Thomas 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.
Thomas 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.