Viewpoint -- Three To Read

Dec. 21, 2004
Here are three non-business books that are definitely worth your time and attention.

This has been a good year for business books. Among them have been three notable "people" books -- "Perfect Enough: Carly Fiorina and the Reinvention of Hewlett Packard" (2003, Portfolio); "Turnaround: How Carlos Ghosn Rescued Nissan" (2003, Harper Business); and "The Watson Dynasty: The Fiery Reign and Troubled Legacy of IBM's Founding Father and Son" (2003, Harper Business). Each is very much worth a read -- as is the latest from Clayton M. Christensen, "The Innovator's Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth" (2003, Harvard Business School Press), a seminal book written with Michael E. Raynor. But this column is not about those books. It's about three other books, three non-business books that as biography or autobiography are very much "people" books. Some 40 years after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, historian Robert Dalleck has written "An Unfinished Life" (2003, Little, Brown), a masterful book that at least for now must be regarded as the standard public and private biography of America's 35th president. Dalleck's Kennedy is not the man of four decades of myth and legend, but a more human person, someone, as Dalleck says, who was both ordinary and exceptional -- "a man of uncommon intelligence, drive, discipline, and good judgment on the one hand and of lifelong physical suffering and emotional problems on the other." I am tempted to term this carefully researched and eminently readable biography a book for both generations: my generation, the generation that came out of high school and college during the Kennedy administration, and today's generation, for whom there is (or should be) a fascination in looking backward to a critical time in U.S. and world history that they did not experience firsthand. But to limit this book to two generations would be to diminish its impact. This is a book for those of all generations now alive, and it will be, I believe, a valued volume for future generations as they also try to understand John F. Kennedy the person, the times in which he lived and the continuing fascination with both what might have been -- and might still be. Madeleine Albright's autobiographical "Madam Secretary" (2003, Miramax Books) is not the scholarly work that Dalleck's "An Unfinished Life" is. It is not the definitive work on America's 64th secretary of state. Nor is this book the definitive work on the foreign policy of the United States during the Clinton administration, the period when Albright served first as United States ambassador to the United Nations and then as secretary of state. It is, as the book's subtitle says, a memoir. In that sense it is a series of stories, from Albright's birth in Prague in 1937 until her last full day in office on January 19, 2001. But this book is more than stories, more even than Albright's instructive insights into such people as varied as Vaclav Havel, Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, King Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Slobodan Milosevic, Kim Jong-Il, and Bill and Hilary Clinton. Throughout, this book is about values, values instilled by her parents, the values she has tried to put to work, the values she believes everyone can productively pursue. "There is much in life that is complicated and beyond our understanding," Albright writes near the end of her book, "but the basic principles of human liberty are not so complicated, and if we hold to them, we will find a way to correct our mistakes and set a true course." The result is a book that is remarkable for both candor and humanness. If Democrat Mike Mansfield, the long-time U.S. senator from Montana and later U.S. ambassador to Japan, had had his way there would be no biography of him beyond the simple and characteristically terse inscription on his tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery: Michael Joseph Mansfield, Pvt, US Marine Corps, Mar 16 1903 Oct 5 2001. Fortunately, veteran journalist and author Don Oberdorfer had his way and the result is the extraordinary 593-page "Senator Mansfield" (2003, Smithsonian Books). This book is truly a celebration of a remarkable life, from Montana at the beginning of the 20th century to Congress for 34 years and, after Japan for 12 years, back to Washington, D.C. for the last years of the 20th Century and the first months of the 21st century. It is about the eighth-grade dropout who became a college professor, the one-time copper miner who became the longest-serving U.S. Senate majority leader in U.S. history, a person who served in the lowest ranks of the three branches of the U.S. armed services that existed during and just after World War I and was outspoken in public and private in his opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. "Mike Mansfield had a sophisticated understanding of politics and international relations, but he also understood and mastered the power of simplicity," writes Oberdorfer. "He was among the simplest of men in his life style, and he advanced simple, honest, and straightforward positions in unadorned speech that left no doubt of what he thought or where he stood. As a result of his widely recognized integrity, he gained a moral authority on Capitol Hill of a sort that has virtually disappeared from public life today." One can hope that in its own way Oberdorfer's book will help ensure that Mansfield's recognized integrity and moral authority have not been lost forever in Congress or the world community. John S. McClenahen is an IW senior editor based in Washington, D.C.

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