My progress so far: 62 biographies on the first 14 presidents during the past 14 months.
But after an exciting start (who doesn’t love reading about Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison?) the past few months have been a little less thrilling.
After all, five of the last six presidents whose biographies I’ve read occupy the worst quartile of all presidents as ranked by historians. Tyler, Taylor, Harrison, Fillmore and Pierce didn’t quite make the short list to be carved into Mount Rushmore.
But things will get better soon- just around the corner is Abraham Lincoln who many believe to be our finest-ever chief executive. Others merely rank him second or third.
But no matter how you judge Lincoln, his presidency has generated more well-written and bestselling biographies than perhaps any other president…so stay tuned! We just have one more poorly-ranked president to get through first: James Buchanan, the only lifelong bachelor to serve as president.
With much of the political, legal and diplomatic experience of John Quincy Adams and all of the political savvy and strategic brilliance of Martin Van Buren, no one seemed better prepared for the presidency than Buchanan. With his eye on the White House for well over a decade before being elected, he calibrated nearly his entire adult life to becoming the perfect candidate.
Unfortunately, like a few others before him, Buchanan found the perfect moment to serve himself up as a presidential candidate…but found himself president at a perfectly awful time. He (and perhaps the country) would have been better off had he remained in rural Pennsylvania following his retirement as Minister to England in 1856.
My first book on Buchanan is “President James Buchanan: A Biography” by Philip Klein. This 1962 classic seems the standard text for anyone wishing to learn about Buchanan. It seems the right length for a biography of a semi-obscure politician, running at just over 400 pages in length; footnotes and bibliography add another 100 pages. Although not widely read or wildly revered like a David McCullough biography, I hope much of that has to do with the subject and not the text.
The last biography I’m reading is “James Buchanan” by Jean Baker. As a member of The American Presidents Series, this biography is just one-third the size of Klein’s. But given my experience with our obscure and unsuccessful presidents, shorter does have the potential to be sweeter. We’ll see…!