“Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump”
For the Conservative Foreign and Commonwealth Council’s latest event our distinguished members were joined at Franco’s Restaurant in London by Mr. Andrew Gimson, who treated all present to a thought-provoking and laughter-inducing summary of his latest work: “Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump.”
Brilliantly illustrated by Mr. Martin Rowson (whose sketch of Donald Trump on the back cover almost makes the book worth a look on its own), Mr. Gimson’s volume provides a portrait of all 44 presidents from Washington to Trump, seeking to answer whether Trump is actually a continuation of the American presidential tradition – if indeed such a tradition exists – or really just the “absurd” and “ridiculous” aberration CNN consistently portrayed him as.
Initially, Mr. Gimson highlights the often overlooked fact that many chapters in the presidential history are, for the most part, “unknown.” Yes, there have been titans – the Rushmore four and Franklin D. Roosevelt being perhaps the most unquestionably worthy of the title – but, by and large, “at least thirty holders of the office” exist “if not in darkness, at least in deep shadow.”
Indeed, I challenge you to find many people – American, academic, or otherwise – who would even recognise the names of Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, and James K. Polk, let alone be able to make a comment on their presidency.
Mr. Gimson seeks to answer the question of ‘why?’. Distancing himself from the tones of “pompous reverence” which usually colour literary and verbal discussions of the presidency due to the president also being the head of state, Mr. Gimson highlights that, if there is something most presidents can be united by, it is mediocrity, not exceptionalism. We remember the titans not only because their achievements were so great, but because, by and large, the individuals that came before or after them were so poor.
Alexis De Tocqueville, quoted by Mr. Gimson, writes with great surprise that even in 1831 and 1832, there existed “so much distinguished talent among the citizens [of the United States] and so little among the head of the government.” This pattern certainly does not seem to have been overcome today. After all, it cannot merely be a coincidence that those individuals widely regarded as the most influential of our age: the Gates, The Musks, the Jobs, exist largely outside of established political channels.
Yet, what does this mean for the state of politics more broadly? Due to the limitations of his work, Mr. Gimson does not devote too much time to the matter, yet his observation of the conflict present within all political activity between “high ideals and low machinations, nobility and demagoguery, the sublime and the tawdry” is a crucial one.
The American Presidency has been held by both the “sacred and the profane,” by “gentlemen and hucksters.” It seems scarcely conceivable that only forty years could separate the “sacerdotal” George Washington from Andrew Jackson, “the kind of man with whom it was inadvisable to pick a quarrel in a tavern if you did not want to end up dead.”
However, perhaps a significant deal of comfort can be drawn from this fact. Let the academics squabble over desirability of such variations in presidential character. Leave the students to judge on who of those to have walked the West Wing can be classed as ‘truly great.’ Instead, sit back and enjoy the humanity of the “tremendous story” Mr. Gimson outlines so vibrantly. And do not lost hope. After all, one never knows; a titan may be just around the corner.
We look forward greatly to welcoming His Excellency David Gallagher Patrickson, Ambassador to the Court of St. James for Chile, for our upcoming Black Tie Dinner in the House of Lords’ Attlee Room, hosted by the Rt. Hon. Baroness Hooper, and hope to see as many of our esteemed members there as possible.
Andrew Gimson's Presidents
A spirited and entertaining aide-memoire offering 44 short, fascinating accounts of each president bringing the United States' political history to life as never before.
Who can name the eight presidents before Lincoln, or the eight presidents after him? Historians tend to shed light on just a handful of leaders: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and perhaps half a dozen others within living memory, leaving at least 30 holders of office if not in total darkness, then at least in deep shadow.
Helping to bring these forgotten figures into the light, Andrew Gimson's illuminating accounts are accompanied by sketches from Guardiansartirical cartoonist, Martin Rowson, making this the perfect gift for all lovers of history - the experienced and the novice, the serious and the silly.
Andrew Gimson is the author of three volumes of brief lives: Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump; Gimson’s Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to Johnson; and Gimson’s Kings & Queens: Brief Lives of the Monarchs since 1066. All three books are illustrated with caricatures by Martin Rowson. Gimson has also written a life of Boris Johnson, first published in 2006, updated several times since and now entitled Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister. He is at work on a second volume about Johnson and is Contributing Editor to ConservativeHome.