U.S. Presidential Biographies
Follow my journey!
In July 2020, I saw Hamilton for the first time (on Disney+). I was enthralled, obsessed. It moved and intrigued me. And as a lifelong history nerd, I was especially taken by the musical's ability to distill decades of complicated American history into a work of art. Later on, I read that Lin-Manuel Miranda had conceived the musical when he read Ron Chernow's 818-page biography of Alexander Hamilton. So I read it. And I loved it. A five-second bit in the musical would correspond to chapters of eloquent narrative about this complex American statesman. It was a thrill.
Next, I saw that Chernow had also written George Washington's biography, so I dove into that. Before long, I had verbally committed to my new mission: Read a biography of every single U.S. president. Sure, it's a daunting task — most of these biographies are in the 700-900 page range, and some presidents are more intriguing (Lincoln) than others (Millard Fillmore), but the journey is worth it.
Whether or not you read any of these books is your choice, but I want you to follow along on my path to 46 of 46! Below are my reviews of what I've done to date. Note: As is clear below, I'm not going in order. I found it most interesting to jump around history — from the Revolution to World War I to the Civil War to the roaring 20s and back again. It keeps me on my toes...
"Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times" by Kenneth Whyte
George Washington ("Washington: A Life" by Ron Chernow, Finished: May 18, 2021)
The premise of Chernow’s masterful biography is simple: Take the legend, recreate the man. So much of what we know about George Washington is legend, myth, folklore. We hear stories of God-like feats. But at his core, George Washington was just a dude…
…who happened to defeat the former most powerful empire in the world and then start the current most powerful nation in the world. Clearly, that’s a big deal — and Chernow eloquently paints Washington’s feats with incredible color and detail. We take a sidecar view to his early days fighting in the French and Indian War, his Revolutionary War journey and his historic Presidency.
But perhaps what strikes me as most foundational to this biography are glimpses into Washington’s human nature. He was indelibly stingy about money and, at times, with good reason. In fact, Washington lost so much money during the war that he had to take out a loan pay for travel to his own inauguration. And his financial difficulties bled into his most lasting imperfection: slavery.
Washington, at his core, didn’t like slavery. He wrote in his diary and in letters that he hoped for abolition one day. But as long as he could financially benefit from it, he did. He talked the talk, sure, but he never walked the walk. This act of cowardice is his most fatal flaw, although he does get some credit for emancipating some of them upon his death (and more when Martha passed away).
“Hamilton” was a work of art, and so is this. Ron Chernow remains undefeated. With this masterpiece of a biography, George Washington is unearthed.
John Adams ("John Adams by David McCullough, Finished: July 22, 2021)
David McCullough’s biography of John Adams paints an undeniably thorough picture of the former President — through his faults (bad temper, stubbornness, moodiness) and through his exploits (industriousness, kindness, self-belief).
Since both John and Abigail Adams, the two main characters of this epic, were both avid diary and letter-writers, the story reads in an autobiographical tone at times, which is insightful. Hearing of Adams’ impressions of King Louis XIV of France, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson makes you feel like you’re in Paris or Philadelphia.
Through Adams, we get vivid narratives of Abigail’s life, his friendship, falling out and subsequent re-kindling with Jefferson, and finally, his son, John Quincy’s path to the Presidency.
That Adams died on July 4, 1826, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration (and on the same day as Jefferson’s death) is a fitting cap to a 90-year epic life. Adams journeyed to Paris, Holland and London to fight for a growing nation he believed in more than just about any founding father — and that belief paid off.
McCullough’s biography is thrilling, insightful and makes me re-think Adams’ place in history, since he’s often seen as a stopgap between Washington and Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson (“Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham, Finished: June 18, 2022)
Jon Meacham’s “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” changes the perception of Jefferson more than any biography has altered my view of a president.
Before opening the book, my perception — and many in today’s society, as Meacham addresses in the prologue — focuses on a Jefferson who is a bigoted slaveowner, who is foolishly afraid of monarchy, who cunningly attempts to halt the nation’s progress with more Hamiltonian views, such as a national bank.
But while parts of the above are true — Jefferson owned myriad slaves and fathered children with Sally Hemings — Meacham effectively paints the other side of the Jefferson portrait while addressing the flaws.
Jefferson was more of a nationalist than we realize (certainly more than I had perceived from reading Chernow’s Hamilton and watching Hamilton: The Musical). His harnessing of presidential war powers and the Louisiana Purchase exhibit this quality. And his fears of monarchism, while they’ve felt delusional in my previous reading of Federalist presidents, were valid. Jefferson grew up in an age in which every Democratic-Republican society had failed, and his view of history was colored by the English Civil War. To him and fellow Republicans, a return of the monarchy was a real threat — and he was determined to avoid it.
Another interesting note on Jefferson that I’d never learned is that his initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, which was edited thoroughly by other founding fathers, included a clause advocating for the abolition of slavery. His fellow founders removed that section, and Jefferson’s early abolitionist views later turned into a skepticism that we could live in a slavery-free society. To his death, his blind faith in slavery as a way of life (and, of course, fathering children with a slave of his own) mars his legacy forever.
The Thomas Jefferson painted by Meacham raises the stock of our third president in my eyes, but the biography does fall flat in its encapsulation of the era. While other revolutionary biographies of Washington, Adams and Hamilton illustrated the man and the times, Meacham glosses over many political, social and world trends that would have been fascinating to perceive more deeply through Jefferson’s eyes.
Still, however, I’m impressed with Meacham’s twist on a controversial — yet undenyingly legendary and world-changing — president.
James Madison (“James Madison: America's First Politician” by Jay Cost, Finished: May 27, 2023)
“James Madison” by Jay Cost tells the story of the life of our nation’s fourth President firmly through the lens of his political life — and that’s by design.
As Cost illustrates, perhaps no president in American history is more political than James Madison. “We are all Madisonian,” Cost writes, and it appears accurate on the surface. After siding with both parties in the brutal Federalist-Democratic Republican battles of the 1780s and 1790s, Madison’s presidency and post-presidency mediation of issues like nullification served to unite both sides, effectively eliminating the federalists and creating a national structure we still use today.
As the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s influence, of course, still dictates our lives. And in his biography, Cost thoroughly explains (perhaps a bit too thoroughly) the machinations as to how Madison came to exert such influence. He was wholly dedicated to politics, and so was his loyal and loving wife, Dolly. Still known as one of America’s most influential First Ladies, Dolly Madison was perhaps as keen a politician as her husband and proved instrumental in their rise as a founding American power couple.
Madison made mistakes aplenty. His stubbornness (along with Jefferson, Monroe, etc.) entangled us in the destructive War of 1812. He never took the opportunity to deride slavery, even though he knew of its ills as a “serpent,” and owned many slaves. But Madison’s influence is almost unparalleled.
Cost’s biography is political, just like Madison. If that isn’t your flavor, then this isn’t for you. Policy, procedure and debate run this narrative — not story. We don’t really get to know Madison, the man, only Madison, the politician. But perhaps that’s all the same thing.
John Quincy Adams ("John Quincy Adams" by Tames Traub, Finished: Nov 26, 2022)
“John Quincy Adams" by James Traub is unique from most other U.S. Presidential biographies in that it neither makes you fond of the subject nor does it grip you in the thrilling manner of most other presidencies.
John Quincy Adams was born into the controversy, violence and world-changing nature of the American Revolution, and he was thrust into the heart of it. He stood with his mother, Abigail Adams, to watch the Battle of Bunker Hill and traveled with his father, John Adams, to France and the Netherlands. He attended Harvard, became a Minister to the Netherlands, Prussia, the U.K. and Russia. He was a Secretary of State, a Congressman, a President and again, a Congressman.
But John Quincy Adams’ stubbornness makes him, simply, unlikable. He was, often, an avoidant father to his children. He treated his wife, Louisa, with contempt and disrespect unique even to the antiquated era of the early 1800s. And his refusal to pledge any loyalty to a party made him an ineffective president whose causes — internal improvements and the elimination of slavery — weren’t realized until decades later due to his stubbornness. Even Adams’ election to the presidency was marred by the infamous “Corrupt Bargain” of 1824.
Adams’ morals were admirable. He fervently believed slavery to be a moral wrong, but he lacked the ability to fully back abolitionism due to myriad issues he saw with the movement. Here again, we see his inflexibility.
As America approached a new and modern age, John Quincy Adams remained in the era of his childhood: The Revolution, when Americans’ fear of monarchy superseded all. This made him a politician who never fulfilled his promise, and this biography from James Traub fell just as flat.
Andrew Jackson ("Andrew Jackson: The Making of America" by Teri Kanefield, Finished: Feb 23, 2021)
Andrew Jackson tells the story of one of our most controversial presidents.
Born in the Carolina backwoods, Jackson joined the American Revolutionary War at the age of thirteen. After a reckless youth of gunfights, gambling, and general mischief, he rose to national fame as the general who defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans.
Jackson ran for president as a political outsider, championing the interest of common farmers and frontiersmen. Determined to take down the wealthy, well-educated East Coast “elites,” he pledged to destroy the national bank—which he believed was an engine of corruption serving the interest of bankers and industrialists. A staunch nationalist, he sought to secure and expand the nation’s borders. Believing that “we the people” included white men only, he protected the practice of slavery and opened new lands for white settlers by pushing the Native people westward.
Jackson, a polarizing figure in his era, ignited a populist movement that remains a powerful force in our national politics.
Martin Van Buren
William Henry Harrison
James K. Polk ("Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America" by Walter R. Borneman, Finished: March 15, 2023)
Walter Borneman’s “Polk” serves as an exhaustive, organized, but not quite scintillating, biography of James K. Polk, our nation’s 11th President.
Part of this is essentially Polk’s fault. He was a straitlaced politician and person and, as a result, not a fascinating subject. Personally, he married his sweetheart, raised children and retired to the state in which he was raised, Tennessee. Politically, he almost uniformly straddled a middle ground. He relied on a mentor (President Andrew Jackson). He announced he’d only serve one term, and he did, from 1845 to 1849.
Polk was, without argument, an effective president. He succeeded in all four of his objectives: Secure the Oregon territory, acquire California, settle the tariff question and establish an independent treasury. In all of these, Polk hit home runs. As he wrote in his goodbye message to Congress, the Mississippi River, once the nation’s western edge, represented its middle by the time Polk’s presidency ended.
That wasn’t without controversy, however. Many Whigs (Abraham Lincoln included) felt he instigated the Mexican-American War under false pretenses, arguing that blood had been shed on “American soil,” when many felt that the territory was disputed or fully Mexican (near the Rio Grande).
Polk was also a slaveholder, and he held slaves until his death, although he did open the door to freeing them upon the passing of his wife, Sarah.
Borneman’s biography is thorough. If you read this, you’ll feel you understand the sequence of events of Polk’s life. You may not feel you intimately know the man, or that his life should be on a Hollywood screen near you, but Borneman’s writing will educate.
Abraham Lincoln ("Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Finished: November 21, 2021)
“Team of Rivals” is the perfect encapsulation of Abraham Lincoln’s most impressive — and most difficult to execute — trait: His tremendous ability to assuage conflicts among peers, colleagues, generals, adversaries and family members.
Imagine being president of a country in which half of the population formally splits from you, vilifies you and many openly want to kill you. At home, everyone has a different opinion as to how you should manage the conflict. Amidst the war against the rebels, your military generals range from insane to inadequate to rebellious to great (Grant) and your family is a roller-coaster: Death of a young son, borderline insanity of your wife and military service of another son.
On top of it, Lincoln lacked experience when he entered office. His 1860 Republican Nomination could be called a fluke. In modern times, I’m not sure it would even be possible. He was an unknown prairie lawyer who only made waves in his own sphere of influence in Illinois. Next thing, he’s running the country amidst its most severe crisis.
In “Team of Rivals,” Goodwin eloquently shows — doesn’t tell, but shows — Lincoln’s ability to manage conflict with levity. He’d be dealing with this insane mountain of stress, yet he’d find time to ride with Mary or attend the theater. He remained open to the public and continued to tell stories and jokes, all while running this seemingly impossible task.
A bit hagiographical, sure, Lincoln is easy to be overly positive about, but this biography is intriguing, dramatic and ends with a beautiful tribute to America’s finest leader.
Andrew Johnson ("Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy" by David O. Stewart, Finished: July 4, 2023)
David O. Stewart’s “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy” captures one of the most contentious battles in U.S. history — and one that was fought far from any battlefield.
The irony, of course, is that the battle came on the feels of the gruesome and deadly Civil War, from Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865 until the end of Andrew Johnson’s term in 1869.
This book is, of course, unique from most presidential biographies in that it doesn’t focus on the subject’s life. Rather, it zooms in on the four-year span in which his political life was at stake.
Still, Stewart does a nice job recapping, quickly, Johnson’s admittedly inspirational rise from poverty in Tennessee to the U.S. Senate to the Vice Presidency to, thanks to Lincoln’s assassination, the Presidency. Johnson courageously was the only southern senator to balk at secession and remain loyal to the union, which is what earned him the spot on Lincoln’s re-election ticket in 1864.
However, once Johnson assumed the mantle, he was a disaster. As congress attempted to reconstruct to the South and integrate free black people into society, Johnson immediately took every step he could to revert the South to the old ways pre-Civil War. He turned his back on the freedmen, vetoing Reconstruction bills left and right, denying action at white violence and vote suppression and maintained an overall horrible manner with legislators, the press and his cabinet.
As Stewart writes, at the crux of the conflict was the seven Radical Republican impeachers, led by Thaddeus Stevens, whose intensity (and physical illness) proved to be a downfall during the impeachment trial. Stewart’s re-telling of the conflict brings out a few key points:
Johnson was impeached, but not convicted, thanks to a general misunderstanding as to what the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” entails.
The house managers who orchestrated the impeachment were poorly led and disorganized. In any battle (including war), organization and delegation are crucial. They lacked these big time.
Johnson avoided conviction by one vote, which is largely credited to Kansas Senator Edmund Ross, a Republican who voted against his party. Ross and his six other Republican defectors are often seen as martyrs, but their political careers post-trial were fine, and their votes were generally bought off.
Money wins — always. Johnson’s team organized a massive bribery campaign to buy votes during the trial.
Johnson’s acquittal by the Senate is seen as a reaffirmation of presidential power, but presidential power in the 1860s was at an all-time high, so this is a myth.
Andrew Johnson is among the worst presidents in American history.
Stewart’s book, like any that focuses on a legal battle, gets bogged down in legalese, but it’s part of the deal. I would have preferred a bit more narrative — and a bit less of the legal minutiae, but he tells the story of the trial well. This book will teach you quite a bit about the era, Johnson and the process of impeachment.
Ulysses S. Grant ("Grant" by Ron Chernow, Finished April 16, 2022)
The concept of perception vs. reality is crucial with every historical story, and with Ulysses S. Grant, it’s especially important.
Popular culture often portrays Grant as a butcher of a general, a president without a clue, an alcoholic and a man without a personality. But, in fact, Grant the general was a strategic genius who felt pain with every death. As president, he was revolutionary in his policy. While he did struggle with alcohol as a young man, he all but ended the habit by his presidency and remained abstinent in later years. As a father, husband and friend, he was a lively storyteller with a spectacular sense of humor.
In Chernow’s balanced biography, he does paint the picture of Grant’s dark sides, which so often dominate the narrative. Unlike many U.S. Presidents, Grant was an unremarkable young man — he was a subpar student with a lack of drive. He slipped into alcoholism and failed in every business venture. He was poor and seemed destined for an unremarkable life.
But, as Chernow tells six what encapsulates Grant’s journeys, both as a Civil War general and as a man, is his knack for comebacks. He rallied from poverty to earn a spot in the U.S. Military as the Civil War took off — leading him to the highest official post within a few years. He led the Union side to victory by pioneering a multi-front battle approach.
At its core, Grant’s story is a comeback tale.
As a general, he diligently worked with President Lincoln to win the war. Common history tells us about this often, but what is often foreshadowed are Grant’s many revolutionary accomplishments as president. He fought voraciously for civil rights and defended freed blacks with incredible courage. Grant oversaw the 14th and 15th constitutional amendments to protect civil and voting rights for blacks, while rooting out the murderous Ku Klux Klan.
Corruption did plague his administration, but that was more a result of Grant associating himself with the wrong people than of him having any corrupt instincts on his own.
After his presidency, this revolutionary style continued, as Grant pioneered the post-presidency foreign diplomacy we see today. He and Julia traveled for nearly four years through Europe and Asia, even helping to negotiate a deal between China and Japan.
But Grant’s last comeback says more about his courage than any. After falling into the hands of shady businessmen who ravaged his finances, he was left a pauper. So, worrying about his family’s prospects after his soon-to-come death from cancer, Grant knew he needed to write his memoirs, which would generate hundreds of thousands of dollars and ensure his family’s financial safety. So even while he was tormented by pain and, later on, unable to even speak, he outlived doctors’ predictions by years and lived long enough to publish the famous memoirs, which did take care of Julia, his children and grandchildren.
Grant was once an unremarkable, slovenly and struggling young man. He died an American hero who ensured the nation’s survival, pioneered civil rights and elevated America to its current status as a world power.
And Chernow’s biography perfectly tells the story, making the reader rise and fall with Grant’s often turbulent twists and turns.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Theodore Roosevelt ("The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" by Edmund Morris, Finished July 16, 2022)
"The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” the first of Edmund Morris’ trilogy on the 26th President, grants us a window into Roosevelt’s crowded, fascinating and hyperactive mind.
This volume on Roosevelt covers his birth up to the assassination of his predecessor, William McKinley. And in this volume, we’re treated to an inside look at the constant dueling forces in Roosevelt’s life.
Born into aristocracy to a wealthy New York family, Roosevelt was simultaneously brought up in the traditional New York social scene — dominated by families like the Astors, Vanderbilts and, of course, Roosevelts — while at the same time exploring his voracious passion for natural science and big game hunting.
Often as a young boy and man, after fulfilling his social duties, Roosevelt could be found practicing taxonomy in his room at home, and stinking up said home.
Later on, in between stints in the New York legislature as a young politician, Roosevelt was turning himself into a well-renowned force in the fast-growing Wild West, where he hunted and eventually started a cattle-ranching business.
The dualism of Theodore Roosevelt then bled into his early political career, which took him on a rocket ship to the New York legislature as a 24-year old, and then to the U.S. Civil Service seven years later.
In both roles, Roosevelt found himself fighting the traditional forces of money and greed, including the notorious spoils system, which had led to a disgusting amount of corruption in New York and nationwide. Here, the son of wealth was fighting for the common man.
And as his political career blossomed, he steadfastly continued to buck the expected role of a “rich kid.” He went back to New York to serve as Police Commissioner before serving as U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Navy, constantly sticking to his independent guns and refusing to bow to party elites.
His legendary service leading the roughriders in the Spanish-American War skyrocketed him in national fame, leading to his election as New York’s Governor and, two years later, as McKinley’s Vice President.
All throughout, Roosevelt held firm as his own man. He didn’t care if his buttoned-up colleagues scoffed at his hunting trips to the Dakota Badlands. He didn’t care if he rubbed Republican Party regulars the wrong way by fighting the spoils system. He didn’t even care if he was thought of as mentally insane for resigning his Assistant Secretaryship of the Navy to enlist in the military for the war.
Through a rich collection of personal diaries and letters, Morris expertly makes us feel the young Teddy Roosevelt, all the way to the maturing Vice President Theodore.
Hungry students of political history may find the long sections on Roosevelt’s hunting exploits out west to be dry. However, it’s an accurate encapsulation of his life, which can be marked through his trips as chapters for a complicated young man navigating two worlds simultaneously.
Theodore Roosevelt ("Theodore Rex" by Edmund Morris, Finished August 25, 2022)
The second volume of Edmund Morris’ epic Theodore Roosevelt trilogy, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” covers Roosevelt’s presidency through the lens of his uniquely positive, powerful and beloved style as America’s leader.
The volume starts with Roosevelt’s rise to power as an “accidental President” after the assassination of William McKinley. His shock, ascendancy to the nation’s highest office and subsequent mastery of it treats the reader to a turbulent symphony of emotion.
As the youngest president in the nation’s history to date, Roosevelt was tasked with rallying the nation to good spirit after the national calamity of McKinley’s assassination. And he did so with grace and charm. Even rivals who were predisposed to detest the man left one-on-one meetings borderline in love.
Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt routinely avoided — and aided others in avoiding — international conflict. War with Germany, a major Russo-Japanese conflict and possible mass war in Europe were all stymied by his skilled negotiation. This earned him the first Nobel Peace Prize for an American in 1906.
Morris treats us to Roosevelt’s masterful negotiation of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty amidst a revolution in Panama, which granted the U.S. exclusive and permanent possession of the Panama Canal Zone.
His avid conservationism, establishment of National Parks and Monuments and role in the birth of muckraking all play prominent roles in the gripping eight-year story.
What strikes me most about this era through Teddy Roosevelt’s eyes is the under-coverage of the time in many history classes. For example, the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-03, during which Germany, Italy and Great Britain enacted a naval blockade on Venezuela for unpaid debt and nearly sparked a war with the U.S., is disregarded. Kaiser Wilhelm II even had war plans mapped out for a possible American invasion — a plan that, of course, never came to be.
Even Roosevelt’s domestic policies — of conservationism, railroad reform and the realignment of the Republican Party — aren’t seen as major events, but Roosevelt’s massive growth of presidential power is a reality we still live with today. No president before him grew the office’s powers more.
Morris’ second volume isn’t quite as gripping as the first, which covers Roosevelt’s wild and rapid rise to power, but the fascinating presidential years are worth a read for their exposure of undercovered stories, demonstrations of the personal charm of “TR” and for the impact on today’s society.
Theodore Roosevelt ("Colonel Roosevelt" by Edmund Morris, Finished September 26, 2022)
The third volume of Edmund Morris's Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy, “Colonel Roosevelt,” covers our 26th President from 1909, when he leaves the office, to 1919, when he passed away in his sleep at his home, Sagamore Hill on Long Island.
Morris covers Roosevelt’s life masterfully. However, this final edition falls flatter than the first two, as Morris focuses in excruciating detail on some rare instances of mundanity in TR’s life.
This is not to say that Roosevelt’s final ten years were mundane. Among his exploits, he…
traveled all over Europe, Asia, Africa and South America
explored previously untouched regions of the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil
started the Progressive Party in rapid-fire fashion in mere months
ran for President in the 1912 Election against William Howard Taft and eventual winner Woodrow Wilson
advocated vehemently for preparedness in the lead-up to World War I
attempted to enlist as a colonel in the war
lost his son, Quentin who fought in France.
Through it all, Roosevelt wrote with the restlessness and unbridled productivity that marked him from his childhood.
Needless to say, the above list isn’t mundane. But chapters-long narratives on minute details of TR’s late years make this volume a slog, at times. For example, late in the book, we’re treated to a lengthy narrative of TR’s journey through an art exhibit, complete with his detailed thoughts on each and every painting, the styles and the repercussions of said styles. Of course, as an aging man no longer in the Presidency, these day-to-day “adventures” become more common, but it does make for less-thrilling reading.
Still, however, TR’s post-Presidential years are far more thrilling than most. His explorations in Africa and the Amazon, and his role in the 1912 Election make for thrilling narrative. The concept that Roosevelt aided Taft in clinching the 1908 Election and succeeding him, and then turned on him, ranting against Taft in the press and running against him (and Wilson) as a third-party candidate is unheard of in modern times. That would be akin to Barack Obama running in the 2024 Election as a third-party candidate against Joe Biden. Times were different.
“Colonel Roosevelt” is at times a thrill ride, and at times a bore. But throughout this trilogy, Morris captures the life of Theodore Roosevelt with the detail it deserves.
Woodrow Wilson ("Wilson" by Scott A. Berg, Finished: April 6, 2021)
At least in my history classes, the indelible impact Woodrow Wilson made on international politics was undercovered. Fortunately, Scott Berg masterfully captures the sweeping changes spawned by this President.
In many ways, the modernization of politics under Wilson — America being thrust onto the international stage, the conception of what now is the United Nations — mirrors the Hamilton-led forward movement experienced in the 1790s.
That being said, Wilson is not extolled as a perfect man. Coming from the Reconstruction South, he's a clear-cut racist with a troubling history. Berg doesn't shy away from the former President's many imperfections, with his racism standing out most.
Perhaps most intriguing is Wilson's demise. For nearly a year, he lay half-paralyzed in his bed after a massive stroke, with his wife, Edith, essentially carrying out the duties of his office and concealing his condition to the public (some even refer to her as the "first female President"). It makes me wonder if such a situation could ever happen today, and the answer seems to be a resounding no.
With "Wilson," you'll learn about the man, the era and, undoubtedly, become far more informed about today's messy global political landscape.
Warren G. Harding
Calvin Coolidge ("Coolidge" by Amity Shlaes, Finished: August 13, 2023)
In “Coolidge,” Amity Shlaes tears the curtain off of one of the most underrated and misunderstood presidents in U.S. history.
Calvin Coolidge, at least to me and many in my generation, has always been an afterthought. Notable only for his July 4 birthday, Coolidge’s presidency is unceremoniously sandwiched in between World War I and World War II. He is known for being reserved, strict and mightily thrifty.
But Calvin Coolidge, as Shlaes illustrates, represents so much more. While not President during a World War, he presided over intense battles: violent labor strikes in Boston whole Massachusetts governor, passing the Kellogg–Briand Pact, continually fighting congress and the military to shave the national budget and fighting through the tragic death of his son, Calvin Jr.
Coolidge rose from humble beginnings and was never the standout in his class, both in high school and at UMass-Amherst. Yet his quiet nature (never saying the wrong thing), his kindness toward others (even rivals) and his commitment to his principles (which he never wavered on) propelled him to the Oval Office.
In this biography, Shlaes paints a thorough and well-rounded image of Coolidge. We see him in different contexts: student, family man, governor, president, elderly man. He represents a generation that spanned from the pre-industrial revolution era to the second World War. Coolidge serves as a capsule of a crucial era in American history, and here we can view him in an unvarnished form.
Franklin D. Roosevelt ("FDR" by Jean Edward Smith, Finished: September 22, 2021)
FDR’s impact is a lot to take in. He took over during a virtual peacetime war — the Great Depression — and left office in the midst of a World War.
The precedents he set are also remarkable. In his New Deal legislative programs, FDR established Social Security, expanded healthcare, expanded labor rights and much more. With World War II, he put a stop to the ruinous Nazi regime, halted Japanese aggression in the Far East and cemented America’s legacy as an international police officer.
In this biography, Jean Edward Smith paints a thorough picture of the President, not glossing over his imperfections, which included marital infidelity. But Smith also captured the indelible impact of FDR on the disabled community. Suffering from infantile paralysis and polio, he couldn’t walk for the duration of his presidency and served as an inspiration to millions.
I wish this biography closed FDR’s influence by talking about his legacy at the end, but the book ends abruptly at his death. Other than that, it’s a gem.
Harry Truman ("Truman" by David McCullough Finished: December 13, 2021)
Compared with the great majority of U.S. Presidents, Harry Truman resembled a common man. In his candor, his family, his work life and his dealings with intimates, Truman resembles a somewhat average person — and that’s what makes him remarkable.
As McCullough writes, “he brought to the highest office the language and values of the people.”
But Truman truly was a great man and, in many ways, a diamond in the rough. His grace under excruciating pressure is astounding. In one presidency, he completed World War II, decided on and used the atomic bomb, helped piece together postwar Europe, managed the Korean War, handled the rising threat of communist Russia and its atomic capabilities, pushed through a robust domestic program and dealt with a weighty labor crisis. I’m undoubtedly missing key issues, but throughout all of these, Truman kept his mind, coolly venting his frustrations in unsent letters as a form of catharsis.
Even through crisis, he maintained his core values of family, kindness and honesty. He listened to others — a rare skill in today’s political climate.
McCullough masterfully lays out Truman the man through intimate diary entries, historical facts and analysis from others. This was a complex man and a loaded presidency, and in this complete biography, we learn the full picture. Truman is underappreciated in today’s world, but that underestimation is impossible after reading McCullough’s work.
Dwight D. Eisenhower ("Eisenhower in War and Peace" by Jean Edward Smith)
“Eisenhower in War and Peace” by Jean Edward Smith is a legitimate masterclass of storytelling.
Through Smith’s rigorous detailing of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s adult life, we as readers are treated to vivid details of Ike’s rise through the U.S. Military ranks, stories of his incredible world-changing time in Europe during World War II and his successful presidency.
We get to know Ike, the man, through his actions. He was a decision-maker, someone who wasn’t afraid to ask for help when he needed it — nearly every early promotion he got involved some assistance.
He wasn’t born with pre-ordained gifts for command, military strategy or leadership. He learned: at West Point, in Paris under General Pershing, in Manilla under Douglas MacArthur and, of course, working alongside Churchill, FDR and the Supreme Allied Command in Europe.
Smith isn’t afraid to criticize Ike — for his poorly-handled love affair with Kay Summersby, his chauffeur in the U.K., for his handling of Iran during the second term of his presidency and for other questionable decisions that prolonged the war in Europe. But for the most part, Smith is overflowing in his praise for Ike as a decision-maker and as a president who averted nuclear war many times.
That’s perhaps what stuck the most for me. I knew Ike was among the great generals of all-time for his work during World War II. But his smash hit of a presidency including ending the Korean War, keeping the Vietnam situation at bay, integrating the U.S. education system, building the interstate highway system and more. He led for eight years with a steady hand, and Smith tells the story of his presidency and life wonderfully.
I highly recommend this biography to anyone remotely interested in our nations’s 34th President, and perhaps what’s most fulfilling about it is that Smith breezes through his early life, avoiding mundane details and skipping to the good stuff.
John F. Kennedy
Lyndon B. Johnson ("The Years of Lyndon Johnson Part I: The path to power" by Robert A. Caro Finished: February 8, 2022)
Robert Caro kicks off his five-part masterpiece of Lyndon B. Johnson with “The Path to Power,” and it’s a masterclass of thorough, detailed reporting. The treasure trove of rich knowledge I gleaned about Texas, LBJ’s family, LBJ’s personality, college life, marriage, work life and rise to power (in just one of five books) was mind-blowing.
Before LBJ is even born (in the book), I became an expert on the history of Texas’ Hill Country — a desolate area in central Texas where LBJ’s roots lie. And it’s a fascinating history, highlighting Texas’ revolutionary tendencies, relations with Mexico and Native Americans, topographical anomalies and the “Wild West” flare that makes it so romantic. The rise of LBJ’s power very much resembles the rise of Texas’ power, which we still experience today as we discuss the place where “everything is bigger.”
Caro expertly paints LBJ as a one-of-a-kind subject, and in his early years, mostly for bad reasons. After reading about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the like, I’m accustomed to falling in love with biographical subjects. But young LBJ made me sick at times. He was a conniving, lying and cheating young man who was driven by an insatiable thirst for power and an overwhelming insecurity.
Still, his unyielding commitment is admirable. For example, when he ran for Congress in 1937, he campaigned so hard that he ended up in the hospital with an illness. Late in the campaign, a severe flood sidelined all other candidates for safety reasons. But amidst biblical rain, LBJ campaigned, reaching remote outposts with fewer than a dozen people. And he won.
In 1941, he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost — because for the first time in his life, he did not do all he could to win. He got lazy, which he had never done before, so he lost. He never made that mistake again.
Robert Caro is a journalist who cut his professional teeth reporting, and it shows. This book is so vividly well-researched that it reads like fiction at times — the most wild, can-you-believe-it type of fiction you can imagine. I can’t wait for Book Two.
Lyndon B. Johnson ("The Years of Lyndon Johnson Part II: Means of Ascent" by Robert A. Caro Finished: March 12, 2022)
“Means of Ascent,” the second installment in Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, is shocking in the unabashed corruption it exposes, but that shock is diluted in the book’s maniacal details.
This edition zones in on LBJ’s 1948 campaign for the U.S. Senate seat in Texas, in which he faced off with former governor Coke Stevenson. To win the election, which LBJ did by a margin of just 87 votes, Johnson and his team employed an entrenched system of fraud and bribery that amounted to votes being created out of thin air (in one county, a 7 was cunningly switched to a 9 to boost Johnson’s count).
In the end, Johnson stole and created thousands of votes to defeat Stevenson and win his way into the Senate, catapulting a career that led him to the presidency just 15 years later.
While Caro’s chronicling of the election is incredibly detailed, the narrative falls flat because of how much minutiae is explained. As readers, we’re treated to the labyrinth of complexities in the Texas election and judicial system, which is overwhelming. Caro explains each and every law and statute that enabled LBJ to not only steal the election, but to fend off Stevenson in court.
I’m looking forward to reading the next two installments, which focus on LBJ’s rise to power in the Senate and his subsequent vice presidency and, of course, presidency. But this edition fell flat for me, mostly since it didn’t read like a story but rather like a legal brief in court.
Lyndon B. Johnson ("The Years of Lyndon Johnson Part III: Master of the Senate" by Robert A. Caro Finished: April 10, 2022)
In “Master of the Senate,” Robert Caro’s third edition of his extensive Lyndon B. Johnson biography, we’re treated to a masterclass of obtaining and wielding power.
First, Caro thoroughly lays out the U.S. Senate’s rich and chaotic history. From the days of Webster to Clay and Calhoun to Richard Russell and LBJ, the Senate is a supremely traditional body. It’s so traditional, in fact, that promotions, such as committee chairmanships, have been earned not on merit, but on a Senator’s tenure in the government. The Senate, featuring its famous filibuster, has operated as an immovable object, for so many decades.
But Lyndon B. Johnson moved it — firmly and quickly. Within a few years of his election to the “Greatest Legislative Body,” he was an assistant leader of the Democratic party (Whip). Shortly after, he rose to minority leader, which soon became majority leader.
And LBJ transformed the role of leader, as Caro expertly shows us. LBJ operated the Senate like a massive chessboard, moving the pieces around like a master to fit his number-one goal: His personal rise to power. When his personal goals aligned with a cause, like Civil Rights, he advocated for it. When they didn’t, he squashed it. He made liberals feel like he was their leftist friend. He made the group of racist Southern conservatives feel like he was a member of their tribe.
LBJ played the Senate game better than anyone could, and it culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which he hammered through a nearly insolvable labyrinth.
“Master of the Senate” is the first time in Caro’s LBJ series in which we follow LBJ’s skills at the truly national level, affecting policy for 300+ million Americans. Caro puts us in the cloakroom, on the Senate floor and in LBJ’s hospital bed amidst his heart attack.
Simply put: “Master of the Senate” is a masterpiece.
The fourth part of Robert Caro’s Years of Lyndon Johnson, “The Passage of Power,” is the most gripping and moving installment yet.
Lyndon B. Johnson ("The Years of Lyndon Johnson Part IV: The Passage of Power" by Robert A. Caro Finished: June 16, 2022)
In the fourth book, Caro takes us through LBJ’s Vice Presidency under President John F. Kennedy, Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 and LBJ’s seven-week sprint to secure a healthy presidency of his own.
Each of these three sections makes us feel the raw emotion of the unique situations. As Vice President, LBJ was cast into an obscure and often insulting shadow unlike any he’d experienced before. After suffering from a severe lifelong insecurity, Johnson was thrust into a role known for its lack of a true role. And President Kennedy, together with his brother Bobby Kennedy (who also became LBJ’s primary enemy) frustrated Johnson to the maximum, shunning him to low-level responsibilities and barring him from a White House office and from access to Air Force One.
Johnson, fresh off his dominant term as Senate Majority Leader, was seen by journalists, politicians and the public as a once-powerful lion who now resembled a feeble sheep.
But then came November 22, 1963 in Dallas. Caro masterfully paints the vivid details of that day through LBJ’s eyes — starting with the political complications of the days before. We then transport to the famed limo ride, which featured Johnson’s Secret Service agent smothering him in the chaos after Lee Harvey Oswald’s gunshot to JFK’s head. Caro takes us to Parkland Hospital, at which a silent LBJ is told by a Kennedy aide, “he’s gone.” LBJ is sworn in on Air Force One, and the mad dash to become President begins.
This seven-week sprint was unique to American history, Caro writes. While there had been six other presidential transitions due to death, LBJ’s was unique in the era of television, which featured an entire nation watching the vivid aftermath of JFK’s death — his funeral, Lee Harvey Oswald’s subsequent murder and, of course, conspiracy theories about the possible roles of Russia, Cuba and the CIA in the assassination.
But Johnson intensely and cunningly straddled the line between continuity — keeping Kennedy people (most notably RFK and Jackie) on board and independence (making his own mark on the presidency). In the rush to his January State of the Union address and the later presidential election, LBJ signed into law tax cuts that Kennedy had seen as crucial, to be followed shortly by the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964. He later won in a landslide in that year’s general election, beating Republican Barry Goldwater.
LBJ, Caro writes, suppressed the ugly qualities he’d harnessed in his rise to power — his impatience, temper and brutal style of treating aides. For seven weeks, he was a completely changed man as he thrust himself into the forefront as his own and as the nation’s president.
In “The Passage of Power,” Caro takes us through one of the most unique, complicated, controversial and powerful journeys in American history, and it’s a masterstroke.
Richard Nixon ("Richard Nixon: The Life" by John A. Farrell)
Richard Nixon: No President in the 20th century causes a more visceral reaction upon the uttering of his name.
John A. Farrell’s “Richard Nixon: The Life” illustrates for us a well-rounded account of the man’s controversial life, rise to public power, staggering presidency and immense public downfall. Through his own eyes, those of his wife, Pat, and those of his top advisers like Henry Kissinger, we are treated to Nixon at his worst (Watergate) but also at his best (negotiating with China, Middle Eastern powers and the Soviet Union).
Young people like me often simplify Richard Nixon, and Farrell’s biography embraces the man’s complexities. Those who weren’t alive during the Nixon reign see “NIXON” and think “WATERGATE.” But he’s more. Prior to becoming President, Nixon embraced the red scare like few others, battling communism through the widely publicized Hiss trial. As President, his Vietnam War policy, while disastrous, was the type of event that could headline other presidencies. His trip to China in 1972 ended 25 years of isolation between the two nations. He negotiated complex peace treaties all over the world and saw himself (rightfully so) as gifted with foreign policy.
But, as Farrell notes, Nixon’s high-points are marred, emphatically, by the lows. In any biographical work, the reader is often left to judge the subject’s character — and Nixon comes across as a distasteful person. I would not want to be friends with him. He was ruthless, backstabbing and often fell apart in high-pressure moments (see: Watergate).
Speaking of Watergate, his handling of the crisis was an abject failure, of course. He could have, with foresight and planning, halted the tidal wave of crimes before they started. But he didn’t. Because he wanted to ruthlessly backstab his opponents, Liberals, Ivy-Leaguers, Socialists, Anti-War protestors, etc., without looking back. When he finally looked back, he was forced to resign.
Nixon wasn’t a failure in every arena. He rose from childhood poverty to become President of the United States — that’s a mind-boggling accomplishment. He was ahead of his time with climate change, and bucked party trends with acceptance of LGBT and abortion rights. But his poor character, judgement and actions will mar him forever.
Farrell’s biography is good but not a masterpiece. His early-life narratives on Nixon read much better than the Watergate play-by-play, which can get monotonous. Still, I feel I know Nixon the man, even if I don’t like him very much.
Ronald Reagan ("Reagan" by Bob Spitz)
“Reagan: An American Journey” by Bob Spitz can be split into two unique sections: Reagan’s rise to the presidency, and his actual administration and later years.
The first part — which covers his unique rise from impoverished youth in Tampico, Illinois to college student and leader to professional baseball broadcaster to Hollywood superstar and president of the Screen Actors Guild to Governor of California and candidate for President — is a thrill ride.
Who knew that Ronald Reagan was once a highly-rated baseball radio broadcaster, ranked by newspapers ahead of the legendary Red Barber for his work? He was a natural. Once, the gung-ho and flexible Reagan even ad-libbed an entire seven minutes of a Cubs game he was calling because the transmission to his studio died. He had fun broadcasting, fans loved him and it parlayed him into the successful Hollywood acting career that put his name on the map.
The transition from Reagan the Hollywood star to Reagan the politician really began with two events. First, as president of the Screen Actors Guild during the Eugene McCarthy-led Red Scare, Reagan’s strict anti-communism stance put him in the limelight as a hard-liner. Then, General Motors offered him a spokesperson position, in which he advocated for labor-related political causes while touring the country on behalf of GM. That’s when Reagan’s Republican ideology took form, and with it his public speaking panache.
After friends and colleagues pressured him into his successful bid for Governor of California, Reagan’s life changed forever. And in Spitz’s narrative, the energy takes a turn. Reagan, as Governor and as President, was notoriously hands-off. He delegated in the style of a British Monarch, writes Spitz. This makes the telling of his Presidency — one that includes dealings with Mikhail Gorbachev (tear down this wall!), the Iran-Contra Scandal, hostage crises, Reaganomics and more — a bit dry. The most thrilling are his dealings with Gorbachev, in which Reagan successfully brings the Cold War to an unceremonious close by working the Soviet leader masterfully.
Reagan’s mythos in American culture is, in large part, because he was the last of his kind, says Spitz. He represents family values that many feel have been lost, and that’s why, since his death in 2004, “Reagan” has become synonymous with a better time. Shades of this are true, and shades are overblown.
Spitz’s telling of Regan’s life is exhilarating at times, flat at others, but in all, complete and incredibly informative.
George W. Bush