Friday, September 30, 2016

mission accomplished

I promised I would do it -- and I did it.

I doubt you will ever hear those words from the overrated Hillary or Donald. They do not flow naturally between the teeth of serial fabulists.

But I am not a politician. Or, I'm not, any more. What I am is the proud owner of a filled dance card.

Three years ago, I told you I was embarking on a quest to read a biography of each of the men who has served as president of the United States (pail by comparison). Back then, I had read only 17 of the potential 43 biographies.

Earlier this year, after reading the Ford and Hoover biographies, I decided it was a bit foolish to read the biographies of presidents still living. If objective historians are still working out the cause of the Depression and Hoover's involvement, trying to assess the lives of living presidents would be futile.

So, off of the list came 5 names -- Carter, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama. I daresay none of us could objectively assess the accomplishments of any of them. I know I can't.

I actually completed the list almost two months ago with John Dean's rather sketchy biography of Warren Harding. Rather than yell "bingo," I waited for a gift from my friend Al French to arrive -- Francis Russell's The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times. An interesting take on how the theory that the Hardings were of partial black descent had on Warren Harding's personality.

And, before I could start writing this essay, I ordered and read Richard Brookhiser's character sketch of Abraham Lincoln: Founder's Son.  I would highly recommend the book for anyone who wants to have a full understanding of the impact the founding fathers had on Lincoln -- especially, Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. It is also hard to imagine our current lot of politicians trying to work out the relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution -- and why it is important.

But it didn't end there, I am currently in the midst of a biography on George III. Before I get to anglophilic, I want to write a few words about the presidential project. After all, we Americans wisely threw off the yoke of that German king and his descendants long ago.

So, what did I learn from the biographies?

First, the quality of writing varies markedly. Most presidents have one or two biographers who have perfectly captured their subject. Bookhiser's biographies of Lincoln and Washington are good examples.

But, the lesser known presidents (Pierce, Tyler, Buchanan) have very few good biographies. For several of those presidents, I relied on Arthur Schlesinger's The American Presidents Series. Unfortunately, most of the books are of indifferent quality. Wikipedia would be a better source. Poor Arthur's name has been reduced to a designer label. The Tommy Hilfiger of history.

Second, even when America has been ill-served by some rather nasty scoundrels in the White House, the nation rolls on. Part of that is a tribute to American society. We are a resilient people.

But, I suspect that resiliency comes from the fact that politics does not permeate our lives. It tends to rest lightly on the daily lives of American families -- even though some politicians would like to slip their talons deeper into our liberty.

Third, presidents who are seen as saviors by the era in which they served often fall off their pedestal when subjected to scrutiny. And vice versa. Kennedy and Harding are examples of the first. Eisenhower and Truman of the second.

Fourth, even though America is a land of social improvisation, Americans can be very traditional. The George Washington effect seems to have influenced every presidency -- not only the tradition of honoring the office as an honorable position, but also giving an insular patina to America's view of the outside world.

In that same category, we can thank the authors of the Constitution for establishing a governmental process that puts restraints on the actions of presidents who would thwart political due process.

Back in the 1970s, I was impressed with the exploits of a young sailor, Robin Graham. He was then the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo in a sailboat. I was a bit surprised when I read in his memoir Dove that he became disillusioned with the project less than half way into it.

I thought I might have a similar reaction to slogging through the presidential biographies. I didn't.

What keep me going was the narrative. Each new administration built on the milieu of the one that came before. It was almost like watching one of those ongoing serials -- Downton Abbey with more substance and credibility.

What will I do now? Well, there are plenty other good books to read. The George III biography, for instance. Billie Collins is issuing a new book of his poetry on 2 October. I guess I should also mention my daily Spanish lessons.

For those of you who have asked me what there is to do in this part of Mexico, there is my answer.

And like an unsuccessful politician (which I am), I will promise you nothing more.

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