The life and difficult times of a biographer: The Petraeus affair

Sometimes subjects get too close

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NEW YORK — The affair between retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and author Paula Broadwell is but an extreme example of the love/hate history between biographers and their subjects.

Even before their outing led to Mr. Petraeus‘ resignation as CIA director, Mrs. Broadwell had been criticized for the rosy tone of “All In,” which The Associated Press described in 2011 as “part hagiography and part defense” of his strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as long as biographies are written by and about human beings, scientific precision will remain an ideal. The stories of famous women and men often are colored by rapture and disenchantment, confusion and bias.

“As with psychiatrists, same with biographers, you shouldn’t sleep with your subject,” Blake Bailey, the prize-winning biographer of authors John Cheever and Richard Yates, said with a laugh.

“The ideal case is to have no assumptions. But it is possible to write a great book and have strong opinions. [‘Eminent Victorians’ author] Lytton Strachey, the father of all modern biographers, had a very distinctive voice and a very distinctive perspective — a person looking down from the world at a great distance, quite disparagingly, but with vast humor that informs every word.”

Mrs. Broadwell conducted extensive interviews with both critics and supporters of Gen. Petraeus, but the finished story was overwhelmingly positive. She is far from alone in allowing personal or professional regard to shape a biography, especially when the subject cooperates. Flattering books come out all the time, whether a biography of Dick Cheney by Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes or Chris Matthews’ “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.”

Award-winning biographer Robert Caro, a former investigative journalist who has written about men who have inspired and dismayed him, says his job is to collect as much information as possible before forming opinions about his subjects. (Associated Press)

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Award-winning biographer Robert Caro, a former investigative journalist who has written about ... more >

Years spent together, as Mrs. Broadwell had with Mr. Petraeus in Afghanistan, can make the biographer’s experience intensely personal, whether sexual or not. Walter Isaacson did not avoid the unpleasant side of Steve Jobs, but acknowledged that he had bonded strongly with the dying CEO of Apple Inc. Doris Kearns Goodwin was an aide to Lyndon B. Johnson who sometimes took notes while the ex-president lay in her bed, a relationship that she called platonic and described in her book on him, “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.”

Some relationships end in court. Jimmy McDonough spent years working on an authorized biography of Neil Young, only to have Mr. Young withdraw support and attempt to stop publication, leading to mutual lawsuits and delay in the release of “Shakey,” which was released in 2002.

Some biographers, seem energized by perceived sins. Examples include Albert Goldman’s takedowns of Elvis Presley and John Lennon.

Others use scholarship to build up or pick apart figures from the distant past. Jon Meacham’s new biography of Thomas Jefferson praises his subject as a subtle and effective politician, while a competing book, Henry Wiencek’s “Master of the Mountain,” faults Jefferson as a calculating slaveholder who tolerated brutality.

David McCullough has likened the biographer’s choice to picking a roommate whom you must live with for years. Mr. McCullough himself abandoned a Pablo Picasso book out of distaste for the painter’s private life and chose men he related to for his two Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographies of Harry S. Truman and John Adams. Former John F. Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. won a Pulitzer for “A Thousand Days,” his book about the Kennedy administration. But his reverence for the late president led Gore Vidal to dismiss “A Thousand Days” as a “political novel.”

Biography often is the art of reconciling opposites. Robert Caro, the prize-winning biographer of New York municipal builder Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson, has taken on men who have both inspired and dismayed him. A former investigative journalist, Mr. Caro sees his job as collecting as much information as possible and only then forming opinions. There is no such thing as “objective truth,” he says, but there are enough “objective facts” to bring you close.

Authors have followed paths they never imagined before starting a book or encountering the subject. Edmund Morris was a prize-winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, but the chance to write about a living president led him to take unusual license. Granted years of access to Ronald Reagan, Mr. Morris was left so mystified that he inserted a fictionalized version of himself into the book, “Dutch,” as a way of making sense out of the president.

Jane Leavy, author of a well-regarded biography of Mickey Mantle, said she had a hard time starting the book because of her childhood worship for the New York Yankees star. She decided the best way to move ahead was to acknowledge upfront her memories and map out the life of the flawed and troubled man she came to know and to hear about.

“He was multidimensional and far more complicated than the hagiographic biographies I read in school or the dark stories about him being a womanizer and an offensive drunk,” she says. “No one is one way or another. The fact he was horrible to his wife doesn’t invalidate his skill. So the task became why he treated people the way he did. And that’s the biographer’s job.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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