Published January 14, 2015
As President Clinton (search) rushes to finish his memoirs, he faces the more pressing task of writing a book deemed worthy of all the attention, an accomplishment no president has pulled off since Ulysses S. Grant (search).
Some leading historians have ideas on how Clinton could do it.
"He's an intelligent fellow and if he writes as well as he talks, he could make an interesting contribution to history," says Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., author of Pulitzer Prize (search) winning books on the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Andrew Jackson.
"I'd like to see him do two things," says David Herbert Donald, author of several acclaimed books on Abraham Lincoln. "First of all, I'd like to see him write a personal story on how he grew up and how he became who he was. Second, I'd like to see him write about how he shaped the politics of the White House, how a man of such great accomplishments also hurt himself by his foolishness."
Booksellers expect huge sales for Clinton's book, "My Life," for which he received a reported $10 million to $12 million and which has a first printing of 1.5 million copies. But historians hope he will offer more than platitudes about his public life or a token reference to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky (search). The book is due out in late June.
Countless memoirs have been dulled by the impersonal touch of a ghostwriter and by a president's unwillingness to tell all he knows. Ronald Reagan, for example, had little to say about the Iran-Contra (search) scandal and devoted a single paragraph to his first marriage, to actress Jane Wyman. Even Grant, whose memoirs were edited by Mark Twain (search), did not mention his famous drinking problem and wrote virtually nothing about his marriage or his presidency.
Historians have hopes for the literary quality of "My Life." Clinton is among the most well-read of presidents and his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, says he's writing the book himself. His editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, has worked with such leading authors as Toni Morrison and Robert Caro.
"There are only three presidents in the 20th century who really had a deep sense of American history: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton," says Joseph Ellis, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning "Founding Brothers" and an upcoming biography of George Washington.
"So I'm interested in how he brings a truly sophisticated sense of history to his book. I'd like to see him bring that to how he think his judgments affected the direction of both domestic and foreign policy."
But while Knopf president Sonny Mehta has promised a "revealing and remarkable" memoir from Clinton, historians wonder how much Clinton will, or can, reveal. Beyond any embarrassing details about his private life, they note that he still has good reason to keep a lot to himself. His wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search), is considered a likely presidential candidate in 2008 or later and the former president will almost surely avoid any undue controversy.
"Presidents in their memoirs try to be above the fray, but what makes a book interesting is the fray," says Douglas Brinkley, author of an upcoming biography of Gerald Ford and of a current best seller, "Tour of Duty," about Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
"I don't think he's going to handle the Lewinsky affair much at all," says Lincoln author Donald. "I'm not sure he's that introspective.
"What I'd really like is to have a good psychoanalyst work with him and get him to say why a man of such enormous intelligence and charm and possibility would act the way he does with women. ... That would be enormously revealing and helpful in the long run, although not, perhaps, in the short run."
Brinkley said the perfect book for Clinton to emulate isn't by a president, but by a secretary of state, Dean Acheson, who served under Harry Truman. Brinkley notes that Acheson waited nearly 20 years before publishing "Present at the Creation," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970. By then, Acheson had historical perspective, the time to review documents and relief from concerns about damaging the careers of people with whom he worked.
"The problem now is you get these big advances and are expected to have the book out in two years," Brinkley says. "Clinton hasn't had time to look at all the papers and documents or to think about how his administration fits into history. I fear his book will be aimed more for Vanity Fair than for the historical community."