Monday, May 31, 2010


A review of A.J. Langguth’s Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence (2006)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Union 1812 is a very well done narrative about the War of 1812, which is probably the most misunderstood conflict that the United States had ever engaged in. It was a conflict that bridged the last of the founding generation with the first the second generation. It was the only time an enemy has captured Washington D.C. and burnt the White House and Capitol to the ground. It would launch the career of Andrew Jackson who would reshape the country. The war would start over something already settled—British Impressment—and its last battle—New Orleans—would be fought after the war was technically over. Langguth most eloquently recaptures the essence of the conflict.

It is always dangerous to ask any historian for ‘a little bit of background.’ That statement is true here. Despite being a book about the War of 1812, this book really begins at the end of the American Revolution. Since Langguth had already written an earlier work about the American Revolution, I feel that he just never stopped writing and kept on going. Nevertheless, I did not feel overwhelmed with information. He just calmly takes the reader through the Constitutional Convention, the Washington, Adam, and Jefferson administrations covering everything from the Genet affair to the Louisiana Purchase to the trial of Aaron Burr. The book also covers how this conflict affected the Native American nations both leading to and after, Tecumseh trying to establish a confederacy to challenge the expanding American Union leads to an alliance with the British and unfortunately for them it would help usher in an end to aboriginal power in North America.

“During the next year, tensions mounted when Indians murdered four white men on the Missouri River and when the Prophet’s braves seized an entire boatload of salt, rather then the five barrels their government agreement entitled them to have. Summoned by Harrison once again, Tecumseh claimed the murders had not been under his jurisdiction and dismissed the dispute over salt. To Harrison’s repeated warnings against uniting the Indians, Tecumseh replied that, after all, he was only following the American example. To win independence from Britain, the colonists had once joined into a confederacy of Thirteen Fires—the Indian term fro comparing American states to their tribal councils. In recent years, Tecumseh said, the Americans had added four more such councils—Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio—until the United States now consisted of Seventeen fires.” p.166-7

When the war does come, it comes in a dramatic fashion. We, the Americans, perform well at sea but horrible on the ground. The most embarrassing moment of the war is not when Washington burns but rather when General Hull in Detroit surrenders to a force inferior to his own. This war, not the American Revolution, is where we get our national anthem. The shock of having our nation invaded and damaged against an enemy would create a new sense of urgency and union in the American people helping cement a national American identity.

I highly recommend this book it is an exciting look into one of the most forgotten chapters in American history: The War of 1812. Readers who give this book their time will enjoy it.

{Video is from the History Channel documentary First Invasion.}

Sunday, May 23, 2010


A review of Julius Caesar’s The Civil War (40s B.C.?)
Translated by Jane F. Gardner (1967 A.D.)

(Rating: 5 of 5)

History is written by the winners. In this case it is truer then most, however, I do not believe one should naturally discount it for that reason, but it does need to be mentioned. With that said, this second famous work by Julius Caesar is a remarkable read. It is great political document where Caesar not only reports on the events that happened but also presents his case to why his cause should prevail. The war was caused by a political situation that had boiling for years and was now going to boil over the cause of Caesar and the populares and the optimates now being championed by Caesar’s former friend and ally, Gnaeus Pompeius, also known as Pompey the Great.

Caesar had just wrapped up his campaign in Gaul, and was fast becoming the most popular man in Rome. Caesar wanted to be the consul again but his enemies would not have it. The optimates demanded that Caesar resign his pro-consulship of Gaul and retire. Caesar agreed to resign his command and disband his army only if the Pompey agreed to do the same. The Senate refused, supported Pompey’s time as sole consul, and approved his pro-consulship of the Spanish provinces. Caesar feeling boxed in crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome proclaiming ‘the die is cast.’

“However for the sake of Rome I bore this loss of privilege with a good grace. When I wrote to the Senate suggesting a general demobilization, I was not allowed even that. Troops are being raised all over Italy, my two legions, which were taken from me on the pretext of a Parthian campaign, are being retained, and the whole State is in arms. What is the aim of all these preparations but my destruction?” p.40

Ancient warfare was extremely brutal and by modern day standards would be consider criminal. In this respect Caesar was no different than any other, in fact, considering his success as general, who could argued to be the most brutal. Decided to try something different, he offered clemency to those who had fought against him and took no action to those who had chosen to remain neutral. This helped him win over the population that he was now going to rule.

“Their departure left the soldiers free to fraternize. There was a general exodus from the Pompeian camp; the men began asking after personal friends and fellow-townsmen in Caesar’s camp, and called them out. Firstly, they all expressed their thanks to all of our men for having spared them the day before, when they were utterly terror-stricken. ‘We owe our lives to you,’ they said. They then asked weather Caesar could be trusted, and whether they would be right to put themselves in his hands; they expressed regret for not having done so in the first place and having joined battle with their own friends and kinsmen.” p.72

Like his book on the Gallic War, Caesar likes to quote dialogues that there was no way he could have been privy to. Granted, later defectors could have given him such information but it is still very unlikely that he could have known what they would have said word for word. It is also interesting the Caesar, of course, keeps out the famous Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. It is said that he did not later chapters such as the Alexandrian War and the African War, but I could not see any differences when I was reading them.

“If at any time Pompey acted with particular slowness or deliberation, they would say that the business need keep them only a single day, and that Pompey took pleasure from being in command and was treating ex-consuls and ex-praetors as if they were his slaves. They were already starting to squabble openly among themselves about rewards and priesthoods and were assigning the consul ships for years to come, while some were claiming houses and property of those in Caesar’s camp.” p.148

I highly enjoyed this book and I recommend it to anyone interested in the time period, I would also recommend Adrian Goldsworthy small work Caesar’s Civil War as a reference guide while reading.

{Video is from the all ready classic HBO series Rome}

Saturday, May 22, 2010


A Review of Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul
Published as series (50s-44 BC)
Translated by S.A. Handford (1951 AD)
Revised and edited by Jane F. Gardner (1982 AD)

(Rating 5 of 5)

In 387 B.C., Rome suffered the worst defeat in its history by that point. Brennus of the Senones, a people from Gaul, laid waste to the army of Rome and entered the city. The Gauls looted and devastated the city and they would not leave until the Romans bought them off. The defeat had damaged the Roman psyche, before Rome would only go to war if for a just cause like self-defense. After this attack, their view of self-defense would take on a completely new dimension: preemptive attacks—to use a modern phrase—would be the new norm. Centuries later, Rome had fought Gallic tribes quite a few times, with much better results, but the bitter historical memories remained. Julius Caesar was going to do what no Roman had before him dared to do: take the fight to the heart of Gaul itself. Centuries after their greatest humiliation, it was now payback time.

Julius Caesar would not just invade and conquer all the tribes of Gaul he would write down the accomplishments of himself and his army. This work* would be would be written so the people of Rome could read it and appreciate what he was doing. His allies, his fellow triumvirs, and adversaries, such as Cato and Scipio, would read it. Caesar’s work would continue to be read long after the civilization that lived in and served would crumble and send Europe into the Middle Ages. For centuries, Caesar’s work was often used in Latin classes all across the world so students could practice their understanding of Latin by translating the work into their native language.

“Gaul comprises three areas, inhabited respectively by the Belgae, the Aquitani, and a people who call themselves Celts, though we call them Gauls. All of these have a different languages, customs, and laws. The Celts are separated from the Aquitani by the river Garonne, from the Belgae by the Marne and Seine. The Belgae are the bravest of the three peoples, being the farthest removed from the highly developed civilization of the Roman Province, least often visited by merchants with enervating luxuries for sale, and nearest to the Germans across the Rhine, with whom they are continually at war. For the same reason the Helvetii are braver than the rest of the Celts; they are in an almost daily conflict with the Germans, either trying to keep them out of Switzerland or themselves invading Germany. The region occupied by the Celts, which has one frontier facing north, is bounded by the Rhone, the Garonne, the Atlantic Ocean, and the country of the Belgae; the part of it inhabited by the Sequani and the Helvetii also touches the Rhine. The Belgic territory, facing north and east, runs the northern frontier of the Celts to the lower Rhine. Aquitania is bounded by the Garonne, the Pyremees, and the part of the Atlantic coast nearest Spain; it faces north-west” p.28

When reading Caesar myself their were a couple of things I soon discovered. The first thing I first noticed was that Caesar likes to write about himself in the third person. This makes me wonder, of course, if he actually talked liked that. I have read that he had, but have never been able to really confirm it. The second thing I discover is my own understanding of military matters is much like my understanding of chess: I know how all the pieces move but I do not understand strategy and if someone tries to talk ‘chess’ to me I will not understand what they mean. I do however find the political element that Caesar discusses to be extremely fascinating and there is quite a bit of it.

“Caesar perceived that Liscus’ remarks alluded to Diviciacus’ brother Dumnorix, and as he did not want the matter discussed with a number of others present, he promptly dismissed the assembly, telling Liscus to stay behind. When they were alone he questioned him about what he had said in the meeting, and Liscus now spoke with greater freedom and confidence. On putting the same questions to others in private, Caesar found that his report was true. It was indeed Dumnorix that he had referred to, a man of boundless daring, extremely popular with the masses on account of his liberality, and an ardent revolutionary.” p.36

Although I strongly believe in the above quote's meeting to be as Caesar describes it, it may have had a different spin from Liscus’ perspective, there is always the question of how much of the work is fact and how much is propaganda. History is written by the winners—literally, in this case—so one needs to try to pull away from the text and try to put some context to what he or she is reading. We know that Caesar does tell some tall tales about some funny animals, he also tends to quote people from meetings, which he was never in, and all the participants might be dead. My old history professor*** once explained to our class that in the ancient world it was permitted to quote someone using your words as theirs. That so long as you ‘knew his character’ it would be generally accepted as fact. The scene at Alesia, is described by Caesar, and includes a dialogue of Vercingetorix with the other top leaders in Alesia describing how they will exile all those who cannot fight—women, children, and old people—and hope the Romans take them in. Yet, a lot of Caesar says about this battle was later confirmed by archeological digs that were funded by Napoleon III. In addition, we know from the letters of Cicero that he was in contact with his brother at the time, which leaves us to conclude the Senate had some eye to what was going on there. Since the officers of Caesar’s army were from prominent political families and some of them were opposed to Caesar politically, I think we can safely assume that if Caesar completely made up major points then he would have most likely have been caught and exposed.

I have to admit there is a certain excitement I got from reading this book. Knowing that I was reading the actually words and thoughts that Julius Caesar put down thousands of years before I was ever born** was fascinating experience unto itself. I strongly recommend this work to anyone interested in the world of ancient antiquity. I would also recommend with this book to read Kate Gilliver’s work with it as a guide, for the maps and details are quite helpful in helping one understand the story Caesar is telling.

*His friend, Aulus Hirtius, writes the last book after Caesar’s death.

**Alternatively, to put a stronger point on it, over thousand seven hundred years before my nation was born.

***In the top photo he is the left man in the back, his photo and information is the second individual photo on top.

{Video taken from the already classic HBO series Rome}

Friday, May 21, 2010


A review of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar’s Civil War: 49-44 B.C. (2002)
Part of the Essential Histories series #42

(Rating:5 of 5)

Ever since the event happened, the conflict of the Roman Civil War had been told and retold. It is a conflict full of colorful characters and concepts. Caesar himself gave his own interpretation, as would other historians, artists, poets, and writers. One of the world’s leading experts on Rome, Adrian Goldsworthy, sums it all up in this little over ninety page work. This is a colossal tale that took place in a colossal time.

Goldsworthy’s work begins with a brief summery of what the Roman Empire had been through up until that time. He talks how the building of an empire put so much strain on the Republic that the institutions were in a state of decay and no longer provided much benefit to the average citizen either in home or in the provinces. By page 20, however we get to the actual conflict that creates one of the most famous Civil Wars in the history of the world. Caesar and Pompey, two old friends, allies, in-laws and two of the greatest military heroes in Roman history go head to head for the fate of the city and civilization that both that had devoted their lives.

“The suddenness of Caesar’s advance surprised and unnerved his opponents, just as he had intended. Pompey had left Rome in the second half of January, declaring that it could not be defended. He was followed by most of the magistrates, including the consuls, who left in such haste it suggested panic. Many Romans were still uncertain about just how firmly committed each side was to fighting, and this open admission of military weakness made many wonder whether Pompey could really be relied on to defend the Republic.” p.31

Like the other to books I reviewed in this series, the work has a textbook format with out having a textbook feel. While most textbooks are dry and devoid of real substance this work is full of life trying to describe a single—although highly significant—historical event. This work not only Goldsworthy’s extraordinary writing but also there are maps, detail analysis of battles, chapters devoted to both the military and civilians in this time period. For example, ‘Portrait of a Civilian’ covers Cicero, the greatest orator of his time. The book also takes a close look at Caesar’s centurions describing what the war was like for them. There is also at the end an overall historical analysis view of Julius Caesar’s career, overall legacy and real ambitions.

“There are essentially two ways of viewing Caesar. The first is to see him as a man perceptive enough to understand that the Republican constitution could no longer function. Throughout his career he had taken considerable interest in the conditions of the poor in Rome and the native population in Rome’s provinces, and realized that the territories could not be run simply for the selfish benefit of a tiny elite in Rome.” p.78

I would recommend this book to anyone who would like a brief but informative summery into one of the most famous military and political conflicts the world had ever seen: the Roman Civil War of Caesar and Pompey.

{Video from the History Channel's Decisive Battles series. However there is a factual error: the video states Caesar married Pompey's daughter the opposite is true. The reason the woman was named 'Julia' is because she was Caesar's daughter.}

Thursday, May 20, 2010


A review of Kate Gilliver’s Caesar’s Gallic Wars: 58-50 B.C. (2002)
Part of Essential Histories Series# 43

(Rating 5 of 5)

Back in the time of Caesar, it was Gaul, a name given and used by none who lived there. Kate Gilliver in her ninety-two-page work details the conquest of the area known as Gaul to the Romans, by the most famous Roman of them all, Gaius Julius Caesar. The tribes of Gaul were the oldest and most hated enemies of the Romans. It was a Gallic tribe that sacked Rome in the year 390 B.C. causing hatred that would last for generations. Not even Hannibal of Carthage had been able to sack Rome; he only got close to it. Rome would always fear the image of Gallic invasions coming from the North. In the centuries that followed Rome and Gallic tribes would clash repeatedly, but this time was different. This time a Roman general, Julius Caesar was going to take the fight directly to the heart of Gaul itself.

“The Roman siege works at Alesia were extraordinary in the size and complexity. After digging a deep ditch on the plain to prevent cavalry attacks on the working parties, the Romans built a rampart with palisade and towers at regular intervals, and a double ditch, one filled with water diverted from the rivers where possible; seven camps and 23 redoubts were added at strategic points. This line covered circuit of 11 miles. Caesar was not happy even with this formidable system of defenses, and lines of bobby traps were extended for several yards in front of the trenches. These comprised rows of sharpened stakes, then covered pits with sharpened stakes planted in them, and finally rows of wooden stakes with barbed iron spikes stuck into them. Once this circuit was complete Caesar had another identical line built outside, 14 miles in circumference, to protect the besiegers from the relieving army. The whole system took about a month to construct. Archaeological investigations have indicated that the fortifications were not as complete as Caesar suggests. There may have been gaps in the lines, particularly where the terrain provided natural protection, but the systems held up to concerted attacks by both Gallic armies even when they were prepared with bridging materials to cross the outer defenses and ditches.” p.58-59

There is a lot of information packet into these ninety pages. Gilliver takes a strong look into these historical events that occurred over 2000 years ago. There are maps, detail analysis of battles, chapters devoted to both the military and civilians in this time period.

“Centurions were the highest echelon of professional soldiers in the legion and their senior officers and commanders were politicians whose military expertise and skill could very considerably. The 60 or so centurions in each legion were appointed by the army commander—the provincial governor. While some may have been appointed because of their social status, the majority gained promotion through experience, leadership, and conspicuous courage. This must have encouraged ambitious private soldiers to prove their worth on the battlefield and gain promotion to centurion.” p.66

I really enjoyed and highly recommend this book; it is useful guide into the world of the first century B.C. I would also recommend to anyone interested in reading Julius Caesar’s own Commentaries, to pick up this book first since it is a lot more clear, impartial and precise. Having this book to use as a reference while going though Caesar’s work will help any reader, especially a novice of the time period, increase their understanding of this very important historic event to Western Civilization; Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.

{Video from the History Channel's Battles B.C.}

Thursday, May 13, 2010


A review of Waldemar Heckel’s The Wars of Alexander the Great: 336-323 BC (2002)
Part of Essential Histories Series #26

(Rating 5 of 5)

Alexander the Great is one of the unique figures in the history of the world. Alexander, the leader of tiny Macedonia, would take on the greatest power the world had ever seen, the Persian Empire. In time, he would be known as not only the King of Macedon and the master of Greece, but Lord of Asia, Pharaoh of Egypt, and King of Kings. Stories would be told of him for generations, inspiring all sorts of leaders such as Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

In a brief ninety-page work, Heckel tells the story how Alexander the Great conquered the entire world that was known to him. The book fills in some of the back-story dealing with the ‘relationship’ between Ancient Greece and the Persian Empire. It tells the story of Macedonia and how Alexander’s family came to rule it. It details the reign of Alexander’s father, Philip the Magician, and how he came to be the master of all Greece. Alexander’s story of conquest does not even begin until a third of the way into the book.

“What Philip’s exact aims were, in terms of territorial acquisition, are not clear. Many suppose that he would have contented himself, initially at least, with the liberation of Asia Minor. This would certainly have been in keeping with Philip’s practices in the past. From the time, that he overcame internal opposition and secured his borders against barbarian incursions, Philip expanded slowly and cautiously over a period of almost twenty years. Unlike Alexander, whose practice it was to conquer first and consolidate later—and, indeed, ‘later’ never came in some cases—Philip was content to acquire territory systematically, without overextending Macedonian power.” p.28

This particular series of books is interesting because they are in an almost textbook format with out really having a textbook feel to them. In this book, there are plenty of maps, classical paintings of events, pictures of statues, and photos of places that Alexander was at in modern times. A chapter deals with ordinary people who lived and worked while all these incredible events were going on. There are also little information boxes through out the book giving the reader a greater understanding on the topic that they are reading.

“Although Darius had again escaped from the battlefield, Gaugamela proved fatal for the Persian Empire. The Great King fled in the direction of Arbela, which he reached by midnight. Other contingents dispersed to their territories, as was the custom amongst the barbarians. Those who commanded the garrisons and guarded the treasures in the empire’s capitals made a formal surrender to Alexander. One man, Mazaeus, the Persian hero of Gaugamela, surrendered Babylon, together with the gazophylax (guardian of the treasures’), Bagophanes. Alexander entered in great ceremony the ancient city, which now publicly turned its resources over to the new king, as it were.” p.50

I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn about Alexander the Great. Since what the great king is known for is war, you do receive the complete Alexander in a very abridged form. It is a very brief but informative look into the fourth century B.C.

{Video taken from the History Channel series Decisive Battles: the episode is the Battle of Gaugamela}

Friday, May 7, 2010


I am going to take a small break from my history book reviews to discuss something that has always bothered me on books and papers related to the Roman Empire. I strongly feel that the way the Roman civilization is classically presented is a huge problem. What I am generally referring to is historians often divide Rome into three distant time-periods: the Roman Kingdom (753 BC*-509 BC), the Roman Republic (508 BC-27 BC), and the Roman Empire (27 BC-476 AD). In other words, the Roman period is defined by what type of government it had. This might make since if it was something the Romans used to define themselves, but it is not. The classical view is distorted producing a false image to all who try to study it.

You remember this scene from Star Wars:

Well in Rome, that never happened. There was never a moment in Roman history where someone stood before the Senate to proclaim the Republic was over and the Empire had begun. In fact, Rome was an empire long before it ever had any sort of emperor.

The term empire and emperor actually get their origins from the Latin word imperium. Imperium translated directly into English means simply ‘power’ or ‘supreme power.’ In the Republic or res publica, these powers were held by a group of magistrates (consuls and praetors) and there existed a type of checks and balances for each of the magistrates. By the time we get an emperor, Augustus, he pretends as if the res publica is still going on (it is not since he had assumed Supreme imperium), and his successors do the same for entire Pax Romana.

Even when the Republic was operating as it was intended, it was clearly acted in ways that we would definitely now refer to as 'imperial'. In fact, they–the Romans— referred to Rome’s ‘foreign policy’ as Imperium Romanum. Imperium Romanum, which we translate as ‘Roman Empire’, actually, more properly translated means ‘power of Rome.’ The 'power of Rome' or Imperium Romanum is based on the idea that other cities and nations would do as Rome wanted. The 'power of Rome' does not begin upon the acts of settlement that gave Augustus the power that would become the bedrock of the Principate. Rather, Imperium Romanum begins the moment Rome first attempts to take control of the Italian peninsula and make their neighbors do what they want.

(Territory Rome held before any emperor ever ruled.)

The Republic was also not much a democracy, hence why we call it a Republic. The people’s assemblies, although they held the sovereign power, only voted things up or down they did not debate matters of state. That function was handled by the Senate, which was made up of a group of independently wealthy former office holders. In order to be an officer holder you were going to serve without pay. Rome did not compensate their leaders, and as consequence, if you wanted to be consul of the Republic you would have to be able to afford to take a year off. Therefore, power was always in the hands of the wealthy few. The Republic was the reign of Aristocrats. It had its advantages of binding their leaders to the law. However, the Republic was not expanded into the territories. The city of Rome ruled all it conquered; they sent their former consuls and praetors out into the territories as pro-consuls and pro-praetors ruling over the subject people as despots. Even where Rome expanded its citizenship the new citizens had to be in Rome to vote. The Republic was designed to govern only a city when they came to cover most the Mediterranean Sea, their system started to break down. Civil Wars ultimately brought Augustus to power as the ‘savior of the Republic’ in such a role he consolidated power from several offices he held and pretended to be a republican official.

I think explaining the fate of Rome from it's beginnings to Augustus can be summed up like this: Romulus created Rome as a Kingdom, later the Romans would though off the kings and create a Republic, which in turn would create an empire whose weight would destroy the Republic and give rise to the Caesars.

* For the purposes of this post, I am using BC and AD as opposed to BCE and CE since I am talking about classic viewpoints.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The People’s Dictator

A review of Luciano Canfora’s Julius Caesar: The Life and Times of the People’s Dictator (1999 original)
Translated by Marian Hill and Kevin Windle (2007)

(Rating:2 of 5)

This is not going to be a positive review. The problem is however; I really do not know whom to blame for it. This book was written and published in Italian, in 1999, and then translated into English in 2007. Since I do not speak Italian and do not have the original work even if I did, it is hard to pin down blame.

I think the forward was the best and most interesting part of the whole book. That part of the book is fascinating, dealing with how Caesar has been viewed over the thousands of years since he died by various individuals. The first thing the Canfora discusses is how Caesar’s reputation is dealt with through the propaganda of his heir, the Emperor Augustus. This is followed by how Caesar was viewed by the monarchs of the Early and High Middle Ages, and a whole section dedicated to how Napoleon Bonaparte viewed Caesar and himself by comparison. Although Caesar has fans throughout the ranks of the rulers, his reputation amongst republicans is not positive, to them Caesar is no hero.

After that, however, the book goes down hill very quickly. If one were to look at the table of contents, the book would seem very well organized. However, the narrative is clogged and that makes it extremely hard to follow. Often times the author interrupts what he is saying make some point about how Napoleon viewed something or another that Caesar did. For example, almost halfway though the book, at the end of part II, is a whole ‘debate’ about how brutal Caesar was while in Gaul. During which the author stops talking about Caesar’s life entirely and for a whole chapter just focus on how various historians have treated and focused on the conquests themselves. It would make an incredible article for some journal, but it completely interrupts the narrative of the book.

The book is not a total loss I did learn some interesting information that I did not know before. I was not, for example, very familiar with Sextus Caesar. The young Sextus Caesar was a young officer who was Caesar the Dictator’s young cousin. Canfora describes a relationship that is so close that had the young Sextus had lived it might have been he, not Gaius Octavius, to have been the heir and later champion.

In the end, I cannot really recommend the book. I am a lover history and I do have affection for the old Roman Empire, but this book is too choppy for me. This maybe an unfair assessment since it is, as I noted in the opening paragraph, a translation; it is however, not a translation I can strongly recommend.

{Video is a preview of the 2002 TNT movie about Julius Caesar not very accurate but a lot better then this book}

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My ‘First’ President

A review of Bill Clinton’s My Life (2004)

(Rating:5 of 5)

William Jefferson Clinton is my first president. Well, not really, I was born on July 3, 1981 so my first president was actually Ronald Reagan. The first presidential election that I remember is the 1988 election of George H.W. Bush. However, in many ways, Clinton is my first president. The presidential election of 1992 was the first national election I ever cared about. Coming from a family of Democrats excited for the first chance in sixteen years to capture the White House, Clinton was very much a favorite that year. I was one of only two kids in 5th grade class the wanted to see Clinton elected. I was excited because on our state reports for class that year, I was the student who randomly picked Arkansas much to the shock of my friend. President Clinton was president when I first became interested in the history of our nation and the presidency itself. It was interesting to have someone in the White House who was also a major presidential history buff.

Born William Jefferson Blythe III, his father William Jefferson Blythe, Jr. was a con artist who had multiple families at the same time. However, the elder William would not know the son who shared his name, because he died in a car accident before Clinton was born. His mother, Virginia, would later remarry this time to a man named Roger Clinton. The Clintons would have another son together, Roger C. Clinton, and the future president would legally change his name to match the rest of his family. Nevertheless, his family life was terrible, the elder Roger Clinton was a drunk and abuser; Clinton often would have to defend his mother and little brother.

Despite (or maybe, because of) his horrible family life, Clinton excelled both academically in school and socially with peers. Clinton would ultimately become a Rhodes scholar and with that travel abroad. He would during this point of his life have his famous ‘I didn’t inhale’ episode, and he would, although legally, dodge the draft. When he was a student at Yale, he would meet and later marry a young law student named Hillary Rodham. Ultimately, he would end up becoming a lawyer and end up as a professor at the University of Arkansas.

The most fascinating elements of the book are the way he discusses the ups and downs of his own political career. His frustrating loss at a run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives in 1974, when it seemed like every other Democrat won big in the wake of Watergate. Later, he becomes Arkansas’ Attorney General, which would act as a stepping-stone for the Governor’s seat in 1978. At the age of thirty-two, he was the youngest governor in the nation. Unfortunately, for him, the same year his daughter Chelsea was born, 1980, he was turned out of office. He would joke that he became as he called it ‘the youngest ex-governor in the nation’s history.

“These problems were aggravated by my own lack of experience and my youth. I looked even younger then my thirty-two years. When I became attorney general, George Fisher, the talented cartoonist for the Arkansas Gazette, drew me in a baby carriage. When I became governor he promoted my to a tricycle. It wasn’t until I became President that he took me off the tricycle and put me in pick up truck. And he was a supporter. It should have set off an alarm bell, but it didn’t.” p.267

His biggest mistake as governor had been to increase the people of Arkansas’ car tags. Alternatively, as we call them in Maine ‘excise tax’. It made him many enemies but after awhile he was able to rebuild his popularity and mount a comeback. In time, his political career recovered and skyrocketed all the way the top. He regained the governorship in 1982 and would hold it for the next ten years. From that platform in 19998, he would mount his campaign for the presidency.

“As I walked back to my car, I ran into an elderly man in overalls. He said, ‘Aren’t you Bill Clinton?’ When I said I was and shook his hand, he couldn’t wait to tell me he had voted against me. ‘I’m one of those who helped beat you. I cost you eleven votes—me, my wife, my two boys, and their wives, and my five friends. We just leveled you.’ I asked him why and I got the predictable reply: ‘I had to. You raised my car tags.’ I pointed to a spot on the highway not far from where we were standing and said, ‘Remember that ice storm we had when I took office? That piece of road over there buckled and cars were stuck in a ditch. I had to get the National Guard to pull them out. There were pictures of it in all the papers. Those roads had to be fixed.’ He replied, ‘I don’t care. I still didn’t want to pay it.’ For some reason, after all he said, I blurted out, ‘Let me ask you something. If I ran for governor again, would you consider voting for me?’ He smiled and said, ‘Sure I would. We’re even now.’ I went right to the payphone, called Hillary, told her the story, and said I thought we could win.” p.291

One most interesting things about Clinton’s book is how he discusses how all the political and historical events that had occurred in his own life. Meeting President John F. Kennedy when he was 17, and commenting on that famous photo. He talks about his feeling on President Johnson and how shocked he was when Johnson decided not to run for president in 1968. The president comments on the disastrous 1972 Democratic Convention that left the party weakened and crushed in that year’s election. He often compares what goes on to his own life and career.

“In the summer, I led the Arkansas delegation to the Democratic convention in San Francisco to see Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro nominated and to give a five-minute tribute to Harry Truman. We were in trouble to start with, and it was all over when Mondale said he would purpose a hefty tax increase to reduce the budget deficit. It was a remarkable act of candor, but he might as well have purposed a federal car-tag fee.” p.316

When discussing his presidency, he mentions that his brutal upbringing allowed him to compartmentalize. As president, he was able to focus on doing his job despite the immense assault on him and the very institution of the presidency. As one can imagine he tires to gloss over his martial indiscretions. He calls his affair with Monica Lewinsky ‘disgusting’ and that he did it for the ‘worst possible of reasons’ and that is: he could. However, one cannot fail to be impressed with the way he tries to keep working for the American people both on the domestic and foreign fronts despite being assailed from all sides. However his political enemies keep trying to bring him down, not simple by the legitimate methods of congressional gridlock and elections but by tearing down some of the basic institutions of government in order to get him. It did not matter how hypocritical their methods were, they were going full stop.

“Starr admitted he had talked to the press, on background, a violation of the grand jury secrecy rules. Finally, he dined under oath that his office had tried to get Monica Lewinsky to wear a wire to record our conversations with Vernon Jordan, me, or other people. When confronted with the FBI form proving that he had, he was evasive. The Washington Post reported that ‘Starr’s denials…were shattered by his own FBI reports.

The fact that Starr admitted violating the law on grand jury secrecy and had given false testimony under oath didn’t slow him or the committee down a bit. They thought different rules applied to the home team.” p.829

Although, far from a perfect human being I feel he was probably the best president we had since Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961. His writing, although a long book (over nine hundred pages), follows smoothly and is an easy read. Anyone interested in modern American politics would enjoy this book.

{Video is part of the 1992 presidential debates.}

Saturday, May 1, 2010


A review of Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt (2005)

(Rating:5 of 5)

Former President Theodore Roosevelt, his kid Kermit, Brazil’s most famous explorer, Colonel Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, and score of young explorers all decide to go down a river, known as the River of Doubt. The former president had just dealt with losing in an attempt to regain the presidency in the 1912 presidential election. Despite the setback, Roosevelt was ready for a new adventure. His son, Kermit Roosevelt, joined him on this quest, and at the request of the Republic of Brazil, they joined Colonel Rondon on a daring mission of discovery.

Through out this adventure they would face disease, rapids, starvation, murder, and be shadowed by an aboriginal group who were wondering who these strange invaders to their territory were up to. Death faces Roosevelt-Rondon group at every turn; this exciting action-paced book should really be made into a movie. Anyone who picks this up will enjoy it.

However, one of the conclusions I reached when reading this book is: that if I am ever invited to go the rain forest I will simply say ‘no thanks.’ It is not really my cup of tea.

“The fish that inspired the greatest fear among the men were piranha. Attracted by blood and drawn to the king of commotion that a bathing man might make, piranha have been known to swim in groups of more than a hundred, spreading out to scout for prey and then alerting the others, probably by sound, when they find it. Of approximately 20 species, most prefer to attack something their own size or smaller, and they are happy to scavenge, especially during the rainy season, when there is more to choose from. However, their saw-like teeth, which look like they have been filed to tiny spear pints , and muscular jaws can make work of any living creature of any size and strength, from a waterbird to a monkey to even an ox. During telegraph-line expedition, Rondon and his soldiers regularly offered up their weakest ox to a school of piranha so that the rest of their herd could safely cross a river.” p.136

There are even worst than the piranha, like the candiru, but I would rather not get into detail about that.

{Video taken from Animal Planet, brief commercial before the good stuff starts.}