Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike celebrate Presidents’ Day by discussing five books about America’s chief executives.
Discussed in this episode: Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier President by Harry J. Sievers, dad corpses, electrophobia, Forty-Two Years in the White House by Irwin (Ike) Hoover, the Taft/bathtub myth, Theodore Roosevelt, The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1 by Robert A. Caro, Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves, bribery, Roscoe Conkling, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein, Barry Goldwater, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, poor, sweet William Howard Taft, Major Archibald Butt, RMS Titanic.
Did you know Janet is reading a biography of each U.S. president in chronological order? You can read all about it at her blog,
Not discussed in this episode: The theory that the presidency has diminished over time due to HA HA HA HA HA HA HA “MAJOR BUTT” HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA.
Just about four years ago, we were asked when Robert Caro might wrap up his much praised, award-bedecked, and quite massive four-part biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. The best we could offer at the time was to say:Well, the short answer is that they don’t have a date yet, but we can at least hazard a guess. The first book, The Path to Power came out in 1982; the second, Means of Ascent, in 1990, and the third, Master of the Senate, in 2002. So, after doing some back of the envelope calculations, I would expect to see the fourth and final volume (tentatively titled The Presidency) some time between 2010 and 2014.As it turns out, my guess may still be on target. Marking the 100th anniversary of LBJ’s birth (which is tomorrow), Caro spoke with the AP on LBJ’s legacy. The article offers this update on the book:The historian says he has completed the opening section of his fourth LBJ book, filling hundreds of pages just to tell of Johnson’s brief, unhappy vice presidency under John Kennedy, concluding with Johnson being sworn in as president after Kennedy’s assassination. The last book will be “very long,” although likely less than the 1,000-plus length of Master of the Senate. He is reluctant to reveal details, but says the Kennedys will be “more than characters; they are protagonists in this book.”Sounds like I might have just enough time to read the first three before this one comes out.
Patrick Brown, one of my old bookstore compatriots, is now living in Iowa, a circumstance that affords him a lot of reading time. Here are his favorite reads of the year:Non-Fiction (and Best overall for the year): Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 2 by Robert Caro. This biography, which is one part Western, one part Shakespearean political tragedy ala Richard III, is among the best books I’ve ever read. In 1948 Lyndon Johnson ran a do-or-die campaign for the US Senate against the most popular man in Texas political history — former governor and all-around-bad-ass Coke Stevenson. It really must be read to be believed.Rounding out the top five non-fiction books are (in order): Master of the Senate (part 3 of the LBJ series), Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan (a dreamy, meandering ode to horse culture and fatherhood), The Path to Power (part 1 of the LBJ series), and Vermeer in Bosnia by Lawrence Weschler.Best Fiction I’ve read this year: Morte D’Urban by JF Powers. While not as off-beat or quite as funny as Powers’s other novel Wheat That Springeth Green, Morte D’Urban succeeds in being an entertaining and tender novel about a priest who’s ambition to take over his dying religious order’s leadership lands him in rural Minnesota. Like Wheat That Springeth Green, the book is a conversion tale of sorts. Don’t let the subject matter scare you away.The rest of the top fiction 5: Any Human Heart by William Boyd, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, and You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon. I haven’t been reading enough new fiction. Shame on me.I’ve embarked upon my annual holiday excursion to the East Coast. Sporadic posting is likely but all possible effort will be made to keep The Millions rolling along.
Christian writes in with this question:What is currently known about the next volume(s) of Robert Caro’s magnificent biography of LBJ?The presidential biography is a major sub-genre of American literature, and it seems to be the constitutional right of every president to enter the annals of history by receiving the biographical treatment. The second half of the twentieth century is crowded with notable presidents, all of whom have garnered copious ink of varying quality and espousing a wide spectrum of opinions. Amidst the glut of Kennedy books and quality biographies of Truman, Reagan, and others, Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson stands out both for its size and its quality. I remember hearing somewhere that the biography was originally intended to be a smaller, one volume affair, but that Caro found LBJ so compelling he just couldn’t stop, and the project ballooned its current astronomical page count, 2719 with one more volume on the way. Now, this isn’t a case of quantity over quality; Volumes One and Two won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Volume Three won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. Not too shabby. So, when can we expect volume four, the capstone of Caro’s stupendous achievement? Well, the short answer is that they don’t have a date yet, but we can at least hazard a guess. The first book, The Path to Power came out in 1982; the second, Means of Ascent, in 1990, and the third, Master of the Senate, in 2002. So, after doing some back of the envelope calculations, I would expect to see the fourth and final volume (tentatively titled The Presidency) some time between 2010 and 2014. Chances are it’ll be worth the wait. Thanks for the question Christian!