Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Presidential Politics

This summer, I decided to shape my reading list around presidential politics (of course, after I finished the War of 1812 book).  This is an area of history that has always fascinated me, ever since I took a political science course on the modern presidency in college.  I also figured that this would be a timely move given the dramatic election season that is well underway.

The Official Presidential Seal
I just completed two books related to the presidency.  First was The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.  This book gave a detailed look inside the most exclusive fraternity in the world, the privileged club of presidents.  Gibbs and Duffy chronicled the relationships of sitting presidents and ex-presidents, from the time Harry Truman reached out to Herbert Hoover to today, the relationship of Barack Obama and his predecessors.  Throughout these stories, the authors point out the basic rules - whether spoken or not - that presidents obey in "the club."  While most of these relationships have been cordial, not all presidents (and ex-presidents) have followed the rules.  Some were notoriously devious while some, despite bitter elections and rhetoric, have been amazingly gracious.  At times, this book seemed like a soap opera and fittingly, I had a hard time putting it down (just ask my wife!).

Here's a good blog post with images of the presidential fraternity:

The second book and my third of the summer was George W. Bush's Decision Points.  Presidential memoirs have become an expectation for ex-presidents and they do serve an important historical purpose - shedding light into the complicated decision making process of a president.  Once a president leaves office, he faces the judgment of history.  Naturally, presidents hope to influence their legacy in the prism of history.  This was certainly the case when Ulysses S. Grant published his famous Memoirs in the remaining months of his life.  President Bush's memoir is focused on the most consequential decisions of his presidency, including very important events in recent history - 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina, just to name a few.  It may be too soon for historians to assess the Bush presidency; however, this book is an insightful look at how President Bush shaped his decisions and why he made the decisions he did.  Bush notes his achievements, but also admits mistakes.  Where I find this book most helpful is how President Bush lays out the major events of his term in a topical sense, clearly illustrating each major decision as part of a larger chain of events.  It is easy for pundits and even us Americans to judge a president in the moment, when the decisions are made.  However, reading this president's rationale and in the context of events and facts, including those not known to the public at the time, lends to a much better understanding of the decisions and the man.  Regardless of one's politics and regardless of whether readers agree or disagree with Mr. Bush, this book does help shed light into one of the more momentous presidencies in recent history.

The next item on my summer reading list is Michael Beschloss' Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989.  Beschloss is a renowned presidential historian, appearing in many documentaries on the modern presidency and author of several works.  I had the opportunity to hear him speak at the Florida Forum in October 2008, just prior to the election of Barack Obama.

I close with a image collection of ex-presidents and related images for this post.

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