In The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by Thomas Childers, on sale in early October, a historian tracks the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Unfortunately, this massive volume lacks philosophical perspective. It’s as though war and history professor and author Childers, who recently retired from University of Pennsylvania and has researched his topic, is overwhelmed by the scope, impairing his ability to select the subject’s essentials for a cohesive theme. But, while this massive book, with maps, notes, photographs and an index, is overstuffed with information and certain assertions, it is also packed with history.
In The Third Reich, Childers starts with compelling prose, tracing young Adolf Hitler’s rise from activist community organizer to the raging racist-nationalist-socialist who would become Germany’s dictator. The Third Reich includes the familiar catalysts such as the Versailles Treaty. Childers accounts for how Hitler organized the Nazi party. From the failed Munich putsch in 1923 to Hitler becoming chancellor in 1933, the reader gets what amounts to a condensed biography and facts about World War 2 in Europe and the systematic mass murder of six million Jews in what became known as the Holocaust.
Using German documents rarely used by previous historians, The Third Reich strives to be as comprehensive and accessible as William Shirer’s epic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. With more dates, names and events than demonstrated links, contextualization and examined causes, however, The Third Reich is at best an additional volume in one’s library of books about Nazi Germany. Like The History of the Holocaust and other scholarly Nazi-themed non-fiction, it is useful especially as a reference.
Childers tells compelling stories throughout the book, such as Hitler’s response in 1908 when an arts school rejected his drawings for a second time: “The whole academy ought to be blown up,” Hitler said. As most readers probably know, he neither smoked nor drank. He rarely ate meat. Adolf Hitler, the author writes, appreciated Puccini and Verdi. But he was “utterly enthralled” by Wagner’s operas.
Spurned by intellectuals and sponsored by society matrons taken with his charisma, Adolf Hitler crafted his persona. Hearing him speak in Munich, one observer gave what Childers reports was a common response: “I do not know how to describe the emotions that swept over me as I listened to this man…the gospel he preached a sacred truth. He seemed another [Martin] Luther…his magnetism was holding these thousands as one…I experienced an exaltation that could be likened only to religious conversion.”
As he perfected his oratory appeal, Hitler also grasped the ease with which pictures can comfort the masses. Childers writes that
a black swastika emblazoned in the center of a stark white circle on a background of bright red was the design Hitler hit upon. The red, he reasoned, would appeal to workers, while the combination of black, white, and red, [Germany’s] old imperial colors, would reassure nationalists and others on the right. The [National Socialist] party also adopted a handful of short pithy slogans—”the common good before the individual good” (Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigenutz)…”
In stump speeches, pamphlets (and later in Mein Kampf), Hitler called for nationalization of trusts, enactment of cooperatives, profit-sharing, the “breaking of interest slavery” (“whatever that means,” Childers writes), German socialism, a classless, people’s community and the ennoblement of the German worker. All of this only makes Childers’ insistence that the Nazis were right-wing, even placed far to the extreme right on a chart at the book’s beginning, in case you miss his points, more bizarre. Childers writes that Nazis, sounding like socialist American Sen. Bernie Sanders, blamed “kings of finance”, “International bank and stock-market capital” and Jews for Germany’s ills.
With the New York Times proving to be as wrong and unreliable then as it is now, reporting after the Nazis’ 1924 electoral loss that Hitler “looked a much sadder and wiser man” who “was no longer to be feared”, the Times forecast that Hitler would “retire to private life and return to Austria.”
But the Nazis pressed on, making their case to the German people. One Nazi explained in 1925 that “We want in place of an exploitative capitalist economic system a real socialism, maintained not by a soulless Jewish-materialist outlook but by the believing, sacrificial, and unselfish old German community sentiment, community purpose and community feeling. We want the social revolution in order to bring about the national revolution.” So, despite the author’s thesis, it is impossible not to notice that the Nazi philosophy resembles the collectivist anti-capitalism of America’s New Left.
It is equally impossible not to notice in this laborious account the Nazi parallels to the nation’s solid, currently 30 percent-ish, core of heel-clicking support for America’s new president, Donald Trump. For example, one of the men who would become one of Germany’s top Nazis appraises the rising Nazi leader, gushing that Hitler is
a mixture of collectivism and individualism. Land to the people. Corporations, trusts, finished goods, transportation, etc. socialized…Hitler has thought everything through [and]…always sees the big picture.”
The man making this observation became the Third Reich’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.
Propaganda is crucial to the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Childers asserts. “[H]ere Hitler had quite specific ideas. Propaganda, he argued, ‘must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect.” Hitler regarded Germans as “feminine by nature”. By feminine, he meant prone to persuasion by emotion more than reason. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have diversity in Nazi ranks. Inspired by Communist cells, according to Childers, who again refuses to reconcile this with his conclusion that Nazis are spawned strictly from the right, not the left, the Nazis sought to broaden propaganda by enlisting women to serve in one third of the cells.
The primary Nazi propaganda model was the public mass meeting, which started with a major speech and resulting discussion, continuing with recruitment and climaxing in “catcalls, insults, threats, and finally bottle-throwing melees” as part of the fun, which was part of the Nazis’ goal to present a “rough form of entertainment.”
Does any of this sound eerily familiar?
If it does, the Nazi means achieved familiar ends, culminating — like Trump’s 2016 election as president of the United States — in “stunning” electoral totals in leftist strongholds, such as Saxony, echoing the Obama voter’s switch to Trump in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that stunned pundits last November. A Nazi newspaper established in 1927 printed attacks on “the bosses of capitalism” which were, in the author’s words, indistinguishable from anti-capitalist attacks by Communists. Reminding readers of Communist Korea’s threat to launch a 9/11 type attack on U.S. movie theaters when the Obama administration refused to defend Sony Pictures and its targeted film The Interview, Nazi stormtroopers attacked a movie theater in 1930 for showing All Quiet on the Western Front, rampaging through the Berlin theater, releasing stink bombs and mice and assaulting anyone they suspected of being Jewish. The film, like The Interview, was withdrawn from distribution. The 1930 Nazis, like the 21st century Communists, were emboldened.
Titling a chapter “Making Germany Great Again”, Childers makes a partially warranted reference to Trump’s (and, before Trump, Reagan’s 1980) campaign slogan. After all, aside from policy parallels, the name Hitler, like the name Trump, conveyed a one-word strongman sensibility during the campaign. Hitler, Germany’s first politician to campaign by airplane, uniquely used modern means, like Trump using Twitter, to spread his message. And, as did Trump, at “each stop on Hitler’s speaking tour, they peddled photographs of Hitler, Goebbels, Strasser and other top party leaders; they hawked swastika-crested pens, scarves, pendants, bookmarks, and copies of Mein Kampf.”
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The Third Reich is too focused on Nazi politics and not enough on Nazi philosophy, leaving Childers’ assertion that the Nazis “were charting a radically new course” largely unsubstantiated as the reader wonders: toward what? Why? New as against what previously accepted ideas? He tracks details without supplying reasons (for those, and for an essential and proper philosophical grasp of Nazi Germany, the definitive source is Leonard Peikoff’s penetrating 1982 analysis, The Ominous Parallels).
Childers does get at the core of the Nazi philosophy, if circuitously, in the book’s second half, beginning with his chapter, “The People’s Community” (again, glaringly ignoring any parallels to Hillary Clinton‘s and Barack Obama‘s community organizer-Saul Alinsky influenced mentality). He begins the section with an exposition on the Nazis’ requisite faith in the state, the collective and the race. Goebbels, who’d previously been quoted as admiringly cast under Hitler’s spell for what he (wrongly) ascribed to individualism was by 1933 actively putting such ideals in their place. The Nazi propaganda minister rails to an audience of artists:
Individualism will be conquered and in place of the individual and its deification, the Volk [people] will emerge. The Volk stands in the center of all things. The [Nazi] revolution is conquering the Volk and public life, imprinting its stamp on culture, economy, politics and private life. It would be naive to believe that art could remain exempt from this.”
By the end of this chapter, Thomas Childers finally starts offering a fuller account of what the rise of National Socialism means in theory and in practice:
By mid-1934 it was obvious to all that this was no ordinary authoritarian dictatorship but a regime with totalitarian aspirations, a regime that sought to dominate not only the individual’s public behavior, but his private life, his thoughts…[wiping out] the distinction between public and private life. ‘The revolution that we have made is a total revolution,’ Goebbels stated in November 1933. ‘It encompasses every aspect of public life from the bottom up….It has completely altered relations between individuals and utterly transformed the relationship between the individual and the state.’ The Nazi goal was to ‘replace individuality with collective racial consciousness and the individual with the community.’ In the Third Reich, Goebbels bluntly proclaimed, there would ‘no longer [be] any free realms in which the individual belongs to himself…the time for personal happiness is over.”
Not that Nazi Germany, foreshadowing Obama, Trump and Black Lives Matter, didn’t have what most intellectuals today would call an upside. Hitler was a health and nature enthusiast and, while Childers plays down the Nazi belief that nature has intrinsic value, he notes that Nazi scientists declared a war on cancer, studying the link between diet and cancer and “endorsing the consumption of fresh, organically grown vegetables and whole wheat bread”. Nazi medical scientists were the world’s first to establish the link between tobacco and cancer. The Nazi gains are depicted too, for those who favor state-sponsored roads and infrastructure, with Adolf Hitler breaking ground on the German autobahn.
That these supposed gains came under compulsion comes through if not in explicit terms, with doctors being forced by the state to no longer tend to the individual … but to the Volk. “There was no higher moral obligation,” Childers writes, echoing the morality of Obama, McCain, Bush, Clinton, Trump and almost every leading government authority in the West. This duty of the individual to serve the state, the race or collective provides the perfect transition to the Reich Flag Law or the Reich Citizenship Law stripping Jews of German citizenship, rendering Jews as alien “subjects” in their own country.
Accordingly, Jews were choked from their productiveness, banned from practicing medicine, law and dentistry and numerous other work and professions, prohibited by law from distributing stamps. Childers follows with descriptions of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when Nazis smashed Jews’ glass windows, crystal and mirrors and then forced them to pay for the damages. Then comes the “Aryanization”, the “Jew tax” and the death and concentration camps, a horror which is fully detailed, except for any mention of the historic revolt by Jews imprisoned at Sobibor. As always for this reader and student of history, these stories are both gripping and horrifying.
Thomas Childers offers good insights on key, isolated parts of Nazi Germany’s history, such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics and American athlete Jesse Owens. In a brief section, Childers describes the Nazi conspiracy to cover up from visitors Nazi plans, laws and atrocities during the Olympics. But he also concludes in one of the few value judgments that the Olympics provided a triumph for Hitler and the Nazis, putting Jesse Owens’ celebrated victory as an American Negro in Berlin in its proper context. Other interesting tales, though they are short bits, include the stories of the Christian White Rose movement, with its heroine Sophie Scholl, who with her brother and comrades opposed the Nazis, and the Valkyrie conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (both depicted in decent movies) in which the assassination conspirators were hanged by piano wire from meat hooks in slow executions that Hitler ordered to be filmed. The related story of Erwin Rommel’s suicide is included, too.
Hitler’s own cowardly suicide is recounted in detail, with Childers concluding by quoting Nazi architect Albert Speer, who remarked that the dictator had “reached the last stage in his flight from reality, a reality he had refused to acknowledge since his youth.”
Hitler as basically anti-reality and anti-reason comes through in an evaluation by one of his field marshals, who observed that “Will, his Will, Hitler believed, ‘had only to be translated into faith down to the youngest private soldier for the correctness of his decisions to be confirmed and the success of his order ensured…[leaving Hitler, the field marshal concludes] impervious to reason [and leading Hitler] to think that his own will can operate even beyond the limits of hard reality.”
That Hitler’s delusional power-lust, combined with his insatiable desire to serve in duty to the race, tribe and state, could result in diabolically coordinated mass death is likely to be puzzling or inexplicable to the typical American reader. The mass murder of Jews known as the Holocaust is wrongly, tragically known as a causeless horror rather than as the ultimate application of an evil philosophy. “The dead stand like basalt pillars…” one conscripted Jew who survived wrote about the routine of cleaning up after a mass murder, “and even in death one can tell which are the families. They are holding hands in death and it is difficult to tear them apart in order to empty the [gas] chambers for the next batch.”
So, the author’s gravest error is in ending his lengthy and extensive book on Nazi Germany with the term (“moral imperative”) created by the philosophical father of the Nazi German state, Immanuel Kant, whose name is inexcusably absent in The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Can one write Nazi Germany’s history without naming and addressing the ideas that made it possible?
Not in terms of fundamentals (and, again, for a history of the Nazis in terms of essentials, read Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels). But it’s not as though a compilation of facts about one of the world’s most monstrous regimes is often published in today’s culture of memes, blurbs, Tweets, jabs and pics. Thomas Childers has devoted his career to studying war and Germany and there is value in his The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. He notes that SS chief Heinrich Himmler told a gathering of SS men in 1943 — on the mass murder of millions of Jews: “This is a glorious page in our history and one that has never been written and can never be written.” Though it lacks context and what I think are clear and evident causal connections, Thomas Childers proves Himmler and the Nazis wrong as he adds to the written histories of an evil that civilized man should learn, know and never forget.
In a 1935 photograph of Soviet spy Noel Field at a London disarmaments conference — Field had been recruited by Soviet Russia to spy on the United States of America — his lantern-jawed face contains the faraway vacancy of one who knows he’s too far gone. Field, who never showed remorse for his crimes or renounced his admiration for Stalin, was part of the same Soviet spy cell with Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, who outed them both, in Washington, DC.
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The picture’s included in True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, on sale in paperback next week. In it, author Kati Marton tells Field’s dark, horrifying story of Communist faith and fanaticism. Though she tends to romanticize his suffering and makes the common mistake of granting good intentions for his idealism, despite evidence to the contrary, True Believer demonstrates that Noel Field, an American who passionately spied for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, ruined his family and believed in Communism until the very end, when he was kidnapped and tortured by the KGB and forced to testify against his Communist comrades in one of Stalin’s show trials. In particular, she discloses that Field’s work with the Unitarian Church was a front for helping Soviet Russia and resulted in at least one murder, proving once again that, as Ayn Rand observed, faith and force are “the destroyers of the modern world.”
How a Harvard-educated, State Department employee became friends with Alger Hiss and made himself a Stalinist is True Believer‘s focus, starting in earnest with the Red Decade, the 1930s, when Field enlisted in the International Communist Movement, which New York City-based author Marton partly blames on U.S. evasion of the rise of European fascism. Author and reporter Marton, the child of a Hungarian political prisoner whose parents found and spoke with Field in the only press interview he ever gave, is author of several books.
In often engaging narrative detail, she traces Noel Field’s presumed pursuit of a meaningful life using access to Soviet Secret Police records, the Field family’s correspondence and historical research and reports on Communist spy Hiss, CIA Director Allen Dulles and, of course, Stalin, the bloodiest monster of the 20th century. True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy — published in softcover by Simon & Schuster and available on Sept. 19 — accounts for this faith-based little monster’s pathetic life of crime, treason and evil in what amounts to another volume documenting Stalin’s mass murder and the full force of Communism with notes, bibliography, photos and an index.
Read and indulge in The Pit: Photographic Portrait of the Chicago Trading Floor to recreate Chicago’s capitalism at its best. Published by Chicago trader Jonathan Hoenig’s Capitalistpig earlier this year, this softcover picture book of traders on Chicago’s trading floor features excerpts from The Pit: A Story of Chicago by Frank Norris (1903) such as this one: “A man gets into this game, and into it, and into it, and before you know he can’t get out…and he don’t want to.”
Inspired by the 1903 book by Norris, hailed by the Washington Post when it was published in 1903 as “one of the best descriptions of the wheat pit”, The Pit is the story of a businessman who begins trading, becomes enthralled and is “ultimately ruined by the Chicago futures markets, a fascination ‘worse than liquor, worse than morphine.'”
Jonathan Hoenig, an OCON speaker and Fox Business analyst whose introduction, dedication and acknowledgements pay tribute to the novel, the photographers, traders, trading pit and, of course, Chicago, worked on the floor, which closed in 2015. With 88 pages of color and black and white photos — several with detailed captions — of downtown Chicago’s pit in action, accompanied by selected prose from the novel, the reader gets a strong sense of the thrill of capitalism in the afterglow of its purest period on earth and what once made Chicago “the city that works”.
Before the Colors Fade (Knopf, New York, Hardcover 1981) by the late ABC News anchorman and 60 Minutes correspondent Harry Reasoner is a light, simple and rewarding tale of the media’s recent past. I came across this unique out-of-print memoir while conducting research on modern media. Instantly, I felt an affection I hadn’t experienced in years.
It’s a feeling one gets from the predominant era of that instantly familiar visual media format, television. Unlike today’s invasive visual media, which is everywhere and therefore constantly intruding upon one’s controlled experiences, such as desktop, laptop and mobile machines, TV was at once a shared and intimate kind of visual media—watching the Apollo 11 moon landing, Roots, Donahue, sports, Frasier was both very direct and easy to like, discuss and share with others—and Harry Reasoner was one of the best broadcast journalists in the later postwar 20th century.
His voice was as sonorous as Morgan Freeman’s—they shared that even-toned, slightly graveled sense of wonder at the world—his look affable yet knowing and he brought a mildly biting sense of humor to his reports. This quality, which most readers probably remember from his segments on Sunday’s CBS series 60 Minutes, is fully expressed in Before the Colors Fade. Reasoner’s memoir is peppered with refined storytelling. It’s also filled with teases, such as his mention in the introduction that he interviewed one of the world’s worst terrorists, a woman named Leila Khaled who hijacked and threatened to crash passenger jets to force the West to create a Palestinian state, unfortunately none of which he details.
In this sense, his book is a bit like wandering into the bar after the game lets out and finding a salty old pro at the corner who’s already had a few drinks and doesn’t mind holding court until it’s time to head home. Reasoner assesses his early broadcasting career with an admission that he thought he would “never make it in studio work” because he thought he had “no presence” and did not open his mouth when he talked, which was “probably the result of an adolescent reticence about showing bad teeth.”
One viewer had noticed that, too, and she wrote to tell him so. “Years later, [while] co-anchoring the ABC News with Howard K. Smith,” Reasoner writes, “I got a letter from a deaf person. Howard and I, she said, were virtually useless to her as broadcasters because we didn’t open our mouths and articulate the words in a way to help her lip-reading. “Howard is terrible,” she wrote, “and as for you, Mr. Reasoner,” she went on, “if you ever fail in the news business, you should do very well as a ventriloquist.”
Harry Reasoner, who comes across as extremely ambitious, reports that he languished for a while until a media critic gave his work a short, passing and positive notice in the New York Times:
If the individuality in Mr. Reasoner’s broadcasts … reflects a broader CBS policy to encourage members of its news staff to be themselves and not echo a corporate pear-shaped tone…”
Reasoner uses this fellow journalist’s clever compliment, which was also a dig at Big Media’s sameness, to reflect on some of his own reports and explore the industry in detail, noting with an intelligent—and predictive—thought of his own that “…news broadcasters should not be humorists … but if the news itself, viewed in a certain way, reveals wit or insight or comment, it’s all right to go ahead. So we did.”
Reasoner’s balance of the sacred and the profane was a key component in his outstanding success and popularity; what made Harry Reasoner light and enjoyable was the sense that he took the news, ideas and life seriously, as he did in one of his best TV broadcasts, his report of a deadly plane crash. He told viewers about Captain Charles White, “an Eastern Airlines pilot and former combat pilot, who died in the Constellation crash yesterday…” explaining that, “after the collision, the plane was unflyable. But he flew it.” Knowing that viewers must have been both horrified and gripped by news of the commercial aviation disaster, Reasoner went on: “As a result, some fifty people are alive who might logically be expected to be dead.”
The newsman described reports of the damaged passenger plane’s “crazy motion”, adding that Captain White’s
alternately powering engines on one side and then another, warning his passengers, and then picking out a field and coming in as softly as you can with that many tons at that kind of speed with no control—coming in flat and uphill—so that before the airplane burned up, almost everyone got out alive. And, now, tonight, Eastern Airlines tells us something else about Captain White: his body was found in the passenger cabin. Eastern’s conclusion is that he could have gotten out, but that he died because he went back to see to the safe evacuation of his passengers.”
Harry Reasoner goes on with a perspective that’s rarely on display among today’s anchors—in an act of decency that’s unthinkable to the generic put-down artists posing at TV desks delivering what passes for the news: “The pride in a man like this radiates out in lessening circles of intimacy—from his family to his fellow employees at Eastern, to all pilots, to all his countrymen, and finally the pride you have in just being a member of the same species. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”
Not that he couldn’t be arch and knowing, too, as when he reported on one of Elizabeth Taylor‘s weddings to Richard Burton, noting that the couple “were married today in Montreal. They met two years ago while working on the movie Cleopatra in Rome and have been good friends ever since. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”
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His breezy Before the Colors Fade glides from witty career notes to commentary on the press, TV and behind the scenes at CBS News, grazing history with Reasoner’s thoughts on “the night East Germany built the wall…”, “very sexy and trivial and irresponsible network news…” and how “[a]n argument with Betty Friedan” may have gotten him the job he wanted. These make for interesting snippets and they are precisely that and not more than that, so read Reasoner’s account for its facts, lessons and glimpses of a better media, not for his deep insights, though he does have them.
For instance, writing about his job, Harry Reasoner argues that “…even though the most important quality a reporter can have is detachment, you have to be able to love, too.” Though it’s true that he doesn’t go deeper and point out that to love is to value, etc., honestly, what journalist of Reasoner’s stature today would dare make such an assertion?
Some of the most penetrating parts are thoughts on his reporting from Gio Linh, Vietnam. “He was not a bad man, or a war-lover,” Reasoner writes about a Green Beret who commanded troops with whom Reasoner was embedded on a combat mission: “He was a professional. The worst casualty of the Vietnam War may have been the spirit and confidence of men like that. They are as yet, in an imperfect world, indispensable. We just asked them to do things for us that we should not have asked.”
Good writing makes reading Before the Colors Fade a treat. The author covers encounters, thoughts or bits on Phil Donahue, Fred Friendly, Lyndon Johnson (whom he describes as a “big, ebullient, manic-depressive Texan”), David Halberstam, Salvador Dali and Peter O’Toole, whom Reasoner writes he’d declined to interview, observing that the star of Lawrence of Arabia “had been out all night and was disorganized.” About one of his favorite 60 Minutes journalists, he writes: “Andy Rooney is my best friend. We just don’t talk to each other much. Well, that’s my essay on Andy Rooney. That would be his ending to that paragraph. Mine would be that he, like Don Hewitt, changed the face and course of American non-fiction television.”
This is how I remember Harry Reasoner as an anchorman and as a correspondent; straightforward, accessible yet judgmental in the best sense. In that example, he doesn’t explain why he thinks Hewitt changed TV, and, while reading Before the Colors Fade, I found myself wishing more than a few times that Harry Reasoner had gone deeper in his analysis. I certainly would have welcomed an opportunity to have interviewed him. He goes by facts, and this is what the best newsmen did and do, though too often he declines to examine facts and their implications, particularly on issues such as the existence of God, religion and ethics. But reading a book by a journalist who goes by facts is surprisingly refreshing and another reminder that the lights have dimmed and grow dimmer, to paraphrase Leonard Peikoff. Harry Reasoner appeared braced for this possibility, judging by his book’s title.
Harry Reasoner thought for himself and it’s clear that he saw himself as a whole man. Reading what were his thoughts about life in its everyday ordinariness, especially in retrospect now that he’s no longer alive, contains key clues about what was then the future, and offers lessons for the future now, despite and due to today’s media-savvy and media-saturated culture:
I wish readers would be a little less herdlike. If there is one rule I would recommend to any reader not specifically engaged in studying for an examination, it would be to read only what you like. It doesn’t matter what it is: if you don’t like it, don’t read it. Reading is a pleasure or it is nothing. Following this rule will mean you are left out in the cold in a lot of literary discussions, where the basic standard for a book seems to be that it be unpleasant, but you can always go in the next room and pick up your copy of Ian Fleming or Richard Hughes or Rex Stout or Ernest Hemingway or Loren Eiseley and improve on most conversation anyway.”
Or consider his take on cigarette smoking. After referring to smoking as one of “life’s most rewarding pleasures”, he writes that
The idea of trying to outguess life, to avoid everything that might conceivably ever injure your life, is a peculiarly dangerous one, I think; pretty soon you are existing in a morass of fear and you have given up not only cigarettes, prime beef, good butter, fine whiskey, spinach, tennis, sleeping on your side, riding without seat belts, air travel, train travel, your chiropractor — maybe, next month, love.”
Harry Reasoner’s most credible thoughts center upon his profession: the press. He warns against what came true throughout this light, slender book, observing its practitioners’ pompous and pretentious tendencies and transgressions and concluding: “I blame the colleges, partly; so many of them took broadcast journalism out of journalism and put in something called a “Communications” major, turning out people who knew all about how but not what to communicate.” He correctly describes the premise of the phenomenally successful 60 Minutes as holding to its tagline “that “all of reality is the grist of news.”
Long before media critics noticed the revolving doors, the cronyism, the concealed biases and the cozying up to power-lusters of state, Reasoner wrote that “too many of us interview the people we have had dinner with the night before. I think journalists and subjects can be mutually respectful friends, but when you are close enough so that you are no longer adversaries, our profession or craft or racket—craft, I think we decided—is in trouble.”
Yes it was, which led to distrust among the public, which is leading to faster acceptance of censorship. Conservatives often ignore that the freedom of the press they find so fashionable to doubt or denounce is part of the freedom of speech that they claim to support. Leftists do the same in reverse, ditching freedom of speech (by calling it “hate speech” for instance) while purporting to recognize freedom of the press, which is impossible without absolute recognition of the former. That’s unfortunate for many reasons, one of which is the disengagement or disenfranchisement of thoughtful journalists such as Harry Reasoner, who exercised his absolute right to free speech with Before the Colors Fade including commentary on the media’s complicity in Big Government, which of course he doesn’t describe that way. He gets at the corruption which was to come with breaking down the press-state distinction:
Knowing people, being on first-name terms or even privy to diminutives, has some advantages. But it is also very dangerous. Maybe we have been too successful, which is why we are, I’m afraid, a bit prematurely old. We have lost some strange and invigorating sense of being outsiders.”
He goes on, however, and this is what the best journalists do, noting the withering away of America’s innocence, as he softly applies this idea to universals, such as the state of the nation’s underlying sense of life…
Because along with the justified cynicism, and the justified feeling that everything seems to be going to hell, we retain our basic optimism, and some inside feeling that man as a whole and Americans in particular don’t have to be like the whispering curlew. We ought to be able to make some sense out of what we’re doing, and stop the worst of it, and limp along…We have on some precious occasions, like July 4, 1976, held each other’s hands and said I love you.”
Harry Reasoner doesn’t stop there. Rather than be accused with some justification of being overly sentimental, he refers to that above excerpt and adds that: “Journalism cannot and should not foster this sort of thing; it should, however, report it. It should be human without being maudlin, aware of sentiment while shying from sentimentalism. It should be awake.”
These last four words are the essence of everything decent and good about his old, tattered, out-of-print memoir Before the Colors Fade, which I found in a used bookstore for a few dollars, like a yard sale treasure. And the last two words are his straight, upbeat and dead serious warning to you, the reader, about navigating what was only starting to become the information glut at the peak of the broadcast media age. So, definitely read Before the Colors Fade if you do as a kind of warning. But revel, too, in Harry Reasoner’s flinty moments of bright writing, such as this diversion, a marvelous affirmation of the benevolent universe:
In case we have another day of it, the thing to do is to be outside, or by a big window, at just about 6:15 in the morning, in this longitude at least. Position yourself on high ground, with the ground sloping away from you sharply to the east and then climbing again; the west bank of a ravine does nicely. Right then you’re looking at the black and white of the world: the other side of the ravine is absolutely black — there could a city or a pride of lions or seven houses of neighbors hidden there—and the sky above the line of the hill is a bright, silvered white—no color at all. And then, before you get too cold to watch, the pink and orange of the sun comes, and the black of the hillside rolls down from the top, down to the river, and there are no lions there at all, but the empty branches of the trees are so clear you think you’ve never seen a tree before. And then you go milk the cows or catch a train or cook the cocoa or whatever it is you do at 6:25 in the morning. And whatever it is you do, it’s easier.”
Neither Harry Reasoner’s grit nor gleam fully makes and completes this conversational memoir, which is frosted by his fabulous sense of humor. At one point in Before the Colors Fade, the late, great Harry Reasoner, who embodied the American sense of life, capsulizes his distinguished career in a few beats that, on the surface, seem to herald the attention-deficit age but don’t, not really, and very much on the contrary if you catch the writer’s drift:
You will notice in these chronicles how often I have been a co-something. A surrogate for Cronkite. Me and Mike Wallace. Me and Mary Fickett. Me and Andy Rooney. Me and Howard K. Smith. And, briefly, me and Barbara Walters. I have gotten over worrying about what all this means and whether I should have inferiority feelings about it: things seem to work better that way. But I would like to note that this book is all mine (unless we decide to treat it as a pilot, recall it, and get a co-author).”
I get it, accept it and miss journalists like Walter Cronkite, Edwin Newman and Harry Reasoner. This is all his, catchy, clever title and all, and thankfully none of it reads like a perfunctory thank you list. If only there were more books like Before the Colors Fade and funny, thoughtful and factual reporters like Harry Reasoner, the world would be a better place and stand a better chance.
Biographer Jean Edward Smith chronicles the life of George W. Bush, the nation’s 43rd president, in Bush, available this week. Detailed, comprehensive and often even-handed, the heavily pictured, indexed and footnoted account reinforces that the fundamentalist Christian’s faith drove his decisions and two-term presidency. Smith undercuts his credibility at times. Most unfortunately, Smith ignores or evades certain logical conclusions about President Bush.
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The reader learns about Bush’s life, career and disastrous presidency and other judgments about Bush’s mistakes, flaws and decisions are clearly outlined, reported and analyzed. I did not know about Bush’s business deals with George Soros and Saudi Arabia, for instance, or that his father, George H. W. Bush the 41st president—the one who refused as president to defend the United States and American booksellers against the Islamic terrorist threat by Iran during its fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie—had lived in Compton. Or that Bush, known as 43, Dubya or “W”, praised preacher Billy Graham for leading Bush to believe in God, believed he was God’s messenger and had concluded that he “could not have stopped drinking without faith.”
The degree of the U.S. government’s entrenched cronyism is staggering, as Bush illustrates time and again. Besides Soros, Saudis and familial connections to Connecticut’s Senator Prescott Bush, Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush and the former U.S. president, Bush connects to major power sources. CBS News journalist Bob Schieffer’s brother Thomas, for example, a former Democrat in the Texas legislature, was the Texas Rangers’ “point man” on negotiating the special deal for a new ballpark when Bush owned the baseball team. Reading Bush, every chapter seems to disclose another major government-connected or state-sponsored instance of favoritism. When Mr. Smith makes reference to what someone describes as the “one-syllable guttural chuckle, a ‘heh’ straight out of Beavis and Butt-head“, the reader is reminded that Bush’s frat boy persona is backed by enormously powerful crony connections.
Some of those connections might have served the president and America’s best interests. For example, Smith notes that Bush wanted FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith, who was two years ahead of Bush at Yale University in Connecticut and, like Bush, was a member of Skull and Bones, as secretary of defense. Fred Smith had served as a Marine in the Vietnam War, and won a Bronze Star, Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. The Cato Institute’s major donor took himself out of contention for health reasons and, given how the wars were executed, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been under a war hero’s leadership. Throughout Bush, one sees Bush’s potential as president (I did when I met and interviewed then-Governor Bush in downtown Los Angeles).
This only underscores Bush’s severe deficiencies, which caused the United States to wage neverending war, lockdown and surveillance and welfare statism. The result, depression, despair and the threat of total economic collapse, made possible the historic election of his successor, Barack Obama. Author Smith doesn’t draw these conclusions, however, supporting facts for these assertions are laid out in page after page, chapter after chapter—”Inauguration”, “March of the Hegelians”, “Katrina”, “AIDS”, “Asleep at the Switch” and, the most understated title, “Quagmire of the Vanities”—and note after note. Despite the author’s warped perspective, with his anti-capitalist expressions of admiration for some of the president’s most damaging enactments, such as the monstrous controls on education known as “No Child Left Behind” and government drug subsidies for the wealthiest generation of old people in history, evidence that Bush’s was one of America’s worst presidencies is abundantly and thoroughly presented.
The first U.S. president to impose an office of “faith-based initiatives” in the White House, for instance, had warned Americans in his inaugural speech that, in opposition to the founding ideals of the republic: “Church and charity, synagogue and mosque, lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored (!) place in our plans and in our laws.” (Exclamation added). Author Smith demonstrates that teetotaler Bush practices what he preaches, beginning every cabinet meeting with a prayer—”not a silent prayer, but a direct appeal for divine guidance” and all but sidelining funding for stem cell research on faith, abetted by a conservative philosophy professor at University of Chicago.
Regurgitating another philosopher’s dubious ideas, Smith quotes Bush’s guru Karl Rove as proclaiming that “we create our own reality..and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” With Bush sincerely believing that he was the instrument of a supernatural being, he was surrounding himself with a band of obstinate intellectuals that referred to themselves as “Vulcans” for the Roman god of fire. It makes for chilling reading when you think about the thousands who would be doomed to die in fiery pits of hell on earth at the hands of religious terrorists and war policymakers from 2001, when religious fundamentalists brought the Twin Towers down, to 2009, when the economy came crashing down (and never has recovered despite Bush’s multi-trillion dollar debt schemes).
Jean Edward Smith makes mistakes, uses wrong words and lets his political philosophy distort his thinking, as when he chastises Bush neoconservatives, such as Paul Wolfowitz, for following philosopher Leo Strauss who believes in “moral absolutes” and thinks the United Nations is “inherently suspect” (it is and ought to be to anyone who takes rights seriously). But he tracks down crucial facts about the Bush presidency, career and lifetime, including that George W. Bush did not meet with his National Security Council a single time after his initial meeting in January 2001 until after the September 11 attack on America, despite numerous urgent and credible warnings of impending Islamic terrorist attack and Communist China’s seizure of a U.S. spy plane and the American crew.
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In this sense, the author provides a useful account of a very recent and extremely important figure in American history. While lacking a deep and fuller judgment about George W. Bush, Jean Edward Smith sheds new light on Bush’s background, motives and political philosophy. He also sets the record straight that it was Bush, not Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Condoleezza Rice, who took charge of U.S. foreign policy, demonstrating the toll faith takes on the ability to make rational decisions. Smith shows how Bush did everything or almost everything wrong in response to the act of war known as 9/11. This spiraled the nation faster toward its current pre-totalitarian state. Thanks to Bush, it is easier to see so soon after he was president how Bush endangered Americans’ lives, properties and liberties and ended, harmed and foreclosed pursuits of happiness for generations to come.
For their roles, Rumsfeld and Cheney come off as flawed but more measured and responsible than they are often portrayed by some pundits and journalists. Rice, whom Smith asserts (as I’ve suspected) willfully evaded signs of impending catastrophic assault on the United States, contrary to what she claims, and “threw fits”, does not. Other illuminating facts include President Clinton‘s attempt to visit North Korea. The author gets facts wrong, too, as when he writes that “President Reagan deserves full credit for ending the Cold War” (facts about the then-crumbling Communist Russia show otherwise). But Smith gets most of the important facts right and, which is perhaps more important, he shows that he grasps the magnitude of President’s Bush’s wrongdoing (even as he doesn’t name it as he could and should).
On this issue, Smith observes that, at a certain point in the president’s term:
When Bush returned to Washington on Labor Day, he had spent a total of fifty-four days at his ranch since inauguration. “That’s almost a quarter of his presidency,” said the Washington Post. Throw in four days last month at his parents’ seaside estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, and 38 full or partial days at the presidential retreat at Camp David, and Bush will have spent 42 percent of his presidency at vacation spots or en route.”
Bush declared a war against terror, which Smith correctly suggests is inherently unwinnable, recited Bible verses and instructed a speechwriter that a reference to 9/11 “as an act of war” be deleted. Under Bush’s administration, CENTCOM changed the name of America’s military operation in Afghanistan after 9/11 from Infinite Justice to Enduring Freedom to appease Moslem sensibilities, the NSA justified mass, indiscriminate spying on Americans in what one scholar calls “a defining moment in the constitutional history of the United States” and the Marines were ordered to “cut and run” at Fallujah in Iraq just when they needed to use unyielding force against the enemy.
George W. Bush gets his due as a man with a kind of American decency, too, especially when viewed here in the context of the Bush family, particularly in a story about a chandelier in which Bush spares a childhood playmate from his mother’s wrath. But Smith outlines and explains in Bush how Bush ruined America for Americans with wars of altruism, the morality Bush essentially adopted from his father’s and grandfather’s noblesse oblige and mangled with Americanism, which caused intellectuals such as Smith, whose biographies of Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower have earned acclaim, to mistake Bush for an advocate of moral absolutism.
This fraudulence is exactly why Bush was a bad president, one of the worst. Smith gets this judgment off to a serious and scholarly start, whatever Bush‘s imperfections, and he does it with clarity in the narrative, the facts and the contexts. What he gets wrong, he gets wrong, such as his penultimate chapter’s last line that “[i]deology was replaced by [Bush’s] pragmatism.” The author’s frequently purposeful account of the facts of Bush’s life and times proves otherwise; pragmatism, mixed as it is by Bush with faith at a moment in U.S. history that called for the clear, sober and ruthless use of reason, is George W. Bush’s philosophy. Jean Edward Smith’s disturbing yet important Bush, with its barrage of tales, facts and names showing that America’s government is contaminated with favoritism, nepotism and small, blank and corrupt minds, makes the case that Washington is led by petty little believers and illustrates why time for argument and action based on reason is running out.
Writing as “a historian who has devoted four decades to the study of Virginia” and an author striving to “do his best”, Richmond, Virginia scholar Jon Kukla—who has directed research and publishing at the Library of Virginia, authored history books and run Virginia’s Red Hill/Patrick Henry National Memorial—accounts for the one major American Revolutionary who “never held national office” in his biography Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (published today by Simon & Schuster).
Presuming an audience with serious interest in the Virginia lawyer, planter and American radical who defiantly proclaimed “Give me liberty, or give me death!”, Kukla immerses the reader in a dense, detailed and exhaustively factual biography. Neither exactly a straight chronological narrative nor a predominantly political philosophical reckoning, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty instead goes for completeness in providing the central facts of Patrick Henry’s career as an orator, thinker and founder of the American republic.
Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is impressive. Do not, however, expect or look forward to a portrait of the whole man. Kukla emphasizes essential points of Patrick Henry’s remarkable life, career and achievements—most impressively, offering deeper or newer details on Henry’s thoughts, ideas and writings—and does not get into the personal life, such as children and marriage. Patches of Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty are dull, dry and laboriously overdone with non-essential facts, names and information. But if history, and, in particular, great mythical tales of American history, entices your intellect, most of the reading is page-turning.
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History earns my most intense readership and Jon Kukla’s meticulously researched volume, with over 100 pages of notes, acknowledgements and preface, brings newly disclosed documents and insights to this patriot’s role in the radical, grass-roots movement to break free from British statism, declare independence and create an American republic.
“[Patrick] Henry was of medium build and average height, with deep-set but piercing steel-blue eyes, a dark complexion, and strong features,” Kukla writes. “His face was described not as handsome but as ‘agreeable and full of intelligence and interest.” Henry once sported a bright red cape when elected to public office. Indeed, he became known for rampant individualism, which may explain why he does not typically get his historical due as an influential Founding Father. Absorbing and continuing threads include Patrick Henry’s abiding friendship with George Washington—Virginia’s first governor and America’s first president—despite the pair’s principled dispute over the Constitution.
Young Patrick Henry and his brothers had grown up hunting, fishing and exploring the countryside, Kukla notes, and his philosophy apparently formed relatively early in life. Virginian Henry, indulging himself in nature, studied and guided himself in contemplating books, arts and Western ideas. “After breaking his collarbone at the age of twelve,” the author writes, “Henry during his convalescence taught himself to play the flute, though only for his private enjoyment. He was also an excellent performer on the violin.” Henry, like Thomas Jefferson, “spent hours ‘lying with his back upon a bed’ reading Laurence Sterne’s popular and risque comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote or Daniel Defoe’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” Friends described Patrick Henry’s disposition as “benevolent, humane, mild, quiet, and thoughtful.”
As an adult, Patrick Henry did own slaves even as he denounced slavery, which he believed was detrimental to everyone, causing white workers to “despise honest physical labor”, and Kukla seeds the volume with a running and carefully integrated account of slavery. He does so as it relates to his subject. So, the reader is more likely to come away with an objective grasp of why early advocates for slavery’s abolition, such as Patrick Henry, failed to follow through. Among complicating factors are Haiti’s violent slave rebellion, which set the cause of abolitionism back, an inter-colonial slave trade and, not insignificantly, the looming War for Independence, which appears to have all but derailed serious consideration for abolition.
Patrick Henry emerges as a compelling man of principle. Henry taught himself the law, seeking guidance from an attorney whom he considered honest, who “won [Patrick Henry’s] admiration for his strict refusal to defend clients he thought were wrong.” Soon, Henry built a profitable legal practice, increasing his caseload from 176 in 1760 to 493 in 1763, according to Patrick Henry’s ledgers.
Yet his ability to make money was inextricably tied to the issue of the British government’s control of nearly every aspect of colonial lives and Henry’s lifelong pursuit of happiness fuels his activism for creating a society based on individual rights. When the British crown rejected the Two-Penny Act of 1758, which Henry considered a perfectly logical law, Henry echoed political philosopher John Locke, denouncing the British king’s disallowance by noting that a king who fails to protect his people “forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.” After accounting for Henry’s formative three weeks in Williamsburg, where he witnessed Virginia’s first opposition, both public and private, to the government’s imposition of stamp duties on the colonies firsthand, Kukla takes on the facts and details of the Stamp Act of 1765, which, like ObamaCare, was concealed from the public and presented in the press as a fait accompli weeks after enactment, a tactic which would inform Patrick Henry’s later political methodology.
Henry’s blistering opposition to the Stamp Act forged his reputation as an American radical for liberty. In fact, Kukla reports that colonial newspapers reprinted versions of Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act resolutions during the summer of 1765, galvanizing resistance among the colonial population. The Massachusetts governor warned the British that Henry’s proposals were proving to be “an Alarm bell to the disaffected.”
And Henry, who celebrated Hugo Grotius and others as “illustrious writers” and benevolent spirits who “held up the torch of science to a benighted world,” took painstaking inventory of the toll each act of injustice took on himself and his fellow Virginians. Kukla writes that even Patrick Henry was shocked when the Stamp Act’s details came to light; Henry’s legal practice was subject to 40 government fees on every document, including wills, deeds, bills of sale, even college diplomas. The Stamp Act imposed taxes, too, on Virginia’s newspapers, almanacs, calendars, and pamphlets. A fellow attorney and Virginia burgess exclaimed: “Every kind of business transacted on paper is taxed!”
The Virginian fought the king’s tyranny with words, ideas—and oration. George Mason wrote that Henry was “the most powerful speaker I ever heard.” Mason attested that “[e]very word he says not only engages but commands the attention; and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them. But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is in my opinion the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities as public virtues.” Congressman Silas Deane gushed: “Patrick Henry is the compleatest Speaker I ever heard…but in a Letter I can give You no Idea of the Music of his voice, or the highwrought, yet Natural elegance of his stile.”
Patrick Henry’s oratorical style, like his savvy political, business and intellectual sense, was bred by thoughtful and methodical study of facts, context and analysis of what making a nation based on individual rights would necessitate, mean and entail. While visiting Philadelphia, Patrick Henry roamed bookstores, purchasing Thomas Leland’s edition of The Orations of Demosthenes on Occasions of Public Deliberation (London, 1763), one of many books about oratory Kukla writes that Henry used to improve his public speaking. The book bears Henry’s printed bookplate, signature, and his handwritten notation: Philadelphia 1774. But Kukla observes that Henry’s copy also contains a dog-eared corner of a page at this passage of particular interest to Virginia’s great orator: “When we take up arms against the Barbarian,” Demosthenes proclaimed about 354 BC, “we take them up for our country, for our lives, for our customs, for our liberty, and all such sacred rights.”
Henry “electrified the whole house”, Kukla writes, recapturing Henry’s legendary lines delivered on Tuesday, September 6, 1774, according to delegates’ notes of the congressional debates, that “The Distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” Kukla adds that “Patrick Henry’s oratorical skills were impressive, of course, but the delegates placed greater weight on his ideas.” Years later, John Adams told Jefferson that, in that Congress of 1774, “there was not one member, except Patrick Henry, who appeared to me sensible of…the Pinnacle on which he stood, and had candour and courage enough to acknowledge it.”
With a chosen pen name Scipio—”a pseudonym honoring the Roman patriot and general praised by Cicero as an exemplary orator and leader”—Partick Henry railed against Britain’s “bloody massacre” at Boston, reminding the king that “the breath of a tyrant blasts and poisons every thing, changes blessings and plenty into curses and misery, great cities into gloomy solitudes, and their rich citizens into beggars and vagabonds.”
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Filling Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty with such stirring words, usually grounding the speeches, excerpts and moments in their proper context, Kukla lays Patrick Henry’s life and ascent bare, demonstrating that the brilliant agitator for an American revolution and nation based on man’s rights was often biting and brave. That he once “sneered” to appeasers: “Shall we try “humble supplication”? That he may have saved the Midwest from British rule during the American Revolution with a band of elite forces, battled malaria and wrote his will entirely in his own hand. That believer Patrick Henry had concerns about the growing influence of deism and was not strictly for separating religion and state. That President Washington twice considered appointing him to the Supreme Court and once to succeed James Monroe as ambassador to France. That he wrote that he “detests” paper money. That Henry had 17 children and nearly 80 slaves when he died of stomach cancer at the age of 63.
Or that the text of Patrick Henry’s 1765 resolutions against the Stamp Act were a starting point of the American Revolution.
But Kukla also recounts, sometimes too generally or, conversely, with too much detail, that Patrick Henry, who was also a military colonel in the Revolutionary War, was intensely interested in and had a decent understanding of military history and strategy. Col. Henry created Virginia’s navy and, Kukla notes: “By the end of the Revolution, the legacy of Patrick Henry’s navy comprised two major shipyards and a dozen smaller ones as well as scores of warships—brigs and brigantines, schooners and pilot boats, and cruisers and row galleys—all manned by seven hundred officers, sailors and marines.”
To this end, Henry was loved by his enlisted men, who at one point threatened to quit and refused to serve under any other commander. But what also comes through in Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is that Patrick Henry was a deep and serious thinker, not merely a man of high ideals, inspiring speeches and decisive action, who was capable of life-affirming insight and introspection. For instance, Henry held that “[m]aturity grew not from “uninterrupted tranquility” but from hardships that “compel an exertion of mental power…Adversity toughens manhood—and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempted from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.”
Surmount them Patrick Henry apparently, did, too, as his wife Sarah, his “beloved companion”, “lost her reason” and showed signs of mental instability, dying in early 1775. Henry put his Scotchtown plantation up for sale in August of 1777. He sold it the following year for “eight times the purchase price, considerably advancing his fortune.”
Patrick Henry, whom Ayn Rand named a Midwestern university after in her epic novel of ideas, Atlas Shrugged, uttered his most famous line on March 20, 1775. Jon Kukla alludes to it in the title of his book’s Chapter 14: Liberty or Death: “When at last Henry took the floor, eyewitnesses describe him as starting “calmly,” as was his practice…Henry warned that his opinions were “very opposite to theirs.” …Henry wanted Virginians to face the whole truth, acknowledge the worst, and provide for it. Henry’s speech, as one distinguished historian observed, “transformed resistance into revolution.”
How exactly comes into sharp focus as Kukla recaptures Henry’s glorious American moment:
There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.” When Henry paused, murmurs of “Peace! Peace!” emanated from the pews where some of his timid colleagues sat, punctuating the dramatic moment and plodding one of history’s greatest orators toward the culmination of his most famous speech. “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace,” Henry answered. echoing the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, “but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field!” he exclaimed, affirming once again Virginia’s policy of steadfast unanimity with the other colonies. “Why stand we here idle?” “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He paused again, lifted his eyes and hands toward heaven and prayed, “Forbid it, Almighty God!—I know not what course others may take, but as for me…give me liberty, or give me death!” Then as his voice echoed through the church and his audience watched in stunned silence, Henry raised an ivory letter opener as if it were a dagger and plunged it toward his chest in imitation of the Roman patriot Cato. The church fell silent. “Men looked beside themselves,” one listener recalled. Another listener, standing outside a window after failing to find a seat inside, felt overwhelmed by Henry’s oratory. “Let me be buried at this spot,” exclaimed Edward Carrington, the younger brother of a Charlotte County delegate.”
Kukla notes that the British redcoats moved to disarm colonists at Concord and Lexington three weeks later, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson termed the shot heard ’round the world, setting off the fireworks that sparked an American Revolution.
For his part, Patrick Henry, convinced that the Constitution would result in a consolidated government that, when it proved oppressive to Virginians, could not be altered, opposed ratifying the Constitution. He opposed We the People, which he held was presumptuous, insisting that We the states was the proper phrase. “The chief aim of government, he insisted, was neither the promotion of trade nor imperial visions of becoming “a great and powerful people” but the protection of personal liberties. “Liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.” But this does not mean that Henry was an advocate of states’ rights as that term is widely understood. He wrote that “the dissolution of the Union is most abhorrent to my mind. The first thing I have at heart is American liberty: the second thing is American union.”
Nearing conclusion, Kukla observes that Patrick Henry warned that “The Constitution squints toward monarchy” and that he cautioned that “Your president may easily become king,” asking: “What will then become of you and your rights?”
In the chapter Last Call, Kukla largely lets the great American hero Patrick Henry have the floor, recalling his words: “If I am asked what is to be done when a people feel themselves intolerably oppressed, my answer is ready—overturn the government. But … wait at least until some infringement is made upon your rights that cannot otherwise be redressed; for … you may bid adieu forever to representative government.”
Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is an excellent and important biography of the patriot Patrick Henry—who inspired the American to rational action for individual rights in this land’s darkest hours—and wrote: