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: The Bully Pulpit

Bully PulpitWow. Biography of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the best of the “muck-raking” investigative journalists all in one book! Doris Kearns Goodwin pulls this off by exploring the interaction of these three in promoting Progressivism in early twentieth century America. What Goodwin highlights in particular, justifying her title, was the skillful use of the “bully pulpit” of the presidency by Theodore Roosevelt, including the close relationships he developed with writers like William Allen White, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. By contrast, Taft, with a more judicial temperament, tended to allow his speeches and policies to speak for themselves.

Having read Edmund Morris’s three volume biography of Roosevelt recently, I did not find this book casting much new light on Roosevelt except that it seemed that Goodwin probably took a less favorable view of Roosevelt’s role in the breach of the friendship between him and Taft over the 1912 election where he ran against Taft.

What I found particularly illuminating in this book were the portraits of Taft and of the investigative journalists brought together by Sam McClure. Taft is from my home state and was more or less an unknown to me before this novel. Goodwin’s portrait not only underscores his strengths as a jurist and as an administrator, but also that this is a man whose friendship one would count as precious, as did Roosevelt until the break between them. Taft ably governed the Philippines after America’s victory in its war against Spain, putting down insurgencies and turning over government to the Filipino people, albeit an elite. He always wanted to sit on the Supreme Court more than wanting to be president and considered being named Chief Justice in 1921 the highest honor of his life. That he was elected president was a result as much as anything of Nellie Taft’s ambitions and Roosevelt’s orchestration. Sadly, Nellie was afflicted with stroke ten weeks into her husband’s term of office and never fully enjoyed being First Lady. It was Taft who initiated reconciliation with Roosevelt in 1918, less than a year before Roosevelt died, and he who stood quietly weeping at Roosevelt’s grave.

Equally fascinating was Goodwin’s account of the writers for McClures and Sam McClure himself, who took investigative journalism to a high point that may have been matched but probably not exceeded by others. Ida Tarbell’s work investigating the monopolistic practices of Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller represented years of careful tracking down of information, interviews with sources on all sides and an effort to achieve a balance of reporting that made the case against Standard Oil all the more convincing. Such reporting served as a valuable adjunct to Roosevelt’s reform efforts, creating the public support that enabled Roosevelt to fight business interests.

Because of the focus on the presidencies of Roosevelt and Taft, other aspects of their lives, and particularly their life after the presidency are covered in a more cursory manner than in a focused biography. But the relationship of presidents with the press is crucial to the effective use of presidential power, and thus, this is a landmark study with continuing relevance.

Review: Theodore Rex

Theodore Rex
Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Theodore Rex is the second volume in Edmund Morris’s three volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt and covers his presidential years. Once again, I found the reading, in Teddy’s favorite expression, a “dee-light”! What stands out most to me in reading this portion of Roosevelt’s biography is that from the moment of his ascension to the Presidency following the assassination of McKinley, here was someone “dee-lighted” to be in the office and to exercise (and expand) its powers in the pursuit of his convictions of providing a “square deal” to all Americans, even if this branded him as a “traitor to his class”.

His first major crisis was an example of his skillful use of presidential power. Anthracite coal-miners were striking for higher wages, better working conditions and the right to organize. Violence was increasing. Yet private interests and the prerogatives of state government hindered Roosevelt from getting involved. Finally with winter approaching, violence escalating, and people freezing in their homes, he intercedes and succeeds in bringing the interests to the table, quelling violence, resuming mining and finding an eventual resolution through a combination of cajoling and sometimes using the weight of the presidency when all else failed.

Similarly, working with his Attorney General, Philander Knox, he finds ways to break up monopolistic railroad and other interests even while working with Wall Street bankers like J.P. Morgan to reassure investors in the soundness of American finances, which sometimes include joint efforts to pour money into Wall Street during financial panics.

Perhaps most fascinating was his work in decisively acting to establish the Panama Canal. The French interests had dithered and the Columbian government had try to extort increasing sums from the Americans without an agreement. Whether one likes the use of US force in this way, Roosevelt precipitates the “independence” of Panama through a strategic use of force and diplomacy that opens up the Canal Zone to US engineers.

Force and diplomacy characterized by the famous saying associated with Roosevelt, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” occupy much of this book. Roosevelt strategically gathers US naval power to head off a German and British invasion of Venezuela, reinforcing US commitment to the Monroe Doctrine. He works to bring an end to the conflict between Russia and Japan in a way that brings him a Nobel prize while also realizing that Japan’s presence in the Pacific called for the building up of the U.S. Navy’s presence in the Pacific (another reason for which he saw the completion of the Panama Canal as critical).

Morris portrays Roosevelt at his noblest and basest. We see his skillful use of both legislation and executive orders to set apart National Parks and Monuments preserving places like the Grand Canyon from mining interests who would have destroyed its beauty. One of his final accomplishments was a conservation conference with governors throughout the country that raised the issue of the conservation of our natural resources for the first time on a national basis.

Roosevelt began his presidency hosting Booker T Washington at the White House to outcries of anger from many in the south. He persisted in supporting some key federal appointments of African Americans. Yet as his presidency went on, it seemed he back-pedaled from these actions. Most notorious was the Brownsville incident, where complaints of black soldiers firing on and assaulting the citizens of Brownsville resulted in the dishonorable discharges of 167 troops, including some who had fought with Roosevelt on San Juan Hill. Evidence was scant to non-existent but Roosevelt never re-considered his “rush to judgment” and this remains the most significant blot on his presidency.

Morris lets us seem daily life in the Roosevelt White House, including his romps with his children and their friends (Edith sometimes spoke of him as one of the children!), his continued literary interests, his gargantuan appetite combined with physical exertions on the White House tennis court with diplomats and Secret Service officers, and his hikes in all weather in Rock Creek Park. He explores the complicated relationship with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who accompanies William Taft on a diplomatic trip to Japan, who often expressed frustration at the constraints upon her and yet remained his loyal daughter.

The book closes with Roosevelts departure from office and the transition from a president who loved every minute of the exercise of power to one in Taft who would rather have been a Supreme Court justice. Morris explores both the difficult and remarkable dance we go through in this country in the peaceful, if not always easy, transfer of power from one president to the next. Roosevelt and Taft loved each other’s company, yet this transition strained even that jovial relationship.

I rated this book slightly lower (I would actually have given it 4.5 if Goodreads permitted this). This somehow seemed a less satisfying read, perhaps because of the constraints and ambiguities of presidential power that even such a dynamic personality as Roosevelt had to contend with. Roosevelt probably used and enjoyed the use of presidential power probably as much as any man. Yet one senses that Roosevelt the man was constrained and sometimes distorted by the office. This is no fault of Morris, although I wonder if he might have explored this aspect further, as it is the challenge of the most difficult and powerful job in the world. That said, Roosevelt’s use of the office, his ideals of a “square deal” for all Americans, and his stewardship of the country’s natural and military resources should probably be a primer for anyone aspiring to the office. This book might well serve as a primary textbook.

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