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review 2017-12-16 16:41
A biography that reflects its subject
Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party: A Political Biography of Gerald R. Ford - Scott Barry Kaufman

Gerald Ford is unique among presidents for a number of reasons, but perhaps most so for the circumstances of his presidency. Alone among the forty-four people who have held the office he was never on a national ballot prior to occupying the office, as he owed his elevation to the presidency to the provisions of the 25th Amendment. Defeated in his own bid for the office in 1976, he had remained an anomaly every since, overshadowed by the more dramatic tenures of those who preceded and followed him.


This helps to explain why there have been so few biographies written about Ford. In his introduction Scott Kaufman identifies three, all of which suffered from a variety of limitations, In this respect Kaufman's book is the first to do full justice to the span of Ford's long life, assessing it with access to his records and benefiting from the perspectives of time. It's a solid study that is written in an unpretentious style and reflects considerable archival labors, which makes it in many respects a mirror to its subject. Kaufman tinges his analysis with nostalgia, noting that while Ford was an ambitious politician who remained a devoted party man, he often worked with his Democratic opponents to achieve balance on the issues before them. He makes it clear that his career ambition was to be speaker of the House of Representatives rather than president, a goal that he regretted not achieving even after occupying a much more consequential office.


In that respect Ford's career is infused with the irony of being the rare politician who achieved a higher position than the one for which he aimed. And while Ford's political career ended with the humiliation of defeat, it is one that receives its due in Kaufman's book. For while it may have lacked the excitement of war or the tension of constitutional crisis, Kaufman shows it was one in which a fundamentally decent man grappled with the problems with his time and worked to solve them as best as he was able. Thanks to Kaufman, readers now have the judicious assessment that Ford has long deserved and one that will likely remain the dominant work on Ford's life and career for some time to come.

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review 2017-12-12 21:32
My eighty-first podcast is up!
Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic - David Head

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview David Head about his book on the Americans who engaged in legalized piracy during the Latin American wars of independence. Enjoy!

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review 2017-12-07 15:20
Podcast #80 is up!
The Gray Fox: George Crook and the Indian Wars - Paul Magid

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Paul Magid about the second volume of his biography of the 19th century U.S. Army general George Crook. Enjoy!

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review 2017-12-07 15:08
The role of humor in Lincoln's life
Lincoln’s Sense of Humor - Richard Carwardine

Richard Carwardine’s book is an entertaining and perceptive look at the role that humor played in the life of the 16th president. That Lincoln enjoyed telling jokes and stories is hardly new, as it was part of his appeal to his contemporaries. What Carwardine does is analyze the various ways in which he used humor and the insights it provides into his personality. Thanks to an extraordinarily retentive memory, Lincoln had a seemingly inexhaustible fund of anecdotes, tall tales, and jokes which he used throughout his career. Telling jokes drew people to Lincoln, making him a popular figure on the legal circuit and on the stump. How Lincoln used humor evolved over time, as he toned down the sometimes harsh satirical attacks of his youth to develop a broader and less insulting form by the time he reached the presidency. Carwardine sees Lincoln’s love of humor as a tool for coping with depression, though his frequent resort to it became a point of criticism during the Civil War as many – including members of his own administration – often interpreted it as a lack of seriousness about his responsibilities. Readers of Carwardine’s book have a more sophisticated understanding of the subject thanks to this discerning study, which with its frequent recounting of the jokes Lincoln employed is a pleasure to read.

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review 2017-12-05 05:17
The downside of dogmatism
The Whirligig of Politics: The Democracy of Cleveland and Bryan - J. Rogers Hollingsworth

Joseph Rogers Hollingsworth's book is an examination of the leadership of the Democratic Party from Grover Cleveland's triumph in 1892 through a succession of electoral defeats leading up their disastrous collapse in the 1904 election. Hollingsworth sees the inability of successive party leaders to make the logical and sensible judgments that would have bridged the gap between the conservative and liberal wings of the party as the reason for this failure. The genesis for this lay in Cleveland's reelection; though an honest and courageous political leader, Hollingsworth argues that the experiences of his career hardened into dogma his belief that principles rather than political parties were the indispensable component of good government. As a result, when dealing with the currency, his commitment to the gold standard rather than bimetallism alienated the silver Democrats and labor, prohibiting compromise and fracturing the party.

Cleveland's dogmatism opened the way for William Jennings Bryan's emergence as the party's leader in 1896. Yet Bryan's own intellectual inflexibility in favor of silver coinage prevented the party from adopting a more accommodating stance on the issue, alienating the gold Democrats and ensuring the party's disorganization and distrust by voters nationally. Bryan's direction on imperialism issues only exacerbated these problems; though an anti-imperialist, his support for a treaty in which the U.S. annexed the Philippines hobbled efforts to establish a clear stance on the issue. The situation reached its nadir with the 1904 election; while the gold Democrats regained control of their party, their poor campaign against an popular incumbent led to an overwhelming defeat in the polls. It was only then, Hollingsworth, concludes, that the party was able finally to move past the divisive silver issue and reestablish a unity that would return them to national power.

Though dated, Hollingsworth's book remains a useful study of the Democratic Party during an era of change in party politics. Though his analysis is insufficient in itself, it does help explain how American politics moved from an era of relative national parity between Democrats and Republicans to one of Republican political dominance. It also gives weight to Will Rogers' famous quip about how, as a Democrat, he belonged to no organized political party. Given that he came of political age during this period, it's easy to see how the statement could have been born from this experience.

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