HERO OF TWO WORLDS: THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE IN THE AGES OF REVOLUTION by Mike Duncan

Portrait of Marquis de Lafayette
(Marquis de Lafayette)

While on one of my 5 1/2 mile walks the other day the music from the Broadway show “Hamilton” reverberated in my ear buds.  After having taught a course trying to discern the historical accuracy of the musical with numerous references to the Marquis de Lafayette I decided to digest Mike Duncan’s latest work, HERO OF TWO WORLDS: THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE IN THE AGES OF REVOLUTION. Since 2013 Duncan has recorded about 150 hours for his podcast Revolutions, a chronological blow by blow account of ten historical revolutions between the 17th and early 20th centuries and in his new book he expands upon three seasons of his podcast.   In terms of historical depth and important insights I found Duncan’s work satisfying and at times insightful.  If one compares Lafayette’s character in the musical to his actual life, apart from artistic license there is an acceptable degree of accuracy in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work if one delves into the lyrics surrounding the American Revolution.  However, Lafayette’s life story is more than his key role in the American Revolution and his relationship with George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Laurens as he was a focal part in the Age of Revolution that encompassed the latter part of the 18th century and the first third of the 19th.

It is an understatement to say that Lafayette lived a remarkable life.  In Duncan’s somewhat hagiographic approach to biography the hero of the American Revolution is presented in a mostly positive lens, sprinkled in with a few errors and foibles that Lafayette succumbed to.  The key to understanding the time period in which Lafayette lived is to familiarize the reader with the socio-economic and political structure of pre-revolutionary France.  Duncan avails himself of every opportunity to explain the three estate structure of the French political system highlighted by the fact that the first two estates which made up most of the wealth of the French kingdom could not be taxed.  Instead of the nobles carrying their fair share of the tax burden, the monarchy relied upon taxing the third estate made up of laborer’s, peasants, educators, and the petit bourgeoisie to make up the budget shortfall as the monarchy edged toward bankruptcy.  However, before Duncan turns to events in France he explores Lafayette’s early years that culminated in a major-generalship in the Continental Army under General Washington by age 24.

Louis XVI
(French King Louis XVI)

Duncan is very perceptive in his approach to Lafayette’s upbringing and educational training.  He was left fatherless as his father was killed in battle in 1759. By 1770 his mother had passed, and Lafayette inherited a great deal of wealth as a member of the lower nobility.  The key for the then teenager was his marriage into the de Noailles family where his father-in-law turned his education away from the countryside and book learning to a military career and the life of a privileged nobleman.  Lafayette rejected this career plan and based on his diaries and his letters to his wife Adrienne which Duncan integrates throughout the narrative vowed to make a name for himself and pursue what he believed should become a just society.

Duncan argues that the summer of 1775 was the turning point for Lafayette as he seemed to latch on to the ideas of “liberty, equality, and the rights of man” probably developed while he was exposed to Freemasonry and his Masonic brethren.  After learning about the Battles of Lexington and Concord across the Atlantic he secured a position on a list of French officers who were sent to the English colonies to assist the revolutionaries as a means of revenge for the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which resulted in defeat for France at the end of the Seven Years War by the British.  Duncan does an admirable job explaining the French characters that were key to aiding the revolutionaries, men like the French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Count of Vergennes and Pierre Beaumarchais, an arms trader and financier who helped finance and supply weapons and other materials that fueled French assistance.

Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, French School 18th century copy.jpg
(Adrienne, the Marquis de Lafayette’s wife)

Perhaps the most interesting relationship that Duncan develops is between Washington and Lafayette.  At first the Colonial commander was not impressed with Lafayette seeing him as another privileged French general who strutted around and knew little about military tactics and commanding men.  However, after the Battle of Brandywine in 1777 Lafayette proved himself in battle with his ability to improvise his command and his remarkable bravery which at times bordered on personal recklessness.  Soon Washington would become a surrogate father for the newly minted French general and he a “son” to his commander.

Duncan reviews the most important aspects of the American Revolution, the political and military factions it spawned, and the most important characters involved.  Written in a workman like manner there is little that is new here as the author rehashes Lafayette’s positive contributions, his own wealth, leadership, and connections with the French government to lobby support for greater French support which culminated in the British defeat.

Napoleon
(Napoleon Bonaparte)

Duncan does not neglect Lafayette’s weakness as a father and husband.  While he off seeking glory and developing a heroic persona he left his wife and children, one of which dies while he was away in America.  Duncan is correct by emphasizing his wife Adrienne’s love for her husband but also her sense of abandonment and loneliness. 

Lafayette’s experience in America reinforced his views about the corruptibility of the nobility and their lack of social consciousness.  As he evolved into a social reformer he overlooked the hypocrisy of his compatriots in America concerning slavery as he adopted  abolitionism, worked for prison reform, religious freedom, freedom of speech and the press all in the name of the betterment of the masses.  Later as the French Revolution reached its pinnacle he would prepare a list of reforms called the Declaration of Rights of Man which he offered the new National Assembly in1788 which would become the basis of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen a year later.  Over a five year period after the Treaty of Paris with England in 1783, Lafayette transitioned from an adventurous soldier to a liberal benefactor of humanity, particularly starving peasants, oppressed Protestants, and enslaved Africans.

Duncan’s insights into Lafayette’s precarious position as the French Revolution approached are important as he delves into his attempts to follow a middle course.  He remained loyal to Louis XVI as long as the king did not go back on promises to implement reforms particularly when the king was forced to leave Versailles for Paris once the revolution took hold.  Lafayette was appointed the commanding general of the 30,000 man National Guard to protect the city from violence and any threats that might prevent the writing of a constitution.  To many, particularly on the left, men like Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins and George Danton he was a tool of the monarchy.  However ultra-royalists saw him as working to undermine the nobility as he worked for a constitutional monarchy. As Lafayette tried to hold the center he seemed to offend everyone.

[Washington and Jefferson] Look on This Picture, and On This
(George Washington and Thomas Jefferson)

Eventually as the French Revolution turned increasingly violent with the Reign of Terror, Lafayette fled to Austria and was treated as a dangerous revolutionary and would be imprisoned for five years. Duncan carefully crafts Lafayette’s plight as a prisoner under the auspices of Francis I, the Habsburg Emperor.  He would spend the last year in the Austrian prison at Olmutz enduring horrible conditions.  Towards the end of his imprisonment, he would be joined by his wife Adrienne and three daughters who would suffer along with their husband and father.  Finally, as the French rebuilt their military might to counter the English, Prussian, and Austrian armies they would free Lafayette when a young Napoleon Bonaparte liberated the prison.  By 1814 he would reenter the political fray as the Bourbon restoration after the Congress of Vienna turned reactionary.  He would be instrumental in the overthrow of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1830 that placed Louis-Phillipe on the throne, but the new monarch would only disappoint him.

Duncan does an admirable job reflecting on Lafayette’s career and the causes he was drawn to.  Duncan is up front when discussing his subjects’ limitations seeing him as a man dominated by an overwhelming amount of energy, but he lacked the intelligence of many of his important contemporaries.  It is clear that Lafayette’s lack of personal ambition was key as it limited his ability to engage in the cutthroat politics of France during his lifetime, and the hero worship that he was graced with never really matched concrete accomplishments once the gains of 1789 were made.

File:Franz Xaver Winterhalter King Louis Philippe.jpg
(Louis Philippe)

Overall, Duncan is a masterful historical storyteller who has made an important contribution to the literature that surrounds Lafayette’s life.  He dissects all of the major aspects of his personal life and career, and one could only conclude that Lafayette lived a remarkable life that saw him engage in important aspects of two of the three most important revolutions in history (the Russian Revolution being the third) of what British historian, Eric Hobsbawm has labeled the “Age of Revolution.”

Lafayette : stock illustration
(Marquis de Lafayette)

THE AMBASSADOR: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AT THE COURT OF ST. JAMES, 1938-1940 by Susan Ronald

Portrait Of The Kennedy Family At Home
(The Kennedys)

Anyone familiar with the life of Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy is aware of the flaws in his character and life story.  These elements of his biography have been fully explored in studies like David Nasaw’s THE PATRIARCH: THE REMARKABLE LIFE AND TURBULENT TIMES OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, Richard J. Whalen’s THE FOUNDING FATHER: THE STORY OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS: AN AMERICAN SAGA.  Kennedy’s life story is punctuated with “serial philandering,” a relationship with organized crime, his years as a Wall Street operator highlighted by repeated insider trading, lobotomizing his daughter Rosemary, an appeaser’s isolationist view of the world that led to his opposition to the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall plan, a cozy relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, and a world view that saw fascism as a means of overcoming a depressed economy and a means of combating communism.  All of these aspects of his life’s work have been dissected in the three previous works mentioned.

One area, his role as American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, a position where Nasaw describes Kennedy as the worst American diplomat serving US interests in England to have ever served across the Atlantic becomes the central theme of Susan Ronald’s latest book, THE AMBASSADOR: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AT THE COURT OF ST.JAMES, 1938-1940.  In her monograph, Ronald explores the charges against Kennedy that he was an anti-Semite, a Hitlerite appeaser, an isolationist, and an admirer of what the Nazis achieved in Germany and reaches the same damning conclusions as previous historians.

The Kennedy family mystique has been carefully crafted for decades by family members and their acolytes.  However, Kennedy’s true belief that fascism was the inevitable wave of the future, leading him to consistently misrepresent American foreign policy as he intentionally ignored instructions from President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull as he substituted his own beliefs and opinions in place of those instructions.

john f kennedy father jfk

(In this 1938 file photo, John F. Kennedy, right, poses aboard an ocean liner with his father Joseph P. Kennedy, center, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, and brother Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., left.) 

Ronald was born in the United States and later emigrated to Great Britain is the author of a number of historical works.  She has mined the riches of the British and American archives and has become very knowledgeable concerning the wealth of secondary materials that have been written on her subject.  Ronald has prepared a readable work for the general public and a bit less so for the professional historian since she does not really uncover anything that is new and repeats arguments and thesis put forth by others.  But to her credit the narrative offers a fresh synthesis concerning Kennedy’s work as ambassador as she mirrors a great deal of the work that has come before her new publication. Her views are supported by others that Kennedy lacked the “temperament, training, and willpower” to serve in his diplomatic post.

Ronald’s narrative concerns a man who by March 1940 had reached the pinnacle of his  career in public service and by October of that year he would return to the United States to seek revenge against Franklin Roosevelt who he believed treated him poorly as Ambassador, ignored his views on the coming war, and not supporting him in a manner that he felt his position warranted.  On numerous occasions Kennedy lectured the president and he would alienate the White Staff, members of the State Department, especially the Secretary of State, and the British diplomatic establishment and government.

Kennedy’s revenge centered around his support for the Republican nominee for president in 1940, Wendell Willkie, in part driven by his desire to run for president himself as a Democrat.  After Roosevelt’s election to a third term in November 1940 Kennedy dedicated himself to keeping the United States out of the war offering opinions that argued the US could not survive economically if she joined the conflict.

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt
(Joseph P. Kennedy and President Franklin Roosevelt)

Kennedy was originally appointed Ambassador to Great Britain on February 18, 1938, as a reward for supporting Roosevelt’s candidacies for president in 1936 and earlier he was repaid for his support in 1932 as the head of the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission, a poor substitute for the office of Secretary of the Treasury which he coveted.  Kennedy had no experience as a diplomat and did not have a foreign policy background.  His driving ambition was to acquire wealth.  From his youth he believed he was discriminated against because of his Irish-Catholic roots creating a chip on his shoulder to achieve societal acceptance.  Once married his focus was to create a springboard for one of his sons to become president.  Based on Kennedy’s abrupt, opinionated, and “undiplomatic” personality he did not possess the skills to head such an important foreign posting.  Roosevelt was aware of Kennedy’s issues, and he wanted him out of the country where he believed he would cause less political trouble had he been chosen for a domestic position.

For Kennedy, the ambassadorship to a major Protestant country could help him improve his Bonafede which could assist him in running for president in 1940 as an Irish-Catholic. Kennedy was up against an administration whose members would have no use for him and resented his constant outspoken criticisms.  What was in Kennedy’s favor was the need to negotiate a Reciprocal Trade Agreement with the British.  New York Times reporter and Kennedy confidant, Arthur Krock pushed Roosevelt to appoint him by leaking an appointment before the decision was even made.

Once in England, Kennedy collaborated closely with British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain and supported his pro-fascist views and appeasement policies as he would do nothing to aggravate German Chancellor Adolf Hitler by preparing England for a war.  Ronald does a respectable job laying out the views of the English royal family and members of the government who came to despise Kennedy. A case in point was King George VI detestation of Kennedy who feared if he returned to the United States he would rile up isolations to the detriment of England.  Further, during the German aerial “Blitz” over London Kennedy acquired the nickname, “Jittery Joe” as he sequestered himself in a country estate and refused to inspect the damage that befell London. Overall, the British people viewed him as a coward.

She does equally well in describing Roosevelt’s true feelings toward Kennedy and tracing the highs and lows of their relationship.  Kennedy’s “uninhibited manipulation of the press, his speaking out against the president, and passing his own opinions for State Department policy” had ruled him out for Roosevelt’s support, particularly after Kennedy “dressed down” the president in a White House meeting on June 23, 1938.  In the end Roosevelt told Eleanor that “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live.”

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt

(Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy in November, 1940)

Kennedy’s errors were myriad.  He never informed Roosevelt, Hull, or the State Department that English Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax had broken with Chamberlain over the appeasement of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in addition to Hitler.  Further, while in New York he informed German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on June 10, 1938, that he would try and mitigate American press reports that criticized Germany and would work to keep the US out of any European war.  Lastly, Kennedy’s anti-Semitic comments are legendary, particularly statements to Herbert von Dirksen, the German Ambassador in London.

Roosevelt and Hull would keep Kennedy out of the loop as much as possible because the last thing they wanted was for him to return home creating havoc as the administration worked to deal with an isolationist Congress and overturn Neutrality legislation.  Interestingly, the British would have been glad to send him packing as they grew tired of his bombastic statements, defeatism, particularly before and after Dunkirk, including criticisms that they referred to as “Kennedyianas.”

Overall, Ronald’s book is a mixed bag.  At times she delves into her topic as a true historian evaluating historical events, important characters and their motivations, and explaining British and American politics as the Germans moved closer to war.  Obviously, the key figure is Joseph P. Kennedy whose machinations were designed to further his own political career and those of his sons, and the needs of his family.  All the major figures of the period are on full display as are lesser ones.

It is the latter group that detracts from the narrative.  There are a two chapters that deal with British society as well as references to the “London social season,”  the types of china and cutlery used at dinner, the menus provided, the types of jewelry worn, estate/house decorations among many aspects of minutiae which after awhile become tedious and difficult to digest which detracts from her historical analysis.  Ronald’s approach in this area serves no purpose for the overall thesis she presents and most of it could be excluded resulting in a more compact work of history.  Ronald should pay less attention to the frivolities of British society and Kennedy family excursions and focus more on the critical issues that Kennedy’s tenure in England involved.

(Joseph and Rose Kennedy married in 1914 and had nine children together. Pictured above on a vacation to France in 1939 is (from left to right back row) Kathleen, Joe Jr, Rosemary, Rose , Edward (Ted), (left to right middle row) John (Jack), Eunice, Joseph Sr, Patricia, (left to right front row) Robert and Jean)

THE BOMER MAFIA: A DREAM, A TEMPTATION, AND THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Malcom Gladwell


Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Colonel Curtis LeMay officially congratulates a bomber crew of the 306th Bomb Group in front of their B-17 Flying Fortress at Chelveston Airfield, England, June 2, 1943)

For the last few years, the historiography of allied bombing during World War II has undergone much greater scrutiny.  The death and destruction of civilians and their property has been labeled as unethical and immoral as cities such as Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and of course German bombing of allied cities experienced a level of violence that was unprecedented when compared to the pre-World War II era.  The role of technology in the process cannot be downplayed without which the carnage of war would not have reached the levels it did.  Malcom Gladwell, the spirited writer for The New Yorker normally explores the realm of social psychology, but in his latest work, THE BOMBER MAFIA: A DREAM, A TEMPTATION, AND THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR he turns his focus on to a group known as the “Bomber Mafia” that argued for a new type of bombing during wartime.   The group was made up of generals who went against the standard view of warfare put forth by the U.S. Army and Navy and broke away from the ideology of the Army Air Corps and set up the Army Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama.  Gladwell’s focus is on four generals particularly the much maligned Air Force General Curtis LeMay who led and designed American air power that culminated in the firebombing destruction of German and Japanese cities.

Gladwell creates the juxtaposition of Air Force General Haywood Hansell who tried to win the war in the Pacific Theater through precision bombing of Japan.  According to Gladwell this strategy was unsuccessful and gave way to LeMay’s approach whose goal was to win the war against Japan as soon as possible by saturating Tokyo with napalm bombs which would result in the death of over 100,000 people in just a few hours and went on to firebomb other Japanese cities killing thousands of civilians that held no strategic value.  Gladwell concludes that LeMay’s approach followed by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war and set the United States and Japan on the road to peace and prosperity much quicker than  had Washington pursued a more conventional approach to warfare into 1946 that would have killed millions of Japanese civilians and who knows how many American soldiers.

Firebombing Tokyo coffee or die
(The devastatiopon suffered by Tokyo March 9, 1945)

Gladwell’s work can be considered anti-revisionist or the new revisionism as without mentioning the likes of Gar Alperovitz’s ATOMIC DIPLOMACY, he purports that the United States pursued their strategy to end the war quickly and was not sending a message that would spark the Cold War.  Gladwell’s fascination with “bombing” during World War II stems from his childhood in London where his father recounted the horrors brought on by the German Luftwaffe over the English capitol and other cities.  As Gladwell mines his topic, he includes portraits of the most important characters involved.  Men like General Haywood Hansell; General Lauris Norstad who fired Hansell; General Curtis Le May; General Ira Eaker, the head of the 8th Air Force bombers stationed in England;  Frederick Lindemann, a friend of Churchill who helped alter the British Prime Minister’s view of strategic bombing; RAF Marshall Arthur Harris, who doggedly opposed the new American approach to bombing; Louis Fieser, a Harvard chemistry professor, who is credited with developing a Dupont chemical along with E.B. Hershberg and created an incendiary gel known as napalm; and perhaps the most important person in the process, Carl L. Norden, the inventor of the “bombsight” that allowed true precision bombing are all explored among a number of others.  Gladwell is correct when he argues that the firing of Hansell in Guam on January 6, 1945 set the United States on a strategic road that still reverberates today.

Gladwell states his goal in writing the book was to present what led up to the firing of Hansell, what changes were made, and how the shift in US strategy had implications for the war itself and the future conduct of warfare.  For Gladwell, “THE BOMBER MAFIA is a case study in how dreams go awry.”  A strategy designed to save lives during wartime in the end did not result in the goals set out by this group of Air Force Generals.   Instead, a Dutch genius and his home made computer who developed the 55 pound bombsight; a “band of brothers” in Alabama; a British psychopath; and pyromaniacal chemists in basement labs at Harvard were responsible for the creation of a weapon that still affects us on a daily basis.

Gladwell begins by explaining how difficult it is to successfully hit a target on the ground from thousands of feet in the air.  The key to solving this conundrum was the work of Carl Norden who began working on his bombsight in the 1920s.  After its development it would take six months to be trained on the Norden bombsight and if it were a success these powerful men thought we would no longer need to leave young men dead on the battlefield or lay waste to entire cities.  War would be made “precise and quick and almost bloodless.  Almost.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Brig. Gen. Thomas Power, right, senior officer on the March 10 attack on Tokyo by more than 300 B-29s, talks to Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, second from left, 21st Bomber Command commander, and Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad, far left, 20th Air Force Chief of Staff, after returning from the attack that burned out huge areas of the Japanese capital)

The Bomber Mafia’s mantra was “high altitude.  Daylight.  Precision bombing.”  These men had a radical mind set much different than the army and navy and passionately believed that they were pursuing a revolutionary goal.  Gladwell explores this group with deft, but not overwhelming detail and to lighten the reader a bit he provides priceless descriptions of a number of characters.  The nicknames he provides labeling Arthur Harris as “Butcher Harris,” Carl Norden as “old man dynamite,” a devoted Christian who believed he was saving lives, Haywood Hansell was called possum, and Curtis LeMay was described as “brutal” by Robert McNamara as all provide insights to the type of people that Gladwell describes.

One of the major strengths of Gladwell’s narrative is how he integrates historical experts, World War II aviators, and comments by other participants providing the reader with greater insight than most into the thinking of the major characters.  These characters would be successful in their mission to end the war early but by 1943 they had hit a wall as disagreements with the British, missions that failed to live up to expectations, and inter-service rivalries played a role.  What is interesting is that LeMay was not part of the “Bomber Mafia” circle.  He was drawn to practical challenges and doctrine left him cold.

Maj. Gen. Hansell

(Major General Haywood Hansell)

Gladwell’s digressions are entertaining but also educational as he pontificates on weather technology, cloud formations and wind over Japan, along with descriptions of certain chemicals and their strengths and weaknesses.  One of those chemicals would lead to the development of napalm a discovery that probably did more to end the war than Norden’s bombsight.  Napalm was chosen by LeMay as the key component in devastating Japan and ending the war quickly.  Once he took over the 21st Bomber Command from Hansell in January 1945 he would soon realize the difficulties that Hansell faced and the obstacles in directing precision bombing against Japanese industrial capacity on the mainland.  LeMay changed American bombing strategy by adopting a low flying approach that was the antithesis of the Bomber Mafia’s methodology.  Gladwell’s chapter “It’s All Ashes” is an incisive look at how LeMay’s personality and modus operandi would lead to the events of the night of March 9, 1945.  Gladwell describes LeMay as suppressing his own nerves and fears as he focuses on the mission that ultimately dropped 1,665 tons of napalm on Tokyo over a three hour period burning everything for sixteen square miles and the death of over 100,000 people.  LeMay’s planes would continue to wreak havoc, death, and devastation on 67 Japanese cities killing at least 500,000 or perhaps 1,000,000 people before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  After the atomic explosions LeMay continued to bomb Japanese cities as he believed the nuclear attacks were superfluous as the hard work had already been done.  One can debate the necessity for this type of devastation, but Gladwell is correct in arguing that it was so effective that it must be given credit for shortening the war.

In summation it is clear Gladwell has written an informative and important new slant on World War II bombing and I agree with historian, Diana Preston’s conclusions in her April 23, 2021 review in the Washington Post, “Gladwell does however confront us with difficult questions: “Ask yourself — What would I have done?” he suggests at one point. In so doing he has produced a thought-provoking, accessible account of how people respond to difficult choices in difficult times. Albert Einstein once warned that “our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Gladwell suggests that, given their concern not to cross a moral line, the Bomber Mafia would have approved of modern technical innovations like the B-2 stealth bomber, capable of precision strikes on military targets while minimizing civilian casualties. Yet ingenuity and conscience always sit uneasily in warfare, and Einstein’s warning should not be forgotten.”  But in the end Gladwell is correct as high altitude precision bombing soon replaced firebombing – “Curtis LeMay won the battle.  Haywood Hansell won the war.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(B29s flying over Tokyo, March 9, 1945)

THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS by David S. Brown

(Henry Adams)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Francis Adams

(Charles Francis Adams)

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

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

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

photograph of John Hay
(John Hay)

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

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

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

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

The Education of Henry Adams by [Henry Adams]

THE BORGIAS: THE HIDDEN HISTORY by G. J. Meyer

(Cesare Borgia)

One of the most fascinating families in history are the Borjas/Borgias; a family that produced a series of controversial characters from Pope Alexander VI, Cesare, and Lucrezia.  The story that encompasses the Spanish family that would dominate the Italian Renaissance is said to involve barbarity, rape, misinformation, political and religious machinations, and possibly incest.  The questions surrounding the family have baffled historians for centuries and it appears that much of their reputation can fall into the category of myths.  Historian, G. J. Meyer has taken on the task of unraveling these myths in his family biography, THE BORGIAS: THE HIDDEN HISTORY as he argues that the Borgia problem began in the early 16th century as Reformation propagandists depicted the papacy in less than positive terms and blamed the Borgias for every conceivable crime.  Meyer’s approach is to ask, “long neglected questions” and a refusal to accept judgements that appear to have little basis in fact, and when evidence is missing not to accept the “ugliest hypothetical explanation of a puzzling event.”  The author’s goal is clear, to try and “lift the Borgia story out of the realm of fable and turning it into history.”

The book is more than a family biography but more so a history of the Papacy focusing on the Holy See dating back to the 13th century and its development into a powerful pseudo monarchy and the opposition it wrought, i.e., the Babylonian Captivity, Avignon Papacy, Conciliar Movement, through the rise of Savonarola in the late 15th century.   Meyers main protagonist is Rodrigo Borgia as he slowly rose through the Vatican bureaucracy serving four Popes and finally assuming the Holy office as Alexander VI, and later in the narrative Cesare Borgia.  Meyer reviews the history of Renaissance Europe and the Papacy for the first quarter of the book pointing out the political dysfunction that existed in the Italian peninsula and its environs that existed before Alexander VI assumed the Papacy.  The groundwork for the corruption and power politics of the region is carefully played out focusing on Popes Callixtus III, Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV Innocent VIII along with the likes of the della Rovere, Orsini and Colonna families.  The use of nepotism, poisoning and other tools make the period known for its culture one of grief and blood.

Meyer does a workmanlike job of intertwining mini-history chapters in the narrative to explain certain issues and individuals in greater depth for the reader.  Chapters dealing with the evolution of the role of the College of Cardinals, the creation of the Papacy, the role of condottieri-mercenaries,  Cesare Borgia, and  the role of Portugal in the Age of Discovery are among the best.  Meyer develops a number of important themes throughout the work including the power struggle that existed between the Papacy and the College of Cardinals over limiting Papal power with the Conciliar Movement that was not that far in the rear view mirror for individuals who wanted to create their own power base.  Another important theme involves what historian Garret Mattingly refers to as “Renaissance Diplomacy” as the conduct of negotiations, warfare, and settlements is discussed in depth particularly marriage diplomacy, the ever shifting alliances that seemed to change almost on a daily basis in Italy, and the results that were fostered on the battlefield.  Particularly important is the role Rodrigo Borgia played in the unification of the Spanish monarchy under Ferdinand and Isabella, the French invasion of Italy led by a rather interesting character, Charles VIII in 1494, and how Florence, Venice, Milan, the Papal States, and Naples tried to repeatedly overturn any existing geo-strategic balance.

Pope Alexander VI
(Pope Alexander VI)

Meyer’s writing style is conducive to unraveling all of the machinations just mentioned.  He possesses a firm grasp of events and personalities and his narrative and analysis to not fall into the trap of repeating myths that have stood the test of time.  One of the areas that Meyer explores are the supposed children of Alexander VI, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Jorge.  After delving deeply coming dynastic history, previous historical writings etc. Meyer concludes they were not Alexander’s children, but nephews and nieces.  According to Meyer their father was Alexander’s own nephew Guillen Ramon Lanzol de Borja. 

Meyer’s writing is effective as he focuses on the dynastic issues surrounding Naples which centers around Spanish, French, and other claims to the kingdom.  Meyer spends a great deal of time describing Charles VIII invasion of Italy whose main goal was the Neapolitan throne and removing Alexander VI concludes that the French monarch’s great adventure changed nothing and everything as Naples remained in possession of the House of Aragon and under the protection of Spain.  Florence remained a client of France.  Alexander was not deposed, and a council of the church was not convened.  Another strength of the narrative focuses on Friar Girolamo Savonarola who would eventually fail due to his narcissism and ego but until he did, he helped bring about the end of de Medici rule in Florence and was seen as a grave threat to Alexander VI.

lucrezia borgia
(Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia)

Meyer’s depiction of the shifting European/Italian balance of power is of major importance to the narrative as the Italian City-States, Spain, France and the Ottoman Empire all have their own agendas that affect each other either dynastically or the need for “raw power.”  The sections that deal with the Turkish threat to Italy and Europe in general are key.  Popes and monarchs called for crusades against Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II who threatened Venice, Milan and other areas of Italy and are treated carefully and enrich the story Meyer is trying to tell.

Meyer’s recapitulation of the succession to the French throne following the death Charles VIII is an important example that highlights dynastic dysfunction during the period.  It involves the assumption of the throne by Louis XII and the marriage diplomacy involving Louis XII who needed a divorce from Alexander so he could remarry and that of Cesare Borgia who had his eyes on a French princess and a group of properties who sought to exploit.  In the end Louis XII got his wish, but Cesare had to settle for a lesser woman!

(Nicolo Machiavelli)

It takes Meyer until the last fifty pages of the book to focus on Lucrezia Borgia and the rumors surrounding her reputation following her marriage annulment to Giovanni Sforza.  The rumors about her private proclivities be they sex, power, or corruption may or not be true according to Meyer which is emblematic of his approach to the many myths he tackles.  First, he states in no uncertain terms that a certain myth is false, presents arguments and material to support his view, then seems to back track and accept that it is hard to tell if the myth is false or not.  A useful example involves Alexander VI’s goal of marrying Lucrezia to the son of Duke Ercoled d’este of Ferrara.

Meyer ends his narrative by describing the final down fall of Cesare Borgia.  After spending chapters recounting how he became a dominant figure in Italian power politics and gaining substantial wealth and influence he recounts that the death of Alexander VI, his benefactor in 1503 signals the beginning of his downfall.  Once Alexander is gone it becomes a feeding frenzy by Cesare’s enemies to take back properties and states he has stolen and acquire his wealth.  He will eventually become a fugitive from his many enemies and will finally die in battle which Meyer argues was somewhat of a suicide as he realizes that he would have to spend the reminder of his life as a prisoner, particularly as Cardinal della Rovere who hated the Borgias finally assumed the Papacy as Julius II.

There is so much in the narrative in terms of dynasties and personalities the book requires a careful read and it would assist the reader if they had some knowledge of the period.  But taken as a whole is a useful effort, that is surprisingly readable, particularly for those who have watched the Showtime cable series, “The Borgias” which when compared to Meyer’s depiction does not hold a great deal of historical truth.  Meyer’s claims to have written the hidden history of the Borgias, but in reality, one must ask; has he changed much of what has been written before?

Portrait of Cesare Borgia “Le Duc Valentin” kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, formerly thought to be after a painting by Correggio, now often attributed to Dosso Dossi, 1517-1519.:

(Cesare Borgia)

THADDEUS STEVENS: CIVIL REVOLUTIONARY, FIGHTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE by Bruce Levine

Thaddeus Stevens - Brady-Handy-crop.jpg
(Thaddeus Stevens in the 1860s)

Today we find ourselves living in an America where the Republican Party seems to stand for voter suppression (see Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia state legislature just to name a few) as they try and place as many obstacles in the path of African-Americans who would like to exercise their franchise.  The strategy is clear – they fear they cannot win elections without making it difficult for minorities to vote and reminds this writer of the Jim Crow era and harkens back to the post-Civil War period, particularly after the election of 1876 as southern politicians began to reassert control of their region and try and undo the gains brought forth by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments for African-Americans.  The post-Civil War southern leaders worked to undo the life’s work of Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens who fought against slavery and tried to uplift the lives of those freed from bondage.  Stevens, an athame to the south is the subject of a new biography by Bruce Levine, THADDEUS STEVENS: CIVIL REVOLUTIONARY, FIGHTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE.

At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is confronted by white supremacy and voter suppression it is important to examine the life of Thaddeus Stevens whose ideals and hopes for racial harmony and justice have still not come to fruition almost 150 years later.  Many historians and films have denigrated Stevens as a vindictive persecutor of the helpless and defeated south.  It took the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and a new generation of historians and film makers to reconsider Stevens’ role following the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Levine stresses Stevens’ vision for an egalitarian radical revolution following the war – confiscating the estates of large southern landholders and divide them among former slaves.  Further he would come to despise President Andrew Johnson who tried to assist the southern elite to recoup their political power and once again place former slaves under the thumb of the previous system where they were supplicants to a southern system that could not function without them.

(Left to right: Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens; an African-American soldier in the Union Army; abolitionist Frederick Douglass)

Levine focuses on Stevens’ role as a public figure, his fight against chattel slavery and racial discrimination, the key part he played influencing union actions during the Civil War, and his important role in the post-war struggle to produce racial democracy for the nation at large.  Stevens was raised in Vermont in a strict Baptist home though he would later have little use for religion.  Despite this he was knowledgeable when it came to scripture and he viewed secession and war as “predetermined” and inevitable.  This went along with his dark view of human nature and can be seen in his commentary throughout his life and the relationships he engendered.

Stevens was a firm believer in industrial development as an engine of human progress and that the government must actively and deliberately stimulate the development of capitalism, especially its commercial and manufacturing sectors as a strong supporter of Henry Clay’s American System.  Second, he believed that the government must take positive steps to ensure that all had an equal chance to partake in prosperity as part of system that rested on “free labor.”

Levine’s narrative is less a biography of Stevens’ complete life, but more of an intellectual journey that reflected the evolution of his ideas and positions taken in regard to slavery, tariffs, and other issues of the day.  The narrative presents Stevens’ life in the context of the world in which he thrived.  Apart from Stevens’ life, Levine’s analysis mirrors many historians who have written about the history of the period.  Nothing is really new, events and movements do not change, nor the actions of certain important individuals.  What is important is Levine’s portrayal of Stevens’ life as he integrates and relied on his subject’s own words and attitudes in speeches before the Pennsylvania state legislature, the House of Representatives, and the memories of those who he conversed with.  His intellectual evolution regarding slavery is a key component of the book as in his younger years he may have been “soft” on abolitionism.  However, following Texas’ application for statehood and the results of the Mexican War Stevens realized as did others who would become Radical Republicans that if the south could not expand slavery into new territories then the erosion of its soil would foster the end of what Kenneth Stamp called the “peculiar institution.”  The key was to prevent any new territories acquired from Mexico from becoming slave states which would harden people’s positions regarding slavery.

New 8x10 Photo: Last Photo of President Abraham Lincoln
(Abraham Lincoln)

Levine takes the reader through all the major events that led to the Civil War, the war itself, and the post-war period.  Levine leads the reader through the rise of the Whig Party, his early participation in the antislavery movement, his part in the founding of the Republican Party, with its opposition to slavery.  He also tracks the machinations of wartime rivalries and the struggle to enact legislation after the war, in addition to the role he played in the impeachment process against Andrew Johnson.  Since the book itself is not overly long I would have hoped the author would have delved more into these areas focusing on analysis of great events as he perceived them, particularly Stevens’ relationship with President James Buchanan.  Once the war broke out Levine is correct that Stevens did not see the war as a short one, but a bloody one that would drag on for years.  For Stevens success in war also included a frontal attack on slavery and a major alteration of southern society and economy.  He was the first to favor the confiscation of slaves, demanded legal freedom for those confiscated, called for a wide emancipation for all slaves living in the rebellious states, and the abolition of slavery throughout the United States.  This would mean a radical transformation of southern society, in effect, as Eric Foner states, a second American Revolution.

According to Levine Stevens success was based on his iron will, great courage both moral and physical, his refusal to bend to the opposition even in the face of physical threats, his mastery of the parliamentary system, his shrewdness, quick wit, and sharp tongue.  Stevens was a believer in the ideas put forth in the Declaration of Independence and despite what the founders wrote into the Constitution regarding slavery he was adamant in his support of the document.  He shaped the 14th amendment as his life ended which provided due process and equal protection under the law for all.  It is a shame that the legislative victories he achieved would quickly fall by the wayside following his death.

Historian Fergus M. Bordewich argues that Levine has written a concise and powerful biography of a man the author truly admires as Stevens sought to create an America free of prejudice, which was based on merit in which blacks and whites together would be freed of oppression, inequality, and degradation.  Stevens’ reputation has improved since the 1960s and reflects that even John F. Kennedy’s praise for Andrew Johnson and his description of Stevens as “the crippled fanatical personification of the extremes of the Radical Republican Movement” in his book co-authored with Theodore Sorenson, PROFILES IN COURAGE was totally wrong.  Stevens pushed for Reconstruction as hard as he could and if others had not grown tired of it and reverted to previous attitudes perhaps, we would not suffer from the racial bifurcation that infects American society today.

Thaddeus Stevens (April 4, 1792 - August 11, 1868)
(Thaddeus Stevens April 4, 1792 – August 11, 1868)

STRONGMEN: MUSSOLINI TO THE PRESENT by Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Mussolini biografia.jpg
(Benito Mussolini)

Recently I read Anne Applebaum’s book THE TWILIGHT OF DEMOCRACY which laid out where the United States stood in a world that seems to trend toward autocratic rule.  To say the least her thesis which depicts how American democracy has gone so terribly wrong is scary and alarming.  It appears that there is a “strongman playbook” that these autocratic wannabes follow which is the main focus of Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s new work, STRONGMEN: MUSSOLINI TO THE PRESENT published before the attack on the capitol on January 6, 2021.  The books appearance is a further warning of what might occur as Donald Trump continues to stir the pot about his election loss and the dangers should he return to the White House in 2024.  Ben-Ghiat has spent her career ruminating about how authoritarians manipulate the truth to gain power and her book is very troubling as she lays out the “strongmen’s playbook” highlighting strategies and techniques employed by the likes of Benito Mussolini, Muammar Gaddafi, Augusto Pinochet, Mobutu Sese Sebo, and Vladimir Putin, among others to seize power for as long as they desired.

Last November the American people  overcame the misinformation, lies, and conspiracy theories put forth by Donald Trump and his followers to seemingly reject someone who consistently tried to employ the “playbook” but the failure of the Republicans to support truth allowed Trump to escape an impeachment conviction.  The result is that the American people must confront and cope with a somewhat resurgent Trump who threatens to run again for president in 2024 and if it comes to pass reach down into his toolbox of the authoritarian playbook to regain the White House.  This proposition may make the Republican base happy, but it presents an ongoing existential threat to the overwhelming majority of the American people.

In her important narrative Ben-Ghiat recounts the acts of bravery, solidarity and dignity that resulted in the removal of strongmen over the last century and she makes it clear by delving into numerous historical examples what signs to look for as these men try and seize power and what strategies are needed to stop them.  For Ben-Ghiat the key to understanding today’s authoritarianism and its allies, we must pursue a historical perspective.

Berlusconi
(Silvio Berlusconi)

Benito Mussolini emerges as the “godfather” of authoritarianism as his approach puts forth a role model for other strongmen wannabes to emulate.  From Mussolini to Putin the personalist reign is their mantra concentrating power in one individual whose own financial and political interests prevail over national ones in shaping domestic and foreign policy.  Loyalty to him and his allies rather than expertise is the main qualification for serving in government, as is participation in his corruption schemes.  They rule by employing patronage and fear to maintain loyalty and support.  The book divides the strongmen era into three parts; 1919-1945, the fascist era; 1950-1990, the age of military coups; and 1990-present as the new authoritarian age and the author present clear examples and analysis as she examines individual strongmen, their compatibility and similarities with each other.

What is striking from the outset is the role of virility and how it is combined with other tactics.  The autocrat’s display of “machismo and his kinship with other male leaders are not just bluster, but a way of exercising power at home and conducting foreign policy.”  It translates into targeting women, LGBTQ+ populations, immigrants, people of color, and the press.  Mussolini prepared the script used by today’s authoritarians that casts the leader as a victim of domestic enemies and an international system that has cheated his country.  Mussolini partnered with conservatives in his rise to power and he created a template for Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump, Augusto Pinochet, and Vladimir Putin to name just a few.  The key for these men according to the author is that the rhetoric of crisis and emergency they rely on, and the comfort of knowing who to blame for the nation’s troubles and how only they know how to fix them, i.e.; Trump’s commentary during the 2016 campaign, in reference to Washington’s problems is that “only I know how to fix it.”

Augusto Pinochet listens to a military band playing before his residence in Santiago on Sept. 11, 1997.
(Augusto Pinochet)

It is interesting how elites cling to authoritarians.  Afraid of losing their class, gender, or racial privileges they support insurgents as they strive for power.  Once ensconced in office elites strike an “authoritarian bargain” that allows them to pursue their agenda.  A useful example is how Senator Mitch McConnel and his Senate minions have gone along with Trump to achieve judicial appointments, tax cuts for the wealthy, and voter suppression in order to maintain white political control.  When Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 the Republican Party was already an extremist organization and it could use the reality TV star to achieve its goals.  Trump and his minions, the likes of Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone, all right wing extremists and white supremacists have been supporting strongmen all around the globe for years so the events of the last four years should not have come as a surprise.

If one looks for a Trumpian role model apart from Mussolini it is easy to apply the tactics and image creation of Silvio Berlusconi, an Italian media tycoon and politician who served as Prime Minister of Italy in four governments from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006 and 2008 to 2011. Berlusconi came to power by election after the Cold War ended through voter suppression and rigging elections.  He would shape public opinion through the television stations he owned.  He stressed Italy’s need to return to “national greatness,” his ability to fix Italy’s problems, particularly those caused by the left, and flaunt the image of virility as he worked to keep out foreigners and immigrants.  He even had parliament pass laws to protect him from prosecution.  Immigrants were his favorite target as he practiced his xenophobic rule stressing the fear of white replacement and the low Italian birthrate, all echoing Mussolini, and a template for Donald Trump.  It is no accident that Berlusconi developed a strong relationship with Vladimir Putin and Ben-Ghiat’s observations about the two men and the “bromance” appear to be dead on. 

gaddafi jacob zuma
(Muammar Gaddafi attends the inauguration ceremony of Jacob Zuma on May 9, 2009 in Pretoria, South Africa)

The theme of national greatness permeates the rhetoric of strongmen.  Francisco Franco recalled the glories of the Spanish Empire; Mussolini longed for Italia Irredenta and the Roman Empire; for Putin it is Imperial Russia and the Soviet Empire; and for Racip Tayyip Erdogan it is the Ottoman Empire and ethnically cleansing the Kurds in Syria.  These rulers’ obsessions have turned into policy i.e., Gaddafi cleansed Libya of Italians, Hitler cleansed Germany of Jews, Putin pursues Eurasian domination and reshaping Russian culture partnering with the Russian Orthodox Church. Trump wanted to build his border wall to keep out immigrants with detention camps, family separation, and politically has the support of white evangelicals.  Further the Trump administration worked to undo decades of advances for women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities.  He was obsessed with nostalgia for a white America dominated by males, along with his crusade to nullify Barack Obama’s legacy.  He redefined civil rights, traditionally linking the struggle of African Americans for legal equality, as the protection of Christian “freedom of religion and expression.”  Even his Attorney-General, William Barr stated we are waging “unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society,” who of course are black and brown people.

While Ben-Ghiat discusses different strongmen and compares them with Trump she tends to lump many of them together without creating a conceptual framework to work with.  I agree with Francis Fukuyama’s review in the New York Times, November 17, 2020, “Authoritarians From Mussolini to Trump” when he writes, [she] gives us “very little insight into Donald Trump beyond what is already widely known. What we get instead is an endless series of historical anecdotes about a heterogeneous collection of bad leaders ranging from democratically elected nationalists like Modi to genocidal fanatics like Hitler. What sense does it make to put Silvio Berlusconi in the same category as Muammar Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein? Berlusconi may have been sleazy, manipulative and corrupt, but he didn’t murder political opponents or support terrorism abroad, and he stepped down after losing an election. Ben-Ghiat notes that many strongmen came to power in the 1960s and ’70s through military coups, but that today they are much more likely to be elected. Wouldn’t it be nice to know why coups have largely vanished?  

Fukuyama further argues accurately that Trump really does deserve more careful comparison with other leaders. There are indeed certain parallels between him and contemporary populists like Hungary’s Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, insofar as they all rely on a similar rural social base for their support. On the other hand, there are unexplained differences: Orban, Duterte and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, for example, used the Covid pandemic to vastly expand executive authority, while Trump did the opposite, abdicating responsibility and shifting authority to the governors. Most strongmen are ruthlessly efficient and Machiavellian; Trump demonstrated incredible incompetence in failing to build his border wall, repeal Obamacare or expand his voter base. And, of course, he failed to win re-election to a second term. Revelations in The New York Times of Trump’s tax returns suggest he ran for president not out of a mad desire for power, but simply to avoid bankruptcy in his failed hotel business. And yet, despite myriad revelations, he exerted a magnetic pull on his core followers. Why? Perhaps it might be more useful to understand the ways that Trump is sui generis, and how he could set a pattern for strongmen of the future, rather than reprising familiar precedents from the past.”

Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev at Bocharov Ruchei residence.
(Vladimir Putin)

This is not, however, merely another addition to the annals of Trumpology. Beginning with the rise of Mussolini and concluding with the present era, Ben-Ghiat attempts to portray the ways democracies die in the arms of authoritarians, and the common traits that enable these downfalls. This is, no doubt, an admirable goal, and the author finds many points of authentic insight into the characters of strongmen and their followers along the way. Her prose manages the difficult maneuver of being both rigorously sourced and quite readable, with luminous, hard-won conclusions studding the text. In describing the torturers and flunkies who surround strongmen, she writes, “The special psychological climate that strongmen create among their people — the thrill of transgression mixed with the comfort of submitting to his power — endows life with energy, purpose, and drama.” It’s an observation that distills so much of the public life of the United States over the past half-decade — and resounds throughout an increasingly antidemocratic world.”

Talia Lavin writing in the Washington Post, December 24, 2020, “Corruption, Violence and Toxic Masculinity: What strongmen like Trump have in Common” is less critical than Fukuyama as she states that Ben-Ghiat “makes a convincing argument for including Trump in these less-than-august ranks, most of all when laying out the specifics of his corruption. For the reader inured by the drip-drip-drip of stories of brazen corruption over the course of years, it is bracing to see a half-decade’s worth of reporting so carefully distilled and to recall that it is in fact aberrant to see a son-in-law enriching himself at taxpayer expense, or to watch the Trump Organization’s coffers fill, golf outing by golf outing, with the aid of the Secret Service. As Ben-Ghiat shows, such self-enrichment is more in line with a Gaddafi or a Mussolini than a transparent or accountable democratic leader. Trump’s violence, too, is laid out chillingly: “In the tradition of the fascists, Trump uses his rallies to train his followers to see violence in a positive light,” she writes of his frequent exhortations to violence and demonization of immigrants at these spectacles.

Ben-Ghiat offers a series of chapters outlining how strongmen attain and retain power.  Chapters on the use of various forms of violence, including intimidation and assassination; propaganda; corruption; virility emphasizing sexual enslavement, lies and misinformation; torture, and raping their countries natural resources and wealth are disconcerting and at times horrifying.  Ben-Ghiat creates a portrait of depravity that has gained the support of millions worldwide in part because of fear or accepting a belief system that abhors fact and relies on misinformation and outright lies offered by authoritarians.  These techniques are used across the board whether we are speaking of demented individuals or sociopaths who have altered the course of history.  As an American it is very troubling to realize how the former president fit the pattern set by the Pinochet’s, Putin’s, and numerous others as he rose to power through denigration and rejecting truth.

In the end Ben-Ghiat’s book is a worthy contributor to the works of Masha Gessen, Timothy Snyder, Steven Levitsky, Daniel Zimblat, and Jason Stanley who warned us about Trump’s propensity toward authoritarianism and we can only hope that out of office he will not continue to foment the trends and beliefs in American politics that have burgeoned over the last decade, though that hope is not necessarily a realistic assumption.

a black and white photo of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler standing next to each other

(Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler)

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

(Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Carter advisor and Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

baker glasser
(The authors)

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

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

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

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

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

A PROMISED LAND by Barack Obama

President Barack Obama waves at the conclusion of his news conference in the briefing room of the White House, Dec. 16, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

(President Barack Obama waves at the conclusion of his news conference in the briefing room of the White House, Dec. 16, 2016, in Washington, D.C.)

After listening to a 46 minute incoherent rant last night by Donald Trump about how the election was stolen from him and other conspiracy theories I was pleased to sit down in a quiet corner of my study and engage Barack Obama’s new memoir, A PROMISED LAND.  The comparison between Trump and Obama is alarming as one man uses (ed) the presidency as if were a vehicle for wealth accumulation and as a means of destroying anyone who disagreed with him, while the other, whether you agreed with him or not was sincere about carrying out his constitutional duties as chief executive in a reasonable manner.

Obama has written an engaging memoir that encompasses his early years to his life in Chicago, his early political career, and the first three years of his presidency through the killing of Osama Bin-Ladin.  It is clearly written and reflects a great deal of thought, a remarkable knowledge of history, and personal detail which is missing from most presidential memoirs.  Over the years I have read all the existing presidential memoirs since Harry Truman’s two volume contribution and would argue for breadth of detail, insightful analysis, candor, and substance, Obama’s memoir should be on the top of the list as he avoids much of the trenchant narrative that his predecessors engaged in.

Obama’s narrative has three major components.  First, the personal.  Obama is incredibly open about the effect of his political career on his marriage and children.  Further, he has no compunction about hiding his feelings about the likes Mitch McConnell, Stanley McCrystal,  Hillary Clinton, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Ted Kennedy, David Axelrod and countless others.  Second, reflecting his broad historical knowledge he provides introductions, in addition to lessons for each issue he is confronted with be it the 2008 financial crisis, Iran’s nuclear program, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, trying to deal with Vladimir Putin, pandemics, among the many problems he faced on a daily basis.  Lastly, the core of any presidential memoir is his political career, relations with other politicians, and trying to gain passage of important legislation, i.e.; the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, and regulating financial institutions. 

Michelle Obama podcast Barack Obama

(Michelle and Barack Obama)

In all areas he explains his decision-making process as he attempted to solve the problems America faced on a daily basis.  A case in point was his approach to troop levels in Afghanistan when he assumed the presidency.  The Pentagon favored the “McCrystal Plan” that called for a 40,000 troop increase that would bring troop levels to over 100,000 and would probably keep America in Afghanistan long after an Obama presidency ended, even if he served two terms.  Obama as he does in most cases breaks down how he worked with Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to reach a compromise of 17,000 men but setting a controversial withdrawal date for American forces.  But no matter what issue Obama discusses be it the inherited economic crisis, rethinking the U.S.’s place in the world, racist resentment lurks below, and its stench rises into sharper focus seemingly in each chapter.

Obama’s writing and approach is not perfect and he like others tends to get bogged down in details, but he has the ability to integrate personal observations on a host of issues and personalities that most readers should find on one level, charming, but also quite interesting.  Obama conveys his views very carefully and succinctly as he opens a window to his private life and presidency.  At the forefront is his relationship with his wife Michelle.  He is very honest about the role she played in his career and sacrificing a great deal personally as she took over direction of their two daughters.  She was against his pursuit of a political career, though she provided her full support.  But it is clear from her own memoir that she despised politics.  It is also clear throughout the narrative that Obama agonized over how his political career and the presidency in particular affected his family, but it did not derail his belief that he could change America for the better and bridge the partisan divide, a belief that reflects his naivete in dealing with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Hillary Clinton and President Obama are seen in this 2012 photo.

(Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama)

Of the many important subjects that Obama addresses a number stand out which remain problematical to this day.  It seems that at every turn the Republicans led by Senator Mitch McConnell and John Boehner that their goal was to make sure he was a one term president.  These feelings on the part of Republicans in general were based on the need to maintain power, but in Obama’s case it had racial overtones.  The Professor Louis Gates affair that resulted in the infamous “beer summit” at the White House is very reflective of the racial issue.  Obama tried to downplay the arrest of Gates, a Harvard professor who was placed in handcuffs as he tried to enter his own home.  But when Obama supported his friend the criticism of the president by the conservative right was heightened.  What is crystal clear was that as a Republican you were not supposed to cooperate with Obama and if you did it would negatively affect your political career.  Obama would comment on conservatives’ reactions to him in many cases as “have they lost their minds.”

The 2008 financial crisis, that produced the TARP legislation at the end of the Bush administration, the Recovery Act, and the auto industry bailout are dealt with in detail.  Dealing with the crisis before he assumed office and immediately after his inauguration it reflects Obama’s deference to the quality of his cabinet and advisers.  He weighed all recommendations and relied heavily on the likes of Tim Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury and others.  He clearly explains the machinations of bankers, hedge fund managers, and others that brought the United States and many of its citizens to financial disaster and in many cases, particularly among minorities and other segments of society who to this day have not totally recovered.  Obama takes the reader inside the George W. Bush administration cabinet room as well as his own as attempts at legislating an end to the crisis – very eye opening.

Obama’s commentary on foreign policy issues is a blend of hard nose realism and baseless hope.  Dealing with Russia easily comes to mind.  When Vladimir Putin stepped aside and allowed Dimitry Medvedev to assume power in Russia, Obama felt he might have a partner in his “Russian reset.”  Though fully aware that Putin was pulling the strings from behind he clung to the idea that progress could be made.  His description of his first summit with Putin who in a rather forceful manner harangued the American delegation about American slights toward Russia and the damage the NATO expansion, the financial crisis, and constant human rights complaints which the Russian leader believed humiliated his country.  This should have opened Obama’s eyes as he experienced the “real Putin” and developed a firmer response toward the  Russian autocrat.

President Obama leads a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet room

(The Obama Cabinet)

Relations with Iran attract a great deal of attention, as does his approach toward the Shi’ite government in Iraq under Nuri al-Maliki, the corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, the disingenuous Pakistani government, and relations with Angela Merkel of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and English Prime Minister David Cameron.  Obama’s remarks are priceless as he provides details dealing with all of these issues and relationships.  Clearly, he was taken aback in a number of situations, particularly the awarding of the Nobel Prize which he himself knew he really had done nothing to earn other than not being George Bush and becoming the first black American president.  His comment is revealing; “for what?”

On the domestic front Obama expresses a vibe of disbelief as he tried to develop legislation on a number of important topics.  In dealing with the financial crisis Wall Street and banking reform was called for which in the end would result in Dodd-Frank, which for many did not go far enough.  Environmental problems festered and getting republicans to accept climate change was a big ask which of course negated any comprehensive legislation to regulate corporations and lobbyists.  However, as some progress was made, the Deep Water Horizon Spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico changed everyone’s focus.  In what some have called “Obama’s Katrina” the president takes the reader inside the government and BP’s attempts at ameliorating the situation.  As Obama states, each day seemed to bring a new crisis, many of which his administration was not prepared for.

situation room obama biden clinton osama raid
US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune’s Spear, a mission against Osama bin Laden, in one of the conference rooms of the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. 

Aside from a narrative focused on policy and personalities, Obama makes an interesting point in discussing his own upbringing in Indonesia, Hawaii, and frequent visits to Kenya, and how it affected his later approach to problem solving.  His background was one of diversity and his approach to foreign policy and domestic decisions dealing with minorities and poverty bear this out.  Perhaps Obama’s background helps explains his appearance of being aloof and “cool,” traits that seemed to alienate anyone who disagreed with him be it on the left or right of the political spectrum. 

Overall, Obama’s massive memoir, which has another volume which will be released at some point in the future is an exercise in choosing topics that he felt comfortable examining leaving out certain aspects of his presidency that may not cast a favorable light.  For example, there was a 700% increase in drone strikes in Pakistan which receives little mention.  Obama’s approach to the Arab spring and his chaotic policy toward Libya merits greater discussion.  Under Obama administration policies deportation of immigrants rose markedly as did the prosecution of government whistle blowers.  These issues are important, but in comparison to the coverage that Obama provides they do not detract from my view of the importance of this memoir and for many setting the political record straight.  For Obama it appears that if he laid out his thinking in sufficient detail, along with the constellation of obstacles and constraints he faced, any reasonable American will understand why he governed as he did.  No matter how much he may internalize this belief our current political environment reflects that his premise is wrong.

An excerpt of former President Barack Obama's upcoming memoir "A Promised Land" was released Monday by the New Yorker.

(An excerpt of former President Barack Obama’s upcoming memoir “A Promised Land” was released Monday by the New Yorker.)