Review: Gimson's Presidents: Brief Lives From Washington To Trump By Andrew Gimson
In Andrew Gimson’s estimable new book on presidents of the United States the focus is entirely on the character and statesmanlike virtues, or more often vices, which have given definition to the great leaders of American history.
This book is not a comprehensive dive into a national history but a summary guide of the men in control during all of the momentous changes unfolding since the American War of Independence. Covering all of the substantive changes - from the Emancipation Proclamation to the building of the Panama Canal – the book does not dwell on excessive detail. Most readers will approach the book with some knowledge of its principal protagonists, but for me the most prominent were Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The more recent presidents aside, I knew woefully little about the 8th to the 26th Presidents of the United States, with only patchy knowledge further down the chronological line. Opening a window on many decades of US history, Gimson’s Presidents
, is a skilled exercise in entertaining erudition.
The illustrations of the presidents by Martin Rowson are spectacular, capturing the essence of each figure in amusing caricature - from the sheer volume of President William Howard Taft to the unfortunate fate of William Henry Harrison who stood in the cold for his inauguration speech only to catch pneumonia. There is no political posturing from Gimson as to which presidents were right or wrong in practical action, but instead a nuanced approach is adopted as to their effectiveness as leaders. The writer emphasises how the US has not enjoyed a raft of elite leaders since the earliest days of the Founding Fathers.
The most recurring character traits of the presidents in this book are the invariable opposite of outstanding or exceptional. The pragmatics of not rocking the boat or making enemies seems to be the most effective way to get to the White House. Gimson persuasively demonstrates how many of the presidents who have faded into obscurity were utterly hopeless or corrupt. The illusion I had harboured on opening the book, of an America which, on the whole, ensured vibrant and exceptional moral leaders such as Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR, was utterly shattered by its conclusion.
I could not recommend the book more highly for any casual reader interested in learning a little more about American history. It is effortlessly readable and leaves the reader with much to consider, including the constant outrage at some of President Trump’s actions. Is he really such an anomaly in the role of president? After reading this book I’m not so sure anymore...
Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump
is published by Penguin