An exhaustive, respectful study of the president’s “shattered genealogy,” from Kansas to Kenya, Hawaii to Indonesia.
Washington Post associate editor Maraniss (Into the Story: A Writer's Journey Through Life, Politics, Sports and Loss, 2010, etc.) painstakingly constructs a sensible, solid grounding beneath the mythology of the current president. However, note that Obama only reaches age 27 in this long biography. Accepted to Harvard Law School, his political future “still amorphous but taking shape,” he resolved finally to visit the land of his absent father, Kenya, and make sense of his African heritage. “Leaving and being left” had become the themes of his childhood, and Maraniss has certainly done his homework, delving both into the original Kansas Dunham clan, marked by the suicide by poisoning of Obama’s great-grandmother Ruth Dunham, in 1926, and the prideful rise and tortured demise of Obama’s father and namesake, the Harvard-educated economist who was undone by hubris and alcoholism. Considering the many tangled strands of Obama’s story, it is extraordinary that he did not lose himself. Yet these same “misfits” in his family, especially his hardworking mother and her Kansan parents, Stanley and Madelyn, embraced the biracial grandson unconditionally, shielding him from the bigotry of the era by entertaining the tale that he descended from Hawaiian royalty. Maraniss’ portrayal of Barack Obama senior, from astute political mind to abusive husband and self-destructive drinker, is masterful and moving, while “Barry” the son emerges very gradually from the cocoon of his elite Honolulu boarding school to grasp his identity as an African-American young man at Occidental College and then Columbia in the 1980s.
Maraniss stresses that Obama’s Muslim ancestors encompass only one facet to his complex, fascinating makeup. Another in the author’s line of authoritative biographies.
A gossipy but mostly meaty look inside the Obama White House, a place less unified than one might expect—or hope.
New York Times Washington correspondent Kantor graduated to that position from the Arts & Leisure section, and it shows in her fascination with First Lady Michelle Obama’s fashion sense, about which we read a great deal, good and bad—good that Mrs. Obama has a fashion sense, bad in the sense that expensive clothing in a time of economic hardship gives the president’s enemies more fodder for complaining. Thus, after the midterms, “she still wore plenty of expensive labels, including designer gowns to formal evening events, but during the day there were more dresses from chain stores.” No one could complain about a $34.95 dress, after all—though of course they could, since a vigorous anti-Obama contingent in Washington is doing all it can to keep the president from fulfilling his ambitions and finds fault in everything he does. Here Sen. Mitch McConnell becomes a notable heavy of the piece. The best parts of Kantor’s book depict a White House beleaguered and harassed, a leader frustrated at being kept from pursuing what he had hoped would be a “post-partisan” style of governance. The book has already made news for its depiction of Mrs. Obama as a tough manager with a reputation for frostiness and impatience: “My staff worries a lot more about what the first lady thinks than they worry about what I think,” she reports President Obama as saying by way of a lead-in to some memorable conflicts with the likes of Robert Gibbs and Rahm Emanuel. Yet, given both Michelle Obama’s misgivings about the toll of political life on her family and the siege-fortress mood of the White House, her protective and decisive demeanor seems entirely understandable, especially given the president’s complementary “elusive, introverted” manner.
If only the “wrath of Michelle,” as it’s known, is the worst thing the staffers have to face. It’s not, though, and Kantor’s fly-on-the-wall view makes illuminating reading for an election year.
With the collaboration of Koltz (co-author: Leading the Charge: Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield to the Boardroom, 2009, etc.), Powell picks up the thread of his life story.
The author rose in the military to become “the first black Army officer to have a four-star troop command.” He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Iraq war and served as secretary of state from 2001 to 2005. The release of his first book, My American Journey (2003), fueled a groundswell campaign to nominate him for president in the upcoming election. However, he recognized that he was not cut out for the job despite his proven leadership strengths. He describes how, as he advanced in rank, his military training also prepared him for his role in government. He learned the importance of always focusing on the mission, being resolute in the face of danger and setbacks, not being governed by ego and maintaining a can-do spirit (with the proviso, “I try to be optimistic, but I try not to be stupid”). A good leader, he writes, accepts responsibility for the failure of those in his command, but makes sure to reward them for their successful missions. Unlike the corporate world, the Army recruits from within its ranks, which makes recognizing potential and providing continuing education a primary concern. Powell reviews his profound disagreements with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney on the handling of the war in Iraq, while taking full responsibility for mistakes made on his watch—e.g., his “infamous speech at the U.N. in 2003” claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
An inspiring and useful memoir from a significant figure in 21st-century American politics.
From a fellow economist, an admiring biography of Paul A. Volcker.
Born in 1927, Volcker attended Princeton and eventually landed in the U.S. Treasury Department as an influential policymaker. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed him chairman of the Federal Reserve, making the imposing man the most visible banker anywhere; Ronald Reagan retained Volcker as chairman. In some respects, Silber (Finance and Economics/New York Univ., Stern School of Business; When Washington Shut Down Wall Street: The Great Financial Crisis of 1914 and the Origins of America's Monetary Supremacy, 2007, etc.) delivers a conventional chronological biography light on Volcker's personal life. The author focuses instead on three daring policy battles that changed the world economic order: removing the U.S. dollar from its link to the gold supply; using fresh fiscal policies to tamp down high inflation rates; and President Obama's involving the octogenarian Volcker in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Obama hoped, not entirely in vain, that the combination of Volcker's brilliant mind and untarnished reputation would lead to a more secure banking system through a combination of moral suasion, executive branch regulation and congressional legislation. While Silber is admiring, he provides copious evidence that Volcker is worthy of his credibility. Without Volcker in charge at certain intervals, he writes, the American financial system might have tipped from the verge of collapse into total meltdown.
Although not the first biography of Volcker, Silber's book is the most up-to-date and blessedly free of jargon.
Senator Specter, swept out of office in 2010, takes a hard look at what happened—and at the collapse, as he sees it, of civil politics.
The cannibals in question are mainstream Republicans—and, to a lesser extent, leftist Democrats who work against moderates on their side of the aisle. By Specter’s (Never Give In: Battling Cancer in the Senate, 2008, etc.) account, “Eating or defeating your own is a form of sophisticated cannibalism.” The Tea Party uprising was a feeding frenzy of ideological purification, as “compromise” became a curse word and anyone who did not toe the party line became an enemy. In that climate, it became impossible, Specter writes, to cross the aisle, both for him as a moderate Republican-turned-Democrat and for his friend Joe Lieberman, who narrowly won a seat as an independent after losing the Democratic primary in Connecticut. Specter writes of the agonizing process that forced him to leave the Republican Party and become, for a short time, a Democrat on Capitol Hill. Interestingly, he also confesses to having crossed the party line years ago to become a Republican in the first place, having once been a Democrat early in his political career. The author sees much to lament in the loss of collegiality and the hardening of ideological lines in the modern Congress, especially because Congress has its work cut out for it in curbing the excesses of an activist Supreme Court that is busily awarding personhood to corporations and otherwise corrupting the political process. Specter closes on a note of hopefulness that centers on the victory of Lisa Murkowski over Tea Party intransigence in Alaska, though he also warns that “political extremism…poses a new, or amplified, threat to the United States”—and he doesn’t just mean al-Qaeda.
A highly readable battle cry from the moderate center—and timely, given the tenor of politics today.
A sympathetic, evenhanded reappraisal of President Lincoln’s secretary of state as a statesman who practiced effective preventive strategies.
Stahr (John Jay, 2005) takes issue with some of the previous “hostile” criticism of his subject as being formed after the Civil War (e.g., by Gideon Welles) and thus lending an imbalanced portrait, which the present historian aims to correct. Neither Seward nor Lincoln kept a diary of events during the era, and the author often searches for answers in the historical record by returning to contemporary sources. One question was whether Seward tried to dissuade Lincoln from issuing his Emancipation Proclamation or merely questioned its timing. (Stahr comes down on the former.) Wading through the maelstrom of congressional criticism of Seward during the war, Stahr finds that he played his diplomatic cards toward England and Russia exceedingly well. Seward was able to convince Lincoln and the cabinet to surrender the two Confederate ministers bound for England aboard the Trent in November 1861, arguing that to not do so was to risk Britain’s declaring war on the U.S. Stahr considers the full life of this energetic, devoted, certainly not flawless public servant, from his one term as Whig governor of New York, to his years in the U.S. Senate and beyond. The author amply shows how his loss to Lincoln for the first Republican presidential nomination of 1860 only spelled the nation’s gain, as Seward then campaigned tirelessly for his opponent and never lagged in his devotion to the Union.
A thorough, refreshing biography by an independent-minded historian.
A skillful probing of the often-discordant relationship between the president and the Supreme Court.
Having previously examined the intricate machinations of the Supreme Court, CNN and New Yorker legal analyst Toobin (The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, 2008) again turns his scrupulous eye to the Court’s current and future impact on the Obama administration. The author lays the groundwork for his examination by citing Chief Justice John Roberts’ awkward 2009 fumbling of the presidential oath of office (later re-administered, to Obama’s annoyance) and proceeds to retrace Court history and the persistent political distance separating the presidential seat and the justices. Setting a congenial yet authoritative tone, Toobin notes that Obama and Roberts also share similarities as academic overachievers who attended Harvard Law School and officiated the student-produced Harvard Law Review. Their differences, writes the author, are rooted in the application of the Constitution: Obama believes in traditional values and stability, while Roberts is eager for the Supreme Court to usher in new changes and an evolving understanding of the Constitution’s core signification. Toobin deftly tracks Roberts’ political history and examines issues that best tested the Court’s decisiveness—e.g., abortion, gun control, radical protests and health care. A consummate profiler, Toobin nimbly features key Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and “intellectual pathbreaker” Clarence Thomas. Culled primarily from interviews with unnamed justices and their respective law clerks, Toobin offers a well-balanced, literate and interpretative survey of the multifaceted intercourse between the conservative Supreme Court and our liberal president.
With the assistance of Oxford Analytica CEO Mousavizadeh (editor: The Black Book of Bosnia: The Consequences of Appeasement, 1996), former United Nations Secretary-General Annan discusses the major benchmarks of his life and career.
The author, born in 1934, passes briefly over his education and early career at the World Health Organization and U.N., where he worked until his retirement in 2006, and moves rapidly into his main topic: the transformation of U.N. Peacekeeping Operations since the late 1980s and early ’90s. Since then, the idea that the U.N. Security Council can deploy military force to intervene in conflicts within sovereign nations and to protect human rights has become institutionalized. Because the transformation paralleled the progress of his own career, Annan, who was promoted to the directorate of PKO in 1993 and secretary-general in 1997, is uniquely situated to chronicle this time period in the organization, and he identifies three significant dates: 1992, after Desert Storm; 1998, after the Bosnian conflict and the Rwandan genocide; and again in 2005. First, consent of all the parties to a conflict was no longer required; then the need for self-contained fighting forces to drive military outcomes was recognized; and finally, there was the adoption of what its sponsors called “the responsibility to protect.” However, the U.N. has often lacked the means—specifically the “self-contained fighting force”—to accomplish some of its goals, so disagreement has been ongoing between nationalist interests and those who aspire to exercise the powers of a world government. Annan also discusses his roles in the U.N.’s millennial development program and its work on AIDS.
An insider's personal account based on lessons drawn from long experience. Aspects of this book complement Jacques Chirac's autobiography, My Life in Politics (2012).
Candid memoir from France’s former two-term president.
Best-known in the United States, perhaps, for his opposition to the rush to war against Iraq in 2003, Chirac offers American readers a close-up portrait of a truly old-school French politician. Born in Paris and educated in the tradition of republican leadership and service, the author rose through the ranks of French government, serving as minister of agriculture, minister of the interior, mayor of Paris, prime minister of France and, eventually, president. In addition to the accounts of his political life, many readers will be surprised to learn of Chirac's love for poetry, his early interest in Sanskrit, his fluency in Russian (he translated Pushkin's Eugene Onegin), his familiarity with Chinese history and his lifelong enthusiasm for African and pre-Columbian sculpture. As he demonstrates, these interests were formative in his approach to politics and to the “worsening divide between the poor countries that represent more than a third of humanity and the wealthy countries that do not adequately fulfill their responsibilities in terms of development aid.” Chirac describes the shock he experienced as a member of the G7, and he examines the development of France's social safety net and health system as by-products of settlements of political conflicts—e.g., the May 1968 general protest, during which he helped the negotiations. Chirac also provides ample detail about the military and technological underpinnings of national power and gives unique insight on the European Union.
Citizenship, leadership and service combine in this memoir of a full political life.
A former watchdog in the federal government attacks the officials who perpetuated the financial meltdown by kowtowing to behemoth banks and Wall Street firms while abandoning the public interest.
Barofsky was a federal prosecutor in New York in 2008 when his boss encouraged him to apply for a newly created position in Washington, D.C., as inspector general overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Created during the waning months of the Bush administration and inherited by President Barack Obama, TARP allocated hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to allegedly stabilize too-big-to-fail banks, strengthen investment firms and rescue homeowners from foreclosure. Ignorant of cutthroat Washington politics, Barofsky, a Democrat, won confirmation by the U.S. Senate despite Republican Party dominance and set out to account for the TARP spending in a transparent, nonpartisan manner. However, as he demonstrates in his energetically written first-person account, he and his staff met resistance every time they tried to share the truth with Congress, the White House and the American public. The villains are numerous, with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at the top of the list. Of course, it’s possible that some of the negative characterizations shared by Barofsky involve score-settling or well-intentioned differences. That seems unlikely, however, since the author provides copious evidence of the petty attacks on his office by Geithner, other Treasury Department officials, White House staff members, senators and representatives, coddled journalists and ill-informed bloggers. Barofsky's account contains enough self-deprecation that he does not come off as a holier-than-thou hero.
A courageous, insightful book that offers no cause for optimism.