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A very helpful overview of the U.S. presidents.

  • Nov 3, 2010
One of the more insidious ways to fritter away your life on the internet is to play Jeopardy online, competing against random strangers for (relatively) small amounts of money. There are few things more satisfying than starting out your day by shutting out perky cincinnatipatti, even though you immediately plow your winnings back into playing more online games.

Of course, if you want to stand a fighting chance in the whole online Jeopardy caper, you'll need to buckle down and face a harsh reality. That "U.S. Presidents" category comes up with disturbing regularity and eventually you realise that it can't be ignored. If you're an immigrant like me, then you need somehow to get up to speed on the 42 presidents pronto, assimilating the various tidbits of common knowledge that cincinnatipatti and her ilk had their entire high school years to soak up. What to do?

Well, to get the basic information down, you could do worse than acquire a copy of "To the Best of My Ability" (The American Presidents) . It's published by DK, a company I had previously associated with travel guide books. The DK travel books are typically pretty decent - they all follow a common template, are written at an intermediate level of detail, and incorporate lots of pretty pictures. TtBoMA can be thought of as a kind of high-level guided tour of the U.S. presidency. Following a brief introduction by general editor James McPherson, the book is divided into two parts. The first section, running about 300 pages, comprises 42 essays, one per president from Washington to George W. Bush, written by "the nation's finest historians". The remaining 150 pages are given over to brief accounts of the electoral campaigns and results for each presidential selection (written by Richard M. Pious) and - one of the book's major strengths - the full text of every inaugural address through 2001. My edition of TtBoMA was published in 2004.

The book jacket promises "engaging thoughtful analyses"; a "handsomely illustrated volume" that "brims with fresh anecdotes, stylish prose, and sharp analysis - a treasure!" "Treasure" is pushing it, but the essays are pretty decent for the most part. With only 7 pages per essay, and all of those "handsome illustrations" clamoring for space, in-depth analysis is not really an option, so most of the contributors focus primarily on the main events of each presidency, providing context and explaining consequences as well as the prescribed chapter length allowed.

Given the constraints, TtBoMA was much better than I expected. There are unavoidable structural limitations - some presidencies were more eventful than others, and some presidents were more complex. For example, even the combined contributions of both Harrisons are nowhere near as interesting as those of Lincoln or FDR. Omitting some of the handsome illustrations in favor of additional text would have been a welcome improvement in many cases, as would relaxation of the allocation of equal length to each contribution. Devoting equal space to the month-long tenure of William Henry Harrison and to the Lincoln presidency hardly seems sensible.

But these are minor criticisms. To the Best of My Ability was an interesting, engaging read, and served its purpose nicely. If it weren't for the odious baseball and football categories, I'd be mopping the floor with the other online Jeopardy contestants.

Regrettably, the book has been of little help in boosting my performance in online Trivial Pursuit, a game whose questions are just a bit too ... trivial ... to be dealt with in a serious book. I can, however, share the following nuggets of presidential trivia:

number of left-handed presidents : 3
number of presidents with facial hair : 10
number of presidents assassinated while in office : 4
number of presidents who died in office from causes other than assassination : 4
fattest president : William Howard Taft, who gained 50 pounds in a two-year period, ballooning to a zenith of 355 pounds. Famously, he had to have a super-large bathtub installed in the White House
shortest president : James Madison, who stood barely 5' 4" tall and weighed only 100 pounds
(perhaps) the most handsome president : Franklin Pierce
the only bachelor president : James Buchanan
3 creepy presidents : Harding, Coolidge, Nixon
presidents who fathered bastard children : Jefferson, Cleveland, Harding
number of presidents who were only children : 0

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review by . June 04, 2001
I join with countless others in praise of this magnificent collection of essays which discuss all but one of the Presidents of the United States. The author of each essay is a distinguished historian who is especially well-qualified to comment on the given subject. James M. McPherson serves as general editor and provides an Introduction which, by itself, is worth the price of the book. He also provides the analysis of Abraham Lincoln. David Rubel assists McPherson in the capacity of editor. Each …
review by . January 01, 2001
This is a great reference book for those who want to check on the highlights of each President's term, but I found it somewhat lacking in details. I guess I was looking for a history of America from the President's desk, and I didn't get it.However it is entertaining enough, and would be a good addition to any library.
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About this book


From the beginning, Americans have loved and hated their presidents, and memorialized them both for their achievements and their foibles. In this collection of essays, written by members of the prestigious Society of American Historians, we're gifted with a lively interpretive history of the 41 presidents to date with an emphasis on their dominant themes and achievements as influenced by their personalities and ideologies.

With the focus on presidential style, Joseph J. Ellis examines the ironies in Thomas Jefferson's ideals and actions, as well as his inveterate shyness (imagine a modern-day president who only spoke at his inauguration and presented all legislative proposals in writing). Robert Dallek discusses Lyndon B. Johnson's contradictions as evidenced in his significant domestic achievements and the terrible failure of the Vietnam War. And in the pieces on also-rans like Grant and Coolidge and the disgraced such as Nixon, these historians often use the benefit of hindsight and scholarship to focus on the more redeeming features of each man. The most recent president covered does not get off so lightly, however, as Evan Thomas devotes an inordinate amount of space to Bill Clinton's philandering and slams him with such adjectives as "calculating, shrewd and slovenly."

The book is packed with photographs, illustrations, inaugural addresses, and memorable quotes ("When Theodore attends a wedding, he wants to be the bride, and when he attends a funeral, he wants to be the ...

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ISBN-10: 0789450739
ISBN-13: 978-0789450739
Author: James M. McPherson
Publisher: Dorling Kindersley

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