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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 10/12/20

Good morning,


We have a whole section of our library devoted to the American presidents. They are an interesting crowd, some great, some pretty darned good, some only so-so, some inept and a few truly bad rogues. Reading their stories is an insight into the social history of the times, the politics of the era, and the great issues of the day. They are one of the more interesting ways to read history. That said, I confess to something about biographies. Most are long tomes and are burdened by long discursions into the subject’s childhood and ancestry. While interesting, the history of the person’s grandparents and their childhood experiences in school are eminently skimmable.

While I believe that we are all flawed beings, I confess to having a few heroes particularly from the early years of the American experiment (roughly 1773 through the advent of the Age of Jackson). I feel I know many of them personally, as individuals, with all their strengths and weaknesses, after having read so much about them. Here are some of my favorite presidential biographies of this most remarkable of eras, many of which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and/or glowing reviews:

• George Washington is both the best known and the most enigmatic of the early presidents. James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn wrote a wonderful short biography, George Washington. Ron Chernow wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning, Washington: A Life. It’s great, albeit long. Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington is a shorter, and excellent, one-volume biography. If you want to spend the next six months of the COVID era poring over the definitive, yet overly dense, Flexner four volumes, go for it!

John Adams, by James McCullough, is a Pulitzer Prize winner and it reads like a novel. It is one of the best biographies you can read. Say what you will about the indispensable nature of George Washington, the writings of Thomas Jefferson, and the brilliance of Hamilton and Madison. But John Adams was the engine of the revolution, called “the colossus of independence” by Jefferson. In many ways independence was the result of his sheer force of will. He was funny, self-effacing, obsessed with duty, responsibility and hard work. While we have all read of Jefferson’s library, Adams’s was similarly learned and well-read. His relationship with the wonderful Abigail Adams, evidenced in part by their correspondence on all things personal, political and existential, stands as one of the greatest collections of love letters in history. Their partnership—one that some of us are fortunate enough to enjoy—was a lifelong romance. Abigail Adams deserves the moniker of “Founding Father” (or “Founding Mother”) herself.

• There are so many excellent biographies of Jefferson. Joseph Ellis’s American Sphinx is a great character study. It won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. Dumas Malone’s six volumes are comprehensive, but turgid and don’t address the new scholarship regarding the Hemings saga. Back when I was in high school, my uncle gave me a copy of Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. For my money, it’s the most important and affecting of the biographies. It was groundbreaking, iconoclastic and brave. Professor Brodie (yes, a Bruin and one of the first female history professors at UCLA) both helped introduce a new genre—psychobiography. And the book provided evidence of Jefferson’s fathering of Sally Hemmings’s children. She was pilloried for this outrageous claim, which was later supported by DNA evidence.

• Madison. I’m going to technically comply here and suggest Founding Brothers, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, by Joseph Ellis. It covers Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Burr, and Jefferson as well. But Madison plays a significant role. James Madison, by Richard Brookhiser, is a short read and good introduction to the person who, more than any other founder, was the “writer” of the Constitution (whose notes on the proceedings are the only detailed real-time extant annals of the Constitutional Convention). The book James Madison, by Garry Willis, is one of the American Presidents series, and a good short introduction. James Ketcham’s James Madison: A Biography, is allegedly the gold standard; but I haven’t read it.

• John Quincy Adams. Not nearly as well-chronicled of the early presidents. JQA is one of my favorites for so many reasons, primarily his pre-presidency and post-presidency years. Note: Fareed Zakaria agrees with me! He was arguably the most prepared president ever, raised by the great John Adams, for the job. He was a noted diplomat and as Secretary of State was the driving force for the Monroe Doctrine. His public self-effacement, coupled with his supreme confidence in his own ideas and political bloodlust, seem genetically transmitted from his father.

Paul Nagel’s John Quincy Adams, A Public Life, A Private Life, was the first new biography, in 1997, in a long time. In his declining years as a member of the House, Adams fought against the “gag rule” regarding slavery, and advocated in the Amistad case. He was unsparing in his criticism of those who defended slavery or succumbed to the politics of indifference to this cruelty. I continue to owe Peter Weil thanks for gifts of several books, most notably John Quincy Adams, Militant Spirit, by James Traub. As Louisa, his wife, noted, JQA should be found “exasperating, tendentious, self-absorbed and yet, in the end, magnificent.” Robert V. Remini, a National Book Award winner and the great biographer of Jackson and Webster, write one of the American Presidents series on John Quincy Adams. Adams was by nature conservative but a believer in an activist government, with responsibility to better the lives of its citizens.

More presidential biographies will be discussed in subsequent Musings.



The other day a friend said that the left riots and burns, but not the right. Hmmm…

My take: There are protesters on the left with legitimate grievances (actually, grievances primarily on the grounds of racial inequities and the need to improve our criminal justice system—not issues of right and left). Some of them may have committed acts of vandalism and that’s wrong. Destroying property, particularly that of small business owners as was done in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, is wrong and illegal. That said, the vast majority of these protesters are not also “rioters,” as our President would want us to believe. There no doubt are opportunistic criminal and anarchical elements drawn to these protests but, again, the protests are grounded in legitimate grievances that are protested peacefully.

But the radical right, which produced Timothy McVeigh, the Charlottesville violence, the attacks on synagogues and multiple other racial-related acts of terror, has lots of guns and lots of anger. There is no legitimate grievance here (well, other than some claim of “making America great” or “maintaining our way of life”). They are not protesting something as important or pervasive as long-term racial injustice. Many are like the “Proud Boys” or the “Boogaloo Boys” or followers of David Duke or “organized militias” (whatever that means, but I’m pretty sure not what the founders were talking about). Last week a right wing militia group was arrested for planning to kidnap the Governor of Michigan. I worry that this is a precursor to more visible right wing extremism in coming weeks and months. They certainly are tacitly (and not so discretely) encouraged by our Supreme Leader.



As requested, here is the link to books I and others have recommended over the past seven months (titles are not italicized in this link and they’re presented chronologically): I’m working on dividing them into easier to scan categories…

Have a great day,


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