President and Accounted For

By Speer, Glenn | Book, September 2000 | Go to article overview

President and Accounted For

Speer, Glenn, Book

Out of thousands of books on America's forty-two presidents, BOOK selects the standout volumes on the life of each.

FORTY-ONE MEN have filled the office of president of the United States. Their biographies are as compelling as the nation's history, and though thousands of volumes have been written about them, for each president there is at least one standout chronicle. As election season approaches, we decided to take a look at the finest works written about America's chief executives; at least one selection for each president appears in the accompanying chart.

For starters, there's the definer of the role. George Washington--often mistakenly thought to be a born aristocrat--was from a middle-class family in colonial Virginia. James Thomas Flexner makes this clear in his highly readable one-volume biography, Washington: The Indispensable Man. Washington is human, "not marble," Flexner writes.

Thomas Jefferson has fallen on hard times in our era, too often dismissed as a hypocrite who expounded on the beneficence of democracy while owning slaves. In the National Book Award-winning American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph J. Ellis presents a balanced view of one of the leading intellects behind the American Revolution.

The revolutionary generation of presidents is rounded out by two Virginians and neighbors of Jefferson's, James Madison and James Monroe. The definitive biography of the fourth president remains James Madison: A Biography, by Ralph Ketcham. A more accessible, concise work is James Madison: The Founding Father, by Robert Allen Rutland.

The first father-son act in the White House was performed when John Quincy Adams succeeded Monroe. One of the most brilliant and accomplished men to reach the presidency, Adams had been a stellar diplomat and Secretary of State. Paul C. Nagel's John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life is a well-written narrative covering his career.

Jumping ahead to the man many consider not only the greatest president but the greatest American to have lived--Abraham Lincoln--there are some five thousand books on the martyred sixteenth president, but if one were forced to choose, pre-eminent scholar David Herbert Donald's masterly Lincoln would fill the bill.

Time and again, America has turned to a military hero for president. After Andrew Johnson's disappointing tenure and impeachment followed the Civil War, the nation turned to Ulysses S. Grant, whose waging of total, merciless war had forced the Confederacy into surrender. William S. McFeely's gripping and beautifully written Grant: A Biography, a Pulitzer Prize winner, profiles the first West Point graduate to rise to commander in chief.

Grover Cleveland, a conservative Democrat, has the distinction of being the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms, as well as being the only president to be married in the White House. The classic biography Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage was penned by journalist turned prolific historian Allan Nevins.

Entering the twentieth century, the bitter Theodore Roosevelt-William Howard Taft split in the election of 1912, when TR ran as a third-party candidate, resulted in the restoration of a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, to the White House. In a concise, incisive new biography, Woodrow Wilson, Louis Auchincloss delves into the life and career of the scholar turned president.

After generations of being skewered by historians and vilified in the public's memory, scholars have taken a second look at Herbert Hoover. Joan Hoff Wilson offers a fresh interpretation in Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive. Wilson's Hoover is a self-made millionaire and brilliant administrator who mobilized famine relief during World War I. David M. Kennedy also treats Hoover sympathetically in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.

Yet no matter how extensive the efforts to rehabilitate Hoover, he will always be dwarfed by his successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. …

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