Two Paragraphs From Sidney Blumenthal To Hook Your Interest In History–Lincoln Style

I often use this blog to alert readers to books that rise above the rest due to their research and/or powerful narrative ability. One of the books that I presently am juggling absolutely can be so defined, and without doubt, therefore, gets a post on CP.

Sidney Blumenthal has taken on the daunting mission to dive deep into the political life of Abraham Lincoln. In a multi-volume set, the journalist and politico, has attained for my favorite president what Robert Caro did for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Having fallen in love with the biographical style of Caro–and yes, the book world is waiting for the final volume–I was certain no one could match him.

Well, I was wrong. Blumenthal also has the ability to weave into the political tapestry the elected officials, string-pullers, journalists, and events that revolve around the life of the central character. After all, there is no way to tell the story of Lincoln without crusty newspaper owners in New York and fire-eaters in Georgia.

I offer the opening paragraphs from two chapters in Volume Two as examples of what grabs the attention of lovers of history.

The 1852 election is playing out and one of the giants looks to satiate his ongoing case of Potomac Fever.

Over the years I have become more captivated by Henry Clay. The breadth and width of his political life is nothing short of remarkable, and the pragmatic nature of his style of politics has lessons for us all going forward.

The acclaim that Blumenthal has achieved is merited. There is an intensity of desire in his writing that we, too, should know and better understand not only what Lincoln did as a politician, but why. The fabric of Abe’s being did not just drop from above but developed with, at times, calm resolve while on other occasions anxiety and depression created a passion to live a life worthy of being recalled by history. Without his totality as a man and political leader, the nation would not have survived as it did.

Without Blumenthal to explore, explain, and better define Lincoln’s political life we would be less able to know him as the greatest of presidents.

And so it goes.

One More Time: Compromise And Bipartisanship Are Essential To Governing

At some point, Congressional Democrats will need to join hands, focus on what can be achieved in the major Build Back Better legislation, pass the bill, and rejoice in the signing at the White House. The various factions and the competing ideas of what programming to push for and how to fund it will need to give way to governing.

Part of the problem at achieving that end can be seen in the way too close polling in the upcoming Virginia governor race.

While crafting legislation is certainly a part of the governing process it can also be viewed by the public, with the past month in Washington as evidence, as to why there is a strong perception that the dysfunctional nature of our politics has the upper hand.

One of the hurdles that continue to be a major stumbling block among Democrats is the need for compromise. In large funding packages, such as this bill, no one is going to get everything desired. All have to give up something to gain something. That is a political fact.

It does not take long to scan this blog and know I have some core ideas and strong convictions about policy concerning a raft of issues in the country. I would love to have everyone see the landscape from my perspective. But in a two-party system, and with varying degrees of factions within each party, it becomes essential to broker consensus and commit one’s self to govern as effectively as possible.

That does not mean one ever needs to fall for extreme positions, but does mean that when it comes to items like Medicare expansion or climate change proposals, or child leave there can, and should be, ways to trim here, add there, and walk away with a deal.

In line with the need for better working at the art of compromise, there must also be a better attempt at bipartisanship. Granted, that is more difficult with a Republican Party that has drifted so far that it has, at times, hit the fascist wall. There are some progressives in the Democratic Party who also make it most challenging to find a reasonable path forward with the goal to work together.

Last night Senator Joe Manchin waxed about the way Washington once worked.

Manchin also reminisced at the dinner about the good ol’ days of bipartisanship — “wining and dining” Republicans and Democrats on his houseboat — and evenings full of singing and good cheer. He told a story about bringing together two senators in particular: The first time he had Tom Harkin on the boat, Harkin, ecstatic to be there, told him he’d never been on the Potomac at night. Then, as Manchin told the room, “here comes Ted Cruz and [Harkin] said, ‘I’m getting off this damn boat!’ And I said, ‘Come on Tom, it’s going to be fun! You’ll be fine!’ He said, ‘Get me another glass of wine!’ … Before the night was over I couldn’t separate them.” And then they introduced legislation together a few days later.

“We just don’t know each other,” Manchin complained of the current Washington climate.

I do not just post that portion of Manchin’s words to fill space. I actually believe what he says about bipartisanship.

I have long suggested that one of the problems with modern-day Washington is the lack of friendships among members. Not casual encounters on the capitol subway system, but real friendships. Since there is a need for continual fund-raising, and then the constant back-and-forth every weekend to the congressional district, there is no time to build the needed bonds that would well-serve our nation at times of high political tension.

The types of friendships I speak about are spelled out in the writings of such books as Katharine Graham’s Washington. Over the years I have likened the lack of connectedness among members of Congress to satellites floating about, all serving a purpose but not being linked in a meaningful way.

Friendship is lacking in Washington.

Now it seems that more people are noticing what I have argued for years.

Back in the golden days of Washington entertaining, hostess-with-the-mostest Perle Mesta was said to have remarked on the ease with which she was able to draw guests to her parties: “Just hang a pork chop in the window and they’ll come.” I’d like to see what Perle would have to hang in her window now to get a government official to one of her storied dinners — a minor rock star? A major PAC check? Washington doesn’t go to dinner much anymore, and it’s bad for the country.

I wish to conclude this post with another slice of the past. Politics and governing are never easy. But as the short story below underscores it also need not stop our progress as a nation.

Arthur Phillips’ Must Read Book

It was a two-day read. It was a wonderful romp through history. It was a fictional take on the closing phase of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I as religious factions, not knowing where the future will lead with King James VI of Scotland, seeks to find out his true faith.

With smart writing and almost, at times, poetic phrasing, the plot of spies and an introspective Muslim physician takes the reader into a phenomenal book.

It should come as no surprise that the limited perspective of England at this time in relation to the Islamic world comes through with the word usage and behavior that makes the story seem even more realistic.

Like others in America in the fall of 2021, I face the realities of a pandemic, daily outrages from the political class, and challenges with the supply chain for items that need to be purchased. But the Arthur Phillips novel took me on a journey about an intelligent young man from the Ottoman Empire who becomes, through nefarious deeds of others, stranded in England. My world seemed quite serene, in comparison.

Faith and its meaning, the role it plays on the world stage and within the hearts of man make for a powerfully themed novel. And with an ending that makes the reader wonder…well, what is the ending?

I read many books each year, and though I call attention to the ones that really make me smile and think, there are also those that deserve to get placed on the top-shelf of my mind. The King At The Edge Of The World is absolutely one of those treasures!

I would like to say the book was recommended and strongly encouraged by others to read. But I found this gem late one night by simply scrolling through digital options on Libby. It does make me ponder how many other top-shelf delights never land before my hands.

And so it goes.

Banned Book Week: All Need To Speak Out Against Censorship

In the 21st century, it is truly sad that in the United States we still need to have an annual event to highlight the pernicious effect of banning books. Now through October 2nd authors, librarians, and readers will join efforts to point out which books are currently being banned and give voice to why censorship is an awful idea.

The Taliban recently marched their way to power in Afghanistan and the world awaits the restraints they will place on the populace. Including the books that people can read.

Abdul is part of a book club that allows people to swap titles with each other: Kandahar has no libraries. Self-help books, many of them by foreign authors, have helped him manage his anxiety. He also reads essays on politics and terrorism.

But even such simple pleasures are now under threat. The author of one of his books about fundamentalism was assassinated in Kabul a few weeks ago. Abdul owns a collection by Kandahar’s most famous poet, Abdul Bari Jahani, who now lives in America. Last time the Taliban were in charge they banned his books.

Abdul decided that hiding his library was the safest option. “I don’t want to take any chances if the Taliban take over Kandahar and search my house,” he says. Whatever the group’s official policy on owning such titles, Abdul fears that his fate will depend on the whims of whoever may raid his home. “If they do not like my books or what I have been keeping in my house, they could take my life in a moment.”

Taliban behavior is appropriate to mention in the context of Banned Book Week because no matter where the removal or restriction of books occurs, or who is responsible, it is wrong. Be it in Kandahar or Wausau, the Taliban or angry objections from a person in Milwaukee, there should be one universal feeling of revulsion when a book is attempted to be censored.

But living in a pluralistic and enlightened society means our level of dismay and vocal outrage over banned books should be deeper and louder. It is simply galling that last year To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck were among the 10 most challenged books in our nation.

I have never felt so wise that I would consider telling someone else not to read a particular book because I felt the content was not suitable.  Conversely, I have never met anyone so learned that they could tell me what I should not read.  Yet every day there are struggles around the nation to suppress books that people should be able to freely read.  I find this unconscionable.

I grew up loving to read and still consider books to be ‘friends’ and so have a very difficult notion with censoring books.  I loved my little hometown library, where as a kid starting in fifth grade, I would go every Friday night after dinner to get a new book.  The neighborly lady who sat in that tiny one-room building soon understood that Ian Fleming was more to my liking than the Hardy Boys.  I recall she tried to steer me to the younger section but when James Bond calls, you must respond.  In short order, she and I were friends, and it was understood I had reading interests that were unique to my age.   She never told me I could not read any book I wanted to check out.

Those who wish to ban books are nervous and afraid of the unknown.  The world is moving too fast for them and so lashing out by restrictions and censoring seems to them a smart thing to do.  For the rest of us, the vast majority, we enjoy the confrontation with reality and the pricklier topics that through exploration opens our horizons for a stronger and healthier society.

Be it for politics, sex, religion, or for some other ‘socially offensive’ reason I am opposed to the attempt to curtail what books other folks read.

And so it goes.

Largest Government-Sanctioned Execution in U.S. History

Earlier this year I was totally captured by William Kent Kreuger’s book This Tender Land. I stumbled onto it while searching for a new read, and wound up ordering a couple copies for friends once I had finished it. And after placing the Kleenex box off to the side. The book was a most exquisite read.

The book starts at the Lincoln Indian Training School, which can only be described as a pitiless place where Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. One of the boys, Muse who is of Sioux heritage and mute, will join with three other children and run away from the facility.

While I had a rough idea of the events which played out with the Indian Wars in the 1860s I was not aware that because of the conflicts in Minnesota the end result would be the largest government-sanctioned execution in U.S. history.

Thirty-eight Dakota will be hanged on December 26, 1862. The knowledge of this leaves a deep soul-searching journey for the boy in Kreuger’s book.

The enormity of that one line about the executions left me searching for a far-better historical understanding of the events that led up to Chief Little Crow and the Dakota pushed to the limits of their futile attempts to have the federal government abide by treaty obligations. From there to the atrocities in Southeastern Minnesota which leads to the gallows.

That is when I landed upon Scott Berg’s 38 Nooses. The epic-sized account (but contained within 400 pages) allows for a background of the treaties along with the broad lay of the land with cliffs and flatlands well painted in the mind of the readers.

Berg provides well-rounded views of the various players, among them, Governor Alexander Ramsey who likes to embellish events for the readers back East, General John Pope who any Civil War reader knows to be a dunce on horseback and furthers that incompetency in the nation’s 32nd state, and President Lincoln’s personal secretary John Nicolay who travels by train to the region to marshal the facts which will be required back in the White House. Berg even provides the title of the book Nicolay is immersed in as he rides the rails. (History of Minnesota by Edward Neill.)

It also needs to be noted Berg includes portions of the letters back-and-forth between the famed White House duo, as John Hay gives his colorful commentary from the White House back to Nicolay. Those who enjoy the flavor of the Lincoln White House will find reasons to enjoy this book.

Cherokee Chief John Ross

The book also includes Cherokee Chief John Ross in the the pages. Many who read history know him from the  from the “Trail Of Tears”.  I am most proud of being the first cousin, 6 times removed, from Chief John Ross.  He was also known as Guwisguwi (a mythological or rare migratory bird), and was Principal Chief of the Cherokee Native American Nation from 1828–1866.

Chief Little Crow

The main character is, of course, Little Crow who, as the opening pages show, agreed to move his Dakota band to a reservation near the Minnesota River in exchange for government promises of food and cash annuities to the tribe. The brutal winter of 1861, along with a devastating growing season, and delayed federal payments resulted in a predictable response.

Religion plays a role in the book, too, with Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple working to forge the idea in Washington for a new federal relationship with Indian tribes based on professional qualifications as opposed to political patronage. There are also the attempts by men of the cloth to compartmentalize the abuse of slaves in the South, while the Civil War plays out, with the racism running wild on the Minnesota prairies and in the Big Woods.

The most horrific part of the book is the ‘legal process’ that plays out for the roughly 300 Dakota who are rounded up and face trials. Language difficulties, lack of a lawyer and due representation, inability to refute the evidence, and in some cases having rushed trials where 4 or 5 Indians were all convicted at once provides a sampling of why no one can read the book and not simmer.

There is also the legal difference playing out of combatants in a military setting firing shots as opposed to violent actions outside of the war theatre. All that is obliterated by the absurd judicial system that adds to the dark stain that runs down the pages of this book.

President Lincoln is the calm arbiter of the law and moral reasoning as he spares the vast majority from death. But his hand is, nonetheless, involved in the hangings which occur the day after Christmas 1862.

To say I was mesmerized and totally taken in by the events and the manner in which Berg shapes his narrative would be a severe understatement. When I found myself with this book in hand at 2:30 A.M. I knew the author had succeeded in his mission.

If you think you know part of the story of this chapter of American history, as I did upon opening to page one, let me assure you there is so much more to learn.

And so it goes.

Another View Of Pandemic: Did It Open New Doors Of Discovery?

Today I had a most interesting conversation with a young man who jogs by our home most afternoons. He often stops to chat after his 4-mile run, and since in the late afternoon I often find time to read a chapter of two he asks about the topic of the day. We have had some great chats.

This afternoon he recommend “The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America”.

But what really struck me today was his views about how many perceive the pandemic to have made our lives seem smaller and more contained, when in reality they might have actually become broader. Since people had more time to be at home and find alternate ways to spend leisure hours they might have started mastering a new language, expanded cooking skills, or even started a wood-working project.

He mentioned that some data shows people believe, in light of their new-found interests and skills, the pandemic has made them a better person.

I mentioned that over the past year some college courses were available for online learning, and museums had put guided tours online for virtual tours. I had read that with computer card games one might play and meet a friend on the other side of the world.

Tonight his conversation has me thinking about what I had done to mitigate the impact of having life up-ended from the virus. I sought out new authors…..ones I had not read before though they may have published their work, as in some cases, decades ago. I did not venture for new skills or ways to make the ultimate stir-fry. But I did find ways to spend a lot of time.

Though I had heard of the following authors over the years, I had never stopped to pick up one of their works. All of them fit into my interests and comfort zone and now are counted on my shelves as strong recommendations for others seeking something new. I have deeply waded into the authors below who have created a series of books.

I am most pleased to have opened each treasure.

Bill Kristol Interesting Man, But Needs Order On Bookshelves

Over the past 18 months of this pandemic, we all have watched many media personalities conduct interviews from their homes. As such, we have been able to glimpse a part of the inside world of these men and women.

I have much enjoyed seeing what books are on the shelves of news reporters, politicos, and talking heads. I find that PBS’ Judy Woodruff has many of the same books to be found on my shelves. In fact, no one else over the past months comes closer to that count than does the NewsHour anchor.

While I truly like to learn the reading habits of others I would be less than honest to say I also note the way in which people display their books, and bring order to their shelves. I have seen some ‘fronting’ their books, others with books and pictures and the like interspersed on the shelves. Some have the books pushed all the way to the back of the shelves. Some align the bindings to the edge of the shelf, in other words, giving the books the full OCD treatment.

This brings me to the one person, who throughout the pandemic, has never once considered how his shelves appear to the public watching him speak.

I enjoy hearing from Bill Kristol. He is smart and well-rounded as a person. While not always agreeing with him I find myself usually learning something from him. I am sure, however, I could listen more intently to his views if not for the chaos that lines the shelves behind him.

Twenty minutes in his home, along with a dust rag and order would be established on the shelves. Instead, it appears he just plunks items on the shelves, shoving them in, lodging them here and there.

I am not without awareness that some of the greatest minds are best served by clutter. Without a doubt, my favorite conservative thinker, writer, and speaker is Bill Buckley, Jr. His office was always intensely messy, nothing ever piled with four neat corners showing.

I know of very few people on television that could ever match his intellectual power.  While his political point of view was often in sharp contrast to mine I was never able to stop listening to the way he spoke.  Even years later, in the occasional interview on television, I would be drawn to his slightly elitist charm and world-class intelligence.

I was in awe that someone could have such a rich and diverse vocabulary.  And use all the words in such a way that the ordinary sentence was almost poetry.  While listening to his program, Firing Line, I would learn new words for my own usage.  When was the last time anyone said that about a television program? 

But really, would it not be better if all those books were properly placed?

And so it goes.

“Icebergs Floated In The Gulf Of Mexico”

One of my reads this summer, that I am thoroughly enjoying, is The True Flag by Stephen Kinzer. There is no way to have predicted the reading of this book would be timed with the events playing out in Afghanistan.

At issue in the book, and in our daily newspapers, is a question that we never have resolved as a nation. How should the United States act on the world stage?

The book examines the events of 1898 and 1899, from Cuba to the Philippines, and points in-between as witnessed by the larger-than-life names of the time. With detailed writing that illuminates the intensity and convictions of both sides in this most consequential time for the nation, the book is both a story of the past and a lesson book for the future.

Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Randolph Hearst were most earnest about expanding the scope and power of our nation. Meanwhile, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Andrew Carnegie urged restraint in the lust for new lands and international intrigue. The same roiling arguments then over events around the globe are of the same order to the ones still driving us towards foreign wars in a desire to deposing governments. As in Afghanistan, while we retreat—but history proves this cycle of international involvement never ends.

Kinzer writes with the aid of old newspapers and Senate journals and has created a most remarkable account of how this aspect of our nation started with our war against Spain.

Today I am reading about the vote in the Senate regarding the Philippines, during February 1989, when this description of the weather in Washington, D.C. was presented.

I love history, there is no doubt. But I also am most fond of weather phenomena and find the events that were the greatest, biggest, worst, coldest, or hottest most worthy to further investigate.

As with the Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899.

The Great Arctic Outbreak didn’t just bring cold to the nation. It also brought snow and ice and lots of it. By the time blizzard conditions ceased in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, Cape May, New Jersey, record over 30 inches of snow, as did Washington, DC, and Baltimore, Maryland. On February 17, ice was even witnessed flowing down the Mississippi River, past New Orleans, and into the Gulf of Mexico. And, a one-inch thick layer of ice formed at the mouth of the Mississippi in East and Garden Island Bays in Louisiana.

Over 100 people were estimated to have lost their lives during to the Great Arctic Outbreak. The outbreak damaged or destroyed numerous crops, and countless livestock perished. In Georgia, many orchards of young trees were killed outright, and farmers had to completely replant them. Ice in the Mississippi River and Great Lakes completely halted barge traffic. The cold, snow, and ice also heavily damaged buildings and infrastructure across much of the country.

I continually find the best books are the ones that open still more doors with questions or curiosities. Score a solid win for The True Flag as Kinzer recognizes the present in the past. And is most capable of conveying the lessons of history we need to know as we move forward.

And so it goes.