I am in the midst of reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris and thoroughly enjoying it! My hunch is that you have to be a terrible writer to write a boring biography of Teddy Roosevelt. He was interesting from childhood! This is the first of a three volume effort by Morris and I am delighted to say that the other two are waiting on my “to be read” stack!
It seems that this is a wonderful time if you are a lover of presidential biographies. Of course, we had the recent PBS series on the Roosevelts (it is really just a happy coincidence that the Morris biographies came to the top of the stack at this time!). It also happens that Doris Kearns Goodwin has written on Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in The Bully Pulpit, a book I received for Christmas that comes next after the Morris bios. I happen to love everything Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about from her beloved Brooklyn Dodgers to Abraham Lincoln in Team of Rivals. For those fascinated by all things Roosevelt, she also wrote about FDR and Eleanor in an earlier book, No Ordinary Time.
Moving beyond the Roosevelts, there are a host of wonderful biographies that have appeared in the last ten years or so. First to come to mind are David McCullough’s biographies of Truman and John Adams. I happen to think the biography of Truman is the better of the two in exploring the character of this president who emerged from the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt, even though Adams probably had the more interesting life. Not too long ago I read and reviewed Harlow Giles Unger’s John Quincy Adams. John Quincy struggled in the shadow of his father but was a child prodigy, an ambassador in six countries, was a one-term president like his father, went on to congress, and argued the Amistad case before the Supreme Court. He died in the House. He was probably one of our most distinguished ex-Presidents. I’ve read several biographies of Thomas Jefferson but still think the best was Dumas Malone’s six volume study of Jefferson and His Time.
I could go on and on but perhaps the interesting question I ask myself is “why the fascination with presidential biographies?” At least for me I don’t think there is a single reason. One is a certain interest in leadership and how it may be exercised both well and badly. We certainly have examples of both in our presidential history! Another is that American presidential biographies are really American history with skin on it! I’ve read both extensively but to understand both the influences and limits presidents faced in trying to shape events is instructive. It took even a Lincoln three years to find a general in Grant who would fight, and it also took a Lincoln to hold the North to its task in the absence of a Grant.
Perhaps I read these, even as I read history more generally to understand how we get here. The actions of Presidents past have shaped the Presidency now. Sometimes, I think there is a bit of a longing as well that we might find one like one of the “great” presidents of the past to fill the office. Reading the bios and the history, it seems that somehow, the greatest of presidents occupied the office at the most perilous junctures in our history. Is it that ordinary people rise to extraordinary heights in such times? Or is it a kind of divine providence that we might pray for as the need faces us? One thing is clear is that there have also been mediocrities in the office and if we are praying people, we can pray to be delivered of such folk, particularly in perilous times.
What are your favorite presidential biographies? And why do you like reading them?