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On Paintings, Ambassadors, Books, and More

Detail of Mary Crowninshield Endicott Chamberlain (Mrs. Joseph Chamberlain), 1902, by John Singer Sargent (National Gallery of Art / Open Access)

Who is that lady up there? She’s Mary Crowninshield Endicott Chamberlain, as painted by John Singer Sargent in 1902. She was the wife of Joseph Chamberlain, the “Empire Builder” (who was also father to Austen and Neville). She figures in a Reagan story that I tell in Impromptus today: here. Van Galbraith — friend and classmate of Bill Buckley; one of Reagan’s ambassadors to France — told me the story years ago. I thought of it when reading about a visit of President Trump to Paris.

Other links? Earlier this week, I recorded a Q&A with Bret Stephens, columnist for the New York Times. That episode is titled “1619 and All That.” Bret wrote a superb, nervy essay on the Times’ 1619 Project, a project that concerns slavery and America. Another Q&A is headed “David French and Our National Split.” David and I talk about his new book, Divided We Fall. At first he wanted to title his book “The Great American Divorce” — which puts me in mind of a movie, long ago: Divorce American Style.

On Tuesday, I had a post about my Q&A with Cameron Hilditch, a Buckley fellow here at NR. He is spending the pandemic in his hometown of Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. Several readers wrote to say, “No mention of the song? Every Irishman sings that song!” Well, here it is — “Carrickfergus” — from Jim McCann and the Dubliners.

A couple of weeks ago, I published a piece called “Right Words: On how to write, and what to read.” At the bottom of my piece is a list of books — some recommended reading. Among the people I heard from was Lou Cannon, the veteran journalist and Reagan biographer.

He says,

You do not have any work by Winston Churchill, a good writer. [Indeed, a Nobel laureate in literature.] How about including The Gathering Storm as a companion to The Remains of the Day? It is the first of Churchill’s series of books about World War II and was my first book from the Book of the Month Club in 1949. I was sixteen and have been fascinated by Churchill ever since. Churchill also wrote (somewhere, I remember not) a wonderful short piece about Joan of Arc that made one want to be French.

Ha, true. That was an extract from A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, made into a little book.

Lou continues with a word on, and for, Hilary Mantel.

She writes like an angel, although there’s nothing angelic about her subject matter. I just finished The Mirror & the Light, the third in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. His execution, as described by Mantel, left me with an ineffable sense of loss even though it may have been merited by the brutal standard of the times. I read little fiction these days, but find Mantel irresistible.

A great recommendation.

In my piece on Trump and dictators, I spoke of Reagan and Gorbachev. Every time the two met, the American handed the Soviet a list of political prisoners in whom the United States was especially interested. Gorbachev complained, “Too many lists.”

I heard from Kateryna Yushchenko, who was born in Chicago and had an American career, before moving to Ukraine, native country of her parents. She is married to Viktor Yushchenko, the former president of Ukraine. In 2004, he was subject to a near-deadly poisoning attack by Russian intelligence agents.

Mrs. Yushchenko writes,

I appreciate your mentioning the lists that President Reagan gave Gorbachev. The idea to present these lists came from Ambassador Richard Schifter, who tasked me with compiling them. Some of the most satisfying work of my life.

Richard Schifter was assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs from 1985 to 1992. He was born in Vienna in 1923. After his escape and immigration, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Mrs. Yushchenko continues,

Ambassador Schifter was very special. He was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. He spent years writing letters to various governments looking for lost family members, but never received a response. So his first instruction to me was that not one letter coming to our office should ever go unanswered. I drafted hundreds of letters and he painstakingly edited each and every one, making sure we completely responded to the concerns expressed. A lawyer by education, he would dictate long letters on his little tape recorder, specifying every punctuation mark.

At first he asked me to compile lists of refuseniks [unjailed ones]. I asked whether we could add political prisoners. He reflected a moment and said, “Let’s try it.” I scoured State Department cables for the names, but found the most accurate information from independent sources in Germany who were receiving smuggled letters from the camps.  Ambassador Schifter also had me write in-depth papers about subjects such as the repression of the underground Catholic Church, and responses to Soviet accusations of so-called American human-rights abuses. . . .

We kept in touch after I moved to Ukraine in 1991.

I wish I had known Richard Schifter, and interviewed him. He died on October 4, age 97.

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