President George W. Bush may hope his memoir will help shape his legacy, but after the glow of being on Oprah and the media blitz wears off, few Americans who buy “Decision Points” are likely to read it, experts say.
“Most people do not read presidential memoirs because they get bored,” said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “People just like to have the presidential memoir sitting on the coffee table.”
Readers are wary of such memoirs, Gelb said, noting the most honest accounts typically come from journalists or aides, not from the official account. He said that in Bush’s case, four books from Bob Woodward, starting with the favorable “Bush at War” and then growing more critical with each volume over Bush’s eight-year presidency from 2001-2009, had the gossip Americans want.
“Typically, Americans don’t read anything,” Gelb said. “If there is good gossip in it, they will read it but otherwise they don’t read at all.”
Bush’s “Decision Points,” hit bookstores on Tuesday — published by Crown Books, a subsidiary of the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann — amid a flurry of publicity.
The former president had a prime-time, hour-long interview on NBC on Monday and appeared on Oprah Winfrey‘s popular talk show on Tuesday at the start of a major publicity campaign.
In the book, Bush says he considered ordering a U.S. military strike against a suspected Syrian nuclear facility at Israel’s request in 2007 but ultimately opted against it.
He strongly defends using waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning condemned by some as torture, as key to preventing a repeat of the September 11 attacks on the United States. And he says criticism from some, including rapper Kanye West, that his handling of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina suggesting he was racist was “an all-time low.”
History Professor Thomas Schwartz of Vanderbilt University said the publication’s timing benefits from coming after President Barack Obama‘s Democrats bruising loss in midterm elections.
“Bush may have been given a less high-profile publicity tour if things had not gone so badly in the midterms for Democrats,” Schwartz said, noting that Republicans being on the ascendancy has added to interest in Bush’s memoirs.
Since World War Two, American presidents have typically issued their memoirs within two or three years of leaving office — an interval when interest remains high and when publishers feel they have the best shot at strong sales.
But such memoirs are “Typically panned by the critics,” Schwartz said, saying they are often dull and defensive and lack spark since ex-presidents want to remain politically active and so avoid using memoirs to settle scores.
The New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote Bush’s memoir, “lacks the emotional precision and evocative power of his wife Laura’s book, ‘Spoken From the Heart.’
“Certainly it’s the most casual of presidential memoirs: how many works in the genre start as a sort of evangelical, 12-step confession (“Could I continue to grow closer to the Almighty or was alcohol becoming my god?”), include some off-color jokes and conclude with an aside about dog poop?”
Schwartz noted that Americans have grown to expect sanitized versions of events aimed at shaping a legacy.
He noted that both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon left countless hours of audio tapes that exposed their real behavior and actions whereas their memoirs cleaned matters up.
Robert Weil, executive editor at publisher W.W. Norton, said publishers will pay millions of dollars to former presidents, knowing that even if the resultant books are not profitable, they bring prestige to the imprint.
“Not all presidential memoirs turn a profit,” Weil said. “Often their wives do better — a greater percentage of readers are women.”
Copyright © 2010 Reuters
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