Presidents’ Day 2021 couldn’t land at a more auspicious time. The divisions in the country, including the just concluded impeachment trial, put a bigger spotlight on past presidential actions even as current-day crises (Covid, the economy, climate change, inequality) make it more important than ever to get future presidential actions right.
That’s all the more reason for studying past presidents, both through presidential memoirs and biographies. Here are some of the best, as rated by a myriad of reviewers and historians.
First the memoirs:
A Promised Land by Barack Obama will help you understand today’s events more than any other memoir simply because it is so recent. Obama is an excellent writer and he’s remarkably candid (though as subjective as any memoir writer) in describing the official and personal aspects of his presidency. There’s a longer review elsewhere on this blog.
Mandate for Change by Dwight Eisenhower covers his first term, providing insight into his thinking and honesty about the learning curve he faced.
A Full Life by Jimmy Carter is unusual in that Carter was 90 when he wrote it, giving him a perspective on the presidency and his activities in the decades after leaving office.
An American Life by Ronald Reagan is a candid look at both his personal and political life, including key moments in the struggle with the Soviet Union. The book feels especially important because of the way friends and foes have tried to paint Reagan’s presidency to further their own political goals.
The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, written when he was 77, covers both his years as president and the founding of the American republic. Jefferson includes his views on slavery, which, given the recent controversy, adds still another useful element.
As for presidential biographies…
Atop any list has to be Robert Caro’s multiple volume biography of Lyndon Johnson (four have been published with a fifth in the works). Exhaustively researched and beautifully written, they are full of rich detail and telling anecdotes that provide a multifaceted view of a man who achieved much despite his ruthless and often repulsive techniques.
Washington, A Life by Ron Chernow is also the product of massive research and considerable insight. In describing Washington’s role as general of the Revolutionary Army, key player at the Constitutional Convention, and first president, Chernow reveals his passion and dedication to the nation.
John Adams, David McCullough’s Pulitzer prize winning biography pulls back the curtain on another key player in the creation of America, with equal emphasis on his dedication, nobility, ambition, and personal conflicts.
There have been hundreds of books about Abraham Lincoln, but one that consistently wins praise is Lincoln by David Herbert Donald. Donald succeeds in showing Lincoln’s strength and triumphs but gives equal play to his mistakes and fumbling.
No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Franklin Roosevelt, gives significant attention to the important role of Eleanor Roosevelt and combines the political, social, and cultural history behind this power couple.
Good reading and happy Presidents’ Day!
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