Dispatch August 2009

So You Want to Write a Presidential Biography

The easy path to fame and riches as an author. Just follow my formula.
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With President Obama vacationing this week on Martha’s Vineyard, the White House released his reading list, which includes David McCullough’s John Adams. That news, naturally, sent John Adams rocketing up the Amazon sales list. Like so many journalists, I have some ambitions in the field of presidential biography (unwritten, but I’ll get around to it), or at least for some of those presidential-sized royalties. After all, look what happened after the election when Obama read Alter’s FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope and Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincolnhuge sales boosts. If ever there was a time to jump into the crowded field of presidential biography, it’s now. And after baseball season, I may have some time. Until then, I see no reason not to share my expertise on writing one of these tomes.

First, not every president is “presidential,” if you know what I mean. That is, the average American can only name four or five in a sitting, so you need a celebrity president. The most frequently named are George Washington, Ben Franklin, Eli Whitney, Abe Lincoln (see, 1865 already, where’s Paul Revere?), The Roosevelt Brothers, Churchill, Reagan, and Martin Sheen.

Titles matter: Does your man have a snappy nickname? One a publisher can put on the cover in gold embossed letters: FDR, JFK, NIX? If not, get a winning title. Work the word “American” into it whenever possible, like Jon Meacham’s Andrew Jackson:American Lion. There’s Ike: An American Hero, Thomas Jefferson:American Sphinx, Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America. Brinkley’s Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America just came out, and classics like Goodwin’s The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga and Lyndon B. Johnson and the American Dream. Look, it’s important readers know you’re writing about the American Abe Lincoln, and not the one who was president of France.

Think down the road a bit: The party in power almost always loses steam by the mid-term elections. By 2010, voters will miss dull white-guy Republicans like transfats and Election Day terror alerts. Me, I’m going with Eisenhower. One snag: Korda’s Ike: An American Hero snatched up both the nickname and “American” in the title. So, I’m going with American Ike and His Presidency of American Genius.

Unfortunately, Ike is one of the most researched figures of the 20th century. Worse, he presided over eight years of peace and prosperity. Where’s the drama? If I’m not careful, my book could involve years of research. This is why I’ve chosen the path of the revisionist historian. It allows me to take all sorts of things out of context and paraphrase all I want. For instance, no one knows exactly where Ike was on the afternoon of July 23, 1948. And no one knows exactly where Marilyn Monroe was on the afternoon of July 23, 1948. I’ll just pause here while you do the math, eh?

Presidential scandals … get one. Sally Hemings, Lucy Rutherford, Kay Sommersby, the Little Rock phone directory circa 1980–1992. These are the rouge-cheeked hussies of history. They may shame a nation, but not a nation’s readers. The thing to do is deal with it as if the reader won’t stop hounding you. Write with an exasperated sigh, as if saying, “OK, OK, if you must know ....” Then offer, with tasteful reluctance, page after detailed page of dates, names, probable positions, motel room numbers, and available DNA testing. Admit the honest truth—your president was only a man. But all man, if you know what I mean. Make sure your publisher “insists” the scandal be on the back cover jacket copy. No inside-the-jacket stuff—demand that they insist.

Finally, it’s all good: No presidential bio rolls off the presses without a happy ending. In presidenting circles, this is known as The Legacy. No matter what happens on a president’s watch, it all worked out. Look at Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. As president, Lincoln presided over an ineptly fought Civil War and hundreds of thousands of American deaths, freed the slaves to expediently end that war, and was so hated by a defeated, embittered South that they assassinated him in a divisive regional rage that haunts our political parties to this day. Good gosh, what a mess! He sounds awful! How could there be a book in that disaster?

Enter the Legacy. Why is Lincoln a great president? Well, one thing that did not go up in flames from his golden touch was the Union itself. In the Legacy, this becomes the point all along. It’s what Honest Abe trained for since he chopped down that cherry tree and said, “I cannot tell a lie.” He achieved this, as Goodwin puts it, through “genius.” History isn’t about mistakes. It’s about destiny. We haven’t figured out Clinton’s legacy yet, but those pardons will be carved on Mt. Rushmore by 2075, so help me.

I’ll skip all the writing and researching stuff, as all that really depends more on your staff of interns.

Ben Schwartz edited the forthcoming Best American Comics Criticism and is writing The Lost Laugh, a history of humor set between the world wars, both for Fantagraphics. He had no immediate plans to write American Ike and his Presidency of American Genius until his agent saw the title and got him a fat contract, with bonuses if the president is ever caught reading it.
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