Best Presidential Biographies

by John J. Miller

What are the best presidential biographies? A reader writes:

I love listening to Between the Covers on National Review.  Thank you for all the good book ideas!  I was wondering if you had a list of the best biographies on each President.  Richard Norton Smith was going to post one on Hugh Hewitt website at one point but I could never find it.  I respect your views on books and would love to see what you think!

Here are a few of my favorites.

  • George Washington: Founding Father, by Richard Brookhiser. A “moral biography” that doesn’t tell a conventional cradle-to-grave story but instead focuses on the character of a great man.
  • John Adams, by David McCullough. A well-told story. I wish McCullough was a little stronger on Adams as a thinker, but this is an engrossing book about the life and times of a fascinating man.
  • Abraham Lincoln: With Malice Toward None, by Stephen B. Oates. There are a lot of great books on Lincoln. This straightfoward biography is my favorite, possibly because it’s the first one I read. (See also this.)
  • Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography. With the possible exception of GW, no president had a more interesting pre-presidential life than TR. There a lots of good choices, such as Mornings on Horseback by McCullough. He was an unusually prolific writer and his own autobiography is a revealing and excellent introduction to the man. The River of Doubt by Candice Millard is a gripping account of TR’s post-presidential adventure in the Amazon. (See also this.)
  • Calvin Coolidge, by Robert Sobel. Learn why so many conservatives admire Silent Cal. I’ve heard that Amity Schlaes is working on a Coolidge biography. It promises to become the standard. There’s also the out-of-print Coolidge and the Historians, by the late Thomas B. Silver. After reading it, you will never again trust another word written by Arthur Schlesinger. For something less conventional, try John Derbyshire’s outstanding novel, Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream.
  • JFK: Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, by James Piereson. This isn’t a regular biography, but it’s a probing study of JFK’s assassination and what it wrought. Revisionist history in the best sense of the word.
  • The Age of Reagan, by Steven Hayward. A two-volume study of the man, his life, and his times. The books provide a great education on the political history of the United States in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. See also Reagan in His Own Hand, which reveals Reagan’s efforts to wrestle with the problems of his time and communicate his ideas to Americans shortly before he became president. The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister by John O’Sullivan is also top-notch.

Those are my choices. What are yours? Please share them here in the comments section.


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