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5 recent books offer insights into the lives of presidents of the United States

Posted July 4

President Barack Obama sits with his daughter Sasha during a barbecue with family and friends in celebration of his 49th birthday on the South Lawn of the White House, Aug. 8, 2010. (Deseret Photo)

Since 1789, 43 men have assumed the office of president of the United States, each with differing personalities, goals and perspectives.

In honor of the Fourth of July, here are several recently released books that offer insights into the lives of these men.

*****

"FIRST DADS: Parenting and Politics From George Washington to Barack Obama," by Joshua Kendall, Grand Central Publishing, $27, 391 pages (nf)

Author Joshua Kendall explores the relationship between the presidents of the United States and their children in his recent book, "First Dads: Parenting and Politics From George Washington to Barack Obama."

Kendall observed that the way each president carried out his parental duties said a lot about how he would run the country and revealed the true character of the man. In the book, he chronicles the daily lives of each president, using snippets showing how they interacted with and parented their children, and how this correlates with the way they managed the affairs of the country.

According to the book, "of the 43 men who have assumed the role of the father of our country, 38 have produced progeny. (The other five … all reared adopted children.)" Details about all 43 presidents are included in the book.

The stories in "First Dads," compiled from historical records and personal interviews with presidential descendants, discuss the issues and character and unveil the man behind the political position, whether that man is starkly different or is unable to separate his profession from his daily life.

Kendall's research is organized by parenting type, with chapter titles including "The Preoccupied," "Playful Pals," "Double-Dealing Dads," "Tiger Dads," "The Grief-Stricken" and "The Nurturers."

In each chapter, Kendall documents the multiple presidents who fall under that parenting category. With tales ranging from President Dwight D. Eisenhower intimidating his children to stories of President Harry S. Truman's daddy's girl, readers will gain insight into the walls of the White House, travel with the presidents on official business and family vacations, and experience the stress and power that comes with the hefty political title.

Kendall features three main presidents in each chapter, with minor stories of other presidents who fall into that parenting style, to show similarities in the psychology of parenting. While the information would have been easier to grasp if it had been written chronologically and not jumped around within each chapter, Kendall includes a helpful notes page and index for readers who want to look up a specific president.

"First Dads" doesn't contain any swearing, violence or sexual content.

— Tara Creel

*****

"JEFFERSON'S AMERICA: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Nation," by Julie M. Fenster, Crown Publishing, $30, 432 pages (nf)

“Jefferson’s America” by Julie M. Fenster is a new analysis of one of the most important eras in the early history of the United States of America.

By the time of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, the circumstances that would lead to the U.S. spanning between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans had started to come into place. One of the major pieces of the puzzle was Jefferson’s debated Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

The purchase was controversial due in no small part to the fact that the exact area being purchased was not delineated by the agreement. This led to Jefferson spearheading several teams of explorers to map and explore the western half of the American continent. These teams were to define the borders of the Louisiana Purchase, as well as to map the headwaters of the Mississippi and other notable rivers and geological features.

The most famous of the groups of explorers authorized by Jefferson was the well-known Lewis and Clark expedition, the first Americans to navigate from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. Less notable expeditions also initiated by Jefferson include those of William Dunbar, George Hunter, Thomas Freeman and Zebulon Pike. These names may be less well-known today than those of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, but each substantially increased knowledge about the Western United States' physical properties.

At the beginning of Jefferson’s presidency, most of the population was focused on the U.S. as it then existed, worried about its economic viability and the self-interests of the 13 states. By the end of his presidency, the populace’s enthusiasm for expansion had increased substantially. These expeditions brought back, as Jefferson put it, “a basis of knowledge on which others may build.”

The book is easy to read with a sufficient mix of facts and stories. It is organized somewhat chronologically but not completely so, as Fenster goes back and forth among the various explorers. She does an excellent job of making a case for the importance of Jefferson’s foresight and the impact of the expeditions on the development of the new nation.

There is no offensive language in the book. A few sexual encounters and some violence are mentioned in a historical context and are not described.

— Scott Butters

*****

"HERBERT HOOVER IN THE WHITE HOUSE: The Ordeal of the Presidency," by Charles Rappleye, Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 576 pages (nf)

Compelling and exceptionally readable, "Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency" by Charles Rappleye moves readers through Herbert Hoover’s exceptional popularity in 1920, the Great Depression and the crash of the Republican Party a decade later, to the rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Hoover’s defeat. Rappleye describes Hoover as “shy” but with “unbending reserve.” Hoover is praised as a more-than-capable secretary of commerce, and yet as president, Rappleye writes, “It was as if, having finally attained the high station he sought, he found himself afraid of heights.”

A geologist by training, engineer by employment and sport fisherman by choice, Hoover was unsuccessfully entered as a candidate for president by both political parties in 1920. In 1928, he received the Republican nomination, garnering 444 electoral votes to 87. Confidence ran high. In the following eight weeks, the New York Stock Exchange experienced the Hoover Boom, surging 25 percent — a boom that greatly concerned Hoover.

Soon, the stock market and housing bubbles of the Roaring ’20s would burst. The supply of agricultural commodities outpaced demand, glutting world markets. Severe drought vexed America’s breadbasket. The Federal Reserve, though not in its infancy, was still in its formative teenage years. Communications and the ability to process data were slow. Foreign countries began to leave the gold standard and default on debts and reparations owed the U.S. from the Great War.

By the next election, FDR would come onto the scene offering a New Deal, something Hoover believed he had been offering, but with a major difference. Hoover was adamantly opposed to allowing the federal government to directly administer relief plans for fear that Americans would accept and come to expect a dole. Hoover believed in the capitalist system but may have bristled at being painted with the laissez-faire economist brush so often used to depict him.

Rappleye’s work contains little objectionable language, and then only in the most mild of forms. There is a nongraphic incident of an officer-involved conflict, including a deadly shooting. The book contains no sexual content.

— Steve Decker

*****

"'MOST BLESSED OF THE PATRIARCHS': Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination," by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf, Liverlight, $27.95, 400 pages (nf)

In the realm of American history, few characters are as complicated to understand as President Thomas Jefferson. Being remembered as everything from a titan in the battle for a democratic republic to a hypocritical slave owner, the legendary Founding Father is indeed a walking contradiction.

Jointly authored by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annette Gordon-Reed and noted American history professor Peter S. Onuf, who are both extremely well-versed Jefferson scholars, “‘Most Blessed of the Patriarchs’: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination” seeks to make sense of the third president. The title is derived from a letter Jefferson wrote in November 1793 as he was preparing to return to his plantation, Monticello, in Virginia after resigning as the nation’s first secretary of state. Jefferson mused that he was to be “blessed as the most blessed of the patriarchs.”

The book is divided into three sections. Part I, "Patriarch," delves into Jefferson's early years in Virginia. Part II, "Traveller," covers his time spent as the United States Minister to France. Part III, "Enthusiast," explores Jefferson's views on slavery, race, religion and music. The authors spend a great deal of time exploring Jefferson's seemingly contradictory actions with regard to slavery. They also focus on the relationship between Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemmings, with whom he allegedly fathered some or all of her six children.

Unlike many biographical character studies, "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" doesn't seek to elevate Jefferson by painting an overly rosy portrait. Instead, Gordon-Reed and Onuf encourage the reader to think critically about him and to broaden understanding of this complicated figure in U.S. history. Well-researched and extensively cited, "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" is definitely worth reading if you wish to learn more about Jefferson.

The book is devoid of swearing and violence, but there are a few mentions of sex that are not described.

— Ryan D. Curtis

*****

"A SELF-MADE MAN: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1, 1809-1849," by Sidney Blumenthal, Simon & Schuster, $35, 576 pages (nf)

Sidney Blumenthal, senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and best-selling political author, writes the first volume of a planned four-volume biography in "A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln." This volume focuses on Lincoln's life from the years 1809-1849.

While Blumenthal's narrative voice is present, this is not merely his opinion on President Abraham Lincoln and his political molding. It reads like a conversation with those who knew Lincoln and is filled with quotes from family, friends, associates, observers, fellow politicians and countrymen.

"Self-Made Man" follows Lincoln through his childhood and includes quotes where Lincoln refers to himself as his father's slave. The book also details Lincoln overcoming the death of his mother and being forthright about the fact that his stepmother brought him out of poverty and made him into the man the country fell in love with.

Blumenthal discusses how the books Lincoln read, the hardships he faced and the religious atmosphere affected his political views. Blumenthal links the human nature of the man with the ideas he brought to politics and government. With all of Lincoln's failures and bouts of severe depression, he persevered and studied, excelling in his law profession and in working to make a change in a segregated America.

The spotlight isn't on Lincoln alone as Blumenthal documents the political strife of the times, highlighting the political front-runners and issues prefacing the Civil War and Lincoln's presidency. Allies and rivals are mentioned, showing who Lincoln emulated and who was on the other side of his sarcastic debate style.

Included is a chapter on the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. and how Lincoln likened polygamy to slavery. Readers should note this chapter does not put Mormonism in a favorable light with its skewed explanations of Mormon doctrine using quotes and opinions that oppose the common beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“A Self-Made Man” is a compelling read that leaves the reader ready for the next volume and the continuation of Lincoln’s rise to power.

The book contains mild references to violence and mild language but no sexual content.

— Tara Creel

Scott Butters has over 35 years of experience in business and finance. He is a graduate of the University of Utah and bleeds red. He can be contacted at scotta.butters@gmail.com.

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