President's Day List: Five Biographies You Need to Read
Presidential biographies have always been a huge industry, with a staggering amount of trees felled for books both incredibly dense and analytical and books with whatever unsubstantiated rumor the author could toss in to juice sales.
Sticking with just the modern-era presidents, here are five books you need to read to get to know your presidents better.
5. Dutch, by Edmund Morris
This book was vilified when it came out because Morris invented a fictional character to carry the story. This was an extremely odd decision, since Morris was a Pulitzer-winning presidential biographer (three great volumes on Teddy Roosevelt) and he had been granted unprecedented access to the president and White House operations during the Reagan administration.
We've recently reread this and it's utterly fascinating, particularly on Reagan's early life. The fictional-character conceit still fails, wincingly at times, but Morris admits that after watching Reagan closely for a very long time, he found the same empty enigma everyone else, even Reagan's family, did, and simply had to admit defeat in trying to put together a traditional bio.
4. First in His Class, by David Maraniss
David Maraniss won a Pulitzer for his biographical stories on Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign, and he further developed them in this insightful 1996 book. Obviously there's little of use on the presidency, but Maraniss paints a compelling picture of young Billy Blythe's Arkansas life and his relentless quest for the White House.
3. An Unfinished Life: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1979-1963, by Robert Dallek
Those who love and hate JFK have a massive library of books to choose from. You can concentrate on his upbringing (JFK: Restless Youth by Nigel Hamilton is good), his presidency's policies and actions (President Kennedy by Richard Reeves is a good place to start), the gossipy, glamorous side (Grace and Power by Sally Bedell Smith) or his assassination (either the tons of conspiracy theory books, or Case Closed by Gerald Posner).
For those seeking an overall summary, the reliable Robert Dallek provides a good survey of all of the micro-examined aspects of Kennedy's life and legacy. Dallek may not be the most compelling writer around, but he's solid and readable.
2. FDR, by Jean Edward Smith
FDR's life is another that can be all but impossible to address in a single volume -- his carefree rise to power, the amazing comeback from a crippling polio attack, the Great Depression, a World War -- it's a lot to cover.
Jean Edward Smith deftly does the job in this clear-eyed but admiring biography, the best introduction to Roosevelt's life out there (Another candidate would be Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by H.W. Brands). For many these days, FDR is just a faded historical figure in bad black-and-white newsreels, but Smith brings him to life as both a flawed man and the person behind an absolutely incredible administration.
1. The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro
Any review of Caro's three volumes (so far) of LBJ biography needn't consist of anything more than "Read these. NOW."
In three books totaling about 2,500 pages and grouped under the above title, Caro hasn't even gotten Johnson to the Kennedy White House yet. He says he will be able to finish the job in just one more book, but we doubt it.
And he can write as many of them as he wants. Never has there been more vivid writing, assiduous research and trenchant insight into an American president and the way power is obtained and used in America.
If you think you don't like Texas history, read the first volume, Path to Power, if only for the chapters on the terribly hard lives of Hill Country farm women isolated without electricity, and how LBJ got it to them.
That first volume was hated by LBJ fans who said it painted a viciously biased portrait of their hero. Were they right? Well, former governor John Connally, the man who knew Johnson as well as anyone, had refused to cooperate with Caro. After he read Path to Power, he called the author up and gave extensive and important interviews.