22 September 2010

Presidential Memoirs: Who Bombed, Who Soared and Why

Check out some fun facts about presidential memoirs, how well they were paid and who really wrote some of them.

From Denny: With all the presidential memoirs floating around these days it was interesting to find out a few facts about just how well these memoirs have fared over the centuries. Even modern day First Ladies have gotten into the act and done quite well!

Democrat President Bill Clinton

Who received the biggest advance for their presidential memoir?

You got it: Bill Clinton. It's also a veritable tome and, yes, I purchased it back then. Clinton may be a lot of things but he is a good writer and a good read - even if a lengthy one. Concise is not in his mindset.

Clinton's publisher, Knopf, advanced him a whopping $15 million for his 900-page memoir title, "My Life." At the time publishing analysts were concerned if he could sell enough copies to make that advance worthwhile. They estimated the required sale would need to be at least 800,000 hardcover copies just to break even on their investment. Turns out that Clinton was a good investment for them since Knopf jumped out and aggressively ordered over 1.5 million copies just in the first run of publishing. It was a thrill-seeking record breaker for presidential memoirs. As of 2008, Clinton has now pocketed over $30 million just for his part of the book and his follow-up book, "Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World."

Democrat First Lady Hillary Clinton

Hillary's book, "Living History," has already made her more than $10 million. Wait until she finishes her term as Secretary of State as that book should be really interesting. She is the first woman in history to have held the titles of First Lady, Senator, first First Lady to have run for President and now first First Lady to be Secretary of State.

Republican President George Bush

President Bush is coming out with a November election cycle memoir. Absolutely no one cares as they know he could not have written it since he is known as a poor student. Though he grew up wealthy the man had never traveled to Europe until forced to as President. The most commented upon characteristic of him while he was in office was that he had no intellectual curiosity. A scholar he was not.

Republican First Lady Laura Bush

First Lady Laura Bush's memoir was largely panned by everyone from critics to the average person on the street as not written by her and full of untrue stories.

Prime Minister Tony Blair

OK, so this guy isn't an American President but it does go to how a book of a former leader can spark controversy. Recently published is a memoir from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, "A Journey." He sure has lit up the country like a Christmas tree, considering all the protesting and picketing that is happening as a result of publishing this book. The Brits take their books seriously, not getting propaganda ghost writers to substitute like here in America.

Republican President Richard Nixon

His memoir, "RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon," sold 330,000 copies and that was considered a huge success in his time. And this president still is one of the most reviled presidents in American history: "Tricky Dick" was his nickname.

Who experienced the worst loss of presidential memoir sales due to his wife's book?

Republican President Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford's 1979 memoir, "A Time to Heal: The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford," did not do well. He couldn't "get no respect." It basically bombed against his wife's book. Also, the country was not thrilled with how Ford, Nixon's extremely loyal former Speaker of the House, covered up for Nixon once he was appointed President, refusing to prosecute. His presidency left a bitter aftertaste in America's mouth.

First Lady Betty Ford

Her book was an instant huge hit: "The Times of My Life." She started up the Betty Ford Center and came out of the alcoholic closet, helping other politicians' wives get help. She started a national conversation about substance abuse, shame and guilt. Betty also revealed the dark underbelly of alcoholism in the nation's capitol and unhappy political marriages. She was heralded as courageous by the majority of Americans, as so many could identify with her.

Talk about funny. At a time when men still out shined women and ruled the workplace it was Betty Ford who out shined her husband. She decided to rub it in by giving him a T-shirt that read "Bet My Book Outsells Yours" for his birthday. Bad gag gift. To make matters worse, she turned out to be right.

What other First Lady's memoirs out sold her husband's? Nancy Reagan.

Republican President Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was known for being personable, always ready with a funny quip. He was known for being intensely private, intensely loyal to his wife and an intensely romantic letter writer.

His memoir was "An American Life" that was published in 1990. His ghost writer was Robert Lindsey. At the press conference for the release of the book, the publisher, Simon & Schuster, claimed Reagan wrote the book "with the editorial assistance of Robert Lindsey."

The reality is that Lindsey did indeed write the book. Well, at least Reagan was honest about it when he joked, "I hear it's a terrific book! One of these days I'm going to read it myself."

Republican President Ulysses S. Grant

Speaking of choosing the best ghost writer, it sure looks like Grant made the best choice available in his time period: Mark Twain. At least that is who is believed to have written the president's memoir: "Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant."

Grant served two terms as president, ending in 1877. He was the world's most famous war hero, of the Civil War, Union side. But his finances were not doing as well. Turns out he spent a two-year trip around the world only to find out he had made a disastrous financial investment. His banking partner had swindled him and now Grant was on the verge of bankruptcy. Grant was forced to sell off his Civil War mementos just to pay off his mounting debts.

If anyone knew anything about getting out of debt by writing his way out it was Mark Twain. He approached Grant to help out. Twain offered to publish Grant's presidential memoirs, capitalizing on his war hero popularity, and give Grant a whopping 75 percent of the profits as royalties. Very generous indeed. These days it's the publisher who gets the lion's share of the deal, not the author.

The book was published in 1885 and was a runaway hit. An interesting note as to how they marketed the book was that the publisher employed former Union soldiers in full uniform as book salesmen. The book enjoyed the status as one of the best sellers of the 19th century.

First Lady Julia Dent Grant

A century later and this book is still considered to be one of the best presidential memoirs every written. Of course, there is controversy over just who did most of the writing. Mark Twain was a class act, trying to help out a popular ex-President and war hero reclaim his finances. Twain's only public claim to the book was that he make slight edits to Grant's text. However, the writing voice pointed toward Twain in spite of his best efforts to go low profile.

Grant did not live long enough to see how successful his book became for he died shortly after he wrote the last page. He had cancer of the throat. However, his widow, Julia, did enjoy her husband's success. The book brought in over $450,000 in royalties - which would be the equivalent of millions of dollars in today's economy.

Democrat President Harry S. Truman

Another president who suffered financial issues was President Truman. He was one of the few presidents who was an average American of modest means. He was not the usual elitist millionaire or trust fund baby. After he left office in 1953, he was only surviving on his military pension from the Army of a mere pittance of $112 a month. Truman thought taking a corporate job would cheapen the reputation of the presidency.

He had no real savings so what was he to do? Truman thought the best way to rustle up some cash was to sell his memoirs. Apparently, the publishers thought it a good idea too and advanced him $650,000. However, by the time he paid out taxes on that windfall and paid his assistants, he was practically back in the hole again, netting only a few thousand dollars for his two-volume effort.

First Lady Bess Truman

By 1958, Truman was in such dire financial straits that Congress realized they had to do something for the former president. They passed the Former Presidents Act that guaranteed a $25,000 annual pension to former presidents. Talk about a national embarrassment that no one ever thought of giving a former president a pension in the first place. These days, it's downright lucrative to have been a former president, considering how the publishing houses and consulting firms are enamored with the Oval Office residents.

Democrat James Buchanan

James Buchanan has been judged harshly by scholars and ranked among the very worst of our presidents. His memoir was the first ever presidential memoir written, publishing it in 1866, called "Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of Rebellion."

He wrote it to set the record straight on his presidency. Apparently, no one bought his version of the truth, even all these years later for he was known as a revisionist, trying to prop up a failed administration.

During the beginnings of the Civil War, he was weak. He said the states could not succeed but that the federal government had no way to stop them. He kept hoping for compromise that never came. He was known for his inactivity to move forward with strong policies.

He angered the Northern abolotionists with his approval of Southern states being allowed to keep slaves as property. He kept trying to bridge the impossible middle between contrasting views that just didn't work. Sometimes, you just have to come down on one side or the other for the middle becomes an even worse choice for its lack of strength to resolve or move forward any decision.

Buchanan's book did not publish until after the Civil War ended and Abraham Lincoln had become a national icon. Of course, Buchanan tried to ride Lincoln's coattails, claiming his policies were just like Honest Abe's. No one went for that marketing ploy either.

Which President wrote the fastest read?

Republican President Calvin Coolidge

President Calvin Coolidge was nicknamed "Silent Cal," famous for his excessively concise conversation. Verbose he was not but he was witty. When at a brunch, a young woman had a bet she could get him to say three words. He smiled and turned to her and said, "You lose."

His administration was famous for doing nothing, keeping the status quo even when it took advantage of the poor. He declined to interfere with Big Business, not realizing until much later there had to be some restraints.

Coolidge also takes the prize for the shortest presidential memoir. His was titled "The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge." He summed up his life and accomplishments in a mere 247 pages, compared to our recent President Bill Clinton's tome at 900 pages.

Republican President Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover had no love lost between him and historians. He had no problem standing up for his views. He left office in 1933 after a general consensus declared disastrous. What a shame he was terrible as a president because the man was quite the humanitarian when he was in China decades earlier. His risked his life to save Chinese children when his settlement was under fire.

He believed no one should go hungry or be cold in their own house. The problem was that he thought the federal government should not bear that burden but rather the local cities, towns and states. He was blamed for the Great Depression and considered callous because of this attitude. Anyone knows that centralizing government resources makes more available that if each small town has to rely on their meager ones.

And Hoover was jealous of FDR's popularity and trashed his New Deal policy. His resentment of how he was the scapegoat for the Depression and voted out of office must have simmered long and hard. It took 18 years for Hoover to finally birth his memoir, a veritable tome of what was to be a three volumes long memoir.

And when it comes time for current President Barack Obama to write his memoir, it should be an interesting read. It will deal with polarizing politics, deep recurring racism and the uphill climb of restoring the American economy after eight years of failed Republican policies. The jury is still out as to whether America will give him the time to do the impossible.

*** And from my blogger friend, Zeny, in the Philippines who posted how she thought her country compared:

A glimpse into the Lives of the American Presidents - How do the Presidents of the Philippines fare?

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