Get up close, but how personal?

Leslie Kaufman

When Doris Kearns Goodwin was still young and unknown and writing her biography of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, she stayed at his Texas ranch. Sometimes, she said later, when he could not sleep, he would settle into her bed and confess his troubles while she sat nearby.

Walter Isaacson was at Steve Jobs' bedside as Jobs was dying of cancer, an experience, Isaacson has acknowledged, that made him "deeply emotionally wrapped up" with his subject.

Contemporary biography has always been a tricky balancing act, even before Paula Broadwell demonstrated with her book about David H. Petraeus how the scales can tip decisively the wrong way.

The challenge of writing a biography about a person who is still alive is that an author must first establish trust and a comfort level with a subject, to get access and a free flow of information. But the biographer is still expected to evaluate and expose unsparingly.

"Any biography of a living, breathing and active figure who's still at the height of his powers is going to have to strike a delicate balance between access and objectivity," said Tim Duggan, executive editor at HarperCollins. "It can be very tricky, and it requires real finesse."

Goodwin, now a critically acclaimed biographer of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, has always asserted that her relationship with Johnson was not sexual, and that she sat in a chair while he unburdened himself from her bed. Still, most reviewers have agreed that the portrait she paints of Johnson, the 36th president, was far more empathetic than the one that emerged from his most famous biographer, Robert Caro.

Similarly, the highly respected Isaacson showed Jobs' most unsavoury flaws but often portrayed them as character traits that enabled him to achieve tremendous things at Apple.

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