Jennie: Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency by Nigel Hamilton

I wasn’t sure what biography to read for Clinton, especially because I had already read his autobiography a number of years ago. Reading it for a second time (even though most of the details have probably fled my mind) seemed almost cheating on the challenge. When I found this one at Half Price Books, I snatched it up and hoped it would be good.

Well, it was only so-so. It was dry, very, very dry. And the author used a lot (A LOT) of metaphors in these pages, and after a few hundred pages it became comical to me, which was probably not the author’s intent.

I did enjoy the inside view to Clinton’s early days in the White House, and his struggles with his cabinet and staff members. The author seemed pretty heavy handed against Hillary, which made me wonder what he’d think with her running for president for 2016.

I would probably search out for a different book for Clinton if I had the chance. This one was long and only somewhat informative.

Jennie: Truman

Truman by David McCullough

NINE HUNDRED NINETY TWO pages of pure AWESOMENESS. (Yes, even after reading that many pages of eloquent and informational prose, I still use the word awesomeness.) This might be my favorite biography outside of John Adams (also written by McCullough)…on second thought, I think it’s a tie between them.

I was born, raised, and still live in/near Kansas City, so reading this was fascinating on two fronts. The expected presidential front and the learning about my city’s past and growth. McCullough writes non-fiction stories like they are fiction, taking the reader on a trip through the past with interesting tidbits and factual information woven together. I will read anything he writes. I have many of his other books on my shelves waiting to be read. His grocery list, sign me up.

Truman himself was a fascinating character, and yes I’m probably totally biased when I say that. (What can I say, it’s the Missouri girl in me.) I loved reading about his time growing up in Missouri and his relationship with his wife. But also, coming off the huge FDR biography I finished last month, reading about the days in which Truman took over in such chaos was literally heart pounding reading. Not to mention the war times Truman say, as a soldier and a President. I mean, talks with Churchill and Stalin?! Korean skirmishes? The atomic bomb?

I’ve been to Truman’s Presidential library as an adult, but didn’t get to see most of it because I was there to hear Clinton and Carter speak about volunteerism (of which, made me almost sign up for Greenpeace, but that’s a whole other story). It’s on my short bucket list to have one of our next dates (romantic, isn’t it?!) to be visiting it properly.

In short, read this book. Yes it’s gigantic but it ABSOLUTELY worth the time. Just get the e-book maybe, the hardback almost broke my wrists.

Jacki: Barack Obama

Dreams from My Father, by Barak Obama

Here is what I loved about this book: I loved that it was written way before he even entered politics- the first edition was published in 1994. The other two autobiographies I’ve read (Clinton and W) were obviously written with the idea in mind that this was going to become historical record and when they looked back on their childhood, it was always with a sense of “this is the set of decisions that lead me to this huge place of power” which is fine, but I loved that since Obama’s was written long before that was on his mind, it is wonderfully unencumbered by politics and is transparent in a way that the other two just weren’t. I liked that.

I also think that, without a doubt, Obama is a fantastic writer. I thought that the stories were entertaining, the point was clear and it was all wrapped up in a nice little package. I genuinely enjoyed reading it and filling in gaps in my knowledge.

Here’s what was less than great for me: The middle really drug for me. I understand that his community focus in Chicago was huge in his life but reading about it was just dull. I loved the beginning and the end but felt like the middle was just a little blah.

And I’m looking forward to reading a more definitive biography after his presidency is over.¬†This one is hyper-focused on Obama coming of age and finding out what race means to him, a man with a Kenyan father and American mother. Which was wildly interesting, but left me wanting more.

So, in short, I loved that this was incomplete but wanted it to be more complete. Admit it, you’re going to miss my reviews ūüėČ

 

And with that, I’m done with the Presidential Challenge! I’m looking forward to going back and reading some historical biographies of people that kept creeping into my Presidential Challenge bios, but as far as presidents, I’m done… at least for the next couple of years!

Jacki: George W. Bush

Decision Points, by George W Bush

You guys. I don’t even know how to write this review. I feel like it confuses my brain to even try to talk about it. Because here’s the thing: I think it was well written. I genuinely enjoyed reading it and could hear it in W’s Texas twang the whole time. I thought that it was a transparent look at some really hard decisions.

But those decisions…. they were just so awful. Even hearing him talk about them years later I feel like I cannot even wrap my head around saying, “Yeah, go ahead and torture that dude.” and then talking about not using stem cells because they are life. That is backwards, right?! Gah. It made steam come out of my ears on the regular.

I really did learn so much about some of these issues and saw them from a completely different perspective. I knew that Katrina relief was FUBAR but didn’t know exactly how it went down- this is one decision making process that I feel like I genuinely judged Bush too hard for and reading this was clarifying.

I went into this thinking I was going to hate it because during Bush’s presidency was when I really started paying more attention to politics and don’t generally agree with much that he did, but was surprised about how much I enjoyed his voice and writing style. I liked that instead of being a straight chronology, it was set up in chapters about each big decision. I thought that this gave him more space to really flesh out each issue and go into detail on why he made the decisions he did. I respected that there were decisions that he made that he regretted later and some that he still stands by one hundred percent.

I am looking forward to a more definitive biography of him to come out, when we have a little more perspective on his time in office, but for now this was a great choice and I would highly recommend it.

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!

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.

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.

 

 

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