Tag Archives: U.S. history

A Noble Life

James Madison Lynne Cheney

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney (Penguin Books, $18.00, 576 pages)

Every law student begins his or her studies by reading the case of Marbury v. Madison, in which the U.S. Supreme Court invoked its right to strike down governmental actions which violate the law. As James Marshall strongly stated, “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” It was a decision that the then-defendant and Secretary of State James Madison – later the fourth president of the U.S. – was to disagree with: “This makes the judiciary department paramount in fact to the legislature, which was never intended and can never be proper”

The average person is not likely familiar with the life and political career of president Madison, something which is remedied by reading James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. Cheney’s book builds a fine case for the greatness of the man known as the “Father of the (U.S.) Constitution.”

He had used his remarkable gifts in one of the most important ways a man could, by playing a key role – the key role, one might say – in creating a framework for laws and establishing institutions that would secure liberty and happiness for generations (of Americans) to come.

Madison may not have been as charismatic or attractive a figure as others of his time, such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, or Thomas Jefferson, but he was clearly – along with Jefferson – one of the most intelligent humans alive at the time. Madison was to join with Jefferson in giving birth to a new form of democratic government.

Each was probably the brightest person the other ever knew, and both were well schooled, giving them a vast fund of common learning on which to draw as they talked and planned. Both continued to study throughout life and considered books of mighty importance. Each was known to buy them whether he had ready cash or not.

It was the team of Madison and Jefferson – as Cheney clearly details in her account – that was largely responsible for creating the Constitution of the United States. And Madison, who was initially opposed to the Bill of Rights, was later to play a key role in its enactment. Madison was, as one speaker stated, a man who produced “Power and national glory… without the sacrifice of civil or political liberty.” He was to die as the final living signer of the Declaration of Independence.

There are some fascinating details supplied by Cheney, such as when she describes the secret code that Madison and Jefferson used to communicate with each other. Since mail was often lost or misdelivered in those days, they developed a system in which they assigned telephone number-like digits to each major figure they came in contact with. This meant that if anyone got hold of their correspondence, they would not be able to determine who the writers were referring to when they made less than complimentary remarks about an individual. And Cheney turns the rivalry between Aaron Burr, Jefferson, and Madison on one side and Hamilton on the other into something so dramatic, it reads like one of Gore Vidal’s history-based novels.

A major concern about this nonfiction work never comes into play, the fear that Mrs. Cheney – the wife of Richard (Dick) Cheney, would bring modern day politics into the telling. This is never an issue; there’s not a single instance in which she attempts to analogize between the past and present, or in which she is critical of a modern day political figure. Cheney on occasion does use academic language, such as the term “inquietude” (physical or mental restlessness or disturbance), but this is easily remedied by access to an online dictionary.

For the majority of readers, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered will be James Madison: A Great Life Encountered.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released in a trade paper version on May 5, 2015.

James-Madison-Lynne-Cheney-150x150

“Compelling, elegant, original… Lynne Cheney brings the great, elusive James Madison back to life.” Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage.

This review was originally posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-james-madison-a-life-reconsidered-by-lynne-cheney/

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A Tricky Life

Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas (Random House, $35.00, 619 pages)

Being Nixon

“This is not a book intended to weigh the success and failure of Nixon as a policy maker, and, although the Watergate scandal figures inevitably and prominently, I do not attempt to solve its many mysteries. Rather, I have made an attempt to understand what it was like to actually be Nixon.”

Richard Nixon, as noted in Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas, once said: “Politics would be a hell of a business it it weren’t for the goddamned people.” Thomas, who wrote the exemplary and comprehensive Robert Kennedy: His Life, attempts to get into the head of the only president to resign the office. Seeing the world as Nixon did is likely not possible – as Thomas concedes when he writes, “What Nixon really felt, deep down is unknowable…” But then Thomas makes up for this by stating, “(Nixon) was determined not to worry about being worried.”

Henry Kissinger was to say of Nixon that, “He had a kind of desperate courage.” In Thomas’s view, “Kissinger knew that for Nixon, entering a crowded room or talking to a stranger required an enormous act of will.” In essence, Thomas has drawn up a portrait of a man who – despite being the one-time leader of the Free World, was completely alone.

Thomas does a fine job of explaining the importance of the Alger Hiss case to Nixon’s later political career. The same is true of his detailing of Nixon’s foreign policy achievements. But on Watergate, there’s nothing new here. In terms of fulfilling the book’s stated mission, as quoted above, it fails.

Being Nixon is a sometimes intriguing, sometimes frustrating, read about a man who, quite simply, was utterly unknowable.

Recommended, for those willing to tackle a 600-page biography.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

return of Washington

A review of The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789 by Edward J. Larson.

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The Patriarch

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Tubulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw (Penguin Books Reprint Edition, $20.00, 896 pages)

The Patriarch paper

“If this was fiction, no one would believe it,” historian David Nasaw quipped on NPR’s Fresh Air about the extraordinary life of Joseph P. Kennedy, the subject of this biography, which is now available in a trade paperback.

In this 800-page tome [this refers to the hardbound edition], The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, Nasaw, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York’s Arthur M. Schlesinger Professor of History, captured one of the most enigmatic figures of the twentieth century. Although the length of the book might turn away readers, this Shakespearean tale – which was six years in the making – is surprisingly a page-turner. As he did with another larger-than-life twentieth century character, William Randolph Hearst in The Chief, Nasaw goes into depths previously not explored about Kennedy’s strengths and weaknesses.

Nasaw puts to rest many of the lingering myths about the patriarch. As the first biographer to be granted full acess to Kennedy’s papers, Nasaw left no rock unturned. What one gleans from The Patriarch is that Joseph P. Kennedy was a complicated man, full of contradictions.

Joe Kennedy and sons

He was an attentive, loving father, anxious to meet the needs of his nine children. Whether it was a school assignment or a common cold, Kennedy was engaged and quick to offer help, but he was hardly present in any of their lives. He was either off conducting business in Hollywood, serving in Washington and later in London, or vacationing in Palm Beach.

Kennedy adored his devoted wife, Rose, though he was unfaithful even when he was courting her. The infidelities would not let up until he had his stroke.

His view of Jews varied. On the one hand, he was ambivalent about saving the Jews from Nazi Germany and always had an anti-Semitic joke at the ready. On the other, some of Kennedy’s closest confidantes were Jewish, including his chief liaison to the media, New York Times columnist Arthur Krock (whom Nasaw discovered had an unusually close relationship with Kennedy, which for a journalist was borderline unethical).

Austere in his personal life, Kennedy rarely drank, exercised regularly, took few financial risks once his wealth was established and attended mass as often as he could given his hectic schedule. But in public life he was unable to restrain himself and could be viewed at times as self-destructive. Kennedy had little regard for social etiquette or political deference. Against the wishes of the FDR administration, he aired his opinions before they could be vetted, views that eventually had an adverse effect on the political futures of his sons.

In the same vein as David McCullough’s Truman or A. Scott Berg’s Lindbergh, Nasaw has produced a book that will appeal to the scholar, the book critic, and more importantly the general reader. The book’s scholarship is unmatched and its prose flows effortlessly. For those infatuated followers of the Kennedy family or interested in twentieth century American history, I could not recommend a more gratifying read – just make sure (due to its weight) it’s the electronic version.

Highly recommended.

Adam Henig

Adam Henig is a biographer, blogger and book reviewer. You can read more of his work at:

http://www.adamhenig.com/

This article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-patriarch-the-remarkable-life-and-turbulent-times-of-joseph-p-kennedy-by-david-nasaw/

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He Was A Friend Of Mine

TV Review – ‘The American Experience’ – ‘JFK’

The American Experience examines the life and times of the 35th President of the United States.

JFK

The WGBH/PBS two-part four-hour production, JFK, premieres on November 11 and 12. This is a unique and intriguing profile of the life of the 35th president of the United States. It begins with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Why? Because as a college student and best-selling author of Why England Slept Kennedy had argued that, “Democracies have to be ready to fight at all times.” But in late 1962, it was estimated that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union – and involving China – would result in somewhere between 175 and 300 million deaths “in one hour” (to use Kennedy’s own terms). So John Kennedy stepped back, remained calm and avoided war in his finest hour as the leader of the Free World.

After this opening, JFK takes a traditional biographical, chronological look at the life of the man who, when he took the oath of office, was the youngest president in our country’s history. In this documentary, narrated by Oliver Platt, we hear from multiple historians, writers and former members of the Kennedy administration. Most importantly, we hear from Kennedy himself, on Dictaphone recordings that he made while in the White House.

The Kennedys were raised to be ambitious and to be agents of change. As Platt states, “The past was not the point in the Kennedy family.” It was all about the future – a future that was to rest, in large part, on the shoulders of Joe Kennedy, Jr. As is well detailed in JFK, John Kennedy battled significant health problems his entire life, beginning with a near-death experience at the age of three.

After the death of Joe Jr. in World War II, no one expected that Jack Kennedy would have the strength and stamina to pursue a political campaign. But he successfully did so, campaigning each day from sunrise to midnight in order to become a Congressman at the age of 29. He subsequently became a U.S. Senator at the age of 34, defeating Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952.

Kennedy stated that, “The presidency is the ultimate source of action.” Despite being saddled with constant physical pain he would settle for nothing less than becoming the person who would occupy the oval office.

JFK provides some fascinating photographs and video footage of Kennedy in his youth, some taken while he was in college at Princeton and Harvard. It’s a bit frightening to see how much of John Kennedy, Jr. could be seen in a young, thin John Kennedy.

One of the fascinating pieces of information we learn from JFK is that the prized golden tan he possessed was actually a discoloration of his skin caused by the medications taken to control his Addison’s disease.

This PBS program takes us from the initial difficult two years of the Kennedy administration, when relatively little was accomplished legislatively, to the activist final months of the Kennedy White House. John Kennedy, according to a niece, “loved being president.” Kennedy believed in the Great Man theory of governance, and he was growing in stature and confidence during the last months of his life.

This look at the Kennedy presidency provides a clear explanation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In this it is exemplary. Where the documentary trips up a bit is in including a brief (fortunately brief) segment on Kennedy’s womanizing. The section feels like something that was added as an after-thought; it would have best been left on the cutting room floor.

The first two hours of JFK and even part of the third hour will be a bit dry for many viewers. But the fourth and final hour justifies the time spent in revisiting history. In that hour we observe the John Kennedy who was accepted by the Free World as its fearless leader – the Kennedy who was as much loved in France and Germany as in his ancestral home of Ireland. We also glimpse a man who enjoyed being a father, and who grew closer to his wife before the journey to Dallas. (This was the first and only time that Jackie Kennedy traveled with her husband on a domestic political trip.)

JFK DC

JFK takes us to the final hours and minutes of Kennedy’s life. Out of respect for the man, no footage of the assassination is displayed. What we do see and share in is the enormous sense of grief and anguish that people around the world experienced after his untimely death. Even Nikita Khrushchev was visibly shaken as he signed a guest book in sorrow.

To this day, John F. Kennedy is a man missed by many – both by those who met him and by those who never did. JFK succeeds in examining and detailing his life, a life which ended in horrific tragedy.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This article originally appeared on the Blogcritics site:

TV Review: ‘American Experience’ – ‘JFK’

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The Night Chicago Died

City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist (Broadway Books, $14.95, 384 pages)

“Oh, the winds of Chicago have torn me to shreds….” Bob Dylan, “Cold Irons Bound”

City of Scoundrels (nook book)

Those who have gone on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river cruise will never again look at the city’s buildings the same way. There are many cities in America (New York, with an aura all its own, and Los Angeles with its own unique vibe) that typically rule the pop culture landscape. But there is one city in this country so uniquely American that it is better experienced than described or imagined — particularly when it is paradoxically and arguably the most corrupt city in our nation’s history.

Yes, there is the blue-collar folklore, The Jungle, and everything else, all of which is either true or has elements of truth to it. But Chicago is, and always has been, a mystery of wonder — simultaneously brilliant, politically corrupt, awe-inspiring and bad at baseball.

Gary Krist’s City of Scoundrels attempts to capture the essence of Chicago through the lens of twelve particularly challenging days in 1919. The book starts with a blimp crashing into a bank and then, after it gets our attention, chronicles several events, circling back to this tragic event. A racial incident, transit strike (oh, the unions in this great state), and senseless murder of a six-year-old transpire in rapid succession. These events allow the author to paint a picture of a city and its leaders, including the iconoclastic mayor, William “Big Bill” Thompson, who dreamed of making the city the architectural gem of the world.

In the meantime, for the baseball fans among us, references to the Black Sox scandal are sprinkled in, and the even more corrupt decade of the 20s and Al Capone foreshadowed in the Epilogue.

The factually accurate City of Scoundrels features meticulous research. It is interesting, though this is likely more confined to those who have some existing knowledge of or personal interest in Chicago. It would be less interesting for general readers.

It is a very good book, but despite the shocking events described, it does not capture the raw emotion inspired by the true experience of Chicago — getting off at the train station and being pressurized out of the building into the sights and sounds of the city, seeing the sun over a brick outfield wall as the latest edition of a terrible team attempts to play baseball on a weekly afternoon, or seeing the juices of a barely edible pizza run down the side of the cheek of another innocent victim.

The book feels like an essay. It would be better if it were an essay that felt like the Windy City.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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