This weekend, I’ve got a couple of new essays related to my presidents-and-their-books project coming out. With them finished, I’ve been catching up on some reading, and I can now highly recommend Political Memoir: Essays on the Politics of Memory (1994), a collection of essays edited by George Egerton.
The book originated at an academic conference, and its contents range from India to Canada, from military lifers to American presidents. The best chapter tells the story behind Harry Truman’s memoirs—in fact, it’s written by Francis Heller, who served as Truman’s last (and best) hope in that book’s long succession of ghostwriters. (You can read most of Heller’s essay, which is breezy and accessible, here.)
But I was also captivated by another essay in the collection: Stephen Ambrose’s “Nixon and His Memoirs.” Ambrose starts by suggesting that Nixon, as an author, “believed that the past should serve the needs of the present.” Next, he explains Nixon’s motivations: “the contempt he feels towards those who report on his activities and actions, and the contempt he feels for the public at large.” Finally, in my favorite sentence, Ambrose observes that “[Nixon] continues to produce books and articles at a pace professional writers cannot equal.”
It’s hard to argue with any of this, but the best context for enjoying these quotations is Ambrose’s own authorial career. After all, by 1994, he was already implementing his Fordist approach to writing history—though we would need to wait a few years for the plagiarism scandals that he (and Doris Kearns Goodwin) somehow managed to shrug off. Still, I’d say we can describe Ambrose’s reaction to the scandal as downright Nixonian: a selective tweaking of the facts; a stiff arm to the press; and, through it all, a pace that most professional historians could not equal.
I realize that I never linked to Richard Rayner’s incredible exposé of Ambrose’s lies about his relationship to Dwight Eisenhower, which ran in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Rayner debunks both Ambrose’s origin story (that Eisenhower called on him to write his biography) and his account of the “hundreds and hundreds of hours” they spent together. Seven of the nine interviews cited in the footnotes to Ambrose’s The Supreme Commander (1970), for example, simply could not have happened. Is it any wonder that, in contrast to, say, Heller’s essay in Political Memoir, which is scrupulously sourced, Ambrose’s includes only two footnotes—each to the first occurrence of a Nixon book?