Quite the World, Isn't It?


On Doris Kearns Goodwin and The Bully Pulpit

November 8, 2013

Tags: book, book reviews, history

The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries my review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new history, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism It's Goodwin's usual solid job of richly detailed lives at crossroads that had significant effects on the nation. My only quibble with it is the length - 750 pages before the notes and index. As I wrote in the review:
[T]hat's because this really is three overlapping books stitched together. There's a bio of Roosevelt (president from 1901-09), a bio of Taft (president, 1909-13), and a history of the muckraker era, with shorter bios of such seminal figures as Samuel L. McClure and the stable of writers (including Ida M. Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens) he brought together at his eponymous magazine.

The strength and the weakness of Goodwin's work here rest in the details. Roosevelt and Taft have been the subjects of many biographies, and for good reason. Both are outsized figures (for Taft, in the literal sense), and each was touched by personal tragedy (Roosevelt's first wife died shortly after giving birth; Taft's wife suffered a debilitating stroke two months after he became president). Roosevelt became president with the assassination of William McKinley and survived an assassination attempt himself during the 1912 presidential campaign. Taft went on to serve as chief justice of the United States, the only president to have done so.

While each is a fascinating figure in his own right, there's too much space devoted to their formative years here they don't meet until Page 135. Similarly, there is too much minutiae about legislative battles that might have been significant in the moment but are not so significant against the historical backdrop. This is where the work, for all of Goodwin's strength as a writer, bogs down.
I took particular interest in the work because it overlaps in time and in some characters with my forthcoming The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, due out in the Spring. Jones's body was recovered by Horace Porter, ambassador to France under President McKinley and then Roosevelt, during Roosevelt's first term, so I was already attuned to the era. And Goodwin gets it right.


Remembering the war some of them never fought

October 18, 2013

Tags: book, book reviews, history

There's an odd phenomenon here in America - and it could be happening elsewhere - in which people who never served in the military still claim the service, lying on their resumes to be seen as the patriots they never really were. It often blows up on them, and there are organizations that have made it their mission to cast a bright light on the fraudulent claims.

But in the aftermath of the Civil War, an era in which the poor had no safety net, pretenders to glory seemed to be everywhere - often to get a pension. Richard A. Serrano, a Los Angeles Times staff writer (we overlapped but I don't recall ever meeting him), has written about this odd slice of Americana in his new Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, which I reviewed this week for the Los Angeles Times. From the review:
Serrano, a staff writer in the Los Angeles Times' Washington, D.C., bureau, starts with two main characters: former Union soldier Albert Woolson and onetime rebel soldier Walter Washington Williams. Each man forms a compelling story of becoming caught up in the nation's bloodiest war and its aftermath. By the late 1950s, as the United States neared the centennial of the start of the war, each was feted as the oldest living veteran of his respective army.

But one was a fraud, a scam that would have gone undetected had he not outlived all of his fellow Confederate veterans.

There's not a lot of suspense here. It becomes clear pretty quickly which was the real deal and which a fraud. But suspense isn't the point. Serrano uses the men as a window into the long-playing reverberations of the Civil War, from the reunions to the reenactments to the wounds covered with, in retrospect, tissue paper.
It's a good quick read (if redundant in places), and worth the time. On a personal level, I was intrigued by the overlaps with my own projects. One of the main figures in The Admiral and the Ambassadoris Horace Porter, who rose to prominence as an aide to general and, eventually, president Ulysses S. Grant. Porter's support for honoring fellow veterans was a main catalyst in his decision as ambassador to France to find and recover the body of John Paul Jones (the book is due out in the spring).

And I've just begun a new project, which I'm keeping under wraps for the time being, which touches even more deeply on the Civil War. In fact, this very morning I'm revisiting a key battle in western Virginia. I should keep an eye out for some of the names in Serrano's book.
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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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