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The enduring appeal of presidential biographies

It measures nearly three inches wide (twice the size of Richard Reeves's estimable 1993 volume on John F. Kennedy) and checks in at 1,461 pages (more than twice the number in David Maraniss's 1995 biography of Bill Clinton). David J. Garrow's Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, which went on sale this week, is something of a publishing landmark.

Long, languid and learned, Garrow's weighty (1.9 kilograms) book already has caused a stir. He explores Obama's childhood in great detail (the young "Barry" was always smiling), examines his years in the Illinois state senate and the United States Senate (both left him bored) and provides insights on the passions that animate him (including his "belief in his potential as a serious writer").

The Garrow book has spurred talk about the woman Obama wanted to marry but didn't (Sheila Miyoshi Jager), although the reflections of another early girlfriend (Genevieve Cook) may merit more attention. Besides her description of their lovemaking, Cook remembered the young Obama expressing astonishment at how kind she was to him, "as if," she said, "he's not accustomed to that, has had not much of that."

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But, ultimately, Garrow's book – which because of its girth may be more purchased than perused – focuses fresh attention on the genre of the presidential biography, a section of the American bookshelf that has been populated by writers from the poet Carl Sandburg (on Abraham Lincoln) to 1980s-era White House candidate Gary Hart (on James Monroe) to the Canadian-born publishing magnate Conrad Black (on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a volume that itself is 1,296 pages long).

Americans have a weakness for presidential biographies. And these volumes, gobbled up with eagerness and read widely, are published with remarkable regularity. In a four-year period during the Obama era, Woodrow Wilson was the subject of two magisterial biographies, one by A. Scott Berg and another by John Milton Cooper Jr. In a two-year period, Richard Nixon has been the subject of three major efforts, by Tim Weiner, Evan Thomas and, just this spring, John A. Farrell.

Many of these biographies are artfully crafted, such as James MacGregor Burns's 1971 Pulitzer Prize-winning Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, in which the Williams College professor wrote that FDR "could be bold or cautious, informal or dignified, cruel or kind, intolerant or long-suffering, urbane or almost rustic, impetuous or temporizing, Machiavellian or moralistic."

Many of them give life to long-dead, and often forgotten, presidents, such as Robert W. Merry's forthcoming volume on William McKinley, who occupied the White House between 1897 and 1901 and who was, as Merry wrote, "a man of prudence, character, compassion, competence, patriotism, and subtle force who resided over momentous times in American history."

And some, such as David McCullough's 1992 biography of Harry Truman ("the kind of president the founding fathers had in mind for the country") and Fred I. Greenstein's 1982 biography of Dwight Eisenhower (the man who seemed to do little but putter in the White House and putt on the golf course but who actually governed shrewdly by what the author called a "hidden hand"), change our minds about American chief executives. Farrell's Richard Nixon does that this spring with exhaustive research and elegant prose that captures not merely the mendacity but also the complexity of the only president to resign from office.

"New generations bring new values to the same material," says Priscilla Painton, executive editor for non-fiction at Simon & Schuster. "It's not that biographers need to find new stuff. It's that they have to bring new perspective. And things that are at the margins of a presidential life may in a different era be at the centre. Biographers have to take off the glasses of a previous generation and put on the glasses of a different generation."

Presidential biographies at their best are not only about the man but also about the important matters and manners of the time – in short, histories with personalities embedded, with special emphasis on whether the president's character met the challenges of the time.

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"For a living figure especially, the goal has to be that the reader understand the character of the president," says David Maraniss, whose Clinton biography came 17 years before his 2012 Obama biography. "What is important are the forces that shaped him, why he thinks the way he does, what motivates him and what are the cycles of his life that can explain everything that he does."

Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer-winning biographer of Thomas Jefferson (published in 2012), Andrew Jackson (2008) and George H.W. Bush (2015), thinks that human drama – one example may be the fact in the Garrow book that Obama's mother had toyed with giving her baby to the Salvation Army – needs to be a central element of a presidential biography.

"The ideal book doesn't overly celebrate or overly condemn," says Meacham, now at work on a dual biography of James Madison and his redoubtable wife, Dolley. "It can be respectful but not uncritical. The best books appreciate the accomplishments of a president, catalogue his shortcomings and ultimately give you a sense of what it was like to be in a room with a president at momentous hours."

That is why the biography of Lincoln published eight years ago by Ronald C. White Jr. endures, along with David Herbert Donald's 1995 biography, as a masterpiece of the genre, and why they both stand out amid the subset of an estimated 15,000 volumes about Lincoln alone. "However one seeks to define Lincoln, whatever questions one brings to his story," White wrote, "his life and ideas are a prism to America's past as well as to her future."

Providing that broader perspective is important for Americans but vital for readers beyond the borders of the United States, in Canada and elsewhere. "Canadians interested in American history need to have some context," says Doug Pepper, publisher of Signal Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada. "We're not American and they're not our presidents, and so we need to put them in proper historical perspective. We're at some kind of a distance from these presidents, even if it is a short distance."

No presidential biography is complete without a description – sometimes flowing, sometimes just plain florid – of the role of geography in history.

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In his unreliable but irresistible life of Lincoln, the poet Sandburg speaks of the 16th president as being rooted in "a wild, raw country, rolling land with trees everywhere, tall oaks and elms, maples, birches, dogwood, underbrush tied down by ever-winding grapevines, thin mist and winter damp rising from the ground." Robert Caro places Lyndon B. Johnson amid "the grass that had been holding that thick Hill Country soil in place and shielding it from the beating rain."

And so in that context, Garrow's 41-page reflection on Chicago's Southwest Side, its steel heritage and steel crisis, its activists and church leaders and his portrayal of how the racial profile of perhaps Obama's most formative hometown "changed gradually, and then incredibly abruptly" is not as gratuitous as it may seem at first reading, at the very beginning of the book.

Like presidencies, presidential biographies are subject to continual revisionism, which is why John Adams is, thanks to David McCullough, the United States's great restoration artist, no longer regarded as a failed second act to George Washington's bravura presidential premiere performance and why Calvin Coolidge, thanks to Amity Shlaes, is no longer regarded as a nearly mute non-entity who occupied the White House in the sleepy years from 1923 to 1929.

In the case of Coolidge, the personal characteristics that once were subject of easy ridicule – his quiet mien, his rigid, perhaps overweening, maybe even slightly haughty, sense of integrity, surely his New England sense of thrift – now seem refreshing. "[A]ll his life, and at every station on the great figurative river," Shlaes wrote in her 2013 biography, "Coolidge never ceased to probe the same questions of debt, money, commerce, and growth … puzzling over in his mind what might be the right balance."

When McCullough takes on a subject, he's less focused on making new discoveries than assembling what he calls "a collection of small things," adding, in an interview this week, "It's important to know where they get their own sense of their place in society."

Though Garrow may win few readers with his forbidding volume – Roy Jenkins managed in 2003 to handle Franklin Roosevelt and his dozen years in the White House nicely in a mere 208 pages, only 14 per cent of the pulp that Garrow consumes – his biography may endure in the American presidential canon, at the very least as an indispensable resource for future biographers.

Garrow interviewed nearly everybody who knew Obama, though sometimes it seems as if he interrogated even people who ran into the future president while changing planes in Terminal 2 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Future biographers will lean on those interviews, especially since inevitably some of the principals will die before they can be interviewed for the Obama biographies of the next several decades. Garrow's footnotes run to 307 pages, which ordinarily would be impressive enough but that is breathtaking when you consider that those footnotes are in two columns of small type.

The January, 1914, exhortation that Coolidge presented to the Massachusetts Senate at his inauguration as president of that body applies to Garrow's indefatigable combination of scholarship and stenography in a special way: "Do the day's work," Coolidge implored. Garrow did the day's work, and shortened the number of days his successors as Obama biographers will have to devote to their lonely toil.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a former campaign reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

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