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Read My Mind - Presidents Past

Aug 29, 2016 01:27PM ● Published by Becky Coburn

By Michael G. Harris, OD

Since this is a presidential election year, I thought it would be interesting to review books about past presidents, great and not so great. One of our greatest presidents, Thomas Jefferson, is featured in two recent books. Anita Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf have captured Jefferson’s brilliance in Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. This is "an absorbing and revealing character study that dispels the many clichés about our third president” and shows him to be "a patriarch of the Enlightenment, but neither hypocrite nor saint.”

Brian Killmeade and Don Yaeger have focused their attention on Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History.  Weeks after his inauguration, Jefferson decided to use a naval blockade to declare war on the Tripoli pirates who had been kidnapping American ships and sailors. Remember the lyrics to the Marine Corps Hymn, "From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli?" This book captures the forgotten war that led to those lyrics and helped make America a world power.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was another of our greatest presidents. He brought us out of the worst depression in our country's history and secured victory in World War II.  Two recent books highlight his incredible contributions to our history: Jay Winik’s 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History and Susan Butler's Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership. Butler examines the relationship of these "strange bedfellows,” bound together by a common enemy, and how they “saved the world from Nazi tyranny.”  Winik describes the “titanic events” of 1944 that lead to this victory, “but with a fateful cost.”  Both are fascinating reads.

No man entered the presidency with more experience in international affairs than John Quincy Adams, son of our second president. His amazing preparation for the presidency is subject of Phyllis Lee Levin’s The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams. "The Greatest Traveler of His Age," JQA was a seasoned diplomat who met with leaders of France, Holland, and Russia. He was admired by George Washington and praised by JFK as the man who "held more important offices and participated in more important events than anyone in the history of our nation." Levin’s book helps us understand the great impact this lesser-known president had on shaping our country.

Bob Woodward of Watergate fame “provides one of the last pieces” of the Nixon presidency in The Last of the President's Men, an account of Nixon's "greatest secret,” as revealed by longtime aide Alexander Butterfield. Very insightful.

Jon Meacham has written the first thorough account of one of our more recent presidents in Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. Born into a family of great wealth and power, Meacham paints a vivid portrait of Bush, decorated war hero and controversial president. 

Historian Nathaniel Philbrick has documented one of the most notorious acts of treason in our country's history in Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution. We learn that Washington wasn’t always a brilliant general, and Arnold was both hero and villain.

There's even a great book for kids to learn about our presidents, Mike Henry’s Tell Me about the Presidents: Lessons for Today's Kids from America's Leaders. Each chapter tells an unusual fact about a president that kids will find fascinating. Did you know that President Washington loved the circus and President Obama collects comic books? You'll even learn how the term "OK" originated with President Van Buren. What a great way to learn about our history!











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