Best Books on Presidents and First Families

Tomorrow is Inauguration Day so I thought this was a great topic for an otherwise ordinary Thursday. I’m a presidential book collector and avid reader of same, so it was difficult to narrow it down. The Roosevelt family, both the Oyster Bay and the Hyde Park branches are another topic I collect on. I’ve read nearly everything available on them and own many of those. I also have copies of several great presidential documentaries–I especially like those on American Experience. I felt the ones on FDR and on Eleanor were actually, dare I say it? BETTER on them than Ken Burn’s the Roosevelts! He gave too much time to Theodore and family.

My Very Favorite

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Before he wrote Jaws, Peter Benchly wrote this sweet tale of a little boy on a birthday tour of the White House. Along the way he, and his smuggled in puppy, meet President Kennedy and see Caroline and John and the pony, Macaroni. A sweet, sweet tale published not long before President Kennedy’s assassination.  Jonathan Visits The White House is out-of-print but available used.

Some of the “Best of the Best”

Candice Millard has become a ‘must-read’ author of mine! I was mesmerized by The River of Doubt and felt similarly about this book, Destiny of the Republic. This book should have been titled how an egotistical and not-so-competent doctor killed the President! After poor James Garfield was shot he really should have lived. But his doctor, bizarrely, did everything possible to keep him from living! A tale of incompetence and intrigue with a back story of Alexander Graham Bell’s race to invent a viable x-ray type machine to aid in the President’s recovery. Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. Her River of Doubt is Amazing–it is about President Theodore Roosevelt’s late-in-life trip down the Amazon. Not to be missed. Her newest is on presidential “counterpart”–Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his escapade in the Boer War.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is presidential historian extraordinaire! I love her books. Well, I love her books EXCEPT For her Lincoln book,  Team of Rivals, which was hugely boring. Honestly. I hate saying that because Doris is a personal hero of mine. Even the movie was stupifying. But no worries on these two books (or her book on LBJ for whom she worked). No Ordinary Time tells how Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt set high expectations for wartime production–higher than anyone believed to be achievable–and then led the nation to achieve them. I’ve long said every teacher in the nation should read this book and watch the movie Apollo 13 and if they couldn’t understand why afterwards they shouldn’t be allowed to teach. This is a great Roosevelt book. Goodwin brings FDR, ER and their “attending court” to life.   The Bully Pulpit tells both of the muckrakers and of Theodore Roosevelt’s betrayal by his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. Amazingly readable story.

First Ladies and First Families

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There are numerous collective and individual biographies of our nation’s first ladies–as well as memoirs by nearly all the most recent ones. This collection is so readable though, that I’ve chosen it. First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power  President Truman’s daughter, author Margaret Truman Daniels, has also written a good collective biography. Of the FLOTUS memoirs, Rose Kennedy’s and Barbara Bush’s are the most interesting. I am anxious to read Mrs. Obama’s memoirs once she writes them.

Presidents in Fiction

The Lincolns had the most interesting marriage ever at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Even more intriguing than the F.D. Roosevelts and their live-in friends, possible lovers, hangers-on and advisors. Mary Todd Lincoln’s bi-polar disorder, Lincoln’s own deep “melancholy,” their wildly different upbringing all make for fascinating reading.  And, don’t forget, the Todd’s were a family split on both sides of the war. Mrs. Lincoln’s Confederate widow sister was allowed to visit the White House during the war. Plus, a high school friend of mine portrays President Lincoln. (For what it’s worth a former professional collegue portrays Mrs. Stonewall Jackson….I’m on both sides of the War in my friendships.) These two books, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and the newer Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, give the most vivid portrayal of the Lincolns. (Vidal’s book was made into a very good mini-series for television many years ago. It’s probably on youtube).

Presidential Memoirs

plain-speakingThis will no doubt shock you, but the only Presidential Memoir I’ve waded thru is this one–an oral autobiography of President Truman. I suspect I’m not alone in this. The average weight of a presidential memoir is equivelent to a Ford F-350 dual-axle longbed with a crew cab. They are Boring and I do mean with a capital “B.” They are how the president financially recoups from being president. They are his version of things. They are dull. The new POTUS doesn’t strike me as a memoirs guy. But he is savvy about making a buck so, who knows? Maybe he’ll publish his collected Tweets? Anyway, Plain Speaking, is a presidential gem. It started the Harry Truman rehabilitation process so that today he is a national icon of common sense. He left office wildly unpopular–so unpopular in fact that he carried his own bags to the train that he and Bess took home to Independence Missouri. This book led to a one-man show, Give ‘Em Hell Harry (which I saw in a road show version) [watch it here] and to the 1970’s Chicago hit Harry Truman, [click the link to listen to it] which I love because of the clarinet doodles in it.

Presidents Made for TV

 

I have Eleanor and Franklin, both parts, all but memorized. Truman is so well done Gary Sinise IS Truman to me. And, Missiles of October and the crisis it portrays was something I studied over and over again in college. Very well done.

 

Well folks, I could go on and on and on with this list. But I think this will hold you until the Ruffles and Flourishes start tomorrow and The Donald hears “Hail to the Chief” played in his honor for the first time tomorrow. While none has been anywhere near as successful as Trump finacially, others have been business men and not lawyers and gone on to be president. Most recently, Herbert Hoover was a civil engineer and became very wealthy from it. Jimmy Carter was a nuclear engineer (Naval officer) and large-scale peanut farmer who became wealthy from that. Harry Truman, famously, failed as a men’s haberdasher.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Best Books on Presidents and First Families

  1. sjbraun

    Interesting! Yes, I *am* surprised you haven’t read any Presidents’ memoirs! I know I’ve read GWB’s, maybe that’s it. I agree that it can be boring to wade through the policy stuff. Biographies vary so much, and I usually prefer ones that delve into personality more. The children’s white house book looks charming! I’d like to read more on the fascinating Lincoln marriage, too.

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