Monday, August 01, 2016

the end is nigh

It is. But, it is not the apocalyptic type with horses, scrolls, and trumpets. (Even though that is always a possibility.)

The end that is nigh is my project of reading a biography of each dead American president. Now, if you have been following my trek through the presidential timber these past two years, you might notice a new adjective in my project. I have decided to limit the biographies to dead presidents.

Let me tell you why.

While reading Charles Rappleye's biography of Herbert Hoover (Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency), I realized a very important point about presidential biographies. It has taken over 80 years for a biography to be written that is balanced between the hagiography and villainization treatments of President Hoover. It takes time to let the glandular partisan impressions to settle.

Biographers are not journalists. Well, some are, but, as biographers, they are exercising a completely different set of writing skills. Without perspective and a certain sense of objectivity, biographies can easily turn into another political slur by Occupy Democrat or Ann Coulter. And that usually takes the passage of time -- especially for politicians caught in circumstances beyond their control.

Hoover was such a man. Economists are still uncertain what caused the Great Depression. What they do know is that none of the governmental economic programs put in place by Hoover and his successor Franklin Roosevelt pulled the United States out of its economic malaise.

Both men tried very similar methods to get the economy moving again (Roosevelt's boldest mood was taking the country off of the gold standard -- a move that, in the long run, did nothing to help alleviate the depression.) The big difference between them was leadership. Hoover tended to lecture Americans that they were not doing enough to help themselves (much as Jimmy Carter did in his infamous energy speech). Roosevelt made people think he was in the battle along side them; that he was doing something.

Rappleye's book could not have been written when I was young in the 50s. My mother idealized Hoover; my father idolized FDR. Memories were still too raw for objectivity. With the passage of time, we can see Hoover as a real person -- a man with the perfect résumé to be president -- who turned out to have exactly the wrong personality when the economy went south.

To test my theory, I read Douglas Brinkley's Gerald Ford. I was correct. The wounds that were opened in the 1976 primary with Ronald Reagan and the campaign in the general election against Carter were still too raw. At least, for me. I was neck deep in the campaigns that year.

Brinkley works valiantly to remain neutral, but there are far too my pejorative adjectives flung around to save the pretense of objectivity. The events are just too near in time to us.

For that reason, I will not seek out biographies on Carter, both Bushes, Clinton (the one who has been president), and Obama. There would be little sense. Not only is objectivity a concern, they are five men all still adding pages to their biographies in life.

So, here's the score. There have been 43 men who have served as president. Five are still living. That leaves a total of 38 biographies -- of which I have read 36. The only two awaiting my roving eyes are Warren Harding and Lyndon Johnson.

My friend, Al French, is mailing a Harding biography to me. While I await its arrival, I will take on Lyndon Johnson's life. I had considered reading Robert A. Caro's four volume set on Johnson's life. But his work currently ends in 1964 -- and a lot happened to LBJ after his landslide election that year.

Instead, I decided to start reading Robert Dallek's Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President -- an abridgment of his authoritative two-volume biography.

Reading these biographies has taught me one thing: journalists are wont to say that the election this year is something completely new. It is no such thing.

The nation has suffered far greater divisions in its politics. During the 1800 election where name-calling and mutual distrust became a normal attribute of American politics. The elections of the 1850s, culminating in 1860, where the nation could not find a political solution to slavery -- and resorted to the crudest of all weapons in the civil war. The populist revolution of the 1880s and 1890s where tariffs and the gold standard were every bit as divisive as abortion and free trade. The election of 1968 where the nation was on the verge of revolution.

Knowing that we have been here before is not comforting. But it is certainly not something new. History rhymes.
So, for now, I will work through two more presidential biographies. And my project will be done. For now. At least two of the former presidents will be dead before too long. But it will be at least a decade or two before decent biographies will be written about their accomplishments and failures.

By that time, the end may have drawn nigh.

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