We live in a golden age of biographies about presidents and other public personalities. There's much to be said for these books. I recently read Jean Edward Smith's wonderful new "Grant", and even a pretty good biography of Grover Cleveland.
Still, some historians, including Princeton University's Sean Wilentz, have a point when they worry that McCullough's type of portraiture in common with PBS productions like Rick Burns' 'Civil War' may represent a sort of glossy historical Norman Rockwellism that highlights personal drama in a PEOPLE magazine kind of way and pays insufficient attention to surrounding economic, social, cultural, and political contexts.
Perhaps. If you descend from the writing of history to the practice of journalism, you encounter a slightly different problem involving the portrayal of personalities. It concerns a technique of braying, ad hominem caricature that has become a substitute for thought and analysis in the work of a number of commentators and performers Maureen Dowd and Rush Limbaugh, for example.
Liberals have long spoken with contempt of Limbaugh's woofing and hooting, his mockeries of Bill and Hillary Clinton and nearly every other Democrat and environmentalist and bleeding heart to the left of George S. Patton. It must be said that Limbaugh, with three radio hours at his disposal five days a week, sometimes follows up the tomato attacks with what is often fairly sharp analysis of the issues. You may think he is wrong, but he's often more logical than liberals generally think.
Maureen Dowd, whose column occupies prime editorial real estate twice a week on the op-ed page of the New York Times, woofs and hoots and jeers like Limbaugh, but, for lack of space perhaps, less often condescends to analyze. Why think when you can sneer?
The late Meg Greenfield, who for years ran the Washington Post's editorial page, wrote that when she was a young woman and had not yet learned to write and think, she would join conversations in which the following would pass for a cogent political opinion: "John Foster Dulles....I mean....Dulles! Oh, God!"
Dowd, who knows how to write, puts on a much funnier and sharper performance than that, of course. But when you analyze her standup improv columns, they usually say nothing more than, "George W. Bush....I mean....W.!....Oh, God!" As if that were enough.
There are plenty of readers who think it "is" enough, either because they 1) agree with Dowd in the first place and don't need corroborating argument; 2) don't care and merely want to be amused; or 3) are stupid enough not to notice that the woofing and braying have no substance behind them.
This week Dowd attacked the President for his "magnificent obsession" with Star Wars. A very literary spasm of woofing: In the first few paragraphs, she cited the obsessions in Proust's "Swann's Way", Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice", Nabokov's "Lolita", Oscar Wilde's "De Profundis," and Melville's "Moby Dick" a way of signaling that all of us on the right side of the Star Wars issue are bright, literate English majors, and that the presidential doofus on the other of the room, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, is, I mean, George W. Bush! Texas! Little League! Oh God!
"But it turns out that he is darker and more complex than we thought," goes Dowd, wagging her eyebrows and mugging for her peers.
The other day, Dowd went into her ghastly "us-girls-dishing" mode, in which she talked about "guys trapped in their tiresome libidos." Dowd in the us-girls mode sometimes mentions "my girlfriend." I wonder if the Times' op-ed page, which once took itself so seriously, would publish a male columnist who wrote about gals trapped in their tiresome sex drives, and described going shopping with "my boyfriend."
Come to think of it, the Times would be delighted. Perhaps that's next.