The Personal in Political Television Biographies

By Van Santen, Rosa; Van Zoonen, Liesbet | Biography, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Personal in Political Television Biographies

Van Santen, Rosa, Van Zoonen, Liesbet, Biography

Personal narratives in political discourse take on many forms, but among the most visible and controversial are the personal narratives of politicians in office or campaigning for office. For decades, observers of political cultures have claimed that the growing "personalization" of politics detracts from the substantial attention voters might otherwise give to political issues and policy decisions. (1) Recent elections indeed show that the main contenders insert personal narratives in their campaigns through various, sometimes unexpected, means. Not only have Internet weblogs of personal experiences become indispensable campaign instruments, auto/biographical books have also returned as key carriers of personal stories about candidates--consider Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, or Dit land kan zoveel beter by Dutch Social-Democrat party leader Wouter Bos. Controversies around these various biographical genres notwithstanding, our intention in this article is not to assess or even discuss the impact of personal narratives on the quality of politics and democracy. Such a general aim is bound to fail, given the diversity of personal narratives, the different contexts in which they are told, and the myriad ways in which they are appreciated by distinct groups of citizens. Instead, we want to investigate critics' claims that these personal narratives have become ever more dominant, and to analyze their different themes and styles so as to ground a more detailed and empirically informed understanding. To do so, we will examine a particular genre in which personal narratives of and about politicians have appeared regularly over the past fifty years: the televised portraits of politicians that have been broadcast in the Netherlands from television's early days in the 1960s through the election of 2006.

We approach these broadcasts with a number of general expectations based in academic and public discussions about political biography and the personalization of politics, and derived from developments in the contemporary histories of television, politics, and culture. We will elaborate on these expectations in the following section.


The written auto/biography has long been the standard form politicians used to tell their personal stories: "Generations of leaders from nearly every age and culture have attempted to transmit to the future an account of their lives and achievements," George Egerton argues (221), with their narratives providing an understanding of politics in terms of the dramas of political leadership that appeal to both political and popular audiences. Such auto/biographies have been and still are the subject of controversy, focusing for instance on the following questions: whether the private lives and personal considerations of politicians hinder or facilitate a more substantial understanding of historical processes (Bolton); whether biographical accounts tend to "neaten things up" and rewrite history (Egerton); whether personalized accounts open up the field of politics to wider audiences (Nethercote, Arklay, and Wanna), and so on. The compromise in these contentions could be, as Philip Selth argues, that "good" auto/biographies do not distinguish between the subject's public and private life, presenting them as an integrated whole. But what "good" biographies are, and when and how private issues devalue or enrich political biography, depends on particular situated contexts and political cultures, and cannot be addressed in general terms (see Thompson).

The tensions between public and private aspects of personal narratives of politicians have not only appeared in the context of biographical writing, but emerge whenever such narratives are found in public settings, regardless of whether they are produced by professional communicators in the traditional genres of journalism, film, and television, or by politicians themselves in the newer platforms that the Internet provides. …

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