American Caesars: Lives of the US Presidents, from Franklin D Roosevelt to George W Bush by Nigel Hamilton

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American Caesars: Lives of the US Presidents, from Franklin D Roosevelt to George W Bush by Nigel Hamilton

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A look at twelve consecutive American presidents in just enough detail. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 608 Date: July 2011
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099520412

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The premise is simple: take twelve men (and unfortunately they are all men, but that's not the author's fault) who have achieved high office and look at each of them. Firstly, take a look at the road to the high office, then how they performed once they reached their goal and finally a look at their private life. Suetonius did it first when he wrote The Twelve Caesars and now Nigel Hamilton has taken the same journey with American Caesars, a remarkably in-depth look at twelve consecutive American presidents from the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, starting with Franklin D Roosevelt and finishing with George W Bush.

Some quick maths suggested that there would be about forty pages for each President and my initial thought was that the result could well be superficial and a regurgitation of already well-known facts and conclusions. I was wrong. President Kennedy was assassinated on the day that I had my college interview and since then I've had an obsession with modern American politics: post Eisenhower I'm reasonably well-versed but pre-Kennedy a little more flimsy. The book almost had to live up to the expectations of two readers.

Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry S Truman emerged with some flesh on their public and private bones, with the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine (phrases which are regularly bandied about – one suspects with little knowledge of what they actually mean) concisely explained and set in the context of world events. The Truman Doctrine was a particular eye-opener for me, explaining as it did the change – almost a volte face – in America's approach to its position in the world. A good companion read here would be Churchill's Bunker: The Secret Headquarters at the Heart of Britain's Victory by Richard Holmes looking, as it does, at WWII and its background from a British point of view and examining how the UK's place in the world was moving in the opposite direction to that of the USA.

Eisenhower came to life – in my youth he seemed to be known for what he had been rather than for what he was. His work towards racial integration has perhaps been overlooked (the Kennedys tended to make more noise about it) but equally he wasn't infallible – witness the rise and influence of Senator Joe McCarthy. Like many men who have charm and charisma he was tempted by the fruits and wasn't entirely faithful to his wife. Interestingly he initially intended to marry Gladys Harding, a fellow high-school student but her father intervened on the grounds that That Eisenhower kid will never amount to anything. A good companion read here would be Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy.

I felt certain that a short piece on Kennedy would produce nothing new, but I was surprised, perhaps not by new information but by a light shone into some dark corners, such as the killing in cold blood of President Diem in Vietnam and the effect that Kennedy's decision to become involved in the country would have on America's future. Kennedy's assassination merits (fortunately) just a passing mention. His private life is as colourful as one might expect – and with a possible marriage which might not have been legally closed it's entertaining to wonder how he would have managed in the Clinton era. For more on Kennedy we can recommend Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot and for an excellent look at the most nail-biting thirteen days of his presidency we don't think that you can do better than One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Krushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs.

Johnson comes through as being far more uncouth than history has generally painted him (no – I'm not going to tell you - read the book) but driven on the subject of poverty. Hamilton's great skill is to present facts and allow the reader to look at how they interact. For instance, had Johnson withdrawn from Vietnam would he have being able to finance his dream – bringing poverty in America to an end? For an immense and meticulously-researched biography of an often misunderstood campaigner we can also recommend Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable. For a look at the first twenty four hours of the Johnson presidency we can recommend The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After by Steven M Gillon.

Like Kennedy many trees have died for the cause of telling the story of Richard Nixon. I followed the story of his downfall avidly at the time. Once again I expected nothing new but appreciated the way that Hamilton brought out the essence of the man – the secretiveness, the fact that he eschewed the Oval Office in favour of a less obvious workplace. I was also spellbound by the light he shone on Henry Kissinger. For more on Nixon we can recommend Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein.

It always struck me that Presidents Ford and Carter were in the White House because they weren't Richard Nixon rather than because of who they were or what they stood for. It was over six years before the ripples from Watergate ceased to pass through American politics. And then we came to Ronald Reagan. If I had to pick a weak part of this book it would be the section on Reagan, but then how much of that is down to the man himself I'm not entirely certain. Trying to know him seems to have been like trying to catch fog. Hamilton does capture well the delicate touch which he applied to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

George H W Bush will probably always be known as the father of… and much of his administration (and those who peopled it) are interesting because they would appear later or their tactics would resurface tenfold. A former Director of the CIA (for more on the CIA we recommend Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner) it seems surprising that he reached the presidency – in fact elected office of any sort. History will treat him more kindly than his son, but that's hardly surprising, and had it not been for some sort of failure of nerve, of health, of will towards the end of his presidency his term in office might be thought of quite favourably.

As he left office one thing surprised Bush senior: he never thought they the American people would elect Bill Clinton. Bearing in mind Clinton's history of sexual peccadilloes stretching way back into Arkansas it's not only surprising that he was elected, but almost unbelievable that he put himself up for election and his presidency was to be constantly over-shadowed by discussion of his sexual antics. As Nixon gave America Ford and Carter it was to be the fact that the country saw Clinton (and by extension the Democratic candidate in the 2000 election) as untrustworthy which delivered America to the no-so-tender mercies of George Bush.

It's all too fresh for me to need to spell out the horrors of the Bush administration but Hamilton does it to perfection. If the part on Reagan was the weakest part of the book then the section on George W Bush was the best. It's covered in excoriating detail and is a superb piece of writing.

I've suggested other reading which you might enjoy but that doesn't mean that the book is inadequate without further research. Even for someone who knows quite a bit about the subject it was a superb read. I read it straight through, but it's equally possible to cherry pick and read about the presidents which interest you. It's a book to keep and refer to for anyone who has an interest in America in the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

You might also appreciate Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

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Booklists.jpg American Caesars: Lives of the US Presidents, from Franklin D Roosevelt to George W Bush by Nigel Hamilton is in the Top Ten Books on President John F Kennedy.


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Colin Bullen said:

I feel that the book is not to be recommended. I was taught that historians should be objective but this book displays pure left liberal bias. Churchill is dismissed as an alcoholic who didn't even research or draft his own books, Israel is condemned outright, even to the extent of being blamed for being attacked by the Arabs and every enemy of the West is excused as being provoked by our own so called unreasonable behaviour. Only for readers of the Guardian.