Jeffrey A. Engel, Thomas J. Knock, eds. When Life Strikes the President: Scandal, Death, and Illness in the White House. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xiv + 346 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-065076-6.
Reviewed by Steven Lomazow (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-FedHist (January, 2018)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann
This series of twelve presidential profiles is fraught with a major problem from the outset given the attempts by historians at predominantly psychological and occasionally medical discussions far beyond their expertise. Yet it is not without value, presenting well-researched authoritative historical research as a platform that invites more professional analysis.
Many of the essays are on point, notably co-editor Thomas Knock’s insightful work on Woodrow Wilson, yet others stray far from the theme clearly elucidated in the subtitle. Even the boilerplate laudatory blurbs are reflective only of the opinions of well-regarded historians judging other well-regarded historians. Anyone with a love of history will find an entertaining potpourri of anecdotes and facts, though the premise of the work is not well served.
Daniel Feller’s opening essay on Andrew Jackson provides an intriguing profile of a mendacious narcissist that immediately evokes a comparison to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The crises of his presidency were not due to external forces, but were self-generated as a consequence of his personal demons. Jackson’s undying efforts to justify his invasion of Florida and his love/hate relationship with John C. Calhoun sound an eerily familiar note. That he survived two terms and achieved iconic status is a testament to the largely untested limits of the adolescence of the American system of government, the homogeneity of the voting population, and a very limited ability for media to expound a fair and balanced account to the public.
Aaron Scott Crawford’s profile of John Tyler is testimony to the long-held contention that the times make the man. As the first “accidental president,” Tyler did more to define and consolidate the power of the office than any other president until Franklin Roosevelt. Tyler inherited a presidency in an era of bitter political rivalry, especially over the annexation of Texas. He had no physical or overt psychological problems and neither the death of his invalid wife in 1842 nor his May/December marriage had a tangible effect on his performance in office. The essay is interesting, well written, and informative, but not at all pertinent to the theme of the book.
Michael F. Holt’s essay on the ignominious Franklin Pierce is the weakest of the dozen, based on a highly contrived hypothesis that Pierce’s wife’s friendship with the wife of his secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, who was empathetic about the death of their son, influenced him to sign on to the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
Michael Burlingame’s compassionate, insightful, and impeccably researched portrayal of Abraham Lincoln’s grief over the loss of his son Willie in 1862 is a highlight. Burlingame lays a convincing historical predicate that Willie was mature beyond his years and very much emotionally and intellectually aligned with his father as opposed to the impetuous and intellectually challenged Tad or Robert. Lincoln’s profound grief is palpably demonstrated without the necessity for amateur psychiatric hyperbole, striking a perfect tone whereupon the lay reader’s own sensibility and empathy is readily evoked.
Co-editor Thomas Knock’s essay on the effect of Woodrow Wilson’s catastrophic stroke in 1919 upon his efforts to support the League of Nations is the most faithful to the book’s subtitle. Wilson’s illness has been widely discussed and Knock touches upon most of the voluminous academic neurologic and psychiatric literature (interestingly excluding the controversial psychiatric profile co-written by Sigmund Freud and William Bullitt). While the historical conclusions are accurate, reading through the eyes of a board-certified neurologist, I was struck that nowhere is considered the historically consequential behavioral effect of anosognosia, an unawareness of the severity of one’s medical or psychological condition, brought about by the extensive nondominant hemispheric damage that Wilson undoubtedly manifested.
Amity Schlaes needed all of her considerable writing acumen for the daunting task of making Calvin Coolidge interesting. The premise here is that the unexpected death of Coolidge’s son subverted some of the fervor for governing from the famously dispassionate New Englander. The vast majority of the essay is devoted to a defense of Coolidge’s staunch conservatism and an attempt to relinquish any blame for the financial crisis that soon followed his presidency. Within it is a lukewarm and largely unconvincing argument that his personal loss had at least a small effect upon his job performance.
Frank Costigliola’s well-researched essay is yet another accurate account of the well-traveled story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s transformation from a detached, self-indulgent, pompous man of privilege to the most consequential political force and social reformer of the twentieth century, largely attributable to a maturity gained during of his battle against his disability from severe polio contracted at age thirty-nine.
The mission of the book offered the possibility of a discussion of Roosevelt from a new and unique perspective, yet many of the scandals (for instance the Newport Naval Sex scandal that nearly scuttled his vice-presidential nomination) and illnesses and sometimes premature deaths of many of people who shaped Franklin Roosevelt’s life, such as his two eldest sons, Harry Hopkins, and Missy Lehand, are only marginally addressed. In Costigliola’s defense, tackling this aspect of FDR's presidency is perhaps too large a venture for the space constraints of a book chapter.
David Nasaw’s profile of “The Kennedy Family in Sickness in Health” is true to its title, devoting far more space to patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, whom Nasaw has already written about and obviously reveres, than to any of his children. JFK’s medical problems and the cover-up associated with them has been exposed and extensively addressed in the pioneering work of Robert Dallek and Nasaw adds little to this narrative. What is striking though, is an utter lack of discussion of the well-documented dark side of the Kennedy morality, including JPK’s abject failure as an ambassador, his shady business and personal relationships, the influence-peddling that brought about JFK’s nomination and election and, most notably, the multitude of sexual escapades of both father and sons that continue to taint the Kennedy legacy. This astounding whitewash greatly diminishes the credibility of this essay.
LBJ scholar Randall B. Woods’s “Lyndon Johnson at Home and Abroad” is a chilling and authoritative account of a New Deal liberal’s inner struggle with international diplomacy, the burgeoning civil rights movement, and the acceleration of the Vietnam War (interestingly avoiding the controversial Gulf of Tonkin resolution). Woods’s factual narrative is bolstered by an intimate knowledge of his subject, speaking with the authority of a close confidant that does not require reliance on nonspecific psychological terminology for the reader to empathize with Johnson’s intense inner pain.
Jeremi Suri’s chapter on Richard Nixon, “A Depressed and Self-Destructive President,” is the antithesis of Woods’s and Burlingame’s works, bandying about the nonspecific term “depression” like so much mustard on a hot dog. While the book’s introduction describes Suri’s description of Nixon as “paranoid,” even this term does not appear in the essay, nor is there any reference to the effects of Nixon’s increasing reliance on alcohol. Suri’s descriptions of an impaired Nixon’s abrogation of international policy to Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig that brought America to the brink of a nuclear holocaust and the middle-of-the-night confrontation with protestors at the Lincoln Memorial on May 9, 1970, are chilling, though the psychiatric basis for them is not credibly addressed. Nixon’s complex psychological profile, from his red-baiting political ascent amplified by the Alger Hiss affair through the Checkers scandal to the Kitchen debate and his infamous “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” news conference (most addressed in his own 1962 work, Six Crises) are notably absent as well.
Kiron Skinner’s essay, “Governing during a Time of Crisis,” focuses almost entirely upon the events leading up to, during, and immediately following the attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, and opens with the assertion that it “dramatically changed the personal and political undercurrents of his tenure in office” (p. 257). While there is a cogent discussion of the implications with respect to the Twenty-fifth Amendment as well as the inappropriate statements of Alexander Haig that resulted in his termination, this lofty claim is not at all proven. Skinner’s narrative does much to lay to rest the notion that Reagan’s near-death experience had any lasting effects on his cognitive or emotional status. The time frame ends abruptly in 1987 and fails to address in any way the far more important and still seductively unresolved matter of whether and to what extent Reagan’s Alzheimer’s-related dementia had a tangible effect upon his ability to govern.
William Chafe’s “The Clintons: The Politics of the Personal,” is a distinguished historian’s well-researched account that offers Hillary as an extraordinarily focused hero for repeatedly bailing her husband out from politically damaging sexual scandal. While this may be a valid thesis, Chafe makes overreaching assumptions about what Hillary did or did not know about her husband’s philandering and sexual addiction. Very much like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the details of the relationship between two independent, highly accomplished and influential individuals cannot be determined with certainty, and unless they are willing to provide candid, unexpurgated accounts of their most intimate matters, which we should neither expect nor pass judgement on, any speculation by historians is unwarranted.
It is entirely the purview of the editors to have chosen which of our forty-five presidents to profile, yet the work may have been better served by including others with a greater potential to offer an interesting narrative from the perspective of medical history, such as James A. Garfield’s protracted medical battle after being shot, or in the twentieth century, the varying degrees of candor surrounding Dwight Eisenhower’s gastrointestinal, cardiac, and neurological problems. An editorial epilogue addressing the now acutely newsworthy interpretation of the Twenty-fifth Amendment would have been a valuable platform for historical debate.
Medical training stresses accurate diagnosis, which is best achieved by consultation with specialists. While the strength of historians is the ability to ferret out facts and anecdotes and to skillfully incorporate them into a coherent narrative, without incorporating the knowledge of the psychiatric and medical community, or at the very least, trained medical historians, the value of a book such as this is limited.
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Steven Lomazow. Review of Engel, Jeffrey A.; Knock, Thomas J., eds., When Life Strikes the President: Scandal, Death, and Illness in the White House.
H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews.
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