Sunday, September 06, 2015

Book Reviews: Presidential Biographies

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
Meacham draws on original research to gives us a new portrait of a president that is overexposed but the least understood.  Complicated and elusive, Jefferson is familiar to everyone because of his writing the Declaration of Independence among his many other accomplishments in the early days of America.  This biography offers up Jefferson as the human being and as a politician.  He was a Renaissance man that led America through ferocious partisanship and cultural warfare during an era of both economic change and external threats.

All due respect to historian Joseph Ellis, this is the single-volume biography that Jefferson deserves.

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan
The award-winning biographer offers is a new take on a president that is often overlooked despite his being a prescient statesmen.  You won't find Adams on any best or worst presidents list.  The stereotypical thought about Adams: grim, rigid, and largely irrelevant disappointment.

For the first time ever, Kaplan gives us a multifaceted portrait of a misunderstood figure.  He evaluates Adams' triumphs and disappointments but also manages to explore Adams' far-reaching influence of his enlightened principles, definition of leadership, and vision for America's future.

Engaging and carefully researched, Kaplan's book on Adams makes for a groundbreaking look at Adams and his legacy.

Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands
Brands is back.  Back again.  Brands is back.  Tell a friend.  Brands has previously given us biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt.  With Ronald Reagan, he gives us a sixth biography that re-tells American history.  This is the first major biography in the time that has passed since Reagan died in 2004.

Controversial as Reagan was--seen as an icon of strength or a caricature of ideological rigidity--Brands has brilliantly succeeded in reconciling those views in order to give us a powerful new portrait of the former president.

Brands takes us on a journey through Reagan's life from the time that he voted four times to FDR to the revolution of conservatism in American politics.

The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789 by Edward J. Larson
With elegant prose and exacting research, Larson tells us how Washington played an indispensable role in rescuing the nation.  Often overlooked, Larson uncovers the role that our nation's first president played in the Constitutional Convention and the first federal election.  The states truly came together after Washington showed his willingness to serve as the first president of the United States.

The examples set by Washington have never been more poignant than today.  Our nation has been fractured by political parties since the country's founding in the 1700s.  Friction is foundational, Larson reminds us, but so, too, is compromise.  Where is the Henry Clay and Daniel Webster of this era?

The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House by Chuck Todd
With his comfortable perch from NBC, Chuck Todd has had unfettered access to the White House.  Todd examines both Obama as a president and as person in telling what can only be described as a crucial story of the Obama presidency that will shape America for the decades to come.

This book is more than being a book about politics.  It's also about the psychology of the presidency.  Todd draws on hundreds of interviews for this book of over 500 pages--including exclusive interviews with the president himself.

Todd's book is unique, provocative, and a comprehensive examination of Obama's presidency.

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