“We know this about Mitt Romney…he’s not a job creator. When he was governor of Massachusetts, they were 47th out of 50 in job creation. His experiences in downsizing and outsourcing jobs and bankrupting companies and walking away with a lot of money for himself. His economic ideas are the failed economic ideas that we tried for eight years…their message is: You didn’t clean up our mess fast enough.”—
One lesson is that Washington really hasn’t been taken over by moneyed groups. In a democracy, even the rich are entitled to promote their interests. It’s true that their lobbyists and lawyers sometimes win lucrative tax breaks, subsidies or regulatory preferences. But as the spending numbers show, their influence is exaggerated, especially considering their tax burden. The richest fifth of Americans pay nearly 70 percent of federal taxes (included in this group, the richest 10 percent pay 55 percent), estimates the CBO.
The larger lesson is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, American politics have not become insensitive to the “the people.” In many ways, just the opposite is true. Politicians are too responsive to popular will. The real Washington is in the business of pleasing as many people as possible for as long as possible. There are now vast constituencies dependent on the largesse of the federal government. This is the main cause of huge “structural” budget deficits, meaning that they aren’t simply a hangover from the Great Recession.
On Nov. 22, 1963, when he was told that John F. Kennedy was dead, and that he was now president, Lyndon B. Johnson later recalled, “I was a man in trouble, in a world that is never more than minutes away from catastrophe.”
He said he realized that “ready or not, new and immeasurable duties had been thrust upon” him and that he could not allow himself to be overwhelmed by emotion: “It was imperative that I grasp the reins of power and do so without delay. Any hesitation or wavering, any false step, any sign of self-doubt, could have been disastrous. The nation was in a state of shock and grief. The times cried out for leadership. … The entire world was watching us through a magnifying glass. … I had to prove myself.”
At the heart of “The Passage of Power,” the latest installment of Robert A. Caro’s magisterial biography of Johnson, is the story of how he was catapulted to the White House in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, how he steadied and reassured a shell-shocked nation, and how he used his potent political skills and the momentum generated by Kennedy’s death to push through Congress his predecessor’s stalled tax-cut bill and civil rights legislation and to lay the groundwork for his own revolutionary “war on poverty.”
It’s a breathtakingly dramatic story about a pivotal moment in United States history, and just as Johnson used his accumulated knowledge of the art of power to push the nation along the path he’d envisioned, so in these pages does Mr. Caro use the intimate knowledge of Johnson he’s acquired over 36 years to tell that story with consummate artistry and ardor, demonstrating a tirelessness — in his interviewing and dissection of voluminous archives — that rivals his subject’s.
This engrossing volume (spanning 1958 to 1964) is the fourth and presumably penultimate volume in a series that began with “The Path to Power,” published back in 1982, and it showcases Mr. Caro’s masterly gifts as a writer: his propulsive sense of narrative, his talent for enabling readers to see and feel history in the making and his ability to situate his subjects’ actions within the context of their times. Of all the chapters in Johnson’s life, this is the one most familiar to most readers, but Mr. Caro manages to lend even much-chronicled events, like the Cuban missile crisis and Kennedy’s assassination, a punch of tactile immediacy.
All of Caro’s books on Johnson have been nothing short of excellent. I cannot wait to get this one.
It’s not clear why backgammon and chess − which both originate in the East − are perceived in Israeli society in such an unequal and opposite way. The origin of chess was blurred in Israel, and it is considered a rational, European game with an intellectual aroma, a game of profound thought that requires strategy and long-term planning. On the other hand, backgammon is still attributed to Mizrahim and Arabs, and suffers from bad public relations.
What don’t they say to disparage this light and enjoyable game? From labeling it a game of dice and luck, which is linked to gambling and doesn’t require thought, to calling it a game that symbolizes idleness and the unemployed. Worst of all, there is total disregard for the thoughtful elements of the game, including elements of statistics and mathematics, alongside long-term thinking that precisely parallels chess, and complex possibilities for calculation along with creativity and skill, which are undoubtedly required of the participants.
The history of backgammon is not sufficiently clear, and there is a dispute regarding its country of origin. The first record of the game as we know it today appears in Persian texts, where its invention is attributed to Bozorgmehr, a sixth-century politician and scientist. The game is also mentioned in the writings of the Indian poet Bharthari, who lived at the end of the sixth century. The Iranians insist that they are the official fathers of the game and that it is part of their contribution to humanity.
In history books studied in Iranian schools before and after the 1979 revolution, says Dr. Haggai Ram, a specialist in Middle Eastern studies, you can find expressions of great pride that emphasize Iran’s achievements and ancient culture in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, chess and backgammon.
The game apparently developed from two ancient ancestors about 5,000 years ago, which compete for the title of the “oldest board game in the world.” The first was the Royal Game of Ur, common in Mesopotamia (which comprised parts of today’s Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey). The second is Senet, which originated in Egypt. Both game boards were composed of squares, as was a game common in the Roman Empire, The Game of the 12 Signs. The direct ancestor of backgammon is Tabula, which is mentioned in texts from the Byzantine Empire, and is apparently a development of 12 Signs. The game board was identical to that of modern backgammon, and each player had 15 gaming pieces, but their movement was determined by throwing three dice.
Sometime in the seventh century the game crossed borders and arrived in Europe. The Christian Church was not pleased. The gambling that accompanied the game and the fact that it was attributed to Islamic countries during a period of tension between the religions served as an excuse to fight against the phenomenon. But in the 11th century backgammon got lucky and attracted the very same people who were opposed to its dissemination − priests in England and France who became dedicated players.
The battle didn’t end so quickly, however. During the reign of King Henry VIII, there were repeated attempts by the Anglican Church to boycott the game, but the battle failed and backgammon captured church leaders once again. In the 16th century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, its status was established and it became a popular and beloved game.
The 18th-century British philosopher David Hume was familiar with the wonders of the game. In the epilogue to his important book “A Treatise of Human Nature,” he found time to praise backgammon and note its good qualities. Hume reveals that in order to free himself from the depression and philosophical insanity that enveloped him, he did three things: Ate an enjoyable meal at noon, conversed and spent time with his friends, and played backgammon.
Backgammon was documented by painters from the 16th to the 19th centuries − for example, in the 1562 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Triumph of Death,” which contains important information for historians about the lifestyle of 16th-century Europe. Among the many hobbies and preoccupations common during that period, a backgammon board can be identified in the painting. In Jacob Duck’s 17th-century painting “Game of Backgammon,” a group of players are trying their luck and skill in a corner of a house.
But even in art, backgammon did not escape criticism. In many paintings it appears in the context of gambling, promiscuity and Oriental exotica. In the most biting of these, a painter satirically mocked the gambling of the upper classes and portrayed monkeys playing backgammon with a sack of money next to them. Jacob Duck’s “Soldiers and Women in a Tavern” portrays lazy soldiers wasting time on card games and backgammon, accompanied by prostitutes.
Dr. Ram assumes it is possible that European travelers who saw the game being played in a relaxed atmosphere in coffeehouses saw it as conveying idleness. “The Ottoman Muslim world was seen as an Oriental world of promiscuity and an absence of rationality and scientific thinking, as opposed to what the West thought of itself, and backgammon served as an additional element that helped to etch this idea in Western consciousness.”
I certainly love me some chess, but there is no reason whatsoever to disparage backgammon in order to elevate chess. Given that my family on both sides is from Iran, both games have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I guess that makes it easier for me to love both games, but it shouldn’t be difficult for anyone to do so, and as the article points out, there is a great deal of thought and calculation that goes into a backgammon game.
“Indeed, I simply can’t imagine competence as anything save admirable, for it is very rare in this world, and especially in this great Republic, and those who have it in some measure, in any art or craft from adultery to zoology, are the only human beings I can think of who will be worth the oil it will take to fry them in Hell.”—H.L. Mencken (via Terry Teachout).
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The one everyone knows (and quotes). Parodied, spoofed, and misremembered, Austen’s celebrated zinger remains the archetypal First Line for an archetypal tale. Only Dickens comes close, with the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light etc…”—
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