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What I'm Reading (No. 57): Presidents' Day Edition
Welcome to the Presidents' Day Edition of What I'm Reading! I could write a very long introduction here, but I'll spare you. The straight-to-the-point version:
After the 2016 election, I wanted to know more about the presidency, and the nation's political history in general. Was there always so much hate? Was Trump — and our political situation — really as unique as pundits were saying? So I hit the books. Biographies, specifically. Primarily big ones. And I got hooked.
The role of most powerful person in the world reveals what people are really made of and provides a concentrated dose of leadership lessons. It reveals some things about power that are hard to learn elsewhere. Plus, presidents are just naturally really complex and interesting people — there has to be a mix of ambition, patriotism (usually), ego-centrism, pragmatism, and plenty more.
Below is a list of all the presidential books I've read, mostly from the last year or so, but some from earlier in my reading life. If you've been a subscriber of this newsletter for a while, plenty of these titles will be familiar, but here they all are in one place. It looks like a lot of books, but it's only 14 presidents. I'm gonna hit the list pretty hard though, and hopefully in another year or two, I'll have read about all 44 men who have held the title President of the United States.
In chronological order:
POTUS #1 - Washington
George Washington by Ron Chernow is a marvelous and piercing look at the oftentimes enigmatic first President of the United States. Chernow doesn't shy away from the criticisms of the man, but also makes it clear why Washington is forever enshrined on Mt. Rushmore.
#2 - John Adams
The Pulitzer-winning John Adams by David McCullough is often considered a biographical masterpiece, and is indeed one of the best-selling titles of all-time in the genre. It's a great book, and is incredibly easy-reading, and yet in the end I didn't actually feel like I knew Adams.
Page Smith's 2-volume work on Adams from the 60s is not all that easy to read, but he uses a personal, masterful language that actually reminds me of Robert Caro. In fact, I have to believe that Smith's writing was a big influence on Caro . . . just a personal hunch. The way he puts Adams into context is unmatched by other works.
#3 - Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham offers a central thesis that Jefferson's life revolved around the accumulation and use of power — mostly for good, patriotic aims. Meacham is well-known for page-turning, popular political bios, and this one is no different. I actually appreciated it even more after going through my original notes a second time.
#4 - James Madison
The Three Lives of James Madison by Noah Feldman is very much an intellectual biography — meaning it's more a record of Madison's thought patterns and philosophies rather than an intimate picture of his life and relationships. It was revealing, but I got a little bored. I've started Lynne Cheney's A Life Reconsidered, and it's far more readable and engaging.
#16 - Abraham Lincoln
I surprisingly have yet to read a true cradle-to-grave biography of the man. Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James Swanson is a gripping, page-turning thriller-like read about the two-week hunt for John Wilkes Booth. Superb reading. The Last Lincolns by Charles Lachman is a really interesting look at the Lincoln family line, and how it ended up dying out after just a few generations. Finally, I've read Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. This dual biography focuses on how these two lives became inextricably linked during the mid-1800s.
#20 - James Garfield
Few writers can do what Candace Millard can do with an intriguing political life. Destiny of the Republic is the story of James Garfield — a man who isn't known hardly at all by most people today. He was president just a few months before he was shot, and then for a few more months while he slowly died. Candace's writing is good enough for anyone to enjoy.
#26 - Teddy Roosevelt
I read Edmund Morris's famous trilogy in college. Over the course of about 2,500 pages, Morris tells the story of TR's epic life. To get the full scope of Teddy, look no further. I'll be re-reading it soon. Candace Millard also makes another appearance here with her splendid River of Doubt, which covers a little-known story of TR's post-presidency, in which he explored an unknown Amazon river.
#33 - Harry Truman
The Accidental President by AJ Baime is a fantastic, page-turning read that includes a biographical section, but mostly focuses on the epic first four months of Truman's surprising first term as president. If you don't much about Truman, this book is the way to go versus diving into David McCullough's well-known Truman. (That one awaits me on my shelf yet.)
#36 - Lyndon Johnson
To read about LBJ is to read the masterful work of Robert Caro, which spans 4 volumes and 3,000+ pages (the 5th and final volume is in progress). I'm about done with the first book, and I can't wait to read the next three. There's no other biography like it, and there's no other writer like Robert Caro. The picture he paints of LBJ and his times, and the beautiful prose he does it with, isn't ever likely to be repeated by any biographer writing on any subject. It's just too bad Lyndon isn't a very admirable character.
#40 - Ronald Reagan
I came away from HW Brands' Reagan knowing plenty more about the popular president of the '80s, and yet it felt like I didn't really know him. This is partially due to Reagan's hard-to-crack personality, but also due to Brands' somewhat shallow storytelling. He doesn't really dive deep enough into the particulars, even though the book spans 700+ pages. I look forward to Bob Spitz's recent and very well reviewed Reagan: An American Journey, which also awaits me on my shelf.
#41 - George HW Bush
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George HW Bush by Jon Meacham made me appreciate the man so much more than I did before. Of all the presidents I've read about, he seems to have just about the most character of any of them. Meacham's best book, I think, and hopefully one that bolsters Bush's legacy.
#43 - George W Bush
Decision Points, Bush's 2010 memoir, was a surprisingly good read. It details a lot of what you'd expect (9/11 and its aftermath) and some of what you wouldn't expect (his deeply personal faith and his alcoholism). While he remains a universally poorly ranked POTUS, this memoir at least paints a portrait of a sympathetic man.
#44 - Barack Obama
Dreams from My Father is also a memoir, but one published well before its author became president. Obama's 1995 book tells the story of his complex childhood, his quest to find his birth father, and also how his race and identity-searching shaped his early life. It's a very well written book that is sometimes overly long, but really interesting nonetheless.
#45 - Donald Trump
Choosing Donald Trump by Stephen Mansfield is a book about the faith (or lack thereof) of Donald Trump, and also how the evangelical Christian community came to basically get him elected. Mansfield himself is a Christian, and it was easy to see some of the disbelief in his writing of how his community chose Trump. Really interesting read.
Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin is a great overview of her other biographical books. That is also my primary complaint though; it's really just a collection of short snippets of information that will be repetitive for any of her fans. Nonetheless, it's a good primer on the leadership of Lincoln, TR, FDR, and LBJ.
Inside Camp David was a short and fun read about the famous presidential retreat. It's a place where presidents both rested and could kick their feet up, but also at times conduct very important world business. A revealing book.
And although Personal History is a memoir by a newspaper woman, there are a ton of great stories about the Kennedys, Johnsons, and Nixons (and, of course, how her newspaper helped expose Watergate).
I know this was a long one, but it was a very enjoyable list for me to put together. Enjoy your Presidents' Day on Monday, and maybe pick up a book about one of the 44 men who have held the highest title this country offers.
As always, thank you, and I'd love to hear what you're reading.