The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg (Book Review)

History has the potential to be our tutor in humility. I will not claim any excellence in humility, but I will say that what humility I have is in large part due to reading history.

The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg is one of the better historical tutors as it exposes to us not only the lives and actions of our leaders but also the times, controversies, and cultures in which they led.

History can be dull and dry – because the writing makes it so, or the topics are mundane, or because we fail to see what it has to teach us. Yet history can also be exciting and insightful – history teaches us truths like:

  1. Those we judge today as scoundrels or imbeciles are oftentimes our heroes of yesterday.
  2. What seems the only way, the right way, frequently proves the wrong way with the passing of time.
  3. We are greater and worse than those who came before us – leaving us to consider, will we search out the sins of our generation and forsake them or will future generations look back at us in dismay?
  4. We repeat our past with variations. We are not the first to face such a dilemma, nor are we likely to be the last.
  5. People operate within a personal and cultural milieu; their actions are heavily weighted by their experiences and a little more listening, a little more grace, can go a long way towards understanding and appreciating the other.

Lets look at a few examples and I will share some of the lessons I learn from these historical truths:

  1. Anti-immigrant sentiment is not a new phenomenon. John Adams supported and enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts which specifically targeted immigrants. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Anti-immigrant movements are not a new phenomena nor should one dismiss such movements as intellectually crippled, for great minds have supported them.
    2. Question for Consideration: Who were anti-immigration policies focused on? (Hint: Those who now proclaim themselves proudly and truly American were oftentimes the very individuals opposed in the past, e.g. the Irish)
  2. Nor is suppression of freedom of speech a new phenomenon – as John Adams used one of the laws in the Alien and Sedition acts to suppress political opponents. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Freedom of speech has been threatened by great leaders in the past; it is not a new threat, nor does it being threatened mean that we are imminently facing its extinction.[1]
    2. Question: Who else in American history has constrained the rights of American citizens? (Hint: Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus; under FDR during WWII we placed over 160,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps)
  3. Under Andrew Jackson we were the perpetrators of horrific acts of human rights violations as we manhandled Native Americans.[2] (pg. 261)
    1. Lesson: While we should oppose human rights violations around the world, we should not pretend that we are above such abuses.
    2. Question: What other atrocious acts have been committed under the authority of the United States? (Hint: Look for our purposeful infection of individuals in Latin America with a horrible disease, we are talking 20th century; also some of the regimes we have supported despite their genocidal human rights violations)
  4. Ulysses S. Grant fought for African American civil rights but his endeavors were not lasting enough to offset the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, which violently enforced segregation and subjugation. It was with 700,000 Southern African American voters that Grant won the election; but, fast forward a short time into the future and African American civil rights would again be suppressed – including the right to vote. (pg. 278)
    1. Lesson: Americans allowed slavery to endure for a lengthy period of our history and when it was ended there was hope of a new equality, but we failed to protect those who were vulnerable and ensure that might didn’t make right…it was our inaction that allowed subjugation of our fellow members of humanity to continue on.
    2. Question: What other sorts of racism surfaced later in American history? Have we seen any recently? (Hint: Look for riots not just in Southern states but Northern as well – I’m looking at you, New Jersey, for one)
  5. There is something to be learned from Ulysses S. Grant whom Felzenberg notes as the only president “to apologize in his farewell message for his personal and policy failings.” (pg. 285)
    1. Lesson: It requires a deeper dive into U.S. Grant’s personality and circumstances to determine whether this apology came from a healthy place and whether it is something to be imitated by others. At first glance, though, we behold a refreshing humility for one of our elected leaders – the ability to admit one’s own incompetence.
    2. Question: What other American leaders have apologized for their actions? What is true about the character of these individuals as opposed to those who refused to apologize or did so in a belittling manner? (Hint: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan may be a good start)
  6. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt America placed into concentration camps (and thereby abandoned the constitutional rights of) 120,000 Japanese Americans (60%+ were American citizens). (pg. 314)
    1. Lesson: Even if our cause is right we are capable of making grave mistakes that permanently and negatively affect the lives of others.
    2. Question: Have we placed other individuals into concentration camps or otherwise significantly curtailed their liberties? (Hint: Look into the historical treatment of the mentally ill and of those who were ill with HIV/AIDS)
  7. John F. Kennedy, in some ways an astute and successful leader in foreign affairs badly bungled the American-backed invasion of Cuba (pg. 355), and his numerous dalliances with the opposite gender could have been disastrous for national security. (pg. 356).
    1. Lesson: As we consider who will be most careful with our national security it is important to remember that heroes of the past had their great weaknesses as well.
    2. Question: How was John F. Kennedy’s health while in office? (Hint: Look into the consequences of his wartime injuries [WWII] and how this was handled and hidden during his time in office)

What historical books have you read? What lessons have you learned from specific historical events? What questions have historical events raised for you?

  1. [1]Not that I am suggesting we should stop fighting for freedom of speech or be aghast at attempts to deny it, only that in historical context our doomsday predictions are usually not fulfilled.
  2. [2]Some balk at the idea of the United States mistreating Native Americans, insisting this was brought on by their own misbehavior. Even if we were to grant this premise, we would still have committed many acts of atrocious violence against Native American civilians. Sixty thousand Native Americans died traveling the Trail of Tears! (pg. 263) It may also be worth noting that this horrific behavior was opposed by individuals such as American hero, Davy Crockett. (pg. 264)

Gaining a Little Perspective Through History

I am skeptical of the idea, popular especially among evangelical Christians, that society is in a sharp downward spiral – particularly American society. This has resulted not from reading one or two specific volumes but from reading a wide variety of historical literature…and it comes not from volumes attempting to make such an argument but from volumes which incidentally address moral issues in their historical accounts. [Incidentally, my interest in history has revolved for some time to some extent around an understanding of the sociological and psychological…particularly, in understanding the differences, similarities, causes, and effects of behavior in the past and the present…]

A photo held by the Library of Congress of long-time FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover.
A photo held by the Library of Congress of long-time FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover.

[I think elder generations look at younger generations frequently and abhor their moral degeneracy (e.g. profanity, sexual looseness, school violence) while younger generations gaze in confusion and disgust at the moral lapses of the elder generations (e.g. racism, genocide, hypocrisy). I’m not sure either is inferior or superior to the other, rather I hypothesize that history is somewhat cyclical and that the changes reflect difference emphases on moral depravity rather than an increase or decrease in overall depravity.]

Add to this pile an example par excellence in Anthony Summers’ tome Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. Summers takes several years to write each of his books, spends a massive amount of time researching and interviewing as he prepares the volumes, and the sheer amount of knowledge he manages to acquire in this process is clear in this volume in the text itself but also in the extensive end-notes and bibliographical sources he provides.

Let me share just a few representative examples out of so many that this volume contains of moral degeneracy:

  • There was something really wrong with John F. Kennedy. He was addicted to sex or women or something in a way I’ve seldom heard before (e.g. far worse than Bill Clinton)…I knew he had been one to ‘sleep around’ but I had no idea the extent…nor the reckless way in which his actions endangered the nation (nor that it included prostitutes). [This was apparently a pervasive issue for the Kennedy’s, Joe Kennedy’s (the father) sexual exploits are well-known, and Robert Kennedy doesn’t emerge unscathed either.]
  • While still controversial, it seems fairly clear, that for all Martin Luther King Jr.’s positive attributes and accomplishments that he also was a frequent philanderer. As a pastor, I find this especially disconcerting. [The evidence for these sexual improprieties was presented to newspapers – for JFK, MLK, etc. but at this time would not be printed or acknowledged…which to me raises the question – how much have these sort of things increased in frequency and how much where they simply ignored in the past?]
  • Summers makes a strong case that J. Edgar Hoover persecuted homosexuals so vehemently because he himself was one and wanted to reduce suspicions regarding his own sexuality via this persecution. Further, Hoover appears to have been involved in pedophiliac relationships with teenage boys. [It is worth noting that homosexuality is not a cause of pedophilia. Pedophilia is frighteningly common among heterosexuals.]
  • The overwhelming prevalence of bomb threats and actual bombings (domestic terrorism). [Compare this especially to the school shootings of contemporary society.]
  • The prevalence of organized crime and its close ties with many significant political figures (including Hoover, JFK). [Gang violence is horrifying, but I have high doubts that the level of sophistication is anywhere near that achieved by the mafia in its heyday.]
  • The extent of wiretapping, strong-arming, blackmail, violence, and other techniques to quell political opponents. [While I won’t make any excuses for the extent of contemporary abuses of power in observing American citizens by governmental powers, I will note that it appears to be largely passive in nature whereas in the past it was oftentimes active (and violently so).]
  • The extent to which racism permeated official government institutions as well as society at large. [Traditionally northerners sometimes perceive racism as a ‘Southern’ problem – but racism was deeply embedded in the north as well…and sadly, is still a much bigger problem than we oftentimes care to admit…if you doubt me, see the Newark (New Jersey) riots of 1967.]
  • The hypocritical behavior of many of our best leaders. [I am not upset that these individuals, for example, were excessively profane and vulgar in their speech, but rather the hypocritical manner in which they publicly derided such behavior while privately engaging in it to the hilt.]
  • The many disconcerting questions remaining around the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe, and even J. Edgar Hoover – questions which raise the possibility of involvement by government officials (sometimes at the highest levels) as well as organized crime (in collusion with government officials). [The implications here are that the government was potentially not nearly as controlled by democratic principles as we would like to imagine. See also the prevalence of organized crime mentioned previously.]

Reading this list should clue you in that this read is not entirely pleasant and for those who find profanity disturbing in their reading – this book is not for you. The profanity while historically accurate (e.g. direct quotes) is pervasive…and while Summers never seeks to titillate in describing the sexual behavior of various individuals, the presence of immoral sexual behavior is also pervasive.

My main suggestion, should the book be rewritten is that some of the material be moved into the end notes. For example, Summers gives numerous in-text examples of how individuals perceived other individuals (e.g. how JFK and Nixon perceived J. Edgar Hoover and vice versa), a representative example or two could be given and an end note then referenced which provides the more exhaustive list that is currently in-text.

[Let me conclude by noting what I believe is the ‘take-away’ from my hypothesis that society tends to run in a circular manner of immorality, in which the shape of immorality changes from generation to generation rather than the amount of immorality (and I do think there are exceptions, I just think we are horribly inclined to view every other generation as ‘worse’ than ourselves b/c their immorality is different than our own). I do not mean this to be a ‘then we shouldn’t worry about our own immorality.’ Rather it is a call to mind our own immorality…rather than focusing on other’s, or as Christ told us – to take the log out of our own eye before attempting to take the speck out of another’s.

It is easy for individuals in each generation to become incensed at those in another for the failures they have or are committing morally…and doing so puts the generations at odds…but this stirs up anger and resentment and does nothing to clear up the issues of immorality.

In general, we would do better to remove judgment on whose sin is worse and instead focus on what the sins of our generation are and how we can address them.]

[For those interested in examining, proving, or disproving my hypothesis, a few of the other works which have been influential in my forming these conclusions include (a) Christian Scripture (compare what is taught versus what is lived), (b) John Toland’s Adolf Hitler, (c) John Toland’s Empire of the Rising Sun, (d) William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, (e) Jeff Shaara’s Revolutionary War (Rise to Rebellion, The Glorious Cause) and Civil War (Gods and Generals, The Last Full Measure) novels, and (f) H.W. Brand’s The Money Men.]