Book Review: The American Presidents (Whitney, 2012)

Full Title: The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives, from George Washington through Barack Obama
Author: David C. Whitney (revised and updated by Robin Vaughn Whitney)
Year: 1967, various updates through 2009
Publisher: several (mine was Reader’s Digest Association)
ISBN 978-1-60652-462-6
View it on Amazon
View it on Google Books

I found this book at Hastings, used, for about $6 — which isn’t bad for a 650-page, large-size (9″ x 7-1/8″) paperback. Having recently installed a U.S. Presidents app on my phone to teach my daughter about the leaders of our nation, the book caught my eye and promised to fill in some details I was missing about these men (yes, so far, all of them are men).

◊ Summary

The book simply fulfills the promise of its full title — there’s a condensed biography of all 43 presidents spread through 564 pages (averaging 13.1 pages per president). Each one starts with a short list of important dates — birth and death, marriage, elections to various positions — then has a few paragraphs of introduction. Each president’s early life is detailed in a roughly similar format, leading up to his election and term(s) of office. For those 35 who didn’t die in office, their after-term lives are described as well.

◊ What I Liked Least About It

I think my primary complaint was that the writing style seemed to change at some point, about the time the book got to my lifetime, the 1970s or ’80s. Perhaps this was when Robin Whitney (David’s wife) took over the updates and revisions. I noticed a decidedly different tone especially with the last three (Clinton, Bush II, and Obama), as if the author could barely contain her personal opinions about them. There was certainly an air of personal experience to the last several.

Secondly, also with the last few, some of the statements didn’t match up with my own memories of events. (Neither my memories nor the statements in the book were attributed to sources.) Just an example, from the chapter on Bill Clinton: “…public opinion remained extremely supportive of the president” during 1998. In my own experience, everyone was ready for his presidency to end, including every editorial I read, every customer and coworker I talked to, and every friend and family member (and I was in Arkansas at the time). I know there’s a difference between anecdotal experience like mine and a nationwide survey, but the author didn’t cite any source for the statement, so it bothered me. There were quite a few like this in the last several chapters.

(There is no bibliography at the end, either, which is kind of odd for a non-fiction book.)

◊ What I Liked Most About It

What I liked most about it was the sheer amount of information the book contained, most of it verifiable, unlike the few examples I mentioned above.

I also liked that each biography was presented in a similar style and order, which my brain enjoyed. There was little attempt at fanciness, just a thrust of information, well organized.

At least one of the authors shares my love of numbers and statistics, listing tidbits such has how many of them (25) were attorneys before becoming the most powerful person in the nation, or how many (12) attempted to win another term but were defeated.

◊ Overall Impression

Overall, I really enjoyed the book, and I read it more quickly than I would have guessed at first. My complaints are minor when compared to the complete value.

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