Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Presidential Reading

Yesterday being President's Day, I went out of my way not to do anything. I did eat apple pie for breakfast because I'm an American. I do my part for the country. I don't really like that Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays have been reduced to one Monday day off. I was a bit obsessed with the Presidents when I was a kid, which led to a lot of useless trivia; we probably shouldn't elect another Quaker (Hoover, Nixon), for example. Also, let's face it, I was a weirdo. I named the toenails on my right foot after less well known or more notorious Presidents. I hesitated to include this information here, but Gianna's freaked out by feet and this paragraph is payback for her inability to actually deliver cookies to my house when she says she's going to bring them right over. The piggy with the pointy cornered nail was Franklin Pierce. Millard Fillmore was the big toe; that name just screams "plus sized," right? Warren Harding and Chester Arthur filled in the middle and Nixon was the little piggy who went wee wee wee all the way home.

I digress.

Shall we talk about books and the Presidency?

President #26: Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy is the subject of many books including Edmund Morris's excellent biographies, but my personal favorite of the ones I've read is Candice Millard's The River of Doubt. After Roosevelt lost an attempt to be reelected as President a decade after he left office, and facing a crisis of age and confidence, Roosevelt and his son Kermit decided to become Amazon explorers. They set off on an expedition down a previously uncharted river that almost cost the President his life. Tropical plants and critters, fish that swim up your urethra, die, and lead to penectomies (we don't use that word often enough on this blog), and savage territory only made Roosevelt's lack of experience and preparation all the more obvious. Who doesn't love arrogant white guys brought to their knees by nature?

President #37: Richard Nixon. Yeah, there's plenty to say about Nixon. All the President's Men is the classic text. We recommend the fictionalized take on Nixon's downfall, Watergate by Thomas Mallon. Nixon is both sympathetic and delusional, and Mallon's book is a psychological exploration of a great man, a well-crafted epic, and a chilling account of hubris.

President #20: James A. Garfield. True story--at the Republican National Convention in 1880, Garfield was there to nominate another guy. Toward the end of his  passionate speech, though, he rhetorically asked "Who do we want?" and someone in the crowd yelled "We want Garfield!" A few months later, Garfield was officially elected President. During the height of Gilded Age corruption, Garfield promised to be one of the great Presidents of all time. And then he was assassinated (spoiler?). Once again we are recommending a Candice Millard book, this one called The Destiny of the Republic.

President #43: Al Gore. Just kidding. George W. Bush. Maybe this pick is a bit of a cheat, but American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld is loosely based on Laura Bush. It's probably more fun to read about the fictionalized party goer and favored son Bush than any of the books coming out about the W years these days.

President #36: Lyndon B. Johnson. Robert Caro's masterful biographical series, the most recent of which is The Passage of Power, are the definitive books written about LBJ. I also want to give a shout out to Billy Lee Brammer's The Gay Place, though. Brammer was an LBJ staffer and wrote a classic novel about Texas politics centered around a LBJ-esque governor.

President #33: Harry S. Truman. I admit it; I love Truman. He was given an impossible task--serving as President after more than a decade of FDR and at the end of major war, tasked with negotiating surrenders, war trials, and the emergent Soviet Union. Truman was the guy who decided to drop atomic bombs. For better or worse, the guy had balls of steel. David McCullough knows how to write a Presidential biography, and Truman is my favorite of his books.

President #3: Thomas Jefferson. We love Jon Meacham. We aren't the only ones. Meacham's latest, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power takes on Jefferson's life and also looks at his political philosophy. Even though Meacham's book was a big hit during the holiday season, I'm sure that a few people out there haven't yet picked up copies. An aside, Meacham is charming and funny in person (on top of being wickedly smart).

President #44: Barack Obama. Before he was President, Obama was a writer. His memoir, Dreams from My Father, is the story of the American dream. It's the story of a man who's lived his entire life in between worlds, the mixed race son of an African father and American mother, who knows his father more from stories than as an actual person. Obama traces his family's past, from his mother's journey from Kansas to Hawaii, her relationship with the Kenyan man who left the family when Barack was two, and Obama's rise to the top of his Harvard class and work as a community organizer in Chicago. He goes back to Kenya after his father's death, finding his place in the world and as his own man.

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