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Saturday, November 07, 2020

Accurately Describing History

One of my students pointed out something fascinating the other day. The official White House website has brief biographies of each President. Here is part of the Andrew Johnson biography:

Although an honest and honorable man, Andrew Johnson was one of the most unfortunate of Presidents. Arrayed against him were the Radical Republicans in Congress, brilliantly led and ruthless in their tactics. Johnson was no match for them.

This characterization is woefully out of date. The source given is a presidential biography series written about fifteen years ago. The incoming Administration will have many pressing tasks, but one might be to modernize the history on the White House website. 

Posted by Gerard Magliocca on November 7, 2020 at 07:25 PM | Permalink


Reading through the other biographies, it’s clear the genre convention is to present each president in as rosy a light as possible. Setting aside the item on Trump, which is outright hagiography, the ones on Jefferson and Nixon don’t come close to reflecting how any contemporary historian would summarize either man’s life. But all of this raises the question how something like a White House website history ought to be created. We don’t want each incoming administration to rewrite the accounts of its predecessors. The content of this and equivalent sites could be dictated by a commission of academics or journalists, but it’s easy to envision how that arrangement could go awry. Maybe the current convention is not the worst accommodation.

Posted by: RQA | Nov 9, 2020 8:22:10 AM

Sounds like the summary of a narrator for Tennessee Johnson, the pro-Andrew Johnson film from the 1940s.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 8, 2020 4:39:06 PM

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