Joseph Lelyveld is a former correspondent and editor of The New York Times. His new book, His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt, will be published in September.

 (February 2016)

Prophet and Outcast Bush

George H.W. Bush shown on a television screen during his 1988 presidential campaign
In his active years as a politician, the forty-first president was pleased to be known as plain George Bush. Now we’re reintroduced to him as George Herbert Walker Bush, often shortened to George H.W. Bush. The starchier monikers serve not only to distinguish the father from his eldest son. They …

Obama: Confessions of the Consultant

Presidential candidate Barack Obama and his chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, at the Democratic National Convention, Denver, August 2008. Joe Biden is at left.
In a debate before the 2008 New Hampshire primary, the suddenly embattled Hillary Clinton—finally recognizing the threat posed to her candidacy by the upstart junior senator from Illinois—had something to say about the stirring promises of transformative post-partisan change he’d been making. She said she’d been fighting for change all …

The Prodigal Fall of Nelson Rockefeller

Nelson Rockefeller (right) with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Bob Dole at the Republican National Convention, Kansas City, Missouri, 1976
In his later years the first John D. Rockefeller, known to his family as “Senior,” was said to have handed out 30,000 dimes. Adjusting to hard times when the Depression hit, the country’s richest man dispensed nickels instead. His grandson, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, adjusted to hard times in the second …


The latest installment of Hillary Clinton’s memoirs is strewn with clues to the way the odds-makers’ favorite for next president thinks about the world and our place in it. Fond as she is of proclaiming “new eras” and “new beginnings,” little in her approach reflects new thinking.

Inside Our New America

Joel Sternfeld: Wet ’n Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980; from Sternfeld’s first collection of photographs, American Prospects. Originally published in 1987, the book has recently been issued in a new edition by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers.
Before jumping off on his brave spelunking descent into the “new America,” George Packer offers up an orientation, or maybe it’s a pep talk, for readers who’ll be accompanying him on his expedition. In just eight paragraphs, he sketches a philosophy of history that’s faintly Hegelian. His dialectic works like …

The Likely Winner

While it may be true that we’re unlikely to see another election in which the issues are more clearly drawn, it’s probably not too soon to declare dysfunction the likely winner, when we take account of the splurge of Super PAC dollars, the nature of our checks-and-balances system (which might be shortened to read simply “checks system,” or perhaps “check for checks system”), and the obsession of the media with the latest stumble rather than the underlying commitments of candidates.

What the Democrats Have to Show

Our political conventions have long since become TV shows with little suspense and an ever-expanding cast of media commentators functioning as a Greek chorus, telling us what to look for, what might or might not happen, how balefully the latest cycle of ambition and the duel for power is likely to turn out for the commonwealth. Though they tend to run as a herd, these toilers, reaching daily and hourly for fresh insights, save us from having to think for ourselves.

Obama Abroad: The Report Card

President Obama being briefed in the White House Situation Room in advance of a trip to South Korea, March 23, 2012
Barack Obama can claim two big foreign policy accomplishments: getting American forces out of Iraq and compressing his predecessor’s expansive, grandiose-sounding “Global War on Terror” into a narrowly focused, unremitting campaign against the remnants of the al-Qaeda network, relying largely on high-tech intelligence gathering and pilotless drones. The most conspicuous achievement of that campaign—the raid by Navy SEALS on the compound where Osama bin Laden had been sojourning for six years, hard by the Pakistani military academy, just an hour’s drive from the capital, Islamabad—shook the foundations of the state and put relations with this exasperating, supposed ally in a deep freeze.

In the Heartland

Mitt Romney surrounded by Secret Service agents while posing with Representative Bobby Schilling and his wife, Christie Schilling, in Moline, Illinois, March 18, 2012
The 2012 edition of The Almanac of American Politics, which seeks to be to congressional politics what the Racing Form is to ponies, makes it possible to look at the least-known Republican subspecies, the House freshmen, on a district-by-district basis. Seen in that perspective, rather than as a bloc, they’re a surprisingly motley bunch bearing, in most cases, only a passing resemblance to the aroused white—and, for the most part, graying—homeowners who enlisted in the tax revolt that lay at the heart of the Tea Party insurgency.

The Rocky Ascent of Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, Washington, D.C., May 2004
With the publication of Condoleezza Rice’s bulky account of her experience as George W. Bush’s closest adviser on foreign policy, the memoirs of the major figures involved in the muddled, fateful decision to invade Iraq almost nine years ago are now nearly all in. We’ve heard from the President himself, his vice-president, defense secretary, CIA chief, and, indirectly, from his first secretary of state.

Lopsided India

Tourists in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu
In his much-admired biography of V.S. Naipaul, Patrick French has an excellent half-dozen pages describing the disciplined, relentless way his subject set about gathering material for his last full-length examination of India, then widely seen to be incapable of reforming its roughhouse communal politics or quickening its development. When, twenty …


When we consider that he left the White House in the midst of two wars and the worst financial collapse in eight decades, it’s no small feat that in Decision Points George W. Bush (along with a former speechwriter named Chris Michel who assisted him) manages to sustain his sense of himself as a decisive, well-meaning commander in chief in a time of crisis. Big surprise: Bush 43 isn’t into remorse. He also isn’t given to brooding or wondering about what might have happened had he chosen other policies or advisers.

Did Churchill Let Them Starve?

Mahatma Gandhi in Noakhali, East Bengal, 1946
The Bengal famine of 1943, which extinguished as many as three million lives in pre-partition British India, was the last (but hardly the first) such social catastrophe to erupt under the Raj. It has since been closely studied and analyzed—preeminently by the Bengali economist and social thinker Amartya Sen, who …

The Alliance that Dared Not Speak Its Name

Nelson Mandela and Shimon Peres meeting in Cape Town to discuss the Middle East peace process, October 20, 1996
It wasn’t even a blip on the evening news but early this summer, in a display of fancy footwork on the diplomatic high wire, Barack Obama came close to mentioning in public a subject on which every president since Lyndon Johnson has been strictly mum: the fact, unacknowledged for more …

South Africa: The Truth Teller

David Goldbatt: Team Leader and Mine Captain on a Pedal Car in the Rustenburg Platinum Mine, Rustenburg, 1971. For a slideshow of the photographs discussed in this review, see the NYR blog,
As a matter of crude shorthand, the South African photographer David Goldblatt might be described as his country’s Walker Evans. Though Evans was one of Goldblatt’s models when he was starting out more than a half-century ago, the comparison at this point serves only to hint at the moral clarity of his vision, the seriousness of his purpose, and the scope of his achievement. It does not prepare you for the stirring experience that awaits you at the Jewish Museum, where a copious exhibition of his black-and-white work, mainly from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties—the heyday of apartheid—will be on display through September 19.

Apartheid’s Twisted Dream: David Goldblatt’s South Africa

As a matter of crude shorthand, the South African photographer David Goldblatt might be described as his country’s Walker Evans. Though Evans was one of Goldblatt’s models when he was starting out more than a half century ago, the comparison at this point serves only to hint at the moral clarity of his vision, the seriousness of his purpose and the scope of his achievement. It does not prepare you in any serious way for the stirring experience that awaits you at the Jewish Museum where a copious exhibition of his black-and-white work, mainly from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties—the heyday of apartheid—will be on display through September 19.

Who Is Barack Obama?

Barack Obama at a march to commemorate the 1965 Voting Rights March in Selma, Alabama, March 4, 2007
In politics, it now seems, narrative can lose value faster than a new car. So one is grateful to be brought back to the gleaming 2008 Obama model in David Remnick’s new biography, The Bridge. It’s in stark contrast with the narratives that have since thickened around him—those of well-wishers who would turn him into LBJ and those of enemies who continue to suggest that there’s something insidiously un-American about him. What could those exotic ingredients be? For at least some members of the Tea Party vanguard, its has to be race.

How Mbeki Failed

Thabo Mbeki
Even a politician more thick-skinned than Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s recently ousted president, might have felt oppressed under the long shadow of Nelson Mandela, his universally heralded predecessor. Mbeki, who functioned as Mandela’s de facto prime minister and wrote most of the speeches on the theme of reconciliation that the …

John & Sarah in St. Paul

St. Paul, Minnesota As our communication system speeds up, driven by the power of cable television and the Internet, news cycles take on characteristics of a tropical storm: swirling centripetal winds, sudden shifts of intensity and direction, a tendency to darken the horizon and blot out memory, or awareness of …

Looking for Naipaul

Thirty-two years ago, V.S. Naipaul went to India for this paper to write about the collapse of its post-independence experiment in democracy. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, had declared an emergency and suspended the constitution. Naipaul took this to be a major turning point, and possibly a salutary one, for a …

The Adventures of Arthur

The first volume of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s memoirs, A Life in the Twentieth Century,[^1] didn’t exactly race through his early years. When it ended at the century’s midpoint on page 523, its hero was thirty-three. The justification for all those pages was in the good-humored and reflective telling, his …

Jimmy Carter and Apartheid

Perhaps an intrepid researcher will one day go through the many Internet pages that make assertions pro and con on the question of whether Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories can properly be assessed as “apartheid.” Then we may be in a position to tell whether the first polemicist to …

No Exit

The Bush administration seems never to have put it quite so baldly but in its rush to consolidate its authority after the terrorist attacks of September 11, it came close to asserting the power of the commander in chief to declare anyone in the world, of whatever citizenship or location, …

The Good Soldier

In September 1990, as the first President Bush was making up his mind to dispatch a large force to the Persian Gulf to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait, the powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs was given a chance to make a case to his commander in chief that options …

The Strange Case of Chaplain Yee

James Yee’s spiritual journey over the next decade, which eventually brought him to Cuba as the fourth Muslim chaplain assigned in less than a year to Camp Delta’s detainees, seems to have begun almost casually. At first, his conversion “did not feel particularly momentous,” he tells us in his …

The View from the Heartland

Eau Claire, Wisconsin These are battleground wards, of a battleground district, in a battleground state that’s supposedly being scoured by canvassers in pursuit of the few remaining undecided voters. I’ve landed here, a week before the first presidential debate, on a less frenetic mission. I want to listen, one …