Mount Rushmore on a Cloudless Day

Let Us Now Praise Books About Famous Men

Mount Rushmore on a Cloudless Day

What makes a man great? His wisdom, his bravery, his leadership abilities? How much of his fame comes from being in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing?

Of course, we’re fascinated by our presidents. But sometimes, we know very little about them. Noted historian Harlow Giles Unger shines a light on JOHN QUINCY ADAMS. Most of us know that he was the son of President John Adams; if we saw “Amistad,” we remember the sterling portrayal of him by Anthony Hopkins; and who can forget Michele Bachmann’s naming of him as a “founding father”? It may well be that John and Abigail Adams were right in believing that their eldest son was destined for greatness. His ancestors were part of the Norman invasion at Hastings in 1066; they were active in forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta; and, of course, his father helped draft the Declaration of Independence. As a child, the younger Adams met and was influenced by, among others, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. It’s fascinating to read little known facts about our sixth president. He despised political parties, and didn’t belong to one; he was charged with high treason for his abolitionist views, and ably defended himself; he and his wife were married for over fifty years, despite long periods of separation. This biography is a gift to all of us who love American History.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a controversial figure in his day, and the battle still rages as to where he should be ranked among presidents. Beloved by many, reviled by others, his FINAL VICTORY in winning his fourth term in 1944 was by no means a cakewalk. Stanley Weintraub tells the tale with all the drama and suspense of a thriller. Roosevelt was our only four term president; in all that time, he managed to keep secret from the public his handicap, the fact that he’d been crippled by polio. He also suffered from heart disease, and confided to those close to him that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to survive a full term. Yet, with his running mate Harry Truman, he campaigned hard. Winning World War II proved to be only one of the grueling challenges FDR faced in the final days of his life.

No president was more beloved in our day than Ronald Reagan. Now in paperback, this is an intimate portrait of Reagan, as his son reflects on MY FATHER AT 100. Ron Reagan decided to find out about the world in which his enigmatic dad lived as a boy. What shaped this man who was both affable and remote? Why was it that someone so beloved had virtually no close friends but his wife in his golden years? How could the President have no fear in facing down the Soviets, yet go to great lengths to avoid confrontation in his private life? To get the answers, Ron Reagan travelled to the small Midwestern towns of his dad’s youth, and got a new understanding of his father.

Not only was President Abraham Lincoln a great man, but he also lived in a time which brought out the extraordinary talents of his contemporaries. Walter Stahr has subtitled his work on SEWARD “Lincoln’s Indispensable Man”. William Henry Seward was himself a presidential candidate; as chronicled in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s seminal work “Team of Rivals,” he opposed Lincoln, but became a trusted friend. In fact, as Lincoln’s Secretary of State, he evolved into the President’s closest advisor during the Civil War. Seward was a man of great vision, and believed that one day, the U.S. would become a global power. It was he who was responsible for “Seward’s Folly,” the purchase of Alaska. He was far ahead of his time in believing in women’s rights, and opposed the extension of slavery. Seward was badly injured in Booth’s plot to kill the President and the men who were closest to Lincoln in the government; fortunately, he survived to continue his brilliant career.

The Civil War was also a proving ground for Philip Sheridan. In TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD: THE LIFE OF PHILIP H. SHERIDAN, historian Joseph Wheelan chronicles the general’s rise to fame. After eight years as a lieutenant in the peacetime army, Sheridan welcomed the opportunities afforded him by the conflict. He was known for his bravery, ability to lead his men, and his dedication to do whatever he had to do to win; it was Sheridan who first put into practice the scorched Earth policy that so devastated the South. After the war, Sheridan turned his attention to the Plains Indians, first herding them onto reservations, then championing better treatment for them. Finally, he positioned himself as a guardian of Yellowstone National Park, and was fiercely dedicated to preserving its natural beauty.

THE LAST VIKING: THE LIFE OF ROALD AMUNDSEN, by Canadian author Stephen R. Bown, details both the good and the bad about this extraordinary man. During the early 20th Century, when Norway’s daring explorer was determined to conquer the great unknown, the poles of the Earth seemed as remote as the moon. In the two decades before his death, Amundsen was the first person to reach both the North Pole and the South Pole. He was brave beyond a doubt; but he was also involved in unsavory affairs, quarreled frequently, and had a propensity for borrowing money he couldn’t repay.

Whenever I read outstanding biographies such as these, I’m always impressed by how much work goes into the research. Authors dedicate years of their lives to getting the facts right. Luckily for us, all we have to do is sit back and enjoy their books.

Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist and an avowed bibliophile. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. Michall is a voting member of National Book Critics Circle.

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