Reading Has Shaped My Life....

I have a lot of hobbies and interests - baseball, folk art, American history, automobiles - but my true love is reading. Reading has shaped my life and built my career. As I began to think about the design of our website, I knew I wanted to have a section on book recommendations. I don't expect visitors to necessarily act on my suggestions, but I hope they will find the short descriptions interesting and provocative. At the end of each mini-review, I offer an insight or lesson learned. Going forward, we will also be continually updating each of the 7 trend arenas in McGinnSights with dozens of recommended articles. Happy reading. Dan McGinn


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Churchill Defiant: Fighting On: 1946-1955

Why is it that the ship beats the waves? This is a question Winston Churchill pondered as he sailed from Great Britain to the U.S. in 1946 aboard the Queen Elizabeth with 12,000 retiring Canadian soldiers. He was on the upper deck of the ship early one morning and watched as the ship knifed through wave after massive wave. The waves were so many he thought, and the ship just one. Yet the ship prevailed. The reason, he concluded, is that the ship has a purpose, but the waves have none.

I would have loved this book for this story alone. There is much more, however, to make this book a good investment of time. Churchill Defiant is the story of his post WWII life. It seemed over when his party was defeated in 1945, but another remarkable phase of his career was yet to come.

An aside. In my collection of political memorabilia, I am pleased to have a great Churchill autograph that I acquired 25 years ago in London, as well as a campaign style button marking his famous Cold War address at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. (This is where Churchill first spoke of an "Iron Curtain" descending across Europe.)

Lesson Learned: Words matter. People respond to stories, not facts and statistics.

Morning Miracle

By Dave Kindred
Morning Miracle

A fascinating and insightful book on the revolution that has occurred over the last decade in the newspaper industry. The Washington Post gave Dave Kindred extraordinary access to their strategic and business debates. Why has the Post struggled with its online business? How did Kaplan Enterprises become so important to the Post? Kindred explains in an entertaining and provocative manner.

Lesson Learned: Competition can come from unexpected places. (Craigslist decimated the classified ad business.)

1912

By James Chace
1912

With the 2012 presidential election fast approaching, a look back 100 years to the 1912 election reveals some amazing parallels and a few surprising differences. In 1912, William Taft, the incumbent President, was under siege. His dear friend, mentor and running mate, Teddy Roosevelt, had turned on him and was determined to recapture the White House. A little known Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, offered hope to the Democrats, who had been on the short end of presidential elections for two generations. And a Socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, mounted one of the most successful third party campaigns in history. High drama, vitriol, back room deals, sensational media and a surprising outcome - 1912 had it all.

Lesson Learned: American politics have always been volatile, nasty and unpredictable.

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant

By Ulysses S. Grant
Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant

This may seem like an odd choice, but it is a book (actually it's two volumes) worth noting. Historians have long ranked Grant's memoirs as the best presidential autobiography. For most people, Grant is best remembered as the grizzled, shabbily-attired Civil War General who was never thought to be as smart or inspiring as Robert E Lee. His presidency is remembered as one of the most corrupt in history. I have often wondered what there was to Grant beyond these simple two-dimensional images. The memoirs bring him to life in ways I never expected. He is very shrewd, reads people well and is refreshingly self-deprecating.

The story behind the memoirs is fascinating. Late in his life, Grant suffered a severe financial loss and was fearful his family would become destitute. Samuel Clemens persuaded him to write his memoirs as a means of restoring his financial health. Grant, who was suffering from throat cancer, undertook the task with a tremendous sense of urgency. He moved to a cottage in upstate New York and wrote for 10 hours a day until he finished. And then he died. The cottage has been preserved exactly as it was on his last day. As Clemens predicted, the book was an enormous financial success, netting his estate more than $500k.

Lesson Learned: A reminder that looks and image can be deceptive.

Destiny of the Republic

By Candice Millard
Destiny of the Republic

One of the best books I've read this year. Surprising, fascinating and provocative. Like most people, I barely knew anything about President Garfield except that he was assassinated and received poor medical care. As it turns out, he was an exceptionally talented and capable leader. The story of his death has all the drama and suspense of a great crime novel. Even non-historians will be fascinated by the series of mistakes and blunders that characterized his medical care. One fascinating tidbit - Robert Todd Lincoln was present at Garfield's assassination. He was also with his father when he died and with President McKinley when he was shot.

Lesson Learned: Be very careful who you turn to for advice. Garfield's aides and family trusted in medical experts who were utterly unprepared and scientifically ignorant.

Unbroken

By Laura Hillenbrand
Unbroken

I read Unbroken while on a trip to Asia last year. It's the kind of book where you dread turning the page, yet you can't stop reading. Laura Hillenbrand discovered the story of Louie Zamperini while conducting research for her other great book, Seabiscuit.

Louie Zamperini was an excellent athlete. At one time he held the record for the fastest mile by a high school runner. In 1936, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic team that competed in the "Nazi" games in Berlin.

But this story is about the extraordinary ordeal he went through as a downed airman in WWII. Everything that happened to him after his plane crashed is beyond belief. He survived longer at sea than anyone on record. Upon reaching land, he was immediately captured by the Japanese and thrown in jail. His ordeal as a POW must be read to be believed.

His life after being released is equally miraculous. A special book, but brace yourself.

An aside. As a page on Capitol Hill in the early 1970's, I met members of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. Also, in the 1980's, on a trip to Berlin, I slipped into the Olympic stadium and jogged around the track where Jesse Owens had his moment of glory. I later climbed into the box where Hitler and his cronies sat during the games. I stood there on a cold December day, in an empty stadium, and thought about the moment Jesse Owens landed a blow against Nazism.

Lesson Learned: This is a wonderful example of powerful, irresistible, unforgettable storytelling.

Snowball

By Alice Schroeder
Snowball

Everything about Warren Buffet fascinates me. Where did he come from? How did he become such a good communicator and storyteller? What is he like personally? What are his passions? What is the essence of his genius? Alice Schroeder was given great access and it shows. At the same time, this isn't a total love fest. Buffet's personal life is complex and unconventional and it's presented in an unvarnished manner. A great read about one of the most important business leaders of the last 100 years.

Lesson Learned: Buffet is a genius because he does two things better than anybody - his investment decisions are based on his ability to synthesize an enormous volume of data and he communicates simply and clearly.

Rawhide Down

By Del Quentin Wilber
Rawhide Down

This is a remarkable story. When I first heard of the book, I had little interest in reading it. I was working for the Ways and Means Committee at the time of the assassination attempt on Reagan, and I thought I knew all there was to know about this tragic event. I was wrong. This is a gripping, minute-by-minute tale of what happened at the hotel, GW Hospital and the White House. I was left with a greater appreciation for the character and bravery of President Reagan and for the brilliance of the medical team. At the same time, the actions of some of the President's senior staff left a lot to be desired. Great reading for anyone interested in crisis management.

Lesson Learned: Even the most sophisticated and deeply experienced organizations are often unprepared for a totally foreseeable, high-risk crisis.

Last Lion

By Peter Canellos
Last Lion

This book was a pleasant surprise. It is a richer, softer, more conciliatory and more interesting story than I ever expected. Teddy Kennedy was at the center of Washington from the moment he was born. I remember being in Senator Kennedy's office and noticing a framed item on a wall from President Hoover. It was the congratulatory note the President sent Joe and Rose Kennedy in honor of Teddy's birth.

His was a life of privilege, achievement, tragedy and personal failures. Many believe he will go down as one of the greatest senators in American history. Others believe he represents all that was wrong with America over the last 40 years.

Much like Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Kennedy pushed to complete his life story as he battled an illness that he knew was going to take his life. I'm convinced that context added depth and nuance to the book.

Lesson Learned: Great leaders often have to overcome devastating personal tragedies.

Going Home to Glory

By David Eisenhower
Going Home to Glory

One of my favorite books of the last 10 years. This is an absolute treasure. I have read a lot about "President" Eisenhower and "General" Eisenhower, but very little about "former President" Eisenhower. David Eisenhower, the President's grandson, and the namesake for Camp David, is both the narrator of the story and an active participant in many of the key events. It is a side of Ike few have ever seen. His flashes of temper over things both big and little. The painful discomfort he felt about open expressions of affection. And a love letter he wrote David when he went off to school. Ike lived a life so big, it is almost impossible today to see him as a regular guy interested in golf, raising cattle and grilling a steak. David succeeds in making his grandfather very human - and even more admirable.

PS. Shortly after reading this book, I had the pleasure of attending a Nationals baseball game with former Congressman Tom Davis, David Eisenhower and his son, Alex. As it turns out, Tom and David were roommates at Amherst. We spent a great afternoon discussing baseball trivia (David is extremely knowledgeable), the book and the 2012 presidential race. (I plead the 5th on his predictions).

Lesson Learned: There was a time when compromise and moderation were considered admirable qualities.

FDR's Funeral Train

By Robert Klara
FDR's Funeral Train

Another one of my favorite books. The story covers FDR's last trip to Warm Springs, Georgia, his sudden death, the arrangements to get his body back to Washington and the funeral train to Hyde Park, NY. It is filled with rich detail - the mad rush to find a suitable casket in Georgia; President Roosevelt's insistence that his train always operate at a leisurely 30 mph; and the drama that played out between Eleanor Roosevelt and her daughter, Anna, when the first lady learned that Anna had facilitated meetings between her father and his longtime mistress, Lucy Rutherford. In fact, Ms. Rutherford was with the President when he died.

The President's rail car, the Ferdinand Magellan, is currently in a rail museum in Florida. This is the same car that Harry Truman used for his whistle stop campaign in 1948. A number of years ago, a client arranged for me to have dinner in this rail car. It was a special evening. I could feel the history.

Lesson Learned: The transition of leadership is a challenge for most organizations. FDR was a brilliant leader, but he let the country down by failing to prepare Truman for the job of President.

Dethroning the King

By Julie Macintosh
Dethroning the King

How is it that Budweiser, the self proclaimed "King of Beers" and the Goliath of the U.S. beer market, couldn't survive as an independent company? For years, I have been telling clients that the most dangerous position is "Biggest, Best, First and Most." Anheuser Busch is proof of this axiom.

The Busch family was obsessed with obtaining more than 50% market share in the U.S., and they succeeded. But the laser-like focus that allowed them to achieve this goal blinded them to the risks they faced from global competitors. Augie Busch assumed he would be the acquirer, not the acquiree. He was wrong. It is a story of ambition, family squabbles, high finance, poor decisions and the loss of an American icon.

Lesson Learned: Every organization, no matter how big or successful, is vulnerable.

Citizens of London

By Lynne Olson
Citizens of London

A terrific book from one of my favorite authors, Lynne Olson. A few years back, she wrote The Murrow Boys, the story of Edward R. Murrow and the creation of the powerhouse news team he built at CBS. Citizens of London focuses on Murrow again as well as the American Ambassador to Great Britain, John Gilbert Winant (who replaced Joe Kennedy) and Averell Harriman.

This is less about WWII and more about the remarkable lives of these three individuals. The hook, of course, is Winant, a figure largely lost in history. Olson portrays him as an heroic figure that understood what was at stake and fully committed his life and position to helping Great Britain leverage maximum support from the U.S.

An aside: my colleague Peter Fenn, a great guy and brilliant political strategist, worked for Pamela Harriman in the '80s and had a chance to meet Averell Harriman. Remember, Harriman, a rail tycoon and FDR's roving ambassador, was one of the few people who had close personal relationships with Churchill, FDR and Stalin.

Lesson Learned: In the middle of a crisis, perspective is everything. Joe Kennedy wanted America to stay out of the fight. Winant knew we had to go all in.

Alice

By Stacy Cordery
Alice

From literally her first breath, Alice Roosevelt Longworth lived a life of drama. On the same day and in the same house, Teddy Roosevelt experienced life and death in a way that few people have known. Within a matter of hours, his first child, Alice, was born, his wife, Alice Lee, died from childbirth, and his mother passed away in his arms.

Many historians believe this day must be understood to fully appreciate the arc of his life and Alice's as well. It was in response to these tragedies, for example, that the future President abandoned his daughter and set off for the Badlands. It is said that he never spoke his wife's name again.

To say that Alice was ahead of her time is an enormous understatement. On politics, fashion, gossip, parenting, women's rights, sex - and a host of other social, cultural and political topics - she was multiple generations ahead. Imagine in today's 24-hour media cycle, a daughter of a popular former President, and wife of the Speaker of the House, who has an affair with an influential Senator and has his child.

When I first arrived in Washington, Alice Roosevelt Longworth was still holding court at her house in Dupont Circle. Her life is proof of how brief the American story is. John Hay, Lincoln's personal Secretary, served as her Father's Secretary of State. And in the 1950s and 60s she was a booster of Richard Nixon.

An invitation to one of her dinner parties was considered a major coup. The guest list was always fascinating and the conversation was predictably combustible. Famously, she kept an embroidered pillow on her couch with the following saying: "If you don't have anything good to say about someone, come sit beside me."

Lesson Learned: A reminder again that we are all shaped by our earliest experiences.

Bloody Crimes

By James L. Swanson
Bloody Crimes

Like millions of Americans, I am fascinated by our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. I think he is the most extraordinary and important figure in American history. I have often wondered what the world of the 20th Century would have been like if Lincoln had negotiated an end to the Civil War that resulted in a divided continent. Would Germany have prevailed in WWI or WWII? If the U.S. were composed of two (and likely more) sovereign countries, we have to assume that many of the great American accomplishments of the 20th century - the defeat of Nazism, victory in the Cold War, landing a man on the moon - would not have occurred.

This book is about the end of Lincoln's life and the amazing spectacle of his death and burial. On a parallel track, it also follows the end of Jefferson Davis' tenure as President of the Confederacy and his death and burial in 1889.

Lincoln's funeral was anything but traditional or conservative. It was, in fact, the greatest spectacle in the history of the Republic. This is not an exaggeration. His body (without the benefit of modern embalming products) was placed on a train and transported more than 1600 miles over a two week span. The itinerary was a simple reversal of the path he followed when coming to Washington for his inauguration in March of 1861. (A little known footnote to history - a young Teddy Roosevelt stood in the doorway of his family home in New York and watched as the President's body passed by.)

I am very fortunate to have a number of Lincoln items in my political collection, including a funeral fan and printed program from one of the services.

Lesson Learned: Great leadership requires vision married up with courage and determination.