Review of: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, by James Comey

I once overheard someone snarkily characterize former FBI Director James Comey as a “mentally-challenged Boy Scout,” which roughly translates into a backhanded praise for A Higher Loyaltyhis integrity that in the same breath harshly condemns his judgment. Some might argue that Comey wrote A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership—which is all at once a memoir, a testimonial, and a jeremiad against Trumpworld—in an attempt to prove that statement true.

Poor James Comey: a man with a lifetime of service to the nation in increasingly responsible roles, who frequently stepped in and around and through political boundaries without taint, finds himself now a disgraced outsider vilified by both ends of the political spectrum, for—of course—starkly different reasons. As he made the talk-show rounds coinciding with the book release, and pundits chewed over excerpts that styled Trump as akin to a Mafia Don, Comey was not unexpectedly subjected to every ridiculous calumny from the right, branded a “liar and a leaker,” and preposterously sketched as a clandestine Democratic mole seeking to further the interests of—of all people—Hillary Clinton! The left, on the other hand, welcomed the message but not the messenger, and the author saw himself roundly reviled not only for his outsize ego but for what was seen as embarrassing pot shots at Trump’s physical appearance that would otherwise rouse guffaws with the same audience if uttered by Bill Maher or John Oliver—or just about anyone except James Comey.  It seems that Comey has left a lingering bad taste in the mouth of most Democrats, many who hold him at least partially responsible—with perhaps good reason—for the devastating election results. James Comey has found himself as a kind of man without a country.

Any decent autobiography written these days would have to include at least a dose of self-deprecatory remarks (with the exception of something written by Trump himself, of course, a man unfamiliar with authentic self-examination), but in A Higher Loyalty Comey makes a religion out of this tack, sparing the reader absolutely no detail of every case—at least in his formative years—when he failed to measure up to his own ideals.  When as a boy, he and his brother are held at gun point by a home invader (who might or might not be an infamous serial rapist targeting their older sister) it is Comey who is paralyzed with fear, while his younger brother urges pursuit of their captor after he flees. In school, Comey—not yet the intimidating 6’8” giant a growth spurt later grants him—is often bullied. The reader waits in vain for that epic moment in fictional narratives when the harried victim finds the courage to confront the bully; in this case that moment never arrives. Later, as he grows stronger and more confident, he brags about his uncertain athletic prowess and finds himself acting abusive to the weaker and less confident of his schoolmates, the classic case of the bullied transformed into the bully. Looking back, he expresses shame at his behavior.

These episodes make painful reading, especially since Comey is not a very good writer. In fact, much of his book reads like it was penned by someone proficient in composing dull FBI reports and legal briefs who has just recently taken a creative writing course. But there is little doubt that these raw confessions of his own shortfalls certainly burnish his reputation for honesty and integrity.  Let’s face it: only a true Boy Scout would ever willingly reveal stories like this about his own life.

Comey does find his courage later, in somewhat remarkable circumstances. But first he went on to a distinguished legal career with highlights that included a stint working for the showboating Rudy Giuliani prosecuting the Mafia in high-profile cases, a role as deputy special counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee, and as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, where he served as lead prosecutor for the securities fraud case against Martha Stewart. Comey pauses in the narrative, by the way, to make the point that it was lying to an FBI agent and obstruction of justice that landed Stewart a jail sentence rather than a slap on the wrist, something he urges the reader to dwell upon.

Comey’s moment comes while serving as Deputy Attorney General in the post-911 administration of George W. Bush, with an NSA domestic surveillance program sanctioning warrantless searches code-named “Stellar Wind” that was based upon dubious legal grounds. Comey’s opposition to the program found few friendly ears within the administration. With Bush’s blessing—seemingly anything was permissible in the so-called “War on Terror”—Vice President Dick Cheney led the charge to ride roughshod over concerns of the Justice Department and renew Stellar Wind. At a critical juncture, Attorney General John Ashcroft collapsed with a medical emergency. In a dramatic scene that might have been plucked out of a modern reboot of a Frank Capra flick, Comey rushed to Ashcroft’s hospital bed just in time to intercept White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who arrived to pressure the stricken Ashcroft to sign off on the program’s renewal. Comey’s intervention saved the day and Stellar Wind was not reauthorized.

Comey had another opportunity to make an impact upon policy, this time with his opposition to torture, euphemistically rebranded as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Comey clearly objected on both moral and legal grounds, but was unsuccessful in converting key officials to his point of view. He also found himself even more of an outsider now that Ashcroft had been replaced by Gonzales as the new Attorney General, and he eventually left government service. The reader, impressed by his principled stand, cannot help but be disappointed by his failure to protest louder and to a wider audience. On the other hand, Comey relates both of these episodes with the same kind of “Just the facts, ma’am,” dispassion as Joe Friday on Dragnet, never pausing to pat himself on the back for standing up and voicing his objections—even to the President of the United States—which again underscores his commitment to integrity.  It also reminds the reader that in retrospect, Trump had no idea who he was dealing with.

After eight years in the private sector, Comey admits that he was caught by surprise when President Obama nominated him to head the FBI. Privately, he identified as Republican, had served the Bush Administration, and had not voted for Obama. In July 2013, with strong bipartisan support, he was confirmed near-unanimously by the Senate to a full ten-year term as FBI Director. As Comey reveals, he more than once found himself surprisingly humbled by the grace, candor and humility of Obama, even when called into the Oval Office because he was on the opposite side of the President on the issue of police-mandated bodycams, in the wake of a national epidemic of shooting deaths of African Americans by law enforcement.  As he tells it, rather than scolding him for his public remarks, Obama calmly tried to persuade him to examine another perspective. It remains understated in the narrative, but there is a clear implication that Comey holds Obama up as the model for Chief Executive, far more favorably than Bush—and certainly Trump. The episode with the bodycams, however, also points to what comes to be a series of misjudgments by Comey when speaking out publicly on issues that the FBI Director should have known would spark controversy. It also suggests an awkward tendency to seek the spotlight precisely at the most inopportune moments.

Most Americans never heard of James Comey until the day that—following a year-long investigation into Hillary Clinton’s alleged improper use of a personal email server while Secretary of State—he took the unprecedented step of publicly announcing an FBI recommendation to the Department of Justice. With the cameras whirring, Comey advised against an indictment, arguing that “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case,” while yet editorializing that Clinton’s behavior was “extremely careless.” Comey’s conclusion—but more specifically his approach, which included what many viewed as gratuitous remarks—sowed further division in an already highly charged and politically polarized environment, and left a cloud over Clinton’s orbit that she could never outpace. That cloud darkened considerably when just a week before the election—in perhaps the most bombshell “October surprise” in American political history—Comey announced that the investigation would be reopened based upon newly uncovered emails on former congressman Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Although Clinton was officially cleared by Comey two days before Election Day, enough damage was done for many analysts—and the candidate herself—to conclude that Comey’s action tipped the scales to deliver a surprise win to Donald Trump. In the book, Comey painstakingly revisits his decision-making process, and pronounces his course of action in each instance—which many would deem at best naïve, and at worst reckless—as the most appropriate alternative under the circumstances.  Others might reckon this Boy Scout falling far short of any merit badge for sound judgment.

Only a small slice of A Higher Loyalty is devoted to Comey’s brief tenure with Trump, who treats him as a lackey and demands a loyalty of a different sort. Given Comey’s candor thus far, and the fact that there is nothing substantial to contradict his version of events in any other venue, there is no reason to suspect Comey is being less than honest about what occurred in his private meetings with President Trump, although once more judgement—or lack thereof—is brought into focus. Clearly, Comey—suspicious of the President’s motives and skeptical of his intentions—was deeply uncomfortable sitting down with Trump absent witnesses, yet he went forward on more than one occasion, despite his misgivings. To his credit, he does ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions to block further one-on-one interactions. Out of context, Comey’s mob metaphors might seem to verge on hyperbole, but when he describes his specific interactions with the President, it is fully understandable that the man who was once integral to the prosecution of the New York Gambino crime family would note disturbing parallels sitting across the table from a man like Trump, who seems unconcerned with national interests while instead consumed with his own. And the reader cringes as Comey recounts how the President repeatedly brings up—and vehemently denies—unsubstantiated reports that he participated in “water sports” with Moscow hookers.

After much soul-searching, Comey may have given himself a pass for his public actions on the Clinton email investigation, but he hardly rested easy with its implications, confessing in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3, 2017 that “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election.”  This was apparently a final straw for Trump—already furious that Comey would not commit to drop an investigation into fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, nor publicly absolve Trump of Russian collusion in the election—who dismissed him a week later in a flamboyant move that included the public humiliation of learning that he was fired from TV screens flickering behind his audience while addressing agents at the Los Angeles Field Office. The President then went so far as to chastise Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for daring to permit Comey to fly home on government aircraft. (McCabe himself was also later fired, on the very eve of his retirement.)

Whatever cruel pleasure the President may have derived from his game show orchestration of Comey’s termination must have been short-lived. Trump’s own admission in a televised interview that he fired Comey because he would not let go of the Russia investigation only cemented suspicions of all but the most committed of the President’s disciples that there was in fact a real “there” there, prompting the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, himself a Trump-appointee. A full year of administration attempts to discredit Comey, Mueller and even Rosenstein has failed to derail the investigation, which has proved dogged and leak-proof.

There has been much buzz about Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s freewheeling account of the Trump White House that has been embraced by the left, even though the author has admitted to playing fast and loose with some of his facts.  Wolff’s book may be more entertaining and—as has been said of Herodotus—if it’s not all true, it should be. But Comey’s book, which is often dull and is marred by poor writing, is nevertheless the more important read. For all of the many flaws—of both the author and his book—A Higher Loyalty is a testament to an old-fashioned commitment to truth and integrity that, while hardly glamorous, used to be something we Americans cared deeply for.  I read it because I wanted to be convinced that Comey was telling the truth. I find myself convinced.  Comey no doubt sits waiting for Mueller’s final report to vindicate him. And whether the President likes it or not, much of America waits with him.

 

Review of: At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl, edited by Inge Jens

“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

At the Heart of the White RoseThose were the courageous and inspiring last words of Sophie Scholl, an idealistic twenty-one-year-old former kindergarten teacher who was executed by guillotine on February 22, 1943 for her part in distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at a Munich university. Her twenty-four-year-old brother Hans, a medic recently returned from the Russian front—who along with Sophie and a small circle of other young German intellectuals styled themselves members of the “White Rose” resistance—met the same fate that day. His final words were more succinct, perhaps less poetic than hers, but no less bold. Before he died, Hans said simply: “Long live freedom!”

It is often painful to read the contents of At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl, edited by Inge Jens, because we know how the story ends.  But their twin stories are no less beautiful to experience through this collection of letters and random diary entries that cover several years leading up to their untimely deaths. While there are sometimes coded remarks, especially in the later period, that more starkly acknowledge their moral revulsion to pain, death, the war, and the atrocities committed in the name of the Nazi regime that filter back to them—as well as their shared responsibility to somehow counter that panoply of wickedness—much of the collection barely references politics or the greater issues and events of the time. Instead, there is an emphasis upon a shared love of art, literature and music, nature and the outdoors, intellectual musings on philosophy, and an increasingly fervent embrace of religious faith to counter the problem of evil in the world.

The Scholl family—not only Hans and Sophie, but another brother and two sisters—were cultured, well-educated, well-read, raised in a climate loyal to liberal democracy, nurtured by their father, a former major, who himself was jailed for referring to Hitler as “a scourge of God.” Hans and Sophie wrote in an era when literate people tended to write much more frequently and more copiously than is common in a twenty-first century replete with email and messaging.  Letters were everything. Most of this volume contains the letters that Hans and Sophie wrote to others; we are not privy here to those received in return.  They each wrote to their parents and their siblings. Hans wrote to his girlfriend Rose Nagle, and to friends back home. Sophie wrote to her oldest friend, Lisa, as well as, most poignantly, to her boyfriend Fritz Hartnagel, a soldier on the Russian front who became disillusioned by the Nazi atrocities he witnessed and fell more deeply under the spell of Sophie’s commitment to a moral center, despite the barbarity that colored their world.

Hans, a handsome iconoclast scolded by officers for wearing his hair longer than customary, plainly chafed at the kind of “order” stereotypical to German youth in the Hitler era. It is clear that his sense of duty was far less to the Fuhrer than to the mangled wounded and frostbitten unfortunates—German and Russian—that fell under his care. Likewise, Sophie—mandated for a time to perform factory service behind the lines—had far more compassion for the Russian women compelled to work at her side, and for faraway victims of Nazi aggression, than loyalty to the war effort. The quality of their collective prose is nothing less than superlative. Hans’s words are striking and impressive, anchored to an intellectual tradition, firm in conviction, articulate in expression.  Yet it is Sophie, wittier than Hans, plainer in appearance, highly artistic, deeply spiritual, and consumed by the beauty of nature despite the ugliness that intrudes upon her, who truly captivates the reader. As Richard Gilman observes in the Preface: “Although one’s admiration for Hans never falters, it’s Sophie who breaks your heart.” [p.xi]

There is much more that could be said about Hans and Sophie, but the primary duty of the reviewer should be to let their own voices be heard.  Here’s one from Hans:

I’m not dejected and distracted at heart, truly not. On the contrary, I can see positive values in the midst of a world of brutal negation … As for a world of illusion, I don’t give a damn for it. None of this implies a morose attitude toward others. Far from it. I try to see them as they are and make an equable impression on them, and I don’t shrink from the vilest stench or the muddiest color. They exist. Shadows exist for the sake of light, but light takes precedence. [Hans, in a letter to Rose Nagle, August 12, 1941, p.169]

And one from Sophie:

Now I’m delighting once more in the last rays of the sun and marveling at the incredible beauty of all that wasn’t created by man: the red dahlias beside the white garden gate, the tall, solemn fir trees, the tremulous, gold-draped birches whose gleaming trunks stand out against all the green and russet foliage, and the golden sunshine that intensifies the colors of each individual object, unlike the blazing summer sun, which overpowers anything else that tries to stir. It’s all so wonderfully beautiful here that I have no idea what kind of emotion my speechless heart should develop for it, because it’s too immature to take pure pleasure in it.  It merely marvels and contents itself with wonder and enchantment. Isn’t it mysterious—and frightening, too, when one doesn’t know the reason—that everything should be so beautiful in spite of the terrible things that are happening? My sheer delight in all things beautiful has been invaded by … an inkling of the creator … That’s why man alone can be ugly, because he has the free will to disassociate himself from this song of praise. Nowadays one is often tempted to believe that he’ll drown the song with gunfire and curses and blasphemy. But it dawned on me last spring that he can’t, and I’ll try to take the winning side. [Sophie, in a letter to her friend Lisa, October 10, 1942, p.275-76]

Another from Hans:

The mail I get here is very irregular. I really sympathize with the Gestapo, having to decipher all those different handwritings, some of which are highly illegible, but that’s what they’re paid to do, and duty is duty, gentlemen, isn’t it! … Another batch [of casualties] arrived here yesterday from Russia …  The demands on us differ from those involved in opening other people’s letters and prying around in them. I wonder if those gentlemen would be as courageous if they had to slit open dressings sodden with pus and stinking to high heaven? It might upset them, I fear. [Hans, in a letter to his parents, March 18, 1942, p.217]

And a final one from Sophie:

I’ve never, ever believed that anyone thinks it is good for a weak country to be attacked by a powerful army. Even the worst of men … won’t regard that as a good thing. The supremacy of brute force always implies that the spirit has been destroyed or at least banished from view … Oh, those lazy thinkers with their sloppy notions of life and death! Only life engenders life, or have they seen a dead woman give birth to a child? Or what about a stone, which can’t be denied a semblance of life, since it exists and has a fate of its own—have they ever seen one reproduce itself? They’ve never reflected on the absurdity of the proposition that only death engenders life, and their urge for self-preservation will lead to their self-destruction. [Sophie, in a letter to Fritz Hartnagel, October 28, 1942, p.278]

The writing quality reflected in these excerpts is typical of much of the collection. Knowing their fates, I more than once found tears in my eyes as I turned the pages, especially when I was touched by poor, doomed Sophie’s irrepressible optimism. Full disclosure: I inadvertently obtained At the Heart of the White Rose through an early reviewer’s program because I carelessly skimmed the description. I expected to receive a history of the “White Rose” movement, rather than some three hundred pages of primary sources. Still, bound to a strong obligation to read and review books that come to me via this program, I persevered. The hours I spent alone with Hans and Sophie made me so very grateful that I did.

While the German resistance movement was tiny, and the efforts of the Scholls and the White Rose hardly resulted in a single Nazi military setback, their struggle manifested an outsize moral victory. So substantial, in fact, that the final White Rose leaflet was smuggled out and millions of copies of it were dropped by Allied planes over Germany in July 1943, just months after Hans and Sophie went to the guillotine. Hans and Sophie remain martyrs to a universal cause that still resonates today, particularly in these dark times in the United States and across the globe, where the forces of tyranny seem to have reassembled once more with a chilling vigor.

Hans and Sophie were betrayed while distributing White Rose leaflets by a janitor at the university, an act that sent them to their deaths. I know nothing of this janitor in real life, but I can’t help imagining him much like some miserable, disaffected middle-aged fellow standing in the back of a populist rally here, wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap, casting hatred and suspicion at those who are not like him, whom he holds responsible for his every failure.  One passage from the leaflet that cost Hans and Sophie their lives proclaimed the critical importance of the principles of “Freedom of speech, freedom of religion and protection of the individual citizen from the arbitrary action of criminal dictator-states.”  In honor of Hans and Sophie Scholl, let’s make certain their sacrifice and those principles are never forgotten. Especially today.

Review of: Gilgamesh: A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell

“The Oldest Story in the World” is the apt subtitle to the “Introduction” of Gilgamesh: A New English Version, Stephen Mitchell’s bold interpretation and commentary on The Epic Gilgameshof Gilgamesh. Archaeology has revealed that the eponymous Gilgamesh was an actual historic king of the Mesopotamian city state Uruk circa 2750 BCE, who later became the stuff of heroic legend. The earliest record of the five poems that form the heart of the epic were carved into Sumerian clay tablets that date back to 2100 BCE.  It is indeed civilization’s oldest literary work! Because a portion of the epic recounts a flood narrative nearly identical to the one reported in Genesis, it is also the earliest reference to the Near East flood myth held in common by the later Abrahamic religions.

Gilgamesh is an episodic story, first of friendship, then of tragic loss, and finally of a quest for immortality that while ultimately unsuccessful is nevertheless instructive. When the epic opens, Gilgamesh is the great king of Uruk, partially divine yet mortal, but a cruel overlord. The gods create a wild man called Enkidu who is essentially Gilgamesh’s alter ego. Gilgamesh and Enkidu clash at first, but then reconcile and become friends that are so close they share the kind of homoerotic male bond of the beloved similar to that of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, as well as David and Jonathan in the Old Testament. Eventually, the two set out on a heroic quest to defeat and kill the monster Humbaba, whom the gods put in place to guard the forest.  They succeed, but in his death Humbaba curses them, which leads to the death of Enkidu. Much like Homer’s Achilles, Gilgamesh is inconsolable at the death of his friend, but rather than rage he sets out on a quest for immortality so that he will not have to one day himself face Enkidu’s fate. It is on this journey that he encounters Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian Noah who has survived the great flood and was rewarded by the gods with an immortality that is unfortunately not available to Gilgamesh.  The hero does manage to get ahold of a plant that will forestall aging, but on his way back to Uruk he loses it through carelessness to a snake, who spirits it away. As with Eve’s apple, serpents here too are vehicles for disaster.

Since there are several surviving versions of what was to become the combined epic—and because the author freely admits that he cannot read Akkadian cuneiform—Mitchell deliberately dubs this a “version” rather than a translation. His approach was to instead read multiple translations of all of the extant versions as a foundation for his own unique retelling with the intention of, as he puts it: “To re-create the ancient epic, as a contemporary poem, in the parallel universe of the English language.” [p7] Absent the expertise to judge it as a scholar might, nevertheless as a reader I felt that he has succeeded masterfully with a superb literary achievement that flows beautifully and speaks to the soul of the epic despite the distance of some four millennia to its antiquity.

But Mitchell accomplishes something else even more extraordinary with his commentary on the epic, which occupies the first third of the volume. Rather than annotations that might threaten to disrupt the rhythm of the epic itself, he first devotes some sixty pages to deconstruct the narrative and put it in proper context for the contemporary reader unfamiliar with arcane references to the ancient Mesopotamian milieu essential to a greater comprehension of Gilgamesh. Without this long introduction, I do not believe I could have appreciated my subsequent reading of the actual epic.

I am no stranger to Mitchell, famous for his often-unique translations of ancient texts.  I recently read (and reviewed*) his quirky modern translation of The Iliad, which left me with mixed feelings. But then, I had read The Iliad twice before in different translations, and I have a strong familiarity with ancient Greek history and culture, something I am decidedly lacking when it comes to Gilgamesh and its roots in Sumerian and Babylonian literature. In his translation of The Iliad, Mitchell excised “Book Ten,” because there is some dispute as to whether it was really belonged to Homer. Similarly, in Gilgamesh, Mitchell omits “Tablet 12” because it too may not properly belong with the epic. I have some objection to the author’s decision with The Iliad; I lack credentials to rule one way or the other with Gilgamesh.

Like most people, I suppose, my prior experience with the Epic of Gilgamesh lays entirely with the snippets I read back in grade school that left little impression upon me. I do not know what other versions or translations of the epic might have to offer, but I not only thoroughly enjoyed Mitchell’s outstanding effort, but I feel buoyed by having gained an appreciation for a remarkable work of literature that is a creature of the very dawn of our culture.  For the uninitiated, I highly recommend picking up Mitchell’s book and reading it through. I guarantee that you will not regret it.

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* Review of: The Iliad, by Homer, translated by Stephen Mitchell https://regarp.com/2017/09/03/review-of-the-iliad-by-homer-translated-by-stephen-mitchell/

 

Review of: The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, by Douglas R. Egerton

One of the sessions that I sat in on when I attended the American Historical Association (AHA) Annual Meeting in D.C. in January 2018 was entitled “The Struggle to Commemorate Reconstruction in National Parks,” which featured former Secretary of Wars of Reconstructionthe Interior Bruce Babbitt, as well as a number of noted historians. Panelists observed that while there are more than seventy NPS parks focused on the Civil War, there were none that explored the war’s critical aftermath until January 2017 when—in one of his final acts before leaving office—President Obama issued a proclamation that designated a site in Beaufort County, S.C. as the first National Park Service unit dedicated to the story of Reconstruction.

Perhaps no period in American history has been so utterly erased or misremembered as the Reconstruction era, that decade after the Civil War when the federal government sought to ensure that millions of African Americans, most of them former slaves, could enjoy basic civil and political rights.  Just as “Lost Cause” mythology long disguised the centrality of slavery as the cause for the Civil War, supplanted by a false narrative of States’ Rights, so too did it invent a fiction of an occupied postwar south given to dangerous excess, exploited by rapacious northern “carpetbaggers,” in league with venal local “scalawags,” and hapless illiterate blacks manipulated to do their bidding and trample the rights of their former masters.  That all of this is nonsense has made it a no less tenacious feature of American popular memory.

The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, by Douglas R. Egerton, is a welcome addition to recent scholarship that has put the appropriate lie to these false narratives while recovering the often-heroic stories of African Americans and their white allies seeking to advance the cause of freedman against the frequent violence and brutality meted out by ex-Confederates seeking to reassert white supremacy. In the tradition of Eric Foner, whose magisterial Reconstruction: America’s Unfished Revolution 1863-1877, was among the first to expose the falsity of long-accepted interpretation, Egerton—professor of history at LeMoyne College—has crafted a well-written treatment of a pivotal era that has long languished from lack of attention and yet remains so critical to our understanding of how race continues to impact the American experience.

As a child growing up during the lunch counter boycotts and back-of-the-bus banishments of the Civil Rights era, with scenes splashed across my television set of unarmed marchers beaten by police and beset upon by dogs and water cannon, I had no idea that Alabama—where Governor George Wallace proclaimed, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and a church bombing by white supremacists took the lives of four young children—had sent former slave Benjamin S. Turner to Congress in the 1870s. Nor did I know that Mississippi, infamous for the 1964 abduction and murder of civil rights workers, once had no less than two black United States Senators. How was that possible? What had happened?  Egerton’s fine book is an excellent one-volume survey of a dramatic time of enormous hope for African Americans that proved to be all too brief, ultimately postponing efforts at equality for another century.

Reconstruction—which meant different things to different audiences at the time—was fraught with failure from the very beginning. Perhaps it only really had any kind of chance during the scant five days between Grant’s generous terms to Lee at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln, whose second term was only weeks old at his death, had been vague about postwar Reconstruction.  It only seemed apparent that he favored easy terms for readmitting the states of the former Confederacy to the Union, and that he had concerns about the just treatment of the recently enslaved. But the great man was gone, and in his place was Andrew Johnson, a coarse, ex-slaveholder and Unionist Democrat from Tennessee added to the ’64 ticket to bolster Lincoln’s chances for re-election. At first, there was some concern that the new President—a rough fellow who despised plantation elites—would be too hard on the defeated south, but it soon became clear that the racist Johnson reserved most of his hatred for freed blacks and for their white “Radical Republican” allies in Congress who sought to sponsor civil equality and voting rights for African Americans. From the outset, Johnson would have none of that, blocking programs designed to educate and assist freedmen, granting blanket pardons to ex-Confederate military and political leaders, drawing down troop levels in the occupied south, and reassigning northern military commanders who were too aggressive in protecting blacks from rising southern vigilantism.  Congress and the accidental President made war upon each other, and Johnson was narrowly acquitted in impeachment proceedings, but the real losers were blacks struggling to make their way in a new world where they were no longer property yet, typically lacking skills and education, faced daunting obstacles for basic survival.

In the immediate aftermath of the war there may have been an opportunity for long-term positive change, even if perhaps social equality for blacks might remain out of reach.  At first, the conquered south seemed to follow Lee’s example, accepting defeat and seeking reconciliation. The “Spirit of Appomattox” kindled an optimism on both sides that was nearly extinguished with Lincoln’s death but yet still held promise, as the south seemed willing to accept whatever postwar terms the north might impose. But this moment was forever snuffed out by Johnson’s decisive embrace of ex-Confederates and palpable scorn for black aspirations.

Eggers underscores a vital point often overlooked by scholars of the era when he looks to how representation re-empowered states of the former Confederacy. The famous Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 that led to ratification of the U.S. Constitution was to mean that millions of blacks held as chattel property nevertheless counted as three-fifths of a person, which granted the antebellum south disproportionate political power in Congress for its free, white population. The 1868 Fourteenth Amendment, extending citizenship to all, ironically increased the political power of white southerners exponentially, if only they could terrorize the black population—newly enfranchised by the 1870 Fifteenth Amendment—from exercising the right to vote. Paramilitary  “White Leagues” and the Ku Klux Klan proved to be effective forces on the one hand, along with Johnson and emboldened Democrats on the other, so that readmitted former Confederate states and pardoned rebels could combine legal and extra-legal tactics to put control of these states in the hands of the very elites who led the rebellion! For example, in a remarkable turn of events, Alexander Stephens, former Vice President of the Confederate States of America, had a political rebirth as Congressman from Georgia in 1873, serving incongruously alongside blacks from other states that had once been part of the CSA. Stephens and his successors would well outlast their African American counterparts.

Optimism was rekindled when Ulysses S. Grant—a moderate of Lincoln’s ilk who was a friend of African Americans—was elected President in 1868, but much damage had already been done and Grant was no match for competing entrenched interests on all sides. Bogged down by corruption, scandal and his own gullibility, the great general proved to be a mediocre Chief Executive. And there were other forces at work that were beyond his control. Massive demilitarization followed the Civil War, and Indian wars in the west further diminished federal forces stretched thin in a south that was rapidly reasserting itself. Meanwhile, the north had grown weary of the conflict and of blacks clamoring for political rights, economic upsets proved more tangible to the postwar population, and a reconciliation that promised the nation an opportunity to move on beckoned with greater appeal than the interests of faraway ex-slaves. They were free now; what more do they want from us? The result was the mass murder of thousands of blacks in the south, as well as many of their white allies, as ex-Confederates enforced “Redemption”—the seizure of political power from northern Reconstruction forces that prevailed for a century after, and still endures in pockets of the south today. The contested election of 1876 put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House and withdrew federal forces from the south, effectively ending Reconstruction. The controversial Confederate monuments adorning too many public squares in the south today represent a commemoration of that moment—of Redemption and the near permanent debasement of African Americans to second-class citizenship—rather than the ostensible memorial of Civil War soldiers falsely proclaimed by southern partisans.

While it may seem that all was lost, in this outstanding history Eggers reminds us that there were accomplishments. Abolitionists and the like-minded flocked to the south after the war to teach blacks to read and write, and indeed great strides were made. African Americans, often against impossible odds, learned skills that forged new generations of artisans and shopkeepers. While “sharecropping” turned multitudes of blacks into serfs that were perhaps only a new brand of slave, they never stopped hoping—if not for themselves, then for their children—that one day a promised equality would become a true reality.  Eggers can also be praised for bringing the nuance and complexity requisite to modern historical scholarship to bear as he does not fail to explore the often overlooked entrenched racism of the north, where few states granted voting rights to blacks prior to the Fifteenth Amendment, and which spawned its own brand of strong resistance to social equality that also sometimes dealt violence and death to its proponents.

One of the benefits of academic conferences is the opportunity to harvest books.  I picked up The Wars of Reconstruction from a publisher’s table as the AHA annual meeting wound down, and cracked the spine on train ride home.  Rarely have I found a work of history both so compelling and so relevant to its own time and to our own. I highly recommend it.

Review of: The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House, by Daniel Mark Epstein

The phrase “brother against brother” ever conjures up the American Civil War in popular memory, but that same expression could just as accurately be stamped upon our The Loyal Sonfounding conflict, the American Revolution—except that the very real bitter division that shook the thirteen colonies during that rebellion has long been buried in a kind of historical amnesia that implies an unanimity of purpose in British North America that never actually existed. The reality was that friends and families were torn apart, with Patriots and Loyalists often inflicting horrific brutalities upon the opposing side.  Recent works—such as Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions and Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence—are gradually revealing the uncomfortable facts of the matter, long obscured by heritage myth. A new welcome addition to the historiography is The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House, by Daniel Mark Epstein, a sometimes brilliant, well-written reminder that just as during the Civil War, it was not only brother against brother, but father against son. During the American War of Independence, the most famous father and son at each other’s throats were the esteemed Patriot Benjamin Franklin, and his son, William Franklin, the Loyalist governor of New Jersey.

Benjamin Franklin—sometimes dubbed the “grandfather of our country” because he was so much older than Washington and the other Founders—was a remarkable self-made polymath who throughout his long life was printer, author, scientist, inventor, statesman and so much more: a truly iconic figure in his day on both sides of the Atlantic. Due to his pivotal role in both the Revolution and the birth of the Republic, Franklin has received much attention in the literature, including the widely acclaimed biography by Walter Isaacson that I read some years ago. Yet, his son William—also a highly accomplished man who for decades was nearly inseparable from his father—rarely earns little more than a footnote in tales from the life of his more famous forebear. In The Loyal Son, Daniel Mark Epstein seeks to right this wrong, not only by rescuing William from the anonymity where history has cast him, but also by placing him in the proper context for his time and place, an often overlooked milieu where there was hardly a consensus for revolution, and vast numbers in the population remained loyal to the British crown.  It just so happened that William Franklin was one of them.

Epstein, while not a trained historian, is something of a polymath himself: poet, dramatist and biographer. Despite a lack of scholarly credentials, he has managed to turn out what is both  an outstanding history and dual-biography on a number of levels, not least in that he brings a fresh perspective to the years leading up to the American Revolution, and deftly does so through the eyes and experience of two notable men who end up on opposite sides of the divide when conflict breaks out. His skill as a writer translates into an artful prose that is often lacking in the works of more distinguished historians. As such, in a book that runs just under four hundred pages and covers not only the lives of its subjects but the grander themes of the day, the pace never slows and there are virtually no dull moments.

William Franklin is, of course, the title character in The Loyal Son—a title that is a clever but also a tragic play on words. In the preface, Epstein wistfully imagines the identity of William’s mother and the circumstances of his birth, but admits that the facts of the matter are stubbornly unknown. What is known is that the young Benjamin Franklin was father to an illegitimate son with a lady who has been lost to history, a secret kept that has never been revealed. Franklin brought this infant to Deborah Read, the woman who became his common-law wife (they were never officially married, for complicated reasons), and she raised him as her own. But William Franklin’s life was defined far more consequentially by his relationship with his father. As a young man, he distinguished himself in the military, but then returned from war to engage in almost side-by-side endeavors with his father for decades to come. Once Benjamin had made his fortune—his Poor Richard’s Almanack had much to do with that—he largely retired from business in favor of scientific and scholarly pursuits, often eagerly accompanied by William, who served as aide and confidante.  Seemingly incongruous for the great Patriot, the elder Franklin spent much of his life living abroad, both in England before the Revolution, and later in France, representing the new nation diplomatically. William accompanied his father to England for a sojourn that was to last many years, establishing key contacts that would lead to his selection as royal governor of New Jersey.

This eminent role was subsequently to have fateful consequences, as events elsewhere in the colonies and friction with the mother country deeply radicalized his father, while he was yet still living abroad. In a remarkable coincidence of timing, Benjamin returned from England on the very eve of the Revolution, immediately staking out a leading role in the developing rebellion even as William remained a moderate but firm voice against separation. Epstein here masterfully explores a topic rarely probed: how the renowned Benjamin Franklin is yet at this stage eyed quite skeptically by fellow patriots, who hold him in great suspicion for both his many years of residence in London, and as father to a stubbornly loyal governor.  As it is, both Franklins prove stubborn to their diametrically opposed convictions, which—despite their lifelong close bond—drives them permanently apart.

Benjamin Franklin’s prominence in the Revolution and its aftermath are well-known; William’s own woeful story is rarely told.  While all the other loyal governors flee the colonies, William doggedly remains in office, attempting to strike some kind of middle course that does not seek conflict with the rebels yet adamantly resists independence.  The center, of course, could not hold. The forces of rebellion seized the reins of power, atrocities were committed on each side—including even such medieval punishments as drawing and quartering—and treason remained in the eye of the beholder. Ousted from authority, the governor was at first treated gently, likely because of his famous father, but a series of events and William’s own devious efforts to secretly abet the Loyalist cause eventually relegated him to the worst sort of prison, where he languished for months in truly deplorable conditions.  His British-born wife, whom Benjamin and the rest of the family loved and cherished in the preceding years, fell into ill health in isolation, separated from her husband. William was refused permission to visit her on her death bed, even after beseeching George Washington, a one-time friend from bygone days.

And where was Benjamin while his son suffered so? He was working for the cause of Revolution, on both sides of the Atlantic, with William’s own son—Temple—in tow, in the same role of aide and confidante that William once held, long before.  It makes the reader wince to see Benjamin abandon his son to an awful fate—emaciated, teeth falling out, rats crawling on his bedding in a drafty cell—while the great Patriot is honored at home and abroad. The author argues that it under the circumstances it would have been dangerous for Benjamin to intercede directly on behalf of his son, while suggesting circumstantial evidence exists that attempts were made behind the scenes, but all of this rings of excuses all too flimsy. Ben had once been closer to his son than any other human being; now he had so hardened his heart that even a token of mercy was out of the question. It is especially poignant that William seems to have never given up his love for his father, nor the hope that one day their fractured relationship would be mended. Sadly, it was not to be. Safe in England after the war, William sought reconciliation that even then Benjamin spurned.

Benjamin Franklin was a man who was a friend to many and seemed, unlike many of his fellow Founders, always given to the best of motivations.  But he was not the finest family man. He failed to inoculate his first son with Deborah Read for smallpox (although, notably, William had been vaccinated), and the boy died of the disease, a scourge of the day.  Benjamin lived for decades away from Deborah, who longed for his return but was ever rebuffed, even after she was disabled by stroke.  She died heartsick, without seeing him again, all while he dallied with a host of women in the halls of Europe.  Despite his close relationship with William, his very wealthy father kept an ongoing tab of debt accumulated by the son in expenses given to raising him and to his education, a debt he ever dangled before him, a debt that should never have been assessed. During the war, William might very well have died in prison, and his wife did perish, far from his side; Ben did nothing for either of them. And in the tumult of Revolution, Benjamin drove a wedge between William and the whole of the rest of the family, including his own son, Temple, although the break with the latter was to heal, unlike the one with his father. That bond remained severed. Forever.

William was a prominent Loyalist with a famous name and a famous father, but he was hardly alone: some estimates of Loyalists run to a half million, or twenty percent of the white population of the colonies. Most of these Tories, like William, were no more or less honorable individuals than the Patriots they resisted.  But they found themselves on the losing side. Some were murdered, others imprisoned, and the bulk of the survivors lost much of their property and were permanently driven out of their homes. Most of them died in exile. Until recently, their collective stories have long been ignored. This fine book takes another step towards resurrecting these lives for a modern audience that hardly knows they ever lived.

If there is a fault to The Loyal Son, it is that while notes are included, those notes could have much more depth. But perhaps that is a quibble, and certainly could be beefed up in a future edition. More importantly, this is a very well-written work that makes a significant contribution to studies of the Revolutionary era.  I would highly recommend this book to every student of American history.

 

Review of: Grant, by Ron Chernow

It was something of a Greek tragedy: A man of humble origins seeking his fortune stumbles again and again, but then the advent of a great war plucks him from obscurity and he gains heroic renown as the architect of magnificent battlefield victories, which in GRANTpeacetime catapults him to the pinnacle of authority, as ruler of the land.  But he dares to flirt with the hubris that his talent as a military commander will endow him with the sagacity to govern, which it surely does not. Tarnished by scandal, he abandons the ship of state to embark instead upon a grand journey across the globe, all the while plotting a return to power, which upon his homecoming is just within his grasp before it slips away forever. He then consoles himself with a lavish private life, amassing great riches, but is bilked by a charlatan, loses everything, and is reduced to abject poverty. Just then, when he is at his lowest ebb, the great hero suffers still another blow, as he is struck down by an illness with no cure. But he perseveres through many months of terrible suffering, penning a magnificent epic that he completes just before his death which restores his reputation and rescues his family from privation. His funeral is a national event, and his body is later entombed in a grand mausoleum that serves as a landmark for many generations to come.

That great hero was Ulysses S. Grant, and who could be better suited to resurrect his significance for a modern audience than Ron Chernow, author of acclaimed biographies of Hamilton and Washington? Chernow largely succeeds is this superbly written, glorious treatment of Grant’s life that is flawed only in its sometime lack of objectivity for its subject. Those who have read Chernow’s magisterial Hamilton will be encouraged to know that while this one is no less brilliant, it is a much more fast-moving narrative, not bogged down by the minutiae that often made that earlier, distinguished yet wordy tome slow-going. Still, at nearly a thousand pages, Grant, while hardly a brick, nevertheless remains quite the commitment.

In his time, Grant was the most famous man in America and nearly as celebrated abroad. He was considered by many to be not only one of the greatest generals of his era, but of all of history.  He was praised almost equally for his prowess in battle as he was for his magnanimity to the forces of the defeated. In the aftermath of the Civil War and Lincoln’s murder, he stood at once as both a symbol of reconciliation with the conquered south, and a savior for the millions of formerly enslaved left to the mercy—and frequent brutality—of their former masters.  With Lincoln dead and the postwar power of Reconstruction in the hands of the accidental President Andrew Johnson—whose hatred (and envy!) of southern white elites was matched only by his loathing of newly emancipated blacks—the entire nation, including the defeated south, looked to Grant as Lincoln’s authentic descendant as a moderate dedicated to reconciliation and the rebuilding of a fractured nation. A Congress controlled by the Radical Republican wing went to war with Johnson, who at first seemed hell-bent on punishing the former rebels—in opposition to the spirit of Appomattox inspired by Lincoln and decreed by Grant—but later swung to a position that was nearly diametrically opposed, championing the restoration of political privileges for ex-Confederates while almost gleefully trampling upon rights newly granted to formerly enslaved African Americans. Johnson barely survived impeachment, but his political career was over. Grant was the anointed, and soon the general who had beaten Robert E. Lee and saved the union—a man who had not that long before been forced out of the peacetime army for alcoholism and had endured such failure in private life that he had been reduced to working as a clerk in his father’s store—was the President of the United States.

So why is it that a hundred years later, when I was studying history in grade school, did Grant barely earn a mention beyond the requisite reference to Appomattox? How did someone so famous and so significant become so overlooked?  It turns out that this has a lot more to do with the staying power of the south’s “Lost Cause” myth—once again resurgent in right-wing politics—than in Grant’s actual legacy.

Modern scholarship has debunked every aspect of the Lost Cause mythology, an ahistorical fiction devised by postwar Confederate political and military elites to supplant history with a make-believe heritage that falsely denies the centrality of slavery to the Civil War, and posits that the south bravely fought for a glorious cause with far better generals, but only met defeat due to prodigious northern resources and an overwhelming number of bluecoats. It also holds that Reconstruction was an oppressive period dominated by rapacious northern carpetbaggers who pillaged the defeated south, and saw coarse, uneducated blacks herded to polling places to serve as tools of northern interests to maintain political control over a conquered people.  Grant, as a key player in the conflict and its aftermath, naturally figures in much of this myth-making and suffers as the result. Chernow’s Grant seeks to set the record straight.

In fact, both sides had an excess of bad generals and a dearth of competent ones, but—to Lincoln’s great chagrin—most eyes were focused on the eastern theater, where a series of mediocre Union generals were derailed by the gifted Robert E. Lee and his lieutenants. But in the west, there were far more talented generals, most notably Grant, an understated strategic genius who assembled a string of victories. The same weekend that Meade famously defeated Lee at Gettysburg, Grant delivered what was a far more significant, decisive blow to the south at Vicksburg in a brilliant campaign studied by military strategists for decades to follow.  And then Grant came east, assuming control of all Union forces. The Lost Cause narrative casts Grant as “the butcher,” hurling blue lives senselessly into rebel lines, but the reality was that Grant had a grand strategy to defeat Lee that never wavered, and the result was Appomattox. Renowned historian Gary Gallagher rightly praises Lee as perhaps the finest field general of the war, but credits Grant as its greatest soldier.

There is nothing new in Chernow’s bold account of Grant’s war years—which closely mirrors the current scholarly consensus—but his fast-paced narrative skillfully restores to life the drama of an often rumpled but rarely ruffled hero with a preternaturally quiet confidence who could frequently see the war through the eyes of his opponents and turn that advantage into repeated triumphs.  Chernow starts with the young Ulysses, rescued from his dysfunctional family by West Point and the Mexican War, and rescued once more by his love for Julia, a plain, cross-eyed, slaveowner’s daughter whom Grant is smitten by. When he is separated from Julia, he drinks, and drink is his downfall. Chernow treats Grant’s alcoholism more carefully and clinically than most biographers. Unlike most alcohol abusers, Grant was neither a daily nor a binge drinker, but rather someone incapable of a single glass of spirits without getting falling-down drunk. This handicap, in an age when people commonly drank to great excess, was a calamity for Grant that forced him out of the service early in his career and hounded his reputation for the rest of his life, although it seems that he rarely drank at all.

Grant appears to have been extremely skilled in three areas: riding horses, commanding armies, and—which was not evident until near the end of his life—literary endeavors. In most other pursuits, he was mediocre or failing, and that is how the war found him, just barely scraping by. He proved to be an impressive commander, but most superiors dismissed him or plotted to remove him, except for a scant few that included, most notably, Abraham Lincoln, who wisely observed that unlike virtually all of his peers Grant not only never gave up, but always went after a retreating enemy. Grant was to become Lincoln’s general, and Lincoln let him win the war. Chernow’s Grant is another addition to the recent scholarship that has restored Grant to his rightful place as a military genius, a man who in his time was favorably compared to Napoleon and Caesar.

After the war, Grant shielded Lee and others from persecution by a north driven vengeful by Lincoln’s assassination, but never wavered in his support of freed slaves cast adrift by emancipation to an uncertain future.  When Grant became President, after Johnson had derailed key elements of Reconstruction, it was Grant who used the power of the White House to protect blacks from waves of murder and terror by southern whites dedicated not only to denying them political rights but to reducing them to a new kind of servile status. It was Grant’s ultimate failure in this enterprise—in a tenure dominated by chaos and scandal—that contributed to the failure of Reconstruction. Throughout the south, ex-Confederate “redeemers” brutally terrorized blacks into submission as they recaptured control of state governments and institutionalized what came to be called Jim Crow. Actual history was sanitized, even erased, and a fictional Lost Cause version of the era came to falsely dominate the historiography for more than a century.   Modern scholarship has disclosed the truth about Reconstruction, and Chernow’s work successfully restores Grant to his central role in it.

If there is a fault, it is that the author clearly admires his subject just a bit too much. Grant’s military record in the war was blemished by his 1862 issue of General Order 11, which expelled Jews—suspected of war profiteering—from his military district. While Chernow rightly condemns this egregious action, he makes excuses for Grant’s decision that feel just a bit thin. And Chernow desperately wants us to revisit Grant’s presidency—which most rank poorly—with a far more favorable eye. But it is the author’s own careful chronicle as a meticulous historian that makes for the most compelling quarrel with his own thesis in this regard. While the virulently racist Andrew Johnson certainly sought to sever Reconstruction at its roots, it seems eminently clear from Chernow’s account that Reconstruction actually succumbed to a kind of death of a thousand cuts during Grant’s two terms in the White House.

That was certainly not his intent: Grant courageously went to war with the original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan and stood as protector-in-chief for terrorized blacks targeted by the Klan and other kindred groups, who sought “redemption” by restoring government and society to unreconstructed whites who adamantly refused to respect the rights of the formerly enslaved, at the ballot box and beyond. In this, he scored some early success, but in the long run it seems clear that this cause—and Grant himself—was defeated by his apparent lack of acumen for executive office. Out of his element, he struggled to navigate Washington politics. Himself utterly incorruptible, he was a terrible judge of people, and with few exceptions managed to surround himself with the dishonest and the incompetent. A brilliant mind in military matters turned out not to translate well into matters of civilian governance, as he managed to mimic the worst attributes of several unsuccessful future presidents. Like Hoover, he sometimes clung to ideology over practicality.  Like Carter, he frequently agonized and vacillated.  But, most damaging, like G.W. Bush, he felt an obligation to ever be the decision-maker, even when he was the least informed and least qualified to do so.  The result were two chaotic terms that rode upon his personal popularity but were repeatedly marked by an inconsistency in approach and execution that ultimately destroyed nearly everything he sought to achieve.

A weary Grant, worn down and frustrated by the burdens of eight years in office, was nevertheless widely celebrated as he travelled around the world. Still, he yearned for a return to the White House. That was not to be, but much worse disappointment was to follow. As easily hoodwinked by the corrupt out of office as he was while in power, he entrusted a swindler with his fortune and lost everything. He then developed a painful, lingering throat cancer that physically crippled him while he heroically held on to write his memoirs, a great literary achievement that was such a success that its sales after his death restored his family from poverty and renewed his own reputation.

For all his flaws, Ulysses S. Grant was a great hero and the nation owes his legacy a great debt long left unpaid. Perhaps second only to Lincoln, Grant led the effort to crush the rebellion, save the Union, and end human chattel slavery.  Without him, there might be no United States today. Chernow’s Grant is a remarkable achievement. It deserves to be read by every American.

 

 

Review of: In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea, by Danny Goldberg

I was ten years old in the “Summer of Love” of 1967 and mostly unaware—if not entirely blissfully—of the cultural and political turbulence rocking our nation far beyond the confines of my comfortable New England middle-class home, where the sounds of Buck In Search of the Lost ChordOwens and the Buckaroos rose from our record player rather than that of Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane. Music industry veteran Danny Goldberg—author of In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea—was only seven years older than I in that pivotal year, but those few extra cycles of the sun put him dead center into an era that extolled youth and decried the over-thirty crowd. As such, Goldberg was both an observer and a participant in what was a radical, albeit fleeting, transformation of America that carved some indelible grooves in the nation, yet often feels as far distant from our times as the American Civil War.

In his ambitious In Search of the Lost Chord, Goldberg delivers a well-written and wildly polychromatic snapshot of an epochal moment that is, alas, just about as tangential, unfocused and uneven as the year 1967 was. What Goldberg sets out to do is to describe with one single long rhythmic stroke of his pen all the concurrent aspects of the emerging counterculture that were manifested on both coasts: folk and blues morphing into a new brand of rock; antiwar activism ramping up to radical resistance; the civil rights struggle evolving into militant black power; the sexual revolution; pot and LSD and the drug scene; extreme variations in religion and spiritualism; a renaissance in art and literature; television and mass media; hippies and yippies standing against “the Man.” Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll.  And much more. And a huge cast of characters. All in just over three hundred pages. Goldberg tries to do it all, to fit it all in, and of course falls short, but not for lack of effort. In the end, it reads like one long Rolling Stone article, which in style is certainly emblematic of the era he chronicles, a rough blend of memoir, history and anecdote.

Looking back, it seems as if America was never the same after John F. Kennedy was murdered in November 1963, but all of the forces that defined the rest of the decade were roiling beneath the nation’s superficial complacency long before Dallas. The Eisenhower years were famously dubbed by one historian as “the time of the great postponement,” because Ike’s failure to act in so many critical arenas simply kicked a plethora of dangerous cans down the road in the fractured landscape of civil rights, urban decay, poverty, and other looming crises. JFK’s death led to the accidental presidency of the less cool-headed Lyndon Johnson, whose cavalier decision to introduce large-scale ground troops into Vietnam proved to be the grand hypocenter for a legion of foreshocks of coalescing discontent. 1967 was the year the veneers cracked spectacularly, unleashing elements equal parts utopian and malign, although that was hardly clear at the time, near the dawn of the “hippie idea.” The real faults ruptured the following year, in 1968, with anarchy and assassination.

The problem with In Search of the Lost Chord is that it lacks historical context.  Imagine a history of the Civil War that began with Fort Sumpter, with no backdrop to the Compromise of 1850, Bleeding Kansas, Dred Scott, John Brown or the election of 1860. Like those first shots at Sumpter, the ideas and events of 1967 were not products of a virgin birth, but emerged from a long gestation that Goldberg fails to probe. Another complaint is that while the narrative explores the counter-culture, there is almost no sense of what is going on in the rest of the nation or the rest of the world in 1967, with all of those people who were not hanging out with George Harrison or Jerry Garcia or Allen Ginsberg or Abbie Hoffman—with the vast majority of the country who were listening to Nancy Sinatra on the radio instead of Janis Joplin. Conspicuous in its absence is the larger picture of what was going on in the jungles of Vietnam, in the Cold War standoff with the Soviets, or with LBJ’s Great Society experiment; yet each and every one of these are critically related to the social revolution gaining ground in San Francisco, L.A., New York City and beyond.  The audience to Goldberg’s book comes upon these various movements and the people that made them much like Gulliver washing up on a distant shore to find strange cities and exotic inhabitants like none he has ever encountered before. I lived through the era, so I recognized most, if not all of it. A reader of another generation would simply be lost. To his credit, Goldberg does include a timeline of 1967 events as appendix, although it is too brief and disconnected to the narrative to be of much use. More helpful perhaps would have been a biographical index of the large number of individuals who people this chronicle, since so many names are dropped it is a great challenge for the reader to recall all of them and their various connections.

It is manifestly impossible to describe the LSD experience to someone who has never dropped acid. But you need not have lived through 1967 to study it as history. Goldberg is a fine writer, but he is no historian. Given the year and the topic, it may especially verge on cliché to describe Goldberg’s effort as kaleidoscopic, but nevertheless that is often what the narrative feels like, packed with so much material tossed at the reader from so many angles that in the end it is far stronger on content than on coherence. That may be more of the fault of the editor than of the author, but it remains a fault nonetheless.  That is not to say I would advise against reading In Search of the Lost Chord, only that it cannot be your sole guide to 1967, because if it is, you will no doubt find yourself disoriented: it won’t be a bad trip, just a confusing one.

In 1973, sixteen years old and wearing shoulder length hair, six full summers after the “Summer of Love,” I was among 600,000 people at Summer Jam at Watkins Glen—according to the Guinness Book of World Records the “largest audience at a pop festival” ever—listening to the Grateful Dead, the Band and the Allman Brothers. The chord of that hippie era I was trying to embrace was already lost to us, but we did not know it then. Nixon, who had come to represent all that was wrong with America, would resign the following year, in the wake of Watergate. But not even seven years later, Reagan was President and America rewound to Eisenhower. Revolution and renaissance were indefinitely postponed.

A half-century later, we can perhaps remember 1967 best as a year that promised a great many possibilities, most of which went sadly unfulfilled. As this review goes to press, on the final day of 2017—perhaps the worst year in American history since 1968—the metaphorical “lost chord” of 1967 seems even further beyond our reach.  Still, this has ever been a nation of reinvention, of reimagining ourselves, of stubborn and irrepressible optimism.  Reading Goldberg’s book is a reminder that there was a time that optimism put on legs and took to the streets as well as the airwaves. We may never find that lost chord, but we may yet again strike a new one that carries longer and with more vigor, in the years to come.

[Note: I read an Advance Reading Copy edition of this book, as part of an Early Reviewer’s program.]

 

Review of: The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, by Roberto Calasso

I have long observed that the reason why every effort to adapt The Iliad to film fails so spectacularly is because the gods—so integral to Homer’s epic—are somehow excluded from the big screen. It was not entirely his fault that beefcake Brad Pitt looked so marriage-cadmus-harmonyridiculous trying to channel Achilles in Oliver Stone’s 2004 dreadful attempt: Homer’s Achilles is himself half-divine, spawn of the sea nymph Thetis and the mortal Peleus, and it is the intervention of the Olympian gods to palliate the rage of Achilles when he is wronged by Agamemnon that is the essential theme of The Iliad. Absent the gods, Achilles lacks all authenticity and the plot makes no sense.

In his unique and spectacular The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso—in a translation by Tim Parks—reminds us that ancient Greek civilization also made no sense without its gods, which were as integral to the lives of the Hellenes as food, and sleep, and sex. For the Greeks—to borrow a line from an old Jethro Tull lyric—their gods were “not the kind that you wind up on Sundays.” In a remarkable achievement, Calasso has written his very own epic to rival those of the ancients, and in the process masterfully succeeds in restoring the gods to their essential role in the lives of the Greeks, a constant that ran through the Bronze Age and the Dark Age that followed, and all through the Archaic, the Classical, the Hellenistic and the Roman eras—until Christianity first crippled then crushed them forever. The Greeks of Homer asserted that the gods could never die, but then they never anticipated Augustine . . .

It is sometimes difficult for the modern mind (of the theist or the atheist) to wrap itself around the gods of the ancient Greeks.  The violent and vengeful Yahweh of the Torah mellowed into a much nicer deity once appropriated by Christianity, but both versions came bundled with a certain set of laws and morality. The Hellenic gods were very different, much more akin to the mortals who worshiped them, warts and all, and rather than paragons of virtue they often showcased the worst traits of humanity. Cadmus and Harmony opens with the abduction of Europa by Zeus, disguised as a bull. On another occasion, Zeus rapes Leda, this time in the guise of a swan. The gods do as they please. Zeus, especially, takes his sexual pleasure at will—of both girls and boys—while his jealous Olympian wife Hera seethes at a distance. The mortals always get the worst of it, even when they stumble innocently, as when the hunter Actaeon happens upon the naked Artemis, bathing in a spring: in punishment the hapless Actaeon is turned into a stag whose fate is to be torn apart by his own dogs. The Greek gods are not to emulate, but rather to avoid whenever possible, for it is within their orbit that mere humans are to be tossed about on a rocky universe of pain and suffering. Absent the free-will of Judeo-Christianity, the Greek mortals have almost no responsibility for their own behavior; Homer tells us that all of the bloodshed on the plain of Ilium was simply due to fate and to the will of the gods. Men and gods are here inextricably entwined with one another, but that is dangerous business. Thus, the title of Calasso’s work becomes his thesis:

After that remote time when gods and men had been on familiar terms, to invite the gods to one’s house became the most dangerous thing one could do, a source of wrongs and curses, a sign of the now irretrievable malaise in relations between heaven and earth. At the marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Aphrodite gives the bride a necklace which, passing from hand to hand, will generate one disaster after another right up to the massacre of the Epigoni beneath the walls of Thebes and beyond. [p387]

I came to Calasso with what I thought was a pretty strong background in ancient Greek literature and history. I have read The Iliad three times, in three different translations, and The Odyssey once; I have also read much of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. On the temporal side, I have read Herodotus, Thucydides, Diodorus and a good deal more, not to mention another dozen modern books about the ancients. But The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony humbled me almost from the first. It seems as if Calasso has read everything ever written by the ancient Greeks or about the ancient Greeks, especially of their gods, myths and epics. Not only read, though, but studied, analyzed, and memorized every detail. To praise the extent of his command of the subject as encyclopedic still seems to fall short somehow. While the twelve Olympians get most of the press in popular culture, there were many hundreds—perhaps thousands—of lesser deities in the Greek pantheon, and while Calasso doesn’t reference every single one, I have little doubt that if put to the test he could name them all. As much as I enjoyed the topic and the prose, my repeated reaction as I turned the pages was that I am not worthy!

One of the benefits of having a fine personal library, as I do, is that I can usually put my fingers on a powerful work of reference which—even in the age of Google—can still offer a fond comfort. I kept my hardcover copy of The Concise Dictionary of Classical Mythology, by Pierre Grimal, on my nightstand alongside Cadmus and Harmony for the duration. But after a while, I stopped looking up everything unfamiliar or forgotten, and instead just allowed myself to indulge in Calasso’s wonderful prose, which—like Faulkner, for instance—is a joy to get lost within even if you do not always know exactly what he is talking about. It is impossible to describe except by excerpt, as in this one that underscores the centrality of Zeus to all things:

Night was the wet nurse of the gods; her very substance was ambrosia. She advised Zeus to swallow up Phanes, the Protogonos, firstborn of the sovereigns of the world, and then to swallow the other gods and goddesses born from him, and the universe too. Thus gods, goddesses, earth and starry splendor, Ocean, rivers, and the deep cavern of the underworld all wound up in Zeus’s sacred belly, which now contained everything that had been and ever would be. Everything grew together inside him, clutching his innards as a bat clutches to a tree or a bloodsucker to flesh. Then Zeus, who had been just another of the Titans’ children, became, alone, the beginning, the middle, and the end. [p199]

There’s almost four hundred pages of stylized prose like that, evidence of a splendid work of genius that Calasso has crafted in a singular brand of literature that defies genre, and ultimately leaves the reader dizzied and in awe.  It would be fair to say that The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is hardly suitable for every audience, but now that I have read it, I would strongly recommend it to those, like myself, who have been bitten by that bug that begets an irrepressible passion for the ancient Greeks, who themselves—if hardly the fathers of our own civilization—were without doubt our hoary great-grandfathers. There is, of course, a calculated risk in getting caught up in great literature, just as there is in letting yourself get tangled up with the gods. But for that I will let Calasso have the last word here, plucked from a paragraph towards the end of this magnificent work:

What conclusions can we draw? To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living.  It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories. And you could suppose that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories. [p387]

Review of Bush, by Jean Edward Smith

I lived through the entire eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, paying careful attentions to the events and their echoes.  His boosters, with a kind of unintended oxymoronic flourish, vigorously maintained that “he kept us safe.” The reality was Bush bookinstead an ongoing rebuke to that assertion, a tragically comic counter-intuitive timeline of disaster. Those two terms of Bush were instead marked by: the most significant attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, with a greater loss of life, months after the termination of the previous administration’s program to target those adversaries; the invasion of Afghanistan to bring those attackers to justice, who instead slipped away, leaving American troops endlessly bogged down in a conflict that defies resolution; the expense of much more blood and treasure in the gratuitous invasion of Iraq on the false pretense of weapons of mass destruction that never existed, permanently fracturing that nation, and effecting a dramatic destabilization of the Middle East; the death of nearly two thousand Americans in New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath as the nation stood by paralyzed by inaction; the first detonation of a nuclear bomb by North Korea; the reignition of the Cold War with Russia marked by hostilities in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, sparked by NATO expansion and American unilateralism; and finally, a near cataclysmic economic collapse in the most significant financial downturn since the Great Depression, in the wake of rash deregulation that included the crippling of the net capital rule. If “W” kept us safe, danger seemed like a welcome respite. Even the space shuttle exploded! While it is hardly fair to blame him for the latter, I recall wondering at the time whether even that tragedy might have been averted had Bush not selected as NASA Administrator a skeptic of Big Bang cosmology. Regardless, catastrophe seemed to cling to President Bush—he seemed incapable of carrying a cup of coffee across the room without spilling it.

With his 2016 biography, Bush, “Francis Parkman Prize” winner Jean Edward Smith became the first bona fide historian to profile the life of George W. Bush and chronicle his calamitous tenure as Commander in Chief. Smith, a noted author and academic, has among his prolific credits biographies of Grant, FDR and Eisenhower, so he comes to the task with both an established resume and frame of reference. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that the author seems to barely contain his bewilderment as events unfolded around Bush-43 that spawned one wrong turn after another.  At the same time, the book underscores that my own memory of that era was hardly hyperbolic—it really was that bad—while it challenges some of the analyses made by those of us on the outside.

Most significantly, Smith rebuts once and for all the dark suspicion shared by many Americans that the real power behind the façade of the Bush Administration was the sinister Dick Cheney, villainously yanking on the puppet strings from within the confines of his secret bunker. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. While Cheney did serve as proud parade marshal for the darkest of the dark avenues in the administration’s roadmap to torture, secret detention, extraordinary rendition, regime change, domestic surveillance, and much more, he was hardly the mastermind many imagined him to be. Instead—and this is the book’s well-argued thesis—George W. Bush really was “The Decider” that he confidently alleged, a much-ridiculed claim that turns out to be surprisingly accurate.  And that, according to Smith, was exactly the problem: Bush’s intellect and expertise were vastly outgunned by the crises he either encountered or manufactured, but he never ventured for perspective beyond a small circle of advisors, and yet remained vitally loyal to the conviction—ever bolstered by his religious faith—that it was his responsibility to make every decision in every arena.

Presidents from Buchanan to Hoover to Carter have been pilloried for dithering—for a failure to act decisively in a time of national crisis.  Decisiveness is generally considered a strength for the Chief Executive; George W. Bush may well be the first occupant of the Oval Office to prove an exception to that rule.  While Bush has often been grouped with Buchanan by historians who rate him among the worst of our chief executives, a perhaps more apt comparison might be to another often ranked near the bottom, Andrew Johnson. Like the latter, Bush seemed guided by an absolute unwavering certainty that he was always in the right, acting for very best interests of the country, even as evidence accumulated to the contrary. Because of Bush’s determination to leave no issue undecided, he not only made repeated bad judgements but frequently cast verdicts in areas perhaps better left to the vague or implicit, spawning doctrines in American foreign and domestic policy that would endure far beyond his time in office.

Unlike a Lincoln or a JFK, Bush rarely solicited the opinions outside of his immediate orbit, especially from those who might challenge him. This was underscored, for instance, when he arbitrarily ruled that al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants were not entitled to prisoner of war status under the Geneva Convention.  This highly consequential verdict was pronounced by the President without consulting the National Security council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of State, or the State Department! Both the military and the State Department objected, to no avail. Smith rightly dubs this as “another unfortunate example of the personalization of presidential power under George W. Bush.” [p284] Sadly, it was but one of many.

Smith’s biography does not dwell much on Bush’s early years, which were hardly marked by accomplishment, but instead centers on his time in the White House.  That is a sound decision, under the circumstances, and a reminder that while some men came to the Oval Office with an impressive resume—Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, for example—others, such as Abraham Lincoln or Harry Truman, had little to show for themselves before destiny called. George W. Bush was a scion of a notable family who played the role of prodigal son, dabbling in whiskey and cocaine, barely showing up to play his Texas Air National Guard get-out-of-Vietnam-card, until Jesus Christ, mountain biking and Laura Welch Bush came along to save him. There isn’t much of a tale to tell, and unlike other biographers—God save us from Lincoln’s “The Prairie Years”—Smith doesn’t drag the reader through years of irrelevancy until he takes the national stage. Yes, Bush was Governor of Texas, but for those who don’t know, that is a largely powerless position that entails little more than serving as a master of ceremonies at a beauty pageant.  Smith zeroes in on the most significant aspect of Bush’s pre-presidential years, which was his “born-again” experience that rescued him from his wayward tendencies and engraved upon him a conviction that he was doing God’s work, something that was to resound unfortunately upon the nation when he became Chief Executive.

Bush, who relied on his faith in Christ, did not permit his so-called Christian values to interfere with his pursuit of his version of justice, championing torture—euphemistically re-branded as “enhanced interrogation techniques”—as a critical tool of the war on terror. The Philippine Insurrection of the early 1900s was an especially brutal if long-forgotten foreign adventure that saw American forces commit often horrific war crimes, yet even in this morally- ambiguous environment an army officer was court-martialed for waterboarding (then tagged “the water cure”) Philippine insurgents. Bush specifically advocated waterboarding enemy combatants; Abu Zubaydah—still held in Guantanamo in 2017, by the way—was waterboarded eighty-three times, and Bush vigorously defended the practice. [p297] In this case, “The Decider” decided to go medieval. We have to assume Christ was along for the ride.

Bush’s faith was indeed genuine, if somewhat fanatical and … yes, even somewhat mad: Smith cites a communication with France’s President Chirac, in which Bush asserts: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophesies are being fulfilled. This confrontation was willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins.” Chirac had no clue what Bush was raving about, but once he figured it out, it became even more clear that there was no place for France in this kind of unhinged religious crusade. [p339]

If Smith’s Bush sounds like a hatchet job, it clearly is not. The author goes out of his way to try to find the positive in the man and his leadership, although for those who are not his loyalists this is truly a challenge. Smith does not overlook Bush’s dedication to education in the “No Child Left Behind” initiative or in the senior prescription drug plan he advanced, even if these efforts suffered in various degrees from poor execution and a lack of funding. Nor does he fail to credit Bush for his commitment to immigration reform, even as the President found himself badly out of step with his own party on this issue, its voters already rehearsing for the message of a demagogue waiting in the wings.

Smith’s biography does rescue from a kind of ignominy Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who—while fully on the team for the initial decision to go forward with the Iraq War debacle—not only objected to the direction of post-war nation-building that attempted to impose a Western-style democracy on Iraq, but prior to the war itself prepared a remarkably prescient memo that contained twenty-nine things that could go sideways in American intervention, which Smith recognizes as “a precise compendium” of what actually did go wrong in Iraq. [p328] Dick Cheney, as noted, is revealed as no less malevolent than expected but also far less commanding.  Colin Powell clearly stands out exactly as America perceived him at the time: a man with a firm moral center who was used and abused by the Bush Administration as the face of an indefensible policy of aggression that tarnished our nation before the world and forever humbled Powell’s political ambitions. Condoleezza Rice, who strived so hard to be Bush’s Kissinger, comes across as many of us always suspected, an intellectual wedded to ideology who prominently talked the talk but was way above her pay grade in the complex realm of realpolitik. At the end of the day, a flawed and largely incompetent President was served by a gang of colorful but weak—if flamboyant—underlings.

Presidential biography is one of my favorite genres. I have read bios of more than a third of our Chief Executives, and surveys of a dozen more, so I have taken on a profound sense of what these individuals have had to contend with while sitting, ever precariously, at the seat of such immense power. By every test, George W. Bush fared very badly in that role, and whatever his intentions left our nation far worse off by the close of his tumultuous tenure than it was when he came to it.

When he left office in January 2009, Bush’s approval rating was at a historic low of twenty-two percent. As it was, the best turn for his legacy was the election of Donald Trump, which has fostered—at least among Republicans—a kind of nostalgia for the Bush era, warts and all.  This is—one might snarkily suggest—like a lung cancer victim looking back fondly on an episode with pneumonia. Bush advocates might chastise Smith’s work, arguing that Bush had strengths not adequately showcased, but even supporters have to admit that “W” presided over an era of unmitigated disaster, leaving the nation battered and polarized so severely that we are still reeling from it nearly a decade later. Smith will hardly be the last historian to profile Bush, and as time passes it is likely that perspectives will be modified, and judgments will be tweaked.  In the meantime, I highly recommend Smith’s biography for an unsparing chronicle of eight years that forever altered America.

Review of: JFK’S Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President, by Thurston Clarke

I was only six years old, but I can recall it with great clarity: the principal visited our classroom—the President had been shot. My mother was crying when she picked me up from school; my teacher was crying; everyone was crying.  I was too young to remember JFK Last Hundred Days (2)Eisenhower; John F. Kennedy was the only President I had known.  He was THE President. It was hard to wrap my head around the news that he was dead, assassinated—a word I had never heard before. He was so young and handsome, so full of life, so much in command, our savior against the Russians, who I was told wanted to drop nuclear bombs on us and kill us all.  And I had a kid’s crush on his beautiful wife, Jacqueline, so much so that I memorized how to print her name.  She was on our black and white television that day, her dress covered in blood.

This review goes to press on the fifty-fourth anniversary of that day, November 22, 1963, that ever altered American history. The nation has never been the same since the assassination, and the act itself has never been satisfactorily explained, spawning a wealth of conspiracy theories that still resound in the millennium. Just recently, thousands of classified documents, long shrouded in secrecy, have been released, while some are yet withheld.  Like most Americans, I have never accepted the official explanation, that Oswald acted alone. As a historian, I know full well that history is ever replete with irony and coincidence.  Still, there has always seemed to be far too many strange circumstances, far too many coincidences, for the Warren Commission conclusions to completely ring true.  The mystery clings, but recedes into the past. This year marks one hundred years since Kennedy’s birth, but those of my generation will always see him in a grainy color photo as a vibrant forty-six, flashing white teeth in a wide smile on a ruddy face, seated in a limousine, with an unwittingly wave goodbye to an America about to be damaged so gravely that some might argue it has never fully recovered.

In a remarkable achievement, author Thurston Clarke has adroitly rewound the clock to the time just prior to that great goodbye with JFK’S Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President. I have read more than a half-dozen books on JFK, and I was delighted to find one that actually brought a fresh and surprisingly unique look to a subject that has been covered by so many from so many angles. So much that was Kennedy has become myth; Clarke has presented us with a chronicle of the last days of the living man, and lets us draw our own conclusions.

Kennedy was only President for less than three years, yet his time in office was so tumultuous for America—Bay of Pigs, Berlin Crisis, Civil Rights, Laos, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis that set us on the edge of nuclear cataclysm—that looking back it seems impossible that so much could have transpired in such a compressed timeline, amounting to a mere 1,036 days. Scion of wealth and notoriety, war hero, intellect, playboy, undistinguished legislator, the dashing and witty Kennedy stumbled into office to push the button on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion he inherited, then was humiliated in his first summit meeting with Khrushchev, who treated him like a foolish boy. But JFK quickly learned on his feet. He was highly intelligent, had strong instincts, demonstrated flexibility, and ever carried about him a sense of history. His political acumen accorded him that rare ability to be able to peek out from the eyes of his adversaries, and to put that perspective to work to his own advantage. Thus, he deftly negotiated his way out of a looming conflict in Laos, knew where to draw the line in Berlin to protect American interests without provoking war, and—most significantly—brilliantly sidestepped a potential Armageddon with the Soviets over missiles in Cuba so that peace prevailed without dishonor to either side. Kennedy was a markedly changed man after that: the seasoned leader who shepherded the landmark Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to passage was not the truculent cold warrior of three years prior who came to office denouncing a non-existent missile gap. The change echoed beyond that too, in almost everything that informed the remainder of his time in office. Alas, that time was to be very brief, and much hung in the balance.

The standard report card of a new President in the modern era is the “First Hundred Days,” but what about the “Last Hundred?” Is that relevant?  Rarely, but as it turns out there are important exceptions. Lincoln’s last hundred included Appomattox, and the light at the end of the long dark tunnel of Civil War, with clues of some significance as to how he might steward Reconstruction. FDR’s final months also edged to the conclusion of a great war, with victory in view but not yet obtained, and hints at how a post-war world might be constructed. Thurston Clarke’s magnificent work demonstrates that Kennedy’s last quarter rivals these in consequence and leaves many more questions.

Clarke does not go there, but many before him have juxtaposed Lincoln and Kennedy, who came to office exactly a century apart, presided over a great existential crisis, and then died at the hands of an assassin. It might be a stretch: Lincoln was clearly the greater figure, the greater President.  But there were nevertheless striking parallels in their respective trajectories: Lincoln’s prime directive was to save the union; Kennedy’s was to save the world from nuclear annihilation. This virtually demoted all other considerations into secondary matters, which was a magnet for critics and tarnished their legacies.  Ironically, the shared central element was the fate of African-Americans. For Lincoln, it was his failure to embrace and move faster on abolition. For Kennedy, it was his own failure to embrace and move faster on Civil Rights, a direct descendant of Lincoln’s struggle.  Both men were solid centrists who continuously fought off pressure from the left and right flanks of their own parties.  And both were superb politicians who understood that politics was ever and only the art of the possible.  Lincoln came to office with a loathing for slavery tempered by an acceptance of the institution as constitutionally protected; he came to abolition slowly and much later, driven by the events of secession and war. For Lincoln, saving the Union was paramount, with or without slavery.

In JFK’s Last Hundred Days, Clarke echoes the now familiar reproach to Kennedy’s slow journey to the championing of Civil Rights as the great moral cause of his day, although he was indeed moving in that direction. But Clarke does not have to spell out what the great body of his narrative quietly underscores: like Lincoln’s devotion to the Union, for Kennedy—especially after the close call of the Missile Crisis—there was no greater issue than the prospect of nuclear war and how to avert it. Still, it was hardly his only focus. With a 58% approval rating, Kennedy fully expected to be re-elected in 1964, and he was mapping out strategies that looked beyond the need to depend upon the support of the solid bloc of southern Democratic segregationists in Congress, especially with regard to Civil Rights.  And that is the great ghost that looms over the narrative.  What would Kennedy have done, or strived to do, had he lived?

We know what did happen after he was gone: escalation in Vietnam, race riots, massive protests, a near breakdown of society, violence and more assassinations (including JFK’s brother and political heir), two consecutive failed Presidencies led by men—Johnson and Nixon—Kennedy had privately confided that he thought unfit for office. America cannot help but collectively wonder how history might have been written had JFK not gone to Dallas, but such musings must be informed by the man he was becoming in the months leading up to that day. In the wake of the related yet diametrically opposed extremes of the Missile Crisis and the Test Ban Treaty, for JFK literally everything was on the table. He looked to developing a more permanent détente with the USSR. He considered long-term accommodation with Castro: if Fidel divorced himself from the Soviet orbit, he might treat Cuba as a kind of Caribbean Yugoslavia. For his domestic agenda, he looked beyond a sometime recalcitrant Congress to the aftermath of the next election for both tax cuts and Civil Rights. He wondered whether he could replace LBJ—who lacked Kennedy’s confidence and remained isolated in the administration—on the ’64 ticket.  It seems likely that part of his strategy in undertaking the somewhat thorny trip to Dallas was to gauge whether he could carry Texas without Johnson.

The greatest controversy has always swirled about the potential fate of American involvement in Vietnam had Kennedy lived. There is no new material in Clarke’s book, but what there is reinforces what we already know. In his famous interview with Walter Cronkite, as well as his private comments, it seems clear that Kennedy was seeking a way out. The changing relationship with Khrushchev could present opportunities to do just that. The model of both Laos and Berlin demonstrates that Kennedy liked to have that “Big Stick” Theodore Roosevelt once brandished, but—to the frequent consternation of his more hawkish generals—he was reluctant to use it except as last resort.  A decorated combat veteran who nearly lost his own life in the Pacific, JFK decried more than once the casual eagerness of those who would lightly spend American lives in war. Ambivalent about blessing the coup to topple Diem that was urged upon him, JFK was truly horrified by Diem’s death—only weeks before Dallas—which seemed to steel his determination to look to pull back the growing corps of “advisors” and seek a non-combat solution.   Given all of this, it seems highly unlikely Kennedy would have countenanced the commitment of ground troops in Vietnam, certainly not on the kind of pretext Johnson was to use in the Gulf of Tonkin.

If the subtitle of Clarke’s work— The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President—hints at a kind of fawning, court biography, that is not at all the case. The author clearly admires his subject, but hardly overlooks Kennedy’s many flaws, especially his addiction to serial philandering that ever put his Presidency, and his chances for re-election, at risk. Nor, as noted, does he excuse JFK’s tone deafness to the clarion call of Civil Rights, which won his sympathy but hardly unqualified commitment. Clarke skillfully places all of it in carefully nuanced context, and lets the narrative speak for itself.

That narrative—a numbered countdown of days that just barely contains a palpable sense of impending doom—is ever ominous, bookended early on by the death of Kennedy’s infant son (like Lincoln once more, Kennedy lost a child in the White House), and the assassination.  Famously, Kennedy compartmentalized his life, and Jackie—despite the glamour and prestige in her role as First Lady—was frequently the sad and lonely occupant of one of those walled chambers. The tragic death of their baby seems to have brought Jack and Jackie closer together than ever before. Yet, like Lincoln before him, JFK could not really devote the appropriate time to mourn, or to comfort his wife; the fate of the nation, even the world, demanded that he ever be present and in command.  Of course, Kennedy himself could only approach each day and ponder his options, while the reader is fraught with the terrible knowledge of how the story will end.

It is said that Lincoln dreamt of his own death in the days that preceded it. There are disturbing harbingers here, as well. It seems eerily prescient when Kennedy muses about his odds of being murdered, once even play-acting his own assassination. He confided to a friend that death by gunshot would be best because “You never know what’s hit you.” As he jousted with the generals—especially LeMay, who to JFK’s horror advocated for first use of nuclear weapons and privately disparaged the President as a coward—Kennedy thought a military coup possible, and perhaps even likely. He read himself into the plot of the recently published novel based on just this scenario, Seven Days in May, which he took as a forewarning of what might befall him. An Ian Fleming fan, Kennedy was also reportedly at work on writing a kind of James Bond style thriller of a coup masterminded by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. For some reason, no drafts of this effort survive …

In The Phenomenon of Man, Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin speaks to the process of “becoming,” in which an individual evolves and is transformed each day into a changed human being who has been informed by all of the days that preceded that one.  Thurston Clarke’s fine study clearly shows that Kennedy was, on each and every day, likewise “becoming” and transforming. That is, until November 22, 1963.