Monthly Archives: July 2012

Big-Eared Tu (Tu Yueh-Sheng): Great Non-Fictional Character

(What follows is a mild re-arrangement of content from Sterling Seagrave’s too little known The Soong Dynasty)

He was a man with the relaxed, satisfied eyes of a well-fed rat in a starving city. His shaved egg-shaped head was flanked, of course, by large jug ears. He was born very poor, his parents died when he was very young, and he was given frequent beatings by his adoptive uncle, leaving him a face that was a pile of lumps surrounding large, yellow teeth. Born in Kaochiao, it was on the Shanghai waterfront that he made his career, first as a pear seller, then as an opium dealer and killer for hire.

There were three gangs, the red, the blue, and the green which dominated the port city. Tu started out in the red, before the three joined forces, and Tu was made head of the green gang, which would soon take over all opium traffic in the city’s international settlement, that part controlled by colonial powers such as France, Germany, and Japan, where their respective citizens worked and pleasured. Tu would end up controlling all the city’s opium, and all the city’s guilds, from longshoremen to bank tellers. Shanghai’s postal workers let him pry into any man’s mail. Any company he wanted, he bent their board of directors to his will, and their employees made part of a guild that marched to his orders. Occasionally, a man might disagree with big-eared Tu. That man would be sent a gorgeous coffin, and that man would then come round to a different way of thinking. Tu soon had millions from others’ easy living, and he gave it away freely. He gave freely to widows, he gave freely to orphans, all of Shanghai’s many misfortunates. He liked nothing better than bullying Shanghai’s pawnbrokers, the vermin who preyed on the indebted. He relaxed by smoking opium with the Blue Chamber District’s prostitutes, women who had feet bound to three inches or less.

Big-eared Tu knew the Kungs, the family that ran the Shanghai banks. Big-eared Tu went to whorehouses with Chiang Kai-Shek. During the beginning of the Chinese civil war between the communists and the nationalists, it was the green gang led by big-eared Tu, with help from the colonial powers, which liberated Shanghai for Chiang, the city’s merchants paying a hefty tax for their liberation. With Chiang in power, Tu became a respectable figure, not only sitting on the Currency Reserve Board, but lauded as an influential resident and well-known public welfare worker in Shanghai’s Who Who. He continued to control opium, not just in Shanghai, but throughout China, with Yunnan province bright with the red, white, and mauve colors of the crop. He exported heroin overseas, sometimes in diplomats’ luggage, and when he couldn’t meet local opium demand with local supply, he imported from Persia. Tu remained a close friend of the state, and it was this closeness that allowed the traffic to take place. A good chunk of drug sales went into the treasury, allowing finances to stay upright, whatever financial mis-steps the state might make. When the government had a bond sale, green gang soldiers strong-armed Shanghai merchants into buying them. When american warplanes needed to be bought to fight communists, Tu gave up the cash. Once, the finance minister’s wife tried to be helpful, and told Tu of some upcoming foreign exchange transactions, so he could make a little change. Tu misheard the advice, and lost a good chunk of money. When he asked the finance minister to be compensated for his loss, he got a rare refusal. That night, the finance minister was gifted with a beautiful coffin. He convened the central bank’s board, and reimbursed a patriotic citizen.

When outrage became overwhelming at the plague of opium addiction in the country, Chiang organized a National Opium Suppression Committee, which simply formalized the tithes drug producers handed over to the state. Tu was made a Chief Communist Suppression Agent fo Shanghai, giving him and the gang license to do violence to whoever they wished. The new deal was sealed with six million dollars handed over to Chiang as advance down payment. Even Tu could sometimes change his mind, and right afterwards, he asked for the money back. The prime minister gave back the six million, but in government bonds. That week, when the prime minister was leaving Shanghai’s train station, a group of men fired a mass of bullets at him and his bodyguards. The prime minister’s secretary, walking alongside him, was riddled with bullets and died. The prime minister, unscathed, got a message as lucid as an ornate coffin: we can hit you as easily as we can hit him. The french administration soon tried to take a hard line on opium as well. Tu paid off the consul-general and police captain of Shanghai’s french area, but the hard line persisted and the two men were recalled. Tu invited both men to his house for a farewell banquet, after which both became violently ill, the consul dying in agony. A dinner guest later noticed that Tu always drank his tea from a small golden teapot, kept only for his use, its cover sealed by a golden chain, its spout so thin and snaking nothing might be placed in it.

After WW II, Tu’s power faded. He was a dealer who’d for decades gotten high on his own supply. He had a the wealth of a pasha, and rotten teeth. His eyes were dark and blurry as swamp water. When his son got involved in stock fraud, the son was arrested, tried, and convicted. If anyone got a coffin, it made no difference now. When the communists fought again for Shanghai, Tu would not be fighting back. He fled to Hong Kong days before Mao’s takeover, there to spend the last years of his life, so poisoned with dope he could no longer walk. When he was still at his zenith, he took out the usual death insurance, and was baptised in the christian faith. That no lightning struck the church might be taken as a symptom of an undemonstrative divinity, a very forgiving divinity, or no divinity at all. Chiang’s wife thought she saw a sign that the creed had been sincerely embraced: kidnappings in Shanghai, after all, had gone down.

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He Hates You: A Profile Of Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s Media Assassin

The final part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, The Big Enchilada, his memoir of working in the George W. Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

(Supporting quotes are placed in the footnotes, to make for easier readability.)

This is an attempt at a summary of what I’ve learned in reading the books of Stuart Stevens, one of Mitt Romney’s top strategists in this election (Stevens began as Romney’s chief strategist; whether he still holds the same title or whether the title holds the same meaning is a question I leave to other Mittologists): he supervises many aspects of the campaign, and is most heavily involved in their ad creation. The profile sketched in Draper’s “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” and Parker’s “An Unconventional Strategist” is of an almost bohemian figure, a cutthroat tactician, but also a sharp dresser, an accomplished athlete, a gourmet, a man who has written travel books and television screenplays. The image given is of a man who is a successful participant in this blood-sport, but also beyond it, a man congenial to us, lacking the stodgy and visor shaded thinking of the typical politico’s analysts and legbreakers.

The impression that I formed from his books is entirely different: that this is a highly intelligent, very well-read man whose work is unimpeded by any kindred feeling for any man or woman outside himself. It is not just that he is often bileful, but that he seems to lack any compass of how this bile is perceived by others. He does seem to dislike, if not despise, almost everyone: the irish can’t govern themselves1, the belgians are pretentious cowards2, the english have too many teeth and too much fat3, and he really, really hates the germans4. The south is full of people who are annoyingly, incessantly sweet5. He fantasizes about strangling a woman with a gas hose6. The political consultant hero of his novel, Scorched Earth, imagines himself tearing out a woman’s vocal cords with his teeth7. The governor of that same novel, easily one of its most sympathetic characters, declares that the people of Mississippi deserve their lasting poverty for taking part in the confederacy8. In the same scene, this most sympathetic character calls the japanese a racist, narrow minded people. Stevens compares capitalist icon Lee Iacocca to the genocidal Mao Tse-Tung9. The cause of polish solidarity, which Mitt Romney will celebrate this week, stirred the hearts of many – not me, sniffs Stevens10. Those who feel guilt about making fun of Romney’s faith may take some comfort: Stuart Stevens has joked about mormons as well11.

Stevens describes his own early violent desires as seemingly like those of an emerging psychopath12, and I think this is truer than he might realize. The very qualities, however, that limit him as a writer are a perfect fit for this profession of political consultant, which is attack, attack, attack, the only meaning to the process in the attack itself, the object of the attack or the underlying idea of the attack of no consequence.

For this is the other revelation of these books, that this long-time republican consultant seems to have no ideology whatsoever. Neither his Bush campaign memoir, The Big Enchilada, nor his novel about a Mississippi senatorial race, Scorched Earth contain any political ideas he is in favor or against, these books being entirely about process, the effects necessary for a convention speech, or the methods to destroy an opponent. In 1995, Stevens passionately defended the conduct of Newt Gingrich, and this past primary season he helped end his career13. This should only be surprising if one expects any political convictions or ideals from such a man. If anything, he has the markers of the urban progressive, reviled so often by the right as the enemy of the nation. He considers Calvin Trillin one of his heroes, he makes various noises that Reagan was an absurd choice for president14, and that Reagan’s appointees were idiots15. He prefers living in New York City to anywhere else16, and he believes in quality, organic food17, just as Michelle Obama does.

Elections, since they have nothing to do with ideas for this man, appear to be only exercises in contempt, contempt for the opponent, but also the voter. He makes clear in Enchilada that he does not expect any politician to keep their promises18, in his novel Scorched the consultant and a reporter commiserate on how indifferent they are to the poor of Mississippi19, this same consultant dislikes any contact with voters20, this same consultant makes gleeful fun of various idiot proto-Tea Party candidates21, this same consultant doesn’t care what happens after the election22. The results of a senatorial election of Scorched are over-ridden so that a segregationist governor might be given the post23: this man, by the way, is easily the most sympathetic character of the book24. The only other purpose elections have for Stevens is as a source of wealth. Like his current candidate, he has so much money that he no longer has a sense of those who have little or none. He spends his days in Feeding Frenzy eating in expensive restaurants and working out25. He then goes, without any need to save anything, on a thirty day trip to Europe where he gorges on multi-course meals26.

There is another possible characteristic shown in these books that might make Stevens especially suited for political work. It is hinted at in Parker’s “Unconventional Strategist”, when fellow consultant Mike Murphy describes him as “a slippery character”. Reading his various books and articles, it appears that he attended five schools in six years; he is eighteen in 1972, and in 1978 starts work on his first congressional campaign. There is a college in the United States27, then he’s an Oxford undergrad28, an Oxford graduate29, then attending two of the best film schools in the United States30, one of them being UCLA31. I assume he received a degree as an Oxford undergrad in order to attend Oxford graduate school, and he states that he received a degree at one of his film schools; an extraordinary achievement in six years, yet one which he is strangely modest about. Oxford is never mentioned in an early profile which cites his attendance at UCLA32, Oxford is never mentioned on any of the books’ author profiles, though publishers are annoyingly insistent on putting such credentials there33, Oxford is not mentioned in Enchilada though the film schools are34. These omissions are not just restricted to Stevens: though he has written and produced for television, UCLA does not name him among their alumni35.

This characteristic may also involve a wife. This marriage, at this point, has lasted almost thirty years. She arrives to meet him, but remains forever off-screen in his book Malaria Dreams36. She is mentioned, but never actually appears, in Enchilada; by the end of the book, Stevens appears to have forgotten that he’s married37. The wife goes unmentioned in his tour of China, Night Train To Turkistan. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens tours Europe with a beautiful former model on their way to meet her fiancé and a wife is never mentioned. When he promotes the book on “Charlie Rose”, Rose mentions that he’s married, then makes vicious fun of his traveling through Europe with a model instead of his wedded companion38. He writes of a pre-consulting career, teaching rugby in Switzerland at the same school where his wife taught: but he appears to have already begun his consulting work long before this39. He has written five books, but does not appear to have dedicated a single one to his wife40. Another small idiosyncrasy: he was a guest on eight episodes of “Charlie Rose” over ten years, but never wore a wedding ring41. I leave the deductions to others, but believe the case of Jon Hinson might carry some insight42. I do not like venturing into such territory, and I have made my defenses elsewhere.

This same trait may well be on display in one of his travel memoirs. What may, may, be fabulism makes Malaria Dreams his most interesting book. It is a trip taken by him, accompanied again by a beautiful woman, from the Central African Republic to Algeria. He is enlisted in this trip by a friend who is a diamond smuggler, and the purpose of the trip is to transport a vehicle, most likely loaded with diamonds, from the C.A.R., up Africa, through the Sahara, back to Europe43. There are a number of details which make you question whether this trip takes place as described, beyond the unbelievability of a man driving through the Sahara, on his own, with no previous experience in this whatever, with a companion equally inexperienced. He arrives in the C.A.R. in early October of that year, mentions getting travel papers beforehand in London, where they had the worst storm of the century, placing him in England on October 16th and 17th. So, in mid-October, he is somehow in both Africa and London at once44. He goes to Cameroon in November, and witneses a Unification Day celebration, which traditionally takes place on October 1st45. He travels through Chad, and writes of the on-going war with Libya, though a ceasefire had been effect since September46. He goes to Burkina Faso in late November or early December, where he writes of seeing the military on high alert because of a coup that took place days earlier. This coup did take place, but in mid-October47. The U.S. dollar was collapsing in value versus the french franc, but his rate of exchange stays the same throughout, a rate of exchange that seems to have no parallel with what the dollar was trading for at any point around that time48. He later remembers a part of the trip in Feeding Frenzy, catching a fish in the river Niger that cannot be found there, from a fish family that cannot be found in Africa, but can be found in his native Mississippi49. He travels through the Sahara, and arrives at Adrar, an incredibly hot place, with a summer heat in December. After the heat of the desert, and the heat of this town, he waits by lying on the hood of his vehicle, without suffering any burns at all, or even taking note of the hot metal50. During the trip, he reads The Conquest of the Sahara, which features a man, Cheik-Ben Bou Djemaa, a double agent who led a group of french forces to their doom. When Stevens is in Adrar, he meets a man with this very same name, with the writer without comment of whether it is a pseudonym, coincidence, ironic joke, or what: is the name invented, or the entire character?51

The book’s possible inventioning has an interesting relevance given the current witch-hunt against Huma Abedin, backed by Romney adviser John Bolton52. For this book, which begins with the writer enlisted in a diamond smuggling enterprise, continues on through episodes that appear to have false qualities, ends with the writer smuggling money into Algeria53 and with him meeting a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, at the time still on the U.S. watchlist of terrorist groups. The man is treated sympathetically, and is entirely innocuous54. It does, however, further raise the question of what elements are true and false in this account. I do not think there is any sinister secret hidden here, but I do wonder: how temperate do you think the Romney campaign would be if their opponent, or a target that might garner them a few votes, had written such a book? Because I think a book which begins with a diamond smuggling scheme, ends with a meeting with a PLO member, carries events that appear to be fabrications, written by a man whose education appears slightly ersatz, could most certainly be constructed into something sinister by a malicious soul: a man who oversaw a smuggled diamond sale, then brought the money into Algeria for the PLO, with this book written as a handy cover for his activities. Do I think this is what took place? Absolutely not. I cannot guess what the true events of this book are, but I don’t think this ridiculous episode is the heart of any terror network. In doing so, I’ve been more merciful, more restrained than John Bolton in the campaign against Abedin, more so that Matt Drudge or the various Breitbart sites in publishing every possible rumor about the president, from his birth certificate to the possibility he was a CIA agent55.

Were all these goons, dunces, and wastrels so concerned with national security that they find meaning in every scrap or whisper, they no doubt would demand an investigative look into the trip of this Romney adviser, that began with diamond smuggling and ended with a meeting with someone in the PLO. No doubt if it were a democratic candidate, or one of their aides, they would call for such a persecution. But these games have nothing to do with security, it is entirely about political advantage, tossing a life to the rabid mob for petty gain. It is a game Stuart Stevens knows very well, plays very well, and we allow him to play it. He is not the first cause of our dysfunctional politics, only a bileful creature who has found a very friendly ecosystem. Stuart Stevens elects candidates, apparently indifferent to whatever comes after, whatever the devastating effects for the rest of us. These posts might serve as a reminder that elections have consequences, even for him.

Simone Weil, in “The Iliad, or The Poem of Foce”, writes of the way force transforms a man into a thing: “He is alive; he has a soul; and yet – he is a thing.”56 It is this which takes place in an election, between opponents, you reduce them to a thing, and the tactician who sees man as only things has an advantage over the rest of us. Turning a man into a thing is what I’ve done in these posts, and any pleasure I might take would only be the same sordid joy Stuart Stevens takes in his work.

1 From The Big Enchilada, on trying to find music for the Republican National Convention:

Nobody had actually asked Elton John (who probably hated Republicans more than he hated growing old) or U2 (who, despite the fact they come from a country that can’t govern itself, seemed to have quite a few opinions on how to perfect the world) whether they would love nothing more than to perform in front of a few thousand Republican yahoos in Philadelphia for free. These conference calls were like talking to people on hallucinogenic drugs, only they didn’t realize they were on drugs.

ungovernable ireland

2 From Feeding Frenzy:

Brussels is a place that likes to take itself seriously. It’s a culture based on international trade and diplomacy, endeavors that make a virtue of blandness and neutrality. It’s probably a preview of how all of Europe will end up if this crazed rush to European unity continues: big bland cities without cultural distinction. The Belgians pretend to love all of this and actually act as if it’s important that they are the home of the E.U. – the European Union.

It probably makes sense that the Belgians have embraced with great fervor the concept of eradicating national distinctions, since they have never been very good at establishing a national distinction in the first place. A country for only a little over 150 years, they’ve tried to cobble together a national identity from bits of France and Holland, never with great success.

Having been twice conquered in their brief history tends to focus a nation on unoffensive tasks, like making money. The Swiss have done this deliberately and have at least managed to preserve some national dignity with the notion that they are in control of their own destiny, intentionally neutral, backed by a civilian army of great, if untested, repute.

It’s clear the Belgians never should have tried to be important. When your own king – Leopold II – sums up the national character as “Petit pays, petit gens” (“Small country, small people”), this is hardly a call to national greatness. Perhaps out of boredom, Leopold tried to convince his country that they should play a role on the world stage, and certain delusions of grandeur were inevitable. But a colony or two can not obliterate a national culture, so when the Germans set up field kitchens in the Grand Palai in the central square of Brussels – as they’ve done twice so far this century – the Belgians reverted to form and did not take to their modest forests with pledges of eternal struggle. Yes, there were heroes and, even more prominently, heroines, like Gabrielle Petit, but these were no mujahideen. They mostly decided to act as if they just didn’t care and called it passive resistance, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

belgium hatred part one brussels passive resistance

On the difficult to navigate tunnels of Brussels:

As some sort of man-made anti-invasion defense, the tunnels would have worked ingeniously – sinister, hideous diversions intended to swallow whole tank divisions and spit them up miles from their intended destination…Of course, that presumed the Belgians must actually have been willing to fight instead of rolling over and playing dead – a trait they have seldom evidenced this century.

belgians rolling over and surrendering

3 A crowd in an english restaurant:

The crowd was Typical English Country – which is to say, a mostly unattractive bunch with too many teeth and a consistently thick subcutaneous layer of fat that wasn’t going to be decreasing by the evening’s end. But this was a little world that had been designed to hold these people, and just as a basically disagreeable piece of furniture can look inviting if surrounded by complementary pieces, the clientele seemed perfectly appropriate.

english country crowd part one english country crowd part two

4 He encounters a german family during his European trip in Feeding Frenzy:

[He] was German. They were all German. Which was very troubling when I quickly realized what a likable, genuinely friendly person he was. It always troubles me when I come across Germans I like. It makes maintaining my rabid anti-German fervor all the more difficult, which, naturally, I resent terribly.

but they were germans

A three-star restaurant in Germany:

Life is an ironic business. Why else would it be that my faith in three-star greatness would be revitalized in Germany. Germany? I’m not making this up.

You see there’s a three-star that lurks just over the border from Strasbourg in the Black Forest. “The sport hotel and health clinic Traube-Tonach…which is internationally renowned.” That`s how their charming propaganda read. It was the “internationally renowned” that I liked. Ah yes, internationally renowned. But what? The hotel? The Black Forest? And more importantly, renowned for what?

This is Germany after all.

They have problems with their Mustang.

We had gone about a kilometer down the road when cars behind us started honking their horns. This, naturally I ignored. If there was something about my driving that was troubling to some BMW-driving German in a hurry to get to their bunker in the Black Forest, this was not a bad thing.


His companion, Rachel Kelly, proposes abandoning the Mustang, and going with a rental.

“And leave the Mustang! Just like that?” [says Stevens]

“Yes. With any luck at all, some German will steal it and be driven mad with frustration.”

She knew I disliked Germans. The idea did have some appeal.

A few cars, not many, had passed us without stopping.

“A German wouldn’t know the brakes were bad. They might get in and drive away and plow right into a tree.” This enjoyable scenario began to unfold in my head.

“Or maybe a big tanker truck. Lots of flames.”

“But that would snuff the truck driver too,” I cautioned.

“He would be German as well.”

“Ahhh…” It was a delightful notion.

maybe it would kill some germans

Stevens puts unleaded fuel into the car on a trip through Europe, causing it to spout a toxic gas. He and his companion, Rachel Kelly, discuss what they can do next:

“What do we do?” [says Stevens]

“We could stop and siphon out the old gas and put in new.”

“Siphon? Siphon with what?”

“A hose would probably be best, don’t you think?”

I thought about killing her, maybe with a hose wrapped around her neck.

“Just a thought,” she added, when she saw my look.

We were driving up a long incline, heading into steep hills.

Suddenly I started to laugh.

“Yes?” Rat asked.

An insane image had crowded into my brain, that here we were plunging into Germany and were actively going about the business of gassing Germans! I giggled maniacally and tried to nurse the very sick Mustang over the foothills of the western Black Forest.

“Tell me!” Rat demanded, laughing. “Tell me!”

gassing germans

5 A restaurant owner:

The proprietor was a woman somewhere in her forties or fifties; she had the stylishness of the French that masked her age well…It was a manner that reminded me of certain Southerners, without the sugary, over-the-top, incessantly cheerful quality that could make Southerners so annoying.


6 He and his companion, Rachel Kelly, when they have car problems.

“What do we do?” [says Stevens]

“We could stop and siphon out the old gas and put in new.”

“Siphon? Siphon with what?”

“A hose would probably be best, don’t you think?”

I thought about killing her, maybe with a hose wrapped around her neck.

choking rachel

7 The consultant, Matt Bonney, talks to two women.

“Look, let’s face it,” Ruthie said, “My sister on television is strictly a T and A kind of thing regardless of what she is doing. She’s a T and A kind of girl.”

“Oh,” Lisa said, “unlike being an anchorwoman like my sister. T and A has nothing to do with that, of course not. That’s strictly a matter of superior intellect. That’s why they hired Dawn. I mean, she’s just talking about plastic surgery now because it will make her smarter.”

Dawn! Matt’s vision went a little blurry around the edges.

“Plastic surgery?” Ruthie giggled. “She is not.”

Lisa laughed, and Ruthie turned to Matt. “Dawn doesn’t need any surgery, does she?” Ruthie asked. “Neck, eyes, cheeks?”

Matt wanted to reach across the table and bite her vocal cords right out of her throat.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Matt Bonney, in conversation with one of the women again:

Ruthie suddenly smiled. It was a huge smile that lit up her entire face. “We’re going to win,” she murmured, almost breathlessly. “This will do it for sure. Luke is finished!” She thought for a moment. “We ought to still do that spot you came up with, the one with Luke on vacation with those lobbyist sleazebags. Have you been able to get that tape yet?”

Her Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, and Matt thought very hard for an instant about biting it and ripping it from her throat with his teeth.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

8 Solomon Jawinski, the sympathetic governor, during an interview:

“Everybody worries about the Japanese, and, to be sure, they’re terrible people-”

“They are?”

“Of course! Look we might think of them now as smiling, camera toting technocrats, but let’s don’t forget, not too long ago they were a nation of sun-worshipping lunatics trying desperately to take over the world. They’re racist, narrow-minded people.” He shrugged. “We just don’t have the same values.”

“But the Japanese don’t worry you?”

“Not really. When it comes down to it, they’d rather be rich than powerful. But the Germans-”

“They’re worse?”

“Ab-so-lutely!” Down came the hand, up went the cigarette. “They still have this horrible sense of thwarted destiny. Lookit,” he took off his glasses and rubbed the dark circles surrounding his eyes like bruises, “one hundred years ago, this was the richest part of the country. Man, we were rich, rich, rich. But then we went and did a stupid, violent thing called secession. In five years we became the poorest part of the country, and one hundred years later, it’s still that way. And maybe that’s not so bad.

“It’s good to be poor?” Dawn looked genuinely shocked.

It’s good to have some kind of reminder of what happens when people do something horrible – like rebellion. The Germans, all those damn cars, the money – amnesia!” Slap! Jawinski’s big hand crashed down on his knee. “Amnesia! That’s where being rich like that does to you! Losing the war made us better people! Don’t you get it?”

“We’re gonna miss that man,” [TV station manager] Tom Riddell said gravely. “When you got a man crazy enough to actually speak his mind, it’s a real crime to let him go.”

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

9 Stevens speaking to a chinese man about the popularity of Iacocca’s autobiography in China.

“Can you buy Iacocca’s book in China?” [asked Stevens]

“Every day in the People’s Daily, two pages of the I-Coke-ah book is run.” [answered Lu Wei Hong]

“That’s almost the whole paper.”

“Yes. This is very important.”

Startling as the idea was, it did make a certain amount of sense that Iacocca would go over big in a country molded by Mao. The two had a lot in common: both were megalomaniacs, and both had a special knack for what might be called Succeeding Through Failure. Mao realized that he was losing his grip in 1965, so he launched the Cultural Revolution and reestablished himself as the dominant figure in China. Iacocca was fired at Ford, landed a job as head of a bankrupt company that made terrible cars, had to beg Congress for a billion dollars – all the sort of stuff that would have made any normal person embarrassed to appear in public. And yet he had the gall to strut around on national television in commercials, becoming a folk hero in the process.

Both were also fashion arbiters in their own right – Mao, the blue jackets and cap; Iacocca, the shirts with contrasting collars and cuffs. And both had been trading for years on one impressive achievement: Mao had pulled off the Long March, and Iacocca had overseen the creation of the Mustang.


10 In Malaria Dreams, while waiting for spare parts to repair their car:

So we waited until help arrived, and from a most unlikely source: Polish auto smugglers.

“We sell cars and give the money to Solidarity!” the couple boasted to Ann and me, expecting all Americans to have a soft spot for Lech Walesa and company.

polish solidarity

11 In Feeding Frenzy:

Living in New York, I had long ago developed a psychological defense to absurd restaurant prices based on specious rationalizations along the lines of “Well, it’s cheaper than a car” or “Mormons pay this much every couple of months to feed the average family of fifteen.” It helped, sort of.

mormons joke

12 From “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse”, by Stuart Stevens:

So I played football and rugby, boxed and wrestled, none of it particularly well. I tried basketball but always got into fights, mostly as a way to cover for the fact that I never could master that dribbling thing. This all works well enough through high school and college, but at a certain point you look up and the options for participating in sports as a socially accepted way to commit pleasurable acts of violence have narrowed. When most peers are focused on building a career and starting a family, it becomes problematic to admit that what you most enjoy in life is lining up and knocking the snot out of somebody, or vice versa. What once made you seem fun-loving and enthusiastic – so well-rounded! – now begins to paint a darker portrait of an emerging psychopath with serious developmental issues. You’re not just the aging lifeguard whose friends have all left the beach – you’re the aging lifeguard with a little serial killer practice on the side.

13 A transcript of this episode of “Charlie Rose” can be found here.

14 From Turkistan, when a chinese man invites Stevens and his traveling companion, Mark Salzman, to his family home:

“We would all have to come feast with my family in Korla,” Ali declared. “We celebrate Ark [the way Ali pronounces Mark Salzman`s first name] as the next President of the United States!”


“They think I look like an actor,” Mark explained. “And since Reagan is an actor and an American they figure I should be President too.”

I remember thinking that there was something disturbing about the amount of sense that made.

reagan as president pt1 reagan as president pt2

15 In Malaria, meeting the U.S. ambassador to the Central African Republic.

The American ambassador. Our meeting had been unsettling. Not that he wasn’t pleasant or forthcoming; in truth he’d proven a delightful, intriguing man, a Foreign Service pro (as opposed to a Reagan appointee dunce) with twenty years in Africa.

reagan dunce

16 Rat is Rachel Kelly, his travelling companion through Europe in Frenzy:

These are people who have given up pretending that food hasn’t taken an inordinate place in their lives or that they aren’t hopeless snobs when it comes to restaurants.

People like Rat and me, in other words. Which was probably the main reason we found it hard not to live in New York.

polish solidarity

17 In Frenzy, discussing the poor quality of food in the contemporary U.S.:

In America, there seem to be two competing forces. First, there is the negative pull of mass-produced food tugging everything down to a tasteless mediocrity. Waverly Root and Richard De Rochemont sum it up this way in Eating in America:

“Were it possible to envisage in one great glob the totality of what is now eaten in a single day by our fellow-citizens, whether at home, in institutions, in fast-food joints or in expensive restaurants, and to judge it in the light of what the country has produced in the past, and what it might produce again, the word ‘garbage’ would rise inevitably to mind and gorge.”

John and Karen Hess, in their brilliant attack on American food, The Taste of America lay much of the blame on the rise of mechanized farming and the spread of huge agricultural corporations:

The taste of the seasons is gone; it has been replaced by “carrying quality.” More and more of the produce grown in those far-off factories of the soil is harvested by machine. It is bred for rough handling, which it gets. A chemical is sprayed on trees to force all the fruit to “ripen” – that is, change color – at once, in time for a monster harvester to strike the tree and catch the fruit in its canvas maw.

polish solidarity

18 On first joining the George W. Bush campaign:

As I settled into the Bush world, I was astonished to realize that there was an assumption throughout the campaign that the policy would actually be used to govern once Bush was elected. This struck me as highly admirable and terribly unnecessary. For a while I tried to point out to Josh and his crew that once a candidate was elected nobody really expected that campaign policy proposals would be used to govern any more than promises made in a courtship were expected to be the guiding principles of a marriage when suddenly both partners are working and kids are running around the house.

candidates keep their promises part one underlin candidates keep their promises part two underlin

19 The consultant, Matt Bonney, and the reporter, Robert Newsome, enter a restaurant to eat. The significant parts receive my bolds:

Newsome stiffened as soon as he and Matt walked in the door.

“You always bring me to the nicest places,” he mumbled as Matt led him to a stool at the counter in the rear near the all-Chinese section. Newsome carefully wiped the counter with his paper napkin. His red face appeared to have been drenched with a garden hose.

“Who bothers you the most?” Matt leaned over to whisper in Newsome’s ear, “the niggers, the ‘necks, or the chinks?”

A frightened smile tried to fight its way onto Newsome’s face.

“Don’t forget I’ve been to your house in Washington, Bonney. I know how you live. Your stereo cost more than the per capita income of this god forsaken country.”

Matt started strenuously to object but then, calculating quickly in his head, realized with some embarrassment that Newsome was literally correct. But it was a wonderful stereo. “I live in a very middle-class neighborhood, you know that, Newsome. I’m not out there in Bethesda with all you rich white folks.”

Thank God there’s still some place for us. Jesus, I’ve been poor. Poor is boring. It sucks.”

“Look, Nuisance, I just brought you here so you could interview average voters three days before the election. I’m just trying to help you out, pal.” Matt beamed and ordered two cups of coffee from the girl, perhaps ten years old, behind the counter. She had the face of a Han Chinese, with skin that looked almost transparent.

“You don’t think I’ll do it?” Newsome challenged. He turned around on the stool and stared out at the crowd, his eyes flitting between the gruff Chinese men, the rambunctious black kids, the tired, middle-aged white men with the sullen quiet of the defeated. The fans droned overhead. Outside, it was already ninety degrees, the street glaring through the half-drawn shades like some exotic ray gun programmed to stun.

Newsome took a long look and turned around. He shook his head, staring straight ahead. “There was a time,” he began.

“Ah, yes,” Matt said.

“A time when I would have been dying to know just what every one of those unique souls was thinking. What made ’em tick. Were they going to vote? For whom? Why?” He shrugged and drank from his coffee cup. “Now, now, I think I just don’t care. I don’t want to be a part of their world and, God knows, I don’t want ’em part of mine. Jesus.”

“Yeah,” Matt said, watching their reflection in the mirror behind the counter. “Me, too.”

20 The consultant, Matt Bonney, and his wife, a congresswoman, who is equally contemptuous of the peons who put her into office:

When Matt got back to his townhouse on G Street, Southeast, Lisa was on the phone. “That’s just wonderful. Fine. Good.”

She had the mindlessly happy, I’m-not-really-listening tone she usually adopted when talking to one of her constituents. Matt figured it was probably someone on the Farm Bureau or maybe the Rotary Club president of Arcadia looking for a speaker. “Why, Matt just walked in.”

Matt frowned. Lisa knew – everyone knew – that it was dangerous to put Matt in contact with average voters. It was the surest way to guarantee a difficult situation.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

21 Matt Bonney, the political consultant, and his congresswoman wife laugh at the candidate he managed and his opponent.

“Nautical flags?” Lisa asked. “What do you know about nautical flags?”

“When I did Ted Larsen’s race in Texas. He was always having these meetings on his yacht. It was the only book on board. I think I memorized it.”

“Ted does not strike me as a big reader,” Lisa agreed.

Ted Larsen, a former baseball pitcher of legendary status and a weekend rancher, was now a U.S. senator from Texas.

“Reader? I asked him once why he never read, and he said that his fingers were too tired after pitching so he never got in the habit.”

“How could you work for somebody like that?” Lisa hooted. Her voice carried across the still river.

“Be quiet,” Matt warned. “And don’t forget, Ted was the intellectual in that race.”

Lisa thought for a moment. “Oh, that’s right. Jim Armstrong.”

Matt nodded. Jim Armstrong had been Ted Larsens opponent, a man who argued welfare moms should be sterilized after one child. At the time, it seemed a loony idea; but it was one that more and more people were supporting. It astounded Matt how easily people looked to government to do all sorts of things they themselves would never do.

proto tea party candidates

22 Matt Bonney, of Feeding Frenzy contrasting himself with his congresswoman wife, Lisa:

It was said by some that political consultants had too much influence on the governmental process, but Matt was yet to know a consultant who really gave half-a-damn about government. Government was that thing done by other people, the folks who actually wrote those reports that Lisa and her colleagues consumed like so much cotton candy. What Matt and his kind did were elections. That was as different from government as playing tuba in the high school band was from playing halfback on the team.

political consultants influence underlined

23 Solomon Jawinski and his opponent Luke Bonney agree to have Powell Bonney appointed senator by the governor.

“And let’s not kid ourselves that when it came down to it, there weren’t many people in this state who were happy with the choices before them.” [said Jawinski] He looked over at Luke with a wry grin. “Just about everybody hated us both and hated the fact that they had to choose between us. Something is wrong.”

Standing at the side of Jawinski, Luke Bonney nodded. The governor motioned for Luke to join him at the microphone.

“Both of us,” Jawinski continued, “believe the people deserve better. And instead of just complaining about it, we’re going to do something about it.”

“I,” Jawinski continued, “will, of course, no longer be governor. Lieutenant Governor Jack Tangent will be sworn in as the new governor. But it will be my-” he stopped here and rolled the word around delightfully, “recommendation that the new governor appoint Governor Powell Bonney to fill the remainder of the term.”

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

24 A good overview of his character can be found in the excerpt of Scorched Earth here.

25 Working out at the gym with his travelling companion, Rachel “Rat” Kelly before they leave on their trip:

Anyway, we were working on incline presses and she put it something like this: “What if we went to Europe and ate. Ate a lot.”

“Europe?” I asked her how, as we changed weights ferociously.

“I think we should go,” she said decisively. “Just to eat.” She said this last bit because I was looking sort of skeptical.

We liked to eat and did it a lot. It was really all we did together, go to restaurants and the gym, which made, I suppose, for an appallingly shallow sort of New York nineties-styled friendship. This never bothered me at all. Rat was an inspiration in the gym and a pleasure around the dinner table and neither one of us cared to ask a lot of difficult questions.

26 A sample menu, eleven courses

1. Sautéed perch with pine nuts, served warm.
2. Clams with carrots and assorted vegetables, minced finely, with a slice of very creamy regional chèvre.
3. Toast with a thick anchovy paste, warmed.
4. Clear tomato gelée with pureed artichoke, served cool.
5. Cool cannelloni stuffed with spinach, with a tomato confit on the side and a red curry sauce.
6. Mille-feuille shell with shredded radishes with an onion confit.
7. Gnocchi with crabmeat and scallops over a layer of white truffles.
8. Omble, a fish from Lake Leman, with frogs legs in a rich brown sauce (of cream, fish stock, and chives), along with a pea sauce with shelled peas and cream splattered around.
9. A baked tomato with girolles, carrots, and a beet-juice sauce.
10. Dorade royale with cracked wheat, shredded cabbage with beurre montée, a fried cabbage leaf on top.
11. And for dessert, peach juice with rose-petal liquor.

The Tuscan menu of L’Enoteca Pinchiorri, eight courses:

Coccoli col pesto toscano (deep-fried pasta with basil, pine nuts, and anchovies)
Triglie in Bianco e frittura d’erbe (red mullet fillets flavored with lemon and garlic)
Gamberoni allo spiedo e passato di gran farro (big shrimps wrapped into pancetta slices and served with bean and pearl-barley cream)
Bavette al ragno (homemade fettuccine, with sea bass, tomato, and hot pepper)
Tortelli di Altopascio (ricotta and spinach tortelli, with pecorino and cinnamon)
Faraona in tegame (guinea fowl, vegetable, and potato stew)
Tortino di riso allo zafferano, salsa Morellino (rice and saffron tart, tuscan sweet wine sauce)
Biscotti di Prato e piccola pasticceria

The Tuscan menu seemed like far too much, too many courses, too many tastes. So naturally, I ordered it. I had to.

tuscan menu part one tuscan menu part two

27 We can tell Stevens’ age in 1972, from what’s given us in various sources. From Malaria Dreams:

It was my birthday, the twenty-second of October.

birthday 22 october

From Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot, by Robert Draper, published November 30, 2011.

Stevens, a 58-year old Mississippi native (whom I have known for over a decade), is as wry, eclectic and mussed in appearance as his boss is earnest and buttoned up.

The mention of a college is from “Thank God, This Will Only Get Worse” by Stuart Stevens.

I’d tried it once in college when an exceptionally gorgeous girl of a Nordic type suggested a trip up Pikes Peak in Colorado as something of a first date. (That sort of squeaky-clean approach was popular at that time and place, a phase I hope has passed for those still dating in Colorado.)

28 From Feeding Frenzy:

We were in a little restaurant on the side of a cliff in a town called Eze, wedged between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monte Carlo. I was nineteen, I think, and on one of the many interminable vacations that Oxford likes to provide. She was a few years older, an American, but she had lived in France for a while, which seemed very impressive and somehow important. It was late March and not far away there were almost nude women lying on rocks they called a beach.


29 From “My Secret Life As A Muslim” by Stuart Stevens:

From my formative years as a grad student at Oxford, where there were many Muslims, there exist photographs of me attending a lecture entitled, “The History of Islam.” I was spotted many times riding my motorcycle in the vicinity of the Mosque on Bath Road. That I was visiting a girlfriend who lived nearby may only have been a clever deep cover deception. As proof of my success as a Muslim organizer, there are now four Mosques in Oxford, where there was only one when I was a student.

30 From The Big Enchilada:

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it. I explained that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make commercials and when he protested that I had just been to two of the fanciest film schools in the country, I tried to tell him that mostly what I did was watch old films and write little essays and listen to people like Vincente Minnelli tell us how it used to be. (Minelli wore a blazer the color of a canary yellow Post-it note. Perfect.)

film school part one film school part two

This race is in 1978, between Jon Hinson, the republican victor, and John Hampton Stennis.

From a wikipedia entry on Hampton’s father, John C. Stennis:

[John C.] Stennis married Coy Hines, and together, they had two children, John Hampton and Margaret Jane. His son, John Hampton Stennis (born ca. 1935), an attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, ran unsuccessfully in 1978 for the United States House of Representatives, having been defeated by the Republican Jon C. Hinson, then the aide to U.S. Representative Thad Cochran, who ran successfully to succeed James O. Eastland for the other Mississippi seat in the U.S. Senate.

31 From “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate”:

This free-form approach reflects the philosophy of the 40-year-old Mr. Stevens. Unlike most political consultants who rose from campaign ranks, he went to film school at the University of California at Los Angeles and has published fiction.

32 See above.

33 The profile for Turkistan

night train to turkistan bio

Malaria Dreams:

malaria dreams bio

Scorched Earth:

scorched earth profile

Feeding Frenzy:


Big Enchilada:

enchilada bio

34 See footnote 30.

35 The UCLA alumni lists for writers, producers, and documentary film-makers.

36 The first mention that he’ll be meeting his wife, who is flying in to Tamanrasset.

And Tamanrasset was a place I had to be – by the twenty-second of December. That was when my wife was arriving from America. Air Algerie promised – though I was dubious in the extreme – that it was possible to fly to Tamanrasset from Algiers; one flight a week but it could be done.

flight of wife

A brief mention on where he met his wife, in a discussion with a staff member at a mission where he is staying:

Danny Beck was one of the few nonclergy members at the mission and, except for a nun from New Orleans, the only American. She was a small, cheerful woman in her late thirties who belonged to the Ursuline order. I liked her right off when we fell into a detailed discussion of New Orleans’s better bars and she offered a superb comparative analysis of the Maple Leaf Bar versus Tipitinas, a famed dance club. She seemed touched when I told her I’d met my wife at Tipitinas. “How romantic,” she said, and then asked if Dr. John had played that night. “Or was it the Wild Tchoupitoulas Indians?”

tipitinas bar

The reader expects to meet the wife at the end of the book, but no: her flight has been delayed.

There is a strike in Algiers! That is why we could not get a circuit. A big strike!”

“I see.” I started to fall asleep.

“But this is very good news for your wife!”

“It is?”

“The airport is closed! Her flight from America will be delayed. You will have time to finish your car repairs and drive to Algiers. Everything will be happy!”

wife and algiers strike

37 These are the references to Stevens’ wife in Big Enchilada.

He quotes his wife’s praise for Karl Rove’s fountain pens:

With one of his elegant fountain pens – Karl had better taste in pens and paper than any man she knew, my wife maintained – Karl diagrammed the campaign structure.

taste in pens and paper

This is her, just out of reach, in Austin, on the night of the 2000 election after which the electoral result was held suspended for weeks.

But when I walked out on Congress Street I realized I didn’t have my car after all, that my wife had taken it home around 1 A.M., a lifetime ago. I walked down Congress Street in the rain looking for a cab.

my wife had taken it home

The forgetting of a wife takes place in the movement from “our” apartment to “my” apartment in New York City. A brief scene with Yvette, a helper on the Bush 2000 campaign:

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

our house

Here is Stevens leaving Austin. We are not told of his wife leaving before him. Again, my bold.

I left Austin right after the certification, thinking it was all over. The lease was up on our little limestone cottage and it seemed silly to move into a hotel. The truth was, I had come to hate the recount period, hated the way it made me feel like some kind of hanger-on. Karl was starting to focus on the first hundred days of the new administration, but that wasn’t what I did. I was a campaign guy and no matter what Bill Daley said, the campaign had ended on November 7, 2000.

our place in austin

Next page, now he’s back in New York. My bolded emphasis.

The night it finally ended, Wednesday, December 13, I watched the speeches on television just like everybody else. I was back in my apartment in New York, ready to resume my life, but still held in some kind of suspended animation by this horrible, tedious process. But now, yes, it was over.

my apartment

38 A transcript of the Charlie Rose piece is here.

39 From “Thank God, This Will Only Get Worse” by Stuart Stevens.

It happened in my late 20s when I was living in Switzerland, where my wife was teaching. I coached the school’s rugby team, but it would be a charitable understatement to say that I had a lot of time on my hands. One of the faculty members had raced cross-country at Middlebury, and he convinced me to tag along to a nearby ski area for a training session.

A year later, my entire life revolved around cross-country skiing. Any pretense of career or nonathletic ambition had been tossed aside for a slavish devotion to training, technique, equipment and racing. Actually, the races were just a small part of the equation. It was the 20-plus hours a week of skiing I craved, the two and sometimes three workouts a day, that blissful, purposeful exhaustion that made staying awake through dinner a legitimate challenge.

Then, when the season was over, I told myself it was time to grow up and get serious about pursuits worthy of an adult. Reluctantly, I moved on, working as a writer and as a political consultant, which, if nothing else, served as an outlet for my violent tendencies. But it didn’t take long to realize that my taste of the endurance life had created a hunger that normal life didn’t come close to satisfying.

This is already the early eighties; but Stevens’ first race was running Jon Hinson’s campaign for a congressional seat in Mississippi, in 1978.

40 The dedications.


“To my family, intrepid travelers in their own way, and C.A.N.”

night train to turkistan dedication

Malaria Dreams:

“In memory of Tom Hairston, Cooper Neill, Bruce Studders – old friends.”

malaria dreams dedication

Scorched Earth:

“In memory of Kendall Willson, who rarely missed the shot, and never the joke”

scorched earth dedication

Feeding Frenzy:

“For Paul Cubeta, who taught me how to read, and J.P. Cosnard, who tried to teach me how to eat.”

feeding frenzy dedication

The Big Enchilada, dedication:

“For Karl and Darby, Mark and Annie, for doing so much to make us feel at home”

Karl is Karl Rove, Darby was his then wife; Mark and Annie are Mark MacKinnon, another consultant on Bush 2000, and his wife.

echilada dedication

The Big Enchilada, acknowledgements:

“A most special thanks goes to Brian Selfon, Davi Humphries, MatthewSchuerman, Martha Sutro, Doreen Eliott and Rachel Abrams. Rachel Klayman was an extraordinary help and Peter Matson, as always, the best.”

enchilada acknowledgements

41 From the various episodes:

Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose Stuart Stevens without ring on Charlie Rose

42 A brief explanation might be found here.

43 In the meeting with Lucien which initiates the African trip:

“I spent a good bit of time in the CAR last year,” Lucien explained.

I nodded, methodically working my way through a bundle of saté skewers. Lucien was always going off to obscure corners of America. No one seemed to know what he did or why, though supposedly it had something to do with gold and diamonds.

“What I was wondering is” – he leaned forward and cocked an eyebrow – “if perhaps you would be interested in driving my vehicle back to Paris.”

lucien was involved in diamonds

In a talk with a Central African Republic local about why the truck is being held:

“I have been thinking about your Land Rover,” Henri [a local acquaintance] began unexpectedly. For the first time since arriving in Africa, the Land Rover did not, at the moment anyway, seem very important.

“What I cannot understand, if all Lucien has done wrong is not pay this fee on time, why do they make such a mess? Is that how you say, a mess?”

[a lawyer for the local government] Knepper thinks the minister [of mines] or Follope, the capitaine in the Brigade Minerale, is angry at Lucien. Maybe both.”

“I think,” Henri finally decided, “that the minister thought he was going to make some money out of Lucien and our friend Lucien did not allow this to happen. Money must be involved somewhere.”

lucien money must be involved somewhere

A conversation with the minister of mines on why the government won’t release the vehicle, as well as highlighting that the rover is expected to be used for smuggling, and the improbability of the whole venture:

“Tell me,” the minister began, “just what is your relationship with Lucien?” Then he smiled.

Alarms rang inside my head. The minister’s voice reminded me of the best sort of prosecutor: low-keyed, friendly, with traps set at the end of each seemingly harmless sentence.


“He is a friend?”

I plunged boldly ahead. “Sort of.”

A knowing smile. And you are here doing his business?”

“Oh, no.” Then I explained how I had come to be in the Central African Republic.

“Let me understand,” the minister queried patiently, “you were having dinner with your friend Lucien and he asked you to go to Africa to transport his vehicle and you said yes. This is what really happened?”

It suddenly sounded like the most preposterous thing I’d ever heard. “Well, tes. That’s pretty much what happened.”
The minister and the capitaine exchanged bemused looks. “And how long have you been involved in buisness with your friend Lucien?”

“I’m not. He’s just a friend.”

The looks came again. “And you come all the way to Africa to pick up a vehicle just for a friend?”

I said in a voice that sounded very tiny, “I thought it would be fun.”

minister of mines dialogue part one minister of mines dialogue part two

A visit to where Lucien bought his diamonds.

“It’s close to here that Lucien looked for his diamonds,” Henri said, leaning against the Renault and watching a teenager work the hand pump drawing gas from a fifty-gallon drum. “This is diamond country. That is one of the reasons,” he grinned, “you see Muslims driving cars like that.” He nodded to a newish Toyota Land Cruiser behind us waiting for gas.

“You mean they find diamonds?” I asked.

“I mean they buy diamonds from Africans. But mostly they smuggle.”

Just outside Yaloke, beyond the twin rows of poplars planted fifty years ago by the French that make the road, if only for an instant, look like Avignon, a police roadblock stopped all traffic.

A soldier returned with Joseph and peered into the car, shining a light – it was almost dark – in each of our faces. Then abruptly he shook hands with Henri and waved us on.

“Diamonds,” Henri muttered, just as the first owl burst skyward under our headlights.

where lucien looked for diamonds

44 This is Stevens writing of his arrival in Africa, my bolds:

I had been in Bangui less than ten minutes when I was robbed for the first time. This proved to be very fortunate. Muggings, rape and murder, I quickly discovered, were the pillars of conversation among the white community, and my introductory theft gave me something to talk about on the party circuit.

It was early October. The season was a factor in the robbery as it had been cold and rainy in Europe and I had arrived at the Bangui airport carrying a heavy raincoat. It was a new coat, recently purchased in England. I liked it.

early october

This is Stevens writing of the carnet, a letter of passage, needed to travel through most African countries to avoid paying entrance duties to that country.

Actually, I had a carnet. Warned that travel by car in Africa was impossible without one, I’d gone to considerable trouble and expense to acquire one from the Automobile Association in England. Unfortunately, my visit to England coincided with the worst hurricane to hit the country in a century, silencing all telephones, littering the streets with uprooted trees and knocking out the rail line from London to the Dover ferry. My life had not been made easier by the fact that I was hauling around enough Land Rover parts to launch a dealership, plus assorted camping gear – though my stove and lantern did come in handy in my hotel when the electricity died for two days.

carnet england storm

What’s referred to here must be the massive storm which hit England in 1987, easily considered the worst storm of the century for the area, and featuring hurricane winds, and which took place over October 16th and 17th.

45 The trip starts in the Central African Republic, which they stay in past Stevens’ birthday on October 22. After, they leave for Cameroon, where they run into a national celebration in Bertoua.

On thie Sunday afternoon, a raucous crowd spilled out of the bar dancing to the music blaring from a stand selling cassettes and records.

Three pickup trucks filled with young men waving Cameroon flags roared up from the direction of town. They shouted slogans, and when the bar throng responded tepidly, they yelled louder. Several jumped off the truck and ran about the market brandishing flags; the scene reminded me of male cheerleaders taking the field before a football game.

Pierre when I asked, explained that this was a Cameroonian national holiday, Independence Day, he believed.

cameroon national holiday

Again, this scene takes place after Stevens’ birthday on October 22. Cameroon’s unification day is October 1st.

46 When they are about to enter Chad, we get this description:

Cloaked in a perpetual layer of dust, the town still resembles what it was for years: a battlefield.

But war-zone capitals of a winning side are usually graced with an infectious optimism difficult to resist. And Chad definitely feels it is winning. After years of watching Libya annex its northern territory, Chad finally put aside internal feuds and struck back. In a series of blitzkrieg assaults, Chadian forces overran Libyian desert bases previously though impenetrable. Their attack methods quickly qualified as the stuff of legends.

The American government aids Chad in its war with Libya and this helps create a benevolent attitude toward Americans in N’Djamena.

war zone capitals of a winning side

All this suggests a war with ongoing fighting. These descriptions correspond to either later October and mid-November, or early November and late November, respectively. Yet this was at least a month and a half into a ceasefire between Libya and Chad with no outbreak of hostilities.

That this all takes place months after the ceasefire is made clear, though indirectly, in this scene with a member of the US embassy staff in Chad:

Tim Whitset worked for the U.S. embassy. A big man in his early thirties, he’d lived in Africa for over a decade and relished matching wits with the local bureaucracy. His office in the newly fortified embassy compound was, in essence, a large vault with a heavy combination on the door. From this windowless crypt, he launched his rescue missions in the complicated bureaucratic wars that raged through the Chadian government. On his desk, he had a souvenir of a more traditional war.

“It’s a piece of a Libyan plane, actually,” he responded to my question about the charred piece of twisted metal. “It was shot down a few months ago over town. Poor suckers flew all the way from Libya to drop a few bombs in a mud flat outside of town and then got blown to hell and back. A U.S. missile operated by the French. A true United Nations effort.”

fragment of shot down plane

This was actually a well-reported incident, “Libyan Warplane Is Downed In Chad By French Forces” which took place on September 8th, 1987 and one that may have helped trigger the ceasefire.

47 A description of the security measures:

Niger, though, was a security-mad country with roadblocks and police checks every twenty or thirty miles. The routine of paranoia had been accelerated by a coup a few days earlier in neighboring Burkina Faso. Like virtually every West African leader, the president of Niger had catapulted himself to power in a similar coup and no doubt viewed the events in Burkina Faso as intimations of his own mortality. (The Burkina Faso president, an exceptionally charismatic guitar-playing young leader, was gunned down in his residence, as is the custom.)

All of this meant it was impossible to travel a mile in Niger without immaculately ordered papers, including insurance.

burkina faso coup pt one burkina faso coup pt two

This takes place after Thanksgiving, either at the very end of November, or early December. The coup in Burkina Faso is spoken of as having taken place a few days earlier. The coup in Burkina Faso was against the very charismatic, guitar playing Thomas Sankara, who was killed. The coup took place on the 16th of October and he was executed on the 17th, 1987.

48 The following is a lengthy excerpt from the full post on Malaria Dreams.

Money and the rate of exchange is mentioned often in the book. Stevens often complains about how incredibly expensive it is to travel and eat in Africa, given that it is, his words, a third world place. US dollars are exchanged for the Franc of Central Africa. The value of the Central African franc was tied directly to that of the french franc – one french franc was worth fifty francs of central africa. This relation was fixed and did not fluctuate. A brief overview of the history of the franc of central africa can be found here. The rate of exchange for US dollars to francs did fluctuate, with this rate affecting the number of french francs a dollar was worth, which in turn affected the number of central african francs a dollar was worth.

The exchange rate between french francs and US dollars is crucial for what’s very off in the events in the book.

Stevens and Ann Bradley arrive in the Central Republic of Africa in early October 1987.

I had been in Bangui less than ten minutes when I was robbed for the first time. This proved to be very fortunate. Muggings, rape and murder, I quickly discovered, were the pillars of conversation among the white community, and my introductory theft gave me something to talk about on the party circuit.

It was early October. The season was a factor in the robbery as it had been cold and rainy in Europe and I had arrived at the Bangui airport carrying a heavy raincoat. It was a new coat, recently purchased in England. I liked it.

early october

Their initial mission is for Stevens to retrieve the Land Rover of his friend, Lucien. In order to do so, they need to pay a sizable bribe to a government official.

The problem with the Land Rover was really quite simple, Capitaine Follope – whom Kneeper addressed as “mon capitaine” – explained. There were some fees that had not been paid on mineral leases Lucien had acquired from the government. The vehicle had been seized as collateral against future payment.

“The amount in question is very small,” Follope said reassuringly.

“How much?”

“Half a million Central African francs.”

It sounded like a lot of money to me. I tried to calculate quickly: 270 Central African francs, or CFA to the dollar. It was a little less than $2000. Not a small amount but certainly cheaper than buying a new car. Lucien, I figured, would gladly pay if he understood it was the only way to see his Land Rover again.

270 francs

Shortly after this, it is Stevens’ birthday.

It was my birthday, the twenty-second of October.

birthday 22 october

After this date, Stevens contacts Lucien to approve the bribe.

“You’ve got to understand, nothing is working!” I enumerated our efforts to free the Land Rover, the frustrations of this person being out of town, that person out of touch, everyone promising everything, and nothing, ultimately, happening.

“Yes, that’s how it is,” he answered pleasantly. “It just takes time.”

This occasioned an outburst on my part as to the limits of my time. Then I moved to present my case. “You’ve got to come down here yourself. It’s a must; or let me throw some money around for a bribe. That might help.”

“I don’t think my flying there is a very good idea,” Lucien said, his voice, for the first time, sounding serious. “How much money?”

We finally agreed upon half a million CFA – about two thousand dollars. It seemed a reasonable sum to offer as a bribe.

lucien half a million bribe

The bribe in CFA francs has stayed the same, and the bribe in US dollars has apparently stayed the same – almost or about two thousand dollars. No mention is made of any urgency regarding the rate of exchange. Again, this is a book where the narrator is concerned about the expense of things, and often mentions the price of an item in US dollars after giving the price in CFA francs.

However, during October, the rate of exchange of the dollar versus other currencies drops drastically, a possible cause, of many, for the crash of markets, which took place October 19th, three days before Stevens’ birthday, the crash perpetuating this decline. After the October 19th crash, the dollar continued its decline against the franc, losing ten percent of its value over two months.

A graph generated by the very helpful Economagic website illustrates this.

franc dollar graph cropped more

Yet somehow the bribe paid out in US dollars remains the same, whether early or late in October.

This rapid fall in the dollar’s value vis a vis the franc is something that one would expect as an obvious mention, that even as the travelers got closer and closer to their destination, prices kept climbing because of the loss of value.

For that matter, perhaps I am miscalculating, but the rate of exchange used in the book seems to have no relation with the exchange rate at the time.

The bribe at the beginning of October is 500 000 CFA francs, which Stevens calculates is worth about $2000 US dollars. 500 000 CFA francs is 10 000 french francs, so one US dollar is worth about five french francs in the book. Stevens gives an exchange of 270 CFA francs per US dollar, or 5.4 francs per dollar, so this might be because the bribe in US dollars isn’t quite $2000, perhaps a little less. However, as can be seen in the graph, the US dollar was trading above six francs for the first half of October, far above an exchange rate of either 5 or 5.4. Then it falls, so around the beginning of November, when Stevens calls Lucien, it’s at 5.70. In the book, however, the rate of exchange has remained entirely frozen at what it was at the beginning of October, stock still at five francs or five point four francs. This is still, a worse rate of exchange as shown in the graph, even with the start of the dollar’s value drop, five or five point four in the book, compared to 5.7 in currency exchange records.

After Stevens’ birthday, but before the call to Lucien, he has to buy some gas:

I spotted a metal jerrican for sale at nineteen thousand CFA – seventy dollars; to make the trip north, I needed at least fifteen.

jerrican seventy dollars

19 000 CFA francs is 380 french francs. If seventy US dollars buys 380 french francs, the rate of exchange is 5.428. It has either stayed level at the previous 5.4, or slightly improved from 5: either way, it is still lower than what was available around that month at any currency exchange.

A bribe is paid in Cameroon, at some point in the first three weeks of November.

Three thousand CFA, about eleven dollars, was the standard amount Pierre turned over. Once a motorcycle patrol demanded more.

three thousand cfa about eleven dollars

Three thousand CFA is sixty french francs, so now the exchange rate is 5.45. Again, if the exchange in the book in October is taken, it is level. It is also weaker than it ever was, at any exchange, as shown on the graph, and shows none of the rapid devaluation taking place.

We are told at one point that it is thanksgiving, which, in 1987, would be November 26.

It was Fernando who reminded us it was Thanksgiving. He mentioned it in an offhand way while we stood at the head of the long buffet marveling at the pasta, the veal, the pastries. “An untraditional thanksgiving, no?” he said. Ann and I looked at each other, not understanding what he meant, and then we both looked up at a wall calendar featuring a nude girl riding a tractor. He was right, it was thanksgiving.


Shortly before this, we are given a last price quoted both in CFA francs and US dollars, the cost of fixing their car.

The volunteer mechanic requested tools, and I brought out the odd-fitting nonmetric set I’d stolen from Lucien. He grunted and went to work with a set of pliers. After a few minutes of messing about, he rose and said, simply, “Fifty thousand.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked, not understanding.

“Fifty thousand CFA to fix the car.”

That was almost two hundred dollars.

fifty thousand cfa

Fifty thousand CFA francs is a thousand french francs, so a dollar is now worth five francs. During the period in which the dollar weakened versus the franc, in this book, during the same time period, the dollar either gains in value, then drops back to what it was, to a weaker value than it actually was on the world’s currency exchange, somewhere above 5.60 in the period right before thanksgiving. Or it stays rock solid same throughout this period of rapid falling value.

In fact, the price given for car repair here is the same as a ransom asked for before Stevens’ birthday in October. It is a price demanded for information on Stevens’ stolen coat.

“Yes, but first we must discuss price.”

It was, apparently, a ransom situation. “How much do they want?” I asked.

“Fifty thousand CFA.”

That was almost two hundred dollars, far too much. We negotiated for some time. Finally we agreed on five thousand CFA.

fifty thousand cfa first time

Here, fifty thousand CFA is equal to two hundred dollars, the same exchange as it is after November 26. Given that the calculation for the exchange in some amounts is close to 5.4, and Stevens gives an exchange rate of 270 CFA francs per dollar for the October amounts, or a 5.4 rate, there appears the possibility that the exchange rate throughout the story is 5.4, as an exchange rate, please excuse my lapse into italics, might be conveniently set in a fiction. So there is some strange discrepancy in what the actual exchange rate should be, beyond the dramatic absence of any sense of a dollar plummeting in value, losing ten percent of its value over the course of the trip in relation to the native currency in an already expensive continent.

I add as well that at no point does Stevens write of carrying around a large amount of money that he has already exchanged and that the amounts needed on the trip are sometimes very, very large, such as paying two thousand dollar bribes or buying a new vehicle. It is also important that before Stevens says he left for this trip, in early October or late September, the dollar franc exchange had been holding steady for a long while, trading above six francs a dollar, nowhere close to the 5.4 rate ubiquitous in the book.

49 A meal recalled in Feeding Frenzy:

I described a meal I’d cooked once by the River Niger. The centerpiece was an oversized gar I’d caught, the only fish longer than six inches I’d ever caught in Africa. It was a bony prehistoric-looking thing about as appetizing as a display in a natural history museum. I filleted it, which was the only thing I could imagine doing, wrapped the fillet in tin foil with bits of onions and some old garlic cloves I’d bought in the Timbuktu market, and buried it in the coals of a driftwood fire. It was shockingly good, moist and sweet. I ate it with half a can of peaches and a mix of fried yams and onions, which was about all the shelves of Timbuktu’s largest grocery had to offer.

oversized gar

The habitats of the gar are listed in this brief National Geographic summary. The gar is from the Lepisosteidae family, none of which can be found in Africa. Here is a partial list of fish to be found in the Niger river; lepisosteida are easily recognizable by their snub nose; none of the fish species in this list seem to have this identifier.

50 The excerpt from Malaria Dreams:

Well now, I thought, this is just great. Ann is probably headed for the auction block in Tangiers, I’m here with a dead car in a closed town, and my wife arrives in forty-eight hours. This is just swell.

But in truth I found it pleasant to lie back on the hood of the Cruiser with nothing to do. My body still tingled with the jolts of the desert crossing. In a vague way I thought about what I would need to do if Ann did not return shortly: make inquiries in Cheik-ben’s store, look for Yusuf (if Yusuf really existed), find a policeman. I drifted to sleep.

adrar heat

A description of Adrar’s searing heat can be found in William Langewiesche’s “The World in its Extreme”:

Outdoors the temperature was 124 degrees Fahrenheit. During my walk the air had been still, the sky milky with dust. There was no shade. The streets were deserted. The heat hit hard, a physical assault, burning skin, eyes, and lungs. I felt threatened and disoriented. I had drunk my fill beforehand, but an hour without water was all I could stand.

The Sahara is hot because it is sunny. In Adrar out of some 4,400 hours of annual daylight there are 3,978 hours of direct sun, on average. (Paris, home of the great Saharan colonizers, gets 1,728 hours of sun.) Elsewhere in the desert the count is equally high. And this is steep-angle sunlight, powerful stuff. In the winter, air temperatures can drop to freezing at night and rise to 90 degrees by noon; soil temperatures can fluctuate so brutally that rocks split, a process called insolation weathering. In the summer the Sahara is the hottest place on earth. The record, 136 degrees. Fahrenheit, is held by al Azizia, Libya. Airborne dust makes things worse. It traps heat radiated by the hot soil, and is why in Adrar the desert does not cool much on summer nights.

A listing of Adrar’s temperature during December of 1987 can be found here; the maximum temperature I assume to be recorded at noon. Stevens arrives in the town in mid-afternoon, a few days before December 22nd.

51 Here is Stevens reading Conquest of the Sahara by Douglas Porch:

In the mornings, I rose at first light and, while it was still cool enough to concentrate, read The Conquest of the Sahara, Douglas Porch’s account of French colonial folly in the deserts of Africa. It is a story full of exaggerated expectations, of careers staked on preposterous expeditions to claim vast areas of sand and scrub that proved worthless to the politicians and accountants back home.

conquest sahara

The character enters the scene:

That’s how Cheik-ben Bou Djemaa found us: waiting, parked in front of the big metal doors to Yusuf’s garage. A gregarious fellow in his mid-thirties, Cheik-ben was short with a big belly and a scraggly black beard. His jewelry store adjoined the closed garage.

Bou Djemaa

One might look at the character side by side on Google books. Here he is in Malaria Dreams, here he is in Douglas Porch’s Conquest of the Sahara.

52 A short piece on this can be found at ThinkProgress.

53 From Malaria Dreams:

Yusuf wanted French francs, not Algerian dinars. “Our money,” he said cheerfully, “it is no good.”

“There is a thriving black market both inside and outside the country,” explains the Lonely Planet guide.

“If you’re taking in black market money, you’ll need to hide it well. If they find the money it will be confiscated.”

Ever the good student, I followed this advice with enthusiasm. Convinced my cleverness would win me a place in the Smuggler’s Hall of Fame, I secreted a small fortune in French francs inside the hollow aluminum poles of my mountain tent.

But what had seemed so brilliant on conception had one resounding difficulty: I couldn’t get the money out.

I discovered this after Yusuf and I negotiated a price for the new clutch, payment to be made in francs. While he worked in the empty cavity of the engine compartment, I unfolded the tent on the garage floor and set about to retrieve my artfully hidden funds.

smuggling money into algeria

54 An entrance and a refreshingly sympathetic description:

Habib woke me up. “Can I help you?” he asked politely, like a steward on a cruise ship at teatime. He was a portly fellow wearing a tweed jacket and rep tie with a scarf thrown over his neck. His accent was English, his manner that of an amiable Oxford don.

Habib was a Palestinian, a teacher by profession, forced to Algeria with his family after 1948. With little prompting, he launched into an astoundingly intricate analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. At regular intervals he interrupted the erudite lecture to grasp my arm, encrusted with a grimy layer of oil and sand, imploring, “You see? You must help us?”

Eventually I realized that he meant the United States government, rather than myself. I nodded vaguely, trying to come up with words befitting my new diplomatic status.

Just as Habib was demanding I explain the true relevance of UN Resolution 242, Ann and Cheik-ben returned with Yusuf in tow.

habib palestinian resolution 242

Cheik-ben considers the tent an excellent method for smuggling money into France.

“It was a very smart hiding place,” Cheik-ben said thoughtfully. I must remember it the next time I go to France.”

“But why would you take a tent to France?” Habib, the scholar asked. “The hotels in France are excellent. After the 1986 PLO council meeting in Tangiers, the old man and I traveled to Saint-Tropez.”

new council meeting

55 ThinkProgress has covered this in several posts: the support the Druge Report gives to such conspiracy theories as Andrew Breitbart being assassinated by the president, the Druge Report pushing the idea that Obama was a CIA agent, and the explicit support the Romney campaign has given to both the Drudge and Breitbart sites.

56 From Simone Weil’s “The Illiad, or The Poem of Force”:

How much more varied in its processes, how much more surprising in its effects is the other force, the force that does not kill, i.e., that does not kill just yet. It will surely kill, it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs, poised and ready, over the head of the creature it can kill, at any moment, which is to say at every moment. In whatever aspect, its effect is the same: it turns a man into a stone. From its first property (the ability to turn a human being into a thing by the simple method of killing him) flows another, quite prodigious too in its own way, the ability to turn a human being into a thing hile he is still alive. He is alive; he has a soul; and yet – he is a thing. An extraordinary entity this – a thing that has a soul. And as for the soul, what an extraordinary house it finds itself in! Who can say what it costs it, moment by moment, to accomodate itself to this residence, how much writhing and bending, folding and pleating are required of it? It was not made to live inside a thing; if it does so, under pressure of necessity, there is not a single element of its nature to which violence is not done.

(Images courtesy Rose productions.)

(This post has received mild edits since publication on July 30th for grammar, spelling, aesthetics; the scans illustrating issues related to dedications were added after initial publication.)

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Night Train To Turkistan by Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s Media Assassin

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, his memoir of working in the George W. Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

The first published book by Stuart Stevens, it is well-written in many parts, without the distractions of possible fabulisms or small spittles of vitriol. His temperament is either held in check because this book is his first, or by the company of the very good writer Mark Salzman. It is an account of a trip with Salzman, reprising the route of Peter Fleming (Ian’s brother) and his companion, Ella Maillart, through north-west China. I give a few brief notes now, perhaps to be returned to later.

Turkistan gives an overall impression of China as primitive, dirty, and brutal, a combination of state dysfunctionality and rabid humanity. I am uncertain if the book’s pervasive sense of squalor is because of the conditions themselves, or the writer being unable to perceive the vivid human life, human life that requires no sentiment for it to be seen as against, above, and transcendent such conditions of misery – that even in the worst of times, the worst of places, hope dies last.

I make few notes at this moment, only pointing out a few small significant details. This is a book notable for being written by a republican political consultant, yet one that looks at conservative idols with an attitude that would now mark him as an apostate.

Stevens and Salzman have dinner with a Uighur family, when Ali, one of the family, tells of what he promises will happen when they eat with him at home, in Korla:

“We would all have to come feast with my family in Korla,” Ali declared. “We celebrate Ark [the way Ali pronounces Mark Salzman`s first name] as the next President of the United States!”


“They think I look like an actor,” Mark explained. “And since Reagan is an actor and an American they figure I should be President too.”

I remember thinking that there was something disturbing about the amount of sense that made.

reagan as president pt1 reagan as president pt2

More striking is the opinion he gives of Lee Iacocca, in 1987, a capitalist icon and possible future presidential candidate. Here is Stevens speaking to a chinese man about the popularity of Iacocca’s autobiography in the country. Stevens’ attitude towards this figure can be safely described as contemptuous:

“Can you buy Iacocca’s book in China?” [asked Stevens]

“Every day in the People’s Daily, two pages of the I-Coke-ah book is run.” [answered Lu Wei Hong]

“That’s almost the whole paper.”

“Yes. This is very important.”

Startling as the idea was, it did make a certain amount of sense that Iacocca would go over big in a country molded by Mao. The two had a lot in common: both were megalomaniacs, and both had a special knack for what might be called Succeeding Through Failure. Mao realized that he was losing his grip in 1965, so he launched the Cultural Revolution and reestablished himself as the dominant figure in China. Iacocca was fired at Ford, landed a job as head of a bankrupt company that made terrible cars, had to beg Congress for a billion dollars – all the sort of stuff that would have made any normal person embarrassed to appear in public. And yet he had the gall to strut around on national television in commercials, becoming a folk hero in the process.

Both were also fashion arbiters in their own right – Mao, the blue jackets and cap; Iacocca, the shirts with contrasting collars and cuffs. And both had been trading for years on one impressive achievement: Mao had pulled off the Long March, and Iacocca had overseen the creation of the Mustang.


Stevens does not reveal what mass murderer he thinks George Romney is comparable to.

I now quote a short excerpt with an attempt to contrast two styles, to demonstrate something essential that is missing in Stevens’ writing, even his best writing. What follows is a finely detailed, well observed description from Turkistan of a peasant woman on a rickety country bus, one limited to her externals, some very grim, ultimately employed only for the purpose of cruel laughter. She sleeps in piss; one cannot even tell if it’s a he or a she; she is toothless; she eats disgusting lard; she shrieks helplessly like a child; she falls out of the bus, onto the ground, her sack falling on top of her for extra comic effect.

Not long after lunch, we stopped to pick up a peasant standing by the road. We were miles from any semblance of civilization, but no one appeared surprised to come upon this old man wearing rags and carrying a huge burlap bag and two buckets balanced on a pole, coolie-style on his shoulders. He struggled through the door and collapsed in my former position in the stairwell (I had moved to a seat to avoid the liquid hazards.)

Hours later, the peasant took off his tattered PLA hat to reveal a pigtail. I pondered for a long time whether this meant that he was a woman, or just an old-fashioned male peasant. But when the doors swung open, as was their want, and the peasant screeched at the driver in a high voice, I decided it was a female.

Hovering in the doorway, holding on to a seat brace with one hand, the woman pulled a bent spoon out of her ripped Mao jacket and began to eat something out of one of the buckets. It was a grayish-white gel, and it took me a while to realize she was eating lard. She had no teeth but worked her gums actively to ingest the fat.

Later, on the outskirts of Dunhuang, she began to shriek at the driver. Apparently she wanted him to stop before driving into the center of town. Everyone laughed as her pleas escalated to screams. She shook the railing by the steps and rocked back and forth like an angry child.

The driver did finally stop but only briefly and when he pulled away she was halfway out the door, pulling hard on her massive burlap sack, the buckets carried on her shoulder banging wildly against her face. She tumbled backward onto the road as the bus pulled away, her sack landing on top of her.

The bus moved into Dunhuang.

peasant pt1 peasant pt2

Though I am not well-read enough to find an ideal profile in contrast, one of equivalent scale, yet of greater depth, this description by Isaac Bashevis Singer of a washerwoman of his childhood may provide some sense of what’s missing: an attempt to show that in those of the most impoverished and wretched condition, beats the same heart as our own, and they may carry qualities that we can only call noble.

So, these are excerpts form Singer’s description of a washwoman employed by his family in Warsaw over several years, as the woman ages, slowly losing her abilities, and, finally, her life. I emphasize that the contrast I wish to establish is not one of simple aesthetic technique, but between a writer with a sense of empathy and one with little or none at all.

I find this example useful as well since I can leave out the washwoman’s personal details, and she retains her humanity in Singer’s simple description of her doing her work. A final small note: she is christian, while Singer’s family is jewish. This, however, never causes Singer to write of her as an other, an object of scorn or vile mirth. The full story, appropriately called “The Washwoman”, can be found in his memoir In My Father’s Court.

She was a small woman, old and wrinkled. When she started washing for us she was already past seventy. Most Jewish women of her age were sickly, weak, broken in body. All the old women in our street had bent backs and leaned on sticks when they walked. But this washwoman, small and thin as she was, possessed a strength that came from generations of peasant forebears. Mother would count out to her a bundle of laundry that had accumulated over several weeks. She would lift the unwieldy pack, load it on her narrow shoulders, and carry it the long way home.

Laundering was not easy in those days. The old woman had no faucet where she lived but had to bring in the water from a pump. For the linens to come out so clean, they had to be scrubbed thoroughly in a washtub, rinsed with washing soda, soaked, boiled in an enormous pot, starched, ironed. Every piece was handled ten times or more. And the drying! It could not be done outside because thieves would steal the laundry.

A later description, on the day of a harsh winter.

Mother gave her a pot of tea to warm herself, as well as some bread. The old woman sat on a kitchen chair trembling and shaking, and warmed her hands against the teapot. Her fingers were gnarled from work, and perhaps from arthritis too. Her fingernails were strangely white. These hands spoke of the stubbornness of mankind, of the will to work not only as one’s strength permits but beyond the limits of one’s power.

The bundle was big, bigger than usual. When the woman placed it on her shoulders, it covered her completely. At first she swayed, as though she were about to fall under the load. But an inner obstinacy seemed to call out: No, you may not fall. A donkey may permit himself to fall under his burden, but not a human being, the crown of creation.

It was fearful to watch the old woman staggering out with the enormous pack, out into the frost, where the snow was dry as salt and the air was filled with dusty white whirlwinds, like goblins dancing in the cold.

She takes this bundle, but falls sick, returning with their laundry only months later.

One evening, while Mother was sitting near the kerosene lamp mending a shirt, the door opened and a small puff of steam, followed by a gigantic bundle, entered. Under the bundle tottered the old woman, her face as white as a linen sheet. A few wisps of white hair straggled out from beneath her shawl. Mother uttered a half-choked cry. It was as though a corpse had entered the room. I ran toward the old woman and helped her unload her pack. She was even thinner now, more bent. Her face had become more gaunt, and her head shook from side to side as though she were saying no. She could not utter a clear word, but mumbled something with her sunken mouth and pale lips.

The old woman leaves, promising to return for more wash, but never does. I have already selected too much; but the closing paragraphs describe her dignity so very eloquently, how can I leave them out?

The wash she had returned was her last effort on this earth. She had been driven by an indomitable will to return the property to its rightful owners, to fulfill the task she had undertaken.

And now at last the body, which had long been no more than a broken shard supported only by the force of honesty and duty, had fallen. The soul passed into those spheres where all holy souls meet, regardless of the roles they played on this earth, in whatever tongue, of whatever creed. I cannot imagine Eden without this washerwoman. I cannot even conceive of a world where there is no recompense for such effort.

I hope that these excerpts provide evidence of an absence.

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Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes

(The title of this post gives whole credit, unjustly, to a great director for the entire creation of this movie; whatever agreements or disagreements I have with auteur theory, lack of creditation for David Koepp’s work as co-writer on the movie has been omitted in the heading for simple reasons of limited text space, rather than any intentional slight.)

A movie that may not fully work, but that has an underestimated density: if its hoof is to be given the damning tag of “failure”, it is a branded creature that I find more compelling than the movies other people enjoy so much, their enjoyment estranging me further from them. Why does this movie not quite work? There is the disappointment that the bravura sequence of a staggeringly long, yet near uninterrupted shot (there are a few discrete cuts), is unbookended by any virtuoso piece at the movie’s close. We also might want a more direct confrontation between the hero and villain, like the shoot-out in Carlito’s Way, etc. Both of these, however, are a result of the movie’s deliberate intent, which is more subtle and intricate than might first be realized, an examination and re-examination of what the audience wants in such a movie. If there is one overriding theme, it is the distance between the inherent morality of divine vision, and the amorality of a vision that approximates the divine, our contemporary observational technology, that allows us to see near anywhere, yet carries no moral ideal, except that which we ourselves bring. The various surveillance and tracking equipment shown in this film, now nearly fifteen years old, are quaintly antique: yet no one would assert that the more deeply peering eyes of our time have made us better men and women, only that they may have given us one more tool of cruelty.

We open in the restricted frame of TV, a single camera, before finding ourselves shifting out and away to the larger scale of the movie, giving us a freedom of movement unlike anything of the stationary camera outside the stadium. There is a horrific, random storm outside, yet the audience has chosen for refuge the staged chaos inside. That it is staged is to be expected, what only changes is what chaos ends up being staged. It is the last fight at this arena, to be replaced by the Powell Millennium casino. Gilbert Powell (John Heard) has made his money in defense contracts for weapons, which gives him the money to build casinos. The merger of these two economies, state funded weapon building and get-rich circuses, are to be merged in the design of the new casino, a gambling den inside a missile:

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Powell, of course, is the man behind two rigged games, the fixed missile test and the fixed fight which gives cover for the killing.

In the opening outside sequence, we are shown the poster for the fight, dominated entirely by the picture and name of the champion, Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw).

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

What gives this man his prominence is entirely his fighting skill, which is devastating: his nick is “the Executioner”. He has the strength of an epic hero, without any heroic ideals; despite misgivings, he is entirely a mercenary, first throwing the fight, then giving out a brutal beating to detective Ric Santoro (Nicolas Cage). The fight at the beginning mirrors what takes place in the film itself, and the fact that the man on the poster is expected to be heroic is paralleled with Santoro’s character. Nicolas Cage is the man on the movie’s poster, so there is the expectation that he must be heroic, yet what we see of him for much of the movie is entirely the opposite. He is a corrupt cop, an infidelitous husband, a man who shakes down drug dealers, an expert in the pay-off and the cover-up, who without compunction helps his friend in hiding what takes place during the assassination. This is not to say he is not without sympathetic qualities, or that he is uncharismatic. The men and women of life, outside any dramatic structure, are of the same difficult mix, their best details not making the venality and callousness of the rapacious any less repellent. It is a simple question of how we choose to see this man who has been placed in this role, played by a movie star, who is expected to be a hero without being a hero at all. That he does perform a heroic act is not to be taken as expected or assumed, an action that flows from the heroism of the inherently heroic, but a heroic act by an ordinary corrupt man, without heroic qualities.

That the audience wants a clear division between the good and the bad is played on in one of the movie’s first lines, delivered enthusiastically and very well by Cage, where he presciently (and unwittingly) points out the villain of the piece.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes


Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

This makes me think of a point in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, which Donato Totaro’s “Time, Bergson, and the Cinematographical Mechanism” reminded me of: in theory, it should take a child no time at all to solve a picture puzzle because it has already been conceived before the puzzle has even been opened. Santoro can implicitly identify the villain for us already because a villain has already been decided for us. The flux of deeds which make any judgement of a life in progress a difficult task is avoided, and not wanted, in most entertainments, and instead we are given an evil adversary, pre-conceived.

That the actions of Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) are villainous is beyond dispute; that we are necessarily good because we are not this man is an open question. For we accept without difficulty that Santoro must be good, must be heroic, because he is the lead, played by a movie star, and we ignore all his cruelties. This is very much the way Dunne might be seen as well, and certainly how he sees himself: he must be good because he is a decorated Navy commander, because he has acted virtuously in the past. The very tautology an audience might make of any movie lead, that his actions must be heroic because he is a hero, might be made by Dunne. Yet where the audience grants this liberty because the character is played by a star, and due to his position in the narrative, Dunne believes this for substantial reasons: he has in fact performed heroic deeds, has no doubt saved the lives of many men and women. That he has done so does not prevent him from committing heinous acts as well.

So, this movie is about a conflict of two men, who are almost doubles of each other, best friends since their childhood in Atlantic City. The movie audience arrives to watch this pre-arranged conflict, just as the spectators come to the stadium to watch the fight. This is a movie full of characters who reflect each other, and the fighters, Lincoln Tyler and Jose Pacifico Ruiz, mirror Dunne and Santoro.

Tyler is an expert, efficient professional who has contempt for the show-boating of Ruiz. Tyler must be seen to lose this fight, a fight he can easily win, so he can achieve the larger goal of a pay-off. Ruiz must simply play the part he’s expected to, and Ruiz fails at that. He gets knocked out by an easy punch, and his own knock-out punch doesn’t connect. Dunne has contempt for showboater Santoro, looking upon him as corrupt and incompetent.

Why did it have to be me? Why’d you want me next to you?

One, I needed a cop to back up my alibi. Two, I knew you could be bought if anything went wrong. No offence, pal, but I never thought
you’d get as far as you did.

Dunne must appear to lose his own game, allowing the defense minister to be killed, for his own goal, the AirGuard system spared from defense cuts. Dunne fails to play his part as well, not because of any lack of skill, but because, for once, he acts virtuously.

As said, Dunne and Santoro also mirror each other. Though the movie opens with Santoro as a man with a flamboyant, ostentatious persona, this is only one aspect of the man. He changes from his gaudy, now blood spattered, shirt, into a more spare white one, then shifts into finding the girl and we see him as someone different. He is a corrupt cop, but also a diligent, cool-headed investigator, more of a kindred spirit to Dunne than the naval officer expects him to be. Where Santoro begins the movie in a guise of hopped up lunacy and moves to the firm devotion of an ideal, saving one woman’s life, Dunne is a man who holds to a particular code that becomes more and more lunatic as the film progresses, where any life can be expended for future lives saved.

I won’t go into the aesthetic details of the lead-up to the assassination and the assassination itself; suffice to say, it’s very well put together. I only make the small note, possible overlooked, that the key members of the security detail are the ones involved in the conspiracy. The man with the beacon who Dunne runs down for his lack of attention, and the man sitting right behind the secretary.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

This is a movie about finding a moral vision equal to our colossal technical sight, and so it’s intended irony that the most heroic character, whose moral compass remains unshaken throughout, is rendered near blind from the near beginning.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes - Julia's glasses are broken

We arrive now at the issue of the momentum and pace of the movie, which slows down after this sequence. This, I believe, is not due to any lack of skill of the creators, but inherent in the structural constraints of their goals. The audience storms out of the arena, just as we, watching, expect to move on to another distraction. But no: the audience is kept inside, to be identified and questioned. The arena is now a crime scene. Rather than move on to more mayhem, we will be placed in stasis, forced to examine the very details of the sequence.

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Snake Eyes: the audience is trapped.

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The rest of the movie now mostly takes place in what feels like the backstage of a theater, empty of the color and motion filling the assassination sequence, that scene now played over and over in the participants’ memories. The closest to spectacle are the scenes in the casino and hotel, yet here the major players are now intruders. Where before they were enraptured by the fight, now they are indifferent to the frenzy of the gambling floor and the dionysian possibilities of a hotel suite, their focus only on the past, the killing in the arena.

A good place to continue this analysis is with the character of the whistle-blower. It is she, more than Santoro, who is the true hero of the movie. That the hero is a she and almost nameless, are intertwined details, of which the movie is very well aware. They are crucial in terms of what the audience expects from this genre, and what the movie gives us instead. Unlike the other two leads, Rick Santoro and Kevin Dunne, we are never given her full name until the very end in the concluding newscast, but her heroism should require us to speak of her by name, rather than a more anonymous label, and we do so.


This is a movie where women are given roles either as sexual supplicants or domestics. There is the wife and mistress Santoro talks to on the phone, and afterwards talks about with Dunne.

How’s Angela?

Fat, fantastic. I love her.

What about the other one? What’s her name? Candy?

Monique. Skinny, mean, expensive. I love her.

There is the ring girl who Santoro feigns interest in, then ignores almost immediately afterwards, and has forgotten about by the time of the shooting.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

My lucky number seven.

Gee, that’s a new one, mister.

You are sunshine on a stormy day. You should work in the casino.

Oh, I’m gonna. I mean, I wanna.

Do you know how to deal blackjack?


All right. Call me. I’m Rick.

Hello. What? Who are you? Where? My lucky number?

Two women in similar sensual dress, but only as a guise for their true missions in the arena. There is the redhead (Jayne Heitmeyer) who serves as an object of distraction, a bosomy long legged beauty, who the camera pores over as nothing but a sexual being, but: she is something more, a well-trained soldier and co-conspirator. When we see her after the tumult, she is out of costume, in the same sexless, genderless uniform of her fellow (male) military member.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Julia Costello is similarly in disguise, in a blonde wig and a low-cut white outfit. She is there for a specific and important objective, yet she is immediately approached by Santoro as another sexual figure, like the ring girl.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Hey, I dig affection, baby, but not while I’m driving.

Oh, I’m sorry.

That seat’s taken. (sees her face) Oh, but you can sit here.

Well, I’ll just need one minute.

Me too.

After the defense minister’s death, Costello flees to the bathroom to change. The camera drifts up to the bathroom sign, and I don’t think this is a simple need for beat in a cinematic rhythm, but to make clear what designates Costello’s position more than anything else: her gender.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes - ladies room

We next see her, above like gods, as she washes herself of blood. There is some symbolic importance in this, as blood recurs over and over in this movie, with Costello able to wash the blood from herself – it is not she who had any party in this killing, it was caused by others. However, there is no material importance in this shot; we do not drift into the bathroom when Santoro changes his shirt, but we intrude here. The audience is granted the ability to slip into the ladies’ and float above her as she changes, and here is the asymmetry of the power of divine vision without divine purpose. Able to look anywhere, we expect to be able to look at this bosomy woman when she takes her shirt off.

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Snake Eyes: the eye that can travel everywhere.

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This same moment recurs, in the suite bathroom, again with us positioned looking down on this character as she changes, again to no purpose, except for the sating of our own appetites.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

This erotic perspective is absent anything in this woman, other than her body itself, compelling it. She is insistently an anti-erotic figure, first seized by her mission, then in fear of her life, a woman whose broad gestures of opening her blouse and fanning herself I read as those of someone unfamiliar in the arts of flirtation, now forced into this role to save herself.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Um, who’s, uh–who’s winning?

Looks like the number four horse, Daddy’s Hobby.

Yeah? Ooh, God, I’m hot. Do you have air conditioning?


In your room, air conditioning.

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Costello ends up in this man’s hotel room and, again, she is approached sexually.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

When she rejects this, and speaks of the danger she is in, the man asks her to leave. If she has no sexual purpose, she has none at all. Her progression in dress, I think, is not trivial. She begins in an all white outfit, a figure of purity, then she is forced to put on a sexier dark blouse as we gawk at her, in a room clearly labeling her as female, then, finally, she ends up in a light colored men’s shirt: it is she who will be taking on the traditional role of the male hero in this movie, even if she isn’t allowed to fully play it. For even after all this, she is not given full freedom of movement. What she most dearly wants is to leave the arena, but instead is confined by Santoro, when she would be far safer outside.

That this character goes nameless for almost the entire movie is a counterpoint to what is her true role: she is the nameless, disposable beautiful woman, just like the ring girl, but nothing like the ring girl, because ultimately she is a better, braver woman than either of the two men at the movie’s fore, a combination of their best qualities without their sins. She shares the same devotion to the well-being of the navy as Dunne, but without his lunatic solipsism, unable to see anything other than his own devotion to the cause. She has Santoro’s deductive skills, able to see that the missile test is fake, without his venality. She doesn’t want a pay-off, she just wants to keep men and women from dying.

She is, to borrow a phrase from H.G. Wells’ autobiography, “a solid rock of ethical resolution”* and this necessary fact may encumber the movie. Costello is played by the very good Carla Gugino, but that she must embody an idea, virtue continually mis-seen as carnal vice, limits her from being a more interesting character. Again, this impediment is not a flaw linked to the writing or the actress, but an unavoidable outcome of Costello as almost a mythic figure. She is a snow white virgin, but also, intentionally or not, a variation on Tiresias, the ancient prophet. Tiresias was blind and Costello is near-blind without her glasses; Tiresias combined equally the male and female, while Costello has a female body any man might covet, but her haircut is boyish and she plays the heroic male role; Tiresias truthfully told Oedipus his future, yet Oedipus refused to believe him, just as Santoro does not want to hear the horrific truth that Costello offers.

Seeing and this refusal to see are dealt with in the next part.


This is a movie where amoral figures are given extraordinary powers of observation, visual gifts that would be considered magical or god-like in an era more haunted by the supernatural. Dunne has a tracking device which allows him to follow a beacon wherever it travels.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Santoro can see the fight from any angle, with the camera giving a god’s eye view down revealing that the knockout has been faked.

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Snake Eyes: the phantom punch.

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Later, Santoro can use the multitude of cameras in the casino to find Costello. Here, we also have the great disconnect between these great technologies and anything like a moral compass: the only issue of whether people steal or there are prostitutes is that this is detrimental to the business of the casino. Of course there are prostitutes, they simply need to keep their solicitations discrete; as for theft, this is the casino’s business. If the casino isn’t winning against you, you must be cheating.

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Snake Eyes: the eye in the sky.

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Though such tools are fractional in power in terms of any hand-held device now, they remain an epochal step beyond anything before. Santoro’s associates must discover which room this man is going to – they do so by going to their database of past footage, and find the name flashed on his driver’s license, which they are then able to look up.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

The story is about a conspiracy surrounding a missile system to deal with threats from nations like Iran, and the assassination is pinned on a Palestinian. The middle east is once again playing the part of “the other”, yet now we encounter the usual paradox: the Orient is without, the Orient is within. This hotel is designed entirely in a faux Arabian Nights theme, with the halls and suites made up like an imitation sheik’s palace. It also allows for a surreal moment, where this synthetic castle suddenly takes on a genuine magical quality: the halls appear to reach out infinitely, each one entirely like the other, the powers of observation which have served so well till now entirely useless.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes maze of hallways - URL if gif doesn't load:

This may be a good place to mention that the viewer’s powers of observation match or exceed that of any of the characters. They travel with Santoro, who, as a cop, is able to move almost anywhere by simply showing his badge.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

This has nothing to do with Santoro being a good man; Costello is more virtuous, yet can travel nowhere near the places he can, and is ultimately sealed off in a room by Santoro. Yet our powers exceed even this. When Costello moves into a room, we pass through its walls.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes - pass through walls - URL if gif doesn't load:

As already said, we are able to move into a bathroom with ease, and look down on a half-naked woman. We also hear of information that is never revealed to Santoro or Costello, the key role of Gilbert Powell in the assassination plot. By the last scene, Santoro, Costello, and the media still think Powell is uninvolved in the conspiracy, and he remains unindicted, at the head of the company.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

In the plan I bought, that prairie populist…who was criminally dismantling the entire armed forces, goes down! The disloyal employee, she goes down with him. The fanatical terrorist, he takes the rap. The AirGuard missile contract is approved, and l, I get enough money to finish the goddam Millennium! It was a good plan! No humiliation, no scandal, no prison!

Meanwhile, the AirGuard investigation continued in Washington, and Gilbert Powell announced more firings at Powell Aircraft as he cleans house in the wake of the assassination.

Where Santoro and Dunne move about lost in the maze of hotel passages, we impossibly drift, like a divine spirit, across room after room, until we reach the suite we are searching for.

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Snake Eyes: traveling through the hotel.

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This movie is about the insufficiency of simply seeing, that this ability contains no moral power in and of itself. The film is about Santoro making proper judgement of what he has seen, and the movie ends with the open question of whether we have been properly discerning in what we too have gazed on.

An illustrative sequence of this is when Santoro is told by Costello what she herself has seen in the moments up to the killing. A notable detail which reveals the small gap between everybody’s memories – the dialogue we overhear when the secretary and Costello start talking to each other in the opening scene is this:

It’s in the pocket.

Have you been writing to me?

Listen to me, Mr Secretary. I am telling you, you are the one that’s gonna be sorry.

When Costello tells Santoro what she saw took place, it is now slightly different:

It’s in the pocket.

Excuse me. Did you say something?

It’s in the pocket.

Pocket? So you’ve been writing to me.

But I am telling you, you’re the one that’s gonna be sorry.

A more important point of the split screen is that we are shown two sets of images – on the right, what Costello personally has witnessed and now recalls, and images on the left – Dunne observing the arena through binoculars, giving orders by microphone, planting the papers on Rabat’s body – that she could not possibly have witnessed, that are entirely the creation of Santoro, imagining what actually took place. Though one set of images has a reasonable basis in the recall of an eyewitness, the left-hand set is entirely hypothetical, a reasonable hypothesis, but a hypothesis nonetheless, yet: both sets of images are presented as if they are equal, till we are given solely the images, Dunne planting the papers, which Santoro imagines.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes Split Screen Assassination - URL if gif doesn't load:

Though this is very valuable information for Santoro, information he has been searching for, it is information he does not want. Again, it is not simply enough to have access to what others have seen, if we are unwilling to consider our own assumptions to be very wrong.

I think there is some resistance to how venal a character Rick Santoro is, and how close he is to Dunne in utter ruthlessness. This moment, Santoro right at the precipice, goes unmentioned in discussions of the movie, though I think it is crucial:

You decided to have this problem, not me! My world would’ve gone on turning just fine, but now either way I look, I have to do something I don’t want to do. Do you understand what I’m saying? I do not want to do this!

Do what?

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Snake Eyes: "Do what?"

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The question of what it is Santoro has to do next goes without answer, but I think it is a simple one: he has to kill this woman. We move suddenly away from the two in conversation at this point, and cut to a shot of the stairwell they’re in, and now we’re in the world of fantastic dimensions, like those of the endless corridors of the hotel, as these stairs swirl away infinitely while ominous thunder rumbles outside.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

That these stairs seem to move away in both directions endlessly is not empty cinematic bravura, but done for a specific point. Santoro can now choose whether to go to heaven or hell, based on what he’ll do next. The world of this movie is one of post-catholic iconography, where the powers of divine sight have been gifted to us, where the elysian heights are entirely synthetic, luxury hotel suites, but there are still deeds that can damn us to the flames. When Dunne kills his fellow soldiers, he does so only after descending a staircase to the bowels of the arena. In this descent to hell, metaphorical and not metaphorical at all, he passes through a red light.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

It is this same place, descending these same stairs that he has Santoro beaten.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

The other images that suggest catholic imagery in a post-catholic world is the taint of blood which touches those involved in the conspiracy. Costello is able to wash the blood from herself, Santoro changes his bloody shirt, but Gilbert Powell stays in the same blood-stained clothes.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

The blood spat on the medals, which Dunne cannot clean off as easily as he thinks.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

And the blood-stained bill reminds Santoro of his past sins, and warns him of his future ones.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Right after the fantastic shot of the stairwell, Santoro asks Costello certain defining details to fix her as an image, a woman with a family, someone alive and not simply a statistic. It is this vision which keeps him from killing her. He says as much in the movie’s conclusion:

Don’t try to make a hero out of me. It won’t fit. If I hadn’t put a face to you, things probably would’ve gone a whole lot different.

Having been given the information, he first tries to persuade her that she has not seen this. He does this with no counter-information, only through the sheer force of his will. It is inconvenient for these events to have occurred, so they cannot have occurred. That Costello is a moral actor, that her actions are the right actions, that the effects of her actions are to have an overall beneficial effect, is irrelevant; if there are sufficient corrupt actors, who benefit from the corruption, than the moral actor must be discouraged, or killed. Santoro now nearly enters into the conspiracy, not with the portent of any sinister music, but simply because it is easier to be part of this conspiracy than outside of it. On this basis we may examine our own lives, and ask how many networks are we part of, which would never be given so ominous a name as a conspiracy, but which have an ultimate detrimental effect, yet which we are party to because it is easier to belong than be an outside skeptic.

Then we have another shocking moment, for Santoro does successfully intimidate her into changing her story. That the conspiracy succeeds or fails is not because she cannot be bent, it is only due to something in Santoro not allowing himself to do this.

You could be wrong. Isn’t it possible?

Yes. Yes.

Isn’t it so?

Yeah, now that I think about it, I think I could be wrong. Um, you remember I told you that my glasses, they had fallen off, and I couldn’t quite focus. I don’t think it was him.

Shit. Your glasses didn’t fall off till after the gunshots–

Santoro then locks her up, rather than letting her go, for reasons that go unsaid. A sanguine viewer might believe it is simply that the detective still doesn’t know if he believes her, and whether she was party to the murder. A pessimist might think that Santoro still considers the possibility of killing this insignificant woman.

The detective returns to the arena, and finds a camera, a god’s eye view of the stage high in the ceiling, a recurrence of the theme of the divine vision. This camera is also a reprise of the “The false mirror” by René Magritte, an eye isolated from the body, but dense with a cloud-filled sky, an eye connected with the metaphysical substance of the soul. Santoro sees the vision recorded by this camera, and finds his dreaded suspicions confirmed: his friend is chief party in the assassination.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes - vision from the sky - URL if gif doesn't load:

After, both Dunne and Tyler descend from a great height, down the stairs to the control room. There may be a hell for ill-doers and murderers, but the aeries of real estate are filled with those whose hands may well be blood spattered. Elysium is a state of grace, found only in good, brave deeds.

Santoro is given a terrible beating, before being let go in order that he may be tracked to where he’s hidden Costello. As he wanders along the corridor, badly disoriented, he is followed by Dunne, who looks down on his tracking device, again, like a god gazing on a helpless bughill, a divine vision in the hands of a demon.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Santoro’s travel to the sealed room plays off of earlier scenes, important for this detecive’s position in the narrative, and how he serves, and does not serve, as a vehicle for what the audience wants. The next, brief, section is devoted to this.


A key line, early on in the extended shot, after Santoro beats Cyrus (the great Luis Guzman), the dealer, and busts up his supply:

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

You got a bad attitude, you hear, my friend? What makes you think you’re better than me?

Friends, Cyrus. Everybody loves Rick Santoro.

There is nothing distinguishing this low level dealer and this corrupt cop, the cop himself admits. He humiliates, beats, then extorts this dealer, all things he is able to do because he has the right friends. Santoro then watches the fight, a celebration of a rigged game, the boxing ring flanked by the weapons of Gilbert Powell, another example of a rigged game. Both are exhibits of vicarious violence, allowing a man to take the role of the champion, or military commander: did not many take vicarious martial satisfaction in the conquests of Iraq and Afghanistan, until such conquests turned sour and difficult? Just as the audience of the fight wishes to participate vicariously as Tyler, the movie viewer might wish Santoro to be their proxy, defeating the villains at the end through a vicious physical fight. Yet just as Tyler’s throwing the fight defeats the possibility of one vicarious pleasure, I think the film-makers deliberately choose to avoid giving the viewing audience their own satisfaction through violent proxy. To provide such a satiation for blood-thirst would be to play the same manipulative game that Gilbert Powell plays, making money through the pleasure of remote death.

And: it would further the lie that superior force is necessarily accorded to the most virtuous, that whoever can beat the other man must necessarily be the creature of greater idealism. The brave choice of Santoro should not be secondary to providing a context for an action scene involving his vengeance, but rather the focus should remain on the choice itself.

Santoro is beaten without mercy. Where before his connections allowed him to interrogate Tyler fearlessly, now that network is entirely gone, over-ridden by Dunne and his greater power. Rather than giving the viewer the satisfaction of him fighting back, we experience something very different for a movie like this: we watch him suffer. And not simply watch, for we are given his point of view when he wakes up, becoming him in his moment of greatest weakness. Where before he gave out a beating to a man of no consequence, now he has become a vulnerable man himself, who, just like Cyrus, can be destroyed without repercussion. The role he saw at a distance, a man savagely beaten, he has taken on himself.

The very wounds Tyler and Santoro suffer have a similar pattern.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Santoro manages to make it up the stairs, and we see him move through the very area where he beat Cyrus hours before, each step now filled with pain.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes - Santoro triumphant and Santoro wounded - URL if gif doesn't load:

The audience is forced to see themselves in this man, beaten, weak, and vulnerable, the very opposite of the kinetic fantasy that they expected at this point. Just as we might wish to see ourselves in an action hero, we do not wish at all to conceive ourselves in Santoro now, yet we are forced to imagine ourselves in his condition, hurt and frightened. This should be a counterpoint to the earlier scene where Dunne kills his fellow soldier (Chip Chuipka). This man bears an uncanny physical similarity to Dunne; he looks strikingly similar to Gary Sinise in Reindeer Games, yet Dunne sees this mirror of himself, this fellow soldier, and feels nothing, killing him. This soldier may have taken part in the conspiracy, yet this moment of him begging for his life connects with us, the anguish of a dying man pleading for mercy affecting us no matter what he has done before, yet it touches Dunne not at all.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes


Among the valuable pieces on Snake Eyes on-line is Brian Eggert’s writing for Deep Focus Review, which I enjoyed, though I differed with the following line: “When viewed as a political thriller, its lack of last-minute twist or plausibility operate against it, while the conspiracy itself is questionable.” The conspiracy is also dismissed in the equally well-written segment by John H. Semley of the A.V. Club‘s Caged Wisdom devoted to the film: “The political murder-mystery plotting borrows heavily from De Palma’s own Blow Out“.

My mind does not run to conspiratorial thinking, but I find this movie from 1998 remarkably prescient in its head of the conspiracy, Gilbert Powell, a man whose business is entirely made up of gambling and defense contracts. This, it would seem to me, in the wake of two bloody wars and the mortgage crisis, an excellent description of the bulk of the economy of the Bush epoch, with the contractor employing any weaselly subterfuge possible to advance his own interests, his construction of a casino jerry-rigged around a deception, his pious invocations of the military dead for financial gain, this movie seems to be not a re-hashing or an implausibility at all, but a startling metaphor of the era we just lived through before the era took place.

I end with a speech by Powell, that to me, expertly captures the oily mix of lachrymose and belligerence, the cheap cover for the squalid interests of too many, that passionately, negligently, led so many good men and women to their deaths.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

At this time I’d like to extend my deepest sympathies…to the secretary’s family…and to the nation…and to the people that he so faithfully and proudly served. And, uh…I have something else to say. To those that would try to bully us or to terrorize us, to divert us from the causes of peace and justice, I want you to know that in spite of what’s happened here tonight, we are not deterred. Production of the AirGuard missile system will go ahead in accordance with Secretary Kirkland’s wishes.


When he goes to interview Tyler in his dressing room:

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

And you sign my kid’s autograph!

Refusing to co-operate:

Snake eyes. The house wins. Now, where is she?

Fuck you.

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Snake Eyes: "Where is she?"

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The difficult art of looking relaxed:

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes


Santoro arrives at the sealed room, Dunne right behind him. The lightning flashes, and Santoro sees Dunne’s shadow, the man who has given in to his killing urge, just as Santoro might have.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

In this moment when Santoro is weaponless, vulnerable, with a gun pointed at him, he is abruptly given something of a divine reprieve. Just as the light falls out of the sky at just the right angle in De Palma’s Femme Fatale, now Santoro is granted a god-given escape. Just as the camera eye provided a vision from the heavens confirming Costello’s story, now another vision gives him the possibility of survival. Santoro looks up and sees the television showing a police truck speeding towards their location, then moves quickly to the door, going into the sealed room which suddenly breaks apart like a stage set opened up, the police sliding to a stop inches from them, a longed for divine invasion into this world.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes - Deux Ex Machina ending - URL if gif doesn't load:

Before it was “snake’s eyes”, the house wins, Dunne can call on greater power than Santoro. Now, they are in a different rigged game; the audience requires a happy ending, and Dunne must lose.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

No, wait! Wait a minute! Wait! I’m with D.O.D.!

Put it down now!

Listen to me! Listen!

Put the gun down!

This– This woman is a suspect!

We’ll be forced to fire.

No, she’s a suspect, goddam it! I am Commander Kevin Dunne,

I suggest you drop it now!

…and this woman is a threat to the security of the United States. Rick, tell ’em! Please, for God’s sake, tell ’em what we got here!

There’s no “we,” Kevin! You got snake eyes!

Dunne finds himself before the camera, then kills himself.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

It should be asked at this point, what exactly is Dunne caught doing? He is simply holding a gun, in an agitated state, while chasing suspects. He has only the appearance of guilt, yet this is enough, and Dunne is sufficiently savvy to know that this is enough. It is he who understands how such coverage works, who predicts exactly what will eventually happen to Santoro after the press makes him into a hero.

What is this, a heroic stand? You’re the wrong guy for it, Rick. You’ll be all alone in the spotlight, and guys like you can’t stand up to that light. You’ll burn up under it. The press starts looking for dirt on you, and they will, it’ll be a mud slide. Forget about your job, your sweet life in Margate. Start thinkin’ about jail! Your girlfriend will be gone, too, at the first sign of trouble, but not before she has a little chat with Angela! So say goodbye to your wife too! Twice a month with Michael won’t be so bad if you can get him to spend a night…in your shitty apartment! You’ll lose it all, my friend! Everything! And your whole connected life will fall the hell apart. Is that what you want? All you gotta do is be consistent, for Christ’s sake.

There is nothing inherently just in Dunne being forced into suicide, it is solely an outcome that this form demands, the end of the villain – and this same context of visible implied guilt could well condemn an innocent man. Dunne’s killing himself, while it satisfies the need for the villain’s destruction, is something else, which makes it so valuable in our time of exploitation media, indifferent to who the victim is: it is a snuff film, someone committing suicide on camera.

The movie now becomes a tabloid news format story, a stark difference from what took place before. The narrative we’ve just left has been a movement from distance – Santoro and the women around him, Santoro and the violence of the fighters – towards empathy – Santoro and Costello, Santoro knowing now what it is to be powerless, what it is to suffer such a beating. Here, in these tabloid stories, there is always distance from the subject, either giving in to worship, Santoro as a hero, or desecration, Santoro as a corrupt cop. The reporter who covers the unfolding scandal is, of course, his old friend Lou, who bribed Santoro for the job.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

Hey, if you’re gonna be on TV, who better asking you the questions, than your old pal Lou, huh? Plus, I can have two grand cash in an hour and a half.

You are a disgusting human being.

Hey, five grand in an hour.

Congratulations, Lou. You’re the guy!

Hey, Rick, I gotta tell you, I will always be there for you, my friend.

There have been allegations of bribery coming out of the mayor’s office. Could you comment on those? What about the cocaine–

Cocaine, my ass!

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Snake Eyes: "Lou, will you back off."

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The same line that Santoro used, announcing the pre-conceived villain, is now used on him. He has been picked out as the enemy, not a conflcited man of acts good and bad, but now only a corrupt cop.

There he is.

Richard Santoro’s moment in the public eye produced an unexpected backlash this week as allegations of corruption swirled around him.

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Snake Eyes: "Lou, will you back off."

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His complexities are irrelevant to this form, just as irrelevant as whatever made Dunne look guilty. The importance is the footage of Dunne killing himself, of Santoro running in flight, of Santoro in decline. The coverage given is no different than that given to the life of a tumultous actress. Shots of her beautiful, shots of her drunk, shots of her with a new boyfriend, her with a new girlfriend, her with no panties, her with a needle in her arm, her back from re-hab, her now beautiful again, her now no longer alive. What underlies the shots is irrelvant, the value lies in the shots themselves. We are now returned to the same asymmetry as we had in the arena, the possibility to see almost everything, and the amorality of that sight.

We return after this to Costello and Santoro. As Dunne predicted, Santoro has lost everything and will spend some time in jail. In this last scene, there may or may not be a greater significance in a small gesture. As Santoro lists all that he has lost, it is crushing to us, and we wish for some relief for this man, just as we wanted Santoro and Costello to escape alive, and were granted this relief. Costello tells of her own achievements, the congressional hearings, and the possibility of reforming the defense department. She then either does something that is in preparation for a kiss, or a signal that what follows is entirely given as a comfort to the audience. This movie, whose themes revolve around sight, ends with Costello now taking off her glasses. A major point of the film is that Costello is almost blind without them. Yet she removes them, gives Costello a deep kiss, then walks off, among the crowded boardwalk, keeping them off. Given her near lack of sight, how is she able to do this? Again, one may read this as part of a larger romantic gesture, or as a sign that what takes place after she removes the glasses is entirely false, allowing us a return to our own lives. Costello now has a curvaceous, form-fitting top, different from the loose men’s shirt of before. Throughout the movie, she resisted being viewed as sexual, now she initiates intimacies.

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes - Julia takes off her glasses and can see perfectly - URL if gif doesn't load:

Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

I do not imply that she does not do so on her terms, or that there is no basis for it, only that it is a moment that the audience wants, and this is what the audience gets, a chosen sight, a milder variation of what Santoro wants and yet does not want to see, where we too may choose not to see the detail signaling that it’s false. That the final line, “At least I got to be on TV”, is said without regret or bitterness, might be seen as equally false, returning us to the comfortable lie that there is something equitable and just in what is seen, and what is not, and that this man exposed by tabloids only for the purpose of desecration rather than any searching for truth, is some rare and occasional exception.

* Actually, it’s from a book by Grant Allen, with Wells excerpting his review of the book in his memoir. The criticism is somewhat apt for this character as well, and somewhat not. Julia Costello is less real than a character in a book which might be low or high mimetic, but this movie is very much of the heightened notes of the thriller genre. I include an excerpt of Wells’ excerpt:

“We have endeavoured to piece this character together, and we cannot conceive the living woman. She is, he assures us with a certain pathos, a ‘real woman.’ But one doubts it from the outset. ‘A living proof of the doctrine of heredity’ is her own idea, but that is scarcely the right effect of her. Mr. Grant Allen seems nearer the truth when he describes her as ‘a solid rock of ethical resolution.” Her solidity is witnessed to by allusions to her ‘opulent form’ and the ‘lissom grace of her rounded figure.’ Fancy a girl with an ‘opulent’ form! Her ‘face was, above all things, the face of a free woman,’ a ‘statuesque’ face, and upon this Mr. Grant Allen has[464] chiseled certain inappropriate ‘dimples,’ which mar but do not modify that statuesque quality.”

“Clearly this is not a human being. No more a human being than the women twelve hands tall of the fashion magazines. Had her author respected her less he might have drawn her better. Surely Mr. Grant Allen has lived long enough to know that real women do not have spotless souls and a physical beauty that is invariably overpowering. Real women are things of dietary and secretions, of subtle desires and mental intricacy; even the purest among them have at least beauty spots upon their souls.”

The entire autobiography can be found here

On April 19, 2015, this post underwent a copy edit. On April 20, 2015, several gifs which might better help in understanding some concepts were added to this post. On December 3, 2016, this post underwent a clarifying edit – some grammar was changed, sentences were re-structured, but no new text was introduced and the underlying substance went unchanged.

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George Romney, Success Destroying Socialist

I post what follows with some hesitation; I feel I should say something considering the tragic events of yesterday, but I have nothing. I do think there is genius in succinctness, the lasting kiss of a short brief work, and perhaps the briefest phrase is no words at all. I cannot attempt genius, but I can at least attempt silence, and the dead of yesterday can now be given nothing but that.

So, the following is a simple context, strangely unremarked by reporters, to a speech given by Mitt Romney chastising his president for his un-american attitude. A transcript, accompanied by the approving whoops of partisans, can be found here. Analysis I found valuable, though it does not deal with the context I address here, are “How ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Violated Conservative P.C.”, by Jonathan Chait and “How The ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Canard Went From Right-Wing Blogs To Mitt Romney’s Mouth” by David Taintor.

I quote two notable fragments:

I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think anyone could have said what he said who had actually started a business or been in a business. And my own view is that what the President said was both startling and revealing. I find it extraordinary that a philosophy of that nature would be spoken by a President of the United States. It goes to something that I have spoken about from the beginning of the campaign. That this election is, to a great degree, about the soul of America. Do we believe in an America that is great because of government or do we believe in an America that is great because of free people allowed to pursue their dreams and build our future?

In the past, people of both parties understood that encouraging achievement, encouraging success, encouraging people to lift themselves as high as they can, encouraging entrepreneurs, celebrating success instead of attacking it and denigrating, makes America strong. That’s the right course for this country. His course is extraordinarily foreign.

So, Romney makes very clear that government is detrimental to success, and government involving itself in business is “extraordinarily foreign”. I find this approach rather strange, given testimony his father, George Romney, gave before the Senate Antitrust subcommittee, February 7th, 1958. His father, I think everyone will acknowledge, was a very successful businessman. It is thanks to his father’s extraordinary business acumen that Mitt Romney was born to such a privileged and wealthy place. It may also be said with little dispute that, unlike his son, his business concentrated on creating and keeping jobs in the United States, rather than exclusively on profit, with jobs of secondary or no importance at all.

Here now is this testimony before the subcommittee. There are many sources, but I have taken my quotes from a contemporary article in The Charleston Daily Mail. It is titled: “Competitor Asks Split of GM, Ford”. This was George Romney, asking the government to take apart the two largest companies, GM and Ford, as well as any company that exceeded a 35% share of the market. Though partisans might seize on the fact that this was partly due to unions having a greater bargaining advantage with a small number of competitors in a market, which they could play off each other, this was not the sole reason at all. George Romney felt that an outsize position was detrimental to customers, shareholders, all parties.

I cannot quote the article in its entirety, but unlike Mitt Romney, I do not quote someone out of context; those who read the piece in full at the link will find the quotes retain the same meaning.

The president of American Motors Corp. today urged Congress to break up General Motors and Ford into smaller companies and split the bargaining forces of the United Auto Workers.

[George] Romney, whose company is one of the two comparatively small independent producers surviving, declared that “economic power in the automobile industry should be limited and divided.”

Romney suggested that any company which approached a dominant place in a basic industry be compelled to split itself.

The breakup point, he suggested, should come when a firm exceeds 35 per cent of the total sales of an industry: or, if it is engaged in more than one basic industry, 25 per cent.

After crossing the 35 per cent line, Romney explained, the company would be obliged to submit to the government a plan for splitting off part of its operations as a new and going concern.

Romney said, “General Motors and Ford stockholders, executives, employees and customers could reasonably be expected to benefit.”

So, it does appear that George Romney actively sought out the government’s help to break apart his competitors, that he believed their very success at achieving a market share of over 35% merited the state intervening. My humble mind observes a man of the past, attacking success, denigrating success, rather than celebrating it. The president has made the simple point that government builds and supports infrastructure which helps create a healthy environment for business. This simple idea, Mitt Romney has called un-american. Mitt Romney’s father made a demand that went far further than this idea, asking for the government to come in and diminish his corporate fellows. It seems that Mitt Romney’s father, by his own son’s terms, is far more un-american, far more foreign, in his approach to capitalism than his opponent. Yet somehow this un-american, extraordinarily foreign man managed to create more long-term jobs in the United States than his son has done, or ever will.

The great maw of the state turned down the request of this decent, extraordinarily foreign man.

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