PRESIDENTIAL AMBITION

HOW THE PRESIDENTS GAINED POWER, KEPT POWER, AND GOT THINGS DONE

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)

Pub Date: Feb. 15, 1999

ISBN: 0-06-018373-X

Page Count: 400

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1998

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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