About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Review of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Nathaniel Philbrick
2006, 480 pp.

Link to the Amazon review

Nathaniel Philbrick’s MAYFLOWER: A STORY OF COMMUNITY, COURAGE AND WAR is essentially a retelling of the story of the settlement on Plymouth Colony in 1620 and the history of that colony though the end of what became known as “King Phillips War.” That conflict, which stretched throughout New England, came close to snuffing out the presence of English settlement in that part of North America. Despite our knowledge of how it all came out, Philbrook manages to create many moments of drama leaving the reader not wanting to put the book down as he recounts many of the individual narratives that make up the dramatic history of 17th century Plymouth and its surroundings.

The traditional story
 of the Pilgrims' first
 Thanksgiving is surprisingly
 Early on, Philbrick tackles “two conflicting preconceptions.” The first is that the Pilgrims “symbolize all that is good about America”. Its counter is that “evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans.” His research led him to a much richer, more interesting story: “real-life Indians and English of the seventeenth century were too smart, too generous, too greedy, too brave—in short, too human—to behave so predictably.” In short, there are heroes and villains among both the English and the Native Americans they encounter. This may upset some readers who prefer their preconceptions unblemished, but for the rest of us it makes for a much more interesting story and rings truer to our own experience in everyday life that courage, decency and wisdom are not traits endemic to one group or utterly lacking in another.

Generally, the group Philbrick refers to as the “Leideners” or those separatist English who had left England and moved to Holland because they could not, in good conscience, remain in the Church of England (a legal requirement at the time) come off well. They were extreme in their religious beliefs, and would later deny others the freedom to practice their religion that compelled them to sail to America in the first place. Still, they were dedicated to their God, incredibly brave and determined to establish a place for themselves where they could live the way they thought proper. For the most part, their dealings with the Native Americans they encountered were judicious and wise, and the Thanksgiving story we’ve come to know is, surprisingly, mostly correct if incomplete.

The David Patraeus of
his day, Benjamin Church
revolutionized the New
Englanders' way of war
Philbick’s telling leaves a little to be desired when explaining precisely how the Native Americans came to find themselves in the desperate position they were in when Phillip decided to war against the English. In fact, it sounds as though they were desperate to keep purchasing English goods but unwilling to engage in the sorts of work necessary to earn them. Finding that their agricultural way of life no longer sustainable they chose to sell their capital (land), leaving them in an even worse position. Philbrook lays this out but can’t quite bring himself to say that it was the Natives changing in some ways (longing for English goods) but not others (a willingness to adapt to the changing economy) that forced their hand. He also fails to go into any detail as to how the English governed themselves, mentioning their ultimate decisions but skimping on the decision making processes.

Hardly the benign savage
of legend, Squanto was a
shrewd go between who
exploited the Pilgrims and
Natives' ignorance for his
own purposes.

Philbrick's judgment of Englishmen and Natives is balanced and he carefully analyzes the judgments and misjudgments that led to a war no one wanted or expected that proved so catastrophic for the region and all of its peoples. Readers will likely see parallels to the War on Terror in many aspects of how the English initially fought but then came to adapt when their traditional methods proved unsatisfactory. In sum, MAYFLOWER stands as a very good introduction to the story of the English settling of New England and the first period of the New England colonies’ history.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Gentleman's Gazette Review of Churchill Style

Review of Churchill Style
Barry Singer
2012, 240 pp.

(Published in a slightly altered format in Gentleman's Gazette Ezine)

Winston Churchill is both one of history’s greatest and most stylistically evocative figures.  The British statesman served in numerous government posts of one of the world’s great imperial powers at key moments during the course of the 20th century.  He was called to head the Admiralty (navy) during World War One, serve as Secretary of State for the Colonies during the creation of the Irish Free State, take charge of the Exchequer (treasury) during the tempestuous 1920s and, finally, to reside at Number 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister during World War II (a post to which he would be recalled during the Cold War).  He also wrote numerous books that included several multiple volume histories and delivered countless rhetorical masterpieces in the House of Commons.  But then there is also the exuberant Churchill of great style, the Churchill that was “easily satisfied with the best” in creature comforts ranging from cigars, scotch, automobiles, country homes, food and champagne, right down to his silk underwear and pajamas.

We often portray style and substance as being in tension if not outright incompatible, but Barry Singer’s Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill illustrates how Churchill’s lifestyle furthered his substantial career.  As a bonus, the book’s details add a good deal of gloss to the Churchill story, helping us to feel as if we know the great man just a little bit more intimately, just as we know our friends by the brand of beer they drink or the type of car they drive and the other everyday items they love that we come to associate with them.  It’s as if Yousuf Karsh’s famous photograph of Churchill had blossomed into glorious color.

Karsh's famous photo
And much of Churchill Style does concern itself with the items most famously associated with Churchill: the ever present cigars, bow ties, homburgs, dark suits, and whiskey and sodas, the seemingly endless amounts of cognac and champagne, and his ever present, trademark “V for Victory” hand sign.  Singer, the owner of the Churchill-focused Chartwell Books, covers Churchill’s homes and his past times, such as his polo playing, painting and reading.  Readers will be treated to the intimate details of Churchill’s life, often hinted at in other works, via such exhibits as railroad service instructions telling stewards precisely how to stock Sir Winston’s private railway car (canap├ęs, coffee, tea, Johnny Walker Black, Martell extra cognac) and serve his breakfast (tea, juice, eggs and sliced meat), detailed book orders, and the ubiquitous tailors’ bills that were an ever present irritant in the life of a Victorian or Edwardian gentleman.
One of WCs many "Siren Suits"

Churchill’s wardrobe is also covered in extensive detail.  Singer explains the origins of Churchill’s preference for bow ties, relates the criticism Churchill received from Tailor and Cutter magazine for his choice of wedding apparel and explains his penchant for the odd looking “siren suits” (front zippered jump suits).  A full blown “Churchillian Shopping Guide” is appended for those who wish to purchase their clothes and accessories from those same shops frequented by Churchill that remain in existence.

These are, however, only the small and superficial elements of a much broader and meaningful conception of style, namely the approach by which Churchill rose to power in just the right place and at the right time to play perhaps THE critical role in the history of the 20th century.  For Churchill, style and substance were not competing elements or even in tension.  Churchill’s style was a vital aspect of his very being and it is the book’s subtitle, The Art of Being Winston Churchill that best conveys the book’s principle value by describing how Churchill’s lifestyle served to sustain his meteoric, if highly volatile, political career and the writing that ultimately earned him a Nobel Prize.

Picasso himself remarked that Churchill could have earned a living by his landscapes.  For Churchill, however, painting provided a much needed psychological break from the burdens of leadership.   He even went so far as to claim that he couldn't have born the strain without painting as one form of self-expression that he found necessary to live.  Less well known among Churchill’s past times was his passion for horses, both in the form of playing polo and owning race horses.  He also did not shy from manual labor despite his illustrious upbringing, and was proud that his brick laying skills developed to the point of earning membership in a bricklayers’ union.  The never ending projects undertaken to improve Chartwell, his country home, were also doubtlessly a great source of diversion and stress relief.

Chartwell: Churchill's country estate and home base
Singer does not neglect the other vital roles that Chartwell played in his career.  A day away from Chartwell was wasted according to Churchill, and it was both the center of his political life as well as his retreat from it.  A decaying structure dating back to the Elizabethan period, Chartwell was a money pit that helped keep Churchill close to bankruptcy for much of his life.  As Singer puts it, “His singular gift was a stalwart ability to live as he wished, even if it was often beyond his means.”  Yet, it was the need to finance the lifestyle that Chartwell entailed that drove much of Churchill’s journalism and writing.  If necessity is the mother of invention, Chartwell certainly played a major role in Churchill’s literary output.

To be clear, one does not have to emulate Churchill’s particular lifestyle to lead a life of substantial accomplishment.  For at the end of the day Winston Churchill’s style was more than a mere accumulation of homes, horses and autos.  The cigars and brandies were, in fact, mere accouterments and a fascinating diversion for readers.  At its heart, writes Singer, the essence of Churchill’s style lay not in mere things but in “the ambition, the energy, the resourcefulness and the boundless self-confidence…his infuriating conviction he was bound for greatness, as well as fearlessness in pursuing it…”  It was these last elements that allowed him to survive political catastrophes that would have felled a lesser man.  His career could well have been ended (undeservedly) by the failed Dardanelles campaign in 1915, with which he was closely associated or as a result of the decision to return Britain to the gold standard, an ill-fated endeavor he oversaw as Chancellor but of which he did not approve.  As a result his career was viewed as being in such a shambles that when asked by Stalin himself about Churchill’s political future in 1932, his nemesis, Lady Astor, replied simply, “Churchill?  Oh, he’s finished.”

Nancy Astor: Churchill's bete noir
Diverse audiences will find much to enjoy in Churchill Style.  While it is not the ideal volume for a reader wishing to read only a single book about Churchill, it will serve to whet the appetite and make most neophytes wish for more.  Alternatively, dedicated Churchillians will revel in Singer’s numerous details about Churchill’s personal life and the list of Churchill’s chief purveyors still in operation should they wish to imitate the great man’s lifestyle.  All readers will appreciate Singer’s highly intelligent observations about how Churchill’s style contributed to, and was ultimately an integral part of his brilliant career, putting to rest any notion that one need choose between style and substance.
Churchill waves to the crowd outside Buckingham Palace after the German surrender

Monday, November 5, 2012

Amazon Review of Eisenhower in War and Peace

Eisenhower in War and Peace
Jean Edward Smith
2012, 976 pp.

Amazon review is here

Perhaps because of the division in 21st century America between two parties in thrall to extremes, centrist Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower is very much in fashion today in the publishing world. The crown jewel of recent Eisenhower-related output, however, is likely Jean Edward Smith's Eisenhower In War and Peace. Smith, the author of multiple military, political and judicial biographies is the ideal biographer of Ike, and he delivers as perfect a product as could be hoped for in a work that stretches over 900 very well written pages.

Smith begins with the Eisenhower family history, dusting off legends and revealing some uncomfortable truths about Ike's father in particular. Still, he does not dwell too long on family and upbringing and by the end of the first chapter Ike has just graduated from the US Military Academy. The book is fast paced, with each chapter containing a new, interesting episode in Eisenhower's military, academic and then political life. It nicely transitions from Ike's military to political career, noting his speeches upon return to the US. The war's impact on the statesman's understanding of foreign affairs is evident when Ike tells an audience in New York City about the need to remain both strong and tolerant, always considering the rights of others while being unafraid to assert the US's own rights. Smith is fluent in the most recent scholarship. Readers will be presented with an up to date account of every significant aspect of Ike's life and career and Smith's well considered views on many of them.

Although Smith makes clear up front his vast respect for Eisenhower as a soldier and statesman (ranking him only second to FDR among 20th century Presidents), he does not spare the criticism. He notes with disapproval Eisenhower's sometimes leisurely lifestyle during his command in World War II, frequently having large villas and homes secured for his official "family" and always finding time for riding, socializing and card playing. Smith sides with contemporary military historians in faulting Ike as a battlefield commander (as opposed to a theater commander) in operations in North Africa and Europe and is especially harsh of Ike's handling of the drive to Germany and decision to adopt a campaign that pressed equally along all fronts (in conformity with dated US military doctrine long since abandoned by other nations - such a decision prolonged the war, adding countless military and civilian deaths, concludes Smith). He also ranks President Eisenhower's use of the CIA to topple democratic governments in Iran and Guatemala as a wartime mistake on par with Lincoln's suspension of Habeas Corpus and Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans.

Smith rarely falters. A notable example is his characterization of Hoover's reaction to the Depression ("watch[ing] from the sidelines, convinced that natural forces would set things straight"), an outdated view long since abandoned by historians. It's a particularly odd mistake for Smith, whose last work was a major biography of FDR. Another slight failing is Smith's occasional reference to military positions and entities without an adequate explanation for the novice (understandable given his immersion in military affairs for other books). The discussion of the Court's opinion in Brown is a bit muddled. Finally, his unsupported explanation of Ike's renaming of Camp David as "evidently hoping to erase the memory" of his war time patron FDR seems both odd and petty. These, however, hardly detract from what will be the crowning achievement of one of our most gifted historians, and a strong candidate for a Pulitzer Prize.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Point of Order Review of Mr. Speaker!

Mr. Speaker!  The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed: The Man Who Broke the Filibuster
James Grant
2011, 448 pp.

Link to Point of Order review

James Grant is best known for his financial analysis, shared with those willing to part with a pretty penny, via the eponymous Grant’s Interest Rate Observer (current subscription rate: US$910). For decades, Wall Streeters have prized his contrarian, quirky insights, and those that have been willing to act on his skepticism even during the most bullish of markets have seen their investments in his publication returned countless times over. The Observer has never wanted for historically based pieces, looking into America’s financial past for insight into contemporary markets.

Grant’s love of history, however, has led him to venture into writing full length biographies, the subjects of which have been themselves quirky, interesting characters (e.g. the financier Bernard Baruch, President John Adams). The subject of his latest book, Mr. Speaker! The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, the Man who Broke the Filibuster, however, really demonstrates Grant’s talents for uncovering undervalued assets. The result is an intriguing trip with a fascinating guide into a part of American history that’s all too quickly rushed through in a typical history class.

Thomas Brackett Reed is not exactly a household name, perhaps not even in the home of a political historian. A Mainer born and bred, Reed was a Member of Congress and eventually the Republican leader in the House during much of what has now become known, thanks to Mark Twain, as the “gilded age” for what Twain perceived as being only a superficially elegant surface covering a corrupt underbody. Reed rose to the Speakership when the Republicans held the majority in 1889 and 1895 for a combined six years. It was there Reed was to make his mark on the House if not the country.

To fully appreciate the story, it’s important to understand that Reed’s tenure in Congress and Speakership occurred mostly in the period before the Presidency had matured into the powerful office of today. Prior to William McKinley, the occupant of the Oval Office was still more of the “chief magistrate” that earlier generations of Americans had mostly known. Only during crisis such as the Civil War had they seen glimpses of what the office could and would become once America became a world power. As a consequence, Reed and his ilk were able to be far more influential than we might otherwise suppose, living as we do during a time when the President is seen as virtually synonymous with the federal government itself.

Reed himself is a fascinating subject. A very talented lawyer who used his skills in the thrust and parry of congressional debate, he could be at times the most cynical of party hacks, rising to the very top of the greasy pole during an era when corruption and graft were vital parts of American politics. Yet, Reed himself was fiercely honest, living off his congressional salary and living a modest lifestyle when others, such as his Maine rival James Blaine were somehow living the life of a corporate plutocrat on a public salary. In addition, Reed could be deeply principled. He was devoted to women’s suffrage and strongly opposed to the growing bellicosity of US foreign policy. He would resign his seat rather than carry his party’s water during the Spanish-American War. Readers will revel in Reed’s caustic wit and his penchant for one liners and put downs.

Chapters are devoted not only to Reed’s personal life and career (indeed his personal life is given particularly short shrift) but to the important issues of the day. To read Mr. Speaker is to take a course on the political economy of America in the latter half of the 19th century from a writer who has earned a small fortune explaining the most technical, mundane aspects of finance in clear, colorful prose. Grant covers topics such as the commission examining the election of President Rutherford Hayes in which both parties had dirty hands, but where the allegation of a “stolen election” was likely true. Another chapter serves as a masterful introduction to the challenging but vital issue of currency. Much of the politics of the late 19th century revolved around the debate between those who wanted to maintain gold as the only acceptable US currency and those looking to temper the tight monetary effect of the gold standard with silver coins or, horrors, paper money. Paper money that was not convertible to gold had been introduced to pay for the Civil War. After a decade and a half of wrangling, the US returned to the gold standard in 1879. Paper would stay in circulation, but exchangeable for gold at $20.67 an ounce. This of course had the effect of limiting the amount of paper that could be circulated, which both led to tight money and served to guard against inflation. The amount of paper exceeded the amount the US had in gold at this time. The US only had enough gold to redeem $141.9m but there existed $346.7m in paper money. There was the very real threat the U.S. would be asked to redeem more than it could pay out in gold. Yet, when the time came, the American people decided that paper was more convenient after all, and that merely knowing the money was convertible was enough.

Interestingly, the partisan aspects of politics of the late 19th century were almost completely opposite of today’s. Republicans loudly proclaimed their support of the system of “American Protection,” or high tariffs designed to fund the Treasury without the need of the Civil War income tax and bulking up the wages of those employed by protected industries (not to mention the profits of their owners and party supporters). Democrats decried the tariff as just another form of taxation, noting that the inflated wages and profits of those in politically favored industries came at the expense of all Americans in the form of higher costs. The rich government surpluses from high tariffs, in turn, led to “extravagant appropriations,” Democrats charged, which meant an expansion of government far beyond what their still revered Thomas Jefferson would have ever countenanced.

The climax of the book, however, lies in its subtitle “The Man Who Broke the Filibuster.” In Reed’s day, a majority of the House needed to record themselves as “present” during a quorum call in order for the House to vote to pass legislation. Members standing in the Chamber opposed to a measure needed only not answer the roll call, and if the House lacked a quorum (as it often did in the days before the age of modern transportation) it could not proceed, allowing a non-vocal minority to obstruct the People’s business on a frequent basis. Both parties invoked this version of the filibuster often, not least of which was House minority leader Thomas Reed. Yet, eventually Reed’s belief in majority rule led him to dramatically alter the rule while he was in the Chair, directing the clerk to record the presence of those silent members whom he spied. This resulted in an outraged minority who reversed Reed’s ruling when they retook the majority. Yet, after a few years of suffering from Reed’s masterful obstruction tactics, Democrats tacitly acknowledged the wisdom of his views and adopted the Reed rule and similar changes Reed had made to the chamber’s rules making it the relatively more efficient legislative body it is today.

Readers of Point of Order will likely find Mr. Speaker! a fascinating account of the House in the latter half of the 19th century and of the key political issues of the time. Those less versed or interested in political history find may find Grant’s recounting of the minutiae of House debates and his treatment of the gold standard and tariff more tedious. At the end of the day, however, Grant deserves much credit for his lively portrayal of this pivotal 19th century congressional giant and his great impact on the shape of the institution.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Amazon Review of American History: A Very Short Introduction

American History: A Very Short Introduction
Paul S. Boyer
2012, 184 pp.

Link to the Amazon review

American History: A Very Short Introduction provides its reader with as comprehensive a look at American political, social and cultural history as is possible in under 200 small pages (the standard format for the “Very Short Introduction” series, whose books are not only short but small as well) and in a well written manner. Virtually every event, person of significance and movement in American history receives at least a mention, which must have been a difficult task to accomplish given the strictures. What it does not do, however, is provide consistently up to date scholarship or a proper sense of proportion of America’s triumphs to failures. It also contains a few errors and some of Boyer’s interpretations of events will provoke disagreement with those who do not share his political leanings.

Boyer essentially begins with the English settlement of North America, dispensing with the pre-Columbian native peoples, Leif Ericson and non-English Europeans in only a few pages. The colonial period is one of the book’s strengths as Boyer explains the development of the English settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth and the social development of the New World as different from that of the Old. The events leading to the Revolution are also nicely cataloged, and Boyer takes us from the post-Revolutionary war period through the Gilded Age in a fairly conventional manner.

Some of Boyer’s interpretations of events rely on dated scholarship, however. A simplistic search for foreign markets accounts entirely for the Spanish-American War. His account of the New Deal places the stock market crash in the role of catalyst of the Great Depression failing to mention the role of monetary policy, which is at the core of today’s economic understanding. He also dredges up the traditional misconception that Americans’ fondness for coffee dates from the Boston Tea Party and incorrectly cites the date of England’s Glorious Revolution. Boyer also cites a famous utterance by Andrew Jackson in defiance of the Supreme Court that is considered apocryphal.

Although explicitly Boyer strives for objectivity he does not always achieve it. His account is generally well balanced through Reconstruction, but his leftward leanings emerge shortly thereafter and his interpretation of events from the Gilded Age to the present too often becomes predictable and selective. Progressives are, unsurprisingly for a University of Wisconsin professor, lauded and nearly every legislative enactment of the New Deal and Great Society is given space. Like many historians, though, Boyer mistakes these enactments as achievements in their own right, and rarely analyzes whether they, in fact, accomplished their goals. For instance, he credits President Clinton with welfare reform but never asks why a Democratic president would see the need to reform it in the first place. His characterization of today’s Tea Party as an offshoot of the religious right ignores the firestorm that occurred a result of policies that were perceived to “bailout” the impecunious (whether on Wall Street, in the housing market or the auto industry) at the expense of those who had behaved in a fiscally responsible manner in the Tea Party members’ views.

Boyer concludes by cataloging America’s many challenges and faults as he finds them today. Nonetheless, he concludes that “when the balance is drawn, America’s record of achievement in advancing human well-being may ultimately outweigh the rest and prove a more lasting measure of national greatness than transient imperial power, military might, or a mere abundance of ephemeral material goods.” The reader will likely need consult another book to understand, however, why that is.