HERESY by S.J. Parris

Armada Portrait Queen Elizabeth I
(Queeen Elizabeth I)

For those of you who are familiar with C. J. Sansom’s novels that center around Matthew Shardlake during the reign of Henry VIII, Iain Pears’ AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, and perhaps the novels of Hillary Mantel that focuses on Henry VIII’s vicar, Thomas Cromwell you might do well to consider S.J. Parris’ (the pseudonym of British journalist Stephanie Merritt) novels whose main character Giordano Bruno is a true historical figure set during the reign of Elizabeth I.  Parris’ exploration of Bruno’s beliefs, life’s work, and talents emerge in the first of seven novels entitled HERESY a story that has the inauspicious beginning of Bruno sitting in the privy at San Domenico Maggiore in Naples reading Erasmus’ COMMENTARIES.  When he is caught with this reading material, he is forced to throw it into the cesspool.  One must remember that in 1576 anyone in Catholic Naples who criticizes Catholicism is committing blasphemy and a crime that a Father Inquisitor might deem worthy of death.

The author employs Bruno’s life journey as an excellent vehicle to portray the religious schism that has overtaken Europe since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the Castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, and for Parris’ purpose its later impact on the reign of Elizabeth I who has rested her throne on the Act of Supremacy issued in 1558.  Bruno provides a superb foil against Catholic teachings as his life’s journey consisted of joining a monastery as a teenager and taking his vows at San Domenico Maggiore which he would come to reject after thirteen years.  He would wander Italy teaching and staying one step ahead of the father Inquisitor who had branded him a heretic.  He would escape to Geneva, where he was also branded as a heretic this time by the Calvinist power structure, Paris, and finally to England.  While in Paris, King Henri III would become his patron and would then travel on to London where he will be recruited by Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham to penetrate the Papist hotbed at the universities at Oxford. 

Parris’ dominate theme that permeates the novel is the schism between Catholics and Protestants as Bruno had traveled to England to write books which he believed would rock Europe to its foundations and search for a book that proved the universe was infinite going much further than Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe, a book written by the Egyptian sage, Hermes Trismegistus.  Bruno believed that a universe without end existed, as did a universal soul which we are all part of.  Bruno subscribed to the view that “the divinity is in all of us and in the substance of the universe with the right knowledge, we can draw down all the powers of the cosmos.  When one understands this, we can become equal to God.”

(Giordano Bruno)

Parris’ plot unfolds as Bruno is accompanied to Oxford by Sir Philip Sidney, an aristocratic soldier-poet who he had met in Padua, and palatine Albert Laski, a conceited Polish poet.  Bruno’s purpose is to engage the Rector John Underhill of Lincoln College in a disputation.  Before the debate can take place, Bruno comes across the body of Roger Mercer one of the fellows who dined regularly at Underhill’s table.  It appears that the rest of the college is at pains to cover up the murder and Bruno’s charge is completely changed, and it appears that someone has created a grisly scenario in the name of Catholicism or is it Protestantism.  Bruno’s investigation allows Parris to accurately convey life in the English countryside during the period sprinkling in seedy taverns, mysterious bookshops, in addition to Oxford’s world renown libraries.

Francis Walsingham (c1532-1590) 'spymaster' to Elizabeth I. He is frequently cited as one of the earliest practitioners of modern intelligence both for espionage and internal security. His network penetrated the heart of Spanish military preparation, gath... : News Photo
(Sir Francis Walsingham)

Parris has employed a number of characters to carry out her story line.  Each character associated with Oxford and its colleges seem to reflect English arrogance and an anti-Oxford bias throughout the novel.   The most important individuals include Rector Underhill’s daughter, Sophia  an interesting individual who craves learning and resents the role of woman in English society.  Bruno’s main foil within the college is the Bursar Walter Slythurst with other individuals like James Coverdale who will now accede to the office of Deputy Rector with the passing of Mercer, William Bernard, a fellow who had been the librarian in 1569 when the library had been purged of heretical materials, Master Richard Godwyn, a mild mannered  librarian and fellow, Gabriel Norris, a student who used his long bow to kill Mercer’s assailant, Rowland Jenks, a bookseller who chopped off his own ears, Mr. Cobbett, an alcoholic porter involved in security, and Thomas Allen a student whose father, the former sub-Rector and teacher had been unceremoniously removed from the college resulting in his son’s loss of his scholarship.

Parris has written an atmospheric thriller dropping Bruno into the paranoid world of Oxford Papists which he must navigate to survive intellectually as he tries to solve the murder of Mercer, and unravel Oxford’s tangled loyalties, some of which border on treason.  As the novel unfolds a number of other Oxford fellows are murdered as Bruno becomes part detective as well as a humanistic philosopher who seems ahead of his time as he tries to offer further enlightenment to Europe.

On the whole the novel is well conceived, and once the reader acclimates themselves to Parris’ dialogue, they will become engrossed and will be exposed to a fascinating historical mystery.  The next installment of Parris’ Bruno series PROPHECY examines an astrological phenomenon that portends the death of Elizabeth as her throne is constantly threatened by her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes, c.1600. Wiki Commons.(Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes, c.1600)

HIS VERY BEST: JIMMY CARTER, A LIFE by Jonathan Alter

(Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter)

When one thinks of James Earle Carter III (Jimmy) many would argue that he achieved extraordinarily little as President and some describe his administration as a total failure.  On the positive side as Douglas Brinkley argues in his THE UNFINISHED PRESIDENCY: JIMMY CARTER’S JOURNEY BEYOND THE WHITE HOUSE Carter’s post-presidency has been the most effective and impactful of any former president in American history.  The diminution of the Carter presidency is somewhat unfair as luck was never on Carter’s side and his somewhat prickly self-righteous personality rubbed people the wrong way.  But to be fair one cannot take away the numerous accomplishments that the Carter administration was responsible for. 

To begin, the Camp David Accords was the most successful peace treaty since the end of World War II, the Panama Canal Treaties prevented war in Central America, normalized relations with China which revitalized trade between the two countries, expanded the CDC role into global health, instituted new pollution controls, increased consumer protection, implemented civil service reform for the first time in a hundred years, increased the number of women and blacks on the federal bench, doubled the size of our national parks, deregulated trucking, airlines, and utilities, placed intermediate nuclear missiles in Europe – reflecting his toughness, oversaw a Pentagon that developed the B2 bomber and other high tech weapons that the Soviets could not match, provided aid to anti-communist forces in Afghanistan, and a human rights policy that contributed to the winning of the Cold War.  This would seem to have been a strong record to run for reelection, but 1979 saw a number of events beyond Carter’s control that gave the United States a black eye – the seizure of American hostages in Iran and a failed rescue attempt, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and an increase in the price of oil due to actions by OPEC sending an American economy already tottering over the edge with inflation until a tailspin.  The interesting thing is that had Carter been reelected he would have continued to foster a sound energy policy and would have acted on the coming environmental crisis and perhaps the world we live in would at least have been cleaner and perhaps the dramatic climate changes we all observe might have been lessened.

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin sitting at table smiling (© David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
(Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin)

The question is what we should make of this man and have we misjudged him and his presidency.  In Jonathan Alter’s new book, HIS VERY BEST: JIMMY CARTER, A LIFE, the first full length biography of Carter the author attempts to answer those questions and analyze his role in American and because of his post-presidency world history.  Alter presents a president who is an enigma.  On the one hand he comes across as a pious Christian and a moral individual, however certain personality traits seem the polar opposite.  Extremely stubborn and self-righteous at times he rubbed people the wrong way as he could not suffer fools gladly and he often appeared hypocritical, particularly in dealing with members of Congress.  Alter, the author of three ­New York Times best sellers and a former senior editor at Newsweek has produced a well-documented analytical approach to Carter’s life and part of his thesis revolves around the idea that much of what Carter accomplished as President paved the way for future successes in foreign policy, the environment, and politics which were not necessarily clear at the time they were instituted.

Alter correctly points out that part of Carter’s problems politically was that he was a “real” outsider and had difficulty acclimating himself to the way things were done in Washington.  It is exceedingly difficult to pigeonhole Carter as a progressive or a conservative as it depended on the issue where he might fall on a political continuum.  However, if there is an overarching label, we can apply to Carter it would center around some sort of moral ideology.  Alter provides the reader with intimate details of Carters early years growing up in Americus and Plains Georgia, a boyhood that corresponded with the Depression.

Jimmy Carter Peanut Of Plains Statue, Plains, Georgia
(Jimmy Carter Peanut Statue, Plains, Georgia)

Alter provides numerous insights into the person Carter would become.  His lifetime mantra developed in high school as he learned that “we must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles,” a moral code that could produce success but also failures throughout his life.

Alter points to two key relationships for Carter.  He delves into Carter’s marriage to Rosalynn and what emerges is how supportive they were of each other and created a true partnership.  Carter would never have been as successful as he was without her be it his pre-presidential, presidential, or post-presidential years.  She was involved in all decisions in their marriage and his career and he would not have experienced his personal successes without her input.  The second important relationship was with Admiral Hyman Rickover who became a father figure for Carter and demanded that he always do his best and live his life as if he had something to prove.

Alter’s narrative is all encompassing, and a number of aspects stand out.  First, is the dichotomy that Carter presents dealing with race.  He grew up in a racist region of Georgia where segregationists ruled, Brown v. Board of Education was never enforced, and African-Americans knew their place.  Early on it seemed that Carter was oblivious to what was transpiring though his Christian upbringing showed him something was terribly wrong.  Though Carter would come across later as a true friend of the black community he was not above using the “race card” when it would benefit him politically in campaigns for Congress and the Governorship of Georgia.  The employment of “coded words” was present and he could speak at Black churches and preach equality at the same time he was supporting George Wallace.  Later in life Carter would admit the error of his ways and spend a good part of his adult life trying to make up for what he did or not do early in his career.  Alter does an excellent job breaking down Carter’s moral beliefs and imperfections which are highlighted by his racial attitudes and approach to politics.

Plain Peanuts Store, Plains, Georgia
(Plains Peanut Store, Plains, Ga.)

The second part of the narrative that is important is how Alter dives into a number of important topics, be it the Camp David Accords, environmental policy, the Panama Canal Treaty, normalization of relations with China, human rights as a major component of foreign policy, or the appointment of Paul Volker to head the Federal Reserve and how it impacted people in the future, mostly in a positive way.  In each instance Alter explains how each topic created a future that would benefit people well into the 21st century be it no major wars involving Israel and the Arab states, an energy policy that pushed for higher emissions standards, cleaner air, trade with China, and other examples.  Alter to his credit points out the negative aspects of some these policies, i.e.; how China has taken advantage of its economic relationship with the US as thousands of Chinese were educated in American universities and engaging in serious industrial espionage, and how Carter’s courting of evangelicals in 1976 brought them into the political process and allowed them to evolve into the negative political force they are today.

Back in the Headlines: Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979
(Return of American hostages from Iran, January, 1980)

Alter’s in depth coverage of Carter’s campaign for the presidency and his term in office is a key part of the narrative.  Carter would benefit from the post-Watergate period as an outsider.  His long shot campaign saw the application of Carter’s relentless approach to winning as he did in all aspects of his life.  Carter, along with his “Georgia Mafia” would arrive in Washington trying to do too much too soon alienating important members of Congress and other important political leaders.  His inflexibility, refusal to conform to Washington norms, and moral tone alienated many and it is amazing he accomplished what he did with an inexperienced administration who did not know how or have the desire to be involved in the political give and take needed to be successful.  Despite these shortcomings the first two years of Carter’s presidency can be considered quite successful as Alter points out, but the final two years were a disaster, mostly because of bad luck and many questionable decisions by Carter who micro-managed a great deal of time during his presidency and as a result did not have enough time during the day to reach more measured conclusions.

The list of events seems endless.  The situation in Iran that forced the Shah to be overthrown brought questions concerning how the Carter administration approached the problem.  It was clear a lack of intelligence contributed to the Shah’s resignation, but also Carter was so busy with the Camp David negotiations he was somewhat caught blindsided by events in Iran.  The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan reflected a weak presidency and a resurgence of Cold War rhetoric.  The nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island and what came to be known as “the malaise speech” lowered Carter’s approval rating to Nixonian levels.  If this was not enough by 1979 the US economy which suffered from high inflation and interest rates, long gas lines due to OPEC policies and Carter’s attitude that the American people relied too much on conspicuous consumption did not help.  In a number of instances Carter was out of his depth in dealing with these problems, particularly in confronting the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise and the hostage situation and Alter correctly argues reflected a president “who lacked a diplomatic and clandestine imagination.” 

(Carter advisor and Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan)

It is clear from Alter’s narrative that Carter lacked the disposition to be an effective president, but this doggedness and self-confidence would be a major reason why he experienced such a successful post-presidency.  Carter’s belief in “soft power” in foreign policy found a willing world once out of office.  Human rights came to dominate his presidency with support for Russian dissidents, pressuring dictators in Latin and South America,  and in Africa.  This continued after he was defeated by Ronald Reagan and Alter delves into his support of the Palestinians who he felt were squeezed out of the Camp David process, supervising elections worldwide, working to gain the release of American seized abroad, support for victims of Aids and other diseases that ravaged poor countries and finding cures, Habitat for Humanity, and on and on.  Carter’s later years reflected his total commitment to making a difference, his willingness to experiment with diverse projects, invest his time and emotions in numerous projects and causes, and risk his reputation in the name of helping others.  In his nineties Carter would admit that his “involuntary retirement were the best years of his life.”

Alter’s chief argument is that Carter “was a surprisingly consequential president.”  Alter’s account is ably sourced and fluidly written and is one of the best presidential biographies that have been published in the last decade.  Alter convincingly demonstrates that Carter should be admired for sticking to his guns in many areas that in the end, even decades later, would prove beneficial to the American people as opposed to politicians who negotiate away their beliefs in their constant need to be reelected.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter speaking in New York on July 12, 1976

(Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter speaking in New York on July 12, 1976)

THE TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY: THE SEDUCTIVE LURE OF AUTHORITARIANISM by Anne Applebaum

Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.
(January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol)

Today we find ourselves living in a world where more and more people are turning away from democracy and supporting governments which have authoritarian tendencies or promote outright autocracy.  For historian, Anne Applebaum this movement has been somewhat personal as she opens her latest book, THE TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY: THE SEDUCTIVE LURE OF AUTHORITARIANISM by describing a New Year’s Eve party she and her husband Radek Sikorski, who at the time was deputy foreign minister in a center-right Polish government threw to usher in the year 2000.  Most of the participants were Polish friends, journalists, and civil servants.  The majority of the guests were conservatives and anti-communists, and most were optimistic about the future.  Fast forward twenty years, Applebaum is no longer friends with most of these individuals and she does her best to avoid them as many of her former guests seemed to have joined forces with demagogues and authoritarian leaning types.  Applebaum, in a mixture of historical trends and her own biography tries to explain why as she investigates the struggle between democracy and dictatorship zeroing in on trends in Hungary and Poland, which for her and her family is a partial home.  Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of a series of books dealing with the Soviet Union; RED FAMINE: STALIN’S WAR ON UKRAINE, IRON CURTAIN: THE CRUSHING OF EASTERN EUROPE, 1944-1956, and GULAG: A HISTORY provides important insights as to why liberal democracy seems to be under siege, and how authoritarianism is on the rise.

Since 1989 the evolution toward democracy from the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe seems to have stalled as rightist authoritarian leaning governments have come to power, particularly in Poland and Hungary.  Once they assume control these governments manipulate the levers of power to consolidate their reign relying on lies, dismissal from government positions, conspiracy theories, and inculcating the masses with a xenophobic and victim oriented messages.  According to the author there is no single explanation as to why this has occurred and she states upfront that she has no “grand theory or universal solution” to offer, but she is correct in stating that “given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy.  Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all our societies eventually will.”  For Americans this seemed implausible until the events of the last four years and many believe that the election of 2020 points to Trumpism as an aberration, however the storming of the capitol on January 6, 2021, and recent votes in the US Congress seem to make this fear even more of a reality for the future.

two middle aged man wearing suit and shaking hands
(President Trump and President Viktor Orban of Hungary in May, 2019)

Applebaum argues that the key to a construction of an autocracy is the demagogue and what attracts people to that type of individual.  This movement is not limited to a particular position on a political continuum as it is present on the left and the right, but at present it appears it leans toward right wing extremists who have achieved power in western democracies.  This “new right is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists.”  They are diverse groups with a number of agendas, but all “seek to redefine their nations, to rewrite social contracts, and, sometimes to alter the rules of democracy so that they never lose power.”

 According to Applebaum resentment, revenge, and envy, not radical loneliness drives these individuals.  A case in point is the Law and Justice party in Poland which has taken control and purged the Polish media resulting in an increase in political violence through the manipulation of reality.  The government and its supporters have constructed a new world view that employs modern marketing techniques and social media campaigns using lies and an alternative reality which increases political polarization and inflames people’s sense of right and wrong as they absorb what Applebaum refers to as “medium sized lies” and conspiracy theories put out by political leadership.  In Hungary, the lies center around the “superhuman” power of liberal billionaire George Soros who is blamed for importing thousands of Muslim migrants to Hungary to destroy the country.  In Poland, the lies rest in part on the Smolensk conspiracy that refers to the death of the Polish president Lech Kaczynski and senior military leader in a 2010 plane crash.  In both countries the younger generation no longer remembered Communism, so  new reasons are created to distrust politicians, businesspeople, and intellectuals who supported liberal ideas.  This alternate reality explains away complex phenomena and provides its supporters with “privileged access to the truth,” and power for those who have constructed the new world view.

What is ironic according Applebaum is that the language of the European radical right – the demand for revolution against elites; the dreams of cleansing of violence and an apocalyptic cultural clash is eerily similar to the language once used by the European radical left.  It can be seen in Poland, Hungary, Venezuela, and certainly is on the rise in the oldest and most secure democracies in the world.

Poland's president Andrzej Duda delivers a statement refusing to sign the bill stripping the rank of members of the communist military council, that imposed martial law in Warsaw, Poland, March 30, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski/ via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. POLAND OUT.

(Poland’s President Andrzej Duda announces refusal to sign bill targetting members of the communist-era military council © Reuters)

In perhaps her best chapter “The Future of Nostalgia” Applebaum does a nice job summarizing how “restorative nostalgic conservatives fought for Brexit (in the United Kingdom).  The desire for chao, the realization they underestimated the cost of the extraction from the European Union, and the numerous lies to gain public support are carefully laid out.”  It is ironic how the Tories even allied with Poland’s Law and Justice party in the European Parliament as they argued against censuring Orban’s actions in Hungary.  Applebaum’s deep dive into Brexit, along with her discussion of Boris Johnson who she was quite familiar with reflect movements that are similar to the United States and show how politicians in both countries seem to have either lost control of their supporters or have not thought out the implications of their actions.

Another major strength of Applebaum’s narrative and analysis is her command of American and European history.  It is on full display in her discussion of historical events and movements in Poland, Hungary, and Russia and how they have set the foundation for autocracy in those countries.  Her analysis of the Dreyfus Affair in 1894 in France and its comparison to the fissures in the current American body politic is both thoughtful and accurate.  The split in French society between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards seems to mirror what is currently occurring in the United States as friendships are ruined and society has been reorganizing itself over the last two decades.  Applebaum describes another dinner party, as opposed to the earlier gathering in Poland, this time at at David Brock’s Georgetown home in 1993 whose guests included the likes of David Brooks, Robert Kimball, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Dinesh D’Souza, David Frum, among others.  In 1993 these individuals seem to have an ideological community of fate, but over the next twenty years they have split, each going their own way and some refuse to even talk to each other.

This bifurcation is epitomized by Applebaum’s discussion of Laura Ingraham’s ideological evolution from a Reaganite to a Trumper over a similar period of time.  The views she espouses on Fox News each evening contributed to the exacerbation of tensions in American society and led to the events of July 6, 2021 . Ingraham’s despair revolves around an America that is a “dark, nightmarish place where God speaks to only a tiny number of people; where idealism is dead; where civil war and violence are approaching; where democratically elected politicians are no better than foreign dictators and mass murderers; where the ‘elite’ is wallowing in decadence, disarray and death.”  For Ingraham and her ilk America has rejected old values and universities teach people to hate their country.  The result is that “any price should be paid, any crime should be forgiven, any outrage should be ignored if that is what it takes to get the real America, the old America back.”  Donald Trump has mastered this undercurrent and has  become the epitome of the rhetoric of the restorative nostalgia by railing against the establishment and moral decline.  If everyone is corrupt, we have a moral equivalence, so it is acceptable to support a corrupt president. The real reality is the “deep state bureaucrats who manipulate voters.

Laura Ingraham
(Fox News Commnetator Laura Ingraham)

As Bill Keller writes in the July 19, 2020 edition of the New York Times, “Applebaum believes the usual explanations for how authoritarians come to power — economic distress, fear of terrorism, the pressures of immigration — while important, do not fully explain the clercs. After all, when Poland, where she begins her investigation, brought the right-wing nativists of the Law and Justice Party to power in 2015, the country was prosperous, was not a migrant destination, faced no terrorist threat. ‘Something else is going on right now, something that is affecting very different democracies, with very different economics and very different demographics, all over the world,’ she writes.”  Keller goes on to write that “a recurring problem in this book is that most of the clercs* refuse to talk to Applebaum, leaving her dependent on the public record and the wisdom of mutual acquaintances. But she makes the best of what she’s got. She is most sure-footed when appraising intellectuals who have lived in, and escaped, the Soviet orbit. From Poland, she moves on to Hungary, then to Britain and finally to Trump’s United States, with detours to Spain and Greece, in pursuit of the fallen intellectuals.

Anne Elizabeth Applebaum.jpg
(Author, Anne Applebaum)

She identifies layers of disenchantment: nostalgia for the moral purpose of the Cold War, disappointment with meritocracy, the appeal of conspiracy theories (often involving George Soros, the Hungarian-American and, not incidentally, Jewish billionaire). She adds that part of the answer lies in the ‘cantankerous nature of modern discourse itself,’ the mixed blessing of the internet, which has deprived us of a shared narrative and diminished the responsible media elite that used to filter out conspiracy theories and temper partisan passions. This is hardly an original complaint, but no less true for that.”

Pundits across the cable news world have relied upon Applebaum throughout the political changes evolving since the election of 2016 in the United States.  Her commentary as well as her writing is clear, concise, and presents an element of her personal experience.  A problem that emerges that may have thrown off any optimism she may have considered is that of COVID-19.  Autocrats have used the pandemic for their own purposes be it Hungary, Poland, or the United States which makes the future extremely unclear, but the perspective Applebaum brings is food for thought and quite scary how people can be manipulated by the needs of autocrats and there is no clear ending as to which way the world body politic may evolve.

*all those who speak in the world in a transcendental manner.

Rioters stormed Capitol Hill on Wednesday as Congress met to ratify the Electoral College vote declaring Joe Biden as the next president.
(January 6. 2021 at the US Capitol)

ROBERT E. LEE AND ME: A SOUTHERNER’S RECKONING WITH THE MYTH OF A LOST CAUSE by Ty Seidule

Lee Park, Charlottesville, VA.jpg
(Robert E. Lee)

On January 6, 2021, the US Capitol was marred by an invasion of a mixture of Trumpists, military militias, white supremacists, and a collection of other conspiracy toting insurrectionists.  What was very disconcerting for me apart from the violence is how these individuals wrapped themselves in a flag – the Confederate flag.  During the Civil War, the Confederate flag never reached the Capitol, now 150 years later it was proudly carried by numerous thugs and treasonous persons who threatened to hang the Vice President and kill the Speaker of the House.  These events resonated with me further as I read retired Brigadier General Ty Seidule’s new book,  ROBERT E. LEE AND ME: A SOUTHERNOR’S RECKONING WITH THE MYTH OF A LOST CAUSE as he grapples with his personal history from growing up in the south and being acculturated with false premises that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights,  tariffs, economics, Lincoln’s racism, or government overreach.  Seidule takes the reader on his own journey of discovery as he passed through college, a thirty year career in the military, and finally as head of the History Department at West Point.  During that sojourn he came to realize that he was raised as a southern gentleman whose education and socialization was built around certain myths and outright lies concerning the causes of the Civil War.

Seidule’s voyage raises a number of disconcerting issues that are currently bedeviling the American body politic and society – the negation of facts.  Seidule gave a lecture that went viral in which he argued that the war between the states that resulted in more deaths than any war the United States has ever fought, but the Civil War saw Americans killing Americans.  The author argued that the war was fought over slavery.  The result was a nasty response through emails, letters, and personal comments, some of which were quite threatening.  Seidule was incredulous and proceeded to reexamine his life’s passage to try and examine how his historical research forced him to confront his past and explain how he has undergone his own reeducation.

Faculty at Washington and Lee University voted on Monday to remove Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s name from the school.
(Washington and Lee University)

Throughout the narrative Seidule is obsessed with facts and truth as he tries to understand how he was duped for so many years.  To understand the author’s past, it is important to delve into his hero worship of Robert E. Lee as a boy and later as a young man.  He saw Lee as a brilliant general even in defeat as he possessed a “noble aura” about him.   Even in defeat at Gettysburg Seidule saw “an opportunity to showcase Lee’s true character and his standing as a gentleman.”  Seidule later realized that the reason he idolized Lee and the Confederacy was because the culture in which he grew up worshipped Lee and as they  proclaimed their racism.  Lee was seen as the most dignified man in history, but Seidule would come to realize that “the United States fought against a rebel force that would not accept the results of a democratic election and chose armed rebellion.”

After carefully reviewing the most impactful books he read as a young man Seidule focuses on Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND in trying to understand his own brainwashing.  Mitchell’s novel and David Selznick’s film of the same name created the lens that millions of people saw the Civil War and helped perpetuate the “Lost Cause myth.”  Despite their defeat Confederate leaders remained unrepentant.  Soon they would create a new narrative to justify racial control and white supremacy.  Seidule argues that “The Lost Cause became a movement, an ideology, a myth, even a civil religion that would unite first the white south and eventually the nation around the meaning of the Civil War.”  The Lost Cause produced a flawed memory; a lie that formed the ideological foundation for white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, which employed violence and terror to maintain a drastically unequal and segregated society.  The Lost Cause myth argued that white southerners fought for many reasons – protective tariffs, states’ rights, freedom, the agrarian dream, defense, etc. etc., but none of those who espoused the myth mentioned slavery.  The problem is that the facts all point to the Confederate states seceding to protect and expand their peculiar institution.

Paperback Gone With the Wind Book

The Lost Cause brings about secondary myths to support the overall argument.  First, the “obedient servant or happy slave myth,” living on a plantation they loved and that took care of them.  The reality was that the plantation was nothing more than a slave labor farm.  The second myth was that the southern cause was doomed from the outset because the Yankees had more money, material, and manpower – might over right.  A third myth is that Reconstruction was a failure as African Americans weren’t ready for freedom, the vote, or holding high office.  Seidule examines all aspects of the Lost Cause myth and debunks them all by presenting actual historical events and movements.  The Lost Cause would serve as the ideological underpinnings for a violently racist society.

Seidule admits that it took him decades to come to the realization that his entire educational, socialization, and cultural upbringing was based on a lie.  Seidule emerged from his “intellectual bubble” with the burden of guilt that he needed to undo. The narrative is a searing account of Seidule’s upbringing and education corrected by historical facts.  He transports the reader to Alexandria, Va., Walton County, Ga, and Lexington, Va. describing his own education juxtaposed against the places where he grew up and became a “southern gentleman.”  Seidule zeroes in Alexandria, Va.  and Walton, Ga. as his hometowns resorted to beatings, lynching’s, outright murder, the closing of public schools to avoid integration, and denying African Americans the right to vote even in cities and towns where they were the majority all designed to maintain the white supremacist south.  But the author never knew about the history of these places and in a number of instances things that transpired during his lifetime. 

West Point Military Academy on the Hudson River in New York State Stock Photo

(West Point, NY)

However, as Seidule attended college at Washington and Lee University and was exposed to research and goes through a period of self-condemnation as to how he could have been so ignorant.  He unearths numerous racist actions and events following the Civil War and Reconstruction well into the 20th century.  After examining the history of Alexandria and Walton County he could reach only one conclusion – both homes were part of the southern racial police state which was an integral part of creating and maintaining a white supremacist culture in the south.  Seidule integrates numerous historical examples of the violence perpetrated against African Americans and how little the white power structure responded despite Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Ka., the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Truman’s Civil Rights Commission, etc. 

Seidule blends his own ignorance of racism and violence with historical facts throughout his life’s journey.  The most fascinating recounting deals with Robert E. Lee’s role at Washington and Lee University and how he was elevated to deity status in the universities chapel and mausoleum all designed to focus on the education of a Christian gentlemen for students and viewing Lee as the godlike embodiment of what student strove to become.  All aspects of the university through the 1980s were endemic to the belief in the myths surrounding the Civil War.  Once Seidule came to realize the truth he engaged in a self-imposed guilt by trying to cleanse his own past and educate others as to how the Lost Cause myth came about and how to rectify it.

Seidule’s frustrations are many as he recounts how ten US Army forts are named after southern officers who fought and committed treason against their country, fostered supremacist racial beliefs, owned slaves and worked to deny African Americans the rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the constitution after the Civil War.  Names like Braxton Bragg, John Brown Gordon, A.P.  Hill, George Pickett, Leonides Polk, Henry L. Benning, John Bell Hood, Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, and of course Robert E. Lee, all men who fought and committed treason to preserve slavery as they killed American soldiers, but their names remain on the signage as you enter these posts, despite the current legislation to try and remove them from military installations.  Even as Seidule experienced his own military career he was confronted with the Confederate myths in the US Army.  Once he began to teach military history at West Point, he did his best to set the historical record straight, particularly how and why portraits and monuments to Lee proliferated at West Point in the 20th century.  He passionately believes the only way to correct the past was to try and make sure the Lost Cause myth did not infect his grandchildren – the tool that needed to be relied upon is historical knowledge. The past does not have to control us, especially if we understand it.

COL-SEIDULE-Picture-400x600 Colonel Ty Seidule To Give Constitution Day Lecture September 17
(The Author)

Once must commend the author’s journey of discovery and attempts to rectify his past.  My only criticism is that at times the narrative is somewhat repetitive, but his overall argument that Lee is guilty of treason in support of a racist regime is dead on.  His story is a microcosm of a larger portrait that has imbued the south for over 150 years.  If by some “miracle” instead of reducing the study of history and government at educational institutions, we would fund and increase opportunities for more classes the divide that infects America today might be lessened.  But, with terms like “fake news,” conspiracy theories involving 9/11, arguing that wildfires are caused by Jewish laser beams, Sandy Hook and Parkland murders did not occur, and QAnon members in the House of Representatives who refuse to give up their weapons on the House floor – as a result I am not encouraged.

One final thought.  Seidule states that the Confederacy was formed in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  They would go on to fight a war because they felt the election would destroy slavery.  From this war sprang the Lost Cause myth, a form of “fake news.”  Today we have a segment of the population that believes that the election of Joe Biden was stolen from them and it resulted in conspiracy theories that led to the attack on the capitol. What did the opponents of the 1860 and 2020 election results have in common – White Supremacy.

The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va., was at the center of a violent rally this past weekend.
(Statue of Robert E. Lee, Charlotesville, Va.)

THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES BAKER III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

(Secretary of State James Baker III and President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1990)

Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times and Susan Glasser, a staff writer for The New Yorker have written an engrossing biography of James Baker III, a man whose impact from 1976 through the election of 2000 can not be denied.  The book’s range is impressive as the authors describe a childhood under the thumb of a father whose nickname was “the Warden.” As an adult we witness the death of his wife from cancer at a young age and a remarriage that merged two families resulting in eight children, a number of which experienced numerous problems including drugs and alcohol.  Baker would give up the practice of law in Texas and move on to a political education in Washington, D.C. that produced lessons that stressed how to accumulate power and brook no opposition as he managed political campaigns, served as Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan as well as Treasury Secretary, and Secretary of State under George H. W. Bush.  Based on his resume it is obvious why the authors titled their book, THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES BAKER III.

Baker and Glasser employ the tools of investigative reporters in addition to those of a historian.  They have an excellent command of the written word and have the ability to present their narrative and analysis in a deeply thoughtful manner.  Baker is the author of books including DAYS OF FIRE: BUSH AND CHENEY IN THE WHITE HOUSE; THE BREACH: INSIDE THE IMPEACHMENT AND TRIAL OF WILLIAM JEEFERON CLINTON, and an excellent biography of Barack Obama entitled OBAMA: THE CALL OF HISTORY.  Glasser is the author of COVERING POLITICS IN POST TRUTH AMERICA,  and co-authored with Peter Baker, KREMLIN RISING: VLADIMIR PUTIN’S RUSSIA AND THE END OF REVOLUTION.  For those unfamiliar with the work of the author’s they are in for a treat.

Baker is one of the most consequential political figures of the last quarter of the 20th century.  He seems to have been involved in most issues and policy decisions of the period ranging from managing successful presidential campaigns, gaining passage of the Reagan tax cuts, the reunification of Germany, the end of the Soviet Union as we knew it, the removal of Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, and heading the legal team that resulted in the election of George W. Bush as president in 2000.  Each of these topics is explored in depth as the authors delve into the personalities involved, their political agendas, and the historical impact of each decision as events played out. 

James and Mary Stuart Baker with their four boys in Houston in 1964.
(The Baker family before the death of his first wife)

Two themes that dominate the narrative and analysis is how Baker earned the nickname the “velvet hammer,” and his relationship with President George H.W. Bush.  The nickname itself as the authors develop is based on Baker’s approach to achieving power, control, and at times domination of any given situation.  He comes across as a smooth, sweet talking Texan, but in reality, he played hardball whenever he felt it was necessary.  He cut his teeth on the campaign trail, the in fighting that dominated the Reagan administration, and achieving legislative victories.  His approach in the domestic area can also be seen in his conduct of foreign policy as he sought to impose his will on those who opposed him and, in many cases, it seemed as if he was president, not the then occupant of the White House.

The second theme rests on Baker’s friendship with President Bush.  The two developed a decades long friendship from the time they met at a Houston Country Club in 1961.  Baker earned the imprimatur of Bush and when he spoke or negotiated everyone knew he was speaking for the President, or earlier the Vice-President.  The authors do an excellent job describing their relationship which rested on a similar outlook, a close personal bonding that witnessed numerous vacations together in addition to policy decisions.  Baker was artful in at times manipulating Bush to achieve his aims and periodically the president grew resentful of his friend to the point that Barbara Bush never really warmed up to Baker and at times did not trust him until later in life.

Baker did not become the ultimate insider because of any fervent ideology, though he described himself as a conservative Republican.  However, more so than anyone of his generation he figured out how to employ the levers of power.  Today, in an era of extreme partisanship, “deals” are seen as a sign of weakness, but for Baker compromise to achieve an end, diplomacy, and raw power were his mantra.  One of Baker’s talents rested on how he cultivated Congress and the press, which he did assiduously.  He realized that power was in part perception and he did more to create that perception than any of his peers.  


(Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev (L) and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 1986 as they arrive in Iceland for talks with President Ronald Reagan)

As the Cold war concluded, Baker had the skill set that fit the era whether developing a close working relationship with Soviet Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze or initiating bureaucratic intrigue to achieve a domestic goal in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  When Baker made a promise, he earned the reputation of being able to deliver because of his relationship with Reagan and Bush and his own negotiating abilities. Never in American history did a president and Secretary of State enjoy a genuine friendship before entering office.  Baker learned to operate in a political environment by employing his skill set, a skill set that was highly successful and current politicians would do very well if they would emulate him as he is best described by the authors as the “un-Trump.”

As successful as Baker was as a political insider and practitioner of power the authors develop his family history which is not one that one should emulate. He left it to his second wife to take care of the family as he worked twelve hours a day on domestic issues and once, he became America’s chief diplomat traveling thousands of miles each year.  The children of both marriages had difficulties integrating and there were numerous conflicts which would lead to difficult issues that needed to be faced, and for the most part he was absent.

The authors develop numerous scenarios that reflect Baker’s talents as a politician and negotiator.  He believed that there was no way to achieve 100% of one’s goals in any negotiation and was happy to obtain 75% or any percentage that he believed would deliver most of what he hoped to achieve.  This can be seen during the Reagan administration when he outmaneuvered the likes of Alexander Haig and Edward Meese on numerous occasions, as he worked with Democrats to save Social Security when Republicans were obstinate, or negotiating the Reagan tax cut with Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill.  In all areas Baker seemed to have a superb instinct at “self-preservation,” be it dealing with the stock market crash in October 1987, his reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, or leaving US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie out to dry in the lead up to war in the Persian Gulf in 1991.  The authors point out that Baker was a realist and argued against the ideologues in the Reagan administration particularly as it related to  policy in Central America as he did his best to avoid the stain of Iran-Contra, again his antenna knew when to back off or proceed with a certain policy – it seemed he always knew which way the wind was blowing. 

baker glasser
(The authors)

Baker’s pragmatic and realistic approach is also seen as he worked to allow Mikhail Gorbachev a semblance of comfort as his country was collapsing.  Baker realized that the Soviet President had to deal with his own hard liners in the Kremlin and as he was wont to do would make subtle agreements behind the scenes that never became public.  Baker had an extremely hard edge to him as the Israeli government realized after the United States and its coalition removed Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991.  Baker had used the promise of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as a lure to convince Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to join his coalition against Saddam.  After the war Baker pressured Israeli Prime Minster Yitzchak Shamir, who he disliked intensely withholding promised funding and loans to finance the hundreds of thousand of Soviet Jews who were immigrating to Israel at the time.  The end result was the Madrid Peace Conference which later impacted the signing of the Oslo Accords. 

Baker long sought to be considered a statesman not just a fixer or dealmaker.  However, the authors argue that he had no grand plan domestically or in foreign policy, but he had the knack of bringing people together and finding pragmatic ways to paper over disagreements.  The end result, no matter what Baker engaged in, solutions resulted.  Part of this success rests with a group of individuals that Baker and Glasser label the “plug-in unit,” a small group of aids that worked with him in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  They included Margaret Tutwiler, who handled the press and Janet Mullins, Robert Zoellick and Robert Kimmitt who handled policy.  Interestingly, the authors point out that though they worked closely together for years, Baker showed no interest in them as people and maintained a personal distance even among his most loyal staff.

Baker’s achievements did not come without some “black eyes.”  Baker would work with Lee Atwater a Republican firebrand who did not find a dirty trick that did not interest him.  The authors stress his role in the Willie Horton commercials in the 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis and Baker seemed to have no problem with it, in addition to his failures in dealing with the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ethnic and religious violence that ensued.  His approach in 2000 is typical.  When Al Gore’s spokesperson Warren Christopher proposed that the two sides work out a solution, Baker’s position was clear, no negotiations, Bush was president according to the Supreme Court.

Baker and Glasser had unfettered access to Baker and many of the key characters from the period.  Their numerous interviews will not be repeated down the road by future historians, and their insider access and command of primary and secondary materials is evident.  The authors do not fall into the trap of hagiography and have written a superb book that is easily the seminal work on James Baker III, and probably will remain so for years to come.

George Bush with James Baker
(James Baker III and George Herbert Walker Bush)

THE CLIFTON CHRONICLES, a seven book series by Jeffrey Archer (a synopsis)



Jeffrey Archer (Image: Jeffrey Archer/via Facebook)

(Author, Jeffrey Archer)

Recently I had the pleasure of spending a few weeks with two English families; the Barrington’s and the Clifton’s.  The family members form the core of English novelist Jeffrey Archer’s seven volume CLIFTON CHRONICLES mostly set in Bristol and London from the immediate post World War I period through the early 1990s.  For this reviewer, Archer’s compilation served as a wonderful distraction to the COVID-19 19 pandemic and other disconcerting events that have been ever present.  The series focuses on family values, a host of interesting characters, moral and immoral, and repeated plot twists and turns beginning with volume one, ONLY TIME WILL TELL and concluding with volume seven, THIS WAS A MAN.

Archer employs the literary technique of allowing his major characters to tell their side of the story as it unfolds.  Each character recounts how they see events and Archer allows their individual stories which are different to eventually come together.  Archer recapitulates important details from each novel allowing the reader to explore each novel separately, but I would recommend that the story be read from volume one onward.  Each section zeroes on one character in which Maise Clifton, Harry and Emma Clifton, Sebastian Clifton, Jessica Giles Barrington, Lady Virginia Fenwick, all play major roles. 

The characters run the gamut from those mentioned to Sir Alan Redmayne a cabinet secretary in charge of MI6 reflecting Archer’s integration of espionage into his storyline along with a possible “sparrow” or Russian double agent Karin Brandt who Giles Barrington falls in love with.  Baroness Cynthia Forbes-Watson, an eighty year old retired MI6 agent.  Cedric Hardcastle and his son Arnold, the Barrington Shipping Company lawyer play significant roles as does Hakim Bishara, a Turkish banker who works with Sebastian Clifton to head the Farthings Kaufman bank.  Aaron Guizburg and his father are Harry Clifton’s publishers at Viking Press, and Anatoly Babakov who has written UNCLE JOE telling the truth about Stalin finds himself in the Soviet Gulag allowing Harry Clifton to rally world opinion to free him. 

There are a number of individuals who engage in periodic corporate machinations from trying to  take over Barrington Shipping, Farthings Kaufman Bank and Mellor Travel.  We meet Adrian Sloane, Jim Knowles, and Desmond Mellor who form a troika of undesirables.  Adding to the list is Conrad Sorkin an international gangster.  Historical figures abound as Margaret Thatcher plays a prominent role befriending Emma Clifton.  Other Prime Ministers who appear include James Callaghan, Ted Heath, and Harold Wilson; in addition to politicians like Michael Foot and Dennis Healy who have a tremendous impact on the political career of Giles Barrington.

The one character who seems to pop up all the time is Lady Virginia Fenwick, Giles Barrington’s ex-spouse.  She is a schemer out for revenge against anything Barrington or Clifton.  She is involved in assorted plots to destroy both families and secure her wealth.  My favorite is how she convinces the Duke of Hertford, a recent widow to be his wife.  But she is also involved with the “undesirables” already described and their numerous corporate shenanigans.

Archer plays close attention to British politics in the House of Commons and House of Lords in each novel as the political careers of Giles Barrington and Emma Clifton evolve.  Archer is deeply knowledgeable about British elections and the legislative process as he weaves them into his story.  Apart from politics and corporate issues Archer integrates a number of ancillary situations involving the Clifton family including; Jessica, a precocious young artist; the rise of Sebastian to head the Farthings Kaufman Bank; Harry’s arrest in the Soviet Union working to free Anatoly Babakov; and Emma’s rise to head Barrington Shipping, and becoming her  Undersecretary of Health in the House of Lords under Margaret Thatcher.

There are numerous other characters who interact with both families which reflect Archer’s command of history and new events.  Archer does a wonderful job in character development and presents the chronological growth of each person and their impact on others. Archer is the master of the literary cliffhanger as at the end of each novel a situation is created that is designed to cajole the reader on to the next volume.

At a time of pandemic Archer’s  volumes and the series in general is a wonderful escape from quarantine and anxiety.  If it is prose one is looking for, Archer has his moments, but most often the writing is somewhat pedestrian with a touch of irony and humor.  Whether he is describing speeches in the House of Lords; the interior of Buckingham Palace; the boardroom or the visitor room of a prison, Archer’s writing is authentic.  When the pandemic ends and you are once again off to vacation or just the beach Archer’s work will entertain as you while away the hours dealing with his numerous subterfuges and double-crosses, as in the end he will bring his series to a deeply emotional conclusion.

Lord Archer claims to earn £10,000 an hour from his books, rising at 6am to write by hand
(Author, Jeffrey Archer)

THIS WAS A MAN by Jeffrey Archer

MPs are being asked to sign an Early Day Motion calling for further research
(English House of Parliament)

In the final installment of his CLIFTON CHRONICLES, THIS WAS A MAN Jeffrey Archer has to resolve what has happened to Karin Brandt, Giles Barrington’s spouse but also a double agent that the Russians have uncovered.  Her handler has led her into the woods and her plight along with Emma Clifton’s quest to learn how her husband Harry’s father died after World War I are the launching points that after five hundred pages brings Archer’s seven volume family saga to an end. 

Overall, the entire series was a worthwhile read, but the last book at times does not measure up to some of the earlier ones.  First, how many iterations of Lady Virginia Fenwick can one absorb as like a weed she continues to sprout her strategies to acquire wealth in exchange for nothing no matter how much poison she emits and has dumped on her.  The entire episode dealing with the widowed Duke of Hertford is a bit much as is her relationship with Desmond Mellor and attempts to control Mellor Travel.  Second, many of the scenarios are a bit contrived as is witnessed by the relationship between Paulo Reinaldo, a Brazilian playboy and pseudo art student and Jessica Clifton, Samantha and Sebastian Clifton’s daughter.  When the relationship explodes in newspapers, of course Aunt Grace rescues her from being expelled from the Slade School of Fine Arts.  Interestingly, Lady Virginia even plays a role in this situation!

Margaret Thatcher
(Former English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)

Apart from scenes like these there are a number of plot lines that are absorbing and fit Archer’s creation of a cliff hanger at the conclusion of each section.  Emma’s relationship with the new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and appointment as Undersecretary of Health in the House of Lords is interesting as is Archer’s description of English politics as the Conservative Tories replace Labour at 10 Downing Street.  The plight of Freddie, the supposed son of Lady Virginia, soon to be adopted by Giles and Kristin Barrington with the actions of Elly May Grant in the background trying to recoup the money that Lady Virginia coerced from her then fiancée Cyrus Grant is eye opening.  Further we return to the machinations of Desmond Mellor, Adrian Stone and Jim Knowles as they try to take over Farthings Kaufman Bank with a new villain, Conrad Sorkin introduced as they all vie to seize control of Mellor Travel.  Interestingly, a number of these characters wind up dead.  This convoluted web is important and here Archer deftly weaves his conspiratorial magic and even has time to follow the ups and downs of Giles Barrington’s political career.  There are numerous subplots that will maintain the reader’s attention, but again, Lady Virginia seems to be everywhere with hit men, corporate espionage, politicians like Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, Michael Foot, and Dennis Healy ever present.

Emma Clifton remains a dominant character as is her growth as a businesswoman and a person who does not tolerate the picadilloes of others.  The evolution of Harry Clifton as a writer from his William Warwick series to one of substance is important as is the growth of Emma and Harry’s son Sebastian who moves seamlessly through the London banking scene.  Other characters who reappear include Griff Haskins, Giles’ campaign manager, Hakim Bishara, Sebastian’s corporate ally, in addition to the cast of low life’s mentioned earlier. Newer members of the cast include Kelly Mellor who is able to outwit everyone to control her father’s company, Conrad Sorkin, an international crook, and the Brazilian lover, Paulo Reinaldo who seduces Jessica away from her art career for a period of time.

In November, 1989, East German students sit atop the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate in front of border guards. The destruction of the once-hated wall signaled the end of a divided Germany.
(The end of the Berlin Wall, 1989)

Perhaps the two highlights of the novel center around the debate in the House of Lords between brother and sister, Giles representing the Labour Party, and Emma, the Tories.  Second is the eulogy presented by Giles for his friend since childhood that encompasses the type of character Archer developed in Harry Clifton and the extraordinary life that he lived.  Archer has the ability to create mundane scenes, but also the most intense and absorbing. 

At a time of pandemic Archer’s final volume and the series in general is a wonderful escape from quarantine and anxiety.  If it is prose one is looking for, Archer has his moments, but most often the writing is somewhat pedestrian with a touch of irony and humor.  The book is full of sometimes totally unexpected twists but is written with authenticity, including a knowledge of cricket that should impress the reader.  Whether he is describing speeches in the House of Lords; the interior of Buckingham Palace; the boardroom or the visitor room of a prison, Archer is writing about what he knows.  If there is a dominant theme in the series, it is the strength of family with the Barrington’s and Clifton’s reflecting their moral values and, in most cases, the “good guys” come out on top.  When the pandemic ends and you are once again off to vacation or just the beach Archer’s work will enhance as you while away the hours dealing with numerous subterfuges and double-crosses, as he brings his series to a deeply emotional conclusion.

COMETH THE HOUR by Jeffrey Archer

A golden medallion with an embossed image of Alfred Nobel facing left in profile. To the left of the man is the text "ALFR•" then "NOBEL", and on the right, the text (smaller) "NAT•" then "MDCCCXXXIII" above, followed by (smaller) "OB•" then "MDCCCXCVI" below.
(Nobel Prize)

Like links in a chain, Jeffrey Archer continues his CLIFTON CHRONICLES leaving the reader wondering what the results of Lady Virginia Fenwick’s libel charge against Emma Clinton will be.  The jury is about to return a verdict when the judge issues permission for Major Alex Fisher’s suicide note to be read to the court.  In COMETH THE HOUR the letter is read to the court and its implications for all involved are immediate.  With this opening Archer, as per usual has piqued the reader’s interest and they will begin a five hundred page voyage that will take them through the labyrinth of the Barrington family dealings, including the Farthing Bank, Giles’ quest to rescue Karin Pengeller, his recent translator in East Berlin, Harry Clinton’s quest to obtain Anatoly Babakov’s freedom as he languishes in the Soviet Gulag, and the integration of corporate and state sponsored espionage to his multiple plot lines.

The sixth installment in the CLIFTON CHRONICLES is structured as the previous five with each section being directed by one of the major characters.  In COMETH THE HOUR, they include Harry and Emma Clinton, Giles Barrington, Lady Virginia Fenwick, Sebastian Clifton, Maise Clinton, Harry’s mother, and Turkish financier, Hakim Bishara.  Each character has their own agenda which of course brings about conflict with others. 

Performers posing as US soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie - 2018 photo
(Checkpoint Charlie, East and WestBerlin)

As I read the novel at first I was a little disappointed, but then Archer ramped up the plot.  There are a number of storylines that emerge.  First, Harry Clifton’s publisher, Aaron Guinzburg faces a takeover from a friend with unexpected consequences.  Second, Sebastian Clifton’s love life.  It seems he has given up on Samantha Sullivan and has turned to Priya Ghuman, but that relationship has an unfortunate end allowing Sebastian to focus on Samantha and their daughter Jessica, a rather precocious eleven year old once again.  Third, Giles Barrington has his own relationship issues.  He has fallen for Karin Pengelly an East German translator and he works diligently to arrange her escape from behind the iron curtain.  Once this is achieved, we learn the truth about Katrin Pengelly, a.k.a. Karin Brandt, a Russian “sparrow.”  Once the “love issues” are seemingly resolved, Archer becomes more serious as the fourth storyline emerges as Adrian Sloan and Desmond Mellor continue their attempts to take over Farthing Bank, this time trying to frame Hakim Bishara and other machinations.  Lastly, Lady Virginia Fenwick continues her attempts to obtain the wealth to live a “lifestyle she has grown accustomed to.”  She will fabricate a number of situations from pregnancy to other forms of fraud. 

Archer continues to create a number of interesting new characters.  Chief among them are Baroness Cynthia Forbes-Watson who works for MI6; Chief Inspector Barry Hammond, a former cop who is hired to save Bishara; Mai Ling, an ex-cop who as a masseur performs some interesting legal work, Ellie May, the wife of Cyrus Grant of Louisiana who works to undo Lady Virginia’s latest fraud, among others.  Historical figures continue to make cameo appearances.  The most consequential are future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; West German Foreign Minister Walter Scheel; and British Prime Ministers Ted Heath and James Callaghan.

Archer explores a number of cultural issues particularly as it relates to Hindu and Christian views of marriage very nicely.  However, at times Archer creates scenarios that are a bit farfetched, i.e., Lady Virginia’s attempt to fake her pregnancy and crash the wedding of an unsuspecting Louisiana millionaire.  There are a number of scenes that are quite entertaining particularly Harry Clifton’s interview on what is clearly the Today Show with Matt Lauer, though Archer has renamed the arrogant host as Matt Jacobs who unsuccessfully tries to trap Clifton and question the authenticity of Anatoly Babakov’s book UNCLE JOE.  It is clear that Archer at times has a deft touch with humor, but also at times he does create situations that are hard to fathom.


A photo of Gulag prisoners in Perm (undated).
(Soviet Gulag)

As in the other installments of the CLIFTON CHRONICLES English parliamentary politics and elections are ever present.  The career of Giles Barrington is portrayed, and the reader continues to be exposed to issues that confront parliament and the precarious nature of British politics as elections seem to come one after another without the requisite time frame between them.  In doing so Archer’s command of British history comes to the fore.

Archer continues his storytelling magic and character development.  However, if one is jumping into the CHRONICLES with the sixth book it might be confusing so I would suggest reading the series from the outset.  Archer has created a complex, involved and far-arching tale of complicated family tie and his trademark twists and turns will keep the reader totally involved in the story, though it seems it is less gripping than previous volumes.  Despite this slight drawback, Archer of course leaves the reader hanging as the book ends and makes one want to read the concluding volume, THIS WAS A MAN.

Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Prizes by  Nils K Stahle - 1st Edition; 1st Printing - 1960 - from S. Howlett-West Books (member of ABAA & ILAB) (SKU: 29423)

MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD by Jeffrey Archer

Moscow River and Kremlin
(The Kremlin, Moscow, Rusia)

“Gotcha!” should be novelist Jeffrey Archer’s mantra.  The author of numerous historical fiction thrillers includes the fifth book in the CLIFTON CHRONICLES, MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD which grabs the reader from the get-go and does not let them alone until another cliff hanger has been brought to conclusion, or as Archer usually is able to achieve, the ending brings the reader to call for the next installment.  In the present case we wonder what is the result of the IRA bomb that has exploded on the maiden voyage of Barrington Shipping’s first cruise ship, the MV Buckingham.

In true Archer fashion the novel has a number of storylines that seems disparate, but as in other books they form links that normally bring them together before the story is brought to fruition.  In MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD Archer continues a series of plot lines from BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR in addition to creating new ones.  First, is the dilemma that Emma Barrington, as chair of Barrington Shipping finds herself as she does not want to let the public know about the IRA bomb explosion on the maiden voyage of the Buckingham for fear of what it might do to the company’s profits and reputation.  Second, is the ongoing war perpetrated by Lady Virginia Fenwick who has sued Emma for libel, but more so is her attempt to take over Farthing Bank and destroy the Barrington family a situation that has been made easier with the death of Cedric Hardcastle. The only roadblock seems to be Sebastian Clifton’s attempt to try and purchase enough stock to gain a seat on the Farthing Bank’s board.  Third, and a new area for the reader to explore is the plight of Anatoly Babakov, Joseph Stalin’s former translator who has written a book entitled, UNCLE JOE that purports to tell the truth about Stalin’s murderous reign.  He has been arrested and sent into exile in Siberia and his wife is trying to get Harry Clifton to go to Moscow where she has hidden the manuscript and bring it to the west for publication.  Fourth, is the role played by Adrian Sloan, who had been Sebastian’s immediate boss at Farthing Bank who has his own agenda to head the bank’s board, destroy the Barrington’s and make a large profit over his financial manipulations.  Not surprisingly he is working with Lady Virginia as they seem to have a community of fate in dealing with the Barrington’s.  Lastly, Sebastian’s love for Samantha Sullivan who has turned away from him remains constant.

(Photo: Jeffrey Archer/ Facebook)
(Jeffrey Archer)

Archer brings back Major Alex Fisher whose vendetta against the Barrington’s has not been satiated.  Robert Bingham returns with his wife Priscilla who cannot be trusted, Sir Alan Redmayne, a Cabinet Secretary involved in British intelligence, and the entire Barrington family and their associates.  A few new characters are introduced who play major roles.  Saul Kaufman, the father of Sebastian’s friend who is a rich banker and is trying to assist Sebastian.  Desmond Mellor, a dissatisfied Barrington Shipping board member who wants to replace Emma.  Turkish financier Hakim Bishara joins the fray.  Karin Pengelly, an East German translator who Giles Barrington meets on a foreign ministry trip to East Berlin who will cause Giles to resign from Harold Wilson’s cabinet,  Maurice Swan, an educator that Sebastian needs to do right by, and Anatoly Babakov’s wife.

Archer introduces the reader to the structure of the Soviet government and how they deal with dissidents under Lenoid Brezhnev; the issue of East Berlin, the Stasi secret police, and the repression of East Germany; in an addition to the politics of British parliamentary elections.  In all cases Archer continues his excellent command of historical events and personalities, including appearances by Prime Ministers Harold MacMillan and Harold Wilson, along with the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Sir Humphrey Trevelyan.

Stalin photo portrait poster
(Joseph Stalin)

One of the major highlights of the novel is how Archer juxtaposes Harry’s show trial in Leningrad after being caught trying to smuggle Babakov’s manuscript out of Russia and the libel trial of Emma at the hands of Lady Virginia.  Archer’s sarcasm and sense of humor are on full display as is the impact of each event on the course of the novel.   Other interesting aspects of the book that Archer unveils is the role that Harry’s photographic memory plays as the story concludes and his rendition of how Stalin died.

In Archer’s previous novels the major characters usually land on their feet, in the present instance that result is not as clear cut.  But what is clear is that the reader will experience Archer’s trademark twist and turns through a series of plot changes that will bring the reader to the edge of their seats, and as per usual the book will end with a dramatic segway to the next volume in the CLIFTON CHRONICLES, COMETH THE HOURS.

The Moscow Kremlin
(The Kremlin, Moscow, Russia)

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR by Jeffrey Archer

Cruise ship in caribbean sea : Stock Photo

From Jeffrey Archer’s perspective why change an approach that seems to work very nicely.  The approach I am speaking off is his storytelling ability that produces a wonderful family saga in the CLIFTON CHRONICLES with each volume ending in a cliff hanger that gently encourages the reader to pick up the next installment.  In the present instance BEST KEPT SECRET ended with an automobile accident that resulted in the death of one of the passengers, but we are left wondering if Harry and Emma’s son, Sebastian has survived.  In the next novel in the series BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR, Archer’s plot revolves around the Barrington family and the machinations of Don Pedro Martinez, an international criminal who blames Harry Clifton for the death of his son, and Alex Fisher who attended boarding school with Giles Barrington and continues to seek revenge against Giles and his family dating back to their days in boarding school and the loss of a recent parliamentary election.

As is the case in the first iterations of the Clifton’s, Archer segments the story into chapters that focus on a given character and allows them to tell the story from their perspective.  Archer begins in the late 1950s with Harry and Emma taking the lead and moves on to Don Pedro Martinez, Cedric Hardcastle, a bluff Yorkshireman and dowdy old banker who plays a significant role, Major Alex Fisher, Giles Barrington, Sebastian and Jessica Clifton, and Don Pedro’s son Diego.  Each character has their own agenda and through a series of complex machinations Archer builds disparate segments of the story which come together in a rather dramatic fashion.

Bristol Harbour
(Bristol, England)

Aside from Hardcastle, there are a number of impactful characters like Robert Bingham, the fish paste king; Clive Bingham his son who wants to marry Jessica; Cabinet Secretary Alan Redmayne; Samantha Sullivan who has fallen in love with Sebastian; Susie Lampton, Alex Fisher’s wife who is somewhat of a double crosser; Karl Otto Lunsdorf, a former member of the Nazi SS and Martinez’s righthand man, among others.  Throughout the character development process, it seems that villains abound!  Historical characters and events make their appearance on a regular basis including a cameo by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and British Labour leader and future Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

The key addition that Archer makes is Cedric Hardcastle who is an example of how the author is able to shift the focus of the novel on a dime, a process that he repeats often.  Hardcastle is the Chairman of the Farthing Bank and he will join forces with the Barrington’s to try and thwart Don Pedro Martinez and his sons.  Martinez will never get over the death of his son despite the fact it is his own fault and seeks revenge against any and all Barrington’s.  As the story evolves Archer adds a new element corporate greed through stock manipulation and other machinations.  The British intelligence service is continually active in the novel as Sir Alan contemplates assassinating Martinez and is heavily involved in thwarting the Argentinian kingpin who likes to pose as an English gentleman.  Further Archer integrates the Irish Republican Army into the storyline as they with Martinez in toe to do as much harm to Britain as possible.  Another component that stands out is Jessica’s lineage as her adopted parents Harry and Emma have not made her aware of who her parents were which leads to complications.

Jeffrey Archer
(Author, Jeffrey Archer)

Archer has the knack of creating scenes where the expected result becomes the unexpected, i.e., the Barrington Shipping Company’s Board elections to replace Ross Buckingham by Emma when Susan Fisher surprises everyone.  Archer also continues to present an unremarkable prose, but one cannot take away from him his ability to surprise the reader over and over.  As per usual the novel ends in a cliffhanger with the reader calling for a fifth volume of the CLIFTON CHRONICLES which happens to be MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD.

Aerial View Of Cruise Ship Sailing On Sea : Stock Photo