Most will have watched the inauguration of Joe Biden with a healthy fascination. It was an event full of weird firsts and enduring bizarreness. First, there was the dystopian strangeness of the visuals: this world of social distance and mask-wearing which we can never quite get used to. If you feel that way, you’re not alone. According to national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, even Barack Obama received an admonition from his wife to stop hugging people.
It was also the first handover of power for over 150 years where the person doing the handing over hadn’t deigned to show up. On that occasion, Andrew Johnson had refused attendance at the inauguration of that sodden general Ulysses S Grant, even choosing not to ride in the same carriage to the Capitol.
What Biden said in January 2021 won’t be much remembered. The inaugural address is a genre which has declined alarmingly since its heyday under Lincoln. What will be recalled – and assiduously written about by a long line of biographers of which I am among the first – is the fact that Biden was standing in the shadow of a Capitol building which just a few weeks beforehand had been stormed by protestors in a move endorsed by the sitting president. Ça fait rêver, as Flaubert used to say whenever confronted by the distasteful quirks of human nature.
It was indeed enough to make one dream – or to think one might be dreaming. But there was continuity too. At each handover of power – whether it be at the Capitol or on the steps of Downing Street – the nation goes through a series of emotions: electoral joy or grief, interest in the spectacle of it all, tempered often with a strong dose of indifference at the next hapless lot to assume office amid soon- to-be-dashed hopes.
Dead or alive
All this is the case unless you happen to be a member of that most unusual sub-species: the political biographer. This group divides into two categories which are more distinct than people might realise: the biographer of dead people and the biographer of the living. The difference is that the biographers of the dead tend to be calm types, somewhat dusty from too much time in libraries perhaps – but in general sane. Whereas the biographers of the living typically look wild and stressed and I sometimes think it is a wonder that any of them have any hair.
The end of May
With books to my name on Roger Federer, Theresa May and now Joe Biden, I count myself among the latter. It is a profession which doubles up as an affliction.
I recall with a mixture of post-traumatic weariness and lingering bafflement my last experience at biography, when writing about Theresa May. Especially seared on my memory is the day in 2017 when May, at the mistaken promptings of David Davis, scuttered out of Number 10 to announce, via her decision to hold a snap general election, the beginning of the end of her political career. In so doing, she was also announcing the need for me to rewrite vast chunks of my book which until that point had betrayed her as a new and insurmountable force in British politics. At the time, stung by the way in which reality had impinged on my text, I vowed that any future subject of my non- fiction would be as dead as Plato.
In my first book, The Fragile Democracy, I described the task of contemporary biography as being like “trying to shoot a lion with a water pistol”. I was underestimating the difficulty of the task in hand. At least a lion would be a solid target – the trouble with contemporary political reality is that it isn’t even that. The correct analogy would be shooting at the hologram of a lion, but one which is also continually changing shape like something out of Ovid. You have no idea what you’re hitting at.
However, years later I found myself watching the Biden inauguration in a state of comparative calm. This time I had taken protective measures. I had come to realise that the only way to write about the living is to tether them to things that can’t change. My book on May had ended up as a study in how chaos theory might be applied to Westminster’s machinations. No matter how many versions of the Chequers agreements failed to get through the Commons, I could at least be sure that my philosophical framework would remain intact.
With Biden, I chose to make him a study in the application of the Enlightenment in politics. I felt on reasonably secure ground. The wish to get away from the gut instinct approach to politics which has defined Republican presidencies from Reagan to George W Bush and – of course – Donald Trump, is a leitmotif not just of Biden’s nascent presidency but of his life. His speeches today are filled with reference to the
importance of facts, to the point that he can sometimes sound like Dickens’ Gradgrind. It’s a methodology of governance which he inherits to some extent from his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama. There are dangers in this approach: with Obama, we saw how the lofty assurance that one is acting on correct information can sometimes be infuriating to those who feel excluded, and want the politics of the gut.
Once again, I have written a hybrid – a work of political philosophy masquerading as a linear biography. It’s a reminder that the political biographer of the living also subdivides into different kinds. Whenever I see Sir Anthony Seldon he always looks politely frazzled, having just emerged from the warren of Whitehall. His book launches teem with civil servants, and every word he writes is full of what John Updike called “higher gossip”. We are lucky to have Seldon, Tim Shipman, Rosa Prince and a hundred others to squirrel away, unearthing facts and motivations which aren’t yet known to everyone. They are, in their journalistic way, frontiers people.
The great mystery about the Seldons of this world is how they gain access. It is a strange currency. Why is it that cabinet secretaries past and present will talk to him and not to someone else? In the US, we saw in the lead-up to the general election, the power of Seldon’s equivalent, Bob Woodward, when Donald Trump spoke with unwise liberality, primarily out of deference to Woodward’s reputation. Trump, more movie-goer than reader, was especially in thrall to the idea that Woodward featured in All the President’s Men. But the fame of journalists is usually built on trust, and trust is where access begins.
Caught in the crossfire
Of course, there is real difficulty in these highly polarised times about your choice of subject. I lost track, after the release of the Theresa May book, of the number of people who asked why I supported her – as if the decision to write about someone were some kind of implicit endorsement of their agenda. The biographer’s plight is often to work very hard to arrange the facts, or find the truth, only to be caught up in the crossfire of readers’ emotional responses to the subject. Anyone who wants a sense of the charged political atmosphere of the times, should
look at the case of Kate Hartson at Hachette, who had earned a reputation for buying up Trump-supporting MAGA books. When she was removed from position earlier in the year, there were rumours that the woke squad had come for her. These same squads – and their opposites – are of course just as active on Amazon as they are in the big publishers.
For me, and I suspect for most biographers from Robert Caro to John Bew, the subject is always power – and especially the way in which power and the individual collide. Happily, the house of literature has many mansions, and it is also worth examining the meaning of our times, even before we can be fully certain about the precise direction events have taken.
Taking the middle ground
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Sir David Lidington, a gifted historian who made it right to the centre of power. He told me that power doesn’t change: in the 1530s, your job, if you wanted to influence policy, was to get a piece of paper with your problem in it in front of Thomas Cromwell. Just as today you need to get an equivalent piece of paper in front of whoever happens to have Boris Johnson’s ear.
That insight is liberating if you want to write about the present but don’t particularly want to go into the Treasury. For Lidington, Shakespeare remains the key that unlocks what is going on in power. If we read the great biographies of the past too – from Philip Magnus’ great study of Gladstone, or Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, we realise that there is more to biography than a trot through the facts, however new they might be. It is always interesting to know who said what when; but what really matters is what motivated them to say it, and within what wider philosophical expectations they spoke.
As much as there is talk of Joe Biden’s Catholicism, his real philosophical connection is to the Enlightenment. My book looks at what the Enlightenment means in the political context, but in the end I have found myself more sceptical than before about how viable its application will ultimately prove in the sphere of politics.
That’s because reality is so complex that we cannot marshal all the facts of a given problem. It was Obama’s weakness to give the impression that he could. As readers of his mighty tome The Promised Land will know, the 44th president of the United States is nothing if not self-aware. For instance, when it came to the preparations for Operation Neptune Spear, which would result in the killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama went through his usual methodology, analysing the facts from every side. He then asked his National Security team, one by one, to deliver their opinion about whether the operation should proceed. After hearing everyone speak, and having considered all the facts, Obama said: “So it’s 50-50 basically.” Facts are not crystal balls into the future.
But if that story indicates the limits of the Enlightenment, then isn’t it still much better to have leaders who go through those processes? The obverse appears to be the emotion-fuelled presidency of Donald Trump which, based on the evidence we have, seems to end up with blood spilt in the very halls of democracy. Politics, like our lives, always comes down to temperament.
Biden appears to be proceeding on the assumption that there’s a middle ground between the two presidencies, Obama’s and Trump’s. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, I hope it will be valuable to readers to have a book which discusses the framework in which he is proceeding. But will they or not? That’s also 50-50.
President Joe Biden: Healer-in-Chief is out now from Black Spring Press for £16.99