Monday, 8 March 2010

“Vanity Fair’s Presidential Profiles” (Abrams)


Defining Portraits, Deeds, and Misdeeds of 43 Notable Americans, & what each one really thought about his Predecessor

Forty-three men have held the highest office in the United States, making up an exclusive club of statesmen and sinners, grinds and slackers, winners and losers, Boy Scouts and rogues. They are profiled in incisive and entertaining commentaries written by Vanity Fair contributors Judy Bachrach, David Friend, David Kamp, Todd S. Purdum, and Jim Windolf that tell of their deeds, plumb their characters, and dispense the essential dish about their personal lives.

Portraits newly drawn by the acclaimed artist Mark Summers illuminate each of them as vivid individuals. Also included in the text are revealing remarks (in the presidents’ own words) showing what each really thought about the man who had preceded him in the Oval Office. Graydon Carter, the editor of the volume, writes a short introduction, followed by a foreword by Washington insider and frequent Vanity Fair contributor Todd S. Purdum

From George Washington to Barack Obama, here is a memorable chronicle of America’s, and the world’s, most powerful men, combining history, biography, art, politics, and gossip – covering international affairs, domestic affairs, and affairs of the heart – in one small, indispensable volume.

This is a really nicely-put-together book. Each of Summers’s profile- portraits of the Chief Executives is beautifully done, showing each president in a state of repose, “a luxury, it must be said, seldom afforded flesh-and-blood presidents”.

“From Gilbert Stuart’s grand and definitive portrait of the standing George Washington to Shepard Fairley’s mixed-media, collage style, red-white-and-blue poster of Barack Obama, there have been majestic images, and humble ones, in every medium imaginable.”

There are a couple of things that disappointed me about this book. First is the length – each president only gets one page of text, which limits considerably how much new information or insights that can really be included, and this is especially the case for the better-known presidents. The second problem I have is the price – this is one of the books I bought, so I had been hoping for something a little more substantial for my money (it’s not a cheap volume, nice as it is).

Anyway, the book is interesting, and is certainly a nice collectors’ piece, but ultimately I wouldn’t recommend it for someone wanting to gain any deep insight into the presidents. So much has been written about many of these men, and distilling it into a single page is ultimately useless – if they’d re-printed articles from the magazine, from different times (contemporary and retrospective), then this might have been a more worthwhile and satisfying read (not to mention a more satisfying purchase).

A fine looking book, sadly lacking in written content.

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