On Monday, aides to President Obama added blurbs to the end of the presidential biographies on the White House website, augmenting the work of historians Michael Beschloss and Hugh Sidey with references to the current president that are something less than scholarship. The changes were first noticed — and commented upon — by Seth Mandel at Commentary.
The president’s opponents used the additions to tweak the president’s famously healthy ego, sparking top ten lists and the Republican National Committee’s “Obama In History” tumblr account, which depicts the president as part of other historical events, such as the moon landing and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
But White House sources say the additions of items with hyperlinks are a commonly used Internet best practice to encourage people to browse more pages on a site.
The additions take the form of little nuggets added to the end of the bios. For instance, after the biography of President Reagan it now reads:
“Did you know?
“President Reagan designated Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday; today the Obama Administration honors this tradition, with the First and Second Families participating in service projects on this day.”
Left unsaid in this addition: Reagan initially opposed the creation of a holiday to honor the memory of the slain civil rights leader, though when the bill came before him after passing the House and Senate with veto-proof majorities, he signed it. (Explaining Reagan’s opposition, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said at the time that the president believed such holidays “have been reserved mainly for the Washingtons and Lincolns.”)
Then there’s this little addition from Team Obama:
“In a June 28, 1985 speech Reagan called for a fairer tax code, one where a multi-millionaire did not have a lower tax rate than his secretary. Today, President Obama is calling for the same with the Buffett Rule.”
This is fairly glib for a news nugget on a history page. Twice in June 1985 – on the 6th and again on the 28th — Reagan did decry a tax system where millionaires paid lower rates than their employees.
“In theory, some of those loopholes were understandable, but in practice they sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary, and that’s crazy,” Reagan said on June 6, 1985. “It’s time we stopped it.”
But, as the Washington Post’s Fact Checker noted when giving President Obama two Pinocchios on this invocation of Reagan, Reagan and Obama were calling for opposite actions: Obama’s call to impose the “Buffett Rule” within the current system would raise taxes, Reagan wanted to lower them.
Reagan was calling for simplifying the tax code, pushing a “simpler, three-bracket design” and “closing the loopholes,…(to) bring tax rates down for the vast majority of Americans.” The Buffett Rule, conversely, would be adding complexity to the tax code by insisting that millionaires pay a minimum rate.
(*The White House points out that President Obama has called for reforming the tax code and lowering the rates, as did Reagan — which is true. “The President has proposed the Buffett Rule as a basic rule of tax fairness that should be met in tax reform,” the White House National Economic Council wrote a year ago. But the president is devoting close to no energy to tax reform, while he talks about the Buffett Rule quite a bit. The “Buffett Rule” page the White House links to does not mention overall tax reform , nor is it mentioned in the video explanation of this tax principle — though a fictitious character from The West Wing is mentioned several times.)
It’s an election year, and every incumbent president uses what he can to advance his name and accomplishments. Most of these new additions to the presidential biographies are fairly innocuous, such as this one for Calvin Coolidge:
“Did you know?
“On Feb. 22, 1924 Calvin Coolidge became the first president to make a public radio address to the American people. President Coolidge later helped create the Federal Radio Commission, which has now evolved to become the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). President Obama became the first president to hold virtual gatherings and town halls using Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, etc.”
Still, a historian contacted by ABC News said that while the additions did not “cross the line” by changing the presidential biographies themselves, the White House could have made it clearer that the additions were not part of the Beschloss and Sidey 2009 work “The Presidents of the United States of America,” from which the biographies were gleaned.
The additions are not even necessarily historical, but rather something else entirely.
*This post has been updated with this paragraph.