• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #48: Dead Presidents


Spoiler: They all die.

I have tremendous respect for the American Presidency. Probably too much respect. More than is healthy. As a kid I read everything I could get my hands on about our former chief executives, and as a student engaged in deeper inquiry into the institution, the powers, the history, and the office holders themselves. I'm not an expert, but I can play one on social media. The Presidency to me has always represented one of America's signal contributions to shared governance - a limited monarch, a boss we can fire, the marriage of ceremonial pomp and administrative banality, the embodiment of our sense of self. We look back and call Washington strong and brave and Lincoln smart and honest because that's who we wish we were. I think part of the reason the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania is such a disruptive, upsetting presence is that when we look at the Presidency now, we see sloth and ignorance and bigotry and avarice and vanity. It's a mirror to parts of ourselves we'd rather not see in such sharp relief. And the disrespect for the office expressed by the man who holds it makes it a daily challenge to sustain my own respect, such a long-held axiom of my own civic and academic life.


I thought about attempting a balm to that ache today with a dusty tome of dry presidentalia, but it didn't feel right. Instead I found myself thinking of Brady Carlson's recent book on how our presidents have died and been memorialized. It's a fun, engaging read, full of well-known tales, myths punctured (milk and cherries on a hot day), and unearthed stories. Carlson (who some will recall from his NPR days) is a gifted storyteller, a writer with an eye for the odd compelling detail, and his prose rarely lingers too long in any one corner. I thoroughly enjoyed Dead Presidents, if for no other reason than the reminder that these giants (and more than a few less-than-giants) have all been human, fallible, and ultimately transitory. This too, as my mother often says, will pass.


Happy Presidents Day, y'all. Piss off the guy in there now. Read a book.

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