Books! Making of a President 1960 #cbr4

“For the President of the United States is not only the many men listed in the official catalogue of his powers–he is also the nation’s chief educator, the nation’s chief persuader, the nation’s master politician. Where he leads, his party, his instruments, above all his relectant people, must be persuaded to follow.”

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Published in 1961, Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960 is the seminal work on the 1960 campaign and election season. While White certainly expresses his overwhelming enthusiasm for Kennedy, he does a wonderful job highlighting the internal workings of both campaigns and the changing demographics of American society. This is a rich and extremely well-written work, so I can only highlight a few aspects.

First, reading this work with the hindsight of the 21st century is heartbreaking, especially when White projects into the future with statements like, “unless he does this, so portend the election results of 1960, he will be dramatically vulnerable to Republican counterattack in 1964.”

Second, it is amazing to see how dramatically the demographics of the American electorate have shifted since 1960. White lists the Southern states that went for Kennedy (Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, etc) versus the states that were solidly Nixon (Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio). It makes you realize how much has changed both in America and in our two major parties.

In my favorite chapter White describes at length the sea-change in American demographics discovered in the 1960 Census (primarily with the emergence of the suburb and the death of the cities). Just one fun fact is that in 1950 11% of Americans owned a television whereas in 1960 88% owned one. He uses these statistics to highlight how critical the televised debates were to the election. And yes, he discusses those pesky debates!

Finally, I found fascinating his descriptions of the party conventions and how they served as sites of contestation rather than the crownings they now seem to be. I can’t think of a single convention in my voting life where we didn’t already know the name of the heir-apparent. Part of this is decided by the primary system, which was much more limited back then, but it made me long for a convention process that is actually contested, heated, and full of real debate. Heck, maybe I would actually watch them then.

This is a fantastic work to read in light of our recent election and perfect for anyone interested in the Kennedy-Nixon election as well as the continuing drama of American Presidential politics.

Books! A hawk and a dove walk into a bar … #cbr4

and the Cold War starts and ends and throughout they remain friends.

The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War by Nicholas Thompson is a fabulous double biography of two of the most influential thinkers during the Cold War. We see Kennan as he develops his strategy of containment as a young FSO in Moscow and then Nitze as he subverts it with NSC-68. We see Nitze becoming a forceful anti-Soviet crusader while Kennan becomes the more passive but eloquent anti-nuclear sage.

Thompson covers their lives from their early careers to their very last days while keeping the reader’s eye on the bigger story of the Cold War. Unlike Gaddis’ biography of Kennan, we aren’t immersed in the minutiae of the two men as much and Thompson does a great job setting the stage for readers who might be unfamiliar with details of the period. Even if you aren’t a Cold War history buff or a fan of these two men, the story of the Cold War is accessible as told by Thompson.

I have to mention my favorite line from Kennan, which Thompson quotes. You need to understand that Kennan was a fabulous and prolific writer in addition to being an authority on Russia. He wrote after the Cold War that “The suggestion that any Administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is simply childish.” (pg 331)

I so wish Kennan were still around today …

Books! The very long life of George F. Kennan #cbr4

Sadly it looks like I won’t make my goal of 52 books this year for Cannonball Read. I might still be able to read close to that number (maybe) but I don’t know that I can force out all of the reviews I have let slide. This book, in my opinion, should count for 3 or 4 books though!

As an ex-Political Scientists I’ve read Kennan’s X article in Foreign Affairs several times. The article argues for an approach to the Soviet Union that would contain its expansive tendencies. This later became “containment” and official policy of the United States, a slight distortion as he was arguing primarily for diplomatic containment and not military.  Kennan’s ideas and writings were complex and, as John Lewis Gaddis in George F. Kennan: An American Life shows, sometimes contradictory, which tended to lead to Kennan’s own frustration when his ideas were put into policy.

Gaddis succeeds at showing us the full picture of the man through this expansive biography. He had access to all of Kennan’s writing, letters, and diaries and even the family. At times I wished for more discussion of the events of the day, but this is again a biography and not a history.

Although the work isn’t for the casual Cold War era reader, it is worth the effort if you want to know more about Kennan’s development as a public intellectual and his influence on the events of the 20th century.  Gaddis has created a biography of which Kennan could be proud.

Checkers and the Rose Mary Stretch #cbr4

I’ve gotten quite behind in my Cannonball Run readings. Hell, I’ve gotten behind in reading period, but I haven’t really enjoyed any of my latest picks. If you have a recommendation, please recommend away.

Watergate: A Novel by Thomas Mallon was definitely a highlight though. I picked it up after reading a review and am glad I did. It is a retelling of the Watergate saga starting from the day after the break-in and following the characters through Nixon’s resignation. Although some accounts and one or two characters are fictional, it is a close retelling of the events. The action progresses through the thoughts and interactions of most of the main characters including Pat Nixon, Richard Nixon, Rose Mary Woods, and more.

As I was reading I kept looking up the events and people referenced, especially the Checkers Speech and the Rose Mary Stretch.  I admittedly know little about the Nixon era. If you only read novels to imagine another world based on the author’s description, this book might not be for you. But I think Mallon does a great job of incorporating small details and breathing life into the characters. For example, after Rose Mary demonstrates to the press how she ‘accidentally’ erased a portion of Nixon’s ubiquitous tapes (leading to the famous picture) she reflects on her unfortunate choice of dress.

Undoubtedly, the best part of the novel are the female characters, Pat Nixon especially. Rose Mary, Pat, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth are the heart of the work. All three are very different women and although you might not agree with their motivations, they are sympathetic characters. Richard Nixon never seems quite as flesh and blood, but that would be much harder for Mallon to pull off.

Watergate: A Novel is well-written and very well-researched. If you like historical novels focused on 20th century events, this is a treat, even if you hate Richard Nixon.

CBR4 2: No Higher Honor by Condoleezza Rice

I left my Political Science PhD program on 9/12/2001. I’ll always be able to remember the day for an obvious reason, and for a host of reasons I was ready to start on a new path in life. I have to admit after so many years of living and breathing political science I was ready to bury my head in the sand for a bit (well, relatively speaking). So, Rice’s book is about the first truly political book I’ve read in a long while. She covers her beginnings in the administration as the National Security Advisor and moves through her time as Secretary of State. It is a long path in a very tragic and troubling decade, but despite a few slow moments it is quite well-written and engaging.

It would have been difficult to be alive during the Bush administration and NOT be aware of most of her narrative. Her book goes in-depth on the obvious issues–War on Terrorism, war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan–even if we learn nothing much new. I was surprised she included a discussion of the antagonism between the Defense Department/Vice-President’s camp on one side and pretty much all the people I could possibly respect in the administration on the other side (Colin Powell mainly and sometimes Rice). Of course this is Condi’s story and she gets to spin it however she pleases. I’m half inclined to read the Rumsfeld book just to see what his excuse was, especially for not having a post-invasion reconstruction plan, but I’m not sure I want to give it my time.

Beyond the most obvious events, Rice details some aspects of the administration’s foreign policy that were lost in the noise of the wars on everything. The Bush policy in Africa and Latin America while definitely having an ideological slant was for the most part positive. I can’t imagine a single one of the current crop of Republican hopefuls having the same level of engagement on HIV and other issues in the developing world (even if the Bush level of engagement was hardly adequate).

Another aspect of the book that makes it worth the read is that Condi is a political scientist and has the ability to rise above the ideology of the time to talk intelligently about the events. For example, if you agree with the Freedom Agenda or not, it is interesting to read about her understanding of it as a redefinition of realism that could incorporate elements of the democratic peace. I’ve even thought about maybe using parts of the book in my international relations class. Students could see the theories as more than just Political Science, but as a tradition that has emerged out of foreign policy and history and that is still interwoven in the actions of our leaders. Her use of theory is simplified but it is also engaging. And honestly, that is more than you can say for most textbooks.

Overall I would recommend to anyone looking for a narrative of the complex political events of the past decade.