What Are the Best Books on American Presidents? — Nick Baldock

 

It is a long-term ambition of mine to read a full-length biography of every dead American president, and I confidently assume that the good folk at Ricochet can help me with some recommendations.

I do not want a definitely ‘conservative’ or right-wing selection, please; I want, as far as possible, a decently scholarly and balanced series of historical-biographies. Conservative correction of hagiography – as, I suspect, with JFK – I understand may be necessary.

Thus far, I have read (and for the most part enjoyed):

David McCullough, John Adams

Richard Brookhiser, James Madison

Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

Walter R. Borneman, Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America

Jean Edward Smith, Grant

Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex

David McCullough, Truman

Conrad Black, Richard Milhous Nixon

What other volumes would you recommend?

 

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  1. user_428379 Thatcher
    user_428379
    @AlSparks

    Snirtler:
    Is Robert Caro’s multi-volume bio of LBJ too much?
    Me three. Enjoyed reading McCullough on Truman.

     If you’re a prodigious reader, I highly recommend Caro’s biography of Johnson, a man who Caro seems to admire deeply, but who still portrays him warts and all.

    It’s a good case study of the lust for power, and how you use it, not only with regards to the actual accomplishments (and of course I disagree with Caro that Johnson’s domestic accomplishments were good) but how badly Johnson chose to treat his subordinates, and how good he could treat them if he needed them more than they needed him, which wasn’t very often.

    If you want a much shorter profile of Johnson that also captures his personality go back to Evans and Novak’s treatment of him written in the sixties (?).

    By the way, I thought Steve Jobs and Johnson had a lot in common with how they treated “the little people”.  And Hilary Clinton too, for that matter.

    • #31
  2. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    UreyP3: “Star-Spangled Men – America’s Ten Worst Presidents” – Nathan Miller (gifted writer & historian , Professor of History USNA, now deceased and sadly overlooked) – covers Buchanan, Harrison, Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Harding – and some you may not agree with.

     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8jOWWsSb_g&t=03m44s

    • #32
  3. Cordelia Inactive
    Cordelia
    @Cordelia

    Grant’s autobiography is great (and free on Kindle).

    • #33
  4. Addiction Is A Choice Member
    Addiction Is A Choice
    @AddictionIsAChoice

    Had I known he wasn’t done, I never would have started Robert Caro’s magnificent, multi-volume biography of LBJ! I ravenously devoured the first four volumes unaware the fifth and final had yet to be written…If Caro, who is not a young man, dies before finishing, I’ll kill him!!!

    • #34
  5. Snirtler Inactive
    Snirtler
    @Snirtler

    AlSparks:

    Snirtler: Is Robert Caro’s multi-volume bio of LBJ too much? Me three. Enjoyed reading McCullough on Truman.

    If you’re a prodigious reader, I highly recommend Caro’s biography of Johnson, a man who Caro seems to admire deeply, but who still portrays him warts and all.
    It’s a good case study of the lust for power, and how you use it, not only with regards to the actual accomplishments (and of course I disagree with Caro that Johnson’s domestic accomplishments were good) but how badly Johnson chose to treat his subordinates, and how good he could treat them if he needed them more than they needed him, which wasn’t very often.
    If you want a much shorter profile … go back to Evans and Novak’s treatment of him written in the sixties (?).

    Thanks on the Evans & Novak recommendation. I read one of the earlier Caro volumes. On LBJ, I’m actually more interested in his legislative career so that means reading “Master of the Senate” eventually. 

    • #35
  6. Snirtler Inactive
    Snirtler
    @Snirtler

    Al Sparks:

    By the way, I thought Steve Jobs and Johnson had a lot in common with how they treated “the little people”. And Hilary Clinton too, for that matter.

    An aside if I might be permitted, whatever issues with Mitt Romney some on the right had, I think he would have been a tremendous example of ordinary human decency persevering amid the temptations to contempt of the little people and arrogance of high power. How far would one have to go back to be able to say that of a Democratic president? Does Carter count? If not, then Truman. Yes, policy and leadership matter, but more than ever, so does moral example.

    • #36
  7. user_428379 Thatcher
    user_428379
    @AlSparks

    Snirtler:
    An aside if I might be permitted, whatever issues with Mitt Romney some on the right had, I think he would have been a tremendous example of ordinary human decency persevering amid the temptations to contempt of the little people and arrogance of high power. How far would one have to go back to be able to say that of a Democratic president? Does Carter count? If not, then Truman. Yes, policy and leadership matter, but more than ever, so does moral example.

     I agree about Romney.  From what I’ve read about him, he can be very tough on his subordinates, and he has fired people for not measuring up.  But he doesn’t humiliate them.  That’s the essence of moral leadership.

    • #37
  8. user_1040735 Member
    user_1040735
    @NickBaldock

    Thank you all so much!  This is great stuff.  In answer to the inquiry about my opinion on those I’ve read:

    I love McCullough’s Truman and John Adams.  Truman in particular strikes me as a great and under-appreciated man, although I did wonder if he could have possibly stayed quite so clean as McCullough insists.  Still, both are magisterial biographies that leave the reader wanting even more.

    Conrad Black’s Nixon is a little too much the case for the defense, giving us the Tweety Pie version of Watergate (‘I tawt I taw a coup d’etat.  I did!’)

    Grant is an enthralling, authoritative perfect example of the genre.  My only caveat is personal: I never could understand maps of military campaigns (gray arrow: Grant’s move on Aug 13; dark gray arrow, Grant’s feint on Aug 12; dotted gray arrow: where Grant would have moved had the weather improved) – but then, any work on Grant without such maps is clearly inept.

    [sidebar: having just read it, I recommend James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom]

    Morris’ Theodore Rex is excellent; as is Meacham’s Andrew Jackson, a man about whom I knew almost nothing before I read the book.  Polk is determined to elevate its subject to the first rank of presidents – a sort of bench for Mount Rushmore – which naturally puts the reader on his guard; but, even if the effort doesn’t quite succeed, it convinces as a worthwhile effort.

    Unfortunately, and I realise this is heresy on Ricochet, but Brookhiser’s James Madison was rather disappointing.  Madison must surely have been more interesting and complex and deserving of a biography that gives his full measure.

    I understand that reading about Pierce, Fillmore or Buchanan will be painful, but I figure it’s like visiting the 50 (or 57) states: if you commit, you commit.

    • #38
  9. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Nick Baldock: Morris’ Theodore Rex is excellent;  Unfortunately, and I realise this is heresy on Ricochet, but Brookhiser’s James Madison was rather disappointing. Madison must surely have been more interesting and complex and deserving of a biography that gives his full measure.

     One note on the Morris trilogy on TR.  He is a marvelous writer and great storyteller.  His strength is conveying personality and character.  His limitation is that while he is good at political infighting and personalities he has little interest in political thought so he does a poor job explaining the significance of Progressive thought and why it triggered the political defections of his good friends Henry Cabot Lodge and Elihu Root who thought it undermined the principles of the Constitution.  It was that limitation that made his Reagan bio a disaster.  He couldn’t connect with the personality and he had no interest in his ideas. I share your view on the Brookhiser book.

    • #39
  10. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    Two Recommendations:

    His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis

    President Lincoln: Duty of a Statesman by William Lee Miller

    • #40
  11. Pugshot Member
    Pugshot
    @Pugshot

    I’ve read William S. McFeeley’s biography of Grant and can recommend it highly. I’ve got a 6-volume biography of Jefferson by Dumas Malone (but haven’t read it yet – they’re all short volumes, though) and I recall he was widely considered the Jefferson biographer. Ditto the 3-volume biography of Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini.

    • #41
  12. user_428379 Thatcher
    user_428379
    @AlSparks

    Cordelia:
    Grant’s autobiography is great (and free on Kindle).

     It’s in the public domain, and you can read it on a variety of readers for free, even a laptop.

    I finally read Grant’s autobiography about a year ago, because I heard it was one of the best military autobiographies ever.  I wasn’t disappointed.  I did note one thing, however.  Grant was known, in his time and ours, as a drunk.  Political cartoonists referred to it during his presidency.  In fairness, he wasn’t drunk when he was running a battle, and I understand that he wasn’t when not separated from his wife.

    But Grant doesn’t mention his drinking at all.  Perhaps it was the nature of the times that he didn’t.  That he wasn’t expected to.  By today’s standards he would be expected to address the issue.  Quite an omission.

    • #42
  13. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Misthiocracy:

    UreyP3: “Star-Spangled Men – America’s Ten Worst Presidents” – Nathan Miller (gifted writer & historian , Professor of History USNA, now deceased and sadly overlooked) – covers Buchanan, Harrison, Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Harding – and some you may not agree with.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8jOWWsSb_g&t=03m44s

     The Simpsons list is the superior list, since it does not include the great Warren G. Harding, the winner of the greatest electoral landslide in American history, America’s greatest budget cutter and repealer of Progressive advances, and, if not for Coolidge accepting the Klan’s support, the guy who, with Taft and Reagan brought Catholics into the GOP.

    Sadly, there’s not a lot of great Harding biographies out there. Of the general histories of the time, perhaps the best picture of Harding (although it paints an unfairly mild view of his reforms) is Pietrusza’s 1920, The Year Of The Six Presidents.

    If you don’t understand Harding’s role, you can’t understand the nature of the Wilson-FDR double whammy, and you can’t understand why America is so much more different from Europe and Canada than she was in the 20 years before Harding.

    • #43
  14. user_140544 Inactive
    user_140544
    @MattBlankenship

    Benjamin Thomas’s biography of Lincoln (written in the early ’50s) is beautifully written.  Jay Nordlinger did an Impromptus on this book several years ago–I couldn’t find a good link.  It is my favorite Lincoln book. 

    Recently Joseph Epstein had an essay on Lord Charnwood’s Abraham Lincoln.  I own a fine old copy from the early twenties in a pristine dust jacket.  I intend to read it one day soon.

    • #44
  15. user_140544 Inactive
    user_140544
    @MattBlankenship

    Nick:

    I’m not yet conversant with 2.0’s search functions, so I can’t find the references.  But in the early days of Ricochet Brian Bolduc embarked on the same project, with a promise to deliver a short review of each book.  His last posts left off somewhere in the 19th century, although I think he made it farther in the actual reading.  I have a Rico-memory like an elephant for posts on subjects that interest me…

    • #45
  16. user_1040735 Member
    user_1040735
    @NickBaldock

    I love the idea that he set off, like a bibliographic Lewis & Clark, and his last known despatch was from some point in the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes.

    • #46
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