Page Smith, John Adams, and the Power of Beautiful Prose

I wish it were still acceptable to write about history with the power and passion with which Page Smith wrote about John Adams in 1962. Writing about Adams in his later years, his Adams is "Tenacious of life, like a blasted oak on his beloved hill, life burned in him, distant, remote, hardly discernible."

Adams posing for Gilbert Stuart in 1823 when he was 89. 

Adams posing for Gilbert Stuart in 1823 when he was 89. 

Continuing the arboreal imagery, Smith depicts a lively man despite the ravages of life on his physical body. "In the blasted tree, the sap still ran strong as a tide and the mind, still mercifully keen, turned over and over with always fresh wonder the riddle of life, of what God had revealed and what God had veiled." 

It's difficult to express how much I love this writing. It makes me Adams come to life, even as that very life is slowly draining from him as he sits in his home in Braintree. 

Are there any biographers still writing in the Smith style? Maybe Caro, although he certainly brings a more modern tone. Either way, it's a beautiful style and I'm genuinely excited to see where Smith takes me. 

Review: Henry Olsen's "The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism"

When I sit down to review a book, I think it's essential to recognize if and when the author is writing for a limited audience. It's not fair for me, as a reviewer, to judge a book for something it's not trying to do, which is clearly the case with Henry Olsen's new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism

Olsen is writing for people who are already well-versed in Reagan's story and he is not trying to give us a cradle-to-grave assessment of the man. He's certainly not writing to win over left-of-center readers, either. This is a book of ideas, rather than of specific details and these ideas are aimed squarely at today's conservatives. 

Olsen wants to show the Reagan faithful that they're missing a key element to the man they admire so deeply. As he sees it, Reagan is in the inheritor, not the repudiator of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. This may come as a surprise, considering Reagan's statement that "government IS the problem," but Olsen makes a commendable argument that Reagan believed that government could do great things in our lives. 

Citing Reagan's advocacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964, Olsen talks of Reagan's "Creative Society" speech, which backs up this FDR connection quite well. Olsen writes: "If it is legitimate for popular government to decree that 'the problems of human misery can be solved,' then it follows that 'the big question is not whether--but how and at what price.'" This is a Reagan who sees government as a solution that only becomes a problem when it is not allocated correctly.  

Ultimately, Olsen is writing this book for conservatives who deeply admire Reagan. As he sees it, however, by ignoring his admiration of FDR, they are overlooking an essential part of the former President's outlook on government. He writes: "They left the most crucial element of his appeal behind: the love of average Americans and the willingness to always use government to express their values. Republicans and conservatives spoke his words, but they did not carry his tune."  

In his final chapter, Olsen offers a passionate call to arms based on this notion and offers his interpretation of what Reagan really wanted as a way forward for today's conservative movement. He writes:

"Ronald Reagan...envisioned a new majority party, one that embraced every broad strain of conservative thought. It was a party that expressed and acted upon the majority sentiments in the country, a majority that did not fall neatly on the left or the right. It was a party that embraced freedom without forgetting human dignity. It was a party that praised initiative without denigrating the average. It was a party that called all to its banner regardless of creed, gender, or race, but did not treat everyone as an individual without a family, a community, or a nation to call home."

While I found this book to be an interesting read and a compelling clarion call to the right, whether or not it is persuasive will be left to a more conservative audience to decide.

 Grade: 3 out of 4 stars. 

Age and the Presidency

Is there such a thing as being too old to be President? Without coming out and saying so directly, Ronald Feinman says an argument can be made that the answer must be 'yes.' 

In his article, "Is Trump Too Old to be President," he points to a history of older presidents like Reagan, who allegedly left office showing signs of dementia, to argue that Trump is too old for the office. In fact, he suggests that some of Trump's more bizarre behavior, like his counterproductive tweets, could be signs of the same kind of mental decline Reagan may have experienced. 

Feinman writes, "But for the security and stability of Presidential leadership it would be wise if we had such an age limit – or at least established a norm that would discourage politicians outside the age parameters from running. It is simply common sense, based on history and the reality of the pressures of the job of being President of the United States." 

But doesn't this argument make assumptions about age that are difficult to prove? He cites William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, both of whom died in office, as evidence of the problems of older president, but they served well over a hundred years ago and died of illnesses that are curable today--not as a result of their age. What can they tell us about the modern presidency?

I find Feinman's argument to be ageist and unconvincing. To use Mitt Romney as an example, had he won in 2012 and been re-elected in 2016, he would be 70 years old today. That makes him one year younger than our current President. I can't think of any reason that Romney would be physically or mentally unfit to serve his country. In fact, I imagine many of us would gladly see him sitting in the Oval Office these days.

Joking aside, I agree completely that an individual's health, in all respects, should be a factor in his or her serving as our president. But I disagree that we should institute a maximum age for service. In the event that a hypothetical president ever showed signs of dementia or an inability to perform the duties of the office, we have the 25th amendment to resolve the matter. If anything, we should insist on full disclosure of candidates' health records, rather than simply ruling them out because of their age. 

Podcasts and Other Ways In

As an advocate of presidential history, I'm often pushing the latest work by Ron Chernow or David McCullough into the hands of family and friends. While these are great books from great authors, I'm well aware that it's asking a lot to get someone to read 1,000 pages on Harry Truman. I also know that it's daunting to find THE book to read with so many choices.

So with that in mind, I wanted to offer a few different ways in to presidential history.  

Your first stop should be the fantastic Washington Post podcast, Presidential. Over the course of 44 episodes, Lilian Cunningham guides you through each president by focusing on specific aspects of their presidencies. You're not getting strict cradle-to-grave bios here. Instead, you get a look into each presidency, backed by special guests like David McCullough and Bob Woodward. I absolutely loved each episode, and I strongly recommend this regardless of your level of interest in/familiarity with the presidency.

Another option is blogs like Steve Floyd's deeply impressive, My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies. While I've read a bio on each president, Steve is taking a far more intense approach and reading multiple bios. As of today, he's read 183 bios and about 90,000 pages, which I think we can all agree is quite a feat! I found his reviews incredibly useful for picking the right bio for me. When you go to the library or Amazon, you're faced with dozens of options for some of these men, so it helps to have someone do the heavy lifting for you.

If you've found alternative ways in, please do let me know. I'm always interested in knowing how other people found their way to their presidential obsession.  

Father and Son: The Roosevelts, Part Three

I've been spending a lot of time with the Roosevelts lately. In particular, brothers Theodore and Elliott. I'm fascinated how Theodore overcame a difficult childhood of asthma and other ailments to become the robust president, while Elliott ends up essentially drinking himself to death at the age of 34.

Theodore and his brother, Elliott. 

Theodore and his brother, Elliott. 

On one level, I think this image from their sister, Corrine, tells us a lot about their respecitve characters. "Elliott was the sailor...while 'Theodore craved the actual effort of the arms and back.' He 'loved to row in the hottest sun, over the roughest water, in the smallest boat'..." One brother is carried along by the wind, while the other insists on conquering the water with his brute strength. 

But obviously this is a far more complicated story and, I believe, has a great deal to do with their relationship with their father, Theodore, Sr. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Theodore, Sr. took the time to implore TR to make himself into a man, to overcome the physical ailments that were holding him back. But we know that Elliott also suffered from health issues, most prominently seizures that may have been a sign of epilepsy. Yet, in my research so far, there is no similar letter from father to son encouraging Elliott to make himself into a man. 

Instead, we have letters from son to father. Heartbreaking letters where Elliott expresses his devotion to his father and a need for guidance. In 1873, he writes "What will I become when I am a man?...I will try my best and try to be as good as you it is in me, but it is hard." These are the words of a thirteen year old reaching out, and yet there is no encouraging reply. 

Two years later, in 1875, he writes a similarly pained letter: "Oh, Father will you ever think me a 'noble boy'? You are right about Teedie [TR], he is one and no mistake, a boy I would a good deal to be like in many respects....Father....help me to be a good boy and worthy of you..." Elliott is only fifteen, but he is racked by feelings of inferiority and feels that his father favors Theodore. 

Surely, there is a great deal more thaT went in to Elliott's self-destructive downfall, but I can't help seeing the seeds of his alcohol-fueled death in these forlorn letters to a father he loves, but cannot seem to reach. 

Forrest McDonald and the Mystical Nature of the Presdency

In the preface to his book, The Presidency of George Washington, the late Forrest McDonald offers a moving and thought-provoking assessment of the presidency that I keep turning over in my mind. He writes, "there is more to the institution of the presidency than what any particular president does: there is a symbolic, ritualistic, almost mystical quality that inheres in the office as well..."

I can't help wondering if this is still the case. McDonald was writing in the early 1970s--the era of Vietnam, LBJ, riots, Nixon. So it was not exactly the days of the Kennedy's and Camelot. And it feels, in a sense, that we are in a similar low point; where presidential norms are being discarded on a daily basis. 

So is McDonald's quote still applicable? Will it survive the Trump era? And, perhaps more importantly, do we want it to survive? Is it in our interest for the presidency to have this mystical quality? 

Father and Son: The Roosevelts, Part Two

In yesterday's post, I talked about the encouragement Theodore Roosevelt received from his father to make himself into a man physically as well as mentally. Today, I want to look at how TR applied this philosophy to his own sons and the damage I believe this caused. 

All four of TR's sons served in World War I and II, and they suffered greatly for their service. They knew, however, that their father expected them to make such sacrifices. There was nothing like a war to prove one's manhood. 

While Archie served with distinction and was wounded in both WWI and WWII, TR's other three sons did not survive their wartime experiences.

Archie Roosevelt recovering from WWI wound.

Archie Roosevelt recovering from WWI wound.

 

Theodore III, also known as Ted, Jr., was wounded in WWI and would go on, at the astonishing age of 54, to lead the landing at Normandy. He earned the Medal of Honor posthumously after suffering a heart attack a few days later.

Ted, Jr. after the landing at Normandy. 

Ted, Jr. after the landing at Normandy. 

 

Kermit served in both wars as well, but he succumbed to a lifelong struggle with depression, taking his own life while stationed in Alaska in 1943. 

Kermit, pictured on the Amazon expedition that almost cost Theodore his life. 

Kermit, pictured on the Amazon expedition that almost cost Theodore his life. 

 

Quentin, his youngest boy, lost his life in WWI, when his plane was shot down in July 1918. 

Quentin during his time as a WWI pilot. 

Quentin during his time as a WWI pilot. 

 

Despite seeing his boys wounded and losing his beloved Quentin, TR never abandoned his belief that a man's duty was to serve his country. In fact, he lobbied President Wilson repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to allow him to serve in WWI, despite his advanced age. 

TR wrote about his desire to fight even after his sons had suffered so greatly and sacrificed so much. In August 1918, one month after Quentin's death, TR wrote, "As you probably know, two of my other sons have been wounded, one of them badly crippled. I entirely agree with you that there has been nothing finer in our history than the way our young men have eagerly and gladly gone to France to fight for a high ideal...But at times, it seems almost more than I can bear to have my sons face dreadful danger while I sit at home in ease and comfort and safety. It is a terrible thing that death should come to the young. But it is even more terrible, of course, if the young fear to face death in a great crisis for a great cause." 

TR writes as if he would rather his sons died for a cause than if they avoided fighting out of fear. This is a remarkable thing for a father to say considering he already lost one son and had seen his others wounded. He is not talking about abstract theories, but rather concrete and painful realities. Perhaps he writes this as an attempt to create some sense out of a tragic loss of a beloved son. But it also seems possible that this philosophy, which he applied throughout his life, comes directly from the advice his father gave him about a man's responsibilities to make himself physically strong in every way. 

Either way, this is a remarkable exchange from a remarkable man in a remarkably sad situation. 

(You can see a copy of the letter quoted above in Rebecca Onion's Slate piece here.)

Father and Son: The Roosevelts, Part One

In honor of Father's Day, I wanted to share some of my favorite stories of presidential father/son relationships. Today, I'm focusing on a letter Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. sent to this son, the future president. 

Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. 

Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. 

 

At the time, Theodore, Jr. was a sickly boy, frequently struck down by asthma and a range of other physical ailments. His father was always there to take care of him and whisk him away to whatever tranquil region was rumored to have the best air for asthmatics. But after years of late-night scares and countless failed remedies, father sat down and penned a letter to his son that is moving in its directness: 

"Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one's body, but I know you will do it."

Essentially, he was telling his son that he had to remake himself into a man in a physical sense if he ever hoped to become a person of consequence. It is undeniable that this letter and the encouragement that came with it set Roosevelt on the course that would eventually make him president and, thus, it is one of my favorite exchanges between a father and his son. 

Wilson, War, and the Press

When I started on my journey to learn more about the presidents, I assumed Woodrow Wilson would be one of my favorites. I had an image of him as an educated progressive whose values would surely align with my own. 

Instead, I found a man so sure of his own righteousness that he feels impossible to like. This is a man who felt that God had sent him to become president and save the nation. Not exactly a relatable guy! 

I recently read a piece about Wilson's relationship with the press during WWI that further solidified my discomfort with his presidency. Appearing on the Smithsonian website, Christopher Daly's essay explains how Wilson sought, and in many ways received, complete control of the press. 

Daly writes, "In its crusade to “make the world safe for democracy,” the Wilson administration took immediate steps at home to curtail one of the pillars of democracy – press freedom – by implementing a plan to control, manipulate and censor all news coverage, on a scale never seen in U.S. history." 

I encourage you read the whole piece, but these two sections struck me as especially shocking: 

"The whole operation took advantage of a fact of journalistic life. In times of war, readers hunger for news and newspapers attempt to meet that demand. But at the same time, the government was taking other steps to restrict reporters’ access to soldiers, generals, munitions-makers and others involved in the struggle. So, after stimulating the demand for news while artificially restraining the supply, the government stepped into the resulting vacuum and provided a vast number of official stories that looked like news."


"The CPI News Division then went a step further, creating something new in the American experience: a daily newspaper published by the government itself. Unlike the “partisan press” of the 19th century, the Wilson-era Official Bulletin was entirely a governmental publication, sent out each day and posted in every military installation and post office as well as in many other government offices. In some respects, it is the closest the United States has come to a paper like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or China’s People’s Daily." 

As part of my ongoing project to better understand the presidency, I'll be returning to Wilson in the future. But for now, stories like Daly's confirm my already negative perception of a man I once thought would rank with one of the greats. 

 

Father's Day Gift Guide!

With Father’s Day fast approaching, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to give you all a few gift ideas from my favorite reads. After all, if there is anything dad’s love, it’s thick, history books!

1.     Edmund Morris – The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

By far the best of the presidential biographies I’ve read, and the book I credit with launching me on my obsessive quest. Morris shows how Roosevelt remade himself from a weak, asthmatic, heartbroken young man into the rugged leader that would go on to occupy the White House. If your dad enjoys reading, I guarantee he will love this book. It’s flawless.

 

2.     Ron Chernow – Washington: A Life

Of all our presidents, Washington is often cast as the least knowable--the marble man. Thanks to Ron Chernow, Washington steps down from the pedestal and becomes a man of flesh and bone. This is a thick, wonderfully researched book and a great place to begin if your dad wants to start reading about each president!

 

3.     David McCullough – John Adams

Perhaps the most engaging writer of popular histories, McCullough is able to take someone as harsh and difficult as Adams and turn him into an admirable man of great complexity. An absolute pleasure to read, even if Adams is not always a pleasure to be around! 

 

4.     David Herbert Donald – Lincoln

There are thousands of books to pick from if you want to get your dad a book on Lincoln. Most people will point you to Team of Rivals, the excellent Doris Kearns Goodwin book on Lincoln and his cabinet. But for my money, I’d go with this earlier book for the essential Lincoln bio. We all know how this story ends, but Donald is still able to make your heart break at the conclusion.

 

5.     Candice Millard – Destiny of the Republic

Not all dads will want to tackle a 600-page doorstopper, but worry not; there are presidential books for these dads, too! Millard’s book tells the story of James Garfield’s assassination, but it’s much more. She’s able to pack in the fascinating life of his assassin as well as the gruesome medical treatment that was ultimately responsible for the president’s death. This is a page-turner that any reader will love.

 

6.     Evan Thomas – Being Nixon: A Man Divided

We’ve been hearing a lot these days about parallels between recent events and those of the disgraced Nixon administration. I’ve read a number of books on Nixon, but no one made me feel like I understood this man more than Thomas. This book is perfect for dads who may have lived through the Nixon era and are looking to make sense of a complicated time in our nation’s history.

 

7.     Robert Caro – The Path to Power

The first volume in Caro’s masterful series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, this is a monumental book, and Caro is quite possibly the best writer I’ve come across. I love his work so much that I’m spacing out reading the other books in his series because I don’t want to reach the end. 

 

8.     Jon Meacham – Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush

I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did, but Bush is one of the last truly decent men we’ve had in the White House. I don’t agree with the majority of his political views, but this book, fueled by Meacham’s access to Bush’s audio diary, convinced me that he was a good man with the best of intentions. A genuine surprise and a book that is easy to overlook for some of the more attention-grabbing bios out there.

 

I’ve provided Amazon links for all of these books for ease of purchase, but don’t hesitate to go to a local bookstore to pick up one (or more). And I hope you’ll come back and let me know about your dad’s reaction to these wonderful books. 

Review: John Bohrer's "The Revolution of Robert Kennedy"

John Bohrer’s The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protests After JFK offers a refreshing take on the well-covered Bobby Kennedy. While there is much to admire in this story, Bohrer avoids the hagiography and gives us a flawed man, struggling to make sense of his life amidst unimaginable grief. This is not the Bobby whose every step is shadowed by an assassin’s bullet. Instead, it is an examination of the steps he took after his brother’s murder and what they meant for a man trying to become a productive public figure. 

 

Bohrer is particularly effective at showing Bobby the politician. It’s easy to cast him as the distraught brother picking up the reins of a fallen brother; taking his role in the Senate as if it were thrust upon him. In Bohrer’s telling, though, politics is never far from Bobby’s mind. Almost immediately, he began to maneuver for a position as LBJ’s vice president. Bohrer writes, “On the flight back, he asked Arthur Schlesinger whether he should go after the vice presidency. It was December 5, less than two weeks after the assassination.” This is not the behavior of a passive man.

While focusing on Bobby the political operative, Bohrer doesn’t hesitate to lean on the Kennedy mystique. Although he avoids the heavy hand that too many Kennedy idolizers adopt. For examples, he writes of Bobby and Teddy: “They were two developing men, cloaked in the shadow of greatness and yet beaming with promise because of it.” Here we get the memory of Jack without him overwhelming the two surviving brothers.

And when he does talk about the ghost of JFK, he uses it to the best possible effect. As in the run up to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, intended to be LBJ’s coronation, but in danger of being overshadowed by Jack’s absence and Bobby’s potential role as VP. Bohrer shows a tortured LBJ, “There could only be one explanation for why Bobby Kennedy went from political liability….to the person most desired to be a heartbeat away from the presidency: Jack Kennedy’s ghost. And this was the only way Johnson could suffer defeat even with a resounding victory over the flawed Goldwater. To see JFK’s memory carrying Bobby through at the convention, and then to have a Kennedy over his shoulder into the fall and the next four years…the victory would not be his.”

Bohrer is a beautiful writer, but his book suffers from a lack of context. As the title suggests, this is the story of Bobby’s revolution as a political figure. We’re told on a number of occasions that he was known as a ruthless operator, the hatchet man for his brother. Yet we do not see many moments where he displayed such behavior. I believe the profound nature of this revolution would have been far greater if we saw more specific examples of why Bobby had this reputation. In the absence of distinct examples, it is difficult to fully understand that it truly was remarkable for Bobby to change this significantly in such a short period of time.  

I give Bohrer a great deal of credit for criticizing Kennedy when needed. For example, he calls him out for heading to the Yukon to climb a mountain named after his brother during the beginning of the meetings to negotiate a voting rights bill that was supposedly important to both he and Jack. Surprisingly, Bohrer lets other moments pass without the criticism that seems called for. In discussing Bobby’s time in the Senate, he writes, “He had paid his dues that summer, leading former Mississippi governor James P. Coleman along the path to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appointment gave Coleman—whom The New Republic labeled ‘a stout segregationist’—jurisdiction over several Southern states and many civil rights cases.” I was amazed that Bohrer let this slide without going into greater detail, as it appears to be a significantly hypocritical moment. How could a man supposedly devoted to civil rights stand up for a segregationist? It’s impossible to say in this book as Bohrer moves on to other matters.

 

One of Bohrer’s greatest strengths is his willingness to let Bobby speak for himself. Some of the book’s most eloquent passages come directly from Kennedy and are a testament to the author’s research. In depicting Bobby’s criticism of Vietnam, he quotes “We cannot win with mere military force…for guns cannot fill empty stomachs, napalm cannot cure the sick, and bombs cannot teach a child to read.” It’s in these moments where we see how inspirational Kennedy could be when speaking on an issue of great personal importance.

My few critiques aside, this is an exceptional book that reflects a tremendous amount of research on the author’s part. I would strongly recommend this without reservation.

3 ¾ out of 4 stars

Review: John Bicknell's "Lincoln's Pathfinder: John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856"

Dred Scott. Bleeding Kansas. Sumner-Brooks. In my past experiences, these events are depicted as steps on a predetermined path to Civil War. As simply things that happened along the way, rather than events central to the development of the war’s inevitability.

 

John Bicknell’s new book, Lincoln’s Pathfinder: John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856, is an engaging, wonderfully written account of the crucial events of 1856. In his telling, these moments are examined with an eye for their repercussions for a volatile nation and with a clear emphasis of the context surrounding them. 

His deep dive into the events of 1856 illuminate how a series of events made war inevitable despite the hopes of many for a peaceful outcome. In the process, otherwise ordinary events like the Dred Scott case became receptacles for the hope of the competing sides of a fracturing nation. Bicknell writes, “Until now this had simply been the latest in a long line of cases considering whether the presence in a free state emancipated an enslaved traveller. Now it was more, encompassing the central political issue facing the nation in a presidential election year. With the lawyers in charge and politics in the forefront, Scott almost ceased to matter. Blair’s client was the Republican Party. Johnson’s was the South.” 

As Bicknell’s subtitle suggests, violence runs throughout the book as illustrative of the path the nation is on. It is used to particularly great effect when discussing the brutal caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks. While this is a familiar story, Bicknell invests it with larger significance for those Americans processing how such violence could occur in the halls of Congress. “The attack on Sumner brought home the distant outrages in Kansas in a way newspaper reports of faraway atrocities never could. If people wondered about the accuracy of reports from Kansas…‘Brooks knocked the scales from the eyes of the blind.”

The year of violence and chaos ends with Fremont’s defeat to James Buchanan, a man often considered our worst president. Despite Fremont’s popularity as a military hero and handsome adventurer, he simply could not rise above the uncertainty of a troubling year. Bicknell writes: “the widespread feeling that things were falling apart, that the center would not hold” led to “voters craving stability and...Buchanan as the safer choice.” Even at this moment, the American people thought war could be averted if the right man held power. Unfortunately, they picked the wrong man. 

While I greatly enjoyed Bicknell’s book, I did have a hard time with his use of Fremont. As the title suggests, Fremont should be at the heart of the book. Instead, the reader gets a series of stories of violence, ranging from John Brown to the struggles of Mormon travelers. As a whole, these stories are riveting and well-told, but what they don’t provide is a clear picture of Fremont and how he served as a pathfinder for Lincoln. Perhaps a different title would help manage expectations. 

But that is a minor quibble with an otherwise excellent book. One I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in this fascinating era. 

3 ¾ out of 4

Presidential Greatness

While I spend a good deal of time wondering why certain presidents are considered failures, I'm also curious about those men we think of as the great presidents. To help me figure this out, I recently started reading Mark Landy and Sidney Milkis's Presidential Greatness. 

As their cover suggests, we have only seen five truly great presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

In the coming days and weeks, I plan to critique their criteria for these five men as THE greats. For now, though, I'd like to know if you agree with this list. Are these men great presidents? If not, why not? Are they forgetting presidents you consider great? If so, make the case for their inclusion.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. I'm fascinated by this concept, and I'm eager to hear your opinion. 

Andrew Jackson and the Weight of Historical Judgment

While reading Robert Merry's recent piece about Andrew Jackson and populism in The American Conservative, I was struck by his defense of our eighth president: 

"Yes, Jackson owned slaves, but of course so did George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose standing in the presidential pantheon hasn’t dropped as a result. And, yes, he signed Indian-removal legislation and later initiated the forcible removal of Southeastern Indian tribes to territory west of the Mississippi River, leading to the tragic “Trail of Tears.” But the country at that time harbored overwhelming political support for Indian removal. Thus, while this certainly can be characterized as a particularly sad chapter in the American story, it’s pointless to single out one man as personification of those brutal policies when the country as a whole clamored for them. Besides, there undoubtedly is some truth in Jackson’s claim to be motivated by a protective regard for the Indians, who, in his view, couldn’t coexist peaceably with the country’s burgeoning and overpowering white population.

Still, by succumbing politically to the voracious land appetites of the country’s whites, Jackson contributed to the deaths of thousands of Indians, and that should be considered in any assessment of his two-term presidency. The bigger question is whether it should overwhelm his overall contribution to the country in its second-generation era of development." 

In Merry's view, the negative reaction to Jackson in recent years is a result of "political correctness" and, he suggests, not warranted for a man we should treat as a heroic American figure. Which makes me wonder about how we balance the positive and negative in our treatment of presidential history. I think Merry makes a reasonable point that we should not discard historical figures because of problematic views or actions. But I also believe that we should hold presidents to higher standards and hold them accountable when needed. 

Ultimately, it comes down to whether we study and/or read about our presidents because we want to revere them or because we want to remember them. Not unlike Mitch Landrieu's argument in the recent debate about removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans, I believe that our responsibility is to remember these men for the entirety of their accomplishments and failures, both political as well as moral. This is not a call for political correctness; rather, it is a suggestion that we view our history with a wider lens and accept that even some of the people we want to admire most had serious failings. For me, this is what makes my reading so rewarding and what makes these presidents worth revisiting and remembering. If I wanted to read about saints, I'd find another field of study. 

Reconsidering the Worst President

Given my interest in the way we rank and remember our presidents, I found Michael Landis's piece, "In 'Defense' of James Buchanan," to be a fascinating challenge to the consensus view. In almost every case, Buchanan is considered our worst president. While there are a number of strikes against him, he is most commonly condemned for doing nothing to stop the onset of the Civil War. 

Landis argues that most people who rank Buchanan last are holding him to a moral standard that most other presidents are not held against. He makes the wise choice of comparing Buchanan to Polk, a president who is ranked far higher in most polls. The argument for Polk rests on his accomplishing all of the goals he set for himself when he ran for the presidency. If this is the standard, Landis argues, we need to give Buchanan more credit. 

Buchanan's accomplishments -- recognizing the pro-slavery state government in Kansas, advocating for the Dred Scott decision to be more comprehensive -- are viewed negatively for good reason. At the same time, these are the things Buchanan set out to accomplish. As Landis writes, "These were Buchanan's priorities, and we historians must respect them as such." This is an excellent point and he makes me want to reconsider Buchanan's place. Like most historians, I rank Polk as an effective president, despite not admiring the things he accomplished. Given that standard, it seems only far that Buchanan receive more credit or at least a closer look.

I won't be able to make a clear decision on this until I read more about Buchanan, but Landis makes a compelling case while reminding us of our responsibilities as historians (amatuer as well as professional.) Buchanan's wins were victories for "the Slave Power," but they were the wins he wanted. This is not to say he was a good president or a good person. But perhaps there are other presidents who were less capable and thus more deserving of the bottom spot in our presidential rankings. 

Hard Truths

As an admirer of FDR's presidency, I was shocked to come across a recent essay entitled, "New President, Same Old Deal: The Parallels Between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Donald J. Trump" by Ameer Hasan Loggins. I found the idea of direct parallels between FDR and Trump to be a stretch, but Loggins makes a number of strong points about the historical reality of The New Deal, a reality that is often left out of certain narratives. The reality that FDR's "Forgotten Man" was, with few exceptions, limited to whites.

In responding to a recent Washington Post poll ranking Roosevelt third among presidents, Hassan writes, 

"I assume that the Washington Post did not conduct this survey within a pool of Americans versed in FDR’s anti-Black political ways. If they did, it may have been exposed that FDR worked with Southern segregationist Dixiecrats, turning a blind eye to their upholding of Jim Crow apartheid, a system so nefariously pervasive that many Christian ministers taught that Black folks were cursed and predestined to be slaves of whites by way of God through the Hamitic Hypothesis. Jim Crow ideology was so flagitiously ubiquitous that, at every social institutional level, it reinforced the belief that Black people were innately intellectually, culturally, spiritually, and moralistically inferior to whites. Or possibly, it would have come up that FDR appointed Alabama Senator Hugo Lafayette Black, a publicly known member of the Ku Klux Klan, to the Supreme Court in 1937. Maybe the Post would have found out that, in 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed James F. Byrnes, a former US senator from South Carolina and staunch segregationist who believed that lynching Black people was necessary “in order to hold in check the Negro in the South,” to the US Supreme Court.

It’s apparent that FDR was not looking out for every “forgotten man,” woman, and child “at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” as he promised, which can be explicitly seen via the redlining and his silence on the upholding of Jim Crow in exchange for political backing of the old New Deal."

I quote this at length because it's wonderfully presented and a powerful example of the great challenges we come across in reading about the presidency and our larger national history. No matter the president, there will always be something problematic in his past. Not simply because they were all humans and, therefore, flawed people, but because our past is a deeply problematic one filled with hard truths that we must confront. It's our job to confront them so we can understand our history. It's not about denigrating American greatness, but about recognizing the facts that have made us who we are as a country, warts and all. 

I hope you'll all take the time to read the entire piece: 

http://www.aaihs.org/new-president-same-old-deal-the-parallels-between-franklin-d-roosevelt-and-donald-j-trump/ 

Can a Party Adopt a President as Their Own?

Is it possible for political parties to own or disown presidents? They certainly try to paper over some of their less-than-ideal connections. There aren't many Republicans holding events honoring Warren Harding. Nor are there Democrats calling for theirs to become the party of Grover Cleveland. That said, there is an ongoing debate about the need to lay claim to or cut ties with more prominent figures like Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln.

For decades, Democrats held Jefferson-Jackson dinners in honor of the men they credited with the founding of their party. As the perception of both presidents shifted due to their connections to slavery and Native American removal, Democrats have argued that these dinners should be renamed after more acceptable members of the party. And as Democrats back away, a number of Republicans, primarily President Trump, have eagerly grabbed on to Jackson in the hopes of co-opting his populist legacy. 

Writing in PoliticoNational Review editor Rich Lowry implores Republicans to make their connection to Lincoln stronger rather than becoming the party of Jackson. He writes, "Lincoln is a more suitable Republican hero...an unsurpassed exemplar of the GOP's core values of personal responsibility and striving." While this is undoubtedly true of Lincoln, he is also connected with values and policy positions that would leave him to the left of current Republican ideology. Embracing Lincoln means embracing a strong federal government over a limited government that defers to the states. It means embracing the use of federal income taxes to pay for that increased federal power. It means embracing the idea of equal voting rights pushed on the states at the federal level. In other words, I would argue that Lincoln is far more complicated and politically problematic a figure than Lowry's claim suggests. 

Which makes me wonder about our ability to align presidents outside the modern era with our current political moment. Especially when we have a hard time agreeing on where are parties are on the spectrum in any specific way. Lowry might say that I have his party all wrong. And I very well might. But that's why I resist these "party of" constructions. Since Jackson, Jefferson, and Lincoln were complicated men who defy simple characterizations, I'd rather we celebrate their admirable qualities while acknowledging where they come up short. I'd rather Democrats and Republicans look to Lincoln or any other president and say they are the party of the values these men fought for rather than co-opting the man in whole. We shouldn't treat these men as suits of clothing to be put on or taken off with whatever shift happens to take place in the political climate. If we do so, we are doing a real disservice to our national history and the lessons we must learn from our past. 

 

The Need for Letting Go

In my first run through the presidents, I struggled though a few poorly written books. As I saw it, I had no choice; I had set a goal and I was determined to meet it. Now that I've met it and I can read more widely, I need to remind myself that I have the freedom to skip books I find lacking. In fact, given the sheer volume of what I plan to read, I need to let them go. 

Just one of two bookcases filled with unread books. 

Just one of two bookcases filled with unread books. 

As of this writing, I have 115 presidential books I have yet to read in my bookcases. That's not including the half dozen or so I have on pre-order. As it stands, I know that I will never read everything I want to in my life. There are too many books and nowhere near enough time. But I also know that I will only read books to completion that are worth my time. With all of this still to read, I simply have to make decisions like I did recently when I set aside Craig Shirley's Reagan Rising.

So what makes a book worth reading? I can make it through a book that is dry, but filled with important information I feel like I should know. I can also make it through a book that is retelling well-known stories if it does so in an engaging, exciting way. What I can't live with, however, is poor writing. Perhaps it's my years as a writing teacher, but when a book feels lacking in this area, I have to set it aside. 

There are three main issues I have with Shirley's writing: unsupported claims, contradictions, and bad organization of ideas. I'll walk through some examples in the hope of making this clear. 

Shirley makes opposition to Washington norms central to his praise of Reagan. While I don't find this surprising or bothersome, what I can't live with is the lack of support he gives to his claims. He writes, "The crass and arrogant ways of the city by the reeking Potomac River were grating on the American people, as was the growing concentration of power and corruption." He goes on to mention a "former member of Congress for nearly twenty years [who] fled as he was filled with revulsion over what he saw there." This is strong language and engaging imagery. But what it is not, however, is a convincing argument. Shirley doesn't offer any evidence to show how or why power and corruption grew. Nor does he show what this member of Congress saw that revolted him so much that he felt he needed to quit his job. Perhaps he assumes his readers will hold these views already and not need evidence, but I expect more when I read. 

Another way I found this book lacking was Shirley's tendency to contradict himself. In framing Reagan's greatness in these years, he frequently positions him against his rival, Gerald Ford. In doing so, he states that Reagan disliked Ford and "many thought rightfully so. After all, just weeks earlier, Ford had run commercials calling Reagan a warmonger." Despite this casting of Ford as the villain, he later speaks of him respectfully during the transition from Ford to Carter. "Ford was intent on leaving with the same dignity and style with which he'd entered the White House...he brought his personal decency to the office." It's hard to understand how, in Shirley's telling, Ford can be deservedly disliked and a decent man at the same time. More importantly, he doesn't bother to explain this contradiction. 

My final issue has to do with the generally poor organization of ideas and their presentation. While attempting to provide cultural context, Shirley talks about the success of Star Wars only to create a jarringly abrupt shift. "The movie was a welcome diversion for Americans in light of the continuing sad saga of the once-mighty domestic automobile industry. Cars coming out of Detroit were awful, and the Ford Motor Company had to recall cars made since 1974 because it had forgotten to put adequate holes for lubrication; thus the engines tended to explode, especially in the record heat of the summer of 1977. Also, across the baked country, problems with water supplies and energy demands rippled for several months." And that's where the section ends. He simply moves on from this disjointed paragraph. No transitions. No explanation of their relevance. Just left as is. 

Taken together, these issues pushed me to make the decision to let go. I say these things with all due respect, but this is simply a poorly written book by my standards. And with all that I have waiting for me in my library, I don't have the time to spend on books that are this lacking.  

 

Bad Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Part One

When I began my investigation of the Carter presidency, I was well aware that the conventional wisdom suggests that it was a failure. The main issue of contention appears to be how much of that is Carter's responsibility. Was he the victim of a moment when virtually any president would have failed? Or was did he make a bad situation worse through a series of bad leadership decisions? 

Carter and his vice president, Walter Mondale. 

Carter and his vice president, Walter Mondale. 

After reading Burton and Scott Kaufman's The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr., I am left with the impression that it was the latter. Carter brought a dangerous combination of qualities to the presidency: a moral certainty that he was right and an inability to work within established Washington norms. Either one is deeply problematic, but taken together, they result in almost certain failure. 

As the Kaufmans note, Carter's outsider message resonated with a disillusioned America. "Since Carter's message was the failure of government to be worthy of the character and principles of the American people, he could reap the fallout from the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's subsequent resignation in 1974." He came to power with a strong message as an outsider and businessman who had cleaned up the statehouse as governor of Georgia. This appealed to a public that wanted "a style of leadership predicated on openness, truthfulness, and public responsiveness." Carter and his team read this perfectly and "morality was the emerging keynote of the campaign..." While this approach was the right message for a campaign, it set Carter up for a number of problems thanks to the incredibly high expectations they created for his administration. If you campaign on morality and the restoration of civic responsibility, people are going to expect to see that happen. And yet, the reality of politics rarely allows for such untarnished black-and-white results. 

Along with sky-high expectations, Carter's campaign strategy created another issue by souring his relationship with the Washington establishment. When you run as an outsider untainted by D.C., you're not going to have many friends when you settle down in the White House. It's hard to blame long-serving politicians for being wary of a man who won office by calling them corrupt and out of touch with the public.

Worsening matters was Carter's certainty that his positions were morally correct. As the Kaufmans write, "he assumed that those who opposed his programs acted from selfish motives rather than from their own perception of the public good. This he was loath to compromise on what he regarded as matters of principle." This is a dangerous way to approach the world of politics, and it made Carter's goals of passing reforms to the tax code and energy policy incredibly difficult to see through. 

A worn-down looking Carter.

A worn-down looking Carter.

Carter's fiscally conservative approach to federal spending further complicated matters by putting him at odds with the very politicians and interest groups he needed to succeed and, eventually, be re-elected. He "was committed to reducing inflation and balancing the budget, even if that meant a restrictive fiscal policy and higher levels of unemployment than he preferred." At a time when a number of cities like New York were in dire need of federal help, Carter was looking to tighten the purse strings and cut spending. This was a significant surprise to me as someone more familiar with Carter's liberal reputation than his actual policies. And it was an even bigger surprise to the people who helped elect him. 

While many traditional members of the Democratic base were unhappy with Carter's approach, he alienated African-American voters most of all with his approach to spending. He campaigned on promises to reach out to the black communities struggling in places like New York and Detroit, but when the time came to follow through, he stood by his fiscal conservatism. "Despite Carter's commitment to a national urban policy, he never intended any major additional spending for the cities. Rather, he was interested in improving the targeting, coordination, and efficiency of existing programs." Whether or not this was the right way to approach a bad situation, Carter's actual policies were almost certain to come across like broken promises to people in need. 

In a way, Carter deserves to be commended for standing by his principles. He could have easily called for more spending, but he genuinely believed this was the wrong way to govern; that more was not necessarily better. And yet, the central issue undermining almost all problems the Carter administration faced was the inability to communicate this to the American people. The Kaufmans summarize this by noting "he devoted a great deal of attention to building coalitions on specific issues, [but] he did not provide the vision or spirit of comity necessary to cement those coalitions. In fact, he often seemed to be running with the fox while chasing the hounds--appealing to traditional Democratic constituencies in the language of a Republican." 

Taken together, these issues of alienating policies and poor communication left Carter with a disastrously low approval rating in the summer of 1980. "A Gallup poll in early August showed the president with a 21-percent approval rating, three points lower than that of Richard Nixon during the depths of Watergate and the worst rating of any American president in the history of polling." It's little wonder then that Carter suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan that fall, losing 489-49 in the Electoral College. 

The 1980 Electoral map with red representing states won by Ronald Reagan.

The 1980 Electoral map with red representing states won by Ronald Reagan.

While I plan to read more on Carter and his presidency, I have to agree with the Kaufmans' conclusion that Carter was a mediocre president who should be viewed as a failure. They sum this up convincingly when they argue that Carter's actions and policies left America with "an image of a hapless administration in disarray and of a presidency that was increasingly divided, lacking in leadership, ineffective in dealing with Congress, incapable of defending America's honor abroad, and uncertain about its purposes, priorities, and sense of direction." Taken together, it's hard to say that Carter doesn't belong in the books as a bad president. 

[Do you see Carter differently? Have you read books on the man and his presidency that left you with a more positive perspective? If so, respond in the comments and let me know what the Kaufmans got wrong and what I should read to help change this perception.]

 

Review: William Hazelgrove's "Forging a President: How the Wild West Created Teddy Roosevelt"

While I enjoy reading about all of our presidents, no one can compare to Teddy Roosevelt for pure entertainment. His life is a fascinating combination of tragedy, adventure, accomplishment, and perseverance. These central characteristics are at the heart of William Hazelgrove's engaging new book, Forging a President: How the Wild West Created Teddy Roosevelt

The author of several novels along with a well-received book on Edith and Woodrow Wilson, Hazelgrove brings his skills as a novelist to Roosevelt's fascinating western adventures, He writes with a tremendous eye for detail and a style that I found compelling. For example, he writes, "The country had just been stitched together, but the threads were weak and snapped in violent places. Teddy Roosevelt was a man with one foot in the past, in the Wild West town of Little Missouri, and one in the present, three thousand miles to the east in New York." Here we get the tension of a nation being transformed in relation to a young man under the same stress. 

Hazelgrove argues that TR's time in the Dakota territory made him into the man who would go on to become governor, president, and an all-around force of nature. He suggests that TR "would find the essence of America in the frozen and baking terrain of the Badlands. Here the character of America presented itself to Roosevelt, and he essentially became that character." 

He raises the idea of self-making repeatedly, often to great effect. It's in these moments that his sense of timing is particularly winning. "The sickly asthmatic son of a rich man in Manhattan was born in the East; the Bull Moose who spoke for an hour and a half with a .38 caliber bullet in his chest, well, he was born in the West." There's something about that "well" that makes this work for me in a way that I can't imagine this sentence without it. 

William Hazelgrove

William Hazelgrove

While these moments work for me, there are some weaknesses to Hazelgrove's work. The argument becomes repetitive at times as he tells us over and over that these Dakota adventures were part of a self-making journey. But I want to hear more about how this played out in Roosevelt's career. Since Hazelgrove only briefly touches on the post-Dakota years, it's hard to see how this analysis holds up. 

Hazelgrove is a fantastic storyteller, but he is not at his best when he offers claims about Roosevelt scholarship. He writes, "Later scholars treated the months after the death of his wife and mother as if they meant nothing more than a man going on vacation, the impact of his personal loss is unduly minimized." Because he offers no examples or citations, it's impossible to know if this is an accurate statement. Although I would add that I haven't encountered such a claim in any of my readings on Theodore Roosevelt. 

Theodore Roosevelt during his Dakota years. 

Theodore Roosevelt during his Dakota years. 

These issues aside, this is a highly entertaining read that is easy to fly through with the speed of Teddy Roosevelt racing across the Dakota landscape on horseback. While it's not a book for scholars or readers hoping for a complete view of Roosevelt's life, it is an excellent read, filled with thrilling, fascinating stories. It's the perfect book to escape with on your next vacation.  

Review: Three out of four stars.