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Brushing Up On The Presidents

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About a decade ago the Monitor recommended a bunch of books on U.S. presidents and the Middle East and then updated the list a few years later. With interest in the 2012 presidential race heating up, another look at the list seems in order.

These are not necessarily the best presidential biographies but are strong in terms of presidential attitudes and policies toward Israel.

Truman, the Jewish Vote and the Creation of Israel by John Snetsinger (Hoover Institute Press, 1974): In-depth account of the struggle for a Jewish state during the first three years of the Truman presidency. Very strong on how the 1948 presidential election influenced U.S. policy.

A Safe Haven by Allis and Ronald Radosh (Harper, 2009): The most recent addition to the Truman/Israel library, the book makes use of newly released documents but is a little too sympathetic to Truman, whose vacillation on the issue of a Jewish state was punctuated by anti-Semitic outbursts.

Eisenhower and the American Crusades by Herbert S. Parmet (Macmillan, 1972): A thorough look at the Eisenhower administration, with considerable attention paid to the Suez Crisis of 1956. Despite its having been written before the release of many classified Eisenhower-era documents, the book has aged well.

“Let Us Begin Anew”: An Oral History of the Kennedy Presidency by Gerald S. and Deborah Hart Strober (Harper-Collins, 1993): Real inside stuff here; the Strobers interviewed dozens of surviving Kennedy-era officials and opinion-makers who spoke candidly and on the record, many for the first time, on the major issues of the day.

Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance by Warren Bass (Oxford University Press, 2002): A worthwhile read, though Bass gives Kennedy too much credit for the U.S.-Israel partnership that really began to blossom during the Johnson and Nixon years.

Flawed Giant – Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 by Robert Dallek (Oxford University Press, 1998): The second and concluding volume of an authoritative biography, with the focus here on Johnson’s vice presidential and presidential years.

Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972 and Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990 by Stephen E. Ambrose (Simon & Schuster, 1989, 1991): Parts two and three of a magisterial three-volume biography of Nixon, with plenty on the evolution of Nixon’s Mideast views.

Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency by Gerald S. and Deborah Hart Strober (HarperCollins, 1994): The Strobers do for Nixon’s presidency what they did for Kennedy’s (see fifth entry above).

The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford by John Robert Green (University Press of Kansas, 1995): The definitive history of the Ford administration has yet to appear, but this offers a good examination of the Kissinger-Ford Mideast policy.

The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr. by Burton I. Kaufman (University Press of Kansas, 1993): As with Ford, a comprehensive history of the Carter presidency has yet to be written; in the meantime, this account touches on all the important points, with interesting details on the Camp David negotiations.

President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime by Lou Cannon (Simon & Schuster, 1991): A big book by a political reporter who covered Reagan longer than just about anyone else. Reagan: The Man and His Presidency by Gerald S. and Deborah Hart Strober (Houghton Mifflin, 1998): Yet another superb oral history from the Strobers.

George Bush – The Life of a Lone Star Yankee by Herbert S. Parmet (Scribner, 1997): Fair to its subject and rigorously researched, with a detailed account of the Gulf War and the Bush-Baker Mideast policy.

The High Cost of Peace by Yossef Bodansky (Prima, 2002): A smart and informed recounting of how U.S. diplomacy during the administrations of the first President Bush and President Clinton undermined Israel’s security and left the U.S. more vulnerable to Islamic terrorism.

American Presidents, Religion, and Israel: The Heirs of Cyrus by Paul Charles Merkley (Praeger Publishers, 2004): An examination of how the religious backgrounds of American presidents have influenced U.S. foreign policy.

Lost Years by Mark Matthews (Nation Books, 2007): The book’s subtitle – “Bush, Sharon and Failure in the Middle East” – makes the author’s bias clear, but this is a detailed and for the most part objective account of the U.S.-Israel relationship from 2001 through Ariel Sharon’s stroke in 2006.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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These are not necessarily the best all-around biographies or studies of the individual presidents listed (though some rank right up there), but the strongest in terms of exploring presidential attitudes and policies toward Israel.

The Clintonan “engagement” liberals remember with such fondness did nothing but embolden Arafat and Hamas and Hizbullah as they witnessed Israel’s only real ally elevate process ahead of policy.

What really makes one wonder about the affinity felt by certain Jews for Grant was the welcome mat he put out for some of the country’s most pernicious anti-Semites.

With 2013 marking half a century since Kennedy’s fateful limousine ride in Dallas, the current revels are exceeding the revisionist frenzies of years past, with a seemingly endless parade of books, articles and television specials designed to assure us that, despite everything that has come to light about him since his death, JFK was a great president, or at least a very good president who would have been great had his life not been so cruelly cut short.

As someone who for the past fifteen years has been writing a column that largely focuses on the news media, I’ve read what is no doubt an altogether unhealthy number of books on the subject. Most of them were instantly forgettable while some created a brief buzz but failed to pass the test of time. And then there were those select few that merited a permanent spot on the bookshelf.

George W. Bush has been getting some positive media coverage lately, with recent polls showing him at least as popular as his successor, Barack Obama, and a big new book about the Bush presidency by New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker (Days of Fire, Doubleday) portraying Bush as a much more hands-on chief executive than his detractors ever imagined.

Readers who’ve stuck with the Monitor over the years will forgive this rerun of sorts, but as we approach the fortieth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War – and with the stench of presidential indecisiveness hanging so heavily over Washington these days – it seemed only appropriate to revisit Richard Nixon’s role in enabling Israel to recover from the staggering setbacks it suffered in the first week of fighting.

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