There's a proud White House tradition of cashing in er, signing lucrative book deals on the way out the door. That includes not only Presidents but also first ladies, secretaries of state, speechwriters and so on, all the way down to the White House chefs. But the common wisdom in Manhattan publishing circles was that George W. Bush would have to cool his heels for a while before he penned his memoir. The thinking: Bush's low approval ratings might render any presidential tell-all a toxic asset for his publisher.
But Thursday, Crown, an imprint of Random House, announced that the former President has signed on to write a book, to be published in fall 2010, tentatively titled Decision Points. According to the publishing house, "the book will not be a conventional memoir, but instead will focus exclusively on approximate a dozen of the most interesting and important decisions in the former President's personal and political life" including his decision to quit drinking, his reaction to 9/11, his response to Hurricane Katrina; and how he found faith. (See photos of Crawford, Texas, 2009.)
Bush will have a writing companion in his wife, Laura, who in January signed a multimillion-dollar contract to write her own memoir. But they'll have to pedal hard to catch up with the literary achievements of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Thursday also brought news of Barack Obama's 2008 book earnings with the same publisher, Crown. The President picked up $2.5 million in royalties last year for his memoir Dreams from My Father (139 weeks and counting on the New York Times paperback nonfiction list) and The Audacity of Hope (64 weeks on the same list). Add that to Obama's 2007 haul of $4 million for the same two books. Obama already has a contract to write a third nonfiction book for Crown when he leaves office. Crown also announced Thursday that Dreams from My Father would be adapted in an edition for middle-schoolers, in a licensing agreement worth $500,000.
Unlike Obama, Bush never had a reputation for being bookish. But Robert Barnett, the Washington superlawyer who represented Bush in the deal (he also represents Obama in his publishing ventures) describes 43 as an in-demand, dedicated author. "There were multiple publishers who expressed strong interest in the book," he told TIME. "The President started working on the book two days after he left office. He has worked on it virtually every day, and has already written 30,000 words."
As for Bush's chosen theme, Michael Coffey, the executive managing editor of Publishers Weekly, says it reminds him of a book penned by another President who was trying to salvage his reputation: Richard Nixon's 1962 bestseller, Six Crises, in which he tried to set the record straight about such uncomfortable topics as the Checkers speech and his role in the Alger Hiss case. "The fact that Bush is apparently structuring his memoir around a number of key decisions that he made, to me strikes a similar chord with Nixon's approach," Coffey says. "I don't imagine that Bush is pondering some kind of comeback in the political sphere, but I think he certainly wants to acquit himself of some of the interpretations that are out there about his leadership."
Though they share the same publisher, Bush and Obama won't be vying for the attention of the same editor. Bush will be edited by Sean Desmond, who has had edited such conservative authors as Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter. Obama's editor is Crown's Rachel Klayman, who has shepherded bestselling books by authors such as John Robison and Cathy Black. The folks at Crown are confident their publishing house is big enough to accomodate all views from the White House. "Crown really prides itself on publishing a diversity of viewpoints," says a Crown spokesman. "So we think that President Obama and President Bush can reside very well as part of our publishing program." No word yet about whether the two Presidential scribes will be using different elevator banks.