“John Adams” by David McCullough: A Review

Amazon.com: John Adams (9780743223133): David McCullough: Books“Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.”

At the end of each year, I, like most bloggers, post my favorite books of the year. I am an avid reader and perusing the year of books is a real favorite of mine. Most years deciding on the winner is a real challenge. This year, however, will unlikely be that way. One of the nation’s leading historians and writers, David McCullough, has written one of the best biographies I’ve read. Simply titled “John Adams” McCullough has turned Adams, known as a stubborn and at times cranky founder who carried the burden following Washington in the White House, into my favorite founder.

McCullough’s biography is a detailed look at Adam’s public career – from his move to Boston as a lawyer to his death – written with engaging prose. The author presents a heroic, though flawed and sympathetic portrait of a founder that, for reasons unknown, has been largely forgotten.

The motive behind cracking this biography came from my wife and I finally starting the HBO miniseries on this book. Two episodes in, I knew I needed more than what the series was offering (a common pattern in my life). As much as I enjoyed the HBO exploration of this American hero, McCullough’s telling is far superior.

First, no one has been at the center of some of the most significant historical events in American history than Adam. Eisenhower might be second, but Adams is first. I was unaware of his involvement in the Boston Massacre. It was Adams, hired by the British soldiers when no one else would take their case, who defended their rights and innocence. He won in the end.

Adams then appears at the Continental Congress and was arguably the most influential character. Although persons like Franklin and Washington loomed large, it was Adams who spoke the loudest. Moving forward, he played the pivotal roll in selecting George Washington to lead the American army, lead the charge for Independence, asked Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, negotiated peace following the war, established both England and France as partners (which was volatile to say the least), served as America’s first vice president, second President, and lived long enough to be the first former President to witness the inauguration of his son to the presidency – a feet that would not be repeated until the inauguration of George W. Bush.

Outside of his absence to the organization of the US Constitution, Adams was a leader among our Founders. Yet for reasons beyond my comprehension, Adams is largely backdrop to figures like Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, and others. That is not to say that Adams is not well-respected or recognized as one of the most significant Founders, yet his stature is less than the others. McCullough changed this perspective for me. Without Adams, American history and America itself would look significantly different.

Secondly, McCullough presents Adams as he was, not as we imagine him to be. To some, Adams is a heroic figure that should be venerated. To others, he, like the other Founders, were flawed white men who hypocritically tolerated slavery and other bigotries. McCullough avoids these simplistic, political narratives.

Adams was heroic. There can be no doubt about that. Though close to his wife and children, they often suffered because of his service to his country. His defense of the British soldiers in Boston launches Adams down a path of courage and fortitude. He stood up to Jefferson who wrongly defended the French Revolution. He fought for the cause of Independence at the risk of his own life and the well-being of his family. He stood on neutrality when France and England were at war with each other. He was, indeed, heroic in the truest sense.

He was also deeply flawed. McCullough shows a man great in ambition and yet sensitive to criticism. He was well known and greatly loathed. Beloved by many and hated by others. He stood on principle even in the world of politics. It is good, indeed, that the Lord made him stubborn (a common criticism of Mr. Adams) especially when he was right!

We live in an age that either demeans or worships significant heroic figures. McCullough present a hero who, behind the public mask was a husband, a father, a citizen, a lawyer, a saint, and a sinner.

Finally, I greatly enjoyed the antidotes that McCullough provides. Adams famously said that “facts are stubborn things” during the Boston Massacre trial. This is likely the most memorable line from Adams’ entire illustrative career. Yet given the modern love-affair with feelings over facts, it is one worth putting into practice.

My favorite comes near the end. Adams was not secretive regarding his disregard of the Vice-Presidency, which he discovered the hard way. After Adam’s came a long line of former Vice-Presidents who loathed the position. When he finally surrendered the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson, Adams was both disappointed (in an ugly way) and yet relived.

While in retirement, Adams reflected back on his life and suggested that, if he had to do it all over again, he would have chosen the life of a shoemaker. McCullough then tells us:

Long before, on his rounds of Boston as a young lawyer, Adams had often heard a man with a fine voice singing behind the door of an obscure house. One day, curious to now who “this cheerful mortal” might be, he had knocked at the door, to find a poor shoemaker with a large family living in a single room. Did he find it hard getting by, Adams had asked. “sometimes,” the man said. Adams ordered a pair of shoes. “I had scarcely got out the door before he began to sing again like a nightingale,” Adams remembered. “Which was the greater philosopher? Epictetus or this shoemaker?” he would ask when telling the story.

Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, had said, among other things, “it is difficulties that show what men are.” (570-571)

Indeed. And Adams lived in trying times – the times that would test the soul of man. And he left it on July 4, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and on the same day as Thomas Jefferson. Its poetic.

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"CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity" by George Marsden: A Review

On November 22, 1963, three giants died. The most notable was President John F. Kennedy who was shot and killed in Dallas, TX. On the same day, two writers Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis died quietly overshadowed by the more newsworthy death of the American president. At the time, most would have assumed that Kennedy would have the lasting legacy while history would forget the latter two. Yet that is not the case. The Democratic Party that Kennedy once led has largely left the policies and convictions that Kennedy held. Regarding Aldous Huxley, only readers of classic dystopians are aware of who he is.

Most surprising is the lasting legacy and even growing population of CS Lewis – the professor of medieval literature (of all things), and writer of Christian apologetics and children’s stories. Only providence can explain this. In his book, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Chrsitian: A Biography, Goerge M. Marsden seeks to tell the story of both Lewis’s influence and how a single book continues to shape the world.

This is now the second biography of a book I have read (the first was on the Book of Mormon). In this volume, the author provides biographical information on both the author and the book he penned. The story behind Mere Christianity is a fascinating one. It began as a series of radio talks on the BBC radio (can you imagine the BBC airing this today?) during the second world war. Lewis’s talks grew in popularity and resulted in the publication of a number of books. Those books were eventually combined into a single book now known to us as Mere Christianity.

Marsden takes the reader inside the mind of the author, the voices of its critics, and traces the lineage of this mere book. It is a fascinating book with a fascinating story. My one critique of the book would be how Marsden at times makes the book more about Lewis than about Mere Christianity, yet in his defense, it is virtually impossible to separate author from book.

For those who love Lewis and have read Mere Christianity, I would recommend this book. It is academically sound and yet accessible to the average reader. For those who have neither read Lewis or his classic book, what are you waiting for?

"Three Days in January" by Brett Baier: A Review

Ike was pleased to receive Kennedy’s gracious note, and he could only hope the new president had taken the substance of the preparation to heart. He was still thinking about the final days, wondering if he’d done enough. presidents operate in their own closed orbits, and the transition is that one precious moment in time when two administrations work together so intimately. Well beyond pro forma meetings and communications, the transition operations can make or break a new president’s first days. in spite of what he considered meaningful personal conversations with Kennedy, Ike admitted to himself that he had no idea at all what effect they’d had. (254)

The day will come when, I believe, Dwight D. Eisenhower will be remembered as one of the greatest Americans ever lived. His biography is nothing short of remarkable. Eisenhower was a small town country kid who rose in the ranks to be the “boss” of World War 2 – a five star general no less – and is largely responsible for the Ally victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan’s defeat. After the Great War, Eisenhower was enlisted to join the ranks of politics at the highest level and served two terms as one of our most popular presidents.

Yet for some reason, Eisenhower is largely overlooked by citizens and historians alike. Perhaps the Eisenhower years are overshadowed by the more colorful 60s and the more fashionable Kennedy administration. But writing in 2017, surely we can agree that we need more leaders like him who naturally put country ahead of self-interests.

One of the books on my summer reading list is Brett Baier’s Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission. Eisenhower has always been one of my personal favorite President’s of the 20th century and after investing in Baier’s labor, I am convinced he will be remembered as one of the greatest men to hold the office.

For the most part, this volume zero’s in on the final three days of the Eisenhower administration. Those three days are more significant than most final three days of presidencies. During that time, the former president gave the most famous farewell address still widely viewed, prophetic, and debated today. Shortly after Eisenhower’s historic address was his successor’s historic inaugural address. Kennedy’s speech was among our nation’s briefest, yet most memorable. Yet what I enjoyed the most was Baier taking us into the mind of Eisenhower himself making Kennedy success a priority and taking the time to encourage and guide him in the final days of his presidency and the beginning of Kennedy’s.

The beauty of the book is the power of the American system. Looking back at George Washington, the author shows us the uniqueness of what America routinely accomplishes. Most regime change comes by surrender or death. In America, power is relented gracefully surrendering to the will of the people. Most illustrative of this regards Richard Nixon serving as the President of the Senate in 1960 following his own defeat officially recognizing John F. Kennedy as the next elected President.

Yet this book goes beyond these three days. Baier begins by introducing us to Eisenhower the man and his historical context. Roughly the first third of the book surveys the biography of the late President leading up to the final days of his presidency. The conclusion of the book surveys Eisenhower’s influence in the oval office after leaving office as well as his final days on earth.

Overall, I suspect Baier’s book will go down as one of my favorite’s of the year. I enjoy books that zero in on specific periods of history and there are few figures more prominent in the 20th century than Eisenhower. Baier is one of my favorite journalists and yet this book is not typical of histories written by journalist majors. Rather, one would think Baier was a trained historian from a prominent university. For those who love history in general and presidential history in particular, Baier has published a must-read centered on a great American.

For more:
“Ike: An American Hero” by Michael Korda: A Review

"John Knox" by Jane Dawson: A Review

This particular day in his life has been reconstructed to challenge many of the traditional assumptions made about John Knox. he has been regarded, especially within Scotland, as the personification of the puritanical kill-joy who championed the strictest Presbyterian tenets on all issues and delighted in haranguing Mary, Queen of Scots. Having been claimed as the country’s Protestant Reformer, Knox’s activities in Scotland have taken centre stage, downgrading or even excluding other periods of his life. The concentration upon his famous tract with its eye-catching title, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, has given rise to the view that Knox was a misogynist or a woman-hater and has distorted understandings of Knox’s political thought and his other writings. The reconstruction of the happy day in 1557 when Nathaniel Knox was baptized in the English-speaking exile church in Geneva offers a sharp contrast to that conventional image. The relaxed and happy John Knox was not preaching or prophesying doom, but behaving as an ordinary father and family man. He was not expounding misogynist ideas but was surrounded by female friends and about to return to his dear wife. He was not in Scotland bringing in the Protestant Reformation, but was part of an English congregation located in a Swiss city. He was not behaving as a puritanical Calvinist, but was laughing, joking and looking forward to a celebration. This biography also acknowledges, and even emphasizes, the darker side to Knox with his ‘holy hatred’, increasing intransigence, bouts of depression and gloomy predictions about the future of Protestantism. By challenging the monochrome portrait of the dour Scottish Reformer that has dominated popular perceptions, it shows the many different shades within Knox’s character that make this complex man such a fascinating subject. This fresh and more nuanced account of Knox’s life reveals new aspects of the interconnected and many-layered story of Protestantism in the sixteenth century. The biography also provides a re-assessment of the worlds through which Knox moved as he lived during the age of Reformations in Scotland, Britain and Europe. (3-4)

One of my favorite pastor-theologians from history is the Scottish Reformer John Knox who is often overlooked among the great 16th century Protestant Reformers but is certainly one of the great giants of that era behind Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwinglii. In 2015 Yale published a new biography written by Jane Dawson which promised to unveil new information on Knox that shed new light on him. As such it has been on my reading list. In short, the biography, simply entitled John Knox serves as one, if not the, standard bearer of John Knox biographies.

First, Dawson is a gifted writer of history. I have always believed that history well-written is better than fiction and books like Dawson’s is a reminder of that truism. The art of writing history requires thorough research, familiarity with the world of the subject, and an expertise with storytelling that does not compromise the historians responsibility to history itself. Dawson does an excellent job balancing all of these.

Secondly, the author reveals the significance of the new material. I will let her discuss it herself, but the discovery of six previously unknown letters from Knox fills in significant gaps in the Knox narrative and Dawson navigates those gaps and how the new material helps historians and scholars alike.

Thirdly, and most notable to me, Dawson presents a unique side of Knox. Most biographies of Knox either present him as a violent monster who hated women and advocated rebellion or borders hagiography that emphasizes the softer side of Knox the pastor and letter writer. Dawson, however, while pointing out both extremes of Knox’s personality, repeatedly directs us to note the Reformer who struggled with depression.

It is no secret that ministers frequently struggle with depression. Knox was no different. Dawson’s biography reveals the frequency of his melancholy. For example:

Overwhelmed, Knox burst into tears and rushed out to hide in his own chamber. For many days he was miserable, his heart full of ‘grief and trouble’. Normally gregarious and ready with a joke, he shunned company and could not even raise a smile, let alone a laugh. Teaching his pupils in the chapel would only remind him of the painful experience of that public call. When backed into a corner Knox’s instinct was to come out fighting, but in this situation the only person with whom he could fight was himself. (43)

On the next page, Dawson notes Knox “sat weeping and praying in his room in the castle in St. Andrews, Knox was not sure if the Holy Spirit would speak though his mouth when he stood in the pulpit.” (44). Again, looking at Knox the pastor, Dawson notes that “Knox remained vulnerable to inner doubts about his performance as a pastor of his flocks.” (90) Before long, in a moment of deep despair, Knox “was searching for a way to leave this ministry and possibly the city.” (95) And then there is the death of his first wife Marjorie which wounded him deeply. One of the best sections exploring this aspect of Knox’s life is as follows:

In the Order of the General Fast one rvealing phrase summed up the paralysing effect of doubt upon a Christian’s life: ‘the murtherer of all godly exercise is desperation’. Although Knox appeared to have few doubts about his personal salvation, he was deeply afflicted by what had happened in Scotland since the return of the Queen. his withdrawal in 1565 from his previous style of political engagement placed much greater stress upon the spiritual weapons of preaching, pentience and prayer. His own inner spiritual strength was tested when he was banned from preaching and the first period of ministry at St. Giles’ came to an end. As one disaster followed another during that year, Knox lost his decisiveness and slide into doubt and desperation. In his characteristically dramatic fashion, he described his mood swings in a deeply gloomy letter written on 12 March 1566 and concluded that he had learned little from the experiences of his long life and many troubles. ‘In youth, myd age, and now, after many battelles, I find nothing into me bot vanitie and corruption. For, in quyetnes i am negligent, in trouble impatient, tending to disperation; and in the meane state, I am so caryed away with vane fantasizes, that (allace), O Lord, they withdraw me from the presence of thy Majestie.” (247-248)

To a minister like myself, there is much comfort to gain from such giants. We are not alone today. Dawson reminds the reader that in such despairing moments, Knox “was sustained by the conviction that he was ‘cald by my God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowfull, confirme the weak and rebuke the proud by tong and livelye voyce’.” (38) When life became difficult and he felt all alone, Knox returned to that divine calling and moved on. This was a side of Knox that I enjoyed exploring with Dawson in this volume.

The author also explored an aspect of Knox’s life regarded his almost-ministry in Ireland. Knox ultimately turned his good friend Goodman down in joining his work there. Yet Dawson contemplates the great “what-if.” One can only imagine what would have happened if Knox and Goodman, along with the other Protestants already there, had the opportunity to spread Protestantism more fully in Ireland. No doubt, Dawson suggests, the history of Ireland would have been very different.

Overall, Dawson has written one of the most important works on John Knox and the Scottish Reformation. It is neither critical nor hagiographical. Instead, she tells the story of Knox and his world. The discovery of new sources is vital to telling the full story of Knox and Dawson does an excellent job showing its significance. In the end, anyone serious about Knox or the Scottish Reformation must read Dawson.

Books on Knox:
“John Knox: Fearless Faith” by Steven Lawson – A Review
“John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Works” – A Review
“John Knox” by Rosalind Marshall: A Review
“The Mighty Weakness of John Knox” by Douglas Bond: A Review
“John Knox & the Reformation” by M. Lloyd-Jones & Iain Murray: A Review
“John Knox For Armchair Theologians” by Suzanne McDonald: A Review
 

For more on Knox:
“Scottish Theology” by T. F. Torrance: A Review
A Nestorian Heresy?: John Knox & His Rejection of Particular Redemption
Douglas Bond on the Legacy of John Knox
“The School of Faith” by Thomas F. Torrance: A Review
John Knox on the Threefold Office of Christ
Theologians I Have Been Influenced By – The Dead
John Knox on the Importance of the Ascension 

"The Book of Mormon: A Biography" by Paul Gutjahr: A Review

No matter whether one considers the Book of Mormon to be divinely inspired holy writ or the work of one man’s impressive imagination, it is increasingly hard to argue against the growing scholarly consensus that “the Book of Mormon should rank among the great achievements of American literature.” While the book stands as an important artifact in the study of the American history and culture, it is no less important as a contemporary religious text with global influence. The book can now be read by nearly 90 percent of the world’s inhabitants in their native languages. Enjoying ever larger print runs in its nearly two-century history, the Book of Mormon achieved a distribution of 150 million copies worldwide by 2011. Changes in American publishing in the late twentieth century have allowed for exponential growth in producing the Book of Mormon. Computer technology has helped translate the book into dozens of languages bad has expedited the printing of more than 50 million copies of the book in the last ten years alone. Such massive publishing statistics lend credence to the religious historian Rodney Stark’s argument that, given the right conditions, by the mid-twenty-first century Mormonism might “achieve a worldwide following comparable to that of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and the other dominant world faiths.” Whether or not Stark’s projection proves correct, it is obvious that the book that gave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints its popular name might be considered the most important religious text ever to emerge from the United States. (9-10)

I do hope the above is not true, but I am having a hard time disagreeing with it. Perhaps no book, written on American soil, has had a larger influence and been translated into more languages than Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon. As a result, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must be taken seriously and can no longer be looked at as a fringe group outside orthodox Christianity. Rather, they must be understood theologically, culturally, morally, and historically. Therefore, I picked up the helpful book by Paul C. Gutjahr entitled The Book of Mormon: A Biography.

The title of the book is a fascinating one for it is the first of its kind I have ever considered. I have devoured dozens of biographies and autobiographies (not to mentioned memoirs) in my life, but never have I considered a biography of a book. What Gutjahr, and the other books/authors in this series, seek to do is to tell the story of their respective book. In Gutjahr’s case, he tells the story of the composition, influence, changes, and ongoing reach of The Book of Mormon.

In one sense, in order to understand the LDS church one must understand The Book of Mormon both its content and its composition. The book is very much the work of Joseph Smith (regardless of one’s theory of its composition). The Book of Mormon did not descend from above nor did Smith merely recite the words of God (as Islam claims Mohamed did). Rather, it is a deeply edited and translated worked closely linked to Smith himself. Thus to understand the LDS church, one must understand The Book of Mormon; to understand The Book of Mormon, one must explore the life and mind of Joseph Smith.

Gutjahr takes us on this journey of Smith’s life and how he “discovered” the golden plates he would later “translate” from Reformed Egyptian to King James English. We learn of Smith’s background as an impoverished youth always having to move who experienced as very painful leg surgery deeply interested but dissatisfied in religion.

Even after its publication, though, the book is very much Smith’s child. One striking insight gained from the author’s research regards Smith’s multiple edits and editions of the book. He reports:

In the years following the founding of the Church, Joseph embraced other revelatory work of an even more startling nature. He returned to the Book of Mormon twice to revise its text. In Joseph’s hands, the Book of Mormon was no static entity. A living prophet made it a living book, capable of change. His oracular status made him fully comfortable in correcting what he told his followers was “the most correct of any book on earth”

He first revised the book in 1837. This second edition proved important because it included more than three thousand alterations from the 1830 edition, clearly signaling that the Prophet was not afraid to change his work. For the most part, these changes were matters of adjustments in grammar. . . . Joseph had, however, made theological adjustments to the text as well, hoping to rid the book of inconsistencies and harmonize its content with his more recent teachings found in “Lectures on the Faith” and the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The most important changes int his regard appear in the first two books of Nephi where Joseph revised to indicate a difference in the person of the Godhead, making way for his further teachings on the plurality of gods. (64)

This, at least to me, poses a serious problem for Mormonism. The traditional orthodox Christian view is that the autographs are inspired. Whatever was originally written was given by God. The LDS church are forced to hold to a very different view. They must affirm that Smith’s first and second edition of the Book of Mormon was inadequate and in need of an update. This is strange considering Smith claimed to merely be translating the text, not writing it.

Furthermore, though one need to understand The Book of Mormon in order to under the LDS church, one cannot understand LDS doctrine by only exploring The Book of Mormon. This is a striking revelation for most. Many of the controversial and central doctrines of the LDS church are not found, or at least developed, in Joseph’s Golden Book. Rather they are established in their other official documents like The Pearl of Great Price, Doctrines and Covenants, and official sermons and writings from Smith and later presidents and apostles of the LDS church. Thus when Mormon missionaries assure potential converts that reading The Book of Mormon is sufficient to convert them, they are misleading them for there is very little Mormon doctrine in the Book of Mormon.

The reason for this is obvious. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a revelatory faith centered on texts, rather it is centered on a personality, namely, Joseph Smith. What he believed and claimed were gospel even if they had no grounding in the churches authoritative writings. This ultimately explains where plural marriages came from – not from the supposed angel Moroni, but from Smith himself.

In the end, Gutjahr has written a fascinating book about an important, though deeply flawed, book of American literature. I am clearly biased in regards to The Book of Mormon. Its history is bunk (and the author makes it clear the LDS church can offer no historical or archeological evidence to support it in spite of much research), its composition is questionable, and its “translator” is, I believe, a fraud. Nevertheless, in order to understand Mormons one will need to address their favorite book. Gutjahr tells the story beyond its pages.

"Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce" by John Piper: A Review

Thus began a forty-five year investment in the politics of England. He began it as a late-night, party-loving, upper-class unbeliever. he was single and would stay that way happily until he was thirty-seven years old. Then he met Barbara on April 15, 1797. he fell immediately in love. Within eight days he proposed to her, and on May 30 they were married, about six weeks after they met – and stayed married until William died thirty-six years later. In the first eight years of their marriage they had four sons and two daughters. (28)

As I am typing this, the primary choices for the American presidency in the 2016 election is Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R). I am unaware of a more depressing time to be a Christian voter on the national scene in America. The two candidates clearly lack any clear moral barometer. In light of that, it seemed appropriate to return to one of my favorite all-time politicians: William Wilberforce. I began by reading the short book by John Piper entitled Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce (download the book for free here) which is a great resource for those new to the British leader.

Wilberforce is best known for his work in abolishing both the slave trade and slavery in England. The abolition of slavery required a war and an executive order in America, but the work of leaders like Wilberforce accomplished the same without a single shot. Yet Wilberforce accomplished more than that. He was a man driven by his Christian faith. His political courage and the causes he fought for were the fruit of his robust theology. In a day were many politicians are either hesitant to embrace faith or are outright faithless, Wilberforce embrace the gospel openly and served his country well through it.

Piper’s brief book offers both a biography and theological treatment of his life and thought. It is precisely what one would expect from a pastor-theologian who is not a biographer or a historian. That is a not a critique of the book, but the reader should know what this volume is and is not. The origin of its pages come from a sermon preached by Piper available below.

The advantage of this approach is that Piper shows how deep Wilberforce’s theology was and how it shaped his life in a unique way. Historians get distracted by political and historical detail whereas Piper shows us how Wilberforce’s deep faith was the driving force behind all that he did.

The one critique I would have for the book would be his heavy reliance on John Pollock’s biography on him. The author does reference and quote other works, but Pollock dominates the pages. I would not recommend the same practice for any other author.

Nevertheless, this is a helpful introductory to a great man who was used mightily by God. Wilberforce loved Jesus and did not run from his vocation in that affection but understand that God called him to public service and that politics was his ministry. No doubt he fought the good fight and finished the race. Literally. The news of the abolition of the slaves came to him three days prior to his death. What an answer to his prayers!

For more:
“Seven Men” by Eric Metaxas: A Review
William Wilberforce and the End of Slavery: A Legacy of the Gospel

"The Quiet Man" by John Sununu: A Review

I believe George Bush was the right man for his time. He was the last American president of the so-called Greatest generation, which came of age during World War II. internationally, the time called for a man who inherently understood the historical imperatives of postwar Europe, who was unafraid to project power in the face of tyranny, and who respected the power of his position enough to use it judiciously. The time also called for a man who knew why he loved America and was willing to make it better.

George Herbert Walker Bush is much too modest a man to brag about what he accomplished as the forty-first president of the United States. The conventional wisdom regarding his administration ignores many of his great achievements. Here I put into context not only how he reshaped the face of the world, but also his extraordinary domestic achievements, which have not received the recognition they deserve. (xii)

Outside of theology and Christian studies, there is nothing I enjoy exploring more than the Presidents. Though I am generally not a fan of “tell-all” books where those who served in the White House under a certain President who use their position as a means of additional income to feed a salacious and gossip-hungry culture and media, occasionally there is an insider book that peaks my interest. Former governor of New Hampshire and chief-of-staff of former President George H. W. Bush, John Sununu, has recently written a book as one who had the Presidents ear for the majority of his one term and has published a book that seeks to set the record straight (from his perspective) and promote Bush as being a man of great success. The book is called The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H. W. Bush.

Governor Sununu is bias as most books like this are. That’s not a criticism, but something that needs to be said upfront. It is virtually impossible to read a book about a President (especially one still living) that is without clear and obvious bias. Sununu believes that Bush has not received the respect he deserves on multiple front and personally I believe there may be some truth to that.

First of all, Sununu believes Bush to be a man of honor and integrity as the title suggests. Instead of being a flamboyant braggart that uses every political victory as reason to spike the ball, Bush was measured and carried himself as a statesmen. The best example of this regards both how he handled Desert Storm and the fall of the Soviet Union. Most now agree that Bush’s soft persona (as opposed to spiking the proverbial football) allowed the Soviet Union to die the way it did. Sununu quotes Mikhail Gorbachev as saying as much. The same is true of Desert Storm. At the time, the media portrayed Bush’s “quiet man” approach as troubling and boring, but Sununu shows that most now agree it was appropriate.

Secondly, Sununu repeatedly emphasizes that Bush was more than a great foreign policy President. Much of the book is dominated by Bush’s leadership on domestic policy issues from taxes (yes, that issue), the budget, education, child care for working mothers, the environment, and energy. Sununu may be right in his criticism here, but it is difficult to see how Bush’s domestic policy will ever equal that of his foreign success. Desert Storm was wildly successful. Furthermore, the former Ambassador and CIA chief turned Vice-President naturally was gifted with foreign policy. Bush oversaw the end of the Cold War which dominated the world scene for over fifty years. It is difficult to see how passing the Americans With Disabilities Act compares with any of that.

With all of this said, Sununu is not so loyal to the former President to not believe his administration was perfect. Mistakes were made. One chapter I was interested in regarded Supreme Court Justices. President Bush made two appointments: David Souter and Clarence Thomas. The former turned out to be a liberal judge that betrayed the president who appointed him. The latter has turned out precisely the opposite. Regarding Souter, Sununu writes:

Over the years, I anguished along with my conservative friends as we watched David Souter become more and more liberal. To add insult to injury, Souter waited to retire until there was a Democratic president so he could be replaced with a justice as liberal as he was. As I watched Barack Obama replace David Souter with Sonia Sotomayor, I ruefully marveled at how artfully David had demonstrated, all those years ago, who easy it is to deceive by saying next to nothing. (348)

His discussion of 1992 is similar. Sununu claims to prophetically foretell the rise of Bill Clinton. He also criticizes the vindictive Ross Perot whom he believes cost Bush the election. For those who love campaign history, this chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

Ultimately, Sununu offers an insightful book in an often overlooked presidency. For the last 30 plus years only one president has not served two terms and that was Bush 41. He stands between the personalities of the Great Communicator and Slick Willy. “The Quiet Man” will never be able to compete against that. For political junkies this is a great read. Sununu gives a true insiders view of the Washington world – a world that turns my stomach (his discussion in how the media operates is shameful). The author seeks to set the record straight and succeeds at doing that. The question will be if historians will listen to him.

For more biographies on the Presidents:
President Barack Obama – “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama: A Review
President George W. Bush – “Decision Points” by George W. Bush
President Bill Clinton – “The Natural” by Joe Klein: A Review 
President George H. W. Bush – “41” by George W. Bush: A Review
President George H. W. Bush – “The Quiet Man” by John Sununu: A Review
President Ronald Reagan – “Ronald Reagan” by Dinesh D’Souza 
President Gerald Ford – “Gerald R. Ford” by Douglas Brinkley: A Review
President Richard Nixon – “The Greatest Comeback” by Pat Buchanan: A Review
President Lyndon B. Johnson – “Lyndon B. Johnson” by Charles Peters: A Review
President John F. Kennedy – “Killing Kennedy” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard: A Review
President Dwight D. Eisenhower – “Ike: An American Hero” by Michael Korda: A Review
President Calvin Coolidge – “Coolidge” by Amity Shlaes” A Review
President Abraham Lincoln – “Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage
“The Preacher and the Presidents” by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy: A Review
“The First Family Detail” by Ronald Kessler: A Review
“Double Down” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann: A Review

American Experience Documentaries:
Woodrow Wilson: An American Experience
Dwight Eisenhower: An American Experience
Richard Nixon: American Experience
Jimmy Carter: An American Experience
Ronald Reagan: An American Experience
George HW Bush: An American Experience  
Clinton: An American Experience

"JFK, Conservative" by Ira Stoll: A Review

Was John F. Kennedy a conservative? The question, at first, appears to be nonsensically and not worth our time. Yet in his book JFK, Conservative, Ira Stoll makes an interesting and compelling case that by modern definitions of conservative, JFK fits well within that stream.

JFK has always been a subject of interests to me beyond the Camelot mystic. Kennedy clearly had some conservative thinking: tax cuts and anti-communism come immediately to mind. Yet, Kennedy was a Democrat and the legacy of the Kennedy’s is liberal. The late Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy served for decades as a very liberal Democrat. It seems odd – impossible really – to suggest that JFK was a conservative.

In his effort to defend that thesis, Stoll offers the reader a chronological study of JFK. He begins with a Independence Day speech in 1946 and follows Kennedy’s political stances, actions, and speeches leading up to his death. By doing this, Stoll shows that Kennedy was an ideological conservative who consistently defended conservative principles: personal liberty, fiscal responsibility, strong national defense, and a national belief in God.

Many critical reviews of Stoll’s book suggest that he never clearly defines conservatism. Grant it, I do not recall a dictionary-like definition, but anyone familiar with basic conservative principles will find them here and illuminated above. At times JFK sounds more like Ronald Reagan than Bill Clinton. And he sounds more like Barry Goldwater than Barack Obama. To read Kennedy in his own words, which is the strength of this book; he lets Kennedy speak for himself, makes one question how both Kennedy and politicians like President Obama or Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are of the same party.

My question throughout the book, however, is if the thesis is true, and again I believe the author makes a compelling case, then why was he still a Democrat? Democrats, especially by the 1960s, were the liberal party. One answer is given by Jack himself: I’m a Democrat because my father was. Perhaps there is some truth to that, but by the time one enters politics, surely the answer must be better thought out than that. Perhaps it was because Massachusetts had been a Democratic stronghold for some time. Regardless, one major problem with the book regard his identity with the Democratic party. Another problem would be Kennedy’s adulterous lifestyle.

Nevertheless, Stoll makes a compelling case and one that should be taken seriously. The left has written him off as a loon, but even a cursory reading of the book implies that the left hasn’t even read the book. Stoll defends his thesis convincingly and, as a result, rewrites the history books.

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