Since A Presidents Story was published I have been asked by several people to name my favorite President biographies. I usually throw a few titles out but, given how many I have read and how many I have enjoyed, I am usually a little tongue-tied when I try to respond. I decided for this month’s update to settle on my “Top Ten.” I note, however, that if I had to name my top 20, numbers 11 through 20 would not be far behind the list below. I have also included two “bonus picks” that were indispensable to my research for and writing of A Presidents Story.
Inevitably, some people will wonder how I could leave off well known works like, e.g., David McCullough’s John Adams or Truman, Ronald Chernow’s Washington, Carl Sandburg’s books on Lincoln, Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt or Dumas Malone’s series on Jefferson. While these books are all well done (and, in the case of Chernow’s book on Washington, extremely well written), I admit to preferring books about the lesser known Presidents (thus, my focus in A Presidents Story). Additionally, while I truly admire the depth and quality of the research that went into some of these “classics”, even I can find all the detail to be a bit of a grind.
With that (click on each title to be linked to the Amazon page for that book),
My Top Ten Biographies
1. Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (2017) by Kenneth Whyte: Those who know me will not be surprised that a Herbert Hoover biography tops my list. I have probably read more biographies on Hoover than any other President. Eugene Lyons was the biographer who first brought Hoover to life for me and educated me on how much my U.S. History classes and the standard treatments of Hoover left out. Mr. Lyons was an unabashed Hoover fan as were many of the other biographers of Hoover (Coolidge’s and FDR’s biographers tend to not be as enamored with Hoover). Whyte’s recent book, however, is one of the most balanced biographies I have ever read. He does not shy away from describing Hoover’s faults and flaws but it is clear that Whyte warmed to his topic as his research progressed. By the end the author did a thorough job of objectively examining his subject and is still left in awe of the 31st President’s accomplishments over an “extraordinary life.” Finally, the quality of Whyte’s writing is such that this was the only time I remember getting choked up while reading a President’s biography.
2. Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son (2004), Volume 1 and Franklin Pierce: Martyr For the Union (2007), Volume 2 by Peter Wallner: Prior to 2004, it was almost 75 years since the last book on Franklin Pierce. When I saw that a new biography came out on Pierce, I was delighted because, up to that point, I only had a very small reprint of an old campaign biography. That little book allowed me to say I had biographies on all the Presidents but it was not exactly a scholarly work. The pleasant surprise was that Peter Wallner’s two volume biography of Pierce is excellent. It is a balanced treatment that dispels many myths about Pierce. Additionally, Wallner’s writing style is engaging and well-paced. As I allude to in A Presidents Story, Pierce was a bit of a tragic figure of unfulfilled potential. While the comparison is not perfect, the country was optimistic about the young, charismatic Pierce at the time of his election, much like it would be a little over a hundred years later at the election of JFK. Wallner details this phenomenon as well as Pierce’s fall from grace through circumstances largely beyond his control in a very readable but scholarly manner.
3. The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity (2012) by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy: This is technically not a President’s biography and it probably does not even qualify as a scholarly work. Nonetheless, it is one of my favorites. The authors explore the relationships between the Presidents and their predecessors starting with Truman (and his relationship with Hoover) and running through the first couple years of Barack Obama’s term. It is fascinating to read about the unlikely alliances and surprising tensions between these men. The book brilliantly illustrates why the Presidency is the job that one has to have done to understand.
4. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (2011) by Candice Millard: This book about the assassination of 20th President James A. Garfield is written and reads like a novel. But it is well researched and does an excellent job of not only telling a riveting tale but of illuminating Garfield, another man of great charisma whose election in 1880 buoyed a weary nation. Millard is a gifted historical writer who also wrote a gripping account of Theodore Roosevelt’s adventures in the Amazon after his Presidency in her book The River of Doubt.
5. American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (2016) by Ronald C. White: I struggled for, literally, decades to find a good biography on Ulysses S. Grant. The wait turned out to be worth it when I read this recent work by White a couple years ago. White’s writing style is engaging and he has a talent for determining where going into greater detail will not cause him to lose the reader and knowing when to take note and move on. For me, shifting the view I have developed about a President over a lifetime of study is hard but White changed my perspective on Grant significantly. Probably somewhat to White’s dismay, Ron Chernow’s work on Grant came out shortly after American Ulysses and likely cost White some sales. I have not yet read Chernow’s book but I will and I expect it will be very good. But whether Chernow succumbed to the desire to demonstrate the depth of his research or, conversely, instills confidence in the reader that he is relaying the important stuff (as White did) remains to be seen.
6. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1982), Means of Ascent (1990), Master of the Senate (2002), The Passage of Power (2012) by Robert Caro: Yes, this is really four books. Four long books. But Caro is a good writer and diligent researcher to say the least. The wonder of Caro’s work on LBJ is that he is able to organize his long, well-researched work into a compelling story that, at times, is very hard to put down. My childhood memories of Johnson as a slow speaking, somewhat taciturn person could not have been further from the reality of the man Caro describes. My main criticism is that Caro clearly embarked on this project because of his personal zeal for the Civil Rights Act that Johnson helped shepherd to passage. Because of this, at times Caro becomes so absorbed in the minutiae of the passage of the Act that he distracts from his usual well-paced writing. The second volume (Means of Ascent) was probably the weakest entry of the four books but, like the sixth Harry Potter book, was probably necessary to set up what came next. Caro is 83 and supposedly hard at work on the final volume that will cover LBJ’s Presidency and death.
7. His Excellency: George Washington (2004) by Joseph J. Ellis: Joseph Ellis won the Pulitzer Prize for “Founding Brothers” which is his best known work. While I enjoyed “Brothers” and found his book on John Adams (“Passionate Sage”) reasonably interesting, neither of them caused me to want to go out and find more of his books. So I did not have high hopes for this relatively short book on the first President. Perhaps because of my belief that Washington stands head and shoulders above all our other Presidents, I may have been more favorably inclined toward the subject matter. At any rate, Ellis says in the preface that he set out to write an accessible work that would focus tightly on Washington’s character. He frames the task before him perfectly when he says “Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior…Why was that?” He answers the question adroitly and convincingly.
8. A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford (1979): I admit to having a soft spot for Gerald Ford. The only President to not go through an election process to become President, I believe he was one of our most Presidential and dignified leaders. In this age of poll-watching and soaring (but largely meaningless) rhetoric, he was a humble man and not a gifted speaker. Unfortunately, these qualities count for little in modern politics and among those who report on current events. For example, despite probably being one of the best athletes to ever occupy the White House, the media and entertainment industry relentlessly portrayed Ford as a bumbling klutz. So, to me, it is important that Ford had a platform to tell his story. Those who feel “well-informed” because they read newspapers and watch TV will learn of a different man than the one portrayed to them. Most poignantly, Ford explains in detail why he pardoned Nixon knowing full well that he was dooming his chance at being elected President in his own right. From his position of leadership, he understood that, as tantalizing as Watergate was to the press and to Washington D.C. as a community, the country needed to get past a “third rate burglary” and focus on bigger issues (e.g., the Cold War, the door to China that Nixon left open and spiraling inflation rates, to name a few). For those bent on punishing Nixon, Ford wisely recognized that, in terms of “paying the price,” few things could exceed the disgrace of resigning the presidency. He weighed the pros and cons and did what he (not the polls or media) felt was best for the country…and inarguably bad for him personally. There are more spellbinding Presidential autobiographies but none as important.
9. Coolidge (2013) by Amity Shlaes: I suspect I would have been a supporter of Calvin Coolidge had I lived when he was President. I think his inaugural address is a classic that should be required reading for all Americans. But, as a public and historical figure, it is pretty hard to argue that Coolidge was anything other than pretty dull. And there are a few short parts of this book that are pretty dull. But the fact that most of it is not struck me as quite an accomplishment. So, while I can probably get by without reading another Coolidge biography for a while, I am looking forward to reading more by Amity Shlaes.
10. Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden and the Stolen Election of 1876 (2003) by Roy Morris, Jr.: Like The Presidents Club and Destiny of the Republic, this is not, technically, a biography. But given that most people know little about Rutherford B. Hayes (our 19th President) and this book tells one a lot about Hayes, close enough. This is a very well done book that tells an engrossing tale. But, more than that, it is an important story for modern Americans to know. While I will not contend that our current political climate is healthy, we have lots of examples in our history where citizens could rightfully question whether the republic could survive. The election of 1876 was one of those times. That Hayes could prevail in such an unseemly election yet have few question his personal honesty and integrity speaks volumes about our current inability to not personalize the political…and to not politicize the personal.
Bonus Pick #1: The Health of the Presidents (1960) by Rudolph Marx, M.D.: I probably stumbled across this book on a bargain table somewhere and would be surprised if I paid more than a dollar or two. If so, that was one of the best bucks I ever spent. Dr. Marx did a fascinating job of detailing the various infirmities of our Chief Executives. I referred to this book many times to develop anecdotes for A Presidents Story or to just check to see what the mood of a particular President might have been at the time I was describing him since our mood is so often linked to our current state of health. I met a doctor at a book festival last year who had written a book on the history of medicine. When I started to describe this book to him he interrupted and said “Oh, you mean Dr. Marx’ book.” That gave me some confidence about my source.
Bonus Pick #2: The President’s House Volumes 1 and 2 (1986) by William Seale: Seale’s book, published by the White House Historical Association, is a gold mine of information about the evolution of everything about the White House including its inhabitants, its architecture, its accessibility and so much more. I routinely went here first when I was trying to capture the feel for the White House at any particular time in A Presidents Story. It is also two simply lovely volumes that look nice on any bookshelf.
Finally, if you are interested in really diving into Presidential Biographies in a big way, there is a website developed by a gentleman named Stephen Floyd who set out to read a biography on each President in a three year span. The whole idea appears to have kind of got away from him as he ended up taking six years and read several books on most Presidents. Anyway, he developed a wonderful website entitled My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies where he reviews the books he has read and provides a forum for other enthusiasts. I found the site after a high school history teacher recommended it to me. I have read many of the books Steve Floyd reviews and with minor differences think he does a good job of assessing the different biographies. Take a look and, happy reading!
I have received a couple requests for questions that folks can use for their book clubs so, here you go:
Book Club Discussion Questions for A Presidents Story
1. Did the format of the book work? Was it easier to follow historical events in this historical novel than in, for example, a high school or college text book? Was it difficult to sort out fact from fiction?
2. What surprised you most in the book? Were there historical events of which you were previously unaware? If so, does your knowledge of those events change your current view of history, politics, people or the United States as a country?
3. Which President was your favorite and why? Which was your least favorite and why? Which President would you like to learn more about?
4. Was the advent of political parties a positive development for the United States or not?
5. In Part III, Chapter 2 in the section from October 1842, the history of the abolitionist movement is briefly described. Would you have been an abolitionist and, if so, would you have been a “gradualist” or a “radical”? Why?
6. Given the attitudes of most of Lincoln’s predecessors toward the institution of slavery, was the Civil War inevitable?
7. Several of the Presidents depicted in A Presidents Story were military war heroes. Why do you think early America was prone to electing military officers as President?
8. Several of the Presidents’ wives (e.g., Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison, Sarah Polk, Abigail Fillmore) influenced the views of their husbands. How do you think early America would have differed if women had the same ability to vote and participate in the political process that they do today?
9. Which of the Presidents between 1800 and 1860 made the biggest impact?
10. What was your reaction to de Tocqueville’s observations that Lincoln reads in Part IV, Chapter 1?
October took me to book festivals in Williamsburg, Virginia and Fort Worth, Texas. The book festivals are great places not just to showcase A Presidents Story but to meet other authors and the locals who come and book shop. I learn something new about marketing my book and have several great conversations at each event. I’ve added a few pictures below of the events as well as from some of the historical Presidential sites Kay and I visited along the way. All of the President sites I visited were for Presidents that figure prominently in my book, so, if you’ve read the book, here are some shots for the movie!
After my sister and niece saw the play Hamilton, they gushed with praise. My nephew asked an excellent question: “What happens in that theatre?”
All I knew about Hamilton was that it was based on Ron Chernow’s book, that most of the cast were black actors and actresses and that the music was rap. A musical based on a Chernow biography with actors that look nothing like the real-life characters they portrayed in a rap musical all sounded like a questionable combination at best. Additionally, several people wondered if I would have problems with its historical accuracy. So, with some reticence, I saw Hamilton in London recently. The answer to my nephew’s question is “I am not entirely sure what happens in that theatre, but it is amazing.”
To deal with the preliminaries, using diverse actors and actresses is not yet another strained effort by the entertainment industry to show how inclusive it is, but instead is part of the essence of the play. Race is one small part of the import of the show. And the rap music (which isn’t usually my thing) goes from odd to enchanting by about the third line. Rap is really used as the bridge between some incredibly original and engrossing songs. Rap tells the story, the songs reveal the characters.
In terms of history, while I might quibble with a few discrete pieces, Hamilton is a well-informed documentary. I was a little distraught about its treatment of Thomas Jefferson (the actor who played Jefferson was short while Jefferson was quite tall for his day and the actor who played James Madison could have been an NFL linebacker while Madison was all of 5’ 4”). That, however, was not the point. The point was that Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were debating the critical issues of the late 18th century, irrespective of what they looked like. And that debate was not recast to fit our modern notions of acceptability, it was about the issues that they actually debated. For example, monetary policy for the new country is debated (or rapped about) in surprisingly faithful terms. Imagine being entertained by an argument about monetary policy that pays homage to the importance of monetary policy. Yes, I know, hard to imagine.
While it is easy to get multiple messages from Hamilton,I was most taken with the fact that, in the end, the play is 1) a primer on the passage of the United States Constitution and 2) gives George Washington the adoration that is his due. I am often asked who I think our greatest President was and I always respond with “Easy. It’s George Washington. There never would have been a second President if he had not been humble enough to recognize the need to step aside after two terms. He also believed it was vital to hear competing points of view to make sound decisions. So, he put Jefferson and Hamilton in his cabinet and had them fight it out, to their frustration, but to his (and the country’s) benefit.” This is a large part of the genius of Hamilton. There are several scenes where Jefferson and Hamilton debate and maneuver while Washington thoughtfully listens. It may not sound gripping, but, it is. When Washington’s character sings “Teach Them to Say Goodbye,” I wept.
The star of the show, however, is the Constitution. There is little effort made to “dumb it down” or make it something other than what it was and is. At the time of its passage, it was controversial and not particularly popular. But it was the compromise that was needed to bring disparate states together that gave them some hope of survival. The play conveys this but also gives a preview of how the brilliance of the document would come to define us as a nation. In a remarkably subtle fashion, you realize long after you have forgotten that the actors and actresses are mostly people of color and are telling the early history of the United States through rap music that, without the Constitution, those actors and actresses would not be able to tell the story they are telling.
It is all the fashion today to discount our founders because many of them were slaveholders, an indisputably horrible practice. Nonetheless, it was common throughout the world at that time. But the Constitution that those same founders crafted was also the beginning of the end of slavery and most of those founders (including Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison) knew it. The Civil War was a tragedy of human loss, the causes of which can also be debated. But, among its causes, it resulted from the tension created by a Constitution that ultimately could not coexist with human bondage.
What happens in that theatre is a tribute to what is exceptional about our past with little gloss or distortion, just accessibility. Hamilton is a history lesson about our shared values. No liberals, no conservatives. Just a celebration of why they exist.
At the Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. I've always believed that Harry Truman had to be the most surprised of all our Presidents that he ended up as President.
So, a funny thing happened on the way to getting print copies out to those who ordered them online. Print copies were originally supposed to ship by June 19. On June 19, however, several of you may have noticed that Amazon and Barnes & Noble both had messages saying that A Presidents Story was "Temporarily Out of Stock." The Publisher informed me that the problem was that the printer they recently switched to turned out to not be up to the task. They have switched back to their old printing service and now, on Amazon at least, print copies are "In Stock" and can be shipped. Barnes & Noble and other online sellers should be updated soon. So, if you previously tried to order a print copy online, you should meet with greater success now. Sorry about any inconvenience.
Several book signing events have been scheduled for late summer and fall--just check out the "Events" tab. Tomorrow I will be at the America's Founding Father Exhibit on the road to Mt. Rushmore from 9:30 to 1:00. Thanks again for the interest and the support!
My undergraduate degree in college was in Business with an emphasis on Marketing. I wish I could say that my degree has been helpful in promoting A Presidents Story but it really hasn’t. My son’s Masters in Marketing, on the other hand, has been very helpful. After a few months at this, I can safely say that Marketing now bears little resemblance to Marketing 35 years ago.
One thing that has survived over the years is book signing events by authors. The head of History Publishing Company, the publisher of my book, told me that the most fun of the whole process is the book signings. He said it is a thrill to meet new people who share an interest in the topic of your book. While my first book signing at the Crook County Library consisted mainly of local friends and neighbors, my publisher was right. It was a blast. I have scheduled several more signings and am working on others. Keep checking the “Events” tab for updates.
My focus so far has been on local events with some events in the Midwest. This Fall I would like to get to the East Coast and to Southern California. If you know of a possible location for a book signing (or heck, if you own a bookstore!) please let me know.
A few interesting reactions to the book so far:
1. After reading the book I have had a few people tell me who their favorite President was in the novel. Since one of my goals was to highlight these Presidents, obviously, I was delighted to hear about these readers’ selections. I am equally interested to hear who you liked most (or least).
2. I have had several people ask “Why is James Buchanan on the cover” of A Presidents Story? The answer is I don’t know. But the publisher sent the proposed cover and it struck me as right. Prior to that, I contemplated a cover with some sort of montage of pictures of all 14 Presidents featured in the novel. When I received the publisher’s proposed cover, however, it occurred to me that Buchanan was an interesting choice and made the book less likely to be viewed purely as a history book. I never discussed it further with the publisher because it made sense to me and, apparently, also made sense to the publisher. I doubt that the cover will ever engender a debate like the meaning of the lyrics of “American Pie” or the symbolism in “Waiting for Godot” but, for my purposes, it added a bit of intrigue to the process!
3. A couple people caught a few minor typos in the original edition. The publisher has sent in revisions to try and correct those for future versions (so, who knows, if it becomes a bestseller, maybe the typo versions will be more valuable someday!). The only egregious typo, however, occurs late in the book where the results of the election of 1856 are set out. Those results got lost in a formatting vortex so, when you get to that point, here is the table as it should appear:
Buchanan Fremont Fillmore
Electoral Vote 174 114 8
Popular Vote 1,836,072 1,342,345 873,053
Thanks again to those of you who have bought the book and once more to those of you who have read it. I will add pictures and stories from the signings as we go the rest of this year. Have a great summer!
As of today, you can pre-order print copies of A Presidents Story online at bradmckim.com simply by clicking on the Amazon or Barnes & Noble link. Pre-ordered books will ship on June 18 or 19.
We had our first book signing event on May 11 at the Crook County library in Sundance, Wyoming. Thanks to everyone who turned out on a foggy night in the old West!
Heard from the publisher today that the print version of A Presidents Story will be available starting June 17. Thanks!
Just a quick update on the rollout of the book. In two weeks the eBook version will be coming out and showing up on your Kindles and Nooks if you've pre-ordered. I have received several inquiries about print versions. The publisher, History Publishing Company, advises me that print versions will be available for purchase starting in June (exact date coming soon). I have received advance copies to be sold at book signing events. I am working on setting up several events here in the Black Hills for this Spring and Summer as well as at some of the Presidential historical sites in late Summer and early Fall. You can check under the "Events" tab as I add appearances. The first event will be a benefit for the Crook County Public Library in Sundance, Wyoming on May 11 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. I'll do a short talk, answer questions and then sign books. Half of all proceeds will go to the Library.
Thank you to all for the encouragement and support so far--this has been quite the education as I wade into the world of literary marketing!
Welcome to my blog. Those are four words I am surprised to type. Almost as surprised as I am that I am having a book published. My historical novel, A Presidents Story, will be out in April. The publisher and my son with the Masters Degree in Marketing said authors have websites and, if they’re smart, blogs or newsletters. A blog sounded less intimidating because I don’t have to decide if something is “news” or not.
This will be my main blog. If you click on “Blog" in the upper right corner, you will see that I hope to eventually build blogs on Music and Fly Fishing, the other two things I can never seem to get enough of. For the Presidents Blog, in addition to occasional commentary, I will post (hopefully) interesting anecdotes and book reviews (both of my book and other books on Presidents). If you sign up for the email list, I’ll alert you to new content on the blog from time to time. Don't worry, I’ll be judicious with the number of emails to avoid morphing into spam.
But, back to the book. Why did I write A Presidents Story? Initially, it was because I could. In the mid-90s, PCs came out. I bought a turbo-charged 80-megabyte-of-memory beauty and thought, “Wow, with all this capacity, I could write a book!”
Around the time I bought the computer and started having those thoughts, I read William Safire’s Freedom. It’s a great Civil War novel based on a lot of actual history. It occurred to me that it might be the type vehicle I could use to convey some of the things I’ve learned about the Presidents over a lifetime of study. So, I started doing the research and writing as time allowed over the next 5 years.
Then, time did not allow for close to 15 years. When I retired in 2015 and ran across my old notes, I decided I would finish the book. I did so and sent it out into the world of agents and publishers. The nice folks at History Publishing Company responded and said they would like to publish A Presidents Story.
As I say in the “Author’s Note” to the book, this “is a work of fiction based on many factual events." Over the last 50 years, countless people have told me that whoever was President at that time was “the worst ever” or, occasionally, “the best ever.” I’m often tempted to ask, “How do you think he compares with, say, Zachary Taylor?” I typically don’t because I am usually talking to someone I like and would rather get to see them again than prove a point. That point, however, was part of my motivation in writing the book.
A Presidents Story is about the mostly forgotten Presidents between Washington and Lincoln. Just as most of us can readily think of actions that, for example, LBJ and Nixon and Reagan took that impacted the issues that Bush and Obama confronted, so it was with Lincoln. His predecessors had a profound impact on the issues he confronted. A Presidents Story attempts to illuminate the Presidents before Lincoln in a way that will make it easier or, better yet, harder, for us to say a President is the “best” or “worst.”
The book should be available in hard copy shortly after its April 2018 publication date. In the meantime, it can be pre-ordered as an eBook on Amazon or on Barnes and Noble (and probably other places as well). I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please post a review online. The publisher and my son say that’s important too.