Against many historians, Seigenthaler applauds Polk for achievements that he insists are “nothing short of remarkable,...

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JAMES K. POLK

James K. Polk waged war against Mexico, and almost against Britain, to increase the size of the US by a full third. Yet, writes fellow Tennessean Seigenthaler, “somehow he is the least acknowledged among our presidents, which is somewhat mystifying.”

Perhaps not so mystifying, given that the Mexican-American War, widely known at the time as “Mr. Polk’s War,” was highly controversial, protested by the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, and a young Abe Lincoln. Even today, a certain amount of shame attaches to the American invasion of Mexico, which netted California, New Mexico, most of Arizona, and other territories, serving to lessen Polk’s reputation. Seigenthaler, founding editorial director of USA Today and veteran Tennessean journalist, allows that Polk, like his mentor Andrew Jackson—Polk’s career, he writes, “was grafted as a limb to the trunk of Jackson’s political tree”—was always spoiling for a fight. But, he argues, Polk worked from a sense of “moral certitude and self-righteousness” and probably believed, as did so many of his compatriots, that only American intervention could save Mexico from its innate barbarism. Interestingly, Seigenthaler adds, Polk seems to have been reading the mood of the nation correctly when he advocated annexation of the then-independent Republic of Texas in 1844, which the leading politicians, Democrat Martin Van Buren and Whig Henry Clay, refused to do. Swept into national office, Polk came to see states’ rights as secondary to the national interest, and he became a champion of American empire-building. His work in this regard won him admirers, but it also led him to “virtually incarcerate himself in the White House for the full tenure of his presidency” and to micro-manage his generals 2,000 miles distant, who disregarded his orders anyway. The stress of his presidency, the author suggests, condemned him to an early grave, and he died soon after leaving office.

Against many historians, Seigenthaler applauds Polk for achievements that he insists are “nothing short of remarkable, changing forever the geography and economy of the country.”

Pub Date: Jan. 4, 2004

ISBN: 0-8050-6942-9

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2003

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An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

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BECOMING

The former first lady opens up about her early life, her journey to the White House, and the eight history-making years that followed.

It’s not surprising that Obama grew up a rambunctious kid with a stubborn streak and an “I’ll show you” attitude. After all, it takes a special kind of moxie to survive being the first African-American FLOTUS—and not only survive, but thrive. For eight years, we witnessed the adversity the first family had to face, and now we get to read what it was really like growing up in a working-class family on Chicago’s South Side and ending up at the world’s most famous address. As the author amply shows, her can-do attitude was daunted at times by racism, leaving her wondering if she was good enough. Nevertheless, she persisted, graduating from Chicago’s first magnet high school, Princeton, and Harvard Law School, and pursuing careers in law and the nonprofit world. With her characteristic candor and dry wit, she recounts the story of her fateful meeting with her future husband. Once they were officially a couple, her feelings for him turned into a “toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder.” But for someone with a “natural resistance to chaos,” being the wife of an ambitious politician was no small feat, and becoming a mother along the way added another layer of complexity. Throw a presidential campaign into the mix, and even the most assured woman could begin to crack under the pressure. Later, adjusting to life in the White House was a formidable challenge for the self-described “control freak”—not to mention the difficulty of sparing their daughters the ugly side of politics and preserving their privacy as much as possible. Through it all, Obama remained determined to serve with grace and help others through initiatives like the White House garden and her campaign to fight childhood obesity. And even though she deems herself “not a political person,” she shares frank thoughts about the 2016 election.

An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6313-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2018

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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