Review: The Soul of an American President

The Soul of an American President

The Soul of an American President, Alan Sears and Craig Osten with Ryan Cole. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Traces the spiritual heritage and growing religious faith of Dwight D. Eisenhower, especially through the years of his presidency and later life.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president I remember hearing about as a child. To be honest, he seemed kind of bland, and mostly I remember reports of him golfing. Recent historians and biographers have raised the estimation of Eisenhower as they consider his Cold War policies, how he kept the U.S. out of “hot” wars, presided over a boom of economic growth, and took some of the first, perhaps somewhat tentative, steps toward recognizing the civil rights of Blacks and other minorities, since the failed efforts of Reconstruction.

What the authors of this work discovered in examining other studies of Eisenhower’s life was that little or no account was give of his religious faith, a neglect that flies in the face of an increasingly regular, yet not publicized pattern of religious practice, interactions and expressions of faith with religious figures from Billy Graham to Pope John XXIII, the testimony of his pastors, and a number of public acts and utterances. Furthermore, these patterns continued after his presidency up to the time of his death in 1969.

The authors trace Eisenhower’s religious journey. He was born of parents deeply devoted to a branch of the Brethren in Christ that moved to Kansas. Later they left this group, and Ida, his mother was especially devoted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. While not entirely orthodox, what marked his upbringing was a strong pattern of Bible-reading and piety, as well as involvement in pacifist religious groups.

Ike broke with his parents in going to West Point and entering the military. And we hear relatively little of his religious faith during his military career, even when he lost his son “Icky,” an event that strained his marriage. Only in World War II do we find him sharing prayers and expressing “There is nothing we could do but pray, desperately.” From here on, Ike expresses more of his faith publicly, though reticently, including contributing the words of “Lead, Kindly Light” to a prayerbook for servicemen in Korea, and more about the connections between America’s religious faith and democracy.

As was the case with so many others, a key influence in his life was the ministry, and in particular, personal conversations with Billy Graham in early 1952. Graham encouraged Eisenhower’s church attendance, referring him to the ministry of Dr. Ed Elson at National Presbyterian Church. Eisenhower had previous associations with Elson as a chaplain with the military. One of the things that stands out is that Eisenhower did not join the church, including being baptized (the only President to be baptized in office) until after the beginning of his presidency. His baptism was a private affair, witnessed by an intimate circle, and he was upset when word of his joining the church leaked to the press. He did not want attention called to his attendance, but both Elson, and his pastors at the Presbyterian Church in Gettysburg, where the Eisenhowers owned a farm, reported Eisenhower attended regularly, and frequently engaged in discussions of the content of sermons, They also quietly contributed monetarily and in other ways to the ministry of their churches.

The other part of Eisenhower’s faith focused on in the book were his ideas about the importance of religious faith, whether Christian or not, to America’s response to the atheist communist threat. He saw the fundamental difference between the two countries to be spiritual and not simply economic or political, which drove things like his support for the U. S. Information Agency. He publicly encouraged religious worship, began the practice of National Prayer Breakfasts, and served during a period when America’s attendance at religious services was at a peak. The authors highlight how religious conviction informed Eisenhower’s efforts with religious leaders across racial divides to break down segregation, albeit far more gradually than civil rights leaders would wish.

The latter part of the book describes Eisenhower’s post-presidency, marked with continued involvement with his church, even as his health declined. During his final hospitalization, he invited Billy Graham to share the scriptures of how he might be sure of his salvation. At the end of the conversation, he said, “Thank you, I’m ready.” One of the last things he said to his family was, “I want to go. God take me.” He died shortly after.

Two of the authors (Sears and Osten) are associated with a conservative religious liberty organization, so I found myself reading with a certain skepticism. However, I thought that on the whole, they offered a balanced account of Eisenhower’s life, and made a case for the genuineness of Eisenhower’s Christian faith. They don’t gloss over his mother’s involvement in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the lack of religious expression through his early career, including his marriage difficulties with Mamie (they discount the possibility of the Kay Summersby affair, although evidence exists for an emotional, but unconsummated affair between them). The fact that Eisenhower waits until after election to be baptized and join his church argues strongly for his not using religious affiliation for political ends, as well as the persistence of his religious practice for the remainder of his life. It also struck me that one may see evidence of religious principles in his policies without engaging in culture wars or litmus tests.

If I might raise any issue, it would be with what seemed an uncritical account of a “God and country” vision and the language of civil religion that seems to appropriate religious faith to national aims (e.g. fighting Communism) that does not seem to recognize a kingdom that transcends national borders. I grew up internalizing that vision and it wasn’t until I began to truly understand God’s love for the world, and the priority allegiance of the Christian to God’s kingdom purposes, that I began to recognize the danger of “God and country” language. In Eisenhower’s administration, this was not egregious. Eisenhower acknowledged God’s providence, and supported the language of “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, acknowledging that God, not the state was ultimate. Yet it is so easy to turn this to an ideology of God existing to sustain American greatness, and the manipulation of religion for political ends.

The value of this work is that it redresses a balance in documenting the religious faith of Eisenhower, that has been neglected in other accounts. The account actually suggests that there is further work to be done in studying Eisenhower’s faith. The writers establish that Eisenhower was deeply thoughtful about his faith and sought to act upon that in his presidential leadership. Others around him, like John Foster Dulles, and George Kennan, also had religiously informed visions of the world. It also seems that Eisenhower was thoughtful about how one exercises religious belief in a pluralistic society and might well be studied for this. Lastly, one wonders how the pacifism of his upbringing and his religious faith may have informed his farewell address warning of the “military-industrial complex.”  The authors have made a case that far more research in this aspect of Eisenhower’s life and leadership is well-warranted.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Ten Presidential Biographies

One of my fascinations is presidential biographies. Part of me is simply fascinated by studying people, I guess, and what makes them tick. I find instructive the practice of leadership and the uses of power, for good and for ill.

As we approach a new electoral season (do they ever end?), it is worth considering, beyond the soundbites and the rhetoric, the character of the person we choose for president. Reading presidential biographies has taught me that character matters deeply and that character flaws often become amplified into tragedies in the office of the President.

Here are ten of the biographies I’ve liked (as well as mentions of others) for your consideration, in chronological order. Since I read a number before I began reviewing I’m just going to list the books.

  1. Washington: A LifeRon Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2010. A magnificent one volume study showing a Washington who was not the dull, stuffy figure we might think, but a man of passion, integrity, and steely self-control. Chernow’s Grant is equally worth a read.
  2. John AdamsDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Adams combined courage, deep faith and learning, and an irascibility that often thwarted his aspirations. His relationship and correspondence with Abigail was legendary. McCullough also has written a magnificent biography of Harry Truman.
  3. Jefferson and His Time, Dumas Malone. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948-1981. This was a magnificent effort that was a joy to read. We marvel at Jefferson’s skill with words, his love of learning, his passion for liberty of conscience, as well as his spendthrift habits, and his struggle to reconcile an agrarian way of life with the requirements of a growing industrial power.
  4. John Quincy Adams, Harlow Giles Unger. Boston: Da Capo, 2012. He served with Washington, had a distinguished ambassadorial career, and was probably the first whose ex-presidency excelled his time in office, marked by electoral controversy and gridlock. He spent the rest of his life in the House of Representatives, fought slavery along with Lincoln, collapsing on the House floor and dying on its premises.
  5. Team of RivalsDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. An account of how Lincoln built his cabinet around those who had wanted his office, and how he worked with these contentious rivals to meet the challenge of the Civil War. Goodwin has also written biographies of Teddy Roosevelt and Robert Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, with whom she worked as a graduate student. Recently, she published Leadership in Turbulent Times, a study of all these figures.
  6. Destiny of the RepublicCandace Millard. New York: Random House, 2012. James A. Garfield was only in office for a brief time before being claimed by an assassin’s bullet and the medical practice that led to infection that killed him. Amid this sad tale, we learn of this individual who might have gone on to be Ohio’s greatest president. It is a story of tragedy and might-have-beens compellingly told.
  7. Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy, Edmund Morris. New York: Random House, 2010. Another magnificent effort, tracing Roosevelt’s life from the sickly child who through exercise, and the rigors of the west was transformed into a “rough rider,” the president who loved every day in office, and found time to read a book a day, and the ex-president who nearly died in the Amazon, and never gave up the hope of returning to office.
  8. One Thousand DaysArthur M. Schlesinger. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1965, 2002.  One of the earliest accounts of the Kennedy presidency by an eyewitness who was a special aide to the President. Schlesinger may not give the most objective account of the Kennedy presidency but his first hand account combined with his writerly skills gives us the ethos of this Camelot presidency.
  9. The Years of Lyndon Johnson (four volumes), Robert A. Caro. New York, Random House, 2013. Robert Caro spent a good part of his life meticulously researching this four volume work tracing the ambition, the capacity of Johnson to bend people to his will, and the tragedy of not being able to let go of Vietnam that undercut the considerable accomplishments of his presidency.
  10. Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2015. Meacham has also written biographies of Jefferson, and an outstanding one of Andrew Jackson. I think George H. W. Bush’s presidency may be underestimated at present. Meacham traces not only his life but his skilled leadership during the fall of communism, and the Gulf War, and his politically flawed decision to raise taxes after his “no new taxes” pledge, a decision that laid the foundation for the budget surpluses and prosperity of the Clinton years.

There are so many others I could suggest including Scott A. Berg’s Wilson and Robert W. Merry’s recent study, President McKinley.  Several have written multi-volume studies of Franklin Roosevelt including Doris Kearns Goodwin, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and James MacGregor Burns. I could go on but this is more than enough. For me, reading these biographies is perhaps more helpful than all the political ads and daily news stories. They help me consider the qualities of character and the skills and vision of leadership I should look for. You might give it a try.

Review: Madison’s Gift

Madison's gift

Madison’s Gift, David O. Stewart. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Summary: A biography of our fourth president, through the lens of five key partnerships he formed that helped establish a new nation.

Of the Founders of the United States, James Madison seems always to be somewhat in the shadows of the more brilliant lights of Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and even Alexander Hamilton. He played pivotal roles in the Continental Congress, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, the establishment of a government under that Constitution, the formation of the first real political party, and helping the country survive a war with a Great Britain that was vastly more powerful. Yet he was soft-spoken, lacking in the skills to be a battle field leader, or the charisma that naturally commanded followings.

David O. Stewart helps us to see that Madison’s gift was his ability to collaborate substantively with personalities often stronger and different than his, bringing his own gifts of political astuteness to those partnerships. Stewart renders the story of Madison’s life through five of these partnerships:

  1. Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was far more flamboyant but the collaboration of these two in the Continental Congress, staving off soldier uprisings by coming up with financing means, and later, working together to draft the Constitution. They teamed up to write the Federalist Papers, providing a formidable intellectual defense and explication of the Constitution, that resulted in ratification of the Constitution. These Papers continue to be a primary resource for Constitutional scholars. His understanding of human failings and the systems of checks and balances between branches of government, houses of Congress, and federal and state government was perhaps his most profound contribution.
  2. George Washington. As a fellow Virginian, he worked with Washington on everything from Potomac navigation to serving as his adviser while giving leadership in Congress in how to turn the Constitution into a functioning government.  He played a pivotal role in the ratification of the Bill of Rights, without which the Constitution may not have survived.
  3. Thomas Jefferson. Both men were lovers of books, land- and slave-owners troubled with slavery and making ends meet, and Virginians. As they observed the centralizing tendencies inherent in the policies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, they came together to form the Democrat Republican party as a check against these tendancies, and effectively collaborated to elect Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe to presidencies spanning 24 years.
  4. James Monroe. This was perhaps one of the most interesting of partnerships because at the start, the two were political rivals. Later, when Madison failed to support a treaty with Great Britain that Monroe negotiated, the two fell out for a couple of years. But when tension with Great Britain were leading up to war, Madison, not nearly as accomplished in diplomatic or military matters, asked Monroe to join as his Secretary of State and Secretary of War. Despite the sacking of Washington, they were able to work together to lead resistance that basically led to a stalemate, and a settlement that unleashed American prosperity.
  5. Dolly Madison. She was a beautiful complement to the reserved Madison and presided over a social scene far more congenial than the stiff and formal receptions of previous presidents. She was fun, she dressed colorfully, and marked by her self-command. When the British were coming to sack the White House, she rescued the silver, and Peale’s painting of Washington, barely escaping herself. In retirement, Stewart describes them as the “Adam and Eve of Montpelier.” They ran footraces on the front porch of Montpelier, hosted numerous guests, and regaled them with stories. They set the pace for presidential retirements. Madison contributed significant defenses of the Constitution against the growing threat of nullification. He succeeded Jefferson as rector of the University of Virginia and participated in the 1829 Virginia constitutional convention. Dolly accompanied him on most of this, and nursed him when his health turned increasingly frail.

Stewart, like many other scholars of this period, writes about the struggle with the question of slavery. For Madison, the issue was personal as well as Constitutional. He recognized that the contradiction between enunciated rights and aspirations, and the compromises of slavery carried the risk of tearing the country apart. Yet he incarnated the difficulty of what he wanted to do on principle, and the economic realities of his situation. He never emancipated his slaves.

Stewart helps us to see that leadership, and presidential, greatness may take different forms. In Madison’s case, a combination of intellectual gifts and capacity for collaboration was crucial for the work of crafting a government from scratch. To collaborate with markedly different personalities suggests a great sense of personal security and sense of self. His willingness to contribute his own astute wisdom while letting others claim the limelight resulted in enduring good for the nation. Stewart’s focus on Madison’s collaborations brings to light his distinctive form of greatness.


Review: Washington


Washington: A LifeRon Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.

Summary: A one volume biography focusing on the character and emotional life and the qualities that enabled him to lead so effectively as general, in presiding over the Constitutional Convention and serving as first president.

Once again, winter found me working through a Ron Chernow biography, in this case, Washington, his study of the inner life and leadership of this Founder. Chernow’s contention is that Washington wasn’t the dull, stuffy figure he often is portrayed as, but a man of robust physical character, great ambition in both business and politics, and passionate in his affections–warm with family and trusted associates, flirtatious with women, and stern with his workers and slaves.

Throughout his life, he endured deplorable physical conditions on surveying trips, military expeditions, and travels, and even on his own farm, surviving numerous illnesses. Apart from his final illness, the more he was outdoors, the healthier he was. In battle, he was fearless, completely unconcerned by his own safety, and seemingly preserved by some kind of providence from harm. He was a magnificent horseman, usually entering a town on horseback, even as President. He paid careful attention to the tailoring of his uniforms, consciously aware of his appearance.

As a young officer under the British, he complained about unequal pay, sought promotion, and alienated the British. Over time, he learned to control his ambitions and his restraint and self-command seems to have been key in his command of others. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment in the War of Independence was not the battles he fought (apart from Trenton) but that he held the army together despite inadequate supplies and poor or non-existent pay, long enough for the French alliance to pay off at Yorktown. He was a man of few words among those who were far more verbose at the Constitutional Convention. His impartial work as President of the Convention and quiet diplomacy behind the scenes brought the process to completion.

A combination of well-timed deaths and inheritances, and enterprise in acquiring lands allowed Washington to amass develop Mt. Vernon, as well as extensive holdings in the Ohio country. His lack of self-regard, and devotion to national service meant few years of enjoyment, and the neglect of his properties to his great financial loss. Only as President did he accept a salary–defraying his own expenses in all the other positions he held. While a formidable leader trusted by all at first, he used all his abilities of tact and restraint to keep the disparate spirits of a Hamilton and Jefferson in harness for most of his presidency, even while criticized by both men and their partisans. He kept a country just getting on its feet from getting embroiled in foreign conflict.  One of the saddest things for him was that he could not prevent the rise of partisan divides.

Washington was a man of integrity and convictions. While Parson Weems tale of Washington cutting down the cherry tree and then confessing his crimes was not true, he was scrupulously careful with things like money and promises to care for his wards, even when this cost money that was in scarce supply. Equally, his strong convictions about America’s weak state under the Articles of Confederation and his persistent efforts to promote the Constitutional Convention and the ratification of the constitution contributed immeasurably to the success of these efforts.

Chernow portrays Washington as a man of passion. He could be deeply moved in speaking farewell to the country at the end of his presidency, and at other significant milestones. He was a ladies man who would count the number of women in the room and dance the night away with them. With two women, Sally Fairfax and Elizabeth Willing Powel, he had more serious flirtations, at least in letters. It appears that things never got further than that. George and Martha had a deep bond, and I wonder if she was shrewd enough to keep him in check, but never estranged. She stayed with him through the hard winters of the war and he deferred to her on many matters of social life.

Washington could be harsh on subordinates, demanding of them the meticulous attention and service he demanded of himself. He was estranged from long time friend Henry Knox when Knox had a lapse of diligence due to personal affairs during the Whiskey rebellion. He was hard on his overseers.

Washington reflected the dilemmas that have been inherent in our national life. He was disturbed by the treatment of Native Americans but had no compunctions about sending General Anthony Wayne to subdue the tribes in the Northwest Territory so settlement could proceed. He wrestled with slavery throughout his life as a plantation owner, vigorously tracking down runaway slaves while trying to be a benevolent owner. One exceptional mark of his integrity was that his will provided for the emancipation of his slaves, education of young slaves, and provision for elderly slaves–far ahead of other southern plantation owners. Washington also struggled with the sectional differences already present and the tension between the strong federal government proposed by Hamilton and the agrarian republicanism of a Jefferson. Given all this, I wonder whether would would have ever become the United States without him.

While Chernow gives us all the events of his life, he also offers us insights into the man, hardly perfect, but hardly the stuffy and dull figure we might consider him, alongside a Hamilton or a Jefferson. There certainly is warrant to the attribution to Washington of indispensability. He did what others could only build on in holding together an army, bringing together a Constitutional Convention, and establishing a strong presidency while relinquishing its power willingly and peacefully. He did this through courage, integrity, warm relationships, firmness and resolve, and even charm.

Chernow does all this with a flow of prose that seems to make 800 pages of text fly, leaving this reader not wanting it to end. When one reviews the acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography, it becomes apparent that he has woven extensive primary and secondary sources and other research skillfully into a flowing and fascinating narrative. After his work on Washington and Grant, I wonder who he will write about next. One thing I know, if I’m around, it will be at the top of my reading pile!


Review: Leadership in Turbulent Times


Leadership in Turbulent TimesDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A study of how four presidents led the nation during turbulent times, tracing their awakening leadership ambitions, the adversity that formed their character, and lessons from how they led.

What distinguishes great leadership from the ordinary or the mediocre? Are leaders born or made? Are leaders great because of, or in spite of, their times? For answers to these and other questions about leadership, many have studied different U.S. Presidents, individuals with, arguably, the most challenging leadership job in the world. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has made a career of studying presidents, publishing four landmark biographies on Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, (and his successor William Howard Taft). In this work, she returns to these four figures, and considers them side by side–four very different men, each who met great challenges and decisively led the nation through them.

The book is organized into three parts. The first traces the awakening ambition of each man. Lincoln leaves an abusive father, educates himself, establishes a law practice and makes his first run for office. Teddy Roosevelt grows up mentored by a respected and wealthy father, overcomes physical weakness, marries Alice, who he met while in college, and goes to the New York legislature “rising like a rocket.” Franklin Roosevelt, a distant relative of Theodore, enjoyed strong formative relationships with both parents, was sociable, learning more by listening than by reading, meeting the president as a young man, and charting a career trajectory that followed in Teddy’s path. Lyndon Johnson was described as a “steam engine in pants,” who learned early to find paths to power by getting near the powerful, beginning with work as an assistant to his college president.

The second part looks at the role adversity played in the lives of each man and how it deepened and focused their ambitions. Lincoln, who went to the legislature with a program of infrastructure improvements, left office after a term, in shame, unable to fulfill his pledge to marry Mary Todd, because of the failure of the economy and the collapse of the programs he helped start. He was depressed to the point that friends considered the threat of suicide. He determined that “he must die or be better.” Teddy Roosevelt lost his beloved wife and his mother within hours, and fled to a ranch in the west where work with tough and resilient men formed his health and healed his soul. He resolved to return, beginning a career as a progressive reformer that eventually took him to the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt was struck down in the prime of life with polio, and rebuilt his upper body strength, started a polio clinic at Sulphur Springs, and finally was convinced and convinced others that he could pursue the highest office. Lyndon Johnson, shortly after becoming Senate Majority Leader has a heart attack, a determines to return to the social programs, including civil rights, that had been at the heart of his early ambitions but had gotten lost in a quest for political power.

The final part looks at how each led during the turbulent time in which they were president–Lincoln in the Civil War and making the Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt in using his office to resolve a protracted national coal strike, Franklin Roosevelt in turning around the country and giving it hope in the depths of the Depression, and Johnson, in succeeding to the office after the Kennedy assassination, and passing a sweeping program of social legislation from civil and voting rights to Medicare.

In the third part, Goodwin draws lessons from the leadership of each president. Here, for example, are the lessons drawn from Lincoln’s presidency:

  • Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction.
  • Gather firsthand information, ask questions.
  • Find time and space in which to think.
  • Exhaust all possibility of compromise before imposing unilateral executive power.
  • Anticipate contending viewpoints.
  • Assume full responsibility for a pivotal decision.
  • Understand the emotional needs of each member of the team.
  • Refuse to let past resentments fester, transcend personal vendetta.
  • Set a standard of mutual respect and dignity; control anger.
  • Shield colleagues from blame.
  • Maintain perspective in the face of both accolades and abuse.
  • Find ways to cope with pressure, maintain balance, replenish energy.
  • Keep your word.
  • Know when to hold back, when to move forward.
  • Combine transactional and transformational leadership.
  • Be accessible, easy to approach.
  • Put ambition for the collective interest above self-interest.

Each point is elaborated with specific examples. One gains both an appreciation of the personal greatness of each president, and the hard and soft skills of each president. Obviously, this is a great text for any who aspire to lead, if one has the drive, like Lincoln, to be better. It also sets a high bar in the qualities we look for in our presidents. She goes lightly on shortcomings, apart from a discussion of the failure of Johnson’s handling of Vietnam.

Having read three of the four presidential books by Doris Kearns Goodwin, I wondered if this would just be a re-hash of her prior works, re-treading old material. Certainly, she draws upon that and her narrative of working with Lyndon Johnson tracks closely with that in her Johnson book. What is fresh and distinct in this book is how she focuses in on leadership, as well as the setting of these four presidents side by side. Each of the succeeding presidents she studies was influenced by the former–Teddy Roosevelt by Abraham Lincoln, Franklin by Teddy, Johnson by Franklin Roosevelt. This book is a challenge, in what many of us would consider a turbulent time, to the kind of people we will be, and the kind of people we choose to serve in leading us.

Review: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson and the American DreamDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1976).

Summary: A biography of the 36th president exploring his ambitions, political skills, and vision, shaped by his family and upbringing, and marred by Vietnam, written from the unique perspective of a White House Fellowship and post-presidential interviews.

This month, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Timeswill hit the bookstores. The book explores lessons learned from her biographies of four presidents, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. The book that began her study of presidential leadership was her biography of Lyndon Johnson, first published in 1976. In a Goodreads interview about her new book, she describes how her personal encounter with Lyndon Johnson led to her career as a writer and historian:

“I became a historian first, and then a writer. In graduate school, I was working on my thesis on Supreme Court history when I was selected to join the White House Fellows, one of America’s most prestigious programs for leadership and public service. At the White House celebration of the newly chosen Fellows, President Johnson asked me to dance—not that peculiar, as there were only a few women in the program. He told me he wanted me to be assigned directly to him, but it was not to be that simple. 

For like many young people, I had been active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and had co-authored an article that called for the removal of LBJ, published in the New Republic several days after the White House dance. Despite this, LBJ said: “Bring her down here for a year, and if I can’t win her over, no one can.” I worked with LBJ in the White House and later assisted him in the writing of his memoirs. I will forever be grateful to him because there’s no question that my experience working for him shaped my desire to become a presidential historian.”

That experience of working personally for and with Johnson, both in the White House, and later, on his ranch, gave her unique access into Johnson’s self-conception of his life, his House and Senate experience, and his exercise of presidential leadership. Goodwin renders a story of a young man torn between the high hopes and expectations of his mother, and the much easier and more personable style of his father. He hated formal speaking but was the consummate student of people who knew how to make deals and get things done. From his cultivation of a relationship with a university president, a congressional aide who rapidly makes others beholden followers, several terms in the House, a failed, and then successful Senate bid and his rapid rise to Senate Majority Leader, we see someone who studied those around him, learned how to accrue power to himself by bestowing benefits to his followers, receiving their support, if not love, in return.

Presidential ambitions required a different set of skills that Kennedy had and Johnson lacked. Failing his bid in 1960 for the presidency, he accepts the role of Vice President, thinking he could use the methods that worked so well throughout his life, only to find, as have so many, that the office of Vice President has great status, and no power, or potential for such, unless the President dies. Thrust into the presidency by Kennedy’s death, he uses his Senate leader skills to continue and realize Kennedy’s vision, articulated by Johnson as the Great Society. In his first year, and the year after his landslide election, he enacts landmark Civil Rights legislation (as a President from the South) and social legislation including Medicare. Foreign affairs, never a strong suit, struck in the form of Vietnam, a war he could neither win nor walk away from. Goodwin explores why and describes his efforts to sustain his social programs while escalating the war, and the disastrous consequences to his social agenda, and to the economy until the epiphany of the Tet offensive and the McCarthy and Kennedy candidacies made it plain that he could not win in 1968.

Goodwin spent extensive time with Johnson in his last years, and narrates his inability to write his memoirs, his conversations about his presidency, and Vietnam, and his deep frustration from trying to bestow so much of benefit on the country, only to be reviled by the demonstrators and so many others (Goodwin among them). A combination of meticulous research and up close and personal contact helps us understand the tremendous force of personality that made Johnson great, and the flaws that cast a shadow on what, otherwise, might have been a great presidency. I tend to approach psychological portraits with some skepticism, but her accounts of Johnson in his own words, his actions and her rendering of his character has an internal consistency that offers deep insight into a man for whom I had little respect growing up. Now I find myself longing for the political mastery and vision he exhibited at his best leading the enactment of the Civil Rights legislation which was perhaps his proudest legacy.

Doris Kearns Goodwin has gone on to give us memorable portraits of Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and even the Brooklyn Dodgers of her youth. This was her debut effort and reveals the promise of all that would come from her pen over the last forty years. Perhaps the publication of Leadership in Turbulent Times might encourage some to go back and read the work that led to her distinguished career as a presidential scholar.


Review: President McKinley


President McKinley: Architect of the American CenturyRobert W. Merry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Summary: A biography of McKinley’s life, from Civil War hero to Canton attorney, congressman, governor, and to a presidency ended by an assassin’s bullet, arguing he was a far more consequential president than usually credited.

My home state of Ohio holds the distinction of producing the most presidents, and many would also say, the most mediocre presidents. In many rankings of presidents, William McKinley is included in this number.  He is often portrayed as the colorless pawn of Cleveland industrialist Mark Hanna. Robert Merry is one of those who would argue that he was far more consequential as a president, and able as the nation’s leader than he is often credited.

Merry’s account traces his life from its beginnings in Niles, Ohio, the family move to Poland, Ohio, near Youngstown, from where he enlisted to serve with the Union army in the Civil War. It is often not known that he rose from private to major during the war, based on his meritorious and occasionally heroic service, notably at Antietam, where as quartermaster, he made his way through enemy lines and fire to bring rations to his pinned down unit.

Legal studies followed his war service and a move to Canton, which he called home for the rest of his life. It was here where he courted and married Ida Saxton, and sadly buried two daughters, Katherine and Ida, both dying of typhoid fever in childhood. After the second daughter dried, Ida began to have epileptic seizures, and the biography recounts the struggle McKinley lived with between his political ambitions and his lifelong devotion to her care. He was rarely far from her side, although some of the doctors he worked with may have caused her more harm than good with their bromides.

McKinley’s rise in politics followed a defense of mine workers involved in a clash with strikebreakers. Even though mine owner Mark Hanna was on the opposing side, McKinley’s conduct of the case caught his attention. Hanna became a backer of his political ambitions, first in Congress, where he became an expert on tariff policy, later as state governor, and finally as president in 1896. Merry chronicles the divided Republican party in Ohio at this time, and McKinley’s shrewd efforts to gain control of it from his rival, Joseph Foraker. This introduces a quality Merry notes that runs through McKinley’s presidency as well, that quietly and assiduously, McKinley worked to achieve the outcomes he wanted, often against more fiery and public opponents.

McKinley was elected in 1896 adhering to the gold standard against William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of gold” rhetoric. As president, his tariff policies and economic conditions and growth in the gold supply led to a booming economy. Like many presidencies, circumstances beyond his control created challenges to which he responded in ways that expanded American power and influence. He accomplished the annexation of Hawaii through a joint resolution of Congress when approval of a treaty of annexation appeared doomed, projecting American presence into the Pacific. While trying to avoid war with Spain until findings (later considered dubious) attributing the explosion on the Maine to hostile Spanish action made war unavoidable, he prosecuted war diligently, leading to defeats of the Spanish navy in the Philippines and in the Caribbean, and the seizure of Santiago, Cuba, and the island of Puerto Rico. In the settlement with Spain, Cuba gained independence, and Puerto Rico and the Philippines became American territories, making America an imperial power. He also nurtured the Hay-Pauncefote negotiations that renegotiated agreements with Great Britain, fostering a closer relationship between English-speaking peoples that cleared the way for the U.S. to build a canal in Central America.

In consequence, McKinley easily won a second term, though both William and Ida longed for a simpler life in Canton. McKinley refrained from personal campaigning in both, relying on an increasingly sophisticated political machine and surrogates to do the work on his behalf, including “Rough Rider” Teddy Roosevelt, who had been nominated his running mate. Six months into his second term, which he had announced would be his last (presidents were not then limited to two terms except by custom), anarchist Leon Czolgosz fired two bullets at close range into McKinley at the head of a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Though seriously wounded, McKinley interceded with agents to show restraint in their efforts to subdue the assassin. He died of infection after initially rallying, putting Roosevelt, a very different leader, into the presidency.

Merry argues that while not a visionary nor dynamic leader, McKinley was an effective president who, for good or ill, expanded American power including the size of its army and navy, a shrewd politician whose party would occupy the White House for sixteen years, and who presided over the economic growth that propelled the United States into world leadership at the beginning of a new century, an American century, aided by a growth oriented monetary policy. His youthful heroism, his personal integrity, and devotion to Ida commend our attention. He was criticized, notably by the Democrat-oriented William Randolph Hearst, for his association with Mark Hanna, yet no president is elected without the support of such figures, and Hanna combined both resources and organizational skills, along with a genuinely warm personal relationship with McKinley. Yet in matters of patronage and policy, McKinley listened to Hanna, but also others, and made decisions on his own terms.

Whether or not you agree with Merry’s case for McKinley, you will find this a highly readable and extensive biography. My own suspicion, as well as Merry’s, is that McKinley has been overlooked because of the far more dynamic president who followed him. Yet he was elected to the presidency twice in an era of one-term presidents, a claim even Roosevelt could not make, and fulfilled his office with dignity, competent leadership, and honorable character to the very last. In my estimate, he is a president, if not among the greatest, certainly one my state can be proud of.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Wilson


Wilson, A. Scott Berg. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013.

Summary: A definitive biography of Woodrow Wilson, that traces the arc of his life from boyhood to professor to college president to U.S. president in biblical terms fitting for this deeply religious man.

For many of us, Woodrow Wilson is the somewhat tragic figure associated with the cruel peace of Versailles that sowed the seeds of World War II, the unwillingness of Congress to embrace U.S. entry into the League of Nations, and the secrets of his final year as president, severely impaired by a stroke, protected by his wife and doctor. That is only a small part of the story of this deeply religious man who combined a progressive vision for the nation with great integrity, and, for over six years of his presidency, masterful leadership. It is this fuller story that A. Scott Berg renders in what may be, for our generation, the definitive biography of Wilson.

As befits the staunchly Presbyterian Thomas Woodrow Wilson (he dropped the Thomas in college), Berg uses a biblical narrative arc to trace his life. Berg’s opening chapters capture the pinnacle of Wilson’s “Ascension” as he arrives to acclaim in Europe for peace talks after the Armistice and the “Providence” of his boyhood as a Presbyterian minister’s son.

We then begin with the Eden of college years at Princeton, where he would spend much of his life. There were the Sinai years of wilderness wandering in law school and then graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, followed by several professorship, culminating in his appointment at Princeton, where he and first wife Ellen would spend much of adult life, first as a remarkably popular professor and scholar, and later as an ambitious reforming president. “Advent” covers the politics of the latter part of his presidency, the first signs of arteriosclerosis that would play a significant role latter, and his (likely non-sexual) dalliance with Mrs. Peck.

“Paul” covers his brief tenure as New Jersey governor and presidential campaign. It was striking to me that one of the things that won people to Wilson was that he never “talked down” to people but rather his elevated speech lifted them up. “Disciples” discusses the people Wilson surrounded himself as he prepared for his first term and the reforms he hoped to introduce. We meet Colonel House, who holds no office but was perhaps his most intimate adviser and emissary until their falling out after the peace talks at the end of the war. There is William McAdoo, who will later become his son-in-law. We are also introduced to Dr. Cary Grayson, the military doctor who oversaw the president’s health. “Baptism” covers the beginning of the first term and “Ecclesiastes” the death of Ellen from Bright’s disease and the subsequent courtship and marriage to Edith, who would play such a critical role at the end of his presidency.

“Deliverance” describes his election to a second term on the slogan “he kept us out of the war” and the increasing awareness that it would not be possible for the U.S. to remain neutral. “Armageddon” chronicles the entrance into the war, and how Wilson masterfully mobilizes the nation to move onto a war footing. “Isaiah”and “Gethsemane” give an account of the peace talks and the maneuvering of Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and others to undermine Wilson’s lofty ideals about both the League of Nations and the terms imposed upon Germany. “Passion” tells the tale of Congress’s rejection of his treaty efforts, and the punishing cross-country journey to try to sell the treaty to the people that led to a series of small strokes, culminating into a major one that left Wilson paralyzed on his left side. “Pieta” describes the efforts of Edith, Grayson, and others close to Wilson to sustain his presidency when he was greatly disabled, and the passing of the presidency to the antithesis of Wilson, Warren Harding. The final chapter, “Resurrection” tells the story of his final years, the rise of his reputation in the nation including outliving Harding, and his passing and burial in the National Cathedral.

We have a portrait of a great and tragic figure. He wasn’t perfect. He was a man of integrity who could be unforgiving when trust was betrayed, as he was with some of his closest advisers at the end of his presidency. He was that rare occurrence, an effective scholar-politician. His record on race was spotty, but he advocated for women’s suffrage. He fought big business and pressed tariff reforms that helped many in the country. He resisted the drumbeat of war, and when it could be resisted no longer, led the nation into a disinterested effort to fight a “war to end all wars.” He saw further than others, and fought in vain for the settlement and the institutions that would forestall a renewal of war. His sense of duty, and obligation to the fighting men, led him to efforts that nearly killed him, and did break his health irreparably.

Reading the biography reminded me that the struggle between American self-interest and an expansive view of our role in the world has run throughout our history. It portrayed how much we ask of our presidents, and the wonder that any of them survive their terms in office. A. Scott Berg’s biography of Wilson is a fascinating exploration of what makes for presidential greatness, the shaping of presidential leadership and the perennial conflicts that seem inherent in the American experiment.


Review: The River of Doubt


The River of DoubtCandice Millard. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

Summary: Narrates Roosevelt’s exploratory expedition to South America, the decision to navigate “The River of Doubt”, and the harrowing journey that nearly cost Roosevelt his life.

What does one do with oneself after you’ve been President of the United States? What, especially does one do when still relatively young? This was the dilemma of Theodore Roosevelt, known to most of us for his adventures with the Rough Riders, his ascent to the presidency following McKinley’s assassination, and for his own reform-minded presidency and a foreign policy shaped by the dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Some even are aware of his failed run for the presidency as a third-party candidate in 2012. Fewer of us are aware of his journey down a never-before explored river in Brazil that nearly cost him his life, and irreversibly damaged his health.

It is this journey that Candice Millard brilliantly narrates in this work. I first discovered Millard in her later exploration of the assassination of James Garfield (Destiny of the Republic, reviewed here), in which she helps us understand what we lost in Garfield, the crazed personality of his assassin, and the botched medical care that resulted in his death. So I was delighted to return to this author’s earlier work, which did not disappoint.

I had previously read about this journey in Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt (reviewed here). Where it seemed that Morris focused mostly on Roosevelt’s battle with the infection that nearly killed him, and the urgent race to get him back to civilization, Millard gives us much more of the whole story behind the exploration, and much more about the journey both before and after Roosevelt sustained the injury that threatened his life. She sets the context of the invitation to go on an exploratory journey over a relatively safe portion of the Amazon with Catholic Father Zahm, and the decision, influenced by explorer Rondon, to explore a previously unexplored and unmapped river, known as the River of Doubt. We meet other key figures in the expedition from the failed Arctic explorer Fiala, who was responsible for poorly provisioning the expedition, Cherrie, the skilled naturalist who played an indispensable role in the expedition, the cameradas, some remarkably able and on whom the expedition’s success largely rested, and some dissolute, like Julio, who kills another expedition member, and ultimately is left to his fate in the rain forest. Finally, Millard sketches the intense personality of son Kermit, dedicated to his father’s survival, newly engaged, and trying to carve out his own identity in the shadow of his father.

She also narrates a journey that seems to go wrong from the start as overburdened animals shed needed supplies and die on the land journey to the river’s headwaters. And then there is the harrowing journey itself, running through the territory of a fierce tribe of Indians, involving repeated overland diversions because of rapids that might have been negotiated in the lightweight boats, but impossible to traverse in the heavy, unwieldy dugouts. It was during the effort to retrieve one of these that broke loose in a rapid that Roosevelt re-injured a leg injury that rapidly became infected. Between a serious infection, and malaria, Roosevelt’s life hangs in the balance, as does the survival of the expedition, short on food, all suffering the effects of disease and malnutrition.

We relive the struggle between the courageous resolve of the explorers, the dangers of attack at any moment, and the ravage of illness and infection as they struggle toward the junction with the Amazon. We learn the price Roosevelt paid for the glory of accomplishing this exploration. Millard also recounts the afterlife of the other explorers, including the sad trajectory of Kermit’s life, much like that of Roosevelt’s brother Elliot.

Along the way, we see the indomitable spirit of Roosevelt, the disregard for his own safety and life in the pursuit of great aims, and the survival of others, and the humility of being willing, as a former president, to do anything from do the laundry of other expedition members to rescue a stranded canoe, all the while pursuing habits of reading and writing for which he was famously known. We also see the driven character of a man who even in his sixth decade as a former president, still needed to test himself physically against rigors that had killed many younger men.

If you enjoy biography, narratives of exploration, or anything concerning Roosevelt, I would highly commend this riveting narrative of the exploration of the River of Doubt, and Roosevelt’s “darkest journey.

The Month in Reviews: February 2016

Destiny and PowerLooking over the reviews for the month, I realized that I began and ended the month reviewing presidential biographies of one term presidents. Both, I thought carried important lessons for this presidential election. I read an account of a real life book thief obsessed with owning rare books, and a classic Lord Peter Wimsey murder mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers. Then there was the usual mix on Christian subjects, from studies on Johannine and Pauline literature, to a commentary on 1 and 2 Chronicles, to several books on different aspects of spiritual development over one’s life.

One thing I am changing beginning with this month is to provide the review link at the end of the review summary with the title link connecting in most case to the publisher’s webpage for the book.

Falling UpwardFalling Upward, Richard Rohr. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.Richard Rohr focuses on what he sees are the key developmental tasks for each “half” of life, using the image of the container for the first half, and contents for the second. Review.

Destiny and PowerDestiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2015. Meacham traces the life of our 41st president from his family’s roots and values that shaped a man both deeply committed to service and country, and also highly competitive and ambitious. The biography traces both his skillful leadership in handling the transition from the Cold War era, and the inability of this deeply private man to communicate his deep care for and desire to serve his country that cost him a second term. Review.

Paul and His Recent InterpretersPaul and His Recent Interpreters, N. T. Wright. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. N.T. Wright surveys the scholarship in Pauline studies over the past fifty years engaging scholars developing the “new perspective”, “apocalyptic”, and “social history” approaches to Paul. Review.

Positively PowerlessPositively Powerless, L.L. Martin. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2015. Traces the “positive thinking” movement to its unorthodox beginnings, considers the impact of this movement in Christian circles, and the biblical alternative that frees us from the pretense of pretending to be better than we are and locates our hope not in “great thoughts” of self but the greatness of God. Review.

man who loved books too muchThe Man Who Loved Books Too MuchAllison Hoover Bartlett. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009. The story of book-thief John Gilkey, “biblio-dick” Ken Sanders whose work resulted in Gilkey’s arrest, and the world of book lovers and rare books. Review.

A Commentary on 1 and 2 ChroniclesA Commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles, Eugene H. Merrill. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015. A commentary on these post-exilic books that emphasizes the hope of a restored kingship for Israel, the renewal of God’s covenant, and the rebuilding of the temple as the center of Israel’s religious life. Review.

Grand Central QuestionGrand Central Question, Abdu H. Murray. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.  Every worldview addresses the fundamental “why” questions of human existence and the author contends that the worldviews of secular humanism, pantheism, and Islam each have a “grand central question” and that the grand central questions posed by these worldviews find their deepest and most satisfying answers in the Christian gospel. Review.

Lay It DownLay It Down, Bill Tell. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2015. Through a personal crisis, the author discovers the freedom of the gospel in terms of three miracles. Review.

Johannine TheologyJohannine Theology, Paul A. Rainbow. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A comprehensive treatment of the Johannine corpus that assumes a common source and explores the theology of these books in light of the major relationships between persons divine and human, and of those persons with regard to the church and the world. Review.

The Nine TailorsThe Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1966. Lord Peter Wimsey, stranded in Fenchurch St. Paul due to a driving mishap, later is enlisted to solve the mystery of the death of an unidentified man, whose body is found buried atop the grave of a recently deceased woman. The “nine tailors” refers to the nine tolls of a bell when an adult man has died, after which the years of his life are tolled. Review.

herbert hooverHerbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency, Charles Rappleye. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016 (expected publication date May 10, 2016). This new biography of the Depression-era President presents a more nuanced picture than the aloof, somewhat helpless figure he has often been characterized to be. It shows a competent, caring, and principled administrator lacking the political skills requisite for presidential leadership in a time of crisis. Review.

Best Book of the Month: Given the theme of presidential biography, I have to give the nod to Destiny and Power. Meacham draws a portrait of George H. W. Bush as a skillful diplomat, before and during his presidency, and as a decent person and genuine war hero, who wrestled with the demands of character, duty, and politics, not always successfully, at the highest levels. Mostly, the book suggested to me that we may eventually recognize that we have underestimated this Bush presidency.

Best Quote of the Month: This comes from Bill Tell’s Lay it Down and I liked this for the succinct way it summarizes the Christian’s freedom as the beloved of Christ:

“When we have a new heart, freedom does not make us want to run wild and sin more. It makes us want to walk with Jesus” (p. 107).

Reviewing soon:  Among the books I will be reviewing soon are The Unkingdom of God, on a Christian form of anarchism, Growing God’s Church, a book exploring how people come to faith, J. C. Ryle’s classic Holiness, and Incarnate, on what it means to live as incarnational people in a virtual, “excarnate” world. I am also working my way through Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants (an abridged version) and just received a copy of The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, about the migration of six million blacks from the south to the north, comparing it to other historic migrations. And I’m also hoping to get to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a Booker Prize winner.

So many good things to read!