Before I started reading biographies of all the American presidents, I had an interest in history. Born in 1969, I had a good working knowledge of presidents from Nixon to Obama. I also knew the basics of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. However, I wanted to get more thorough understanding of American history…why and how we got to where we are, and what threads have run through our history.
So my goal was to read at least one biography of each president. I figured the impact and complexities of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR might warrant reading 3 different bios on each of them.
I was curious to see each president’s agenda upon taking office, and what domestic and world events changed those agendas. We naturally think of the presidency as an executive role, but in a democracy, the executive doesn’t always get to dictate the results. How did those in the nation’s highest office build consensus to achieve parts of their agendas, and how did they adapt their agendas based off the changing environment?
One aspect I hadn’t counted on is that the bios reinforce the learning of each other. Reading Adams’ bio naturally references Washington to set the stage and Jefferson as a contrast to Adams’ administration. That has been a great way to retain the things I’ve learned.
Generally, I’ve tried to read them in order, based on availability from the public library. However, I did read a JFK bio while spending 2 weeks in Boston. I also read a John Tyler bio while spending a couple of weeks in Richmond, Virginia. Seeing the lay of the land, even if overlaid with decades of development, can help complete the picture of the environment in which each one lived.
Another thing I’ve learned is that the ability to attain the nation’s highest office does not necessarily impart the skills to be a good president. Unfortunately, the way politics has played out, our country’s progress has stalled under mediocre presidents (Franklin Pearce), and even been set back under the bad ones (Buchanan).
Presidential politics are like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get. (Even some nuts sometimes.)