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The Mona Lisa of Austria Posted - Jul 01, 2019
In college I learned about the Nazi treatment of the European Jews. It's a harrowing and shameful story of racial prejudice run amuck. The movie "Woman in Gold" illustrates the effect it had on one Viennese family after the so-called Anschluss, the brutal adoption of Austria into the German state.

Since taking power in Germany in 1933, Hitler's discrimination of the Jews had been gradual. The arrests and confiscation of property didn't begin immediately, but over time. By 1938, the year of the Anschluss, Jewish discrimination had been institutionalized and for Austrian Jews the impact was felt immediately. The arrests and stealing of property took place within the first 24 hours of the German war machine parading triumphantly around Vienna's grand boulevard, the Ringstrasse. High on their list were wealthy Jewish families and the jewels and art objects they possessed, which the Nazi thugs looted gleefully. In this movie the family is the Bloch-Bauers, and the art object in question is the gilt-laden "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer", by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. At some point, the portrait moved to the Belvedere Art Gallery in Vienna and was renamed "Woman in Gold." By 1998, the time the movie begins, the "Woman in Gold" had become so much a part of the Viennese consciousness that it was considered to be the "Mona Lisa of Austria." In other words, stolen or not, the Austrian Republic wasn't about to part with it.

The movie is based on the life of Maria Altmann, who to avoid being arrested by the Nazis escaped with her husband to America in 1938. As the movie begins Ms. Altmann is widowed and living in Los Angeles. After the death of her older sister (and having found a photograph of Klimt's painting among her possessions), she decides she wants the portrait back. She enlists a young lawyer named Randy Schoenberg (the grandson of another Jewish immigrant, the world-famous composer Arnold Schoenberg). Together they fight the government of Austria for almost a decade to reclaim the "Woman in Gold". While the legal battle takes place in various courtrooms, the fight is personal; to Ms. Altmann the "Lady in Gold" is more than a famous work of art; it's a portrait of her aunt whom she remembers fondly, a family keepsake that once hung in the living room of her family's Vienna apartment.

Altman and Schoenberg begin their quest by traveling to Austria, hoping the management of the Belvedere Art Gallery will be sympathetic to her cause and return the painting. This turns out not to be the case. So they turn to the courts for redress, which ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal. Altmann wins, but the victory does not get her the beloved portrait back. Ultimately, her attorney decides to pursue the matter through arbitration in Vienna. Against the odds, they win, and Aunt Adele, who died in 1925 (and whose image remains forever immortalized in the gilt-laden portrait), can now cross the Atlantic with Maria Altmann.

Back in America, Ms Altmann accepts an offer of a whopping $135 million for the portrait, by Ronald Lauder, son of famed cosmetics entrepreneur Estee Lauder. Her only condition is that the "Lady in Gold" be on permanent display. You can see it today in New York's Neue Gallerie.

Maria Altmann died in 2011, age 94, having donated most of her money from sale of the painting to charity, and to a holocaust museum in Los Angeles.

The movie features a series of disturbing flashbacks in which Ms Altmann recalls the Nazi rape of Vienna. What did the Austrian Jews do to deserve such treatment? "For the crime of being Jewish," says Ms Altmann tartly. Maria's Uncle (Ferdinand) saw it coming and immediately fled to the West. By the time her family realized the gravity of the threat it was nearly too late. Indeed, her mother and father never did escape Austria and like many unfortunate Jews perished in a Nazi death camp. Still haunted by the memories of her mother and father and their tender final parting, the film also chronicles Maria's escape (with her husband) to Cologne, which eventually led them to America and to freedom.

The film stars Helen Mirren as feisty Maria Altmann, Ryan Reynolds as her quick- witted attorney Randy Schoenberg, and Daniel Brühl as the likable Viennese investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin, who befriends and assists them with the recovery of the "Lady in Gold" portrait.

In one scene, while awaiting the decision of the arbitration board, Altmann, Schoenberg and Czernin wait on a park bench; in the backdrop is the world’s tallest ferris wheel, the iconic Riesenrad, which, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Big Ben in London, has come to symbolize a great city–Vienna. If you've seen "The Third Man" which was shot amid the ruins of post-World War Two Vienna, you'll recognize the Riesenrad, which was featured in one of that movie's key scenes.

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Presidents of War
Posted - Jun 23, 2019
War is a messy business, that once started is difficult to stop. The price is high not just for combatants but for presidents who involve the nation in armed conflict. Most war presidents aged significantly in office and suffered serious health problems; several died prematurely (James K. Polk, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson). That's pretty much the message of "Presidents of War," by Michael Beschloss.

At 586 pages, Mr. Beschloss's book is long, and seems long due to the nature of the subject: U.S. involvement in nine wars over a period covering most of our nation's history: from the War of 1812 up to the two wars in Iraq. Indeed, the author spent 10 years researching and writing his book. I spent the better part of a week reading it. I did not enjoy it, as the subject is depressing, particularly the war that involved my generation, Vietnam (which consumes 88 pages, more than any war in the book).

It seems our country has been ever at war, and the author reveals a thread–however fine–that connects them all: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two wars in Iraq (and the one still ongoing in Afghanistan).

For the most part the wars did not end well. The exception is World War II (the last "good war"). What's disturbing is the questionable justification presidents conjure up in entering the nation in armed conflict, which the author explores in detail. To be fair, presidents have been abetted by hyperactive newspapers across the land, and by ambitious politicians looking to embarrass the sitting chief executive. The Founding Fathers were aware this might happen and created a government where the decision was not one man's alone, but rather included the branch that holds the purse strings: Congress; or so they had hoped. Some presidents, such as Truman (with Korea) and Johnson (with Vietnam), withheld information from Congress to get funding, information that might have sparred lives and kept the nation out of war. Or, as with George W. Bush (Bush 43), presented information that later proved to be false. In each case, the biggest problem is everyone (including Congressmen) seem to catch war fever and forget that war is a messy and dangerous business–easy to start and difficult to stop–where the first casualty is truth.

By limiting the spending powers to Congress, the Founders hoped to keep their shiny new Republic "from indulging in the Old World monarch's habit of manufacturing false pretexts for wars that they sought for other, more secret reasons." Unfortunately, as the author makes clear, wars continue to be engaged in under just such false pretexts. William Shakespeare knew a thing or two about the politics of war. In HENRY IV Part 2, he has Henry IV advise his son, who will succeed him as King, "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with Foreign quarrels. . . ." As king in HENRY V the son does just that by embarking on war with France under the guise of reclaiming England's hereditary rights thereto.

The first threat of war came early in our nation's history, in 1807, under President Thomas Jefferson. The author gives credit to our third president for not stirring up the passions, and keeping the nation out of war. Jefferson hated war. He believed war led to increased federal spending, centralized political power, and strengthened the "monied classes," all prospects that he abhorred. "Never since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present," wrote Jefferson when faced with the prospect of yet another war with England. He clung to his conviction that the resumption of conflict that had been won through something of a miracle only 24 years earlier would be a disaster for the fragile republic, especially after he had halved the military budget and decommissioned most of the U.S. Navy frigates.

The same can't be said for his successor James Madison, who got the nation involved in a second war with England–the War of 1812. As a result, most of Washington D.C. (including the White House) was burned to the ground by the invading English Army. To win, Madison was forced to do what Jefferson had avoided doing: by borrowing from the U.S. Bank to finance a well-equipped Army and Navy. Having sufficiently rearmed, the U.S. went on to win the War of 1812.

The book is more about how wars are started than about war itself. For example President James K. Polk started war with Mexico for no other reason than to expand the boundaries of the U.S. He did this by sending a patrol on a mission to the Rio Grande that he knew would ignite Mexican resistance. The war that resulted led to a peace treaty that increased U.S. territory by about a million square miles (and, in turn, created the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California).

The Spanish-American War began when the U.S. Maine blew up while harbored in Havana, Cuba–for reasons that were unclear at the time; it's likely the explosion was caused by a faulty boiler rather than by sabotage, as was suspected at the time.

Then there are two wars that probably could NOT have been avoided–the American Civil War and World War II. What Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt did particularly well was to explain to the nation–and more importantly to the soldiers under their command–why the fighting was necessary and important. This is among the principle failures of three other wartime presidents: Woodrow Wilson (with World War I), Harry Truman (with the Korean War), and Lyndon Johnson (with the Vietnam War). Indeed, Johnson was never fully a believer in the Vietnam War to begin with; still, he wouldn't allow a dissenting voice within his administration. He may have been speaking of himself, when he said ruefully, "The nation doesn't understand the Vietnam War."

President Richard Nixon, wishing to avoid becoming the first U.S. president to lose a war, continued the Vietnam War until he achieved what he called "Peace with Honor." The cost was incredibly high: the lives of an additional 21,000 American soldiers, plus an estimated one million Vietnamese civilians, as well as the destabilization and collapse of neighboring Cambodia.

The book ends with a brief discussion of the two Iraqi wars and the one in Afghanistan which continues to this day. As I said at the outset, war is a messy business that once started is difficult to stop. The fact they are entered into so casually and often without a lot of forethought is incomprehensible. Perhaps Mr. Beschloss's book will serve as a reminder to future presidents that they should think first before committing the lives of young Americans–and our national treasury–to yet another war. We can only hope so.

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Women in the Barracks: The VMI Case
Posted - Jun 15, 2019
It seems fitting that Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be the one to deliver the Supreme Court's decision in United States. v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 567 (1996). As a lawyer she had made a career of fighting for women's equality, the success of which brought her to the attention of President Bill Clinton who, in 1993, appointed her to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Now three years later, it was she who should deliver the High Court's opinion that, for the first time, allowed women to attend the hitherto all-male Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Could women endure the rigors imposed at this all-male state school? The story of the court case and what happened in the aftermath is the subject of "Women in the Barracks: the VMI Case and Equal Rights" by Philippa Strum. It's a fascinating story that cuts to the heart of gender equality. At 328 pages, the book is not overly long, and while there are facts aplenty, Professor Strum does not allow them to get in the way of what is a compellingly good read.

She begins with a history of the school, a proud institution that opened its doors not long after our nation's founding. The initial goal was to provide strong leaders for Virginia's state militia. After the Civil War, that goal changed to providing strong leaders for the U. S. military, and for Southern leaders–in business, law and politics.

The first male to register at all-male VMI was John Logan of Virginia in 1839; the first female was Beth Ann Hogan of Oregon in 1997. The heart of the story (to quote the author) "is about the changes in women's–and men's–roles during the more than 150 years of American history, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century." The story also reflects the place of the Supreme Court in American political life and "the way justices both stamp societal change with the legitimization of the Constitution and help shape further change."

Strum begins by describing the physical character of the school (the barracks are the central structure around which everything revolves), and what it's like to be a cadet; more specifically, to be a "Brother Rat" This includes virtually having no privacy, including no privacy in the bathroom–no partitions around toilets. The first test of freshman cadets is to endure the rigorous hazing process known as "the rat line," a tradition that the school was quite proud of (even though most administrators admitted they'd hated it while being a VMI cadet). In fact, it was the pride of being one of the last tough all male-schools (by this time Annapolis and West Point had long since integrated women into their culture) that fueled resistance among alumns and administrators. The admission of women would destroy the specialness of the VMI experience, they claimed. In fact, VMI had the option of becoming a private school to avoid admitting women to their ranks. However, the costs were prohibitive, thus in order to continue enjoying state funding VMI had no recourse but to admit women cadets.

The author follows the first women cadets through the dreaded "rat line," and in the co-ed barracks (the days of open toilets and showers ended with the arrival of women students), on through to graduation. The result was not near the disaster opponents believed it would be: most women met the tests of the dreaded "rat line," and succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Several graduated with honors and a number brought distinction to the school in women's athletics.

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Echo of the Infinite
Posted - Jun 01, 2019
The following is my review of "The Path of the Law," by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

To my knowledge, there have been three geniuses to sit on the United States Supreme Court: Chief Justice John Marshall, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Justice Louis Brandeis. Marshall served in the first half of the 19th century with majority opinions that helped foster a strong central government. Holmes and Brandeis served in the first half of the 20th century with dissenting opinions that in the second half of the century were adopted by the Court and to become majority opinions that revolutionized our concepts of free speech, free press, workers’ rights, and personal freedom.

Theirs are the voices that resonate with the ring of truth, theirs the words that are immortalized on the granite walls of our institutions. Words have power, but as each of them well understood, it’s not the words that have power but the rightness of the ideas behind them.

“The Path of the Law” is an address delivered by Justice Holmes at the dedication of the new hall of the Boston University School of Law, on January 8, 1897. At the time he was a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The speech is not as piquant as his U.S. Supreme Court opinions, but rather a more leisurely discourse on the law and its history, strewn with a few jewels of wisdom and peppered with a bit of debunking—reason enough to read it. The address runs slightly over 26 pages.

The following are a few—but certainly not all—lines that caught my attention:

“The language of judicial decision is mainly the language of logic. And the logical method and form flatter that longing for certainty and repose which is in every human mind. But certainty generally is illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man.”

“No concrete proposition is self-evident, no matter how ready we may be to accept it. Every man has a right to do what he wills, provided he interferes not with a like right on the part of his neighbors.”

“The rational study of law is still to a large extent the study of history. History must be a part of the study, because without it we cannot know the precise scope of rules which it is our business to know.”

'I venerate the law, and especially our system of law, as one of the vastest products of the human mind.”

“Read the works of the great German jurists, and see how much more the world is governed today by Kant than by Bonaparte.”

“An intellect great enough to win the prize needs other food beside success. The remoter and more general aspects of the law are those which give it universal interest. It is through them that you not only become a great master in your calling, but connect your subject with the universe and catch an echo of the infinite, a glimpse of its unfathomable process, a hint of the universal law.”

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Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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