Monday, January 30th, 2017 http://adamkhan.net/rambles/black-on-all-the-president-men
mid the pillorying and antics of the Trump election I’ve had the quiet feeling that we’ve reached through to a renaissance. Of course I had qualms and jitters about Trump being a lurch into authoritarianism, but these were trumped by the despairing thought of Clinton digging the current dysfunction deeper, perhaps irretrievably. And because my faith in my own faith in America has been shaken in recent years due to my enthusiasm for the first step of what turned out to be the disastrous Middle East two-step — Bush’s over- then Obama’s subsequent under-reach — I’ve sought deeper corroboration for my excitement.
Conrad Black recently wrote a number of columns supporting Trump that were Olympian in viewpoint. Now this is someone who is not only a controversial figure (jailed in the US for fraud) but a personal bogeyman: I worked at The Jerusalem Post when Black owned it and morale was low because it was presumed he and his erstwhile partner David Radler had bought the newspaper in order to strip its assets, run it into the ground and sell it for a dollar. But in the man’s columns I have appreciated his grand style and no-nonsense viewpoint. His recent ones on Trump have been cribbed, often verbatim, from his 2013 book Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies that Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership, an encyclopaedic history of the US presidency from pre-Independence skirmishes among European powers all the way through to ObamaCare. And now, having read this steady tracking shot across the epic of American history I feel confident in its author’s judgment.
The great virtue of the book is that in its steady sweep across the entirety of American history it treats each president equally under authorial law; this completely democratic coverage is a marvelous homologue to the ideals of the society under discussion. It also helps us see recent presidents in no more living color than those who presided in the black & white and even pre-photographic past (Polk was the first president photographed in office). To be sure, some presidents and presidencies receive significantly more detail and attention than others, but that is because they warrant it according to the book’s own values (Black previously wrote a book each on FDR and Nixon).
Each and every paragraph of this book relates an historical topic that in itself has generated reams of dedicated history. It’s a priceless wonder to have an all-encompassing moral voice describe and judge them all alongside and relative to the other.
The drawback of this steady epic choice is that it can sometimes feel like an exercise or a textbook. Conclusions can be tacked on awkwardly at the end of chapters with precious little run-up, often merely repeated without being developed.
And although the numbers of every single election are broken down, there is no visual stage-setting, no trees nor rooms, so that the book lacks effective mnemonics for each president, and any about whom I previously had little notion, such as Tyler or Polk, I still don’t have after putting down the book. This is an important failure because part of this book’s value is furnishing a complete overview of the American geo-strategic story.
And it must be mentioned: there are typos. As just one example, on page 226 mention is made of “11,0000 casualties”. It’s kind of shocking to see such errors in a book of this pedigree and makes me think Black should have found another publisher. I stumbled across about a dozen, so who knows how many more there are.
In the columns, Conrad Black’s style is verbose and high-falutin’ and I was looking forward to that crunchy dripping prose in the much more massive form of a 700-page book. But instead the scale thins and stretches him out to read much more like anyone else; so yes, apart from a dozen or so fancy new words (tergiversation, prorupt, enfilade, coruscate, martinet, perfervid, rodomontade, spavined, roseate, acidulous (much overused), glabrous, anneal), it’s very plain-spoken, like a collegial report.
The author’s sagacity
Black’s sage criteria for presidential success are straightforward enough: is the country stronger or weaker, better or worse positioned after this president. He describes and evaluates each president’s moral clarity and wisdom, strategic craftiness, persistence and other virtues. Rhetoric is admired but must be handmaiden to policy and deeds. One telling contrast is between LBJ’s all-encompassing paralysis over the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s subsequent foreign policy initiatives that contextualized the war within a larger global context and enabled the US to tease apart the North Vietnamese from their Russian and Chinese backers.
So, as someone once said about Nixon, who comes off a boy wonder in these pages: Damn you, Conrad Black, for depriving us of Conrad Black.
- James T. Kennedy MD at Amazon (interestingly as of this writing there are 95 reviews at the US site and not one at the UK site!)