Putting presidents in historical perspective
This month, we celebrate Presidents’ Day. Reading about our nation’s chief executives never becomes old. Historians (both professional and amateur) as well as politicians and reporters sift through the archives, interpret documents, and find lesser known materials to expose to a wider audience.
Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, by Gordon S. Wood, 512 pages, Penguin Press hardcover, 2017, Random House Large Print Paperback, 2017.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood retells the stories of our second and third presidents. He skillfully intertwines the life events and writings of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson within the context of colonial, early American and world history.
He brings these icons to life as we get to know them intimately through their private letters. These former presidents are portrayed in a refreshing and readable account.
Wood explains, “I chose this topic because I found it fascinating and puzzling that two such different men, different in almost every conceivable way, should have become friends.”
Adams and Jefferson were at the forefront of the Revolution. They met in Philadelphia at the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and became friends. Both opposed British rule, and served the new nation as diplomats abroad and in the executive branch at home. They even died on the same day — the 4th of July, 1826.
However, their personalities, lifestyles and political philosophies diverged.
Friends Divided will keep you enthralled as you gain renewed appreciation for these Founding Fathers. Wood enables us to understand, through the perspective of the centuries, Adams’ and Jefferson’s forward-thinking political principles as well as those ideas that are better left to the dustbin of history.
Many of their pronouncements on equality, civil rights, taxation, freedom of the press, immigration, foreign policy and America’s military reverberate to this day.
Read whom history has vindicated. See if you agree. You may even be inspired to visit the Adams National Historical Park just outside Boston in Quincy, Mass., and Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Va.
A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 1, 1809-1849, by Sidney Blumenthal, 576 pages, Simon & Schuster paperback, 2017.
In this first book of his multi-volume biography of our 16th president, Sidney Blumenthal takes us from Lincoln’s birth to the apparent end of the future president’s political career.
In 1849, Lincoln returned to Illinois after completing his only term in the U.S. House of Representatives. It would have been reasonable to assume that he had left the national political stage forever.
The author and former aide to President Bill Clinton explains, “My personal experience with the politics of the presidency inside the White House gave me a fresh appreciation…of…Lincoln’s immense political skills and a new way of looking at how he became America’s greatest political leader.”
In A Self-Made Man, Blumenthal sheds light on the struggles, trials and tribulations of Honest Abe’s youth and adulthood. Little-known archival material is brought forward and forms the basis for a nuanced understanding of Abraham Lincoln as a man of compassion and a nascent political genius.
In a masterfully written narrative, Blumenthal shows how Lincoln’s early interactions with slavery shaped his more mature views. We learn how the young man’s poverty, love of learning, and early life on the frontier formed the foundation of his worldview as an adult.
Lincoln’s innate leadership qualities, his charm and storytelling prowess, soaring ambition — as well as his bouts of depression — made him a complex man. The author’s keen insights into the inner man, and his elegant exposition of the personal side of Lincoln is delightful to discover. Blumenthal writes with authority and lucidity about the politics of the era.
The second volume of the biography does not live up to the promise of this first one. Hopefully, the upcoming third book will fulfill the promise of the initial volume.
The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A.J. Baime, 448 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hardcover, 2017 (paperback, October, 2018).
The sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt during World War II elevated into the highest office of the land, Vice President Harry S Truman, The Accidental President. FDR had not included his Vice President in any of the administration’s war councils or domestic policy deliberations.
Truman served as Vice President for only three months, the duration of FDR’s truncated fourth term. Truman was not aware of the secret agreements made at Yalta, the work on the atomic bomb, nor the difficult negotiations with the Soviet Union on the future of the postwar world.
A.J. Baime writes a riveting account of the first four months of the Truman presidency. By limiting the scope of the book, Baime is able to concentrate on the crucial events that unfolded in that short time period — V-E Day, the Potsdam Conference, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the surrender of Japan, the start of the Cold War, and the drawing of the Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe.
Truman’s colorful cadre of cronies, the military brass, Washington insiders, and the holdovers from the Roosevelt administration are vividly portrayed. The book draws the reader into this fascinating time when the future of the world hung in the balance, and the man leading this country into the great unknown was a common, unpretentious man.
Obama: The Call of History, by Peter Baker, 320 pages, 275 color photographs, New York Times/Callaway hardcover, 2017.
New York Times’ chief White House correspondent Peter Baker has written a definitive history of the Obama presidency.
The color photographs, many of them full page in size, lend an elegant touch to this attractive coffee table book. Obama: The Call of History is not analytic in nature nor an attempt to view the 44th President through the lens of history.
Perhaps that is too soon, especially as the public and pundits await the publication of the former president’s memoirs. Obama’s biographer, David Maraniss, for one, has delayed writing about Obama’s White House years awaiting those revelations.
If punditry is not your game, you’ll enjoy this thorough and concise re-telling of the challenges and triumphs, highs and lows, achievements and shortcomings of the eight years that Barack Obama was President of the United States. Armed with the facts provided by Baker, you can whip up your own analysis.