Reading the Presidents, Part 3 (Final Installment)

The swearing in of President Gerald Ford by Su...
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With my finishing George W Bush’s Decision Points a few days ago and my reading of Barak Obama’s Dreams from My Father back before he was both nominated and elected the United States’ 44th President, I have completed a reading project that I began in 1981/82 and decided to finish in earnest after President Obama’s election two years ago – that of reading a biography/autobiography of every American President.

It started with Richard Nixon’s memoirs, then onto Robert Caro’s wonderful multivolume work on Lyndon Johnson (for which I am patiently waiting for the fourth and probably final volume), then onto Gerald Ford’s autobiography. Years passed with a reading here and there of a President.

Finally, after a break in the summer of 2009, I began the final leg of the journey in chronological order starting with Washington and working forward in order of election. I suggest that if you want to engage a similar project that you read them in this order as it will provide you a fascinating contrast in both the books your read and in the tapestry of history that is woven as you read.

Since my last update nearly a year ago now I have read the following books:

Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert J Rayback,

President James Buchanan by Philip Shriver Klein

The Presidency of Franklin Pierce by Larry Gara

Andrew Johnson: A Biography by Hans L Trefousse

Ulysses S Grant: Soldier and President by Geoffrey Perret

Rutherford B Hays by Hans L Trefousse

James A Garfield by Ira Rutkow

Chester A Arthur by Zachary Karabell

Grover Cleveland by Allan Nevins

Benjamin Harrison by Charles W Calhoun

William McKinley by Margaret Leech

The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G Harding in His Times by Francis Russell

The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge by Calvin Coolidge

Herbert Hoover: A Biography by Eugene Lyons

JFK by Robert Dallek

George HW Bush by Timothy Naftali

Decision Points by George W Bush

While I learned valuable facts and was presented with a variety of perspectives on both the men in office and the culture of their day, political and otherwise, in all the books of this group I read, Perret’s bio of Grant, Leech’s bio of McKinley, Russell’s bio of Harding and Coolidge’s plain spoken and simple autobiography stood out to me. However, each of the others provided good background to the policies, culture, and politics of the day.

Now, having read a book on all forty-four Presidents, here are some summary thoughts about themes that stood out to me. (I hint at or address aspects of these in my other two posts on this subject, found here and here

1. The development of the office from an executive director type position to a strong executive branch and leader.

From my reading, the Presidency prior to Andrew Jackson was overshadowed by a strong legislative branch. Yes there was Washington, both Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, all who have influenced our political and international history and shaped our policies over the decades. That all changed with the election of Andrew Jackson. His strong personality changed the Presidential office forever. And he threw American politics into a higher gear.

2. Some shaped the office and the direction of the nation who are not listed among the “top Presidents” on many scholars list.

Two cases in point: James Polk and Andrew Johnson. Polk set the very important precedent of succession in 1841 when he assumed, much to the grave displeasure of the Whig Party and Henry Clay, the Presidency after the first death in office by William Henry Harrison. The precedent would stand until the 39th amendment ratified in 1967, after the deaths of Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR, and JFK occurred (and which in several instances left the office of Vice President vacant for the reminder of the assumed terms), which laid out the line of succession when the President died in office.

Johnson, who assumed the office after Lincoln’s assassination, and narrowly escaped impeachment, set the tone of the country in a direction that, I believe, would have been vastly different to the direction Lincoln would have gone. Race relations and the redevelopment and development of the American south, among other things, were affected by Johnson’s time in office. But, as the next point will highlight, there was a growing western influence and industrial base that began to grow no matter who was President.

3. Forces, some regional and, later on national, then international, often exerted a greater influence on a President that is perhaps realized.

I think that this is the case in the administrations of Fillmore, Buchanan, and Pierce. The fever pitch sectional differences between North and South (and both had their supporters in the opposing regions) created a force that these men were powerless to change. Of course political coalitions (and parties) were very much a part of the 1850’s as the parties of that day were more like political amoebas than the strong and vast organizations of today. Those coalitions, I think, were though, as much to blame for the gridlock on not just slavery but a whole host of issues, in a nation that was beginning to become industrial and less a north/south nation and more of a north/south/west nation.

For Hayes, Arthur, Garfield, and Harrison, the push west and then into the Pacific, was a force that has implications still today for our nation. McKinley, and Mrs. Leech does a wonderful job on this point, brings to the front the international situations of Cuba and the Philippines that forced him, to be the predecessor to the 20th century Presidency (and now 21st century).

Now, I know that a subject of often great contention not just today but I think in the past 40 years, given the rise of faith-based organizations on both the left and the right, has to do with Presidential faith. One of the interesting things about reading these books is that they span over a century of work (Edward Shepherd’s bio of Martin Van Buren, was written in the 1890’s). As a result, there are different treatments of a President’s faith. Some of the books that I read had little to say about it. Of the autobios that I read, (Grant, Coolidge, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and GWB) the later men have more to say about faith than the earlier men. I think that the cultural milieu of each author has an impact here.

Now of all the bios/autobios that I read in this endeavor, here the ones that have made an impression on me throughout the entire process.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals on Abe Lincoln and her one volume on LBJ, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. (To hear her make a wonderful presentation about her work on Lincoln and her personal experiences with LBJ, go here It is worth your time.)

Robert A Caro’s LBJ series is rich and wonderful. The third volume The Master of the Senate gives a wonderful introduction to the history of the US Senate and how LBJ overcame that history to become the Majority Leader.

Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography is a classic. Simple and direct with New England wit.

Joseph J Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson gave me some new insights into our third President whose philosophy of government is still strong today.

Margaret Leech’s bio of William McKinley. At times McKinley is in the background as Leech brings the normal background of biography to the foreground to help the reader understand the emerging international environment that McKinley had to address while in office.

Geoffrey Perret’s bio of Grant brings out several valid points about the Civil War and its conduct as well as capturing what I believe was the essence of Grant’s personality – simple and humble. Grant’s own biography is worth the read. It is simply one of the most well written autobios that I have ever read. Period.

Robert Rayback’s bio of Millard Fillmore gives us a wonderful glimpse of a President that few care to know about. Well written and worth your time.

Finally Russell’s treatment of Harding is intense and deep. Written and published under a legal order that prohibited the publishing of letters between Harding and Carrie Phillips, it probes who Harding was and became in the context of his upbringing and life.

History happens and there are facts that are indisputable because they are observable and, as often is the case, recorded for posterity. But the challenge and the friction of history, that often cause people to react in strong ways, is the reason of “why” did such and such happen. That is where the personalities of historical study and the forces of the “why” collide into the moments in which various forces and personalities, as well as good and evil, operate.

What a country this is!


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