From the Bookshelf: Presidential Speechwriters, Iraq, Watergate, and the Democratic Party

Reviews of some newly released political books.

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What a lot of books have been accumulating on my bookshelves and coffee table this campaign season! I haven't had time to read all of them—but I have at least dipped into several and finished some. Herewith a report:

Let me start with my U.S. News colleague Robert Schlesinger's White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. It's the story—the definitive history, I think—of White House speechwriters, starting with Judson Welliver, who worked for Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge (who did without a speechwriter after Welliver departed). He is the namesake of the Judson Welliver Society, consisting of chief speechwriters for presidents of both parties. (The society, founded by William Safire, was what Schlesinger says inspired this book.) But Welliver was a minor figure, and the book shifts into high gear with the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, who characteristically employed several speechwriters. Schlesinger had the good fortune and industry to be able to interview many former White House speechwriters, going back to George Elsey, who as a naval officer escorted Roosevelt to the Map Room and who worked for Harry Truman. The book is packed with great anecdotes, like one about how Elsey, invited back to the White House by Bush speechwriters John McConnell, Michael Gerson, and Matthew Scully more than 50 years after his service there, revisited the Map Room. "Asked how it looked during the war, Elsey described the room, walking over to a portrait hanging on the wall. The maps should be right back there, he said, and—much to his hosts' horror—yanked at the picture. Sure enough, there were the maps." White House Ghosts is gracefully written and without political partiality.

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  • I hope many readers have been following the dispatches of premier military blogger Michael Yon from Iraq. Now he has written Moment of Truth in Iraq: How a New "Greatest Generation" of American Soldiers Is Turning Defeat into Victory and Hope. It's great war reportage—and a heartening story. Yon was one of the first milbloggers to report that we were losing in Iraq, and one of the first to report we are winning.

    For 10 years, Fox News's James Rosen has been working on a biography of John Mitchell, Richard Nixon's campaign manager and attorney general, who went to jail on Watergate-related charges. Now The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate is out. I've managed only to dip into it, but I look forward to learning more about what Rosen has uncovered about Mitchell and the others who got caught up in Watergate.

    Ever since Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Republican Party has been tagged as the party less favorable to equal rights for black Americans. It's a bum rap. Goldwater himself had little or no racial prejudice and treated blacks equally as employees and customers of his Phoenix department store when that was far from being standard practice in America. And a larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in both the Senate and House, with some Republican leaders—senators Jacob Javits and Everett Dirksen, congressmen William McCulloch and Charles Halleck—playing major roles on the issue. In any case, for most of its history the Democratic Party was the party less favorable to equal rights for blacks. Bruce Bartlett tells the whole story in Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past.

    I had known Andrei Cherny as a "New Democrat" who used to work for Al From's Democratic Leadership Council or one of its offshoots. Now he has become an historian, or at least a writer of history, and a darned good one. The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour is the definitive telling of the amazing story of the airlift that ferried supplies to West Berlin after the Soviets cut off surface access from June 1948 to May 1949. This was a crisis that could have led to war: Gen. Lucius Clay, our commander in West Germany, wanted to send a convoy of soldiers up the Autobahn. But that would have risked nuclear war: The United States, demobilized after 1945, had only a few brigades in Western Europe, and the only way to stop the Soviets would have been to use the atomic bomb. Air Force officers on the ground improvised an airlift, but all the experts said it couldn't possibly bring in all the food and coal West Berlin needed in the summer, much less the winter. The Air Force brass didn't want to use its planes on the project—just as the Air Force brass this year balked at providing unmanned aerial vehicles to our forces in Iraq, one of the reasons that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates dismissed the Air Force secretary and chief of staff.

    Secretary of State George Marshall, Joint Chiefs Chairman Omar Bradley, and the fledgling CIA all urged we simply leave West Berlin. But Harry Truman, universally assumed to be about to be defeated by Thomas Dewey in the presidential election, said we were not leaving. And we didn't. Air Force Maj. Gen. William Tunner, who had supervised the airlift over Burma to China in World War II, managed to schedule flights into Tempelhof airport so precisely (and to get the Texel airport built so quickly) that the tonnage of food and coal far exceeded the experts' expectations. Clay, having wangled an invitation to the Al Smith dinner in New York in October 1948, got Truman to order the Air Force to provide more planes than it wanted to. The airlift performed so well that Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay, initially skeptical and seldom very helpful, was happy to claim credit.

    So who were the candy bombers? The original was Lt. Gail "Hal" Halvorsen, an Air Force pilot who missed combat in World War II. Noticing children lining the perilous approaches to Tempelhof, he decided to throw out bunches of candy in handkerchief parachutes. Other pilots followed suit. The Air Force brass was skeptical, but the press picked up the story. Halvorsen was sent back to the States for a media tour, and a candy manufacturer donated literally tons of candy. The airlift—and the candy bombers—became a symbol of American generosity, visible to all the free world. And it was a triumph of the little guys, the pilots and their officers who figured out how to do the impossible, and to the little guys who had risen to become president of the United States and the British Foreign Secretary, Harry Truman and Ernest Bevin.

    Cherny argues also that the airlift was decisive in Truman's upset victory in November 1948. I'm inclined to agree, as I wrote in my 1990 book Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan (pages 220-21). I made the point there that the Democratic victory in 1948, like those of 1940 and 1944, seemed to owe more to foreign than to domestic issues. Communism was threatening Western Europe mightily in 1948: the Communists took power in Czechoslovakia in February, apparently murdering Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk in the process; Communists threatened to win crucial elections in Italy and France; Communists were trying to choke off West Berlin. The airlift was part of a vigorous response by Truman and his administration that showcased America's technological strength, its industrial might, its individuals' ingenuity and its personal generosity. It's hard to imagine how the NATO alliance would have been forged in 1949 if we had slunk out of West Berlin, and certainly John Kennedy would not have been able to make his speech there in 1961 if we had. Andrei Cherny tells this story vividly, placing it on the broader canvas of the incipient Cold War and providing a moving portrait of Hal Halvorsen, whom he interviewed and who provided his papers. Like George Elsey, he's still alive and kicking more than 50 years after he moved history.

    One of the reasons I'm glad I majored in history is that many academic historians can write well and, while relying on detailed archival research, tell a good story. One such is Edward P. Larson, whose A Magnificant Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign is out in paperback. The cast of characters is, of course, terrific: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr. Larson brings them to life, and his month-by-month narrative shows how the campaign seesawed back and forth. In those days, not all the states chose presidential electors by popular vote, and they voted at different times—more like our primaries and caucuses than like our general elections. This was, of course, the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another by election—and at a time when leaders of each party thought the other would lead the nation to ruin. If you found the 2008 primary season fascinating (and which of us political junkies didn't?), you will love Larson's Catastrophewhich turned out not to be a catastrophe at all.