Already in distinctive company as an American president, George W. Bush seeks to join an even more select group: president and top-selling author.
Since the New York Times began its weekly lists of best-sellers in 1942, only six of the 13 men who have served as the nation’s chief executive have placed books at the top spot for nonfiction, none while president.
Two of them, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Barack Obama, did it before they were in the Oval Office. Two others, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, did it after they had returned to private life. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan also reached the height of the best-seller list, albeit posthumously.
Not that the other chief executives didn’t try. Richard M. Nixon wrote 12 books, nearly all of them after he resigned as president. Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush also turned author but never enjoyed the satisfaction that comes with a top seller.
George W. Bush’s book, “Decision Points,” is set for release this fall by Crown Publishers. It’s not an autobiography, Mr. Bush said, but an analysis of key moments in his life, from quitting drinking to invading Iraq.
Presidential memoirs bring prestige to their publishers and can draw healthy sales. Yet they are not known for their stylistic prose or for being particularly introspective. Self-serving to a fault, they tend to play down their authors’ flaws and failings.
“Memoirs are a running start on legacy spinning,” said Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University professor of history and author of the best-seller “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.”
Rather than providing unique insights, memoirs can seem more aimed at protecting a reputation and bolstering fundraising for the presidential library, Mr. Brinkley said. “When you start having memoir ginned out by committee,” he said, “it loses its intimacy and authenticity.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt was president when the Times debuted its best-seller list. He and Kennedy died in office, turns of fate that robbed them of opportunities to look back at their lives and administrations.
Kennedy, though, already had won readers and a Pulitzer Prize for “Profiles in Courage,” a 1956 collection of biographical sketches about politicians who took principled if unpopular stands. The book was a best-seller, and its paperback version had sold more than 2.8 million copies before Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963. Yet the book didn’t lead all others until a month after his assassination. A commemorative edition was No. 1 for 12 weeks.
Four years before he was elected in 1952, Eisenhower wrote a critically acclaimed wartime memoir, “Crusade in Europe.” The book brought financial security to the career soldier. He sold all rights for $635,000, more than $6 million in today’s value, to take advantage of a loophole to pay taxes at a 25 percent rate instead of 75 percent. The book was No. 1 for 11 weeks and eventually sold more than 1 million copies.
Upon publication in 1990 of his ghostwritten memoir, “An American Life,” Reagan joked, “One of these days I’m going to read it myself.” It rose only as far as No. 5. “The Reagan Diaries,” edited by Mr. Brinkley, led the list for two weeks in 2007, three years after the former president’s death.
Mr. Carter wrote a wide-ranging biography and later published a detailed account of his childhood, “An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood.” It was atop the best-seller list for five weeks in 2001 and one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography.
A 2005 book by Mr. Carter, “Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis,” was the best of sellers for four weeks.
The story of a poor Arkansas boy who grew up to be president - one dogged by titillating sex scandals - trumped a meditation on the joys of doing for others.