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Presidential Reads

The Presidential Bookshelf is full to overflowing with books about the “great” presidents – Lincoln, FDR, Washington and Jackson, among others. In a subsequent post I’ll suggest some of the best books on the greatest presidents, but today what about books – good books – on some of the 40 other men who labored as Commander-in-Chief.

In no particular order here are my suggestions for compelling reading on presidents most of us have forgotten or never knew.

I would argue that one-term Democrat James K. Polk deserves recognition as a “near great” president. As the last powerful president before the Civil War, the continental United States came to be during Polk’s presidency, which was also marred by the Mexican War. Nonetheless, we have the former Senator and Governor of Tennessee to thank (or not) for adding Texas, California and the Oregon Territory to the United States. One of the best – maybe the best – Polk biography is Walter R. Borneman’s book Polk – The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. Polk deserves his moment in the presidential spotlight.

Another who does is James A. Garfield, a man who had the makings of greatest, but was cut down by an assassin’s bullet (and his own doctor’s bungling) after just a few months in the White House. The last of the “log cabin” presidents, Garfield was an accomplished legislator and a distinguished solider. In a era of widespread political corruption, Garfield was also honest and principled. Candice Mallard’s book Destiny of the Republic tells the tragic story of Garfield’s murder, but also provides a highly engaging overview of his life and politics. The book is also a great read on the subject of just how primitive medicine was as late as 1881 the year Garfield died.

The 31st President of the United States is still a liberal punchline and, while much criticism of Herbert Hoover, particularly his handling of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depressions, remains justified the Quaker president from Iowa is due for some reappraisal. Richard Norton Smith’s biography An Uncommon Man is a good place to begin to understand Hoover. I have also recently discovered the self-described “magnum opus” that Hoover devoted most of his life after the White House to researching and writing. Freedom Betrayed, published 50 years after Hoover’s death, is the former president’s revisionist history of World War II and the Cold War. You don’t have to agree with all Hoover has to say about Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to appreciate that the mining engineer and international relief administration who became president was an extraordinary man.

How about a biography of another really reviled American president? Say Andrew Johnson. Find a copy of Annette Gordon-Reed’s superb, concise Johnson biography that is part of The American Presidents series. Professor Gordon-Reed, a distinguished African-American scholar at Harvard, offers a critical, but nuanced assessment of Johnson’s presidency as one of the nation’s great “missed opportunities.” Johnson was indeed a political creature of his time who, unlike the man he followed into White House Abraham Lincoln, could not bring himself to seize his moment of leadership to attempt to transform his nation in the aftermath of its greatest national trial.

Finally, it is sometimes valuable to study the history of “what might have been” to better understand what really did happen. Published in 1943, Irving Stone’s book They Also Ran offers truly engaging chapter length essays on the men who sought the presidency and didn’t make it. You may come away thinking that on a number of occasions in our history the wrong person did win. Would Henry Clay, a three-time loser, have been a better president than Jackson, William Henry Harrison or Polk?  Would Samuel Tilden who, like Al Gore won the popular vote and lost the White House anyway, have done a better job ending Reconstruction that Rutherford B. Hayes? We’ll never know the answers, but the speculation sure is fun.

There you have it, at your next cocktail party you can drop the name James K. Polk or James Garfield as a president who deserves to be better remembered. You’ll be the life of the party – trust me.


The Presidents

Every president, well almost every president, eventually gets his reappraisal. It seems to be the season for Calvin Coolidge to get his revisionist treatment. The 30th president, well known for his clipped Yankee voice and a penchant for never using two words when one would do, does deserve some chops for agreeing to be photographed – the only president to do so, I believe – wearing a Sioux headdress.

Ol’ Silent Cal came to the Black Hills of South Dakota to vacation in the summer of 1927 and the magnanimous native people who considered the Hills sacred ground made the Great White Father an honorary Chief. The president fished in what later became Grace Coolidge Creek in South Dakota’s Custer State Park – the Sioux were not as gracious to the park’s namesake – and a fire lookout is still in use at the top of 6,000 foot Mt. Coolidge in the park. The Coolidge summer White House issued the president’s famous “I do not chose to run in 1928″ statement to the assembled press corps a few miles up the road from the state park in Rapid City.

But all that is just presidential trivia as now comes conservative writer and historian Amity Shlaes to attempt to rehabilitate the diminished reputation of Silent Cal. Shaels’ earlier work The Forgotten Man is a conservative favorite for its re-telling of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; policies that in Shlaes’ revisionist hands helped prolong the Depression and made villains of the captains of Wall Street who, she contends, deserved better treatment at the bar of history.

Shlaes’ new book, predictably perhaps, is winning praise from The Wall Street Journal – “The Coolidge years represent the country’s most distilled experiment in supply-side economics—and the doctrine’s most conspicuous success” – and near scorn from others like Jacob Heilbrunn who writes in the New York Times – “Conservatives may be intent on excavating a hero, but Coolidge is no model for the present. He is a bleak omen from the past.”

As long as we debate fiscal and economic policy we’ll have Coolidge to praise or kick around. The best, most even handed assessment of Coolidge is contained in the slim volume by David Greenberg in the great American Presidents Series. Greenberg assesses Coolidge as a president caught in the transition from the Victorian Age to the modern. “Coolidge deployed twentieth-century methods to promote nineteenth-century values – and used nineteenth-century values to sooth the apprehension caused by twentieth-century dislocations. Straddling the two eras, he spoke for a nation in flux.”

Two facts are important to putting Coolidge in context: he took office (following the death of the popular Warren Harding in 1923) in the wake of the American experience in World War I, which left many citizens deeply distrustful of government as well as the country’s role in the world.  Coolidge left office on the eve of the Great Depression. A nation in flux, indeed.

To celebrate President’s Day we also have new books, of course, on Lincoln, as well as the weirdly fascinating political and personal relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. There is also a fascinating new book on the relationship among former presidents – The Presidents Club. David Frum writing at The Daily Beast wades in today with a piece on three presidents who make have been great had they had more time – Zachery Taylor, James Garfield and Gerald Ford. Three good choices in my view.

Even William Howard Taft generally remembered for only two things – being the chubbiest president and being the only former president to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme court is getting his new day in the sun. The sun will be along the base paths at the Washington National’s park where the new Will Taft mascot will join Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt for between inning races. Talk about revisionism. At 300 pounds Taft never ran for anything but an office.

One enduring truth is that every president is shaped by his times. (One day, I hope, we can say “their” times.) And over time we assess and reassess the response to the times. Reappraisal is good and necessary. A robust discussion of whether Calvin Coolidge’s economic policies were a triumph of capitalism or a disaster that helped usher in the Great Depression is not only valuable as a history lesson, but essential to understanding our own times and the members of what truly is the most exclusive club in the world – The American Presidency.

By the way, The Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University will convene a major conference on “The State of the Presidency” on February 28, 2013 in Boise. The day-long event is open to the public, but you must register and can do so online. Hope to see you there.