The best and worst autobiographies by US presidents

D Dipasupil/Getty ImagesFormer US President Jimmy Carter signs copies of his book ‘A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety’ in New York City on July 7, 2015.
  • Former presidents often turn to writing to explain the important decisions they made and actions they took while in office.
  • Some autobiographies offer riveting first-person accounts of presidents’ journeys to the White House, challenges they faced in office, and plans they have post-presidency.
  • Others are selective about what they include or are simply boring reads.
  • Here are the five worst and five best autobiographies written by presidents.

At the time of this writing, there are 44 former presidents of the United States of America. The roads that led each man to the White House – from military service to state-level politics to real estate investing and reality-TV show hosting – vary, as do the lives lived by these heads of state after their years in office.

But many former presidents have a common thread in their post-POTUS years: They write, often about themselves.

Some former American presidents used memoirs to explain decisions they made and actions they took while in office, as Richard Nixon did with his 1990 memoir, “In the Arena.” Others write personal books that reveal more about themselves and their lives in the pre- and or post-presidential years – Jimmy Carter has penned several such works.

Some presidential autobiographies turn into runaway hits, topping bestseller lists and making millions of dollars for their esteemed authors. Others fade into obscurity.

Here we highlight a few of the notable hits and misses from this decidedly elite club of memoirists:

Best: “Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant” by Ulysses S. Grant

AmazonFormer President Ulysses Grant’s offers an account of his time serving during the Civil War.

President Grant’s memoirs are focused primarily on his time serving as an officer during the Civil War and in the Mexican-American War that preceded it.

Literary critics including Gertrude Stein and Edmund Wilson had high praise for Grant’s “Personal Memoirs,” while Mark Twain, who helped edit and publish the book, called it “the best [memoirs] of any general’s since Caesar.”

Biographer William S. McFeely once wrote of the book that “no other American president has told his story as powerfully as Ulysses Grant did in his ‘Personal Memoirs,'” which was completed shortly before Grant died from cancer in 1885.

Best: “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama

Penguin Random HouseObama’s autobiography promises change and progress.

In an upending of the standard order, this bestselling political memoir helped lead to the Oval Office rather than a stint in the White House paving the way for a successful memoir.

Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” established the then-Senator as a star of the Democratic party and greatly elevated his public profile shortly before the campaign season that would lead to a 2008 electoral victory.

Obama’s book was such a hit thanks to its upbeat messaging of hope and progress, and also the competence of his prose. His writing was often “eloquent and moving,” in the words of a critic from The Guardian.

Best: “Mandate for Change,” by Dwight Eisenhower

Doubleday PublishingThe book is one of multiple installments.

One of multiple installments of Eisenhower’s memoirs, “Mandate for Change” covers his first term in office.

The book is personal, thoughtful, and almost novel-like in its narrative style. It is frequently credited with changing the way presidents wrote about their lives for the public.

Best: “The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson” by Thomas Jefferson

Amazon‘The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson’ is still popular two centuries later.

Jefferson was the first great Writer in Chief. In fact, it was his skill with a pen that established his place in American politics, with a young and previously obscure Jefferson serving as lead author of the Declaration of Independence.

The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson” includes an autobiography written by the third president as well as dozens of his letters and selected official documents.

Reading the book gives you plenty of insight into the man, and even more of a look at the times in which he lived, and today, two centuries after its writing, the book remains popular. The community has awarded it an average 4.15-star rating and many reviews posted even in 2018 are glowing.

Best: “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety” by Jimmy Carter

AmazonAt 90 years old, Cater reflects on his presidency and life before and after taking office.

Jimmy Carter is a rarity among former presidents in that many of the notable achievements of his life came outside of the four during which he occupied the White House, such as a 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

In his New York Times bestseller “A Full Life,” Carter spends time reflecting on his presidency, but he dedicates more pages to his youth and life before taking office in 1977, and to the decades that have since elapsed.

Worst: “A Time to Heal” by Gerald Ford

The Easton Press‘A Time to Heal’ is currently ranked #2,445,519 on Amazon’s bestsellers list.

Ford’s accidental presidency started under the cloud of a corruption scandal and ended with a loss at the polls. During his truncated term, he achieved little of lasting note and was much maligned for pardoning his predecessor, Richard Nixon.

Echoing the justification Ford gave for pardoning Nixon’s obstruction of justice charges, his memoir was titled “A Time to Heal.”

Critic Nicholas von Hoffman called the work a “besottedly dull volume” in the New York Review of Books. It’s currently at the modest rank of #2,445,519 in Amazon’s bestsellers books ranking.

Worst: “The Memoirs of Richard Nixon” by Richard Nixon

AmazonNixon wrote his autobiography shortly after becoming the first president to resign from office.

Nixon’s memoir was published relatively after he became the first president to resign.

While reviewer Gaddis Smith felt that Nixon “writes more clearly” than many of presidential memoirists that immediately preceded him (though she admits that’s no great feat), writer John Kenneth Galbraith felt the president was trying to rewrite history in a manner implying “that Mr. Nixon never did anything wrong unless someone else had done something like it first.”

Worst: “An American Life” by Ronald Reagan

AmazonSome critics have called this 700-page book ‘fact-free.’

Much of Reagan’s “An American Life” consists of lengthy reproductions of letters, speeches, or memos that should have been edited down heavily or even merely referred to, not reproduced.

The 700-odd pages Reagan writes are plagued by “omission” and “selective facts,” in the words of New York Times critic Maureen Dowd. A Daily Beast write up went even farther, calling the book “fact-free.”

Worst: “The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Great Depression” by Herbert Hoover

AmazonIn ‘The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Great Depression,’ Hoover attempts to defend his actions as president during the Great Depression.

If it were ever to be republished, I’d suggest renaming “The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Great Depression” something like: “Totally Not My Fault, Guys.”

Hoover spends much of this book trying to extricate his legacy from the Depression era.He writes, for example, that the Great Depression “first appeared in late 1929, eight months after my inauguration, and continued in the United States not only during my term but for eight years more, until the start of the Second World War in 1941.”

Or, in other words, “I didn’t start it, and the guy after me couldn’t fix it!” (Also, WWII didn’t start in 1941, Mr. Hoover.)

Worst: “The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren” by Martin Van Buren

Amazon‘The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren’ better serves as a historical artifact than a riveting look into the life of former President Buren.

If you’re in the mood for more than 800 pages of minute, painstaking details about the most boring aspects of the eighth president’s life, then by all means read this book. It’s also a good choice if you can’t sleep.

A 1921 review that appeared in The American Historical Review said Van Buren’s writing “leaves something to be desired.” Few other reviews are out there, because this dull book has all but faded away into the past.

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