There are few passages of abject honesty in the peculiar literary genre of the American presidential memoir, but none with the raw forthrightness that began with the two volumes produced in 1885 by Ulysses S. Grant, the victorious Union general in the Civil War and a two-term president beginning in 1869. By the end of the second paragraph of his memoir – considered the finest ever written – General Grant made the motives for his memoir clear: He wrote them for the money.
Barack Obama wrote his – which, like Grant’s, will be published in two volumes – for the money, too; his A Promised Land, out today, is part of a stunning US$65-million contract for the 44th president and his wife, Michelle, whose Becoming sold more than 10 million copies.
Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885) was an astonishing piece of literature for the contemporary equivalent of US$19-million, covering not only his childhood but also his bouts of penury and pent-up fury, not only his troubled presidency but also his wartime experiences. Obama’s 21st century volume is a masterpiece of introspection, especially about his own childhood. “It was as if, because of the very strangeness of my heritage and the worlds I straddled,” he writes, “I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some imaginary beast, confined to a fragile habitat, unsure of where I belonged.”
The passages about Grant’s war-ending 1865 meeting at Appomattox Court House in Virginia with the Confederacy’s Robert E. Lee are among the classics in American non-fiction, and they are introduced by this sobering caveat, intended to be applied to his wartime recollections but applicable to all the contents of all presidential memoirs, including Obama’s: “Wars produce many stories of fiction, some of which are told until they are believed to be true.”
That Appomattox session is, to be sure, tough to beat for drama, poignancy and significance; Obama had no such nation-defining moment, apart of course from the very fact of being elected the first Black president of the United States. Grant reproduced his correspondence with Lee on that fateful April day, described his rival’s dress (“full uniform which was entirely new”) and his own (“the uniform of a private with the straps of a Lieutenant General”), and offered a portrait of the Confederate general’s bearing (“a man of much dignity, with an impassible face”). Obama fought a domestic war for Obamacare and identified what he called “a genuine populist purge in the Republican Party” that would have enormous impact on contemporary American life.
The Obama memoir, written in ease in the Donald J. Trump years, has received generally positive early reviews. The Grant memoir, written in pain as he approached death, was panned by Henry James (“hard and dry as sandpaper”) but praised by Matthew Arnold (“sterling good-sense”), but it became, along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1852 novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe that crystallized views about slavery, the book that sold the most copies in the shortest period of time in the 19th century. “Clearly, Grant had emerged victorious in his last uphill battle,” wrote the biographer Ron Chernow, whose 2017 volume dismissed notions that Mark Twain, who had suggested Grant write his memoir and who published the finished work, was the quiet ghostwriter. No one doubts that Obama wrote his own manuscript.
In rare moments, presidential memoirs reveal the character of the author. “I knew that, as President and as a man, I would use every ounce of strength I possessed to gain justice for the black American,” Lyndon B. Johnson, a southerner who had voted against civil-rights bills six times in Congress, wrote in The Vantage Point (Holt, Rinehart, 1971). In My Life (Knopf, 2004), Bill Clinton acknowledged, “Even when I wasn’t sure where I was going, I was always in a hurry.” Obama admitted that “I’ve had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed.”
No president ever uses his memoir to minimize the challenges and distresses of his term in office. On the first page of Volume II of Harry Truman’s memoir – note its title, Years of Trial and Hope (Doubleday, 1956) – there appears this passage, which later became a presidential aphorism: “Within the first few months I discovered that being a president is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” In early passages of his memoir, Johnson spoke of assuming the presidency in the hours after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “The consequences of all my actions were too great for me to become immobilized now with emotion,” the 36th president wrote. “I was a man in trouble, in a world that is never more than a few minutes away from catastrophe.’'
If you skip ahead to the last paragraph of the Truman memoir, a reference to a session with his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, you discover that the vaunted peaceful transfer of power in the American presidency is not always accompanied by the respectful transformation of power:
“I had the feeling that, up to this meeting in the White House, Gen. Eisenhower had not grasped the immense job ahead of him. There was something about his attitude during the meeting that I did not understand. It may have been that this meeting made him realize for the first time what the presidency and the responsibilities of the president were. He may have been awestruck by the long array of problems and decisions the president has to face. If that is so, then I can almost understand his frozen grimness throughout the meeting.”
But these memoirs do satisfy the kind of reader who is preoccupied with the intimate details of the American presidency.
Truman, for example, told us that he was eating lunch on a battleship when he learned about the bomb hitting Hiroshima. The Gerald R. Ford memoir, A Time to Heal (Harper and Row, 1979), shines the light on an odd White House obsession with carpets. Obama recalls how, at a state dinner in India, prime minister Manmohan Singh seemed about to doze off and fought off sleep by “lifting his glass every so often to wake himself with a sip of water.’'
These memoirs often provide intimate glimpses of the powerful in paralysis, often because of a lack of information. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, George W. Bush learned that a fourth plane had gone down, in Pennsylvania, and he asked vice-president Dick Cheney whether U.S. airmen forces had shot it down or did it simply crash. “Nobody knew. I felt sick to my stomach. Had I ordered the death of those innocent Americans?” When he tried to stay in contact with Washington, the secure line often broke up. During the raid to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Obama, watching the operation in real time, still “felt an electric kind of fear” and, helpless in Washington, experienced fear as “a disaster reel played in my head – a chopper crashing, the SEALS scrambling to get out before the machine caught fire …”
Then again, presidents sometimes obscure information on purpose, and here Dwight Eisenhower, in Mandate for Change, 1953-1956: The White House Years (Doubleday & Co., 1963), explains that famous moments of rhetorical obfuscation were intentional: “I was able to avoid causing the nation a serious setback through anything I said in many hours, over eight years, of intensive questioning,” he wrote with pride, and then he explained the crafty way he did it: “The more a president knows, the less likely he is to remember at any given moment what is in the public domain. It is far better to stumble or speak guardedly than to move ahead smoothly.”
Though these volumes carry the caveat emptor that the presidents' descriptions of their crises, personal and political, are sanitized, they nonetheless offer intimate glimpses of the pressures and perspectives of power.
Thus Truman tells us that “The final decision of where and when to use the atomic bomb was up to me,” adding, “Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used.” Ford is today famous for saying, on ascending to the presidency after the resignation of Nixon, that “our long national nightmare is over,” but it isn’t until we read his memoir that we learn that he agonized with aides over whether that phrase was “overly harsh on Nixon” and that he even proposed eliminating it. Days later he pardoned Nixon, describing it in his memoir as “necessary surgery – essential if we were to heal our wounded nation” And George W. Bush, facing the financial collapse of 2008, recounted in Decision Points (Crown, 2010) that he told his advisers he was “damn” determined to approach the crisis as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, credited with taming the Great Depression, and not as Herbert Hoover, his Republican predecessor blamed for inaction as the Depression deepened.
These memoirs have a few moments of real poignancy. When Ford, for example, left Washington after having been defeated by Jimmy Carter, he asked the helicopter pilot to circle one last time over the United States Capitol, where he had served as the congressman from Grand Rapids, Mich., for 24 years. “That’s my real home,” he said.
And they try to have the final word. “Now my service was over, and it had ended without my having had to haul down the flag, compromise my principles, or run out on our obligations, our commitments, and our men who were upholding those obligations and commitments in Vietnam,” wrote Johnson, haunted in retirement by the conflict in Southeast Asia. “Because the United States liberated Iraq and then refused to abandon it, the people of that country have a chance to be free,” the younger Bush wrote. “Having come this far, I hope America will continue to support Iraq’s young democracy.”
Eisenhower never acknowledged the role of the CIA’s role in the 1954 coup in Guatemala, writing only, “The American republics (other countries in Latin America) wanted no Communist regime within their midst. They recognized that subversion by Communism was only another form of aggression, even more evil than that achieved by naked military force.” But Clinton acknowledged his wrongdoing in engaging in a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, saying it was “immoral and foolish,” adding, “I was deeply ashamed of it and didn’t want it to come out. I was trying to protect my family and myself from my selfish stupidity.”
There are no such admissions in the memoir of a president who sometimes was called “No-drama Obama.” But there is the kind of hope that propelled Obama to power. “What I can say for certain,” Obama writes, “is that I’m not ready to abandon the possibility of America.”
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