Authors for President: The Curious History of Political Memoirs

04/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The mid-term elections are upon us, and publishers are once again eager to do their part. Whether you prefer Barack Obama's two best-selling books or Sarah Palin's morbidly fascinating autobiography, you just might wonder when memoir authorship became required for an aspiring politician.

While presidential career retrospectives have been around for most of the Republic, memoir-as-campaign propaganda, it turns out, is rather new. The memoir that looks forward began to take shape in the late 1990s with books by two presidential candidates-to-be: John McCain's Faith of Our Fathers and Bill Bradley's Time Present, Time Past. Neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush, who actually won their party's nominations, felt obliged to pen the now de rigueur memoir.

Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign took place in ancient history, before the internet or 24-hour news cycle. He published the retrospective My Life in 2004, well after he left the White House. Hillary Clinton, however, came of political age in the new school, publishing Living History in the middle of her first Senate term, with a steady eye on the 2008 primaries. True, Clinton made her authorial debut in 1996 with It Takes a Village. Though like Al Gore's 1992 Earth in the Balance, Clinton's paean to community was ostensibly about matters other than its author. The politician as author of socio-political treatise was perhaps an interim step on the path to the full-blown campaign memoir.

Presidential political memoirs were once written at the end of one's career, staking a claim to history and legacy, setting the record straight. Ulysses S. Grant's well-regarded autobiography, for one, was finished just five days before he died from throat cancer. James Buchanan, the first-presidential autobiographer, wrote Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion to defend his much-criticized policies in the lead up to the Civil War. Eisenhower and Ted Kennedy were also classic late-in-life memoirists. And even then, writing a reflective memoir was not the political requirement it is now: neither Lincoln nor Wilson penned one.

"The 'campaign biography/autobiography' has been around for a while," says Ben Yagoda, author of the new book Memoir: A History. "But it has definitely picked up in the last couple of decades, so that nowadays it's pretty much required that someone who wants to become president will publish one."

Obama notwithstanding, politicians are rarely the book's sole authors, with ghostwriters and co-writers' participation divulged to varying degrees. Clinton's failure to acknowledge Village ghostwriter Barbara Feinman Todd led to a minor scandal. And in Obama's case, there's the persistent and spectacular right-wing chattering that Bill Ayers of Weather Underground fame is Dreams of My Father's real author. Palin's book, however, was somewhat openly ghostwritten by Lynn Vincent of the Christian news magazine WORLD -- although I guess we'll never know who really penned the book's letter from God to Sarah (signed "Trig's Creator, Your Heavenly Father").

Presidents aren't the only political hacks to write memoirs -- there is, of course, the popular tell-all variety written by counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke or foaming-at-the-mouth Dick Morris; or the front-row-seat-on-history memoirs of LBJ aide Harry McPherson and Clinton-staffer-turned-talking-head George Stephanopoulos. And celebrity memoirs have of course long stalked our fame-worshiping culture (Paris Hilton's 2004 Confessions of an Heiress arguably marks a low point, although R. Kelly is scheduled to release one in 2011 --stay tuned). But don't worry, dear reader: you don't really need to be famous, interesting, or a good writer to qualify for memoir authorship -- our navel-gazing generation's appetite is insatiable. Against the macroeconomic odds, the market expands.

Going Rogue is not alone among this season's campaign-memoirs: readers can also purchase New Gingrich's stirring To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom, or Mitt Romney's yet-to-be published No Apology. Rock and roll evangelical governor cum (soon-to-be perennial) presidential candidate Mike Huckabee published a book of Christmas stories. Given that many are published in a big hurry on tight politically-driven schedules, I surmise that most of these books (Dreams of my Father and Grant's tome, from what I hear, excepted) are not of astounding literary quality -- though having never read one, I wouldn't know.

But why does the voting and ostensibly reading public desire books by and apropos people we already know too much about? In the age of reality television and YouTube, we perceive that it is possible to know a candidate personally and authentically. There's something about the diary-like memoir, transmitted via the written word, that makes us feel as though a politician is taking us into confidence and exposing the real them. Politicians are now "communicating" with us through every medium possible -- prior to her interest in books, Palin's preferred organ was the Facebook status update. That the subgenre is also a holdout for blowout advances couldn't hurt. Then there's the book tour as a pretext to barnstorm the country. And all this at a time when people supposedly don't like books anymore.

"It has more or less become a custom," says Yagoda, "like your calling card if you are running for president, or a justification, defense, mea culpa when you leave. It's convenient for the politicians -- it gets them publicity and on the talk shows and face time (via the covers) in bookshops. I don't think people buy or (much less) read them, for the most part."

Not that retrospective memoirs are dead -- far from it. Everyone from former Governor Blagojevich to the greater part of Bush's erstwhile cabinet are hoping to prolong their status and pad their government pensions, riding Dick Cheney's coattails into the refractory afterbirth of regime change. But with a new never-ending campaign season approaching, pundits will soon be reading political tealeaves in the best sellers list and book signing lines, prognosticating our author-overlords of the future. For struggling book publishers and aspiring politicians the agitprop memoir is a true coincidence of interest.