Walking With Presidents

Earlier this week, the dental hygienist (Look, Ma, no cavities!) saw me reading Fellow Citizens: The Penguin Book of U.S. Presidential Inaugural Addresses and gave me a funny look.  I explained that in anticipation of my 2009 project to try to read a definitive biography of each American president, I was going to review their inaugural speeches.  She gave me that patient look reserved for small children and confused seniors and commented that I must love to read history.

Well, I love to read, and I love history, but I don’t necessarily love to read history.  Too often, it’s about battles (which never interest me) or tariffs (Smoot-Hawley, anyone?), which never interest anyone.  But I am fascinated with people, and particularly with leaders.  What makes someone follow, swear loyalty to and be willing to wage wars at their command and brave snowstorms to support their candidacy?

So, to lay out the ground rules, which I may change at any time, here are the details:

  1. I’ll be reading about the presidents in chronological order.  Duh.
  2. The key is a definitive biography, not the definitive biography.  I’m not a real presidential historian–I only play one on television.  So, I’ll leave that to the wisdom and skills of the esteemed  Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Which books I read is not open for discussion or debate.  If you feel there’s a much better book than the one I’ve read, feel free to say so, but I’m not  obligated to borrow or buy it. Remember,  I’m doing this for me, not for you.  🙂
  3. I’ll get guidance, and when available (at the library, mostly likely) and practicable,  I’ll try to select a title from the THE ESSENTIAL PRESIDENTIAL BOOK SHELF: A SELECTIVE READERS’ AND COLLECTORS’ GUIDE By Tom Trescott and Dan Weinberg.  However, as noted in #2, the selections are up to me.
  4. I’m not going to review the books.  I am going to comment on them, but I’m more interested in commenting on the lives and decisions and lives of the presidents themselves, the people surrounding them, and the events of the eras.  Hopefully, I’m more Entertainment Tonight than TMZ.
  5. I’m doing this because I miss Professor (Richard) Polenberg.  Over two decades ago at Cornell, I took three of his classes, two big lecture-hall courses, where we just sat back and he told the thousand or so of us some great stories that just happened to be about American history, and one 15-person seminar where I’ve never tried so hard to be worthy of the person from which I was learning.  Professor Polenberg rocked (and I presume, still rocks), and failing being able to sit in his class somewhere on Cornell’s campus twice a week and find out how the country got this way, I’m going to read some books about some presidents, and figure out what I can on my own.
  6. And finally, as dazzling as Professor Polenberg’s classes always were, I really wouldn’t be here without William Daniels (yes, Mark Craig from St. Elsewhere and Mr. Feeney on Boy Meets World).  His voice, as John Adams in the musical 1776, on the Sunday morning broadcasts of Broadway Bound (just before Breakfast with the Beatles) filled my Cornell weekends with inspiration.  Commitment!

I see fireworks.

I see the pageants and pomp and parades.

I hear the bells ringing out.  I hear the cannons roar.

I see Americans.  All Americans free, forever more.

Well,  that (semi-apocryphal) Adams made the decision to accept the South’s terms in order to get the Declaration signed.  What does that compromise say about leadership, anyway?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  First  comes General G. Washington.

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Published in: on January 1, 2009 at 6:37 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. I applaud the project! Naturally, since I’m doing the same, though certainly not in a year which, if I understand you correctly, is what you’re attempting. Zounds! More power to you.

    I started a few years back prompted by urgings to read McCullough’s John Adams bio, then figured, Why not all of ’em? I would never call myself an historian or even a buff, but the presidents have always intrigued me. I figured if I read two definitive one-volume bios a year, then by the time I was 80 there’d be one on Dubya that I could stomach.

    It sort of worked, but now that the presidential gold dollars are coming out every three months, I thought maybe I’d try and keep up with them. They’re up to Van Buren, and so am I.

    But I’m not looking to torment myself. I’m hoping for good writing (McCullough’s is the best so far)in one volume. As for the list from Trescott and Weinberg, it’s useful but already dated.

    For Washington, I would have heartily recommended James Thomas Flexner’s “The Indispensible Man.” JTF did a multi-volume bio of GW himself, but boiled it down and rewrote where necessary for a single tome. It was a good start.

    For Adams, there’s only one sensible choice. Jefferson can involve weeks of indecision. I settled on Joe Ellis’ “American Sphinx” and I’m not sorry. (Am going to hear him speak Wednesday night). Enough for now! Happy reading.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tom–now I now how to approve comments! See, I knew this project within a project would be helpful.

    My library has no copy of Flexner’s book, but fear not, I won’t only be sticking to Trescott & Weinberg’s list…and for some presidents, I’ll probably read more than one. After all, I’ve read Mucullough’s on Adams twice, and own multiple other Adams’ bios, including a book of his and Abigail’s letters, with commentary.

    Please come back later this week to plop down a comment, anywhere, about seeing Ellis. At the moment, you and I may be the only ones who read my little blog, so feel free to share.


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