Well, the United States’ presidential election has made us all scrutinize our expectations from the presidency a little more closely. However you voted, you have to admit that we’re in for a wild ride in the coming months and years. These four books have been on my mind as I watch the news lately, each for a different reason.
River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Camilla Millard; 416 pages (353 pages excluding Notes)
Candace Millard writes exceptional nonfiction about presidents. In fact, two of the four books here are hers. River of Doubt is the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s exploration of an Amazon tributary after the conclusion of his presidency. Before this book, I hadn’t known much about him other than what we all get in school. This remarkable man wasn’t one to adhere to expectations, including the expectation that presidents quietly fade into the history books once their terms in office end. Read more here.
Thirteen Days in September; The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace by Lawrence Wright; 466 pages
The first book on my list recounts a story from a beloved president, Theodore Roosevelt. This one tells a more recent, more troubling story about a less popular president, Jimmy Carter, as his term is concluding. Thirteen Days in September offers some interesting insight into negotiations with Begin, Sadat and key members of their teams at Camp David in the 1970s. Even an unpopular president on his way out has to conduct foreign policy, and author Wright lets us watch Carter walk a diplomatic tightrope. Read more here.
All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer; 299 pages (218 pages of content, including the epilogue)
Stephen Kinzer is another of my favorite authors, and this book is a real eye-opener. If you wonder where that Iranian venom for the United States came from, then here’s the story. The U.S. could have stayed out of plans for a coup, but instead the Eisenhower administration violated a principle that Americans are brought up to treasure: the idea that the U.S. supports democratically elected leaders around the world…not true, and here’s the classic story we should all know about U.S. policy in the Middle East. Read more here.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard; 323 pages, Kindle edition (261 pages up to Acknowledgements and Notes)
Here’s the other Candace Millard book I often think of and have recommended elsewhere, too. Here she writes about the assassination of James A. Garfield (had you heard of him? Points for you if you did). Unlike recent office-seekers, Garfield hadn’t wanted to become president, but he had accepted his party’s nomination out of a sense of duty. What might sound more familiar to us is that one of his most important jobs as president was going to be reuniting a deeply divided America. In his case, it was post-Civil War North and South, not voters. Garfield was slain by a madman with delusions of grandeur, but I’m not endorsing assassination as a means to displace someone from office. Read more here.
I’ve forgotten exactly how the quadratic formula goes, and I would have to think pretty hard to diagram a sentence, but history often makes the hairs on the back of neck stand up when I watch the news. These books have affected how I look at the U.S. presidency, but they’re also entertaining to read.
Image: Oval office. National Archives, 1977.