Tag Archives: President Kennedy

That Was Only Yesterday

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Picador, $16.00, 320 pages)

On March 30, 1981, I was at the Orange County (California) airport – waiting for my return flight to Sacramento when it became clear that something had happened back east.   The then-new president of the U.S. and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, had been shot in an apparent assassination attempt.   Three other persons were shot and it was not then known whether Reagan, at his advanced age, would survive.   It appeared that a hundred or so persons jammed into the airport’s pub-restaurant to watch the 19-inch RCA color TVs broadcasting the dramatic events.

On that day – back in the day – I assumed that a book about the near assassination of an American president would appear within 6 to 18 months, clarifying exactly what happened.   But years and then decades passed by and the book did not appear.   This, finally, is that book.

Del Quentin Wilber takes a micro-level look at the events of 03/30/81 in a style that recalls books like The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Death of a President.   It is an immediately engaging narrative which begins by looking at the schedules of Reagan (whose Secret Service code name was Rawhide), his Secret Service detail members and of the highly disturbed and bizarre individual who sought to impress a Hollywood starlet.   The language and mood become more tense and dramatic as the hour of the assassination attempt draws near.

Wilber very properly sets the stage by reminding us that this shooting came just three months after the killing of John Lennon, and followed the history-altering assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, and of Martin Luther King, Jr.   Wilber’s sadness in recalling these events is palpable, and informs the reader that this is a non-partisan account – one need not have been a political supporter of Reagan’s to fear for his safety (and for the country’s future) while revisiting that period.

“If Jerry Parr hadn’t decided to redirect the limousine from the White House to the hospital, Reagan would likely have died…”

“(The) doctors had been keeping pace with Reagan’s bleeding by pumping donated blood and fluids into his system.   So far, the tactic was working…  But this compensatory approach couldn’t continue forever.   They would have to stop the bleeding surgically.”

In these pages, Ronald Reagan is a likeable and courageous man who was able to joke with his emergency room physicians.   (He wondered what the gunman had against the Irish as all those shot on this day happened to be of Irish heritage.)   But he was also a man who wondered if he was about to meet his maker.   It was an open question because, as we now know, Reagan lost fully half of his blood volume as surgeons sought to remove the bullet that lodged a single inch from his heart.   Those of us glued to the TVs in early 1981 had no idea that the president came this close to dying.

Once the danger period had passed, the president was advised by the medical professionals to rest and convalesce for several months.   But he was a uniquely physically fit and strong elderly man.   Twelve days later he was back at the White House, and just a month later a visibly thinner president addressed a joint session of the Congress.

There’s more, much more, in this telling that disappoints only in that it seems to end too soon.   The courage of the Secret Service agents who saved the president’s life on this day is close to being incomprehensible.   “(Agent) Parr’s training had taught him one thing above all:  when faced with an actual threat, he could never freeze.   Not for three seconds, not for one second.   Without fail, he had to respond instantly.”

This is a fascinating and unique account, and it constitutes a worthwhile addition to the historical record.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Rawhide Down was released as a trade paperback book on March 27, 2012.  

“Full of spectacular, original reporting.”   Bob Woodward

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Robert Redford

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (Alfred A. Knopf; $28.95; 468 pages)

Robert Redford is a glamorous and gorgeous biography of a man the book’s editor viewed as “undervalued” as an artist.   Callan fully makes his case that Redford is an actor, an artist, of substance.   I have never before read an actor’s bio that makes me want to sit down and watch every one of the films mentioned within it; which is a measure of the seriousness with which Callan treats his subject.

Callan does three things that an actor’s biographer should do…  Firstly, he explains how and why Redford went into acting, after originally considering a career as a painter or illustrator.   Secondly, he goes to great lengths to help us understand how intelligent Redford, the man, is.   In some cases, this involves using long quotes from Redford about acting or politics.   No matter the subject, the actor-director’s comments are always deep and thorough.   And thirdly, he helps us to observe a career in which the actor grew and began to hit his peak at the young age of 34.

Callan writes that Redford, at 34, became “a far more internal actor.”   A director was to say of Redford:

“He surprised me.   He was running around with me, doing all the production things…  But then the shooting started, and he retreated inside himself.   So much of it was mime.   And to mime, you need some extraordinary composure because if you are going to be self-conscious, this is where it will show.   

…honesty took him to this very, very calm place.   Everything became minimalistic, very contained.   I did not direct that pacing.”

Indeed, Callan makes the fine point that Redford established  himself as an actor of silence, a man who left us wanting more from his character’s mouths but appreciating them as they were filmed.   Think, for example, about the silences of Hubell in The Way We Were, or as the ballplayer Hobbs in The Natural.   Then think about how different the role of Hubell would have been played by, say, Jack Nicholson!

Callan’s research is quite impressive except in one instance.   At one point, while preparing to film the provocative film The Candidate (both California Governor Jerry Brown and U. S. Senator John Lindsay thought the film was based on their real-life careers), a writer proposed a scene in which the fictional candidate McKay – played by Redford – would don the gift of an Indian headdress.   Redford absolutely refused to consider this, and Callan presumes it is based on the actor’s respect for American Indian tribes.   It’s more likely that Redford was aware of John Kennedy’s vow, during his successful run for president in 1960, to never do either of two things:  wear a hat/place anything on his head, or hold or kiss a baby.

Like Paul Newman and his vaunted Newman’s Luck, Redford has had great instincts throughout his long, successful career.   Callan shows us how, early on, Redford elected to play an outlaw (an escaped convict) instead of an establishment figure.   Making similar choices with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting was to cement his success later.   Newman and Redford, we come to see, were both actors of skill who were also blessed with the best of luck.   Perhaps they were both fated to choose the right roles in the right films at the right time.

Robert Redford: The Biography is, in its entirety, an excellent and valuable overview of Robert Redford, the man whose career has been one – in Michael Feeney Callan’s words – of “adventurous disinhibition.”  

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

That Was the Year That Was

The year 1960 was a monumental one during which this country elected John Kennedy as its president.   But the book 1960 – LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies illustrates once again that more is less.   Instead of writing a book about President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson or the losing presidential candidate Nixon, David Pietrusza attempts to cover them all at once; as a result more is lost than gained.

One basic problem is that the backgrounds and life events of these three separate large characters in U.S. history (and modern politics) are covered rapidly.   For the reader who has already read full biographies of JFK, LBJ and Richard Nixon, far too much is missed or condensed down to Reader’s Digest style summaries.   On the flip side, the reader who has never read in depth about these figures will likely be unable to comprehend some of what he/she is reading due to the very facts and circumstances that are left out.

I’ll provide an example of the latter problem.   One of the events that made Nixon a major, but young, political figure in the late 1950’s was his involvement in investigating Alger Hiss.   That is mentioned on just two pages in 1960 and what’s missing is an explanation of the key evidence found against Hiss that Nixon relied upon in alleging that Hiss was a Communist and/or a spy (notwithstanding that Hiss worked in the U.S. State Department for Franklin D. Roosevelt and was once the Secretary-General of the United Nations).   There’s no explanation here of the microfilm found in a pumpkin or the typewriter that was supposedly found to have been used by Hiss to commit a forgery.   For the person who is not familiar with Nixon, it will seem that he is credited for “breaking” Hiss but it will be unclear as to exactly why.   Nixon’s role as a prosecutor is hazy without a sufficient review of the evidence he presented against Hiss.

There’s another issue.   The book jacket states:  “Like The Making of the President, 1960 by Theodore White – yet far more revealing than Kennedy camp insider White could ever be…  (it) has the narrative energy and suspenseful turns and twists of a headlong thriller.   Yet it’s all true.”   Well, we actually don’t know today what is and is not true about what is reported as fact in 1960.   For example, there’s an entire chapter – a somewhat odd and silly one – about Kennedy’s relationships with women (“They were a dime a dozen”); and statements about his father and brother Robert.   But these events happened so long ago that we do not, in truth, know what happened and what was alleged or was the product of someone’s imagination.

It’s also not clear what the impact of this information is supposed to be…  Enough said.   But, for me, the biggest fault with 1960 is that I never felt I was getting to know any of the three figures as human beings.   By contrast, Pietrusza shows some surprising skills by including some write-ups of peripheral figures that come off as much more real and human – individuals with true strengths and flaws.   Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller are two of the figures who come to life in 1960 in a way that the three lead subjects do not.

Finally, this is just not the suspenseful thriller touted on the book jacket.   For an excellent example of a non-fiction political/modern history book that does read like a Capitol thriller, the interested reader can turn to By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld by Bradley Graham.   Rules is an 832-page roller coaster ride that is never dull.   By comparison, 1960 is a 417-page survey that tries to cover the lives of three very large figures at one selected point in U.S. history.   It comes off as simultaneously both too big (focusing on three pivotal lives rather than one) and too small (leaving out too many key details while including a bit too much gossip).   As a result, it simply feels flat in the reading…   But maybe Pietrusza will produce a comprehensive biography of Hubert Horatio Humphrey or Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller; either would – no doubt – be quite interesting.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Coming Up Next…

A review of 1960 – LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidents by David Pietrusza.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Crash

Based on printed and oral interviews with Tom Vanderbilt, I fully expected Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do to be an enormously fascinating read.   Sadly, for me it was not.   This is a book full of overly long chapters, citing a lot of math and psychology/behavioral studies…   The result is that we’re told a lot of things we already know.   Inattention and distractions cause crashes.   Most of us think we’re better drivers than we are.   Young people have great physical skills but poor judgment.   In summary, there were no “a-ha” moments in this book that reads flatter than a drive down I-5.    Traffic 4

Here’s a quick test.   See if this holds your interest:  “…the average driver adjusts their radio 7.4 times per hour of driving…  their attention is diverted 8.1 times per hour by infants, and…  they search for something – sunglasses, breath mints, change for the toll – 10.8 times per hour.   …In general, the average driver looks away from the road for .06 seconds every 3.4 seconds.”   This is a short excerpt from a section explaining how most accidents occur because a driver fails to pay attention for just two seconds.   OK, this may be factual but 402 pages of information presented in this manner does not make for scintillating reading.

Then there’s Vanderbilt’s reliance on experts whose comments cause one to worry.   For example, he quotes Barry Kantowitz, a psychologist and “human factors” expert on driver time-sharing (meaning performing an additional task while driving):  “…people can’t time-share at all.   You only get the appearance.   It’s like speed reading.   You can think you can read really fast but your comprehension disappears.”   First, it’s probably task-sharing that’s being referenced here rather than time-sharing.   Secondly, there’s plenty of documentation establishing that speed readers – such as graduates of Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics – do in fact raise both their reading speed and comprehension levels.   Maybe the “expert” Kantowitz was unaware that John F. Kennedy was a speed reader, as is Jimmy Carter (and this reviewer). 

Malcom Gladwell’s blurb about the author on the book’s back cover calls him “a very clever young writer (who) tells us all sorts of things about what driving says about us.”   Clever, maybe, but the convoluted quote reflects some of the confusion inherent in this work.   I did relate to Vanderbilt’s point – stated often in Traffic – that humans have not driven long enough to have evolved into creatures gifted enough to drive a mile or more a minute.   And he makes a few good points about the average American driver’s inflated sense of technical skills and self-esteem.   But other than this, I found no great lessons or messages here nor anything that, “may even make us better drivers.”   (Another unfulfilled claim from the book’s back cover.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized