Asked by veteran journalist Bob Woodward how history would judge the Iraq war, George W. Bush replied: “History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.” Sadly for the 43rd president of the US, those arbiters of history’s verdict—i.e., political biographers—have not waited for him to leave office, leave alone this world, to render their judgement. Over the past four years, journalists, academics and even some of his best-known supporters have churned out a deluge of anti-Bush tomes detailing his every misdeed. No wonder nearly 60% of Americans believe he will go down in history as a president worse than even Richard Nixon.
Mr President: A biographer’s dream. Larry Downing / Reuters
But perhaps the greater indignity was watching history’s self-appointed amanuenses hurry on to his successor long before his term came to an official end. It’s only fitting that Barack Obama, that rare politician who has penned not one but two autobiographies before he achieved anything of note, is already the subject of innumerable books—mostly of the celebrity-driven variety.
Many are valedictory coffee-table editions, such as Barack Obama: 44th President Collectors Vault, described as “full of photos and pull-out souvenir stickers, postcards and campaign memorabilia”, or the shamelessly self-congratulatory Obama: The Historic Journey, authored “by the greatest cultural recorders in the world, the staff of The New York Times”. Just as bemusing are the number of children’s books with titles such as Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope.
Also beginning to flood the shelves are books penned by journalists jostling to seize this historic moment to burnish their careers (worthy exceptions are Gwen Ifill’s The Breakthrough and Jabar Asmi’s What Obama Means, which explore Obama’s achievement in the light of black history). Out this summer is Renegade: The Education of Barack Obama by Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe, likely to be followed by many more by other reporters cashing in their campaign notes for book deals.
Jonathan Alter, also at Newsweek, and The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza are already writing books on Obama’s first year in the White House. No need to wait for a leader to actually do something, as in find serious solutions to serious problems that will likely take more than a year to address, and far longer to measure. Why wait for the future to judge what has yet to pass when we need to know how it all turns out right now?
“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” declared the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. But political biographies—at least the popular kind—no longer aim to depict critical moments in our past as captured in the amber of individual lives. This is the era of insta-biographies, driven not by achievement but by what’s hot, be it hating Bush or loving Obama. Inevitably, in the place of historical perspective, these books offer sagas of personal trial and triumph befitting a Hollywood diva more than a world leader.
Let’s just hope the man who ran and won on the strength of his life story will be more mindful of the demands of history and a truly great biography.
Lakshmi Chaudhry is a Bangalore-based writer who co-authored Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq.
Write to Lakshmi at firstname.lastname@example.org