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PRESIDENTIAL BIOGRAPHIES I LIKE; OR, A GUIDE TO DAD BOOKS

I am finishing up the last hour of my last shift as the manager of WORD and my last official duty has been to make a list of good presidential biographies for a woman named Mildred in her 80s, which is so perfect it makes me want to cry.

I emailed it to the entire staff at WORD as one of my minor job duties has always been Official Reader of the Dad Books, and I want them to be able to handsell them in my absence. But everyone should read love Presidential biographies. A good Presidential biography is non-fiction at its very finest. So I am copying the email I just sent the staff here, as well, in case you want a Dad Book for your summer reading:

AMERICAN LION: ANDREW JACKSON IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Jon Meacham. This won the Pulitzer a few years ago so I imagine most folks who like dad books will have read it already, but it’s a great starter Presidential bio. Let’s put it this way: until I read this book, Jackson was easily one of my least favorite Presidents. Now, he is still on the bottom rungs for me, but at least I feel like I get why he was so horrible. This book also has some fantastic writing about early political fighting that gives the lie to the idea that political discourse in America was ever civil.

THE BIG BURN: TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND THE FIRE THAT SAVED AMERICA by Timothy Egan. Egan is great (he won the National Book Award for an earlier book, THE WORST HARD TIME) and this is my favorite sort of Presidential book, focusing in on one incident to make broader connections, even though a lot of the book is not about Roosevelt at all. It’s about an enormous forest fire in 1910 that literally nobody in the country knew how to battle and which raged on for a very long time, even though almost ten thousand people gathered to try to quell it. At the time of the fire there was no National Park Service and further, there was an ongoing national battle about whether or not any public land should be conserved, or whether it should be turned over to businesses (aka, robber barons) to use the natural resources as they wished. (Sadly, a lot of the political battles in the book feel relevant.) Most of the country was on the side of the businesses until this fire, which changed people’s minds, as did the hard work of Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. Today, our national parks are a great source of pride to even the most fervent capitalist and they’re rarely controversial on a national level—this book shows how that happened, and shows a dedicated and fascinating side to Roosevelt.

DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC: A TALE OF MADNESS, MEDICINE, AND THE MURDER OF A PRESIDENT by Candice Millard. This is new in paperback and is about James Garfield, one of our most improbable Presidents. His rise to the Presidency from utter poverty as a child, via Civil War heroics and a spate in Congress, is impressive on its own. But the really crazy thing about the book is that he was shot by a total nutball (whose story is also outlined) just a few months into his term! Then, amazingly, he survived the attack—and then his doctors basically killed him with their horrible medical practices. This was just before, for example, sterilization became a cornerstone of medicine (in fact at the time it was seen as quackery), and his doctors kept opening his wound and poking around in it to try to find the bullet with their non-sterile tools. They also fed him on a diet of rich foods like bacon and lamb chops every day even though he had a history of stomach issues. You can imagine. There’s also a fascinating story of a young Alexander Graham Bell (the very same as you’re thinking, yes!) who was trying desperately to invent a machine to help find the bullet so it could be extracted before it was too late. Things got worse and worse and the activity of the entire country came to a complete halt as everyone anxiously awaited multiple updates a day as to Garfield’s progress. Mind-blowing and a real page-turner of a tragedy.

GRANT’S FINAL VICTORY: ULYSSES S. GRANT’S HEROIC LAST YEAR by Charles Bracelen Flood. Out in paperback this fall. This is actually about Grant’s life post-Presidency (obviously) but once a President, always a President. Grant was one of the most beloved Americans of his time. Opinions were divided over at the time whether he was a good President, but people still liked him and he retired to a fairly comfortable life until in 1884, he lost everything he owned in a horrible swindle (a book about this swindler (who was related to Grant by marriage, hence why he was totally taken) by one of his descendents is forthcoming and I am REALLY EXCITED ABOUT IT) and THEN almost immediately found out after that that he had advanced throat and mouth cancer. Worried that he would leave his family destitute after his passing, he began to work with friend Mark Twain on his memoirs (called, cleverly, MEMOIRS, as you probably recall) while Twain drummed up interest, in the first ever pre-publication buzz campaign. He worked through terrible pain and exhaustion and finished the book four days before he died. No kidding. It’s inspiring to the hilt. (And, for those with publishing background, all the stuff about the publication process is fascinating. Twain was the original commission sales rep.)

K BLOWS TOP: A COLD WAR COMIC INTERLUDE, STARRING NIKITA KHRUSHCHEV, AMERICA’S MOST UNLIKELY TOURIST by Peter Carlson. This is cheating because it’s really mostly about Khrushchev, but Eisenhower is an important secondary character. Also, it is a good look at the state of the country during the Cold War, and I think one of the joys of Presidential bios is that they are a good way to look at what the country was up to/worried about/excited about at the time. And this book is just incredible, both in the sense that it is good and in the sense that it’s hard to believe it actually happened in the real world. Carlson examines Khrushchev’s three visits to the US; the first was the Kitchen Debates, the third was the shoe-banging at the UN, but the second—the second is where the gold is. Basically, he tricked Eisenhower into inviting he and his wife to the US so that he could go around it like a tourist, and go around it like a tourist he did. A very fancy tourist, with stops both in Hollywood and state fairs. He also almost started a war when he wasn’t allowed into Disneyland. What? Yes. And why is all of this happening? Well, in large part because by 1959, the media had learned how to chase a good story. And so this book is just as interested in the story behind the story of Khrushchev, how the cranky Russian sausage got made, which is fascinating because it was the beginning of a bunch of terrible, world-shaping habits in which the modern media still indulges. Carlson is a charming writer who is tops at incorporating all the stellar material he’s got to work with. If any book on the list is good for someone who doesn’t read much non-fiction, it’s this one. We read it for book group awhile back and it was much loved.

THE PRESIDENT IS A SICK MAN: WHEREIN THE SUPPOSEDLY VIRTUOUS GROVER CLEVELAND SURVIVES A SECRET SURGERY AT SEA AND VILIFIES THE COURAGEOUS NEWSPAPERMAN WHO DARED EXPOSE THE TRUTH by Matthew Algeo. Coming out in paperback in September. All these stories in this list are crazy. This might be the craziest. The subtitle says it all. Cleveland had cancer in his mouth and had surgery for it on a BOAT (AT SEA) while pretending to be ON VACATION and then basically hid it from everybody for MONTHS while it healed and even though the press was not allowed to see him in that time, nobody really questioned it, as he just hung out in his vacation home. Clearly this could never happen today. And then when a reporter figured it out, Cleveland ruined his life! Even though a lot of people did not even believe him, since it was such a crazy story. Why is this not a movie yet? It’s like the MS crisis on The West Wing times 100. There’s also some great New York history, since Cleveland was the Governor of New York (and before that, Mayor of Buffalo) before he was President. And, in our current not-Great depression, it’s a good time to read about the 1890s, a similar economic era. Cleveland is also the answer to a lot of great trivia questions (the only president ever to serve non-consecutive terms!) so if you’re in need of some pillow talk, check it out.

TRAITOR TO HIS CLASS: THE PRIVILEGED LIFE AND RADICAL PRESIDENCY OF FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT by H. W. Brands. I will admit that FDR is one of my favorite Presidents, because I am a dirty liberal, but even if he wasn’t, I would still love this book. As a sign of how good it is: when FDR dies towards the end (sorry, SPOILER), I cried, I was so sad. As though I was surprised! Though I do like the slice-of-life bios, this is a classic grand epic saga done to perfection. It is primarily trying to figure out why a man as silver-spoony as FDR would have been so devoted to the New Deal and to preparing the country for WWII so far in advance. Social class is really underlooked in a lot of historical writing and it’s a treat to read a book that uses it as a primary motivation (fans of DEBT by Graeber, for example, would be pleased). It’s an 800-page delight. As a side non-Presidential note, I’m also pretty into Brands’s newish on-going series “American Portraits,” which are shorter books focused on individual lives, like THE HEARTBREAK OF AARON BURR (turns out Hamilton was sort of an a-hole and sort of deserved it!) and THE MURDER OF JIM FISK FOR THE LOVE OF JOSIE MANSFIELD. Basically if Brands writes something, you should read it.

WHAT IT TAKES: THE WAY TO THE WHITE HOUSE by Richard Ben Cramer. This is basically the INFINITE JEST of Presidential books. It is probably one of my favorite non-fiction books of all time. Cramer begins with mini-bios of most of the major players in the 1988 Presidential elections (Bush Sr., Dole, Hart, Biden, Gephardt, and Dukakis) which are so good that, if the book had stopped there, it would still be worth the price of admission. But NO! Then he goes on to weave all the stories together as they race through the primaries beating on each like a bunch of deranged wack-a-moles. The writing is crisp and soaring and most of the book is, given how slowly American politics move, still very relevant. I personally feel all political reporters should be required to read this book every four years before beginning in on writing about the new Presidential campaign. I think it would save us all a lot of hassle.

*drops mic*

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In every crisis in his life, he had worked until the weight dropped off his body, and his eyes sank into his head, and his face grew gaunt and cavernous, and he trembled with fatigue, and the rashes on his hands grew raw and angry; and whenever, at the end of one more of a very long line of very long days, he realized that there was still one more task that should be done, he would turn without a word hinting at fatigue to do it, to do it perfectly. His career had been a story of manipulation, deceit, and ruthlessness, but it had also been a story of an intense physical and spiritual striving that was utterly unsparing; he would sacrifice himself to his ambition as ruthlessly as he sacrificed others.

The Johnson Years: A Congressman Goes To War" by Robert Caro in The New Yorker in 1989. I have been saving Caro’s LBJ biographies for my next bout of pneumonia, but it’s sentences like these that make me wonder why I should wait that long.

My friend Josh pointed out to me earlier today that, in honor of the forthcoming release of the next installment in the LBJ saga (The Passage of Power! Pre-order today!), The New Yorker has released from their archives the seven excerpts from earlier volumes that they’ve published so far. At first I was a little annoyed that the excerpts can only be viewed on their fancy pdf-viewer, but then I kept being delighted by the advertisements alongside the article, the finest salesmanship 1989 had to offer. I am pretty sure they are still running some of the exact same ads, which is soothing. Anyway, here’s the link to the archived pieces. I’m a little scared they’re going to take them away again next week so I’m reading them faster than is good for me, and now I’m a little brainsick.

Filed under robert caro longreads LBJ presidential biographies