Officially, today is a federal holiday to honor George Washington (whose birthday is actually…tomorrow).
Unofficially, today is either a holiday to celebrate the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln or it’s a day to honor everyone who has served in the presidency.
But to anyone really paying attention, today is the one day a year we’re afforded the opportunity to buy a new mattress or refrigerator. Because…obviously.
For me, though, today is meaningful for two other reasons:
* It’s the 3-year anniversary of the completion of my dedicated 6+ year journey through 240 of the best biographies I could find of every president from Washington to Obama.
* It’s one of the best opportunities I have to share mindless insights and trivia designed to tickle, thrill and titillate.
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What did I accomplished the past 12 months?
* Read 22 biographies including 8 presidential biographies. My presidential favorites were John Boles’s “Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty,” Kai Bird’s newly-released “The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter” and Jay Cost’s hot-off-the-press “James Madison: America’s First Politician.”
* My favorites among the non-presidents: Robert Massie’s classic “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty,” Les & Tamara Payne’s “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X” (which was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize), Evan Thomas’s “First: Sandra Day O’Connor” and David Roll’s fascinating biography of Harry Hopkins.
* I also planted about 1,000 dahlias, officiated a dozen swim meets, piloted myself to the 200th airport of my non-professional flying career (hello Burlington, NC!) and became mesmerized by good French press coffee.
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So what’s coming up this year?
* At least 8 more presidential biographies including Irving Brant’s 1970 biography of James Madison and David Brown’s upcoming release “The First Populist: The Defiant Life of Andrew Jackson.” I’m also considering Troy Senik’s upcoming biography of Grover Cleveland (yes, really) and Fred Kaplan’s upcoming exploration of Thomas Jefferson which, I’m told, may emphasize his genius as a writer.
* But wait, there’s more! Because I’m not solely focused on the presidents, I’ll also be reading Walter Stahr’s “Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival” (being released tomorrow), a highly-regarded biography of Adolf Hitler by Ian Kershaw, a biography of explorer Ernest Shackleton and David Nasaw’s “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst.”
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But where’s the trivia?
* This website enjoyed about 500,000 visits the past year from 185 countries. The most prolific non-US visitor? The UK followed closely by Canada. The fewest? Some lonely soul in Burundi.
* The most popular presidents based on your search activity?
…….Teddy Roosevelt (almost 10% of all president-specific page views)
…….Abraham Lincoln (only slightly behind TR)
…….(For the curious among you…George Washington was just 12th)
* The least popular presidents?
…….Chester Arthur (with about 1% of your attention)
…….Benjamin Harrison (ditto)
…….Millard Fillmore (who?)
* The year’s most popular books / book reviews?
…….”Grant” by Ron Chernow
…….”Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow
…….”His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life” by Jonathan Alter
…….”FDR” by Jean Edward Smith
…….”James Monroe: A Life” by Tim McGrath
* The year’s least popular books / book reviews?
…….Nice try! But they cover Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Gerald Ford 🙂
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The Elephant(s) in the Room:
In addition to comments posted to this website, I receive emails from visitors with some very popular questions including:
– “Who was your favorite president and why?”
– “What are the essential elements of a great presidential biography?”
– “How would you rank the presidents from best to worst?”
I still haven’t satisfactorily addressed any of these questions except: for my wife (who probably received a less-pithy response than she desired) and for someone at a well-known newspaper who finagled an answer from me before becoming preoccupied with a book he or she may be writing about a “controversial” figure in recent American history.
At some point I will find the time to thoughtfully answer these questions. In some cases I have definitive, deeply-considered views. In others, the answers are more evanescent and subject to the vagaries of the moment. But it’s all fascinating food for thought.
In the meantime, let’s all do a Rain Dance in the hopes that (i) the final volume in Robert Caro’s LBJ series is published before I’m eligible to collect social security, and that (ii) Ron Chernow uncovers a cache of documents vital to fleshing-out a tantalizing portrait of Martin Van Buren and undertakes the project with haste. (Yes, I still have high hopes for a great biography of the Little Magician!)
(Photo courtesy of http://www.whitehouse.gov)