Jacki: Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren, by Ted Widmer

In the intro to this book, the author says that most Americans know one thing about Martin Van Buren: that he was the president and that he had amazing side burns…. and for me that just about sums it up. I knew a teeny bit from the Andrew Jackson bio that I read, but even that mentioned him mostly in passing. I guess what I’m saying is, I was coming into this totally blind, and I kind of like that.

What I found out was that Van Buren was kind of a brilliant politician.  He was one of the first guys who really figured out how to make the system work for him.  He created the Democratic party and not only got himself elected, but pretty much worked behind the scenes to get his friends elected for 15 or 20 years.  Dude couldn’t be stopped.  Part of it was that he was just this friendly, likable guy, but the other part was that he could just sense how people were going to react so he played to them.  It seems pretty basic, but planning instead of being reactionary was kind of a new idea. He also popularized the word “OK” in the US.  Pretty big deal, that guy.

He gets overlooked because during his presidency, there was a horrible recession.  Half of the banks in America closed, unemployment got way high, you know the drill.  People got poor and got mad and a lot of this was put on ol’ Matty’s shoulders even though he really didn’t have much to do with it.  He’s not necessarily looked at as a bad president, but more just run-of-the-mill.  Had he been president at a later (or earlier) time, it kind of seems like he would have been one of the greats.

There wasn’t much here about Van Buren’s personal life, but I got the idea that he didn’t have much of one.  His wife died before he became president and he wasn’t super close to his 3 boys.  His life was dedicated entirely to politics and to his country.

So, I liked learning about him.  Interesting dude & interesting time period: 20 years or so before the civil war and all this tension within the country.  Pretty cool stuff.

However, I didn’t love this biography.  I think that a good biography makes you part of the person’s life, takes you to their time period.  Ted Widmer took the alternate approach: he kind of tried to bring MVB into our time period.  I’m not sure if it was in an attempt to try to help us relate, or if Widmer seriously couldn’t focus, but these are just some topics that came up in a biography set in the 1830’s: The Tet Offensive, Sputnik, the internet, Monica Lewinsky, Stephen Spielberg, Aaron Spelling, the list goes on and on.  It was totally distracting for me and it just didn’t work.

I also want to point out that the author is a serious Democrat and it is way, way obvious as you read this book.  If that is going to bug you, you may want to skip this.

The writing was light and easy to read and the book was a scant 180ish pages, so I still plowed right through and was glad that I chose this instead of a massive 600 pager, but all the pop-culture references and lack of personal life made this just “OK” for me.

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