Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review August 14, 2001 / 25 Menachem-Av 5761

Philip Terzian

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Bubba's big book -- A FEW years ago, after several days spent deep in the forested valleys of Transylvania, I woke up very early one morning at the inn where I was staying, crept downstairs to find something to read, and found a short-wave radio sitting on a sideboard. Assuming that something momentous must have happened back home while I was hidden in Romania, I switched on the radio and turned the dial to the Voice of America. There I found somebody interviewing former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara about the legacy of the Vietnam war.

Clearly, things were pretty much the same as I had left them.

I was reminded of that morning when, after a week of illness and several days traveling on vacation -- largely spent nursing said illness and moaning to my family -- I came home to Washington late last week to excavate the piles of accumulated newspapers. The big story, so far as I could tell, was that former President Bill Clinton had sold his memoirs to Alfred A. Knopf Inc. for something in the range of $10-12 million. Once again, things were pretty much the same as I had left them.

Reaction to this news was equally predictable. Mr. Clinton's supporters had little to say; but his publisher, Sonny Mehta, made the standard pronouncement about what an extraordinary life his client has led, and how his autobiography would be an "event." Mr. Clinton's detractors were less sanguine. Some were amused that the former President had beaten former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton ($8 million) in the contract sweepstakes, while others predicted that Mr. Clinton's famous estrangement from the truth was likely to compromise the value of his memoirs.

Dean Acheson once explained his reluctance to publish an account of his years as secretary of state because "detachment and objectivity would become suspect [and] the element of self-justification could not be excluded." How quaint such reservations -- expressed just 30 years ago -- sound today! In any event, Acheson overcame his scruples, and his memoir won the Pulitzer Prize.

But Acheson was not just a great statesman, but a good writer as well, with a waspish temperament and sense of irony. Bill Clinton may be many things, but writer isn't one of them; and like most politicians, his literary tone and sense of irony are not his strong suits. I would hazard a guess that any reader of his autobiography will find that "detachment and objectivity would become suspect [and] the element of self-justification could not be excluded." Mr. Clinton is better known for his temper than his temperament, and he has reportedly been itching to settle scores for some time.

Accordingly, while Knopf will print many thousands of copies to recover its investment, it is doubtful that the prestige (?) attached to such a project will be worth the great expense. Look for Bill Clinton's autobiography on the remaindered tables pretty quickly. Rough justice, perhaps, for Sonny Mehta and Knopf, but unfortunate for those authors -- scholars, for the most part -- whose works are not printed to cover the cost of promoting Bill Clinton.

Will publishers never learn? Of all the presidential autobiographies produced in the 20th Century, there is only one with anything approaching literary merit (Theodore Roosevelt) and none with any historical significance. Calvin Coolidge's memoir is terse and compelling, at times, but guarded in tone and devoid of politics. The presidential autobiographies of Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan no doubt rest on the shelves of their admirers, collecting dust, but that is largely where they belong. Turgid in detail and long on what Dean Acheson called "self-justification," they are largely the products of research committees, and writing and editing teams.

Occasionally they capture the flavor of their subjects -- Ronald Reagan tells amusing anecdotes, and Jimmy Carter can't resist sermonettes -- but too often the taste is diluted, and the text is submerged in official pronouncements.

Editors, take note. It is worth mentioning that when presidents have broached different topics, they have written books worth reading. Ike's account of World War II (Crusade in Europe) is one of the great military memoirs, and Herbert Hoover's books on fishing (Fishing for Fun) and coordinating humanitarian efforts in Europe (An American Epic) are a pleasant surprise. Perhaps Bill Clinton should follow their example. You can easily imagine what he will say about Northern Ireland, impeachment, welfare reform, Vince Foster, Bob Dole, Ron Brown, Newt Gingrich, and putting a hundred thousand cops on the street. But suppose he wrote a book about growing up in Hot Springs, or golf, or how to pick up -- oh, forget it.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


Philip Terzian Archives

© 2001, The Providence Journal