The author of Don’t Know Much About History and similar titles returns with a sometimes-saucy handbook on the American presidency.
As is the case with other formulaic volumes, this one can weary readers determined to journey through its many pages. After his introductory material on the Founding Fathers’ debates about the nature of the presidency, Davis focuses on each of the presidents, in order, offering subsections like “Fast Facts,” “Administration Milestones” and “Must Reads” (including online sources). He also awards an old-fashioned letter grade to each man. Scoring well are Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Reagan; scoring poorly, an assortment of pre– and post–Civil War executives (Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson—all get failing grades). Davis gives Incompletes to those who served briefly for various reasons (William Henry Harrison, Garfield). In recent times: Clinton gets a B; Bush II, F. The author has found interesting nuggets to scatter along the trail—Buchanan was the first to publish a memoir; Hayes established the White House Easter Egg Roll; McKinley was the last president to have served in the Civil War—and he takes time to explain key historical issues, from Teapot Dome to Watergate to Whitewater to Obamacare. Davis occasionally flashes an attitude, taking a shot at one of Michelle Bachmann’s campaign claims about the Founding Fathers and slavery, noting several historical antecedents for our recent financial meltdown, blasting Bush II for Iraq and other messes, and reminding us that President Obama came into office facing problems equaled only by those greeting Lincoln and FDR. These are not positions that will prompt waves of Republicans to purchase the book, but substantive appendixes add both heft and interest.
The tedious format only occasionally dulls the author’s sharp descriptive and analytical skills.