RAGE by Bob Woodward

Donald Trump has made an inordinate number of mistakes since assuming the presidency, however one of his most egregious was agreeing to an eighteen hour over nine session interview with author Bob Woodward.  The Washington Post investigative reporter had previously written a chronicle of Trump’s first two years in office entitled, FEAR which was not very flattering toward the president.  Trump, a firm believer in his own powers of persuasion was out of his league assuming if he developed a personal relationship with Woodward that his new book would praise the president and be an asset in the current presidential campaign.  The result has been Woodward’s latest work, RAGE which was once again even less flattering toward Mr. Trump.

Woodward’s effort is somewhat ironic in that his reporting during the Watergate crisis of the early 1970s helped remove Richard M. Nixon from office.  Now, almost fifty years later Woodward has written a book supported by audiotapes of his interviews with the president that provides evidence for the numerous falsehoods that president has engaged in since the book’s release.  As a historian I find it more than a coincidence that a reporter as thorough as Woodward is involved in another pursuit of a lawless president involving tape recordings.

(Dr. Anthony Fauci)

The book itself presents countless examples of Trump’s lies to the American people over a number of important issues that include his downplaying the coronavirus, his relationship with and the actions of North Korean leader Kim Jun-Un, his approach to racism and white nationalism, and of course his impeachment.  Trump comes across as a liar, a petty vengeful individual, a self-absorbed person who appears devoid of human decency who exhibits little or no empathy in his approach to a pandemic, hurricanes, and the wildfires out west.

From the outset, Woodward pulls no punches in recounting Trump’s attitude toward Covet-19.  Trump freely admits, though he has since denied that he downplayed the effects of the virus and its possible impact on the American people.  As early as January 28, 2020, Trump was warned by Robert O’Brien, the National Security advisor that “this is going to be the roughest thing you face.”  Matt Pottinger, the Deputy NSC advisor reaffirmed what O’Brien had stated and argued that after speaking with his Chinese sources concluded “don’t think SARS 2003, think influenza pandemic 1918.”  On February 7th, Trump told Woodward that “I think that [it] goes away in two months with heat…you know as it gets hotter that tends to kill the virus.  You know, you hope.”  Trump described the virus as “deadly” and “it goes through the air.”  At the same time as he expressed these fears in private Trump publicly reassured the American people that there was nothing to worry about and he had everything under control.  There is no reason to discuss the impact of Trump’s attitude and actions.  But it cannot be denied that while over 200,000 people have died, Trump has not carried out his constitutional duties to protect and defend the American people.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats attends a cabinet meeting at the White House July 16 2019 in Washington DC President Donald Trump and...

(Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats)

The book presents a plethora of examples of Trump’s malfeasance in office.  Each example is supported by excellent sourcing, a Woodward trademark, and we have audio tapes to support what the narrative purports.  One must keep in mind that Woodward has been chronicling presidential administrations for close to fifty years, that’s over twenty-percent of all presidents have been subject to Woodward’s incisive pen.  In all that time there has been little if any hint of emotion on his part in dealing with his subject matter.  However, in the current instance that emotional current  is present.  Trump realized that the first draft of history of any administration during the last five decades has been written by Woodward, and Trump wanted to influence it.  But, Woodward, aware of Trump’s obsession with the book still is the truth teller and if one turns to the last few pages of the narrative his personal reaction is based on Trump’s constant denials and absence of responsibility as he has lied to the American people.  Woodward concludes that Trump was the wrong man for the job of president because of the overwhelming evidence that the president has no sense of reason, order, guidance and morality and his administration suffers from “an organizational sickness,” and Trump, a personal sickness forcing Woodward to reach no other conclusion.

In reaching this judgement Woodward has examined the most important aspects of the Trump administration.  His personal relationships with James Mattis, John Kelly, Dan Coates, Rex Tillerson, and numerous others are all explored and it is interesting as information about them has reached the public with the publication of RAGE none of these individuals has come forth to dispute what Woodward has written.  Areas of concern include the relationship with Kim Jun-Un where the North Korean leader, after a legitimate war scare as related by Mattis, meets with Trump and achieves everything that he sought, particularly recognition by the United States, with Washington receiving little or nothing in return.  The situation in Syria is documented as Trump, as a favor to another of his authoritarian “buddies” convinced Trump to withdraw and or reposition US troops in Syria in order for the Turkish military to go after the Kurds, our ally for over a decade and our main partner against ISIS.  Trump’s attitude toward NATO and allies in general is depicted and an obvious cause for concern as Trump’s transactional nature is such that he does not accept the American need for allies with the attitude that there is little they can do for America and that they do not carry their own military and financial weight.  Mattis wondered what made Trump think anyone could make it alone in the world.  A country always needs allies just examine history, but since Trump does not read and has no sense or knowledge of history this intellectual exercise is superfluous.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

(Former Defense Secretary James Mattis)

What separates Woodward’s work from others is the detail that he presents after assiduous research.  A prime example are the letters between Trump and Kim Jun-Un seemingly declaring an uncomfortable “bromance.”  These letters present insights into the minds of both men and go a long way in explaining why to this day nothing of major importance has been accomplished.  The conversations between President Xi and Trump are eye opening as more and more it is clear the Chinese stonewalled, but in an earlier conversation Trump asked Xi to help him get reelected.  The commentary of Coates and Mattis is important since neither has gone public with their evaluations and experiences with Trump, but for the first time we see their angst over this presidency, the damage he has caused, and their fears for the future.

Woodward’s discussion of the Mueller Report and impeachment is fair and well thought out.  His conclusions are interesting in that he argues that it was more Ron Rosenstein’s investigation and report rather than Mueller.  The fact that there was no “John Dean type” with a smoking gun like Watergate was a major reason that Trump seems to have gotten away with colluding with Russia, though the Mueller Report did not exonerate him despite what Attorney General Bill Barr stated in his four page summary of the report.  Mueller was limited in what appeared to be an expansive investigation.  Mueller himself, as well as his staff of lawyers and investigators could not stray too far for fear of being fired, which Rosenstein made clear.  In the end Trump weathered the greatest threat to his presidency to that point which certainly emboldened him.  It is no accident that Trump’s machinations with Ukraine to smear Joe Biden through his son Hunter began almost simultaneously to the end of the Mueller investigation.

Trump’s disparagement of the intelligence community is on full display and the true nature of Vice President Pence is apparent as he throws his former close friend Dan Coates under the bus with his “fawning” over the president.  Be it Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Covid-19, the threat of White supremacists, Trump, when he actually reads his daily briefing always finds fault with the CIA, FBI, and a myriad of other intelligence agencies.  It caused Coates to state, “to him a lie is not a lie.  Its just what he thinks.  He doesn’t know the difference between truth and a lie.”  Intelligence had to conform to Trump’s prejudices and beliefs, if not they were rejected outright.

Bob Woodward
(Author, Bob Woodward)

At times it seems as if Woodward is banging his head against the wall as he tries to reason with Trump, i.e., his questioning of Trump over the Ukrainian matter that led to his impeachment.  For Trump, his “perfect phone call and transcript” were enough and he did not grasp the concept that a president cannot shake down a foreign leader to acquire dirt on a political opponent.  Other conversations would repeatedly produce a Trumpian riff dealing with past disparagement and feelings and get nowhere.  But I admire Woodward for trying.

Woodward relies heavily on interviews with a number of important former administration officials which he refuses to name, but their identity comes out in the narrative.  Their frustration and fear of Trump is warranted based on their experiences.  Nothing was more dangerous than the reaction to Covid-19 and the policies or lack thereof of the administration.  Woodward covers the full expanse of Trump’s tenure in office, but it is his response and lies to the American people are the most important aspect of the book.  A great deal of what Woodward covers has been mined by others, but in the realm of Covid-19 it reflects how dangerous Trump is for the health of American people, as even Trump realized as early as February 7, 2020 in reference to Covid-19 when he said, “there’s dynamite behind every door,” at the same time he was playing down the coming pandemic and lying to the American people by arguing “the virus would go away on its own” at a time when there was only twelve cases.  But as we know the virus proliferated and Trump obfuscated as he remarked that he “always played down…I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create panic.”  In the end he said, “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”

Woodward treats the reader to important comments and conversations dealing with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Up until April 17, 2020, Trump had at least implemented travel bans against China and Europe, shut the country down for fifteen days but amidst a thirty day extension of the shut down on April 17, the president tweeted about liberating Virginia, Minnesota, and Michigan violating his own stated policy.  Trump’s mantra was to open up the country willing to accept the tidal wave of death that would result and decided to muzzle of Fauci.   A frustrated and concerned Fauci remarked that Trump “was on a separate channel,” his leadership was “rudderless” and his “attention span is like minus-number as “his stated purpose is to get reelected.”  No matter what question Woodward would ask the result would be a defensive Trump saying “the virus had nothing to do with me.  It’s not my fault.  It’s—China let the damn virus out.”  When Woodward pointed out he was in charge of the national interest, Trump would ignore the question or change the subject.

Rosa Brooks in her September 10, 2020 review of the book in the Washington Post asks what new insights does Bob Woodward’s latest book, RAGE offer?  “We learn that President Trump is not the sharpest tool in the shed; members of his Cabinet consider him a narcissistic fool, devoid of empathy and incapable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood. Trump blithely minimizes the lethality of coronavirus because he doesn’t want to look bad. He takes no responsibility for anything, boasts repeatedly about his wealth and genius, and shows nothing but contempt for those who happen to get in his way.”  The end results this morning the 200,000th American death was announced. What wonders what might have been different if Trump would have performed his constitutional duties.

(President Trump and Vice President Pence)

MBS: THE RISE TO POWER OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN by Ben Hubbard

Mohammed bin Salman

(Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman)

Who is Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS?  Is he a young visionary reformer that he purported to be when he first came on the scene; the man who most probably ordered the death of Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi; or a rising dictator whose lack of experience has led to rash decisions like the war in Yemen which has greatly contributed to the destabilization of the volatile Middle East.  In Ben Hubbard’s new book MBS: THE RISE TO POWER OF MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN, we are treated to a deep dive into how he rose to power in Saudi Arabia and what his policies have done to impact the daily lives of the Saudi people and the countries that must deal with the Riyadh regime, it’s oil wealth, and its influence in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Hubbard, the Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times is very adept at digging deep into his subject area and developing astute observations.  At first, he provides the background history that resulted in the creation of the Saudi Arabian kingdom and the context of the Salman family in particular MBS whose actions always seem driven by how he could maximize his own personal power and influence.  Hubbard concentrates on the dynastic “pecking order” and how MBS, the sixth son of the twenty-sixth son of the kingdom’s founder would rise to power through luck and a series of deaths that unclogged the narrow path to achieve the position he coveted.  With the passing of a number of princes MBS would then develop a strong relationship with his father as they realized that they held many things in common. This renewed relationship was the cornerstone that MBS rode to power which should result in his succeeding his father on the throne in the not too distant future.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during an interview on Jan. 23, 2016, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

(Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during an interview on Jan. 23, 2016, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.)

In examining MBS’ life, Hubbard points out that he did little to make his mark before 2015, with no experience in the military, corporate policy, or knowledge how the United States functioned.  This would result in a number of miscalculations in how he thought Washington would view his adventurous policies.

Despite extensive experience in the region, Hubbard viewed Saudi Arabia as a black hole because of its murky politics and opaque society that was dominated by social conservatism, support for terrorists, and its Wahhabis beliefs encouraging the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Saudi influence appeared invisible, but Hubbard, a perceptive writer soon saw through what MBS was all about.  The book is an easy read and points are understandable for the layman as Hubbard relies on his extensive knowledge in the region, interviews with people from all walks of life, and traveling the country extensively learning about the pre and post-MBS period before his visas were terminated in 2018.

Hubbard carefully details the political machinations within the royal family focusing on MBS’ competition with Mohammed Bin Nayef, a moderate who was next in line to the throne ahead of him.  By 2016, MBS publicized his “Saudi Vision 2030” plan that was the core of his reform program which at the outset was his calling card to gain support.  Throughout this period the Obama administration remained skeptical when it came to MBS’ plans.  They felt he had all the ”buzz words” but little substance calling for economic reforms, but no political reform, privately arguing that he was too cocky despite the fact that his economic program made sense when he argued that his government suffered from an oil addiction.  MBS’ world view saw Iran as the major threat, along with the Moslem Brotherhood and the German intelligence service, the BND warned that the new assertive Saudi Arabia that MBS proposed could destabilize the region, i.e.; confrontational stance toward Iran, promoting proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.  However, MBS’ new approach called for improved relations with Israel.  MBS shared Israel’s view of Iran and its puppet, Hezbollah and admired the country’s technological and economic power.  MBS had never been totally supportive of the Palestinians, seeing them as an impediment to peace and in the not too distant future it is quite possible that an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement may be in the offering.

Jared Kushner

(Jared Kushner)

Hubbard introduces the reader to the contradictions of Wahhabism by focusing on a moderate cleric named al-Ghamdi Ahmed Qassam who confronted the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice which he believed went too far and was much too intrusive in the lives of the Saudi people.  Hubbard explores a number of examples ranging from the lack of woman’s rights, religious fealty, and support for the dynasty reflecting how absurd their actions were. 

Hubbard’s incisive analysis is on full display in discussing the life and impact of Jamal Khashoggi, a reporter who in his early career had links to Osama bin-Laden, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the mujahedeen who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  He believed that the Afghan revolt would reform Afghanistan, but he would be greatly disappointed particularly after 9/11 when he broke with al-Qaeda.  The later Arab Spring further encouraged Khashoggi’s belief in reform in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia which would soon be another major disappointment.  He continued to write about the Saudi Dynasty as a reporter for a number of Arab newspapers and the Washington Post, but his repeated criticisms of Saudi policies in Yemen and Saudi society led to his murder, a murder that Hubbard chronicles in detail despite the Crown Prince’s denials that he was responsible.

Hubbard does a good job digging up important information particularly the implications of an Iranian backed Wikileaks dump of the hacked Saudi Foreign Ministry.   Among the documents leaked was details concerning Saudi Wahabis missionary work worldwide training clerics and spreading the Saudi version of Islam.  Hubbard’s observations are quite astute as he states, “the funding was not just to promote Islam, but to promote the right kind of Islam, which meant undermining the wrong kind of Islam,” – stop the spread of Shiism in China, India, and Africa.  Further, Hubbard presents the actions and results of MBS’ disastrous policy of going after the Houthis in the Yemeni Civil War with almost full American support.  The devastation of Saudi bombing and resulting death and infrastructure loss is eye opening.  Hatred for Iran who supported the Houthi rebels was and remains the driving force for MBS.

(Ben Hubbard)

MBS’ obsession with Iran led to confrontation with the Obama administration who eventually grew tired of death and devastation in Yemen, his refusal to consider the civil rights of his people, and his opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal.  In perhaps the most important part of the narrative Hubbard recounts MBS’ anger at President Obama apart from his nuclear deal, and his lack of action in the Syrian Civil War.  As disagreement mounted MBS looked forward to the arrival of the Trump administration.

Hubbard’s remarks on the similarities between MBS and Jared Kushner are well thought out and he develops their similar ideologies and needs for power and wealth.  Hubbard refers to the “the two princelings” as the key to the new burgeoning relationship between the Trump administration and MBS’ government.  After eight years of sparring with Obama, Riyadh saw a breath of fresh air as issues like Iran, Yemen, arms deals, peace with Israel all seemed to come into greater focus as Trump, led by Kushner were open to whatever MBS offered, especially Saudi money entering the US economy, and kowtowing to Trump’s ego.  By March 2017, the depth of the MBS-Kushner relationship was clear as joint plans were being developed and implemented.

There are few new revelations in Hubbard’s book, but a useful synthesis of how ruthless MBS is and how he achieved power and developed a close relationship with the Trump administration.  The strength of the book is Hubbard’s thorough reporting and anonymous interviews of people inside the kingdom until the Saudi government stopped providing him visas in 2018.  As critical Hubbard is in detailing MBS’ rise and policies he does point out that women can now drive, and he did work to break through some of the barriers that many young Saudis found suffocating.  In April 2016 he striped the Commission of its powers and allowed certain forms of entertainment that previously had been banned.  But despite some progress, Hubbard warns that authoritarian regimes can do popular things, but when it comes to opposition it will not be tolerated.  Hubbard credits MBS for countering centuries of Saudi history by uncoupling the clerics from the monarchy.  “Under MBS, the states’ authority comes less from its claim to defending religious orthodoxy than from a sense of authoritarian nationalism.”

The question must be raised as to which direction MBS will go in the future, but part of that answer may lie in American presidential politics.  Trump has given him a free hand with little or no criticism especially when it came to Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment.  Hopefully, a Biden administration would demand greater accountability, if not MBS can continue to exercise his power with little restraint and based on his  age the United States will have to deal with him for years to come.


The Western media, foreign business and politicians will no longer be able to fete MBS as a great moderniser and visionary pulling his desert kingdom into the 21st century, writes Law [Reuters]

HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE by Jon Meacham

Martin Luther King Jr. with John Lewis at Mass Meeting in Nashville

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., center right, is escorted into a mass meeting at Fisk University along with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair John Lewis, left, and Lester Mckinnie, center, in Nashville, Tenn., in 1964.Bettmann Archive/Getty ImagesJuly 21, 

When John R. Lewis died recently, part of America’s conscience passed with him.  With all the turbulence, chaos, lies, and antipathy toward race that is endemic to the Trump administration it makes every day difficult.  A case in point was yesterday in Kenosha, WI when Trump refused to acknowledge the shooting of Jacob Blake by police and his subsequent paralysis or his support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the seventeen year old AR-15 carrying killer of two men.  For me this has led to despair as I do not see a way out of America’s current condition with a “serial igniter” when it comes to race. Trump and his acolytes blame everyone but their own policies and rhetoric for where we are as a country, and one can only imagine what will become of our racial divide should he be reelected.

Watching and listening to the outpouring of respect for Lewis by the American people because of his message of non-violence and hope for the next generation was always reassuring, but now he is gone.  However, the texture of his life’s work is on full display in Jon Meacham’s latest work, HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE.  Mecham’s latest is not a full scale biography like his previous subjects, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and George H.W. Bush, but a more nuanced rendering of the development of Lewis’ personal theology and his contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement dating to the 1950s.  Mecham’s new book is somewhat a sequel to his wonderful book THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR A BETTER ANGELS where he expresses an optimism for America’s future that I believe has been shattered by events in Portland, Kenosha, and the rise of the alt-right white supremacist movement in this country.  We are bombarded each day by bifurcated politics and have lost the leadership of a great man. 

martin luther king jr
Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In true Meacham fashion his newest narrative history relies on extensive research and the application of incisive analysis as the keystone to his examination of Lewis’ life work.  Mecham points out his goal was to present an appreciative account of the major moments of Lewis’ life in the Civil Rights Movement, “of the theological understanding he brought to the struggle and the utility of that vision as America enters the third decade of the twenty-first century amid division and fear.”  Mecham’s opening chapter entitled “Overture” returns the dying Lewis suffering from pancreatic cancer to Selma, AL last March to celebrate the events of fifty-five years ago at the Edmund Pettis Bridge where he was almost beaten to death by a white mob supported by police which frames the stage for his remarkable life’s work and accomplishments, but also his optimism and love in the face of hatred.

For Lewis growing up in the segregated world of Troy, AL the church become his comfort and restorative zone and from an incredibly young age he fashioned himself as a preacher.  He possessed a great imagination and quickening faith from biblical themes of resurrection, of exile, and deliverance shaped and suffused Lewis’ life from its earliest days.  Even as a boy he would preach to his “congregation of chickens” located in his “chicken coop”who he would minister to each day.  He would experience the vividness of the Jim Crow order and its segregation realizing how evil it was from an early age.  Once he was exposed to an integrated society at his Uncle’s home in Buffalo, he realized how difficult it was to reconcile the teachings of Jesus and segregation.

The watershed moment(s) of his life was his exposure and later meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King.  For the first time King’s words introduced a vision of “non-violence, religiously inspired protest, to a way of seeing the world in terms of bringing the temporal in tune with the timeless.”  Lewis was not concerned with the streets of heaven, but the streets of Montgomery and the way black and poor people were treated.

Stokely Carmichael speaking at Garfield High School, Seattle, 1967

There were a number of individuals who influenced Lewis’ intellectual development.  Apart from Dr. King, the “social gospel” concepts of Walter Rauschenbusch, the strategy of non-violence of Reverend James M. Lawson, along with the murder of Emmett Till, and the work of Rosa Parks all impacted him greatly.  Mecham does a workman like job weaving Lewis’ upbringing and later life within the context of American history.  His intellectual and emotional development applied to upheavals in America are clearly explored and provides a roadmap into what Lewis thought and what type of man he would become.

Lewis saw integration as a key step forward toward bringing the world into a closer tune with the gospel.  Meacham allows the reader to accompany Lewis on his life’s journey including experiencing the approach of peaceful protest met by violence, arrest and imprisonment in Nashville, TN, Oak Hill, SC, Jackson, MS, and Birmingham and Montgomery, AL. in the mid to late 1950s.  Along the way we meet the Reverend Ralph Abernathy of Birmingham’s First Baptist church, James farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Medgar Evers, Field Secretary for the NAACP before his murder by Klansmen in Jackson, Diane Nash, a key organizer of sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and of course the likes of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Conner, George Corley Wallace, and John Patterson.  There were also those that did not go along with Lewis’ “Beloved Community.”  Men like Stokely Carmichael who believed that systemic racism would not be defeated by non-violence – he favored radical action after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights bill that led to Lewis’ removal as Chair of the SNCC; and Malcom X who favored a more militant approach and denigrated some of Lewis’ ideas, though later on they came much closer to each other’s ideals.

The Missing Malcolm X

Malcom X

Meacham presents a balanced approach integrating theology, socio-economics, and political components that Lewis brought to the Civil Rights Movement providing insights into what made Lewis tick and made him such a social and political force of nature. 1963 would be a watershed for Lewis’ development and the Civil Rights Movement.  Meacham provides intricate details of events surrounding protests in Birmingham and Jackson culminating in the March on Washington on August 28th of that year where Lewis at age twenty-one was the youngest speaker.  At the age of twenty-three after his participation in the Freedom Rides and a stint at Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi prison, Lewis was elected Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  SNCC led the growing militancy of the Civil Rights Movement provoking violent resistance against their cause that pushed a reluctant federal government to embrace the cause of Black rights.  By 1965, the Johnson administration gained the passage of legislation prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and voting destroying the legal foundations of Jim Crow.  1965 was also the year that Lewis suffered a fractured skull at the hands of the Alabama State Police at the Edmund Pettis Bridge as they marched for voting rights in Selma, AL, an event known as Bloody Sunday.  SNCC leadership would pass from Lewis to Stokely Carmichael in 1966 whose Black Power slogan was the antithesis of Lewis’ vision of a nationwide integrated community. But the SNCC would flounder due to FBI harassment and internal disagreements and passed from the scene by the late 1960s.  By 1968 Lewis would join Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and after Kennedy’s assassination he would go on to be elected to Congress where he would serve for more than thirty years.

Much of Meacham’s work relies heavily on Lewis’ memoir, WALKING IN THE WIND and as the author points out he did not set out to write a full scale biography.  Meacham reminds readers that if they wanted a full scale biography they must wait until Rutgers historian David Greenberg completes his own work.  But in the interim, Meacham’s work should hold the fort for those with an interest in a remarkable man.

John Lewis. Courtesy High Museum.

(John R. Lewis, booked for one of his many arrests)

DEMAGOGUE: THE LIFE AND LONG SHADOW OF SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY by Larry Tye

WASHINGTON, D.C.--May 5, 1954--Sen. Joseph McCarthy holds a copy of a letter under discussion at today's McCarthy-Army hearing session. A committee attorney quoted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as saying the letter produced by McCarthy yesterday was not a true copy of one written by Hoover to the Army. McCarthy this morning stressed that the letter he produced was verbatim with the FBI report, except for deletion of security information. (AP WIREPHOTO.)
WASHINGTON, D.C.–May 5, 1954–Sen. Joseph McCarthy holds a copy of a letter under discussion at today’s McCarthy-Army hearing session. A committee attorney quoted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as saying the letter produced by McCarthy yesterday was not a true copy of one written by Hoover to the Army. McCarthy this morning stressed that the letter he produced was verbatim with the FBI report, except for deletion of security information. (AP WIREPHOTO.) (AP WIREPHOTO /)

From the outset, Larry Tye in his new biography, DEMAGOGUE: THE LIFE AND LONG SHADOW OF SENATOR JOSEPH McCARTHY states that his book is about America’s love affairs with bullies, and certainly Joseph McCarthy fits that category.  At a time where the concept of a “political bully” seems to be on every pundit’ lips in covering Donald Trump it is useful to explore the life and tactics employed by the epitome of that description.  Confronted by Trump’s daily “bullying tactics,” many of which passed on to the president from McCarthy through Roy Cohn, political commentators have been exploring how the American people elected Trump and how least 30-40% of electorate still supports him no matter what he does or says.  People wonder how we arrived at our current state of partisanship, but if one digs into American political history, the McCarthy era seems to be an excellent place to start as the likes of Roy Cohn and others seem to dominate the political landscape.  If one follows the progression from Huey Long, McCarthy, George Wallace, Newt Gingrich on to Trump and examine their characteristics today’s political landscape becomes into sharper focus.

What separates Tye’s biography from those that came before, including David Oshinsky’s superb A CONSPIRACY SO IMMENSE: THE WORLD OF JOSEPH McCARTHY and Thomas C. Reeves’ THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOSEPH McCARTHY was his access to his subjects unscripted writings and correspondence, military records, financial files, and box after box of professional and personal documents that Marquette University made available for the first time after almost sixty years.  As he has done in previous books like SATCHEL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AN AMERICAN LEGEND, and BOBBY KENNEDY: THE MAKING OF A LIBERAL ICON, Tye examines all aspects of his subject and delivers an unquestionable command of primary and secondary materials. To his credit Tye makes a valiant attempt at providing a balanced approach to McCarthy’s life and politics.  No matter how hard he tried Tye has set himself a difficult task when like others he uncovers all the lies and bombast, but also his subject’s personal charm.  He concludes that McCarthy was “more insecure than we imagined, more undone by his boozing, more embracing of his friends and vengeful towards foes and more sinister.”

Near the end: Senator Joseph McCarthy with Roy Cohn in 1954.

(Near the end: Senator Joseph McCarthy with Roy Cohn in 1954.)

There are numerous examples in the book where Tye presents a McCarthy action and tries to give him the benefit of the doubt that previous biographers did not.  For example, in addressing the facts and myths that followed McCarthy his military record stands out when one tries to be objective.  “Tail Gunner Joe,” McCarthy’s chosen nickname actually volunteered for combat operations in the Pacific Theater during World War II, when he could have remained a “desk jockey” as an intelligence officer.  McCarthy would serve for a year before he requested a discharge and achieved a number of medals as newly released military record reflect, but despite his bravery it did not stop him from repeatedly embellishing and lying about his service record.  In addition, he engaged in political activity while in the Marines, trying to keep a political seat warm when he returned to Wisconsin which was “verboten” in the military.  Another example deals with the Malmedy Massacre at the outset of the Battle of the Bulge as the German SS murdered over 350 American POWs and 100 Belgian civilians.  As a new senator McCarthy needed an issue to enhance his political credentials so he defended the Germans in the Senate Sub-Committee, which he was only an observer arguing that they were only following orders and were coerced and beaten by American prosecutors, in addition to opposing “retributive justice.”  McCarthy’s real motivation was the preponderance of German voters in Wisconsin and some would argue that there was a strong element of anti-Semitism on his part as part of his belief system.

Tye correctly points out that McCarthy’s antics during the Malmedy hearings was “just a warm-up act.”  As McCarthy’s behavior surrounding the massacre muddied the historical record as it provided a glimpse into his senatorial future as he would employ a scorched earth strategy on any issue, he became involved in.  He fell for conspiracies and always elevated charges that he was spoon fed.  He would enhance his skills in dealing with the press, providing them with phrasing that they sought, and manipulate them in order to disseminate his views to his constituents.  The bombast, bullying, and lies which would later become his trademark were all present during the Malmedy investigation.

(A young Donald Trump and Roy Cohn)

One of Tye’s best chapters, entitled “An Ism is Born,” follows the pattern that McCarthy exhibited as a circuit judge, his military career, and his Senate campaign in 1946.  Tye provides exceptional detail and command of all aspects of McCarthy’s motivations and the creation of his February 1950 speech in Wheeling, W. Va. When he announced that there were 205 communists serving in the State Department.  Tye follows his disingenuous approach using innuendo as his primary tactic despite the advice of Congressman Richard M. Nixon to cease and desist this approach.  The Lincoln Day Dinner, the occasion for the speech was a natural extension of McCarthy’s playbook that he used up until that time and would now enhance as he discovered the “Communism” issue which would dominate the remainder of his political career.

Tye does a nice job providing examples of demagogues in American history.  He highlights men like Ben Tillman, Father Coughlin, Huey Long whose footsteps McCarthy easily fit into.  Tye also traces anti-communism in American history beginning with Woodrow Wilson’s administration,  the Palmer Raids, all part the Red Scare following World War I.  While tracing this theme Tye includes the Truman administration which instituted loyalty oaths and a crackdown on suspected communists.  With the House Un-American Activities Committee chaired by Martin Dies after World War II, the climate was set for the likes of McCarthy to latch on to this issue to base a reputation.  Congress would underestimate McCarthy and failed to measure the nation’s temperature.  It was not only kooks who succumbed to communist conspiracies, but patriotic organizations.  No matter how few facts McCarthy presented, how many lies he told, and how many old accusations he recycled, Congress did not learn the futility of taking on a man of “wit, whimsy, and mendacity” who when forced into a corner would transform himself into a pit bull or lamb, depending what the situation called for.

Tye carefully examines McCarthy’s approach to investigations.  Once elected in 1946 he usurps publicity and actions from legitimate Senate committees with false accusations against “supposed communists.”  It is in 1952 once Republicans gain a Senate majority and McCarthy gains the Chair of the Government Operations Committee and the Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations that he is unleashed.  He could now hold his own hearings, summon witnesses, issue subpoenas, publish findings, and bully anyone who tried to thwart him.  Tye describes how McCarthy would employ closed committee sessions in order to coerce witnesses with his tactics.  He would bully anyone who invoked their Fifth Amendment rights marking people as guilty even if something had occurred earlier in life, or a friend might have voice communist sympathies, etc.  In his committee innocence had to be proven.  His smears were designed to convict anyone who came before the committee and have them implicate others, much like a 1930s Stalinist Show Trials.  It is interesting that it took until 2003 to unseal the records of McCarthy’s executive sessions.

McCarthy seemed to go after just about anyone.  The Voice of America designed to confront Soviet propaganda in Eastern Europe was a major target; as was the Government Printing Office; overseas libraries and information centers; the poet Langston Hughes; and McCarthy even accused the State Department of book burnings.  McCarthy could not have conducted these hearings and investigations without his pit bull, Roy Cohn.  Tye delves into the role of Cohn who becomes McCarthy’s alter ego.  He joined McCarthy’s committee as Chief Counsel with little legal experience.  He used hearings as if they were a grand jury and presumed anyone who testified would crack under the right amount of pressure.  As Tye points out, “to Cohn, the ideal witness to drag from a private to a public grilling was one who’d grovel, stonewall, or otherwise ensure front-page headlines.”  Cohn later would become Donald Trump’s mentor and there is a remarkable similarity in their tactical approach to any given situation.

McCarthy and Cohn’s tactics fostered a high price.  In a chapter entitled “The Body Count,” Tye delineates a number of deaths related to being persecuted by McCarthy and company.  The suicides of Raymond Kaplin, an engineer at the Voice of America, former Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, Jr, and former Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt, Jr.; and Don Hollenbeck, a CBS reporter.  Is it fair to lay these deaths at the feet of McCarthy, one cannot really say, but what one can say is that he created the climate that pushed many people over the edge, and the number of lives destroyed and/or were impacted is incalculable.  The lives and careers of people like Reed Harris, professional diplomats known as the “China Hands” had their careers destroyed, as were many who were blacklisted in academia and the entertainment business.

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy with G. David Schine and Roy M. Cohn.

(G. David Shine, Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy)

 

Perhaps the most famous or for that matter infamous case was McCarthy’s actions against the US Army.  Known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings Tye recounts how even President Eisenhower, who had tolerated McCarthy for three years had enough.  Tye delves into how  Eisenhower would rage against McCarthy in private but enabled him in public.  Eisenhower had a number of opportunities to deal with McCarthy but from 1952-1954 he did little to speak out or take concrete action.  McCarthy could not have been as successful as he was without enablers like Eisenhower; Texas millionaires like Clint Murchison, H. L. Hunt, and Roy Cullen; Scott McLeod, the administrator of the State Department’s Bureau of Inspection who fed McCarthy material; FBI head, J. Edgar Hoover who did the same; politicians like John F. Kennedy, Robert Taft, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson all went along with McCarthy; the Catholic Church; and finally the American people – all facilitated McCarthy’s reign of terror. Tye’s recounting of the Army-McCarthy hearings is riveting and highlights the inequities of McCarthy’s system and how these inequities finally brought him down.

A number of characters stand out in the narrative.  Tye engages each in his analytical and personal style particularly Edward R. Murrow who stood up to McCarthy publicly on his television program.  Tye explores David Shine, ranging from his admiration of McCarthy and Roy Cohn to his own privileged view of himself and his responsibilities.  Jean McCarthy, the senator’s wife’s role as confidant and partner in exploiting communism is carefully evaluated.  Anita Lee Moss, a victim of McCarthy and her courageous stand against his committee is told in detail.  These are but a few that Tye incorporates into his narrative, they along with countless others were the victims of a paranoid and insecure man.

Tye has written the definitive account of Joseph McCarthy’s personal and public life.  Tye had documents availed to him that other authors did not making his account complete and enhanced by the author’s careful exploration of the important issues and personalities of the period.  Tye’s biography drips with comparisons of President Trump and hopefully the American people will digest their similarities and take the appropriate action on election day.

THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE by Philippe Sands

The twisting tale of the career and flight of Otto von Wächter sounds like something that would make a superb film or a TV box set. Photo / Horst Wächter

(Otto Wachter)

Who was Otto Wachter?

According to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal at the conclusion of World War II he served as Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland’s deputy, the Governor-General of Krakow, and a number of other positions in the SS and SD in Austria.  He was indicted for mass murder of at least 100,000 people, if not thousands upon thousands more.  Wachter is the subject of Philippe Sands latest book, THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE, the “Ratline” was an organization that Wachter and the likes of Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Mengele, Klaus Barbie, and countless others used as an escape route out of Europe as the war ground to a close.  Sands builds upon his previous book EAST WEST STREET: ON THE ORIGINS OF ‘GENOCIDE’ AND ‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY” were he wove together the story of his quest to uncover family secrets in the Ukrainian city of Lviv in the 1940s and the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II.  The route Sands describes, known as the “Ratline” was popularized in Frederick Forsyth’s THE ODESSA FILE, and thoroughly researched by Uki Goni, an Argentinian researcher in his book, THE REAL ODESSA and other monographs exploring how Nazis were able to avoid justice, the most important of which was Gerald Steinacher’s NAZIS ON THE RUN.  These works among many other titles uncover the role of the Vatican, the governments of Argentina, the United States, Switzerland among a host of countries each for its own reasons assisted former Nazis in their attempts to avoid prosecution.

Sands, a British and French lawyer, and Professor of Laws at the University College London is the author of seventeen books dealing with international law, many of which focus on the concept of genocide.  In his latest effort Sands traces the life of Otto Wachter, with special emphasis on his marriage to Charlotte Wachter, as he rose through the Nazi Party ranks, first in Vienna and later in Germany landing in his positions in occupied Poland.  After recounting his subjects’ Nazi career, he follows his attempts to avoid justice as he meanders his way employing the Ratline from 1945 to 1949.   Sands research is noteworthy as one of his main sources was through the relationship, he established with Wachter’s fourth child, Horst.  Through a series of interviews that resulted in a 2013 article for the Financial Times, Sands was able to extract a great deal of documentation dealing with the family from his mother’s diary, copiously kept from 1925, except at times when it came to the atrocities her husband was involved in.   But what must be kept in mind during Sands’ quest to decipher the life of a man on the run, and his wife’s attempts to help him; can be described as some sort of a “Nazi love story!”

Lawyer, humanitarian, and writer Philippe Sands. (Wikimedia Commons)

(Philippe Sands, author)

Horst was adamant during their many conversations that his father had done nothing wrong.  Horst argued that “his father was not responsible for any crimes…Rather, he was an ‘endangered heretic’ in the National Socialist system, opposed to racial and discriminatory actions applied in the German-occupied territories of Poland and Ukraine.”  His father was “an individual, a mere cog in a powerful system, part of a larger criminal group.”  Horst did not deny the horrors of the Holocaust and saw the process as criminal, but he did not think his father’s actions were criminal.

Sands does a remarkable job piecing together Wachter’s personal life and SS/SD career.  He takes the reader through the important events in Europe culminating with the Anschluss (union) between Austria and Germany and the role played by Horst’s god father Arthur Seyss-Inquart who served as Chancellor of Austria after it was taken over by Hitler’s forces.  Following the Anschluss, Wachter’s career advanced rapidly as he starts out as a lawyer in the Criminal Division of the SD ending up as Governor of Krakow were he implemented the creation of the Jewish ghetto for the city, the execution of numerous Poles, and advanced the process of Jewish deportation to the concentration camps.

Sands interest in Wachter is deeply personal as his grandfather, Leon Bucholz who lived in Lemberg, Galicia was deported from the city to his death during the Holocaust.  Between 1942 and 1944 Wachter was installed as Governor of the District of Galicia and supervised the city of Lemberg and probably signed the death warrant of Sands’ grandfather.

Horst Wächter

 Horst Wächter: ‘I do not return the objects for me, but for the sake of my mother.’

The most important  aspect of the book revolves around the 1945-1949 period.  This period comes to light once Horst agreed to make available his mother’s archive.  After the material was digitized Sands had access to “8677 pages of letters, post cards, diaries, photographs, news clippings, and official documents.” This required a painstaking act of reconstruction and interpretation that evolved over a number of years.  The result was detailed information how Charlotte Wachter assisted her husband even though she believed she was under surveillance.  Charlotte Wachter was the only reason Otto survived along with the vast network that supported him in the Austrian mountains in the Lower Tauerin area.

What becomes clear as the narrative unfolds is no matter how much documentation to the contrary concerning his father’s culpability in the death of thousands, Horst refuses to accept his guilt.  No matter how many interviews with people who were involved, scholars etc., Horst remained adamant.  As Otto Wachter came down out of the mountains and left for Rome in late April 1949, he took on the identity of Alfredo Reinhardt and would make his way to a monastery in Rome called Vigna Pia where Catherine Wachter sent money, clothes, and other survival necessities.  After living in the monastery for three months, Otto Wachter would die of a liver ailment leading to Sands’ investigation of how he died.  Horst was convinced that he was poisoned, probably by the Soviet Union, or perhaps by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, or even the Americans.

The last third of the book is spent analyzing Otto’s death.  What emerges is documentation of the role of a number of individuals, two of which stand out, Bishop Alois Hudal and SS Major Karl Hass.  It is clear from the evidence that Hudal was a focal figure in the escape of a number of important Nazis employing the “Ratline” and contacts within the Vatican.  Hass is an example of former Nazis that were used by the United States after the war in the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Interestingly, he would escape and turn up working for the United States Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) on Project Los Angeles in Rome recruiting spies to be used against the Italian Communist Party.  It is clear from the evidence that  Otto was in contact with Hass right before he died.  Horst was certain that Hass might have been the double agent who murdered his father.

Black and white portrait photograph of Hudal

(Alois Hudal)

As Sands investigates the last three months of Otto’s life, he pieces together his movements and who assisted him with life’s necessities and the forged documents to survive.  What cannot be questioned is that Charlotte Wachter, Nazi acquaintances, and others from the Vatican were Otto’s prime enablers, many of which facilitated the “Ratline” for others like Walter Rauff, Joseph Mengele, Franz Stangl, Erich Priebke, Karl Hass, and others.  In effect Otto Wachter walked in the footsteps of his “old Nazi comrades.”

Sands has composed a remarkable historical detective story, bordering on a “thriller.”  Through the life of the Wachters, the Nazi “Ratline” comes into full focus, in addition to how Otto Wachter’s actions, a man who oversaw numerous atrocities during the war was not accepted by his son Horst.  As a result, the book has a great deal to offer about the mindset of a Nazi murderer, but also the lengths people went to, to allow him to maintain his freedom.

(Otto and Charlotte Wachter and their children))

TOO MUCH AND NEVER ENOUGH: HOW MY FAMILY CREATED THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS MAN by Mary L. Trump

Donald Trump and Fred Trump in December, 1987.
(Donald Trump and Fred Trump in December, 1987.)

 

As a retired educator last Fall, I taught a Psychohistory course for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Granite State College in New Hampshire.  One of my topics was an analysis of Donald Trump exploring personality issues trying to determine what lay behind his decision making and behavior.  After conducting my research what emerged is the picture of a deeply flawed individual and a fifty-slide power point.  As a fellow New Yorker, I have watched Trump for decades and I wondered how my analysis measured up to the views of psychology professionals.  After reading Mary L. Trump’s new book, TOO MUCH AND NEVER ENOUGH: HOW MY FAMILY CREATED THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS MAN I found that my perspective and insights dovetailed nicely  with those of Trump’s niece.

It is clear from Mary Trump’s title that her conclusions reached in analyzing her uncle’s behavior were to be expected.  In a clear and concise manner, with little technical verbiage she recapitulated what it was like growing up in the Trump family in Queens, New York.  After witnessing her uncle’s behavior up close she concludes that he does not have the temperament and ego to serve as President.  The key component to Donald Trump’s development is his relationship with his father Fred.  In fact, if one compares the two men the “apple does not fall far from the tree.”

Mary Trump spends an inordinate amount of time describing and analyzing Fred Trump as a father and businessman.  Her conclusion is that he is a psychopath based on evidence reflected in how he interacted with his wife and children.  He was a cold and nasty individual who was cutthroat in real estate dealings, and a person who elicited little emotion or empathy for family members.  One must consider that Mary’s father Freddy, who was to be molded by Fred senior to become a ruthless real estate type.  Freddy did not fit into the mold and was eventually driven to alcoholism and an early death because of the treatment by his father.  His entire life he tried to please his father, but nothing that he did was satisfactory and eventually he was cast aside with little emotional support from his parents.  Once he rejected the life his father had created for him his younger brother Donald who carried personality traits similar to his father would be the heir apparent to the family real estate empire.

According to Mary the 2016 election “turned the country into a macro version of my malignant dysfunctional family.”  Before Mary offers opinions about her family be it developmental or a personality disorder, she first provides a clinician’s explanation for the reader then applies psychological principles to her grandfather, grandmother, father, and her uncle.  “Just as a secure attachment to a primary caregiver can lead to higher levels of emotional intelligence, mirroring (a parent) is the root of empathy.”  In Donald Trump’s case the parent he mirrored exhibited no empathy and it is not surprising that his son cannot seem to offer any empathy during our current Covid-19 pandemic.  As far as Donald’s mother is concerned, she was the kind of mother who attended to her children when it was convenient for her, not when they needed her.  “Often unstable and needy, prone to self-pity and flights of martyrdom, she often put herself first….especially when it came to her sons.”  Mary Trump was a needy person and Fred, a high-functioning sociopath seemed to have no emotional needs at all.  If one accepts the principles of developmental psychology, it is not surprising that Donald turned out the way he did due to his upbringing.

trump siblings young

(Donald Trump as a boy on the far left and his siblings) 

Donald Trump had issues as early as age two.  He had grown overly attached to his mother but felt abandoned when she suffered from medical problems requiring surgery and was mostly absent from his life for a year.  Donald would act out his self-centered negative behavior as a toddler with temper tantrums and bullying other children.  When his brother Freddy did not meet his father’s expectations the result was constant humiliation in front of strangers and family members. Donald would witness the type of behavior exhibited by his brother that led to his rejection and assumed a persona that was opposite to ingratiate himself with his father.

For some of the Trump children lying was a way of life.  For Freddy it was a means of survival with an emotionally abusive father.  For the Trump children exhibiting weakness was the greatest sin of all.  According to Mary Trump, Fred dismantled his eldest son by devaluing and degrading every aspect of his personality and abilities until all that remained was self-recrimination and a desperate need to please a man that had no use for him.  Donald escaped the same plight as his personality served his father’s purpose.  Fred “destroyed Donald, too, but not by snuffing him out as he did Freddy; instead he short circuited Donald’s ability to develop and experience the entire spectrum of human emotions….His capacity to be his own person, rather than an extension of his father’s ambitions, became severely limited.”  Fred came to admire Donald’s arrogance and bullying and dubbed him “the Great I-Am.”

Mary Trump delves into intricate details of the paradigm that was the Trump family.  She highlights family dinners, holidays, the education of the children, the early careers of each in her analysis and provides fascinating insights to why a ruthless father was not able to instill his values in one son, but was able to do so in another.  Throughout the narrative Mary Trump reinforces the fear the Trump children felt for their father whether he was present or not.  His vindictiveness drove Freddy to alcoholism and death, while Donald thrived.

Donald Trump and his mother, Mary, at his 50th birthday party at Trump Tower in 1996.

(Donald Trump and his mother Mary in 1996)

As is pointed out in many books dealing with Donald Trump, he did not become a self-made man using a small loan from his father.  Mary Trump presents the same argument as other authors in explaining how Donald’s wealth is based on his father’s repeated support, investment, and a constant flow of money for his schemes.  Even when he went bankrupt in three Atlantic City casinos, daddy would always bail him out.  Donald has never had to accept responsibility for his actions be it personal or public.  No matter how poorly he behaves and how poorly his business ventures develop he always seems to come out on top.  Roy Cohn was his mentor and one can see his methodology every day on the news, be it Covid-19, not standing up to Vladimir Putin, and using his authoritarian tendencies to destroy the Justice Department.

Mary Trump presents the horror and dysfunction of her family fully in describing how her father Freddy’s death was handled.  Her grandparents seemed uninterested and paid no attention to their granddaughter’s needs.  Their behavior at the funeral reflects how emotionally stunted most family members were.

President Donald Trump's niece, Mary L. Trump, has written a tell-all book about her uncle and her family – but will it be released? Photo: AP/Twitter

(Donald Trump and Mary L. Trump)

Mary Trump is accurate in describing Donald; “over time that attitude-that he knew better-would become even more entrenched; as his knowledge base has decreased (particularly in the area of governing), his claims to know everything have increased in direct proportion to his insecurity, which is where we are now.”  It is clear that Fred Trump’s evaluation of his son Donald was completely wrong and even when he knew it, he continued to lavish money on him.  When Fred Trump’s dementia developed the lack of empathy and care that he exhibited was fully returned in how he was treated – in a sense he got what he deserved.

It is clear that Mary Trump carries with her the scars of being a Trump.  The death of her father is a deep wound and her blame for his short life falls in the lap of Fred Trump, a man whose legacy is not building a real estate empire in New York City, but raising a demented child who through an accident of history has become president to the detriment of the American people.  Mary Trump’s book really does not break new ground apart from certain internal family competition and relationships which she observed and now has provided for the general public.  It is a fast read, clearly written and not encumbered by psychological jargon.  With the plethora of “Trump books” that have emerged the last three years, Mary Trump’s contribution is one of the better ones.

(Donald and Fred Trump)

YOGI: A LIFE BEHIND THE MASK by Jon Pessah

Yogi Berra during the 1960 World Series - photo Marvin E. Newman

(Lawrence Peter Berra ….”Yogi”)

Growing up in Brooklyn, NY I had had ample opportunity to sit in the bleachers in the old Yankee Stadium or watch the “Bronx Bombers” on WPIX.  If I could not watch the team in person or watch them on television, I could listen to my Sony transistor radio and learn of the exploits of my heroes.   The names of the players are embedded in my memory; Mantle, Ford, Skowron, Richardson, Kubek and of course Berra.  The Yankee catcher, sometimes outfielder was a sight to behold.  His awkward swing that paid no attention to the strike zone or his bowl legged stride did not detract from his baseball grace.  Be it jumping into Don Larsen’s arms following the 1956 World Series perfect game or turning his back on Bill Mazeroski’s game winning homerun to win the 1960 World Series, Berra always stood out as a leader among his teammates.  All of the wonderful stories  and career memories surrounding Berra are again brought to life in Jon Pessah’s new biography, YOGI: A LIFE BEHIND THE MASK which allows me to relive many important memories from my childhood.

Pessah’s prodigious research including interviews, culling newspapers, and other materials have produced a masterful biography as he places Berra’s story in the context of race relations, socio-economic issues, ethnic conflict, and other important aspects of American history during his lifetime.  A good example of the scope of Pessah’s effort is his discussion of the impact of World War II on American society, prejudice against Italian immigrants, and the obstinacy of baseball owners in integrating their sport.

Yogi Berra (left) won 10 World Series championships with the Yankees. (Courtesy Dale Berra)

        (Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle)

Pessah’s points out a number of interesting aspects of Berra’s life.  I was completely unaware that as a member of the US Navy during World War II, Berra volunteered for service on “Rocket Boats” which were designed to cross the English Channel on D Day and soften German targets for allied bombers.  Berra witnessed a great deal of carnage and death during the war which he never really went public with.  Another important aspect of Berra’s life and career was the abuse he suffered because of his facial features and stature.  Constantly the victim of crude and ugly remarks growing up he also had to deal with them when he stepped on to the baseball diamond.  Berra would become philosophical about the abuse and he was able to cope and put it behind him through a series of rationalizations.

Placing Berra’s career in the context of post war events is a key for Pessah.  Whether discussing the role of baseball during World War II, the GI bill of 1947, postwar American growth as Americans experienced discretionary spending to visit ball parks, the arrival of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby to integrate both major leagues, racial unrest in the 1950s and 60s, all reflect the author’s strong command of history and provides insights into Berra’s views and career.

Yogi Berra relaxed on the field during Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium in 1959.

(Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium in 1959)

I would imagine that most people are aware of the many “Yogisms” that exist that are still referred to on a daily basis.  Yogis’ commentary endeared him to the American people as it seemed he “can do everything so wrong but have them all turn out so right.”  Comments like “the future ain’t what it used to be,” “when you come to a fork in the road take it,” “ninety percent of baseball is mental; the other half is physical, “or when a reporter asked him if the comments he had to endure about his looks he responded, “I haven’t seen anyone who hits with their face,” are still amusing today.  Many have painted Berra as inarticulate and not highly intelligent.  Nothing could be further from the truth as Berra was a shrewd businessman who built Yoo Hoo soft drinks into a national brand, partnered with Phil Rizzuto buying a bowling alley and selling it for a $1 million profit, acting in a few movies, and earning the highest salary for a catcher in baseball history.

Pessah does a marvelous job presenting the watersheds in Berra’s life and career.  The role of Dr. Bobby Brown, an infielder with the Yankees before he turned to medicine played an important role in taking care of Berra his first few years introducing him to life in the city, smoothed his rough edges, and preached patience.  Berra’s marriage to Carmen Short provided him a family life and a partner who helped make important decisions.  Lastly, the work Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey who worked with Berra and turned his raw skills into the best defensive catcher in baseball.

The first two thirds of the book covers Berra’s career with the Yankees which includes the standard statistics that most baseball books offer, Berra’s relationship with his teammates especially Joe DiMaggio, and his sidekicks Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford, along with the difficulties of transitioning to managing the Yankees and his firing.  What sets Pessah’s biography apart is that he delves into Berra’s post playing career and later life after baseball in great detail offering numerous insights into his personality and what made him so successful.

What is clear from Pessah’s biography is the importance of family and the role of his wife Carmen.  If you want insight into the type of person Berra was off the baseball field all you need to explore is how he dealt with his son Dale’s cocaine habit which began when he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates..  His addiction became public knowledge during a federal investigation.  The relationship between father and son is strong further highlighted by Dale’s reaction when his father was fired by George Steinbrenner in 1985 leading to Yogis boycott of Yankee Stadium until July 18, 1999 when Berra returned to the stadium to witness David Cone’s perfect game against the Montreal Expos (a game I attended!!!)  Berra’s boycott was fostered by Carmen’s anger and reflects her role as a dominating and protective force in their marriage.

All of the traditional aspects of a baseball biography are present in YOGI: A LIFE BEHIND THE MASK, and it is to Pessah ‘s credit that he has written a study of an important American icon that allows the reader to really get to know the man. Pessah writes with a passion about Berra in part because he was his father’s favorite player and would inherit his dad’s love of the Yankees. For me, the book was a stroll down memory lane, but it raised my level of understanding what Berra endured at times during his career and how he overcame his shy and quiet nature to become a strong, capable, person and a wonderful family man.  If you have missed baseball because of Covid-19 this book can really help fill the void.

Yogi Berra

THE IMPECCABLE SPY: RICHARD SORGE, STALIN’S MASTER AGENT by Owen Matthews

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1985-1003-020, Richard Sorge.jpg

(Richard Sorge)

As early as April 1941 British intelligence informed Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin of German intentions to discard the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and invade Russia.  Stalin seemed to ignore those warnings and others as he would do on June 21, 1941 when London once again warned him of the impending German attack.  Unbeknownst to many in Europe Stalin did take certain precautions, for example, relocating Soviet industry east of the Ural Mountains and certain military accommodations as he had read MEIN KAMPF and believed eventually war with Germany was inevitable.  By November 1941, the German onslaught would be stymied outside of Moscow as Owen Matthews relates in his superb biography, AN IMPECCABLE SPY: RICHARD SORGE STALIN’S MASTER SPY.

Richard Sorge was a fascinating character and had the personality traits, the skills of a chameleon, and intellect to ingratiate himself with diverse types of people, manipulate them, and gather and cull intelligence.  In fact, at one time he was spying for the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany simultaneously.  He eventually became embedded with German and Japanese officials, military types, and others which allowed him to gather intelligence to play a crucial role in saving the Soviet Union from a disaster in 1941 and enabled Stalin and his countrymen to defeat the Nazis is 1945.  Sorge survived for nine years as a spy in Tokyo.  He was able “to steal the most closely kept military and political secrets of both Germany and Japan while hiding in plain sight.”

(Joseph Stalin)

Matthews main thesis revolves around Stalin’s need to know whether Japan would attack the Soviet Union.  Once Sorge provided the answer he moved Soviet troops from the east to block the Nazis in the west.  Without that knowledge and troop movements the course of the war would have been quite different.  What is fascinating despite the value of his intelligence he turned over to his handler’s Soviet intelligence chiefs did not trust him and as a result were very wary of the information he sent until after the Nazi invasion.  It must always be kept in mind that during the Stalinist period that was dominated by Stalin’s paranoia with show trials and purges leading to the execution of thousands Sorge was able to navigate the intelligence minefield to survive until arrested by the Japanese in 1941 and executed in 1943.

If Matthews were a novelist, it would be difficult to create a character like Richard Sorge.  His personality and lifestyle make it difficult for any biographer.  Sorge lived most of his life in the shadow world where his survival depended upon secrecy.  Despite this need he was an extrovert and in many ways an exhibitionist who manipulated people, was a womanizer, and at times could be considered an alcoholic who saw himself as an intellectual who believed he should be an academic.  One of the best sources for Sorge must be taken with a grain of salt.  Once arrested by the Japanese he admitted to an idealized version of his life to interrogators.  He left an extensive correspondence with Moscow and numerous letters to his wife Katya, along with his journalistic and academic writings left quite a record.  Matthews summarizes Sorge well describing him as a man with three faces.  One face was that of a social lion, “the outrageously indiscreet life of the party, adored by women and friends.  His second, secret, face was turned to his masters in Moscow.  And the third, the private man of high principles and base appetites living in a world of lies, he kept mostly to himself.”

image

(Agnes Smedley)

Matthews traces Sorge’s life growing up mostly in Berlin, his experiences in World War I that turned him into a socialist because of what he experienced and eventually a true believer in communism.  Matthews explains in a clear fashion how he grew more and more convinced in his own radicalization and how he was recruited by the Comintern which was developed by Lenin to help spread world revolution.  However, after Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin seized power it became a vehicle to protect the Soviet Union.  Matthews carefully lays out Sorges evolution intellectually from WWI to his move to Moscow in 1924.

Matthews is highly effective in relating numerous tidbits about Sorge personally and events in Germany, Russia, and Japan during his subject’s intelligence career, i.e., sharing lodgings during his training as a spy with Chou En-Lai and Josip Broz Tito, providing details about the internal competition between military and civilian elements in Japan, the thought processes of different historical figures, and other examples.  Sorge’s cover was as a journalist and commentator throughout his career.  This afforded him exposure to important decision makers and helped develop sources for his spy networks.

Matthews offers a wonderful description of Shanghai in the early 1930s, a city that consisted of bordellos, drugs, banking, trade – “the pleasurable city.”  Shanghai was nicknamed the “whore of the orient” where gangsters and warlords mixed with bankers and journalists.  With no residence permit for foreigners it was Asia’s espionage capitol.  The city was used as a hiding place for members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to escape persecution from Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang.  Sorge used his base in Shanghai to ingratiate himself with German military officers who trained the Kuomintang.  Eventually Sorge’s best sources as he built his network were Nazis and military types.  He assumed the role of a “debauched bourgeoisie expatriate,” a role he played well.

The author discusses many of the important figures in Sorge’s life and intelligence work.  Agnes Smedley, an American socialist and journalist who had access to the CCP was recruited by Sorge and plays a prominent role in the creation of the Shanghai network.  Max Christiane-Clausen became Sorge’s radio operator when he moved on to Tokyo was invaluable as was Hotsumi Ozaki who had excellent contacts in the Japanese Consulate in Shanghai and eventually joined Sorge in Tokyo, along with businessmen and officials in the Kuomintang.  Yotoku Miyagi, a young artist from Okinawa developed into an excellent member of the Tokyo network.  Later Eugen Ott, a senior member of the German embassy in Tokyo as a senior military attaché and eventually replaced Herbert Dirksen as German ambassador to Japan was an exceptional source.

Eugen Ott (ambassador) Stock Photo

(Eugen Ott)

For Stalin, Sorge was able to provide information on Japanese expansionism particularly his fear of an attack against Russia.  Matthews follows developments within the Kwantung Army and Japanese civilians and how it impacted Sorge’s work.  Stalin feared the anti-Comintern pact of Japan, Germany, and Italy and his paranoia would lead to the purges.  In an important chapter, “Bloodbath in Moscow” Matthews lays out the impact of the show trials that led to the executions of Lev Kamenev and Grogiry Zinoviev, 1.6 million arrests, and 700,000 executions, the gutting of the Soviet officer corps, the intelligence community, and other officials.  It is fascinating how Sorge navigating the atmosphere in Moscow in the late 1930s was able to survive.  Later, Sorge concluded he was trapped in Tokyo as war became obvious and worked to meet Moscow’s needs which centered on the fear of a German-Japanese alliance which would surround the Soviet Union and making sure Hitler attacked anyone except Russia.

Hanako Miyake

(Katya Sorge)

Matthews is correct when he argues that Hitler did not believe Japan would make a good ally because of his own racial proclivities seeing them as inferior.  This became the impetus for the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact.  In addition, fighting broke out on the Soviet-Mongolian border between Japanese and Russian forces called the Nomohan incident which would have a profound impact on the Second World War.  Tokyo kept the fighting localized as it did not want to fight Russia and the ongoing war in China at the same time.  The Kwantung armies influence would be strengthened as they pushed for expansion against their Asian neighbors and leave Russia alone.  This would lead to trying to remove the British and American fleets as a threat as they engaged in trying to create a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

Matthews does a good job describing the planning and machinations emanating from Berlin, Tokyo, and Moscow as the date of the Nazi invasion approached throughout the Spring 1941 culminating in the German onslaught on June 22, 1941 along with the reaction of the major principals involved.  Stalin’s attitude during the entire period was one of distrust believing that what he was received was misinformation designed to weaken the Soviet Union.  Information contrary to his beliefs like what he received from Sorge can be summed up in his comment that “you can send your ‘source’ from headquarters of German aviation to his fucking mother.  This is not a source but a dezinformator – a dis-informer.”  By June 1941, the powers that be in the Kremlin had turned a deaf ear to Sorge’s reports/warnings.  Sorge grew depressed as more and more he was ignored.

Jonathan Steele in his The Guardian review of May 16, 2019 agrees with Matthews that “Sorge recognized that Hitler’s invasion of the USSR was a major blunder for the Nazis, and he came close to revealing his true loyalties by shouting in front of his German colleagues that the idiot had lost the war. He had greater success in signaling the inevitability of war between the US and Japan three months before it happened. He did not predict the assault on Pearl Harbor but his report on Japan’s decisive shift of focus to conquests in the south allowed Stalin not to move troops to Siberia but make them available to block the Germans from moving further east into Russia.”

Steele concludes that “in the Brezhnev and Andropov eras in the 1970s and 80s, Sorge became a Soviet hero with a flood of books about him, even though he had been totally abandoned in 1941 when he was arrested in Tokyo. He had hoped the Soviet authorities would press the Japanese to let him go back to Moscow, but the Kremlin betrayed the man who had done so much for it. No effort was made to save him.” Overall Matthews’ book is a spy thriller that doubles as an enthralling history of revolutionary Germany in the 1920s, Tokyo during the country’s prewar militarization, and Moscow in the 1930s, where Stalin’s mass terror consumed, among others, seven of Sorge’s military intelligence bosses, and Sorge’s ability to accumulate and transmit important intelligence through a series of networks he and his cohorts created.  Matthews provides many insights into Sorge’s work and his impact on events and if you are a general reader or a spy aficionado this book should prove very satisfying.

(Richard Sorge)

 

HANNS AND RUDOLF: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GERMAN JEW WHO TRACKED DOWN AND CAUGHT THE KOMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ by Thomas Harding

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(Rudolf Hoss)

After World War II a small coterie of individuals morphed into Nazi hunters.  From Simon Wiesenthal to agents of the Israeli Mossad their mission was to capture and bring the Nazi perpetrators to justice.  This has produced numerous books about their exploits in the form of memoirs, narratives about the role of governments, and certain individuals.  Of these individuals many remain unknown and little has been written.  Thomas Harding introduces us to Hanns Alexander, a German refugee and British serving officer who should be considered part of the pantheon of Nazi Hunters in his book HANNS AND RUDOLF: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GERMAN JEW WHO TRACKED DOWN AND CAUGHT THE KOMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ.

The format chosen by the author is a series of alternating chapters telling the life stories of the two men, at times in detail, and at times in a more cursory manner.  Beginning with Rudolf Hoss, the future Kommandant of Auschwitz we learn about a dismal childhood and a bigoted and fanatical father, along with a distant mother.  Hoss would enlist in the army at the age of fourteen during World War I serving mostly in Iraq and Palestine.  After the war Hoss would join the Freikorps which were irregular German military volunteer units that existed from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, which effectively fought as mercenary or private armies.   The Freikorps fought against communists in Latvia and also joined in the so-called Kapp Putsch. The Kapp Putsch was a right-wing coup that sought to end the Weimar Republic in March 1920. The revolt resulted in failure.  Hoss was also involved with the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923 which resulted in his imprisonment and being charged with murdering a “right wing” traitor.

By 1928, Hoss was released from prison and became enamored by Adolf Hitler. He married and hoped for an idyllic rural lifestyle.  Hoss would join the Atamanen League  under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler in Bavaria.  Himmler took Hoss under his wing and by 1933 he joined the SS and became a supervisor at Dachau and developed what Dachau Kommandant, Theodor Eicke called an “attitude of hatred.”  By 1936 he was promoted to SS-LT and became part of the camp administration and began his bifurcated life of rural family life and the demands of concentration camp work.  By 1938 he was transferred to Sachsenhausen to be adjutant to the camp Kommandant, Hermann Baranowski.

Harding carefully recreates Hoss’ slow rise up the Nazi camp bureaucracy and at each step his responsibilities would increase.  By 1940 he was the Kommandant at Sachsenhausen and by April of that year he was tasked to oversee the construction of Auschwitz overcoming numerous obstacles to build the camp.  Due to a lack of food and sanitation Hoss adopted the drastic methods used at Dachau and Sachsenhausen including euthanizing thousands, mass shootings with burials in huge ditches, starvation, etc.  In the summer of 1941 Himmler informed Hoss about the Final Solution and between 1940 and 1944 he would witness the arrival of 1.3 million prisoners at Auschwitz.  Of these some 1.1 million that perished, 1 million were Jews.  Auschwitz had over 1 thousand guards and at any given time held 80,000 prisoners.  After a short assignment to straighten out Sachsenhausen he returned to Auschwitz in May 1944 to oversee “Aktion Hoss,” the extermination of Hungarian Jewry.  Within a year Hoss’ world fell apart and he realized he had to escape leaving his family in Flensburg took assuming the identity of a dead German sailor and hoped to disappear.

 

 Hanns Alexander

(Hanns Alexander)

 

Hanns Alexander came from a not especially religious upper-class Jewish family in Berlin where his father, a physician built a successful medical practice.  Throughout his childhood he was surrounded by Berlin’s most successful and powerful people and his father was one of the city’s foremost physicians.  As long as the Weimar Republic survived the Alexander family did well.  Hanns and his twin brother Paul were precocious boys who even into adulthood loved to play pranks.  However, their world began to come undone with the rise of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s assumption of the German Chancellorship in 1933.  Slowly the noose was tightened around the family as Dr. Alexander’s medical practice was gutted by Nazi racial laws and they witnessed the actions of bullies and thugs on Berlin’s street against Jews.  Dr. Alexander, like many assimilated Jews believed the violence was temporary and it would soon pass, and normality would resume.  Much to his chagrin this was not the case and the family left Berlin in a piece meal fashion for England.

On a visit to London to see his daughter and grandchild in 1936 Dr. Alexander learned he was on a Gestapo list and sought refuge in England.  Later in the year with the Olympics being publicized emigration laws were eased and the twins Hanns, and Paul, 19 years old left Germany, followed months later by their mother.  With the arrival of war in 1939 both boys decided to enlist but since they were German refugees, they were part of a large group that was suspected of possibly being spies.  It took Hanns months to prove he was not and in December 1939 he joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps created to make use of thousands of German refugees against Hitler.  Training was mostly non-military and his assignment consisted of manual labor in support of the army.  He would be sent to France and was part of the 300,000 British soldiers who were saved at Dunkirk.  Hanns realized the only way he would be treated with respect was to become an officer. And in January 1943 he was accepted as part of the Officer Cadet Training Unit and after real training landed at Normandy in June 1944.  His role was to translate for the interrogation of captured German officers.

<p>The <a href="/narrative/9934/en">defendants</a> listen as the prosecution begins introducing documents at the <a href="/narrative/9366/en">International Military Tribunal</a> trial of war criminals at Nuremberg. November 22, 1945.</p>

(The Nuremberg Trials)

It is at this point, about two-thirds into the narrative the book takes an especially important turn as Harding finally deals with Hanns’ work as a “Nazi hunter.”  If there is a major criticism of Harding’s work is that he spends too much time providing the comparative background of his major characters and not enough dealing with events following the defeat of the Nazis, in an addition to a number of historical issues and editing.  First, he relies too heavily on Hoss’ prison memoir composed in Poland as he awaited trial.  As historian David Cesarani points out in a The Independent, 4 October 2013 book review there are numerous examples of Hoss’ jumbled approach to historical detail, not to mention his deliberate attempt to shift blame.  Further his reliance on Gustav Gilbert and Leon Goldensohn’s psychological profile  seems to soft peddle Hoss’ ideological formation, training, and socialization of the SS.  Harding states that Dachau was the first concentration camp, not so, it was first built as a camp for political prisoners and a model for what later camps would become.  Harding also states that Auschwitz was located in “rural isolation,” in fact it was a busy town next to a major railroad junction.  Harding’s description of Zykon B gas (it was not an insecticide but used to exterminate lice on clothing) and its application in showers is another misstatement as it was not “poured out of false shower heads,” when it resulted in death from pellets dropped into a tube or onto the chamber floor through an opening.

The key for Hanns was translating for the interrogation of Josef Kramer, Hoss’ former adjutant.  His trial in September 1945, “The Belsen trial of Josef Kramer and 44 others” became a dry run for the Nuremberg Trials.  Following Kramer’s conviction Hanns received permission to hunt for uncaptured war criminals.  He was promoted to Captain and was now a fully-fledged British war crimes investigator, not just a German refugee who helped with translations.

According to John Le Carrie, Hanns’ hunt for Hoss reads like a spy novel.  True, as the last 50 pages plus traces Hanns’ pursuit of Hoss, even though the reader is completely aware of how the story will end, Rudolf Hoss hanging from the gallows in 1947.  Harding follows Hoss’ movements, contact with his family, his final capture, interrogation, as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials,  and trial in Poland in detail and forms the most important aspect of the narrative.  In addition, Hanns Alexander happens to be the authors great-uncle and he devoted six years of research to finally tell his story, an important one, but one that could have been organized better with improved editing.

 

 Rudolf Hoss

(Rudolf Hoss)

MAGNIFICO: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND VIOLENT TIMES OF LORENZO DE’ MEDICI by Miles J. Unger

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For the last few nights, my wife and I have binged Netflix’s Medici series.*  It brought me back to Garrett Mattingly’s classic, RENAISSANCE DIPLOMACY which argued that the relationship and machinations between Italian city-states was a microcosm of the 20th century in terms of actions resulting in numerous wars and plots.  It piqued my interest in one of the most important figures of the Renaissance, Lorenzo de’ Medici the subject of Miles J. Unger’s superb biography,  MAGNIFICO: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND VIOLENT TIMES OF LORENZO DE’ MEDICI which argues that the Florentine leader was able to navigate the Italian city-states and Papal states surviving Papal, domestic Florentine, and other external plots by a Pope, a king, and a duke by employing his charm and diplomatic skill augmented by the occasional use of violence to preside over Florence, a city-state that supported and exhibited artistic brilliance in addition to the squalor of the city’s poor.

Unger describes a city of contrasts pitting artistic beauty and poverty.  The author is correct to apply this dichotomy to the life, character and policies implemented by Lorenzo.  In Unger’s sweeping account supported by assiduous research enhanced by numerous notes that add detail to the narrative we witness a figure who strides alongside the most important historical figures of the period throughout Europe.  According to Unger the success of the Medici family rested in large part on the way “each member of the family worked for a common goal, demonstrating a unity of purpose not always present among ruling dynasties, where jealousy and competition are more important than fraternal affection.”

Clarice the wife of Lorenzo de Medici Mona Lisa, Artwork, Queens, Europe, Characters, House, Lorenzo De' Medici, Art Work, Work Of Art
(Clarice, wife of Lorenzo de’ Medici)

Unger takes the reader to the court of Cosimo de ’Medici, the family patriarch who built the bank and trade that the family fortune and influence rested upon.  He follows with a description of his weak son, Piero, who trained Lorenzo for leadership almost from birth.  Lorenzo and his predecessors ruled a city-state that was not the most powerful on the Italian peninsula, but it abounded in artists and craftsmen coveted by foreign courts.  By exporting Florentine culture Lorenzo tried to achieve through “the dazzle of art what they could not hope to win through the strength of arms.  Throughout his reign his support of the work of Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo abound.  In addition, the intellectual pursuits of men like Pico Della Mirandola.

Unger’s commitment to detail and the ambiance of Florence and the Papal court is an important component of the narrative.  Whether he is describing the celebration of the beginning of Lorenzo’s reign, marriage negotiations, the dynastic rivalries that resulted in the Pazzi conspiracy, the hatred between dynastic families, wars with Pope Sixtus IV, and the rise of Savonarola among many topics Unger has the ability to explain the complex and maintain the hold of the reader.  Unger delves into the byzantine nature of Italian alliances and politics carefully.  He correctly points out how Lorenzo could foster an alliance between Milan under the Sforza’s, Naples, and Florence to offset the disingenuous behavior of the Pope in order to secure Florentine banking and trade interests.  Important personalities abound be it external enemies like Pope Sixtus IV, his nephew Girolamo Riorio, and Archbishop Francesco Salviati, and others including Girolamo Savonarola and Niccolò Machiavelli.

Giuliano de' Medici (left) and Lorenzo de' Medici. Portraits by Botticelli and an unknown artist

(The de’ Medici brothers Guliano and Lorenzo)

Sixtus’ family came from poverty and he saw the papacy as a vehicle to create wealth and prestige for the Riarios and della Rovere, as it seems that the Medici were always an impediment to his goals.  The Pazzi family also produced a number of important individuals that Lorenzo had to manipulate to survive.  The hatred of Jacabo de’ Pazzi and his nephew Francesco de’ Pazzi is well known for their involvement in the conspiracy that resulted in the death of Lorenzo’s younger brother and confidante Giuliano and Unger unwraps the plot and its participants and the end result of destroying the Pazzi family and its wealth.

Unger possesses a strong command of the shifting alliances that led Lorenzo to thwart Sixtus IV’s plans.  A key chapter deals with Girolamo Riario’s attempt to manipulate the King of Naples to destroy the de ‘Medici which saw Lorenzo outsmarting him in saving Florence.  This supports Unger’s major theme that Lorenzo was confronted by one crisis after another.  Apart from external crisis he had to cope with internal opposition within the Florentine ruling council, the Signoria which the de’ Medici tended to dominate.  Revolts, conspiracies, and other actions seem to be a daily occurrence that Lorenzo had to overcome.  Despite all that Lorenzo had to confront he effectively weaved a web that he employed to balance his own sense of duty and pleasure.  For Lorenzo, his personal need for intellectual enlightenment, reflected by men at court, art and literature, and his duty to Florence were in conflict throughout the narrative.  The way Lorenzo navigated these pressures reflects his talent and his genius.

Unger does not neglect Lorenzo’s personal life.  The important role played by his mother Lucrezia, his wife Clarice, his children, cousins, and advisors is on full display.  The use of family members for diplomatic gain is a tool examined carefully.   Lorenzo was a patron of the arts and a creative figure in his own right.  He was able to help foster a flowering of art, architecture, literature, and intellectual life that is considered unparalleled in history.

POPE SIXTUS IV: Pope Sixtus IV is known for both the great steps taken under his rule to rebuild Rome and his great corruption. Pope Sixtus IV instituted nepotism as a way of life in Rome, and ran the Papacy as a family operation. Italian Renaissance, Renaissance Art, Miguel Angel, Sistine Chapel, Religious Images, Historical Art, Old Master, Kirchen, Lorenzo De' Medici
(Pope Sixtus IV)

The book is not an exercise in hagiography as Unger examines Medici finances and corruption in detail producing the money manipulation that Lorenzo engaged in to support his obsession with art and architecture, pay off his internal and external enemies, and construct alliances among his many triumphs.  To his credit Lorenzo did siphon off funds to assist the poor, but one cannot overestimate his manipulation of Florentine wealth as very questionable.  It is important to keep in mind the age in which Lorenzo lived before judging him too harshly.  It was a period of tyranny dominated by despots in which one could argue that he stood above all including men like Paul II, Sixtus IV, and Innocent VII.

The key to Unger’s success is research that includes government records, historical accounts, diaries, and Lorenzo’s own memoirs, letters, and poems.  The end result is scholarship, analysis, and an amazing eye for detail which will be difficult for Lorenzo’s next biographer to surpass.  One must be cognizant of the fact that it took only two years following Lorenzo’s death for the system he developed too unravel as his son Piero, ill-trained, and ill-tempered, was unable to stop its disintegration.  It was not surprising because only one man, his father had the depth of personality and skills to maintain it.

*Let us just say that the Netflix series stretches the bounds of historical accuracy!

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