Presidential Memoirs Usually Fall Flat

Roundup: Talking About History

Mark Perry, a vice president of Jefferson Waterman International, a Washington lobbying firm, and author of Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America; in the Alameda Times-Star (June 15, 2004):

James Buchanan, the first president to write his memoirs, could have used a ghostwriter. Published in 1866, the book is as forgettable as his presidency. It sold poorly, although the case could be made that in the months after the Civil War ended, Americans were intent on forgetting the crises of the past. But"Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion" didn't help itself -- it is ponderous, defensive and, worst of all, apologetic. Buchanan's poor reputation -- as an indecisive leader at a time when the country was headed for a split -- has been recently rehabilitated by historians, who argue that he was simply trying to steer the nation clear of conflict. But the public of Buchanan's day was unforgiving.

HERBERT HOOVER had a similar problem. Though he was a man of enormous goodwill, the 31st president was blamed for the Great Depression -- or, at least, for not doing enough to ameliorate its consequences. His post-presidential career did not enhance his reputation: He opposed the New Deal and argued against American intervention in World War II. The result was predictable: When"The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover" appeared in 1951, few seemed to care. The work was an off-putting three volumes, the last of which contained charts and numbers and offered a detailed analysis of the failures of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration -- which had, of course, lifted the nation out of the Depression. The book sank like a stone.

Buchanan and Hoover were typical of so many presidents in the first 150 years of the republic who decided to write memoirs. For the most part, failed ones needed to explain their actions; successful ones didn't. George Washington retired to Mount Vernon and kept silent; Thomas Jefferson returned to Monticello and wrote letters; and Andrew Jackson went home to the Hermitage, where he struggled to pay his son's debts. The one exception to this early rule was Teddy Roosevelt. An explorer, naturalist, politician, soldier and writer, Roosevelt was a strong president and an unforgettable man. But he, too, wrote a forgettable memoir.

"Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography" lacks the man's vibrancy and reads like a series of predictable moralisms devoid of the biting insights that characterized his public pronouncements. It didn't do well and failed to impress the critics.

But it wasn't until Harry Truman that the idea that only failed presidents needed to write memoirs, to explain their failures, was fully laid to rest. Truman, surely a successful president, was intent on providing some judicious insights into his own time. (He also needed the money.) Nevertheless, the resulting two volumes of"Memoirs of Harry S. Truman: Years of Trial and Hope," lack the toughness Truman brought to his presidency.

The same can be said of Lyndon Johnson's"The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969." The man whom historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called"perhaps the greatest storyteller of his age" simply could not reach out to an audience through the written word. It showed in his memoirs, which are dull, labored and superficial.

No one disappointed more than Richard Nixon, whose"RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon" was viewed as his last chance to tell the truth about Watergate. It was not that Nixon failed to be Nixon: It was that he succeeded."RN," first published in 1978, is a dissembling work, in which the president attempted to deflect criticism from himself by blaming others for Watergate and fumed endlessly over his loss in 1960, which was apparently still eating at him. And the book was a major publishing letdown: It sold 262,000 copies, when the publisher had hoped it would sell millions.

Gerald Ford (helped along by ghostwriters) and Jimmy Carter (who avows that he wrote his book himself) likewise penned ultimately unsatisfying accounts of their presidencies. The prose of"A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford" flows effortlessly along, but the book is nothing more than a laundry list of events and Ford's reactions to them. Jimmy Carter's personal beliefs, on the other hand, come through clearly in"Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President," though the last pages of the book, describing the all-important final days of his presidency (the Iran hostage crisis and his loss to Reagan) seem hurried.

We shouldn't be too disappointed by these judgments: Presidents are politicians, after all, not memoirists. Even so, there is one notable exception amid the field of mediocrities -- the most popular and widely read memoir by a president, written by Ulysses S. Grant.

When he published Grant's"Memoirs" in 1885, Mark Twain, who was astonished at the sophistication of the writing, compared it to Caesar's"Commentaries." Grant's book is a stunning piece of literature, made all the better by the fact that he wisely focused his attention on the Civil War and not on his presidency. Written in 13 months, the work is entirely Grant's own. And Grant did not write either to retrieve his reputation or to gain public office, but, like Truman, to stave off bankruptcy. But where Truman failed, Grant succeeded. With Twain urging him on, he struggled through the pain and exhaustion of his battle with throat cancer to finish the work just days before his death.

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