McGovern scholar Thomas Knock on classic presidential reads

election blog banner logoThomas Knock is the author of The Rise of a Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern, the first volume of the first major biography of the 1972 presidential candidate and eloquent critic of the Vietnam War. Called “the standard bearer of all future biographies” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Knock’s reconsideration of the politician is a perfect pick for election season. Recently we asked Knock what classic books on presidents we would find in his own library.

By Thomas Knock

I’m happy to recommend five books about major presidents and the politics of their times— from the early 20th century to the early 21st century—all classics in their field and favorites of mine. My list of personal favorites encompasses several historically great presidents or otherwise quite notable ones—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton— who still have something to say to us today.

1.  John Milton Cooper, The Warrior and the Priest, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard, 1983).  This is a dual biography of two progressive presidents—one a Republican, one a Democrat—and the two most literate chief executives of the 20th century.  Together TR and Wilson recreated the modern presidency and, in their respective programs (the New Nationalism and the New Freedom) they laid the foundations for Big Government as we have come to know it today.  Cooper has definite and persuasive reveries about who is the Warrior and who is the Priest.

2.  Robert McElvaine, The Great Depression and the New Deal (Times Books, 1993).  A sweeping account of the crisis of the 1930s that gives both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt their due and even stresses a significant element of continuity between the policies of the two antagonists.  In this, while providing a most lucid interpretation of New Deal politics and culture, one also can see a parallel between Hoover and FDR, on the one hand, and George W. Bush and Barack Obama, on the other, as the latter pair struggled to contain the gathering disaster of 2008-09.

3.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and his America (St. Martin’s, 1976, 1991).  This remains one of the two or three best, and most moving, books ever written about Lyndon Johnson, who I myself would describe as half a great president.  Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this work are the implications of a single remark of Johnson’s to Goodwin:  that he believed when he entered office that he had only 18 months or so to get done whatever it was he was going to accomplish.  And that—the concept of the 18-Month Presidency, so to speak—is something that too many presidents have never grasped.

4.  Sidney Blumenthal, Pledging Allegiance, The Last Campaign of the Cold War (Harper/Collins, 1990).  This study offers a trove of insights into American politics at the end of the Cold War.  Its most significant achievement is to establish Reagan and Gorbachev as an irreducible team–that the advent of each was fundamental to the other’s well being if either was to have the salutary legacy that they are both credited with today.  Along with the entire cast of candidates in the 1988 knock-down, the volume also addresses the matter of the presidential sex scandal, something new in the politics of the ensuing post-Cold War era, which fatally ensnared the formidable Gary Hart, a former McGovern protege.

5.  David Maraniss, First in His Class, A biography of Bill Clinton (Simon and Schuster, 1995).  An essential work about the first post-Cold War president, this biography also includes substantial instructive coverage of the early life of Hillary Rodham.  The thrust is the striving of the first Boomer to enter the White House, who left Arkansas to be schooled at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law; lived the politics of the Sixties and Vietnam and earnestly embraced McGovern’s campaign (learning chastening lessons along the way); and then returned to Arkansas as his means to power.  From a 2016 perspective, one can fully appreciate his enormous capacities while apprehending the bridge the two Clintons constitute between past, present and future.

KnockThomas J. Knock is Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of the prize-winning To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order and the coauthor of The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century (both Princeton). He lives in Dallas, Texas.

The 50th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination

JFKToday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The 35th President of the United States, he was one of four presidents who have ever been assassinated while in office (the other three being Lincoln, McKinley and Garfield). He was shot and killed in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963 at 12:30 pm.

To honor JFK and all of our fearless leaders of the United States since George Washington was inaugurated in 1789, we’re posting a list of some of our best presidential titles to remind us all of the dedication these men put forth in their time leading our country.

Rest in Peace, Mr. President.

Quotable Jefferson
The Quotable Jefferson

Collected & Edited by John P. Kaminski

The Quotable Jefferson is the first book to put Jefferson’s words in context with a substantial introduction, a chronology of Jefferson’s life, the source of each quotation, an appendix identifying Jefferson’s correspondents, and a comprehensive index. The main section of Jefferson quotations, which are arranged alphabetically by topic, is followed by three other fascinating sections of quotations: Jefferson on his contemporaries, his contemporaries on him, and Jefferson on himself.

Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents

Edited and Introduced by Rick Perlstein

The first book to present America’s most controversial president in his own words across his entire career, this unique collection of Richard Nixon’s most important writings dramatically demonstrates why he has had such a profound impact on American life. This volume gathers everything from schoolboy letters to geostrategic manifestos and Oval Office transcripts to create a fascinating portrait of Nixon, one that is enriched by an extensive introduction in which Rick Perlstein puts forward a major reinterpretation of the thirty-seventh president’s rise and fall.

Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980’s

By: Gil Troy

Did America’s fortieth president lead a conservative counterrevolution that left liberalism gasping for air? The answer, for both his admirers and his detractors, is often “yes.” In Morning in America, Gil Troy argues that the Great Communicator was also the Great Conciliator. His pioneering and lively reassessment of Ronald Reagan’s legacy takes us through the 1980s in ten year-by-year chapters, integrating the story of the Reagan presidency with stories of the decade’s cultural icons and watershed moments-from personalities to popular television shows.

The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment

Edited by Julian E. Zelizer

The Presidency of George W. Bush brings together some of today’s top American historians to offer the first in-depth look at one of the most controversial U.S. presidencies. Emotions surrounding the Bush presidency continue to run high–conservatives steadfastly defend its achievements, liberals call it a disgrace. This book examines the successes as well as the failures, covering every major aspect of Bush’s two terms in office. It puts issues in broad historical context to reveal the forces that shaped and constrained Bush’s presidency–and the ways his presidency reshaped the nation.

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (New in Paper)

By: James T. Kloppenberg

Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama’s commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg shows that Obama’s positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America’s role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted–although currently unfashionable–convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.

Presidential Leadership
Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era

By: Joseph S. Nye, Jr

Spanning multiple presidencies, this book examines the foreign policy decisions of the presidents who presided over the most critical phases of America’s rise to world primacy in the twentieth century, and assesses the effectiveness and ethics of their choices. The book shows how transformational presidents like Wilson and Reagan changed how America sees the world, but argues that transactional presidents like Eisenhower and the elder Bush were sometimes more effective and ethical. It also draws important lessons for today’s uncertain world, in which presidential decision making is more critical than ever.

Presidential Difference
The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama (Third Edition)

By: Fred I. Greenstein

In The Presidential Difference, Greenstein provides a fascinating and instructive account of the presidential qualities that have served well and poorly in the Oval Office, beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first hundred days. He surveys each president’s political skill, vision, cognitive style, organizational capacity, ability to communicate, and emotional intelligence–and argues that the last is the most important in predicting presidential success. Throughout, Greenstein offers a series of bottom-line judgments on each of his 13 subjects as well as an overarching theory of why presidents succeed or fail.