Vowell is an unabashed Clinton Democrat. “Mr. President, I’m tired,” she begins a memo to the former president. “Who wouldn’t be after a decade of sticking up for you?” She offers advice for his presidential library drawn from those of his predecessors: “Mr. President, play to your strengths. Eisenhower’s greatest achievement was liberating Europe. Your greatest achievement? Balancing the budget. Not as dramatic, I know. They’re probably not going to make a Tom Hanks movie about fiscal policy, no matter how inspired that fiscal policy might be.”
Beneath Vowell’s sarcasm is a passionate—and credible—faith in democracy and a deep respect for those who have established America’s most universal and nonpartisan values: She honors Abraham Lincoln in a hilarious and subtly moving account of the 137th-anniversary reenactment of the Gettysburg Address, and—in one brilliant turn of many—defends civil-rights icon Rosa Parks from those who cheapen her name by invoking it in the most ridiculous of contexts.
The book’s title is a play on a Thomas Paine quote: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country. . . .” Vowell may be the very definition of ambivalence—“My ideal picture of citizenship will always be an argument, not a sing-along,” she writes—but she never shrinks. She’s too fearless for that, and too smart.