Friday, May 18, 2018

Review of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek

Once again, due to the extreme busyness of my life as of late, I will rely almost entirely on the thoughts of presidential biography reviewer Stephen Floyd, who writes

[Author Robert] Dallek was granted almost unprecedented access to Kennedy family documents including newly-revealed information relating to JFK’s seemingly endless array of medical ailments. Dallek also convinced a former Kennedy administration press aide to release new information concerning an affair between JFK and a White House intern.

Some of this fresh primary source material underpins the book’s earliest chapters which describe Kennedy’s youth: his fascinating family lineage, his privileged childhood, his persistent medical issues and his unwavering penchant for “womanizing.” But readers seeking a sensational JFK exposé are likely to be disappointed.

While the early narrative provides a devastating indictment of Kennedy’s ill-formed moral core, Dallek is predisposed to focusing on politics over prurient predilections. This biography is long on hard history and avoids allowing Kennedy’s indiscretions to hijack the narrative. The author’s skillful dissection of JFK’s complex medical situation, however, does pervade the text.

Once Kennedy begins his political career in 1946, the spotlight shines brightest on his “public” rather than “private” life; his family recedes into the background and there is surprisingly little coverage even of Jackie. More than half the book is reserved for Kennedy’s 1,036-day presidency and Dallek’s style is consistently serious, sober-minded and impressively objective.

Not surprisingly, discussion of Kennedy’s presidency is dominated by US-Soviet relations, Cuba and Southeast Asia. With the exception of civil rights (where the author is often critical of Kennedy’s leadership failures), domestic issues receive significantly less focus. But this is reflective of Kennedy’s own interests and emphasis.

The most interesting chapters are those dealing with Kennedy’s relationship with Nikita Khrushchev (their meeting at the Vienna Summit, in particular) and the Bay of Pigs debacle. The book ends with an interesting “Epilogue” considering Kennedy’s reputation, assessing his legacy and briefly pondering what “might have been.”

While the biography is almost always engaging there are occasions during Kennedy’s presidency when the narrative bogs down and becomes tedious. But this is generally the fault of cumbersome foreign policy issues facing Kennedy at the time rather than with the author’s writing style.

In addition, JFK’s assassination is described in just a single paragraph with no lens on the transition of power to LBJ. The ensuing pages consider the impact of Kennedy’s death on his family and on the country but, for many readers, history will seem to stop too abruptly at the moment of Kennedy’s death.

Overall, Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 proves an excellent introduction to the life and death of the thirty-fifth president. Some readers will find discussion of Kennedy’s medical afflictions strangely pervasive; others will be surprised not to read more of his lewd behavior. But, in general, Dallek’s biography covers John F. Kennedy’s life thoroughly, thoughtfully and with extraordinary balance and objectivity.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Review of Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

Dwight D. Eisenhower is viewed by most Americans today as a great military commander, but not necessarily a great president.  In Eisenhower in War and Peace (2012), historian and presidential biographer Jean Edward Smith attempts to confirm the former perception and correct the latter.  Because I find myself incredibly busy these days, I will again rely heavily on the thoughts of presidential biography review extraordinaire Stephen Floyd and add a few thoughts of my own at the end.  This time, I am not posting Floyd’s entire review but am instead posting excerpts, because the review is lengthy. 

The first comprehensive biography of Eisenhower in more than a decade, Smith’s review of the 34th president is lengthy (with 766 pages) and occasionally exhausting. But rarely is it dull, and the author’s enthusiasm for his subject infuses nearly every page of this well-documented book.
Smith rates Eisenhower as one of the two most successful of twentieth-century presidents (behind only FDR) and covers his personal foibles and battlefield failures with candor and clarity. But he is unfailingly complimentary toward Eisenhower’s two-term presidency. And in the end, the character who emerges from this book is ambitious, flawed, an excellent politician and a capable (if not quite great) president…but stubbornly enigmatic. 
Smith devotes half the book to Eisenhower’s military career versus about one-quarter to his presidency. Many readers will puzzle at this imbalance but Ike’s pre-presidency is where the book shines brightest. The author vividly and thoroughly describes his steady march from West Point cadet to Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. And no reader will miss how Eisenhower’s military career well-prepared him for the presidency… 
In contrast to discussion of his military career, the eight-year Eisenhower presidency is organized topically and not chronologically.  As a consequence, readers unfamiliar with American history during the 1950s will learn a great deal about the decade’s most important moments but may be unsure of (or flatly confused by) their sequencing.
This portion of the biography often seems strangely organized, with occasional non sequiturs. In one instance, no sooner has Smith introduced the reader to legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn than he launches – with no transition whatsoever – into a discussion of Eisenhower’s interstate highway initiative. 
But this book’s high points far outweigh its shortcomings and any committed reader will find much to enjoy and absorb. Smith is excellent when incorporating new characters into the dialogue and in the case of General Marshall even provides an astute comparison of Eisenhower’s attributes with those of his fascinating one-time mentor… 
Overall, Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Dwight Eisenhower is a revealing, detailed and colorful look at a man described by many (including his wife) as mysterious and somewhat unknowable. And while Smith’s intention in writing this biography seems to have been burnishing Eisenhower’s presidential legacy, the man described here is less great and more wonderfully complex, interesting and human than may have been intended.

I concur with nearly all of Floyd’s insights, with one possible exception.  I would be more willing than Floyd to describe Eisenhower as a great president.  Or, if Eisenhower does not deserve to be included in the top tier of our chief executives, surely he must sit at the top of the second tier.
One interesting feature of the biography is that Smith constantly draws parallels between Eisenhower and our only other career soldier-turned-president, Ulysses S. Grant. This is not terribly surprising, given that Smith’s first presidential biography was of Grant.  The frequent parallels between Grant and Eisenhower will prove to be highly interesting to readers who are Civil War buffs (like me), but to those who know little about Grant, they may seem beside the point and possibly even annoying.  Still, Eisenhower in War and Peace is an engaging read and a fascinating and enlightening study of our 34th president.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Review of Truman by David McCullough

President Harry Truman arguably faced more challenges of global significance than any other American president in history.  Immediately upon his unexpected accession to the presidency, Truman was faced with the task of presiding over the end of the World War II in Europe and the Pacific, including the monumental decision of whether or not to use the atomic bomb on Japan.  In the years right after the war, Truman had to formulate the American response to the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Communist revolutions in Turkey and Greece, the Berlin Blockade, the Soviets’ development of the atomic bomb, the Communist takeover of China, and the North Korean invasion of South Korea, just to name a few.  

How did Truman handle these crises?  At the time, many Americans answered in the negative.  During the nearly eight years of his presidency, Truman’s presidential approval rating averaged only 45%, and during his second term (1949-53), it dipped as low as 22%.  Over time, however, Americans have grown increasingly appreciative of Truman’s performance.  In the 2000 CSPAN poll of presidential historians, Truman’s overall ranking was fifth, behind only Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt.  This high ranking has persevered, staying at fifth in 2009 and slipping to only sixth in 2017.  One key influence in the recent rise in Truman’s stature was the publication in 1992 of David McCullough’s massive biography Truman.  Rather than try to write my own review of Truman, I will quote a brief but insightful review by reviewer extraodinaire Stephen Floyd.  I concur 100% with what he writes.

Heeeeeeeere’s Stephen!

Truman is David McCullough’s 1992 biography of the 33rd president.  It was the first comprehensive biography of Truman and earned the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in the Biography category. McCullough is a highly-acclaimed author and historian who is probably best known for his 2001 biography of John Adams. He is currently working on a book about the early settlers of the Northwest Territory tentatively titled The Pioneers.
True to its reputation, this biography is remarkably lively and engaging for a hefty 992-page tome.  McCullough once again demonstrates himself to be an expert storyteller, crafting a fascinating and articulate narrative that generally reads more like fiction than actual history. 
A decade in the making, this well-researched biography began to cement Truman’s reputation as something more than a simple man of inferior talent who survived politics only by riding coattails and affiliating himself with powerful political bosses. McCullough works assiduously, but not obtusely, to demonstrate Truman’s optimism, diligence, perseverance and unshakable moral compass…as well as his intrinsic talent for politics. 
There are too many praiseworthy moments in this book to mention, but among the best are the discussion of Truman’s military service during WWI, chapters reviewing Truman’s time in the U.S. Senate, description of the covert maneuvering which resulted in Truman’s selection as FDR’s fourth-term VP and the review of Truman’s 1948 Whistle Stop tour. McCullough also adroitly compares and contrasts FDR’s personality with Truman’s (their differences far outweighing their similarities, of course). 
Beginning with Truman’s ancestry and moving deliberately (though not speedily) to his death, this is more a “popular” biography than a rigorous academic or analytical examination of his politics and personality. And although McCullough is occasionally critical of Truman’s actions, this is very likely a biography that Truman would have appreciated and enthusiastically endorsed. 
Ironically, my least favorite sections of the book were its beginning and its end. While Truman’s humble roots are hardly unimportant to McCullough’s thesis, I found the narrative involving his lineage and early years slow to ramp up. And the eighty or so pages describing his post-presidency seemed relatively uneven and unexciting…but this later period of his life lacks large moments and critical decisions, so it is unsurprising the final chapter suffers by comparison. 
Overall, however, David McCullough’s Truman proves one of the best presidential biographies of the 164 I’ve read thus far. It is wonderfully animated, thoughtfully revealing, consistently engaging and surprisingly lively. If the hallmark of a great presidential biography is providing a comprehensive (and fascinating) understanding of its subject – and bringing to life the broader history of the era – then David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman could hardly be more successful.

James here again.  At nearly 1000 pages in length (and 54 hours in the audio version), Truman is not for the casual reader.  Still, as anyone who has read a McCullough book before knows, McCullough is a master storyteller, and any of his books reads like a novel, at least most of the time.  Like John Adams, Truman is a tour de force in biography writing and a must-read for anyone interested in American History.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Review of FDR by Jean Edward Smith

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the most popular, influential and highly regarded presidents of the United States, has been the subject of countless books.  Why then, asks historian Jean Edward Smith, is another needed?  According to Smith, much Roosevelt scholarship in recent years has focused more on Eleanor Roosevelt than on her husband.  As a result, not much original scholarship of the life and work of Franklin Roosevelt has appeared lately (or at least it had not in 2005, when he wrote.  FDR is Smith’s attempt to produce a fresh, up-to-date biography of Roosevelt.

Smith presents a comprehensive biography, beginning with FDR’s ancestry, his privileged upbringing, his early political career, his heroic attempt to bounce back from polio, his reentry into politics, and his rise to the nation’s highest political office.  Smith displays a clear positive bias toward his subject, but he does not hesitate to criticize him when it is warranted, as in the case of Roosevelt’s “court-packing” scheme and his decision to allow the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  Smith writes in an engaging style, so much so that readers might almost feel like they are reading a novel.  Every chapter is good, and some are outstanding: for example, Smith’s narration of the suppression of the “Bonus Army” under Herbert Hoover is one of the best explanations of that event that I have ever read.  Another outstanding feature of the book is Smith’s ongoing narrative of the life of Eleanor, Franklin’s lifelong partner in work, if not in love.

FDR has but one flaw--its abrupt ending.  Smith narrates the story of Roosevelt’s final days and his death, and then he provides an inspirational quote from FDR, and that is it.  The book would have been even better with one more chapter describing FDR’s funeral, the transition of power to Harry Truman, and a quick accounting of the later lives of Eleanor and the children.  A brief evaluation of Roosevelt and a discussion of his legacy would also have been nice.  It is as if Smith was up against a hard deadline and simply did not have time to finish the story.  Still, this is a minor flaw, and students of history who want to increase their knowledge of this monumentally significant president could do no better than to begin with FDR.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review of Herbert Hoover in the White House by Charles Rappleye

According to journalist and biographer Charles Rappleye, President Herbert Hoover “remains very much unknown to most Americans. When he is recalled at all, it is in defeat and in caricature—the clay-footed conservative who preached the old dogmas of laissez-faire, while the false idols of capital came crashing down, handmaidens to the elite, scourge of the huddled masses.” In Herbert Hoover in the White House, Rappleye does not seek to somehow resurrect Hoover’s reputation; he admits that Hoover was a failure as a president, “and not just because of fate or bad timing” (xvi). He does, however seek to provide a more balanced portrait of Hoover as both man and president.  Writing several decades after the end of the 1930s, Rappleye is able to attempt one of the first works about the Hoover presidency “weighed in the scales of time and experience rather than partisan political belief” (xv).

Throughout the biography, Rappleye stresses two main themes, ideas which stand in contrast to key stereotypes about Hoover’s presidency.   First, he argues that Hoover “was not the mild Quaker that his friends liked to portray” (xvi).  Instead, he could be petty and vindictive, was subject to outbursts of temper, and used fear as a weapon, which lead to him “winning some legislative battles but losing the war for hearts and minds” (xvi). 

The second misconception about Hoover that Rappleye attempts to correct is that Hoover did little or nothing to ease the Great Depression. Rather, “Hoover made an active and energetic response to the economic tsunami that hit the nation.” (xvii). No one in the Hoover administration “was more creative in fashioning a response” than Hoover himself (xvii).  Unfortunately for Hoover’s political career and for the nation as a whole, Hoover’s measures tended to be too little, too late, and they tended to benefit the wealthiest members of society rather than the poorest Americans.  This, together with Hoover’s lack of warmth and charisma, led a very large number of Americans to believe he simply did not care about their hardships.

As its title suggests, Herbert Hoover in the White House is not a true biography.  Rappleye flies through Hoover’s early life and his pre-presidential career and devotes about 95% of the book to Hoover’s presidency, with a very brief epilogue concerning Hoover’s post-presidency.  When narrating the events of the presidency, Rappleye discusses economic matters to the near-exclusion of issues such as non-economic domestic affairs, foreign policy, and Hoover’s personal life.  Readers with little interest in and/or knowledge of finance, banking, the stock market, and world currency rates may well find themselves struggling to keep reading.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors told our class that when we write a book review, we should “evaluate it for the book that it is, not for the book you wish it were.”  Following this sound advice, I will not scold Rappleye for not writing a comprehensive biography, filled with human interest like David McCullough’s biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman.  I would have loved to have learned much more about Hoover’s rags-to-riches story and his great success as a humanitarian, but…I read the title, and I should have known going into it that this book would be almost entirely about Hoover’s unsuccessful presidency.  Still, I could not help coming away a bit disappointed.

In summary, if you are seeking to learn a great deal about President Hoover’s economic policies and his efforts to combat the Great Depression, this is the perfect book for you.  If, however, you want a comprehensive account of Hoover’s life that includes his highly successful career as an engineer, businessman, and humanitarian, you will need to look elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Review of Coolidge: An American Enigma by Robert Sobel

“American intellectuals do not so much harbor a negative opinion of Calvin Coolidge as they trivialize him. He often is dismissed as a political naif, simpleton, and lazy misfit, a relic from the nineteenth century, whose administration set the stage for the Great Depression. Most of the time, however, he simply isn’t taken very seriously.”  So begins Robert Sobel’s 1998 biography Coolidge: An American Enigma.  In the introduction, Sobel also discusses the long-held belief that Coolidge was a reactionary whose policies heavily favored big business.  Sobel takes issue with all of these stereotypes, arguing instead that Coolidge was an intelligent and complicated man who was “capable of holding dissonant views on some subjects” and who was much more progressive than he is generally given credit for (8). Sobel also argues that Coolidge was “the last president who believed in a passive executive branch in times of peace and prosperity” and that of all our twentieth-century presidents, Coolidge was “the most Jeffersonian in philosophy and practice—a judgment those who admire Jefferson but have not delved deeply into his writings may find astonishing” (14).

Sobel follows his introduction with a brief overview of Coolidge’s humble upbringing. The boyhoods of many of our presidents included great hardships, and Coolidge’s was no exception; he lost his mother at the age of 12 and had asthma and frequent colds throughout his early life.  In secondary school, Coolidge was extremely shy and was a good, though not an outstanding, student.  He did better in college, graduating cum laude. After graduation, Coolidge followed the common practice of apprenticing with a local law firm.  He was admitted to the bar in 1898 and soon afterward opened a law practice in Northampton, Massachusetts.

The same year, Coolidge began his political career by being elected to the Northampton City Council. After serving in this and other municipal positions, Coolidge was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.  After serving two years, Coolidge ran for and was elected Mayor of Northampton.  After two more years, Coolidge in 1912 ran for the state senate, defeating his opponent handily.   Coolidge continued to rise through the state hierarchy, being elected President of the Massachusetts Senate in 1914, Lieutenant Governor in 1915, and Governor in 1918.  During his 20 years of service in local and state offices. Coolidge supported pro-labor legislation, better wages and hours for workers, medical care for the poor and suffering, factory regulation, higher wages for teachers, and even unionization.  These efforts of Coolidge were in direct line with progressive thought and show him to be far from a reactionary during his pre-Washington years.  In Sobel’s words, Coolidge “was not the tool of big business that he has become in today’s legend” (118).

Coolidge’s tenure as governor was characterized by “honesty, integrity, and incorruptibility” (156).   His successful suppression of the 1919 Boston Police Strike vaulted him to national prominence and resulted in his being named as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1920. At this time, Coolidge’s political views were becoming more conservative and less progressive along with those of most of the rest of the nation.  As was the practice at the time, Vice President Coolidge performed few duties other than ceremonial ones.  On August 2, 1923, President Harding died, and Coolidge suddenly and unexpectedly found himself at the head of a grieving nation.

As president, Coolidge tended to be a “hands off” leader, delegating much to his subordinates.  He spoke out for the rights of African-Americans, even though he took little concrete action to help them.  Although he was far from beholden to big business, he did sign legislation granting tax cuts to businesses and individuals and worked to promote a pro-business climate.  He appointed special counsels to investigate corruption (including the notorious Teapot Dome Scandal), and his administration initiated more antitrust suits than did any of his predecessors.  Coolidge oversaw a period of economic growth and stability that the nation had not seen in many years. In foreign affairs, Coolidge successfully avoided major confrontations with China, Mexico and Nicaragua and signed the idealistic Kellogg-Briand Pact into law.  At the time of his retirement from the presidency, Coolidge was immensely popular, and the goodwill he had built up contributed largely to another Republican landslide victory in 1928.  The former president spent his final days writing an autobiography and a newspaper column until he died on January 5, 1933.

Overall, Calvin Coolidge: An American Enigma is a solid biography.  Like nearly any such work, it contains flaws.  For example, Sobel fails to mention Coolidge’s signing of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, which granted U. S. citizenship to all American Indians living on major reservations (a highly significant, if much delayed, action).  In addition, the book is almost entirely a political biography.  Sobel rarely mentions Coolidge’s relationship with his wife Grace and his sons.  More information about Coolidge’s family life would have made him seem more like a person and less like a mere politician and would have made the biography more interesting.  Finally, Sobel’s description of Coolidge’s death leaves much to be desired; Sobel merely writes that one day while he was shaving, Coolidge “keeled over and fell to the floor.  He was dead at the age of sixty-one” (414). He provides no details about the cause of death.

Despite these flaws. Sobel has produced an excellent chronicle of the political life of “Silent Cal.”  Still, readers wanting to know more about Coolidge’s personal life will need to supplement their reading with other works.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Review of Warren G. Harding by John W. Dean

“At the time of his death, no president was more popular and admired.” So writes author, columnist, political commentator, and former White House Counsel (serving Richard Nixon) John W. Dean about Warren G. Harding, the twenty-ninth president of the United States. Despite this contemporary adulation, Harding now is viewed by most historians as one of our worst chief executives. Dean believes Harding’s bad reputation is unfair, arguing that “few presidents have experienced the unrequited attacks and reprisals visited on one of the most kindly men to ever occupy the White House” (4). In Warren G. Harding, part of the “American Presidents” series of brief presidential biographies, Dean attempts to redeem Harding’s legacy. Dean, an admitted lifelong enthusiast of Harding and his presidency, lays out his plan early in the book: “My undertaking has not been to challenge or catalogue all those who have gotten it wrong about Harding, only to get it right” (4).  Dean argues that much of Harding’s negative reputation is based on distortions and outright lies, which Dean vows to expose.  The resulting work, not surprisingly, is part biography and part Harding apologetic.

Due to the space limitation of the series, Dean chooses to breeze through Harding’s early life and career and to focus primarily on the 1920 presidential campaign and Harding’s brief presidency. Dean shows that Harding, far from being a dullard as many have claimed, learned to read at four and proved to be an excellent student from the beginning of his school days. Dean also points out several other of Harding’s positive characteristics, including his humility, warmth, kindness, compassion for the downtrodden, and his ability to remember names and faces.  These traits, together with Harding’s work as a successful newspaper publisher, helped launch him first into the Ohio State Senate, then into the United States Senate, and ultimately, into the White House.

Dean constantly argues that Harding, contrary to conventional wisdom, was anything but a failed president.  For starters, his cabinet “was not a cabinet of a weak or inept president, and no president before or after Harding has done any better at cabinet making” (94).  Harding also had a highly positive relationship with the press, possibly the best of any president in American history.  Dean shows that as president, Harding made many positive contributions, including calling for a cabinet department responsible for public welfare, urging the passage of an anti-lynching law, freeing Americans jailed under the 1918 Sedition Act, sponsoring farm relief legislation, signing an emergency tariff bill, and creating the Bureau of the Budget, the predecessor of the Office of Management and Budget.  Dean gives Harding special praise for his work in the area of race relations, especially his 1921 speech in Birmingham, Alabama, which a leading civil rights activist of the time called the “most important utterance on the question by a president since Lincoln” (126).

Dean does not shy away from discussing Harding’s negatives; for example, he criticizes Harding for his 15-year-long affair with Carrie Phillips. Regarding Nan Britton, who claimed to have had an affair with Harding and to have given birth to his child, Dean expresses skepticism (Dean, writing in 2004, of course could not have known that eleven years later, DNA evidence would convincingly establish Britton’s claim).  Finally, Dean addresses the scandals of the Harding presidency (including the notorious “Teapot Dome” affair) in some depth, concluding that Harding had nothing to do with any of them other than making a few poor choices in his cabinet appointments.  As Dean points out, Harding was personally honest and had no involvement with any of the scandals that occurred on his “watch.”  Despite this, Harding has been assigned the lion’s share of the blame by many historians from the time of his death in 1923 to the present.

As a biographer, Dean succeeds admirably, providing an able and fast-moving overview of Harding’s life and career.  As a defender of Harding’s reputation, Dean also makes a good case that Harding deserves a better evaluation than he has traditionally received.  The thoughtful reader might wonder, however, if perhaps Dean is a little too one-sided in his treatment of the 29th president.  After all, there must be at least a few legitimate and compelling reasons why Harding still appears near the bottom of historians’ rankings of presidents.  Could Dean have glossed over these?  It will be up to future biographers to address this.