Category Archives: Political Memoirs
There are a number of adjectives that come to mind to describe the late Eldridge Cleaver. (1935-1998) If I had to choose one in particular, my choice would be unpredictable. His voice is legendary among the most prominent of the Civil Rights Movement. He co-founded the Black Panty Party but was later expelled by Huey P. Newton due to ideological differences. In 1954, he was convicted of possession of Marijuana and sentenced to slightly over two years at Folsom Prison in Represa, California. He began to write letters in his cell and those writings form the basis of this book considered be a classic text on revolution, racism, sexuality and the future of America. The book was published in 1968 after Cleaver had served a second prison term for an attempted rape with assault conviction. Married by then to Kathleen Cleaver, the marriage eventually fell apart due to his erratic behavior and philandering ways. In later years following his split from the Panthers, he distanced himself from his Muslim faith, ran for President, created the “penis pants” and eventually joined the Mormon church. He died on May 1, 1998 in Pomona, California. The cause of death was withheld from the public. Today he is still a controversial figure and his writings and the confessions within have resulted in a split of opinion; readers either like him or hate him. However, the fact remains that he was a valued and highly intellectual voice within the movement that attempted to manifest the issues that faced Black and White America.
But what is it about the book that gets favorable reviews? Cleaver was an extreme figured and is to be expected, he is extreme at some points during the book. At two hundred ten pages, the book is shorter than others by figures such as Newton but within the pages of this book are passages that will cause even the most hardened mind to think deeply. From the beginning Cleaver pulls the reader in with his seductive writing style and deadly accurate analysis of society. Reading about racial discrimination and America’s dark past is always tense but the part of the book is Cleaver’s admission to becoming a rapist in an attempt to get revenge against white men. For all of his creative genius, expert analysis on revolution and highly perceptive mind, his biggest shortcoming by far is his admission to being a sexual predator. The trauma endured by minorities throughout America’s history is tragic and regrettable but it does not excuse the violence and sexual exploitation of women. Furthermore, the truly baffling part is that Cleaver admits that he was wrong but is then convicted in 1958 of attempted rape. Additionally, he is believed to have fathered several children out-of-wedlock. That caused me to ask myself if he truly did have remorse for his past actions. Putting that part of the book aside, the other parts are highly introspective but require an open mind to truly see the genius in his writing.
He touches on several topics and dissects them thoroughly. The youth of today may have extreme difficulty in understanding Cleaver’s points. America has changed in many ways since the 1960s. Vietnam is a relic in the past for the millennial generation with names such as Johnson, Nixon and Mao only discussed history textbooks. But at the time of the publication of this book, they were all very real and Cleaver, like millions of other African-Americas watched the struggles around the world develop as they continued to face their battles at home.
The book has many highlights and Cleaver is a shining star and an example of what could have been if creative and intellectual minds had continued in the right direction. Religion is a central theme early in the book in particular during his time at Folsom. He is a Muslim but attends classes in the prison. He describes his daily life behind bars and the challenges faced by inmates to retain their sanity and optimism that they will one day see freedom. Moving on he touches on the death of Malcolm X, who at first earns the wrath of the Nation of Islam by disavowing the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. But after returning from Mecca, changing his ideology and creating the Organization for Afro-American Unity, Malcolm gained old and new followers, Cleaver included. His death at the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 was a heavy blow to the Civil Rights Movement and the hearts of the men and women who considered him their black shining prince. Vietnam is not spared nor is the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The personal conflict within the hearts and minds of black soldiers returning from combat to a country that refuses to grant them their rights is truly one of the saddest moments in American history and in the book.
It would have been nearly impossible for Cleaver to analyze social conditions without examining the issue from an opposing view. He writes about white heroes and their extinction due to the changing mindset of the young white youths of America whom he says have rejected the ways of their elders and embraced the culture of their fellow Black Americans. Never straying too far from his Muslim faith at the time, Cleaver gives an interesting portrayal of Muhammad Ali and his importance to the struggle for equality. In fact, Cleaver refers to him at point as the “Fidel Castro of Boxing.” The unfortunate scapegoat in this case is Floyd Patterson who is not able to defend himself. He also gives attention to James Baldwin and his opinions of the late author could be considered controversial. Those who believe Baldwin to be beyond reproach will have a hard time accepting Cleaver’s criticism. And while I do not agree with everything he said about Baldwin, I respect his opinion for Baldwin also attacked Richard Wright and according to many, in a highly unfair manner. Sadly, both Baldwin and Cleaver are deceased but I would love to see them sit down today and have a discussion about the current state of America.
Cleaver in his ideology and writings was aligned with Marxists and his name is mentioned along those such as Guevara, Lenin, Mao and Castro. He does avoid the topic of imperialism and its devastating effects around the world. Particularly close attention is paid to the hypocritical policies of a government that publicly declares support for freedom of foreign nations but struggled to give equality to its own citizens. This chapter in the book is among the strongest and highlights an argument made repeatedly by those committed to an end to colonialism. America has many dark secrets but no shortage of those wishing to expose them. In exposing them, we can see where policy goes wrong and what it is truly needed to correct it.
Towards the end of the book, Cleaver touches on two topics which are sure to cause a range of emotions. It is imperative to remember that these are his beliefs and can be rejected or accepted. In his analysis of male and female relations he has composed four characteristic traits; the Ultrafeminine, the Amazon, the Omnipotent Administrator and the Supermasculine Menial. There is some truth to what he says but there always exceptions to the rule. Nonetheless it is an interesting take on the relationships between men and women. This relationship is carried over into his exploration of the connection between white women and black men. Setting the stage, Cleaver explains that he is with two acquaintances he calls Eunuchs. They are joined by the Infidel who they believe to be a fraud and not aligned with the movement. The dialogue quickly turns to the topic of interracial couples and apparent dysfunctional relationship that the infidel says exists due to the system of slavery. Incredibly, it was not until 1963 that laws against interracial marriage were ruled unconstitutional paving the way for the rescinding of miscegenation laws by states in the union that had not done so. While I do not deny that there are many stereotypes affixed to couples of mixed background, the youth of today are unable to relate to the times in which Cleaver lived. Furthermore, as someone who has dated women that are from many parts of this world, Cleaver through the voice of the Infidel would be off base today. But this was the 1960s and a completely different time in America. And I would be foolish to deny that there are in fact some of us who are exactly what that section of the book discusses. If there is one thing I have learned about love, it is that it strikes us when we least expect it and we never know to whom it will be directed. But when it does happen, all that we can do is go with it and see where it takes us.
It is undeniable that Cleaver was a polarizing and truly mystifying figure. Is this book outdated? Maybe. But it is still a guide that many youths lived by during those turbulent times. And if America seeks to move forward and improve itself, then we will need to revisit the past on occasion so that we do not make the same mistakes again. Eldridge will be with us as one of those voices to reminds of the failure that awaits those who do not study the past.
Robert Kennedy In His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years-Robert F. Kennedy, edited by Edwin O. Guthman and Jeffrey Schulman
The election of Barack Obama to the office of President of the United States marked a turning point in American history. His successful campaign and subsequent eight years in office vindicated the late Robert F. Kennedy who in 1961 said he believed that in forty years a negro could be president. At the time the thought seemed absurd as American struggle with social division fueled by ethnic discrimination. But if we look back on his words, we can see that his foresight was not only accurate but uncanny. From time to time I think back on the many quotes from him regarding his views on society. His assassination during the 1968 presidential race left a void in the United States that has never been filled. He remains one of the most popular, unpopular and tragic figures in the history of this nation.
Following the death of John F. Kennedy, life took on a different meaning for the former Attorney General. He became the patriarch of the Kennedy family and struggled with his own future and emotions resulting from the untimely death of his older brother. As a member of the president’s cabinet and younger sibling, he was present during ever major crisis faced by the new administration. The wisdom and insight that he gained from his time in service of the country makes him one of history’s wisest witnesses. The Kennedys have always been controversial. Most people either love them or hate them. No matter which side of the fence you find yourself on, one thing that is true is that the election of John F. Kennedy was one of the brightest moments in world history. From 1964-1967, Kennedy gave closed-door interviews to Anthony Lewis (1927-2013)who worked as a columnist for the New York Times, John Bartlow Martin (1915-1987) who served as an Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) who served as JFK’s special assistant and John Francis Stewart who was chief of the Oral History Project at the John F. Kennedy Library from 1966-1969. The interviews sat dormant for over 20 years before this book was published in 1988. They were then edited and composed into this insightful account of the workings behind the scene in the Kennedy administration.
Kennedy was always very frank in his statements and never one to sugar coat anything. This book is no different. In fact, he is even more frank and I believe part of the reason is because not much time had passed between the assassination in Dallas and when he began to sit down for these interviews. The wounds were still open and many raw emotions were in play. However to his credit, he answers each question directly and quite extensive. Only on a handful of times does he express disinterest in speaking about a certain topic. Considering what had just happened to his brother, it was remarkable that he was able to sit down and open up about a lot of topics. But the one topic he does not discuss at all is the assassination itself. He does talk about a few events following the murder and in particular his encounters with the new president Lyndon Johnson. It is no secret that the two did not get along and Kennedy does not hide his contempt for Johnson. He gives clear reasons for his dislike for Johnson and leaves it up to the reader to decide whether they’re justified or not.
In addition to Johnson, Kennedy is asked his opinion about many other political figures at the time and he gives his honest opinion on all of them. What I came to find in Kennedy was a man rigidly principled in a world where things were either right or wrong but not so much in between. In his eyes either you were effective at your job or you were of no use. As cold as it sounds to the reader, for a new administration that survived one of the closest elections in history, a senate filled with rabid Democratic southerners opposed to the “Catholics”and civil rights, a tight ship was needed in order for the new president to enact domestic legislation and compose effective foreign policy. When his brother appointed him as Attorney General, even he thought it was a mistake. But as we can see in hindsight, it was one of the best decisions made by John F. Kennedy. The level of trust and dedication exemplified by Robert Kennedy to his brother, the administration and the country are inspiring. Of course, we could point out many errors made along the way. The same could be done with every administration. However, their vision to steer America on a new path was bold and unprecedented a time when America was still struggling with a dark and violent past. The challenges they faced through opposition and inefficiency are cleared explained by Kennedy giving us a sense of the staggering amount of difficulty JFK faced in dealing with the Senate and House of Representatives. Incredibly, in spite of the opposition, they succeeded on many fronts and would have continued on the same path.
President Kennedy served in office less than three years. But in those three years, he faced some of the biggest threats to the safety of the United States. Berlin, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam put the world on edge as democracy in the west came face to face with communism in the east, backed by the ideology of the Soviet Union, the nation’s fiercest opponent. As they weathered each storm, they stood side to side making critical decisions to carefully avoid the outbreak of a nuclear confrontation. And it may scare some readers to learn just how close we came to war with the Soviet Union. The place where it would have happened might surprise you as well. There are other small tidbits of information revealed by Kennedy that cast light of the severity of maintaining world peace.
The questions he was asked were strictly about the administration. There are nearly no discussions about the personal lives of anyone except for a question regarding the rumor that JFK had been married prior to meeting Jackie. The reason is that the interviews were done for the JFK Library and needed to be as exact as possible. Furthermore, there are plenty of books that tackle the personal lives of the Kennedys. The most popular being Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot. This book is Kennedy’s show and he shines in his assessment of what it was like helping his brother run the country and the many challenges and successes they had.
November 22, 1963 remains a day seared into the minds of millions of people around the world. Known informally in the United States as the day Kennedy died, each year it reminds of the tragic events of that day in Dallas, Texas. The spirit of John F. Kennedy has remained with America and today, decades after his death, his legacy continues to gain in strength. The debate regarding his accomplishments while in office has raged continuously. But what cannot be denied is his impact of the conscience of the United States and his status as a symbol of hope for an entire generation. When he died, he left behind not only a widow and two children, but millions of fans, friends and his personal secretary of twelve years, Evelyn Lincoln.
Kennedy’s administration, named “Camelot” by the press, has been the source of inquisitive researchers and those enamored with his charm and intellectually sharp personality. In this book, Lincoln has recorded her memories of what it was like for the mythical and tragic young president. Some readers may be familiar with her other book Kennedy and Johnson, her memoir regarding the relationship between Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. In comparison, Johnson is not seen frequently in this book. In fact, he is hardly mentioned but only a handful of times. This book is strictly about the relationship between Kennedy and his secretary who devoted twelve long years of her life in service to him.
The book begins as she reflects on the aftermath of the trip to Dallas. But it should be noted that this book is not about his murder and there is no smoking gun in the book. Researchers and assassination buffs will not find anything of value in here. Where the book does shine however, is showing Kennedy’s personal side. In stark contrast to the clean-cut and smooth image presented in public, behind the scenes, the senator and later president is revealed to be as forgetful as the next person, unorganized as most businessmen and as kind as some of the greatest people I have ever met in life. Lincoln’s book does an excellent job of showing how and why so many people were inspired to work with and for him. Furthermore, it adds to his prestige as one of the most different individuals to ever occupy the oval office.
I am sure that some readers will find it interesting that she makes no mention of any of Kennedy’s major shortcomings, particularly his extramarital affairs. For some it will be hard to accept that his secretary who surely would have been privy to such knowledge makes no mention of it at all. I firmly believe it was not needed and was not the point of her book. Similar to Arthur Schlesinger, she makes note of her working relationship with Kennedy which was the goal of the book. And on this level, she succeeds without question. The book was published in 1965, roughly two years after his murder. I can only imagine the amount of grief she endured at the time and the challenge she faced in writing this memoir. Its publication and existence are a testament to her will and are a fitting tribute to the slain leader.
Anyone who has ever worked as a secretary will appreciate this book. I personally have worked as a secretarial assistant and found myself nodding my head at times during the book when she relates one of Kennedy’s quirks. All bosses have them and in all different forms. But their quirks are also what helps to make the unique and unforgettable. Kennedy and Lincoln are both deceased but they shared a time together that stands out in American history both for great reasons and unfortunately for tragic reasons. Her tribute to her former boss is heartfelt and will be warmly received in any library about the life and political career of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
For twelve years Evelyn Lincoln served as John F. Kennedy’s devoted secretary. Following Kennedy’s murder she penned a memoir of her time as his assistant under the title “My Twelve Years with John F. Kennedy”. As his secretary she was a first hand witness to his daily routine and the decision making process behind some of the biggest moments in American history. The relationship between Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson has been documented in scores of books. But Lincoln’s account is a welcomed look into the unusual relationship between two polar opposite individuals.
It will be expected that Lincoln speaks fondly of her boss. A good secretary becomes an extension of the person that is served listening to their gripes, anticipating their next move and putting the pieces back together again after a major fallout. Lincoln is all of these but that is not the goal of this book. This book is the record of what she saw and heard between John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. And what we learn in the book will either confirm what many felt all along or seem like the unsubstantiated ramblings of a secretary in mourning and bitter at the new Commander-In-Chief. In her defense, never in the book does she show a personal vendetta against Johnson. She only reports what she observed during her time with both of these legendary figures.
The book begins before Kennedy is elected to the presidency. In fact, in the early part of the book, he is about to declare his candidacy and gears up for what turned out to be a bitter campaign against Johnson for the Democratic nomination. The animosity and sometimes vindictive methods employed during the primaries made it even more unusual that the two former enemies ended up working together in Washington. But what is clear is that they were never “friends” in any sense of the word. They established a cordial and professional working relationship that was sometimes fragile and tense. Tragically it culminated with the events in Dallas.
Lincoln does shed light on two moments in JFK’s campaign that have been the subject of heavy debate for many years. His decision to accept Johnson as the vice-president caused shock, suspicion and in some cases outrage for Johnson was not liked in many parts of the United States. The often purported story is that Kennedy offered Johnson the nomination believing that he could help pull the southern states which resisted civil rights legislation and were wary of a Irish-Catholic nominee. There is also the belief that Johnson blackmailed his way onto the ticket. What the real reason was for Johnson’s inclusion we will never know for Kennedy took it with him to his grave. But Lincoln does give us enough to see that Johnson’s version of the events leading up to his appointment as vice-president were way off base.
Towards the end of 1963 as Kennedy was preparing for his reelection campaign in 1964, he began to develop a series of agendas that he was determined to accomplish during a second term. The biggest question surrounding his administration was if Johnson would remain on the ticket. Scandals began to surround Johnson through affiliates with the most dangerous being the Bobby Baker debacle. It has been said that Bobby Kennedy had been monitoring the cases building against Johnson who may have possibly landed in jail. Apparently Jack had told him they would speak about it when he returned from Dallas. What would have happened if he did return we will never know. But what we do know from Lincoln’s journal is that before he left for Dallas he made it very clear exactly who would be his running mate for 1964. Her admissions which we have no reason to doubt, serve as concrete statement on what was going through Kennedy’s mind in regards to the future of his administration.
The book is only 207 pages but within these pages is a good journal kept by an interesting woman who served one of the greatest political figures this world has ever seen. And in his short time in office, he touched the lives of many including his own secretary who duly devoted twelve years of her life to him.
El Salvador Could Be Like That: A Memoir of War, Politics and Journalism on the Front-Row of the Last Bloody Conflict of the US-Soviet Cold War- Joseph B. Frazier
It’s often said that everyone comes into your life for a reason. Fairly recently, I became acquainted with a lovely young woman who has since become a very close friend. She was born in El Salvador and forced to flee her home with her family during one of the worst civil wars in modern history. Because I was quite young at the time of the conflict, my knowledge of the situation and the experiences of the survivors was severely limited, making it difficult for me to offer any meaningful comments to her story. However, I listened thoroughly and have never forgotten what she’s told me and it was through her stories that I began to further understand the turmoil that continues to plague Latin America to this very day. Recently I read the autobiography of retired marine Oliver North. Most readers will remember him from the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid 1980s during President Regan’s administration. Forced to be the scapegoat following congressional hearings into the intelligence activities to free hostages in Libya and fund the contras in Nicaragua against the Sandinista National Liberation Front, North faded into the background and now lives a quiet life far removed from his former activities. It was in this book that I began to understand the events that occurred in El Salvador, why they happened, who is to blame and why they should never be forgotten.
Based on my reading of North’s book (my review of which can be found here), Amazon recommended this short book by Joseph B. Frazier, a correspondent for the Associated Press and Vietnam veteran who covered Central America extensively during the 1970s and 1980s. These are his memories of his time in El Salvador during the country’s bloodiest era. Caught in between a fierce battle between a U.S. backed government and rebel forces led the by FMLN, civilians, missionaries, journalist and even clergy would be murdered, the most notable of which is the late Father Oscar Romero, played by Raul Julia on the silver screen. The war raged for 12 years before both sides agreed to a truce in 1992 at The Chapultepec Peace Accords in Mexico, City. Twenty three years have passed since the treaty, and today, not much is said about the small Central American nation. American has long forgotten about the contra scandal and news from El Salvador barely makes it on to American television. Gang violence has surged and the nation finds itself in a battle against crime almost as deadly as the battle between the Duarte administration and the FMLN. Second to Honduras, it has one of the highest murder rates in the world and the battles between far-left and far-right political parties continue making the future of the small nation uncertain. While steps toward improvement have been made, there is still much work to be done. But as long as there are those willing to make it happen, it gives hope and inspiration for others to follow suit.V While it may be easier to forget the civil war that nearly destroyed a nation, doing so would be an incredible injustice to the many innocent victims who gave their lives in an effort to promote peace and change. It is through books such as these and the testimonials of survivors that their lives are never forgotten.
President Kennedy served less than three years in the White House. But in that time, his administration was involved in some of the most important events of the 20th century. Inheriting the Cold War, Indochina and Cuban policies from the Eisenhower administration, the new young President found himself embroiled in situations that would change the course of world history. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the noted historian and author served as Kennedy’s special assistant and advisor at times on the most important decisions made by the Kennedy administration.
Revisiting his time with the late Kennedy, Schlesinger’s memoir serves as an invaluable part of American history and is one of the best sources of information regarding the day-to-day functions behind the scenes in the White House. The major events that threatened world peace and tested the new leader are re-examined and Schlesinger meticulously analyzes the events to show the reader how and why Kennedy reached his decisions and then implemented them as official policy. Critics have lambasted Schlesinger for not discussing the negative aspects of the Kennedys’ lives and in particular the scandals that nearly ruined Kennedy’s political career and reputation. Infidelity, murder, association with organized crime and blackmail hung as dark clouds over the Kennedy administration and threatened to derail hopes for re-election in 1964. When Schlesinger wrote the book, his primary focus was on domestic and foreign policy decisions and not the gossip that spread throughout Washington. And for those who do want to read about the dark side of the dark side of the Kennedy administration, Seymour Hersh already has that covered in his bestselling ‘The Dark Side of Camelot’ .
On November 22, 1963, Kennedy’s life came to a deadly conclusion. And with his death came the loss of feelings of hope, promise and optimism. He signaled a change in American politics, no longer dictated by weapons but by diplomacy, intelligence and empathy. His independence, intelligence and oratory skills have seldom been matched and Schlesinger’s account is a fitting tribute to the slain leader.
The assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) on June 5, 1968 shattered dreams of second Kennedy administration and a new direction for America. His death brought back memories of Dallas in November, 1963 and the violent manner in which he died was similar to the deaths of his brother John, Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. During his campaign, his safety was always of the utmost concern. Kennedy never gave into the fear that gripped those around him and believed himself to be the candidate of the people. From his days as a young attorney general to the candidate that had his eyes on the oval office, Kennedy had embarked on an odyssey which he never completed. That journey and transformation is reviewed here in this first hand account of the late Senator’s presidential campaign presented to us by the late David Halberstam (1934-2007). Halberstam was a noted journalist and historian and followed Kennedy on the campaign trial.
For many years following JFK’s death, Robert of RFK for short, had lived in his brother’s shadow. Finding himself at a loss for words and thoughts after Dallas, it would take several years for the feisty ninth child of Joe and Rose Kennedy to regain his composure and throw his weight into the 1968 election for the presidency. During this time, Kennedy began to evolve both as a candidate and as a human being. His speeches are covered in the book as well as the non-stop efforts of RFK and his staff as they move from city to city in their efforts to recruit potential voters. Through Halberstam’s words, we are able to see the incredible transformation that occurs and the potential in the hands of Kennedy as he becomes the man of the people similar to his late older brother.
The true tragedies behind Kennedy’s death are the widow and ten children he left behind and the ended of a dream that could have possibly changed the course of history for the United States. Lyndon Johnson had removed himself from the election and Kennedy became the overwhelming democratic favorite after winning the California primary. The next stop was Chicago, the state that proved to be critical for Jack’s successful election in 1960. Fate however, changed of all of this and ended the journey Kennedy was on to reinvent himself as not only a candidate for president but one of the greatest figures in American history. In the aftermath of his death and even today, there are many what if questions that remain. We can only guess as to what he would think to have seen the election of Barack Obama and strides that minorities have taken in the United States. Poverty, discrimination, corruption and pollution would still enrage him and he would be at the front of all causes to remedy each one.
Kennedy once said that tragedy was a tool for the living to learn from, not by which to live. His prophetic words still have yet to be learned not only in America but across the world. The tragedy of his death and the deaths of others committed to social reform, equality and prosperity for all people, remind us that there are many afflictions that continue to plague society and those among us committed to wrongdoing and inducing heartache. But it takes those with hearts and minds as strong as Kennedy to stand up and demand reform. In his speeches, actions and writings, we can study the mind of one of America’s fallen angels, the night watchman who believed in getting things done by any means necessary. And by honoring his memory and following his lead we bring out the best in ourselves.