Preaching Connection: History

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Movies for Preaching

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  Written and directed by Steven Spielberg.  Starring Richard Dreyfuss and Francois Truffaut.  PG; 137 mins.  Rotten Tomatoes 100% (40th Anniversary Edition); Metacritic 90%. What to make of power and splendor, especially of the sort that elicits awe and a powerful devotional attraction?  There is hardly a harder question,…

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Reading for Preaching

The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America from Key West to the Arctic Ocean

The author tells the story of Filemon Sanchez, a Mexican immigrant, who overcame numerous obstacles, including bigotry, to establish a flourishing bakery and restaurant in Grand Island, Nebraska.  His odyssey stirs the author to ponder America’s southern border: “I’d seen the walls and barriers rising on the Mexican line, the glass eyes of the surveillance...
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Is There any Word from the Lord?

“There is a story, taken from the early years of the Protestant Reformation, of Erasmus, a great theologian and scholar of the church.  He stood one day just outside the gates of the Vatican, chatting with the pope.  A long line of horse-drawn carts creaked heavily past them, loaded with the annual income of the...
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Love Within Limits: A Realist’s View of 1 Corinthians 13

“Power is exploitative when it is used to diminish the power of other persons.  Slaveholders had exploitative power;   they were able to push children of God down to the level of horses and shovels, mere tools.  When some slaveholders were personally kind to a slave, they were combining healing power with person-destroying power.  It was...
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Mere Christianity, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics

“Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live forever . . . There are a good many things that would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live forever.  Perhaps my...
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The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

Contemporary popular commentators on slavery often tell its story with benign concern, but with little reference to its true viciousness, to the “massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and...
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The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

From 1861-65 hundreds of thousands of southern slaves escaped to the North, searching for Union lines and then throwing themselves on the mercy of the Union Army.  The army generally protected them.  “Eventually the Union Army began to welcome formerly enslaved men into its ranks, turning refugee camps into recruiting stations—and those African American soldiers...
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“Hope is More Than Happiness”

Paterson comments on how the screenwriter of the musical play Oliver! reshaped Dickens’ “happily ever after” ending to make it more realistic and more poignant.  “The screenwriter turned away both from the excesses of Dickens and from the conventions of the musical comedy form. As you may remember, the carriage draws up in front of...
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Confessions

Augustine describes famously that, as a youth, he had stolen pears not because he really wanted them but because it was perversely exciting to rebel against God’s justice.  “I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality.  My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the...
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Deadline: A Memoir

President Richard Nixon was “full of self-doubts” and thus “of self-promotion”  He gave his daughters talking points to use in their encounters with the Press.  They should tell reporters that their Dad had “regular encounters with Churchill and de Gaulle, how he played the piano by ear at family gatherings, and how much time the...
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Deadline: A Memoir

Like his predecessor, LBJ, President Richard Nixon secretly expanded the war in Vietnam, including intrusions into the neutral Cambodia, in what, at the time, James Reston called “war by tantrum.”  He started a long fight with the New York Times over their publication of the Pentagon Papers, which “were merely a study of the mistakes...
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Deadline: A Memoir

President Lyndon B. Johnson dragged the U.S.A. deeper and deeper into the Vietnam war.  He didn’t want to be the first President to lose a war.  He became paranoid about his opposition, whether it was professors at major universities, or “Negroes” influenced by Martin Luther King, or Bobby Kennedy, or major news outlets, or columnists...
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Deadline: A Memoir

President Lyndon B. Johnson “was a natural mimic” who told stories “vivid with the memories of the South.  He would talk about a man who was ‘as wise as a tree full of owls’ or ‘as busy as a man with one hoe and two rattlesnakes’ or ‘as noisy as a crazy mule in an...
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Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home

“Before entering the political arena full time, Ronald Reagan spent years on the circuit for General Electric as their official spokesman, eating or poking at rubber chicken and giving the same anecdote-studded speech at each location. It had an apocalyptic message: ‘a slow invisible tide of socialism was engulfing America, held back only by a...
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A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

Americans kept trying to bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail, and kill trucks with 6 million dollar jets. But the Vietnamese had lots of trucks and they were easy to replace. They also had lots of soldiers and they just kept coming. The 1968 Tet Offensive exposed General Westmoreland’s “War of Attrition” as a pipedream...
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A Rumor of War

On combat in Vietnam: “The war was mostly a matter of enduring weeks of expectant waiting and, at random intervals, of conducting vicious manhunts through jungles and swamps where snipers harassed us constantly and booby traps cut us down one by one. The tedium was occasionally relieved by a large-scale search and destroy operation, but...
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Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush

Meacham portrays the early privileged life of the 41st President, and thus gives us a glimpse into the lives of affluent, socially advantaged American families in the 1930s. In Bush’s family, much weight rested on achievement. The idea was that if you have great advantages you must make something of them and of yourself. Honor...
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The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of the United States 1932-1972

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a Sunday, thus launching U.S. participation in W.W.II, some American reactions were telling. “Len Sterling, who had interrupted WHN’s account of the pro football game at the Polo Grounds, was being hounded by calls from infuriated fans who wanted to know what was happening on...
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Beloved

“In all of Baby’s life [Baby is the heroine Sethe’s mother, represented here in the 1850s] . . .men and women were moved around like checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen, or...
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Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction

“Not all Southern whites owned slaves, but they all owned white skins.” Southerners sometimes believed slavery wrong while denying that emancipation would be right. For then blacks would think they were “as good as we are.” Frederick Law Olmstead concluded that “from childhood, the one thing in their condition that has made life valuable to...
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Truman

Truman became exasperated in late 1947 by the flood of letters and telegrams concerning Palestine. Truman resented the hectoring tone of many of the letters. Truman to Eleanor Roosevelt: “The action of some of our United States Zionists will eventually prejudice everyone against what they are trying to get done. I fear very much that...
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“The Long Shadow of Vietnam”

“The true cause of the Vietnam trauma to America was that the country’s fathers failed. The grownups poured their children into a devouring misconception–a bad war that was a vast elaboration on the theme of lying, almost of hallucination. Lyndon Johnson won the election in 1964 by promising that American boys would never go to...
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Chutzpah

“While Jewish leaders in Poland and throughout Europe were committing suicide in a futile attempt to convey the depth of the Jewish tragedy, no American Jew in government–and there were many in high places–even resigned in protest over the American refusal to lift immigration barriers, to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz, or to take...
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The Chosen

Danny Saunders: “you can listen to silence, Reuven. I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it . . . It has a...
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Small World: An Academic Romance

“She came to the Sorbonne for a year, as an occasional postgraduate student. She used to sit in the front row at my lectures, gazing at me through thick-rimmed spectacles. She always had a notebook open and a pen in her hand, but I never saw her write anything. It piqued me, I must say....
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Rabbit Run

“Tothers is silent before replying. His great strength is in these silences; other men hasten to respond instantly, as if they were always embarrassed, but Tothers has the disciplinarian’s trick of waiting a moment. As if he considers everything. It gives him great weight.”
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The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of the United States 1932-1972

Hundreds of thousands of people became hoboes, riding the freights, in the early 30s. Food lines at churches and Salvation Army places were good for a single cup of thin soup—once or twice. Then you had to be on your way. Malnutrition was everywhere—“prominent ribs, concave abdomens, arms and legs on which the skin was...
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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, rev. ed.

The Pilgrims who landed in New England met with little resistance from the native Indian population because the Indians had been infected with European diseases (usually thought to have been mainly smallpox) first by itinerant British and French fishermen in the decades before 1620 and then by the Pilgrims themselves. Up to 90 % of...
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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, rev. ed.

President Woodrow Wilson was an unrepentant racist and white supremacist. He submitted to Congress a detailed plan to restrict the civil rights of blacks (Congress refused to pass it). He re-segregated federal office buildings. He segregated the Navy. When African-American leaders met with him in the Oval Office to protest his policies, he told them...
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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong rev. ed.

Prior to the 1995 edition, and then prior to the 2007 edition, the author reviewed the American history textbooks used in U.S. high schools. He discovered that the books are allergic to trouble in the lives of American heroes. The books are sanitized, and therefore entirely boring. So the 2007 edition is dedicated to high...
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Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and A Great American Land Grab

White Americans in the nineteenth century regarded Indians as simply in the way. Andrew Jackson epitomized this attitude. He was “an orphan from an Appalachian valley,” a man of humble background who rose to the highest position in America. “Proclaimed to be a champion of common people, he smashed what he considered elitist institutions and...
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Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Tiro (Cicero’s slave/secretary) writes that he is resuming his account of Cicero’s life after a hiatus of two years. He writes that this elision “says much about human nature, for if you were to ask me, ‘Tiro, why do you choose to skip such a long period in Cicero’s life?’ I should be obliged to...
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Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Harris quotes a letter of Cicero to Brutus, 48 B.C., in which Cicero writes that “eloquence that does not startle I don’t consider eloquence.”
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Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, rev. ed.

Traditionally, American schoolkids have studied American history out of textbooks that are often seriously flawed. The books shrink from presenting and describing controversy (how well did Columbus and the Pilgrims treat Native Americans? Were Native Americans mostly nomadic plains people? How long before Columbus was North America settled, and what does this do to the...
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Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

The Roman Senate in Cicero’s time comprised 600 men, by far the most of whom would go no further in their careers. But they had the power to help elevate one of their own to the office of praetor (one who presides over the courts) or even to the supreme power of the consulship, of...
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Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Harris explains that in this historical novel centering on Cicero, most of what’s in the novel is historically true, nothing in the novel is historically false, and dubious items, though not obviously true, could have been. The novel is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave secretary and man of affairs, an actual historical figure and probably...
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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

Despite white American presumptuousness and paternalism about Indians (you are “children” or “savages” and “your land” needs to become ours), despite the strangeness of the white explorers to Indian eyes and ears, Lewis and Clark and company were often—maybe more often than not—treated kindly by Indians. The Nez Percé in the area close to today’s...
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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

The white American policy toward Indians who occupied the lands American pioneers craved was simple: “join us or get out of the way.” Thomas Jefferson was behind this policy, and, to his slight credit, much preferred that Indians should join the pioneers and revere their great white father. Jefferson wanted title to Indian lands, and...
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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

Thomas Jefferson had slaves, but “no man knew better than Jefferson the price Virginia paid for slavery, most of all in what the system did to young [white] men. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote: ‘The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the...
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“The Paradox of Lincoln’s Faith”

Observes how nationalistic Lincoln’s faith was. Paradox: “Like the Puritans [Lincoln] believed that God had chosen America to be the scene of his further revelations to the world. Lincoln even went beyond the Puritans to locate that manifestation in human documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Here is the irony and paradox: this...
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From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

Luther wasn’t just a rough, coarse, shouting peasant who overthrew fifteen hundred years of solidified Christian ethos by violence. He was a person of great imagination, as his Table Talk shows, and he was full of warmth and understanding, including about sex, and he was endlessly hospitable to whole housefuls of visitors, who ate him...
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From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

Erasmus was a cultivated humanist who shuddered at the rough hewn Luther and all the other reformers who kept shouting and farting all the time, was actually quite capable of indignation, and was a courageous fighter. He had enormous sway over his contemporaries–everybody, including popes, kings, universities, reformers, wanted to consult him or gain his...
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Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet

A critic of Fosdick says something of general interest where preaching is concerned. ‘The printed sermons of Fosdick have a way of disintegrating in the memory instead of leaving some vivid essence, as the best sermons do. They are thorough and competent and kindly and intelligent, and they are carried along by well-controlled indignations and...
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Review of Why Americans Don’t Vote by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward

Even today, the influential don’t really want the poor to vote. “Voting is treated as a privilege in our society, to be wielded by the privileged.” Governments make it hard to register and hard to vote. You have to be literate, alert, and ready to be inconvenienced in order to win through. When in 1983...
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“Read this Book, Obama,” a review of Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, vol. 4, The Passage of Power

“For three years under President John F. Kennedy, the cause of civil rights inched forward, if it moved at all. Then, suddenly, Kennedy was dead—and seven months later, so too was legal segregation. To this day, the mystique of John F. Kennedy lingers. One third of Americans rate Kennedy a great president, and professional historians...
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Under God: Religion and American Politics

(Quoting Newsweek, April 30, 1990 p. 19) Ronald and Nancy Reagan once prayed for a soap opera character when her writers made her go blind: “Nancy and I are sorry to hear about your illness. Our thoughts and prayers are with you. God bless you.”
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In the Heat of the Summer

“[In Vietnam there was] the counterinsurgency, the savagery, the lack of defined enemies, the lack of a front, the shapelessness of it all, especially when combined with the contradictions of the war. I mean, here were men out in the field, performing routine tasks of terrible consequences: they feared they would step on a land...
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Iron and Silk

One day, during his visit to China, Salzman is prepared to display his ‘cello to a group of earnest fishermen and their families. “I took the ‘cello out of the case and the whole room gasped, clicked their tongues, and sighed with appreciation. I walked over to my seat and began to explain the mechanics...
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“Second Opinions: History Winds Up in the Waiting Room”

“If the story were presented as a formal medical case study, it might begin as follows: ‘S.’ is a 35 year old male of Middle Eastern ancestry with a long history of deceitfulness, physical violence, and other forms of unacceptable behavior. He is an only child; his mother had to be warned not to drink...
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The Liberty Campaign

A person who had been tortured by Brazilian officers during the military dictatorship of 1964-79 recounts one particular torment: “’I was ordered to stand, naked, on tiptoe, with my arms straight out beside me. Four telephone books were placed in each hand. I was already very tired, having gone without sleep for an indeterminate time,...
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American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964

MacArthur beat the Japanese in the Pacific in part by bypassing heavily fortified islands and then cutting off supply routes. He never showed up on some Islands (Rabaul, e.g.). The defenders on Rabaul were mortified and consternated that there was no invasion. “All [the Japanese soldiers] wanted was an opportunity to sell their lives dearly...
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The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of the United States 1932-1972

On the 1950s: “Throughout the decade tastelessness and vulgarity shrieked out from billboards and TV screens—wherever the peddler opened his pack and hawked his wares. If there was one moment which summed up the rest, it came on CBS-TV at the climax of ‘Judgment at Nuremberg,’ a brilliant piece of theater produced by the network’s...
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Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the Sixties

Berkeley, CA has been dominated for a couple of decades by liberal and then radical politicians on the city council. The liberals are often dismayed to be scorned by the radicals. “Narrowly elected in November of 1986, Loni Hancock [a white-glove radical] was presiding over a City Council meeting one night at which homelessness was...
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The Fifties

The advent of Elvis Presley in the 50s “was nothing less than the start of a revolution.” It was, said Leonard Bernstein, “‘the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century.’” True, he was “a sultry-faced young man from the South in tight clothes and an excessive haircut who wiggled his body while he sang about...
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The Fifties

WW II General Douglas MacArthur was brilliant. He seemed to have a sixth sense about where to attack the Japanese, and where to skip over islands where the dug-in Japanese were so strong that to defeat them would exact too high a cost. He was also a petulant, manipulative narcissist who insisted on taking credit...
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The Fifties

In 1948, President Harry Truman’s opponent was Thomas Dewey, a man then Republicans were confident could beat Truman. Wasn’t FDR finally dead? And wasn’t Truman, his replacement, really a small-town haberdasher and not a national leader? And wasn’t Dewey a “modern, reform-minded governor of New York?” But then there were Dewey’s minuses. In stature he...
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Lincoln

In 1860 L was candidate for president, and was advertised as “the rail candidate,” with a lot of partly false hoo-ha about his family and his love of rail-splitting. L was labeled “The Rail Splitter” and it stuck. It was popular. His managers soon understood how to package him. “He could be packaged not merely...
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In the Beauty of the Lillies

“A letter carrier, coming to the door every day, gets a sense of a home and sees things–women in bathrobes asking if he’d like to come in for coffee, cars parked out front that belonged on the other side of town, children left unattended squalling themselves blind upstairs, signs of the heart going out of...
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What was it like in the Concentration Camp at Dachau?: An Attempt to Come Closer to Truth

There is something fitting, even necessary, about the sheer revelation of evil—i.e. getting it out into the light of day, having it acknowledged as truth, airing it. Hence the Polish writer Jan Domagala said to friends: “If the miracle should happen that you live to tell the tale, write it down and tell the world...
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American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964

In the late 1930s the Japanese were immigrating to and spying in the Philippines. Douglas MacArthur took note and began to study the Japanese. He concluded that the Japanese couldn’t be serious opponents in war. They were clowns: “They wrote backward and read backward. They built their houses from the roof down and pulled, instead...
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The Last Lion. Volume 2: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940

“Hitler was guilty of treason, incest, incitement to riot, and the murder of millions. In small matters, however, he was a prig: a vegetarian who scorned nicotine, and was offended by foul language. ‘Um himmels willen’ [For heaven’s sake”] was about as strong as he got.”
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The Last Lion. Volume 2: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940

“Until Hitler moved into the Reich Chancellery, the men in striped Hosen from the Wilhelmstrasse were celebrated for their breeding, their mastery of elegant diplomatic language, and their meticulous observance of international treaties. Elaborate, almost choreographed manners had always graced relations between powers, however bloody the deeds. ‘When you have to kill a man,’ as...
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“The Tire Iron and the Tamale”

“During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level. And on a practical level as well, what with...
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The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of the United States 1932-1972

In 1932, “millions stayed alive by living like animals. In the Pennsylvania countryside they were eating wild weed-roots and dandelions; in Kentucky they chewed violet tops, wild onions, forget-me-nots, wild lettuce, and weeds which heretofore had been left to grazing cattle. City mothers hung around docks, waiting for spoiled lettuce to be discarded and then...
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Seabiscuit, An American Legend

“Red Pollard was sinking downward through his life with the pendulous motion of a leaf falling through still air. In the summer of 1936 he was twenty-six and in the twelfth year of a failing career as a jockey and part-time prizefighter. He was an elegant young man, tautly muscled, with a shock of supernaturally...
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Distorted Truth: What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Battle for the Mind

“People are worried whether if a computer could think then we would have created a human. [Then maybe computers would have to be paid, and be given a social security number. Maybe they’d get letters from the IRS and catalogs from L. L. Bean. Maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses would try to convert them.] But, really, the...
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Seabiscuit, An American Legend

“In his course from meadows and rangeland to back roads and bullrings, Tom Smith had cultivated an almost mystical communion with horses. He knew their minds and how to sway them. He knew their bodies how they telegraphed emotion and sensation, and his hands were a tonic for their pains. In his era, racing was...
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Condominium

It’s a hot dawn in Calcutta in front of a hotel in 1944. “Soon three hotel porters in wine-colored uniforms came out carrying a fire hose. They clamped the brass fitting of the hose into the water outlet on the front of the hotel. Two porters handled the long brass nozzle while the third turned...
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The Last Lion. Volume 1: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932

“When an Englishman crossed his threshold he was in his castle, with almost absolute power over everyone within. That wasn’t true of his wife, but if diaries and letters are to be trusted, she enjoyed their hearth even more than he did. It was a good thing [women] liked it. They hadn’t much choice. Divorce...
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Night

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent...
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“Why Study History?”

Wonderful piece whose central claim that the study of history (p. 44) gives us good judgment: “a sense of the comic and the tragic, a bone-deep understanding of how hard it is to preserve civilization or to better human life, and of how these have nonetheless been done repeatedly in the past . . ....
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American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964

MacArthur’s speech before the joint houses of Congress, 1948, just after President Truman had sacked him for insubordination: “’I am closing my fifty-two years of military service. When I joined the army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over...
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The Making of the President 1960

Electable presidents have to have a detachment, an uncommonness, a mystique. Hubert Humphrey couldn’t beat John F. Kennedy because of ‘the very simplicity, the clarity, the homely sparkle [Humphrey] could bring to any issue. He could talk on almost any subject under the sun–to farmers, to workers, to university intellectuals. And when he finished there...
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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Louis Zamperini and the other American POWs in the Pacific were horribly treated by the Japanese, terribly debased and degraded. The worst here was the loss of dignity, this “inmost armament of the soul,” which we need so much that to lose it is to be cast down below mankind. Its loss is wretched, lonely,...
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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

After the war, former POWs were relatively OK or in terrible shape, depending on whether the Germans or the Japanese had held them. Almost all prisoners of the Germans survived. Only six per cent of the prisoners of the Japanese did. And the Pacific POWs had been much, much worse treated, and suffered after the...
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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

This is the story of airman Louis Zamperini, ditched in the Pacific in WWII, floating for weeks, captured and imprisoned by the Japanese and remaining unbroken. Louis Zamperini had grown up with a “perfect” older brother Pete. Pete was “handsome, popular, impeccably groomed, polite to elders and avuncular to juniors, silky smooth with girls, and...
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Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945

“Many civilians, even in areas such as East Prussia and Silesia, which now lay close to the Red Army, found it difficult to comprehend the notion that their entire world was on the verge of extinction, that the streets in which they shopped, the farms on which they milked cows, the communities in which they...
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Band of Brothers

Men in combat want souvenirs from the possessions of slain enemy troops: a Luger, a swastika banner, a camouflaged poncho. They will be willing to come under fire to scoop up souvenirs. One member of E Company, Glenn Gray, explained why souvenirs were so important to combat troops: “’Primarily, souvenirs appeared to give the soldier...
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Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945

In June of 1940, the French having been overwhelmed, and Russia not yet an ally, Winston Churchill had to persuade his own people that the days of appeasement of Germany were over. He also had to persuade the citizens of the United States of Britain’s valor, generating sympathy, and a desire to help their English...
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Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945

In the 1930s, as the crisis for Jews deepened in Germany, the United States remained inhospitable to desperate Jewish refugees. The Nazis had decreed that no Jew leaving Germany could do so with more than $4, “essentially pauperizing any Jew trying to leave the country.” Meanwhile, the United States had strict “immigration statutes,” which “forbade...
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Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945

One of the most colorful figures in the USA during the 1930s was John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers. He wanted a solid middle class life for his workers—a long shot in the depressed conditions of the time. (p. 299) “Dour-visaged, thickly eyebrowed, richly maned, his 230-pound bulk always impeccably tailored, Lewis...
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With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Under horrific conditions, men from Sledge’s Company K fought on Peleliu and Okinawa. Many men were killed. Many were wounded, sometimes irreparably. Most had some degree of shell shock. But they did get mail, and were hungry for it. Sometimes, it came from former buddies in Company K who had fulfilled their round of duty...
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Band of Brothers

E Company moved west into western Germany, and found its towns delightful, with flower boxes outside clean windows, and admirable German citizens. “Wonder of wonders,” GIs really liked the Germans. They were “clean, hard-working, disciplined, educated, middle-class in their tastes and lifestyles. . . the only people in the world who regarded a flush toilet...
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Band of Brothers

E Company moved west from Normandy and met French citizens, then Belgians, then the Dutch. They loved the Dutch. “Brave, resourceful, overwhelmingly grateful, the best organized underground in Europe, cellars full of food hidden from the Germans but given to the Americans, clean, hard-working, honest were only some of the compliments the men showered on...
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The Life of Samuel Johnson

Johnson had not only a great fund of knowledge, but also “an extraordinary accuracy and flow of language.” How acquired? “He told [Sir Joshua Reynolds] that he had early laid it down as a fixed rule to do his best on every occasion, and in every company, to impart whatever he knew in the most...
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With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Conditions on Okinawa were brutal: men had to flight and sleep in driving rain. They had to march, crawl, and try to run in mud that was often knee-deep, or deeper. They had to retrieve fallen buddies under fire on difficult terrain and in the mud. They were often shell-shocked. In the tropical climate they...
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The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power

Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Vice-Presidency was extremely painful. He had no power and little to do. He adopted an approach to meetings that consisted of saying almost nothing. When asked for his opinion “Johnson would answer in monosyllables—and in a voice so soft that sometimes it could not be heard . . . One of his...
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The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power

Before 1960, Lyndon Baines Johnson had been Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, “the second most important man in Washington.” But beginning in January, 1961, he was Vice-President of the United States, a position with virtually no power in it whatsoever. For instance, the VP “presided” over the Senate, but could not vote except in...
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The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power

Lyndon Baines Johnson could read people. He used to tell his staff members how to do it. “’Watch their hands. Watch their eyes,’ he told them. ‘Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes.’ Teaching them to peruse men’s weaknesses,...
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The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the Presidency in about as difficult a transition as one could imagine. JFK’s staff despised LBJ. And now he needed their advice. The staffers thought they understood that JFK, if he had not despised LBJ, did not think highly of...
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The Last Lion: William Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-65

In the early years of the WWII in Europe, Hitler thought he could force England into surrender by relentlessly bombing London and other English cities, always at night. He dropped three thousand bombs a week on England. Twenty per cent were duds, but Hitler had had German engineers figure out how to make the duds...
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The Last Lion: William Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-65

Early in the war, Churchill understood that if only England could withstand Hitler’s nightly terror bombing of London (he hoped to get England to surrender and accept Germany’s surrender terms) Hitler could not in the end prevail. Sooner or later the USA would come to England’s side with its enormous potential for turning out war...
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“An Overview of Jonathan Edwards’ Theology”

Edwards was an exact contemporary of John Wesley and of Ben Franklin. He was born to Puritans–he was the only son among 11 daughters. He was always aware of Indians. They were everywhere in Massachusetts. JE lived at the intersection of British Protestant civilization, Canadian Catholic civilization, and various tribes of Indians, all competing for...
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East of Eden

In 1900 in America “the repository of art and science was the school, and the schoolteacher shielded and carried the torch of learning and of beauty. The schoolhouse was the meetinghouse for music, for debate. The polls were set in the schoolhouse for elections. Social life, whether it was the crowning of a May Queen,...
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Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Ulysses S. Grant called Lincoln “incontestably the greatest man I ever knew.” Walt Whitman regarded Lincoln “the grandest figure yet on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century.” But the most impressive account of Lincoln’s fame came from Russia’s Leo Tolstoy who, in 1908, was the guest of a tribal chief who lived far...
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Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full

Nixon’s chief of staff was H. R. (Bob) Haldeman, a former advertising executive, who did what Nixon didn’t want to do—hire, fire, reprimand, reward. Nixon hated to confront, but he loved to have Haldeman confront anyone who needed confronting. If Nixon didn’t like how somebody was handling things, he’d sic Haldeman on them, “a brusque,...
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Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s greatness as a leader partly consisted in his knowledge of ways to reduce sadness and stress—not only in himself, but also in others. “Time and again, he was the one who dispelled his colleagues’ anxiety and sustained their spirits with his gift for storytelling and his life-affirming sense of humor. When resentment and contention...
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Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

When Abraham Lincoln assembled his cabinet he made an unprecedented move. He named his three rivals for the Republican presidential nomination to sit in his cabinet—New York senator William H. Seward to be secretary of state, Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase to be secretary of the treasury, and Missouri’s “distinguished elder statesman” Edward Bates attorney...
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American Pastoral

“Barry’s wife, Marcia, a literature professor in New York, was, by even the Swede’s generous estimate, ‘a difficult person,’ a militant nonconformist of staggering self-certainty much given to sarcasm and calculated apocalyptic pronouncements designed to bring discomfort to the lords of the earth. There was nothing she did or said that didn’t make clear where...
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In the Beauty of the Lilies

An example of John Updike’s virtuoso character description follows: “He was tall and pale and wet-lipped and made to look even more cretinous by the green plastic sun visor and the plaid Bermuda shorts . . . The man was young but old enough to know better. His shoulders and arms were sunburned pink, his...
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Lincoln

After Lincoln and Logan dissolved their Springfield law partnership in the fall of ’44 Lincoln took as a partner William H. Herndon (‘Billy’), a surprisingly young and altogether unknown attorney who had been studying law with Lincoln and Logan. Billy was a voracious reader who became a kind of “frontier evangelist for transcendentalism, that Emersonian...
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Truman

On George C. Marshall, the “first career soldier to become Secretary of State.” Distantly related to John Marshall, “the great Chief Justice.” In World War I, Marshall, “as Pershing’s aid . . . directed the American advance to the Argonne. As Dean Acheson would write, there was little military glamour about him, nothing pretentious. Rather...
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The Good Times

Russell Baker on Richard Nixon: Nixon was like Russ himself when he was dancing by the numbers. No graceful, sensuous response to the music for him. No, “on the dance floor I moved woodenly through patterns memorized from books while silently counting, ‘One, two, sidestep three, feet together, four. . . . . I was...
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The Good Times

On the urbane Henry Fairlie, an author and a culture critic (see, for example, his nice book on the Seven Deadly Sins): He was “tall and darkly handsome, with a smile that could only be called devilish . . . .. He spoke with fluent ease about subjects that were far beyond me and conveyed...
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The Good Times

Nixon, Goldwater, Humphrey, Ford, etc.—“remarkable men, all of them, but from a writer’s point of view, they were long magazine pieces who might at best, with plenty of coffee and cigarettes, be stretched into their campaign biographies. [Lyndon] Johnson was the exception. Johnson was a flesh-and-blood three-volume biography, and if you ever got it written...
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Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry

Phillips-Exeter Academy was founded in 1781 by John Phillips, the son of a Calvinist minister. He founded the Academy “for the purpose of promoting piety and virtue and education of youth.” He wanted youth to know English, Latin, sciences, and arithmetic, “but more especially to learn the great end and real business of living.” “Instructors,...
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Darker Than Amber

Travis McGee (the story’s main character) has an old friend named McGee and Maya know an old friend named Jake Karlo. He’s a sort of con man, but a reasonably honest one. “He is about the size of a full grown cricket. His standard gait is a jog trot. When I first knew him, he...
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Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice

In 1896, the sheriff of Navajo County, Arizona, sent the county residents an invitation to a hanging that read as follows: “You are hereby cordially invited to attend the hanging of one George Smiley, murderer. His soul will swing into eternity on Dec. 8, 1986, at 2 p.m. sharp. Latest methods in the art of...
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William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives

p. 37: When Bill was five, “he began to mimic his father’s gestures and attitudes.” Even though he was just “a little thing with a high falsetto voice,” Patricia recalled, he “pontificated” just like his father, and spoke with the same “edge of sarcasm” toward opinions that did not conform to his own. Like his...
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The Sacred Journey

Buechner’s paternal grandfather “was sometimes mistaken for the British actor C. Aubrey Smith on his travels . . . and when people came up to ask for his autograph he always obliged them but always signed his own name.”
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The Making of the President 1960

p. 286: Before Nixon’s first debate with JFK in 1960 “Mr. Nixon’s advisers and representatives . . . paid meticulous attention to each detail. They were worried about the deep eye shadows in Nixon’s face and they requested and adjusted two tiny spotlights (‘inies’ in television parlance) to shine directly into his eye wells and...
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The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of the United States, 1932-1972

People in England in the 1870s carried oranges with them not for their taste but for their smell. “Even where sanitation existed, not all street odors were pleasant. Deodorants were unknown. The poor reeked, which was why they were unwelcome in Victorian churches. People carried oranges to dull the stench of sweat, vermin, and manure....
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“Cool Tat, Too Bad It’s Gibberish”

A man who loves his son very much went to an LA tattoo parlor, chose a motto (“one love,” according to the book in the parlor) as a grand gesture of enthusiasm for his boy, and had the two Chinese characters tattooed prominently on his forearm. But a checkout clerk informed him that what the...
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The Things They Carried

A, by now famous, account of men fighting in Viet Nam. “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing–these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained,...
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Into That Darkness: From Mercy killing to Mass Murder

Richard Glazar, a Treblinka escapee, tells how prisoners tried desperately to stay alive by looking as if they deserved to live (e.g. Glazar shaved up to seven times a day and polished his boots to a high shine). But prisoners never knew whether a good shave or a high shine “might make them too conspicuous....
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The Last Lion. Volume 1: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932

In upper class Victorian England, “no one shrank from self-indulgence, and all but a few disdained work. They played tennis and auction bridge, which was invented in 1904; they attended races, amateur theatricals, elaborate teas, private recitals, and on one occasion a private circus engaged by an imaginative host. Historian Vita Sackville-West (The Edwardians) quotes...
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The Last Lion. Volume 1: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932

“Identifying a stranger’s class has always been a social challenge for Londoners. Today it is a matter of vowels. In [Victorian] days it was far easier, and would usually be accomplished by a glance. J. M. Bailey, an American visitor to London in the 1870’s, wrote that he could find ‘traces of nobility’ in an...
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The Last Lion. Volume 1: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932

The school years of Winston Churchill revealed strengths and weaknesses. Writing “came easily to him; his fluency would grow year by year, undiscouraged by the infrequency of replies from his parents. Arithmetic was another matter. His struggles with it seemed hopeless, and led to his only real battle with his nurse. He remembered afterward: ‘Letters...
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The Last Lion. Volume 2: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940

Churchill appeals to his War Cabinet to fight Hitler, not appease him. It proved a turning point in the great history of 20th century events, and it stemmed from Churchill’s understanding that the great nation of Germany had fallen into the hands of a group of mad men, who could be evicted only by devastating...
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The Last Lion. Volume 1: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932

“Characteristically, members of the upper class [in Victorian England] never lifted an unnecessary finger. It was said of Lady Ida Sitwell that she not only did not know how to lace up her own shoes; she would have been humiliated by the knowledge. Churchill’s cousin, the ninth duke, while visiting friends and traveling without his...
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Wonder Boy: Barry Minkow, the Kid Who Swindled Wall Street

“A psychopath [aka sociopath] is someone who can act without regard to conscience, victimizing people again and again without remorse. Psychologists are charming, intelligent, and make superb liars. They are unreliable and tend not to learn from experience. Amoral, they are often criminals . . . . most use people as disposable objects, and the...
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A Bright, Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

Ellsworth Bunker, US Ambassador in Saigon during the Vietnam War was a thoughtful Democrat and thrifty millionaire “who, after the pants were worn out, saved the coat of a suit to wear it as a sport jacket. His shoes were Brooks Brothers’ best English make, but there were lots of cracks in the leather under...
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Horowitz: A Biography of Vladimir Horowitz

For both his 1965 and 1974 returns to the concert stage in New York, Horwitz stage-managed the ticket sales and publicity. He wanted no mail-order or advance sales. What he wanted, and what he knew people would do, was to stay all night in line waiting for the box office to open. Then, as before,...
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The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate

As Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate in the 1950s, LBJ had his ways of sending signals to the senators who didn’t vote as he wished them to. He would assign them small offices. He wouldn’t return their calls for days, or not at all. He would turn his back on a Senator walking into...
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The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent

p. 117 LBJ hired a succession of aides who did whatever he told them. They were always available. They never “had plans.” He seldom hired brilliant and independent types. He preferred “the more malleable, if considerably less talented” ones. Why? He wanted guys who would do what he wanted. Men who were eager to take...
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Fiorello H. La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York

Fiorello La Guardia became mayor of New York in 1933, and “brought into office a fascinating, many-sided personality. He was an idealist who was shrewd and tough, a compassionate man driven by resentments and high ambitions, a progressive politician of strength and guile who skirted the edge of scruple to win elections. Five foot two...
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Truman

Tuesday, July 17, 1945, Truman meets Stalin at Potsdam, Germany. Stalin was, ”the Man of Steel, the single most powerful figure in the world. He was the absolute dictator over 180 million people of 170 nationalities in a country representing one sixth of the earth’s surface, the Generalissimo of gigantic armies,” and a 5’5″ squirt....
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Character Above All: Ten presidents from FDR to George Bush

By contrast with Ronald Reagan, Carter was handicapped by a certain flexibility. “It was because Reagan had a fixed political ideology and Carter did not–at least, he had much less of one. A political ideology is a very handy thing to have. It’s a real time-saver, because it tells you what you think about things...
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Character Above All: Ten presidents from FDR to George Bush

p. 135 He came from economically low status in Whittier, CA: he hated waiting on customers in his father’s grocery store and felt embarrassed by his loud, cantankerous, and impecunious dad. He made ‘”near-suicidal attempts” to make the Whittier College football team and failed. He couldn’t get dates: girls found him awkward and unglamorous. He...
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Character Above All: Ten presidents from FDR to George Bush

Carter is a saint. But “ being a saint isn’t all kindness and sweetness and compassion. Being a saint, especially a saint in politics, is a very mixed proposition and not always a completely attractive one. Saints can be intensely annoying. They can be hard on the people around them. They can be blind to...
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Character Above All: Ten presidents from FDR to George Bush

FDR had the toughest and biggest job in the world, but he didn’t toss and turn at night. He “would go to bed, lay his head on the pillow, briefly review the big things that had come before him that day, and then say to himself, ‘Well, I have done the best I could,’ and...
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Character Above All: Ten presidents from FDR to George Bush

‘”Johnson’s grandiosity had a large impact on what he did as President. One can easily take offense at LBJ’s impulse to make himself a larger-than-life character. ‘I understand you were born in a log cabin,’ German chancellor Ludwig Erhard said during a visit to the President’s ranch. ‘No, no,’ Johnson replied. ‘You have me confused...
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Character above all: Ten presidents from FDR to George Bush

Dallek describes what biographers call “the Johnson Treatment,” or simply “The Treatment.” LBJ would corner a man, or back him up against a wall and trap him there with his big frame. Box him in. Here’s Dallek on “The Treatment”: Rowland Evans and Robert Novak describe Johnson’s approach to someone needing persuasion: It was “supplication,...
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The Making of the President 1960

White characterizes Richard Nixon: He is an “almost stock character in the panel of American types. Poor from boyhood, able, intense, dark and watchful as he surveys the word around him, Richard M. Nixon has brought from his impoverished middle-class youth many strange qualities–the thrust of enormous internal drives, an overwhelming desire to be liked...
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Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home

p. 379 Capitalism is not individualist, but collectivist. Everybody depends on everybody else in the amassing of capital–workers on each other in division of labor, workers on distributors, etc. . . The individual pin-maker could never compete. “To the extent that individuals try to divert the wealth of nations to their private use, they subvert...
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Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945

For all the tactical genius displayed by German soldiers fighting on the battlefield, they could never escape the consequences of serving under the direction of a man who rejected rationality. Hitler believed that his own military skills and judgment were superior to those of any of his professional advisers. He immersed the leadership in a...
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Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad

Building a railroad through mountains was a monumental challenge. Trees had to be toppled by dynamite “in a swath from sixty to two hundred feet wide.” Stumps had to be “grubbed out” so that soil was clear to a point two to three feet below the roadbed. Then the bed had to be graded both...
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Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad

Asa Whitney was the champion of the idea of a transcontinental railroad, working tirelessly to tie the coasts together by rail. He saw it as uniting the country and as greatly easing the time and distance required to get goods from East to West and vice-versa—and then to international markets. All kinds of people called...
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Crossing to Safety

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice: it can turn a man into a machine that...
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The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate

Johnson knew how to get to the older men with senatorial power—the “Old Bulls” of the U.S. Senate. He would use one of the tactics that had served him well in college: e.g., he would sit below the level of a Senator who was talking in an office or cloakroom, and try physically to look...
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Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945

Petty deceit became a way of life-stealing cabbages and carrots from gardens, seeking to deceive a shopkeeper into supposing that he had already been given your ration coupon. City families waited weeks for their turn to hire a small handcart. Then they walked miles into the countryside on Hongertrochten–hunger treks–to find farmers with whom to...
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The Quotidian Mysteries

“We are asked to make our most serious and intimate commitments with very little idea of how long they will last, or what will be required of us. The ordinary demands of a pregnancy, for example, require a woman to find the strength to give birth to a child who, even if it is healthy,...
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