Finding the biographer in the biography

[Wall Street Journal]

In this Sunday’s Wall Street Journal I’ve got a  long review of A. Scott Berg’s new biography Wilson. It’s also an essay on what exactly a biographer adds to any biography. Just four years ago, another excellent biography of Wilson  appeared — John Milton Cooper Jr.’s Woodrow Wilson — and that means we’ve got an excellent test case for just how two different biographers create two different versions of Wilson.

Anyway, read the review for more. One of my main points is that Berg tries too hard to fashion Wilson as a president who feels distinctly modern. Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here’s Berg talking to to Los Angeles magazine: “As I was writing,” he said, “there were literally days I would say, ‘I’m going to forget the name is Wilson. I’ll pretend it is Obama. And I will write it as though it is Obama.'”

Berg’s an excellent biographer. (Last month, in a separate review, I praised his decades-old book on Max Perkins.) But this method strikes me as problematic, to say the least. Cooper is also an excellent biographer, and I think his book is a better fit for anyone new to Wilson. But Berg’s scrupulous research — he spent a decade on Wilson — has unearthed lots of new supplementary detail, and for experts it’s worth checking out, as well.

One last thing: not many people know that Sigmund Freud cowrote a biography of Wilson with William Bullitt. It’s called Thomas Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-eighth President of the United States, —A Psychological Study, and it’s really, really awful. Freud’s estate worked very hard to separate Sigmund from it, and a lot of historians still seem dubious about his involvement. But in 2008 J. F. Campbell published a scholarly article based on his research in Bullitt’s papers. It turns out Freud more than earned his status as co-writer, and more scholars should check out Campbell’s work.

Christmas is only three months away!

For their December 1990 issue, the editors of The American Spectator did the same thing they’d done every year since 1976: they asked a few famous writers, academics, and political types to provide book recommendations for the holiday shopping season.

One recommender in that 1990 issue was former First Lady Nancy Reagan. She spoke highly of two books by Rosamund Pincher (The Shell Seekers and September), one book by Mark Twain (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) — and one book each by Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Here, from the Spectator‘s archives, is Nancy’s rationale on those last two:

An American Life, by Ronald Reagan. The fascinating story of a young boy from Dixon, Illinois, who worked for a construction company as an 11-12 year old for 25 cents an hour; at fifteen he became a lifeguard to help work his way through college; in college he worked to pay his way, and afterwards finally landed a job as a sports announcer in Iowa. He then became a star in movies, the Governor of California for eight years, and finally President of the United States for eight years. Incredible story.

My Turn, by Nancy Reagan. An honest book answering all the charges that had been made against her for eight years and she didn’t feel she could answer at the time; a picture of what life was like at the White House and her relationship with her husband.

Presidents and Their Limited Editions

[Boston Globe]

I’m a little late in linking to this, but I wrote another story for the Boston Globe‘s Ideas section — this one on the crazy, opulent history of deluxe presidential memoirs, books that typically come with autographs, artificially limited print runs, and price tags as high as $1,500.

Along with my text, you’ll find some great photos from Jim Hier, a Portland man who works in finance — and who owns more than 400 different volumes autographed by presidents. Hier filled me in on the rise of presidential book collecting, and, while there wasn’t room for that in the story, I’ll sketch it here.

Nineteenth-century autograph hounds lusted after George Washington’s signature, so there is a history here. Still, for most of that history, collectors didn’t care about an autograph’s context. Hier remembers that, for a long time, books with presidential autographs actually came cheaper than letters or random squibs. “A lot of dealers looked at books as a bit of a nuisance,” he told me. “They were bulky, heavy, and hard to transport. One time, I got Eisenhower’s two-volume set at the end of a show for a big discount, just because the dealer just didn’t want to pack it home.”

Two things changed this. First, in 1982, Stephen Koschal published a book titled Collecting Books and Pamphlets Signed by the Presidents of the United States. It helped focus and drive the interests of collectors like Hier. The second change was the Internet, and websites like eBay and AbeBooks helped Koschal’s readers connect with each other. Rare and autographed presidential books still make up a small part of the book collecting universe, but Hier says interest (and prices) have grown substantially. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hier found new items all the time. “Now, I’m lucky if I can add one or two good books a year.”

That’s partly because Hier already owns so many amazing titles. (In addition to the mass produced books I talk about in my story, Hier owns unique books like a copy of Benjamin Henry Harrison’s This Country of Ours that the president signed for his wife.) But that’s also because, today, Hier has plenty of company.

The Non-Controversy over Barack Obama’s Of Thee I Sing

Earlier this week, we put to rest one of the right wing’s more durable political myths. To celebrate the occasion — and to remind us that these myths can be big or small and can originate on the right or the left — I’d like to return to a idiotic mini-scandal from last year. Let me say upfront that everyone has moved on and no real harm was done. Still, the procedures and incentives that created this kind of nonsense still hold, and we’ll see many more stories following this template in the next 18 months.

Anyway: in November of 2010, Barack Obama published a children’s book, Of Thee I Sing. It was the latest in a long line of presidential children’s books — see other entries by Theodore Roosevelt, JFK, Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, and Laura and Jenna Bush — and an even longer line of celebrity-written children’s books. (Whether celebrity book vs. presidential book remains a useful distinction is a topic for another post.)

Nevertheless, in the days surrounding its release, Of Thee I Sing set off a series of controversies. The first  — doesn’t Obama have something better to do than write a children’s book? — was quickly defused by his publisher and his agent: he wrote the book after the election but before the inauguration, and the illustrations caused the delay. The second controversy — is Obama cashing in on his presidency? — was never more than notional. Of Thee I Sing sold 50,000 copies in its first week, but, as the AP reported, Obama donated “his proceeds to a scholarship fund for children of disabled and fallen soldiers.”[1]

The book’s third controversy, however, could not be so easily dismissed. When Fox Nation linked to a USA Today story about Of Thee I Sing, it added its own headline: “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General.” (Sitting Bull is one of the 13 figures Obama profiles in the book.) Over the next 48 hours, the online world’s usual suspects — media criticsaggregators, pundits, Gawker — came together to criticize Fox News for its hyper-partisan behavior. AOL’s Politics Daily commissioned a 1,000 word feature, complete with expert interviews and a larger import.

But here’s the thing: the only glimmer of conservative outrage came in that first headline, which Fox Nation quickly changed “for historical accuracy.” (The afore-linked stories also included a few online comments, sure, but the journalistic habit of quoting online commenters is its own sick joke.) This story lived and died on the left; the right never even noticed. The whole mess underlines the fact that attacking everything Fox News does is now as ingrained as Fox News attacking everything Obama does. Another way to say this is that Fox News wasn’t the only media outlet willing the Of Thee I Sing controversy into being. I’m not sure who won the day, but we all lost it.


[1] This probably isn’t the full truth. Of Thee I Sing was the last in a three-book, $1.9 million deal Obama signed with Knopf in 2004 — the publisher had originally promised this book would be the childhood autobiography of a “skinny young kid with big ears and the funny name” — but I never saw anyone ask if the “proceeds” include part of his advance.

Reprinting Reagan

I’m switching gears to work on some long-term projects, which may mean fewer story links and deleted scenes. That said, I want to keep writing regularly, so the plan is to do more short, standalone posts. They might be a little dated, but I hope they’ll also be interesting. Expect lots of presidents, publishing history, and weird-slash-strangely familiar stuff from old media sources.

So, in that spirit: while researching Jack Cashill’s crackpot theories about the real author of Barack Obama’s books, I came across the following web ad:

It seems that, in honor of Reagan’s birth centennial, Simon & Schuster has decided to reissue An American Life, his presidential memoir, in hardcover. Immediately after his death, in 2004, the publisher also rushed out a fresh batch of 10,000 copies. But this is something new. First, there’s the targeted online ad campaign. (I saw this one here.) Then there’s the brand new online book trailer. “Thousands of books have been written about Ronald Reagan’s presidency,” the trailer opens. “Only one in his own words.”

Most interesting of all, though, is Simon & Schuster’s release of a new “enhanced ebook” that combines Reagan’s text with contemporary videos. It’s a smart and relatively easy move since Simon & Schuster is now owned by the CBS Corporation, which of course owns all the news footage one would ever need. But political books often end up in these sorts of multimedia experiments. Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland was Simon & Schuster’s first “enhanced ebook,” with 27 videos interpolated into the almost 900 pages of text. Sarah Palin and Ted Kennedy’s plain old ebooks became important data points in the publishing industry’s attempts to delay ebooks in order to goose hardcover sales. And way back in 1990, for its original release, Reagan’s An American Life became the first presidential memoir audio book.

In a forthcoming academic article, I’ve got a lot more to say about Reagan’s career as an author, which is much more interesting — and much more rewarding — than you might initially think. I’ll post a .pdf of it when the journal issue comes out. Let’s hope that happens in 2011, so we can keep riding the birth centennial wave.

James Kloppenberg vs. Jack Cashill

[Washington Post]

In Sunday’s Washington Post, I’ve got a long review of two books about the books of Barack Obama — James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama, which reverse-engineers the ideas in Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, and Jack Cashill’s Deconstructing Obama, which advances his theory that Bill Ayers actually wrote Dreams. Kloppenberg’s book is pretty good. Cashill’s is pretty grotesque, and, by the end of my review, I suggest that its mere existence says some troubling things about the modern publishing industry.

Despite all that, I still don’t think my review comes down hard enough on Cashill. I say he “bends and invents evidence to fit his theories,” but lacked the space to really prove it. So let me do that here, first with a more developed example, then with a few quick hitters. I’m not trying to be pedantic, and I’m not trying to be political. But I am trying to stand up for some common standards of fact and argument and discourse — even if Cashill, and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, do not.

One thing to admire about Cashill is his comprehensiveness. It’s not enough for Ayers to have written Dreams. For Cashill, he must also have written parts of Audacity and even Obama’s famous 2002 speech against the Iraq war. I’ll run down Cashill’s reasoning on this latter point, to which he devotes an entire chapter, and put my counterarguments in bold parentheses. Cashill begins by describing Obama’s speech as cowardly and calculating. (In reality, Obama talked frankly about a “dumb war” and a “rash war.”) Cashill pauses to note that Obama praised his grandfather’s service in World War II — and that he would later assign this to an apocryphal uncle in 2008. (Here’s Cashill frantically defending Sarah Palin’s “Korea” gaffe.) Cashill also cherrypicks statistics in order to dispute Obama’s description of a struggling economy. (Obama mentions “a stock market that has just gone through the worst month [September] since the Great Depression”; Cashill counters that “the Dow Jones would gain more than 10 percent in that very October of Obama’s discontent.” Which statistic better captures the reality?) But Cashill soon gets to the business at hand: “Despite Obama’s claims to unique authorship,” he writes, “one senses a radical contribution to the speech.” What catches Cashill’s attention? The fact that Obama singles out the Defense Department’s Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz for censure — “two names in common parlance only on the hard left,” Cashill writes. (A year later, David Brooks devoted an entire column to the idea that everyone was giving Perle and Wolfowitz too much credit.) Cashill also uses the mention of Perle and Wolfowitz to implicate Ayers, who attended Obama’s speech and whom Cashill believes to be virulently antisemitic. At the end of the chapter, Cashill unveils his masterstroke: Obama later told a reporter that “it was a hard speech to give. And it was just, well, a well-constructed speech” — and in this phrasing, Cashill argues, Obama lets slip that the text “had been handed to him” by none other than Bill Ayers.

Again, this kind of nonsense saturates Cashill’s book. Let’s switch to bullet points for some of my favorite examples.

  • Cashill keys onto the word “ballast,” which Obama and Ayers both use in their memoirs. When the word is “flat-out misused” in Audacity — Obama describes religion as “a ballast against the buffeting winds of today’s headlines” — Cashill sees it as proof that Ayers has been replaced by Obama’s speechwriters. Throughout his book, Cashill makes much of Ayers’s nautical background, writing here that “no one in the know uses the phrase ‘ballast against’ in reference to a ship.” Perhaps not, but plenty of people use it in reference to “a balloon or airship” (the OED’s second definition), including Obama here.
  • For someone whose arguments depend in large part on his literary sensibility, Cashill writes quite poorly. In particular, he struggles with pacing — or, if you want to be cynical, with filling up enough pages to merit a book. At one point, Cashill spends a page on “an eye-popping documentary” about Africa, which leads to another page on his seven-year-old spat with Thomas Frank — and all this by way of introducing the reader to Sarah Palin. Even more egregious are Cashill’s frequent and lengthy asides about the editors who won’t publish him, the allies who don’t have his back, and all the usual enemies in modern conservatism’s paranoid style.
  • Speaking of those enemies: Cashill attacks a Politico reporter for taking “as gospel” David Axelrod’s defense that Obama and Ayer’s kids “attend the same school,” but never mentions that Axelrod was responding to that same reporter’s 1800-word exposé on Obama’s early relationship with Ayers — an exposé Cashill cribs from later in his book.
  • And speaking of comprehensive: I haven’t even mentioned Cashill’s most absurd arguments, such as the one that “Pop,” Obama’s youthful poem, is both by and about Frank Marshall Davis — and that the poem’s “amber stain” may allude to an act of oral sex between Obama and Davis. I could also mention that, earlier in his book, Cashill spends several pages demonstrating that Obama’s early writing sucks (it does), which makes the “Pop” theory seem superfluous. But I think I’ll just let its insanity resonate all by itself.

I also wish I had had more space to talk about Kloppenberg’s book. While Cashill would surely seize on to the New York Times report that Kloppenberg’s work has received “prolonged applause” from his fellow professors, Kloppenberg actually defends Obama from both the right and the left. (For example, Kloppenberg chastens those professors who want to see Obama’s Christianity as political calculation: “Like the overwhelming majority of Americans outside the small subculture of academic life, Obama locates the foundation of his own moral principles in his religious faith.”) Kloppenberg also outworks his conservative counterpart. Where Cashill worries about (and actually line edits) Obama’s youthful essay on nuclear protesters in the Sundial, a student publication at Columbia, Kloppenberg combines his discussion of that essay with an interview with a professor who remembered Obama writing a paper that advocated for a moderate form of nuclear nonproliferation. (Kloppenberg also digs up another Obama Sundial essay that Cashill missed.)

Still, the story here is Deconstructing Obama. Cashill’s opus should remind us that the book industry, for all its virtues, still has a lower filter than other media. Publishing doesn’t fact-check like magazines. It doesn’t possess a newsroom’s institutional culture. In fact, in each and every book contract, it puts the burden of truth (and the threat of lawsuits) on its authors. Publishers sell this as the result of limited resources, but it also means anything that sells is fit to print. Even if it’s as grotesquely padded, delusionally argued, and comprehensively paranoid as Deconstructing Obama.

They Wouldn’t Dare

Next week, I’m reviewing Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown’s new memoir, Against All Odds. But this week I’m researching former Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy’s political megahit, Profiles in Courage, and I just came across a great essay in the December 1961 issue of Harper’s. In “The Cult of Personality Comes to the White House,” William G. Carleton spends most of his energy diagnosing Kennedy’s “personalization of the Presidency” — a trick used by just about every politician today, including Scott Brown. But Carleton also includes the following riff on America’s shared fear of close elections, a riff that, today, seems to come not just from another era but another nation:

Unlike the nineteenth century, most Presidential elections in the twentieth century have been landslides, generally in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Only three, 1916, 1948, and 1960, have been close — and the election of 1960 would probably alsohave been decisive for Kennedy but for the strength of the “No Popery” sentiment. It is actually difficult to have a close election today because of our continuing crisis psychology and the way the national media both reflect and help mold a national mood. (It is a curious fact that in a Republican year the major newspapers and magazines mirror the attitudes of their owners and publishers while in a Democratic year they reflect the views of their working reporters, correspondents, commentators, and columnists.) The nation now expects and wants a decisive Presidential election; it feels uncomfortable when the outcome is close. Because of our fear of an uncertain interregnum in time of peril and our self-consciousness in the face of a watching world, a contested Presidential election would be intolerable. For these reasons the Republicans in 1960 did not dare carry out the threat of recounts in the close states; similarly the Dixiecrats quailed at the prospect of actually exploiting the potential deadlock in the Electoral College, which they had so long awaited.