June 25, 2015 7:39 AM EDT

How self-aware are the great men of history? That’s the fascinating question at the heart of Evan Thomas’ new book on Richard Nixon–Being Nixon: A Man Divided–and it hovers around two other books on Presidents that are out this summer, one by Jimmy Carter and another about Ronald Reagan. These three men dominated the nation’s political conversations for two decades starting in the late 1960s. Did they know their own strengths and weaknesses? Does it even matter?

If you can read only one, Thomas’ Being Nixon is the smart pick. Here in one sharp and briskly written volume is what you really want to know about the great and horrible 37th President: How could someone so wise about the world be so utterly clueless about himself?

The answer, Thomas believes, is that Nixon was, at his core, someone who felt he could overcome unfair disadvantages of birth only by hard work, long innings and breaking the rules. Though Thomas finds much to admire in Nixon’s broad domestic agenda, one that included everything from billions for the environment to an all-volunteer army, he is revealed in Thomas’ hands as awkward, striving, victimized and alone–strange habits for a man who opted for such a public life, and traits that carried the seeds of his destruction.

Being Nixon meant wrestling between his light and dark sides: he disliked private confrontation as much as he seemed to seek it in public; he often made lists of attributes he wanted the voters to see, but struggled to convey them beyond his legal pads. Thomas uncovers a man with an almost constant desire to be alone–not only at moments of national crisis but also at family holidays and feasts. He would slip off to his hideaways and crank up Rachmaninoff or Richard Rodgers, sometimes avoiding human contact. He resurrected LBJ’s White House taping system so historians would credit him (rather than Henry Kissinger) for his brilliant opening to China, among other gambits, and yet the transcripts are cited most often now for his profanity.

Thomas takes us into long-locked rooms and shows us around. Most interesting: the complex marriage between Pat and Dick. Private about all things, Patricia Ryan of Artesia, Calif., pushed the young man from nearby Whittier from the start, righted him when he stumbled and worked overtime to protect Julie and Tricia from the waves of criticism that often followed their father. When Nixon nearly dropped out of politics after (mostly bogus) allegations of a secret slush fund in the 1952 presidential race, it was Pat who nudged him back into the ring. That was not an easy fate: during the nationally televised “Checkers” speech that saved him, she sat onstage, Thomas writes, looking “noble, exposed, tragic, and stricken.” Plastic Pat she wasn’t. No wonder the usually stoic Nixon fell apart at her funeral 40 years later.

Nixon, Thomas concludes, fought a lifelong battle with forces much darker than communism or his political rivals: his own worst instincts. Did Nixon know what lurked in his soul? “No,” Nixon aide Brent Scowcroft told Thomas, “but sometimes I think he took a peek.”

Jimmy Carter has written, or co-written, 29 books since leaving the White House. Some, like An Hour Before Daylight, are excellent; others less so. His latest, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety, falls in the second category chiefly because it re-covers so much familiar ground about his presidency and the peanut farming that came before it.

Carter has been a former President for 34 years now, a record in U.S. history. He has done more with that time than most of us could do in several lifetimes (and he has made it harder for every man who came after him to be a great ex-President). But A Full Life is a reminder that the human memory is selective, and that’s especially true of former Commanders in Chief. Though they became close friends and partners, Carter barely mentions Gerald Ford in the section on his relationships with the men who followed him into the White House. At the same time, Carter claims to have worked most closely with George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker. That is certainly not how those two men recall the experience.

A Full Life offers a few new insights: Carter and his wife Rosalynn quarreled about whether to go back to rural Georgia after his father died in the 1950s. There are some remarkable anecdotes about his stints as a door-to-door Baptist missionary in the 1960s. Otherwise, A Full Life reads in places like one of those catch-up letters you get from long-lost friends at Christmas.

Ronald Reagan is an almost impossible quarry for a writer; dozens of authors have tried to capture him on the page, but the hero usually escapes, lost again to history. In his new book, Reagan: The Life, historian H.W. Brands doesn’t waste time trying to explain who Reagan was or what made him tick. Instead he relies on public speeches and press conferences to get at what Reagan believed and how those appearances inspired, and eventually changed, a nation. That’s a useful service in an age when strong leadership can be hard to find.

But it makes the book something of a collection of speeches. Writing in short, to-the-point chapters (114 of them), Brands is best in describing the single-minded focus Reagan attached to reaching an agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce nuclear weapons while preserving the idea of space-based defensive weapons. This was, most of his former aides now agree, what Reagan cared about most. But that focus in part led Reagan to ignore what was going on elsewhere in the White House. Brands’ rendering of the Iran-contra debacle in late 1986 is a devastating decline-and-fall yarn.

Brands, who has written biographies of Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant, compares Reagan to Franklin Roosevelt, who remade American politics in the first half of the 20th century much as Reagan redefined the second. And if he comes away uncertain about who Reagan really was, Brands argues that it doesn’t much matter. “He was not a warm person, but he seemed to be, which in politics is more important,” he writes. “Many people loathed his policies, but almost no one disliked him.” That’s a gift neither Nixon nor Carter could claim.

This appears in the July 06, 2015 issue of TIME.

More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com.

Read More From TIME

Related Stories