I like history. I enjoy reading about it, I like doing informal research about it, and I’m marrying a man who has a degree in public history, and thus also likes to talk about the past. I also think that history need not be dumbed-down in order for most people to find it interesting. So I was a little hesitant to request Presidential Confidential as an advance reader’s copy. I was afraid it would be flippant. I had no reason to worry.
John Boertlein’s publisher most likely thought that Presidential Confidential would sell better with the tabloid-like appearance on the outside, the sidebars on the inside, and relatively brief chapters. This may or may not be true. I find that I’m typically pretty indifferent to a cover, unless its design is particularly egregious, so they weren’t pulling me in there. In fact, I was a little nervous about the quality of the work found within something that looks like the National Enquirer. It either can be like one of the mental_floss books, or it can be full of junk. It’s risky, and I’m not sure it was the right choice for this book.
Chapter length, in this case, doesn’t bother me. Each historical story has its own length; some can be covered in one page, while others need twenty. I thought this was fine. The other feature this book uses inside is the sidebar.
I hate sidebars. As someone with OCD, and not ADHD, I don’t like having to disrupt the flow of the narrative to read about something tangentially related to the main topic. It feels disjointed, and makes me a grumpy reader at points. That’s not to say I didn’t like the contents of the sidebars — I enjoyed them. I just dislike pulling my attention away from the story the author wants to tell to read a little list of factoids, or, worse, another, smaller story. My preference would be for these things to run either at the end of chapters or in between them. I suspect that I’m in a minority here, and will thus summarily be ignored or ridiculed. I don’t care. They’re distracting and encourage multitasking within a book, which is a little ridiculous.
Anyway, Boertlein writes about the histories of the presidents with talent and style. I felt that he provided a level-headed, fair representation of goings-on in the White House all the way through the Clinton presidency. He didn’t turn the book into a tawdry piece of shoddy history, but rather gives the reader a decent account of what most likely happened. Even stories I had heard before were written in a way that clarified my understanding or provided me with new insight into the situation. Boertlein did his research, and it shows — the background of the times is always explained to the reader, and the events that unfold are given fair treatment without being too kind.
Until we get to the last chapter, on George W. Bush. Now, I’m not a Dubya fan; I’m fairly far from that crowd. But the treatment Boertlein gives his administration in this chapter is brutal. He seems to take delight in making out Bush’s term in office to be corrupt, stupid, or both. No matter how true this may seem to be to many of us, it still feels wrong to gloat over an administration that has caused irreparable damage to our soldiers, our economy, our environment, our international reputation, our educational system, our social safety net systems — you name it, they did horrible things to it. It’s not something to be taken lightly or treated in a snarky manner.
Overall, Presidential Confidential is a popular history book in almost-perfect form. Without the sidebars and obviously partisan last chapter, it’s darn near perfect.