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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Incredible in its scope, but flawed, 18 Jun. 2012
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This review is from: The Presidents: The Transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama (Paperback)
This book seeks to provide an overarching narrative for the American Presidency over the course of the 'long' 20th Century - from the start of Teddy Roosevelt's Presidency in 1901 to the conclusion of the George W. Bush Presidency, in 2008. Whilst the title mentions Barack Obama, I think this is more of a marketing ploy than an indication of what's in the book - given that it was written before Obama began his Presidency, he is mentioned in a concluding chapter, in terms of what his Presidency might herald; he is not dealt with on the same terms as every other President.

Graubard has a couple of interweaving threads running through the book. The first is that Presidents are, for a variety of reasons, fundamentally mediocre individuals. This provides a somewhat refreshing history, as the author goes out of his way to explain the flaws of, for example, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan - men not necessarily prone to especially critical appraisals of their character and Presidency. The second theme running through the book concerns the growing prominence of the Presidency in relation to the other facets of the Federal Government, and its steady monopolization of power, specifically concerning foreign and security policy. This is done with great aplomb, interspersed with facts and humour which both demonstrate the author's deep well of knowledge as well as help the reader digest what might otherwise be a fairly dry, academic tract. And the third theme, not so forcefully made as the others but still present all the same, concerns the importance of 'courtiers' in determining the success or failure of a Presidency - that is, the individuals, be they Cabinet members or advisors, who surround the President.

The tone of the book is mostly quite moderate, with the authors arguments generally well-reasoned, as one would expect from an academic of Graubard's repute, and grounded in fact. The aforementioned themes are expanded upon, and the overall argument is persuasive.

But there are a couple of issues. Firstly, the scope of the book means - necessarily - that a lot is left out. With around 20-40 pages per President, what you have is very much a whistle-stop tour of four-eight years of foreign and domestic policy. As such, I think this is a great book for anyone just starting out, who wants to know more about 'the Presidency' and its office-holders during the twentieth-century, but isn't quite sure where to start in terms of the great tomes you can buy which focus on individual Presidents. This book provides an excellent intellectual overview, of both the office and the men who have held it. For me at least, it has given me some much-needed focus in determining which specific Presidents and aspects of policy I want to know more about, in greater detail.

The second issue is that whilst the book is generally critical of all the Presidents, it is clear that Graubard comes at this topic as a Democrat or, at least, sympathetic to traditional Democrat-Party values. Republican Presidents are often especially incompetent, whilst Democrats such as Clinton are often chastised for abandoning their Party values. Given the book's necessary brevity, this allows for Graubard to cherry-pick facts he wishes to include, to paint a picture more to his own liking. For instance, we get pages dedicated to Lyndon Johnson's domestic programme, with the conclusion that he was a much misunderstood man who accomplished a great deal, whilst Nixon was an irrevocably poor President owing to Watergate (10+ pages), in spite of everything he achieved in foreign policy terms (1 page, at the beginning). I don't necessarily disagree with these conclusions, but given that Graubard presents his book as an intellectualised account of the Office and its holders during the 20th Century, it can be a little surprising when it dawns on you (about half-way through) that whilst he doesn't like Democrats, he REALLY doesn't like Republicans.

That said, this is a good book. It is an excellent starting-point for anyone interested in American politics of the last century and how they continue to drive the politics of the 21st Century. Whilst the bias can, at times, be a little... irksome, the book is by no means polemical, and should be enjoyable to those of any political persuasion.
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