A couple of recent reads

I wanted to write about two books that I’ve read recently. The Nine, by Jeffrey Toobin, and Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

The Nine:

Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

I bought “The Nine” a number of months ago as I browsed in a Washington DC bookshop. I’m fascinated by the Supreme Court, though I have zero interest in becoming a lawyer. (While I don’t have any irrational hatred of lawyers at all, it’s just not work that suits me.)

This book goes into really interesting detail about all of the recent Supreme Court justices. They each have really interesting personalities and approaches to the law. The book does a great job of really rounding out their personalities, with both positive and negative elements. But a couple of justices just don’t come out looking so well… Thomas and Kennedy in particular. Kennedy seems to be quite a shallow person, and interested largely in his image. Thomas comes off as a man obsessed by his critics, and quite isolated professionally.

Strangely I found myself fascinated by David Souter. He’s a man who seems very defined by his home state of New Hampshire. A life-long bachelor who still lives on the family farm/homestead, doesn’t use a computer or the internet, writes with fountain pens, and allegedly never even plugged in his television! (He wasn’t in attendance for Chief Justice Rehnquist’s funeral simply because no one could get in touch with him in time.) But underneath those personality quirks, he comes across as deeply devoted to judicial principles and stability, so much so that he seriously contemplated resigning after the debacle of the Bush vs. Gore decision in 2000. His role in landmark decisions such as Planned Parenthood vs. Casey is explored in much more detail that I have seen elsewhere.

What I found most interesting in the book was the balance of power issues, and how various blocks of justices come together to hash out agreements on opinions, and the diplomatic tactics used within the Court to make that happen. It’s really fascinating, and could itself serve as an excellent study in organisational dynamics.

Unfortunately the core of this book ends around the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist and the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor. While it covers Samuel Alito and John Roberts, there’s little detail there as they had just gotten to the Court as the book was finished.

Overall, I highly recommend it!

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone

Most recently I read Imperial Life in the Emerald City. This book blew my mind! If you are at all interested in what the hell went wrong in the Iraq occupation, you MUST read this book. It’s only after this that I began to understand how many different ways the United States screwed up the aftermath of the original invasion.

This book details the year and a half or so at the end of the Iraq invasion and the beginning of the occupation; particularly the Coalition Provisional Authority. If the stories that the author tells were in a fiction book, it would be high black comedy. Unfortunately, they’re all true.

The crux of the problem that the author describes is an unyielding ideology. People weren’t selected because they would do an outstanding job; they were selected to go to Iraq because they had excellent Republican/neo-conservative principles. (Those that were extremely qualified but not reliably conservative were often prevented from these jobs.) This led to such things as a 24-year old recent university graduate (with no background in finance) being put in charge of getting Baghdad’s stock exchange up and running! WOW!

There are so many excellent vignettes of complete incompetence, but also of extreme competence trying to do their best in the environment of incompetence. It was a great read from beginning to end.

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