Ready to dive into history and learn more about the forty-four men who led these United (and sometimes not-so-united) States? Check out these definitive presidential biographies!
1 George Washington (1732-1799) President from 1789-1797
There are few figures in American history stand as tall as the country’s first President. George Washington helped lead America during the Revolutionary War, helped create and lead a new nation, and became a celebrity in his own time. One of his most important legacies was the two-term tradition that followed him after he voluntarily stepped down. The capitol of the nation, the $1 bill, the Washington monument, and a U.S. state all bear his name. Bestowed with an almost Olympian stature for centuries, more recent authors have strived to uncover the true Washington from beneath centuries of propaganda and legend to reveal the entire complex scope of his life.
Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner – This single volume work on Washington is the condensed version of the massive, 2,000 page, four-volume tome by Flexner that won a National Book Award and Special Pulitzer Prize. Flexner combines elegant writing with fantastic research to paint a full picture of the First President.
His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis – Ellis’ book is “a fresh portrait focused tightly on Washington’s character.” Ellis examines three periods of Washington’s life, his service in the French and Indian War, his generalship during the Revolution, and his eight years as President and uncovers a man who was roiled by strong emotions and self-doubt throughout his life.
2 John Adams(1735-1826) President from 1797-1801
The first Vice President and first President to lose a re-election, the legacy of Adams is sometimes overshadowed by the titanic stature of his predecessor and successor. On the contrary, I think Adams is among the most interesting Presidents. The man possessed a fiery, explosive temper, a hatred for slavery (of the first 12 Presidents, only Adams and his son John Quincy Adams never owned slaves), and played a crucial role in the Revolution and the creation of America.
John Adams by David McCullough – McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography is incredibly accessible and there is a reason is incredibly popular. It ranks among my favorite biographies of anyone, period. It reads like a novel and covers Adams’ entire tumultuous career and his amazing 90-year life. While McCullough may smooth over some of the rougher parts of Adams, it is still absolutely worth the read.
John Adams: A Life by John Ferling – Ferling admits in his preface that he initially thought that Adams “appeared obsessive, neurotic, unhappy, and, worst of all, humorless” but grew to admire the, admittedly flawed, Founding Father. Ferling paints a more rounded picture of Adams, warts and all. Less Olympian than Washington or Jefferson, Ferling portrays Adams as a bit more human too.
3 Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) President from 1801-1809
In 1962, when John F. Kennedy addressed Nobel Prize winners in the White House he said “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Despite being among the best known Presidents, Jeffersons remains one of the least “knowable.” Jefferson was incredibly calculating, taciturn, and careful with both his personal and private papers so much so that many of those who knew him did not fully “know” him. Considered for over a century to be on the same stature of Washington, Jefferson left behind a legacy that has come under scrutiny in recent years, particularly his relationship with slavery and his slave/mistress Sally Hemings.
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis – Part biography part psychological analysis, Ellis looks to uncover the human that Jefferson was, contradictions and all. Jefferson was a man of undeniable brilliance but also had a darker, vindictive side. He preferred to work behind the scenes, having many political discussions over private dinners and was always one to let others do the talking, quietly listening and watching.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham – Meacham’s fantastic single-volume biography on Jefferson is a very readable and engrossing portrait of the third President. Meacham shows us that Jefferson was a man of contradictions but nonetheless a genius.
4 James Madison (1751-1836) President from 1809-1817
While James Madison is one of the less known Founding Fathers, he played in integral role in the early history of the United States as a key figure in the drafting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, served as an co-author of the the Federalist Papers, and co-founded the first American Political party, the Democratic-Republicans. As Secretary of State under Jefferson, he took the lead on the Louisiana Purchase and as President he led America through the War of 1812.
James Madison by Ralph Ketcham – This is probably the best single-volume book on Madison. Ketcham examines the full breadth of Madison’s career and life. Madison had a small frame (He was also the shortest President in history standing at just 5’4.) and was frequently in ill health and as such never saw battle during the Revolutionary War but used his talents in politics to aid the war effort from his native Virginia.
James Madison and the Making of America by Kevin R.C. Gutzman – Gutzman tries to look more at the man Madison was rather than just his career. This book takes a look at many of the parts of his career from a different perspective including his work on the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.
5 James Monroe (1758-1831) President from 1817-1825
The last of the Founding Fathers, today Monroe is best remembered for the Monroe Doctrine, the American opposition to European colonization of the Americas, and for the capital city of the African country Liberia named in his honor, Monrovia. He also singed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, further increasing tensions over slavery. Monroe was a Governor of Virginia, a U.S. senator, ambassador, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War.
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger – Unger’s book is very well written and quite a fun read. He brings Monroe to life as a cunning and stubborn politician who, while not in the same charismatic or intellectual league as his predecessors, was able to do great things.
6 John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) President from 1825-1829
Adams the first President to be related to another (his father was John Adams). Adams had a long and distinguished career as a diplomat and Secretary of State and ranks among the nation’s best. Adams famously lost the hotly contested, highly venomous, 1824 election to Andrew Jackson. He was later elected to Congress (the only former President to do so).
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel – Nagel uses Adams’ diary (which he kept for nearly years, from 1779 to his death in 1848) and this reads almost like an autobiography. It is unique among other Presidential biographies to peek inside the mind of a President to not only see what he thought about the issues of his day, but what it was like to live in the early United States.
Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: The Extraordinary Post-presidential Life of John Quincy Adams by Joseph Wheelan – Adams was the only former President to return to public office after his presidency. In Congress, Adams channeled the firebrand personally of his father and became a a fearsome opponent to the expansion of slavery, the annexation of Texas, and the Mexican-American War.
7 Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) President from 1829-1837
One of the most intriguing, influential, and controversial Presidents in history, Andrew Jackson transformed the office of the President. Jackson’s forceful personality saw him climb through the ranks of the military, winning renown in the War of 1812. Jackson was both lauded and hated in own time, he frequently dueled people whom offended his or his wife’s honor, traded slaves, and was the first President to suffer an assassination attempt (he proceeded to beat his would-be assassin with his cane). The most controversial parts of Jackson’s legacy was the 1830 Indian Removal Act which forced thousands of Indians from their lands to Western reservations (known as the Trail of Tears) and his longtime support of slavery. However, Jackson remains one of the most widely studied and debated of the American Presidents.
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham – Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography tries to get inside the wild mind of Jackson while following him through his tumultuous career.
8 Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) President from 1837-1841
Martin van Buren has generally been forgotten and his administration was generally considered to be a failure. The exact opposite of the rambunctious Jackson Van Buren was a by-the-books New York politician. He was an intelligent man and a successful politician but his administration faced one of America’s first major economic crises, the Panic of 1837, which he was underprepared for. He was also the first President who’s first language was not English (it was Dutch)
Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer – Widmer’s concise biography of Van Buren paints him as an a man who’s administration was underwhelming but points to a man with a lifetime of accomplishments, a shrewd politician, an autodidact, and a great American deserving of more respect and attention than has been bestowed on him.
9 William Henry Harrison (1767-1841) President from 1841-1841
William Henry Harrison hold the unsavory double-distinction of being both the first President to die in office and the shortest serving President. He died exactly one month after being sworn in from pneumonia. Due to this fact, there is not really any biographies on his presidency but Harrison had a distinguished career in the military and was influential in the development of the American frontier.
Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy by Robert M. Owens – While he died a month into his term, Harrison had a long career on the frontier. This book looks at his exploits in Old Northwest and Midwest and his role in the shaping of Indian policy in the mid 18th century.
10 John Tyler (1790-1862) President from 1841-1845
John Tyler is America’s first “accidental” President and the death of Harrison caused a short Constitutional crisis when there was disagreement whether Tyler should take over the Presidency or simple execute the office as Vice President. During the Civil War, Tyler sided with the Confederacy and was elected to the Confederate Senate and when he died in 1862 he was given a full Confederate “state” funeral.
John Tyler, the Accidental President by Edward Crapol – Crapol argues that Tyler was not the as irrelevant a President as history suggests, but sees him as proponent of Manifest Destiny and as an architect of the growing power of the Presidency, for all the good and bad that entailed.
11 James K. Polk (1795-1849) President from 1845-1849
Polk is famously referred to as the the “least known consequential president” for famously laying out his agenda, promising to accomplish it in one term and then to step down and then surprising everyone by doing just that. Regarded as one of the most effective pre-Civil War Presidents, Polk saw the massive westward expansion of America through the annexation of Texas and the Mexican American War which saw the inclusion of whole or part of seven states. He did not run for reelection in 1848 and retired to his Tennessee plantation where he died of cholera three months after leaving office.
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman -Borneman shows a “President often overshadowed in image but seldom outdone in accomplishment.”
A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry – By the end of Polk’s presidency, the United States had grown by a third, the largest increase since the Louisiana Purchase. The was due to the controversial annexation of Texas and Mexican-American War both of which were key parts of Polk’s platform.
12 Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) President from 1849-1850
Zachary Taylor emerged from the Mexican-American war as a hero and was reluctantly urged to seek the presidency the Whig Party, despite him not having any political experience (the first President to have no prior political experience). His Presidency only last 16 months, during July 4th celebrations, after consuming large amounts of raw fruit and iced milk he became ill with an intestinal illness and died four days later.
Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest by K. Jack Bauer – Bauer does a fantastic, and amazingly in depth and well researched, job on this biography of Taylor. Despite his short time as President, Taylor had a very full life and career and he is a lot more interesting than most people realize.
13 Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) President form 1850-1853
Millard Fillmore clawed his way out of poverty to become a successful attorney in New York. He was only selected as Taylor’s vice president to bring geopolitical balance to the ticket in an era. Among the biggest issues of his Presidency was the Compromise of 1850, which temporarily brought a temporary cooling to the growing tensions over the question of slavery in the lead-up to the civil war. Interestingly, Queen Victoria thought that he was the most handsome man she ever seen.
14 Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) President from 1853-1857
Franklin Pierce is often placed near the bottom in Presidential rankings due to a series of disastrous decisions that set the stage for the Civil War. The Fugitive Slave Act and the Kansas-Nebraska act enraged anti-slavery advocates without decreasing tensions between slave and free states and also caused violence to erupt on the Western border.
Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt – This books shows Pierce as an intelligent and charming man who was placed into an impossibly tense and violent time in American history and as such showed he was fatally ill-suited to the Presidency.
15 James Buchanan (1791-1868) President from 1857-1861
James Buchanan has the unfortunate distinction as being generally ranked among the worst Presidents in history. As tensions between slave and free factions in the country came to a boil, Buchanan was unable to reduce animosities and his inaction over the tensions earned ire from both sides. However, as smart as Buchanan was, he put into an almost impossible position, “His many talents, which in a quieter era might have gained for him a place among the great presidents.” Buchanan is also the only President to remain a lifelong bachelor and is believed by some to have been gay.
President James Buchanan: A Biography by Philip Shriver Klein – Klein argues that Buchanan’s entire Presidency was doomed from the start and that Buchanan was not given the a fair chance by history. He wanted to avoid war at all costs and believed that, while he did not support the practice, slavery was protected by the Constitution.
16 Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) President from 1861-1865
The man, the myth, the legend. Abraham Lincoln is widely considered to be the greatest President in American history. Lionized as the man who held America together when it was trying to tear itself apart, the author of masterpieces of speech craft such as the Gettysburg Address, and as a martyr, Lincoln has rightfully earned his place in the Pantheon of American heroes. The gangly, tall, Congressman from Illinois started from modest means and rose to become on of the greatest Americans, so it is no surprise that there are few books on him. 15,000 books, in fact.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin – This Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece is a biography of not only Lincoln, but of members of his cabinet as well. Goodwin explores the quagmire of incompetence, hostility, and butting personalities that Lincoln masterfully overcame to lead the Union to victory in the Civil War and to abolish slavery. Barack Obama said it was one of his favorite books and it influenced his cabinet selections.
17 Andrew Johnson(1808-1875) President from 1865-1869
In short, Andrew Johnson was never supposed to be President. Johnson was selected for the Lincoln ticket in the 1864 election primarily as a means of reconciliation with the South and because he was only sitting Senator of a Confederate State who did not resign when his state seceded. Johnson is most remembered for being the first President to be impeached (current events have brought him back into the spotlight) in aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination and the onset of Reconstruction. While he did not get convicted in the Senate, Johnson has been consistently ranked low by Presidential historians for his attempts to role back Lincoln-era policies and interfering in Reconstruction.
Andrew Johnson: A Biography by Hans L. Trefousse – Trefousse understands that Johnson was not a good President, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong things. However, this books also looks at the unlikely rise of Johnson out of poverty and his ascension through hard work and loyalty.
Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy by David O. Stewart – this book looks at Johnson’s incendiary relationship with his cabinet secretaries and the events that led to his impeachment trial and acquittal.
18 Ulysses S. Grant (1823-1885) President from 1869-1877
Ulysses S. Grant was the war hero of the Civil War. His victories in the Western theater culminating in the siege of Vicksburg and his victories in the East broke the rebellion and ended the war. It is not surprising that he was elected to the Presidency in 1868 despite having no prior political experience. Unfortunately for Grant and despite his honest efforts, his administration was mired in corruption, scandals, and incompetence.
Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant – Dying of throat cancer and nearly bankrupt, Grant in his last years labored on his memoirs. Published after his death the memoirs were a instant success and Grant’s crisp, to-the-point style makes it one of the best memoirs out there.
19 Rutherford B. Hayes(1822-1893) President from 1877-1881
Rutherford’s election in 1876 was one of the most contested, and controversial, in American history. Known as the compromise of 1877, in which Hayes agreed to remove Federal troops from the South essentially ending Reconstruction. He was a proponent of civil rights and civil service reform. He had an interesting life but his Presidency does not generally leave behind a substantial legacy.
Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans L. Trefousse – A solid biography on a lawyer who started out defending runaway slaves and then, at age 40, joined the U.S. Army and led soldiers though several battles and sustained five wounds.
20 James A. Garfield (1831-1881) President from 1881-1881
James A. Garfield was another short lived President. His assassination six months into his Presidency proved to be most interesting (if horrific) time of his tenure. Shot in the back by a mentally ill man who claimed Garfield owned him a cabinet position, Garfield may have survived the wound if not for medical malpractice from his incompetent doctors causing a fatal infection.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard – An absolutely incredible book for a man who was President for so short a time, Millard’s book reads almost like a thriller. Her description of the man Garfield could have been and the carelessness that led to his death make it a fantastic read and a personal favorite.
21 Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) President from 1881-1885
Arthur was not an exciting President, and many of his contemporaries respected him for it. After he left office a journalist said of him “No duty was neglected in his administration, and no adventurous project alarmed the nation.” His greatest political achievement was the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act mandating most government positions to be awarded on merit, not political favoritism and putting an end to the Spoils System. Arthur’s fragile health and mild political attitude led to his administration being less active than others, but still effective and successful.
The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur by Scott S. Greenberger – Arthur may be one of the least remembered Presidents, but he was an unexpectedly effective politician and his administration has left a bigger mark on history than most people know.
22 AND 24 Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) President from 1885-1889 1893-1877
Cleveland is the only President in history to have been elected two non-consecutive times. He is also notable for winning the popular vote in three popular elections. Like many Presidents of the Gilded Age, his administration has not left a particularly strong legacy but he was respected during his time for his honesty, integrity, and willingness to take on corruption.
An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland by H. Paul Jeffers – A solid biography about a President who was honest and effective, if not the most interesting.
23 Benjamin Harrrison (1833-1901) President from 1889-1893
Harrison was the grandson of the ill fated 9th President William Henry Harrison. His administration fared better though, he admitted six Western states to the Union, brought major modernizing changes to the U.S. Navy, and though unsuccessfully, he attempted to secure further civil rights legislation for African Americans.
Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun – Calhoun argues that Harrison’s administration was a turning point from the less active and weaker administrations of the post-Civil War era to the more powerful administration of the 20th century.
25 William McKinley (1843-1901)
McKinley is a far most fascinating President than most give him credit for. The last Civil War veteran to serve as President, McKinley led America in the Spanish American War, kept the nation on the gold standard and annexed Hawaii as a U.S. territory. He was assassinated six months into his second term and has been overshadowed by Roosevelt.
William McKinley and His America by H. Wayne Morgan – Morgan argues that McKinley was integral to the movement of America onto the path toward world power. McKinley, in his opinion, was a great President who deserves more respect and attention than he gets.
26 Theodore Roosevelt (1859-1919) President from 1901-1909
One of the most popular, intriguing, and most successful U.S. Presidents. Roosevelt’s sickly childhood, psychical exploits as an adult, adventures with the Rough Riders, his advocacy for conservation, and his monopoly busting, have given him a last legacy . He also famously attempted as a third party candidate in 1912 in the Progressive Party (otherwise known as the Bull Moose Party).
The Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy by Edmund Morris – This gargantuan, three-volume work that took the author more than 30 years to complete is the most comprehensive look at Roosevelt’s life you will ever find.
The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century by Clay Risen – This book focuses Roosevelts experience with the all-volunteer Rough Riders that he led through Spanish American War and how the war represented another chapter in American burgeoning global power.
27 William Howard Taft (1857-1930) President from 1909-1913
Taft in unfortunately only remembered by most Americans has the guy who was so fat he got stuck inside his bathtub (the story is a myth by the way). In fact, Taft is the only U.S. President who went on to become the Chief Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Taft was also famous for his friendship, and later falling out, with Theodore Roosevelt and the contested 1912 election.
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin – While it is not a traditional biography, this book tells the dramatic story of the friendship between Taft and Roosevelt and the falling out between them and the 1912 election.
28 Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) President from 1913-1921
Another famous and consequential President, Wilson is most remembered for his leadership during the First World War, his lobbying for the creating the League of Nations, his Fourteen Points plan for post-war peace, and progressive legislation achievements. However, he also fired all black Federal employees and screened the first film in the White House, the Ku Klux Klan drama Birth of a Nation.
29 Waren G. Harding (1865-1923) President from 1921-1923
Never has a President gone from popular to infamous faster than Harding. He was President during the beginning of the Roaring twenties, the first President elected when women could vote, and when he suddenly died of a heart attack in 1923, he was beloved nationwide, until his scandals came to light. The Tea Pot Dome scandal was a bribery scandal that saw U.S. Navy oil reserves secretly leased to oil companies at low rates, Harding also kept a mistress in the White House, and a large bar despite Prohibition.
Warren G. Harding by John Dean – Written by the John Dean, of the Watergate infamy, this book is interesting in that it is a defense of Harding’s policies and administration and argues that he was not as bad as history has portrayed him (but rather he not great, but not terrible).
30 Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) President from 1923-1929
While it is hard to get a read on the man himself, his administration is mostly remembered for being the penultimate lead up to the stock market crash in 1929 and ensuing Great Depression. However, I think that Coolidge was better than most people think, he restored confidence in the White House after the scandals of the Harding years and was a stalwart proponent of racial equality.
Coolidge by Amity Shlaes – Shlaes bestselling look at Coolidges presidency gives a great overview of the man’s life and career and probably will send him up a few peg in your personal Presidential rankings.
31 Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) President from 1929-1933
Known more today for the large hydroelectric dam named after him, Hoover was an intelligent, wily politician who was elected in a time of utter economic disaster. In other words, his Presidency stood little chance from the start. The fated stock market crash of 1929 occurred in the first year of his administration and his inability to deal with the huge crisis lead to his being decisively defeated by FDR in 1933.
Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times by Kenneth Whyte – White’s biography seeks to rehabilitate Hoover as a President who, while not able to stop the Great Depression, he was able to prevent it from becoming even worst. In short, he believes that Hoover was a far, far better executive than most give him credit for.
32 Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) President from 1933-1945
Few Presidents can boast as many accomplishments (and certainly as long of time in office) than FDR. Elected a record three times and serving over 12 years as President, FDR is considered by many to be in the same league as Lincoln and Washington. From his transformative New Deal policies in response to the Great Depression to his stalwart leadership during the largest war in human history, FDR saw America being transformed (but died before he could see it complete) from a major power to world hegemony. His legacy also has to contend with the infamous Executive Order 9066, which ordered the internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans.
Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.W. Brands – This book looks at Roosevelt’s privileged upbringing and his constant advocacy for the disenfranchised through his policies.
No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt – Doris Kearns Goodwin – A truly memorable book. Doris Kearns Goodwin is a fine writer who manages to transform seemingly insignificant snippets of data into compelling reading. This volume covers the period from May, 1939 to April, 1945 and focuses on what was going on in the U.S. through the actions and writings of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and others close to them. It truly deserves its Pulitzer Prize and the four or more other awards and accolades it garnered.
33 Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) President from 1945-1953
Truman was responsible for ending the Second World War, nukes and all, and grappling with America’s new found world dominance as well as with the growing specter of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Truman was not well liked by the Roosevelt administration and had little to do until Roosevelt’s sudden death. Truman also authorized the Berlin Airlift and oversaw the Korean War. Unpopular in his own time, Truman’s reputation has increased in recent years and he is now highly ranked by Presidential historians.
The Accidental President by A.J. Baime – This biography takes a close look at the first four months of Truman’s Presidency, and he struggled to step into the large shoes of FDR, bring the Second World War to a close, and his growing realization of the coming global power struggle with the Soviet Union.
34 Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) President from 1953-1961
“I Like Ike” remains one of the catchiest and most memorable Presidential electoral phrases out there but Eisenhower was much more than his slogan implied. Hailed as a war hero after WWII, Eisenhower (who had no prior political experience) ascended to the Presidency and oversaw the heating up of the Cold War, the economic boom within the United States, and a transition to peace after a long war.
Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith – Smith argues that Eisenhower was a dynamic President who helped transition America to world hegemony and set the stage for confrontation in the Cold War.
Eisenhower Vol I and II by Stephen Ambrose – This huge work from the author of Band of Brothers is an incredibly comprehensive look at Eisenhower in both his long and distinguished military career, as well as his Presidency.
35 John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) President from 1961-1963
JFK’s legend and myth has far outpaced the complex, flawed man he was. Young and handsome, Kennedy’s Presidency was best known for his relations with the Soviet Union and Cuba, and the following Cuban Missile Crisis. This was all overshadowed by his assassination and the decades of conspiracy theories that followed that made him a mythical figure that smoothed over his medical problems and infidelities.
An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek – Dallek tries to cut through the legend to the man Kennedy was. Using newer sources, Dallek paints a picture of a President who, while intelligent and accomplished, was less than perfect.
36 Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) President from 1963-1969
Johnson is one of the most controversial Presidents in living memory. Lauded for his “Great Society” legislation on civil rights, healthcare, and education, but vilified for his role in deepening American involvement in the Vietnam War, Johnson remains a divisive if fascinating figure. Johnson’s realist politics and wild personality make him one of the most interesting President’s to read.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro – This massive, four-volume 3,000 page study on Johnson’s entire life and career and the many achievements and mistakes he made along the way. Caro has even said that there may be a planned book five in the works
37 Richard Nixon (1913-1994) President from 1969-1974
Nixon is one of the most interesting and confounding Presidents out there. Known as “Tricky Dick” since his Senate years for his desire to win no matter the cost, Nixon is best remembered for his controversial secret talks with North Vietnam that extended the war and the notorious Watergate cover up scandal that led to his downfall and resignation. He is also remembered for positive things as well including presiding over the Moon landing and establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.
Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell – Farrell’s excellent, and recent, biography of Nixon is a great overview of the man’s accomplished, and oftentimes rocky, career and life. Some of who Nixon was certainly has echoes of familiarity today.
38 Gerald Ford (1913-2006) President from 1974-1976
The only man in American history to hold both the office of the President and Vice President without being elected to either office, Ford came into the White House among the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Ford is best remember for his controversial decision to pardon former President Nixon, his moving American policy toward detente in the Cold War, and presiding over the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
39 Jimmy Carter (1924-) President from 1976-1981
Jimmy Carter was a good man placed into a difficult time in the United States. The peanut farmer and Georgia governor, Carter defeated Ford in 1976 and is best remembered for pardoning all Vietnam draft evaders, establishing the Department of Energy, and Department of Education, the SALT II and Camp David Accords. He has spent his long post-Presidency working for humanitarian causes.
40 Ronald Regan (1911-2004) President 1981-1989
Whether you either love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan remains one of the most towering, and polarizing, figures in recent American politics. Charismatic and cunning, Reagan was the first President to serve two-full terms since Eisenhower and he brought an end to the tumult of the 60s and 70s. The actor turned governor turned President was responsible for helping end the Cold War, but he is responsible for the notorious Iran/Contra scandal that plagued his Presidency.
Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands – Reagan, the actor turned politician, was a man difficult to truly know. He was so used to being in front of a camera and an audience that it is difficult to find the full man. Brands does his best to uncover the true Reagan by looking at his career and his sometimes contradictory views.
41 George H.W. Bush (1924-2018) President from 1989-1993
George Bush, Vice President under Reagan, entered the White House sailing on his predecessors popularity but also dogged by his predecessors controversies. Bush oversaw the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War as well as the America’s victory over Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham – Meacham uses close access and deep research to paint a full picture of the senior Bush from his WWII service to his CIA directorship to the Vice Presidency to the White House.
42 Bill Clinton (1946-) President from 1993-2001
Bill Clinton was the first President to emerge from the era of Cold Warrior politicians. Handsome, smooth, and “hip”, Clinton entered the Presidency in an era of unrivaled American power. His saw the greatest peacetime expansion of American economic power in history and enjoyed high approval ratings. His greatest controversy was the Monica Lewinsky scandal which resulted in his impeachment and acquittal.
First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton by David Maraniss – This biography was written while Clinton was still in office, and does a good job of covering Clinton’s early life in Hope, Arkansas and his rise to the Governors Mansion and White House.
The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House by John F. Harris – Written well after Clinton’s tenure, this biography focuses on his time in the White House and the various controversies and triumphs that followed.
43 George W. Bush (1946-) President from 2001-2009
Certainly the most consequential and controversial President since Vietnam, the events surrounding George W. Bush’s Presidency shattered the post-Cold War glee of the 1990s. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq inserted America into two incredible difficult environments and changed the landscape of the Middle East. The 2007-2008 financial crisis and Bush’s subsequent response to it made him widely unpopular.
Bush by Jean Edward Smith – Smith is not afraid to question whether Bush is the worst President in American history, and takes on the disastrous decision making but also looks into the talents that Bush had the let him win two elections
44 Barack Obama (1961-) President from 2009-2017
The first African-American President in history, Obama’s election made history as one of the highest turnouts in American history. His Presidency saw an end to the financial crisis, the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Obama dealt with an extremely belligerent Congress that blocked much of his legislation.
Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama by David J. Garrow – Garrow’s book takes a look at how a mixed race kid from Hawaii went on to represent Illinois in the Senate and win the Presidential election in 2008. The book focuses on Barack Obama’s landmark 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that catapulted “the skinny kid with a funny name” into the national spotlight.