To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents

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9780789450739: To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents

America's most respected historians offer thoughtful, authoritative profiles of the nation's forty-one chief executives.

Every generation of historians reviews and revises the work of its predecessors. With this book, the best historical writers of today's generation undertake such a task. Displaying wit and narrative flair, their elegant essays offer a fresh perspective on the most fascinating group of Americans: the American presidents. Who better to write a new assessment of the presidents than the most respected (and best-selling) historians of our time? In To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents, members of the prestigious Society of American Historians deliver engaging, thoughtful analyses of the forty-one men who have led this country- some, of course, more successfully than others. In this copiously illustrated volume, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winner James M. McPherson, you will learn from Gordon S. Wood how George Washington, an extraordinary man, made it possible for ordinary men to govern; from Allen Weinstein how Theodore Roosevelt tested and extended the limits of the presidency; from Tom Wicker how Richard Nixon's hatreds and insecurities gripped him ever more tightly as he achieved his long-sought goal of power; and from Evan Thomas how much Bill Clinton cares about his place in the new presidential pecking order.

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Review:

From the beginning, Americans have loved and hated their presidents, and memorialized them both for their achievements and their foibles. In this collection of essays, written by members of the prestigious Society of American Historians, we're gifted with a lively interpretive history of the 41 presidents to date with an emphasis on their dominant themes and achievements as influenced by their personalities and ideologies.

With the focus on presidential style, Joseph J. Ellis examines the ironies in Thomas Jefferson's ideals and actions, as well as his inveterate shyness (imagine a modern-day president who only spoke at his inauguration and presented all legislative proposals in writing). Robert Dallek discusses Lyndon B. Johnson's contradictions as evidenced in his significant domestic achievements and the terrible failure of the Vietnam War. And in the pieces on also-rans like Grant and Coolidge and the disgraced such as Nixon, these historians often use the benefit of hindsight and scholarship to focus on the more redeeming features of each man. The most recent president covered does not get off so lightly, however, as Evan Thomas devotes an inordinate amount of space to Bill Clinton's philandering and slams him with such adjectives as "calculating, shrewd and slovenly."

The book is packed with photographs, illustrations, inaugural addresses, and memorable quotes ("When Theodore attends a wedding, he wants to be the bride, and when he attends a funeral, he wants to be the corpse"). A light sense of humor is even displayed, as in a photograph of William Howard Taft's mammoth bathtub, specially built after the 355-pound man got stuck in an ordinary tub, and the story of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign captured in two campaign photos--one of a sexy, bare-chested JFK in his PT-109 and the other of a stiff Nixon in his Navy dress blues. It's also a treasure trove of presidential trivia--which presidents proposed to their wives on the first date? Who were the only three vice presidents to be successfully promoted by election? This is a terrific reference book--an informative, revealing, and fun way to learn about America's chosen few. --Lesley Reed

From the Publisher:

About The Society of American Historians:

The Society of American Historians was founded in 1939 by Allan Nevins and several fellow authors for the purpose of promoting literary distinction in historical writing. From its inception, the Society has sought ways to bring good historical writing to the largest possible audience. Membership in the Society is by invitation only and is limited to 250 authors. The Society administers four awards: the annual Francis Parkman Prize for the best-written nonfiction book on American history, the annual Allan Nevins Prize for the best-written dissertation on an important theme in American history, the biannual Bruce Catton prize for lifetime achievement in historical writing, and the biannual James Fenimore Cooper prize for the best historical novel.

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