on 14 October 2011
I mostly enjoyed this book, as others have already said its an an interesting concept. World history during this period is extraordinarily rich and these Leaders were at the heart of many of the decisions that hallmarked the age.I'd recommend it as an excellent reminder of each presidents era, their defining moments and how they got there in the first place,yet I felt it could have been better.
There were quite a few occasions where I think Hamilton failed to delivery, both in his portrait and facts. Truman's legacy,arguably,was the dropping of the atomic bombs, yet this was glossed over, there was little insight into the gravity of such a decision,whether Truman had any inner personal conflict. When Truman discusses the bombing with secretary of war Stimson, they conclude 'soldiers and sailors are the targets, not women and children.' Well, how did we get from that case of affairs to directly targeting the civilian populations of two cities? There's no mention of it.I guess it's assumed we know!
President Kennedy's section left me a little perplexed.Vietnam,The bays of pigs, Operation Mongoose were 'apparently' the work of the hawks, he's portrayed as helpless victim of his administration, an innocent bystander.His assassination managed two lines, Ok, I appreciate space is an issue in this book.
Churchill, whenever he's mentioned comes across as an alcoholic pain in the butt 'who's notions and misadventures had taxed the patience of all who had to work with, and under, him.' On Eisenhower s watch '40'000' Hungarians are murdered in the 56 uprising, this figure isn't even close, as appalling as it was the true figure is a little under 3'000. These are a few examples and there are others. Now don't want to only highlight the bad points because like I said I found it a consuming read, but it fails to give an honest critical assessment of these men.Hamilton says in the acknowledgements that originally he wanted to write a biography of American presidents he admired,and whilst it's fair to say he doesn't admire all of these he's too soft on the one's he does.
on 26 September 2010
I bought this as a present for my son, but couldn't resist a quick look myself - and then just had to read the whole thing before I gave it back.
It's well written, with a very dry, understated sense of humour at times. It gives a fascinating and often startling insight into the personalities of the twelve presidents, and a vivid picture of politics in the last two thirds of the twentieth century. Some revelations too - I certainly hadn't realised that Lyndon Johnson was interested in improving welfare and really didn't want to go to war in Vietnam, but did so mainly to avoid defeat by more right-wing opponents (a recurring, and pretty depressing, theme in the stories). Also shows how intelligence and good motives won't necessarily make a good president (they did for FDR, but Jimmy Carter, probably the "best" human being of the twelve, was an ineffective president, while Reagan succeeded largely by being charming, laid-back and an excellent delegator). The parallels with the Roman Empire are telling and well-drawn.
I recommend this to anyone who has the slightest interest in world affairs, or indeed to anyone who fancies a book of immensely readable mini-biographies.
on 24 January 2012
I found American Caesars a really good book, a fascinating and often opionated view of the Imperial presidency. It's not a bad thing that the author has these views, especially since he puts the truth above it and isn't dogmatic about it, yet there are times where he simply glosses over some inconvenient truths. Hiroshima and Nagasaki merit very little in the Truman chapter, something pivotal to that presidency, and the coups organised and greenlighted by Eisenhower aren't mentioned in any real detail, surely something noteworthy in dealing with the 'imperial' presidency (He does in all fairness mention the coups in Guatemala and Iran, but only in a single sentence. Eisenhower may have been a good leader to the U.S., but given these acts he was a terrrible leader to the these two countries which he so harmed) FDR's chapter is dominated almost exclusivley by the second world war, which reads more like a general history of the war rather than the U.S.'s involvement (this wouldn't be a problem had there not already been such a wide range of books on WWII), and his new deal and other acts are only dealt with in minor detail despite the war only covering half of his presidency, albeit his most memorable part. His chapters on the JFK, LBJ and Nixon were extremely good and the best overall in the book, revealing much I didn't know about these presidents and the America's involvement in Vietnam. The latter half of book is much in the same light, and enjoyable.
In each of the chapters a valuable lesson leadership is presented and one gets the feeling that the author was trying to act in the manner similar to Roman histories such as Suetonius' 'twelve caesars' which the book's structure is based on. For American Caesars is not just a general summer history book, but also an exploration into leadership and gloabl politics. FDR comes across as the ideal political leader, just and fair, but also effective as a leader. Truman, Eisenhower and JFK also come across in the same way and the author presents the time of these four presidents as being America's golden age of leadership. LBJ is shown as a tragic figure who is forced into commiting troops into Vietnam in order to beat the right wing Hawk Barry Goldwater, and thus becomes one of the most reviled U.S. presidents. The presidency of Nixon is shown as being a Shakespearean tragedy, with a shadowy and paranoid leader acting in a horrid manner. Ford and Carter are shown as being moral and well intended men, yet the former as being too simple and the latter to ineffective and more humanitarian than emperor. Reagan comes across as the opposite of Carter, a hawk popular with the population and one who is a poor human being, yet a formidable leader. His succesor Bush snr. comes across as being a compromising figure, putting aside his dislike for various racists and extremely right wingers in order to gain support. Clinton is shown as being an effective, intelligent and good leader, yet a narcassistic, manipulative and immoral. And then comes Bush, the idiot controlled by his much more experienced vulcans. Along the way he also deals with the roles of first ladies, generals and advisors, who often exert a large role behind the scene.
Overall 'American Caesars' was a good general read in history with valuable insights and commentary on leadership and gloabl politics.
on 30 September 2010
Nigel Hamilton has produced a fantastic work, if you want to have a really good snapshot of any of the 12 presidents from FDR to GWB look no further.
As well as the facts about their rise to the white house, in each case it is the little details about their personal lives, which has been a revelation to me, for example LBJ and his womanising and bad treatment of Lady Bird.
This book also confirmed my worse fears about the George W Bush presidency and the fact that it was really the Dick and Don presidency!
The format, based on the classic account of the original 12 caesars, is also a great way to address the subject and the concise structure of the description of each "Caesar" will keep me coming back to these accounts as a future reference point.
on 29 December 2011
This collection of mini-biographies of the twelve presidents from Franklin D.Roosevelt - "the Caesar Augustus of his time" - to George W.Bush - "arguably the worst of all the American Caesars" - provides stimulating background information for next year's presidential election in the US.
It is explicitly modelled on the work of the Roman historian Suetonius, "De vita Caesarum" (translated into English as "The Twelve Caesars"), which chronicled the lives of the twelve emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian, covering the period 49 BC to AD 96. Hamilton's preface informs us that each chapter will tell "the story of a human journey, as its protagonist makes his way to the heart of American power, and there confronts the salient changes of his time."
That sounds rather portentous, but the result is in fact highly readable most of the time, and provides a mine of information about a huge chunk of modern American history and politics. Hamilton is often both firm and fair in his judgments. Richard Nixon comes over as an out-and-out crook, and the second Bush is repeatedly lambasted:
"The Bush Tragedy, as it came to be called, was that however popular he was in his home state [Texas], he had no business seeking to be leader of the free world."
(And it is to be hoped that a sufficient number of Americans remember the extent of the mess that Bush created before they decide overhastily to boot out Barack Obama next year...)
I have important reservations about the format, however. Each chapter is divided into three always identical parts:
1. The Road to the White House
2. The Presidency
3. Private Life
It is one thing to have a clear division between parts one and two, but to separate private and public is a perilous enterprise for the biographer and/or historian, and becomes extremely problematic in the case of President Clinton, given the extent to which the more controversial elements in his private life came to utterly dominate his second mandate.
Another problem is the inevitable repetitions, when the same presidential election is mentioned in consecutive chapters, first from the point of view of the loser, then from that of the winner (Ford/Carter, Carter/Reagan, G.W.H.Bush/Clinton).
And when Ford lost to Carter, we read:
"The president was gutted."
Then, when Carter went on to lose to Reagan four years later:
"Carter was gutted."
The repetition is clearly unintentional, and creates an effect of clumsiness. (The verb "evince" is distinctly overused as well.)
Hamilton also has some distinctly bizarre mixed metaphors:
"...Congressman Bush demonstrated a moral backbone missing in action since he went into politics..."
"Watergate would be the iceberg that sank [Nixon's] presidency, but it was only the tip."
(It took me some time to work out why this sounded so odd: it's because the iceberg-metaphor functions in two different ways, once as a danger to shipping, and once in the context of its proverbial tip - in which case it is not necessarily dangerous.)
And the following is proof, yet again, of the absence, these days, of competent proof-readers, or perhaps the absence of any proof-readers:
"Bill Clinton, not George Bush, would be the forty-second US president."
Obviously, had the first Bush been re-elected in 1992, he would have continued as the forty-first president he already was.
A bit of a mixed bag then. Very informative, but also a very clear example of an original format which, quite simply, works against its subject matter.
on 2 May 2014
This book has many merits: it provides an easy reading concise portrait of 12 presidents since the 1930's. This covers the main part of history where America has influenced the rest of the world in a significant way. at a bit less than 50 pages per president you have most, if not all, of the major events of each presidency along with a sketch of most of the controversies. For the prurient, the revelations of the bedroom antics of the half dozen top performers will also amuse.
The most useful sketches are of the Presidents that have been gone long enough that their careers are less well known than the recent incumbents: Truman is a good example.
However, this does not read as a work of scholarship but more of journalism. The main protagonists are mostly presented as caricatures, especially if they are republicans. The vice-president Dan Quayle is described as "semi-literate" for example. This expression implies difficulty with reading and writing, which is not really compatible with a B.A. in Political Science and a career as a lawyer. Certainly he was a poor choice as vice president as he clearly was largely uninformed about world affairs and came over as a lightweight. The team of right wing hawks in Nixon's administration are presented as crazy "foaming at the mouth" war-mongers; likewise in George W's White House. Again, without defending them or their actions, this is not a scholarly evaluation. It is quite clear that the author is more sympathetic to democrats than Republicans. So am I, but I don't try to present this as a neutral stance. Statements of "fact" are supported by notes which often turn out to be nothing more than opinions or anecdotes lifted from other similar sources.
Overall, the book can be recommended only for those who know how to use a "pinch of salt" when they read it.
on 31 August 2011
What a century it was, in terms of technology of every kind. This book is in a way a survey of men - some of them great and some of them decidedly not - who, through ambition or heredity or chance, found themselves leading the century's dominant nation, trying to use the technology that the times put in their hands to reach an astonishing variety of goals.
What decisions these men, of varying intellect, drive and charisma, had to make - what to do to reorder the world after the Great War, how to respond to the Great Depression, how to handle communism, to go into (or leave) Vietnam, how to get themselves re-elected, how to manage the century's mounting interest in individual sexual/alcoholic/financial misdeeds.
This book was a rollicking good read through a period of history that has been a fundamental part of all our lives. The author has clear favourites, which is no bad thing perhaps, and the parallels with Suetonius are not too laboured for those of us who have forgotten our Roman history.I strongly recommend that you give it ago - it is entertaining,informative,ever-so-slightly prurient and full of fascinating connections.
on 30 August 2013
A real insight into some of the most important modern history, from the perspective of one of the most powerful countries in the world. Written without bias and in laymen's terms, this fascinating history book tells the compelling story of the last 12 presidents of the USA. A must-read.
on 10 January 2012
In two parts, in brief and a complaint.
1) This is a well written extremely interesting book, it covers the most interesting period in American history from pre war to current day and how each President has influenced (or not) the stage of world affairs.
2) However....if you get this as a Kindle read it is frustrating as on my IPad the location is on that awful '%' basis (location 4% 485 of 10,568 - what the hell does that mean?) Why? It is never that much cheaper to buy a Kindle version than an actual book, so why the shoddy presentation? There are numerous footnote number errors, gaps, it is really poorly done. I know that this is not the only book to suffers this way, I feel that the lackadaisical attitude by Amazon will come back one day and bite them hard, people will not put up with this and will start complaining in droves.
on 14 September 2011
Well written and well researched; providing just enough detail of the early and personal backgrounds to support and explain the achievements / failures of each. What made it particularly interesting was the discussion of each's influences, whether early, familial, or political friend or foe.
Hamilton doesn't hold back with his criticism, a good point, and provides sources and authentication. Clearly he has a strong respect for early presidents, when times were mostly more ethical, and almost the opposite for the most recent (particularly the last three republican presidents, where he cites damming evidence).
Each president is neatly summarized into approx 40 to 50 pages.
His prose and style are easy to comprehend without being simplistic and the book is highly interesting from start to finish.