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What I'm Reading (No. 54): POTUS 41 & a WWII heroine
January is shaping up to be a crazy good month of reading. I'm honestly worried that the rest of the year will be a let down. That's how good the books have been. It's a little worrisome, but also a great problem to have.
This week I finished well-known biographer Jon Meacham's seminal work on George HW Bush, as well as an absolutely bonkers story about a WWII spy couple.
As some (perhaps most) readers of this newsletter know, I'm making my through reading biographies of the presidents. I've read probably 7 so far, mostly in order, and decided to take a detour because of George HW Bush's recent passing.
I came away from Meacham's Destiny & Power with more respect for Bush than any of the other presidents I've read about thus far. He was a fundamentally decent man through and through. Jeb Bush, after being in politics himself, once marveled at the fact that America, even 30 years ago, would elect such a good human as his dad.
And while his legacy has generally been as a failed one-term president tucked between Reagan (who defines the 80s) and Clinton (who defines the 90s), Meacham convincingly writes that he deserves much more.
When Bush lost in '92, it was really a generational changing of the guard from WWII's Greatest Generation (Bush volunteered for WWII service and was shot down over the Pacific) to the Baby Boomers. Bush is the first to admit that he didn't run a good campaign. But his heart wasn't in it. After holding the highest mantle for 4 years, he was tired. Sick of the partisan bickering and how politics was put ahead of making the country a better place.
When it comes to presidential legacies, time is everything. Clinton's seems to only get more tarnished (deservedly so), while Bush's seems to be on the rise. Yes, he followed Reagan's coattails, but was a decidedly different kind of conservative who made plenty of enemies in his own party. He ushered in the end of the Cold War and navigated what post-Soviet world leadership should look like, successfully and quickly got Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait — and didn't get stuck there (as his son would a decade later), got the Americans With Disabilities Act passed, and never even sniffed at any kind of scandal.
Destiny & Power is just a superb biography of a man who has been serially and seriously underrated as POTUS. Books can and do have effects on presidential legacies (see McCullough's Truman); here's to hoping that this one can do that for the late, great George Herbert Walker Bush.
Code Name: Lise by Larry Loftis
At the outset, before anything else, I should say that this is a true story. A crazy, belief-defying story. I say that first because it would be easy to think that what I recap below is actually a novel.
Odette Sansom was a French woman living in the UK at the outbreak of WWII. Her husband was serving on the front lines, and she was caring for her 3 young daughters. An opportunity arose for Odette to work for the SOE — a spy organization created by Winston Churchill for the purpose of basically causing mayhem behind enemy lines. She agonized about leaving her daughters behind, but ultimately couldn't live with herself had she turned down the chance to serve both her home and adopted countries.
Odette made it through training, and on her missions proved calm, cool, confident, courageous — just plain ballsy really. Beyond the spy stuff, there's a love-at-first-sight narrative that ensues between Odette and Peter (her commanding officer) that's touching enough to rival The Nightingale.
Sadly, it doesn't take long for both of them to get caught by the Germans, and they're sent to a series of prisons and concentration camps, enduring starvation, interrogation, beatings, and outright torture.
And yet, they pull through it all, and aren't killed by the Gestapo — an extremely unlikely outcome; as a matter of principle, the Nazis summarily executed any spy they caught. Of course Odette played a role in that particular turn of events, but you'll have to read the book to find out how.
Spies who fall in love and survive the horrors of Hitler's greatest atrocities. It's truly a story for the ages that you have to read to believe. If Code Name: Lise was just about Odette the spy or just about Odette the concentration camp survivor, it would be a remarkable story. To have both of those elements though makes her as memorable a woman as you'll ever encounter in history books.
That's all for this week. Enjoy your Friday and your weekend, and thank you for reading.