Tag Archives: Presidents

The Hemingses of Monticello

This is a difficult story to comprehend, but research by Annette Gordon-Reed and many others in recent decades has it well documented. Thomas Jefferson fathered SEVEN children with Sally Hemings. Three of the seven died in infancy, but the others lived to adulthood and some of them had descendants of their own, many of whom are alive today. Sally Hemings was one of hundreds of human beings enslaved in Virginia by the author of the Declaration of Independence. Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s widow, Martha (Wayles) Jefferson, and she was therefore the aunt of Jefferson’s two white daughters and was roughly their same age. The four of them plus Sally’s enslaved brother James Hemings lived together for several years in Paris after the Revolutionary War, while Jefferson was serving as an ambassador. When Jefferson was recalled to New York City to serve as Secretary of State in President Washington’s cabinet, they traveled back together by ship, while Sally Hemings was pregnant.

Thomas Jefferson had married Martha Wayles, who was a young widow, in 1772. Upon their wedding Jefferson received a dowry that included a plantation and many slaves, including a whole family of Hemingses, including the matriarch, Elizabeth Hemings (Sally’s mother), who had 12 children of her own, including 10 fathered by John Wayles (Thomas Jefferson’s wife’s father)! All of this is quite difficult to keep track of, and thankfully the author of “The Hemingses of Monticello” has included a family tree.

Martha died in 1782, three years before Jefferson went to Paris. This book covers not only Jefferson’s years in Paris, but also his time in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and ultimately his retirement to Monticello. When Jefferson died on the fourth of July in 1826, he was deeply in debt, and most of the enslaved were auctioned off right on the front lawn of Jefferson’s mansion.

The Hemingses of Monticello

As I mentioned, it’s hard to get my mind around all of this. I imagine it might even have been difficult for people in the early 19th century to fathom, as well. It’s not surprising that for the better part of 200 years, few people believed the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. But this author, Annette Gordon-Reed, has the receipts. This is a well-researched book, full of modern-day insights. This is not a “let’s beat up on Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves” book. Nor is it a “this is all OK because that’s just the way it was back then” book. The author puts the events she describes into context of the times, while at the same time offering a more up-to-date perspective. She explains a great deal, and at other times she offers plausible explanations for questions that may never be answered.

Thomas Jefferson is the author of our country’s founding document and its key phrase, that all men are created equal. Yet he was an active participant in an entrenched system based on white supremacy, exploitation, and unpaid forced labor. Four score and seven years later, our nation’s sixteenth President would invoke Jefferson’s words in an effort to bring our country back together during a war that was fought, yes, to end slavery once and for all. Our nation’s history is a complicated one. Those who founded our country were indeed heroes, but all heroes are flawed.

I’m so very glad to have had the opportunity to read this book. I learned so much, and I want to learn more. This is not just the story of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, rather it is the story of the entire Hemings family, spanning many generations.

This is an important book.


The make-or-break moment for Richard Nixon came during the presidential election of 1952. He was a hotshot rookie Senator from California, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower had chosen him as his vice-presidential running mate. The ticket had been officially nominated at the Republican National Convention. Then news broke that Nixon had a secret fund created by various wealthy friends and supporters. It was not the biggest scandal that had ever taken place in American politics, but it was serious enough to embarrass Eisenhower, who sent signals to Nixon that he wanted him to withdraw from the ticket. Not only that, but Ike presumed Nixon would resign from the Senate as well. Had Nixon done so, he would have become a small footnote in history. But Nixon was way too bold, way too cunning to slink away with his tail between his legs. He instead booked a live television appearance and gave what would become known as the “Checkers” speech. More than 60 million Americans tuned in. It was the largest television event ever aired, to that date.

Richard Nixon biography

While Nixon was explaining his finances in great detail to the American public, he uttered a bunch of corny lines, including, “Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she’d look good in anything.” He also said that one of his benefactors had sent the family a cocker spaniel that one of his daughters had named Checkers, “and you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” Nixon concluded his remarks with a call to action. He told viewers to contact the Republican National Committee and tell them (not Ike!) whether or not he should withdraw from the nomination. And of course the phones rang off the hook in favor of Nixon remaining on the ticket. He went on to serve eight years as Vice President under Ike. In 1960 Vice President Nixon ran for President and lost in a nail-biter to JFK. Two years later Nixon ran for governor of California — and lost. Then, in 1968, he ran for President once again and won. Then he got re-elected in 1972 in a landslide. And of course, two years later, he became the only U.S. president in history to resign, because of the Watergate scandal.

Richard Milhous Nixon, also known as Dick Nixon, also known as Tricky Dick, was born in 1913 in Yorba Linda, California. His childhood was just as dismal as you would imagine. He wasn’t born in a log cabin, but he would have been born in one if log cabins still existed in the early 20th century. The family was poor. His father was a citrus farmer who was unable to turn a profit despite being in Southern California. He had three brothers, two of whom died of very young of tuberculosis. To his credit, Nixon made the most of his circumstances. He excelled in a number of extracurricular activities in high school and college, including music, theater and football. After graduating from Whittier College he attended Duke University on a scholarship and earned a law degree. He married Pat, whose maiden name was Thelma Ryan. They had two daughters. In the early 1940s the couple moved to the nation’s capital, where Nixon worked for the federal government. During World War II Nixon served in the Navy and was stationed in the South Pacific. He received several medals and commendations. While stationed overseas during the war he ran a concession stand.

After the war Nixon returned to California, where he practiced law and sought employment with the federal government. In 1946, with the backing of a group supporters called the “Committee of 100” or the “Amateurs” (a precursor of Tea Party in more modern times) Nixon ran for Congress against a five-term entrenched Democrat and won. During the campaign Nixon falsely accused his opponent of being in bed with Communists. As a freshman congressman Nixon joined the House Un-American Activities Committee and began hunting for Communists in government agencies. One of Nixon’s targets was Alger Hiss, who may or may not have been a spy for the Soviets. Hiss had been accused by Whittaker Chambers, who was an unreliable source because he kept changing his story. According to the book, Hiss was indeed a spy. But he was not ever convicted of espionage, only perjury.

When he became President, Nixon inherited an unwinnable war in Vietnam. Rather than finding a way to end the fighting, he instead expanded the conflict into Laos and Cambodia, destabilizing those countries and making everything worse. He and Henry Kissinger, who was Nixon’s Secretary of State as well as his National Security Advisor, dropped lots of bombs on all three countries. All the while he was lying to the American people about it.

He also lied to the American people about Watergate. The scandal first surfaced in 1972, during Nixon’s re-election campaign, when a bunch of dudes got arrested breaking into the offices of Democratic National Headquarters to bug the phones. Watergate is the name of the large complex of office buildings and residential apartments that housed the Democratic offices at the time.

Like a dirty snowball rolling down a hill, the story just got bigger and bigger. At the height of the drama, the Watergate matter was being investigated by a federal Grand Jury, Senate and House committees, and a Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, whom Nixon fired in October 1973, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

It was the Senate committee that found out about the tapes. Yes, in the immortal words of Dick Cavett, Nixon had been “bugging himself,” and there was a huge fight over the tapes that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered Nixon to turn them over. The tapes revealed that Nixon had in fact been involved in a cover-up from the beginning, and that he had been lying about it from the get-go. There was also an 18-and-a-half-minute gap on one of the tapes that Nixon probably erased himself, the contents of which, to this day, are yet unknown.

In late July 1974, the House committee recommended three articles of impeachment against Nixon, who resigned in a nationally televised address to the nation on August 9, 1974. Had he not resigned, Nixon most certainly would have been impeached by the full House, convicted in the Senate trial, and removed from office.

In the aftermath of Watergate, literally dozens of Nixon’s men would be convicted of crimes and serve time in prison. Chief among them were Nixon’s 1972 campaign manager, who had been Attorney General, John Mitchell; his Chief of Staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman; his domestic affairs advisor, John Ehrlichman; his White House Counsel, John Dean; and many, many others.

It was Gerald R. Ford, not the man who had been elected and re-elected with Nixon, who became our nation’s 38th President. That’s because in Nixon’s first — and worst — presidential decision, he had chosen Spiro Agnew as his vice-presidential running mate. As Governor of Maryland and as Vice President of the United States, Agnew had been taking bribes. This happened during Watergate but was not connected to Watergate. When caught in 1973 he was forced to resign, and Nixon named Congressman Ford to replace him.

All of this and more is described in “Richard Nixon: The Life,” by John A. Farrell, published in 2017. This presidential biography clocks in at 700-plus pages including notes and bibliography. I found the book an absolute pleasure to read. In my view, the author was more or less fair to Nixon. I happen to already know a great deal about Nixon’s presidency and about Watergate, but in this book I learned a great deal about Nixon’s long and extensive career in public life before he became President.

Also documented in the book is what is known today as the “Chennault affair.” According to this book and other sources, Nixon sent Anna Chennault, who was working on his 1968 presidential election campaign, to Paris to sabotage peace negotiations being conducted by the Johnson administration and the North Vietnamese, thus prolonging the Vietnam War. It’s yet another example of Nixon’s malfeasance.

Here is a bit more about our nation’s 37th President:

  • He was a Quaker.
  • He played piano.
  • Both of Nixon’s daughters had notable weddings. Julie married David Eisenhower, grandson of the former President, at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City in 1966, before Nixon’s presidency. Then during Nixon’s presidency Tricia married Edward Cox in the White House Rose Garden, in 1971.
  • Nixon has been described as being paranoid, reclusive, anti-social and withdrawn.
  • During the Watergate years many reported that he appeared to have been drinking excessively.
  • Also during Watergate he made a high-profile trip to China, where he palled around with a bunch of Communists.
  • According to the book, he gave his staff strange orders. He presumed they would ignore the really outrageous requests, but he expected everyone to know the difference between a real order and one not to be acted upon.
  • He hated journalists and viewed the press and as enemies.
  • He had a trademark gesture in which he raised his arms up in the air and made a “V for victory” sign with both hands. It also looked like the peace sign, except Nixon would never let himself be associated with “hippie culture.”
  • As President, Nixon presided over the elimination of the gold standard, and he issued wage and price controls in an effort to tamp down inflation. He managed to keep the economy going, but, according to the book, this only forestalled the inevitable downturn that his successors would have to deal with, to their own detriment.
  • He called for federal healthcare legislation that was, more or less, just like the Affordable Care Act that would be enacted decades later.
  • He appeared on the popular TV show “Laugh-In.”
  • He and his wife are mentioned by name in the Rolling Stones song “Rip This Joint,” the second song on the band’s classic 1972 double album “Exile on Main St.”
  • He’s also mentioned in the 1975 David Bowie song “Young Americans.”
  • And he’s referenced indirectly in Queen’s 1978 single “Bicycle Race.”
  • And he’s mentioned in the 1978 movie “Grease.”
  • He got the nickname “Tricky Dick” from Helen Gahagan Douglas, his Democratic opponent for Senate in 1950. He had dishonestly accused her of being a Communist who was “pink right down to her underwear.”
  • After his loss in the California governor’s race in 1962, he spoke to reporters and made a number of unhinged remarks, including, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
  • In 1973 he was being investigated for tax fraud, unrelated to Watergate, and spoke to reporters in yet another angry, unhinged rant in which be claimed to have never obstructed justice, and then he said this memorable line: “I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.”
  • After resigning from office but before leaving the White House in the helicopter, he spoke to reporters and made even more unhinged remarks, including this bizarre statement: “Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”

After his presidency, Nixon returned to California before moving to New York City and eventually settling in New Jersey. In retirement, he wrote several books and tried to re-invent himself as an elder statesman, which he wasn’t. Pat died in 1993, and Nixon died in 1994. And good riddance to him, too. In my view, he was a bad man and a bad president. Our world today is still dealing with much of the harm Nixon unleashed, and in my opinion we would all be much better off if he had exited from national politics in 1952, as Ike had wanted.


Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President by Robert Dallek book reviewLyndon Baines Johnson, also known as LBJ, was our nation’s 36th President. He was from Texas. He was elected Vice President under John F. Kennedy in 1960 and became president on Nov. 22, 1963, when JFK was assassinated in Dallas. Johnson took the oath of office in a somber, quickly thrown together ceremony aboard Air Force One before the plane took off to return to Washington, as documented in the famous photograph. The following year LBJ was elected to the presidency in his own right, winning in a landslide over the right-wing Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. In the 1964 presidential election, Johnson received 61.1 percent of the popular vote vs. 38.5 percent for Goldwater. In the Electoral College that year, it was 486 votes for Johnson and 52 for Goldwater.

Politically, President Johnson was a liberal Democrat. His legacy is still with us today. He admired what President Franklin D. Roosevelt had done for our country, and he wanted to build upon that legacy. FDR had used the label “New Deal,” and LBJ coined the terms “war on poverty” and the “Great Society” to sell his proposed government programs to the American people. He signed massive amounts of new legislation into law, including federal aid to schools, consumer protections, environmental regulations, and funding for mass transit, public broadcasting, food stamps and housing. He also signed into law the Freedom of Information Act, plus gun control, immigration reform, employment nondiscrimination and protections for people with physical disabilities. Johnson’s biggest domestic achievement was the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid. It took a considerable amount of political skill and arm-twisting to get these programs enacted.

LBJ invested even more of his political capital to improve racial justice in our country. He got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, and unlike previous laws these had real meaning for American citizens with black skin. For the first time in our nation’s history, under federal law, black people were finally able to enjoy equal access to schools and public accommodations and — most importantly — to vote. Additionally, the Medicare law was written in such a way as to prohibit racial discrimination in hospitals and doctors offices. This had immense effect. And in a milestone for the Supreme Court, Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall an Associate Justice, thus breaking the color barrier on the nation’s highest court.

Sadly, it was also during the Johnson presidency that American involvement in Vietnam spiraled out of control. The North Vietnamese, who were Communists, wanted one unified country under Communist rule. The capital of North Vietnam was Hanoi. We were on the side of the South Vietnamese, whose capital was Saigon. The Viet Cong, a Communist military organization, was all over South Vietnam. The fear was that if Vietnam went Communist, it would cause a “domino effect” that would be impossible to stop. The Soviet Union and China would then become the world’s dominant countries, and the American capitalist system would wane. No, we could not let that happen, the thinking went. We had to make a stand in Vietnam. Our involvement had started under Eisenhower and Kennedy with a few thousand military “advisers,” but that term was really a euphemism.

It was not even a declared war. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed by Congress in August 1964 in response to an attack on a U.S warship that was either real or conjured up, gave the President the authority to escalate. Gradually over time, we sent more and more ground troops to Southeast Asia, eventually hundreds of thousands, most of whom were drafted. The problem was that no matter how much support we gave them, no matter how many troops we sent, no matter how many bombs we dropped against the North Vietnamese, the war was unwinnable. The South Vietnamese were simply not able to form a viable government of their own. Those who were in charge of the government in the South were corrupt and incompetent. They oppressed Buddhists. And the North Vietnamese were not going to give up, no way, never. Things just kept getting worse and worse. And as the situation worsened, LBJ’s popularity fell with the American public. Johnson had wanted to pass more domestic initiatives, but the war in Vietnam was sapping too many of our resources. He had to call for tax increases.

In January 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, so named for the Vietnamese New Year holiday, in which they attacked a number of sites all over South Vietnam. Although it was not a success for them militarily, it had tremendous ramifications because it affirmed that the war had become a stalemate. All during this time, the anti-war movement gathered momentum and became more and more unstoppable. There were protests on college campuses. By March 1968 Johnson, with his approval rating in the gutter, decided not to run for re-election. He made the announcement on national television. His exact words: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

This comes at the end of “Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President,” by Robert Dallek, the subject of today’s book report. This biography, at 375 pages, is a “Readers Digest condensed” version of the same author’s two-volume biography of LBJ. I selected this book because I did not want to read thousands and thousands of pages on Johnson. There is also yet another, even more famous multi-volume biography of Johnson by Robert Caro, which I am skipping because of its daunting length. (So far Caro has written FOUR very long books about LBJ, with a fifth on the way!)

The best part of this book by Dallek, the one I read, came at the end, in which the author offers a thoughtful analysis of the Johnson presidency, and Johnson the man. But what I learned most came in its early chapters about LBJ’s upbringing and his rise to power. LBJ came from humble roots. His family was poor. He was born in 1908 in the remote town of Stonewall, Texas. During and immediately after college he was a schoolteacher. He taught in small towns, and his students were poor and disadvantaged. He would think about them often during his entire political career. In 1931 Johnson moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as an aide to Richard M. Kleberg, who had just been elected to the House of Representatives. The Congressman was lazy, and so Johnson actually did all the work for him behind the scenes! He put in long hours and learned the ins and outs of how things were done in the nation’s capital. He even caught the attention of the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1937 Johnson ran for his own seat in the House and won, representing the 10th District, which included Austin.

Johnson also had a brief stint in the military during World War II. He entered the Naval Reserve in 1940. After Pearl Harbor, FDR sent him to Australia, in part to be his eyes and ears. Johnson, who was a sitting U.S. Congressman, was sent on one combat air mission against the Japanese before returning stateside to resume his career in Congress.

In 1941 Johnson ran for the U.S. Senate but lost in the primary. He tried again in 1948, and this time he won the primary and then in the general. Over the next dozen years, Johnson would come to dominate the Senate. He became Senate Majority Whip for the Democrats, then Senate Minority Leader, then Senate Majority Leader, which is the same position Mitch McConnell has today. In 1960 Johnson tried for the Democratic nomination for president, but Kennedy prevailed and then selected Johnson as his running mate. After he took office JFK asked Vice President Johnson to be chairman of the space council. At the time there was a “space race” going on between the United States and the Soviet Union. Vice President Johnson also went on a number of overseas trips, in which he passed out pens and other souvenirs.

Here are a few more notes about LBJ:

  • He could be physically crude, and he had a dominating and forceful personality. He employed what came to be known as “the treatment,” which was a combination of intimidation, flattery, forceful persuasion and getting in a person’s physical space, to strong-arm politicians into voting in a certain way or supporting a particular cause.
  • Johnson also used racially insensitive language. There are tapes. He can be heard using racial epithets when speaking to Senators when pressuring them to go along with his civil rights legislation. According to the author, LBJ used such language not because he was racist himself but because it was the way Southerners talked back then and a way to get through to them.
  • According to political lore, it was the passage of the civil rights laws in the early 1960s that caused the South to swing Republican. Johnson even predicted that this would happen.
  • During Johnson’s presidency, there were inner city riots in Los Angeles, Detroit and other cities in response to police violence against blacks. As we know now, the causes of these uprisings were very serious and very real. The only difference back then is that we did not have the cellphone videos.
  • One of Johnson’s first acts as president was to appoint a panel of distinguished Americans to investigate the assassination of JFK and present a report to the American public. This became known as the Warren Commission, named after its chairman, Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the United States. Also on the commission was Congressman Gerald R. Ford of Michigan. Their conclusion — correct, in my opinion — was that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
  • During the 1964 presidential race against Goldwater, the Johnson campaign ran an ad on television showing a little girl picking petals from a daisy, then the camera zooms in on her eye and a nuclear bomb goes off. The ad was shocking and aired only once.
  • As mentioned, Medicare and Medicaid ranked among Johnson’s crowning achievements. In 1965 he invited former President Harry S. Truman to the signing of the Medicare Bill. Truman had been an advocate of universal health care. The ceremony took place in Independence, Missouri, Truman’s hometown.
  • When Johnson announced he was not going to seek another term of office in 1968 it looked like Robert F. Kennedy would win the Democratic nomination and go on to win the presidency. After Bobby was assassinated, Vice President Hubert Humphrey went on to receive the Democratic nomination, and he lost to Richard Nixon.
  • After LBJ left the presidency and returned to Texas, he grew long hair!
  • LBJ had married Claudia Alta Taylor, more commonly known as Lady Bird, and they had two daughters.
  • Everything in Johnson’s life that could be named had the initials LBJ. This included his daughters Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson, his ranch and even the family pets.
  • Johnson bought local radio and television stations in Texas, and the profits and proceeds from these provided enough money for him to retire comfortably and provide for Lady Bird after his death.
  • LBJ died January 22, 1973, at age 64.

One more, final note about Johnson: He was president when I was born, but I have absolutely no recollection of him at all in my own personal memories.

Jackie Kennedy via Clint Hill

Clint Hill was a Secret Service agent assigned to protect Jacqueline Kennedy. He’s the one who jumped on the back of the car in Dallas. He’s done a number of television interviews over the years, and he also wrote a few books about his experiences, including “Mrs. Kennedy and Me,” about the four years he spent with the first lady and her family.

Fred Michmershuizen

Through Mr. Hill, we learn a bit more about Mrs. Kennedy and her day-to-day life both in and out of the public eye. He narrates about life in the White House, various private family retreats to Florida and Massachusetts, as well as high-profile trips overseas. Many of the stories in this book are fun to read about. The chapters about the assassination come at the very end, and some of the details, which are also documented elsewhere, are quite grim. (Hill also wrote “Five Days in November,” which is an hour-by-hour account of the trip to Texas that ended in tragedy for Mrs. Kennedy and the whole country, which is another worthwhile read, in my opinion.)

Clint Hill book reviewTwo of the more peculiar incidents described in the book both involve Aristotle Onassis, the wealthy and famous Greek who would one day become Jackie’s second husband. Jackie made two solo trips to Greece during JFK’s presidency. According to the book, Hill was summoned to the Oval Office before the first trip and told by the President himself that whatever happens, to keep Jackie away from Onassis. But on her second trip Jackie stayed with Onassis on his yacht, this time with the full blessing of JFK. Hill says he was puzzled but that he never felt it his place to ask for explanation.

Here are a few more notes about Jackie Kennedy:

  • Like her husband, she came from a wealthy family.
  • She was beautiful, glamorous and immensely popular.
  • Daughter Caroline Kennedy was a toddler when JFK was elected, and John Jr. was born in the weeks after the election in 1960. Another child, Patrick, was born in the summer of 1963 but died.
  • Mrs. Kennedy liked to exercise every day, and some of her favorite physical activities included horseback riding and waterskiing.
  • She renovated the White House and then gave a tour that was nationally televised.
  • She was fluent in French, which helped endear her to foreign dignitaries on the Kennedys’ trip to Paris.
  • On the Texas trip, while in San Antonio, Mrs. Kennedy addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens in Spanish and received an enthusiastic response.

Also during JFK’s presidency, Jackie helped arrange a visit of the Mona Lisa to the United States. I’ll have more to say about that most famous of all paintings in some upcoming, non-presidential book reports.

Top Photo: Mrs. Kennedy in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. (Robert Knudsenderivative, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


John F. Kennedy, also known as JFK, also known as Jack Kennedy, was our nation’s 35th president. Among his most lasting achievements were the founding of the Peace Corps and his fostering of the space program. He also prevented nuclear annihilation. He was a war hero. He was young and energetic and had movie-star good looks. His wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, also known as Jackie, and later Jackie O, was enormously popular in her own right. Kennedy was the immediate successor to Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was a Democrat. He defeated then Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the presidential election of 1960. Three years later, in an event that shocked the world, Kennedy was shot to death in front of thousands of people in Dallas. His assassination took place on this day (Nov. 22) in 1963. Upon JFK’s death, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as President.

Today’s book report is about “An Unfinished Life — John. F. Kennedy: 1917-1963,” by Robert Dallek. This biography, at 718 pages of text, focuses mostly on the Kennedy presidency. There is almost nothing in the book about the assassination itself, although there is plenty of information about the many issues Kennedy was wrestling with in the weeks and months leading up to his trip to Texas. The author speculates about what kind of president JFK might have become had he won re-election to a second term.

Fred Michmershuizen

As president, Kennedy faced a number of domestic and international challenges, including the economy, civil rights, dealing with the Russians in post World War II Europe, and the immense challenges that the existence of nuclear weapons posed to our country and to the world at large. It was the height of the Cold War, and Kennedy clashed with Nikita Kruschev, the leader of the USSR.

Both his biggest failure and his greatest success while in office involved Cuba. Shortly after Kennedy took office, he authorized a covert operation intended to remove Fidel Castro from power. The plan, which had been formulated during Eisenhower’s presidency, was to use CIA operatives and anti-Castro Cuban exiles to invade the island, where they would presumably be greeted as liberators (sound familiar?), thus causing Castro to be toppled from power. Of course this did not go as planned. What became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion turned into a massive disaster, ultimately strengthening Castro’s hand. Kennedy could have escalated matters by ordering a full-scale military assault, as many of his military advisors had presumed would happen, but to his credit Kennedy accepted the loss and took responsibility for it.

The following year, in October 1962, the Soviet Union began installing missiles in Cuba that they could have used to strike the United States with nuclear weapons. Some of Kennedy’s military advisors wanted us to bomb Cuba and ask questions later, or to launch a ground invasion. Anyone who has seen the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film “Dr. Strangelove” might remember how crazy for war some of the military chiefs were. According to Dallek, at least one of them was drawn from real life. Instead of a belligerent military response, which in all likelihood would have sparked all-out nuclear war, Kennedy decided to use a naval blockade, which he called a “quarantine,” along with diplomacy, which turned into quite forceful diplomacy involving the United Nations, to get the missiles out of Cuba. It worked. In my view, it was Kennedy’s astute, intelligent and well-reasoned leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis that prevented unspeakable death and destruction.

The book starts at the beginning of the 35th president’s life. As we learn, John F. Kennedy was born 1917 to a famous and wealthy family. Both of JFK’s grandfathers had been prominent in local and state politics. JFK was the second oldest of nine children of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Joe Sr. was a successful businessman who became immensely wealthy through many ventures as well as by investing in the stock market. He was also a prominent Democrat. President Franklin D. Roosevelt named him the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and later appointed him ambassador to Great Britain. In 1938, as Britain was appeasing Hitler, all 11 Kennedys went to London, and they were there when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out. But Joe Sr. was an isolationist, and when he said some things in the press that were not in keeping with U.S. policy at the time, FDR recalled him.

John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office on July 11, 1963. (Photo: Cecil Stoughton, White House, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Back home, after Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 1940, he attempted to join the U.S. Army as an officer, but he was disqualified due to health reasons. The following year, he tried again, this time with the Navy. His father pulled some strings to get him in despite a bad back, and JFK eventually assumed command of various PT Boats. In 1943 he was commanding the PT-109 in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific theater when it was struck and destroyed by a Japanese ship. He led himself and the 10 surviving crew members to safety, but it took many days for them to be rescued. At one point Kennedy swam 2 miles through the open ocean to seek help for his men, despite what must have been excruciating physical pain, not to mention extreme hunger and thirst. He was later honored with various medals, including a Purple Heart, for his service.

After the war Kennedy briefly became a newspaper correspondent before entering into politics. He first ran for Congress from Massachusetts in 1946, with the backing of his father, who poured massive amounts of cash into this and subsequent campaigns. Kennedy served three terms in the House. Then, in 1952 he was elected to the United States Senate, defeating Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1958 before running for President in 1960.

Here are some additional revelations from this book. Before and during his presidency, Kennedy experienced many health problems that were not disclosed to the American people. When he was still in college he was frequently hospitalized. Today many of his health problems have been attributed to Addison’s disease, which is a disorer of the adrenal glands, however JFK’s health issues were much more complicated than that. According to the book, he experienced lifelong gastrointestinal problems and chronic back pain. He was frequently medicated with steroids and other drugs. Other revelations in the book involve Kennedy’s sex life. Before and during his marriage to Jackie, JFK was a womanizer. He had many conquests. One of his many affairs might have been with Marilyn Monroe. The also author says that the infamous White House taping system, which would later result in Nixon’s downfall, was installed by Kennedy! There were even missing tapes, he says, speculating that they might have been destroyed to cover up dalliances with Marilyn, or perhaps a secret plot against Castro, or perhaps details of JFK’s health problems.

More notes about JFK, his family and his presidency:

  • Kennedy wrote several books, the most famous of which is “Profiles In Courage,” which was probably ghost written. He also published “Why England Slept,” which was his college thesis, about Britain failing to strengthen its military in the aftermath of the first world war even as Germany was becoming more of a menace.
  • Kennedy was not considered a true liberal by Democratic Party standard-bearers such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson.
  • Unlike his father, who was an isolationist, Kennedy was a globalist.
  • JFK traveled extensively before becoming president, including all over Europe and South America. He was curious about the world.
  • Civil rights leaders were frustrated by lack of progress during his presidential administration.
  • The civil rights march on Washington in which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech took place when Kennedy was president.
  • He was Catholic, which at the time of his election was a huge issue.
  • Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, who became Speaker of the House, was successor to JFK in his House seat.
  • As president, Kennedy made a visit to West Berlin and spoke before a massive crowd.
  • The presidential couple had a daughter, Caroline Kennedy, who would one day serve as ambassador to Japan. Today she is their only surviving descendant.
  • Their son, John F. Kennedy Jr., also known as John-John, who was just turning 3 years old when his father was killed, became a lawyer and magazine publisher and might have gone into politics himself one day. But he died in a plane crash along with his wife and sister-in-law in 1999.
  • John and Jackie also had a daughter who was stillborn, and a son who died in infancy.
  • In order of birth starting with the oldest, the Kennedy siblings consisted of Joseph aka Joe Jr.; John; Rosemary; Kathleen; Eunice; Patricia; Robert aka Bobby; Jean; and Edward aka Ted.
  • Joe Jr. was killed during World War II. Kathleen was killed in a plane crash in 1948. Rosemary was developmentally disabled and, sadly, she spent most of her life institutionalized.
  • According to Kennedy family lore, Joe Jr. was the one who was destined to become president someday, but when the oldest son was killed during World War II the mantle fell upon John.
  • Eunice married Sargent Shriver, who helped found the Peace Corps and who was George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate in 1972. One of their children is Maria Shriver, the television journalist who was married to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Eunice founded the Special Olympics.
  • Patricia was married to the actor Peter Lawford.
  • Robert F. Kennedy, also known as RFK or Bobby Kennedy, was JFK’s Attorney General and one of his closest political advisors. Bobby clashed with LBJ. In 1965 he became a Senator from New York, and he was running for the Democratic nomination for president when he was assassinated in 1968 the night he won the California primary.
  • Jean served as ambassador to Ireland and died this past June.
  • Edward Kennedy, more commonly known as Ted, became a Senator from Massachusetts during the JFK presidency. He served for 47 years until his death from brain cancer in 2009.
  • John F. Kennedy was the eighth and most recent president to die in office and the fourth to be killed. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley were also assassinated. William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding and Franklin D. Roosevelt died of natural causes.

As I mentioned the Dallek book does not delve into the assassination itself, but each year around this time a number of TV specials about that day in Dallas are shown on the Smithsonian Channel, the History Channel and other channels. I’ve learned a great deal from many of these documentaries, and they stand in stark contrast to the 1991 Oliver Stone movie “JFK,” which in my opinion is total rubbish.

One much more worthwhile film about Kennedy is “Thirteen Days,” from 2000, with Kevin Costner. Although the movie is a bit off in some of the details and personnel involved, in my opinion it does a good job of portraying the skill and thoughtfulness that JFK used to avert nuclear war. It was, in my opinion, Kennedy’s finest hour.






After Eisenhower led the Allies to victory over Hitler in World War II, he went on to become our nation’s 34th President. Elected in 1952 and re-elected in 1956, he served two full terms. His predecessor was Truman, and his successor was JFK. Richard Nixon was his vice president. Ike, a moderate Republican, was immensely popular. He was a fiscal conservative but not an ideologue. Unlike many in his party who wanted to dismantle the New Deal, Ike oversaw the expansion of Social Security and increased its benefits. He implemented an increase in the federal minimum wage. He supported more access to health care, and he established the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He funded the development of the polio vaccine.

On making our country a bit less racist, Eisenhower made some progress. Ike’s five appointments to the Supreme Court included both conservatives and liberals, most notably Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision that desegregated the nation’s schools. Ike signed civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, but these bills were largely toothless. In the American armed services, meanwhile, Truman had already ordered desegregation but the military leaders had dragged their feet. Ike got better results.

Ike was responsible for two of our nation’s most important infrastructure projects, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Interstate Highway System. I’ll say more about the highways in a moment.

Fred Michmershuizen
Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945 (public domain photo)


Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in a small town in Texas and grew up in Abilene, Kansas. He had many siblings, mostly brothers. The family was not wealthy. Ike married Mamie Doud, and their marriage featured many ups and downs over the years. They had two sons, the first of whom died in early childhood. The son who survived, John Eisenhower, had a military career like his father. John Eisenhower had four children, the eldest of whom, David Eisenhower, would eventually marry Richard Nixon’s daughter Julie.

Like many generals before and since, Ike attended West Point. He was an average student there. He passed a merit exam to get in. Attending West Point allowed Ike to embark upon a successful military career. When World War I broke out Ike wanted to be sent to Europe, but instead he was assigned to a number of posts stateside. He became an expert on tanks.

By the time World War II broke out Ike had advanced in rank. Leap-frogging over many other generals who had more seniority and battlefield experience, he was chosen to lead the Allied invasion of northern Africa. Later, even more importantly, Ike led the allied invasion of France as Supreme Allied Commander. D-Day, as it became known, was the largest military engagement the world has seen before or since. It involved incomprehensible planning and organizational detail. Under Ike’s leadership, the invasion was a success and turned the tide of war against the Nazis once and for all. All during the war, to his credit, Ike dealt skillfully with three of the world’s most daunting and colossal egos: the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and French resistance leader Charles de Gaulle. After WWII ended, Ike served as Army Chief of Staff and Supreme Commander of NATO, and he also served as President of Columbia University.

Although Ike had never disclosed a party affiliation — or if he even had one — both the Democrats and the Republicans wanted him to run for president. When he ran on the GOP ticket in 1952 he did so in opposition to the isolationist wing of his party that was headed by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, who was President William Howard Taft’s son. That November Ike defeated the Democratic nominee, Illinois Governor Adlai Stephenson, in a landslide, and he did so again in a rematch in 1956. His campaign slogan was “I like Ike.”

Here are some additional notes about Ike:

  • Everyone called him Ike.
  • During his service overseas during World War II, he had an affair with a woman who was not his wife. According to personal correspondence of those involved, this was indeed a sexual relationship. The “other woman” was Kay Summersby, who was Ike’s driver and later his secretary. She was British. They carried on with each other in full view of other military leaders and even in front of FDR when he met with Ike in person during the war. Ike and Kay had a dog together, and they were so open as to go to the theater in London and be photographed. Not surprisingly, Mamie, who was back home in Washington, found out about the affair.
  • The marriage between Ike and Mamie was, apparently, not completely happy in all respects. Even before Ike’s affair, the two lived apart for much of the time.
  • The presidential retreat Camp David is named for David Eisenhower, Ike’s grandson, the one who married the Nixon daughter.
  • Ike was physically active. He played and then coached football. He became a golfer.
  • He could pilot an aircraft.
  • He was a chain smoker until one day he quit. When asked how he was able to give up his lifelong habit so abruptly he replied that it was simple, he just gave myself “an order.”
  • Ike had a heart attack and a stroke during his presidency, and also he underwent intestinal surgery.
  • During his military career, Ike served under Generals George C. Marshall, John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. He spent several years working under Pershing, who had been the top U.S. general during World War I, on a monuments commission in Europe. He also was stationed in the Philippines for several years under MacArthur.
  • According to the book, Ike did not have undiluted admiration for MacArthur.
  • Ike also had a less than stellar opinion of Nixon.
  • Ike was president during “McCarthyism” — the anti-Communist era in our government that was largely based on irrational fear and false accusations from Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and many others including Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The witch hunts got started under Truman but ended under Eisenhower
  • In the 1950s France was heavily involved in Vietnam and sought U.S. assistance, but Eisenhower was wary of U.S. entanglement there.
  • In a televised farewell address to the nation, Ike warned policy makers not to become beholden to defense contractors. In his televised speech, Ike famously coined a new term: “military-industrial complex.”

This is all according to “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” the 766-page biography by historian Jean Edward Smith. Published in 2012 and filled with lots of photographs and references to original source material, this biography offers so much information that my book report today can only scratch the surface. In his footnotes, Mr. Smith dispels some misconceptions about Eisenhower perpetrated by others over the years, especially by author Stephen E. Ambrose, who is considered by many (wrongly, in my view) to be the top historian on Eisenhower. This is another long book that seemed short. It was a pleasure to read. Approximately a third of the book is devoted to Eisenhower’s upbringing and early life, and then it’s about equal parts World War II and the presidency. For me, the emotional high point of the book came in the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education, when Ike sent in federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to protect the right of nine black students to attend public school.

Fred Michmershuizen Dental Tribune

In my view Eisenhower was, all in all, a good president. Sometimes he is referred to as a “caretaker president,” but that might not be a bad thing. As Mr. Smith points out in this book, Ike kept the economy on an even keel and balanced the federal budget. He worked well with Democrats in Congress, and he had a genuine respect for the U.S. Constitution. To his credit, Ike also ended the fighting in Korea and prevented the U.S. from going to war with the USSR and China. The way I see it, steering a middle course, especially in times of peace and economic growth, is usually the best. And the American people approved of Ike throughout his entire presidency by ranking him very high in public approval polls and in his two landslide victories, in ’52 and ’56.

But — on the other hand, not everything Eisenhower did was beneficial to all Americans and to the country as a whole. Perhaps intentionally or because he wasn’t paying enough attention, Ike allowed the CIA to undermine and ultimately topple the legitimately elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, setting off unfathomable negative consequences. It also became a pattern.

Also troubling, and not mentioned in the book, is that it was under the Eisenhower administration that an irrational, unfair policy of excluding gays and lesbians from the federal workforce was implemented as part of the Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era. This anti-gay discrimination in the federal government — known today as the “lavender scare” — lasted for decades and did untold damage to countless lives.

Also not mentioned in the book and even more problematic, in my opinion, is that the country’s fancy new highways, combined with federal neglect of trains and public transportation, paved the way for white flight to the suburbs and the growth of the shopping mall — all of which fostered racial and economic disparity, the effects of which we are still dealing with today.


That famous photograph of Harry S. Truman holding up a newspaper with the erroneous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” was taken in St. Louis the day after the 1948 presidential election. Truman became our nation’s 33rd President in April 1945, when FDR died in office at the end of World War II. In short order and on Truman’s watch, we defeated Nazi Germany and then Japan and brought our boys home. But Truman had not been very popular during his first four years in office. Public opinion polls, the press and his fellow politicians all projected that he was going to lose. When the early returns on election night indicated as much, the editors of the Chicago Daily Tribune (now the Chicago Tribune) printed their headline, which turned out to be wrong, giving Truman something to laugh about.

Official portrait of Harry S. Truman by Greta Kempton painted in 1945 — the year our nation’s 33rd president first asked Congress to pass universal health care for every American.


That fall, the man from Independence, Missouri, ever confident, had campaigned energetically across large swaths of the country, largely from the back of a train, and wherever he went he drew impressive crowds. Even when his train made whistle-stop stops in small towns in the wee hours, large masses turned out to hear this down-to-earth, man-on-the street kind of man. In many ways he was a man of the people. He knew what it was like to put in a hard day’s work. He had been a farmer, and a small business owner. He was a war veteran too. He was not a great orator, but he always spoke honestly and directly, without equivocation or trying to play both sides of the coin. Famously, he never blamed others.

Before he became Vice President and then President, Truman served in the United States Senate, where he developed a reputation as a “New Deal Democrat.” As President, he was even more progressive in many respects than FDR had been. He called for a higher minimum wage, and proposed increased federal spending for education, housing and public works projects. He also called for universal health care for all Americans. He called these proposals the “Fair Deal.” Truman was also better than FDR had been on civil rights. He laid the groundwork for the desegregation of the U.S. military, and he prohibited discrimination based on race for those applying for civil service jobs.

On the world stage, Truman supported the formation of the United Nations and NATO, and he pledged support to countries electing their own leaders in free elections. This policy, known as the Truman Doctrine, was intended as a check on the growing influence of the Soviet Union. Truman was also responsible for the Marshall Plan, which provided postwar economic aid to Western Europe, and the Berlin Airlift, which delivered food and other supplies to the Western part of Berlin that was surrounded by the Soviets. He recognized the state of Israel upon its founding in 1948.

“Truman” by David McCullough


It was also Truman who made the fateful decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan. And he sent our troops to Korea, which would eventually cost countless thousands of American lives. What I did not realize before reading “Truman,” the masterful, thousand-page biography by David McCullough, is how much worse these things would have turned out to be, had it not been for the bespectacled man in the White House with a sign on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.” When Truman made a decision, it was only after careful deliberation about what he thought was best for the country. If that made him less popular, so be it.

It was toward the end of his time in office that Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, thus plunging his already low public approval even lower. At the time this was shocking. But with the passage of time many, including me, believe that MacArthur was a dangerous demagogue who needed to be fired. It took a man like Truman to have the guts to dismiss him. The general had threatened to use nuclear weapons against China. And he interfered with Truman’s diplomatic efforts to bring the fighting in Korea to an end. By relieving MacArthur, Truman solidified one of the most important principles of our Constitution, which is civilian control of the military.

Another of Truman’s achievements was the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission, which is now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which put control of atomic weapons and energy in elected civilian hands, rather than the military.

When he left office Truman was unpopular, but over time his standing in the eyes of the public began to improve, to the point at which, today, when surveys are conducted, he usually ranks in the upper tier.

Truman was born in 1884 and hailed from Independence, Missouri. Today that’s part of the Kansas City metropolitan area, but in Truman’s day it was a completely different city. After graduating from high school he attended a business college but did not graduate. Instead he took a number of jobs, including railroad timekeeper and bank clerk. He also worked for his father on a farm in Grandview, Missouri.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917 Truman was old enough that he could have stayed home, but instead he enlisted and went to France as an officer, where his talents as a leader emerged. Truman served in the war with bravery and initiative. He fought in three battles and later received medals.

Upon returning from the war, he opened a men’s clothing store in Kansas City with a business partner, which was successful until an economic downturn forced it out of business. But Truman paid off his store’s debts over the course of many years.

After the store went out of business Truman entered politics, as an elected county judge, with the help of the Pendergrasts, who were a well-connected political family. Truman himself was not corrupt, but the Pendergrasts were involved in all manner of shady dealings and Truman’s association with them caused grief for him for decades to come. Being county judge was an administrative job, not the kind of judge who presides over trials. Truman was responsible for building roads. And rather than awarding the contracts to friends of the Pendergrasts, he hired construction crews who could actually do the work and do it well and under budget. The roads in that part of the state had never been better.

In 1934 Truman was elected to the United States Senate, and he was re-elected in 1940. His crowning achievement as a Senator was his work as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, which became known as the Truman Committee. The goal was to root out waste, fraud and abuse in the military. Truman and his fellow committee members held hearings and made visits to military bases. But there was no grandstanding the way many other Senate committees conducted themselves. The Truman Committee took its business seriously, ultimately saving our nation untold billions of dollars. In my view, the work of Truman and his committee proved to be absolutely vital to our country’s ability to achieve victory in World War II.

In 1944, when FDR ran for his unprecedented fourth term, he was in failing health and party insiders decided to dump Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket because he was considered too far left, and replace him with Truman. According to the book, Truman did not want to do this but was strong-armed by FDR into going along with the plan. As fate would have it, Truman was Vice President for just 82 days before FDR died and he was summoned to the White House to take the oath of office.

Here are some additional notes about our nation’s 33rd President:

  • He played the piano.
  • The S. was a middle initial only, in honor of both is paternal and maternal grandfathers — Anderson Ship Truman and Solomon Young, respectively.
  • As a boy Truman had eyeglasses, which made him an oddball in rural Missouri.
  • He married Bess Wallace, and they had a single child, a daughter named Margaret.
  • Truman’s heroes were Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
  • Both before and during his presidency, Truman traveled extensively throughout the country.
  • He was an avid reader who was thoroughly educated about American history. He knew all about the Civil War, as well, including its many generals and all the battles and who won each and how.
  • When he was president, Truman had four Secretaries of State: Edward Stettinius Jr. (whom he inherited from FDR), James F. Byrnes, George Marshall and Dean Acheson. That third Secretary of State gave his name to the Marshall Plan, although it was really Truman’s plan but Truman wanted Marshall’s name on it to get it through Congress.
  • During his presidency Truman conducted a much-needed gut renovation of the White House, and while the construction was under way he and his wife and daughter lived across the street, in Blair House, for several years.
  • When Truman was staying in Blair House, he was the target of an assassination attempt by two Puerto Rican radicals. A police officer was killed in the gunfight between the would-be assassins, the police and the secret service.
  • When Truman was president his daughter, Margaret, embarked upon a career as a singer, with modest success. At one point Truman got in a huge public fight with a critic who had written her a bad review. In an interesting plot twist, years later that same newspaper critic was one of the few journalists who came to Truman’s defense when he fired MacArthur!
  • After Truman left the presidency and returned to Missouri, he had no Secret Service protection, but he did receive it after JFK was killed.
  • He lived until 1972, making him the earliest president to still be alive when I was born!
  • “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” was a one-man play, later turned into a movie, in which actor James Whitmore portrays Truman, reflects on his life and re-enacts various White House encounters. When I was very young, my mother and father took me to see this movie, and I remember being really bored but my parents thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

As I mentioned, I learned so much about Truman by reading the biography by McCullough. It was a pleasure to read this book, which is a comprehensive, cradle-to-grave narrative complete with helpful photographs, notes, index and bibliography. This was a long book that seemed short, and there is much, much more in it than mentioned above. There are some laugh-out-loud anecdotes, including one about a White House staff member fixing drinks for the first family and another in which Truman, while out on a walk, tells a tree that it’s doing a good job.

“Harry S. Truman” by Margaret Truman


I followed up McCullough with a second book, “Harry S. Truman” by Margaret Truman, at 581 pages. I remember my father having a copy of this book in paperback. I found a used copy at the Strand Bookstore before the pandemic. I was slightly disappointed in Margaret Truman’s book. I thought she would write more about the family life. Instead she focused on policy, but the descriptions of meetings were so detailed that I suspected that Truman himself wrote the book, or large portions of it, to help settle scores. Just a hunch.

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading just one book about Truman and it’s between these two, I would recommend McCullough’s. As for me, someday I definitely want to read more about Truman. In my view, he was one of our nation’s very best presidents.

End-of-year update on the presidents

This year I read biographies of seven more presidents, getting me a bit closer to my goal of reading at least one book on every president, in order. But, as you can see, I am running out of space on the bookshelf and I might have to build more shelves or else move! I have not started Truman yet, but I will in the New Year.


If you scroll back through my feed here on fredmick.com, you can read my most recent book reports, not only of presidents but others as well.

Rumors of War

Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” sculpture, on temporary display in Times Square. According to the description posted nearby, the work is a response to the many Confederate monuments displayed throughout the country. After being on display in New York until Dec. 1, the description says, the sculpture will go to Richmond, Va., where it will be permanently installed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” sculpture


Wiley is the same artist who painted President Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Kehinde Wiley Barack Obama


Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, was our nation’s 32nd President. He is considered one of the greats. He led our country during two of its most difficult challenges: The Great Depression and World War II. He was elected to an unprecedented third term, and then to an even more unprecedented fourth term. But he was president for 12 years, not 16. That’s because he died three months into his fourth term. He is the only president to have served more than two terms. He had three different vice presidents: John Nance Garner during his first and second terms, Henry A. Wallace during his third term and Harry S. Truman for his fourth. He won all four of his presidential elections in landslides. In 1932 he soundly defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover. In 1936 his opponent was Alf Landon, in 1940 Wendell Willkie and in 1944 Thomas E. Dewey.

Today’s book report is on “FDR” by Jean Edward Smith. There are many biographies of FDR to choose from, and I selected this particular title because I wanted a solidly written, one-volume, cradle-to-grave book. I am glad I chose this one. It clocks in at 600-plus pages of text, with an additional 200 pages of notes plus 32 pages of photographs. In my view, this is a well-researched and nicely written biography. Like in any good biography, the author describes not only the subject’s successes and triumphs but also his flaws and failures. Yes, FDR had quite a number of flaws. But he had many more good qualities. Many of these characteristics were endearing, even heroic. Many passages in this book were moving and brought a tear to my eye, and a few other descriptions made me laugh out loud. A minor complaint I had was the author’s frequent use of asterisks and footnotes — lots of them, on almost every page — breaking up the flow of reading. I also thought the coverage toward the end of the events leading up to D-Day, and then the 1944 presidential campaign, was a bit on the skimpy side. But all in all, this book was filled with tons of insight and information. Here is some of what I learned.


Franklin D. Roosevelt was born into a life of wealth and privilege. His status came not only from the paternal side of the family. His mother, Sara Delano, came from a wealthy family herself. Sara was what would be called today a helicopter parent. Her influence on her son was immeasurable. She saw that Franklin received an excellent education, first at home with tutors and later at boarding school. By the time he was 9 years old Franklin knew French and German. The family traveled extensively in Europe. He attended Harvard and graduated after three years, but he stayed on campus a fourth year as editor of the student newspaper, the Crimson.

Franklin was a distant cousin of both Theodore Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Franklin was from the Hyde Park (Hudson River) branch of the family, and Theodore and Eleanor were from the Oyster Bay (Long Island) branch. Theodore was Eleanor’s uncle. Eleanor’s father, Elliott (Theodore’s brother), died of alcoholism when Eleanor was a girl. Like her uncle and cousin, Eleanor also lived a life of privilege. She attended an all-girls boarding school in England that was taught entirely in French. Theodore was president when Franklin and Eleanor got married, and Theodore attended their wedding in Manhattan and gave Eleanor away. Eleanor Roosevelt’s maiden name was Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor and Franklin had six children, a daughter and five sons. One of the sons died in infancy. All of their children ended up getting married and divorced multiple times, and several of the sons embarrassed their father while he was president with various minor scandals. All of FDR’s sons served in World War II. At one point early in their marriage, Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair. The other woman was Lucy Mercer, and Eleanor found a packet of love letters they had exchanged. FDR broke off the affair. Eleanor and Franklin remained married, but from that point on they led separate lives, had separate groups of friends and had separate interests. In the White House, according to the book, FDR and Eleanor dined apart each night, in separate dining rooms, with different groups of people.

Eleanor became active in various social and philanthropic causes, as well as with various women’s organizations. In these circles she met and befriended two women, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, who lived together in an apartment in Greenwich Village. FDR built them a “shack,” which was actually a large mansion, called Val-Kill, located on the Hyde park property in New York State, where the women all lived together. The author of “FDR” does not delve too deeply into Eleanor’s relationships with other women or speculate on the scope of their intimacy. Eleanor was also close with various men in her life. According to the book, Eleanor had a male bodyguard, Earl Miller, a New York State Police officer, who became a companion and friend, and who might also have been more than a friend.

FDR got his start in politics as a State Senator. Then, following in cousin Theodore’s footsteps, he became assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1920 FDR ran for vice president as the running mate of James Cox. They lost to Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. A year later, FDR had a life-changing event. He contracted polio and was paralyzed from the waist down. He spent several years convalescing, first aboard houseboats in Florida and later in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he purchased a large property and turned it into a home for polio survivors. He faced his physical disability with courage, never asking for or seeking sympathy. He devised a strategy for appearances in public in which he would walk with crutches and braces while holding on to a son or a military aide. Always, even though he might have been in excruciating pain, he was smiling.

In 1928 FDR ran for governor of New York and won, again following in TR’s footsteps, and then in 1932 he ran for President and won. During this time, becoming governor of New York was seen as a stepping-stone to the White House. FDR was the fourth governor of New York to become president. Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland and TR were the others.

When FDR took office in 1933 the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis it had ever known. FDR acted quickly and decisively, first to stabilize the nation’s banks, and then to establish a number of government agencies and programs designed to put people back to work. He called this agenda the New Deal, and in his first 100 days he got Congress to pass enormous amounts of legislation. Some of these programs and agencies were temporary, while many others have survived to this day. The Public Works Administration (PWA) was created to use federal funds to build dams, bridges and schools. There was also the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which hired young men to plant trees. And later there was the Works Projects Administration (WPA), which also employed many people and funded many endeavors, including arts projects. FDR also signed into law legislation that created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), which for the first time protected depositors from bank failures; the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to regulate the stock market; and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which built dams and power stations and controlled flooding. He brought electricity to rural communities. He initiated legislation for unemployment insurance, and he signed the Social Security Act into law.

All of this was a departure from his three immediate predecessors, who thought that the Washington had no business enacting such programs. But FDR was different. He believed that the full force of the federal government should be brought to bear to provide for the general welfare, and to improve the lives of all citizens. Perhaps the biggest departure from his predecessors, however, was FDR’s sincere confidence that things would get better, that everything was going to be OK. Unlike Hoover, who was a pessimist, FDR was an optimist. It was in his first inaugural address that he uttered the immortal phrase that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself,” which was a message the American people needed to hear at the time.

The next huge event to confront FDR and the nation was the outbreak of World War II. Hitler was on a murderous rampage, and he had already invaded France and was threatening Britain. Yet the American public did not want to go to war. FDR helped Britain with desperately needed war materiel, under a policy that he devised called Lend-Lease. He also got Congress to enact a military draft. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, FDR gave his famous “a date which will live in infamy” speech to an emergency joint session of Congress, and he called for massive numbers of planes, tanks and ammunition to be manufactured in our nation’s factories. Early in the war, FDR devised a secret plan that allowed the United States to drop bombs on Tokyo. It was a crazy idea, but it worked. And while it had little military effect on the conflict at the time, it achieved a much-needed morale boost for the Americans. Again, FDR’s confidence and optimism came into play.

During the war FDR met many times with Churchill, and a few other times with Churchill and Stalin. According to the book, FDR did not micromanage the war effort. He set broad goals and left it to his generals to plan and execute the objectives. For D-Day, according to the book, FDR merely set the date and named Eisenhower commander, and he let his military leader conduct Operation Overlord, as it was code-named.

FDR also made several huge mistakes, and he had plenty of personal flaws. According to the book, he had been arrogant as a state senator and rubbed many people the wrong way. As president, he signed no civil rights legislation. The author says that FDR was unable to act on civil rights because he needed to keep southern racist Democrats in his fold, because he needed their support for his New Deal and war initiatives. Also, tragically, FDR went along with a plan during World War II to send Japanese Americans to concentration camps. During his second term FDR also interfered, unwisely, in various Democratic Party primary races and was embarrassed. Also during his second term he cut federal spending, which led to the “Roosevelt Recession,” which was basically a recession within the depression.

Perhaps FDR’s most famous blunder was his ill-fated scheme to pack the Supreme Court. This happened during his second term, after the court had struck down several of his New Deal programs as unconstitutional. FDR failed in his plan and was bruised politically. According to the book, the reason so much of the legislation had been struck down was that it had been poorly written or too hastily drafted.

Nevertheless, despite FDR’s shortcomings, his tenure in office includes momentous achievement. By the end of 1944 the depression was over, the Allies had invaded France and the tide of the war had turned and the end was in sight. FDR sought and won a fourth term, but his health had deteriorated markedly. He was in Warm Springs when he died in April 1945. Lucy Mercer, not Eleanor, was with him.

Here are a few more facts about FDR:

  • He was lifelong stamp collector.
  • He also collected stuffed birds.
  • He had a beloved dog, Fala.
  • He was a natural politician who knew how to cultivate relationships with key players in and out of government. He used flattery, cajoling and various other means to get what he wanted.
  • In 1932 FDR flew from Albany to Chicago to accept the Democratic Presidential nomination at the convention in person. The plane had to stop twice on the way for fuel.
  • In all his years as president, FDR had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. In some sessions the majorities were substantial, at other times narrow.
  • He held “Fireside Chats,” broadcast to the American people via radio. He started the broadcasts when he was governor of New York.
  • He had good relations with the press, and he held twice weekly press conferences.
  • As a precursor to full repeal of Prohibition, FDR signed federal legislation that legalized beer.
  • Every afternoon FDR observed “children’s hour,” in which he would mix drinks for himself and whoever he happened to be hosting that day.
  • When FDR was governor of New York, he named a woman, Frances Perkins, to his cabinet. When he became president, he named Perkins Labor Secretary. She was the first woman cabinet secretary.
  • FDR also had two female assistants, one of whom, Missy, was at his side constantly. When Missy had a stroke, FDR wrote her into his will, but she died first.
  • Eleanor was considered a political liability because she advocated for women’s equality and spoke out for civil rights for blacks.
  • FDR had a half-brother, James, who was many years older.
  • FDR was on a trip to Europe in 1901 with is mother when they received word that President McKinley had been assassinated and their cousin Theodore had become president.
  • When FDR was president-elect, a gunman tried to assassinate FDR when he was on a trip to Miami. FDR was not hit, but several bystanders were, as was the mayor of Chicago, who died.
  • He could quote British poetry from memory, a talent that endeared him to Churchill.
  • He drew a sketch for the design of what would become the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
  • According to the book, FDR was always seen in public standing with his braces locked, or seated in an open car. Only two pictures are known to exist showing FDR in a wheelchair.
  • The 22nd amendment, which limits a president to two terms, came into effect after FDR.

Whew! There is certainly a lot to consider about FDR. In my view, he was indeed one of our nation’s best presidents. I consider him to be the leader our country needed at the time, not only to help us get out of the depression but also to get us through the war. He left many lasting legacies, including Social Security, the FDIC, unemployment insurance, rural electricity, flooding protection — and the GI Bill, which FDR also signed, allowing millions of returning American servicemen to get an education and improve their lives and increase the nation’s standard of living. Plus of course, there’s the United Nations, which FDR laid the foundation for and is yet another organization that endures to this day.

What strikes me most, though, is that FDR did not have to do any of this. He was born rich enough that he could have spent his entire life doing essentially nothing. And then, after being stricken with polio, he could have retired from public life altogether. Nobody would have faulted him had he chosen to fade away. He had several comfortable homes to choose from. But there was something about FDR that made him genuinely want to help others, and to help his country.

Mister, we could use a man like FDR again.