SKELETONS AT THE FEAST by Chris Bohjalian

Novels about aspects of the Holocaust seem to proliferate each year. Some are better than others as they examine various components of Hitler’s war against the Jews that Arno P. Mayer once questioned in the title of his book, Why Didn’t the Heavens Not Darken? Chris Bohjalian’s Skeletons at the Feast is yet another of this genre as he concentrates on the plight of a Prussian aristocratic family that is forced to separate as they move westward to escape being captured by the Soviet army as the Second World War draws to a close. Upon leaving their estate near East Prussia, an area that was once considered part of Poland, the Emmerick family must go their separate ways. Rolf, the father and his son Helmut leave to rejoin the German army on the eastern front to try and stem the tide of the Russian advance as does another son, Werner who has been engulfed in the fighting for months. The remainder of the family trudging west is made up of Mitt, the mother, her daughter, Anna, and a Scottish POW named Callum Finella.

As the novel follows this group westward, Bohjalian develops his characters as they confront numerous hazardous situations as they seek shelter and food. Emmerick family friends and relatives come and go as the movement westward continues as they come in contact with Uri, a Jew whose family probably perished in the extermination camps. Uri takes on a number of different identities as he tries to survive. When meeting the Emmerick family he takes on the persona of a German corporal named Manfred. When he goes off on his own he becomes a Russian called, Barsakov in order to survive. As Uri/Manfred/Barsakov keeps switching identities he develops a severe case of what Erik Erikson called a conflict between identity and role confusion, or an identity crisis. Callum, the POW and Anna seem to fall in love and their relationship evolves throughout the first part of the novel, but hits a roadblock as Uri and Anna meet.

Another thread in the novel involves the travails of Cecile, a Jewish woman trying to avoid the fate of her co-religionists, joins with Jeanne, a much weaker woman as part of a forced march driven by Nazis to deliver slave labor to factories in the western part of the Reich. The three strands that make up the novel, the Emmerick family, Uri, and Cecile all come together towards the end of the story and draws the reader deeper into the history of World War II.

To Bohjalian’s credit he appends his sources in his acknowledgement section citing major historians such as Max Hastings, Jan T. Gross, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Eric A. Johnson, and Daniel Mendlesohn. The source material lends authenticity to the narrative and what the individual characters had to cope with. The firebombing of Dresden, specific battles on the eastern front, and German hopes that the western allies would eventually turn against the Soviet Union are among the many accurate historical events that took place during the war presented by the author.

The final course of the journey will produce surprises and tears on the part of the reader. The brutality of humanity that is expressed throughout the novel reminds us what good can emerge from people even if they are desperate. Bohjalian seems to encapsulate much of human emotion as he brings the journey of his characters to a conclusion and an ending to the book that will surprise the reader.

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THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS by M.L. Steadman

In her first novel, THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, M.L. Steadman zeroes in on everyday individuals who must confront their emotions that consistently pull them in opposite directions, resulting in a conflicted decision making process that puts enormous pressure on their interpersonal relationships. Staged in post World War I Western Australia Tom Shelbourne, a survivor of the not too distant battlefields of Europe is appointed the light house master on Janu Island. Before he leaves to assume his new position he meets Isadore Graysmark, a girl ten years his junior, and begins a long range relationship that culminates in their marriage two years later. Their bond is very strong and they must overcome three miscarriages which greatly tests their love for each other.

The drama unfolds one day as a boat comes a shore on the island containing a body of a man, and a two year old baby who is very much alive. Here moral issues come to the fore as to whether to keep the baby or report what has occurred. Because of Isadore’s state of mind, Tom against his own better judgment agrees to keep the baby and bury the body on the island. Tom and Isadore begin to raise the baby they name Lucy, touching off an intricate and powerful novel that contains many fascinating characters that will touch the emotions of all readers.

The narrative is a timeless story of human tragedy and compassion, as in life we are forced to make many serious choices that profoundly impact others. Stedman does a marvelous job detailing the lives of her characters and how they confront life’s obstacles and the decisions they reach. Tom, who is obviously suffering from Post-traumatic stress syndrome relating to his experiences in the Great War, must come to terms with his own ghosts and the emotional needs of his wife. His ethical journey is central to the story and his voyage is one that is torturous and leads the reader to question many of the values and gifts that life provides all of us. Stedman’s novel engrosses the reader immediately as you feel for each character and the dilemmas they must cope with. I recommend THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, and I would guess, as I experienced, the reader will reach a point in the book where you will not be able to put it down.

THE MONUMENTS MEN by Robert M. Edsel

One of the hidden stories of World War II was the work of a group of American soldiers and their allies who worked tirelessly to save, track down, and recover the cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis. Most of these individuals were a part of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA) of the United States Army during the war. At a time when Hollywood is releasing a major film on their work in a few weeks I can only hope that the portrayal of these unselfish and hard working people measures up to Robert M. Edsel’s THE MONUMENTS MEN, which chronicles their amazing accomplishments. Edsel tells the story of nine individuals who are representative of the 350 Monument Men who were part of the American effort to save the world’s cultural heritage from the Nazis. These individuals include their recognized leader Lieutenant George Stout, Second Lieutenant James J. Rorimer who was able to locate massive amounts of seized works of art, Rose Valland, a French woman who worked with the resistance whose knowledge of what was seized in France was encyclopedic, Captain Robert Posey, Captain Walter Hancock, and Jacques Jaujard, the director of the French National Museum. Obviously there are many other heroes, but Edsel concentrates on those mentioned. As the war progressed the Germans would steal massive amounts of art as they conquered each nation. They looted museums, archives, churches, homes, in the name of the Thousand Year Reich. By the end of the war the Allies “discovered over 1000 repositories in southern Germany alone, containing millions of works of art and other cultural treasures.” The members of the MFAA worked diligently to locate, preserve, and return their findings to their countries of origin. These included “church bells, stained glass, religious items, municipal records, manuscripts, books, libraries, wine, gold, diamonds, and even insect collections.” (400) Nazi theft was based on Adolf Hitler’s dream to make Berlin, the new Rome; and his birthplace, Linz, Austria the new Aachen of European culture. The goal of his minions was to build and stock his Fuhrermuseum by pillaging the museums and private art collections throughout Europe.

Edsel tells the story of the Monument Men by interspersing Nazi documents and letters from these men home to their families throughout the narrative. What we learn early on is that Nazi leaders from Hitler on down, especially Hermann Goring and Alfred Rosenberg issued orders, not only for entire collections, but specific paintings that they wanted for themselves. These men were in charge of the ransacking of Europe and were in competition with each other and other Nazi officials to acquire as much of Europe’s cultural heritage as they could. The chapter that describes the German seizure of Michelangelo’s Madonna provides insight into how the Nazis operated as they continued to steal and loot art treasures even after the war had turned against them.

Edsel does an excellent job personalizing the stories of each of the Monument Men he writes about. The MFAA were not an army unit, but groups of individuals who worked together on a daily basis. These men were scattered throughout the American army, with individuals being attached to different army groups, i.e.; Robert Posey, from rural Alabama was attached to Patton’s Third Army; James Rorimer, a rising curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was attached to the United States Seventh Army. These men were given a broad mission to locate and preserve as much of Europe’s treasures as they could as they fanned out into France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. When Walker Hancock, a sculptor from St. Louis entered Chartres he found the cathedral almost destroyed by the Germans. Hancock and a demolitions expert were able to locate twenty-two sets of explosives and defuse them to save as much of the cathedral as possible. We follow George Stout, an expert in the then obscure field of art restoration as he helps locate a Dutch mountainside tunnel at Maastricht that served as a Nazi Repository for the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam. Included in this repository was Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Edsel provides an interesting description how the Louvre Museum was emptied before the war by French officials. The Mona Lisa was taken out on a stretcher and transported by ambulance. However once the Germans took Paris in June, 1940, Hitler who believed he was entitled to the spoils of war, and his henchmen went to “great lengths to establish new laws and procedures to ‘legalize’ the looting activities that would follow.” (117) the Germans took whatever treasure they desired and Hitler wanted to use these art objects as collateral in negotiations.

Edsel recounts the difficulties the Monument Men faced in carrying out their mission. They had no central office to report to and a structure in place to supply them. They did not possess any useful communications equipment and seemed at times to operate in a vacuum. Cameras would seem to have been a necessity, but very few were available and none were new. Transportation was a nightmare as no vehicles were assigned to them, though one of them was able to abscond with a Volkswagen mini-bus, whose engine was shot and did not have a windshield! When the landing at Normandy took place it took weeks and sometimes few months for all of them to cross the English Channel into France. Their work was not considered a priority for many officers and they had no one in the rear echelon to plead their case. Despite these challenges they were able to do a remarkable job that Edsel describes in detail.

Perhaps the most interesting relationship that existed was between Rose Vallard and James Rorimer. Vallard was a curator at the Louvre who was in charge of the Jeu de Paume, a structure that was built as an indoor tennis court by Napoleon III, but had been converted to exhibition space for foreign contemporary art. During the war the Nazis used the Jeu de Paume “as their clearinghouse for the spoils of France. For four years, the private collections of French citizens, especially Jews, moved through its galleries like water flowing downhill to the Reich.” (177) It was a very efficient operation and Vallard observed it all. She made copious notes about what was taken, where things were stored, and how objects were transported, including their destination. Vallard had ties to the French Resistance, particularly her friend and compatriot, Jacques Jaujard. James Rorimer was assigned to Paris and developed a relationship with Vallard. It took time to build trust between the two, as Vallard who was the key to recovering vast amounts of art, was suspicious of everyone. Once they were able to gain respect for each other Vallard’s work enabled Rorimer to locate 175 repositories alone in the territory of the Seventh Army, as well as numerous others, including the cache at Mad Ludwig II of Bavaria’s castle at Neuschwanstein.

The stories that Edsel tells in many cases are unbelievable. When Robert Posey suffers from an impacted wisdom tooth a little boy in Trier refers him to a dentist. The dentist takes care of the tooth but tells him about his son, an art scholar. He brings Posey and his partner PVT 1st Class Lincoln Kistein, a legendary cultural impresario from New York, to meet his son who turns out to be Dr. Hermann Bunjes one of Goring’s top art officials. The information they glean eventually brings them to Altaussee salt mines outside Saltzburg that stored more than 1,687 paintings in addition to Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. The stories are endless as Edsel follows these men on their recovery missions, brings the reader inside the American command under Eisenhower as they come across the Buchenwald concentration camp, and describes how paintings by Rembrandt, Raphael, and Van Eyck etc. are recovered.

Despite the superb work of the Monument Men during and after the war many examples of Europe’s cultural heritage, whether from museums or taken from private collections, remain lost. In the 1990s there was a renewed interest in this subject and periodically we hear about paintings found in attics or basements, and law suits to adjudicate these findings determining the rightful owners after fifty years or more. It took a long time for these men to gain recognition from the American military and public for their work. Edsel’s research along with the upcoming film should foster this process even further. Though most of these men have been recognized posthumously, Edsel deserves a tremendous amount of credit for bringing their work to our attention.

MY PROMISED LAND by Ari Shavit

Ari Shavit’s MY PROMISED LAND is the most important book dealing with the Arab-Israeli Conflict to be published since Thomas Friedman’s FROM BERIUT TO JERUSALEM.  After digesting Shavit’s work I am confused in trying to categorize it.  It is in part a personal memoir, it also contains the historical background of the region, it discusses the political strategies and military actions that have taken place in Palestine since the turn of the twentieth century, but more importantly it seems to be the philosophical and moral ruminations of one of Israel’s most important commentators analyzing contemporary issues and what the future may hold.  Shavit’s journey begins with his great grandfather Herbert Bentwich’s decision to forgo his comfortable family life in England and immigrate to Palestine in 1897.  From that point on Shavit takes the reader on a wondrous journey that encompasses the early history of Zionism, the uprooting of Jews as they try to escape anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, the survival of the Holocaust, and the creation Jewish state, with its many economic, social, and political problems.

Shavit’s approach is a masterful blending of interviews with the actors in this drama, including perceptive historical analysis.  At the outset Shavit has what appears to be a dialogue with himself as he wonders what his life would have been if his great grandfather had not gone to Palestine.  He correctly points out that his great grandfather, like other Jews before and after him do not see the Palestinian villages as he is motivated not to see them.  “He does not see because if he does see, he will have to turn back” because the wonderful possibilities that exist in the valley he witnesses are already spoken for.  But the plight of the Jews in Eastern Europe are such that a safe haven is needed where the Jews can develop their Zionist dream and establish a new Jewish identity based on cultivating the land.  According to Shavit, “as the plow begins to do their work, the Jews return to history and regain their masculinity: as they take on the physical labor of tilling the earth, they transform themselves from object to subject, from passive to active, from victims to sovereigns.” (35)  But in doing so they do not see or solve the problem that the Palestinian Arab presents.

Through Shavit’s interviews and vast knowledge the reader is presented with intimate details of kibbutzniks working the desolate valley that makes up Ein Harod, and the settlement of Rehovot which by 1935 reflect throughout Palestine that the Zionist dream is taking root.  The author  tells the story of the orange growers in Rehovot as a microcosm of the brewing conflict between Jews and Palestinians that will boil over in 1936.  Interweaving events in Nazi Germany and the development of Palestinian nationalism in the north the reader is presented a narrative and analysis of why the Palestinians will revolt in 1936 without the traditional political and ideological arguments that most historians present.  The Zionist argument is presented in a local weekly published in Rehovot; “we are returning to our homeland that has awaited for us as wasteland, and we are entering a new country that is not ours….all these riches we bring with us as a gift to our ancient land, and to the people who have settled it while we were away….” (62) But again no reference to the Palestinian.  Shavit’s argument throughout is that for the Zionist to be successful he had to be a colonialist and occupy the land that belonged to others and eventually force them out.  1936 is the first watershed year that Shavit speaks about as we witness the onslaught of Arab rage against the Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Tel Aviv.  The violence and a general strike are different than past Arab protests as this is a “collective uprising of a national Arab-Palestinian movement that results in 80 dead and 400 wounded Jews that transforms their collective psyche as “the Jewish national liberation movement had to acknowledge that it was facing an Arab liberation movement that wished to disgorge the Jews from the shores they settled on.” (74)  The Arabs could no longer be ignored and the response led to further violence and brutality through 1939 as for the first time the Jews retaliated in kind.

In a wonderful chapter dealing with Masada, Shavit describes his interview with  Shmaryahu Gutman who realizes that as 1942 dawned the future of world Jewry rested in the hands of the Soviet army as it tried to stem the Nazi tide on the Eastern Front.  At the same time General Erwin Rommel is threatening Cairo and if successful the Jews of Palestine would be decimated.  At this point Gutman leads a group of 46 teenagers to climb Masada as part of their leadership training which the author describes in detail.  Gutman wants Masada to become the poignant symbol that will substitute for the theology and mythology that Zionism lacks.  He wants to create a Jewish ethos of resistance that will override the reputation of Jews who do not fight back.  It is an interesting concept that was explored in an earlier book by Jay Gonen, A PSYCHOHISTORY OF ZIONISM which offers the idea that Israel as a nation suffers from a Masada Complex, a type of Adlerian inferiority complex based on Jewish history.  Gonen argues that to overcome ones perceived inferiority, one adopts a superiority complex as compensation.  If so this offers a useful explanation of Israeli domestic and foreign policy from 1948 onward.  The Soviets blunt the Nazi advance and Rommel is stopped at El Alamein and “the Zionist enterprise is not that of drained or of orange groves bearing fruit but that of a lonely desert fortress casting the shadow of awe on an arid land.” (97)

For Shavit the lessons Jews learned concerning lethal historical circumstances are the key to Jewish survival.  The author uses the Arab village of Lydda as an example of Israel’s demographic policies during the 1948 War of Independence.  Because of its location it must be controlled by Israeli Jews if the new state is to survive.  In addition, the area of the eastern Galilee must be Arab free to provide land for survivors of the Holocaust.  The new Israeli government under David Ben-Gurion sees the War of Independence as a one time opportunity to solve the Arab problem.  Ilan Pappe, another Israeli historian describes in minute detail Operation Dalet in his book THE ETHNIC CLEANSING OF PALESTINE, a plan to clear out Arab villages from areas that the new Israeli government wanted for its development.  Shavit agrees with Pappe and ruminates on the issue of Israeli occupation and what it has meant for Israel and how it has become an albatross around its neck from 1948 until today.  Once these lands were seized in 1948 the issue of the right of Palestinians to return has become one of the major stumbling blocks for any future peace.

Shavit tells the stories of Holocaust survivors and Jews who were able to leave Arab countries to come to Palestine and later Israel.  Shavit also tells the stories of displaced Arab families who have lived as refugees since 1948.  In so doing the reader is presented with a picture that is far from equitable.  Between 1945-1951 685,000 people were absorbed by a society of 655,000.  This was facilitated in part by reparations paid by the German government.  When interviewing Palestinian Arabs, Shavit hears that they would like resettlement and reparations, this time from the Israeli government to a Palestinian one.

The state of Israeli society is a major concern for Shavit and we see it through the eyes of many Israelis.  The economic miracle of the 1950s is based upon the denial of Palestinian rights as it “expunged Palestine from its memory and soul.” (160)  But this denial Shavit argues from a very personal perspective “was a life-or-death imperative for the nine-year-old nation into which I was born.” (162)  Shavit describes the common thread that all immigrants that are highlighted in his interviews.  First, travel by ship from a European port to Israel, followed by time in a refugee camp living in a tent for months on end, and finally a small apartment consisting of one and a half room in a town or joining an agricultural kibbutz.  The author is sensitive to the difficulties of societal integration, and the ability of families to adapt to their new surroundings.

In developing the narrative Shavit has chosen a number of important dates of which 1948, 1957, and 1967 stand out.  The War of Independence and the resettlement of Arabs is obvious, but 1957 is not so.  It was during that year that Israel and the France began colluding to develop a nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert.  French feelings of guilt because of the events of World War II made it possible for Israel to develop the Dimona Reactor which allowed Israel to develop a nuclear stockpile.  From the Israeli perspective Shavit argues that the reactor was a necessity because the expulsion of 1948 meant that the Palestinians would never rest until they recovered what they believed had been stolen from them.  He further argues that following the 1956 Suez War, Israel found itself surrounded by Arab armies that would never accept her and though Israel never acknowledged the facility the Arab states believed it existed.  The 1967 War brings forth a new concept for Israel, one of preemption, which allowed the success of the Six Day War.  That success however created a climate of preemption that will be carried out repeatedly in the future, i.e.; attacking the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, invading Lebanon in 1982, and destroying the Syrian reactor in 2007.  The policy of preemption has had mixed results for Israel and as we hear the same rumblings concerning the Iranian nuclear reactor today, we can just hope.

Israel’s actions after 1967 solidified her as an occupier of Arab territory and for a few years Shavit argues that Israel felt secure.  However, the early stages of the 1973 War proved a disaster for Israel.  Shavit correctly points out that Israel was victorious militarily, but psychologically it was a defeat.  The end result was the weakening of the Labour government that had led Israel since 1948 and for the first time Israelis felt doubt about the future.  With the weakened government the ultra-orthodox saw it as an opportunity to built settlements in the West Bank which Shavit describes through the eyes of the leadership of Gush Emunim and the resulting splintering of Israeli society.  This on top of the already emerging schism between the Oriental Jewish underclass and the Ashkenazi elite reflects a country that Israel was not unified and has not really come together to this day.

Shavit points out what he perceives to be the mistakes that Israel has made since independence.  The greatest one being one of occupation as he describes during one of his own army reserve tours in a Gaza prison.  But he also reflects as to the choices that Israel has as it is surrounded in a sea of Islamic countries who want to destroy her.  Shavit argues that each time Israel gives up territory as in Gaza and Lebanon it winds up with Hezbollah and Hamas.  He does not see a war breaking out in the near future but how viable will Israel be in fifty years when their own Arab population is a majority and orthodox Jews will outnumber secular Jews.  As far as the peace process is concerned Shavit correctly states that  “ what is needed to make peace between the two peoples of this land is probably more than humans can summon.  They will not give up their demand for what they see as justice.” (266)

There is much more to this book than I have discussed as Shavit ruminates on the conundrum that is Israel;  “if Israel does not retreat from the West Bank, it will be politically and morally doomed, but if she does retreat, it might face an Iranian-backed and Islamic Brotherhood-inspired West Bank regime whose missiles could endanger Israel’s security.  The need to end occupation is greater than ever, but so are the risks.” (401)  The picture Shavit paints is not a very optimistic one.  Whether he writes about the fractures in Israeli society, the weakness of its government, the inability to control the settlement movement, or the hope that its economic strength can continue, the geo-political world it lives in leads him to conclude his analysis by comparing Israel to a film; “we are a ragtag cast in an epic motion picture whose plot we do not understand and cannot grasp.  The script writer went mad.  The director went away.  The producer went bankrupt.  But we are still here, on this biblical set.  The camera is still rolling.  And as the camera pans out and pulls up, it sees us converging on this shore and clinging to this shore and living on this shore.  Come what may.” (419)

THE BULLY PULPIT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM by Doris Kearns Goodwin

One of the most important friendships in American History was the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.  They had a strong bond that lasted for years and then over a short period of time their friendship began to sour resulting in a schism in the Republican Party that caused them to lose the presidential election of 1912 to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.  Many historians have reached numerous conclusions as to why Teddy and Will went from being the best of friends to political enemies.  In her new book, THE BULLY PULPIT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM, Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin goes beyond the issue of friendship between Roosevelt and Taft and has written three books in one that she masterfully integrates as she presents her narrative.  First, the reader is offered a detailed biography of Theodore Roosevelt, next we are exposed to detailed biography of William Howard Taft, and lastly, and most importantly Goodwin explores the world of investigative journalism, what Roosevelt eventually referred to as the “muckrakers,” primarily through a history of McClure’s Magazine and their well known stable of journalists.  Goodwin does a remarkable job synthesizing a vast amount of material as she merges the lives of S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, William Allen White, Lincoln Steffens, and others throughout her narrative.  The main strength of the book is her argument that it was the influence of these investigative journalists that fostered the Progressive reform era at the turn of the twentieth century.  She argues further that Roosevelt’s colorful personality and drive allowed him to develop reciprocal relationships with these writers that fostered public pressure on a small group of conservative Senate Republicans that brought about the reforms of the Roosevelt era. Goodwin writes, “this generation of gifted reporters ushered in a new generation of investigative reporting that allowed Theodore Roosevelt to turn the presidency into the ‘bully pulpit’ to achieve reform.” (xiii)  On the other hand, Taft’s personality and laid back approach to politics did not allow him to achieve the same type of working relationships with the press and he lost the ability to codify and expand upon Roosevelt’s legacy, “underscoring the pivotal importance of the ‘bully pulpit’ in presidential leadership.” (xiv)  In the background, Goodwin tells the story of the friendship between these two men and why it did not survive the political theater of the day.

The narrative begins with the standard biographical information of both men.  In terms of Roosevelt there is nothing that is really new as this story has been well mined by the likes of Kathleen Dalton, Edmund Morris, Henry Pringle and others.  The information on Taft is more interesting in that fewer biographies of the twenty-seventh president have been written.  In terms of Goodwin’s thesis what is important at the outset is how she compares the personality traits of the two men as they mature as individuals and politicians.  We learn that as a child Roosevelt was a fragile and sickly and developed “a fierce determination to escape an invalid’s fate [that] led him to transform his body and timid demeanor through strenuous work.  Taft, on the other hand, blessed from birth with robust health, would allow his physical strength and energy to gradually dissipate over the years into a state of obesity.” (34)  At Harvard, Roosevelt was a “slender young man with side-whiskers, eyeglasses, and bright red cheeks.  While Taft’s sturdy physique, genial disposition, and emphatic manner won immediate popularity at Yale.” (42) On  the one hand was an individual who suffered from a  inferiority complex who would work his entire life striving for superiority to overcome this self-perception, while Taft developed into a secure person who he was self-aware and accepted his limitations.  According to Goodwin, these traits explain a great deal about the course of their careers and their successes and failures.

Goodwin’s frequent verbatim entries into her narrative allow the reader to feel as if they are experiencing life with Roosevelt and Taft.  Both men had the good fortune of growing up as favored children in close knit families.  Where Taft “developed an accommodating disposition to please a giving father who cajoled him to do better,” Roosevelt “forever idolized a dead father who cajoled him to do more and do better.” (48)  The correspondence that Goodwin includes between these sons and their fathers provide interesting insights into their formative years and development of their personalities.  Roosevelt learned early on in his career as a New York State Assemblyman the value of the press as he sought a journalistic alliance when he went after a corrupt judge who was a puppet of financier Jay Gould, and learned about poverty from touring tenements with Samuel Gompers.  The assembly and his stint as New York City Police Commissioner provided Roosevelt with an important education, as opposed to Taft who shunned the very spotlight that the future Rough Rider craved.  Taft favored to fight his battles from the inside, trusting logic, reason, and facts.  Taft always tried to avoid controversy, and would hardly ever compromise his principles as he tried to balance the rights of labor with the rights of capital as a superior court judge.

As both men evolved in their careers Goodwin relates the deeply personal details of their personal lives.  Goodwin does a nice job exploring Roosevelt’s emotional trauma whether dealing with the deaths of his father, mother, or his first wife Alice.  Goodwin provides intimate details reflecting a side of Roosevelt that was not open to the public.  His “recourtship” and marriage of his childhood friend, Edith Carow is especially enlightening as Roosevelt had pledged never to remarry, and reflect the author’s insights and handling of their rekindled relationship, a topic that seems missing from most biographies of Roosevelt.  For Taft, the love of his life was Nellie Herron who after their marriage would be the driving force behind her husband’s career.  At each level ranging from his role as Solicitor-General, a judgeship on the Federal 6th Circuit District Court, Governor-Generalship of the Philippines, as Secretary of War and then his presidential campaigns, Nellie was his most trusted advisor and confidante.  Later, when she suffers a stroke and is incapacitated, Taft will make a series of mistakes that greatly affect his career.

As Goodwin breezes along with the narrative through Roosevelt’s presidency, coverage is not equally distributed.  The emphasis of the first half of the book is on Roosevelt, followed by significant sections on investigative journalists, and the remainder on Taft.  From my perspective I would have liked more emphasis to have been placed on the journalistic component of the story because Goodwin brings a great detail of refreshing new material to the fore.  Her discussion of S.S. McClure, the founder of the magazine of that name is wonderful.  Throughout the book the reader is presented with an egomaniac, who suffers from manic-depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but despite these “limitations,” the man is a literary genius.  McClure travels the world to find writers for his new publication with emphasis on the literary, but also investigative articles that will propel a new generation of writers to the American reading public that will foster careers allowing them entrance into the corridors of power, particularly that of Theodore Roosevelt, and engender a tremendous amount of influence as they prepare articles that support major legislative reforms.  The private lives of Tarbell, Baker, Steffens and White are chronicled as well as their personal relationship which created a family-like atmosphere at McClure’s.  Ida Tarbell’s research and writings dealing with trusts, especially John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, and examination of the tariff structure in the United States are thoughtful and set the stage for Roosevelt’s reputation as a trust buster and a proponent of lower tariffs.  John Stannard Baker’s investigation into labor practices and political corruption are the basis for labor legislation and a movement to reform representative democracy.  Lincoln Steffens’ SHAME OF THE CITIES educates the American public about political bossism and corruption on the state and local level.  William Allen White served as Roosevelt’s eyes and ears in the Midwest from his perch as editor of the Emporia Gazette headquartered in the small town of Emporia, Kansas. Lastly, Upton Sinclair, who was not part of the McClure’s team, novel, THE JUNGLE sent a message to congress about conditions in the meat-packing industry that culminated in the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and regulation of the meat-packing industry, and Jacob Riis, also not part of the McClure’s family educated Roosevelt on the role of poverty in the United States.  In all cases Roosevelt established a relationship with these journalists, inviting them to the White House, sharing speeches with them in advance, and gaining their confidence that he proof read some of their articles.  This relationship, along with the publicity that McClure’s and other magazines engendered created a climate whereby the Republican conservatives in the Senate who were tied to different industrial trusts eventually had to compromise and give in. As a result Goodwin’s conclusion as to the historical importance of this group of writers cannot be underestimated.

Much of the book is focused on domestic issues but certain important foreign policy problems receive coverage.  The traditional story of the Spanish-American War and Roosevelt’s role are related and its affect on the Rough Rider’s growing political profile.  As a result of the war the United States acquired control of the Philippines and it is here that Taft reenters the picture as Governor-General of the archipelago.  It is at this juncture of his career that Taft is happiest.  He enjoys the everyday intricacies of governing and he treats the Filipino people as fairly as possible when compared to the imperialists in the United States.  It is interesting to compare Taft’s views on race with that of the social Darwinists views of Roosevelt.  Once he is recalled by Roosevelt, who succeeded to the presidency following the McKinley assassination, Taft delays his departure as long as he can until he takes over as Secretary of War.  The other major foreign policy issue that the Roosevelt administration is known for is the building of the Panama Canal, or as Roosevelt stated, “I stole it!”  Here Goodwin offers a perfunctory approach, but there is little to add to David McCullough’s THE PATHWAY BETWEEN THE SEAS.

The best way to compare how Roosevelt and Taft approached reform and used the levers of presidential power is to compare a few of the many problems that Goodwin explores in depth.  The best place to begin is to develop a definition of what progressive reform was in the eyes of Roosevelt which Goodwin does not do.  For Roosevelt all trusts were not bad, and conservation was not radical environmentalism.  In Robert Wiebe’s BUSINESS AND REFORM AND THE SEARCH FOR ORDER we learn that Roosevelt believed in the concept of “efficiency.”  If a trust was deemed to be efficient and benefited the American people and they abided by certain government strictures, Roosevelt saw no reason to go after them.  As far as conservation, Roosevelt wanted to conserve America’s land and resources for future generations, but he also allowed their development, if done in a practical manner, and benefited society as a whole.  It is interesting that most progressives were not wide eyed radicals, but mostly middle class individuals who wanted to grow the American economy for the benefit of all.  In examining Roosevelt’s anti-trust suit against the Northern Securities Company, the Beef Trust, and Standard Oil, we see an executive who uses the levers of power and the publicity generated by his investigative journalist compatriots.  In gaining passage of his reform program which turned the 59th Congress into one of the most productive in American history Roosevelt had to overcome the opposition of a small group of Republican conservative senators who could block any legislation, sound familiar!  Roosevelt fed information to Ray Stannard Baker who wrote a six part series for McClure’s, entitled, “The Railroads on Trial.”  Goodwin provides interesting excerpts of their correspondence and the information that passed between the two was essential in creating a bill to set maximum rates railroad companies could charge.  After wheeling and dealing, the Hepburn Act emerged that allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to set maximum rates.  After reading THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair, Roosevelt sent investigators to Chicago, which in the end resulted in the Meat Inspection Act.  Finally, Roosevelt met with Mark Sullivan the author of a series of articles for Collier’s Magazine that described the contents of the food Americans consumed as well as industrial practices in their preparation, the result was the Pure Food and Drug Act.  As in most cases, Roosevelt would use the “bully pulpit” to gain public support for his reform legislation.  As Goodwin describes further, it was not uncommon for the president to travel across the country by railroad to educate the American public and gain their support.

In comparing Roosevelt’s approach with that of Taft after he assumed the presidency there are two glaring examples that reflect poorly on the Ohio native.   The tariff issue has dogged most presidents throughout American history.  Taft was seen as a conservative Republican who was tied to eastern corporate interests.  Taft himself wanted to lower the tariff on certain items and make it easier for the Philippines to export goods to the United States.  Taft’s approach was to gain support for legislation through personal relationships rather than “the big stick through the press.”  During the 1908 presidential campaign Taft promised tariff reform.  When Ida Tarbell wrote a series of articles explaining how high tariffs plagued the poor Taft was in a political corner.  Much like President Obama he had recalcitrant conservatives to deal with, particularly Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon.  Taft feeling he had no choice decided to support Cannon as he believed it would be very difficult to oust him from the Speaker’s chair.  The Payne-Aldrich Tariff that emerged did little to satisfy Republican insurgents who had enough with the conservative minority in Congress.  If that was not bad enough Taft’s public declaration after meeting with Cannon that the “conservative leadership’s promise to prepare an honest and thorough revision of the tariff” made him optimistic for the future reflected how weak he appeared. “Perhaps it was inevitable that Taft’s temperament-his aversion to dissension and preference for personal persuasion-would ultimately lead him to work within the system rather than mobilize external pressure from the “bully pulpit.” (588)

Another example of Taft’s political implosion in relation to his relationship with Roosevelt took place while the former president was traveling in Africa.  Gifford Pinchot, the Director of the Forest Service was a close friend of Roosevelt and shared his conservation views.  When Taft became president he replaced John Garfield as Secretary of the Interior with Richard Ballinger.  The first dust up occurred because when Roosevelt left the White House he had withdrawn 1.5 million acres of federal land along sixteen rivers in western states to prevent corporate takeovers of the land as the railroad and oil industry had done.  Upon taking office, Ballinger who was a former corporate lawyer restored the land to the public domain leading Pinchot to publicly condemn the action that he felt would result in the creation of a “waterpower trust.”  Next, Ballinger allowed a Seattle syndicate access to 5000 acres of Alaskan land for development.  It turned out that the spokesperson for the syndicate was tied to coal interests and before he was appointed as Interior Secretary Ballinger had been their legal counsel.  Goodwin explores this situation in her usual detail and points out that Ballinger may have done nothing wrong, but insurgents led by Pinchot never forgave Taft for firing John Garfield and a political scandal ensued culminating in a nasty congressional investigation.  Whether this was a true scandal is irrelevant because of the way Taft handled it.  When Louis Brandeis the attorney for the Pinchot forces learned that certain documents were predated by the Attorney General all was lost.  Taft should have fired Ballinger, but instead kept him on even after the investigation.  Goodwin is correct in stating, “The bitter struggle had consumed the attention of the country for more than a year.  Reformers’ faith in the president, already weakened by the tariff struggle, had plummeted.”  (627)  Once Roosevelt was brought up to date by Pinchot as to what had occurred the Roosevelt-Taft relationship was at the tipping point.  What would push it over the edge was the Taft administration’s filing of an anti-trust suit against U.S. Steel.   With Roosevelt’s return to the United States and his embankment on a sixteen week tour of the west, a progressive-conservative split in the Republican Party was at hand.

The U.S. Steel issue angered Roosevelt because during the Panic of 1907 it was the work of J.P. Morgan in agreement with the then president that if Morgan assisted the government his company would not be the target of an anti-trust suit.  This led to accusations and counter accusations headlined in newspapers across the United States between Roosevelt and Taft forces.  By 1912 the Republican Party rupture was complete.  Goodwin provides in depth analysis and details of the split that led Roosevelt to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination, and failing that, forming the Bull Moose Party that led to the election of Woodrow Wilson.  The campaign was extremely nasty and one could never imagine that the two former presidents would ever rekindle their relationship.  Goodwin does their relationship justice as she describes the emotional reunion before Roosevelt’s death.  In 1921, President Harding nominated Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he longed for his entire career.

Goodwin’s final analysis of their Roosevelt-Taft relationship is accurate.  When she states in closing that the “two men had strikingly different temperaments [but] their opposing qualities actually proved complimentary, allowing them to forge a powerful camaraderie and rare collaboration” that during Roosevelt’s presidency brought progressive reform to the nation.  Under Taft, that legacy may seem to have been tarnished, but there were many progressive reforms that seem to have slipped past the public’s awareness.  After reading Goodwin’s encyclopedic narrative my opinion of Roosevelt remains the same, a man driven by a large ego who was responding to unconscious needs that revert back to his earlier life.  For Taft my view has changed; he was exceptionally competent in many areas, and though limited by his own personality and loyalty to what he perceived to be constitutionally correct emerges as the larger man (not physically!) than his lifelong friend.  Goodwin has mined an enormous amount of material as she has done in all her books.  If you are interested in exploring an age in American history that is rich in substance and contains many interesting characters then sit back and enjoy Goodwin’s latest work.