August 27, 2012
In an election year, everything about politics is heightened. But for me, there’s no need for partisan bickering. These days, I’m getting my fix from a short list of presidential biographies.
Upfront, I should disclose two things:
1) I’m not interested (really) in the famous presidents of the past like Lincoln or Washington, and
2) I definitely don’t care about commanders in chief from the last 50 years. I ’m into the more obscure guys.
My first venture into presidential biographies was John Meacham’s “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.” Our seventh president was such a flawed man — a great leader, a war hero and the perpetrator of some really horrible deeds (the Indian Removal Act, in particular). What I found most intriguing was getting a better feel for the events and decisions and personalities of the time, many of which foreshadowed a civil war that would break out just 30 years later. It’s a great book that, once I finished it, actually made me want to pack up the car and visit Jackson’s home in Tennessee. Weird, I know.
Then I took on David McCullough’s biography “John Adams.” Like Jackson, Adams isn’t really obscure, but he’s also not exactly popular. Before reading it, my knowledge of our second president was gleaned from a few paragraphs in a high school text book. This bio shed light on the nuances of the life of an amazingly interesting person. Who knew he served as an ambassador to France and England and the Netherlands? Who knew he was such an advocate of building a world-class navy? And who would ever know how much this man suffered in the name of founding a nation, only to be a bit forgotten and far less respected than he should be.
My next read was “The President and the Assassin,” a historical novel about William McKinley and the man who killed him. At the turn of the 20th Century, during a pretty rough recession, McKinley won the presidency on a decidedly pro-business platform. While I might have read about that in school, I never understood the background of American life at the time. This book paints a portrait of a post-Civil War, pre-WWI America that was just beginning to find itself. And the book tells a great story about an anarchy undercurrent that was gripping the western edges of the nation. Very interesting stuff.
And now I’m 80 pages into “Destiny of the Republic,” which, like the McKinley book, sheds light on James Garfield (president #20) and his eventual killer.
Why am I into these books? I can say it’s not to increase my chances at a spot on Jeopardy! I realize the subject matter may sound a little dry (or maybe a lot). But the context I’ve gained from reading each of these books — and how the events of the 1800s in some ways resonate still today — is captivating in so many ways. More important, I think they have a lot to offer anybody who takes an interest in American history or politics.
As this post goes live, I’m currently on vacation, paging through the Garfield book and ready to find the next great presidential read. I’m thinking Martin Van Buren, Andrew Johnson or James Madison. Meantime, I’d love to know: are Peepshow readers fans of non-fiction, and if so, what are your topics of choice?