on September 19, 2012
Woodrow Wilson is my go to president used to judge a book on presidents for quality. This book passes muster on my Wilson Test.
Wilson is difficult to write about for a book on presidents because those looking to buy such a book probably run on the warmer to hotter side of the American patriot spectrum, and one risks alienating, offending, or even wounding your target audience by tackling issues that arise with him, issues that discuss the whole of our American experience both good and bad. And Wilson had both good and bad.
Davis discusses the good, Wilson's measures to bolster "the people" whom the nation is built of and on, but he doesn't shy away from stating that under the Wilson administration "Jim Crow became the policy of the U.S. government" (389). Many presidential books wont go here, even though this fact had a devastating affect on the lives and experiences of American blacks.
Davis does not tell you much about Wilson's views on this subject nor does he go into the effects these views had on the country. This is indicative of the tempo of the book; it is a good overview, but for more in-depth analysis Davis provides further reading resources for each president. But by mentioning Wilson's racial failings and doing so in context, Davis gives the reader a chance to unpack why the complications of history are in fact complicated. This invites a deeper reading into our past. For example Davis writes, "But (Wilson's) handling of racial issues was of little concern to a nation that was warily watching the approach of a European war" (389).
Davis aims to highlight the men and the times of the United States through timelines, presidential quotes, bulleted facts, and analysis. He also provides further reading, both books and online resources, for each president.
on May 17, 2013
As a person who loves learning about U.S. Presidents, I read this book hoping to increase my knowledge of past presidents, get a fresh perspective on old knowledge, or at least get a refresher. However, this book had little to offer in all three respects.
The book itself is divided into three sections. The first examines the origins of the presidency and why the framers of the Constitution decided to create the office. The second, and by far largest, section looks at the forty-four presidents with brief biographies and notable events of their administrations. The third is a short retrospective of the office.
The bulk of the book, that is the biographical section, contains some trivia facts and a brief biography of each man to have been president. While it certainly is difficult in writing a book that is essentially forty-four mini-books in one, Don't Know Much About the American Presidents still falls short.
The first is the numerous omissions I noted when reading this. For example, in the section on Thomas Jefferson, the author apparently has enough room to mention Sally Hemmings a few times, but other events during Jefferson's presidency, such as the Barbary Wars and the Lewis and Clark Expedition are just footnotes. Quite possibly the most well-known accomplishment of Benjamin Harrison's presidency, the Sherman Antitrust Act, is only mentioned in passing. The section on Franklin Roosevelt almost exclusively covers the New Deal and the Great Depression with almost nothing on his leadership during World War II. The section on Jimmy Carter focuses mainly on his "malaise speech" and barely mentions one of his greater accomplishments: the Camp David Accords. I could go on.
The book also contains many slipshod comparisons to modern events. Comparisons to the modern day Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements occur many times in the book. These silly comparisons are a rather lazy way to write history.
The book also contains many curious assessments. For example, the author dings none other than George Washington for not being more progressive on the issue of slavery. This ignores the ridiculousness of trying to judge an eighteenth century figure by twenty-first century standards. For most presidents, he assigns a letter grade to their performance in office which is silly at best.
There are some positive aspects to this book. As another reviewer noted the author does try to treat most presidents fairly. This was noted in the section on Woodrow Wilson who is noted for his progressivism but also his backwards policies on civil rights.
In all, this was a book that offered little to add in the realm of presidential histories. While this book does go over some of the usual fare of presidential history, there is very little in this book that is not better covered in other books. If you are looking for a definitive book on U.S. Presidents, try something else.
on September 9, 2014
The primary problem with Kenneth Davis' book here is that he is using this book to give everyone an exceedingly editorialized version of history. He was snarky throughout the entire book as he tries to tell us his opinion on the presidents that it seems like he just looked up on wikipedia for two minutes. It's also a very shallow telling of American history that really only focuses on practically one or two issues per president (For the first 16 presidents, the only issue is slavery). By the way, did you know that some presidents owned slaves? Kenneth D. wants to remind an already informed reader of this many times throughout this book.
A perfect example of this strange telling of history is that, in the Thomas Jefferson chapter, Sally Hemmings is mentioned multiple times (I truly do mean multiple, in unrelated circumstances. He just loves talking about Sally Hemmings), while Lewis and Clark is not mentioned at all. Which is actually more relevant to American history?
And did you just talk about Michelle Bachman in the Thomas Jefferson chapter, Kenneth? Really?
The author also seems weirdly obsessed with comparing Shay's rebellion and the Whiskey rebellion to Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. I could name at least a dozen reasons why these comparisons make so little sense that they are self-refuting.
He seems weirdly preoccupied with marginalizing the founders. And, by all means, that's fine. They are a bit mythologized. But Kenneth here really wanted them to seem like 2014 progressives in the light of Bill Maher when it came to religion. He provides only evidence that supports his view, but omits contradictory evidence like, I don't know, the Declaration of Independence's line "We are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights". How can you not even address that? I mean, Kenneth loved giving his opinion throughout the 600 page journey. I suppose it doesn't fit into his narrative. I'm not religious myself, but I just want a more honest assessment of my country's history. If the founders really were as he described them, why did they completely disown Thomas Paine after he published the Age of Reason? Kenneth does describe this in his book, but doesn't seem to realize it contradicts his assessment of some of the founders' religion.
What about Andrew Jackson? Kenneth, go read his biography. Kenneth gives a horrible treatment of Jackson. Obviously Jackson wasn't a perfect man, we know. But you can't lie. You can't omit things that go against your narrative. Kenneth Davis omits from the "children" section the TWO INDIAN CHILDREN that Jackson adopted. It is WELL known that Andrew Jackson adopted two Indian children, Theodore and Lyncoya. He was also an orphan and had a very difficult childhood, something that is at odds with the "privileged" portrayal of Jackson here.
In addition, sometimes his ratings of the president seem completely made up and definitely don't match up with what he actually says about the presidents. He gives Reagan an 'A' while scathing him - he will devote practically half the Reagan chapter to Iran Contra. Meanwhile, he gave Carter a 'D', but didn't actually give concrete reasons why Carter was bad. He mostly just mentioned the malaise speech, but we all know that Carter was most definitely bad for other reasons. Apparently having "good intentions" is enough.
The treatment of Eisenhower's stationing of troops to Little Rock was very strange. It's like Kenneth was upset that Eisenhower did it, and so he marginalized Eisenhower's personal desire for it, without giving evidence. It's like he just infiltrated Eisenhower's psyche and made it up. After all, Eisenhower wasn't a good progressive like LBJ - who was oddly treated exceptionally well in this book. And apparently LBJ inherited Vietnam (and so naturally his giant escalation was justified). It was JFK that really fared poorly here though. That was a surprise.
And the Obama chapter. Oh my, oh my. Nobody could fawn more than this. It wasn't even history. I may as well have been reading some newsletter from moveon.org about how great Obama is.
A different criticism - there was basically zero mention in this book about the various breakdowns of congress (except how hard it has made it for Obama). The breakdown of congress happens to be a big deal. Possibly more than the president, because they actually control taxes and the budget. But OK Kenneth Davis, we can be shallow.
I read this whole book. I decided not to stop because of the obscene price, but that may have been a mistake.
on February 21, 2014
Kenneth C. Davis has a justifiably credible reputation for producing quality treatments and analyses of scientific and historical subject matter. He has written nine (9) books to date, including six "Don't Know Much About..." books exploring topics ranging from the US Civil War to the Universe. The book is divided into three parts: Part I- The Making of the President - 1787; Part 2 - Presidential Profiles, and; Part III - What Do We Do With The President? Parts I and III comprise, collectively, interesting facts and provide an appropriate context for the analyses conducted in Part II - which contains an assessment section. It is in this section that book's flaws become evident.
Davis relates: "Each profile concludes with a final judgment, an assessment including a simple report card letter grade - A+ down to F, with a few I's for Incomplete. These grades...gauge the impact, influence, and consequences of each president, because a numerical ranking of "Best to Worst" is too simplistic. As this history shows, even the `best' presidents made bad mistakes. And the influence and achievements of a failed or disgraced president, such as Richard Nixon, must still be acknowledged." This is a more objective criterion than we have seen in other presidential assessments, where their metrics - as in the Sienna College surveys (i.e., imagination, background, intellect, etc.) - lend themselves to arbitrary interpretation and thus skewed assessments. Yet, the narratives supporting the scores are at odds with the facts in several instances.
One example is Ronald Reagan - with a mean ranking of #7 (among the top ten presidents) in all surveys conducted from 1999-2013 (the afore-mentioned Sienna College survey is appropriately omitted due to its left-leaning skew). Davis' book gives Reagan an "A," which is in keeping with the recent assessments. Yet, his narrative seems to be at odds with that score. He quotes permanent Reagan critic and NY Times Reporter, Richard Reeves, who claims that "(Reagan's) personal popularity remained remarkably high...after the recession of 1982, even though the majority of Americans disapproved of...(his)...driving the country deeply into debt, fighting little wars in Central America, secretly selling arms to Iran, or refusing to acknowledge the lethal spread of AIDS across the nation." Such claims range from being highly questionable to blatantly wrong.
For example, it is absurd to blame Reagan for the massive deficits, as he agreed with the House Democrats to raise taxes 11 times (creating roughly $70 Billion in revenue) in exchange for spending reductions later on - yet the cuts were never made. This begs the question: how could anyone blame Reagan when the House Democrats - who constitutionally controlled budgets and appropriations (see Article 1, sects. 7-9) - violated all agreements to reduce or control spending? Blaming Reagan for the deficits is part of the leftist narrative to deflect attention away from his great achievement with revitalizing our economy, creating 96 consecutive months of economic growth, 19.9 million new jobs, eradicating high inflation, interest, and tax rates, and adding over $800B in revenue and $2 Trillion to our GDP. As a footnote, Davis mentions none of this in his section, "What is Reaganomics?" - again, making his assessment sources suspect.
Regarding AIDS, Lou Cannon called Reagan's approach "halting and ineffective." Yet, what is the metric by which "halting and ineffective" were determined? Davis never explores Reagan's actual record on AIDS, which continues to be heavily distorted by the radical Left. He tacitly accepts Cannon's (and other critics) at their word.
However, according to the CBO, Media Research Center, National Review, and other sources, RR's record on AIDS paints a different picture. First, AIDS funding skyrocketed in the 1980s, almost doubling each year from $44 million in 1983 to $103 million, $205 million, $508 million, $922 million, and then $1.6 billion in 1988. By 1989, Reagan signed $5.73 billion (i.e., $10.6 B in 2013 dollars) in anti-AIDS outlays, effectively inaugurating federal AIDS research and treatment support. Overall, the average annual increase in federal expenditures on HIV/AIDS under Reagan was 128.92% (1983-89). Secondly, Reagan convened the Watkins Commission in 1987, yielding over 500 recommendations to fight AIDS. Thirdly, in 1983, Reagan's Secretary of Health and Human Services, Margaret Heckler, publicly declared AIDS her department's "number one priority." In 1986, Reagan's Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, called AIDS the nation's "number one health crisis" and initiated massive information campaigns that lasted for the rest of the decade and were the basis for continuing efforts in the 1990's.
Reeves' statement that Reagan never even acknowledged the crisis is an outright lie. Examples: Reagan first mentioned the crisis on September 17, 1985 during a press conference. He stated: "Including what we have in the budget for '86, it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS in addition to what I'm sure other medical groups are doing. And we have $100 million in the budget this year; it'll be $126 million next year. So, this is a top priority with us. Yes, there's no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer." Two days later, he again addressed it in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, and spoke at length about it in his 1986 State of the Union address.
Based on the preceding, I'll leave it to others to decide if Reagan's record on AIDS was "halting and ineffective." Yet, these omissions are implicit of yet another example of how heavily Reagan's record has been distorted by an ideologically-bigoted, hateful Left - deluded by its own echo-chamber induced rhetoric. It appears pathologically incapable of projecting Reagan in anything other than negative terms or giving him credit for his greatest achievements (i.e., ending the Cold War, economic recovery, etc.), preferring to distort accounts to accent comparatively minor negative aspects. There are other questionable facets - like the over-emphasis on Iran-Contra, which pales in comparison to more recent scandals and is a definite symptom of Leftist skew. Yet Davis' reliance on them implies tacit agreement, effectively ratifying incomplete or factually inaccurate accounts.
Reagan's is a salient example but there are others, such as Lyndon Johnson - despite the disaster of Vietnam and the failed "War on Poverty" (among others) - gets a "B," while George W. Bush gets an "F" even though the full story on his tenure is at least a decade from being told. Adopting the current passions and an incomplete database on a presidential tenure inevitably leads to flawed and distorted assessments. He should have been given an "I," as the fundamental legacy of GWB is still under intense scrutiny and debate.
Mr. Davis needs to revisit his "assessments" in later editions to ensure that the narratives actually support why a grade was given and ensure that BOTH sides of the story are represented. While this book does not lessen his overall credibility as a historian, it does demonstrate how presidential history (and historians) can become misled by oft-repeated, ideologically self-interested accounts that are often devoid of objective factual analysis.