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HOME > ARTICLES > JULY 2001

FOR YOUR POLITICAL
SUMMER READING ENJOYMENT
by M. Jeannine Coup

 

One of my favorite authors is David McCullough. His "Truman" and "Mornings on Horseback" (about TR) are both marvelously insightful. Now he has written "John Adams." McCullough believes that John Adams contributed more consistently and more in depth to the early history of the United States than Jefferson or Washington. Adams was the "delegate most responsible for the Continental Congress's adopting independence," according to McCullough. The author takes us through Adams early years.

 

As a diplomat in Europe during the 1780's, he secured a loan from the Dutch without which the Revolution might have failed. He served as vice president with unfailing loyalty to Washington, whose administration he supported by casting a still unmatched 31 tie-breaking votes in the Senate. In his own presidency Adams achieved a rare level of statesmanship by beginning peace negotiations with the French Republic, an act of reconciliation that alienated many Federalist supporters and jeopardized his chance of re-election in 1800.

 

The reader watches Adams through the author's eyes live through one contested issue after another over the course of his career, always choosing the correct path.

Like Truman, who "never tried to appear as something he was not," Adams remained true to his origins. A descendant of frugal farmers from Braintree, Massachusetts, Adams' hands were those of a man "accustomed to pruning his own trees, cutting his own hay and splitting his own firewood." Above all McCullough's appreciation for Adams, like his appreciation for Truman, is based on their adherence to old-fashioned morality and strength of character. Contemporary writers noted Adams's "scrupulous honesty," and sense of duty. Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush wrote Adams was, "a stranger to dissimulation," and "the most honest man in government.

McCullough points out that no one made a fortune serving in the United States government in the late 18th century with the possible exception of John Hancock. John Adams wrote, "All my emoluments as a member os Congress for four years were not...sufficient to pay a laboring man on a farm." The Adams financial well-being did depend on their farm which Abigail Adams managed with great skill. Her need to work the farm and to work for our new country necessitated them living apart except for a few years during his long public career.

This then leads us into another theme which runs through the entire book- -a love story. It is not a secret that John and Abigail Adams loved each other. But McCullough is able, through letters and journals, to bring us closer and with more understanding to both the Adams. If they had not had to communicate through letters so often we would never have known them so well. Abigail was in every sense John's partner. She managed the family's finances and the farm, raised the children and pushed for certain reforms. Abigail wanted the woman's role to be more than just the traditional domestic role. She wrote John about the Constitution stating that:

 

I cannot say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and goodwill to men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives. But you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken- -and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet- -

 

Abigail felt that it was not just John who made sacrifices for the new country but that she also "sacrifice to my country." The loss of John being with her was among her "greatest misfortunes." John felt the same and wrote from France, "I must go to you or you must come to me...I cannot live with out you."

McCullough began his journey initially to write a joint biography on Adams and Jefferson. After some research his interest shifted to only Adams. This book inevitably has a lot to say about Jefferson but on "virtually all points of comparison between the two men, Jefferson comes in second." On this historical judgement of these two men there has been a "reversal of standing." Jefferson's pre-eminence has lasted for two centuries but now Adams has become a competitive rival in history. McCullough writes:

 

Adams, a short, chunky New Englander and a combative, nonstop talker, might seem the antithesis of Jefferson, a tall, thin Virginian who rarely spoke in public, "abhorred dispute" and when involved in political controversies, preferred to act covertly.

 

Jefferson and Adams both did so much for our young country though both were completely different, their lives remained intertwined until the end.

They fought together for independence in 1776, worked as a diplomatic team in Europe during the 1780's and carried on a wonderful correspondence from 1812 until their deaths on the same day, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

On July 4th, 1826, The United States of America lost two of the greatest and most prominent men who helped create the way we live today.

If you have along vacation sitting in the shade (or sun if you prefer) and enjoy reading a great book about a little understood part of our history, then "John Adams" by David McCullough is the book for you.

Volumes have been written about the Kennedy Family, mostly by outsiders, some by loyal friends. Now a member of the family has written about Joseph P. Kennedy, albeit one sided, it offers a unique incite into the most famous family in the U.S. Since John Adams.

Amanda Smith, a 33 year old Harvard graduate student, granddaughter of Joe Kennedy, daughter of Jean Kennedy and Steven Smith wrote: "Hostage to Fortune, The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy." Ms. Smith described her search through 600,000 pages of Ambassador Kennedy's papers. The documents were often crumbling, some uncatalogued at the JFK Library in Boston, some forgotten in a warehouse in Long Island and some stored above the room in Hyannis Port where Joe Kennedy died in 1969.

In the introduction, Smith eloquently writes of the Kennedy family

 

As I've grown older, I have begun to marvel...at how much of my life I have spent amoung ghosts. These are no malevolent presences...Rather, they are such restless spirits as only the strange twentieth-century cocktail of celebrity, technology and collective memory could produce.

 

This book is noteworthy because it interweaves Kennedy documents with family letters, diaries and other materials. This gives depth to and reflects well upon Joe Kennedy as father, speculator, film producer, bootlegger, chairman of SEC and Federal Maritime Commission, philanderer, philanthropist and king maker. Readers of history who found Kennedy an adious person will not find much of that written on these pages, though there are some outbursts of irritable anti-Semitism. The mystery of Joe Kennedy remains perhaps because it was he who said, "Never write anything down that you wouldn't want published on the front page of the New York Times." To judge by these papers, you would think Kennedy's longtime relationship with Gloria Swanson was strictly business, and there is not a trace of any other hanky panky.

Stories that have not been printed before do abound. During lunch at Windsor Castle in 1939 Kennedy wrote in his diary

 

Somebody at table discovered a ladybug and Princess Elizabeth suggested it was good luck and sent it along to the Prime Minister. So it came along on a gold spoon, one from another, and I handed it to the Queen, and then she tried to tip it out on the Prime Minister's shoulder, most gently.

 

Kennedy loved being in royal company and enjoyed being Ambassador to Britain so much that he insisted on being called "Ambassador" the rest of his life. Kennedy hated the idea of the U.S. Being drawn into a European conflict. His patriotism was genuine but strictly isolationist. Eventually, after many blunders he was dismissed from his position and came home in disgrace for his appeasement and defeatist attitude.

Other material is so sweet that no matter what your politics you are must fall in love with members of the family. For instance, while vacationing on the Antibes, 21 year old Teddy cables, "Happy Father's Day. Having barrels of fun send money for more barrels. Love Ted."

From his honeymoon in Acapulco in September, 1953, Jack writes, "At last I know true meaning of rapture Jackie is enshrined forever in my heart thanks Mom and Dad for making me worthy of her your loving son Jack."

The book ends with an entry from Rose Kennedy describing Thanksgiving, 1961 at Hyannis Port, after Jack was president but before the grief of the assassination. Rose wrote in her diary

 

"Jack gets great kick out of seeing Ted dance as Ted has great sense of rhythm but he is so big & has such a big derriere it is funny to see him throw himself around- -Lots of discussion about 'the Twist'- -the new dance which has great vogue at the moment throw your hips around- -NO one knew much about it but Jackie at end in a Schiaparelli pink slack suit gave a three-minute performance..." Then Rose observed: "Joe Sr...is not at all himself but quiet...For first time- -I have noticed he has grown old."

 

A month later Joe Kennedy had a stroke which ended his rule over or participation in any family plans for the last eight years of his life.

I have always enjoyed historically focused books which follow a family or group through several generations showing the continuation of history and ideas. Hostage To Fortune certainly does not let the reader down.

You might want to call this book a view from inside politics because it supplies a true insider's perspective on vital, debatable, controversial political history. Passion For Truth: From Finding JFK's Single Bullet to Questioning Anita Hill to Impeaching Clinton written by Senator Arlen Specter to Charles robbins, is just what the title says and more. In a matter of fact way Senator Spector, Republican from Pennsylvania, states that

 

My career has been marked by my believing a theory most people doubted (the single bullet) and doubting a woman most people believed (Anita Hill).

 

In this narrative Spector proudly recalls his early days as a "crusading prosecutor in Philadelphia, where he fought street crime, indicted Teamster bosses and brutal police officers, and exposed corruption throughout the city's antiquated court system."

As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee Spector interviewed Supreme Court nominees. He faults Robert Bork for arrogance and William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia for withholding details of their judicial philosophies. Spector also writes that he "doubted Anita Hill's allegations of misconduct by Clarence Thomas because she was not forth coming" with details. He writes that he regrets the Senate did not try to impeach President Clinton with witnesses on the Senate floor.

What I found most interesting was his work for the Warren Commission, where he insisted on the single bullet theory in Kennedy's assassination, which the panel then published as their conclusion. This was a good read, though admittedly a bit Republican biased.

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