In recent years, the political memoir has become a steady source of income for publishers and insider gossip for readers. Whether you think politicians are simply “cashing-in” on their time in power, or passing on their wisdom, here’s how the political memoir became a weapon and why.
What used to be the luxury of former prime ministers has since become a legitimate tool for revenge and reinvention. On the day of her resignation as British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher committed to writing her memoir. Three years and £3.5 million later, The Downing Street Years hit the shelves. Tony Blair also published his account as prime minister in 2010, bagging a £4.6 million advance which he donated to the Royal British Legion. More recently, David Cameron chose to write up his time in charge in his well-documented £25,000 shepherd’s hut. His product, For the Record, was reportedly scooped up by HarperCollins for a much smaller £800,000.
Today, this luxury has become a must-have for political candidates, potential candidates and even the odd White House staffer. In November, ex-President Barack Obama released his latest memoir — his first book since leaving the White House. In 2017, he and Mrs Obama had together signed a joint book deal for a record-breaking $65 million, according to the Financial Times. In a Guardian interview promoting his book, President Obama said:
“The job of a writer and the job of a politician overlap. Both are trying to tell a story that connects with folks.” — President Barack Obama, November 2020.
This comment perfectly explains why readers queue up for hours to get their hands on a political release. President-Elect Biden has written two bestsellers (2007 and 2017), whilst Vice-President-Elect Harris published her’s two years ago. Like President Obama, both are exceptional storytellers.
Publishers have benefitted in recent years by an endless stream of dismissed Trump administration officials who wanted to share their experience at the heart of the White House with an audience addicted to this rollercoaster presidency. Anthony Scaramucci, who spent ten (yes, ten!) days as White House Communications Director, amassed enough material to pen a 287-page assessment of the administration. Even Trump’s niece pieced together an insider account which, according to CNBC, sold 1.35 million copies in its first week. And despite President Trump’s time in the White House nearing an end, the big publishers have bet public interest in the man will continue long after he joins the ex-presidents’ club. Penguin Press have signed a deal with New York Times journalist and Trump-expert Maggie Haberman for a release in 2022.
For lesser known and wanna-be politicians, the political memoir is an excellent launch pad. In the United States, dropping a book on the market is now a pretty reliable indicator of some sort of political candidacy and an essential beginning to any successful campaign. In fact, this has become so expected that without a copy at hand, candidates cannot be considered to have built a legitimate brand.
In 2020, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was widely mocked for his audacious attempt to jump from his job as small-town Mayor of South Bend to the Oval Office. But thanks in-part to the release of ‘Shortest Way Home’ in January 2019, Buttigieg is now a household name and Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation. Similarly, failed presidential candidates can release books after an election to maintain momentum between electoral seasons. Bernie Sanders’ book ‘Our Revolution, which was released the week after Donald Trump’s victory, is a good example.
And then of course there’s money. Memoirs are also great money makers for whoever’s name is on the cover. Just think of all the adoring crowds at Trump’s infamous MAGA rallies. He stands before a sea of loyal customers and he knows it. If they’re willing to buy his symbolic red hat, then why not a literary release? He may soon regret having already sold his memoirs free in 56, 571 installments, each limited to 180 characters. Is there anything left he hasn’t shared?
In the 2020 Democratic primaries, Sanders was quizzed on whether his newfound status as a millionaire clashed with his long-standing belief in democratic socialism, thanks to the $1.7 million he has made from writing. But even for the most senior politicians, book royalties are often essential. When President Clinton left office in 2001, he was $16 million in debt from legal fees. Yet his 2004 memoir My Life earned him $15 million and by the end of the year, he was solvent. Today, the 42nd President has an estimated net-worth of $75.9 million.
But why is there such demand for hefty political tomes?
First, I believe voters are so exhausted and disorientated by daily political developments that they want a single coherent and accessible account of the wider trends to understand what the hell is going on. Second, Trump’s Twitter habits have triggered a need to sustain some intimate connection with the corridors of power. He has that special combination of being a complex political personality and simple talker. Of course the tragic terror attack at the Capitol Building this week exposes some portrayals of the 45th POTUS as gimmicky and facetious. But now The Donald has had his Twitter account ripped away, demand for this kind of political literature will surely grow.
Due to the UK’s model of parliamentary democracy, the political memoir has not taken off as a valuable weapon in the way it has across the Atlantic. With British politicians not expected to play the part of a royal family, their readers (and voters) are less interested in their leaders’ backstories, and more focused on the ‘front stories’. Despite this, an increasing number of political figures have gained notoriety for their ‘strong’ and punchy journalistic contributions in the past. Boris Johnson is one.
Furthermore, British politicians tend to have a shorter shelf-life than their American counterparts. In 2018, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown commented that UK leaders get “about six years at the top and that’s about it” and attributed this development to the 24/7 news cycle. Where younger candidates like Buttigieg or Ocasio-Cortez are considered viable for the next two decades, the UK news environment cannot think beyond five years. Basically, voters get bored.
In January 2018, Guardian columnist Sian Cain wrote a fantastic piece titled ‘Why is the cover of Fire and Fury so ugly?’ In it, Cain writes that political autobiographies have simple jackets and are smothered in capitalized text. She also notes that this has long been the market’s standard aesthetic but these apparently ‘boring’ jackets haven’t harmed sales one bit.
Readers are not foolish. On picking up a political memoir, one’s mind immediately searches for ulterior motives. We expect strong opinions, drama and at least five shocking revelations, all situated in a very one-sided account. Anything less can be considered a literary disappointment. Jackets are simple because when picking a copy up from the shelf, the reader knows exactly what to expect. It’s a bit like watching Top Gear/The Grand Tour or a James Bond film. From beginning to end, the whole experience is blatantly formulaic, but we don’t mind. We’re here for a thrill and that’s all that matters.