A work of interpretive opinion, not of fresh historical understanding. The fox, it is said, has many ideas and the hedgehog one. Olasky (Renewing American Compassion, 1996), editor of the Christian magazine World, is a hedgehog here. Unfortunately, his single idea—that we must assess religious beliefs and morality if we’re to understand the motivations and actions of national leaders—is, like many such ideas, unexceptionable and misleading. It’s misleading because it’s only one of many ways to evaluate presidents. Worse, Olasky likens his approach to that of the great historian, ironist, and prose stylist Richard Hofstadter. But while, like Hofstadter, Olasky has written a book composed of portraits—in his case of 13 presidents and other leaders—unlike Hofstadter’s essays, Olasky’s lack subtlety, weight, and often accuracy. What are we to make of a claim that American forces won the battle of Saratoga in 1778 not because of superior skills and the normal turns of fortune, but because the British commander was in bed with his mistress? Or that Woodrow Wilson was little more than a hypocrite? What this book lacks is nuance and balance. Which is a pity, for Olasky is onto something important: that many, probably all, American presidents have been flawed. We need to recognize that fact and to acknowledge that a democratic republic is not likely to have saints for chief executives. We’re also justified in assessing personal character in evaluating and voting for presidents. But are there no other considerations—a president’s vision (Jefferson’s), political skills (FDR’s), or deep moral sense (Lincoln’s)—to bring to bear in assessing the character and achievements of our top elected officials? Must a single approach to assessing presidents—the moralistic one—be used to the exclusion of all others? This book strains credulity by suggesting that the answer is yes. (12 illustrations, not seen) (For another look at presidential ethics, see Richard Shenkman, Presidential Ambition, p. 1784)

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-684-83449-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1998

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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 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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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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