Eleven presidents examined closely for their most salient errors—but all viewed within the contexts of their personal histories and their times.
Cullen, who has previously held forth on U.S. history (The American Dream, 2003) and popular culture (Born in the U.S.A., 1997), begins and ends with bite-sized essays on, respectively, the president we want and the president we need. In between are some of both. All 11 of them have human weaknesses—sometimes endearing, sometimes debilitating—that contributed to their successes and failures. If the author can overstate his case (was George Washington’s fumbling with his eyeglasses in 1783 as consequential as Cullen argues?), he can also present complex events with lucidity. John Quincy Adams may have been an ineffectual president, but his firm anti-slavery positions in the House were pivotal. Chester A. Arthur betrayed political allies to become vice president. FDR tried to alter the structure of the Supreme Court. LBJ played fast-and-loose with election laws in his first campaign for U.S. Senate. President Ford pardoned a crook. President Reagan traded arms for hostages and funded an illegal war (but we still liked him). Early in his first term, President Clinton (a man too randy for his or our good) unwisely pursued health-care reform, perhaps to appease his wife, who was furious about his serial infidelities. And the current President Bush has, so far, committed two egregious errors: invading Iraq, and failing to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina. The author is an amiable and informed companion, though he sometimes loses track of what he’s said. He describes JFK as “an empty suit,” then, near the end, declares, “It is not possible to elect an empty suit President of the United States . . .” He admires Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln but calls George W. Bush “among the worst” of all presidents.
Old rather than bold news, written with conviction.