Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hail to the Chiefs by Barbara Holland

Reviewed by Nancy

History can be fun. No, no, I'm not kidding. If you did not enjoy history in school, here's your second chance. You can have fun reading some history and there will not be a teacher lurking about, waiting to give you a grade.

The book you need to read is Hail To The Chiefs by Barbara Holland. Ms. Holland, who died in 2010, was an author and essayist who lived in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.

If Ms. Holland had not been busy writing, she could have come down from the mountain and been our stand-up history comic. I am not kidding. Her book offers a summary of presidential mischief, quirks and accomplishments from George Washington to Ronald Regan. The book also includes entertaining tidbits regarding presidential wives.

Barbara Holland definitely had a way with words. A great deal of this book, which devotes a few pages to each president, is laugh out loud material. As she states in her discussion of Millard Fillmore, "in the nineteenth century, whenever anything happened the bystanders got together and formed a political party about it." Fillmore was a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, and the author sums him up in this way:  “He wasn't a bad man - in fact, he quite nice. He was just wrong a good deal of the time.” She further states, "In July of 1850 Millard Fillmore found himself President and hit his stride at being wrong."

Or try this tasty tidbit. "James Monroe is remembered for the Monroe Doctrine, which some consider John Quincy Adam's finest achievement."

On Abraham Lincoln she states, "Lincoln never had much fun being President because of the Civil War all the time. It was all ready to roll when he took office, and five days after it was over he was dead as a duck. He had the war, the whole war, and nothing but the war."

On James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, and the run up to the Civil War she gives us the following:  “He thought if he just sat still and kept his mouth shut, things wouldn’t fall apart until he could hand them over to the next man and run like hell.”

See?  History can be fun. Seriously, it would have been ok with me if this woman had taught half the history courses I ever had.

The fun just never stops. Here’s what Ms. Holland had to say regarding one world conflict: “I don’t recommend your trying to understand World War I unless you plan to make a career of it, and I don’t recommend that either.”

President James Garfield could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other hand AT THE SAME TIME. I once worked with someone who could render backward cursive writing with her non-dominant hand, but I believe this may top that.

In the section on Ronald Regan, Ms. Holland takes five pages to render a summation of the plot of “Bedtime for Bonzo,” former President Regan’s most famous movie. I believe I have watched parts of that movie, but never the movie in its entirety at one sitting. Upon reading the plot summary I realized why. Even when I was eleven I doubt I could have gotten through it; however, I enjoyed Ms. Holland’s summary immensely.

I suppose it could be a sly “editorial comment of omission” from Ms. Holland that the movie summary constitutes the entire section on Regan. There is nothing about the Iran-Contra difficulties, John Hinckley, Jr.’s assassination attempt on Regan’s life, supply-side economics,  the invasion of Grenada, or any of the rest of his time in office.

If you think you don’t have the desire or the time to read this book, at least get hold of a copy and have a look at the portrait of Millard Fillmore. Mr. Fillmore resembles what current celebrity personality? Correct! Alec Baldwin. It's something about the eyes. Maybe also the mouth.

I felt I was astute to notice this and wondered if anyone else had, so I fooled around on the internet a little. Gee whiz. I'm not the first. If you've got a moment for some silly entertainment, plug "Alec Baldwin Millard Fillmore" into a search engine. The resemblance is uncanny.

As if the body of the text weren’t side splitting enough, most of the footnotes are a riot. I know I’ve gone on enough about all this, so I’m not going to start quoting footnotes, BUT there’s one you just have to read. It’s in the chapter on William McKinley. In the library copy of the book this is on page 174. Start midway through the fourth paragraph and read the text preceding footnote 14. Don’t worry about the context. Just read the last half of that sentence and then the footnote. HA!

I know if I can get this book into your hands you will not be able to keep from reading it, so you’d just better get in to the library and check out that footnote!

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