Saturday, May 28, 2016

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager

A gaggle of well-seasoned erstwhile pirates gathered on dry land near the Four Hills and quaffed sufficient rum to produce the following comments:

Dick J:  Thomas Jefferson and the Pirates was an easy, quick read.  I learned some interesting information about a period of history that I did not know much about.  Unfortunately, I think the book reflected Kilmeade's political biases, was not well researched, and was not particularly well written. If I had time I would go and read other books on the period to get a broader view.  I would give it a B- and that is generous.

Rob E:  When I saw that the lead author was a Fox News Channel host, I suspected the book might be political.  NPR listeners would be aghast.  As I mentioned to you, the underlying narrative could have been:  Barack Obama - you're no Thomas Jefferson; Hillary Clinton - you're no James Madison.  But the authors didn't take that sort of line and mostly just told the story in layman, not scholarly, mostly nonpolitical terms.  And, I understand that they were not nautically correct.  But, who in this book's readership would know?  
There are some interesting contrasts that might have been examined.  Jefferson and Madison took the lead in battling the North African Barbarians.  Clinton and Obama characterized their role in the attack on the Libyan barbarian, Qaddafi, proudly, as "leading from behind."  

There are some parallels.  Regime change was the objective in both cases.  The Navy couldn't communicate with Washington, except by cross-Atlantic ships.  Our ambassador and his limited security forces in Benghazi had trouble getting somebody in Washington to pick up the phone.  At this point in time, though, what difference does it make?

Politics aside, I learned something about a period and a war that I knew very little about.  I thought the early part of the book was a little tedious, but things picked up when the big ships and big guns went into action.  Had some of the feel of the Horatio Hornblower novels I read as a lad.

Grade: B

Tom, Charlie, Keith, Ron B, Bob S:   We agree with Jack's comments.

Charlie:  i'm one of the villains who agreed with Jack.  The subject matter of the book was previously unknown to me and was most interesting.  But, it was poorly written.  On subject matter and content alone, I would give it an A, on writing alone a C-.  I averaged these and came up with B-.

Bob Simon:  The most interesting comment to come out of the evening's The most interesting comment of the evening was how a cabal of talking heads at Fox News use ghost writers to write books that they put their names on and then they send out tens of thousands of them to people who follow Fox News and the books garner good sales numbers and appear to be popular titles.

It's an interesting publishing business. 

And from well outside the seven mile limit:

Dear Tom, Won't be able to make the LTBC meeting at your house next week.  Will probably be in Palo Duro Canyon SP that evening enjoying the red rocks, but my comments about your choice follow:
I enjoyed reading Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates and learned a lot in the process.  I knew nothing about this war and very little about this period of our country's history.  Not sure what I learned in high school.  I am also amazed when two people write a book like the authors of this one and Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Series" with Martin Dugard.  Does the author in bold print do the writing and the other does the research or do they take different chapters and rely on the editor to fold it all together?  It may affect the style of writing, as I thought it did in this case, resulting in a bland vanilla flavor.   B+
     Regards, Jack

Rush Limbaugh has written a series of books on the theme of Rush Revere and his Talking Horse Liberty.  At least there, the reader had an understanding of the audience that was intended.  Here, it was not at all clear – yet the product was certainly not a scholarly historical account.  More of a popularized 200 page quick sell.  Let’s publish a second book while the press is still humming with our first.  I came to this conclusion after reading the book, and reading Kilmeade’s confession in the Acknowledgements:  “Unlike our last book, George Washington’s Secret Six, a subject I had been studying since 1988, this book had a shorter runway.”   Yeah, like 2 years vs 24 years.
One of my colleagues said, “It’s a good story.”  Yes – but poorly told.  To prove this point to myself, I purchased several other accounts of the same time period and have read some of each.  Give Me A Fast Ship by Tim McGrath is really more on the Continental Navy during the Revolution.  But The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 by Richard Zacks (2005) is spot on, excellent.  I also highly recommend Six Frigates by Ian M. Toll. 
Summary review:  I would recommend against this Kilmeade book to anyone interested in the subject, in favor of the scholarly Six Frigates, or the highly entertaining  The Pirate Coast
Why?  I will give a smattering of reasons against the Kilmeade book:

Lack of naval knowledge:  I have never read a book about the time of Wooden Ships and Iron Men that did not clearly define and specify the armament of the ships.  Saying a ship is a frigate or a brig is not enough – although it would have been a plus if the authors had at least defined those classes of war ships.  Kilmeade seems to go out of his way to blur the armament – several times he says ‘they had more cannons’ but no specifics.  First I thought he was dumbing it down for 12-year olds.  But then I remembered that I once was a 12-year old, and I would want to know that the Constitution was a 44-gun frigate, but the Philadelphia was a 36-gun frigate.  Instant strength stats.

 Kilmeade starts with a list of characters in the book that just adds to the confusion (e.g., Richard Dale and Stephen Decatur are not listed as a master of any ship, yet most others are, including Stephen’s brother James).  Compare with the list that starts The Pirate Coast, where the characters are categorized – including a category of ships!   With their armament!

One more example to demonstrate that this was written by naval neophytes:  on page 122, near bottom of page re the USS Philadelphia:  “One moment she was coursing through the sea at the land equivalent of roughly ten miles an hour…”  Say what?  Are we too dumb to say that the ship was traveling at 10 knots?  But even worse, ‘the land equivalent’ – does Kilmeade not think that 10 miles an hour is the same on land as on sea?  Unbelievable! 

Another place he actually mentions ceiling wax.  Ceiling wax?   What editor over the age of 12 would not know this should be sealing wax?

Presentation:  A few good things:  I liked the historic paintings and the maps – with one exception:  what was the story on the track of Decatur’s Intrepid in the chart on page 147:  It shows the Philadelphia ‘struck’ (surrendered) way up at top of chart, yet Intrepid sails all the way deep into the harbor?  To what end?  I thought they got away after the torching of the Philadelphia!  And we had an American Fort in Tripoli harbor?  Did you realize that?  This chart needed some serious explanations – at least for us 12-year olds.

However, I have numerous examples of where the book drops to a low level of writing.  Often he ‘interprets’ the officers feelings or thoughts, completely unnecessary.  Here is but one example, again I claim poorly written, from page 70:  “Dale hoped that the sight of the frigate, its hull lined with gun ports though which its dozens of guns could be seen, would inspire awe and deter the would-be pirates of all stripes from challenging unarmed American vessels.”  Note again that he doesn’t want to tell you exactly how many guns are actually there – does he consider this classified info?  This is written at some low level – I know that 5th graders would have no trouble with this.  But I consider it poor writing, reminding me of being 12-years old trying to fill out the 1000 word requirement on an English paper.

Many other things pissed me off.  Fortunately for you, I’m not going over all those.
Having said all that, I’m still glad I read this book as it inspired all this research by moi, and I learned many things from the book itself – such as the freedom of movement of officers that were captured by the pirates.  (Toll explains the parole papers that each officer had to sign, to allow such freedom – self-guaranteeing that he would not attempt escape.)  Final grade:  C-   and not recommended.

Note:  Each of these three books begins with an interesting historical anecdote:  Kilmeade’s book starts with the capture of Capt. Richard O’Brien and his crew, to be held for 10 years; The Pirate Coast starts with another pirate attack:  7 ships and 1000 pirates on an Italian port where they capture Christian women and children as slaves, and lists the Sura that justifies this; but Tull starts his book with 8 pages on Lord Nelson.  Why Lord Nelson?  Why indeed?  The guy was 5’ 6” and weighed 130 lbs.  Do we realize our enlisted Navy troops have 3 white stripes on their blue uniforms today to memorialize Lord Nelson’s three greatest sea battles; we should know what Trafalgar did to the naval power ambitions of Spain and France; and we should know that Britain had 800 warships at a time when we had but … Six Frigates.  Riveting stuff.  Tripoli starts on page 145.

I love getting emails... one of the best parts of writing, which is such a solitary occupation.

Anyhow, no I haven't compared my book to Kilmeade's. I am told there are many similarities. One pro-Zacks reader popped that exact question at a Kilmeade tour stop and BK answered gruffly. 
"Zacks's book is more detailed. Next question."

One cannot copyright history. I think he and his co-writer were too smart to plagiarize, so there's not much I can do.

All best,
Richard  [Richard Zacks, author of The Pirate Coast]

               I was particularly sorry to miss our meeting  on Thursday because I had read the book a couple of months ago and enjoyed it.    In addition, Thomas Jefferson played a role in one of my brief articles in Mechanical Engineeringdevoted to history of technology.  Here is the URL.  It shows that Jefferson kept busy after the American revolution: 
               I still can’t explain what happened  on Thursday.  My Garmin GPS swore that I was at the  right address.  The number on the curb was right; apparently the address is ambiguous.  After unsuccessful attempts to get directions by phone,  I said the hell with it and went home. I didn’t feel particularly well, having numerous contusions from a bicycle accident that morning.
               Bob Woods