Historians rate the best of the lot: Presidential histories





... The most exceptional biographies, says Douglas Brinkley, go beyond outward events to illuminate “the internal clock of a president,” as well as combine analysis with atmospheric details that transport readers back in time.

Which books make the cut? Historians single out Edmund Morris's Pulitzer Prize–winning The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Random House, 1979) as one they admire. “Morris is very meticulous with his research and somehow brings the young Roosevelt back to life,” says Brinkley.

Other historians' favorites include Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox by James McGregor Burns (Harcourt, Brace, 1956), No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in WWII by Doris Kearns Goodwin (S&S, 1994) and Lincoln by David Herbert Donald (S&S, 1995). All get praise for providing insight into how a president's personal experiences affected his public decisions.

The Subject Matters

If there's such a thing as a shortcut to writing a great presidential book, it's to choose a great president as the subject. That explains why store shelves are stuffed with books on Lincoln and FDR—and light on biographies of, say, Chester Arthur—says historian Robert Dallek, whose books include An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917–1963 (Little, Brown, 2003). Lincoln and FDR stand out among their peers, he says, not just because they led the country through huge crises, but because they governed effectively.

“Most presidents, retrospectively, come across as ineffective. Most of them are nameless, faceless characters who don't register on anyone, including historians,” says Dallek, who predicts a similar fate for some recent U.S. presidents. “How long will it be before Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and the first President Bush are utterly forgotten?”

In some cases, though, notoriety will do just as well as greatness. Historians have an affinity for books about Richard Nixon, including Dallek's Nixon and Kissinger (HarperCollins, 2007), which reveals how the two leaders collaborated on some of the biggest foreign policy debacles and achievements in U.S. history, and The Final Days (S&S, 1976), Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's step-by-step account of the months leading up to Nixon's resignation....

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