In the era before the modern media changed the way the news was circulated, people would usually make their choice of president by following the decision of their local party chieftains. For the book-reading public there were the campaign biographies of the principal candidates.
This genre first appeared in 1824. In one way or another, all of the literary trumpeters made their subjects out to be "heralds of destiny"; some were also provided with exalted ancestries. In 1852 Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Bowdoin College classmate of Franklin Pierce, composed a campaign biography of his fellow-alumnus that was quickly printed in huge quantities. Five thousand copies were distributed free in New York City alone. The same year a million copies of a biography of Pierce's opponent, General Winfield Scott, were said to have been handed out.
During the campaign of 1860 Lincoln was so little known in the eastern part of the country that newspapers sometimes simply referred to him as "the Westerner." When he came to New York to deliver an address at Cooper Union Institute, he traveled uptown to the studio of the photographer Mathew Brady, where he had his picture taken. The Republican party thereupon distributed hundreds of thousands of copies of it, making it a "first" for millions of people: seeing what their would-be president looked like. Nevertheless, the circumstances of his life were made known through campaign biographies widely circulated. Another literary lion, William Dean Howells, was the author of one of the best of them, dwelling heavily on how Lincoln had educated himself and embedding that fact in the voter's sense of the future Emancipator's character and worth.
Yet another literary light, General Lew Wallace, best known for his novel Ben Hur (1880), wrote Benjamin Harrison's campaign biography. And John Dos Passos, later the author of the acclaimed U.S.A. trilogy (1937), touted McKinley for reelection in 1900. In 1952, the popular writer John Gunther wrote a worshipful life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. When he was a candidate for the governorship of New York in 1928, Franklin Roosevelt wrote a campaign biography of Alfred E. Smith, the Democrats' choice for president.
Before the Civil War, candidates were invariably revealed to have been paragons of virtue as children; after the 1870s Tom Sawyer provided the model boyhood-pranks and artfulness mingled with unmistakable good-heartedness. In the twentieth century candidates have also been depicted as outdoor types—Hoover, for instance, was portrayed as an avid fisherman. The Horatio Alger theme of "rags to riches" also had its place: thus Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate in 1940, was reported to have peddled newspapers as a boy, James A. Garfield was presented as the "canal boy" working on the waterways of his native Ohio, and Eisenhower was said to have sold vegetables on the streets of Abilene, Kansas. These desirable attributes seem not to have been verified. One of Grant's biographers affirmed that the general never drank anything "stronger than cold water."
Boasting that the candidate was a farmer has always seemed advantageous. Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed contending that his Hyde Park homesite was really a farm. Voter-readers learned that Harry Truman had hardened his hands on the levers of a gang-plow. Garfield was depicted "working in the hay-field with his boys."
But above all, military heroism has been the choice card of admission, for, like most peoples who applaud their war heroes, Americans have given their triumphant army leaders open sesame to the White House, from Washington to Jackson to Zachary Taylor to Theodore Roosevelt to Eisenhower. Sometimes the campaign biographer has had to find a substitute for the real thing. Thus it was recalled that William Jennings Bryan, the Democrats' candidate in 1896, 1900, and 1908, trained a regiment in Nebraska during the Spanish-American War. Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican candidate in 1944 and 1948, was hailed as the successful chairman of the first U.S.O. fund drive, providing aid and entertainment to service men and women. And the Republicans called attention to Ronald Reagan's World War II service, which consisted chiefly of making training films for the troops. Lord Bryce writing in 1880 in his classic commentary The American Commonwealth offered the judgment that what the party desires in not a good president but a good candidate. Voters must wrestle with the implications of this assessment every four years.
The campaign biography has become less important today because the media present the candidates in such intimate detail that no mystery attaches to them and no myth about them can be sustained. William Jefferson Clinton's history of womanizing and his experiment with marijuana were the stuff of conversation well before he took the oath of office. George W. Bush's need to give up alcohol was public knowledge and turned into a virtue when his campaign for the presidency was only beginning.
Today, biographies of the candidates issued in presidential years are sometimes searching and critical. Two of the kind in 2000 were David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima's The Prince of Tennessee: The Rise of Al Gore and Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose's Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. For many years, too, prospective presidents have forsaken the older style of seeming to be reluctant candidates and proclaimed their own merits for voter support in books usually put together hastily by ghost writers. The titles are indicative. Calvin Coolidge's supporters aiming to make him a dark horse candidate in 1920 brought together a collection of his speeches entitled Have Faith in Massachusetts (1919). Likewise Richard Nixon (1969–1974) put out in 1960 a compilation of his speeches called The Challenges We Face. Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate in 1964, published Where I Stand. Four years earlier he had turned out The Conscience of a Conservative. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson proudly distributed a little book entitled My Hope for America. Jimmy Carter attracted national attention in 1975 after he released Why Not the Best? The year 1988 saw the Democratic candidate, Michael S. Dukakis bring out Creating the Future: The Massachusetts Comeback and Its Promise for America. It was, in its way, a response to his opponent, George H. W. Bush, who had written (with Victor Gold) Looking Forward (1987). The title was identical to a book written by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. The Republican candidate, Robert Dole, tried something fresh in 1996 when he made use of Jack Kemp, his popular vice presidential candidate, in Trusting the People: The Dole/Kemp Plan to Free The Economy and Create a Better America. Dole also produced a joint autobiography with his accomplished wife, Elizabeth, that they fetchingly called The Doles: Unlimited Partners (1988). In 1999, George W. Bush contributed to the species A Charge to Keep. Aside from being of interest to historians, these books and their kind quickly gather only dust on the shelves of libraries.