Whether you’re on the right or the left of the political spectrum, I’ll bet that lately the Office of the President isn’t far from...

Whether you’re on the right or the left of the political spectrum, I’ll bet that lately the Office of the President isn’t far from your mind. Every day, it seems, I encounter one, two, three, four stories about President Trump, which includes those on Twitter that he posts himself. For me, as the stories keep coming, so do the questions. Who is this guy? How is this guy President? And, by extension, just who can be President–what kind of character or lack of character makes a person right for the Office?

My questions aren’t new, even if our current President raises them in new and, for me at least, disturbing ways. Theres an entire subgenre of literature devoted to them. The presidential biography aims to give readers a sense of who a given President is, of the man behind–and before–the Office. These biographies are usually cradle-to-grave tomes or at least cradle-to-end-of-term, written with the idea that a President’s early life somehow shapes his political destiny. Theres even a version of this subgenre written for children, so kids can learn how to be like the young George Washington or the young Abe Lincoln, confessing about a chopped cherry tree or returning a penny to an old lady. Here the idea is that, if our kids model themselves on the early characters of these Presidents, they too might someday hold our nation’s highest office.

In his latest book, Forty-Four American Boys: Short Histories of Presidential Childhoods (Outpost19, 2017), William Walsh explores not only these assumptions, but also the literature that’s built upon them. To create it, he read through hundreds and hundreds of presidential biographies, from Washington to Trump, and out of that experience assembled a singular book, one that takes us across 285 years of American history and into the boyhoods of forty-four men who shaped it, since 1801, from The White House. The result is fascinating: Walsh didn’t write a single word of it, and yet his book is clearly the result of a consummate literary talent.

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