Jacki: Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford, by Douglas G. Brinkley

So I’ve been looking forward to the modern presidents since I started this challenge, but for whatever reason had in my head that Gerald Ford hardly counted. He was only president for a bit over 2 years, he wasn’t even elected as vice president and blah blah blah. After such major talked about presidents like JFK, LBJ and Nixon, I was totally prepared for Ford to easily fade into the background.

And I’m so happy to say that I was wrong. I ended up enjoying this throughly and since I read a short book on him, I found myself wanting to know more.

I was a little bit right though. Because he was a little bit boring, but you guys, after this crooked, mean, narcissistic guys it kind of felt nice. He was a football player, from Michigan, a military vet, just this true blue American. It renewed a bit of my faith in America and our government. He was just this honest, straightforward, midwestern guy and it was a breath of fresh air.

Ford obviously got a ton of flack for pardoning Nixon and I always wondered why he did that and assumed that he was in cahoots with Nixon, but that’s just not right. By accepting the pardon, Nixon was admitting that he was guilty and then it was just… over. Ford said that had he decided to not pardon, Watergate just would have kept going and going and it had the potential to tear our country apart. The trials and the fallout were a scary prospect and Ford decided to forgo it all so that he could get on to serious biz, like getting out of Vietnam.

At the time, people got really wound up about it, but later in his life he finally received a lot of good attention for it as people started to realize that what he did was save the country from a lot of craziness.

The biography itself was concise. It was less than 200 pages so for a major history buff it would just be this throw away, but it was well done nonetheless. While there was little focus on Ford’s personal life, the attention to detail and balance of it was just right- enough of an overview to get a good idea about what went on but not enough to bog the casual historian down. On of the better books from the American Presidents Series that I’ve read.

(Oh! And fun fact: yet another president that didn’t go by his given name… his was Leslie Lynch King Jr…. weird, right?)

Kristen: John Adams

John Adams, by David McCullough

Before I read this biography, most of my knowledge about John and Abigail Adams came from the movie 1776 because my mom made my brother and me watch it every 4th of July.  She raised nerds, for sure and if she did nothing else for us, I thank her for that because I love being a nerd.  Anyway, once I was able to stop singing show tunes every time I picked up this book, I felt like a got not only an education in the life of John Adams but also of the history and political climate of the times in which he lived.

John Adams has always been one of my favorite Founding Fathers (probably partly because I imagine John to look something like Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World).  But this biography cemented my love and awe for the Adamses.  The author did a fantastic job of making the reader feel like she truly knew our second president and what his motivations were.

There’s so much to admire about Adams.  He was one of the most well-read men of his time and was a great writer and orator.  He worked persistently in the face of vicious attacks from friends and enemies.  I mean, basically his entire cabinet was secretly out to get him.  I can’t even imagine how he got anything accomplished!  He truly was brilliant.

He had so much integrity.  He was an independent thinker and wasn’t interested in getting involved in bashing his opponents or becoming involved in party politics.  He was his own man and he wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was or make unpopular decisions.  He didn’t shy away from confrontation, but met it head on.  He kept America from becoming involved in a pointless war even though at the time it would have been a popular decision.

He loved his family–especially his wife–and their relationship was one of love and mutual respect.  They wouldn’t see each other for years on end, but they kept it together which just amazes me.  He truly trusted her and valued her opinion.

He wasn’t afraid to forgive and forget and he rekindled his friendship with Jefferson who at one time was basically his archrival.  I mean, Jefferson was a huge backstabber.  He actually PAID people to write lies and slanderous crap about Adams in the papers.  But Adams was able to be the bigger man and let bygones be bygones.  I can’t imagine a politician from today doing that, but Adams was able to.

He was by no means a perfect person, but it is just completely awe-inspiring to learn about all of the things he did that had such a major impact on the founding of America and continue to have an influence on America today.

I’d recommend this book to anyone.  The subject matter and the writing are just THAT good.  It read more like a novel than a biography.  I can only hope to find more biographies that are this well done as I continue this Presidential Challenge.

Jacki: Richard Nixon

Nixon’s Darkest Secrets, by Don Fulsom

This was easily one of the worst non-fiction books I have ever read. Certainly the worst presidential biography I have read during this challenge. I just absolutely hated it. Allow me to count the reasons:

1. Fulsom maybe did zero original research. Almost every citation was from a secondary source, most of them not even solid secondary sources. Just any old thing he could find, apparently. At first it seemed questionable but as the book went on, it was just laughable.

2. The writing itself was choppy and atrocious. There was no sense of cohesiveness or story. Thinking about the book as a whole, I feel like there’s a good chance that he wrote the chapters totally independently of each other and never read it as a whole. I say this because there are phrases, even entire paragraphs that are repeated over and over throughout the book. Again, at first I was like, “Um, I just read that. How odd.” But by the end, I was almost keeping tally of how many times I heard the exact same lines.

3. The bias. You guys. Oh my gosh. It’s so bad. I love reading these biographies because I love getting a good, solid picture of who are presidents were as people… and that didn’t happen here even one tiny bit. According to Fulsom, Nixon was not so much a man as a walking blob of evil. There was no making Nixon into a person, this was just a total hate-fest.

4. The sexuality thing. The drinking thing. The wife-beating thing. The child-hating thing. It never ended. By the end, Fulsom had painted a picture of Nixon as a drunk, gay, homophobe (wut?) who killed JFK, beat his wife, hated his kids and was an actual sociopath. I’m sure that Nixon was into some shady business, but the “evidence” used to prove all of these things? Third hand stories. All of them. Blech. I felt almost dirty reading it. And claiming all of these things just made other parts of the books that probably were true (mob connections, BFFs in the mafia, and so on) just seem untrue.

I could go on. I hated it. Don’t read this. Ever.

Lauren H: John Adams

Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage, by Edith Gelles

I can finally say that my second president is in the books for the Presidential Challenge. This book was not easy for me to get through, but I am so glad that I did.

Before I knew much about John and Abigail Adams, I knew that they sent letters to each other throughout their marriage. I immediately loved the romanticism in writing letters to your significant other. What I didn’t realize was that the quantity of letters they wrote to one another was based on necessity. If they wanted to maintain their marriage while John traveled for decades during their relationship, letters were the only way for them to do so. I can’t imagine living without my husband or father as much as the Adamses did and then when I think about the available outlets of communication then and now it just seems impossible. The Adams made it work though and it wasn’t always easy.

I really enjoyed reading about John Adams’ time abroad in the Netherlands, London and Paris. I think of the amazing education and experiences his son was provided by accompanying him overseas. When Abigail and his daughter, Nabby, were finally able to join John and John Quincy in Paris, I thought it was fascinating to read Abigail’s letters documenting that time. She had similar fears and anxiety in being in a foreign country that I believe are still faced by people today. I was heartbroken for John and Abigail when he did not win his second term as president. I felt as if he had given up so much of his life to see the United States as a successful country and that his time as a public official was cut short.

John and Abigail Adams really have quite the history together and the thing that always held each of them together individually was each other. It was wonderful to see a couple to support each other through some of the most difficult and rewarding periods of their lives.

While I found their story to be fascinating, I wasn’t really a fan of the writing in this book. I found it to be repetitive and the flow between narrative and quotations from the letters didn’t read smoothly at times. Even though I did not particularly enjoy the writing, I feel as if there was great quality, historical information in this book and I am happy to have some insight on our second president and first lady.

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Jacki: Lyndon B Johnson

Lyndon B Johnson, by Charles Peters

The entire time I was reading this book, I was kind of marching around the house chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”– that is immediately what I think of when I think of LBJ, which kind of had me thinking that he was just this awful guy. What other kind of person kills kids, for goodness sake?

So this book was super shocking for me. I knew that LBJ took over after JFK was assassinated and I can just picture him getting sworn in on Air Force One, looking old and sad beside Jackie O who looks absolutely in shock. I knew that it was this insane time period in American history, but even then, all I associated him with was Vietnam.

Which is unfortunate because for what a disaster that was almost from day one, dude had some serious successes domestically. He was a champion of civil rights and pushed and pushed to get laws passed that promoted voting rights and equal rights. He started Medicare and Head Start and passed a bunch of education laws that made it possible for poor people to get an education. These are all things that I think are mega important and I was shocked and surprised to learn that these were all LBJ initiatives.

But dude was a prick. Literally. He was… ahem… apparently well endowed and named his penis Jumbo and showed it off on the regular. He would even persuade his subordinates to whip theirs out to compare size. TRUE STORY. He would get his aides to come to the bathroom with him and he’d talk to them and make them work while he sat there and took a poop. I CANNOT MAKE THIS UP. He hated the Kennedy clan (especially Bobby, not as as much Teddy, and even super disliked (and some would say planned the murder of) JFK) but did have one huge thing in common with John F Kennedy: he cheated on his wife regularly and she, having daddy issues, stood beside him and just smiled through it.

And then there was Vietnam, which he drug his feet on and then just went in full force. He told his advisors, later, that he ultimately made the decision for purely political reasons: he didn’t want to look weak in comparison to Bobby Kennedy, who was kind of his arch-rival. Crazy, right? And so sad. He was ultimately just a super insecure guy who tried hard but couldn’t stop catering to his ego. Bleh.

As for the biography itself, this was one of the best books I’ve read in the American Presidents series. It was fairly balanced, which is hard to find especially with the more recent presidents. I thought that it was concise without cutting too many corners and didn’t often sink into full-tilt political lingo. I read it quickly and never got bored. Good stuff. Next up, Nixon, who I also think pretty lowly of. We’ll see how that one comes out!

Lauren B: John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, by Harlow Giles Unger

This was one of my favorite Presidential biographies so far! I think in a lot of the early presidencies, the rich history is just too tempting for the author and they often stray away from the actual person they’re writing about. Not so with this one – the focus on JQA really brought him to life.

I loved JQA. He was kind of an idiot about the politics and the personal relationships sometimes, but I love that he just does his own thing and screw parties and politics and everyone else. He was totally the Honeybadger. He DON’T. CARE. He just don’t give a shit.

I would totally read more by Harlow Giles Unger, too! Great author!

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Jacki: John F. Kennedy

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, by Robert Dallek

This has been one that I’ve been looking forward to since I started the presidential challenge over 3 years ago. I mean, he’s young and hot and powerful and died this horrible, untimely death during a crazy time in America’s history, what could possibly be more fascinating? The answer: Nothing.

This is kind of the definitive biography of JFK’s life. There are a lot of books about him, of course, but most cover just one part of his life: military career, family life, presidential life, his death, but I had a hard time finding many that were just a straight biography. This one came highly recommended and I’m so, so glad that I read it. It was fantastic.

If you have been following along as I have been reading these biographies, you will notice a trend in my reviews: I went into this challenge wanting to get to know these presidents as men, know what makes the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world tick. I’m less interested in politics and more interested in profiles of these guys that made it to the top of their game and what that looked like for them. This biography did a fantastic job of painting a pretty full picture of who JFK and combining that with a vivid backdrop of his family and time period. It was pretty masterfully done.

And JFK was every bit as interesting as I thought he would be. I only had the vaguest idea of his health issues, and this book came out right after a lot of his medical records were released for the first time. Dude was super sick. He spent a lot of his childhood and a good fraction of his adulthood in and out of hospitals with really bad digestive issues. The drugs that they put him on led to horrible back pain and joint issues and he was just…. not in great health. In fact, he thought from the time he was young that he would not live to see old age, which some people suspect is why he lived his life the way he did: lots of girls, lots of life in a fairly short span of time. He just went full throttle because he thought he wouldn’t be around long.

I thought that his family was just… insane. I knew that he came from money and he was rich, but I honestly never realized the scope of it. And I knew that his family had a “curse” but again, I never had any idea just what that meant. Learning about JFK’s parents and siblings was probably my favorite part o the whole book and I’d love to read a book that focused specifically on JFK’s family of origin because…. wow.

I could go on and on. I loved reading about his college days, about his election, about the Cuban Missile Crisis (which I had heard of, but was totally uninformed about) and all these other pieces that just made up one of the most talked about, most studied, most interesting lives that I’ve ever read about.

I immediately handed my copy of this book over to my mom because it was that good. Even if you aren’t doing the challenge and don’t usually read this kind of thing, do it. Really good stuff.

Jacki: Dwight Eisenhower

Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World, by Evan Thomas

Confession: I just picked the shortest biography of Eisenhower that I could find. It’s so bad, right!? I had just read giant books on FDR and Truman and intend to read a big, huge JFK book too so I just wanted a break. I even knew that this wasn’t a traditional biography (which I try to stick to) but just didn’t have it in me to read the “good” bio of Eisenhower because it was long. So there ya go. Confession over.

So, like I said, this isn’t a traditional biography. It is mainly focused on Eisenhower’s presidency, specifically his international policy during that time. So it seems like a fairly narrow focus, but the author did a great job of filling the reader in on Ike’s history by weaving it in through thoughts on the decisions he made as president. Same with domestic policy- there wasn’t TONS here, but there was enough that I walked away with a base knowledge.

There was ZERO on ballot casting to get Eisenhower nominated and Thank God for that. After this many presidential biographies, those chapters always make me want to poke hot needles in my eyes.

I think that through this narrow-ish scope, Evan Thomas did a fantastic job of painting a picture of Eisenhower not just as a politician or a war hero but as a man. There was just so much depth of character and emotion that I walked away feeling like I really knew Eisenhower. And guys? The dude was brilliant.

The whole book is about how he handled the Cold War and how we were never nuked by Russia or dropped huge bombs on them and I guess I always just figured that “duh, of course we didn’t!” but it was super close and the only reason that full scale WWIII didn’t break out is because Eisenhower played his cards close to his chest and subtly threatened war without being an insane person. After reading this, I feel like there is a very real chance that had someone else been president, there would have been very different results.

And here’s the interesting thing too: Eisenhower had a hot temper. He would get red in the face, yell at people that were close to him and just generally throw temper tantrums, but when he was in the political eye, he was as cool as a cucumber. He was even ok with playing a bit of a “dumb old grandpa” roll even though he was crazy-smart and military minded. It’s all these fascinating contradictions that just point to the fact that he was doing what he had to do for his country and doing it right. Stellar job, dude.

So, if you want a full birth to death biography, skip this. But for a great look as Eisenhower as a man and how the Cold War played out, pick this up ASAP. Really good stuff.

Jacki: Harry Truman

Truman, by David McCullough

This is one of the biographies that I was really, really looking forward to reading. I thought that John Adams by McCullough was amazing and knowing that this was by the same author AND won the Pulitzer? Well… I have had this on my shelf, ready to go since I started the challenge.

You guys, it did not disappoint.

One of the reasons I got into the Presidential Challenge was because I wanted to know more about the presidents as men. I am moderately interested in their politics, of course, but if I’m being honest, I just want to know the story of these men who ended up in such an extreme place of power.

Harry Truman was literally a farmer. A farmer. He just started in small town politics and then rose and rose until he ended up being Vice President for Roosevelt when he passed away in office. He had little actual affiliation with Roosevelt and was a little bit (a lot of bit) overwhelmed when he became President, but he really did rise to the occasion.

The thing for me that was shocking about Truman was the Truman Doctrine and how much it effects us every day. I had heard that phrase before but had very little idea what it meant. Now that I know, I can look back and see how all of our modern wars (Vietnam, Iraq, this thing we’re looking at with Syria) are all because of his doctrine. Before him, we would not have went into countries that posed no immediate threat. That’s wild, right? That one farmer boy can change the course of world history. I mean…. wow.

The decision to drop the atomic bomb and the carrying out of it and the aftermath… you guys, rarely in my life have I read something that captivated me more. I was just totally in it. I can’t believe that I made it almost 30 years in my life without knowing this incredible part of American history.

So, I have to be honest, as much as I loved it and as interesting as it was, it took me all month to read this book. I read it in chunks and then put it back and it is, you know, 1000 pages long. I did slip in RIIIIIGHT at the end of August, but just barely. I thought that it was mostly quick moving, but the part that talks about his campaign for his second term really drug for me. I thought that there was an inordinate amount of time spent there, but other than that I thought that this was pretty great.

For a complete view of a pretty interesting guy and a VERY interesting period in American history, I would highly, highly recommend this book.