Culture

2017: The Year in Books

(Cover images via Amazon)
Politics, history, and biography, including some baseball, in NRO’s annual roundup

For my reading in 2017, I was hoping to get a handle on what was going on in our strange political environment. I have always felt that conservatives have had a healthy skepticism of the accepted conventional wisdom as they seek to understand what is going on beyond Washington, D.C., and the blue urban centers on both coasts. Unfortunately, this skepticism was not penetrating enough in 2016, argue my friends Chris Buskirk and Seth Leibsohn in American Greatness: How Conservatism, Inc. Missed the 2016 Election and What the D.C. Establishment Needs to Learn. Both Leibsohn and Buskirk come from the West Coast Straussian Claremont orbit, and they have little patience for misinterpretations of Strauss. As they put it in a nice turn of phrase, confusing “Straussianism” with neoconservatism is “a confusion or blending no student of Leo Strauss’ would ever imagine.” More broadly, the two acknowledge that the media are dominated by the Left, but they argue that such dominance does not let conservatives off the hook for failure to get their message out. The conservative establishment that we have counted on until now needs to do more, and better, if conservatism is to thrive in the future.

Another conservative pundit who is critical of contemporary conservatism is Henry Olsen. In The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, he looks at Reagan in a new light, arguing that today’s conservatives fail to understand the ways in which Reagan understood how to reach out to blue-collar Americans. Acknowledging that “the public believes with good reason that government delivers too little and costs too much,” Olsen argues that the answer to that problem is not to bash government but to recognize that “government has a limited but strong role to play in helping the average person achieve his or her dreams.”

Josh Green in Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency looks at blue-collar workers from a different angle. This book, based in large part on hours of taped interviews with former White House strategist Steve Bannon, talks about Bannon’s own take on how to appeal to blue-collar voters, acquired from, of all places, his tenure at Goldman Sachs. As Green quotes Bannon, “If you went to Goldman when I did, the elite branch of the firm was investment banking, and the most elite was M & A [mergers and acquisitions]. The traders were guys from Queens.” As a Queens guy myself, I see what he’s getting at, although I’d be loath to try to get much insight into the lower classes from working at Goldman Sachs.

As always, I sought to supplement my reading of contemporary political books with biography. It was the late Walter Berns, himself a famous Straussian, who used to say, “The proper method for the study of politics is biography!” He’s right. One of the best biographies I read was Thomas Ricks’s Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. In an odd twist of history, Ricks notes, the paths of these two giants of freedom never crossed. Yet “they admired each other from a distance, and when it came time for George Orwell to write 1984, he named his hero ‘Winston.’” Ricks adds that “Churchill is on record as having enjoyed the novel so much he read it twice.” The book effectively shows how these two very different men approached the challenge of standing against totalitarianism, and why such courage is so important to the future of freedom.

Another good dual biography was Kennedy and King, by Steven Levingston. Levingston provides intriguing details on the staff machinations behind Senator John Kennedy’s famous call to Coretta Scott King while her husband was in a Georgia prison. The call was seen as controversial at the time, but in retrospect it helped Kennedy win a very tight 1960 presidential race over Richard Nixon. Harris Wofford, who was pushing for Kennedy’s intervention, reached out to Kennedy aides, “but they ignored his calls.” When he did get a chance to make his case personally to Kennedy, JFK’s political adviser Kenny O’Donnell warned Wofford, “If it works, you’ll get no credit for it; if it does not, you’ll get all the blame.” After campaign manager Bobby Kennedy found out that his brother had indeed called Mrs. King, RFK chewed out Wofford ally — and Kennedy brother-in-law — Sargent Shriver, raging that “Jack Kennedy was going to get defeated because of the stupid call.”

Staying in the Kennedy orbit, I read Richard Aldous’s Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian, and reviewed it for Commentary. NRO readers will appreciate Aldous’s detailing the spats between Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and NR’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley once sent Schlesinger a donkey as a prank, and irked him by using a Schlesinger jibe as a blurb for one of his books. Schlesinger tried to get Buckley to remove the quote, but Buckley refused, and even twisted the knife by requesting permission to translate the comment into French. Unsurprisingly, and as usual, Buckley got the better end of the exchanges.

Drifting into multi-player biography, David Dalin in Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court looks at how the U.S. went from a place where it was unimaginable to have one Jew on the Court to our current situation, in which it’s hard to imagine not to have any.

I also read several biographies of Israeli leaders, not as part of any project, but because a number of interesting books on them came out this year. Francine Klagsbrun in Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel highlights Meir’s sharp wit. When asked once by a CBS makeup artist if she wanted makeup before going on Face the Nation, Golda replied, “No — I’m a realist.” When told that her rival Abba Eban spoke five languages, she retorted, “So does the waiter at the King David Hotel.”

Eisenhower’s favorite film was Angels in the Outfield. According to his grandson David, Ike in retirement watched Angels 38 times.

In Yitzhak Rabin, a fine biography of the assassinated prime minister, Itamar Rabinovich explains that Rabin’s famous affinity for tennis came from visiting his wealthy relatives in Haifa, as tennis was at the time “a game totally unknown in his proletarian Tel Aviv universe.” And Shimon Peres’s No Room for Small Dreams is a bit of an auto-hagiography but nonetheless fascinating, because Peres was so involved in so many key moments of Israel’s history. The late Peres also shows that he had some measure of self-awareness. When discussing his famously fractious relationship with Meir, he acknowledges that she “viewed me as one of her greatest annoyances.”

I tried to read beyond politics as well, and in this I was helped by a politician — Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. His The Vanishing American Adult is a great parenting manual, with lots of ideas about how to make your kids more aware and more responsible citizens. Unfortunately, my kids did not always agree. When I would suggest adopting one of Sasse’s ideas to them, ages 11 to 16, I got a lot of eye rolls. The result: I loved the book, but I’m not sure my kids are too eager to vote for Sasse (good thing for him they can’t vote yet). I suspect that they will have a different view once they reach voting age, and I hope they have that chance.

Glenn Frankel’s High Noon was a great behind-the-scenes look at the making of a classic film, as was Noah Isenberg’s We’ll Always Have Casablanca. It was a different time in Hollywood, as Frankel shows, quoting screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s telegram to Chicago-based journalist Ben Hecht: “Millions are to be grabbed out here, and your only competition is idiots.”

Finally, I read two fascinating baseball books this year, Marty Appel’s Casey Stengel and Paul Dickson’s Leo Durocher. Both were rollicking good tales of entertaining baseball lifers, with some interesting political links. Over the course of his long career, Stengel interacted with at least four presidents: Harry Truman toasted him at a luncheon; Dwight Eisenhower threw out the first pitch at a World Series against the Dodgers game when Stengel was managing the Yankees; Lyndon Johnson sent a telegram in honor of Stengel’s being elected to the Hall of Fame; and Richard Nixon named him as the best manager of the period 1925–70. Appel tells us the interesting tidbit that Nixon’s son-in-law David Eisenhower helped Nixon come up with his selections. David Eisenhower, who was also Ike’s grandson, appears in the Durocher book as well, revealing that Ike’s favorite film was Angels in the Outfield, in which the character of gruff manager Guffy X. McGovern, played by Paul Douglas, was based on Durocher. According to Eisenhower, Ike watched Angels 38 times in retirement. Thirty-eight times! You can read a lot of books in that time, and I hope that you, Dear Reader, do just that in 2018.

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2017’s Best Books

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