It's a fascinating book, and so far scrupulously fair:* Craig Fehrman's Author in Chief. He looks at past Presidents and Presidential candidates in a way no one else has: as writers.
It's a useful angle. Looking at what they have written -- or, in a few instances, caused to have ghostwritten -- sidesteps partisanship and even much of History's judgment to give us glimpses of the men themselves: Jefferson's contradictions, John Adams's uncontainable prose, Coolidge's reserve and dry wit.
Too often, Presidential biography offers only a choice of hagiography, exposé or a tiresome compendium of dull detail. Fehrman's having none of that; he moves right along, like a tour guide in a specialized library, picking up individual volumes, discussing their circumstances (the unfolding tragedy that drove Grant's Memoirs is a striking example), style, substance and the writer's literary background. He looks at each man square on, describing flaws and strengths without rancor or bias, and then moves on to the next. Like any good guide, his path is slightly discursive and looping, knitting together a coherent historical narrative.
I find myself making notes on the books he mentions that I'd most like to read.
The author himself, I learned this morning, is a local boy, more or less ("lives in Indiana," which covers a lot of ground). The book is national in scope. It's worth reading.
* A mark of our times: the book stops with the Obama administration. Somehow, The Atlantic reviewer nevertheless managed to give our current President three fat paragraphs of prose in which political and literary disdain heterodyne in a remarkable jeremiad that has only the least thread of connection to the book under review. I grew up in a world in which otherwise sane people were seeing Communists under every bed and were even on rare occasion right, a world in which a President evoked vein-throbbing anger, but not even Richard Nixon or the Reds ever managed to be so omnipresent through journalistic loathing.
6 months ago