Staff Picks

Star-Spangled Trivia

Did you know that Woodrow Wilson was the first president since John Adams to deliver his State of the Union address before Congress in person? Or that Theodore Roosevelt chased down boat thieves for 36 hours straight in the Dakota Territory while also reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina? Or that Andrew Jackson killed a man in a duel?

Ever since reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Abraham Lincoln biography Team of Rivals years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the lives and times of U.S. presidents. So much so that I made a goal to read a substantive biography of every U.S. president before I die. Some presidents are more well-known and documented than others (Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts especially), but I want to learn about all of them. It’s not because I’m particularly political; I’m simply fascinated by the peculiar power of the presidency and the diverse stories of the men that have wielded it.

The factoids I’ve accumulated in my presidential reading aren't good for much except trivia nights and some Jeopardy! categories, but they fascinate me nevertheless. They range from the trifling (James Buchanan is the only bachelor president) to the tawdry (Grover Cleveland’s illegitimate child) to the tantalizing (pretty much anything Andrew Jackson or Theodore Roosevelt did). Biographies that span a president's entire life can at times get dull with legislative minutiae, policy discussions, and battlefield play-by-plays, but combined with insightful commentary and strong storytelling the best of these books paint presidential portraits even more vivid than the men’s actual portraits.

Here are a few biographies that captivated me:


Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President
By Ari Hoogenboom

For a long time the only things I knew about Hayes were that his heavily disputed 1876 election ended the Reconstruction era in the former Confederacy, and that he was one of those forgotten presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt with cool facial hair. But I soon learned that Hayes was a lawyer who became an abolitionist and defended escaped slaves, a brigadier general in the Civil War who was shot in the arm in the Battle of South Mountain yet still led his men to victory, and a post-presidency education reform advocate who helped found Ohio State University. Not bad for a forgotten one-term president.


The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
By Edmund Morris

This is the first (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) book in a trilogy about Teddy Roosevelt, who might be the most impressive president we’ve ever had. It chronicles the crowded years of his pre-presidency life, which began as a sickly yet bright child who by 25 became a best-selling author and bull-headed New York legislator, then continued as a young widower who served as a Dakota sheriff, New York City police commissioner, Navy secretary, Army colonel, and New York governor, all before becoming president at 42. Energetic, fun-loving, and extremely intelligent, Roosevelt is a biographer’s dream.


John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life
By Paul Nagel

From birth, John Quincy Adams lived within a shadow. His father, John, the legendary Founding Father and fiery orator, pushed John Quincy hard in his studies and inspired him to greatness. But the greatness JQA achieved—e.g. speaking multiple languages, serving as George Washington’s minister to the Netherlands at age 26—always overshadowed his desire to live a quiet, scholarly life away from politics and his father’s prodding. Historian Paul Nagel captures all of this in addition to Adams’ unimpressive term as president and surprising final act as an ardent abolitionist congressman. (Another bit of trivia: He was probably the only person to have known both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln personally.)


The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity
By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

These days the photo-op of the current president standing cordially with all of his living predecessors is common, but that wasn’t always so. Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman created the so-called “former presidents club” in the 1950s, and since then the relationships formed behind the scenes between members have often been surprising (like with rivals-turned-best-friends George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton) and sometimes subversive (like when Richard Nixon deliberately sabotaged Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks in Vietnam to aid his own 1968 campaign). The book is a fascinating account of how the private and public lives in “the world’s most exclusive fraternity” have interweaved throughout modern political history.

comments powered by Disqus