Jennie: Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren, by Ted Widmer

My first impression of this book is that for its small size, it really does contain a large amount of information. Even still, there wasn’t a vast amount of information on his personal life. There weren’t many casual stories of childhood jokes, romances, or details on his marriage. From the way it was described there wasn’t much of this type of information available though so I’m not sure that another biography would have included it.

A few times Ted Widmer’s tone really infiltrated the text, especially regarding how Van Buren was attacked during his elections and throughout his political career. He gave the impression that Van Buren was the first person to have been slaughtered in papers and election speeches. Maybe it is because I have read these biographies in (mostly) order I can say that each President before him had many of the same (if not worse in some cases) venomous replies and comments made about them.

The amount of political perspective attempted to make up for the lack of personal details so I was able to gather a semi-understanding of one of the more unknown Presidents. So much of Van Buren’s presidency was stained by the rough economy of the time. Second to that issue, slavery was starting to develop into an issue that would no longer be swept under the rug. Van Buren really did try to toe the line of balance, and not always for personal gain. It seems that he truly thought he could bring together the masses on either side of issues. Sometimes he succeeded but on some of the bigger issues he failed.

Probably not the intent, but the most memorable aspect of this couple hundred pages has nothing to do with the presidency in the late 1830s. Instead, it is about modern people, things and events. Confused yet? It’s as if the author thought readers of this book wouldn’t be able to comprehend the past without references of the here and now so the pages are loaded with modern references. Jacki pointed this out in her review, but I thought maybe I could overlook these references. Nope…not at all. In fact I started making a list from the beginning after Jacki prompted me to since her list was made after she finished reading.

Here you go with page number:

Seinfeld (5)
Yahoo Search (19)
Empire State Building (40)
Rush Limbaugh (67)
Monica Lewinsky (78)
Internet (98)
Kmart (99)
Watergate (106)
Vietnam (114)
Stephen Spielberg (121)
Al Gore (136)
John Lennon (14)
Graceland (144)
Disneyland (170)

I even left out some of the references that could semi-justifiably be tied to an event (cause and effect, etc). That is a huge list for such a small book with a subject matter so far in the past. Had many of these been left out I probably would have rated the book higher than I have at this point. It just distracted me from the life of Martin Van Buren too much.

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Jacki: Abraham Lincoln

A. Lincoln, by Ronald C. White Jr.

Since I started the challenge, of course Abe Lincoln was one of the presidents that I was really looking forward to reading about. I knew the basics- log cabin, beard, tall hat, Civil War- but I was really excited to get some detail.

What I really, really loved about this biography is that I got this really full scope of not only who Lincoln was and what he did, but also what he was thinking through it all. Lincoln was a prolific letter writer and was notorious for writing little notes about what was going on in his head and stuffing them in pockets, his hat, and desk drawers. Ronald White wrote this bio after a lot of that stuff was newly released and so he got to draw a lot of new conclusions about Lincoln’s motivations.

I loved finding out more about Lincoln’s humble beginnings- he was not highly educated, he moved around a lot while he was younger and his parents (obviously) raising someone that they felt was destined for greatness. He was a self starter from a very young age and at the time that he was elected president, he had barely scratched the surface of being in politics.

I think what really fascinated me was just watching him work through this whole slavery thing in his own head. There are quotes from Lincoln early in his life that people have misconstrued to say that Lincoln was actually a racist and that he had less-than-stellar motivations… the thing is, he just hadn’t gotten to the end of his thought process on slavery and blacks. As he became more well known and got elected, America was in this super turbulent time. He had personal convictions against slavery from very early in his life but honestly could not picture how America could not have slaves… after all, they always had. As he watched the war progress and felt out how Americans were responding, he started not realize that he could help make that personal conviction come to life… Just that thought process was a really amazing thing to watch.

Ronald White wrote this biography in a really clear, personable way. By the end, I truly felt like I knew Lincoln- about his life and his family and his personality. It had enough facts and dates to feel like a legit scholarly work, but enough personal detail and flowing prose to keep this nonacademic totally hooked. I have read a lot about the Civil War, but almost always the more “domestic” side of things and less the political side. I really enjoyed seeing everything from the other side and realizing the crazy place that policy makers were put during the war. I just feel like I have a much more complete picture of what went on.

I don’t know what else to say- I spent almost all of April with this mammoth of a book (It took me nearly THREE WEEKS to read!) and I loved it. I cannot even think of one negative. If you are doing the presidential challenge, I highly, highly recommend that you block off a few weeks and read this one. So, so good.

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Jessica: James Garfield

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard

Who really killed President Garfield? Sure, Charles Guiteau may have been the one to pull the trigger, but the doctors did more damage than the actual shooting did. Such a tragedy that the doctors believed they were saving lives when they were actually doing just the opposite.

A part of me thought the author ‘glorified’ James Garfield. Even the mention of his affair got only about a line or two of text and then it was quickly glossed over by how much he realized he loved his wife. I wonder if this was a ploy to make the reader more sympathetic toward the plight of Garfield on his deathbed? Not that it didn’t work because I bought it hook, line and sinker.

I really thought the author did a fantastic job keeping the book readable and gripping. I found the entire story fascinating and was surprised how Alexander Graham Bell was involved. And I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Robert Lincoln.

All in all this was a wonderful (if not a bit biased) read. I would highly recommend it for anyone doing the presidential challenge.

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Jessica: Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes, by Hans Trefousse

Unfortunately, Hans Trefousse does nothing more than write a biography on President Hayes proving that the president was a vanilla president in a world of Ben & Jerry’s. Hayes entered the presidency under the scandal of disputed election results which could have made for great drama, however it was barely touched upon. I know the biography was just a short book, but it read as if Mr. Trefousse had a word limit that he would be fined if he went over his allotted word count. There is more than one mention in the book to President Hayes being an avid diary keeper which should give ample material for the author to get right to the nitty, gritty and write a personal and mare detailed biography. After reading this biography, I realize that I don’t feel as if I know Rutherford B. Hayes any better than before reading this biography.

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