Presidential memoirs not known for self-criticism

March 24, 2009 7:55:09 AM PDT
As former President George W. Bush works on his memoir, his detractors are doubting the candor of an unpopular leader famous for giving himself the highest of approval ratings.

Bush has signed with Crown Publishers for "Decision Points," a survey of fateful choices from running for president to invading Iraq. The book is scheduled for 2010, and while Bush said recently that "absolutely, yes," he would question some of his decisions, he added that he would make clear the difficulty of circumstances and the ease of hindsight.

So don't expect harsh self-appraisals about his response to Hurricane Katrina or the collapse of the economy or the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But don't be surprised, for no chief executive has written a book in order to say he failed.

"It's unfair to jump on Bush for not writing a self-flagellating memoir," says presidential historian David Greenberg, whose books include "Nixon's Shadow" and a biography of Calvin Coolidge. "It's a genre, a political genre, and it has different standards, needs to be read differently from other kinds of memoirs."

The planned structure of Bush's memoir is unusual, but not the author's expected generosity to himself. The presidential book has not only been distinguished by its lack of literary merit - Ulysses Grant excepted - but by the absence of any self-criticism beyond the most expected remorse, as in "My Life" and Bill Clinton's already oft-expressed apology for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Memoirs are written for money, for revenge, for glory, for the first and perhaps last word. If we saw the world only through presidential eyes, the Great Depression would be Europe's fault, not Herbert Hoover's; liberals and other scoundrels were to blame for Richard Nixon's fall; and James Buchanan was a great man worthy of the president who succeeded him - Abraham Lincoln.

"He never admitted he did anything wrong," says Buchanan biographer Jean H. Baker, who, like many historians, ranks Buchanan among the worst presidents. "His memoir came out at the end of the Civil War and he tried to claim that his policies were the same as Lincoln's. It was an unusual turn because Buchanan had railed against abolitionists all during his administration."

In the history according to presidents, achievements are inflated (or imagined) and defeats mentioned only to fault others - Europe, political opponents, or that eternal failure to get one's message across. Jimmy Carter, beaten decisively by Ronald Reagan in his race for a second term, recalled a final cabinet meeting in which members tallied the achievements of the unloved Carter administration.

"We would have won the re-election battle in a sweep if we had been able to convince the American people of the accuracy of this same report!" Carter concluded in his memoir, "Keeping Faith."

The most disliked presidents were capable of the most prolonged defenses. Nixon wrote book after book after his resignation. Hoover needed three volumes, not only to absolve himself of the Depression, but to tear down the New Deal and its beloved, martyred creator, Franklin Roosevelt.

"General Prosperity had been a great ally in my election in 1928. General Depression, who superseded, was in some part responsible for my defeat in 1932," Hoover wrote in the early 1950s, several years after FDR had died in office.

"I give more attention to the campaign of 1932 than might be otherwise desirable, because I then accurately forecast that attempts would be made to revolutionize the American way of life. The effort to crossbreed some features of Fascism and Socialism with our American free system speedily developed in the Roosevelt administration."

A truly introspective work might have come from Lincoln, had he survived his second term. Instead, the toughest White House critic we have is John Quincy Adams - like Bush, the son of a president - although his recriminations were noted in his diary, not in public.

A high-minded, brooding intellectual who would demonstrate why high-minded, brooding intellectuals were not necessarily ideal for high office, Adams acknowledged, privately, his difficulties in getting along with others and that his distaste for politics came at the expense of enacting his policies.

Elected, like Bush, despite losing the popular vote, Adams was in trouble from the start, especially after vowing in his inaugural address not to be "palsied by the will of our constituents." He was easily beaten four years later, in 1828, by the populist Andrew Jackson.

Adams was eloquent about his imperfections, but he found no poetry in defeat. In his diary, Adams confided few faults of his own, but far more in the "skunks of party slander" who had tarred his good name, and in the unchanging, unchangeable ways of humanity.

"In looking back, I see nothing that I could have avoided, nothing I ought to repent. I have nothing further to hope from man," he wrote. "From indolence and despondency and indiscretion may I be preserved."

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