It’s Election Day in America, and I thought it might be appropriate to list a few of the books, strictly out of my own experience, that you might enjoy whenever you’re in the mood to contemplate the life of our Chief Executive:
David Herbert Donald, Lincoln—the best one-volume life of our most extraordinary President. Lincoln endured and tried to serve a country even more deeply divided and anguished than ours. The fact that he not only did so but also lifted us up out of our habitual selves and showed us our need to be better as human beings is nothing short of a miracle. Donald’s biography reveals how that shrewd, wise, and ultimately heartbroken man rose from his humble beginnings in Kentucky to the highest office in the land–a job he wanted very much but was anxious about from his first day in it until the day he died.
James Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man–Although he was our first President, Washington still doesn’t get as much respect in contemporary times as he deserves, and neither does Flexner’s book. No man–not Franklin, not Adams, not Jefferson–was as respected as Washington was during the debates over the proposed separation from Great Britain. Washington thought more than he spoke, but when he spoke, the delegates listened. When Washington acted, he acted decisively and saw the matter through. Many, many people contributed to the colonies’ victory over Great Britain, but all of those people were led by Washington’s example, and his spirit. As Donald does with Lincoln, Flexner acknowledges the mythos that has enveloped Washington, but he separates that mythos from the actual man and allows us to see, as much as the historical record will allow, what the real Washington was like.
David McCullough, John Adams—McCullough’s splendid book does the best job of any biography yet written of capturing why the colonies wanted to separate from Britain and what they wanted to achieve for themselves as an independent country. We are lucky–sweet heaven, we’ve been lucky–to have had the contributions of the entire Adams family down through many generations in the development of America. John and Abigail Adams started it. They gave us the “he and she” of it right from the very start–a clear-eyed vision of a country fit for both men and women to live in. You’ll get a sense of their letters to each other and their lives together by reading this book, but it’ll be worth it to go from there to read as much of their correspondence as you can. (America is not quite as patriarchal as you think.) McCullough also allows us to think for a few moments about the extraordinary descendants of the Adams family: John Quincy Adams, President of the U.S. in his own right; Charles Francis Adams, Minister to the UK during the American Civil War, and his son, Henry Francis Adams, an historian and master of deadpan irony.
Joseph Lash, Eleanor and Franklin–During my high-school years and into my twenties, I pretty much accepted the received idea of F.D.R. being a President reviled by much of the country; a man despised by the moneyed class because of their belief he was taking the country down the road to socialism. Well, if anybody truly wants to look at the damage socialism can cause, all he has to do is study the history of the Soviet Union for five minutes. The Soviets tried for seventy years to control every jot and tittle of their economy and they failed. They only succeeded in one thing: they bequeathed to their peoples a sense of fear and anxiety that has lasted to the present day. Roosevelt was surrounded by men who were enamored of the Soviet-style system, men who believed they could make it work for America, especially in the wake of capitalism’s crash in 1929. But Roosevelt’s personal turn toward socialism was not ideologically based. It was much more pragmatic and practical than that. F.D.R. believed he could manage the eggheads in his administration, just as he later believed he could manage Stalin at Yalta. His approach to bringing the American people out of the Great Depression (“Great” only in the sense of being enormously important) was to try something, try anything, until he found programs that worked. He knew that, given the extraordinarily-wide scale of the economic downturn, what the federal government could do wasn’t much: $1 a head for cattle that needed to be destroyed on the Great Plains because the Dust Bowl soil could no longer keep them alive; but what F.D.R. did, he did with a personal touch. He gave a damn about the people who elected him, and they felt it. And the things he accomplished–the public roads that were built; the Hoover Dam project; the oral histories collected by writers under the WPA–were extraordinary, given the times and the resources that were available. All along the way of this odyssey from 1933 to 1945 Roosevelt was accompanied by his wife, Eleanor, a woman, like her husband, who was a lightning rod of public comment and criticism. As Lash makes clear, it was Eleanor more than anyone who helped Roosevelt shape public policy in these years, and she did so with an eloquence and a dignity in the face of opposition that, among other things, paved the way for Jackie Robinson to break the color line in baseball just a couple of years later, in 1947. Lash does not spare F.D.R. from the problems his extramarital affairs and loves had on his relationship with his wife, but the author also shows us that both Eleanor and Franklin realized the times they were living in and the job they had to do were bigger and more important than any strain on their marriage. A remarkable couple in every way. He was President, but so was she. Her life and her energy has made it possible for a woman to sit in our country’s most important chair, perhaps as soon as next year. But if not next year, then surely some day soon.