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What to Read Next: Government Bureaucracy Gone Awry
Issue #304, featuring "Catch-22" and "Zero Fail"
Happy Friday, readers!
In the last few weeks, I’ve finished a couple of books that highlight the ridiculous and sometimes dangerous nature of the unwieldy behemoth of a bureaucracy that is our U.S. government. The first is a novel — an all-time classic that is instantly recognizable but not often read these days; the second is a recent title that mixes history with reporting in examining the Secret Service.
Before jumping in: If you missed Tuesday’s discussion on doorstopper books, check it out! It’s among the most popular posts in this newsletter’s history and SO FUN to read through.
Okay, let’s get to it.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
“Why does he want to be a general”
“Why? For the same reason I want to be a colonel. What else have we got to do? Everyone teaches us to aspire to higher things. A general is higher than a colonel, and a colonel is higher than a lieutenant colonel. So we’re both aspiring.”
Published: 1961 | Pages: 463 | Genre: Fiction (War/Satire)
It’s incredible that the title of a book can turn into a phrase that’s so baked into our cultural lexicon that people forget it started as the title of a book.
Catch-22 was our book club’s November read; as with Candide, this one was really polarizing. We ranged from unrated DNFs to 2 stars to 4.5 stars (I landed on this high end). As always though, the conversation was spectacular and insightful and led to a greater appreciation of the book.
It’s hard to even describe this thing. Main character John Yossarian is a WWII bombardier stationed in Italy. Around him on the base is a cast of characters right out of a Three Stooges skit. For the first 150 pages or so (out of 460+ pages) we’re treated to pages and pages of circular dialogue that starts out rather funny but then gets a bit too repetitive.
I was very tempted to DNF at this point — thankfully my buddy Kyle pushed me to keep going.
After those first 150 pages, the comic tone starts to turn a bit darker, bit by bit. Amidst the head-scratching, infuriating bureautic war machine, the war becomes all too real.
For the most part, though, not much happens. Catch-22 is instead centered on the ridiculous interactions between the large cast — which includes Dickensian names like Milo Minderbinder, Major Major Major Major (really), Colonel Korn, and others.
Honestly, that’s about all I can say about the plot, because there just isn’t much of one. Catch-22, for me, was baffling and maddening and utterly brilliant at times (especially in the closing chapters). Joseph Heller’s famous novel actually had one of the most powerful, impactful endings I’ve ever read.
It’s not for everyone, that’s for damn sure. But if you’re into satire, war literature, and/or the essential American Canon (I’m sorry, I know that sounds pretentious), it’s indispensable. If nothing else, Catch-22 is a potent reminder that sometimes the crazy thing is the most rational thing.
Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service by Carol Leonnig
“The Secret Service’s best methods, agents often say, are developed in the wake of a crisis, a teachable moment that exposes a weakness. Every assassination attempt or attack reshaped the agency’s tactics and shored up its defenses against a threat the Service had previously failed to foresee or address.”
Published: 2021 | Pages: 486 | Genre: Non-Fiction (Politics)
In the last twenty years, the Secret Service has been at the center of a number of controversies — from a dangerous lack of professionalism to truly baffling close calls at the White House. In Carol Leonnig’s fascinating and always engaging Zero Fail, the veteran journalist provides an effective mix of history and reporting that describes how the esteemed department ended up in a place of needing a complete overhaul.
Starting with JFK’s assassination in 1963 — which led to a bevy of institutional changes for the Secret Service — and bringing us most of the way through the Trump administration, this book covers a lot of ground.
I was glad that Leonnig gave each administration of the last 60 years fairly equal billing, though the chapters got a bit longer from 9/11 and on. Since then, the Service’s head count, budget, and responsibilities have absolutely ballooned, which created the corrupt bureaucracy that ultimately led to the embarrassing headaches of the Obama and Trump years.
Not only was this book a lesson in how vital the Secret Service is for our very democracy, but it was also a rather eye-opening look at how little the mechanics of the government have changed; it’s only when something goes horribly wrong that the Service reflects on its systems and tactics. I mean, think about the pressure! When the Secret Service fails, the nation is plunged into an immediate existential crisis. These men and women suffer mental health crises at a higher level than any other government agents.
Though quite long, Zero Fail was always readable and I never struggled to turn the pages. It’s more likely to appeal to political nerds, but also engaging and interesting enough that almost anyone with a bent toward non-fiction will enjoy it. I’m looking forward to reading more of Leonnig’s work.
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