In her 1921 biography of her brother Theodore Roosevelt, Corrine Roosevelt Robinson saw nothing wrong with sharing “almost confidential personal recollections” about the late president. “It is not sacrilege to share such memories with the people who have loved him and whom he loved so much,” she wrote.
If I were to publish “nearly confidential personal recollections” about my brothers in a book, they would not be amused, to say the least.
Siblings offer a perspective less loving than that of a parent, less reverent than that of a child, and more complete than that of a friend. But the accounts of the sisters of presidents have been few, until the last decade. And even now, historian Douglas Brinkley said, the books by two of Barack Obama’s sisters haven’t exactly transformed the way we view the former president.
“If you’re looking for sister influencers from POTUS, I think it’s a very thin mush,” Brinkley said, adding that Corrine Roosevelt Robinson was one of a couple of exceptions.
But in recent administrations, more sisters of presidents have spoken out and publicly aired their views on their brothers, whether they form influence or not. Part of that trend is the result of the explosion in political literature in general, combined with the relaxation of sexism in politics and publishing in recent decades.
This week the memoir of President Biden’s younger sister was released. In it, her sister, Valerie Biden Owens, recalls dozens of anecdotes about her brother, ranging from the moment he left her alone at a picnic so he could go kiss a girl, to the moment he won the presidency. .
“I had no problem telling any of my brothers when I thought they were being idiots,” Owens writes in “Growing Up Biden: A Memoir.”
All of these accounts—Donald Trump’s older sister did not write a book but was a central figure in a critical one written by her niece—lead to a more personalized understanding of the historical figures who have defined the country. But they also say something else about our appetite for behind-the-scenes intimate details about politicians. We don’t just want to know how politics is made. We also want to know how the person is made.
The celebrity factor
In early American history, decorum prevented presidents from writing about their personal histories. In fact, presidents wrote their autobiographies with the expectation that the material would be published only after their deaths.
Even in those books, personal anecdotes were rare, said Craig Fehrman, who wrote “Author-in-Chief,” a book about books written by presidents. Instead, the presidents in those autobiographies justified the policy decisions they had made while in office, naming the advisers who had guided them. That slowly changed over time, under pressure from editors and publishers, who “had to really beg them to write personal stuff,” Fehrman said.
“Readers love personal information,” added Fehrman. “But sometimes writers, whether they’re the presidents themselves or their families, need a push to tell us a little more than we want to know.”
The 1980s saw a major shift in the publishing industry, with mall bookstores springing up and celebrities writing their own bestsellers (including Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” published in 1987). This trend coincided with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a celebrity before his political career, who had written a popular book in the 1960s. The presidency became even more of a celebrity phenomenon with the advent of cable news.
With that change came a wave of books about presidents, even those who are still sitting in the White House. There are more than 20 memoirs written by members of the Reagan family and officials who served in his administration.
“Publishers like to find hits and formulas that work,” Fehrman said. “So if a president can write a good book, let’s see a presidential brother.”
no damage done
Sibling accounts may occasionally flirt with irreverence, but they still tend to protect their sibling’s legacies.
Corrine Roosevelt Robinson certainly admired her brother Theodore, even if he had a way of subverting his unyielding force projection. She told biographers, for example, that Roosevelt had never outgrown his asthma, although Roosevelt boasted that he overcame the ailment through exercise.
That kind of correction might have gone against the “Victorian sense of masculinity,” said Kathleen Dalton, author of “Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life,” but it probably just made Roosevelt look better.
“He liked to tell those stories because he thought they were endearing,” Dalton said. “And you know, they are. They probably joined the followers of him”.
David Welky is a professor at the University of Central Arkansas who is writing a book about Roosevelt’s other sister, Anna. Corrine was the writer in the family, but Roosevelt’s wife and Anna also protected him, with roles that were more behind the scenes. There was little risk that Corrine would write something that would harm her brother, whom she idolized.
“The women in his family were very protective of his legacy, they wanted him to be remembered in glowing terms,” Welky said, adding, “But I don’t think it’s dishonest. They really viewed his brother in glowing terms. So I think that was coming from a genuine place.”
what to read
A mountain of cornmeal
On Politics regularly features the work of Times photographers. Here’s what Cheriss May had to say about capturing the image above on Tuesday:
When the White House warned members of the media to wear “closed-toe flats that are okay if they get a little dirty” during President Biden’s visit to POET Bioprocessing in Menlo, Iowa, we knew we were in for an adventure.
The president made remarks in a barn-like structure surrounded by hay, tractors and a huge mountain of cornmeal. When I first saw the ceiling-high mound, I thought of the sci-fi movie “Dune” and half expected a sandworm to emerge. The entire time, there was a fine mist of cornmeal that got into my hair. Once I got home, I also found it under my clothes.
As Biden spoke, I could see more grain fall from an opening in the ceiling onto the already sizable pile. He knew that he wanted to show how imposing the cornmeal looked in that space, how it consumed the room and everything in it. During remarks, I crossed to the other side of the room to place Biden in front of the cornmeal, showing how huge the mound was.
As the grain fell from the ceiling to the inner mountain, I thought of an hourglass, marking this difficult moment and with consequences.
— Leah (Blake is on vacation)
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