In the past 30 years there has been an increasing popularity for presidential biographies. Currently, three out of five books on the non-fiction New York Times’ best seller list detail the lives and/or deaths of past presidents; Killing Kennedy (#1), Thomas Jefferson (#3), and Killing Lincoln (#4). Why are presidential biographies selling so well now? In difficult economic times, do we long for a strong hero to make it all better? Is the breakdown of society (absent father figures) a factor? Many people believe no strong candidate in either party has run for president in over a decade, are we living in the past wishing presidents of the past were running today? Are we looking for life lessons and lessons in leadership?
People care about who has led our country. It seems to me for a presidential biography to be successful there must be a perfect storm of conflict in America at the time of the particular leader’s presidency, controversy over what he did during his term, drama in the president’s personal life, and the leading of the United States to a triumphant victory of some sort. Ronald Brownstein’s reasoning for this relatively new phenomenon is that “two principal springs feed the current torrent of presidential biographies: new information and new perspectives. With modern presidents, the pace of new biography is closely linked to the rate at which the government releases records from their administrations. Each generation also re-examines presidents based on contemporary concerns.”
Presidents tend to read other presidents’ biographies to get advice, and learn how to deal with the “it’s lonely at the top” problem. They can also gain support by seeing how their predecessors handled certain situations. For example, Truman read how Lincoln fired McClellan before he fired MacArthur. Clinton has said that he read much about his predecessors for the consolation of shared difficulties. Presidents have few peers with whom to discuss policy so it helps to see how previous presidents coped with difficult situations. Jon Meacham, presidential biographer of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, even suggests that President Obama should use Thomas Jefferson’s ideas of inviting different politicians and lawmakers to dinner and drinks to smooth over differences.
Sometimes these presidential biographies are much like popular culture: who will lead the country best? Media figures fascinate Americans and during election times, candidates are constantly in the public eye. Although David Maraniss told Occidental students, faculty and visitors during his lecture on campus that it was not his intention to come out with the biographies for both Bill Clinton and President Obama right before their reelections, it obviously did not hurt either candidate.
Or are we looking for someone to hate? A leader to blame for us to blame for our country’s bloody, racist history? Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington shows him to be stuffy, aloof and trying to appear powerful in an attempt to show a strong union. We learn he has a horrid temper. Maybe we can relate. In Edmund Morris’ trilogy of three biographies about Teddy Roosevelt, we learn that he was an elitist and a racist as he considered Native Americans to be “savages.” He believed that the white man was superior to other races and was destined to rule. Henry Wiencek’s new controversial biography, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, reveals his theory that “Jefferson became so convinced of the economic value of slavery that he abandoned his youthful anti-slavery sentiments.” Peering into the dark side of a president allows readers to see that presidents are human too. They are flawed, and more importantly, our history is flawed. We have made massive, fatal, embarrassing, heartbreaking mistakes even under excellent leaders. Whatever the reasoning for the popularity of presidential biographies, to read a success story or an exposé, the search for a hero, to learn gossip or information, the want for a new leader, to learn conspiracy theories, to gather business or presidential advice, I predict that there will be many more presidential biographies to come since this fad will not disappear quickly. “History isn’t about mistakes. It’s about destiny.”