The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Presidential Bio. Series)

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You would have thought the design of this book would have caused it to collapse under its own weight. I mean how could a biography of two presidents along with the most influential journalists of the age possibly work? I mean the word that comes to mind is–unfocused! Believe it or not, Doris Kearns Goodwin pulled it off. Count this as one of the really enjoyable presidential biographies out there.

Having Teddy Roosevelt didn’t hurt its chances of holding interest with his colorful life. I’ve read a few books on him and would summarize him as larger-than-life, principled, but egotistical. His zeal was legendary, but his pride was too. Though he was agreeable to Christian moral principles (perhaps more than several that held the office), he was not a man with faith in anyone other than himself.

My biggest surprise was how likable Taft was. A gentleman that was a perfect candidate for best friend. Not really a Christian, but a fine moral, upstanding man is how I would describe him. Over the course of a deep, yet turbulent friendship, Taft was much the better friend to Roosevelt than the other way around. Goodwin did a great job in bringing their relationship alive.

At first I didn’t enjoy the biography space given to key journalists, though I did grow to appreciate it. They really had an impact on that time period–so much so that I wonder if Roosevelt could have risen as far as he did in another epoch.

Goodwin has turned out an enjoyable read here. I feel like I know both men so much better.

River of Doubt by Candice Millard (Presidential Bio. series)

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This thrilling book could only be classified a presidential biography in the loosest sense. Actually, it’s one episode in life of a man who happened to be a president of the United States earlier. Think high adventure rather than biography and you will come closer to the mark.

Candace Millard provides here one of the most exciting reads I’ve had in a while. There’s drama, there’s suspense, there’s all the things that make a book hard to put down to find between the covers of this page turner.

Still, much of Teddy Roosevelt’s character, good and bad, comes to light in this book. The River of Doubt is a microcosm of his larger-than-life story. There’s his indomitable will, his legendary zeal, his unfailing chivalry, his rock-solid code, his infectious personality all stacked up beside his ugly, outrageous ego.

Millard is such a fine writer that even the preparation of the trip was completely interesting. The drama of those traveling with Roosevelt and crossing rough country to even begin the dissent of the river ratcheted up with each page. Then her description of the actual journey down the River of Doubt is an experience not to be missed. I knew Roosevelt did not die in Brazil, but still wondered if he would make it page after page.

Not since Washington’s frontier experiences have I seen any president go through things that TR did here. Though his ego was embarrassing at many junctures (as in all of his life), you couldn’t help but love him as you read this story. For the record, those around him on this journey came to love him too.

Whether you love presidential biographies, or prefer captivating stories, you’ll be a winner either way in this extraordinary tale.

Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough (Presidential Bio. Series)

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Though this book could not be classified as a regular biography, as the story of Teddy Roosevelt ended in this volume before the famous parts even began, it was still a joy to read. David McCullough is easily one of my favorite authors. I’ve read over half of the books he’s written, and he always writes in a style that appeals to me. He often makes his nonfiction works read with the energy of great fiction. Though I would not label this volume my favorite of his books that I’ve read, I still enjoyed it. He painted a vivid portrait of all the foundational elements of Teddy Roosevelt’s life.

Teddy Roosevelt was not really cut from the same cloth as other men who held the office before him. His family was filthy rich. The hardships of the average citizen he could only see vaguely from a distance. I almost find it surprising that he became the rugged man he was with a high society background in New York City as he had.

A few things stand out from this early period of his life. His family adored him. For some reason, everyone in the family decided he was the most important person in their family from a young age. He faced horrific asthmatic attacks, and there was doubt on many occasions that he would even live to adulthood. That desire to live “the strenuous life” flamed up early, even before he had the health to really carry it out. He was able to see much of the world including Europe and the holy land, which was unknown to most Americans in those days.

He revered his father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. His father was a kind family man. He really didn’t have to work in the family business as he inherited his fortune, but he was often involved in major philanthropic efforts. He invested time in his family. Teddy Roosevelt’s deep respect of his father at times stressed him as he sought to live out the highest expectations that would please his father. While Teddy was at Harvard, his father died. He suffered greatly with stomach cancer and Teddy was grief stricken that he could not do more to help his father. Still, his father was a moral man and stressed morals to Teddy. To a great degree, Teddy held to those morals. His father also exposed him to Christianity, took him to church, and taught him the Bible. I could not tell from reading this book if Teddy had a personal faith in Jesus Christ, but it certainly impacted the man that he was.

Teddy met and married a beautiful young lady. While he served in the New York State house, his wife became sick in what was expected to be a routine delivery of their first baby. At the same time, his mother became sick. They were all in the same house while Teddy was away. Teddy rushed back, but both died just a couple days apart. As is often the case, tragedy molds a person and makes them more fit for greatness.

I look forward to reading a full biography of Teddy Roosevelt somewhere down the line, but this book is still a worthy read for either presidential biography lovers or McCullough fans. The book ended after Teddy put his life back together after some ranching in North Dakota and married his second wife. I finished the book thinking why didn’t McCullough just finish it. Had he done so, the book would’ve likely have been as great as “John Adams” or “Truman”. All in all, it is still an outstanding volume.

To read other articles in this series, click here.

William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins (Presidential Bio Series)

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William Henry Harrison is the president who never had a chance to building a legacy as he died one month into office. We at best can guess what he might have done. Believe it or not, he is still part of only four families (Adams, Roosevelt, and Bush being the others) to have two occupants in the White House as his grandson Benjamin would later be president.

His real claim to fame was the Battle of Tippencanoe and the War of 1812. In fact, he was an older man whose career seemed over when the presidency came calling. He seemed a devoted family man and was father to many children.

Gail Collins outlined the bare facts of his life, and was a fine writer, but she was totally out of sympathy with him. As with most in his generation, he walked a tightrope on the issue of slavery and that was enough for Collins to completely write him off. Her boorish portrait was not substantiated by facts.

I have looked deeply to trace out the religion of each president on my journey to read a biography on each president. She never once mentioned his religion and I checked the index when I finished just in case I missed something–nothing!

Though this book is part of the reputable American Presidents Series, I wish I had chosen a different volume. While he may not have been one of our outstanding presidents, I feel he was far more a decent man than presented here.

Bush by Jean Edward Smith (Presidential Bio Series)

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Here’s the first stab at a definitive biography of George W. Bush by a major biographer. I don’t think it will hold that title long if another famous biographer tries his hand, but it is first in that sense. It’s hard for me to classify this biography. On the one hand, the skilled hand of Mr. Smith is ever present, yet he makes blunders as well. I could hardly put the book down, yet I disagreed often and picked up on clear bias.

There is plenty of research, no character discussed is ever wooden, and you learn much about Mr. Bush’s personality. Still, Smith paints in broad strokes. He equates Bush’s distinct Christianity with a lack of sophistication, his penchant for “deciding” as reckless and brash, and his outlook, particularly on Iraq, a general naivety that continually led him astray.

Smith failed to see that perhaps that Christianity gave him a moral grounding that is often tragically missing in Washington. Right or wrong, he really meant well. His “deciding” was surely better than indecisiveness in horrific events. ( 911, Katrina, the Great Recession–Bush wasn’t a lucky man).When Smith outlined what Bush should have done, he at times looked like the naive one when he seemed to feel that his ideas would have flawlessly followed the script. No matter the plan, the players in Iraq and surrounding areas were the equivalent to having a tiger by the tail. We all learned that together.

When he suggests that Bush overreacted to 911, he doesn’t connect the dots to what he told us in this book–we all wanted to go fight somebody! The Democrats were ready too. A few started disagreeing when Iraq was brought up, but very few at the beginning.Even in this harsh assessment too, there is no doubt that Bush believed there were weapons of mass destruction. If you sincerely believed that to be true, what else could you have done? He writes as if 20/20 hindsight was at Bush’s disposal beforehand.

There’s criticism of his managing of his staff. What president didn’t have staff issues, or been guilty of listening too much to the most agreeable staff members. That’s the human element that always complicates management.

Bush had some failures for sure. Like most of us, often our greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses come from the same component of our personality. It was likely true for Bush too. Amazingly, he quotes Bush admitting, to some degree, many of the very things Smith perhaps overemphasizes. I actually grew to appreciate Bush in places I had not before, especially in things like his handling of the mortgage crisis. We teetered on the edge of a crisis to rival the Great Depression and it called for measures that we might most of the time strongly disagree with. It’s almost 8 years later and Bush clearly got that one right.

As for the book, Smith tells us he thinks Bush is a horrible disaster in the first paragraph. (Was the editor asleep?) Forget building a case and convincing the audience over the course of the book. That crazy method put him on trial as much as Bush page by page.

So is this a great book? I closed it at the end more confident that Bush was a genuinely good man who gave it his all. I was further convinced that Bush would be a guy quite enjoyable to spend a day with. He’d defend his overall approach as it was a matter of principle to him, yet he would readily admit his mistakes, and he’d be a gracious host whether you agreed with him or not. I found that refreshing here in July 2016 as this book hits the shelves and we are in more danger than in Bush’s days and miss his magnanimous ways.

So I reached those conclusions and grew in appreciation of Bush while this book I couldn’t put down tried to convince me that he was a failure. Does that make it a five-star wonder or a one-star dud? I have no idea. I’ll be gracious like George W. Bush and give it 4 stars.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Herbert Hoover in the White House by Rappleye (Presidential Bio Series)

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Hoover, so often vilified and ranked as one of the worst presidents, just begs for a good biography. You just know there’s more to the story than we have heard. Charles Rappleye gives us a biography of Hoover’s turbulent presidency and only enough of his life before and after to contrast it with his one term in office. He went into office with tremendous respect and admiration and left it with little love lost.

Rappleye did not write as a fan of his subject, but with keen research he did strive to present a balanced picture. Besides, perhaps, going too far in some of his psychological analysis of Hoover, Rappleye brought Hoover to life in this book.

Hoover was a hard worker, had a peculiar personality that was really not a good match for the presidency, and was somewhat petty. At the same time, he had core principles, determination, and great brains. He was also a most unfortunate victim. The Depression was in no way caused by him and was ready to explode before he even took office. There were international factors out of his control too. Really, everything lined up against him and likely no politican could have stopped it. His popular successor was much better at calming the people, but did not stop the Depression either throughout the 1930s.

I left this biography feeling sorry for Hoover and thinking that many of the things he stood for would have been better than what transpired after him. He just lacked a real connection with the American people.

This well-written biography fills in many of the questions you may have. It is a solid contribution.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer (Presidential Bio Series)

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It seems to me that our eighth President is several notches below the first seven. While Ted Widmer’s volume satisfies me that I have a handle on the man, reading this biography did not change my mind. This volume is part of The American Presidents Series edited by Arthur Schlesinger.

Van Buren followed the wildly popular Andrew Jackson and probably never had a chance. He ascended the presidency by deft political moves instead of passionate principles. He was incredibly unfortunate as well. The Panic of 1837 happened so soon in his presidency that it could not legitimately be laid at his feet. In any event, he was caught up in a vortex from the beginning and never recovered. It doomed him to a one-term presidency too. His political moves after his presidency really failed.

You won’t get far into the volume before you clearly see Widmer’s personal politics. The best biographers don’t usually let that happen. As a Democrat, Widmer really likes Van Buren because he feels like Van Buren shaped the Democratic Party into what it became. Perhaps there is some truth to that. Widmer also came across as one made cynical in the trenches of politics, yet he clearly admired Van Buren.

This volume tells us nothing of his religious views other than he sometimes went to church. Widmer seemed obsessed with Van Buren’s penchant to socialize and hit the party circuit. I see no evidence in this volume of him being a Christian, but Widmer came across as one who would downplay it in any case.

Despite my criticisms of this volume, I still recommend it. It’s the right length for me on Van Buren. Widmer can turn a phrase even if he offers more commentary than a first-class biography usually does. Breezy rather than scholarly, this book will likely satisfy those reading through presidential biographies.

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Andrew Jackson by Jon Meacham (Presidential Bio Series)

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“American Lion” could hardly be more accurate. Jackson had personality and to spare. He strikes me as the first populist President, and was far more loved by the people than his colleagues in Washington. Meacham brought him to life in this Pulitzer-winning volume, making me feel I know Jackson so much better.

Perhaps Jackson is the quintessential enigma. A man who could be tender at one moment and a raging torrent the next, Jackson is hard to fully explain. He was involved in much violence in his life. He was happy to duel no matter how small the disagreement, yet he was an accomplished general. He was bitter over what people said of his Rachel, yet he appears not to be innocent of adultery in the matter. He fought hard over issues he believed in, yet got totally sidetracked in his first term over the Eaton mess.

This dichotomy shows up in the big picture of his presidency too. He accomplished many of the things he sought to do, yet it included his horrible treatment of Indians. He could be shamefully petty, yet marvelously bold. He weathered nullification and held the Union together against some strong opponents in the South, yet he had slaves.

The most fascinating thing about him was his Christianity. He had the questionable marriage, an outrageous temper, and a penchant for violence, yet he said some of the strongest Christian statements I’ve seen from a President. He had a better record of church attendance than most too. Note the statement recorded on page 343 by Meacham about Jesus his Savior “who died upon the cross for me”.

Meacham succeeds in presenting Jackson. Critics point out that his focus on Jackson’s presidential days left the other parts of his life too bare. He got a little carried away on the Eatons to the point that he may have exaggerated their importance in Jackson’s first term. Still, he gave us Jackson the man, and I for one, was glad to read it.

 

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Last Act: The Final Years And Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan by Shirley

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What a book! If you admire Ronald Reagan, you will find this book fascinating. If you, as I did, watched for every story about him after he announced his Alzheimer’s and watched every part of his funeral with several tears along the way, this book will fill in all those questions you probably had.

Craig Shirley writes the story in a way that is gripping. When I began reading his method of jumping between the first days of President Reagan leaving office and the days just before he died, I thought it would undermine the book, but it simply did not.

So many insights into the fine character and honest makeup that defined Reagan are here. Actually, I must warn you–you will have waves of deeply missing him again as you read. You will more deeply opine the lack of people like him today too. I believe you will see that Mrs. Reagan is far better than the witch the media unfairly made her to be as well.

Those who served under him, for the most part, adored him. He forced no cynicism on those who served him as many do. Even burly Secret Service men were reduced to heavy tears when he died. Even after Alzheimer’s did its ugly work on him, he was still the man who wanted to stop and help a who man had a flat.

For the most incredible contrast, a story of Nixon ignoring his ailing wife one day and Clinton making a pass at one of Reagan’s young interns and making himself a nuisance by relentlessly begging to speak at Reagan’s funeral were told. Thanks Nancy for holding a firm “no” on that point!

There’s so much more. I love this book. I can’t think of anyone who has lived in my lifetime for whom I would want this kind of information, but Ronald Reagan was for me just such a man. This book is a treasure for those who love the Gipper and would be a great help to those who don’t, but should.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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John Quincy Adams by Unger (Presidential Bio Series)

Harlow Giles Unger gives us another enjoyable presidential biography. This time it is on the underrated John Quincy Adams. Perhaps JQA gets overshadowed by his famous father, or perhaps it is because his actual term in office was a dud, but his long public career is in some ways unparalleled in our nation’s history. His life, without question, makes for sterling biography. He met George Washington and Abraham Lincoln!

Unger wells presents his early days and educational opportunities as well as getting to go on diplomatic missions with his father. His experiences were incredible and before long he was on his own diplomatic missions. 

His family life was interesting. He had a close relationship with his parents. He married a British lady and though he seemed fond of her, their marriage suffered deeply on several occasions. His leaving her at times while on political conquests surely contributed greatly to his problems. As a parent, he suffered both the deaths of some of his children, he watched others turn out as alcoholics. He knew something of suffering. Ha was, without a doubt, a believing Christian.

After a successful time as Monroe’s Secretary of State, he finally ran for President. He actually lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson and was voted in finally by the House of Representatives. He took on several enemies at that time and he was never able to do anything as President. He was quite a discouraged man in those days and was an unpleasant and grumpy man.

Then he hit his stride. For years he became a Representative from Massachusetts where he saw himself representing the whole country. And represent he did! Many Southerners hated him but his skill in legislative procedure and constitutional law made him THE force to be reckoned with. He was the greatest champion of abolition from the founding of the nation till the eve of the Civil War. He knew before he died that the Civil War would come and, to his mind it was probably needed.

Unger draws a fine portrait of this man who lived his life on principle. How refreshing to read in these days. I learned that JQA was one of the really great ones in our nation’s history even if his term as President was largely forgettable.

Presidential biographies in the series.