‘Every instinct will persuade you that there should not be a Pakistan,” the Los Angeles Times declared in 1943. The paper’s hostility had American roots. As it went on to explain, “Only an old-school Southerner who thinks Appomattox was a shocking bad show could go for Pakistan.” The idea of Pakistan emerged from the anxieties and prejudices of a decaying class of India’s Muslim elites, who claimed that Islam’s purity would be contaminated in a pluralistic society. If Muslims remained a minority in India, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, warned in 1940, they would be responsible for the “complete destruction of what is most precious in Islam.”
Jinnah had once been a proponent of interfaith collaboration in India’s struggle against British colonial rule. But when his own political ascent was stymied by the unexpected entry of Mohandas Gandhi on the nationalist stage, Jinnah reinvented himself as the savior of India’s Muslims. Insisting that Muslims and Hindus were two immiscible “nations” inhabiting one land, he demanded the amputation of India along religious lines. The British, exhausted by war and eager to exit, reluctantly surrendered.
In August 1947, Punjab and Bengal were hastily hacked from the subcontinent’s western and eastern flanks to house Jinnah’s geopolitical invention. The immediate consequence, as Dilip Hiro writes in one of the most affecting chapters of “The Longest August,” his chronicle of the rivalry between India and Pakistan, was a “communal holocaust.” More than half a million people were killed as Indians, abruptly uprooted in the name of faith, erupted with irrepressible fury. Millions of Muslims fled to Pakistan; non-Muslims escaped to India. Trainloads of corpses traveled in both directions. It was the largest human exodus in history.
But mutilating India proved easier than building Pakistan. Jinnah had incited partition on the premise that Muslims and Hindus could not coexist in one nation. But millions of Muslims remained in India, whose success in fashioning a nationality out of its staggering diversity immediately debunked Jinnah’s argument. For Pakistan’s creation to be vindicated, India should have become, as Jinnah said it would, a cesspit of “Hindu Raj.” Instead, just three years after partition, India gave itself a secular constitution.
Pakistan, on the other hand, became captive to the sectarian hysteria in which it was forged. It could not relegate religion to the private sphere without belittling the sacrifice of those who had been wrenched from their homes in the name of Islam. Nor could it embrace secularism without dissolving the bond of faith that constituted its two territorial wings, separated by a thousand miles of India, into one nation. So when Jinnah died, just over a year after partition, his paranoid heirs, petrified that they might be subsumed into India, placed Pakistan on an intensive program of Islamization. A whole new past, depicting Pakistan as the worldly manifestation of Islam, was fabricated. Schoolbooks were crammed with fables about the supremacy of Muslims and the treachery of Hindus. Major public projects were given the names of the great Islamic invaders who had ravaged medieval India.
The principal victims of Pakistan’s perversions of history were its own citizens. Having embraced Pakistan in the belief that no Muslim would be harmed there for being Muslim, they quickly found themselves persecuted by state-fostered zealots for not being Muslim enough. Rather than democracy, they got military dictators who sanctified their subjugation of the country by claiming to protect it from “Hindu India.”
By the end of the 1960s, Pakistan had witnessed one major political assassination, two constitutions, two wars, seven prime ministers, one military coup and two martial-law administrators. The one political phenomenon it had not experienced in its nearly quarter-century of existence was a general election. When the first free vote produced a majority for the Bengalis situated in the country’s eastern wing, the military, instead of honoring the winners, staged a genocidal intervention in which 3 million people were slaughtered, 10 million displaced and a half a million women coerced into sexual slavery. Created expressly to safeguard Muslims, Pakistan itself split in 1971 after perpetrating some of the worst atrocities ever committed against a predominantly Muslim population. But in the western rump that continued to call itself Pakistan, even after a majority of Pakistanis had seceded to form Bangladesh, blame for the eastern wing’s defection was ascribed to an “Indo-Zionist plot against Islamic Pakistan.”
The birth of Bangladesh made the acquisition of Kashmir — a Muslim-majority state that joined India in 1947 when Jinnah attempted to annex it through force — indispensable to salvaging Pakistan’s shattered self-conception as the home of the subcontinent’s Muslims. But the agents of terror whom Pakistan mobilized for this purpose, unable to cripple India, eventually turned their gaze homeward. Today, Pakistan’s ability to confront them is severely constrained by the fact that powerful figures within its own military and intelligence services — and substantial numbers of its soldiers — are sympathetic to the objectives of the jihadis. It is this fracture at the highest and lowest levels of the country’s security establishment that accounts for the sanctuary extended, despite an avowed alliance with America, to Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town before his detection and execution by the United States in 2011. Enmity with India is the only bugbear that can still unite a fatally riven nuclear state: It is simultaneously the source of Pakistan’s self-strangulation and the cause of its survival.
Hiro, one of the sharpest observers of the Middle East, barely scratches the surface of this complex story. Although the title of his book implies a rivalry ordained by the original sin of partition, his narrative is oddly disjointed. He strives to portray a symmetrical animosity but, in the absence of compelling evidence of Indian designs against Pakistan, resorts to amplifying the Pakistani military’s unsubstantiated allegations. His suggestion of an “Indo-Israeli plot” against Islamabad corresponds more with the fantasies of Pakistan’s generals than with reality. His reliance in the chapters on partition on the work of Jaswant Singh, a Hindu nationalist and apologist for Jinnah’s segregationist politics, and his approving citations of Neville Maxwell, an Australian journalist notorious for what the Guardian once described as his “thundering misjudgements in foreign affairs,” only undermine his argument.
Yet for all its shortcomings, the book supplies enough detail to leave the reader in no doubt about the upshot of India’s partition: a nuclear-armed quasi-theocracy imploding under the weight of its own radicalism. This should inspire dread in the most stolid of hearts, not only in India but across the world.
THE RETURN OF George Washington: 1783-1789
By Edward J. Larson
William Morrow, $29.99, 366 pages
While George Washington is one of the most written about of our presidents, the books tend to focus heavily on either his military leadership or his presidency.
Those are the most important parts of his life, but it is hard to find a new angle on them. A significant, and often underexplored, aspect that cries out for more examination is the time between those two landmark periods. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson does just that in “The Return of George Washington 1783-1789.” This is a short, eloquently written exploration of Washington’s role in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, which saved the country after the disastrous period of governance under the Articles of Confederation.
Because the United States has had a generally successful form of government that helped the country become a world power, it can be tempting to think that this was inevitable. As Mr. Larson and other chroniclers of the period of the post-Revolutionary period point out, it was anything but. The drafting and ratification of the Constitution is analogous to a masterful musical performance in which Founders such as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison were composers, arrangers, principal instrumentalists, singers and writers of the program notes. Their roles are well known because they were effective self-promoters, and subsequent generations of authors focused a great deal of attention on their work during that era.
However, any music aficionado knows that few orchestras or choruses reach their full potential without the leadership of an inspiring and talented maestro. Mr. Larson argues that during this period, Washington was the catalyst for much that happened. “Often working behind the scenes but still very much in the public imagination, he helped to bind the states into a single federal republic. This period in Washington’s public life merits as much attention as those that preceded and followed it. It built on what came before and laid the foundation for what followed,” the author writes.
Washington had great political instincts and he used them to add a dose of reality to many discussions and debates, and he often tempered the enthusiasm of those who wanted to move too quickly to replace the Articles of Federation. In May 1786, a year before the Constitutional Convention, he wrote to John Jay, “I coincide perfectly in sentiments with you, my dear sir that there are errors in our national government which call for correction, but my fear is that the people are not sufficiently misled to retract from that error!”
At the convention that Washington chaired (after somewhat reluctantly coming out of retirement at his beloved Mount Vernon), he rarely spoke but was active behind the scenes as a mediator and lobbyist. He spoke often to those who crafted key proposals — especially the Virginia Plan, which outlined the structure of the new political system — and made it clear why a strong national government with a powerful Congress and executive were necessary to the success of the new nation. He felt those who disagreed were narrow-minded provincial politicians.
Mr. Larson contends, however, that despite his substantive contributions, Washington’s most important role was as “the personification of nationalism in the United States. His daily presence on the dais spoke louder than the speeches of anyone in the hall.”
Mr. Larson, a professor of both of history and law at Pepperdine University, describes the legal and political deliberations in great detail and synthesizes a vast amount of primary source material with great aplomb. The narrative occasionally bogs down but that is the exception. He truly believes that less is more.
While the book focuses on policy, the author also describes the personalities of some of the key players and has fun doing so. In comparing Franklin and Washington, Mr. Larson writes: “A generation older than Washington and crippled by gout and kidney stones, Franklin nevertheless retained more boyish enthusiasm than the Virginian. Social magnets, both men charmed the ladies — though Franklin purportedly took them to bed while Washington danced them into delirium.”
This combination of serious scholarship presented in an engaging and concise manner makes “The Return of George Washington” worth reading. Even those who have read a great deal about the subject and feel they know a lot about him will gain new insights from this book.
Book review: ‘Madison’s Gift,’ by David O. Stewart
Written by: By Carol Berkin
David O. Stewart is an acknowledged master of narrative history. He can explain a political crisis or an ideological debate with perfect clarity and exactly the sense of urgency required to capture and hold the reader’s attention. Writing for a general audience, in “Madison’s Gift” Stewart provides a panoramic view of the early republican era, with accounts of James Madison’s role in the Constitutional Convention, the struggle for a bill of rights, the rise of the Jeffersonian party and the War of 1812. As Stewart moves from crisis to crisis, from problem to solution, he emphasizes both the fragility of the American experiment and Madison’s determination to preserve it. The story Stewart tells relies firmly upon the recent outpouring of scholarship on this era, but his fluid writing ensures that he tells a familiar story well.
Perhaps too well. Stewart is so focused on narrating the political, diplomatic and military history of the early republic that we learn little about the quality of Madison’s “partnerships,” as the subtitle calls them, with George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and his own wife, Dolley Madison. Stewart devotes only a few sentences to the character and personality of these allies, and touches even more briefly on the differences in personality between Madison and these complex figures.
‘Product Details Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America’ by David O. Stewart (Simon & Schuster)
It is disappointing that he does not tell us how Madison and his political partners negotiated these differences. What allowed the charismatic, passionate Hamilton and the unassuming, restrained Madison to closely collaborate? What made it possible for the highly intellectual Madison to mentor the ambitious and far less intelligent Monroe? The dynamics of these relationships remain unexplored in Stewart’s rush to discuss the events they influenced and those that influenced them.
Stewart is clearly less concerned with the mutual benefits of friendship than with the fruits of collaboration. Madison’s “gift,” it would seem, was his talent for making alliances with those who could help advance his civic goals. This talent allowed him to play a major role in shaping the young republic’s political and diplomatic trajectory, although Stewart exaggerates the centrality of Madison at the expense of factors such as a long-standing Anglo-American political culture based on rights and liberties, abundant natural resources, a natural increase in population, European conflicts and the context of an emerging transatlantic liberal capitalism. Historians, especially biographers, are wise to remember that people make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.
Except for his long friendship with Jefferson and his happy marriage to Dolley Payne Todd, Stewart’s Madison seems to lack a gift for genuinely intimate relationships. Yet he had a keen eye for effective collaboration. In Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson he chose men whose attributes complemented his own; their strengths balanced his weaknesses. But these partnerships, built around shared ideology or political goals, abruptly dissolved when goals diverged or views clashed.
When Washington endorsed Hamilton’s financial plans and John Jay’s treaty with England, Madison renounced the president, and the ties between the two Virginians were irrevocably broken. Together Hamilton and Madison made history by pressing for a convention to create a stronger national government. Together they made the case for ratification of the constitution that convention designed. But soon after the new government began to function, Madison rejected Hamilton’s fiscal policies — and a second partnership came to an end. Although Madison mentored the younger Monroe, differences of opinion on diplomacy led to an estrangement that lasted until the two men agreed on foreign policies once again during the War of 1812. That the friendship with Jefferson never faltered is a tribute to their unswerving commitment to the principles of the political party they founded together.
Madison’s only intimate partnership was formed with Dolley, whose gender confined her influence to the informal realm rather than the political one. That Dolley Madison wielded great influence in the early years of the republic has been well documented by historian Catherine Allgor. In “Parlour Politics,” Allgor established Dolley’s critical role in creating a social environment that encouraged compromise and cooperation between Congress and presidents. Dolley’s eclat served Madison well; he may have been a raconteur at his own dinner table, but social skills eluded him outside the doors of Montpelier or the White House. In his sociable, charming wife, Madison found both a valuable collaborator and a true friend. Stewart captures the harmony and devotion that characterized the Madisons’ marriage and gives the reader a portrait of Madison the private man to go with the one of Madison the political animal. Theirs was a marriage that rivaled that of Abigail and John Adams.
The most insightful chapter of this book comes near its end. In “A Sad Blot on our Free Country,” Stewart leaves the realms of friendship and collaboration behind and examines Madison’s long and frustrating internal struggle over the morality of slavery. He details the Virginian’s efforts to reconcile an intellectual rejection of slavery with a practical reliance upon it. Stewart does not spare Madison. He portrays him as a man who knew that slavery was morally wrong but would not take steps to end it, even in his own household. In his old age, he resorted to planter society’s long-standing solution to personal debt: selling off black men and women, destroying black families to benefit white ones. At his death, Madison did not free the slaves of Montpelier.
Throughout much of his life, Madison wrestled with how to produce a politically feasible plan for emancipation. He failed, not only because the cost of freedom seemed prohibitive but also because the integration of African Americans into the existing political and social order seemed impossible. In the end, Madison embraced forced relocation as an alternative. He became an advocate for colonization, supporting the removal of all freed men and women to Africa.
Stewart lays bare Madison’s failure to act on his belief that slavery had no place in a republic and his fear that, if the institution continued, it would destroy the union. Despite this uncensored accounting of a man’s moral weakness, Stewart’s portrait is rich in empathy and understanding. Madison may have lamented slavery, but, as a husband and a stepfather, he saw his first duty to provide for his family. Although he saw clearly and felt intensely the contradictions between the free and the unfree in a nation that lauded liberty, he was also keenly aware that his ability to participate in shaping that nation’s future rested on the shoulders of the people he owned. He did not flinch from the truth of his tragic collaboration with slavery. To Stewart’s credit, he does not flinch from exposing this most enduring of Madison’s partnerships.
Book Review by David Wilezol
It is disappointing that Calvin Coolidge is consistently relegated to the hinterlands of America’s presidential landscape. There are several reasons for this. First, he is a victim of what Lincoln called the “silent artillery of time” — the way the memory of any earthly thing fades with the years. Secondly, the left has historically depicted Coolidge as a taciturn, arrogant, Mr. Burns-conservative, working for little but the advancement of business interests that, it claims, submarined the economy in 1929.
Journalist William L. Shirer, for instance, recalled “the incredible smugness and emptiness of the Coolidge era.” “Silent Cal’s” reputation for reticence, small government and protection of business is warranted. However, it is important to understand what animated his thinking on the subjects. As Charles C. Johnson shows in “Why Coolidge Matters,” Coolidge is worthy of distinction and praise for his application of the American founding principles to public service.
Where Amity Shlaes recent, excellent biography is primarily a linear chronicle of Coolidge ’s life and economic ideas, Mr. Johnson’s book is primarily a survey of Coolidge ’s attitude toward different issues, touching on topics such as taxes, education, defense, the Constitution, immigration and American Indians. The predominant theme of “Why Coolidge Matters” is how Coolidge ’s political thought embraced the spirit of the American founding. For instance, Coolidge , then lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, told an audience on July 4, 1916, that preserving the spirit of the Declaration of Independence was essential to American civic life:
“Here lies the path to national preservation, and there is no other. Education, the progress of science, commercial prosperity, yes, and peace, all these and their accompanying blessings are worthy and commendable objects of attainment. But these are not the end, whether these come or not; the end lies in action — action in accord with the eternal principles of the Declaration of Independence.”
To his core, Coolidge believed in self-government, a view that stemmed from what Alexander Hamilton had written in the Federalist Papers No. 6 about the “ambitious, vindictive and rapacious” nature of mankind. With this consideration in view, Coolidge , like the authors of the Federalist Papers, reasoned that self-government, far from serving the worst aspirations of man, was an actualization of man’s instinctive desire to always gain more for himself. However, apart from moral restraint and individual productivity, the American experiment in personal freedom would fail. “If people can’t support themselves,” Coolidge said simply, “we’ll have to give up self-government.”
For Coolidge , the great tool for preservation of self-government was education, which he described as it as “the handmaid of citizenship.” He falls here into a school of educational philosophy embodied by Plato, John Locke and William James: that a cultivation of the soul must precede the transmission of skills. “Education which is not based upon religion and character,” said Coolidge , “is not education at all.”
On the question of economic and fiscal policy, Mr. Johnson holds up Coolidge as a sort of north star for today’s GOP. Coolidge rejected the big-government price controls and regulatory structure of the Franklin Roosevelt era after he left office, saying that these methods were doomed to fail in the regulation of business because “it is not possible to repeal the law of supply and demand, of cause and effect, or of action or reaction.”
On taxation, Coolidge favored a progressive code, but insisted that every dollar uncollected by the federal government was a dollar that was best spent by the American who earned it. Indeed, in 1927, 98 percent of Americans paid no income taxes at all, and the 2 percent who did were in the highest income brackets. As in all other things, Coolidge ’s approach to spending was a moral issue. “I regard a good budget among the noblest monuments of virtue,” he wrote. Unsurprisingly, he balanced the budget and cut the national debt, largely with the aid of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.
The organization of Mr. Johnson’s book is both a benefit and a detraction. Each chapter is generally independent of another, producing a book that sometimes feels like a collection of long-form essays. This is a welcome subdivision for academics and researchers, and those of us with short attention spans. However, in the absence of a unifying narrative, the reader sometimes tires of reading dense expositions of block quotations, of which there are many.
In one segment, Mr. Johnson also unfairly accuses some commentators, most notably Amity Shlaes, Glenn Beck, Larry Kudlow and Steven Hayward, of trying to establish a “Coolidge cult.” Mr. Johnson says that this cohort claims Coolidge as “the antidote to the near-imperial presidency that we suffer today.” It is hard to see any distinction in tone between these observers and Mr. Johnson, or how the two camps might differently apply Coolidge ’s political philosophy to our own time. Mr. Johnson, for instance, paradoxically caps his book with a chapter titled “Lessons for Obama from Silent Cal.”
According to Mr. Johnson, Coolidge was “great” because he was “modest, moderate, and thoroughly republican in an immodest time.” By embracing common-sense policies derived from a shrewd observation of human nature, Coolidge presided over a period of economic growth, governmental restraint and American idealism. America would be wise to learn from him, and Mr. Johnson’s book is a good starting place.
Book Review by Jeff Shesol
On the night of Nov. 6, the winner of the 2012 presidential election will deliver his victory speech from the edge of an abyss: the “fiscal cliff,” our national Niagara, over which he and the rest of us will plunge in January if our leaders fail to avert a set of automatic spending cuts and tax increases. Bob Woodward’s latest book, “The Price of Politics,” explains how we got this close to the brink. The fiscal cliff, as Woodward reminds us, is the Son of the Debt-Ceiling Debacle, an abomination born of the extended, fevered and largely fruitless negotiations between the Obama White House and congressional leaders during the summer of 2011.
The publication of this book, Woodward’s 17th, has been preceded by the usual fanfare: a press embargo, a flagrant disregard for the press embargo, and a race to identify the book’s biggest revelations and “juiciest bits.” It is safe to say that outside the Republican presidential primary debates, no discussion of entitlement spending cuts has ever generated this level of excitement. It is heightened, no doubt, by the approach of the election — and by the fervent hope on the right that something, anything, in Woodward’s book might serve, in the words of one columnist, as “alarming news” for Democrats and a “political gift” for Republicans.
By that standard, “The Price of Politics” falls short, but Woodward surely has nobler aims. The book is a highly detailed dissection of the debt-limit negotiations and how the hope of a “grand bargain” to reform the tax code and reduce runaway entitlement spending — a shared ambition of President Obama and Speaker John Boehner — ended, as so many hopes do in Washington, in recriminations and retrenchment.
If this is not quite instant history, it is certainly recent history, and painfully fresh. For all the apparent speed with which Woodward did his work, the contours and even many of the crucial details of the story have already appeared beneath other bylines. Most notably, last spring, New York Times reporter Matt Bai dedicated nearly 10,000 words to the subject. Of course Woodward, being Woodward, digs deeper, and draws more out of the protagonists than anyone else has. A full 40 years after Woodward’s emergence, it has become commonplace to cite (or, if you are a journalist, to envy) his ability to get virtually everyone to talk about everything, but it is still a remarkable achievement. “The Price of Politics” is enlivened, in the Woodward way, by reciting the profane haiku of Rahm Emanuel’s e-mails, retracing every awkward step in the pas de deux between Obama and Boehner, and recounting the private torment of Rep. Eric Cantor (thus exposing him, improbably, as a man capable of doubt and regret, excommunicable offenses in the House Republican caucus).
The prurient reader is thusly rewarded. As the negotiations grind on, the indignities mount for the key participants. Boehner screens Obama’s calls and shuns his requests to come back to the White House for yet another meeting. Obama is left to complain — publicly — that “I’ve been left at the altar.” A Democratic Senate aide dresses the president down in the Oval Office: “It is really disheartening that you, that this White House did not have a Plan B.” When the speaker tries to corral votes for his own Plan B, several House Republicans walk out of his office; two of them tell reporters they’re on their way to the chapel to pray for their leaders. And throughout the talks, Boehner and Cantor undercut each other, their animosity so obvious that a White House staffer “felt awkward being in the same room with the two of them.” Clearly, for career politicians, there are humiliations greater than kissing babies and supporting ethanol subsidies.
In the aggregate, details like these add color (often a sickly, pallid hue) to a familiar picture and provide moments of real clarity — about the character of our leaders, the dynamics of power between the branches of government, and the mechanics, step by step, of high-stakes sausage-making. Still, much of “The Price of Politics” reads like a transcript of an interminable meeting, a literary equivalent of C-SPAN3.
“Let me do some rough math here,” Obama says in a typical passage. “If you take the health care mandatories that don’t fall on the beneficiary, with the possible exception of means testing — which Pelosi and Reid have said they will oppose — plus other mandatory, plus discretionary, you’re at $1.4 to $1.5 trillion.”
If the hallmark of a Bob Woodward book is that it puts you in the room, you may well, before long, start clawing for the exits.
One of the liabilities of this approach is that it can obscure as much as it illuminates. The book is a movie shot entirely in close-up. Regrettably, Woodward’s lack of concern for, or perhaps his impatience with, context and analysis limits his scope; this book offers nothing like the richness or the sweeping authority of “The Agenda,” Woodward’s 1994 book on the Clinton economic plan. To get the most out of “The Price of Politics,” it therefore helps to do some supplemental reading, not only Bai’s piece but Noam Scheiber’s “The Escape Artists,” which describes how Obama, in 2010, caught debt-deal fever — how his own, genuine interest in debt reduction was reinforced by the results of that year’s elections, which returned the House, and the political momentum, to the GOP.
Woodward’s in-the-room, in-the-moment methodology tends to slight the larger story he has to tell, which is too bad; it is an important one. The mystery of who blew the grand bargain — Obama says Boehner did it, by caving in to his caucus; Boehner blames Obama, for insisting on more tax revenue — matters less than what the whole abasing episode tells us about the state of self-government in the United States. To the extent that Woodward broaches this, he does it through the prism of personality. In the book’s final few pages, he places a pox on both houses, Obama’s and Boehner’s, for failing to “transcend their fixed partisan convictions and dogmas.” He chides Boehner for failing to win the loyalty or respect of House Republicans or even just to rein in his first lieutenant. “He could have called Eric Cantor in and had the conversation of a lifetime,” pressing the majority leader to fall in line, Woodward suggests.
But Woodward reserves his most damning indictment for Obama, whom he sees as well meaning but often stumbling, and cocky and remote — a cold fish with a high hand who needlessly alienates potential “friends.” Woodward recounts that in early 2009, after every last House Republican voted against the administration’s stimulus package, Cantor told Emanuel that “you really could have gotten some of our support”— if it weren’t for the president’s “arrogance.”Woodward seems to take this claim at face value, along with similarly self-serving statements by Rep. Paul Ryan and others. They inform Woodward’s final, blistering judgment. Yes, he acknowledges, Obama inherited a “faltering economy and faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition. But presidents,” he says, “work their will — or should work their will — on the important matters of national business.” Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton largely did, he concludes. “Obama has not.”
It is hard to argue with this, but it is important to understand why. Obama, to be sure, has made missteps and misjudgments. He has placed too much trust in the power of reason and too little value on the power of personal relationships. He has often succeeded despite all that. But his failure to consistently work his will on Congress surely has less to do with his individual failings, as Woodward suggests, than with larger forces, chief among them the radicalization of the GOP — a party that actually seems to believe its depiction of a moderate, pragmatic president as some kind of wild-eyed collectivist, a party whose members, in their loathing for government, were willing to risk, in some cases to welcome, the economic armageddon of a debt default as an opportunity, a catharsis, a shock to the body politic. In Woodward’s book, “the caucus” and the tea party are little more than bit players, but for Obama — and no less for Boehner — their rigidity is the central, unalterable fact of political life. The manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling was their proud creation, and their zealotry has extended it right to the edge of the cliff. Congress is one thing — how does a man work his will on a crusade?
Review by Howell Raines
The story of the fall of the essential Confederate port of Mobile in 1864 is well known, in whole or in part, among collectors of patriotic lore. Rear Adm.David Farragut led the Federal fleet through the (relatively) treacherous pass at Mobile Bay and (may have) said: “Damn the torpedoes!Full speed ahead!”
Far less well known is the strategic importance of Farragut to the outcome of the Civil War. “That little man,” wrote a fellow U.S. Navy officer, “has done more to put down the rebellion than any general except Grant and Sherman.”
James M. McPherson agrees, but ranking generals and admirals is not his main interest. The aim of this compact book is to prove to modern students of the war that naval superiority throughout the conflict—on the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern river systems — was an indispensable ingredient of Union military victory. Like his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “War on the Waters” displays the technique that has become something of a trademark for the Princeton historian. He uses impeccable scholarship in the service of narratives that have appeal for the general reader. He gives context for what we already know from the war’s celebrated tales, including the USS Monitor’s battle with the CSS Virginia, a.k.a USS Merrimack, off Norfolk, and the defeat of the Confederacy’s best Atlantic commerce raider, the CSS Alabama, in a theatrical sea battle that drew thousands of French spectators to the shoreline at Cherbourg.
This big-picture approach points up one of those intriguing trends in Civil War historiography: In the public mind, dramatic elements often get more attention than the strategic leitmotifs. After all, the tragic grandeur of Gettysburg, which broke the Confederacy’s spirit in a mere three days, is a more satisfying set piece than the grinding, multi-year war in the West, which gradually wore through the spine of the Rebel nation.
As in all war histories, the spin depends greatly on who survives to tell the tale. It is understandable that the best Union memoirs, those of Gens. Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, would reflect greater glory on the army than the navy (and in Sherman’s case, on the Union infantry rather than the Union cavalry, which in his view dashed about ostentatiously while the mud soldiers won the battles).
In summarizing the symbiosis between land and marine elements, McPherson follows the example of the ever fair-minded Grant. He included Rear Adm.Andrew Hull Foote’s gunships as key elements of his battle plans at Vicksburg and his pivotal, if underappreciated, victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. The latter two, coming in 1862 and leading to Federal occupation of Nashville, amounted to an early stab into the Confederacy’s vitals from which it never recovered.
In terms of such toehold victories, McPherson also calls our attention to New Orleans and, once again, to Farragut. The doughty admiral sensed that the Confederacy’s largest city was lightly defended and took it with relative ease on April 24, 1862, in what was both a military and public relations coup. Perhaps if the fall of New Orleans had been more difficult, we’d hear more today about its debilitating effect on the Confederacy’s morale and its international commerce in cotton.
In McPherson’s view, the Union’s “much maligned blockade” of cotton and the money-starved Confederates’ emphasis on shipping cotton bales through the Caribbean islands and thence to Britain are main themes of the blue -water conflict. But McPherson also argues for a fuller appreciation of the “brown water” navies, particularly on the Union side. The Union’s greater facility for building shallow-draft gunboats and coordinating their movements with ground-warfare and transportation needs was largely the work of one man, Foote, a Lincoln favorite who died of kidney disease in 1863. McPherson shows that in a fairer world, this Connecticut Yankee, who could “pray like a saint and fight like the devil,” would rank near Farragut in postbellum fame.
Fans of glorious Rebel tidbits will appreciate the credit given Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory’s “strategy of countering Northern naval superiority with Southern ingenuity.” The result was a technological head start for the South on saltwater ironclads and submarines. One of Mallory’s two submarines scored history’s first sinking of a surface ship by an underwater craft. His Confederate Submarine Battery Service also put out thousands of mines; these were the “torpedoes” that Farragut may have damned.
A crewman near Farragut on his flagship at Mobile heard no such words when Farragut ordered the ship forward. There’s no dispute, however, that he personally led the fleet into harm’s way and lashed himself to the USS Hartford’s rigging as it passed under the guns and snipers at Fort Morgan. With worse luck, McPherson reminds us, the hero of Mobile Bay could have wound up martyred like Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar.
McPherson has spiced his book with lots of true but largely unexploited facts and vignettes. His summation seems imminently fair: “To say that the Union navy won the Civil War would state the case much too strongly. But it is accurate to say that the war could not have been won without the contributions of the navy.”
Book Review by David Stewart
When they came to the presidency, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 struggled. They careened from proposal to proposal, flirting with new ideas, retreating to old ones, growing ever more frustrated. Finally, with an air of resignation, they adopted an electoral process they had earlier rejected, plus an office of vice president that never had been mentioned before.
The resulting Article II of the Constitution, in James Madison’s delicate phrase, was “not exempt from a degree of the hurrying influence produced by fatigue and impatience.” Thomas Jefferson, in Paris during the convention, was more direct. It was, he sputtered, “a bad edition of a Polish king.”
The electoral process was convoluted. States would choose electors in whatever fashion they wished. Electors would meet on a single day at their respective state capitals. Each elector would cast votes for two possible presidents, one of whom had to reside in another state. The candidate winning a majority became president, with the runner-up vice president. If no one commanded a majority, the contest moved to the House of Representatives, where . . . well, it goes on at some length.
The process proved misbegotten. John Adams won the first contested presidential election in 1796, but his opponent (Jefferson) finished second and became vice president. Four years later, the result was more surprising. Jefferson was tied by his own running mate, Aaron Burr. Then the House of Representatives deadlocked for 36 ballots. With Adams’s term ending in a few days, state governors made preparations to call out their militias, which proved unnecessary when the logjam broke in Jefferson’s favor. In 1804, the 12th Amendment repaired the worst of the process by directing that presidential electors vote separately for president and vice president.
In contrast, Article II’s description of the president’s powers was spare. He was commander in chief. He could, with the Senate’s advice and consent, make treaties and appoint ambassadors, judges and other officials. Most sweepingly, he held the nation’s “executive power.”
These unlikely materials have produced the most important job on Earth. In “Mr.President,” historian Ray Raphael explores the birth and early molding of the presidency. The journey is an illuminating one, with wisdom that resonates as the nation prepares to choose its president again.
Raphael incisively explains how damnably difficult the problem was. Revolution-era Americans knew British monarchs and royal governors. They knew foreign kings and emperors. They knew their own flaccid state governors and presidents. They knew the Articles of Confederation of 1781, which created a very weak central government without any executive branch, only a few administrative officials who reported to Congress.
But the world afforded no model of what the convention delegates wanted: an executive with “vigor” who would not threaten republican self-rule. Some wanted multiple executives, some a single president with a long term in office. Others pressed for short terms, with Congress choosing the president. Political conflicts between North and South, between large states and small, complicated the problem. No one much liked the final version of Article II, but time ran out.
Raphael dashes through the nation’s first 20 years, stressing the steady accretion of presidential powers. When George Washington claimed powers as president, who could challenge him? Even Jefferson, apostle of small government, expanded the office. In a concise study of Jefferson’s Embargo of 1808, which trampled on individual rights in order to seal off trade with Britain, Raphael demonstrates that philosophy need not predict performance.
Raphael closes by comparing today’s presidency with the founders’ goals, producing a dessert course that is well worth the wait. He acknowledges the achievements of Article II. Civilian control of the military has endured, impeachment works, and Washington and Adams ingrained the essential tradition of leaving office quietly.
Yet, Raphael points out, the framers did not anticipate the corrosive partisanship that erupted shortly after the government opened its doors. The presidency emerged as the prize of prizes, driving our politics. The party in opposition “assumes a vested interest in seeing the nation fail,” for only then will voters choose new leadership. With the presidential election “a winner-take-all game,” bare-knuckled politics quickly prevailed, devolving into today’s political attack culture and stupendous campaign spending.
One feature of the book underachieves. With fanfare, Raphael accords credit for designing Article II to Gouverneur Morris, a New Yorker who was a Pennsylvania delegate to the convention. Morris is a marvelous character: a peg-legged raconteur and ladies man, a bold orator who spoke unwelcome truths. But this claim is an interpretive leap from scanty evidence that brushes aside better evidence. Morris took many different positions on the presidency, some diametrically inconsistent. His was an important voice on the question, but not the One. The delegates struggled so mightily over the presidency that assigning its paternity to a single source is a doubful business at best. Yet the equally forgotten James Wilson of Pennsylvania could mount a stronger claim.
Book Review by Michael Deacon
A theme of this book is that the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was like a marriage: a marriage that had broken down. Personally I’m not sure that marriage is the right word: for one thing, you don’t get any sense that they ever liked each other in the first place. In any case, Blair couldn’t have been married to Brown, because he was already married to someone else. Alastair Campbell.
As in his previous diaries, Campbell writes about Blair – or “TB”, as he invariably refers to him – in the manner of a long-suffering wife: rolling his eyes at his eccentricities (“he was plucking at his guitar rather annoyingly”), sighing at his foibles (“his mix of bluster and head-in-the-sand was really irritating”), asking himself why he bothers. But you never doubt that he loves him, and will do so till death them does part.
He’s at his most wife-like when tutting at Blair’s outfits. He does this a lot. “TB was in very odd-looking shorts”; “He was wearing the most extraordinary collection – a white collarless Nicole Farhi shirt, plain blue trousers and England football slippers”; “I said what a prat he looked”; “TB was wearing what I can only call an Afghan hippie coat. I said there was no way he could wear that”. Blair sometimes fights back, at one point accusing Campbell of having “a bias against style”. On another occasion, he says Campbell is “just jealous – how many prime ministers have got a body like this?” At the time, he is wearing nothing but a pair of green and yellow underpants.
The Burden of Power, the fourth volume of Campbell’s diaries, takes us from 9/11 to Campbell’s resignation two years later, via Afghanistan, Iraq and David Kelly. The book is subtitled Countdown to Iraq, and a countdown is exactly what it feels like: for all the negotiations between Blair and George W Bush, invasion always seems inexorable. This is yet another reminder of how much time they spent trying to sell war, and how little time they spent planning what to do once they’d got their wish.
Campbell’s prose matches his character: ceaseless action, not much reflection. He has little flair for colour (he rarely helps you visualise people or places) and almost no time for jokes. He writes as he lives, at full pelt. To paraphrase: “This happened and then this happened and then this happened and TB was furious with GB who was furious with TB.”
“GB”, of course, is Gordon Brown. The most remarkable feature of the Blair-Brown relationship is how repetitive it is. Brown at least is consistent: he hates Blair all the time. Blair, on the other hand, seems locked in an interminable cycle of feelings about his Chancellor, rival and foe. It goes as follows: Brown is impossible; I’ve decided to sack him; I can’t sack him because for all his flaws he’s a brilliant politician, nearly as brilliant as I am. Again and again and again, all the way through, the same pattern of frustration, resolution and climb-down. “[Blair] was still making up his mind about GB,” you read, in numbed disbelief, on page 565.
As a matter of fact, the book is repetitive in general. People are always telling Campbell he’s just like Roy Keane. Robin Cook and Clare Short are always on the brink of resigning. Blair is always confiding to Campbell that he only ever wanted to fight two elections, but that he might yet be forced, for the good of the country, to fight a third. Fiona Millar, Campbell’s girlfriend, is always telling Campbell he has to quit. He almost always agrees, but takes nearly 700 pages to get around to it. God knows how he withstood all this repetitiveness for so long. It’s a wonder the book isn’t called “The Boredom of Power”.
Not that it’s always boring to read. Like power itself, it’s horribly addictive. If you go into the book loathing Campbell, you’re unlikely to be any keener on him by the end of it, although you may gain some grudging respect for his Terminator-like relentlessness, not to mention his unshakeable self-certainty: the poor soul is forever bemoaning the “culture of negativity” in modern politics, a problem he blames entirely on the media, rather than on, say, Alastair Campbell.
There are some exquisitely weird titbits about Blair. Apparently when he’s nervous he starts speaking French. Also: flying into Bangladesh, he decides his suit’s too crumpled, so he sends a minion to get off the plane first, find a well-dressed man in the airport, and bring him on board. Soon Blair and a complete stranger are stripping off in front of each other so that Blair can wear his suit.
“It wasn’t perfect,” records Campbell, ever the unimpressed wife, “but it wasn’t far off.”
Book Review by Lara Marlowe
THEY ARE AMONG the most vivid and haunting images of the 20th century, indelibly etched in our collective memory: John and Jacqueline Kennedy, beautiful as gods, descending the aircraft steps in Dallas on the morning of November 22nd, 1963; the rapturous welcome on the streets of the city; the crack of a high-powered rifle . . .
Robert Caro describes the scene from the point of view of Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s bodyguard, Rufus Youngblood, who had thrown himself on top of Johnson in the follow-up car, to protect him. “As the third shot had rung out, a little bit of something gray had seemed to fly out of Jack Kennedy’s head,” Caro writes. “Then his wife in her pink pillbox hat and pink suit, that seemed suddenly to have patches of something dark on it, was trying to climb onto the long trunk of the limousine, and then was clambering back into the car, where her head was bent over something Youngblood couldn’t see.”
Less than an hour later Kennedy’s aide Kenneth O’Donnell walked into the cubicle in Parkland Hospital, in Dallas, where Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, were waiting. Mrs Johnson knew what he was going to tell them the instant she saw the stricken face of O’Donnell, “who loved him so much”.
Johnson had wanted the presidency his whole life. But he was lucid. “For millions of Americans I was still illegitimate, a naked man with no presidential covering, a pretender to the throne, an illegal usurper,” he said years later. “And then there was Texas, my home, the home of . . . the murder. And then there were the bigots and the dividers and the eastern intellectuals, who were waiting to knock me down before I could even begin to stand up.”
Only that morning Johnson had read again the familiar newspaper headlines about his political humiliation and the financial scandals that loomed over him. Transformed by the office that he had so horrifically attained, he shed his hangdog look, took charge, began giving orders. Johnson knew he needed the imprimatur of the Kennedy family. He telephoned the slain president’s brother Robert, the attorney-general and his arch-enemy, seeking Bobby’s blessing for an immediate oath of office. He refused to leave Dallas without Jacqueline and the president’s heavy bronze coffin.
Minutes before a Texas judge, chosen by LBJ, administered the oath of office in Air Force One, the Johnsons sat with the newly widowed first lady beside JFK’s casket. Lady Bird told movingly of their encounter. “Mrs Kennedy’s dress was stained with blood. One leg was almost entirely covered with it and her right glove was caked – that immaculate woman – it was caked with blood, her husband’s blood.”
Despite her shock and grief Mrs Kennedy made the awkward encounter “as easy as possible”, Lady Bird said. “She said things like, ‘Oh, Lady Bird . . . we’ve always liked the two of you so much’. She said: ‘Oh, what if I had not been there. Oh, I’m so glad I was there.’ ”
When Mrs Johnson asked Mrs Kennedy if she wanted to change clothes, the latter replied: “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.”
Robert Caro’s previous four books, including three earlier volumes of Johnson’s biography, have won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and two National Book Critics’ Circle Awards. To read The Passage of Power is to witness history as it happened: the forces and accidents that shape events, the importance of character.
As US senate majority leader for six years, Johnson was considered the second most powerful man in the US. When Kennedy challenged him for the 1960 presidential nomination, Johnson at first derided JFK as “the boy”, “Sonny Boy” or “Little Johnny”, as just a rich kid whose daddy, Joseph Kennedy, was trying to buy him the nomination.
After losing out to JFK for the Democratic nomination, Johnson accepted the vice-presidential slot in the mistaken belief that he could steal away a measure of presidential power. “Power is where power goes,” he told friends who advised him against it.
In the White House Johnson found himself at war with Bobby Kennedy, whom he referred to as the “snot-nosed brother”. For years LBJ had relished telling the story of how Franklin D Roosevelt sacked Joseph Kennedy, then ambassador to London, in his presence. Bobby loathed him for it. “Did you ever see two dogs come into a room and all of a sudden there’s a low growl, and the hair raises up on the back of their necks?” an LBJ staffer asked Caro, recounting the first meeting of the two rivals, a decade before JFK’s assassination.
Johnson and Bobby Kennedy assumed that JFK would serve two terms, and both hoped to succeed him. Though his civil-rights and tax-cut legislation was log-jammed on Capitol Hill, JFK refused to exploit Johnson’s experience of 23 years as a congressman. Johnson was excluded from the small meetings where important decisions were made, forced to ask permission to use a government jet, and reduced to hanging around JFK’s secretary’s office in the hope of deluding journalists and cabinet members that he was close to the president. White House aides mocked the poor boy from Texas as “Rufus Cornpone”.
Johnson’s hawkishness during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the US came to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, deepened his isolation. Jackie Kennedy later wrote to Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, that her husband was “truly frightened at the prospect” that Johnson could become president.
This book covers the years 1959 to 1964. Caro says he found it “very sad and poignant” to research Johnson’s miserable three years as vice-president. It’s the sort of tale Americans love, of failure and redemption, “a story about what being without power can mean in a city in which power is the name of the game; in a city as cruel as Washington”, Caro writes.
Kennedy’s assassination occurs halfway through the volume, the turning point and hinge of the book. Politicians usually hide their true character, Caro observes, but when they obtain power they reveal it. Johnson, the crude bully and braggart, showed himself to be a consummate strategist with a passion for social justice, exploiting American grief about Kennedy’s death to achieve legislation more far-reaching than anything Kennedy imagined.
Speaking to Congress five days after JFK’s death, Johnson said: “No memorial . . . could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil-rights bill for which he fought so long.”
The publication of The Passage of Power has coincided with a low point in Barack Obama’s presidency. Though Caro insists his book is about Johnson, Obama is obviously more like the handsome, charismatic Kennedy, who also attempted to win over opponents gradually. When Johnson wanted a Bill passed he worked the White House phone all night, waking up congressmen, whom he flattered, cajoled, threatened, even blackmailed. It’s a skill mastered by neither Kennedy nor Obama.
Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in his first state of the union address, in January 1964. Half a century later his enormous achievements – the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which ended racial segregation, the Head Start, Medicaid and Medicare programmes – are again under attack by conservatives. And the war on poverty was lost long ago, swallowed up in the maw of Johnson’s war in Vietnam.
The officials who make foreign policy don’t have it easy. Trapped between the domestic political environment on one side and the international system on the other, they have modest freedom to choose a course of action. They need to weigh the relative merits of several policy options on a vast range of intricate and thorny issues, many of them interconnected. And every few years, the senior management of the operation is completely replaced, with the top jobs going to newcomers who often know little about the issues in question.
How those newcomers handle themselves in office is a perennially interesting question and one that the journalist James Mann has made something of a cottage industry. His 2004 book, “The Rise of the Vulcans,” chronicled the backgrounds and experiences of George W. Bush’s initial foreign policy team, and “The Obamians” does something similar for the current administration.
Mann is a good reporter. He writes clearly and accessibly, often with insight and sound judgment. There are gaps in the new book’s coverage (Israel, Europe, trade), but the subjects he does treat (national security, Afghanistan and Pakistan, China, the Arab Spring) are handled accurately and without ideological bias. And here, as before, Mann’s strength is his close attention to the political and professional backgrounds of key administration officials, many of whom he interviewed.
The portrait is mixed. Mann argues that President Obama himself dominates foreign policy, relying on a few close junior staffers in the White House to execute his will while more senior, high-profile figures in the Cabinet protect his political flanks. The president comes off as smart, disciplined and engaged, but also arrogant, controlling, thin-skinned and political. He gives big speeches filled with grand rhetoric and ambitious goals, but not much of that gets translated into policy or achievement. Obama tries to escape stark choices, preferring to reconcile seemingly opposed courses of action. The record includes some successes and some failures, some bullets dodged, and a lot of cans kicked down the road.
Little of this is wrong, but little is surprising, either. The book is a good representation of conventional Washington discussion about the subject — event-driven, superficial and solipsistic. There is a lot of America in these pages, but not much foreign or policy.
At one point, Mann distinguishes between the Obamians (who had backgrounds in Congress and became loyal White House aides) and a group of experienced Democratic foreign policy professionals he calls the Trout Fishers (because of their penchant for fishing excursions during meetings of the blue-ribbon Aspen Strategy Group). Compared to the Trout Fishers, the Obamians “tended to know less about the nuances and subtleties of an issue, and they were less concerned with the practical details of governance. They were, however, more adept at providing a determined opposition to the Republicans, and much better at figuring out what to say in public about foreign policy [during the 2008 campaign]. They found it easier to offer the broad perspective of outsiders.”
The problem, of course, is that once in office, outsiders end up having to grapple with all those pesky nuances and details. The Obamians prove smart enough to understand that throwing the standard foreign policy playbook out the window will make things worse rather than better. And so they eventually trim their sails and act less transformationally than either supporters or opponents expected.
Mann tells this story, but because he rarely gets down into the weeds of specific policy choices, he doesn’t give the reader a strong sense of why this evolution is usually a good thing. The reason is that, as the Trout Fisher types of both parties understand, the basic template for American foreign policy has been relatively constant for almost seven decades now and needs only tweaking and updating, not fundamental revision.
The central task facing each new administration is pretty much the same: figuring out how to consolidate, protect and extend the liberal international order that emerged in the West after World War II. This order has both domestic and international components: At its core are democracies with mixed economies cooperating and trading with each other, nestling closely under an American security umbrella. It has provided a framework within which local economic, social and political development has proceeded across the globe, to the net benefit of the United States and the world at large. Generations of policymakers in Washington and allied capitals have nurtured and guarded their precious offspring, keeping at bay a host of dangers — war and aggression, economic nationalism, disruption and chaos.
The order derived from Western policymakers’ reflections on the nightmares of the interwar period, when unregulated markets and uncoordinated behavior led to economic disaster and the rise of aggressive dictatorships. The outlines of the system were sketched before the postwar break with the Soviet Union, and “containment” was a late (if complementary and appropriate) addition to the policy mix. Rather than saying that the Cold War caused the order, in other words, it is more accurate to say that the Soviet Union’s unwillingness to take part in the order caused the Cold War. This is why the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union changed the world less than many expected: Since those were never central to the order , their passing did little to affect it, merely paving the way for its extension into areas previously off-limits.
In recent years, the threats to the order have evolved. As the danger of conflict between the great powers has receded and globalization has taken off, terrorism — historically a secondary concern — has gained new importance. Countries such as China, India and Brazil have emerged as powerful regional actors and crucial pillars of an ever-more-interdependent global economy. U.S. influence in non-military arenas has diminished, and the institutions used to manage the system no longer work well. The challenge for policymakers in Washington and elsewhere today, therefore, is devising ways to revitalize the order, giving it a new lease on life so future generations, here and abroad, can continue to enjoy its benefits.
As for the Obama team’s record on this front, history will probably say that it made some progress, primarily by cauterizing some of the wounds of the Bush years. Thanks to its efforts, the next administration will inherit a cleaner slate and be able to focus less on crisis management and more on the big picture of global governance. That might sound like a small win — but given the extraordinary stakes for which this game is being played, even a small win is welcome indeed.