This morning Hillel Italie, the Associated Press’s man in the book world, takes a look at the genre of the Presidential memoir, in the wake of the deal former President George W. Bush made with Crown this month for his Decision Points.
Italie is usually a reliable reporter so it’s startling to come across this passage:
The planned structure of Bush’s memoir is unusual, but not the author’s expected generosity to himself. The presidential book has not only been distinguished by its lack of literary merit — Ulysses Grant excepted — but by the absence of any self-criticism beyond the most expected remorse, as in “My Life” and Bill Clinton’s already oft-expressed apology for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Memoirs are written for money, for revenge, for glory, for the first and perhaps last word. If we saw the world only through presidential eyes, the Great Depression would be Europe’s fault, not Herbert Hoover’s; liberals and other scoundrels were to blame for Richard Nixon’s fall; and James Buchanan was a great man worthy of the president who succeeded him — Abraham Lincoln.
It’s the first of these paragraphs that puzzles me. First of all, Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs conclude with Appomattox; it’s not clear that he would have gone on to write about his much-maligned Presidency (which more recently has gotten higher marks from historians) had death not intervened. And his book, anyway, was far from the only such work by a President to win acclaim as well-written. Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography was well-reviewed in its day and is still in print.
Granted, every Presidential autobiography from Truman to the present, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter’s Keeping Faith (not a much-acclaimed volume) used “editorial assistance” to greater or lesser degrees. So far the word out of Dallas is that former President Bush is writing his book himself, and managed to complete over 30,000 words in the less than sixty days between his departure from office and signing the contract with Crown – a very creditable performance for any writer.
And, as every schoolchild knows, President Obama’s Dreams From My Father was written entirely by himself with a quill pen, in a log cabin outside Springfield, Illinois, with a hickory fire a-blazin’. A few days ago, Italie reported in another AP story that Obama is indeed contracted with Crown to write a book about his Presidency after he leaves office, though his compensation will not be limited to the $1.9 million advance he received from the company in 2005 for The Audacity Of Hope and two yet-unwritten books. It’ll be interesting to see if the book business will be sufficiently healthy by 2013 or 2017 that he can match Dubya’s $7 million, not to mention former President Clinton’s $12 million.