One of the oddities of conventional biography is that when the subject is a person of great influence and renown, his or her private life is scanted at best, ignored at worst. We know, for example, that Franklin D. Roosevelt's mother was overbearing and dominating and that he was unhappy in prep school and college, but these crucial aspects of youth usually are noted by his biographers and then passed over, so that the march of great events -- the Depression, the 1932 election, the New Deal, court-packing, World War II -- can be given full-dress treatment. Even the polio that Roosevelt suffered in 1921, when he was 39, goes little mentioned once its onset and treatment have been discussed and analyzed.
This is in strange contrast to biographies of writers, artists, movie stars and others of "creative" bent, whose most intimate secrets are explored, often with obvious relish, either in the hope that they can explain the sources of the subjects' art or for gossip pure and simple. Many statesmen, apparently, have neither intimate secrets nor private lives, or so one is left to assume by many people who write their life stories. The result, of course, is that we get only public lives, which is to say only part of the story -- and not, one cannot help thinking, the most important or interesting part. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said, to get close to the real truth about another person, one must find out what happens in that person's bedroom and bathroom. But those who write the biographies of statesmen and other bigwigs all too often dismiss that as "mere gossip" and get on with the crucial, thrilling business of describing, say, how the Tennessee Valley Authority came into being.
Private Lives/Public Consequences is an effort to get past that syndrome, to pinpoint the events and influences that helped 10 prominent 20th-century Americans become the people that history knows. In brief sketches -- of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill and Hillary Clinton -- William H. Chafe, a professor of history at Duke University, pursues four themes:
"The first is that family and the circumstances of one's upbringing are critical for the shape of one's subsequent life. The second is that a series of choices, usually in adolescence, form a pattern as to how an individual approaches a challenging situation. The third is that in many instances a profound personal crisis, such as the contraction of polio or the sinking of PT 109, creates a departure point that informs future actions, calling one back repeatedly to a moment in time that profoundly altered one's life. The fourth is that most people's lives play out of all these themes, not in a preordained way, as in a Greek tragedy, but as a process in which we make our own choices and shape our own history."
This may seem obvious, but you'd hardly know it from many biographies of men and women whose influence on history has been significant, whether for good or for ill or -- as in most cases -- somewhere in between. We know that as a young Navy lieutenant in the South Pacific, John F. Kennedy commanded his PT boat on a risky and probably foolhardy mission, and we know that when it was sunk he performed with great strength and courage, but too often we are left to assume that this was just a way-station on his path to the presidency, rather than a crucial event that shaped his attitudes toward war and toward the military mindset. We know that FDR responded with similar strength and courage to polio, but the possibility that it might have been the pivotal event in his life -- as almost certainly it was -- generally gets less consideration than it obviously deserves.
All of which ignores an essential truth about human existence: Nothing occurs in isolation. Something important doesn't happen and then go away; it persists in memory, in the subconscious, and its lasting influence, though the precise dimensions of it can only be guessed at, is crucial. That Eleanor Roosevelt's father, Ronald Reagan's father and Bill Clinton's stepfather were irresponsible alcoholics isn't just an interesting biographical aside, it's a key to the essence of all three of them; it helps explain their exaggerated sensitivity to tension and their desire to please others. Similarly, that Joseph P. Kennedy was a domineering monster or Rose Kennedy was insufferably pious and cold isn't something that their sons John and Robert endured as children and left behind as adults. It stayed with them to the end of their lives, providing fears, resentments and doubts that were central to them:
"Depending on one's perspective, the Kennedys were either the most loyal, affectionate family in Boston, dedicated to public service; or they were one of the most dysfunctional group [sic] of individuals ever assembled, committed to unhealthy competition, lack of respect for women, suppression of truth about family relationships, and self-aggrandizing manipulation. . . . The Kennedy home . . . was a household of many demands, enormous contradictions, and oftentimes very little affection or emotional support. . . . [B]oth Joe and Rose were often absent, Rose perhaps even more than Joe, and despite the motif of togetherness, trust, warmth, and honesty were profoundly missing."
If there is such a thing as a "normal" family -- a highly debatable proposition, but one to which people are inclined to cling -- then none of Chafe's subjects came from one. Parents were smothering or neglectful, alcoholic or priggish, domineering or withdrawn. Very often social resentments festered, either passed along by parents or inflicted upon children at school. Richard Nixon was a caldron of resentment and envy; so, in different ways and for different reasons, was Lyndon Johnson. Martin Luther King Jr. had to overcome the ruthlessly controlling presence of his father, who "could provide material security for his family, but he also expected to make the decisions on their religious faith, what schools they would attend, whom they would marry, and what careers they would pursue."
No doubt influenced by the examples their parents set, these 10 people mostly had problematic marriages. Bobby Kennedy's marriage to Ethel Skakel seems to have been happy -- it certainly was fruitful -- as was Ronald Reagan's to Nancy Davis, but the latter was a second marriage following an unhappy first. The Roosevelts' and Nixons' marriages seem to have been little more than companionate (and not much of that) after the child-bearing years. JFK, King, Johnson and Bill Clinton were notorious womanizers. The point, of course, is that unhappy marriages don't exist in vacuums; they touch almost everything in the partners' joint and separate lives, and if those lives include making decisions that affect the nation and the world, the effect of that unhappiness, though unknown, probably is considerable.
From all of this Chafe draws certain conclusions that, though scarcely original, are surprisingly absent in many studies of these and other prominent people. One is that "overcoming adversity, having to fight daunting circumstances, often provided a critical incentive toward developing traits that later made it possible to overcome insuperable obstacles to success." More succinctly, ambition often is fueled by resentment, rejection or envy: "I'll show them." Another is that sometimes people's lives are shaped by "moments of crisis that shaped their future decisionmaking": polio for FDR, wartime for JFK, his brother's assassination for RFK. Yet another is that "for some, future decisionmaking was shaped less by particular crises than by gradually developed patterns of behavior designed to suppress fear or failure," patterns especially notable in the lives of Nixon and Clinton.
There's nothing unusual about any of this. Human beings respond to what life deals them in various ways, some healthy, some not. Insecurity, bitterness, ambition, overcompensation, social climbing, solitariness -- these are among the many ways in which we attempt to normalize ourselves in what is, in truth, a world of abnormalities. Usually no one notices these patterns except those who come into daily contact with the person who employs them, but when that person is the president of the United States, or the first lady or an immensely influential minister, the repercussions can be broad and deep. Though Chafe has taken only a rather tentative first step toward identifying and analyzing these matters, his overview should encourage future biographers of the eminent to get -- as they say on the sportscasts -- up close and personal. *
Jonathan Yardley is The Washington Post's book critic. His e-mail address is email@example.com.