The Books Briefing: Presidential Biographies—And Presidential Mythologies

Books that influence how complicated political figures are remembered: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A black-and-white photograph of JFK and his biographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. laughing in Boston winter, surrounded by a crowd of men
Bettmann / Getty

The critic Carlos Lozada read some 150 books about the Trump era before writing his book What Were We Thinking. In those volumes, he found a regime that was appalling in its lunacy and that would leave a long-lasting carnage.

As Trump left office and Biden was sworn in this week, I found myself thinking about other presidential legacies and the books that reflect on them. Some, written years after a leader’s time in office, make the case for vindicating a complicated figure. For example, Being Nixon, by Evan Thomas, steers readers away from a singularly dark and cartoonish picture of Richard Nixon. The journalist Kenneth Whyte’s Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times focuses on Herbert Hoover’s accomplishments—which are sometimes overshadowed by the challenges he faced.

Other biographies shed light on a president’s personal life. Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame, provides insight into the leader’s childhood. The Problem of Democracy, a dual biography of John Adams and John Quincy Adams by the historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, illuminates the father-son relationship between the two presidents. Their bond deeply influenced each man’s political beliefs.

Writing these personal histories of public figures can be complicated. The historian Richard Aldous examines the work of one influential presidential biographer in Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a prolific writer, chronicling the presidencies of figures such as Andrew Jackson and John F. Kennedy, but he was also deeply flawed. He omitted significant but unflattering details in his biography of Kennedy, and more broadly his work helped to establish the cult of personality around American presidents.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

Gif of trump heads talking
Soomin Jung

150 books show how the Trump era has warped our brains

“That’s the trouble with writing about the Trump White House, and reading about it too: The lunacy is appalling yet unsurprising, wholly unpresidential yet entirely on-brand.”

📚 What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era, by Carlos Lozada

photo of Nixon
WIKIMEDIA

The complexity of being Richard Nixon

“We have a cartoon version of Nixon in our heads—the dark, pathological figure, vengeful and scheming. Nixon did have a terrible dark side, and it wrecked his presidency. But he was a far more complex—and tragic—figure than we assume.”

📚 Being Nixon: A Man Divided, by Evan Thomas

image of Herbert Hoover
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Herbert Hoover is the model Republicans need

“Never has the United States elected a more accomplished man to the presidency than Herbert Clark Hoover, whose organizational genius saved millions of lives from famine and destitution. Never has the ensuing presidency been marked by worse disasters.”

📚 Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, by Kenneth Whyte

Contact sheet Lincoln
Smith Collection / GAdo / Getty

Lincoln’s emancipation

“The cruelty and degeneracy the future president was subjected to in his youth forged his iron will.”

📚 Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame

illustration of John and John Quincy Adams
JULES JULIEN

The problem with high-minded politics

“Despite the tension—or maybe because of it—John and John Quincy [Adams] developed a singular bond, a convergence of temperament and intellect that was vital to both men.”

📚 The Problem of Democracy, by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and some of the presidents he wrote about
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew. photos by Bettman; Photoquest; Hulton Deutsch; Kean Collection; H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock; The Boston Globe; The Denver Post; Getty.

The White House mythmaker

“[Arthur Schlesinger Jr.] has a lot to teach us and deserves fresh attention today. No other writer did so much to shape our idea of the presidency—as an office, as an institution, as an incarnation of popular consciousness.”

📚 Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian, by Richard Aldous
📚 The Age of Jackson, by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
📚 A Thousand Days, by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

About us: This week’s newsletter is, written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Jack, by Marilynne Robinson.

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