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Strong Inside

I love college basketball and of course the love affair is in full blossom this time of year. My romance began in 1966 when a bunch of unknown upstarts from a Podunk school in El Paso – who ever heard of Texas Western College? – won the NCAA championship over the vaunted Coach Adolph Rupp and the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

TWCThere have been a thousand (or more) great college basketball games since 1966, but for my money none was better or more important than Texas Western’s 72-65 win over the big dogs from Kentucky and the segregated Southeastern Conference (SEC). The Texas Western Miners started five black players in that 1966 game. Kentucky didn’t have a black player until 1969. Adolph Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass, a Hall of Fame coach who won 82 percent of his games, went to his grave remembered for that championship loss by his all-white team to a talented and determined all-black team. It is stunning to remember that Rupp refused to shake hands with the Texas Western players after the game. And it should be just a little embarrassing to Kentucky fans today that the still vaunted Wildcats play their home games in Rupp Arena.

As Kentucky steams toward another national title, let’s just say that I’m for anyone but Kentucky. Call it a grudge and label it unreasonable, since the Wildcats now depend on spectacularly talented African-American players to maintain an unbeaten season, but I have a long memory.

Maybe its just Kentucky. I’ve long remembered a great line uttered by the supremely talented Civil War historian Gary Gallagher who once joked that Kentucky stayed loyal to the Union during the rebellion and “only joined the Confederacy after the war.” Adolph Rupp and his basketball team were still fighting that war more than a hundred years later.

Strong Inside…

All this old basketball and racial history came rushing back to me recently with the publication of a fine and important new book on basketball and race in the SEC, the pioneering courage of an African-American player at Vanderbilt who was the first to play in that storied league and how far we have come – and still need to go.

The book is Strong Inside, the gutsy story of Perry Wallace and his trials and triumphs in the SEC in the late 1960’s. The author Strong Insideis Andrew Maraniss (son of Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss, author of acclaimed books on Roberto Clemente, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, among others).

In many ways the centerpiece of Wallace’s story is the account of a game he played in 1968 in Oxford, Mississippi. Remember the context. The Ole Miss campus was finally integrated in 1962, but not before a full-scale riot, a death and many injuries marked the school with scars that are still visible. The racist governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, played to local politics and his own ambition when he defied federal courts and President John Kennedy when James Meredith wanted to register for classes at Ole Miss.

In 1963, NAACP organizer Medgar Evers, an Army veteran of World War II, was assassinated in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Three young civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. Bloody Sunday took place in Selma in neighboring Alabama in 1965. It was into that environment of hate, fear and racism and that a courageous Perry Wallace stepped when he set foot on the basketball court in Oxford for the first game in Mississippi featuring a black player.

Shortly before halftime a white elbow was thrown at Wallace, a blow “so fast that no one knows who threw the elbow,” Perry Wallace Senior YearMaraniss says. The blood flowed from Wallace’s wound, the crowd cheered and no referee blew a whistle. “When halftime ended,” the Washington Post noted in a recent review, “Wallace was left alone in the locker room with a bag of ice and a swollen eye. He was ‘shaken not just by the physical blow but by the relentless taunting. . . . He could hear the Ole Miss crowd react when his teammates returned to the court without him: ‘Did the nigger go home? Where’s the nigger? Did he quit?’”

Wallace didn’t quit. He helped Vanderbilt win that game, but had to make the long walk back to the basketball court all by himself. None of his white teammates made the simple gesture of walking with him. In other SEC basketball venues Wallace “was spit on and pelted with Cokes, ice and coins. At LSU, some Vanderbilt players claimed, a dagger was thrown on the court in Wallace’s direction. . . . In Knoxville, teammates remember, fans dangled a noose near the Vanderbilt bench.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Wallace’s story is the grace and dignity with which he dealt with such unspeakable abuse and overcame it all. Today Wallace is a widely respected law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. and a man humble in talking about his pioneering role in SEC basketball. Perry Wallace 1Vanderbilt officials, originally peeved when Wallace talked candidly at the end of his playing days about his experiences, finally made peace with him and retired his jersey in 2004. Perry Wallace deserves to be more widely remembered and Andrew Maraniss’s book is a wonderful start.

Banning the Dunk Shot…

Wallace stood just 6’5”, which, even considering the standards of his day, made him a rather small frontline player, but the guy could jump and Maraniss writes, “the ‘stuff shot’ was Wallace’s most reliable offensive move.”

The long-prevailing basketball wisdom holds that the “dunk shot” was banned to neutralize the inside play of the great UCLA post man Lew Alcindor – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But, Maraniss makes a compelling case that Wallace and his role as the first black player in the SEC also had much to do with banning the dunk. In that 1966 NCAA championship game Texas Western’s unforgettable big man, David Lattin, “embarrassed Rupp’s Wildcats with a powerful dunk over Pat Riley,” later a great NBA player and coach. “The next season,” Maraniss writes, “Lattin’s protégé, Wallace, embarrassed Rupp’s freshman team with his slam over Dan Issel,” also later an NBA star.

Shortly thereafter the NCAA rules committee, long dominated by Adolph Rupp, changed the rules to ban the dunk, a decision Ruppthat it is hard not to conclude was racially motivated. Rupp’s Wildcats never scheduled Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins, but they played Perry Wallace’s Vanderbilt team twice every season. “While the [dunk] ban wasn’t directed at Wallace,” Maraniss says, “it was more than just a coincidence that the rules of the game changed just as the first black player – a prolific dunker – was about to enter the league that Adolph Rupp had dominated for decades.”

Sports at the college and professional level along with the United States military have been more successful than virtually any other segment of our culture in advancing the cause of racial equality. Both have their problems to be sure, but both have also shown what America might be if we finally come to grips with our haunted racial past and commit to a better future. Perry Wallace’s largely forgotten story is a testament to what one man can do to make ours a more perfect union and proof that heroes are found in many places, including above the rim.

Perry Wallace and Andrew Maraniss were recently featured on the NPR program Only a Game when they were interviewed by Bill Littlefield. NPR’s All Things Considered also recently featured a story on the book.

The Maraniss book was published by Vanderbilt University Press. Order it up. If you’re a basketball fan you’ll enjoy it. If you enjoy an uplifting and great American story you’ll love it.

 

Not the Party of Lincoln

130205_abraham_lincoln_ap_605_605Abraham Lincoln is the one American president everyone claims, well almost everyone. Lincoln is the model of principled leader, the shrewd strategist navigating through the most severe crisis the nation has ever faced. His writing skills astound. His humor, much of it self deprecating, was a marvel. I can make the case that Lincoln invented the role of commander-in-chief and despite his lack of education in military matters he became a better strategist than any of his generals, including Grant.

Lincoln’s Social and Economic Policy

In one year of his presidency, 1862, Lincoln signed four nation changing acts. One was the Homestead Act, a massive transfer of wealth to thousands of Americans who, without the chance to own and live off the their own land, had little hope of improving their economic status. One of the beneficiaries of was my grandfather, a poor Missouri boy who staked out his homestead in the sand hill country of western Nebraska just after the turn of the 20th Century. He proved up his place and got married to a woman whose husband had abandoned her leaving my grandmother with two young sons to raise on her own. Their marriage produced my dad who would admire to the end of his days the grit and determination of his own father in carving a life out of the land. My grandfather later owned a successful business, became the mayor of his adopted home town and gave his own sons, including my dad, a big leg up on life. It all started with Mr. Lincoln signing that Homestead Act in 1862.

That same year, 1862, the president also put his A. Lincoln on the Morrill Act creating the great system of public higher education – Land_grant_college_stampthe land grant colleges – that helped further transform the country and cemented the idea that everyone had a chance to attain an education and acquire a profession. I graduated from a land grant college, so too members of my family.

In 1862 Lincoln also authorized the transcontinental railroad, a massive windfall for a handful of already very wealthy railroad barons, but also a massive public works project that created wealth from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Many of those who benefited from the homesteads and the education and the railroads were immigrants, Irish and German, Swede and Finn. All came to America looking for opportunity and many finding it thanks to enlightened Republican-inspired public policy created, hard to believe, in the middle of a great civil war. All told the social and economic policy made during that one year of Lincoln’s presidency transformed America.

The fourth great accomplishment of 1862 was, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation, an audacious expansion of presidential power that Lincoln’s many critics condemned as executive overreach. One wonders if that executive order will stand the test of time?

In an engaging and provocative new book – To Make Men Free – Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson tells the story of the creation of the Republican Party – Lincoln’s party – as an activist, results oriented movement that was determined to support “a la-la-ca-0919-heather-cox-richardson-087-jpg-20140924strong and growing middle class, whose members had fought to defend the government during the war and now used government money and owned government bonds, paid government taxes and attended government-funded colleges, and gave their wholehearted allegiance to the nation.” Oh, yes, Lincoln’s Republican Party also championed immigration.

It is a curious twist of history that the Republican Party of Lincoln, a party that began as a champion of the middle class and freed the slaves, now so closely identifies with the most privileged among us, while catering to older, white voters, many in the south. Democrats have undergone their own evolution, as well, transforming a white, southern-dominated party that once stood mostly for state’s rights and private privilege into a party that embraced civil rights and now commands the allegiance of America’s growing minority population.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in it’s review of To Make Men Free, “Richardson traces the [Republican] transformation from an egalitarian and broad-minded coalition into a narrow and disappearing one, increasingly trapped in a demographic isolation booth of its own making.” Richardson argues the Republican transformation from Lincoln’s party to the Tea Party has hardly been a straight line progression. Theodore Roosevelt with his efforts to cut monopoly down to size and Dwight Eisenhower with tax policy and the interstate highway system were other Republican presidents who tried to return the party to its founding principles. Those efforts did not last and now the GOP has fully embraced a philosophy that is almost entirely based on opposition to the current man in the White House and tax cuts mostly designed to benefit the Koch Brothers class. One doubts whether Republican icons like T.R. and Ike could get out of an Iowa caucus these days. They simply stood for too much that is foreign to today’s Republican Party.

And…Then There Was Immigration

Now that Barack Obama has finally pulled the pin on the immigration grenade and rolled it across the table to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the country’s poisonous partisanship instantly became even more toxic. As is usually the case with this president he did a masterfully inept job of setting up the showdown.

Six months ago Obama might have given his GOP adversaries a public deadline for legislative action and framed the debate in simple, stark terms. Congressional Republicans have a chance to prove, Obama might have said, that they are not completely captured by the xenophobia of their most radical elements. He could have added the hope that Republicans would chose carefully their approach and then stumped the country for a specific proposal. Of course I know the Senate long ago passed a bipartisan immigration bill, but that recent history is lost on all but the most inside players. Obama’s approach to both teeing up and framing the issue and the predictable Republican reaction just doubles down on do nothing. The political environment grows more heavily seasoned with rancor that breeds hatred.

While Obama remains a maddeningly aloof personality who displays a persistent unwillingness to engage in the grubby details of politics, it is also true that the modern Republican Party has been captured, as Heather Cox Richardson says, by its no-to-everything base and can “no longer engage with the reality of actual governance.”

Obama, one suspects, will ultimately win the immigration fight. Facts, logic and demographics are on his side, not to mention an American tradition of fairness and justice. But in the meantime the senseless and petty partisanship rolls on. Congressman Raul Labrador suggests a government shutdown “lite” that would stop confirmation of any Obama appointees and slash some budgets. Others whisper impeachment and House Republicans have sued the president.

The incoming Senate Majority Leader says the new Republican Congress will consider a range of alternatives to deal with the president’s unprecedented power grab, which is not, of course, unprecedented at all. Here’s an idea for Senator McConnell who promises “forceful action” – how about you all pass a bill to fix the immigration mess. What a novel idea. Lawmakers legislating. Almost Lincolnesque.

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.