Presidential Picks: Inside the Lives and Careers of America’s Leaders

redstarBaime, A.J. The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World. Houghton Harcourt. Oct. 2017. 448p. notes. index. ISBN 9780544617346. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780544618480. BIOG

Baime (Arsenal of Democracy) examines the harrowing first few months of Harry Truman’s (1884–1972) unexpected first term in office after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. In highlighting their stark differences, Baime describes Roosevelt as representing the people while Truman was the people. The author begins with Truman’s background as a farmer and former haberdasher from Missouri, then demonstrates how the president was viewed as ordinary and unqualified for the position. In four months, Truman would chair the Potsdam Conference; help create the United Nations; sign the London Agreement, setting the stage for the Nuremberg Trials; and lead Germany and Japan to surrender at the end of World War II. By relying mostly on primary sources, Baime allows for a better perspective of Truman, in which his political decisions are equally as significant as the correspondence with his beloved wife, daughter, and mother. He also adeptly manages to include nuanced U.S.-Russia relations and East Asian diplomacy. VERDICT Those seeking an all-encompassing biography of Truman before he took office and after World War II should seek out David McCullough’s Truman. However, Baime’s spotlight on an influential segment of the 21st century and the man who saw the country through it will be appreciated by most readers. [See Prepub Alert, 4/17/17.]—Keith Klang, Port Washington P.L., NY

Cooper, William J. The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics. Liveright: Norton. Oct. 2017. 544p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9780871404350. $35; ebk. ISBN 9781631493898. BIOG

Award-winning author Cooper (history, Louisiana State Univ.; Jefferson Davis, American) illuminates the character of John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) as different from his political peers, shedding light on his influence on early American politics. The son of former president John Adams, John Quincy spent his formative years in Europe studying the Enlightenment while men such as Andrew Jackson, who defeated incumbent John Quincy in the presidential election of 1828, grew up along the American frontier. Chapters follow Adams’s upbringing, his hesitancies about entering politics, and the personal circumstances that affected him throughout his journey. Readers receive a candid view into his marriage to wife Louisa and his constant anxiety about his ability to perform in each of the roles that called to him. VERDICT With several recent comprehensive biographies of Adams already available, Cooper’s monograph is not exceptionally ground­breaking. However, it will be of importance to readers interested in the rise of American political parties, the national expansion and political reforms of the early 19th century, and the emerging sectional discord between North and South.—Rachel Koenig, Virginia Commonwealth Univ. Libs.

redstarDallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life. Viking. Nov. 2017. 704p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780525427902. $40; ebk. ISBN 9780698181724. BIOG

Presidential historian Dallek follows up his well-received An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 with his third and most comprehensive work on Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) to date. After briefly covering Roosevelt’s college years and early political career, the book chronologically recounts the politician’s greatest challenges, including trying presidential elections and the years leading up to and during World War II. Dallek’s familiarity with his subject and deep understanding of American history and context shines in his clear and engaging prose. The author keeps his focus almost entirely on Roosevelt’s political life. For example, a chapter on the leader’s struggles with polio is also cast in a political light. There is less information on his life with wife Eleanor and his extended family. Although lengthy, the narrative manages to move quickly through a dense subject; readers will gain a solid sense of Roosevelt’s political mind and an inspiring appreciation of his mighty character. VERDICT This highly recommended, expertly crafted book will please a variety of readers, especially those interested in biographies as well as presidential, military, and American history.—Benjamin Brudner, Curry Coll. Lib., Milton, MA

Engel, Jeffrey A. When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War. Houghton Harcourt. Nov. 2017. 608p. notes. index. ISBN 9780547423067. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780544931848. BIOG

Throughout his career—businessman, congressman, UN ambassador, CIA director, vice president under Ronald Reagan—George H.W. Bush (b. 1924) earned a reputation for being “reliable rather than revolutionary” and loyal to a fault, says Engel (director, Ctr. for Presidential History, Southern Methodist Univ.; Into the Desert). Engel maintains that Bush’s impressive resume combined with a sturdy temperament made him uniquely qualified to manage the “most internationally complex” presidency since World War II. In his single term, the world watched the fall of the Berlin Wall; the dissolution of the Soviet Union; revolutions in China, Yugoslavia, and Romania; and American forces enter Panama, Somalia, and Kuwait. The author contends that Bush’s style of “Hippocratic diplomacy,” or striving to do no harm, led the way toward a new world order. Though settled within Bush’s administration, the broader narrative is more focused on the geopolitical maneuvering of the era. It will intrigue fans of political history who are also interested in international relations. VERDICT General readers may struggle to get through the exhaustive political play-by-play, but Engel does justice to his subject and his monumental, if underrated, feats.—Chad Comello, Morton Grove P.L., IL

Feldman, Noah. The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President. Random. Oct. 2017. 800p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780812992755. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780679643845. BIOG

James Madison (1751–1836) was instrumental in framing the constitutional government that serves the American people today, with his efforts at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Madison ended the “Genius” phase of his political life, as Feldman (law, Harvard Univ.; Cool War) labels it, by successfully persuading his fellow Virginians to ratify the new form of government at a critical point in the process. The politician was prepared to retire until he saw his concept of republican government threatened; he entered the second phase of his political life as a partisan, representing a Virginia district in the First Congress. Here, he became increasingly adept at practicing politics while becoming political enemies with Alexander Hamilton, a former partner in ratifying the U.S. Constitution. Madison viewed Hamilton’s political ideas as threats to true republican government. It led him, along with Thomas Jefferson, to form the first political party (Democratic-Republican). In his third political life, as Jefferson’s secretary of state and later as president, Madison tried to remain faithful to his ideals. ­VERDICT Based on primary and secondary sources, this is an insightful examination on how theories and ideals are applied and changed by real-life circumstances. [See Prepub Alert, 4/17/17.]—Glen Edward Taul, formerly with Campbellsville Univ., KY

Giorgione, Michael. Inside Camp David: The Private World of the Presidential Retreat. Little, Brown. Oct. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780316509619. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780316509602. HIST

Rear Admiral Giorgione (U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps), a commanding officer of the presidential retreat Camp David from 1999 to 2001, fills a gap by writing a book that “peer[s] over the gate” at the secure, remote, and nearly invisible estate in the wooded hills of Maryland. Girogione shows that presidents are different at Camp David: “more reflective, playful, and energized,” saying they can “reveal their humanity.” In telling the stories of the activities of presidential families, the work and lives of the military crew that serve them come into sharp focus as well. The author interviewed all living commanders who have served there, offering their firsthand accounts along with his own to give a complete yet personal history. Of note are the profiles of presidents away from the glare of Washington: Harry Truman’s dislike of Camp David, John F. Kennedy’s restful visits, Betty Ford calling it the “best thing about the White House,” Jimmy Carter’s use of the site during the difficult negotiations for Egypt-Israel Peace, and George W. Bush’s thoughtful and spiritual reactions. VERDICT This intelligent and recommended account is sure to appeal to readers of presidential biographies and American history buffs in general.—Paul A. D’Alessandro, Brunswick, ME

Merry, Robert W. President McKinley: Architect of the American Century. S. & S. Nov. 2017. 624p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781451625448. $35; ebk. ISBN 9781451625462. BIOG

One of eight children reared in an anti-slavery Ohio household, William McKinley (1843–1901) enlisted in the army at 18 at the onset of the Civil War, joining the same Union regiment as future president and mentor Rutherford B. Hayes. He ended the war as a major and embarked on a postwar law career, fostering a cautious approach to politicking, which eventually propelled him to the presidency in 1896. Though most comfortable dealing with tariff issues, McKinley faced a cascade of international crises—the Spanish-American War, the annexation of Hawaii, and the contested acquisition of the Philippines—that expanded America’s new role as a nascent imperial superpower. But soon after his second inaugural, McKinley was killed by a Polish anarchist at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. Merry (Where They Stand) seeks to boost the reputation of the 25th president, who, despite being widely popular while in office, was deterred by a “rhetorical blandness” and is often overshadowed in history by his successor, Theodore Roosevelt. VERDICT Though sometimes lost in the 19th-century political weeds, this is a deserving reappraisal of a middling leader that will intrigue presidential history fans. [See Prepub Alert, 3/27/17.]—Chad Comello, Morton Grove P.L., IL

Whyte, Kenneth. Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times. Knopf. Oct. 2017. 752p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780307597960. $35; ebk. ISBN 9781524732462. BIOG

Whyte (The Uncrowned King) emphasizes the challenges presented by the contradictory personality of Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) in this comprehensive and accessible study. The author provides details about Hoover’s experiences as an orphan who became a self-made millionaire, commerce secretary, director of the U.S. Food Administration, spokesman for progressive efficiency before his White House years and for the new anti-Communist, noninterventionist, conservatism thereafter. Similar to Glen Jeansonne’s Herbert Hoover, Whyte’s work contextualizes Hoover as a man of his times, underscoring that he left the White House scandal-free and with a better understanding than his successor Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Great Depression required concerted international, rather than primarily domestic solutions. Whyte explains how supporters of the New Deal took credit for programs that Hoover, albeit tentatively, began for bank and agricultural relief, industrial refinancing, and federal aid to local governments. Sources from nationwide newspapers and the written observations of Hoover’s colleagues supplement the politician’s largely nonintrospective, although voluminous writings, which were motivated by his lone political defeat. VERDICT In seeking to understand rather than judge Hoover throughout the entire trajectory of his life, Whyte succeeds in creating a positive overview of the leader’s long prepresidential service. [See Prepub Alert, 4/17/17.]—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC

redstarWood, Gordon S. Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Penguin Pr. Oct. 2017. 512p. illus. notes. index. ISBN 9780735224711. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780735224728. HIST

Both John Adams (1735–1826) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) died on the golden jubilee of America’s founding, within hours of each other. This well-known story opens Wood’s (history, Brown Univ.; The Idea of America) biography of an unlikely friendship that had the power to bring the nation together; yet, one also fraught with an ideological divide that threatened the strength of their relationship. Adams, a middle-class pessimist, was known for telling hard truths that he believed the American people needed to hear. Jefferson, in contrast, was a slave-holding aristocrat who espoused the exceptional nature of Americans and told people what they wanted to hear. Wood’s outstanding scholarship and beautiful, masterly prose tells each man’s experience, and he’s unafraid to discuss hard facts, such as Jefferson’s blind spot on slavery or Adams’s reverence for the British monarchy. More importantly, their friendship reveals why Americans remember the words of Jefferson over those of Adams. Jefferson’s charm and optimistic view of the American experiment better fit Abraham Lincoln’s unification narrative as the Union started to crumble. VERDICT Essential reading from a Pulitzer Prize–winning giant of early American history for both casual history readers and historians.—Jessica Holland, Univ. of Kentucky, Lexington

redstarWoolner, David B. The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace. Basic. Dec. 2017. 368p. illus. maps. notes. index. ISBN 9780465048717. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780465096510. BIOG

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) remains one of the most popular presidents in 20th-century history. Many historians focus on the 32nd president’s first 100 days, which set the standard for future administrations. Woolner (history, Marist Coll.; coeditor, Progressivism in America) is senior fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian at the Roosevelt Institute. Here, he uses his knowledge of Roosevelt to focus on the president’s last three months in office. Roosevelt saw the country through the end of the Great Depression and the trials and eventual end of World War II. The author relays how the politician faced criticism in deciding to run for an unprecedented fourth term. Despite ongoing health issues, Roosevelt, who battled polio, remained determined to achieve his final goal: the creation of the United Nations. Woolner also recounts the president’s journey to the Soviet Union for the Yalta Conference, where he met with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Premier Joseph Stalin to discuss postwar peace. Even as Roosevelt sometimes failed to keep his vice president well informed, he worked daily to achieve his remaining goals. VERDICT A balanced, readable book based on thorough archival sources that will have considerable appeal to historians and political scientists, as well as general readers interested in the presidency.—William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport

Analyzing Grant

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition. Harvard Univ. Oct. 2017. 816p. ed. by John F. Marszalek & others. illus. index. ISBN 9780674976290. $39.95. BIOG

Renowned Civil War historian and editor of the Ulysses S. Grant papers Marszalek collaborates with Louie P. Gallo (Ulysses S. Grant Assn.) and David S. Nolen (Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Lib.) to edit the most copious annotated edition of Grant’s (1822–85) indispensable memoirs to date. The result is a valuable publishing history on the 18th president’s writings, along with useful annotations on people, places, and events that set his written works in historical context. Historians have regarded Grant’s memoirs as a classic in military writing and a revealing example of the public memoir genre; they provide essential insight into the general’s approaches to war, experiences leading armies to victory, and justifications for thoughts and actions during the Mexican-American War and the U.S. Civil War. The memoirs also reveal his trenchant observations on the nature of courage, the call to public service, and the character of Americans. VERDICT It’s been said that if you’re going to pick up one memoir of the Civil War, Grant’s is the one to read. Similarly, if you’re going to purchase one of the several annotated editions of his memoirs, this is the collection to own, read, and reread.—Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph’s Univ., Philadelphia

Calhoun, Charles W. The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Univ. Pr. of Kansas. Aug. 2017. 720p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780700624843. $39.95. BIOG

Despite several recent biographies of Ulysses S. Grant (1822–85), none have concentrated exclusively on his eight-year presidency. Calhoun (history, East Carolina Univ.; Benjamin Harrison) remedies this with a wide-ranging examination of the former general’s administration. This work presents a substantial chronological and topical analysis covering not only major events of the era, such as Reconstruction, but other issues of the time: currency, corruption, patronage, and foreign affairs. Grant emerges not as a military general out of his element but rather a capable administrator who understood that his greatest challenges would emerge from both expected matters and unanticipated concerns. The former included ongoing Reconstruction in the South in the face of stiff resistance. While foreign affairs and banking provided ongoing problems, corruption scandals emerging both outside and within Grant’s circle of advisors and family created some of his most difficult challenges. VERDICT With sound research and skillful writing, Calhoun offers a balanced treatment of the Grant administration that will likely be definitive for many years. Its straightforward organization and greatest strength make it accessible to both interested general readers and professional historians.—Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato

redstarChernow, Ron. Grant. Penguin Pr. Oct. 2017. 1104p. illus. maps. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781594204876. $40; ebk. ISBN 9780525521952. BIOG

Chernow continues his success from his best seller Alexander Hamilton, with this comprehensive account of Civil War general and U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant (1822–85). Some view Grant as a brilliant military tactician and influential if flawed politician; others paint him as corrupt and ineffectual. Chernow, utilizing thousands of letters, military records, and diary entries, creates a more complete portrait of the surprisingly timid Grant, who hated the sight of blood and understood that the thousands of men dying every day under his command were the only way to end what was, in his mind, a thankless and brutal war. Chernow’s Grant is humble, quiet, and playful—moody in peacetime but a genius in wartime. As other historians have painted Grant as a raging drunkard, Chernow sheds light on Grant’s lifetime battle with alcohol as a disease, rather than a vice. Admittedly, Grant’s history as president is much less interesting than his military duty, and much of this volume is devoted to the Civil War. Grant was an inexperienced politician, and history has allowed the corruption that flourished during his time as president to overshadow the landmark civil rights legislation passed during his tenure. VERDICT Don’t expect a Grant musical, but this important work of American biography belongs on every library shelf. [See Prepub Alert, 4/17/17.]—Tyler Hixson, Brooklyn P.L.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  4. Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media, per our Terms of Use.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind