Two days before Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, Art Buchwald used his “Capitol Punishment” column to offer some advice to the incoming administration. “The first thing to do when you get to Washington,” Buchwald wrote, “is find a literary agent. The second thing is to buy a four-year diary and fill it every day with vignettes about the mistakes made by the people you work with in the administration. It is never too early to start writing your book.”
I can’t think of a better gloss on Jimmy Carter’s literary career — a career that now extends to White House Diary, his 26th book, which I review in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle. The book’s other reviews, as political book reviews so often do, focus on checking Carter against the historical record and drumming up his juicy details. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, except that it doesn’t really work with White House Diary because the book includes so little that’s new. The two stories whirling around the political news cycle — Carter’s belief that the Iran hostages cost him the 1980 election and that Edward Kennedy sabotaged his health care proposal — both appeared 28 years ago in Carter’s Keeping Faith, albeit in slightly milder form. That’s why, in my review, I tried to talk about White House Diary as a diary — as a specific kind of book that readers approach with specific expectations and specific standards. From this perspective, White House Diary is an almost total failure. I never thought I’d have a reason to recommend Keeping Faith (still in print, by the way, as is Carter’s much better Why Not the Best?). But I submit that it’s a more coherent and less manipulative picture of Carter’s presidency.
I do want to expand on two statements in my review. First, I talk about the the growing genre of presidential diaries. While Reagan and Carter were the only twentieth-century presidents to keep consistent diaries, just about all of them dabbled in it. (Many of them also saw their diaries subpoenaed, which explains why recent presidents have kept quiet about their diaries or opted for an alternative — Bill Clinton’s conversations with Taylor Branch, for example.) Truman kept a sporadic diary, as did Eisenhower. Nixon kept a daily diary for 20 months and quotes from it about 150 times in RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. For a while, George H. W. Bush kept a diary as vice president, and he tried (and lapsed) again as president. (Bush was more faithful as a young man in China.) There’s also the related genre of “presidential daily diaries,” the official, obscenely detailed logs of a president’s activity. Carter’s daily diaries often start with this: “5:00: The President received a wake up call from the White House signal board operator.” These documents include entries for the briefest of meetings, every single photo op, even one-minute phone calls. You can browse Carter’s here, along with Gerald Ford’s, Lyndon Johnson’s, and many more presidents on their libraries’ websites. (I won’t get into the pre-Truman diaries, but here’s one fun example: the Massachusetts Historical Society updates a Twitter account with entries from John Quincy Adams’s diaries.)
The second thing I want to touch on is my comparison of Reagan’s and Carter’s diaries. None of the afore-linked reviews make this connection, but I hope my review shows how important it is. (It’s also important to compare a president’s diary with his memoirs. In 2004, plenty of The Reagan Diaries‘ reviewers chuckled at its spelling; as Reagan explains in An American Life, though, he developed a loose and unorthodox system while delivering multiple daily speeches for General Electric. “Of course, this hasn’t done much for my spelling,” in Reagan’s example, becomes “cours ths hsnt don much my splng.”) Reagan’s diary was a huge best-seller in 2004, and I think this comparison suggests one reason Carter resurrected his diary. But the Carter reviewers’ omission of Reagan as a counter-example illustrates something else: how, despite all the noise about their value as history — and this noise normally tops out right after a leak of the president’s megamillion dollar advance — how shockingly disposable these books can be.