American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush

Article excerpt

American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush. By Nigel Hamilton. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. 595 pp.

Nigel Hamilton's American Caesars takes Suetonius's Twelve Caesars as its classical model. Writing during the reign of Hadrian, in 121 AD, Suetonius penned portraits of the first 12 Roman emperors, dividing each biography in two: the first, focusing on the emperor's public life, and the second, on his private life. Hamilton follows this structure in writing discrete biographical studies of every American president from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush. As Hamilton explains in the acknowledgements, "by focusing first on the public career of the president, and only then on the life of his heart, so to speak, it was possible to see the politician initially in the context of his historic imperial role, and then, by contrast, as a man with a private life story" (p. 520). This approach makes for a lively read, particularly in respect to the presidents with the most colorful private lives, such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton, to name the three most libidinous. The effect is something like sitting in a dentist's reception reading The Economist for a while, before setting it down and guiltily leafing through something gaudier.

The book is entertaining, for Hamilton writes well and has a great eye for anecdote. The story he tells is essentially one of presidential decline. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower are difficult to fault. Kennedy and Johnson were well intentioned, pushed through vital domestic reform, and were critically undermined by questionable foreign policy judgment (although Kennedy showed great potential after the Cuban Missile Crisis). Richard Nixon was an amoral criminal-whether "he was truly mad," Hamilton writes, "is impossible to know" (p. 257). Gerald Ford was a decent man whose presidency was destroyed at the outset when he pardoned his predecessor. Jimmy Carter was similarly admirable, although his management of the White House was dismal, and he became too swayed in foreign policy by the hawkish Zbigniew Brzezinski. Ronald Reagan was a formidable communicator, alarmingly simplistic in his approach to diplomacy, and fortunate to find a reasonable interlocutor in Mikhail Gorbachev. George H. W. Bush was a fine man, with a nuanced foreign policy touch, who was regrettably susceptible to the dark arts of electoral politics--setting a dismal precedent with his brutal campaign against Michael Dukakis. …