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Book Report: Who are America's caesars? One author gives his answer

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Thousands of years ago, the Roman historian Suetonius wrote "The Twelve Caesars" in which he gave brief but penetrating essays on the first 12 caesars of Rome at the height of its power: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian; some good guys, some really bad, who ruled from 49 B.C. to A.D. 96.

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Award winning British historian Nigel Hamilton figures that the golden age of the United States probably runs from 1930 into the 20th century and that it was led by some good guys and some really bad, beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt and ending with George W. Bush. So he wrote the new book, "American Caesars" (Yale University Press, $35).

Hamilton, winner of the British Whitbread Prize for Biography (Thomas Mann, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery) cleverly imitates Suetonius' organizational plan of the earlier book: First how his subjects gained power; second, what they did once they achieved power; and, third, what their personal lives were like.

All the sections are interesting and the first two sections are probably fairly commonly known by anyone with an acquaintance with modern American history. But the personal life section is certain to stir interest even amongst those readers who think Pearl Harbor was a jazz singer.

Some of it's juicy; some dry as dust. Everyone knows of Roosevelt's dalliances, but Hamilton goes further and points out that FDR's rides in the country with young women were not merely platonic, despite his infantile paralysis. I've read a good deal about Eleanor, but never until I read Hamilton did I learn that the ugly duckling was sent to Europe to a finishing school run by a well-known lesbian, which may account for Eleanor's affair with Lorena Hitchcock later in life.

Just as sad is the section on JFK. I've always known he was ill, but, until Hamilton, never knew that he was so ill from Addison's disease that he was given final rites twice BEFORE his presidency. Hamilton says that's why JFK was such a satyr, wanting to bed thousands of women before his premature death.

To achieve his goal, he staged orgies at the White House when his wife was gone and treated her very badly until the end, in ways reminiscent of his horribly callous father, Joseph Kennedy, who took his mistress Gloria Swanson along with his wife on a world cruise. Hamilton goes so far as to describe JFK's behavior toward Jackie as similar to the Emperor Caligula's wives.

And then of course there's Jimmy Carter. We all knew he lusted in his heart for women not his wife. That made news during the election.

But Hamilton says Carter was pure as the driven snow when it came to the love of his life Rosalynn Carter. Carter, Hamilton, says, failed miserably in section two -- what he did when he got the presidency -- even though Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham said he was the brightest president she ever knew.

Carter was such a micro manager that he even concerned himself with who got to use the White House tennis courts and when. Because of his micromanaging, Hamilton claims the first use of "control freak" in general parlance occurred during the Carter administration. On the other hand, Hamilton gives high marks to Ronald Reagan's presidency, even though he was a "mere B actor."

Well, that gives you a taste of this book. Many of the other presidents are probably not as dramatic as those mentioned. Although his accounts seem somewhat slanted toward the right, he crucifies George W. Bush, but we won't dwell on that just now.

*****

Minnesotan Laurie Hertzel is much younger than yours truly, but we do have some things in common. I got into the writing game because I was interested in literature, but ended up as a journalist.

Same goes for Hertzel. We both got into journalism in the good old days when there seemed to be no end in sight as regards the print media. We both worked up from a smaller newspaper to jobs at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. We both became book review editors of that august publication. (Hertzel still holds forth every Sunday morning.)

Finally, we both published "newspapers" when we were little kids. Up in Duluth, Hertzel's was called "Newspaper;" down in Whitehall my cousin Bill and I painstakingly typed out a little rag called the "Whitehall Bugle."

Hertzel wrote stories about her friends' birthdays. We collected gossip at the two lane bowling alley in the basement of the town's City Café.

There's a big difference, however. I never wrote a book about my life in the newspaper world, but Hertzel has and it's a fascinating read. It's called "News to Me" (University of Minnesota Press, $22.95) and brings back memories of the days when we were more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than we are these days.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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