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When Presidents Tell It Their Way

April 2024
6min read

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.”

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.

Our most effective Presidents have been imaginative pragmatists who have known simultaneously how to rally support through the power of words and personality. Carter never seemed quite up to that part of the job. Aside from his reiterative pledge not to lie to us, the closest his memoirs come to explaining the course he hoped to set as President is to assert that the “subliminal theme” of his administration was “dealing with limits.” In Keeping Faith we learn a lot about how the machinery of the Presidency worked while he was at the controls but get little sense of where he wanted it to go. Carter’s tired, dispirited tone is miles away from Theodore Roosevelt’s frank delight in the opportunity the Presidency afforded him to get things done and his undisguised joy in telling everybody all about it.

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