Categories
Books History Politics Presidents

My favorite presidential biographies (so far)

Ever since reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Abraham Lincoln biography Team of Rivals years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the lives and times of U.S. presidents. So much so that I made a goal to read a substantive biography of every U.S. president.

This goal isn’t motivated by politics. If anything the legislative minutiae, policy discussions, and battlefield play-by-plays are usually the dullest parts of these books. I’m simply fascinated by the peculiar power of the presidency and the stories of the men who have wielded it—even if (and when) they don’t live up to our twenty-first century expectations.

Any biography I read will teach me something, regardless of the likeability of the subject or overall quality of the book. But the best of them combine compelling prose, insightful commentary, and strong storytelling that fairly recount the person’s life while contextualizing and sometimes criticizing their decisions or behavior.

With 19 down out of 45 currently, I’m nearing halfway through this literary mission, so I thought it would be a good time to check in with what I’ve read so far.

I’ve mostly stayed away from more recent presidents, preferring books that have at least a little historical distance from their subjects. (Outside of George Bush Sr., the most recent president I’ve tackled is Harry Truman.) I also endeavor to only read meaty, single-volume biographies that make this expedition feel substantive and worthwhile (if slightly masochistic).

All that said, here are a few titles that have stood out thus far, in no particular order. 

Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior & President by Ari Hoogenboom

For a long time the only things I knew about Hayes were that his heavily disputed 1876 election ended the Reconstruction era in the former Confederacy, and that he was one of those forgotten presidents between Lincoln and Roosevelt with cool facial hair. But I soon learned that Hayes was a lawyer who became an abolitionist and defended escaped slaves, a brigadier general in the Civil War who was shot in the arm in the Battle of South Mountain yet still led his men to victory, and a post-presidency education reform advocate who helped found Ohio State University. Not bad for a forgotten one-term president.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

This is the first (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) book in a trilogy about Teddy Roosevelt, who might be the most impressive president we’ve ever had. It chronicles the crowded years of his pre-presidency life, which began as a sickly yet bright child who by 25 became a best-selling author and bull-headed New York legislator, then continued as a young widower who served as a Dakota sheriff, New York City police commissioner, Navy secretary, Army colonel, and New York governor, all before becoming president at 42. Energetic, fun-loving, and extremely intelligent, Roosevelt is a biographer’s dream and one of my history crushes.

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel

From birth, John Quincy Adams lived within a shadow. His father, John, the legendary Founding Father and fiery orator, pushed John Quincy hard in his studies and inspired him to greatness. But the greatness JQA achieved—e.g. speaking multiple languages, serving as George Washington’s minister to the Netherlands at age 26—always seemed to forestall his desire to live a quiet, scholarly life away from politics and his father’s prodding. Historian Paul Nagel captures all of this in addition to Adams’ unimpressive term as president and surprising final act as an ardent abolitionist congressman. (Another bit of trivia: He was probably the only person to have known both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln personally.)

The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The standard photo-op of a new president standing cordially with all of his living predecessors is common, but that wasn’t always so. Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman created the so-called “former presidents club” in the 1950s, and since then the relationships formed behind the scenes between members have often been surprising (like with rivals-turned-best-friends George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton) and sometimes subversive (like when Richard Nixon deliberately sabotaged Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks in Vietnam to aid his own 1968 campaign). The book is a fascinating account of how the private and public lives in “the world’s most exclusive fraternity” have interweaved throughout modern political history.

Other favorites:

Categories
Etc. Libraries

My professional pantheon

I now have my own office at work, along with a bookshelf I don’t have much to put on. So I moved the figurines I used to keep on my desk to the top of the bookshelf and christened them my professional pantheon. Here’s what they are and what I’ll look to them for.

Top:

  • Liberty Bell pencil holder (for… promoting freedom?)
  • LEGO DeLorean (for pondering paradoxes)

Bottom, from left:

  • Bobblehead of Dwight Schrute from The Office (for staying weird)
  • A pirate (for finding adventure)
  • A book-reading giraffe from Tanzania (for seeking wisdom)
  • Abraham Lincoln bobblehead (for inspiring my better angels)
  • Deluxe Nancy Pearl Librarian Action Figure set (for reppin’ that #librarylife)
Categories
America Politics

4 lessons from the Trump years

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/64/Donald_Trump_Greenville%2C_South_Carolina_February_2016.jpg/800px-Donald_Trump_Greenville%2C_South_Carolina_February_2016.jpg

It’s been a tradition on this blog since its inception to do a kind of presidential postmortem for the outgoing commander-in-chief (see Bush and Obama), assessing both the political takeaways and my personal life during their administration. (I planned to publish this on Inauguration Day, but as the actual end date of the Trump administration is now up in the air I figured I’d just let it fly now.)

On the personal front, the Trump years coincided with a very consequential period of my life. I had a baby. I bought a house. Like everyone else I saw my life transformed by a pandemic. For those reasons alone this epoch will remain very memorable.

As for the politics and public happenings, well, I have hitherto not been secretive about my thoughts on the soon-to-be-former president. But as this exercise is meant to take a bird’s-eye view of things, here are four lessons from the Trump presidency.

1. Hypocrisy is cheap

Accusing someone of hypocrisy is very satisfying. The problem is it doesn’t achieve the intended goal of shaming someone into changing their beliefs or behavior. Instead it does the opposite, making the accused feel defensive and therefore much more likely to double down on their beliefs regardless of the facts—and probably just deploy whataboutism, one of many cheap logical fallacies for people who lack any affirmative argument for their own stance.

Pointing out that Mitch McConnell was a hypocrite for allowing the nomination and vote for a Supreme Court justice in an election year (an election week!) might be true, but so what? Like he cared? Similarly, pointing out Joe Biden’s history of inappropriate sexual behavior and Kamala Harris’s criticism of this before becoming his Vice President are hypocritical to their anti-Trump message was unlikely to sway most like-minded supporters against voting for them.

Perhaps this comes off as pessimistic, but it’s just a realistic understanding of human nature. Politics is people. Accusations of hypocrisy, however tempting, are just not effective for persuading your ideological opponents to help you achieve a political objective.

2. Presidents should tweet more (but better)

Hot take: it’s a good thing Trump used Twitter so actively.

To be clear, I’m not talking about his actual tweets, which were occasionally anodyne but most often downright deranged and completely unbecoming a head of state—so much so they got him rightfully banned from Twitter.

Rather it was the act of tweeting itself that represented a sea change in how to adapt the presidency’s traditional “bully pulpit” to our globalized, tech-infused zeitgeist. Trump wasn’t the first president to use Twitter, but he was the first to weaponize it.

We didn’t have to wait to hear the president’s thoughts filtered through press secretaries and sanitized speeches; we often got it straight from the source, immediately and with vigor. This is a trend outside of politics as well, with celebrities and athletes using the direct nature of social media to cut out meddling middlemen and control their own message as far as they’re able.

The downsides to this change are obvious. It’s not good for anyone—let alone the president—to be Too Online and so easily distracted by, as Spiro Agnew would put it, the “nattering nanobs of negativity” on social media. And when the president uses said bully pulpit to spew insane conspiracy theories, spearhead crusades against opponents (and just as often allies), sling obvious lies, and foment insurrection against his own government (!), it’s easy to see why it’s not worth any of the potential upside.

But with a more salutary person and message behind it, this strategy can benefit more than just a politician’s addled ego. It can show the country and the world that the president is paying attention to what’s happening and intends to use their influence to affect change—hopefully for the better.

Certainly this won’t happen in the Biden administration, as his campaign’s key (and clearly successful) strategy was to remain on the defensive and avoid social media squabbles. But odds are the next president who isn’t a senior citizen will take their tweeting to the next level.

3. Federalism is good

This isn’t something I learned under Trump, but I did appreciate it anew. Federalism is generally defined as the balance of power divided between the federal government and the states. Critics will point to how “states’ rights” has historically been used as a coded justification for perpetuating unjust laws (e.g. slavery, segregation). This is indeed unfortunate for many reasons. But the concept of states’ rights is, on the whole, good, and the proof of this is the 2020 election.

Though I’m sympathetic to arguments against the Electoral College, I think every patriotic American should be grateful our elections are administered and certified by counties and states rather than a centralized national authority. Can you imagine the executive branch being in charge of elections? Especially this executive branch?

When you extend that reasoning to other issues, you can see why it’s valuable for states to act as built-in safeguards against very real autocratic threats against our very fragile democratic system. The reason Trump tried so ardently and pathetically to cudgel Georgia’s Secretary of State into committing voter fraud (to cite one of many documented examples of his malfeasance) is because as president he legally can’t do anything else.

Cheers to federalism!

4. The presidency is broken, but it still matters

I wrote early in this term about the position’s inherent brokenness. A lot of what was controversial about Trump’s actions as president happened not only because of his decisions but because the existing infrastructure around him—or rather lack thereof—allowed it. “Norms”, after all, are only useful as guardrails against wrongdoing until someone abnormal or shameless comes along and completely ignores them.

And even then, since Congress only applies its accountability powers selectively and on partisan terms, anti-corruption laws that do exist are rendered moot if those in charge of enforcing them lose their nerve. As such, Americans are very often at the mercy of executive action.

(As fake Abraham Lincoln says in Lincoln: “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power!”)

Thus the presidency becomes what its occupant makes of it—for good and ill. There were many examples of this during the last four years, but the response to Covid-19 was the perfect synecdoche for all of them. This was an instance where lack of executive action proved severely costly in lives and livelihoods.

Covid-19 really was the perfect opportunity for Donald Trump to shine. He’s very anti-China, very germaphobic, and very enthusiastic about closing borders and keeping out foreigners. Even unpopular leaders in other countries saw their approval ratings rise due to their strong responses to combating the coronavirus, and yet Trump’s cratered and most likely cost him reelection.

It’s important to point out that the economic and medical devastation related to Covid-19 in the United States is not solely Trump’s fault. We know lots of factors contribute, as even other countries that were much more responsive have struggled to contain it. But his indifference, even contempt, toward basic preventative public health measures and the idea of helping anyone who didn’t profess sufficient fealty to him indicated severe myopia at best and destructive nihilism at worst.

This abdication of leadership has contributed to (as of today) over 375,000 American deaths and a record-high 81 million votes against him in 2020. Combine that with all the ways Trump chose to actively wield his executive power for ill—or for his own financial gain—and he becomes the perfect archetype for the kind of person who should never be in any position of power, let alone the presidency.

Grand Old Covfefe

The Trump presidency was bad, but it wasn’t all bad. I largely agree with everything David Frum wrote about the good that came out of this administration. To ignore that is to deny reality, which is something I’ll leave to the “Trump won the election” mob.

I sincerely hope this is the last time I feel compelled to write about Trump, either Donald or any other. I’m sick of his depravity, stupidity, the braggadocio mixed with impotence, and most of all the malice. Over the last few years I have called him (or quoted someone calling him) a cancer on the republic, chaotic and vapid, playing havoc with our lives, a “marvelously efficient acid bath”, and more.

Over and over again I have, sadly, been validated. Words from “Your Obedient Servant” from Hamilton come to mind (directed, notably, at another American insurrectionist):

I stand by what I said
Every bit of it
You stand only for yourself
It’s what you do
I can’t apologize because it’s true

Trump will soon be gone from his presidential perch. But even then he will remain the summum bonum of the GOP, what was once a functional conservative party but is now, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “a paranoid, delusional personality cult.”

I greatly respect the conservatives and Republicans who have dissented from this delusion, who have seen Trump for what he is and proclaimed such at great cost. These people retain the conscience of the once Grand Old Party, but unfortunately not the control.

Categories
Presidents

Lincoln’s letter to Grant: ‘You were right, and I was wrong’

This letter from President Lincoln to Major General Ulysses Grant in July 1863 might be the last documented instance of a president apologizing for anything:

My dear General

I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did — march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.

Yours very truly

A. Lincoln

After reading Edmund Morris’s trilogy on the life of Theodore Roosevelt I made TR my new favorite president, but I think I have to revert back to Lincoln.

h/t Michael Wade

Categories
Books Film History Life

So Runs the Man Away or (The Unexpected Virtue of Synchronicity)

The theme that has defined my 2014, I only now realize, is synchronicity. That Jungian concept (“the occurrence of two or more events that appear to be meaningfully related but not causally related”) bubbled up several times this year, especially in what I was reading, watching, or listening to concurrently. For instance:

  • Seeing Interstellar as I worked my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein;
  • Nicolas Carr’s The Glass Cage manifesting itself in my library work;
  • The fascinating freedivers in James Nestor’s Deep swimming in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu;
  • Marilyn Manson lending some insight into John McDonaugh’s wonderful 2014 film Calvary;
  • Disparate writings from N.D. Wilson, Francis Spufford, and Wendell Berry saying pretty similar things;
  • and seeing the Dorothy Day in Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own pop up in the bombastic yet beautifully rendered Noah

To name only the ones I blogged about. But I’d like to add one last synchronous moment to this list, which arrived courtesy of John Wilkes Booth and an avalanche.

John Wilkes Booth Runs After Assassinating Lincoln, 1865 - Illustration

In Force Majeure, the new film from Ruben Östlund, a Swedish family vacationing at a French ski resort eats lunch in an outdoor restaurant flanking the majestic, snow-laden mountains. The resort performs routine controlled avalanches to regulate the snow’s movement and safeguard against a truly deadly avalanche, and the lunchgoers witness one while they eat. Except this one careens right toward them. The father, initially wowed by the view, suddenly senses danger and ditches his wife and two children for cover (after making sure to take his phone). Turns out it was just the snow-dust that crashed into them, not the avalanche itself, so everyone returns to their tables, including Tomas, the father who just abandoned his post—literally and figuratively. The rest of the film documents the unraveling from this moment, which each character remembers differently yet causes shared emotional upheaval and provokes a deep and unsettling reconsideration of masculinity, human nature, and the incumbent expectations of gender.

I watched this movie while in the midst of James Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. It’s a gripping if a bit overheated retelling of the Lincoln assassination and aftermath, which indeed is stranger than any fiction. The moment of synchronicity here occurred during the assassination itself, when Booth shot Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre presidential box and leapt onto the stage. Harry Hawk was the lone actor on stage at that moment and got an up-close view of Booth’s famous cry “Sic semper tyrannis!” and “The South is avenged!” Then, the key moment, recounted by Hawk himself in a letter to his parents written soon after:

[Booth] ran toward me, and I, seeing the knife, thought I was the one he was after, ran off the stage and up a flight of stairs. He made his escape out of a door, directly in the rear of the theatre, mounted a horse and rode off. The above all occurred in the space of a quarter of a minute, and at the time I did not know that the President was shot; although, if I had tried to stop him, he would have stabbed me.

In Manhunt, Swanson subtly criticizes Hawk for turning and running, linking his supposed moment of cowardice to one at the end of the chase for Booth, when John Garrett, owner of the barn that housed an armed Booth in a standoff with the cavalry, fled from the barn after thinking Booth was going to shoot him.

All of these moments might provoke some knee-jerk judgments but beg the same question: What are you prepared to do? Harry Hawk was not prepared to fight an armed assassin after the shock of that moment. But should he have anyway? Other times in Manhunt, men show courage in moments of terror and some pay the price for it in blood. Tomas in Force Majeure had time to take his family to shelter or at least shield them. But why didn’t he? He pays the price later on: not in blood like the people in Manhunt, but in self-esteem and dignity.

It’s easy as a viewer or future observer to question the decisions these men made or didn’t make. It’s not so easy to make them ourselves in real life, man or woman. What are you prepared to do? What cost are you willing to pay?

Happy New Year!

Categories
Cool Civil War Names History

Thurlow Weed

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

This guy, for better or worse, was like the Karl Rove of his time. The sources differ on the details about his life, but we know that before he turned into the Turd Blossom of the mid-19th century Weed apprenticed as a printer and editor of various New York newspapers during the 1820s, which got him interested in politics. No fan of Andrew Jackson, Weed supported John Quincy Adams in 1824 and even won himself a seat in the New York State Assembly, where he met future bigwig William Seward.

It’s then when Weed latched on to the Anti-Masonic movement (largely due to Jackson being a Mason). The movement dissipated in the ’30s, but was eventually folded into the more mainstream Whig Party, which was bolstered by Weed’s Albany Evening Journal throughout the ’30s and ’40s. Between his journalistic and political endeavors, Weed made a lot of friends and a lot deals – so much so that his adversaries nicknamed him the “Lucifer of the Lobby” (a pretty killer nickname).

As the Whigs dissolved into the nascent Republican Party, so did Weed. When the 1860 election came around, Weed’s old buddy Seward was the frontrunner but may have been screwed by his relationship with Weed, who some Republican delegates that were former Democrats were in hate with. Of course, that scraggly, rangy lawyer from Springfield then swooped in, got the nod, became president, etc.

Being the pragmatic man he was, Weed jumped on the Abe Bandwagon and even served as a European envoy during the war – after which he returned to newspapering before slowly fading from the public view and dying in 1882.

Up next on CCWN, the querulous WILLIAM CLARKE QUANTRILL.

(sources: 1, 2) (image)

Categories
Cool Civil War Names History

Jubal Early

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

There’s so much Civil War in this guy it makes me want to cry. “Old Jube” (as Robert E. Lee would later come to call him) and his brawny beard fought early and often in the war between the states, but for reasons you wouldn’t suspect from an eventual Southern fire-breather. But before all that silly war stuff, Early graduated from West Point in 1837 ranked eighteenth (like his Union counterpart Rufus Saxton) in his class of fifty. After a brief stint in an artillery regiment, Early took up law for a while before returning to the military for the Mexican War.

But when the war drums started beating in his home state of Virginia, Early was an unlikely opponent of secession; that is until Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to fight the South—that pissed him off mightily. Soon Brigadier General Early was on a greatest hits tour of all the key battles: Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg. He even spearheaded a Lee-ordered run on Washington D.C., which was eventually swatted back by General Grant’s reinforcements. The rest of the war was downhill for Early: defeated by Sheridan, he fled to Mexico and then to Canada, where he wrote his “Lost Cause” tinged memoirs about the “war of independence.”

Lucky for Early, upon his arrival back in the States the Southern-sympathizing President Johnson issued him a pardon, which allowed him to resume his law career.

Up next on CCWN, the glory-bound GOUVERNEUR KEMBLE WARREN.

(sources: 1, 2)

Categories
Cool Civil War Names History

Rufus Saxton

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

Saxton was, in the argot of youth, the bomb diggity. A Massachusetts native, his father was a transcendentalist, feminist, and abolitionist, which helped form Rufus’ anti-slavery sentiments from a young age. He graduated from West Point eighteenth in this class, then spent the rest of his antebellum days fighting the Seminoles in Florida, teaching at West Point, and surveying the Rocky Mountains for the Northern Pacific Railroad with none other than Mr. It’s-Everyone-Else’s-Fault, George McClellan.

And then, as the future Great Emancipator said, the war came. Saxton joined up with McClellan’s staff until partaking in what would become a pivotal moment in his career: leading a defense as brigadier general at Harper’s Ferry to push back Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign. Saxton would receive the Medal of Honor for his work there, specifically for “distinguished gallantry and good conduct in the defense.”

But he didn’t stop there. Tasked with raising the first regiment of liberated slaves, Saxton put together the 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers and helped organize the post-Emancipation recruitment of black soldiers. He continued along this line of work until the war ended, after which he gradually moved up the ranks before retiring to Massachusetts a colonel and all-around cool guy.

Up next in CCWN, the je ne sais quoi JUBAL EARLY.

(source: 1, 2)

Categories
Cool Civil War Names History

Lambdin Purdy Milligan

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

This guy’s tale helps puncture a few holes into the Abraham Lincoln Was An American Jesus Who Was Perfect In Every Way story that kids get fed in grade school. Milligan was a lawyer from Indiana (who had actually taken the bar exam with future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton), who held fervent anti-Union views that were pretty commonplace where he was living in northeastern Indiana. The problem was Milligan and some compadres took their views to another level by plotting in 1864 to steal weapons and free Confederate prisoners of war.

Now Lincoln, who by this time in the war had become quite adept at locking up rabble-rousers and outspoken critics under questionable Constitutional authority, took things a little too far with Milligan and his crew. The men were tried in a military tribunal and sentenced to death, which was a big Constitutional no-no for regular citizens so they appealed for their right to habeus corpus. Since Indiana wasn’t under attack, Milligan wasn’t involved with the military, and the civilian courts were up and running at the time, the Court swatted Lincoln back a little bit and released Milligan. He later sued the General who tried him in the tribunal for libel and false imprisonment, asking for $500,000 in damages. He got $5. Ouch.

But get this: the Supreme Court Justice who wrote the majority opinion of his case – David Davis – was a Lincoln appointee and close friend. He even chaired Abe’s 1860 campaign. Very ouch.

Bonus trivia: One of Lambdin’s lawyers in his first trial was future U.S. president James Garfield, and the lawyer who represented the General in the libel case was future U.S. president Benjamin Harrison.

Up next in CCWN, the zealous ZEBULON BAIRD VANCE.

(sources: 1, 2)

Categories
Cool Civil War Names History

Clement L. Vallandigham

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

Opinions abound about this guy, but I think the nickname Lincoln gave him describes him best: the Wily Agitator. An Ohio-born lawyer and Congressman with Southern ancestry, Vallandigham took it upon himself to lead a crusade against the anti-slavery Republican Party before and during the war and assumed leadership of the Copperheads, a coalition of pro-Confederate Northern Democrats who wanted to settle with the CSA and generally make Lincoln’s life miserable.

It’s one thing to lead the opposition; it’s quite another to be a dick about it. Vallandigham vocally hoped for Northern defeat and threw all kinds of hyperbolic vitriol at Lincoln and the North. He eventually pissed one too many people off and got himself arrested and jailed for sedition. But Lincoln of all people commuted his sentence to banishment to behind Confederate lines. Yet instead of staying below the Mason-Dixon, Vallandigham took to Canada, where he declared himself a candidate for Ohio governor. He might have won if not for Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in mid-1863. He kept up his opprobrium against Lincoln, but ol’ Abe decided not to arrest him again and instead let him shoot himself in the foot. It worked because the 1864 Democratic platform, which Vall helped write, failed spectacular in the election when Lincoln was decidedly reelected.

The strangest part of his story, though, was its end. Vallandigham ACTUALLY SHOT HIMSELF in 1871 during a trial while trying to prove his client’s innocence. The client walked free, but Clement did not. Karma’s a bitch.

Up next in CWWN, the law-breaking LAMBDIN P MILLIGAN.

(source: 1) (image credit)