Saturday, December 8, 2018

Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 23rd President, 1889-1893

Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 23rd President, 1889-1893 by Charles W. Calhoun

I’m really enjoying The American President Series of books of the U.S. presidents. These come in handy when one wants to read about one of the ‘minor’ presidents who might have very little devoted to them in terms of biographies. These books aren’t as detailed as some of the ‘mainstream’ ones, but quality is subjective, and I’ve never been let down by the six or seven of these I’ve read.

What does today’s citizen know about Benjamin Harrison? Probably not too much. Most probably don’t even recognize the name. Most probably don’t know that he was the only grandchild of a former U.S. president (that would be William Henry Harrison). Of course most don’t know who he was either.  I came away with great admiration for Benjamin Harrison after reading this book.  A great president?  Well, maybe not ‘great’ but when one considers how the presidents were selected back in the 19th century (by delegates, the masses had almost no say), one must remember that many men who held the office didn’t necessarily have a life-long dream of one day being the most powerful person in the world.  Many men who were elected looked at their accomplishment of achieving the job of POTUS more of an obligation as opposed to a personal goal. Such was the case with Benjamin Harrison.  So when one has such an attitude, their more likely to do what they feel is morally right once in office as opposed to what will get them ‘elected’ the next go-round.

This book does a good job of hitting the highlights of the man’s life with the focus being on the four years he was in office. As a progressive Republican, his main goals seem to be on protectionism of the economy via higher tariffs, the ever-expanding place of the United States’ role in globalization, and the notion of backing the U.S. currency with silver as well as gold. As a progressive, he also favored civil rights for black citizens, and although the events around Harrison’s time weren’t as noteworthy as during other presidential tenures, I can’t resist one of his quotes that I found breathtakingly refreshing as well as prophetic on the subject of black suffrage:

“When is he in fact have those full civil rights which have so long been his in law?...This generation should courageously face these grave questions, and not leave them as a heritage of woe to the next.”

On the personal side, we get some details as well. Although he seemed to have a very strong marriage, he also had a very long and close relationship with his niece Mame Dimmick.  A lot of personal correspondence between the two throughout the years. Had I been Benjamin Harrison’s wife, I wouldn’t have approved of such a close relationship. Not surprisingly, after Harrison’s wife dies, he and Dimmick marry. Not surprisingly, eyebrows are raised.

I was left with an overall strong impression of the man. After reading accounts such as this, it makes me wish that the way we nominated our commanders in chief would revert to the ways of old. That’s not to sound na├»ve, nor to infer that politics wasn’t as sleazy as it now is. It just seems as though some of our past leaders actually did quite a good job, even if history remembers them as somewhat inconsequential.

Jerusalem: The Biography

Jerusalem: The Biography – by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This sucker is one thick, dense tome.  Sadly, 550 pages for a history (or ‘biography’) for a place like Jerusalem isn’t nearly enough. One feels as though this work should have been 4 or 5 volumes instead of 1. This is the book’s main hindrance.  There’s just too much story, especially in the early days, to tell.  Therefore, each and every page is packed with names, places, religions, leaders, and events that swim past you with breathtaking speed. I simply couldn’t remember who was who.  Imagine you’re in a room shaking hands with 500 people in the span of 10 minutes. Could you remember whose hand you shook 7 minutes and 23 seconds ago?  I didn’t think so.  This is how I felt when I was reading the first half the book. The first half starts about 3,000 years ago. The second half about 300 years ago.  So that’s 2,700 years of history during the first half.  Fortunately, I found I thoroughly enjoyed the second half since it was more digestible, and was glad I stuck with the book. I finally felt the narrative finally had room to breathe. I was sorely tempted, though, to give up after the first few hundred pages.

If there was one place on the face of the earth that demands such a history, it would be Jerusalem. A place with a solid biblical background that has served as the home of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A land fought over, mauled over, ransacked, pillaged, and yet still perseveres in the hearts and minds of many of the faithful. As much as I found the first half a bit of a chore, I’m not sure anyone else could have done a better job. There’s an awful lot to cover here.

After a brief forward describing the burning of the city in 70 A.D., we start out smack dab in the time of Abraham in the Old Testament. This book is a history book, not a religious book, and the author acknowledges the events from the Bible as fact. What the author’s spiritual beliefs are about God and Jesus, the reader has no idea. I think that’s a good thing. It provides the reader with a very objective view of the place and time and I would imagine both the faithful and secular would find the narrative rewarding. At least if they have an open mind.

The same probably can’t be said for the author’s nationality as a Jew  (‘Jewish’ is a religion as well as a nationality. It’s not an oxymoron to refer to one as an Atheist Jew).  The last 150 pages take place from 1898 to present day and focus on the Zionist movement. Therefore, the narrative focuses mostly on the conflict between Jews and Moslems. The author seems to take a very pro Zionist slant, although he does make a very good argument for the Jewish cause.  I’ve never been able to figure out why the nation of Israel is hated by so many around the world when their only crime seems to be that they win wars that other nations wage against them. Anti-Semitism has always been alive and unwell.

My overall recommendation, if you’re a tad impatient such as I am, is to go through this book slowly and not give up.  If the first half is overwhelming, the second half more than makes up for it.  I really do think, though, that this book probably should have been broken down into two volumes.

The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland

The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland by John M. Pafford

This one was a bit of a disappointment. When shopping for a book on the internet, it’s best to never judge a book by its picture on the cover.  When this book arrived in the mail, I was a bit surprised how puny it was. Part of that is my fault as the description clearly states that he length is only about 250 pages.  When you add the fact that about 100 of those pages are appendices and notes, you end up with quite a narrow volume.

Narrow in quantity and quality. This book read more like a college student’s term paper.  The author is a passionate conservative/libertarian who states a few times how FDR’s “New Deal” eventually ruined the nation. Fortunately, he keeps much of his vitriol at bay, but it does show a strong bias towards its subject matter when Cleveland, himself, was a staunch conservative. In fact Cleveland vetoed more bills than any other president mainly because he felt the government had no business helping anybody no matter how dire the need was.  Such reflections do seem harsh 125 years in the future, but some would also make the argument that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.  

None of this really matters though when evaluating quality. This book is simply too brief and too thin.  By the time we get to (approx.) page 10, Cleveland is already Governor of New York.  After one brief chapter, he’s running for President of the United States. So we have almost nothing of his early days.  The book does list his major achievements as President but is simply devoid of any feeling or emotion. I don’t know how long it takes, on average, an author to write a strong biography, but if the average time was about one year, this one felt like it was completed in a couple of weeks.

We must then remember that biographies of minor presidents from the 18th and 19th centuries are hard to come by, and in many cases, a reader’s choices can be rather slim. Such was the case here. Recently, there was a book series titled ‘The American Presidents Series’ which devoted a brief narrative of all of the U.S. presidents. I’ve read a few of those only when there seemed to be nothing else easily available on a particular president.  For the most part, those books are satisfactory when covering the more obscure leaders. I wish I read the volume that focused on Cleveland instead of this one by John Pafford.  I would recommend that you do the same if you’d like to learn more about the man and get a somewhat detailed account of who he was and what he did. This one was too brief a tad too opinionated.