Review: A Promised Land

A Promised Land, Barack Obama. New York: Crown Publishing, 2020.

Summary: The first volume of the presidential memoir of Barack Obama, tracing his early life, his entry into politics and rise, his first presidential campaign and first term up to the death of Osama Bin Laden.

I’ve always been a fan of presidential memoirs and biographies. So I had this on order when I heard about its release. I was richly rewarded by the elegant and flowing prose of this first volume of President Barack Obama’s memoirs.

The prose drew me in from the opening words of the first chapter:

“Of all the rooms and halls and landmarks that make up the White House and its grounds, it was the West Colonnade that I loved best.

For eight years that walkway would frame my day, a minute-long, open-air commute from home to office and back again. It was where each morning I felt the first slap of winter wind or pulse of summer heat; the place where I’d gather my thoughts, ticking through the meetings that lay ahead, preparing arguments for skeptical members of Congress or anxious constituents, girding myself for this decision or that slow rolling crisis.”

Barack Obama, A Promised Land, p. 3.

The first volume covers Obama’s early life, his work as a community organizer, meeting Michelle, and his rise in politics in the first seventy-eight pages. The rest in the book in six additional parts covers his presidential campaign and most of the first term up to the Navy Seals mission that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11.

In the Preface, he sets forth his aim to give an “honest rendering” of his time in office. Certainly, this, along with his presidential papers, will serve as a resource for historians who examine this period. I suspect some will find it more honest than others. I do think he gives a fair account of the financial crisis and recession into which he walked and the stumbles and savvy moves his Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geitner executed that prevented the Great Recession from becoming the second Great Depression. I felt his account of passage of the Affordable Care Act a bit too perfect, slowed only by congressional recalcitrance. Yes, there was that but also things like mandated contraception coverage that violated the freedom of conscience of religious orders and brought major resistance, that is not mentioned.

He also wants to pull back the curtain on the presidency, to describe what it is to be a president. He takes us inside the meetings, the work with his staff, the appointment of people to key posts, like General McChrystal to Afghanistan, and then cleaning up messes like McChrystal’s unguarded and on the record comments to the press. He describes the constant tension between high ideals and realpolitic, as in the events of the Arab Spring and the tension of standing with reliable but corrupt allies and endorsing the democratic hopes of those engaged in the uprisings. Many will continue to debate whether he got that right. He also recounts the planning that developed as intelligence revealed the probable hiding place of Bin Laden, the weighing of options, the decision to send the Navy Seals, and the tense moments as the mission unfolded, with a presidency in the balance.

“Finally,” he writes, “I wanted to tell a more personal story that might inspire young people considering a life of public service: how my career in politics really started with a search for a place to fit in, a way to explain the different strands of my mixed-up heritage, and how it was only by hitching my wagon to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a community and purpose for my life” (p. xiv). We catch glimpses of conversations with children of color in the U.S and other countries realizing that someone like them could also be president or accomplish other great things. We also see the kids on his daughter’s basketball team he helped coach before encouraged to step back as a perhaps-over-involved parent! He also recounts a moment after the news conference, coupled with the release of his long-form birth certificate, where he put to rest the patently false allegations of the “birthers.” He very simply said to the young people on his communications team, “We’re better than this….Remember that.”

Reading the memoir, one has the sense of being in the presence of someone of both subtle and supple intelligence, disciplined in thought and his work with cabinet officers and staff, one who presses for additional options and asks the hard questions, knowing the buck stopped with him. He acknowledges his own stumbles while praising the people around him. One does sense that while he deeply respected Hilary Clinton, they never developed the closeness he enjoyed with a number of others in his circle.

One of the quite wonderful aspects of this memoir is the evident respect and deep affection for Michelle, Malia, and Sasha. He doesn’t gloss over the differences between him and Michelle on running for the presidency, nor his struggles with the impossibility of a normal life for his daughters. At the same time we gain glimpses both into family dinner times, romps with kids and Bo, the dog given them by Ted Kennedy, and state visits to far flung places like the Kremlin and Rio de Janeiro.

This memoir, for all its detail, was “un-put-downable.” It is not only the flowing prose. While I did not always agree with this president (do we ever?), one gains a sense of the demands, the weight, and the dignity of the office in this narrative. One also has a sense of the high ideals to which this man aspired in public life, from the “Yes We Can” that gave hope that this country is for all its citizens, to an aspiration, not always fulfilled, for a better politics. I look forward to the next volume!

Review: In the Hands of the People

In the Hands of the people

In the Hands of the PeopleJon Meacham. New York: Penguin Random House, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the sayings of Thomas Jefferson, reflecting his belief in the critical responsibility of the people to the health and growth of the new Republic, with commentary by the author.

Thomas Jefferson was the optimist to the pessimism of a John Adams. He once remarked in their correspondence: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” A significant reason for that was his belief in the citizens of the new nation, and in the government that they had formed.  It can be readily granted that Jefferson was a flawed individual. His university was a gentleman’s university. He owned slaves who had to be sold off after his death.  It was not his example, but the ideals of equality, of the consent of the governed, of an educated citizenry, of the important of religion and keeping the state out of it, of patriotism above partisanship, the value of immigration, and of compromise.

Historian Jon Meacham has collected the statements of Jefferson on all of these topics and more around the central idea of citizenship, how it may both be trusted, and how important the practice of good citizenship would be to the future of the Republic. He groups these under eleven topics, devoting a chapter to each. Meacham provides brief introductions in each chapter, followed by quotes from Jefferson, and others talking about Jefferson’s ideas.   The last two chapters are statements by an assorted group of others about Jefferson, and by other presidents on Jefferson.

Here are a few of those quotes:

On the right and responsibility to vote:

It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.

On the vitality of a free press:

But the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to.

On education:

It is safer to have a whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance. This last is the most dangerous state in which a nation can be.

On threats to the Republic:

I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom. And, to preserve their independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt.

One more, from the collection of presidential quotes on Jefferson, this one from Jimmy Carter:

Thomas Jefferson conceived our United States of America as no other nation had ever tried to be–dedicated to human fulfillment, where individual liberty was guaranteed. But Thomas Jefferson also founded a university, collected a national library, planned beautiful cities, mapped the wilderness, and being a farmer, he invented a better plow!

This book comes out at a time riven with controversy where we may be greatly tempted to fear for the future of the republic. Yet it strikes me that so many of our protests concern the disparity between our ideals of unalienable rights and the equality of all, and realities that fall short for some. Jefferson would challenge us all to patriotism above partisanship, and to the hard work of responsible citizenship that seeks the common good above our personal profit.

I could wish that all of us would buy a copy, and read it as we prepare to celebrate another July 4 and look ahead to national and local elections in November, as we consider what obligations we have to one another in time of pandemic. If ever there was a time for the renewal of an understanding of responsible citizenship and civic engagement, this is time. Jefferson offers guidance both about what we must value, and why we might hope.


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

Review: The Impeachers

the impeachers

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just NationBrenda Wineapple. New York: Random House, 2019.

Summary: A history of the accidental presidency of Andrew Johnson, his resistance to the civil rights fought for in the Civil War, and the impeachment proceedings against him.

Impeachment. Only twice in American history has Congress pursued impeachment proceedings against a President of the United States. Neither instance resulted in conviction of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This book chronicles the first instance where this remedy was pursued, during the presidency of Andrew Johnson.

Brenda Wineapple gives us a well-crafted account of the presidency of Andrew Johnson, the circumstances leading to his impeachment, the key figures from the House of Representatives that prosecuted the impeachment, as well as the presiding Chief Justice, the defense, and the final denouement.

Andrew Johnson was always a bit of a lone wolf, rising from tailor to accidental president when Lincoln was assassinated. When the Civil War began, though sympathetic with the white supremacy of the South, Johnson argued against secession as unconstitutional, and that in fact it was impossible for states to secede from the Union, a position he maintained later on as president. When Tennessee seceded, he continued to take his seat in the Senate. Later, Lincoln named him military governor of Tennessee. When it came time for Lincoln the Republican to run for his second term, he did the unusual thing of offering Johnson, a Democrat, the Vice Presidency, partly to weaken the Democrats, and perhaps with a view toward the restoration of the Union.

Wineapple describes how Johnson quickly instituted his own version of Reconstruction, allowing many of the old leaders of the south to return to office, undercutting newly won civil rights for blacks, and looking the other way when blacks were violently attacked, lynched, and slaughtered. He undercut the efforts of moderate Republican Lyman Trumbull to extend the Freedman’s Bureau by vetoing the bill, even after Lyman’s extensive consultations with Johnson led him to think it would be passed. It increasingly appeared that all the sacrifice of Union troops was for naught, as Blacks still were treated as slaves in all but name. The crowning insult was Johnson’s campaign trip, the “swing around the circle” during the 1866 elections where he denounced Republicans Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Philips by name.

While Republicans in Congress seethed at this treatment and the reversal of gains fought for during the Civil War, all of this occurred under the cloak of legality. Wineapple then discusses the efforts to limit the military occupation, including the work of Secretary of War Stanton and General Grant. This was one of the remaining protections for Black citizens. To protect Stanton, Congress passed over Johnson’s veto the Tenure in Office Act, prohibiting the firing of cabinet officials without Congressional approval. Johnson, believing the act unconstitutional, eventually sacked (or tried to) Secretary Stanton, which represented the crossing of a threshold that triggered the vote of impeachment in the House, and the impeachment trial in the Senate.

Wineapple takes us through the trial, introducing us to the managers for the House prosecution: Benjamin Butler who presented much of the evidence, and George Boutwell, and the courageous Thaddeus Stevens, enfeebled and dying. She gives us sketches of Chief Justice Chase, the defense for the president, key senators like Ben Wade, who stood to succeed to the presidency if Johnson was convicted, and correspondents including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Georges Clemenceau. Then came the vote, 35-19, with a key Republican, Edmund Ross changing his vote to acquit at the last hour. Six other Republicans joined him and twelve Democrats in voting to acquit. Though never proven, there was evidence of payoffs.

Johnson served out his term, but was disappointed not to receive the appointment of his party. He eventually returned to the Senate, dying in office in 1875. Ulysses Grant succeeded to the presidency, reversing to some degree the effects of Johnson’s “Reconstruction.” But the promise briefly glimpsed by Lincoln was never to be.

Wineapple does an outstanding job of unfolding the history and the fascinating characters around the impeachment. Her account of the life and death of Thaddeus Stevens was particularly striking. Her book makes the case for the challenges of impeachment: the ambiguities of language and procedure. The truth was, Andrew Johnson was a disaster and a white supremacist and could not be removed for these reasons alone. Only the violation of a questionable law (later ruled unconstitutional) provided the pretext. Even this effort fell short. Wineapple also shows us that white supremacy is nothing new but has a long and ugly history in our country, one accustomed to the commission of sordid acts and the constraining of civil liberties with the pretext of respectable legality.

Essentially, impeachment is an unproven remedy for the removal of presidents considered to have committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Section IV of the 25th Amendment has never been attempted. This brings us back to the critical importance of the choices we make for who we elect to be president and vice-president. Whether in office by vote or accident, the only proven way presidents may be removed from office is by the Electoral College, reflecting (hopefully) on a state by state basis the results at the ballot box, an opportunity that comes only every four years. The attacks of White Supremacists on voting rights in Johnson’s day also remind us of the vital task of rigorously protecting voting rights for all our citizens, recognized as critical for “liberty and justice for all” then–and now.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Grant


GrantRon Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: A biography on the life of Ulysses S. Grant from his Ohio childhood, his years of failure in business, his rise during the Civil War, his presidency, and later years, including the completion of his memoirs as a dying man.

Many people know the work of Ron Chernow from his great biography, Alexander Hamilton, which served as the basis of the Broadway play, or his biography, Washington: A Life. Chernow has done it again in this biography of Grant, which will likely raise Grant in the rankings of presidents, and establishes Chernow as one of the premier presidential biographers. I honestly can’t say enough good about this book. It is rare to come to the end of 960 pages and wish there were more. I have his Washington: A Life on my TBR pile and will move it up!

Chernow gives us a Grant caught between the ambitions and expectations of father, father-in-law, and socially ambitious wife. It is little wonder in some ways that he struggled with drinking, which Chernow explores throughout the book. Grant quietly resigned from the Army in the early 1850’s likely because of drinking problems on a backwater post in the Pacific northwest. He was a failure at farming a plot of land provided by his father-in-law, and unhappy running a store owned by his father under his younger brother in Galena, Illinois, and continued to struggle with drink. One heroic aspect of Grant’s life was his gradual mastery of this problem during the Civil War (with occasional lapses) and in his presidency (where he remained sober) and later life. The vigilance of his aide, John Rawlins, and wife Julia certainly helped, but Grant’s own eventual mastery is evidence of the resolute nature of this man.

Chernow explores the complicated nature of this man, who seems a bundle of contradictions. He could keenly recognize the opportunities of a battlefield situation and the outlines of grand strategy that led to victory after victory culminating in Appomattox and yet could not assess the character of his closest associates, who often betrayed his trust, in war, in his cabinet, and at the end of his life, when he was bankrupted by Ponzi-schemer Ferdinand Ward.

He could seem like someone with low energy and little drive until a crisis, where he would remain calm, and give decisive direction. He was the first general Lincoln found who would take the fight to the enemy and ruthlessly prosecute it to the end, gaining the reputation of being “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Then he grants magnanimous peace terms to General Lee and his troops, for which many gave him their undying respect. In later life, touring Europe, he at once dazzled people with his grasp of military history and strategic concepts, showing far more brilliance than people credited, and yet he had no desire for reviewing troops, having seen more than enough of this in his time.

His presidency as well was a bundle of contradictions. His administration was a mix of men of integrity, and corrupt friends, who tainted his reputation as their corruption became evident. Most noteworthy, and a theme of Chernow’s was his vigorous efforts both during the Johnson administration, and in his presidency, to protect and extend Reconstruction, including Black voting rights and office holders, while healing the rift with the South that led Frederick Douglass to write this in summary of his career: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.” John Singleton Mosby, a Confederate general wrote on learning of his death: “I felt I had lost my best friend.”

In addition to Reconstruction, his skill in avoiding war with Great Britain over the Alabama, turning it into an occasion to cement the alliance with Great Britain we enjoy to this day, his management of the nation’s finances in paying down war debt, and his fostering of economic growth outshine the corruption of his associates, who he defended at first, but then dealt with when evidence was clear that they had betrayed his, and the public’s trust. His administration was probably better than the taint of scandal that has come down to us. As Chernow notes, he loved his friends too well rather than wisely.

He was a man of few words, except when unbending with close friends. His orders and his speeches were models of clarity and concision. Yet this same man, dying of cancer of the throat accomplished the stupendous feat of writing the 336,000 words in his final years, finishing them just before he died. Many critics consider the Memoirs the one of the greatest works of this genre, described by Chernow as written in a “clear, supple style.” Apart from minor changes of punctuation and grammar, he needed little editing. Writing this work, motivated in significant part to provide for his family after the financial debacle with Ferdinand Ward left him nearly penniless, was perhaps the most courageous act of his life, as he struggled on in great pain and increasing weakness. He finished the work on July 16, and died a week later on July 23, 1885 at age 63.

All this, and so much more, you will find in Chernow’s Grant. Chernow, while cognizant of Grant’s faults, doesn’t bury Grant’s greatness in his failings. He proposes that there is far more to this General and President than we have credited. And as a writer, he celebrates another writer, whose Memoirs are going on my reading list!


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The President from the Mahoning Valley


President William McKinley — Photo Public Domain

Ohio is the birthplace of seven U.S presidents. One of these was born in and grew up in the Mahoning Valley. He was the 25th president of the United States. Probably the most significant event during his presidency was the Spanish-American war, at the end of which the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, which later gained their independence. The other major event of his presidency was its end, six months into his second term. He was in Buffalo to attend the Pan-American Exposition, when an anarchist by the name of Leon Czolgosz came up to him in a receiving line and fired two shots into his abdomen. He died eight days later from his wounds on September 14, 1901, putting his Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt into the White House. The presidency would never be the same.

William McKinley was born in Niles, Ohio. If you’ve ever driven through Niles, you likely have seen and gone past the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial. The birthplace home and research center is located nearby on 40 South Main Street. His father, William McKinley, Sr. settled in Lisbon as a boy where he met and married Nancy Allison. Both families made their living in iron-making and McKinley Senior had foundaries in Lisbon, Niles, Poland, and later Canton.

When McKinley was nine, his family moved to Poland, Ohio, where McKinley was enrolled in Poland Academy (later Seminary). Poland Seminary was a private institution, and as such, its finances later failed with the property being sold to the Poland City with the stipulation that the high school retain the name Poland Seminary, which it does to this day. One other famous connection to Poland Seminary was Ida Tarbell, who taught there before going on to a career in journalism where she gained notoriety as one of the “muckrakers,” particularly for her investigative reporting on John D. Rockefeller of nearby Cleveland, and his Standard Oil monopoly.

McKinley went on the Allegheny College, but had to return home to Poland after a year, in 1860, where he worked as a postal clerk and school teacher. He served under, among other officers, fellow Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes, who became a mentor and friend and preceded him as Ohio’s governor and later U.S. President. McKinley began the war as a private but rose to the rank of major. He was decorated for his bravery on the battlefield. During Antietam, when he was serving as Quartermaster, his regiment was pinned down in the thick of fighting for hours without food, and McKinley made it through enemy lines and fire to bring them rations.

After the war, he returned for a time for Poland, decided on a career in law and read law with a local attorney before moving to Albany law school to complete his legal training. After this, he moved to Canton where he established his legal practice and began his rise in politics, first as country party chair, then serving several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and then from 1892-1896 as Ohio’s governor.

McKinley was friends with at least two prominent Youngstown figures who I’ve written about in previous posts. Colonel Lemuel Talcott Foster (of Fosterville fame) was a boyhood and lifelong friend of McKinley. Joseph Butler was a political supporter and adviser of McKinley and wrote a biography of McKinley. Butler worked with the Niles Board of Trade to establish the McKinley Birthplace Memorial.

McKinley was not a dynamic leader like either of the Roosevelts. He was well enough regarded at the time to win a second term in an era with a string of one term presidents. Anyone who has taken a Hawaiian vacation can thank him, because he acquired Hawaii for the U.S. along with other territorial acquisitions. Hawaii would become a key base for projecting U.S. power in the Pacific. On balance, along with the many other people the Mahoning Valley has produced, we can be proud that we raised a civil war hero, lawyer, representative, governor and president who served honorably in all these roles.

Review: The Gatekeepers

the gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, Chris Whipple. New York: Crown, 2017.

Summary: A study of the White House Chiefs of Staff, from the Nixon through Obama administrations, and how critical the effective execution of this role is to an effective presidency.

During the final weeks of the Bush (43) administration, an unprecedented meeting took place in the office of Josh Bolten, Bush’s last Chief of Staff. Eleven of the thirteen living former Chiefs showed up (absent were James Baker and Erskine Bowles). People like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Leon Panetta, Howard Baker, and Andy Card came together with incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel to share the benefit of their experience.

Chris Whipple uses the narrative of this meeting as a starting point of a study of the critical role the Chief of Staff plays that marks a Presidency as effective or not, as able to skirt dangerous pitfalls, or tumble into them. His description and quotes of Leon Panetta from this meeting captures the critical essence of the book’s thesis:

“Leon Panetta was probably the most popular person in the room. The son of Italian immigrants, jovial and outgoing, he was equally at home on his walnut farm in Monterey, California, and in the corridors of the West Wing. But as Bill Clinton’s second chief–replacing McLarty–Panetta had wielded an iron fist inside a velvet glove. When he arrived, Clinton’s presidency was on the ropes, his ambitious agenda threatened by fights over gays in the military, the Whitewater scandal, and other distractions.  The damage was self-inflicted, caused by Clinton’s indiscipline and sloppy staff work. Panetta stepped in and brought discipline and focus to the White House–enabling Clinton to regain his traction and go on to win a second term. Now it was Panetta’s turn to tutor Obama’s incoming chief: ‘Always, always be straight and honest with the president of the United States,’ he said. ‘Always tell him what he may not want to hear–because frankly, a lot of people in the White House will always tell the President what he wants to hear’ ” (p. 7).

Whipple paints a portrait of effective chiefs as those who combine candor, focus, organizational discipline, the confidence of their president, emotional intelligence, and a tireless work ethic. Too friendly with the president, and they often end up shielding him from essential truths that can bring down a presidency. Too indisciplined or administratively unskilled, and they squander the opportunities of leadership. Too harsh, and they alienate the people who they need to work with to enact a president’s vision. Most of all, they are skillful gatekeepers, making sure those who need to see the president do, while protecting the president’s energies and focus and time to think, and from powerful individuals who would unduly influence a president outside established executive branch processes.

The study begins with H.R. Haldeman, who in fact shaped the staff system that every effective chief has practiced. It was lapses in Haldeman’s discipline, allowing Erhlichman and the plumbers free reign, as well as his unwillingness to tell Nixon the hard truth about Watergate at the start, that brought down his presidency. Strong staff leadership by Rumsfeld and Cheney enabled Ford to nearly defeat Jimmy Carter, despite the tarnish of Watergate and the Nixon pardon. Carter’s decision to be his own chief of staff for the first years of his presidency, and the influence of Jordan and Powell that reinforced the indiscipline that resulted weakened his presidency. Only bringing in Jack Watson, the disciplined yet sociable ex-Marine, established some order, but too little, too late. James Baker was probably key to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, as well as recovery momentum in the later Bush (41) presidency. Baker brought all the skills discussed to provide a president inexperienced internationally with the counsel needed to shrewdly confront the Soviet threat. Later, Ken Duberstein was the chief who encouraged Reagan to retain the most famous words (against State Department advice) for which Reagan is remembered when he said at the Brandenburg Gate, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Mack McLarty was Clinton’s first chief, and as a close friend of Clinton, presided over chaos, that was only reversed when he was replaced by Panetta. In the Bush (43) presidency, the likable Andy Card was no match for Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney. It was obvious that Bush didn’t place the same confidence in him as in Cheney, which Whipple connects to the failures of in the decision to invade Iraq, over the reservations of Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose reputation was tarnished as victory gave way to chaos and a prolonged and costly occupation. Again, after Rahm Emmanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago, Bill Daly illustrated the pitfalls of a weak chief, in contrast to Denis McDonough, who helped Obama keep his political promises through executive order when faced with a recalcitrant Congress.

The book also underscores how critical it is that presidents choose strong chiefs they trust with the requisite skills and qualities of character. Whipple observes that this may be especially important with Donald Trump, as an outsider with limited political experience. It is an interesting question whether Reince Priebus enjoys the president’s confidence and is able to exercise the gate-keeping and organizational disciplines necessary to an effective presidency. If Whipple is right, it seems to me that one of the most important lessons President Trump can learn is getting the right person in this position and then being willing to listen to that person.

Before reading Whipple’s account, I thought of the Chief of Staff as just another member of the President’s inner circle, but I hadn’t reckoned with the importance of this position in the modern presidency where economic policy vies with natural disasters, human tragedies, and international drama on a daily basis. To execute vision, to maintain focus when faced with dozens of possible priorities, to keep “teams of rivals” in harness rather than going rogue, to be both the needed sounding board, and the honest voice are critical ingredients in helping presidents be effective. It also takes a rare blend of leadership and humility. As one of the chiefs remarked, the danger of the office is to emphasize the “chief” part (as Donald Regan did), rather than the “of staff” part. Whipple’s book helps us appreciate this rare blend, and the figures who have served us well, or less well, in this role.


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

Review: Coolidge


Coolidge, Amity Shlaes. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.

Summary: An account of Coolidge as a man of quiet conviction who presided over a great American transformation.

Calvin Coolidge was always one of those presidents who was a name on the list of presidents who otherwise seemed unmemorable. Especially in a time of a president who dominates the news coverage, Coolidge might come as a pleasant breath of fresh air–someone who cared more for deeds than words, and sometimes influenced more by what he did not do. Perhaps he is not better known simply because he was a president between the wars, during the great economic expansion known as “the roaring Twenties.”

Amity Shlaes gives us a presidential biography of Coolidge that certainly raised him in my estimation while reminding me of the limitations and challenges every president faces. Shlaes begins with describing the Coolidge family tree–those that left Vermont for better land, and those who stayed to eke out a life on its rocky soil, a lineage tracing back to the early colonists, peopled by both farmers and politicians. We trace his education at Black River and St Johnsbury Academies and then on to Amherst, where this quiet young man excels in debate.  He establishes a law practice, winning clients attracted to his quiet efficiency that cost them less, kept them out of court, earning him less but building a clientele.

He married Grace, who had spied him through a window while shaving. She was a teacher at the Clark School of the Deaf, which Coolidge in his later years raised $2 million to endow, and created a cause to which Grace gave himself after his death. Shlaes traces his political career from city and state legislator positions to his governorship of Massachusetts during which he takes a strong stand against the Boston Police strike that brings him to national attention, and eventually to nomination as Vice President on the Harding ticket, with the indignities of that office, disrespected by Cabot Lodge from his own state.

Then Harding dies, and Coolidge finds himself in the White House. The bulk of the book traces that presidency. He begins with a restoration of integrity after the crony politics of Harding. He gathers people like Andrew Mellon and Charles Evans Hughes around him. He consistently balances budgets, cuts taxes and expenditures, and increases revenues and surpluses. He wins election in his own right, probably saying less than any other presidential candidate. Often, he presided through the veto and even pioneered the pocket veto, which was upheld in court. He also presided over an incredible economic boom, highway construction, the Lindbergh flight. He resists veterans bonuses which he believed the states should pay. When floods ravage Vermont, he resists flood control legislation because of how it would bloat federal budgets, which he was able to hold to a mere $3 billion per year.

Shlaes makes us aware of how tough the presidency is on the occupants of the office. It broke the health of Wilson, Harding died, and Coolidge also was broken in health by the office, dying within four years. He suffered the loss of a son, Calvin, during his tenure. His marriage was strained. His last years provided a measure of restoration, even though his relationship with Hoover was always tense.

Coolidge, like some others, served to restore the dignity of the office when his predecessor had jeopardized the stature of the office. That is a particular kind of greatness, not the greatness of a war president, but nevertheless important to the republic. Shlaes helps us appreciate the important role men like Coolidge have played in our history.

Review: Colonel Roosevelt

Colonel Roosevelt
Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the most difficult challenges of the Presidency is being a former president. How does one move from occupying the most powerful position in the world to becoming just another citizen, albeit one who is a member of a small club of former presidents?

Edmund Morris’s third volume of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt covers the decade after Roosevelt was President. It seems to me a narrative of a man torn — torn between the love of exercising power with the thought that he might do so better than his rivals, and the recognition that his “crowded hour” for leadership had passed and that he was in a different season of life.

What Morris’s sparkling narrative reveals is that Roosevelt never resolved this underlying tension in his life. Even when he lay in the final health crisis that would end his life, he was still entertaining hopes of one more run at the Presidency in 1920.

He appears to leave office well, handing the reins of power to his old friend, William Howard Taft. Yet the differences between the two are evident even then and will become more pronounced in the coming years leading to an estrangement only partially healed that left Taft weeping at his grave. He embarks on a safari to Africa, once again the hunter. Then, he tours the capitals of Europe speaking in every place while recognizing the signs of the approaching global conflict. He speaks as one who recognizes that America might need to get into this war, putting off all the peace-lovers on both sides of the ocean.

On his return, he unsuccessfully seeks to contain himself as he sees the Taft White House undoing his reforms. He begins to speak out and maneuver within the Republican Party, finally openly opposing an incumbent who basically has the convention locked up even though the party knows it will lose to Wilson. He bolts, forms the Bull Moose party, survives an assassination attempt (carrying the bullet in his chest for the remainder of his life) only to come in second to Woodrow Wilson.

Once again he turns to the wilds for consolation, this time on an exploratory journey down the River of Doubt, the longest unexplored river in South America. It is a harrowing journey that nearly costs him his life and does cost him his health. Morris’s chronicle of this journey helps us see and imagine what a “near run” thing this was.

He returns to once again take up the cudgels against Wilson as well as the Republican Party, entangling himself in a costly libel suit he eventually wins. He is vociferous in his criticism of Wilson’s efforts to keep the U.S. out of the war and the lack of military preparedness that accompanies this. He sets up his own training camp in which two of his sons participate. Spurned once again in 1916, he watches as Wilson finally embraces the reality he had seen long before that Germany would need to be fought.

His own offers to join the fight and raise a division denied, he sends his four sons as proxies, with two wounded, all decorated, and Quentin lost in aerial combat. He presses on yet Morris chronicles that with Quentin’s death, something broke in Roosevelt. Within two months of war’s end, he is dead.

One of the spiritual writers I respect, Richard Rohr, talks about the life journey of men as broken into two parts, a heroic journey followed by either a journey into wisdom or becoming an old fool by trying to continue the heroic journey of youth. The tale Morris tells seems to describe a figure who, despite the urgings of his wife, could never give up on the heroic journey — the adventures, the relentless speech-making, the prodigious writing, the hunger for power, as well as his relentless physical appetites that ultimately broke his body.

Roosevelt himself never thought he’d live beyond sixty and never seemed to learn to live a life not filled with manic “crowded hours”. It seems to me that all Roosevelt knew was the heroic journey. It was one that left a profound legacy to this day in his prolific writing, his progressive politics, and his sense of both American greatness, and the great potentials of presidential power. Yet one wonders what might have been if Roosevelt’s greatness had been tempered with a wisdom of mind, body and spirit.

I find myself with feelings of both wonder and sadness as I to come to the end of this trilogy. In Roosevelt, Morris tells the tale of one of our greatest presidents, and with it the tale of both human greatness and limits with which each of us must come to terms.

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Review: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

James A. Garfield is the president virtually no one knows. I didn’t and never visited his home when I lived in nearby Cleveland. Because of this book, I hope to make that pilgrimage and learn more about a figure who may have been the greatest president Ohio produced, had he lived through his term. Candace Millard’s account of Garfield’s life and death is that good.

This is not a full biography but she sketches the outline of his literal rise from a log cabin boyhood and the early loss of his father, to his presidency of what later became Hiram College, to his political career (he never sought office, including the presidency) and his brief presidency and his fight against corrupt political patronage.

She interweaves her account of Garfield’s life and sufferings with the story of his insane assassin, Charles Guiteau, and his benighted physician, Dr. D. Willard Bliss, whose refusal to use the antiseptic procedures introduced by Joseph Lister and his repeated probing of Garfield’s wound introduced the infections that killed him. Left alone, Garfield would probably have recovered. We also see the efforts of Alexander Graham Bell to perfect a device to detect the bullet’s location (he would have had Bliss permitted him to search the left side of Garfield’s body.

As she concludes the books she looks at the way Garfield’s death transformed American politics. In some ways, it re-united a country still suffering the divisions of the Civil War. It motivated a crusade against political corruption and the introduction of the Civil Service, led by Chester Arthur, a product of Roscoe Conkling’s political machine, whose life and presidency was turned around by the letters of a mysterious correspondent, Julia Sand, who urged him to heed his better angels.

All in all, even though the subject was somber, Millard’s deftly written account was an engaging read and sparked my interest to know more about President Garfield, described after death by a friend as “a man who loved to play croquet and romp with his boys upon his lawn at Mentor, who read Tennyson and Longfellow at fifty with as much enthusiastic pleasure as at twenty, who walked at evening with his arm around the neck of a friend in affectionate conversation, and whose sweet, sunny, loving nature not even twenty years of political strife could warp.”

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