Presidential bedfellows

Winter nights are perfect for cuddling up with books about past presidents.

Scott Wallace - staff

In one of the early winters of my marriage, I shared my bed not only with my wife, but with Harry S. Truman, Missouri's favorite son.

Each evening, as wind rattled the windows of our modest house, my wife would slip under the comforter with a copy of "Truman," David McCullough's mammoth, award-winning biography of the straight-talking commander in chief. Competing with the 33rd president of the United States proved difficult if not impossible.

I might sink into the pillow and offer a casual anecdote about something funny I'd said at lunch, but it was no use. My wife, pleasantly oblivious to my self-serving narrative, was already arm in arm with Truman as he took the oath of office to lead the nation.

If I had a question about our weekend plans or the size of the gas bill, I knew I'd better wait until morning. My wife, perched over Truman's shoulder as he fired Douglas MacArthur, would not have heard me if I'd bellowed the national anthem.

And how could I hope to steal a kiss to warm the winter night when my wife was breathlessly waiting for Truman to outwit Thomas Dewey in the squeaker election of 1948?

Truman eventually migrated from my wife's nightstand to mine, as I realized that if I could not beat Harry, I might as well join him. So began what has become a tradition of bringing presidents to bed with us each winter. One can read presidential biography at any time of year, I suppose, but there's something about dark, cold nights that seems especially conducive to the longer view.

The chilly weather just beyond our bedroom window is a perfect complement to the cooler perspective of presidential history. The presidents waiting for my wife and me at the close of a January day have fought their last political battles, so we can usually greet them with quiet magnanimity as we flip on the lamp and slide under the quilt.

Although Ulysses S. Grant presided over one of America's most corrupt administrations, for example, I couldn't help feeling sorry for the old general as I combed the pages of his personal memoir. Financially ruined by soured business dealings, Grant penned his poignant memoir as he was dying in order to provide for his family. The former president tells his readers at the outset that he's writing his story for the money, and who can't admire such rare candor in a politician?

As if sensing my seasonal preference for presidential reading, David McCullough begins his biography of John Adams in "the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter," as "two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north."

The two men were Adams and an assistant, heading to meet George Washington in Cambridge to help fight the British. I pulled the blanket closer as I followed Adams through a New England night where the temperature hovered in the low 20s F., and I didn't stop shivering until 15 pages later, when a welcome flashback took me to Adams's happier days at Harvard.

With the coming of spring, my nightstand reading will eventually turn to seed catalogs and gardening books, and summer will bring a thriller, perhaps, or a light piece of armchair travelogue. But the nights are still long and brisk, and the last time I closed the covers of Michael Beschloss's latest book, "Presidential Courage," Abraham Lincoln was about to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

On this winter night as in others, I'll drift off to sleep with "Hail to the Chief" as my lullaby.

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