Jacki: Bill Clinton

My Life, by Bill Clinton

I cut it down to the wire on this one even though I started early in the month. It took me two and a half weeks to read this. Two and a half weeks. I can’t remember a time that a book has taken me that long. This was 1000 pages of dense, tiny little type. I felt like I deserved a metal when I got to the last page.

Now that I got out of the way: I loved this. I mean, I just loved it. This was the first autobiography that I’ve read during the course of the presidential challenge (although I plan to read W’s as well.) and I didn’t know how I would feel about it because obviously it would be really one sided- but the thing is, all the books about the more modern presidents are super one sided anyway, so I figured I should at least hear it from his lips if that makes sense? It totally does to me.

The thing is, through this whole challenge part of my interest has been seeing the people that make these men that are just larger than life- to get to who they really are and how the presidency fit them or didn’t fit them. I feel like Bill Clinton exposed that so well here that I just walked away feeling really satisfied. I think that he was really blunt and honest- he obviously knows what he is great at and knows where he falters and I didn’t feel like he pulled back from that much.

I loved hearing about his upbringing and seeing these little puzzle pieces that fit together to make him this civil rights loving, peace loving boy from the deep south. That was an extreme rarity back then and it just seems like Bill Clinton’s family and circumstances came together perfectly to make this guy who was just so suited to stand up in these areas. I also loved hearing about his genuine love for Hillary. I’ve always wondered what their marriage looks like on the inside and while I’m sure that there was  a lot left out here (although he found himself on the couch quite a few times during the book), I just admire that come hell or high water they are standing behind each other. I don’t care what your political leanings are, you have to respect that.

I have vague memories of Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky and all of that mess. I knew that the president had messed up and it involved a girl but I was too young to have a solid grasp on it. I had no idea what Whitewater really was although, again, I was familiar with the word and that it meant bad news for Clinton. There was a lot of good stuff here but I feel like the real ins and outs of that whole thing were my biggest take away- I felt like I picked up a little piece of American history that was a blank spot in my brain.

I do, in fact, recognize that there were times that Clinton glossed over areas that were less flattering for him. You could almost hear his charming voice sweeping stuff under the rug, but if we’re being real if I were writing my life story that I knew people would read in 100 years, I may sweep some stuff under the rug too.

I super loved this and it gave me a good taste for autobiographies. I’m 99% sure that’s what I’ll be doing for my final two as well, so I’ll let you know what I think!

Jennie: William McKinley

William McKinley (The American Presidents #25) by Kevin Phillips

This book was so very dry, and while only 150ish pages, it was so very long. I prefer biographies that dive both into the political world of the president and the personal world. This biography really only focused on politics, mentioning McKinley’s personal life only when it directly impacted his professional life. (His wife’s illness, etc)

It was a slightly bent in the pro-McKinley camp, but overall I felt I read a mostly general overview of is political life and how he impacted the Republican party. However, possibly the thing I was most upset about was that there wasn’t any details on his assassination. Just commentary on what he might have done better, had he not been assassinated.

I picked this biography because it was the cheapest of the options, but I wish I’d maybe gone for one of the others now knowing how it skipped the personal aspects of his life. If someone wants a great detail of his politics, this is certainly a good book to pick up. I finished it feeling like I didn’t know much about McKinley outside of that arena.

Jennie: Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison (The American Presidents #23) by Charles W. Calhoun

Confession: The whole Cleveland-Harrison-Cleveland timeline was a bit confusing for me. I kept stumbling over the events and things I read in the Cleveland biography I read in March. This made me feel like a real Presidential Challenge failure, but alas, it’s the truth.

Anywho – This book was good, and short, but still packed in a lot of information. Some of it I ended up skimming, because honestly I just can’t read about the same political events month after month without snoozing.

I did finish this book with a new found appreciation for how much Harrison actually accomplished in his presidency. I think he’s one of the presidents that I just kind of forget about, but he really did work hard to push through congress.

Jacki: George H. W. Bush

Being Poppy: A Portrait of George Herbert Walker Bush, by Richard Ben Cramer

I was happy to find this book- it seems like most of the books on these modern presidents take some sort of political stance which colors everything that they have ever done in their lives. This one isn’t exactly like that because it is mostly not political. This was actually (I found out after buying it) taken from a longer book that the author carefully researched about the 1988 election- he basically removed the parts about Dole and Dukakis and their campaigns and published this small book just about George H. W. Bush. So it’s a little more balanced politically than most books out there, which was a plus….

The downside, which I also didn’t realize when purchasing? It just went up to the very, very beginning of his presidency. If I have time this month, I’ll probably grab another book about him that mostly covers his presidency, since that’s a big part of what I’m interested in obviously.

The biography was mostly a character sketch, which was written in this nearly breathless way. Never in my life have I see more ellipsis or dashes. I’m not joking when I say one excited sentence was 189 words long and included two sets of dashes and two sets of parenthesis and 23 commas. Yeah, I stopped and counted because it was some kind of feat of the English language. Let me repeat- it had twenty three commas. Eek.

I did think that George H. W. Bush’s life was really interesting. He was born super rich. Didn’t really act that way. Went into the military, survived a crazy plane crash. Came home, married Barbara who he genuinely loved (Reading about their marriage was one of my favorite parts of the book.). Became an oil man. Was incredibly friendly and charismatic, made friends easily. Got bored with oil. Decided to do politics. Became President.

It was almost frustrating reading, after really liking him as a person, about his accent to President because it seemed like he just didn’t know what else to do so he went into politics and then he was friends with the right people so he ended up Veep then whoops! He’s president! I wanted to cheer for him as a person but knowing how ill equipped he was made it hard. When he was first asked why he wanted to be come President he said, “I have a huge family and lots of friends.” That’s it. Later someone primed him on the real answer about helping and changing and blah blah blah, but the fact is that he did it just because he thought he could. Which is a little disheartening, right?

So there ya go, we’re  now into presidents whose time in office I actually have a vague memory of. Ca-ray-zee.

Jennie: Grover Cleveland

The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth by Matthew Algeo

I loved this book! The secrecy, the lies, the drama, the science of early medicine! This book was practically made for me. Seriously, this is such a Jennie book.

I think what I found most fascinating is how mass media has changed things. Can you imagine the President just getting on a boat and disappearing now? MAD PANIC. And, everyone involved would be brought up on charges for lying and all that.

And, you know, it’s not totally off base. The VP had not a single clue that Cleveland was going through such a risky surgery. He could’ve died, and was at the very least unable to perform his duties for a few days, but no one in the general public knew. Oh man!

The whole finding his tumor in a jar in the modern day and having it tested with our current technology was just the icing on the cake. Fascinating!

Basically, read this book. If you like biographies, read it. If you like non-fiction, read it. If you just like a good should’ve ended in tragedy, but just ended in a lot of drama, read it!

Jacki: Ronald Reagan


Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, by Dinesh D’Souza

Ok, just… if you love Ronald Reagan, you’ll love this book. If his politics seem pretty gross to you, this book will send you into rage fits.

It’s a biography kind of. Mostly it is a suuuuuper conservative propaganda pamphlet. I mean, it honestly reads like a love letter or something. I knew going in, because of the title, that it would probably fall on the side of favoring Reagan, which honestly I would rather read than a big huge “I hate this guy” biography because negativity is so off-putting. Today I learned that hero worship is way, way more off-putting to me.

I think that the problem with writing something that is SO one sided is that it makes me doubt everything that the author says. I know that he’s exaggerating and projecting in some areas so I’m left to wonder about every. single. fact. that is presented.

Honestly, it was well written and I had no trouble reading it, except for the part where the dude justified every single action that RR made in office and went on and on about just how dang funny and brilliant and smarter than everyone on the planet he was.

I wasn’t a fan, but I know that it was my political leanings more than anything that kept me from enjoying it.

Jacki: Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography from Plains to Post-presidency

Wiping the sweat from my brow, guys. Finished this one on the very last day of February. Eek. February, why are you so short?!

Ok, so… I have a lot of feelings on this one. Bulleted list, perhaps?

  • As I get closer and closer to “present” in the challenge, I am having a hard time finding a good non-biased biography. It’s hard because there’s so much less perspective and less of a chance for us to see how decisions have panned out over time. This is the first biography that I’ve read of a president that was still living and it really did feel incomplete to get to the end and there be no real finale. In fact, this was written in 1997 so it’s a little bit dated. Since then Jimmy Carter has done some huge things, including winning the Nobel Peace Prize. This was new and different for me.
  • Also new and different: Carter was a whole different kind of politician. This was the first time that I felt like a president got into the presidency not because he loved politics but because he loved people. He started out on a school board because he wanted to help end segregation in southern Georgia. Eek. He just was obsessed with human rights and it kept bolstering him to higher positions until finally, well, he was president. I kind of love that about him, that he just wanted to do good.
  • The election that Carter won? It was just set up for him. After Johnson and Nixon and Ford and all these politician’s politicians, American was just fed up with the scandal and lies and politics. Jimmy Carter was just this humble, refreshing face. America just needed a grassroots effort, an honest guy. Jimmy Carter was governor of Georgia and just about one of the only people in America that fit the bill and just slid right in there. Nothing like good timing.
  • I felt this way with Taft (who was a judge, became president, then went on to be a Supreme Court judge) too- but I just love that Jimmy Carter’s career success isn’t being president. The big stuff in his life came later, but he just absolutely used his presidency as this platform, this stepping stone toward what he really wanted to do which was a million different humanitarian efforts. There is just something fun about the idea of being POTUS not being the highlight of a career.
  • This biography was really great. Peter Bourne admits right from the get go that he worked with Carter and loves him and while he tried to write a balanced biography, warned from the beginning that he would usually side with Carter. I thought he wrote a solid bio. He was really involved with both of Carter’s campaigns for president and because of that, I think that he focused way too much on that part and not as much on the presidency. Seriously, there were about 80 pages on his first campaign. Yawn. But other than that? Great stuff. Highly recommended.



Jennie: Chester Alan Arthur

Chester Alan Arthur (The American Presidents #21) by Zachary Karabell

I, like I suspect most of us, had no real idea who Arthur was. He’s in that bland section of bland presidents. I loved the biography I read for Garfield, so I half expected this book to be a let down. And, it was, but only sorta. This biography was short, which helped a lot, but it still covered a lot of ground and conveyed the man…and the president.

I found it interesting that Arthur never wanted to be president. He wasn’t one of those “I’ve Dreamed Of It FOREVER” kind of men…it just sort of fell into his lap. And when Garfield was shot he basically freaked out. Like, hid in his room having a toddler style meltdown. But, once he came to grips with what lay before him, he grew into those shoes. Maybe not in a way that made him truly embrace his position, but he didn’t take it lightly and didn’t become a pawn.

This was well-written and flowed nicely, covering both his personal life and his presidential life well. I recommend it for anyone doing the presidential challenge or anyone just looking to take a closer look at a not-so-well-known president.

Lauren H: Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, by R.B. Bernstein 

I thoroughly enjoyed this biography of Thomas Jefferson. I have to admit that I was drawn to it initially because it was on the shorter side and the last presidential biography I read took me ages to get through, but once I started reading I found this book to be very well written with a lot of great information. This biography had a balance of personal and professional information on Jefferson and the pacing made it a relatively quick read.

I found it very interesting to see some of Thomas Jefferson’s point of view on the lower points of his friendship with John Adams after reading the other side of the story; and another side as well, as Abigail played a role in the dynamic of this relationship. I was also surprised to learn that Jefferson’s wife asked him not to remarry on her deathbed, which I think sheds a different light on the rumors of his alleged relationship with Sally Hemings.

Jefferson accomplished so much during his life in the formative years of the United States and Bernstein does an excellent job of outlining his successes and his weaknesses.

Overall, I thought this was a great biography and would be enjoyed by those who aren’t typically drawn to nonfiction.

Original Review

Jennie: James Garfield

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

I might not have mentioned it here, but my husband is a firefighter / paramedic. So, the medical field has been a big part of my life since I helped him study for medic school tests years ago. Our dinner table conversations aren’t for the faint of heart. We both love reading books about the sordid beginnings of the medical field, which basically means that I read half of this book out loud to him as I was reading it.

This is a presidential biography mixed with a window into early scientific inventions and the medical world, with true-crime. So…there was pretty much no doubt that I was going to love it…and I did! The multiple parts and stories were woven so delicately and beautifully that I just flipped page after page in a race to find out more. Clearly, I knew Garfield would die, but that didn’t slow down my intensity as I read.

Seriously, this has been one of my favorite biographies that I’ve read as part of the Presidential Challenge, but for slightly different reasons than the others in the past. My other faves were due to the depth of information and the fascinating storytelling, this book made that list because of the many ways the President might have lived. If Garfield’s main doctor hadn’t been so hardheaded, if Bell’s invention had worked just a few days earlier, if his murderer hadn’t been so crazy pants.

Fascinating stuff, for sure. I highly recommend this book, even if you don’t traditionally enjoy non-fiction!