- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 11/30/20
Good morning and welcome back from a Thanksgiving weekend of indulgence.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pledging to eat healthier and I’m about to jump on the exercise bike. It’s the “new me,” which will last at least until the next round of holiday celebrations!
I’ve received a number of books and book recommendations from friends during the pandemic. Between these recommendations and the recent “top ten” lists coming out, I’ve decided to highlight a book each week, together with an insight or two that I gleaned from that book. Here goes…
JFK AND HIS TIMES
I just finished reading JFK; Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, by Fredrik Logevall. It is a gift from Jon Berger (thanks!). This book, the first of two volumes, covers JFK’s life through the second Stevenson nomination in 1956. It is fantastic.
This biography is not just a biography of Kennedy. The first third of the book covers the story of Joe Kennedy, his overcoming his modest Catholic roots in an anti-Catholic environment, his reach into the halls of power, and his ill-fated Ambassadorship to the Court of St. James’s in pre-war and wartime Britain. It is telling to read the story of this fabled family and their comings and goings from London to New England, and how their lives and opinions were shaped and reshaped by events, including the coming war.
The second third of the book deals with the war years and the Kennedy boys’ obsession with being heroes (in reaction to the perceived “cowardice” of their father, in part the result of his position on appeasement), ultimately resulting in Jack’s PT boat disaster and rescue and Joe’s reckless (and unnecessary) air exploits that resulted in his death. Only the last third is about Jack’s political life, his many medical maladies (including two instances when a priest was brought in for last rites), and his dating exploits and marriage to Jackie. The final portion of the book is filled with interesting anecdotes about the rough-and-tumble of Boston politics in the late 1940s and the 1950s and Kennedy’s first forays into national politics.
THE YOUNG KENNEDY
I had always read of Kennedy, the young president of a country at the pinnacle of its influence, poised at the cusp of the space age, a vibrant culture, and a vast middle class—a time of great hope and limitless possibilities. I also had read of Ambassador Kennedy and his commitment to seeing one of his boys as president, tragically losing the eldest son, who was the anointed one, then turning to JFK (although this biography persuasively claims Jack was the better choice, more suited, and not as influenced by his father).
I’d never really focused on the story of the young Jack Kennedy, before he was well known—the rich scion of a recently wealthy family with deep roots in Boston politics. This book conveys his college days, his experiences, and, most importantly the evolution of his thinking. He was something of a goofball in college, pursuing the “gentleman’s C” and having a grand old time. But something changed when he started writing his senior thesis, about the struggle of the U.K. to emerge from its isolationism in the face of the rise of Hitler.
In his paper, ultimately becoming the basis for Why England Slept, Kennedy doesn’t take Baldwin, Chamberlain and the isolationists to task over the general reluctance to rearm or to acknowledge the existential danger the Nazis posed. Instead, he sees the British government as in large measure responding to public sentiment and seeking to avoid a conflict like World War I. He saw moving the populace to embrace the coming tide of war to require patience and preparation. While this has become a generally accepted point of view, Kennedy was one of the first who espoused it. In one of his notable observations, here is a young Kennedy discussing Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain’s predecessor:
“…[Baldwin] was trying to show…the impossibility of having gotten support for any rearmament in the country due to the overwhelmingly pacifist sentiment of the country…”
THE PROBLEM WITH DEMOCRACY
Logevall notes a real challenge of a democracy’s response to a threat (in this case the growing Nazi threat):
“…Jack anticipated later struggles over how best to respond to totalitarian threats while upholding democratic governance and civil liberties...he maintained that dictatorships by their nature have an easier time than democracies do in mobilizing resources—the latter, he argued, invariably must spend valuable time and energy attempting to reconcile competing pririties and competing interpretations of the national interest. Whereas citizens in totalitarian societies can be instructed on what to do, those in free societies must be won over, and that doesn’t always happen quickly.”
This observation seems so obvious today, in a world where many of our fellow citizens can’t seem to accept the “inconvenient truths” associated with changing behaviors in the pandemic or dealing with the realities of climate change and where America is slow to respond to the threats—geopolitical and economic—posed by China.
There are many other nuggets in this book, particularly in seeing Joe, Jr. solidifying his commitment to the isolation expounded by Lindbergh and Joe, Sr., while Jack slowly evolves toward a more global, nuanced, idealistic response to the Nazi threat.
THIS AMERICAN LIFE
For those who love Ira Glass and This American Life on NPR, here are seven of his favorite episodes, from this week’s New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/24/podcasts/this-american-life-thanksgiving.html?referringSource=articleShare
IT WASN’T EVEN CLOSE
A postscript to the shameless debacle of challenging the election, as noted by NBC, is that this election wasn’t even close. Sure lots of folks voted for Trump—but more voted for Biden—some six million more.
And the percentage spread is 4%, at 51% to 47%. This is the second largest popular vote margin of this century’s elections (Barack Obama bested John McCain by 7% in 2008).