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August 2019

Stop the Slaughter of Our Children With These Weapons of War (Adm. Michael G. Mullen, The Atlantic, August 2019)

One of the highlights of my professional career has been to have worked with Admiral Mullen.  His recent essay in The Atlantic is well worth reading. 

The Civil War (Bruce Catton, American Heritage Books, 2004 ed., 400 pages)

Bruce Catton was the master of  historical narrative and one of the most respected scholars of the American Civil War.  The Civil War is a single volume abridgment of his earlier three volume general history of the war.  A must read for any student of the war. 


The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV (Robert A. Caro, Vintage; Reprint Ed., 2013, 768 pages)

Just as good as the first three volumes.  I am ready for the fifth and final volume if Mr. Caro ever finishes it.   

The Passage of Power follows Lyndon Johnson through both the most frustrating and the most triumphant periods of his career—1958 to 1964. It is a time that would see him trade the extraordinary power he had created for himself as Senate Majority Leader for what became the wretched powerlessness of a Vice President in an administration that disdained and distrusted him. Yet it was, as well, the time in which the presidency, the goal he had always pursued, would be thrust upon him in the moment it took an assassin’s bullet to reach its mark.

By 1958, as Johnson began to maneuver for the presidency, he was known as one of the most brilliant politicians of his time, the greatest Senate Leader in our history. But the 1960 nomination would go to the young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.  Caro gives account of the machinations behind both the nomination and Kennedy’s decision to offer Johnson the vice presidency, revealing the extent of Robert Kennedy’s efforts to force Johnson off the ticket.  Caro exposes the savage animosity between Johnson and Kennedy’s younger brother, portraying one of America’s great political feuds. Yet Robert Kennedy’s overt contempt for Johnson was only part of the burden of humiliation and isolation he bore as Vice President.  Caro describes what it was like for this mighty politician to find himself altogether powerless in a world in which power is the crucial commodity. 

For the first time, in Caro’s breathtakingly narrative, we see the Kennedy assassination through Lyndon Johnson’s eyes. We watch Johnson step into the presidency, inheriting a staff fiercely loyal to his slain predecessor; a Congress determined to retain its power over the executive branch; and a nation in shock and mourning. We see how within weeks—grasping the reins of the presidency with supreme mastery—he propels through Congress essential legislation that at the time of Kennedy’s death seemed hopelessly logjammed and seizes on a dormant Kennedy program to create the revolutionary War on Poverty. Caro makes clear how the political genius with which Johnson had ruled the Senate now enabled him to make Kennedy's domestic legislative agenda a reality and the presidency wholly his own. 


The Civil War: Volumes I - III (Shelby Foote, Modern Library, 2011 ed., 2,984 pages)

Worthwhile reading, but proceed with caution.

I have made my way through all three volumes of Shelby Foote's The Civil War twice now.  The first time, as an undergraduate student, and the second time over the past several weeks.  I was prompted to have a second go at it after recently re-watching Ken Burn's landmark documentary of the same name, which first aired in 1990 on PBS and which I have watched more times that I should admit publicly.  Foote, more specifically interview clips of Foote, feature prominently in Burns' documentary.  

The Civil War deservedly belongs among the best narrative histories of that great conflict.  "Best narrative histories," is a polite way of saying that, yes, it is good and well worth reading, but it is not technically a work of scholarship, and it has its flaws.  Foote's prose and narrative style are brilliant--would that I could write like him--and he has the unique and gifted ability to make the reader feel an intimate part of the story, of "being there," as it were.  His profiles of people are stunning and life-like.  But, Foote's history and context are limited.  It is largely a military history and Foote romanticizes the martial nature of the conflict, sometimes to an uncomfortable and tone-deaf degree.  Little space is devoted to the political issues of the time, most notably slavery.  Indeed, one gets the sense in reading The Civil War that slavery was hardly a contributing factor in secession and the war.  Oddly, Frederick Douglass is never mentioned by Foote; but one indication that something is lacking. And Foote's sympathies for the South and some of the well-worn tropes of  the Lost Cause are clearly evident as the narrative progresses.       

The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s (William I. Hitchcock, Simon & Schuster, 2018, 672 pages)

Well done.

Eisenhower's estimation as a President has steadily improved over the years.  Now, most reputable rankings by historians, political scientists, etc. rank him in the Top 5 Presidents, or pretty close.  Hitchcock's biography certainly proves the point.  In my view, Eisenhower's strength's were foreign policy and international relations--his military career and legendary performance in World War II no doubt prepared him well--and his tenure as President included some significant challenges.  He showed little interest in domestic concerns though, most of all on civil rights.  He was unwilling and just as soon not have had to deal with race relations during his two terms.  For this, I am not sure I'd include him in my own ranking of Top Presidents.