Saturday, April 02, 2016

U.S. Presidents of the Twentieth Century

Interested in U.S. Presidents of the Twentieth Century? This list of seven books includes some of the better works that I have sampled so far. Any one of these would be a good pick. Happy reading!

Brands, H. W. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.

Brands presents a full-scale biography of Roosevelt, a son of privilege who became a “traitor to his class” by appealing to and serving the interests of the American masses. The book argues that while FDR was not himself a radical, his presidency radically altered the way Americans viewed the role of the federal government in the lives of citizens, and the role of the U.S. in the world. Brands suggests that FDR’s political aspirations forever changed when a fifth cousin, Theodore, became the U.S. President, and later when FDR married Theodore’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, whom the President “gave away” at the wedding. From that time forward, FDR modeled himself after "Uncle Ted." Brands frequently quotes the letters and diaries of the main characters.

Dallek, Robert. Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908-1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Dallek explored hundreds of manuscript and oral history collections before writing this 600-page biography of LBJ to the time he became U.S. Vice President. The author notes that former presidents eventually have a moderate legacy. Early disapproval is followed by a more-generous retrospective. Yet, as late as 1990, Johnson was still considered a complete failure, painted by the likes of Robert Caro as the megalomaniac who dragged America through Vietnam, and who initiated the far-from-great Great Society. With this book, Dallek set out to initiate a more-balanced portrait of LBJ as a flawed but truly representative figure of mid-twentieth century America.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2003.

Unlike previous biographers of JFK, Dallek has produced a study that fully exploits "written contemporary documents, telephone and Oval Office tapes, . . . and oral histories" (ix). Above all, the author gained access to the big majority of Kennedy's medical records, which were then deciphered with the help of a physician. The records reveal that JFK as the picture of health was an incredible illusion, one that disguised serious problems and chronic pain. Dallek devotes many pages to the Kennedy family, to JFK's formative years, his experiences during World War II, and his political campaigns. Yet, the 1,033 days of JFK's presidency take up more than half of this massive book. Throughout, the author appears to be aiming for a rational, balanced interpretation of his subject.

Flippen, J. Brooks. Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

This book explores the significance of the presidency of Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). Flippen observes that President Carter took for granted that he could retain the loyalty of fellow religious conservatives, while courting support from the left. Carter gave his blessing to initiatives related to the growth of feminism, the legalization of abortion, and equal rights for homosexuals. All along, such issues were becoming more partisan, with each side becoming more deeply entrenched. Flippen concludes that because each issue bore a religious dimension, the Carter Administration served as a catalyst for the rise of the Religious Right.

Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954.

Link sought "to comprehend and re-create the political and diplomatic history" of the U.S." from the beginning of the disruption of the Republican party" to America's entrance into the First World War (xv). His treatment includes major sections on sweeping reform legislation enacted by Congress from 1913 to 1917, and the process by which the U.S. was drawn into the war. Link wrote only after he spent several years working through manuscript archives and periodical literature from the Wilson years. As the author put it, his book is based "almost exclusively upon research in the sources" (xv). A categorized 30-page "Essay on Sources" appears at the end.

McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Truman is a celebratory, full-scale biography of the 33rd U.S President. It runs to nearly 1,000 pages. Over the span of a decade, McCullough interviewed hundreds of associates and friends of Truman, and read almost everything previously written about him. The author concluded that Truman’s early experiences of struggle—as a farmer in Missouri and artillery officer during World War I—forged an upright character and legendary toughness that served him well. McCullough, a master storyteller, demonstrates the potential of history written for a popular audience. With this book, he single-handedly improved the image and increased the public stature of Harry S. Truman.

Wills, Garry. The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.

Wills wrote this book in the wake of Senator Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful run in 1980 for the Democratic presidential nomination. Like a political observer trained in family psychology, the author attempts to explain the unique privileges, burdens--and now failures-- of the youngest Kennedy son. He depicts it all as the result of the family’s development and abuse of power over many decades reaching back to the patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy. This book presents an almost completely negative view of the Kennedy family and the presidency of JFK. Even his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for which President Kennedy usually receives high marks, is criticized. This book was intended for a general, non-academic audience. It contains no documentation.

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