Before there was Hillary, there was Eleanor. The third volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s magisterial biography, Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After (Viking, $40), covers the period from 1939 to 1962, completing Cook’s comprehensive and widely praised portrait of FDR’s wife with an account of the time when she most passionately fought for civil rights—battling against both racial and religious prejudices. In her daily newspaper columns and regular lecture tours, the first lady confronted the pre-war climate of xenophobia and bigotry, pushing for more generous immigration policies, especially for the burgeoning number of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Later, when the State Department refused to honor her pleas on behalf of wartime refugees, Mrs. Roosevelt’s controversial crusade made her hated by many Americans, mocked by the press, and targeted by the FBI, which monitored her mail. Although Cook never mentions Hillary Clinton, her admiring, unfailingly fascinating biography makes clear that the independent and courageous 32nd first lady is Hillary’s ideal role model. And though Eleanor dismissed the idea of ever holding public office herself, she was the first First Lady to speak at a political convention, and she accepted President Truman’s post-war appointment to serve as a U.S. delegate to the U.N., a position in which Cook believes she demonstrated leadership and diplomatic skills.
She began her career in 1954 as a shy Washington Evening Star cub reporter at the Army-McCarthy hearings on Capitol Hill; when she died fifty years later, she was a Washington Post syndicated columnist carried in forty newspapers, winner of the Post’s Eugene Meyer Award, and the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. In his colorful new biography of Mary McGrory (Viking, $28.95), John Norris, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, recounts this pioneering female journalist’s many professional achievements, as well as her long-lasting personal disappointment over an unrequited love. Half-Irish and half-German, McGrory celebrated St. Patrick’s Day every year by baking Italian lasagna in her Cleveland Park apartment. Although she had a manner that was erudite and polite, at heart she was a hardworking political watchdog who wrote with an unexpected, unmistakable bark. President Johnson tried to seduce her by comparing himself to President Kennedy; President Nixon tried to silence her by adding her name to his most-hated enemies list. Neither president was successful. But her biographer does indeed succeed in rounding out the life of this widely respected journalist, the model for successors like Molly Ivins and Maureen Dowd in the next generation.
An emeritus professor of American diplomatic history and author of Brotherhood of the Bomb, Gregg Herken richly recreates the urbane, sometimes clandestine world of The Georgetown Set (Knopf, $30), the group of government officials which included George Kennan and the CIA’s Frank Wisner along with the odd spy, and journalists such as Joseph and Stewart Alsop, and Philip and Katharine Graham, who often behaved like government officials. Obsessed with Cold War strategy, this collection of exceptionally cultured but largely unaccountable policy-makers wielded huge influence on United States foreign policy from the Marshall Plan to the Vietnam War. Herken describes an informal, elitist think tank, whose credentials included a WASP background, an Ivy-League education, and an almost unlimited tolerance for martinis. Mental stability was not a requirement, and two of the members of this inner sanctum were institutionalized before taking their own lives. Others faded away, dying of old age and ending an extraordinary era in American history.