Friday, January 9, 2009

Forgotten Books: The American President by Philip Kunhardt

Psst. I really hate to admit it, but it's true. A picture is worth a thousand words. Yeah, I don't like it either. I'm a writer, just like you. We’re supposed to be able to paint a picture so vivid in the reader’s mind that the images just leap out and come alive. But there are times when words just can’t do the kind of exquisite justice that a photo can do.

It’s the pictures in The American President, by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, that are more than worth the price of the book. The Kunhardts Three have compiled a rich and extensive collection of photos for this coffee table book, a companion to the PBS series of the same name. They cover all the presidents up to Bill Clinton and, with a publication date of 1999, we get to have vivid images of the impeachment proceedings that easily best the drawn illustrations from the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial.

The book is not divided chronologically as you might expect. No, it’s divided thematically. Here is the table of contents to give you an idea of where the Kunhardts are going.

1. The Heroic Posture (Washington, Wm. Harrison, Grant, Eisenhower)
2. Compromise Choices (Pierce Garfield, Harding, Ford)
3. The Professional Politician (Van Buren, Buchanan, Lincoln, LBJ)
4. An Independent Cast of Mind (John Adams, Taylor, Hayes, Carter)
5. Family Ties (JA Adams, Benjamin Harrison, FDR, JFK)
6. Happenstance (Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Arthur, Truman)
7. The American Way (Jefferson, Coolidge, Hoover, Reagan)
8. The World Stage (Monroe, McKinley, Wilson, Bush)
9. Expanding Power (Jackson, Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, Nixon)
10. The Balance of Power (Madison, Polk, Taft, Clinton)

You can quibble if you want where they put your favorite president (or the ones you love to hate) but the thematic structure works. Some of the groupings are obvious: the four generals in chapter one, the five former vice presidents who assumed power upon the death of their predecessors in chapter six, or chapter eight, the world stage presidents. Some of them are not so obvious. LBJ and Lincoln in the same category? Jefferson and Reagan sharing time with Hoover? What ties Carter with John Adams and Taylor and Hayes? These are fascinating questions.

Each chapter gets the same treatment. There is a general overview that puts the president in historical context and why they were grouped as they were. “In His Own Words” is a sidebar each man gets with famous quotes—or in the case of, say, Fillmore, any quotes. Occasionally, you get some quotes and text on various First Ladies.

But the jewels of this book are the photos, those things that thousands of words can’t quite capture. Obviously, the first few presidents don’t have photos but the portraits are especially good. Starting with John Quincy Adams (president from 1825-1829), the authors include a photograph of every man save William Henry Harrison (he didn’t live long enough). Think about it: there is a photograph of John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, a Founding Father. How awesome is that? It’s not until you get to Polk (1845-1849) where a sitting president was photographed. Here’s what President Polk wrote in his diary: “[I] yielded to the request of an artist named Brady of N.Y., by sitting for my Degueryotype likeness today.” That would be Matthew Brady, who attained fame during the Civil War.

The photos tell much more of what it’s like to be president. There are pictures of the White House during its evolution. You can see the somberness of the White House on the evening of December 7, 1941, and, in the close-up of FDR, what the war did to him. Cut to the Truman section and you get a photo of hundreds of sailors and their ladies on the White House lawn on V-J Day, 1945. The Kunhardts include a progression of portraits of Lincoln and you can see how the young man was also wore down by his own war to assume the visage we associate with him. Various shots of the Capitals are included, as well and you can see what DC looked like 150 years ago and compare them to the spectacle we’ll see in eleven days.

Speaking of inaugurations, twenty year ago, I had the honor of marching the the Inauguration Parade of George H. W. Bush as a member of the University of Texas Longhorn Band. The event really was a spectacle. Without question, a president inauguration is the most patriotic thing we do, better than a thousand Fourth of July celebrations. They are reminders that we are a part of something larger than ourselves.

But, when you get right down to it, it’s all about people. Our forty-three presidents—soon to be forty-four—are real men, with gifts and foibles just like the rest of us. They lived, breathed, laughed, and cried like anybody. This book, with its glorious photos, interesting groupings, and fun trivia help us to remember that real men become president. When times get tough, as they are now, it’s good to remember such thing. The American President is a nice, compact way to cherish and learn about our presidents and a little of our history as we make more each day.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Perfect gift for my husband, a presidential scholar.

David Cranmer said...

I have this book thanks to my mom and it is a great read. I agree, many of the pictures are rare and quite amazing.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Interesting mixture in the forgotten books - I could do with something like this. I can never remember all the US presidents and am always having to check google.

Jacob Weaver said...

I've always been enamored by Lincoln and JFK for some reason. It would be nice to branch out and find out about the other 41. Btw, I'm sure you've probably read it already, but I highly recommend Manhunt by James Swanson about the Lincoln assassination. Great read and lots of information I never knew.

Scott D. Parker said...

Patti - "Presidential scholar" Ahh, one of my dream jobs. I never, ever get tired of learning and studying our chief executives.

David - As a citizen of Virginia, you are steeped in history. I visited in 1994 and loved your state. Traveled Civil War and Revolutionary War sites, starting in Norfolk, up to Gettysburg, down to Charlottesville, and back over to Norfolk. It seemed even the soil spoke history.

Gary - This is certainly a good book to have. Guess they'll update it in a few years to bring in Bush 43.

Jacob - Have Manhunt on my list. My wife's already read it. Also looking to read American Gunfight about the attempt on Truman's life. Speaking of AL and JFK, you know that e-mail that travels around the net occasionally, about all the similarities between AL and JFK? The last one, the joke about Monroe, Maryland and Marilyn Monroe, is totally wrong. Marilyn died in 1962 so, for JFK to be, uh, "in" Marilyn Monroe right before his death would be impossible.

Barrie said...

Great review. Love the creative way they divided the book up thematically.