Monday, February 15, 2010

Yay, Mr. President! Boo, Mr. President!

Happy Presidents Day! As we celebrate the achievements of George and Abe and all the others, we realize that much of what we know of our earlier presidents is shrouded in myth and partisan interpretation, while we can rely on straightforward biographical facts when it comes to the most recent residents of the White House.

Or maybe not. While it may be a bit harder to sustain utter untruths about our recent presidents the facts of their lives can still be interpreted in startlingly different ways. And as a recent article at the website Slate demonstrated, that difference can be particularly pronounced when books geared towards adults and books intended for kids look at the same incidents from a president's childhood. Take the young Lyndon Johnson's habit of parceling out chores to his friends or siblings or other relatives. While a child's biography of Johnson portrays this as a Tom Sawyeresque game by a youngster showing initiative, Robert Caro, in his famous biography of the future Master of the Senate, describes the young Lyndon as a "harsh taskmaster" who would rather force his mother to gather wood than do it himself. And this seems to be the general difference between presidential biographies for the young and the not-so-young: youthful idealism is transformed into adult disillusionment.

More examples of this difference can be found in the Slate article here.

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