Reading Our Presidents

Recently I had the occasion to read the diary of President James K. Polk. This was the first time I had ever read a book written by a president, and although I was reading for a specific topic (the history of Oregon), I found myself fascinated by the intricate political details even when they were not directly related to Oregon. Polk had a determination (if not stubbornness) and single-mindedness of purpose that surpasses most of the rest of us. I was struck with this thought: what if most presidents, if not all, were extraordinary men instead of merely politicians who had finagled their way to the top? I admit to being rather cynical about politics in general, and politicians in particular, but reading this diary gave me hope that our country has been governed by some truly great leaders.

At the bookstore, we have a few customers who are reading their way through the presidents. One is an emigrant to the United States who wants to learn more about the history of his country. He works full time and so can’t go to school, but has decided that reading the biographies of forty-four presidents will give him a full view of our country’s history.

Another customer is reading the presidents in chronological order, as a sort of narrative of the United States. Yet another is only reading books written by presidents: journals, memoirs, political essays, letters, history, true adventure, military history, even fiction and poetry.

Presidents have gained an almost mythical status, and we enjoy stories like Washington’s apple tree even though we know there’s no basis in fact. Recent best-sellers like A Team of Rivals and Killing Kennedy demonstrate the continued interest in mainstream culture. So, if you have not read a presidential biography or memoir recently, now is a great time to get started. Why? Well, it might be good to be familiar with one or two because before you know it, we’ll be getting to the starting gates for the 2016 election!

[originally published in the High Points magazine, the current online version of which can be found at ]