So I’m a massive Presidential history nerd, a hobby which has felt more than a little shameful the last four years under President Asterisk*, he-who-shall-not-be-named. Fortunately, it feels OK to admit this in public again now.
I love a good presidential history book, and I’m fascinated by the lives and times of most of the men (so far, all men and happily, now one female vice-president) who’ve held the office, even if I loathed their politics at times. February is when the US celebrates Presidents Day – hopefully a little less bleakly this year – and it’s the month during which the birthdays of George Washington (1732) and Abraham Lincoln (1809) fell. It’s a great month to look back at the presidency over nearly 250 years and remember that despite the current troubles, there’s still a lot to learn from history.
Of the dozens of Presidential books I’ve read over the years, here’s some highlights:
Most interesting president to read about: Theodore Roosevelt was a cowboy, a policeman, a rancher, a war hero, naturalist, historian and still, at 42, the youngest President in American history. You pretty much have to work to make his life story boring, and there’s many fascinating books about ol’ Teddy’s life and presidency. The king of these is the late Edmund Morris’ three-book trilogy, with the first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, probably the best book about a President’s early life I’ve ever read. Teddy built himself up from an asthmatic child into a swaggering pile of masculine, determined ego, and while he was frequently overbearing, he also was surprisingly progressive in many areas. You can’t go wrong with Morris’ trilogy, or for a great side story, Candice Millard’s The River Of Doubt is a terrific manly travel tale about TR’s near-fatal trip deep into the Amazon after his presidency. And Teddy himself also wrote some great books about his adventures. Runners-up: Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, Thomas Jefferson
Greatest writing about a President: Robert A. Caro’s epic multi-volume look at the life and times of President Lyndon Johnson is held up as the gold standard of biographies, having won the Pulitzer Prize twice. I won’t be contrarian. It’s an absolutely stunning, authoritative piece of work that shows the countless hours of research and shoe-leather reporting Caro has put into his masterpiece over the decades, from evocative portrayals of the dirt-poor Texas hill country where LBJ came from to untangling the ins and outs of the US Senate works without boring the pants off readers. It now sprawls for thousands of pages, but every word of The Years of Lyndon Johnson is essential. The fifth and final volume is in progress now and like many other readers I am hoping Caro, now 85, sees it all through to the end. It’s a blueprint for how to tell the full story of a life and the times they lived in. Runners-up: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; Grant by Ron Chernow; Team of Rivals by Doris Goodwin; Truman by David McCullough; the excellent Nixonland series by Ron Perlstein which I’ve written about before.
President you wouldn’t think would be interesting: Grover Cleveland is mostly remembered as being the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms, so he’s technically the 22nd and 24th President. But he also had one of the greatest cover-ups in Presidential history, a top-secret cancer surgery held in the middle of the night on a boat at sea. Matthew Algeo’s fast-paced The President is A Sick Man is a great concise history of the somewhat forgotten Cleveland and one of the bigger medical scandals in US history. It reads like a thriller. And Presidents have certainly never stopped being cagey about their health, from Woodrow Wilson’s crippling stroke to Tr**p’s still mysterious COVID hospitalisation.
Best books not quite about the Presidents: Doug Wead is a conservative activist and Tr*mp booster, which I’m not wild about, but I do rather like the two books he’s written about the children and parents of Presidents, All The Presidents’ Children and The Raising of a President. They dig into what makes a leader and what a leader’s legacy is and are chock-full of interesting trivia about the Presidential families. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of awful tragedy in the families of many Presidents, perhaps it comes with the job. Runner-Up: Alice by Stacy Cordery, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter, who lived a remarkable life in the middle of the Washington scene that spanned from the presidency of Cleveland to Jimmy Carter.
Goofiest book about Presidents: How To Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country by Daniel O’Brien. If you want offbeat, here’s a book that looks at presidents through the filter of how good they might be at kicking your ass. It’s very silly but amusing stuff, and the only book I own that features the phrase “Ulysses S. Grant is the drunken, angry John McClane of Presidents.” The joke gets a bit old, but it’s still a pretty funny breezy, fisticuff-filled march through history. I’d still put my money on Teddy Roosevelt to smack them all down, though.
Best overall look at the Presidents: When it comes to overall presidential trivia, nothing compares to William DeGregorio’s massive Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. How tall was Calvin Coolidge? What nasty health ailments did Chester A. Arthur have? Who, for the love of God, was Millard Fillmore’s Postmaster General? It’s a great done-in-one resource for history nerds. Unfortunately, since DeGregorio died a while back, later editions have been notably lacking in detail and accuracy regarding the more recent presidents, which is a shame, but from Washington to Clinton or so, it’s a great guide.
Most morbid book about Presidents: Dead Presidents by Brady Carlson. What happens to Presidents after they die is sometimes more interesting than their administrations. Take Zachary Taylor, first president to die in office, who was famously exhumed in the 1990s to prove he wasn’t poisoned. Dead Presidents is a great tour of presidential demises, resting places and of their legacies, looking at things like Thomas Jefferson’s children with his slaves or the long strange journey of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse. Runner-up: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.
Best presidential memoirs: People talk about how great the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant are, but I’m afraid I haven’t made it around to them quite yet. Most of the memoirs are famously stiff and reveal little about the men themselves. They tend to start strong and fizzle out, such as Bill Clinton’s My Life, which is nicely evocative about his Arkansas boyhood and difficult family life, but turns into a blur of names and places when he becomes President. Even Barack Obama’s recent A Promised Land, although eloquent and featuring great moments of detailed insight, succumbs somewhat to this problem, although I’d still probably rank it as the best memoir that I’ve read so far in a flawed genre. (But his wife’s is even better.) To me the best presidential books are the ones not written by the subjects themselves, but by talented historians.
Sorry, but you can’t make these guys interesting: I’ve read a few books about some of the lesser-known presidents and it can be hard going. Some near-forgotten ones are surprisingly captivating to me – I’ve always had a thing for the hapless Franklin Pierce, for James Buchanan, usually considered the worst President until quite recently, or the overwhelmed Warren Harding. However, I don’t want to name-and-shame authors as it’s not always their fault if a subject isn’t Teddy Roosevelt, but let’s just say it’s pretty darned hard to make Calvin Coolidge interesting, and despite James K. Polk presiding at a pretty fascinating time in American history as the nation expanded, as a person, he seems as dull as dishwater to read about. And don’t even get me started about Benjamin Harrison.
These are just a few of the veritable mountain range of presidential literature out there to dig into around Presidents Day. Happy reading!