Presidential biographies
August 22, 2004 6:20 AM   Subscribe

BiograPhilter. While I eagerly await the publication of volume four of Robert A. Caro's 'The Years of Lyndon Johnson', what other biographies do I have to read of American presidents/politicians? Note: I'm not American, so I don't really care much for the founding fathers, or Abe Lincoln's constitutional worries etc. Also, no partizan bitch books or hagiographies, please. The wielding of raw power is what interests me most.

Good European biographies (De Gaulle, Talleyrand, Churchill) are welcomed as well.
posted by NekulturnY to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This may not be exactly what you had in mind, but you could give it a try for a laugh: a little moment capturing Lyndon Johnson ordering pants. It's got "wielding of raw power" all over it. :)
posted by onlyconnect at 6:47 AM on August 22, 2004

Response by poster: That was funny. Very much in character.
posted by NekulturnY at 6:58 AM on August 22, 2004

Best answer: Anything by Edmond Morris. Theodore Rex and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt are personal favorites. Truman by David McCulloch is supposed to be great, as well, although I can't personally vouch for it.

Across the pond, there is always Churchill: A Biography by Roy Jenkins. And, although a bit outside of what you say you're looking for, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman has gotten quite good reviews.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:00 AM on August 22, 2004

Best answer: Daid McCullough's Truman is a great read, as is his book on John Adams (and to ignore the founding fathers is to ignore some of the greatest thinkers of the 18th centuary).
posted by Mick at 8:08 AM on August 22, 2004

The wielding of raw power is what interests me most.

I'm bookmarking this in case you're ever governor of California...
posted by mecran01 at 8:10 AM on August 22, 2004

I third the call for McCullough, he's a great historian and writer. His Truman book was excellent. You know what's fun in a dorky school way? Reading the presidential biography and then visiting the library. I was forced to do this for Truman in high school and it was fun. It links the abstracted world of biographies to reality when you see things like "The Buck Stops Here" sign. That and I'm a huge dork.
posted by geoff. at 8:19 AM on August 22, 2004

I'm greatly enjoying Elizabeth and Mary : Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn.
posted by grumblebee at 8:52 AM on August 22, 2004

On Churchill, I can't recommend William Manchester's The Last Lion highly enough. Manchester's American Caesar, about Douglas MacArthur, may not be precisely what you're looking for, but it's also a great book.
posted by Zonker at 8:56 AM on August 22, 2004

Best answer: On information and belief I hear that if you loved the Caro series you will also enjoy "Titan : The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr." by Ron Chernow. I have not read this, but hear that it is well written. Rockefeller was certainly the equal of Johnson in wielding raw power. Of course you should also check out Caro's book on Robert Moses, probably the most powerful person in New York after WWII and he never held elective office.
posted by caddis at 9:02 AM on August 22, 2004

Seems to me that Lincoln wielded raw power a lot more than he worried about the constitution. In fact, he's probably one of the best examples of presidents who rather blatantly shaped the country according to what he thought was right without making that much of an effort to make it look like he was doing anything else.
posted by bingo at 9:08 AM on August 22, 2004

Fawn Brodie's Nixon biography.
posted by inksyndicate at 9:11 AM on August 22, 2004

inksyndicate: You must be joking. Fawn Brodie's biography of Richard Nixon is one of the biggest hatchet jobs I've ever read (and I'm no fan of Nixon). I'd avoid that one like the plague.

I can personally vouch for McCullough's Truman bio. It's a little slow at the beginning, with Truman's ancestors, but stick with it.

You may also enjoy another book by Caro from 1974 called The Power Broker, which is not about a president but Robert Moses, one of the most powerful unelected men America has ever seen. Freeways, urban renewal, the World's Fair -- Moses was a prime mover, and not afraid to use his power. Caro won a Pulitzer Prize for it. (Disclaimer: I haven't read it yet; it's sitting here in my bedroom.)
posted by pmurray63 at 9:43 AM on August 22, 2004

Add me to the chorus of vouchers for McCullough's Truman. A masterful biography.

It's great hearing about suggestions for Churchill biographies, too, as I'd been meaning to get one for some time.

Incidentally, Churchill's "History of the English-Speaking People" is amazing, though not a biography.
posted by Vidiot at 10:21 AM on August 22, 2004

I'm with mick. The story of the founding fathers is precisely the "wielding of raw power" you are looking for. Ron Chernow has an interesting biography of Alexander Hamilton - less captivating than I had hoped, but the Hamilton literature is kind of sparse. McCullough's Adams book is great. Edmund Morris's volumes on TR and Reagan are excellent.

"The Power Broker" is the best book I have ever read, hands down. It doubles as a textbook on how to perform biographical research and pierce the veil that a standoffish public official draws around his personal domain.
posted by PrinceValium at 11:47 AM on August 22, 2004

I didn't finish the Nixon book, which was a little muddled, but there was some terrific stuff about his early years as a child with burgeoning psychological problems.
posted by inksyndicate at 1:49 PM on August 22, 2004

I'm hoping to read T. Harry Williams' bio of Huey Long soon.
posted by gimonca at 2:15 PM on August 22, 2004

More ideas for English biographies: Robert Blake's Disraeli (one of the truly outstanding political biographies, IMHO, and it's great to see it back in print); Roy Jenkins' Gladstone (this one seems to be a bit of an acquired taste, but it's probably easier to take in than Richard Shannon's two-volume account); and, if you want to run a marathon, John Ehrman's triple-decker devoted to William Pitt the Younger (although Robin Reilly or Michael Turner are a bit more convenient when it comes to toting Pitt around).
posted by thomas j wise at 2:29 PM on August 22, 2004

Zonker's right: Manchester's page-turning bio of Churchill is easily the best bio I have ever read and one of my favorite books period.
Jenkins' was far far dryer.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:42 PM on August 22, 2004

"The Power Broker" is the best book I have ever read, hands down.

I concur with PrinceValium. It really is the best book ever, period. I've read it twice and intend to read it again.
posted by Wet Spot at 4:15 PM on August 22, 2004

Not sure this is what you are after, but there is a great novel about Mayor Curley (Boston), The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor
posted by szg8 at 8:11 PM on August 22, 2004

Another vote for The Power Broker here. And, to add to the David McCullough suggestions, consider The Path Between The Seas. It's about the construction of the Panama Canal, so obviously a lot of it is American, but not all of it. An excellent read.

Another suggestion is Enrique Krauze's Mexico: A Biography of Power, covering Mexican history from 1810 to 1996.
posted by ambrosia at 10:50 PM on August 22, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, this should get me through the winter!
posted by NekulturnY at 1:34 AM on August 23, 2004

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