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Bumper crop of new US presidents biographies reflects the challenges they all faced

From John Adams to George H. W. Bush, these seven presidential biographies cover remarkable ground and offer a series of engaging portraits.

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The Accidental President
By A. J. Baime
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
448 pp.

When the World Seemed New
By Jeffrey A. Engel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
608 pp.

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Whichever the reason – fear or jubilation, despair or joy – readers all over the world in 2017 are intensely interested in the office of the president of the United States. News stories every day examine with fresh urgency the powers of the office, not least the strange, almost unaccountable ways the occupant of the Oval Office sometimes reflects and sometimes distorts the zeitgeist of the nation. 

Those readers now have a bumper crop of new biographies of US presidents to read, biographies covering a dozen or more presidents across two centuries and reflecting a whole breviary of the challenges the US Chief Executives have always faced. Those challenges lie at the heart of Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the latest book from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood, which examines with deep research and understated eloquence the rifts and reconciliations of the country's second president, crabby, conservative John Adams, and its third, the aristocratic Thomas Jefferson. Wood's book is a fascinating look at the similarities and differences of these two men who Benjamin Rush described as the north and soul poles of the American Revolution.

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They were followed in office by slight, soft-spoken James Madison, the subject of Noah Feldman's big, groundbreaking new book The Three Lives of James Madison, which studies all the aspects of Madison's complicated public career, as both the main author of the Constitution to the country's first wartime president to the co-founder of the Democratic-Republican Party. Feldman is too lenient on Madison the slave-owner, but he's uniformly excellent on Madison the political creature, which can't help but resonate with the present day. “Americans to this day say they oppose political parties and want their politicians to transcend party loyalty,” he writes in this superb account, calling it a “distinctly Madisonian vision of political concord.” 

Political concord fails to come to mind when the focus turns to the country's hapless 21st president, the portly buffoon Chester A. Arthur, who took office when his predecessor, James Garfield, was assassinated. And yet, by sheer authorly enthusiasm, Scott S. Greenberger in his new book The Unexpected President manages to rescue Arthur from his own reputation as an obscure placeholder and put him before readers as a man who came abruptly into his own best convictions. Arthur may never be a household name, but in these pages he's found a convincing champion.

The President who more than any other brought Arthur's “Gilded Age” to a close and introduced a new era, William McKinley, held office from 1897 until his assassination in 1901, and is the subject of Robert W. Merry's magisterial new biography. McKinley went to war with Spain, added Hawaii and the Philippines to America, revamped the country's trade practices, and, as Merry convincingly argues, established the United States as a world power – and did it all as a soft-spoken backstage operator rather than a showman. We have come to regard true presidential greatness as consisting of boldness, brashness, directness, and flamboyance,” Merry writes. 

Readers reaching the end of President McKinley will be convinced of that greatness, which is a challenge beyond even so talented a biographer as Kenneth Whyte in Hoover, his new biography of Herbert Hoover, whose reputation is as the President who was caught flat-footed by the Great Depression. “As historical figures go, Hoover is a blur,” Whyte writes. “He shielded himself from the scrutiny of journalists, independent biographers, and other strangers.” Despite this, Whyte's account is the most full-fleshed and three-dimensional Hoover readers have yet encountered. 

The man who put Hoover in charge of the postwar United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, Harry Truman, is the subject of bestselling author A.J. Baime's stimulating new book The Accidental President, which looks closely at Truman's first four months in office after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, months in which Truman, portrayed here as a scrappy realist with a good deal of imagination, had to deal with the founding of the United Nations, the settlement of war-torn Europe, and of course the decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan. Truman is for Baime a bellwether of the strain and potential of the office itself; these early days of the Truman administration, he writes, “seem particularly relevant given the global political picture today and all the debate about what the American presidency has or should become.”

That debate raged in full force for President George H. W. Bush, the subject of historian Jeffrey Engel's deeply impressive new work, When the World Seemed New, which focuses on the tremendous challenge Bush faced with the fall of the Soviet Union, “an existential threat that had defined American foreign policy” for his entire life. In Engel's portrait, Bush rises to this challenge with quiet grace: “Faced with uncertainty and unsure of the best response, he paused, considered, and learned.” It's a memorable portrait, once again the best its president has yet to receive. 

All of these presidential portraits do fine and discerning work in wrestling with the intricacies of one of the most demanding jobs on earth. Their subjects make grand gestures, and sometimes grand mistakes, and often their greatest triumphs aren't clear until long after they're gone. Whether that's a comfort or a concern readers will have to decide for themselves.