Books by Richard Shenkman

Released: Feb. 15, 1999

A timely look at the seamy side of presidential power. Many believe the morals of American presidents have recently plunged to all-time lows, reflecting path-breaking abilities to lie and manipulate in the craven pursuit of power. Investigative journalist Shenkman (—I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not,— 1991) reassures us that, while there has been a gradual decline over time, in fact presidents have behaved this way all along. Our misperception is based on a relative lack of knowledge about earlier presidents, and he sets out to correct the record. The fundamental issue is that ascending to the presidency requires overwhelming ambition, an ambition that calls for setting aside moral niceties to achieve desired ends. As the country and government became larger and more complex, so did the need for amoral ambition to become president. This is not all bad: an effective president must act forcefully and be willing to do whatever it takes to achieve public goals. Unfortunately, history is not filled with such men who are careful to distinguish between public and personal goals. Consider the records of presidents who have sent Americans to die in wars: to acquire a great expanse of territory, Polk repeatedly lied to provoke the Mexican-American War; Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War" despite knowing the US would soon be engaged in WWI; Franklin Roosevelt copied Wilson in 1940 by flirting with isolationism rather than honestly admitting that entry into WWII was inevitable; from the very beginning, Vietnam turned Johnson into "the greatest liar in American history." Shenkman's scanning of a list of common political sins—election fraud, manipulation of the media, dirty tricks in political campaigns, toleration of corruption, lying to the public—reveals no recent innovations. Not a pretty picture, but a realistic one. (Author tour) (For another look at presidential ethics, see Marvin Olasky, God, Sex, and Statesmanship, p. 1779) Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 9, 1991

Sequel to Shenkman's best-selling Legends, Lies And Cherished Myths Of American History (1989), further debunking popularly held views of Americans and their habits. Shenkman deserves credit for covering a lot of ground in relatively few pages. Starting with a timely assessment of patriotism in its historical context, he establishes fervent flag- waving as a phenomenon barely 100 years old, prompted in part by the flood of immigrants threatening to overwhelm the hegemony of ``old-stock'' Americans. Subsequent discussion ranges widely, if briefly, through matters of religion (the Pilgrims were not Puritans), work and play as modified by the Industrial Revolution, the influence of literature and the lives of the literati, American womanhood and the relative freedom a Victorian woman possessed, and the erroneous judgments passed on about figures from Boss Tweed (who had his merits) to Tokyo Rose (who never existed, even though a woman was convicted of treason in her name). Misconceptions about the national identity are dispatched with nimble wit and efficiency, but as a grab-bag of factoids and data culled from scholarly researches it all has no ultimate guiding principle, leading among other things to a pointless distortion of the Warren Harding quotation used as the title (``I love the story of Paul Revere....''). Bright and bubbly for popular consumption and sure to be as successful as its predecessor—and as distressingly flat the morning after. (Line illustrations.) Read full book review >