Polk by Walter Borneman (Presidential Bio. Series)

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James Polk was perhaps the finest president in the field of mediocrity that the American presidency traveled through between Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln. I don’t know if that insignificance had to do more with the men (most likely) or the commonplaceness of the times (less likely), or some combination of the two, but Polk, as Walter Borneman’s subtitle suggests, had an impact on both the presidency and the nation. Polk both expanded presidential power and the size of our nation itself.

This biography gives us enough of the pre-story of Polk’s life to really know the man by the time he assumed the presidency. He was ambitious (a common theme in every presidential biography), knew how to play politics, could be politically pragmatic as well as loyal where politically expedient, yet seemed to truly have a set of core principles. He was a protégé of Jackson, also a Tennessean, yet much more refined than his mentor. Their relationship seemed genuine. As is true of at least a few of our presidents, he had a wife who loved and supported him which he reciprocated with love and adoration. This biography fully fleshed out his personality that could be described as more introverted than some and detail oriented.

While the times played into his successes he seized the opportunities that came his way. He has the unusual distinction of accomplishing all his main campaign promises in one four-year term. Further, he kept his promise of only serving one term. Along the way, he was a successful war president of a war that was so victorious that the debate over fighting it is mostly now forgotten. The vast acreage that has been part of America since his day means it probably always will be remembered as something great for our nation. Though he was proslavery, it seems history has been kinder to him than several other presidents in that territory. He really did nothing to stem the tide that would ultimately embroil our nation in Civil War either. Strangely, he even lost all his last elections in Tennessee including two for governor and the one for president out of which he came victorious. I was surprised that the nation was not so perfectly divided by North and South this close to the Civil War, yet geography seemed to have little to do with which states he won.

Perhaps the saddest thing in his biography is how quickly he sickened and died after his presidency ended. He became sick on a victory tour through the states after his term expired and never really had the chance to enjoy his retirement in Tennessee.

As for the biography itself, Borneman was mostly satisfactory. As I read through presidential biographies, I’ve been making a special note of the role religion played in each president’s life. I feel this biography totally failed me in that regard since it’s known from other sources that Mrs. Polk and her Methodism had an impact on her husband. This shortcoming makes me wonder if I should have read the volume by Robert Merry instead (his biography of William McKinley was excellent). On the other hand, Borneman succeeded in making me feel like I both knew and understood James K. Polk. For that reason, I must recommend this biography.

Other Presidential Biographies

John Tyler by Gary May (Presidential Bio. Series)

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This well-written book was just what I was looking for in a biography on Pres. John Tyler. 150 pages are about all I wanted to take the time to read on him. Tyler consistently rates near the bottom of the list of our presidents. The American Presidents Series is where I love to turn for the less popular and more obscure presidents. Some of the titles in the series are a little skewed to the left and are overly unsympathetic to their subject, but this one by Mr. May was totally fair. He presented Tyler and let me decide – that’s exactly what I want from this type of book.

Tyler had distinct flaws. His views on slavery as well as his practice of slavery, his flip-flop on what he had always presented as his core principles once he became president, and his betrayal of the United States when the Civil War broke out are prime examples. I totally respect the people of both the Union and the Confederacy but would expect a former president of the United States to show some loyalty.

Tyler had some positive traits as well. He seemed to be a caring family man (15 children from two wives!). After the death of his first wife, he came across as strange in his pursuit of a young lady 30 years his junior. On the other hand, after he married her they seemed to have a very loving relationship. He would not allow himself to be the pawn of any political power broker like Henry Clay and others. Though he was unable to get much of any agenda through during his time in office because his views caused his party to abandon him, he did make the best of a bad situation. He wasn’t afraid to cast some unexpected vetoes that surprised many. His crowning achievement was the admittance of Texas to the Union. He was relentless in that pursuit and barely got it done before he left office.

Whatever the failures of Tyler, this biography succeeded splendidly. It brought Tyler to life. I felt like I knew him and even understood him to some degree. My opinion of him rose a few tics, but he’s still at the bottom level. At least I would rank a few presidents below him now. My only complaint of this biography is that I really couldn’t come to terms with where he stood religiously. In fairness to the author, perhaps that was because Tyler didn’t hold religion as all that important. In any event, this author did the best that could be done with his subject.

For other titles in the presidential biography series, check out My Quest on Presidential Biographies.

1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink by Taylor Downing

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Who would’ve thought that 1983 was so pivotal? I’ve done a lot of reading over the years on Ronald Reagan and thought the mantra was Reagan and Gorbachev, not Reagan and Andropov! This book for me was a shocking revelation. In addition to its revealing nature, this book is as fortuitous in its timing as I’ve seen in a long time. We live in the days when the fear of nuclear war has been taken from the closet, dusted off, and put prominently back on the shelf. There’s North Korea, there’s Iran, and Russia is starting to seem more 1983 than 2018.

When I say that this book is a shock for me, it’s not only the major history from the 1980s that I was clueless about, but worse it’s the fact that we almost had a nuclear war and the United States wasn’t even aware of it at the time. I pray we figured something out since then, but it’s all a little unnerving in light of where confidence in the United States government falls on the scale at this moment.

This book reads well and is hard to put down, which is quite a feat since you know we didn’t have nuclear war 30 years ago. The author, Taylor Downing, has done some interesting research into some recently-declassified material. I can see why they waited a while to release it! We owe a debt of gratitude to our intelligence services, but it appears they let one slip by them here. The author has a background in producing documentaries and looking into these overlooked subjects. Isn’t it strange that someone from Great Britain produced this book of so critical an episode in our history that has been often overlooked?

The book isn’t perfect. Though I appreciated much of what he had to say once he got to this crisis, I thought he caricatured Ronald Reagan leading up to that event. Of course, President Reagan responded as he went along but it was always from core principles. The pre-Gorbachev “warmonger” Ronald Reagan was the same man as the post-Gorbachev peacemaking Ronald Reagan. The results he managed to get were the ones he was always after. I doubt the same could be said of Gorbachev who I’m sure never intended to lose the Soviet Union.

This book is so good, interesting, and revealing that to say much about it would make me a spoiler. Part of the enjoyment of this book will be the surprises you will gain as you go. There will be events you’re aware of such as the death of three Soviet presidents before Gorbachev, the shooting down of a Korean civilian jet, the “evil empire” comment, and so much more, but I promise you there’s so much you didn’t know too.

The year 1983 never stood out to me before and I’m even a Ronald Reagan fan. It’s a big deal to me now – I’ll never think of 1983 the same again. For that reason, how could I label this book anything other than a success?

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.

Check it out here.

Grant by Chernow (Presidential Bio. Series)

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Ron Chernow has struck gold again. After writing his earlier Washington, a book that many of us feel is the best presidential biography ever written, you had to wonder if that earlier success was the biggest competition for this volume. While I would rank Grant a notch below Washington, this biography stands triumphantly beside the author’s earlier work. This book even accomplished one thing the earlier book did not: I knew Washington was great, but Chernow convinced me that Grant was far greater than I ever knew.

There were even a few astonishing similarities between Washington and Grant that may be easily overlooked because of their broad dissimilarities. Both had an annoying parent, both had financial difficulties both before and after their presidencies, both persevered at times with health difficulties, both were loved as a general even more than as a president, and both were revered at their death on a scale that few others could duplicate in American history.

In this work on Grant, Chernow makes Grant so alive that by book’s end, you feel you know him so well that you could anticipate what it would be like if he walked in the room, sat down, and begin talking to you. Though Grant was notoriously one to keep his emotions to himself, he was unable to hide them from Chernow. The portrait is so exquisitely drawn that we have the timbre of Grant’s voice, even if we lack the pitch of one who lived before the days of recordings.

Chernow doesn’t hide Grants faults. His fine trait of seeing people without guile sunk him to naïveté and made him the sucker for countless hucksters. His amazing powers of concentration were at times counterbalanced by his lack of counsel. His drinking blackened his eyes at times throughout his career even if he inwardly hated it and appeared to conquer it several years before he died.

Chernow is not as explicit with Grant’s faith as he was with Washington, but the fault was likely Grant’s. Grant’s life-long trait of holding so much inside robs us of knowing how sincere his Christianity was. We do learn in this book that he was raised in a Methodist home, and though his dad was unscrupulous in the extreme, his mother had a true piety. Grant was never known to use foul language, nor to have any substantiated trouble with women. In fact, he was a gentlemen’s gentleman in that regard. We do know he was a faithful churchgoer, attended revival meetings with D. L. Moody, and had a pastor often around him in his final days. Chernow shares the disputed stories of how sincerely Grant wanted the baptism he received in his final days. Some say he loved the idea while others say he did it to please his wife.

Chernow draws a good picture of Julia Grant as well. She was a homely Southern Belle, more ambitious than her husband, held grudges, got caught up in the glory of the White House, and seemed to have little of the Methodist piety that her husband grew up with. Still, she loved her husband and he loved her. She believed in him when it even didn’t make sense.

This book never lags. With 959 pages of text, it is quite long, but I can’t imagine what could be left out. Grant’s life of struggle before the Civil War had as much drama as a novel and made for great reading. As you would’ve guessed, the portion of the book that covered the Civil War was enthralling – both the writing and the subject were thrilling in this section. The misnomer of Grant the butcher is thoroughly laid to rest. He was an accomplished general, wrongly overshadowed by Robert E. Lee, and was both relentless and fearless in battle. Along the way, you will have a good overview of the Civil War without ever sinking into the dryness that afflicts some historical writing.

When you pick this book up, you are preconditioned to think that Grant’s life after the Civil War is boring, but I still couldn’t put the book down and found it all fascinating. His presidency was far more than the caricature of scandal that has been wrongly attached to it, even if the scandals were real. He wanted to preserve the gains of the Civil War and was sincere. It wasn’t until after his presidency that I soured somewhat on his character as one who was becoming too egocentric and one too easily piqued toward others. But then his determination to care for his wife and write his memoirs brought him back to the Grant I had grown to love.

This book is a tour de force! It could serve as a virtual clinic on how to write historical biography. Chernow, though perhaps not as well-known as the beloved David McCullough (though a play called Hamilton may have changed that observation), must in no way defer to him with this masterpiece. I’m confident that this will be THE biography on Ulysses S. Grant for my lifetime.

This book is so wonderful that it makes you ask: what’s next, Mr. Chernow? If the trend of jumping to the next century and finding the general who lead its most important war and later became president, it must be Eisenhower. Whoever it ends up being, I’ll be in line to get and read it!

 

President McKinley by Robert Merry (Presidential Bio. Series)

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In the world of presidential biography, how would you grade the biography of one of our lesser – known presidents? Without doubt, it requires more of the author. The two main characteristics of such a presidential biography must revolve around: a) skilled writing that draws you into the life of one you never realized was interesting, and b) enough depth to make you feel that you really know this person. Granted, the life of the president that headlines the biography is what it is, and the author will be greatly aided if that individual happens to be compelling, even if the accumulating years pushes him into obscurity.

In this work by Robert W. Merry on Pres. McKinley, all these factors aligned beautifully to create an outstanding biography. It’s a joy to read and it moved me firmly into the category of counting McKinley as one of our better presidents. In fact, Merry is so successful here that I’m still scratching my head how that I, as one who enjoys presidential biographies, thought so little of McKinley before. The subtitle “Architect of the American Century” is in no way an overstatement. Probably the only reason that McKinley has suffered such obscurity is the unfortunate circumstance of being followed by the flamboyant Teddy Roosevelt. I found Roosevelt larger than life myself, and in reading his biographies found McKinley pushed exactly where Roosevelt wanted: in the shadows.

McKinley is easily one of the more upstanding men to hold the office. Merry is extremely fair, and worthy of praise even, in his presentation of the religion of McKinley. In other words, he reports the facts, and doesn’t pass judgment on those views, nor does he attack the sincerity of those views. McKinley was raised in a dedicated Christian family. He was a gentleman, he did not use swear words, yet was not overly judgmental of others. As a young person, he came forward at a camp meeting to profess salvation at a mourner’s bench, and in my view, stayed true to his roots in a much greater way than most presidents.

The author seems amazed, and I agree, that McKinley was extraordinary in managing and getting his way, yet without running over others. Though he took great pride in his military career in the Civil War, he was not horribly vain. He seemed to always rank getting the job done more than getting personal glory.

Whether it be with the gold – versus – silver issue, the Spanish-American War, a foreign policy that predicated itself upon America’s greatness without features of colonialism, the Panama Canal, and even economic policy, McKinley moved us from post – Civil War times to the 20th century. I’m glad Merry pushed Teddy Roosevelt enough to the side that we could see this great president.

As presidential biographies go, this one is a winner. I enjoyed it, and suspect you will to.

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.

The Unexpected President by Scott Greenberger (Presidential Bio. Series)

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Scott Greenberger brings Pres. Chester Arthur, one of our more obscure presidents, to life in this well-written biography. Though Greenberger could never redeem Arthur, he at least managed to make you appreciate Arthur’s attempt to rise above his sordid career and even feel sorry for him. Arthur was a product of his time, was nothing of a visionary, had no agenda but himself for most of his life, but gave the presidency his best shot when it literally fell into his lap.

Though hidden from the public, Arthur developed Bright’s disease during his single term that would take his life barely a year after he left office. Greenberger found the springs of Arthur’s life in the earlier chapters that provided great context for Arthur’s career. It appeared to me that Mr. Greenberger was somewhat harsh on Elder Arthur, the president’s father, but was correct, perhaps, in seeing Arthur’s life as one of running from his father’s Christianity. Though Mr. Greenberger wasn’t sympathetic to Elder Arthur, there’s no doubt that he was a committed, conservative Christian. President Arthur’s life never really followed in his father’s footsteps.

Arthur was blessed with a wonderful wife whom he seemed to love, but clearly he neglected her. When Arthur became a leader in the corrupt New York political machine, it appears he partied while she stated home with the family. Greenberger suggests there is evidence that he wasn’t faithful to her.

After Arthur moved to New York City, a different man became the father figure in his life– Sen. Conkling. Greenberger beautifully traces how that Arthur might never have had a political career without Sen. Conkling while also seeing Conkling’s fingerprints all over what is tragic about Arthur’s career. Chester Arthur became the Vice President of the United States as a pawn in a game, but surprised the game’s players when Pres. Garfield was shot and killed and Chester Arthur became the President.

Greenberger vividly describes the unexpected emotional life of Pres. Arthur. Whether it be the appropriate guilt upon the death of his wife, or the shocked sadness at the death of Pres. Garfield against the backdrop that mistakenly made it appear to the public that Arthur wanted the presidency.

Greenberger knows how to build suspense. He will introduce a preacher without telling you his name until much later, as well as a lady who wrote letters to the president that appeared to have an effect on him to the good while withholding her significance to later as well. I’ll not provide spoilers here, but you will enjoy Mr. Greenberger’s biographical skill and ability to grab our attention.

Mr. Greenberger appears to have a cautious, almost reluctant, appreciation of Chester Arthur. If you read Mr. Greenberger’s biographic blurb, you will see his own political affiliations, but I was pleasantly surprised at how he stuck to his task and left his own politics out of it.

This book is a home run. If you enjoy presidential biographies, I’d advise you to consider this book as your choice for Chester Arthur. In lesser hands, a biography on Chester Arthur might have easily sunk. I genuinely enjoyed this book and highly recommended it.

 

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.

 

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.