In the early 1930s, Ralph Newman was walking through the Near North Side of Chicago when he noticed a bookstore going out of business. He had left Northwestern University after a semester to play minor league baseball in the Southwest — only to be injured and leave baseball. He was in his 20s when he returned to Chicago. He was hunting for new opportunities when he decided he would sell books. He got a loan and bought out the stock of the closing store. One of his regulars became poet Carl Sandburg, then working on a four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War years. They became close friends, and Sandburg suggested Newman specialize in Lincoln books.
Which sounds like a narrow niche.
And yet books about United States presidents — biographies, autobiographies, tell-alls, takedowns, hagiographies, conspiracies — have been among the most durable literary genres since the presidency of George Washington.
Newman made a shrewd bet.
By the time he died in 1998, he himself was a renowned Lincoln scholar, and his business, the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, founded in 1938, was one of Chicago’s oldest bookstores. It was also a magnet for politicians, historians, artists — George Saunders, Dan Walker, Tony Kushner, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Axelrod, Lyndon Johnson. It hosted both a going-away party for Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and a welcome-home party for Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner when he was released from federal prison. In fact, nine decades and 12 different locations later, the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop is still here. New books constitute less of its stock now than antiquarian editions; a note at its door lists the hours as “By appointment or by chance.”
But its focus remains books about presidents.
“I don’t think this country ever stopped wondering what leadership looks like, and how those leaders have informed us,” said owner Daniel Weinberg, who bought the store from Newman in 1984. “The best books on presidents often are the best ways to understand the country.”
And the worst cost $40 and never get read.
“A Promised Land,” the first of a two-volume autobiography from Barack Obama, enters a tradition as celebrated and popular as it may appear overpopulated and overhyped. In fact, according to NPD BookScan, more books on politics have been published and sold since 2016 than in the past 20 years alone. Call it the Trump Bump. Or perhaps a desire to remember White Houses past. But not a week passes now without a new presidential history, offering revelations, some fresh vantage, some sliver of history overlooked until now. Evan Osnos, a New Yorker staff writer, even has a slender new biography, “Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now.” It arrives after four years of turmoil-in-the-White House bestsellers, many just shiny enough to appear indispensable for a single cable news cycle. But all have taken their places within a pantheon of Pulitzer winners, quickies and doorstop Father’s Day gifts, some ubiquitous (Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton”), some perpetual (Robert Caro’s four-volume Lyndon Johnson epic, awaiting its fifth and final volume someday). Even as I glance at the new presidential books on my shelf, I’m struck by the variety: The macro (Thomas Ricks’ “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country”) the micro (Denise Kiernan’s “We Gather Together,” which digs into Lincoln’s endorsement of Thanksgiving Day) and the overdue (Jonathan Alter’s stirring “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life”).
But the deluge never slows.
You know who once wrote a presidential biography? Karl Rove, about William McKinley. (And it got good reviews.) Gary Hart once wrote a short biography of James Monroe. Conrad Black, the disgraced former publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote a well-received biography of FDR.
“Americans love their heroes and bullies, and presidents are usually one or the other,” said Alexis Coe, author of a quirky recent Washington biography (“You Never Forget Your First”) and presidential podcast (“Presidents are People Too!”). “Though we think we see our heroes clearly, we don’t quite understand why we like our bullies. And so we buy a lot of these books.”
“Having said that, I have been inside a house where a dad exists, and I have talked to people during book tours who buy these books — and I’m not always convinced they are getting read.”
Harold Holzer, author (and editor) of more than 50 books about Lincoln, thinks of presidential autobiographies as a second draft of history, after daily journalism, “though vital for creating a final draft.” But even he doesn’t read all the president books he buys: “I’m not sure I finished George W.’s, and Bill Clinton — it got too heavy to balance in bed. But these books seem to sell in proportion to the popularity of a president after they leave office. So Obama’s book, it could not have come out at a better time.”
Carlos Lozada, a book critic at The Washington Post, describes Obama as one of the few U.S. presidents who could have had a writing career if he was never a politician (Carter and Jefferson being the two others). But Lozada also notes how loose Obama’s first memoir (1995′s “Dreams From My Father”) reads compared with 2006′s dull “Audacity of Hope”, clearly written with the White House in mind. “The closer Obama gets to power, the less compelling those books work as literature.” Actually, Lozada himself has a new contribution to the literature of presidents, “What Were We Thinking,” a cataloging of 150 or so books about Donald Trump published since 2016. There were so many that Lozada compares ways in which several books describe the same Pentagon meeting between Trump and military. There were so many that Lozada notices the same Trump supporter interviewed in two books, as an example of everyday supporters.
Lozada said, “With a lot of presidents, but especially with (Trump), there can be so much focus on how we got here that, at the risk of sounding cute, I wanted to create more of a record of what we thought about while we were there and how we reacted to Trumpism in real time. I can imagine an intellectual history of Trump in the future that analyzes Facebook or podcasts; still there is a sense that we have always defined ourselves though our books.”
As Obama writes in his new memoir (about the GOP, though it nicely doubles as a meta-criticism of presidential literature): “The stories told were often as important as the substance achieved.”
Start with that seminal national myth, that George Washington never told a lie, that he cut down a cherry tree. It was fabricated by Mason Weems, an early Washington biographer. As the Indiana-based historian Craig Fehrman writes about Weems in “Author In Chief,” his absorbing new history of the presidential book: “There was plenty to make readers skeptical, starting with the fact that (myths about Washington) all seemed to discover moral truths in fruit trees.”
Presidential autobiography was initially a questionable form.
Fehrman said that four of the first five presidents tried to write memoirs of their time in office, but such a book was thought gauche in the early days of the country — too self-involved for a still-living president. Not until Buchanan (the 15th president) was a presidential memoir published while the president himself was alive. And only then, Fehrman added, that came because the Civil War had blown up the idea of a president so removed from his countrymen. “Americans wanted to know the person governing them, and the war was so overwhelming, they couldn’t wait until these people were dead.” By the time Ulysses S. Grant publishes his memoirs in 1885 — still the gold standard for presidential autobiography (despite not being about the White House at all) — it’s written as Grant nears death and fears his family will be impoverished. Our contemporary expectation that a blockbuster memoir follows a presidency didn’t click into place until Truman.
There have been ghostwriters, of course.
Truman worked so closely with ghostwriters, Fehrman said, transcripts of his arguments with them read like meta-autobiography. Occasionally, if controversy latches onto a presidential memoir, it begins here: To write about “Profiles in Courage,” which won John F. Kennedy a Pulitzer Prize in 1957, Fehrman followed its paper trail as closely as anyone. Despite never receiving credit from the Pulitzer committee, Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen is often acknowledged as the actual writer of the book. Some Kennedy biographers say Sorensen’s role was overstated. But Fehrman studied thousands of memos, drafts, letters, schedules and transcripts, and decided Sorensen was the author. Speaking of a ghostwriter taking control of a memoir: Many years later, Edmund Morris, the acclaimed Theodore Roosevelt biographer, was so admired by Ronald Reagan that the president hired Morris to prepare his White House memoir. What happened next was a train wreck: “Dutch,” the infamous 1999 result, invents characters and scenes wholesale, because, as Morris said, he was frustrated by the lack of usable material and candor from Reagan.
Still, even if you set aside their frankness, presidents often freeze before unwritten memoirs.
Fehrman said the publishing industry is so certain to offer a big payday now to a former president that they rush (Bill Clinton), or simply lose their fire for a book (Reagan). Some get trapped in settling scores (Nixon). Some can’t settle on a path. Some hesitate to appear vulnerable. They want to sound, in a word, presidential. “Even ‘Crippled America,’ Trump’s book before his 2016 campaign, reads less like his Twitter feed than someone running for president. But go back to ‘The Art of the Deal,’ his book from 1987, before politics, and that’s 100% a Trump voice.”
As you might assume, the most revealing examples rarely come from presidents, but those close to presidents, hovering at the periphery, keeping notes. Morris didn’t know or understand Reagan as a man and the book was bad; Sorensen was a friend, and the book is a classic. Being married to a president doesn’t hurt: Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” has sold more than 8 million copies in its two years. William Herndon, one of Lincoln’s law partners, had poor timing: After Lincoln’s assassination, he wrote a biography that noted Lincoln’s suicidal tendencies and a lack of affection for Mary Todd. Too soon. The book flopped.
But not so for “Too Much and Never Enough,” the bestselling memoir by Trump niece Mary Trump that has sold more than 1 million copies since debuting in July. Smartly written and deeply ugly, it’s a sad account of a family’s delusional behavior and entitlement (including her own), passed down by generations of creeps. It’s also a very specific kind of presidential book, which tends to be among the most enduring kind of presidential book. Think of Annette Gordon-Reed’s masterful “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings” (1997) and “The Hemingses of Monticello” (2008), a pair of histories now seen as nothing less than an influential reframing of early leaders as slave owners.
These books can shape history.
Another classic, “Nixon Agonistes,” from historian Garry Wills, arriving in 1970, during Nixon’s first term, helped mold the lingering perception of the president as a simultaneously tragic and appalling figure. (It also landed Wills on Nixon’s enemies list.) Indeed, Nixon’s own stony memoirs would then became a kind of two-volume rehabilitation project. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling “Team of Rivals,” about Lincoln, was often cited by Obama in 2008 as he was gathering political rivals such as Hillary Clinton to become a part of his administration.
Obama loved Lincoln books, and Lincoln loved Washington books. Grant read about Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas, and Garfield read Sherman’s memoirs (aghast at their openness). In “A Promised Land,” it’s hard to read about Obama planning for a potential pandemic and insisting on “the best available science” without also hearing a one-way conversation with Trump.
Coe said that compared with Jefferson’s Monticello home, which extensively details Jefferson’s relationships to his slaves, Washington’s Mount Vernon homestead has been largely “concerned with preserving Washington’s legacy, and therefore strongly aligned with his biographers.” Which is one reason she wanted to write a less reverential biography of the first president. From tone to title, “You Never Forget Your First” — which includes charts about lies, diseases and dating advice — was intended as “a complete dismantling” of presidential biography, she said. “I read a lot of presidential biographies, and ones on Washington are the most consistent and monolithic in their takes. Read a variety of books about presidents, and there usually is a diversity of views. Not with Washington. I mean, I was the first woman historian to write a book on him in a hundred years.”
As she writes in her book: “Every biographer humbly endeavors to break Washington out of his sepulcher — by proceeding in almost the exact same way as the one who came before.”
Lincoln, in comparison, can appear overtaxed, overstudied.
David S. Reynolds’ excellent new biography, “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times,” sounds like it must have been written many times before. There are, after all, an estimated 17,000 books on Lincoln (no joke). There are so many books about Lincoln, there are annual awards for the new books about Lincoln. But as Reynolds said: “When you know the terrain, you know what’s missing. You know if you have something to add to the conversation. I read biography after biography on Lincoln without encountering people like Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe. You can follow the narrative of a life, but everyone is positioned culturally in a time and place. There is family and there is culture — which, for Lincoln, means popular song, a culture of violence, also poetry and humor.”
Lincoln never wrote his memoirs. Reynolds doubts he would have — “He once said, ‘There isn’t much of me.’”
Yes, there is so little to Abraham Lincoln that sprawling bookcases in the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop are dedicated to just Lincoln. So little that the four-volume Lincoln biography that Sandburg wrote (inspiring the founding of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop) won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940.
There is so little to Lincoln that it’s one of three Lincoln biographies to win a Pulitzer.
Then again, said owner Daniel Weinberg, there’s a reason there’s no Millard Fillmore Book Shop.