Book Review: Peter Osnos’s Occasionally Frustrating, But Wildly Engrossing ‘An Especially Good View’
A frequent conversation piece among the libertarians and conservatives I lunch with concerns the “worst president in our lifetimes.” One elder routinely answers LBJ for his expansion of the war in Vietnam combined with the welfare state expansion he presided over domestically. Others cite Barack Obama, but my answer every single time is George W. Bush.
To those who say Obama I always respond with an expressed desire to stage a public debate about the merits of Obama vs. Bush based on my confident belief that Obama’s presidency doesn’t come close to Bush’s on the error front. Think about it.
With Bush there was his signing of McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform not because he believed in it, but because he erroneously presumed the Supreme Court would bail him out. There was “No Child Left Behind” for schools, as though the federal government should have a role in education, and then there was the expansion of the federal government’s role in the provision of drugs for the elderly despite Bush’s professed belief in limited government.
Responding to the failures of Enron and Worldcom within six months of each other, failures that didn’t spook the markets much at all, Bush zestily signed into law Sarbanes-Oxley (legislation that most certainly did spook the markets), thus criminalizing failure in an economy that had long derived its dynamism from – you guessed it – a lack of barriers to the decline of corporations no longer meeting the needs of shareholders. Bush gave us Harriet Miers on the supposition that someone who needed to “bone up” on Griswold v. Connecticut was actually a wise jurist.
Even though government spending is the ultimate tax on growth (this is not a comment on deficits, which both sides needlessly waste time on when the other Party is in power), Bush never vetoed spending bills, he reversed the Reagan-Clinton emphasis on a strong, stable dollar that had been such a major driver of economic vitality in the ‘80s and ‘90s, plus when banks and investment banks began to go belly-up in 2008 (arguably symptoms of the Bush Treasury’s confusion about dollar-price stability), the rhetorically “free market” Bush claimed the markets weren’t working on the way to bailouts that logically caused the “financial crisis,” as opposed to staving off market mayhem.
All this leaves out Bush’s decision to bring “democracy,” something the Founders logically were rather skeptical of, to the Middle East. The two wars Bush was certain about haunt us to this day as the developments of recent weeks indicate.
The view here is that Bush has no peer when it comes to failed presidents, which is a useful jumping off point when it comes to reviewing Peter Osnos’s very engrossing new memoir, An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen. The title is apt for Osnos’s book in consideration of his time at the Washington Post (he was a correspondent in Vietnam, and bureau chief in both Moscow and London), not to mention his work as a publisher where he edited and brought to market books by people with names like Carter, Clinton, Obama, Trump, Reagan (Nancy), Noonan (Peggy), and many, many others. Up front, Osnos is a man of the Left, which most readers have probably already deduced, but he’s not completely left wing. Please read on.
Ok, so why the comment on Bush? It’s a way of prefacing frustration with Osnos’s assertion late in what will be referred to going forward as A View that history “will regard Barack Obama as an outstanding president.” That it didn’t ring true isn’t a partisan comment. Indeed, while the view of many younger types on the Right that Obama is “the worst” in their lifetimes doesn’t stand up to basic history, neither does Osnos’s association of “outstanding” with #44.
Really, what does Obama have to show for his two terms? Some will point to passage of the mis-named Affordable Care Act, but if not for John Roberts (a George W. Bush Supreme Court pick, naturally….) bailing out the ACA in the most convoluted of ways, his signature legislation is long forgotten. He “saved us from a 2nd Great Depression”? Please. The bailouts of financial institutions, faux stimulus measures of the government spending variety, and the propping up of GM et al largely took place under Bush, and by their very nature delayed what would have been a much bigger recovery.
Arguably the best thing for Obama’s presidency was that after running as a healer and a centrist in 2008, he tacked left once in the White House on the way to the Democrats’ loss of the House in 2010, which in many ways ended the legislative portion of Obama’s presidency. By 2014, the Senate was in GOP hands too. By 2016 the GOP controlled the White House. This is notable in consideration of a long ago quip from lefty historian Richard Reeves that Bill Clinton’s presidency was Ronald Reagan’s third term. But when given the chance to vote for Obama’s third term through the election of Hillary Clinton, the electorate went with an underfunded, and rather controversial figure in Donald Trump.
About the 45th president, Osnos knew him well. He quarterbacked The Art of the Deal. Osnos is plainly remorseful about Trump’s political rise, but doesn’t apologize for his role in Trump’s first two books. In his words, “I was trained in journalism, and Trump was a terrific story.” Of greater importance, Osnos makes the point that “Trump doesn’t spend money if he doesn’t have to.” Osnos wrote the latter to put to bed any rumors that Trump bought himself a monstrous seller in The Art of the Deal, but it’s something that speaks louder about 2016. An outspent amateur in Trump beat the individual who was supposed to carry on Obama’s presidency. This is written by someone who, probably like Osnos himself, thinks Trump’s stance on immigration was unfortunate, and yes, very un-Republican. This comes from someone who thinks Trump’s stance on China (for an excellent book on China largely free of the economic fallacy embraced by both sides, read Osnos’s son Evan’s spectacular Age of Ambition) was similarly backwards, and anti the working classes whom Trump seemed to inspire. It’s all a long way of asking if Osnos really believes Obama was “outstanding” despite the electorate’s verdict? The speculation here is that Osnos was charmed more by the engaging, charming and charismatic person in Obama than the former president’s achievements. About Obama’s presidency, the guess here is that Osnos could be convinced otherwise about its greatness?
Maybe the above assertion is a reach, but maybe not. Osnos once again isn’t completely left wing, lefty, or “liberal” now that American lefties have stolen the adjective from true liberals. Writing about his undergraduate alma mater in Brandeis, Osnos recalls how it “struggled” in the 2000s, “as so many universities did, with the illiberal contradictions of political correctness.” The latter implies an understanding of how over-the-top ridiculous the modern Left can at times be. For those wondering what Osnos was specifically referring to at Brandeis, he notes with disdain that “the university accepted the papers of Lenny Bruce, a crude, lewd, and very funny comedian of the 1960s, but it was unable to proceed with a play about Bruce” because “students objected.”
More broadly, Osnos saw Moscow up close. To be more clear, he saw the Moscow of the 1970s up close. Osnos saw how state control of resources quite simply didn’t work. Moscow anecdotes from A View include taking shoes to a cobbler for resoling only for them to be returned “with nails in them through the bottoms,” of taking a suit to the cleaners only for it to be “folded all wrong and without buttons,” of how his wife Susan cut his hair “and took care of her own.” The latter is on its own quite an admission from the author in consideration of how the always well-dressed Osnos (nicknamed “Peter Prep” at Cheshire Academy) was known to be the best-dressed at the Washington Post.
Osnos is clear that the Soviet economy he saw was in all-too-many-ways fake, or in his words “So much of what the Soviets claimed for their economic achievements were what was widely known as pokazuka (for show), the Potemkin villages of facades that covered up widespread conditions from third world poor to shoddy first world style.” Cato Institute co-founder Ed Crane observed much the same when he visited the Soviet Union in 1981. He scoffed at the CIA’s laughable estimates of the Soviet economy’s size because, like Osnos, he could see that there was little “economy” to speak of. Neither of Osnos’s children were born in Moscow (the first at Susan Osnos’s family’s compound on Lake Michigan, the second in London), and as he ultimately concludes, “There were limits” to “our desire to immerse ourselves in Russian life.” All that plus Osnos is a huge fan of Natan Sharansky (“the bravest person I’ve ever known”), published the former Soviet dissident’s memoirs, and this is notable in consideration of libertarians I know who think the libertarian Cato Institute should award Sharansky with its Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. The lefty in Osnos would seemingly agree….?
Yet frustration would follow encouraging passages. In writing about the end of the Cold War, Osnos points to three Europeans (including Pope Paul) who brought on its end, but does so without mentioning Margaret Thatcher, or much more glaringly, Ronald Reagan. The omission subtracted from a book that was once again very engrossing, and realistically, very difficult to put down. Still, how does any big-time thinker leave out Reagan when contemplating the fall of the Soviet Union? This isn’t to minimize the Pope’s role, but does Osnos really believe the Pope, Lech Walesa, Sharansky and others would have been nearly as bold absent Reagan courageously stating at the House of Commons in 1982 that “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history”? Or Reagan telling Mikhail Gorbachev to his face that “We win. You Lose”? Reagan’s role in the Cold War was ignored in the book, but Osnos twice unearths Clark Clifford’s line uttered at Katherine Graham’s house about Reagan being “an amiable dunce.” Osnos plainly isn’t partisan in all ways, A View wouldn’t be nearly as readable if he were, but it’s at least arguable that a very excellent book was occasionally brought lower by the partisanship that, in the author’s defense, is within all of us.
Where Osnos’s quietude about Reagan’s merits becomes more interesting is when he writes of Nancy Reagan. He clearly enjoyed working with her, and unlike many famous authors, he writes that “I never recall her showing impatience with us.” He also writes highly of the speechwriter most associated with Reagan in Peggy Noonan. They say capitalism brings out compassionate acts from those who are internally scrooge-like, and just the same, it would seem that a desire to prosper results in strange bedfellows. Osnos is a Democrat, obviously, but as a publisher and editor he’s cheered on more than a few from the GOP, or conservative side.
Thinking a little bit more about what Osnos saw in Moscow, why isn’t he libertarian today? If he saw up close just how backwards near total government control from the Commanding Heights was, why would he think what fails in total works in limited fashion? Osnos cites Americorps more than once as a triumph of the Clinton years, your reviewer has never heard of Americorps, but what allegedly heroic government creations exceed the genius of those created in the for-profit sector? It’s probably naïve, but those who saw the horrors of state control the most closely (add Hedrick Smith and Fox Butterfield to this list) should be most skeptical about the role of government today….
Away from partisanship or a lack of it, the book ultimately hums along because the author is a great storyteller with very interesting things to say about very interesting people.
I’d never heard of Jason Epstein, a senior personage at Random House, but wish I’d met him. I’ve met his wife, Judith Miller, in of all places the green room at Fox. The endlessly urbane Epstein apparently once told a complaining Mario Cuomo (his wife couldn’t find his book in San Francisco bookstores) that “Governor, no author since Homer has ever found his book in a bookstore.”
As for the atmosphere of publishing in the 1980s, the young people were in pursuit of “evening fun, cocaine, booze.” Love or hate all three, you want to see what Osnos saw.
Alan Dershowitz had a “nasty belligerence” to him, while Tip O’Neill, under pressure to deliver the gossip in his own memoir, told his editor that “JFK would screw a skunk.” Bill Clinton was a “superb politician” and “political thinker,” but also a “jerk.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar couldn’t be bothered to smile at his son, Evan. Oh well, there’s a reason he’s never moved far in basketball post-NBA despite being a remarkable player. It’s hard to find someone who can say they were charmed by him.
Osnos also wrote at length about the economics of publishing, which will be of particular interest to those who’ve been published, or who want to be. Most interesting is when he writes of the economics of a “six-figure deal” that everyone wants. Osnos is pretty clear that for most authors lucky enough to reach the designation, the victory is hollow. Agents take their 15 percent, followed by taxes, followed by essentially working for less than the minimum wage. The view here is that the best economics in publishing are the 50/50 splits that right-of-center publishers increasingly offer people like yours truly.
Osnos also offers lots of interesting anecdotes about how primitive technology used to be. Among other things, Marilyn Monroe for a time lived in the building his parents raised him and his brother in in New York City, but when they crossed paths they didn’t have a camera (this being the 1950s) to snap her. Osnos’s group house at Brandeis didn’t have a TV such that JFK’s assassination wasn’t as real to them as it would have been to later generations. Phone calls were so expensive in the ‘70s that Osnos “would advise the foreign desk days in advance that I was planning one” from Moscow to Washington, D.C. On his first day at Random House in 1984, there was a typewriter waiting for him at his desk….
This is good information for younger readers on its face to show the evolution of technology, but also raises contradictions. As Osnos brings A View to a close, he writes of “fault line[s] in “our culture” that allegedly include “inequality.” This read as a throwaway line. Osnos can’t believe this, can he? The primitive nature of technology was made less so by – yes – the unequal. His son Evan knows China very well, which means Osnos pere must know how tragically awful life was like in China before the mass production of market goods by the unequal. Inequality as a pejorative is beneath both ideologies.
Osnos hits Trump hard here and there, which he probably felt he had to given his audience. Ok, it’s understandable, we’ve all got flocks to feed, but there’s a veiled attempt to blame him for the coronavirus? Oh, come on. The consumer of news that Osnos is must be aware of Ron Klain’s assertion that the Obama administration was woefully unprepared for H1N1, and that if the virus had been a real killer, 50 to 60 million Americans would have died. To be clear, the latter is not a dig at Obama. It’s instead a dig at the notion that the politically skilled should have virus strategies. Such a view insults the Constitution, and also reason.
So while Trump has Osnos a bit downcast, he ends his great book on a happy note. Indeed, left out of this review (Tunku Varadarajan already covered it in his typically excellent account of A View) is where Osnos came from, of his amazingly resilient parents and brave older brother escaping untold Nazi horrors in Poland ahead of reaching the United States. Osnos was born in India as they made their way to the U.S., a journey that ended with prosperity of the Beresford (look it up) variety in Manhattan. What a story. Osnos knows it. As he puts it in the book’s penultimate sentence, “If the human race, for all it has been through over the millennia, were not resilient, we certainly would not have gotten this far.” Amen.
How could anyone, least of all Osnos, be at all pessimistic about Trump, Joe Biden or anyone else in consideration of his late brother’s, or his parents’ remarkable triumphs against massively more imposing odds (Jozef and Marta Osnos started over in Manhattan at the respective ages of 41 and 38) in a much crueler world? Our problems are so small today (regardless of ideology) relative to the way that the world was when Osnos was born. Which is where I’ll leave it. Though we don’t share the same political views, I’m even more optimistic about the present and future precisely because people like Peter Osnos live in the United States.