Tag Archives: FDR

Review: ‘The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office’

King Trump Confronts American Presidents. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

If someone could use an employee manual, it would certainly be the current occupant to the highest post in the land. Jeremi Suri’s new book guides us through what has become of the American presidency, from its development to its inevitable decline. If Donald Trump were to read it, “The Impossible Presidency” would provide much food for thought.

Suri’s prose has an inviting conversational tone that lifts the reader up. His main argument is that, after a long period of expansion, the job is now collapsing in upon itself. For the first part of the book, we read about the presidents who transformed the office: Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts. The second part of the book follows the fall: JFK and LBJ; Reagan; Clinton and Obama. FDR was the last president to fundamentally remake the job and save the country, and the world, in the process. No one else is going to top that. Furthermore, the job has become so complex that no one person, according to Suri, can ever hope to juggle all the responsibility. Spoiler alert: Suri advocates for a two-person job with a president and a prime minister. Of course, we’ve already established a partnership between president and vice-president since Carter. But that may not be enough.

It is Donald Trump who so neatly underscores Suri’s thesis about the decline of the job that he cannot help but cast a long shadow over the whole book. Suri uses contemporary politico lingo currently associated with Trump. Suri describes past presidents as responding to their “base” and “doubling down” on important issues. More to the point, Suri provides numerous highly relevant examples of how presidents have appealed to the male white voter. This is a fact that each president has wrestled with from the very beginning.

THE IMPOSSIBLE PRESIDENCY by Jeremi Suri

In a work full of evocative and highly informative passages, what Suri does with FDR stands out. Suri weaves a series of recollections by Saul Bellow as a Depression era youth who is galvanized by the reassurances of FDR, the man on the radio, with the funny posh accent, that everyone intently listened to. In the case of FDR, his word was as good as gold. When FDR ordered an increase in the money supply, he answered any criticism over its legitimacy by stating, “How do I know that’s any good? The fact that I think it is, makes it good.” As Suri points out, that kind of common sense meant everything to a struggling boy like Saul Bellow. It was real words backed up by real action.

In a very accessible and compelling style, Suri guides the reader in distinguishing the most consequential American presidents. In this excerpt, you get a taste of Suri’s writing as he compares Lincoln to FDR:

“If Lincoln was the nineteenth-century president, Roosevelt was the twentieth-century American leader.

Lincoln’s presidency anticipated Roosevelt’s. The latter had to contend with the collapse of the American (and world) economy, but they both spent much of their presidencies at war. In retrospect, Roosevelt’s ability to respond creatively to the Great Depression and echo Lincoln’s war performance is truly exceptional. No other president faced the same range of existential challenges. As a consequence, no other president had so many opportunities to change the basic structure of American society, and vast sections of the modern world. Roosevelt turned the darkest of times into the brightest of new hopes. He was not only the first welfare president, but, by 1944, the first global president, influencing more parts of the world than any previous American executive. He pioneered the New Deal and then globalized its reach.”

No less heroic is the way that JFK navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis. In sharp contrast to FDR’s time, Suri points out, the job of president had become so compartmentalized that, even at the height of the crisis, JFK was hamstrung with a schedule crammed with activities of little to no real significance. The office had taken on such a life of its own that it was assumed the president would simply pick how his advisors wanted to strike at Cuba not whether to discuss other options. Of course, we know JFK found another option. But, in the case of Vietnam, the system forced his hand. For LBJ, it was more of the same: another president distracted as well as compelled to great action.

Suri states that gradual and incremental progress is the new template fashioned by Clinton and Obama. But, Suri goes on to say, a sense for bold action must not be lost. For Clinton, it was not responding to the genocide in Rwanda. For Obama, it was not responding to ISIS as the threat emerged. In both cases, each president was conscious of the risk of overextending and held back when they should have acted. As for Trump, Suri seems to see him as more of a warning that we’ve hit rock bottom and now we must plan for what lies ahead. This is an essential book for putting our current state of affairs into proper historical context.

How Much More of King Trump? Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

The focus of this book is to show how the modern American presidency has evolved into a colossal apparatus. In turn, the role of a modern American president has become virtually unmanageable, too demanding for just one person. Or has it–or is that the crucial problem? To be sure, it is a problem but solving it won’t resolve other government dysfunction. Suri does not delve into what his proposed solution would gain. A team of president and prime minister, as he suggests, would still be at the mercy of a corrupt and compromised Congress. But one step at a time. A post-Trump America, in and of itself, will be a step in the right direction. More and more Americans, even loyal Trump supporters, are coming to see that something is fundamentally wrong with our current chief executive, his election, his entire administration. One American president who Suri does not cover is President Jimmy Carter. Here is a president who valued integrity and did quite a lot of good while in office. Look it up and you’ll see. This book is just the type that inspires you to keep looking up in more ways than one.

“The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office” is a 368-page hardcover published by Basic Books. You can order this book from Amazon by clicking the image below:

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Filed under American History, Book Reviews, Donald Trump, Editorial Cartoons, History, Political Cartoons, politics

Review: THE NEW DEAL by Jonathan Case

New-Deal-Jonathan-Case-2015

We begin Jonathan Case’s new graphic novel, “The New Deal,” in New York City, 1936. It’s the depths of the Great Depression. NYC is pretty darn cold in the winter, especially when money is so scarce. There’s a young guy, Frank O’Malley, and he’s pleading with passersby to consider buying a ticket to an avant-garde production of Macbeth. Tough sale especially when, just next to Frank is his Uncle Pack hawking apples for six cents each. A potential customer tries to haggle the price down by a penny but Uncle Pack won’t budge. Quickly, we move on as Frank races to his regular job as a bellman at the Waldorf Astoria. And with that Case has hooked you in as the plot thickens and we find Frank to be way over his head.

Pages from THE NEW DEAL

Pages from THE NEW DEAL

Case delivers a solid story built upon his character-driven script and his engaging drawing style. His sly sense of humor and intrigue works its way through every page. He has managed to create characters that feel real while inhabiting the hyperreal world of screwball comedies of the 1930s. We cannot help but be curious about the relationship between a Caucasian bellman, Frank O’Malley, and an African-American maid, Theresa Harris. In public, they keep at a distance and address each other by their surnames. In private, they are playful with each other but still hold back. What we do know is that they care about each other very much and the plot that unfolds will test them.

Dark-Horse-The-New-Deal-Case

This is an exceptionally well-paced and substantial story. It has one foot in the ’30s and the other in today’s sensibilities. This allows us to explore the relationship between Frank and Theresa and the inner world of Theresa with great subtlety. You learn to accept Frank who has to struggle with proving his trustworthiness. And you follow Theresa as she must navigate through the obstacles before her. The more complicated our story gets, the more Frank and Theresa are forced to face what it is that keeps attracting them to each other.

Make no mistake, this is a perfect blend of mystery, humor, and offbeat love story. If there’s any mention of FDR’s “New Deal,” it is only in passing. This is not a history lesson, at least not directly. That said, while you’ll learn a thing or two about swells and dolls and fancy hotels, you will also get a good sense of the cold realities of that era.

This is Jonathan Case’s best work yet. You may know him from his artwork for the critically-acclaimed graphic novel, “Green River Killer: A True Detective Story,” which I reviewed here. Or you may have caught his work for the DC Comics title, “Batman ’66.” You will definitely want to read “The New Deal,” a thoroughly entertaining and remarkable work.

THE NEW DEAL is a hardcover, published by Dark Horse Comics, available as of September 23. You can find it at all your favorite booksellers including through Jonathan’s website right here. As always, be sure to visit our friends at Dark Horse Comics right here.

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Filed under Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Hotels, Humor, Jonathan Case, mystery

EXTRA: HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

Bill Murray playing the role of FDR makes a lot of sense. We all think we know Bill Murray. He has that unique set of skills required to portray FDR, another person everyone felt familiar with. While “Hyde Park on Hudson” does not have the same scope and sense of awe you will find in “Lincoln,” it is just the sort of movie you can appreciate for its dry wit and charm. Here is an interview with the great man himself, Mr. Bill Murray, and a quick look on the set of the movie.

The central thing to consider is Bill Murray. He is someone we enjoy seeing perform. As this interview demonstrates, he is genuinely in tune with this film. He effortlessly sells you on it.

Hyde Park on Hudson Movie 2012

Then there is the controversy over the script. Did the screenplay by Richard Nelson go too far in its speculation over FDR and the women in his life? In the “hooking up” age we live in, maybe cranking up the speculation meter on what happened between FDR and his distant cousin, Daisy, rings more true, although this will offend some. It sure offended political writer (not entertainment writer) Melinda Henneberger at The Washington Post. For those too easily offended, the thing to remember is that this is a historical fiction so maybe an attitude adjustment is in order.

“Hyde Park on Hudson” is brought you by Focus Features. Visit them here and learn more about the film.

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9/11 Review: BEST OF ENEMIES

As we mark another anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, there is a new book out that helps to provide perspective on relations between the U.S. and the Middle East. It is a graphic novel that goes a long way in helping to explain how the pieces fit in the puzzle of geopolitics.

“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli…” The words to the United States Marine Corps hymn may sound obscure until you dig deeper. For our purposes, let’s consider the shores of Tripoli. This refers to the United States at war with the Barbary pirates. This is also the point of departure to an engaging and informative book on the relationship between America and the Middle East, the graphic novel, “Best of Enemies: A History of U.S. and Middle East Relations.” Take a look at the curious cover: FDR and the king of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, perched amid a tangle of oil pipeline. The ironic and determined tone is set and maintained throughout by two masters: historian Jean-Pierre Filiu and cartoonist David B. Many readers will be surprised, even shocked, by what they find here.

But before our history lesson on the pirates, we are treated to the mystical tale of Gilgamesh and his war with the gods. This dovetails into a big leap forward of 4,600 years with a quote from Donald Rumsfeld, circa 2003, straight out of a fairy tale but sadly part of the war in Iraq: “During a war, the kind of ‘evidence’ people are looking for usually doesn’t exist.”

With that in mind, we proceed to the first fumbling steps into another eerily similar war. A newly formed United States of America must confront the terrorists of its day. This would lead to America’s first military encounter on Muslim soil. It would take the new country on a wild ride, from paying tribute to full-on military engagement. The die had been cast. Way before there were any neo-cons, the idea was already alive that the power that ruled in the Middle East, would rule the world. It was in 1902 that American officer Alfred Mahan, a theorist of the projection of power, coined the term, “Middle East” and fostered the mindset that would come back to haunt us all.

It would not be until World War II that the ties that bind would become so apparent: oil. It would be a match made in heaven, so to speak, when the leader of the free world, President Franklin Roosevelt, no stranger to riches and splendor, was able to win over the Saudi family and its oil drenched country. Unfortunately, the thirst for oil is insatiable and not even the Saudis could satisfy it alone.

One of the big hits at the San Diego Comic-Con this year was an interactive digital graphic novel based on Operation Ajax, the covert operations conducted by the U.S. and the U.K. to topple the leader of Iran in 1953, all for the sake of oil. While this is not top secret news today, it can still shock. In this book, the coup of Mohammed Mossadegh, the legitimate leader of Iran, simply to secure oil rights, is handled thoroughly as part of a bigger picture. The machinations of intalling a most unlikely leader, the Shah of Iran, are fascinating. Here is someone Peter Sellars would have had a field day with portraying all his cowardice and ineptitude. But even stranger is the fact that FDR’s cousin, Kermit Roosevelt, is Ajax’s Operations Chief, and proves to be a most diabolical villain. Peter Sellars could have handled him quite nicely too.

The approach of the book is refreshing in how the U.S. is placed among all the other players of geopolitics. There is no shining beacon on a hill, per se, and that goes for everyone. There aren’t any real heroes here, except for Gilgamesh and Mossadegh. David B.’s drawings flow with the narrative, literally bending and twisting as needed. This style owes something to 18th and 19th century cartoonists, with their ornate and fluid line and word balloons that floated along like clouds of custard. David B. takes that style and makes it his own giving characters bendy knees, necks and torsos along with all manner of uninhibited ways to fill the panels. It’s a wonderful mix of political cartoonist sensibilities and fine artist sensibilities.

“Best of Enemies” is a two-volume work so we have even more sensitive material up ahead. What we seem to always forget is that misguided policies have very real consequences. Countries can misguide themselves and they can then misguide the public. One bit of misinformation breeds another and so on. We hopefully still have a chance if we’re armed with the facts.

“Best of Enemies” is part of Abrams ComicArts, a Self Made Hero imprint. This 120-page hardcover  is 24.95 U.S. Visit Abrams ComicArts.

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HYDE PARK ON HUDSON: Bill Murray as FDR

“HYDE PARK ON HUDSON” looks quite good. Bill Murray as FDR? Yes, it works fabulously. It takes a great deal of confidence and talent for Mr. Murray to pull it off given he doesn’t look at all like the 32nd president of the United States. Of course, it’s not an impersonation but an interpretation which is always much more captivating. Well, thank goodness for Mr. Murray’s good taste and sense of purpose. He would not be swayed by  the pleading from Dan  Aykroyd to co-star in “Ghostbusters 3” and we’re all the better for it. “Hyde Park on Hudson” comes out December 7, 2012.

A synopsis:

Producer/director Roger Michell teams with screenwriter Richard Nelson to adapt Nelson’s BBC radio play chronicling the extramarital affair between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and his distant cousin, Daisy (Laura Linney.) The affair comes to light during a royal visit from the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) to the Roosevelt’s upstate New York home in Hyde Park. As war engulfs Europe and the king seeks the support of the American president, President Roosevelt struggles to balance his domestic affairs with his international obligations as Commander-in-chief.

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