The Mother of All Presidential Memoirs

(And We Don’t Necessarily Mean Clinton’s)

By Dennis King (2004)

Is Bill Clinton’s My Life one of the great Presidential memoirs? The debate has already begun, but most columnists have restricted themselves to comparing Clinton with Ulysses S. Grant.

The comparison is not a good one. Grant’s book, one of our nation’s major literary classics, is a military rather than Presidential memoir and does not include much in the way of real autobiography. There is, however, another book with which Clinton’s is fully comparable: Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (1913), which was recently republished by the Library of America.

Like Clinton, TR was a larger than life figure--the type of leader you either love or hate. Like Clinton, he was a man of extraordinary intellect who also had a dark side and a talent for sabotaging himself. Like Clinton, he loved to talk…and talk. And like Clinton, he wrote a rambling, eccentric, all-over-the-map account of his life from early childhood on. His autobiography is not widely read today, but it is a magnificent achievement--and, in my opinion, the gold standard for Presidential memoirs.

TR’s book repeats in a condensed version much of the material from his earlier best-selling accounts of his days as a cattleman and with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. But he also provides a wealth of new themes--for instance a detailed analysis of bossism in urban politics and an explanation of the role of sexual blackmail in controlling members of the New York State Assembly (if only Clinton had read this when he was governor of Arkansas!). As we follow TR’s descriptions of his own political maneuvers both in New York politics and in the White House, we can almost hear him chortling like a schoolboy at the memory of this or that act of cunning (he once gained the support of businessmen for the appointment of a controversial trade union leader to a government commission by describing the appointee as an “eminent sociologist”).

The TR autobiography is full of dinner table-style ruminations on issues of domestic and foreign policy in which one discerns a mind of a very high order constructing the rude outlines of both the New Deal and the post-World War Two national security state. But TR was no Nixon, a President with a laser-like focus on politics. TR’s book is full of delightful asides on North American mammals, English birdsongs, juvenile literary classics, the need for more battleships, and why military sentries should conceal themselves like bushwhackers.

TR’s stance on anti-Semitism will surprise some readers. Although not himself free of social prejudice, his snobbery was trumped politically by his detestation of bullies. When a Berlin pastor came to New York to launch an anti-Semitic crusade while TR was police commissioner, TR assigned a squad of Jewish officers led by a Jewish sergeant to dog his steps under the guise of being his official bodyguards; when the pastor delivered his public harangue, TR surrounded him with a wall of 40 cops, all Jewish. Thus was the pastor sent home in humilation.

The story is both amusing and profound--TR’s tactic foreshadowed a new paradigm for the relations of Jews to a predominantly gentile government. In the Europe of that period, Jewish leaders still had to go hat in hand to Christian authorities to beg protection against would-be pogromists. If protection came, it came grudgingly from hostile police or troops, and the Jews were expected to remain completely passive. But when New York Jewish leaders came to TR for protection, he instinctively grasped that the Jews were not ethnic outsiders to be protected (or not) on a whim, but rather an integral constituency of New York political life, with the same rights and duties as anyone else to participate in the upholding of law and order (he had already recruited Jews to the police force as part of his anti-corruption campaign). He could thus without hesitation send Jewish cops to keep order at an anti-Jewish rally and in doing so send a powerful message of reassurance to the Jewish community and an equally powerful message of another sort to the gathered bigots (but without violating the latter’s freedom of speech).

TR went a step further in his thinking in a subsequent chapter, declaring (in a passage on the foolishness of certain European disarmament proposals): “If the Jews in Russia and the Armenians in Turkey had been armed, and had been efficient in the use of their arms, no mob would have meddled with them.” (There’s a cause for reflection here for U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer and others in New York politics who believe gun control will automatically make America a safer place.)

TR’s autobiography is also outstanding for its vigorous and even lyrical prose, as in his description of the Badlands of his cowboy days: “a land of scattered ranches, of herds of long-horned cattle, and of reckless riders who unmoved looked in the eyes of life or of death.” And he laments: “That land of the West has gone now, ‘gone, gone with lost Atlantis,’ gone to the isle of ghosts and of strange dead memories.”

When a Modern Library panel in 1999 issued a list of the 100 greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century, they included a biography of TR by one of the panelists, but not TR’s own memoirs. Now, with the issuance of Clinton’s book, I suggest that and/or Barnes & Noble offer a package deal: Clinton and TR together for a special price. Let readers judge for themselves just how close Clinton comes to the gold standard.