1 October 2009

For almost as long as I can remember I have been a political junkie. Political candidates, vote totals, and campaign strategies are to me what players, scores, and game-winning plays are to a football fanatic. I once went so far as to confess to one of my college roommates on Election Night 2000 that “this is my Super Bowl.” Devouring books and articles about politics, watching political events on television, or volunteering for campaigns was not just a hobby for me; it was a way of life. It was a natural high that, as former Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said, the only cure for is embalming fluid.

Then came the election of 2004, or more specifically the post-election period of 2004. I began 2004 as a volunteer on a local Congressional campaign. As a recent college graduate, I had the time and energy to work full time for the campaign. In the summer of 2004, after a grueling primary season, I was hired by the campaign as a Deputy Finance Assistant. It is not an exaggeration to say to say that it was a dream come true. Although certain aspects of the campaign may not have been what I had always dreamed of, I was actually getting paid to work in a profession that I loved. Then, to top it all off, we actually won.

Michael monitors election returns with John Barrow on 2 November 2004 in Athens, Georgia. Photo credit: Joseph Gamble

Michael monitors election returns with John Barrow on 2 November 2004 in Athens, Georgia. Photo credit: Joseph Gamble

But, as with any dream, I had to wake up eventually. My wake up call came about two weeks after the election when the only job I was offered in the Congressman’s office was in an area of the district I had no desire to ever work or, more importantly, live in. I went from the emotional high of winning the first campaign I was actually a full-fledged staff member of (something a political professional may spend years trying to achieve) to the crushing disappointment of being offered, at least in my opinion, an unacceptable position. Words like frustrated, disappointed, and disillusioned do not begin to accurately express my feelings in the days and weeks that followed.

Eventually I got over it. However, my dream of making a career out of working on political campaigns was put on hold, maybe permanently. I moved onto other interests and other career opportunities, but still the unfulfilled quest for a career in politics gnawed at me from time to time. It might be a program on television or a podcast or an interesting article, like an alcoholic drawn to liquor I couldn’t just end my passion for politics. But like all junkies I paid a price for my addiction. At some point while reading the article or listening to the podcast the great ‘What Ifs’ began to nag me. What if I’d pushed harder for a better position after the campaign ended? What if I’d just sucked it up and took the position offered to me? What if I’d moved onto another campaign in the 2006 election cycle?

I tried to put the ‘What Ifs’ out of my mind. I kept politics at arm’s length through the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, two cycles I should have enthusiastically participated in because of the success my party enjoyed, at least on the national level. But I didn’t. I sat on the sidelines. No, more like just sat at home and watched it on television and read about it on the Internet.  For some reason I could not balance my passion for politics with my resentment/disillusionment/pissed off-ness from 2004.

So, it came as a bit of a surprise when I actually wanted to read Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson’s book The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election. This is just the type of book I would have once done anything to avoid because of the lingering ambivalence I had towards politics after 2004. I’m glad I read it. I’m glad not because it is the greatest book I have ever read about politics or any other subject. I’m glad because, for the first time since 2004, I was able to sit down and read a work solely about politics without the raw, conflicted emotions I once had about politics. To be sure, the authors of this book did not write it to be a self-help book or a cathartic experience for the reader. But in a way, it has been for me. I read The Battle for America 2008 with the same enthusiasm and interest in politics I once read books like Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes or Jules Witcover’s Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976.

I may never have the career in campaign politics I once thought I would have. The time I spent as an intern for Governor Barnes in Atlanta, then for Senator Miller in Washington, D.C., and culminating with my work on John Barrow’s congressional campaign in 2004 may be the sum of my political career. For once though, I actually feel OK with that. The timing of this introspective experience may just be coincidental. Maybe I would have gone through this reflective process without reading The Battle for America 2008, but I doubt it. Reading that book gave me the opportunity to get lost in the world of politics without feelings of disappointment or frustration. For the first time in a long time I felt like the junkie I used to be.

Red Moon Rising

1 December 2008

Red Moon Rising

If you are looking for a concise and approachable examination of humankind’s entry into the Space Age, “Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age” by Matthew Brzezinski is a must-read. Mr. Brzezinski’s book is both engaging and informative. The book reads not like a dull historical analysis, but rather an action-packed thriller. Mr. Brzezinski appears to be that rare author who can take seemingly dry historical facts and weave them into an entertaining narrative. I found Mr. Brzezinski’s analysis of 1950’s media coverage to be particularly interesting. The excitement and fear created by the media of the day is a legacy that is still with us today. It seems that the media was as much of an influence on and creator of public opinion and public perception in the 1950’s as it is today. The author also presented a great deal of behind-the-scenes information I did not know before reading “Red Moon Rising”. For example, I knew very little about Soviet rocket designer Sergei P. Korolev before reading this book. In addition, I had no idea how close the rocket team of Dr. Wernher von Braun came to being shutout of the early American missile program due to interservice rivalry between the Army, Navy, and Air Force. This book is well worth the reader’s time and money.

Digital Apollo

3 November 2008

Last summer I received a book for my birthday entitled, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight by Dr. David A. Mindell. As an engineer and historian, Dr. Mindell superbly articulates the human-machine relationship in spaceflight. Beginning with the first human forays off the ground in primitive flying contraptions and culminating in one of humankind’s greatest achievements, the Apollo expeditions to the Moon, Dr. Mindell details the complex relationship humans have with machinery. The book primarily focuses on the machine which human’s relied upon in order to journey to and from the Moon: the Apollo Guidance Computer.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Digital Apollo. It was a book I honestly had trouble putting down. Because it was published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and written by an MIT professor, I was concerned the book would be overly technical and read like a dry college textbook. I could not have been more wrong. Dr. Mindell’s book gives the reader an excellent balance of technical information and anecdotal stories that make the book both informative and entertaining. I also found the book to be a refreshing change from the standard high-flying, dare-devil Astronaut story we have become accustomed to. Dr. Mindell strips away the glory tales and the exaggerated yarns often dispensed by Astronauts (and pilots in general) and presents the reader with a true, unbiased story of human and machine in spaceflight.

Aside from the text of the book, I found the Bibliography and Notes section to be quite useful. These two sections provide a veritable treasure-trove of information. I have discovered literally a dozen books and articles that I want to read; material I may never have known about where it not listed in the Bibliography and Notes section. For example, Milton Thompson’s book At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Program and Thomas Kelly’s Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module are two books I had never heard of before finding them in the bibliography of Digital Apollo. Dr. Mindell also provides a glossary of terms which is quite useful.

In addition to writing an excellent book, the author also has a website which has additional information. The website contains a wealth of information about the author and the courses he teaches, reviews and comments about the book, and a voluminous amount of primary and secondary source material. I found the supplemental material compiled by the author (the bibliography, the website, et cetera) to be almost as engaging as the book itself.