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To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents Hardcover – August 1, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

From the beginning, Americans have loved and hated their presidents, and memorialized them both for their achievements and their foibles. In this collection of essays, written by members of the prestigious Society of American Historians, we're gifted with a lively interpretive history of the 41 presidents to date with an emphasis on their dominant themes and achievements as influenced by their personalities and ideologies.

With the focus on presidential style, Joseph J. Ellis examines the ironies in Thomas Jefferson's ideals and actions, as well as his inveterate shyness (imagine a modern-day president who only spoke at his inauguration and presented all legislative proposals in writing). Robert Dallek discusses Lyndon B. Johnson's contradictions as evidenced in his significant domestic achievements and the terrible failure of the Vietnam War. And in the pieces on also-rans like Grant and Coolidge and the disgraced such as Nixon, these historians often use the benefit of hindsight and scholarship to focus on the more redeeming features of each man. The most recent president covered does not get off so lightly, however, as Evan Thomas devotes an inordinate amount of space to Bill Clinton's philandering and slams him with such adjectives as "calculating, shrewd and slovenly."

The book is packed with photographs, illustrations, inaugural addresses, and memorable quotes ("When Theodore attends a wedding, he wants to be the bride, and when he attends a funeral, he wants to be the corpse"). A light sense of humor is even displayed, as in a photograph of William Howard Taft's mammoth bathtub, specially built after the 355-pound man got stuck in an ordinary tub, and the story of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign captured in two campaign photos--one of a sexy, bare-chested JFK in his PT-109 and the other of a stiff Nixon in his Navy dress blues. It's also a treasure trove of presidential trivia--which presidents proposed to their wives on the first date? Who were the only three vice presidents to be successfully promoted by election? This is a terrific reference book--an informative, revealing, and fun way to learn about America's chosen few. --Lesley Reed

From Publishers Weekly

Edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom), this collection is an easy guide to the American presidency. In the first section, an array of distinguished historians pithily assesses, in essay-length narratives, each of the 42 presidents. Gordon Wood calls George Washington "an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule"; Catherine Clinton explains why history hasn't been kind to Benjamin Harrison; Douglas Brinkley portrays Jimmy Carter as an ethical politician in the wrong place at the wrong time. The book's second section summarizes each presidential campaign and reprints the text of every inaugural address. The splendid illustrations accompanying the textAwhich range from the iconic (a youthful Bill Clinton shaking hands with President Kennedy) to the unusual (Dwight Eisenhower at his easel, painting)Aadd richness and depth. Sponsored by the Society of American HistoriansAan invitation-only organization of the best and the brightest of historical writers who promote literary distinction in their fieldAthis estimable book draws on ideas that are shaping American political historiography and popular memory and that will continue to shape them in years to come. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: Society of American Historians Books
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Dorling Kindersley; 1St Edition edition (August 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0789450739
  • ISBN-13: 978-0789450739
  • Product Dimensions: 7.2 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #417,287 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 80 people found the following review helpful By Mike Powers TOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"To the Best of My Ability" is a wonderful new book about the American presidents. Published by the Society of American Historians, it has as its General Editor the distinguished Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson.

"To the Best of My Ability" has similarities with other Presidential reference works I've read, but it also has some particularly notable new features which I believe set it apart as the most outstanding work in its genre. The first 306 pages are devoted to short historical essays of each President and his administration . Each essay is written by a renowned Presidential scholar, biographer, or historian, and are without peer for writing quality and scholarship. The essays are lively, interesting, and offer a brief and completely objective appraisal of each President's time in the nation's highest office.

After the Presidential essays section, there is another intriguing segment that has short articles describing each President's election campaign(s). The complete text of each Chief Executive's inauguration speech(es) is also included. I found this area of the book to be fascinating. I especially enjoyed reading the two Inaugural addresses of Abraham Lincoln, who is my favorite President. There I was able to compare his first Inaugural, a long, pedantic justification for beginning the Civil War, with his second address, his so very brief and powerfully eloquent appeal for the American people to "...bind up the nation's wounds."

In addition to being a well written, meticulously researched, and superbly edited, "To the Best of My Ability" is a irresistibly beautiful volume. It is lavishly illustrated throughout with paintings, lithographs, and photographs both familiar and unfamiliar.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Robert Morris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I join with countless others in praise of this magnificent collection of essays which discuss all but one of the Presidents of the United States. The author of each essay is a distinguished historian who is especially well-qualified to comment on the given subject. James M. McPherson serves as general editor and provides an Introduction which, by itself, is worth the price of the book. He also provides the analysis of Abraham Lincoln. David Rubel assists McPherson in the capacity of editor.

Each of us has a special interest in certain Presidents and therefore is inclined to proceed to those essays which discuss them. Fair enough. What I found of special interest and value is the information and analysis provided concerning Presidents in which I had little (if any) prior interest, such as Van Buren, both Harrisons, Polk, Fillmore, and Buchanan. The essays are supplemented by a wealth of illustrations as well as what I view as "historical nuggets."

For example, during the administration of John Adams, we learn that on August 28, 1797, "In order to end costly pirate attacks on American merchant shipping in the Mediterranean Sea, the United States signs a treaty with the Barbary Coast state of Tunis. The agreement, ratified by the Senate in January 1800, requires the United States to pay tribute to Tunis." These brief but informative items supplement each essay.

The reader is also provided with detailed information about various Presidential campaigns as well as the inaugural addresses of winning candidates, from George Washington (April 30, 789) until Bill Clinton (January 20, 1997). If a higher rating were available, I would give it to this unique volume.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Randy on August 21, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book offers a fresh new perspective on the 40+ presidents who have taken office to serve their country " to the best of their ability". I have seen many books on the presidents, but none as superbly written and compiled as this one. An elite group of some of America's most renowned historians write about each president: his life, his times, his accomplishments, his failures...The book is authoritative and trustworthy. It does not harshly criticize the presidents nor does it laud them unduly. On the contrary, each president is given the credit he is due and even the weakest presidents are shown in a new light explaining the great difficulties of their times. Instead of alienating the U.S. presidents from the people, this book works to bring this prestigious class of Americans ever closer to the people, American or foreign. The book is abundantly illustrated and, although I did find a few typos, it is sumptuously written. The book is crammed with interesting facts, and at the end, there is the complete set of the presidents' inaugural addresses. I doubt there was ever a book this magnificent written about the lives of the U.S. presidents. Dorling Kindersley books are true treasures for any library due to the wealth of information and beauty of print, and this book is no exception. It is recommended as a book to read or just as a reference to keep for information. However you use it, it is truly an excellent book.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Erin Esposito on August 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a very resourceful book, with rare pictures of campaign memorabilia and of the presidents, as well as nice brief chapters on each of the presidents. I was particularly pleased with this book because it included all the inauguration speeches by all 41 presidents. Most books have either one or the other (the biography of the president or the speech), but this book is a gem because it contains both! Though the text is a bit small to read, it could be enlarged a bit (this is with me using reading glasses, by the way).
A very resourceful book to have, and well worth the price.
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