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Private Lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America / Edition 1

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Overview

A political leader's decisions can determine the fate of a nation, but what determines how and why that leader makes certain choices? William H. Chafe, a distinguished historian of twentieth century America, examines eight of the most significant political leaders of the modern era in order to explore the relationship between their personal patterns of behavior and their political decision-making process. The result is a fascinating look at how personal lives and political fortunes have intersected to shape America over the past fifty years.

One might expect our leaders to be healthy, wealthy, genteel, and happy. In fact, most of these individuals--from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Martin Luther King, Jr., from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton--came from dysfunctional families, including three children of alcoholics; half grew up in poor or only marginally secure homes; most experienced discord in their marriages; and at least two displayed signs of mental instability. What links this extraordinarily diverse group is an intense ambition to succeed, and the drive to overcome adversity. Indeed, adversity offered a vehicle to develop the personal attributes that would define their careers and shape the way they exercised power.

Chafe probes the influences that forged these men's lives, and profiles the distinctive personalities that molded their exercise of power in times of danger and strife. The history of the United States from the Depression into the new century cannot be understood without exploring the dynamic and critical relationship between personal history and political leadership that these eight life stories so poignantly reveal.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World

Private Lives/Public Consequences pinpoints the events and influences that helped 10 prominent 20th-century Americans become the people that history knows.
— Jonathan Yardley

News & Observer

In eight well-paced, well-written chapters, Chafe sketches portraits of 10 influential modern Americans: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the Clintons, Hillary and Bill. These 'interpretive historical and biographical assessments' tackle one of the great human mysteries: 'What is there in the personal profile of a leader that predisposes him or her to make a decision in a certain direction?'...Showing us how such pivotal early moments shaped many of these leaders later in life—when it counted—makes these familiar figures feel fresh...Intellectually honest, vivid and creative, this book represents an important retreat from the intellectual abstractionism and parlor Marxism bewitching historians.
— Gil Troy

San Francisco Chronicle

Chafe's sketches of both the private and public lives of some of the most influential Americans of the 20th century are fascinating reading. In his customary elegant style, he provides a vivid series of concise biographical sketches laced with revealing vignettes and anecdotes. Written by one of the doyens of 20th century American history, this book deserves to be widely read.
— Dan Cornford

PsycCritiques

This book is an enjoyable recreational read, with some wonderful quotations and anecdotes, often by famous people, with a sense of immediacy on the possible relationship of personality to some major national crises (e.g., the Cuban missile crisis) and national political developments (e.g., civil rights).
— Frank Farley

Linda K. Kerber
It is hard for anyone to say anything new about the people about whom William Chafe writes--Martin Luther King, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, John and Robert Kennedy, Hillary and Bill Clinton. But in this compelling book, one of the finest historians of our time reveals their unfamiliar shadows, showing us their deep and complex humanity and, at the same time, showing us much that we need to understand about American political life. A joyful and heartbreaking book.
Richard Polenberg
The strength of this work lies in the intelligent way Chafe draws on the most recent scholarship to formulate an argument about the relationship between political leaders' "character" and the decisions they make. Each chapter offers a fresh, insightful take on the crucial life experiences that influenced political figures from the Roosevelts to the Clintons.
Gary Gerstle
Rarely has one book provided so much insight into the personal convictions, tragedies, and demons that have shaped the careers of America's greatest political leaders. William Chafe writes about his subjects with passion, lucidity, and an appreciation for the mix of moral strength and carnal weakness, soaring vision and paralyzing paranoia, and sincerity and artifice that both elevated our leaders and brought them down. A gripping read from beginning to end.
Washington Post Book World - Jonathan Yardley
Private Lives/Public Consequences pinpoints the events and influences that helped 10 prominent 20th-century Americans become the people that history knows.
News & Observer - Gil Troy
In eight well-paced, well-written chapters, Chafe sketches portraits of 10 influential modern Americans: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the Clintons, Hillary and Bill. These 'interpretive historical and biographical assessments' tackle one of the great human mysteries: 'What is there in the personal profile of a leader that predisposes him or her to make a decision in a certain direction?'...Showing us how such pivotal early moments shaped many of these leaders later in life--when it counted--makes these familiar figures feel fresh...Intellectually honest, vivid and creative, this book represents an important retreat from the intellectual abstractionism and parlor Marxism bewitching historians.
San Francisco Chronicle - Dan Cornford
Chafe's sketches of both the private and public lives of some of the most influential Americans of the 20th century are fascinating reading. In his customary elegant style, he provides a vivid series of concise biographical sketches laced with revealing vignettes and anecdotes. Written by one of the doyens of 20th century American history, this book deserves to be widely read.
PsycCritiques - Frank Farley
This book is an enjoyable recreational read, with some wonderful quotations and anecdotes, often by famous people, with a sense of immediacy on the possible relationship of personality to some major national crises (e.g., the Cuban missile crisis) and national political developments (e.g., civil rights).
Publishers Weekly
For FDR, it was polio. For Martin Luther King Jr., a spiritual breakdown from threats to his life and family. JFK's was the heroic rescue of fellow sailors from the sinking navy vessel PT 109, and for Robert Kennedy it was the experience of his brother's assassination. According to Chafe, a professor of history at Duke University, these "moments of crisis" shaped the political framework of the 20th century's most notable leaders. Identifying such pivotal moments, and their resultant "patterns of behavior," appears to be the primary purpose of Chafe's eight biographical essays. For though he introduces this book with a lofty preamble on the relationship between the private and the political, his presentation is more gossipy than scholarly. He uses no formal notation from primary resources, and his psychological analyses, while likely grounded in some established fact, tend to make wild generalizations. Yet his collection succeeds as an engaging series of political portraits that condense a tremendous amount of historical material into short, opinionated essays. His depictions of Joe Kennedy's influence on his sons, LBJ's manipulations of power and Nixon's paranoia offer insight into their agendas and decision making, but it is the final essay on the Clintons that best exemplifies the blurry distinction between private and public. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In his lucid introduction to these eight biopolitical profiles, Chafe (history, Duke Univ.; The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II) writes that although he has devoted his academic career to showing that social movements are the driving force of American history, modern American political leaders have made a huge impact by dint of their personal decisiveness and how they coped with particular life challenges. He analyzes the lives of FDR and influential wife Eleanor, Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. His vivid and revealing portraits illustrate how a life crisis (such as polio for FDR, JFK's assassination for Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King's wrestling with God during one particular night) gave purpose to his subjects' personal and political lives. Chafe deepens his essays by discussing the positive and negative influences of family role models upon these men. Most of this information has been published in other sources, but Chafe skillfully integrates it, showing the complex relationship between personality and political leadership. Although there are no endnotes, he includes a short bibliographical essay. Engrossing and informative, this book brings 20th-century U.S. history alive. For most public and academic libraries.-Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674018778
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/20/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

William H. Chafe is Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History, and former Dean of the Faculty, at Duke University
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Table of Contents

Introduction

1. The Roosevelts: A Partnership Unprecedented

2. Martin Luther King Jr.: Toward the Promised Land

3. John F. Kennedy: From Detachment to Engagement

4. Robert F. Kennedy: Despair and Commitment

5. Lyndon Baines Johnson: A Need for Consensus

6. Richard M. Nixon: Genius and Paranoia

7. Ronald Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

8. The Clintons: A Flawed Co-Presidency

Conclusion

Bibliographical Essay

Acknowledgments

Index

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