Man of the Hour: A book review by Bob Morris

Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior and Scientist
Jennet Conant
Simon & Schuster (2017)

The several high-impact lives of a talented and dedicated public servant

Here is a brief excerpt frpom an editorial in The New York TImes, following James Conant’s death on February 11, 1978: “There is not now at any major university a leader concerned with the whole of American education. The nation could use a successor in the line that led from Jefferson to Eliot to James Bryant Conant.” The title of the editorial was “The Conant Vacancy.” In my opinion, he is comparable in several significant ways with other public servants who include John Quincy Adams and George Catlett Marshall. His departure as well as theirs left a gap few others could fill.

Of all the endorsements of this book that I have encountered thus far, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s comes closest to my own and is expressed with far greater eloquence than I will ever possess: “This is biography and history at its best. The story of James Conant provides the perfect channel to engage our interest as we journey together through the major turning points of the 20th century. An intimate, sometimes heartbreaking portrait of Conant’s personal life is seamlessly linked to the great public achievements of his remarkable public career.” She is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Team of Rivals and Leadership in Turbulent Times.

These are among the subjects of special interest to me:

o Those who had the greatest impact on Conant during during his childhood and youth
o Harvard’s impact on him during the years as a student and faculty member
o The nature and impact of Conant’s reform agenda while president of Harvard
o The unique challenges he faced when serving as the first U.S. Ambassador to West Germany
o His active and productive involvement in the international community of scientists
o His contributions to and support of the Manhattan Project
o His efforts to improve public school education (See the results of his study, published in The American High School Today, 1959).

Jennet Conant’s hard-to-please grandfather would would presumably agree with Doris Kearns Goodwin and countless other scholars that this biography is a brilliant achievement.

Those who share my high regard for this book are are urged to check out The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made in whichWalter Isaacson and Evan Thomas focus on Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, John McCloy Jr., Charles Bohlen, and Robert Lovett.

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