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Big Time

By His Own Rules (lg.)By His Own Rules:  The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld

One would think that an 803-page tome about a two-time Secretary of State would be sleep-inducing.   But this book by Bradley Graham races along like a fine Capitol mystery-thriller.   It is the biography of a man who might have been president, Donald Rumsfeld.   While it is presented in what is now known as a fair and balanced approach, it becomes clear that Rumsfeld’s faults and failures will add up to be larger than his successes.

This is first and foremost a tale of hubris and ego.   The young Rumsfeld, one of the youngest Congressman ever elected, is seen as clean and prepared, like the 1.0 version of Mitt Romney.   The young Rumsfeld made connections with the right people, with names like Ford, Bush and Cheney, which is how he came to have a long and stand out career.   Yes, he eventually ran for president in a campaign that was stillborn and he met his albatross in the Iraq War.

Iraq was the vehicle that fully exposed Rumsfeld’s weaknesses and caused President Bush to accept his resignation; Rumsfeld became McNamara 2.0.   This is a well-written, cautionary, tale.

Public Affairs, $35.00, 803 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Later Than It Seems: Klein on Kennedy

A book that is likely to be significant, Senator Edward Kennedy’s autobiography entitled True Compass: A Memoir will be released on September 14, 2009.   This forthcoming 544 page book, to be published by Twelve, is said to have taken five years to complete.   Contra, a book that I read recently, Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died by Edward Klein does not appear to be as significant.

Back in 2005, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post wrote an article (“Ed Klein, Drowning in Ink and Grasping for Air”) concerning Klein and his then-new book The Truth About Hillary Clinton.   In his article, Kurtz wrote:  “Despite the enormous hype surrounding Edward Klein’s scathing and hearsay-filled book about Hillary Rodham Clinton, the author has been ignored by all but two television shows.”   I’m not positive about this, but Kurtz seemed to find some of the content of The Truth… a bit shaky.

Such is not the problem with Ted Kennedy: The Dream…   Instead, the problem is that most of the interesting things in this “new” biography come from other sources and, to his credit, Klein cites those sources.   It is not the credibility of this account – except in one small instance – that raises questions.   The question is do we really need another biography of Ted Kennedy, an extremely ill man, at this point in time?   If so, did it need to spend just a bit more than 200 pages revisiting ground that has been trod over so many times before?

There’s nothing in here, to these eyes, that clarifies exactly who Ted Kennedy is or what specifically makes the family he came from so unique and/or so significant in American history.   There’s also nothing in this account that is strongly pro- or anti-Kennedy (the author has claimed to be politically neutral).   If dozens and dozens of books about the Kennedys had not already been written, one might find some items of discovery here but – in the words of Jackson Browne – it’s later than it seems.

In one specific instance, Klein does appear to be in error.   He writes, on page 79, of a situation where Ted Kennedy flew back from Alaska in April of 1969 – this was subsequent to the assassination of Robert Kennedy – with other U.S. senators and after possibly having too much to drink repeatedly yelled out that, “They’re going to shoot my a– off the way they shot Bobby…”   Klein calls this ” a particularly revealing – and unreported incident.”   Sorry, but I believe it was reported on back then in the major news magazines.Kennedy Ted 3

If you’ve read nothing about the Kennedys then Klein’s latest might serve as a quick way to learn some relatively recent history.   But there are many, many other choices that will provide you with more information about the three Kennedy brothers and the family itself.   In my view, the two best books about the Kennedys just happen to be two books (both still in print) that focused on Robert F. Kennedy.   The first of these was Robert Kennedy and His Times by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and the second was RFK, A Memoir by Jack Newfield.

Joseph Arellano

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Missing You: A Review of Losing Mum & Pup by Christopher Buckley

According to his only child, Christopher, William F. Buckley, Jr. often said, “Industry is the enemy of melancholy.”   Accordingly, Christopher Buckley has written this memoir – literally a book of memories – about his parents’ final years as a way of dealing with his loss and sense of disorientation.

We all, of course, knew about his father, the late conservative icon often symbolized by the initials WFB.   WFB wrote 5,600 newspaper columns between the years 1962 and 2008; hosted Frontline for 33 years; and had completed 56 books as of the time of his death.   Patricia Taylor Buckley, WFB’s wife, is someone we knew little of, but she comes to life in her son’s telling as a regal and charming – if occasionally impatient – woman.Losing Mum and Pup mediumLosing Mum and Pup cover

What is very clear about the Buckleys is that they were, indeed, larger-than-life figures.   When Patricia one day received a call intended for WFB and was told the president was on the line she responded, “The president of what?”   Of a female politician she said, “That woman is so stupid she ought to be caged!”

While we may think we knew WFB, this book provides a few new views and perspectives.   It was clear that the author of God and Man at Yale was an intellectual (a man who could dictate using perfect punctuation), but not many of us suspected that he was a daring sailor and pilot whose near-death escapades make for lively reading.   As summed up by Chris, “Pup was the bravest man I knew.”

Well, but then politics is a dangerous sport.   Christopher, who supported Barack Obama, has the great sense to touch lightly on conservative versus liberal in this memoir.

Christopher does show us that WFB was both a prideful man and a man of fine humor.   When asked, back in 1965, what he would do first if elected mayor of New York City, WFB answered, “Demand a recount!”

WFB was to say that “Despair is a mortal sin”; and also that “I believe in neither permanent victories nor permanent defeats.”   Perhaps this is why his son crafted this book of memories so that it celebrates the lives of his parents – despite some personal faults that he clearly divulges – rather than the defeat he felt from their passings within a year of each other.

“Christo,” as he was known to WFB, was able to directly tell his father, “I love you very much.”   This despite the fact that WFB could be a harsh critic of his son’s work, including sending this e-mail message just after receiving his son’s latest book:  “This one doesn’t work for me sorry.   XXXB.”

There’s little cause to doubt that Losing Mum and Pup would have “worked” for both WFB and Patricia Taylor Buckley.   While, in the words of a traditional American folksong, “Death don’t have no mercy in this land…”, this is a life-affirming work.

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir by Christopher Buckley, Twelve Books, Illustrated, 251 pages, $24.99.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Thanks to Karen at Hatchette Book Group USA for supplying the review copy; much appreciated!

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