The holidays are over, you’ve received your gift cards from Amazon and already returned your duplicate copies of Grant by Ron Chernow. So what books to buy now? Here are some of our favorites at the American Interest.
Actually, if you happen to be the one person who didn’t receive it, Grant (Penguin) isn’t a bad place to start. Grant has often been seen as an overrated general and a weak president. Here Chernow uses Grant’s private struggles with alcoholism, bankruptcy and depression to illustrate his broader struggles with strategy and public policy during the civil war and reconstruction. The result is a tale that emphasises the complexity and even agony of decision making at times of national crisis.
Similar themes also underpin Gordon Wood’s wonderful Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (Penguin). The relationship between these two founding fathers seems to have it all: different leadership and personal styles, the contrast in complex visions for what the United States should be, and interests that sometimes aligned and at other times most definitely did not. In Wood’s graceful telling, it is Adams who emerges as the more principled player, the founder more in tune with our times. When Jefferson, famously a slaveholder himself, but often portrayed as a reluctant one, supports French attempts to overthrow the Haitian revolution and reintroduce slavery there, the scales fall from our eyes.
One of Ron Chernow’s earlier books, Hamilton, famously has been turned into a hip-hop musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Another of Miranda’s collaborators Jeremy McCarter echoed the theme of complexity this year in his highly entertaining Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals (Random House). Taking five World War One-era young writers and campaigners (Randolph Bourne, Alice Paul, Max Eastman, Walter Lippmann, and John Reed), he illustrates how bright, principled minds, politically in tune with each other, can arrive at profoundly different answers to those great questions of the day. As with Grant, failure as much as success is part of the story, but so too is getting up, dusting yourself off and resuming the battle. Walter Lippmann, arguably the most influential newspaper columnist of the twentieth century, understood that better than most. “Lippmann had come to think of his generation’s history as a record of democratic defeat, of possibilities foreclosed,” McCarter writes, “But Lippmann had made a defiant promise that he would still be fighting long after [others] had quit. … He felt a sense of resignation about American prospects, but he wrote those columns anyway.”
John Reed, one of McCarter’s characters, made his name with Ten Days That Shook the World, his personal account of the Russian Revolution. The centenary of that event was marked with a series of 1917 books, the most absorbing and original of which was The Russian Revolution: A New History (Basic Books), by my Bard colleague Sean McMeekin. Here the real villain of the piece is not Tsar Nicholas II, who was more competent than generally thought. Instead McMeekin nails the spineless Alexander Kerensky, who succeeded the Tsar, and Germany, which funded Lenin as the “catalyst of chaos, a one-man demolition crew sent to wreck Russia’s war effort.”
The aftermath of the revolution is brilliantly drawn out in two books we covered on the TAI podcast. Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941 (Penguin) is a book of astounding depth and authority This second volume illustrates the brutalizing effect of power within a totalitarian regime, as Stalin maneuvers himself from dictator to despot. But the portrait is a subtle one, not least in showing that Stalin’s success came in part because he worked so much harder than anyone else, was brighter than anyone else (even Trotsky) and, surprisingly, because he was a true believer in Marxist-Leninism, not the ultra-pragmatist he often appears.
That sense of Stalin the zealot also comes out in Anne Applebaum’s gut-wrenching Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (Doubleday), which tells the story of the calculated starvation of the peasant class in Ukraine. The fact that her argument about these events is contradicted by Kotkin, and yet these two outstanding books remain must-reads, neatly illustrates McCarter’s point in Young Radicals: complex, controversial questions often demand that serious writers can and should disagree.
The difficulties for an American president confronting Stalin is at the heart of David Woolner’s elegant study The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace (Basic Books). The story is often a moving one as Roosevelt, his powers visibly waning, is outmaneuvered by Stalin at the Yalta conference. Woolner skilfully reminds us how limited were FDR’s options (although Truman in his first 100 days managed a different approach), and throws in surprises, not least of which is the suggestion tucked away that FDR, had he lived beyond the war, planned on resigning as president to become the first secretary-general of the United Nations.
The postwar era was covered in one of the best, and best-written, books of the year. John Bew’s biography of Clement Attlee (Clement Attlee: The Man Who Made Modern Britain; Oxford University Press) is one of those lives that stays with you long after you’ve read it. Bew’s argument is that amid all the cacophony surrounding Churchill, the role of Attlee—deputy PM during the war, and creator of the National Health Service and, in large part, NATO after it—has been underappreciated both as a man and a leader. Bew does not try to claim that Attlee was greater than Churchill (“a claim that would have caused Attlee to guffaw.”) Instead he gracefully rounds out Attlee both as a man and a quiet revolutionary, making the case that Attlee was a man of luck and skill, taciturnity and depths. The result is as a fine a historical biography as you could hope to read.
The quiet triumph of Mr Attlee stands in marked contrast to more recent politics. Two books looking back at the tumultuous events of last year make compelling reading. The title of Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (Crown), by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, tells you everything you need to know. Allen and Parnes had inside access, and with so many sources willing to pass the buck, the story of disfunction, strategic and tactical incompetence, and bitter in-fighting shows how Clinton’s campaign, hoping to shatter the glass ceiling, only succeeded in shattering itself. Whatever your own politics may be, it would difficult to read this book and conclude that Clinton is the greatest president America never had. Here she’s unable communicate to and inspire her own staff, or the wider country. She ducks big decisions and hides behind her court favorites. More important than any of this, she fails to articulate to anyone why she wants to be president, or what the big idea is. Faced with a choice between no idea and “Make America Great Again,” the election went to the candidate who at least seemed to know what he wanted to say.
The aftermath of another 2016 political earthquake—Brexit—is covered superbly in Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem (HarperCollins) by Tim Shipman. He looks at how the Conservative party threw away its parliamentary majority and a twenty point opinion poll lead in one of the most incompetent general election campaigns in modern memory. It’s real “inside baseball” stuff and might seem only to appeal to Westminster buffs. But this is a universal story of fear and loathing in political life. Shipman is wonderful, and unsparing, in revealing the levels of unpleasantness and stupidity of the operation inside 10 Downing Street. Yet for all that poison, Shipman’s portrait of the prime minister Theresa May herself is a subtle one: initially paralyzed by the election campaign and the subsequent diminitution of her own authority, she emerges eventually as a resilient and dutiful character, accepting of her fate to carry on, because no-one else wants the toxic job of negotiating Brexit with the EU. She may not be a Churchill, or even an Attlee, but May is at least following Winston’s mantra to “keep buggering on.”
Good leadership comes in many different forms, but we know it when we see it, wherever we find it. That’s the lesson of conductor John Mauceri’s revealing and amusing Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting (Knopf). Conductors play no instrument in the orchestra, but somehow they must convince a hundred or more highly-trained musicians to follow their lead in some vast complex symphony by the likes of Mahler or Bruckner. No wonder that charlatans abound. Traditionally, as Harvey Sachs shows in his fine and often uncomfortable Toscanini: Musician of Conscience (Liveright) brilliance has come through a personal reign of fear.
At other times, in other arenas, barely perceptible leadership can also produce stunning results. Bob Paisley is arguably the greatest club soccer coach of all time, winning 14 trophies in nine years with Liverpool FC in the 1970s and 1980s, including three European Cups (now the Champions League). Yet as Ian Herbert’s marvelous biography Quiet Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager (Bloomsbury) illustrates, Paisley, like Attlee, is an underappreciated figure, because he rarely shouted about his own achievements, or indeed hardly raised his voice at all. But David Johnson, one of his charges, is quoted on how vividly the boss instilled his way of playing into the team. “Get the ball,” Paisley told them. “Pass the ball. Keep the ball. But if you overcomplicate it, you are going to meet yourself coming back.” It was the strategy that made Liverpool the best team in Europe. Had Hillary Clinton been able to communicate her vision with half as much clarity, perhaps she would have spent 2017 in the Oval Office rather than selling her own book.