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History is filled with great stories. A few weeks ago, I reviewed a biography of Richard Allen, a man born into slavery during the American Revolutionary era, who trusted in Christ as a teenager, converted his master, purchased his freedom, rode the circuit as a preacher with famous Methodist leader Francis Asbury, served as a chimney sweep (perhaps even for George Washington), survived yellow fever, walked out of his church in protest of segregation, founded the black church, and then bought back his own church building years later. Seriously.

I love great stories. I knock out biography and history books on my Kindle during my afternoon workout. If you’re looking for a book or two to take on vacation this summer, here are a few recommendations I hope you enjoy.

1. DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN: THE 1948 ELECTION AND THE BATTLE FOR AMERICA’S SOUL
by A. J. Baime

Before 2016, there was 1948, the greatest upset in American history, and the press had to answer for its role in calling it wrong. The Denver Post: “We, and the rest of the American press, have an awful burden of explanation to offer for this refutation of our ‘expert’ opinion. For the fact is that we have failed abysmally in putting a finger on the real pulse of America.”

But the 1948 election also foreshadowed the development and growth of a more radical left wing in American politics, through the ill-fated campaign of former vice-president Henry Wallace. And then there was the Dixiecrat revolt, led by presidential candidate Strom Thurmond, which set in motion the Southern battle to maintain white supremacy—a drama that would play out over the next three decades, with ramifications still today. If you like presidential politics, you’ll enjoy this book.

2. THE WAR BEFORE THE WAR: FUGITIVE SLAVES AND THE STRUGGLE FOR AMERICA’S SOUL FROM THE REVOLUTION TO THE CIVIL WAR
by Andrew Delbanco

One could make the case, after reading this book, that it wasn’t slavery per se that led to the Civil War, but the South’s insistence on drawing the North into its web of complicity. The tragedy and horror of the Fugitive Slave Act and its effects on all Americans, not only the South, pierced the conscience of the nation and drew fierce opposition.

Delbanco does a good job describing the plight of fugitive slaves, the anger of Southern masters, the compromise and courage of different politicians, and the moral quandary faced by ordinary white citizens.

3. ACCIDENTAL PRESIDENTS: EIGHT MEN WHO CHANGED AMERICA
by Jared Cohen

Cohen is a good writer with an eye for detail and a feel for how to keep the narrative moving. In this book, he tells the stories of eight men who assumed the presidency when the incumbent died in office. Here is his description of the men and their response to the challenges before them.

  • John Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison who died 30 days into his term. He was kicked out of his party and became the first president threatened with impeachment.
  • Millard Fillmore succeeded esteemed General Zachary Taylor. He immediately sacked the entire cabinet and delayed an inevitable Civil War by standing with Henry Clay’s compromise of 1850.
  • Andrew Johnson, who succeeded our greatest president, sided with remnants of the Confederacy in Reconstruction.
  • Chester Arthur, the embodiment of the spoils system, was so reviled as James Garfield’s successor that he had to defend himself against plotting Garfield’s assassination; but he reformed the civil service.
  • Theodore Roosevelt broke up the trusts.
  • Calvin Coolidge silently cooled down the Harding scandals and preserved the White House for the Republican Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression.
  • Truman surprised everybody when he succeeded the great FDR and proved an able and accomplished president.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson was named to deliver Texas electorally. He led the nation forward on Civil Rights but failed on Vietnam.

4. FIRST LADIES: PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIANS ON THE LIVES OF 45 ICONIC AMERICAN WOMEN
by Susan Swain

This book features various historians discussing the development of the role of “first lady” over the centuries. A chapter is devoted to each woman, from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. In some cases, the lady who receives the title is not the wife of the president, but a relative who assisted in overseeing the social world of White House hospitality. In other cases, the women profiled died before their husbands assumed the highest office in the land, yet the authors still include a consideration of their influence on the president-to-be.

Martha Washington set the standards followed by first ladies for more than a hundred years. Nellie Taft was the first to write and publish her memoirs. Edith Wilson did her best to cover up Woodrow Wilson’s severely impaired health after a stroke. Lady Bird Johnson recorded on tape her reflections of the time she spent in the White House. Overall, this is a fascinating look at an often-neglected side of politics and power in Washington, D.C.

5. THE GATHERING STORM
by Winston Churchill

My pick for “favorite read” in 2020 was The Last Lion trilogy that tells the story, in extensive detail, of Winston Churchill’s life and times. For a one-volume biography of Winston Churchill, you can’t find anything better than Andrew Roberts’s marvelous work. For shorter books that focus only on a part of Churchill’s life, I recommend Candace Millard’s Hero of the Empire and Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile.

But if you want to read the man himself (and why wouldn’t you?), start here, with the Nobel-prize-winning first volume of Churchill’s history of WWII. Where else are you going to find a first-person account of “the incidents and impressions which form in my mind the story of the coming upon mankind of the worst tragedy in its tumultuous history.” And where else will you find writing that sparkles like this?

  • “Worn down, doubly decimated, but undisputed masters of the hour, the French nation peered into the future in thankful wonder and haunting dread.”
  • “The whole process of German rearmament, of which there was now overwhelming evidence, seemed to me invested with a ruthless, lurid tinge. It glittered and it glared.”
  • “Virtuous motives, trammelled by inertia and timidity, are no match for armed and resolute wickedness. A sincere love of peace is no excuse for muddling hundreds of millions of humble folk into total war. The cheers of weak, well-meaning assemblies soon cease to echo, and their votes soon cease to count. Doom marches on.”
  • “The war stopped as suddenly and as universally as it had begun. The world lifted its head, surveyed the scene of ruin, and victors and vanquished alike drew breath.”

6. THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES A. BAKER III
by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

Sometimes, it’s not the president who makes things happen, but the person behind the scenes managing the day-to-day work of maneuvering in politics.

James Baker may not be a household name, but from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, he exerted major influence on every Republican administration. Four presidents looked to him for counsel because they knew he knew how to make Washington work.

This book, filled with details drawn from historical records and personal interviews, is a page-turner. You find Baker at the center of countless successes, controversies, and political battles, and through his life you get a crash course on what a (mostly) successful navigation of competing agendas from different leaders looks like.

7. COOLIDGE
by Amity Shlaes

Calvin Coolidge is one of the “accidental presidents” who succeeded in reining in spending and fueling a roaring economy in the 1920’s. A man known for his calm and quiet demeanor, he was nevertheless passionate in pursuit of policies that aligned with his convictions.

Shlaes does an admirable job of helping us experience Coolidge’s personality, grounding his motivations in his upbringing and personal history. We walk with Coolidge on a road of success and tragedy, of romance and sorrow, of navigating deftly around the scandals of the president he replaced and successfully finding his voice in order to win election in his own right.

8. HOOVER: AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE IN EXTRAORDINARY TIMES
by Kenneth Whyte

Following Coolidge comes Herbert Hoover, a president whose oversight of the initial stage of the Great Depression has saddled him with a poor reputation, much of it undeserved.

If you were to rank the American presidents by the most success pre- and post-presidency, Hoover would be near the top. An extraordinary man of talent and determination—a culture-crossing, world leader in his own right even before stepping into the White House—Hoover remained an active participant in world affairs even into the later decades of his life. If you only think “Depression” when you hear the name Hoover, you are missing out on one of the most interesting presidents of the last century.

9. STALIN: NEW BIOGRAPHY OF A DICTATOR
by O. V. Khlevniuk and Nora Seligman Favorov

I hate to end on a sour note, but the history of the mid-20th century cannot be told apart from Josef Stalin’s life and horrible legacy. Khlevniuk spent two decades studying Stalin and the causes and logic that underlay his actions. In response to recent apologists for Stalin, or historians who downplay his involvement in decrees the upended or destroyed millions of lives, Khlevniuk ensures that the blame rests squarely on Stalin’s worldview, in which the Bolshevik state is absolute and personal interests were subjugated to the movement and its leaders.

The state was unrestricted in its actions and could never be wrong, as it represented the ultimate truth of historical progress. Any action by the regime could be justified by the greatness of its mission. Mistakes and crimes by the state did not exist; there was only historical necessity and inevitability or, in some cases, the growing pains of building a new society.”

This biography of Stalin taps into the fear that fueled the dictator’s power over his associates and the rest of the Soviet Union.

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