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.)
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