Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Book review: Commander in Chief

First off, let me just say that Geoffrey Perret is one cranky son of a gun. He has nary a kind word for anyone who has occupied any part of the Executive Branch over the last 60 years of American history, except--maybe--for JFK or, surprisingly, Jimmy Carter. His book, which focuses on Harry Truman, LBJ, and George W. Bush, and their involvements in disastrous misadventures in Asiatic wars, is actually a capsule history of the US Presidency's long-term power grab via their Constitutional role as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Each President is dealt with in turn, but the bulk of his analysis is given over to a brutal raking over the coals of Truman and his apparently poorly qualified staff. To be sure, neither LBJ nor Bush come off any better, but in Perret's eyes, they were simply playing the cards that Truman allowed them to deal themselves as Chief Executive.
None of the Presidents Perret covers were at all adept at understanding foreign policy, it seems, since all of them chose to go to war instead of engaging in any form of mature communication with "the enemy", preferring instead to bluster, posture, and kill. From Truman's ill-timed foray by proxy in Korea against Mao's China to Bush's blatant disregard for any dissenting opinions, our Presidents have all helped create the complete meltdown in foreign affairs we feel today.
This is a fascinating and bracing account of our history since the end of World War II, driven well by great writing and pacing. Some (many?) may disagree with Perret's negative views of Presidential acumen, regardless of his target, but none will come away bored or understimulated.

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