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The Nightingale's Song

4.22  ·  Rating Details  ·  365 Ratings  ·  46 Reviews
This astonishing tale of five of Annapolis's best and brightest--Oliver North, Bud McFarlane, John Poindexter, John McCain, and Jim Webb--recounts how the most divisive American war of the 20th century, the Vietnam conflict, came back to haunt the nation during the reign of Ronald Reagan. Photos.
Hardcover, 543 pages
Published July 1st 1995 by Simon & Schuster (first published 1995)
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Feb 05, 2009 Eric_W rated it it was amazing
Timberg, an Annapolis graduate and Vietnam veteran, was struck by some odd similarities, as he watched Oliver North, John Poindexter, and others happily lie to Congress (North still brags about it even though when Clinton did it, lying became less fashionable – maybe it’s only OK to lie if you are in uniform).
By now a journalist, Timberg wondered if the Iran-Contra scandal did not represent one of the long-term effects of the Vietnam War. He researched the careers of John McCain, Robert “Bud” M
Jul 22, 2009 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For those of us who were casual political observers in the 1970s and 1980s, this book will help fill in lots of gaps. It's the story of five men who were prominent in those years, each a graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Three of the five - Oliver North, John Poindexter, Bud McFarlane - played important roles in the events of "The Iran-Contra Affair" which is described in detail. The other two, James Webb and John McCain, had fascinating military and political stories. McCain's story w ...more
Feb 24, 2015 Kim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Finally finished this book! I really liked it - but it took awhile to get through. At times it becomes a recital of facts that take a lot of concentration to follow and internalize. This book aims to help the reader understand the Iran Contra Affair. Timberg believes that you cannot understand the scandal if you don't understand the principals, and most of the book is about the lives of the principal players. I loved learning more about John McCain (friend of those involved and on the Senate hea ...more
Oct 08, 2008 Jim rated it it was amazing
Robert Timberg follows the lives of John McCain, Oliver North, James Webb, Robert "Bud" McFarland, and John Poindexter and the way they intersected in the U.S. Naval Academy, Vietnam, and the Reagan presidency. The author looks at their disillusionent with American leadership in Vietnam and with the gulf between their experiences of the war and those of the educated civilian elites at home. James Webb's attitude was representative. He was dismayed by the gulf of experience that existed between h ...more
Dec 20, 2011 Tim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The intriguing title is explained this way, "Did you know that a nightingale will never sing its song if it doesn't hear it first? If it hears robins or wrens ... it will never croak a note. But the moment it hears any part of a nightingales song, it bursts into this extraordinary music, sophisticate, elaborate music, as though it had known it all along ..." (p16)

With that the author, Timberg, launches into a complex narrative following 5 men who graduated from the US Naval Academy in the 1960s,
May 10, 2010 Kendra rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Five graduates of the Naval Academy, matriculating from 1958 to '68, are the focus of this book. The military engagement of the U.S. in Vietnam is explored primarily through the personal experiences of several of the marines and navy men, particularly John McCain and Jim Webb (who were not part of the later Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration), with primary attention given to the way those experiences shaped their views of the world and their later actions as politicians and executi ...more
Pierre Lauzon
Apr 30, 2014 Pierre Lauzon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a fine biography covering four men and their influence: John McCain, Robert McFarlane, James Webb, Oliver North, and John Poindexter.

The common denominator among them all is that they graduated from the Naval Academy within a short window and served in Viet Nam. They were formed in character and outlook by both the Academy and the war and its aftermath.

I learned a lot about the war, which was regarded as unwinnable earlier than I remembered. I also learned about the history of John McCai
Apr 11, 2014 Tom rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Why read a book about the Iran/Contra affair, a relatively minor dust up in the Reagan administration? That's what I asked myself last summer as I pulled this book off the shelf of a thrift shop in Glasgow, Montana. For $0.50, it was worth a look. When I next picked it up I found it difficult to put down. The story revolves around 5 guys, some classmates, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at about the same time. They are tracked through Academy, the Vietnam War, the withdrawal, Watergate ...more
Sep 19, 2008 Dliu rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting portraits of some of the pivotal characters of the Reagan Era. Most shocking to me was the impression that was created of President Reagan-- though he is not explicitly the subject of the book, the stories of the men around him paint a clear outline of the man as he interacted with key members of the cabinet, administration, and military. Of course senator-to-be John McCain is in there as well

The writing is pretty good, the author knows how to turn a phrase, writes evocatively, yet d
Oct 02, 2015 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a clear, concise account of the Iran-Contra Arms Deal from the point of view of the four Annapolis classmates and graduates who were key players. There is not a lot of political coloring or editorializing: just an account of these men, their thinking and beliefs that led them and our country into this mess. John McCain's involvement, although peripheral, helps to provide the depth of understanding of the times and events then current that colored thinking back in the 80s when this unfold ...more
Jul 20, 2014 Bobbi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
I very much enjoyed this book. The history of these 5 men who all graduated from Annapolis within a few years of each other, their lives often intersecting, showed me a side of each I didn't know. The problem I had with the book was that I never quite got the point of it. I think he was trying to show how their similar backgrounds effected each in his own way with Vietnam playing a very big part in each one's actions, especially their roles in the Iran Contra scanedal. It seemed that John McCain ...more
Dec 29, 2015 Cindypbarnard rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was quite a read. Long. Have to read every word. It grabbed me right away. Disturbing . Powerful. The author weaves together the lives of 5 Annapolis graduates- John McCain, James Webb, Oliver North, Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter and walks us through the Vietnam War, the Reagan administration, the Iran-Contra affair and more. A real eye-opener.
Jun 22, 2014 Mark rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found this book confusing. The author's choice, to profile five separate men involved in Iran Contra, from Annapolis through Vietnam and into the Reagan administration, left me with little understanding of the reasons behind the scandal. As always, a longer review appears at
Aug 27, 2008 Meave rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Read it! I learned so much, my outlook on war and Cold War-era politics has changed significantly, or rather, broadened quite a bit.

I have one serious problem with it, and that is how Timberg deals with John McCain following the "Carpetbagger" chapter. He gives McCain a total pass for his role in the Keating Five scandal, despite the multiple stories in the Phoenix New Times proving that McCain was involved as deeply as anyone else named. If this book is only about the path from Annapolis to Ira
Grindy Stone
Aug 12, 2014 Grindy Stone rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Exceptional read, better than its "companion,' Rick Atkinson's "The Long Gray Line." Timberg did a good job singling out McCain and Webb, as they were destined for bigger and brighter things in the years since the book was published.
Blaine Morrow
Feb 23, 2016 Blaine Morrow rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Exceptional look at the lives of five Annapolis graduates who served in Vietnam and later served in high-profile government positions: John McCain, Bud McFarlane, Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Jim Webb.
Beth Hines
Apr 09, 2015 Beth Hines rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an amazing story about the Iran-Contra affair, and all of its players, starting with their time at the US Naval Academy. I couldn't put it down.
Robert Osenenko
Nov 30, 2013 Robert Osenenko rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Robert Timberg examines the progress and devious nature of the officer military class and their access and influence in the White House. He puts forth the comparison between their behavior and those of House and Senate leaders as they speak in code to one another. It doesn't take much of an imagination to realize near chapter 2-3 that Timberg is not just speaking about the plots that unfold. He is also speaking to other combat veterans working throughout the government who are contaminated by it ...more
Jan 08, 2009 Foughty rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Intriguing approach to understanding the Vietnam War and it's effect on our country. Instead of exploring the War in depth, the causes that led up to it, or the immediate aftermath, it instead explores first, the lives of 5 famous Annapolis grads (John McCain, Bud McFarland, John Poindexter, Jim Webb, and Ollie North) during their time at the Academy; later, where they were during the war and how that shaped them as individuals; and finally, in the payoff, in a deep exploration of the Iran-Contr ...more
Way More Than Expected

Very well written. I cannot get enough or learn enough about history and war. I will have to read Fields of Fire
Tony Randall
Jul 09, 2014 Tony Randall rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very eye opening history as it relates to and was shaped by some very interesting men.
Nancy Garland
Dec 22, 2007 Nancy Garland rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Should have listed this on my favorite books list. It is non-fiction and the author was Washington Bureau editor of the Baltimore Sun.It brings togeyther John McCain, Oliver North, Bud McFarland, John Poindexter and James Webb who were all at Annapolist at the same time and how their lives intersected before and after the Viet Nam War. Again for political junkies, these people were all players during the Reagan administration and several continue to be players today. I also knew some of the mino ...more
David Jordan
Sep 24, 2008 David Jordan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating nonfiction portrait of 5 U.S. Naval Academy grads who rose to political power and/or infamy between 1958 and the Reagan years, when three of them were indicted for crimes connected with the Iran-Contra flap. The most interesting are Oliver North (what a head case!), John McCain (what a swashbuckler!) and James Webb (what a warrior!). The book also contains a gritty portrait of academy undergrad life, which makes a person wonder why anyone would choose to endure it.
Andrew Lubin
Dec 29, 2008 Andrew Lubin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The story of 5 midshipmen at Annapolis in the mid-60's...and what a group they were: John McCain, Oliver North, James Webb, Bud McFarlane, and oliver Poindexter. Author Bob Timberg uses the Annapolis and other experiences of these men to explain what went wrong (and went right) with the military in the years following Vietnam.

This is the Vietnam-era story of those who served - a story that has been ignored by too many for too long.
Sep 14, 2008 J rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Political history that reads like a pulp novel, tying together the careers of 5 politicians: Ollie North, Bud McFarlane, John Poindexter, James Webb and John McCain. Using the Iran-Contra affair as an end point, the book focuses more on boxing matches at Annapolis and in-country action during Vietnam. Though Ollie's antics are amusing, James Webb and John McCain are stars of this book, with the harshest criticism reserved for Ronald Reagan.
Tony Taylor
Jan 21, 2010 Tony Taylor rated it really liked it
Robert Timberg weaves together the lives of five well-known Naval Academy graduates to reveal how the Vietnam War continues to haunt America. "This is an amazing piece of work that could make you cry over descriptions of bravery so bold and so big that you wonder how our country deserves such men. . . . It is about the soul of a nation."--Mike Barnicle, The Boston Globe Books. photo insert.
Jim Cunningham
Feb 04, 2016 Jim Cunningham rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Would have liked the book to have addressed the Iran-Contra affair in more detail. Overall eye-opener in the back door dealings in our government
Nov 04, 2008 Tim rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fantastic, well-researched, elegantly written biography of five men whose lives were shaped by the Vietnam war. All of them became national figures, but two - John McCain and Jim Webb - have only become more pivotal in recent years. This is an especially fascinating read when you consider how McCain and Webb have continued to evolve since the book's publication.
Michael Sanchez
Didn't actually finish it, so I don't feel comfortable rating it. Nonfiction just isn't for me, especially when it contains this military bend.
Eric Swanson
Nov 20, 2013 Eric Swanson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This beautifully written, deeply reported book uses the careers of five Naval Academy graduates to explore the lingering impact of Vietnam on the American psyche. Mr. Timberg occasionally pushes his ruling metaphor too hard, but that's a minor flaw in an otherwise brilliant book.
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