Read Lately: “Personal History”

This Memorial Day (in New York City, at least) was one of my favorite kinds of days: A day off, but not one where it’s warm and sunny and I’m filled with guilt about not being outside. It’s cloudy, a little rainy, and I’m sitting on my bed in a mood to write about nothing in particular.

Right now my mind is on Rome. I’ll be there in a week and I’m ready. Well, ready in the sense that I have planned a lot of outfits, acquired lots of miscellaneous toiletry items, and formed a basic outline of what to do each day. But the fact that I’ll actually be walking around Rome in a week hasn’t quite sunk in.

I’m going with my roommate, and my sister will fly down from Germany to meet us. The three of us tackled Munich, Salzburg, and Prague last summer, and while that was a great trip, I’m excited to keep our travels to a tighter range this year; after Rome, we’re just going down to the Amalfi coast. Most of my prep so far has concentrated on Rome, and I’ve been poring over Rick Steves’ Italy guide (if this trip is anything like last year’s, Rick will essentially be our fourth travel companion; we took his book everywhere and had a lot of “well, what does Rick say we should do?” moments). Also consulted: This post from one of my favorite bloggers, and this Conde Nast Traveler article.

In preparation for this trip, though, I had one major task: Finish a book I’d been reading for way too long (it would have been embarrassing to take it on another plane ride). Last weekend, I finally wrapped up Katharine Graham’s memoir, Personal History. It’s a tremendous book, so filled with detail and vulnerability. The specificity with which she remembered events that were 60 or almost 70 years in the past is impressive. I’ll admit there were times it felt like a slog (a section about the Washington Post’s battle with striking press operators made me feel like I was re-reading A People’s History of the United States). But I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat, because I learned a lot from the way she shared a thoughtful lesson from every experience in life, whether it was her privileged upbringing, the deep personal tragedy of her husband’s suicide, or her learn-as-you-go experience as publisher of the Post.

A few favorite moments, or interesting ideas the book presented to me:

  • Katharine Graham was born in 1917, and was a pioneer as far as women in the publishing world. She talks at length about issues related to this, and openly discusses how she and other women at the Post endured sexism in big and small ways (I remember her talking about how Meg Greenfield, a leader on the Post’s editorial page, was treated with great respect in many senses by her male counterpart, in that he valued her ideas, but she was still the one expected to type up notes from their meetings). But she also talks a lot about how, despite being an industry pioneer, she still came of age in an era where it was ingrained in women that they couldn’t do what men did. And she had a hard time overcoming that. She spent nearly an entire chapter talking about how she came to understand what “feminism” really meant – Gloria Steinem helped educate her – and admitting she didn’t do enough to support female talent at Newsweek, overlooking researchers (a traditionally female role) and not promoting them to bigger writing jobs. One such overlooked researcher? Nora Ephron.

 

  • One thought I kept having: Katharine Graham ruled in a journalism era largely untouched by the pressures of the internet, and she died almost a decade before social media precipitated so much change in media. She always seemed able to look back and honestly assess how she and the Post handled various changes in technology and various unstable times in the country’s history, and I kept thinking about how she would have handled all the issues that would have come up today – yes, the internet, but also Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones. She talked about getting a call from Ben Bradlee on the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, discussing whether they should call a print circulation manager and literally stop the presses. What would she have thought about her paper, purchased by her father in 1933, being sold in 2013 to a man whose other company delivers stuff you buy on the internet to your door in two days?

 

  • Watergate is the reason I knew who Katharine Graham was in the first place, so I was excited to read her perspective on the scandal. I don’t want to say I was disappointed in her Watergate chapters, but they weren’t quite as illuminating as I thought, in large part because Mrs. Graham wasn’t making day-to-day reporting and editing decisions the way someone like Ben Bradlee was. She didn’t really have juicy tidbits about how the story was chased. But, her telling of Watergate gave great insight into Bradlee’s personality and working style, and she shared a few choice anecdotes that are especially satisfying for people with at least a working knowledge of the Watergate tale. My favorite: One of Woodward and Bernstein’s biggest breaks came in the fall of 1972, when they printed that John Mitchell had controlled payments from the Nixon re-election committee slush fund while he had been Attorney General. Famously, when Bernstein called Mitchell to tell him about the story, Mitchell threatened that Graham would “get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” Later, a dentist from California fashioned a tiny wringer out of the gold used to fill teeth, and sent it to her. Someone at the paper made a tiny gold breast to go with it, and she sometimes wore them together on a chain around her neck.

I learned a lot from Personal History. There was something alluring about Katharine Graham’s proximity to so many powerful people, her front-row seat to Washington society and practically all the important political events of the second half of the 20th century. She seemed to be unlike anyone else I’d encountered, in real life or in a book, and I enjoyed getting to know her through this work.

For vacation, I have a couple titles ready to go: Senator Ben Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult, and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m notorious for biting off more than I can chew, reading-wise, on trips, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll report back.

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Recently Read: “Watergate”

The book: Watergate, by Thomas Mallon (2012)

The reason I bought Watergate? I judged the book by its cover. Earlier this year, I was killing time in a Barnes and Noble and noticed it in a “New Paperbacks” section – the cover immediately caught my attention for its bareness, its simplicity, and for the fact that it was about Watergate, the scandal that has long held a strange fascination for me. After spending a couple months jostling amidst gum-covered quarters and cap-less pens in my purse, my copy is no longer in good shape, but just look how visually appealing this cover is:

watergate cover

Watergate is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. It is technically a historical novel, but not in the way I’d originally understood the term. It isn’t fictional events presented in the context of a true historical event; it is true events, presented as fiction. At times, I forgot I was even dealing with history. I became so engrossed in the characters and their lives as they played out in Thomas Mallon’s invented Watergate world that I forgot it wasn’t actually the world in which they happened.

My biggest complaint about Watergate is that it was too long. I’m not brimming with suggestions for what could be cut out, but for me, it dragged in parts of its 429 pages. Some sub-plots seemed designed to distract from Nixon’s inevitable resignation. I still enjoyed it, though, even if it was less for the story itself and more for the way it forced me to rethink the way I think about novels – is that meta enough for you?

I figured there was enough out there – enough imaginary characters, enough true stories that have gone untold – that an author would find it unnecessary to reinvent an already exhausted wheel. We already know how Richard Nixon’s story ends, so why bring it up again and twist things around? I’m not sure Watergate helped me answer that question, but I like that it forced me to ask it in the first place.

Despite my complaints about its length, it wasn’t just the novel’s structure that kept me engrossed. It was also how Mallon wrote. His descriptions of characters’ physical movements and inner thoughts allowed me to visualize every part of a scene.

Other assorted Watergate tidbits, from characters to themes and turns of phrase:

  • This book made me realize how much of my fascination with the scandal was tied to the journalism. Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee & Co. were barely mentioned in this book – but they were my Watergate heroes, not Sam Ervin and Elliot Richardson! At first, I kept waiting for a juicy scene to take place in the Washington Post newsroom. Once I realized that would never happen, I learned to look at Watergate from another angle: The scandal was a product of Richard Nixon’s own ineptitude, not of Woodward and Bernstein’s heroics.
  • In Mallon’s Watergate world, the men are insecure fraidy cats who just so happen to be in power because they’re men; you get the sense it’s the women who could have really run the show, if only the pathetic men weren’t holding them back. Pat Nixon especially is very careful in her considerations and calculations during the scandal – and she never says it outright, but Mallon makes it pretty clear she’s smarter than her husband. Pat wound up being my favorite character. Her feelings seemed the most developed. She wasn’t a dynamic character in the context of this book, but she’s portrayed as being quite different from the smiling lady on Nixon’s arm she may have seemed during the 70s (I honestly don’t know much about how Pat Nixon was perceived during her tenure in the White House, but I got the feeling that Watergate made her out to be the rebel she was not in real life.) She’s smart, understands all facets of the issue, and…gasp! has a lover. (I know. It sounds soapy. But that sub-plot really works.)
  • Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, is a prominent figure in this story. I’m still not sure I totally connect the dots with Alice and the other characters (a review from Slate helped me understand Alice’s place, though, when it discussed the way this novel sheds light on those at the scandal’s periphery rather than on its major players), but her sharp tongue provided some of my favorite lines in the book. “It will be an intense pleasure to lie to the Washington Post,” she tells Nixon on the night of his resignation, offering to decry his use of a quote from her father that she suggested he use in the first place. “That’s one more thing you and I share.”

I made many more notes on phrases I particularly liked, minor themes I noticed and more, but I won’t dissect them all here. Overall, though I felt lost in the sea of characters and sub-plots at times, I’d definitely recommend the book to someone who has a degree of familiarity with the scandal and wants to look at it – and storytelling in general – through a new lens.

Related P.S.: Watergate was in the spotlight last week with CNN Films’ Our Nixon, a documentary composed of Super 8 movie footage H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin filmed during their time in the White House. Like Watergate the novel, it provides a new look into the Nixon White House and the Watergate scandal. The whole time I watched, I kept thinking of  the Newsweek blurb on Watergate’s front cover, describing how the book portrayed Nixon as “comical, pitiable, tragic.” That’s how these home movies make him look, too. The videos and their revelations about Nixon as a person and administrator are depressing and mystifying. I’m not sure if CNN plans on releasing or re-airing the program, but it’s worth a watch.

Recently Read: “Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee”

It was Christmastime when I noticed Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee sitting on a featured shelf of some kind at Barnes & Noble. At the time, I had other books in the queue, but being fascinated with Watergate and the film All the President’s Men, I took a picture of the cover and made a mental note to read it later. When I found a hardcover copy at the Strand for $10 in late January, I decided I had to go for it.

yoursintruth-bookGlad I did. I loved this book, for what I learned about Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post from 1968 to 1991 and the man who oversaw much of its Watergate coverage. Loved it for what I learned about Woodward and Bernstein. For the way author Jeff Himmelman was open and honest about his relationship with his subjects (particularly Bradlee and Woodward). Loved it for the way photos, newspaper clippings and Bradlee memos were sprinkled throughout the text.

My knowledge of Ben Bradlee is limited to what I know from Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in the film All the President’s Men, and from some comment Tony Kornheiser once made on his D.C. radio show about Ben being his personal standard for journalism (or something like that. Wish I had cared at the time to write down exactly what he said). Jeff Himmelman made Ben Bradlee come so alive for me that I no longer pictured Jason Robards in my head when reading about Ben. I better understand him as a person, reporter, presidential confidante, socialite, husband, manager and editor.

Even though I now picture Ben Bradlee beyond the way he’s portrayed in film, having that background appreciation for All the President’s Men helped me love Yours in Truth. Himmelman talks a lot about Robards as Bradlee. On page 178, he describes Robards playing a scene in which Ben has to call a White House communications director and smooth out a situation with one of his reporters. Ben has the upper hand. “It’s a great scene in the movie,” Himmelman began. “One that Robards plays with raised-eyebrow perfection.” I cracked a huge smile because I knew exactly what he was talking about. It’s my favorite scene in the movie by a mile. (Apparently, this clip does not exist on YouTube. Rent the movie just for this scene. It’s perfect.)

Aside from getting to know Ben Bradlee, I loved this book because of Himmelman’s commitment to uncovering all the details. This was especially evident in his mission to understand Watergate as completely as possible. When you’re Bob Woodward’s former research assistant and you’re writing about Ben Bradlee, Watergate’s going to come up… a lot. He couldn’t shortchange himself or his future readers with a half-baked understanding of the journalistic episode most central to Ben Bradlee’s career:

In February of 2011, I realized that in order to write believably about Watergate I was going to have to understand the story in a way that I hadn’t up until then. I was going to have to spend as long as it took to read every single one of the newspaper stories and all of the relevant books. In order to know what I had, and what to say about Ben’s role in all of it, I couldn’t just focus on the major episodes that everybody has written about a thousand times.

The research shows. It gave him new insight into the scandal, even if it ended up backfiring in a way. In his meticulous process, he uncovered an unsent memo of Ben’s, in which Bradlee admitted some lingering doubt about the truth of Watergate and Deep Throat’s information, and basically led to Ben and Bob Woodward turning on him after the book’s publication. I’m sure my appreciation for his research commitment is no consolation, but Himmelman’s relentless study of Watergate inspired me to grasp any subject I tackle, even if it’s just a hobby, with the same depth.

An assortment of other favorite parts, lines and anecdotes:

  • I’m a big fan of Pardon the Interruption on ESPN, which features former Post sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (Kornheiser’s daily talk show on the D.C. ESPN radio affiliate is also fantastic), and knowing that they interacted with and respected Bradlee made him seem more real to me. There’s a Wilbon anecdote in the first chapter, but more Kornheiser stuff throughout, including a quote that Himmelman places in a section of memos and thoughts about Ben. Anyone who has ever heard Tony Kornheiser speak can hear in his or her mind exactly how Kornheiser would say this (p. 418):

Tony Kornheiser, June 22, 2011:
I cannot describe to you what I felt, and I’m sure that so many, many others felt, when he walked among us. Ben could have been a king. Ben in that newsroom was King Arthur. I mean, he was.

  • And, as a proud owner of two books that are collections of Kornheiser’s columns for the Post‘s Style section, I enjoyed learning how the section came to be, and that it pioneered the living/lifestyle (from which Style takes its name) section format now used across the nation.
  • There are a couple references, including one in an introductory quote, to a book Ben started but never actually wrote, which would have been called How to Read a Newspaper. Oh, how I wish that book actually existed.
  • A favorite Ben story: In reaction to Bob Woodward’s comments during a TV interview in 1984, in which he said he’d heard an estimate that roughly forty Post employees regularly used cocaine, Ben sent out a statement that cocaine was illegal and anyone found using it would be fired. “Later that afternoon,” Himmelman describes, “a reporter in the Magazine section of the paper remembers Ben making his way across the newsroom, pointing at various reporters as he went, shouting, “Thirty-seven! Thirty-eight! Thirty-nine!” (p. 439)
  • One last favorite Ben story: Longtime Post reporter Larry Stern died unexpectedly in 1979, and there was a reception at the Post office after his funeral. Ben was so upset and at a loss for words over Stern’s death that he threw his champagne glass at a brick wall outside (they were standing in an outdoor courtyard). Everyone around him followed suit, and Ben framed the bill from the catering company for all the broken glasses, hanging it in the newsroom next to a picture of Larry (p. 449-450).

There was so much more to this book than Watergate and little anecdotes from Ben’s life. It chronicled Ben’s path to becoming executive editor, his personal life, his close relationship with JFK, the Pentagon Papers ordeal, how he worked with Katharine Graham, the Janet Cooke scandal, his strengths and weaknesses as a manager, and more. I recommend it to anyone interested in journalism or the Watergate scandal, or to anyone who wants to get to know a fascinating person.

Book image: JeffHimmelman.com

Recently Read: “Team of Rivals” and “The Art of Fielding”

In college, I did a really terrible job of reading for pleasure. After poring over tons of books and articles for class, reading more books didn’t seem like an appetizing way to spend my free time. I read plenty of magazine and news articles, but read very little in the way of actual, honest-to-God books. I did alright during summers, but after graduation, I decided it was time to step up my game, book-wise.

Now, books are an escape, not a chore. While I’m trying to make up for lost time and read as many as I can, I don’t want everything to go in one ear (eye?) and out the other, so I’m writing little “debriefs” for everything I read this year.

I’ve finished two books so far in 2013 (though the vast majority of the first was read in 2012), and here’s what they taught me.

Book One: Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I blogged a little about this book as I was reading it, and now that I’m through, I wish I was taking some class that required me to write a whole research paper on it. As terrible of a student as this will make me sound, I took more notes on this book than I did on a lot of books I read in college. Reading it without an assignment hanging over me, I was able to take it at my own pace and soak it in as a whole, rather than thinking about bits and pieces that might somehow fit into a paper.

It is a tremendous work: 754 dense pages about Abraham Lincoln, his four primary rivals in the race for the 1860 Republican nomination for president, his cabinet once he did become president, and how he worked with and maneuvered around all those people to lead the United States through the Civil War.

Throughout the book, I found three elements of Lincoln’s personality and character most fascinating: Lincoln as storyteller, Lincoln as a PR man and people manager, and Lincoln as a man obsessed with the way in which he was perceived. (I suppose those are the main points of that book report I’m not required to write.)

First, Lincoln as storyteller: I wrote about this a couple months ago, when I had just started the book, but if you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, whose screenplay is based on Team of Rivals, you probably laughed out loud at the story Lincoln tells about Ethan Allen seeing a portrait of George Washington hung in an outhouse. I know that story doesn’t make sense out of context for people who have not seen the film or read the book, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ timing and delivery of the story provided me with one of my favorite moments in any movie. Team of Rivals is full of references to Lincoln’s gift for storytelling, molded when he was a boy as he listened to his father tell stories to travelers and pioneers who spent the night in their Kentucky home.

Then, Lincoln as a PR master. Honestly, the man was a public relations genius, especially when it came to the internal PR he had to conduct in order to keep all his cabinet members, friends, constituents and military leaders happy.

In my eyes, though, his greatest PR gift was his ability gauge public sentiment, and wait until it was on his side before making proclamations or taking certain actions.

“Lincoln understood that the greatest challenge for a leader in a democratic society is to educate public opinion,” Goodwin wrote. She then shared what might be my favorite Lincoln quote from the entire book: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions (p. 206).” (The bold and Italic emphasis is mine. That quote completely blows my mind because it holds true in every era, and so perfectly embodies Lincoln’s strategy for waiting until the public was willing to accept something before he acted on it.)

This sensitivity to public sentiment was never clearer than when Lincoln was preparing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He waited until the North was ready to fight for the abolishment of slavery – not just for the preservation of the Union (p. 502). The same went for his proposition to let blacks enlist; he waited until public opinion was strong enough on his side, and likened the situation to a man waiting for pears to ripen. “A man watches his pear-tree, day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at length falls into his lap (p. 502)!” He would act when the public was ready to willingly support his decisions, and not a moment sooner, avoiding personal embarrassment, and, worse, the failure of key measures like the Emancipation Proclamation that helped facilitate the war’s end.

Finally, Lincoln and perception. As a young man, Lincoln took very little comfort in the idea of heaven or an afterlife as something to live for; in his eyes, this life was all he had, and he was obsessed with doing something great that would cause him to be remembered and celebrated in future generations. “Like the ancient Greeks,” Goodwin wrote, “Lincoln seemed to believe that ‘ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him'” (p. 100 of Team of Rivals, quoting William G. Thalmann’s The Odyssey: An Epic of Return).

After he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he recalled suffering depression two decades earlier, and remembered thinking at the time that the only thing keeping him from wanting to die was knowing he had done nothing “to make any human being remember that he had lived (p. 501).” With the passage of the Proclamation, he believed his “fondest hopes [eternal remembrance in history] will be realized (p. 501).”

I have dozens of other Post-it Notes and highlighted paragraphs littering my copy of Team of Rivals, but those were the three elements of the book and Lincoln’s life that stuck to me. If you have any interest in American history, or just want to read a thoughtful, well-researched book, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Book Two: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

It seems like this book was on everyone’s “Best of 2011” list, so I’m behind the curve, but I did read most of this during Christmas break of 2011 before abandoning it once classes picked up again. I must have read more than I remember, because I was probably three-quarters of the way through before I started hitting material I hadn’t already seen.

I don’t think I liked it as much as I thought I would (or should) – I started out loving it, hated it (or at least found it a little tiresome) in the late-middle, but felt satisfied with the ending. Maybe that makes no sense, but hey, I’m not a professional book reviewer.

Even if I didn’t like what some of the characters did at times (a large chunk of it just wore me out, because all five main characters more or less hit rock bottom at the same time; turn the page, another character makes a bad decision and starts some long journey back to reality), I loved the way they were developed. Each main character had a rich backstory that was described upfront and used as the foundation for his or her actions throughout the book.

There were a lot of moving parts that all came together in the end, which was what I loved most about this book. My copy included a “Reading Group Guide” in the back, which featured a Q&A with the author. He likened weaving five stories together and leading them to a satisfying conclusion to completing “a humongous math problem.” Borrowing that analogy, finishing The Art of Fielding was like solving a complicated algebra problem, then checking your answer in the back of the book to find you actually did it right.

On top of it all, Chad Harbach is a gifted writer. The book is smooth. His characters talk and think like normal people talk and think, and he describes their actions in a way that allows you to picture how they are moving. If I ever write a debut novel someday, I’d hope it’s as well-written as Chad Harbach’s.

Book Three

Book Three of 2013 is Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, by Jeff Himmelman. Most of what I know about Ben Bradlee is shaped by Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in All the President’s Men, but I’m about a third of the way through this book, and already my perspective has shifted dramatically. Bradlee seems to be the personality of all personalities, and it’s a pleasure getting to know him. More to come.