Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politics & Prose

Byron Borger


December 14, 2012

By Byron Borger

Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year  

By David Von Drehle (Henry Holt)  

With the success of the tremendous Spielberg movie, Lincoln, based on the prestigiously awarded Team of Rivals, there is now a renewed interest in our sixteenth president. Of the newest books none will be more discussed than this stunning new work by Von Drehle, a social historian of the first order, who came to the literary world’s attention with his widely reviewed Triangle, a riveting telling of the famous 1911 Triangle factory fire in New York’s manufacturing district.  Rise to Greatnessa detailed look at 1892, will, I predict, be awarded with accolades from professional historians as well as popular readers.

Van Drehle writes history with vibrant and artful prose.   By the end of the first captivating paragraph one is drawn in, eager to agree with the dust-jacket hype proclaiming “electrifying!”  Other reviewers agree: Jay Winik (April 1895) calls it "enthralling;" the legendary James McPherson calls it “a terrific read packed with fascinating facts that add color to a powerful depiction.” Back-cover blurbs insist it is “fascinating,” “fast-paced,” “vivid,” “absolutely compelling.” One reviewer was only partially teasing when she said that the book takes us so convincingly into the war years that “you almost wonder how it will all turn out.”

And that, of course, is part of the importance of this book: It gives us fresh eyes not only to understand the greatness of this troubled presidency and his remarkable leadership, but of the significance of this second year of the Civil War and the pivotal and consequential events of 1882.  It was the year that saw the birth of the Emancipation Proclamation. By walking us through each month of that momentous year, we see the unfolding politics of how and why things, indeed, turned out as they did.

In a moving prologue, Von Drehle reports that as the year approached, a U.S. senator presciently observed, “Never has there been a moment in history when so much was all compressed into so little time.” Von Drehle continues, “And never since the founding of the country had so much depended on the judgment, the cunning, the timing and the sheer endurance of one man.”  He is not exaggerating. It was not clear that the nation would survive, or that that slavery would be halted.  This is an important book about Lincoln, of course, but it is for anyone who cares about our nation's history, about political leadership and about the consequences that still echo from that historic proclamation.  Highly recommended.

Leadership Revolution: Developing the Vision & Practice of Freedom & Justice  

John Perkins & Wayne Gordon (Regal) 

The African American leader Rev. Dr. John Perkins is one of the most legendary Christian leaders of our time, and certainly one of the most energetic advocates (even now in his senior years) of gospel-based social justice, racial reconciliation, community development and leadership formation.  His story as a Christ-centered civil rights activist has been well told in numerous books and he has written many texts about community development, racial reconciliation and such.  His evangelical faith, holistic vision of the Kingdom of God and nonpartisan, Christian understanding of social change has made him a friend of the Center for Public Justice for decades. In 2009 he released Follow Me To Freedom, co-authored with the young, counter-cultural community activist Shane Claiborne, a back and forth conversation about leadership, particularly about servant leadership and nurturing communities of social justice activism. It had the tone of an elder statesman passing a baton to a young friend, passing on hard-won wisdom and asking important questions. 

In this new book, Perkins joins his voice with another community organizer, urban evangelist and experienced mentor of at-risk youth, Wayne Gordon.  Gordon's own dramatic story of how he, as an inexperienced white pastor, moved in to the violent and poverty-stricken Lawndale Community in a Chicago ghetto has also been previously well told;  to hear, now, in this new book how the two men have encouraged one another over the years, the important story of their friendship, is itself inspiring. Learning how they applied the principles of servant leadership and empowered others to rise to influence is very helpful.  As the title suggests, it is nearly revolutionary. 

Lawndale Community Church, not unlike Perkins' own Voice of Calvary in Mendanhall, Miss., has developed leaders, empowered the poor for self-determination, and has started various organizations, from legal clinics to schools to medical care facilities. Economic development demands a multi-faceted approach and forming lasting leaders among those whose lives and neighborhoods have been ravaged by poverty and injustice demands profound insight and patience, not to mention drawing upon God-given spiritual resources. Leadership Revolution is not only a manual about the practices needed for local social transformation, but it is a fabulous guide to learning to be the sort of servant leader who can invest in others, making a life-long difference in people and places. These men have proven themselves effective and faithful and have earned the right to be heard. We should listen and learn. 

—Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”