Reading the News: The Kennedys

That’s right, I’m studiously ignoring the elephant in the room to bring you five books that concern the Kennedy assassination. (If you do not already know, the president is eager to tell you that the Kennedy files were released this week on his watch. Pay no attention to the fact that this release was scheduled back in 1992; Donald J. Trump presided over their 2017 release and that is all that matters.) There’s no question that Americans have been fascinated by the assassination for years, and you can make an argument that there’s a straight line connecting the conspiracy theories that surround Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby to today’s Birthers and fake news purveyors.

At any rate, I cannot resist an opportunity to recommend Adam Braver. (Please, people, read more Adam Braver.)

So here we go. Five books to read when considering the Kennedy assassination:

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  • The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw. If you want to start from the very beginning, start with this biography of JFK’s father, and concentrate on the way he raised his children. It gives you real insight into JFK’s character to learn more about where he came from.
  • President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves. There isn’t a lot of dirt here, but it is a closely detailed look at the Kennedy presidency, which is truly fascinating if you want to look past the mythology and learn more about what kind of president John F. Kennedy really was.
  • November 22, 1963, by Adam Braver. An impressionistic, fictional take on the day that Kennedy was shot, told from many different perspectives. The theme here is memory and history and their relationship. Brilliantly done. It’s a shame this book isn’t better known.
  • Libra, by Don DeLillo. A well-known fictionalized account of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, possibly DeLillo’s best novel. I confess I haven’t read it since grad school, but it strikes me that DeLillo’s conspiratorial sensibility is an amazingly good match for our current time.
  • Lincoln in American Memory, by Merrill D. Peterson. OK, so this book isn’t actually about Kennedy. It is, however, about how Americans turn fallen presidents into cultural icons and so I think it speaks to the way we remember Kennedy today.

The Best Thing I Read This Week

The Book of Joan

Burning is an art.
I remove my shirt and step toward a table where I have spread out the tools I will need. I swab my entire chest and shoulders with synthetic alcohol. My body is white against the black of space where we hover within a suborbital complex. CIEL.
Through the wall-size window I can see a distant nebula; its gases and hypnotic hues make me hold my breath. What a puny word that is, beautiful. Oh, how we need a new language to go with our new bodies.

And on the next page:

There is a song lodged in my skull, one whose origin I can’t recall. The tune is both omnipresent and simultaneously unreachable; the specifics drift away like space junk. There are times I think it will drive me mad, and then I remember that madness is the least of my concerns.
Today is my birthday, and pieces of the song from nowhere haunt my body, a sporadic orchestral thundering that rises briefly and then recedes.

The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch

Mr. President, I Rise Today to Say, Enough

Not the kind of thing I usually post, but Jeff Flake’s retirement speech is going to be in the history books someday:

When the next generation asks us, why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up? What are we going to say? Mr. President, I rise today to say, enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal.

With respect and humility, I must say that we have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, civility and stability right behind it.

We know better than that.

Will this be enough to wake up Trump’s base? Probably not. But someday something will.

In the meantime, I sincerely hope that Senator Flake means it when he says he will spend the remaining fourteen months of his term “stand[ing] up and speak[ing] out.”

Reading the News: The Military

Well, it has been quite the week, hasn’t it? Look, you can argue that the whole debate over which presidents called Gold Star families and which ones didn’t and what did Trump say to the pregnant war widow has been an overblown distraction. And I get the argument, but ultimately I think this controversy is pretty significant. First, because it speaks to the president’s tendency to respond to criticism with a torrent of untruths and abuse (and also revealed the his chief of staff’s propensity for the same, which was extremely disappointing). This combined, with the press secretary’s announcement that it was “highly inappropriate” to argue with a four-star general, illuminates the current administration’s authoritarian leanings and should alarm everyone with an interest in the United States remaining a democratic republic.

So there’s that. But also, John Kelly has a point–a point that would have been more effective if he hadn’t tacked on a bunch of sanctimonious drivel about how women used to be sacred and a gratuitous and inaccurate attack on Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, but a point nonetheless: the average American doesn’t know a ton about the military and doesn’t have a good feel for what happens when a soldier returns home, especially if the soldier is coming home for the last time. And so I offer these five reading suggestions.

  • Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel. I read this book when it was first publishedThank You for Your Service in 2013 and I was blown away. Thank You for Your Service is about what happens to a group of soldiers who spent fifteen months in Baghdad when they return to the United States. Finkel has amazing access and the subjects of his book trust him and he writes about them with great sensitivity. This book is a sequel, of sorts, to The Good Soldiers, which Finkel wrote about the same battalion when they were on duty in Iraq. (I haven’t read The Good Soldiers.) If you only read one book on this list, this should be the one.
  • Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, by Elizabeth D. Samet. Soldier's HeartThis is a memoir by a former professor of English at West Point. It’s an interesting account of a Harvard-educated politically liberal woman dealing with military hierarchy and learning about the ways her more conservative, bound-for-war students think about themselves and the classics of literature. I like it because I think it challenges stereotypes on both sides; I can’t think of anyone, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum, who could read this and not see the military a little differently.
  • Redeployment, by Phil Klay. RedeploymentA book of short stories about soldiers on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, by a former soldier who served in Iraq. I still wish Klay had written a memoir instead of a book of short stories, but this book still provides a window into the lives of those who are actually fighting the wars.
  • You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon. You Know When the Men Are GoneThis book is the reverse of the previous one: a collection of short stories about the families who are left behind when soldiers go to war. Fallon, no surprise, is a military wife, and she writes about the stresses and terrors of having your husband on the frontlines in another country very movingly.
  • This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust. This Republic of SufferingFor most Americans today losing a child or a spouse in Iraq or Afghanistan is an abstract concept; we murmur our sympathy but it’s not really a part of the everyday world we inhabit. It was very different for Americans who lived during the Civil War, and in this book Faust writes about how civilians and former soldiers reconciled themselves to the horrible human cost of the war, and how they grappled with the deaths once the war was over. It’s instructive to think about a world in which war deaths are much, much more common than they are today, and perhaps makes it a little easier to imagine what it would feel like if it were your child or spouse who wasn’t coming home.

The Best Thing I Read This Week

Mansfield ParkIf any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

He Knew What He Signed Up For

Let’s talk about this week’s news cycle.

On Monday, the president held an ad hoc press conference and the White House press asked him a reasonable question: has he contacted the families of the four soldiers who died in a military operation in Niger?

Here’s what the president could have said: “Unfortunately I haven’t yet contacted them, but I plan to do so immediately.” And then his staff could have cobbled together four letters of condolence, and he could have signed them, and they could have been sent, and the Trump administration could have congratulated itself on avoiding another self-inflicted nightmarish news cycle.

What the president did instead was to claim that Obama never called, and other former presidents never called, but what he liked to do was call and send a letter. He made a clumsy attempt at walking this back, but then he instructed his press secretary to double down on it.1

On Tuesday the president made phone calls to the four bereaved families. On Tuesday night it emerged that, according to Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who heard the call on speakerphone, the president had said “He knew what he signed up for” to a pregnant war widow.2

Again we are at a crossroads. Here’s what the president could have said: “I am very sorry for Mrs. Johnson’s loss and I feel terrible that I increased her pain in any way.”

Instead, on Wednesday morning Trump again doubled down, tweeting that the congresswoman was lying and he had proof.

This tweet, like so many, spawned dozens of news stories. The Washington Post started calling the families of soldiers who had died since Trump took office. Subcontroversies sprang up and then popped like soap bubbles all day: One family was instructed to wait by the phone for a presidential call that never came. One man was promised a personal check for $25,000 that also never arrived. (The check is now, reportedly, in the mail.)

And then yesterday, John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff gave an extraordinary press conference, in which he lost me entirely and forever. I’ll grant you that the part of the statement in which he talks about how the bodies of soldiers who die are returned to the country, and how the families of the fallen learn of their loved ones’ fates are very moving. And I do believe that Kelly, who lost his own son in combat, cares deeply about the troops. But because Kelly occupies one of the most powerful offices in the country, we should not allow those parts of the statement, or his own status as a Gold Star father to obfuscate other salient points:

  1. Kelly confirmed the essence of what the congresswoman said about the call. So if you were waiting for “proof” that she was lying, you are probably not going to get that.
  2. If Kelly is really upset that respect for women has diminished, he should probably not be working for President Grab Them By the Pussy.3
  3. If Kelly is really upset that respect for Gold Star families has diminished, he should probably not be working for the man who devoted several days to attacking Gold Star father Khizr Khan because he was mean to him at the Democratic National Convention.
  4. Kelly can’t reasonably complain that Congresswoman Wilson (who has been a Johnson family friend for decades) should not have been “listening in” on the condolence call when he just said he was also listening to it.
  5. Bringing up a speech that Congresswoman Wilson allegedly made about a totally different subject in 2015 is a transparent attempt at deflection4, particularly since he had already confirmed the essence of what she said. While we’re on the subject, calling her “someone that is that empty a barrel” does not exactly drip with respect for women. I thought women were “sacred,” General Kelly?

Kelly wants to make it seem as though the White House press has been terribly mistreating the Trump administration over expressions of condolence all week. No doubt that’s how Trump’s base wants to see it. And I’ve come to expect these delusions of martyrdom from Trump, but I honestly thought Kelly was smart enough and self-aware enough not to succumb to them.

This controversy is entirely the president’s fault. He was asked a fair question, and he bungled it, and then he continued to bungle everything related to it all week long. As always, he made multiple statements that were not true, and then doubled down on them, and then cried foul when they were found to be not true. Checking the president’s statements is what the White House press is supposed to do, because as a citizen, you should know–and you should care–if the president is lying to you. And you should care that the administration cannot summon up the minimum competence required to write and mail four letters of condolence in two weeks, because if they can’t do that, how are they going to handle an actual crisis?

Meanwhile the president is once again tweeting about the “wacky” congresswoman who “gave a total lie on content!” So clearly this week has been a fabulous learning experience for him.

1 I’m assuming he doubled down on it, because I’m assuming Sarah Huckabee Sanders is smart enough to realize that “The president misspoke” was the wise move in this situation.

2 My own theory about this is that John Kelly, in an attempt to help the president say something appropriate, suggested something about the sergeant’s willingness to put his life on the line and Trump’s brain scrambled it into “He knew what he signed up for.” I’m willing to believe the president wasn’t actively trying to make the aforesaid pregnant war widow cry harder. Which is apparently what he did.

3 I have an entire side rant about how treating women as “sacred” (as opposed to treating everyone with respect) is terrible for the world, but I’m restraining myself. You’re welcome.

4 In a particularly Trumpian twist, Congresswoman Wilson disputes Kelly’s account of her speech. Apparently no one’s unearthed a tape yet. But if Kelly couldn’t confirm it, then the story shouldn’t have made it into the statement, especially since what Wilson said about something else in 2015 is not remotely the point.

The Helicopter Parents of 1848

I am reading Vanity Fair (the novel, not the magazine) this morning, and was amused to discover that 169 years ago, helicopter parents were already a problem:

If people would but leave children to themselves; if teachers would cease to bully them; if parents would not insist upon directing their thoughts, and dominating their feelings—those feelings and thoughts which are a mystery to all (for how much do you and I know of each other, of our children, of our fathers, of our neighbour, and how far more beautiful and sacred are the thoughts of the poor lad or girl whom you govern likely to be, than those of the dull and world-corrupted person who rules him?)—if, I say, parents and masters would leave their children alone a little more, small harm would accrue. . . .


In Memory of Richard Wilbur

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

Richard Wilbur
March 1, 1921 – October 14, 2017

More poetry by Richard Wilbur

Reading the News: The First Amendment

The First Amendment has been in the news quite a bit this week, from the president’s bizarre idea to revoke NBC’s broadcasting license because he didn’t like what they said about him, to an Indiana legislator who actually proposed a bill to license journalists, to the president’s claim that we would all be saying “Merry Christmas” again because of his devotion to religious liberty.

So here are five books that have illuminated my thinking about the First Amendment:

  • Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, by John M. Barry. This is a biography of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. But it is also the biography of a debate between John Winthrop — the Puritan who wanted to make the Massachusetts Bay colony a beacon Roger Williamsof Christianity — and Williams, an equally devout Christian who nonetheless believed that church and state should be completely separated. It was Williams’s ideas, Barry argues, that influenced the Founders’ thinking on religious freedom:

    Cultural commentators and anthropologists speak of the “myths” which inform and define a society. But it is no myth that the Puritans who founded Massachusetts came to build a Christian country, a city on a hill that would shine for all the world to see. They believed themselves and this nation to be chosen and blessed by God. That belief is not myth but reality, and it has informed this nation’s identity ever since.
    But it is also not myth but reality that those Puritans fled England because they would not submit to forced prayer: they would not submit to the use of the Book of Common Prayer. They would not even sit silently as nonparticipants while others listened to prayers from it.
    And it is also not myth but reality that another informing principle runs like a great river through American history and culture. That principle was first articulated when Roger Williams declared that the state must not enforce those of the Ten Commandments which defined the relationship between humanity and God. It matured when he further separated himself from the dominant view of the day and declared a citizenry “distinct from the government set up…. [S]uch governments as are by them erected and established have no more power, nor for longer time, than the civil power or people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with.”

    Very much worth reading and considering if you’re interested in the roots of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

  • All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. This can’t be an unfamiliar book to most people, but it was the firAll the President's Menst book I thought of when I saw Trump fulminating about broadcast licenses. Don’t you think Nixon would have liked to shut down the Washington Post in 1973? Do you think that his diehard supporters would have licensed Woodward and Bernstein? There are really good reasons why the government does not get involved in who is allowed to say what. (It’s worth noting, as well, that the Watergate story would be a mere footnote, if even that, if Woodward and Bernstein had not had the cooperation of anonymous sources.)
  • The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 – 1956, by Anne Applebaum. Granted, this book is immense and takes a while to get Iron Curtainthrough. But Applebaum really nails down the details of what it’s like to live in a society with no freedom, and the central philosophy of the oppressors that the government cannot be doing anything terrible because the government is always right is frighteningly close to what is being espoused by some Trump supporters today. This philosophy is exactly why the First Amendment was ratified in the first place.
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, by Taylor Branch. This is aParting the Waters magisterial work of history (with two sequels, which you should also read) about the Civil Rights movement in general and Martin Luther King, Jr., in particular. To read this is to understand not just why the Civil Rights protests in the 1960s needed to happen, but also the absolutely central role the First Amendment played in the protests.
  • Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn. This is a wildly Ella Minnow Peaentertaining, unputdownable examination of a fictional totalitarian society, and a tribute to freedom of expression.


The Best Thing I Read This Week

Parallel LivesWhatever the balance, every marriage is based upon some understanding, articulated or not, about the relative importance, the priority of desires, between its two partners. Marriages go bad not when love fades—love can modulate into affection without driving two people apart—but when this understanding about the balance of power breaks down, when the weaker member feels exploited or the stronger feels unrewarded for his or her strength.

Phyllis Rose, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages