Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America
by Walter R. Borneman
Unabridged, 13 hr. 13 min.
Alan Nebelthau (Narrator)
April 8, 2008
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography
Source: Borrowed audiobook from my library
“In Polk, Walter R. Borneman gives us the first complete and authoritative biography of a president often overshadowed in image but seldom outdone in accomplishment. James K. Polk occupied the White House for only four years, from 1845 to 1849, but he plotted and attained a formidable agenda: He fought for and won tariff reductions, reestablished an independent Treasury, and, most notably, brought Texas into the Union, bluffed Great Britain out of the lion’s share of Oregon, and wrested California and much of the Southwest from Mexico. On reflection, these successes seem even more impressive, given the contentious political environment of the time.
In this unprecedented, long-overdue warts-and-all look at Polk’s life and career, we have a portrait of an expansionist president and decisive statesman who redefined the country he led, and we are reminded anew of the true meaning of presidential accomplishment and resolve.”
I must confess that Polk was not someone that I remember learning about in school, but he came to my attention rather recently when doing some research on various First Ladies, and in particular, Sarah Polk. There is also a song my fiancé likes to sing about Polk which keeps him in my mind too, but more on that later this week. So as I endeavored to read about all the presidents, and I was organizing who I wanted to read about, I put Polk toward the top of my list.
I can’t even begin to explain how much this book taught me – not only about Polk himself and his method of politics, but the mindset of the time and his contemporaries. At times this felt beneficial and other times completely overwhelming. The author spends ample time on the political atmosphere surrounding all the presidents from John Quincy Adams up through Polk, giving the reader a solid understanding of just what Polk was walking into as President. The author also had a good source of insight into the President as Polk kept a diary of the days in office. Central to understanding many of Polk’s decisions is understanding the politics of Andrew Jackson, Polk’s political mentor. I do somewhat think that the author needed to bulk up the narrative a little bit seeing as Polk dies within 6 months of leaving office; there was less physical time that needed to be told about his life.
Whether I agree with Polk’s political philosophy or not (which isn’t the issue here), I admit that I admire the man for the fact that he campaigned on a platform, succeeded on making those 4 platform issues happen during his presidential term, and then decided not to run again because he did everything he felt his duty called him for. That is something the majority of the other presidents cannot say.
With regard to time spent on the First Lady, I have to give some kudos to the author. From what I know there is only one, very short, biography on Sarah Polk, so he didn’t have much to work with here – but he covered what I consider to be all of the important points and paints her as important to the President.
I thought that the narrator did a commendable job with this book. The most important thing in my opinion about narrating a non-fiction is to not let it feel boring with all of the facts. Nebelthau keep it interesting and has a great speaking voice.
Author Walter Borneman also has written several other books including: The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King—the Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America, Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land, and Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad. You can visit the author’s website for additional information about the book.
You can also watch a discussion with the author about this book – it was a feature on Book TV in 2008 (it wasn’t embeddable so you will have to go to the Book TV link).
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