The recent success of such award-winning and bestselling presidential biographies as American Lion by Jon Meacham, John Adams by David McCullough as well as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s portrait of Lincoln’s Cabinet, Team of Rivals, are all excellent reminders of our fascination with the Presidency. And a tribute to the value of great historians.
With Presidents Day around the corner, it seems like a good time to think about some other great books about the Presidents and Presidency. Here is a short list of some of my favorite Presidential biographies –all what I call “must reads.” Obviously, this not an exhaustive list, and some may already be familiar. Not all of them focus on the presidential years of the subjects. But this is a good place to start with a collection of accessible and fascinating views of the lives and careers of some of the most significant Commanders in Chief –all told by great storytellers, great writers and great historians.
Since Presidents Day exists to honor Washington and Lincoln, I’ll start with them–
Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser. Fairly brief, mostly admiring but honest, and to the point, Brookhiser of the National Review, cuts through the mythology but keeps Washington firmly in place as “Father of Our Country.”
Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America by Henry Wiencek. Rather than an exhaustive biography, this is a study of Washington’s complicated relationship to slavery and his views on emancipation.
Speaking of Emancipation, The Lincoln Library is enormous. But if I had to pick one single-volume biography of “The Great Emancipator,” I choose With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates. I like it for its readability and utterly human portrait of one most mythologized of Presidents. A close second to Oates is Lincoln by David Herbert Donald. Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography by Philip B. Kunhardt. Jr., Philip Kunhardt III and Peter W. Kunhardt is a beautiful volume, a “coffee table” book that won’t just sit on the coffee table. It might be especially valuable for households with children, as is Lincoln: A Photobiography, an award-winning book for children by the appropriately named Russell Freedman.
Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough is one of my favorite biographies, although it focuses not on TR’s astonishing Presidency but on his youth. A magnificent book.
For Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidency, read Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
For the “other Roosevelt, another of my all time favorite books is Doris Kearn Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. It focuses life in the White House during the war years and is the perfect combination of scholarship and great storytelling
Because FDR’s historic “First Hundred Days” got so much attention recently, I would also recommend this fairly slim but excellent overview of the Depression and Roosevelt’s controversial, much-debated response to it: The First Hundred Days by Anthony Badger
For FDR’s successor, the gold standard is Truman by David McCullough
Master of the Senate by Robert Caro. Until Caro finishes the fourth installment of his epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, this book, covering Johnson’s years as the Senator from Texas will have to do.
President Reagan: The Role Of A Lifetime by Lou Cannon. A California journalist, Cannon covered Reagan for years and this is an even-handed assessment.
A comprehensive reading list of these and Presidential biographies can also be found in Don’t Know Much About History