Quite the World, Isn't It?


On John Hay's peculiar history, and a book review

February 6, 2014

Tags: history, books

In writing The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, I got to spend some research time on the life of John Hay, who was the U.S. secretary of state when Ambassador Horace Porter, the main focus of the book, finally recovered the naval hero's body. I was already familiar with Hay, and was glad to learn more about his remarkable life, which included friendships with Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley, three of our four assasssinated presidents.

So I jumped at the chance to review Joshua Zeitz's fine new book, Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image, a review that just went live on the Los Angeles Times website and should be in the print edition this Sunday. From the review:
Sometimes political careers are born of chance.

John Nicolay and John Hay were two young men working in Springfield, Ill., when they became involved with the political life of Abraham Lincoln before his 1860 U.S. presidential campaign. Tireless and smart, the friends, still in their 20s, proved themselves indispensable to Lincoln, who brought them along with him to the White House as his personal secretaries in effect, the president's gatekeepers.

In his new book, "Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image," author Joshua Zeitz skillfully recounts what were heady days for Nicolay and Hay, even as they were tragic days for the nation. The friends lived in the White House and wielded considerable power as advisors and conduits of Lincoln's orders. Over the four years of the Lincoln presidency, they had as good a view of the unfolding Civil War battles both military and political as Lincoln himself.

And after the assassination, the friends tasked themselves with chronicling Lincoln's life, leading to publication of the 10-volume"Lincoln: A History." The series and the related "Abraham Lincoln: Complete Works" co-edited by the two men remain part of the foundation for how modern Americans view the nation's 16th president. Or, as Zeitz phrases it, the creation of the "Lincoln Memorial Lincoln."
It's a fascinating work, a hybrid of traditional biography and historical storytelling. And with the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's death coming up in 2015, there will be a lot more books on that era popping up in bookstores.

Including one by me. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. First let's get The Admiral and the Ambassador launched in May ...

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About me


A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.



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