Since newly reelected Barack Obama already is a best-selling author, we can probably expect him to pen a presidential memoir when he finishes this next term. Most modern presidents do, and there’s certainly a market for the first-hand presidential account. Bill Clinton’s memoir, the 900-page, less-than-originally titled My Life, has sold in the neighborhood of 2.25 million copies, and sales of George W. Bush’s Decision Points are rivaling that record.
But the champion of presidential memoirs in terms of critical acclaim, you may be surprised to learn, is Ulysses S. Grant. His autobiography focuses more on the war than on his presidential years and had the advantage of Mark Twain as an editor or, some suspect, a ghostwriter. The book stands out for its humility; Grant readily admits to errors and lets hindsight guide him toward an objective evaluation of his actions. Pretty much every other president uses the memoir as a means to justify decisions, self-promote or spin the facts. An apt example is James Buchanan, who was our country’s first president to publish a memoir. And “Silent Cal”? Calvin Coolidge lived up to his nickname, penning the shortest presidential memoir at just under 250 pages. But perhaps the most “silent” was Richard Nixon, who wasn’t one to self-reflect and glossed over the Watergate scandal in his memoir.
Not to be left out, we may see Michelle Obama write her own account of White House life. Both Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford published autobiographies that outsold their husbands’ memoirs, while Hilary Clinton’s Living History has topped $10 million in sales. Time will tell; it always does.