THE DIVIDER: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

HERSHEY, PA - DECEMBER 10, 2019:President Donald Trump gestures the confident fist pump on stage at a campaign rally at the Giant Center.

This week I have tackled Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s exceptional account of the Trump administration, THE DIVIDER: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE, 2017-2021.  As I was reading the book I tried not to pay attention to the news of an impending indictment of the former president, but it was impossible.  Baker and Glasser’s narrative are almost encyclopedic in its detail and as I pushed on words describing the Trump presidency kept going through my mind; scary, unimaginable, unprecedented, unbelievable, inconceivable, overwhelming, mind-boggling, etc.  Today I find myself comparing events and comments related to the Trump presidency with the barrage of racist, anti-Semitic tropes that the former president is currently bombarding the airwaves and it seems he is willing to foster violence and say or do anything that will protect him.  It is the Roy Cohn playbook on steroids and there is no daylight concerning Trump as president and Trump as a possible defendant in the Maro-Lago documents case, the Georgia election obstruction case, the special prosecutor’s investigation into January 6th, and the hush money paid to a porn star grand jury in New York.  All the descriptive words mentioned above apply.

After reading THE DIVIDER one should not be surprised by Trump’s current behavior.  The authors dig into all aspects of the Trump presidency, be it how the White House was run, domestic policy, foreign policy, and of course Trump’s behavior.  The cast of characters is long, and concerning based on how people were chosen for government positions and how frequently they were fired or left based on their own concerns.  The authors repeatedly point out that people like James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, John Kelly, H. R. McMaster and numerous others took positions in the administration and remained long after they wanted to as a means of protecting the country, but all would be gone within a year.  The authors point to March 2018 as the watershed moment as Trump relieved himself of anyone who could control him and now was able to do as he pleased, not necessarily for the betterment of the country, but for the betterment of Donald J. Trump.  It is clear, no matter what your opinion of Donald Trump is, America has never experienced such a presidency and post-presidency.

Baker and Glasser’s narrative can easily be framed beginning with Trump’s “American Carnage” speech given at his inauguration on January 6, 2021 encouraging his followers to march on the capitol and overturn his election defeat.  The authors base their work on assiduous research culled from over 300 interviews, private diaries, contemporaries notes, emails, texts, along with personal access to many of the players inside and outside the Trump administration.  For Baker and Glasser Trump was a rogue president who took the country closer to conflict with Iran, North Korea, and to the brink of blowing up NATO even as Russia prepared to use force to redraw the map of Europe.  His erratic behavior and belief in his own instincts saw him vindictively pullout thousands of troops from Germany because he was mad at Angela Merkel who refused to kowtow to his ego.  He tried to buy Greenland after a billionaire friend suggested it to him.  He secretly sought to abolish a federal appeals court that ruled against him.  He privately expressed admiration for Hitler’s generals, while calling his own generals “fucking losers,” and subjecting them and others to racist rants that made it clear his “shithole countries” commentary was not an aberration.

(Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster shakes hands with President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida)

Trump was consumed by his own image on television and twitter and both forms of communication dominated his presidency.  Whether dealing with FOX “news” and their minions, a daily barrage of tweets, Trump needed to dominate the airwaves with his worldview.  From the outset of the administration people like Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Steven Miller, and Kellyanne Conway fought for control of the White House.  The polarization based on constant lies and personality conflict dominated policy decisions.  In addition to exploring these personalities and others, Baker and Glasser delve into the Trump family.  It is clear that Ivanka and Melania had no love lost for each other, Donald Trump had no use for his son Don, Jr. until after the 2020 election defeat, and it appears that a dysfunctional family greatly contributed to a dysfunctional presidency, a White House in chaos.

From the outset the announcement of the Muslim “travel ban,” the hiring and firing of Michael Flynn as National Security advisor, the firing of James Comey to avoid an investigation into Trump ties to Russia, Trump’s obsession with destroying any remnant of the Obama administration, the role of FOX “news” and Rupert Murdoch, and threatening to withdraw from NATO are on full display.  The authors spend a great deal of time discussing “the Axis of Adults,” Mattis, McMaster, and Tillerson who worked to achieve some sort of normality reassuring overseas allies that things would work out, but at the first NATO summit Trump refused to reaffirm Article 5 of the alliance, a portent of the future.

Reading this book was like reliving a nightmare, particularly the chapter dealing with Roy Cohn who mentored Trump in New York and whose playbook of “take-no-prisoners approach to business and politics would define the 45th president.”  Trump admired Cohn’s underhanded ways and educated Trump into the “netherworld of sordid quid pro quos” that defined Cohn.  The authors describe a president who was his own worst enemy as he pursued self-destructive policies.  A case in point is firing FBI head , James Comey because he would not stop his investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 election and pay fealty to Trump.  Advisors begged him not to do it abruptly, if at all, but they could not control him and by doing so he obstructed justice by interfering in a federal investigation.

File:James Mattis official photo (cropped).jpg

(General James Mattis, Secretary of Defense)

The authors put forth numerous examples of Trump’s self-destructive approach whether backing racist, incompetent candidates for office, condemning the American intelligence community in Helsinki in front of Vladimir Putin, his bromance with Kim Jong-un, withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal, and of course his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.  For Trump it was all about wielding power and promoting his support for autocrats worldwide – perhaps his own jealousy of the power employed by the likes of Putin, Orbán in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey was the reason he wanted to create an image of the all-powerful ruler.

Baker and Glasser have the knack of integrating comments by important characters into their narrative which are shocking and at times bizarre.  A good example is their discussion of Mike Pompeo’s quest to be Secretary of State.  Using his perch at the CIA, Pompeo attached himself to Trump’s hip and finally was able to gain the appointment.  According to one American ambassador who worked with Pompeo, he was “like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.”  Another example pertains to the convoluted relationship with Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham.  McCain, a war hero, despised Trump and could not get over the fact his close friend, Graham “sucked up to him.”  The story has been told many times how McCain got even with Trump over the Obamacare vote and the exclusion of the president from the family funeral, however the account of Trump’s refusal to put federal flags at half staff after McCain’s death further reflects the depths of Trump’s inhumanity and insensitivity.  Trump’s comments went public, “What the fuck are we doing that for?  Guy was a fucking loser.”  Trump would finally give in, but not before he stated to John Kelly, “I don’t know why you think all these people who get shot down are heroes but do what you want to do.”  Perhaps one of the most demented remarks uttered by Trump to John Kelly as he grew tired of “his generals” taking principled stands against him; “You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals…..Which generals?….The German generals in World War II.”  This was the model he craved.  Trump’s audacity knew no bounds, pressuring Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize!  Baker and Glasser’s inclusion of conversations/arguments was priceless as Nancy Pelosi confronted Trump at their last meeting; “all roads lead to Putin, you gave Russia Ukraine and Syria.”

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

(CIA Head and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo)

Perhaps the second important watershed period for Trump was following the 2018 congressional elections when the Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives.  According to Baker and Glasser, Trump felt liberated and believed he could move on and do what he saw fit.  This would lead to the final firing of John Kelly as Chief of Staff and replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with Bill Barr.  Further he would replace Joe Dunford as head of the Joint Chiefs with Mark Milley and make it so intolerable that James Mattis would resign.  Next, Mick Mulvaney became Chief of Staff, and his approach was simple and disastrous, “Let Trump be Trump.” This would become a disaster for democracy and the rule of law.

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attends an interview with the Associated Press at the American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking Omaha Beach, Monday, June, 6, 2022. Army Gen. Mark Milley, said that the United States and the Allied countries must "continue" to provide significant support to Ukraine out of respect for D-Day soldiers' legacy, as commemorations of the June 6, 1944 landings were being held Monday in Normandy. (AP Photo/ Jeremias Gonzalez)

(Joint Chiefs of Staff Head, General Mark Milley)

The dive into the Russia investigation is fascinating.  It is clear that Putin worked to undermine Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House seeking and gaining revenge for her approach as Secretary of State dealing with Crimea and sanctions among other grievances.  Baker and Glasser unearth many interesting aspects of the probe including the fact that White House Counsel Don McGahn was feeding the Mueller investigation a great deal of information and Mueller’s belief that he could not prove in a court of law a Trump-Russian conspiracy.  However, they did believe that they could gain a conviction over obstruction of justice, but Justice Department protocols against indicting a sitting president disallowed such an action.

Baker and Glasser devote a considerable amount of attention to the conduct of American foreign policy under Trump.  The dysfunction of the administration in the national security realm is on full display with the arrival of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and John Bolton as National Security advisor.  Though both men had similar views theirs was a relationship that was bound to fail.  Trump’s “love affair” with Kim Jung-un is well told as are the machinations within the White House, State and Defense Departments over policy.

Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump

(Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump)

By February 2019, Bolton began implementing his agenda by arranging the withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, one of the last remnants of Cold War agreements.  Further he laid the groundwork to pull out of the Open Skies Treaty of 1992 and pushed Trump to quit the United Nations Human Rights Council.  Bolton continued his onslaught by pushing for regime change in Venezuela replacing General Nicolas Maduro with opposition leader Juan Guaido.  The initiative would fail no matter how hard Pompeo and Bolton pushed.  If this was not enough Iran was clearly in their sights.  In June 2019, the Iranians shot down an American drone over the Gulf of Hormuz.  What followed was the usual Trumpian bluster resulting in the canceling of a major American response as Trump could not make up his mind.  Throughout the infighting and dysfunction reflected an administration which was incompetent in the conduct of foreign policy.

Ukraine would reemerge as an issue as Rudy Giuliani convinced Trump that Ukraine had interfered with the 2016 election not Russia.  This was another flashpoint for Trump because any questions surrounding Russian interference in the election delegitimized his victory in 2016 and his presidency.  Baker and Glasser take the reader through attempts to blackmail Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky over American military and economic aid linking the Biden family to corruption in Ukraine, and the firing of American Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.  This would culminate in the “perfect phone call” between Trump and Zelensky and the former president’s first impeachment trial which the authors carefully detail including the various personalities and why they pursued the course they did.

 The result, by following the “Clinton playbook” from the nineties of deny, deny, deny worked well, despite the fact that Trump released a transcript of his phone conversation with Zelensky which was direct evidence of a quid pro quo in return for an investigation of the Bidens.  For Trump foreign aid was a normal cudgel to be employed to get what he wanted from foreign leaders.  He had done it with the Palestinians, Pakistan, Central American countries, and of course Ukraine.  The fact it was illegal was immaterial, especially for Republicans.

The authors do not shy away from the successes of the Trump administration.  They spend a good amount of time discussing Jared Kushner’s accomplishments in achieving the Abraham Accords that brought recognition by Arab states for Israel and left open the possibility of Saudi Arabia joining later.  Kushner was able to take advantage of fears of Iran and disenchantment by certain Arab states with the Palestinians.  The vaunted Trump tax cut that was geared toward the rich, the renegotiation of NAFTA, and a few other successes are detailed.

The Covid-19 crisis gets a fair hearing and a number of important points are presented.  The Trump-Fauci falling out was due to the former president’s jealousy of Fauci’s popularity and his constant advice that Trump disagreed with.  Though nothing discussed is new the emphasis on treating the pandemic in the context of his reelection and looking tough led to a further bifurcation of America culture over the use of masks, vaccines, and shut downs.  Deborah Birx, the White House response coordinator has said there was little the United States could have done to prevent the first 100,000 deaths from Covid, but the next 900,000 certainly would have been much lower had the Trump administration followed a rational path.  Trump’s lack of empathy for those who passed and his laser vision on reelection ultimately cost hundreds of thousands of American lives.

(January 6, 2021)

Baker and Glasser rehash the details of Trump’s election defeat, his refusal to concede, his war on election denials leading to the January 6th insurrection, and the final impeachments of Trump.  Each issue is covered with the same detail and sourcing as other topics in the book and the ultimate conclusion is that as even certain Republicans and administration members stated, Trump was “crazy” and was destroying democracy.  That may have been the case, but the Kevin McCarthys and Lindsay Grahams of the world found it easy to return to the good side of the Napoleon of Mara-la-go.

It is a credit to the authors that they manage to include the culture wars, corruption, demagogy, autocratic-love, palace intrigue and public tweets, the pandemic and impeachment in one well written volume.  THE DIVIDER reconstructs all aspects of the Trump White House and the impact of decision-making and events.  What is clear is that Trump may have left office in January, 2020 but his legacy of obstruction, promoting violence and hatred still plays out each day.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 13, 2017 : The President of United States of America Donald Trump at the Elysee Palace for an extended interview with the french President.


Pres. Woodrow Wilson at his desk, Washington, D.C.

(President Woodrow Wilson)

The four years that followed America’s entrance into World War I was a grim period in American history that seems painfully relevant today.  It was a time of racism, white nationalism, anti-foreign, anti-immigrant feelings, and of course plague.. On top of that American society suffered from a misogynistic view of women, and an appalling level of political partisanship.  By 1920 the culmination of World War I and the Versailles Treaty were almost in place.  The treaty itself was punitive and over the next decade it would be used by opponents of the Weimar Republic in Germany as a cudgel to destroy any hope in achieving democracy and greatly facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party and  Adolf Hitler.  Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century, we find Russia beginning to reject the promise of democracy following the collapse of the Cold War leading to the reemergence of Pan Slavism and the rise of Vladimir Putin.  The similarities may be divergent, but it is clear that the economic misery in Germany in the 1920s and Russia in the 1990s is more than a coincidence in bringing authoritarianism to power in both countries.

The second decade in the 20th and 21st centuries tend to mirror each other.  The fighting in the trenches on the western front during World War I matches the trench warfare that has existed in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and seems to be growing worse each day.  The Russian Revolution helped produce the authoritarianism of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, in much the same way that the end of communism brought to power, first Boris Yeltsin, and his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin.  The end of World War I brought about the failure of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, and recently Donald Trump tried to unravel NATO and while Putin is trying to destroy NATO by invading Ukraine, the former president’s acolytes have continued to try and undermine the Biden administration’s effort to assist the Kyiv government.


(Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer)

In 1917, Lenin bragged that the Soviet Union would lead an ecumenical revolution in the name of Karl Marx.  Today, Putin wants to recreate the former Soviet Empire and “Russify” its “near abroad” regions.  During the 1920s Russia was an economic pariah, today economic sanctions imposed by the west are seen as one of the main weapons imposed in order to block Putin’s expansionism.

The difference today is that a number of countries which suffered under western colonialism; India, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia find themselves benefitting from Russian cheap energy and trade as they pursue their own reasons for their supposed neutrality in dealing with the war in Ukraine.  There were many errors made in the diplomatic realm in 1919 that we see resurfacing today – one can call it the revenge of former western victims of imperialism.

Wood, Leonard

(General Leonard Wood)

Across the Atlantic we also witness the similarities between the two time periods.  Domestically the United states has found itself in the midst of violent anarchist movements on the right.  Groups like the Proud Boys and their ilk and the MAGA crowd engage in political violence in much the same way as leftist anarchists did in the post-World War One era.  Politically, the lack of bipartisanship today is a daily occurrence where “owning the libs” by the MAGA crowd is more important than passing legislation for the benefit of the American people.  In 1919, the leader of the Republican opposition was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge who despised Wilson and resented democratic control of the presidency and congress over the previous eight years.  He led the opposition to the ratification of the League of Nations in the Senate and was successful in part because of Wilson’s own political errors and a belief that he was infallible.  In the same way NATO was threatened by extinction under the presidency of Donald Trump, another president whose belief in their own judgement was beyond reproach, and the likes of Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy who seems like he will do anything to satisfy the right wing fringe of the Republican caucus and stop American aid to Ukraine.  A further similarity between the two periods is that of dealing with disease or pandemics.  In 1918-1919 it was influenza which the government downplayed resulting in over 675,000 death which Wilson paid little attention too, and of course COVID-19 the last few years resulting in over 1,000,000 deaths, conspiracy theories, and a president who saw the disease as a plot to hinder his reelection as opposed to properly protecting the American people.  Lastly, immigration issues have dominated both periods.  The 1920s witnessed an increasing war against labor, communism, and immigration in general as it seemed the “Bolsheviki” were mostly Jews from Eastern Europe, not the good “white stock” of Northern and Western Europe.  The period is known as the first Red Scare, but today we have similar issues.  The lack of bipartisanship prevents immigration reform and politicians are quick to point to the southern border as a national security threat.  Trump’s commentary on immigrants is well known as well as those dealing with “shit hole” nations. 

The mindsets of Wilson and Trump are also similar, and that mindset led to numerous errors for the American people.  Wilson proved to be a sanctimonious character who believed his way was always correct and if you didn’t support him you were no longer an accepted part of his administration.  Trump has a similar mindset, but there is a difference.  Wilson held strong beliefs in his Fourteen Points which he hoped would bring an end to all wars.  Trump, believes in nothing apart from his use of the presidency for his and his families self-aggrandizement, and perhaps keeping him out of prison and an orangejump suit.

Emma Goldman seated.jpg

(Emma Goldman)

The lack of bipartisanship in Congress was clear concerning the League of Nations, the increasing belief in eugenics and anti-migrant and racist tropes led to violence against minorities be it the Tulsa  or Omaha massacres or other events throughout the south.  This resulted in the 1924 Johnson Act that created quotas to bar certain groups from the United States.  Though women finally got the vote after the war, impediments for them and blacks remained to keep them from exercising their rights of citizenship.

Fast forward to today we have disagreements over aid to Ukraine and the US role in NATO.  Further, we have election deniers who still have not given up overturning the 2020 election no matter what the courts have ruled.  The crisis at the southern border, the bombing of synagogues, the shootings of young black men and schools, and of course the events of 1/6.  These occurrences can be laid at the doorstep of MAGA conspiracy theorists, FOX news and Donald Trump and reflect how little the US has grown as a united nation over the last 100 years.  Philosopher George Santayana was correct in 1905 when he stated, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  I guess the lesson no longer applies as a large segment of our population has cut history and government courses from educational curriculum on many levels as is highlighted currently by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ attempts to rewrite his states curriculum stressing only the “good parts dealing with whites,” and leaving out anything negative like slavery and genocide of Native-Americans out.

The first two decades of the 20th and 21st centuries are uncanny in their similarities and it makes it important to consult Adam Hochschild’s latest book, AMERICAN MIDNIGHT: THE GREAT WAR, A VIOLENT PEACE AND DEMOCRACIES FORGOTTEN CRISIS to understand the evolution of events surrounding World War I and its culmination, its impact on societal movements throughout the world including the United States, and how many of these issues remain with us today reflecting on the idea that we have not come as far as we think in the last century.

Eugene V. Debs

(Presidential candidate and Socialist Eugene V. Debs)

As the case in many of his books like KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST, TO END ALL WARS, SPAIN IN OUR

HEARTS, and BURY THE CHAINS Hochschild exhibits a mastery of the historical material and sources including astute analysis that is important for the reader to digest.  He possesses an easy writing style that makes it easier to absorb material that can be very disconcerting.  In his current work Hochschild has created a narrative that is more of a socio-political history than a recounting of World War I and the treaty that followed.  The book is separated into two distinct parts.  First the reader is presented with an America that is in the grip of a patriotic fervor that had never been seen before.  Anti-German feeling fostered by submarine warfare raised levels of hostility that remained throughout the war.  The result was the loss of civil rights for a large component of American society particularly labor and anyone who questioned the Wilson administration.  President Woodrow Wilson was seen as a progressive, but the policies implemented under his watch caused tremendous repression and violations of constitutional protections of free speech.  The repression resulted in vigilantism, violence, and an unequal implementation of justice.  Legislation and later Supreme Court decisions codified these the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act, or the actions of the Postmaster General and other propaganda organs.  Big Business saw this as an opportunity to go after labor unions like the IWW and the Socialist Party.  Racists saw this as an opportunity to repress blacks in the south as well as the north as many southern blacks migrated north to escape adverse treatment and hopes for employment.  In addition, the government deputized private groups to assist in this repression and violence.  A number of personalities dominate this section including President Wilson, radicals like Emma Goldman, Postmaster general Albert Burleson, and many others.

In the second half of the book, Hochschild’s analysis zeroes in on the continuing repression after the war and the rise of the Red Scare.  The constant round up of immigrants for deportation, legislation to block immigration, violence against blacks, even those who fought in World war I, the continued imprisonment of people jailed for opposing the war, a domestic war against the new enemy communism which seemed to be spreading in Europe were dominant themes.   Throughout President Wilson did not oppose these extreme measures as his focus was on gaining passage of his precious League of Nations which ultimately failed.  After suffering a debilitating stroke trying to sell his League, Wilson was effectively a non-executive for the last eight months of his presidency as his wife Edith seemed to have been a co-president.  Two of the dominant personalities of the period were Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer, and General Leonard Wood.  Both sought their respective party nominations for president in 1920 and ran on a platform of anti-immigration and deportation.  In Palmer’s case his actions relate to an anarchist bombing of his home in 1919 which changed a progressive into a right wing fanatic employing the likes of the young J. Edgar Hoover.

Portrait of white woman in dark clothing

(Kate Richard O’Hare)

A number of important movements and personalities are explored, many of which lead to current comparisons.  The first, Woodrow Wilson who oversaw the war on dissent resulting in violence and jailings.  Wilson was a southerner who held strong racist ideas despite his progressive reputation and showed little interest in protecting civil rights after the American entrance into the war.  Wilson’s problem throughout was that he believed that bargaining was beneath him and his autocratic tendencies eventually would dominate his approach to politics.  Apart from Wilson, the author focuses on personalities who normally do not receive the coverage of a President, Secretary of State or other high officials.  The reader is exposed to William J. “Big Bill” Flynn, the former Chief of the Secret Service and New York City Police Detectives who would head up the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor of the FBI, a man who would hire the young J. Edgar Hoover who would copy the Library of Congresses card catalogue system to track what he deemed to be enemies of the people.  Women who spoke out against the war and were jailed receive a great deal of coverage.  Emma Goldman, Dr. Marie Equi, and Kate Richard O’Hare are front and center.  The role of Postmaster General and his weeding out all opposition to the war effort through the mails; the jailing of Eugene Debs; Grace Hammer, a Sherman Detective Agency employee imbedded within the IWW as “an underground cheerleader” for the war to root out dissidents; Leo Wendell, a Justice Department spy, Lt. Colonel Ralph Van Deman, the domestic military intelligence chief, Louis F. Post, the only member of the Labor Department who fought against deportations, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis who had no difficulty with objectivity dealing with dissidents, Congressman Albert Johnson who led the fight for immigration quotas that blocked immigrants from anywhere apart from northern and western Europeans (sounds like Trump!) are just a few whose impact on American history and their actions should serve as a lesson for all to study.

The infamous Palmer Raids, mass arrests by the Justice department on the Union of Russian Workers and other organizations receive extensive coverage.  In particular was the radical Division within the Justice Department fostered by J. Edgar Hoover who was put in charge of these raids and implemented the surveillance, arrests, police raids, internment camps, legal chicanery, all strategies employed for decades to come.  Hoover saw the resulting deportations as a “feather in his cap.”  Wilson is just as culpable as he remarked in 1919, “any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this republic.”

Hochschild also stresses how the Wilson administration drew upon America’s experience in the Philippines, employing torture techniques like water boarding and counter insurgency in the United States to ferret out dissidents.  General Leonard Wood was the master of implementing these techniques.

 Albert Sidney Burleson

(US Postmaster Albert Burleson)

In summary I turn to Thomas Meany’s review in the October 9, 2022, that appeared in the New York Times; “Hochschild’s sharp portraits and vignettes make for poignant reading, but at times skirt fuller historical understanding. We hear about newspapers and magazines being shut down, but little about what was being argued in them. Powerful thinkers about the political moment, such as Randolph Bourne, are absent from “American Midnight,” while John Dos Passos features more as a backup bard than a literary chronicler with historical insight. Hochschild attributes much of the failure of American socialists to expand their ranks to the racism and xenophobia that bedeviled the white working class. But there were also significant problems of organization in the American labor movement, which struggled to unite unskilled immigrant workers with workers in established unions. Trotsky had expected America to make as great a contribution to world socialism as it had to capitalism; he was appalled by the lack of party discipline, later damning Debs with faint praise, as a “romantic and a preacher, and not at all a politician or a leader.” The Catholic Church inoculated large segments of immigrant workers from radicalization, while canny capitalists like Henry Ford devised ways to divide workers into a caste system with different gradations of privilege. For all of the success of the strike waves of 1919, almost none of them left any permanent new union organization in place, nor did socialists make much headway in electoral politics.

In the closing portions of this tale, Hochschild shows that, by contrast, a generation of American liberals learned what not to do from Wilson. As his international crusade sputtered into catastrophe, with Wilson signing off on the Versailles Treaty, which laid the kindling for World War II, younger members of his staff were already preparing to become different kinds of liberals. Felix Frankfurter, who, as a young judge advocate general, gallantly tried to counteract some of Wilson’s domestic terror, and Frankfurter’s friend Walter Lippmann, who worked on Wilson’s foreign policy team, were determined to cast off the administration’s excesses. Both envisioned a state that would protect civil rights instead of violating them, and oversee a more efficient and fair economy. In the early 1930s, even as they drifted apart, Lippmann and Frankfurter would help impart a crucial lesson to the Roosevelt administration: If it wanted to snuff out American socialism, it was better to absorb some of its ideals than to banish them.”


(President Woodrow Wilson)


Abraham Lincoln

In many ways Jon Meacham is the conscience of America.  The Vanderbilt historian and author has a very optimistic view of the American people and his appearances on MSNBC and other programs is usually upbeat when it comes to the future of the United States.  This viewpoint is readily apparent in a number of his books, including THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS where he discusses turning points in American history and how we have overcome numerous issues including partisanship.  Meacham is a prolific author whose books include FRANKLIN AND WINSTON: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF AN EPIC FRIENDSHIP, AMERICAN GOSPEL: GOD, THE FOUNDING FATHERS AND THE MAKING OF THE NATION, AMERICAN LION: ANDREW JACKSON IN THE WHITE HOUSE, HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE, and DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODDESSY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH.  All books are well written with a degree of empathy for his subjects which is the case with his latest effort, AND THERE WAS LIGHT: ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND AMERICA’S STRUGGLE which tells the story of our 16th president from his birth on the Kentucky frontier to his leadership during the Civil War through his assassination.  For Meacham, Lincoln’s life illustrates the ways and means of politics in a democracy, the roots and durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to shape events.

Meacham’s Lincoln is a humane and empathetic individual who must overcome personal tragedy and his own demons.  The death of two children, a depressive personality, and a spouse who caused trouble repeatedly must be dealt with as he tries to maintain the union and reunify his country.  Lincoln did not shy away from complex decisions whether dealing with politics, military personnel, or wartime strategy.  He was a firm believer in Jeffersonian equality and the constitution.  He was not averse to making compromises to maintain the union and a democratic form of government.  The idea that the federal government could not end slavery in states where it existed but could prevent its expansion into new territories was deeply ingrained in him.  According to poet and editor James Russell Lowell who wrote in 1864, for Lincoln it was more convenient to say the least, to have a country left without a constitution, than a constitution without a country.”

1862. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand at Antietam.

(Lincoln at the battle of Antietam)

Meacham’s account of Lincoln’s treatment of slavery is heavily laden with theological arguments and experiences which Lincoln argued was his own enslavement by his overbearing father who forced him to labor and forgo education, to the exposure to reverends preaching against slavery during his boyhood.  Meacham develops anti and pro-slavery ideology throughout the narrative and concludes that Lincoln did not believe in racial equality, favored the colonization of slaves to areas outside the United States, but overall, he could not tolerate individuals being owned by another and having to labor for someone not of his choosing.

The narrative carefully recounts Lincoln’s evolution concerning the slave issue relying on his religious and political development.  Lincoln was a man of compromise in all areas, but not concerning the maintenance of the union.  Meacham reviews the most important debates, events, and movements of the period and offers a dissection of Lincoln’s thought processes and how he finally reached the conclusion in 1862 that after trying everything to appease the south and keep the states as one to announce the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Lincoln only served one term in Congress, but it was an important education.  He learned a great deal about slavery coming into contact with southern members of the House of Representatives, opposing racist legislation, and the need of compromise, not conquest in order to make meaningful change.  Lincoln repeatedly turned to the “Founders” for inspiration and if one examines his speeches it is a combination of religious belief and political pragmatism.  As Lincoln stated in 1861, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” 

This is an image of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, and Davis.

(Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee)

According to historian Richard Carwardine, “the fatalist and activist were thus infused in Lincoln.”  He was a dichotomy.  He articulated his moral commitment against slavery and his willingness to leave a white dominated society intact.  For him racial prejudice among whites was at such a level that the practical course was to acknowledge and accommodate it.

There are countless interesting aspects of Lincoln’s life that Meacham introduces.  One of the most surprising is his obsession concerning his own birth – was he illegitimate?  Did policy decisions emanate from his own inferiority about his own birth that summoned temporal and divine help, as he tried to put the national family back together when his own family origin was in doubt? 

Meacham does an excellent job reviewing events leading to the Civil War, the course of the war, and the ultimate victory of the north which cost Lincoln his life.  The author concludes that in most aspects of his narrative race is the central cause of the conflict as even if he would free the slaves northern racists were on par with those in the south – the only difference was they did not want to enslave them, but they could not accept that they were equal.

AND THERE WAS LIGHT is not a traditional biography of our 16th president.  It is more a conversation with an eminent historian who examines the intellectual development of his subject while at the same time placing him in the context of the world he lived in and the difficult choices that he made.  Meacham offers an account that is worldly and spiritual, and carefully tailored to suit our conflict-ridden times.  Meacham alludes to the present with examples from the past.  A case in point is Vice President John Breckinridge’s courageous decision to carry out the electoral college faithfully in February 1861 as Mike Pence did in 2021.  Further Lincoln promised to accept the results of the 1864 election, even if he lost, Donald Trump and Kari Lake are you listening?  Lastly, Lincoln’s support for absentee voting for soldiers, unlike Trump’s call to outlaw the process.  Lincoln faced a White supremacists national minority chafing against Jeffersonian ideals which Lincoln was committed to.  With January 6th and further threats of violence Meacham tries to use Lincoln as an example of leadership in somewhat similar times. 

The book is thoroughly researched and highly readable written by a craftsman of the English language.  The book as are his other works is relevant for today as Meacham writes, “ A president who led a divided country in which an implacable minority gave no quarter in a clash over power, race, identity, money, and faith has much to teach us in a twenty-first century moment of polarization, passionate disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.  For while Lincoln cannot be wrenched from the context of his particular times, his story illuminates the ways and means of politics, the marshaling of power in a democracy, the durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to help shape events.”

refer to caption


FBI director J Edgar Hoover aims machine gun

(Long arm of the law: J Edgar Hoover in 1936)

J. Edgar Hoover is considered one of the most controversial figures in 20th century American history.  His reign as FBI head is fraught with controversy and certain peculiarities associated with Hoover on a personal level.  Though Hoover believed the federal government could accomplish great things, his view of the American people was rather narrow, and he felt that minorities and supposed communists did not belong to the American fabric.   He held a strong racist streak and demanded total loyalty and conformity from those who served under him.  He was probably the most powerful government employee of his era serving eight presidents during his reign at the FBI, remaining in power, decade after decade, employing the tools of government to create a private empire unrivaled in American history.

Hoover used his office as a vehicle of intimidation for those he saw as enemies, either personal or governmental, and embodied conservative values ranging from anticommunism to white supremacy to a crusading interpretation of Christianity.  If he were in power today he would fit right in with the MAGA crowd that dominates the rightwing of the Republican party.  Since there has not been a major biographical reassessment of Hoover’s life and role in government in decades, Beverly Gage’s new work, G-MAN: J. EDGAR HOOVER AND THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY fills an important void.

Gage, a professor of American history at Yale University has written an almost encyclopedic  biography of Hoover exploring his personal, ideological, and political development.  The keys to his personality are examined very carefully along with his personal life.  Cage delves into the myths surrounding Hoover and develops sound conclusions based on fact and research not conjecture.  The book should become the go to source on Hoover due to Cage’s research, writing style, and analysis and she should be commended for her effort.

Author image by Kathleen Cei. G-Man cover by Penguin Random House.

Author, Beverly Cage

Cage’s approach focuses on how Hoover tried to twist events to fit his preconceived view of people and movements, particularly those that dealt with civil rights and what Hoover believed was the jurisdiction of the FBI.  Cage’s narrative explores Hoover’s attitudes and role in numerous situations involving the deprivation of civil rights for certain groups especially minorities.  Early in his career the focus is on Hoover’s role in the Palmer raids after World War I.  Here Hoover laid down certain principles regarding leftist politics in American society.  These principles were followed throughout his career and are prevalent in the Roosevelt administrations approach to organized crime in the 1930s, the internment of the Japanese during World War II, and the second Red Scare that emerged after the war.  Though Hoover supposedly believed in following certain FBI protocols designed to follow law, it did not stop him from developing counterintelligence programs like SOLO and COINTELPRO that implemented misinformation, surveillance, wiretapping, and intimidation among his strategies.  This approach dominated the post-World War II period as the FBI was involved in the prosecution of the Hollywood Ten, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Alger Hiss, and others who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.  If Hoover smelled a link of some sort with communism, particularly the CPUSA, the FBI head was like a bloodhound until he was able to put his targets away.

The case that stands out is Hoover’s pursuit of Martin Luther King, his strategy in dealing with southern violence against blacks in the 1950s, and his treatment of Freedom Riders and other civil rights actions in the 1960s.  Cage correctly points out that at times Hoover could appear to be working with King and his movement, but his hatred for the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was all consuming.  Hoover was obsessed with bringing King down and he employed COINTELPRO techniques to achieve his goals as he tried to prove that Dr. King was a communist with links to the Soviet Union and was a threat to American national security.

It is clear from Cage’s portrayal that Hoover was a racist and she does a commendable job tracing his views back to his upbringing in Washington, DC, then a segregated city, his attendance at George Washington University, and his participation in Kappa Alpha, a southern fraternity which highlighted segregationist and other racist views.  Kappa Alpha played an important role in how Hoover filled positions at the FBI, and the perfect agent for Hoover was part of the fraternity who attended George Washington University Law School and other similarities to the FBI Head’s own background.  This in large part explains how FBI personnel approached many civil rights issues.

Clyde Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover.

(Clyde Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover never openly acknowledged a sexual or romantic relationship)

Cage investigates Hoover’s relationship with each president he served.  A number of surprising things emerged.  Hoover had a very unique relationship with FDR.  Historians usually describe the New Deal leader as a progressive, however his approach to civil rights in many cases was in line with Hoover and they come across as allies in a number of situations according to Cage.  Hoover’s relationship with Harry Truman was poor and Cage quotes a number of derogatory comments by Hoover pertaining to the man from Missouri.  Hoover greatly enjoyed working with Dwight Eisenhower, in large part because his good friend and ideological soulmate Richard Nixon was Vice President.  Hoover’s relationship with the Kennedy’s was fraught with negativity due to the actions of Attorney General Robert Kennedy who he despised.  As far as John F. Kennedy is concerned, Hoover thought very little of him and was not beyond using intelligence he gathered against the president to remain as head of the FBI.  Lyndon Johnson and Hoover got along well, except for Civil Rights legislation, but they had been friends and neighbors going back to the 1930s.  Richard Nixon was a special case.  They were very close friends and Hoover shared intimate information with him.  By 1968 they became more than friends but political allies as Nixon was trying to resurrect his presidential ambitions and Hoover was fighting off calls for his retirement after the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations.  Once Nixon became President Hoover was ecstatic as his “red baiting” past lined up well with the new occupant of the White House. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of Cage’s narrative is her discussion of the image and policies Hoover projected.  His belief in “gentlemen” law enforcement types like lawyers and accountants as opposed to officers with guns.  His credo concerning agents with guns would change as time went on and crime and violence dominated American society in the 1930s and after World war II.  Hoover’s goal of a professional bureaucracy dealing with crime would be altered and Cage does a wonderful job integrating Hoover’s policies with that of the larger society.  Apart from the political implications that surrounded Hoover’s tenure in office, Cage delves into social and cultural aspects that affected FBI policies.  A prime example is how Hoover appointed his close friend Clyde Tolson to head up the public relations office at the FBI to promote certain policies and images.  For Hoover, Tolson’s job was to promote Hoover as the moral leader of the country, though when one digs deeply as Cage has done, hypocrisy was more Hoover’s calling card.  The Tolson-Hoover relationship is explored in detail, keeping away from any salacious stories and sticking to opinions that rely mostly on facts and not conjecture.

J Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon

(FBI director J Edgar Hoover with Richard Nixon in 1968).

Cage stresses Hoover’s popularity among politicians and the American people that lasted for decades.  As she summarizes the course of Hoover’s career she correctly argues that “If the period from 1924-1945 had been one of institution building – and of constructing Hoover’s national reputation – the period from 1945-1959 was when he learned to wield power as an independent political force, no longer subordinate to other man’s agendas.”  Despite his role in the Red Scare, McCarthyism, the rise of Castro, and his actions in dealing with southern white racism his popularity seemed to increase.

One of the more interesting chapters entitled “Atomic Drama” explores the period when the Soviet Union successfully tested the atomic bomb, the Chinese Communists were victorious, North Korea attacked the south, and Russian spies infiltrated Britain’s MI6.  Cage offers portraits of Elizabeth Bentley, Kim Philby and others and digs into the poor relationship between Hoover and British intelligence which had a very low opinion of the FBI head.  This chapter also includes a step by step analysis of how the Soviets infiltrated the Manhattan Project and how the Harry Gold network was uncovered which led to the trials mentioned earlier.

1953 was a watershed year for Hoover’s career with the arrival of Eisenhower in the White House and the weakening of Joseph McCarthy on the American political scene.  From this point on it appears that American presidents were wary of the intelligence Hoover had accumulated over the decades, i.e.; JFK’s sexual liaisons, anyone who might have even the most minute link to communism and on and on.

The breadth of Cage’s research is on full display throughout the narrative.  She did not stop with traditional areas of historical research and includes the application of other social sciences.  A case in point was her discussion of Hoover’s possible homosexuality in the midst of the “Lavender Scare” (that coincided with the post-World War II Red Scare) and integrates the ideas of psychoanalyst Karen Horney’s work in trying to understand a number of Hoover’s motives and inner guilt to the point that Hoover pushed for and gained legislation keeping suspected homosexuals from being employed by the federal government.

Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar G. Hoover       (AP)

(Martin Luther King….J. Edgar Hoover)

What is interesting is that Hoover’s career began red baiting the left after World War I, going after supposed anarchists, members of the Communist party and others.   The result was the Palmer raids and intolerance toward immigrants.  Hoover’s work came full circle in the late 1960s and early 1970s  as he went after the evolving “New Left,” and instituted elements of COINTELPRO against Martin Luther King and groups like the SDS, SCLC, and the Black Panthers.  Clearly Hoover’s career had evolved 360 degrees.

Cage is very succinct in her analysis and her attention to detail is amazing.  She concludes that Hoover finally had difficulties in the 1960s as “he departed more and more from his vision of the FBI as a professional, apolitical institution and a bastion of upright, objective government men.  The contradictions that he had negotiated for so long – between liberalism and conservatism, between his faith in apolitical governance and his commitment to an ideological cause – finally collapsed in on themselves.  So did the American consensus that had once sustained him….He began the 1960s widely celebrated as the nation’s greatest living public servant.  He ended it as one of the country’s most polarizing and controversial men.”  No matter what your opinion of Hoover might be after reading Cage’s excellent work, it is clear that his impact in most areas of American society for over five decades cannot be denied.   Jennifer Szalai conclusion put forth in her ­New York Times review of November 19, 2022, is dead on in that “this is a humanizing biography, but I wouldn’t call it a sympathetic one — as Gage shows, Hoover accrued too much power and racked up too many abuses for him to be worthy of that. What she provides instead is an acknowledgment of the complexities that made Hoover who he was, while also charting the turbulent currents that eventually swept him aside. Today, the once mightiest of G-men “has few admirers and almost nobody willing to claim his legacy,” she writes, “even within the F.B.I.”

(FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is seen in his Washington office, May 20, 1963. The 1971 burglary of one of the bureau’s offices revealed the agency’s domestic surveillance program).


The Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C.

To date there have been countless books written about Donald Trump’s machinations.  They seem to cover all aspects of his presidency, personality, and private life.  They range from psychological profiles, the women he has been involved with, his career in business, his election in 2016, his presidency, and finally his defeat in 2020 and its ramifications for the American people.  The books are written mostly by reporters who have covered Trump, acolytes, family members, and people that Trump has used.  Most are well written and are supported by author’s research in addition to the facts and reality of living with the MAGA world.  No matter how important each book may be in their own right, none can compare with Mark Leibovich’s new book, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVITUDE: DONALD’S TRUMP’S WASHINGTON AND THE PRICE OF SUBMISSION.  What sets Leibovich’s work apart from others is his writing style, which is humorous, sarcastic, caustic, and in its own way analytical.  Leibovich’s narrative encompasses much of the same material as others, but it is in his presentation that makes another rehash of the Trump years palatable.

As he has done in his bestseller, THIS TOWN which dissected the current political culture in Washington, his latest focuses and confronts the leadership of the Republican Party and their minions and appley describes the type of power hungry individuals who have ridden roughshod over the former principles of the GOP and latched onto Donald Trump to maintain their own self-interest and political office. In his entertaining account Leibovich zeroes in on Senators Marco Rubio, Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz, along with other characters like Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Reince Priebus, among others who seem to dominate Trump’s circle, despite the fact that most previously chronicled their distaste for Trump.  What all of these personages have in common is that they sold their souls to the devil, in the name of the “Donald.”

Leibovich’s profile has a locus that seems to be the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC.  After reading Leibovich’s account it is hard to distinguish between the importance of the Hotel and the White House.  It is clear that the hotel is the center of power where acolytes, notable members of society, Trump supporters, and administration colleagues gather to make policy and plan what is best for Donald Trump and America in general.  

Unlike many of the new books on Trump, personal memoirs by individuals who have seen the light and analyze how the MAGA world has altered American politics, Leibovich zeroes in on the creation of a dangerous culture of submission within the GOP and the nihilism and cynicism that has resulted.  At times Leibovich’s humor and sarcasm dominates the narrative, but in reality his narrative is based on factual information, and it is a serious analysis of what Trump and his MAGA converts have done to America.

Leibovich’s purpose in authoring the book is not to rehash events and personalities that have dominated the news for the last seven years but to tell the story of the ordeal Trump has put this country through – “the supplicant fanboys who permitted Donald Trump’s depravity to be infected on the rest of us.”

Leibovich is correct that the key to Trump’s support in 2016 and 2020 was that his followers saw him as a truth teller, despite the fact he was a habitual liar.   Further, Trump’s appeal in the MAGA world is clear – “Trump’s spool of personal grievances had become their own.  In effect, his narcissism did, too.”  From the outset Trump presented an alternative reality that was supported by the likes of Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Hope Hicks, Vice President Pence. Mark Meadows, Reince Priebus and a host of many other enablers.  Leibovitch takes the reader through each of these individuals and their role in dealing with Trump, be it the size of the 2016 inauguration crowd, the cabinet meeting when Trump’s appointee kowtowed to their leader, to the clearing of Lafayette Park by the military in order for Trump to have a photo op in front of a church holding a bible.  Leibovich’s commentary is priceless as he describes Hicks – “She has the distinct superpower in her ability to manage Trump, not unlike how a care provider might have a special knack for managing a particular toddler.”

Leibovich has the ability to put on paper exactly what mature  people were thinking in response to Trump’s latest scheming.  Mitch McConnell comes under Leibovich’s lens as the political operator and power hungry person that he exhibits each day.  It is a fundamental problem, but Leibovich makes it acceptable as he describes McConnell’s “zombie walk – stony faced, owlish, and keep walking” approach to responding to the most egregious actions taken by Trump.  McConnell is not the only person to be skewered by Leibovich.  Lindsay Graham is a special target particularly his relationship with Senator John McCain, supposedly his friend and accomplice in the senate.  But his true nature is front and center when McCain passes away and Graham “sucks up” to Trump as he knew how to stroke the president’s erogenous zones, i.e., undoing Obama’s accomplishments and restoring America to greatness.  In a sense McCain’s death was liberating for Graham as he could now be out in the open about what type of person he really is.

Washington, D.C., January 4 2019: President Donald Trump enters the Rose Garden at the White House after meeting with Democratic leadership to discuss the ongoing partial government shutdown.
(President Trump and Congressman Kevin McCarthy)

Trump converted many lemmings such as Ron DeSantis and Devin Nunes who experienced non-descript careers before attaching themselves to Trump.  Trump had a gift in knowing how to draw in disaffected characters.  Leibovich is correct that in a sense that Trumpism was like “group therapy for conservatives who feel alienated from, and hostile toward, the progressive consensus…Trumpism is, at heart, not a philosophy, but an enemies list.”  Republicans had the remarkable ability to “suspend belief” when it came to impeachment and other issues and illegalities.  They had to or else the Trump smear brigade of Fox News and co, plus supporters would have made their lives miserable.

(Congresswoman Elizabteh Cheney)

Leibovich tries hard to find heroes in the Republican Party.  He praises Mitt Romney for voting for impeachment and other comments, but in the end Romney can not overcome his past, just look at his actions in dealing with the “Big Dig” in Boston when he was Massachusetts governor. Perhaps the topic that is most disturbing which even Leibovich’s sarcasm and humor cannot overcome is the rehashing of January 6, 2021.  It is here that the author describes the “land the plane” strategy pursued by the GOP leadership to get the country to January 20th and Joe Biden’s inauguration.  Along the way Leibovitch drills down into the duplicitous and hypocritic Speaker of the House hopeful, Kevin McCarthy.  There is no need to trace his anger at Trump for January 6th to his visit to Mar-a-Lago a few weeks later when he realized he could not be Speaker without Trump.  So off he went to kiss the ring and kowtow once again.  What is most disturbing is that January 6th underscores how extreme Trump’s one way loyalty really is and the contempt he has for those most devoted to him.

If there is a pseudo hero in Leibovitch’s account it is Liz Cheney who despite her conservative credentials and voting record (93% with Trump) is being drummed out of the GOP because of her stand for constitutional principles and democracy.  Be that as it may, we as Americans are stuck.  Even if Donald Trump passed from the scene, Trumpism is embedded in the GOP and almost half the country.  It will be interesting if Attorney General Merrick Garland decides to prosecute Trump, Trump declares for the GOP nomination for 2024, or any matter of things that could rip our country further apart.  One thing is clear in that the Trump acolytes will continue to serve his interests because they correspond with their own need for power and recognition.


Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 8, 1863. Photo by Alexander Gardner/LOC/Creative Commons
(Abraham Lincoln)

To date over 16,000 books have been written on Abraham Lincoln, so why another?  In the current case, John Avlon a former Daily Beast editor, author of serious studies of political centrism, and a current CNN analyst has authored LINCOLN AND THE FIGHT FOR PEACE AND FREEDOM which takes a unique approach toward our 16th president.  The book focuses on the six weeks from Lincoln’s second inauguration through his assassination as the Civil War finally concluded and the war over the peace had begun.  According to Avlon, Lincoln evolved into the conciliator-in-chief in his approach to the south and was vehemently against a punitive peace.  Lincoln sought to reunite the country through empathy, understanding, humility and a deep belief that in order to bring the country together after four years of war and over 600,000 casualties a reconstruction policy must be implemented that was perceptive of the needs and beliefs of the former enemy and bring about a coalescing of moderate political elements to block the extremists that remained on both sides of the political spectrum.  For Avlon Lincoln’s approach to winning the peace would serve as a model for future post war negotiations, for example General Lucius Clay’s approach toward Germany after World War II to prevent the revanchism that took place after World War I.

Today our politicians are engaged in a form of political partisanship which at times places our nation at the precipice of civil war.  No matter the issue; protecting children from the ravages of a failed gun control debate, overturning Roe v. Wade, the refusal to accept the results of a fair and free democratic election, the denial of voting rights, and numerous other issues makes it clear that something is broken in our political system.  The question that confronts the American electorate is whether politicians, with their lust for power are so dug in their positions that the odds of any reconciliation between Democrats and Republicans, with extreme elements in both parties appears unlikely in the near future.

Ulysses S. Grant
(Ulysses S. Grant)

In the state that we find our political discourse, John Avlon raised the banner of Abraham Lincoln to serve as a role model as to how we can fix, or at least reorient our body politic.  Avlon begins his narrative on April 4, 1865, as the Civil War winds down with Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, Va. the capital of the defeated Confederacy. Unaccompanied by a large number of troops or any celebratory instruments the president walked the streets of the city with his son Tad greeting former enemy soldiers and citizens with compassion, humor, and kindness.  Lincoln’s mantra was to heal the nation and not erase the history of the war – history required learning the right lessons, so we would not be condemned to repeat them.  He was committed to stopping the cycle of violence, changing his focus from winning the war, to winning the peace.

Lincoln’s world view centered on three ”indispensable conditions:” no ceasefire before surrender, the restoration of the union, and the end of slavery for all time.  “Everything else was negotiable.  Lincoln wanted a hard war to be followed by a soft peace; but there would be no compromise on these core principles.”  For Lincoln winning the peace meant if you failed to do so you would have lost the war.  Lincoln worked without a historical parallel to guide him.  He would establish a new model of leadership focused on reconciliation that would make a long and just peace possible – unconditional surrender followed by a magnanimous peace.  Even though he would be assassinated five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered, in the last six weeks of his life that included his second inaugural address he articulated a clear vision that he hoped would result in a peaceful reunification of his country, “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”


(Tad Lincoln)

The fight for peace needed to be waged with the intensity that rivals war in order for the United States to be redeemed and serve as a beacon of universal freedom.  To achieve this “unconditional surrender” was sacrosanct.  Lincoln needed to eradicate the cause of the war – slavery and ensuring the rebels accepted a decisive defeat.  Lincoln wanted a constitutional amendment ending slavery before the end of the war as he was fully aware that once the war concluded Congress would not have the courage to do so.  “The 13th amendment was the political expression of unconditional surrender: there would be no retreat from the end of slavery.”

Avlon has written a highly readable account of how Lincoln hoped to achieve his goals dealing with a recalcitrant Congress and elements in the Confederacy who did not want to admit defeat.  He takes the reader through the history of the final six weeks of Lincoln’s presidency step by step culminating in his assassination at Ford’s theater.  Lincoln’s core beliefs can be summed up in the Biblical construct of the “golden rule,” a combination of common sense and the moral imagination to dislodge deeply ingrained prejudice.

Frederick Douglass
(Frederick Douglass)

Avlon has the uncanny ability to apply his phrasing to portray Lincoln’s soul be it a visit to City Point, Va. to reach out to wounded Confederate soldiers to his tearful and heart felt reaction to the carnage of war when he visited battlefields.  Avlon is able to convey the substance of Lincoln on a personal and public level as he grappled with bringing the war to a conclusion and at the same time set the foundation of lasting peace through reconciliation and understanding.  At times it seems Lincoln may have been too lenient, but Avlon points to certain non-negotiable issues where the president’s back was stiffened where he refused to give in.  As Lincoln biographer and historian Allen Guelzo writes it is “Lincoln who tells the African American soldiers of the Black 29th Connecticut that ‘you are now as free as I am,’ and if they meet any Southerners who claim to not know that you are free, take the sword and the bayonet and teach them that you are; for God created all men free, giving to each the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”*

I agree with Guelzo’s analysis of Avlon’s overall theme in that “As much as Avlon is convinced that Lincoln’s “commitment to reconciliation retains the force of revelation,” “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace” is short on the exact content of that revelation for the postwar years. Frederick Douglass insisted in 1866 that “Mr. Lincoln would have been in favor of the enfranchisement of the colored race,” and Avlon is not wrong to see Lincoln favoring a reinvention of the South as a small-scale manufacturing economy to replace the plantation oligarchy that triggered the war. But Lincoln played his political cards so close to the chest that, beyond this, it is unclear exactly what directions he thought Reconstruction should take. It is still less clear whether even he would have been successful (had he survived the assassin’s bullet) in pulling any of it off in just the three years that remained to him in his second term.”

General Robert E. Lee, Mathew B. Brady (American, born Ireland, 1823?–1896 New York), Albumen silver print from glass negative
(Robert E. Lee)

Avlon possesses a tremendous faith in the words and actions of Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime and how they resonated in the last third of the 19th century through the end of World War II.  As historian Ted Widmer writes, “Lincoln offers a boost of confidence at a time when our history, instead of uniting us, has become yet another battleground. With insight, he chooses familiar and lesser-known Lincoln phrases to remind readers how much we still have to learn from our 16th president. His book also offers an extra dividend, coming as it does in the midst of Ukraine’s agony. Avlon closes with the final sentences of the second inaugural address, and its hope that we can “achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” As Lincoln understood, the work of democracy at home is indispensable to the work of peace abroad. It is reassuring to have the case for each restated so cogently.”**

*Allen C. Guelzo, “A Lincoln for Our Polarized Times,” New York Times, February 15, 2022.

**Ted Widmer, “Lessons from Lincoln’s Leadership at the Close of the Civil War,” Washington Post, April 15, 2022.

Abraham Lincoln in a portrait by Matthew Brady, taken in December 1861.


PHOTO: Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they push barricades to storm the Capitol in Washington D.C., Jan. 6, 2021.
(January 6, 2021, Washington, DC)

“Tis the season to read Trump books, fala la la lah…..”  It appears this summer is the publishing season for monographs on the final year of the Trump administration.  A number of important books are available, i.e., Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta’s NIGHTMARE SCENARIO, Michael Wolff’s LANDSLIDE: THE FINAL YEAR OF THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY; Michael C. Bender’s “FRANKLY WE DID WIN THIS ELECTION, and Carol Leonnig and Paul Rucker’s sequel to A VERY STABLE GENIUS, I ALONE CAN FIX IT: DONALD J. TRUMP’S CATASTROPHIC FINAL YEAR.  All zero in on Trump’s final year in office which has turned out to be one of the most consequential years in American history since the flu pandemic of 1918.  Leonnig and Rucker’s latest effort continues to take readers deep inside Trump’s chaotic and impulsive presidency and Leonnig must be recognized as a few months ago she released another important work ZERO FAIL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECRET SERVICE.

Leonnig and Rucker are Pulitzer Prize winning reporters for the Washington Post and have had access to numerous sources inside and outside the Trump administration.  They have consulted over 140 sources that include senior most Trump administration officials, career government officials, friends, Trump himself, and outside advisors.  As in her previous book, Leonnig along with Rucker have produced a well sourced, crisply written monograph that is equal to her previous efforts.

What separates the first three years of the Trump administration from the last is that between 2017 and 2019 Trump faced no major crises.  It was a period dominated by Trump’s bluster, self-aggrandizement, scandal, and self-preservation, characteristics that were not conducive to the events of 2020.  As Trump made loyalty and personal power the number one traits that dominated his management skills his immigration policy that ripped children from their parents, his denigration of the rule of law, his threats to democracy, his support for white supremacy, his contempt for allies are all important, but he faced no economic or military crises, or a public health disaster until his last year in office.

Donald Trump

( June 1, 2020, President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House)

The authors give Trump credit for Operation Warp Speed in helping to develop vaccines in record time, but his ineptitude, back biting, lack of empathy and cruelty in combating the virus through mask wearing and making vaccines a partisan political issues have resulted in the death of over 600,000 Americans and the infection of tens of millions of people with Covid-19.  Apart from the pandemic, Trump’s White House oversaw the collapse of the economy, heightened racial tension after the George Floyd murder, conducted political rallies that became super spreader events, and the policy of “law and order” was being manipulated to the point that advisors had to talk him out of giving orders to shoot demonstrators.

Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 election result created further chaos as he resorted to misinformation and lies that the election was stolen from him.  He created a “personality cult” that politicized any effort to combat the virus and introduced disastrous treatment options such as bleach and hydroxychloroquine. The result is that 50% of the American people are fully vaccinated and the country is now on the precipice of a fourth wave of the disease as cases are rising in areas that are under or not vaccinated.  We have become a country that is split between those who are and those who are not vaccinated.  As an aside Trump and his family are also fully vaccinated at the same time, he fueled the distrust in government that led to the January 6th insurrection to overturn the election of Joe Biden.

Leonnig and Rucker correctly point out that the concept of the “common good” is alien to Trump as every issue; race, economics, health, immigration, foreign policy, and finally the pandemic is seen through the lens of what he believed to be in his best personal and political interests.  Trump’s toolbox of bluster, bullying, and manipulation would not work during a pandemic.  Muzzling experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, picking feuds with public health officials, holding super spreader events, and refusing to be a correct role model during the pandemic helped to spread the virus further.

Leonnig and Rucker provide a detailed narrative outlining the cause of the virus, the role of China, and how it spread to Europe and the United States.  They relate the efforts of Dr. Robert Ray Redfield Jr., Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the president, Matt Pottinger, former Deputy National Security Advisor of the United States,  Dr. Deborah Birx, White House Coronavirus Coordinator, Stephan Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration, Francis Collins, head of the National Institute of Health, and others who worked to control the virus but who also were targets of President Trump as he railed against Public Health professionals.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley speaks at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on Feb. 26, 2020, in Washington.

(Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley)

The dysfunction inside the Trump administration as it sought to deal with the pandemic are numerous and the authors present a series of them to support their points.  Jared Kushner was brought in to deal with the lack of PPE and ventilators.  He in turn brought in a bunch of his friends and associates, called “financial whiz kids,” who knew nothing about government procurement or how international markets functioned.  One person described them as “the whiz bang crew of numb nuts” as Kushner’s “sourcing team” were in way over their heads and chaos reigned.  The turf battles, messaging, fealty to Trump, and inability of advisors to get along dominate the narrative as the White House tried to speak with one voice, but the leaks proliferated.  Leonnig and Rucker’s recreation of dialogue between HHS Head Alex Azar, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Trump advisor Michael Caputo, White House Director of Strategic Communications Alyssa Farah, and White House Spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany places the reader inside the room where the dysfunction takes place.

If there is a hero in Leonnig and Rucker’s account it is Joint Chiefs of Staff Head Mark Milley.  A good example of the role he played is depicted in his comments toward Stephen Miller, Trump’s sycophant and immigration guru.  After listening to Miller spout his hatred, Milley told him to “shut the fuck up,” and that US troops could not be used against peaceful demonstrators.  The conversations that led up to the clearing of Lafayette Square of demonstrators by Park Police, National Guard and others so Trump could have a photo op in front of St. John’s church fit Leonnig and Rucker’s ability to explain why and how things evolved and their implications.  Once Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke out against what occurred the tongue lashing he experienced by Trump is available for all to read.  Milley and Esper were in a constant battle with Trump over the politicization of the military as the former president became laser focused on demonstrations in Seattle and Portland and having a large military parade on July 4th.  For Milley and Esper it was all about preserving democracy and preserving the constitution.

The misinformation seems to appear on every other page as the Trump administration tried to develop a narrative that the president was doing all he could to stave off the virus.  At one point Kushner’s “whiz kids” and others were asked to develop new models to offset public health predictions of the number of Covid-19 cases for the future if something was not done.  They were to do so by prioritizing economic recovery over public health.  This goes along with Trump’s attitude that things were doing well no matter what the evidence reflected.  Trump was obsessed with the number of covid-19 victims as it reflected negatively on this reelection.  The stock market was another Trump obsession and when it did not cooperate he would blame others and accuse them of “killing him!”  Of course, it was all the fault of the “deep state.”  Once the senate voted 52-48 not to impeach him, Trump received the memo that no accountability for his actions existed, and he went on his revenge crusade getting rid of the likes of Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman and Olivia Troye once an advisor to Vice President Pence who publicized the illegalities in dealing with Ukraine.

Leonnig and Rucker do not miss a trick even including Melania Trump’s attempts to speak some sense with her husband in February 2020 to no avail.  They recount advice particularly by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie among others on how Trump could win reelection but as in the case of his spouse, the former president felt he knew what was best by going after “Sleepy Joe” and discarding a series of sound suggestions.  According to the authors the turning point in fighting the virus came with the arrival of Scott Atlas. For Trump, the virus stood in the way of his continuation in office and finally in July 2020 he found a public health official who would parrot his medical beliefs, Dr. Scott Atlas.  Atlas was a neuroradiologist at the conservative Hoover Institution who knew nothing about contagious pathogens, but he wanted to open up the economy, refused to endorse the wearing of masks, and was an advocate that the US was approaching herd immunity.  Atlas’ views were used to undercut public health officials and he went after Anthony Fauci with abandon. 

As Leonnig and Rucker shift to discuss the election about halfway through the book they bring the same talent and relentless reporting as Trump ratcheted up misinformation about the virus and every other issue as he tried to ignore the virus, but events would not let him, i.e.; the disastrous super spreader rally in Tulsa in June.  By the end of July Trump began his campaign that would result with the accusation that the election was stolen.  He suggested on July 30 that the election should be postponed, and fraud dominated mail in voting.  Further on September 23, 2020, Trump stated for the first time he might not honor the results of the election if he lost.  Tweets concerning the election  such as “the most INACCURATE AND FRAUDULENT election in history” still reverberates today as the House began its hearing concerning the January 6th insurrection. 

The William Barr-Trump relationship receives a great deal of coverage apart from the Attorney-General’s role at the Justice Department.  Leonnig and Rucker recount Barr’s repeated attempts to prevent the former president from self-sabotage.  Barr, known more for his role in defining the Mueller Report for Trump’s benefit and interfering with the sentencing of Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, offered Trump advice about his campaigns shortcomings and what he needed to do to win reelection.  Barr’s political advice was mostly ignored and the author’s recount the numerous examples of  how Trump was his own worst enemy in trying to improve his position in the polls visa vie Biden, i.e., allowing Mark Meadows to cut federal funding for the CDC while Redfield was trying to get the billions needed for vaccine distribution once it was available.

Rudy Giuliani emerges as a comical figure with his conspiracy theories, distorted advice to Trump over election fraud, and trying to get Trump to just declare victory despite the evidence that he had lost the election to Biden.  Leonnig and Rucker’s daily account from January 2020 to January 2021 doesn’t leave out much that occurred or important conversations that took place.  They culminate their story of administration incompetence and back biting with the run up to January 6th by explaining why it occurred and who in their view is to blame.  The book offers a strong narrative, but is a bit light on analysis and interpretation, but if you are looking for an engrossing recapitulation of the last year you cannot go wrong consulting I ALONE CAN FIX IT.

PHOTO: Supporters of President Donald Trump climb on walls at the U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by Congress, in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
(January 6, 2021, Washington, DC)


Plan your visit to the CDC Museum

For those of us who live in a world defined by facts and not an alternative universe it is clear that over thirty-three million people have contracted Covid-19 and over 600,000 have died from the disease in the United States.  From the time of the first case to our current drive to vaccinate all Americans there have been a number of predictions made by the Trump administration as to how to deal with the disease.  At one point President Trump said it would be gone once the weather warmed up, then it would be done by Easter, then all we needed to take was the drug hydroxychloroquine or inject ourselves with bleach.  These absurdities would be comical if not for the fact that people took Trump’s words seriously as how they should proceed, but what was even more ludicrous was the Trump administration’s overall strategy to cope with the disease.  In Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, both Washington Post reporters’ new book, NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: INSIDE THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC THAT CHANGED HISTORY the authors accurately convey the inner workings of the Trump presidency and how they produced a strategy that exacerbated the effect of the pandemic on American citizens and still impacts the government’s response under President Biden.

One could argue that it has all been said before.  The lies, misinformation, and the stupidity just to secure reelection.  We all lived through it and despite Fox News and other obscure outlets of right wing media, most news organizations have explained what has occurred as have a number of important books.  However, none have gone into the detail and sourcing that Abutaleb and Paletta have put together and therefore if we want to become upset once again because of the crassness of the Trump administration and its dear leader there is a formidable volume that is hard to question, though the likes of Tucker Carlson and his minions certainly will.

(Dr. Anthony Fauci)


The authors have taken a deep dive into the events, decisions, personalities and results of decision making that have led to the catastrophic response to Covid-19 by the United States.  They hold no punches, and they dig up information beyond what has been reported in the media for the last year and a half.  Trump did not act alone in this process as he was enabled by advisers, cabinet members, friends, and family who shared his view about the virus and in a number of cases exhibited even greater disdain for the government’s scientific and public health experts than the president himself.  Decisions revolved around unforced errors, petty rivalries, and a perverted attitude toward the virus that devastated the government – the key being the assault on science by Trump and his minions.

From the outset the United States was at a disadvantage in dealing with the virus as China, despite Trump’s praise of President Xi was not forthcoming with valuable information that might have assisted in containing the disease.  One of the key figures was Matt Pottinger, Deputy National Security Head who had witnessed the Chinese response in dealing with SARS in 2003 as a member of the Bush administration and as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who called for a travel ban with China and was ignored.  Trump had just made a trade deal with China and was up for reelection and did not want to rock the boat.  As the disease proliferated in January 2020, 1300 flights from China entered the United States carrying 381,000 passengers.  The situation was exacerbated by the lack of cursory coordination by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, other agencies, and the inability of the heads of those agencies to come to agreement and leave their egos at the door.

The authors present many examples of Trump’s modus operandi of pitting aides against each other and believed that the virus would magically disappear if he willed it so.  Aides and advisors were completely unprepared for what was coming and focused more on their own survival as opposed to what was best for the country.  Once the concept of asymptomatic spread emerged the dysfunction and disagreements mirrored what would later occur over the importance of masks, testing, ventilators, and the overall messages from the Trump administration cascaded throughout the media along with the negativity put forth by the likes of Fox News.

Deborah Birx
(Dr. Deborah Birx) 

The authors have written a carefully crafted narrative of the steps or lack of steps taken by the Trump administration from the outset of the crisis until January 2021.  It relies on numerous interviews of government officials, culling of emails and other internal documents, along with speaking with people off the record.  The result is that the authors follow the progression of the virus as each chapter heading contains the date, number of cases and deaths that resulted from the lack of the government’s response.  They followed up the figures by discussing the decision making process in confronting the virus for that period of time.  The chapters that deal with cruise ships which Trump wanted kept at sea or possibly sending people to Guantanamo to keep virus numbers down, the lack of PPE and other supplies to fight the virus, the misinformation put out by the Trump administration, the need by aides and health officials to assuage Trump’s ego as he did not want to deal with the virus as he focused on his reelection, and Trump’s personal comments concerning those who did not kow tow to his viewpoints all reflect the disaster that was the US response to the virus.

All the important personalities are present.  Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC was unprepared to deal with Trump’s “team of vipers.”  Jared Kushner, the second most powerful decision maker next to Trump would bring in inexperienced people to deal with the lack of PPE and ventilators then when he became bored would move on to the Middle East or other issues.  Deborah Birx, the White House Covid-19 Coordinator who did her best behind the scenes to move Trump in the right direction.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, served as the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, became a foil for Trump who resented his popularity.  Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist who mirrored Trump’s views concerning opening the country and its economic impact was brought into the West Wing. Stephen Hahn, FDA head tried to cope with the pressure in approving certain “cures” for the disease.  Scott Azar, the head of HHS whose main goal after warning about the virus was to keep his job.  Peter Navarro, the bombastic assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing whose commentary was always over the top.   Mark Meadows, Trump’s Chief of Staff whose views were a detriment to the health of the American people.  Vice President Pence who privately seemed to agree with public health officials, but publicly fawned over Trump throughout.  The authors integrate others into the narrative as the US fell deeper and deeper into the viral abyss.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield holds up his mask as he speaks at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on a
(Dr. Robert Redfield)

For Trump everything seemed to be about messaging.  Trump and his minions saw the pandemic more as a matter of public relations than of public health.  Reelection was his mantra and any information that was not helpful for that process was discarded.  As Trump lost interest in the virus by June 2020, he turned nastier toward those who disagreed with him, his rhetoric particularly after the death of George Floyd became more racist.  He would resort to threats of violence and prodded his supporters to go after Black Lives Matter protestors and used federal troops and police to create a photo op at Lafayette Square.  Further, Trump’s desire to open the country up economically and politically would lead to super spreader events like his rally in Tulsa, OK and other areas.  For Trump it was all about the economy and his reelection as his fear about appearing weak.  The end result is that the disease spiked from Memorial Day, 2020 throughout the summer, and the violence that Trump encouraged spread throughout the country.  Trump weaponized the virus as a tool that exacerbated existing divisions in our country as a means of retaining power for himself.

One of the most important discussions the authors raise was the link between the virus, the death of George Floyd, and the racial impact of what was occurring throughout the pandemic.  It is clear that the virus impacted brown and black citizens more than whites.  Due to the socio-economic makeup of the country, i.e., more minorities worked in jobs like meatpacking that spiked the disease, 33% of cases involved Hispanics, 22% of cases involved blacks resulting in half the victims were brown and black when they only made up 30% of the population.  In the end brown and black people were three times as likely as whites to contract the virus!

Scott W. Atlas

(Dr. Scott Atlas)

The authors cover every aspect of the Covid crisis.  Trump’s obsession with hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, the use of bleach, magical fantasy, pressure to approve vaccines as the election approached, and conspiracy theories are all present.  In addition, the authors weave the threats against public health officials, the bifurcation of the country over mask use as a political statement for and against Trump, the personal price paid by those who did their best to stem the disease, the errors made by public health officials and their attempts to overcome those mistakes, and many other aspects of the crisis are on full display.  The authors have written the most comprehensive study of what transpired from the outbreak of the disease through the beginning of 2021 and all Americans should consider what they have to say because another “nightmare scenario” is certainly something we will have to cope with in the future.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. An official said new guidance on coronavirus transmission had been posted “prematurely” and was still under review. 

(The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. An official said new guidance on coronavirus transmission had been posted “prematurely” and was still under review. Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times)


The significant role played by the United States Secret Service in American history cannot be denied.  Be it the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the failed attempts on the lives of Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, few doubted the commitment of its agents to their craft and maintaining the safety of those in their charge.  However, during the last decade or two questions have arisen over its job performance and as Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter, Carol Leonning points out in her new book, ZERO FAIL: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SECRET SERVICE the actions or inaction of the agency question their effectiveness and how lucky they have been with the numerous mistakes and coverups that have come to light that no major disaster can be laid at its doorstep. 

Leonning’s monograph examines the decline in the agency’s readiness and for some supervisors and agents a cavalier attitude toward their own behavior.  Relying on interviews with over 180 sources, including many current and former agency personnel that includes field agents, directors, cabinet officials and members of Congress it is clear that the agency’s overall readiness is poor.  Leonning’s purpose in writing the book was to uncover why the agency employed outdated equipment and engaged in “spotty training.”  Leonning learned that the organization was spread too thin, was drowning in new missions, and was wrought with security risks brought on by a fundamental mistrust  between the rank and file and leadership.  She asks the important question, how long will dumb luck pass for competence?

Her focus is how the agency went from an elite, hard working band of patriots that was committed to protecting future presidents in the wake of the Kennedy assassination , to a “frat boy culture of infighting, indulgence, and obsolescence.”  Further she questions how the Service went from a close-knit group that prided itself on nonpartisanship to one used by presidents for craven political means.  Lastly, why is it that it has such difficulty in hiring people fast enough to cover departures and is seen as the most hated place to work in the federal government? 

The attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan

(U.S. President Ronald Reagan winces and raises his left arm as he was shot by an assailant as he left a Washington hotel, Monday, March 30, 1981, after making a speech to a labor group. The President was shot in the upper left) 

Leonning traces the development of the Secret Service from its inception after the Civil War through the end of the Trump administration. She provides numerous vignettes that are both entertaining and troubling.  For example, Kennedy’s penchant to sneak away for dalliances, Lyndon Johnson’s paranoia after the assassination that agent’s loyalties to the deceased president would override their role as his protector, or Richard Nixon’s desire to use the assassination attempt on George Wallace as a tool to enhance himself politically by linking Arthur Bremer to the McGovern campaign and Senator Edward Kennedy.

If there is one conclusion the reader must come to grips with is that the Secret Service is broken.  Her carefully crafted narrative is informative as she delves into numerous examples of agent and supervisor malfeasance.  What emerges is a service that condoned breaches in the agency’s protocols for behavior by agents and supervisors dealing with drinking, sexual escapades, and downright stupidity for decades as higher ups rarely called offenders on the carpet and discipline for offenses was rare.

Leonning takes the reader inside the inner workings of presidential protection and what is clear is that the job is an arduous one where marriages and families of agents suffered due to the time commitment which is also a function of an underfunded and poorly run organization which put career goals and coverups ahead of conforming to regulations.  A major issue are the different factions that existed and continue to exist within the service.  It is clear that for women and people of color the career path is made much harder due to racial and misogynistic attitudes that have existed for decades.  A case in point is the plight of Julia Pierson who replaced Mark Sullivan as Director of the Secret Service after a major scandal stemming from advance team partying with prostitutes and excessive drinking in 2011 in Cartagena, Columbia.  It appears supporters of Sullivan actively worked to undermine Pierson, the first female head of the Service, after a mentally disturbed Iraq war veteran, Omar Gonzales managed to jump the White House fence and actually gain entrance into the White House itself.

Barack Obama runs over to greet supporters next to U.S. Secret Service agents after he steps off Air Force One. | Reuters Photo

(President Obama surrounded by Secret Service agents)

Constructive criticism of leadership or policy was usually seen as a threat by higher ups.  Examples include the Charles J. Baserap affair.  Baserap, a former agent prepared a forty-two page survey for his superiors in January 2007 entitled, “The Secret Service State of the Union” which after surveying numerous personnel concluded that the White House security net was vulnerable to attack.  Agents were not trained to deal wit simultaneous attacks on the White House complex, and they lacked weaponry to thwart a lethal attack on the president and his family.  Baserap also focused on routine staff shortages, burned-out officers, and the lack of respect by supervisors for their “brother agents.”  Another example reflects Loenning’s assiduous research centers on Greg Stokes, another former agent involved in the Cartagena imbroglio was threatened with termination for behavior that was condoned for decades.  In his defense Stokes began to release some very uncomfortable examples of Service hypocrisy and after Supervisor Rafael Prieto committed suicide leadership felt it was because of Stokes’ actions and he was fired.  The double standard by leadership permeates the narrative.

By 2012 Leonning points out that partisanship became much more intense in a Senate Committee headed by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson and his research assistant Rachel Weaver.  Their goal was to embarrass the Obama administration as much as possible.  There were a number of agency screw ups during the administration of the most endangered president in history.  On November 11, 2011, eight shots fired at the White House by Oscar Ortega-Hernandez, and Mark Sullivan and his top deputies denied it had occurred at the outset and later lied to a Congressional hearing.  In 2014 as Obama was visiting the CDC in Atlanta when a man with a gun was allowed on an elevator with the president without being properly vetted.  It is no wonder that privately Obama questioned whether the Secret Service could actually protect his family, but at the same time Senator Johnson wanted to link the White House to the Secret Service’s incompetence when Service leadership repeatedly met with Obama and assured the necessary changes needed were being implemented.

trump bible

(US President Donald Trump holds a Bible while visiting St. John’s Church across from the White House after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC.)

In her exploration of the Secret Service Leonning does not skimp in her coverage bringing out details dealing with Watergate, the shooting of Ronald Reagan, 9/11 and numerous other topics including the politicization of the Secret Service by the Trump administration who used it as a political arm as well as a means of making money for his organization as Trump’s persistent travels to Mar-a-Lago left the Secret Service operating on a shoestring.  Financially the Trump administration has been a disaster for the Secret Service.  First, Trump Tower must be taken care of as at the outset Trump declared it his primary residence even if he visits only three times a year and switched his residency to Florida.  The result is the Service paid the Trump Organization $63 million for rent and utilities so it could secure the Tower.  Second, each time Trump visits Mar-a-Lago with his entourage it costs $400,00 for protection.  In addition, Trump travels to all his other properties rarely spending the weekend at the White House so he can play golf costing the Secret Service millions.  In addition, the Trump extended family of eighteen people must be secured as they travel all over the world. Politically, the Secret Service became an arm of the Trump administration as it was used to clear Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters so Trump could take a walk and show how “tough” he was as he held a bible upside down in front of a church.  Also, the use of the Secret Service at rallies and what made it worse is that the Service was split between pro and anti-Trump supporters which was against department protocols.  Finally, once Joe Biden was elected President Trump refused to grant Secret Service protection for the President-elect for over a month.

It will be interesting to see how the Secret Service reforms itself in order to restore its reputation but the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection that one Secret Service agent called the armed protestors patriots seeking to undo an illegitimate election does not seem promising.  In the end I agree with Rosa Brooks’ review of ZERO FAIL in the May 14, 2021, edition of the Washington Post as she writes that the book is important, “one that will ruffle feathers in need of ruffling and that will be useful to legislators, policymakers and historians alike. Leonnig’s careful documentation of decades of neglect and malfeasance buttresses her observation that the Secret Service has become more and more of a paper tiger, weakened by arrogant, insular leadership, promotions based on loyalty rather than capability, years of slim budgets, and outdated technology.

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. Despite its Hollywood-enhanced reputation for squeaky-clean professionalism, the Secret Service is just like every other organization made up of humans, which is to say that it’s a bit of mess: It’s sloppy, hostile to newcomers and new ideas, and even its most dedicated and hard-working agents are constantly playing catch-up in the face of ceaselessly evolving threats.

But, Leonnig reminds us, ordinary human messiness isn’t quite good enough when it comes to something as vital as presidential security. Presidents, and the voters who elect them, have the right to expect more than an old boys club that sometimes seems to prioritize protecting its own over protecting the president.”

The South Lawn of the White House, where President Trump will make his speech accepting the Republican renomination on Thursday.


(Henry Adams)

What impact does one’s lineage have on the course of one’s life?  If you were born into a family where you are the great-grandson of a Founding Father, the grandson of a president, and the son of a Congressman and Minister to England one would assume you would have a great deal to live up to.  In the case of Henry Adams, an important contributor to the “Adams Dynasty” politics was not a passion as it was for those who preceded him, and he chose the path of journalism, historian, and author.  Adams lived a fascinating life based on his writing, travels, and the historical personage he was close to or came in contact with.  Adam’s journey is recounted in David S. Brown’s latest biography, THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS.

Adams excelled in a number of areas.  His reputation has been formulated in large part by his autobiography, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS where he warned Americans about unlimited immeasurable power that would be unleashed in the 20th century which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in biography.  Adams’ other major work was his masterful HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES DURING THE ADMIMISTRATIONS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON AND JAMES MADISON, a nine volume compilation that historian Gary Wills calls “the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the 19th century in America.”  Brown’s biography captures the fullness of Adams’ remarkable life that encompassed many highs, as a political reformer, novelist, world and traveler.  It also encompassed a number of devastating lows which include a pressure packed family familiar that was familiar with depression, alcoholism, and suicide along with presenting an important window into 19th century American history.

Brown emphasizes Adams’ role as a transitional figure between colonial and modern America.  More specifically American history was moving toward “an imperial, industrial identity, one both increasingly beholden to technology and concerned with the fate of the white race. This is the context that the author believes Adams must be viewed in order to understand him.

The book itself is divided into two parts.  The first takes his life to 1885 and the suicide of his wife, Marian Hooper, called Clover.  In this section the reader is exposed to Adams’ impressions, Harvard and European education, and influences and pressure brought forth by his family resulting in the last of his generation of relations to achieve national recognition.  During this period his rural Quincy, MA background which he believed was superior to other parts of America, his bitter reaction to partisan politics, his attraction to a cosmopolitan Europe, and the development of his elitist outlook on life are all explored.  Following Clover’s death, Brown deftly examines a person who seemed to be set adrift resorting to constant travel, darkening meditations on capitalism’s quick expansion, and a propensity toward different personas, i.e., “Henry the 12th century Norman, the Tahitian prince, and the progress defying and denying conservative Christian anarchist.”  All of the masks that Adams’ personality presents point toward some quiet defiance of modernity, as all were primitive and skeptical of the coming age. 

According to Brown, this component of his personality defined his outlook and “at times threatened to distort his work, leading to caricature, doomsaying, and the uncritical elevation of those civilizations and peoples he often patronizingly regarded as anti-modern.” This aspect of his thought process opened to him an exceptionally wide range of ideas and yielded a complicated and insightful individual as any American thinker for his time period and beyond.  As Adams wrote in his autobiography, “by the unknowable, uncontrollable dynamo of industrial development; it is a world we have inherited, a cultural spirit we have yet to shake.”

(Marian (Clover) Hooper Adams on horseback, 1869)

Brown has a strong handle on the course of American history during Adams’ lifetime.  He effectively integrates important events and characters into the narrative and how they impacted Adams’ opinions, thought processes and actions.  An area that Brown spends a great deal of time is dealing with race and slavery in particular.  Brown makes the important connection between the “Lords of the Leash” and the “Lords of the Loom” as he describes the economically incestuous relationship between northern manufacturers and southern planters.  In Brown’s view Adams saw slaves/blacks as inferior to whites and held many of the same racial views of his time including men like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward.  The difference is that Adams’ views concerning ending slavery did not evolve as Lincoln and Seward’s did.  Henry held the seemingly New England Puritan view that opposed anything compromised, wicked, or wrong.  This is evident in his efforts during the Gilded Age to combat various forms of political, financial, and corporate corruption on the part of “Robber Barons” and their political cohorts.

Adams’ intellectual development was greatly influenced by the trends and political movements he observed before the Civil War.  As he evolved as a “thinker” he was exposed to events leading up to and including the ramifications of the Mexican War that led to the Compromise of 1850 and the slow progression toward war.  For Adams, the difference between north and south presented a dichotomy he found difficult.  The north represented education, free labor, piety, and industry, but he was also attracted to the south’s lack of institutional oversight, of church, state, and school, that pinched him at home in Quincy.  Despite this view of the south and a close friendship with Robert E. Lee’s son, Adams could not shake the divergent views when it came to slavery.  Throughout the pre and post-Civil War period Adams suffered from a failure to grasp the ethical struggle over slavery.  Many of his views were rather fanciful, i.e., the idea that the south would be defeated quickly, he saw Lincoln as a clumsy, rustic and too western etc.  The strength of Brown’s biography emerges as he discusses of Adams’ intellectual evolution as he went from a poor prognosticator to an eminent historian.

Adams’ education was a cacophony of differences.  Harvard for him was not a success as unfortunately he attended the Cambridge institution at a time when it was at the tail end of its older scholastic tradition.  When he graduated in 1858 Harvard was on the cusp of major curriculum changes and approaches to teaching science, economics, and politics.  Adams would travel to Germany to further his education outside the study of law that seemed to be his family’s traditional avocation.  He rejected the stringency of German university education but enjoyed traveling throughout Bismarck’s realm.  While in Europe he wrote a column for a Boston paper reflecting his love of travel particularly Italy where he was taken by the Italian movement toward unity and meeting Giuseppe Garibaldi and learning about Cavour.  While traveling Adams read Edward Gibbons’ THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and decided the Adams family needed a historian.

Charles Francis Adams

(Charles Francis Adams)

During the Civil War his father, Charles Francis Adams gave up his congressional seat to become the US Minister to England, Henry served as his secretary.  Their role was to make sure England did not afford the south diplomatic recognition and political and economic support.  After a slow start integrating into English society, Henry was able to adapt in large part because his own snobbish approach to people fit in with the English upper class.  Henry’s elitism plays a major role in Brown’s analysis of his subjects’ behavior and the evolution of his beliefs.  Upon returning to the US after the war it appeared the Adams’s were becoming more and more irrelevant which pushed Henry to leave Quincy for Washington and position himself as a political critic.  Obviously, the key issues of the day surrounded the plight of former slaves.

Brown’s insights into Adams views of race are insightful as he stresses Adams’ refusal to accept slavery’s corrosive and all pervading impact on America.  Brown is accurate when he argues that Adams narrow outlook reduced slavery to a  “repercussion-less fact, a wicked act now mercifully ended.”  In addition, he had an inability to see congressional reconstruction as a moral struggle rather than a political blunder reflecting his indifference to race.  He opposed the 15th amendment and feared Congress was overstepping its bounds, and he totally misjudged the south’s ferocity to reclaim what they saw was stolen from them.  Adams suffered from the delusion that a virtuous people was unfairly subjugated by a combination of Yankee carpetbaggers, black congressmen, and unscrupulous scalawags.  He had gone to Washington to free Congress from corrupt corporations and lobbyists but failed to appreciate America’s racial problems as” he lacked urgency, insight, or empathy.”

Adams was content to be a political outsider.  He viewed himself as a reformer despite the fact he clung to a patrician system that was on its way out.  He did recognize his personal aristocratic expectation of achieving political power was not going to pan out and resented the new social order that deprived him of this type of success from the monied men at the top to the immigrants at the bottom.  His anti-Semitism was ever present as he tended to blame Jews for the monied interests that appeared to dominate the American economy as it developed capitalist wealth which negatively impacted the American people.  Reflecting his elitism, Adams was the type of person who believed that few men or women were his equal, however his friends loved him, but he definitely was an acquired taste.

photograph of John Hay
(John Hay)

Brown does an exceptional job detailing Adams’ career as a writer and an intellectual.  He argues that Adams’ approach is diverse.  He can be considered one of the first “muckrakers” as coined by Theodore Roosevelt as he published a series of articles dealing with corruption during the Grant administration.  His “The New York Gold Conspiracy” zeroes in on Jay Gould and James Fiske’s attempt to corner the gold market.  In this and other articles he warns that a “rising plutocracy threatened to upend the republic.  Brown focuses on Adams’ more literary projects along with the personal drama surrounding the publication of each.  Novels like ESTHER and  DEMOCRACY reflect his talent as a satirist along with many personal details particularly his spouse Clover.  His greatest triumph came as a historian as his nine volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations reflected not only American history from 1800 to 1817 but also it places events in the United States in the context of European politics.  Brown points to the major criticism of the work in that Adams downplayed the impact of slavery and ignored its strong presence in the northern economy and society.  Further, women are hidden in the narrative with but a few mentions like Dolly Madison and Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia.  Adams’ focus is a dismissal of elitism and praises the contributions of non-elites for American society.  Following this history Adams continued his literary career with MONT-SAINT MICHEL AND CHARTRES, a meditative reflection on medieval culture.

Much of Brown’s approach as a biographer is his ability to analyze Adams’ personal writings and delving into a plethora of primary documents.  Further Brown’s portraits of Adams’ friends, allies, and enemies over his lifetime creates a coherent intellectual and political history of half of the 19th century.  Brown has created a land bridge through Henry Adams’ eyes that effectively connects the 19th and 20th centuries that his readers will benefit from.  But one must remember as Brown points out that Adams suffered a number of personal tragedies from the death of his sister Louise, the suicide of his wife that is reflected in his distinctive fatalism built upon an already “defensive and satirical exterior to stiffen.”

Henry Adams’ life is a historical duality in that he thought of himself as an 18th century man and argued for decades against corruption and searched for an antidote for Anglo-Saxon materialism.  However, despite his firm belief that capitalism could ruin the United States in the coming 20th century, he did little on a personal level to disavow his own wealth which allowed him to travel the world, purchase art works and other cultural artifacts, and benefit from the fruits of his societal position.

To sum up Brown has offered  a credible account of America’s transformation during one man’s lifetime, from a Republic where the Adams name was extremely consequential, to an industrialized monolith that had left the family behind.  As historian Amy Greenberg writes “it’s a tribute to Brown’s talent as a biographer that he enables the reader to feel empathy for a man who expressed so little for anyone else.”

The Education of Henry Adams by [Henry Adams]