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Check It Out

Courier Article by Becky Browning
Sunday, October 4, 2004

Presidential Books Get the Vote

With the presidential election nearing, perhaps it's time to read a large book to fend off the ongoing diatribes.

Truman by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 1992).

When customers want a biography, this is one of the books I always recommend. I can remember my father ranting about Truman; in particular, when Truman took the press to task for giving his daughter's piano-playing a bad review.

McCullough's flair for combining storytelling with biography and for not delving into the troublesome aspects of Truman's personality or presidency have been criticized by some historians. One reviewer has gone so far as to say that in order to inform readers of the range of history that has been affected by the recounting of a life, a biographer must "come to grips with all pertinent material even though its content is dull and uninteresting."

Here then, McCullough has failed miserably, because this book is a delight and a pleasure to read.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan 1979).

This book has been called a "literary gem" because of Morris' ability to so perfectly capture and explore Roosevelt's multifaceted persona.

This first of two volumes (the second being Theodore Rex), follows Roosevelt from his birth into his years as vice president, where he stewed and fumed through William McKinley's insipid leadership.

Described as "one of the most complicated figures in American history," a larger-than-life Roosevelt leaps from page after page.

A chronic asthmatic, voracious reader, writer, cowboy, soldier, naturalist, politician and winner of a Nobel Prize, Roosevelt has ubiquitous talents and interests that lend themselves perfectly to this meticulously researched, beautifully written biography.

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis (Alfred Knopf, 1997).

When Joseph Ellis won the National Book Award for this book, his comment was, "The politics of the judges is what counts."

Well, maybe so, because this rendering of Jefferson's character is not particularly flattering: "Jefferson had the kind of duplicity possible only in the pure of heart."

This is revisionist biography at its finest.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson; Master of the Senate, Volume 3 by Robert Caro (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).

This third volume in Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson has been called the "greatest political biography of our time."

It spans Johnson's 12 years in the U.S. Senate, chronicling his astuteness in playing up to the "3 R's": President Franklin D. Roosevelt; Sam Rayburn, speaker of the House of Representatives; and powerhouse Southerner Sen. Richard Russell. Johnson's ability to manipulate Russell into believing they shared the same agenda led to the passing of the first civil rights legislation since 1870.

Caro, in his acceptance speech for the National Book Award, makes clear that his books are not so much about lives but about power. The topic of "Master of the Senate" is legislative power.

Executive power is another matter and will be dealt with in the fourth volume, not yet published.

Becky Browning is a readers' advisor at Oaklyn Branch and an avid reader.