It was just over a decade ago that Harvard professor Niall Ferguson was approached by Henry Kissinger about doing an authorized biography. Ferguson declined at first, then changed his mind. He had few illusions about the challenge of writing on such a controversial figure. As he says at the start of Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist (Penguin Press, $39.95), no statesman in modern times “has been as revered and then as reviled as Henry Kissinger.” The book—the first of a planned two volumes—covers Kissinger up to the start of the Nixon administration, delving deeply into his intellectual development. Drawing on a huge archive of previously unavailable private papers, Ferguson makes the case that for a full assessment of Kissinger, it’s important to understand the thinker as well as the diplomatic actor. The subtitle, “The Idealist,” signals at the outset that readers should prepare for a different view of Kissinger than the conventional notion of him as the embodiment of Cold War realpolitik. Reviewers have commended the book for its comprehensive scholarship and engrossing narrative.
Rich in historical context and featuring an extensive cast of players, this important biography, Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America (Knopf, $32.50), captures in vivid detail the variously dramatic, tense, ugly, and noble behavior surrounding the five days of Marshall’s Senate confirmation hearings in that pivotal summer of 1967—which culminated in the appointment of the first African American Supreme Court Justice. From his beginnings as “a legendary country lawyer” in dangerous rural southern backwaters (“Atticus Finch before there was an Atticus Finch”), Marshall rose to the national stage as a brilliant scholar of constitutional law in Brown v. Board of Education and eventually to the Mount Olympus of American jurisprudence. Wil Haygood, who wrote The Washington Post article that become the basis for his book and then for the award-winning film, The Butler: A Witness to History, and is also the biographer of subjects including Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., and others, has crafted this story with a finely honed sense of the interplay of history and individual lives that serves his illustrious subject well.
David Maraniss grew up in Detroit, and in his eighth book the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, biographer, and author of the classic study of America during the Vietnam War years, They Marched into Sunlight, profiles some of the better days this struggling city has seen. Once in a Great City (Simon & Schuster, $32.50) takes us back to 1962. Between that fall and the spring of 1964, Detroit experienced an economic and cultural boom; from Motown’s release of recordings by riveting new performers to Ford’s production of the Mustang, from the local civil rights leaders’ involvement with planning Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington to Walter Reuther’s work on progressive labor movement reform, Detroit was setting the pulse of the nation. Maraniss brings the music and politics to life—and also shows how the shadows of a darker future were already present in the entrenched organized crime, discriminatory housing practices, and racial tensions. Throughout this sweeping American tale, Maraniss’s writing is always breathtaking.