Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hail to the Chief: Presidential Biographies

It all started with the 2012 presidential campaign.

Half of my attention was on one of the debates, while the other half was focused on Ron Chernow's relatively new biography of George Washington. While I've been a presidential history fan since I was a child, it had been a long time sine I had read a single biography of a president. "Why not," I thought to myself, "read a biography of each president?"

Well, here we are, three years later, and I am DONE. Thank goodness.  When people found out that I was embarking on this project, the question that was inevitably asked was, "Which president is your favorite?" Now, that is a LOADED question. I don't have a favorite president. What I do have is a list of the top 10 biographies I've read, followed by an honorable mention list:

The actual narrative of Washington, A Life is around 800 pages, which I normally have no patience for, but Chernow delves so brilliantly into Washington's psyche and the birth pangs of the new nation that I was lost in it.

David McCullough's John Adams was a monster bestseller and a popular HBO miniseries for all the right reasons; Adams is a fascinating character who was often  unfairly overshadowed by Washington and Jefferson.

Hopefully, the renewed attention to John Adams will spill over to John Quincy Adams, who deserves to be better studied and known. John Quincy's childhood was quite chaotic; as the son of one of the Founding Fathers (and a very popular First Lady), expectations for him were sky-high. His political career began in his teen years, and his presidential term ended in defeat; his later Congressional career, in which he fought against the slave trade, deserves to be better known (the movie Amistad has definitely helped in that regard). John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life is a must read for American history fans.

If I had to make a top 5 list, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House would absolutely be included. Jackson's place in history is undeniably tied to the forced migration of Native Americans; he was a provocative and scandal-ridden man in his day, but also devoted to his family (he had three adopted children, including a Native American child).

Although James Garfield was only president for nine months (and incapacitated for most of it), Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, And the Murder of a President is a captivating account of his early political career and the dazzling changes in the late nineteenth century. Fans of medical history would love this.

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris is the second entry in Edmund Morris's trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt; as I am mostly interested in reading about the actual presidential term(s), I chose this one for my TR book. This begins with Roosevelt's shocking ascendant to the presidency after William McKinley's assassination and details his advancement of the national parks system, his controversial meeting with Booker T. Washington, and his own assassination attempt on his life (this part is incredible reading, as he continued with his speech while Secret Service agents were desperate to get him to stop).

The Bully Pulpit: Theordore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, And the Golden Age of Journalism was the first of two Doris Kearns Goodwin doorstoppers that I read. She wrote an engrossing account of the friendship between Roosevelt and Taft, and how Taft's abrupt dismissal of Roosevelt's policies led to the near-destruction of their friendship.

Having a bewildering amount of biographies to choose from is quite dizzying; luckily, I don't think I could have chosen better than Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. Although this was written before the full extent of FDR's extramarital affairs was discovered (Goodwin does discuss them in detail), it stands the test of time as a thrilling account of an extraordinary life and lifetime.

David McCullough's Truman is a classic in presidential biographies, and an enormous read. Truman's Missouri boyhood, his faithful devotion to his wife and daughter, his unbelievable second-term victory and humiliating conclusion of his presidency is an amazing read.

Being Nixon: A Man Divided is a stunning biography (and a brand new 2015 title!). Evan Thomas explores the weird, tragic, and unbelievable life of Richard Nixon in a fair and eye-opening read.

Honorable Mention: 

These books were superb reads in their own way:

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is a very fair and illuminating biography of our third president. Very political in nature rather than strictly biographical.

Choosing a biography of Lincoln introduces you to an embarrassment of riches. Ronald C. White's  A. Lincoln isn't innovative in terms of presentation, but his clear and empathetic writing is a fine soup-to-nuts biography of our 16th president.

Oy. Books about Reagan. Think he was the greatest president ever? You have plenty of books to choose from? Want books about how he ruined everything for all time? Plenty of those as well. As well as books by adult children, friends, enemies, fans, and 100th birthday retrospectives. But if you want a fairly balanced biography,  Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands is definitely the way to go. I would have possibly included it in my top 10 if Brands didn't meander so much into old Hollywood history (apart from Reagan's contributions), which bogs down the actual narrative.

Arrrrgh. Kennedy books. Same problem as Reagan books. If you pine for the days of Camelot, you can find many like-minded books. If you're anti-Kennedy, you can find many books that affirm that belief. If you want salacious gossip, you're in luck. However, those of you who want a comprehensive and fairly objective look at John F. Kennedy should put  An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek at the top of your list.

The remaining list: 

These books are not poorly written; on the contrary, many of these biographers did not have the extensive research available to them as did the biographers included in the previous two lists, but wrote fine biographies of their subjects. You'll notice that many books are in the American Presidents series; these thoughtful and concise biographies  (few are well over 200 pages, not including research notes, citations, etc) are often the only choice for modern biographies of one-term nearly forgotten presidents. They are also welcome alternatives to overstuffed and overwhelming biographies (Lyndon B. Johnson in particular). The Reagan title will be out in early 2016; the Clinton title has been delayed for obvious reasons. (Plans for the Obama title have not been announced, as far as I know.)

James Madison: James Madison by Gary Wills (American Presidents series)
James Monroe: The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness by Harlow Unger
Martin Van Buren: Martin van Buren by Ted Widmer (American Presidents series)
William Henry Harrison: William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins (American Presidents series)
John Tyler: John Tyler by Gary May (American Presidents series)
James K. Polk: A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry
Zachary Taylor: Zachary Taylor by John S.D. Eisenhower (American Presidents series)
Millard Filmore: Millard Filmore by Paul Finkelman (American Presidents series)
Franklin Pierce: Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt (American Presidents series)
James Buchanan: James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker (American Presidents series)
Andrew Johnson: Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed (American Presidents series)
Ulysses S. Grant: Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting (American Presidents series)
Rutherford B. Hayes: Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans L. Trefousse (American Presidents series)
Chester A. Arthur: Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell (American Presidents series)
Grover Cleveland (also 24th president): Grover Cleveland by Henry F. Graff (American Presidents series)
Benjamin Harrison: Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun (American Presidents series)
William McKinley: William McKinley by Kevin Phillips (American Presidents series)
Woodrow Wilson: Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House by Phyllis Lee Levin
Warren G. Harding: Warren G. Harding by John W. Dean (American Presidents series)
Calvin Coolidge: Calvin Coolidge by David Greenberg (American Presidents series)
Herbert Hoover: Herbert Hoover by William Edward Leuchtenburg (American Presidents series)
Dwight D. Eisenhower: Dwight D. Eisenhower by Tom Wicker (American Presidents series)
Lyndon B. Johnson: Lyndon B. Johnson by Charles Peters (American Presidents series)
Gerald Ford: Write it When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Cuff Conversations With Gerald R. Ford by Thomas M. DeFrank
Jimmy Carter: Jimmy Carter by Julian E. Zelizer (American Presidents series)
George H.W. Bush: George H.W. Bush by Timothy J. Naftali (American Presidents series)
Bill Clinton: The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House by John F. Harris
George W. Bush: George W. Bush by Jim Mann (American Presidents series)
Barack Obama: The Obamas by Jodi Kantor (read in 2012; this and Destiny of the Republic were the only two books that I read out of order; the Clinton and Obama biographies that I really wanted to read have not yet been written. Waiting for their American Presidents books!)

Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library 

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