In her 1921 biography of her brother Theodore Roosevelt, Corrine Roosevelt Robinson saw no harm in sharing “almost confidential personal memories” about the late president. “It is not sacrilege to share such memories with the people who loved and loved him so much,” she wrote.
If I were to publish “almost confidential personal memories” about my brothers in a book, they would not be amused to say the least.
Siblings offer a perspective that is less loving than that of a parent, less reverent than that of a child, and more thorough than that of a friend. But records of presidents’ sisters were rare, until the last decade. And even now, historian Douglas Brinkley said, the books written by two of Barack Obama’s sisters haven’t exactly changed the way we see the former president.
“If you’re looking for sisters as influential creators of POTUS, I think it’s very lean porridge,” Brinkley said, adding that Corrine Roosevelt Robinson was one of the few exceptions.
But in the past few administrations, more sisters of presidents have made their voices heard and publicly expressed their views on their brothers, whether they exert influence or not. Part of that trend is the result of the explosion of political literature in general, combined with the easing of sexism in politics and publishing in recent decades.
A memoir of President Biden’s younger sister was released this week. In it, his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, recalls dozens of anecdotes about her brother, ranging from the moment he left her alone on a picnic so he could kiss a girl, to the moment he won the presidency.
“I had no problem telling my brothers I thought they were jerks,” Owens writes in “Growing Up Biden: A Memoir.”
All of these accounts — Donald Trump’s eldest sister did not write a book, but was a central figure in his niece’s critical book — led to a more personal understanding of the historical figures who shaped the country. But they also say something bigger about our hunger for intimate details behind the curtain on politicians. We don’t just want to know how the policy is created. We also want to know how the person is made.
The Celebrity Factor
In early American history, decorum prevented presidents from writing about their personal histories. In fact, presidents wrote their autobiographies with the expectation that the material would not be published until after they died.
Even in those books, personal anecdotes were scarce, said Craig Fehrman, who wrote “Author in Chief,” a book about the books written by presidents. Instead, in those autobiographies, presidents would justify the political decisions they had made while in office by naming the advisers who had guided them. That slowly changed over time, under pressure from publishers and editors, who “should really be begging them to write personal material,” Fehrman said.
“Readers like personal information,” Fehrman added. “But sometimes writers, whether it’s the presidents themselves or their relatives, just need a little push to tell us a little more of what we want to know.”
The 1980s saw a major shift in the publishing industry, as bookstores popped up in shopping malls and celebrities wrote their own bestsellers (including Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” published in 1987). This trend coincided with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, himself a celebrity before his political career, who had written a popular book in the 1960s. The presidency became even more of a celebrity phenomenon with the advent of cable news.
With that change came a spate of books about presidents, even those who are still in the White House. More than 20 memoirs have been written by members of Reagan’s family and officials who served in his administration.
“Publishers like to find hits and formulas that work,” Fehrman said. “And if a president can write a good book, let’s take a look at a presidential sibling.”
No harm done
The siblings’ bills sometimes flirt with irreverence, but they still tend to protect their brothers’ legacy.
Corrine Roosevelt Robinson certainly looked up to her brother Theodore, even if she had a way of undermining his projection of unyielding power. For example, she would tell biographers that Roosevelt never got over his asthma, although Roosevelt boasted that he overcame the ailment by exercising.
That kind of correction may have conflicted with the “Victorian sense of masculinity,” said Kathleen Dalton, the author of “Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life,” but Roosevelt probably only looked better.
“She liked to tell those stories because she found them endearing,” Dalton said. “And you know, they are. They probably contributed to his following.”
David Welky is a professor at the University of Central Arkansas who is writing a book about Roosevelt’s other sister, Anna. Corrine was the writer of the family, but Roosevelt’s and Anna’s wife were also protective of him, with roles that were more behind the scenes. There was little risk that Corrine would write anything that would harm her brother, whom she idolized.
“The women in his family were very protective of his legacy, wanted him to be remembered in glowing terms,” Welkey said, adding: “But I don’t think it’s unfair. They really looked at their brother in glowing terms. So I think that came from a real place.”
What to read?
A cornmeal mountain
On Politics regularly shows work by Times photographers. Here’s what Cheriss May told us about capturing the above image on Tuesday:
When the White House warned members of the news media to “wear closed-toe flats that can get a little dusty” during President Biden’s visit to POET Bioprocessing in Menlo, Iowa, we knew we were in for an adventure.
The president made remarks in a barn-like structure surrounded by hay, tractors and a huge mound of cornmeal. When I first saw the hill that reached to the ceiling, I thought of the science fiction movie “Dune” and almost expected a sandworm to appear. The whole time there was a fine mist of cornmeal coming into my hair. When I got home I found it under my clothes too.
As Biden spoke, I saw more grain fall from an opening in the ceiling onto the already hefty pile. I knew I wanted to show how imposing the cornmeal looked in that room—how it consumed the room and everything in it. During the comments, I walked across the room to place Biden in front of the cornmeal, showing how huge the mound was.
As grain fell from the ceiling onto the covered mountain, I thought of an hourglass ticking through this difficult time with many consequences.
— Leah (Blake is on vacation)
Is there anything you think we’re missing? Something you want to see more of? We would love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics.†