HISTORY, BIOGRAPHY, AND TRUTH

I love history and I read a lot of it. My first reading choice is usually fantasy and/or time travel, but after that? History. Lately, I’ve been reading serious biographies of people I have always admired and in whom I believed. Starting with “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Home Front in World War II” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and moving right along into “Truman” by David McCullough, then “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and finally landing in “Abigail Adams” by Woody Holton which I didn’t finish because it was dull, The author was far more interested in how (and who) spent the Adams’ money than he was of who they were, what they did, and how they mattered.

LBJ in Vietnam, 1967

Not every biography is great reading and this one reminded me of why so many people don’t read biographies. The boredom factor can really do you in.

As I disengaged from Abigail Adams last night, I rolled over so I could shout in Garry’s “good” ear, I wanted to explain how I felt about these biographies I had recently read.

I told Garry I was disappointed. I felt a bit betrayed by the lofty bigotry of FDR, the less lofty bigotry of Truman, and in the prickly relationship of Abigail and John Adams and their goal which seemed to be to buy up every possible piece of land in Braintree, Massachusetts.

I suppose I was feeling a bit deflated that these people who I have always admired were not as heroic as I believed. I know everyone is flawed. No one is perfect. I get that. But bigotry and racism are the two big ones which I have the most trouble forgiving and can’t seem to forget.

FDR and Churchill, Casablanca, 1943 – The Hillside College Churchill Project

I pretty much buy into Doris Kearns Goodwin’s opinion that for all of the flaws, the world was better for having had the Roosevelts than it would have been without them. I understand that while Truman talked like a bigot, he didn’t (usually) act like one. He had the mouth of a southern bigot, but not the beliefs, so I’m working on a forgiveness package for him.

The Adams’ just wore me out. They niggled over pennies, put all their money into the boys, and beneath their abolitionist skin were as prejudiced as everyone else. They did not own slaves, but Abigail’s mother did. They were abolitionists but they also didn’t like dark-skinned people. Kind of the opposite of Truman who had no personal issues with Black people or Jews — or really, anyone except New Yorkers who were, in his mind, “annoying” and “pushy.” I suppose we are.

“Dewey Beats Truman” – Chicago Tribune

Of all of these recent biographies, it was Lyndon Baines Johnson who stood out from from the crowd. His determination to somehow — hell or high-water — get that Civil Rights bill passed was extraordinary. He was a southerner. He talked like one. But he believed in equal rights to the point where he used up every favor he was owed in the Senate and House to push the bill through. Had he not gotten wrapped up in Vietnam, I think he had it in him to be a great president. I think he WAS one of our great presidents, a point on which Garry concurs.

Still, I did feel deflated last night. Even expecting all my heroes and heroines to be flawed, I didn’t expect the racism. I had heard about it. I didn’t want to believe it.

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” by Doris Kearns Goodwin is not quite as good a book as her later works. I’m pretty sure it was originally part of her doctoral thesis. She was an intern for Johnson too, so she knew him a lot better than most people would.

It’s important to know history. Everyone needs to learn who it is they admire and if that person is worthy of their admiration. Since every person has flaws, scars, and often fails to express themselves in what we might consider an “acceptable” way, we need to see these people in their entirety and come to grips with the bad stuff, remember that with all the mistakes, bad language, and poor personal choices, there is still much to admire.

It’s also important to know that because you didn’t like Johnson because of the war in Vietnam, this doesn’t turn his entire time in office bad. In a way, my feeling of loss is also a gain. I have managed to find “real” heroism’ under the fancy dress that often hides the truth.

I also have gained a better understanding of how we got to this point in history and how our earlier — sometimes very early — decisions led us down this path. I don’t know if the truth is going to set me free, but it is helping clarify my thoughts.



Categories: American history, Anecdote, Biography, History, politicians, Racism and Bigotry

Tags: , , , ,

9 replies

  1. I gave up reading biographies because it depended on who wrote it, whether they admired the person or hated them. Their writing always seemed bias one way or the other. Still, there was some truth to be learned about each and as you mentioned a better understanding of how we got where we are.

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    • There are writers I trust. I think few writers will bother to write a biography if they don’t have some kind of personal attachment to the subject. I look to see what else they have written and whether I’ve read any of it. Whether I trust the author. Most of the good biographies I’ve read have been pretty balanced. Honest, but not cruel. Straightforward. I don’t read ‘fan biographies” and I don’t real “hate” bios. That’s what book reviews are good for.

      There will always be some bias. Most of the authors I read in some way admired the people they wrote about, but they understood that they weren’t perfect. That these were complicated people who could feel a variety of emotions at the same time. That (for example), Truman could sound like a southern bigot and yet be one of the most enlightened presidents we ever had. Ditto LBJ. And that however liberal FDR was, he had the usual blue-blood dislike of Jews and Blacks and he was certainly no big fan of the Japanese. And yet the world WAS better off for them having been our presidents because progress doesn’t always go forward in a straight line. Maybe it should, but it rarely does.

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  2. I never read biographies of politicians, Marilyn, I only ever read biographies of great writers and I’ve always found them fascinating. I can’t say racism has ever come up in the biographies I’ve read, but it probably would with colonialist writers.

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    • It also depends on who wrote the biography. MANY people wrote political biographies, both of early settlers and more recent ones, but only a few tell the whole truth. For a simple example, Thomas Wolfe (“Time and the River”, “You Can’t Go Home Again” etc.) was a terrible bigot. He just was. Yet the early biographies of him that I read never mentioned it. It clashed with the biographers opinion. Ditto people like FDR and Truman — yet people who knew them (or knew people who knew them) knew otherwise.

      Honest biographies can be difficult to find. Many people who write them are such admirers of the person about whom they are writing, they omit material that they don’t like and feel clashes with their personal feelings. I read a LOT of them in the many years I’ve been reading. Polite biographies are easier on your nerves, but they don’t project the complexity of the characters about whom they are writing.

      I think, for me, the hard part IS the complexity. Because good people are not ALWAYS good people. People I admire were not always admirable. Until you reach the point of recognizing that perfection doesn’t exist and understand — finally — that people are who they are. They may have written brilliant books, but they can simultaneously be complete asses. That seems to be particularly true of 19th and 20th century writers. Not colonials. People we still read (and admire) today.

      That’s the great part about writing. You only include your BEST when you write.

      Garry has some great personal stories about Ernest Hemingway — AND Lyndon Johnson. He admired both. He didn’t meet Hemingway, but he met a lot of the people Hemingway hung out with on Bimini. He met LBJ several times for extended periods professionally and casually. He loved Hemingway’s writing, but he couldn’t fail to be aware of the man’s crassness and cruelty. He simply admired LBJ despite his personal crudity for many reasons.

      Ken Burns did a biography of Hemingway — recently — and if it’s running on any of your channels, it’s REALLY well done and worth watching.

      So Garry knew the many flaws of quite a few famous people. It was part of the work he did. And, as a brown man in a black and white world, he had a lot of balancing to do. I’m always impressed by his balancing act. I seem to have a harder time with it than he does. Maybe it’s because his life has required he do this, but it still impresses me.

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      • Hi Marilyn, it is different to watch a balancing act from a distance than to experience it personally. Your feelings are different as an outsider looking in. Garry has had a very interesting life and seems to have managed all his experiences very well and positively. I also like Hemmingway’s books but haven’t heard good things about him as a person. It’s the same with Roald Dahl.

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