on April 16, 2008
Nearly as interesting as this charming book was a read through its Amazon reviews. While SECRET LIVES is certainly praised herein, it's also lambasted for being too partisan left, or partisan right, or for not being titillating enough.
Yeesh. It must be hard to read a book when one's knee is jerking involuntarily.
One of the most critical (and currently highlighted) reader reviews takes issue with author O'Brien's research, citing the controversy of Thomas Jefferson siring children with his slave, Sally Hemmings. There is no controversy about this any longer; in 1998, geneticists proved a DNA link between Jefferson's and Hemmings' descendants.
While other male members of the Jefferson family might have accounted for this, an impressively extensive report done by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation found that "it is VERY UNLIKELY that Randolph Jefferson or any Jefferson other than Thomas Jefferson was the father of [Hemmings'] children." (Capitalization mine.)
Sorry to be so specific; in a more general vein, I found this book to be a perfect nighttime read, very funny, and a great refresher course on our presidents. Equal space is given to all, and as that allows obscure leaders like Franklin Pierce the spotlight, I was all for it.
on February 2, 2005
I found this book to be a very entertaining read about the men who have served our country as President. If you are looking for a serious history book, this is not it. But if you are looking to learn something about the men who have held the highest office in the land, and at the same time be entertained - this is a great book. I found it very interesting that several reviewers thought the author had an "agenda" or was "partisan". The amusing thing about these claims is that half the claims are from reviewers who think the author leaned to the left, and the other half from reviewers who thought he leaned to the right! How can the author be biased in BOTH directions?!? I can only assume that the reviewers who claimed bias in one way or the other are those that are either extremists to the right or left, and have a very biased opinion themselves. For instance, one reviewer writes that he "found this book to be biased toward the right, with nothing bad to say about George W. Bush's Iraq War" and "makes unproven, unsubstantiated claims about Bill Clinton..." Then another reviewer states that the "bias in regard to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush begs for clarification or at least a recognition of the author's preference for left of center politics." I could list example after example. If you are an extreme righty or lefty, maybe you shouldn't read this book if you will get your feelings hurt. Otherwise, for the majority of the electorate that does not have blinders on and realizes that there is good and bad in everyone, including the Presidents, I highly recommend this book.
on January 22, 2009
When we participate in a Presidential election, we're being asked to make a very important choice. We're electing someone to join a very powerful and elite group of men who have shaped the history of the world in the last 200-odd years. It's an important decision, to be sure, and not one to be taken lightly. Will our next President be a political powerhouse, a man who is able to take the reins of the country and lead it into a better and more just future? Will he be inept or corrupt, allowing his cronies and his pals to use the nation for their own personal gain? Or perhaps he'll simply be a cipher, one of those Presidents who is forgotten by everyone except for over-achieving elementary school kids who think that everyone will be impressed that they know who Zachary Taylor was.
We don't know, and we can't know, and that's one of the most interesting lessons of this book. Every President, from Washington to Dubya, was elected by the people in the hopes that he was the right man to lead the country. Every President was praised and damned. Every President was, before the election, sold as the one man who could save the nation from ruin and despair. If not all of those Presidents lived up to their hype, well, therein lies the lesson....
For people who like their history to be amusing and bite-sized, this is the book for you. It's a "gateway book" for Presidential history - you read this and then go on to read more serious treatments of the Presidents, hopefully becoming more appreciative of the vast spectrum of personalities that have guided our nation. And what an interesting group it's been.
There are, of course, the heavy-hitters that everyone knows. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Johnson (Lyndon, not Andrew), all men who made their marks on America. Washington, of course, set the entire tone of the Presidency. He demanded formality, and the acknowledgment that the office of President was one that should be treated with respect. At the same time, he didn't want to be revered, or treated like American royalty. His decision to serve only two terms of office became unbreakable tradition, at least until FDR, and then law with the adoption of the 22nd Amendment. While the stories that are attributed to him are mostly apocryphal - chopping down the cherry tree, throwing a dollar across the Rappahannock, wooden teeth - the real stories are even better. He spent vast sums of money on alcohol, had a terrible temper, and probably wouldn't even have been the President if he hadn't married Martha Custis. In short, Washington was human, just like the other forty-two who followed him.
Then there are the infamous - the Presidents who are excoriated for their misdeeds and who are the ones we all wish never actually happened. Nixon, Hoover, Buchannan, Harding, Pierce.... These are the ones you tell your children about when they turn 18 and they're wondering who to vote for. Warren G. Harding, for example, was only President for two years before his death, but manages to make the bottom of the "Best Presidents" list nearly every time. For one thing, he never wanted to be the President - it was all his wife's idea. But Warren didn't like to say no, didn't like to stand up to people, so he let her railroad him into running for and winning the office. Once he was in the White House, he was perfectly happy to let Congress govern while he had sex with his mistresses and lost vast sums of money - and the occasional priceless White House tea set - to his poker buddies. It's said that his father told him he was lucky not to have been born a girl, "because you'd be in the family way all the time. You can't say no." While he amused himself, his cabinet and his friends did their best to rob the government blind. He was lucky that his ineptitude wasn't discovered until after his death in 1923.
There are, of course, the ciphers. These are the Presidents that no one really remembers much about. The middle-of-the-pack Presidents, neither good enough nor bad enough to be really memorable. James Polk, for example. Ever dress up as him for a history class skit? No, I didn't think so. This is because he was a boring, humorless workaholic who had about as much personality as a table lamp. Still, he did get us into a war with Mexico, which resulted in the annexation of what we now know as the American Southwest, so there is that. How about Chester Arthur? He became President when Garfield was shot, and was most renowned for the fact that he was a very snappy dresser. He restricted Chinese immigration, so there's a point against, but supported the Pendleton Act, which made it harder to appoint unqualified drinking buddies to important civil service posts. Other than that, he had parties, drank a lot and was kicked out after finishing his term.
Forty-three different men, forty-three different stories. It's very easy to forget that these were Real People, complex human beings with incredible merits and flaws. Franklin Pierce was so despised that his own party came up with the slogan, "Anybody But Pierce." John Tyler was so hated that he was burned in effigy and was the first President to receive a full-time bodyguard. On the other hand, Lincoln had a soft spot for pardoning soldiers who were to be shot for unmeritorious conduct, and Theodore Roosevelt once opened a speech with: "Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot." Now THAT is hard-core....
It's also hard to remember that, for all the mistakes made by Presidents in our lifetimes, they're hardly new ones. Clinton was not the first guy to be unfaithful to his wife while President - in fact, compared to what some others got up to, a little hummer under the desk is practically innocent. And Bush is not the first dim bulb with delusions of grandeur either.
Bush has said, many times, that history will be the final judge of his administration, and I think he's right about that. Very few people in President Monroe's time would have known the horrors that would eventually emerge from the Missouri Compromise, and there were countless people who thought that FDR's New Deal would spell the end of American capitalism. It's hard to objectively judge the Presidents we still remember so vividly, but we can compare them to the ones who have gone before them.
If you're new to Presidential history, or if you want an easily accessible refresher, this is an excellent text to have. Mind you, it's slightly incomplete - it was published prior to Bush's second term, so there's a little bit missing at the end, but I think we can all remember four years back. And maybe, just maybe, our next President will be so special that Mr. O'Brien will be moved to update and re-publish in, say, four to eight years.