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

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(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.

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(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)

STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY by Walter Stahr

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

When one thinks of impactful figures in American history few would come up with the name, Edwin M. Stanton.  However, without Stanton the North would have had a much more difficult time defeating the South in the Civil War, the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated someone else would have had to step forward to round up the conspirators and capture John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis, and perhaps Andrew Johnson might not have been brought before the Senate for an impeachment trial.  Lincoln’s Secretary of War is the subject of Walter Stahr’s latest biography, STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY, a smartly written, intimate, and incisive portrait of Stanton’s role in the Civil War and American history in general.  As he did in his previous biographies of John Jay and William Seward, Stahr has mined the available sources reaffirming many of the standard opinions of his subject, but also evaluating new sources and developing new perspectives.

Born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1814 Stanton was raised near the dividing line between the slave and non-slave states of Virginia and Ohio in a period when abolitionism was beginning to take root.  Stanton would attend Kenyon College, but never graduate.  He went on to study law under the auspices of a Steubenville attorney, Daniel Collier and began his practice of law in the spring of 1837.  Soon Judge Benjamin Tappan, a staunch Democrat would become his law partner and mentor.  At this point in time Stanton grew increasingly interested in politics in large part due to the depression that would last over five years.  Stanton’s involvement in Democratic Party politics increased and he was soon elected Prosecutor for Harrison County, Ohio.  Judge Tappan would soon be appointed to the US Senate and Stanton was well on his way as a partisan Democrat developing a “no holds barred” approach to politics.

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(Stanton and Lincoln’s cabinet)

Stahr has full command of primary materials as he repeatedly points out what documents pertaining to Stanton’s views were available and those that were missing.  This allows him to compare diverse viewpoints and sources to determine what Stanton actually wrote, said, or acted upon during his law and political career.  Stahr attacks the many myths associated with Stanton and he does his best to straighten out discrepancies in the historical record.  In Stahr’s study we follow the evolution of Stanton from an important member of the Ohio Democratic Party to becoming the cornerstone of Lincoln’s Republican administration.  During this later process, in particular, we witness the liberalization of Stanton’s views dealing with race.

Stanton’s personal life was wrought with tragedy leading to a strong sense of religiosity.  As a boy he would lose his father, a brother would commit suicide, and a sister would pass at a young age.  Further, in March, 1844 he would lose his first wife to tuberculosis and during the war years he would lose his infant son James.  These experiences made him appear decidedly older than he actually was.

Stahr correctly stresses that though he was known for his service to a Republican president, Stanton was a staunch Democrat who had supported Martin Van Buren as President, and later James K. Polk’s annexationist policies.  Though he had a very low opinion of James Buchanan whose presidency directly preceded the Civil War, he did not think that highly of Abraham Lincoln either during the pre-war period.

An area that Stahr should have developed much further were Stanton’s views on race and abolitionism.  The author seems to skirt these issues and based on his later beliefs an earlier intellectual roadmap for Stanton’s thinking is warranted.  In Stahr’s defense,  he does give the appropriate amount of attention to Stanton’s views and handling of the use of blacks as soldiers in the union army and what prerequisites it demanded and how it would be implemented, especially the Freedman’s Bureau.  Further, the care and treatment of former slaves is examined and the reader gains a more complete picture of where Stanton stood on these issues especially constitutional amendments.   Stahr does spend an inordinate amount of time detailing Stanton’s legal career, seemingly case by case ranging from the Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge case arguing that the bridge blocked commerce on the Ohio River designated for Pittsburgh, to land cases in California, patent claims, labor riots, medical body-snatching, death from duels, and electoral chicanery.  Stanton would argue many cases before the Supreme Court, and many thought he was the leading lawyer of the period.

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(Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, January, 1863)

One of the strengths of Stahr’s effort are his descriptions of American society, culture, and geography in areas in which Stanton lived and influenced.  Stahr provides numerous insights particularly concerning California in the 1850s where he argued numerous land claims, and Washington DC before, during, and after the Civil War.

Stahr stresses how Stanton seems to always claim the moral higher ground no matter the situation.  It is difficult to sustain that approach by supporting the weak President Buchanan and the corruption that surrounded him.  Stanton became a member of the Buchanan administration because of his legal work and with a few months remaining in office Buchannan appointed Stanton Attorney-General.  The most important issue that was at hand was whether to supply Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded.  Buchanan’s cabinet was split by secessionists and those loyal to the union, and Stanton did his best to stiffen Buchanan’s back and get him to support resupply.  Once out of office Stanton’s view of cabinet meetings stressed positions that Republicans would support as a means of strengthening his position with Lincoln.  Stahr is on firm ground as he argues that Stanton’s view of Lincoln at this time was not much better than Buchanan.  Stahr quotes Stanton’s letter to Buchanan after Lincoln assumes office, “the imbecility of this administration.… [is]…. a national disgrace never to be forgotten….as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.”  Stanton’s bonifides are also to be questioned as he was close with General George McClellan and seemed to share the same views.  It appeared too many inside and outside the press that they were “confidential friends.”  Simon Cameron as Secretary of War advocated arming slaves which McClellan abhorred.  With Congress upset over the course of the war by January, 1862 it should not have come as a surprise that Cameron would be fired.  What was surprising is that Lincoln chose Stanton as his replacement.

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Stahr is accurate in his assessment that Lincoln chose Stanton because of his organizational ability, his workaholic approach, and his ability to get things done.  Critics, particularly the northern democratic press pointed to Stanton’s extensive use of military commissions that tried civilians for military offenses, suspension of habeas corpus, and cutting telegraph privileges to opposing newspapers.  These criticisms of Stanton must be weighed against the crucible of war since the Militia and Conscription Acts did deprive numerous individuals’ due process and civil rights.  But one caveat to Stanton’s record on civil rights were the virulent attacks on the Secretary of War which a good part of the time were unmerciful.

Stahr does a workmanlike job reporting on the McClellan-Lincoln/Stanton imbroglio.  McClellan’s ego is explored in detail and the author makes excellent use of the available correspondence.  Stahr performs equally as well in detailing Stanton’s relationship with other generals including; Grant, Sherman, Hooker, Halleck, Meade, and Burnside.  The Stanton-Lincoln relationship is analyzed and the author like many historians before him concludes that personalities and demeanors may have been opposite in many cases, but as A.E. Johnson, Stanton’s private secretary wrote “they supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were necessary to each other.”

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Stahr does a commendable job revisiting the Andrew Johnson-Edwin Stanton relationship and the deterioration that led to Johnson’s trial in the Senate.  As with other examples in the book this aspect is well documented and the “large” personalities and issues involved are careful dissected.  The result is that Stahr has captured the essence of Stanton as a man who could be deceitful, arbitrary, capricious, as well as vindictive.  However, he was a superb Secretary of War who galvanized Union forces as well as President Lincoln with his energy, organizational skills, ability to learn and adapt, and overwhelming will to defeat the south.  Stahr characterizes Stanton as the “Implementer of Emancipation,” as opposed to the “Great Emancipator,” that was Lincoln.  But for all intents and purposes Stanton must be seen as the equal to Lincoln and Grant in earning accolades for their work during the Civil War.

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

THE BLOOD OF EMMETT TILL by Timothy B. Tyson

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(Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant)

At a time when the “Black Lives Matter” movement continues to gain momentum it is interesting to contemplate what the turning point was for the Civil Rights Movement.  In his new book THE BLOOD OF EMMETT TILL, Timothy B. Tyson argues that the lynching of Emmett Till on August 28, 1955, by two white men in rural Mississippi was the tipping point.  It appears their actions were in part motivated by the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, KA decision outlawing “separate but equal,” a landmark case that lit a fire under white supremacists in the south.  Shortly thereafter, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Birmingham, AL and events began to snowball.  Tyson reexamines the murder of Till and explores what really happened that night.  The author includes new material gained from his 2007 interview of Carolyn Bryant who was supposedly the victim of some sort of offensive behavior that violated Mississippi’s unwritten code that existed between whites and blacks.  It seems that Bryant’s memory of what transpired after fifty years has changed, which makes it even more disconcerting in exploring the plight of Emmett Till.

In her interview Bryant changed her story from the testimony given in the trial of her husband Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. “Big” Miam who were accused of murdering Till.  Her testimony “that Till grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities” was not true.  Till did not grab her, but the all-white jury acquitted both men of the murder.  Till a fourteen year old boy and his cousin, Wheeler Parker who lived in Chicago’s south side were visiting their uncle Reverend Moses Wright who was a sharecropper on the G.C. Plantation in the Mississippi Delta.  Both boys were not ignorant of the mores of white-black relations in Mississippi, but what is key to the story is what actually happened when Till entered the Milam country store and interacted with Mrs. Bryant.  That night Till was seized from Wright’s house by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam and was severely beaten, shot in the head, and dumped in a river twelve miles from the murder scene.  Tyson provides detailed accounts of August 28, 1955, the return of Till’s body to Chicago, the arrest and trial of the two men, the effect on American society, the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, and the world wide reaction to the verdict which played into the hands of the Soviet Union in the heart of the Cold War.

For Tyson, the key to the reaction to Till’s murder was the behavior and strategy pursued by his mother, Mamie Bradley.  Once she learned of her son’s kidnapping she decided that “she would not go quietly” and began calling Chicago newspapers as she realized there were no officials in Mississippi she could appeal to.  Sheriff Clarence Strider of Tallahatchie County was put in charge of the investigation despite the fact the murder occurred outside his jurisdiction.  For Strider and other county officials the goal was to bury Till as soon as possible and let the situation blow over.  Bradley refused to cooperate and demanded that her son be returned to Chicago for burial.  Once that occurred Bradley’s only weapon to make sure her son’s death had meaning was his body.  During the viewing and funeral she made sure that the casket was open so the public could learn the truth of how her son was tortured and then murdered, and learn what Mississippi “justice” was all about.  Because of the new medium of television and newspaper photographs of the mutilated body the entire country was now a witness to the results of the lynching.

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(J.W. “Big” Milam, Roy Bryant and their wives)

Tyson does an excellent job bringing the reader inside the courtroom and explaining why the two murderers were acquitted.  He digs deep into Mississippi’s historical intolerance of African-Americans and how they should behave and be employed.  Tyson reviews the plight of Black America through World War II and touches on the hope that returning black veterans who fought for democracy would be treated differently after the war.  This did not occur nationwide, particularly in Mississippi.  However, as the Civil Rights Movement shifted its strategy toward enforcing its voting rights and employing the economic weapon, Mississippians grew scared and became even more violent towards African-Americans, and with the Brown decision men like Bryant and Milam were exorcised to the point of lynching Till.

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(The mutilation of Emmett Till)

Tyson presents a concise history of intimidation, violence, and murder that African-Americans confronted each day in Mississippi.  As the NAACP grew and demands for voting rights and desegregation expanded the powers that be in Mississippi grew worried.  They relied on people like Thomas Brady, a Mississippi Circuit Court Judge and occupant of a seat on the state’s Supreme Court to create the “Citizens Council Movement” to espouse the propaganda of race mixing and the threat to southern womanhood as the gospel of the white south.  In fact, the defense in the Till trial leaned on the threat of southern womanhood in its argument that gained the acquittal.  The fact that the trial itself took place only twenty days after the murder in of itself reflects the lack of proper investigation. Further, the threats and coercion to prevent witnesses from testifying is testimony to the lack of justice.  In fact, a few who did testify for the prosecution, uprooted their lives in Mississippi and moved to Chicago for fear of retribution.

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(Carolyn Bryant, then and now)

The person in this drama who should feel ashamed of themselves is Carolyn Bryant whose lies contributed to the acquittal of Till’s murderers.  It is a shame that there is a statute of limitations for perjury because she was certainly guilty.  Her show of “conscience,” for this reader is fifty years too late.

Reading this book can only make one angry about America’s past and one would hope that race would no longer be a factor in our society.  But in fact it is.  We witnessed race baiting throughout the last presidential campaign and as a society we have not come to terms with the idea of “equal justice under the law.”  Tyson’s book should be read in the context of history, but also as a vehicle to contemporary understanding.  As Tyson aptly points out, the death of Emmett Till “was caused by the nature and history of America itself and by a social system that has changed over the decades, but not as much as we pretend.” (208)  One wonders if the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO will be as transformative an episode as the death of Emmett Till.

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(Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant)

HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

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(Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION is the perfect companion for those interested in an in depth look at the development, creation, and performance of the musical, “Hamilton.”  At the outset the authors make the cogent point that they believe that what Lin has gifted to the American people is more than just a Broadway show, it reflects two revolutions side by side.  The first being the an 18th century revolution that is the foundation of our country and society, and the second, a 21st century revolution  for American theater as the musical provides a glimpse into a more diverse America.  In 2008, Lin came up with the idea of a hip-hop concept album about Alexander Hamilton.  He would employ hip-hop to tell the story that had nothing to do with hip-hop – using its form not content.  Lin’s success has gone far beyond whatever he could have imagined and his book co-written with Jeremy McCarter provides the public many important insights about the musical itself, and our country.

The book is both a narrative and oral history of how Lin gave birth to the musical lyrics and overall concept of “Hamilton.”  It is important that he does not deify the founders and by creating cast of Latinos and African-Americans to act out our “white” early history provides a unique perspective that audiences would not have experienced with a traditional approach to casting.  We are a nation of immigrants and through Hamilton’s own immigrant story it should bring us together and encourage immigration, as opposed to the political rhetoric of our times.

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(Elizabeth and Alexander Hamilton)

Lin is a master of character development.  A case in point is how in Act II has the actors who portrayed the Marquis de Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan, friends of Hamilton in Act I, play Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, his enemies.  Further, Lin creates lyrics based on his vast research, apart from Ron Chernow’s masterful biography, that augments the historical players and delivers through the lens of artistic license a fairly accurate presentation of history.  As a former history educator I drool at the thought of using the musical in a classroom situation. With students role playing and singing their way examining primary documents to learn our history, using a strategy that will make them remember their experience and material without pressure, would have been very rewarding.  The outreach of the musical in New York, and with plans to do the same as the production expands across the country, as McCarter points out on any given day hundreds of classes might be studying our early history using “Hamilton” as an excellent educational tool.

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The book explores a range of topics that include the biography of Alexander Hamilton, but also the causes of the American Revolution, its outcome, the main characters involved, the political struggle (vicious at times) that ensued, and culminates with the duel that resulted in Hamilton’s death.  The reader will gain a greater understanding of the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Aaron Burr, John Adams, and George Washington.  Lin explores the partisanship that existed through his lyrics as he does with the most important events of Hamilton’s lifetime.  Lin also delves into Hamilton’s family and the portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton is important in trying to determine what type of person Hamilton really was.  Lin has the ability to convey issues, relationships, and individual personalities in a way that entertains and interprets history in a meaningful way.

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The book thoroughly examines each song and places it in its historical context and how Lin went about creating the lyrics.  In addition, the book explores the people behind the scenes from the production, choreography, and scene creation in detail.  Vignettes abound, as the reader is exposed to information that normally would not be revealed in this type of companion volume.  If you did not believe that Lin was a “genius” before; once you read this book and explore songs ranging from the opening number that deals with Hamilton’s early years taking forty pages of Chernow’s biography and condensing it into song, to “Non-Stop,” which details the need for a justification for the new constitution, or the lyrics that go with George III’s three numbers, you will now.  Hopefully, all will be able to witness the musical in person at some point, but your viewing will be totally enhanced with the material that Lin and McCarter offer.

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(Hamilton and the Schuyler Sisters)