How does a presidential historian read a president's memoir?
"With an eye to what's new, to what's true and to what's dubious," Richard Reeves says.
And how does a president connect with his readers? Be human, Douglas Brinkley says. "Nobody wants to read a memoir by Superman."
Both presidential historians are interested in the latest memoir by a former president, George W. Bush's Decision Points, published Tuesday. The book's rollout was accompanied by a blast of publicity: interviews with Bush by Matt Lauer, Oprah Winfrey and several Fox News pundits, and signings by the 43rd president, including a sold-out event on Sunday at the Miami Book Fair International.
On Tuesday afternoon, Decision Points was the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon's lists for books (at a discounted $18.90) and e-books ($9.99). There is also a deluxe e-book edition that includes extra photos, videos, speeches and an introduction by Bush, as well as an audio version read by him. You can get a slip-cased, signed limited edition copy of Decision Points for $350.
Reeves, an author and columnist, has written three biographies of American presidents: President Kennedy: Profile of Power, President Nixon: Alone in the White House and President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. He had not yet read Bush's book but planned to.
Presidential memoirs can be a valuable primary source for historians, Reeves says, as long as they understand the nature of such books. "Like anybody who's been in a position of power or influence, when they write their memoir it's their side of many stories. The great value to historians is that you can then take their version of an incident and cross check it with other versions. ... It's a starting point for a kind of bull's-eye on an incident."
Brinkley, a professor at Rice University, is the author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America and Gerald R. Ford, and the editor of The Reagan Diaries. He has read Bush's book and agrees that presidential memoirs are a good primary source, although historians prefer "real-time documents, like tapes of the Cuban missile crisis, Reagan's diaries, things created while they were in power and unable to kind of spin the legacy."
A memoir is, of course, all about spinning legacy. "The first things you do when you leave office are create a presidential library and write a memoir," Brinkley says. Bush writes in Decision Points that he began it the day after he left the White House.
A memoir is also a way to respond to critics. "There's a whole group of anti-Bush books out there," Brinkley says. "My own book The Great Deluge was highly critical of his handling of Katrina. It's only fair that he gets to have a response."
But neither historian thinks the book will dramatically change Bush's current ranking on what Brinkley calls the "lower rung" of presidents. "We tend to be forgiving in America, but he's ranked so poorly I don't see any huge movement."
Reeves says, "I just don't know what (historians) are going to say good about him."
Brinkley does think the book may rehabilitate Bush's reputation in another way, though. "Even human beings are brands these days, and this may be good for his brand, especially if it's a financial success. He's stayed low the last couple of years, and that helps. I think rolling it out after the election is perfect timing."
The book makes Bush "a little more agreeable as a person" and captures his voice and sense of humor. "It's the right mixture of self-deprecating and arrogant," he says.
Presidential memoirs have become almost a requirement, Reeves says, because "American presidents live on deferred compensation." Brinkley agrees: "It's a huge paycheck, millions."
That doesn't always mean presidential memoirs are good reading. Both men dismiss Ronald Reagan's An American Life, Brinkley calls Lyndon Johnson's Vantage Point "patched together," and Reeves says Jimmy Carter's Keeping Faith is "just boring beyond belief."
The best presidential memoir, they agree, is Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs. "It didn't hurt to have Mark Twain helping him," Reeves says. He was also impressed with The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. "It's extraordinarily candid, short spoken, as was he."
Brinkley ranks Harry Truman's two-volume Memoirs and Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography highly. Both men say Bill Clinton's My Life started well but, Reeves says, "faded into a PowerPoint presentation in the second half."
They also agree that some of the presidents who might have written exceptional memoirs died in office: Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt. "Just think of having two volumes by Lincoln," Brinkley says.
Although historians may comb presidential memoirs for revelations, and although they may sell well to the public, Reeves says he thinks they are "way up there among unread books. With a president's book, there's so much discussion on TV, radio, print, everywhere that you can talk about it without reading it."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.