American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush

  • Nigel Hamilton
  • Yale University Press
  • 624 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • August 24, 2011

A British historian borrows a template from Suetonius in examining the last 12 presidencies.

Reviewed by Robert M. Knight

Once in a time long, long ago, a biographer known as Suetonius took a long look at the lives of a dozen Roman Caesars, from the sublime (Augustus) through the ridiculous (Caligula, Nero) and on to the obscure (Domitian).

Enter a present-day British biographer who writes not only biographies but also on how to write biography. Nigel Hamilton uses Suetonius’s style as a template for discovering who the last 12 presidents of the United States really are or were. They go from the sublime (Franklin D. Roosevelt) to the ridiculous (George W. Bush). None is obscure.

Would that Hamilton had written 12 books instead of one. He admits in his acknowledgements that he was loathe to go through a series of editorial cuts — “the heartbreaking task of self-editing, or self mutilation” — in forced collaboration with his editor, Jorg Hensgen. Hensgen won, but not by much. In a random sampling of 62 sentences from American Caesars, I counted exactly one simple, declarative sentence.

Here’s how Hamilton describes an example of John Kennedy’s philandering during World War II: “More worrying still, in the case of a woman being investigated as a possible German spy, the junior officer was found to be working in the office of the chief of naval intelligence, raising the possibility of a scandal neither the navy nor the ambassador to Great Britain [JFK’s father] were keen, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, to see explode.”

As in almost any sentence that appears to be going in six directions, the root cause is a shield many defensive writers throw up to protect themselves: Its passive voice. We find passive voice in “was found to be working.” Had Hamilton turned the sentence into active voice (the subject performing the action, not receiving it), the sentence would have fallen into digestible, bite-size pieces — without in any way writing down to the reader or tarnishing his own image as a scholar.

Too bad this book is overwritten because it otherwise reflects historical precision and erudition. But it loses the lay reader, the voter who might benefit from its good history and maybe many a scholar. Hamilton repeatedly fails to take advantage of the Anglo-Saxon core of English. This cafeteria of facts, opinions and quotations offers lessons and ammunition aplenty for the left-leaning reader. Despite Hamilton’s obvious pique as he describes the lives and presidencies of “Dubya” and Ronald Reagan, he does not give liberal presidents like Jimmy Carter a free pass.

Hamilton writes that the one-term president had no chief of staff; instead a “ ‘spokes of a wheel’ approach to command (as Carter called it), with himself at the hub of a diffused (and often confused) White House administrative and command structure … but Jimmy Carter was constitutionally unable ever to admit error, then or later.”

With his disregard for the pitfalls of abused English, Hamilton adds to the reader’s burden by repeating overworked adjectives and adverbs. At least three presidents had present or past girlfriends who were “stunningly beautiful.” Throughout the book, where Hamilton would have normally referred to “the president,” he instead uses “the Caesar.” As if the reader didn’t get the point the first time, that Hamilton is following Suetonius, or that the reader is dumb enough not to know that America has evolved into an empire.

Further, Hamilton displays a maddening habit of introducing characters that Americans under 50 would not know unless they were students of history. He introduces “Thieu” without explaining that Nguyen Van Thieu was the last prime minister of South Vietnam. He quotes “the eminent Indian scientist Dr. Swaminathan,” who called Carter “the American Ghandi,” without providing the scientist’s first name or even his initials (M.S.).

Hamilton commits errors of fact that are irritating and dangerous enough in journalism — history without perspective — but inexcusable in history, which rarely faces constant, heavy deadlines. He writes that Gerald Ford had the shortest tenure as president of any during the 20th century. Warren Harding beat him by three weeks. He refers to the president in 1912 as “Robert Taft,” when he obviously meant Taft’s father, William. He called George W. Bush “George Bush Jr.,” even though Bush has one less middle name than his father. And — take it from someone who has invited typos by the dozen into his own books — the Yale editing and proofreading staff should blush when a young G. H. W. Bush flies off the deck of U.S.S. San Jacito instead of San Jacinto.

Do these small sins contribute to bad history? Of course not. But because of the breadth of his subject, Hamilton is already forced to rely on secondary documents as sources, quoting those who write history from primary sources. As any historian will tell you, primary sources are almost always the best sources; the most authentic, the most untainted from being passed from one historian to another.

Hamilton can only hope that the biases of those he has quoted balance each other. For instance, he reprocesses some scathing criticisms of the G. W. Bush (a.k.a. Dick Cheney) administration that should make the people who voted for them blush. But without knowing much about the historians and memoirists he quoted, the reader doesn’t know what their agendas were.

Scrutiny asks that a true source be found even for something as harmless as this: “ ‘Nixon’s a shit!’ Ford’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft — a man who never cursed — was heard to exclaim on hearing the news” that Richard Nixon took a private trip to China three days before Ford was to face the 1976 New Hampshire election primary. It is the “was heard to” that contributes heavily to hearsay.

According to a footnote, the Scowcroft quote come from “Mieczkowski, Gerald Ford, p. 312.” The bibliography takes the reader to “Mieczkowski, Yanek, Gerald Ford, and the Challenges of the 1970s (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2005).” Must readers dig further to learn that Mieczkowski is a professor at Dowling College who earned a doctorate at Columbia University? If they go to that much trouble to determine who he and literally hundreds of other sources are, they might as well plow ahead and get their own doctorates.

Readers who manage to get through to the end of this book will be rewarded by a solid, in-depth review of the 12 presidents who preceded Barack Obama. And they will be exposed to a thread that runs through the book: how each had to deal with a malignant knot of ultra-conservatives and their progeny. This narrow right wing grew from the early-1800 roots of the Know-Nothing Party. Its adherents tried to sabotage every one of rthe presidents in this book, even those with whom they mostly agreed.

Such a thread becomes apparent only if one reads the whole book, but perhaps it is best if readers instead treat American Caesars as a cafeteria.

A veteran journalist and teacher, Robert Knight is the author of Journalistic Writing: Building the Skills, Honing the Craft (Marion Street Press, 2010).

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