Apparently, Sigmund Freud spent the final year of his long and productive life as a refugee from the Nazi menace, in a house in London that is now a museum to his legacy. On the great exile’s preserved desk still sits a good number of statuettes from ancient cultures that he collected, including on one corner a carved stone baboon—known as the “Baboon of Thoth”—symbolic of that ancient Egyptian deity identified with both writing and wisdom. “Freud’s housekeeper recalled that he often stroked the smooth head of the stone baboon, like a favourite pet.” [p13] This anecdote serves as an introduction to Egypt, by Christina Riggs, a 2017 addition to the wonderful Lost Civilizations series that also features volumes devoted to the Etruscans, the Persians, and the Goths.
I was so taken by one of these—The Indus, by Andrew Robinson—that I put the others on a birthday list later fulfilled by my wonderful wife, so I now own the remainder of the set, each one destined to sit in queue in my ever-lengthening TBR until its time arrives. Egypt came up first. But it turns out that Riggs’ book stands apart from the others because it is not at all a history of Egyptian civilization, but rather a studied essay on the numerous ways that ancient Egypt came to be understood by subsequent cultures, its historical record manipulated and frequently distorted to support forced interpretations that suited its various interpreters. The toolkit deployed to construct sometimes elaborate visions that reflected far more kindly upon the later civilizations that succeeded it rather than accurately representing the ancient one that inspired these included its monumental architecture, its tomb painting, its mummified dead, its hieroglyphs, even abstract and unfounded notions of race and superiority—as well as, of course, objets d’art like the “Baboon of Thoth.”
Riggs, whose background is in art and archaeology, writes well and presents a series of articulate arguments to support her examination of all the ways Egypt has echoed down through the ages. It is often overlooked that to the first century Roman tourists who scribbled graffiti on tombs in the Nile valley, the pyramids of Giza were more ancient by half a millennium than those long-dead Romans are to us today! So, it is a very long echo indeed. Alas, for all of Rigg’s talent, I myself made a poor audience for her narrative. I opened the cover yearning to learn more about Egypt, not more about how we recall it. I might not have made the mistake had I noticed at the outset how her title—which is absent the definitive article—differed from the others in the series. There is The Indus, The Barbarians, The Etruscans. Riggs’ edition is simply Egypt. That should have been a clue! But that is, as we say on the street, “my bad,” not the author’s. Despite this, I did find enough to hold my interest, to finish the book, and to recommend it—but only to those with a far greater interest in art history and interpretation than I possess.
A small island called “Bermeja” in the Gulf of Mexico that was first charted in 1539 was—after an extensive search of the coordinates—found to be a “phantom” that never actually existed in that latitude, or anywhere else for that matter. It turns out that this kind of thing is not unusual, that countless phantom islands, some the stuff of great legend, appeared on countless charts dating back well beyond the so-called “Age of Discovery” to the very earliest maps of antiquity. What is unusual about Bermeja is that its nonexistence was only determined in 2009, after showing up on maps for almost five hundred years!
The reader first encounters Bermejo in the “Introduction” to The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching, a delightful, beautifully illustrated volume that is marked by both the eclectic and the eccentric. But the island that never was also later gets its due in its own chapter, along with a wonderful, detailed map of its alleged location. This is just one of nearly sixty such chapters that explores the mythical and the fantastical, ranging from the famous and near-famous—such as the Lost Continent of Atlantis and the Kingdom of Prester John—to the utterly obscure, like Bermeja, and the near-obscure, like the island of Wak-Wak. While the latter, also known as Waq-Waq in some accounts, apparently existed only in the imagination of the author of one of the tales in One Thousand and One Nights, it nevertheless made it into the charts courtesy of Muhammad al-Idrisi, a respected twelfth-century Arab cartographer.
But The Phantom Atlas is not just all about islands. There are mythical lands, like El Dorado and the Lost City of the Kalahari; cartographic blunders, such as mapping California and Korea as islands; even persistent wrong-headed notions like the Flat Earth. There is also a highly entertaining chapter devoted to the outlandish beings that populate the 1493 “Nuremberg Chronicle Map,” featuring such wild and weird creatures as the “six-handed man,” hairy women known as “Gorgades,” the four-eyed Ethiopian “Nistyi,” and the dog-headed “Cynocephali.” That at least some audiences once entertained the notion that such inhabitants thrived in various corners of the globe is a reminder that the exotic characters invented by Jonathan Swift for Gulliver’s Travels were not so outrageous after all.
One of the longer and most fascinating chapters, entitled “Earthly Paradise,” relates the many attempts to fix the Biblical Garden of Eden to a physical, mapped location. The author places that into the context of a wider concept that extends far beyond the People of the Book to a universal longing that he suggests is neatly conjured up with the Welsh word “Hiraeth,” which he loosely defines as “an overwhelming feeling of grief and longing for one’s people and land of the past, a kind of amplified spiritual homesickness for a place one has never been to.” [p92] It is charming prose like that which marks Brooke-Hitching as a talented writer and distinguishes this volume from so many other atlases that are often simply a collection of maps mated with text to serve as a kind of obligatory device to fill out the pages. In happy contrast, there are enchanting stories attached to these maps, and the author is a master raconteur. But the maps and other illustrations, nearly all in full color, clearly steal the show in The Phantom Atlas.
Because I obtained this book as part of an Early Reviewers program, I felt an obligation to read it cover-to-cover, but that is hardly necessary. A better strategy is to simply pick up the book and let it open to any page at random, then feast your eyes on the maps and pause to read the narrative—if you can take your eyes off the maps! From al-Idrisi’s 1154 map of Wak-Wak, to Ortelius’s 1598 map of the Tartar Kingdom, to a 1939 map of Antarctica featuring Morrell’s Island—which of course does not really exist—you are guaranteed to never grow bored with the visual content or the chronicles.
There are, it should be noted, a couple of drawbacks in arrangement and design, but these are to be laid at the feet of the publisher, not the author. First of all, the book is organized alphabetically—from the Strait of Anian to the Phantom Lands of the Zeno—rather than grouped thematically, which would have no doubt made for a more sensible editorial alternative. Most critically, while the volume is somewhat oversize, the pages are hardly large enough to do the maps full justice, even with the best reading glasses. Perhaps the cost was prohibitive but given the quality of the art this well-deserves treatment in a much grander coffee table size edition. Still, despite these quibbles, fans of both cartography and the mysteries of history will find themselves drawn to this fine book.
The phantom island of Bermeja, featured in an 1846 map.
PODCAST … Review of The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, by Edward L. Ayers
When I was growing up in the 1960s, the Civil War was often dubbed a struggle of “brother against brother,” uttered with a smack of wonderment at how it was that a nation united by so many commonalities could have could come apart like that, only one short century prior, taking more than six hundred thousand lives in the process? Then, as the centrality of slavery came to be properly emphasized, both historiography and sentiment shifted. Certainly, there were plenty of families divided by war—perhaps most famously Mary Lincoln’s, whose brothers fought for the Confederacy—but the real division turned out to be geographic and defined more by the South’s “peculiar institution” than habit or climate. Alexis de Tocqueville’s oft-cited anecdotal 1835 comments, in Democracy in America, that sharply characterized the vast cultural gulf that lay between free and slave states on opposite sides of the Ohio River, turned out to reflect a true demarcation that saw two different visions of America evolve within a single nation. Slavery defined the south, even if most southerners were not slaveowners, so that long before secession the south had indeed become another country.
That such conclusions can also be overdrawn was brilliantly demonstrated by historian Edward Ayers in his magnificent 2003 work, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, which surveys the “Great Valley” that stretches north of the Mason-Dixon line to encompass Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and south of it to include Augusta County, Virginia. Slavery was indeed part of the fabric of life in the lower valley in cities like Staunton, Virginia, yet on the eve of the war its citizens still had much more in common than not with denizens of the upper valley in cities like Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which was free soil. Relationships that went well beyond trade flourished in a porous border of communities that shared a largely common identity. Much of Augusta County was old Whig and staunchly Unionist; when the secession crisis was upon them most fiercely resisted calls to leave the Union. But when Virginia joined the Confederacy, those loyalties quickly shifted. Franklin County had little sympathy for what it viewed as the treason of their southern brethren. Men from both sides eagerly—or not so eagerly, depending upon the man—grabbed muskets and rushed off to the killing fields in the name of honor and duty or simply obligation. The war truly tore the Great Valley asunder, and before it was through both sides were littered with death and destruction utterly unimaginable just a few years earlier.
In his latest work, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, Ayers picks up where he left off, taking the saga from the critical turning points of the war that characterized the summer of 1863 to Appomattox and its aftermath, and beyond that through Reconstruction and what was to be its tragic legacy for African Americans. In chapters often bracketed by an italicized overview that puts events in the valley in context with the wider perspective of the war, Ayers narrows the lens to focus upon key individuals emblematic of the struggle on the ground. It is in these human stories that it becomes clear that the noise of cannon fire, calls to glory, and the plaintive cries of the wounded and the dying coming from the valley was actually something of a small-scale version of the greater thunder that echoed across the national landscape in a terrible, bloody conflict that claimed so very many lives before the guns fell silent.
Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley had long been the bread basket for the Confederacy, and its citizens still proudly recalled when Stonewall Jackson made a mockery of three Union armies in its environs in his brilliant Valley Campaign of 1862. But Jackson was dead now, a victim of friendly fire at Chancellorsville, and Federal forces threatened both the farms and the rails that delivered their precious products to grey-clad stomachs. One of the chief motives that took Lee—sans his most famed lieutenant—to Gettysburg was an attempt to divert Union forces to take the pressure off valley farmers and protect cherished crops. Despite his failure there, the valley did win a brief respite, and—to Lincoln’s great chagrin—Lee managed an orderly retreat with a wounded yet still formidable army that was to persist in the field for nearly two full years. In between, the men in Lee’s army were forsworn from the kind of destruction and plunder that they found so abhorrent in the ravages—both real and imagined—visited upon the Shenandoah by the Union, which was universally branded by southerners as uncivilized. The exception was to be the African American, formerly enslaved or just of a matching color, that the Army of Northern Virginia gleefully rounded up and sent south to become chattel. Their version of civilization remained unrattled by such acts of cruelty.
The point has been made that the “total war” of the twentieth century was presaged by the acts of Union forces upon civilians in the Civil War, but that is manifestly overdrawn. Even at its height, as Sherman marched to the sea and Sheridan despoiled the Shenandoah, Grant’s strategic imperative designed to deny the Confederacy foodstuffs and matériel hardly resulted in the slaughter of innocents seen in 1914 and beyond. At the same time, for those who lived through it, it seemed a line had been crossed from an earlier age, even if historians might argue that same line had already been crossed by the British some four-score years prior. There was palpable pain on both sides, even if the south suffered more as the war ground on to its final conclusion. Federal forces indeed quite ruthlessly put farms and factories out of business in the Shenandoah. Earlier restraint eventually gave way, and Confederates mercilessly and without regret retaliated by burning Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in 1864.
Virginia was, of course, the central battleground of the Civil War in the eastern theater, so she had more stories to tell. Many of these stories come from the valley, and some truly tear at the heartstrings:
On [one Virginia] farm, a Union officer ordered a fine mare bridled and led away. When the mare’s colt followed its mother, the farm woman begged them not to take an animal so young that it could be of no use to an army. The officer agreed the animal was useless and simply commanded one of his men to shoot the colt. The woman wept over its body. People remembered these stories for generations. [p240]
But the tear in the reader’s eye for the dead colt and the sobbing woman is quickly washed away and replaced with horror as Ayers recounts another telling episode:
[In Saltville, in 1864,] Confederates, enraged after discovering that they were fighting against black men, killed the wounded African-American soldiers left behind after the failed Union attack. [Diaries of those at the scene reported] … Confederate soldiers … “shooting every wounded negro they could find” [and] that scouts “went all over the field and … sung the death knell of many a poor negro who was unfortunate enough not to be killed yesterday. Our men took no negro prisoners. Great numbers of them were killed yesterday and today…” [General John Breckinridge arrived and] “ordered that the massacre should be stopped. He rode away and—the shooting went on. The men could not be restrained.” The murder continued for six more days, culminating with guerrillas forcing their way into a makeshift hospital at Emory & Henry College and shooting men, black and white, in their beds … A Richmond newspaper printed a tally that showed telling numbers: 150 black Union soldiers had been killed and only 6 wounded, while 106 white soldiers had been killed and 80 wounded. The ratios testified that dozens of wounded African-Americans had been killed …The Richmond paper celebrated the rare Confederate victory over all the “niggers” and Federal troops. [p242-43]
In extremely well-written accounts like these that marry a passionate narrative to solid history aimed at both the scholarly and popular audience, Ayers artfully brings the heartbreaking realities of war in the valley on both sides to our modern doorstep, forbidding us to look away, and compelling us to pick up and cradle the truth of what really transpired.
Of course, as the postwar “Lost Cause” myth took hold, we know now that stories like the dead colt would not only frequently be repeated, but magnified and romanticized, while the slaughter of wounded blacks in Saltville would deliberately be erased. Since most histories of the conflict end at Appomattox or shortly thereafter, readers are denied the painful epilogue of how that came to be so. Here Ayers bucks that trend and keeps going all the way to 1902.
A potent strain in the most recent historiography argues convincingly that while the north claimed military victory, the south ultimately won the Civil War. A week after Lee’s surrender, Lincoln was dead, replaced by Tennessean Andrew Johnson, who welcomed the ex-Confederates who seized political power as the states that had seceded were restored to the Union, while demonstrating little regard for the millions of formerly enslaved African Americans cast adrift in a hostile and economically devastated southern landscape. Despite the efforts of the “Radical Republicans” who controlled Congress to seek justice for blacks through Reconstruction, Johnson dominated events, and blacks found themselves terrorized and murdered by former Confederate elites who would not tolerate steps towards fairness and equality. With emancipation, the former “three-fifths” rule that defined representation was no more, and with millions of blacks now counted as actual persons, newly readmitted states actually gained more political power than they had possessed in the antebellum years. Institutionalized terror kept African Americans from the ballot box and transformed their status into that of second-class citizen, which was hardly challenged in the century to follow.
If the valley was a kind of microcosm of the Civil War in America, by extending his narrative Ayers superbly demonstrates that so too was its unfortunate aftermath for African Americans. The Thin Light of Freedom is an outstanding work on multiple levels, not least in its success in conjuring empathy for all of the victims on both sides, and guiding us to a greater appreciation of how and why the many unresolved elements of that long ago conflict continue to resonate, often uncomfortably, for the United States in the twenty-first century.
NOTE: This review is now available for listening or download as a Podcast:
PODCAST#4 … Review of The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, by Edward L. Ayers
It was late and I was on my way home, rock n’ roll blasting on the car radio. It was the one-week anniversary of our very first apartment together as a couple, so there was a kind of glow around the day. Then the music cut off abruptly and the news broke: John Lennon had been shot. John Lennon was dead. When the tunes resumed, it was all Beatles and Lennon solo stuff. One of the songs was, of course, Imagine. Tears streamed down my face. It was December 8, 1980.
Imagine had been recorded and released in 1971, but as the year 1980 closed out that already felt like fifty years ago. The Vietnam War and Nixon were long gone. The sense of radicalism, of tumult—as well as innovative creative expression in music and the arts—had slipped away, its wake littered with the detritus of cocaine, schlocky pop music, and a kind of national ennui. Most men, including myself, didn’t wear their hair shoulder-length anymore. Almost exactly a month before Lennon’s murder, Ronald Reagan was elected President, leaving many of us far more shaken than stirred.
John Lennon had recently reemerged after a long hiatus from the studio and public life. He was just forty, but he looked much older than that. Double Fantasy—his first album in five years, featuring songs by John and Yoko—was released just three weeks before his death. I personally found it weak and disappointing. But I bought it just days after it hit the record stores—of course—it was music from John Lennon! Lennon had been my favorite Beatle, as well as a kind of personal hero: a peace activist, an iconoclast, a man who found himself trapped by the money and fame and lifestyle that others salivated for, a man willing to throw it all away (well, perhaps not all the money) for the love of his life, avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, even if many of us were puzzled by his obsession with her. It turned out that the sum of its parts that was the Beatles would ever far outshine the solo work of its members, including Lennon, but perhaps his best work was the album Imagine that featured that eponymous song of hope that remains a soft-rock national anthem. John’s murder sent Double Fantasy skyrocketing on the charts, if not to critical acclaim, but Imagine is the real legacy of John Lennon.
Thirty-eight Christmases after Lennon’s assassination, the stark white cover of the beautiful outsize volume Imagine John Yoko emerged beneath festive wrapping paper, a gift from my wife. Compiled by Yoko, but with author credits to John and Yoko Lennon, this gorgeous coffee table edition boasts extensive interviews, black and white photography, liner notes, illustrations, and ephemera, crafted to tell the “definitive inside story” of the making of the Imagine album and film of the same name at their English country mansion estate, Tittenhurst Park.
The spotlight is not only upon John and Yoko, but also on a generous cast of characters, including co-producer Phil Spector, then-giants of the music scene such as George Harrison, Nicky Hopkins and Mike Pinder, as well as lesser-known figures, plus all sorts of production assistants and the often uncredited folks who each play a significant if not always acknowledged role in the final cut of a masterpiece like Imagine. Interview excerpts are not dated; some are contemporary to production, while others look back from decades ahead. Sadly, like Lennon, many have passed on, including Harrison and Hopkins; King Curtis, who sat in on saxophone, was murdered in late summer of that same year. Ironically, Phil Spector and drummer Jim Gordon—of Derek and the Dominos fame—are both in prison serving life sentences for murder. Almost all the rest who are still alive have faded into obscurity. But thumbing through this magnificent book, for a moment it is the early part of 1971 again: John Lennon is just thirty, madly and obsessively in love with the older Yoko Ono, who just as madly and obsessively reciprocates. John has left the Beatles behind, his long collaboration and once-close friendship with Paul McCartney on the rocks, but there is a palpable sense of great promise in what the future holds for John and Yoko.
The very next day after I began perusing Imagine John Yoko—and before it turned into a cover-to-cover read for me—I dug out my old vinyl copy of Imagine and gave it a spin. I had not listened to it in many years and I had forgotten what a truly great album it is. The title track tends to get all the attention, but to my mind Gimme Some Truth is the best song on the record. Other iconic tunes include Crippled Inside, Jealous Guy and I Don’t Want to be a Soldier. Some might argue that none of it lives up to Strawberry Fields Forever or Happiness is a Warm Gun, but there’s little doubt that the collection of songs on Imagine is outstanding and certainly Lennon’s best post-Beatles work. It was re-listening to the album after all this time that led me to carefully read, rather than skim, the entire book. Along the way, I also screened the Blu-ray DVD that contains the full length “rockumentary” film Imagine, replete with innovative music videos from the Imagine album as well as selections from Yoko’s Fly album, as well as a companion “making-of-Imagine” film entitled Gimme Some Truth. Icing on the cake includes cameos from Andy Warhol, Fred Astaire, Dick Cavett and Jack Palance. I highly recommend these audio-visual companions to the book to help to make it come to life in all its brilliance once more.
The highlight of the book and the film is John in the “White Room” at Tittenhurst recording Imagine, singing and playing on the all-white Steinway grand piano that he gave to Yoko for her birthday that year, while Yoko slowly opens a series of white shutters to let light stream in. At the end, Yoko is seated beside John at the piano, and they exchange looks that reflect such a degree of genuine mutual love and affection and admiration that that one single moment serves to validate the entire project. The combined experience of immersing myself in the book, the album and the films made me not only come to better appreciate the superlative achievement of Imagine, but also the integral role that Yoko represented as artist and inspiration throughout. Like much of the public, back in the day I found it difficult to grasp John’s utter infatuation with Yoko, but the testimony of so many in this book underscores Yoko’s essential piece in the creation of this masterpiece. At the same time, listening to her vocals on portions of the Imagine film have yet to convince me that she has talent as a singer. Still, Yoko was clearly full partner to Imagine, not some assistant. It would never have been if not for her presence in John’s life.
One of my favorite bits in the book and in the Gimme Some Truth film feature Claudio, a Vietnam Vet suffering from PTSD, who was found to be living for some days in the woods at Tittenhurst. Claudio had become convinced that John was communicating with him through his lyrics. Disheveled and confused, he is brought before John, who tells him that “I’m just a guy who writes songs,” and patiently explains to an obviously crestfallen Claudio that the lyrics have nothing to do with him. There is a brief pause, and then John, with much empathy, asks: “Are you hungry?” John then brings him in and feeds him at his table. Claudio was both disturbed and obsessed with John Lennon, and the recounting of this episode made me wonder how things might have turned out differently if John had managed to similarly engage someone else who was disturbed and obsessed with him—Mark David Chapman—before it was too late.
On the final pages of Imagine John Yoko, they each speak to us. There’s an excerpt from an interview with John saying of he and Yoko that “We’d like to be remembered as the Romeo and Juliet of the 1970s.” When asked if he had a picture of “When I’m 64,” John replied:
“I hope we’re a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland or something like that—looking at our scrapbook of madness. My ultimate goal is for Yoko and I to be happy and try and make other people happy through our happiness. I’d like everyone to remember us with a smile . . . The whole of life is a preparation for death. I’m not worried about dying. When we go, we’d like to leave behind a better place.” [p298]
Those days of turning scrapbook pages were, sadly, not to be. As a fan, as a reviewer, I would urge you to buy this book and to read it, but it is not for me but rather for Yoko to deliver the coda, of course:
“It was such an incredible loss when I think about it . . . See, most people think, ‘Well, he’s a rocker and just kind of rough, maybe,’ but no. At home he was a very gentle person and extremely concerned about me but also concerned about the world too. I still miss him, especially now because the world is not quite right and everybody seems to be suffering. And if he was here it would have been different, I think. I think that in many ways John was a simple Liverpool man right to the end. He was a chameleon, a bit of a chauvinist, but so human. In our fourteen years together he never stopped trying to improve himself from within. We were best friends. To me, he is still alive. Death alone doesn’t extinguish a flame and a spirit like John.” [p298]
The Founders sought a separation of powers in war-making, as in so much else of consequence to the new Republic, so the Constitution mandated that only Congress may declare war, while assigning to the President of the United States authority as commander in chief of the armed forces. A history of European monarchs engaging in war by fiat informed this caution in limiting the ability of the executive branch to act without the consent of the legislative. Yet, although the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war was in 1942 (against Axis-allied Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria), the United States has waged a number of significant wars—in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—as well as dozens of other military interventions—like those in the Dominican Republic, Granada and Panama—with little more than vague and somewhat flimsy congressional authorizations, or no authorization at all. By October 2018, the War in Afghanistan had gone on for seventeen years, more than four times the length of the Civil War or U.S. involvement in World War II, making it not only our longest war, but—as characterized by historian and retired-colonel Andrew Bacevich—a kind of “endless war.” In Afghanistan, as in every other instance of the use of military force since World War II, war has had its origin in the White House, and a succession of presidents has conducted it with Congress as bystander.
How we ended up here, clearly at wide variance from the intentions of the Framers, is the subject of Presidents of War, an ambitious, uneven, and deeply flawed recent book by Michael Beschloss. The premise is simple. Starting with the War of 1812 and James Madison, a couple of chapters are devoted to each major conflict and the POTUS most closely associated with it, with an eye on precedents set as well as the unintended consequences that seem to have bolstered the confidence of successive chief executives to make war by misleading, bypassing or simply ignoring Congress. I have read Beschloss before. He is a leading historian of the modern American presidency, a gifted writer who has authored or edited a number of books in this milieu, and he often appears as media commentator. So, it is surprising that someone with his resume and talents would turn out a thick volume like this beset with a wordy and meandering narrative that falls so far short of its potential.
For one thing, there is a jarring lack of uniformity in the seventeen chapters in Presidents of War. Indeed, this is so striking that some of these chapters almost appear to have been penned by different authors. This may be because, as revealed in the “Acknowledgements,” the book was written over a ten-year span, begetting a distinct style and focus shift. The inconsistency might be less glaring if read as separate essays rather than assembled into a single work that purports to tell a cohesive story. It is also plagued by far-too-frequent asterisked footnotes populated with further clarification or “fun facts,” in the maddening tradition of a David Foster Wallace. The saving grace, if there is one, is that Beschloss has an engaging writing style that is appealing to a popular audience, and the narrative is heavy on anecdote, which frequently carries the reader along.
The first three chapters—centered around the War of 1812—are styled completely differently than the ones that follow. (We can only imagine that these were the first ones written, a decade prior.) More academic in orientation than the rest of the book and sometimes marred by dull passages that too often fall to quotation in the florid prose of the era—which unnecessarily interrupts the flow—this portion of the book is yet far more focused and coherent, as well as loyal to thesis and theme. The otherwise brilliant James Madison—who like his predecessor and frequent partner Thomas Jefferson proved a far more able Founder than president—along with a complicit Congress stumbled into a war against a much more powerful adversary, then bumbled its prosecution. Elected in 1800 as a Democratic-Republican, Jefferson—with Madison’s assistance—had vastly reduced the armed forces and begun dismantling the fiscal policies that were the legacy of Hamilton and the Federalists, so that by 1812 the United States was woefully unprepared both militarily and financially to take on the United Kingdom, itself engaged in an existential struggle against Napoleonic France. Grandiose plans to annex Canada ended with Washington D.C. in flames and Madison fleeing for his life. The nation survived largely because once Napoleon was vanquished, the Brits were weary of combat and eager to resume trade.
Beschloss covers the war competently, then—in a pattern repeated with subsequent conflicts—dedicates a few concluding pages to analysis that seeks to pass judgment on the achievements and shortcomings of the president who conducted it. This framework reveals the challenge of abridging the story of a consequential war to a couple of chapters, as the author is forced to be highly selective with what to include and what to omit. For instance, Beschloss devotes a number of pages to the Chesapeake–Leopard affair of 1807, which saw the humiliating capture of the American frigate Chesapeake by a British warship searching for deserters from the Royal Navy, spawning a lasting bitterness that poisoned Anglo-American relations and echoed down to the run-up of the War of 1812. Much color is added to the narrative with the backstory of the hapless captain of the Chesapeake, James Barron, who is unfairly held to account for the disaster. The multi-page tale of Barron’s disgrace adds flair, but nevertheless begs the question: how essential is it to the larger story? And what has been excised to make room for it? Unimportant to the casual reader, these questions will repeatedly nag those more widely read in the historiography in the chapters ahead.
Perhaps the best of these chapters is given to the Mexican War, launched and prosecuted by President James K. Polk on a deliberately manufactured pretext with a secret, nefarious scheme to annex a third of the territory of our southern neighbor, which succeeds all too well. The morally bankrupt Polk was nevertheless the most consequential one term president in American history. The aftermath of the Mexican War and the question of whether the newly acquired territories should be slave or free was the match that lit the secession crisis, although little is made of that in the narrative. The Civil War chapters that follow neatly summarize the latest scholarship, but there is nothing new here. More entertaining for the general reader is coverage of the Spanish-American War of 1898, sustained by much anecdote, especially with regard to another unlucky ship’s captain, this time in Havana harbor.
While Beschloss faithfully underscores how presidents looked to the wartime experiences of their predecessors in the Oval Office for both caution and guidance, what is most conspicuous in its absence is the connective tissue that binds one era to the next. The best example of this is his treatment of Wilson and World War I. The nation’s isolationism and Wilson’s reluctance to enter the war against Germany, even after the many American lives lost to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, did not occur in a vacuum, but was informed by relatively recent history. The Spanish-American War had achieved great territorial gains for a budding American imperialism in a very popular short war with limited loss of life, but sparked a long, bloody rebellion in the Philippines that by the time it was brutally suppressed had largely turned the nation against foreign adventures. And—almost exactly a year before the Lusitania went down—Wilson had blundered into military intervention in Mexico that went sideways, forcing him to pull back and reassess. These events are mentioned in passing, but Beschloss fails to emphasize the critical impact both the Philippine Insurrection and the incursion into Mexico had upon the nation and upon Wilson in contemplation of American involvement in an increasingly catastrophic European war.
The book’s approach to Franklin Roosevelt and World War II is quite curious. FDR is generally ranked as America’s third greatest president—after Lincoln and Washington—but that heroic figure is largely absent from the text of Presidents of War. Beschloss glosses over much of Roosevelt’s achievements in shepherding the nation through economic depression and world war, but instead devotes most of his ink to the president’s faults: his failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the less-than-robust efforts to rescue European Jewry from Hitler’s executioners. While there is indeed some merit to the reproach, for this to dominate the emphasis is a distortion of the outsize role FDR played in American life. And, given that emphasis, it was no less than stunning to confront the stark incongruity of the author’s final analysis, that the “President deserves the verdict of the New York Times … that ‘men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House,’” adding that: “It is difficult to imagine any other American leader of that generation guiding, with such success, a resistant nation toward intervention and ultimate victory in this most momentous of history’s wars, as well as taking Americans into a postwar assembly that would strive to enforce the peace.” [p432]
Beschloss wraps up WWII in just a few pages following FDR’s death, although the defeat of Japan remained uncertain and it was for the new president—Harry Truman—to face the critical atomic option that brought hostilities to the end, something only treated peripherally in the narrative. The next chapters concern Korea, but remarkably there is a complete lack of analysis of how Truman’s role as commander in chief in the final months of WWII and his decision to use the bomb may have informed his leadership in the Korean War.
Then it is on to Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson. Beschloss has studied LBJ closely, serving as editor to two volumes of Johnson’s White House Tapes (Taking Charge and Reaching for Glory, both of which I have read). And although he cites LBJ biographer Robert Caro (who has written four volumes on Johnson’s life to date, which I have also read), he ignores Caro’s thesis that the vast portion of Lyndon Johnson was given to political opportunism. Instead, the author seems to take every sentence privately uttered by LBJ about Vietnam at face value, even though these often smack of the height of calculation clearly designed to cultivate a specific audience. Eventually, Beschloss even goes so far as to conclude that: “To this day it is difficult to understand how this bighearted man could have brought himself to send young Americans to risk their lives in a conflict … he … seemed to have so little hope.” [p528] This analysis strikes the reader as the height of political naiveté. Strangely, although the war long outlasts Johnson, the next commander in chief—Richard Nixon—only gets a bit part in the narrative.
Then, except for a brief (six pages!) “Epilogue,” Presidents of War ends abruptly. Without explanation, there is no study of Bush, father or son, nor the Gulf War, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Maybe Beschloss was simply tired and ran out of steam. Perhaps his editor told him that at nearly six hundred pages enough was enough. Again, the informed reader cannot help but question the author’s decisions on what to include and what to discard. Can anyone really competently cover the Civil War in eighty-four pages, or World War II in seventy-five pages? In the end, there were many pages that seemed unnecessary, and yet so much that begged for further study. In addition to the absence of a strong concluding chapter, it might have been a welcome juxtaposition to have included a section on presidents who achieved foreign policy objectives without resorting to full-scale war, such as Eisenhower, and especially JFK—who during his crisis-driven tenure managed to circumvent pressures upon him to go to war over Laos, Berlin and the missiles in Cuba. Perhaps it was simply a mistake to imagine such a grand overview confined to a single book: adding a second volume may have resulted in a work more thorough and less unwieldy.
Michael Beschloss is an outstanding historian with credentials that far exceed my own, so I must admit discomfort in judging his book so harshly. Still, I have a master’s degree in history, and I have spent a lifetime studying American history and American presidents, so this is hardly unfamiliar territory for me. In the final analysis, Presidents of War may be an entertaining read for a popular audience, but as solid history it largely misses the mark.
NOTE: This review is now available for listening or download as a Podcast:
PODCAST#1 … Review of “Presidents of War,” by Michael Beschloss
The fifty-five years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated has seen his standing rise considerably among both historians and the general public, even putting him into the top ten on some lists, which is remarkable for a man who served such a brief tenure—only 1,036 days—as President, yet is less surprising perhaps when juxtaposed with his successors, whom he certainly surpassed by most metrics. At the same time, his legacy remains tarnished by his reckless philandering, as well as his oft-cited failure to fully embrace the moral imperative of Civil Rights as the critical domestic cause of his era. Five years after his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King—the central figure in that cause—also fell victim to an assassin’s bullet. While likewise dogged in some quarters by his own flaws as a womanizer, King could be said to have transcended Kennedy in death by achieving an iconic status. JFK’s visage appears on a fifty-cent piece nobody uses, while King can boast both a national holiday and an inextricable identification with pivotal African American achievement in the Civil Rights arena. If not completely forgotten, long overlooked is the fact that the paths of these outsize figures of 1960s America not only crossed on several occasions but overlapped with some significance. Their complicated relationship and its consequential impact upon American history has been brilliantly captured by Washington Post nonfiction editor Steven Levingston in Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights.
On the face of it, Kennedy and King had virtually nothing in common. Kennedy was the Massachusetts scion of wealth and privilege, a war hero who had become President of the United States, arguably the most powerful man on the planet. King was a Baptist minister and activist from Georgia, an African American born into a permanent racial underclass—which meant a status that was harshly and often brutally defined in the American south—who assumed an increasingly central role in the leadership of the Civil Rights movement. But there were indeed commonalities. Both were handsome, charismatic figures with natural leadership qualities strengthened by conviction but tempered by a strong sense of the achievable, and validated by remarkable personal courage: King was frequently roughed up and jailed, which he bore with great equanimity; when his PT boat was lost in the Pacific in World War II, Kennedy swam three and a half miles over a four hour stretch towing a badly injured crewman to safety with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth. Both men were highly educated, cultivated intellects with superlative written and rhetorical skills. Each were centrist figures subjected to frequent attacks from their flanks. King was pressured to go slower by more conservative blacks unnerved by the hostility and violence the Civil Rights movement provoked, while also subjected to ridicule as a celebrity with few real achievements for the wider community by African Americans becoming increasingly radicalized by that very hostility and violence unleashed by white politicians and police upon helpless protesters sworn to King’s vision of nonviolent protest. Kennedy was ever beset by attacks from his political left and right, sometimes mocked for showing “more profile than courage”—in a jab at the title of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage—as he navigated a tumultuous crisis-driven tenure dominated by pressing foreign exigencies.
Preoccupied with Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s brinksmanship and a Cold War that grew increasingly hotter by the moment, JFK dodged Civil Rights as a domestic distraction that he could not afford to dwell upon. Unlike Eisenhower, his immediate predecessor, racism was not a part of his DNA, but neither did he view Civil Rights as the great moral crusade of his time. Sensitive to demands for black equality and frustrated by southern intransigence in this regard, he nevertheless framed the struggle in legalistic rather than ethical terms.
By all rights, Jack Kennedy should have been more sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, still marginalized by endemic racial prejudice a century after emancipation, and frequently subjected to beatings and lynching in much of the South if they dared to challenge the status quo. After all, both of Kennedy’s grandfathers were Irish Catholic immigrants in Boston in the late antebellum era at a time when the Irish were the most despised demographic in America, so much so that the nativist Know-Nothing Party swept the Massachusetts state legislature and the governor’s office with overheated rhetoric aimed at the almost apocalyptic threat posed by the “dirty Irish.” But times change; one of those grandfathers went on become a two-term mayor of Boston. And Jack’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had his revenge on those who would shun him by becoming a millionaire. The older Kennedy boys experienced some bullying based on their ethnicity growing up, but were mostly insulated by their father’s wealth and position. Hatred of the Irish faded, but their Catholicism remained a social obstacle; JFK barely edged out lingering religious bigotry to win the presidency in 1960. Interestingly, it was Robert Kennedy—brother, Attorney General, and closest advisor to the President—who saw social acceptance of African Americans over time through this lens, even with prescience suggesting that a black man could obtain the White House in decades to come. Ironically, Martin Luther King also had a white Irish grandfather . . .
Kennedy and King first crossed paths with a tangential yet pivotal telephone call of sympathy and support that then-candidate Kennedy made to King’s pregnant wife on the eve of the presidential election, while King was jailed for his part in a protest, his fate uncertain. There was inevitably some political calculation in this—JFK was a master politician—as he lobbied for black voters in the north who tended to favor his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon. But there was more, as well: Kennedy was struck by the unfairness of King’s treatment, and there was indeed a greater risk of alienating the solidly segregationist Democratic South by reaching out to King’s family, which is why the call was opposed by nearly every member of his campaign. That phone call was to be historic, and in that narrow race black votes may have been crucial to the outcome.
In an outstanding narrative, Levingston charts how that call, lasting less than ninety seconds, served as foundation to an uneasy relationship that often had the two men dancing around rather than with each other on the national stage, each sensitive to the other’s position but often disappointed that one would not follow where the other sought to lead. Yet, as the author deftly demonstrates, Kennedy evolved in Civil Rights as he evolved in nearly every arena. Some have suggested that JFK was dragged kicking and screaming to stand with a cause that was righteous and belated. While there may be some merit to that point of view, it lacks the appropriate nuance and complexity and context that is neatly enriched by Levingston’s analysis. Kennedy did, at root, care about black oppression, but he would have preferred to postpone the fight, at least until after his 1964 reelection, when he would no longer have to risk retaliation at the ballot box by white Southern Democrats. Of course, neither Dr. King nor rival African American leaders were willing to wait any further for long overdue justice. Moreover, as Levingston reports, there was a good deal of jockeying behind the scenes that JFK does not often receive credit for, much of it spearheaded by Robert Kennedy, who hardly could have acted without his brother’s blessing and encouragement. Also noteworthy is that perhaps more blacks were welcomed to the Kennedy White House for both business and social occasions than at any time since Lincoln was President. JFK may be accused of taking baby steps, but these were giant leaps compared to those who came before him, especially Eisenhower, who did virtually nothing to advance African American equality during his eight years in office.
In the end, as detailed in a chapter entitled with a Kennedy quote—“It Often Helps Me to be Pushed”—the President did step up to the bully pulpit and champion the cause with a televised speech to the nation, reminding the audience that America “was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” And there was a new commitment to Civil Rights legislation. During the subsequent March on Washington in which King delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, African American White House doorman Preston Bruce, who was with the President, recalled that “an emotional John Kennedy gripped the windowsill so firmly his knuckles blanched. ‘Oh Bruce,’ he told the doorman, ‘I wish I was out there with them.’”
There is some irony that JFK walked a similar razor’s edge with his slow embrace of Civil Rights that Lincoln did with emancipation a century before, and his legacy—like Lincoln’s—has suffered for it. And, often unacknowledged, both men had their reasons. For Lincoln, it was the Civil War that posed an existential threat to the nation’s survival; he abhorred slavery, but would let it be if he could save the Union. For Kennedy, it was perhaps an even greater menace, that of nuclear annihilation, that forced JFK’s focus away from other competing issues. Like Lincoln, Kennedy was ever cognizant of principle while never losing sight of the possible. There is much to suggest that had he lived to command a second term in the White House, John F. Kennedy would have earned the praise for advancing African American equality that his untimely death denied him.
I have read numerous books about John Kennedy, an exceedingly complex character who lived his public and personal life in definitive compartments. The man and the myth are often commingled, distorting both what was and what we would like to remember. While hardly as critical or iconic to our nation’s destiny as Jefferson or Lincoln, like those two giants of American history JFK was not only brilliant but both principled and malleable. Moreover, like Jefferson he could be a mass of self-contradiction, a political acrobat poised upon opposite sides of a single issue. And like Lincoln he was forever evolving—ever “becoming,” in the parlance of Teilhard de Chardin—a new and better version of himself, until the day came, like Lincoln before him, that a bullet forever stilled that process.
Imagine the frustration of reading a novel of nearly seven hundred pages by one of your favorite authors to find it not only unfulfilling but just terrible? That was my experience with Killing Commendatore, the latest work from Haruki Murakami. (Fair warning: spoilers ahead!)
To say that I am a Murakami fan is an understatement: I have read every one of his many novels and short story collections—Murakami is a prolific writer—and I have reviewed a host of them. I no longer read a good deal of fiction, but when someone comes to me for a literary recommendation, I usually rave about Murakami. I cannot say that I have loved everything he has written, but I hold much of it in very high regard. My favorites are those where he blends magical realism with his superb writing style—akin to the literary subgenre made famous by Gabriel Garcia Marquez—to create iconic novels of extraordinary brilliance like Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and 1Q84. And while I tend to have less interest in the more grounded, tragi-comic romantic efforts like Norwegian Wood that first won him international fame, I still credit these as fine books. Murakami can be frustrating: many of his novels end with plot lines and characters suspended, maddeningly unresolved. But few authors leave the reader with so much to think about after the cover is closed, even if so much is left up in the air. Killing Commendatore—unfortunately—left me with little more than a bad taste in my mouth.
It doesn’t start off that way. The unnamed thirty-something male protagonist is a docile introvert right out of Murakami central casting, a passive fellow who generally lets life happen to him—until, that is, his wife abruptly ends their relationship with little explanation, with pronounced echoes of the character and plot of a Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Unlike similar Murakami protagonists though, this guy doesn’t just sit around contemplating his naval, listening to classical music and reading (at least not right away!), but instead he gets angry—angry enough to give up his livelihood as a successful commercial artist specializing in portrait painting and hop in his car for a long aimless road trip. Doing something—rather than simply enduring his fate—is a fairly dramatic change of pace for a Murakami male.
Eventually, he ends up housesitting at the secluded mountaintop home of a famous artist—now elderly and suffering from Alzheimer’s, bedridden in a medical facility—who happens to be the father of an old friend grateful to have someone there to keep an eye on the place. Determined to return to his roots of doing art for art’s sake rather than the dull commercial painting he pursued for years, he welcomes the splendid isolation here, where it is so remote—we are supposed to believe—that radio, television, internet and even cell phone service are completely out of reach, leaving only a single landline to communicate with the outside world. But the house has a strange feel to it, somewhat akin to the “Dolphin Hotel” made famous in Murakami’s early novels, A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance; the kind of vague sense of eeriness that pervades a locale conjured up by Stephen King.
Exploring, he comes upon a horned owl living in the attic alongside a painting that has been wrapped in paper and secreted there, no doubt by the renowned artist who lived here before he was institutionalized. Unwrapped, it turns out to be a scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, depicting the killing of the character “Il Commendatore,” but incongruously set in seventh-century Japan and painted in a traditional Japanese style. Hence the novel’s title: Killing Commendatore. Then things start to get really weird: in the middle of the night, our main character begins to hear inexplicable sounds of a bell ringing beneath the ground near an old shrine out back. Meanwhile, his life takes another strange turn as he is pressed to accept a commission to paint yet one more portrait, this time for an affluent yet enigmatic neighbor named Menshiki, who sports a shock of pure white hair and lives in a nearby mansion. The offer is so substantial that he cannot turn it down. Menshiki seems odd, even somewhat menacing, but the two nevertheless develop a kind of friendship, which comes in handy when Menshiki puts his wealth and resources to bear to chase down the recurring subterranean knell, bringing in a crew and heavy machinery to excavate the mound behind the shrine and revealing a stone chamber with high walls and a perfectly preserved ancient bell, although absent the mysterious bell-ringer. The tantalizing whiff of the supernatural that emanates from that episode is nothing compared to what is to follow, when sometime later our protagonist is confronted by a walking, talking two-foot tall version of the Commendatore, clad just as depicted in the painting in seventh-century garb and carrying a tiny sword! All of this, more or less—and there actually is quite a bit more—marks just the beginning of the novel, and we are on page two-hundred-thirty-eight!
Lots of tantalizing material here that … well … meanders for several hundred more pages and quite frankly goes nowhere, or at least nowhere of much interest. Plenty of tensions build and dissipate. There are moments of great suspense—some that even verge on terror—that simply fizzle. Characters appear to be not who they seem to be … but maybe they really are after all? There are pages upon pages upon pages of narrative and dialogue that smack of the clue-laden and suggestive, but ultimately turn out to be just pages and pages and pages that add even greater complexity to an already overly complicated plot that tends to act as a burden on the handful of rather superficial characters that people the novel. Sadly, after nearly seven hundred pages of twists and turns, the reader is left with little more than a profound sense of disappointment.
There are indeed some familiar echoes of Murakami themes here—the passive main character spends hours alone listening to classical music, the stone chamber behind the shrine is reminiscent of the bottom of the well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and there is even homage to the author’s well-known fetish for women’s ears—but it is nonetheless clear that the novelist seeks to break new ground here. This is most evident in the somewhat frank descriptions of sexual acts, conspicuously absent from earlier works. Those who have read Murakami know that sex is treated with perfunctorily when it is treated with at all. This changes with Killing Commendatore, however, from the main character’s random tryst with an anonymous stranger he encounters on the road—who violently couples with him while demanding that he slap and choke her—to various episodes with other women in the course of the novel. But while the sex described is indeed more graphic, the author fails to hit the high notes of eroticism; all of it rings of more of the documentary than the decadent. It is clear that Murakami remains awkward around sexuality, if only in his choice of terminology: no matter how much heat you add to an afternoon delight, “vagina” still sounds more anatomical than erogenous. And awkward verges on the creepy with the character of Mariye Akikawa, a precocious teenage girl who seems to channel May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and who may or may not be Menshiki’s love child. But Mariye is only thirteen years old, and the far too frequent references to her as “beautiful” coupled with discussions of her developing breasts lean sharply to the uncomfortable. The author seems to palpably leer at Mariye through the eyes of the protagonist, which because of her youth made this reader recoil.
But even in familiar territory, there are stumbles and wrong turns. In his fiction, Murakami’s brand of magical realism is often over the top—Kafka on the Shore features a forgotten village in the forest where time has stopped circa 1965, and in 1Q84 there is an alternate reality version of the Earth that has two moons in its orbit—yet it always seems to make sense within the context of the respective novel. In contrast, the little Commendatore that steps out of the painting here strikes the reader as more cartoonish than surreal. Suspending disbelief is a critical mechanism for any novel that challenges reality, and even without two-foot tall men with swords walking around it is difficult to buy into the notion that there could be a contemporary location in a modern nation like Japan that is fully stuck in a 1990 communications time-warp. The ability of his main character to simply “Google” something that he questions must have been a plot roadblock for the author that he dealt with by simply inventing a locale out of reach of the web; readers remain unconvinced. Worst of all, the writing—always Murakami’s strongest suit—tends to the pedestrian here. My email signatures have frequently featured quotes from Murakami fiction; in my estimation, there is virtually nothing in Killing Commendatore worth quoting. Long passages are given to stultifying dialogue. Rarely are there more than two people in the same room, and they are usually engaged in long conversations that seem not only forced but unconvincing. And—perhaps responding to criticism that his novels leave so many loose ends—this time around Murakami ties nearly all of these up, although the various resolutions and explanations are not only unsatisfying but irritating because they strain—and largely fail—to ring true. The whole novel has the feel of a low budget B-grade horror flick with a handful of actors, ominous moments and looming terror that never quite gets off the ground.
Prior to this, my least favorite Murakami novel was Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which struck me as dull and uninspiring. But this novel is much worse. Despite this, Haruki Murakami remains one of the finest novelists of the twenty-first century. My advice: skip Killing Commendatore; there are plenty of other Murakami novels that are worth the time to read and cherish—just not this one . . .
“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone,” President John F. Kennedy famously remarked with his characteristic wit and charm the night of April 29, 1962 when he hosted a remarkable gathering of forty-nine Nobel Prize winners and assorted writers, artists, scientists and intellects. More than fifty-six years later—and nearly fifty-five years since JFK was murdered—it seems almost impossible to believe that the America of that era and the White House of that evening ever existed. That is less because of the presence or absence of Kennedy—both the mythical icon and the admirable yet flawed man who walked the earth—than it is because of us, of what we have become. That dinner was symbolic of a time when science and expertise and the arts were respected, even cherished, and that in itself is a cruel juxtaposition to our own moment when as a nation we embrace charlatans and blatantly celebrate ignorance.
It is the mark of a great historian to locate a single moment in time containing an outsize if overlooked significance and focus a narrow lens upon it; it is the mark of a great author to transform that snapshot into a full-length portrait that is at once interesting, informative, and even inspiring. With Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, Joseph A. Esposito demonstrates that he is worthy of both superlatives. In one slim but dense volume, Esposito artfully weaves together the collective stories of the notables who attended, of the young President, just a bit more than a year into his term, of the elegant and beautiful First Lady, of the staff behind the scenes, of the event and its import, and even the architecture and décor of the twin event venues, the State Dining Room and Blue Room in the White House. The attendees were what we would in contemporary idiom dub the “rockstars” of their fields in their day, and looking back it seems fully extraordinary that such a gathering ever really took place with all of them actually in one place at the same time.
Dinner in Camelot opens with a peculiar scene that is highly significant as a reflection of the United States of America, then and now: hours before dinner was served, one of the most famous guests, Linus Pauling—Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry and peace activist—joined a passionate crowd outside picketing the White House to lobby for a nuclear test ban treaty. Later that evening, in the receiving line, the First Lady chided Pauling for upsetting their daughter Caroline with his protest. The President was hardly thrilled with Pauling’s agitation either, although he mostly kept it to himself, but it is striking that Pauling was nevertheless welcomed to the dinner and treated with the appropriate respect due to a man of his stature. No one questioned his right to be part of that demonstration. Another eminent scientist in attendance that evening was J. Robert Oppenheimer, known popularly as the “father of the atomic bomb,” who had gone on from his great accomplishments to have his security clearance revoked as he fell victim to the excesses of McCarthyism. This dinner was the first step back on the road to his rehabilitation. Oddly enough, Pauling and Oppenheimer had once been very close friends, but had a falling out years earlier when the latter made a clumsy play for Pauling’s stunning wife. Among scientists, however, the real “rockstar” that night would have been astronaut John Glenn, who just two months before had become the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn was seated at Jackie Kennedy’s table that evening.
Spouses were not seated together at this dinner. The foreward to Dinner in Camelot was written by poet and writer Rose Styron, who sat a different table that evening from her husband, William Styron, who was not yet the celebrated novelist he was to later become. But there were plenty of authentic literary legends in attendance, including Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, power couple Lionel and Diana Trilling, and especially the iconic eighty-eight-year-old poet Robert Frost, who was not only seated at the President’s table that night but was among a select group invited to an after-dinner gathering at the Kennedy’s private quarters. Also at JFK’s table was Mary Hemingway, widow of Ernest Hemingway, who had committed suicide only nine months before. The noted actor Frederic March presented some of Papa’s unpublished work after dinner. Both Pearl Buck and Mary Hemingway took issue with aspects of Kennedy’s foreign policy, but only Mary spoke up, gently challenging the President on Cuba.
Another literary figure at the dinner was African American author James Baldwin. Kennedy has often been criticized for not moving fast enough on Civil Rights, and while there may be some merit to that reproach, at the same time it should be noted how radical it was to a Southern audience in 1962 for a black man to break bread at the same table with white men and especially white women, this at a pivotal moment with steam gathering in the national struggle for Civil Rights and its widespread resistance by a stubbornly segregationist and solidly Democratic South—at a White House dinner hosted by no less than the President of the United States, who was a Democrat himself! When Booker T. Washington dined with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, the national outrage in its aftermath was so extreme that while T.R. defended the invitation he never repeated it; it was nearly thirty years before another black person was welcomed for dinner at the White House. In addition to Baldwin, African American diplomat and Nobel winner Ralphe Bunche was also a prominent guest that evening. The President was ever mindful of political realities and the road to re-election in ’64, but for the first time since Lincoln sat across from Frederick Douglass, the front door to the White House was truly open to African American guests.
If we are going to apply the term “rockstar” in its twenty-first century parlance, then the real “rockstar” was John F. Kennedy, the young, handsome, articulate President who was in the spring of 1962 still slowly finding his way. 1961 had not gone well for him. He had pushed the button on a hare-brained Cuba scheme inherited from his predecessor that turned into the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A subsequent summit with the mercurial Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had left him beaten and bruised. Acquiescence to the construction of the Berlin Wall made Kennedy seem to many like an irresolute leader, although in retrospect it said more about the weakness of the Soviet system rather than the strength of the American one. No matter. Obstacles like these were not about to serve as roadblocks for a guy ever in ill-health who nonetheless schemed to get past the “4F” he had earned to gain naval command in World War II, who after his PT boat was sunk put raw courage and ingenuity to work to save his crew, including a harrowing four hour long, three-and-a-half mile swim to an island refuge while towing a badly injured crewman with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth. Kennedy had a brilliant mind and a visceral sense of the world, and he learned well on the job. Perhaps his greatest challenge, the Cuban Missile Crisis, was six months ahead of him when he sat down with that incredible array of intellectual superstars that evening, but when that chilling time was upon him, he proved to be ready for it. Few who were alive during Kennedy’s brief tenure doubt that had he lived, much of what was to follow in American history after Dallas would have gone very, very differently. The night of the Nobel dinner, no one could have guessed that the charming, vibrant Kennedy had just a year and a half left on this earth. But that evening, he was the host of this amazing gathering of giants, and he too was a giant among them, whether he or any of his guests could have imagined that at that time.
We all know that the “Camelot” in the book’s title—the name the grieving widow gave to the press for the Kennedy White House shortly after it was forever taken from us—was a myth, a tearful hyperbole, an imaginary glory. But was it? Was it really? Because we know now that the President had many affairs, that the President had many flaws, that the President made many mistakes … But … has there ever been a White House like the Kennedy White House? Could any of his successors have hosted a dinner like that? Probably not. But the truth is, since that date, no one has.
The beauty of this wonderful book is that it is a collection of many different kinds of stories that all happen to coalesce on this one evening, at this White House, at this particular moment in American history. When we look back on JFK there is always a sense of a promise unfulfilled, but this dinner is an example of a real promise for America that was fulfilled; of a moment of real greatness when science and literature and the arts were not simply tolerated but embraced. What would Jack Kennedy—indeed what would any of the most notable of the attendees of that dinner—make of the current climate of the nation today … of the current occupant of the White House? Dinner in Camelot is not only a celebration of what once was, but a stinging rebuke of what currently is. I urge you to read this magnificent book as a means to both celebrate a past that has been lost to us and to inspire us to seek a future that better resembles that emblem of the past than the unfortunate specter of the present.
[Dinner for Nobel Prize Winners. Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson, Pearl Buck, President Kennedy, Mrs.Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert Frost, others. East Room, White House on April 29, 1962. Photo courtesy of Robert Knudsen, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository]
NOTE: This review is also available as a podcast:
PODCAST#3 … Review of Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, by Joseph A. Esposito
One of my favored methods for exploring United States history is through the biographies of American presidents, which often provide a critical lens to their respective eras. I have read books on some eighteen of the forty-four men who have held that office to date, and my personal library contains volumes for all of them. More than once I have entertained the notion of reading them in chronological order, but each attempt stumbled on James Madison, number four on the list. One of the most prominent figures of the early Republic—a celebrated Founder who long before he was Chief Executive was renowned as “Father of the Constitution,” key author of the Federalist Papers, member of Congress, partner to Jefferson in creating the first political party, Secretary of State, and so much more—Madison has largely defied biographers because despite his distinguished achievements his elusive personality has somehow mostly been lost to history. We know so much about him, but so little of him. Thus, most attempts at biography drape enormous scholarship over a somewhat colorless outline of the man, and the final product tends to the dull and uninspiring, hardly doing justice to one of the greatest figures of his day.
Fortunately, David O. Stewart has come along with Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America, a fresh and unique approach that relies upon key interactions with those whom Madison worked most closely with to sketch in many otherwise obscure contours of a fascinating if somewhat enigmatic character. Madison was physically tiny, and some have sought to cleverly contrast his diminutive size by casting him as a giant of a statesman, but it might be more accurate to instead emphasize his outsize role in the shadows of more flamboyant figures. That is the tack Stewart takes here by examining what we can learn about James Madison from his critical relationships with four other significant Founders—Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson and Monroe—and with his own wife, Dolley. In the process, Stewart crafts an episodic, well-written narrative that also serves as a kind of standalone history of key events in the early Republic.
Madison’s work with Hamilton as they teamed up as chief authors of the Federalist Papers and framers of the new Constitution—one that deeply alarmed those who jealously guarded state sovereignty—is a familiar story. Also much chronicled has been Madison’s long association with fellow-Virginian Jefferson, one that gained strength as they privately connived to turn “faction”—which was widely disparaged as odious—into a legitimate political party. The product of their collaboration was the (first) Republican Party (also known as the Democratic-Republican Party), which was to supplant the rival Federalists identified with Washington, Adams and Hamilton, and go on to dominate the nation’s political landscape for three decades to come.
Less studied but perhaps no less relevant was the close relationship Madison formed with Washington, as speechwriter, advisor and trusted confidante. Alas, this rapport was not to last, as Madison went off to serve in the nation’s first Congress, and Washington spent much of the first several years of his tenure contending with the bitter rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson, key cabinet members who represented two competing views of the role the federal government should play in the life of the new Republic. Madison stood on both sides of many of these issues, at least initially, but over time he was to align ever more in lockstep with Jefferson and thus increasingly in enmity with Hamilton, eventually alienating Washington by extension. One cannot help but wonder at alternative outcomes had Madison been part of that first cabinet rather than serving as legislator outside of Washington’s direct orbit.
Madison’s relationship with Monroe, another fellow Virginian and slightly younger contemporary, was in many ways far more complicated. Monroe—proud, ultrasensitive, and less cerebral than Madison or the others—was nevertheless a gifted negotiator and strong leader. Sometime rivals, what turned out to be a long association managed to survive strains and even fractures. It is in their on-again off-again alliance that Madison’s willingness to cede center-stage to those seeking the spotlight while nevertheless quietly and skillfully directing the action behind the scenes is made most evident. It was not that Madison was unambitious—he hardly could have achieved offices like Secretary of State or President if that was the case—but unlike many of his peers he did not wear this ambition as a badge, but was content to sidestep the jockeying for recognition that so obsessed the others, while he brilliantly if unobtrusively maneuvered for influence and power. Stewart’s portrait of Madison ever engaged in partnerships is not simply a narrative device; Madison genuinely thrived in these relationships. It may be that Madison has eluded us for so long largely because his other biographers have overlooked the centrality of this key ingredient.
As Madison’s Gift reveals, his “partnership” with Dolley was no less consequential than with those other notables. Madison was middle-aged when he met and married the much younger and taller winsome widow who was to forever define the role that would later be dubbed “First Lady.” It is only through her that we can better discern the man behind the curtain, who was apparently in the semi-privacy of his extended family quite playful and romantic, given to wine, a wicked sense humor, and even foot races. Stewart shares a delightful anecdote in which “Dolley, who was ‘stronger as well as larger than he,’ sometimes ‘could – and did – seize his hands, draw him upon her back, and go round the room with him.’” Finally, a palpable glimpse of the flesh-and-blood Madison that once walked the earth!
Stewart plainly admires his subject, but this is no hagiography; slaveowner Madison gets no pass from the author in this regard. The scholarly consensus is that by far the greatest flaw of the Founders was their collective failure to address the institution of human chattel slavery, which led directly to the Civil War that was to cost more than six hundred thousand American lives, and Madison was more than complicit in this later catastrophe. The once much-heralded three-fifths compromise that counted enslaved human beings as partial people for the purposes of representation was a cheat that evaded the existential crisis ahead. The Founding generation was evidently deeply disturbed by the contradictions in their own cries for liberty and equality when juxtaposed with what they themselves clearly acknowledged as an immense evil. We have ample evidence of these great men—Patrick Henry, Washington, Jefferson and indeed Madison—decrying slavery while failing to combat it. The striking ambivalence is perhaps best articulated in Jefferson’s famous “wolf by the ear” analogy that sounds more like an excuse than a rationale. For the sake of his own legacy, Washington had the good fortune to die before the eighteenth century expired while manumitting his slaves in his will. Jefferson and Madison lived on with their human property to bob-and-weave intellectually, while toying with African colonization schemes, and ever making excuses against abolition. Indeed, later in life Madison actually went on record blaming abolitionists for spawning crises rather than slaveowners for enabling a morally abhorrent system that hardly shielded them from the ever-looming debt and bankruptcy that the planter aristocracy rode upon.
Madison’s Gift revisits the elderly statesman’s final public role as representative to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829 that also featured other ancient stand-ins from the early days of the Republic such as John Marshall and Monroe. The revered Madison appeared anachronistically clad in eighteenth-century attire in what turned out to be an epic failure to address slavery, representation, and a more equitable expansion of the franchise. He also lived through the Virginia House of Delegates sessions of 1831-32 that debated abolition, but was not a participant. [Each of these grand missed opportunities is covered in great detail in Susan Dunn’s magnificent Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia.]
When Madison died in 1836, he had outlived nearly everyone of significance of his era (Aaron Burr passed only a few months later), but this great issue of human bondage lingered. Only twenty-five years later, the Republic was ripped asunder over it. To make matters worse, Jefferson’s cries during the crisis over the Alien & Sedition Acts that a state might resist federal laws—a notion Madison seemed to echo, with a pronounced nuance others overlooked—regained a stubborn currency in the march to secession. With a tragic irony, the great Madison, who had done so much to make and give polish to the new nation, left behind sharp edges for another generation to fashion into weapons wielded to sever and unmake it.
I first encountered the Stewart in his earlier work, Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, which introduced a brilliant new perspective that unsettled established historiography. This accomplishment is made even more impressive by the fact that the author is not a trained historian, but an attorney! That this achievement was no fluke is powerfully demonstrated in Madison’s Gift, a superb contribution to history and biography that significantly furthers our interpretation of the figures that peopled the early Republic. And, thanks to Stewart, I can check off Madison and resume my chronological challenge: now it’s on to Monroe!
I can think of no greater example of cognitive dissonance than my recent experience of alternating between reading a biography of James Madison by David O. Stewart, and Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, a jarring snapshot of the current Chief Executive. Woodward’s episodic study makes manifestly clear that Donald Trump is a singular figure. That there has indeed never been an American Presidency like this one. That even the genius of a Madison as he crafted the Constitution could never have foreseen a moment like this in the life of the Republic. And one more thing: it is far worse than we ever could have imagined.
Full disclosure: I am not and have never been a Trump supporter. But I am also wary of the media frenzy that has attended this President, of the hyperbole that it has (at least in part) spawned, and especially of the dangers of confirmation bias. As such, I refused to read Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the much-celebrated expose of the administration that was reportedly as frequently long on bombshells as it was short on substantiation. It used to be said of the Greek historian Herodotus—whose grand opus was a blend of history and hearsay—that if what Herodotus said wasn’t true, then it should be. Clever that may be, yet hardly a basis for sound historiography. But Herodotus’s intellectual heir was Thucydides, and he was far more careful with his own account. If Wolff can be faulted for straying to the sloppy, as Herodotus sometimes did, the same cannot be alleged of Bob Woodward—the former Washington Post journalist who played a pivotal role in uncovering the Watergate scandal, and has since written detailed studies of multiple Presidents and their administrations. If there is a Thucydides to chronicle the modern American President, it is Bob Woodward.
Much of what might be termed the most “sensational” material from Fear went public prior to its publication date, and much of that either corroborated what was already out there—yes then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did refer to the President out loud as a moron, just as earlier reported—or confirmed what we suspected: a largely emasculated John Kelly serves as something more akin to Trump’s personal Maître D’ than he does White House Chief of Staff. One nugget from Fear has a frustrated Kelly—who once described the President as “unhinged”—exclaiming: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown.” Elsewhere, Secretary of Defense James Mattis confides to associates that Trump “acted like—and had the understanding of—a fifth or sixth grader.”
But by far the most disturbing episode from Fear that went public pre-release was the account of how then-Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn—alarmed that Trump was about to sign a document ending a key trade agreement with South Korea that also dove-tailed with a security arrangement that would alert us to North Korean nuclear adventurism—simply stole the document off the President’s desk! Apparently, the President never missed it … It turns out that Cohn frequently partnered with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to rein in Trump’s wilder impulses.
All of this would be disturbing enough coming from the pen of Bob Woodward if it was not chillingly underscored by an anonymous Op-Ed by a senior administration official published by the New York Times a week before the book was released that sought to reassure the nation that there were indeed steadier hands behind the scenes keeping a close eye on the President so he didn’t actually pilot the circus train off the tracks into an abyss. This was greeted by equal parts of howls of rage or gushes of praise for the unknown author—depending on whether your pitchfork tilted to the right or the left—but reassurance was decidedly absent. Trumpster cries of “fake news” notwithstanding, it confirmed that Woodward was indeed on to something.
Fear covers approximately the first fifteen months of the Trump Administration, and is based upon hundreds of hours of what Woodward terms “multiple deep background interviews with firsthand sources,” who remain unnamed. Critics wield the reliance on these unnamed sources as an assault weapon on Woodward’s credibility, but the author’s approach—supported by both meticulous notes and recorded sessions—have a long history, and little of significance in his reporting has not withstood careful scrutiny. And claims of a partisan axe to grind hardly stand up given the way prior Woodward books have (at times) unfavorably portrayed both the G.W. Bush and the Obama administrations. Moreover, as Fear went to press, Woodward released both the audio and a written transcript of a telephone conversation with the President, who claimed to regret missing out on a one-on-one with Woodward while feebly claiming he had no idea such an interview had been sought. There is no guarantee that Woodward’s sources aren’t lying, but we can reliably count on the fact that Woodward is reliably reporting what he has been told.
For those who have yet to read Fear, it should be noted that since much of the highlights have already appeared in the press in some detail, it may not be worth investing the time—unless you are a political junkie like this reviewer, in which case that time will certainly be well spent! And there are valuable insights. Steve Bannon turns out to not only be the chief kingmaker of Donald Trump, but a kind of de facto kingpin himself, at least in the early formative months of the administration, a nearly anonymous disheveled bundle of alt-right venom whose whisper was often the most welcome to the President’s ear. While perhaps it would be difficult for anyone to successfully serve under this President, none of his “big guns”—Tillerson, Mattis, Priebus, Kelly, Masterson—seem to have the kinds of skill-sets that would find a real measure of success in any administration. Essentially—and perhaps not unsurprisingly to anyone who has been paying attention—even his best people are not the best people.
If there are heroes in the pages of Fear, one of them is Cohn, a brilliant figure out of Wall Street who understands that American status as an economic and military superpower not only benefits but is critically dependent upon the global integration of its trade agreements and defense alliances. In Woodward’s narrative, when he is not hijacking documents from Trump’s desk before the dear leader can jeopardize our national security, he is fighting a largely losing battle against the prevailing forces of isolationism and protectionism in the regressive “America First” nationalism heralded by Bannon and one of Trump’s most lackluster lackies, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. In a blow to the nation, Cohn eventually gives up and goes home. The other is Rob Porter, who along with Cohn comes off as the most rational and pragmatic member of the team. He seems to have figured out early on that the President ever verges on the volatile and the unbalanced, and he deftly redirects him to curb his worst tendencies. Those of us who rejoiced when Porter lost his job amid reports of spousal abuse discovered born-again unintended regret when we learned what a responsible moderating force he was on the Chief Executive. With Cohn and Porter gone, only the weakest links remain.
All metaphors of reliability aside, from a literary standpoint Woodward is no Thucydides. In fact—and this is nothing new for those of you who have read his previous books—he is a fairly mediocre writer who offers almost nothing in the way of analysis. He may be a prolific and award-winning author with an outsize reputation, but his roots as a Washington Post reporter still define his style. Like a kind of Joe Friday of journalism, he conducts his interviews seeking only the facts, ma’am, and the copy sometimes varies from pedestrian to boilerplate; his narratives frequently read like police reports. But in the end, of course, that only adds yet another layer to his credibility. Some may be surprised that there are so few references in Fear to the Bob Mueller Russia investigation that has so upended the Trump Presidency, or may wonder why other issues that have dominated national discourse are entirely absent from the book. The reason is that Woodward only reports what insiders tell him. Thus, there is plenty conspicuous in its absence, but still more than plenty to ponder, for better and for worse.
It is difficult to put a final punctuation mark upon this review because it is so seamlessly integrated into current events. In the course of just a few weeks since I read the book, the news cycle has included reports that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein may once have urged recourse to the 25th Amendment to remove the President; President Trump delivered a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that was greeted by a chorus of laughter; the President conducted a bizarre press conference that was so outrageous even by Trump standards that it verged on the deranged; and, a new salacious tell-all book by porn star Stormy Daniels has been released that describes the President’s genitalia—all of this against the backdrop of the chaotic hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, accused of a sex crime, who may have only been selected by Trump in the first place because he has gone on record that a sitting President cannot be indicted. You simply cannot make this stuff up …
For precisely that reason, thus far Trump has resisted satire. Saturday Night Live, Andy Borowitz, TheOnion—all have struggled to stay funny and relevant. This is because political comedy is predicated upon exaggeration, upon the kind of hyperbole that Trump defies because in this case comedy is too close to home, too reflective of real life. It cannot be funny if it is true. The Trump Administration often seems like a cross between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Mel Brook’s Springtime for Hitler. But at the end of the day—with thousands of immigrant children seized from their parents being moved to tent cities in the desert in the cover of darkness as this review goes to press—it is not so funny at all. The title of Woodward’s book is derived from an earlier interview by Woodward with candidate Trump in the first months of 2016. “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear,” Donald Trump said then. Woodward’s book only further underscores what should be obvious to every concerned American: we should be afraid, very afraid.