Having now completed a journey reading one book about each of the 44 former presidents, I thought I’d share a few thoughts and respond to the questions people have asked me most often.
A lot of people ask me about the presidents I found most surprising. There was something I found surprising about almost all of them. Warren G. Harding was a sex maniac who nicknamed his penis “Jerry.” John Tyler fathered a child in his seventies who, in turn, did the same thing; Tyler’s grandchild is still living in Tyler’s house. To answer the question directly, though, I think I found the rich lives of John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover, before and after their presidency’s, most surprising. They both did a whole lot in their lives beside being president. Ulysses S. Grant lived a life reminiscent of a Rocky movie (lovable loser, virtually homeless, rejected when volunteering for the Civil War, eventually rising to the highest of positions, only to be swindled out of everything), and Chester Arthur’s presidency reads like a story from Hallmark (after a life of excess, an unknown woman writes letters that inspire and redeem him to do what's right in the White House).
People also ask me about the more recent presidents. I understood Kennedy’s charisma but, surprisingly, found him otherwise overrated. Johnson and Nixon were deeply calculating political animals who spent their lives aiming for the prize of the presidency but left office feeling like rejected failures. Clinton, too, was interested in politics and being politically savvy since elementary school. Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush struck me as decent, often principled men. I imagine neither will be remembered in the pantheon of presidents, and I think that’s too bad.
It’s hard not to think about past administrations without being aware of the hyperpartisan atmosphere we find ourselves mired in today. You’d be shocked to know how long that’s been the case. George Washington—Washington!—is famous for voluntarily leaving office after two terms; he could have remained, America's own King George. But one of the key reasons he left was the partisan political strife he found surrounding the actions of his cabinet and Congress—in an era before we even had political parties. The modern era of partisanship can possibly be traced to Newt Gingrich and conservatives unhappy with the liberal-ness Ronald Reagan’s successor, but it’s been with us forever.
These days, it’s also hard not to think about how presidents are portrayed by the media & their own image makers, and how difficult it is to know what’s real and what’s “fake.” That, too, isn’t new. Once upon a time, the partisanship of the press would make Fox and MSNBC seem benign. Presidents have used advertising agencies since they were invented and had uneasy relations with the press even longer. I learned over and over how the real people differed from their more public portrayals. George W. Bush is not stupid. Gerald Ford was coordinated and athletic. Dwight Eisenhower was not a quiet benign presence who just liked to play golf. Calvin Coolidge talked. … You get the idea.
People also ask me about the obscure dudes. “Did you really read a biography of … [Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, etc.]?” There’s mild surprise anyone even wrote books about such little-known figures. I understand the sentiment. The presidents in between #7 (Jackson) and #16 (Lincoln) served in an era when the most important decisions were often made by Congress, not the executive branch. They’re not the Founding Fathers, they’re relics of another age, and they don’t even have cool beards.
But I’m still sympathetic to them. Ask yourself, knowing everything you know now, including whatever you know about slavery and its aftermath: if you were president in the 1840’s or 50’s, in a deeply divided country, what would you have done? 600,000 people died in the Civil War and, after a brief period of reconstruction, America was not great for a lot of people for a long time. So, would you have tried to prevent some of that?
We probably would like to think we would have. But history, they say, is written by the victors. And, in this case, people who tried to prevent bloodshed are portrayed as favoring or tolerating the continued existence or spread of slavery. We judge them poorly; I know I have. Once upon a time, however, it was the abolitionists who were considered the troublemakers (in the north as well as the south). John Quincy Adams was virtually censured for his "radical" abolitionist views. So I’m always left wondering what a president could or should have done, or whether 600,000 deaths were inevitable.
During this journey I came to understand the presidents we think most highly of still had foibles, imperfections, and sometimes acted in cynical, self-serving ways. Theodore Roosevelt, favorite of many, seemed remarkably egotistical at the end of his career. Thomas Jefferson got other people to do his dirty work, so he could appear ethical. Meanwhile, the presidents we think of poorly sometimes acted with the best of intentions, even nobly at times.
The presidents we remember often had clear visions they communicated simply and directly. Once in office, they were flexible and compromising, able to work with those holding opposing viewpoints to get things done. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson worked together, so did Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil. Even George W. Bush and Michelle Obama are friends.
So, have I piqued your interest? Want to read one yourself? Anything by Ron Chernow, David McCullough, Jon Meacham, and Doris Kearns Goodwin will be good. (But be ready: Chernow’s books are long. Really long.) And Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, about James Garfield and his assassin, was a best seller with lots of five-star ratings on Amazon. I read almost the whole book on a single (long) plane ride.
Choose someone you admire. Choose someone you identify with. Or choose someone president during a time you find really interesting. Whoever you choose, I hope you find the journey as interesting as I have.