Monday, September 26, 2011

BOOKS -- 1861: Civil War Awakening

Recently the Delmarva Review asked me to write a few words about the new book by Adam Goodheart, that focuses on the opening months of the Civil War.  Here's what I came up with.  It's in their new issue, just out this week:  

1861:  The Civil War Awakening
By Adam Goodheart
460 pages
Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Review by Ken Ackerman

For Civil War buffs, these are salad days.  With the 150th marking of the Great Conflict just begun, we can expect a happy great flood of top-notch books marking every step in the War.  1861: The Civil War Awakening is a good one, a tasty appetizer to the coming feast. 

Adam Goodheart, journalist and New York Times Civil War blogger, gives us not the great battles to come, but an appealing, human scale introduction to the people and country preparing to fight them.   He tells his story through portraits and panoramas, from Fort Sumter with its outnumbered Union defenders, to the first slaves to taste freedom at Virginia’s Fortress Monroe, saved by the clever strategy of its commanding general, lawyer-politician Benjamin Butler, who cuts the legal knot by declaring them enemy “contraband.”   We follow Elmer Ellsworth, creator of the Zouaves regiment, an early version of today’s military Special Forces, and the New York Fireman who volunteer for his.   We meet future president James A. Garfield as a young school teacher bringing a deep idealistic intellect to framing the North’s will to fight.  And many more.

Then there is Abraham Lincoln.  Goodheart gives us a Lincoln still wrestling with unprecedented crises, maligned by all sides until he finally finds his own authentic voice that July.

Adam Goodheart is a fine writer and a pleasure to read.  You will appreciate the future volumes on Gettysburg, Antietam, and the rest much more from having first learned the terrain through the lens of this evocative book.  

Friday, September 23, 2011

MOVIES: Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover -- Looking good so far.

Leonardo DiCaprio as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
The new Clint Eastwood-directed bio-pic J. Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role as Hoover, the legendary autocrat who sat atop the FBI for five decades, released this week its official trailer/preview.  (To see it, click on the image at the bottom. The movie itself comes out in November.)  The trailer runs just two minutes, 29 seconds -- obviously too short to judge the entire film.  But having spent two years of my life getting to know Mr. Hoover while researching and writing my own book about him called Young J. Edgar, I must say I liked what I saw.  

Photo shows Hoover at about 22 years old.
J. Edgar Hoover casts a long shadow over modern America, and a good, truthful movie about him is long overdue.  Hoover was the most controversial law man  in 20th century America.  He served as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for an astonishing 48 years, holding the post under nine presidents from Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s to Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s.  Though considered a hero and role model most of his life, investigations after his 1972 death confirmed massive abuses of power, illegal wiretaps, bugs, break-ins, and secret files on hundreds of thousands of people which he used as blackmail against presidents and movie stars.   Hoover stands today as one of the most hated men in American history—a probably gay man who harassed gays, a possible descendant of an African American who harassed civil rights leaders, a top law enforcement official who placed himself above the law and ruined many peoples' lives, all making him something of a monster. 

But in truth, I found Hoover -- at least the younger one I wrote about in my book -- to be oddly sympathetic.   Hoover did not step into the world as an evil villain.  To a great extent, this side of him was shaped by events and forces that engulfed him during his lifetime, especially his younger formative years.  This is not to make excuses for Hoover's very long record on the dark side, but simply dismissing him as a cartoon villain and cross-dresser misses the deeper lessons.  

Hoover came to work at the Justice Department in 1917 as a eager, bright young man ready to impress his superiors and save the country.  Within four short years, he had risen to become deputy director of the Bureau of Investigation and had already played a lead role in the Palmer Raids, one of the most eggregious civil liberties abuses in US history.  This transformation -- from bright young man to hardened bureaucrat --fascinated me, especially since, to my eye, post-9/11 America seemed to be a period not unlike Hoover's own formative years during the 1919-1920 Red Scare.  It is a core theme of my own book Young J. Edgar, and, based on the trailer, it also seems to be at the heart of the new film.  

 I have been following the Eastwood-DiCaprio project for months through news reports and Washington gossip.  I was impressed early on by two things--

  • First, the writer, Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the screenplay for Milk (the movie about assassinated  San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk), reportedly spent several months in Washington while developing the script doing primary research at the National Archives and Library of Congress.  To understand J. Edgar Hoover, there is no substitute for seeing the FBI files.  They are simply stunning, a dazzling reflection of the man who created them.  They make endlessly fascinating reading and paint a stark portrait of absolute power breeding absolute corruption.
  • Second, when the movie crew came to Washington, D.C. last May, one place they filmed was at the Library of Congress, one of my own favorite research haunts.  I heard many stories from friends there about the movie crew and how they did their work: their eye for detail, making a point to show,  for instance, Hoover/DiCaprio's fascination with the Library's card catalogue.  The real-life Hoover actually worked at the Library of Congress during law school in 1914-17 and its card cataloue was a key inspiration for him in designing his FBI files.
The new trailer released this week shows the film dwelling not so much on the usual tawdry stuff about Hoover's alleged cross-dressing or his actual fascination with celebrity sex gossip.  Yes, he very likely had a gay relationship with FBI assistant director Clyde Tolson, but much of the rest is widely disputed.   Rather, the film appears to focus on the real tension of Hoover's life -- his war (as he saw it) of good against evil, society against anarchy, patriots against traitors, subversives, and phonies, all giving him an excuse to bend the law as he saw fit and to hold power at all costs.

I fully expect to have my own list of nit-picks and criticisms once I see the entire film in November.  But for now, based on the trailer, I like what I see.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Remembering Senator Chuck Percy (1919-2011)

Senator Chuck Percy in 1975.
Senator Charles H. Percy (R.-Illinois, 1919-2011)  died this weekend in Washington, D.C. at 91 years old.  It is a sad day.  Chuck Percy was a first rate senator of a type we sorely need today: smart, moderate, with backbone enough to stick to principles but principled enough to reach across to aisle.  

Me as a staff legal intern with Senator Percy, circa 1975.
For me personally, Chuck Percy was the first political figure I ever worked for in Washington, starting as a law school intern in 1975 and joining his team formally after getting my degree in 1976.  As a very junior staffer on the Governmental Affairs Committee, where Percy was the ranking Republican, I enjoyed a ringside seat to some of the most interesting politics of the day and saw a true role model of effective bipartisanship.  Percy himself showed me how a Senator (or any good leader) should act: demanding and exacting, but calm, dignified, articulate, informed, and skillful.

A business prodigy - Percy become president of camera giant Bell and Howell at 29 years old before defeating Democrat Paul Douglas for his Illinois senate seat in 1966 -- Percy at first unabashedly called himself a "liberal Republican."  That species is largely extinct today, but back in the 1970s it included some of the most accomplished: New York's Jacob Javits, Maryland's Charles Mathias, Connecticut's Lowell Weicker, Oregon's Mark Hatfield, among others. 

The U.S. Senate was a very different place in the 1970s.  My friend and colleague from those years Ira Shapiro, who served as counsel to Senator Tom Eagleton (D-Missouri) and other Democrats back then -- has written a new book about that era soon to be released called The Last Great Senate, a time when members routinely crossed party lines and risked controversy to solve national problems.  Percy fit that mold.  

On the liberal side, Percy challenged the Vietnam War as early as 1967, clashed with President Richard M. Nixon over Watergate in 1973, and railed against corruption in Chicago's political machine under then-mayor Richard J. Daley.  He supported federal handgun control (his 21-year old daughter Valerie had been murdered in 1966 in their home, apparently by an intruder, a crime that was never solved).  He pushed a plan to focus gun controls on urban areas like Chicago that needed it while leaving rural areas like southern Illinois unaffected.  I still remember my own horror at first seeing leaflets circulated by the National Rifle Association that year showing Percy's face with a target bull's eye over it.     

Senator Abe Ribicoff in the mid-1970s.
But most important to me was what I learned from Senator Percy about partnerships.  The Governmental Affairs Committee, where I worked my entire time under the Senator in the 1970s, was largely run by a troika of senior members (sometimes to the consternation of other Senators): Percy teaming with the committee's chairman, Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conneticut), and Javits.  Only the rarest issue divided the committee along party lines.  On most everything else, Ribicoff and Percy always insisted on finding ways to "work it out."  Often, on reaching a legislative impasse, they'd simply instruct the two staffs, majority and minority, not to fight, but rather to go off and come back with an answer.  

As a result,  the Governmental Affairs Committee was remarkably productive during those years -- passing bills to create the Energy and Education Departments, the post-Watergate ethics reforms, the Congressional budget process, the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act (my own first big project), and many others.  

Friendships among the staffs, Republican and Democrat, were common and long lasting.  

The most partisan moment I recall was the Committee's 1977 investigation of T. Bertram Lance, President Jimmy Carter's close friend and director of OMB who in 1977 was accused of irregularities while running the National Bank of Georgia.  Percy and Ribicoff both called for Lance's resignation -- a particularly tough stance for Ribicoff who had to defy his own party's President.  The controversy came to a head in high-profile public hearings that were broadcast gavel-to-gavel and coast-to coast -- this too a rarity back in the 1970s before the advent of C-SPAN.  

The Bert Lance hearings became very bitter, with most Democrats strongly backing Lance on behalf of the Carter White House.  As a young staff lawyer, I was struck by the sudden hostility in our previously cozy little committee group, the heavy media focus, and the fact that we actually received anonymous death threats.  I remember one particular point when White House press secretary Jody Powell publicly accused Senator Percy -- apparently without checking his facts -- of taking an illegal campaign contribution in the form of free travel on a corporate airplane.  Fortunately, within hours, Percy produced a cancelled check proving the charge false.

Despite enormous pressure, Ribicoff and Percy never wavered in their joint demand that Lance resign.  They had each other's backs.  Lance resigned from OMB in September 1977 shortly after the hearings.  

Percy campaign poster from 1978.
Senator Percy changed his views on economic issues in 1978 when he faced an unexpectedly strong re-election challenge from Chicago Democrat Alex Seith.  This too was my own first close-up exposure to Chicago politics; I traveled there to work on the campaign in its final days.  Seith took a wide lead in polls just before the November vote, prompting Percy to issue one of the most famous political advertisements of that era -- the "I got the message" ad.  (Click here to see it on YouTube.)  He eked out a narrow win. 

I left Senator Percy's staff in 1981 to take a job in the Reagan administration at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the regulatory body that oversees financial derivatives markets.  (I would not formally switch to Democrats until the mid-1980s.)  Percy would lose his Senate seat in 1984 to Democrat Paul Simon, and after that would stay in Washington focusing on his Alliance to Save Energy and other projects, though largely outside the public eye.  In recent years, he suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

I remember my years on Senator Percy's staff as exciting, challenging, and fascinating.  I still keep in touch with many friends from back then.  Today, as we bemoan the crippling partisanship that literally has paralyzed Washington, we could well use a few more types on Capitol Hill like Chuck Percy and Abe Ribicoff -- people who combined the strength, confidence, and skill to know how and when to "work things out" to benefit the country.      

My sincere condolences go out to Senator Percy's family and close friends on this sad occasion.   

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

ANNOUNCEMENT: Coming soon -- Viral History Press !!

The first four titles for Viral History Press - coming October.  No kitchen should be without them. 

Mark your calendars.  Something new is coming in October: Viral History Press.

Viral History Press, LLC is our latest business venture, a new, cutting-edge, independent small publishing house.  Like Viral History Blog, the new Press dedicates itself to keeping history alive, vital, and relevant.

History zealots -- you are not alone!

New technology has changed the face of publishing.  The Internet creates freedom, puts power in the hands of individuals, and opens exciting new opportunities for direct, instant contact.  eBooks, print-on-demand, mobile applications, iPads and slates, have shaken the roots of traditional reading, and waves of change keep pounding the beach. 
Viral History Press is our attempt to use new tools to empower writers.  We will use new technology to reach readers directly: 
  • Physical books via print-on-demand, through, Barnes and Noble, and other outlets;
  • e-Books through Kindle, Nook, and Apple: 
  • Audiobooks through iTunes and, and 
  • Blogging to keep in touch instantly on daily issues.   
Flat Stanley loved Boss Tweed.  So too did the New York Times Book
,  Washington Post Book World, NPR's "On Point,"  among others.
And they'll all love the new Viral History Press edition - coming October.  
To get started, I have obtained back the publishing rights for each of my own four books: Boss Tweed, Young J. Edgar, Dark Horse, and The Gold Ring, previously released by houses including Perseus, Harper Collins, Avalon Group, and Dodd Mead.   Viral History Press has partnered with terrific artists like Zaccarine Design, Inc., of Evanston, Illinois, and Studio 6 Sense of Madison, Wisconsin, to convert these titles into top-quality PoDs and eBooks.   We plan to roll them out in new editions in October and November.  

Once we've worked out the publishing kinks on these, we plan to expand.  Our vision is to make Viral History Press LLC a resource for readers and writers with a special love of history and politics: writers with terrific backlist books, biographers, historians, activists, historical novelists, family sleuths and genealogists.  Being small and independent, we can tailor contracts to give writers bigger upside returns, minimize cost, side-step bureaucracy, and make best use of nimble, web-based marketing.        

That's the vision.  Now the hard work.  Keep an eye out for us in October, and in the meantime visit our new (still very rough) web page at