American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents from Franklin D Roosevelt to George W Bush, by Nigel Hamilton, The Bodley Head RRP£25, 596 pages
American Caesars is an intriguing conceit – a treatment of the last dozen presidents in the fashion of Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, the gloriously chatty Roman classic that brought us lines such as Nero’s intended last words: “Dead! And so great an artist!”
The last 12 presidents take us from Roosevelt to George W Bush. Even without equating Roosevelt with Julius Caesar or the Emperor Augustus, that sequence almost inescapably gives an impression of a certain decline and fall.
Nigel Hamilton, a British biographer who lives in the US and has written on Field Marshal Montgomery, John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and the art of biography, follows Suetonius in dividing his subjects’ histories into the periods before power, their time in office and their personal lives.
There is a considerable emphasis on that last aspect, starting with FDR’s extra-marital dalliances and working down to Clinton. But Hamilton also devotes swathes of text to statecraft, whether Eisenhower’s failed ambitions to thaw the cold war or the misadventures of Jimmy Carter.
He refuses to be outdone by Suetonius’s depiction of rulers such as Caligula and Nero as monsters. His loathing of Nixon is wondrous – the hatred jumps off the page. His adoration of FDR and Truman – indeed his respect for all the Democratic presidents – provides plenty of comfort reading.
The problem lies in the execution. Suetonius has sometimes been described as a mere journalist (an unfair comparison both to the great historian and to journalists). Hamilton at times resembles a night editor on a Fleet Street late edition, snatching stories from other papers without standing them up.
As he admits, this is not original research. The footnotes reveal that material is lifted out of other biographies in the same sequence as it appears in American Caesars. This becomes unforgivable where the “facts” Hamilton repeats come from dubious sources.
Late in the book, we are informed that George Bush Sr once bailed George W Bush out of a charge of cocaine possession; the judge ordered that the legal record be expunged. At the back of the book, we are told that the source is JH Hatfield’s Fortunate Son: George W Bush and the Making of an American President – used several times along with works such as Kitty Kelley’s The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Presidency.
What Hamilton fails to say is that the book was recalled by the publisher, after it lost faith in Hatfield’s claim. Hatfield himself, a convicted attempted murderer – part of his past he tried to hide – said he had been rushed into writing the afterword in which the cocaine allegations appear. He committed suicide in 2001. Such events warrant at least a health warning about Hatfield’s uncorroborated claim. The book is also marred by errors, repetitions and spelling mistakes. Apparently, Anthony Eden bombed Cairo in 1954, not 1956. And Bush ensured that the Commission into the September 11 attacks did not report until after the November 2004 elections – even though it did so in July 2004.
America has often been seen as an empire – the Graeco-Roman architecture of Washington DC attests to that. Bush and Obama supporters have subscribed to the imperial sounding notion of the “transformational presidency”, whereby a leader, by dint of character and personal history, imposes himself on the world, for good.
If American Caesars were better, this idea would warrant lengthier discussion. But Hamilton sketches out his case, content with sprinkling “empire” and “Caesar” throughout his prose. Is the US an empire? Are the presidents Caesars? This reader, at least, remains unconvinced.
Daniel Dombey is the FT’s diplomatic correspondent