In her 1921 biography about her brother Theodore Roosevelt, Corrine Roosevelt Robinson saw no harm in sharing “almost confidential personal recollections” about the late president. “There is no sacrilege in sharing such memories, with the people who have loved him, and whom he loved so well,” she wrote.
If I published “almost confidential personal recollections” about my brothers in a book, they would not be amused, to say the least.
Siblings offer a perspective less doting than a parent’s, less reverent than a child’s and more thorough than a friend’s. But accounts from the sisters of presidents have been rare, until the last decade. And even now, the historian Douglas Brinkley said, 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 influence makers of POTUS, I think it’s very thin gruel,” Brinkley said, adding that Corrine Roosevelt Robinson was one of a couple exceptions.
But over the last few administrations, more sisters of presidents have spoken up and have publicly aired their views about their brothers, whether influence-shaping or not. Part of that trend is a 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, ranging from the time he left her alone at a picnic so that he could go kiss a girl, to the moment he won the presidency.
“I had no problem telling any of my brothers when I thought they were being jerks,” Owens writes in “Growing Up Biden: A Memoir.”
All of these accounts — Donald Trump’s oldest sister didn’t write a book but was a central figure in a critical one written by his niece — lead to a more personalized understanding of the historical figures who have defined the country. But they also say something larger about our appetite for intimate behind-the-curtain details about politicians. We don’t just want to know how the policy is made. We want to know how the person is made, too.
The celebrity factor
In early American history, decorum precluded presidents from writing about their personal histories. In fact, presidents wrote their autobiographies with the expectation that the material would be published only after they had died.
Even in those books, personal anecdotes were scarce, said Craig Fehrman, who wrote “Author in Chief,” a book about the books written by presidents. Instead, presidents in those autobiographies would justify the political decisions they had made while in office, naming the advisers who had guided them. That slowly changed over time, under pressure from publishers and editors, who would “really have to beg them to write personal material,” Fehrman said.
“Readers love personal information,” Fehrman added. “But sometimes writers, whether it’s the presidents themselves or their family members, need a nudge to tell us a little bit more of what we want to know.”
In the 1980s, there was a major shift in the publishing industry, as book stores popped up in shopping malls and celebrities wrote their own best sellers (including Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” 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.
With that change came a surge in books about presidents, even those still sitting in the White House. There are more than 20 memoirs written by members of Reagan’s family and officials who served in his administration.
“Publishers like to find hits and formulas that work,” Fehrman said. “And so if a president can write a good book, let’s see about a presidential sibling.”
No harm done
Siblings’ accounts might occasionally flirt with irreverence, but they still tend to protect their brothers’ legacies.
Corrine Roosevelt Robinson certainly looked up to her brother Theodore, even if she had a way of subverting his projection of unyielding strength. She would tell biographers, for example, that Roosevelt had never gotten over his asthma, although Roosevelt boasted that he had conquered the ailment through exercise.
That kind of correction 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 look better.
“She liked to tell those stories because she thought they were endearing,” Dalton said. “And you know, they are. They probably added to his following.”
David Welky is a University of Central Arkansas professor who is writing a book about Roosevelt’s other sister, Anna. Corrine was the writer of the family, but Roosevelt’s wife and Anna were also protective of him, with roles that were more behind the scenes. There was little risk that Corrine would write anything that would harm her brother, whom she idolized.
“The women in his family were very protective of his legacy, wanted him remembered in glowing terms,” Welky said, adding: “But I don’t think it’s dishonest. They really viewed their brother in glowing terms. So I think that was coming from a genuine place.”
What to read
A cornmeal mountain
On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Cheriss May told us about capturing the image above on Tuesday:
When the White House cautioned members of the news media to wear “flat, close-toed shoes that are fine getting a little dusty” during President Biden’s visit to POET Bioprocessing in Menlo, Iowa, we knew to expect an adventure.
The president gave remarks in a barnlike structure surrounded by hay, tractors and a huge mound of cornmeal. When I first saw the mound that reached toward the ceiling, I thought about the sci-fi movie “Dune” and almost expected a sandworm to emerge. The entire time, there was a fine mist of cornmeal blowing around that got in my hair. Once I got home, I found it underneath my clothes, as well.
As Biden spoke, I could see more grain falling from an opening in the ceiling onto the already sizable pile. I knew I wanted to show how imposing the cornmeal looked in that space — how it consumed the room and all in it. During the remarks, I crossed to the other side of the room to place Biden in front of the cornmeal, showing just how enormous the mound was.
As grain fell from the ceiling onto the indoor mountain, I thought of an hourglass, ticking down this difficult, consequential time.
— Leah (Blake is on vacation)
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