Inside presidential power plays, private schools and prisons

Books of the Region

September 12, 2004|By Jim Bready | Jim Bready,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Charles Tiefer venerates the law. He abides by it, writes about it, teaches it as a full professor in the University of Baltimore's School of Law. Earlier, when he was in Washington as a Senate and then a House staff member, he watched the federal laws and congressional moves to draft, enforce, and get around them. Today, Tiefer studies presidential moves to subvert laws.

His newest book is Veering Right: How the Bush Administration Subverts the Law for Conservative Causes (University of California, 442 pages, $27.50). Beyond such familiar charge-sheet items as making the rich richer, further debasing the poor, incurring huge national debt, despoiling the environment, curtailing civilian privacy, obstructing areas of scientific advance and promoting far-out religion and morality, Tiefer accuses Bush of undermining checks and balances in the Constitution itself. Source citations and bibliography fill 100 pages of Veering Right. By means sometimes fair, often foul, Tiefer observes, the radical right now has the upper hand, in a nation that is basically centrist. But even if the oncoming election encourages George W. Bush to push his ideology farther still, history could become his enemy. Tiefer reminds us that presidential second terms (such as Nixon's, Reagan's and Clinton's) have a way of turning out badly.

Two books telling more or less what life is like in Baltimore private schools for boys offer some sharp contrasts. One is a novel: Adam's Theories, by Dana Hodgdon (iUniverse, 162 pages, $22.95); Hodgdon is a professor of radio/TV/film at Northwestern University and an independent filmmaker, but in his teens he went to St. Paul's (the novel is about a fictional "St. Mark's." The other book is nonfiction: Season of Life, by Jeffrey Marx (Simon & Schuster, 177 pages, $18), about Gilman School; last month, Parade Magazine condensed it into a cover story.

In Adam, a reader is on his own, deciding how many of these 1960s high school experiences are imagined, and how many are Hodgdon's own recollections. Adam, strong and bright, plays football (which starts in third grade). But football as a culture repels him; equally so, springtime's lacrosse. In a jock atmosphere - students and most of the faculty - Adam has enemies, who in his senior year help him set a new school record for deportment demerits.

And Adam has hormones. They kick in on page one, and the matter of girlfriends is still going on at the end as Adam heads off for Duke University. It's a reader's choice: to be put off by all this language, sex, alcohol, cars, food, phoning and smoking, or to comprehend the mix of yearnings, stupidities, and achievements in a young Baltimorean as he grows up.

With Season of Life, the scope is limited to Gilman's 2001 football season, from first practice day to the annual showdown against McDonogh School. Marx, a talented Washington writer and author, accompanies Gilman's football team, from first practice day to the annual showdown against McDonogh School.

Here, too, football is all-absorbing. A former Gilman player, Biff Poggi, coaches, helped by Joe Ehrmann, once a Baltimore Colts defensive star and then the evangelical pastor of Grace Fellowship Church, and by eight assistant coaches. Besides watching games, Marx makes notes while Poggi (or Ehrmann) delivers motivational locker-room eloquence. Sometimes, the theme is "penetrate, perform, punish;" far more often, "masculinity and its attainment."

Some readers may find, in all this, an old-time warrior-priest undertone.

Love one another, accept responsibility, lead courageously. Each book, Hodgdon's and Marx's, hits one or more players with a death, close by.

Hodgdon includes faculty, classes, exams; Marx is all relationships. It is no secret that Baltimore private schools are on the hunt for athletes (who can pass entrance tests) from low-income neighborhoods - Marx does mention "financial aid." One of the Gilman pep-talkers foresees a bonding of the squad, rich and poor, "for the rest of your life;" Marx admits, though, that pro-league football players, their careers over, drift apart. Nothing is said about non-athletes left behind in the slums, the bright kids who with such a schooling could have constructive careers.

Season of Life closes, however, with a moving episode. Since childhood, Marx has missed his father, who left home and remarried. Now Marx goes to see him, outside New York, and persuades Dad that it's all right for grown men to reach out to each other, and hug; for a father and his son each to be proud of the other, aloud.

Hattie Dorsey voices the moral of her book, World Within a City (RoseDog, 196 pages, $19 softbound), in one sentence: If you don't want to be around inmates, don't apply for a job as correctional officer. Dorsey, now retired, was one of the first seven women - once the Maryland State Penitentiary finally hired women, too - to help guard 900 major-crime males.

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