Audiobooks

Presidential memoirs (and biographies) as audiobooks

recommended by Robin Whitten

When you listen to presidential memoirs as audiobooks, you can hear an American president telling you their own story—at least when it comes to recent presidents. Going further back in time, biographies may be more useful. Veteran audiobook reviewer Robin Whitten, editor of Audiofile magazine, recommends the best audiobooks about US presidents, and explains the crucial role of professional narrators in bringing big books to life.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

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Your recommendations focus on audiobooks where you can hear a president telling their own story, in their own voice. But you’re also going to mention some biographies, just so listeners have a wider selection to choose from, is that right?

Yes, we’re going to talk about presidential memoirs, primarily, today. But I realized that in the audiobook format, the idea of a memoir where you actually hear the subject—or in this case a president, or former president—is a relatively new phenomenon. Recording a living person in an audiobook studio doesn’t go back very far, probably to the 1980s. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan did memoirs, but they were abridgements. They are archival because you hear their voices in the recording, but they are not full-length memoirs.

Perhaps the lucrative incentive of writing a memoir and recording it has encouraged the later American presidents. Earlier presidents seem to have waited to do a lifetime memoir. Now we have people writing memoirs about early parts of their lives, so in the course of a lifetime, there will be multiple memoirs, not just one.

Is it partly that it’s easier to make recordings now? As you said, the earlier ones are all abridged and quite brief, whereas now, Obama’s presidential memoir is 29 hours or so, which is a lot of time in a studio, narrating.

It’s interesting, because there are usually two versions of the memoirs. In the case of Bill Clinton, the memoir that he reads is an abridgment, it’s six hours. But there also is the full-length recording of the entire text, which is close to 30 hours, but that was recorded by a professional narrator. All along, we’ve had that balance of hearing the president himself on a shorter version or abridgment. And then, if you are truly interested in listening to the entire memoir, there usually has been an unabridged version with a professional narrator. And very happily with the Obama memoir, we have the totally unabridged version with President Obama reading it.

Let’s go through the audiobooks you’re recommending today. Why don’t we start with your favourite. Which of these presidential memoirs do you think is the best as an audiobook?

As an audiobook, hands down it’s President Obama’s A Promised Land, which has just come out in the last few months. It’s absolutely stunning as a listening experience, and I think his style of writing and presentation suit the format beautifully. As he’s said in interviews he’s done about the memoir, he wants to speak directly to listeners and in particular to young people. I heard him do a presentation for the high school system of Chicago, where he is talking to the students. In his lovely style he says, ‘kids, you’re not really going to enjoy all of it. But there’s a lot of really important stuff that I put in here for you.’ And I think that’s true. There are really wonderful lessons and thoughtful ideas for young people to take hold of.

As a genre the presidential memoir is going to include detailed stuff on, say, in Obama’s case, the passage of a healthcare reform bill. It’s not going to be edge-of-your-seat listening, I suppose.

You’re going over many years of history, of a person’s life. With the Obama memoir, at AudioFile we interviewed the producer of the audiobook, Dan Zitt, who is an executive producer at Penguin Random House. He said that if you think of memoir as a genre, it begins with the writer trying to recreate their journey in a way that satisfies their own need for reflection. I thought that was such an interesting thing to say about Obama. It is probably one of the reasons that his memoir is so brilliant, his reflective nature about his presidential terms. It also tells you why the George Bush memoir is a totally different kind of journey. Each of them is taking a journey and they’re wanting to tell you a story about that journey.

Which one do you want to talk about next?

Let’s go on to the Bill Clinton memoir, My Life.

How highly do you rate Bill Clinton as an audiobook narrator of his memoir?

I think he has a very good presentational style. I listened primarily to the short one, with President Clinton, who did a narration of six hours. I loved it. You’re really hearing him, his style and his accent, his voice, which I recognize. When I then switched and listened to Michael Beck, who is the narrator of the unabridged version, it really seemed to lack something for me. That’s because I know what Bill Clinton’s voice sounds like. 20 years from now, the people listening probably won’t recall his voice so specifically.

When it comes out in a timely way, you appreciate the fact that you’re hearing a president tell the story of his life. It’s very effective that way. But if you are a serious reader of memoirs and history, you don’t want to miss anything that might have been cut out of the full memoir.

My Life follows very much the form of mixing personal and political life, which, of course, is completely intertwined for all of them. But I think that intersection of the personal and political in the Clinton memoir was a particularly interesting aspect of it, as he tells it.

Clinton’s memoir is quite candid, then? It’s a satisfying experience listening to it?

I think so. Of course, it was carefully prepared, but he was good with his presentation. Whether he wrote it completely himself or not, I don’t really know. With the Obama memoir, they say he did pretty much write all of it himself, which I’m not sure is the case for some of the others.

Not to give too many compliments to Obama, but even before he became president, he’d won a Grammy for the reading of an audiobook memoir. Bill Clinton is obviously a very good public speaker, a charismatic person, and I like his accent. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into perfect audiobook narration. I felt Obama was more professional at the actual audiobook delivery.

Right, and that’s because Obama has experience with two other audiobooks and he understands the storytelling nature of the audiobook format. You have to tell it like a story. You can’t just read the text well. And I think when you get to George W. Bush’s Decision Points, his style, it’s very clear that he’s reading what he has written. In this case, if I wanted to hear his version of his presidency, I probably would want to listen to Ron McLarty, who reads the unabridged version of Decision Points.

It’s complicated, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s sometimes complicated by what you think about their politics, but also whether you like the sound of their voice.

There’s also the archival nature of these memoirs. They are not only recordings of the presidents’ voices, but with their own story. That creates something that is very important history.

By saying it’s their story are you saying they’re putting their spin on it?

Yes, but also that they’ve written it as their memoir.

Let’s talk about Decisions Points next, as we’ve already mentioned it. This is George W. Bush’s bestselling memoir, which covers the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the financial crisis. It was quite an eventful presidency, so should make for interesting reading. How does it rate as an audiobook?

It’s interesting to see the variety of these memoirs. Much as I’m not a big fan of George W. Bush for his politics, it was an important time in history, and his take on it is important too, and hearing him talk about it. But I think his writing is not as well-suited to narrative. It doesn’t flow in a storytelling style.

“You appreciate the fact that you’re hearing a president tell the story of his life”

When you talk to authors who are writing fiction, if they read their work aloud to themselves when they’re writing it, it’s probably going to be a better audiobook than if no one has ever read that sentence aloud. One of the things about history—and probably biography as well—is that not all authors, including presidents, think about creating a sentence that is to be read aloud. I think I might be more interested in reading George W. Bush’s memoir in full length with my eyes.

Next on your list of presidential memoir audiobooks is a reasonably short one—just under nine hours—by the man who has since become the 46th President of the United States. This is Promise Me, Dad, by Joe Biden.

This is Joe Biden‘s first memoir, probably there will be others. It’s perhaps not as substantial a memoir as he may write later. He published Promise Me, Dad in 2017 and it’s more or less a memoir about his time as vice president at the time of his son Beau’s death. It’s a moving, personal story delivered with empathy.

I think right now people are very interested in Joe Biden. That’s why I put it on the list—if you want to know a little bit more about not just his own personal tragedy and how he felt and his reflections on that, but also about his time in the US Senate and as vice president.

It’s also interesting listening to this now and thinking about whether what he said he wanted to do then is something that he can actually implement as president. What is going to happen in the term that’s just starting?

Does Biden narrate the whole of Promise Me, Dad?

Yes. It’s bit like Obama’s Audacity of Hope, or Dreams From My Father. Both of those are shorter. Just like Biden’s book, the scope of time was limited—they’re not about an entire presidency or an entire life.

But they’re still political. These are memoirs by people with an eye on higher office, rather than candid tell-alls of their life?

Right. Whatever they’re telling, it seems that it’s probably for a purpose in their political career.

Let’s move on to the fifth presidential memoir audiobook you’ve selected, which, sadly, was not narrated by the president himself. At the beginning of Decision Points, George W Bush tells us that this was the memoir people recommended he read as he set out writing his own memoir.

Yes, for my fifth book, I picked probably one of the most highly regarded memoirs by an American president, which is The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was the US president after the Civil War, after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. He had two terms as president, but his career before that had been as a general, as commander of the Union Army.

After his presidency, he wrote voluminous memoirs, looking back at a lot of the Civil War battles and giving his overview and perspective on the history. He seems to have found a voice in his memoirs, that maybe no one expected.

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The audiobook of the memoir is read by a professional narrator, Mark Bramhall. This is again very long, nearly 30 hours. Particularly for this long form, you have to engage your listeners and the narrator needs to be engaged with the material. In order to sustain your listeners, you have to keep a pace. What I really liked about Mark’s narration is that he was able to do that.

He manages to pull it off, does he?

He does, really well. Possibly years from now we’ll look back at these current memoirs, that were read by a professional narrator. If you’re really interested in the history of the time, having someone who paces your listening experience, who sustains the energy throughout the whole thing, will be a plus.

Wow, that’s fascinating that a narrator can keep it up for such a voluminous book.

Yes, it’s long. And we see the same thing when it comes to biographies.

Yes, before we get to the last presidential memoir you’ve chosen as a good audiobook experience, you wanted to mention a few presidential biographies that have been well done as audiobooks. Is that partly because biographies allow us to go a bit further back in time?

Yes, it allows us to go a little further back, but also because I think that audiobook biographies are a great category. And there are lots of interesting ones, particularly of several of the American presidents.

The Passage of Power is one of four, possibly five, volumes of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson (the whole thing is called The Years of Lyndon Johnson). Each of them is around 30 hours long and they’re all narrated by Grover Gardner, over a period of almost 20 years. He’s in the head of Robert Caro and is totally connected to that writing. He is an AudioFile Golden Voice Narrator and has a long career of nonfiction biography. He just knows how to make the pace for these very long, longform works to keep the listeners with him, with enough energy but not putting so much energy in that it’s exhausting for you as a listener.

“You have to tell it like a story. You can’t just read the text well”

Also, keeping the details straight. In all of these books there’s a lot of historical and political detail. If you’re reading with your eyes, if there’s a long section about legislation that you might not be interested in, you can just skip ahead a bit. You can’t do that easily in an audiobook—so that puts a burden on the narrator to get you through the long and perhaps less exciting parts of an audiobook memoir or biography.

Once you get to biographies, you also get the perspective of time. Memoirs are written when that person is alive, so there’s not as much opportunity for that. In this book you get Robert Caro’s perspective as a biographer and historian and possibly see the person and the presidency in a slightly different light. Lyndon B Johnson was a master of how to get really important legislation through the US Senate.

You also like the narration of Truman by David McCullough and read by Nelson Runger. Oh my goodness, this one is 54 hours! Was he a good president?

Harry Truman was a president that probably didn’t enjoy as much of a positive reputation for his presidency at the time, but the way McCullough was able to profile him brought him into a context that made his presidency better understood.

Alright, and then going back to the beginning of the American Republic, you also wanted to mention The Founding Fathers Collection. This is useful if somebody is comprehensively looking for audiobooks about presidents. It’s a nice collection of audiobooks to learn about some of the early presidents like Washington, Adams, Madison, etc.

Yes, because we don’t have memoirs, we have biographies. There is also an interesting biography of Ulysses S Grant called Grant by Ron Chernow. That’s read by the same narrator who did the memoirs, Mark Bramhall.

Finally, let’s go back to the last memoir you chose that’s narrated by a president himself. This is Jimmy Carter’s White House Diary. Carter has done a lot of memoirs hasn’t he? There’s one about being a boy in Depression-era Georgia, then he’s also written A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety. He’s quite prolific, isn’t it?

He is. He enjoys writing. Maybe doing these memoirs of different parts of his life was more interesting to him than doing a definitive, long one starting with, ‘I was born in Georgia.’ He’s still recording programs in his 90s. His last book was faith-based, as I recall. I didn’t mention it, because it wasn’t about his life as president.

And White House Diary is a good one to listen to?

White House Diary is interesting. It’s a focused part of the time that he was in the White House. It’s shorter than some of the other books we’ve been discussing, it’s not an exhaustive look at his presidency.

He’s probably done more impressive stuff since his presidency, so maybe it makes sense that it’s not his only point of focus.

I think that’s true. He came to the presidency without a lot of political background, and that’s really hard. The humanitarian work he did in the years after the presidency is perhaps more significant in a way—like his involvement with Habitat for Humanity and other things that he has done.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

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Robin Whitten

Robin Whitten

Robin Whitten is the founder and editor of AudioFile magazine. Started in 1992, AudioFile reviews and recommends audiobooks as a multi-platform resource, publishing in print, e-newsletters, the AudioFileMagazine.com website, and seasonal programs like AudiobookSYNC for teen audiences. AudioFile also maintains the Talent & Industry Guide, the sourcebook for audiobook professionals. Robin has served on the board of Directors of the Audio Publishers Association, and as an Audie Awards judge.

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Robin Whitten

Robin Whitten

Robin Whitten is the founder and editor of AudioFile magazine. Started in 1992, AudioFile reviews and recommends audiobooks as a multi-platform resource, publishing in print, e-newsletters, the AudioFileMagazine.com website, and seasonal programs like AudiobookSYNC for teen audiences. AudioFile also maintains the Talent & Industry Guide, the sourcebook for audiobook professionals. Robin has served on the board of Directors of the Audio Publishers Association, and as an Audie Awards judge.