So it's Presidents' Day, an odd little holiday that celebrates our Founding Fathers, but without any presents, traditional foods, or party hats...unless you count Lincoln's big stovepipe. I may have to start wearing that as my Presidents' Day tradition.
While I'm on the hunt for my stovepipe hat, check out these books about a few lesser-known presidential people.
In this day of instant communication and iPhone videos, if the President of the United States disappeared for five days there would be a complete panic. I'm not even sure it would be possible. But that's exactly what happened in the summer of 1893 when President Grover Cleveland stepped onto a friend's yacht. In complete secrecy, Cleveland had cancer surgery on board and kept it out of the press until an intrepid reporter discovered the truth. Philadelphia Press writer E.J. Edwards got the scoop of a lifetime, but the public believed the president's denials and Edwards was branded a liar and a disgrace. It took 20 years for him to be vindicated and to clear his name. Why a president would hide his illness, and what would motivate the White House to bury the truth, is the point on which this fast-paced book turns.
Younger voters today may not remember names like Wilkie, Clay, Douglas, or Bryan, but to put it bluntly, they are losers. Author Scott Farris knows how they feel – he lost a state congressional race in 1998 and it made him ponder what happens to all the also-ran candidates. Beginning in the 1800s with Henry Clay, who ran for president three times and lost every time, Farris offers an in-depth look at what it takes to be a presidential candidate, and how each fared after the race was over and they were left with tattered campaign banners and no office. It's interesting that in many cases, the candidates were just ahead of their time. If they'd run a few years (or decades) later, they might have won easily with the same policies and ideas that kept them out of the White House initially. In this (already tiresome) election year, it's a bit of a parlor game to guess who the
loser(s) might be by November.
Two men, President William McKinley and the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, lived in very different versions of America at the turn of the 20th century. McKinley was guiding America through an incredible period of growth as it moved into its Industrial Age. Czolgosz was one of many immigrants who felt they were being left behind by a country deeply divided between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Scott Miller deftly weaves their stories together – intertwining them with infamous names of the day like Emma Goldman and Teddy Roosevelt. Despite the horrific denouement in 1901, this is a fascinating tale of titans of industry, political maneuverings, and the poor who were being left behind in a new age, something that should resonate for readers today.
UPDATE: Note that I didn't include any books about Abraham Lincoln. That's because there are too many to choose from. Don't believe me? Check out this incredible tower constructed of 15,000 books written about Lincoln (click here). It's 15 feet high and 8 feet across; much bigger than any stovepipe hat.