Since beginning this blog I have been waiting for the right time to  recognize Jack Valenti.  There is a sentimental background to this posting as I was one of those incidental folks who worked with him tangentially on  some media events.  I mention that only to allow me to say that Jack Valenti made every individual he touched feel special.  In Jack’s world no one was ” incidental.”  His respect for all individuals was a basic tenet of his success.

Oscar week is the perfect time to remember his memoir This Time, This Place, My Life in War, the White House  and Hollywood. His last most prominent professional position was as  the legendary CEO of The Motion Picture Association of America. Jack Valenti died in  2007, the very year that this memoir was published.

Jack Valenti grew up poor in Texas, put himself through school delivering groceries,  graduated from Harvard and joined the Army Air Corps in World War Two.  He flew 52 combat missions as the pilot of a B-25 attack bomber based in Italy.

Upon his return, Valenti formed a small advertising and public relations agency in Houston and as fate would have it  then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson heard about this bright young man and in the summer of 1963 secured his services  as an advance man for the  Kennedy-Johnson 1964 campaign.  Valenti was in the Dallas motorcade on that fateful  November day, and flew to Washington on Air Force One  to remain at now President Johnson’s side. He became Special Assistant to President Johnson and served as his most trusted confidant.

The stories that Valenti recalls in his memoir are historically revealing and  personally insightful, including LBJ’s reaction when Jack announced  he was quitting to take the job at the MPAA!

As MPAA CEO Valenti transitioned into the Hollywood circles with the deftness of the master politician that he was. He accomplished his goals in those treacherous ego filled waters because he was good, trusted and loved. You will travel with Jack , in his element, among the moguls, stars and starlets of Hollywood.  The stories are wonderful. He star is on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I can not recommend more highly this well written and fascinating look at  a great American story with all the elements of the child of emigrants working his way to navigate and thrive in the highest levels of the land. It is if course also a special and unique look inside the Johnson Presidency.

If you are one who is  fascinated by the persona of LBJ there is one other great book that must be mentioned here, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and The American Dream.

These are not  ” text-book reads” they are fascinating page turners with characters and personalities as good as in the best novel!

A Surprise President’s Week Finale. GRANT!

It would have been easy to wrap up my President’s  week blog with a most deserving biography, Truman by David McCullough. Few could question that salute. However,  Jean Edward Smith author of GRANT  will get the honor of closing out President’s Week.  Smith’s work is a remarkable eye opener and a re-evaluation of  General in Chief Grant and President Grant. 

 Lovers of history understand that time often serves former presidents better than the present.  Then again, history is not a science but rather observations of mortals.  Smith’s full-scale biography of Grant sheds tremendous perspective regarding  his accomplishments on the battlefield and as the first two term president since Andrew Jackson. The detailed study of Grant’s childhood and early life provide the framework for this great piece of historical writing.

I must admit that before tackling Grant I had somewhat of a dim view of his presidency based  in great part upon popular conceptions.  What Jean Edward Smith accomplished so well in this biography was to reconcile many of these popular views with the facts. As just one example, few would remember that following the disastrous Andrew Johnson term after Lincoln’s assassination, Grant did more to help Reconstruction than anyone and the same was true for his efforts to enforce constitutional freedoms to the newly freed slaves as American  Citizens.  In retrospect, Grant’s accomplishments as president are outlined as remarkable as his on the battlefield!

If you love American History,  you will do yourself a great favor  by heading for the library or Amazon. Not only is GRANT  the story of his presidency but it is a battle by battle description of Grant’s  skilful leadership during the Civil War. Jean Edward Smith is a scholar and you will come away from his book  with a scholarly view of Grant at this important time and place in American History.

American Lion/ Andrew Jackson/ President’s Week Continues

Jon Meacham is back on my blog today with another great book on the American Presidency, American Lion a biography of  Andrew Jackson, the eighth President of the United States ( 1829-1837).   Reviewers  generally agree that American Lion is a definitive work on the Jackson presidency. I will readily admit that I knew little detail about Jackson before picking up this Pulitzer winner and I remain thrilled that it was recommended to me. 

” Old Hickory” was one of the more incredible characters  to ever inhabit the White House.  He was a zealot in his beliefs and in particular hated the Bank of United States which be believed was the basis of past, present and future corruption in America and a threat to the Federal Government itself.  He was a staunch  states rights advocate, believed in the sovereignty of the individual but at the same time believed that the Federal Government was essential!

There was no contradiction in the zealotry of his Indian removal policy. In 1830, just a year after taking office, Jackson pushed a new piece of legislation called the “Indian Removal Act” through both houses of Congress. It gave the president power to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi. Under these treaties, the Indians were to give up their lands east of the Mississippi in exchange for lands to the west leading to the black-mark on his presidency and the nation itself,  “The Trail of Tears.”

Despite all of the controversy that surrounds the Jackson presidency he in reality created the foundation of the modern-day Democratic Party.  He is considered by historians to be the first ‘populist” president.

American Lion is a marvelous journey for the reader and once again Meacham exhibits excellence!  No matter how much material Meacham covers, his work is always manageable.

David McCullough/John Adams/ A Gift to all Americans

David McCullough’s  biography  John Adams can be credited with introducing 20th and 21st century Americans to the enormous impact John Admas, from patriot to president, had on early American History including The Revolution, The Presidency and the U.S. Constitution.

This magnificent work, incredibly well researched  is also a beautifully written story.  As one would expect from McCullough, all of the facts are in place, but the story of Adams the person and his relationship with his wife Abigail  is truly moving.  You will come to understand just how difficult it was to be President of the United States in 18th Century America.   You will read quotes from the trove of Adam’s letters both personal and public that are so enlightening about how critical decisions were made.  You will learn that the fact that America was born was itself a miracle!

Within the pages of John Adams, McCullough  portrays beautifully the love story between John  and Abigail.   He also captures the ruptured relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson and the reader is thrilled to learn of the two coming together as friends  in the later years of their lives.

You need not be a student of history to enjoy every page of John Adams.  It is a story about an incredibly gifted man’s love for his country, his wife and family.

David McCullough is a national treasure and his generosity in creativity is a gift to all Americans.

Doris Kearns Goodwin Gets Another President’s Week Nod

Yesterday we noted Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time, during our President’s Week picks.  Today she gets another nod with Team of Rivals  the wonderfully chronicled story of Lincoln’s bringing into his cabinet his four leading opponents for the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1860.  William Seward was named Secretary of State, Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, Edward Bates, Attorney General and Salmon Chase, Treasury Secretary.  

What is considered a brilliant move by some historians was not without its acrimony and behind the scenes dealings not altogether helpful to the new president.  Goodwin is brilliant in telling this story as it unfolds during the lead-up to the Civil  War.  It is a wonderful look at this period of American History from inside the president’s cabinet and offers tremendous insight into Lincoln’s thought process during the war.

Like to much of Goodwin’s writing and research Team of Rivals is relevant in its lessons for today.

It is no surprise that Team of Rivals brought Goodwin another Pulitzer.

No Ordinary Time

 This Pulitzer Prize for History winner  dates back to 1995 but if you love history and have not read this one you have missed one of the best on the  Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt years.  The insight that Doris Kearns Goodwin has developed in No Ordinary Time is truly riveting.   Linda Gordon writing for the Boston Globe in 2005 said it so very well. ” The Roosevelt marriage is endlessly gripping because it was so consequestial….The reader feels like a resident in the White House.”  This volume is  one of Goodwin’s very best.  You will enjoy every page. It is so relevent and the characters are so vital that you might believe that Franklin and Eleanor were alive today.

President’s Week

Beginning on President’s Day, tomorrow, I am going to post my thoughts on books I have enjoyed regarding the presidency.  They will not all be biographies or autobiographies but rather some very interesting takes on the presidency itself and how relationships have had lasting impact on our democracy. As an example, one of the most fascinating books I have enjoyed regarding the modern presidency is Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham.  This incredible personal relationship may have saved the free world!

I would also love to hear your thoughts on great books you have enjoyed relating to the presidency. Just scroll down to the comments and join in.

Tom Wolfe and Thomas Wolfe Great Novelists at Opposite Ends of the 20th Century

A good friend recently commented that Tom Wolfe’s  The Bonfire of the Vanities was the best novel written in the last half of the 20th Century. Wow! Certainly the good thing about loving books is that opinions are all wonderfully subjective.  Of course, I loved Bonfire,  it was on everyone’s lips and the movie was fabulous but as usual, never quite as good as the book!

Another friend glanced at my bookshelf and saw I am Charlotte Simmons, another Tom Wolfe novel, but one that never received the acclaim of Bonfire.  It is all in the eye of the beholder but I think Charlotte is every bit as good a read.

Arriving on the scene at a prestigious university (many think it is Duke) , comes  Charlotte Simmons, poor, devout, strict, proud and beautiful. She is straight from an uneducated but loving family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. From the moment Charlotte and her folks arrive in their less than fashionable pick-up she is confronted with the swells from the well-to-do.  Charlotte is not only beautiful, she is also brilliant and both  of these attributes are immediately perplexing and yes threatening to her new classmates.  As an incentive for you to enjoy this great book I will leave  to your imagination further details of this unfolding story.

Tom Wolfe’s research into college life is impeccable and the hard work is infused into the storytelling.  He has placed every character you could  possibly imagine at this prestigious campus. You will grow to love and cheer Charlotte Simmons and hope for only the worst for her detractors.  If you  have a daughter of college age you will bite your nails and briefly consider a commuter campus! Do not overlook I Am Charlotte Simmons. 

Tom Wolfe is from Virginia and now lives in New York City. There was another southern novelist, this one from North Carolina, named Thomas Wolfe.  Thomas Wolfe , who died  at thirty-eight in 1938,  was not related to Tom Wolfe, but he wrote two great books about coming of age.  The first,  Look Homeward Angel, was followed by Of Time and the River.

Whereas my friend considers Tom Wolfe the best novelist of the late 20th century none other than  William Faulkner described Thomas Wolfe as the best of the early 20th century.  Both of Thomas Wolfe’s books are worth every reading moment. Look Homeward Angel is by far the better known and is considered an autobiographical novel. Of Time and the River is a sequel and is every bit as captivating although a bit more patience is required.

If you have read any of  these  Tom Wolf and Thomas Wolfe novels I would enjoy you sharing your impressions.

The Painter of Battles

The vivid images coming from Egypt, Iran, Algeria,  and the recurrent reporting of violence in Afghanistan and Iraq  brings to mind a novel I had read a year ago, The Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte.  Reverte, himself a former war photographer ( 35mm film and camera), was a photo-journalist in Angola, Bosnia, Croatia, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf.

Reverte’s  The Painter of Battles is a story of a world-renowned war photographer , Andres’ Falques, who has become internationally famous from the publication of his photos depicting the horror of war.  Images of individuals in despair, pain, sorrow and death. He retires to the coast of Spain and  becomes obsessed with  painting a huge mural of the images he has captured including the death by a land mine of a beautiful and young colleague who was his only love.

Enter Ivo Markovic,  a soldier long thought  dead .  A Falques photograph  of Markovic in the agony of battle had won awards and made Falques rich and world-renowned.  This un-expected visitor, whose only mission is to kill Falques , brings an astonishing  perspective of the subjects of those photographed in battle. A riveting relatively short novel with a compelling message. It is worth every minute especially considering the recent travails of  reporters including Laura Logan and Anderson Cooper.

Arturo Perez-Reverte also wrote The Club Dumas and The Queen of the South.

Empire of Liberty-More Timely Than Ever

With the revolution for freedom and democracy sweeping the Middle East, I can think of no better backdrop to recommend Empire of Liberty by Pulitzer Prize Historian Gordon S. Wood.   The work is part of the Oxford Series on American History and covers the period 1787 through the War of 1812.

This scholarly book traces the evolution of  the American Republic from the end of the Revolutionary War  into the great debates over the writing and ratification of the United States Constitution including the paradox of slavery, states rights, foreign influence and the very nature of the presidency.

What quickly becomes evident is the enormity of the issues surrounding establishing a society and government free from the old ways of European monarchies. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton play leading roles in establishing a workable, permanent and cohesive  national government replacing the  looseness of the Articles of Confederation. 

Wood carefully brings alive individual contributions  and  the give and take,  often antagonistic, to reach compromise.  Jefferson and  Madison are  Wood’s  central figures with the contributions of John Adams  in my view somewhat marginalized.   Adams has his day in the sunshine in David McCulloch’s  biography, John Adams.

The more background the reader has in American history the easier the immersion into Empire of Liberty but that should not dissuade anyone with a love of our country’s history from tackling this landmark work. Despite the depth of the subject Wood has made his book an enjoyable journey and there is a clear and logical roadmap for the reader.  Yes, Empire of Liberty is a good read!