BOOK REVIEW: “Becoming”


People who loathe President Obama and his wife Michelle will resentfully skip right past this soaring bestseller. And I get that; most of us don’t go out of our way to digest tell-all books from the other side. But in this case, that’s a shame. Because “Becoming” is an aspirational biography written and shared with grace and honesty. On top of that, if you take the time to consider this life experience of one of your fellow citizens, if you’re fair-minded, you will concede that Michelle Robinson’s story is the essence of the pure American experience: work hard, seek excellence, offer to serve, and ask God to richly multiply your efforts.

If you’re mainly interested in the Obamas’ White House years, just know that only takes up the final third of her story. So there’s plenty of interesting stuff from her days as a kid growing up on the South Side of Chicago in an ordinary African-American household. This is the classic “local girl makes good” tale of a high schooler who worked her buns off to get into Princeton so she could prove wrong her guidance counselor who flat-out said: “You don’t have what it takes to get there.” Then landed jobs with top law firms, only to move on for half the pay because she thought she could do more for her community helping to build more accessible hospital systems and improve education.

One thing I appreciate about a book like this is how it dispels commonly held stereotypes. I’ll mention three. For eight years a meme floated around that the Obamas were “lazy”; that they endlessly vacationed and flew around on Air Force One. It’s true that she and her husband took a load of well-deserved heat when the Secret Service had to guard “Renegade” and “Renaissance” for a New York City “date” that was a major traffic inconvenience and expense. But in terms of workload, the reality is this. Every single evening, his team and hers sent binders up to the White House residence. His was admittedly larger, but staffers and experts daily prepared large briefing folders they had to go through.

So in the President’s case, he would dutifully have supper with his wife and kids. Then, after the three Obama ladies were in bed, President Obama would retire to a study. And almost nightly, between ten p.m. and 1:30 in the morning, he would study and bone up on issues, filling his mind with stats and anecdotes and trend lines and the latest intel from foreign hot spots. Michelle Obama writes with awe at how, from her first days dating this Chicago newcomer, he carried around a zest for learning, for determinedly absorbing important factoids and stats and the broad, unshakable themes of history.

Several times a week, again, well past midnight, he would carefully read through ten selected letters sent to him from ordinary citizens. “While the rest of us slept,” she confesses, “he took down the fences and let everything inside.”

(As an aside, I did once read a Republican exposé by press secretary Scott McClellan. Even though I didn’t vote for George W. Bush, and Scott’s book had its “tell-all” moments, he does describe his boss as being diligently prepared and hardworking when it came to studying for important cabinet meetings.)

The second canard it’s good to set aside is that the Obama family was somehow “unchristian.” The Rev. Wright scandal was a political mess, pure and simple, but it did lead to one of candidate Obama’s finest moments when he gave his Philadelphia speech on race. But she writes about the family always saying grace before meals, having special “Sunday School” moments for Malia and Sasha in the White House. One of the quietly poignant moments is how she describes lying in bed next to her husband. “Every night, I’d look over and see Barack lying with his eyes closed on the other side of the bed, quietly saying his prayers.” She admits with profound gratitude how citizens of all races and backgrounds regularly murmured to her: “We pray for you and your family every day.”

Thirdly, it’s wonderful to read all through these pages how the First Couple loved, appreciated, and lauded the many military heroes who heroically serve our nation in uniform. Michelle had endless meetings with soldiers and vets and their families; she describes holding hands with war wives and crying together as they shared a prayer. “What I saw of military life left me humbled,” she writes. “As long as I’d been alive, I’d n ever encountered the kind of fortitude and loyalty that I found in those [Walter Reed Hospital] rooms.”

In terms of writing style, it’s no secret Michelle Obama enjoys having a good team of collaborators around her to help make this a compelling story. The writing is crisp and interesting all the way through, infused with emotion, although I would have like to read more, for example, about how she and Barack felt when Mitt Romney creamed him in their first 2012 debate. Again, the Obamas’ two White House terms are described in just the last hundred pages or so, beginning with this vulnerable confession: “There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States.” But all of it is warm, kind, and a powerful expression of what she hopes will always be an America – this unique place of opportunity – striving to be all that it ever can.



Posted in 2012 election, Barack Obama, Elections, Excellence, George W. Bush, Michelle Obama, President Obama, U.S. History, U.S. Presidents, voting | Tagged , , | Leave a comment



I could list some legit criticisms of this book, and other reviewers have. But the bottom line is this: holy cow, this is a masterpiece of poetic beauty! Patti Callahan has a style and grace with words that is just plain divine and God-given.

“England embraced us with cold, foggy arms.” “Ripples radiating outward, a circle of misplaced water that reached the shore’s edge to dance with the fall grass.” “Flowers outrageous in their glory, raindrops settling in the cups of their raised faces.” I don’t personally have the DNA to dream up such lovely word pictures, but I extravagantly admire those who have been so blessed.

I’m a fan of C. S. Lewis, and did enjoy both film versions of “Shadowlands,” so I was grateful when my wife passed this book on to me. Readers should know that the familiar story from the films/play aren’t much in this telling. The arranged civil wedding, the cancerous collapse, the remission, the deathbed nuptials . . . all happen in the last 12 percent of Patti’s gripping story. But she delivers exactly what she promises: the saga of how two fascinating idealists defy the odds to fall in love.

Some can rightly object that Joy Gresham is sometimes an unappealing figure: pushy, brash, way too full of herself. She injects herself and two sons into Jack Lewis’s life in a way most of us would find hugely intrusive and demanding. But it’s part of the story, and C. S. Lewis bears it with grace.

My one small critique would link to the poetic beauty of Callahan’s writing. Sometimes in conversations between the two – and these are understandably fictional recreations – the same metaphor-dripping tone creeps in. They’re still classic moments, but now don’t ring quite as true. Right when they both realize she’s dying, the scene gets somewhat maudlin, or what I sometimes call “Aaron Sorkin-y.” Great for the stage, but too artificial for an actual ICU.

Still, that is a minor criticism. You will want to read this fine tale in one sitting and savor the beauty of how Callahan tells this story.

The finest line in the book comes near to the grim ending. Joy Gresham reflects on the hand she and Jack have been dealt by the Lord, and quietly concludes: “Just because we love God and are committed to him doesn’t mean we are exempt from the pain and loss in this world. We can’t ask to be the exceptions.”

Spread the word, because this book is a jewel to treasure.



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FILM REVIEW: “The Green Book”



Okay, no kidding, “The Green Book” is easily the finest film I have seen in YEARS. Scanning back through my personal favorites, nothing even close comes to mind except “The Green MILE” – so that’s a bit weird. And Stephen King’s masterpiece about a man with healing power came out in 1999! This wonderful movie is right up there: it’s pitch-perfect on every level.

A classically trained black pianist is about to tour the Deep South in 1962, giving concerts in many venues where he can perform as a headliner, but not eat as a diner, or sleep as a hotel guest, or use the restroom as a . . . human person. So his recording firm hires a driver, and the two men are armed with “The Green Book,” a list of places where colored folk can safely stay and eat while in lovely places like Mississippi where cops can pull you over and rough you up for just being out past sunset.

Viggo Mortensen has added at least 60 pounds from his days as Aragorn in “Lord of the Rings,” and you honestly wouldn’t recognize him on the screen. But he perfectly fits the role of Tony, a loudmouth two-bit street hustler whose demeanor is right out of “The Godfather.” Italian, Catholic, wise guy, whattayakiddinme? His wife is played by Linda Cardellini, formerly of “E.R.,” and she has a wonderful brief role.

Both Mortensen and Mahershala Ali (“4400,” “Moonlight”) go through scene after scene in such wonderful form; this truly is a moving and inspiring story about race and learning to understand and appreciate one another. When do you take a stand and when do you deliver a soft answer and live to fight another day?

I won’t give away anything of the plot, but if you see this great film you will not be sorry. One more thing: if Ali and Mortensen aren’t both nominated for Best Actor, and if one of the two doesn’t win the award, I’m gonna stand outside the Dolby Theater in sackcloth and ashes.


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“Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House”

It’s challenging to review a major book penned by someone who is plainly a clever and sometimes grasping opportunist. Omarosa Manigault Newman confesses to a deep admiration of Barack Obama. She served for two years on the Ready For Hillary PAC, hoping to elect Mrs. Clinton – “a woman I deeply admired” – as America’s first female president. Then, when Hillary officially declared her candidacy, Newman and her team were passed over for permanent positions with the campaign. In a fit of pique, she did an about-face, cashed in her Trump connection from her days on The Apprentice, and worked 18-hour days to elect Donald Trump instead. So if you don’t read any further, I totally get it.

Was this pure cynicism, or a raw craving for power and position? It’s true that both parties need to court the minority vote; it wasn’t a bad thing for Ms. Newman to want to help Mr. Trump relate to the African-American community. Democratic big-shot Donna Brazile, stunned by her defection, managed to say: “Okay, it’s important that we have people in both camps.”

So readers have to take everything this lady writes with a wheelbarrow-full of salt. Will she write or say literally anything to sell a lot of books? I don’t know. However, from a purely literary and reporting POV, this is a decently crafted exposé of an exploding, bitterly dysfunctional administration. And no one can deny that Omarosa “was there”; she went right into the Oval several times a week and was a Trump confidant for many years.

One must also put on the table that this woman is now an ordained Baptist minister and has served as a missionary. After her relationship with Michael Clarke Duncan (“The Green Mile”) was tragically ended by his death, she fell in love with and married a devout Christian minister and serves side-by-side with him in a megachurch in Florida. So there’s that.

The world of bestsellers is awash in books like this one, so I’ll simply pass along three points that she makes with conviction. First, she attests to a scary deterioration in Donald Trump’s abilities and mental acuity. “The Donald Trump of 2003 was as smart and shrewd as he claimed to be,” she writes. But thirteen years later in the White House? “His mental decline could not be denied.” He rapidly gained weight, eating mounds of junk food. This may partially explain the president’s purple rages. “When his temper flares, he does not – cannot – hold back, and it’s terrifying to watch,” she says. “Trump screamed at [Chief of Staff] John Kelly with such violence; he’d never been spoken to by anyone that way before.”

Many political junkies were surprised and offended when President Trump literally shoved Montenegro PM Dusko Markovic out of the way during a photo op. “You came off a little aggressive,” Omarosa protested to him. “Why did you do that?” The president waved her off with this: “Oh, he’s just a whiny punk bitch.”

Many Christians quietly acknowledge that Mr. Trump isn’t their ideal candidate, but hope and trust that the Lord will “use him anyway.” One anecdote upends that cherished longing. On September 3, 2016, in the fiercest part of the campaign, Newman and others arranged for their candidate to speak at a large black church: Great Faith Ministries Church. Candidate Trump’s repeated complaints to his aide went along these lines: “You can’t leave me with these people.” “This is the longest I’ve been in church in my life. When is this going to end?” And finally: “God, how much longer do I have to sit here?” When elected, and planning for his inauguration, he openly mused about his desire to get sworn in using “The Art of the Deal” instead of the Bible. “Trump has no knowledge of the Bible at all.” Once in the White House, she regretfully noted: “Being offensive, inappropriate, and off-color is normal for him.”

Her most wrenching confession is how she was so blinded for years to two stark realities that were never going to change. “Donald Trump’s single greatest character flaw as a leader and human being is his complete and total lack of empathy,” she now testifies. Second: “The change in my mind and heart was due to a combination of factors, but mainly, my growing realization that Donald Trump was indeed a racist, a bigot, and a misogynist.” It’s no secret that he hated Obama to the point of paranoia. “The only item on his to-do list would be to erase the legacy of Barack Obama by undoing his policies.”

Again, this woman, faults and all, was right there standing next to her boss as the hate spewed forth in an unadulterated stream. “I had to go through the pain of witnessing his racism with my own eyes, and hearing it with my own ears, many times, until I couldn’t deny it any longer.”

I’ll let the writer share one glimmer of optimism in her conclusion, and then let me tack one last thing. “Playing upon people’s fears for the sake of legislative expediency is not a sustainable model for a healthy democracy, and, ultimately, we will reject it. We will come to the conclusion that the apparent gains of division pale in comparison to the benefits of unity and the pursuit of the common good.”

I can only hope and pray she’s right.

In C. S. Lewis’ wonderful Christian sci-fi thriller, “That Hideous Strength,” there’s a minor character named Mark Studdock who is enthralled by his chance of getting into that inner circle where the big men like Professor Frost make dark and thrilling plans. It’s pure evil, of course, but he’s too naïve, too trusting, too fawning,  too gullible and in awe of the power neckties and the boasts over cocktails in a posh men’s club.

And finally the scales are stripped away and this fragile man begins to find his soul. Lewis writes about that moment of conversion. “But what Mark could not understand was how he had ever managed to overlook something about the man [Frost] so obvious that any child would have shrunk away from him and any dog would have backed into the corner with raised hackles and bared teeth. Death itself did not seem more frightening than the fact that only six hours ago he would in some measure have trusted this man, welcomed his confidence, and even made believe that his society was not disagreeable.”




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The Sting has got one of the classiest endings in film, and it earned a Best Picture Oscar in 1973. Audiences enjoyed seeing Paul Newman and Robert Redford pair up again after their successful partnership in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Johnny Hooker is a two-bit con man who accidentally swindles a mob runner out of five grand. Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) takes his revenge by ordering the assassination of Hooker’s partner, Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones). Angry and hot for revenge, Hooker seeks out Henry Gondorff (Newman), who agrees to help lift a half million dollars from the New York crime boss.

But as they consider the scheme, Gondorff has a prescient observation about revenge. He eyes Redford skeptically. “Just don’t want a hothead looking to get even coming back halfway through sayin’ it ain’t enough. Cause it’s all we’re gonna get.”

In other words, hoping to “balance the scales” in a universe of sin and tit-for-tat is a fool’s errand. You can’t do it. There’s no way to gain monetary satisfaction when your best friend’s been tossed from a second-story balcony.

Henry Gondorff goes on to acknowledge that a thirst to get even is a powerful motivator. “Do you think we can get some guys together?” Hooker asks hopefully. This kind of “big con,” a massive horse-racing scheme, will take quite an army of street hustlers. His mentor says bluntly: “After what happened to Luther, I don’t think I can get more than two, three hundred guys.”

The story unfolds with a myriad of plot twists, and I won’t give away any of the slick maneuvers. Suffice it to say that, yes indeed, Robert Shaw is suckered right out of his suitcase stuffed with $500,000 as the final credits roll. But as Newman and Redford prepare to part ways, they both acknowledge that revenge is never a complete and satisfying treat.

“Well, kid, you beat him,” Newman beams.

Redford cocks his head, savoring the joy of besting his enemy. Then acknowledges: “You’re right. It’s not enough.” Then a laugh. “But it’s close!”

So it’s not a perfect movie sermon. Because sure, it’s delicious to see Robert Shaw being taken for  $15,000 in his own rigged poker game. And then the suitcase with all his bank’s skimmed profits. Half a mil is a sweet load of sugar in 1936 Chicago.

Theologically, though, the Bible plainly tells us that “you can’t get there from here.” Rom. 12:19: Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge: I will repay,” says the Lord. Leaving the business of score-settling to the Lord is a biblical mandate, buttressed by the human reality that we simply cannot get even. We can’t balance the scales. What would you or I ever do to “fix” the Holocaust? Or get full satisfaction for 9/11 and those hijackers? Let along that jerk who stole your promotion at the office?

I’ll get into the even better cinema “revenge” moment in another essay, but Sister Helen Prejean’s brilliant Dead Man Walking painstakingly describes how the victims of violent crime absolutely cannot recover emotionally by seeking vengeance. A grieving mom or widow can wait twenty years to see their beloved’s killer strapped down to a lethal injection gurney. They watch the poison cocktail flow. They see the murderer slowly expire and stop twitching. They watch him die!! And it’s not enough. She writes how it’s like having sand slip through your fingers. You try to clench your fist, preserve your hot, murderous hate . . . and it’s not enough. You can’t grasp it or keep it real.

Whimsical Scott Joplin piano music plays as Robert Redford slowly walked out of The Sting still in his tux, the fake blood all over his shirt, and with a handsome half-smile on his face. But a half smile is all it can ever be when we try to fix the greedy sins of others all by ourselves.

Take heart in how “The Message” paraphrase puts it. Dear friends, never take revenge but turn your hostility over to God. The Scriptures make it clear: “I will see that justice is done. I WILL TAKE CARE OF IT,” says the Lord.

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Catch a Wave and You’re Sittin’ on the Top of the World


I’m on a read-thru-the-Bible regimen and was having a hard time slogging through the brittle first part of Isaiah! But then this amazing watery metaphor jumped out at me from ch. 48:

If you had only listened to Me and paid attention to what I told you, your peace would have been like the gentle flow of still waters and your righteousness as powerful as the waves of the sea (v. 18).

Lisa and I just enjoyed an idyllic week of vacation in Oceanside, where the highlight of our evening schedule was to stand side by side on the pier and watch the waves quietly roll in. Surfers are still out, determined to catch that last brief ride. Some waves are larger than others; there are surges of energy that don’t pan out. Others crest and crash too soon. But for sure, the waves just keep coming.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if my Christian witness was as reliable as the Pacific’s endless waves? (Okay, that’s a faulty example; forget I said that.) But what if – for the entire body of Christ – it was known around the globe that our collective righteousness and fidelity and unselfish kind deeds were as faithful as the waves coming up onto the shore and bathing a weary world’s blisters and hurts?

Why do the waves keep coming? Well, there are trillions of gallons of water out there. That’s the grace of God flowing from Calvary. There’s also the gravitational tug of the moon and surging currents: promptings from the Holy Spirit. We don’t see all those things. But as the sun faithfully sets behind the far golden horizon, yes, you do see the waves and the delicious, comforting splashing sound they make as they plow inexorably toward us.

The Message paraphrase adds this nice twist: Your life would have flowed full like a river, BLESSINGS rolling in like waves from the sea. That takes the anxiety of performance right out of our hands; even the good we do is God working through our transformed hearts, blessing others through the cool bath of our obedience.

And finally, those surfers in their wet suits surely did enjoy catching a thrill ride through the gathering twilight shadows. When the church bands together and offers healing and kindness, the whole world gets the opportunity to catch our wave and ride along with the blessings.

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Impeachment? That’s America’s Call


I suggest it’s a mistake when Democrats prematurely announce themselves for impeaching a president as a campaign issue. Two pillars of reality exist in the current case. First, let Robert Mueller and his team complete their investigation and make their report. Possible collusion with a foreign power is a grave matter; despite the agitation of some, Washington and the rest of us can wait for a full accounting.

But the second truth is this. As with any key legislation, e.g. healthcare, the most lasting solutions always have crucial buy-in and support from both sides of the aisle. Anything jammed through at midnight by one party is immediately suspect, fragile, and subject to endless subversion. And Congress should only act in response to an unmistakable tidal wave of indignation from the broad American populace in both parties. In a thing like this, the House and Senate ought to do what we want, not what they want.

In the Watergate saga (1974), the entire nation was inexorably moving toward the conviction that President Nixon was guilty of a cover-up. But it wasn’t until July 24 that Nixon lawyer Fred Buzhardt cued up the infamous June 23 tape that detailed the plot. IMMEDIATELY, key Republicans faced the reality that a crime really had happened, and that this was a moment to put country before party.

Two anecdotes from the Woodward/Bernstein book, “The Final Days,” reveal how our American Congress, acting on behalf of an indignant and aroused public, swung into action. The following Saturday, a House Judiciary Committee had to vote articles of impeachment. Democrat Peter Rodino led the vote and the count was 27, exactly the number needed. Later . . . “The talk stopped. Rodino’s body started to shake. Then his small hands clutched his arms, and tears streamed down his face. Weeping quietly, he left the room, went to a washroom and then to the counsel’s office, where he called his wife at home. ‘I pray that we did the right thing,’ he said to her. ‘I hoped it didn’t have to be this way.’”

Tellingly, on August 7, three Republican Senators – Scott, Goldwater, and Rhodes (pictured) – made an appointment to see Nixon in the Oval Office. It was calm and professional; they were respectful and so was Nixon. But they essentially told their own president that his Watergate sins had ended his presidency. National support had melted away; the collective conscience of millions of their fellow citizens had been inflamed beyond repair. There were almost no Republicans willing to vote for his acquittal in a Senate trial. He would have to step down.

The following night, Nixon resigned his office.


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