Turn on the TV, scan the stations on the radio, or simply walk down the street — no matter where you go or what you do, there's no avoiding talk about the 2016 presidential election. While you try and wade through the constant campaigning, debating, and media coverage around the possible future presidents of the US, you might want to take a short break and try reading nonfiction books about presidents of the past. If you need help deciding what qualities will make the best 44th president, its probably worthwhile to look at the victories and failures of the other 43.
You might think that you learned all there is to know about the presidents when you memorized their order for your high school history class, but there's a lot more to these powerful politicians than their inauguration date. The oval office has been home to secret affairs, political corruption, and more than one personal scandal. From George Washington to Barack Obama, the office of the presidency has seen more intrigue, more drama, and more secrecy than a prime-time political TV show.
But despite all of their juicy secrets, the 43 presidents of the United States have also been responsible for progress, hope, and real change. From the most important amendments to the most controversial policy changes, our country's presidents, for better or worse, have decided the fate of our nation for the last 227 years, and now, it's time for a new man or woman to call the shots.
If you want to peak into the past to help you decide your future, check out these 13 nonfiction books about presidents.
1. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
One of the most written about former U.S. presidents, Thomas Jefferson was not only a brilliant politician, but he was also a philosopher, inventor, a scientist, a father and a husband, and one of the most complicated men in history. In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham dissects Jefferson not only as a politician and a president, but also as the complex human being he was. An absorbing read about a fascinating historical figure, The Art of Power brings Jefferson to life like never before.
2. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
There are a lot of books about Abraham Lincoln, but none as highly acclaimed as Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. The inspiration behind Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Goodwin's engrossing work uses Lincoln's relationship with three crucial cabinet members — William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates — to explain the president's own political genius and ultimate success in the White House. Multiple biographies in one, Team of Rivals is a riveting nonfiction read about one of the most famous presidents in history.
3. The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands
In bestselling author H.W. Brand's riveting biography, readers learn about America's 18th president Ulysses Grant, first as the famed war general largely responsible for the Union's victory, and next, as a political leader charged with reunited a broken, deeply divided country. Insightful and inspirational, Brand's biography reads less like a historical text book and more like a thrilling page-turner.
4. Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
There are few presidential biographies more thorough than Edmund Morris's three-part series on Theodore Roosevelt. Starting with his rise to power, going into his presidency, and ending with his continued role as a political leader outside of the White House, Morris's collections give a clear and precise picture of one of the country's greatest and most beloved presidents. And while his entire life is fascinating, if you're curious about Roosevelt's two terms as president, you'll want to pick up Theodore Rex, the second volume in the series that covers the ups, the downs, the achievements, and the failures of Roosevelt's White House.
5. The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathan Alter
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March of 1933, the United States was at one of its lowest points in history, but within the first 100 days at the White House, the new president worked tirelessly to change all that. In The Defining Moment, journalist Jonathan Alter puts those first 100 days under a microscope, exploring how Roosevelt, whose inauguration speech happened just hours after a major banking collapse swept the nation, helped an entire country pull itself up by its bootstraps. Fascinating and rich with fresh details, The Defining Moment is an exhilarating political read.
6. Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot by Bill O'Reilly
Part of his famous The Killing of Historical Figures series is Bill O'Reilly's Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot. Perhaps one of the most infamous assassinations in American history, the notorious 1963 murder of President John F. Kennedy is recreated and examined from all sides in this intriguing and revealing book.
7. The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro
The first in a four-part biography, Robert A. Caro's The Path to Power explores the early years of former president Lyndon Johnson. Starting with his impoverished childhood in the Texas Hill Country to his first term in Congress to his first defeat in the Senate race, The Path to Power introduces Johnson as a man hungry for power and determined to win.
8. Nixonland: America's Second Civil War and the Divisive Legacy of Richard Nixon 1965-72 by Rick Perlstein
His presidency may have ended over 40 years ago, but the legacy of Richard Nixon is still shaping the way we do politics today — or at least, that is what historian and journalist Rick Perlstein explains in his thought-provoking Nixonland. Beginning with the Watts riots of 1965, covering the deeply culturally and politically decade that followed, and ending with his resignation, no store — or political figure — is left unturned in this fascinating account of some of the most tumultuous years in U.S. history.
9. A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety by Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter has penned numerous books on everything from his rural boyhood to his years in the White House to memories of his own mother, but it all comes together in A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety. In his remarkable memoir, the 39th president of the U.S., and the oldest living one at that, reflects on his life, both personal and professional, in a way that only nine decades of experience can allow you to do. Full of proud moments and lasting regrets, A Full Life is an inspirational read about one of the most exceptional men in history.
10. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime by Lou Cannon
If you're looking for a definitive biography of former president Ronald Reagan, look no further than Lou Cannon's President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. A fascinating and in-depth look at this actor turned Republican icon, President Reagan blows all your preconceived notions of the famous president out of the water and leaves you with a precise and thorough examination of this enigmatic man.
11. 41: A Portrait of My Father by George W. Bush
The Bush family is a modern political legacy, and in 41: A Portrait of My Father, they are brought to life not by a historian or a biographer, but rather by a member of the family itself. George W. Bush's biography about his father is not only a peek into the Bush family tree, but a thorough examination of the older President Bush's life and career in politics, from his time served during WWII to his political rise from Congressman to President. Captivating and personal, 41 is a unique take on the presidential biography.
12. Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
Nearly a decade before being elected to the Senate and almost two decades before his presidency, Barack Obama released Dreams of My Father, a thought-provoking and moving look at identity in the United States. While it doesn't cover any of the years of Obama's administration, or any of his political career, it is a fascinating examination of race and the role it plays in shaping our lives.
Images: Ronda Darby/Unsplash