Saturday, May 27, 2017


There has been a massive number of books written about John F. Kennedy, and more have been released during this centennial year.  As the nation celebrates his 100th birthday on May 29, 2017, I have compiled a list, which in my opinion, are the one hundred best books by or about the late president. This is obviously a subjective list although many are essential works. Certainly all these books are worthy of consideration. Hopefully, this will be a valuable checklist for those interested in immersing themselves in the life and times of the nation's thirty-fifth president.

Books by John F. Kennedy
As We Remember Joe
Why England Slept
Prelude to Leadership: The Post-War Diary of John F. Kennedy
Profiles in Courage
The Strategy of Peace
The Public Papers of John F. Kennedy (3 vols.)
The Burden and the Glory (posthumous)
A Nation of Immigrants (posthumous)

Biographies of John F. Kennedy
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House
Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power
Ted Sorensen, Kennedy
Joan and Clay Blair, Jr., The Search for J.F.K
Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963
Chris Matthews, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero
Alan Brinkley, John F. Kennedy

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Ernest Hemingway and Numismatics

It has been 55 years since the death of Ernest Hemingway, one of the great writers of the twentieth century. On July 2, 1961, Hemingway, suffering from serious physical and mental problems, committed suicide in Ketchum, Idaho.
I have been studying Hemingway in connection with other research.  In the process, I have come across several coins and medals that honor him and well as some other numismatist connections. Cuba, where the author lived for twenty years and had ties for much longer, has issued four Hemingway coins. 

Hemingway loved Cuba and the Cuban people, and he was treated as a celebrity.  He had a grim view of Castro’s predecessor, Fulgenico Batista, and was hopeful that Fidel Castro would improve the lot of the Cubans.  Castro later seized Hemingway’s house, nine miles outside of Havana, and today it is a shrine owned by the government.

Three of the Cuban coins were issued in 1982:  a silver five-peso with Hemingway’s image on the obverse along with his life dates; a five-peso which paid tribute to his Nobel Prize and The Old Man and the Sea novel (there is an image of a fisherman, presumably “Santiago,” in the small boat on the reverse); and another five-peso coin with Hemingway’s fishing boat, Pilar, on the reverse.

The fourth, and perhaps the most interesting, coin is a 2010 Cuban five-peso copper with Hemingway and Castro on the reverse.  It commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the only meeting between the two men.  Castro participated in Hemingway’s marlin fishing tournament, and won. 

Elsewhere in the region, Jamaica issue a seven-coin proof set in 1994, and one of the coins was a five-dollar Hemingway coin with the image of the author and the fisherman on a boat in the water.

There also is a spare, not very attractive Hemingway piece that was issued as an unofficial coin in Croatia.  A website says it was “being used as a ‘voucher’ for consumption.”  The 47-mm medal has a crude image of Hemingway on the obverse and an “H” on the reverse.  And a gold-plated commemorative (non-denominated) Cook Islands coin featuring Hemingway in his iconic bulky turtleneck sweater was issued in 2005.

In the United States, the Franklin Mint issued a medal of Hemingway as part of its Longines Symphonette Society “Great American Triumphs” series.  It was one of a set of sixty 39-mm silver medals released in the early 1970s.  Apparently, there also is a bronze variant.

But for me the most noteworthy numismatic item of Hemingway is an 81-mm bronze medal produced by the French-Spanish medalist Andre Belo.  It has an obverse portrait of Hemingway and an impressionistic account of Santiago, the old fisherman, struggling to reel in a marlin on the reverse.  The legend in lower-case letters:  “le vieil homme et la mer” [the old man and the sea].

A copy of this medal sits in my office, sometimes offering inspiration for writing.  Although certainly not rare, it is one of my favorite medals. It was issued in 1976 by the Monnaie de Paris (Paris Mint).
Among other works by Belo, who was born in 1908, are medals of composer Henri Sauguet, literary critic Charles Sainte-Beuve, musician Erik Satie and writer George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin)--all French--as well as “The Afternoon of a Faun.”

There are some other interesting items related to Hemingway and numismatics.  He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and donated his gold medal to a provincial Cuban Catholic church.  The medal was stolen in the 1980s, but was recovered and is now closely held by the Catholic Church.  When the Nobel Prize of Dr. James Watson, a distinguished scientist but not as famous as Hemingway, came up for auction in 2015, it was sold for $4.1 million.

There is no evidence that I know of that Hemingway’s interest in money extended beyond spending it freely.  However, there are two items of note.  As reported by Ron Abler in The E-Sylum in 2012, a 1934 Lincoln Head cent is preserved at the author’s home in Key West, a testament to his hectoring his second wife about her free spending:

And in the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the University of Texas at Austin Henry R. Ransom Center there are coins as well as European currency, presumably money Hem or family members simply accumulated.

There is at least one coin allusion in Hemingway’s writing.  In A Moveable Feast he described a girl as only he could:  “She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin.”

Finally, on Hemingway’s grave in Idaho, tourists leave coins, mostly pennies.  While this is probably a simple spur-of-the-moment thing, leaving coins on graves actually goes back to ancient Greek mythology; the money would be used to help pay for ferry service on the River Styx in the afterlife.  Hemingway probably would have liked that idea.

[This article first appeared in the September 20, 2016 issue of Numismatic News.]


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Tippecanoe and Harrisburg Too

If the delegates to the Democratic National Convention have free time this coming week or after, they might want to travel the one hundred miles to Harrisburg to see the site of another important political convention, this one coming two decades before the Civil War.

It was in this state capital with a population of about 6,000 people in a politically important state that the fledging Whig party met on December 4-10, 1839 to select its candidate for the following year’s presidential election.  Harrisburg has the distinction of the smallest city to hold a major national political convention.

Convening as the Democratic Whig party, two hundred and fifty delegates representing twenty-two states–the largest delegation was from New York—met at Zion Lutheran Church on South Fourth Street, not far from the Susquehanna River.  The church’s first building, constructed in 1815, burned down in 1838.  The new church was completed only one month before the convention was held.

The convention, which lasted for five ballots, was a race between Henry Clay and William Henry Harrison.  Henry Clay was one of the most esteemed public figures in America.  The sixty-two-year-old Kentuckian, had been speaker of the house, secretary of state and was currently serving for the third time as a United States senator. He had been a candidate in the wild 1824 presidential election and was the National Republicans’ nominee against Andrew Jackson in 1832.

Harrison, four years older than Clay, had been a congressman, senator and Indiana Territory governor.  Because of his success at the Battle of Tippecanoe during Tecumseh’s War in 1811, he was widely known as “Old Tippecanoe.”  He achieved his greatest fame on the frontier in that skirmish and during the War of 1812, which then-Speaker Henry Clay had done so much to bring about as a War Hawk.  Subsequently, Harrison had been one of four sectional candidates for the Whigs in 1836 and came in second to Martin Van Buren in the general election.

Clay and Harrison were also competing against Winfield Scott at the Harrisburg convention.  Scott was a military man, also achieving fame in the War of 1812 and then participating in various Indian wars.  He would achieve his greatest fame later in the 1840s during the Mexican-American War.

Although Clay led on the first four ballots, Harrison picked up fifty-seven votes, mostly from Scott, and won on the fifth and final ballot.  Apparently giving little thought to the consequences, the Whigs chose John Tyler as his running mate.  Tyler, who served Virginia in the state legislature and then Congress, was a Democrat and opposed Whig policies.  Newspaper editor Horace Greeley, a Harrison enthusiast, called the Harrison-Tyler alliance “the strongest possible ticket.”

The convention concluded with a lengthy speech by Judge Jacob Burnet of Cincinnati, who have in effect was a keynote speech which outlined the life of Harrison and the challenge that was being met by the Whig party.

In summarizing the proceedings, Burnet said, “The great object which brought us here, from every part of the Union, is accomplished.  That object was to produce unity and harmony of action, in the great struggle we are on the eve of commencing; a struggle to save the liberty, the morals, and happiness of the people and to rescue the constitution from the hands of profligate men, under whose management it is sinking to decay.”

The election of 1840 was memorable.  Accelerating the political battles of the previous decade, this election saw a full-scale effort to influence voters.  The new, consolidated Whig Party launched the original “log cabin” myth, torchlight parades and other mass efforts.  One peculiar practice was rolling large balls of leather and metal from one town to the next to dramatize the campaign.  Despite the hoopla, the party had no platform.

Interestingly, while Harrison was portrayed as a simple backwoodsman, his pedigree belied that.  He was the scion of an important Virginia family—his father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a Virginia governor in the 1780s—and he was learned man, who attended Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Pennsylvania.  His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, would be elected president in 1888.

The “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” ticket easily defeated the incumbent Martin Van Buren, beleaguered with the country’s economic woes.   The Whig elected their first president.  And while Tyler’s presence might have been a nuisance over a four-year term, it became something much different when Harrison died after only one month in office.

Tyler quickly took the oath of office and then delivered a speech—a sort of inaugural address—in which he cited the Constitution for his unquestionable accession to power.  But, of course, there was no precedent—no previous president had died in office—and when political differences soon arose, there were challenges to his authority.

In assuming the office, Tyler noted, “The spirit of faction, which is directly opposed to the spirit of a lofty patriotism, may find in this occasion for assaults upon my Administration.”  When he then veered away from Whig policy, he was proved to be a prophet.

Called by foes “Acting President” or more viciously, “His Accidency,” Tyler’s policies forced a political crisis.  Five months after assuming office, Tyler’s inherited cabinet, with the exception of the ever-ambitious Daniel Webster, resigned.  This, after they tried to get him to resign.

But Tyler plunged ahead.  In his first major report to Congress in December 1841, he made no mention of the legitimacy of his presidency, providing a broad tour d’horizon of current affairs and only briefly mentioning the departed political opponents from his administration.

Tyler served out his term and before he died in 1862 was chosen for the Confederate Congress.  His mark on public policy for minimal, but his impact on the role of the vice president was significant.

This chain reaction of events began with Whig delegates meeting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Congregants of Zion Lutheran church are proud of its history, and commemorated the 175th anniversary of the convention in December 2014. 

The modest brick church still stands at 115 South Fourth Street in downtown Harrisburg, a short distance from the state capitol building. Visitors can tour the interior of the church which has some artifacts and furnishings which go back to the nineteenth-century.  Pastor Karin Pejack and her husband are very knowledgeable about the church’s history, and they were very gracious in explaining it during my recent visit there.

 (A modified version of the post appeared in the June 2016 issue of The Political Bandwagon).

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Senator Margaret Chase Smith: A Hero for Our Time

In 1954 as the Army-McCarthy hearings on communist infiltration in the government riveted the nation, the voices against Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican-Wisconsin, were finally being raised.  Lawyer Joseph Welch called him out, famously asking, “Have you no sense of decency?”  It was the beginning of the end of the McCarthy fever; he was censured seven months later.

Few people remember that four years earlier a first-term senator from Maine, the only woman in the chamber, rose to deliver a rebuke to her colleague.  Senator Margaret Chase Smith, in her second year in the chamber, was one of the few Republicans who had the courage to rise above party and call attention to McCarthy’s hot rhetoric and wild accusations.  In the summer of 1950 Senator Smith became the conscience of her party.

She began her fifteen-minute speech by noting “a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything we Americans hold dear.”  She continued her introduction by saying, “I speak as briefly as possible because too much harm already has been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism.”

Smith, a Republican, was critical of the Truman administration.  She spoke two years ahead of the next presidential election, but called for a change and that “a Republican victory is necessary to the security of this country.”

“Yet”—and this is the key paragraph of her speech—“to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.  The nation sorely needs a Republican victory.  But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”

Arguing that “I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest,” she believed that if such actions would bring political success,   “a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people.”

Smith ended with a five-point Declaration of Conscience, pleading for bipartisan leadership to solve the nation’s challenges, including whatever communist threat existed. She reiterated the need for the Republican party to return to principle, not attacks.  She was joined by six other senators in this appeal.

McCarthy, with his typical invective, called Smith and her six male colleagues “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.”  He retaliated against her, within the Senate and politically.  McCarthy’s day of reckoning finally came, and he died a broken man.  Margaret Chase Smith served two more decades in the Senate, and in 1964 was the first woman placed in nomination by a major political party. 

Smith was speaking out against an unhinged bully who incited national turmoil because he was exploiting the greatest fear of the time.  McCarthy, of course, was in the Senate, and making wild accusations about communism and communist infiltration in the United States.  His tactics:  Anger, paranoia, and a grand, unspecified effort to stamp out a national security threat.  Anyone who was seen as “weak,” was excoriated, including General George C. Marshall. 

It would be beneficial for all Americans to read the “Declaration of Conscience” speech, which is readily available on the Internet.  It is a speech as instructive as it was more than sixty years ago.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Remembrance of Winston Churchill

Thumbnail for version as of 20:24, 7 January 2012

Churchill followers around the globe commemorate the birthday today of Winston Churchill, one of the towering figures of the twentieth century and among the first-rank of important statesmen of modern times. The eloquent and pugnacious leader was born on November 30, 1874, and he was engaged in virtually all the key world events that unfolded during his 90 years.

The wartime prime minister is endlessly fascinating; he was a multi-talented figure whose career reflected great achievements, widespread challenges and even notable failures.  Few public figures, certainly none today, can parallel his spectrum of interests.  Winston Churchill was a statesman, politician, writer, painter, and even a bricklayer.  Indeed, had he not achieved fame during World War II, his prolific writing would have earned him renown and even his artwork might have made him a celebrity.

Churchill’s life was riveted with symbolism.  He entered Parliament at the end of the Victorian era and embodied many of the characteristics of the Edwardian era.  His death in 1965, following a slow and steady decline, replicated the demise of the once-mighty British Empire.  He also was half American—his mother, Jennie Jerome, was a New York socialite before marrying an ascending British politician, Lord Randolph Churchill—and he seemed to embody some of the notable traits of both countries.

I am not a Churchill scholar—there are many of them, both in Great Britain and the United States.  However, I was introduced to the life of Churchill and his legacy decades ago, and I continue to read and learn about him while mostly being charmed but also sometimes puzzled.

Winston Churchill’s life is the stuff of movies.  He fought and wrote from India’s wild Northwest Frontier; he was a brash hero in the Boer War at the age of 25; he participated in the last significant cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman in Egypt; he bolstered a middling education by self-absorption in the classics; and he overcame a speech impediment to become perhaps the greatest orator of his century.

But there was more.  Churchill served in a variety of high-level government positions, knowing great highs and also great lows, including the responsibility for a disastrous sea expedition in the Dardanelles during World War I.  Going against the grain of his political party, where he was always suspect, he was left without office during a crucial period in the 1930's, unable to make his grave concerns about Hitler addressed during the heyday of appeasement.

When the situation was most dire, of course, Britain did turn to Churchill, and many believe that his leadership and oratory as prime minister in 1940 saved not only his country, but the West.  And then when he helped steer Britain and its allies to what once seemed improbable victory, an appreciative but discerning electorate voted him out of office.

During his later years, he continued to add luster to the growing legend, warning at a famous speech in Fulton, Missouri, about the “Iron Curtain” of the Soviet Union; arguing for a united Europe; and earning a Nobel Prize for Literature for his amazing writing career. Each of these were staggering achievements; collectively, they round out the corpus of why he was identified in a BBC poll as "the Greatest Briton”, topping Shakespeare, Newton, Elizabeth I and other notables.

All of this does not mean that Churchill was all-knowing or always successful.  In addition to the Dardanelles episode, which temporarily sank his career, his increasingly anachronistic views on empire were incongruent with basic American views and eventually put him at loggerheads with Franklin Roosevelt.  He had a very dim view of Gandhi; he mistakenly championed Edward VIII in the abdication crisis; and he failed to see a changed England at end of World War II, foolishly suggesting that the opposing Labour party had Gestapo potential.

While Churchill could be charming, witty and a delightful raconteur, he also could be insufferable and simply difficult to deal with.  His wife, Clementine, who staunchly supported him through a marriage of 56 years, must have been unbelievably patient.  Churchill was a great man; he knew it and he expected others to appreciate that.

I tell my students that most historical figures are a blend of the good, bad and ugly, and it is up to us to sort out where the balance goes.  In this era of fast-moving events, with so many governmental decisions made on opportunistic grounds, it is valuable to study the lives of successful leaders and true patriots.  On this 139th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s birthday, it is proper to reflect on his many singular contributions.

For more information, see:
The Churchill Centre:
The Churchill Archives Centre (Cambridge, England):
Churchill War Rooms (London):
National Churchill Museum (Fulton, Missouri):