What Might’ve Been If George W Bush Had Not Become President in 2001?

During the extremely weird #GOPDebate last Saturday night, the most intense I-live-on-a-different-planet-from-these-people-moment for me came when Marco Rubio, after Trump’s mostly accurate slam on George W. Bush over 9/11 and Iraq, rallied to Bush’s defense and proclaimed emphatically how GLAD he is that Al Gore was not president on Sept 11, 2001! This happens to be the exact opposite of how I feel about the past 15+ years of our history. Though a counter-factual can’t be proven, I have long believed it possible that if Gore had become president after the 2000 election, with the Clinton administration’s counter-terrorism team still in place headed up by Richard Clarke—whose vigorous but futile efforts to get the new Bush administration focused on Al Qaeda are helpfully reprised by Peter Beinart in an Atlantic column today, headed “Trump is Right”—the country may well have averted the terrible attacks on 9/11, the excessive homeland security apparatus that was installed afterward, the invasion of Iraq, and all that has flowed since from the Al Qaeda plot.

Although I shudder at the thought of Trump becoming president, I do think his critique of the Bush presidency could be a salutary thing for the Republican party, finally persuading some of its rank and file that George W Bush and his administration failed to heed numerous warning about Al Qaeda, and that he does bear a large share of responsibility for failing to prevent the attacks on 9/11. For a good analysis of Trump’s position, unheard within the Republican party until now, I also recommend Paul Waldman’s Washington Post column, “Why Donald Trump’s 9/11 heresy won’t cost him any primary votes.”

Glad for Revival of THE REVENANT, a Great Adventure Novel

JANUARY 2016 UPDATE: Readers of this blog may recall my connection to The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, mentioned on this site a year ago in the post below, after I learned the book, originally published in 2002, was about to be reissued by a new publisher, the basis of a major motion picture. I saw the movie last weekend, and found it quite engrossing, even at more than 2 1/2 hours duration. The cinematography is exceptional, the acting quite believable, and the storytelling very powerful. I recall that author Michael Punke was already then having discussions about possible film adaptations, since the Glass story had already once been filmed, as “Man in the Wilderness,” with Richard Harris  and John Huston in 1971. Even so, over the years no film resulted, that until word came last year of the cinematic collaboration between Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s. As the credits rolled following the film last weekend, I saw that the production of course credited the book, though with a proviso I’d not seen before, stating that the movie was “Based in Part on the Novel by Michael Punke.” I imagine the wording was mutually agreed to between the author’s agent and the producers, because the two works do diverge. But I don’t criticize the filmmakers on that score, for as Punke himself wrote in an Historical Note at the end of the novel, the confirmed history surrounding Hugh Glass’s life is scant—little more is known for certain beyond the fact he lived, was a skilled tracker, was mauled by a grizzly bear during an 1823 expedition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company, following which he was left for dead by two of his likely companions, a miscreant named John Fitzgerald and a teenaged Jim Bridger; Bridger ultimately became a much more famous mountain man than Glass, with modern tourist sites in the Mountain West named after him. I’m pleased to see the movie is bringing more attention to the gripping novel, which is a bestseller in the Picador reissue. I’m also pleased to remind people about the book, since as the Obama administration’s Deputy Trade Representative to the WTO in Geneva, Switzerland, Michael Punke is not permitted to directly promote his own commercial interests. I’m happy to stand in for him, then, as relatives of his have been doing at premieres of the movie, which has now garnered many Academy Award nominations.

When I was a retail bookseller with Undercover Books, this is exactly the sort of novel that we would read in advance galleys from the publisher, then order 50 copies, and sell them all in the book’s first month on sale. If you enjoy adventure tales, I recommend you read this one, a gripping survival story based on the life of a real American who traverses a great swath of the inter-mountain west in a quest for justice, less than 20 years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition had opened the region to exploration.

January 2015nant-front.jpg”>Revenant frontthe BN Review recently I was delighted to discover that one of the most engrossing novels I ever edited and published—The Revenant: A Novel of Revengehas been reissued and is being made in to a major movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who recently directed “Birdman.” The novel, by Michael Punke, was published in 2002, when I was an editorial executive at Carroll & Graf. It’s inspired by the epic life and adventures of a historical figure, Hugh Glass. He was a frontiersman and fur trapper who in 1823 was part of a westward expedition spanning what is today Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. While foraging for game, away from the troop, Glass was attacked and severely mauled by a grizzly bear. Grievously wounded and bleeding, with the skin on his back nearly flayed off his torso, Glass was still conscious when his comrades found him. Believing that Glass would surely die soon, the leader of the troop ordered two men to stay with him until he expired, then bury him and catch up to the group. In the midst of this death watch, a band of Indians approached the camp, panicking the two men: they grabbed Glass’s rifle and hunting knife and fled. Deserted, defenseless, and enraged at being abandoned, Glass refuses to succumb to his wounds; he survives, determined to recover his weapons, vowing revenge on the men who left him to die. The novel is beautifully written and reads like a timeless adventure story. Talk about a film adaptation of the novel began years ago, and I’m delighted to see now it’s really happening, and with such a high profile team. Hugh Glass did inspire one earlier film, in 1971, when actor Richard Harris was cast as the Glass figure in “Man in the Wilderness,” a rather lurid and unexceptional movie. Punke’s telling of this epic saga, with Glass crawling and dragging himself across wild terrain until he was again able to walk, has all the elements for a great movie and I’m hopeful that is what the production will lead to.

Punke’s agent Tina Bennett submitted the manuscript to me soon after 9/11, an event and aftermath that I was close to, as the offices of Carroll & Graf and Avalon Publishing Group were only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. As I chronicled on this blog on Sept 11, 2012, in a post titled Remembering 9/11/01—Running Through a Dust Cloud in Lower Manhattan, the exertions of that day left me with nagging leg injuries that persisted for most of the year that followed. In fact, when I attended the book launch for The Revenant, held in Washington, DC, in the summer of 2002, I took the train from NYC using a cane to help me walk on a still-tender ankle.

Though novels don’t often have subtitles or reading lines, I suggested to the author that we use one here. We had quite an evocative title, though the word ‘revenant’ (a being that returns from the dead) was not then and still isn’t a widely familiar term. Glass’s odyssey seeking revenge and justice resonated powerfully with the spirit of the time, so “A Novel of Revenge” seemed the right way to position the book for readers. The publisher reissuing the book now is Picador, part of Macmillan, and I’m glad to see in online listings they’ve chosen to retain the reading line. Interestingly, they’ve reissued the novel in hardcover, not paperback, a somewhat unusual choice for a book published more than a decade ago, though perhaps a sign of the publisher’s confidence in its continuing relevance.

Michael Punke has written two nonfiction books in the years since 2002, both in Western history, Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 and Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West. The book launch for The Revenant was in DC because Punke worked for a law firm there. Among the hosts at the party was a mentor and colleague to Punke, Mickey Kantor, a lawyer involved in international trade who’d served as chair of the Clinton campaign for president in 1992. Punke now works as President Obama’s Deputy United States Trade Representative and US Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. According to this article in Maxim, his ability to engage in promoting his books is very limited by his sensitive position in the federal government. I’m very glad to know that Michael Punke’s first book is coming back in to print, and that a movie is in the works. We have been in touch occasionally over the past decade, and I’m pleased that I have so much good news to congratulate him about when we’re next in touch. Above is the front and below the back cover of the paperback edition of The Revenant from 2003.Revenant back


In My Manhattan Neighborhood, a Day to Remember Fallen Firefighters

Laughing FiremanAs I began my workday this morning, I heard the mellifluous sound of massed bagpipes and knew that today must be a special day in the city for firefighters. My Manhattan neighborhood is home to the city’s Fireman’s Memorial, at 100TH Street and Riverside Drive. It’s one of the city’s sublime spots. When tragic events occur, or when anniversaries of them come round, like those for 9/11, hundreds of firefighters in full dress uniforms flood the area for remembrances that include fire engines and chief’s cars parked all akimbo on nearby streets, and dozens of bagpipers and drummers all marching in unison. With the sound of bagpipes drifting in my window, I went out for a walk to observe the ceremony.

October 9th–far as I knew, today was no anniversary of a specific incident. I asked one firefighter about the occasion and he confirmed what I suspected: this day is marked on the civic calendar as a general remembrance for all firefighters who’ve ever died in the line of duty, stretching all the way back through more than 250 years of New York history. Here are some pictures I took this morning, and one that I took of a child at the Fireman’s Memorial last month on 9/11, the last time that hundreds of firefighters made a pilgrimage to my neighborhood. Please click here to see all pictures.

Remembering 9/11/01–Running through a Dust Cloud in Lower Manhattan

In May 2001, Avalon Publishing Group–the Berkeley, California company I worked for as an editorial executive with Carroll & Graf Publishers–moved all its New York employees to new offices on 161 William Street in lower Manhattan, near City Hall Park, behind Park Row and the J&R Music World stores, 2-3 blocks east of the World Trade Center. I had enjoyed our original space on W. 21st Street, and didn’t appreciate the longer commute from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but soon got used to the new neighborhood, new restaurants, new sights and sounds.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I rode the train downtown and emerged from the Fulton Street subway station, at the corner of William and Fulton, with a customary single earbud stuck in one ear, tuned in to local public radio station WNYC, alert to what might be going on at street level. I detected uncharacteristic alarm from the on-air voices of host Brian Lehrer and correspondent Beth Fertig. Before I could comprehend the source of their concern, my gaze turned west and up in to the air toward the World Trace Center towers, startled to see flames, smoke, and debris pouring from the structures, against a backdrop of a California-type deep blue sky. The air around me was palpably hot, a weird sensation I couldn’t account for, even after seeing the flames above me in the sky.

What in the world?

Turning the corner and hurrying toward my office building, I focused again on the radio voices, hearing something about an airplane having crashed into one of the towers, and then, that a second such crash had occurred only moments before I came out of the subway. Lehrer’s and Fertig’s alarm was in real time. Any idea I had momentarily entertained, associating this incident with the incident in the 1940s when the Empire State Building was struck by a light plane, was dashed. I ran in to 161 William, took the elevator to our upper floor and found a handful of Avalon colleagues who’d arrived before me. I hustled over to the western side of the floor, joining them as we all took in a clear view of the twin towers, with a valley of lower buildings below and between us and the conflagration. The volume of flame, smoke, and debris were all much greater than when I’d first seen them downstairs. The debris included a fluttering cascade of myriad loose sheets of white paper. Midway between our building and the two towers, I noticed a lone man on a rooftop across the way and below our floor. The figure seemed to be in a prayerful pose, kneeling on a rug, wearing a white skullcap. I never learned what he was doing there, and have in the years since pondered it with colleagues such as Keith Wallman who also saw the man that morning.

In those days, neither my wife nor I owned a cell phone. I rushed into my office, on the east side of the building, and used my phone there to call Kyle. The lines worked the first time I tried our home line. She’d just gotten in from taking our son Ewan to kindergarten; on her way home she’d heard about the events downtown. I told her what I’d seen and she said she had TV on and warned me to leave the office building right away. I said, yes, but I don’t know what’s going on at street level. What if the buildings fall, and topple in the eastern direction? What if people are panicked or trampling each other? Maybe I’d be safer upstairs.  These were some of my thoughts. Kyle said she was going to go out and get cash and drinking water for our apartment, then go back to school and bring Ewan home. We talked a few minutes more and I told her I was going to go back to the other side of the floor to see the latest developments. I stayed a few minutes and finally decided, yes, it’s time to leave. I tried my home line again but now couldn’t get a call through. I would’ve left a message, telling Kyle I was leaving and that I would try to call her again later, but couldn’t get through at all. A colleague and I decided to descend in the elevator together, and then make a run for it when we got out on William Street. My companion was my fellow editor Tina Pohlman. As we were rushing from the western windows in to the open elevator car–I know now it was at 9:59 AM–we heard one of the weirdest sounds I’ve ever experienced, made by the collapse of the first tower. First, came a deeply guttural bass sound, created probably by the tremendous downdraft of air from the vertical collapse–something almost felt more than heard. The next instant, I registered a high, trebly, tinkling noise made up, I think, of breaking glass and splintering metal.

Tina and I descended without incident and saw out the lobby’s revolving door hundreds of people running past our building front, engulfed in a dusty, smoky cloud. Without hesitating more than a few seconds, we pushed out the door and joined the massing throng pushing north and east, toward the Brooklyn Bridge. Tina hoped to head over to the lower East Side, where she lived, if permitted by police. My direction was uptown, all the way to West 102nd Street, my home. We were immediately surrounded by the cloud, a murk that wasn’t pure gray or black, examples that TV footage would later show; this cloud actually had some shafts of sunlight in it. It was more ochre than gray. Still, it was pretty opaque and a specific fear registered that if debris were flying in it, we might not even see it heading at us. We made a right turn on Beekman Street, past New York Downtown Hospital, and turned left on Pearl Street, running together for several blocks until we ran under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Though still surrounded by the blanket of dust, and impelled to keep running till I was clear of it, I was beginning to fear that I couldn’t keep up the pace. I wasn’t so much out of breath–the problem was the shoes I had worn that morning: a pair of newish ankle-high boots. With the beautiful fall weather that morning, I had considered them appropriately autumnal and so decided to don them. But I hadn’t broken them in yet, and they proved terrible to try to run in, or even to try walking fast. I would regret my choice of footwear for many months that followed.

I tried to ignore the nascent pain and resumed my nervous, awkward jog, continually hitching and hauling up the knapsack slung over my shoulder. Surrounded by earnest and fearful strangers, all of us still shrouded by the murk, my route passed through unfamiliar parts of Chinatown. Approaching Canal Street the cloud began to thin a little. Finally, we crossed Canal Street and burst into patches of clear air. Tina and I said goodbye and wished each other well as we headed off in our separate directions. I was relieved to be in clearer air and thought, Now I just have to get home. Problem was, I still had a long way to go. Any city buses that passed were insanely overcrowded, and moving at a crawl anyway. Yellow cabs and livery taxis were also full and barely moving through the dense surface traffic. Continuing to listen to the radio, I learned that the second tower had fallen, at 10:28. With both towers now down, I was now confirmed in my horror that thousands of people had died this day. Meantime, the subways had been halted, and it was unknown when they would resume operation. I had no choice but to walk all the way home, about 8 miles.

I pushed up Broadway, through Soho, past Union Square, the Flatiron Building, Madison Square, Times Square, the Theater District, Central Park, Columbus Circle, and Lincoln Center. Every now and then on this odyssey I’d stop and try Kyle on a pay phone. The lines were all dead. She didn’t know when or even for sure if I had left my office. At last, I hit 72nd Street and was on the Upper West Side. It felt good to be back uptown, but I still had thirty blocks to go. I kept pushing, increasingly hobbled, eventually ringing our bell and announcing I was home. It was around 3PM, about five hours since I’d left William Street. Kyle and Ewan were waiting for me and I collapsed into their open arms. I sat down and removed my shoes and socks. Both feet were raw and blistered, from ankles to toes. I tuned in to TV for the first time all day and saw with my eyes the enormity of the loss that everyone else had been viewing all day via the visual medium. Not wanting to disturb Ewan any more than he might be already, we shut off the set until he went to bed.

Avalon’s offices would remain closed for about a week and a half. I tried to stay off my feet and let them heal, but the need to be ambulatory prevailed and I resumed walking around. Unfortunately, my gait was much altered by what I’d endured, which led to a series of foot, ankle, calf, hamstring, and leg injuries over the next couple years. Damage to the #1, 2, and 3 subway lines in lower Manhattan was so serious that my longer commute was lengthened further; a trip that used to take 30-40 minutes often ran to 90 minutes or longer. It was a horrible burden every day to come to work in the same neighborhood with the toxic brew a few blocks west that was already making recovery workers on the pile ill. For some reason, cold air seemed to magnify the odor that drifted eastward in the neighborhood. On winter evenings, I would leave the office and rush down in to the subway station, covering my mouth with a handkerchief to cut the horrible, vile crippling smell that I knew contained a mix of plastics, circuit boards, burnt upholstery, carpets and human remains.

A new normal kind of took over, but nothing really seemed normal anymore. I read about and followed the 9/11 Commission and was appalled at what had been the Bush administration’s failure to heed urgent warnings from counter-terrorism officials, as we were reminded again this morning with Kurt Eichenwald’s NY Times Op-Ed, The Deafness Before the Storm. I was deeply and personally offended when Bush held his 2004 convention in NYC, using the still-healing city as a backdrop for his bogus triumphalism. He and Dick Cheney claimed to have kept us safe–except I always hastened to add–when they had failed, big time. I was enormously relieved when Avalon moved offices again, back into Chelsea, a welcome removal from the still-stricken neighborhood downtown.

Each year on 9/11 our UWS neighborhood welcomes mourners, firefighters, police, and families to the Fireman’s Memorial on Riverside Drive at 100th Street. Last year, on the tenth anniversary, the day’s observances drew firefighter crews from all over the U.S., anglophone and francophone Canada, Scotland, France, and Australia. I’ll conclude this personal remembrance of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath by sharing nine of the photographs Kyle and I took at the special day last year. I will close by saying I hope your 9/11 anniversary this year, 2012, has been a soothing day. Shalom.
Please click through to read entire post and see all photos  . . . //more//