- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005

Pity poor Neil Armstrong, an enigmatic, reserved overachiever who had the misfortune to accept the offer, three years ago, of James R. Hansen to write his authorized biography: First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (Simon & Schuster, $30, 769 pages, illus.). Mr. Hansen, a professor of history at Auburn University, is the author of eight books on the history of aerospace, but he is no biographer. He has talked with everybody in sundry about his subject, recorded every word they said and apparently included them all in this bloated book.

Mr. Hansen particularly likes transcripts. Two pages are consumed with the inane transcript of Mr. Armstrong’s parents’ appearance on the TV show “I’ve Got a Secret.” The author never misses an opportunity to quote a piety expressed by Neil’s mother in her every comment on his activities (and she always took care to say, “and my son feels that way too,” since he famously refused to be pious).

Mr. Hansen also exercises no judgment between the telling detail and trivia. He includes Mr. Armstrong’s grades for virtually every course he ever took (as well as those for his classmates). Consider this insight, for example, concerning a semester at Purdue: “While his 3 in physical education might be explained by the fact that Neil was never overly interested in sports or exercise, the bigger mystery is why he also received a 3 in band, an activity that he had enjoyed since junior high. When asked about it, Neil answers, ‘I have no idea.’”

When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, we were living in Rangoon, where television did not exist. On the day in question, our phone rang at seven that morning. “Congratulations!” said our next-door neighbor, a distinguished, retired Burmese civil servant, who had been up all night listening to his shortwave radio. For the rest of our diplomatic tour in Burma, the most popular entertainment one could provide for guests was the USIA movie about the Apollo 11 mission. The Moon explorations captured the imagination of the world as nothing since then has done.

Mr. Hansen’s book is not a total loss. When the author gets into the actual Apollo 11 journey, some of the transcripts are interesting and the level of detail is not always unreasonable. The main problem is that instead of sifting through all the information he has gathered and making thoughtful judgments about what makes Neil Armstrong tick, Mr. Hansen overwhelms his readers with undigested facts — back and forth on whether it’s meaningful that Mr. Armstrong was designated to exit the lunar module first, or that Buzz Aldrin took no photos of him on the Moon while Mr. Armstrong took many of Mr. Aldrin.

And Mr. Hansen returns repeatedly to the subject of the extent to which Mr. Armstrong may or may not have brooded over the death of his two-year-old daughter in January 1962. The author even suggests that it was somehow unfeeling of him not to have taken along a memento of the long-dead daughter on his historic trip to the Moon (he took nothing for his two live sons either).

For a textbook on how not to write a biography it would be hard to beat Mr. Hansen’s book. There is an interesting biography of Neil Armstrong trying to break out of this often-hyperbolic text. Simon & Schuster should not have published this book until its editors had reduced the first 200 pages or so to 20, and shaped the rest into a coherent story that does justice to the first Moon landing and the brilliant engineer-astronaut who carried off the job with skill and grace. If it’s any comfort, the audio version says “Abridged.”

Few military men have risen so rapidly, and fallen more precipitously, than Henri Philippe Petain, the “hero of Verdun” in World War I. Made a Marshal of France in 1918, Petain chose the wrong side in World War II and was sentenced to death for treason in 1945. Petain was no military genius, but in World War I he distinguished himself from his bumbling colleagues by refusing to order hopeless charges into the mouths of German machineguns. Any attack by forces under his command was launched only after meticulous preparation and a massive artillery barrage.

Petain was particularly formidable on defense. In the judgment of biographer Charles Williams, Petain: How The Hero of France Became A Convicted Traitor and Changed the Course of History (Palgrave Macmillan, $29.95, 290 pages), Petain was “without a doubt, the most accomplished defensive tactician of any army.” Although Petain led the successful defense of Verdun in early 1916, his finest hour may have been the next year, when he was made commander in chief of the French army following a string of mutinies among the much-abused soldiers in the trenches. Petain visited the afflicted units, shot a few ringleaders, and promised the remainder that conditions would improve. And improve they did, as Petain inaugurated a system of regular rotation for troops in the front line.

At the end of the war Petain was France’s most famous soldier, but personally he remained an enigma. He was grumpy, had few male friends and appeared to enjoy being rude to generals and politicians alike. But there was nothing distant about his relations with the fair sex. He had a string of mistresses before and after his marriage. “Even at the age of 61,” Mr. Williams writes, “Petain was absorbingly attractive to women.” His marriage in 1920 to one of his mistresses, Nini, took place after Petain attempted to explain to her that his affections lay elsewhere. Nini is said to have waved a revolver at the marshal and said, “It’s going to be me or it will be a bullet for you.”

Between wars Petain helped put down an insurrection in Morocco and associated himself with a number of right-wing causes. Obsessed with the threat of communism, Petain looked more kindly on his old enemy, Germany. On one occasion he remarked that “France has two hereditary enemies, the English and the Germans, but the former are older and more perfidious; that is why I would favor an alliance with the Germans which would guarantee absolute peace in Europe.”

When the Germans overran France in 1940, Petain, at the age of 84, was appointed premier. While his longtime rival Charles de Gaulle set off to form a government in exile, Petain concluded an armistice with Germany. It provided for an unoccupied portion of France with a capital at Vichy, for which Petain would serve as chief of state. But, according to the U.S. ambassador to Vichy, Admiral William D. Leahy, Petain was by then “a feeble, frightened old man … surrounded by conspirators.” Vichy France became a satellite of Nazi Germany.

In 1944, as the Allies advanced across France, the Germans moved Petain first to Germany and then to Switzerland. In 1945 he returned voluntarily to France where he was tried for treason, convicted and sentenced to death. Petain’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he served it in conditions of reasonable comfort on an island off Brittany. He died in 1951, at age 95. British biographer Charles Williams has written a compelling, balanced account of one of the most controversial figures in French history.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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