Sunday, July 6, 2008

What I'm Reading - American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

As I have mentioned before, I own way too many books. Well, that has a negative connotation to it, which I don't mean, because I don't regret owning so many books (maybe, if I could do it over again, there are a number of sports related books I purchased at a discount from a book outlet website I wouldn't buy again, but they look good on my bookshelves). So the question always is, when I finish one book (as I did this weekend with John Adams) what to do next. I have over 200 books in my ever-growing collection, and I've read only just over 50. Close to another dozen (including Bill Clinton's My Life which I started but never finished before I began Law School) are in some stage of being read. Instead of picking one of those back up (and in truth, some, I'll likely start fresh if/when I pick them up again), being in a very Revolutionary history state of mind, I picked up Joseph Ellis' Thomas Jefferson's biography American Sphinx.

After the over 650 page Adams' biography, Ellis' character study of Jefferson is just under 370-pages of text, so the long weekend allowed me to devour it almost whole (I have only 70-some pages to go and may finish tonight). I continue to be fascinated by the friendship, rivalry, and correspondence between Adams and Jefferson (so much so that my next book will be one I purchased this weekend, Ellis' study of Adams post-Presidential life which goes deeper into the Adams-Jefferson relationship; I also almost purchased a 600-page text containing the actual letters between John and Abigail Adams and Jefferson throughout their lives, but I left that purchase for another day). And as I learn more about Jefferson, I become more conflicted on what to think of him. As Ellis writes, he is truly a unique character in history, full of honest but real contradictions. What I find most interesting are not his internal battles over slavery, but of his thoughts on government and revolutions. His demand for personal freedom is laudable, but his thoughts on letting laws and governments lapse every generation are wild, and his appreciation, and even desire, for sometimes bloody revolutions (which he thought would ensure citizen freedom) are by today's standards dangerous.

I don't leave these books though h a lower opinion of Jefferson, but of a decidedly improved opinion of Adams, whose left-behind and under-appreciated position in American History I am now much more sympathetic. The books too allow you to really see the human side of these American icons, the day-to-day struggles they faced in their everyday lives, which in admiring all they did for this country, we often forget they had. And learning about the early days of Presidential campaigns (where the principals would steadfastly refuse to campaign, but would bankroll and encourage others to engage in scurrilous attacks) makes today's campaigns look tame by comparison.

In any case, another worthy read, which you could tell by how quick I read through it. My plan is to continue on this Revolutionary-era kick, with Ellis' Adams book next (Passionate Sage) followed by his two composites next, the Pulitzer Prize winning Founding Brothers (of which I have read over half of, but so long ago, I'll likely start from scratch) and his newest book American Creation. Then I'll think I'll be done in this time period (despite having biographies of Franklin and Hamilton to go, as well as David McCollough's 1776 to read at some point as well). But, then again, there's always those Adams-Jefferson letters, right?

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

What I'm Watching - Hancock

What would a Fourth of July weekend be without a big movie from Will Smith? So, like many others (the film is set to gross at least $100 million in the United States this long weekend and will top its $150 million-plus budget with its worldwide take) I ventured out to see Hancock yesterday, Smith's newest film where he plays a Superhero who, well, doesn't understand or know how to act like a superhero.

I'll be the first to admit I am not a superhero or comic-book movie person. So it is without regret that I readily admit to never having seen any of the Spiderman movies which have made so much money in recent years, or any of the X-Men or Iron Man or Incredible Hulk films. A few years back, when Batman Begins was all the rage, I went to the movies with some buddies, but while they saw Batman, I instead bought tickets for the well-done and vastly underrated boxing movie Cinderella Man.

But Hancock looked (and was) different. While most superhero movies are pure fantasy (with a good deal of special effects, cool as they are, added in) and Hancock certainly has a good amount of that (it is, after all, a movie about a man with superhuman strength who can fly) what I enjoyed most about it was how grounded the movie is. What if a superhero, instead of constantly coming to victims' rescue, didn't understand or know how to use his or her powers, struggled with the psychology of being a superhero, and caused more harm than good, no matter the intent? That's how Hancock begins, and it's a fascinating concept and character study.

I didn't find the laughs in Hancock as plentiful as some, but that's not why I wanted to see the movie. I went to see it for the dramatic story of a superhero struggling to be super, and for most of the movie that's what we got. And the big twist in the movie (which I won't reveal here) was well-done, and one I did not see coming (though, looking back, made sense and was subtly foreshadowed).

Certainly a film well worth seeing, and much better than the poor reviews the movie seems to have been tagged with make it sound. And with Smith, the always funny Jason Bateman, and Charlize Theron (who makes just about anything worthwhile, and as an aside, I just realized this is the second Theron-Smith movie to be panned by critics, but which I actually enjoyed, with The Legend of Bagger Vance being the first) what more do you need?. And while I don't know if I need to see a sequel to the film (there's some talk into making the movie a franchise, a common idea in Hollywood these days anytime any movie does even remotely well at the box office) I recommend Hancock.

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Friday, July 4, 2008

The Fourth of July

It may be no coincidence, and certainly is fitting, that I finished David McCullough's wonderful John Adams this evening, surrounded by fireworks all around me (it really was something, standing on my balcony in Royal Oak, seeing fireworks from all over metro-Detroit in all directions, some just visible over the tree-line, some heard but not seen, others seen but not heard, and some almost directly in front of me). As great as HBO's recent mini-series of the same name was (it was based on McCollough's biography and will undoubtedly and deservedly win numerous awards at this year's Emmy's) the 651-page (751 counting the indexes) book was even better. While McCullough seems to be as much of Adams' advocate as his biographer, it is hard not to come away from reading the book with the highest regard for our nation's second President. Adams is often overlooked in history (Washington, Jefferson, and Ben Franklin get most of the credit for the Revolution and the success of the early United States) and his one term as President may not have been remarkable (he saved the country from war with France but earned the praise of neither political party at the time while doing so) but after reading the book, it is clear that no man fought harder to convince his fellow colonists that revolution was necessary and that independence was essential. And his work in France, Britain, and Holland, securing peace and security (and in Holland, much needed financial support) for the new nation may have been the most important and least appreciated and remembered parts of the Revolutionary War.

It was remarkable to read about the founding generation, the letters between John and his wife Abigail (who could have been and would have been a great political leader herself had she been allowed to govern) and John and Thomas Jefferson, two of the brightest minds of their generation. It's incredible to think back and read about that time in history, where all of the greatest minds of the country gathered to form a new world order. And also to think about how different history would have been if e-mail, telephones, and Blackberries existed in the late 1700s. Much of time back then was spent waiting for word from across the ocean, and it could take weeks, if not usually month, to receive any word on how negotiations were progressing (or not) in matters of peace and war. And how much of history we would have lost had John and Abigail Adams spoken on the phone once a day instead of writing countless letters back and forth, which have provided us an first-row view of the most important period in our country's history.

Whenever I say I'm interested in politics, sometimes I get quizzical looks, and am asked why. After all, most think politicians to be corrupt, and only interested in boosting their own ego and their own political party, advanced not by interest in country, but personal ambition. A recent Rasmussen survey bears that out. Just 17-percent of the country "believe working for the government is more honorable than working in the private sector."

But there is a difference, one that is often lost, between politics and governance. Yes, I'm interested in politics. The sport, the human chess match, the back-and-forth, the intellectual puzzles and arguments and the thrill of election night. The science of Barack Obama spending the Fourth of July in Montana (despite the Democrats not winning the state in a generation) or John McCain kicking off an economic tour as we inch towards a global recession.

But, politics, to me, is a means to an end (though not an uninteresting or unenjoyable one). Governing is what's important. In the end, I'm interested in politics (and want to govern or help somebody else govern) because of the power and good that can be done when good men and women govern, and not in their own self-interest, but in the interest of their country. Jim Webb, for example, from the day he was elected to the United States Senate in 2006, has worked tirelessly to pass a 21st Century GI Bill. While soldiers returning from World War II were treated as heroes and given a first class college education in return for their service, those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been all but forgotten. Some said a new GI Bill was too expensive and others, including John McCain and President Bush, believed such a generous reward to our armed forces was too generous, and would hurt retention by encouraging soldiers to leave the Army to get their degrees. As if one tour in Iraq was not enough for a man or woman to deserve a college education. But despite the opposition, Webb succeeded last month in passing the resolution, and President Bush grudgingly signed it into law. Thanks to Webb, a new generation of Americans will receive an education which will pay us all dividends in the future.

The problem isn't that politics and governing isn't "honorable" as the Rasmussen poll suggests. Its that we have too few Jim Webb's in government. Just as the brightest minds of 1776 came together to not just declare independence and win a war many thought unwinniable, but to form a government, the form of which had never before been seen on such a large scale, and which has endured now for over 200-years, we need the brightest minds of this generation to come together to solve the problems we all now face. Otherwise, the government and the governing will be left in the hands of those whose decisions are shaped by self interest and greed, and who put party and politics above the needs of everyday Americans.

It's an obligation to one's country and one's fellow citizen that John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of the Founding Generation uniquely understood. Governing is honorable. But only when honorable men and women are governing. And that's a lesson we all can take to heart on this Fourth of July.

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