U.S. Presidents: Kennedy to Trump

Eleven reviews on American presidents.

Barilleaux, Ryan J. Power and prudence: the presidency of George H.W. Bush, by Ryan J. Barilleaux and Mark J. Rozell. Texas A&M, 2004. 183p (The presidency and leadership, 17) ISBN 1585442917, $35.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE October 2004

Evaluating presidential performances typically reveals as much about the author’s political priorities as about the presidents being evaluated. Here Barilleaux (Miami Univ. of Ohio) and Rozell (Catholic Univ.) evaluate the elder Bush’s administration from the standpoint of Bush’s own political aspirations. The authors reject the FDR-inspired “Superman” model of presidential leadership in arguing that Bush’s actions are best understood as reflective of a thoughtful incrementalist approach to politics. The authors make a convincing case that, examined from an incrementalist perspective, the first Bush administration performed better than is often acknowledged. They also argue (perhaps less convincingly) that Bush’s bold foreign policy successes as well as his comparatively unambitious domestic initiatives stem from the same incrementalist impulse. The authors conclude with a too brief discussion of the pitfalls of a presidency—the first approach to understanding American politics. The book is well researched and is generally a balanced treatment of President Bush’s administration, but more importantly, it serves as an important reminder that the presidency plays a limited role in a separation of powers system. Summing Up: Recommended. Undergraduate and graduate students of American politics, especially students of the presidency and separation of powers. —M. E. Bailey, Berry College

Black, Conrad. Richard M. Nixon: a life in full. PublicAffairs, 2007. 1,152p ISBN 1586485199, $40.00; ISBN 9781586485191, $40.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2008

As an encore to his massive biography Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (CH, May’04, 41-5461), Canadian media mogul Black has tackled an equally rich subject: Richard Nixon’s rise, fall, and enduring battle for respect. As with FDR, Black is sympathetic to his subject but not uncritical. Nixon emerges as an immensely hardworking politician whose keen instincts failed him only once—his response to Watergate, which proved disastrous. Black embraces the conventional wisdom that Nixon was often excessively partisan. He nonetheless contends that Nixon was usually more sinned against than sinning, going back to the famous campaign for the US Senate in 1950. As a GOP leader, Nixon pursued policies that knit together seemingly incompatible wings of his party. As president, he connected more effectively to middle America than did his liberal foes—at least until the Watergate debacle. Black can write well, but this book badly needed a strong-willed editor. Word choices repeatedly raise eyebrows. There are innumerable unnecessary asides, presumably to showcase the author’s knowledge of US political history. For patient readers, there are valuable nuggets to be mined. But in the end, this “life in full” is marred by its undisciplined prose. Summing Up: Recommended. All libraries. —M. J. Birkner, Gettysburg College

Brands, H. W. Reagan: the life. Doubleday, 2015. 805p index ISBN 9780385536394, $35.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE February 2016

Ronald Reagan remains a subject of endless fascination. He is generally considered the icon of the Republican Party in much the way that Franklin D. Roosevelt is the icon of the Democratic Party. Brands (Texas), author of biographies of Andrew Jackson (CH, Apr’06, 43-4856), Theodore Roosevelt (CH, May’98, 35-5250), and Franklin D. Roosevelt, now adds this biography of Reagan. Too often, Reagan is seen as a polarizing figure. For some, he was a warmonger who rolled back some of the liberal gains of the 1960s through deregulation and tax cuts; for others, Reagan offered a refreshing change from the stale Carter era. Refreshingly, Brands takes Reagan seriously as a leader and is quick to commend his leadership skills yet offers criticism when warranted. For instance, despite his “Star Wars” anti-ballistic missile shield program, Reagan proved flexible when Gorbachev extended an offer of peace. On the other hand, Reagan strapped the country with massive debt and, either through intent or neglect, distanced himself from his own troubles, such as the Iran-Contra Affair, to the point that Brands argues Reagan would have been fired had he been a senior manager of a company. In conclusion, Brands offers another rounded portrait of Reagan, who, in the end, remains a somewhat elusive figure. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. —M. S. Hill, Liberty University

Glad, Betty. An outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, his advisors, and the making of American foreign policy. Cornell, 2009. 398p ISBN 9780801448157, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2010

Glad (emer., Univ. of South Carolina) has written a penetrating and comprehensive study of President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy that will serve as the definitive analysis of the subject for years to come. Using such primary sources as archival data, Glad illustrates the interplay of Carter’s advisors and ultimately the triumph of one key advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. The book offers conclusions that are also lessons to learn. Carter’s inexperience in foreign policy left him heavily reliant on his advisors and vulnerable to the dynamics of their relationships. Brzezinski’s strong strategic vision and bureaucratic skills allowed him to provide Carter with both the strategic outlook he needed to interpret an increasingly dangerous world and the managerial strength to overcome disagreements among advisors. Carter welcomed the clarity of policy and policy making, even if Brzezinski defined that policy more than Carter did. Glad argues that Carter’s intellectual convergence of moral imperatives with US national interests often prevented him from assessing political realities, such as the national interests of other nations, particularly the USSR. Rich in analytical and historical detail, the book is an outstanding addition to the disciplines of history and political science. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels. —W. W. Newmann, Virginia Commonwealth University

Kaufman, Scott. Ambition, pragmatism, and party: a political biography of Gerald R. Ford. University Press of Kansas, 2017. 443p bibl index ISBN 9780700625000, $34.95; ISBN 9780700625017 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2018

The title encapsulates the major themes of this informative, thorough book. Whereas previous Ford biographers focused almost exclusively on his short presidency, Kaufman (Francis Marion) surveys the whole of Ford’s career, which was largely concentrated in the US House of Representatives, of which he so desperately desired to be speaker. Kaufman portrays Ford as an intelligent, decent, moderate Republican with a clear moral compass who was mischaracterized as a klutz and, in part because his was an “accidental presidency,” was unable to articulate a clear vision for the nation. As his party turned to the Right, Ford often found himself in greater agreement with former rival Jimmy Carter than with members of his own party. Although Ford was hardly the only former president to make massive amounts of money, he was criticized more strongly than others for doing so . Ford’s greatest tragedy may have been that he was so involved in public service that he was long oblivious to the needs of his family members and to his wife’s alcohol and drug dependency. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers; upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —J. R. Vile, Middle Tennessee State University

Langston, Thomas S. Lyndon Baines Johnson. Congressional Quarterly, 2002. 328p ISBN 1568027036, $89.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2003

Langston (Tulane Univ.) sets the interpretive context in the introduction and institutional relations chapters of this volume, which is part of Congressional Quarterly’s “American Presidents Reference Series.” After a biographical chapter, chapters deal with Johnson’s election campaigns, administration policies, administration crises and flashpoints, institutional relations with Congress, courts, media, intellectuals, civil rights leaders and the public, and retirement years. Original documents comprise 60 percent of each chapter. Langston depicts Johnson’s presidency in light of Barber’s political worldview and style constructs, not his character typology. Langston states, “It would seem [Johnson’s drive and ambition] to expand government would be ideally suited for the economic and intellectual climate of the 1960s.” On Vietnam, Langston asserts, “US policy, history, and treaty obligations made it impossible for a president not to come to the aid of South Vietnam,” noting that Johnson applied his personal and “his party’s commitments to security and justice at home and abroad.” In contrast, Langston says, “the anti-war movement targeted not just the war but the cold war worldview of Johnson and his predecessors.” The gap between Johnson and civil rights groups is similarly depicted. Langston’s view of Johnson is comparable to Skowroneck’s description for the New Deal coalition’s regime problems in The Politics Presidents Make (CH, Feb’94, 31-3468). Summing Up: Recommended. General readers and lower-division undergraduates. —T. M. Jackson, Marywood University

Maney, Patrick J. Bill Clinton: new Gilded Age president. University Press of Kansas, 2016. 332p bibl index afp ISBN 9780700621941, $34.95; ISBN 9780700621996 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2016

Admirers credit his “third way” domestic policies as the basis for a Goldilocks economy in the 1990s. For detractors, he was fundamentally “Slick Willy,” whose word was never his bond. Maney (Boston College) surveys Bill Clinton’s two terms as president from a detached perspective. In this telling, Clinton was quick witted and creative yet undisciplined, in both his personal appetites and his statecraft. Clinton suffered setbacks on the road to the White House and unhappy moments in office (not least once the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke), but he always rebounded. Maney’s account of Clinton’s decision-making as president is informative, albeit weakest taking stock of Clinton’s mindset, his response to challenges posed by terrorists and Saddam Hussein, and the media environment in which he operated (Fox News gets nary a mention). Without question, the nation prospered during Clinton’s presidency. Even as inequality increased, 30 million jobs were created, 7.7 million Americans were lifted out of poverty, and budgets balanced. Maney never says how much credit Clinton deserves for the good times, or blame for the 2008–09 economic meltdown, but his book is a useful starting point for understanding this protean US politician’s White House years. Summing Up: Recommended. All academic levels/libraries. —M. J. Birkner, Gettysburg College

Mann, James. George W. Bush. Times Books, 2015. 185p bibl index ISBN 9780805093971, $25.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2015

Mann (Johns Hopkins Univ.) has authored a wonderfully written overview of the life of President George W. Bush. If readers are looking for an in-depth scholarly work of history, biography, or political science, this is not the book for them. However, if they are in need of a refresher on the man and his presidency, this is a great way to get that reminder. Though certainly insightful in its own right, George W. Bush is not about breaking new ground on the life or presidency of Bush; however, it thoughtfully fills readers in on recent history they may have forgotten or gives younger readers just enough history to get an idea of the context of the Bush II presidency. For fans of the Bush II administration or critics of it, George W. Bush is a worthwhile journey through the recent past. The book would work very well as a supplement in an undergraduate course in American politics, particularly on the presidency. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers and undergraduate students. —J. Twombly, Elmira College

Nelson, Michael. Trump’s first year. Virginia, 2018. 208p ISBN 9780813941448 pbk, $19.95; ISBN 9780813941431 ebook, $19.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2018

Providing one of the earliest objective evaluations of President Donald J. Trump’s administration, Nelson (UVA) demonstrates why he remains a leading figure in the field of presidency studies. Nelson’s analysis is wide-ranging, covering Trump’s election and approach to governing, his early forays into domestic and foreign policy making, his interactions with the other constitutional branches as well as unilateral activities, and his unorthodox but often effective communications activities. Across this comprehensive terrain, Nelson juxtaposes Trump’s actions against the backdrop of modern presidential history, demonstrating how Trump’s unique approach to the presidency, from his lack of preparation for high office to his persistent violation of presidential norms, has undermined his effectiveness in office and could potentially affect the future of the presidency as an institution and the US as a democratic republic. Tellingly, one chapter focuses entirely on the prospects for Trump’s removal from office, an outcome that depends as much on the 2018 midterm elections as on Trump’s ongoing actions in the White House. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through faculty. —J. Vaughn, Boise State University

The Obama presidency: a preliminary assessment, ed. by Robert P. Watson et al. SUNY Press, 2012. 443p ISBN 9781438443294, $85.00; ISBN 9781438443287 pbk, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE February 2013

This book, edited by Watson (American studies, Lynn Univ.), Brattebo (Hiram College), and Covarrubias and Lansford (both, Univ. of Southern Mississippi), is an edited volume of papers given at conference about the Obama presidency. The chapters, by an interesting array of scholars, are well written and provide information about a wide array of topics related to the Obama presidency. There are substantive sections about Obama’s character and identity; politics and leadership; domestic policy; foreign policy and national security; and the Obama administration. The chapters are purposively short, in an effort to provide as many perspectives as possible. The array of chapters is impressive. The book includes chapters on subjects that readers will expect to see, including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, China, Iran, and the 2010 election. It also features chapters that readers will be pleasantly surprised to read, including one on Obama’s firing of General Stanley McChrystal and another detailing food and agriculture policy. Each chapter is well written and informative. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels. —T. T. Gibson, Westminster College

O’Brien, Michael. John F. Kennedy: a biography. Thomas Dunne Books, 2005. 971p ISBN 0312281293, $35.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE February 2006

Ever since his life was cut short unexpectedly and tragically, there has been a steady flow of books chronicling the good, bad, and even the ugly aspects of John F. Kennedy’s thousand-day presidency. Some recent books, such as Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 (CH, Jan’04, 41-2988), have shed new insights into Kennedy’s troubled medical history and his now-legendary sexual escapades. O’Brien (emer., Univ. of Wisconsin, Fox Valley), on the other hand, takes a more holistic approach. His goal is to synthesize the views of scholars writing about Kennedy these past 40 years. For the most part, he succeeds admirably. One minor quibble is that the book ends rather abruptly on the day of Kennedy’s death. Curiously, little is written about Kennedy’s legacy. The author and publisher have included a generous array of photographs and an extensive bibliography and index. Scholars and specialists, however, will be disappointed with the lack of footnotes. A PDF version may be obtained from a separately listed Web site. Summing Up: Recommended. Most levels/libraries. —B. Miller, University of Cincinnati