By now we know what to expect from a presidential memoir: a doorstop of a book, with just enough tidbits to justify the multi-million-dollar advance, but not quite enough to anger anyone who might be important to the ex-president’s lucrative post-White House existence.
Yet post-White House memoirs weren’t always like this. In fact, there is a long and storied history of presidents who have been authors of books that display admirable literary skill. Author in Chief, a labor of love that took journalist and historian Craig Fehrman ten years to write, is far more than just a jaunty tour through presidents, their books, and their American readership, although it is that. It is also a smart exploration of how the roles of both books and the presidency in American life have evolved throughout our history.
The most famous memoir by a former president was probably that of Ulysses S. Grant, who, when swindled out of all his money in 1884, had to write a book in order to provide for his family. A big reader, especially in his youth, he was well-suited to the task. Fehrman tells us that at West Point Grant “became so engrossed by reading that he once received demerits for lingering in the library.”
Complicating matters was the fact that the Civil War hero was diagnosed with throat cancer. He moved to the Jersey Shore—cheaper than Manhattan—and raced to finish his book before the disease took his life. Mark Twain stepped in as publisher, which was a good partnership, as Grant and Twain were the two most famous men in America.
The nation followed Grant’s struggle with great interest. Grant made it, just barely, finishing two days before he died. Thanks in part to Twain, the book was a huge financial success, earning his widow, Julia, the equivalent of more than $12 million in today’s dollars.
Perhaps still hoping for Grant-like successes, modern publishers pay enormous sums for books from former presidents. The Obamas reportedly received $65 million from Penguin Random House for their two memoirs. (Michelle’s book, Becoming, came out in 2018; A Promised Land, the first volume of the former president’s memoir, is due to appear on November 17, two weeks after Election Day.) George W. Bush got a $7 million advance, Bill Clinton $15 million, Ronald Reagan $6 million, and even scandal-plagued Richard Nixon got $2.5 million. (He needed it, too, as he had accrued $1.8 million in legal fees.) Fourteen presidents, including the nine who served after John F. Kennedy, have written some kind of memoir upon leaving office, and one president—Jimmy Carter—has turned out nearly a dozen in the years following his presidency.
Fehrman observes that “[w]riting a book before a presidential run, or writing a book after a presidency has ended, is now mandatory in American politics.” Too often, however, these books are uninteresting, as well as too long. As Fehrman says of Harry Truman’s memoir, “A book that was supposed to capture the presidency and its cost too often captured the presidency and its paper trail.” It “was an imperfect book,” he concludes, “a book with a better, slimmer volume working within.”
* * *
Lyndon Johnson made the mistake of rejecting aides’ attempts to make his book, The Vantage Point (1971), sound more natural. Robert Hardesty, a Johnson speechwriter who was part of the book-writing team (another bad sign), complained that “[w]e’re going to make this guy sound like a prime minister.” Hardesty was right and Johnson’s publisher lost money on the deal.
Ronald Reagan left office as a popular president beloved by his supporters. Yet he phoned in the writing of Ronald Reagan: An American Life (1990), and readers could tell: the ghost-written volume lacked his authentic voice. Reagan himself even joked about the book’s authorship, saying at a book launch press conference, “I hear it’s terrific. Maybe someday I’ll read it.” Funny perhaps, but not exactly what publishers want to hear from a multi-million-dollar author.
Bill Clinton was a recent, albeit qualified, success on the memoir front. He wrote out My Life (2004) in longhand and collaborated closely with his editor, publishing executive Robert Gottlieb. Clinton had to, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal had tarnished his reputation, and, as Hillary Clinton famously said, “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt.”
The process was far from easy. Gottlieb told Clinton “he would have to be completely aboveboard about his womanizing, and in particular about the Lewinsky scandal.” Gottlieb was also direct about scaling back, at one point writing a marginal note to Clinton saying, “This is the single most boring page I’ve ever read.” Clinton eventually cut 500 pages, eschewing a two-volume approach, and told Gottlieb, “You know, I finally get it about cutting!” Even with all of the edits, the book was so large—close to 1,000 pages—that Jay Leno joked, “Even Clinton’s books are fat.” On the plus side, the book sold very well.
* * *
Then there is the president as reader. Fehrman tells this amusing tale of Theodore Roosevelt’s wide-ranging reading:
Roosevelt complained that no one in his administration knew Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to say nothing of Lewis Carroll’s lesser works. He tried to joke with his secretary of the Navy, telling him, “Mr. Secretary, what I say three times is true.” All he got in response was groveling. “Mr. President,” the secretary replied, “it would never for a moment have occurred to me to impugn your veracity.”
In the case of Woodrow Wilson, his love of detective novels was “widely reprinted and helped change the genre’s perception, from something puerile and pulpy to something a president might read.”
Fehrman includes a picture of a 1904 ad that compiled what Teddy Roosevelt as a younger man had written about previous presidents. The ad suggested that someone with such judgments as “Monroe was a man of no special ability” and “Jackson was ignorant” lacked the temperament to be reelected president.
Craig Fehrman’s examination of these different facets of how a president can relate to books makes his own book a delightful contribution to the literature. The presidency remains one of the few shared touchstones in our increasingly atomized social media culture. In modern America, large masses of people no longer watch the same TV shows or follow the same news sources anymore. Everyone, however, knows who the president is, which is apparently what publishers are counting on.