Presidential Picks: Elect To Read These Nine Titles

In time for Presidents’ Day, these biographies and histories will interest and inform a variety of readers.

redstarGordon-Reed, Annette & Peter S. Onuf. “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. Liveright: Norton. Apr. 2016. 320p. notes. index. ISBN 9780871404428. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631490781. BIOG

mostblessedofpatriarchs.jpg2116Pulitzer Prize–winning author Gordon-Reed (law, Harvard Law Sch.; The Hemingses of Monticello) and Onuf (history, Univ. of Virginia; The Mind of Thomas Jefferson) bring their qualified expertise to present an intimate portrait of Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), the third U.S. president. This work begins with an interesting discussion drawn from a letter composed by Jefferson’s granddaughter regarding the early yet glaring differences between North and South. The authors set the issue of slavery, and Jefferson’s direct connection to it, as a central theme, allowing readers to follow Jefferson through the stages of his life, all the while observing the changes in his thinking and the complicated relationships on his estate. Jefferson the paradox shines through on these pages: the plantation master who knew slavery was wrong, the revolutionary who avoided conflict, and the patriarch who advanced republicanism. Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings and their children are thoroughly examined. This work emphasizes ideas and connections, as opposed to dates, policy details, and data. Primary source citations include many letters and Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. VERDICT Readers of American history and politics will enjoy this enlightening look at a fascinating man. [See Prepub Alert, 10/19/15.]—Jeffrey Meyer, Mt. Pleasant P.L., IA

Lengel, Edward. First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His—and the Nation’s—Prosperity. Da Capo. 2016. 296p. photos. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780306823473. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780306823480. BIOG

George Washington (1732–99) served several roles throughout his career, but to military historian Lengel (Inventing George Washington), chief among these positions, and the through line of this brief and admiring biography, was businessman. Lengel attributes Washington’s hardwired business sense and lifelong fear of debt to the relentless practicality and self-discipline his mother instilled in him in his youth. These traits carried the future founding father into a surveying career which, combined with a large inheritance and wife Martha’s wealth, boosted him into the Virginia planter elite. At his Mount Vernon estate he was a meticulous micromanager and “fanatical account-keeper” but also a shrewd investor: his risky but prescient (and profitable) switch from tobacco to wheat in the 1760s foretold his savvy handling of battlefield challenges alongside upkeep of his many properties, dealing with an inept Congress, and the colonies’ wartime currency crisis. Guiding his standard-setting presidency above all was his view that the colonies’ economic and political interests were “one and the same.” VERDICT Presidential history buffs will feel more fulfilled by Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, but business-minded readers interested in a niche interpretation of America’s first chief executive will learn plenty.—Chad Comello, Morton Grove P.L., IL

redstarRappleye, Charles. Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency. S. & S. May 2016. 576p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781451648676. $32.50; ebk. ISBN 9781451648690. BIOG

herberthoover.jpg2116Rappleye (Sons of Providence) quickly insists he’s not out to get Herbert Hoover (1874–1964); he simply wants to cut through the partisan narratives about the 31st president and to understand the man at the helm during the worst economic crisis in U.S. history. Orphaned as a boy, Hoover ascended through a hardscrabble childhood to the peak of power, riding a wave of optimism and prosperity to a landslide election in 1928. Seven months later the stock market cratered, unemployment spiraled, and a struggle to stave off societal catastrophe ensued. Hoover’s principled opposition to government aid—paired with a reputation for being aloof, a “gregarious hermit,” and “constitutionally gloomy”—alienated him from the public, the press, and many fellow politicians. Lacking the charisma of his rival Franklin Roosevelt, who courted voters in 1932 with empathy and on-the-ground awareness of the zeitgeist, Hoover was booted from office and, unjustly, into infamy. Rappleye makes a lively guide through Hoover’s troubled term of 1929–33; in focused prose he cross-examines an extensive historical record of Hoover and his contemporaries, calling baloney when appropriate and giving credit when due. Between some economy-speak, a clear if sometimes unflattering portrait of Hoover emerges. VERDICT A fair, fresh, and fantastic reappraisal of a forgotten figure.—Chad Comello, Morton Grove P.L., IL

Traub, James. John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. Basic: Perseus. Mar. 2016. 640p. notes. index. ISBN 9780465028276. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780465098798. BIOG

Traub, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of The Devil’s Playground, offers a lengthy and comprehensive account of the political and diplomatic contributions as well as the personal plight of John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), the sixth U.S. president and a major figure in early 19th-century history. Drawing primarily from Adams’s diaries, letters, and political writings along with contemporaneous newspaper articles and previously published research and analysis, Traub provides a meticulous study of the statesman’s public service and private life. Adams surfaces as an ambitious intellectual with deeply held convictions striving to hold his family together through illness, tragedy, and financial woes while relentlessly promoting a strong, active federal government as the young but rapidly expanding and diversifying nation grappled with geographic sectionalism and political partisanship. This rich and occasionally slow account emphasizes Adams’s distinguished early career tenure as diplomat and secretary of state, the heated 1824 presidential election resulting in Adams defeating longtime personal and political foe Andrew Jackson, and his tireless effort to force the issue of slavery onto the Congressional floor as a postpresidential member of the House of Representatives. VERDICT As with Fred Kaplan’s recent and similarly exhaustive John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, this scholarly book will interest serious readers of U.S. politics and history.—Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia

Woods, Randall B. Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism. Basic: Perseus. Apr. 2016. 480p. notes. index. ISBN 9780465050963. $32; ebk. ISBN 9780465098712. hist

Award-winning historian Woods (LBJ: Architect of American Ambition) returns to his focus on Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–73) with this history and analysis of the Great Society program. The scope of the book includes the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965 respectively, as well as Johnson’s War on Poverty, which was inextricably tied to civil rights. Woods demonstrates that Johnson was adept at passing important legislation, using the legacy of John F. Kennedy as political leverage, and making concerted efforts to generate consensus and support for his programs. However, Woods also details how Johnson’s legacy of social reform was tarnished by the quagmire of the Vietnam War, white backlash against the Civil Rights Act, and urban and civil unrest. The author acknowledges that many of Johnson’s programs, Medicare for example, were quite groundbreaking yet also difficult to curtail in the long run. VERDICT While Robert Caro’s biographies of Johnson are exhaustive, his latest volume, The Passage of Power, stops short of the Great Society. This important and timely work will give all U.S. readers a sense of historical context for the programs that still affect the country today and a nuanced understanding of how government reform and public support must work in tandem to be truly successful.— Barrie Olmstead, Sacramento P.L.

The Roosevelts

Brinkley, Douglas. Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. Harper. Mar. 2016. 752p. photos. notes. index. ISBN 9780062089236. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780062089267. HIST

rightfulheritage.jpg2116Renowned presidential historian and television commentator Brinkley (history, Rice Univ.) is author of innumerable books including The Wilderness Warrior, that recount Theodore Roosevelt’s role in environmental preservation. Here he focuses on the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which restored and reforested the land and established dozens of park systems and scenic roadways. FDR was motivated by both his congenital love for nature and his acute political instincts to alleviate unemployment during the Great Depression, combining conservation policy with his overall economic strategy. He also benefited from the advice of his wife, Eleanor, politicians Harold Ickes and Gifford Pinchot, and Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas. Brinkley further studies less-examined figures such as the influential Rosalie Edge, a New York socialite and suffragist who lobbied the Audubon Society and managed the Emergency Conservation Committee. As with Theodore, FDR’s policies navigated between practical uses of land and pristine protection. VERDICT With an accessible writing style, Brinkley crafts a detailed study that will attract legions of faithful readers. Scholars will savor the author’s meticulous annotations in addition to endnotes highlighting a lesser-studied aspect of Franklin’s legacy of governmental action, which is also briefly addressed in FDR and the Environment, edited by D. Woolner and H. Henderson. [See Prepub Alert, 9/28/15.]—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC

Cowan, Geoffrey. Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary. Norton. 2016. 424p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780393249842. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393249859. HIST

The 1912 presidential election was the first one in which primaries played a significant role. Despite Theodore Roosevelt winning nine of the 13 Republican primaries, William H. Taft was renominated because of his strong support among delegates chosen at state nominating conventions, says Cowan (Annenberg Family Chair in Communication Leadership, Univ. of Southern California; The People v. Clarence Darrow), in this lively, deeply researched narrative, which takes readers from primary season through the convention, and to Roosevelt and his supporters bolting to form the upstart, progressive Bull Moose Party. Cowan is at his best when revealing Roosevelt’s cynical manipulation of black voters, who were encouraged to become Bull Moosers in the North but were forbidden to become convention delegates if they lived in the Jim Crow South. Despite this ploy, Roosevelt was trounced in the South by Democrat Woodrow Wilson, the election’s victor. Cowan concludes that the emergence of primaries was the election’s enduring legacy. VERDICT Both general readers and historians will enjoy the book’s you-are-there feel because of Cowan’s excellent use of primary documents. See also Louis Gould’s Four Hats in the Ring and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, two works that capture the election’s spirit and discuss in detail Roosevelt and Taft’s volatile relationship.—Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA

Gardner, Mark Lee. Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill. Morrow. Apr. 2016. 320p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780062312082. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062312105. HIST

From Western historian Gardner (To Hell on a Fast Horse) comes this well-researched, blithely novelistic rendition of ­Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership in the Spanish-American War (1898), just three years prior to his becoming America’s 26th president. On the outbreak of war with Spain, Roosevelt, then merely a midlevel federal bureaucrat, sponsored a volunteer cavalry regiment comprising cowboys, college boys, lawyers, and assorted others, whose spirited charge up Cuba’s San Juan Hill is a staple of U.S. history textbooks. ­Quoting from dispatches, newspapers, and other primary sources, Gardner delivers ­rousing blow-by-blow accounts of the various battles and showcases ­Roosevelt’s hypermasculine panache, along with his scrappy troopers’ eagerness for a “bully fight” in what Roosevelt’s friend John Hay called a “splendid little war.” Like many Roosevelt biographers, the author lionizes the Rough Riders, highlighting Teddy’s single-handed rush on Spanish positions and sharing stories of this boisterous, merry band of brothers who, lacking pillows, had shoe fights in their barracks. Problematically, the only black man allowed among the Rough Riders was Roosevelt’s valet, reflecting the future president’s casual racism. VERDICT While this volume offers little substantive analysis, it is sure to please fans of war stories, adventure yarns, and Theodore Roosevelt. [See Prepub Alert, 11/2/15.]—Michael Rodriguez, Hodges Univ. Lib., Naples, FL

Lunde, Darrin. The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History. Crown. Apr. 2016. 352p. photos. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780307464309. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780307464323. BIOG

Lunde (collection manager, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History) uses diaries and expedition journals as well as his own fieldwork experience to present an empathetic portrait of Theodore Roosevelt as a hunter, collector, nature analyst, and conservationist. Differing from Michael Canfield’s Theodore Roosevelt in the Field, which relates how adventuring influenced Roosevelt, Lunde’s book stresses how the former president followed in the paths of previous and contemporary naturalists to contribute to the development of the scientific study of birds and mammals. Benefiting from pioneers such as Charles Willson Peale and Spencer Fullerton Baird, Roosevelt consulted and often worked with naturalists including George Bird Grinnell, John Burroughs, and William Temple Hornaday. Lunde describes Roosevelt’s faunal studies from the age of eight through the conclusion of his Smithsonian African Expedition (1909–10), more as a specimen gatherer than a sport hunter. (Those interested in his subsequent trip to Brazil should consult Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt.) America’s rapid urbanization fostered a cultural reaction, in which Roosevelt participated, with a retreat to nature and ultimately society’s embrace of environmentalism. VERDICT Colloquially and anecdotally written, sometimes graphically detailing the pursuit and skinning of game, this book is accessible to the lay reader and authenticated for the historian.—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC

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