Presidential Lives: Books and Biographies About United States Presidents
“With the Union my best and dearest earthly hopes are entwined.” - Franklin Pierce, 1847
February is a month when we often reflect upon our presidents, celebrating the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. These days, Washington’s birthday is a federal holiday and in some areas of the country is referred to as “President’s Day.” The library has many books about the 43 presidents who have occupied the White House since George Washington took office.
First, let’s first turn back the clock thirty years to 1984. The United States legislative and executive branches looked very different than they do today. Democrats had an entrenched hold on both the House and Senate, while a very popular Republican president was running for his second term in office. However, while political ideology was trumpeted throughout Capitol Hill, gridlock was often averted because of the basic pragmatism of two figures: President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked” (Simon & Schuster: 2013) written by Chris Matthews of MSNBC fame, goes into their relationship in detail. Matthews’ point is the following: that ultimately the good of the country seemed to be the overwhelming concern for both of them. “Their way of life comprised an ongoing series of alliances and antagonisms, but did not include personal analysis of themselves or others,” Matthews says. And he continues, “In his own way, each was a true gentleman in a way we don’t ask our leaders to be anymore.” Civility has since vanished from much of our political discourse.
Franklin Pierce, quoted above, is perhaps an obscure president, but he led the country during an important time. The 1850s were perhaps one of the most divisive points in American history, and Pierce’s efficacy as president was questionable. The book “Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents” (Hyperion: 2012), by Kenneth Davis, covers the lives, loves and frailties of American presidents. Speaking of Pierce, Davis says, “He was among a trio of pre-war presidents whose uninspired, shortsighted, and even cowardly administrations did nothing to avert the Civil War.” “Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents” also includes helpful timelines and a research guide. Davis says further: “At its core, this book is meant to address the mystique, the mystery, and the mythology of the presidency.”
During his three years as president, John Kennedy was a familiar figure in the pages of the New York Times. The Kennedy Years: From the Pages of the New York Times” (Abrams: 2013) retells the Kennedy story through the pages of the Times. President Kennedy was a dynamo; negotiating a tremendous number of issues in the early part of his presidency. A May 25, 1961 headline blares, “Kennedy asks $1.8 billion this year to accelerate space exploration, add foreign aid, bolster defense.” Six days later, “Kennedy and de Gaulle agree to defend Berlin; discuss Asia and Africa presidents meet.” As Richard Reeves points out in the introduction to the chapter about 1962, “An astonishing series of events punctuated the Kennedy years. In 1962 alone, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, Jacqueline Kennedy became a beloved, style-setting public advocate of high culture, and a walled-off, fearful West Berlin was suddenly isolated from the American sector by a Communist regime in East Germany that could no longer face the international embarrassment of a rising river of fleeing refugees.” Sadly, the November 23, 1963 issue heralded the end the Kennedy’s presidency and his life.
Most of us know George Washington as one of the country’s founding fathers and as a diplomat; less is known about his military service, which prepared him for those greater roles. Stephen Brumwell's book “George Washington: Gentleman Warrior” (Quercus: 2013) describes in rich detail his beginnings as a military commander, and his ultimate triumph as Commander in Chief during the Revolutionary War. His career did not begin auspiciously. Washington was a commander for British forces during the French and Indian War, and his initial foray (called Braddock’s Defeat) ended terribly. Of his first time as a commander, Brumwell says that the mission “had failed at all levels” and that “Washington himself bore a large share of responsibility.” However, as history shows, Washington was a quick study. Despite this inauspicious start, Washington’s early history did mold his future. Brumwell says, “without his youthful hankering after military fame, kindled by his half-brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon and the Fairfaxes at Belvoir, Washington would, in all probability, have remained a footnote in history; a respectable, if unremarkable, surveyor and planter.”
No current review of books about American presidents would be complete without a title about President Obama. Dozens of books have been printed about our 44th president since he came into office in 2008. Last year, Jonathan Alter, a correspondent for NBC news, sketched Obama’s incumbency in the book “The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies” (Simon & Schuster: 2013). A book ostensibly about the run-up to the 2012 election, it is also about how the embrace of social media might have won the election for Obama. “While Romney lumbered through his convention, Obama was on Reddit, a crowdsourced social news site known by few of the Tampa delegates, though popular with many of their children ... The Reddit appearance was another sign that Obama’s dominance of the digital campaign was not only not bad, it was a pretty good indicator that he was on the winning track.”