How Presidential Memoirs Work


Jacket cover of President Bill Clinton's memoir, "My Life". See more pictures of the presidents.

Presidential memoirs tend to get a lot of buzz. In recent years, President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush have each published memoirs, but of the all the prior U.S. presidents, a surprisingly small number have actually written memoirs. Given the ubiquitous political publishing of our time, it's difficult to imagine that any president would actually let pass the opportunity to tell his story in his own words -- but many did.

For those few who have opted to record the story from their singular vantage point, they certainly took advantage of the opportunity to have their say. In the preface to his two-volume, 1,000-plus page memoir, Harry S. Truman writes:


Unfortunately some of our Presidents were prevented from telling all the facts of their administrations because they died in office. Some were physically spent on leaving the White House and could not have undertaken to write even if they had wanted to. Some were embittered by the experience and did not care about living it again in telling about it. As for myself, I should like to record, before it is too late, as much of the story of my occupancy of the White House as I am able to tell.

In this article, we'll take a look at what a presidential memoir is and who has taken the time to write one. We'll also take a look at other presidency-related memoirs, including memoirs written by presidential hopefuls and by first ladies. One former first lady's memoir, Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Living History," has broken sales records.

What is a Presidential Memoir?

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For many of us, there doesn't seem to be a difference between an autobiography and a memoir. But, as most publishers would agree, there is a difference, albeit a subtle one. The basics are the same: Both an autobiography and a memoir are written about a person by himself or herself (occasionally with the help of others).

So, what's different? It's the actual content. Generally speaking, an autobiography is all-encompassing, spanning the entirety of the subject's life from birth up to the time of writing. The story line, most often, unfolds in a linear and even-handed fashion, covering most of the major events along the way. Less often, the story meanders back and forth through time, touching on a hodgepodge of topics the subject sees fit to discuss.

A memoir, however, is usually focused on a particular portion of a person's life or a specific theme. In some instances, the events may span the entire course of the subject's life, but they are conveyed in relation to some focal point. A presidential memoir, then, is either a snapshot or a full view of a president's life as it relates to his presidency.

Now, let's take closer look at presidential publishing.

Presidential Memoir Formats

The format in which a person decides to present his memoir is a matter of personal choice and sometimes practicality. Several presidents (and their first ladies) have maintained daily journals prior to and during their time in office -- an excellent resource for writing a memoir focused entirely on that presidency. But, not all is lost for those who couldn't manage a daily sit-down with their diary. Records such as calendars, schedules, written correspondence in the form of letters and now e-mail, speeches, reports and other materials may be used to jog the memory and to support or flesh-out a story line.

As you found out in the last section, a presidential memoir can basically be formatted in one of two ways:

  • It can be a sort of written time capsule -- a brief, presumably four- or eight-year snapshot of a president's life, covering only the time period of his presidency.
  • It can span the entirety of a president's life, but the main focus of the content is in how everything is somehow related to his presidency.

Either one of these formats can produce hundreds and hundreds of pages of text. Initially, it's easy to think that the time-capsule variety would be shorter than the autobiography type. However, perhaps due to the level of focus involved, in some cases this format produces even more text.

To illustrate this point, and to examine the style, content and purpose of presidential memoirs, let's consider some examples.

Multiple-volume Works

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Because so few have written memoirs, it's interesting that the thirty-third, thirty-fourth and thirty-sixth presidents of the United States (Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson) all chose to do so. Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson all chose a similar format -- writing memoirs that specifically deal with the time of their presidencies. (One can only wonder what the thirty-fifth president -- John Fitzgerald Kennedy -- would have done were he given the opportunity.)

Truman's two-volume set includes:

  • Memoirs by Harry S. Truman, Volume One: Year of Decisions
  • Memoirs by Harry S. Truman, Volume Two: Years of Trial and Hope

In the preface to both books (it's identical), Truman actually comments on the dearth of presidential memoirs:


I have often thought in reading the history of our country how much is lost to us because so few of our Presidents have told their own stories. It would have been helpful for us to know more of what was in their minds and what impelled them to do what they did.

Ironically, former President Herbert Hoover made a similar observation in the preface to his memoir. Could it be that Truman read Hoover's memoir prior to writing his own? Quite possibly: Several presidents have made reference to reading the works of their predecessors prior to taking pen in hand -- Bill Clinton not withstanding. In fact, it has been reported that, prior to writing his memoir "My Life," Clinton read all of the former presidents' memoirs.

The Silver Dollar Man

Eisenhower also presented his memoir in a two-volume set:

  • The White House Years: Mandate for Change, 1953-1956
  • The White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956-1961

Both Truman's and Eisenhower's memoirs are very detailed. Stylistically though, Eisenhower's memoir is a bit different: With a slight novel-like feel, the volumes are broken down into broad sections that he calls "books," each with several chapters. Each book begins with two or three quotes, usually some text from a speech given by Eisenhower himself and then a quote or two from another famous politician or former president.

Single Volumes and Abbreviated Texts

Lyndon B. Johnson takes a more abbreviated tack on retelling the tale of his term in office. His memoir, "The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969," fills only one volume. Johnson is very straightforward about the nature of his memoir and why and how he formats it the way he does. He informs the reader that this is not a "definitive history of his Presidency" -- that it is merely a review of his term from his own vantage point:


... I have tried to avoid engaging in historical pamphleteering. I did not set out to write a propaganda piece in support of my decisions. My purpose has been to state the problems that I faced as President, to record the facts as they came to me, to list the alternatives available, and to review what I did and why I did it.

Many presidents acknowledge the help of others in creating their memoirs, but very few share author credit with another writer. In "A World Transformed," former President George Bush goes against convention in two ways. Not only does he share top billing with former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, but together the two discuss only a portion of Bush's presidency -- limiting their coverage to 1989 through 1991.

While Bush didn't create a complete memoir of his presidency, the work "All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings" -- composed primarily of excerpts from his diaries, letters and other correspondence -- stands in well for a memoir of the autobiographical vein. Let's take a look at some other presidential writings of this sort.

Assisted Recall

Although he is not often thought of as a great president, Ulysses S. Grant is noted for the manner in which he relayed the story of his early life and his participation in the Civil War. The text begins with a rather brief discussion of his birth, childhood and early schooling. From there, he takes the reader from West Point to the Mexican War to life in California to Shiloh to the campaign against and the eventual surrender of Vicksburg. In writing his memoir, Grant set a good standard of relying heavily on papers, correspondence and official reports he had written during the war, along with the assistance of several researchers. To date, Grant's is arguably the most well-known, well-read and well-respected of the presidential memoirs. (Technically, it falls just short of being a full-blown presidential memoir, in that Grant passed away prior to writing about his term in office.) Most people agree that the story surrounding the writing of Grant's memoir is almost as good a tale as the memoir itself.

In his own words, on the topic of writing a memoir, Grant was "determined never to do so." But, because a failed business venture left Grant in dire financial straights, he was forced to reconsider. "The Century," a publication that was presenting a series on the Civil War, asked Grant to write a few articles (for which he would be paid) about the various battles in which he participated. The article request quickly turned into an offer of a book deal. One of Grant's friends, who was a writer himself, heard about the book deal and informed Grant that the proposed financial arrangement wasn't what it could be. The author and friend -- a man named Samuel Clemens (we know him best as Mark Twain) -- had recently started his own publishing house with his nephew, Charles L. Webster. Able to make a better offer, Webster and Clemens won Grant away from "The Century." In the end, over 300,000 copies of Grant's memoir were sold, providing Grant's family with the financial security he was hoping for and then some. Reportedly, Grant's widow was paid a record sum in royalties for that time, eventually receiving in excess of $400,000.

Autobiographical Telling

Somewhat shorter than most other presidential memoirs, "The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge" is very much like its title would suggest -- a standard autobiography. The pages of his memoir move solidly from his childhood to his education and through his political career. In reading through his as well as several other presidential memoirs, it's interesting to see that many former presidents share a similar sentiment -- that it is very difficult to describe what being president is like:


... I appreciate how impossible it is to convey an adequate realization of the office of President ... His methods of work, his associates, his place of abode, can all be described. But the relationship created by all these and more, which constitutes the magnitude of the office, does not yield to definition.

From a historical perspective, from memoir to memoir there are bits of commentary along the way that illustrate the changing times not only within the presidential office, but also in the surrounding world. On train travel, Coolidge had this to say:


Although I have not been given to much travel during my term of office, it has been sufficient, so that I am convinced the government should own a private car for the use of the President when he leaves Washington.

Obviously, things have come a long way since then. One can only wonder what Coolidge would think of Air Force One.

Some other former presidents who decided to present their memoir in an autobiographical format are:

  • Herbert Hoover - "The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Volume 1, 1874-1920: Years of Adventure," "The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Volume 2, 1920-1933: The Cabinet and the Presidency," "The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Volume 3, 1929-1941: The Great Depression"
  • Richard Nixon - "RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon"
  • Gerald Ford - "A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford"
  • Ronald Reagan - "Ronald Reagan: An American Life"
  • Bill Clinton - "My Life"

Although Clinton chose an autobiographical style pioneered by previous presidents, the media frenzy surrounding the release of Clinton's memoir, "My Life," may establish the work as groundbreaking through the mere virtue of press coverage. Let's take a closer look.

"My Life"

Even before the writing began, former President Bill Clinton's memoir was different from those of previous presidents -- no other presidential memoir has garnered a $10 million advance. For comparison, President George W. Bush was reportedly paid $7 million total for his 2010 memoir "Decision Points" [source: Sheridan]. The up-front money, along with a record-breaking first printing of 1.5 million copies, is proof-positive that publisher Alfred A. Knopf believed Clinton's story -- all 957 pages of it -- was going to be a huge success.

Shortly before its release, "My Life" was ranked No. 1 in Amazon.com's sales rankings, an achievement Bush's "Decision Points" repeated six years later. "My Life" enjoyed an ongoing spot in the top-10 at Amazon and sold more than 2 million copies. Clinton's first main appearance on a tour to support the book -- at BookExpo America -- filled the 2,700-person convention room beyond capacity. The tour was extensive, with book signings and talks at book stores across the country, along with a host of radio and television talk show appearances. He also spoke with Dan Rather on CBS's news show, "60 Minutes" and on the other major networks, including ABC's Oprah Winfrey show.

Bill Clinton isn't the only successful author in the Clinton family -- former first lady Hillary Clinton has seen great success with her memoir, "Living History." In fact, first ladies generally see more success with their publishing than their spouses do. Let's take a closer look at this counterpart to the presidential memoir.

The First Ladies

The writings of first ladies generally draw more interest than that of the presidents themselves. Most of the more recent former first ladies have author credits to their names:

  • Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Johnson - "A White House Diary"
  • Betty Ford - "The Times of My Life" (written with Chris Chase)
  • Rosalynn Carter - "First Lady from Plains"
  • Nancy Reagan - "My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan" (written with William Novak)
  • Barbara Bush - "Barbara Bush: A Memoir"
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton - "Living History"

Several first ladies have expressed sadness, fear and even grief at their husband's election to the office of President. Although able to express happiness for her spouse and what his victory means to him and even to the country, many a first lady has known the price that her husband's success would exact on her own life.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a prolific writer -- and not just by first lady standards. There are more than 15 books to her credit. During her husband's presidency, Mrs. Roosevelt even had a weekly newspaper column. Initially, she published a three-volume autobiography. It is the second volume of this work, "This I Remember," that can be considered a true first-lady memoir. It is obvious that the sole purpose behind the writing of this work is her husband:


... what I have to say, if it is to contribute anything more to the understanding of his life and character and objectives, must be about him as an individual. I do not claim that I can be entirely objective about him, but there are some things I know that I feel sure nobody else can know.

She later combined the three volumes -- "This Is My Story," "This I Remember" and "On My Own" -- into one work that she shortened and updated. Mrs. Roosevelt also added entirely new material in a final section entitled "The Search for Understanding."

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True Candor

Betty Ford sums up her first lady experience with great honesty when she writes:


The point is I am an ordinary woman who was called onstage at an extraordinary time. I was no different once I became First Lady than I had been before. But, through an accident of history, I had become interesting to people ... Suddenly, at fifty-six, I was a public person.

Mrs. Ford's memoir spans the years of her life leading right up to the writing of her book. She discusses everything from her childhood to her first marriage (which ended at age 29) to her marriage with President Gerald Ford. Mrs. Ford also writes about her children, life as a first lady and her struggle with breast cancer. She's remarkably candid in her discussion, including this comment on how terrified she was to be interviewed by Barbara Walters:


... it was terrifying. I agreed to do the show with Barbara Walters on the understanding that I didn't want to talk about anything political ... The very first question she came out with was how I felt about the Supreme Court's ruling on abortion. I said I agreed with the Supreme Court's ruling, that it was time to bring abortion out of the backwoods and put it in the hospitals where it belonged.

Her candor didn't stop there -- she even addresses the issue of her addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. At the beginning of the final chapter, with grace and a touch of humor, Mrs. Ford talks about how, just when she thought she had finished writing, she realized she had one more chapter to write -- one more story to tell.

Addressing Controversy

In writing her memoirs, Mrs. Ronald Reagan utilized the diary she kept while residing in the White House. The story opens on March 30, 1981, the day her husband -- President Ronald Reagan -- was shot. From there it meanders back and forth through time, covering an array of subjects, including her much criticized dependence on astrology and her relationship with San Francisco astrologer Joan Quigley:


When Joan got back to me with her advice on specific dates, I would, if necessary, call Michael Deaver, who was in charge of Ronnie's schedule. Sometimes a small change was made ... While astrology was a factor in determining Ronnie's schedule, it was never the only one, and no political decision was ever based on it.

Mrs. Reagan touches on a host of other topics, including:

  • Her reputation for being a "power-hungry political manipulator" and a "vindictive dragon lady"
  • Ronald Reagan and how she met him
  • Her children (Patti and Ron) and her step-children (Maureen and Michael)
  • The 1976 and 1980 campaigns
  • Life in the White House
  • The Iran-Contra affair
  • The Gorbachevs

A Living HERstory

Shortly after its release, Hillary Clinton's memoir, "Living History," was making and breaking all sorts of publishing records. The book's sales were so high within the first week alone that the publisher managed to earn back the almost $3 million advance (and then some) it had paid Clinton.

There were several things driving the first round of sales of "Living History" -- specifically, certain elements of controversy surrounding the Clintons' time in the White House and talk about a possible run for the presidency by the former first lady. With her husband's memoir hitting the shelves, it's highly likely that her book will enjoy a another surge of popularity.

For more information on presidential memoirs and related topics, check out the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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Bibliography

These are some sources that we found useful in researching this article:

Web Pages

Books

  • The Vantage Point, Lyndon B. Johnson, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, ISBN: 0030844924
  • The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Volume 1, 1874-1920: Years of Adventure, MacMillan, 1951
  • The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Volume 2, 1920-1933: The Cabinet and the Presidency, Macmillan, 1952.
  • The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, Volume 3, 1929-1941: The Great Depression, MacMillan, 1952.
  • Memoirs and Selected Letters: Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Selected Letters 1839 - 1865, Viking Press, 1990 ISBN: 940450585
  • The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, New York Cosmopolitan Book Company, 1929
  • Memoirs by Harry S. Truman, Volume One: Year of Decisions, Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City NY 1955
  • Memoirs by Harry S. Truman, Volume Two: Years of Trial and Hope, Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City NY 1956
  • The White House Years: Mandate For Change, 1953-1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1963
  • The White House Years: Mandate For Change, 1956-1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1965
  • The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, HarperCollins Publishers, 1961, ASIN: 0060136154
  • Living History, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Simon & Schuster, 2003, ISBN: 0743222245
  • The Times of My Life, Betty Ford with Chris Chase, Harper & Row Publishers, 1978, ISBN: 0060112980
  • My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan, Nancy Reagan with William Novak, Random House, New York, 1989, ISBN 0394563689
  • First Lady from Plains, Rosalynn Carter, Houghton Mifflin, 1984, ISBN: 0395352940
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