Friday, May 6, 2011

A Better Day

I spent the morning and the first half of the afternoon reading George H.W. Bush by Timothy Naftali. His depth of research and his thoughtful style show why he is exactly the right director for the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, as it requires a careful attention to detail, truthful detail. He gets it.

In the latter half of the afternoon and well into this evening, I read Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell.

Karabell starts his examination of the life and sudden presidency of Chester Alan Arthur from the perspective of an author who seems like he still hasn't grasped his subject, like he's mulling over everything he's read just to be sure he's got it right, and we're witness to that uncertainty. It seems like that. But then, once that frustration wears off as to Karabell's method (and it disappears quickly), it becomes clear that Karabell is not only exactly the right person to write about Arthur, but he loves the subject and he loves the time period and all that was contained within. He gives context to every movement of Congress in that time, explaining clearly tariffs and the spoils system and patronage. His bio says that he taught at Harvard and Dartmouth. It feels like this book is hopefully what it feels like to attend one of his lectures.

I especially treasure the final paragraph in his epilogue, which is generally rare among presidential biographies:

"For those who want presidents to be heroes, and, failing that, villains, for those who expect them to be larger-than-life figures, Arthur's tenure in office isn't satisfying. The nature of our expectations would have to change dramatically for Arthur to be reevaluated as one of this country's best presidents. And yet, in spite of what Shakespeare wrote, some men are neither born great, nor achieve greatness, nor have it thrust upon them. Some people just do the best they can in a difficult situation, and sometimes that turns out just fine."

No comments:

Post a Comment