Historians question White House presidential bios

By Hillel Italie

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 5 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

The essays from George Washington through Kennedy that appear online were written by Frank Freidel, a Harvard University scholar and biographer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who died in 1993. Paul Finkelman, author of a recent and disapproving biography of Millard Fillmore, thinks the early entries date back to the "consensus" theory of American history, when slavery was minimized and the most impassioned supporters of Reconstruction — Radical Republicans — were regarded as extremists.

The White House portraits of Fillmore and other presidents sympathetic to the South are softened and Lincoln's assassination is regretted because it makes the alleged excesses of Reconstruction possible. "For with Lincoln's death, the possibility of peace with magnanimity died," the entry concludes.

"That's a moronic statement," says historian Eric Foner, author of "Reconstruction," the acclaimed 1988 release that helped change thinking on the post-Civil War era, and winner this year of the Bancroft Prize and the Lincoln Prize for "The Fiery Trial," a Lincoln biography.

"One would have to think about the purpose of the White House biographies. If the purpose is simply to instill admiration for all American presidents, it's working. If the purpose is to give citizens a realistic sense of the presidents, it's not working."

Some of the most poorly regarded presidents receive the gentlest treatment. Herbert Hoover was simply a "scapegoat" for the Great Depression who became "a powerful critic of the New Deal, warning against tendencies toward statism." Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's immediate successor, is described as an "honest and honorable man" outsmarted by "Radical Republicans in Congress, brilliantly led and ruthless in their tactics."

A new book about Johnson, by Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed, shows him very differently. Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer for "The Hemingses of Monticello," writes that Johnson was not a victim of the times, but a stubborn participant, an advocate of restoring white domination in the South. He was committed, in his own words, to "a country for white men" and a "government for white men."

Gordon-Reed called the Johnson biography on the website "a pretty positive assessment" that "follows the line that the Radical Republicans were the villains." She also noted that the entry twice referred to blacks as Negroes.

"What's with the use of 'Negroes' in a modern document?" she said. "Very strange."

Some essays leave out seemingly essential information. Harry Truman's does not mention his upset victory over Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, while George W. Bush's offers no detail about the prolonged election of 2000. Ford's includes some of his comments upon succeeding Nixon, but leaves out the most famous words: "Our long national nightmare is over."

Other entries are oddly personal. James Buchanan, Lincoln's immediate predecessor, presided over the rapid dissolution of the country. But his page begins with a seemingly more meaningful detail: He was the nation's only bachelor-president. James Madison's story opens even more intimately. He was "a small, wizened man," who appeared "old and worn," and might have pleased no one but for the charms of his "buxom" wife Dolley.

Recent biographies, their authorship undetermined, suggest a competition for who made the country most wonderful. Reagan's notes that "the Nation was enjoying its longest recorded period of peacetime prosperity without recession or depression" at the end of his second term, in 1989. Clinton's page boasts that "the U.S. enjoyed more peace and economic well being than at any time in its history." President George W. Bush's tax cuts "helped set off an unprecedented 52 straight months of job creation."

Not all presidents are judged successes. Ulysses Grant "provided neither vigor nor reform," his biography reads. "Looking to Congress for direction, he seemed bewildered." Franklin Pierce had hoped to ease tensions between North and South, but his policies, "far from preserving calm, hastened the disruption of the Union." The wrongdoings which would define Warren G. Harding's administration are noted, as is the Watergate scandal which brought down Nixon, and Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The companion book is much more balanced on the past few presidents, with the newer essays written by Beschloss. Katrina is noted in the Bush entry and Iran-Contra for Reagan. Subtle changes are made elsewhere. "Negroes," in Andrew Johnson's entry, becomes African-Americans. "Buxom" is gone from Madison's biography.

The Obama page, written just after he took office, is highly favorable. He is presented as a gifted and civic-minded politician facing "the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression." The entry states that the country's founders would not have expected an African-American president and cites Obama's election as proof "the American system was still open to fresh talent."

Online, Obama's biography is equally positive, but quite brief — just six paragraphs — with no details about the historic 2008 campaign. It ends with his inauguration.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere