Martin Van Buren :: P is for Politician


Lindenwald, Martin Van Buren’s home in Kinderhook, NY

Book review: The American Talleyrand: The Career and Contemporaries of Martin Van Buren, by Holmes Alexander (1935)

I hardly expected a biography of the eighth President of the United States to be one of my favorite reads of 2015 and one of the most enjoyable of my Presidential Reading Project so far. Apparently, Martin Van Buren, aka The Little Magician, continues to work his magic in mysterious ways.

Not all Van Buren biographies are created equal.

Following such heavy hitters as Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Jackson and the two Adams, Van Buren was a big unknown for me. As a relatively forgotten president, I had low expectations for any biography of this man and his times, and sure enough, the first book I checked out from the library (selected from a very small pool of Van Buren biographies) was about as dull as you’d expect. (Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics, by John Niven (2000), read as a dry recitation of facts about early 19th-century New York state politics, and I bailed 100 pages in, refusing to soldier through 700 pages to the end.) Thankfully I persevered with my project, checking out a musty book published 80 years ago, with yellowed pages and an old-school library cover all in blue.

Written with personality, charm, and an entertaining (and clearly opinionated) voice, author Holmes Alexander unspools the life of America’s first master politician, warts and all, in a thorough yet brisk four hundred pages. To say it was a page-turner for this history buff would not be an exaggeration. I learned much about Van Buren, a lackluster President who achieved more on his way to the White House than in it, notable as the first true Politician (with a capital P) in every sense of the word as we know it today. Here was a man who, while not a great leader or brilliant thinker, could read the political current and masterfully hitch his kite to the most providential tradewinds, navigating a rise from humble beginnings in Kinderhook, New York, to the halls of power in Albany and Washington D.C., where he served as governor, senator, Secretary of State, V.P., and finally (and unexceptionally) as a one-term President.

U.S. Presidents who preceded Van Buren were true statesmen, eloquent great thinkers, many of them Founding Fathers, who put the good of the fledgling country before personal gain. Martin Van Buren changed the game; he made his mark on the U.S. political landscape as the vanguard of the quintessential politician–scheming, manipulative, opportunistic, vague, and self-serving. With his trademark practice of ignoring pointed questions on policy or pressing issues of the day, Van Buren would have thrived in a contemporary presidential election. We have Van Buren to thank, in part, for bringing political patronage to a national stage, having perfected the “spoils system” during his years orchestrating the Albany Regency, an organization that controlled New York politics for years and cemented party politics, with the Little Magician pulling the strings from off stage.

During the 1828 presidential election (a battle between war hero and “man of the people” Andrew Jackson vs. aristocrat and incumbent John Quincy Adams), Van Buren worked his political hocus-pocus on behalf of his ally, Old Hickory. This first truly democratic election (what historian Lynn Hudson Parsons called The Birth of Modern Politics) had the Little Magician’s fingerprints all over it, and was colored by unsavory practices such as mudslinging, personal attacks, and party electioneering.

The Red Fox of Kinderhook, as Van Buren came to be known, was much more interested in playing politics than serving the people, and author Holmes Alexander demonstrates how, time and again, “Matty B” chose the politically expedient path over the greater good. He also shows how Van Buren’s political gamesmanship came back to hinder his presidency, his ultimate career aspirations, and his place in the pantheon of American historical greats.

A desire to dig deep into American history was the impetus for my Presidential Reading Project. Discovering books such as The American Talleyrand has been an unexpected and delightful consequence.

Open House Chicago 2015 :: Edgewater


One of my favorite weekends of the year is the 48 hours in October when distinctive buildings, architectural icons, historic gems, and forgotten pockets of Chicago throw open their doors for Open House Chicago. This year I had limited time so I made the most of it with strategic stops in Edgewater on Saturday and downtown Chicago on Sunday. Here are some of Day One’s highlights.


Episcopal Church of the Atonement
Kenmore Avenue
Henry Ives Cobb architect, 1890

We stopped here spontaneously, as we were walking down Kenmore on our way to the Edgewater Beach Apartments. The sudden surprise of this building and its amazing interior made this visit all the more delightful. A friendly and knowledgable parishioner greeted us and gave us a history of the building, the community, and the neighborhood.


Apparently the big draw at this church is the columbarium, but I was much more interested in the impressive pipe organ.


I'd never seen this sort of configuration, with pipes for trumpets and horns projecting horizontally out of a side alcove.

I’d never seen this sort of configuration, with pipes for trumpets and horns projecting horizontally out of a side alcove.


The Edgewater Beach Apartments
Marshall & Fox, 1928

After passing by this iconic fixture at the end of Lake Shore Drive about a million times, it was fun to get a glimpse inside. The swimming pool used to have a retractable roof and a restaurant on the terrace overlooking the pool. And of course, through those windows there once was a view of Lake Michigan and the beach, which used to come right up to the building–and gave the place its name–before the extension of Lake Shore Drive in 1957 cut the “Pink Palace” off from direct access to the lakeshore.



Please note the maximum bather load.

Riviera Motor Sales Company Building (1925)

Final stop of the day was another building I’ve been past hundreds of times. The bank that previously occupied this space has recently vacated and the empty place definitely conjures up its former life as a high-end Chrysler showroom. Aren’t you whisked away to the Italian Riviera? But seriously, the place must have looked impressive, stocked with dapper cars like these.



The ceiling and light fixtures are really something and still look good. The interior space had lots of crazy touches, like wall fountains in nearly every room and disquieting doors that looked as if made of softened chocolate fudge.


A water fountain serves as the focal point for the main stairway leading to offices.


The vestiges of the bank were eerie and sad.

My Presidential Reading Project: The Book List

My Goal :: To read a biography for each President of the United States, in addition to a work of nonfiction and popular fiction corresponding to the time period of each presidential term. (Follow this link for an expanded explanation of my Presidential Reading Project.)

What follows is a running list of the books I have read thus far. The years in office for each president are included, along with links to book reviews when available.

1 – George Washington (1789-1797)
Biography :: His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis (2004)
Fiction :: Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson (1791/94)

2 – John Adams (1797-1801)
Biography :: John Adams by David McCullough (2002)
Nonfiction :: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis (2000)
Fiction :: Wieland by Charles Brockdon Brown (1798)

3 – Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
Biography :: Thomas Jefferson by R. B. Bernstein (2003) and American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis (1997)
Nonfiction :: Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose (1996)
Fiction :: Knickerbocker’s History of New York by Washington Irving (1809)

4 – James Madison (1809-1817)
Biography :: James Madison by Garry Wills (2002)
Fiction :: Waverley by Sir Walter Scott (1814)

5 – James Monroe (1817-1825)
Biography :: James Monroe by Gary Hard (2005)
Nonfiction :: Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation by Peter L. Bernstein (2005)
Fiction :: A New England Tale by Catherine Maria Sedgwick (1822)

6 – John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
Biography :: John Quincy Adams by Lynn Hudson Parsons (1998)
Fiction :: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (1826)

7 – Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
Biography :: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham (2008)
Nonfiction :: The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons (2009)

8 – Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
Biography :: The American Talleyrand: The Career and Contemporaries of Martin Van Buren by Holmes Alexander (1935)

My Presidential Reading Project

Me and Mr. Monroe.

Ten years ago, I was inspired to read a biography of George Washington and I so enjoyed my re-education in early American History that I decided to challenge myself to read a biography of each U.S. president in chronological order. To widen the scope of interest and have more fun, I expanded my reading challenge to include a work of both non-fiction and popular fiction corresponding to the time period of each presidential term. I dubbed it my Presidential Reading Project.

Certain presidents are easier to cover than others. It comes as no surprise that Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson have a wealth of books to choose from. Other POTUS prove a real challenge, with a scarcity of biographies in the library (outside of the children’s section) or a selection limited to a few 800-page tomes of dry historical record. Finding works of American popular fiction published during the first dozen administrations has been an enjoyable hurdle. How else would I have read the first American best seller (Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson, published in 1791) or the first American gothic novel (Wieland by Charles Brockdon Brown), published in 1798 when John Adams was in office?

With each presidential biography I tick off the list, I’m building on knowledge gleaned from previous books, which helps to reinforce what I’m learning (at least for a little while.) The additional non-fiction books from each era fill in areas of particular interest and provide a richer picture of the social history of each period. Sometimes these titles are sparked by something I’ve read in a biography, while others are added to my growing Presidential Reading Project list from personal recommendations, published reviews, and book store browsing over time.


Lincoln’s boyhood home, Knob Creek, Kentucky.

At this point in the project, having read a fifth of the way through the 44 U.S. Presidents, the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” applies, as presidents and politicians from the beginning of our country’s history grapple with issues all too familiar to modern-day readers, a thought which is fascinating, dismaying, and weirdly encouraging. On the lighter side, reading best-selling fiction stretching back to 1790 has been a real hoot.

Five years ago, I added a travel component to my presidential project, incorporating visits to presidential homes, birth places, and burial sites. Without this project to spur me on, I never would have visited Lincoln’s boyhood home in Knob Creek, Kentucky (a surprisingly moving experience); Calvin Coolidge’s Homestead in Plymouth, Vermont, where he was born, raised, and sworn in as President; or Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Virginia, and the room where the Father of the Constitution spent a winter researching and formulating ideas that would develop into the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Montpelier_2012-07-23_12-14-50_DSC_0727_©KathrynWare2012 - Version 2

James Madison’s home, Montpelier.

History has always been a favorite subject of mine, so giving myself this presidentially focused, forty-something-step course in U.S. history has, over time, developed into an entertaining, engaging, and ever-evolving project. But it’s time to step it up–at the rate I’m going, I’ll need to live to 106 to complete it.

Review | Without You, There Is No Us :: Speak Only English and Take Care What You Say

Without You, There is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite
Suki Kim (2014)

A fascinating, well-written, (and depressing) glimpse behind the North Korean shroud of secrecy, delusion, and oppression as told by a journalist who spent two semesters teaching English at an elite university in Pyongyang. It’s sometimes hard to fathom how an entire society can be kept so far in the dark about the realities and possibilities beyond their borders; with honest and compelling prose, author Suki Kim brings a certain humanity to an inhumane place and allows us to witness daily life in this restrictive atmosphere.

Lamb | The Lost Gospel, As Told By Christ’s BFF

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
Christopher Moore (2002)

Despite my familiarity of only the most basic of Bible stories, I enjoyed this fictional imagining of Christ’s life, as told by his childhood pal Biff. In this irreverent take on AD 1-33, there’s plenty to laugh at and, to my surprise, ponder, as Joshua”s quest to understand his destiny takes him and Biff to China and India in search of the three wise men, before returning to gather the apostles. Moore cleverly weaves “fact” with fiction, spinning an entertaining adventure through Biblical times.

My Favorite Books Read in 2014

At last, I’ve compiled my list for 2014 and fourteen books made the cut, earning a place on my 22nd annual recommended reading list. So here, in no particular order, are my favorites from the books I read last year, with links to reviews on this website. Happy reading!