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Dave Wood's Book Report, Aug. 19, 2009

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"The statesman has not to make history, but if ever in the events around him he hears the sweep of the mantle of god, then he must jump up and catch its hem." -- Otto von Bismarck

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Thus begins Alistair Horne's "Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year" (Simon & Schuster, $30), an insightful book centered on how Henry Kissinger's accomplishments (realpolitik, d├ętente, opening of China) were overshadowed by the fateful year of 1973, when all hell broke loose.

Failure in Vietnam, the Watergate Affair, the Arab oil embargo and economic problems.

Quite a task for Horne, an Oxford don heretofore known for his award- winning books on French politics and a biography of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

In his introduction, Horne explains how the Kissinger book came to be.

Horne was in Washington following the aging Macmillan around the country as he hawked books for his family's publishing company.

As Horne tells it, Macmillan looked very tired, awful even. Horne was at a program seated next to Kissinger, who turned to him and asked, "Do you think he will die before he gets up to speak?"

Horne said no, he always looks like that. This began an acquaintance that would lead to a book in which Kissinger gave Horne free hand in all of his papers and documents.

Horne makes the most of it, deals with issues large and small, Nixon's drinking habits, his frustrations.

"What most tortured him [Nixon] was his list of hates. It comprised the whole bureaucracy ....

In his own memoirs, Kissinger observed 'He felt it imperative to exclude the CIA from the formulation of policy; It was staffed by Ivy League liberals.'....

The long list continued: East Coast intellectuals and college professors, all Republicans east of Ohio, all Democrats who were not from the South and most members of his own cabinet.

High on the list came the collectivity of Georgetown. But above them all stood the media. It was an astonishingly long list.

'Nixon hated them all,' concludes Stephen Ambrose. He might have added the Jews if one were to judge from the anti-Semitic tone of much of Nixon's table talk." (Nixon casually observed to anyone who was listening to Jews as "those Yids."

Still, he got along very well with Kissinger, an intellectual if ever there was one and a Jew. Perhaps, concludes Horne because of Kissinger's obsequiousness.

Years ago, I was sent to St. Paul's Central High School to do a story about inner-city kids. As I walked down a well-polished hall, I heard beautiful music emanating from the band room. But the instrumentation I heard wasn't conventional, more haunting than tubas oompahing and French horns pecking away.

I peeked in to see a whole bunch of kids playing steel drums with wooden sticks. It turned out to be St. Paul Central's justly acclaimed steel drum band.

So it was with pleasure I received a children's book from Lerner Publications in Minneapolis called "The Steel Pan Man of Harlem," text and art by Colin Bootman, a Brooklyn, N.Y., author/illustrator.

Bootman tells the story of how rats infested Harlem back during the Harlem Renaissance and how a Negro man arrived with a steel drum and told New York's mayor (white, of course) that he could rid the town of the rodents who were everywhere, for $1 million.

He did it, a la the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and the white mayor reneged (of course) on his promise. The Negro drummer put a spell on the mayor and everyone in town.

The illustrations are glorious, with wonderful set scenes from Harlem in the 1930s. Bootman even has a picture of my favorite 1930s auto, the Chrysler, Airflow. This beautiful book is slated to appear in the fall. Look for it.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.

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