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Both highly informative and irritatingly clumsy
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.