Early in April 2019, President Donald Trump hinted to reporters that he’d be writing a book. It would, he assured them, be “explosive” and would “settle scores.” And no doubt he knew it would be “hugely” lucrative, publishers, in recent years, willing to provide presidents with outsized cash advances for their literary projects. Should it come to pass, Trump would likely be the first Chief Executive to write a book while still in the White House. But he would also join many other presidential authors who’ve written about themselves, their experiences in office, or indeed about any other subject they judged important. Some publications appeared before they were elected, others after they’ve left office. Not all have been noteworthy. Still, they represent, in one way or another, valued additions to our historical record. Which books should we remember? Which deserve honorable mention?
George Washington, “first in the hearts of his countrymen,” was not, however, the first to write a book. That distinction belongs to his successor. The irascible, combative John Adams was a deep thinker and a prolific writer (diaries, letters, pamphlets, an autobiography). His principal concern: how to construct a government that represents the popular will and protects the people against the powerful, which he identified as the “rich and the well-born and the able.” In his magisterial three-volume work, A Defense of the Constitution of the Government of the United States of America, he gave his answer – a separation of powers in the Central Government with “orders of men watching and balancing each other (as) the only security; power must be opposed to power and interest to interest.” “It is,” he insisted, “of great importance to begin well. Misarrangements now made will have great extensive and distant consequences.” Contemporaries did not always appreciate John Adams, but few questioned his service to the nation, his commitment to the freedoms for which Americans had recently fought.
The Founding Fathers, while debating the proper structure of central authority, were more closely wedded to their respective states (Hamilton probably excepted). That explains Thomas Jefferson’s most influential book, Notes on the State of Virginia. In it he offers an encyclopedic, detailed survey of his native state, even as he was refuting a prominent French naturalist’s (Buffon) theory regarding the degeneration of species in the Western hemisphere. Historians consider this book the essential Jefferson, i.e., incorporating his core beliefs regarding liberty, freedom of speech and religion, checks and balances in government, the bedrock virtues of agriculture and of yeoman farmers and his insistence upon limited government. Also exposed are the long unresolved tensions of the South, Jefferson doubting the inherent capacities of the black race, while warning that plantation owners would one day pay dearly for maintaining a slave society. Readers gain exceptional insight into America in the late 18th Century and into the mind of one of our most influential thinkers.
Strictly speaking, James Madison doesn’t belong in our survey. He did leave us his notes on the proceedings at the Constitutional Convention, but what he recorded were the words of others. And we know about his influential essays in defense of the proposed Constitution printed in various newspapers. Still, he will qualify because those writings (along with essays by Alexander Hamilton and John Jay) were gathered together and published in book form in 1787 (The Federalist). Students of this period credit Madison for his penetrating analysis and his challenge to conventional wisdom by arguing in favor of an expansive Republic, such as the U.S., where he predicted numerous and diverse interest groups would emerge, thereby fragmenting a potentially dominating majority. Add the checks and balances built into the Constitution and the division between Central and State authorities and you may just succeed in curbing the excesses of the powerful. To this day Madison’s views remain a starting point for studying and judging our federal system.
It would have been hard, if not impossible, for anyone to match the years in public service of John Quincy Adams, in a career that saw him as Ambassador, Senator, Secretary of State, President of the United States, and then from 1831 until his death in 1840, a Congressman from Massachusetts. Almost as impressive was the fact that he kept a diary nearly every day for close to 70 years (that would total 15,000 pages), a diary first published in 1874, and more recently in 2017 (two volumes). In addition to family matters and daily observations, we read of his growing outrage at the mortal threat he believed slavery posed to his beloved Republic. Not spared were the Founding Fathers who had, he said, “the Declaration of Independence on their lips and the merciless scourge of slavery in their hands.” To Adams, slavery was “the wedge which will ultimately split up the union.” Although he did not live to witness secession by the South and the horrific Civil War that ensued, he did, years before, predict the conflict and that black emancipation would be the result.
The shadow of slavery also spread across the administration of James Polk, once America incorporated Texas and gained extensive territories after victory in the war with Mexico. Polk died shortly after his term expired, but he did record daily events during his years as president. The Diary of James Polk During His Presidency, 1845-1849 (four volumes, not published until 1910), offers insight into this most energetic administration involved with such crucial matters as the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the acquisition of the Oregon Territory, as well as significant tariff legislation and financial reorganization. Polk kept his pledge to serve but one term. Even so he managed to be that rare Chief Executive singled out by historians for actually achieving all his stated objectives.
Debating the causes of the Civil War probably started the day Grant and Lee concluded hostilities in 1865. All agree that whatever the underlying factors, political leaders in the 1850s failed to rise to the occasion, but rather allowed events to overtake them. Much of such
criticism specifically targeted President James Buchanan (1856-1861). Bristling at these charges, the former president in 1865 published Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion to defend his actions. Congress, he declared, was responsible given its inability to resolve outstanding sectional issues. Besides, had it not been for the Abolitionists inflaming public sentiments, the armed conflict could have been averted. The most sensible approach, he claimed was simply to have been patient and allow slavery to die out on its own. While war surely was not inevitable, given the vitality of the institution in 1860 and ongoing plans to expand slave territories, there was little likelihood slavery was then on the road to extinction.
Slavery did not end until southern armies were swept from the field and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution signaled the end of this grim chapter of American history.
Regrettably, even the transcendent Lincoln, the unrivaled master of memorable prose, left no book documenting his role in these critical years. (Collections of his speeches, letters, wit and wisdom did become available.) Imagine the impact of his words had he had the opportunity to consider and reflect upon his tumultuous years as president. Unexpectedly, such a singular contribution does emerge, but from a most unlikely source, Lincoln’s supreme commander, General Ulysses S. Grant. Dying of throat cancer in 1885, and in straitened financial circumstances (victimized by a con man), his friend Mark Twain persuaded him to write his memoirs. Despite persistent pain, he turned resolutely to the task (completing as many as
25-50 pages a day) and produced a two-volume work, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. In concise, unadorned prose, filled with candid observations, he composed what arguably stands as the best of all presidential memoirs. It focused first upon his participation in the Mexican War, then takes us through his Civil War battles and the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House. Grant regarded the war against Mexico as “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” In 1865, at Lee’s surrender, Grant avoids any expression of triumph, but rather is “sad and depressed” though acknowledging that the Southern cause was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought.” Nonetheless, Lee, he concedes, “fought so long and valiantly and had suffered so much.” There are countless other revealing observations in this most valuable work. The book proved an instant best seller, an enormous money maker, thanks to Mark Twain’s ingenious marketing scheme. (He employed Civil War veterans, in uniform, to peddle the memoir.) Grant died several days after completing the manuscript but would, as he had hoped, eventually leave a fortune to Julia, his wife.
Certainly, the honor for most prolific of presidential authors should go to the hyperactive, irrepressible Teddy Roosevelt (with upwards of 35 books to his credit and, by one estimate, 150,000 letters!). Indeed, Roosevelt relied upon income from his writing to help support his large family. His range of interest was vast: consider his books on history, biography, nature, hunting, travel adventure, the American West, the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American war, an autobiography, as well as Letters to His Children. Teddy was a fervent advocate of the “strenuous life,” of being a “doer,” engaged “in the arena.” “I have,” he said, “a perfect horror of words not backed up by deeds.” Roosevelt, in truth, produced plenty of both.
Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor as president, William Howard Taft, mostly lived in the shadows of the flamboyant Roosevelt. Nor did his literary output measure up to the publication record of his predecessor. Taft did, however, after leaving office, support himself by writing articles and delivering paid speeches, an avenue of opportunity future presidents would fully exploit. His collected lectures, particularly at Yale (Questions of Modern Government), and Columbia (Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers) were published. But lest we dismiss Taft as a colorless placeholder wedged or between two notable presidents (Roosevelt and Wilson), there is a published collection of letters to his wife (My Dearest Nellie), 2011, in which he is often gossipy and insightful, commenting upon the major issues of the day, the Washington scene, and the new social and political landscape of the Progressive Era. And let’s not forget he had yet one other major role to play – Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1921-1930).
Because Roosevelt wanted once more to be president, in 1912 he ran on the Progressive Party ticket, thereby helping to elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who is our next presidential author of note. No surprise here because Wilson was an academic (with a PhD in history and political science from Johns Hopkins University), and that’s what professors do – write. He authored what became the standard university text on late 19th Century American history, in addition to a biography of George Washington, and a five-volume historical survey of America. His book, The State, presented an unusually expansive view of government’s obligation to promote the general welfare, an activist position he later assumed upon becoming president. Still, his most celebrated work was Congressional Government (originally his doctoral dissertation, 1885). In it he expressed admiration for Great Britain’s Parliamentary system of party government and was highly critical of our system because it encouraged obstruction – via congressional committees, the checks and balances and separations of power, the courts, the special interests, etc. The book raised numerous provocative issues, many still debated, made especially relevant during periods of government dysfunction.
No volume of presidential wisdom emerged from the widely popular Warren Harding (that is, until scandalous stories surfaced), but his successor Calvin Coolidge did leave us with an autobiography. Like the man himself, reviewers noted it was remarkable for its brevity but short on revealing observation. Herbert Hoover, who followed, had much more to say. His least controversial words were to be found in his 1909 text, Principles of Mining (Hoover was an engineer). Later, in two of his books, The Challenge of Liberty and his Memoirs, he vigorously defended his actions as president during the onset of the Great Depression and deplored, what in his view, was the New Deal’s assault on liberty and its alleged flirtations with Fascism.
Our two greatest presidents before Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, left no books. Roosevelt, the third member of this illustrious trio, surpassed them, but regrettably produced no major work. (If only he’d not been pre-occupied with the Great Depression, The New Deal and the Second World War. His wife, Eleanor, almost as busy, nevertheless, wrote one book after another.) Publishers, however, capitalized on FDR’s many years in office and produced the usual assortment of books (collections of his speeches, letters,
quotations, public papers, along with his Fireside Chats, as well as his early plans for the New Deal – On our Way). Overall, Roosevelt would influence the public less with his writings and more through the spoken word, his radio broadcasts and speeches, providing a re-assuring voice during perilous times.
Harry Truman picked up the slack after FDR’s somewhat meager output. Truman was an avid student of the past, his “debt to history,” he declared, [being] “one which cannot be calculated.” He wrote two well-received books about those critical years after World War II with the Cold War already underway. While these volumes (Years of Decision and Years of Trial and Hope) offered much useful information, they were also a godsend for Truman. Having accumulated little personal wealth, the royalties from sales became his principle source of income. (A presidential pension did not exist. Not until 1958 did the government provide one via the Former Presidents Act.) We also have an autobiography, a memoir (Where the Buck Stops), as well as several compilations of letters, including Strictly Personal and Confidential: The Letters Harry Truman Never Mailed. He wrote frequently, lovingly, to his wife Bess (who, uncomfortable in the White House, returned often to their home in Missouri), plus a volume of letters to other relatives. That he was a family man no one could doubt.
With Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, there was much ground to cover and many stories to tell. given his lengthy military career, followed by two terms as president (let alone his lifelong passion for both bridge and golf). Starting with Truman, but more fully realized under Eisenhower, publishers saw the commercial possibilities of packaging in book form a Chief Executive’s own words, both before and after he occupied the White House. So, with Ike we are treated to his diaries (two separate volumes), letters, also Letters to Mamie (his wife), speeches, favorite stories (At Ease) and state papers, and of course his major work, Crusade in Europe. Here is Ike directing troops through American-led campaigns in North Africa, Italy, and the cross channel invasion of Europe, all the time trying to keep certain prima donna generals (Montgomery and Patton) in check. (For that book, he received a publishers advance of $635,000, which would have been heavily taxed had he not received a favorable decision from the Treasury Department, taxing it not as ordinary income but as capital gains.) The book became the basis for an Emmy-winning ABC-TV series (26 episodes), the first such documentary produced for television.
The hero of World War II won the White House in 1952 and again in 1956, all of which Eisenhower recorded in Mandate for Change 1953-1961 and The White House Years 1956-1961. Historians have, over time, become kinder to Eisenhower than many of his contemporaries, his effectiveness and relative ranking as Chief Executive steadily rising with the passage of time.
It is generally acknowledged that the two books written (to what extent is not clear) by John F. Kennedy (While England Slept and Profiles in Courage) were primarily “campaign” documents (encouraged by Joe Kennedy, father of the future president) to enhance his reputation and provide a measure of gravitas to the young, ambitious Senator from Massachusetts. It worked wondrously as Profiles in Courage became a best seller and won a Pulitzer Prize. Three years later Kennedy captured the presidency, possibly because Richard Nixon, his rival, had not yet written his book, Six Crises, his own exercise in self-promotion.
Lyndon Johnson was more a force of nature, given to persuasion and exerting political pressure than to literary composition, yet he pursued by now a well-worn path, resulting in a familiar spate of books. There was the usual collection of speeches, state papers, quotations, press conference compilations, in addition to an account of his years in office, The Vantage Point, plus reflections on developments both at home and abroad, The Choices We Face. Having left office under the cloud of Vietnam, the accounts of his years in office seemed not to have left a lasting impression.
Richard Nixon’s “delayed” answer to John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, his self-inflating Six Crises (1962), detailed formidable challenges he had already faced and successfully overcome. These self-described triumphs, however, apparently were not enough to bring victory in the 1962 California gubernatorial contest against Pat Brown. But Nixon was nothing if not persistent. Six years later he won the White House. Upon leaving office in disgrace (1974) he attempted, in the years that followed, to rehabilitate his image, projecting himself as a shrewd observer of international affairs (e.g., Real Peace, 1984; No More Vietnams, 1985; In the Arena, 1990). Many acknowledged his sophisticated understanding of the world scene, but he could not fully dispel the image of “Tricky Dick” long attached to him. Still and all, he was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, who explained that decision and other matters in his only book, A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald Ford. Ford’s brief stay in the White House, his modest demeanor and generally moderate views did not make for literary fireworks.
It helps that Jimmy Carter has lived a long life (A Full Life), but it’s also the case that he had a flare for writing (credit him as the first president to produce a work of fiction, The Hornet’s Nest (Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, a romance novelist, would be the second, were she to be elected), and much like Teddy Roosevelt, Carter drew upon a broad range of experiences and interests both before and after his term of office. We have his White House diaries and multiple memoirs, but he has also filled a shelf of books written on such diverse topics as women’s rights, aging, the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, outdoor life, his faith, spirituality, peace. Even at age 95, there could well be another volume forthcoming from this prolific author and tireless “do-gooder.”
One would not have expected Ronald Reagan to approach the literary productivity of Jimmy Carter. Reagan was, after all, more comfortable in front of a movie camera or at a lectern than at a writing desk. Nevertheless, he dutifully produced (or had ghostwritten) the by now standard output of published letters, favorite stories, timeless wisdom, speeches and autobiographies, and An American Life, relating to his years as president. A hundred years had passed since a president (Grant) had published a diary, which Reagan did in The Reagan Diaries, accounting for nearly every day spent as president. America appeared just as surprised by and enthusiastic about the book, as it was nearly a century earlier when Ulysses S. Grant had penned his engaging account of his life and battles. These Reagan diaries reveal someone not much different from his public persona – straight-forward, without much artifice or deep insight, convinced of America’s genius, the evils of Communism and the pitfalls of taxation and central authority. Also, that he very much loved his wife Nancy (Mommie) and could not bear the times spent away from her. For those unalterably critical of Reagan, his diaries could serve to soften their assessment by revealing an up-front affable guy who, while he sought public adulation, never seemed too full of himself or overly vindictive toward his critics.
The tributes directed toward George H. W. Bush at his death in 2018 offered praise for his being the last of the old school gentlemen, decent, kindly, with a keen sense of responsibility and devotion to duty and to public service. Little was mentioned regarding his literary output for, in truth, he followed by now the well-worn path of diaries (China Diary), collected speeches and letters and two autobiographies, one while Vice President, the other Looking Forward, far more inclusive. He teamed with Brent Scowcroft to write A World Transformed, an account of the dramatic conclusion of the Cold War (rekindled, unfortunately, in recent times).
Compared to several of his predecessors, Bill Clinton’s output was decidedly meager. But in two respects, he outdid them all. In his autobiography, My Life (2004), Clinton consumed nearly 1,000 pages to tell his story. (He was given to verbal excess as well.) The book sold in the millions, but given its length many wondered whether most readers got through it all. This may have been but a minor concern to Clinton since he received a $15-million advance from his publisher (Knopf). Clinton had declared, “The era of big government had ended.” Nevertheless the opportunities for big presidential book advances was just underway. (See Barack Obama.)
So, by this time, every president could expect to be put through his varied publishing paces (viz., quotations, public papers, uplifting speeches, recollections, favorite causes, etc.). Accordingly, George Bush came forth with his memoirs, two in fact: A Charge to Keep, 1999, and Decision Points, 2010. Of interest here, Bush first consulted with historians before undertaking the second book. He was encouraged to read U. S. Grant’s Memoirs, which he did and came away impressed. Then, similar to Grant, he set out “not to write an exhaustive account of my life as president” but rather focus upon select critical moments along the way. Bush also headed off in some unexpected directions. His was the first presidential book (A Portrait of My Father) about a father who also once occupied the White House. (Only John Quincy Adams had such an opportunity.) Bush’s Portraits of Courage featured original portraits, well-executed oil paintings, by the president himself, to accompany the text. Then there were several books exploring his penchant for “Bushisms” chronicling his occasional misuse and abuse of Standard English language and usage (e.g., “I think we agree the past is over,” or “Is our children learning?”). With Bush in retirement we likely will, in the future, be treated less to literary output than selected artwork.
It is fair to speculate whether either of the following two presidents would have won office had it not been for the books they wrote. Barak Obama published Dreams From My Father in 1995, a compelling coming-of-age memoir in which he shared with readers his effort to understand and come to terms with his biracial identity, having been born to a black father (from Kenya) and a white woman from Kansas, America’s heartland. Reviewers considered it as an honest, mature, revealing, compelling personal quest by Obama to locate himself within American society. A year after its publication he was elected to the Illinois State Senate. Then in 2006 he published The Audacity of Hope, elaborating upon many of the positions and policies he’d staked out in his electrifying speech two years earlier at the Democratic National convention. Best sellers, both these books helped introduce Obama to a wider American public and helped propel this first-term Illinois Senator to the Democratic Party nominee for president in 2008. Now the public awaits the publication of his memoir recounting his two terms in office. Expectations are high, especially in view of the extraordinary world-wide reception given to his wife Michelle’s autobiography, Becoming, and the fact that Obama received an eye-opening multi-million dollar advance to write the book. Will it outsell Michelle Obama’s memoir? Time will tell.
Just how much he contributed to The Art of the Deal, 1987, is not clear but Donald Trump nevertheless claims authorship, regards it as his second favorite book (next to the Bible). And well he should because it remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for nearly a year and contributed mightily to his image as an unrivaled winner, one Trump carefully cultivated over the years. The book guides us through his blockbuster real estate deals and boasts of the riches accumulated along the way. Included is his blueprint for outsized success (“Think big.” “Fight back.” “Deliver the goods.” “Use leverage.” …. while also advising that “a little hyperbole never hurts,” and to be sure to “play to peoples’ fantasies”). The book served both to establish and reinforce Trump’s reputation as a savvy, aggressive swashbuckling businessman who knows how to get things done and vanquish the competition. When in 2016 he ran for president millions believed him when he proclaimed, “We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal.” And on November 8th he was “dealt” what many characterized as a rare “inside straight,” winning key electorates and landing in the White House. We shouldn’t be all that surprised. “I just keep pushing and pushing,” he confessed in his book, “to get what I’m after.”
With the 2020 election season underway, books by presidential hopefuls have become part of the conversation. Many of the Democratic primary candidates have already written “their books,” including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg. “Campaign Publications” have now become a standard feature of election strategy, with candidates eager to tell their stories to the public while personally pocketing substantial advance royalties. Such payments, however, can spark controversy.
Can writing a well-received book undermine a potential presidential bid? Can a self-proclaimed Socialist maintain credibility, if it turns out he’s a millionaire, especially one who has consistently raged against rising income inequality in the U.S.? Bernie Sanders has revealed that he earned over a million dollars in two consecutive years. The source of his new-found riches – advances and royalties from two books he wrote – Our Revolution, A Future to Believe In and Where We Go From Here. Will robust book sales prove to be a potential liability? Can Bernie remain a tribune of the common man when he earns a seven-figure income?
Early speculation had it that a collection of Trump’s unending stream of tweets would provide the necessary ingredients (not unlike the diaries of many of his predecessors) for a presidential memoir. Fully annotated, we’d have a daily barometer of the moods and meanderings of this most mercurial Chief Executive. But then, as we’ve noted, Trump recently remarked that he intends to write a book (this time without the assistance of Tony Schwartz, ghost writer for The Art of the Deal, who had long since broken with Trump). In Trump’s world, critics, opponents, enemies abound and must be confronted. Few doubt that on most pages he will take aim and fire at an almost endless series of targets. Some commentators immediately responded to the possibility of a Trump memoir by accusing him of using his office to enrich himself, forgetting that all modern presidents, had, with their publications, done likewise. One observer, untroubled by the prospect of another book by Trump predicted it would once again top the best seller lists – suggesting, however that this time it be properly listed – under Fiction.

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