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The history of the presidential memoir

Clinton

Clinton Photo Credit: Getty Images

George W. Bush’s “Decision Points,” out yesterday, has been the topic of conversation for weeks now. That he would come out with his perspective on his time in the Oval Office seemed inevitable from the day he left it, and people were eager to hear what he had to say.

The post-presidential memoir is an established tradition. But how did it get that way?

Ulysses S. Grant: “Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,” 1885-86

Grant’s autobiography, published by Mark Twain, was an instant best seller, and is still today the standard-bearer for literary presidential memoirs. The two-volume set, however, focuses on his role in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, and does not address his time in office. It was written for a quick buck right before he died, as Grant had lost all his money in a Ponzi scheme years before and wanted to leave something behind for his family.

Harry S. Truman, “Memoirs by Harry S. Truman: Year of Decisions,” 1955 and “Memoirs by Harry S. Truman: Years of Trial and Hope,” 1956

Another life told in two volumes, this is the first time a president had set down a written record of their time in office. Truman followed Grant’s example, again, for the money. Truman’s administration presided over the atomic bombing of Japan and the end of WWII, the creation of the United Nations, the recognition of Israel, Chinese Civil War, the McCarthy hearings and the Korean police action, among other things, and the book addresses these events candidly.

Lyndon B. Johnson, “The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency,” 1971

Johnson addresses the events of his turbulent presidency —focusing largely on the Vietnam War — with a personal perspective. The book was largely seen as an attempt to excuse Johnson’s controversial actions in office (this is now generally seen as the reason that presidents write memoirs), rather than a cash grab. It became a New York Times bestseller, but it was outsold by his wife’s book, “Lady Bird’s Diary.”

Jimmy Carter, “Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President,” 1982

By the time Carter published his memoir, the post-presidency auto-bio was already an “American political Event,” as Edwin M. Yoder Jr. said in his review for the Washington Post. He was disappointed by the book, as were most critics. However, certain revelations — including details of Carter’s private meetings with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in 1979 — captivated the public’s curiosity.

Bill Clinton, “My Life,” 2004

The book was a hotly anticipated blockbuster, thanks to the many public indiscretions Clinton had committed. Because it was a memoir, not a confessional, however, Clinton largely avoided steamy personal revelations, choosing to focus on the political. Reviews were mixed, with some comparing it to Grant’s work and others calling it bland and shallow. The book clocked in at more than 1,000 pages, which may explain why many people who bought it admitted they didn’t actually read it.

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