In her 1921 biography of her brother Theodore Roosevelt, Corrine Roosevelt Robinson saw no harm in sharing “almost confidential personal memories” of the late president. “There is no sacrilege in sharing such memories, with the people who loved him, and whom he loved so much,” she wrote.
If I published “almost confidential personal memories” of my brothers in a book, they would not be amused, to say the least.
Siblings offer a perspective that is less passionate than that of a parent, less respectful than that of a child, and more thorough than that of a friend. But testimonies from the presidents’ sisters have been rare, until the last decade. And even now, said historian Douglas Brinkley, the books written by two of Barack Obama’s sisters haven’t exactly transformed the way we see the former president.
“If you’re looking for sisters as POTUS influencers, I think that’s a really thin mush,” Brinkley said, adding that Corrine Roosevelt Robinson was one of the few exceptions.
But in recent administrations, more sisters of presidents have spoken out and publicly expressed their opinions about their brothers, whether they influence or not. Part of this trend is the result of the explosion of political literature in general, combined with the easing of sexism in politics and publishing in recent decades.
A memoir by President Biden’s younger sister was released this week. In it, his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, recalls dozens of anecdotes about her brother, from when he left her alone to a picnic so he could go kiss a girl, to when he won the presidency.
“I had no problem telling any of my brothers when I thought they were jerks,” Owens wrote in “Growing Up Biden: A Memoir.”
All of these stories — Donald Trump’s older sister didn’t write a book but was a central figure in a critical book written by her niece — lead to a more personalized understanding of the historical figures who have defined the country. But they also say something broader about our appetite for intimate details behind the curtain on politicians. We don’t just want to know how the policy 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 history. In fact, presidents wrote their autobiographies in the hope that the material would not be published until after their death.
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 of these autobiographies would justify the political decisions they had made during their tenure, naming the advisers who had guided them. That slowly changed over time, under pressure from publishers and publishers, who “really should beg them to write personal material,” Fehrman said.
“Readers love personal information,” Fehrman added. “But sometimes the writers, whether they’re the presidents themselves or their family members, need a nudge to tell us a bit more about what we want to know.”
The 1980s saw a major shift in the publishing industry, as bookstores popped up in shopping malls and celebrities wrote their own bestsellers (including “The Art of the Deal” by Trump, published in 1987). This trend coincided with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a celebrity himself 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 .
This shift has led to an increase in books about presidents, even those who still sit in the White House. There are more than 20 memoirs written by members of Reagan’s family and officials who served in his administration.
“Editors like to find hits and formulas that work,” Fehrman said. “And so if a president can write a good book, let’s see a presidential brother.”
Sibling stories can flirt with irreverence at times, but they always tend to protect their brothers’ legacy.
Corrine Roosevelt Robinson certainly looked up to her brother Theodore, even if she had a way of reversing his unyielding force projection. She would tell biographers, for example, that Roosevelt never got over his asthma, although Roosevelt boasted of beating the disease through exercise.
This kind of beating might have gone against the “Victorian sense of manhood,” said Kathleen Dalton, the author of “Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life,” but it probably only made Roosevelt more handsome. .
“She loved telling these stories because she thought they were endearing,” Dalton said. “And you know, they are. They probably added to his following.
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 family writer, but Roosevelt’s wife and Anna also protected him, with more behind-the-scenes roles. There was little risk that Corrine would write anything that might harm her brother, whom she idolized.
“The women in his family were very protective of his legacy, wanted him to be remembered in glowing terms,” Welky said, adding, “But I don’t think that’s dishonest. They really saw their brother in terms so I think it came from a genuine place.
What to read
A mountain of corn flour
On Politics regularly features work by photographers from The Times. Here’s what Cheriss May told us about capturing the above image on Tuesday:
When the White House warned members of the media to wear “flat, closed-toed shoes that can get a little dusty” during President Biden’s visit to POET Bioprocessing in Menlo, Iowa, we knew we were expecting an adventure.
The president delivered a speech in a barn-like structure surrounded by hay, tractors and a huge mound of cornmeal. When I first saw the mound reaching up to the ceiling, I thought of the sci-fi movie “Dune” and half expected a sandworm to emerge. All the while, there was a fine mist of cornmeal blowing through my hair. Once home, I also found it under my clothes.
As Biden spoke, I could see more grit falling from an opening in the ceiling onto the already sizable heap. I knew I wanted to show how imposing cornmeal was in this 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 on the inner mountain, I thought of an hourglass, marking this difficult and consequential time.
— Leah (Blake is on vacation)
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