Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump points toward Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016.
Image: Joe Raedle/Pool via AP
Editor’s note: This is the 44th and final! entry in the writer’s project to read one book about each of the U.S. Presidents in the year prior to Election Day 2016. Follow Marcus’ progress at the Twitter account and the .
Well, here we are, finally, at the end of the project.
And what a time to end it. An unprecedented election came to a stunning close on November 8, 2016 as Donald Trump shocked everyone including himself by defeating Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
It’s fitting that the final book for this project revisits other incredible turning points from previous elections. John Dickerson’s Whistlestop (based on his popular Slate podcast) unspools wild tales from the presidential campaign trail throughout history, many with threads that brought the 2016 campaign to mind.
Take the career of James Callender, a nefarious mudslinger of the worst sort who was employed (on the down-low) as an attack dog by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election. Callender called President John Adams a “hermaphrodidical character.”
That was just a small slice of the rhetoric Callender used against his enemies (including George Washington and Alexander Hamilton). Some of his language (“vile” and “depraved”) definitely resonate after an election in which “nasty” and “deplorable” were dominant adjectives.
Then there was the time private messages between a candidate and business associates turned into an investigation that blew a presidential campaign wide open. This wasn’t emails and Wikileaks, but a series of letters written by James G. Blaine showing how he’d used his power as House Speaker to benefit railroads he’d invested in.
The letters became the centerpiece of a corruption investigation in 1876. Blaine was able to wiggle his way out of trouble, but he would lose that year’s Republican nomination to Rutherford B. Hayes. The letters would haunt him again in 1884, when Blaine won the nomination but ultimately lost to Grover Cleveland (in spite of the scandalous fact that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock).
Dickerson, whom you may recognize from CBS’ Face The Nation and his excellent job hosting GOP and Democratic primary debates, is able to relate history in a conversational tone. There’s none of the dryness that plagued me plenty of times during this project, especially when reading about some of our early, mid-tier presidents (Martin Van Boring, anyone?).
Bonus points for being a book that, spun out of a podcast, works quite well as an audiobook, too.
But through all the stories, asides, and jokes, Whistlestop never loses sight of the overall theme: presidential campaigns are a dirty, unpredictable business.
What we witnessed in 2016 was a nadir of sorts but it’s far from the only election where things got crazy on the stump.
And then we came to the end. What a ride.
There were times where I really didn’t think I’d make it, most notably when it took me damn near a month to get through the Grant bio. Then there were times I was able to burn through books so quickly, I read two for Teddy Roosevelt.
There are plenty of presidential biography lists I could make after this project like my favorites (Adams, T. Roosevelt), the most surprising (Polk, Truman, T. Roosevelt), or the worst (Hoover, Buchanan).
And there were plenty of unbelievable quotes from salty presidents and reporters alike.
But far more lasting to me will be the overall arc of this journey, seeing the bigger picture in how each man (still no women, huh?) shaped the office, and how the office in turn shaped the country.
I began the project familiar with the story of the Founding Fathers hammering the nation into being, but gained a more detailed awareness of how America found its way to Civil War with presidents like Zachary Taylor, John Tyler and Polk setting the stage for what finally happened under Buchanan and Lincoln.
I saw how jolting the transitions could be sometimes going from Lincoln to Andrew Johnson, say, or Clinton to Bush.
And, yet, the Republic survived.
Most surprising, though: I’m ready to keep going. It reminds me of when I ran my first marathon 12 years ago as part of a huge change in lifestyle. I swore there was no way I would ever run another.
Two months later, I was already signed up for my second.
Right now, even as I’m happily taking a break to catch up on a stack of unread non-presidential books, I’m already planning what president I’ll revisit. Maybe I’ll pick up Caro’s much-praised LBJ series, or maybe Jon Meacham’s Andrew Jackson book or … the list goes on.
And it keeps growing.
The Twitter handle @44in52 will live on, too. The greatest thing about the project has been the feedback from fellow enthusiasts from different backgrounds, and the conversations that ensued.
The partisan fire so present on Twitter this election cycle has been absent; it’s been a great back-and-forth about history’s assessment of the presidents and how it changes over time. (Feel free to join in!)
It hasn’t always been easy or fun. But I’m glad I did it in the midst of an unprecedented 2016 race, putting the rhetoric and the power of the office in perspective. And I finished within a week of the deadline! Not too shabby.
Next up will be a spin through movies and documentaries about the presidents, from the numerous films available from PBS to the film version of the musical 1776 because, well, why not?
In short, this really isn’t the end it’s more of a transition.
Days to read Washington: 16
Days to read Adams: 11
Days to read Jefferson: 10
Days to read Madison: 13
Days to read Monroe: 6
Days to read J. Q. Adams: 10
Days to read Jackson: 11
Days to read Van Buren: 9
Days to read Harrison: 6
Days to read Tyler: 3
Days to read Polk: 8
Days to read Taylor: 8
Days to read Fillmore: 14
Days to read Pierce: 1
Days to read Buchanan: 1
Days to read Lincoln: 12
Days to read Johnson: 8
Days to read Grant: 27
Days to read Hayes: 1
Days to read Garfield: 3
Days to read Arthur: 17
Days to hear Cleveland: 3
Days to read Harrison: 4
Days to read McKinley: 5
Days to read T. Roosevelt: 15
Days to read Taft: 13
Days to read Wilson: 10
Days to read Harding: 3
Days to read Coolidge: 7
Days to read Hoover: 9
Days to read FDR: 11
Days to read Truman: 14
Days to read Eisenhower: 11
Days to read JFK: 10
Days to read LBJ: 6
Days to read Nixon: 6
Days to read Ford: 4
Days to listen to Carter: 2
Days to listen to Reagan: 8
Days to read GWHB: 8
Days to read Clinton: 9
Days to read GWB: 8
Days to read Obama: 6
Days to read ‘Whistlestop’: 5
Days behind schedule: 5