• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #5: Hail to the Chiefs, How to Tell Your Polks from Your Tylers


Or your Trumps from your Jacksons

I've collected presidential biographies for as long as I can remember. I have just about everyone, with plenty of other political leaders too. Spoiler alert: we'll get to plenty before the year is out. I also have shelves full of compendiums of presidential lore at varying levels of scholarship and credulity. One of my all-time favorites is Barbara Holland's quasi-satirical look at our first forty chief executives. Holland brings a dry wit with her history, telling us that Jefferson introduced Brussels sprouts to America and dared us to imagine a world without the swivel chair. We learn that Benjamin Harrison had a handshake "like a wilted petunia" and Van Buren liked to wear yellow gloves and orange cravats. She spends all of her last chapter, on Ronald Reagan, outlining the plot (such as it was) of Bedtime for Bonzo.

It's informative and fun - tons of facts and honest history packaged with jokes and light wisecracks about the character and physical appearance of our former presidents. I'm not sure what on earth she would have to say about the guy we call president today.

Published in 1990 when I was fifteen, this book was essentially my primer on little-known presidential facts. Some high school friends will recall that I used to challenge them to stump me on presidential trivia. I'm sure it was a pretty boring game for them, but I enjoyed it. Mainly because thanks to Barbara Holland, I know how to tell my Polks from my Tylers.

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