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12 books on America in the face of political violence

These history books remind us that the shooting in Tuscon is not the first time Americans have confronted violence directed at politicians.

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James Swanson's Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer is a gripping pageturner, while his followup Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse which I reviewed last year is less exciting but provides a moving portrait of a shocked and grief-stricken country. Citizens mourned en masse as the train carrying Lincoln passed through their towns, a scene that would be repeated decades later after the deaths of FDR and Robert F. Kennedy.

In 2009's The Kennedy Assassination – 24 Hours After: Lyndon B. Johnson's Pivotal First Day as President, Steven M. Gillon captures what Publishers Weekly says are "the two faces of Johnson – the insecure second-guesser and the brilliant politician." The book became an insightful History Channel documentary.

Last year's Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin, by Hampton Sides (which I reviewed) is stunning not only for its readability but for its ability to capture the stresses and strains of the tumultuous 1960s.

The Country Moves On:

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To put it mildly, the presidents who ascended to the White House after assassinations in the 19th century did not bring the country to greatness. One was impeached and barely avoided removal from office. Another is remembered for his walrus mustache more than anything else. (Although he does have a special place on my refrigerator thank to my Forgotten Presidents set of finger puppets/magnets. But I digress.)

Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and President Lyndon Johnson are, of course, in another category entirely, both men who achieved greatness in office against all expectations.

In 2001, Monitor reviewer Gerard J. DeGroot appreciated Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris's "lively" second volume of his series of biographies of Roosevelt, which tracked his time in the White House. (The third volume, "Colonel Roosevelt," just came out.)

I gave a strong review to the "outstanding" LBJ: Architect of American Ambition in 2006, and reviewer Erik Spamberg liked last year's Lyndon B. Johnson by Charles Peters.

I am still awaiting what should be the definitive presidential bio of Johnson by Robert Caro. His previous books about the pre-presidency Johnson are remarkable, and I look forward to better understanding one giant mystery of a man – the best and worst of America and everything in between.

Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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CSMonitor picks: the best 28 nonfiction books of 2010

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