Commended by James Madison for being “as sincere an American as any Frenchman can be,” Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), was nineteen when he joined the American patriots fighting for freedom. While human rights and the question of what, “once tyranny had been vanquished...would take its place?” concerned him all his life, this idealist was also out for battlefield glory and public acclaim (he included honor among his essential Rights of Man). Recounting the story of The Marquis (Knopf, $30) as a colorful tapestry of biography, history, and political philosophy, Laura Auricchio—also an art historian, who mines period images for telling details of events and attitudes, including pornography linking Lafayette to Marie Antoinette—illuminates both Lafayette’s thinking and the two very different revolutions he played a prominent part in. Returning to France a seasoned leader, Lafayette nonetheless couldn’t hold his homeland together, and a mix of mobs, rivals, and rumors soon sent him into exile. Imprisoned in Austria in 1792, the Marquis became an international cause and was freed in 1797, with grudging intervention from the United States, which discouraged the return of its honorary citizen. Like Washington, Lafayette left public life for his rural estate, devoting his last three decades to using science to improve farming “for the betterment of mankind.”
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.
Readers and political junkies of a certain age undoubtedly remember the lurid details of the sex scandal that ended presidential candidate Gary Hart’s political career almost thirty years ago. So what’s left to know? That was my reaction until I read All the Truth is Out (Knopf, $26.95), the fascinating new book by Matt Bai, the national political columnist for Yahoo News and formerly of The New York Times Magazine. Bai conducted lengthy interviews with all of the major characters involved in the scandal (including the leading journalists) and his book raises important questions about when and whether indiscretions by politicians constitute newsworthy character lapses that disqualify them from political office. Told in a breezy narrative, Bai’s story also corrects some widely held misconceptions about the events that led to Hart’s political collapse. This is a smart, compassionate, and eloquent book about our evolving political and journalistic culture.