined with the trauma of poignant meetings must have been overwhelming. And it showed in his actions.

Bush designated Iran, North Korea, and Iraq as an “axis of evil.” He commenced a war against Iraq and Afghanistan. In the run up to the war, Bush adopted an aggressive and often bellicose tone against the international comity.

At home, he put in place measures and laws that have hard a far-reaching effect on privacy and security. For example, the NSA’s overreach is a legacy of Bush’s directives to the agency.
These directives were achieved by personalizing power into the President’s office. Bush overrode the authority of command and subverted the Constitution and international agreements to achieve his goal, according to Smith.

After a premature celebration (during which he gave a speech with a “Mission Accomplished” backdrop), he contributed to the subsequent mess in Iraq by choosing leaders without any cultural understanding of the country. These leaders were chosen on the basis of recommendations from colleagues or from a roster of his personal and school contacts.
For example, General Tommy Franks, who planned and executed the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq was also from Midland Texas. Paul Bremer, who was the presidential envoy to Baghdad, came recommended from Donald Rumsfeld. Bremer de-Baathified Iraq. Smith argues that Saddam Hussein’s party was the secular force binding the country’s hostile sects together. Breaking it up unleashed a civil war between Sunnis and Shias.

As I mentioned earlier, Bush’s version of events does him no favors.

For example, Bush writes that he selected Bob Gates as his defense adviser during the Iraq war after a high school and college friend “whom I had appointed to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board” suggested his name.

“Why hadn’t I thought of Bob?” Bush muses in the book.

The reader ponders the same question along with Bush. The 43rd President chose his National Security Adviser (and Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice after being introduced to her at his family retreat. He finalized on Dick Cheney as vice president based on a recommendation from his father. And the list goes on.

In addition to a dismembered Iraq, Bush’s most lasting and controversial legacy is the establishment of a torture and surveillance apparatus. The images of soldiers being tortured at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay sparked the rise of extreme factions within Islam.

But Bush seems unrepentant about his decision. He writes that the establishment of a surveillance agency was “necessary.” He was assured that the inadvertent interception of domestic communications under the Terrorist Surveillance Program would be reported to the Justice Department. That, as we know now, never happened. Instead surveillance has become a part of the fabric of American society.

In establishing torture tribunals, Bush was assisted by the Office of Legal Counsel, an agency responsible for advising the President on Constitutional matters. For example, John Yoo, a constitutional scholar with the OLC, provided the White House with a 35-page opinion that the President had “inherent authority” as Commander-in-Chief to establish military commissions. In doing so, he overrode objections from the United States military (which argued correctly that it might be harmful to the U.S. military’s image abroad), the State Department, and the National Security Council. For his part, Bush categorized Al Qaeda as “unlawful combatants who do not have rights under Geneva Conventions.”
Bush’s explanations for the establishment of a torture and surveillance apparatus are weak in “Decision Points.” Time and again, he asserts that the country warded off a number of threats in his book thanks to the apparatus he put in place. But he provides little evidence or explanation to support his assertions. His disingenuous and simplistic reasoning does not help matters.

For example, he explains away Al Qaeda’s operational chief Abu Zubaydah’s waterboarding by claiming that it was necessary to reach the limits of his belief. “His understanding of Islam was that he had to resist interrogation only up to a certain point. Waterboarding was the technique that allowed him to reach that threshold,” writes Bush. But we are left clueless about the quality and extent of intelligence provided by Zubaydah’s revelations after waterboarding ended.

We only have Bush’s word. (And that is not saying much since U.S. intelligence was wrong about Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.)

Bush also seems oblivious to the connection between cause and effect in memoirs. He admits to being concerned about the backlash against Muslims and Arab-Americans. (Key members of the Bin Laden family were secretly airlifted out of the country after 9/11). Yet he did little to assuage these concerns in his public pronouncements. Smith writes that, after 9/11, Bush met with senior Congressional leaders and told them that “they (the attack’s perpetrators) hate Christianity. They hate Judaism. They hate everything that is not them. Other nations will have to choose.”

Smith also makes note of Bush’s extensive use of signing statements to nullify Congress’s legislation that allowed torture to continue at Abu Ghraib, paved the way for wiretaps of the American public, and disabled whistle-blower protection for federal employees. “Not only was he intruding on the power of Congress to legislate, he was usurping the authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the constitution,” writes Smith.

Questions Unanswered

With chapter titles such as “Don’t Mess Around With Texas,” Smith’s book often feels like a hatchet job on Bush. That seems a bit unfair when you consider that the stage for the crisis was set by the previous administration. For example, the Iraq Liberation Act was passed under Clinton’s watch. Similarly, his predecessor’s administration was responsible for repealing the Glass Steagall Act that set aside the distinction between the commercial and investment arms of a bank. Including context about developments during the Clinton regime would have provided more detail about Bush’s intelligence. While he does an excellent job assembling quotes and research to make his case, Smith fails in one vital area: he fails to explain the rationale behind Bush’s decision-making process. We are left with Smith’s conclusions and acidic prose, such as this: “Bush’s response to the financial crisis was similar to his response to Hurricane Katrina. He watched it happen.” This makes for entertaining reading but does not tell us why and how the transformation from a “compassionate conservative” to a war-mongering and unreasonable president took place. (Bush also vetoed gay marriage and was criticized for his handling of Hurricane Katrina).

Bush’s memoirs of his years as president are equally opaque about how he arrived at decisions. Too frequently, Bush writes that he felt “sickened” or “shocked” by press revelations about matters that his administration should have been aware of, such as torture trails or the financial crisis. It is impossible for the reader to gauge whether Bush was really ignorant or quietly complicit in the mess.

And Smith also does not touch upon the all-important question of the motives for going to war. The reasoning may have been geopolitical but the benefits were economic. As of 2013, Iraq had already cost $800 billion in reconstruction. Much of that money was wasted in corruption. Vice president Cheney’s former employer Halliburton Company has been a major beneficiary of reconstruction efforts.

Several cronies of the Bush administration also made off with riches. International Oil Trading Co., a Florida-based Pentagon contractor, also minted money. The firm was started by Marty Martin, who advised Bush on terrorism for two years after 9/11. It won contracts worth $2.1 billion from the Bush administration to supply fuel from Jordan to Iraqi forces. Later, it was embroiled in a corruption and bribery lawsuit filed by the younger brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah. In effect, the military industrial complex swooped in to destroy and reconstruct a country under the pretext of bringing democracy to that part of the world. (That its neighbor Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, is a monarchy did not seem to bother the U.S. administration).

To be sure, Bush’s tenure, or at least the initial part, was a continuation of the Clinton era of economic prosperity. And when the country was on the edge of a financial crisis, Bush’s decision to bail out important institutions was critical in limiting the impact of the financial crisis. He also started the fight against AIDS in Africa and continues to regularly visit the continent to expand on his work. While its results have been mixed, the No Child Left Behind Act was a genuine attempt at reforming education funding and standards.
President Obama, who rode on a swell of anti-Bush sentiment to office in 2008, promised an end to divisive politics and Guantanamo Bay. But his tenure has seen differences sharpen and Guantanamo Bay continues to remain open for business. If anything, Obama has had his own intelligence failure moment, when he underestimated the ISIS threat back in 2014 and referred to them as supporting cast in the Iraqi war for independence. He is also referred to as the drone president because his tenure has seen an increase in killings due to the unmanned aerial vehicles.

Being the president of the most powerful nation on earth is not an easy job. In interviews, Bush has often said that history is better judge of actions rather than the present. In Decision Points, he points to Truman, who left presidency with the lowest ever ratings but is now considered one of the best presidents in history, as an example.
But history is also often written by victors. In the immediate short term, Bush seems to have lost the Iraq war. As a result, the history of his presidency is being written by journalists and activists critical of his policies.

Perhaps, Bush was influenced by his coterie of advisors. Perhaps, he was a stubborn and self-willed man who manipulated events and people to get his own way. Given conflicting accounts and the breakdown of intelligence, we shall never know.

Bush’s only chance of redemption seems to be a victory in the Iraq war or some semblance of stability in the country. And that does not seem to be happening anytime soon.

Review: J D Salinger: Nine Stories


“A Catcher in the Rye” was my first (and, for a long time, only) Salinger book. I read it during my undergraduate years in Mumbai. I was living alone, drinking large amounts of alcohol and, like most adolescents, unhappy with life and the world. It was a confusing time: of discovery, new experiences and old frustrations.

The book had a profound effect on me and a group of friends, who shared my thoughts and experiences. After a drink (or several) we competed with each other to list reasons why we were like Holden Caulfield (and why we were exceptions to a supposedly materialistic world). The next day, after the hangover wore off, we’d fight with each other about the same materialistic things we pretended to disdain after a couple of pegs. In that sense, I suppose we were like Caulfield: a mix of contradictions and confusions. I borrowed “Nine Stories” from a friend, who recommended it to me on the roof of a bar near our room. Between puffs of cigarette smoke and gulps of cheap whisky, he declared that it was better than “A Catcher In The Rye.”

But I abandoned the book after reading exactly one story.

I didn’t even understand that story.

For a self-involved college kid with manufactured angst (a feeling that “A Catcher In The Rye” acknowledged and stoked), the horrors of war and marital discord were alien themes.
On a visit to the Brooklyn Public Library recently, I picked it up again. They say age brings wisdom and empathy. This time, I read through all the stories in less than three days. There were hardly any drinks to accompany the reading. And, I identified less with the characters and more with the story.

Taken together, “Nine Stories” encompasses a number of human experiences: a suicide, first love, marital discord, the horrors of war, and, even, an artiste’s first job. A former WWII soldier kills himself after a pleasant conversation with a ten-year-old kid at a beach in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” The logical inconsistency of a crush is depicted in “Just Before The War With Eskimos.” Then, there is the humorous turn in “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” where a starving artist works his first job in a Montreal art school.

Salinger’s canvas may be vast but his approach remains the same. He works as a painter, depicting characters in these stories as figures in a painting. Salinger’s pen outlines a mise en scene, one that usually involving an interaction, that defines the heartbreaking intensity of that moment.

Consider the scene in a coffee shop in “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.” The main action in this story takes place inside a coffee shop. But, that scene embodies several situations: a comedy of manners between an English girl and an American soldier, an introduction, and the innocence and curiosity of children.

Again, Salinger’s milieu – the Second World War and East Coast conventions – is one that I do not have much experience of. But his deft strokes of conversation and movement create a luminous universe that resonates with anyone who has felt bewildered at the workings of the world.

They are also unpretentious. As Carlos Acosta, a Cuban dancer, explained to BBC’s World Book Club: “I was very happy to know that first I could understand it. That my English was good enough to understand it.” “The voice lacked literary pretension…and once it grabs you, it doesn’t let go.” That is certainly true of a majority of the voices in “Nine Stories.” They grab you through the simple tricks of conversation and movements into a familiar world.

Of course, this world tends so much towards perfection that it can seem unreal. Children are angelic, adolescents are innocent, and adults are caught in situations that are not of their own making.
I suppose Salinger’s stories reflect his own world view. He was overly concerned with purity of body and soul. This concern finds reflections in Teddy, a story in which he attempts to fuse Eastern mysticism with a Western worldview through a discussion between a gifted child and a skeptical young man. Teddy is a genius child who is being studied by scientists and philosophers. While the adults around him are busy making small talk, swimming, and enjoying a cruise adventure, Teddy muses on the limitations of our senses and thinking. “I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters,” he tells Nicholson, the young man, in a reference to the biblical apple eaten by Adam. According to Teddy, that apple contained logic and “intellectual stuff.” “You asked me how I get out of finite dimensions when I feel like it. I certainly don’t use logic when I do it. Logic’s the first thing that you get rid of,” explains Teddy.

In “Nine Stories,” Salinger has fashioned the apple and we are the apple-eaters.

Review: A Bend In The River By V.S Naipaul


No other writer I know captures the essence of a society in transition as accurately as Naipaul. He writes eloquently and simply about people and cultures disconnected from their origins in his fiction and non-fiction.

It is a milieu that Naipaul knows well.

At the age of seventeen, Naipaul made his way from Trinidad, a semi-developed island in the West Indies, to elite Oxford University on a scholarship. After graduation, he worked for BBC. But that employment was a brief interlude in what was to become a storied writing career. He wrote several books, comic and tragic, about his native land in Britain. After exhausting material from Trinidad, Naipaul went in search of stories to similar societies and cultures. Those travels gave rise to several books, some fiction but mostly non-fiction.

A Bend In The River is the product of a visit to Zaire in the late 1970s, He had earlier documented this period in “A Congo Diary.”

The novel is a fictional story about an unnamed town located at the bend of a river in the heart of Africa. Commerce is beginning to change the town. Education has introduced new thought and the bush way of life is giving way to modernity.

An uneasy truce exists between the past and the present at the time that Salim, Naipaul’s narrator, arrives there. Salim is an African-Indian businessman, who has escaped, rather run away, from problems in another unnamed town on the east coast of Africa. As the novel progresses, Salim builds a business and a home in the town at the bend of a river.

Change almost seems possible until the town’s efforts to change collapse under the weight of its history. A rebel force lays siege to the town, destroying markers of its civilization. Police outposts and schools are destroyed. Businesses are nationalized as incompetent locals take over foreigner-owned businesses (such as Salim’s grocery business). Finally, the President calls in the army and there are executions.

As the novel ends, Salim is on the move again, this time to London.

The characters and settings in A Bend In The River echo Naipaul’s tour de force A House For Mr. Biswas. Salim is not unlike Mohun Biswas in being disconnected from his immediate surroundings. Like Biswas, he is doubly removed from his immediate surroundings: he is a coastal transplant in an unnamed town and is an Indian amongst Africans.

His is the most acute type of loneliness. It is best reflected in Naipaul’s description of his apartment, where he lives with “the idea that, at a moment’s notice, I had to consider it all as cost.” His furniture is “always there, never really mine, reminding me now only of the passing of time.”

Even when there is a siege in the town, Salim witnesses it from the outside. He sees change but remains immobile. Only after he spends time in jail and sees Africans “indifferent to notice, indifferent to compassion, contempt, faces, not yet vacant or passive or resigned” does he become aware of the conflict’s toll on his immediate surroundings.

Other characters are similarly without groundings. They are caught in a vortex of events not of their own making.

Metty, Salim’s servant, follows him from the coast and fathers a child in the town. By the end of the novel, he is pleading with Salim to take him away from there. Raymond and Yvette, a Belgian couple who live in the Domain and are involved in documenting the town’s history, owe their jobs to the country’s President and disappear from there by the end. Indar, Salim’s childhood friend from the East Coast, escapes to London for education and comes back to teach at the town briefly. Outwardly, he seems to be at ease with his career and life. But, a long monologue during a walk by the town river reveals the volatility simmering beneath his persona. Even Ferdinand, the only fleshed out African in the novel, is isolated from his origins in the bush.

The novel provides pointers to the structure of Naipaul’s future work. Although Salim is the central character and we hear much of the story through him, other voices are also present. They speak in long monologues describing their frustrations and hopes. As is typical in much of Naipaul’s non-fiction work, tension is built up through a series of incidents and occurrences. In turn, these incidents provide insight into the character.

Along with Guerillas, this book opened up Naipaul to charges of racism. It is not difficult to guess why. In a novel about Africa, there are hardly any Africans.

As I mentioned earlier, Ferdinand is the only sharply-etched character. The other Africans are bit characters or parodies. They are illiterate and unaware of their history or society. They know only that they belong to the bush and that they are the original inhabitants of this place. That certainty leads them to reclaim the town and attempt to drive out foreigners. It also leads to chaos, imprisonment, and dictatorship. In contrast, the town’s foreigners are cultured, educated and compassionate. But, they live within a self-constructed bubble that bursts when the native people assert themselves. The novel itself is written from the inside of a expatriate bubble that Naipaul must have probably experienced while teaching in Uganda during the 1960s. So one cannot really fault the perspective.

Eventually, though, the novel is about change and its discontents. Much of our reading of globalization (and upheaval in societies) is about success, about individuals who created a better life for themselves elsewhere. A Bend In The River shines a light on what happens when an external change is not accompanied by an internal one.

Review: Fresh Air Fiend By Paul Theroux


In the Internet age, travel writing is a vanishing art.

Comments and ratings on reviews websites have transformed the travel experience from an adventure to a morass of condensed opinions and ratings.

Thankfully we still have Paul Theroux.

Having lived across three continents and visited numerous places over the years, Theroux’s world is broad and deep in its scope. He has mined this world over the years to establish a prolific writing career. According to a fan site, he has written 53 works of fiction and non-fiction. This, of course, does not include the numerous magazine articles, short stories, and features that Theroux has written for publications such as Vogue and GQ.

Fresh Air Fiend is a collection of Theroux’s writing on a broad variety of subjects, from the Chinese economic miracle to sailing on Cape Cod to portraitures of travelers and explorers. For readers, this means a collection of writings about disparate subjects.

What makes the book even more enjoyable is Theroux himself. Here he is trying to sail the Cape Cod. Here he is attempting to get a traditional cure for his foot ailment in Hong Kong. Or, here he is at a fancy Royal Geographical Society dinner with Bruce Chatwin.

Unlike other travel writers who obfuscate their presence while presenting their travel adventures, Theroux cheerily inserts himself and his moods into the adventure. This is a gift to readers because he is perceptive and self-absorbed at the same time. His glances at people and places are fleeting, honest, and, sometimes, profound.

There are eight parts to the book. Overarching these parts are three broad themes” travel adventures to remote places, a portraiture of places and people, and personal essays.

The three China essays (excerpted from his books about the country) are travel adventures and commentaries on a country that was changing rapidly. Given China’s current economic and political importance, the essays might seem dated. But they are invaluable accounts about the evolution of a rapidly-modernizing country overrun by tourists and manufacturers eager to establish operations there. During his travels, Theroux met an assortment of characters from important politicians (Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong) to small-time industrialists from Europe.

Using a mix of history and his own reportage, Theroux charts China’s past and future. In one essay, he profiles his journey down the Yangtze (according to him, the future of humanity can be seen in the destitute barrenness surrounding the river). In the other two essays, he documents the Chinese economic miracle of the 1980s and the Hong Kong handover. He reflects on the Chinese national character (a mix of materialism and love of order that back to years of Party discipline) and goes to the Chinese Export Commodities Fair, the main focus of Chinese commerce, held in a large cavernous hall. There, Theroux takes a “disgusting pleasure at the profusion of stuff and makes a solemn view never again to buy a basket or a candle or anything else at a gift shop in the United States.” He covers the Hong Kong handover not by analyzing its economic implications but by juxtaposing an interview with Chris Patten with that of the average man on the street.

Like most writers, Theroux spends a large amount of time indoors in “inspissated darkness”. To cope with the long hours of solitude, he has taken up an assortment of outdoor physical activities from kayaking to paddle boarding to biking. The book’s essays also catalogue these set of adventures. The writing in these essays is quick, incisive, and leavened with humor.

For example, one of his essays is a Robinson Crusoe-like riff on being connected in Palau, a remote island off the coast of Caroline Islands in the Western Pacific. Theroux went there with an excess baggage of communications equipment. Even as he stood “stark naked and marveled at his luck in finding himself in such an unconnected place,” Theroux attempted to connect with friends and family.

“The idea was that I would set up camp on this desert island and, in spite of my remoteness, be in touch and well connected. “Hold on, Mrs. Crusoe, your son Robinson is on the line…,” as he writes. In the end, he ends up disconnected as the batteries for his equipment run out. “Indeed, my little lamp with its stump of candle, my jackknife, and my kayak paddle were of more use to me than the phone, the camcorder, the radio, the Newton, all dead weight.”

His portraiture of individuals and fellow writers is less humorous. This is particularly evident in a remembrance essay about travel writer Bruce Chatwin, where Theroux deflates popular myths about Chatwin’s so-called adventurous life. “I don’t believe in coming clean,” Chatwin had told Theroux. Theroux does believe in coming clean, however, and relates anecdotes and incidents about Chatwin that show the latter’s fabulist nature. All of Theroux’s admiration, however, is reserved for travelers and explorers. In these writings, he has profiled a number of them: Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Scott, Gerard D’Aboville. Their faults, which range from being bipolar to overly dramatic, are glossed over and redeemed by their love for travel and new experiences.

Theroux also explains his approach to travel writing and states that he prefers the “humbler route” of talking to the common man during his travels. But this collection of essays does not have a lot of common man speak. In most instances, Theroux speaks to important people (Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong) or people who matter.

Then there is also the matter of turning the writerly lens on Theroux himself.

Theroux accuses Chatwin of compartmentalizing his life and the people in it. But no possible explanation or effort is made to get to the root of this habit. For example, Chatwin was born during an era when homosexuality was criminalized in Britain. A word or two about this fact that might have provided context for Chatwin’s hesitation in proclaiming his sexuality. In any case, compartmentalizing people and circumstances is a habit for most adults.

Some do it more than others. But when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail. Then there are also times when Theroux comes across as a righteously self-absorbed millennial. For example, he delivers sanctimonious comments on race politics from the vantage point of a traveler.

But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise enjoyable book. Fresh Air Fiend is a wonderful collection of essays that highlight the main themes of a wonderful writer’s explorations over the years.

Review Of Schulz And Peanuts: A Biography



In an interview with television anchor Al Roker towards the end of his life, Charles Schulz, creator of the phenomenally popular Peanuts comic strip, broke down into tears. “You know, that poor kid (Charlie Brown), he never got to kick the football. What a dirty trick to play, he never got to kick the football,” he said through sobs.

The display of emotion was uncharacteristic for Schulz. Especially, since, unlike Charlie Brown, Schulz kicked the ball out of the park several times with his comic strip’s success. Despite being the consummate loser and underachiever in a nation that values success above everything else, Charlie Brown (and a quirky cast of characters) dominated America’s cultural landscape for more than four decades.

In popular imagination and public appearances, Schulz resembled Charlie Brown. He was an underachiever, who had, by dint of his hard work and imagination, achieved success. By old age, he had even become a beloved avuncular figure of wisdom.

But, there were many sides to Schulz’s personality.

He was intensely competitive. He was disdainful of colleagues without talent and sparing with words of encouragement as a mentor to upcoming cartoonists. He was also needy for affection. During a 1987 interview with Good Morning America, he quipped that he was an “authority on unrequited love.” This, after marrying twice, having an affair with a girl roughly half his age during his first marriage, and fathering five kids.

David Michaelis’ biography tackles the disconnect between the private and public personas of Charles Schulz. It mines his personal life to find out how they inspired his cartoon strips. Michaelis , quite literally, illustrates his theories about Schulz’s motivations by placing relevant cartoon strips immediately below his descriptions of significant events in his life.

Good Grief Charles Schulz

Charles Schulz was born in 1922 to a mother of Norwegian stock and a first-generation German immigrant in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father was a barber and his mother a housewife. Schulz was deeply attached to his mother and always craved her approval, according to Michaelis. “His mother occupied the central place in his heart,” he writes. “The intensity of that bond would remain alive to the day he died; she was a presence in everything he did; her looks and most distinctive qualities reappeared in the women in his life and his art.”

His childhood was split between city life and visits to cousins from his mother’s side in rural Minnesota. The latter were a cause of great discomfort to him because the sensitive Schulz had little in common with his country cousins. The bullying he suffered there were illustrated in his cartoon strips.

Schulz was a mediocre student but had talent for penmanship. Unfortunately, none of his teachers encouraged this talent.

Cartooning was just about coming of age as a form of popular entertainment, when Schulz graduated from high school. (But, it would be some time before cartoonists became superstars). Given his performance at school, Schulz’s parents did not expect much from him and, after drifting about for a bit, Schulz enrolled in a correspondence course for Art Instruction.

Subsequently, he joined the army.

Up until then, Schulz had been an unassuming young man, a kind of wallflower. The army stint instilled confidence in him. After coming back from the army he found employment as an instructor for a correspondence course in Art. A string of romances (one of which almost culminated in an engagement) followed and, finally, Schulz married Joyce Halverson, sister of a work colleague.

Theirs was a marriage of contrasts.

Joyce had married and divorced at the age of 19. She also had a daughter from her first marriage. Despite the setbacks, Joyce was a fighter and had a sunny disposition. She loved the outdoors and adventure. There was no time for the past in Joyce’s life and she hurtled towards the future. Schulz was the opposite in temperament. He feared travel and had an artiste’s neuroses about dislocating himself from familiar surroundings. The past was always a constant presence with him.

Joyce took care of the kids and home. She was behind the family’s shifts to Colorado and California and established a ranch in their home at Coffee Lane in Sebastopol. Later, she was also responsible for the Redwood Ice Arena.

Towards the end of his marriage with Joyce, Schulz had an affair with Tracey Claudius, a 25-year-old. It could be said that the affair sealed the deal on their already tumultuous marriage. After his divorce, Schulz married Jeanne Forsyth, a 33-year-old woman he met when she brought her daughter to the ice arena for skating lessons. They cuddled each night until the day he died.

An Unassuming Success

Peanuts started life as Li’l Folks in 1947, when Sparky (as Schulz was known for much of his life) drew a “hypertrophied head, shortened the arms and immediately knew that he was on the right track.” It was published in the Saturday Evening Post the following week and became a regular fixture in local press subsequently. A lawsuit in 1950 forced the strip’s syndication agency to change its name to Peanuts. Schulz hated the name and considered it to mean “little things of insignificant value.”


He borrowed Charlie Brown’s name from a colleague, who was also a bon vivant. But, the character and his quirks were reflections of Schulz’s personality and cogitations. (Later, the same colleague, who was a closeted homosexual, died of cancer after battling an off-and-on addiction to alcohol).

In a sense, the Peanuts characters went against the existing trope in cartooning at that point of time. In an era of action comic figures such as Dick Tracy and Johnny Hazard, their quiet humor and almost plebian concerns stood apart. From the very first, Schulz created strips filled with white space, instead of “busy” cartoons with action in the background as well as foreground. They also did not depend on physical comedy or gags for laughs. Instead, they pondered deep existential questions and society through the prism of everyday life. The denouement in each strip was also unsatisfactory because Charlie Brown always lost.

Although he started drawing the cartoon strip a couple of years prior to the 1950s, Schulz’s characters gathered steam during this decade. Subsequently, they became cultural touchstones, articulating the anxiety and concerns of mainstream society. They set happiness apart from material prosperity. At the same time, they also reflected the nation’s mood and moral stand on important matters, such as Vietnam. The Peanuts strip also grew into an astounding business empire that evolved from a simple three panel cartoon strip to encompass musicals, television shows, merchandising, and syndication deals across countries.

But, for Charles Schulz, the routine always remained the same. Through the shifts in location, the construction of an ice arena, five kids (including an unwed daughter who became pregnant at eighteen), he drew the strip almost on a daily basis. He mined the drama in his personal life to illustrate the strip.

For example, parts of Joyce’s personality found echoes in Lucy Van Pelt, who is more intelligent than the men around her. According to Michaelis, this was a role reversal of sorts, especially during the 1950s when men were the traditional heads of their homes. But, Van Pelt is also aggressive. She shouts, needles, and goads the men around her. The disagreements between Schulz and his wife’s temperament were illustrated in the comic strips.

Similarly, during his affair with Tracey Claudius, the strip took a turn for the romantic. In one of the strips, Charlie Brown asks if it is possible to be with two people at the same time. Snoopy, ever the dreamy dog, replies with the memory of a time, when he loved a peanut butter cookie and chocolate chip cookie at the same time.

Much like most artistes (and, indeed, human beings), Schulz embodied contrasts. He longed for the security of home but shirked from the attendant responsibility. He said he wanted to “go back to the years that my mother and father – the times when I could have them bear out my worries.” At the same time, he was intensely competitive and wanted to win at all costs. He blamed his teachers in Minnesota all his life for not identifying his special talent at cartooning. During the beginning of his business career in cartooning, he agreed to almost all the terms. Later, he negotiated for a fat share of the profits and “became greedy just like a kid becomes greedy.”

The book is also a study in the crafting of a celebrity. Schulz came of age when the modern media apparatus for celebrity culture was still imperfect. By the time Peanuts took off, celebrity culture was already on its way to becoming an integral part of American existence.

In that respect, the book’s omissions are as important as its admissions. None of these omissions is more important than that of Schulz’s voice. He did not keep a diary; nor did he leave behind a written record of any kind. Which is a pity, really, because we know that he had a rich and complicated interior life from his cartoons. They are an indication of his thought processes at that time, yes. But, minus context, we can only speculate on his thinking.

For example, Schulz apparently “maimed” one of his sons during an ice hockey game after his divorce with Joyce. His motives for doing so are not discussed. Instead, all we get is the son’s quote. Similarly, Joyce’s motivations for staying on with Schulz after discovering of his affair with Tracey and her own marriage to her building contractor are not discussed. But, then such is the nature of celebrity culture, which hews complicated individuals into familiar stereotypes for public consumption.

The book also does not discuss the influence of 1950s on the development of Peanuts. The country was emerging from the chaos and penury of the Second World War and the Great Depression. The Vietnam war was a distant speck. The economy and the stock market were booming. Modern management theory transformed the workplace and the government encouraged its citizens to buy and acquire material prosperity. The American Dream, a term first coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, acquired physical contours in the form of a suburban home with a yard, a car, and significant leisure time. How did the existential angst of Peanuts become a success during this time of apparent prosperity?

That said, the biography is a tribute to the complicated simplicity of Peanuts. Schulz’s cartoons brought joy and a sense of wonder to numerous readers; this biography goes a long way in decoding the fraught source of that joy.

A Review Of Burton Mankiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street


The first piece of advice that we got from our business journalism professor in J-school was to forget all economic theories about the markets. It was an odd piece of wisdom. I disregarded it and borrowed the Principles of Economics by Gregory Mankiw from a colleague. I never got around to reading the book. But, I learned the inherent truth of my professor’s advice.

The markets are rarely rational or efficient. Take a look at market performance since the beginning of this year. Even as indicators pointed to a decline in economic health, the markets swung to new highs. “Traders have already priced the decline,” I was told by seasoned experts. However, the markets barely budged, when ECB chief Mario Draghi exceeded its expectations and unleashed a bazooka of stimulus and negative interest rates.

With a recommendation from Warren Buffett, arguably the sharpest investor in the markets for the latest 50 years. Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor is the definitive guide to stock market investing. But, Graham wrote the book in 1949. This was a time when the market was small and had a bad rep. The book’s premise of a rational market and promise of sustained returns attracted investors and investing grew into a discipline.

Burton Mankiel’s “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” takes the opposite tack. The book’s title is indicative of its intent. It argues that it is not only difficult but impossible to beat the markets. The book’s first edition came out in 1973 and it was revised in 2002 to include a chapter about the dotcom crash. Written in an informative and engaging style, the book is an excellent introduction to the topsy turvy world of investing. It is accessible to the lay reader as well as the informed journalist (Disclaimer: I belong somewhere in between).

Mankiel, who is a professor, starts by providing a brief rundown of major theories in investing. There is the fundamental analysis theory, which relies on a study of the company’s business foundations, such as the market size and its future prospects, to determine long term investment potential. He also outlines four rules for investing and proceeds to demolish them in succeeding paragraphs.

For example, Mankiel shows that projection of future earnings for a company can change depending on the duration of projection of those earnings. As an example, IBM was heavily underpriced, when its earnings were projected forward by ten years back in the 1980s. However, it became overpriced when the duration of projection was extended to twenty years. In reality, the IBM stock drastically underperformed the market during the 1990s and the Armonk-based company was forced to change its business model from product to services to survive.

The technical analysis theory identifies investment opportunities through stock price movements. In other words, it is all about a stock’s momentum. According to this theory, stock prices move in historical patterns and traders can ride the crests and troughs of this pattern to make money. For example, each time the price of a stock reaches “resistance area” (or, the price at which it was bought), a downtrend will occur according to chartists because investors want to break even or book profits. The consequent selling action will drive down its price until traders start buying again.

Mankiel has most fun with this theory. He disparages the theory completely and relates an experiment that he conducted with students. In the experiment, he asked students to construct the chart of a hypothetical stock using a fair toss coin. For each successive trading day, the closing stock price would be determined by the flip of a fair coin. As it turned out, the chart looked fairly similar to a trader’s chart and, according to Mankiel, even displayed similar cycles.

In the following chapters, Mankiel examines other theories and actors related to the business of stock investing. For example, he cites correlation theories that have proved that the indicator most closely correlated with the S&P 500 index is the volume of butter production in Bangladesh. He also puts analysts through the grinder. “To be sure, when an analyst says “buy” he may mean “hold” and when he says “hold,” he probably means this as a euphemism for “dump this piece of crap as soon as possible,” he writes.

According to him, they fail due to an assortment of reasons, including influence of random events, basic incompetence, and conflict of interest. The last-mentioned reason is especially pertinent today, given the plethora of analysts and research firms in the market. Despite the plenty, however, there are very few sell recommendations on Wall Street because companies revoke access to inside information, if an analyst is bearish on its prospects.

All of this then begs the following question:

If the entire apparatus and hijinks of Wall Street is not sufficient to beat the markets, what should the average main street investor do?

As it turns out, Mankiel is a fan of the efficient markets hypothesis. According to this theory, markets are the best and most efficient allocators of capital. In other words, the random movements of a stock security even out over a period of time and the most successful companies generally are the ones that perform the best. He dispenses the same advice as Buffett, who told his wife and trustees to put all their money in index funds after his death. Buy and hold, he counsels investors, instead of buying and selling. This is fair advice for mom-and-pop investors not interested in the daily swings of the stock market.

Except, the markets are not that efficient.

There are a number of examples of individuals and investment firms beating the market. The most famous one, of course, is Warren Buffett. Even as he counseled use of index funds, Buffett acknowledged the possibility of of a couple of investors beating the market. For the vast majority, who do not have the time, expertise and access to engage with the markets, he advised index funds. A number of institutional investors, such as pension funds and hedge funds, have also booked profits by moving in and out of trades quickly. In fact, their popularity and numbers have grown in recent times. According to the research firm HFR Inc, the number of hedge funds in the country has grown from 600 to 10,000.

Then, there is the case for analyzing the fundamentals of an industry. IBM’s dominant position in the computer industry was undercut by Microsoft and Apple and the rise of a number of personal computer companies, such as Dell. Till date, technology is a growth sector and poised to outperform established sectors. For traders, this means that they can ride the coattails of this trend to make money. More recently, a close study of the fundamentals of the 3D printing market would have yielded handsome profits for investors who shorted stocks of major 3D printing companies.

It would seem then that there is money to be made by beating the markets. Which brings us to the question about what really moves markets. Inside information about a stock is one. An ability to parse through jargon in a company’s filings and provide a big picture view is another. There are also certain indicators, as Mankiel acknowledges in his book, that work. For example, trailing P/E ratios are, according to him, good indicators of future performance for a stock.

All of this basically means that the walk down wall street may be random at times but it is by no means completely impossible and uncertain.