Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Robert McNamara

July 13, 2009 Leave a comment


Robert McNamara died a week ago today. He left the Department of Defense on my 16th birthday, having stopped believing in the US mission in Vietnam long before that, but never speaking out publicly against it. His failure to alter the course he was largely responsible for setting was high in his list of sins.

Perhaps because of my age, I have focused more over the years on Kissinger’s Vietnam sins than McNamara’s, though of course without McNamara (and Johnson and Bundy), there would be no Kissinger. Nonetheless, Kissinger was the architect of war strategy when I went off to college in 1969 and when I registered for the draft in 1970, so he’s the one whose sins I have carried with me for decades.

On a side note, I didn’t have a birthday in 1970. This led me to imagine that maybe I wouldn’t turn 18, thereby being free from registering. But I decided the government wouldn’t see it that way. I also had a related hope, a year and a half later, when the draft lottery for my birth year was held in August 1971, that they might leave out February 29. They didn’t. (On the other hand, the date drew number 305, so I had nothing to complain about.)

As for McNamara, Errol Morris had a blog post about him in the NYT last Tuesday. Morris, of course, made the 2004 documentary Fog of War, drawn from Morris’s interviews of McNamara. Here’s an excerpt from his post:
Read more…

Categories: Biography, History, Politics

Bill Russell

July 6, 2009 1 comment


I read Bill Russell’s new book Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend (written with Alan Steinberg) last Thursday. A pleasant little book, though extremely repetitious. I bought it for Joel for his birthday 10 days ago, knowing he might not be too keen to read about the Boston Celtics, but thinking he might enjoy the historical perspective it would provide on basketball in the 1950s and 1960s. He went back to Boston a week ago and the book stayed here. When I was in the midst of some project in the basement bedroom Thursday afternoon, I saw it sitting around, so I began to read the Prologue. A few hours later, I had finished the book.

Bill Russell is one of the giants of sport whom I always regret that I came to appreciate too late. Like a number of other figures of that era, he was still at the height of his powers when I began to follow the given sport, but I was too focused in those early years of fandom on rooting for my own team to enjoy the greatness of players on other teams. And none in basketball was greater than Russell. Only in his final two years as player (and coach), when the Celtics yet again won the NBA title, did I begin to understand that there might be something special about him. I eventually got to place him in proper perspective: the NCAA championships for the University of San Francisco in 1955 and 1956, the Olympic gold medal in 1956, then the NBA championship in his first season as a Celtic, in 1957, followed by eight in a row from 1959 to 1966, the break in 1967 when that great 76er team of Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, and Billy Cunningham won, and then the final two championships. A record unrivaled by anyone in any other major team sport. And the Celtics won all those championships because Russell re-defined the game, in partnership with his coach Red Auerbach, putting defense and quickness at its heart.

Well, you can read about it in the book, though without much detail. It’s mostly a collection of anecdotes about Russell’s relationship with Auerbach alternating with repetitious philosophizing about what true friendship is. I enjoyed it. In part, I enjoyed getting a fuller picture of two men I used to view as enemies. But Joel’s comment when I told him I had read it struck me as on target. He had in fact started it before he returned to Boston, but decided it was written for nine-year-olds.

For more thoughts, see Bill Bradley’s review in the New York Times last month.

Categories: Biography, Books, Sports

David Herbert Donald

May 20, 2009 Leave a comment


I was sad to learn this afternoon of the death of the historian David Herbert Donald. I saw an obituary at the NYT website. I have read only one of his books, but it’s a masterpiece of biography. Simply titled Lincoln, it is, yes a biography of Abraham Lincoln. The obituary mentions “that the historian Eric Foner, speaking on National Public Radio in February, put [it] at the top of the long list of Lincoln biographies.”

I read it shortly after it came out. What I’ve always remembered is how, as the book went on, the sense that I was reading about a different time disappeared, page by page, until I was immersed in the world of Lincoln. I could hardly bear to read the final few pages. I knew how it would end, but I hoped for the best. And in the last two pages, I felt I was there, beside Lincoln in the Peterson house as he died. Great book. Great story.

We visited Ford’s Theatre and the Peterson house one morning in August 1996, during our brief stay in DC as part of our cross-country train trip. (Seattle to Chicago to DC to Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York.) Both are part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. It was a pretty full day, and a hot and humid one, during which we also toured the White House, headed up to Baltimore, and watched the Orioles play the Mariners at Camden Yards. The theatre just underwent a major renovation, re-opening on February 12 this year as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.

As for Mr. Donald, the obituary indicates that he was still working at 88, “on a study of John Quincy Adams, beginning with his defeat by Andrew Jackson in the presidential election of 1828.” When I was around 15, I read several of Thomas Wolfe’s novels. I’m thinking I should read Donald’s biography of him. It is described in the obituary as follows:

Mr. Donald won his second Pulitzer, in 1988, for “Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe” (1987). He had been infatuated by the novelist since adolescence, certain, he wrote, “that Thomas Wolfe had told my life story.” Cool reassessment forced him to admit that Wolfe “wrote more bad prose than any other writer I can think of,” but drawing on a mass of letters, diaries and manuscripts, he developed a compelling portrait of Wolfe as an idiosyncratic genius consumed with his self-imposed mission to become “the bard of America,” in Mr. Donald’s phrase.

Categories: Biography, History