Releasing an autobiography has become almost a prerequisite for a former, president. Why shouldn’t they tell their side of the story—it is the easiest forum for them to make their opinions clear and unadulterated with invasive mass media flourishes, right? But are all these autobiographies really giving the American public worthwhile accounts of history, or are they simply the efforts of public figures trying to win back their deservedly tarnished reputations? Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are the latest former presidents to release their respective memoirs, and while both are intriguing, they also present an example of how political history can be slanted by the artful hand of opinion and selective memory.
Former President Clinton’s autobiography, which was released by the Knopf Publishing Group back in 2004, is probably the longest and most extensive overview of a president’s life ever released by a former chief of state. It begins with his early life in Arkansas and ends with his exit from office in 2001, covering his tenure as governor of Arkansas, his election, his dynamic and collaborative marriage with fellow Yale graduate Hillary Rodham, their belief in making health care universal for American citizens, and of course the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment. Yet for all those scope, the autobiography itself lacks the depth and reasoning that often come with hindsight. It reads like a rousing speech Clinton might give in a graduating address at a university, not a window into Clinton’s extraordinarily charismatic and troubled personality and political career. The book is, effectively, a source that historians will have to read with caution, not with the fervor of finding unbiased inside information.
While I have not read former President George W. Bush’s autobiography in its entirety, excerpts of it have been published in various newspapers, magazines, and websites. These excerpts, by Bush, espouse the notion that while many of the decisions he made may have been perceived as wrong in hindsight, he still holds true to his initial conviction that what he was doing in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. was for the good of the entire world, not just the consumers of Middle Eastern oil. His book is probably just a reflection of his own personality, not an account that the American public needs to look over to get a better understanding of the political landscape during the Bush administration.
Whatever the political beliefs of an individual might be, that individual will be better served by reading an astute political journalism and analysis, not the self-centered musings of former leaders still desperate to have their reputations restored or maintained.