The Biographers' Hail to the Chief

The tide of books about presidents has been surging. Many of the briskly selling volumes are aimed at a popular audience hungry for heroes.

February 20, 2006|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As a young historian, Douglas Brinkley published back-to-back biographies of two prominent Cold War diplomats, Dean Acheson and James Forrestal. After the books appeared in the early 1990s, Brinkley was taken aside by Stephen E. Ambrose, a colleague at the University of New Orleans who had gained acclaim for biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

"Why are you screwing around with those people?" Brinkley said Ambrose asked him. "Do a book on presidents. People don't care about secretaries of State. People care about presidents."

Increasingly, writers of popular history are following Ambrose's advice. In bookstores, it sometimes seems as if every day is Presidents Day.

Over the last 15 years or so, a tide of presidential biographies aimed at a popular rather than scholarly audience has surged onto bestseller lists.

Presidential biographers such as David McCullough (Harry S. Truman and John Adams), Joseph J. Ellis (Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) and Doris Kearns Goodwin (Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln) have attracted large audiences and won Pulitzer Prizes for fresh character studies of some of the most familiar names in U.S. history.

Richard Reeves mined previously unreleased records for a detailed portrait of President Reagan published in December; Robert Dallek did the same for his 2003 biography of President Kennedy. And Robert A. Caro's monumental series on Lyndon B. Johnson has tracked its subject to the edge of the presidency; the fourth and last volume, in progress, will follow him into the Oval Office.

A dozen presidential books by these six authors and Edmund Morris, the biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, have spent about 300 weeks combined on the USA Today list of 150 bestselling hardcover and paperback books.

In one of the most ambitious recent projects, under the direction of leading presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Times Books is halfway through a publishing marathon producing bite-sized (200 pages or fewer) biographies of all 42 presidents -- from titans like Lincoln and Washington to afterthoughts such as Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.

"The number of presidential biographies that make it on [bestseller lists] is astonishing," Dallek said. "My Kennedy book [published in 2003] was on there for eight weeks. I'm an academic; I've never had anything like that before."

America's reading list always offers insights into the country's thinking, and the huge audience for books about presidents may reflect a resurgence of the chief executive as the focus of American political life.

"When the presidency is at the center's of people's attention, books on presidents seem more interesting," said Alan Brinkley (no relation to Douglas), a historian at Columbia University. "In the mid- to late 1970s, under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the presidency seemed less important. But starting in the middle of the Reagan years, the presidency revived and the trend [in book publishing] began to move back to presidential history. That accelerated in the 1990s."

Dallek said he believed readers also were drawn to peek behind the curtain -- to learn facts that had been suppressed, especially about recent presidents.

"There's the hidden history ... with the abuse of power, the fact that you've had so much in the way of secret government," said Dallek, who is writing a book on Nixon and his chief foreign policy advisor, Henry A. Kissinger.

Many historians say the dominant emotion generating interest in presidential biographies is a craving for heroes. Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University historian who recently wrote a panoramic history of politics in early 19th century America and a short biography of President Jackson in the Schlesinger series, has seen that hunger in those attending his book signings.

"A lot of people say to me that 'compared to then, we have such small fry today; nobody matches those great figures,' " Wilentz said. "I'm not sure people back then would have said the same thing. But even among those who admire various people in politics today, there's a feeling it's not what it was and there has been some sort of decline."

Even as presidential biography is booming in the bookstores, it is slumping in academia.

With some exceptions, scholarly historians since the 1970s have turned away from the sort of "top-down" history that focuses on political leaders. At the annual meeting of the American Historical Assn. last month in Philadelphia, none of the 195 sessions dealt with any president, or even the presidency as an institution.

Instead, professors have emphasized "bottom-up" social history that examines the impact on American life by groups, such as women and minorities, who received little attention in the past.

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