H.W. Brands on American Presidents

Historians in the News

Today is Presidents Day in the U.S. In honour of the occasion, bestselling historian H W Brands introduces five excellent presidential biographies

You were among the distinguished historians invited to advise President Obama during his first year in office. Do you believe that the stories of past presidencies contain clues to solving the problems of the present?

As a historian, I think that being aware of the what’s occurred in the past—what’s worked in the past, what hasn’t worked in the past—does provide some guidance for the present.

Well then, let’s get to the books! First, you picked Washington, by Douglas Freeman. Why does this work make your list?

It’s the closest thing we have to a definitive account of Washington’s life. Freeman was a fan—there is no doubt about that. He was a Virginian, and he identified with the greatest Virginian in history. It was a labour of love. Freeman was a full-time journalist; he was the editor of a paper in Richmond, VA. Nonetheless, he found time to write seven volumes on Washington. I won’t say that the facts speak entirely for themselves in Freeman’s work; he marshals the facts, but he mainly writes from the perspective that the more we know, the more we’ll understand the great man. If you have the time and the leisure, it’s the best way to get to know Washington....

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vaughn davis bornet - 2/23/2011

I read this tiny note extracted in HNN with appreciation, for D. S. Freeman spoke at my Emory graduation in 1939 and I took notes during it! I've had his four volumes in the living room for half a century. Those were the days, when Freeman could write a daily account of General Lee in our costliest war and be praised nationwide.

However, I continued reading in the Browser about the five books selected as the best, and was not disappointed in Brand's choices of the first four books from long ago. But the last of the best presidential books was a shock.

There, like many others have done during recent decades, this historian--enroute to choosing the best five books "on presidents"--chose as a towering book that controversial account of Lyndon Johnson's boyhood and early years in Congress! It has exactly one page on the president that Robert Dallack wrote a huge book about! What's going on here?

Over and over I have read that it is Robert Caro who has produced on one President Lyndon B. Johnson. I'm tired of it.

As the author of a genuine book on a president, The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (Lawrence, Ks: Kansas, 1983, 1984), 414 pages, heavy documentation and comprehensive bibliographical essay, I am really bothered by the never ending refrain that Caro mastered and presented "the LBJ presidency" in his work so far. No such thing! (Maybe he WILL one of these days?)

Mr. Caro is clearly talented, and probably by now knows everything knowable about president LBJ, but in his 1982 book his prose on President Lyndon B. Johnson is a couple of negative paragraphs at the book's outset. There his judgment laid on LBJ is, well, harsh. I ventured to challenge in my Bib. Essay his certainsure opinion that senior class Lyndon at San Marcos State was "hated" for being a BMC on campus.

I have grave doubts that the Caro judgment on hapless LBJ rendered in his first volume's page xvii can be excised or glossed over as he someday arrives at the end of his judgmental process in books on LBJ.

One of these days we apparently will get from Caro a presidential bio that will be (judging from his past blasts in brief phrases) a highly critical account of President Johnson, no doubt. Then Brands and others can start their litany of praise for Caro on the presidency of Johnson in BOOK form.

Some of us, however, will take a second look at LBJ's and his staff's rendering: The Vantage Point (1971), that big, much ignored account of a president in action.

In the meantime, I know I spent the years mid-1976 through much of 1983 producing from Johnson archives a real book on LBJ as President. The Kansas people kindly nominated it (maybe idly) for the Pulitzer Prize. It is a book somewhat shunned by some historian-partisans who emerged from the Johnson era, some of them Ph.D. holders entranced with JFK. I was and am gratified by all the nice scholarly reviews I got, and annoyed by the others, of course. It's natural.

But one would think someone of Mr. Brands' competence would at least choose all books on the PRESIDENCY when selecting the best five such books!

Incidentally, if we do as Brands did--chose a big non-presidental older book to nominate--how about Beveridge on Lincoln, or George Nash on Hoover, or Bailey or the overall product of Arthur Link on Wilson; I once thought highly of Allan Nevins on Cleveland, and I am proud of Dumas Malone on Jefferson. There is, of course, a new world of books I haven't even seen that are reputed to be "the last word" on, say, TR.

Do I have it all wrong?

(Written on a cold, gloomy, day with snow predicted, still in my bathrobe.)

Vaughn Davis Bornet, Ph.D. Ashland, Oregon