With the two political conventions just behind us, it seems fitting that this post should be about my brother Jack’s book, Revolutionaries, since it is a political history of the American revolution told through the evolution of many of the major players. I have to start this post with the story of a purse. From the time we were young, it was apparent my brother was going to do something impressive with his very large brain. He worried about the space race with the Russians when he was 6 years old; he embraced reading about the Constitution when he was 8; he even liked Hebrew school. And of course, he did do a lot with his big brain, getting his PhD at Harvard – where else – with some big fellowship – of course – and ending up with a chair at Stanford – we saw that one coming. I dealt very well with all of this in my years of weekly psychotherapy sessions. But 1997 was a particularly trying year when my brother won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on the Constitution, Original Meanings, a book I still haven’t quite been able to get through. When my brother called me with the news, I handled it in the healthy way I usually did when he got some accolade. I got under my desk at work for about 20 minutes, and from my crouching position called my oldest friend Nancy who is both a therapist and also cursed with a high achieving academic brother and let her talk me out from under the desk. Later that week, I was over at my mother’s house for dinner and she presented me with an amazing beautiful purse from Nordstrom’s. It wasn’t my birthday or Hannukah so I knew. “Mom,” I said, “is this purse because I didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize, too?” “Yes,” she replied. “I just didn’t want you to feel bad.” Oh, good. Pity on top of my already rampant insecurity.
So fast forward to 2010 when my brother’s “trade” book – the one for the rest of us, is published. At least Revolutionaries doesn’t win the Pulitzer Prize. No – it gets a BIGGER honor. My brother gets on The Daily Show. You can watch that here:
But like John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and my brother’s fave founding father, James Madison, all of whom he writes about so beautifully in Revolutionaries, I too have evolved. Maybe something happened when we became orphans together – our mom died several years ago. Maybe hitting 60 made me see the world more clearly. Whatever the cause, I am simply proud of my brother’s achievements now. And this book is certainly one of them. The first few chapters are a bit heavy going – he assumes we all know a lot more than we do. But most of the book is a remarkable work on how the figures we all studied in school as icons evolved into visionaries and leader. None of them started there. Yes, they were a once in a century – or centuries – gathering of men. But what Jack’s book does so well is take us through how how history combined with their talents and circumstances to bring about transformation.
I thought about this a bit looking at two of our big political figures during the Democratic convention this week – Clinton and Obama. They are two of the most fascinating political figures of our time. We think we know these guys but we don’t yet. The reason historians like my brother exist is that we need them to look back from a distance to analyze and measure the intersection between historical events and individuals. Hopefully, someone will do that with Clinton and Obama with as much skill and insight as Jack has done for our founding fathers.