Three history books are on our short list, and here are three more—one hugely entertaining, one engaging in its account of realized architectural beauty, one relevant to our own church/state battles—that could also have made it.
The entertaining history read is Ike and Dick by Jeffrey Frank (Simon & Schuster), the story of President Dwight Eisenhower’s relationship with his vice president, Richard Nixon. Frank, from a Washington Post background, charts their awkward, combative, and one-sided relationship through Eisenhower’s presidency and beyond—and even the conversations between first lady Mamie Eisenhower and second lady Pat Nixon are cringe-inducing.
Frank tells the story mostly from Nixon’s perspective and almost generates sympathy for the man. The author contrasts Eisenhower—popular war general with television-era charm and without (so it appeared) a political bone in his body—with the crass, insecure, politically calculating Nixon. Nixon does Eisenhower’s dirty political work, while Eisenhower floats along and allows Nixon to suffer any repercussions by himself. Frank portrays Nixon over the years as desperate for Eisenhower’s approval, which he never obtains, though Nixon mythically describes Eisenhower saluting him on his deathbed.
Frank makes readers feel they are looking into an oncoming train. Eisenhower initially tried to get Nixon to resign from the ticket soon after he had chosen him as a running mate. He then kept Nixon at a distance throughout his presidency, with a sad result: Nixon “was beginning to understand that when it came to his own future, the only one he could rely upon was himself, and his own devices.” We watch Nixon before he crossed major legal lines and wonder what Eisenhower, or anyone, might have done in those years to steer Nixon away from his desperate machinations. Frank barely touches on Watergate because he doesn’t need to, and Nixon’s life comes across as less malevolent than tragic.
• Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, by Sam Roberts (Grand Central Publishing) is the engaging book about the celestial-ceilinged station that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Roberts tells how the station was built and continues its history up to the present day, looking at how it survived demolition attempts in the ever-changing city. When officials sought to raze the terminal in 1954 in favor of a skyscraper, a group of architects wrote a letter pleading for the terminal’s preservation, saying, “It belongs in fact to the nation. … The most exacting architectural critic agrees in essentials with the newsboy at the door.”
Grand Central—with trains and shops and restaurants—was one of the first multi-use buildings in America, and one of the first places to sell “air rights,” real estate literally in the air above the train platforms. It fared much better than its sister terminal, New York’s lovely Penn Station, which suffered demolition so the concrete-silo Madison Square Garden could emerge. Roberts describes Grand Central’s secret stairways, its backdoor exit that only presidents use, and its nuclear-fallout basement, currently the deepest basement in New York. The book is very approachable, with pictures throughout. (You’re best off buying the actual, mini-coffee-table-type book, not an e-book.)
• John Guy’s Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel (Random House) chronicles the 12th-century clergyman’s rise from middle-class Londoner to loyal chancellor of Henry II to bitter enemy of the same king. His murder by Henry’s minions rocked Europe and continues to reverberate today in battles over religious liberty.
Becket is not a hagiography. Guy admires Becket but also tells of his imperfections, some of which seem to stem from insecurities over his middle-class upbringing. Guy skillfully tells the story of Becket’s rise, and the book becomes a true page-turner when we see Becket become an archbishop. Becket was first thought of as Henry’s man in Canterbury, but he turned out to be more like his predecessor Anselm: a bulldog in defense of the church and its liberties.
Becket and Henry quickly clashed over the issue of “criminous clerks”—priests and other church officials accused of crimes like murder and rape. Becket wanted them tried in church courts as was becoming customary in Europe, while Henry wanted them to face royal justice. Had the battle not gone beyond this issue, Henry would have been biblically correct, although Guy doesn’t say so or seem to think so. But Henry’s true endgame was royal control over the church in England, and he soon tried to require the church to obey other “ancestral customs” that were made up out of whole cloth. Henry wanted, among other things, veto power over appeals to the pope and over some sentences of excommunication. He also wanted control over international travel by priests and over revenues from vacant bishoprics and abbeys.
These overreaches were intolerable to Becket, and Guy shows us how the two clashed through several years of Becket’s exile and even during a veneer of peace that allowed Becket to return to Canterbury. Finally, in 1170, Henry, during one of his many temper tantrums, fumed that among his courtiers “not even a single one is willing to avenge me of the wrongs I have suffered.” (The more famous phrasing, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest,” is an 18th-century invention, according to Guy.) “It was essentially just bad luck,” writes Guy, that a few lesser knights took Henry’s outburst literally, made their way to Canterbury, and murdered Becket.
What Becket couldn’t gain in life he was able to achieve as a slain hero. With a country and an entire continent enraged, Henry backed down on the issues of criminous clerks and appeals to the pope. Henry, writes Guy, “simply had no choice.”
Becket was a man and an archbishop of his time. He didn’t have the benefit of coming after Abraham Kuyper’s strong elucidation of “sphere sovereignty”—which recognized that the church, the state, and the family each has a sphere of authority that is not mediated by any of the others. God has given the state the authority to bear the sword against criminals (Romans 13), regardless of whether they wear a clerical collar.
This means Becket’s legacy is mixed. We see it today in business owners who are defending religious freedom against the Obama administration’s Henry-like contraception and abortion drug mandate. But we also see it in bishops who didn’t seem to recognize the state’s legitimate authority to prosecute sexually predatory priests. (Protestants have problems in this regard, too. See “Troubled ministry,” Nov. 17, 2012.)
Becket was a hero who stood up to a tyrant, but, alas, he was also a usurper.