The better presidential memoirs tend to have been written inadvertently—the Adams-Jefferson correspondence, Polk’s diary—or are not about the presidency at all: Grant on the Civil War, Eisenhower’s “Crusade in Europe.” The one that comes closest to literature—“The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge”—is the length of a novella, and its author only lands in the White House toward the end.
In fact, until comparatively recently, most of the men who survived their presidencies never bothered to write accounts of their tenure in office. Maybe they believed that history’s verdict was inexorable or that custom demanded a graceful, and suitably circumspect, withdrawal from the stage. Perhaps they felt, as Dean Acheson once warned, that “detachment and objectivity” would be suspect and “the element of self-justification could not be excluded.”
That was then. In due course Acheson overcame his scruples and wrote a memoir of his service as secretary of state that won him the Pulitzer Prize. And it was Acheson’s boss, Harry Truman, who inaugurated the modern era, issuing a hefty account of his presidency that was serialized in Life magazine. Of Truman’s successors, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and only George H.W. Bush chose not to weigh in.