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."

Bored Yesterday

I spent all day yesterday and well into the evening reading about President Benjamin Harrison. My intent with the American Presidents series from the Times Books arm of Henry Holt and Company is to not only pull out what little information there might be for what I need for my three books, but also to learn basic background information before I go in deeper through other books.

I've enjoyed most of the books, especially the Nixon book by journalist Elizabeth Drew, as that not only was a complete mind twister, but also made me sympathetic for those who lived through that time. There were depth charges unleashed upon this country all over its collective body by a president and his advisors who thought themselves to be king and court.

I couldn't stand yesterday's work by professor Charles W. Calhoun. Some professors can write great books because they not only know their subjects so well, but they can convey that context and enthusiasm with clarity and thoughtful writing. Most professors have spent so much time in academia that when they do write their books, they forget about the other people in the world that might read them who don't exist solely in a college or university setting. This was one of those books.

I'm not interested much in economics. I skim through the business section of The Wall Street Journal Weekend every Saturday. But I can get interested through good writing and this wasn't good writing. Calhoun's chapters are an accurate telling of how boring Congress can be, but Harrison deserves better than that. Calhoun goes through bill after bill and tracks it through Congress, the fights that went on, the vote count, and who won in the end. There are times when Harrison just disappears.

It took me all that time because I was so bored by it. I couldn't close it and move on because I might have missed something that I needed (Only in his postpresidential life and then it only related somewhat to what I want to write about). Today, I was going to start reading Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell, but it's about a decade behind Benjamin Harrison, and I need a break. My favorite time period is from FDR to Obama. So next for me is George H.W. Bush by Timothy Naftali, director of the Nixon Presidential Library. I want to see if his writing is as good as his management, as he has made some great improvements over the past few months.