The Great Man theory of leadership, stating that individuals of great skill, intelligence, and charisma can greatly affect history, is rightfully a 19th century idea. Not only is there inherent sexism in the title itself (most world leaders up until that point had been men), but the notion of one politician singlehandedly altering national or world history repels our relatively democratic and egalitarian sensibilities. And the days of inherited royalty, where one monarch’s psychological whims can mean the sudden deaths or riches of many, are long gone in the Western world.
Yet even in the US federal government, which famously separates powers, the portraits of famous personalities captured in memoirs or biographies can teach us how the levers of power are pulled. The famous “LBJ treatment,” in which President Johnson would cajole and bully senators one-on-one may make for a nice anecdote, but the fact that Johnson had the most legislatively successful presidency in the 20th century makes his temperament more consequential. That his tactics paved the way for everyday staples like Medicaid and Medicare makes the man even more interesting. I have a pretty specific taste in books these days: oversized tomes detailing the minutiae of the lives and times of former public officials. Some examples include Master of the Senate, a LBJ bio that spends its first 100 pages outlining nearly two centuries of US Senate history; The Kennedy Half-Century, which gives a full chapter to each presidency since JFK and compares the two; and The White House Years by Henry Kissinger, which is, you guessed it, a 1500-page account of Dr. Kissinger’s tenure by Dr. Kissinger himself, relying on internal memos, recordings, and his own diary during his service to two presidents.
Now, I give these cheeky descriptions to beg the question: do my reading habits mean I’m a glutton for punishment or merely an overzealous student of history? The answer is probably both, but I wear the second like a badge of honor.
You see, book critics and academics tend to scoff at even the most honest biographies and memoirs. When I told my history professor my plan to read all the Caro books on LBJ, he said “4,000 pages is an awful lot of time to spend on a one-term president.” Similarly, Shelby Foote’s belief that the only two true geniuses of the Civil War were Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest got plenty of eye rolls from my history and literature professors like. I have to admit, even I’m skeptical of grandiose statements like that.
In short, biographies are important. Memoirs, while they often involve navel-gazing, are important. As the 2016 election approaches, I’ve noticed a sudden onslaught of books written by and about people with names like Cruz, Clinton, and Huckabee. We may know these books are mostly for candidates to get their brands out there and build a political platform, but such works can reveal where these personalities seek to direct our world and, as a result, affect our daily lives.
I’d love to hear about your favorite history book, biography or otherwise. Leave me a comment about it or come tell me about it in the shop!
Until next time,