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review 2018-06-17 06:37
A WHITE HOUSE DINNER FOR THE AGES
Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House - Joseph A. Esposito

Prior to reading "DINNER IN CAMELOT: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House", the most I knew of this most unique dinner which took place on the evening of Sunday, April 29, 1962 was from a now famous statement President Kennedy made there. It is as follows: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House - with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." One of my high school U.S. history teachers first made me aware of that quote, which left a deep impression that hasn't left me after almost 40 years. 

Joseph A. Esposito has taken considerable care in reconstructing for the reader what that White House dinner was like - down to the various personalities (e.g. Linus & Ava Helen Pauling; Dr. Ralph Bunche, the first African American recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the UN in negotiating the 1949 armistice between Israel and the Arab States; J. Robert Oppenheimer - the father of the atomic bomb - for whom this dinner marked the beginning of his political rehabilitation after having had his security clearance stripped away from him in 1954; the poet Robert Frost; the widow of Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway; the literary personages Mr. and Mrs. Lionel & Diana Trilling; Pearl Buck; William & Rose Styron - who later became close friends of the Kennedys; the writer and social critic James Baldwin; and the astronaut John Glenn) in attendance. 

The book also has the complete seating plan for the dinner, which took place in the State Dining Room (where President Kennedy presided at the lead table, # 7) and the Blue Room (where the First Lady, Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy, sat at the lead table, # 17) - in addition to several photographs that were taken at the dinner itself. They help to recapture, in a large sense, an America that was sure of itself and its place in the world despite the perils and challenges of the time, and the essence of a President and First Lady who encouraged a flowering of the arts and sciences among all Americans - as well as inspiring people to be and do better for themselves and humanity. 

I absolutely enjoyed reading "DINNER IN CAMELOT" which I think will serve in years to come as the main source for anyone wanting to know more about this unique and seminal event in 20th century U.S. history. It may also remind the reader that it is possible for the U.S. to extricate itself from the polarization and toxic national politics that bedevils us in the present time. For we live in a nation that has had many ups and downs since its inception in 1789 - and managed to, at various times, to embrace "the better angels" of its spirit and character.

 

Let "DINNER IN CAMELOT" remind the reader that We the People can work together anew to make a better nation for ourselves and future generations through encouraging a renewed appreciation for the arts and sciences.

 

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review 2018-04-16 23:40
RFK & THE PEOPLES' CAMPAIGN OF 1968
The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America - Thurston Clarke

This year marks 50 YEARS since Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) embarked upon what was, at its outset, a seemingly quixotic quest for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, and ultimately, the Presidency itself. 

From the time Kennedy declared himself a candidate on March 16, 1968 in the Senate Caucus Room (where 8 years earlier, his older brother, Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy of Massachusetts, had declared his candidacy for the Presidency in 1960 - leading to a successful presidential campaign which Robert Kennedy himself had managed), he was resented as an opportunist because he had waited until Senator Eugene McCarthy's (D-MN) surprising second place finish to LBJ in the New Hampshire primary a short time earlier to throw his hat in the ring. 

For the first two weeks of the campaign, Kennedy's main focus was highlighting the retreat of the Johnson Administration from some of its Great Society programs and the disastrous Vietnam policy - with his urging that the war be ended, leaving the South Vietnamese themselves to secure their sovereignty. Then LBJ announced at month's end that he wouldn't run for an additional term as President. That compelled Kennedy to change the impetus of his campaign, laying renewed emphasis on dealing with issues of poverty, civil rights, Native American and Chicano rights. 

Clarke does an excellent job of showing how the campaign unfolded with Kennedy boldly campaigning in both the Indiana and Nebraska primaries in the aftermath of Dr. King's assassination. Both states had strong Republican bases, which JFK had failed to carry in 1960. Though at heart a shy and sensitive person, Kennedy made it a point throughout his campaign of being direct, honest and among the people whom he wanted to vote for him. Many times, he would be mobbed by his supporters who came to see Kennedy as a politician who would do what he said he would do to address their needs and concerns. He was the one politician in that campaign who came to bridge the gap between Black and white, rich and poor, young and old.

The climax of the campaign for Robert Kennedy would be the California primary of June 4, 1968. Before focusing his efforts on California, Robert Kennedy had journeyed to Columbus, OH, to speak with members of the uncommitted Ohio delegation. Kenny O’Donnell [who had been Kennedy's roommate at Harvard and later worked as a close aide to President Kennedy] helped to organize this meeting, stressing to Kennedy NOT to be late. Well, Kennedy ended up mixing with supporters on the streets of Columbus and ended up 3 hours late. It didn’t look good when Kennedy belatedly arrived in that hotel. “He walked into a room filled with angry, sullen, and inebriated delegates, and saved himself by delivering what O’Donnell called ‘the best damn speech I have ever heard in my life.’ “

“O’Donnell was ecstatic, saying later, ‘He knew just what they wanted to hear and acted as if he loved being there…. He just handled himself beautifully. He was his brother. It was fantastic. The women just went ga-ga over him. They were unanimous – all the old pros were taken aback by how much they liked him. This was not the Bob Kennedy they had read about. This was not the ruthless arrogant young fellow. All they kept saying was, ‘He’s just like Jack! He’s just like Jack!’ I knew he could go all the way, then. Once he had California in his pocket, he would have Daley and all the pros were going to love him. I was never worried about the general election.”

Then tragedy ensued. 


I have long admired both President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy for their service and devotion to humanity and their promotion of public service as an agency for improving peoples' lives. To Thurston Clarke I am grateful for giving me a tangible sense of what the 1968 campaign was like, as well as access to the accounts of various personalities who played key and unsung roles in that campaign. For though I was alive in 1968, I was much too young to have any memories of that year's historical events.

 

For anyone reading this review who finds him/herself wanting to know more about Robert Kennedy, I recommend the following 2 books ~

i) ROBERT KENNEDY: His Life by Evan Thomas
ii) BOBBY KENNEDY: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye

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review 2018-03-21 01:45
JFK & RFK - AMERICA'S DYNAMIC DUO
The Kennedy Brothers: The Rise and Fall of Jack and Bobby - Richard D. Mahoney,David Talbot

"THE KENNEDY BROTHERS: The Rise and Fall of Jack and Bobby" offers the reader various views and perspectives on the evolution of the relationship between John F. Kennedy and his younger brother Robert between 1951 and 1963. At the same time, it also provides, in a large sense, a living history of the Kennedy Administration; the challenges, setbacks and triumphs it experienced; and the roles Robert Kennedy played in that history as Attorney General (e.g. his relentless fight against organized crime and his moral support for the cause of civil rights) and enforcer and protector of his brother, the President. 

Then we also experience the inner struggles and agonies Robert Kennedy endured after his brother was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963. After years of supporting JFK through his various political campaigns and in the White House, he was faced with having to find his own voice and place. In the process, Robert Kennedy's humaneness and compassion for the poor and disenfranchised - coupled with his fearlessness and the spirit of his character - came to define him in the eyes of millions of Americans as he went on to win election to the U.S. Senate from New York in 1964 and embarked on the path that led him to his last crusade, his run for the Presidency in 1968. 

In the words of the author: "... the Kennedys, with all their romance and irony, finally unite in an aesthetic comparable to the Greeks that they read about and quoted: they were daring and they were doomed, and they knew it and accepted it. They would die and make their deaths into creative acts of history. They would be heroes. And they would give their country an imperishable poignancy in its heart."

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review 2018-02-04 02:21
CONVERSATIONS WITH JFK
Conversations with Kennedy - Ben Bradlee

As Time pushes us further and further away from the days of John F. Kennedy's presidency, it is hard for those with a living memory of his Presidency (and harder still for those of us who were not alive when JFK was in the White House) to have a full perspective of what John F. Kennedy was in life. That is why this book, "CONVERSATIONS WITH KENNEDY", by Ben Bradlee, a journalist who knew Kennedy on a personal level between 1958 and 1963, is so important. 

In the space of 244 pages, the reader is given access not only to the 1960 presidential campaign (from the Kennedy camp) and some of the White House parties and dinners to which the Bradleys were invited, but also the outings Bradley enjoyed with President Kennedy at Hyannisport and Newport (where Jackie Kennedy's stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss, had a large estate). The book also has 2 sets of photos, which serve to further illustrate the nature of the relationship Bradley, then the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, had with Kennedy. Generally, it was an easy, relaxed relationship. But sometimes Bradley would be "frozen out" by President Kennedy for short spans of time if Newsweek printed stories that he didn't like. This was no vindictiveness on Kennedy's part, because he liked journalists (having once been one briefly himself in 1945, when he - as a special correspondent for Hearst Newspapers - covered the San Francisco Conference, which led to the establishment of the United Nations) and was known to read from 6 different newspapers daily. President Kennedy was very knowledgeable about the workings of the press, had a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, and loved to keep abreast of the latest developments among the leading media establishments. 

"CONVERSATIONS WITH KENNEDY" also shows a President who 'had few illusions about human nature but nursed dreams all the same.' There is one excerpt from September 12, 1963, that I found especially revealing, as well as very moving ~

"Dinner was on the dicey side. Jackie's stepfather is not exactly a swinger, and the toasts were pretty much in his image. We were high on the hog again, with much wine, caviar, and champagne, but we all went to bed soon after dinner. Just before we retired Jackie drew me aside, her eyes glistening near tears, to announce that 'you two really are our best friends.' It was a forlorn remark, almost like a lost and lonely child desperately in need of any kind of friend. She repeated the message a couple of times to Tony [Bradlee's wife] during the weekend, citing particularly our letters to them about the baby's death. ... --- it had been a bad summer for our friends, with Patrick's death [Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, the President's and Jackie's son, who died from a lung ailment 2 days after his birth in August 1963] and the sudden, jolting suicide of Phil Graham [publisher and Chairman of the Board for The Washington Post, who was a close friend of the Kennedys and Bradley], whose light finally burned too bright and destroyed him --- but Jackie said it was a description of a instant of love we had seen between a father and a small baby, parting in Naples. They [i.e., the Kennedys] are the most remote and independent people we know most of the time, and so when their emotions do surface it is especially moving."

It is passages like the one cited above that reinforce the enormity of the loss to humanity (even after 54 years) of a brilliant, charismatic and witty U.S. President who inspired people to seek out "the better angels of their nature" and better themselves and the world community at large through public service. Thank you, Ben Bradlee, for this book.

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review 2017-09-12 03:51
A TRIBUTE TO A REMARKABLE WOMAN WHOSE CONTRIBUTIONS TO U.S. HISTORY HAVE BEEN UNSUNG FOR FAR TOO LONG
The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency - Kathryn Smith

"THE GATEKEEPER" is a book that brings back to life a singularly remarkable woman whose vital contributions to the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) - both professional and private - deserve to be more widely known. 

Marguerite "Missy" LeHand came from humble origins in Massachusetts to work for FDR in August 1920 as his private secretary. At that time, he was the vice presidential running mate of Ohio Governor James Cox, who was running for the Presidency against the Republican candidate, Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio. Though the Cox-Roosevelt ticket went down resoundingly to defeat in November 1920, "Missy" would go on to work faithfully for FDR for the next 20 years, helping him (along with those persons - e.g. Louis Howe, a highly skilled political strategist who had been a supporter of FDR from the time he won election to the NY State Senate in 1910, and FDR's wife Eleanor, who would later form FDR's inner circle in the White House) thru the personal crisis caused by the polio that left him unable to walk for the rest of his life, to the slow and steady upward path to a political resurrection that led to FDR being elected Governor of New York in 1928, and 4 years later, elected President of the United States. 

Though Missy LeHand's official position in the Roosevelt White House was personal secretary, she was much more than that. In many respects, she can be considered as the first woman presidential chief of staff. Indeed, Missy enjoyed FDR's complete trust and commanded his respect. She had a room in the White House near the President and played a vital role in the shaping of many of FDR's policies and initiatives. So much so that "if you wanted access to Franklin, you had to go through Missy." By virtue of their deeply close personal relationship (exactly how close is unclear to this day), "[a]s one of his most trusted advisors, Missy had a unique perspective on the president that no one else could claim, and she was deeply admired and respected by Eleanor and the Roosevelt children." 

Sadly, this unique working relationship between FDR and Missy LeHand was not to last. The reasons for that I leave for the reader of this review to discover by reading this fantastic, well-written and researched book.
 

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