Churchwell demonstrates a lively intellect, as she exhibited early in her publishing career with The Many Lives of Marilyn...




Investigating two ubiquitous yet murky expressions—“America First” and the “American Dream”—through “a genealogy of national debates” that surround them.

Churchwell (American Literature /Univ. of London; Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, 2013, etc.) introduces these ill-defined concepts and then uses broad historical research to demonstrate their intersections during portions of the last three centuries. Although the detailed narrative ends in 1941, the author offers an epilogue covering the years 1945 to 2017, mostly focused on Donald Trump and his associates. Churchwell demonstrates that when the concepts of the American dream and “America First” arose in the culture and the language of the U.S., those terms tended to signify the opposites of their meanings today. At any given moment, each term has been linked, for better or worse, to the American concepts of democracy, capitalism, and racial equality—or inequality, as the case may be. Churchwell acknowledges her preferred definitions, but she mostly avoids moral judgments in favor of pointing out shifting historical trends. So when Trump (or others) talk about “America First” or the American dream, their crabbed definitions may have different connotations than in previous decades. For example, “America First” has, at times, suggested isolationism from the remainder of the world, especially leading up to the world wars. At other times, it has suggested unthinking patriotism or even implied racism due to the desire for a whiter population. As for the American dream, Churchwell shows persuasively that, initially, it signified opposing the accumulation of wealth by capitalists, since business moguls rarely cared about the well-being of society as a whole. In 2018, however, it seems many Americans aspire to unabashed self-enrichment.

Churchwell demonstrates a lively intellect, as she exhibited early in her publishing career with The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (2004). The only weakness of this book, which provides much food for thought, stems from generalizations about the way “most Americans” define the two key concepts. That knowledge is, of course, ultimately unknowable.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5416-7340-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Aug. 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.


Noted number cruncher Sperling delivers an economist’s rejoinder to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Former director of the National Economic Council in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the author has long taken a view of the dismal science that takes economic justice fully into account. Alongside all the metrics and estimates and reckonings of GDP, inflation, and the supply curve, he holds the great goal of economic policy to be the advancement of human dignity, a concept intangible enough to chase the econometricians away. Growth, the sacred mantra of most economic policy, “should never be considered an appropriate ultimate end goal” for it, he counsels. Though 4% is the magic number for annual growth to be considered healthy, it is healthy only if everyone is getting the benefits and not just the ultrawealthy who are making away with the spoils today. Defining dignity, admits Sperling, can be a kind of “I know it when I see it” problem, but it does not exist where people are a paycheck away from homelessness; the fact, however, that people widely share a view of indignity suggests the “intuitive universality” of its opposite. That said, the author identifies three qualifications, one of them the “ability to meaningfully participate in the economy with respect, not domination and humiliation.” Though these latter terms are also essentially unquantifiable, Sperling holds that this respect—lack of abuse, in another phrasing—can be obtained through a tight labor market and monetary and fiscal policy that pushes for full employment. In other words, where management needs to come looking for workers, workers are likely to be better treated than when the opposite holds. In still other words, writes the author, dignity is in part a function of “ ‘take this job and shove it’ power,” which is a power worth fighting for.

A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7987-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

No one’s mind will be changed by Karl’s book, but it’s a valuable report from the scene of an ongoing train wreck.


The chief White House and Washington correspondent for ABC provides a ringside seat to a disaster-ridden Oval Office.

It is Karl to whom we owe the current popularity of a learned Latin term. Questioning chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, he followed up a perhaps inadvertently honest response on the matter of Ukrainian intervention in the electoral campaign by saying, “What you just described is a quid pro quo.” Mulvaney’s reply: “Get over it.” Karl, who has been covering Trump for decades and knows which buttons to push and which to avoid, is not inclined to get over it: He rightly points out that a reporter today “faces a president who seems to have no appreciation or understanding of the First Amendment and the role of a free press in American democracy.” Yet even against a bellicose, untruthful leader, he adds, the press “is not the opposition party.” The author, who keeps his eye on the subject and not in the mirror, writes of Trump’s ability to stage situations, as when he once called Trump out, at an event, for misrepresenting poll results and Trump waited until the camera was off before exploding, “Fucking nasty guy!”—then finished up the interview as if nothing had happened. Trump and his inner circle are also, by Karl’s account, masters of timing, matching negative news such as the revelation that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election with distractions away from Trump—in this case, by pushing hard on the WikiLeaks emails from the Democratic campaign, news of which arrived at the same time. That isn’t to say that they manage people or the nation well; one of the more damning stories in a book full of them concerns former Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen, cut off at the knees even while trying to do Trump’s bidding.

No one’s mind will be changed by Karl’s book, but it’s a valuable report from the scene of an ongoing train wreck.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4562-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

Did you like this book?