The Art of Political Biography

Earlier this month, FSG published two books on twentieth-century American political figures: William H. Chafe’s Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal and Joseph Crespino’s Strom Thurmond’s America. Neither one is a straightforward biography. Bill and Hillary, which tracks the Clintons’ lives but is focused on the dynamic of their relationship, almost resists classification. Meanwhile, Strom Thurmond’s America is a political biography that out of necessity highlights its subject’s greatest personal failure. We asked the authors to read each other’s book and then discuss, over email, the art of biography.

Joe Crespino: One of the things that struck me in reading your book, Bill, was the challenge of writing about people who are so articulate and skilled about shaping their own personal and political narratives. And it’s not only that the Clintons are articulate; they are baby boomers who came of age in a culture of self-exploration and therapeutic analysis. Bill Clinton’s explanations of his own actions and motivations are often self-serving and full of rationalizations, but they are never uninteresting, and in many cases, hold genuine insights.

Bill Chafe: Both Bill and Hillary were very self-conscious. They thought a lot about their choices in life. And, of course, both wrote memoirs. Bill, in particular, devotes the first sixty pages or so of his book My Life to his insight into his “parallel lives,” the “secrets” that underlay so much of his troubled journey. He goes to great lengths to get us to accept his rationalizations. But that generates suspicion. What has he not told us? And how does someone writing a biography get at the other side? Both Bill and Hillary—Bill especially—rarely shared the most personal and important sides of their lives. Hillary spoke of growing up in a household that was like “Life with Father,” even though her father, in reality, was a very difficult figure. And through all the years of trauma Bill experienced with a stepfather who was both alcoholic and abusive, he never told his closest friends anything about what he was going through. At Georgetown, he went steady for three years with a woman named Denise Hyland, and in his memoir talks constantly about how they sat on the steps of the Capitol talking all night long about their past and what they planned to do in the future. He even brought her home to meet his folks. But at no point did he ever mention to her the most central reality of his childhood, or how he had to physically intervene to stop his father from beating his mother.

I wonder what you make of Thurmond’s motivations. Did he ever acknowledge why he made the various shifts in his political life?

Joe: Thurmond’s motivations are a bit harder to discern because, unlike Clinton, he was completely unreflective about his past, either to interviewers or in his personal papers. When he did talk about it he would sometimes say things that were patently untrue, like his standard answer for many years about his evolution on racial issues. Thurmond would tell reporters that back then he was just following the law, and the law said that the races should be segregated. When the law changed, he changed. Even some of Thurmond’s close aides found the answer lame. One told me about a conversation he had with the senator around 1982 when they were working in the office late one night on Thurmond’s position on the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. Thurmond repeated again his standard line, after which the aide asked: Senator, did you ever think about trying to change the law? Thurmond just stared off in silence, and then changed the subject.

It’s not that Thurmond didn’t have the intellect to reflect on his motivations; he had good reasons not to. We know now that his reticence on racial issues can be attributed at least in part to the fact that he had fathered a black daughter, and he was determined that that fact never see the light of day. In some ways, his refusal to reflect on his past was a marker of his remarkable self-discipline. You can imagine him thinking at some basic level that he would not allow himself to relax and start talking honestly about his life and motivations, because when you start down that path, there’s no telling where it might lead.

Strom Thurmond's America

Yet even without a self-reflective subject or a personally revealing archive, there are deductions that the biographer must make to give an honest account of a life. One way to get at this kind of thing is by digging deep in the historical record to establish context for key decisions. That’s what I did to understand Thurmond’s motivation to run as the Dixiecrat presidential candidate in 1948. The conventional wisdom is that Thurmond did it because he was such a bitter-end racist. Yet it was perplexing to many people at the time, because Thurmond had made a national name for himself the year earlier by working with federal officials in prosecuting a white lynch mob that had murdered a black man in South Carolina. The hate mail that Thurmond received over that decision is incredible to read. Yet here in 1948 this relatively progressive southern governor is leading the retrograde States Rights effort. What gives?

Ironically enough, Thurmond was running for president to position himself for a Senate run against Olin Johnston in 1950. South Carolina law at the time barred him for running for reelection that year; there was no place else for him to go. Thurmond needed to position himself to the right of Johnston, who was the quintessential southern New Dealer, and the Dixiecrat run connected Thurmond with conservative business interests across the region. As a presidential candidate in 1948, he denied any interest in the seat, and maintained for the rest of his life that he didn’t think about the Senate until his term as governor ended. But when you look at the South Carolina newspaper record, it’s clear that Johnston and South Carolina reporters didn’t believe his denials in 1948. And there’s no reason we should believe them today.

One of the things I wanted to ask you is how it is that you came to write a political history of a marriage, which I think is a good way to describe your book. Were there any models you had in mind? The fascinating thing about your book is how a history of America since the 1960s can be told as a history of the Clintons’ marriage.

Bill: I had not actually thought of my book as “the political history of a marriage,” but as something more integrated, less compartmentalized. I first conceived of the idea of writing about Bill and Hillary together as part my last book, Private Lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America. That book started out with an essay on Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, whose “marriage” in the conventional sense ended when Eleanor discovered Franklin’s affair with her private secretary, Lucy Mercer, after World War I. Instead of divorcing, they remained together and interacted increasingly on political matters, especially after FDR contracted polio in 1922 and Eleanor became his surrogate. But they never resumed an intimate relationship, so their collaboration, while intense, was more formal and political than personal and intimate.

Bill and Hillary

The final essay in Private Lives/Public Consequences was on Bill and Hillary. After the book was published, I continued to read about them, and soon became convinced that the only way anyone could understand either one of them—and the politics of the 80s and 90s—was by examining the chemistry of their relationship. Their intimate life animated and ultimately determined the roles they played politically. To be sure, each had his or her own areas of specialization, and each carried on an array of activities independent of the other. But who was calling the shots, who exercised control, whose voice dominated—these decisions reflected their relationship, and had a direct effect on the course of national politics.

For example, the major reason Bill did not run for president in 1988 was because Betsy Wright, his former chief of staff in the Governor’s office in Arkansas and one of Hillary’s “best friends,” told him his sexual affairs would dominate the campaign. Yet his run in ‘92 was only possible because he and Hillary had decided to stay together—Bill had fallen in love with someone else and had asked for a divorce, and Hillary had persuaded him instead to enter intensive marriage therapy. By 1991 they agreed that the time had come to run for president.

After Gennifer Flowers came forward in early 1992 with allegations of an affair with Bill, Hillary stood by her beleaguered husband, testifying during their Sixty Minutes interview to the soundness and vitality of their marriage and to Bill’s character. By doing so, she not only rescued Bill’s candidacy, but ensured that her own power in both the personal and political relationship would increase. Hence her insistence on an office in the West Wing, and her role as prime mover behind the administration’s health care reform bill, which ultimately failed because Hillary, granted near total power by Bill, would brook no compromises.

So where the marriage ends and politics begins is a question without an answer, because the two were inseparable.

Joe: Thurmond’s married life is bizarre and fascinating, and certainly it affected his politics, but neither of his marriages were anything like the intense political partnership that the Clintons shared. In many ways Thurmond’s two marriages—the first time to a woman 22 years younger; the second time to a woman over forty years his junior—seem like a lot of May-December weddings. The older partner is attracted to youth and beauty; the younger one to power, influence, or wealth.

Thurmond’s first wife, Jean, died of a brain tumor in 1960 when she was only 33. Thurmond’s earliest biographer, Alberta Lachicotte, suggests that Jean had a leveling influence on her husband, and it may be that Thurmond’s anti-muzzling campaign in 1961 was connected to Jean’s death a year earlier. Friends said that in his grief Thurmond became obsessed with his work, and his speechwriter Fred Buzhardt, a hard-right anti-communist ideologue of whom Jean was somewhat suspicious, became more influential in his politics.

His 1968 marriage to his second wife, Nancy, when she was 22 and he was 66, was the one that really raised eyebrows. She was a former Miss South Carolina who had been an intern in his office. His closest political adviser, Harry Dent, was convinced that the marriage would ruin Thurmond politically and tried to talk him out of it. But, in fact, Nancy turned out to be a political asset, and a key to his political longevity. She gave birth to four children in the 1970s, a time when Thurmond had to work hard to soften his public image. His attractive young family helped considerably in that regard.

You mention that the idea for your Clinton book came from Private Lives/Public Consequences, but you’ve actually been working in the biographical genre for some time now, dating back at least to your book on Allard Lowenstein. What would you say is the appeal of biography for you?

Bill: My biography of Lowenstein was a turning point in my career. Before it, I had written extensively on the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, subjects that naturally required me to consider the difference that individuals can make in their times. I became fascinated by the choices people to the left of the political center made in the 1960s: between seeking reform “inside” the existing political structure and attacking the entire system, with revolution in mind. I concluded that the best way to try to understand how people made this choice was to look at one life. Lowenstein was the quintessential white liberal activist of his era. I knew him, had worked in some of the same causes as he did, and decided he was an ideal person for a biography.

Little did I know (until I started going through his papers) that there were private demons driving his peripatetic activism: his struggle with his Jewish identity, stemming from his troubled family life, and even more important, his desperate attempts to deal with his realization, when he was a student at Horace Mann, that he was physically attracted to boys. The title of the book, Never Stop Running, is an apt description of not only his continuing quest for a seat in Congress but also his search for answers to the question of his sexual identity. My interest in how sexuality, fidelity, and the chemistry of a relationship can be instrumental in shaping a political career originated in that book.

Joe: Both my first book and my Thurmond biography turn around a similar question: how does American political history look different when you take an entity considered to be peripheral, atypical, or distinctive and put it at the center of the historical narrative? In my new book that entity is a person; in my first book it was a group, white Mississippians in the civil rights era. Mississippi was well known at the time (and has been since) as the most recalcitrant of all the Deep South states. It was a “closed society,” to use a famous phrase of the day, and white Mississippians were seen as monolithic in their defiance of racial change, and as dangerous outliers in a modern, democratic America.

Of course, that’s not how most white Mississippians saw themselves. From the inside looking out, many white Mississippians were struck not by the unanimity but the division among their fellow whites. Many white Mississippians saw their state, communities, and institutions under attack from dangerous radicals, but the most politically astute among them didn’t just stick their head in the sand, or resist to the bitter end. They made common cause with conservative Americans in other parts of the country who were equally concerned about how liberal reforms were transforming their schools, churches, workplaces and communities. When looked at this way, white Mississippians weren’t outliers; a number of them became key figures in contributing to a conservative countermovement that had far-reaching implications for national politics.

My book on Thurmond takes a similar perspective. Any list of southern racist foes of civil rights would have Thurmond’s name at or near the top. Yet Thurmond was much more than the colorful and quixotic southern racist that we often remember. It is imperative—both for our understanding of southern history as well as the history of American conservatism—that we place Thurmond in the broader national, and not just regional, context.

Biography is particularly conducive to this kind of reframing. It seems almost inevitable that the lives of historical figures get reduced to certain well-worn narratives. We place them in neat and easy slots, and we forget that they actually led messy, complicated lives and were involved in all kinds of matters, and had all kinds of associations, that don’t fit with how we’ve come to remember them.

William H. Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History at Duke University and the former president of the Organization of American Historians. The author of numerous prizewinning books on civil rights, women’s history, and politics, he is best known, most recently, for The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II and Private Lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America. His most recent book, Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal, is now available.

Joseph Crespino is a professor of history at Emory University. He is the author of In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution and the co-editor of The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism. His most recent book, Strom Thurmond’s America, is now available.