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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