I’ve embarked on a project to read a biography of every president of the United States, including the obscure ones famous more for their facial hair than their accomplishments. So far, I’ve read Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex and David McCullough’s John Adams. I’ve come away with new respect for Fox News. Their more outrageous assertions (those not spewed by Sean Hannity, anyway) are pretty tepid compared to some of the outright libel printed about Adams and Jefferson in the early days of the nation or perpetrated by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.
What I’ve also noticed is that it’s easy to pick out a relatively objective biography of a president up to about Nixon, and even then, some even-handed accounts are coming out about Tricky Dick. In fact, I would have to say Ronald Reagan is the most recent president you could find a biography about without a large amount of political ax grinding. Oh, sure, you have to hunt for one that doesn’t make him out to be either evil incarnate or a Conservative God to whom Rush Limbaugh sacrifices ex-wives.
You can’t read about a sitting president objectively. It’s not possible. While I wouldn’t put money on the current George Bush being the Second Coming of Harry Truman (for starters, too rich. Truman’s net worth in 2008 dollars was less than mine.), there is the cold, hard fact that history is going to need time to make its own judgment.
Similarly, I’ve yet to hear anything about Bill Clinton that doesn’t make him out to be either a treasonous serial rapist or the greatest president since Lincoln. No happy (or in George W. Bush’s case, unhappy) medium.
So why not George HW Bush, aka Bush 41, Bush the Elder, Bush the Wiser, or The Man Who Should Have Pulled Out? Considering the elder Bush’s presidency was largely finishing up Ronald Reagan’s paperwork and bringing in the Cold War for a soft landing, one might think it possible to give a thoughtful, objective overview of his time in office after 15 years.
Thanks to his son, everything Bush, Sr, did is going to be regarded in light of what Bush, Jr, did. Even if George W. Bush had the most successful presidency in history, his taking office a mere eight years after his father colors and shadows any accomplishments or mistakes made between 1989 and 1991. John Quincy Adams had the luxury of taking office 25 years after his father and with a different party. Benjamin Harrison, remembered largely for being Grover Cleveland’s seat warmer, was the grandson of a president, and one who promptly got sick and died after taking the oath. But W? He started out in his daddy’s shadow and ended up eclipsing him.
Granted, no account of a president’s life can be wholly objective. Historians have agendas like anyone else, and everyone – even me, who says he has no party or ideological loyalty – has an agenda. It’s human nature. But the farther a president fades into history, the more we have to rely on their papers, letters (and someday emails and texts), and records and less on the media’s usually questionable account of the day’s events.
So who’s the most recent president you think you can read about without feeling you’re being lectured by some pompous ass like Hannity or Michael Moore?