High Crimes Against the Memoir Form?!

Ryan Grim’s searing essay in The Huffington Post about George W. Bush’s new memoir deserves our attention. Grim claims that many of the passages of Bush’s Decision Points are taken word-for-word from accounts of other writers. Read his review here.

In it Grim describes high crimes and misdemeanors in the Bush memoir. He found lots of passages that were taken straight from other people’s accounts.  In a few, the “high crimes” cases, the former president tells stories about events he did not attend!

What kind of standard should publishers demand from political figures who tell their stories? How do any of us know how to separate our own thoughts and memories from the thousands of words and images we see every day?

Or is memoir a particularly perilous form for a man who, in the famous phrase of Ann Richards’, was born “with a silver spoon foot in his mouth”?

What are your thoughts? Do you read political memoir? Does it matter to you if the writing comes from the author’s own voice or not? What constitutes a high crime against the form in your book?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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4 Responses to High Crimes Against the Memoir Form?!

  1. Kathleen says:

    I’ve been pondering this ever since I saw the HuffPost story and am glad to see you’ve picked up the thread. Yes, I read political memoir for my own enjoyment and to discuss with a couple of friends who are Political Scientists. I consider it a high crime to copy anyone’s words without attribution. Stealing is stealing, whether memoir, blog post, academic paper, video, music, … For me, such a lapse in judgment says more about the person than anything they communicate.

    As for my thoughts on voice in political autobiography, there are times when it is best done by a ghost writer. Being a political leader or just plain old politician does not qualify anyone as a writer. Having done research at the Mike Mansfield (former Montana Senator) library this summer, I will say that it is interesting to “hear” his voice in his jottings in the margins of meetings notes. But, these jottings do not make a book writer.

    You ask many more questions worthy of reflection by readers and writers. Here is one from above that continues to echo in my own mind, “How do any of us know how to separate our own thoughts and memories from the thousands of words and images we see every day?”

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Kathleen, for sharing these wise reflections. I’d love to know more about your experience at the Mike Mansfield library. How fascinating. I love seeing the notes people make on papers and in books–especially if they are people I admire. I also read with a pen in my hand and sometimes hold a conversation with an author in the margins.

    As a reader, I agree that ghost writing is better than cumbersome, rambling prose. But then why not substitute biography for autobiography? That way, we know that we have Boswell and not Samuel Johnson.

    What about the subject of the memoir? If one allows one’s persona to be constructed completely by others, isn’t it dangerous? From campaign bios to speech writers to ghost-written memoir, the stories will be shaped for political aims rather than for honest wrestling with the central themes of one’s life. This could result, and in George W. Bush’s case has (in my opinion) resulted in a cardboard character.

    One reason I was so excited about Barack Obama’s candidacy was that he did his own wrestling with his own story before he ran for president. I wrote about the difference between a candidate who writes his own memoir and the one who has his ghost written
    here:http://100memoirs.com/2008/08/22/dreams-from-my-father/

  3. Shirley,

    Great thread. I think a politician can only write, at best, autobiography. It is a travesty to call Bush’s book a memoir, because memoirs are reflective and honest. He must claim his is, but I didn’t believe him as a politician, so how am I going to get the truth now? I’m not entirely partisan here, because I think it will be hard for Obama in the future. Political memoirs explain and justify rather than soul search. But since Obama’s intelligent and fundamentally honest, I believe, he has a better chance to be truthful than the man who squandered this nation’s blood and treasure.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Hi, Richard. I so agree with you. Have you read Ulysses S. Grant’s autobiography? It’s supposed to be a model of honesty and clarity. I haven’t tackled that one. Probably the 19th century memoir was less “spun” than our centemporary ones. Of course, Parson Weems started all the lies with his story of George Washington and the cherry tree.

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