A Preference for Strenuous Ghosts

Michael Kammen

  • Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
    HarperCollins, 772 pp, £25.00, March 2002, ISBN 0 00 217708 0

Americans seem to relish Presidential biographies. David McCullough’s Truman (1992) was on the bestseller lists for the better part of a year, and his John Adams (2001) is providing an astonishing repeat performance. Robert Caro’s dramatically detailed look at The Years of Lyndon Johnson has been unfolding since 1982, and large chunks of Volume Three have been serialised in the New Yorker. In the meantime, Robert Dallek scooped him with Lyndon Johnson and His Times in two thick volumes (1991-98), although anyone who wants to know what lay beneath all the warts, scars and obscenities will have to wait for Caro to finish – if they live long enough. Well before Stephen Ambrose got blindsided a few months ago by the plagiarism police, he produced solid biographies of Eisenhower in two volumes (1983-84) and Nixon in three (1987-91). And though William McFeely won a Pulitzer Prize for his Grant (1981), that did not deter Jean Edward Smith from publishing a massive new Grant (2001), which some politicians have been reading with furtive pleasure because it finds that Gilded Age Administration less corrupt than had been believed.

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