For anyone who’s a little bit worried about the current state of the Union, Andrew Gimson’s book is a godsend. Donald Trump is often called the 45th president, but he’s actually the 44th — Grover Cleveland, president from 1885- 89 and 1893-97, is counted as the 22nd and the 24th. Among his 43 predecessors, you’ll find plenty of drunks, philanderers and incompetents. Suddenly, the teetotal President doesn’t look so bad after all.
Gimson is a British journalist, but don’t let that put American readers off. He’s worked for the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator and knows politics well. He previously wrote books about the 40 British monarchs since 1066, the 55 British prime ministers since 1721 and a biography of Boris Johnson.
In a healthy sign that Gimson is no hagiographer, Boris tried to pay him the equivalent of the biography’s advance if he promised not to write it and so reveal the racks of skeletons in his closet. Gimson went ahead and wrote it.
This charming, useful book is no hatchet job. Instead, it comes as close as possible to a fair description of the 44 presidents, delivered in plain prose that subtly delivers admiration and condemnation. Just after praising Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gimson quotes H.L. Mencken on FDR: he ‘had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes’. On JFK and Bobby Kennedy, he quotes Harold Macmillan on the first weeks of JFK’s presidency: ‘It’s rather like watching the Borgia brothers take over a respectable north Italian city.’
It’s telling that you can’t say whether Gimson is a natural Republican or Democrat. When it comes to British politics, he is, incidentally, a Conservative, but his wife, Sally, is a Labour party activist, prevented from standing as an MP by the extreme left in Jeremy Corbyn’s party.