Evan Thomas believes in the "great man theory" of U.S. history. Or, sometimes, the "great men theory." An editor at Newsweek magazine, a frequent television talk show guest and a skilled popularizing historian, Thomas allows readers to re-learn familiar events through a new lens.
His first book, with co-author Walter Isaacson, examined the United States' role in the Cold War through the lives of six policymakers. Brilliantly conceived and seductively written, "The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made" resonates two decades later.
"The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898" uses a similar approach. Thomas examines the Spanish-American War as a key event in U.S. expansionism into Cuba and the Philippines. In a ripped-from-the-headlines manner, he relates that war -- manufactured by two influential politicians (future President Theodore Roosevelt and U.S. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge) plus a newspaper publisher (William Randolph Hearst) -- to the current war in Iraq, manufactured, he says, by then President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, among others.
A bonus in "The War Lovers" is the addition of two protagonists who try to halt the expansionism -- Thomas Reed, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and William James, widely read philosopher. The addition of those protagonists, who are seen as antagonists to the power structure, yields tension to drive the narrative.
In between "The Wise Men" and "The War Lovers," Thomas has published two other books demonstrating his "great men" theory: "The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared -- the Early Years of the CIA" and "Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign."
When the plural approach seems like a stretch, Thomas focuses on a solo decisionmaker. He has done so three times, choosing Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, politician Robert Kennedy and Navy icon John Paul Jones as the subjects of his biographies.
"The War Lovers" is an extreme example of psychobiography -- Thomas decided he would enter the minds of his three war hawks and two doves by interpreting reams of available evidence left behind after the five men died. What especially intrigues Thomas is "the human dynamic -- the eternal pull of war on men," he discloses.
Psychobiography is a risky pursuit. It takes courage -- and chutzpah -- to delve into the minds of people decades after they have died. After all, many (perhaps most) individuals fail to decipher their contemporary loved ones -- their parents, their children, their spouses.
So, is it realistic to expect to explain long-dead strangers? No, it is not realistic. But the biographical enterprise is all about seeking understanding, however imperfect, that might yield truth -- in this book, the truth about the Spanish-American War. Give Thomas an "A" for effort.
Steve Weinberg is the author of "Taking on the Trust." He is at www.steveweinbergwriter.com.