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Newsletter, Spring 2019!

THE POWER AND THE STORY
The top news:  (i) Rating the presidents with C-SPAN, and (ii) my month at Mount Vernon with the people who know George Washington best.
Also:
  • Talking about the Constitution and presidential impeachment.  
  • Hidden figures of history and the books you must read before you die
  • The Bookshelf — great books, both new and new-to-me.
Rating the Presidents on C-SPAN

On Saturday afternoon, April 27, I joined ace historian Ken Ackerman at the Newseum in Washington, DC, for a favorite indoor sport: rating our presidents.  Actually, our mission was to rate the ratings produced by a recent C-SPAN survey of 100 historians (not moi).  The top three are easy (Lincoln, Washington, FDR, in any order you like), as are the bottom two (Andrew Johnson & James Buchanan).  In between is where the disagreements come!  The conversation included C-SPAN founder and modern marvel Brian Lamb, plus his successor, Susan Swain.  (Ken’s on the left above, Brian on the right, and, well, you can pick out Susan).

We explored the bottom of the rankings, which was unavoidable since I wrote a book about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and Ken did one on James Garfield.  Johnson, after all, ranks next-to-last on every recent survey (thank heavens for Buchanan!).  When asked how we thought our current president might fare in future rankings, I suggested that Johnson might jump up a little in the next round. . . .

You can watch the show at the C-SPAN website or buy the C-SPAN book on ranking the presidents, which has the punchy title, The Presidents.


Happy 287th, George Washington!

My month-long fellowship at Mount Vernon landed in the shortest month, February, so included the celebration of GW’s 287th birthday.  Joined by my wife Nancy, the partying started early, including the obligatory cringing at the poor man’s dentures (below).  How could he do anything with that in his mouth?  Thank you, modern dentistry.

The fellowship was a chance to work on my book about Washington’s under-appreciated political talents, America’s Master Politician (target release date: early 2021).  He wasn’t just a tall guy who looked good on a horse.

It also allowed me to connect with the sprawling community of students of GW, assisted by the Mount Vernon elite — CEO Doug Bradburn, Library Director Kevin Butterfield, and research whiz Mary Thompson (a fellow alumnus of Staten Island in the 1960s).  Watch for Mary’s book on GW and slavery, “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret.

EVEN MORE IMPORTANT was the good cheer and learning of my fellow fellows (?):  Brian Steele (working on the memories and reputation of GW in the years immediately after his death) and George Goodwin.(GW and Ben Franklin conduct a propaganda war against Britain during the Revolution).

You may have seen the news report that when our president visited Mount Vernon in April 2018, he criticized Washington for not naming the estate after himself.  “’If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,’ Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. ‘You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.'”

CEO Bradburn, leading the tour, replied that GW gave his name to the nation’s capital.


Talking about the Constitution, Impeachment, and . . . Lincoln

I was glad to be featured on a podcast on the writing of the Constitution, which was produced by New Hampshire Public Radio as part of its Civics 101 series. This podcast stuff, it’s catching on, right? So twenty-first century.

No let-up in the impeachment opinioneering:  I still doubtl that — as Speaker. Pelosi put it — he’s worth it, and said so in The Hill.  But people are wondering about impeachment, so in the Baltimore Sun I offered a parallel between our current president and a couple of the impeachment all-stars (Richard Nixon, Andrew Johnson).  The common thread:  angry older men.

Also, I had great fun reviewing Louis Bayard’s terrific new historical novel, Courting Mr. Lincoln, over at the Washington Independent Review of Books.  Not your father’s book review!

Speaking Gigs

I’d love to see you at one of my upcoming events:

  • May 8, 2019, 12:00 p.m., Brandeis Book Club, Woodmont Country Club, Bethesda:  Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America,
  • May 11, 2019, 10:00 a.m., Washington Writer’s Conference: Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Conference Center:  Moderating a panel of history writers on “Hidden Histories.”
  • May 18, 2019, Gaithersburg Book Festival, 1:15 p.m., in conversation with James Mustich, author of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.
  • September 20, 2019, 6:00 p.m., Charleston Library Society, Charleston, SC:  The Summer of 1787.

The Bookshelf:  Good books I’ve finally managed to read —

  • The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez — Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, this book has some powerful elements (suicide, violence against women), and an endlessly charming Great Dane, though it delivered more palaver than I needed about writers and writing,  BUT, the writer is another grew-up-on-Staten-Island person, so how can I not list it?
  • Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror, by Charles Lane — A fascinating story, well-told, about the sketchy character, Hiram Whitley, who led the government’s near-suppression of the KKK in the early 1870s.  The only negative for me was the book’s subtitle, Exhibit A for the case that nonfiction subtitles are metastasizing to dangerous dimensions.
  • Invisible:  The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, by Stephen L. Carter — A remarkable tale about Steve Carter’s grandmother, who designed the prosecution of Lucky Luciano (and also was befriended by Governor Calvin Coolidge while she attended Smith College).  A book that taught me about the world of high-achieving African-Americans of the last century.  As for its subtitle, consider it Exhibit B to my last complaint.
  • Agents of Innocence, by David Ignatius — Okay, this one’s decades old, but I just read it and it’s really really good.  Terrorism and betrayal in the Middle East hasn’t exactly gone out of style.  This is the fourth Ignatius novel I’ve read.  All winners so far.

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