Donald Rumsfeld, The King’s Speech, Aquatic Ancestor Apes & Talking Bacteria

Donald Rumsfeld

I just finished Known and Unknown, a fat memoir by Donald Rumsfeld, and enjoyed every page.  Rumsfeld served as the Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush.  But Rumsfeld’s service didn’t start there. He was a Navy pilot, an assistant to a congressman during the Eisenhower days, and, in the early 60’s, a four-term congressman from Illinois.  He held various positions in the Nixon White House in the late 60’s and early 70’s, including ambassador to NATO.  He was Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense when Ford took over from Nixon.  Reagan tapped him to be a special envoy to both the Middle East after the Beirut bombing and to the Law of the Sea treaty discussions.  He was the president of Searle, a pharmaceutical, as well as General Instrument, the company that pioneered HDTV.  Only after all that, did George W. Bush bring him on as Secretary of Defense.

When writing novels, I try to create characters worth knowing, either because of their interesting personality or skills or because of the events they take part in. Donald Rumsfeld is just such a character, except he’s no fiction.

In his memoir he shares insider information on everything from Watergate to 9/11 to the war in Iraq. What emerges is a fascinating look into many of the most important events in the last forty years.  You’ll get insight into some of the issues experienced in various White House administrations and see what really was going on with waterboarding, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, hurricane Katrina and many other of the hot button issues in the Bush years. There are some laugh out loud moments where his understated humor shines through. There are also parts where he reveals some of his differences with others that worked with him in the various administrations, including issues with Nelson Rockerfeller, Colin Powell and Andy Card. But in everything he writes he’s fair and restrained and attempts to present the facts accurately. This is no attempt to settle scores.  Just a wonderful read.

If you are interested in politics at all, I think you’ll enjoy this book. Moreover, I think you’ll come out a little wiser, maybe a little better person, for having spent a few hours with Donald Rumsfeld.  

The King’s Speech

I do not watch many r-rated movies.  They are usually too vulgar or pornographic for my prissy tastes. However, I did my research on The King’s Speech, and having heard so many glowing reviews, Nellie and I rented it.

It was wonderful.

The movie tells the story of prince Albert Frederick Arthur George of Britain who did not ever expect to inherit the throne and did not want to, in part because of his stammer. Can you imagine having to be a public figure like a king and have to deal with something like that? Most of us dread the thought of public speaking. Can you imagine having to try with a stammer?

But Albert’s lot was not to live the sheltered life. He became king when his brother abdicated the throne because of improprieties in his personal life. The day before the abdication, Albert went to London to see his mother, Queen Mary. He wrote in his diary, “When I told her what had happened, I broke down and sobbed like a child.” That is not the entry of a power-hungry man.

He assumed the throne in 1936, when England ruled over almost a quarter of the world’s population. Three years later in 1939 WW2 broke out and Britain’s king needed to be able to address the people.

In the movie, Colin Firth plays Price Albert. Geoffery Rush (Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean) plays Lionel Logue, the unorthodox Australian speech therapist to whom Albert’s wife turns for help. The script is wonderful and the star-studded cast is spot on. There are moments of humor and poignancy and triumph. I was caught up in this movie as much as any I’ve seen.

If you like English dramas, you’ll enjoy this one. And the profanity, the reason for the r-rating, is not there to depict casual vulgarity. It was part of a technique used by the therapist. In the end, you’ll overlook it and find yourself on pins and needles, rooting for this fine man.

Aquatic Ancestor Apes & Talking Bacteria

I’ve written about TED before. The annual TED (technology, entertainment, design) conferences, in Long Beach/Palm Springs and Edinburgh, bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less). The folks at TED record these speeches and put them up for free on their site for the rest of us to watch. And I just watched two dandies.

The first is by Elaine Morgan who says we evolved from aquatic apes (sigh, just when you think you’ve found grandpa Eddy hanging out in the trees, you learn he’s an imposter). Morgan is a Welsh writer for television and also the author of several books on evolutionary anthropology. In the speech she describes the reasons why it makes sense that humans had aquatic ancestors. Along the way, she illustrates key principles of science, including why science by consensus is no science at all. Her manner is so delightful and engaging I think I could listen to her for hours, preferably around the dinner table. Watch her right now. She just might convince you.

The second speech was given by Bonnie Bassler, an American molecular biologist, who has been part of the team that discovered key insights into how bacteria talk. It appears that bacteria do not invade a host and start doing damage. No, they wait until their numbers are sufficient that they have a chance of surviving. They coordinate defense and mount attacks as a group. Who would have thought? Knowing how this works is not only interesting all by itself, but it has stunning implications for medicine and fighting infection. Bassler is a fascinating and enthusiastic presenter. Among other things, you’ll end up seeing that humans are more bacteria than you could imagine. Watch her.

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