Early historians of America, rich in imagination and sometimes short on evidence, took as their purpose the crafting of heroic tales that carried strong moral lessons. Thus did Parson Weems’s early biography of George Washington (published in 1800) tell, as historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out, “historical lies in order to impress upon the young the importance of telling the truth.”
Historical writing about American presidents has come a long way from the didactic tales crafted by romantic historians in the 19th century. But their aspirations live on in two new books about Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, presidents who loom large in the American imagination, especially in this year of anniversaries: 2011 marks the Civil War’s sesquicentennial and a half-century since the inauguration of Kennedy.
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s “Killing Lincoln” offers, its authors promise, “a saga of courage, cowardice and betrayal” with “lessons . . . relevant to all our lives.” Those lessons are not entirely clear after reading “Killing Lincoln,” but O’Reilly and Dugard suggest that they involve awareness “of the true heroes who have made the country great as well as the villains who have besmirched it.”
Chris Matthews’s affectionate portrait of Kennedy, “Jack Kennedy,” likewise reflects a preoccupation with the legendary. In exploring Kennedy’s path from boyhood to the presidency, Matthews asks, “What prepared him to be the hero we needed?”
It is richly ironic that O’Reilly and Matthews, renowned as hard-nosed, unsparingly direct political commentators in the heated arena of cable television news, embrace in their books heroic presidents. The modern political culture they inhabit has rendered that archetype largely extinct. Lincoln was, as O’Reilly and Dugard would have it, “the most hated man in America” in the weeks before his assassination when he struggled to hold together a riven nation amid the brutality of the Civil War. Yet he earns the authors’ praise for his Christlike ability to rise above the fray and endure public scorn in the interests of high principle, compassion and reconciliation. Lincoln’s capacity to look beyond political division, toward compromise and understanding, deeply impresses O’Reilly and Dugard. Describing the president’s appearance on the night of April 10, 1865, before a frenzied crowd elated by news of Robert E. Lee’s surrender, they observe: “There is no malice in his tone, no undercurrent of sarcasm born of the many years of public ridicule.”
Matthews finds in Kennedy an extraordinary capacity to see all sides of an issue with coolness and “uncanny detachment.” Kennedy’s independence emerged early in a life marked by personal loss and physical suffering. Family wealth and privilege permitted him to rise without acquiring the usual debts (literally and figuratively) that constrained other politicians. But his Irish Catholic roots sensitized Kennedy to the “sting of prejudice.”
Matthews quotes with approval Sen. Harris Wofford’s description of JFK as “a complex political leader in a complex situation. He was not anyone’s man. . . . He had one foot in the Cold War and one foot in a new world he saw coming.” However, Kennedy never would have had the opportunity to demonstrate such presidential timber, Matthews asserts, if voters in 1960 had had access to the sort of information in his medical record we take as a right today.