Presidential Reading

The White House

Photo: Matt Wade Photography, used under Creative Commons

In reading about the presidents, I’ve reached Nixon, which means I’ve reached a point in American history within my own lifetime. I’ve also reached a series of presidents for whom there are few objective books about. FDR is fading rapidly from living memory so that history has taken over his story, as has Harry Truman. Likewise, Dwight Eisenhower is far enough in the rear view mirror that he generally gets a fair treatment.

Surprisingly, I was able to find one about Kennedy, Jack: A Life Like No Other by Geoffery Perret, that manages to strip much of the conspiracy theories and the focus on salacious details of his life to give a reasonable assessment of his career and presidency. Perrett ends his account of JFK with the assassination, asserting Oswald acted alone, but treating the murder as little more than a tragic exclamation point to a fascinating life. Perret even mentions Kennedy’s infamous libido, acknowledging his longtime affair with Marylin Monroe and casual encounters with Claire Luce Booth and Marlene Dietrich, but doesn’t bring them front and center. Perret focuses on Kennedy’s politics, aspirations, and friendships, including one with rival Richard Nixon. But then we get to…

Lyndon Johnson. The Baby Boomers are old enough to remember. And there are enough Boomers to muddy the waters surrounding him. Vietnam and some of the unexpected effects of the Great Society have left a negative impression on Johnson’s tenure, but I was able to find a fair assessment of his career in Merle Miller’s Lyndon: An Oral Biography. The book consisted of Miller’s interviews over several years with LBJ’s colleagues and relatives, augmented by published interviews and writings by Johnson and some of those who had passed on. It and Jack go a long way toward debunking some of the urban myths that have grown up around Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, most of which are partisan garbage to begin with.

And then there’s Richard Nixon. Watergate and Vietnam left a huge, muddy footprint in history that isn’t coming clean very easily. In the absence of books by such talents as Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, or Joseph Ellis, we’re left with Nixon’s memoirs (not the most objective source of information) and a host of hand-wringing books and tomes of revisionist history that are only slightly more informative than your average AM talkshow or idiot cable news pundit. Originally, I planned on watching the Frost/Nixon interviews, only I wasn’t sure I wanted to sit through twenty hours of Nixon trying to charm Frost until Frost boxed him in on Watergate. I took a chance on Conrad Black’s Nixon: A Life Like No Other. It’s a fairly good treatment of Nixon up through about 1972, even calling Nixon out on the wiretaps and the meltdown over Daniel Ellis’s releasing the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. And then Black gets to Watergate and attempts a little revisionism, saying the tapes clearly show Nixon did not do anything. The funny thing is that I listened to Stanley Kutler’s Abuse of Power. Black denies the smoking gun smoked, and yet not only did I hear the smoking gun (acted out with William Windom doing a dead-on Nixon), but Nixon near the end kicking himself over covering up the break-in, realizing he was pretty much screwed at that point. Up to that point, and with his account of Nixon’s post-presidency, Black shows his partisanship enough to allow the reader to filter what they read. But his account of Watergate, though favorable to Nixon, comes off as a rant by Sean Hannity.

For the rest of the presidents up to George H.W. Bush, I’ve found books of their recollections and writings: Write It When I’m Gone (off-the-record interviews with Gerald Ford that he consented to post-humous publication), The Reagan Diaries, and All the Best, George Bush. With the exception of Carter, who doesn’t seem to even rate a Bob Woodward grilling, I thought it best to look at the most recent presidents in their own words. I remember enough about Reagan and Bush that I can draw my own conclusions. But what about Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama?

Too recent. I could go with Bob Woodward’s exposes, but I’m not so sure Woodward isn’t trying to repeat his Watergate accomplishments. Clinton wrote an autobiography, My Life, but from all accounts, Clinton, normally a brilliant writer, is ill-suited to biographical work, especially autobiographical work. I debated about skipping Clinton and reading Bush’s Decision Points. For all my dislike of Bush as president, I’ve found his post-presidency a model for someone who does not want to go the same route as Nixon and Carter. Want to know what’s going through Obama’s mind? Ask George Bush. Not only does he know the guy, but he’ll tell you what goes through a president’s mind when he or she makes a decision. But I decided to skip it. This project has been about following American history from the vantage point of the White House, and Bill Clinton is just now moving from recent news to history. Should Hillary Clinton win the White House in 2016, it will be at least another decade before Bill Clinton’s presidency can be assessed objectively. Indeed, the only reason one can look at the elder Bush objectively these days is that he is sufficiently different from his son that the relationship is almost irrelevant.

Tomorrow, I talk Nixon.