When Presidents Tell It Their Way

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And most Presidents seem embarrassed by the raw ambition that fueled their drive to power. To hear them tell it, the Presidency just happened to them, like adolescence. Some avoid any awkwardness by beginning their books with themselves already comfortably in place in the White House, and most pay meager attention to the sweaty, fiercely competitive political world to which they actually devoted most of their waking hours. Politics is what their opponents indulge in. Lyndon Johnson’s The Vantage Point is perhaps the most egregious example. The persona he chose to assume for his book was that of the pious, somber, patently fraudulent grandfather we remember from his televised speeches; every trace of the real man—that bizarre amalgam of noble aspirations, naked talent, and poisonous resentments—has been smoothed away, as if by morticians. The memoirs of Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford are almost as bland; even Harry Truman’s seem oddly bloodless, at least when measured against the volatile private man we’ve come to know through his recently published letters. To this tepid rule, parts of Richard Nixon’s RN provide a conspicuous and surprising exception. Whenever he writes simply about the mechanics of politics and power, Nixon is a professional’s professional: ungenerous but shrewd, combative, still enthralled by the great game of weighing his old adversaries’ strengths and exploiting their weaknesses.

Presidential memoirs also show how the job has changed over the past eight decades. Recent Presidents, for example, place understandably heavy emphasis on global matters. Fully two-thirds of Carter’s book deals with foreign affairs: the Panama Canal treaties; Camp David talks; SALT II; his efforts to free the hostages in Iran. The rest of the world did not always loom so large when viewed from the White House. Here is the sum total of Calvin Coolidge’s discussion of foreign policy and the President’s role in making it: “The Secretary of State is the agency through which the President exercises his constitutional authority to deal with foreign relations. … All the intercourse with foreign governments is carried on through the Secretary … and a national of a foreign country can not be received by the President unless the accredited diplomatic representative of his government has made an appointment for him through the State Department.” This careful division of labor helped provide Coolidge with plenty of time in which to withstand what he called “one of the most appalling trials which confront a President … the perpetual clamor for public utterances.” His is the shortest presidential memoir: 247 pages in very large type.

The longest memoir—and the most bitter—is Herbert Hoover’s. Even Nixon’s undiminished rancor seems pallid in comparison. Hoover’s autobiography is a full life through the Presidency in three fat, footnoted volumes, a compendious, contentious defense of himself and his administration against those who blamed him for everything that went wrong after the Great Crash. Two sentences summarize his pain and disillusionment: “I was convinced that efficient honest administration of the vast machine of the Federal government would appeal to all citizens. I have since learned that efficient government does not interest the people so much as dramatics.”

Most Presidents seem embarrassed by the ambition that fueled their drive to power. To hear them tell it, the Presidency just happened to them, like adolescence.

The actor he blamed for bewitching the voters was FDR, of course, a gloriously gifted amateur, but Hoover’s words should have a certain resonance for Jimmy Carter, whose own nemesis was a Hollywood professional. The box-office appeal of their successors is not the only similarity between Hoover and Carter. In fact, although Carter writes that, of all modern Presidents, he most admires Truman, his own career most closely parallels Hoover’s. Both were country boys, raised to revere religion and hard work. Both were trained as engineers and put great stock in efficiency and organization. Both were uneasy with the compromise and camaraderie without which government doesn’t work, and each came to the White House with a reputation for being outside and, somehow, above politics. (Carter had never even visited the Oval Office before his election.) Finally both had—or came to have—a pinched sense of what a President might accomplish. Whole sections of Carter’s 1978 State of the Union message might have been delivered by Hoover himself: “Government cannot solve our problems. It can’t set our goals. It cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation, or save our cities. …”

Whatever elements of hard truth there may be in such a view, it necessarily limits the potential achievements of one’s Presidency—and the potential drama of one’s memoirs. As a day-to-day insider’s view, however, Carter’s book is solid and compelling, especially the long, moving account of the Camp David negotiations during which Carter displayed superhuman patience in the face of ancient hatreds. But his was a diminished Presidency; his personality and convictions conspired with events abroad to make it so. Keeping Faith recounts many more frustrations than triumphs.