An expert addition to the boundless literature surrounding Washington and the founding era.



The first president’s role in creating his eponymous city.

Historian Watson reminds readers that the Constitution granted Congress the power to create a national capital. However, from the first meeting in 1789, controversy over the location was fierce. Washington, writes the author, “grumbled” that it was causing “ ‘more bitterness, more sectional divisiveness and more commentary by participants’ than any other issue, including slavery.” Watson joins fellow historians in praising the “Compromise of 1790,” which broke the logjam. With Washington’s approval, Alexander Hamilton sought a federal government that could assume the states’ war debts and establish a national bank. Thomas Jefferson and the anti-Federalists hated the ideas. In exchange for dropping their opposition, Hamilton agreed to use his influence for a Potomac capital. The author ably describes the tumultuous process that followed, a tale that will be familiar to readers well versed in other grand projects like the Panama Canal or Transcontinental Railroad. Historians extol the design of Washington’s chosen architect, Pierre L’Enfant, but he was so obnoxious that everyone approved his dismissal after a year. The Founding Fathers, brilliant in so many ways, agreed that taxes were unnecessary and that selling lots in the new city would pay for everything. The result was two decades of pleas for loans, unpaid bills, and construction delays. Working conditions were brutal, and America possessed few skilled craftsmen, so builders imported workers from Europe and eventually used a great deal of slave labor (“cruelly inevitable”). By the time John Adams took up residence in November 1800, the White House roof was partially completed. Furthermore, “only a third of the nearby Capitol was nearing completion, temporary shanty homes dotted the landscape, and construction equipment littered the grounds of the unfinished buildings.” Matters improved, but it took another decade. Washington’s final battle turned out to be unexpectedly difficult, and Watson makes a strong argument that only his astute leadership assured victory.

An expert addition to the boundless literature surrounding Washington and the founding era.

Pub Date: Jan. 22, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-62616-784-1

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Georgetown Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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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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A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

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In the first volume of his presidential memoir, Obama recounts the hard path to the White House.

In this long, often surprisingly candid narrative, Obama depicts a callow youth spent playing basketball and “getting loaded,” his early reading of difficult authors serving as a way to impress coed classmates. (“As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless,” he admits.) Yet seriousness did come to him in time and, with it, the conviction that America could live up to its stated aspirations. His early political role as an Illinois state senator, itself an unlikely victory, was not big enough to contain Obama’s early ambition, nor was his term as U.S. Senator. Only the presidency would do, a path he painstakingly carved out, vote by vote and speech by careful speech. As he writes, “By nature I’m a deliberate speaker, which, by the standards of presidential candidates, helped keep my gaffe quotient relatively low.” The author speaks freely about the many obstacles of the race—not just the question of race and racism itself, but also the rise, with “potent disruptor” Sarah Palin, of a know-nothingism that would manifest itself in an obdurate, ideologically driven Republican legislature. Not to mention the meddlings of Donald Trump, who turns up in this volume for his idiotic “birther” campaign while simultaneously fishing for a contract to build “a beautiful ballroom” on the White House lawn. A born moderate, Obama allows that he might not have been ideological enough in the face of Mitch McConnell, whose primary concern was then “clawing [his] way back to power.” Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the book, as smoothly written as his previous books, is Obama’s cleareyed scene-setting for how the political landscape would become so fractured—surely a topic he’ll expand on in the next volume.

A top-notch political memoir and serious exercise in practical politics for every reader.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6316-9

Page Count: 768

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 16, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020

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