Top Presidential Biographies

Presidents fascinate me — they always have, and I’m a sucker for just about any presidential biography, although I had to force my way through The Unknown President: The Administration of Millard Fillmore. These books can be an effective and entertaining way to learn American history– and from the perspective of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue no less. Besides putting on a frock coat, humming Hail to the Chief and reciting the oath of office from memory, what better way to celebrate Presidents Day than to pull a bio from the shelf and start reading? The following are ones I highly recommend:

Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years (1926 & 1939) by Carl Sandburg

This is presidential biography as literature, one to consider for your bucket list. Originally published in six volumes, Sandburg’s Lincoln is a leisurely telling of the great man’s story. Weaving prose and poetry with fact and myth, it is perhaps the most influential book about Lincoln, spawning many a theatrical production and movie.

The Ohio Gang: The World of Warren G. Harding (1983) Charles L. Mee

I can’t get enough of Warren G. Harding. His was the White House of which Alice Roosevelt said, “No rumor could have exceeded the reality.” The story is comic and tragic, a man whose gift for public speaking (“bloviating,” as he called it) propelled him to the Senate and then onto the White House — only to be overwhelmed by the job, let down by his friends and die in office before scandals within his administration became public. This book tells it all: the “smoke filled room” in Chicago from which he emerged as the Republican nominee for President; the poker games and bootleg whiskey upstairs at the White House; the mistresses; the love child, “Duchess”; the domineering First Lady; the scandals; the suicides– all presented in what the author describes as “historical entertainment.” I would add this book could be of special interest to fans of cable TV’s “Boardwalk Empire,” for which the Harding era is the backdrop.

Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (1974) by Merle Miller

Imagine yourself sitting across from former President Truman, sharing “small libations” of bourbon and asking him questions: that is the premise of this oral biography. Conducted over hundreds of hours and several months in the early 1960’s, the interviews were intended for a TV special that never happened; instead, they were compiled for a book that became a popular sensation and helped to propel Truman from forgotten man into the top tier of presidential rankings. It helped that the book came out during the dark days of Watergate, and “plain speaking” Harry was a welcome contrast to Richard Nixon, whose White House tape recordings were to result in his own, more disturbing “oral biography.” Conveniently published after Truman’s death, it is believed the author did take some liberties with quotes, but the end result is still a great read and a compliment to the man.

President Kennedy: Profile of Power (1993) by Richard Reeves

There are many books about John Kennedy, but I recommend this one because it concerns itself only with his presidency: the decisions he had to make and how those decisions were made. It begins just after his election in November of 1960 and ends at his death in November of 1963. It is strictly job related, examining in chronological order his handling of the Bay of Pigs disaster, the Cuban missile crisis, civil rights unrest, and early preparations for his re-election bid at the end. Other books cover his personal life and assassination, but this one is a fascinating and objective look at how he conducted himself as President; it will leave you better informed.

All The President’s Men (1974) by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

In this digital age, I don’t believe such an important news story could unfold again so slowly, growing in intensity day-by-day the way the Watergate drama played out in the 1970s. From the early morning break-in at the Watergate complex in June of ’72 till Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974, there seemed to be a new revelation each day in the newspaper or on the nightly news, and at the forefront of the reporting were beat reporters for the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. This book, now classic, is their story of breaking the story, later to become an award winning movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. While not a true biography of Richard Nixon, he is of course a central character– and even knowing how it ends (and that Mark Felt, #2 guy at the FBI, was “Deep Throat”), it is a gripping account of political intrigue and a scandal that continues to shape both politics and journalism.

Any presidential biographies I missed? Which of these books have you read, and what did you think?

Bill is Regional Manager at Half Price Books of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska.

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