What is the best book about each U.S. President?
December 31, 2016 2:28 PM   Subscribe

My project for 2017 is to read a biography, or a history of the presidency, of each President of the United States. I'd like to narrow it down to one apiece to fit the project into a year. Special cases of this question have been asked here and here, but I would like to extend the question to each administration.
posted by quarantine to Education (20 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Adam Cadre made a point of reading at least one book for each president (or, in some cases, each era of presidents who were part of the same historical current) in his presidential retrospective series. He often assessed the quality of the biography he chose as well as the presidents themselves, so that gives some pointers.
posted by jackbishop at 3:57 PM on December 31, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh, I did this a few years ago! I only made it to Kennedy, though. There's a link to my Goodreads account in my profile and one of the tags is "presidents" - you can see how I rated the books I chose. Some of the lesser known ones were pretty tough to find a decent book on; I had to make substantial use of interlibrary loan.
posted by something something at 4:24 PM on December 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's not a biography, or traditional history, and it came out in the middle of Nixon's first term, but you won't regret reading Garry Wills' Nixon Agonistes.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 5:37 PM on December 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

I liked Profile of Power by Richard Reeves.
posted by jgirl at 6:23 PM on December 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

For a change of pace on the traditional biography you could pick up Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:00 PM on December 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

American Ulysses is an excellent and up to date biography of Grant.
posted by mikek at 7:18 PM on December 31, 2016

Nixonland by Rick Perlatein was good.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:21 PM on December 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit is an outstanding dual biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft -- if you can bend your rule a little, I can't imagine anyone doing much better. The two men and their administrations were deeply intertwined and defined by each other (and by their eventual turn from friendship to bitter enmity).
posted by thesmallmachine at 7:39 PM on December 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Seconding Nixonland for #37.
posted by Rash at 8:07 PM on December 31, 2016

I can suggest two routes for Chester A. Arthur. One is Gentleman Boss by Thomas C. Reeves, both definitive in detail and perfectly pitched in tone. Alternately, if you are not willing to spend 500 pages of reading time on Arthur, pair Saving Yellowstone by Bob Hartley with A President in Yellowstone, the gorgeous large format photography book from Arthur's 1883 expedition to the park. Arthur's legacy as president is the Pendleton Civil Service Act, but the story of this NYC-bred gourmand and fashion plate setting out on a promotional tour of the West with Robert Todd Lincoln in tow -- while secretly dying of kidney disease -- gives you a feeling of his thoroughly unlikely (and yet not bad!) presidency.

(Signed, the author of an unpublished and unpublishable novel about Arthur.)
posted by chimpsonfilm at 8:59 PM on December 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

For Grover Cleveland, try The President is a Sick Man by Matthew Algeo. Not exhaustive but a good story, more about the man than the politics.

Edmund Morris's three books on T.R. are phenomenal. The middle book covers his presidency, though I enjoyed the first and third the most.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 9:04 PM on December 31, 2016

I hope this isn't too outside of your request for suggestions but I'll take any opportunity to suggest the book Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. In this case she travels the US in order to report on facts related to the assassinations of McKinley, Garfield and Lincoln. In my estimation she is a trusted historian who writes with depth as well as humor. Plus if you have ever heard her speak there is NO WAY you can read this or any of her books and not hear her unique and lovely voice as you glide through every sentence.
posted by pipoquinha at 10:04 PM on December 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I was trying to teach myself Wordpress a few years ago, I decided to do a "sandbox" project as I read presidential biographies. One book in, I ended up (unrelatedly) hospitalized and never did much with it, but I'd grabbed a few lists for the blogroll. You might be intersted in the opinions here:

My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies

The Essential Presidential Book Shelf: A Selective Readers' and Collectors' Guide

I'll be looking forward to the responses you get.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 10:24 PM on December 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hunter S Thompson had interesting things to say about Richard Nixon in "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72". It was not a book about his whole presidency, but it was about that election campaign. And was and interesting and unique take.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:05 PM on December 31, 2016

Eisenhower: Soldier and President, by Stephen E. Ambrose. (And if you would care to take a side trip to find out what World War II was like for Americans in Europe, read his Citizen Soldiers. Absolutely captivating.)
posted by bryon at 1:16 AM on January 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

And His Excellency: George Washington, by Joseph J. Ellis.

I'll second chimpsonfilm's suggestion of Morris' magesterial trilogy of Theodore Roosevelt. Trilogy in and of itself defies your preference for one book per subject, but if you can spare the time, Morris will repay you handsomely.
posted by bryon at 1:27 AM on January 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Washington Post did a podcast series this year called Presidential about the former presidents, and created a list of "must-read" books about each president.
posted by chainsofreedom at 11:43 AM on January 1, 2017

I can't find it now but there is a website called Best Presidential Bios that reads and reviews multiple books per president.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:31 PM on January 1, 2017

I have a Rutherford B Hayes suggestion, although I haven't actually read it. I just finished Eric Foner's Reconstruction , and his discussion of the contested election of 1876 and its repercussions was fascinating. It seems like the secondary source he was leaning on most was The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction by Keith Ian Polakoff. So maybe track that down.
posted by yarrow at 4:08 PM on January 1, 2017

Okay, I'm back to update this more thoroughly on which books seem to be the "gold standard" for presidents these days. I only read up to 21, so that's as far as I can say.

* Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
* John Adams by David McCullough.
* For Jefferson I like anything by Annette Gordon-Reed and I like the Fawn Brodie title because that's the one that revealed Jefferson's relationships with the Hemingses.
* The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger. (Disclaimer: Unger is a huuuuuuuge Monroe fanboy and can say very little bad about him, but it's comprehensive.)
* John Quincy Adams: American Visionary
* Jackson: American Lion (best presidential book I have read, IMO).
* Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman.
* Lincoln: Team of Rivals and Lincoln by David Herbert Donald.
* For Buchanan: Worst. President. Ever. by Robert Strauss.
* Andrew Johnson: Annette Gordon-Reed's book in the American Presidents series, and "Impeachment" by David O. Stewart.
* Grant: Grant's own biography. I hear the book by Jean Edward Smith is pretty gold standard-ish but the copy in my library was so beat up I didn't feel comfortable reading it.
* Garfield: "Garfield: A Biography" By Allan Peskin and "Destiny of the Republic" by Candice Millard.
* Arthur: Gentleman Boss, as previously mentioned.

I never really found any "gold standard" on Madison that I liked. I liked reading "Becoming Madison" but it doesn't cover his presidency really. Likewise, I never found a gold standard for Van Buren--the man didn't leave too much of anything personal behind and it makes reading about him dull.

I do recommend the "American Presidents" series, especially for the duller presidents who don't really seem to have a whole lot going for them. I'd recommend this for people like William Henry Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Hayes.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:10 PM on January 2, 2017

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