Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Year in Books

stack460It is that time of year when it seems everyone produces a Top 10 List of something – the best new restaurants, the hottest celebrities, or the best books.

I did something this year that I have never done before. I kept track of everything I read. The list is eclectic, heavy on non-fiction, and while it is a long list I hope next year to make it even longer. If you love books, as I do, you may consider your own list for 2014. It’s a great way to recall that book and author you read in January and can’t quite recall in November. So here goes – my own Top Ten best reads of 2013.

The best new book I read this year was 1913 – The Search for the World Before the Great War by a British writer Charles Emmerson who takes us on a 23 city tour of the world on the brink of the war that shaped the 20th Century. As the Washington Post said in a review, “The centenary of the Great War will no doubt see the publication of many fine histories of the conflict, but few are likely to paint so alluring a portrait of the world that was consumed by it — and that helped bring it about.”

I read or re-read four novels this year that now have a place on my all-time great list. The Great Gatsby may not be the Great American Novel, but it has to be one of the two or three contenders for that title. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece came to the big screen again this year, but it’s much better as a book. Read it again.

This year marked the 150th anniversary of the great Civil War battle at Gettysburg and I marked the anniversary by re-reading Michael Scharra’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels. This is the best kind of historical fiction. The story of Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet and Joshua Chamberlain and the battle they fought near Gettysburg in 1863 is a true gem.

I also enjoyed for the first time Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled detective novel Red Harvest, which is set in a town that sounds a lot like Butte, Montana in 1929. Capote’s novel is set in a town that sounds a lot like New York in 1958. Both are fine reads.

Two biographies rate special mention this year: David Nasaw’s fine and engrossing life of Joseph P. Kennedy appropriately entitled The Patriarch and A. Scott Berg’s equally fine Wilson, the gripping life story of the 28th President of the United States complete with all his brilliance and with all his contradictions.

Of the raft of books released in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination the best may be Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court. Dallek focuses on Kennedy’s foreign policy and the brilliant – and often brilliantly wrong – advisers who served the young president. I came away with more respect for Kennedy’s own judgment and his courage in standing up to the bombastic advice he received, for example, from his generals during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

I also give very high marks to Ira Katznelson’s original and compelling history of the New Deal entitled Fear Itself. Katznelson goes deep behind the usual and well-known narrative of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to explain the political realities of the 1930′s with particular attention to the power southern racists Democrats had in the United States Senate and how FDR tailored his policies to fit that reality. I predict it will become a modern classic of the period that still defines American politics.

And finally another history to end the year, a book end really to Emmerson’s 1913 called The War That Ended Peace by a great historian Margaret MacMillan. MacMillan charts the policies and personalities that ruled in Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Austria-Hungry in the years leading up to The Great War. One comes away marveling at the pathetic emperors, the petty statesmen and the egotistical generals who played so recklessly with the peace of Europe until the fateful summer of 1914 when they touched off the war that ended empires, re-drew the map of Europe and the Middle East and foisted on the world the deadly 20th Century.

So many books. So little time. There are ten good reads I enjoyed in 2013. Happy New Year.

 

Power to the People

politifact_photos_rooseIn the second wave of New Deal legislation in the spring of 1935 – historians often refer to the period as the “Second New Deal” – Congress passed a massive omnibus bill – The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act. In a move that would be political poison today, Congress granted vast discretionary power under the Emergency Act to the president and Franklin Roosevelt got busy. With the stroke of a pen Roosevelt allocated millions to construct dams, build airports, bridges and tunnels.

Among the raft of Executive Orders signed by Roosevelt, and permitted under the Emergency Act, was the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). As Stanford University historian David Kennedy has written, “when REA began its work, fewer than two farms in ten had electricity; a little more than a decade later, thanks to lost-cost REA loans that built generating plants and strung power lines down country lanes and across field and pasture, nine out of ten did.”

Before the REA’s low-interest loans changed the landscape, as Morris Cooke the first REA Administrator said, the typical American farmer was in an impossible situation. “In addition to paying for the energy he used,” Morris wrote, “the farmer was expected to advance to the power company most or all of the costs of construction. Since utility company ideas as to what constituted sound rural lines have been rather fancy, such costs were prohibitive for most farmers.”

One of the great and enduring myths of the American West, as the great writer Wallace Stegner liked to remind us, is the myth that the West was built by rugged individuals. Nonsense, Stegner said. The West was built by the federal government and there are few better examples of how an enlightened government changed the landscape and life of millions of Americans than the REA. This fascinating and still immensely important story, fundamentally a political story about the good government can do, is told with engaging flair and real insight in Ted Case’s fine recent book Power Plays.

Case, the executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, argues that preserving the public institutions and the public good that the REA ushered in during Roosevelt’s day has required nearly 80 years of constant hand-to-hand combat with a variety of political forces, often including hostile presidents. The battle has been worth it, since it is not an overstatement to say that the region’s cooperative utilities, and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) that serves them with power and transmission, really have built the Northwest.

As debates rage in Washington over the scope and role of government, it’s worth remembering that during some of the nation’s darkest days of Great Depression, presidential candidate Roosevelt came to Portland, Oregon in 1932 and made an eloquent argument for a government devoted to the “larger interests of the many.” The occasion was a campaign speech – billed in the day as a major policy address on public utilities and hydropower development – that turned out to be one of FDR’s most important policy pronouncements during his history making campaign against Herbert Hoover.

“As I see it, the object of Government is the welfare of the people,” FDR said during his Portland speech. “The liberty of people to carry on their business should not be abridged unless the larger interests of the many are concerned. When the interests of the many are concerned, the interests of the few must yield. It is the purpose of the Government to see not only that the legitimate interests of the few are protected but that the welfare and rights of the many are conserved…This, I take it, is sound Government — not politics. Those are the essential basic conditions under which Government can be of service.”

During his Portland speech Roosevelt pledged to develop the hydro resources of the Columbia River, proposed vast new regulation of private utilities and foreshadowed the creation of what became the REA, the agency that, as David Kennedy says, “brought cheap power to the countryside, mostly by midwifing the emergence of hundreds of nonprofit, publicly owned electrical cooperatives.”

The reason many Americans in 1932 lacked access to adequate or any electricity, Roosevelt said, is “that many selfish interests in control of light and power industries have not been sufficiently far-sighted to establish rates low enough to encourage widespread public use.” He might also have said that many private utilities in the 1920′s and early 1930′s were content to operate highly profitable businesses in relatively easy to serve urban areas and were simply unwilling to make the effort and expend the resources to deliver power to smaller communities and farmers.

It’s difficult to imagine today, when without thinking we enter a dark room and flip the switch, how long it would have taken to get affordable electricity to rural Northwest and its farms had Roosevelt not followed through on his powerful Portland speech on power. Imagine the Pacific Northwest without the power of the federal dams that FDR promised in1932 in Portland – and I know they have become controversial – or the legacy of public power. The region’s great public utilities have played their part in the region’s development for sure, but they often have a fundamentally different mission from public power, including the need to generate a rate of return on investments, while answering to shareholders and investors.

It is a re-occurring feature of American democracy that we debate and debate again the reach and responsibility of government. We are stuck in a particularly dysfunctional period of that debate right now. Almost always in our history these periodic debates have been resolved, to the extent they are ever fully resolved, in favor of what Roosevelt long ago called “the welfare of the people.”

In the last years of his life, as Ted Case points out in his political history of how cooperative utilities remade rural America, Lyndon Johnson remarked that “of all the things I have ever done, nothing has given me as much satisfaction as bringing power to the Hill Country of Texas. Today in my home county,” LBJ said, “we have full grown men who have never seen a kerosene lamp except possibly in a movie – and that is all to the good.”

Rugged individuals make for good movies, but aggressive action by a federal government devoted to the greatest good for the greatest number helped turned on the lights in much of the Pacific Northwest. The story Ted Case tells in his book Power Plays is a reminder of what truly enlightened public policy once looked like.

 

My Summer Reading List

1913-The-World-before-the-GrFor many of us August is “book month,” a time of the year when we can kick back at the beach or in the back yard with the guilty pleasure of a page turning mystery or a door stop of history or biography. I personally lean to the door stop, so here are my half dozen best reads so far this summer.

1913: The World Before the Great War

The best book I’ve read in a while is the work of a British historian Charles Emmerson called 1913: The World Before the Great War, a sweeping survey of 23 of the world’s cities in the year before the world was plunged into the awful war that created the political, cultural and economic contours of the 20th Century. Emmerson is the engaging, historically fascinating travel guide as we visit the places like London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Vienna and Constantinople, cities that will be at the center of the war to come. But he also takes us to Detroit, Winnipeg, Tehran and Buenos Aires, growing cities in the first years of the century where optimism about the future soon gave way to the horror of The Great War.

As Ian Thomson noted in his review of 1913 in The Guardian: “The great cities of the world grew strong and rich by being open to foreigners. Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, united Serbo-Croats, Greeks, Bulgars and Transylvanians under the double-headed eagle of Emperor Franz Josef. The cosmopolitanism could not last, however. With a few deft strokes, Emmerson conjures an air of looming catastrophe in Vienna as Archduke Franz Ferdinand is about to be assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 and the calamity attendant on the break-up of Habsburg crown lands breaks out. If the coming war dispersed and murdered people, the Austro-Hungarian empire had at least sheltered Jews and non-Jews alike in the multi-ethnic lands of Mitteleuropa. By the end of the conflict, from the eastern border of France all the way through Asia to the Sea of Japan, not a single pre-1913 government remained in power. The once mighty German, Habsburg, Russian and Ottoman empires had collapsed.”

The year before The Great War was the beginning of 20th Century globalism with the world having one foot in the new century and the other in a simpler past. Writing in the Washington Post Michael F. Bishop said, “Millions were soon to die on the fields of France, but in 1913 Paris was ‘the quintessential city of seduction, sensation and spectacle.’ President Raymond Poincare still brooded over the German conquest of his native Lorraine in 1870, but his fellow Parisians were more exercised about the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. This modernist masterpiece seemed a harbinger of things to come, as a lusher and more ornate past ceded to a harsher but more dynamic present.”

This is a great and important book that opens a window on the last year before the defining event of the 20th Century changed almost everything. Emmerson says simply of the world that will be ushered in through the bloody trenches of Europe, “Somehow, somewhere, the world of 1913 had gone.”

The American Senate

For 30 years Neil MacNeil was Time magazine’s Congressional correspondent. From that perch MacNeil – some of you older PBS viewers may remember – was a regular in the early days of Washington Week in Review and wrote a delightful biography of one-time Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen. MacNeil died in 2008 before he was able to finish his sweeping history of the United States Senate and the project was taken over by long-time Senate historian Richard A. Baker. The result is a cozy, well-sourced review of the unique and critically important role the Senate plays in the scheme of American government.

The American Senate deals with the origins of “the world’s greatest deliberative body” through the days before the Civil War when the Senate, with names like Webster, Clay and Calhoun in power, came to dominate the presidency. All the great and not-so-great moments of Senate history are covered usually more by subject than chronology. We also get inside looks at effective leaders in Senate history like Joseph Robinson in the 1930′s, Lyndon Johnson in the 1950′s, Dirksen in the 1960′s and Howard Baker in the 1980′s. I’ve read much about the origin and history of the filibuster, which has come to dominate all the Senate does or tries to do, but I’ve not read a better assessment or history of the tactic of the filibuster and what its widespread use has done to diminish the Senate than in this book.

MacNeil and Baker also offer priceless stories, including how the mellifluous Dirksen came to be called “the Wizard of Ooze.” They note at one point that “some senators came to believe that their speeches were not just speeches, but action itself.”  In one case South Carolina Sen. Ellison (“Cotton Ed”) Smith made “an astonishing claim.” When he began his Senate speech, Smith said, “cotton was ten cents. When I finished four hours later, cotton was twelve cents. I will continue to serve you in this way.”

While the book is mostly a history of a great political institution that is currently in decline it is also a measured, responsible call for a better Senate with better leadership and Senators focused not on the next election, but the next generation. Who could disagree with that?

The Great Gatsby

The release of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “great American novel” was my prompt to pull down from the high shelf and read again my dog-eared paperback of the 1925 classic. It was worth it. Most of us read Gatsby in high school or maybe in college. Forget the movie and read the real thing. As we get a little older the last line of Gatsby – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” – takes on even more meaning.

1940 and Those Angry Days

Both of these books – 1940 by Susan Dunn and Those Angry Days by Lynne Olson – deal with the period immediately before the United States became involved in World War II. Dunn’s book is conventional but solid history of the historic election when Franklin Roosevelt won his third term. Olson’s book, highly readable and a page-turner, is marred by a number of silly errors that can cause a reader to question her, at times, overly simplistic conclusions. Still, I recommend both books as good, if not always nuanced, contributions to the history of a pivotal moment in the 20th Century.

Everyday Drinking

What’s a beach read without a cocktail? In his introduction to Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking the late and brilliant essayist Christopher Hitchens, who knew something about booze, says that Amis, novelist and writer of short stories and non-fiction, was “what the Irish call ‘your man’ when it came to the subject of drink.”

This funny, opinionated, how-too guide to spirits, wine and manners is the kind of slim book you can pick up and open to any page and be entertained and informed. There is even a section with various quizzes. (I’d recommend leaving it on the back of the toilet tank for easy, quick reading, but that would  be so not Kingsley Amis.)

One reviewer had this advice. “Under no circumstance should [Everyday Drinking] be read in one go. Not even with a pitcher of dry martinis at hand. You’ll do Amis’s work proper justice, as even he suggests, by reading it at the rate of, say, one chapter a night. You may even try reading it out loud at bedtime. Or not.”

Amis covers history, hangovers, recipes and almost everything that is put in a bottle behind a label and often in just a few paragraphs. He writes, for example, of Champagne as a drink that will “go with any food and one can theoretically drink it right through a meal…in practice it is suppose to be a splendid accompaniment to a cold summery lunch of smoked salmon and strawberries. Best of all on its own, I have heard its admirers say, about 11:30 a.m., with a dry biscuit. Which leaves plenty of time to sneak out to the bar for a real drink.”

There you have it – a half dozen good reads for August. Grab a drink and a book and have at it.

 

Good Reads this Year

Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman/writer of the 20th – or perhaps any – Century. Over his long life he made serious money as a writer, won the Nobel Prize for his life’s work as a writer and was also a serious reader.

Winston once said, “If you cannot read all your books…fondle them – peer into them – let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them with your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate, be your acquaintances.”

Such a quote is a good jumping off point to praise some of the books of this year that I enjoyed – and perhaps you will, too.

First…Churchill. The book is The Last Lion - Defender of the Realm the last of three volumes – the first two by William Manchester – that constitute a mini-library of the remarkable life of the great Englishman. Knowing he was dying, Manchester asked reporter Paul Reid to finish his magnum opus. It was sure to be an impossible job, but I must say Reid does a fine job of closing the Churchill ring. One can nitpick the style or the focus and some critics have hit the length – over 1,000 pages – but Reid has done justice to Manchester’s Lion. The book covers Churchill during the war and to the end of his life. If, like me, you continue to be fascinated by the bigger than life, flawed, funny, tender, petulant, brilliant Churchill you’ll need to tackle the book. You can build up the upper body just by holding it. The workout is worth it.

The quote – “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know” is attributed to Harry Truman, another prolific reader. Such is the case for me with a book, not new but published in 2009, entitled England’s Last War Against FranceAuthor Colin Smith tells the story of the bloody, far flung war between Churchill’s British Empire and Nazi-friendly Vichy France from 1940-1942. It is a remarkable story now mostly forgotten.

Public opinion research tells us that most Americans cannot name a single member of the United States Supreme Court. John Roberts, the chief justice and best known member of the court, was identified by only 20% of Americans in one survey during 2012. That amazing and disturbing fact makes Jeffrey Toobin’s book – The Oath – on the Supreme Court and the Obama Administration all the more valuable. The title refers to the botched presidential oath Roberts administered to Obama in 2008 and that story is a fine point of departure for Toobin to take us into the inner workings of the third branch. Reading this book will give you reason to believe that knowing the nine justices and understanding how politics and background drives the court even more important than worrying over the fiscal cliff.

For pure power of good writing and enormous grasp of history, culture and literature, treat yourself to a copy of the late Christopher Hitchens‘ collection of essays Arguably. You don’t have to like Hitchens’ politics or approve of his views on religion to be astounded at his range and writing. This is kind of book you can pick up for a few minutes, lose yourself, put down and then discover again and again. Remarkable stuff.

John Lewis Gaddis’ brilliant life of diplomat, writer and big thinker George F. Kennan won the 2012 Pulitzer for biography. It deserves the medal. You’ll come away from reading about Kennan’s life wondering why we aren’t producing such public servants today or, if we are, why they are never heard from.

So many other great books in 2012 – Caro on LBJ, Meacham on Jefferson, new novels from Jim Harrison and Ivan Doig and more.

As Winston said, “If you cannot read all your books…fondle them – peer into them – let them fall open where they will…let them be your friends.” It was a good year for friends.

 

Bad History Matters

David Barton’s book “The Jefferson Lies” is a New York Times bestseller. It was also recently voted “the least credible history book in print.” The book has been widely panned by real historians, but still it sells and sells.

David Maraniss, an Associate Editor of The Washington Post, is just out with a completely sourced, deeply researched reporting job called “Barack Obama: The Story.” Maraniss, a Pulitzer winner for his reporting on Bill Clinton, has written a shelf full of fine books on Clinton, Al Gore, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi, among other subjects. He’s a pro and turning to the footnotes in his books tells you all you need to know about how seriously he takes the research that is the super structure of his reporting.

Yet, Maraniss’ book, well-reviewed and critically praised, hasn’t broken through as a big seller. For that book on Obama you’ll need to turn to Edward Klein’s book “The Amateur,” which has been on the Times bestseller lists for weeks despite the fact that is based on anonymous sources and little real reporting.

Klein’s highly-critical polemic about the President is nevertheless outselling Maraniss’ even-handed, yet critical biography. Actually, outselling is an understatement. Klein’s book has sold 137,000 copies and the Maraniss book has sold 19,000.

Garbage sells seems to be the lesson.

Part of the explanation for the sales success of Klein’s Obama book is the still apparently widespread notion that major elements of the President’s life – his religion and his birth, for example  - are phony, made up, invented. Maraniss picks through his pile of conspiracy and myth making and concludes that the real frauds and fabricators are those, like Klein, who keep repeating the lies, inventing new ones and passing it off as history.

Same goes with Barton’s book about Jefferson in which he concocts the story that Jefferson’s real beliefs about God and the place of religion in our public life have somehow been hidden all these years. Rather than believing in a strict separation of religion and government, Barton would have us believe Jefferson was really “an Orthodox Christian.”

As distinguished religion scholar Dr. Martin Marty points out a “real”
historian of the American founding, Gordon Wood, had this to say about Jefferson:  ”It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the ‘priestcraft’ were always in alliance with despots against liberty. For him the divine Trinity “was nothing but ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘hocus-pocus’. . . Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it.”

Barton and Klein write what they pass off as history in order to advance a cause and, of course, to sell books with the help of Glenn Beck and others with a political or religious agenda. It’s a free country and we do have a First Amendment after all, but what they do is not history and to pass it off as such is also a fraud.

One of the great and pressing problems with our politics is the inability of too many people to agree on even the most fundamental facts. How can we fix out-of-control federal spending unless we agree on what is causing it? Is it some of the lowest real tax rates in history? Or runaway spending on entitlements? Or both?

Is climate change real? Is the Earth warming and, if so, has man contributed? What to do?

The beginning of solving problems is to agree on at least a few fundamental facts. Silly books that pretend to report history don’t help, nor do book sellers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon who treat phony history like we should really take it seriously.

Next time you’re browsing for a new read check out the cover, of course, but then turn to the back before you buy. Has the author really sourced the book? Do the footnotes, if there are any, pass the smell test? Is there a bibliography, meaning that the author consulted other books on his subject? Are sources named? Does the writer have an obvious agenda?

If you want to read fiction, you should, but don’t fall for fiction that passes itself off as history. There is too much good and important history being written to let the frauds and fabricators make all the sales.

 

The Anchorman

The Most Trusted Man in America

This may be the most famous photo of the many famous photos of the famous CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. The grainy, black and white image was taken while Cronkite, in shirt sleeves, announced the awful news that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.

In a remarkable piece of 1963-vintage television reporting, Cronkite sits calmly in the middle of what had to have been massive confusion in the CBS newsroom, fielding notes handed to him and seamlessly handing off the airwaves to a local reporter in Dallas. He makes it look easier than it was in 1963. We take that electronic news sleight of hand for granted today. It wasn’t normal back in the black and white days of television.

Two things about Cronkite’s reporting and demeanor strike me after all these years and after having seen the video many times. First, was his unwillingness to rush to the judgment that JFK had actually died. A local reporter in Dallas says that the president has apparently died and then Cronkite is handed a note saying that Dan Rather, who ironically would no so successfully replace Cronkite at the CBS anchor desk in 1981, was reporting the same thing.

Still, the veteran wire service reporter won’t flatly speak the dreaded news. Finally, when the wire services confirm Kennedy’s death, Cronkite, with a slight quiver in his voice, says its true – the President of the United States has been assassinated. And that is the second remarkable thing about the video. Cronkite shows the emotion that I can remember and most American’s felt upon hearing the news of Kennedy’s death – disbelief, horror, sadness, even fright. All of that was captured in a few seconds of television’s first draft of history.

In his masterful new biography of Cronkite historian Douglas Brinkley devotes an entire chapter, 20 pages, to Cronkite’s and CBS’s handling of the Kennedy murder. I read the passage, still gripped by the intensity of the moment all these years later, just a day after CNN and Fox News, among others, blew the initial coverage of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Obamacare. What a contrast. And, while the two events – a president assassinated and a controversial court ruling – are hardly comparable, Cronkite’s careful, humble, measured response in handling a huge story is a startling contrast to a flustered, unprepared Wolf Blitzer mishandling a big story.

The Brinkley book, more than anything I have read recently about the state of journalism, particularly television journalism, makes the case that Cronkite-era standards have gone missing on much of the nation’s airwaves. The three network evening news programs, while drawing a sliver of the audience that Cronkite and his contemporaries once commanded, still offer a version of the old network quality and seriousness, but the vast wasteland of cable news is completely foreign to the news product CBS once put on the air night after night.

Cronkite, we learn from Brinkley’s exhaustive research, was far from a saint. He was extraordinarily competitive, could cut his colleagues off at the knees, loved bawdy jokes and arguably became too much the cheerleader for the space program and NASA. And, later in life, Cronkite simply quit trying to mask his liberal political opinions giving his detractors reason to question whether he had always played the news straight down the middle.

 Still, the Cronkite that emerges at Brinkley’s hands is a pro, a well-read, well-sourced reporter who wanted to be first, but more importantly wanted to be right. Cronkite also had a nuanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of television news. He knew he couldn’t match the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage and didn’t try, but still based almost an entire CBS Evening New broadcast on the print reporting Woodward and Bernstein had done. Cronkite’s coverage of the Nixon resignation in 1974 is still riveting television.

At the same time, Uncle Walter knew that taking a reporter and camera along as U.S. GI’s hunted the Viet Cong in the rice paddies of South Vietnam was exactly the story that television could report with brutal and uncomfortable honesty. CBS with Cronkite as the Managing Editor, a newspaper term and role at he completely embraced, helped make Vietnam the living room war. Cronkite’s 1968 special on Vietnam – he declared the war at a stalemate – was a decisive political and media moment in that awful period of our history.

For most Americans younger than 40 Walter Cronkite and his brand of television news are ancient history, no more relevant to modern America than Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Edison. But Cronkite, who died in 2009, is relevant precisely because there is no one like him now.

No one, really, picked up the Cronkite mantle when he left the anchor desk, prematurely he would conclude, in 1981. Cronkite came, it is now clear, from the greatest generation of television news, as did Huntley and Brinkley, Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner, and many others from the 1950′s to the 1980′s. But there was only one Cronkite and now we have a book that remembers his story and his greatness, warts an all, even as some of us search for a place to turn in the vast television wasteland that measures up, even a little, to his standards.

“He seemed to me incorruptible,” said director Sidney Lumet, “in a profession that was easily corruptible.”

Cronkite would joke when someone referred to him as the “most trusted man in America,” that it was clear “they hadn’t checked with my wife.” But that title fit then and it seems all the more special – and retired – today.