Thursday, October 9, 2014

Book Review: Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents
Author: Cormac O’Brien
Date: 2004
Publisher: Quirk Books (
ISBN: 1-931686-57-2
Length: 274 pages plus index
Illustrations: caricatures in red, white, and blue
Quote: “[George Washington’s] salary was $25,000 (equivalent to about a million dollars today), of which an incredible seven percent was spent on alcohol.”
Nobody can deny that Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents is a fun read. If for some reason you’re not able to sleep, as it might be because your cats keep pounding on your door with loud demands that you do something about all this rain, I highly recommend this book. You won’t get to sleep, but you won’t mind much, because you’ll be chortling.
How seriously should you take these facts? I recommend reading the last few chapters, comparing O’Brien’s summaries of the presidential administrations you remember with your memories. “[F]ew presi­dents have ever been able to get voters to pay more attention to image than to substance”? (Who won the Nixon/Kennedy debate?) “Bill Clinton...conveyed the image of a youthful, keenly intelligent...” (He was young for a President, but not especially well preserved. Maybe that grey hair and gravel voice suggested a youthful, alert grandpa?)  And what about some of the stories you remember as having been more alarming than funny? They’re not here. Right; it could have been better researched, but it is meant as entertainment. Secret Lives should appeal to those who like this blog.
Most of the presidential “secrets” in this book are the kind that leaked out during the administration, the kind that aren’t highlighted during a campaign but, when found out, tend merely to make the President seem human...
* Andrew Jackson did attend college...where his idea of sport was to sneak out and move outhouses to different corners of people’s back yards.
* After his first wife’s death, John Tyler proposed to the girl one of his sons was courting...and she immediately dumped the son and married the President.
*  Abraham Lincoln couldn’t resist a wisecrack at the expense of an old lady (after all, she couldn’t vote) who slipped and fell on a wet street: “Reminds me of a duck: feathers on her head, and down on her behind.”
* Franklin D. Roosevelt had a superstitious fear of the number thirteen.
* Ronald Reagan observed, about being President, “I don’t know if I could do this job if I weren’t an actor.”
You were expecting maybe secrets of military strategy, or transcripts of Trilateral Committee meetings? O’Brien’s purpose is not to discredit any president—although he reveals some partialities, defending some of the easiest targets for snarky jokes and debunking the heroic aura mourning has cast around President Kennedy. His purpose seems to be to convey just a tantalizing little bit of U.S. history via comedy. For that purpose a good joke told by a President is as useful as an embarrassing story reported of one.
If you need a laugh-a-minute overview of U.S. history with a focus on the White House, Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents is for you. Narrated in PG-13 style (including fairly detailed explanations of several of Bill Clinton’s better-known lies), this book tells just enough of each story to leave readers who don’t know the rest of the story interested in learning more. A bibliography at the back of the book, though remarkably short for a topic of this size, offers students a good place to begin researching any President, period, or movement that catches their interest.

You knew there had to be a sequel, and there is: Secret Lives of the U.S. First Ladies. I don't have it, but I want it, and I'd be delighted to get a copy for you. 

If you buy it from me as a Fair Trade Book, you pay $5 for each volume plus $5 for shipping (either volume or both), and Cormac O'Brien or a charity of his choice gets $1 per book. 

[Looks as if that "Schedule" feature at Blogspot isn't working. I was trying to give youall one book review and one knitted piece per day...oh, well...]