Tag Archives: U.S. presidents

InCity Times book review

We love this Downtown Worcester presidential classic! This patriotic mural’s been with us for years! pic: R.T.

The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that defined a nation

By Thomas Fleming, (2015, Da Capo Press, 424 Pages)

Reviewed by Steven R. Maher

As Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton battle it out for the Presidency, polls show many Americans are disgusted by the level to which politics in the country has sunk. As candidates and their surrogates launch vicious television attacks on each other’s business dealings and private lives, Americans wonder how the country got to the point where anonymous attacks via social media, innuendo and character assassination are commonly practiced tactics.

But to the contrary, such partisan bickering, particularly anonymous attacks, are nothing new. As historian Thomas Fleming shows in his book, “The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that defined a nation,” such methods began in the earliest days of the republic. Opponents of Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton published sexual accusations about each other. If there had been Twitter in those days, there is little doubt that Jefferson and Hamilton would have been clicking out daily attacks on each other with the verve and gusto of a Donald Trump.

Different visions

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had different visions of America’s future. Both men had been shaped by their experiences in the Revolutionary War. Washington found himself enduring terrible winters at Valley Forge and Morristown, sending out letters to Congress pleading for supplies for his famished and ill-clothed army. Congress lacked the legal authority to impose the taxes necessary to fund an army. Washington wanted a strong government, capable of raising an army to defend the country at short notice. Washington sought to launch America on a capitalistic future, using markets and American entrepreneurship to develop the industries needed for the country’s prosperity.

Jefferson, as portrayed by Fleming, was a failure during the American Revolution. He was nearly captured by the British and failed to raise, as Governor of Virginia, sufficient militia forces to fight off British troops, led in some cases by the traitor Benedict Arnold who conducted devastating raids across Virginia. Jefferson saw America’s future as primarily agricultural, without a Navy or modern army, protected by local militias. Jefferson is depicted as someone comfortable with writing legislation and declarations but lacking what Fleming saw as the essential attributes of a great leader.

Washington’s primary bulwark was Hamilton, who served under Washington, fighting at the three Revolutionary War battles Washington indisputably won: Trenton, Princeton and Yorktown.

Jefferson’s main supporter was James Madison, who wrote most of the U.S. Constitution and succeeded Jefferson as President. After the Constitution came into existence, Washington, elected president, appointed Jefferson Secretary of State and Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. Madison was ensconced as a leader of Jefferson’s faction in the House of Representatives.

Constructionists and France

The country soon became embroiled in controversies over the form of the new federal government and the French Revolution. Jefferson hired a man named Philip Freneau to serve as a department of state translator. Freneau used the proceeds from the job to fund a newspaper he called The National Gazette, where he published 18 unsigned articles written by Jefferson attacking Hamilton.

Writes Fleming: “This was, and remains, a unique performance – giving a newsman a government salary to attack the administration in which his patron was supposedly a loyal partner.”

Allies of Hamilton soon struck back; future President John Quincy Adams, the son of then Vice President John Adams, under the pseudonym “Publicola,” published 11 essays attacking Jefferson. Eventually, an affair Hamilton had with a married woman was made public.

Likewise, a Richmond Virginia newspaperman, angered that Jefferson did not give him a job, published stories that Jefferson had fathered several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings.

This is an excellent book if, at 424 pages, a trifle long. It is well written, well sourced and is highly recommended for aficionados of American history.

In A.I: InCity Times book review by Steve Maher

America, land of the whacky

“Killing Reagan” a controversial look at 40th President

By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Reviewed by Steven R. Maher

Ronald Reagan remains a great hero to many Republicans. One understands, after reading this “killing” book by Fox talk show host Bill O’Reilly, why this account of the 1981 assassination attempt by John W. Hinckley Jr. is so controversial among Reagan admirers.

The Ronald Reagan this books portrays was not the genial “family values” conservative Republicans like to nostalgically recall, but a prolific womanizer before and after his marriage to Nancy Davis. The book also asserts that Reagan spent much of his Presidency in pajamas watching TV reruns, and details concerns among his Presidential staff that Reagan suffered from Alzheimer’s the last several years of his Presidency. After Reagan left the White House, he got $2 million from a Japanese company for giving a lecture, a la the Clintons. No wonder Reagan partisans are angry with this book.

Very readable

The first adjective that comes to mind in describing this text is “readable.” Like O’Reilly’s other books, such as “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Jesus,” the chapters are short, pithy and written in plain but concise English. While supposedly a look at the 1981 assassination attempt, this is in fact an episodic recounting of Reagan’s life. The tale jumps from one part of Reagan’s life to another, but it all seems to flow comfortably. Footnotes are used frequently but effectively. Liberal or conservative, if you’re a political junkie or history buff, this 289-page book can be absorbed in one weekend day.

As a literary device, “Killing Reagan” jumps back and forth from Reagan to the would-be Presidential assassin. The story tracks both individuals through their lives, up to the point where they disastrously intersect on March 30, 1981, when Hinckley shoots Reagan and wounds several others.

Jodie Foster

Hinckley’s motive for shooting the President sounds bizarre even today – to impress actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley had seen the movie “Taxi Driver,” where Foster played a twelve-year-old prostitute who comes to know deranged taxi driver Travis Bickle, played by Robert DeNiro. Bickle tries to assassinate a Presidential candidate to impress a woman, but is prevented from doing so by the secret service. The movie ends with Bickle rescuing Foster from her pimp, shooting the procurer to death in a dramatic finale.

Hinckley was a loner most of his life. “He has some form of schizophrenia, a mental disorder that causes the mind to distort reality,” says O’Reilly. Hinckley drops out of college, traveling from city to city following Foster, calling her up to ask Foster out on dates, proposing to Foster at one point. Foster rebuffs Hinckley. He then decides to assassinate some political figure to impress her, like the Bickle figure in Taxi Driver.

Carter and Kennedy

Hinckley’s first choice is President Jimmy Carter.

“Losing the election may have saved Carter’s life,” writes O’Reilly. “[Hinckley] will either take the train to New Haven and shoot himself dead in front of Jodie Foster, or he will murder Ted Kennedy, if only to add his name to the notorious list of assassins who have stalked and killed a member of that political dynasty. If that target is not available, he might enter the U.S. Senate chamber and try to kill as many lawmakers as possible. And there is another scenario in Hinckley’s mind: assassinating President Ronald Reagan.”

Hinckley read in the Washington Star that Reagan will be at the Washington Hilton and goes to the hotel. When Reagan emerges, Hinckley is able to pierce the protective cordon around Reagan and wound the President because of two happenstances. First, Reagan would normally be wearing a bullet proof vest, which he was not asked to do on this occasion because his exposure to the public was limited to walking to the Presidential limousine from the hotel exit. It was during this exit that Hinckley put one bullet into Reagan’s torso. Second, two DC policemen acting as Presidential bodyguards were not trained by the secret service to watch the crowds at such events. They were watching Reagan and not the crowd when Hinckley shot Reagan. The point is made that had the two men been trained properly, they would have intercepted Hinckley before he shot Reagan.

Particularly disturbing was O’Reilly’s depiction of Hinckley’s jailhouse communications with serial killer Ted Bundy and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. Hinckley reportedly tried to get mass murderer Charles Manson’s mailing address from Fromme. This was all kept secret from his jailors, as well as the hidden photographs of Jodie Foster in his cell that Hinckley was ordered by the court not to have.


The aftermath of the assassination has become the focal point of some discussion among Presidential historians and Reagan biographers. Reagan apparently developed a messianic belief that he was saved by God because he had a special destiny as President. O’Reilly writes Reagan went back to his church after recovering, and become reliant on his wife Nancy for political as well as personal advice.

O’Reilly’s book is a good starting point for anyone looking to experience the life and times of America’s 40th President.