Was James Buchanan the worst president ever? (I’m sorry – I refuse to copy the title’s punctuation.) Maybe he was. Maybe not. I’m not sure this author is persuasive enough to make me agree with him.
Part of it is that he takes large chunks of a not-very-long book into discussion of topics that have nothing whatever to do with Buchanan or his fitness, such as a long chunk about a quarter of the way in about how he became interested in presidents in general and Buchanan in particular. Because Strauss loved sports statistics, you see, his father gave him a book about presidential trivia. Wait, what – ? (Also, if I were his daughter Sylvia, I am not sure I’d speak to him for quite a while after reading this. Sylvia does not come off as a very appealing person. Who knows – maybe Strauss used the same gimmick as William Goldman did in The Princess Bride and the daughter was fictional.) The beginning of the presidency in question doesn’t come until the sixty percent mark; the first 60% of the book is spent on the history of slavery and the country and the previous fourteen presidents. Oh, and the first sixty-odd years of Buchanan’s life. It seems to be a symptom of the fact that there just isn’t that much info about the man; in order to flesh out an entire book it had to cover him from birth, however irrelevant his childhood might be to how good or bad his presidency was.) There’s a lot of what really feels like padding; without much effort, this book could have been trimmed of 100 pages. Or cut in half.
Also padding-like is the relentless repetition. Treating chronology with blithe disregard, the author loops back around and around to the Dred Scott Decision, or the death of Ann Coleman (the beloved of the young Buchanan), or the death of Pierce’s son, or that revenue cutter named after Harriet Lane, or Harper’s Ferry…
Another problem I had with the book is that he leans, very heavily, on the few previous biographers there are out there, quoting from them liberally. It’s to be expected, I suppose, given how little there is about Buchanan out there, but it happens often enough that it begins to feel like simple regurgitation. It’s pretty funny when he disparages one biographer’s ability to “present an engaging story”.
And really, I don’t think the popularity of a president’s first name is exactly relevant when trying to determine the best or worst. It’s not like “Abraham” has been one of the top hundred baby names over the past hundred years (I checked).
The writing … This might sound hypocritical, given that I have a decent vocabulary and like to use it when I perhaps don’t really need to, but I think I know when to stop. I truly, sincerely hope I’ve never been guilty of a pompous sentence like “My contrarian antennae had been raised to their acme.” Things like “Litchfield, a town nearby Yale” are not only awkward but inaccurate; New Haven is over an hour from Litchfield. The Masons are referred to as “a somewhat secretive organization”, which is like saying Pulp Fiction is somewhat profane. I’ve never understood “horse riders”. And it seemed like a whole lot of sentences featured a minimum of three or four commas. (I’m sorry, I have to use one more quote, which is both a great example of this and also of yet another thing that was reiterated over and over: “When it became clear, though, that eventually, with all the westward expansion, the South would turn from an equal section to a minority one, abolitionists, who had just been a nuisance, started really bothering Southerners.” Seven commas.) Sometimes there are dashes. I’m not supposed to use quotes from the advance copy, so I’ll stop there, but I’ve gotten in the habit of putting one note on particularly odd or off passages when I highlight them on the Kindle: “wut?” There were a lot of “wuts” in this book.
One more thing that left me a bit gobsmacked was a quote from a former university history professor that “They certainly didn’t have the word ‘gay’ back then” … Um. They kinda did. It had a different primary definition “back then”. The author ponders how, although there is conjecture that Buchanan was homosexual, he was never rumored in his own time to be dating another man. How surprising.
He compares Thomas Hart Benton’s daughter to Kris Kardashian. I … *sigh*
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.