Friday, June 15, 2012

My Father My President by Doro Bush Koch

Serendipity had me concluding this voluminous book published in 2006, which I acquired for $2 at a recent  book sale, large print edition yet making it a heavy 831 pages with additional notes, acknowledgements and sources going to 901 pages.  I greatly admire #41, our President Bush Elder.  Just this week June 12, 2012 he celebrated his 88th birthday and there have been many TV clips, interviews, specials celebrating this gentleman's life and contributions. There have been numerous reminisces and nearly everyone despite their  political party refers to him as a gentleman, a peacemaker, a man who can bring people together and a model for any politician who is interested in working with the other party to achieve a goal.   I have read all the Bush family "chronicles" those by Barbara, George Jr, Laura and enjoyed them fully, but despite my enthusiasm for #41, this book was a drag to read.  Certainly not because of content, but the writing was rather tedious and tiring to just not interesting.  He asked his daughter Doro to write this and so she did; Doro readily admits she is not a historian.  I don"t believe she is an author either nor much of a researcher.  She interviewed people  and asked them to send comments to her in her research and she did have the luxury of family guidance, access to photos, and memories, but it just isn't the best reading.  Much is written from her perspective as the daughter and this is not unusual.  Much about her life comes through including her divorce and how her parents helped her be kind through that, Barbara (MOM) cautioning her that "nothing good comes  of bitterness."   The Bush family is one very special brood, they have had  trials and tragedies like all of us and of course they have had experiences far beyond what others could anticipate.  I enjoyed all the photos and the array of Christmas cards showing the siblings growing up.  I can only imagine how they remain close, as Doro writes "almost dysfunctionally close." That in itself is a tribute to both parents who have raised a wonderful family.

What comes through loud and clear is this is a good man, goodness prevails deep in his heart, faithful but not super religious, family first, a true loyal friend, a man who can forgive almost anything except deceit, a man who respects everyone and a very great American.  He was/is ever the host and loved entertaining, throwing  parties large and small and even tried matchmaking at times, not always with success.   I was deeply impressed with his innate ability to connect people to work together, sometimes people who would have zilch in common.  He always built fun into any task.   I was very interested in his opinion of  Nixon during the time he chaired the Republican National Committee amidst the unraveling of Watergate.  It's in the book, how he was so astounded when he finally realized Nixon was lying to him.  #41 is a trusting individual and even though he was an astute politician he never considered the deceit that others would engage because that is just not a part of his character, not something he would do to friends and supporters. 

I loved reading  his perspective when he asked to be the first ambassador to China in October 1974, well before  it was an officially designated ambassadorship.  I suspect he was happy to just get away from this country on the heels of Watergate, Nixon"s resignation, etc.  That had to have been exhausting.  Reading how he became director of the CIA, an organization that was particularly demoralized and how he treated everyone there with dignity and respect further explains his goodness.  He held that post from January 1976 to January 1977.  Of course his political campaigns are covered and many life highlights.

Something I did not know about him is that he is a letter writer, an advocate of the personal hand written note and acknowledgement.  He has that old genteel school trait, similar to Harry Truman.  Today I heard on the news that  he is considering publishing some of his letters.  There are several in this book.  At times he would drop whatever he was doing to write an encouraging note to someone who would never have expected to hear from the President.  He is a man who is totally selfless.  How many politicians ever consider others?  George Sr does/did always,  he  did not and would not be late for anyone because he considers  keeping people waiting the height of rudeness. (pg 262)  Considerate beyond all.  And a master of small gestures with grand results.  What a compliment to a person. (pg. 315)
I had forgotten how far back the Dan Rather animosity toward the Bush's went but it is covered.  Bush always polite was briefed to expect the set up by Rather during the '88 campaign.  Because #41 believes the best of people he thought, surely not, but yes Rather was baiting and irascible waiting to taunt him about Iran-Contra.  So Bush turned it around reminding Rather, (pg. 388) "Dan, comparing this to my career is like comparing your career to the time you walked off the air."  We read on that  replaying that old tape shows how Rather looks as though he was punched, his head rolled forward and back and resembles a slow motion movie where a guy takes a punch.  That was it, the fight was over and Bush won!  But Rather  held a grudge ever after, showing his wrath and arrogance  later years going after George Jr. about his military reserve career. 

A passage written by himself on page 831 makes me laugh it is  so similar to many I know .."Your mother and I sit out here like a couple of really old poops, but we are at total peace.  She does crossword puzzles, real puzzles, reads a ton of books, plays golf, calls people up on the phone, writes letters, and occasionally gets mildly (to use an old Navy expression) pissed off at me.  I can handle it thought--no problem.  I fall back on bad hearing and changing the subject.  Both work"  What am I laughing at, that is us at times! 
I give this book a 5 ***** for content but only a  3*** for the writing.  Although it was interesting to reread history much of which I have lived, I'd have preferred a better presentation: I think there is another book out there about #41. I'd not recommend this book, which really doesn"t matter as it is older, 2006 and not on any lists.  Still if you find it at a book sale, it is worth the $2.   My opinion is any number of writers would have been honored to produce this, but he wanted his daughter and so it was.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

History has proven that for tyrants and evil to prevail, it begins insidiously, while well meaning folks look the other way and tell themselves, that nothing will come of this.  Erik Larson"s newest historical narrative, makes that point in this excellent book, published in 2011, 365 pages supplemented by 83 more pages of sources, acknowledgements and  indices.  This is our June book club selection; I will be anxious to discuss it next week when we meet. 

The Garden of Beasts is part of what is known as the Tiergarten in Berlin, near the ambassador's office and similar to  the Central Park in New York.  It was where people could go and talk privately without being fearful of spies and  devices.  The drama weaves starting in 1933, the early days of the rise of Hitler in Germany and William Dodd has been appointed American ambassador to Germany, some speculate this was a fluke by President Roosevelt known for not paying the best of attention to his advisers.  But Dodd, a bland history professor from Chicago who longs to complete his 4 volume work on The Rise and Fall of the Old South, accepts the appointment and so journeys to Berlin with his wife and  adult  son and daughter.  Margaret Dodd, the daughter, a recent divorcee is a case study in immorality, flash, flirtation and considers the time in Berlin as a grand adventure.  Part of her activities in Berlin cascade her into various involvements and affairs with many men one after another including Rudolf Diels, first chief of the Gestapo and Boris Winogradov the Russian communist who charms and courts her, even wanting her to return to Russia with him. 

Ambassador Dodd is clearly a misfit in the ranks of the diplomats and the ambassador corps which is predominantly home to the idle rich and those who dabble while living lifestyles of the rich and famous.  Dodd is neither and alienates most of the embassy staff upon his arrival with his vow to live only on his salary, his demand for frugality and his dislike for pomp and gatherings.  He is ridiculed behind his back for walking to meetings and driving his old Chevrolet while others lavishly use chauffeurs and limousines.  His inconspicuous manner and modesty, lack of a fortune to support expenditures place him at a big disadvantage, although he never realizes nor acknowledges this.  Dodd is the weird duck in the midst and it is a wonder that he survives a few years but he believes that he is there to do his best serving as Roosevelt agreed, "a lone beacon of American freedom and hope."  Clearly he is no judge of character having spent his career in academia because he does not recognize that he has no support among the rest of the  State Department, the Consul or the politicos.  He is not  a member of what they call themselves, The Pretty Good Club, nor would he ever consider that lifestyle.  I felt sorry for him and often though, "just throw in the towel and go home to Chicago....." However,  Dodd is perceptive enough to see the dangers ahead though no one, believes him.   There is espionage and danger all around and yet Dodd remains above it, relies on his immunity or has determined he is in this for the duration.

There is a tribute to Dodd, Pg. 356...."...history....will record that in a period when the forces of tyranny were mobilizing for the extermination of liberty and democracy everywhere, when a mistaken policy of appeasement was stocking the arsenals of despotism, and when in many high social and some political circles, fascism was a fad and democracy anathema, he stood foursquare for our democratic way of life, fought the good fight and kept the faith, and when death touched him his flag was flying still...." 

We see the rise and interactions and mistrust amongst all the sinister Nazi characters Rohm, Goebbels, Goring, Hitler, Himmler.  There are some fascinating and shivering experiences with all of them.   Pg. 116 describes Diels, the Gestapo chief..."he entered....seeping in like a malevolent fog."   I was fascinated and horrified at the tactics and wondered, how could a people be so blind to the atrocities, something I ponder whenever I read about this era of history.  Bad enough that the Germans ignored it all but the isolationist attitude in the US waxed the way for Hitler to emerge and continue.   

I wondered how we came to select this book through recommendation  of Joan one of our members and then reading the acknowledgements I saw that  Mildred Fish Harnack, a friend  of Margaret's in Berlin was arrested by the Nazi's and executed at Hitler's direction.  She was the only University of Wisconsin (UW) alumna to be guillotined at Hitler's command.  Bill, Joan's spouse is an avidly devoted UW alumni and likely found this great historical read through a UW affiliation.  I am glad he did. 

I give this book a 5***** out of 5 possible.  Great subject, good writing, history and research well done.