Mary Oliver does it again with A Thousand Mornings, a short
collection of poetry that offers her signature realism and wholesome, literal
evocation of her tasteful and spectacularly insightful reactions to the world
around her, and around us.
The reader is never in doubt about what
she’s saying—obscurity is not her thing, and disjointed word play and annoying
sentence fragments are not her thing. I take instruction from Mary Oliver every
time I read her work.
There is calm, quiet joy in her words.
She invites the reader to respect stillness. Here’s an excerpt from “Today”
Book review: Lafayette:
Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General
by Marc Leepson
Palgrave Macmillan, New
I’m a first-time reader of
Lafayette biographies, so I’ll acknowledge that Leepson entertains by
re-stating the obvious: Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de la
Fayette was a national, military, political and, indeed, a paternal hero to
millions in America and France during the American and (several) French
There is no doubt that,
despite the fact that he was one of the richest French nobles of his time, he
was publicly and privately dedicated to republican government and a
social/economic order that was far more egalitarian than the monarchical and
aristocratic structures that prevailed.
Was Lafayette a great man?
Leepson, like many of his biographers, says yes. Lafayette was a courageous
battlefield leader, he was an enlightened manorial lord who enhanced the lives
of his peasants, and he was both outspoken and fearless, repeatedly, in
literally dangerous political situations for a couple decades in Revolutionary
and Napoleonic France. Leepson amply demonstrates these lifelong
characteristics of the man Americans called “our Marquis.”
I feel obliged to call
attention to some countervailing factors that Leepson fully describes but does
not adequately interpret.
Lafayette put his money
where his mouth was. He repeatedly used his great personal wealth to pay and
outfit the troops he commanded, when government funds and supplies ran low. I
suggest a case could be made that the Marquis, almost uniquely among American
commanders, paid for his military success in the Revolutionary War. Throughout
the war, the options and operations of colonial commanders were significantly
hindered by short funds and short supplies. If Lafayette had not been able to
pay, feed, clothe and arm his troops with his personal resources, could he have
been as winning a general as he was? I suspect the answer is “No.”
Some biographers refer to
Lafayette as the “victor” at Yorktown in 1781. Leepson says that Lafayette’s
campaigning in Virginia in the spring and summer of 1781 “led to the victory at
Yorktown.” Lafayette was not the only American general at Yorktown, and he
wasn’t the only French general. Lafayette did use his small force to isolate
Cornwallis in Yorktown, but he had to wait until Washington, Rochambeau and
others arrived with sufficient forces before he participated in the final
In France he repeatedly
declined to step up to the plate and take executive leadership, during the
revolutionary and Napoleonic convulsions, when the French people and the
contentious military/political factions would have handed the throne or the
presidency of France to him on a velvet pillow. The Marquis repeatedly risked
his life to defuse explosive situations by his personal, courageous
intervention. However, Leepson fastidiously details Lafayette’s repeated
reluctance to take the final step and take control when, arguably, he could
have stabilized dangerous situations, and forestalled or prevented catastrophic
consequences, by doing so. Lafayette wasn’t responsible for the violence, but,
time after time, he left a void that was unfortunately filled by lesser men.
Was Lafayette a great man?
Yes. A successful general? Yes. Was he a really lucky guy? Yes. Did he and his
reputation benefit immensely from great wealth and fortuitous circumstance?
Yes. Did he live up to his potential in serving France and the French nation?
A final note: for my taste,
neither Leepson nor Gen. Wesley Clark (in his Foreword) lives up to the promise
of sifting “lessons in leadership” from Lafayette’s battlefield and political
exploits, or his largely exemplary personal character. I think the fact is that
almost all of the notable events in Lafayette’s public and private lift were as
much circumstantial as anything else. Certainly, in the worst of times during
the French Revolutions, when he could have demonstrated compelling leadership
for the lasting benefit of his countrymen and nation, Lafayette came up short.
First things first:
Miller’s title sets him up for failure. It defies even the murkiest conception
of common sense to argue that Americans don’t want a great president. I hazard
the guess that it’s impossible to define “great president” in a way that would
satisfy most readers.
More substantially, The
End of Greatness isn’t a worthwhile read for me because, right up
front, Miller acknowledges his endorsement of the "Great
Man" theory of historical understanding that was championed
initially in the 1840s by the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. The theory is
often cited but it has only quite diminished standing today, as most historians
and informed thinkers believe that durable circumstances and the complex
dynamics of human interaction have much more impact than "Great Men"
on our lives and on history as it unfolds. So, Miller gets started on the wrong
foot, and his arguments can’t overcome the narrowness of his analysis.
“Where are the giants of
old, the transformers who changed the world and left great legacies?” Where
are the leaders who “will author some incomparable, unparalleled, and ennobling
achievement at home or on the world stage, an achievement likely to be seen or
remembered as great or transformational?” Miller cites rebellions and revolutions
as “crucibles for emerging leaders.”
He can’t escape defining
“greatness” and offers: “defined generally as incomparable and unparalleled
achievement that is nation- or even world-altering.” A couple pages later he
digs the hole deeper when he equates greatness with military, political,
economic and “soft” power. Incredibly, Miller declares “Greatness in the
presidency may be rare, but it is both real and measurable,” and he
temptingly alludes to “traces of greatness” in several contemporary presidents,
while arguing “Greatness in the presidency is too rare to be relevant in our
Miller makes it official on page 10: Lincoln was one of the great presidents.
Lincoln once dismissed another man’s argument by saying “it won’t scour,” as
19th century farmers said that a plow “won’t scour” when it
failed to easily let the clods slide off the plowshare.
I think Miller’s thesis
won’t scour. He mistakenly asserts that a few great leaders should get much of
the credit for history’s “transformations.” He frames his arguments with words
that can’t be acceptably, explicitly defined on the grand historical scale that
he uses: what is and what isn’t, specifically and unarguably, a “great legacy”?
a “transformation”? an “unparalleled achievement”? a “trace of greatness”?
Miller relies on great big
categories and a deceptive positive spin to discuss a little idea, and to make
a gratuitous point that really can’t be proved or disproved.(1)
Full disclosure: I didn’t read the whole book. The Introduction stopped me
(1) Aaron David Miller, The
End of Greatness (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 4-14.
I think Prof. Nordhaus has
given us a remarkable achievement: a solid, sobering, stimulating, scientific,
scary book on human-caused global climate change, that leaves no room for doubt
about the prospect that climate change deniers are going to sweat more, like
the rest of us, in coming decades.
This is not a book about
Apocalypse. If anything, the Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University
writes with an even temper and drily matter-of-fact language that is a teensy
bit annoying, given the massively dangerous, initial impacts of climate change
and global warming that are already unavoidable.
I think the principal value
of The Climate Casino is that Nordhaus lays out the economic
(cost/benefit) framework of policy considerations and possible remedial steps
that the nations of the world, and mankind, can take to deal with the fact that
we’re putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
In simplest terms, he says
there are many things we can do to mitigate global warming….some are more
costly than others and some are very expensive….some folks and some companies
and some countries will have to pay more of the costs than others.
I was surprised to read his
conclusion that humans can likely survive the initial moderate impacts of
global climate change/warming without substantial social and economic
disruption, if we start seriously working on it now—there is a big pricetag,
but we can tolerate it.
(I mention, for the record,
that Nordhaus carefully discusses the unpredictable, and more than trivially
possible, catastrophic “tipping points” in climate disruption that might occur
regardless of what we do or don’t do—think Dennis Quaid and “The Day After
We’re going to have to stop
using coal around the world, or figure out how to burn it cleanly. And more
generally, we’re going to have to figure out how to require companies and
individuals to pay the true cost of burning fossil fuels, that is, the present
and future cost of the damage those fuels cause to our environment and to our
grandchildren’s prospects for survival.
It was remotely heartening
to read Nordhaus’ estimate that we have a reasonable chance of dealing with
global warming if we get the ball rolling now, and make sure everyone pays the
This is the only planet our
grandchildren will have to live on. We must do the right thing for them.