By Big Mo
Two years ago, shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama, far-left and once-funny humorist Garrison Keillor made a very curious (OK, dumb) remark recorded in the Jan. 21, 2009 Chicago Tribune. He proclaimed that Barack Obama is the first “genuine author president.” Of course, many were quick to pounce—rightfully so—that many presidents were, in fact, “genuine author” presidents. I’d like to think that this was a mere editorial mistake, or that the humorist was trying to make a funny, but given his absolute fawning gushing over Obama, it probably wasn’t. In the article, Keillor said,
“One simply wanted to be present. Freezing cold or not, a crowd of 2 million, whatever—solemn warnings about tight security, long lines, traffic jams, cell phones not working. In the end, one wanted to be there on the Mall before the Capitol on Tuesday at noon amid the jubilant throng and see the man take the oath of office—our first genuine author-president.”
OK. His slobbering love of Obama aside, Keillor’s statement is truly silly, considering how many serious men of letters, accomplished authors, and skillful and thoughtful writers served in the White House and put forth valuable books, several of which are treated as canon on their subjects.
And I’m certain that Keillor would denigrate Palin’s books (if he hasn’t already) should she become president; he certainly wouldn’t hail her as a “genuine author-president.” (What, and ruin his lib credentials?)
To follow up on my December column of Palin’s qualifications vs. the 44 presidents, here’s another reason why if Governor Palin becomes President Palin she will be right at home amid the men who previously served. As the author of two best-selling and well-received books, President Palin would rightfully join the ranks of the genuine author-presidents—regardless of what Keillor, any liberal or beltway GOPer would say. If the reviews of Going Rogue on Amazon.com are of any intrinsic value, they illustrate that Palin has both written a great book and further enraged her already unhinged self-declared enemies. (Amazon reviews in of themselves are worthless unless the reviewer has actually read the book. You can guarantee that any work by a prominent and “controversial” public figure will have folks giving it a one-starred “review” out of sheer spite.)
So, let’s take a look at books presidents have written. The following list of 18 books does NOT concern the official speeches, proclamations, etc., that presidents made while in office, on the campaign trail for any office or simply stump speaking. (So, the Lincoln-Douglas debates for U.S. senator do not appear here, nor does FDR’s Looking Forward, which is largely a collection of speeches.) Rather, this list concerns: 1) original, actual books on any subject, and 2) memoirs, diaries and letters published either after the presidency or posthumously. To keep the list simple, I picked just one book in cases where a president had multiple works published before or after his presidency. All of the works mentioned were written by the men themselves, often with input from editors, professional writers or others.
Two notes: 1) I’ve organized this list chronologically by order that the men served and **not** by merit. If done by merit alone, Grant’s would certainly be listed first. 2) I’ve not included either of Obama’s pre-presidential books because of Keillor’s declaration about the current president.
Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia
The most eloquent president of them all (save, perhaps, Lincoln), Jefferson, a true radical, wrote and published this book exploring his beloved Virginia in response to a French friend’s inquiry. At first, Jefferson published Notes anonymously, but later rightfully took credit. His book covers a wide range of topics, including Virginia politics, mining, agriculture, weights and measures, geography, religion, military matters, manufacturing and climate. One of the key passages (in the chapter on “Manners”) is his conflicting feelings and actions concerning race, slavery and liberties endowed by God:
“Indeed I tremble for my country when reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”
Indeed. I daresay that his feelings mirrored many men’s uneasy sentiments on human slavery. And I would imagine that Jefferson would have approved of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” at least in spirit, as a kindred celebration of her home state.
James Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787
You probably thought I would list The Federalist here—and that would be a fair choice, considering how brilliant the arguments of Madison, Hamilton and Jay were in delivering an “anonymous” defense of the Constitution. However, Madison only wrote a third of The Federalist, albeit two of his essays are among the most critical (#10 and #51). For the purposes of this list, I suggest exploring Madison’s Notes of Debates, which is his first-hand account of the convention as the Constitution came to be. It’s also one of the only insider accounts of the Convention, because the proceedings were closed to the public.
John Quincy Adams’ Memoirs of John Quincy Adams
Of all the participant-commentators on politics in the first half of the 18th century, the 6th president proved to be the most lucid, entertaining and enlightening. The president’s son Charles Francis published these excerpted private dairies in the 1870s as Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, taken from his diaries, 1794-1848. They include his thoughts and experiences as James Monroe’s secretary of state, president of the United States, famed Congressman who fought the Gag Rule and lawyer who argued the Amistad case before the Supreme Court. His descriptions of other people are practically unsurpassed among prominent American authors, speakers and politicians. For example, he wrote the following splendid passage about future president James K. Polk when Polk, as speaker of the House, was Adams’ primary Gag Rule nemesis:
“Polk has no wit, no literature, no point of argument, no gracefulness of delivery, no elegance of language, no philosophy, no pathos, no felicitous impromptus; nothing that can constitute an orator but confidence, fluency and labor.”
Now that’s damning with faint praise at its finest.
James K. Polk’s The Diary of James K. Polk during His Presidency
If you think that Richard Nixon was the most paranoid man to reside in the White House, think again. James Polk’s presidential diary, which he began in August 1845, makes the White House tapes of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon tame by comparison. John Quincy Adams’ celebrated diary is not as highly charged as this. Polk was not a likeable man. He would appear to be at ease in person with someone he believed slighted him, but would later rip him to shreds in his diary. Even long-time allies would fall victim to his pen if they weren’t “pure” Polk allies in his eyes. Democrats who cooperated with Whigs—sometimes even to pass Polk’s own legislation!—became “traitors.” And Polk could barely conceal his hostility to Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, the two winning generals of the Mexican War, because they were Whigs. Only Barack Obama has surpassed Polk as the most thin-skinned president. Unlike Obama, at least Polk learned to conceal his contempt. The diaries were published after his death as The Diary of James K. Polk during His Presidency, 1845-1849. Despite Polk’s bitterness and sour disposition, he often offered good insights:
“The passion for office among members of Congress is very great, if not absolutely disreputable, and greatly embarrasses the operations of the government. They create offices by their own votes and then seek to fill them themselves.”
Pretty hard to disagree with that sentiment, considering that it is as apropos in 2011 as it was in 1845. And it’s safe to say that Sarah Palin would totally agree with Polk (see bottom).
James Buchanan’s Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion
The 15th president made every effort to clear his name after he left office in March 1861, including by publicly supporting both Lincoln and the war effort, except for the Emancipation Proclamation. He finally succeeded in defending his name somewhat in 1866 with the release of the above-named memoirs. History has disagreed with his self-assessment, however—but not totally. It’s worth a look into the mind of the man who could not stop massive secession and made serious missteps that helped bring on secession.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant
Grant’s Memoirs of his life from birth through the Civil War is hands-down the greatest book ever written by any U.S. president—and that says a lot, considering the competition. Grant’s friend and publisher Mark Twain called them the greatest military memoirs since Caesar’s, and general and President Dwight Eisenhower declared them to be the greatest military memoirs EVER. Thomas Nast, the famed political cartoonist, declared that, “He wrote as he talked, simple, unadorned, manly. He was the most complete and masculine person I ever knew, and his book is the most complete book I have ever read.” Grant wrote these magnificent Memoirs while in a race against terminal throat cancer. The 2-volume book sold incredibly well and brought in almost $500,000 (more than $10 million in today’s money) for his wife, Julia, which more than made her comfortable for the rest of her life. They’ve never gone out of print that I’m aware of.
One of my favorite excerpts comes right at the beginning of his preface: “ ‘Man proposes and God disposes.’ There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.” Indeed.
Theodore Roosevelt’s The Naval War of 1812
Teddy Roosevelt was a true Renaissance man, but of a rougher sort than the radical Virginian who occupied the White House a century earlier. He was curious about all sorts of things and his life showed it: rancher, explorer/hunter, naturalist, solider, statesman, historian, etc. I have to believe that TR would have liked Sarah Palin, considering their common background of hunting and love for the great outdoors, and their mutual habit of taking on established powers. Roosevelt published many celebrated works that are still in print today, including The Rough Riders. Some argue that his autobiography is his best work, but consider this: Roosevelt’s project that he started at Harvard concerning the naval operations of the War of 1812 is STILL considered one of the standard works on the subject. It’s that good.
Woodrow Wilson’s Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics
To say that Woodrow Wilson was a highly educated man is like saying Michael Jordon was a skilled basketball player. Neither statement really captures the man. Among his academic credits, the 28th president earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and became president of Princeton University. He wrote several well-received scholarly books on American and democratic government. His most famous work is his first, Congressional Government, and though it’s not that accessible to a general audience, it remains a standard treatise on democratic-republican government. Wilson also authored a five-volume History of the United States before he became president, which is delightful considering that later he himself became a major figure of American history.
Herbert Hoover’s The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson
The humanitarian and 31st president was quite a prolific author, with 15 books to his credit, including a co-edited translation of a 16th century mining text called De Re Metallica. (Wow – Can Keillor boast of the same?) He also founded a library for books and documents on the Great War, which later became the Hoover Institution. Hoover’s greatest service to the nation was not as president but as organizer of massive humanitarian and relief efforts in Europe during and after both world wars (especially the first), which he chronicled in the somewhat self-serving multi-volume An American Epic. But his tribute to the 28th president, The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, was a touching literary surprise when published in the mid-1950s, in which Hoover discusses what his former boss and predecessor went through.
Harry S. Truman’s Memoirs by Harry S. Truman, 1945: Year of Decisions
In earlier versions of this list, I placed here Truman’s posthumously published Where the Buck Stops, a delightful gem that records “give ‘em hell Harry’s” private and post-presidential musings. But 1945: Year of Decisions is much more important. Concerning the most critical year of the 20th century, Truman discusses defeating Germany and Japan, using the nuclear bombs, the founding of the United Nations, the coming standoff with the Soviet Union, and the death of FDR, the man he considered America’s greatest president. As only the second president to finish out a war after his predecessor died, Truman delivered a critical document in which he explores not only what he did, but why. Not to be missed.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe
The man who led the Allied armies to victory in Europe tells how it happened. This solid, serviceable book is an excellent foray into Eisenhower’s thinking, style and leadership. He includes vivid profiles of his commanders and allies (Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, etc.), explores the stress of high command, explains the strategies and politics involved with wresting western Europe from the Nazis, and previews the coming post-war tensions with the Soviet Union. Crusade is not quite as good or as personally wide-ranging as the memoirs of warrior-turned-president Grant, but still it’s a quite worthy and valuable addition to presidential literature.
John F. Kennedy’s Why England Slept
If you thought Profiles in Courage should be here, you’re wrong. More likely than not, JFK advisor and speechwriter Ted Sorensen ghost-wrote Profiles. However, JFK indisputably wrote Why England Slept, which is a fascinating defense of England’s appeasement policies in the 1930s. Kennedy argued that neither England nor anyone else was prepared to stop Germany during the 1930s, and therefore England was correct to try to make “peace in our time” with Hitler. Say what you will about his conclusions—Mr. Churchill would likely vehemently disagree with the future president—Kennedy’s book was gutsy.
Richard Nixon’s Six Crises
During his post-presidential disgrace period, Nixon attempted to rehabilitate himself by becoming a senior statesman and man of letters. Surprisingly, it worked, and Nixon left the political wilderness and regained some stature. But during his first period in the political wilderness, after his loss to Kennedy in 1960 and defeat two years later for California governor, Nixon wrote Six Crises. It’s a fascinating and stirring, though plainly self-serving, perspective on six major events of Nixon’s lifetime to that point. They are: 1) the Alger Hiss case; 2) the accusations during the 1952 campaign that committed campaign funding fraud (the famous Checkers speech was the result); 3) his assuming the presidency when Ike had a heart attack in 1955; 4) the communist mob “assault” on him and his wife in Venezuela; 5) the famous “kitchen” debate in 1959 with Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev; and 6) his loss to JFK in 1960. It’s well worth your time. Fun fact: When Nixon and Mao met in 1972, the Chinese tyrant asked Nixon to autograph his personal copy of Six Crises.
Jimmy Carter’s Why Not the Best
One of the most prolific of post-presidential writers, though of often dubious quality with sometimes morally repugnant conclusions (especially lately), the 39th president put forth arguably his best effort in 1975 with Why Not the Best? It was Carter’s own self-written campaign bio, and it ranks as one of the few campaign bios that is worthwhile. Most presidential campaign autobiographies and biographies aren’t worth spit. They’re a dime a dozen and quite forgettable, although a few are actually readable, and occasionally, quite good. For example, Franklin Pierce’s close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne (!) wrote one of the six campaign bios for his fellow Granite State resident. Carter’s is definitely worth a look into the pre-presidential, pre-attack-rabbit mind of the 39th president.
Ronald Reagan’s An American Life
Although the 40th president and Cold War victor has many books to his name, most of which were published posthumously, An American Life is the one that belongs on this list. Reagan wrote this gentle, unpretentious, humorous and uplifting (and best-selling) memoir shortly after leaving office. An American Life belongs in the top-tier of post-presidential memoirs, because Reagan wrote about himself as an example OF an American life in a country where a simple boy from the Midwest could rise to the presidency. Reagan illustrated what America really is all about: the liberty and freedom to live, think, speak, associate, worship and conduct business without oppressive interference of a king, fascists, socialists, dictators or even a democratically elected government. As he illustrated in his memoirs, Reagan passionately shared this vision at home and abroad, culminating in the immortal “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Never forget that Reagan lifted the nation out of economic and mental malaise and destroyed the Soviet empire both by believing in America and by finding willing allies in England, Poland, etc., which is what this autobiography is about. Reagan’s book has aged pretty well over the past 20 years, and my volume is well used. I was a flaming lib in college during the 1980s; so, An American Life was my true introduction to the real Ronald Reagan much the same way that Going Rogue is the introduction to the real Sarah Palin. (And by the by, this fan of both Palin and Reagan thinks that Ron Reagan Jr. is full of cow pies when he claims that his dad would not have liked Palin.)
George H. W. Bush’s All the Best, George Bush
Though I could list Bush’s well-received book co-authored with Brent Scowcroft about the post-Soviet world, called A World Transformed, I think All the Best is the better work. The 41st president didn’t write memoirs. (Didn’t Bart Simpson destroy them when Bush lived across the street from Homer Simpson??) Instead, he pulled together and edited a collection of his letters and notes spanning the years from his Navy pilot service in World War II to the period after his loss to Bill Clinton. A quite honest work that pulls few punches, this delightful treasure showcases the elder Bush’s humor, honesty and foibles.
Bill Clinton’s Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World
You probably though I was going to list My Life here. But while a famous bestseller, it’s not truly great and is such a narcissistic exploration of I AM BILL CLINTON that its usefulness is limited. (If you think about it, nothing better illustrates the differences between Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton than how each man titled his memoirs.) Clinton’s later work, also a bestseller, is the better effort and focuses on famous and unknown instances of charity work. Giving is actually quite decent and worth your time, regardless of the lefty slant.
George W. Bush’s Decision Points
In this unusual presidential memoir, the 43rd president looks at crucial “decision points” in his life and presidency, rather than delivering a blow-by-blow, day-by-day account. He covers his early drinking problems, executions in Texas, the 2000 election, 9/11, the decisions to go into Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina, the successful surge in 2007-2008, and the efforts to avoid another depression in 2008. The book is quite good and quite honest. Bush is highly critical of himself, which is quite a refreshing departure from other post-presidential memoirs, namely Clinton’s and Carter’s. For example, he wrote that while he didn’t regret his Katrina decisions, he regrets not making them fast enough. The most talked about excerpt comes where he verbally devastates the Democrat mayor of New Orleans and Democrat governor of Louisiana, because neither seemed to be in charge of the situation. While G. W. Bush often mangles spoken English, sometimes with relish, he has always been lucid and pointed with the written word. This book is further proof.
Now, consider Sarah Palin the author: I would love to be able to add either Going Rogue or American by Heart to this list, but who knows yet if she’d win in 2012—much less if she’s even running. But how does her first book stack up to the works of the men above? Pretty darn good. After all, consider that Going Rogue is a key document to understanding the mind, character and drive of this era’s greatest kingmaker & queen-maker. By drawing from her diaries, Gov. Palin introduces us to the real Sarah Palin, effectively burying the sad, sick and blatantly false liberal media caricature of her to all but rabid partisans (e.g., the Kos crowd, the liberal media, the NAACP, etc.). If Going Rogue winds up serving as a presidential campaign autobiography, it easily ranks as one of the best, if not the best, since Nathaniel Hawthorne’s campaign biography for Franklin Pierce.
Palin’s first book is easily accessible, thoughtful, funny, charming, pointed and forthright. Drawn from her diaries, the book shines with the real Palin. All campaign autobiographies are self-serving, naturally, but this one is (or would be) an exception because the Palin caricature became “gospel truth” until the nation learned otherwise. (That’s why she includes a lengthy section on the 2008 campaign—to set the record straight.)
I would daresay that many presidents would have enjoyed reading Palin’s book, particularly those 19th century presidents who revered the Constitution, believed in the rule of law, had faith in the abilities of the people, and loved America, warts and all. (Though, many if not all would have blanched at the thought of a female president! B ut certainly ladies such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helen Pitts Douglass (second wife of Frederick), Dorothea Dix, Susan B. Anthony, etc. likely would have loved President Sarah Palin.)
My favorite excerpt from Going Rogue’s concluding chapter:
“(Commonsense Conservatives) don’t trust utopian promises from politicians. The role of government is not to perfect us but to protect us—to protect our inalienable rights. The role of government in a civil society is to protect the individual and establish a social contract so that we can live in peace…
“When titles and personal power grabs are more important than fighting for the people, voters become discouraged and apathetic. Politics-as-usual continues, and the Reagan legacy cannot be revived” (pages 386, 387).
Many of the presidents would thoroughly agree, especially numbers 1 through 24.
Now, how many copies a book has sold is not really a good measure of its value. However, both Going Rogue and America by Heart are big sellers, ranking with the sales of memoirs by Dubya and Clinton, and surpassing books by Obama and Hilary Clinton. Bush sold more than two million copies of Decision Points in just one month, which is almost as many as Clinton sold of My Life in six years. Going Rogue surpassed Clinton in under one year by selling about 2.7 million hardback copies in 2009 alone, which also beats either of Obama’s two pre-presidential books. (Figure is according to Publisher’s Weekly 2009 sales report released in March 2010.) In just over half a year in 2009 Palin easily surpassed by nearly 1 million Hillary’s Living History, which has sold 1.7 million since 2003.
So, in conclusion, Keillor’s gushing declaration that Obama is the first “genuine author-president” is easily disproven for the fawning cow patty that it is. And should Palin become president, her published books would put her among very good company of “genuine author-presidents.”
One more thing: Should Palin run and win, I argue that her Facebook posts and Tweets rank with Reagan’s radio messages from 1976-1980 gathered in the invaluable Reagan, In His Own Hand. In those messages, he outlined his beliefs and calls for action, which he carried through to the end of his presidency. (And I volunteer to compile and edit Palin’s posts in book form! )