Ten Presidential Biographies

One of my fascinations is presidential biographies. Part of me is simply fascinated by studying people, I guess, and what makes them tick. I find instructive the practice of leadership and the uses of power, for good and for ill.

As we approach a new electoral season (do they ever end?), it is worth considering, beyond the soundbites and the rhetoric, the character of the person we choose for president. Reading presidential biographies has taught me that character matters deeply and that character flaws often become amplified into tragedies in the office of the President.

Here are ten of the biographies I’ve liked (as well as mentions of others) for your consideration, in chronological order. Since I read a number before I began reviewing I’m just going to list the books.

  1. Washington: A LifeRon Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2010. A magnificent one volume study showing a Washington who was not the dull, stuffy figure we might think, but a man of passion, integrity, and steely self-control. Chernow’s Grant is equally worth a read.
  2. John AdamsDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Adams combined courage, deep faith and learning, and an irascibility that often thwarted his aspirations. His relationship and correspondence with Abigail was legendary. McCullough also has written a magnificent biography of Harry Truman.
  3. Jefferson and His Time, Dumas Malone. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948-1981. This was a magnificent effort that was a joy to read. We marvel at Jefferson’s skill with words, his love of learning, his passion for liberty of conscience, as well as his spendthrift habits, and his struggle to reconcile an agrarian way of life with the requirements of a growing industrial power.
  4. John Quincy Adams, Harlow Giles Unger. Boston: Da Capo, 2012. He served with Washington, had a distinguished ambassadorial career, and was probably the first whose ex-presidency excelled his time in office, marked by electoral controversy and gridlock. He spent the rest of his life in the House of Representatives, fought slavery along with Lincoln, collapsing on the House floor and dying on its premises.
  5. Team of RivalsDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. An account of how Lincoln built his cabinet around those who had wanted his office, and how he worked with these contentious rivals to meet the challenge of the Civil War. Goodwin has also written biographies of Teddy Roosevelt and Robert Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, with whom she worked as a graduate student. Recently, she published Leadership in Turbulent Times, a study of all these figures.
  6. Destiny of the RepublicCandace Millard. New York: Random House, 2012. James A. Garfield was only in office for a brief time before being claimed by an assassin’s bullet and the medical practice that led to infection that killed him. Amid this sad tale, we learn of this individual who might have gone on to be Ohio’s greatest president. It is a story of tragedy and might-have-beens compellingly told.
  7. Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy, Edmund Morris. New York: Random House, 2010. Another magnificent effort, tracing Roosevelt’s life from the sickly child who through exercise, and the rigors of the west was transformed into a “rough rider,” the president who loved every day in office, and found time to read a book a day, and the ex-president who nearly died in the Amazon, and never gave up the hope of returning to office.
  8. One Thousand DaysArthur M. Schlesinger. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1965, 2002.  One of the earliest accounts of the Kennedy presidency by an eyewitness who was a special aide to the President. Schlesinger may not give the most objective account of the Kennedy presidency but his first hand account combined with his writerly skills gives us the ethos of this Camelot presidency.
  9. The Years of Lyndon Johnson (four volumes), Robert A. Caro. New York, Random House, 2013. Robert Caro spent a good part of his life meticulously researching this four volume work tracing the ambition, the capacity of Johnson to bend people to his will, and the tragedy of not being able to let go of Vietnam that undercut the considerable accomplishments of his presidency.
  10. Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2015. Meacham has also written biographies of Jefferson, and an outstanding one of Andrew Jackson. I think George H. W. Bush’s presidency may be underestimated at present. Meacham traces not only his life but his skilled leadership during the fall of communism, and the Gulf War, and his politically flawed decision to raise taxes after his “no new taxes” pledge, a decision that laid the foundation for the budget surpluses and prosperity of the Clinton years.

There are so many others I could suggest including Scott A. Berg’s Wilson and Robert W. Merry’s recent study, President McKinley.  Several have written multi-volume studies of Franklin Roosevelt including Doris Kearns Goodwin, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and James MacGregor Burns. I could go on but this is more than enough. For me, reading these biographies is perhaps more helpful than all the political ads and daily news stories. They help me consider the qualities of character and the skills and vision of leadership I should look for. You might give it a try.

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