PARCELLS: A FOOTBALL LIFE by Bill Parcells & Nunyo Demasio

(Bill Parcells being carried off the field by Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks after the New York Giants defeated the Denver Broncos, 39-20 in the 1987 Super Bowl)

Years ago when my son was rather young I would take him to Farleigh Dickinson University’s Madison, New Jersey campus to watch the New York Giants pre-season training camp.  I told him that any words that he would hear that his mother might not approve of were to be forgotten and never repeated, at least not in her presence.  As an avid Giants fan going back to the glory days of Charley Conerly, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, and Andy Robustelli I took great pleasure in sharing my passion for “Big Blue.”  During one of our visits the Giants coach, Bill Parcells was especially sarcastic in his own inimitable fashion as he joked with the likes of Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms, and Mark Bavaro.  The expletives flowed, but what we witnessed was the work of a master motivator who, despite some unorthodox methods, knew how to get the best out of his players.  I am avid follower of sports, but I like to look at it from a historical perspective.  Many sports books, particularly, biographies come down to hagiography and statistics, which I find unacceptable.  The new biography, PARCELLS: A FOOTBALL LIFE by Bill Parcells and Nunyo Demasio is an interesting blend of football statistics, but also an in depth study of one of football’s greatest coaches.  We see a man with all of his foibles apart from his successes, in addition to his large ego, but also a strong sense of contrition as his life evolved.

Charles Parcells, Bill’s father was a northern New Jersey sports legend who was a loving father, but a strict task master.  His mother, Ida was a traditional Italian woman who maintained a warm home, and usually contained her forceful personality.  Bill was more of a baseball player than a football player during his youth, but he would grow interested in the sport as it was seen as a ticket into college.  He was a lineman/linebacker at Wichita State University and was even drafted by the Detroit Lions.  While in college he met his wife Judy and by the time he obtained his first job, at Hastings College in Nebraska, they had a daughter and another child on the way.

(Bill Parcells, then the coach of the New England Patriots shaking hands with one of his disciples, a young Bill Belichick, then the coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1991)

Parcells coaching career would keep him out of the state he loved, New Jersey, for almost twenty years.  His career path as an assistant coach would take him back to Wichita State, to West Point, Florida State, Vanderbilt, Texas Tech, Air Force, the New York Giants, and the New England Patriots.  Along the way he met and grew close with a number of mentors that included; Bobby Knight, the irascible basketball coach, and Al Davis, a Brooklynite to the core and long time owner and coach of the Oakland Raiders.  Throughout his journey before he became a head coach Parcells, who possessed his own rather large ego, was willing to learn from others and adapt if it would contribute to making him a better coach and improve his players.  Finally, he would achieve his goal of being a head coach, being hired by the New York Giants in 1983.  When Parcells arrived he found the likes of Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, and a quarterback named Phil Simms who as yet had not found himself on hand.

For me the Parcells era with the Giants was wonderful.  With visits to training camp I felt I had a special relationship with the team.  Parcells banter at press conferences reflected a moody, sarcastic, but sincere individual.  He drove his coaches and players to distraction to the point that Simms came into his office at one point and demanded that he be traded.  The book does a superb job describing Parcells coaching methods and philosophy, particularly how he interacted with the players on a number of levels.  For example, he was quite aware that a number of players had drug issues especially Lawrence Taylor.  Parcells worked with these players to overcome their problems, set up a team drug policy at a time the NFL did not have one, and a vast majority of players who worked under Parcells state that the most important thing he did for them was make them into men and accomplish things they thought they would never be able to achieve.  In January, 1987 the Giants won their first Super Bowl under Parcells, a game that has special meaning for me as I was in Brussels that weekend accompanying twenty high school students on a Model United Nations competition at the Hague.  When I arrived the first thing I asked the attendant at the hotel desk was where I could watch the game.  I was told 150 miles from the city (I think he thought I was referring to soccer!).  Distraught, I called the American Embassy and explained my predicament.  The desk sergeant was from Long Island and he agreed to send transportation for myself and my students to NATO Support Headquarters to watch the game with American troops if I promised to send him a VCR copy of the game when I returned home.  A deal was struck; we convoyed to Headquarters and watched the game with American troops until 4:00 am.  I was never prouder to be an American and a Giants fan when they beat Denver 39-20.

Parcells would win another Super Bowl in 1991 against Buffalo and the odyssey that is Bill Parcells would continue.  To the authors credit they mince no words in describing Parcell’s vagabond approach to his career.  Parcell’s ego needs total control in any job and it led to his departure from the Giants and his eventual arrival in New England.  Throughout this process we witness the growing “bromance” between Parcells and Bill Belichick who was taken under “the Tuna’s” wing as he helped develop him into one of the greatest coaches in football history.  Parcells stay in New England ran into the same control issues with its owner Robert Kraft, whose own sense of self was equal to that of Parcells.  An interesting part of the narrative is the description of the Parcells-Kraft relationship, and neither man comes out very positively. The question for the two of them was whose ego was larger; the shrewd owner who wanted total control of his organization to maximize his monetary gain, or a coach who wanted almost total control of the football component of the team.  Despite Parcells football divorce from the Patriots, he did make them relevant and laid the foundation for the most successful football franchise in the 21st century.  Parcell’s approach to coaching is very simple as he put it, “if you’re going to cook the meal, they ought to let you shop for the groceries.” (269)

The list of coaches that Parcells trained is remarkable and many became successful head coaches in their own right.  After leaving New England Parcells wound up back in New Jersey with the New York Jets where he was successful once again in turning around another franchise.  After the death of its owner Leon Hess, who Parcells worked with well, he moved on to the Dallas Cowboys after a stint as an analyst on ESPN.  With the bombastic Jerry Jones, the owner of the Cowboys we see a mellower Parcells in dealing with ownership, but the same overbearing approach on the field.  Following his stay in Dallas, Parcells concluded his career in the front office of the Miami Dolphins.  The book delves a great deal into Parcells private life.  His meandering career played havoc with his 40 year marriage which collapsed due to his infidelity.  In addition, he was an absentee father to his three children as he became more of a parent to his players.   We witness a man who faces his mortality with intricate heart surgery.  Lastly, we are exposed to Parcells inner thoughts as he reviews his life decisions and takes the blame for many of mistakes he has made.

(Bill Parcells addressing the NFL Hall of Fame in 2013 after his induction)

To Parcells’ credit he did try and right many of the wrongs he felt guilty about as he made peace with certain colleagues and apologies to family members.  However, no matter what we think of Bill Parcells as a person, no one can minimize the impact he had and how integral he was to the history of the NFL during his long tenure.  To his credit he fathered an amazing coaching tree that includes the like of Bill Belichick, Sean Peyton, and Tom Coughlin, between them there are six super bowl rings.  Some would argue that Parcells receives too much credit for his success and that his legacy should be that of a “franchise hopping, Hamlet like resignations” dominating.  Having watched Parcells since 1980, I believe that this biography is mostly objective and if you want to enjoy a stroll down memory lane and relive many of the NFL highlights of the last forty years you should pick up a copy of PARCELLS: A FOOTBALL LIFE.

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LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS by Harold Holzer

Abraham Lincoln has probably been the subject of more monographs than any other figure in American history.  In all the books written about our sixteenth president, be it biographies or monographs dealing with different aspects of the Lincoln presidency, the issue of his relationship with the press has not been mined thoroughly.  This gap in Lincoln historiography has been admirably filled by Harold Holzer’s new book, LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS.  Holzer, a leading authority on Lincoln and the Civil War serves as Chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation and has authored, co-authored or edited 42 books.  In his latest effort he has done an excellent job in researching and writing about Lincoln’s relationship to the press, how it affected his political career, and how he approached the dissemination of information during the Civil War.  Holzer argues that during the mid nineteenth century through the end of the Civil War, newspapers worked hand in glove with politicians.  A number of newspaper editors held political office at the same time they wrote for, or owned newspapers.  It was very difficult to separate political parties from the opinions of certain newspapers.  In a sense one’s political affiliation was made public by the newspaper they wrote for.  In Lincoln’s case, he became the owner of a local paper in a small town in Illinois whose express purpose was to be a mouthpiece for the then future president, and a means of reaching a particular ethnic group in order to further Republican Party chances in the expanding west.

According to the author it was difficult, at times, to separate Lincoln’s role as a journalist and his role as a politician.  Lincoln’s views on press freedoms and censorship would undergo great changes once he entered the White House, and Holzer does a commendable job following Lincoln’s evolution on constitutional issues relating to freedom of the press and other important subjects.  Holzer’s book is more than a discussion of Lincoln and the press.  What the author has prepared is a wonderful study that devotes a great deal of attention to the major newspapers of the time period and the individuals who made them famous.  The author does not neglect smaller papers and persons of interest who impacted the time period.  The book concentrates on three journalists and their newspapers; Horace Greeley and the New York Journal, Henry Raymond and the New York Times, and James Gordon Bennett and the New York Herald.  In presenting his material, Holzer integrates the lives and events of the period and places them in the context of Lincoln’s views, the prevailing political situation, and the personal relationships that most impacted American history.  Aside from biographies of these journalists and their relationship with Lincoln, Holzer presents a comparative biography of Lincoln and his most important political foe, Stephen A. Douglas.  In this discussion we see the evolution of Lincoln’s constitutional arguments as they relate to slavery, and how the foil of “the little giant,” allowed Lincoln’s analysis of politics and society to crystallize.

(Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Journal)

According to Holzer, newspapers were the most powerful weapons political campaigns employed in the 1850s.  “The mutual interdependence that grew up between the press and politics made for a toxic brew.  No politician was above it, no editor beyond it, and no reader immune to it.” (xiv)  Springfield, Illinois was a perfect example of this toxicity, especially with Senator Stephen A. Douglas and former congressman, Abraham Lincoln in residence in 1859.  If one examines Lincoln’s background one would see a politician constantly courting editors in nearby cities and villages.  In May, 1859 he even purchased a German newspaper as a means of courting an ethnic group whose population was rapidly expanding westward, and would greatly influence the 1860 presidential election.  Holzer accurately characterizes the relationship between Lincoln, other politicians, and journalists as a “sometimes incestuous relationship” as party machines and individual pols sought patronage and other perks from those officeholders with power.  These perks would consist of high paying appointive jobs in the federal bureaucracy, post masterships which allowed further sources of patronage, government printing contracts, a major source of wealth and revenue for newspapers, ambassadorships, etc.  Holzer puts it nicely in his introduction by stating that the book “focuses not just on how newspapers reported on and influenced [Lincoln’s] ascent, but how his own struggle for power, and most of his political contemporaries, unfolded within a concurrent competition for preeminence among newspapermen to influence politics and politicians.” (xvi)

(Henry Jarvis Raymond, founder, editor of  New York Times, Congressman from New York)

Along the way the reader meets a number of remarkable historical figures.  Horace Greeley, the editor, author, and politician is foremost among them.  Holzer parallels the lives of Greeley and Lincoln who experience many similarities in their lives, but never were able to develop trust in each other, thus negating a close relationship.  Greeley’s newspaper was against slavery and its expansion.  Greeley became a thorn in the side of the south and a confederacy that saw him as an abolitionist.  Greely’s paper became one of the most influential in New York and with weekly editions it had influence nationwide.  Greeley had his own political ambitions, and he did not always support Lincoln’s candidacies.  At times the somewhat irritating Greeley caused political problems for Lincoln that he always seemed to manipulate to his advantage.  By 1864, Greeley would oppose Lincoln’s reelection and try to bring about peace with the south.  In James Gordon Bennett we come across one of the most colorful and egoistic characters in 19th century American history.  Bennett, whose loyalty was not to a political party or ideology, but to making money and expanding his own influence.  Throughout the period Bennett’s paper would flip flop on issues as well as support for certain politicians and parties as long as it met Bennett’s personal goals.  He despised Greeley and their “newspaper wars” are fascinating.  At first Bennett supported secession, but morphed into a supporter of the union and abolition after making certain “unofficial” arrangements with Lincoln.  The most respected journalist of the period was Henry Raymond, who despite disagreements over policy with the Lincoln administration remained loyal to the Republican Party, a party he would assume the chairmanship of before the election of 1864.  Raymond is the perfect example of the politician-journalist as he also served in Congress following the Civil War, representing a district from New York City while editing his newspaper.

(James Gordon Bennett, founder and editor of the New York Herald)

The book is more than a history of Greeley, Bennett, and Raymond, but more of a general narrative of journalism before the Civil War dating back to George Washington’s difficulties with the press, and it becomes extremely detailed once the reader approaches the Civil War.  As newspapers were confronted by the major crisis of the period; Bloody Kansas, John Brown’s Raid, the firing on Fort Sumter, Holzer explores each and how individual newspaper and their political affiliates reacted and tried to make the most out of news coverage.  The same approach is implemented in discussing the major battles, political controversies, and personalities that dominate the Civil War.  We meet a president who learns how to manipulate the press and reach the public by writing his own editorials, and issuing public letters to avoid answering to a given editor.  Whether Lincoln is confronted with military failures, difficult personalities like Greeley, Salmon P. Chase, John C. Fremont, or George McClellan; the president is able to control situations and defuse them, or increase tension in order to implement his vision.

A number of issues and incidents stand out, especially censorship, and the 1863 New York draft riots.  After the Union failure at Bull Run in June, 1861 the Lincoln administration was vilified by the Democratic Party press.  In efforts to embarrass Lincoln articles were published that many in the military felt were almost treasonous.  Once Edwin Stanton became Secretary of War there was a crackdown on certain newspapers and their editors and it raised the question of news suppression being a vehicle for censorship.  It is apparent that it was but Lincoln and his allies argued that it was needed in order to safely and effectively prosecute the war.  A number of papers met with government action and Holzer delineates them clearly in detail.  After what Holzer terms, “the Panic of 1861,” ran its course, the Lincoln administration backed off in most cases and freedom of the press was fairly secure for two years.  Censorship reemerges as an issue as the election of 1864 approached and Lincoln was viciously vilified by the Democratic Party press.  When the message of what would be tolerated was provided, once again the Lincoln administration limited action against offending papers.  On the whole Holzer concludes that Lincoln should be praised for the amount of free press allowed during the war as the Confederacy was using the northern papers as a vehicle in ascertaining what strategies to pursue.  In the case of the 1863 New York draft riots, Bennett’s New York Herald stoked racial hatred by publishing rumors to heighten tension.  It directed its editorials at the Irish minority in New York that feared that freed slaves would take their jobs.  The ensuing bloodshed can, in part, easily be placed at the door of the Herald’s editorial offices.

Though the book concentrates on the northern press, Holzer does find time to discuss the state of confederate journalism.  Southern newspapers were at a disadvantage throughout the Civil War, and their newspaper industry was ostensibly destroyed by 1863.  The south suffered from a lack of paper since most paper mills were up north.  Further, with universal white conscription there were few educated males to write for, and administer the news.  In addition, once union forces occupied a given area, pro-confederate editors were seized and their papers shut down and presses confiscated.  Lastly, Union forces controlled most telegraph lines and cut those that southern cities and towns depended upon.

Without a doubt, Lincoln loved newspapers, greatly enjoyed the give and take with reporters, and realized the strategic political importance that the press played in everyday life.  For the young Lincoln they were a source of education, for the mature Lincoln they were a source of political intelligence and a means of influencing public opinion.  The importance of the press during the period under study cannot be under rated as it impacted most major decisions before, during, and after the war.  Taken as a whole, LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS will become the standard work on its subject for historians for years to come.  Its analysis is incisive, and Holzer’s command of the material, primary and secondary, is incomparable.  For those who enjoyed Doris Kearns Goodwin’s TEAM OF RIVALS, Holzer’s new book makes a wonderful compliment as it opens new avenues of thought and discovery.  To Holzer’s credit the book is not just designed for historians of the period, but it should also satisfy the general reader who might be interested in the topic.

THE RECKONING: DEATH AND INTRIGUE IN THE PROMISED LAND by Patrick Biship

(the old city of Jerusalem in winter, 1942…notice the snow!)

As Israel approaches new elections in March, the Palestinian Authority calls for further recognition in the United Nations, and Hamas still struts their weapons in Gaza, we find ourselves asking what is next for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  According to Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist, “there is a growing sense that Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto, which is exactly what the founding fathers and mothers hoped to leave behind them forever when they created the state of Israel…Unless there are two states—Israel next door to Palestine—and soon, there will be one state.  If there will be one state, it will be an Arab state.  The other option is an Israeli dictatorship, probably a religious nationalist dictatorship, suppressing the Palestinians and suppressing its Jewish opponents.”* Is this the vision that Israel’s founders saw in 1948?  If we examine the ideological splits in Zionism at the time there were groups that favored the concept of some sort of Israeli government excluding Palestinians in Palestine.  This ideology was part of the belief system of Abraham Stern, a Jewish freedom fighter and/or terrorist depending if you were Jewish refugee escaping the Nazis, or a member of the British mandate government in Palestine.  In his new book, THE RECKONING: DEATH AND INTRIGUE IN THE PROMISED LAND, Patrick Bishop examines the death of Stern by British police in 1942 and its impact on those individuals and groups who were bent on the creation of an Israeli state following the Holocaust.

(Israeli commemorative stamp of Abraham Stern)

The core of Bishop’s narrative centers on the personal conflict between Abraham Stern and Geoffrey Morton, the British Assistant Superintendent of the Palestine Police Force.   For Morton, Stern was a terrorist who was responsible for political assassinations of British officials, the murder of innocent Arabs, as well as Jews who became collateral damage.  The issue for Morton became personal, when Stern’s group killed his close friend and second in command, Wally Medler.  From Stern’s perspective, Morton represented a government that blocked the immigration of Jewish refugees in Europe who were trying to flee Nazi persecution, and stood in the way of the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.   Stern had evolved from a career as a promising poet in Poland, to an aspiring Zionist theorist, to an underground fighter.  By 1942 he saw himself as a warrior prophet who believed that England was the main enemy of the Jews and the chief obstacle to a Jewish state in Palestine.  For Morton, Stern and his followers were causing major difficulties for his government at a time when things in Europe were not going well, the Battle of Britain was in full swing, and Rommel’s Afrika Corps were approaching Palestine.  When Stern reached out to Italy as a source of weapons, it became clear to Morton that Stern could be a conduit for a “fifth column” for Nazis in the region.

(British wanted poster, 1942 for Stern Gang members)

Bishop provides biographical information for all of his characters and takes the reader through the politics on both sides.  The rupture between the Yishuv (the Jewish Agency that governed Palestine for the Jews, who at the outset felt working with the British would be beneficial in the long run), its military wing the Haganah, the Irgun (the revisionist group under the leadership of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who rejected gradualism in dealing with the British), and the Stern group (that eventually broke with the Irgun and pursued a policy of violence) is examined in detail.  Bishop also explores the different factions within the British government, some who favored greater leniency toward the Jews because of their plight, and those like Morton who wanted to enforce the law as it was written and did not want to compromise.  The reader is taken behind the scenes reflecting solid research for each group and witnesses how decisions were reached and operations were planned.  Bishop keeps the reader aware of events in Europe and how they impacted the region to promote further understanding of all sides.  We meet all the major characters, those who hunted Stern and his cohorts, and those who carried out Stern’s plans and hid him from British authorities.

Bishop discusses the major actions taken by the Stern Group as it became known and its results.  He details the British response to the violence and how it finally was able to kill Stern in February, 1942.  It is the killing of Stern that forms a major focus of the book and the controversy that ensued.  Was Stern killed while escaping a friend’s apartment, or was he murdered as he was unarmed and trying to flee through a window in an area that was sealed off by British police.  Both points of view are given and to this day the controversy remains as to how Stern died.  The problem for British authorities was that the controversy over Stern’s death made him a martyr to the Zionist cause and was used to rally Jews against the British.  Following his death, Stern’s remaining followers worked out a Modus Vivendi with the Irgun, and the Haganah to continue the fight against the British mandate government in Palestine.

Bishop tries to present his narrative as a detective story designed to capture the reader’s interest and keep them on the edge of their seats.  A sub title of the book states, “a true detective story.”  Here I think the book fails.  In trying to take a historical monograph that describes so many different characters, ideologies, and government edicts it is very difficult to try and fit it into the parameters of detective non-fiction.  From the outset of the book, Bishop drops numerous hints as to his plot line and the coming death of Stern.  His repeated clues about Stern’s demise are better left out, and what Bishop should have done is let the story, an interesting an important one in light of current events, play out.  There are a number of important findings that Bishop emphasizes, particularly Stern’s attempts to come to agreement with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany for weapons and support as an ally against the British.  This component of the book reflects Stern’s obsession for the ultimate goal of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and his tunnel vision in that he would work with anyone to achieve it.  This did cause opposition in his “gang,” but ultimately they remained together.  Further findings dealing with Morton’s motivations in dealing with Stern and the Jewish problem and his rationalizations are important as well as his removal by British authorities who felt he had gone too far.

The book is very timely and it points out the influence Stern had on two future Prime Ministers of Israel, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.  Some might also argue that elements of Stern’s beliefs still exist in Israeli politics, particularly among right-wingers as we approach the Israeli elections in two months.  The book is a useful addition to the vast bibliography that deals with the creation of Israel, but it does itself a disservice by trying to create a historical mystery.

*”What Will Israel Become?” by Roger Cohen, New York Times, December 20, 2014.