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The Nightingale's Song (1995)
This good book could easily have been a very good, even great, book--if books still had editors. Timberg has an interesting story to tell, the careers of 5 Annapolis graduates--John Poindexter, Bud McFarlane, Oliver North, James Webb & John McCain. But, having chosen an inapt metaphor, he loses control of his storyline as the book progresses, ending up with a worthwhile disappointment.
Timberg, himself a graduate of the Naval Academy, was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Times in the 80's. While watching Oliver North's Iran Contra testimony, he found himself troubled by his visceral sympathy for North, whose actions he disagreed with. Upon examination, he determined that he was responding to North and to his prosecutors less on the basis of right and wrong and more on their respective sides of the cultural divide opened by the Vietnam War. Whatever North's faults, he, at least, had served his country. What right did a bunch of draft dodging congressman and press hacks have to question a U.S. Marine?
This led Timberg to a realization that McFarlane and Poindexter were both fellow alumni too and he set out to describe how they all ended up in the mess they were in. Along the way, he added two more grads who had risen in the political world, even though they weren't tied to the Iran Contra angle of the story. Webb and McCain are fascinating personalities, but this was a significant misstep, as whenever he returns to their stories late in the book, he loses the central thread of his story.
But the bigger problem, indeed the near fatal flaw of the book, is his choice of the Nightingale's Song metaphor. Apparently, Barbara Feldon (that's right, Agent 99), testifying before Congress, once told the story of the nightingale. Young nightingales do not sing their distinctive song until they hear a grown nightingale sing, but then can sing it perfectly, as if the template for the song is sitting there, just waiting until they hear the song. Timberg compares his subjects to young nightingales and Ronald Reagan to the adult, but says that Reagan's song was false and lead them to ruin.
Now this analogy falls apart in a number of ways: what about the significant achievements of their earlier careers, before they met Reagan?; doesn't that make their own songs false?; etc. But the most significant problem is his decision that Reagan's song was false and the men were mistaken in following it. Timberg goes to great lengths to demonstrate that these five men were better than most of their peers precisely because they were willing to risk their lives in a Cold War hot spot and try to save democracy in a tiny Third World nation, while most of the rest of the men in their age group were weaseling out of service. I agree. But then, he turns around and condemns them for risking some legal consequences and the disapproval of the Eastern Liberal Establishment by maintaining a democratic resistance in another Cold War hot spot. Apparently unable to see the obvious point that this almost exactly replicates their Vietnam Era experience and they were once again on the side of good, in opposition to many of the same draft dodging scum from that earlier epoch, Timberg flails around trying to show how Reagan tricked them into betraying their fundamentally decent and honorable natures and got them to do things they would otherwise not have done.
Timberg's blindness is especially bewildering given the time lag he had before he wrote this. Had he been writing in the heat of the moment as the scandal broke in 1986, some of this would be forgivable. Writing ten years later, with the hostages all home (or dead) and with the Contras victorious and the Sandinistas consigned to the ash heap of history, his anger at Reagan and the actions of these men is truly mystifying.
Moreover, he is continually being cornered by the internal inconsistency of his own arguments. For instance, believing them to be basically honorable men, and needing to excuse the actions of McFarlane, Poindexter and North, he argues (correctly) that the Bolland Amendment was vague and probably unconstitutional. But having let his subjects off the hook, mustn't he let Reagan off too? Also, he details how Reagan's relationship with McCain began shortly after McCain's release from prison in North Vietnam and he includes several scenes with Ronald and Nancy sobbing as the former prisoners tell their tales. But he fails to connect their obsessive concern for Vietnam POWs to Reagan's later obsessive quest to free the Middle East hostages. The history of the events that Timberg describes seems to draw straight lines with recurring themes, but he makes the mistake of treating Iran Contra as a huge aberration.
It's a shame that his analysis of events is so flawed, because the basic story he has to tell is compelling. Every one of the men is a fascinating character, each in his own distinctive way. Several set pieces will stay in your memory always--The Webb v. North boxing match at the Academy, McCain's horrifying POW experiences, etc. He's come so close to writing a great book, it's kind of hard to be too upset that he ends up giving us only a decent one.
-Booknotes: Transcript of Interview with Robert Timberg (C-Span)
-EXCERPT: Chapter 1 (Booknotes)
-REVIEW: 5 Famous Men and What They Learned at Annapolis (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
-REVIEW (James H. Toner, Professor at Air War College, Air Chronicles)
-US Senator John McCain
-McCain 2000 (Presidential Campaign site)
-The Pampered Politician (McCain Profile by Amy Silverman in Phoenix New Times)
-How tough is John McCain? The GOP contender stands up to Milosevic, but will he defy the NRA? (JAKE TAPPER Salon)
-The Oliver North Show HomePage!
-Oliver North (weekly column)
-THE IRAN-CONTRA AFFAIR
-FINAL REPORT OF THE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL FOR IRAN/CONTRA MATTERS
-executive Summary of Final Report
-ESSAY: The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society: The U.S. military is emerging as an increasingly autonomous political force whose values diverge more and more widely from those of the society it is supposed to protect (Thomas E. Ricks, The Atlantic)
-ESSAY: History Proves Vietnam Victors Wrong (James Webb, Wall Street Journal | April 28, 2000)
BOB KERREY :
Having read the book before I read your review, I am happy to say that you hit the nail on the head. I actually found your reveiw while trying to find out a little about the author. After reading the book I suspected he has an ax to grind with Reagan. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who picked up on it.
- Tim Regenhardt
- Nov-07-2002, 21:49