RUSH: REVOLUTION, MADNESS, AND THE VISIONARY DOCTOR WHO BECAME A FOUNDING FATHER by Stephen Fried

Meet the Doctor Who Convinced America to Sober Up

Meet Benjamin Rush, father of the temperance movement, signer of the Declaration of Independence

Benjamin Rush

When we think of the Founding Fathers and heroes of the American Revolution the names that are mentioned include George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John and Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison, among others.  Rarely if ever does the name Benjamin Rush enter the conversation.  However, in Stephen Fried’s new biography RUSH: REVOLUTION, MADNESS, AND THE VISIONARY DOCTOR WHO BECAME A FOUNDING FATHER, the author presents a truly Renaissance individual who impacted the era in which he lived on multiple levels including science, politics, sociology, psychology, and other aspects of intellectual life.  The question must be asked why such a brilliant scientist and political thinker who influenced many of his contemporaries in countless ways has not been the subject of greater historical research.

Fried has filled that gap with an absorbing portrait and attempts to answer the question by arguing that Rush may have known too much about his fellow revolutionaries and physicians who made him privy to many of their deepest thoughts.  After his death in 1813, Adams and Jefferson, along with his family members suppressed his writings resulting in the diminution of his legacy.  According to Fried he would become the “footnote founder, a second-tier founder.”

Stephen Fried at the statue of Benjamin Rush at Dickinson College (Photo: Carl Socolow)

 

No matter where Rush falls in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers after reading Fried’s work it is clear he was an exceptional historical figure who impacted many aspects of American society and politics during his lifetime.  From his education as a physician, his polemical writings, his role during the revolution, the people he developed relationships with, his impact after the revolution in dealing with mental illness, and raising the level of the health of Americans Rush’s life is worthy of exploration.  Fried begins with his medical education stressing the methods available in the 1760s.  The study of anatomy and the compounding of medicines created a baseline in which to compare what existed and the improvements that would develop as Rush’s career evolved.  His mentors, Doctors John Morgan and Willian Shippen are important in that they provided Rush with knowledge of techniques and diagnostics which laid the ground work for what George Washington would complain, “those damn physicians” who later could not get along because of their egos causing a great deal of trouble during the revolution and after.  From the outset Rush’s approach to medicine, i.e., dissection, obstetrics, and midwifery at the time were controversial and provoked a great deal of opposition.  As Fried lays out the development of Rush’s belief system it was clear he was his own man and was not shy about putting his opinions in letters and pamphlets and rarely backed away from his approach to medicine or politics.

The strength of Fried’s approach rests on integrating Rush’s writings/opinions from his diaries, journals, letters, and common place books into the narrative.  Fried uses this material providing intimate details of Rush’s most important relationships during a lifetime in which he developed  with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and a host of medical contemporaries.  Rush was a prolific writer and soon employed “the pamphlet” as his major tool in letting the public know his opinions, many of which rubbed people the wrong way.  One of his first pamphlets reflects his dilettantish nature published in the early 1770s, “Sermons to Gentlemen on Temperance and Exercise,” in addition to publishing his views as a Philadelphian concerning the English tax on tea which would lead directly to the Boston Tea Party, and his influence and editing of Thomas Paine’s COMMON SENSE.  Rush would dabble in all types of subjects, but his underlying coda was to improve society, but from his own perspective.  Eventually he would be a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Admission ticket, Benjamin Rush's lectures on chemistry, 1769

Fried’s narrative recounts the course of the American Revolution in a clear and concise manner.  There is nothing that is presented that previous historians have not mined.  What sets Fried’s work apart is the role played by Rush in attending the medical needs of the colonists even crossing the Delaware with Washington.  Rush witnessed the horrors of 18th century warfare firsthand and he used what he experienced as a basis for a platform to improve medical care through diagnosis, technique, medicines, and the creation of military hospitals.  Rush tended to rub people the wrong way with his writing and commentary, a flaw that got him into trouble with many people including his commentary about Washington’s leadership.

Rush had no compunction about criticizing his mentors particularly Dr. William Shippen leadership as Chief Physician and Inspector-General during the revolution.  Historians have pointed out the lack of food, clothing, and pay that colonial soldiers had to cope with.  Fried takes it further by exploring the weaknesses of medical care for soldiers.  Rush would finally resign from Washington’s army in 1778, but many of his ideas about hospital care were implemented.  Later Rush would testify at Shippen’s court-martial against Washington’s advice, but he would be acquitted by one vote.

Fried does not overlook Rush’s private life.  He would not marry until the age of thirty because of the advice of his mother.  He would marry Julia Stockton who was sixteen, but they had a long life together and were deeply in love.  The marriage would produce thirteen pregnancies, but unfortunately only six children would live to adulthood.  He was a good father and provider, but as with most men during the period he was away from home at least half the time until the 1781-1786 period were, he devoted himself to his family and medical practice.

Fried describes Rush’s political role in detail particularly after the American Revolution.  He had been a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and later would be a delegate to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention which would ratify the Constitution in 1787. Rush also became involved in the issue of slavery.  He would become an abolitionist; despite the fact he did own one slave who he would free in 1793 and he argued profusely concerning the inhumanity of the “peculiar institution.”  Another of his pet peeves was the lack of a comprehensive educational system in Pennsylvania and after the new nation was ratified.  He worked assiduously to include women, blacks and immigrants in his program and helped create what would become Dickinson College and Franklin and Marshall later on in addition to improving medical curricula at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Benjamin Franklin
(Benjamin Franklin)

But what Rush is most noted for was his attempts at improving care for his patients.  He would serve in numerous capacities during his medical career and once gain rubbed many the wrong way.  His work with the mentally ill is key as he found their treatment abhorrent and studied numerous cases to determine a better way of treatment.  He published a number of pamphlets outlining his ideas that included how best to raise the level of mental health care and arguing that mental illness was a disease to be treated and that patient care was important and they should not be locked away in basements chained to the wall.  He would be involved in creating the University of Pennsylvania Hospital and helped create the first American Medical society and would soon oversee the care of the mentally ill.  Perhaps Fried’s most incisive chapter deals with Rush’s handling of the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia which killed with “biblical proportions.”  Employing Rush’s letters to his wife Julia the reader is exposed to the depth of the tragedy that unfolded.  Rush favored a more extreme treatment of victims which provoked a great deal of controversy with his colleagues.  It is interesting how a politically partisan approach to treatment took place.  Doctors who had Federalist leanings tended to oppose Rush’s methods, while Democratic-Republicans tended to support Rush (sound familiar!).  Fried delves into the effect of the disease on Rush’s family, friends, and cohorts and the reader is provided insights into the approach taken toward an epidemic in the early 1790s.

John Adams, circa 1790.
(President John Adams)

Fried spends a great deal of time examining Rush’s later years which were dominated by his correspondence with John Adams who he was able to convince to reconcile with Thomas Jefferson.  Further his writing remained prolific particularly in relation to his work with the mentally ill working to improve their treatment and living conditions and continuing his lectures at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.  Rush was always looking to improve the quality of life of his patients and with the deterioration of his son John’s mental health he redoubled his efforts in the areas of alcoholism and mental stability.

Fried has written a comprehensive and fascinating biography raising the historical profile of Benjamin Rush for a twenty first century audience.  Rush was a flawed character whose comments and writings often got him in trouble, but as Fried points out repeatedly his motives were usually pure, and his goal was to raise the level of many aspects of society.  Fried has created the most comprehensive work to date on Rush, but also has uncovered a treasure trove of documentary sources that can be mined by future historians.

 

THE GREAT INFLUENZA: THE EPIC STORY OF THE DEADLIEST PLAGUE IN HISTORY by John Barry

As I sit at my desk and examine the latest Covid-19 statistics and fantasize about what might have occurred had the Trump administration carried out its constitutional duties to care for American citizens instead of fomenting a civil war against democratic governors and denying their role in the current pandemic I am appalled and overwhelmed.  At this moment there are 927,000 cases of people testing positive for the virus in the United States out of 2,790,000 worldwide.  The death rate is 52,400 in the U.S. out of 196,000 worldwide, and each day we add thousands to the total.  Words like mitigation, social distancing, ventilators, and numerous others have entered our everyday vocabulary.  The questions that pervade the news are when we will “open up” the country? what happens if we do it too fast? and what will happen if each state goes its own way?  Writer and philosopher George Santayana is credited for stating that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  In our current circumstances it would be best for those in charge of leading us through the crisis to heed Santayana’s words.  All one has to do is turn the clock back one hundred years to learn certain lessons.  Those lessons are portrayed based on excellent historical research in John Barry’s 2004 book, THE GREAT INFLUENZA: THE EPIC STORY OF THE DEADLIEST PLAGUE IN HISTORY.  A pandemic that “likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million.”

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(President Woodrow Wilson)

Barry immediately caught my attention with his opening section that dealt with the state of the American medical infrastructure, readiness, and state of mind in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Barry’s discussion of American medical schools and their lack of standards, i.e., it was not necessary to have a college degree, once admitted no work on actual human bodies, and engaging in no laboratory science is eye opening in addition to being appalling.  In the late 19th century the United States lagged behind the rest of the world in the study of life sciences and medicine.  The inability of American medical schools to accept science as part of the curriculum is shocking.  American physicians would travel to Europe, Germany in particular to study laboratory science and the advances that existed in record numbers and returned to implement what they learned in American classrooms and setting up laboratories.  The key development was the launching of Johns Hopkins in 1876 and their medical school in 1893, along with their hiring of Daniel Gilman as the school’s president, and William Henry Welch who studied in Europe to head the medical school, a man who would become the most influential scientist in the world.

Hopkins would begin the transformation of American medicine as they employed Welch’s reputation to hire the best physicians and researchers in the world and developed a laboratory research component.  In a sense Dr. Welch was the Dr. Fauchi of his era!  The other important development that Barry delves into is the role of the Rockefeller Foundation whose donations led to the creation of the Rockefeller Institute in 1901.  The Institute would be headed by Simon Flexner, a protégé of Welch. Flexner had a large vision; “in his own work, he had what Welch lacked: the ability to ask a large question and frame it in ways that made answering it achievable.”  The Institute developed a small affiliated hospital to investigate disease, where patients would pay no fees but only those suffering from diseases that could be studied were admitted.  Flexner saw the hospital as a testing ground for ideas generated by laboratory scientists.  Further, Flexner used Hopkins as a model medical school and was also able to attract philanthropic funds to deserving institutions.  Those institutions were weeded out as medical schools were ranked based on how well they prepared their students to practice.  As a result, those schools that did not measure up dropped their medical schools and others either reformed their approach or faded away. The next important reform on Welch’s agenda was the creation of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, which was scheduled to open October 1, 1918, toward the end of World War I.

William H. Welch
William Henry Welch 2.jpg

Barry correctly develops the role of World War I in fostering the worldwide influenza pandemic.  Evidence seems to suggest that the virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas.  By January/February 1918 Dr. Loring Milner who had treated influenza throughout his checkered career noticed a much more virulent type that was killing people and it completely overwhelmed him.  New cases declined in the spring but would reemerge later in the year.  With the American entrance into World War I in April 1917 one of the training centers was Camp Funston, part of the Fort Riley Reservation, located about 250 miles from Haskell County.  On March 4, 1918, a soldier was diagnosed with influenza at Camp Funston, three weeks later there were 1100 cases – the problem is that there was a great deal of traffic flow between Haskell County and Camp Funston.  These soldiers would carry the flu virus with them as they were assigned to units that then traveled to Europe.

Barry points to a great deal of disturbing statistical information for the reader to digest.  He examines the history of warfare and concludes that more soldiers died from disease than wounds suffered in combat.  In the Spanish-American War more men died of disease in a 6:1 ratio than on the battlefield.  The US lost more personnel to disease 63,114 than to combat 53,402, largely due to the influenza epidemic of 1918.  If one includes the overall US losses to influenza it is roughly 675,000.  In terms of combat losses, the American military was in no condition to deal with an epidemic with 776 doctors in the military out of an overall total of 140,000 for the entire country.  Lastly, influenza-related deaths reflected that one in 67 American soldiers in the army died of influenza and its complications, nearly all in a ten-week period beginning in mid-September 1918.  It was a disease that targeted those in the prime of their lives as opposed to the old and weak.

The ramp up to prepare for WWI created a situation that made the possibility for an epidemic in the US extremely plausible.  In an important chapter, “Tinderbox,” Barry focuses on the number of physicians who were needed overseas leaving the US short of physicians to care for civilians, and those that remained stateside were mostly over 45 and trained in the older methods that were not very effective.  Further, by the fall of 1918 research laboratories could only function on a reduced scale.  Research was cut back and focused on the war, on poison gas or defending against it, on preventing infection of wounds, on ways to prevent diseases that incapacitated troops like typhus.  Laboratory animals were unavailable, and the war sucked into itself technicians and young researchers.  As a result, the US was at a disadvantage in fighting the flu epidemic from the get-go.

Barry dissects the impact of politics on the spread of the flu and combating it in detail.  The role of machine politics in New York and Philadelphia are cases in point.  In Tammany Hall, the New York Health Department was purged replacing qualified people with patronage weakening the response to the virus.  In Philadelphia State Senator Edwin Vane’s political machine and the response of Public Health Director William Krusen were a disaster.  The Liberty Loan parade on September 28, 1918 is a case in point.  Health officials advised against it, but Krusen who did little in preparation to mitigate the disease allowed it to take place with disastrous results.  The Liberty Loan parade is emblematic of the role of President Woodrow Wilson.  His administration was obsessed with morale and did everything they could to keep news of the epidemic from the public.  Between J. Edgar Hoover’s new internal security agency in the Justice Department, and George Creel’s Committee on Information prosecutions increased markedly as anyone seen as a security threat was arrested, i.e., Eugene Debs who ran for president in 1912 and Congressman Victor Berger were incarcerated.  Newspapers did not report accurate information and a good percentage of the public was left in the dark.

(Oswald Avery)

The horrific details of the epidemic appear in a number of chapters from its impact on the treatment and deaths of soldiers in various army encampments, i.e., Camp Devens in Massachusetts and the Philadelphia Naval Yard.  The impact on civilians is described as is the attempts by scientists to combat the disease.  The work of William H. Park, Chief of the Laboratory Division of the New York City Health Department and his deputy Anna Williams in what was considered the best laboratory in the country is explored in detail as was the work of Paul Lewis who earlier proved that polio was a viral disease and centered his research at his lab in Philadelphia, and Oswalt Avery from the Rockefeller Institute.  The overriding issue for all of these scientists is that of time and the need for speed which meant they had to forgo the usual protocols and approach to research which of course caused many problems.

Barry does not neglect the scientific details of research.  He describes in detail how viruses were determined, explores previous research dealing with pneumonia, typhus, malaria etc. as a means of introducing the reader to what scientists were up against and their approach.  Barry assumes the reader knows nothing as he treats the reader to mini lectures in microbiology, immunology, and epidemiology.  There are a few chapters that engage in this material and for a “biology novice” like myself it became  much to detailed particularly the various types of bacteria, other aspects of lab research, and as a result the book comes across as very text bookish.

Barry’s work is important and should be consulted by public health officials and members of the Trump administration to learn lessons that seem to have bypassed them today.  Though the flu epidemic was a hundred years ago certain aspects provide important lessons – it comes in waves and Covid-19 will return in some degree in the fall and possibly well past.  Ignoring the past is akin to signing a death warrant for many.  Barry has done a service for the American people and though the book was written in 2004 it provides many important guidelines and is  a very effective piece of historical research.

THE AGE OF ILLUSIONS: HOW AMERICA SQUANDERED ITS COLD WAR VICTORY by Andrew Bacevitch

(The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s I enjoyed a sense of security knowing where to focus my fears and angst.  The Soviet Union was the enemy and policymakers developed the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that carried us through threats like the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Fast forward to 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and my security blanket was gone – the Cold War was over.  In what President George H.W. Bush referred to as the unipower world, Americans now have to decide who the enemy was, since it was hard to imagine a world without one.

Andrew Bacevitch in his latest book, THE AGE OF ILLUSIONS: HOW AMERICA SQUANDERED ITS COLD WAR VICTORY examines the post-Cold War period as American policymakers struggled with which direction US foreign policy should go.  Bacevitch a retired army officer and graduate of West Point, in addition to being a professor emeritus from Boston University concludes that the path chosen carried a certain amount of hubris that led to numerous errors squandering our supposed victory that began when Boris Yeltsin faced down a coup attempt by elements in the Kremlin that could not accept defeat.

Former President George H.W. Bush smiles during the second day of the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

(President George H. W. Bush promised a New World Order)

 

According to Bacevitch the United States chose the path of globalization or unrestricted corporate capitalism designed to create maximum wealth.  Second, it fostered global leadership, or hegemony and empire.  Third, we called for freedom, emphasizing autonomy.  Lastly, presidential supremacy as the prerogatives of the legislative branch declined.  In making his case, Bacevitch provides historical context for each and integrates a comparison of his own career with that of Donald Trump.  In so doing Bacevitch seeks to explain how someone like Trump could be elected president and he will argue it could have been predicted based on events that took place in 1992 and after. For Bacevitch the villains who are responsible for basically continuing America’s path after the Cold War are the elites who pushed  a consensus that raised expectations, and when they went unfulfilled, outraged voters turned to Donald Trump.

The election of 1992 is a watershed in American history as President George H.W. Bush despite overseeing the end of the Cold War, prevailing against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, gaining an 89% approval rating, and promised a “New World Order,” lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton.  The election produced three insurgencies that directly relate to the election of 2016.  Former Nixon speech writer and newspaper columnist Patrick Buchanan, and millionaire H. Ross Perot were both verbal “bomb throwers” who represented an “America First” approach to foreign policy and a populist economic message.  Buchanan gave Bush a scare in the New Hampshire primary and Perot garnered 19% of the vote in the election.  The third member of this insurgency was actually Hillary Clinton who worked to do away with white male domination in society as she put it, a vote for Bill Clinton was “two for the price of one.”  Her battles in the White House reflect how Republicans, and right-wing political elements feared her.

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Bacevitch’s analysis throughout the narrative is based sound logic and a very perceptive view of American society and the conduct of foreign policy.  He takes the reader through the historically impactful ideas of Alfred Mahan, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Rudyard Kipling who explained the need for American expansion and nationalism.  In his discussion of “thinkers,” he points to Francis Fukuyama who created a secular ideology to justify American hubris in the 1990s and after.  Bacevitch also delves into the 1940-1992 period offering analogies that make a great deal of sense as he explains how the US emerged from WWII as the dominant power in the world, but shortly thereafter the Soviet Union became an ideological and military threat.

THE FREE TRADE ACCORD; Nafta: Something to Offend Everyone

Credit…The New York Times Archives

As one becomes immersed in Bacevitch’s narrative you begin to question the path the United States chose.  The expectations of the American economy after the Cold War was extremely bullish.  Globalization was seen as the key element to achieving economic domination and the spread of American values.  Global leadership was seen as policing this new American economic empire and a vastly increased military budget would fund the military who would police the world and enforce American hegemony.  As Colin Powell has written, “Our arms should be second to none.”  As the US led the way in techno-warfare a large conventional force was no longer needed.  Bacevitch discusses the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).  “It purported to describe the culmination of a long evolutionary march to perfection.  Globalization promised to reduce uncertainties that had plagued operation of the market.  In a similar manner, the RMA was expected to reduce—and perhaps even eliminate—uncertainties that had long plagued the conduct of war and had made it such a risky proposition.  The nation that seized the opportunities it presented would enjoy decisive advantages over any and all adversaries.”  The problem with techno-militarism is that “smart bombs,” drones and other “toys” are not as precise and predictable as policy makers are convinced of.  Washington also engaged in a “kulturkampf” as it tried to spread its values creating a backlash seemingly everywhere it went.

This approach led the United States to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, the support of numerous repressive dictatorships, a war in Afghanistan that continues today, and other policies that today is making the United States a pariah among its allies and a joke in relation to Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.  Bacevitch sums up the post-Cold War period very nicely, “the spirit of the post-Cold War era prioritized self-actualization and self-indulgence over self-sacrifice.”

Bacevitch saves his most trenchant remarks as he places the last three presidents under a microscope and renders the following judgements that make a great deal of sense.  By the time Bill Clinton left the White House white males still ruled Washington, Wall Street and Hollywood still saw further power to be garnered and making money was king.  Gays could neither marry nor serve in the military.  Checks on corporate capitalism all but disappeared. Americans learned to take war in stride observing from a comfortable distance with the volunteer army that targeted a miniscule part of the population.

 

(President George W. Bush shortly after his “Mission Accomplished Speech”

Under George Bush, the central theme of his administration was war, a complement to globalization and another means of bringing the world in line with American goals.  Clinton may have dabbled in war, but Bush went at it whole “hog.”  The Bush Doctrine argued after 9/11 that American prerogatives where beyond reproach.  American values were universal, and compliance was almost compulsory as resistance was futile.  When the US went to war, they did it with a sense of righteousness that was hard to fathom.  We saw ourselves as the global peacemaker, but in reality, we categorized them, i.e.; “axis of evil” rather than engage them.  Finally, Bush saw himself as a unitary executive and the world order that the Washington constructed was preordained.

Barrack Obama did not fair much better in Bacevitch’s estimation as he paved the way for a powerful backlash resulting in the election of Trump.  He saved globalized neo-liberalism with his $787,000,000 bailout.  His administration never reassessed globalization as a policy that caused the “great recession.”  After Bush’s failures, Obama gave using the military a new lease on life.  Obama vowed to win the war in Afghanistan and even promoted an Iraqi type of “surge” that was unsuccessful.  Hostilities continued in Iraq, civil war decimated Syria and part of Obama’s legacy was the continuation of wars.  Under Obama, the concept of “forever wars” took hold.  “Hope and change,” became “more of the same.”  He did become a cultural warrior celebrating diversity, empowering women, and exploring the variable nature of identity, but over all his administration was a missed opportunity.

One may disagree with Bacevitch’s assessment of the last few decades, but one must really think hard about the following.  The wars that continue are working class wars with a volunteer army that the elites have little to do with.  Globalization accelerated the de-industrialization of America as we exported more jobs than we created.  The disparity in wealth and income is abhorrent as 43 million people are below the poverty level, credit card debt is $8377 per household, and most retirees have just $5000 in savings.  After the Trump tax cut of 2018, the 1% keeps more and more of its wealth.  In this situation it is understandable that economic populism has run rampant.

Bacevitch has written a very thought-provoking book that demands that we reexamine our pre-2016 policies to understand what has been transpiring in American foreign policy since Trump assumed the presidency.  If the book has a weakness it is that Bacevitch’s criticisms are seemingly correct, but he never offers an alternative to what he criticizes.

(The inauguration of Barrack Obama as President)

Though the book appears to be a work that focuses on American foreign policy, it also shines a light on American social and cultural history.  A chapter entitled, “Al, Fred, and Homer’s America – and Mine!” provides insights into American society in the late 1940s and 50s through movies and social class issues.  There are constant references to literary works, the dismantling of our industrial base and how unwinnable wars tore apart our social fabric that bound all elements of society together.  The references to cultural tools is used as a vehicle to explain in part the partisan divide that developed in our country and in the end all of these references be it to John Updike’s character, Harry Angstrom or others rests on the author’s belief that the United States had an opportunity to alter its path.  However we chose not to and let the mistakes of the last 40 years continue to the point that even Trump with all his criticism and bombast about allies and wars has committed even more troops to the Middle East, and funded the techno-military component of the Defense budget to the maximum.  Bacevitch is a harsh critic and does not hold back, but it would be nice to know exactly what policy changes he would make.

(The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)

THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA by Daniel Okrent

Image result for photo of ellis island circa 1910

(Ellis Island, NY)

Recently I learned that the Trump administration finally concluded a tariff deal with Mexico which had a number of components related to illegal immigration into the United States.  Apart from Trump’s stupefying rhetoric surrounding his “wall” and other asinine comments like, “why are we having so many people from these shithole countries come here,” immigration and race have become litmus tests for certain politicians.  This political atmosphere in the United States makes Daniel Okrent’s new book, THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA an important contribution to the background history of our current views of people who are trying to escape tyranny and poverty and come to the United States.  Okrent focuses on what he describes as the “perverse form of ‘science’ [that] gave respectability to the drastic limits Imposed on the number of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles, and various other eastern or southern Europeans seeking to come to America between 1924 and 1965.”  It is during this period that some of the arguments and attitudes concerning immigration were formed that still impact us today.

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(Massachusetts Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge)

Okrent’s narrative is scary as it points to the pseudo-science and ignorance employed from the late 19th century that is still exists today.  His history of the eugenics movement and its role in passing the Johnson-Reed  Act of 1924 is very disconcerting as it reflects the racism and bigotry that dominated American thought throughout the period, including historical figures ranging from Margaret Sanger to Woodrow Wilson.  Okrent points out that the key to the development of these ideas was the growing belief that the United States was being overrun by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who brought certain traits and attitudes that would blend negatively with the American population.  As millions poured into the United States between 1890 and 1910 politicians like Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the epitome of Brahmin superiority led the fight to keep these people from entering the United States through legislation that featured literacy tests and other obstacles.  This movement which fostered the Immigration Restrictive League (IRL) which came about in 1894 rested on the works of other Boston types who would come up short in passing their agenda until after World War I.  Once the war ended fears of these immigrants centered on labor union unrest, political radicalism, and racial conflict.  In the end it was Senator Albert Johnson with the assistance of eugenics and anti-immigration elements who was able to gain the passage of restrictive legislation in 1924 that would stem the tide.

In providing a general history of the eugenics movement and its marriage to immigration restriction from 1890 onward, Okrent zeroes in on the development of their convoluted ideas and the diverse personalities who came to be at the forefront of the movement.  A number of individuals emerge that moved the process forward.  In addition to politicians like Lodge who stoked American xenophobia from the 1890s onward as he took on the role of evangelist and propagandist from anti-immigration forces, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson also became proponents of many of the racial theories related to Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Poles and others that were propagated.

Image result for photo of charles davenport eugenics movement

(Charles Davenport)

What is fascinating is how people bought into these ideas and concepts of racial breeding and how the United States was committing “racial suicide” by allowing these ethnic groups to enter. Okrent’s narrative provides a who’s who of those who advocated the selective breeding of human populations to improve their genetic composition.  Okrent reviews the ideas of Francis Galton who coined the term eugenics in 1883, Charles Darwin, the French anti-Semite Count Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain a proponent of Aryan superiority, and William Z. Ripley, all popular authors in the late 19th century.

Okrent takes it further as he traces the further development of these ideas through the works and ideas of Charles Davenport, a prominent biologist and leading spokesperson for the eugenics movement who set up his “racial laboratory” in Cold Harbor, NY, funded at the outset by Mary Harriman, the heir to the railroad fortune.  In addition, +he focuses on James H. Pattern, an effective congressional lobbyist for the IRL;  Edward A. Ross, the author of THE OLD WORLD AND THE NEW that merged eugenics and xenophobia doubling down on the inferiority of Slavs;  Madison Grant, zoologist, lawyer and author of THE RACIAL BASIS OF EUROPEAN HISTORY;  Henry Goddard’s famed Kallikak study convinced thirty states to pass legislation to impose forced sterilization on the “feebleminded;” and lastly Harry H. Laughlin who directed the Eugenics Records Office who advocated for the “involuntary sterilization of defectives.”

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(Harry Laughlin)

What is even more disconcerting is the list of the pillars of society Okrent uncovers that supported these ideas.  The reputable publishing company, Charles A. Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins helped publish the works of a coterie of eugenicists that included Lothrop Stoddard’s THE RISING TIDE OF COLOR AGAINST WHITE WORLD SUPEREMACY, that became a best seller and went through fifteen reprints (interestingly Scribner’s published Okrent’s history).  Samuel Gompers the head of the American Federation of Labor.  The Saturday Evening Posts editor  George Horace Lorimer published stories of the pariahs that threatened American society, even Eleanor Roosevelt, reflecting her aristocratic origins held negative racial views until she grew more intellectually mature and worldly.

Okrent’s work is punctuated with documentary excerpts of the work of prominent eugenicists and their opponents.  He has drilled down in his analysis of their “quackery” and has a firm handle on his source material.  The narrative is excellent considering the topic, particularly how the Johnson-Reed Act became law, especially Johnson and company manipulated census and immigration figures to create quotas and the resulting impact on American history for decades to the detriment of millions. Historian, Linda Gordon writes; “previous immigration restrictions targeted particular groups — notably people from Asia — but this comprehensive law aimed not just to limit immigration but to preserve white Protestant dominance in America. It assigned a quota to each nation, ranging from 51,000 for Germany to 2,000 for Russia to 1,100 for the entire African continent.” (New York Times, “The Last Time a Wall Went Up to Keep Out Immigrants,” by Linda Gordon, May 20, 2019)

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(Fairfield H. Osborn)

What is shocking throughout the book is Okrent’s ability to explore the ideology of eugenics providing primary evidence of their views.  For example, Fairfield H. Osborn, paleontologist and teacher of Mary Harriman told delegates to the National Immigration Conference held in New York City in 1923 that army testing of soldiers during World War I showed 6,346,856 immigrants were “inferior or very inferior.”  He commented further that “if the army tests served to show clearly to our people the lack of intelligence in our country, and the degrees of intelligence of different races who are coming to us [then] I believe those tests were worth what the war cost, even in human life.”  Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz, the authors of the definitive text on German eugenics, HUMAN HEREDITY AND RACE HYGIENE argued further that the “Nordic race marches in the vanguard of mankind.”  Interestingly in 1924 Adolf Hitler, then an inmate at Landsberg Prison in Bavaria found the book useful “jailhouse reading.” (322)

The title of Okrent’s narrative, THE GUARDED GATE was inspired by an 1895 poem by the Boston patrician Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a leading restrictionist. Aldrich would have none of Emma Lazarus’s words, chiseled into the Statue of Liberty, welcoming “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Writing in a mode more like Donald Trump, Aldrich warned:

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,

And through them passes a wild motley throng ...

O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well

To leave the gates unguarded? (Washington Post, “When the Government Used Bad Science to Restrict Immigration,” by David Hollinger, May 24, 2019)

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(Maxwell Perkins)

Okrent has taken on an important historical topic as George Santayana has warned “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  It took the rise and fall of Nazi Germany discredit eugenics in the United States, but even in 1952 with the McCarran-Walter Act Washington continued to show its preference for people from northwestern Europe.  It would take until 1965 to drop that preference.  With a president who calls for the immigration of whites from countries like Norway as opposed to Hispanic types one must wonder where American immigration is headed for today – is race still the major qualification?

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THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP by Michael D’Antonio

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This morning I spent an inordinate amount of time reading the MUELLER REPORT.  It is not my purpose to recount what was divulged, but what concerns me most is the dysfunction that exists at the pinnacle of our government.  What does it say about us as a people, and what does it say about the man who is responsible for trying to block American citizens from learning about Russian penetration of our elections, his refusal to even accept that it occurred, and the fact that his administration refuses to take any action to secure our elections for the future.  Denial is one thing, but outright deception and overt lying is another.  So, one must ask what type of individual would use the American electoral process as a “branding opportunity,” and upon learning of the appointment of the Special Counsel from then Attorney-General Jeff Sessions responds that “Oh my god, this is terrible.  This is the end of my presidency.  I’m fucked.”*  The answers to these questions are provided in Michael D’Antonio’s book, THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP.

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To D’Antonio’s credit his narrative is based on thorough research and he even had access to Donald Trump  until he started interviewing people who were critical of him.  He has written an entertaining and fair biography and has created the foundation for several books that have followed his publication which repeatedly cite his work.  Whether you have read TRUMP REVEALED by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP by David Cay Johnston, or TRUMP NATION: THE ART OF BEING THE DONALD, by Timothy L. O’Brien they all tell similar stories and anecdotes and all seem to agree on their characterization of Trump’s early life, career, business practices and philosophy, personal life including his marriages and affairs. However, what sets D’Antonio’s book apart is the detail provided and his ability to integrate the political and economic history of New York City and its unique personalities like Mayors Ed Koch, Abe Beame, and John Lindsay as well as Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn among many other fascinating characters throughout his narrative.  In addition, the author places the Trump family and wealth in the context of American history, going as far as comparing the post 1980s to the Gilded Age of the 19th century as he discusses Trump’s life in the context of broader social, psychological and technological trends throughout the 20th century.

As part of his discussion of New York’s economic crisis of the post 1960 period, D’Antonio describes the urban decay and blight that began to affect Brooklyn, the home base of Trump’s father’s wealth and operations.  Trump was very perceptive as he witnessed white flight to the suburbs, civil rights violence, and the poverty endemic to New York’s economic collapse.  Trump realized that this situation depressed real estate values and that a move to Manhattan could be very profitable.  Trump would be at the forefront of trying to displace the poor and middle class in Manhattan who lived in rent-controlled apartments as he sought to turn buildings into expensive condominiums which he will accomplish over a period of years greatly enhancing his wealth into the 1980s.

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(Coney Island – Brooklyn, NY)

If there is a failing in D’Antonio’s approach is that in addition to the amount of detail pertaining to Trump’s lifestyle and accumulation of wealth are his constant tangents.  The author will be describing any one of many complications associated with Trump’s business dealings and other affairs and then will turn to a full accounting of the lives of other individuals’ attendant to the original discussion I.e., Liz Smith, the gossip columnist, Ed Koch’s biography, or discussing what made a man sexy in the 1980s according to Playgirl magazine or any number of other seemingly  irrelevant digressions.

One of the more interesting aspects of D’Antonio’s methodology is his dissection of Trump’s financial dealings, the creation of his fortune, his dance with insolvency and bankruptcy, and his economic recovery.  D’Antonio delves into various financial transactions dating back to Fred Trump and how he took advantage of Lehrenkrouss and Company, a Brooklyn Mortgage Company in the 1930s; Donald Trump’s manipulation of New York bankers, politicians, and others to acquire various properties including the Commodore and Plaza Hotels; how Trump was able to wedge himself into the casino industry in Atlantic City and the fallout from those  transactions; and his success in branding so many buildings with his name.  Other interesting chapters deal with Trump’s battle with author Tim O’Brien over his book TRUMPNATION that argued that “the Donald’s” wealth was far below what Trump stated.  What follows is a detailed description of the legal battle that ensued.  In similar fashion D’Antonio relates the battle over Trump University that would lead to a financial settlement for many of the students that were fleeced.

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D’Antonio describes Trump’s early years, most importantly the impact his father had upon him and how he wanted to mirror Fred’s business tactics.  Another important component of Trump’s upbringing was his experience at the New York Military Academy, where under the auspices of Major Theodore Dobias cadets were instilled with a feeling of confidence that would propel them through life with a sense that they deserved great success because the academy made them better than everyone else.  Trump took his father’s lessons and his experiences under Dobias to heart to create the foundation of the narcissistic personality that would dominate his adulthood that emphasized winning at all costs and avenging those who were critical of him.  Further lessons were learned from Roy Cohn, Trump’s lawyer for many years who believed in stalling, duplicity, threats, law suits, and never admitting that you made an error.   In dealing with the origin of and later manifestation of Trump’s need to be the best at everything, no matter how insignificant, D’Antonio is correct in arguing that it is not important that Trump lies per say, but he actually believes the lies that he tells and then acts upon them – the mark of a truly disturbed personality.

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What is clear from D’Antonio’s biography and numerous other books pertaining to Trump’s journey in life is that he spent a lifetime constructing his personal image.  When that façade is threatened by a negative comment or something or someone, he perceives to be untoward he goes ballistic and seeks revenge employing the “Roy Cohn/Roger Stone” strategy.  What is interesting today as Trump fumes and derides people who worked in his administration who testified for the Special Counsel, the White House is filled with fear from presidential retribution.  If one compares his behavior today with the collapse of his casino empire and fear of bankruptcy in the early 1990s it is the same, even to the point of blaming his financial debacle on three of his executives who were killed in a helicopter crash who had helped administer the Atlantic City hotels and casinos.

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Trump is the master of self-promotion and much of his wealth is tied to his brand not his ability to make “deals.” Trump figured out that fortune and fame go together, and superficiality is more important than substance, the result is that he is the epitome of both concepts.  As other authors have also argued D’Antonio is clear that Trump is a classic case of narcissism.  Narcissists enjoy conflict and will exaggerate or obfuscate to gain the upper hand, a strategy that Trump has pursued in political, business, and personal conflicts that he has either caused or exacerbated when the opportunity presented itself as he views publicity whether good or bad, as good.

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No one should be surprised at the type of President Trump is, the signs were clear long before he ran for the White House and we are now experiencing the fallout from the admonitions of authors, reporters, and Trump associates  about before the 2016 election. Perhaps D’Antonio is correct as he portrays Trump in the context of what Christopher Lasch developed in his 1979 book, THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM: AMERICAN LIFE IN AN AGE OF DIMINISHING EXPECTATIONS – “Trump represented….the pathology of our age.”  Our society, in part may be responsible for the creation of a Trumpian character as it evolved over the decades, now we reap its benefits!

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A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY by Ken Cuthbertson

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(Shirer reports from Nazi Germany)

Today we are exposed to the repetitive 24 hour news cycle on cable television.  It seems that each hour the same information is reprogrammed creating a staleness for the viewer.  Further exacerbating this reporting is the concept of “fake news” and the new reality that it has created in lieu of real journalism.  This being the case it would be useful to think back seventy to eighty years to the type of reportage that existed in the 1930s and 40s.  Instead of dealing with talking heads sitting around a table supposedly providing analysis and context, the public would gather around the family radio listening to reporters from the capitols of Europe and the battlefields of World War II.  At that time a group of reporters worked for CBS news and were known as the “Murrow’s Boys,” men hired by Edward R. Murrow reporting war related events on site.  One of those reporters, William L. Shirer, along with Murrow created the prototype of broadcast news that dominated the airwaves before cable television.  It is through his biography of Shirer, A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY that Ken Cuthbertson traces the development of broadcast journalism through most of the twentieth century.  Cuthbertson, also the author of the remarkable book, THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION: CANADA’S WORST EXPLOSION has written a remarkable study that encompasses Shirer’s life by integrating the main events of the pre- and post-World War II period and the dominant currents of print and non-print journalism at that time.

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(Edward R. Murrow and Shirer)

Shirer originally made a name for himself reporting from Vienna and Berlin throughout the 1930s and through his publication of his BERLIN DIARY in 1936, perhaps providing the most informative insights into Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement up until that time.  He would return to the United States in 1940 as a broadcast journalist for CBS until 1947 as he was fired for his supposed liberal views.  Shirer would be blacklisted from radio and television until 1960 because of the paranoia of the time period, particularly on the part of media executives.  Shirer would climb out of the poverty that his banning had caused and restore his reputation with the publication of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, then a bestseller, and today remains one of the most important examples of narrative history ever written.

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According to the author, Shirer was a very complex individual who lost his father and grandfather at a young age and went through life searching for a meaningful existence which always seemed to be beyond reach.  Shirer’s complexity was in part due to his own self-perceived shortcomings as he often seemed to be at loss in trying to make sense of his own life.  Shirer would grow up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and would possess a certain Midwest naiveté that would be dashed later covering unimaginable events in Europe.  Cuthbertson has written a detailed narrative that does a nice job placing Shirer’s life story in the context of the events occurring around him.  Shirer is drawn to Europe and achieves his first break by hooking up with the conservative Chicago Tribune in 1925 and through his life we experience the “lost generation” that had migrated to Paris in the 1920s meeting Hemingway, Fitzgerald, along with the likes of James Thurber.  His first major story covered Lindbergh’s crossing the Atlantic providing him with the opportunity for making a name for himself.

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For much of Shirer’s career he seems to have been in the shadow of Edwin R. Murrow who hired him in 1934 as CBS was expanding its overseas news outlets in response to events.  The two would become friends, only to suffer a disastrous falling out after World War II.  The biographer must always be careful to avoid placing their subject on a pedestal, but it seems that Cuthbertson is bent on rewriting history with Shirer emerging from Murrow’s shadow.  In his approach Cuthbertson has an engaging writing style and seems to cover all aspects of their friendship, competition, and falling out, integrating the history of radio journalism and the role of CBS, and other participants in the story.  Analysis is clear and concise as it is with other aspects of the book and very thorough.  My only question is sourcing employed.  Cuthbertson relies too much on certain secondary sources, particularly THE MURROW BOYS by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.  The author does a fine job culling Shirer’s diaries and notes and should try and cite more primary materials as he makes his way through Shirer’s life story.

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Cuthbertson has not written a hagiography of his subject and his description of Shirer’s private life and thoughts are dealt with in full.  His pride which knew no bounds, his inability to know went to “hold his cards” and fight another day, the inability after self-reflection to rectify errors that he admitted he had made, his tenaciousness, his obsessiveness, and his belief in himself to a fault are all on display.  Further, the author delves into Shirer’s private life; his marriages, affairs, socializing, years of travel and the effect on his family, and living beyond his means after his income was drastically reduced to the point he could not repair the furnace in his Connecticut farmhouse are explored in full.

Cuthbertson does an excellent job providing a feel for each city in which Shirer lives, and reports.  Whether it is Paris in the 1920s, Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s, or London or New York, the reader will feel the vibe and seriousness of the events being covered.  Shirer’s views, intellectual and emotional are clear be, it his distaste for England and France as they respond to the Anschluss with Austria, the Munich Crisis, or other events.  Perhaps one of the most interesting sections of the book describes the relationships that Shirer developed with historical figures, especially Mahatmas Gandhi.  In 1931 Shirer is dispatched to India by Colonel Robert McCormack, the owner of the Chicago Tribune and soon will meet and develop a friendship with Gandhi.  The Indian revolutionary would assume the role of teacher and spiritual counselor to Shirer as they read and studied the holy books of the world’s great religions.  This relationship softened Shirer as he learned about Asian culture and the developing world, witnessing the effects of English colonization first hand.

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(David Moyers interviewing Shirer in his later years)

The history of radio journalism permeates the narrative throughout, even as it is threatened by the new medium of television.  Numerous characters emerge, many of which were household names well into the twenty first century.  Shirer’s interaction with the likes of William Paley, Eric Sevareid, Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Edward R. Murrow, Frank Stanton and others are fully explored.  For Cuthbertson, in covering the history of radio journalism, Shirer stands out as a dedicated, incisive newsman who strove to relay as much of the truth as he saw it, be it coverage of the Nuremburg Trials, travels to New Delhi and Kabul, or commentary comparing life in Europe and America.  To Cuthbertson’s credit, he pulled no punches when he points out the errors in Shirer’s opinions.

Shirer was a firm believer in the strength of America and its values.  He felt the United States was strong so engagement and dialogue with America’s foes after World War II was preferable to confrontation when countering Soviet expansionism.  Shirer spoke against aid to Greece in 1947 and was critical of Chiang Kai-Shek, opinions that would eventually would bring about his termination at CBS.  Shirer’s firing led to a crisis in his relationship with Murrow and Cuthbertson interestingly conjectures that Murrow’s guilt in not supporting his friend finally pushed him to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy and help bring him down in 1954.

There is so much material and detail that in certain areas Cuthbertson could have been a little more concise, a little less repetitious, but overall his work is important because it is the only full length biography of one of the most significant journalists of the twentieth century.  Shirer, for all of his faults is a shining example of what freedom of the press means to a democracy, an example that the current occupant of the White House should consider as he rambles on with his seemingly daily diatribes about the press being the enemy of the American people.

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(Shirer gaining approval for broadcast from Nazi censor)

THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS by Jon Meacham

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(President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act)

Reading Jon Meacham’s latest historical work, THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS at the same time as the federal government is separating immigrant families into “relocation centers” reminiscent of Japanese internment camps during World War II is extremely disturbing.  It is not a stretch to label the Trump administration’s immigration policies as racist when one considers the language and comments of those like Steven Miller and company, especially the president.  However you describe the facilities that parents and children are separated and housed in together, it is un-American for the media and members of Congress to be barred from investigating what is going on behind those chain linked fences.  President Trump may tweet his racist rationalizations and comments that have little or no basis in fact all he wants, but what is clear is that he has a different agenda than the majority of the American people.

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(Thomas Jefferson)

Meacham’s overall thesis is that the current political turmoil we find ourselves in is not unprecedented and as a nation we have survived worse.  Let us hope that he is correct but after events like Charlottesville, talk of Mexican rapists, vicious attacks on anyone who disagrees with the administration, the Mueller investigation, the fecklessness of Congressional Republicans, and President Trump’s admiration for dictatorships around the world, at the same time as he is exhibiting disdain for America’s democratic allies, I fear that Mr. Meacham may be overly optimistic.

For those who have read Meacham’s works on Roosevelt and Churchill, Andrew Jackson, George H.W. Bush, and Thomas Jefferson his current effort should not disappoint.  Meacham’s monograph is well written and researched as are all his previous books.  He has the ability to expose the reader to a useful overview of American history that assists in our understanding of events. The author points out that he has not written his work because past presidents have always risen to the occasion, but because President Trump rarely, if ever does.  A major theme of the book is that America will usually choose the right path when encouraged from the top.

Meacham’s discussion of the historical roots of fear in our history are apropos as in today’s politics as President Trump seems to rest each statement and policy on ginning up his base through the application of fear.  We must remember that “fear divides, hope unifies.”  Meacham concentrates on the twin tragedies in our nation’s history, the subjugation of people of color, and the justification of policies that infringe upon the rights of citizens justified through the concept of the “expansion of liberty.”  The creation of the presidency by the Founding Fathers was “an act of faith in the future and an educated wager on human character.”  The problem is that throughout our history such hopes have not always been realized.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
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After reviewing a number viewpoints dealing with the presidency, the ideas of Thomas Jefferson sum it up best; “in a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief-magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people,” not just those who voted for him.

Meacham delves into the philosophical foundations of America’s creation in detail.  He explores the likes of John Locke, Adam Smith, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams concluding that the president is a reflection of the needs and wants of the American people.  The character and temperament of the Chief Executive are of paramount importance when trying to unite the general population behind a program that is supposed to meet the needs of all.  By discussing the approaches taken by men such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson it makes it difficult to accept the demeanor and character of the current occupant of the White House.

The author does an excellent job introducing each case study at the outset of each chapter.  He places events and characters in their proper historical context and allows the reader insights into the issue at hand, and creates continuity for the examples he puts forth.  This is evident in perhaps Meacham’s best chapters dealing with immigration and white nationalism.  He makes the important point that to understand the resurgence of white nationalism today, furthered by Trump’s “dog whistle” approach to race one must return to the immediate post-Civil War period and the failure of Reconstruction.  The parallels with the latter part of the 19th century, the 1920s, and today in terms of racial issues and hatred, are very discomforting.

Many white American feared a post slavery society in which emancipation led to equality, and they successfully ensured through lynching’s, denial of equal education and voting rights, that no such equality would come to pass.  Immigration has also been seen as a threat to white Americans as millions arrived between 1890 and 1910.  The reaction that produced the Ku Klux Klan is important to contemplate because some of the issues that prevailed in America are similar to today.  For the post-Civil War period that produced the first Klan, and the 1920s that produced the second Klan we witness massive industrialization and urbanization which transformed the old agrarian world.  The Klan promised racial solidarity and cultural certitude.  The issue of jobs, neighborhoods, religious rights, immigration all affected how Americans felt about the future, a future where whites believed that they were losing their country to non-whites.  The Klan and men like Huey Long and Father Coughlin in the 1930s gave their adherents a social and political program that spoke to their fears at the moment and to the “mythology of identity.”  The 1920s sought a wall against southern Europeans, today Trump wants a wall against Mexicans and Central America.

Perhaps the man who most epitomizes the tactics, character, and temperament of President Trump is Senator Joseph McCarthy.  While Trump wishes he had his own Roy Cohn, McCarthy actually had him.  Cohn, a New York lawyer who advised McCarthy and later worked with Trump describes McCarthy; “he was impatient, overly aggressive, and overly dramatic.  He acted on impulse.  He tended to sensationalize the evidence he had….He would neglect to do important homework and consequently, would on occasion, make challengeable statements.”  McCarthy was a master of the news cycle and probably the author of “fake news “as he dominated politics between 1950 and 1954, and caused so many who were accused as being soft on communists or communists themselves to lose their jobs and place in society, but as Meacham might argue we as a nation overcame his negative impact and moved on.  Since Cohn’s description fits Trump to a tee, hopefully once he is out of office the same thing will occur.

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The most important chapter in the book deals with Lyndon Johnson.  After not heeding the warning that he could lose the south for the Democratic Party for a generation he pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Further, Johnson, a white southerner led the fight that resulted in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Johnson’s work reflected an unusual character and temperament that allowed him to beat back the George Wallace’s of the age and show what the true “soul of America” could be.  As he stated in his address to Congress on March 15, 1965, “For with a country as with a person, what is men profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  Today, I wonder what the evangelical leadership thinks when they support Trump’s tweet and actions when they consult Jesus from the Gospel of St. Mark?

For Meacham, his book is one of optimism and hope arguing that after each period of reaction and racism it has been followed by elements of the good in our society.  He makes it sound like the business cycle and that it is inevitable that the evil purported by the Trump administration will eventually be replaced by what really made America great once he is out of office.  Meacham‘s work is an easy read, but do not mistake the substance that lies behind it.

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(President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act)

 

ROBIN by Dave Itzkoff

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(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)

For years I showed the Robin Williams’ film “Good Morning Vietnam” to my history classes.  The movie reflected Williams’ genius, empathy, and commentary pertaining to a conflict that tore America apart.  I introduced the film because I wanted students to get a feel for a different aspect of the war which the character of Adrian Cronauer apply portrayed. Williams’ is also known for many other ground breaking and important films that include, “Dead Poets’ Society,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Fisher King,” and the cartoon voiceover of “Áladdin,” along with a number that did not achieve recognition, but reflected Williams’ many talents.  Williams was a multifaceted individual whose onstage comedic insanity expressed a certain poignancy when one got passed the mask that the comedian presented to his audiences.  When he died in 2014 a cultural void was created which may never again be filled.  Williams was an insecure individual who found solace from rejection in childhood and other personal issues by developing voices, characters, and other coping strategies as he meandered through his early years.  Williams lived an unsettled life that would end in tragedy.   When he could no longer cope with medical issues that resulted from Lewy body dementia disorder he took his own life. The full scope of his career, personal life, and demons are fully explored in Dave Itzkoff’s wonderful new biography, ROBIN.

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(From the film “Dead Poet Society”)

Itzkoff points out the key to Williams’ comedic genius was in an attic in the family home in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.  The Williams’ family moved around a great deal as his father advanced his career as an auto executive.  Rob, his dad was a hard man to get close to until much later in his son’s life.  From his mother Williams’ learned that connections could be made with other people if one entertained them.  As a result Williams’ would spend hours developing his own world where toy soldiers dominated and he could develop scenarios, conversations, and different voices that would appear later in his career.  His childhood loneliness would fuel an amazing imagination, as he repeatedly moved and had to attend new schools and develop new acquaintances.

The narrative is peppered with Williams’ wit, sarcasm, and social commentary.  Whether Itzkoff is describing Williams’ participation in an improvisational acting class in college, his time at Julliard, quips and riffs with others on movie sets, or even remarks as his career declined and realized his body was abandoning him, we witness a man who moved at such a fast pace that the neurons in his brain were firing so fast that it was difficult to keep up with him.  The result was a new type of improvisational humor built on role models such as Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor.  According to Itzkoff, Williams’ true gift was not his spontaneity, but the appearance of spontaneity.

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(Williams, live at the Met)

There are a number of important components to the book, one of which were the reactions of other comedians to Williams’ work and the relationships that developed.  Williams’ friendship with Billy Crystal was perhaps the most meaningful to the point where they seemed as if they were brothers by another mother.  Larry Brezner, a talent agency executive describes him best as “like Holden Caulfield, a guy walking around with all of his nerve endings completely exposed.”  Perhaps the most moving aspect of Itzkoff’s work is his chronological development of Williams’ family life from his relationship and marriage to Valerie Velardi, his second marriage to Marsha Garce, to his final wife Susan Schneider, as well as his children, particularly his son Zak, and daughter Zelda.  Williams’ was addicted to comedy and it was his aphrodisiac, but like all addictive personalities, drugs and alcohol are temptations that seem to capture people.  Williams was no exception and ultimately he went into rehab, which cost him his second marriage, and later in life he would lapse again.  The poignant way Itzkoff presents this aspect of Williams’ life is more important and incisive than the movement from one film to another that encapsulates the comedian’s career.

Perhaps the most moving section of the book deals with Christopher Reeves, Williams’ friend since their time at Julliard who would suffer a devastating accident resulting in paralysis.  Williams’ cared for his friend for years on a face to face level as well as financially when medical costs seemed to spiral out of control.  The softness of Williams’ personality and gift is seen in the number of USO tours and shows between 9/11 and 2010 as he traveled to Afghanistan numerous times to engage the troops, people who he believed he owed a heartfelt debt towards for their bravery and sacrifice.

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(Williams performing for the troops in Afghanistan)

Williams’ insecurity was always present no matter the heights that his career reached.  Be it an Academy, Grammy, Emmy, or other awards he was always worried that his career was coming to an end.  When he died it was a loss for all, because no one could present his brand of humor and acting talent as he.  Itzkoff has captured Williams’ with his successes as well as his warts, and has written a wonderful portrait for all of us to enjoy.

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(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: THE OSAGE MURDERS AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI by David Grann

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(oil rigs in Osage County, OK)

From 1921 to 1926 a series of murders took place in Osage County, Oklahoma.  As the number of victims turned up more and more residents of the county became suspicious.  The history of these murders is recounted and analyzed in David Grann’s new book, KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: THE OSAGE MURDERS AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI.  Though the book appears to be a work of non-fiction, in reality it reads like a serial murder mystery, as it leads the reader through the different layers of the crimes that were committed.

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Grann begins his narrative by introducing a number of important people, then goes on to describe the background history of the Osage tribe that was stripped of their land between the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers, and forced on to a reservation in Kansas.  When white squatters stole many of their plots in the 1870s the government moved them again, this time to Oklahoma.  By 1877 there were no buffalo remaining and government policy shifted from containment of Native-Americans to assimilation.  The forced acculturation made the Osage adapt the white man’s clothing, names, and way of life.  The government instituted an allotment plan that was designed to destroy the communal way of life to make Native-Americans farmers on given plots of land.  The Osage were the last to accept this system when they negotiated an increase in acreage per family.  They were wise to include in the 1906 treaty a caveat that stated “that the oil, gas, and other minerals covered by the lands…are hereby reserved to the Osage Tribe.”  Lo and behold the land would contain the largest oil deposits in the United States, creating numerous “Red millionaires” as described by newspaper accounts  The problem was that in the early 1920s a series of murders of tribal residents began to occur.

Since the victims were “only Indians” the white power structure did not go full bore in their investigation of the developing “reign of terror.”  With a lack of forensics and other techniques the investigation really went nowhere prompting the tribe itself to fund further investigative work.  The number of people that were killed is open to question.  Grann puts the figure as around 24, but other historians believe it is significantly higher.  Many Native-American lived an ostentatious life style that only created further animosity against them.  The government instituted a “guardian system” to protect these incompetent individuals.  These guardians would become perpetrators of “theft, graft, and mercenary marriage” against the Osage.

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(Tom White and J. Edgar Hoover)

Grann’s story is a deep dive into who the victims were and why they were murdered.  Grann presents a series of important characters that are the key to events.  The Burkhardt family, including Ernest and Mollie emerge as extremely important when other family members are killed.  William Hale, who presents himself as a benefactor to the tribe, but in truth is rather duplicitous with his own agenda.  Tom White is appointed by J. Edgar Hoover, the newly appointed head of the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) to take over the investigation when the killings continue.  Of course there is J. Edgar Hoover and numerous other characters from criminals, prosecutors, lawyers, snitches and on and on.

Grann’s approach is based on meticulous research as he has combed the available primary materials.  Interviews, investigative documents, and newspaper accounts are all employed.  What emerges are crimes that had infected the state and local government of Oklahoma, particularly Osage County.  Be it the courts, the governor’s office, or county officials there were layers of crimes being committed in the name of a cover-up for the goal of fleecing Native-Americans of their oil money.  Grann heavily focuses on Tom White, offering his background in law enforcement and his approach to solving the murders.  He must navigate the closed society that exists that seems to want to cover-up any evidence and when potential witnesses began to disappear the case goes cold.  White also must deal with Hoover who sees the case as a means of increasing the reputation of his new agency.  Hoover wanted things done in a certain way and have his agents follow his approach to “scientific law enforcement.”  Those who worked outside his parameters soon found themselves unemployed.

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(Mollie, Lizzie, and Anna Burkhardt)

The core of the book involves tracing numerous murders of the Osage.  A few would be solved, but many, perhaps a few hundred were not.  Grann will use the last section of the book to describe his own investigation into some of these murders.  He will interview descendants of the victims and the conclusion is very clear that an unknown number of the Osage community were killed over the oil wealth to the point where it is described as “the blood cries out from the ground,” or the Osage seeking justice a generation or two later.  Grann delivers what appears to be a detective novel just as he did in his previous book, THE LOST CITY OF Z and he has produced a wonderful work of non-fiction as a follow up.  As David Eggers points out in New York Times review of the book,  by interviewing contemporary Osage tribe members Grann presents “a far deeper” and sickening conspiracy against the tribe throughout its history.  As Eggers states, “history is a merciless judge.”*

 

  • Dave Eggers, “Solving a Reign of Terror against Native Americans,” New York Times, April 28, 2017.

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(a typical farm with an oil rig in Osage County, OK)

PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS by Lawrence O’Donnell

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstration on the streets of Chicago)

The publication of MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell’s new book, PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS comes at a propitious moment in American political history.  According to O’Donnell 1968 is the watershed year that set our current politics in motion – a partisan conflict were by ideology and party affiliation has become more important than the needs of the American people.  O’Donnell argues that before 1968 the terms conservative democrat and liberal republican existed, today they are pretty much extinct.  By examining 1968 we can discern the origin of this political schism and conjecture on how it affects the United States domestically and in the realm of foreign policy.  The comparison between our current politics and 1968 is fascinating as Donald Trump seems to have adopted the populist message of Alabama governor George C. Wallace, be it state’s rights or white nationalism, and Bernie Sanders can be compared with Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and his liberal socialist agenda.  We must also mention the emergence of Roger Ailes and the role of Fox news in molding a certain part of the electorate, because in 1968 Ailes joined the Nixon campaign, which over decades led to the creation of his successful news outlet and helped formulate the term “fake news.”

 

The election of 1968 was about life and death as the war in Vietnam controlled people’s lives.  A person’s draft status dominated their waking hours be it soon to be high school graduates, college students, and recent college graduates.  The United States found itself in this situation due to the machinations of the Johnson administration in late July and early August, 1964 that resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which provided Lyndon Johnson with almost imperial powers to conduct a war.  According to Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach appearing before Senator J. William Fulbright’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized the president to use “the armed forces of the United States in any way that was necessary,” and argued further that the constitution did not require the Senate to play a role in foreign policy.  Johnson would take the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as almost carte blanche in getting the United States into a quagmire in Vietnam.  Keeping with the theme of comparing the past to the present, the Patriot Act passed by Congress and signed into law on October 26, 2001 in response to 9/11 has been used in a similar fashion by three presidents; Bush, Obama, and Trump to conduct war on their own terms in the Middle East, and currently it appears, in Africa.

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(President Lyndon Johnson agonizing over Vietnam)

For O’Donnell the key figure in 1968 is Senator Robert Kennedy who appeared as a political “rock star.”  People believed that he would never send America’s youth to fight in Vietnam a subject he rarely spoke about in his speeches.  People related to Kennedy because they recognized the pain he was in and believed his empathy for the electorate was real.  Many believed that it was only justice for Robert Kennedy to reclaim the presidency that was lost in Dallas when his brother was assassinated in November, 1963.  The 1960s was an era of change, and no one’s view of the world changed more than Robert Kennedy.  By 1968 the Senate began questioning Johnson’s “monarchial” approach to Vietnam and this would help foster the political upheaval we are still dealing with today.

O’Donnell does a wonderful job replaying the events leading up to 1968 and what took place that incredible year.  My main problem with O’Donnell’s approach is that it mostly based on his own experience and writing and a slew of secondary sources and in some cases not even the best ones.  A case in point is the Johnson-Kennedy rivalry and contempt for each other.  The best study of rivalry is Jeff Shesol’s MUTUAL CONTEMPT: LYNDON JOHNSON, ROBERT KENNEDY, AND THE AND A FEUD THAT DEFINED A DECADE an in depth nuanced look that O’Donnell might have consulted.  There are many other examples including his over-reliance on Evan Thomas’ biography of Kennedy, which reinforces my belief that O’Donnell needs to broaden his research, with the integration of more primary materials that would further his arguments as a significant part of the book reads like Theodore White’s THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968.

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(New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy)

To O’Donnell’s credit there are many fine chapters and insights interspersed throughout the narrative.  By delving into the different factions on the left and the right the reader is exposed to the ideological struggle that existed in both the Democratic and Republican parties.  The introduction of Allard Lowenstein, the role of Gene McCarthy’s candidacy, in addition to the rise of the radical left, we can see the beginning of the splintering of the Democratic Party.  The chapters dealing with the Kennedy-McCarthy competition for the Democratic nomination is well played out as is the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey after Robert Kennedy is assassinated.  Republicans also experienced many fissures in their quest for the presidency.  The discussion involving the reinvention of Richard Nixon, the liberal quest of Nelson Rockefeller, and the rise of Ronald Reagan on the right within the Republican Party are all artfully explained and we see the end result, and the type of campaign the “new Nixon” ran.

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Among O’Donnell’s most important points include the machinations within both major political parties, the role of the Tet Offensive in Johnson’s withdrawal from the race, Kennedy’s candidacy, and the politics of fear employed by George Wallace.  Perhaps O’Donnell’s most interesting comments encompass the rise of Ronald Reagan as a conservative spokesperson for General Electric allowing him to develop into a viable political candidate.  O’Donnell’s is right on when he argues that Reagan was GE’s tool in educating workers, and indirectly the public in the evils of unions, government interference in the economy, and the benefits of giving freer rein to corporate America embodied in General Electric.

In addition, O’Donnell is correct in pointing out that the militarization of America’s police forces that we experience today began in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  King’s death led to burning and rioting in 30 US cities that called for 18 Army Brigades, consisting of 50,000 troops to restore civilian control.  The result was 20,000 arrests and 39 dead.  Another example of how the past formed the present is the concept of “premeditated confrontation” that ABC introduced as a way to save money on their coverage of the Republican convention.  By pitting the well-known conservative intellectual William F. Buckley against Gore Vidal, novelist and liberal commentator the expected explosions took place.  When we watch PBS, the networks, and cable television today, we can easily discern where these types of panels originated.

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(Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago yelling anti-semetic comments toward  Senator Abraham Ribicoff at the Democratic Convention)

O’Donnell forces the reader to relive or learn for the first time the impact of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and to contemplate a counter factual approach to history by conjecturing what America might have experienced had he been elected to the presidency.  Vietnam, civil rights, and numerous other issues would probably have played out much differently than it did under the Nixon administration, an administration that came to power based on the treason Nixon committed by interfering with the Paris Peace talks at the end of October, 1968 thereby contributing to the ongoing war in Vietnam and perhaps lost the opportunity for peace that led to the death of over 20,000 more Americans.

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(President Richard Nixon)

What is clear from O’Donnell’s narrative is that Donald Trump copied the 1968 Richard Nixon playbook in his presidential run.  First, the slogan “America First” began with Nixon as did the concept of the “silent majority” that Trump also followed.  Second, Nixon’s approach was one of anti-tax, anti-government, anti-abortion, pro-law-and-order, just as was Trump’s.  It is also clear that 1968 was a dividing line in the evolution of partisan politics and a realignment of the American electorate, it is just a question of how long the American people will suffer because of these changes.  For O’Donnell, Eugene McCarthy is his hero because he was the first one to take the risk and try and end the war.  Bobby Kennedy, is also his hero, but he was not the first to challenge an incumbent president as McCarthy had.  In conclusion, I would recommend that O’Donnell include more of his comments that have been on display recently on various programs on MSNBC, because they strengthen his overall narrative argument.

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrations on the streets of Chicago)