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Franklin Delano Roosevelt described Joseph Patrick Kennedy as “a very dangerous man.” Kennedy became wealthy on Wall Street and in the movie industry and had political ambitions to be secretary of the treasury and then the first Roman Catholic president (a title that eventually went to his son John F. Kennedy). He became a prominent financial backer of FDR’s first two presidential campaigns and successfully served in two key governmental positions during FDR’s administration. Then he campaigned to be ambassador to Great Britain. Despite serious reservations, FDR agreed to the appointment for his own political reasons. The result was a major diplomatic disaster.

Using many newly available sources, Susan Ronald brings this pivotal point in history vividly to life in her meticulously researched The Ambassador: Joseph P. Kennedy at the Court of St. James’s, 1938–1940. As ambassador, Kennedy was primarily concerned with avoiding war. He grew close to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and became a fervent supporter of Chamberlain’s appeasement approach to dealing with Hitler. In a conversation with King George VI, Kennedy expressed his opinion that, if it came to war, “Britain will be thrashed and there will be nothing left of civilization to save after the war.” Kennedy was strongly anti-communist but failed to appreciate that fascism was not a better alternative.

The ambassador often differed with FDR on policy, so they maneuvered around each other for the most part. Despite the fact that Kennedy’s views often differed with his government’s, Ronald explains that Kennedy liked to give the impression that he was a policymaker and not just carrying out instructions. By tracing the opinions Kennedy expressed, Ronald outlines the likelihood that he was antisemitic and a fascist sympathizer. “He was bedazzled by the Vatican, which sympathized with Franco and Mussolini for religious and venal reasons,” she writes, “and sought to placate Hitler before he turned on Catholics once the Jews had been exterminated.” She adds that Kennedy was antisemitic “through his own ignorance and prejudices” and “placed prosperity above human life and liberty, above democracies being crushed.”

Although Kennedy failed as an ambassador and never again served in any public office, his wife and their large, attractive family made a positive impression on the American public. Three of his sons, with quite different political views from their father, were elected to high political offices. As John F. Kennedy said years later, “He made it all possible.”

When Joseph P. Kennedy campaigned to be ambassador to Great Britain, FDR made the appointment despite serious reservations. The result was diplomatic disaster.

In October 1957, Sputnik 1 went up, and America panicked: My gosh, the Soviets are winning the Cold War! At least that's how it seemed as the little satellite's beep-beep was heard around the world. President Eisenhower hated spending money, but even he was persuaded that an aggressive space program was crucial. The United States' prestige was at stake, and so NASA was born as an instrument of nationalist competition.

But that's not how it evolved, at least in global public perception. Teasel Muir-Harmony’s engaging Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo reveals that the 1969 Apollo moon landing mission was the single most successful U.S. diplomatic effort of the late 20th century—precisely because it consciously avoided jingoism.

Muir-Harmony, a curator at the Smithsonian, draws on a rich cache of documents from NASA and the United States Information Agency, among other sources, to bring to vivid life the ground-level public relations onslaught surrounding the Apollo project. When U.S. diplomats organized exhaustive worldwide tours and exhibits about their country's successes, they quickly learned that American boasting was a turnoff. Instead, millions of people across the earth reacted with astounding enthusiasm to a message of global unity. The space mission was "for all mankind."

The astronauts assigned to the mission proved to be natural goodwill ambassadors, indefatigable in their unpretentious friendliness. Muir-Harmony brings us along for their post-flight tours—as Frank Borman wades into Paris crowds to press the flesh and as Neil Armstrong says just the right thing to charm the prickly wife of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito. The positive feeling generated by Apollo arguably helped Nixon jump-start his secret Vietnam War peace talks.

It feels like such a remote era now: Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were all instinctive internationalists, despite their political differences. They believed the United States would prevail through U.S.-led alliances and openness, in contrast to Soviet secrecy and bullying. Muir-Harmony notes that, even with the achievement of the moon landing, NASA couldn’t overshadow global disgust with the Vietnam War or the nation's racial turmoil in any lasting way. Still, Operation Moonglow is a winning remembrance of a time when America thought big and optimistically about its role in the world.

In 1957, Sputnik went up, and America panicked: My gosh, the Soviets are winning the Cold War! At least that's how it seemed as the little satellite's beep-beep was heard around the world. President Eisenhower hated spending money, but even he was persuaded that an aggressive space program was crucial.

In his extraordinary 44-year career as a reporter and top editor at the Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr. was deeply engaged in making critical decisions about what was considered newsworthy. He writes about the key roles he played in the superb All About the Story: News, Power, Politics, and the Washington Post.

Downie writes, “Newsrooms are not democracies. Someone must make final decisions about what goes into the newspaper, on the air, or online.” He delegated some decisions, but he was a hands-on managing editor and executive editor, personally dealing with what went on the front page, the accuracy and fairness of potentially controversial stories and concerns about libel or language and photographs that might offend readers.

Downie contributed to the coverage of dozens of historical events, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks; the Unabomber’s threat and the decision to publish his manifesto; the Iraq War and related national security issues, such as the decision to reveal the secret “black sites” where prisoners were sent for interrogation; and the impeachment of President Clinton. He was the deputy metro editor in June 1972 when the Watergate scandal broke, and he recalls his relationship with “what became the most famous reporting partnership in American journalism,” Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. They were an “odd couple” but perfectly complemented each other. When they wrote competing versions of a story, Downie would sometimes rewrite the opening paragraph after determining which direction the piece should go.

When it came to revealing the private lives of public figures, Downie concedes that he made mistakes in this area, and that his newsroom staff and readers strongly disagreed with him about, for example, reporting on the personal lives of the Clintons. He says he was wrong, too, not to have run more stories on the front page about the Bush administration’s rhetoric in the run-up to the Iraq War. He insisted on complete nonpartisanship in his paper’s news coverage, and he even stopped voting when he became managing editor in 1984.

Downie shows the vital role a free press plays in our democracy. His splendid recounting should be of interest to everyone.

In his extraordinary 44-year career as a reporter and top editor at the Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr. was deeply engaged in making critical decisions about what was considered newsworthy. He writes about the key roles he played in the superb All About the Story: News, Power, Politics, and the Washington Post. Downie writes, “Newsrooms […]

Anyone looking for a compact, highly readable history of the American political movement known as populism, and the determined efforts from both right and left to squelch it, will enjoy prominent progressive journalist Thomas Frank’s The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism.

Frank (What’s the Matter With Kansas?) describes how, despite populism’s brief formal life—from the founding of the People’s Party in 1891 to the crushing defeat of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896—its ideals have persisted through more than a century of American political history. Their influence, as he describes it, reached its zenith during the New Deal when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while not expressly invoking any populist lineage, nonetheless “talked constantly about the urgent need to take power away from economic elites and return it to the average American.”

But after World War II, as Frank points out in perhaps the most intriguing portion of his argument, the opposition to populism subtly shifted from obvious enemies, like the robber barons of the Gilded Age, to the “technocratic, elite liberalism” that came to dominate the Democratic Party. In the hands of these professionals and intellectuals, populism became a code word for “demagoguery and intolerance,” as their interests diverged from those of the working class.

The disdain of this “highly educated leadership class” for the populist impulse turned out, in Frank’s candid assessment, to be nothing less than a “liberal folly,” opening the door for what he calls the “phony populism of the right” that flourished in the Republican Party beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It climaxed in Donald Trump’s unlikely victory in 2016, when a candidate whose true agenda would have made William McKinley smile successfully harnessed popular hostility to elites and rode it into the White House.

Credit goes to Frank for this admirable effort to reclaim the noblest parts of the populist legacy and make them relevant for contemporary Americans, but there’s good reason to doubt we’ll see this platform realized soon, no matter who prevails in November 2020.

Anyone looking for a compact, highly readable history of the American political movement known as populism, and the determined efforts from both right and left to squelch it, will enjoy prominent progressive journalist Thomas Frank’s The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism.

When our relationships falter under the pressure of political or religious demands, when ambiguity more than certainty guides our lives, we may be tempted to succumb to our malaise. However, there is another option: We can stumble through the shadows, searching for some thread of meaning that will guide us out of the darkness. The authors of these books have chosen the latter path, peeling away the detritus of life to discover meaning—personal and political—and plumbing the spiritual depths that accompany their searches.


★ Thin Places

With humor and razor-sharp insight, Jordan Kisner’s Thin Places: Essays From in Between captures the visceral, palpable feeling of loss. The ways we inhabit space occupy many of these evocative essays, such as in a piece on an art installation at New York City’s spacious Park Avenue Armory, in which Kisner encourages readers to find someplace “big and empty” when they are “stuck somewhere small . . . somewhere unhappy or afraid or paralyzed or heartbroken.” In her celebrated essay “Thin Places,” she discovers the age-old concept of the space between the spiritual and physical world. This “thin place” is porous, a space where distinctions between “you and not-you, real and unreal, worldly and otherworldly, fall away.” It’s in these thin places that we can find ourselves, absorb glimpses of new meaning from another world and live in the moment. Kisner weaves together reflections on Kierkegaard, her early Christian conversion (and later “unconversion”) and waiting for the subway to gracefully guide us through our own emptiness in search of fullness.

The Great Blue Hills of God

Kreis Beall’s The Great Blue Hills of God explores in lyrical prose what happens when her life falls apart. Beall, who helped create Blackberry Farm, one of the South’s most heavenly resorts, appears to have it all: a loving marriage, great wealth, a beautiful family and a satisfying career. But the demands of building up several properties slowly erode her marriage, and she finds that her and her husband’s financial bank is full but their “emotional bank” is being emptied. As her marriage fades away, Beall falls, and suddenly her health is compromised, and she temporarily loses her hearing. She experiences further devastation when her son, Sam, dies in a skiing accident. Despite the loss of her family, health and wealth, she discovers glimpses of grace in her reading of the Bible, discussions with her pastor and friends and meditations on the nature of home. Throughout the book, Beall sprinkles in fruitful bits of wisdom, embracing the conclusion that, “to me, home is God, family, friends, and legacy. . . . A home is a heart. It is love, people, relationships, and the life you live in it.”

Scandalous Witness

Lee C. Camp’s Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians offers a brilliant summary and exposition of the ways that Christianity is a politic, not a religion. Camp (Mere Discipleship) asks a series of questions that frames Christianity as not just a private spiritual practice but a guide for our life together: “How do we live together? Where is human history headed? What does it mean to be human? And what does it look like to live in a rightly ordered human community that engenders flourishing, justice, and the peace of God?” In the end, the Christian community embraces its mission when it “sets captives free, demolishes strongholds, and . . . [sows] the seeds of the peaceable reign of God.” Camp’s manifesto is a must-read in a world in which Christianity has become either a bedfellow of political parties or an isolated, private practice.

I Am Not Your Enemy

Michael T. McRay’s I Am Not Your Enemy takes Camp’s idea to the personal level. We create meaning in the stories we tell each other, and if we tell a good enough story, we can convince others that certain individuals are our enemies. But just as stories have the power to cultivate hate, they also have the power to reconcile and redeem. Throughout his travels across Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland and South Africa, and through his work as a conflict and resolution counselor, McRay hears violence-filled narratives with shattered endings. Yet, as he illustrates, not every story needs to end this way. McRay shares stories of a mother who refuses to seek vengeance for her son’s death, a community theater director who helps people who are marginalized find their voices and discover beauty in their lives and a woman who forgives the man who murdered her father. With the verve of a great storyteller, McRay regales us with spellbinding narratives that illustrate the power of words to change our lives and bring meaning to the world.

When our relationships falter under the pressure of political or religious demands, when ambiguity more than certainty guides our lives, we may be tempted to succumb to our malaise. However, there is another option: We can stumble through the shadows, searching for some thread of meaning that will guide us out of the darkness. The […]

Social media activism is easy: One click, and you feel like you’ve done your part. In fact, social media has made it so easy to complain about the world that we often forget to do anything about saving it—except for Adrienne Martini, of course.

In her humorous and thoughtful political memoir, Somebody’s Gotta Do It, journalist Martini channels her outrage over the 2016 national election into energy for her local government. She has nowhere to put all of her rage. She goes to the Women’s March, knits pussyhats, calls her representatives, but she knows she has to “do more than write postcards and stew.” And her friend has a suggestion: Run for local office.

Martini is soon running to be a county board member in upstate New York, and she walks readers through every step of running for council. How do you get your name on a ballot? How many signatures do you need? What happens after you win? She writes about the awkwardness of asking for signatures and how every vote truly matters. (Her county board ends up swinging Democrat because one new member beat the incumbent by only five votes.)

When I first picked up this book, I envisioned Leslie Knope of “Parks and Recreation”­—bighearted but not necessarily hugely effective because, well, it’s just local government. But there’s no “just” about it. Martini’s seat on the rural, red Otsego County Board gives her the power to take part in deciding where the county’s $105 million budget goes. That money is utilized to do incredible things, including providing vaccines, funding food banks and upgrading cell phones for social service workers.

Martini’s approach is simultaneously lighthearted and enlightening, brimming with practical advice on how (and why), if you want to enact real change, your local government is the place to start. It’s a fast-paced, easy read that serves as a reminder that the world isn’t hopeless. At one point, Martini meets with former Oneonta mayor Kim Muller after a heartbreaking time with the Department of Social Services, a branch of government whose focus is programs for children and adults living in poverty. Muller gives the most compelling advice of all: “Change one life. Don’t always go for the whole forest. Try to take little bits of it—and you make a difference.”

Martini is making a difference for the residents of Otsego County. If you feel any discontent with your government, either national or local, Somebody’s Gotta Do It serves as a reminder that your rage can be the basis for making real change.

Social media activism is easy: One click, and you feel like you’ve done your part. In fact, social media has made it so easy to complain about the world that we often forget to do anything about saving it—except for Adrienne Martini, of course. In her humorous and thoughtful political memoir, Somebody’s Gotta Do It, journalist Martini channels […]

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