They’ve read a biography of every president

From Washington to Obama, this Southwest Minneapolis book club has read them all

presidential biographies book club
Jan Emerson, Lynne Nystuen and Tama Pudvah page through some presidential biographies inside Pudvah's Lynnhurst home. In 2009, the three women joined together to form a book club dedicated to reading a biography of every American president. Submitted photo

Every few months for more than a decade, Lynnhurst residents Jan Emerson and Tama Pudvah have met up with Linden Hills resident Lynne Nystuen at a local restaurant to share food over a lively discussion of an American president’s biography.

Starting in 2009, the three women have chronologically read the biographies of the first 44 American presidents, averaging about four books a year. Born out of a love of history, the book club will soon discuss the biography of Barack Obama. Then they’ll most likely take a break.

“We’ve been debating, honestly, whether we can stomach Trump at this point,” Pudvah said.  “I think Obama’s our last one for now.”

The book club initially included Emerson, Nystuen and Pudvah’s husbands, but the men quit after George Washington.

“One read the whole thing, one read half and then one had his phone underneath the table and was googling things to pretend like he read the book,” Emerson said. 

Emerson and Nystuen, who are sisters, have known Pudvah for more than 20 years. In addition to reading presidential biographies, the three women participate in other book clubs and regularly attend forums hosted by the Minnesota Historical Society.

“It’s a good way to learn about the presidents and learn about trends in our country and politics,” Pudvah said.

After reading the stories of dozens of men, Emerson, Nystuen and Pudvah said this project has made clear that it is time the country had a woman president.

Nystuen said she was captivated to learn that Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith, practically ran the country in secret during his second term, after he suffered a severe stroke in October 1919.

“He was incapacitated for a year and a half, or something like that, and she ran the country,” she said.

Along with providing a framework for political discussions, the book club has offered a time for thoughtful reflection on past administrations.

“[During the Clinton administration], our kids were young, our heads were kind of into parenting and so much of that just kind of came and went when it was in the headlines, but I don’t know how much I was registering what was actually happening,” Pudvah said.

Reading through the pages of the country’s administrations, the book club has found much that rhymes with current events.

“Learning more about [the 2000 contested election] as we’ve gone through the books and even now, with the threat of another one, it’s just interesting to have that perspective,” Pudvah said.

Issues like abolishing the Electoral College and setting term limitations for the Supreme Court have appeared before in American history, Nystuen said.

“All those things are in every book that we read and so it keeps coming up,” she said. “There’s just certain things that always seem to bubble up to the surface during an election.”

Patterns of progress followed by reaction also repeat, Pudvah said.

“There was a lot of progress made after the Civil War, and when Abraham Lincoln was killed and Andrew Johnson came in, he just undid everything,” she said. “You kind of see that yin and yang through history where you gain a certain point, and then a different president, a different administration, just comes in, like Trump, and undoes it.”

Emerson, Nystuen and Pudvah plan to wrap up their 11-year project with a trip to Washington, D.C., and visits to presidential libraries.

“Reading the presidential books has made me aware of other issues, and why my vote and voice matters,” Emerson said.

The book club provided this list of biographies they’ve read:

  1. George Washington (1789-1797) – His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis
  2. John Adams (1797-1801) – John Adams by David McCullough
  3. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) – Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History by Fawn M Brodie
  4. James Madison (1809-1817) – James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic by Jack N. Rakove
  5. James Monroe (1817-1825) – James Monroe: The American Presidents Series by Gary Hart
  6. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) – John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life by Paul C. Nagle
  7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) – American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
  8. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) – Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics by Joel H. Silbey
  9. William Henry Harrison (1841) – William Henry Harrison: The American Presidents Series by Gail Collins
  10. John Tyler (1841-1845) – John Tyler by Gary May
  11. James Knox Polk (1845-1849) – Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter Borneman
  12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) – The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore by Elbert B. Smith
  13. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) – The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore by Elbert B. Smith
  14. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) – Franklin Pierce: The American Presidents Series by Michael F Holt
  15. James Buchanan (1857-1861) – James Buchanan: The American Presidents Series by Jean H. Baker
  16. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) – Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  17. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) – Andrew Johnson: The American Presidents Series by Annette Gordon-Reed
  18. Ulysses Simpson Grant (1869-1877) – Ulysses S. Grant: The American Presidents Series by Josiah Bunting III
  19. Rutherford Birchard Hayes (1877-1881) – Rutherford B. Hayes: The American Presidents Series by Hans Trefousse
  20. James Abram Garfield (1881) – James A. Garfield: The American Presidents Series by Ira Rutkow
  21. Chester Alan Arthur (1881-1885) – Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves
  22. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889) – The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland by John M. Pafford
  23. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) – Benjamin Harrison: The American Presidents Series by Charles W. Calhoun
  24. Grover Cleveland (1893-1897) – The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland by John M. Pafford
  25. William McKinley (1897-1901) – The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller
  26. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) – Theodore Roosevelt-The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  27. William Howard Taft (1909-1913) – The Presidency of William Howard Taft: The American Presidents Series by Paolo E. Coleta
  28. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) – Woodrow Wilson: A Biography by John Milton Cooper
  29. Warren Gamaliel Harding (1921-1923) – The Shadow of Blooming Grove by Francis Russell
  30. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) – Coolidge by Amity Shlaes
  31. Herbert Clark Hoover (1929-1933) – Herbert Hoover: The American Presidents Series by William E. Leuchtenburg
  32. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) – No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  33. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) – Truman by David McCullough
  34. Dwight David Eisenhower (1953-1961) – Eisenhower: Soldier and President by Stephen E. Ambrose
  35. John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1961-1963) – An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy by Robert Dallek
  36. Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969) – Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  37. Richard Milhous Nixon (1969-1974) – Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
  38. Gerald Rudolph Ford (1974-1977) – A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford by Gerald Ford
  39. Jimmy Earl Carter, Jr. (1977-1981) – Jimmy Carter: The American Presidents Series by Julian E. Zelizer
  40. Ronald Wilson Reagan (1981-1989) – Ronald Reagan: The American Presidents Series by Jacob Weinberg
  41. George Herbert Walker Bush (1989-1993) – Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham
  42. William Jefferson Clinton (1993-2001) – The Survivor: Clinton in the White House by John F. Harris
  43. George Walker Bush (2001-2009) – Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush by Robert Draper

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Lynne Nystuen’s name.