Books on presidents
May 24, 2006 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Bibliophiles: I want to read a book on every US president for my summer reading project. Recommendations?

I never really learned 20th century US history in high school because we had to cover it in four days before the AP test. Having paid attention to politics for the past few years, I feel like I should catch up on that. So for summer (and very possibly, year-long) reading, I want to read a book on every president, figuring that reading about their life will help me understand the history of the times and the issues during their administrations.

So I'm looking for books that are biographies with a focus on their presidencies. What good books have you read?
posted by state fxn to Law & Government (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Just 20th century?

The magesterial bio of a 20th century president is Robert Caro's on Lyndon Johnson. He has not reached the Presidency, though, the last volume was about Johnson's years in the Senate.

While getting that link I noticed this Amazon list on 20th Century US Presidential history. I don't vouch for it, I simply point it out.
posted by OmieWise at 10:22 AM on May 24, 2006

magisterial. ack.
posted by OmieWise at 10:22 AM on May 24, 2006

Are you looking for the kinds of biographies that historians would consider definitive, or are you looking for books that are, y'know, a fun read?
posted by box at 10:24 AM on May 24, 2006

I second Caro on Johnson.
"No Ordinary Time" by Doris Kearns Goodwin on FDR and Eleanor.
"Mornings on Horseback" by David McCullough on Teddy Roosevelt's early years (up to age 27).
"Truman" by David McCullough.
posted by beagle at 10:26 AM on May 24, 2006

I liked these two -

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald


No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin

RM: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon is also an interesting book. Take it with a grain of salt though - it's obviously one sided.
posted by gfrobe at 10:28 AM on May 24, 2006

Response by poster: Well, I figured I'll start with the 20th century and work backwards since I know quite a lot about 18th century, a decent amount of 19th, and not so much about the 20th.

I'm up for both definitive texts and fun reads, with a preference for definitive texts.
posted by state fxn at 10:29 AM on May 24, 2006

Joseph Ellis (who wrote Founding Brothers) has biographies of several of the early presidents. I liked his bios of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; I didn't like his John Adams bio as much.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:39 AM on May 24, 2006

Fun reads:
Bush 2 - "The Bush Junta," "Fortunate Son," "American Dynasty"
Clinton - "First in His Class"
Bush 1 - "Born to Run Things," "American Dynasty," Kitty Kelley's "The Family"
Reagan - "On Bended Knee," "Sleepwalking Through History," "The Clothes Have No Emperor"

Reagan - the work of Lou Cannon
Nixon - maybe the Steven Ambrose biography?
posted by box at 10:39 AM on May 24, 2006

I love the muckracking, sensational Nixon biography "The Arrogance of Power," although I'd argue "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" is a more accurate sense of the times.
posted by Gucky at 11:01 AM on May 24, 2006

I am currently reading Theodore Rex and liking it a lot.

Founding Brothers is not really a biography, but about some pivotal events in the founding father's lives.
posted by gregchttm at 11:09 AM on May 24, 2006

Another fun Clinton read: "Primary Colors"
Fun Nixon reads: "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72," "Nixon Agonistes"
Fun Truman read: "Plain Speaking"

Surprisingly good, but overly long, presidential memoirs: Nixon's, Clinton's
posted by box at 11:51 AM on May 24, 2006

Just out of curiosity I did a WorldCat search on a few of the lesser lights to inhabit the Oval Office. James Garfield has apparently been the subject of only two books, one of which is this gem:

Was President Garfield providentially removed by the assassin, Guiteau? or, Do liberals fear to die? : concluded with references on civilization / by J.A. Wright, and a promiuent [sic] clergyman, who says he is forced to conceal his identity.
posted by nflorin at 12:04 PM on May 24, 2006

Sidney Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars is a very good and comrehensive book, even if Blumenthal worships Clinton a bit too much. If you read that in conjunction with Clinton's My Life (which is a page-turner up until the point where he is elected President, after which it becomes like reading a tedious diary of social engagements), then you'd be set for that President.
posted by Prospero at 12:35 PM on May 24, 2006

I second David Donald's book on Lincoln. Also, Conrad Black's book on FDR has been on my 'must read' list for a while; despite the author's shady reputation, it has had excellent reviews from virtually all quarters.
posted by Urban Hermit at 1:12 PM on May 24, 2006

Great idea for a summer reading project. If you're open to a book that focuses on a pivotal event, rather than a general summary of the life (a strategy I'd encourage for variety's sake, if nothing else), I highly recommend David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing, a detailed look at GW's New Jersey campaign. It won the 2005 Pulitzer for history, is action-packed and full of insight into the man's thinking at a critical moment in the American Revolution. One of the best histories I've read in the last year.
posted by mediareport at 4:20 PM on May 24, 2006

Truman by David McCullough
posted by growabrain at 5:44 PM on May 24, 2006

John Adams by David McCullough was great.
posted by brandz at 6:27 PM on May 24, 2006

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