Presidential Ex Libris

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There is a fantastically tricky (and admittedly nerdy) board game called Ex Libris that I used to play with the other English teachers at Winchester College. The title is a Latin phrase meaning, roughly, “out of book.” And the object was to concoct a first line — based on a given title, author and plot summary — that other players would vote for as the true one after all the fake ones and the real one were read aloud.

Being well read was rewarded, of course. (It tends to be easier to select the correct one if you already know what it is). But the game was really about the art of the opening line. Is this the type of author who will set a scene or charge off with a cliffhanger? Present a wandering, philosophical nugget about the existential meaning of things or keep the introduction elegantly terse?

After starting to read George W. Bush’s new memoir, Decision Points, and seeing what a humdinger of a line he led with, I went to other presidential memoirs to see how they introduced people to their lives. Below are 10 openers from various Leaders of the Free World, Bush included. See how well you fare in Presidential Ex Libris, choosing the right line for the right man in a game where a good grasp of history and character is your best weapon. (Answers to follow below.)

A. The this-job-ain’t-for-sissies opener:  I had not been to bed since early Sunday morning, and I was discouraged and almost exhausted. Many agonizing hours without sleep had effectively removed any bright visions of the future or vivid memories of the past. I could think only of the current challenge.

B. The quadruple Dutch start-off: My grandfather on my father’s side was of almost purely Dutch blood. When he was young he still spoke some Dutch, and Dutch was last used in the services of the Dutch Reformed Church in New York while he was a small boy.

C. The Dickensian detail-overloader: Early on the morning of August 19, 1946, I was born under a clear sky after a violent summer storm to a widowed mother in the Julia Chester Hospital in Hope, a town of about six thousand in southwest Arkansas, thirty-three miles east of the Texas border at Texarkana.

D. The oh-isn’t-life-funny chin-scratcher: If I’d gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward, I suppose I would never have left Illinois. I’ve often wondered at how lives are shaped by what seem like small and inconsequential events, how an apparently random turn in the road can lead you a long way from where you intended to go – and a long way from wherever you expected to go.

E. The ancestral primer: My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.

F. The let’s-get-it-out-in-the-open gambler: It was a simple question. “Can you remember the last day you didn’t have a drink?”

G. The rustic scene-setter: My first memory is that of chasing a frog around the back yard in Cass County, Missouri. Grandmother Young watched the performance and thought it very funny that a two-year-old could slap his knees and laugh so loudly at a jumping frog.

H. The simple but loaded Hemingway jab: I was born in a house my father built.

I. The I’ve-always-loved-this-country bomb-dropper: When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior at Phillips Academy, Andover. I could hardly wait to get out of school and enlist.

J. The clearly-this-didn’t-happen-in-the-last-100-years giveaway: That the Constitution does not confer upon Congress power to interfere with slavery in the States, has been admitted by all parties and confirmed by all judicial decisions ever since the origin of the Federal Government.

And now for the answers:

A. I had not been to bed since early Sunday morning, and I was discouraged and almost exhausted. Many agonizing hours without sleep had effectively removed any bright visions of the future or vivid memories of the past. I could think only of the current challenge.

This line comes from Jimmy Carter’s Keeping Faith, as he describes the final days of his presidency. The emphasis on his personal feelings, the compromise between self-pity and determination, get nicely at – as Joe Klein put it in his latest column about Bush’s book – the egomania at the heart of a presidential memoir.

B. My grandfather on my father’s side was of almost purely Dutch blood. When he was young he still spoke some Dutch, and Dutch was last used in the services of the Dutch Reformed Church in New York while he was a small boy.

Theodore Roosevelt went for the American melting-pot opening in 1913. This book didn’t really hold a candle to The Rough Riders, his earlier bestseller weaving tales of the Spanish-American War, as taken from his diary. But when the only blood you’re discussing is genealogy-related, it’s hardly a surprise that a work can’t live up to wartime drama.

C. Early on the morning of August 19, 1946, I was born under a clear sky after a violent summer storm to a widowed mother in the Julia Chester Hospital in Hope, a town of about six thousand in southwest Arkansas, thirty-three miles east of the Texas border at Texarkana.

Yes, this one was an absolute giveaway — William Jefferson Clinton being synonymous with Arkansas — but the style and substance were too singular to pass up. His overwhelming opener, complete with 10 prepositions, would be sliced up in any English class. And the substance is eerily similar to the lyrics of CCR’s “Cotton Fields,” a fine song to play along any Clinton montage.

D. If I’d gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward, I suppose I would never have left Illinois. I’ve often wondered at how lives are shaped by what seem like small and inconsequential events, how an apparently random turn in the road can lead you a long way from where you intended to go – and a long way from wherever you expected to go.

If you know much about presidential roots, the Illinois clue might have been a tip off that this is from Ronald Reagan’s An American Life – assuming you avoided the tempting Lincoln-Illinois connection. Presidents, more than other autobiographers, get away with platitudes and clichés. Turns in the road, the Butterfly Effect, paths diverging and/or crossing in a wood– all good tricks for crafting the fake presidential opener should the need arise.

E. My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.

This straight-shooter comes from Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir, generally considered the first notable presidential self-history. He worked with Mark Twain, who made a pretty penny in the venture, to get it published. It’s telling that this early work centers less on the presidency itself, in days when politicians were less like red-carpet celebrities, and focused instead on the Civil War.

F. It was a simple question. “Can you remember the last day you didn’t have a drink?”

If you didn’t guess W. on this one, you probably shouldn’t be playing. The move of opening with a deeply personal interaction with his wife, Laura, is a brilliant one. By diving into the discussion of a notorious fault, that leaves the reader less hungry for apologies and self-recognition later on — about crises with more far-reaching implications.

G. My first memory is that of chasing a frog around the back yard in Cass County, Missouri. Grandmother Young watched the performance and thought it very funny that a two-year-old could slap his knees and laugh so loudly at a jumping frog.

This one comes from Harry Truman, the last president to be elected without a college degree – and a man who derived strength from simplicity. The locale certainly should have been a hint. And perhaps there’s some subliminal connection to fellow Missourian Mark Twain, whose early success came from a story entitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County.”

H. I was born in a house my father built.

Richard Nixon. Bold. Unapologetic. Possibly the best opening line of all presidential memoirs. As with Bush’s book, the oval office autobiographies that people really want to read are often from those leaders who, the American people feel, having some explaining to do — which makes them potentially explosive, damaging and successful as attempts to direct the flow of historical interpretation.

I. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior at Phillips Academy, Andover. I could hardly wait to get out of school and enlist.

George H. W. Bush was all about the memoirs. His book Looking Forward — though not the source of this quote — was the first to be published by a Vice President who was still in office. He also published his letters, from which this is taken, as well as revisited the great crises of his administration, from Gorbachev to the Gulf War.

J. That the Constitution does not confer upon Congress power to interfere with slavery in the States, has been admitted by all parties and confirmed by all judicial decisions ever since the origin of Federal Government.

This was the tough one, to separate the 9/10-ers from the all-stars. This is the opening line of Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion, from, of course, President James Buchanan. His memoir, like Grant’s, is focused on the Civil War, but this covers those days at the end of his presidency leading up to the crisis before Lincoln took the reins.

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