These are, shall we say, interesting times in the history of the U.S. presidency. I like to start a biography of an American president in February, my way of making Presidents Day something deeper than a pair of significant birthdays. (Happy 285th, President Washington!) This year, I’m enjoying Fred Kaplan’s study of John Quincy Adams (HarperCollins, 2014).
There have been hundreds of books written about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and rightfully so. The Roosevelts and Thomas Jefferson can fill shelves, too. But what about literature outside the Rushmorian club of U.S. presidents?
Here’s a brief look at four books worthy of a curious presidential historian, their subjects nowhere near the face of a mountain.
• Coolidge by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2013) — “No one ever listened his way out of a job.” If you were to identify an American president most unlike the current version, it just might be the reticent, close-to-the-vest, introspective Calvin Coolidge. Our 30th president has the distinction of being inaugurated, not on the steps of the Capitol Building, but in the living room of his family home in Vermont, where he was visiting (as vice president) when Warren Harding died in 1923. Silent Cal has the advantage of following a corrupt predecessor, and occupying the White House during the boom times of the 1920s. He lowered taxes three times, becoming a standard by which Ronald Reagan measured himself. Coolidge set the table for the Great Depression and could teach a lesson or two today.
• Polk by Walter R. Borneman (Random House, 2008) — In its 2016 ranking of American presidents, Athlon placed James K. Polk at number 11, two spots higher than Reagan and just two lower than his more famous predecessor from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson. Our 11th president stretched America further than any president since Jefferson, adding Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin as states and Oregon and Minnesota as territories. Borneman calls Polk “the most decisive chief executive prior to the Civil War” and a man “who greatly expanded the executive power of the presidency, particularly its war powers.” (Polk oversaw U.S. involvement in the Mexican War between 1846 and 1848.) You might say the presidency killed Polk, as he died three months after leaving office in 1849. He’s in the conversation for greatest one-term president in American history.
• Richard M. Nixon by Conrad Black (PublicAffairs, 2007) — Dismiss “Tricky Dick” as a disgraced, paranoid, megalomaniac and you will miss as provocative a character as has ever occupied the Oval Office. This massive tome (1,059 pages) teaches countless lessons about the qualities that make a great and popular politician — Nixon was, in fact, once popular — and the human frailties that can ruin any person, whether or not you become leader of the free world. Richard Nixon was on the cover of Time magazine 55 times. (Give it your best shot, President Trump.) Writes Black, “[Nixon] was the representative inhabitant of what Jack Kerouac called the ‘great unwashed body of America.’” Having lived a Shakespearean tragedy, Nixon is a fascinating, instructive warning for us all.
• Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro (Vintage, 2002) — Caro has written the single greatest biography of any American president (including Washington and/or Lincoln). But there’s nothing “single” about it. To date, Caro has published four volumes and more than 2,800 pages on our 36th president, and this only takes us up to 1963, the year LBJ took office upon John F. Kennedy’s assassination. This third volume is the defining chapter, the account of a man who, yes, mastered the halls of Congress in ways no man before and certainly not since can claim. By sheer force of personality and guile, Johnson climbed D.C.’s ladder of power and moved legislation during a time the Senate was fractured by regional division (sound familiar?). From Texas Hill Country to the White House, Johnson would be a great work of fiction had he not actually lived for 64 years.