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American Literary History 16.2 (2004) 363-374

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Presidential Biography and the Great Commoner Complex

Glenn C. Altschuler and Eric Rauchway

William McKinley. By Kevin Phillips. Times Books, 2003
Theodore Rex. By Edmund Morris. Modern Library, 2002
Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. By Robert Caro. Knopf, 2002
An Unfnished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. By Robert Dallek. Little, Brown and Company, 2003

A hybrid institution, partly monarchical and partly republican, the presidency generates a complex and contradictory biographical genre. Like kings, presidents must be great men striding the stage of history. If they were not, they would be unsuitable for the office and the biography. At the same time, the men in the White House must be representative as well as consequential; on the inside, they must look like America.

When the genre emerged in the nineteenth century, Scott Casper observes, the typical presidential biographer "never focused much on what his subjects actually did in their political careers, [so] the vast difference between their presidential records mattered little" (269-70). An effort "at once to instill the virtues and ideology associated with the northern middle class in young men . . . and to celebrate that ideology itself as a route to individual success and social order and progress" (Casper 123), the biographies of chief executives became one huge pantheon of moral models. Whether focused on James Garfield, Franklin Pierce, or Benjamin Harrison, during a century in which Congress legislated and the economy operated without much guidance or regulation from the White House, presidential biography enjoyed an era of good feeling that paralleled the genre of self-made men. Didactic tales of individuals creating their own morally unimpeachable characters suited both business and politics, even when the facts did not actually fit the man.

In the twentieth century, as the presidency became imperial and history became an academic discipline, professors dismissed traditional biography as hagiography. But the ever-popular genre yielded little ground, and, as the presidency became an institution of arbitration between labor and capital, the head office for a regulatory bureaucracy, and the strategic headquarters for the military-industrial complex, there appeared a yawning gap between ordinary middle-class virtues and the extraordinary sum of qualities that comprise (as Richard Ben Cramer puts it) "what it takes" to be president of the US. Rather than utter the perennial academic bleat against a popular genre, we wish to examine the specific problem generated by this [End Page 363] growing gap. Our vestigial nineteenth-century desire that presidents should stand as great men and yet represent ordinary America—that they be, in a phrase, "great commoners"—increasingly blocks an understanding of our leaders. In our more jaded age, presidential biographers are more likely to criticize and debunk. With notable exceptions, they no longer view the presidency as Clinton Rossiter did: as "the breeding ground of indestructible myth"(103). But, with remarkable steadfastness, they remain preoccupied with the origins, moral character, and motives of their subjects. In this essay we examine recent biographies of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson (two pairs forever yoked to one another) and the problem with presidential biographies that we shall call the "great commoner complex."


Kevin Phillips's William McKinley labors to make a sound party man of the second rate exceptional, both in his influence and in his popular sympathies. Phillips opens his book by disavowing any designs to elevate McKinley much higher than the second tier, but by the time he has finished his McKinley has just as much claim to the populist touch as his opponent William Jennings Bryan and such a deft hand with domestic policy that he can take responsibility for ending the great depression of the 1890s. Phillips's little book distills the McKinley revisionism of the past half-century. Beginning with H. Wayne Morgan and extending through Robert Hilderbrand and Lewis Gould, modern McKinleyists have emphasized how modern McKinley himself could be. Rather than depicting him as a foolish tool of the trusts, contemporary historians see him as a...


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