- Political Partnerships, Political History
From John and Abigail Adams to Michelle and Barack Obama, Americans have always been fascinated with trying to unravel the dynamics of highly visible political marriages. Yet these political partnerships, and the question of how they have changed over time, pose challenges for historians and biographers. Should the primary political figure, so far the husband, drive the story with the wife relegated to the role of informal advisor or helpmate, or should these marriages be portrayed as full political partnerships where both members are granted large roles in shaping the historical context in which they operated? How has this dynamic changed over time, influenced by, among other factors, the monumental changes in women's lives? What are the special dimensions when the political partnerships involve the White House? Looking at a range of political marriages from the early twentieth century to the 1970s provides a sampler of how power and influence are defined and wielded by couples very much in the public eye. These marriages also provide a window on the challenges of biography in the wider field of political history. [End Page 301]
The fact that historians are paying serious attention to marriages as part of political history is the result of the congruence of several trends in history and biography. The first is the expansion in the definition of what is political: no longer limited to electoral politics and legislation, the concept has been stretched to include a range of informal power as well, wielded in communities and personal relationships, by women as well as men, across most historical periods. The second is the emphasis in the field of biography on the interplay between the personal and political: no longer is it possible to write the public lives of great men (or women, for that matter) without paying attention to the private and personal dimensions of those lives. Those two trends have been influenced by a third that is rooted in changes in modern American life: the increased attention to fame and celebrity by the ever-expanding media, especially as the twentieth century progressed. The end result is a new kind of history and a new kind of biography. The five books under review show the results when applied to twentieth-century political life, but it would no doubt be fruitful to explore similar clusters in earlier historical periods.
In Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, Hazel Rowley provides a compelling model of how to write a joint political biography that treats both partners fully and fairly without falling into the trap of taking sides. That she manages to do so with the incredibly complicated story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and without any startling new revelations or "smoking guns," is even more impressive. These two partners are among the most written about in American history—although John and Abigail Adams might give them a run for their money—yet the tendency has been for authors to fall, intentionally or not, into competing "his" and "hers" camps that mirror their subjects. If Franklin is the focus, then Eleanor is often dismissed as a busybody, a meddler, or an impractical visionary; if an author is in Eleanor's camp, Franklin comes off as aloof and unresponsive, a marital cad, or too pragmatically political. Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (1994) is...