The Best and Worst Presidential Memoirs
Jefferson set an impossibly high standard for subsequent presidents in many areas, including memoir. No one matched him until Grant, and since then it’s been spotty.
Those who are shell shocked and depressed following the inauguration of Donald Trump as our 45th president may at least find some small solace from this: in a late December interview with CNN’s David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior advisor, the outgoing president promised that the day after he left office, “I’m gonna start thinking about the first book I want to write.” Which means Obama may have already begun plans for books that could, according to one literary agent, earn him from $30-$45 million.
Donald Trump’s name as author or co-author is on more than 30 volumes, which makes him, in all probability, the first American president to have written more books than he has read. (His collected Tweets could make him the first president to have a book published while still in office.)
Incredible as it may seem, Time to Get Tough, Think Big and Kick Ass in Business, and The Best Golf Advice I Ever Received will soon join the works of Thomas Jefferson in the presidential wing of the Library of Congress.
Jefferson was our third president, but the first great writer to sit in the White House—or whatever they called the president’s residence before the British visited Washington in 1814. Luckily the British did not visit Monticello or we would not have two superb one-volume selections of Jefferson’s writings, which are essential to students of American history as well as aficionados of Augustin prose.
The Library of America’s Thomas Jefferson Writings (1984) is the most comprehensive edition available, more than 1,600 pages, and includes his autobiography, hundreds of pages of public and private papers, addresses and speeches, 267 letters, and both the original and revised drafts of the Declaration of Independence.
If 1,600 pages is too much to carry around in your backpack, try the Modern Library The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1998, 736 pages) to read the autobiography, both versions of the Declaration, the two inaugural addresses, and more than 200 letters.
The next great master of American presidential prose was Abraham Lincoln, the man biographer Fred Kaplan called “the [Mark] Twain of our politics.” There are two outstanding collections of his writings, both edited by Lincoln scholar Don E. Fehrenbacher. The first, Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, reveals Lincoln the man through his letters (to friends, colleagues and his wife) and newspaper accounts. If you read the nearly 900 pages chronologically, you can see a style develop from the rhythms and rhetoric of his reading of Cicero (in translation), Shakespeare, and the King James Bible. Also included are the early speeches that made him a national figure, such as the famous “House Divided” address delivered in Springfield, Illinois in June 1858 and “Fragment on the Struggle against Slavery,” written in July 1858.
Extra bonus: the complete texts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates as printed in newspapers. Those who wish to argue that evolution works in reverse may compare them to transcriptions of the Clinton-Trump debates. Volume Two, which covers 1859-1865, contains, of course, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address (“with malice toward none and charity for all”).
Lincoln, though, probably would not top the list of the best presidential writers. In his study of Civil War literature, Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson thought that Ulysses S. Grant was the finest. Mark Twain (who helped publish the work) thought Grant’s personal memoirs to be most remarkable work of its kind since Caesar’s commentaries. Matthew Arnold found Grant’s prose “straightforward … possessing in general the high merit of saying clearly in the fewest possible words what had to be said.”
Ulysses S. Grant : Memoirs and Selected Letters : Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant / Selected Letters, 1839-1865 isn’t merely a classic, it’s a work of great heroism. Grant wrote his memoirs at the astonishing pace of 25-50 pages a day, racing to finish while in excruciating pain from the throat cancer that would take his life. They are candid, honest, at times exciting and always surprisingly self-effacing. He died in July, 1885, five days after he was done. They are without parallel in American literature.
Only one president, though, could have been a success as a writer had he never gone into politics. In fact, only one American president did. Teddy Roosevelt wrote more than 40 published volumes on a variety of subjects, including biography, politics, war, and life in the wilderness. Many are still published and read today, particularly Hunting Trips of a Ranch Man (1885) and The Wilderness Hunter (1893), both of which can be found in one convenient edition from Modern Library.
Sadly, some of his better volumes are little read, such as American Ideals and Other Essays (1897), a collection of essays offering a theory of government based on American pragmatism, compromise, and old fashioned common sense. (Still available from, appropriately, Forgotten Books.)
Unfortunately, he may be best remembered by one of his worst efforts, the distressingly self-glorifying and historically inaccurate pot boiler The Rough Riders (1899), which is all too easy to find in several editions.
We are all the poorer for being deprived of the memoirs of Teddy’s cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the death of FDR in 1945 and the sudden ascendancy of Vice President Harry Truman to Commander in Chief made for high drama, which was preserved in one of the most neglected of all presidential memoirs, Truman’s 1945, Year of Decisions. Published in 1955, it offers a cutaway view of perhaps the most crucial moments of the 20th century. With the war still raging in the Pacific and the decision to drop the atomic bomb looming, it’s likely that no American president—with the possible exception of Andrew Johnson in 1865—faced such crises on such short notice.
After he became president, the former haberdasher from Missouri told reporters, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
The master of plain speaking was also adept at plain writing. Perhaps more than any man who ever held the office of president, Truman represented the average citizen, and no one ever conveyed the shock and awe of suddenly being thrust into the most powerful position in the world better than Truman in Year of Decisions.
When it came to recalling the events from 1946 to 1952 in Years of Trial and Hope, though, he no longer sounded like Harry Truman but like a committee of editors and advisors. Yes, the clash with MacArthur, the integration of the armed forces, and the recollections of the 1948 election (“Dewey Wins”) make for compelling reading, but there’s nothing compelling about the Taft-Hartley Act or the Brannon farm plan and his own vision of the country’s agricultural future. Years of Trial and Hope isn’t bad history, but drink coffee before cracking it.
Though the two volumes of Truman’s memories are not widely read now, they were best sellers in the mid ’60s. The best-selling book by any 20th century president, thanks to its inclusion on high school reading lists, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage. John F. Kennedy’s name is on the cover, but most historians are now convinced it was the work of his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen; whoever wrote it, this collection of stories of great men of American history reads like it belongs on the young adult tables at book fairs.
Kennedy is indisputedly the author of a much better book, Why England Slept. In its original form, the book was JFK’s senior thesis at Harvard in 1940. He takes a strong position (no doubt influenced by his father, then the U.S. ambassador to the court of St. James) that appeasing Hitler was good policy because the western allies weren’t sufficiently armed to hold Nazi Germany in check.
Nothing that Kennedy subsequently wrote suggests his wit and intelligence more than Why England Slept. It’s hard to read it without believing that he would have made a superb historian if Father Joe hadn’t groomed him for politics. The 1961 hardcover is a collector’s item that routinely sells for over $100, and Amazon has a new paperback for just $26. (The special edition which John signed to his mother, Rose, is currently offered on a rare books website for $40,000.
We can only regret that JFK never lived to give us an inside account of the Cuban missile crisis.
Speaking of crises, Richard Nixon had a few of his own to write about. Perhaps because he was inspired by Kennedy to write a book which would enhance his own public image, Six Crises was published in 1962, six years before Nixon reached the White House. He covered the 1948 testimony of Whitaker Chambers to the House Un-American Activities Committee (on which Nixon served), which led to the conviction of Alger Hiss; the accusations that he improperly took money from backers of his political campaign, which resulted in his famous 1952 “Checkers” speech; his service as active president following Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955; the 1958 attack on the vice president and his wife in Venezuela by what Nixon called “Pro-Communist mobs”; the much-publicized “kitchen” debate in 1959 between Nixon and USSR premier Nikita Khrushchev (Nixon believed he had won—Khrushchev never checked in on that); and his hard-fought losing campaign against JFK in 1960. (In light of the considerable research by Seymour Hersh and others that there could have been mob influence on the voting in a couple of states, Nixon might have bitched a great deal louder about the results than he did.)
Six Crises is relentlessly self-serving, but even Nixon can’t push history hard enough to make it go his way. Yet no one should deny that his memoirs of these events are interesting and exciting, which is more than can be said for his The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (1978).
No hardcover publisher would bite on this one; Warner Paperback Library, publisher of DC Comics and Mad Magazine, gave him $2.5 million. And then sold the hardcover rights to Grosset & Dunlap, who let it leak that the book would be edited by David Frost. This turned out to be true, but it was not the BBC David Frost who had grilled Nixon on television in front of millions on television just a few years before. This was simply a copy editor who happened to be named David Frost.
Nixon’s Memoirs was a maddening series of evasions by a man who was simply incapable of introspection: “I intended to play the role of the President right to the hilt and right to the end.” The result, as one critic put it was “words that read less like memos here than they did in the newspaper excerpts and more like the last will and testament of a fighter who never willingly gave ground.”
Though it’s not remembered today, there was actually a Committee to Boycott Nixon’s Memoirs, which sought to prevent this books’ release. They need not have bothered. The book is out of print and all but forgotten today. (On SNL, Dan Aykroyd did his Nixon impersonation wearing a T-shirt that read “Don’t Buy Books by Crooks.”)
For sheer myth mongering, though, Nixon must take a back seat to Ronald Reagan. Where’s The Rest of Me?—the title, of course, comes from the most famous line Reagan the actor ever spoke when his character woke up and saw his legs had been amputated in King’s Row—was published in 1965 to introduce Reagan to the public before he ran for governor of California.
Here’s the story of how he was converted from a New Deal liberal to an anti-Communist conservative from Rick Perlstein in The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan: “When, while serving as head of the Screen Actors Guild, he was confronted by FBI agents to help ferret out Reds, he replied, ‘Now look, I don’t go in for Red-baiting.’ The first G-man replied, ‘You served with the Air Corps. You know what spies and saboteurs are.’ The second G-man said, ‘We thought someone the Communists hated as much as they hate you might be willing to help us.’ ‘That got me,” said Reagan. Then he asked the government men, ‘What did they say about me?’ ‘The exact quotation was,’ he replied, ‘What are we going to do about that sonofabitching bastard Reagan?’ Will that do for openers?” From then on Reagan was their man.
Reagan’s later memoir, An American Life (1990), isn’t quite so florid but is every bit as fact-free. He reveals that “I never thought ‘Ronald’ was rugged enough for a young red-blooded American boy, and as soon as I could I asked people to call me ‘Dutch.’”
“It’s hard,” writes Perlstein, “to make stories about Ronald Reagan match up. Even, or perhaps especially, the stories Ronald Reagan told about himself—which are where most of the stories originated.” Writing about the first book but in a statement which could stand for both, Perlstein concludes, “Here is the problem: many of these events are matters of record—which contradicts Reagan’s stories at almost every point. For a side of Reagan’s personality not derived wholly from Frank Merriwell stories and the movie serials, check out The Reagan Dairies, edited by Douglas Brinkley and published in 2007.
Reagan’s books, of course, were heavily ghosted. Barack Obama’s talent as a writer stands on its own. Writing of Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Christopher Buckley commented that both books were “first-rate. He is that rara avis, a politician who writes his own books.” (At least in American politics, that is. Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill wrote most of their works with little or no help.)
As a writer of historical fiction, Jimmy Carter is no Kevin Baker, but his Revolutionary War novel, The Hornet’s Nest (2003), is certainly superior to Newt Gingrich’s fiction. As a memoirist, he has produced at least two volumes which are worthwhile to students of political history.
The first, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (1982) is one of the best books ever written about the job of president from the inside. Particularly revealing is his account of his crowning achievement, the Camp David Accord, and how he helped forge it. A bit disappointing is his retelling of the Iran hostage crisis since he was not ready at the time to reveal his role in freeing several American being held (as detailed in Ben Affleck’s film Argo).
Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age (1992) goes back to the early 1960s to rural Georgia and follows Carter’s own social and political consciousness, step by step, during his campaign for state senator. (He “lost” but knew he had been cheated and eventually won his seat in court.) One of the few books on American politics which reveals why all politics is local.
No American president though, has been able to pivot from the personal to the political like Barack Obama. Writing of Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Christopher Buckley commented that both books were “first-rate. He is that rara avis, a politician who writes his own books.” (At least in American politics, that is, with the exception of Carter. Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill wrote most of their works with little or no help.)
Of the two, Dreams from My Father is the more personal and the most important for anyone seeking insight into the mind of our 44th president. There is nothing remotely like it from the pen of any other American president. In fact, it could reasonably be called the first book ever by a president that examines the subject of race in America straight-up, with no filter.
Writing of the father he remembered meeting only once, Obama concludes that the many stories he heard about him “said less about the man himself than about the changes that had taken place and the people around him … The stories gave voice to a spirit that would grip the nation for that fleeting period between Kennedy’s election and the passage of the Voting Rights Act … a bright new world where differences of race or culture would instruct and amuse and perhaps even ennoble.”
Dreams from My Father may well be the best book by an American president since Grant’s memoirs more than 130 years ago. That bright new world Obama wrote of seems now like a dream deferred, and it makes one yearn for the book he must be composing in his head now.
Allen Barra is a columnist for American History magazine.