The Best Biographies of George W. Bush

My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies

CarterCoinThe first two presidents in this journey took me nearly three months to get through. George W. Bush and his predecessor hardly took me three weeks.

But unlike George Washington and John Adams, recent presidents haven’t been off the stage long enough to induce most historian-biographers to tackle their lives.

That will change as additional time passes, more documents are de-classified and presidential legacies (and lives) continue to marinate under the bright light of day.

I read just two biographies of Bush 43, but was excited about each for different reasons: one was written by an author who ranks as one of my all-time favorite biographers…and the other was written by an author known for his indefatigable determination and uncanny ability to piece together a story.

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* “Bush” (2016) by Jean Edward Smith

No biographer has impressed me more often, or more consistently, than Smith. His…

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Constitutional Spectacle

The State of the Union address is a constitutional requirement… Article 1; Section 3- He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient…

The speech varies from executive monotony to… rousing patriotic oratory.  Lincoln declared the Civil War had to be won to preserve the “last, best hope of earth”  and Franklin Roosevelt reminded the free world of its “Four Freedoms.” 

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“We cannot escape history…”

Today, the speech is more spectacle than requisite… the purpose is more political than constitutional.  Bill Clinton is the modern record holder, averaging over 1 hour and 14 minutes per speech.  All but one of Barack Obama’s were over an hour.  (Washington’s first message is acknowledged as the shortest, just over 1,000 words.)  Thomas Jefferson had all eight  of his hand delivered to Congress; Woodrow Wilson was the first President to address Congress directly.  The last President not to give a speech was Jimmy Carter in January of 1981.  Donald Trump’s should be an event made for television amidst a presidency too easily confused for reality programming.

Hamilton- The National Bank

Hamilton noted in 1790- Industry is increased, commodities are multiplied, agriculture and manufacturers flourish: and herein consists the true wealth and prosperity of a state.”  

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“The tendency of a national bank is to increase public and private credit. The former gives power to the state for the protection of its rights and interests, and the latter facilitates and extends the operations of commerce amongst individuals.”

The prosperity of the young American state… depended on our ability to obtain credit around the world.  The great irony of a credit rating is that you need debt to obtain one.  Hamilton created the National Debt to build our credit, he proposed the First National Bank to solidify our investment markets.  The battle with Jefferson over the creation of the bank was ideological rather than financial.

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Madison battled the creation of the… National Bank in the first Congress.  He supported Jefferson’s belief that the future of America was rural and agricultural- not urban, industrial, and commercial.  The Bank’s  charter expired in 1811- as war with England loomed.  Madison watched as the void left by the bank led to inflation and a collapsed currency- financial turmoil that nearly cost America the War of 1812.

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The Second National Bank was chartered… in 1816 and signed into law by James Madison.  The wisdom of Hamilton’s proposal had come full circle.  The Bank’s most ardent opponent came to see its economic value.  These concerns clearly outweighed the ideological objections of the Jeffersonians.

Four and Half Decades of Reading

Birthdays often lead to reflection… 45 years have passed and reflection reveals a life devoted to the study of history.  A career in education has shown how rare academic commitment can be…. all I have ever wanted to do is history.  These books inspired, taught, and frustrated me along the journey. ..

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  • American Heritage History of the Civil War-Narrative by Bruce Catton.  Little more than a coffee table dust collector in most homes, the copy in my parents’ home was well worn.  Richly illustrated with historic photos and informative maps, it was the perfect introductory course in Civil War studies.  Luckily, video game consoles weren’t available during the early days spent reading Catton’s crystal clear prose.
  • Band of Brothers- by Stephen Ambrose.  WW2 stories from my Grandfather inspired me to learn more about the greatest generation.  Ambrose showed me the power of primary sources- there are hundreds utilized in this harrowing tale of Easy Company’s combat experience.  All of the vitriol aimed at Ambrose (much of it jealousy) causes us to forget what a great storyteller he was.

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  • Red, White, and Black- by Gary Nash.  The book that deconstructed the mediocre history education I received in high school, Nash’s study opened my eyes to New Left historiography.  The colonization of North America was more complicated than Pilgrims, John Smith, and Ponce Deleon; Nash’s vision challenges the cereal box standard that passes for history in many high schools.
  •   The Killer Angels- by Michael Shaara.  Historical fiction at its very best, Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the battle of Gettysburg is steeped in history.  Shaara exposes us to the battle through the eyes of its key participants, a riveting format often imitated, but never equaled.  Growing up just an hour from the battlefield, this novel helped bring it to life better than any audio tour.
  • Lincoln’s Virtues-by William Lee Miller.  An “ethical biography” of our greatest President, Miller departs from the typical Lincoln canon.  Rather than recounting Lincoln’s deeds, Miller attempts to explain the actions by examining the history of his belief structure.  This book is essential in understanding the man behind the myths.
  • The Radicalism of the American Revolution- by Gordon Wood.  Spend enough time in college history courses and you’ll get the impression that the American Revolution was stale, conservative, and not all that revolutionary.  Wood sets the record straight in a compelling study that makes a brilliant counter to the anti-Americanism of Howard Zinn.  The work of Wood is so much more valuable than a passing quip by Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.”

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  • Gettysburg: The Second Day- by Harry Pfanz.  Richly detailed tactical study of the crucial day at the battle of Gettysburg that is essential reading to students of the battle.  Pfanz does more than explain the complicated troop movements; he brings the battle to life with the memories of the men who were there.  I spent many a Summer afternoon tramping the field with a well worn copy of Pfanz’s masterpiece in my hands.
  • The American Mind- by Henry Steele Commager.  Trying to explain the central American consciousness seemed an impossible task, but Commager’s signature study managed to frustrate a generation of history students.  He should be admired for valuing stories above statistics, personalities over presumption, and a firm belief in American exceptionalism.
  • For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought the Civil War- By James McPherson.  Nothing ends speculation, conjecture, and bad theories like research, and this book is research personified.  McPherson utilize over 10,000 primary sources to provide readers the most comprehensive study of why men fought in the Civil War.  A direct refutation of Linderman’s “Embattled Courage,” McPherson shows that courage, patriotism, and friendship still motivated men even in the darkest days of the war.

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The Best Biographies of Bill Clinton

My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies

CarterCoinFrom my very first impression of Bill Clinton to my most recent he has always struck me as the quintessential politician – for better and for worse.

But that – as JFK, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and others have proven – can be the perfect recipe for a great biography.

Almost two decades have passed since Clinton’s presidency ended but the Clinton “aura” has never quite faded. Since he left office, his wife has served as a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State and the 2016 Democratic nominee for president. For nearly thirty years they have been hard to miss and uncommonly controversial.

I read three biographies of Clinton – each of them remarkably balanced – and was delighted to find a combination of two that provide excellent insight into his childhood and political career, up through his two-term presidency. But if anything about his life is abundantly clear, it’s…

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Understanding Calvin Coolidge

Presidential History Blog

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge was the quintessential New Englander: quiet, determined, and living a well ordered life.

Meet Calvin Coolidge: The Man Behind the Myth

In 1960, more than 25 years after Coolidge’s death, a small volume of essays about him was collected by Edward Connery Lathem. Long out of print, it is a marvelous little treasure of personal sketches, written about Coolidge by those who knew him. Some knew him very well; others more superficially. All however, offer aspects of “Silent Cal” that are not only delightful to read, but offer wonderful insights into the man himself.

There are about three dozen of these character studies, easily read in ten or fifteen minutes. Most are well written; some are wonderfully written.  All of them, taken as an entity, present a more complete understanding of President John Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) than any of the standard biographies, including a classic…

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