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A Brief History of Mostly Terrible Campaign Biographies

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Election years have their assortment of ritual appendages: sacrificial meats eaten at outdoor festivals, lies, scandals, poll numbers that grow increasingly useless as a country learns not to pick up the phone, dog whistles, prejudice, and metaphors that nearly always fail in their effort to pile the whole country into one pot. There is also, by some logic unexamined yet adhered to, a rush to publish books. As an article printed in The Baltimore Sun in March 1964 noted, “Somewhere at the moment in this favored land, it can be safely conjectured, a harried writer is racing the calendar in the composition of a political biography of Henry Cabot Lodge.”

With more than a year to go before the 2020 election, it seems like most of the scurrying has already occurred; the market is flooded with campaign memoirs. Just go to your local bookstore and look for any book that has either a smiling—or very serious-looking—person staring into the distance and thinking about the problems on the cover. America, American, Heartland, or Resistance are probably in the title.

These modern election books sag under wet folksiness. They are boring. One can almost feel sympathetic to whines about the death of the good campaign biographies that sometimes accompany these sprees of content creation. “Campaign biographies seem to have fallen on hard times,” said one review in the New York Times in 1984.

The current fashionable campaign book takes the form of a memoir, often ghostwritten, that unsuccessfully tries to argue that a candidate had a relatable American upbringing despite the fact said upbringing made them want to be president. But that was not always the trendy delivery method for the backstories of candidates. When these biographies functioned as more straightforward propaganda—written not in the first person, but from a distance that allowed maximum bragging—a few candidates lucked into having novelists write their life story. Nathaniel Hawthorne and General Lew Wallace each wrote one. William Dean Howells wrote two. Other famous writers, like Rose Wilder Lane and Jacob Riis, also took part in the tradition. Having read them, I can say that the good campaign biography is as much of a myth as the stories these writers were selling. They are not to be envied, having done no good.

They retain a bit of sameness, like their current models, because American mythology isn’t a genre that particularly invites innovation. You must add a dollop of self-reliance. The open sky is a supporting character in scenes where a boy learns to be not a man but an American. When moving forward, walk in reverse. The past is a mirror, the ideal future has already taken place and will rise again. Women seldom talk, and people of color recede to scenery or plot device. Like hot air, Americans must grow or seize until they occupy the maximum amount of space.

These old campaign biographies often resort to embellishing the past in order to turn around and sell it as a desirable future for the country. The danger of novelists is that they are particularly equipped to make the past seem warm and covetable and real to those readers primed to see a mirage in the rot. When someone who can sweep you up in a plot takes a turn into being a partisan hack, they can use their powers in the service of very bad political ends, sending successive presidential administrations on missions to bring back the past, making it hard for future presidents to even bring the government up to the present.

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Another problem with campaign biographies is that it is difficult to know in advance who won’t succeed, making all praise look comical and exaggerated in hindsight. The sample size of presidents is much larger than a century ago, and the notion that many of them will meet expectations has been increasingly dispelled.

When the writer starts as someone who revels in hack work, a campaign biography can turn into a disaster.

William Dean Howells is one of the rare successful writers who produced prose on a future president that it is possible to read more than a hundred years later and be charmed. The fact that Howells was only 23 makes it even better. Jill Lepore, in her 2008 excavation of campaign biographies, writes that “it is the most affecting campaign biography I have ever read, but that probably has as much to do with my love for Lincoln as with my admiration for Howells, who managed to write at once the best example of the genre and a cunning parody of it.”

The book has a great sense of place; Lincoln traverses the land and the rivers, explores the woods, gets America steeped into his bones. Even with a biography still powerful enough to cause a contact high, the defects of the genre are obvious. Lincoln’s friend, Samuel C. Parks, asked the presidential candidate to annotate the new book concerning his life; in 1938, the Abraham Lincoln Association in Springfield, Illinois released a version of Howell’s biography that included Lincoln’s penciled marginalia. In the second handwritten correction in the biography, Lincoln crosses out Howells’ assertion that his mother’s name was Lucy; he knew her name was instead Nancy. On page 47, Lincoln crosses out a line about how he used to walk from his home in New Salem to the Illinois State House, writing in the margin, “No harm if true; but, in fact, not true.”

The line sums up the median campaign biography, compendiums of bells and whistles inlaid on a limited array of American stages—the plains, the forest, the log cabin, the mines—that try to be a voice of a generation, if not exactly the voice of the person being described. The problem, of course, is that some of those campaign biographies do great harm when covering for candidates who think their version of reality should be true.

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The danger of a famous person writing a campaign biography is that it tends to tell an awful lot about the writer in the end. It was 1852 when Franklin Pierce decided to let his Bowdoin friend Nathaniel Hawthorne write a pre-campaign encapsulation of his life. Hawthorne’s publishers only paid him $300 to write it, but the former customs house employee knew what spoils could be had if one made a lucky election bet.

Two years earlier, the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act had passed, the latest attempts by America’s leaders to defer a confrontation on slavery. Pierce, a former representative and senator newly returned from service as a brigadier general in the Mexican-American War, was in favor of both, a detail that Hawthorne seizes as a compelling reason voters should make him president.

He fully recognized, by his votes and by his voice, the rights pledged to the south by the constitution. This, at the period when he so declared himself, was comparatively an easy thing to do. But when it became more difficult, when the first imperceptible movement of agitation had grown to be almost a convulsion, his course was still the same. Nor did he ever shun the obloquy that sometimes threatened to pursue the northern man, who dared to love that great and sacred reality—his whole, united, native country—better than the mistiness of a philanthropic theory.

Hawthorne expands on this point at the end of the book, again rendering a northern Democrat in the hazy antebellum hues that would dominate self-portraits of southern rights in a few decades. Keeping the status quo—a world in which white men, the landed gentry of America and their more recently enfranchised Jacksonian counterparts, are the only people that have any rights—is rendered as the enlightened choice.

As for the rest of the book, it is a great resource for someone who wishes to learn which verbiage can be applied to a boring person to make them and the stasis they advocate alluring. There are still plenty of ways to watch a country be timid, slow, immoral. The language Hawthorne uses to recommend caution and incrementalism in his championing of Pierce does not feel unfamiliar. Slavery, Hawthorne argues, cannot be solved by human action—especially not now—only by some future and unpredictable occurrence, a Shakespearan deus ex machina that will appear once slavery has no use for any single person left on earth causing it to “vanish like a dream.” Dimmesdale dies once he has served his purpose, Chillingworth conveniently croaks at the end of the book, and slavery too will melt away as long as everyone stops looking at it. But we did not let Hawthorne finish:

There is no instance, in all history, of the human will and intellect having perfected any great moral reform by methods which it adapted to that end; but the progress of the world, at every step, leaves some evil or wrong on the path behind it, which the wisest of mankind, of their own set purpose, could never have found the way to rectify.

The author’s friends were horrified by his willingness to shroud a man standing still amidst the political riptides as a man of action. As Brenda Wineapple writes in her biography of Hawthorne, Horace Mann:

wanted to know if his brother-in-law would ignore the need—the anguish—of enslaved millions for mere personal considerations. “Is Hawthorne such a man?” Hawthorne was. “If he makes out Pierce to be either a great or brave man, then it will be the greatest work of fiction he ever wrote.”

Hawthorne himself later wrote in a letter that the finished biography “cost me hundreds of friends, here at the north, who had a purer regard for me than Frank Pierce ever gained, and who drop off from me like autumn leaves, in consequence of that I say on the slavery question. But they were my real sentiments, and I do not now regret that they are on the record.”

He also gained a consulship in Liverpool after Pierce won and proceeded to establish a reputation as one of the worst presidents in history. Later, Hawthorne dedicated a book of essays to Pierce; when his publishers, fearing bad sales, begged him to reconsider, Hawthorne wrote that “if Pierce is so exceedingly unpopular that his name is enough to sink the volume, there is so much the more need that an old friend should stand by him.” Later, in the middle of the Battle of Spotsylvania, Pierce and Hawthorne went on vacation in New Hampshire. On May 18, 1864, Franklin Pierce found his friend’s dead body in the middle of the night. As he later put it, Hawthorne’s “great, generous, brave heart beat no more.”

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Elections tend to pour gasoline on the political idioms that seem calmer in verbal peacetime, rendering all candidates and potential outcomes in apocalyptic shades. Subtlety and nuance don’t survive in this atmosphere, which is why even the most skilled novelist turns into a partisan shill when tasked with writing a campaign biography. (The best you can hope for is that the writer will have fun hacking away at politics, as it seems twentysomething Howells did.) When the writer starts as someone who revels in hack work, a campaign biography can turn into a disaster.

Rose Wilder Lane’s biography of Herbert Hoover is one of the more preposterous entries of its genre, while also being more distant from its subject’s presidential appointment. (Hoover became president in 1929; Lane’s biography was first serialized in Sunset magazine in 1920.) It is also the most glowing; it hurts to look at the blazing praise of both Hoover and his country head on.

The daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who helped edit the works that made her mother an accomplished architect of a fictional past, Lane had already written several biographies before being tasked with the life of the mild-mannered mining engineer and director of the U.S. Food Administration. It wasn’t a career path that was doing much for her. Charlie Chaplin threatened to sue after she wrote a biography from the first-person perspective that he hadn’t had a hand in crafting. Henry Ford said her biography of him was complete fiction.

Her biography of Hoover may have had more facts per capita, but it is still styled as a novel, heavy on imagined dialogue and descriptions of an idealized Midwestern childhood. The opening line of the first chapter reads, “His earliest impression was of sunshine, green leaves, and his mother’s voice talking to God.”

Lane, who largely stopped writing during the Roosevelt administration to avoid paying taxes that could help fund the New Deal, would later becomes friends with fellow right winger Ayn Rand. The fidgety bravado evident from the book’s preface makes it easy to see why they got along. Remember, as you read the below extract, that this book is about Herbert Hoover:

This is a story stranger than fiction and as real as America. In Herbert Hoover’s own experience, from his strange boyhood to his myth-like success, he has lived through all the phases of development that have created America itself. The forces that made the country made the man and behind the growth of his soul there is shown the growth of the nation.

From the prologue, with its generations of pioneers facing ever west, to the epilogue, with its record of continuing service, at home and abroad, this story proves that, in the most subtle sense, Herbert Hoover represents America.

It sounds inconceivable, and yet also rings true. To Rose Wilder Lane, Hoover did represent America at its most myth-like: a conservative Midwesterner whose idea of romance was leaving his humble beginnings to make money in the private sector, make a name for himself in wartime—not in battle, but food rationing—and take these humble qualifications to the White House. (There is no room in this tale for other romance; Hoover proposed to his future wife via telegram.)

Even after tempering my disbelief toward this genre by sampling everything from General Lew Wallace’s biography of Benjamin Harrison to Jacob Riis’ look at the life of Theodore Roosevelt (which includes a chapter titled, “Children Trust Him”) it’s a bit much. Hoover agreed. As Caroline Fraser writes in her biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, Prairie Fires, “Hoover himself must have been embarrassed by the gushing tone and the burnishing of his reputation…An article in the Saturday Evening Post claimed that Hoover had asked an aide to buy the plates used to print an embarrassingly adulatory book by a woman journalist from California, planning to destroy them.”

Some of these writers knew they were writing crap. Masterpieces don’t always pay the bills.

Unfortunately the book is still available on Internet Archive, which means that it is possible to make it to the end of the book, where Lane finishes her work of turning Hoover, the man responsible for feeding Europe during wartime, into a potential savior of the past that most of the previous presidents had never relinquished. Hoover, superhero that he is, can “put down the fires of revolution leaping everywhere among the ruins of Europe” with a single metaphorical cup of water. He was confident, Lane went on, “that his country would stand unshaken by the great catastrophe, building a secure future on the firm foundations of the past.”

It’s the same argument that Hawthorne made, and its echoes still sound today. These presidents often failed in historical memory. But in the immediate aftermath of these books, the unwritten epilogue, they proved victorious. They won an election, allowing the country to retreat into the past until the warm glow of their lie faded.

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Some of these writers knew they were writing crap. Masterpieces don’t always pay the bills—just ask Herman Melville, who Hawthorne failed to help get some post-Pierce victory spoils. A few of these authors took the courtesy of beginning each of their screeds by warning in advance that their efforts might be terrible. Nathaniel Hawthorne alerts the reader at the beginning of his Pierce biography that the author “would not voluntarily have undertaken the work here offered to the public.” He doubted that “he has been remarkably successful in the performance of his task” and lamented that it was not “very satisfactorily done.” “When one has written a hurried book,” twenty-three-year-old William Dean Howells noted at the start of his biography of Abraham Lincoln, “one likes to dwell upon the fact, that if the time had not been wanting one could have made it a great deal better.”

Decades later, when he was finishing the more difficult task of writing an interesting campaign biography of Rutherford B. Hayes, Howells once again affirmed that with more time he would have done a more estimable job—although more time would have also put his paycheck in peril: “Written within four weeks after the material came to my hand, the book has, I know, very many faults of haste; but it was not in the power of any writer, how ever hurried or feeble, wholly to obscure the interest of that material; and whatever is the result of the political contest, I cannot think that people will quickly forget the story of a life so true and high.”

He was wrong about that last part, but such is the risk of this genre—biographies are best written about dead people. When forced to sum up a person before the moment that might launch them into the historical firmament, the most you can hope for is there might be a sequel. Or, as these writers did, you can hope that even as your prose in all its tepid and granular glory is forgotten, the worldview you brought to life lingers in American lore for elections to come, no matter how much damage it can do.

But prewriting mythologies is dangerous. When the chosen deity for advancing a cause fails, a new one must be assigned four years later. The process goes on, the failures continue, but the myth always finds a new host. Another apocalyptic electoral contest arrives, and another candidate argues for returning to the past. When all the previous versions of this story have ended in defeat, why should we listen to it again?

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