Ten Presidential Ponderings: Memoirs, Biographies, and More

“American history is a quagmire, and the more one knows, the quaggier the mire gets.”   — Sarah Vowell

Sometimes it’s fun to get into the muck of politics, so we thought that for President’s Day this year, we would offer you some titles that offer insight, personality, behind-the-scences intrigue, and sometimes humor in consideration of the 44 men who have held the highest office in the land.

1.  Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

In this new biography, author Ron Chernow offers some insight that is new to many readers, including:

  • Washington was the only major founder who lacked a college education. John Adams went to Harvard, James Madison to Princeton, and Alexander Hamilton to Columbia, making Washington self-conscious about what he called his “defective education.”
  • By age 30 Washington had survived smallpox, malaria, dysentery, and other diseases.
  • That Washington was childless proved a great boon to his career. Because he had no heirs, Americans didn’t worry that he might be tempted to establish a hereditary monarchy.

Also available on Kindle.

2. John Adams by David McCullough

From the Publisher’s Weekly Review:  “Here a preeminent master of narrative history takes on the most fascinating of our founders to create a benchmark for all Adams biographers. With a keen eye for telling detail and a master storyteller’s instinct for human interest, McCullough (Truman; Mornings on Horseback) resurrects the great Federalist (1735-1826), revealing in particular his restrained, sometimes off-putting disposition, as well as his political guile.”  This biography is also available on Kindle.

3. The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson, of course, was one of the primary authors of the United States Constitution.  Here, in his autobiography, the reader learns of his early life, his political and personal influences, and how he viewed his role in the founding of our nation.

Also available on Kindle.

4. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

In her 2006 study of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin manages to do something very nearly impossible: give readers a fresh take on one of the most written about figures in American history, Abraham Lincoln. She does so by examining Lincoln in relation to the three other men vying for the Republican nomination in 1860, describing in vivid detail how Lincoln managed to win and set himself apart from his rivals.

Also available on Kindle.

5. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters

From Library Journal: “As historical documents, the significance of these papers is obvious, but the texts also score high points for the quality of the writing itself; Sherman’s reflections were hailed by Mark Twain as “a model narrative that will last as long as the language lasts.” The hub of the material, of course, focuses on the war years, but Sherman’s volume also contains memoirs of his pre-Civil War life in California, and unique to this edition is the inclusion of 175 of Grant’s personal letters. More than a reprint of readily available material, these volumes include the same scrupulously detailed notes on the text by recognized scholars that make the Library of America editions superior to their predecessors. This fine set belongs in most history collections. Highly recommended.”

6. Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Like Lincoln, scores of books have been written about America’s 26th President, but Edmund Morris offers an intriguing take on this complex man. Colonel Roosevelt (2010) examines the part of the former president’s life that is not so laudable. Writing for Booklist, Brad Cooper notes that Wilson’s work examines “the sad part of TR’s life; this is the stage of his life story in which it is most difficult to accept his self-absorption, self-importance, and self-righteousness, but it is the talent of the author, who has shown an immaculate understanding of his subject, to make Roosevelt of continued fascination to his readers. In essence, this volume tells the story of TR’s path of disenchantment with his chosen successor in the White House, William Taft, and his attempt to resecure the presidency for himself. The important theme of TR’s concomitant decline in health is also a part of the narrative. We are made aware most of all that of all retired presidents, TR was the least likely to fade into the background.”

Also available on Kindle.

7. John F. Kennedy by Robert Dallek

Another president who fascinates both critics and readers alike, Robert Dallek offers his interpretation of JFK‘s time in office in his 2011 biography. While some critics are disturbed that Dallek glosses over events in Kennedy’s life, like his womanizing, The New York Times Book Review praises the work as “(a)n intimate portrait indeed…unexpected and important….This is nothing if not a profile in courage,” and The New Yorker says that “Dallek succeeds in this riveting and well-documented biography.”

Also available on Kindle.

8.  Around the World with LBJ: My Wild Ride as Air Force One Pilot, White House Aide, and Personal Confidant by Brigadier General James U. Cross

For a very different insight into the presidency, consider picking up this acclaimed inside-look into the office and the man who was our 36th President, Lyndon B. Johnson.  Journalist and long-time PBS newman Bill Moyers highly recommends the memoir, saying, “What a delightful, honest, and entertaining story Jim Cross tells. Here is a man who was so close to power he would come down with a cold if the President sneezed (and could have brought a lot of us literally down with him), but he never forgot his roots in rural Alabama. A man whose daddy worked for the Horseshoe Lumber Company grows up to serve the most powerful man in the world, and his account of that amazing journey–some of it scarily bumpy, as I can testify–is a bird’s-eye view, from the cockpit of Air Force One, of why character counts.”

Also available on Kindle.

9.  An American Life: The Autobiography by Ronald Reagan

Hot off the presses (January 2011) is the re-issued autobiography of our 40th president, Ronald Regan. First issued in 1991, the autobiography has enjoyed a wide readership for ten years. San Francisco Chronicle says that “Reagan’s charm, as displayed throughout this book, is incontestable; so is his grace under pressure,” and The Washington Times calls An American Life “(o)ne of our classic American success stories.”

Also available on Kindle.

10.  Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Published in 2007, Barack Obama’s autobiography helped inform the American public about this candidate with the funny name and unusual background, and probably was a factor in his becoming our first African American president.  Obama’s story covers  his challenges with his parents, his difficulties in finding “racial identity,” as well as how he became a civil rights lawyer and a community organizer before making the decision to run for the presidency.

“Provocative…Persuasively describes the phenomenon of belonging to two different worlds, and thus belonging to neither.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Fluidly, calmly, insightfully, Obama guides us straight to the intersection of the most serious questions of identity, class, and race.”
Washington Post Book World

Also available on Kindle.