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What to Read Next (No. 165): your master POTUS reading list
A book or two for every president
This is a special edition of What to Read Next: Many of you have asked for the master list of presidential biographies that I’ve read over the course of the last four years or so. Today, I’m giving you that list!
I have a lot of POTUS books on my shelf that I haven’t read yet, so this article will evolve in the years to come. Bookmark it, keep it as a reference, and please let me know your favorite biographies of our Chief Executive—I’d love to hear!
If you missed it on Instagram, I wrote up some lessons from each president in the 46 days leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration.
One quick note: this is by far the longest newsletter I’ve sent you and has been a couple months in the making. If this article is clipped in your email, click here to be brought to the permanent page on the website. It will live forever on the web.
Before getting into it, I wanted to briefly mention that in this week’s premium email, subscribers got a look at some of the best fictional representations of our presidents (like A Friend of Mr. Lincoln by Stephen Harrigan), as well as “A Few of My Favorite Links” from my last week or so of internet browsing and reading. Subscribe here:
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There have been hundreds of books published about George Washington, the first attempts appearing nearly right away after his passing in 1799. Since then, there’s been a steady stream of award-worthy titles and series, including Douglas Southall Freeman’s 7-volume set from the 1950s and James Flexner’s 4-volume treatment, which came about a decade later. (Each also has a single-volume abridgment!) So where do you possibly start with the man who set the most important precedents for the office of President of the United States?
For the modern reader, there’s no doubt that Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is where to turn. While Chernow’s books are long and admittedly intimidating (and aren’t exactly easy reads), he’s indisputably a master storyteller. Washington does retain some of his stone-like stature, but Chernow chips away at it better than others in order to reveal the human being inside. Washington: A Life is well worth your effort.
When David McCullough started writing what came to be John Adams, the intent was a dual biography of Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In his research, though, McCullough came to find that Adams was the character who had been spurned by popular history and whose story deserved a fresh re-telling. As he did with Harry Truman as well, McCullough then set out to then reclaim someone who had been largely tossed to the wayside in favor of the sexier Founding Fathers (a phrase that isn’t entirely metaphor). The result is a masterful, readable, and surprisingly relatable portrait of the cantankerous but lovable John Adams. If you can’t get enough of the guy, Page Smith’s two-volume work is also very good, though not quite as accessible. McCullough’s John Adams is definitely where to start.
Thomas Jefferson has become the poster boy of public opinion’s changing tides in regards to the Founding Fathers. For nearly 200 years he was revered without reservation. But as his relationship with his slaves came to light in the last couple decades, Jefferson has swung the other way, almost towards villainy. So which is it, hero or scoundrel? To read any biography of our third president is to understand what an enigma he was; even historians who have spent their careers studying the man have ultimately found him to be, as Merrill Peterson puts it, “impenetrable.”
Suffice it to say, modern readers have no shortage of options for digging into Thomas Jefferson’s life. I began with Jon Meacham’s The Art of Power, which was a very good place to start. I also found our third president “impenetrable,” though, and so continued on to Joseph Ellis’ fascinating and enlightening American Sphinx. Less a cradle-to-grave biography than a series of essay-like chapters on Jefferson’s life, this book gets at the heart of what has made the man so appealing and, as of late, so pilloried. Inside its pages, you’ll find treasures about character, independence, and America’s contradictory founding legacy.
For being the father of the constitution, Madison is not the subject of very many modern biographies. Lynn Cheney has written a narrative-driven biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, that makes for fine reading, but I found Noah Feldman’s The Three Lives of James Madison to be more intellectually rewarding. Normally, I’d actually go with the better-told story, but given the heady nature of Madison’s life and work, the slightly more dense version gets my vote this time around. You’ll come away with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the thought(s) and work that went into the making of the constitution. Not always easy reading, but the format of short sections made it better, and it’s always interesting.
Word on the street is that Jon Meacham is currently working on a bio of James and Dolley Madison, which will be his self-proclaimed magnum opus.
Often called the “last Founding Father,” James Monroe has largely been neglected by modern biographers. This is quite a surprise, as Monroe’s life story is plenty exciting. After nearly dying in the Revolutionary War while fighting by Washington’s side, he served in more political offices than just about any other president: senator, ambassador, governor, and secretary of state and secretary of war (at the same time) before being elected to the Oval Office in 1816. His life and presidency are best chronicled in Tim McGrath’s new James Monroe: A Life, which is the first major biography of him in a decade. Though he gets a lot of good reviews, I’d avoid Unger’s bio if I were you.
#6—John Quincy Adams
As the son of the second president and member of one of America’s most famous families, John Quincy Adams has been the focus of plenty of biographies. Though he was famously prickly, his life story makes for dramatic reading. From being a world traveler and diplomat as a young man, to the highly contested election of 1824, to his largely forgettable presidency, to his long career as a Congressman (including defending the famous Amistad case), there’s no lack of interesting stories to tell. James Traub covers it all masterfully in John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit.
Someday I’ll read his famous journals, which he religiously kept nearly his entire life.
Much like Jefferson, Jackson’s legacy has changed quickly as the realities of his treatment of Native Americans has come into clearer focus. Though he’s covered well in numerous modern biographies, the best of the bunch remains Robert Remini’s trilogy from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Remini captures the vigor and indomitable will of Andrew Jackson, while also not excusing his misdeeds towards slaves and Native Americans. The picture the reader gets is that of a fierce, talented man indelibly shaped by his chaotic and traumatic frontier upbringing. The entire trilogy is phenomenal, but quite a commitment for someone unfamiliar with Jackson. Luckily, there’s an admirable abridgment that serves as the perfect entry point.
I have also heard good things about H. W. Brands’ Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, though I personally tend to have a love/hate relationship with Brands.
#8—Martin Van Buren
With Martin Van Buren starts a long stretch of 19th century presidents who have been woefully unwritten about by biographers. We’ll get a break from that with the Civil War era, but then starts another couple decades of slim pickings for presidential biographies. That tide is slowly turning, but know that if you’re tackling all the presidents, this is one of the tougher stretches to get through. I went with Donald Cole’s 1984 Martin Van Buren and the American Political System. It was dry at times, but serviceable enough. As with all the presidents, even the stories of the “boring” ones contain a potent mix of ambition, luck, failure, hard work, and sacrifice.
It’s here that I’ll also bring up the American Presidents series of books. Published at the pace of about two per year for the last couple decades, these are short biographical primers written by well-known historians, edited by legendary historians Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (until his death in 2007) and now Sean Wilentz. Weighing in at somewhere between 150-200 pages, these are not in-depth studies, but do get the job done when other biographies are too hard to find, too expensive, and/or not available at your local library. I tried to avoid these when possible, as I wanted a full picture of each POTUS, but in a couple instances they were functionally my only choice. You could certainly do worse than read these books; you would no doubt come away with a deeper understanding of American history and its chief executives.
#9—William Henry Harrison
Given his status as our shortest-tenured president, William Henry Harrison understandably has quite the dearth of accessible biographies. The last major effort was in fact published over 80 years ago. It seems crazy, really. Yes, this man was only president for about a month, but his life was, no doubt, interesting enough to warrant greater study. I wouldn’t fault you for going with the American Presidents entry here, but I read Freeman Cleaves’ 1939 Old Tippecanoe. It focuses largely on his frontier military experience and devotes just a handful of pages to his presidency. I won’t lie, it’s not easy reading and is among my bottom few least favorite books on this list. Like I said above, this is a tough stretch.
Until recently, Tyler was in the camp of presidents who hadn’t had a major biography published in decades. Thankfully that’s been rectified, because his life was utterly fascinating. The death of Harrison created a true constitutional crisis—nobody really knew what to do in that scenario, but Tyler took the reins and never looked back. He was deserted by his party, fathered 15 children (the most of any president; he in fact has a grandchild still alive today), and was the only president to renounce the United States during the Civil War. Christopher Leahy’s President without a Party was published just last year and is a wonderful examination of Tyler’s complicated life, times, and legacy. It sets a high standard for how to write our forgotten presidents.
James Polk is often counted among the top quarter of presidents, but, as is on trend here, hasn’t been given much attention by biographers. He was a wartime president, both instigating and winning the oft-forgotten Mexican-American War, which was a warm-up of sorts for a number of important Civil War figures. Polk was also responsible for adding more land to the United States than any other president, securing Texas, most of the West Coast, and pieces of the Rocky Mountain region. For biographies, there are two primary options: Robert Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs and Walter Borneman’s Polk. I went with Borneman (because I’ve enjoyed some of his other work) and really liked the storytelling and readability. You won’t go wrong with either.
Taylor, a hero of the Mexican-American War, was as apolitical as it gets; he in fact never even voted until his own election. Both parties courted him, but ultimately it was the Whig Party that landed him on their ticket. His 16 months in office before dying of an unknown intestinal ailment (after a 4th of July party, no less) are considered to be more forgettable than failed. He was an inept politician and simply hasn’t been the focus of many biographies. K. Jack Bauer’s Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest was serviceable enough (and short, too), bringing us through his service in the war and dissecting the failures of his short time in office.
Taking over for the deceased Zachary Taylor, the pride of Buffalo continues this barren stretch of presidents without a great biography. Robert Rayback’s 1959 treatment, Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President, is often interesting (Fillmore and his wife created the first permanent White House library!), but also rather dry. Given that it’s basically the only option outside of the American Presidents series, just be glad that it’s only 350 pages and not more. This is a guy I look forward to reading about when a modern biographer takes on the challenge.
It’s hard not to feel for Franklin Pierce, despite his consistent ranking near the bottom of all presidents. In a disaster that would later echo in the life of Joe Biden, Franklin and Jane Pierce lost their only son in a gruesome train accident shortly after being elected in 1852. Though losing a child was somewhat commonplace back then, it was no less painful, and the consensus is that the loss certainly impacted his ability to lead and govern. In 2017, historian Peter Wallner completed a superb, though a bit too forgiving, two-volume set, but it’s somewhat hard to find and very expensive on the used market. Check out the publisher’s site directly to see if you can get your hands on it; if not, Michael Holt’s entry in the American Presidents series will do the trick.
Given that he’s consistently ranked dead last by POTUS experts, you’d think that President James Buchanan would have more books about him. Readers love stories about failure. Alas, there are only a couple options for modern armchair historians. Philip Klein’s hefty biography from 1962 tends to be the go-to for folks embarking on this project. It’s overly positive, in my opinion, and frankly just hard to get through. I much preferred Robert Strauss’s newer and more playful Worst. President. Ever. He not only looks at Buchanan’s life, but also the presidential rating game as a whole, and other contenders for that race to the bottom. It’s not the most complete look at Buchanan, but it’s certainly the most entertaining.
How does someone possibly pick a single book to study up on the most written about man in American history? It’s a tall task, but made easier when you focus on full-scale biographies and not those that narrow in on a single element of his life or presidency. If you’re looking for a single-volume option, there’s a general consensus among readers and historians that David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln or Ronald White’s A. Lincoln are where to turn. I read Donald and enjoyed it, but A. Lincoln is the better-told story, by far, in my very humble opinion. It’s incredibly readable, inspiring, and always illuminating. In fact, I just finished that one this week and it catapulted into one of my few favorite POTUS reads on the entire list.
If a really deep dive is what you’re after, Michael Burlingame’s two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life will keep you busy for a while and is unmatched in its level of detail.
Johnson is another guy who more often than not finds himself among the bottom few presidents. There was some renewed interest in him when President Trump was being impeached, as Johnson was the first to go through that process. While the impeachment has been covered well, there aren’t too many full biographies of him. I stumbled on The First President Johnson by Lately Thomas, and while it was a touch too sympathetic towards a bad president, the storytelling was well done and it definitely provided a memorable portrait of the man. Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers provides a good portrait as well, though of a narrower timeframe and a broader subject area.
Though ignored and written off for a long time as a bad president, Civil War general-turned-politician Ulysses S. Grant has been re-invigorated in a handful of major biographies in the last decade or so. While there are a number of quality options, Ron Chernow’s epic, 1,000-page Grant is impossible to beat. The best biographies are those that not only reveal their subject, for both good and bad, but also provide a moving and even inspiring reading experience. Grant does that in spades.
The psychological penetration that Chernow achieves is eye-opening and often rousing. A number of biographers have captured the war years quite well — it was a dramatic period that just isn’t too hard to make exciting and evocative. The real trick is to capture Grant’s eight years as president with the same verve, which the master historian undoubtedly does. As with the other Chernow title on this list, it will take some dedication, but the effort is well worth it. Grant, in my opinion, is Chernow’s best book.
There was a lot going on during Hayes’ single-term administration: the highly contested election of 1876, the end of Reconstruction, the acceleration of the Gilded Age, and more. And yet he starts another decades-long stretch of presidents who haven’t been given much attention by biographers. Ari Hoogenboom’s long treatment from 1995 is well-reviewed, but quite expensive and not easily available (at least when I’ve checked). This was the first president for whom I went with the American Presidents series entry. Written by Hans Treffouse, Rutherford B. Hayes is serviceable enough, but certainly doesn’t capture the intensity of that contested election or the time period. For a short primer, it gets the job done, but I was hoping for more. Someday I’ll read the Hoogenboom bio.
Garfield had all the makings of a great president. He was born in a log cabin, served as an Ohio state senator before the Civil War, fought bravely as a major general in some of the war’s most intense battles, and while serving as a Congressman from his native state in 1880, reluctantly accepted the Republican party’s nomination for president. He was honest, humble, and hard-working. His time in office was cut short after an assassin’s bullet felled him just three months into his term—a turn of events made even sadder by the fact that it took another three months for him to succumb to those wounds, surely made worse by the poor understanding of medicine in 1881. For such a gripping story, there’s really only one book that fully captures the drama of his life and death: Candice Millard’s superb Destiny of the Republic. Though it focuses on the assassination and poor medical treatment, there’s enough biographical material for you to get a good picture of Garfield’s character. That said, if you want a true cradle-to-grave bio, Millard herself recommends Garfield by Allan Peskin.
Chester Arthur, like many vice presidents before and after, was never meant to be president. He was a corrupt Republican who was part of the New York state political machine. His actions were mostly decided by the bosses above him. So when honest Garfield ascended to the Republic throne, those bosses made sure someone on their side was in the White House too. But with the help of an unlikely penpal, Arthur rose to the dignity of the office and changed his ways. Scott Greenberger captures the ups and downs of Arthur’s life and presidency in his slim but effective and entertaining The Unexpected President.
#22 & #24—Grover Cleveland
Cleveland seems to present a challenge to modern biographers. He’s generally presented as the epitome of honesty—An Honest President and A Study in Character are two titles that hit the shelves here in the 21st century. And yet, his life and career is riddled with personal transgressions that are squeamish at best, and actually criminal at worst. It seems the “honest” moniker applied to his politics and not his personal life. I didn’t want to read something that glossed over those discrepancies, so I chose Matthew Algeo’s The President Is a Sick Man. This short but impactful book details Cleveland’s secret surgical operation at sea to remove a cancerous growth from his mouth and jaw. It doesn’t cover the entirety of the man’s life, but provides a great snapshot about an episode that tells the reader a lot about the character of our 22nd and 24th president.
Harrison is perhaps the most neglected president on this list, having been the focus of exactly zero accessible single-volume biographies, which is why I went with James Calhoun’s entry in the American Presidents series. This is a surprise, given that Harrison was the grandson of President William Henry Harrison and served as a colonel in the Union Army. Though his presidency was somewhat forgettable (though he did sign a pension bill for Civil War vets, which Cleveland vetoed), it’s certainly still worthy of study. The only other real option is a hard-to-find trilogy published mid-century. Calhoun left me wanting more, though it did the job fine, and I eagerly look forward to whoever tackles his life next.
Serving as president during the ushering in of the 20th century, McKinley was the last POTUS to have served in the Civil War, before succumbing to an assassin’s bullet in 1901. While perhaps best known for giving way to the cannonball of a personality in Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley was a transitional and important president. He hasn’t been the focus of too many popular biographies, but Robert Merry covered his life quite well in the recent President McKinley. It’s not the most exciting read, but well worth a spot in your presidential library.
The most charismatic president has been written about extensively pretty much since the day he died up through today. For the complete picture, you cannot beat Edmund Morris’ epic and stirring trilogy: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt. They’re among the greatest biographies ever penned, and if you read just a handful of books from this list, these should be there. For a single-volume, more efficient treatment, H. W. Brands does an admirable job in The Last Romantic.
#27—William Howard Taft
I came to have quite a soft spot for our 27th president after reading about him in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Longing to be a judge, Taft reluctantly accepted a path to the presidency, and he hated his four years at the helm. Theodore Roosevelt actually gets top billing for this title, but I imagine that has to do with the publishing marketing machine. The book is more about Taft and his relationship with TR. It’s a wonderful read with a compelling narrative and a number of inspiring takeaways. I’m glad Goodwin chose to give him some spotlight here; not many other biographers or historians have.
Wilson is another guy whose legacy has really changed in the last few years, particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wilson was president during the Spanish Flu pandemic that ravaged the world from 1918 to 1920. Wilson never made a public comment about the illness, never instituted a national plan, and knowingly sent sick soldiers to the WWI battlefronts. It’s hard to see what’s happened in the last year and not think rather poorly of Wilson’s leadership. Modern biographers, though, have yet to address that fault (I hope that’ll change?). John Milton Cooper’s Woodrow Wilson was a bit fawning for my tastes, but covered his life well nonetheless. I do look forward to a more balanced treatment someday.
Forgotten (and re-discovered!) erotic letters, hotel room affairs, big-time political scandals, and a somewhat mysterious early death . . . how is Warren Harding not written about by more historians?! His life and presidency feature all the makings of a dramatic tale, but for the reader of today there’s basically just one classic option: The Shadow of Blooming Grove. It’s a fine read, but overly long by at least a third. You’d be forgiven for going with a book like 1920: The Year of Six Presidents by David Pietruzsa or the American Presidents series entry by John Dean.
Silent Cal, as he’s been called pretty much since he took office, has gone from forgotten president to conservative hero and back again a few times. He seems to have been a decent enough guy, but suffers from a total lack of personality. Given that his administration was largely economically focused—and on cutting back, at that—reading about Coolidge just wasn’t very enjoyable for me personally. Amity Shlaes does an admirable job conveying his story in Coolidge—she’s about the only one to have given it a shot in the last few decades. Though it’s sitting unread on my shelf, I’ve heard his autobiography is surprisingly good.
I came to have quite a soft spot for Bert Hoover after reading about him in Kenneth Whyte’s Hoover. The book doesn’t make excuses for his ineffective presidency, but does do two important things: 1) It gives Hoover his due for being one of the bonafide heroes of World War I—something near criminally under-covered in popular history books. 2) It shows that the Great Depression, for which Hoover is often blamed, was far more a convergence of unique events and systemic problems than about the actions of a single man. I’m not even sure Bert was all that likable, but Whyte told such a compelling story that you couldn’t help but feel for the guy who’s been so poorly treated by history.
Every century has gifted America one of its finest presidents, at least according to the historians who generally rank presidents. The 1700s gave us Washington, the 1800s are clearly Lincoln’s domain, and FDR dominates much of the 20th century presidential canon. Many of the books focus on his WWII efforts, including Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time. For a comprehensive look at the man, though, Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt was a marvel. Through the framing of FDR as an inherently political man, Dallek goes through the ups and down and heroics and missteps of Roosevelt’s shortened life. I have also heard great things about both Jean Edward Smith’s biography of him, as well as HW Brands’; there’s certainly no shortage of good choices.
Though David McCullough’s Truman is often cited as one of the great presidential biographies (which it is!), AJ Baime’s more efficient volume, The Accidental President, is actually the POTUS bio I recommend most to average readers. Distilled into 360 jam-packed pages of inspiring leadership and unbreakable character, Baime shows us that Truman was one of the truly decent men to have held the office of President of the United States.
Spending the entire first chapter on April 12, 1945—the day FDR died and Truman became president—Baime sets the scene for how out of his depth the Missouran really was. The reader then gets a bit about Truman’s beginnings, before embarking on the bulk of the book, which focuses on the spring and summer months of 1945 as WWII approached its end on both the European and Pacific fronts. You’ll most certainly come away from The Accidental President with a greater appreciation of who Harry S. Truman really was.
For the first couple decades after Eisenhower’s eight years in office, he was seen as a hands-off POTUS. But scholar Fred Greenstein blew that notion’s lid off with 1982’s Hidden-Hand Presidency. Since then, he’s seen no shortage of mostly positive volumes about his leadership in WWII and in the Oval Office. Jean Edward Smith’s Eisenhower in War and Peace covers both periods extremely well in Smith’s classic and eminently readable prose. Call me crazy, but Eisenhower wasn’t the most interesting personality to me, so this book doesn’t hit my top 10, but I know it does for a lot of other POTUS nerds.
With John Fitzgerald at the center of the Kennedy universe, nearly every member of the family has been studied and written about a number of times—grandparents, parents, children, and all eight of his siblings. Perhaps surprisingly, though, comprehensive biographies of John himself are somewhat of a rarity. A number have been started and abandoned due to uncooperative surviving family members (Jean Kennedy, the final living sibling, died just last year), unclassified top secret documents (much of his presidency, and especially his death, was shrouded in secrecy), and his famously impenetrable inner psyche.
Robert Dallek penned what I believe to be by far the best treatment of JFK with An Unfinished Life. While unsparing in detailing the flaws of Kennedy’s personal life, Dallek unveiled for the first time the depth of his debilitating medical problems and also offered a well-balanced and dramatic account of his 1,000 days as president.
A couple more notes: I do have Logevall’s new JFK book on my shelf, which I look forward to reading (though probably not for a few years). And William Manchester’s The Death of a President is long forgotten by most, though remarkably well-reviewed. It’s also on my shelf and begs to be read.
There’s Robert Caro, and there’s every other presidential biographer. Not only is his reporting outstandingly deep and original, but his prose is captivating and stirring and damn near poetic at times. The four books of the Years of Lyndon Johnson series (we’re all waiting for number five!) are not easy reads, but they’re always fascinating. The way Caro goes off-topic, and always brings it back to LBJ, is unmatched. His mini profiles of Robert Kennedy, Coke Stevenson, even the Texas landscape itself are as memorable as the larger story. The only problem is that LBJ is such a contemptible character—it’s hard spending so much time with someone who so cravenly desired raw power. Caro deserves a long review, and yet what else can you really say? If you’re into presidential history, this series is required reading.
Humans love to not only study and learn from failure, but gawk at it too. Given Nixon’s place in the pantheon of disgraced presidents, there’s been a lot of books about the man. The true task of any Nixon biographer goes beyond presenting the unflinching truth (and uncovering the question of why he did what he did), but also in providing context from his boyhood, innate personality, and learned behaviors to not necessarily inspire sympathy, but at least understanding. No man is one-dimensional, Richard Nixon included.
The biographer who unveils the true man best, in my opinion, is John Farrell in Richard Nixon: The Life. The narrative is remarkably readable and penetrative; there were, no doubt, clues throughout Nixon’s life that he would be a gifted politician but also a nefarious one, willing to do just about anything in order to win. Farrell certainly doesn’t explain away Nixon’s failures, but he does provide the nuance needed to come away from the book with a more complete picture of our 37th president. Plus, the Watergate drama makes for flat-out gripping reading.
Though Ford is often forgotten in our collective national memory, he served an important 2.5 years at the helm. He was quick to forgive Nixon, which was widely criticized, and possibly cost him the ‘76 election, but also did indeed serve to restore some unity and dignity to the office of the president. Ford was also responsible for getting the last American soldiers out of Vietnam—we’ve seen today how tough it is to get out of a warzone. Frankly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Donald Rumsfeld’s When the Center Held. I don’t expect much from political memoirs, but there just isn’t much on the bookshelves about Ford, so I went with it. Though Rumsfeld is obviously biased in his warmth towards our 38th president, he also readily outlines where he disagreed with Ford’s decisions and policies.
His Very Best is just about everything I want and hope for in a big presidential biography. Alter tells an incredibly compelling story, clears up a lot of myths people have about Jimmy Carter (and the 1970s in general), gives the reader an incredibly personal look at the man himself, and convincingly makes the case for the importance (not necessarily effectiveness) of his presidency.
Thus far, the consensus on Carter has basically been that he wasn’t good as president but is as decent a human being as exists. That story isn’t entirely rewritten, but Alter does add the necessary nuances. The Carter administration was far more impactful than it seems, but was largely done apart by two things: the ultra-conservative presidency of Ronald Reagan and the overshadowing of foreign affairs—mainly the Iran hostage situation. Though it’s nearly 700 pages, this book is as readable as a big bio gets. Carter has been due for a re-examination; Jonathan Alter did the job admirably.
Reagan is among our most enigmatic presidents. All have been actors to some degree; Reagan quite literally made a career of it before getting to the Oval Office. How much were we seeing the real Reagan when he was in the White House? A number of biographers have attempted the task, but getting to the man himself has proven difficult. Edmund Morris famously couldn’t crack that nut and wrote a genre-bending bio/novel called Dutch. I’ve only read H. W. Brands Reagan: The Life, and though it was pretty easy reading given its 700+ pages, I came away thinking that Brands didn’t really get to Reagan’s core either. I’ve heard great things about Bob Spitz’s Reagan: An American Journey, though, and it’s on my shelf, so hopefully this paragraph can be updated in a year or two.
#41—George HW Bush
I came away from Jon Meacham's Destiny & Power: The American Odyssey of George HW Bush with more respect for Bush than just about any of the other presidents. He was a fundamentally decent man through and through. And while his legacy has generally been as a failed one-term president tucked between Reagan (who defines the 80s) and Clinton (who defines the 90s), Meacham convincingly writes that he deserves much more.
When it comes to presidential legacies, time is everything. Clinton's seems to only get more tarnished (deservedly so), while Bush's seems to be on the rise. Yes, he followed Reagan's coattails, but was a decidedly different kind of conservative who made plenty of enemies in his own party. He ushered in the end of the Cold War and navigated what post-Soviet world leadership should look like, successfully and quickly got Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait—and didn't get stuck there (as his son would a decade later), got the Americans With Disabilities Act passed, and never even sniffed at any kind of scandal. Destiny & Power is a superb biography of a man who has been serially and seriously underrated as POTUS.
Clinton’s life has been full of very high highs and very low lows. It’s a dramatic tale, and no matter which way you tell his life story, it’s clear that Clinton has politics in his veins. There have been a few attempts to chronicle his life thus far—perhaps most infamously in his own long autobiography—the best being David Maraniss’ First In His Class, which covers Clinton’s life right up until he declares he’s running for president in the fall of 1991. Particularly well covered are Clinton’s formative college years and his not serving in Vietnam, which got plenty of press coverage during his campaigns. His relationship with Hillary gets a lot of attention as well, which certainly doesn’t put either of them in a particularly good light.
#43—George W Bush
Jean Edward Smith has written some of the finest, most balanced presidential biographies that modern readers have access to. So his scathing look at our 43rd president, Bush, was a bit of a surprise. The introduction is piercing and the final line serves as quite an indictment, but between that, things are a little more objective. Bush’s early life is covered very well but the focus is certainly on his presidency and specifically the foreign policy mishaps after 9/11. And yet, amidst the critiques, Bush still emerges as a likable and relatable person. His intentions—those only matter so much, of course—always came from a good place. While other Bush biographies are sure to arrive in the coming decades, Smith’s work is a great place to start, though it likely won’t hold up as the final word.
Obviously no biography of Barack Obama is complete. Beyond just the fact that he's still alive, it's hard to assess any presidency (or life) before some time has passed. But, David Maraniss's Barack Obama: The Story is not an ordinary biography. Over the course of 570 pages, we only arrive at 1988 when Barack decided to go to law school. Maraniss paints a picture in which it's easy to see both the man he eventually became and the seeds of politics that were planted well before most people probably realized (perhaps even including Michelle).
The reader is treated to an in-depth treatment of his genealogy, from his Kenyan roots to his Kansan heritage. As Maraniss writes, while geography and genealogy aren't everything, they are important in considering the course of one's life. I know this sounds like a terrible bore, but Maraniss writes with such journalistic fluidity that you feel like you're reading a really long, really well done newspaper article—in the best way possible. Like any good biography of a complex man, there's fodder for both admirers and detractors alike and you’ll quickly realize that Barack Obama was and is as complex as any other man who has held the title of President of the United States.
It’s nearly impossible to write an objective book on our 45th president. Though the market was flooded with Trump books on a level not seen with any other POTUS, there’s not much middle ground to be found. In 2016, before that momentous election even took place, a couple Washington Post editors put together Trump Revealed. It’s as balanced an account as you’ll find, and you’ll realize that nothing Trump did in office was surprising if you know about his life and career up to 2016. It’s not only, well, revealing, but easy reading too, which is sort of a rarity in this list. To get a good picture of Trump, I would certainly recommend this book as a starting point. His years in office are so insanely polarizing that I think a book published before any of that happened is actually pretty darn useful.
Given his length of service in the US government, I thought there would be more books about Joe Biden, but the pickings are pretty slim. Evan Osnos’ Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now got a lot of good press when it came out in 2020; while I found it to be a good primer, I was actually expecting more of a clear narrative and deeper analysis rather than a collection of article-like chapters.
The most interesting parts of the book have to do with the recent campaigns. In 2008, Biden reluctantly accepted the #2 spot behind Obama (Jill Biden had to tell him to “grow up”), but then spent a transformative eight years under an important president. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was of course the darling of the Democratic establishment (and Obama), which miffed Joe. So he sat out to see where things would shake out. And of course, in 2020, he decided to make one last run, easily clinching the nomination, and then winning the presidency as well. There’s plenty more to be said about Biden, but for now, Osnos’ book will cover a lot of the important main points.
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