Tuesday, April 05, 2016

bumping off the presidents

My self-imposed project of reading at least one biography of each American president is on course.

That is, if you can claim a project is on course that has no deadline and no particular order.

This personal goal came about as many do -- without much premeditation. I had been reading recent biographies of the presidents as they were released over the last two decades.

I suspect it all started with David McCullough's excellent biography of John Adams -- a relative. Or it may have been Joseph J. Ellis's biography of Thomas Jefferson (The American Sphinx) -- not a relative, but a political idol. It may even have been Richard Bookhiser's sketch of George Washington's moral rectitude.

I know it was one of those because the early presidents were an emphasis of mine during my undergraduate history courses. And one of those three books would have been juice enough to fire up my interest in the rest of the presidents.

Up until recently, I had been jumping all over the list. The last three before I started getting serious were David McCullough's Truman, Amity Shlaes's Coolidge, and Robert W. Merry's Polk biography (A Country of Vast Designs).

My choice of biographies has been rather anachronistic. I have simply chosen the most recently released biography for my night reading table. As a result, a large hole had appeared in my list between James Monroe and Abraham Lincoln -- with Xs appearing next to only Andrew Jackson and James Polk.

During the past couple of weeks that has changed. I have now added John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan to the "have read" list. I have now bumped off 27 of the 43 presidents -- and there will be slim pickings of the last three presidents for some time to come.

But I need to confess something. Because most of the 9 presidents added to my list have not been the subject of several biographies, I have relied on a series edited by Arthur Schlesinger (that should have been warning enough) called, not very originally, "The American President Series." They are the Cliff Notes of presidential biographies. They cover most of the facts, but the analysis ranges from pure hackery to adequate.

As the old saying goes: "Beggars can't be choosers." I am on a roll here, and these books, which could rival Classics Illustrated for brevity, are speeding me right along.

There will be more thorough biographies in my future -- such as Robert A. Caro's multi-volume set on Lyndon Johnson. But that will be a bit down the path.

For now, Andrew Johnson (only one of two presidents to be impeached -- and we all know the other) is warming up in the bull pen.

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