I do a lot of reading. And these days, more often than not, I’m actually listening rather than following a printed page because I’ve become a big fan of audio books.
I favor nonfiction and especially enjoy history, geography and science books that help to put a perspective on a particular era.
One of my favorite topics is political leadership, analyzing how past leaders not only persevered but triumphed in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity.
So it should come as no surprise that Winston Churchill tops the list.
Ministers at War by Jonathan Schneer outlines how Churchill not only took on fighting Hitler in World War II, but how he did so by brilliantly leading a cabinet of men that included many of his sharpest critics and rivals.
Abraham Lincoln, of course, did the very same thing in the previous century, as Doris Kearns Goodwin explains in Team if Rivals. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that while Churchill essentially inherited his cabinet and made the best of it, Lincoln actually went out of his way to recruit those with differing opinions and philosophies.
Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln is based on Kearns Goodwin’s book and is certainly worth watching, if for no other reason than to marvel at Daniel Day Lewis in the leading role. But overall, the film barely touches on the surface of the complexity and profundity of Lincoln, in my view.
By the way, both Churchill and Lincoln also shared two other common traits: they were brilliant speakers and each possessed a wry sense of humor.
One of the most underrated presidents in U.S. history just might be Ulysses S. Grant. He is inarguably among the most eloquent, as his memoirs are still held up as the paragon of presidential writings.
Ronald White pays homage to Grant in the biography American Ulysses, in which White dispels many of the common myths about the man as Civil War general (and one of the greatest generals in history) and as U.S. president. It is unlikely, according to White, that Grant had any drinking problem other than for a short while in his very early years while stationed as a soldier on the West Coast. (More than likely this disparaging portrait of Grant was concocted and perpetuated by Grant’s rivals, according to White.)
Grant was a man of quiet demeanor, hard work, honesty. And his treatment of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee in his surrender says volumes about Grant’s generous and honorable character.
Grant’s presidency was riddled with scandals, but none of these were of his doing. And in his years after holding the highest office, he became an unofficial diplomat of the United States, traveling through Europe and Asia.
As he was diagnosed with cancer, he raced to finish his memoirs, because he knew his wife would be dependent on the income generated from his writings.
But perhaps nothing underscores just how well respected he was than the funeral for him in Manhattan, in which tens of thousands of people paid tribute to him, including many Confederate officers.
Both Roosevelts are of immense interest to me. Both were progressive in their own eras: both had considerable health issues to overcome. Both were larger than life in demeanor.
I’ve read several books on cousins Teddy and Franklin. My favorite for Teddy is Bully Pulpit, another entertaining tale by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which outlines Teddy’s rise to power and his relationship with his successor, William Howard Taft (the only president and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in U.S. history).
In The Path Between the Seas, the mind-boggling epic of the making of the Panama Canal, David McCullough also weighs in on both Roosevelt and Taft. Teddy more or less stole Panama from Columbia to get the job started, but it was Taft who actually presided over the critical construction phase of the project.
For Franklin Roosevelt, there are so many biographies from which to choose. But, sticking with the theme of great leaders with strategic and supportive relationships, I’d go with Franklin and Churchill by Jon Meacham.
Yet no relationship was more strategic to FDR than that of Eleanor Roosevelt, his spouse and cousin. Again, Doris Kearns Goodwin comes through with No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
John Kennedy is another of those individuals who survived extraordinary illness throughout his life. Like Grant, Kennedy was a very capable writer, having penned a couple books before taking office. And lines from many of his speeches are still quoted today.
And once again, a strategic relationship comes into play in Kennedy’s life. Bobby Kennedy certainly was JFK’s No. 1 right hand man. David Talbot does a reasonable job painting a portrait of that relationship in Brothers.
I’ve read plenty on LBJ, (Robert Caro is the undisputed biographer with his multiple tombs on his subject.
So that’s just a smattering of political leaders that have piqued my interest as of late. I’ll write later about others: adventurers, iconoclasts and others that I have admired.
Malala and Michelle
As you may have noticed, these books display a pattern: white men. And they are of politicians now long gone.
So I’d like to point out two female leaders — both minorities — that I admire and who are both very much alive today. I recently read their autobiographies and was very impressed not only with their retelling of their lives, but with the eloquence with which they relayed their stories.
I Am Malala recounts Malala Yousafzai’s travails in standing up against the Taliban, which restricted girls from gaining an education in Pakistan. She was shot at point blank range by an assailant of that radical group. She not only survived, she went on to continue her campaign for girls and used the attention paid to her to further her cause, as she does to this day.
Becoming, by Michelle Obama, is a heartwarming, insightful, eloquent book which starts with her humbled upbringing in Chicago all the way to her ascent as the first African American First Lady in U.S. history. She is at once intelligent, insightful and graceful and her writing reflects those characteristics.
It might be easy to dismiss her challenges relative to the what the other figures mentioned here have endured. But that would be simplistic. Michelle Obama’s journey was never easy and, as with the other leaders mentioned, she not only survived, she thrived.
So there you have: a collection of books about and by leaders who, despite their adversities, took on immense challenges. Happy reading.
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