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.
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.
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.
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.