Reviewing the Review: June 22 2008

History Music Politics
Not Arthur Schlesinger Jr. again.

The New York Times Book Review has John F. Kennedy and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the subject of One Minute To Midnight by Michael Dobbs, on the cover today. Reviewer Richard Holbrooke correctly asks why we need "another recapitulation" of this familiar tale, but I'm barely convinced when he concludes that Dobbs' book justifies itself with "sobering new information about the world's only superpower nuclear confrontation -- as well as contemporary relevance."

This may be a very good book, but I sense from Holbrooke's review that what's most "new" about it is not the information but the packaging and the sales opportunity. Like so many books about the Civil War or World War II that get published every year, this one fels like another work of military nostalgia. It's feel-good history: America is strong, our causes are highly moral, our leaders are heroic, and the good guys win. I'm sure this book will be valuable to readers who don't already know the story of the Kennedy/Khrushchev showdown, but if anything new is actually revealed in these pages, Holbrooke fails to say so. Instead, he summarizes the plot with the breathless cadences of a Tom Clancy novel:

In Washington, the Joint Chiefs, whose members include several World War II giants, push for action. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the brutal, cigar-chomping Air Force chief of staff, with 3,000 nuclear weapons under his command, barks at Kennedy that his blockade of Cuba is “almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.” In a dramatic confrontation in a Pentagon war room, the chief of naval operations tells Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that the Navy will handle any engagement with the Soviets in accordance with long-standing Navy procedures and tradition, and needs no supervision from civilians. Furious, McNamara puts new procedures into place that give him and the president greater direct operational control -- or so they think.

Pardon me if I'm not at the edge of my seat. Honestly, I don't find it exciting or inspiring that in October 1962 a handsome politician from Massachusetts and a grimy Communist boss in Moscow brought the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe before "Khrushchev blinked". I find it despicable.

Along with this front-cover celebration of America's military and strategic greatness, there's a truly nasty essay by Jacob Heilbrunn in which former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan gets bitch-slapped for writing the surprise tell-all hit What Happened?, which is currently #2 on the New York Times bestseller list. More nostalgia here; apparently McClellan is dwarfed by the great political-insider prose stylists from America's "golden age":

The eulogistic memoirs of an earlier time were consequential, partly because their authors drew on their own notes and diaries, which very few officials dare to keep in the scandal- and subpoena-driven Washington of our time. Raw material of this kind enabled officials to wait before telling stories that still arrived with a sense of immediacy. Henry L. Stimson's 1948 doorstop, "On Active Service in Peace and War," published several years after he ended his tenure as secretary of war, drew copiously on Stimson's personal papers. "A Thousand Days," Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s retrospective account of the Kennedy White House, relied heavily on Schlesinger's diaries. Dean Acheson's masterly "Present at the Creation" was published in 1969, almost two decades after he left office. And the first volume of Henry Kissinger's invaluable memoirs, "The White House Years," did not appear until 1979, when he was well out of government.

How did we go from these cigar-and-brandy tomes -- often intended to burnish the reputations of their authors and also those of the presidents they served -- to sensationalistic trifles like "What Happened"?

Not Henry Kissinger again ...

For the second week in a row, the NYTBR makes up for its utterly conventional and predictable political analysis with some better fiction and poetry coverage. Jay McInerney manages to maintain a light, sardonic tone when reviewing (and, mainly, passing on) Andre Dubus III's 9/11 novel The Garden of Last Days, which portentously places an angry Saudi citizen in a Florida strip club to set the plot spinning:

Even those who never heard about the penchant of some of the 9/11 hijackers for strip clubs will probably find themselves engaged in some pretty serious racial profiling.

There's no way to tell what either the angry terrorist or the strippers in this novel might think about a good Bourdeaux, but even though McInerney is out of his element here, he keeps me entertained.

I really like Joel Brouwer's introduction to the opinion-packed poetry of C. D. Wright, whose Rising, Falling, Hovering gets a strong full page.

I'm not sure the first serious full-length biography of Axl Rose doesn't also deserve a full page review, but at least Mike Wall's W. A. R.: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose gets respectful treatment from Dave Itzkoff, as does Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture, edited by Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid.

Roxana Robinson's family tableau Cost is getting some good attention, though it's probably a bad sign for my future encounter with this book that I read Leah Hager Cohen's review two hours ago and can't remember a thing it said.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: June 29 2008. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the Review: June 15 2008.
3 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: June 22 2008"

Levi, I don’t know what book you’re writing, but relative to the Khrushchev-Kennedy confrontation, consider - the impact on our planet of Sharon v Arafat at Temple Mount. Is there anyone in America who would tell this story fairly?

I think it’s essential for our humanity, perhaps our survival. Consider - Sharon comes to Temple Mount in September 2000, Bin Laden comes to the World Trade Center in September 2001. Coincidence?

As for the fairness issue, and full disclosure, I have to say I’ve a great fondness for the American people (or any people - Israelis, Palestinians, Germans, Russians; we’re all one people) but sometimes I despise the actions of their government.

by thsmiths on

Wow, sometimes a cigar is just some idiot journalist longing to be hugged by Henry Kissinger. I hope Scott M.'s book is anything but a "cigar and brandy tome". Wow.

I wasn't afraid during the Cuban missle crisis because I knew that "duck and cover" would save my ass from annihilation. Everyone knows that a school desk is made out of kryptonite and thus impervious to a nuclear blast.