Friday, June 13, 2014

Book Review: How to Fight Presidents by Daniel O'Brien (2014)

How to Fight Presidents, by Daniel O'Brien, 2014.

5th President James Monroe, (1758-1831) who would definitely kick your ass if he came back from the dead. Watch out.
Daniel O’Brien’s new book, How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran this Country, is a humorous look at the occupants of the Oval Office. O’Brien is the head writer for, and also a history buff, so he’s well-equipped to present us with an instructional manual on how to physically fight U.S. presidents, should we travel through time and need to do so. O’Brien’s theory is that most men who have been president were a little crazy, and also quite badass, and the combination of those two things would make them difficult to defeat, should we engage them in fisticuffs.

Each deceased president gets his own chapter in How to Fight Presidents. The chapter opens with what made them such a badass, and at the end we get recommendations on what tactics might work against them in a fight. The chapter headings are hilarious. Two of my favorites are: “Thomas Jefferson just invented six different devices that can kill you,” and “Franklin Pierce is the Franklin Pierce of fighting, which is to say, he is a bad fighter.”

Obviously, there’s a lot of humor in this book. But what makes it more than just a silly book is O’Brien’s overarching, somewhat serious theme that you need to be a crazy to be president. These men were not normal guys. Yes, some of them were terrible presidents. But most of them did some amazing things in order to be elected president. Except for Millard Fillmore. He never did anything amazing. Fillmore aside, O’Brien does a good job of explaining why these men were remarkable. We all know that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt were awesome and amazing and guys you would never want to fight, but O’Brien tells us why you wouldn’t want to fight the other presidents too. For example, James Monroe, our fifth president, was wounded in the shoulder during the American Revolution-and just kept fighting. Monroe served as secretary of state and secretary of war under James Madison-at the same time. While he was president, Monroe grabbed his own sword when two visiting dignitaries tried to duel in the White House and fought both of them while solving their dispute. And he threatened his secretary of the treasury with a set of fireplace tongs. So, yeah, he was kind of a badass. 

O’Brien does an excellent job of covering the accomplishments of our less famous presidents. He’s generous to men like James A. Garfield and Herbert Hoover, even though they weren’t fantastic presidents. O’Brien writes of Hoover, “He worked every minute of every day without tiring and wasn’t sick for a single day of his presidency.” (p.195) Hoover tried his hardest to get the country out of the Great Depression. Ultimately, he failed, but it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. I really appreciated O’Brien’s attitude toward the presidents-it’s easy to write about the great ones, but he does a good job of writing about the not so great ones.

The illustrations by Winston Rowntree also deserve a mention, as they are quite hilarious in themselves. Each president gets a full-page portrait, and then another smaller illustration in the body of their chapter. Rowntree’s drawings complement O’Brien’s writing very well. 

Most of all, How to Fight Presidents is really funny. In the chapter about John Quincy Adams, O’Brien makes note of Adams’s habit of swimming naked in the Potomac River while he was president. Adams apparently just liked being naked as much as possible. “Also he kept an alligator as a pet, right in the White House. That too feels like something that might come up in battle. Like if you were walking down the street and saw a naked guy with an alligator on a leash, you probably wouldn’t want to fight him, because to hell with that. That guy is John Quincy Adams, and it’s too late, because you’re already fighting.” (p.38) That made me laugh a lot. If you’re a presidential history buff like me, you will love How to Fight Presidents, and you will actually learn a lot of fun tidbits about the presidents. I just hope I never have to fight John Quincy Adams.

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