by Jeffrey O’Connell and Thomas O’Connell. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2009. 302pp. Paper. $30.00. ISBN: 9781594602849.

Reviewed by Sheila Suess Kennedy, Professor of Law and Public Policy, School of Public & Environmental Affairs, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Email: shekenne [at] iupui.edu.


I enjoyed reading this book. Unfortunately, I found it enjoyable for the same reason I found it flawed: reading it was like eavesdropping on a conversation between two men of a certain age (in this case, brothers) who are reminiscing over drinks about people they had known and worked with over the course of accomplished careers. There were all sorts of interesting tidbits and insights into the lives and characters of those they chose to chronicle, but the book also has the meandering, uneven, unstructured quality that characterizes such reminiscences.

The book is best described as a collection of “mini-biographical chapters,” some of which are devoted to one person, others of which compare and contrast two people who may or may not have been contemporaries and may or may not have had any other recognizable connections.

Some of the figures chosen for inclusion will be familiar to most readers – Pat Moynihan, Karl Marx, Felix Frankfurter, John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Lippman. Others are considerably less well-known: Joseph Tumulty, William Beveridge, Keith Joseph, Belle Moskowitz.

The authors divide the book into four sections, focusing first on figures who at one time or another held elective office, then on people who operated “behind the throne,” and concluding with subjects whom they categorize as “zealots” and “litigants.” Those somewhat arbitrary and unexplained section headings provide the entirety of the book’s structure. There does not seem to be any overarching theme or expository thesis that would explain why the authors chose the particular individuals they included in the book and why they did not choose others. The book does not appear to be chronologically ordered or discernibly thematic. Most of the subjects were from the United States, but several others were not. Some were lawyers; others were not. In short, if there was any systematic justification for either the choice of their biographical subjects or the decisions to pair up some of them and not others, it was not apparent to this reader. If, as one suspects, these subjects were chosen because the authors either knew them personally, or found them interesting, an introduction explaining that fact would have been preferable to simply presenting readers with an unconnected jumble of chapters.

In the first chapter of the first section, “The Elect(ed): Political Adventurers,” the O’Connells compare Eisenhower and Stevenson, and note the dramatic changes in the way both are perceived [*470] today. The comparatively recent availability of letters and other contemporaneous documents allows the authors to give context to the careers of both men, and to flesh out what was previously known about each of them. In this chapter, a reader encounters what is best about the book – the use of more recently available biographical information to flesh out previously one-dimensional impressions of political actors, to humanize them and to ground them in their time and place. Many of the chapters make use of such resources to good effect.

The other three chapters in the first section offer similar insights into Pat Moynihan, Averill Harriman and Winston Churchill. Moynihan is clearly the authors’ favorite subject; both authors had worked with him and both held him in high esteem. Their affection for him shines through, and the chapter includes several stories and quotes that are not only vintage Moynihan, but that serve to remind the reader why Moynihan was so influential a figure for so long a period. The chapters on Moynihan and Harriman also underscore the interactions and relationships of men in positions of power. This is partly attributable to the fact that the O’Connells knew and worked with both, but it also reflects the reality that for much of American history, men of substance and wealth tended to run in the same (comparatively small) circles.

The fourth chapter focuses on Winston Churchill and his relationship with the Zionist movement and the Jews. It was interesting and readable, but seems totally unconnected to what precedes and succeeds it.

The chapters in the second section continue this pattern. A chapter on the anti-Catholic bigotry faced by Woodrow Wilson’s long-time aide Joseph Tumulty is followed by a chapter comparing two twentieth century British intellectuals, William Beverage and Keith Joseph. (Beverage is best remembered as the “Father of the British Welfare State,” and Joseph – who came along a generation-and-a-half later – is best known as the person who convinced Margaret Thatcher to enter electoral politics.) Then it is back to the United States, and the unlikely life-long friendship of Tommy Corcoran and Ben Cohen, who created major elements of FDR’s New Deal. A chapter on Felix Frankfurter and Walter Lippman and how they met and mingled at a Washington, D.C. residence called “The House of Truth” is followed by a chapter devoted to Frankfurter alone.

The last three chapters in the second section focus on John Kenneth Galbraith, a somewhat strained comparison of Belle Moskowitz (the only female subject included in the book) and Bayard Rustin, and Kenneth O’Donnell (this latter chapter titled “Kenny’s Kennedys: The Rise and Fall of a Courtier”).

The last two sections of the book seem to be afterthoughts. Each contains only two chapters, and whatever tenuous connections may or may not have existed between the subjects of the preceding chapters disappears entirely in the concluding four chapters.

Section III is devoted to “Zealots.” As with the other sections, there is no section introduction, nor any description of what the category was intended to [*471] encompass. The first “zealot” featured was Edward Carson, “The Lawyer Who Brought Down Oscar Wilde and Raised Up Northern Ireland.” The second, more intuitively appropriate, isdevoted to a comparison of Karl Marx and Michael Harrington. Why these individuals and not others? Who knows?

The authors save their most puzzling choices for the final two chapters, in the section they title “The Litigants.” Again, one might think of literally hundreds of “litigants” – lawyers and clients alike – who changed the course of the law, or otherwise attained renown or historical stature. The O’Connells chose the Wright brothers (who engaged in patent litigation) and Truman Capote (whose most famous book, “In Cold Blood,” did focus on a crime and subsequent trial).

As noted above, the absence of structure is the most glaring deficiency in the book, and the most consequential, but it was not the only distraction from the book's merits. The writing style occasionally seems somewhat old-fashioned, or even quaint; it was jarring to read a description of Belle Moskowitz as a “Jewess,” for example. And in their discussion of the lifelong “friendship” between Corcoran and Cohen, it never seemed to occur to the authors that – at least given the way in which they described that friendship – others might speculate on the nature of men’s relationship. (I hasten to add that I possess absolutely no knowledge on that score; I simply note that the way in which the authors described their personal lives would give modern readers reason to ask the question.)

Far more annoying is the very poor proofreading evident throughout. The publisher bears much of the blame for this. There are multiple typos, and in places words and even whole lines were dropped. For the more pedantic among us, this is cause for considerable irritation.

After this enumeration of the book's deficits, it is only fair to reiterate that it had considerable merits as well. The individual chapters are readable and interesting, and there are citations to more comprehensive resources for those who wish to follow up to learn more about the people being discussed. In those chapters devoted to people the authors had personally known, there were interesting tidbits and savvy analyses and insights.

In short, what this book lacks in incisive scholarship and authorial coherence, it makes up for in readability.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Sheila Suess Kennedy.