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Fathers and Sons: "When Lions Roar" (10.11.20)

We look to history for inspiration. And there is nothing more inspiring than people born to immense wealth and privilege who, against all odds, wind up famous.

Which is to say, I just finished Thomas Maier's "When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys." It's an engaging sprint through 50 years of history, painting side-by-side portraits of fathers and sons.

From the good side of the Atlantic, we have Joe Kennedy and his brood. Across the pond, it's Winston Churchill and his only son, Randolph. The two families crossed paths constantly from the 1930s through the 1960s, with a relationship that ran the gamut from friendly to hostile.

The quick version:

Joe Kennedy, shady Irish-American businessman worth millions, aspires to be president one day, despite the immense anti-Catholic bias he'd have to overcome. He also wants his kids to be important.

Winston Churchill, half-American British nobleman and Renaissance man, wants to be Prime Minister. He also envisions big things for his son.

And we're off! At first the families have somewhat friendly relations. In the '30s, mutual friends bring Joe and Winston together, and Joe uses his business ties to help Winston invest and rake in money. Things get sour when Joe becomes the ambassador to England in 1937. Joe thinks it would be stupid for America to fight Hitler, while Winston, the leader of the opposition party, is shouting every day about the threat posed by the Nazis. When war finally breaks out, Winston winds up as Prime Minister -- and Joe falls from grace as a defeatist jerk.

On the Kennedy side, this shifts the spotlight to Joe's kids, who figure out the very delicate task of taking advantage their father's money and connections while distancing themselves from his politics. JFK in particular had a deep admiration of Winston, modeling a lot of his rhetoric and thinking on the example of the British leader.

On the Churchill side, Winston never leaves the spotlight; even after losing the PM spot after the war, he regains it in the 50s. Randolph aspired to be everything his father was: a brilliant speaker, a member of parliament, an accomplished author. But he never really lived up to the expectations everyone had of Winston's son. He essentially drank himself to death in his 50s and had a very complex love-hate relationship with his dad.

Maier spins a LOT of plates in this book, as he lays out the motivations and missteps of all the players. The two families did mingle alot; not only because of Winston's prominence in global affairs, but because Randolph became a close friend of the Kennedy sons (despite hating their father). Also in the mix: Joe Kennedy's daughters, Winston Churchill's daughters, the close friends and associates of each clan, FDR and his oldest son (who was partner to shady business deals with Joe Kennedy), and Aristotle Onassis (who was friend to both families).

For all the complexity, it's highly readable, broken down into digestible themed segments. If there's a big question hanging over the narrative, it's why the father-son dynamics were so different in each family. Joe Kennedy is sort of the bad guy in this story, but he figured out how to elevate his sons when his political career crumbled. Winston Churchill was a world-beater who wanted the best for his kids, but somehow fell short as a father.

It's interesting stuff, no matter who you're rooting for. Other takeaways:

* In this book, marriages are a farce. Almost everyone is cheating on a spouse or having an affair with a married person. The only exceptions are Winston Churchill and RFK. There are several accounts of high-ranking U.S. officials cheating on their wives with the spouses of prominent Brits. Pamela Churchill, Randolph's wife, slept with FDR aide Averell Harriman; Randolph resented this even though he was cheating on Pamela mercilessly.

* For all the mess about anti-Catholic bias, Joe Kennedy and JFK were, ironically, not good Catholics.

* I don't understand how Winston Churchill had the time to run a government, paint, write very long books, and engage in social functions. People like Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt seemingly had 10 extra hours in each day.

* I'm not a huge fan of the Kennedys, but they had awful luck. This book features the JFK and RFK assassinations, Kathleen Kennedy dying in a plane crash (with her British lover), and Joe being reduced to vegetable status by a massive stroke. If he enjoyed his sons' triumphs he never got to express it.

"The Rough Riders" (9.4.20)

"Free" is a very attractive price point these days. Lately I've been skimming through all the public domain books you can get for free on Kindle, and one jumped out at me: "The Rough Riders," Theodore Roosevelt's personal history of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry during the Spanish-American War.

I picked it because I had just read about the press coverage of the war in Cuba in "The Uncrowned King." And because I like history. And again, and this cannot be stressed enough, it was free.

People know Roosevelt was a politician and a cowboy. He's less well known as an author, even though his writing paid the bills in his adult life. He wrote an extensive history of U.S. naval power during the war of 1812, and that might have helped him land the job of assistant secretary of the Navy under President McKinley. "The Winning of the West," his synopsis of U.S. expansion across North America, helped square his finances in the late 1880s after his ranching operation failed.

"The Rough Riders" was probably a quick way to cash in. Roosevelt was already a well-known public figure before the war. When hostilities were declared, he resigned from his Navy job, and successfully petitioned to form a volunteer cavalry drawing from the western territories. The unit ended up being a bizarre mix of people from the various chapters of TR's life: rich Ivy League kids looking to prove their manhood, grizzled cowboys, international drifters, and a few career crimimals to boot. The unit had the benefit of great PR: Roosevelt himself was an attention magnet, plus he was on friendly terms with many of the reporters embedded in the Army to cover the fighting in Cuba. The reports of the fabled charge up San Juan Hill were so glowing that TR became a military legend with almost no military experience.

As historian Edmund Morris puts it, right after the war TR was the most famous man in America. Within a year, "The Rough Riders" was on sale. And it reads like something banged out pretty fast.

For long stretches, "Rough Riders" is a celebrity awards show acceptance speech. Paragraph after paragraph thanks or acknowledges some guy in the unit, and (shocker) they're all virile examples of selflessness and courage. And while there was real fighting in Cuba, Roosevelt really tries to make the danger as dramatic as possible. You see something like this about six times: "Smith and Jones were the very pinnacle of American bravery. Our nation has never produced finer specimens, and they promised victory to me over dinner. Both were dead within 12 hours."

The unit saw action in two battles (including the charge up San Juan Hill), but Roosevelt's play-by-play isn't all that compelling. He's describing troop movements through the jungle, and most of the battles involved the Americans shooting at entrenched Spanish soldiers they couldn't even see. So it was brave, but it wasn't all that glorious.

Weirdly enough, the most interesting stuff (to me) was Roosevelt bitching about logistics. The unit organized and trained in San Antonio, but the process of equipping them, moving them to Tampa and sailing to Cuba was a giant clusterf***. Once they were on the ground in Cuba, supplying the troops was a daily headache. The food and clothing provided were subpar. They never even had their horses with them, since no one could figure how to ship all the animals to the front. The vast majority of U.S. deaths in Cuba probably came from disease -- the fighting stopped quickly, and as the troops sat around waiting on a peace treaty, malaria devastated the ranks. Roosevelt used his book to very publicly criticize the administration of the war effort; the end of the book is addendums reprinting his formal reports to his superiors complaining about these things.

To his credit, if you set aside some of the 1898ish aspects of his writing, Roosevelt is still pretty accessible. (Even though TR was an open-minded guy for his time, modern audiences will likely cringe when he starts going off about the characteristics of various races.) It's not hard to get through "The Rough Riders," and it is interesting to experience TR's personality on the page.

But if you had to pick any public domain TR book, I think I'd go with his 1913 autobiography. It's not comprehensive, as it's glommed together from some shorter essays published in magazines. It's a lot sharper and more charming.

"The Fire Next Time" (8.24.20)

The autobiography of Frederick Douglass was first published in the 1840s, awakening many people to the horrors of slavery and galvanizing abolitionists. (Douglass revised and added to his narrative a few times later in life, but the 1845 account of his life in slavery and his escape was what set the world on fire.) Sixty years later, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois described a world that was both radically different and depressingly similar to what Douglass described. "Up From Slavery" (1901) and "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903) had competing visions for black Americans at the dawn of the 20th century, and the authors shared those visions hoping to guide America forward.

Jump ahead 60 more years and you have lots of visions to choose from. Based on reviews (and curiosity about the author) I went with James Baldwin, and "The Fire Next Time." It's a volume containing two essays, one short and one long. And it's one of the most exquisite expressions of anger I can remember reading.

The essays were first published in periodicals in 1962 -- one of them was essentially an entire issue of "The New Yorker" -- then packaged together for a 1963 release. The short essay is a letter from Baldwin to his nephew, inspired in part by the impending centennial of emancipation, and warning the young man of the the racial animus that awaits him as an adult.

The longer essay (Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind) is a little tougher to describe. Baldwin starts with his thoughts on his youth in Harlem in the late 1930s, and the terror of a young man trying to avoid a life of vice or despair on "the Avenue." The community Baldwin describes is disillusioned by decades of discrimination and divorced from any promise of the American Dream.

His way out was religion, and for a few years he found refuge as youth minister -- but then he details his disillusionment with the church and organized religion. He can't reconcile the rhetoric of the church with what he sees around him. That leads to the second segment: A narrative of Baldwin's meeting (as a then-famous adult) with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Baldwin seeks to understand and explain the appeal of that movement; but he also sees little future in its sometimes hateful outlook.

The final section hovers between apocalyptic and hopeful. Baldwin states that America can never be a great nation without the complete freedom (spiritual, economic, political) of black people, and he predicts catastrophic failure if it does not come about. When assessing whether white people have the capacity to go along, he sounds like a man struggling to be optimistic.

Baldwin acknowledges that his critics describe him as bitter. But as an emotional snapshot, "The Fire Next Time" is extremely powerful. Whether or not you agree with Baldwin's conclusions, he paints a very clear and distressingly logical picture of frustration and anger -- and the great struggle to keep those feelings from boiling over into hate. And hands down, the guy is an amazing writer. This is a short work and I highlighted maybe 20 different passages. This isn't a policy discussion. It's all narrative -- and while that approach can have its drawbacks in terms of persuasion, you have to check this out and appreciate the craftsmanship.

A few years after this book was published, Baldwin witnessed both progress (the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act) and horrible turmoil (the assassinations of black leaders and the unrest of the late 1960s). He lived into the mid-1980s and published constantly, but several critics consider "The Fire Next Time" to be his most influential work. We're now 60 years removed from it ... so what's next?

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