Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 25 November 2020

A campaign of its own: 6 memoirs written by former US presidents

These works are an essential and primary source of information

FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2017 file photo, President Barack Obama smiles during his final presidential news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. More than a dozen “60 Minutes” interviews with Obama, beginning when he was a U.S. Senator, have been compiled into an audio release, “Barack Obama: The 60 Minutes Interviews” coming out Oct. 13. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2017 file photo, President Barack Obama smiles during his final presidential news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. More than a dozen “60 Minutes” interviews with Obama, beginning when he was a U.S. Senator, have been compiled into an audio release, “Barack Obama: The 60 Minutes Interviews” coming out Oct. 13. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Former US president Barack Obama’s announcement of a presidential memoir is not surprising.

Out in November, the 796-page tome A Promised Land follows a long line of former presidents reflecting on their experiences running one of the most powerful countries in the world.

Obama’s move is not down to sheer vanity. From Ulysses S Grant to George W Bush, presidential memoirs are an indispensable source that provide insights into the turbulent moments of the past and offer lessons for future generations of leaders.

That said, despite the importance of the work, some head of states were not up to the literary task. A number of them were criticised for being selective about events and facts, while others had their work condemned for being a snooze fest.

Here are six former presidents who received a variety of reviews.

1. 'Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant' (1856)

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Courtesy The Library of America
Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Courtesy The Library of America

This is widely regarded as the finest presidential memoir to be released. According to US historian Craig Fehrman, Grant was “America’s first full-blown fiction-loving president, and his fondness for novels clearly influenced his own writing”.

While military history buffs will savour Grant’s descriptions of the battlefields during the Civil War and the Mexican-American War (military maps are provided in some editions), what stands out to the common reader is Grant’s sense of steely purpose.

The memoir is particularly poignant as it was written under physical pain and financial burden. Stricken with cancer of the throat, the 18th US president wrote the book to serve as a financial cushion for his family.

Both volumes were released a year after his death in 1885.

2. 'The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson' (1821)

The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Courtesy Penguin Random House
The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Courtesy Penguin Random House

There are prolific writers and then there is Thomas Jefferson. The third president of the US reportedly wrote more than 70,000 letters throughout his lifetime, in addition to the feat of writing the Declaration of Independence.

With so much correspondence to his name, a tastefully edited selection of his letters was released. A mix of journal entries, notes and speeches, the collection provides an intimate snapshot of one of America’s greatest intellectuals as well as an insight into the early years of a new country.

3. 'Mandate for Change by Dwight Eisenhower' (1963)

Mandate for Change, 1953-1956: The White House Years by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Courtesy Doubleday
Mandate for Change, 1953-1956: The White House Years by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Courtesy Doubleday

This is a must-read for political junkies and business leaders.

Mandate for Change has been praised as a game changer when it comes to presidential memoirs. A lot of that is down to the direct nature with which the 34th president approached the work. Perhaps down to his military training, the former Second World War general jettisons the grandiosity surrounding the form and gets into the nuts and bolts of presidential life. Covering his term between 1953-1956 in a stripped-down and no nonsense style, Eisenhower takes us into the mind of the presidency and explains how hard decisions are made through conviction and consensus.

4. 'The Memoirs of Richard Nixon' (1978)

RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon by Richard Nixon. Courtesy Simon & Schuster
RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon by Richard Nixon. Courtesy Simon & Schuster

Published four years after resigning in disgrace, Nixon’s retelling of his 37th presidency was criticised by literary and political critics for seemingly everything, from being a ragtag assortment of thoughts to its defiant tone.

In a withering assessment in the Foreign Affairs magazine, Gaddis Smith panned Nixon’s lack of scope: “He whines more and seems incapable of sustained analysis, irony, humour or any grasp of larger philosophical or historical dimensions. The book is less a thematic narrative than a collection of short memoranda chronologically arranged.” Ouch.

If that was not enough, the book was also subjected to a boycott campaign from groups angry at the crimes committed during Nixon’s presidency. With so much going against him, no wonder the book was a flop.

5. 'My Life' by Bill Clinton (2004)

My Life by Bill Clinton. Courtesy Penguin Random House
My Life by Bill Clinton. Courtesy Penguin Random House

This memoir arrived with all the fanfare of a Hollywood blockbuster. For the publishing industry, My Life was a watershed moment as Clinton received what was then a record book advance of $15 million (Dh55m).

For some readers and the political establishment, what they were looking for was how Clinton would address the Monica Lewinsky scandal that plagued his presidency. At a mammoth 1,008 pages, the 42nd president dedicates no less than 30 pages to the ordeal with passages full of regret for all involved.

The rest of the book is an engrossing look at how a saxophone-loving lawyer from a small town went on to reach the highest office in the land. With Clinton keeping a journal for decades, the memoir has vivid recollections of meeting pivotal figures such as South African leader Nelson Mandela and Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez as well as handling of national emergencies such as the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing.

Told with Clinton’s trademark charm, My Life was a hit for the genre and went on to sell more than two million copies.

6. 'Decision Points' by George W Bush (2010)

Decision Points by George W Bush. Courtesy Penguin Random House
Decision Points by George W Bush. Courtesy Penguin Random House

Although Clinton bested his father George Bush in the 1993 presidential election, George W Bush defeated Clinton when it came to book sales. Decision Points comfortably surpassed My Life’s figures of 2.2 million copies sold within the first two months of its release. A lot of that was because of the momentous and often controversial nature of the Bush presidency. At a crisp 486 pages and written with Texan directness, the 43rd president takes us through some of the biggest decisions he made over his two terms, ranging from his response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, sending troops to Iraq and his administration’s handling of the Hurricane Katrina crisis.

The book did not elicit any real excitement from literary critics. The best they did was call his prose “workmanlike” and point to the fact that he comes across more relatable than expected.

Updated: September 24, 2020 12:33 PM

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