As expected, a former president tries to shore up his legacy by justifying controversial decisions and basking in the glow of his successes. I came inAs expected, a former president tries to shore up his legacy by justifying controversial decisions and basking in the glow of his successes. I came in with low expectations--how could it be anything other than a thoroughly-combed manuscript full of glib descriptions and self-puffery? It turns out that if your 8 years as president were as controversial as W.'s, the book will still have a little life to it. Famous for his folksy manner, it wouldn't do for Bush to dress up his prose too much, so he doesn't. It works mostly. While I found myself disagreeing on my points, I appreciated Bush's explanations and reasoning. He provides good context to what informed his decisions and occasionally accepts that the outcome was failure. In those cases, he provides a list of "should haves."
I was surprised at how generous he was to so many of his opponents (minus Harry Reid). Also, Bush did well at dispelling many of the small criticisms (such as dumb answers to reporters' questions). Overall, this far exceeded my expectations (that's not to say it would have changed my vote one way or the other). For the book itself: Bushy, you did a heckuva job....more
I read this in tandem with Bush's Decision Points. For a book of dissent, McClellan's account agrees in many ways with Bush's. When the former press sI read this in tandem with Bush's Decision Points. For a book of dissent, McClellan's account agrees in many ways with Bush's. When the former press secretary published it, he was viewed as a Judas and a traitor. He defends his decision to write by whining about how national politics were too political and that politicians are stuck in "permanent campaign" mode and fail to make wise decisions as a result. Both of these complaints are justified, but they seem overly naive. The bottom line is that McClellan got thrown to the wolves with the leak exposing Valerie Plame and the administration's justification of war with Iraq.
In the first case, McClellan's beef is with Libby and Cheney who assured him that they did not leak the identity of an undercover agent even though they really did. McClellan stuck with their stories for two years and lost his credibility with the press corp as a result. In the second case, McClellan's gripe is that the administration emphasized WMDs in Iraq and suspected Iraqi support of al Qaeda over simply the idea that Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator who needed ousting. In Bush's book, the former president defends those same three justifications for war based on the intelligence available at the time. When some of the intelligence ended up being wrong, he seemed satisfied that freedom for oppressed Iraqis was enough. McClellan was not satisfied.
McClellan's admiration of Bush is clear, and he never gets nasty. I didn't think the publication of "What Happened" was the treachery it was made out to be. Minus the early biographical chapters, it was worth reading and provided interesting insight....more
When Dumas Malone wrote Jefferson's biography, it took him six volumes at about 500 pages a pop. Bernstein does it in a single volume with a mere 200When Dumas Malone wrote Jefferson's biography, it took him six volumes at about 500 pages a pop. Bernstein does it in a single volume with a mere 200 pages. Clearly, some detail is missing, but for what it is, Thomas Jefferson gives a lot of bang. Bernstein outlined the work using the three accomplishments Jefferson requested to have listed as his epitaph: author of the Declaration of Independence, author of a statute of religious rights, and father of the University of Virginia.
Bernstein highlights these accomplishments and couches their significance in descriptions of the culture, economics, and political climate of the time. A number of Jefferson's achievements get glossed over. His eight years as president, for example, fly by in about eight pages.
For a short book on a long subject, however, Bernstein performs admirably. I strongly recommend it for readers who want to learn about Jefferson, but don't want to learn everything about him....more
Every author writing on George Washington leads the preface with the same sentence: "The reason the world needs another Washington biography is becausEvery author writing on George Washington leads the preface with the same sentence: "The reason the world needs another Washington biography is because..." Chernow claims that newly discovered papers and insight from recent research justifies a new comprehensive single volume. In other words, he thinks he can out-do the reigning Washington biography: James Flexner's Washington: The Indispensable Man, which has been the gold standard since 1974. Many good "Washingtons" since then have had a specific bent justifying their existence. A few may have challenged Flexner for the single-volume crown, but none have taken it. Chernow's attempt gives us a new classic, but it doesn't supersede Flexner for one reason: his book is about twice as long as his predecessor's.
Chernow's greatest contributions come in his treatments of slavery, Martha Washington, and George's reaction to his own fame. He succeeds handily in his goal to flesh out the marble Washington. While Flexner still wins in the "under 500 page" category, Chernow's effort is completely justified. Of course, I think the real reason Chernow wrote the book is because, after finishing his biography of Hamilton, about a quarter of his Washington work was done....more
The best take-aways from the book are that [1:] the Constitution didn't just happen and that [2:] the Bill of Rights certainly didn't just happen. TheThe best take-aways from the book are that [1:] the Constitution didn't just happen and that [2:] the Bill of Rights certainly didn't just happen. The worst involve Labunski's fixation on 18th Century travel, James Madison's weak speaking voice, and Madison's problems with his bowels. Labunski begins with the dissolution of the Articles of Confederation as the representatives sent to amend that ailing document end up concocting an entirely new Constitution. Calls for amendments to the Constitution arose immediately and continued through the ratification process.
Labunski traces the major arguments surrounding the Constitution and potential amendments. He highlights the philosophical positions of major characters such as Madison, Patrick Henry, James Monroe, and Edmund Randolph. Labunski views Virginia as the hotspot for ratification controversy, so most of the book is dedicated to Virginia and Virginians.
James Madison and the Struggle... plods along slowly, gets repetitive, and begins to feel like a dull civics lecture. It does capture the ideas and political machinations of the era, however, and present plenty of good information. Ultimately it demonstrates that the acceptance of the Constitution and Bill of Rights were not foregone conclusions or inevitable events....more
Sure it's more pseudo-history filled with little commentaries and diatribes, but Inventing a Nation is thoughtful, well written, and enjoyable. Vidal'Sure it's more pseudo-history filled with little commentaries and diatribes, but Inventing a Nation is thoughtful, well written, and enjoyable. Vidal's main characters are Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and Hamilton. He wants to love Jefferson and wants to hate Adams, but just can't commit in either case. The book mainly spans the eras of the Constitutional Convention and the presidencies of Washington and Adams. Throughout, Vidal ridicules Americanisms such as Mount Rushmore (for its gaudiness), and he tries to apply some of the lessons of post-Revolution America to the U.S. today. These comparisons, of course, are all criticisms....more
After David McCullough brought the second president into vogue with his wonderful John Adams, one might wonder what James Grant could contribute in PaAfter David McCullough brought the second president into vogue with his wonderful John Adams, one might wonder what James Grant could contribute in Party of One. McCullough is a superb writer who has a knack for narrating history as a series of engaging stories. While Grant doesn't top him in this area, he's no slouch. He lacks McCullough's literary flair, but those who prefer a straight biography (without so much adoration for the subject) will likely be happier with Party of One.
Grant manages to do his work a few hundred pages faster than McCullough. He gives more emphasis to Adams' importance as a diplomat and--as he calls him--a junk bond trader. Grant gives rich, yet clear, descriptions of the loans Adams brokered and provides an understanding of how vital those loans were to the illiquid new nation. He examines Adams' writings and his political philosophies. He also discusses Adams' personal finance and points out how much a life of civil service cost a man who would have otherwise been quite wealthy.
Because of the areas they emphasize and their manner of doing so, Grant and McCullough provide complimentary portrayals of "His Rotundity." There's room enough for both of them. ...more
Warning: This is not for everyone. Grant's memoir glazes over his upbringing and provides details on the Mexican-American War. Then it glazes some morWarning: This is not for everyone. Grant's memoir glazes over his upbringing and provides details on the Mexican-American War. Then it glazes some more until the start of the Civil War. Sit back and get ready for mind-numbing detail. If you are interested in more than cursory information about the Civil War, this is awesome. If not, don't bother. Grant comes across as being forthright and tries to give as full a picture as possible. He is fairly generous to most of his contemporaries (though he implies several times that Lee gets more credit than he deserves). His praise for Lincoln, Sheridan, and Sherman borders on a four-star crush.
I thought it was interesting how the man spent 8 years as president, but gives the office only a passing mention in his memoir. The memoir ends after his description of Appomattox and a general recounting of aftermath of the war.
Some advice to enhance your experience: Read this with a map handy....more
In my on-going quest to read a book about each president, this was the one on Garfield. He spent very little time in the office before being assassinaIn my on-going quest to read a book about each president, this was the one on Garfield. He spent very little time in the office before being assassinated, but his story, as told by Millard, is fascinating. She does an excellent job of laying out the political landscape and for making the case that Garfield would have been great had it not been for a crazed office-seeker and a doctor who persistently pooh-poohed the new-fangled idea of antisepsis. ...more
Written by now-President Obama when he was a recent law school grad, Dreams from My Father outlines a young man's search for a sense of purpose and plWritten by now-President Obama when he was a recent law school grad, Dreams from My Father outlines a young man's search for a sense of purpose and place. It begins with news of his father's death, and then fills in the back story: Obama's life in Hawaii, then Indonesia, then Hawaii again with his grandparents. He describes his time as a community organizer in South Chicago, focusing on the people he worked with and the challenges he faced. Through this, Obama reflects on race, community, family, and his difficulty in coming to terms with who his father was. The book's third and finally section sees him joining his half-sister for a trip to Kenya, where he meets relatives and begins to resolve some of his issues.
The stories are interesting. The writing is good: it flows like a novel. I appreciate the reflection, though some of it comes across clumsily because its more meaningful to him than to us....more
Coolidge has a reputation as being a dull, wet blanket with no charisma and minimal vision. Shlaes refutes this over the course of hundreds of meticulCoolidge has a reputation as being a dull, wet blanket with no charisma and minimal vision. Shlaes refutes this over the course of hundreds of meticulously researched pages. I finished and thought, "Hmm. That guy was a total wet blanket."...more
Dallek uses a lot of quotes from recorded White House telephone conversations. This means two things: a pile of minutiae and better understanding of mDallek uses a lot of quotes from recorded White House telephone conversations. This means two things: a pile of minutiae and better understanding of motives. Neither Nixon nor Kissinger come across too well, especially through the direct quotes Dallek selected. Kissinger is portrayed as being obsessed with his brilliant while at the same time fawning obsequiously. Nixon is portrayed as being paranoid, insecure, and self-centered. The book is pretty long but worth the effort. It provides a nice look at the inner workings of the White House during the Nixon years....more
If you want to know the state of JFK's colon at every point throughout his life, this is your book. Dallek is a monster for detail—I liked it, but I cIf you want to know the state of JFK's colon at every point throughout his life, this is your book. Dallek is a monster for detail—I liked it, but I can see how it could be awfully boring. Also, Dallek spends very little time covering JFK's assassination and treats the resulting conspiracy theories quickly, which is disappointing but probably the best way to go about it (given the tone and style of the rest of the book)....more
Washington's Crossing covers a lot of the same ground as McCullough's 1776, but Fischer covers it from a different angle. He includes far more from thWashington's Crossing covers a lot of the same ground as McCullough's 1776, but Fischer covers it from a different angle. He includes far more from the perspective of the British and Hessian troops, and leaves out the particulars about a number of American officers that McCullough highlighted so well....more