Review: Cronkite

Cronkite, Douglas Brinkley. New York: Harper, 2012.

Summary: The biography of Walter Cronkite, from his early reporting days, his United Press work during World War 2, and his years at CBS, including his nineteen years on the CBS Evening News, and his “retirement years,” where he came out as a liberal.

I grew up with “Uncle Walter.” I was a fourth grader when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and watched as Walter Cronkite walked us through the days that followed, from his initial announcement of the death of Kennedy, removing his glasses and sitting in silence, connecting with the stunned response of all of us. I watched the unfolding of the Vietnam war, which Cronkite declared, after visiting the front lines in 1967, a “stalemate.” He covered the horrors of 1968 from the deaths of Kennedy and King through the turbulent 1968 Democratic convention. With the world, I watched the orbiting of the moon on Christmas eve in 1968, and the landing on the moon in the summer of 1969, accompanied by his characteristic “Oh, boy!” Watergate, the fall of Saigon, the Iran hostages, and that final sign off in March of 1981. “That’s the way it is.”

Douglas Brinkley chronicles all of this in this outstanding biography, and so much more. He covers the shaping and the rise that made him “the most trusted man in America.” We follow him from his sports reporting forays, his unfinished college career at UT Austin, his radio news experience at KCMO, and the pivotal opportunity of becoming night editor at the United Press office in Kansas City, that honed his instincts as a news hound both careful with the facts and eager to be the first to break the story that would go with him for the rest of his life. Then the war came, and through persistence he won the opportunity to cover the war in Europe for the United Press on the front lines, flying in a bombing run, and with troops in northern Africa, on D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge, first meeting Andy Rooney as part of the “Writing 69th.” His bombing dispatch caught the attention of Edward R. Murrow, who thought he’d succeeded in recruiting Cronkite to CBS only to have him renege, still believing print was the thing.

Murrow tried again and Cronkite joined CBS in the fifties to cover the Korean War. Returning stateside, he failed as the host of CBS’s version of the Today show, hosted “You Are There,” a weekly show in which Cronkite would interview historical figures or cover events like the Boston Tea Party. It was in 1956 that he found his true calling as anchor of CBS television’s political convention coverage, first earning the nickname, “Old Ironpants” for his stamina.

We learn about the complicated relationship with Edward R. Murrow, the dean of broadcasters, both mentor and rival. Cronkite continued to accumulate achievements, polishing his TV credentials with the coverage of the Mercury 7 astronauts and his relationship with John Glenn. Murrow left CBS at Kennedy’s request to lead the US Information Agency. When it became apparent that Douglas Edwards was coming to the end of his tenure, the rivalry became fierce. In the end Cronkite won over Eric Sevareid, who did offer commentary at the end of newscasts for a time, Charles Collingwood, Charles Kuralt, and Howard K. Smith. Cronkite was Paley’s choice, and for nineteen years anchored the CBS Evening News.

Brinkley covers the team of people who worked with Cronkite, perhaps most important of all, Richard Salant as news director, and a young, ambitious reporter by the name of Dan Rather. He describes the slow, upward climb to supplant NBC’s top position in the news ratings. He recounts the decisive role Cronkite played in changing the narrative about Vietnam, after passing along the administration version in 1965 and 1966, how he served to “platform” the story Woodward and Bernstein were putting together about Watergate, and his role in bringing Sadat and Begin together.

Brinkley offers an unvarnished account of how difficult Cronkite’s retirement was and his bitterness toward Dan Rather, his successor, who cut him out of opportunities to continue to contribute, despite Rather’s flagging ratings. They would never reconcile. Freed of the reporter’s commitment to neutrality, his own liberal views came to the fore, brought on, in part, by the movie, Network. In later years, he would rail on the war on drugs, and argue for the legalization of marijuana.

Betsy Cronkite, Walter’s wife of 65 years comes through as a force in her own right, often traveling with Cronkite, and helping him keep perspective. I was also surprised to learn that two of his close friends were Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead, who encouraged Cronkite’s drumming, and Jimmy Buffett. I never knew Cronkite was either a “Deadhead” or a “Parrothead.” Buffett was actually at Cronkite’s death bed, playing songs, which he also did at his funeral.

Brinkley gives us a portrait with warts and all. Cronkite was absolutely tenacious about both getting the facts straight and getting the story out, and he succeeded so well at this because of his relentless pursuit of the reporter’s disciplines. He had a kind of “common touch” that came from middle-American roots but his credibility was earned and not just because of an “on air” personality. Yet he was contemptuous of some of his rivals, both Murrow and Rather. He liked to carouse, and while he gave opportunities to women like Connie Chung and Katie Couric, he was a bit of a chauvinist, still enjoying the company of his “old boys.”

Reading this account makes one wonder whether such news coverage is possible today, and perhaps wistful for a different time. Cronkite did not have to deal with a 24/7 news cycle on cable TV and the internet and the increasingly partisan character of many news outlets. I suspect he would have done what he did, pursue the facts and work at getting the story out both quickly and right. What this biography reminds me of is why we did not have the epistemic crisis in the Cronkite years that we face when it comes to the news today. Back then, you trusted Cronkite, and he warranted that trust. We didn’t ask, “who can you trust?” Today that sounds incredibly naïve. Sadly, today it is.

Review: This Isn’t Going to End Well

This Isn’t Going to End Well, Daniel Wallace. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2023.

Summary: The story of William Nealy, as told by his brother-in-law, a cartoonist, guru of adventure sports, and emulated by the author, all the while harboring a secret within that finally killed him.

The First Time I saw him he was standing on the roof of our house, wearing frayed and faded cutoffs and nothing else, eyeing the swimming pool about twenty-five feet below. William. Last name unknown, unnecessary. Already–in my mind, at least–he had achieved the single name status of a rock star, and I had yet to even meet him. I’d only heard about him from Holly, my sister, who was older than me by six years. My sister’s boyfriend was on the roof.

This Isn’t Going to End Well, p. 3

William was William Nealy, the author’s brother-in-law. For years, Daniel Wallace would admire him. He could fix anything. He was fearless, whether diving off a roof, white waterrafting, kayaking, or mountain biking. He was also an underground cartoonist. Several of his books on whitewater rafting, kayaking, and mountain biking are legendary. His maps of rivers, cartoon-like, are incredibly detailed and accurate, and as we learn, how he began to make money on his art. He’d lived near death since age 9 when he saw it up close when twins he was on a scouting trip with were buried under an overhang. Some thought it changed him.

Wallace wanted to be him–cartoonist, writer. He was a kind of big brother. They’d go to movies, William sneaking in beer. He fixed Wallace’s waterbed. There were drugs as well. And Wallace did follow him as a writer, even though they grew apart after Wallace married.

And there was Holly. They saw others but William and Holly just kept coming back to each other. Then at twenty-one, Holly was diagnosed with a debilitating and progressive form of rheumatoid arthritis. William cared for her for the next twenty five years, making life possible for her while he did most of the work on their small farm, a retreat, really, in the woods. Then one day he went up to their houseboat, then into the woods behind the marina office, and shot himself. Several years later, Holly finally succumbed to the disease that had afflicted her all her adult life.

William’s death seemed inexplicable. He seemed the most alive person Wallace had ever known. He had everything going for him. Only after Holly’s death did Wallace discover the secret burden William carried for decades as he cleaned out there house and went through William’s journals, coming to terms with the mix of emotions around William’s life, manner of death, and their friendship.

Nealy was something of a cult figure. This work is an intimate glimpse into the man behind the cult figure. It also gives us a glimpse into the complicated feelings that follow suicide, and the reality that what we see on the outside may not reflect what the person we think we know struggles with within.

For anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide or who is concerned for someone or needs emotional support, the 9-8-8 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is open 24/7. The call is free and confidential.

Or, text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime. Crisis Text Line is here for any crisis. A live, trained Crisis Counselor receives the text and responds, all from a secure online platform.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program.

Review: The Most Famous Man in America

The Most Famous Man in America, Debby Applegate. New York: Three Leaves Press, 2007.

Summary: The Pulitzer prize-winning biography of the most famous preacher in nineteenth century America, and the scandals around his sexual life.

The story of the writing of this biography strikes me as nearly as interesting as the book itself. It began when Debby Applegate was an undergraduate student at Amherst researching famous Amherst alumni. She selected Henry Ward Beecher and then went on to write her senior thesis about him. She then went on to Yale, making him the subject of her doctoral thesis. And like any good writer of theses in history, she sought a book contract to turn it into a book. This was in the Clinton era and the sex scandals surrounding his administration. However, due to the time needed for research, it finally published in 2006 (in paper in 2007). The culmination of this twenty year project was that the book was a National Book Critics Award Finalist and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Her biography traces the life of Henry Ward Beecher, who, if not the most famous man in America, was certainly the most famous preacher of America. He was asked by President Lincoln to speak at Fort Sumter at the end of the Civil War, an event overshadowed by Lincoln’s assassination. He filled the pulpit of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, a nineteenth century megachurch. At one point he drew a $100,000 salary–in the nineteenth century. He pioneered a more informal style of preaching using humor and pathos and emphasizing the love of God as well as social reform.

He was a mover in the abolitionist movement, although Applegate emphasizes his ambivalent record. One one hand, he raised money to emancipate slaves and sent rifles to Nebraska and Kansas to aid abolitionists–“Beecher Bibles.” On the other hand, he counselled caution and moderation, offending more radical proponents like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. He also campaigned for women’s suffrage and for temperance.

The book portrays his distinguished family. His father Lyman was a New England Calvinist, later transplanted to Cincinnati as president of Lane Theological Seminary. Harriet Beecher Stowe, was his sister. One of the striking facts is that all of his children departed from this stern Calvinism, although a number were ministers. Nine were writers. Applegate traces Henry’s career from his early struggles with his charge in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, where he first begins to shift from the more Calvinist form of preaching to the more informal and engaging style he observed among the Methodists. His success was great enough to attract the notice of church leaders in Indianapolis, who offered him a salary that finally allowed him and Eunice to live more comfortably. Increasingly his preaching focused on the love of God rather than human sinfulness. This, in turn, caught the attention of Henry Bowen, who lured the Beechers to Brooklyn, and the shared ambitions of building up Plymouth Church.

Applegate chronicles the influence of money and power that became increasingly alluring to Beecher. Bowen helped Beecher with his debts and Beecher contributed to his publishing enterprises. Beecher’s fame led to political influence within the newly born Republican party. As he became ever busier on social campaigns, he and Bowen relied more on Theodore Tilton for his writing enterprises.

This powerful alliance unraveled when Beecher became emotionally, and, it seems likely, sexually involved with several women, culminating in an affair with Tilton’s wife Elizabeth. Applegate records a tawdry set of confrontations, confessions, retractions and denial, and ultimately a civil trial that ended with a hung jury and a church trial that exonerated Beecher and shamed his accusers.

Reading the biography brought to mind the Apostle Paul’s counsel to a young pastor, Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, NIV). As Beecher pursued pastoral success, he jettisoned unpopular doctrines for public acclaim. Having struggled with desperate circumstances, he gave way to the allures of money, power, and sex. At one point he defends and propounds free love and the rightness of intimacy with a woman not his wife. And sadly, because of his success, the leaders of his church cast a blind eye to these abuses, and the relational wreckage that resulted with Bowen, the Tiltons, and others.

If the biography came after the scandals of the Clinton administration, it came before the sex scandals, #MeToo, and #ChurchToo of the last decade. It seems to me that Applegate’s biography ought be recommended reading for aspiring ministers as well as the church boards who oversee their efforts, especially where such efforts result in significant growth and acclaim for minister and church. The biography explores not only the personal temptations but the systemic dynamics that contribute to pastoral unfaithfulness and the covering up of moral failures. The biography also traces the rise of the personality cults around pastors, which may arguably have begun with Beecher. A study of the circle around Beecher reveals a web of dysfunctionality. Even if none of this interests you, read this simply for Applegate’s fascinating chronicle of one of the most influential figures of the nineteenth century.

Review: The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams

The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, Stacy Schiff. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2022.

Summary: A biography of this Boston revolutionary who, working mostly behind the scenes, fanned into flame the colonists decision to seek independence.

For many, the name of Samuel Adams calls to mind a beer. And indeed, Adams was a maltster for part of his life. But one of the things that emerges is that Adams was a failure at everything he did except for kindling the fires that led to a revolution. He inherited debt from a failed land scheme of his father. He failed as a tax collector, perhaps unsurprisingly. He really got by with the help of his friends.

What Stacy Schiff makes clear is that there was one thing that Samuel Adams was good at: igniting a revolution. It might well be said that Samuel Adams played as large a part in stirring up the movement that led to a revolution as his more famous peers, is cousin John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

Yet we know much less of him. What we learn from reading Schiff is that much of this was necessary because his activities could easily lead to arrest if known. As it is, he often had to flee writs of arrest, as he did in consequence of Paul Revere’s ride to warn him that the British authorities were marching to Lexington, in part, to arrest him, as well to seize ammunition stores. He often destroyed papers, or published pieces anonymously, planned in back rooms, maintaining an elusive presence that gave him what we might call “plausible deniability.” All of this makes the historian’s job harder.

Schiff focuses on the 15 years beginning with 1764 and the Stamp Act that inflamed feeling. Adams was able to put his finger on the fundamental issue of taxation without representation. He was not present at the destruction of the home of the man who represented the British opposition, Thomas Hutchinson, but he certainly inflamed the feeling of fellow-Bostonians that led to the act. He awakened his fellow colonists that they were being treated as inferiors with little or no say about how they were governed when, in fact they had shown them capable of self-government in their town councils and in colonial legislative bodies.

The introduction of British troops further escalated his efforts, and led to campaigns of misinformation, including allegations that the British troops assaulted young girls. Later a blockade on trade led him to set up committees of correspondence between the colonies, the first steps down the road to Philadelphia and the Declaration of Independence. He was one of the first to moot the idea of independence and to recognize this would mean armed resistance.

He was the skilled propagandist who turned a military action in which five Bostonians died into the Boston Massacre, memorialized each year with public speeches. When imports of East India tea were forced on Bostonians, he disingenuously arranged for the protection of the cargo while covertly planning its destruction by “redskins.” Schiff gives the most extensive account of this episode I’ve read, emphasizing that those who dumped the tea into Boston harbor even cleaned up the ship afterwards!

For anything else than making revolution, he wasn’t terribly practical. His second wife had to work while he was at the Continental Congress. People were relieved in his later years when he finally resigned as Massachusetts governor. But his ability to articulate the case for American independence emboldened others, including his younger cousin John Adams. His network of relationships, represented eventually in the committees of correspondence reflected his ability to forge a movement of disparate persons. While he was not above underhanded means, he held to high ideals for the country, including an early opposition to slavery. Offered a slave, he required her to be freed first.

Schiff’s work transforms Adams from a figure in the background to one whose dynamic role in fostering the revolution necessarily required work in the background. Schiff helps us understand how this singularly skilled man played a far bigger role in mobilizing colonies into the revolt that became what we call the War of Independence that created a nation. When most simply wanted to resolve grievances, Adams saw that, risky as it was, breaking with British rule was where things were headed, seeing further and sooner than most.

Review: John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America

John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Jeffrey S. McDonald. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017.

Summary: A biography of church historian, apologist, and theologian John Gerstner exploring his impact on theological education, the Presbyterian denominations of which he was part, and the wider evangelical and Reformed movement.

I heard John Gerstner speak over 50 years ago at the youth Bible Studies of the New Wilmington Missionary Conference. This gruff scholar spoke with passion about the parables. I cannot say I remember what he said, but it was clear that here was someone who was passionate about the Bible. Years later, I listened to him on tapes from the Ligonier Valley Study Center, arguing for the inerrancy of the Bible at a time this was an issue under much discussion. He was also a strong influence on two of the ministers of the church in which I grew up. I have to say I’ve not thought much about him since until reading this biography, which both impressed me with the reach and impact of his scholarship and underscored the journey away from an evangelical faith of the PCUSA, from which, late in life he resigned his membership.

The biography begins with some of the formative influences in his life: the UPCNA (United Presbyterian Church North America) church in which he grew up, one adhering to evangelical doctrine, his conversion and early formation at Philadelphia School of the Bible, his studies under John Orr at Westminster College, which persuaded him of the importance of rational, evidentialist apologetics. After a brief stint as a student at Pitt-Xenia Seminary, then associated with the UPCNA, he went to Westminster Seminary, still reflecting the influence of J. Gresham Machen, the modernist versus fundamentalist “Presbyterian Controversy,” where he was shaped by the Old Princeton theologians who had shaped Machen’s resistance to liberalism.

The subsequent chapters of the book trace Gerstner’s career by decades. The 1950’s witnessed his rise as an evangelical scholar, both at Pitt-Xenia and more broadly. He led a movement, along with Addison Leitch to renew the evangelical stance of the seminary. This was interrupted by the merger of the UPCNA with the United Presbyterian Church to form the UPCUSA. Gerstner opposed this merger on theological grounds, as well as the subsequent merger of Pitt-Xenia and Western Seminary, both in Pittsburgh, to form Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS).

In short order, the moderates and liberals from Western asserted their influence at PTS. McDonald traces the disillusionment Gerstner felt when Leitch abandoned ship. Throughout the 1960’s, he continued to defend an evangelical faith, supporting a group of evangelical students, while continuing to work as “loyal opposition” within the denomination. Two cases in the 1970’s gave him pause, even as he advocated unsuccessfully in both instances. One was the Kenyon case, denying ordination to a pastor who did not believe in the ordination of women to church leadership positions and the other, the Kaseman case resulted in the ordination of a pastor who denied the full deity of Christ. For a time, Gerstner considered the denomination apostate.

As Gerstner failed his efforts to preserve orthodoxy within his denomination, his ministry broadened in other ways. He taught courses at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, exposing a broader audience to Reformed thought. He spoke increasingly about his Jonathan Edwards scholarship contending for a direct line between Edwards and the Old Princeton Theology. And his teaching, particularly about biblical inerrancy spread widely through the influence of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and the Ligonier Valley Study Center, led by one of his former students and mentees, R.C. Sproul. Sproul championed Gerstner’s work and brought him to the attention of a much wider audience. One failure that marred his scholarship was his inability to transcribe the texts of Jonathan Edwards sermons as editor of for that volume of the Yale edition of Edwards’s works, resulting in his removal from the project in 1977. At least part of the issue was his inability to do the critical work necessary, given his high estimate of Edwards.

In the 1980’s, Gerstner retired from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary but spoke and lectured widely. Despite being removed from the Yale project, he brought attention to Edwards in a variety of settings and helped shape the growth of Presbyterian and Reformed evangelicalism in the newly formed Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, joining the latter denomination in 1990. He kept up an intense schedule of teaching and also edited a three volume work on Jonathan Edwards. McDonald describes this as poorly edited and flawed in many ways but also offering many original insights into Edwards work.

I always pictured Gerstner as a theological pit bull. This biography offers a much more nuanced view. He was beloved as a teacher by many of his students and deeply shaped many including Sproul. It is clear that he was shaped by the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1930’s and determined all his life to preserve the theological integrity of the church, a losing battle in his own denomination. What is striking from this biography is that he remained a faithful churchman and theologian in that denomination so long despite the losses, remaining the gentleman, even though he could be fierce in debate.

It strikes me that he was both teacher and apologist for an evangelical faith and one wonders what might have happened had he devoted, or been capable of devoting greater energy to his Edwards scholarship. Yet even so, he prepared the way for the resurgence of Edwards studies that we are seeing to the present day. Likewise, he offered theological sustenance to the newly formed Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, two bodies that offset the decline in mainline Presbyterianism. McDonald’s biography offers a great service in remembering this distinctive voice who left his mark in so many Presbyterian and Reformed circles and in the wider evangelical community.

Review: Morgenthau

Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty, Andrew Meier. New York: Random House, 2022.

Summary: An account of the 153 year history of four generations of the Morgenthau family and its impact on real estate, politics, diplomacy, and law enforcement.

Lazarus Morgenthau probably never should have migrated from Bavaria, where he invented a cigar box that made his fortune, for a time, before the business failed. He moved his family to America where other members of the Jewish elite had made fortunes after similar migrations. For Lazarus, all his schemes failed, from a wine import business to elixirs to cure various ailments to his Golden Book of Life. He spent the latter part of his life in and out of insane asylums. It might be that his principle purpose was to land his progeny in America, who would have a profound influence in many fields over the next hundred years.

Andrew Meier’s lengthy account of this family dynasty begins here. What follows are three full-length biographies of the leading family figure in each of the next three generations: Henry, Sr., Henry, Jr., and Robert Morgenthau, concluding at the end of the latter’s life in 2019.

Henry, Sr. built the family fortune in New York real estate. Meier takes us through the growth of his empire from his first acquisitions up through the relationship with Adolph Ochs and his acquisition of the properties that made up Times Square, and the headquarters of The New York Times. In 1912, his genius in fund-raising for Woodrow Wilson resulted in his being offered the ambassadorship to Turkey, the “Jewish seat.” It was not his first choice, but he distinguished himself in history in his efforts to advocate for and document the Armenian genocide.

Perhaps his greatest challenge was to help launch his son Henry, Jr. in life. Henry, Jr. seemed to lack a clear ambition other than becoming a farmer, which his father helped him to do in acquiring land in Duchess County. This put Henry, Jr. in touch with Franklin Roosevelt, a friendship that endured from Roosevelt’s rise as governor of New York through his presidency. He was a kind of “fixer” for Roosevelt–on farm matters in upstate New York, and later, at the Treasury. This seemed the saddest part of the book because the “friendship” seemed one of providing Roosevelt pleasant company at weekly lunches, but not asserting his own ideas or personality. Perhaps, like his father, his most significant work may have been advocacy for Jews in Europe as Hitler’s genocidal plans took shape. The US State Department and Roosevelt had been intransigent in opposing vigorous measures to help refugees, but Morgenthau probably managed to rescue 200,000 and help awaken the country to the Holocaust. The latter part of his life was the saddest in many ways as he lost his wife, was dumped by Truman, and spent the latter part of his life living lavishly with his second wife, considered “this thing he married” by his children.

I found the third part of the book the most interesting in many respects. Robert Morgenthau was an authentic war hero, offering exemplary leadership when his ship was attacked. He tried politics but failed in two runs for governor. Working with the Kennedy campaign, he won the appointment as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He took on organized crime when the FBI refused to acknowledge its existence. He also set his sights on Roy Cohn (an associate and mentor of Donald Trump), who became the “White Whale” he could never convict. When Nixon took office, he won office as the District Attorney for New York, a position he held until 2009. He was most known for the prosecutions of organized crime (the Gambino family) and the BCCI banking firm, which he believed was channeling money to Iran for development of nuclear weapons. The latter featured high powered American figures including Clark Clifford. It was a case that may have been pursued at the Federal level. For Morgenthau, if it came through New York, it was his jurisdiction.

He built a modestly-staffed department into a powerhouse, increasing the hiring of women and minorities, funding its operations in part with the fines he won. He often opted for plea bargains for fines in lieu of prison sentences–he had no appetite for sending people to prison–except for five youth accused of assault, rape, and murder of the Central Park Jogger. They were part of a “wilding” incident that night and, when apprehended, eventually confessed to the crime and were convicted and sent to prison. Except that DNA evidence, a relatively new technology at the time, linked none of the boys to evidence collected and was set aside. Several years later, new evidence matched with a man already in prison. Morgenthau admitted the mistake and reversed the convictions, albeit too late for the boys, who later recovered an award in court. It was the major stain on his record, lessened by his integrity when new evidence came forward.

This is a massive work, really three major biographies woven into a single account of a powerful family. One gains a sense of the distinctive character of the leading figure of each generation–Henry, Sr., the shrewd, incisive, and courageous businessman turned ambassador; Henry, Jr., the modest steady friend of Roosevelt who found his voice representing Jews caught in the Holocaust; and Robert, the resolute, ambitious prosecutor with a deep sense of integrity and justice that extended to the white collar criminals who often escaped prosecution. This book will carry you through the winter months, introducing you to a family who played a key role, often behind the scenes, over one hundred years in a variety of American institutions, centered around New York City,


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.

Review: Strength for the Fight

Strength for the Fight (Library of Religious Biography), Gary Scott Smith. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022.

Summary: A biography on this pioneer Hall of Famer who desegregated Major League Baseball, devoted his post-playing years to civil rights activism, all sustained by his active faith.

As a lifelong baseball fan, this is not the first Jackie Robinson biography I’ve read. The one I read when I was a young fan focused on his exploits on the field, his courage and restraint in breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and how his play contributed to several pennants and a World Series victory. As this book makes clear, Robinson not only needed to be both courageous and self-controlled to face racist treatment, he needed to be good–and he was. He was fast and daring on the base paths, a great fielder, and could deliver hits and bunts in clutch situations. He was a great all-round ballplayer deserving of Hall of Fame status simply on those merits.

This book added to the portrait of Robinson in several ways. Most importantly, it reveals him as a man of deep faith, who like Augustine had a godly mother and his own Ambrose in the form of a Methodist pastor, Karl Downs, who rescued him from gang life in Pasadena. Later, as he faces intense pressure and vitriol, he testifies, “Many nights I get down on my knees and pray for the strength not to fight back.” This and the support of his wife Rachel made all the difference for a proud man whose natural instinct was to fight back. Yet Smith also shows how Rachel went beyond standing by Robinson to pursue her own career as a nurse-therapist and professor.

Gary Scott Smith also fleshes out the vital role Branch Rickey played in Robinson’s life. Smith goes into the Methodist faith the two men shared, a critical factor in Rickey deciding to sign Robinson. Rickey was both a deeply religious man in Smith’s account and a sharp (and parsimonious) baseball entrepreneur. It was Rickey’s counsel he followed in not fighting back against spiking, knockdown pitches, and crude racial insults. When Rickey died in 1965 he said of Rickey: “He talked with me and treated me like a son.” The treatment of Rickey is so interesting that I would love to see Smith follow up this book with a full length biography on Rickey, perhaps as part of this Library of Religious Biography series.

What also distinguishes this book is the account it gives of Robinson’s post-baseball career as a tireless activist for civil rights through newspaper columns that did not hesitate to criticize presidents of either party, through public addresses including messages in hundreds of churches, marching on the front lines in places like Selma. At the same time, Robinson was not a “movement activist.” While honored by the NAACP with its Spingarn award, he did not hesitate to differ with others like Paul Robeson over communism or Dr. King over Vietnam. Some accused him of being an “Uncle Tom” for his relationship with Nelson Rockefeller, motivated by both political and business considerations, and his support in 1960 for Richard Nixon.

Vietnam would contribute to tragedy in Robinson’s life. His son Jackie, Jr. returned with addiction problems but the book makes clear the strains on the father-son relationship between the two. Sadly, just as Jackie, Jr. started to get his life on track as well as his relationship with his father, he died in an auto accident, just a year before Jackson himself passed.

That leads to my one question about this book, that the author doesn’t discuss how such a fine athlete as Robinson died at age 53, just sixteen years after retirement, suffering from diabetes, heart disease, and nearly blind. Others have discussed the disparate impacts of racism on health and the effects of his repressed anger and racial traumas on his health. Pictures of Robinson show him with hair turning white in his last playing years. Robinson bore on his body in many ways, externally and internally, the trauma of racism, and perhaps this might have been further developed in this work.

Smith portrays Robinson’s faith as “muscular,” and apart from those bedside prayers concerned more about moral and social uplift of his people, expressed in his tireless work. Even in his last years, with failing health, he was grateful for God’s blessings. Yet, he was infrequent in church attendance, and Smith notes the evidence of extra-marital affairs. After his first two years, he was more aggressive in defending himself on the field, having fulfilled his agreement with Rickey. Yet there is a thread running through the course of his life, shown by Smith of a faith that sustained and strengthened Robinson. What resulted was some of the most significant civil rights leadership in the twentieth century delivered in the form of a stellar athlete (no one since has stolen home more than the 19 times he did this) and a courageous champion. His faith, courage, and perseverance are worth emulation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Alan Turing: The Enigma

Alan Turing: The Enigma, Andrew Hodges. London: Vintage Books, 1983, 2012 (publisher’s link is for an updated edition by Princeton University Press, 2015).

Summary: Perhaps the definitive account of the brilliant mathematician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist, Alan Turing, who was prosecuted for his homosexuality, not long before the end of his life due to cyanide poisoning.

The title of this work reflects both the important, and long secret work, Turing did to decrypt German transmissions encrypted by their Enigma machine, for which he was awarded an OBE, and that Turing, in life and death was something of an enigma, even to those closest to him. Andrew Hodges wrote this tour de force of a biography, dealing both with the singular scientific accomplishments of his life and the struggles he faced in his time as a gay man. As both a mathematician and a leader in the London Gay Liberation Front, Hodges was uniquely suited to write this work and it reflects these qualifications.

This is a complete biography, from his earliest years. We learn of the early roots of Turing’s interest in the function of the mind, and the shift to a materialist focus after the death of his close friend Christopher Morcom, who was his first love. This would be reflected in his efforts to create machine intelligence that worked like human intelligence. He was elected a fellow at King’s College for his proof in 1935. of the central limit theorem, which, unknown to him, had been previously proven, although his proof used a different and innovative approach. A year later, he published his most famous paper, On Computable Numbers, in which he proposed a hypothetical universal computing machine (often referred to as a Turing machine) that laid the theoretical basis for computers. Once again, another researcher, Alonzo Church, had addressed the same problem, again by a different approach. And so Turing went to study with Church at Princeton, building an electro-mechanical binary multiplier while he was there.

This reveals another theme in Turing’s life. He was not only interested in the theoretical but also in the engineering aspects of realizing the machines of which he theorized. This led to the next major involvement of Turing, during the war, in the decryption of German radio transmissions encrypted with their Enigma machines, thought to be unbreakable. Building on Polish efforts, he not only developed innovative statistical methods to break the code but developed the bombes, a type of computer, that would radically speed up the process. It was for this work, kept secret for many years, that he received the OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) from King George VI.

Hodges also covers his post-war work on computers and his further interest in artificial intelligence, resulting in his paper on “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” with his proposal of an experiment that later became known as the “Turing Test.” His ideas of universal machines, that could be used for various computational tasks, led him to write some of the earliest programs, including a primitive chess program.

The account of Turing’s scientific work is interwoven with his relationships with men, his brief engagement to Joan Clark, which he realized would not work out, and the relationship that led to Turing facing criminal charges for his homosexuality. There is extensive background offered as well as discussion of the legal and social conventions of the day. Perhaps the most troubling, and some have suggested it contributed to Turing’s death, was the agreement, in lieu of a prison term, that Turing would undergo estrogen treatments to suppress his homosexual inclinations. I also found it puzzling why Turing incriminated himself with the police investigating a burglary of his home by a friend of his lover.

It seemed to reflect an “out of touchness” that manifested itself in everything from his unawareness of similar research to his own, to his inability to manage others well. He seemed to expect people to act logically as he would, and was surprised when they did not. My sense is that he thought it should be no big deal to love the people he wanted to love, and I think was genuinely surprised that even though such behavior was illegal, the police would look the other way.

His death in June 1954 was another enigma covered by Hodges. It was ruled a suicide by cyanide poisoning through an apple dipped in a cyanide solution and then partially eaten, found by his bedside where he was found dead. He had cyanide on the premises, using it in a process to electroplate gold onto silver spoons. Oddly, the apple was never tested, there seemed no preparations for suicide, and it was speculated that this was an accident during his experiments, either from inhalation or grains on his fingers. Supporting suicide was the way the body was composed on his bed. An enigma.

The book goes into fine detail with his life, reflecting a huge amount of research, due to the limited material left by Turing. This is a strength and weakness. Included in the detail are extensive mathematical and engineering discussions that are heavy going for those unacquainted with these fields. I estimate that probably at least 100 pages of text might be cut out if these were summarized more succinctly.

Hodges work reveals not only the enigma but the genius of Turing. Subsequent to the initial publication of this work in 1983, Prime Minister of Great Britain Gordon Brown in 2009 issued a statement apologizing for the “appalling” way Turing was treated. In August 2014, Queen Elizabeth pronounced a royal pardon of Turing in August 2014 and a law exonerating all men charged with “indecency” was passed in 2017, informally known as “Alan Turing’s law.” These actions removed the cloud hanging over the genius whose theoretical and practical work laid the groundwork for the computer on which I write this review and the “behind-the-scenes” work so crucial in the fight against Germany in World War 2, especially in ending the depredations on Allied shipping. It would not surprise me that this biography played an important part in the recognition of the importance of his work, even as it served as the basis of the film The Imitation Game.

Review: Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival, Walter Stahr. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Summary: A biography tracing the life of this public figure who was a contender along with Lincoln for the presidency and who played a vital role in his cabinet, and then as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

He was one of Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican nomination for president in 1860 and served in his cabinet, financing the Union war effort as the Secretary of the Treasury. But there was far more to the life of this public servant that makes him well worth the full length biography Walter Stahr has given us.

Born a New Englander and Dartmouth educated, after reading for the bar exam, he moved to Cincinnati and was strongly identified with Ohio’s politics thereafter. From Cincinnati’s leading attorney, he served twice in the U.S. Senate from Ohio and four years as Ohio’s governor. From defending fugitive slaves to becoming one of the leading anti-slavery advocates of the day, Chase sought to curb the spread of slavery and was far out in front of Lincoln and almost every white of his day in his advocacy for the equality of Blacks, not only arguing for their freedom but for their rights to vote and fully participate in society. It was one of the factors that cost him the presidential nomination

Setting aside his own ambitions, he campaigned vigorously for Lincoln in 1860, and then answered Lincoln’s call to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. Not only did he find the resources through loans and taxes to finance the war effort, he reformed the country’s banking system and gave us a common currency rather than the myriad of banknotes issued by different banks. He employed women to work in the treasury. His advice to Lincoln went beyond the nation’s finances to counselling the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1864, he set aside presidential ambitions once again to accept Lincoln’s nomination to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice, a role that would be critical in post-war cases on the rights of Blacks, America’s financial system, and the relation of the states to the Union. He would preside over the first presidential impeachment in U.S. history, helping establish precedents followed in more recent impeachments after his efforts to save Johnson from himself failed.

At least three things stood out to me in Stahr’s biography. One is that Chase is worthy to be considered America’s William Wilberforce. His anti-slavery advocacy was early and never wavered, though often disregarded or thwarted. Second, he was deeply acquainted with tragedy, burying three wives and several children and the unhappy marriage of his daughter Katherine. Third, was that he was a man of deep religious faith, that undergirded his efforts and sustained him in loss.

All of this makes Chase one of the most noteworthy public servants of this period in American history, despite an odd first name that Chase counseled his daughter not to pass on. Stahr portrays Chase as a man of ambition and yet not an overweening ambition. He both recognized when the first place would go to others and also when the public good required setting aside his private ambitions. Although he had no role in its founding, Chase bank bears his name in recognition of the important role he played in the nation’s finances and banking system.

He died comparatively young at age 65. But it was a life well and fully lived, as Stahr’s biography attests. He was a workhorse in the nation’s service, whether in criss-crossing the country during campaigns, working tirelessly during the war, or writing more opinions than his fellow justices and covering a large circuit when this was part of a justice’s duties. Above all, he was a champion of liberty, for fully realizing the ideals of the nation articulated by Jefferson in the Declaration, for Blacks and for women.

Review: Saint Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis of Assisi (Paraclete Heritage Edition), G. K. Chesterton. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013 (Originally published in 1923).

Summary: Less a biography than a reflection on the meaning of the life of St. Francis.

l will begin with a caveat. If you are looking for a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, this is not your book. It is not that there is not biographical information about St. Francis to be found here. However, you can probably find all that is here biographically in a Wikipedia article. Chesterton himself describes his approach as neither that of a secular biographer or a devotional biographer, but as an admiring outsider trying to make sense of what may be baffling about St. Francis from what we understand of him. How do we understand the mixture of gaiety and austerity in his life, his love of all creation and the abuse of his own body. How do we make sense of his attempts to convert the Muslims? Or the climactic episode of his life on Alverno?

A theme that runs through it all for Chesterton is that what is senseless to the outside observer is not to the lover, and what we have in the story of Francis, God’s Troubadour, is the life of one passionately in love with God, with humanity, indeed all of creation. Indeed, Chesterton suggests that his very name foresees his love of the French troubadours and the gaity of the jongleur de dieu may be seen in his fun loving youth and eager response to the call to war. His dream that leads him to enlist in the Crusades is one more example of not only his zestfulness but longing for glory, until turned back by illness, accompanied by another vision that pointed him to a different quest that began with a downward ascent, culminating in the embrace of the leper.

This leads to Damiano and the call to restore the ruined church, a concrete expression of a larger church in ruins. He gets in trouble for selling his father’s goods to do this, and when confronted renounces it all, and his heritage, going into the woods with a hairshirt and a song, begging stones. Chesterton observes that the way to build a church is to build it. And as he does so, and Portiuncula to follow, others are drawn to his song, Bernard, the rich burgher and Peter the church Canon, who are the beginnings of a new society, living in a hut next to the leper hospital.

Chesterton then stops to consider the Jongleur de dieu image further–not only as jester, or joculator, or juggler, but also as tumbler. He reflects on Francis’ journey to this point, from the son of an affluent merchant to his dark night of imprisonment and illness, his stripping himself all, and the tumble from there into the praise of God, having been shorn of all else. He explores Francis discovery of the richness of and love for every creature, and in turn, every person as an individual, a royal personage in the courts of God, whether beggar or Pope. He traces out the attempt to regularize this growing movement of friars, itinerant rather than secluded monastics, holy among the world.

Later chapters reflect on his attempt to pass through the lines to convert the Muslim Sultan as the “mirror of Christ” the accounts of the miracles surrounding Francis and the encounter with Christ at Alverno and the reports of the sigmata. Chesterton neither dismisses nor argues for any of this but takes the course of simply telling the story. He argues that beyond supposedly supernatural events was the supernatural life of Francis himself, up until his final moments, removed from his bed to lie on the ground.

Whether one likes this, it seems has to do with what one is looking for in reading about Francis. At times, this felt to me as if Francis was a foil for Chesterton, and his ways of drawing out paradox and turning ideas on their head. No doubt there is that in the life of St. Francis, whose downward way began the rebuilding of a church in ruins. I appreciate the approach Chesterton takes of neither debunking nor devotionalizing (is that a word?) Saint Francis. Yet I felt I was reading about St. Francis through a very Chestertonian lens, and while I like Chesterton, I think I would have liked more of Francis, even at the expense of making sense of conflicting data. Perhaps that is a fourth approach, that leaves the more baffling aspects of Francis unresolved, allowing each of us to wrestle with what to make of this most unusual saint.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.