“Study history, study history. In history lie all the aspects of statecraft.”
— Winston Churchill to an American student, May 1953
Candidates need to learn not only the political skills of how to win an election, but also the ones related to leading people and governing in a democracy.
Both skills are in short supply as consensus building and legislating have been pushed aside for insult, outrage, and performed tantrums.
If you’re seeking office to accomplish something lasting and govern effectively, then you need to learn more about politics than simply how to win an election.
You need to learn about real leadership and vision, as well as the pitfalls ego and shortsightedness.
And in America one of the best places to look for examples of the good, the bad, the ugly, and sometimes greatness in politics is by turning to history and our presidents.
Here are five presidential biographies I believe political candidates should read.
Note: I am an Amazon Affiliate, which means any purchase you make after clicking links to these books might result in my company receiving a commission.
Ron Chernow’s Washington is a big book and absolutely worth the read.
Many lessons can be learned from George Washington’s life including his service during the French and Indian War, his time in the House of Burgess, his leadership during the Revolutionary War, his critical role in the framing of the Constitution, and the norms and precedents he set as America’s first president.
Given the assault on American history and its active distortion by so-called journalists and phony academics, Washington is a figure some want to ignore. That is a reckless and foolish mistake.
If you read this book it is hard to not come away without seeing George Washington as a great man who was indispensable to very existence of the United States of America.
Had Washington gone into British Navy, been commissioned into the British Army, or perhaps killed alongside Braddock, the course of the American Revolution and the fate of the United States after Yorktown could have been quite different.
George Washington was also a product of his times and Virginia society, which includes human slaves as property.
In studying Washington’s life we see his growing awareness of the contradiction between the ideal of liberty America is founded upon and the existence of slavery.
This short biography of the 7th president is an excellent introduction to the life and times of Andrew Jackson.
This older book and an excellent introduction into the life and times of America’s first president elected from a state that was not originally a British colony.
Robert V. Remini also has a three volume biography of Jackson if you really want to dig into the president nicknamed Old Hickory.
Andrew Jackson, like George Washington, was another indispensable leader for the United States.
His troops victory at New Orleans in 1815 gave the United States complete control of the vital Mississippi River.
This opened up massive territorial expansion for the the U.S., and this westward settlement was also accompanied with the expansion of slavery and removal of Indian tribes, all policies that Jackson did not have qualms with.
Andrew Jackson’s defeat for the presidency in 1824 led to the establishment of America’s first nationally organized political party, the Democracy, that still exists today though called the Democratic Party.
Jackson’s use of the veto as president made the Executive Branch of the federal government a true check on the Legislature.
And Jackson’s absolute opposition to the nullification of federal laws by the states prevented the breaking of the union into a collection of regional countries.
There are plenty of books about Abraham Lincoln and plenty of them are long and scholarly.
This one by James M. McPherson, one of our greatest Civil War historians, is very short (you can read it in one sitting) while remaining scholarly and inspiring.
I came across this in a used book store and it will always have a place in my collection.
This isn’t simply a good primer on the 16th President, it is a great reminder of the challenges Lincoln faced and his determination “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not perish from this earth.”
Without Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 it is more than fair to say that these United States would not exist today as “one nation under God.”
If you’re going to read biographies of presidents, you can’t skip Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
And this single volume biography by Edward Jean Smith is absolutely remarkable.
FDR is the only man elected to the presidency three times — make that four. He accomplished this while also paralyzed from the waist down due to contracting polio as an adult.
He was the first president to show up at his party’s nominating convention to give an acceptance speech – a practice that for better or worse continues to this day.
His landslide elections and his political coattails in 1932 and 1936 absolutely changed the relationship between the federal government and the American people.
FDR’s leadership in the late 1930s gradually prepared America for a war it didn’t want to be in nor could it avoid.
He turned his isolationist country into an Arsenal for Democracy that led prevented Britain from falling to Hitler’s forces, and then to the absolute defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan following America’s entry into the war.
Despite his numerous political accomplishments, Roosevelt’s flaws are also on full display in Smith’s biography.
An affair nearly destroyed his marriage and his political future.
And FDR’s own hubris caused his attempt to pack the Supreme Court, followed by his fruitless vendettas against political allies who opposed that one move.
There is much to learn from reading FDR and learning about his successes, his failures, his virtues, and his shortcomings.
I read this book by Chris Matthews back in the late 1990s when I was first getting involved professionally in politics.
I should definitely re-read it as it was an exceptional book.
You can’t look at politics in the 1950s or 1960s and not see the movements of the Kennedy or the Nixon factions.
Matthews’ book starts with the contradictions between their beginnings, then the parallel courses their lives take as the country enters World War II, as the both enter the House of Representatives in 1947, and their role in major Cold War events.
While Nixon is remembered as the man who was up to to the dirty tricks, JFK and his team were far from pristine in how they acted politically.
In fact I came to believe while reading this book that it was Richard Nixon’s own paranoia about what the Kennedy faction would pull on him in 1972 that led to the Watergate break in and then Nixon’s own downfall.
I recommend this book because it shows that Jack Kennedy and Dick Nixon were leaders who both at times demonstrated greatness while also containing deep flaws even at the height of their political accomplishments.