How the Presidential Memoir Evolved

Historians in the News
tags: politics, presidential history, 2020 Election

Jill Lepore, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2005. Her books include “The Name of War,” which won the Bancroft Prize; “New York Burning,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history; “The Story of America,” which was short-listed for the pen Literary Award for the Art of the Essay; “Book of Ages,” a finalist for the National Book Award; and “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.” Her latest book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” came out in September, 2018. Lepore received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1995 and is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University. In 2012, she was named a Harvard College Professor, in recognition of distinction in undergraduate teaching.

Amy Klobuchar, Camp Fire girl, was kicked out of fourth grade at Beacon Heights Elementary School, in Plymouth, Minnesota, for wearing pants, and not just any pants but superfly, pink-flowered bell-bottoms. “Amy Klobuchar,” the principal told her, “at Beacon Heights School you wear dresses.” When Julián Castro was in seventh grade, in San Antonio, he poured Elmer’s glue into a school aquarium to see what would happen to the fish, and his mother—a Chicano activist who once ran for city council—set him straight about the consequences of cruelty. Cory Booker’s parents fought against housing discrimination, braving the bared teeth of a real-estate agent’s Doberman pinscher, and when they moved with Cory and his little brother into an all-white neighborhood in New Jersey his father said that the Bookers were “four raisins in a tub of sweet vanilla ice cream.” Kids in Scranton, Pennsylvania, mocked Joe Biden because of his stutter; so did his seventh-grade teacher. “Mr. Bu-bu-bu-bu-Biden,” the nun taunted, until Biden’s mother went to the school and told the nun that if she ever spoke to Joey that way again she would rip her wimple right off her head. Kirsten Gillibrand’s childhood nickname was Loudmouth; this did not daunt her. “I am sometimes bossy,” she wrote, philosophically, in a school paper, when she was around nine. “I also tease my sister, but I feel this is natural.”

Klobuchar, Castro, Booker, Biden, and Gillibrand are all running for President. After the first Democratic Party debate, in June, a few of the field’s nearly two dozen candidates will start dropping out of the race. So far, just about everyone who’s declared has written a book, or, let’s be honest, has had a book written—political memoirs that flicker with primal scenes that explain the candidates’ rise from obscurity to fame, and, if not their rendezvous with destiny, at least their do-si-dos. The life is the message; the child the father of the man, the kindergartner the mother of the candidate. In “The Senator Next Door: A Memoir from the Heartland” (Holt), Klobuchar wants voters to know that, despite her impressive degrees and her well-paid (and, to progressives, faintly suspicious) stint as a corporate attorney, she’s just that feisty bell-bottomed Midwestern kid. Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, offers “An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream” (Little, Brown), a lovely story about the abiding virtue of his mother and grandmother, as a parable about the importance of immigration to American greatness, and goodness. “United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good” (Ballantine), Booker’s kitschy chronicle of his climb from mayor of Newark to U.S. senator, imagines a post-segregation America, the pure sweetness of raisins in a tub of vanilla ice cream. Biden published a memoir in 2007, “Promises to Keep,” explaining why he was running; his newer one, “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose” (Flatiron), explains why he didn’t run in 2016, and hints at why he’s running this time around: he conquered that stutter; he has endured terrible tragedies; he can conquer anything. “Off the Sidelines: Speak Up, Be Fearless, and Change Your World” (Ballantine), by Senator Gillibrand, of New York, markets itself as the “Lean In” of political memoirs, but, really, it’s a very weak cup of tea, a diluted version of Shirley Chisholm’s “Unbought and Unbossed,” which Chisholm published just before she became the first black woman to run for President, in 1972. Chisholm was unbossed; Gillibrand is a disciple of Hillary Clinton.

Read entire article at New Yorker

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