Historians question White House presidential bios

Historians in the News

The White House site, http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents, offers one-page summaries of all 44 presidents, granting equal time to sluggers and bench-warmers. Much of the material is taken directly from a companion book by the White House Historical Association first released in 1964 and last reissued in 2009. "The Presidents of the United States of America" is a glossy, illustrated paperback that includes a foreword by President Barack Obama, who writes: "I hope it not only teaches you about America's past, but also ignites a passion to build America's future."

But the White House biographies offer an unusual history lesson. Some are examples of blatant boosterism and outdated scholarship. Others are oddly selective or politically incorrect.

George W. Bush's entry, for example, makes no reference to Hurricane Katrina or the economic collapse of 2008, but does find room for the names of his dogs. Ronald Reagan's biography does not mention the Iran-Contra scandal, which made headlines during his second term. Gerald Ford's 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon is noted in a few words, with nothing about the fierce criticism it received. Vietnam is included on Lyndon Johnson's page but not his fateful decision to send ground troops....

The White House Historical Association, an independent nonprofit established 50 years ago by then first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, said in a statement that "The purpose of the biographies ... was to provide a brief, popular historical sketch to accompany the images of the official White House portraits and meant to enhance the public's enjoyment of their White House tour."

Historian Michael Beschloss, a member of the historical association and an editor of the 2009 companion book, would not comment directly on the biographies. He did say that one of the goals of the country's revolutionary leaders was to bring a more democratic spirit to scholarship....

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