Review of: Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights, by Steven Levingston

The fifty-five years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated has seen his standing rise considerably among both historians and the general public, even putting him into the kennedy & kingtop ten on some lists, which is remarkable for a man who served such a brief tenure—only 1,036 days—as President, yet is less surprising perhaps when juxtaposed with his successors, whom he certainly surpassed by most metrics. At the same time, his legacy remains tarnished by his reckless philandering, as well as his oft-cited failure to fully embrace the moral imperative of Civil Rights as the critical domestic cause of his era. Five years after his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King—the central figure in that cause—also fell victim to an assassin’s bullet.  While likewise dogged in some quarters by his own flaws as a womanizer, King could be said to have transcended Kennedy in death by achieving an iconic status. JFK’s visage appears on a fifty-cent piece nobody uses, while King can boast both a national holiday and an inextricable identification with pivotal African American achievement in the Civil Rights arena. If not completely forgotten, long overlooked is the fact that the paths of these outsize figures of 1960s America not only crossed on several occasions but overlapped with some significance. Their complicated relationship and its consequential impact upon American history has been brilliantly captured by Washington Post nonfiction editor Steven Levingston in Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights.

On the face of it, Kennedy and King had virtually nothing in common. Kennedy was the Massachusetts scion of wealth and privilege, a war hero who had become President of the United States, arguably the most powerful man on the planet. King was a Baptist minister and activist from Georgia, an African American born into a permanent racial underclass—which meant a status that was harshly and often brutally defined in the American south—who assumed an increasingly central role in the leadership of the Civil Rights movement.  But there were indeed commonalities. Both were handsome, charismatic figures with natural leadership qualities strengthened by conviction but tempered by a strong sense of the achievable, and validated by remarkable personal courage: King was frequently roughed up and jailed, which he bore with great equanimity; when his PT boat was lost in the Pacific in World War II, Kennedy swam three and a half miles over a four hour stretch towing a badly injured crewman to safety with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth. Both men were highly educated, cultivated intellects with superlative written and rhetorical skills.  Each were centrist figures subjected to frequent attacks from their flanks. King was pressured to go slower by more conservative blacks unnerved by the hostility and violence the Civil Rights movement provoked, while also subjected to ridicule as a celebrity with few real achievements for the wider community by African Americans becoming increasingly radicalized by that very hostility and violence unleashed by white politicians and police upon helpless protesters sworn to King’s vision of nonviolent protest. Kennedy was ever beset by attacks from his political left and right, sometimes mocked for showing “more profile than courage”—in a jab at the title of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage—as he navigated a tumultuous crisis-driven tenure dominated by pressing foreign exigencies.

Preoccupied with Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s brinksmanship and a Cold War that grew increasingly hotter by the moment, JFK dodged Civil Rights as a domestic distraction that he could not afford to dwell upon. Unlike Eisenhower, his immediate predecessor, racism was not a part of his DNA, but neither did he view Civil Rights as the great moral crusade of his time. Sensitive to demands for black equality and frustrated by southern intransigence in this regard, he nevertheless framed the struggle in legalistic rather than ethical terms.

By all rights, Jack Kennedy should have been more sympathetic to the plight of African Americans, still marginalized by endemic racial prejudice a century after emancipation, and frequently subjected to beatings and lynching in much of the South if they dared to challenge the status quo. After all, both of Kennedy’s grandfathers were Irish Catholic immigrants in Boston in the late antebellum era at a time when the Irish were the most despised demographic in America, so much so that the nativist Know-Nothing Party swept the Massachusetts state legislature and the governor’s office with overheated rhetoric aimed at the almost apocalyptic threat posed by the “dirty Irish.” But times change; one of those grandfathers went on become a two-term mayor of Boston. And Jack’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had his revenge on those who would shun him by becoming a millionaire. The older Kennedy boys experienced some bullying based on their ethnicity growing up, but were mostly insulated by their father’s wealth and position. Hatred of the Irish faded, but their Catholicism remained a social obstacle; JFK barely edged out lingering religious bigotry to win the presidency in 1960. Interestingly, it was Robert Kennedy—brother, Attorney General, and closest advisor to the President—who saw social acceptance of African Americans over time through this lens, even with prescience suggesting that a black man could obtain the White House in decades to come. Ironically, Martin Luther King also had a white Irish grandfather . . .

Kennedy and King first crossed paths with a tangential yet pivotal telephone call of sympathy and support that then-candidate Kennedy made to King’s pregnant wife on the eve of the presidential election, while King was jailed for his part in a protest, his fate uncertain. There was inevitably some political calculation in this—JFK was a master politician—as he lobbied for black voters in the north who tended to favor his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon. But there was more, as well: Kennedy was struck by the unfairness of King’s treatment, and there was indeed a greater risk of alienating the solidly segregationist Democratic South by reaching out to King’s family, which is why the call was opposed by nearly every member of his campaign. That phone call was to be historic, and in that narrow race black votes may have been crucial to the outcome.

In an outstanding narrative, Levingston charts how that call, lasting less than ninety seconds, served as foundation to an uneasy relationship that often had the two men dancing around rather than with each other on the national stage, each sensitive to the other’s position but often disappointed that one would not follow where the other sought to lead. Yet, as the author deftly demonstrates, Kennedy evolved in Civil Rights as he evolved in nearly every arena.  Some have suggested that JFK was dragged kicking and screaming to stand with a cause that was righteous and belated. While there may be some merit to that point of view, it lacks the appropriate nuance and complexity and context that is neatly enriched by Levingston’s analysis. Kennedy did, at root, care about black oppression, but he would have preferred to postpone the fight, at least until after his 1964 reelection, when he would no longer have to risk retaliation at the ballot box by white Southern Democrats. Of course, neither Dr. King nor rival African American leaders were willing to wait any further for long overdue justice. Moreover, as Levingston reports, there was a good deal of jockeying behind the scenes that JFK does not often receive credit for, much of it spearheaded by Robert Kennedy, who hardly could have acted without his brother’s blessing and encouragement.  Also noteworthy is that perhaps more blacks were welcomed to the Kennedy White House for both business and social occasions than at any time since Lincoln was President. JFK may be accused of taking baby steps, but these were giant leaps compared to those who came before him, especially Eisenhower, who did virtually nothing to advance African American equality during his eight years in office.

In the end, as detailed in a chapter entitled with a Kennedy quote—“It Often Helps Me to be Pushed”—the President did step up to the bully pulpit and champion the cause with a televised speech to the nation,  reminding the audience that America “was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” And there was a new commitment to Civil Rights legislation. During the subsequent March on Washington in which King delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, African American White House doorman Preston Bruce, who was with the President, recalled that “an emotional John Kennedy gripped the windowsill so firmly his knuckles blanched. ‘Oh Bruce,’ he told the doorman, ‘I wish I was out there with them.’”

There is some irony that JFK walked a similar razor’s edge with his slow embrace of Civil Rights that Lincoln did with emancipation a century before, and his legacy—like Lincoln’s—has suffered for it.  And, often unacknowledged, both men had their reasons. For Lincoln, it was the Civil War that posed an existential threat to the nation’s survival; he abhorred slavery, but would let it be if he could save the Union. For Kennedy, it was perhaps an even greater menace, that of nuclear annihilation, that forced JFK’s focus away from other competing issues. Like Lincoln, Kennedy was ever cognizant of principle while never losing sight of the possible.  There is much to suggest that had he lived to command a second term in the White House, John F. Kennedy would have earned the praise for advancing African American equality that his untimely death denied him.

I have read numerous books about John Kennedy, an exceedingly complex character who lived his public and personal life in definitive compartments. The man and the myth are often commingled, distorting both what was and what we would like to remember. While hardly as critical or iconic to our nation’s destiny as Jefferson or Lincoln, like those two giants of American history JFK was not only brilliant but both principled and malleable.  Moreover, like Jefferson he could be a mass of self-contradiction, a political acrobat poised upon opposite sides of a single issue.  And like Lincoln he was forever evolving—ever “becoming,” in the parlance of Teilhard de Chardin—a new and better version of himself, until the day came, like Lincoln before him, that a bullet forever stilled that process.

Review of: Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami

Imagine the frustration of reading a novel of nearly seven hundred pages by one of your favorite authors to find it not only unfulfilling but just terrible? That was my experience Killing Commendatorewith Killing Commendatore, the latest work from Haruki Murakami. (Fair warning: spoilers ahead!)

To say that I am a Murakami fan is an understatement: I have read every one of his many novels and short story collections—Murakami is a prolific writer—and I have reviewed a host of them. I no longer read a good deal of fiction, but when someone comes to me for a literary recommendation, I usually rave about Murakami.  I cannot say that I have loved everything he has written, but I hold much of it in very high regard. My favorites are those where he blends magical realism with his superb writing style—akin to the literary subgenre made famous by Gabriel Garcia Marquez—to create iconic novels of extraordinary brilliance like Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and 1Q84. And while I tend to have less interest in the more grounded, tragi-comic romantic efforts like Norwegian Wood that first won him international fame, I still credit these as fine books.  Murakami can be frustrating: many of his novels end with plot lines and characters suspended, maddeningly unresolved. But few authors leave the reader with so much to think about after the cover is closed, even if so much is left up in the air. Killing Commendatore—unfortunately—left me with little more than a bad taste in my mouth.

It doesn’t start off that way. The unnamed thirty-something male protagonist is a docile introvert right out of Murakami central casting, a passive fellow who generally lets life happen to him—until, that is, his wife abruptly ends their relationship with little explanation, with pronounced echoes of the character and plot of a Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Unlike similar Murakami protagonists though, this guy doesn’t just sit around contemplating his naval, listening to classical music and reading (at least not right away!), but instead he gets angry—angry enough to give up his livelihood as a successful commercial artist specializing in portrait painting and hop in his car for a long aimless road trip. Doing something—rather than simply enduring his fate—is a fairly dramatic change of pace for a Murakami male.

Eventually, he ends up housesitting at the secluded mountaintop home of a famous artist—now elderly and suffering from Alzheimer’s, bedridden in a medical facility—who happens to be the father of an old friend grateful to have someone there to keep an eye on the place. Determined to return to his roots of doing art for art’s sake rather than the dull commercial painting he pursued for years, he welcomes the splendid isolation here, where it is so remote—we are supposed to believe—that radio, television, internet and even cell phone service are completely out of reach, leaving only a single landline to communicate with the outside world. But the house has a strange feel to it, somewhat akin to the “Dolphin Hotel” made famous in Murakami’s early novels, A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance; the kind of vague sense of eeriness that pervades a locale conjured up by Stephen King.

Exploring, he comes upon a horned owl living in the attic alongside a painting that has been wrapped in paper and secreted there, no doubt by the renowned artist who lived here before he was institutionalized.  Unwrapped, it turns out to be a scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, depicting the killing of the character “Il Commendatore,” but incongruously set in seventh-century Japan and painted in a traditional Japanese style. Hence the novel’s title: Killing Commendatore.  Then things start to get really weird: in the middle of the night, our main character begins to hear inexplicable sounds of a bell ringing beneath the ground near an old shrine out back.  Meanwhile, his life takes another strange turn as he is pressed to accept a commission to paint yet one more portrait, this time for an affluent yet enigmatic neighbor named Menshiki, who sports a shock of pure white hair and lives in a nearby mansion.  The offer is so substantial that he cannot turn it down. Menshiki seems odd, even somewhat menacing, but the two nevertheless develop a kind of friendship, which comes in handy when Menshiki puts his wealth and resources to bear to chase down the recurring subterranean knell, bringing in a crew and heavy machinery to excavate the mound behind the shrine and revealing a stone chamber with high walls and a perfectly preserved ancient bell, although absent the mysterious bell-ringer.  The tantalizing whiff of the supernatural that emanates from that episode is nothing compared to what is to follow, when sometime later our protagonist is confronted by a walking, talking two-foot tall version of the Commendatore, clad just as depicted in the painting in seventh-century garb and carrying a tiny sword! All of this, more or less—and there actually is quite a bit more—marks just the beginning of the novel, and we are on page two-hundred-thirty-eight!

Lots of tantalizing material here that … well … meanders for several hundred more pages and quite frankly goes nowhere, or at least nowhere of much interest. Plenty of tensions build and dissipate. There are moments of great suspense—some that even verge on terror—that simply fizzle. Characters appear to be not who they seem to be … but maybe they really are after all? There are pages upon pages upon pages of narrative and dialogue that smack of the clue-laden and suggestive, but ultimately turn out to be just pages and pages and pages that add even greater complexity to an already overly complicated plot that tends to act as a burden on the handful of rather superficial characters that people the novel. Sadly, after nearly seven hundred pages of twists and turns, the reader is left with little more than a profound sense of disappointment.

There are indeed some familiar echoes of Murakami themes here—the passive main character spends hours alone listening to classical music, the stone chamber behind the shrine is reminiscent of the bottom of the well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and there is even homage to the author’s well-known fetish for women’s ears—but it is nonetheless clear that the novelist seeks to break new ground here. This is most evident in the somewhat frank descriptions of sexual acts, conspicuously absent from earlier works. Those who have read Murakami know that sex is treated with perfunctorily when it is treated with at all. This changes with Killing Commendatore, however, from the main character’s random tryst with an anonymous stranger he encounters on the road—who violently couples with him while demanding that he slap and choke her—to various episodes with other women in the course of the novel. But while the sex described is indeed more graphic, the author fails to hit the high notes of eroticism; all of it rings of more of the documentary than the decadent. It is clear that Murakami remains awkward around sexuality, if only in his choice of terminology: no matter how much heat you add to an afternoon delight, “vagina” still sounds more anatomical than erogenous. And awkward verges on the creepy with the character of Mariye Akikawa, a precocious teenage girl who seems to channel May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and who may or may not be Menshiki’s love child. But Mariye is only thirteen years old, and the far too frequent references to her as “beautiful” coupled with discussions of her developing breasts lean sharply to the uncomfortable. The author seems to palpably leer at Mariye through the eyes of the protagonist, which because of her youth made this reader recoil.

But even in familiar territory, there are stumbles and wrong turns. In his fiction, Murakami’s brand of magical realism is often over the top—Kafka on the Shore features a forgotten village in the forest where time has stopped circa 1965, and in 1Q84 there is an alternate reality version of the Earth that has two moons in its orbit—yet it always seems to make sense within the context of the respective novel. In contrast, the little Commendatore that steps out of the painting here strikes the reader as more cartoonish than surreal. Suspending disbelief is a critical mechanism for any novel that challenges reality, and even without two-foot tall men with swords walking around it is difficult to buy into the notion that there could be a contemporary location in a modern nation like Japan that is fully stuck in a 1990 communications time-warp. The ability of his main character to simply “Google” something that he questions must have been a plot roadblock for the author that he dealt with by simply inventing a locale out of reach of the web; readers remain unconvinced.  Worst of all, the writing—always Murakami’s strongest suit—tends to the pedestrian here.  My email signatures have frequently featured quotes from Murakami fiction; in my estimation, there is virtually nothing in Killing Commendatore worth quoting. Long passages are given to stultifying dialogue. Rarely are there more than two people in the same room, and they are usually engaged in long conversations that seem not only forced but unconvincing.  And—perhaps responding to criticism that his novels leave so many loose ends—this time around Murakami ties nearly all of these up, although the various resolutions and explanations are not only unsatisfying but irritating because they strain—and largely fail—to ring true. The whole novel has the feel of a low budget B-grade horror flick with a handful of actors, ominous moments and looming terror that never quite gets off the ground.

Prior to this, my least favorite Murakami novel was Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which struck me as dull and uninspiring. But this novel is much worse. Despite this, Haruki Murakami remains one of the finest novelists of the twenty-first century. My advice: skip Killing Commendatore; there are plenty of other Murakami novels that are worth the time to read and cherish—just not this one . . .



[NOTE: For the uninitiated, a free taste of Murakami—his outstanding 2014 short story “Scheherazade” from Men Without Women—is available online at: ]

[NOTE: This blog has featured reviews of several other works of Murakami fiction, including:

Men Without Women:

South of the Border, West of the Sun

Hear the Wind Sing & Pinball 1973:

After the Quake:

Sputnik Sweetheart:

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman:]

Review of: Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, by Joseph A. Esposito

“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone,” President John F. Kennedy famously remarked with his dinner in camelotcharacteristic wit and charm the night of April 29, 1962 when he hosted a remarkable gathering of forty-nine Nobel Prize winners and assorted writers, artists, scientists and intellects. More than fifty-six years later—and nearly fifty-five years since JFK was murdered—it seems almost impossible to believe that the America of that era and the White House of that evening ever existed.  That is less because of the presence or absence of Kennedy—both the mythical icon and the admirable yet flawed man who walked the earth—than it is because of us, of what we have become. That dinner was symbolic of a time when science and expertise and the arts were respected, even cherished, and that in itself is a cruel juxtaposition to our own moment when as a nation we embrace charlatans and blatantly celebrate ignorance.

It is the mark of a great historian to locate a single moment in time containing an outsize if overlooked significance and focus a narrow lens upon it; it is the mark of a great author to transform that snapshot into a full-length portrait that is at once interesting, informative, and even inspiring. With Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, Joseph A. Esposito demonstrates that he is worthy of both superlatives. In one slim but dense volume, Esposito artfully weaves together the collective stories of the notables who attended, of the young President, just a bit more than a year into his term, of the elegant and beautiful First Lady, of the staff behind the scenes, of the event and its import, and even the architecture and décor of the twin event venues, the State Dining Room and Blue Room in the White House. The attendees were what we would in contemporary idiom dub the “rockstars” of their fields in their day, and looking back it seems fully extraordinary that such a gathering ever really took place with all of them actually in one place at the same time.

Dinner in Camelot opens with a peculiar scene that is highly significant as a reflection of the United States of America, then and now: hours before dinner was served, one of the most famous guests, Linus Pauling—Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry and peace activist—joined a passionate crowd outside picketing the White House to lobby for a nuclear test ban treaty. Later that evening, in the receiving line, the First Lady chided Pauling for upsetting their daughter Caroline with his protest. The President was hardly thrilled with Pauling’s agitation either, although he mostly kept it to himself, but it is striking that Pauling was nevertheless welcomed to the dinner and treated with the appropriate respect due to a man of his stature. No one questioned his right to be part of that demonstration. Another eminent scientist in attendance that evening was J. Robert Oppenheimer, known popularly as the “father of the atomic bomb,” who had gone on from his great accomplishments to have his security clearance revoked as he fell victim to the excesses of McCarthyism. This dinner was the first step back on the road to his rehabilitation.  Oddly enough, Pauling and Oppenheimer had once been very close friends, but had a falling out years earlier when the latter made a clumsy play for Pauling’s stunning wife. Among scientists, however, the real “rockstar” that night would have been astronaut John Glenn, who just two months before had become the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn was seated at Jackie Kennedy’s table that evening.

Spouses were not seated together at this dinner.  The foreward to Dinner in Camelot was written by poet and writer Rose Styron, who sat a different table that evening from her husband, William Styron, who was not yet the celebrated novelist he was to later become.  But there were plenty of authentic literary legends in attendance, including Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, power couple Lionel and Diana Trilling, and especially the iconic eighty-eight-year-old poet Robert Frost, who was not only seated at the President’s table that night but was among a select group invited to an after-dinner gathering at the Kennedy’s private quarters. Also at JFK’s table was Mary Hemingway, widow of Ernest Hemingway, who had committed suicide only nine months before. The noted actor Frederic March presented some of Papa’s unpublished work after dinner. Both Pearl Buck and Mary Hemingway took issue with aspects of Kennedy’s foreign policy, but only Mary spoke up, gently challenging the President on Cuba.

Another literary figure at the dinner was African American author James Baldwin. Kennedy has often been criticized for not moving fast enough on Civil Rights, and while there may be some merit to that reproach, at the same time it should be noted how radical it was to a Southern audience in 1962 for a black man to break bread at the same table with white men and especially white women, this at a pivotal moment with steam gathering in the national struggle for Civil Rights and its widespread resistance by a stubbornly segregationist and solidly Democratic South—at a White House dinner hosted by no less than the President of the United States, who was a Democrat himself!  When Booker T. Washington dined with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, the national outrage in its aftermath was so extreme that while T.R. defended the invitation he never repeated it; it was nearly thirty years before another black person was welcomed for dinner at the White House. In addition to Baldwin, African American diplomat and Nobel winner Ralphe Bunche was also a prominent guest that evening.  The President was ever mindful of political realities and the road to re-election in ’64, but for the first time since Lincoln sat across from Frederick Douglass, the front door to the White House was truly open to African American guests.

If we are going to apply the term “rockstar” in its twenty-first century parlance, then the real “rockstar” was John F. Kennedy, the young, handsome, articulate President who was in the spring of 1962 still slowly finding his way. 1961 had not gone well for him. He had pushed the button on a hare-brained Cuba scheme inherited from his predecessor that turned into the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A subsequent summit with the mercurial Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had left him beaten and bruised.  Acquiescence to the construction of the Berlin Wall made Kennedy seem to many like an irresolute leader, although in retrospect it said more about the weakness of the Soviet system rather than the strength of the American one.  No matter. Obstacles like these were not about to serve as roadblocks for a guy ever in ill-health who nonetheless schemed to get past the “4F” he had earned to gain naval command in World War II, who after his PT boat was sunk put raw courage and ingenuity to work to save his crew, including a harrowing four hour long, three-and-a-half mile swim to an island refuge while towing a badly injured crewman with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth. Kennedy had a brilliant mind and a visceral sense of the world, and he learned well on the job. Perhaps his greatest challenge, the Cuban Missile Crisis, was six months ahead of him when he sat down with that incredible array of intellectual superstars that evening, but when that chilling time was upon him, he proved to be ready for it. Few who were alive during Kennedy’s brief tenure doubt that had he lived, much of what was to follow in American history after Dallas would have gone very, very differently. The night of the Nobel dinner, no one could have guessed that the charming, vibrant Kennedy had just a year and a half left on this earth. But that evening, he was the host of this amazing gathering of giants, and he too was a giant among them, whether he or any of his guests could have imagined that at that time.

We all know that the “Camelot” in the book’s title—the name the grieving widow gave to the press for the Kennedy White House shortly after it was forever taken from us—was a myth, a tearful hyperbole, an imaginary glory. But was it? Was it really?  Because we know now that the President had many affairs, that the President had many flaws, that the President made many mistakes … But … has there ever been a White House like the Kennedy White House? Could any of his successors have hosted a dinner like that? Probably not.  But the truth is, since that date, no one has.

The beauty of this wonderful book is that it is a collection of many different kinds of stories that all happen to coalesce on this one evening, at this White House, at this particular moment in American history. When we look back on JFK there is always a sense of a promise unfulfilled, but this dinner is an example of a real promise for America that was fulfilled; of a moment of real greatness when science and literature and the arts were not simply tolerated but embraced.  What would Jack Kennedy—indeed what would any of the most notable of the attendees of that dinner—make of the current climate of the nation today … of the current occupant of the White House? Dinner in Camelot is not only a celebration of what once was, but a stinging rebuke of what currently is. I urge you to read this magnificent book as a means to both celebrate a past that has been lost to us and to inspire us to seek a future that better resembles that emblem of the past than the unfortunate specter of the present.

Nobel DinnerJFKWHP-KN-21214

[Dinner for Nobel Prize Winners. Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson, Pearl Buck, President Kennedy, Mrs.Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert Frost, others. East Room, White House on April 29, 1962. Photo courtesy of Robert Knudsen, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository]

NOTE: This review is also available as a podcast:

PODCAST#3 … Review of  Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House,  by Joseph A. Esposito

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Review of: Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America, by David O. Stewart

One of my favored methods for exploring United States history is through the biographies of American presidents, which often provide a critical lens to their respective eras. I have read books on some eighteen of the forty-four men who have held madisons-gift-that office to date, and my personal library contains volumes for all of them.  More than once I have entertained the notion of reading them in chronological order, but each attempt stumbled on James Madison, number four on the list. One of the most prominent figures of the early Republic—a celebrated Founder who long before he was Chief Executive was renowned as “Father of the Constitution,” key author of the Federalist Papers, member of Congress, partner to Jefferson in creating the first political party, Secretary of State, and so much more—Madison has largely defied biographers because despite his distinguished achievements his elusive personality has somehow mostly been lost to history. We know so much about him, but so little of him. Thus, most attempts at biography drape enormous scholarship over a somewhat colorless outline of the man, and the final product tends to the dull and uninspiring, hardly doing justice to one of the greatest figures of his day.

Fortunately, David O. Stewart has come along with Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America, a fresh and unique approach that relies upon key interactions with those whom Madison worked most closely with to sketch in many otherwise obscure contours of a fascinating if somewhat enigmatic character. Madison was physically tiny, and some have sought to cleverly contrast his diminutive size by casting him as a giant of a statesman, but it might be more accurate to instead emphasize his outsize role in the shadows of more flamboyant figures. That is the tack Stewart takes here by examining what we can learn about James Madison from his critical relationships with four other significant Founders—Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson and Monroe—and with his own wife, Dolley. In the process, Stewart crafts an episodic, well-written narrative that also serves as a kind of standalone history of key events in the early Republic.

Madison’s work with Hamilton as they teamed up as chief authors of the Federalist Papers and framers of the new Constitution—one that deeply alarmed those who jealously guarded state sovereignty—is a familiar story. Also much chronicled has been Madison’s long association with fellow-Virginian Jefferson, one that gained strength as they privately connived to turn “faction”—which was widely disparaged as odious—into a legitimate political party.  The product of their collaboration was the (first) Republican Party (also known as the Democratic-Republican Party), which was to supplant the rival Federalists identified with Washington, Adams and Hamilton, and go on to dominate the nation’s political landscape for three decades to come.

Less studied but perhaps no less relevant was the close relationship Madison formed with Washington, as speechwriter, advisor and trusted confidante.  Alas, this rapport was not to last, as Madison went off to serve in the nation’s first Congress, and Washington spent much of the first several years of his tenure contending with the bitter rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson, key cabinet members who represented two competing views of the role the federal government should play in the life of the new Republic. Madison stood on both sides of many of these issues, at least initially, but over time he was to align ever more in lockstep with Jefferson and thus increasingly in enmity with Hamilton, eventually alienating Washington by extension.  One cannot help but wonder at alternative outcomes had Madison been part of that first cabinet rather than serving as legislator outside of Washington’s direct orbit.

Madison’s relationship with Monroe, another fellow Virginian and slightly younger contemporary, was in many ways far more complicated. Monroe—proud, ultrasensitive, and less cerebral than Madison or the others—was nevertheless a gifted negotiator and strong leader. Sometime rivals, what turned out to be a long association managed to survive strains and even fractures. It is in their on-again off-again alliance that Madison’s willingness to cede center-stage to those seeking the spotlight while nevertheless quietly and skillfully directing the action behind the scenes is made most evident. It was not that Madison was unambitious—he hardly could have achieved offices like Secretary of State or President if that was the case—but unlike many of his peers he did not wear this ambition as a badge, but was content to sidestep the jockeying for recognition that so obsessed the others, while he brilliantly if unobtrusively maneuvered for influence and power. Stewart’s portrait of Madison ever engaged in partnerships is not simply a narrative device; Madison genuinely thrived in these relationships. It may be that Madison has eluded us for so long largely because his other biographers have overlooked the centrality of this key ingredient.

As Madison’s Gift reveals, his “partnership” with Dolley was no less consequential than with those other notables.  Madison was middle-aged when he met and married the much younger and taller winsome widow who was to forever define the role that would later be dubbed “First Lady.” It is only through her that we can better discern the man behind the curtain, who was apparently in the semi-privacy of his extended family quite playful and romantic, given to wine, a wicked sense humor, and even foot races.  Stewart shares a delightful anecdote in which “Dolley, who was ‘stronger as well as larger than he,’ sometimes ‘could – and did – seize his hands, draw him upon her back, and go round the room with him.’” Finally, a palpable glimpse of the flesh-and-blood Madison that once walked the earth!

Stewart plainly admires his subject, but this is no hagiography; slaveowner Madison gets no pass from the author in this regard. The scholarly consensus is that by far the greatest flaw of the Founders was their collective failure to address the institution of human chattel slavery, which led directly to the Civil War that was to cost more than six hundred thousand American lives, and Madison was more than complicit in this later catastrophe. The once much-heralded three-fifths compromise that counted enslaved human beings as partial people for the purposes of representation was a cheat that evaded the existential crisis ahead.  The Founding generation was evidently deeply disturbed by the contradictions in their own cries for liberty and equality when juxtaposed with what they themselves clearly acknowledged as an immense evil.  We have ample evidence of these great men—Patrick Henry, Washington, Jefferson and indeed Madison—decrying slavery while failing to combat it. The striking ambivalence is perhaps best articulated in Jefferson’s famous “wolf by the ear” analogy that sounds more like an excuse than a rationale. For the sake of his own legacy, Washington had the good fortune to die before the eighteenth century expired while manumitting his slaves in his will. Jefferson and Madison lived on with their human property to bob-and-weave intellectually, while toying with African colonization schemes, and ever making excuses against abolition. Indeed, later in life Madison actually went on record blaming abolitionists for spawning crises rather than slaveowners for enabling a morally abhorrent system that hardly shielded them from the ever-looming debt and bankruptcy that the planter aristocracy rode upon.

Madison’s Gift revisits the elderly statesman’s final public role as representative to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829 that also featured other ancient stand-ins from the early days of the Republic such as John Marshall and Monroe.  The revered Madison appeared anachronistically clad in eighteenth-century attire in what turned out to be an epic failure to address slavery, representation, and a more equitable expansion of the franchise. He also lived through the Virginia House of Delegates sessions of 1831-32 that debated abolition, but was not a participant. [Each of these grand missed opportunities is covered in great detail in Susan Dunn’s magnificent Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia.]

When Madison died in 1836, he had outlived nearly everyone of significance of his era (Aaron Burr passed only a few months later), but this great issue of human bondage lingered. Only twenty-five years later, the Republic was ripped asunder over it.  To make matters worse, Jefferson’s cries during the crisis over the Alien & Sedition Acts that a state might resist federal laws—a notion Madison seemed to echo, with a pronounced nuance others overlooked—regained a stubborn currency in the march to secession. With a tragic irony, the great Madison, who had done so much to make and give polish to the new nation, left behind sharp edges for another generation to fashion into weapons wielded to sever and unmake it.

I first encountered the Stewart in his earlier work, Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, which introduced a brilliant new perspective that unsettled established historiography. This accomplishment is made even more impressive by the fact that the author is not a trained historian, but an attorney! That this achievement was no fluke is powerfully demonstrated in Madison’s Gift, a superb contribution to history and biography that significantly furthers our interpretation of the figures that peopled the early Republic. And, thanks to Stewart, I can check off Madison and resume my chronological challenge: now it’s on to Monroe!

[My review of:  Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, by David O. Stewart, is here:]

[My review of: Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia by Susan Dunn, is here:]

Review of: Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward

I can think of no greater example of cognitive dissonance than my recent experience of alternating between reading a biography of James Madison by David O. Stewart, and Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, a jarring snapshot of the current FearChief Executive. Woodward’s episodic study makes manifestly clear that Donald Trump is a singular figure. That there has indeed never been an American Presidency like this one. That even the genius of a Madison as he crafted the Constitution could never have foreseen a moment like this in the life of the Republic. And one more thing: it is far worse than we ever could have imagined.

Full disclosure: I am not and have never been a Trump supporter. But I am also wary of the media frenzy that has attended this President, of the hyperbole that it has (at least in part) spawned, and especially of the dangers of confirmation bias.  As such, I refused to read Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the much-celebrated expose of the administration that was reportedly as frequently long on bombshells as it was short on substantiation. It used to be said of the Greek historian Herodotus—whose grand opus was a blend of history and hearsay—that if what Herodotus said wasn’t true, then it should be. Clever that may be, yet hardly a basis for sound historiography.  But Herodotus’s intellectual heir was Thucydides, and he was far more careful with his own account. If Wolff can be faulted for straying to the sloppy, as Herodotus sometimes did, the same cannot be alleged of Bob Woodward—the former Washington Post journalist who played a pivotal role in uncovering the Watergate scandal, and has since written detailed studies of multiple Presidents and their administrations. If there is a Thucydides to chronicle the modern American President, it is Bob Woodward.

Much of what might be termed the most “sensational” material from Fear went public prior to its publication date, and much of that either corroborated what was already out there—yes then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did refer to the President out loud as a moron, just as earlier reported—or confirmed what we suspected: a largely emasculated John Kelly serves as something more akin to Trump’s personal Maître D’ than he does White House Chief of Staff.  One nugget from Fear has a frustrated Kelly—who once described the President as “unhinged”—exclaiming: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown.” Elsewhere, Secretary of Defense James Mattis confides to associates that Trump “acted like—and had the understanding of—a fifth or sixth grader.”

But by far the most disturbing episode from Fear that went public pre-release was the account of how then-Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn—alarmed that Trump was about to sign a document ending a key trade agreement with South Korea that also dove-tailed with a security arrangement that would alert us to North Korean nuclear adventurism—simply stole the document off the President’s desk! Apparently, the President never missed it …  It turns out that Cohn frequently partnered with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to rein in Trump’s wilder impulses.

All of this would be disturbing enough coming from the pen of Bob Woodward if it was not chillingly underscored by an anonymous Op-Ed by a senior administration official published by the New York Times a week before the book was released that sought to reassure the nation that there were indeed steadier hands behind the scenes keeping a close eye on the President so he didn’t actually pilot the circus train off the tracks into an abyss.  This was greeted by equal parts of howls of rage or gushes of praise for the unknown author—depending on whether your pitchfork tilted to the right or the left—but reassurance was decidedly absent.  Trumpster cries of “fake news” notwithstanding, it confirmed that Woodward was indeed on to something.

Fear covers approximately the first fifteen months of the Trump Administration, and is based upon hundreds of hours of what Woodward terms “multiple deep background interviews with firsthand sources,” who remain unnamed. Critics wield the reliance on these unnamed sources as an assault weapon on Woodward’s credibility, but the author’s approach—supported by both meticulous notes and recorded sessions—have a long history, and little of significance in his reporting has not withstood careful scrutiny. And claims of a partisan axe to grind hardly stand up given the way prior Woodward books have (at times) unfavorably portrayed both the G.W. Bush and the Obama administrations. Moreover, as Fear went to press, Woodward released both the audio and a written transcript of a telephone conversation with the President, who claimed to regret missing out on a one-on-one with Woodward while feebly claiming he had no idea such an interview had been sought. There is no guarantee that Woodward’s sources aren’t lying, but we can reliably count on the fact that Woodward is reliably reporting what he has been told.

For those who have yet to read Fear, it should be noted that since much of the highlights have already appeared in the press in some detail, it may not be worth investing the time—unless you are a political junkie like this reviewer, in which case that time will certainly be well spent!  And there are valuable insights. Steve Bannon turns out to not only be the chief kingmaker of Donald Trump, but a kind of de facto kingpin himself, at least in the early formative months of the administration, a nearly anonymous disheveled bundle of alt-right venom whose whisper was often the most welcome to the President’s ear.  While perhaps it would be difficult for anyone to successfully serve under this President, none of his “big guns”—Tillerson, Mattis, Priebus, Kelly, Masterson—seem to have the kinds of skill-sets that would find a real measure of success in any administration. Essentially—and perhaps not unsurprisingly to anyone who has been paying attention—even his best people are not the best people.

If there are heroes in the pages of Fear, one of them is Cohn, a brilliant figure out of Wall Street who understands that American status as an economic and military superpower not only benefits but is critically dependent upon the global integration of its trade agreements and defense alliances.  In Woodward’s narrative, when he is not hijacking documents from Trump’s desk before the dear leader can jeopardize our national security, he is fighting a largely losing battle against the prevailing forces of isolationism and protectionism in the regressive “America First” nationalism heralded by Bannon and one of Trump’s most lackluster lackies, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.  In a blow to the nation, Cohn eventually gives up and goes home. The other is Rob Porter, who along with Cohn comes off as the most rational and pragmatic member of the team. He seems to have figured out early on that the President ever verges on the volatile and the unbalanced, and he deftly redirects him to curb his worst tendencies.  Those of us who rejoiced when Porter lost his job amid reports of spousal abuse discovered born-again unintended regret when we learned what a responsible moderating force he was on the Chief Executive.  With Cohn and Porter gone, only the weakest links remain.

All metaphors of reliability aside, from a literary standpoint Woodward is no Thucydides.  In fact—and this is nothing new for those of you who have read his previous books—he is a fairly mediocre writer who offers almost nothing in the way of analysis. He may be a prolific and award-winning author with an outsize reputation, but his roots as a Washington Post reporter still define his style. Like a kind of Joe Friday of journalism, he conducts his interviews seeking only the facts, ma’am, and the copy sometimes varies from pedestrian to boilerplate; his narratives frequently read like police reports. But in the end, of course, that only adds yet another layer to his credibility. Some may be surprised that there are so few references in Fear to the Bob Mueller Russia investigation that has so upended the Trump Presidency, or may wonder why other issues that have dominated national discourse are entirely absent from the book. The reason is that Woodward only reports what insiders tell him. Thus, there is plenty conspicuous in its absence, but still more than plenty to ponder, for better and for worse.

It is difficult to put a final punctuation mark upon this review because it is so seamlessly integrated into current events.  In the course of just a few weeks since I read the book, the news cycle has included reports that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein may once have urged recourse to the 25th Amendment to remove the President; President Trump delivered a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that was greeted by a chorus of laughter; the President conducted a bizarre press conference that was so outrageous even by Trump standards that it verged on the deranged; and, a new salacious tell-all book by porn star Stormy Daniels has been released that describes the President’s genitalia—all of this against the backdrop of the chaotic hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, accused of a sex crime, who may have only been selected by Trump in the first place because he has gone on record that a sitting President cannot be indicted. You simply cannot make this stuff up …

For precisely that reason, thus far Trump has resisted satire. Saturday Night Live, Andy Borowitz, The Onion—all have struggled to stay funny and relevant. This is because political comedy is predicated upon exaggeration, upon the kind of hyperbole that Trump defies because in this case comedy is too close to home, too reflective of real life. It cannot be funny if it is true. The Trump Administration often seems like a cross between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Mel Brook’s Springtime for Hitler. But at the end of the day—with thousands of immigrant children seized from their parents being moved to tent cities in the desert in the cover of darkness as this review goes to press—it is not so funny at all. The title of Woodward’s book is derived from an earlier interview by Woodward with candidate Trump in the first months of 2016. “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear,” Donald Trump said then. Woodward’s book only further underscores what should be obvious to every concerned American: we should be afraid, very afraid.


Review of: The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist, by Marcus Rediker

Imagine this: a hunchbacked dwarf living in early Enlightenment-era England, variously a farmhand, shepherd and glovemaker, but also a devoted autodidact gifted with great The Fearless Benjamin Layintelligence who despite his station in life becomes not only literate but highly-educated. Passionate and outspoken, he often dominates local meetings of the Society of Friends, flirting with antinomianism and distinguishing himself as a Quaker radical, often an outcast, publicly rebuking authority and earning the antipathy of the established order. He then becomes a sailor and, later settling as a merchant in Barbados, is so appalled by the human chattel slavery he encounters there that he adopts a fierce life-long antislavery stance that admits no toleration for anything short of abolition. Next, he makes his way to Philadelphia, where his troublesome nature again emerges, underscored by his unrelenting brand of antislavery agitation that alienates fellow Quakers, many of whom are slaveowners, most famously when he punctuates an annual Friends meeting by delivering a bellicose jeremiad against slavery and then plunging a sword into a Bible packed with a bladder of red pokeberry juice—a simulation of blood—that splatters those in attendance nearby! He writes a number of pamphlets denouncing slavery, as well as a rambling but impassioned book that is published by no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin.  Ever self-righteous, obnoxious, curmudgeonly, he is also a wealthy eccentric who eschews materialism, and is well-known to his community as a philanthropist, a strict vegetarian, and a man utterly intolerant of slavery. He marries, but after his wife’s death becomes even more zealous in his adherence to his radical faith, in his pursuit of justice, and in his crusade for abolition, as well as in campaigns against animal cruelty, capital punishment, the prison system, and the hypocrisy of the affluent elite. He closes out his life devoted to absolute self-sustenance, keeping goats, nurturing fruit trees, and growing flax that he spins into his own clothing, making his home in solitude in a cave with his collection of over two hundred books.

Okay, you have imagined it: could you suspend disbelief long enough to read a novel or watch a film based on a fellow like that? Well, this is no flight of fictional fancy but the actual tale of a truly extraordinary figure named Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) who somehow has managed to be remembered as little more than a footnote to history—on the rare occasions when he has been remembered at all. Historian Marcus Rediker—author of The Slave Ship and The Amistad Rebellion—seeks to resurrect this remarkable character from oblivion with his latest book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

In this effort, Rediker largely succeeds, and in the process brings the talent of a skilled historian to bear as he sketches out the ground that the adult Lay walked upon in the early-to-mid-eighteenth century, a milieu largely unfamiliar to many readers, with fascinating glimpses of England, Barbados and colonial Pennsylvania in a transformative era that rarely receives appropriate scrutiny.  Because so much of Lay’s identity was wrapped up in his religious fervor, the author treats us to a study of the evolution of Quakerism—including its peculiarities and its many internal revolts—on both sides of the Atlantic. Absent this background, Lay’s outrageous behavior—and it was indeed often outrageous—would seem to defy the boundaries of sanity. In fact, Lay was just the most recent actor to emerge in a tradition of antinominalist dissent—albeit an extreme incarnation—who with his carefully choreographed public protests not only danced at the edges of decorum but stomped upon any vestiges of it. That he cloaked his polemics in theatrics brought wide attention to his message, while provoking loud rebuke from those he routinely offended. Outwardly flamboyant, even crude, Lay’s frequently offensive performance art was a thin disguise upon the true heart of a reformer deeply offended by cruelty, injustice, hypocrisy and the widespread betrayal of what he believed Quaker Christianity should be all about.

Lay’s strict vegetarianism, as well as his opposition to animal cruelty, the prison system, and capital punishment—all of this distinguished him as a truly unusual individual for his time, further underscored by the fact that what had to have been the handicap of dwarfism in that era seems to have placed no brake on his behavior as he publicly campaigned for justice: hardly more than four feet tall, he ever played an outsize role in his community. But it was, of course, with his uncompromising antislavery agitation and demands for abolition that Lay left his mark on history. A century after his death, while the antislavery movement had gained wider traction, true abolitionists were still in a very tiny minority in the United States.  In Lay’s own time, his voice must have been a very lonely echo indeed. At the close of the eighteenth century, near the end of his long life, Benjamin Franklin and fellow Quakers took a public stand against slavery, but—as Rediker makes pains to point out—Franklin’s own position on slavery was often manifested in ambivalence.  That certainly could not be said of Lay, who never wavered in his insistence that chattel slavery was a great evil that represented a sin against man and God. Benjamin Franklin has been much-celebrated, but it was not he who penned one of the very earliest antislavery tracts in colonial America, but rather his friend Benjamin Lay, although the young Franklin can be credited for publishing Lay’s opus, All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates in 1737.

If there is a flaw in The Fearless Benjamin Lay it is that while extremely well-written it is clearly directed at a scholarly audience, with all of the strengths and weaknesses that implies. Lay lived such a colorful life that with virtually no embellishment his story should read like a James Michener novel. Alas, the typical limitations for academic writing in structure and prose means that the narrative frequently succumbs to dull passages even as it never falls short in fleshing out the man that Benjamin Lay was and adroitly recreating the age he inhabited.  On the flip side, there are copious notes and little doubt that Rediker’s finished work is firmly rooted in both best practices and the appropriate historiography. In the final analysis, I recommend this book for restoring from anonymity an intriguing figure who is especially deserving of recognition for taking a radical stand against slavery long before more than a handful of others would join in. And since the versatile Rediker also works in film, I would like to advocate that he next produce a documentary for general release that will bring the fascinating life and times of Benjamin Lay to a much wider audience.

[Note: A digital edition of Lay’s book  All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates can be accessed online at no charge at]


Review of: First Person: A Novel, by Richard Flanagan

I have often observed that if you watch films produced in the early 1990s, at first glance the world does not look so strikingly dissimilar from the one that we inhabit. Oh, there are First Personsubtle differences in automobiles, clothing and hair styles, but nothing nearly as dramatic as would stand out so starkly as it would if you were to juxtapose certain other decades such as, say, the 1990s with the 1970s, or the 1980s with the 1960s, or the 1960s with the 1940s. But, of course, there is a great glaring dimension of change that transcends it all, that is less superficial and far more central, and the only hint of it in these ‘90s films is that conspicuous in their absence in everyday life are the computers and smart phones ubiquitous today. There are cameos, indeed, of PC’s with massive CRT monitors in office environments, and primitive brick-size cell phones wielded by select actors, but these are simply portents of a future with implications that were hardly yet imagined.

The revolution in technology did not wear an iconic hat that clearly and visibly marked what has surely been as earth-shattering to the evolution of human civilization as the move to food production some twelve thousand years ago, or the advent of the Industrial Revolution two and a half centuries ago. But in the relatively brief span that elapsed between the release of two flicks in the crime heist genre—Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in 1992 and Martin McDonagh’s Baby Driver in 2017—the world has undergone a vast change that we perhaps have yet to fully comprehend. GPS, DNA, IPOD, CPU, IPHONE, DROID, WEBCAM, WINDOWS-10, MAC-AIR, GOOGLE, FACEBOOK, CCTV, STREAMING, DVR, DRONE—these are all shorthand that shout out not only what we have gained, but most notably what we have lost in an irrevocably altered universe that on its face looks otherwise so familiar to us. In the end, some things we may never have thought were at risk—things like privacy and anonymity—have forever vanished. It feels like we have lost something else, as well, something far more critical, but we have yet to find the words to fully articulate that loss.

The plot of Richard Flanagan’s First Person: A Novel is not specifically concerned with all of that, yet it is evident in the metaphorical subtextual underscore that is only subtly revealed in the nuanced quasi-epilogue that closes out this magnificent novel.  Much of the narrative is set in the early 1990s, although there is clearly a look back from the present-day that is only made manifest at its end. This is fitting because First Person was published in 2017, and Flanagan’s own first novel, Death of a River Guide, in 1994.  But there is much more to it than that.

Before he wrote fiction, Flanagan was just a young Tasmanian aspiring novelist retained for $10,000 on a punishing six-week schedule to ghostwrite the memoir of John Friedrich, an infamous con-man on trial for defrauding banks of hundreds of millions of dollars. Fredrich killed himself before the work was complete, but the finished book saw posthumous publication in 1991. The subtitle of First Person—”A Novel”—is perhaps a satirical clarification of what the author is up to. This is because Flanagan’s latest work is a fictional treatment (or is it?) of precisely this episode from his own life. In this version, the protagonist is Kif Kehlmann, a young Tasmanian aspiring novelist retained for $10,000 on a punishing six-week schedule to ghostwrite the memoir of Siegfried “Ziggy” Heidl, an infamous con-man convicted of defrauding banks of hundreds of millions of dollars. This proves a challenging yet miraculous potential windfall for the poverty-stricken Kif, a struggling would-be novelist attempting to make brittle ends meet, while balancing his roles as father to a young child and husband (in a passionate but volatile relationship) to a beautiful woman, heavily pregnant with twins. Ziggy is an artful manipulator, and soon gets inside Kif’s head, as the project turns to frustration, hopelessness and foreboding. Kif comes to question his own reality, an internal brand of the kind of “gaslighting” that often confronts us in today’s political post-truth universe. In the end, Kif has been not only scarred but permanently altered by the experience, his sense of identity somehow irretrievably lost, and lost along with that has been the very world he once inhabited.

Richard Flanagan remains one of my favorite living novelists. Like all great writers of fiction, he brings much greater themes to storylines that are themselves fascinating and compelling. His epic novel of prisoners of war set to slave labor on the Burma Railway, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2014. And I consider Gould’s Book of Fish—his 2001 tragicomic tale of a hapless prisoner of an earlier day, distinguished by the author’s own unique use of magical realism—one of the finest novels yet written in the millennium. Flanagan’s latest effort demonstrates that his skill as an artist of words only continues to flourish.

The best part of First Person is in looking back on it after closing the cover. The reader cannot help but wonder which chunks of the novel represent the fictional Kif Kehlmann, and which reflect the authentic Richard Flanagan? And where in the narrative does John Friedrich end and Ziggy Heidl begin? Or vice versa? Have all four men, real and fictional, somehow merged into a single figure that is at once an amalgam of the best and worst features of the four? Most disturbing perhaps, is the harbinger that is the second to last line of the novel: “It’s coming. It’s coming.” Of course, for the author and the rest of us, we certainly know that answer: it’s already here.

[I have reviewed several other novels by Richard Flanagan here: Death of a River Guide; The Sound of One Hand Clapping:; and, The Narrow Road to the Deep North:]


Review of: Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein

Forty-four years ago this very month, as this review goes to press, Richard Nixon became the first American President to resign that office, on the heels of almost certain impeachment. Apologists then and now snort dismissively of a “second-rate burglary,” Nixonlandwhile more perspicacious observers might point out that Watergate was the least of what were certainly nothing less than high crimes and misdemeanors; that a brilliant yet amoral and often unstable Nixon brought the mechanics of a criminal syndicate to the Executive Branch, and—much worse than that—in an attempt to achieve some sort of personal glory selfishly extended a war he had long privately admitted was unwinnable, thereby needlessly sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers, as well as hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian civilians and combatants. Forty-four years on, and some might argue that not only have the deep scars Nixon inflicted on the national landscape never healed, but that both his methods and his madness are currently enjoying a kind of renaissance that either signals a reverse to the remission that was once a cancer upon his Presidency, or an underscore that there is a deep well of malevolence in our national character that can never really be expunged. Of course, neither of these notions satisfies or reassures, which is precisely why we must never let Nixon’s legacy be overlooked: like it or not, Nixon forever altered America and put a terrible mark upon all of us that may have faded but will not go away.

I am reading Rick Perlstein backwards, which is less ironic than perversely logical, since the nation is itself tumbling rapidly backwards into the kind of hate and racism and division by any other name that Nixon championed so expertly in the era that he once commanded. My first read was Perlstein’s latest, from 2014: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, his splendid analysis of how it was that after Nixon went up in flames, Reagan managed to emerge from the ashes and with a shrug and an “aw, shucks” declare that there really wasn’t any fire at all. Though Reagan had unrelentingly defended everything noxious that Nixon was about, after the ignominious fall virtually all of Nixon’s political capital clung to Reagan but none of his toxicity. But by that time, the political landscape, indeed the entire nation, had been irrevocably altered by the Nixon phenomenon that had turned politics into a zero-sum game, and divided Americans into distinct groups of us vs. them, good guys vs. bad guys, patriots vs. traitors, solid citizens vs. arrogant elites.  It was hardly coincidental that Nixon surveyed the universe through a similar lens that only detected black and white, that ever filtered out any and all gray areas. And by the time Nixon had finished with America—or America had finished with him—he had forever after transformed it into “Nixonland.” That is the remarkable thesis of Perlstein’s brilliant study of the 1960s, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, first published in 2008.

Nixon endured a forbidding childhood beset by poverty, the death of a sibling, and ever grim, unyielding parents who enforced such a rigid religious fundamentalism that it bordered on abuse. An enthusiastic but mediocre athlete, Nixon instead scored academically and distinguished himself in debate, but at his hometown Whittier College he was snubbed by the “Franklins,” a prestigious literary society comprised of members from prominent families. He responded by leading the effort to forge a rival society of “Orthogonians” for those like himself who might not otherwise get a seat at the table with the elite. This was to prove a defining moment in the life of Richard Nixon that Perlstein argues set him on an unrelenting path that would carve a cleft in America that ever clings to us like a poisonous film on the flesh of the nation that simply will not wash off.

Nixon seems to have never gotten over his rebuff by the Franklins, and the wrath that was born of that rejection fueled a resentment that he wielded like a hammer for the rest of his life. It was not simply the “us vs. them” mentality—but that was certainly part of it—but it ran much deeper and was far more vicious, because it was at root about whether or not you were “like us” or “like them,” and if you were “like them,” it meant that you were “the other,” and therefore not worthy of the same rights or the same respect we might require for ourselves. Nixon was neither the first nor the last to turn his opponents into “the other,” but he was indeed the first to successfully take that into the White House and weaponize it on a mass scale.  The clarion call to the “silent majority” to stand up for the America they loved was a dog whistle to the Orthogonian hard hats that bloodied Franklin hippies on the streets of New York in 1970.

Perlstein’s book is as much a masterful history of America in the tumultuous 1960s as it is a chronicle of Nixon and how he put that indelible mark upon it, a reminder of how much those days seem like a study of an entirely different country from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, a time of great violence and radicalism that—it should not be forgotten—barely touched the vast majority of Americans who simply went about their lives anonymously in what was also a postwar economic boom in the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world. I was a youth in that era, and the truth is that more Americans listened to Pat Boone than Jimi Hendrix. Nixon knew his audience—the former, of course—and he knew how to transform them into vehement foes of the latter.

It was Nixon’s genius that he could identify these two emerging America’s and exploit the divisions there that he could actively shape, and compartments that he could adeptly construct, that would admit no shades of anything that was not an “either” or an “or.”  There were the patriotic Americans who had defied economic depression and world war for a better life—only to see it put in jeopardy by unwashed longhaired cowardly druggies manipulated by communists from abroad seeking to undermine our democratic institutions; and, lazy unmotivated welfare recipients who demanded entitlements without a willingness to put in a good day’s hard work; and, most especially, violent, radical blacks who refused to be grateful for all that was being done to assist them with their seemingly endless and relentless demands.  And there was now more opportunity with these same black people! There was the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln—which had long been the not-always-reliable-friend but a friend nonetheless to African Americans against the scourge of the Southern branch of segregationist unreconstructed Democrats—who now with Nixon’s Machiavellian sleight of hand could almost silently (with a swelling cohort added to his “Silent Majority”) exploit the national Democratic Party’s embrace of Civil Rights to actively turn Republican backs on blacks and instead entice the great white backlash of the South to join their ranks. (Reagan took this baton of this “southern strategy” and skillfully ran with it under the same barely disguised cover; Trump does not bother with even a token shellacking of the ulterior motives here.  And Trump doesn’t need batons: he has far more effective and not-so-subtle dog whistles. Neither Nixon nor Reagan would consort with Nazis; Trump finds good people among the crowd.)

Nixon was hardly the first politician to capitalize upon fear, upon hate, upon racism, upon xenophobia, upon a misguided fantastical nation that the very essence and identity of traditional values central to a national identity were under attack and needed to be actively defended before it was too late—but he was the first American figure of national prominence to successfully parlay this tactic into a kind of art form that drove a great and enduring and unrelenting wedge into the country that has never since been bridged, and perhaps never will be.

That Nixon wedge has long been exploited, by both Reagan and his descendants, but never so cruelly and with such baseness as it has been by Donald Trump, who not at all coincidentally was a student to all of the lessons Nixon taught, and who has associated with a lot of same villains that have been key to the rise of Nixon: Roy Cohn, Roger Ailes and Roger Stone among them. Much of the wreckage Nixon left behind was superficially paved over by Ronald Reagan, and there is no little irony to the fact that Reagan’s campaign slogan—”Let’s Make America Great Again”—has been disingenuously expropriated by Donald Trump. And Trump, it must not be forgotten, has like Nixon styled himself a great defender of “law and order,” even as it becomes increasingly clear that his administration may turn out to be the most criminally corrupt in American history.

The author wrote Nixonland nearly a decade before Trumpworld, but yet it seems to eerily presage it. Perlstein’s magisterial work may not only be the best book written about Nixon and the 1960s, but should also be required reading for anyone who wants to try to comprehend the madness that besets the nation today. Of course, Nixon was a far more clever fellow than Trump, and the Republican Party of his day was not the cult of personality of its current iteration, wagging a collective tail at the master of tax and tariff scams calculated to enrich a select plutocracy, and Nixon’s motives were more about leaving an enduring mark in the history books rather than the cheap Trumpist thrills of amassing trinkets and celebrity stardom, but nevertheless there is much of then that has come back to haunt us now.  “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does thyme,” Mark Twain was once alleged to quip.  We can only hope that the last stanza of that rhyme ends for Trump much as it did for Nixon, forty-four years ago this month …


[My review of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein, is here:]


Review of: The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham

Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

That is the closing passage of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural.  When he delivered it, March 4, 1861, seven states had already seceded from the Union, and the first shots fired in the Civil War were scarcely more than a month away. The sesquicentennial of that The Soul of Americabloody sectional conflict has come and gone, and yet these days it often feels as if we are on the threshold of yet another civil war, one that defies geography. In June 2018, as this review goes to press, approximately forty percent of Americans support President Donald Trump and his radical “America First” agenda that is refashioning the country. More than fifty percent disapprove, but a far more chilling reality is that a sizeable segment of this second group step beyond dissatisfaction to assert that this President represents an existential threat to the Republic, its democratic institutions, and its core values. Noted presidential historian Jon Meacham—his biography of Andrew Jackson won the Pulitzer Prize—speaks with sympathy to that latter sector but strikes a note of perhaps unexpected optimism, borrowing not only the words but the enduring spirit of Lincoln for the subtitle of his most recent work, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.

Some Americans recall the nation’s past as a glorious progression that expanded the boundaries of liberty at home, while spending blood and treasure abroad to make the world safe for democracy and to protect human rights. Others would instead point to the incongruity of a republic founded upon principles of freedom and equality that was constructed upon a brutal foundation of African human chattel slavery and the extermination of Native Americans, a country that while championing liberty wielded military might to trample on weaker nations in wars of expansion and foreign domination. Which of these visions of American history is correct?  A historian will tell you that the correct answer is neither and both. The fact is that the United States has been a centuries old work-in-progress that can claim glorious accomplishments and shameful blemishes, from a Constitution that counted black human beings as three-fifths of a person, to a war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives to free them, to an aftermath that terrorized and dehumanized them; from a national expansion that loudly asserted that the “only good Indian is a dead Indian,” to a modern mission to establish equality for all; from a nation that used gunships and artillery to take what it wanted wherever it roamed, to one that literally rescued the world from the forces of totalitarians on both ends of the globe and then helped rebuild a shattered planet upon notions of democracy, decency and human rights; from a nation that used hapless populations in the third world to fight proxy wars with little concern for what commonly was dismissed as “collateral damage,” to one that helped bring a tense and dangerous Cold War to a close without a shot being fired. This is a nation that stood consistently and courageously against the forces of darkness, even as it often fell short of its own ideals, a nation that liberated African Americans slaves shackled to plantations in the 1860s and the skeletal husks of Jews barely clinging to life in Nazi concentration camps in 1940s—that in the spring of 2018 shamelessly presided over a policy of ripping the children of desperate refugees away from their parents and warehousing them in an abandoned Walmart. Neither and both. Both and neither. There is a truth to the dichotomy that can at once spark inspiration as well as revulsion.

Jon Meacham, who makes no secret of his horror and disdain of President Trump, nevertheless brings the nuance and complexity of a skilled historian to bear in The Soul of America, juxtaposing grand achievements with shameful episodes. The struggle for equality for African Americans is front and center in much of the narrative. It was, of course, the great failure of the Founders to resolve the contradiction of human chattel slavery with a republic based upon principles of equality. Americans have frequently been praised for their ability to compromise, but some issues cannot or should not succumb to compromise. The “Three-Fifths Rule” should have been a bellwether that the union was doomed to fracture one day.

The North did not at first fight to free the slaves—that cause came later—but the South certainly went to war to perpetuate slavery, as is made manifest in the founding documents of the Confederacy. The Civil War that led to abolition at Appomattox was a terrible tragedy, but—as Meacham reminds us—perhaps even greater tragedy loomed ahead, when in the wake of Lincoln’s murder, the new President, Andrew Johnson, proved far less friendly to the cause of millions of newly freed slaves, and far more favorable to the interests of defeated ex-Confederates. Reconstruction was stymied and hopes for civil rights advanced by Radical Republicans in Congress were dashed as black codes were enacted, the Ku Klux Klan and other militant white supremacists murdered and terrorized African Americans across the defeated south, and former Confederate military and political elites came to dominate elected offices in states readmitted to the Union. Constitutional amendments guaranteeing voting rights and equality ended up as grand words on paper with little meaning on the ground. Once in the White House, Ulysses S. Grant sought to right emerging wrongs, but he proved a much poorer President than general. His successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, cut a deal to win election that ended Reconstruction and left African American rights dangling. A national reconciliation ensued that came to ignore millions of freed slaves—the human element of the central cause for the war. In a great irony, the South lost the war, but won the peace.

Decades later, in a baby step forward, Theodore Roosevelt had Booker T. Washington to lunch at the White House—which provoked such loud condemnation that he never dared to repeat it. In a larger step backwards, in that same White House, Woodrow Wilson screened the virulently racist film Birth of a Nation, and in the same era the Klan was reborn anew. T.R.’s favorite niece Eleanor defied “polite society” when, as First Lady, she brought black opera singer Marian Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial, although her husband Franklin Roosevelt was too preoccupied with economic depression and war to further advance the rights of African Americans. His successor Harry Truman desegregated the United States military, but the next Chief Executive, Dwight Eisenhower, largely ignored the plight of blacks in postwar America. John F. Kennedy demonstrated far more sympathy, but put international crises first in his brief tenure, postponing real progress. After his assassination, it was Lyndon Johnson who served as unlikely agent to figuratively drive the bus on comprehensive civil rights legislation so that blacks would not ever again be forced to the backs of actual buses. JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy predicted that a black man could become President within forty years—which turned out to be only slightly off the mark when Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009. This seemed to be a promise fulfilled, but it was his successor, Donald Trump, who famously declared in Charlottesville in 2017 that there were “very fine people on both sides,” when one of the sides—defending monuments erected to celebrate white supremacy—was represented by a legion of Nazis and Klan members waving Confederate flags. All roads lead to Charlottesville; all roads also lead back to Appomattox.

Other chapters in The Soul of America look beyond the African American struggle to triumphs in the growth of progressivism, the right to vote for women, the social and economic miracle of postwar America—as well as the ignominies of the Red Scare, the original 1930s racist and xenophobic “America First” movement, and the cancer of McCarthyism.  Often evident in this is a familiar refrain of “one step forward, two steps back.” Neither and both. Both and neither. Appomattox and Charlottesville. There is much to cheer about, and much to make you flinch. A cynic could find a good deal to dwell upon, but Meacham is an eternal optimist.  His thesis is that the United States remains that active work-in-progress; that despite the sometimes-disgraceful swerves to extremism, the American center always holds, that justice eventually prevails. Meacham rightly condemns that which “Trumpism” represents, but reassures us that it is not likely to persist, that “our better angels” always reassert themselves. I truly want to believe this, while I yet cannot overlook the fact that only weeks after Lincoln first bespoke that phrase, a shooting war erupted.


Review of: Time Travel: A History, by James Gleick

I love flying because it offers an extended uninterrupted opportunity to read—and there’s even a drink cart! On a recent trip out of town, I packed two books.  One was a novel sent to me by its author with a request to review it; it proved unreadable. The Time Travelother was a chronicle of siblings who were executed for resisting the Nazis, a fine account that was nevertheless too depressing to be my sole read for the duration. Thus, while waiting for a connecting flight at an airport in Atlanta, I spotted a bookstore and walked out with a copy of Time Travel: A History, by James Gleick, which literally consumed me for the rest of my journey.

What if I had packed different books for my trip? What if I had the option to go back and make a different selection? Or, what if—prior to departure—I could have skipped ahead and evaluated how my choices turned out? Certainly, everyone at some point questions decisions made in life and yearns for that impossible opportunity for a do-over. Rarely, of course, would we muse over such mundane matters as to which book was plucked off a shelf. The choices revisited would more likely focus upon not having another drink before picking up the car keys, not sleeping with your wife’s best friend, or not taking the rent money to the casino. The flip side of looking back, naturally, is looking ahead to the consequences: the accident, the divorce, the eviction.  But as we are reminded more than once in Gleick’s marvelous existential excursion into the scientific, philosophical and literary manifestations of the concept of time travel, our lives and choices are part of an even greater chaos system than the planet’s weather, and an authentic butterfly effect governs it all. So yeah, even your pick of a paperback could somehow end up changing everything, not only for you, but for those in your orbit, perhaps all of humanity.

Of course, Gleick—who specializes in science and technology writing and is the author of Chaos: Making a New Science—is something of an expert on chaos theory, although Time Travel is far less concerned with science than it is with how notions of time run through every aspect of modern consciousness. That was not always the case, as Gleick notes in an especially fascinating focus on how that came to change, relatively recently in our history, when the advent of train transportation and by extension train schedules—together with the communications technology of the telegraph—brought standardization to clocks across a vast network. The long pre-industrial agricultural world governed almost entirely by sunrise and sunset and the phases of the moon was all at once turned upside down.  Clocks were not new, of course, but until regular train travel came to depend upon rigid scheduling, there was little pressure for the universal standardization of time. It was perhaps this now omnipresent sense of time, Gleick’s account seems to suggest, that sparked the whimsy to wonder what it could be like to travel forward or backward in it.

Time Travel opens with the guy who—it turns out—virtually invented the idea: H.G. Wells. While there were, Gleick recounts, prior random references to such a thing here and there, it was The Time Machine, Well’s 1895 novel—published at a time when the potential of science and technology seemed limitless—that conceived for a wide audience the very notion that travel through time might be plausible. The impact was immeasurable. For one thing, this slim work managed to generate a kind of massive cultural paradigm shift in the way those exposed to it perceived their past and future, riding Wells’ imaginary machine in their own minds-eyes: could it be possible to revisit the past or peer into the future?  (Never mind that Wells himself believed it impossible.)  For another, it spawned a whole cottage industry of science fiction tales in books—and later, in film—wrapped about this topic, the bulk of which are contained in this volume’s extensive bibliography. The reader suspects that Gleick has read or watched all of these, probably more than once, as throughout the narrative he skillfully employs these literary excursions to explore the philosophical and scientific ramifications of time travel.  What if you went back in time and blocked Booth from shooting Lincoln, or killed your mother, or met yourself? These all seem like “timeless” themes now (pun fully intended!), but it looks like no one asked questions like these before Wells came along. And Wells didn’t ask them either: his time machine only went forward to a far distant future of Morlocks and Eloi, and beyond that, but not into the past. It was left to his literary descendants to tap those veins.

Given Gleick’s resume, I expected more of a focus on science in this book than naval-gazing, but that’s not to say science is absent. We think of the elasticity of time in our perceptions of it—we indeed experience the same units of time quite differently during orgasm and root canal, for instance—but Einstein revealed with his theory of special relativity that in the nature of the universe time is indeed elastic. Wells may have invented the science fiction about time, but it was Einstein, just a decade later, who uncovered the science of it. In fact, Einstein shook the halls of science at its very foundation when his work showed that space and time are part of a single space-time continuum comprised of the coordinates of four dimensions. I’m hardly a physicist, but the way I usually explain this to the uninitiated is by asking the trick question: What would happen on the earth if the sun suddenly burned out?  The answer, of course, is: nothing … for about 8 minutes!

Time is, though, a tricky thing. On the macro level, there is something known as the “arrow of time” which proceeds in one direction, towards the future, along with the concomitant disorder known as entropy that is a component of the second law of thermodynamics, which accounts for the asymmetry between future and past.  On the quantum level, on the other hand, we cannot be certain of that: underlying laws of physics work the same going forward in time as in reverse, meaning they are time-symmetric. Most of the physics beyond this are also beyond me, but Gleick does a competent job of summarizing the thinking about this attached to the best minds out there, from Einstein to Eddington to Feynman to Hawking—to the current cutting-edge science probed by the likes of Sean Carroll—from theories of relativity to those of the multiverse, in language fully accessible to the layman.

So, does that mean time travel is possible, to the past or the future?  Gleick himself seems agnostic; others not so much.  Some scientists consider that hypothetical wormholes—predicted by the theory of general relativity—might create shortcuts through space-time and could thus be a potential mechanism for time travel to the future, but that remains very speculative. Few think that travel into the past, reversing the arrow of time, could ever be possible. Others believe, like Wells did, that time travel is an amusing idea, but simply impossible. And then there are those, like some champions of the multiverse, who suggest that time is passing differently but simultaneously in multiple parallel universes, which makes you wonder that if time travel was indeed a possibility, rather than moving backwards or forwards in time, might it be more interesting to instead go sideways? Perhaps the accident, the divorce, or the eviction have different outcomes elsewhere …

There’s another kind of time travel that has a more secure scientific foundation. We know that Einstein was correct about special relativity, and although we cannot directly measure the space-time continuum, phenomena predicted by it have been confirmed. Einstein noted that the speed of light in a vacuum is always the same, regardless of the speed an observer travels, because the speed of light is absolute and invariable.  This means that events might occur at the same time for one observer and at different times for another observer travelling at a different speed, because rates of time run differently based upon relative motion, something called time dilation.  This is where the notion comes in of a hypothetical explorer on a space ship travelling near the speed of light who spends 100,000 light years in space on a voyage to a distant star and hardly ages at all.

Our science is not nearly advanced enough to put that to a test, but recently astronaut Scott Kelly spent nearly a year in space at high-speed orbit while—as part of a focused NASA study—his twin brother Mark remained on earth, and it is believed that Scott returned to the planet 8.6 milliseconds younger than his twin.  On a more sobering note,  unexpected changes to Scott’s DNA have altered his gene expression so that it now appears to vary by seven percent from that of his twin, and some of these changes suggest potential harm to his biological processes, perhaps shortening his lifespan. Contrary to what was initially reported in the popular press, however, Scott and Mark are indeed still identical twins, and much further study lies ahead before definite conclusions can be reached. But it does make you think and make you wonder …

If you are, like me, a person who delights in thinking and wondering, then Time Travel by James Gleick should be near the top of your “to-be-read” list. Whether your interest is in science fact or science fiction, this fascinating book—which truly defies genre—will make an outstanding contribution to your intellectual development.  That is, of course, if you can find the time to read it …