Tevi Troy is a former senior White House aide and the author of “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.”
According to literary agent Andrew Wylie, President Obama’s post-White House memoir could fetch an advance of up to $20 million . First lady Michelle Obama’s memoir, which she has apparently already started, could bring in an additional $12 million — not a bad nest egg for their golden years.
Presidents have long relied on memoirs to secure their financial futures. Calvin Coolidge got a $65,000 advance, back when that was real money, and every presidential memoirist since Ronald Reagan has received well beyond $1 million for his recollections. But money is just one factor in the decision to write a memoir, and not necessarily the most important one. Much like a presidential library or a new foundation, the post-presidential memoir is an effort to influence history’s verdict. Through these books, presidents try to retell their stories, recast their decisions and redefine their legacies — competing with the journalists, historians and former staffers who will try to do the same.
So, can a memoir bolster, or at least salvage, a president’s reputation? As it turns out, successful presidents don’t always produce successful books, and unsuccessful presidents have often produced books that are better than their administrations. When it comes to legacies, though, the best works do provide human insights that can soften history’s harshest judgments — but rarely overturn obvious ones.
Ulysses S. Grant offers the first and in many ways the most fascinating example of a memoir succeeding in getting an ex-president’s finances in order but failing to alter popular perceptions of his tenure. In 1884, Grant went bankrupt after he experienced heavy losses from investments in his son’s firm, Grant & Ward. Battling terminal throat cancer, the former Union general was desperate to leave money behind for his family. So he began work on a memoir with the assistance of Mark Twain. Eventually, Grant lost the ability to dictate because of his illness and frantically handwrote pages so he could finish. He finally completed the manuscript just a few days before he died, on July 23, 1885.
The “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant” electrified the public, selling more than 300,000 copies, and provided Grant’s widow, Julia, with an estimated $500,000. The book also proved a stylistic masterpiece. (Its concise and bold opening — “My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral” — is echoed in Saul Bellow’s classic novel “The Adventures of Augie March,” which begins, “I am an American, Chicago-born.”) Historian David Levering Lewis wrote in 2009 that “Grant’s presidential memoir is the best of the genre, unparalleled to date.”
His successors have taken that assessment to heart. Dwight Eisenhower admired Grant’s “lack of pretension” and modeled his own memoir on Grant’s book. Similarly, George W. Bush looked to Grant’s work in preparation for his memoir, writing in “Decision Points” that he followed Grant’s lead in choosing “not to write an exhaustive account of my life or presidency,” focusing instead on certain key decisions he made while in office.
Yet Grant’s memoir, which emphasized his Civil War experience, did little for his reputation as president in the short run. His time in office has long been known for the scandals that beset it, such as the Whiskey Ring tax scandal. Grant typically ranks low on historians’ lists of best presidents. A 1948 ranking had him at 28th out of 29 presidents, and a 2000 C-SPAN poll had him 33rd out of 41. In more recent years, however, Grant has been inching up the ladder — he reached 23rd in a 2009 ranking — and the memoir, so lavishly praised by historians, might be a point in his favor.
Harry Truman’s written reflections were also driven by financial need. Truman had little in his bank account after leaving the Oval Office and needed his $670,000 advance to support himself. After taxes and wages for his assistants, the cash did not last long, though, and in 1958, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act, providing a $25,000 pension for ex-commanders in chief.
The first volume made a splash when it came out in 1955, and it was serialized in the New York Times and excerpted in Life. But it had little impact on Truman’s reputation; he left office as an unpopular president dogged by the Korean War and paling next to Eisenhower. The renewed appreciation of Truman’s legacy has been driven far more by a post-1970s revival — culminating with David McCullough’s 1992 “Truman” — than by Volumes 1 and 2 of his memoirs.
In more recent decades, million-dollar advances and publishers’ PR teams have boosted the profile of post-presidential memoirs. Lyndon B. Johnson scored a $1.6 million deal for his memoir, including a $1 million advance. Yet “The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969” earned back only $600,000. (According to journalist David Halberstam, when publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston expressed interest in a second volume, as called for in the contract, Johnson replied that by delivering a 300,000-word book, he had already fulfilled his obligation for two books of 150,000 words.)
The book itself, largely ghostwritten, felt sterile compared with its larger-than-life protagonist. It “read like a parody of a presidential memoir,” historian Michael Beschloss wrote in Texas Monthly in 2001. Johnson’s book also encountered a relatively new phenomenon: competition with the memoirs of White House aides. George Reedy, Harry McPherson and Jack Valenti all wrote their own interpretations of the Johnson years, as did Lady Bird Johnson with “A White House Diary” — and LBJ’s book did not hold up well in comparison. Overall, it did little to redeem his reputation, marred as it was by Vietnam. And now, Johnson’s legacy is being shaped almost entirely by Robert Caro’s magisterial multi-volume biography, which paints LBJ as a