American history, biographies, George W Bush, Jean Edward Smith, Peter Baker, presidential biographies, US Presidents
After six years and forty-two presidents, I’m just two presidents (and five biographies) away from the finish line. Mission almost accomplished…!
The biographies I read at this point are essentially placeholders, of course. The definitive biographies of the most recent presidents have definitively not yet been written.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t begin to peek into their childhoods, their early careers or their presidencies to begin getting a sense – however incomplete – of their character and contributions.
For George W. Bush I’ll be reading two biographies:
*Jean Edward Smith’s “Bush” was published in 2016. This is the fourth presidential biography by Smith I’ve read, and it’s worth pointing out that his biographies of Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower were each my favorite biography of those presidents.
But this book promises to be different than his previous biographies in at least two meaningful respects. First, it only covers Bush 43’s life up through his presidency; second, it has a reputation for being almost flagrantly critical. [I’m halfway through it now and let’s just say that Smith does not leave the reader wondering how he feels about Bush’s presidency.]
* My second biography of Bush 43 is Peter Baker’s 2013 “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.” Baker is a long-tenured White House correspondent for The New York Times. His book promises to be a well-sourced and penetrating account of the Bush presidency. But where Jean Edward Smith holds Bush fully responsible for his administration’s wide assortment of alleged faults, Baker apparently sees Cheney as the irrefutable center of the storm – its fanatical malocchio. Should be interesting…
Christopher Saunders said:
I’ve read both of these and both have their virtues and faults. Smith’s book is better written and I enjoyed it a great deal, but it’s definitely written as an indictment of Bush; I doubt anyone who has a positive opinion of the man will get much out of it. Baker is much more objective and coolheaded but I found it more of a chore to read, seeming more reportorial than literary both in style and approach. Look forward, as always, to seeing your thoughts.
I liked the Baker book, except for his falling for the argument that the 2007 Iraq surge is what improved the situation in Iraq that year.
I’m about to do some work in my own scholarship on Bush’s presidency, and I am reading “First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty,” by Bill Minutaglio. He’s a Texas journalist, and this 1999 biography is basically a pre-presidential biography, the same way David Maraniss’s Clinton bio is the definitive biography of Clinton’s pre-presidential life. I’m not sure he gets everything right, but at 327 pages I’m hard-pressed to think of a more complete pre-presidential biography on GWB. I’d recommend it for your followup list.
Sounds like it could be perfect for my f/u list; I’ll check it out!
Jude Flurry said:
Way to go, Steve! You’re such a boss at reading.
Having a few “snow days” in the past couple weeks hasn’t hurt my ability to make a strong last-minute dash 🙂
Logan Mortenson said:
Sorry if you have already been asked this question, but do you have any tips for reading these large biographies as quickly as you do? Unfortunately, I am not a speed reader and have a very ambitious reading list, but it has been a challenge between work and other commitments. I presume this your situation as well, but you appear to have mastered it quite well. Look forward to your comments and thanks as always for all of the interesting content.
The keys for me are persistence and discipline. I haven’t been going at all that rapid a clip (only about 55 pages a day) but over six years that adds up to lots of biographies! I also tend to read early in the morning before work or while I’m on flights with nothing else competing for my time. And if I miss a day or two (which happens often) I try to catch up at night or on weekends.
The first reason I decided to start this website was so I’d have somewhere to store and share my thoughts on each book. Then as the site got unexpectedly popular, there was built-in “pressure” for me not to relax the pace too much or even give up the journey because when I was slow to finish a book I had people asking me when the next review would be posted (on whatever book I was supposed to be reading) 🙂
But the hard part for me isn’t reading the biographies, it’s figuring out how to put into words exactly how I feel about each biography. On days I write my reviews it’s fair to say I don’t get any reading done…!
AARON MILLION said:
Hats off to you Steve for this enormous project. I feel dwarfed by your pace! I never seem to have enough time to read, but I think almost everyone who is a reader feels that way. And there’s always another book coming out that tempts me… I might know what you mean when you talk about the hardest being to write the reviews. I find your reviews more in-depth than mine are for most things, yet sometimes while reading a book I start to think about what will I write. Honestly, I find it more of a chore at times than anything else. I’ve even toyed with just stopping writing the reviews, writing reviews only about books that I was really interested in (which means I probably wouldn’t write about any fiction books that I pick up as I find those harder to review), or just putting down a single paragraph about my overall thoughts.
I read both books and enjoyed them. I look forward to your thoughts. No doubt Smith is critical of the administration but I think he tries to be fair, giving W praise for the positive things he accomplished, but Smith’s excoriation of Bush over his decision to invade Iraq, describing it as the country’s worst foreign policy disaster, is something I found striking. While I very much enjoy reading a biography of a former president’s life, I also enjoy reading a book that analyzes an administration and judges its accomplishments and failures based on facts and the passage of time.
Bravo on almost completing this journey!! So impressed by your effort and I’ve been enjoying your blog tremendously. Any thoughts on what you’ll be reading and writing next after the presidential bios are “done”?
Oh I just saw your What’s Next page. Fantastic plan!
More than once I considered finishing off the presidents and then turning to something a little lighter – perhaps the Harry Potter series 🙂
But in my experience great biographies are just as good as great fiction so I hope I’ve managed to pick some great books for the rest of the year ahead! (We’ll see…!)
Brandon Harbeke said:
Decision Points by George W. Bush is a must for the follow-up list. It’s organized by topic and is chronological within each topic, as I recall. It was written pretty soon after 43’s 2nd term, so events are still fresh in his mind.
When I start including memoirs and autobiographies it’s an early one to read (along with Grant’s)!