Essential Reads About The U.S. Presidency

By Kerri Jarema

You probably never think twice about President's Day, right? It's just a nice Monday off from work, a time when appliances and cars you're not looking to buy are all 40% off. You probably think your high school history textbook provided you with enough soul crushing information about the presidency to last you a lifetime, right? But with the unexpected popularity of Lin Manuel-Miranda's Hamilton (based on a very long and very intimidating biography by Ron Chernow) over the last couple of years, more and more non-fiction books about the leaders of our country have been published, and many of them are just as interesting as any novel.

We've compiled a list below of some books about the presidents and about the men and women surrounding them, from our nation's founding to modern day. These books delve deeper into the stories you probably only heard about at surface level in school, from the Washington during the Revolution to the secret histories of the nation's first ladies, from sex scandals to sweet memoirs, and including an account of the insane and shocking election that led to the current disastrous state of our nation's highest office. There's really no better time to take a look at what has driven the presidency from its infancy to now.

'1776' by David McCullough

Obviously, if you want to read about the presidents, there's really no better place to start than before there even was one. Here, David McCullough tells the story of those who marched with General George Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence. Based on extensive research in both American and British archives, 1776 is a powerful drama, telling the story of Americans in the ranks, men of every shape, size, and color, farmers, schoolteachers, shoemakers, and mere boys turned soldiers. And it is the story of the King's men, the British commander, William Howe, and his highly disciplined redcoats. At the center of the drama, with Washington, are two young American patriots, who, at first, knew no more of war than what they had read in books - Nathaniel Green, a Quaker who was made a general at thirty-three, and Henry Knox, a twenty-five-year-old bookseller.. But it is the American commander-in-chief who stands foremost... George Washington, who had never before led an army in battle. This extensive look at the Revolution is the perfect addition to any American History TBR.

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'Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution' by Nathaniel Philbrick

You've probably called someone a Benedict Arnold more times than you can count, but do you know the real story behind the tragic relationship between Arnold and George Washington? Valiant Ambition is a complex, and dramatic portrait that focuses on loyalty and integrity, evoking a Shakespearean tragedy that unfolds between Washington and Arnold, an impulsive but sympathetic hero whose misfortunes at the hands of self-serving politicians fatally destroy his faith in the legitimacy of the rebellion. In September 1776, the vulnerable Continental Army under an unsure George Washington evacuates New York after a devastating defeat by the British Army. Three weeks later, near the Canadian border, one of his favorite generals, Benedict Arnold, miraculously succeeds in postponing the British naval advance down Lake Champlain that might have ended the war. Four years later, as the book ends, Arnold has fled to the enemy after a foiled attempt to surrender the American fortress at West Point to the British. After four years of war, America is forced to realize that the real threat to its liberties might not come from without but from within.

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'The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy' by Michael J. Gerhardt

Their names linger in memory mainly as punch lines, synonyms for obscurity: Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, Calvin Coolidge. But many forgotten presidents were not weak or ineffective. And this book surveys thirteen administrations in chronological order, from Martin Van Buren to Franklin Pierce to Jimmy Carter, distinguishing political failures from their constitutional impact. Again and again, he writes, they defied popular opinion to take strong stands. Incisive, myth-shattering, and compellingly written, this book shows how even obscure presidents championed the White House's prerogatives and altered our country's history and the way we interpret the Constitution.

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'American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies' by Michael W. Kauffman

It is a tale that's familiar to all of us: actor John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, escaped on foot, and eluded capture for twelve days until he met his fiery end in a Virginia tobacco barn. In the national hysteria that followed, eight others were arrested and tried; four of those were executed, four imprisoned. It's all you need for a classic great thriller. But the untold story is even more fascinating. In American Brutus, Michael W. Kauffman, one of the foremost Lincoln assassination authorities, takes familiar history to a deeper level, offering an unprecedented, authoritative account of the Lincoln murder conspiracy. Working from a staggering array of archival sources and new research, Kauffman sheds new light on the background and motives of John Wilkes Booth, the mechanics of his plot to topple the Union government, and the trials and fates of the conspirators. Provocative, and absorbing, this has become the definitive text on a watershed event in American history.

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'First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies' by Kate Andersen Brower

The nation's First Ladies are just as important a part of the American Presidency as the presidents themselves. In her book Kate Andersen Brower draws on a wide array of untapped, candid sources — from residence staff and social secretaries to friends and political advisers — to tell the stories of the 10 remarkable women who have defined that role since 1960. New insights into this privileged group of remarkable women, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Patricia Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama range from the heartwarming to the shocking and tragic. They explore everything from the first ladies’ political crusades to their rivalries with Washington figures; from their friendships with other first ladies to their public and private relationships with their husbands. Candid and illuminating, this first group biography of the modern first ladies provides a revealing look at life upstairs and downstairs at the world’s most powerful address.

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'Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years' by David Talbot

John F. Kennedy is one of the nation's most mythical presidents, as is the entire Kennedy family. For decades, books about President John F. Kennedy or his brother Robert Kennedy have woven either a tale of Camelot or a tawdry tale of ambition & reckless personal behavior. But there was more to the story. Brothers begins on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, as a stricken Robert demands answers about his brother's assassination. His suspicions focus on the nest of CIA spies, gangsters & Cuban exiles who'd long plotted a violent regime change in Cuba. It then shifts back in time, revealing the conflicts that tore apart the Kennedy administration. Based on over 150 interviews and government documents, Brothers reveals the untold story, including JFK's efforts to keep the USA out of war and RFK's dangerous secret quest to solve his brother's murder. His search led, in part, to his own campaign in 1968... and his death. Was RFK the victim of the same plotters he suspected of killing his brother? This story of these two brothers is meticulously researched and movingly told.

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'All The President's Men' by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

No list of Presidential books would be complete without the watershed account of Nixon and Watergate. Detail all the events of the biggest political scandal in the history of this nation and one of the greatest accounts of political reporting in our nation's history. Woodward and Bernstein kept the headlines coming, delivering revelation after amazing revelation to a shocked public. And while the story of Watergate is almost surreal in its weirdness, modern readers will have much to compare it to after the 2016 election and beginning of the 2017 presidency.

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'A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President' by Jeffrey Toobin

For those of us who were kids and pre-teens when the Bill Clinton sex scandal and subsequent impeachment happened, this book goes into the whole shocking saga. From its beginnings in a Little Rock hotel to its climax on the floor of the United States Senate with only the second vote on presidential removal in American history. Rich with complex characters and dramatic secrets, fueled with the sensationalism of a legal thriller, and tinged by misguided, outlandish behavior that was played out at the very highest levels, Toobin manages to brings a dignity and integrity to this story that it has never before received. The Clinton sex scandals will shape forever how we think about the signature issues of our day — sex, privacy, civil rights, and, after Hillary Clinton's campaign, the way husbands' infidelities affect their wives in more ways than one.

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'Dreams From My Father: A Story Of Race And Inheritance' by Barack Obama

Written nine years before he even became a senator, Barack Obama's memoir is one of the must-reads from our modern presidents. Dreams from My Father tells the story of Obama’s struggle to understand the forces that shaped him as the son of a black African father and white American mother. The story opens after Obama hears that his father—a figure he knows more as a myth than as a man—has died in a car accident. The news triggers a chain of memories as Barack retraces his family’s unusual history: the migration of his mother’s family from small-town Kansas to the Hawaiian islands, where she fell in love with his Kenyan father. Delving into his time in Chicago and coming full circle in Kenya, where he finally meets the African side of his family and confronts the bitter truth of his father’s life. A moving account of the personal life of America's first black president.

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'What Will It Take to Make A Woman President?: Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power' by Marianne Schnall

A tough but timely read, Schnall's book was published in 2013, prompted y a question from her eight-year-old daughter during the 2008 election of Barack Obama: “Why haven’t we ever had a woman president?” Schnall began looking at the issues from various angles and perspectives, gathering viewpoints from influential people from all sectors. With insights and personal anecdotes from Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, Nicholas Kristof, Melissa Etheridge, and many more, this book addresses timely, provocative issues involving women, politics, and power. With a broader goal of encouraging women and girls to be leaders in their lives, their communities, and the larger world, Schnall and her interviewees explore the changing paradigms occurring in politics and in our culture with the hope of moving toward meaningful and effective solutions—and a world where a woman can be president.

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'Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus' by Matt Taibbi

Insane Clown President is a a collection of twenty-five pieces from Rolling Stone — plus two original essays — in which Matt Taibbi tells the story of Western civilization's very own train wreck, from its tragicomic beginnings to its apocalyptic conclusion. With dead-on, real-time analysis, Taibbi discusses failures to the right and the left, from the thwarted Bernie Sanders insurgency to the flawed Hillary Clinton campaign; the rise of the "alt-right"; and the giant fail of a flailing, reactive political media whose thirst for spectacle or substance changed the course of the country. At the center of it all stands Donald J. Trump, leading a historic revolt against his own party. Taibbi frames the reporting with original essays that explore the seismic shift in how we perceive our national institutions, the democratic process, and the future of the country.

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