Presidential Biographies

I find presidential biographies fascinating. The job of running the executive branch of the government of the United States has to be one of the most complex, difficult jobs around. It seems natural to be interested in the people who are elected to that job. I am also fascinated by the minutiae of the job: how does one organize their day? How does one manage to stay on top of things? It seems to me that there is no better source for productivity tips that reading presidential biographies.

We have had 44 Presidents so far, with a 45th taking office in January 2017. Of those 44 Presidents, I’ve managed to read biographies of only 10: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter. In some instances, I’ve read multi-volume biographies (Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt, for example). Still, there are vast gaps in my coverage of the office of the President of the United States. I am working steadily to fill the gaps, but it is not an easy task.

In a perfect world, I’d read three biographies for every President:

  1. A scholarly work, like Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson (I’ve read the first two volumes so far).
  2. A popular work, like David McCullough’s John Adams.
  3. An autobiography, like Ulysses S. Grant’s autobiography.

A combination of all three would, I think, paint a fair picture of the person as President of the United States.

I don’t believe in reading biographies of former Presidents who are still among the living. I did read Jimmy Carter’s Keeping Faith, but I’ve deliberately avoided biographies of other living Presidents. A biography is most complete when it covers its subject’s entire life.

There are several President’s biographies I’m looking forward to reading in 2017. They include biographies of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Ronald Reagan. Slowly, I am filling in the gaps.

The ten Presidents that I have read most about have taught me several things. The first is that no one is qualified to be President when they start the job. It is a unique job. In the same vain, no one can really prepare themselves to be President. There are certain skill sets that lend themselves to the office, but they often conflict with other skill sets that would help as well. I keep this in mind whenever I hear someone complain that a candidate is not qualified or prepared to be President.

Reading about Presidents can teach a lot about executive leadership. I enjoy learning how Presidents organize their staff, delegate, and manage their time. It is interesting to learn how a President makes his decisions, and how he manages the stress of the job.

There is one thing above all else that I’ve learned from reading Presidential biographies: I’d never want to be President.


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