Book Review: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

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Click on the book cover to go to Amazon to buy a first-rate history by a first-rate storyteller.

Click on the book cover to go to Amazon to buy a first-rate history by a first-rate storyteller.

I’m a very healthy person. I exercise regularly, watch my weight and diet, and while I’ll indulge in wine, spirits, cigars and cigarettes on occasion, I am the model of moderation. I have been sick exactly twice in the last ten years and I have never spent a second in a hospital as a patient. Most people guess I’m ten to fifteen years younger than I am.

My good fortune with health has nothing to do with genes and I don’t have a picture of Dorian Gray in my closet. I attribute my condition to being constantly creative, constantly horny and avoiding doctors like the plague.

I’ve been to doctors now and then over the years and I can honestly say I have only found one who was helpful: the guy who did my vasectomy. As for the rest, I’ve found them to be arrogant, impersonal, dogmatic, judgmental and, in some cases, flat-out dangerous. They spend a few seconds with you not listening to a thing you’re saying, write you a prescription whether or not you need one and hurry off to the next patient to keep that revenue stream going.

Candice Millard’s well-written and surprisingly exciting book provides me with historical evidence to support my view that physicians are to be shunned at all cost. The victim of non-lethal gunshot wounds, President Garfield was systematically murdered by his physicians by their insistence on established medical dogma and an unwavering commitment to preserving the hierarchy of experience. Younger physicians who had more promising ideas about how to heal the president were dismissed, as was Lister’s already proven theory of antiseptic medicine. You may argue that modern medicine is more advanced and that Garfield wouldn’t have died had the same thing happened today. While that is almost certainly true, I point you to the estimates that 50,000 to 300,000 people a year are killed by medical errors (the wide variation in numbers has to do with the inability of the health care industry to keep track of anything). After five years experience working in health care and with physicians, I can confirm they are as arrogant, greedy and self-satisfied as they were in Garfield’s time.

Ms. Millard does a superb job bringing Garfield to life, a poor boy who through hard work and commitment turned himself into something of a Renaissance man, highly educated and self-aware. He had a passionate commitment to the African-American community, and was determined that they achieve full equality during his term. The what-ifs of Garfield may not be as tantalizing as those of JFK, but taking a moment to imagine the improvement in race relations that could have occurred eighty years before the civil rights movement demonstrates what kind of historical impact Garfield might have had if he had lived to complete his term.

Guiteau, the assassin, was truly insane. The jury that convicted him couldn’t have cared less. The assassination represented a shocking injustice to the nation, and Guiteau never would have survived in a mental institution, not with skilled and experienced lynching mobs at the ready. Guiteau was one in a long line of nobodies who wreaked havoc on history, and as Ms. Millard demonstrates with her beautifully detached writing style, there was no helping him.

The author weaves the threads of American politics with the 19th century mania for new inventions right from the start of the book, because Alexander Graham Bell plays a key role in the story. With superhuman dedication, he invents a device that could have found the bullet in the president’s body—had the doctors not interfered with his examination. The character of Roscoe Conkling, political boss, is so vivid that you can easy visualize him in imperial motion in the halls of Congress or on the streets of New York.

Destiny of the Republic is an exceptionally well-written and extremely readable history that warns of the dangers we all face if we enslave ourselves to the wisdom of the experts. Candice Millard is a fine writer with an exceptional gift for structuring a narrative and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

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Book Review: JFK’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke

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I’ve read every major biography written about John F. Kennedy and a couple of minor bios as well. I also went on a jag a while back when I read all of the books on the assassination. Recently several new books on JFK have been published, including Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days. The book is a daily chronicle of the life of the president during that last period of his life, but rather than reading like a dull diary, Clarke weaves a compelling and interesting narrative that actually adds something of value to the historical record of this remarkable man.

Thurston Clarke’s unique contribution to this well-explored sub-genre is the exposition of the impact Kennedy had on people the world over, both in life and in death. The post-November 22 chapter, where the author recounts the world-wide reaction to the assassination, is moving and meaningful. For millions (perhaps billions), John F. Kennedy stood for progress and hope. No leader since JFK has even come close to capturing the hearts and minds of so many people all over the world.

The question Kennedy scholars struggle with is whether or not the spark he kindled was real or wishful thinking. The fact that he spent only three years in office places an unbreakable limit on the number of tangible achievements. Unlike FDR, he was elected by a razor-thin margin and faced a Congress controlled by a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. I think the achievement argument is a dead-end either way, because sometimes a president can achieve too much. Lyndon Johnson probably passed more legislation than anyone, but a good chunk of it was wasteful legislation.

The reason why people remember and even long for JFK today has nothing to do with his tangible achievements. What people truly miss are two qualities we haven’t seen in a leader since his death.

First, John F. Kennedy was at heart an exceptionally rational human being. Clarke and others have stressed this point, but it is a quality that is often overlooked. His problem-solving style was to look at a problem from as many angles as possible to find the solution that made the most sense. I haven’t heard anything coming out of Washington that has been close to rational lately, and none of his successors had his special combination of a curious intelligence and a rational world-view. Clarke gives repeated examples of Kennedy’s insistence on the use of rational thought in making policy.

Second, Kennedy spoke to people in a way that served to lift their sights, to see the potential in themselves and in the nation. Reagan tried to do that, but his message was contaminated with partisanship and simplistic moralizing. Kennedy was serious about raising America’s game, and this was not all about competitive fire. He believed in excellence and considered it irrational that anyone would want to settle for less. This is a key theme that Clarke writes about with balanced admiration.

There has been a great deal of speculation lately about “What would Kennedy have done had he lived?” Jeff Greenberg has shared his perceptions, but I think Clarke makes a more credible case due to a combination of good research and his ability to connect the dots.

To answer the most common “what if” question, there is no way on earth John F. Kennedy would have escalated the war in Vietnam. To do so would have violated his most sacred precept: it would have been an irrational thing to do. There is ample evidence that he was looking for a way out, and it is likely he would have found one that made sense after the 1964 election. Lyndon Johnson never viewed Vietnam with dispassionate logic—he wanted to show those damned Republicans that he was tough and he wasn’t going to let any picayune country push the USA around. His insecure machismo and refusal to believe that the tricks that worked when he was leading the senate wouldn’t work with Ho Chi Minh led to irrational decisions and a tragic outcome. Clarke makes it clear that during the period immediately preceding his death, JFK consistently resisted pressure from the majority of his advisors to increase American commitment. All of his decisions pointed in the direction of an exit strategy.

The evidence also indicates that there would have likely been an earlier détente with the Soviet Union, and possibly some kind of reconciliation with Castro. Kennedy saw war as the ultimate expression of human irrationality, and he would have continued his push for peace throughout a second term. It is also likely he would have had a vibrant economy going for him in the second term, as the economic boon from his tax cut would have had the intended impact of expanding prosperity instead of being pissed away by the billions in the jungles of Southeast Asia and in poorly thought-out Great Society legislation.

Beyond those issues, it’s impossible to make even an educated guess as to how JFK would have done with five more years. I doubt that it would have all been sunshine and light, because history tells us that most second terms are largely disappointments. We would have avoided an unnecessary war and runaway inflation, but challenges we can’t even imagine might have come to the fore to derail his agenda. Assuming that society had developed along the same lines, I can easily imagine trouble on one front: his native sexism would have found the women’s liberation movement incomprehensible. I have little doubt that he would have continued to experience difficulty with a recalcitrant South in the area of civil rights: Selma would still have taken place; racist governors like Wallaces and Maddox would still have been elected; and Reagan’s thinly disguised racist message would still have found favor with whites in Southern California.

Clarke’s appraisal of JFK’s likely outcome is both fair and limited. Unfortunately he also makes the decision to bring in Kennedy’s sex life into his evaluation of the man’s worth and potential. His argument is that his multiple affairs—especially the one with the alleged East German agent—represented reckless foolhardiness. Perhaps. I find it incredibly distasteful that we strip public figures of any right to privacy, and I couldn’t care less about their sex lives. The expectation of a president to be a moral leader should apply only to the job requirements, not what he or she does in what should be private moments. We can’t ask our leaders to stop being human.

On the flip side, I was elated that Clarke chose not to dip his toe in the dark waters of the assassination and the related conspiracy theories. The only possible reasons for their continued existence are that the American people are stupid, bored or both. There is no question in my mind that Oswald did it because it’s the only explanation that fits the narrative of American history. All of the assassinations and massacres since Kennedy’s date have been perpetrated by mentally imbalanced losers, from James Earl Ray to the Sandy Hook killer to the sick bastard who wreaked havoc at the Washington Navy Yard. Oswald certainly qualified as a mentally imbalanced loser. Conspiracy theories involving the government have to be dismissed out of hand because you’re talking about an organization riddled with incompetence that is unable to keep anything secret. Conspiracy theories involving the Mafia are equally ridiculous because either somebody would have spilled the beans for personal advantage or another mob leader would have used the information against the alleged mastermind.

Our obsession with these theories cheapens the memory of a man who deserves better. Despite his flaws and early stumbles, Clarke clearly demonstrates that John F. Kennedy made a difference in his short time on earth. He should be remembered for his gift of reason and his ability to inspire people to reach for something better than the status quo.

Americans would be much better off if they celebrated his birthday rather than wallow in conspiracy theories every November 22.

Book Review: Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King

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We are all very familiar with the well-publicized images of discrimination from the 1950’s and early 1960’s: the Whites Only toilets and drinking fountains; the pressure hoses and German shepherds attacking children and adults; the refusal to serve “Negroes” at restaurants and hotels. We are also intimately familiar with the abuse heaped upon Jackie Robinson when he dared integrate the national pastime. We see those images, shake our heads and wonder how people could have been so obtuse.

What people are less familiar with is the systematic brutality that legally elected governments throughout the South supported and condoned once Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow began. The closest analogy to the situation in The South during those awful decades is Nazi Germany, and as Gilbert King so vividly demonstrates in Devil in the Grove, this is not an exaggeration.

The orange groves that provided Americans with their morning glass of Minute Maid were virtual concentration camps from which there was little chance of escape. An African-American who dared to venture out on his own and build a small farm would likely see that farm burned to the ground by white mobs insistent on crushing any signs of “uppityness.” Legal protections were meaningless; African-Americans could be arrested at any time for any reason or no reason at all, taken to jails and beaten to bruised and bloody pulps. When those defendants received their day in court, the verdict had already been determined.

In such an environment, it took tremendous courage for Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP legal team to travel to The South and try to defend those clients. In many ways, the effort was the definition of a thankless job. In criminal cases involving alleged rape or murder, the team focused entirely on establishing grounds for appeal, as they had no hope of victory. The best they could do for an innocent defendant was to work for a sentence of life imprisonment instead of electrocution, and such victories were rare indeed.

Gilbert King’s post-war tale of four innocent men accused of raping a white woman is a shocking story that unfolds with the excitement of a detective thriller. His ability to keep the reader fully engrossed in the tale while structuring the story to elicit several gasps at stunning turns of events is exceptional. While occasionally I found it challenging to keep all the names straight, that is a minor distraction from the sheer power of this incredible story.

Devil in the Grove left me with several indelible impressions. The first is the admiration for Thurgood Marshall’s strategic brilliance and incredible patience in working through the legal system to secure the rights that The Constitution had already guaranteed. The second is a feeling of combined dismay and terror that human beings could be capable of such sickening hatred.

The third has to do with The South itself. Ever since the founding of this country, The South has been the millstone around the neck and the chain around the ankle that has stood in the way of human progress in this country. The inherent conservatism of the region and its insistence on holding onto fundamentally bankrupt traditions has hampered not only progress in social matters but in economic matters as well. The great economic boom of the latter half of the 19th century was made possible in large part because Lincoln took full advantage of the fact that secession had removed a large body of obstructionist southern legislators from Congress and he was able to pass several initiatives (like the Transcontinental Railroad) that made America a major economic power.

Although the days of lynching are behind us, I still see the southern states as hopelessly behind the times, still defending the Confederate flag, still dominated by reactionary thinking, still confusing the separation of church and state, and still blocking social progress. Republican gerrymandering has managed to create a series of arch-conservative legislatures that will be in place for decades to come, denying women’s rights and voting rights with scarcely disguised racism and sexism. Only in The South could a racist psychopath like George Zimmerman have gotten away with murder and find himself celebrated as a hero for standing up for property rights. While there are other states in our union who share similar conservative values and whose attitudes towards race, gender equality and sexual preferences are questionable at best, those states tend to be more independent in their thinking and not part of a large region bound by outdated and harmful traditions.

I’ve often heard about The New South. That’s a marketing campaign, not reality. The “Whites Only” signs are gone, but the resistance to progress is as strong as ever. Yes, The South has made progress, but you have to remember that they weren’t even close to the starting line when the race began. While they may have inched past that line with the stubbornness of a tortoise, the rest of the world has moved further and further ahead.

The tortoise won the race, but like the traditions of The South, that was pure fable.

Book Review: The Hopkins Touch by David Roll

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Facilitators are often faceless people who work behind the scenes to help teams and individuals work through their choices and come to agreement. Big biographies are usually about the famous players in the more visible positions. Americans always pay more attention to the quarterback than the offensive linemen who make it possible for the quarterback to rack up the yards.

This unfortunate situation will be somewhat remedied in early 2013, when a new biography about one of history’s great facilitators hits the shelves (or e-shelves).

I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of The Hopkins Touch by David Roll, an outstanding biography of a unique and exceptional person whose existence has been forgotten by many Americans. Harry Hopkins was considered the “man behind the throne” during the FDR years, wielding enormous power and influence in both established and undefined roles, in both domestic and foreign policy. The sources of his success were his crystal clear insight into reality (Churchill called him “Mr. Root of the Matter”), an unusually strong drive and superb facilitation skills. When Hopkins was given an assignment, whether that assignment was getting needed relief into the hands and mouths of the needy or negotiating agreements with men as complex and distrustful as Stalin, he got the thing done. While his education and early experience in social work accounted for some of his loftier ideals, his powerful sense of commitment to the task drove him to his great achievements.

David Roll proves to be an excellent biographer, balancing admiration for the man’s truly great accomplishments with fair criticism of his mistakes. As is appropriate for a biography about a man who worked more behind the scenes than in the public eye, The Hopkins Touch tells the larger story of the major players on whose behalf Hopkins toiled, particularly the Big Three (Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin). While Hopkins is never far away from the narrative, Mr. Roll never allowed himself to be constrained solely to his subject. The stories and background information he provides concerning the titanic personalities of the time are both appropriate and well-researched. Best of all, Mr. Roll managed to write a very readable narrative about a complicated character working in a complex period in world history; the book never feels too heavy or too light.

The relevance of this book to our current period in human history cannot be understated. We live in a time when the political atmosphere is so poisonous and polarized that it seems impossible to get anything accomplished. We could definitely use a skilled facilitator like Harry Hopkins—someone with the skills, dedication and insight to build trust between enemies and guide them to worthy accomplishments.

There are many lessons in the book for those of you who, like me, spend a great deal of our time engaged in the art of facilitation. Here are the lessons I found most relevant:

1. It’s not about you. It’s never about you. It’s always about helping them reach the solutions they want to reach.

2. All successful facilitators have an unyielding commitment to discovering the truth. The skill of a facilitator lies in helping others discover the truth, and to do that, a facilitator can never impose his or her perception of truth on a client.

3. There are times when a facilitator must shift out of neutral to move people out of their stuckness. The key to a successful shift is to remember that it’s not an opportunity for you to vent your frustrations on the stubborn asses you’re dealing with. Remember: it’s not about you.

4. A great facilitator prepares for all possibilities but must remember that the best solutions are invented on the spot through honest dialogue that makes it safe for people to change their minds.

The Hopkins Touch is available for pre-order on Amazon.

"Harry L. Hopkins as he left for England ...

“Harry L. Hopkins as he left for England vis Lisbon today” / World-Telegram photo by Palumbo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)