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.

Review: Presidents of War

presidents of war

Presidents of WarMichael Beschloss. New York: Crown Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An account of eight American presidents who led the nation into war, how they coped with its stresses, and the consequences of their actions with regard to presidential power.

As recent tensions (I write in July 2019) with North Korea and Iran underscore, the potential and power of a U.S. president to lead the nation into war is great, and brings solemn consequences in terms of loss of life, ongoing entanglements, or the ultimate cataclysm of nuclear conflict. Michael Beschloss, in this work, studies eight American presidents who led the nation into war. The presidents are James Madison (War of 1812), James Polk (Mexican-American War), Abraham Lincoln (the Civil War), William McKinley (Spanish-American War), Woodrow Wilson (World War I), Franklin Roosevelt (World War II), Harry Truman (Korea) and Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam).

It is fascinating to see pretexts and concealed motives for conflicts. For example, Madison took a poorly equipped nation into conflict with Great Britain over impressments of American sailors and the high-handedness of George III, while entertaining ambitions to invade and seize Canadian territory. James Polk, similarly had territorial ambitions to annex territory in the southwest from Mexico and used clashes on the disputed Texas-Mexico border to seek a declaration of war. The fall of Fort Sumter was the flashpoint of the simmering conflict between North and South that both knew was about slavery. Yet until the summer of 1862, Lincoln spoke of the war as an effort to restore the Union. The sinking of the Maine, likely caused by a shipboard accident, served as the cause for the Spanish-American War, allowing the McKinley administration to seize the Philippines and achieve “regime change” in Cuba. Critical intelligence was not passed on to fleet commanders at Pearl Harbor, and the catastrophic Japanese attack gave Franklin Roosevelt the mandate he needed to lead a reluctant nation into war. Dubious attacks in the Tonkin Bay in response to covert US activity resulted in a congressional resolution that served as the basis for Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam conflict.

Beschloss also chronicles a tension inherent in the U.S. Constitution. While Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution entrusts the sole power to declare war to Congress, Article II, Section 2 names the President the commander in chief of armed forces, entrusting to him the power to launch and direct military operations and deploy our forces, important in the event of attacks upon the country. In this work we see not only how presidents used various pretexts to argue for war declarations up through World War II, but also how Presidents avoided seeking such declarations in the case of Korea and Vietnam, actions that turned out to be unpopular with the American people. Beschloss notes that today’s all-volunteer armies and the lack of a draft make this easier.

Presidents used war to push the limits of presidential power, whether in the suspension of habeas corpus, in executive orders, in harnessing civilian industry to war aims (such as Harry Truman’s takeover of a strike-plagued steel industry), or even the Emancipation Proclamation, effecting an end of slavery without constitutional amendment. At the same time, failure in the exercise of these powers brought new curbs or temporarily weakened the presidency, such as the 1973 War Powers Act, after Vietnam, and the weakened administrations of Ford and Carter, post-Vietnam.

Beschloss also studies how different presidents coped with the pressures of war. Madison seemed not to cope well at all, offering indecisive leadership and being routed from Washington. Polk was the first president who paid a toll with his health for fighting a war, barely surviving his presidency in broken health. Lincoln admitted, “This war is eating my life out” and he had a strong impression that he would not live to see its end (he barely did before an assassin’s bullet struck him down). McKinley turned to his Bible and justified the seizure of the Philippines as a trust to bring Christianity to the archipelago. His life was also ended by assassination while in office. Wilson suffered a stroke after fighting for his Fourteen Principles, the League of Nations, and the Treaty of Versailles. Roosevelt also suffered a fatal stroke on the eve of the allied victory and Johnson’s health was seriously impaired with his death coming within five years of leaving office. Fate is not kind to most war presidents.

This work is an excellent survey of many of America’s wars, and of presidential leadership, both in taking the nation into war and leading the country through them. It is disturbing how many times the country is deceived or deprived of critical information in being led into war, and how often fervor substitutes for a sound basis for war, perhaps most notably in 1812 and in Vietnam. Given the high stakes of modern warfare, Beschloss’s work suggests that questions of character, demonstrated leadership, and the mental and physical fitness of the holders of the office of President should weigh heavily in our electoral processes. It also suggests the critical role of Congress in the exercise of its War Powers, and its role of requiring a President to make the case for war to the American people. The fate of a nation, or even the world, may rest on how our President, and our elected representatives act.


Review: Leadership in Turbulent Times


Leadership in Turbulent TimesDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A study of how four presidents led the nation during turbulent times, tracing their awakening leadership ambitions, the adversity that formed their character, and lessons from how they led.

What distinguishes great leadership from the ordinary or the mediocre? Are leaders born or made? Are leaders great because of, or in spite of, their times? For answers to these and other questions about leadership, many have studied different U.S. Presidents, individuals with, arguably, the most challenging leadership job in the world. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has made a career of studying presidents, publishing four landmark biographies on Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, (and his successor William Howard Taft). In this work, she returns to these four figures, and considers them side by side–four very different men, each who met great challenges and decisively led the nation through them.

The book is organized into three parts. The first traces the awakening ambition of each man. Lincoln leaves an abusive father, educates himself, establishes a law practice and makes his first run for office. Teddy Roosevelt grows up mentored by a respected and wealthy father, overcomes physical weakness, marries Alice, who he met while in college, and goes to the New York legislature “rising like a rocket.” Franklin Roosevelt, a distant relative of Theodore, enjoyed strong formative relationships with both parents, was sociable, learning more by listening than by reading, meeting the president as a young man, and charting a career trajectory that followed in Teddy’s path. Lyndon Johnson was described as a “steam engine in pants,” who learned early to find paths to power by getting near the powerful, beginning with work as an assistant to his college president.

The second part looks at the role adversity played in the lives of each man and how it deepened and focused their ambitions. Lincoln, who went to the legislature with a program of infrastructure improvements, left office after a term, in shame, unable to fulfill his pledge to marry Mary Todd, because of the failure of the economy and the collapse of the programs he helped start. He was depressed to the point that friends considered the threat of suicide. He determined that “he must die or be better.” Teddy Roosevelt lost his beloved wife and his mother within hours, and fled to a ranch in the west where work with tough and resilient men formed his health and healed his soul. He resolved to return, beginning a career as a progressive reformer that eventually took him to the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt was struck down in the prime of life with polio, and rebuilt his upper body strength, started a polio clinic at Sulphur Springs, and finally was convinced and convinced others that he could pursue the highest office. Lyndon Johnson, shortly after becoming Senate Majority Leader has a heart attack, a determines to return to the social programs, including civil rights, that had been at the heart of his early ambitions but had gotten lost in a quest for political power.

The final part looks at how each led during the turbulent time in which they were president–Lincoln in the Civil War and making the Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt in using his office to resolve a protracted national coal strike, Franklin Roosevelt in turning around the country and giving it hope in the depths of the Depression, and Johnson, in succeeding to the office after the Kennedy assassination, and passing a sweeping program of social legislation from civil and voting rights to Medicare.

In the third part, Goodwin draws lessons from the leadership of each president. Here, for example, are the lessons drawn from Lincoln’s presidency:

  • Acknowledge when failed policies demand a change in direction.
  • Gather firsthand information, ask questions.
  • Find time and space in which to think.
  • Exhaust all possibility of compromise before imposing unilateral executive power.
  • Anticipate contending viewpoints.
  • Assume full responsibility for a pivotal decision.
  • Understand the emotional needs of each member of the team.
  • Refuse to let past resentments fester, transcend personal vendetta.
  • Set a standard of mutual respect and dignity; control anger.
  • Shield colleagues from blame.
  • Maintain perspective in the face of both accolades and abuse.
  • Find ways to cope with pressure, maintain balance, replenish energy.
  • Keep your word.
  • Know when to hold back, when to move forward.
  • Combine transactional and transformational leadership.
  • Be accessible, easy to approach.
  • Put ambition for the collective interest above self-interest.

Each point is elaborated with specific examples. One gains both an appreciation of the personal greatness of each president, and the hard and soft skills of each president. Obviously, this is a great text for any who aspire to lead, if one has the drive, like Lincoln, to be better. It also sets a high bar in the qualities we look for in our presidents. She goes lightly on shortcomings, apart from a discussion of the failure of Johnson’s handling of Vietnam.

Having read three of the four presidential books by Doris Kearns Goodwin, I wondered if this would just be a re-hash of her prior works, re-treading old material. Certainly, she draws upon that and her narrative of working with Lyndon Johnson tracks closely with that in her Johnson book. What is fresh and distinct in this book is how she focuses in on leadership, as well as the setting of these four presidents side by side. Each of the succeeding presidents she studies was influenced by the former–Teddy Roosevelt by Abraham Lincoln, Franklin by Teddy, Johnson by Franklin Roosevelt. This book is a challenge, in what many of us would consider a turbulent time, to the kind of people we will be, and the kind of people we choose to serve in leading us.

Review: The Soul of America

the soul of america

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2018.

Summary: A review of American presidential leadership and the battle between the politics of fear and the politics of hope for our national soul.

Jon Meacham thinks that even more crucial than an affirmation of the American creed is the fight for the American soul. Meacham characterizes this fight as a struggle between fear and hope, and surveys the forces in American history that appeal to each and the crucial role of presidential leadership. He summarizes his thesis as follows: “Our greatest leaders have pointed toward the future–not at this group or that sect.” Among others, he quotes Harry S. Truman as one who upheld this ideal:

“You can’t divide the country up into sections and have one rule for one section and one rule for another, and you can’t encourage people’s prejudices. You have to appeal to people’s best instincts, not their worst ones. You may win an election or so by doing the other, but it does a lot of harm to the country.”

Meacham’s book is a survey of this struggle throughout our history. We begin with George Washington’s expansive vision: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.” He was followed by John Adams who passed the unpopular Alien and Sedition Act, leading in turn to Jefferson’s presidency. He explores our “peculiar institution” of slavery that eventuated in the Civil War, Lincoln’s movement to an emancipation vision and a generous peace, and the cruel reaction of the rise of Jim Crow, the Klan, and lynchings during the failed Reconstruction.

His chapter on Teddy Roosevelt focuses on the mixed record of this president whose progressive agenda fought for the poor and who was the first to welcome a black, Booker Washington, to the White House and invoked high ideals, yet also made racist remarks and yield to the forces of the Lost Cause. Nevertheless, he worked with Jane Addams on poor relief and the rights of women. He epitomizes the struggle between fear and hope in his person and yet articulated a vision of one America:

“There can be no divided allegiance….We have room for but one flag, the American flag; for one language, the English language [an idea some would contest today]; for but one soul loyalty and that is loyalty to the American people.”

The post World War I era brought new struggles even as America prospered. Women’s suffrage finally became the law of the land, yet fear over the rise of communism and a resurgent Klan aroused the fears of Americans against enemies without and within. Prosperity gave way to Depression. Politics contrasted between the demagoguery of Huey Long, and the expansive vision of Franklin Roosevelt who declared that we had nothing “to fear but fear itself.”

Post World War II found America with an expanding middle class thanks to the GI Bill, and a renewed paranoia about communism, incarnated in McCarthyism. Later when Lyndon B. Johnson succeeds assassinated President Kennedy, he uses all his political skill to pass Kennedy’s civil rights agenda, losing the South to the Democrats, but ending desegregation, establishing many civil rights protections, and giving blacks the vote.

He concludes this work with a ringing plea for Americans to enter the arena, to resist tribalism, to respect facts and use reason, to find a critical balance between the extremes of our politics, and to keep our history in mind. It is clear that he has our current political administration in his sights in tracing this struggle between the rival visions of hope and fear that many have used to try to capture the American soul. His argument falls on the side of hope, as he cites examples over and over of how leaders have appealed to our “better angels” to overcome hate, and that this hope should animate us even in a time of fear.

What is somewhat troubling to me in this book is that the book uses, even quotes rhetoric I’ve heard since my childhood–in fact the quotes are one of the highlights of this book–they are so good. And yet, there is a humanistic optimism here that I think does not adequately reckon with the darker angels of our nature as a country. It is evident in the underlying struggle with racism and white supremacy that runs through the book. I don’t think Meacham reckons with how strongly and unrepentantly embraced this is in many sectors of white society, even the parts that try to deny we are racist; that try to pretend we are colorblind. I think Meacham is right to contrast fear and hope, but I would suggest he neither adequately assesses the roots of fear, nor explores the faith and convictions that animate hope amid desperate circumstances. The closest he gets is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s encounter with an inner voice when his home was bombed and his family threatened. The voice said,

” ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.’ I heard Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”

We live in an age of sentiments rather than convictions. Meacham reminds us of people motivated by compelling ideas and moral principles. If hope is nothing more than a preferable feeling to fear, it won’t take us very far. But if a hope grounded in deep conviction takes the measure of the deep roots of fear and hate, and “stands up,” there is yet a chance that the soul of America might be turned. I hope.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Herbert Hoover in the White House

herbert hooverHerbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency, Charles Rappleye. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016 (expected publication date May 10, 2016).

Summary: This new biography of the Depression-era President presents a more nuanced picture than the aloof, somewhat helpless figure he has often been characterized to be. It shows a competent, caring, and principled administrator lacking the political skills requisite for presidential leadership in a time of crisis.

Most portraits of Herbert Hoover’s presidency characterize him as ineffectual, unfeeling and unable to lead the country in the greatest economic crisis that it has faced. Likewise, many of these portrayals lay this crisis squarely at his feet. His one term presidency stands in sharp contrast to his charismatic successor’s three-plus terms in office in the minds of most.

Charles Rappleye gives us a far more nuanced picture, one that recognizes the strengths of character, the Herculean efforts made to serve the country as well as the errors of judgment and lack of political leadership skill that led to his failed presidency. Hoover rose from humble Quaker beginnings to make a fortune as a mining engineer, to lead a humanitarian relief effort in Belgium after World War 1 and serve as a pro-business Secretary of Commerce under Calvin Coolidge. Having never run for elected office, he won a decisive victory in 1928 that swept him into the Presidency, so impressed were people with his integrity, problem-solving skills and the fact that he was a “non-politician”.

Even before the stock market crash of 1929, Hoover’s lack of political skill became evident in problems with a Republican Congress (his own party). Like some other presidents, he viewed the press as enemies and restricted their access to him. He disliked giving speeches and when he did, they were wordy, turgid exercises in boring elocution (a sentence Hoover might like!).

The Depression was a “perfect storm” of factors ranging from over-inflated stock prices, problems in the international banking and debt system following Versailles, and a terrible drought that afflicted a great part of the country. What Rappleye makes clear is that Hoover was far from passive and uncaring, working with businesses to sustain employment, in farm relief efforts, in work with private relief organizations to provide aid to the needy, and most significantly, in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, to shore up failing banks to keep the financial system of the country afloat, using measures not unlike the TARP measures used by Bush and Obama administrations in the US’s most recent economic downturn. On a personal level, Hoover donated his full salary as president to charitable causes including many personal appeals for assistance.

At the same time, Rappleye delineates Hoover’s resistance to big government relief programs, preferring solutions of both private charity and job creation in the business and industrial sector. He also gives attention to Hoover’s principled refusal to abandon the gold standard when European countries had done so and reaped the benefit economically.

Perhaps Hoover’s greatest flaw was his inability to work with Congress or communicate his compassion to the country and that most crucial of presidential skills, to be “a purveyor of hope.” Here, Roosevelt stands as a marked contrast, from the very first moments of his presidency when he says, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt didn’t lift the nation out of the depression and some of Hoover’s policies and recommendations were as instrumental as anything in stabilizing things–from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, to the recommendation of a bank holiday, which Roosevelt immediately declared.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that Hoover never saw this and after a period of silence, devoted significant energy throughout his life to vindicating himself vis a vis Roosevelt. At the same time, he became a model of post-Presidential service, helping with post World War II relief efforts, chairing a commissions under Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower for streamlining government. He founded a think tank, the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University, which served as an archive of his and a number of other public figures’ papers. And he devoted himself to fund-raising efforts for the Boys Clubs. He died in 1964 at the age of 90.

Rappleye’s study of Hoover uses diaries and family papers not previously available to scholars that afford a glimpse into the inner life of this intensely private man in the most public office of all. His appraisal of Hoover seems to be even-handed, and marked with a certain respect for the personal integrity of the man while marking his flaws. His study also shows us that something more than competence is vital in presidential leadership, particularly in times of crisis. It is the contrast in our more recent era between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It is the quality of political skillfulness and the ability to connect with and assure the people that seems so crucial for effective leadership. This is a timely biography coming on the eve of a presidential election. Will we find such leadership? Will we need it?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”