When Presidents Tell It Their Way

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Only ten of our forty Presidents have written accounts of their time in the White House. Jimmy Carter’s Keeping Faith is the latest addition to that short shelf, and James Buchanan was the somewhat unlikely creator of this rare literary form. But as the welcome new Da Capo Press edition of his autobiography reaffirms, Theodore Roosevelt remains its most vivid and vigorous practitioner.

No President before Buchanan published an account of his own tenure, though several kept diaries that have subsequently been published, and at least three—Jefferson, Monroe, and Van Buren—began autobiographies in their old age. Innate modesty cannot have been the sole reason for this reticence; rather, in a time when presidential candidates did not actively campaign for office, such first-person accounts would have been thought unseemly. No one was more sensitive to such niceties than the retiring James Buchanan, but he finally grew so weary of bearing in silence the blame for having failed to repress the Irrepressible Conflict that in 1866 he published Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion. It is a remote and recondite book, more lawyer’s brief than autobiography; in order not to seem immodest, its author referred to himself in the third person throughout— sometimes as “the late President.” It sold poorly, and for almost half a century no other former President followed its very tentative lead.

Ulysses S. Grant did write a memoir in 1885, but it is an account only of his soldiering, undertaken to dig himself and his family out of debt after a swindler ruined them. His book is a model of uncluttered narrative, so good that cynics accused his publisher, Mark Twain, of having written it. (This was only the first such accusation to be leveled against a President, and it is often hard to tell who wrote what percentage of their memoirs, a fact that doesn’t seem to me to matter very much. Presidents choose their own ghosts; the result must sound more or less the way they want to sound or they’d hire others.) This time, in any case, the charge was false, and unlike most books by former Presidents, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant became a best seller, perhaps in part because the author wisely stopped short of mentioning the sad facts of his tainted incumbency.

 

A number of publishers urged former President Grover Cleveland to write an account of his life. He toyed with the idea, believing that “there are certain things in my life and career which if set out and read… might be of benefit” to the young. But when he learned that what was really wanted was “a snappy life,” he backed off, publishing instead Presidential Problems, a weighty series of essays in defense of an independent Executive, in which incidents from his two divided terms appear only as illustrations.

The rest of the earlier Presidents seem to have been resigned to letting history form its own judgments of their stewardships. Resignation was not among Theodore Roosevelt’s qualities; he was never willing to wait for much of anything if he could help it. An Autobiography has its flaws: inconvenient facts are conveniently forgotten; it is clumsily organized, betraying its origin as a series of magazine articles; the reader wearies of the moral certainty with which TR propounds his opinions on everything from birds to bosses, boxing to books. Yet as an accurate reflection of its author— gaudy, agitated, buoyant, relentlessly engaged—it is finally irresistible and, when compared with the memoirs of the Presidents who followed him into print, something like a masterpiece.

William Howard Taft was not moved to write of his own unhappy tenure, but only death prevented his successors from publishing accounts of their years in the White House. Death denied us the memoirs of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, and it may have spared us those of Warren Harding.

Presidential memoirs have a lot in common, so much so that, when reading them one after another as I recently did, it is hard sometimes to remember just who is speaking. Those who assume their readers will be enthralled by the full epic sweep of their lives usually recall their boyhoods as more or less idyllic, played out against sunny, smalltown backdrops. (It is a vivid reminder of our rural past that only three Presidents—TR, Taft, and Gerald Ford—were born in cities.) Their parents were universally worthy too: TR’s father was “the greatest man I ever knew”; Richard Nixon’s mother was “a saint.”