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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:

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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.

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America God Politics Religion

Colbert And The Constitution

I want to highlight this recent interview the real Stephen Colbert did with NPR’s Fresh Air, because he shows yet again how intelligent, empathetic, and savvy is the man behing the blowhard.

You should listen to the entire thing, but one part that stuck out to me was his take on churches who wish to abolish the law that prohibits religious institutions with a tax-exemption from endorsing or opposing political candidates from the pulpit. The real Colbert believes preachers should be allowed to talk politics, but also sees the problem with it:

I think they should be able to do it, but I also think that it’s a very dangerous thing to do — not just for our politics, but it’s also dangerous for the faith of people who are exercising that right. Because they seem to think that it’s a one-way membrane — that they’ll get religion into our politics. But they’re ignoring the fact that politics will come right back through that gate onto our religion…

…And if you actually have a political party that is this religion, or a political party that is that religion, I think that’s a short road to the kind of religious civil war — whether or not it’s actually an armed war — but religious civil war that we fled in Europe. America has avoided that. And I think our politics are so horrible these days. … Why anyone would want that horrible tar on something as fragile as faith is beyond me.”

It’s a common trope among Christian fundamentalists that religion ought to be inserted into their politics out of an obligation to “fight the good fight” or what have you. As someone with a faith background, I understand the impulse but find it completely wrong-headed and even portentous.

To illustrate: You show me a fundamentalist Christian who believes his religious dogma ought to purposefully influence his country’s political policies, and I’ll show you a radical Muslim who believes the same thing. I’ll bet you $1 million from Colbert’s SuperPAC that that Christian would likely have a problem with that. (Though most conservative Christians these days don’t seem to have a problem with Mormons.)

That Christians or any other faith-group would want to see the faith they profess to love so much dragged through the festering mud-swamp that is the American political process in order to prove a point is dismaying and downright depressing. It’s not just your faith you’re messing with; it’s mine and many others’ – the shared property of people who see the Constitutionally-sanctioned separation of church and state as protecting the church, not holding it back.

So by all means, vote as you please based on your religion, values, favorite color, whatever. But don’t come knocking at the gate wanting your religion to be let in, because I don’t want to know what could be on the other side.

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Life Politics

Introverts Are Not Misanthropes

At least, they don’t have to be.

I read this slice from a John Heilemann interview in which he equates Obama’s introversion with a dislike of people in general. Compared to Bill Clinton (who I’m pretty sure can eschew food and water to survive on attention alone), he says, Obama doesn’t thrive off the glad-handing or schmoozing a “successful” politician must do. Instead, he leaves the legislative arm-twisting to more interested surrogates and stays within a small, close-knit group of advisors.

Here’s the key exchange:

JH: Obama is an unusual politician. There are very few people in American politics who achieve something — not to mention the Presidency — in which the following two conditions are true: one, they don’t like people. And two, they don’t like politics.

KC: Obama doesn’t like people?

JH: I don’t think he doesn’t like people. I know he doesn’t like people. He’s not an extrovert; he’s an introvert.

With respect to Heilemann, I disagree. Not with the notion that Obama probably doesn’t “like” people, but with his contention that his alleged misanthropy is intrinsically connected with his introversion. I’ve written before about my own journey of understanding introversion and how we’re a woefully misunderstood bunch; this newest bit about Obama simply reinforces the central fallacy about introversion, that we don’t like people.

I am an introvert and I love people—in small doses. There’s a huge difference between not liking people and merely wanting to be around groups of people in regulated exposures. Contrary to the popular yet wrong belief, introverts are not defined by their opinion of other people but by where they get their energy. Just because I need alone time does not mean I hate being around people; it means I need to “recharge my batteries” after a long day of being around (usually) higher-energy people.

The Bill Clintons of the world don’t get exhausted by socializing; they thrive on it, and probably can’t stand being alone. But Obama, like me, no doubt cherishes any time alone with his thoughts he can muster in his hyper-active and socialized job as chief executive of an entire nation.

I do, however, agree with Kevin Drum’s take at Mother Jones on Obama’s introversion in one regard: that Obama’s introversion is probably why I like the guy so much. I like that he’s more concerned with policy and getting stuff done than forcing a faux-folksy persona to get a few votes. “I get that schmoozing is part of the job,” Drum writes, “and I also get that most politicians are insufferable egotists who get bent out of shape whenever someone doesn’t pay sufficient attention to them.”

Introverts are not automatically misanthropes, just as extroverts are not automatically insufferable egotists. Since introverts don’t run the world (usually—in that way Obama is definitely a change I can believe in), we need an extra dose of understanding from our extroverted brethren.

Categories
Comedy Politics Religion

Breaking News: Jesus Christ Registers As A Republican

BREAKING NEWS: Jesus Christ registers as a Republican

GOP officially God’s Own Party

In a move sure to spark endless debate, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world, has declared himself a Republican.

“I’ve been a moderate for most of eternity,” said Christ, speaking at a press conference. “But lately, Barack Obama’s choices regarding the economy, the wars, and health care reform have disappointed me. I had to take a stand. So I’m registering as a Republican.”

When asked which specific policies most attracted him to the Republican Party, Christ was clear.

“The GOP’s stand against abortion and gay marriage is fine, I guess,” He said, “but I’m more interested in their support for trickle-down economics. It’s important to have an economic policy that benefits only the superrich and keeps disenfranchised people from escaping the perpetual downward spiral that poverty creates.”
Christ expressed support for reinstating the Bush tax cuts and making the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy permanent.

“I don’t care much for the gays, OK?” He said. “I just don’t want to deal with them.”

He also vocalized opposition to the Obama-led health care reform.

“The fact that the Democrats want to provide health insurance for everyone and not just those who can afford the sinfully high premiums…that just makes me sick,” said Christ. “Free, unregulated markets should decide if people live or die and not liberal bureaucrats.”

Christ also argued for continued U.S. presence in the Middle East.

“Clearly preemptive war is necessarily,” He said. “I thank God for Dick Cheney and George W. Bush for pushing the country into unnecessary war and keeping us there.”

The Lamb of God’s choice to align himself with Republican principles was met with praise from the nation’s conservative leaders.

“The fact that Jesus Christ is now officially a Republican shows us that God is definitely on our side,” said Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “Listen up, Democrats: God does not want you to pass health care reform. Seriously, just ask him.”

“Hallelujah!” proclaimed James Dobson, founder of the Christian group Focus on the Family, on his radio show. “Jesus Christ is a shoe-in for Republican nominee for president in 2012. Jesus Christ and Sarah Palin. Now that’s a dynamic ticket.”

Asked about sharing a presidential ticket with the King of Kings, the former governor of Alaska was enthusiastic.

“Gosh, you betcha I’d like Jesus on my ticket,” Palin said. “He’d make a heckuva vice-president, that’s for sure.”

Not all conservatives welcomed Christ’s move to the GOP. Glenn Beck, a FOX News commentator, expressed concern about the Lord’s background.

“Look at the people he hangs out with,” said Beck. “Prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers—I don’t want my Savior or my president palling around with such seedy people.”

“He may be the Son of God,” said Rush Limbaugh, a popular radio host, “but he’s an illegitimate child, he’s from the Middle East, and preaches against free-market capitalism. If he isn’t a terrorist spreading communist propaganda, I don’t know who is.”

Limbaugh added: “Barack Obama, maybe.”

Sources inside Christ’s inner circle claim he will soon form an exploratory committee for a possible run for president. What would the Son of Man’s platform look like?

“Definitely cuts in welfare for the poor,” said Christ. “It’s a wasteful program. I’d also like to see increased spending on nuclear weapons and relaxed regulation of Wall Street banks. But none of those things will happen with that Obama in the White House.

“Stupid Obama,” he added.