Trump, Clinton, Carter - Outsider Presidents

I have an essay/editorial in today's Washington Post on Trump's connections to two other outsider presidents: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. I'd love it if you could take a few minutes to read and let me know your thoughts. 

And if you happen to have found my site through that piece: Welcome! Please take a look around and come back often! I'd love to hear from all of you about the site and your thoughts on presidents/topics you'd like to see me cover in the future. 

Principled Resignations

Last Friday, Donald Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, resigned after six months on the job. By all accounts, his decision rested on Trump's hiring of a new communication's director, Anthony Scaramucci. Reports indicate that Spicer felt his new boss was fundamentally unfit for the job and he could not serve under him. While there are other, less generous explanations out there, it appears that Spicer's resignation comes down to principles. Even people who seem willing to put up with great public embarrassment have lines they refuse to cross. 

Which brings me to one of the more remarkable principled resignations in presidential history. Back in 1974, newly inaugurated President Gerald Ford faced an agonizing decision regarding his predecessor, the disgraced Richard Nixon. He could allow Nixon to go through a painful, public trial or he could pardon him and, he hoped, put the whole affair to rest. This was a no-win situation. If he allowed Nixon to be prosecuted, it would be a drawn-out process that would dominate every news cycle for months, if not years. But if he pardoned his former boss, he faced the perception that there had been some kind of deal to give Ford the presidency, a quid pro quo that would undermine the new President's ability to move his agenda forward. Faced with this impossible decision, Ford decided that the only option was a pardon that would allow the nation to begin the healing process. 

Ford announcing the Nixon pardon. 

Ford announcing the Nixon pardon. 

The reaction to the pardon was swift and harshly critical. Of all the critiques, however, none was as devastating as the resignation letter of his press secretary, Jerald terHorst. An old friend of the President's, he served a single month and had spent that time denying that Ford was going to pardon the former president. When he learned of Ford's decision, he felt that the had no choice and handed in a resignation letter that serves as a remarkable statement of principle running up against decades of friendship. 

Jerald terHorst

Jerald terHorst

In order to capture the letter's power, I will quote it in its entirety: 

September 8, 1974

Dear Mr. President:

Without a doubt this is the most difficult decision I ever have had to make. I cannot find words to adequately express my respect and admiration for you over the many years of our friendship and my belief that you could heal the wounds and serve our country in this most critical time in our nation’s history. Words also cannot convey my appreciation for the opportunity to serve on your staff during the transitional days of your presidency and for the confidence and faith you placed in me in that regard. The Press Office has been restructured along professional lines. Its staff, from Deputy Press Secretary John W. Hushen down the line, is competent and dedicated and comprises loyal employees who have given unstintingly of their time and talents.

So it is with great regret, after long soul-searching, that I must inform you that I cannot in good conscience support your decision to pardon former President Nixon even before he has been charged with the commission of any crime. As your spokesman, I do not know how I could credibly defend that action in the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience and the absence of pardons for former aides and associates of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes - and imprisoned - stemming from the same Watergate situation. These are also men whose reputations and families have been grievously injured. Try as I can, it is impossible to conclude that the former President is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national wellbeing.

Thus it is with a heavy heart that I hereby tender my resignation as Press Secretary to the President, effective today. My prayers nonetheless remain with you, sir.

Sincerely,

Jerald F. terHorst

It's not often that we see such clear and undeniable statements of principle in Washington politics, and I'm glad that Sean Spicer's resgination gives us the opportunity to revisit this moment. 

History Intrudes Upon History

Discussing John Adams and the Revolution, Page Smith writes in 1962: 
"Under the stress of what was, at least in their view, a struggle for survival, the patriots were frequently harsh and cruel to the Tories, men and women who held fast to their own convictions under the most trying circumstances and often at great personal cost; yet the patriots had great provocation and, if they were overly severe, it is an easy enough judgment for historians to make writing generations after the events and weighing out praise and blame with meticulous scholarly care. These historians, sometimes inclined to rebuke or patronize the patriots for their treatment of the Tories, live in an age when a wretched remnant of domestic Communists, during peacetime, have kept a great nation in a fever of anxiety and apprehension ostensibly for its own safety."

Page Smith

Page Smith

I find it fascinating when the history of the author's moment spills into the text. There's so much in this one moment that tells us both about Smith and his era. You can sense his discomfort with new trends in history that look critically at the revolutionaries. You can also sense his anxiety about living under some of the darkest times of the Cold War. It's as if he couldn't resist a moment to excoriate both historians and Communists while writing about events taking place generations ago. At the same time, it seems as if he is drawing a parallel between the Tories living within a nation in revolt and the American Communists (real and imagined) during his own time, which says quite a bit about his opinion of both groups. These are deeply interesting moments and I love taking the time to try and unpack them. 

 

Adams and the Lack of Faith in Man

While reading Smith, I came across the following from Adams: 
"I fear that, in every assembly, members will obtain an influence , by noise not sense, by meanness not greatness, by ignorance not learning, by contracted hearts not large souls." 

To put it mildly, Adams had a lack of faith in mankind that bordered on fear. He clearly believed in a distinction between educated, polished elites and the average man and woman, with the former being superior to the latter. 

John Adams portrait by John Trumbull

John Adams portrait by John Trumbull

As Smith suggests, the rising belief in the leveling of society proposed a danger that backed up Adams's concern: 
"The revolutionary crisis drew forth the devoted and the able and with them the emotionally unstable, the meanly ambitious, the zealots and the simple cranks. Most of the new men had no special loyalty to any older order of things; they had been shaped by no discipline of thought or action and therefore lived off the ephemera of the moment, sucking the nourishment out of the latest intellectual fads that were abroad, sharp and devious, elbowing their betters aside. The complex and intricate issues of power, of government, of theology, of the nature of man and the cosmos, they reduced to simple-minded formulas that rolled off their tongues without effort and without thought." 

This is a remarkable display of elitism and a darkly negative view of the rest of society. It's particularly jarring coming amidst a discussion of the best government for America as they debate independence from Great Britain. 

And yet....I can't help looking at the state of affairs today and wondering if, at least, Adams didn't have a point about the fear of poorly suited individuals rising to political influence "by contracted hearts not large souls." 

Perhaps there was never a time when Adams's fears did not apply, and surely he was no saint devoid of any of these negative human drives. But I'm still drawn to his line: "But if I can contribute ever so little towards preserving the principles of virtue and freedom in the world my time and life will not be ill spent." Elitism aside, these are admirable words to live by. 

John Adams - Off By Two Days

One of my favorite things about the Fourth of July celebrations is remembering how poor John Adams totally called how we'd be celebrating....only he was off by two days. 

"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

So close, John Adams. So close. 

The Inspiration of Theodore Roosevelt

Like all presidents, Theodore Roosevelt is not without his problematic features. While I believe we need to hold these men accountable, I also believe that we can admire aspects of their lives without letting them off the proverbial hook. 

For Roosevelt, I greatly admire his ability to remake himself physically and emotionally after the illness and tragedy he experienced as a child and a young man. He transformed himself from an asthmatic who was advised to avoid a life of activity into the symbol of the "strenuous life." He overcame the light going out of his life when his mother and wife died on the same day, events that would have destroyed most people. This was a man who refused to let adversity hold him back from achieving great things. 

Of all his many quotes, the one I hold most dear, and keep on my desk at work, is as follows:

"Get action. Do things; be sane; don't fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action."

I try to remember these words and apply them to my life on a daily basis. Some days I fail; other days I succeed. But I always find them encouraging and inspiring, and I'm grateful to have discovered them from a man I admire. 

Fall Releases I'm Excited to Read

The fall is always my favorite time of year. Leaves turning. Sweater weather coming back. And, most importantly, a slew of great presidential history books coming out just in time for Christmas shopping. 

I wanted to share the handful of books about which I am particularly excited this year. And if you're reading this blog, I assume you'll be excited as well. 

9/12 Scott Greenberger - The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur
        One of the titles I'm most excited about, as I feel like I don't know nearly enough about Arthur and his presidency. The little I've read, though, has been fascinating, so I have high hopes for this one

10/10 Ron Chernow - Grant
          If this were anyone else, I'd probably take a pass for now as I just read a new Grant bio.   But Chernow is in another league and his books have become events not to be missed. 

10/31 Noah Feldman - The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President
         Madison has always been something of an enigma to me, so I'm looking forward to Feldman's approach. I'm hoping that he can do for Madison what John Boles did in some ways for Jefferson earlier this year.

11/7 Robert Merry - President McKinley: Architect of the American Century
       I've yet to read a book on McKinley that I really enjoyed, so I'm hoping that Merry can bring him to life in a way that others seem unable to accomplish. 

11/7 Robert Dallek - Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life
       One of my favorite biographers writing on one of my favorite presidents. This is a no-brainer for me. 

11/7 - Jeffrey Engel - When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold          War
         Along with the Arthur book, this is probably the title about which I'm most excited. I         loved Meacham's book on HW and am eager to read more about the man who was one of the last truly decent men to serve in the White House. 

Why I'm Drawn Back to John Adams

Given my study of the presidents, I'm often asked who the best president is. I find this question impossible to answer. There are presidents I find endlessly fascinating (LBJ and Nixon) or particularly effective (Lincoln.) But that doesn't mean they are my personal favorite. 

Oddly enough, the president I come back to, again and again, is John Adams, who was far from a great president. 

What I love about Adams is his open and endless self-doubt. This makes him deeply familiar as I, too, experience these feelings more often than I care to admit. 

But when I read selections from Adams's diary, I find it staggering that a man who was so brilliant and accomplished and capable, was also so often questioning his own abilities, his own self-worth. 

These two selections from Page Smith's wonderful biography are perfect examples of this quality: 

"'To what object are my views directed?' he asked himself. 'What is the end and purpose of my studies, journeys, labors of all kinds of body and mind, of tongue and pen?'"

"The day-to-day demands of life were so insistent that, as he wrote, 'I have not leisure and tranquility enough to consider distinctly my own views, objects, and feelings.'"

Who among us hasn't felt as Adams does in these moments?

Page Smith, John Adams, and the Power of Beautiful Prose

I wish it were still acceptable to write about history with the power and passion with which Page Smith wrote about John Adams in 1962. Writing about Adams in his later years, his Adams is "Tenacious of life, like a blasted oak on his beloved hill, life burned in him, distant, remote, hardly discernible."

Adams posing for Gilbert Stuart in 1823 when he was 89. 

Adams posing for Gilbert Stuart in 1823 when he was 89. 

Continuing the arboreal imagery, Smith depicts a lively man despite the ravages of life on his physical body. "In the blasted tree, the sap still ran strong as a tide and the mind, still mercifully keen, turned over and over with always fresh wonder the riddle of life, of what God had revealed and what God had veiled." 

It's difficult to express how much I love this writing. It makes me Adams come to life, even as that very life is slowly draining from him as he sits in his home in Braintree. 

Are there any biographers still writing in the Smith style? Maybe Caro, although he certainly brings a more modern tone. Either way, it's a beautiful style and I'm genuinely excited to see where Smith takes me. 

Review: Henry Olsen's "The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism"

When I sit down to review a book, I think it's essential to recognize if and when the author is writing for a limited audience. It's not fair for me, as a reviewer, to judge a book for something it's not trying to do, which is clearly the case with Henry Olsen's new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism

Olsen is writing for people who are already well-versed in Reagan's story and he is not trying to give us a cradle-to-grave assessment of the man. He's certainly not writing to win over left-of-center readers, either. This is a book of ideas, rather than of specific details and these ideas are aimed squarely at today's conservatives. 

Olsen wants to show the Reagan faithful that they're missing a key element to the man they admire so deeply. As he sees it, Reagan is in the inheritor, not the repudiator of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. This may come as a surprise, considering Reagan's statement that "government IS the problem," but Olsen makes a commendable argument that Reagan believed that government could do great things in our lives. 

Citing Reagan's advocacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964, Olsen talks of Reagan's "Creative Society" speech, which backs up this FDR connection quite well. Olsen writes: "If it is legitimate for popular government to decree that 'the problems of human misery can be solved,' then it follows that 'the big question is not whether--but how and at what price.'" This is a Reagan who sees government as a solution that only becomes a problem when it is not allocated correctly.  

Ultimately, Olsen is writing this book for conservatives who deeply admire Reagan. As he sees it, however, by ignoring his admiration of FDR, they are overlooking an essential part of the former President's outlook on government. He writes: "They left the most crucial element of his appeal behind: the love of average Americans and the willingness to always use government to express their values. Republicans and conservatives spoke his words, but they did not carry his tune."  

In his final chapter, Olsen offers a passionate call to arms based on this notion and offers his interpretation of what Reagan really wanted as a way forward for today's conservative movement. He writes:

"Ronald Reagan...envisioned a new majority party, one that embraced every broad strain of conservative thought. It was a party that expressed and acted upon the majority sentiments in the country, a majority that did not fall neatly on the left or the right. It was a party that embraced freedom without forgetting human dignity. It was a party that praised initiative without denigrating the average. It was a party that called all to its banner regardless of creed, gender, or race, but did not treat everyone as an individual without a family, a community, or a nation to call home."

While I found this book to be an interesting read and a compelling clarion call to the right, whether or not it is persuasive will be left to a more conservative audience to decide.

 Grade: 3 out of 4 stars. 

Age and the Presidency

Is there such a thing as being too old to be President? Without coming out and saying so directly, Ronald Feinman says an argument can be made that the answer must be 'yes.' 

In his article, "Is Trump Too Old to be President," he points to a history of older presidents like Reagan, who allegedly left office showing signs of dementia, to argue that Trump is too old for the office. In fact, he suggests that some of Trump's more bizarre behavior, like his counterproductive tweets, could be signs of the same kind of mental decline Reagan may have experienced. 

Feinman writes, "But for the security and stability of Presidential leadership it would be wise if we had such an age limit – or at least established a norm that would discourage politicians outside the age parameters from running. It is simply common sense, based on history and the reality of the pressures of the job of being President of the United States." 

But doesn't this argument make assumptions about age that are difficult to prove? He cites William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, both of whom died in office, as evidence of the problems of older president, but they served well over a hundred years ago and died of illnesses that are curable today--not as a result of their age. What can they tell us about the modern presidency?

I find Feinman's argument to be ageist and unconvincing. To use Mitt Romney as an example, had he won in 2012 and been re-elected in 2016, he would be 70 years old today. That makes him one year younger than our current President. I can't think of any reason that Romney would be physically or mentally unfit to serve his country. In fact, I imagine many of us would gladly see him sitting in the Oval Office these days.

Joking aside, I agree completely that an individual's health, in all respects, should be a factor in his or her serving as our president. But I disagree that we should institute a maximum age for service. In the event that a hypothetical president ever showed signs of dementia or an inability to perform the duties of the office, we have the 25th amendment to resolve the matter. If anything, we should insist on full disclosure of candidates' health records, rather than simply ruling them out because of their age. 

Podcasts and Other Ways In

As an advocate of presidential history, I'm often pushing the latest work by Ron Chernow or David McCullough into the hands of family and friends. While these are great books from great authors, I'm well aware that it's asking a lot to get someone to read 1,000 pages on Harry Truman. I also know that it's daunting to find THE book to read with so many choices.

So with that in mind, I wanted to offer a few different ways in to presidential history.  

Your first stop should be the fantastic Washington Post podcast, Presidential. Over the course of 44 episodes, Lilian Cunningham guides you through each president by focusing on specific aspects of their presidencies. You're not getting strict cradle-to-grave bios here. Instead, you get a look into each presidency, backed by special guests like David McCullough and Bob Woodward. I absolutely loved each episode, and I strongly recommend this regardless of your level of interest in/familiarity with the presidency.

Another option is blogs like Steve Floyd's deeply impressive, My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies. While I've read a bio on each president, Steve is taking a far more intense approach and reading multiple bios. As of today, he's read 183 bios and about 90,000 pages, which I think we can all agree is quite a feat! I found his reviews incredibly useful for picking the right bio for me. When you go to the library or Amazon, you're faced with dozens of options for some of these men, so it helps to have someone do the heavy lifting for you.

If you've found alternative ways in, please do let me know. I'm always interested in knowing how other people found their way to their presidential obsession.  

Father and Son: The Roosevelts, Part Three

I've been spending a lot of time with the Roosevelts lately. In particular, brothers Theodore and Elliott. I'm fascinated how Theodore overcame a difficult childhood of asthma and other ailments to become the robust president, while Elliott ends up essentially drinking himself to death at the age of 34.

Theodore and his brother, Elliott. 

Theodore and his brother, Elliott. 

On one level, I think this image from their sister, Corrine, tells us a lot about their respecitve characters. "Elliott was the sailor...while 'Theodore craved the actual effort of the arms and back.' He 'loved to row in the hottest sun, over the roughest water, in the smallest boat'..." One brother is carried along by the wind, while the other insists on conquering the water with his brute strength. 

But obviously this is a far more complicated story and, I believe, has a great deal to do with their relationship with their father, Theodore, Sr. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Theodore, Sr. took the time to implore TR to make himself into a man, to overcome the physical ailments that were holding him back. But we know that Elliott also suffered from health issues, most prominently seizures that may have been a sign of epilepsy. Yet, in my research so far, there is no similar letter from father to son encouraging Elliott to make himself into a man. 

Instead, we have letters from son to father. Heartbreaking letters where Elliott expresses his devotion to his father and a need for guidance. In 1873, he writes "What will I become when I am a man?...I will try my best and try to be as good as you it is in me, but it is hard." These are the words of a thirteen year old reaching out, and yet there is no encouraging reply. 

Two years later, in 1875, he writes a similarly pained letter: "Oh, Father will you ever think me a 'noble boy'? You are right about Teedie [TR], he is one and no mistake, a boy I would a good deal to be like in many respects....Father....help me to be a good boy and worthy of you..." Elliott is only fifteen, but he is racked by feelings of inferiority and feels that his father favors Theodore. 

Surely, there is a great deal more thaT went in to Elliott's self-destructive downfall, but I can't help seeing the seeds of his alcohol-fueled death in these forlorn letters to a father he loves, but cannot seem to reach. 

Forrest McDonald and the Mystical Nature of the Presdency

In the preface to his book, The Presidency of George Washington, the late Forrest McDonald offers a moving and thought-provoking assessment of the presidency that I keep turning over in my mind. He writes, "there is more to the institution of the presidency than what any particular president does: there is a symbolic, ritualistic, almost mystical quality that inheres in the office as well..."

I can't help wondering if this is still the case. McDonald was writing in the early 1970s--the era of Vietnam, LBJ, riots, Nixon. So it was not exactly the days of the Kennedy's and Camelot. And it feels, in a sense, that we are in a similar low point; where presidential norms are being discarded on a daily basis. 

So is McDonald's quote still applicable? Will it survive the Trump era? And, perhaps more importantly, do we want it to survive? Is it in our interest for the presidency to have this mystical quality? 

Father and Son: The Roosevelts, Part Two

In yesterday's post, I talked about the encouragement Theodore Roosevelt received from his father to make himself into a man physically as well as mentally. Today, I want to look at how TR applied this philosophy to his own sons and the damage I believe this caused. 

All four of TR's sons served in World War I and II, and they suffered greatly for their service. They knew, however, that their father expected them to make such sacrifices. There was nothing like a war to prove one's manhood. 

While Archie served with distinction and was wounded in both WWI and WWII, TR's other three sons did not survive their wartime experiences.

Archie Roosevelt recovering from WWI wound.

Archie Roosevelt recovering from WWI wound.

 

Theodore III, also known as Ted, Jr., was wounded in WWI and would go on, at the astonishing age of 54, to lead the landing at Normandy. He earned the Medal of Honor posthumously after suffering a heart attack a few days later.

Ted, Jr. after the landing at Normandy. 

Ted, Jr. after the landing at Normandy. 

 

Kermit served in both wars as well, but he succumbed to a lifelong struggle with depression, taking his own life while stationed in Alaska in 1943. 

Kermit, pictured on the Amazon expedition that almost cost Theodore his life. 

Kermit, pictured on the Amazon expedition that almost cost Theodore his life. 

 

Quentin, his youngest boy, lost his life in WWI, when his plane was shot down in July 1918. 

Quentin during his time as a WWI pilot. 

Quentin during his time as a WWI pilot. 

 

Despite seeing his boys wounded and losing his beloved Quentin, TR never abandoned his belief that a man's duty was to serve his country. In fact, he lobbied President Wilson repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to allow him to serve in WWI, despite his advanced age. 

TR wrote about his desire to fight even after his sons had suffered so greatly and sacrificed so much. In August 1918, one month after Quentin's death, TR wrote, "As you probably know, two of my other sons have been wounded, one of them badly crippled. I entirely agree with you that there has been nothing finer in our history than the way our young men have eagerly and gladly gone to France to fight for a high ideal...But at times, it seems almost more than I can bear to have my sons face dreadful danger while I sit at home in ease and comfort and safety. It is a terrible thing that death should come to the young. But it is even more terrible, of course, if the young fear to face death in a great crisis for a great cause." 

TR writes as if he would rather his sons died for a cause than if they avoided fighting out of fear. This is a remarkable thing for a father to say considering he already lost one son and had seen his others wounded. He is not talking about abstract theories, but rather concrete and painful realities. Perhaps he writes this as an attempt to create some sense out of a tragic loss of a beloved son. But it also seems possible that this philosophy, which he applied throughout his life, comes directly from the advice his father gave him about a man's responsibilities to make himself physically strong in every way. 

Either way, this is a remarkable exchange from a remarkable man in a remarkably sad situation. 

(You can see a copy of the letter quoted above in Rebecca Onion's Slate piece here.)

Father and Son: The Roosevelts, Part One

In honor of Father's Day, I wanted to share some of my favorite stories of presidential father/son relationships. Today, I'm focusing on a letter Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. sent to this son, the future president. 

Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. 

Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. 

 

At the time, Theodore, Jr. was a sickly boy, frequently struck down by asthma and a range of other physical ailments. His father was always there to take care of him and whisk him away to whatever tranquil region was rumored to have the best air for asthmatics. But after years of late-night scares and countless failed remedies, father sat down and penned a letter to his son that is moving in its directness: 

"Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one's body, but I know you will do it."

Essentially, he was telling his son that he had to remake himself into a man in a physical sense if he ever hoped to become a person of consequence. It is undeniable that this letter and the encouragement that came with it set Roosevelt on the course that would eventually make him president and, thus, it is one of my favorite exchanges between a father and his son. 

Wilson, War, and the Press

When I started on my journey to learn more about the presidents, I assumed Woodrow Wilson would be one of my favorites. I had an image of him as an educated progressive whose values would surely align with my own. 

Instead, I found a man so sure of his own righteousness that he feels impossible to like. This is a man who felt that God had sent him to become president and save the nation. Not exactly a relatable guy! 

I recently read a piece about Wilson's relationship with the press during WWI that further solidified my discomfort with his presidency. Appearing on the Smithsonian website, Christopher Daly's essay explains how Wilson sought, and in many ways received, complete control of the press. 

Daly writes, "In its crusade to “make the world safe for democracy,” the Wilson administration took immediate steps at home to curtail one of the pillars of democracy – press freedom – by implementing a plan to control, manipulate and censor all news coverage, on a scale never seen in U.S. history." 

I encourage you read the whole piece, but these two sections struck me as especially shocking: 

"The whole operation took advantage of a fact of journalistic life. In times of war, readers hunger for news and newspapers attempt to meet that demand. But at the same time, the government was taking other steps to restrict reporters’ access to soldiers, generals, munitions-makers and others involved in the struggle. So, after stimulating the demand for news while artificially restraining the supply, the government stepped into the resulting vacuum and provided a vast number of official stories that looked like news."


"The CPI News Division then went a step further, creating something new in the American experience: a daily newspaper published by the government itself. Unlike the “partisan press” of the 19th century, the Wilson-era Official Bulletin was entirely a governmental publication, sent out each day and posted in every military installation and post office as well as in many other government offices. In some respects, it is the closest the United States has come to a paper like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or China’s People’s Daily." 

As part of my ongoing project to better understand the presidency, I'll be returning to Wilson in the future. But for now, stories like Daly's confirm my already negative perception of a man I once thought would rank with one of the greats. 

 

Father's Day Gift Guide!

With Father’s Day fast approaching, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to give you all a few gift ideas from my favorite reads. After all, if there is anything dad’s love, it’s thick, history books!

1.     Edmund Morris – The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

By far the best of the presidential biographies I’ve read, and the book I credit with launching me on my obsessive quest. Morris shows how Roosevelt remade himself from a weak, asthmatic, heartbroken young man into the rugged leader that would go on to occupy the White House. If your dad enjoys reading, I guarantee he will love this book. It’s flawless.

 

2.     Ron Chernow – Washington: A Life

Of all our presidents, Washington is often cast as the least knowable--the marble man. Thanks to Ron Chernow, Washington steps down from the pedestal and becomes a man of flesh and bone. This is a thick, wonderfully researched book and a great place to begin if your dad wants to start reading about each president!

 

3.     David McCullough – John Adams

Perhaps the most engaging writer of popular histories, McCullough is able to take someone as harsh and difficult as Adams and turn him into an admirable man of great complexity. An absolute pleasure to read, even if Adams is not always a pleasure to be around! 

 

4.     David Herbert Donald – Lincoln

There are thousands of books to pick from if you want to get your dad a book on Lincoln. Most people will point you to Team of Rivals, the excellent Doris Kearns Goodwin book on Lincoln and his cabinet. But for my money, I’d go with this earlier book for the essential Lincoln bio. We all know how this story ends, but Donald is still able to make your heart break at the conclusion.

 

5.     Candice Millard – Destiny of the Republic

Not all dads will want to tackle a 600-page doorstopper, but worry not; there are presidential books for these dads, too! Millard’s book tells the story of James Garfield’s assassination, but it’s much more. She’s able to pack in the fascinating life of his assassin as well as the gruesome medical treatment that was ultimately responsible for the president’s death. This is a page-turner that any reader will love.

 

6.     Evan Thomas – Being Nixon: A Man Divided

We’ve been hearing a lot these days about parallels between recent events and those of the disgraced Nixon administration. I’ve read a number of books on Nixon, but no one made me feel like I understood this man more than Thomas. This book is perfect for dads who may have lived through the Nixon era and are looking to make sense of a complicated time in our nation’s history.

 

7.     Robert Caro – The Path to Power

The first volume in Caro’s masterful series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, this is a monumental book, and Caro is quite possibly the best writer I’ve come across. I love his work so much that I’m spacing out reading the other books in his series because I don’t want to reach the end. 

 

8.     Jon Meacham – Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush

I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did, but Bush is one of the last truly decent men we’ve had in the White House. I don’t agree with the majority of his political views, but this book, fueled by Meacham’s access to Bush’s audio diary, convinced me that he was a good man with the best of intentions. A genuine surprise and a book that is easy to overlook for some of the more attention-grabbing bios out there.

 

I’ve provided Amazon links for all of these books for ease of purchase, but don’t hesitate to go to a local bookstore to pick up one (or more). And I hope you’ll come back and let me know about your dad’s reaction to these wonderful books. 

Review: John Bohrer's "The Revolution of Robert Kennedy"

John Bohrer’s The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protests After JFK offers a refreshing take on the well-covered Bobby Kennedy. While there is much to admire in this story, Bohrer avoids the hagiography and gives us a flawed man, struggling to make sense of his life amidst unimaginable grief. This is not the Bobby whose every step is shadowed by an assassin’s bullet. Instead, it is an examination of the steps he took after his brother’s murder and what they meant for a man trying to become a productive public figure. 

 

Bohrer is particularly effective at showing Bobby the politician. It’s easy to cast him as the distraught brother picking up the reins of a fallen brother; taking his role in the Senate as if it were thrust upon him. In Bohrer’s telling, though, politics is never far from Bobby’s mind. Almost immediately, he began to maneuver for a position as LBJ’s vice president. Bohrer writes, “On the flight back, he asked Arthur Schlesinger whether he should go after the vice presidency. It was December 5, less than two weeks after the assassination.” This is not the behavior of a passive man.

While focusing on Bobby the political operative, Bohrer doesn’t hesitate to lean on the Kennedy mystique. Although he avoids the heavy hand that too many Kennedy idolizers adopt. For examples, he writes of Bobby and Teddy: “They were two developing men, cloaked in the shadow of greatness and yet beaming with promise because of it.” Here we get the memory of Jack without him overwhelming the two surviving brothers.

And when he does talk about the ghost of JFK, he uses it to the best possible effect. As in the run up to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, intended to be LBJ’s coronation, but in danger of being overshadowed by Jack’s absence and Bobby’s potential role as VP. Bohrer shows a tortured LBJ, “There could only be one explanation for why Bobby Kennedy went from political liability….to the person most desired to be a heartbeat away from the presidency: Jack Kennedy’s ghost. And this was the only way Johnson could suffer defeat even with a resounding victory over the flawed Goldwater. To see JFK’s memory carrying Bobby through at the convention, and then to have a Kennedy over his shoulder into the fall and the next four years…the victory would not be his.”

Bohrer is a beautiful writer, but his book suffers from a lack of context. As the title suggests, this is the story of Bobby’s revolution as a political figure. We’re told on a number of occasions that he was known as a ruthless operator, the hatchet man for his brother. Yet we do not see many moments where he displayed such behavior. I believe the profound nature of this revolution would have been far greater if we saw more specific examples of why Bobby had this reputation. In the absence of distinct examples, it is difficult to fully understand that it truly was remarkable for Bobby to change this significantly in such a short period of time.  

I give Bohrer a great deal of credit for criticizing Kennedy when needed. For example, he calls him out for heading to the Yukon to climb a mountain named after his brother during the beginning of the meetings to negotiate a voting rights bill that was supposedly important to both he and Jack. Surprisingly, Bohrer lets other moments pass without the criticism that seems called for. In discussing Bobby’s time in the Senate, he writes, “He had paid his dues that summer, leading former Mississippi governor James P. Coleman along the path to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appointment gave Coleman—whom The New Republic labeled ‘a stout segregationist’—jurisdiction over several Southern states and many civil rights cases.” I was amazed that Bohrer let this slide without going into greater detail, as it appears to be a significantly hypocritical moment. How could a man supposedly devoted to civil rights stand up for a segregationist? It’s impossible to say in this book as Bohrer moves on to other matters.

 

One of Bohrer’s greatest strengths is his willingness to let Bobby speak for himself. Some of the book’s most eloquent passages come directly from Kennedy and are a testament to the author’s research. In depicting Bobby’s criticism of Vietnam, he quotes “We cannot win with mere military force…for guns cannot fill empty stomachs, napalm cannot cure the sick, and bombs cannot teach a child to read.” It’s in these moments where we see how inspirational Kennedy could be when speaking on an issue of great personal importance.

My few critiques aside, this is an exceptional book that reflects a tremendous amount of research on the author’s part. I would strongly recommend this without reservation.

3 ¾ out of 4 stars

Review: John Bicknell's "Lincoln's Pathfinder: John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856"

Dred Scott. Bleeding Kansas. Sumner-Brooks. In my past experiences, these events are depicted as steps on a predetermined path to Civil War. As simply things that happened along the way, rather than events central to the development of the war’s inevitability.

 

John Bicknell’s new book, Lincoln’s Pathfinder: John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856, is an engaging, wonderfully written account of the crucial events of 1856. In his telling, these moments are examined with an eye for their repercussions for a volatile nation and with a clear emphasis of the context surrounding them. 

His deep dive into the events of 1856 illuminate how a series of events made war inevitable despite the hopes of many for a peaceful outcome. In the process, otherwise ordinary events like the Dred Scott case became receptacles for the hope of the competing sides of a fracturing nation. Bicknell writes, “Until now this had simply been the latest in a long line of cases considering whether the presence in a free state emancipated an enslaved traveller. Now it was more, encompassing the central political issue facing the nation in a presidential election year. With the lawyers in charge and politics in the forefront, Scott almost ceased to matter. Blair’s client was the Republican Party. Johnson’s was the South.” 

As Bicknell’s subtitle suggests, violence runs throughout the book as illustrative of the path the nation is on. It is used to particularly great effect when discussing the brutal caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks. While this is a familiar story, Bicknell invests it with larger significance for those Americans processing how such violence could occur in the halls of Congress. “The attack on Sumner brought home the distant outrages in Kansas in a way newspaper reports of faraway atrocities never could. If people wondered about the accuracy of reports from Kansas…‘Brooks knocked the scales from the eyes of the blind.”

The year of violence and chaos ends with Fremont’s defeat to James Buchanan, a man often considered our worst president. Despite Fremont’s popularity as a military hero and handsome adventurer, he simply could not rise above the uncertainty of a troubling year. Bicknell writes: “the widespread feeling that things were falling apart, that the center would not hold” led to “voters craving stability and...Buchanan as the safer choice.” Even at this moment, the American people thought war could be averted if the right man held power. Unfortunately, they picked the wrong man. 

While I greatly enjoyed Bicknell’s book, I did have a hard time with his use of Fremont. As the title suggests, Fremont should be at the heart of the book. Instead, the reader gets a series of stories of violence, ranging from John Brown to the struggles of Mormon travelers. As a whole, these stories are riveting and well-told, but what they don’t provide is a clear picture of Fremont and how he served as a pathfinder for Lincoln. Perhaps a different title would help manage expectations. 

But that is a minor quibble with an otherwise excellent book. One I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in this fascinating era. 

3 ¾ out of 4