Lauren B: James Monroe

James Monroe, by Gary Hart

I will totally admit, I picked this biography for my Presidential Challenge because it was short and sweet. I did the same thing for Thomas Jefferson and it was a disaster but luckily this one turned out to be a good bet!

James Monroe is recognized as the last Revolutionary War generation president, and I was nervous that this book would focus on that period, but the focus was definitely on Monroe’s time as Secretary of State and President. I had a vague recollection of the Monroe Doctrine from what I’d learned in school, but it was fascinating to learn how much of our border and international policy stems from Monroe’s time in office. It’s interesting that these policies took shape during a time (one of the only times) that very little political partisanship existed – it makes sense that during such a time, leadership would take advantage of the solidarity and focus on ironing out international affairs.

Overall I liked the writing, considering most of the author’s sources were secondary. He did a good job of summarizing without being boring. My only complaint is that he repeats himself a little too often – in historical non-fiction there is often reference to events that get discussed later in the book, but Hart actually reuses wording and rehashes certain points a little too often.

Jacki: Franklin Roosevelt

FDR, by Jean Edward Smith

Oh ┬áman. I don’t even know where to start. I’m about to have a gush-fest, so just deal with it.

I loved this book. Like hugging-a-book loved it. Like after 650 pages I wanted more loved it. Like I cried probably 10 times loved it. I LOVED IT.

So while I’ve been reading all of these presidential biographies, I have to admit that through most of them I’ve had this thought in the back of my head: “Ok, but had someone else been president, the same basic decisions would have been made.” There have only been a few (George Washington, Abe Lincoln, maaaaaybe Jackson) that have stood out to me as, “Well, omg, this dude changed the future of America. He set us on a new path and there is a very, very good chance that without him we’d be in a much different place right now.” In FDR’s case, we’d be in Biff Tannen’s 1985 or under German rule or… who even knows.

I knew a bit about his involvement in WWII just from reading other things about it, but I really was in the dark about how he got into office facing the Great Depression and basically stomped it out in his first 100 days. He somehow intuitively knew what needed to be done and just… did it. With a smile on his face. From a wheelchair. I mean daaaang.

And his marriage. Oh man, his marriage. It is this tragic, beautiful, so sad story… I don’t want to ruin it. You have to read this.

Speaking of that: I feel like the other really good piece that I took away from this was the media then vs now. It was well known in political circles and in the media that FDR had a pretty serious mistress for quite some time but they just kept it mum because they figured it was none of their business. Same with FDR being paralyzed: they just didn’t talk about it. They reached an agreement not to photograph him in his wheelchair and they stuck by it. There was a separation between personal life and public life and that simply doesn’t exist now. It was interesting to read about.

I think that the author did an outstanding, perfect job of blending the story of his family life and his social life and his political life into this really great, cohesive thing. I think that he was, clearly, a bit awestruck by FDR but didn’t shy away from the bad decisions he made too (ahem, Japanese internment camps, anyone?) which I think is a heard balance to strike.

I liked Grant by the same author, but was totally, totally blown away by her take on FDR. It was well researched, well written and just overall outstanding. If you don’t read it, you really are missing out.