BOOK REVIEW: Benjamin Disraeli–The Novel Politician

April 21, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Benjamin Disraeli–The Novel Politician

by Norman Gelb

David Cesarani’s succinct new biography of preeminent Victorian statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), Disraeli: The Novel Politician, challenges the commonly held view of Disraeli as having played a heroic role in Jewish history. Instead, Cesarani portrays Disraeli as a political opportunist “infused with a contempt for traditional Judaism,” whose literary writings “sketched the first draft of the Jewish world conspiracy theory” and made a “fundamental contribution to modern literary anti-Semitism.” Disraeli, who has erroneously been called Britain’s first Jewish prime minister, was baptized by his father into the Anglican Church when he was 12 years old. However, he never actually denied his Jewish heritage. Instead, he skillfully manufactured a myth of aristocratic Jewish origins that he would pragmatically exploit when convenient and completely ignore when not.

Disraeli: The Novel Politician is the late English historian’s final book. David Cesarani, who died of cancer last October at age 58, was considered the foremost British historian of the modern Jewish experience of his generation.

Countless historians before him have documented Disraeli’s rise to power and his importance as a politician. Disraeli entered the House of Commons in 1837, and in the 1850s and 1860s served first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then as Leader of the House of Commons. After a brief first term as prime minister in 1868, Disraeli regained office in 1874. A major player on the international stage, Disraeli was enormously popular at home for expanding and consolidating Britain’s position as a worldwide imperial power. He was credited with reuniting the divided Conservative Party and was instrumental in its development as a modern political force. He was the driving force behind legislation that improved social conditions for the most vulnerable populations in Britain, including new laws to regulate public health and others designed to prevent the exploitation of workers and improve the general public’s access to education. He was close personal friends with Queen Victoria, who made him the Earl of Beaconsfield and reportedly wept when he died.

Cesarani’s biography follows a newer trend of historians viewing Disraeli through a more critical lens. Until comparatively recently, with the exception of a few anti-Semites, scholars have fairly uniformly viewed Disraeli as an admirable and effective, if exotic, British statesman. But lately, the perception of him as a worthy public benefactor has come under fire.

British historian Robert Blake, who wrote a very comprehensive biography of Disraeli, conceded that the man’s political career was an impressive one but added that “there is no need to make it seem more extraordinary than it really was,” since other political figures deserved much of the credit for achievements attributed to Disraeli. Another recent biography of Disraeli, by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, described his contribution to British politics as “vast, transformative and special” but also portrayed Disraeli as a manipulative man for whom politics was “always a game in which pieces were moved about to…outflank the enemy. It had no moral content.” And British historian John Vincent has called Disraeli “a politician of very few principles or beliefs… He spent much of his life scheming.” 

Cesarani, unlike previous biographers of Disraeli, spends relatively little time on his subject’s dynamic and often controversial political life. Instead, he devotes his attention to another key aspect of Disraeli’s persona: his vaunting of his supposedly aristocratic Jewish origins and the special distinction he claimed they conferred on him. But despite Disraeli at times making a calculated use of his Jewish background, Cesarani shows that in actuality Disraeli’s relationship to Judaism and to issues facing Britain’s Jews was a deeply troubled one.

Disraeli was the grandson of Jewish immigrants to Britain from Italy and was born in London to Jewish parents. Even though he converted to Christianity, attended church on a weekly basis and was an avowed champion of the Anglican Church, Disraeli faced anti-Semitism throughout his adult life, including claims that his prime motivation in politics was to “pursue an alien agenda” and advance “Hebrew” causes.

Disraeli’s conversion permitted him, upon election, to evade bans on non-Christians becoming members of Parliament. Disraeli knew when and how to invoke his Jewish origins. At times, he proudly boasted of his exalted “racial” Jewish birthright. When scornfully called a Jew by a fellow parliamentarian, he cuttingly replied that when his accuser’s ancestors “were savages on an unknown Island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.” And Cesarani notes that in his fictional writing, Disraeli sometimes played up “the glories of the Jewish race.”

Cesarani dismisses Disraeli’s public exaltations of his Jewish origins as a mere affectation, stating that as a politician “he was insensitive or insensible to a range of Jewish issues” and was, at best, inconsistent with regard to Jewish matters. In December of 1837, soon after his first election, Disraeli uncharacteristically kept his head down while other MPs heatedly debated whether Sir Moses Montefiore or any other Jew should be allowed to hold political office. And unlike many other British leaders, he remained completely silent during “the Damascus Affair,” a blood libel charge against a dozen prominent Syrian Jews that resulted in widespread riots against the Jewish community in Damascus and triggered protests around the Jewish world.

Even as Prime Minister, says Cesarani, Disraeli chose to completely ignore “vicious [verbal] attacks on the Jews” by establishment figures and, in his many travels to Europe and the Middle East, made no effort to seek out Jewish sites or groups. He generally seemed to have little knowledge of, or interest in, Jewish history. Cesarani notes that Disraeli, in one of his early writings, said Britain enjoyed great freedom under the Plantagenet monarchs, but made no mention of the fact that under Plantagenet rule, Jews “suffered exploitation and massacre.” 

Cesarani offers nuanced revisions and correctives to prior scholarship on the nature of Disraeli’s Jewishness. For instance, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt suggests that Disraeli’s “Jewish obsession was a strategy to combat his own sense of social inferiority…as an outsider in upper class Tory circles….” [He invented] “the myth of Jewish racial superiority” to match the perceived nobility of members of the British aristocracy.” Cesarani contends that “the chronology of this explanation does not work” because, he notes, Disraeli was able to “[rub] shoulders with both raffish and respectable aristocrats” early on, “even if he was not yet invited to their country houses.”

Few other historians fully concur with Cesarani’s view on this; Arendt’s suggested explanation for Disraeli’s Jewish exhibitionist behavior is now part of a well-trodden path. In his biography of Disraeli, Columbia University scholar Adam Kirsch says that to find a way to be both English and Jewish, he “had to convince the world, and himself, that the Jews were a noble race, with a glorious past,” turning “his Jewishness from something generally considered disgraceful and embarrassing into a strength.”

In Benjamin Disraeli: The Fabricated Jew in Myth and Memory, Bernard Glassman also agrees that Disraeli exploited his background to demonstrate the nobility of his ancient heritage and the superiority of his ancestral origins over those of his opponents: “Rather than deny his roots, he chose to make them an integral part of his mystique.” In Disraeli’s Jewishness, an anthology of essays edited by Todd Endelman and Tony Kushner, Endelman says his Jewish obsession “constituted a bold, if unusual, strategy to combat his own sense of special inferiority as an outsider in aristocratic Tory circles.”

But in that anthology, Kushner cautions that Disraeli’s parading his Jewish pride is “perhaps in danger of being overstated at the cost of many other features that made up this remarkable figure.” And Glassman asserts that, although Disraeli’s support of Jewish causes was “problematic,” his growing prominence attracted the admiring attention of Anglo-Jews who needed a hero to validate their own Englishness, and that gradually, in spite of Disraeli’s baptism, English Jews (numbering around 50,000 at the time) accepted him as a true representative of their faith and culture. Louise de Rothschild, a member of the famous Jewish banking family and a contemporary of Disraeli, was recorded to have said she felt “a sort of pride in the thought that he belongs to us, that he is one of Israel’s sons.”

Such exculpation does not impress Cesarani, who makes very few references to anything positive in Disraeli’s relationship to Judaism. He concludes his study of Disraeli with a further harsh assessment of his subject: “Ultimately, he fits squarely in modern Jewish history for the worst of reasons: he played a formative part in the construction of anti-Semitic discourse.” Disraeli’s racial stereotyping of Jews became part of the foundation of a prominent theme in modern anti-Semitic writings and speechifying by figures including Adolf Hitler. “At best,” says the implacable Cesarani, Disraeli “was a tragic, transitional figure; at worst, he was a reckless egoist.”

 Norman Gelb is a London-based historian and author. His most recent book is Herod the Great: Statesman, Visionary, Tyrant.

Book Review A Principled Warrior ‘John Quincy Adams,’ by Fred Kaplan

March 13, 2016

A Principled Warrior
‘John Quincy Adams,’ by Fred Kaplan

by Robert W. Merrymay

On February 22, 1848, Representative John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts collapsed over his desk on the House floor and slumped toward the carpet. He was carried to a nearby sofa and eventually transported upon it to the speaker’s office, where he died the next day. His only words upon that sofa were: “This is the end of earth. I am composed.” It was a fitting death scene for someone who had served 17 years in the House and emerged as one of his era’s most magnetic men of conviction.

But he also had been his country’s sixth President. He had served as a United States Senator, Secretary of State, Minister to Russia, Prussia and Britain, and member of the commission that negotiated the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812. And he kept a diary that Fred Kaplan, the biographer of Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, among others, calls “the most valuable firsthand account of an American life and events from the last decades of the 18th century to the threshold of the Civil War.”

With “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary,” Kaplan has produced a full-length narrative of this remarkable life, rendered in lucid and loving prose. Adams emerges from these pages as a man driven to prove his worth to the world and history, never quite sure he could measure up to his own standards but utterly confident of his values and principles. As he wrote to his mother upon becoming Secretary of State, he feared the President and public had “overestimated, not the goodness of my intentions, but the extent of my talents.”

In truth few contemporaries ever questioned his talents. More often they chafed at his penchant for encasing his opinions in a moral passion that tended to cross into sanctimony. When he entered the race for the presidency in 1824, Kaplan writes, he faced a handicap: “Widely respected, he was less widely liked.”

No doubt these traits contributed to his political difficulties, which in turn curtailed his presidential success. The voters tossed him from office after a single term, choosing instead Andrew Jackson, a military hero whom Adams could never understand or appreciate but whose political ethos more closely matched the electorate’s. Adams’s political fate suggests he was not a man of his time. But Kaplan rightly portrays him as a man ahead of his time, a statesman whose views and perceptions eventually would seep into the national consciousness and guide the nation in important ways.

John Quincy Adams was born in 1767 in Braintree, Mass., into a family that, Kap­lan says, “had no distinction — social, financial or political,” until his father, John Adams, gained global fame as one of the leaders of the American Revolution. The elder Adams, sent to Europe as an envoy during the war, took his 10-year-old son along as companion. The lad spent about seven years abroad, learning the ways of the world and gaining a rare degree of self-reliance. His father called him “the greatest traveler of his age.”

Back home at Harvard, the precocious youngster demonstrated the intensity of his opinions, revealing to his diary his view of a fellow student: “a vain, envious, malicious, noisy, stupid fellow, as ever disgraced God’s creation; without a virtue to compensate for his vices, and without a spark of genius to justify his arrogance.” After commencement, where he delivered the student address, he tried the law and found it boring. Then began a series of overseas assignments, interspersed by a five-year stint as a senator from Massachusetts. By age 33, he had spent “more years abroad in the diplomatic service than any other American” of his time, Kap­lan writes.

Along the way he married Louisa Catherine Johnson, daughter of an expatriate Maryland businessman who subsequently fell upon hard times. “At their best moments,” Kaplan says, “he and Louisa were a happy match.” He adds that they had “difficult days” when “his workload weighed heavily, his temper was short and his tongue was sharp.” The couple produced four children, though a daughter didn’t reach her first birthday and two sons died in early adulthood. The surviving son, Charles Francis Adams, went on to prominence as a congressman from Massachusetts and ambassador to Britain during the Civil War.

In foreign affairs Adams demonstrated a true genius, favoring a measured policy that eschewed foreign entanglements and missionary zeal but advocated a strong military to protect the fledgling nation from the predations of European powers. As Secretary of State under President James Monroe, he deftly negotiated a treaty with Spain that ceded Florida to the United States and relinquished to America any lingering Spanish claims to lands north of latitude 42 degrees. In exchange, Spain got clear title to Texas and lands south of the 42-degree boundary. This accomplishment, he confessed to his diary, induced in him a rare feeling of “involuntary exultation.” He also conceived the audacious diplomatic warning that became known as the Monroe Doctrine.

In domestic matters he fully embraced the philosophy that became the bedrock of Henry Clay’s Whig Party — a strong central government dedicated to federal public works like roads, canals and dams; a national bank to serve as repository for federal monies; sale of federal lands in the West and South at high prices to pay for the federal government’s expansive programs; tariff levels designed to protect domestic manufacturers; a governmental commitment to the “moral, political and intellectual improvement” of American citizens. He also became one of the country’s most formidable moral critics of slavery — “the acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of Southern slavery that ever existed,” as one fierce opponent described him. Ralph Waldo Emerson speculated that he “must have sulfuric acid in his tea.”

In all of this he collided with Jackson’s populist Democratic Party, opposed to the Whigs’ expansion of federal power and supportive of low tariff rates and land sales at affordable prices so ordinary folk could flock to the hinterlands and build up America from below. Adams, in his sanctimonious way, came to detest the Jacksonians with a seething passion that clouded his ability to appreciate the inevitable and probably healthy tension between these two fundamental outlooks. Further, he injected his moralistic fervor into these debates by concluding, to the point of distortion, that just about every position embraced by his adversaries was actually driven by the slavery issue.

Kaplan subscribes to this view and thus succumbs to Adams’s perception of his adversaries as agents of villainy. His rendition of Jackson, for example — as a crude and mindless stooge of the Slave Power — bears little resemblance to the man portrayed in the more balanced biographies of Jon Meacham, H. W. Brands and Robert V. Remini. And Kaplan’s often one-sided political interpretations deprive his narrative of the richness of that era’s history.

Nevertheless, this is a valuable book about an important American figure whose persistent high dudgeon may have lessened his capacity to play the conventional political game of his time but ultimately rendered him a formidable personage of American political philosophy. “He was a warrior, but rarely a happy one,” Kaplan writes. He adds that “his days of strife and sorrow had been many. But the strife had been on behalf of deeply held ideals about his own and his nation’s moral life, about justice and the American future.”

Robert W. Merry, the political editor of The National Interest, is the author, most recently, of “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.”

A version of this review appears in print on May 4, 2014, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Lives of the Young Republic. Today’s Paper




Book Review: The Life Story of an Indonesian Patriot

February 13, 2016

Book Review: The Life Story of an Indonesian Patriot

Reviewed by Muhammad Yuanda Zara

iseas_aprinceinarepublic_cover_fa_20141226Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX of Yogyakarta Sultanate (ruled 1940-1988) is one of the greatest Javanese rulers. He enabled his sultanate to survive and thrive through four different political regimes which surrounded it. More than 20 years after his death, his legacy is still apparent.

John Monfries, a scholar and former Australian diplomat in Jakarta, has written a significant book exploring the complex life of a figure that very much influenced Indonesian politics for half a century.

Born as Dorojatun in 1912, the Sultan was educated at Leiden University. Given the widespread hostility to feudalism in the early phase of the Indonesian revolution (also known as the Indonesian war of independence, 1945-49), it seemed that Yogyakarta Sultanate would come to an end. Angry masses had forced the aristocracy to retreat in Surakarta (Central Java) and East Sumatra, and one may have thought that Yogyakarta would be the next. But the Sultan managed to take advantage of the revolution to save his monarch and draw support to his existence by showing incessant support to the Republic of Indonesia whose independence was declared by Sukarno on 17 August, 1945.

It was very likely that the Sultan, with the positive reputation he received due to his devotion to the revolution, would assume key posts on the national stage. However, he only occupied minor positions during the 1950s, his ‘decade of disappointment’ (p. 234), due to his opposition to many of Sukarno’s policies. After the 1965 coup, together with Army General Suharto and another civilian leader Adam Malik—called the ‘triumvirate’ by Monfries— the Sultan began to create a post-Sukarno Indonesia, the “New Order.”

New Order economic policies advocated domestically and internationally by the Sultan included eradicating vested interests in the economy, opening up the country to foreign investment, and encouraging private enterprise. Warmly welcomed by the public, these policies radically contrasted with Sukarno’s neglect of economic issues.

Despite this success, the Sultan’s appointment as Suharto’s vice president (1973-78) soon became a source of dissatisfaction. According to Monfries, the Sultan had no real power and was only tasked to carry out symbolic functions. He withdrew into the backstage of Indonesian politics by his resignation in 1978.

Feudalism, democracy and state management

Monfries critically examines one of the biggest achievements of the Sultan: his success in securing a Javanese monarchy in the form of the Sultanate within an emerging democratic state. Despite the fundamental difference between the two, he proved that their amalgamation is possible in the Indonesian context. This is mainly due to the fact that during the revolution the Javanese sultan turned into a widely popular Republican leader and a well-known anti-Dutch patriot.

This fame, according to Monfries, ‘became the bedrock of his subsequent impeccable reputation’ (p. 323). Monfries points out several reasons for this popularity, which also differentiated the Sultan from other native rulers in Java and Sumatra who failed to defend their kingdoms’ existence in the face of the so-called social revolution. These reasons included the optimal use of his status as a Javanese sultan to appeal Javanese society, his continuous support of independence, his loyalty to the Republic, and his support for pro-Republic militia (pp. 161-2).

Moreover, Monfries explores another key point in the Sultan’s life that greatly shaped Indonesian politics: his administrative capabilities, which were one of the main reasons for his various appointments between 1946 until 1978. For Monfries, the Sultan’s oratory skills may seem dull in comparison to Sukarno, but he had what Sukarno lacked, namely the skill to ‘organise and run meetings, to follow through agendas and seek consensus’ (p. 45). This skill proved important during the post-independence period, when the Sultan was involved in hundreds of meetings concerning, among other things, the cabinet, the Indonesian scout movement (informal education for the youth held mainly outdoor, which focuses on the development of useful skills, co-operation, and learning by doing; it is like the scout training for boys and girls introduced by renowned British Army officer Robert Baden-Powell), and aid assembly with foreign governments and organizations, with varying degree of success.

The Sultan owed these skills both to his time studying with the Indology Faculty at Leiden, where he learned to become middle-level public administrator, and also from his own experience as a reformer of the bureaucracy in his own sultanate.

Myth breaker

Numerous Indonesian accounts on the Sultan’s contributions see him as a legend, encircled with historical myths. Unlike these works, the main strength of Monfries’s book is the author’s position as a myth breaker.

Monfries demystifies at least three widespread beliefs about the Sultan. First, in his coronation speech in 1940 the Sultan stated: ‘I have had an extensive Western upbringing, yet I am and remain above all a Javanese’. This catchphrase is so well-known that many Indonesians nowadays see it as nationalistic sentiment of a Javanese ruler, while others interpret ‘Javanese’ here as ‘Indonesian’. Monfries doubts this claim because no adequate proof exists to suggest that the Sultan ‘thought of himself as anything but a Javanese prince.’ (p. 81)

Second, in other part of the speech, the Sultan declared that he ‘will work for the interests of the Land and People’. In the Indonesian version of the speech, the ‘Land and People’ was translated into ‘nusa dan bangsa’ (homeland), thus implying that the Sultan felt concerned with the whole of Indonesia. However, Monfries suspects that this was originally a Dutch term, Land en Volk, and in 1940 its meaning was obviously Yogyakarta principality, not the entire country. Therefore, a Javanese king would not intend to ‘represent citizens of the Indies outside his principality.’ (p. 81)

The third and perhaps the most popular myth concerns the Mataram Canal and the romusha (forced labour, ‘勞務者’) question. In 1944, the Japanese occupation forces built a thirty kilometre long canal in Yogyakarta, known as the Mataram Canal, intended for irrigation, provision of fresh water, and prevention of flood. In Indonesian accounts, it was said that the canal was the proof of the Sultan’s excellent ability to prevent the Japanese sending thousands of Yogyakarta youth abroad to become romusha. Instead, these young men were employed in the canal project. Monfries argues that this interpretation is an exaggeration. Monfries offers some reasons: Yogyakarta’s problem of rice was not much worse compared to other regions in Java and the Sultan was not involved in romusha recruitment (pp. 109-110). For Monfries, the Sultan’s contribution to the project should be acknowledged but not overstated.

Methodologically speaking, this book is a noteworthy answer to the accusation that biography tends to be elitist. Monfries does not isolate the Sultan as the sole hero, but connects him to wider phenomena and larger sociopolitical groups. So, the Sultan’s life did not just tell about the life of a king, but also the experiences of less privileged communities and actors outside the kraton (palace) walls in modern Indonesia. These people included the Javanese employed as forced labourers, Chinese minority, and the Indonesian communists.

But it is surprising that Monfries’s work ignores the role of the Sultan’s wives in political decision-making process. He seems to take for granted the traditional view on the role of wives in Indonesia, in particular Java (the absence of public involvement and total dedication to household matters).

In fact, some contemporary reports stress that the Sultan’s fifth wife, Sumatran born Norma Musa (they married in 1976 after one of his four wives passed away), played a major role in his life outside the kraton walls, and was perhaps the Sultan’s political advisor. Given that the Sultan spent most of his work time in Jakarta, that Norma’s cleverness was widely known among Republican politicians, and that she was an insider in political circles in Jakarta (she was once personal assistant of President Sukarno), this vice president’s wife deserves more attention.

Nevertheless, overall Monfries’ study fills a gap in the English language scholarship on 20th century and contemporary Indonesia. More importantly, it offers new perspectives in understanding key political problems in 20th century Indonesia, including the fragile existence of monarchy in a democratic country, the civilian-military dichotomy in a developing country, and the fate of a freedom fighter in post independence nation-state building.

Further reading 

Atmakusumah (ed.). Tahta untuk Rakyat: Celah-celah Kehidupan Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX. Jakarta: Gramedia, 1982.

George McTurnan Kahin. Southeast Asia: A Testament. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

P.J. Suwarno. Hamengku Buwono IX dan Sistem Birokrasi Pemerintahan Yogyakarta, 1942-1974. Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 1994.

Sri Sultan: Hari-hari Hamengku Buwono IX; Sebuah Presentasi Majalah TEMPO. Jakarta: Grafitipers, 1988.

Sutrisno Kutoyo. Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX: Riwayat Hidup dan Perjuangan. Jakarta: Mutiara Sumber Widya, 1996.

Y.B. Sudarmanto. Jejak-jejak Pahlawan: Dari Sultan Agung hingga Hamengku Buwono IX. Jakarta: Grasindo, 1992.

Muhammad Yuanda Zara is a researcher at NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies (Amsterdam) and a PhD Candidate at Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, at the University of Amsterdam. 

Book Review: ‘Reagan: The Life

January 24, 2015

NY Times Sunday  Book Review

Reagan: The Life, by H. W. Brands

For a man who lived most of his life on camera, Ronald Reagan eludes focus. There was, and remains, a gauziness to the picture; Reagan retained, throughout his political career, the remoteness of a screen idol, though he never achieved that status as a movie actor. He was ubiquitous for decades and, as president, left a lasting imprint on America’s political culture. Yet he was all the same an unknowable man — even to those nearest him. In White House meetings, he was mostly silent, often leaving his aides to guess at (and feud over) his views. In his personal relationships, he was unfailingly warm but rarely intimate. “He doesn’t let anybody get too close,” one observer said. “There’s a wall around him.” That the observer was his wife, Nancy, should give pause to any politician or pundit who claims to know what Reagan would do if he were here today. (It should, but it won’t.)

It should also serve as a warning to any biographer. A two-volume treatment by Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan as a reporter for more than three decades, arguably got close to the real Reagan. But that was a rare achievement. The example of Edmund Morris provides a cautionary tale: In the mid-1980s, having won the Pulitzer Prize, he signed on to write an authorized biography of Reagan and was given extraordinary access to the man and his papers. Yet Morris found his subject so confounding that — in a spectacularly misguided attempt to understand and explain Reagan — he rendered himself a fictional character, worked his way into Reagan’s life story and called the resulting book, “Dutch,” “an advance in biographical honesty.” Once described as “America’s Boswell,” Morris ended up as Reagan’s Ahab — driven mad by his mission to “strike through the mask,” as Melville’s accursed captain put it.

Few authors since have dared reckon with Reagan’s life in full. And where biographers fear to tread, monographers run wild and free, publishing shorter takes on narrower topics. The Reagan canon contains books on his spirituality, his character and his dream of a world free of nuclear weapons; books on his successful run for governor of California in 1966, his failed campaign for the Republican nomination in 1976 and his election as President in 1980; and books on his love letters to Nancy and his relationships with Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Taken together, these books constitute a blind-men-and-the-elephant approach to reconstructing Reagan. Even if one were to read them all, Reagan’s own question — a line from one of his films, “King’s Row” — would remain: “Where’s the rest of me?”

The answer might seem likely to be found somewhere in “Reagan: The Life,” the first substantial biography of the 40th President in the decade and a half since “Dutch.” Undaunted by Morris’s misadventure, the historian H. W. Brands does not break a sweat in his brisk, if extended, stroll through Reagan’s long life. Brands is at ease in the company of a colossus; in “Reagan,” as in his popular biographies of Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and other great men, he breezes through and around complexities without pause or digression.

His portrait of Reagan is fair-minded if fond; “Reagan” is free of the partisan ax-grinding and mostly free of the mythmaking that characterizes much of the Reagan bookshelf. Brands makes clear that Reagan was, in many ways, a paradox: an “ideologist” who was open to compromise, even on taxes and federal spending; a reflexive optimist with a wide streak of “negativity”; a staunch anti-Communist whose policies toward the “evil empire” were, as Brands notes, mostly cautious, “pragmatic” and “nonjudgmental.”

Like his subject, Brands appears happiest when he’s telling a story, and Reagan, of course, provides many excellent ones — from his good humor in the emergency room after being shot by John Hinckley in 1981 to his two-day-long negotiation with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, the prelude to a historic arms reduction agreement the following year. Few of these stories, though, are unfamiliar. “Reagan” is a greatest hits collection that is light on new material. Considered against other biographies in its weight class — those mega-books to which the word “definitive” adheres as if by laws of physics — Brands’s account is peculiarly unambitious, overfull of pat and timeworn observations.

On Reagan’s enduring appeal, he writes that “Reagan loved the camera, and the camera loved him. The affair would last a lifetime.” On the political power of Reagan’s jokes and anecdotes, he notes that “democratic elections are, at their most basic level, popularity contests, and Reagan knew how to be popular.” It is counterintuitive to call an 800-page book superficial, but length does not equal depth.

Brands, who holds an endowed chair in history at the University of Texas at Austin, shows a surprising indifference to the literature on his subject. Aside from marquee memoirs by Michael Deaver, Donald Regan, George Shultz and other members of the Reagan staff and cabinet, Brands draws on very few books at all, and apparently even fewer primary documents — typically the biographer’s manna. This despite the government’s rolling declassification of millions of pages of memos, notes and correspondence from the Reagan years. The chapter on Reagan’s February 1981 address to Congress, in which he set out his economic agenda, cites only a single source: the text of the speech. An account of Reagan’s six-day visit to China in 1984 relies almost exclusively on Reagan’s own diary.

“The most important source of information on Ronald Reagan,” Brands observes in a note on sources, “is Reagan himself.” It’s true that Reagan, the former actor, did an impressive amount of his own scripting as a politician, writing not only speeches and letters but also policy essays and radio addresses. Reagan’s diaries can be refreshingly frank. Brands quotes a June 14, 1982, entry in which Reagan admits to sharing his advisers’ irritation with Al Haig, his contentious secretary of state: “It’s amazing how sound he can be on complex international matters,” Reagan writes, “but how utterly paranoid with regard to the people he must work with.”

Often, though, Brands simply steps back and allows Reagan — who frequently conflated fact and fiction, and had trouble distinguishing movie plots from reality — to function as his own narrator. At times, Brands casts doubt on Reagan’s version of events, but usually he lets Reagan speak for himself, unchecked and unchallenged.

“Reagan” is, in the end, a missed opportunity — a disappointingly thin and strangely inert portrait of a president who, given his hold on the conservative imagination, still needs to be better understood. His admirers have worked so assiduously for so long to promote a particular notion of Reagan — the tax-cutting, ­government-loathing Reagan, the line-in-the-sand Reagan who was unafraid to rattle a saber or call an empire “evil” — that over time it has become harder, not easier, to apprehend the essential Reagan, contradictions and all. The appropriation of Reagan’s image by those who reject and deny his political pragmatism requires in response a sharper, clearer, fuller portrait than Brands provides. The rest of Reagan might never be knowable, but the search is important, and ought to go on

Jeff Shesol is the author, most recently, of “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.”

A version of this review appears in print on June 7, 2015, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Unknowable Man. Today’s Paper

Ebba Eban–Israel’s Finest Diplomat and Voice

January 3, 2016

Ebba Eban–Israel’s Finest Diplomat and Voice

NY Times Sunday Book Review

‘Abba Eban: A Biography,’ by Asaf Siniver

In December 1955, following Syrian har­assment of Israeli fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, Israel carried out a large attack on Syrian military positions, killing 50 soldiers and capturing 30. Abba Eban, Israel’s eloquent and admired representative to the United Nations, thought the response was over the top and wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Ben-­Gurion condemning the raid.

At the United Nations, meanwhile, Eban defended the operation, assailing Syria’s implacable hostility. Ben-Gurion wrote back to Eban saying he himself had had doubts about the retaliation but “when I read the full text of your brilliant defense of our action in the Security Council, all my doubts were set to rest. You have convinced me that we were right after all.”

It was a moment that captured the cruel irony of Eban’s political career, filled with glory at the podium and derision behind the scenes. Known as the Voice of Israel, he was one of the most stirring orators of the second half of the 20th century and an accomplished author of popular history. President Lyndon Johnson said a speech of Eban’s was worth several divisions to Israel and told him, “I think you are the most eloquent speaker in the world today.”

But in Israel, he was mostly dismissed as a pompous, softheaded outsider overly worried about world opinion. (When Golda Meir heard that Eban was considering running for prime minister, she asked, “In which country?”) After 10 years representing Israel at the United Nations and in Washington, he spent three decades as a member of Parliament and eight as foreign minister. But his political influence was minimal and his legislative accomplishments nearly nil (not a single bill carried his name).

Having done less to shape Israel than to defend and chronicle it, Eban is a challenging choice for a biographer. Asaf Siniver, a Professor of International Studies at the University of Birmingham in England, has produced a clear and ­levelheaded volume, a vast improvement over the only other Eban biography, a gushing bit of hagiography by the journalist Robert St. John in 1972. Eban himself wrote two somewhat self-­congratulatory memoirs along with his numerous works about Israel and the Jews. But “Abba Eban: A Biography” is the first attempt to examine this unusual man’s life and work and use them as a lens for the history of Israel. The life and work come across reasonably clearly, the lens part less so.

Siniver says that the six years he spent reading Eban’s every word and interviewing associates and relatives gave him affection for his subject. Perhaps, but he judges his man pretty harshly. Eban was, Siniver says, “the Voice of Israel, but not its mind,” and describes his story as “ultimately one of failure.” That failure, Siniver asserts, lies as much with Eban’s compatriots as with him, ­evidence of a virulent form of anti-intellectualism at the heart of Zionism that helps explain Israel’s continuing preference for militarism over diplomacy. While that argument might have been an intriguing one for the author to follow, Siniver does not develop it. He merely states it.

This is a shame, since one suspects that whatever general interest remains in Eban today comes from a similar sentiment. At one time, Zionism was represented by a liberal intellectual like Eban, a peace-loving Arabic scholar whose every English word sounded like Keats. Israel’s current United Nations ambassador, Danny Danon, is by contrast a scrappy right-wing advocate of Jewish settlements. Could Eban’s life and work be used to examine how that shift occurred? Perhaps. But Siniver has not really tried. Instead, his book is a straightforward account of Eban’s personal story interwoven with Israel’s diplomatic and political history. Both stories are pretty extraordinary.

Born in 1915 in South Africa and raised in England, Eban, who was originally named Aubrey, had a rough childhood. His father died when he was an infant. His mother remarried and sent Aubrey to an English boarding school at age 4. He felt orphaned, which may help explain his reserved, formal manner. He buried himself in studies, especially of lan­guages, and excelled. He won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he earned a rare triple first in Hebrew, Arabic and Persian, three of the 10 languages in which he reputedly became fluent. This was a man who amused himself by translating newspaper articles into classical Greek. He was a Cambridge don at 23 and would have gone on to a distinguished academic career had not the Zionist movement come calling.


He began at the Jewish Agency in London, and although he was deeply devoted to Jewish national rebirth in Palestine, he was troubled by two shortcomings of the movement. The first was a “tendency to claim a total rectitude for its views and to be based on the assumption that nobody else has any case at all.” The second was disdain for Arab culture. Eban said that his deep study of Arabic literature “made it impossible for me thereafter to adopt the routine Zionist stereotype that regarded the Arab nation with intellectual condescension.”

His skill as a wordsmith became evident quickly and he was put to work. His speech at the United Nations advocating Israel’s membership lasted more than two hours, to great admiration. He gained fame for some aphorisms. (“Men and nations sometimes behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives.” “His ignorance is encyclopedic.”) But his brilliance as a speaker was not about the killer quote. It involved pace, image and word choice, a mix of grit and poignancy, as when he said of Israel’s struggle for international recognition that it “held the joy of birth and the fear of death in a single taste.”

In the end, Siniver’s account raises fewer questions about the gap between Eban and his country than about the gap between his beliefs and his words when it mattered most. In that sense, it is a more tragic story and more damning account than many may expect. Siniver offers numerous examples of Eban defending Israeli actions with which he disagreed or urging that steps (like annexing the Golan) be simply more discreet, not abandoned. In 1967, Eban was sent to Washington to ask it to lead an effort to reopen shipping lanes that were under Egyptian control. But in a meeting with the American secretary of state he knowingly read a false intelligence report alleging that six Egyptian divisions were gathered in Sinai in preparation for an Arab attack. He was angry at his government and himself, but he did it. Only after Eban was ejected from Israeli politics in the 1980s did he find a real voice of dissent, publicly advocating for the Palestinian case and assailing some of Israel’s restrictive laws.

In his last interview, two years before his death in 2002, he told an Israeli journalist that he had been mistaken to hold his tongue. “I was wrong when I did not fight for my positions,” he said. “I didn’t have the courage.”

Ethan Bronner, a senior editor at Bloomberg News, was The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief from 2008 to 2012.

A version of this review appears in print on January 3, 2016, on page BR13 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Defender of Israel. Today’s Paper.

Remembering an Original Thinker–Physicist Richard P. Feynman

November 26, 2015

Remembering an Original Thinker–Physicist Richard P. Feynman


Richard Feynman: Life, the universe and everything

Flowers, music, strip clubs…Richard Feynman’s scientific curiosity knew no bounds. Christopher Riley pays tribute to an eccentric genius

by Christopher Riley

In these days of frivolous entertainments and frayed attention spans, the people who become famous are not necessarily the brightest stars. One of the biggest hits on YouTube, after all, is a video of a French bulldog who can’t roll over. But in amongst all the skateboarding cats and laughing babies, a new animated video, featuring the words of a dead theoretical physicist, has gone viral. In the film, created from an original documentary made for the BBC back in the early Eighties, the late Nobel Prize-winning professor, Richard Feynman, can be heard extolling the wonders of science contained within a simple flower.

There is “beauty”, he says, not only in the flower’s appearance but also in an appreciation of its inner workings, and how it has evolved the right colours to attract insects to pollinate it. Those observations, he continues, raise further questions about the insects themselves and their perception of the world. “The science,” he concludes, “only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of the flower.” This interview was first recorded by the BBC producer Christopher Sykes, back in 1981 for an episode of Horizon called “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”. When it was broadcast the following year the programme was a surprise hit, with the audience beguiled by the silver-haired professor chatting to them about his life and his philosophy of science.

Now, thanks to the web, Richard Feynman’s unique talents – not just as a brilliant physicist, but as an inspiring communicator – are being rediscovered by a whole new audience. As well as the flower video, which, to date, has been watched nearly a quarter of a million times, YouTube is full of other clips paying homage to Feynman’s ground-breaking theories, pithy quips and eventful personal life.

The work he did in his late twenties at Cornell University, in New York state, put the finishing touches to a theory which remains the most successful law of nature yet discovered. But, as I found while making a new documentary about him for the BBC, his curiosity knew no bounds, and his passion for explaining his scientific view of the world was highly contagious. Getting to glimpse his genius through those who loved him, lived and worked with him, I grew to regret never having met him; to share first-hand what so many others described as their “time with Feynman”.

Richard Phillips Feynman was born in Far Rockaway — a suburb of New York – in May 1918, but his path in life was forged even before this. “If he’s a boy I want him to be a scientist,” said his father, Melville, to his pregnant wife. By the time he was 10, Feynman had his own laboratory at home and, a few years later, he was employing his sister Joan as an assistant at a salary of four cents a week. By 15, he’d taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, analytic geometry and calculus, and in his last year of high school won the New York University Math Championship, shocking the judges not only by his score, but by how much higher it was than those of his competitors.

He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939 and obtained perfect marks in maths and physics exams for the graduate school at Princeton University — an unprecedented feat. “At 23 there was no physicist on Earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science,” writes his biographer James Gleick.

Such talents led to him being recruited to the Manhattan Project in the early Forties. Together with some of the greatest minds in physics in the 20th century, Feynman was put to work to help build an atom bomb to use against the Germans before they built one to use against the Allies. Security at the top-secret Los Alamos labs was at the highest level. But for Feynman — a born iconoclast – such control was there to be challenged. When not doing physics calculations he spent his time picking locks and cracking safes to draw attention to shortcomings in the security systems.

“Anything that’s secret I try and undo,” he explained years later. Feynman saw the locks in the same way as he saw physics: just another puzzle to solve. He garnered such a reputation, in fact, that others at the lab would come to him when a colleague was out-of-town and they needed a document from his safe.

Between the safe cracking and the physics calculations, the pace of life at Los Alamos was relentless. But for Feynman these activities were a welcome distraction from a darker life. His wife, Arline, who was confined to her bed in a sanatorium nearby, was slowly dying of TB.

When she died in the summer of 1945, Feynman was bereft. This misery was compounded, a few weeks later, when the first operational atom bomb was dropped on Japan, killing more than 80,000 people. His original reason for applying his physics to the war effort had been to stop the Germans. But its use on the Japanese left Feynman shocked. For the first time in his life he started to question the value of science and, convinced the world was about to end in a nuclear holocaust, his focus drifted.

He became something of a womaniser, dating undergraduates and hanging out with show girls and prostitutes in Las Vegas. In a celebrated book of anecdotes about his life – Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman – the scientist recounts how he applied an experimental approach to chatting up women. Having assumed, like most men, that you had to start by offering to buy them a drink, he explains how a conversation with a master of ceremonies at a nightclub in Albuquerque one summer prompted him to change tactics. And to his surprise, an aloof persona proved far more successful than behaving like a gentleman.

William Hurt as Richard Feynman in a BBC drama based on his role in the Challenger disaster report

His other method of relaxation in those years was music; his passion for playing the bongos stayed with him for the rest of his life. Physics had slipped down his list of priorities, but he suddenly rediscovered his love for the subject in a most unexpected way. In the canteen at Cornell one lunchtime he became distracted by a student, who had thrown a plate into the air. As it clattered onto the floor Feynman observed that the plate rotated faster than it wobbled. It made him wonder what the relationship was between these two motions.

Playing with the equations which described this movement reminded him of a similar problem concerning the rotational spin of the electron, described by the British physicist Paul Dirac. And this, in turn, led him to Dirac’s theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED); a theory which had tried to make sense of the subatomic world but had posed as many questions as it answered. What followed, Feynman recalled years later, was like a cork coming out of a bottle. “Everything just poured out,” he remembered.

“He really liked to work in the context of things that were supposed to be understood and just understand them better than anyone else,” says Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist who sits today at Feynman’s old desk at Caltech, in Pasadena. “That was very characteristic of Feynman. It required this really amazing physical intuition – an insight into what was really going on.” Applying this deep insight, Feynman invented an entirely new branch of maths to work on QED, which involved drawing little pictures instead of writing equations.

Richard’s sister, Joan, recalls him working on the problem while staying with her one weekend. Her room-mate was still asleep in the room where Richard had been working. “He said to me, ‘Would you go in the room and get my papers, I wanna start working’,” she remembers. “So I went in the room and I looked for them, but there was no mathematics. It was just these silly little diagrams and I came out and said, ‘Richard, I can’t find your papers, it’s just these kind of silly diagrams’. And he said, ‘That is my work!’” Today Feynman’s diagrams are used across the world to model everything from the behaviour of subatomic particles to the motion of planets, the evolution of galaxies and the structure of the cosmos.

Applying them to QED, Feynman came up with a solution which would win him a share of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics. Almost half a century later QED remains our best explanation of everything in the universe except gravity. “It’s the most numerically precise physical theory ever invented,” says Carroll.

Discovering a law of nature and winning a Nobel Prize, for most people, would represent the pinnacle of a scientific career. But for Feynman these achievements were mere stepping stones to other interests. He took a sabbatical to travel across the Caltech campus to the biology department, where he worked on viruses. He also unravelled the social behaviour of ants and potential applications of nanotechnology. And he was active beyond the world of science, trading physics coaching for art lessons with renowned Californian artist Jirayr Zorthian. (While at Caltech he also began frequenting a local strip club, where he would quietly work out his theories on napkins; he found it the ideal place in which to clear his head.)

But it was his talent as a communicator of science that made him famous. In the early Sixties, Cornell invited him to give the Messenger Lectures – a series of public talks on physics. Watching them today, Feynman’s charisma and charm is as seductive as it was 50 years ago.

“He loved a big stage,” says Carroll. “He was a performer as well as a scientist. He could explain things in different ways than the professionals thought about them. He could break things down into their constituent pieces and speak a language that you already shared. He was an amazingly good teacher and students loved him unconditionally.”

Recognising this ability, in 1965 Caltech asked him to rewrite the undergraduate physics course. The resulting Feynman Lectures on Physics took him three years to create and the accompanying textbooks still represent the last word on the history of physics. The lectures themselves were brimming with inspiring “showbiz demonstrations” as his friend Richard Davies describes them. Most memorably, Feynman used to set up a heavy brass ball on a pendulum, send it swinging across the room, and then wait for it to swing back towards him. Students would gasp as it rushed towards his face, but Feynman would stand stock still, knowing it would stop just in front of his nose. Keen to capitalise on these talents for engaging an audience, Christopher Sykes made his film for Horizon. “He took enormous pleasure in exploring life and everything it had to offer,” remembers Sykes. “More than that, he took tremendous pleasure in telling you about it.”

In the late Seventies, Feynman discovered a tumour in his abdomen. “He came home and reported, ‘It’s the size of a football’,” remembers his son Carl. “I was like ‘Wow, so what does that mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, I went to the medical library and I figure there’s about a 30 per cent chance it will kill me’.” Feynman was trying to turn his predicament into something fascinating, but it was still not the kind of thing a son wanted to hear from his father.

A series of operations kept Feynman alive and well enough to work on one final important project. In 1986, he joined the commission set up to investigate the Challenger disaster. The space shuttle had exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing the entire crew of seven astronauts. Feynman fought bureaucratic intransigence and vested interests to uncover the cause of the accident: rubber O-ring seals in the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters that failed to work on the freezing morning of the launch. At a typically flamboyant press conference, Feynman demonstrated his findings by placing a piece of an O-ring in a glass of iced water. But the inquiry had left him exhausted. With failing kidneys and in a great deal of pain he decided not to go through surgery again and went into hospital for the last time in February 1988.

His friend Danny Hillis remembers walking with Feynman around this time: “I said, ‘I’m sad because I realise you’re about to die’. And he said, ‘That bugs me sometimes, too. But not as much as you’d think. Because you realise you’ve told a lot of stories and those are gonna stay around even after you’re gone.’” Twenty-five years after his death, thanks to the web, Feynman’s prophecy has more truth than he could ever have imagined.

Christopher Riley is a visiting professor at the University of Lincoln. His film ‘The Fantastic Mr Feynman’ is on BBC Two on Sunday.

Thanks Loess74