Saturday, November 06, 2010

In Their Own Words (Unless It’s Not)

As sure as the sun will rise, an ex-president will write his (and, eventually, her) memoir. George W. Bush gets his turn November 9 with the release of “Decision Points.” His publisher promises the book will be “strikingly candid,” but, if history is any guide, readers are likely to be disappointed.

James Buchanan wrote what is widely acknowledged as the first presidential memoir. Published a year after the Civil War ended, “Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion” is a tedious defense of his largely indefensible administration. In it, Buchanan continued to insist that Congress had “no power over slavery in the States.”

Succeeding exes have invariably followed Buchanan’s self-serving model.

Ulysses S. Grant famously wrote his memoir while dying of throat cancer. He dictated to a stenographer until the tumor grew so large that it was impossible for him to speak. Then he wrote furiously in longhand, completing the project just days before he died. Grant’s memoir was a commercial and critical success, but it barely mentions his scandal-plagued presidency, focusing instead on his more heroic exploits in the Civil War.

Grover Cleveland, a towering figure of Gilded Age politics, pointedly declined to write a memoir. Known as the Honest President, Cleveland perhaps thought better of undertaking a project certain to be fraught with prevarication. As he explained to a friend, Cleveland preferred his autobiography to be “written on [the] hearts” of his wife and children.

Harry Truman had a penchant for colorful language, and his presidency encompassed some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century. His memoir should have been a page-turner. Instead it was a bore. A small army of ghostwriters rendered Truman’s prose a bland imitation of the pugnacious president Americans had come to know. And Truman knew it. Across one page of an early draft he scribbled, “Good God, what crap!”

Another president who relied on ghostwriters with disappointing results was Ronald Reagan. His autobiography, “An American Hero,” was widely panned as a tepid tome at best. Whenever Reagan was asked about the book, he liked to joke that he hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet.

Alas, it appears the ex-presidential ghostwriter is here to stay. To help him write “Decision Points,” George W. Bush enlisted the help of Christopher Michel, a friend of his daughter Barbara’s from Yale who also worked as his White House speechwriter.

It remains to be seen if Bush’s memoir will be as “strikingly candid” as his publisher claims. But we already know that it will be strikingly lucrative. Memoirs have turned into a gold mine for ex-presidents. Bush reportedly received a $7 million advance from Crown - about $5 million less than Bill Clinton received from Knopf, but still nothing to sneeze at.