Book review: The Joe Tydings we all thought we knew — or, life among the swells
”My Life in Progressive Politics: Against the Grain” by Joseph D. Tydings with John W. Frece, Foreword by Joe Biden, College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press, $ 29.95, 2018
In 1970, reportedly, thenMaryland US Sen. Joe Tydings lost his seat at least partially due to an allegedly disparaging remark about Dundalk he made elsewhere in the Free State.
Okay, so, let’s get right to it: if you read but one political autobiography in the next 10 years, make it this one, for sure!
And don’t rush your reading, but instead take your time, savoring every single word, no matter how long it takes — it’ll be worth it, for it’s that good, really! I can’t say enough good things about this fine historical work.
Indeed, it would take 10 reviews of it, and still justice wouldn’t be fully done to it, even with its flaws!
Having known about the subject since 1970, I thought that I had a pretty good handle on him, but no more! This exceptional tome provides readers with knowledge all about the man before, during, and after that date, right up to now.
That man is one I didn’t know of at all, and I suspect that the very same will be true of most readers also. This well-crafted, dual-written work is several terrific volumes: Maryland, United States, and world history all rolled into one.
It’s told with a first person, you-are-there, fly-on-the-wall immediacy, in a little-heldback personal memoir that grabs the reader in the very first paragraph on page one--and then never lets go. What a wild ride it is, too! Aside from Clans Tydings, Kennedys, Davies, Posts, Huttons, and Trumps, the book presents detailed accounts of life among the swells in general: marriages, divorces, affairs of state and of heart, palatial estates, fox hunts, manor houses, swanky luxury apartments, gated communities, and a great four-mast vessel sailing the globe; mergers, elections at all levels of government, lawsuits, indictments, “horse crazies,” fancy dress costume balls, gala dinners, and all manner of other, upper crust folderol — it’s all here.
On the more substantive level — and described in riveting detail as well — are assassinations, state and federal criminal cases tried in open court, an earlier Savings & Loan scandal prior to that of 1986, bribery, corruption, etc., as viewed from the perspective of both an elected official and as U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s hand-picked US Attorney for Maryland. Joseph Davies Tydings, still living at age 89.
One highlight occurred when JDT called as a surprise witness for the prosecution the Attorney General of the United State to a shocked federal courtroom in downtown Baltimore that led ultimately to the convictions of two congressmen.
Just a few years later, both RFK and JDT sat side by side as backbench elected U.S. senators in the wake of the murder of President John F. Kennedy, a seismic turning point in both their lives.
As a biographer myself, I’m amazed that our subject waited until he was 85 to start on this incredibly engaging epic, and I’m glad that he didn’t dither any longer.
Born May 4, 1928, Joe Tydings loved the outdoors and was an athlete for most of his first half-life: a lacrosse starter at his beloved University of Maryland — at which he’s been almost continuously active during 1948 to 2018 — and playing on a U.S. Senate tennis team that beat a GOP team led by the late former vice president, fellow Marylander Spiro Agnew.
As his 1964 Senate brochure touted, Joe Tydings had already “Crossed the Atlantic eight times” by then. Having lunched in West Germany with Willy Brandt and Walt Disney — “I was amazed at how much had been built since 1946” (when he’d served there under Gen. George Patton as part of the American Army of Occupation, taking care of 37 horses as part of the Army’s last cavalry unit ever.)
JDT journeyed to Red Poland, noting, “I was impressed how deep was the Poles’ hatred of Communism,” and as a young U.S. senator — only 36 — his new staff, “Churned out press releases on almost a daily basis.”
Author of the 1970 tome “Born to Starve,” this latest literary effort features not only a great selective bibliography, but also detailed and very informative footnotes that are — if anything — even better than the main text, and I’ve read them all.
His personal anecdotes are telling, sincere, and gripping, such as this on the murdered John F. Kennedy after Dallas: “The President was someone who’d slept in my home…He’d eaten dinner at my table, seated between my wife and my mother. He and his wonderful family had become real friends…He was my most important political benefactor…We had campaigned side by side. Had he not been assassinated, I might’ve run unopposed for the U.S. Senate in 1964.”
When he did get there, Tydings was, “Someone considered as close to being a Kennedy as anyone in the Senate not named Kennedy.” That proved to be a double-edged sword, however, getting him in it in ’64, but also helped get him out six years later, when he lost his bid for reelection.
It didn’t help, either, that by then he was having a here-admitted affair on his first wife with the later second, who — he asserts — “persuaded” him to run against his former campaigner who defeated him in his ’76 bid to return to Capitol Hill. The second wife doesn’t even rate a name here, though, while the third also isn’t noted as a spouse after 1999, according to an online citation.
Interestingly, the former Free State limousine liberal of the sixties re-emerges in this volume’s title as the progressive of the still young 21st century, with his picture along with Bobby Kennedy nicely tying in the now 50th anniversary of the latter’s slaying.
Most of Sen. Tydings’ public career was spent in lawyering, not legislating, but I admit that his riveting accounts of our various levels of courts made me read more about them than I’ve ever done previously, bar none.
Here’s but one splendid sample: “The federal courtrooms where we plied our trade as prosecutors were always full of colorful witnesses, zany defendants, celebrity lawyers, unrepentant gamblers, politicians under stress (and sometimes their angry or weeping wives), clear-eyed federal investigators, tax cheaters, bank robbers and car thieves, experts in such arcane topics as handwriting, wise and thoughtful judges, and even pitiful kidnappers and murderers. In those courtrooms, we were witnesses to a carnival of life.”
As, indeed, are we readers of this compelling work, including such fascinating tidbits as this, bringing the story right up to the present day. This regards a property once owned by the Tydings’-related Post clan in Florida, bought by realtor mogul Donald Trump in 1985. This is the much celebrated Mar-a-Lago, translated from the Latin into English as From Sea to Lake, referring to the estate’s geographical location on a barrier island between Lake Worth and the Atlantic Ocean.
In addition, this broadbased saga includes 55 terrific black-and-white illustrations from private Tydings family and other unique photographic sources.
In conclusion — besides my own titles — this is the book I’ll be giving for Christmas presents in future!
Reviewer Blaine Taylor went door-to-door In Govans, Baltimore for then US Sen. Tydings’ 1970 reelection, covered two of his events later as a reporter, interviewed him one-on-one the next year for the Towson State College student newspaper Towerlight, and observed his ’76 Senate election effort in Dundalk.
Blaine Taylor has been an Eagle contributor since 1974.