The following appears in the December 28, 2012 – January 3, 2013 issue of the Long Island Business News:
For Long Island political junkies who have made a New Year’s resolution to spend more time reading history and biography books in 2013, here are my picks of the best nonfiction works published in the past year:
“The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power,” by Robert Caro (Alfred A. Knopf, $35). This is the fourth volume of Caro’s monumental study of Johnson’s use of political power. In this work one learns how L.B.J. immediately grasped the reins of power after being sworn in as president in Dallas and moved through Congress Kennedy’s stalled tax and civil rights legislation. Caro, who has won just about every literary award available, sets the standard for political narrative.
“Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World,” by Evan Thomas (Little, Brown, $29). This former journalist, whose previous works includes a fine biography on Bobby Kennedy, has turned out another exceptional work. He proves that Eisenhower was not the passive grandfatherly, golf-playing figurehead, but a behind-the-scenes activist chief executive. Ike could be brilliant and cold-blooded in manipulating adversaries in Washington, Peking and Moscow. During his eight-year term in the 1950s, he maintained the peace, kept the Communists in check and refused to commit troops to Vietnam.
“The Last Lion: Churchill, Defender of the Realm 1940-1965,” by William Manchester and Paul Reid (Little, Brown, $40). Manchester fans have been anticipating the concluding volume of his masterful account of Churchill’s life since 1988. It was worth the wait. Shortly before he died in 2004, Manchester turned over his uncompleted manuscript to journalist Paul Reid and asked him to carry on. Reid has met the challenge. In fine prose, he describes how the brilliant and courageous prime minster refused to surrender to Hitler, organized his nation’s defenses and convinced U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help his struggling nation. Churchill’s postwar endeavors also make interesting reading. After being driven from power, he wrote his Nobel Prize-winning “The Second World War,” warned the world about the Iron Curtain that was descending on Eastern Europe and triumphantly returned to 10 Downing St. in the 1950s.
“Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man,” by Walter Stahr (Simon and Schuster, $32). This is a most readable biography of William H. Seward, who served two terms in the New York State Senate and two terms as governor, and represented the EmpireState in the U.S. Senate until he became President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state in 1861. A leading member of the antislavery movement and a founder of the Republican Party, Seward expected to be his party’s nominee for president in 1860. After losing to Lincoln, he was big enough to join the administration and established an extraordinary relationship with his president advising him on foreign, domestic, military, political and personal matters.
“The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy,” by David Nasaw (Penguin Press, $40). The founding father of one of America’s political dynasties, Joe Kennedy ruthlessly built his fortune and promoted the political careers of his children. Kennedy was driven to beat the Boston snobs who hung “Irish need not apply” signs in their office windows and his strategy included electing his son as the first Catholic president. Joe Kennedy has his admirers and detractors, but as this biography demonstrates, no one could deny he was a brilliant operator.
“Iron Curtain 1944-1956,” by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, $35). The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Gulag: A History” has turned out another brilliant work describing how Stalin’s Eastern European henchmen bullied, threatened and murdered their way to power in the postwar era. For the long-suffering people of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, the only thing that changed at the end of World War II was that Nazi slave labor camps became Communist slave labor camps.