Two books for Autumn reading

Scenic Backroad, New HampshireTwo friends have books out this autumn worthy of your attention. No cashmere sweater mysteries here: both of these books, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present by Christian Sahner, and Not Guilty: The Unlawful Prosecution of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens by Rob Cary tell us something sort of grim about the modern world.

Christian Sahner, who will soon be graduated from Princeton with a Ph. D in Islamic studies, is a historian whose exacting standards are complemented by a sense of good taste. He studies in the particular the Christian martyrs of the middle ages in the Middle East. His essays on the art and architecture of Islam are regularly published in The Wall Street Journal, in whose offices I first came to know Christian. His studies at Oxford and then Princeton have brought him through the Levant for extended periods, and during this time he wrote Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present, which he describes as “an introduction to the war-torn country that blends elements of history, reportage, and memoir.” It’s a lovely book.

Hugh Hewitt interviewed Christian on his program last week, and the hour-long segment provides a much needed historically informed picture of what the nation of Syria really is, and where it goes.

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Meanwhile, Rob Cary, the brilliant attorney at Williams & Connolly with whom I have had the pleasure of working from time to time has published a painstakingly illuminated history of the trial of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who died in a plane crash in 2010. That was two years after losing a re-election campaign in November 2008, which in turn came only eight days after being found guilty of corruption in federal court. That prosecution, and that verdict, were a scam–and were vacated. The prosecutors involved were acting politically in the way that only dauntless believers in supercharged government could. Two of the prosecutors were later suspended for “reckless professional misconduct.”

But because Senator Stevens was bounced from the well of the Senate, the Democrats briefly commanded the votes necessary to pass Obamacare–and did.

In Not Guilty, Rob Cary summons his skills as a litigator to rehearse every detail of (what I regard as) the Star Chamber prosecution of Ted Stevens. Can it be discerned that prosecutors were acting politically? Were witnesses coached? How can an honest politician be disposed of just before the election? How, exactly, do these things happen? This is important stuff. Corporate or private corruption tends to go down neatly into history: wicked men did bad things for profit. Public corruption is different. It can remain hidden for decades–or forever. In reading an economic history of the food industry in early 20th century America, for example, I recently learned that as president Franklin Roosevelt sic’d Department of Justice prosecutors on the A&P grocery store, even going so far as to pressure a wealthy Democratic donor to sell his radio station at a song to a Roosevelt grandson, so that the grandson could turn it into a pro-Roosevelt talkradio station. This is the sort of stuff that might not make it into the history books, but tells you what you need to know about a man.

Rob Cary’s history of the wrongful prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens runs exactly along those lines. Rigorously detailed, it shows what bad-acting government lawyers can do. Bob Woodward blurbs the book thus: “The public learned of the outrageous prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens several years ago, but here are the astounding details. Defense attorney Rob Cary has done a public service with this exposé, a personal odyssey as layer after layer of official corruption is laid bare. It is a shocking, deeply sobering tale that every American worried about the concentration of power in the federal government should read and study. No one is safe…”

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