Colonel House -- A Biography of Woodrow Wilson's Silent Partner by Charles E. Neu, Oxford UPress '15, $34.95, 699 pages, ASIN #0195045505. Index, sources, notes, two groupings of b&w images.
The historical relationship between an American president and his chief advisor (if indeed he had such a person) has bedeviled historians for generations, if not hundreds of years. Nearly always is the matchup one between men of varying strengths although it is common for the advisor to play off the weaknesses of the chief executive or vice versa. Historian Charles E. Neu's latest work about the nexus between President Woodrow Wilson and Colonel Edward House is a classic examination of such a relationship.
In his Prologue, Neu brilliantly sets the table for what is about to come:
"House and Wilson lived in a world -- now largely gone -- of slow trains and long ocean voyages, of leisurely conversations, of letters and elaborate diaries, of diplomatic missions that lasted for months instead of days, and of an American government so small in scale that the president typed many of its diplomatic notes."
To say that the relationship between Wilson and House was one of equals would be highly incorrect, but that should not imply that one was the intellectual, social, or temperamental superior to the other. Each man had a complex interplay of strengths and weaknesses that ebbed and flowed daily as the pair interacted.
While few could match Woodrow Wilson's intellect (and certainly that goes for House), his chief advisor's strength as a Texas Democrat gave the President a lot from which to learn. What is most fascinating about their interrelationship is how each man used his strengths to advance America's best interest in whether to go to war against forces in Europe, particularly Germany, in what would naively come to be called The Great War.
For those who enjoy jockeying for political power on a national level, Neu's book will bring manifest rewards, as long as one doesn't take House's 3,000 pages of diaries too seriously.
Author Charles E. Neu is professor emeritus of history at Brown University and is the author of many books.
Washington's Circle: The Creation of the President by David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, Random House '15, $35, 536 pages, ASIN #1400069270. Index, bibliography, notes, grouping of b&w glossy images.
"Before George Washington became his country's first president he had already achieved something impossible," write historians David and Jeanne Heidler in their latest work. "He had defeated the most powerful empire in the world. Possibly there were other men who could have beaten Britain and secured American independence, but nobody else in the world could have completed the task so gracefully.
"It was at the close of the Revolution that His Excellency General Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, achieved true greatness. In a simple ceremony at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, he surrendered his authority to the republic, turned over the army to the Congress, and went home. Few outside the United States believed he would do this. History, after all, is littered with the debris of ambition. Told about Washington's plans, King George III reportedly exclaimed, 'He will be the greatest man in the world.!' Americans certainly thought it was time somebody noticed.
'A smattering of American biographers already had, and their successors soon grew to legions. The fanciful creations of Parson Mason Weems gave us the cherry tree story and Washington's solemn childhood declaration, 'I cannot tell a lie,' while modern, more reliable writers have skillfully placed the man in his time and charted his impact on it.
"A great and good man will always merit yet another biographer because of his complexity and importance, but this is not a biography of this great and good man. Rather it is the story of the people who helped to shape his presidency, people who were indispensable in his final and most demanding job.
"Having retired to his farm, Washington was called back into service to guide the establishment of a republic that could distinguish liberty from license and make government a servant rather than a master. Washington's circle helped him summon the finest instincts of a proud and self-reliant people. Without this circle the mystery of his unique role in doing so remains too opaque and enigmatic.
"To view the first president in isolation, his achievement in starting everything from scratch seems miraculous, and his gifted counselors become merely men with oversized egos whose personal clashes squandered their genius. It then becomes difficult to understand why they drifted away to be replaced in the end by less talented strangers, men George Washington should not have trusted and the reason, as a result, his second term was less than triumphal."
Authors David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler have written numerous scholarly books and articles dealing with the history of the early American republic, the Antebellum period, and the Civil War. David S. Heidler taught history for many years at the university level, and Jeanne T. Heidler is a professor of history at the United States Air Force Academy.
A Dancer in the Revolution -- Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club by Howard Eugene Johnson with Wendy Johnson, Fordham UPress '14, $29.95, Index, curriculam vita, further reading, notes, grouping of b&w glossy images.
From the dust jacket:
"The life of Howard Johnson, nicknamed 'Stretch' because of his height (6'5"), epitomizes the cultural and political odyssey of a generation of African Americans who transformed the United States from a closed society into a multiracial democracy.
"Johnson's long-awaited memoir traces his path from firstborn of a multiclass/multiethnic family in New Jersey to dancer in Harlem's Cotton Club to communist youth leader and, later, professor of Black Studies. A Dancer in the Revolution is a powerful statement about Black resilience and triumph amid subtle and explicit racism in the United States.
"Johnson's engaging, beautifully written memoir provides a window into everyday life in Harlem--neighborhood life, arts and culture, and politics -- from the 1930s to the 1970s, when the contemporary Black community was being formed."
About the authors:
Howard "Stretch" Johnson was a former Communist Party leader, Cotton Club dancer, World War II veteran, and academic. His final years were spent as a professor of Black studies at SUNY New Paltz and as an ongoing activist in Hawai'i. Wendy Johnson, the eldest of Stretch and Martha Sherman Johnson's three daughters, has worked as an activist, translator, and teacher of English. She lives in Paris.