A Presidential Reading List

Photo by Srikanta H. U on Unsplash

Today is Presidents’ Day in the U.S. I like this holiday primarily because I get a day off from work, but also because it’s about presidents. I’m fascinated by the presidency and the people who have occupied the White House. I love reading presidential biographies, and I thought today was the perfect time to share some of my favorites. I’m going to focus on the past six presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. No matter your political views, there’s certainly a book on this list that you’ll enjoy.

Reagan: the Life book cover

Reagan: The Life by H. W. Brands

Ronald Wilson Reagan: February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004
Served from 1981-1989
Party: Republican

When I picked up this book, I went into it with low expectations. I’d read other books by H. W. Brands and knew I liked his writing, but I had never found Ronald Reagan that interesting. I want to read a biography about every one of the forty-five U. S. presidents, so I thought I might as well give this one a shot. I’m glad I did.

Despite my apathy toward Reagan, Brands brought him to life for me in ways I didn’t expect. I enjoyed learning about his time in Hollywood, his deep devotion to his second wife Nancy, and how that devotion to her put up a wall between him and his children. Brands is a wonderful writer and historian, and I appreciate how his skill helped me come to know a figure I often overlooked.

Destiny and Power book cover

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham

George Herbert Walker Bush: June 12, 1924 – November 30, 2018
Served from 1989-1993
Party: Republican

Of all the presidential biographies I’ve read so far, this one might be my favorite. Jon Meacham is Bush’s officially biographer and was granted intimate access to Bush’s life and family which, paired with his beautiful writing, led to this fantastic exploration of a man who lived an extraordinary life. Bush served as a congressman, ambassador to China, director of the CIA, and vice president before being elected himself in 1988. Meacham tells all those stories with vivid detail, but my favorite parts of this biography are Meacham’s discussions of Bush’s time serving in World War II. Bush’s plane was shot down, and though he was ultimately rescued, he lost two men. That haunted him the rest of his life, and Meacham tells that story with compassion and care.

Meacham, who was unusually close with his subject, was asked to give a eulogy at Bush’s funeral. You can watch it here.

A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him by Michael Takiff

William Jefferson Clinton: August 19, 1946 –
Served from 1993-2001
Party: Democrat

A Complicated Man is a perfect title for a book about Bill Clinton. Good biographies are ones that show the complexity of their subject, revealing strengths and weaknesses in a delicate balance. Michael Takiff does that in this book, which is indeed an excellent biography of a man who defines complicated. Bill Clinton is a fascinating figure for a lot of reasons, and Takiff does a good job addressing those reasons by structuring this book as an oral biography by those who know Clinton well. This book doesn’t provide a final answer on Clinton’s legacy, but it does raise a lot of interesting questions and delivers some surprising anecdotes. Whether you hate him or love him, this book is a must-read for those wanting to know more about our 42nd president.

Days of Fire book cover

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

George Walker Bush: July 6, 1946 –
Served from 2001 – 2009
Party: Republican

I’ll admit that books about presidents and politics aren’t always the most unputdownable reading material. Some can be a bit dry in certain sections, but that’s not the case with Days of Fire. This book reads like a great suspense novel from beginning to end. It’s different from the other books on this list because Peter Baker doesn’t just examine George W. Bush, but explores his relationship with his vice president, Dick Cheney. Based on an enormous amount of research, Baker delivers a fascinating piece of political reporting that stands out as one of the best presidential books I’ve ever read.

Obama: An Intimate Portrait by Pete Souza

Barack Hussein Obama: August 4, 1961 –
Served from 2009-2017
Party: Democrat

This book is a collection of photographs by Obama’s primary White House photographer, Pete Souza. (Souza also served as a photographer in Reagan’s administration.) I read an interview with Souza in which he explained that before he accepted the position, he made it clear to Obama that he needed unlimited access to his administration. Obama granted it, so for eight years Souza documented the 44th president up close and personal. This book contains some of Souza’s most remarkable photographs. Obama: An Intimate Portrait is a beautiful visual guide through a historic presidency. This book is one you’ll read over and over again.

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

Donald John Trump: June 14, 1946 –
Assumed office in 2017
Party: Republican

No matter what you think about Donald Trump, you have to admit that we’ve never had a president precisely like him before. New stories are breaking all the time about things Trump has said and done. In Fear, legendary reporter Bob Woodward examines the beginning of Trump’s presidency and explores how Trump thinks and governs. If you pay close attention to the news, I doubt much of this book will be too surprising, yet I think it’s a must-read if you’re looking for a deeper understanding of what’s happening in our current administration.


Are you interested in presidents and politics? Do you know of other presidential books I need to add to my TBR? I’d love to hear about them.


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My Favorite Political Books

With the U.S. midterm elections coming up tomorrow, I’ve had politics on my mind. I have zero desire to debate political beliefs or watch cable news, but I do love reading about politics and presidents.

Today I want to share some of my favorite books that fall into those categories. Some are biographies of presidents, others are memoirs, and some are extensive histories. Whatever your political leanings, I’m sure there’s something on this list that will pique your interest.

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

In this book, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy explore the relationships between presidents from Hoover to Obama. Because of the ever-widening divisions in American culture between Republicans and Democrats, you’d think the stories in this book would include tales of alliances between members of the same party and bickering by those who were opposed to each other. Yet in several cases, it’s Republicans and Democrats who have the closest relationships, such as Hoover and Truman and Clinton and Bush 41. It’s refreshing to read about how rivals overcame their political battles and entered into deep friendships. This is easily my favorite political book.

gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency
by Chris Whipple

According to Chris Whipple, the average amount of time a White House Chief of Staff stays in their position is 18 months. If you wonder why it’s not longer, read this book. Chiefs of staff have included men as varied as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Rahm Emanuel, and James Baker. Some have been incredibly effective (like Baker), and others have kept on ascending until they were second in the line to the presidency (like Cheney). Their stories are utterly absorbing from start to finish. If you have even the slightest interest in politics, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

destiny

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
by Jon Meacham

I picked up this biography because I’m a fan of Jon Meacham, but also because I was curious about George H. W. Bush. One of the reasons he intrigued me so much was because I noticed how people from both sides of the aisle seemed to talk about him with respect (not always, of course, but seemingly more often than not). After reading Destiny and Power, I understand why. This book is worth reading just to hear about Bush’s time serving in World War II. He’d be the first to tell you he’s not a perfect man, but his heroism is admirable, as is his dedication to his family and ideals.

days

Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

9/11 happened when I was in high school. Before that, I never paid much attention to who was in the White House. After the attacks, President Bush was everywhere and impossible to ignore. He was on every TV screen, newspaper, and website. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever thought much about the presidency, so I was immediately drawn to this book because of that first young awareness. Peter Baker’s history of the Bush/Cheney dynamic is as impossible to put down as any suspense novel I’ve ever read. It’s well-researched, thoughtful, and essential reading for anyone curious about Bush 43 and the complicated relationship he had with Dick Cheney. If you think history is boring, this book will probably change your mind.

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Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History
by Katy Tur

Katy Tur is a broadcast journalist who delivered NBC’s Trump coverage during the 2016 presidential campaign. This book is her story of that time. For a year and a half, Tur followed Trump around the country. She attended his rallies, was the victim of his insults, and consistently called him out on his lies. Tur’s stories about life on the campaign trail are fascinating, and I admire her tenacity and respect for truth. If you’re still bewildered by what happened in 2016, this book will give you a greater understanding of how Trump got elected.

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Fraternity: A Journey in Search of Five Presidents by Bob Greene

The five presidents the title references are Bush 41, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon. Bob Greene talks to each of them (except for Reagan, who I believe passed away before this book was completed) and reveals portraits of five complex, deeply human,  and very different men. This book is one of the shorter ones I’m sharing today, but it packs so much into its 300 or so pages. Greene captures presidents at their most vulnerable and stripped down. This book is engrossing from start to finish. Go read it.

But most importantly, go vote. Elections have consequences. Make your voice heard.

The Importance of Reading to Develop Empathy

Last week certainly had its share of anger and violence here in the U.S. Pipe bombs were mailed to political leaders, 2 black shoppers were gunned down in a Kentucky Kroger store, and 11 Jewish people were murdered in their place of worship. Such violence (and the hate that fueled it) is utterly heartbreaking.

As I always do when tragedy happens, I try to make sense of it. I want to understand what could drive a person to hate people based only on their political views or ethnicity. There are no easy answers, of course, but one thing does seem obvious to me, and that’s how desperately we all need more empathy.

Over the weekend, I finished reading Anne Lamott’s newest book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. In it, she talks about a writing class she was teaching for little kids, and says this:

I tell the six-year-olds that if they want to have great lives, they need to read a lot or listen to the written word. If they rely only on their own thinking, they will not notice the power that is all around them, the force-be-with-you kind of power. Reading and writing help us take the blinders off so we can look around and say “Wow,” so we can look at life and our lives with care, and curiosity, and attention to detail, which are what will make us happy and less afraid.

I’m not naive enough to believe that if people just read more books, they’ll never be violent or hateful. But I do think reading broadens our worldview and invites us into stories that are different from our own. It’s easy to fear what we don’t know, but it becomes increasingly difficult to be afraid of something we clearly understand. And isn’t much of our violence based on fear? We humans can turn on each other so quickly, making our neighbor into an Issue or a Problem or an Other. You can’t love an Issue or a Problem or an Other. You can eradicate or solve or ostracize, though. You can slowly keep adding labels to people that dehumanize them.

Later in her book, Lamott goes on to say, “Empathy, a moment’s compassion, seeing that everyone has equal value, even people who have behaved badly, is as magnetic a force as gratitude.” Empathy allows us to get rid of our imperfect and unjust labeling systems and see people for who they are: fragile, needy, and worthy of love and belonging, just like us. This is grace. When it applies to us, it’s the best thing imaginable. When it applies to people we’ve labeled and dehumanized, it can seem terrifying and unjust.

I’m certainly not immune to these feelings. I’m terribly uncomfortable with confrontation, so I try to stay out of political debates as much as possible. But I must admit that I have a hard time loving our current president. I’m offended by his words about immigrants, appalled by his treatment of women, sickened by his disregard for the truth, and shocked by the mess of his White House. His values are at odds with my faith and viewpoint. Last week I read a Facebook post from Lamott in which she’s talking about the battle inside to remember that grace always wins in the end. She says of Trump:

Twenty percent of me aches for the total barbaric ruins of his inner life. Twenty percent. That is a miracle. And on top of that, I’ve realized that God looks at Trump and sees His own suffering son, never leaves him and aches for him, too, pulls for him to be transformed by Love, loves him as a mother does her child.

That gutted me. Lamott’s words immediately gave me pause and helped turned my anger into empathy. While I’m still in strong disagreement with his policies, I’m doing my best to remember they’re coming from a broken man. Aren’t we all well-acquainted with brokenness?

In this time of violence and anger, I’m grateful for the power of words and books to change my own heart. I’m grateful for Born a Crime that showed me what it was like to live in Apartheid. I’m grateful for The Book of Unknown Americans that showed me how hard it is for immigrants to chase the American Dream. I’m grateful for The Ragamuffin Gospel that showed me how absolutely no one is beyond the reach of grace. My list could go on and on.

Reading widely isn’t going to save the world, but it might make us a little kinder, a little gentler, a little more empathetic. And that’s a good start.