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Presidential Memoirs: Why They Matter to the National Discourse

Some wrote for financial stability. Others wanted to rehabilitate their reputation as a leader. No matter the reason, these memoirs provide the country with a window of transparency into our presidents.

President Barack Obama signs a letter. "A Promised Land" by Obama is a good example of an honest memoir written shortly after leaving office that can be used as a primary source, much like a diary.
(Pete Souza/The White House)
Today is National Author’s Day and on this day in 1971, former President Lyndon B. Johnson published his memoir, The Vantage Point. But Johnson isn’t the only former president-author. In fact, since the mid-20th century, most presidents have written memoirs and these tomes have become an accepted part of post-presidential life. Most recently, President Barack Obama published the first volume of his presidential memoirs and instantly shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. While these books are predictable chart-toppers, they can also offer valuable additions to the national discourse.

From the very beginning of the presidency, occupants of the office have tidied their letters and tweaked their personal archives to shape how history remembers them. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington traveled with several carefully guarded trunks filled with thousands of pages of papers. In his final retirement after his presidency, he employed private secretaries to organize and categorize the papers from his many decades of public service. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote autobiographies of their experiences during the Revolution to “correct” the historical record.

Most of their successors were equally conscious of their legacy and fretted about their place in history, but James Buchanan was the first to do something about it while he was still alive. In 1866, Buchanan published a personal account of his time in office, defending his presidency. As many Americans still mourned Abraham Lincoln’s assassination the year prior, Buchanan argued that he and Lincoln were actually very similar.

Twenty years later, as he slowly died from jaw cancer, Ulysses S. Grant churned out a two-volume memoir to provide financial support for his family after his death. The first volume largely focuses on the Mexican-American War and the second on the Civil War. He does not address the presidency, but the memoir was a bestseller anyway, remains in print, and is still considered one of the best memoirs by historians today.

These two memoirs suggest two powerful motivations for presidential memoirs — financial stability or rehabilitation to their reputation. In 1958, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act, creating presidential pensions for the first time. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first eligible former president, leaving Harry S. Truman without a financial safety net. He was offered many lucrative positions, including one on Wall Street, but felt that business would be inappropriate for a former president. Instead, he followed Grant’s example, and wrote his memoirs. Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon followed Buchanan’s model and published memoirs to defend their presidential tenures.

Admittedly, many presidential autobiographies are rather unremarkable in their attempts to craft a presidential legacy. For example, the Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and William Clinton memoirs don’t tell readers much that’s new about their time in office or who they are as people.

On the other hand, a few memoirs address very specific events or reflect the current cultural concerns in the nation. George H. W. Bush considered the peaceful end of the Cold War to be his greatest achievement as president and wrote A World Transformed with Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, about that tumultuous moment. Gerald Ford wrote A Time to Heal in the wake of his decision to pardon Nixon. The book attempts to do what the pardon could not — heal the divided nation. Finally, Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, seeks to explain the evolution of the Republican Party and the rise of Donald Trump.

Presidential memoirs should not be treated as fact. All these memoirs offer varying degrees of quality, in terms of rhetoric and stylistic prose, but also in terms of accuracy of the information provided, the subjects they tackle, and the honesty with which they address their weaknesses. Grant overstates his role in certain moments of the Civil War; Reagan’s memoir has factual errors and ignores pivotal moments in his presidency; and Nixon tried to downplay criminal behavior.

To a certain extent, this flexibility with the truth should be expected. Humans are naturally biased and struggle to analyze their own actions with objectivity. Human memory is also flawed, as we can remember things differently than another observer in the room. But that doesn’t mean the memoirs don’t have value. They reveal how presidents wish to be remembered, which can tell us a great deal about the men that have held the highest office, what cultural values and norms they embrace, and how American society responded to their administration.

Perhaps more importantly, honest memoirs written shortly after leaving office can be used as a primary source, much like a diary. A Promised Land by President Obama is a good example. Many of the official documents from his presidency are still classified. His memoirs, therefore, offer a glimpse of the conversations that occurred behind closed doors. They should not be taken as gospel, of course, but provide excellent context to many of the events covered in the news. At the very least, they give readers a window into what the president was thinking as he made decisions that rippled across the globe. As the presidency increases in power and becomes further removed from the daily lives of average Americans, that transparency, even if sometimes self-serving, is welcome.

Many thanks to Drs. Frank Cogliano and David Silkenat for their podcast, The Whiskey Rebellion, and the excellent episode on presidential memoirs that provides a thorough overview of the genre.
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
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