Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Presidency, Obama-mania and more in the Book Reviews

The presidency, along with various forms of Obama-mania, headline the book pages this weekend. For an historic example, FDR, rather than Lincoln, is the focus, with reviews of NOTHING TO FEAR: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America by Adam Cohen, and FDR V. THE CONSTITUTION: The Court-Packing Fight and the Triumph of Democracy by Burt Solomon, taken up by David Greenberg in the New York Times. On Cohen's book, Greenberg writes:

Publishing a book so soon after two ­other fine introductions to the same topic — one by the journalist Jonathan Alter, one by the historian Anthony Badger — creates an obvious challenge. But “Nothing to Fear” meets it. Cohen covers a shorter time-span than Alter, who delves into the 1932 campaign and transition, and he cedes to Badger the task of in-depth economic analysis. And if Cohen doesn’t stake out a new position in the old debate about whether Roosevelt’s agenda was radical, liberal or conservative, neither do the ­others. All three hail the pragmatic but heroic Roosevelt, with sensible qualifications.

Cohen breaks from the pack with his disciplined focus on the spate of legislation that Roosevelt pushed through Congress after his inauguration — 15 major laws, from banking reform and securities regulation to industrial production codes and relief for the destitute.
While seeing value in Cohen's focused history, Greenberg notes that "a wider historical lens would also reveal that the public’s appetite for executive power had firm limits." These limits appear in Solomon's book, a

new account of Roosevelt’s failed 1937 gambit to expand the Supreme Court with friendly justices, the specter of Roosevelt as dictator returns. Though Solomon’s title is more shrill than his actual argument...the book nonetheless flattens some complexities of the story. It sometimes reads like a morality tale pitting a hubristic president, fresh off a landslide re-election, against a devoutly principled nemesis in Burton Wheeler, a crusading Montana progressive.
Cohen also gets a positive review from Eric Rauchway in the San Francisco Chronicle. Comparing FDR's transition with Obama's Eric Arnesan suggests in the Chicago Tribune that the first 100 days "serves as an apt reminder of the possibilities of dramatic reform in the face of crisis and the role of human actors in bringing it about."

Campaign reading leads off with Robert S. Boynton's New York Times review of THE BREAKTHROUGH: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama by Gwen Ifill. The book takes up four prominent African American politicians: Barack Obama, Newark mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama. According to Boynton, "Ifill rightly dismisses the notion that America has become a 'postracial' country, but acknowledges the insight of Obama’s adviser David Axelrod that 'the story of this race is that race didn’t play the decisive role that people thought it would.'" Ifill is also reviewed in the Washington Post.

Also with multiple reviews this weekend is KING'S DREAM by Eric J. Sundquist. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I have a Dream," speech "and all that surrounds it — background and consequences — are brought magnificently to life," writes Anthony Lewis for the New York Times. The book is also reviewed in the Boston Globe.

The Chicago Tribune takes up Obama-related children's books. But my favorite in the kids category is the forthcoming book Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country: A Collection of Kids’ Letters to President Obama, Jory John, ed., which includes this excerpt, which appeared in the New York Times, Jan. 15:

Dear President Obama,
Here is a list of the first 10 things you should do as president: 1. Fly to the White House in a helicopter. 2. Walk in. 3. Wipe feet. 4. Walk to the Oval Office. 5. Sit down in a chair. 6. Put hand-sanitizer on hands. 7. Enjoy moment. 8. Get up. 9. Get in car. 10. Go to the dog pound.
— Chandler Browne, age 12, Chicago
The Los Angeles Times has a special inaugural issue on art and politics. Ishmael Reed has an essay on Obama as a reader in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Barackabilia" is taken up in a new Obama coffee table book discussed in the Washington Post. More Obama books are discussed in the Philadelphia Inquirer.