16 February 2011

"Second Acts" by Mark K. Updegrove

Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House
Mark K. Updegrove
Date of Publication: 1 October 2006
Cover Price: $24.95
321 Pages
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Living in the era of Jimmy Carter, Global Peacemaker and the Bush/Clinton fundraisers I'd become curious about the lives of presidents out of office.  This book was mentioned in one episode of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, and shortly thereafter I promptly found a copy at Half Price Books.  My three-star rating would suggest that I wasn't wholly satisfied with it and that's true.  Much of the material covered by author Updegrove was familiar to me already.  Yes, I'm more acutely interested in the subject material than the average person might be but I also suspect that much of the content would be familiar to anyone who's spent time in a doctor's office waiting room, perusing back issues of Newsweek.  Second Acts is largely just a synthesis of presidential memoirs and press coverage.

I also found Updegrove's chapters largely formulaic.  Each begins with that president's final day leaving office, staring into the unknown, followed by a brief survey of his life and time in office.  Then follows a similar study of the former first lady, and back to the president for a review of how he eventually settled on a direction for his post-presidential life.  Sometimes material is repeated from chapter to chapter, which is understandable given that the careers of these men often brought them together--or into opposition, but it does make subsequent accounts of these incidents rather dry.

Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Ford & Carter.
More egregious is the frequency with which Updegrove's biographies of the first ladies repeats material already covered in the same chapter.  Most glaring is his chapter on the Reagans; there is an entire paragraph about Mrs. Reagan that unnecessarily reminds us of their courtship and the sequence of the birth of their children just a few pages after we were already told these things in the bio of President Reagan.

Also, I despise end notes.  I prefer to be able to see at a glance where information was found, and any expanded remarks the author may have.  Fortunately (and perhaps tellingly), there are no such remarks to be found; merely a running list of the sources mined for information.  Following the end notes is a bibliography which may be of interest for presidential enthusiasts and scholars, and an index.

Presidents Bush, Obama and Clinton (the only one  of the three covered in Second Acts).
From the White House Photo Archive.
As for the material itself, I found Updegrove's writing easy to read; even those with only a passing interest in the presidents should find it accessible.  Updegrove eschews detail in favor of distillation.  I found the chapters on Mr. Reagan and President George H.W. Bush particularly noteworthy.  Mr. Reagan's deteriorating health makes for touching reading; those of us who have been fortunate to be spared that experience in our own families know that it can arise without notice.  Mr. Bush, on the other hand, is humanized by his ability to walk away entirely from politics and concentrate almost exclusively on himself and his family.  Anyone who has ever seen a retiree grateful for the chance to finally begin living for himself after years of sacrifice should be able to connect with our forty first president.

Lastly, I would say that anyone who thinks that there is some kind of shared, collective mindset shared by politicians (you know, "they all...") should take the time to sit down with Second Acts.  The nine presidents covered here (Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton) each had his own ambitions, motivations and conflicts.  They didn't all get along, even out of office.  Second Acts may not be the most detailed account of these post-presidencies but it's certainly a solid primer for those who may be curious.

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