Tag Archives: U.S. history

An Innocent Man

500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars by Kurt Eichenwald (Touchstone, $30.00, 611 pages)

Amazing.   Bush believed that he could establish a new legal system, and then declared his order exempt from judicial review?   Had anyone in the White House even read the Constitution?”

This is a stunningly good, and often sad and depressing, account of the first 500 days of the Bush administration’s response to 9/11.   As detailed in this book, a number of innocent persons were labeled as dangerous terrorists and were either tortured or lost their lives.   However, author Eichenwald seems to be both sympathetic to, and critical of, the people who worked in the White House and in the U.S. intelligence system.

“My God, they’re arguing that the president can do whatever he wants.”

The Bush White House was guided, during these 500 days, by a Berkeley law professor who incredibly advised that, “…we do have the right to violate international law.”   John Woo, a Republican lawyer in the Office of Legal Counsel, asserted that the executive’s power was virtually unbounded; a latter-day acceptance of Richard Nixon’s version of an imperial presidency beyond the review of the courts and Congress.   Fortunately for this country, a number of other government lawyers were fully prepared to take on Woo.   And they did.   One noted of Woo’s position:  “Adopting these standards would invite enemies to torture American soldiers.”

“The call ended without a resolution of their conundrum and with both men befuddled by the difficulty of nailing down Arar’s terrorist leanings.   Neither considered the obvious explanation – the evidence didn’t exist because Arar was an innocent man.”

These were days when fear and hatred led to a trampling of individual human rights; a national tragedy was exploited by extremists.   Let’s hope this account prevents us from repeating such a misguided and unfortunate chapter in our nation’s history.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A page turner…  Jaw-dropping…  It crackles.”   The Washington Post500 Days (3d)

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Rawhide Down

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

Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber tells the story of President Ronald Reagan’s assassination attempt in what is very nearly “real time.”   Wilber, a reporter for The Washington Post and one-time finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, takes the title from the Secret Service’s code name for Reagan.

With the election nearing, it is interesting to reflect back on the man, the president, who was generally well-liked by the public, even those who disagreed with his politics.   In fact, his likability and fine sense of humor permeate the account of the time leading up to his shooting and subsequent surgery, hospital stay, and recovery.

Also prevalent in the account is the now-famous mutual adoration between the former president and his wife, Nancy.

The reader is led to believe that the story will be about the details of the day of the assassination attempt, so when the author initially deviates and shares select anecdotes, characteristics of White House (WH) staff members, details of WH meetings, and personal interactions with various constituent groups, etc., the reader is pulled off track.   However, the story quickly recovers, and nuances that color and deepen the events surrounding the assassination attempt and the people involved are shared effectively throughout the remainder of the book.   The writing style is direct, entertaining, and of high quality.

Other interesting elements of the book include: the questioning of shooter John Hinckley, Jr., an unstable person who was apparently driven crazy by his infatuation with actress Jodie Foster; the accounts of the actions, decisions and occasional gaffes of Reagan’s Cabinet and those entrusted to protected him; and, perhaps, above all, information about the actions of the medical professionals who had to make quick, high-pressure decisions on how to save Reagan from a very nearly fatal gunshot wound.

Certainly much has been written about Reagan, but this book provides a unique perspective on the man,  with unique facts that most readers will no doubt find enjoyable and quite informative.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in the Midwest and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Summer of ’68

Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball – and America – Forever by Tim Wendel (Da Capo, $25.00, 288 pages)

“…in 1968, we of the pitching profession came as close to perfect as we’ve ever come in modern times.”   Bob Gibson

There’s a reason the phrase “inside baseball” has come to be used.   And the phrase represents the problems with trying to determine who will want to read the rather awkwardly titled Summer of ’68: The Season that Changed Baseball – and America – Forever by Tim Wendel.   If you’re a baseball fanatic, you probably already know about every detail, every fact in this account of the 1968 World Series.   If you’re not, you won’t be able to relate to the names that pop up on every page – many of the details seem to pile on without context.

And then there’s the problem with the sub-title.   Yes, there were assassinations and riots that year that horribly marred the country’s history, but this reader felt that Wendel never adequately made the connection between the socio-political events and the sport covered here.   The story of Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals will spark an interest for some – but, again, if you’re not already a deep-in-the-weeds baseball fan, this retelling will not mean much.

Wendel also tries a bit too hard to make the case that Bob Gibson may have been the best pitcher ever – a case that won’t convince fans of Sandy Koufax and others.   Summer of ’68 is sometimes interesting, but more often it’s just passable reading.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A review of Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot.

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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

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America

The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (Doubleday, $27.95, 352 pages)

Imagine that you are in charge of making decisions for a major publisher.   A writer presents you with a new novel based on the following story:  A very young (49-year-old) President of the United States is elected and quickly stalked by a madman.   The president serves only 6 months before he is shot by this crazy person.   As the shooting takes place, one of the men standing alongside the president has been present at three presidential assassinations (although he is in no way connected to the assassins).   The physician in charge of saving the president cannot locate the bullet in the president’s body, and turns to a world-famous inventor for his assistance in creating a new machine that will find it.   Despite their best efforts, the president does not survive and the vice-president – a political hack who is against everything the former president stood for – assumes office.   This new leader throws aside his former supporters, and proceeds to fully implement the dead president’s political agenda.

No doubt you would reject this fictional tale as being beyond the bounds of believability.   And you might be right, except for the fact that this all, in fact, occurred in 1880.   As documented in The Destiny of the Republic, one truly fascinating account of the events surrounding the assassination of President James A. Garfield, and the assumption of the high office by Chester A. Arthur, these events happened.   The genius inventor who attempted to save the life of the president (in the days before x-rays) was Alexander Graham Bell.   The witness to Garfield’s assassination was Robert Todd Lincoln, “…the only man to be present at three of our nation’s four presidential assassinations.”   And President Arthur, a product of the New York State spoils (political patronage) sytem, was to be the man who enacted civil service reform.   Arthur came to be known as the Father of Civil Service, a title that would likely have been Garfield’s, had he survived being shot.  

“Assassination can no more be guarded against than death by lightning, and it is best  not to worry about either.”   James A. Garfield

This is a detailed and moving version of the events surrounding the life and death of James Garfield of Ohio, a man who was very much in love with his wife; a woman who nearly preceded him in death.   Garfield was to die, not from the bullet that lay harmlessly encased in body fat within his frame, but from medical malpractice and incompetence.   In modern times Garfield, like President Reagan, would have survived his  injuries and returned to the White House.

Garfield turned to the doctors closest to him, and asked what chance he had of surviving.   “One chance in a hundred,” the doctor gravely replied.   “We will take that chance, doctor,” Garfield said, “and make good use of it.”

The reader will come to see that Garfield was a very courageous man who suffered at the hands of a medical team that hastened his death.   Alexander Graham Bell and Chester Arthur also come to life as fascinating characters; Bell as an imperfect but well-meaning genius, and Arthur as a man who reluctantly but boldly grew into the role that destiny selected for him.   (Arthur was not born to greatness, but grew into it when the nation desperately needed a leader to fill Garfield’s very large shoes.)

This true story is very cinematic in nature and might well make for an excellent film filled with multiple larger-than-life characters.   Thanks to Candice Millard, it is a story that will not longer be a blip in the history of the United States.   If you know of a young person who is interested in reading about the history of our country, consider presenting this book to him or her as a very valuable present.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Destiny of the Republic will be released on September 20, 2011.   “What an exceptional man and what an exciting era Millard has brought to elegant life on the page!   After reading The Destiny of the Republic, you’ll never think of James A. Garfield as a ‘minor’ president again.”   Hampton Sides, author of Hellbound on His Trail

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Coming Up Next…

A preview-review of The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.

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