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Aug 8, 2005 1:03 pm

Bill Clinton's Memoirs

So Bill Clinton's memoirs are about to hit the market. Should we expect them to be great? Or will they be, like his presidency, a bit of a disappointment?

There is only one memoir by a president that historians have paid much attention to. It's Grant's memoirs. Ironic, because Grant is usually listed as one of the two failed presidents in our history (the other is Harding; see yesterday's blog entry). To no one's surprise, the memoir, perhaps written with the help of Mark Twain, focused on Grant's military exploits not his presidency.

Why then are there no great presidential memoirs? First, only a few presidents were wordsmiths: Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson. In Jefferson's day presidents simply didn't write memoirs. Lincoln was assassinated before he could possibly have written his. Wilson suffered a stroke a year before leaving office, incapacitating him.

But more importantly a memoir to be successful must be honest. No president can afford to be truly honest. He can't explain the deals he made, the compromises he accepted, the sacrifices of his principles on the altar of personal ambition. So instead of the truth we get the president AS HE WOULD LIKE TO BE REMEMBERED. This is death to a good memoir. For a person who has spent their life concealing who they are--and all politicians do this to an extent--the memoir is especially unsuited as a literary form to presidents. For the memoir depends on revelation.

The gap between the image a president projects and the reality of his gaining and keeping power is so large as to make an honest memoir impossible. To be honest would be to admit that the person presented to the public through the years was something of an artificial invention. That would prove damaging.

Besides, there's the Lyndon Johnson syndrome, as identified by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her oral biography of LBJ (which is the memoir LBJ should have written). Goodwin noted that she had been hired to help the president write his memoirs. She dutifully complied, but was distressed to discover that Johnson wouldn't allow her to write anything interesting about him. He told her great anecdotes. She'd write them into the manuscript. And he would remove them. Why? Because they didn't sound "presidential" to him. In other words, he sounded too much like a human being. And presidents in their public image aren't really human. Their images are constructs.

Biographies tell us who presidents are. No president can be elected on the basis of who they are. Their image must comport with the public's desires at a particular time. So a few elements of the person's personality and character are highlighted by their campaign to create an image pleasing to the public. There are no shades of gray allowed; the public won't have it.

I cannot imagine Clinton writing a dull book. His publisher won't let him (they have to recoup their investment) and he isn't dull. But I wouldn't expect it to be honest. How can he be honest? He'd have to say that he cheated on his wife repeatedly. He'd have to admit he celebrated welfare reform for political expediency (and then was surprised that things turned out as well as they did!). He'd have to explain why he attacked Sister Soljah in the 1992 campaign. He'd have to explain why he selected Madelaine Albright as secretary of state over other candidates more qualified (was it because she was a woman? If it was, he cannot admit it). He would have to explain honestly why he told a group of fat cats that he raised their taxes too much; was it because he is just an inherent panderer? He would have to say what he thought of George Stephanopolus's own memoir. And on and on.

So I don't expect he is capable of writing a greatr memoir. I do expect he will write one that is readable and enlightening on certain poiints.


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